Newgate News

Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Desperately seeking offence

There is an undoubted relish in a well-phrased insult delivered with panache and vehemence.

For connoisseurs of the form, James Higham celebrated yesterday with a lively selection of Shakespeare's finest offerings, from the ridiculous  'Peace, ye fat guts!' to the sublime  'Thou mewling dizzy-eyed flirt-gill!'

Other sources, too, have supplied a selection of the Bard's infinite variety of invective, though devotees of the genre have doubtless already acquired the small hardback collection to be found in every Stratford-upon-Avon Gifte Shoppe.

It's notable, though, that most modern online anthologies appear to omit what is surely a classic example of the art: 'The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!'

Addressed to a quaking messenger by an exasperated Macbeth, the insult is a joy of plosive euphony but there is, as you may have noticed, a slight problem.

Some words, it seems, have an inherent magic; the mere pronunciation of a certain syllable can whip up a storm of epic proportions. This single adjective has become so fraught with significance and connotation that it takes a brave soul indeed to use it in public.

Somehow the entire language has, for some people at least, become embroiled in a false syllogism that says that, since part of the human race is officially associated with this word, its use in any context, however archaic or literally descriptive, must necessarily be connected with ethnicity.

From the moment teachers were told that they must henceforth refer only to 'chalk-boards' in  the classroom, linguistic confusion has prevailed. And, if words were not enough of a minefield, the advent of social media has added a potent visual element to the offence-seeking mix.
Labour Parliamentary candidate Will Straw has defended a photo he shared online which shows him with a pair of Morris dancers with their faces painted black, after their makeup was called racist. 
Jeremy Clarkson faced accusations of racism from Twitter users after he named his new pet - a small black dog - 'Didier Dogba' after the former Chelsea footballer Didier Drogba.
Admittedly it would be something of  an understatement to say that Clarkson has form in this area, but he has also written in the past that his chicken are all named after famous footballers. Occam's razor - along with the limited range of shades in which the breed is available - surely suggests that the name was more likely to have been selected on the basis of sound and the continuation of a theme than on the colour of the animal's hair and, in any case, if he did intend to provoke, then public objection is simply giving him exactly what he wants.

Meanwhile, Morris- and Molly-dancers who blacken their faces are at constant risk of denunciation, despite the roots of the custom in a cheap and handy method of disguise in small rural or industrial communities. The reaction to Will Straw's photo suggests a widespread expectation that the tradition should be abandoned because it offends modern sensibilities.

While ways round this problem can be found - in the case of a US Molly-dance group, the interestingly creative and unexpectedly cool use of sunglasses instead - there is something deeply depressing in the amount of zeal devoted to searching out perceived racism and the climate of fear such hostile scrutiny creates.

For me, the best quote on the subject comes from a character in Julian May's 'Exiles' series of novels who, on being reproached for an ethnically-specific turn of phrase, replies:

'Honey, I have insults for every race, creed, colour and sexual orientation - I don't discriminate'.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

It's happy hour again!

You can blame a combination of holidays and blogging fatigue for the recent hiatus at the Tavern; a glance at the newspapers on returning from foreign climes has left me wondering whether, in my absence, the entire nation has collectively jumped the shark and British life is now utterly beyond satire.

Two things, however, have inspired me to polish the tankards and set out the bar-stools again; one is the eagerly-awaited announcement that fellow hostelry The Raccoon Arms is once more open for business and the other is news that the King Cnut season has started particularly early this year.
A Swindon family were left stranded when their car was caught up in the high tide after parking on a beach in Somerset.
Once again, residents of our once-proud seafaring nation have been caught out by the fact that the sea goes up and down. Fortunately the car wasn't badly damaged, though it would be hard to argue with the local website's assertion that
They were visiting Brean on a trip to celebrate a memorable 30th birthday for Iain's wife.
They weren't the first of the year, though: a week before, a red Vauxhall Tigra convertible parked in the same place had to be rescued by the local beach warden, to the accompaniment, one suspects, of a certain amount of Schadenfreude among the watching crowds.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because we've been here before. Last year:
Teenager Andy Laird returned from lunch to find his car had been submerged in the sea. The 19-year-old parked his Vauxhall Corsa on the beach in the popular coastal town of Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, on Saturday afternoon.
Three other motorists had to be rescued from beaches in the Burnham-On-Sea area of Somerset on Sunday evening as high tides caught them out.
And before that in 2009:
Holidaymakers at a seaside resort could not believe their eyes when they saw no less than FIVE cars parked on two beaches swamped by the sea.
(Fewer, DM, fewer!)

Either Burnham's beach exerts a particular fascination for ignorant landlubbers or the council's policy of operating a pay-and-display car park on a beach with the second largest tidal range in the world demonstrates a touching but unfounded faith in the public's capacity for individual responsibility (though their website does helpfully advise motorists to avoid areas of wet sand and mud).

With such an early start, this promises to be a vintage year for coastal idiocy, giving the Tavern gossips plenty of opportunity to discuss the failings of their fellow-man over a brimming tankard or two.

Cheers, one and all!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Vole Lotta Lovin'

There's more proof this week that science can be fun; a group of researchers decided to host a drunken swingers' party for prairie voles.

In an experiment that follows in the noble tradition of levitating mice, stoned spiders and cinema-going ferrets, the usually monogamous voles were plied with drink in an attempt to establish the effects of alcohol on social relationships.

What is particularly interesting is that the scientists have found that, given a choice between dilute alcohol (essentially vodka) and water, the little furry chaps hit the bottle with relish (or as the study puts it, 'prairie voles voluntarily self-administer substantial amounts of alcohol').

24 hours later, when all the voles were pleasantly pickled, the scientists removed them from their current partners and set them up on a three-hour blind date with someone new, then sent them home again in a rodent equivalent of the walk of shame, all the while closely observing their amorous activities.

According to their findings, inebriated females prefer snuggling up to their old boyfriends for reassurance while drunken males, in an altogether more laid-back fashion, are happy to go out on the pull.

Both sexes tend to get more affectionate with drink, and possibly rather less discriminating too: 'the authors found no evidence that alcohol-related aggression, impaired locomotor activity (e.g., stumbling) or passing out played a role in determining whether two voles became a steady couple.'

I can't help feeling that an observational trip or two to Britain's town centres on a Saturday night would have furnished them with much the same information - though obtaining the requisite brains to dissect for confirmation would have been rather more problematical.

It must, I think, come as something of a shock to the Righteous to discover that, far from being an unnatural and peculiarly human vice, the enthusiastic consumption of alcohol appears to be hardwired into other animals - it's just that only we have yet evolved sufficiently to invent the off-licence.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

'Sorry' seems to be the hardest word

Well, she's gone. Or at least she's resigned from her Cabinet post; the good people of Basingstoke still have the dubious pleasure of being represented by Maria Miller, whether they like it or not (and some of them really don't - see these comments [H/T Wiggia at Nourishing Obscurity]).

It's quite understandable, given her message to them; there's more than a little ambivalence in 'I am devastated that this has happened...'

Now that there's less danger of becoming collateral damage, Peter Bottomley put his head above the parapet this morning to say in her defence that she had given an unreserved apology in the House.

Am I the only one thinking of this?

(Youtube link here)

Update: Mrs Miller receives Caedmon's Cat's signature treatment - well worth a visit!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The old ones are always the best

From this morning's Oxford Mail:

Big hole appears in road: Engineers looking into it

Oxford Mail: Alison King-Smith snaps a picture of the hole

Sunday, 6 April 2014

They're behind you!

Having said yesterday that there was little happening on the asteroid front, I am delighted to have been proved wrong.

Eagle-eyed astronomers have just published close approach data for two bus-sized asteroids which passed us undetected last Wednesday and Thursday, both around the 700,000km mark, and were observed two days later.

While these were relative tiddlers and probably not easy to spot, the fact remains that they were not seen until they were on their way back into the void. This is somewhat disquieting, taken in conjunction with the recent announcement from the B612 Foundation (charmingly named after the asteroid home of Saint-Exupery's 'Le Petit Prince').

At a conference later this month, CEO and former astronaut Dr Ed Lu (as regulars may remember, we've met him here before) will unveil a video representation of data from the Nuclear Weapons Testing Network:
This network has detected 26 multi-kiloton explosions since 2001, all of which are due to asteroid impacts.
Dr Lu's expert opinion is worryingly clear:
The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance, is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a “city-killer” sized asteroid is blind luck.
I'll drink to that!

(I'll also be drinking to another flyby tonight's - 2014 GN1, 40m wide passing at around 937,000km - so please feel free to join me and raise a virtual glass in salute.)

'How do you solve a problem like Maria?'

Just when I though 'Expenses: the Musical' was distant history, along comes more inspiration in the form of the menacing Mrs Miller. Don't be fooled by the winning smile; she clearly knows where the bodies are buried.
Parliamentary commissioner Kathryn Hudson had found Mrs Miller over-claimed by £45,000 [half of the total amount she claimed] for expenses towards mortgage interest payments and council tax on a house which she shared with her parents. 
But the House of Commons Committee on Standards [in some cases, judgement by her peers indeeddecided she only needed to pay back £5,800 to cover over-claiming of mortgage expenses, resulting from her failure to cut her claims when interest rates fell.
As it happens, the media silence on the subject of MPs forgetting to alter their claims when mortgage interest rates went down was raised here in the Tavern back in May 2009, when Elliot Morley and David Chaytor - remember them? - admitted that they submitted their claims in annual bundles and had both overlooked the small matter of their mortgages having been paid off already.

Ms Miller's 'second home', on which she claimed almost right up to the maximum allowance of interest subsidy for several years, was mortgaged for £525,000, despite having been originally purchased for a mere £237,500. There is something very disturbing about a system that has allowed those whose decisions may profoundly influence the housing market to profit from price increases through effectively interest-free property loans.
The commissioner believed she should only have been able to claim expenses for interest payments on the original 1996 mortgage of £215,000. The committee, made up of MPs and lay members and which has the final say, disagreed. 
I feel this calls for a song...

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Shouldn't this bring a cabinet minister down?
How should the voters view the way Maria
Borrowed against her residence in town?

Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her;
You have to admit it looks quite underhand,
To make the public pay
When you've mortgaged all the way
Then added on at least 300 grand.

Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
And MPs expenses getting out of hand?

Her answers were confused,

The committee was bemused
By her efforts to procrastinate and jam

The enquiries asking whether
She had fleeced us; altogether,
Its quite obvious she didn't give a damn.

She managed to invest
In a comfy London nest
And she moved her aged parents in as well,
While claiming all the while
Basingstoke was more her style;
The whole thing has a very nasty smell.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you stop her throwing her weight around?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
I can think of a few, but they all have an ugly sound!

Many a thing the voters want to tell her
Many a thing she ought to understand
But Cameron says she can stay
And the MPs have got their way
A swift apology and all's in hand.

Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you make her pay back forty grand?

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The end of the world is a little less nigh

There's sad news this week for those of an apocaholic disposition.

Recent observations have downgraded the impact threat from 2007 VK184 from its previous score of 1 on the Torino scale, meaning that, since the same thing happened to 2013 TV135 last November, there is now no asteroid scoring higher than 0.

To put this into perspective, the Torino scale of potential asteroid impacts, after 0 (no threat), goes from 1: 'A routine discovery in which a pass near the Earth is predicted that poses no unusual level of danger' to 10: "Oh shit! It's heading right for us!"

(Or, as the scale rather more sedately puts it, 'A collision is certain, capable of causing global climatic catastrophe that may threaten the future of civilization as we know it.')

Of course, there are still the known unknowns out there, giving us the very real possibility that oblivion may strike without warning, but we are no longer, as NASA's finest would say, 'in  a non-zero impact probability situation'.

That being so, apocaholics must look elsewhere for their thrills, so it is fortunate that, right on cue, footage of herds of bison (or, if you prefer, buffalo*) 'fleeing' from Yellowstone has gone viral - "Hey, fellas, the big one is about to go pop!"

Fuelled by the announcement of the Park's biggest 'quake for more than three decades, US survivalists have gone into overdrive preparing for the eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano and the potential resulting ash cloud, helpfully encouraged by lurid online speculation.

The explanation, according to experts, is far less exciting. Earthquakes are hardly unusual in Yellowstone and the beasts were simply following their usual winter grazing migration pattern; on the day the 'stampede' was filmed, they were unusually frisky because of the spring sunshine.

With the absence of any known asteroid threat and a quiet few months in prospect - there are only a handful of approaches closer than 1.5million km predicted for the rest of this year - apocaholics clearly have to get their kicks where they can, so look out in the coming months for dire predictions of mega-tsunami, solar flares and the release of methane clathrates.

There is, after all, no such thing as a redundant prophet of doom.

*By coincidence, the same buffalo (or bison) are currently in the news because of the proposal that the Nez Perce tribe should be allowed to hunt them inside the National Park - concerning, as it does, competing claims of animal rights, Native American culture and environmental protection, the subject has produced a veritable cornucopia of intellectual contortions from readers of the Guardian.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Earworm redux

When you hear the news:
Blocks of flats which have been part of Glasgow's skyline for almost 50 years will be blown up as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
there is only one possible soundtrack...

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A real-life game of thrones

Anniversaries are not something we make much of here in the Tavern, but occasionally something comes along that is too good to miss.

On this day in 1314, Philippe IV of France had four high officers of the Order of Knights Templar brought from their prison cells to make a public confession of their sins and those of the Order, the culmination of a seven-year process of persecution designed to assert the King's spiritual authority and, conveniently, secure for the Crown the Templars' substantial assets.

Instead, to the consternation of the authorities, Grand Master Jacques de Molay and Geffroi de Charnay, Preceptor of Normandy, loudly recanted the confessions of heresy, sorcery and sacrilege that had been wrung from them by torture. The royal council immediately decreed they should be burned at the stake that same evening.

According to legend, as the flames rose about him, de Molay cursed the King and the Pope, who had assisted in the disbanding of the Templars; both, he said, would be summoned to divine judgement within a year. The curse may have been a later invention, but it is true that Clement V died only a month later and the King in November of the same year.

What happened next is history with more than a touch of drama and was certainly enough to fuel rumours of a family curse operating into the next generation.

The first event was a major scandal which erupted when Philippe's daughter observed two young knights wearing distinctive gifts she had given to her sisters-in-law. Two of Philippe's three daughters-in-law were found guilty of adultery while the third was said to have abetted and concealed the affairs.The King immediately had the princesses imprisoned in remote castles and their lovers publicly tortured, flayed and executed.

The succession of the Capet dynasty was already problematic; two of Philippe's brothers were believed to have been poisoned in childhood by their stepmother in favour of her own new-born son Louis who, along with Philippe's younger full brother, Charles, grew up to play an active part in disruptive political intrigues.

Philippe's death complicated matters further; the new king had only a single female child whose legitimacy was questionable and, with his wife imprisoned for adultery, little chance of producing another heir. A papal annulment proved impossible to obtain but, with suspicious convenience, the 24-year-old 'queen' died in prison a few months later and Louis X was free to marry again.

The following year he too died - rather picturesquely, after a vigorous game of tennis - leaving a pregnant wife and a daughter whose parentage was in doubt. In the face of this potential crisis, some hasty legal manoeuvring resurrected an ancient law excluding females from the line of succession, a law which was to foster decades of dynastic conflict.

As well as dividing the nobility of France, this ultimately led to the Hundred Years War; Philippe's daughter, thus excluded from the French throne but mother of a son with a possible claim, was none other than Isabella, wife of Edward II, whose notoriety owes much to her alliance with the ruthless Roger Mortimer and the untimely and unusual demise of her husband.

If all this sounds like the plot of a novel - and a novel you would like to read - I recommend 'The Accursed Kings' by Maurice Druon, a seven-book epic fraught with arrogant kings and warrior princes, renegade Popes, feuding noblemen (and -women), scheming politicians, adulterous princesses, religious fanatics, daring escapes, damsels in distress, a sprinkling of sorcery and, of course, the obligatory red-hot poker, all based on real events.

It'll help pass the time, anyway...

(Youtube link here)

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Darwin's Cupcakes strike again!

If you're the sort of person whose idea of a treat is a miniature sponge cake topped with a mound of piped buttercream and a liberal sprinkling of glitter, then you probably wandered here by mistake.

Cynicism we have in abundance, along with satire and acerbic comment occasionally seasoned with song parodies and asteroids, but, if sparkly cupcakes are your thing, you're not going to find much to interest you here.

And you certainly aren't likely to want to know that, according to tests carried out by West Yorkshire Trading Standards on certain 'edible' cake decorations:
When the plastic glitter was placed under a microscope, it was shown to be made up of hexagonal fragments with jagged edges.  
In one case, the glitter was made of finely powdered brass.
Mmmmm, yummy! The findings were released eighteen months ago but, the legal system being what it is, the case has just come to court.
A businesswoman has been landed with a £13,500 legal bill for duping customers into buying “edible” cupcake glitter made out of shredded plastic - which ended up in the food chain.
Unlike the standard edible variety, which is based on gum arabic, the glitter in the samples tested was made from the same plastic as drinks bottles - polyethylene terephthalate (PET to its friends) - and was originally intended for craft use. The hearing was told that its effect on the human digestive system is unknown and it should not be eaten.

I should have thought that most rational beings, confronted with multicoloured glitter, would not naturally assume it to be edible, but there are clearly people out there willing to tuck in with gusto - Oooh, shiny! - and even feed the stuff to their children (on the plus side, the inevitable consequences should add a certain interest to potty-training).

Of course, one might argue that it's Darwin in action again; if you are fool enough to consume sparkly plastic flakes in a range of startling artificial colours, you probably deserve all you get.

Meanwhile, the boss of the firm has neatly sidestepped the issue by insisting that, despite selling the products to cake decorating shops and bakers, she had never suggested that they could be eaten. As for the homophonous company name printed - rather haphazardly - on the labels:
Protesting her innocence, Ed Able Art Ltd boss Margaret Martin claimed the name of her firm was inspired by three animated mice characters called Ed, Able and Art.
Nope, me neither. In fact these alleged mice are, as far as I can ascertain, conspicuous by their complete absence from the world-wide web - although I admit I was briefly sidetracked from the search by a fascinating scholarly article entitled:
Mice as a Delicacy: The Significance of Mice in the Diet of the Tumbuka People of Eastern Zambia
Ed Able Art products, however, are out there in abundance, offered for sale by cake decoration suppliers; I could even, if so inclined, order a pot of black and silver 'Asteroid Disco Glitter' for a mere £2.50, one of a range of 94 Disco Glitters including 'Neon Flamingo', 'Laser Blue Hologram' and 'Remington Steel'.

The £13,500 fine - surely a mere slap on the wrist in modern business terms - and 12 charges dropped out of a total of 24, combined with a number of previous unheeded warnings suggest that Trading Standards lack the teeth required to prevent inedible decorations reaching the market.

This means we are back to caveat emptor - and Darwin. To quote from my original post on the subject:

'Trading Standards warn that they do not know what the effects of eating glitter might be - I can see some interesting lawsuits pending when Yummy Mummies find out what they've been feeding their little darlings - but we can be fairly sure they will, by and large, be confined to that sector of the population prepared to throw common sense to the winds for a sparkly, self-indulgent treat.'

I'm sure you'll agree that, should the ingestion of plastic glitter prove to have negative consequences, this will ultimately benefit the human race.

Update: A brief tour of online retailers suggests that, even after buying 'non-edible cake decorating glitter' - how is that supposed to work? - consumers are happily leaving comments about how much they and their children enjoyed eating it.

I'm starting to think that, if you told them "Soylent Green is people", they would just smile and say "Yes, but it makes such yummy cakes!".

Friday, 14 March 2014

Crowded Skies

It's been a busy week but there's still time to raise a glass to the two asteroids that passed by this morning a whisker over a million kilometres away.

Though relative tiddlers on a cosmic scale - 13m and 26m respectively - 2014 EP12 and EB25 surely merit a toast, as does 2014 EX24, which literally slipped under the radar last Sunday and wasn't spotted until two days after its closest approach at around 260,000km.

As an ideal accompaniment to your drink, assuming you are in a reasonably robust frame of mind, you might like to contemplate the work of some some enterprising astronomers who have created, in effect, a prototype Total Perspective Vortex.

(For those unfamiliar with the works of Douglas Adams: The prospective victim of the TPV is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe - together with a microscopic dot bearing the legend "you are here". The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim's mind.)