Monday, 30 July 2007

“I am an anal impressionist”

by Thaddeus Sholto

“He also found time to father three children. They joined the act, performing charming little dances to their father’s accompaniment. A tasteful, delicate performance that, today, would give a child psychologist nightmares.”
Were they not so transient, a man's farts could be used to identify him with the accuracy of fingerprinting. From the light odour of his morning thunder, to a heavy bacterial bean-fart or a beery evening blow-off, his flatus asserts unerasable personality. In a blind smell test, a farter's blindfolded wife could pick him out of a crowd of thousands. And then, in all probability, she would berate him for being so disgusting. Needlessly. Whilst most fellows enjoy dropping a sulphur bomb, notably if they happen to be exiting crowded lifts, underground trains or any other compartment that will seal in other people with both the smell and the blame, there is a sadly undeniable taboo attached to farting. Some trace this back to Roman times, citing Flavius Josephus's account in The Wars of the Jews of the soldier who raised his clothes and farted at the Feast of Unleavened Bread: the profanity enraged the Jews so much that it caused a riot in which thousands were killed. Others plump for the tale of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who was supposedly so mortified after letting rip in Queen Elizabeth I's presence that he vanished into self-imposed exile for seven years.

Such shame in farting has not always been de rigeur. Indeed, some fine men have not only relished the chance to assert their personalities through farting, but have raised the function to an art form. St Augustine was an early witness of such individuals, recording in the City of God that there were those:

...who can at will, and without any odour, produce such a variety of sounds from their anus that they seem to be singing in that part.

Fine party tricks from those children of God, but Augustine does not tell us whether they exploited their flatulence for cash. If they didn't, they missed a trick: by the 13th century one Roland le Pettour held the manor of Hemingstone, Suffolk, from the King - in return for a very unusual rent:

Seriantia que quondam fuit Rollandi le Pettour in Hemingeston in comitatu Suff’, pro qua debuit facere die Natali Domini singulis annis coram domino rege unum saltum et sifflettum et unum bumbulum, que alienata fuit per particulas subscriptas.

The following (lands), which formerly were held of Roland the Farter in Hemingston in the county of Suffolk, for which he was obliged to perform every year on the birthday of our Lord before his master the king, one jump, one whistle, and one fart, were alienated in accordance with these specific requirements

(Liber Feodorum)
All these men, though, pale into insignificance when compared to the master, Joseph Pujol, the farting Frenchman from Marseilles. Known as Le Pétomane (aha, now le Pettour's name makes sense too), Pujol would fart at will before the late 19th century audiences at the Moulin Rouge. He could fart the Marseillaise. He could imitate the sound of cannon fire. He could play the flute by farting through a rubber tube. He imitated the farts of little girls, mothers-in-law and masons (dry - no cement). He gave impresssions of a dressmaker ripping two yards of calico. He could smoke with his back passage. And for all of this, he was paid handsomely and widely adored.

How so?

The answer lies partly in good luck, and partly in Pujol's willingness to use those talents nature had given him. As a soldier he would entertain his fellows by sucking in seawater through his anus, and then firing it out again in a powerful stream. Thereafter, he experimented with air rather than water, delighting his contemporaries with his increasing repertoire of sounds and leading him to adopt the nickname Le Pétomane, or “The Fartiste”.

His big break came in 1892 when he walked into the office belonging to the Director of the Moulin Rouge, announcing: “I am Le Pétomane, and I want an engagement in your establishment”. When asked by the Director for an explanation, he replied:

“You see, sir, my anus is of such elasticity that I can open and shut it at will. . . . I can absorb any quantity of liquid I may be given. . .[and] I can expel an almost infinite quantity of odorless gas.”

After a short demonstration, Pujol was hired and performed that very same night. His success was so great that several tighly-corseted women fainted from laughing so hard.

Indeed, Le Pétomane made farting so respectable that he not only developed his act to incorporate his children (they danced), but he also performed in front of the future King Edward VII and the King of the Belgians.

Little Men: it is time to follow in the wake of Le Pétomane and to fart with pride. And if your wife protests, show her this instructional film. When she has finished laughing you can look forward to a happily flatulent future life.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

A Police Operation at a London Tube Station

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"Part of our remit is to reassure the public and demonstrate that we are challenging the knife-carrying culture," Detective Chief Inspector Kevin Shanahan talks to The BBC about Operation Shield (2/4/06).
This evening I had the pleasure of experiencing the enlightened police procedures of Operation Shield. This is an orchestrated attempt to reduce knife crime using the police's powers of stop and search, by highlighting crime hotspots and operating stings. After going through this today, I wish to describe exactly what it entailed:

"This station is ... ... This train will now terminate here" I got up from my seat and wandered to the doors, headphones in my ears. Weaving through the morass of people I made my way to the escalators, which I rode up (standing, as always, on the right) towards the ticket hall. So far, so normal.

The situation I encountered as I rose to the ticket hall is shown in the above camera-phone photographs. From the escalator a thick yellow-ribbon barrier was running directly to the ticket-barriers, preventing anyone from descending the way they had come. Beyond the ticket barriers were a further set of ribbons passing to the large black box of the metal detector. From the moment of rising from the escalator, a person is trapped between barriers, police officers, and a crowd of commuters behind them, the flow of whom are carrying them through the ticket barriers and into the police metal detector. The police have constructed an elaborate, and convincing, trap beyond which is a demarked interrogation area for any positive readings.

"All our honest customers will welcome this joint initiative as it demonstrates our determination to stamp out fraudulent travel, and anti-social behaviour." Silverlink Retail Manager Malcolm Holmes talks on a TFL press release.
At this point some setting: this is a predominantly black neighbourhood, and it has a long — unfortunately well-established — history as a crime hotspot. The tube is the primary transport conduit for the area, so this rush hour tube-station sting is likely to intercept a large proportion of all residents (and in my case of the surrounding area). These stings, chosen on the basis of region (citizens here are unlikely to have easy lives) indiscriminately deprive people of their privacy and their freedom of movement. While I had nothing to worry about with regards to carrying an offensive weapon, I felt degraded by the whole experience — this did not have my consent.

These stings are not one dimensional, on previous occasions I've seen these operated with dogs when targeting drugs, and they always act as a crackdown on fare evaders. Fundamentally they have two purposes, the primary target — in this case people carrying offensive weapons, and to make it clear to those assumed local criminals that don't happen to be packing that these will occur at random. Intimidation is a key aim of this process. In this case the operation involved seven police officers — I will further note, that by using these stings to crackdown on fare evasion, TFL are externalising their fare-enforcement costs to general taxation (one paid bus conductor with a security guard for backup, or a completely free police officer?). It is therefore unsurprising that they are enthusiastic about compromising our freedoms.

These communities are among the most vulnerable in the city and least able to stand up for the civil liberties that these measures indiscriminately violate. One is lead to ask whether coming from a deprived neighbourhood should automatically reduce one's freedoms. An illustration from the 6 month trial operation in 2006:
Since it began, almost 10,000 people have been scanned, 100 arrested and 68 knives seized - BBC News Online
9,900 infringed liberties, 32 criminals caught for separate offences because the police had an excuse to be intrusive, a mere 68 valid excuses.

Click on images for high res versions.

Unruly Contraptions in Bloomsbury

by Edwin Hesselthwite

All Behind You, Winston (1940, Evening Standard)- David Low's classic cartoon, note the Labour politicians Atlee, Bevan and Morrison in the front row to demonstrate national unity.

Bloomsbury in central London has an intellectual history few neighbourhoods in the world can match. From shrine's to The Mahatma to stuffed philosophers it's an abidingly Enlightenment influenced square kilometre. At it's southern end is Little Russell Street, situated a minute's walk from The British Museum and the location of both a Nicholas Hawskmoor church (St George's Church — a particularly eerie chapel, Roman style architecture and unicorn and lion statues climbing the tower are disturbingly pagan, typical of the mysterious Hawksmoor) and that most English of places: The Cartoon Museum.

The satirical cartoon is one of the defining artform's of Britain's colonial era, from Hogarth in the 18th century onwards, and this small charitably owned museum attempts to do justice to the history of the art. The present temporary exhibit (5th of July to 7th of October) cover's the life of William Heath Robinson, Britain's great absurdist cartoonist, who's life's work revolves around elaborate and convoluted contraptions. So abiding is his influence on the public consciousness that his name has become an adjective to describe rickety and overcomplicated machinery.

The reconnoitring mortar (1916)

His work is characterised by a masterful attention to detail, each cartoon requires minutes of thought to interpret fully, and an abidingly English cast of ladies, top hatted gentlemen and amusingly sweet Huns (he typically played The Enemy as being incompetent rather than evil in both his WWI and WWII cartoons). At £4 entrance this is a affordable and satisfying museum to spend 2 hours in, with a permanent exhibit of comics and graphic novels above the exhibit on political satire. One comes out realising what a large contribution this art form has made to the idea of Englishness, each of the big names works in a land of stiff upper lips, cynicism and grand gestures and Heath Robinson in particularly is continually raising the class divisions of this country, but without socialist flag-waving. The collection runs all the way to the present, meaning one must consider the placement of the modern (and I must admit, I hate his work in strip cartoons) Maggie-basher Steve Bell alongside W.H.R and co, yet it makes it clear that the political cartoon is still a major force.

Personally I was most intrigued by what regular cartooning does to an artist's style (in this case W.H.R but you could say the same of Gary Larson, who draws heavily from him) ... Initially we see serious artistic and visual variation as he demonstrates his penmanship chops, but the requirements for weekly cartoons, and stylistic consistency, means that his work becomes both increasingly detailed, and increasingly stylised throughout his career... The newspapers are not interested in innovation, but intelligence, humour and theme. Thus his later work increasingly takes place in a "Heath Robinson World" which works under the rules, traditions and vision established over hundreds of previous single frame images. This alternate reality is fantastically detailed, and Heath Robinson is a remarkably optimistic visionary, there is rarely malign intent in his work — and often absurd degrees of compassion.

Little Man, What Now? endorses this product — well worth a break for when strolling amongst the granite edifices and Rosetta Stones of England's plunder museum.

Testing Golf Drivers (1934)

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Many Happy Returns

by Charles Pooter

Congratulations to Harry and Patricia Knowles. Harry: I hope this doesn't mean you will neglect the website that I have been reading since I first got on the interwebs back in 1996? My world would be unsettled without your film reviews filled with bad punctuation and unnecessary (but strangely comforting) details about your private life.

Monday, 23 July 2007

An Open Letter To The BBC News Department.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Dear BBC supremos (I'm looking at you Nick Robinson).

We are writing to you in order to discuss the editorial choices your team has been making since the handover of power, in regards to our ex-Prime Minister — Mr Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.

We understand that it is hard to get out of the habit of treating the actions of Mr Blair as news. We realise that the man somehow managed to leave office without being defenestrated (primarily due to the absolutely gutless nature of the Parliamentary Labour Party, leaving the only other measure citizens could take to remove him being the judicial system, a desperate attempt at eviction that you are now completely misinterpreting as a police vendetta), and we understand that the historical narrative you have established for the man doesn't have the cute journalistic shorthand of a Thatcher, Chamberlain or Eden. We fully understand that you have difficulty working out where he now sits in the editorial pecking order, and that you have therefore mistakenly awarded him a status akin to a US President who has completed 2 full terms.

No, this is more in the nature of a public service request... Many of us (Dr Sean Gabb wrote eloquently on the issue) have built up a reaction to the man that has passed our conscious brain and has taken residence in the pineal gland. We — and there are many — are now incapable of setting eyes on a photograph of the vile war-monger without feeling a rise in blood pressure and having an effect on our lifespan roughly equivalent to 50 cigarettes... He, who played with our checks and balances like a judicial Jenga set, has become the visual equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard, and we ask you in the public interest to consider the nation's health.

Until a day comes when we can read a history of the Blair kleptocracy by people other than Andrew "the fawner" Rawnsley and Alastair "bludgeoner" Campbell, we ask that you treat him the way you treated Messrs Adams and McGuinness in the '80s, leaving him unheard and (would this be possible) even unseen.

Thank you for your consideration.

Little Man, What Now?

A calming image... Think on running water and breathe deep.

Harry Pooter and the Updated Blog

by Charles Pooter

" see Harry," said Dumbledouche, "the thing you must understand about fuggles is that they don't understand the nature of blogging. A fuggle thinks that he can update his blog only once a week or even once a month."

"lol," said Harry Pooter, "fuggles r n00bz."

"Yes indeed Harry," said Dumbledouche, smiling at the youngster's amusing turn of phrase, "some fuggles believe that RSS will save them from having to post frequently, but RSS is a dark magic not understood by most of their readers. We wizards know that to retain and build an audience, we most post regularly, even if that post is merely a link to a picture of a cat in an amusing situation."

"rofl," said Harry, "cat bloggers are lamerz!"

Dumbledouche laughed. "Oh yes, quite true young wizard. But to many people, blogs are like the crack-cocaine that Mr Snake confiscated from you and your young friends last term. As you know, the quality of the crack isn't as important as getting a regular supply. If the dealer halts his supply then the addict will look elsewhere. You remember how Ron had to start buying his shit from the Snuff-n-puff House when supplies in his own house dried up? So you see, ANY blog posts are better than none at all. Even this load of derivative old rubbish."

"I like crack a lot!" said Harry, his eyes glazing over.

"Of course you do," said Dumbledouche, putting his arm around Harry's shoulder, "now lets see if I can't find some in my study."

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Gundiguts Grose

by Thaddeus Sholto

Francis Grose

Whilst the "most dangerous tool in the hands of any girl is a book", any self-respecting schoolboy reacts with horror or bewilderment when confronted with a "big papery thing" with words printed on it. This reluctance to sully their eyes with the written word has long irritated politicians, who have tried to remedy the problem with eccentric or patronising suggestions such as filling shelves with spy novels and other "masculine" stories, forgetting that even Melvyn Burgess's attempts to shock are pretty dull compared to the attraction of firing up Grand Theft Auto on the Playstation and getting down to some serious murdering, raping and blow jobbery.

Worse still is the idea that, if you provide young boys with positive role models they will, somehow, be filled with an insatiable desire to read. Frankly, most boys don't give a mongoose dropping what Monty Panesar is reading: they want to know how he handles his balls.

The problem is, of course, that politicians shy away from promoting the books and role models that really would appeal to young boys. There is no boy (or man) in the country who has not spent many happy hours looking for rude words in the dictionary, nor one who was disappointed at how few he could find. Likewise, instead of castigating young fellows for being overindulged, foul mouthed, obese slobs who fritter away their cash, we need to put forward as role models older men of this kind who also happen to have a love for the fundamentals of all great literature: fine words, lewd deeds and dark humour.

That's why Little Man, What Now is campaigning for every secondary school pupil in the country to be given a copy of Captain Francis Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a compendium of buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence. No boy would ever find reading dull if he owned a book which, when opened several times at random, would provide him with invaluable words and phrases like these:

BITCH BOOBY. A country wench. Military term.
HASH. To flash the hash; to vomit. Cant.
INDORSER. A sodomite. To indorse with a cudgel; to drub or beat a man over the back with a stick, to lay cane upon Abel.
WHIRLYGIGS. Testicles.
WINDMILLS IN THE HEAD. Foolish projects.

Indeed, after the boys had fallen about arsy varsey with laughter, they would surely wonder what genius had produced such a dictionary and, indeed, how they could aspire to be more like him.

Luckily Francis Grose's habits and mode of living are easy to emulate. A heavy drinker, his method of book-keeping when Paymaster of the Surrey Militia was to keep "two books of accounts,viz. his right and left pockets". He was also extremely fond of rich foods and, due in part to this and his overindulgence in port, was extremely fat (he enjoyed the apt fact he was called Grose). But best of all, he researched his dictionary by spending evenings in the slums, drinking dens and dockyards of London whist in the company of his improbably-named assistant, Tom Cocking.

A character to aspire to and one that, even today, could inspire fat, pleasure-seeking, spendthrift young wastrels to develop a love of language and reading. Put Grose in every school: our boys have been cork-brained and pudding-headed for too long.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Musical Works of George Gershwin Have Not Entered The Public Domain.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

George Gershwin

George Gershwin is one of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century. This remarkably talented composer of jazz standards (I Got Rhythm - seen at the bottom of this article), folk operas (Porgy And Bess - including Summertime, performed here by Ella Fitzgerad and Louis Armstrong) and jazz influenced classical compositions (Rhapsody In Blue) was extremely productive, with a major artistic presence in New York, Paris and on Broadway. This was the beginning of the Jazz era, and Gershwin's unique talent allowed a form that had recently originated in the hands of Jelly Roll Morton and The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, to pass over into the highest musical venues of American culture. His death at a mere 39 years old deprived the age of one of its most important names - seventy years and one week ago.

Gershwin had paid such close attention to his earnings and intellectual property that he died in-estate and his works reverted to the ownership of his mother. The family (admittedly including his brother Ira with whom he collaborated) founded The Gershwin Estate, an organisation who have been extremely pro-active in dictating terms of use for any of the brothers' varied properties (which are of astronomical financial value).

Under normal international copyright agreements (The Berne Convention) his work would be reverting into the public domain this year, however due to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (a particularly disgusting piece of protectionist legislation passed in the US in 1997, lobbied for by such upstanding organisations as Disney Corporation, Arkham House and The Gershwin Estate) this work — along with all other work copyrighted after 1923 — will remain under copyright until 2019 at the earliest, after which it will dribble into the public domain over the following 15 years. This is, of course, assuming that another arbitrary cut-off on copyright terms does not pass through congress in the intervening years.

Little Man, What Now? regards this act as theft from public ownership and fundamentally unconstitutional (copyright law applies in respect of the country of origin, international law is irrelevant, we are therefore all stuck with American laws for these properties). There is no economic growth argument for restricting usage of information for such a grotesque period after the death of the author, there is however a very strong self interest argument by copyright owners to lobby for extension. We are committed to publicising the most valuable of these materials as they are stolen from public ownership, a tradition begun with our infamous Lovecraft Day.

Gershwin was a master, it is a pity that all those who wish to publicly perform his works must render unto Caeser...

Gershwin performs I Got Rhythm in a remarkably similar suit to that shown above, aren't you supposed to be a multi-millionaire?

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Tintin's Adventures in "Political Correctness Gone Mad"- Land.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"I understand the view that it shouldn't be on sale to children but the publishers have taken care of that.

"It brings the CRE into disrepute - there are many more serious things for them to worry about." - Anne Widdecombe MP (an MP with a 45% voting record, well below average in The Commons) talks to a Daily Telegraph journalist.

Virtually every news-supplier in the UK (and a few international ones), from the Guardian to the Telegraph to Reuters has picked up the story of a recent confrontation between Borders book supplier and The Commission for Racial Equality, who it appears have asked Borders to remove Hergé's book Tintin in the Congo from their shelves.

I don't know how the CRE functions, or how it is mandated to act on its aims (I'm guessing this comes under "To raise public awareness of racial discrimination and injustice, and to win support for efforts to create a fairer and more equal society."), but asking one of the main book chains to remove a book from their shelves is the first step to pushing it out of publication. The implications of removing a genre classic (it was the second Tintin book, and Tintin along with Asterix defines the mid-20th century Gallic comic) are obvious. The resulting media firestorm (I'm almost scared to Technorati search this issue for the righteous indignation) was both predictable and inevitable. I am therefore completely baffled as to why the CRE have chosen this fight (although actually reading the comic might help me on this), I simply cannot imagine they are incompetent enough not to realise how bad this looks. To my mind this is either the actions of one loose cannon (who is likely to be sacked after this fuck-up) or a Machiavellian plan with a clear agenda against historical-culture racism, in which this is an early salvo... A disturbing thought from a state run organisation.

LMWN has an established view on these issues, and our article on Golden Age Cartoons elaborates at length on the importance of viewing culture in context. The classic example of the movement to remove such material is the Warner Brothers cartoon Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs by Bob Clampett, which has been almost impossible to watch for 40 years (this however was removed from circulation voluntarily by Warner Brothers). Fortunately, since our previous article on the topic a much higher quality version of this disturbing classic has been posted online (and our original version removed)... So it is our proud pleasure to present it here. Please view it in context, and if offended take a look at our previous article which should explain more why it is important.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Lies, Damn Lies and Hot Air

by Unknown

And in The News yesterday it appears that we have just realised that bovine flatulence is worse for the environment (in terms of CO2 production) than cars.... This had me a little confused, because as far as I am aware we have always known this. Always. In fact, the graph of CO2 levels against flora and fauna levels clearly correlates, Mr Gore to the contrary.

This leads me to a query: at what level will a reduction in emissions cause a remission in the terrible tragedy of Global Warming (lit)?

(It really is quite hard to express sarcasm in written form, that sentence was meant to come across as terribly ironic and in fact indicate that when I say “stop global warming” what I mean is “trying to stop the natural order of things is like farting at a hurricane”).

Yes, on the BBC News there have been two consecutive (here's the other) top level articles about that desperately important issue. It always phases me, this publicity, because everyone is banging on about reductions in CO2 but not one single person (as far as I am aware) has published a target number that when reached will actually achieve something.

Here are three actual facts (just for fun) on the subject.

(1) Water vapour is approximately 100 times more effective as a green house gas than C02. Small fluctuations in water vapour such as occur naturally during century long weather cycles are therefore significantly more important [in the short term] than C02 levels.

(2) Virtually all life on Earth derives its carbon (essential to life) from atmospheric carbon dioxide — either directly or by eating other living things that do so. … Moreover, most of the carbon on the Earth is not stored in the atmosphere. Omitting rocks, 75 percent is stored in the oceans; 20 percent in the coal, oil and gas deposits; and about 1.4 percent in the atmosphere. The atmosphere itself is only about 0.04 percent carbon dioxide.

(3) It is the existence of oceans, which emit water vapour, and not the presence of CO2, that we can thank for a temperature well above 14º C at Earth’s surface, that is stable in a range of only a few degrees, which has enabled the existence of life. To the total CO2 flux into the global atmosphere of 169 gigatons (Gt) of carbon per year, human industrial and agricultural activity adds about 6 Gt of Carbon per year. This is similar to the amplitude of the annual fluctuations of the total mass of atmospheric CO2 (5.4 megatons C/year). See table below.

Source: Adapted from: Z. Jaworoski, T.V. Segalstad, and V. Hisdal, 1992

What we have is massive annual flux in a chaotic environmental system - a system this is fundamentally not in a state of equlibrium. On top of that we have a fairly demonstrable situation where human activity is altering that system in a way that tends towards an increase in global temperature. Humanity is nudging this flux in a new direction. In response to this professional scientists have produced some speculative models of what effects these trends will cause if projected into the near future, and from there they have to decide how to represent their research to the public.

Dr. Stephen Schneider, a leading prophet of man-made climate warming, stated this bluntly:
"To capture the public imagination... we have to... make simplified dramatic statements, and little mention of any doubts one might have.... Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being honest".
It comes down to this: the environmental science research community knows full well that the only way to make a dent in this problem (and I’m not willing to deny there is a problem) is to exert pressure on global governments, and the way they have decided to do this is by feeding into the already well established environmental campaigners lobby. This lobby is yet another seventies hangover from the baby-boomers social rebellion, a lobby made of entirely unelected and unaccountable individuals in 3 or 4 major charities (read economic vested interests in the issue) and are being used by the professional scientists as leverage against governments and bodies with executive powers (such as large multinationals).

Unfortunately this means we have to listen to these lobbying parasites recycling old news as if The Environment was one issue rather than a morass of different interwoven processes, with the underlying theme that this is a moral issue as opposed to a pragmatic one. So we get badgered with enforced recycling (Britain does have a land-fill problem but it has absolutely nothing to do with GW), demonised for air travel, and listen to the same individuals lobbying against nuclear power (the Monbiot-bot is not to be trusted) as we hear lobbying about global warming, utter insanity. The Green lobby has a long held emphasis on morality, and a puritan morality at that, which is repellent to anyone who holds liberal principles. I refuse to feel guilty for flying, I refuse to feel bad for failing to recycle, I refuse to bow my head for owning more than one motor-vehicle, or approving of the construction of a housing estate. This is not a moral issue.

With environment researchers and environment campaigners colluding together, a significant proportion of the press has decided to get into bed with both (I hate to agree with Tony Blair, but he is damn right about The Independent). So, we see this recent obsessive recycling issue, a hideously corrupt publicity drive when what everyone really cares about is some form of international treaty that will make economic sense of the negative aspects of carbon emissions (and the socialistic contraction and convergence, and statist Kyoto protocol are never going to pull it off).

Now the irony of all this is that quite clearly the environmental conditions on this planet are changing, as they have always done and as they always will do. That taken into account, why am I having a go at the poor hard working environmentalists who are only trying to do a ‘good thing’?

Simply put, these misguided politically fuelled good intentions could be what kill us off. I have not seen a single scientifically credible piece that states we could actually stop the current trend in global changes. Not one. Even a bit of one. Everyone is so busy running they haven’t bothered trying to spot the finish line. The amount of effort going into these pointless activities could be far better spent on survival infrastructure for when Global Warming (or cooling, or temperature vacillation or something else entirely) does occur which it definitely will - over a long enough time frame - regardless of our actions or lack thereof.

This is the point. Stop trying to blame everyone whilst sitting there smugly in your Honda Prius with your carefully sorted rubbish on the way to the composting centre and understand that it will make bugger all difference and someone needs to start building the life raft. Preferably yesterday.

Personally, while you’re taxing my emissions I’m stockpiling food, drugs, books and, to the immense amusement of my friends, a wetsuit. And guess what, when you knock on my door because I’ve survived I’ll be letting in the engineers who’s “fault” it all was.

The rest of you can go hug a tree.

(written with significant input from Edwin)

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Write For Us

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Little Man, What Now is looking for new contributors. Our statistics show that this blog is read by the world's cognitive elite, e.g. IT workers looking at upcoming stories on Digg, people searching for "hairy chinese kid" and the words to the "pugnose face" song on Google, even William Gibson himself (link consisted of seven characters, if you're reading this Mr Gibson - cheers for the hit-deluge)! If you want your work to be seen by the people who matter, then join us. If you can write about:

  • current affairs
  • politics
  • frippery
  • technology
  • books
  • movies
  • TV
  • high weirdness
  • anything else at all that grabs your fancy
...then waste no more time. Email now to get your work seen by literally several people every day!

Monday, 9 July 2007

Star Fourteen - Holocausts, Rockets and MacDonalds. Science Fiction from The Eisenhower Era.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"This one wasn't the last war or a war to end war. They called it The War for the American Dream. General Carpenter struck that note and sounded it constantly.

There are fighting generals (vital to an army), political generals (vital to an administration), and public relations generals (vital to a war). General Carpenter was a master of public relations. Forthright and four-square, he had ideals as high and understandable as the mottoes on money. In the mind of America he was the army, the administration, the nation's sword and stout right arm. His ideal was the American Dream." — from Disappearing Act by Alfred Bester.

First published in 1966 (my yellowing, poorly-bound, paperback copy dates from 1968 with no later reprints.), Star Fourteen is 238 pages of science fiction history. It is the last publication in Ballantine Books' Star Stories anthology series, all edited by Frederick Pohl. Between these pages is clamped the last gasp of the first age of American SF, their dreams rendered in steel, Bakelite and uranium. Soon afterwards, the New Wave of Science Fiction came along and the genre was swallowed by the counter-culture, who promptly spat it out bound in primary colours peppered with the words "grok" and "man". This unassuming pale blue paperback is everything I love in Science Fiction and upon picking it up this morning I found the vehicle to discuss something I've been considering for a while, the later period of The Golden Age of Science Fiction.

To begin with let's discuss SF's history — in the years before the war, Science Fiction was beginning to take off as a genre of pulp-fiction magazines. Magazines stocked side by side with westerns and mysteries on news-agents shelves. This format was responsible for the form in which SF became popular, and was the primary control of its structure for the next half-century. Previously there had been novels by Verne, Mary Shelley, Zamyatin and Wells that used the "what-if" form to write fiction, but the trappings, style and structure people associate with SF comes from a tradition that originated in these magazines. Between 1926 - when the first SF magazine was launched by Hugo Guernsback - and 1950, when Horace Gold's Galaxy took over from Astounding as the Mecca for science fiction, SF underwent a dizzying progression. In the 20's the simplicity of these magazines was almost laughable, a world of boys-own adventures with bug-eyed aliens. This childishness underwent a metamorphosis with the arrival of John W. Campbell's classic era of hard science fiction at Astounding Stories Of Super Science (hereafter referred to as Astounding). A venue where leaky spaceships, complex astronomy and sound mathematics were as important as realistic female characterisation was irrelevant.

In the era of Astounding, Science Fiction was a standard-bearer of American superiority, it was to literature what Jazz and Hollywood were to music and theatre - a simpler, harder, art form that moved rapidly, but ran in a direction where no-one previously had noticed there was a direction at all. This magazine based form led the writers - almost all of whom progressed through the genre and a significant proportion of whom were based in New York City - to develop SF into two main literary forms, the serial and the concept-driven short story. The serial allowed a novel sized idea to be developed in parts with massive narrative leaps and a disregard for traditional story structure, so that Asimov's Foundation series or Bradbury's Martian Chronicles could leap across thousands of years of history without character development or a real conclusion. In the serial, the only things that mattered were theme and the coherence of each instalment. But the real engine of early SF was the short story, a fast injection of concept, conflict, conclusion that took place in as little as 5 pages but was capable of building and then resolving a whole worldview.

The '50's was the era when SF began to have a major effect on the public consciousness, with classic B-movies from The Blob to This Island Earth breaking through to mass audiences, but as a genre it was still mainly confined to these small run magazines, and a sparse number of publishers. The Eisenhower era was a period of massive growth, accompanied by the political turmoil of the Cold War. Science fiction — with the success of the Manhattan Project giving the physicals sciences a mystique and tangible influence — was able to envision really radically different worlds, but establish them within the realms of possibility. Militarism, politics, far off worlds, nuclear holocaust (an imminent possibility that could only be realised by SF) and even wilder fantasies of science all were within the realms of SF. The conceptual and literary ambition was staggering and one need only read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, or Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery Of Man to realise that these men were artists of the first order.

Enter Star Science Fiction Stories in '52, produced by Ballantine books under the editorship of Frederick Pohl, the first anthology of original short stories. Frederick Pohl (writer, editor, collaborator, agent) is a pivotal and often underrated figure in the history of SF. In the 1950's one of his main contributions to the genre was to act as Science Fiction's first literary agent (best read about in his fascinating autobiography The Way The Future Was), where his connections in the New York scene and general respect in the community allowed him to become the gatekeeper between the biggest magazines (such as Astounding and Galaxy) and the biggest names in SF (Asimov, Clement and Wyndham all passed their first novels through his hands). After publishing Pohl's first novel (The Space Merchants with Cyril Kornbluth) Ian Ballantine offered Pohl editorial control of his proposed Star science fiction series, a publication with a considerably higher pay-per-word rate than the pulps. A conflict-of-interest not to be missed.

"Little Anthony was sitting on the lawn, playing with a rat. He had caught the rat down in the basement - he had made it think that it smelled cheese, the most rich-smelling and crumbly-delicious cheese a rat had ever thought it smelled, and it had come out of its hole, and now Anthony had hold of it with his mind and was making it do tricks.

When the rat saw Bill Soames coming, it tried to run, but Anthony thought at it, and it turned a flip-flop on the grass, and lay trembling, its eyes gleaming in small black terror" — From Jerome Bixby's It's A Good Life.

Frederick Pohl - the newer, grizzled, version.

Star Fourteen is the anthology of previous Star anthologies, the final bookend to this period of science fiction's history. What follows between these covers is a demonstration of the art of writing concept driven short fiction. Intentionally selected for stories that hadn't been re-anthologised, very few of these stories are written by the big names in SF. So, while there are stories by Richard Matheson, Alfred Bester and Arthur Clarke here, the strongest impression from this collection is the wealth of talent amongst the less well known names.

There is Gerald Kersh's Whatever Happened To Corporal Cuckoo? A perfectly constructed story of the downside of immortality. There is William Morrison's Country Doctor, a story of alien veterinary medicine (would the word be Xenonaut for one who explores the insides of aliens?) that is best not described. And, of course, there is Jerome Bixby's It's A Good Life, a tale that has haunted me ever since I read it as a teenager, about a child given godlike powers and the community who are subject to his whims (it was later made as an episode of The Twilight Zone). Out of the fourteen stories included there are no misfires.

The short story in the hands of people who had grown up within this tradition had been honed significantly away from the short story in literary fiction, as typified at the time by the work of Salinger for The New Yorker. It is a common and much-repeated sentiment that 50s SF is stylistically weaker than what would follow in the '60's and '70's, but one only has to read through this anthology to see the holes in this argument. The stories in this anthology run at an average of 15 pages a piece (and with one story as short as 4), but in almost all cases we have a setup, a conflict, a concept and a resolution. This is incredibly spartan story telling, and phenomenal plotting. Through repeat experience and editorial harrying these writers had established tricks for stripping a science concept down to the nuts and bolts and building a narrative out of it. But where in the Astounding age this prophecy aspect was the focus, in the '50's the emphasis was on idea and story, not one of these stories fits the classic engineer's wet dream template that is so often used to deride Golden Age SF: Matheson's story is about peer pressure and drug abuse, Bester's is about military incompetence. In SF there was a very tight market, and a very specific one (very few editors), so each story was a carefully engineered clockwork piece, with the aims of exploring an idea, developing a narrative and expanding the minds of your audience with something extraordinary. There was no space or intention to waste time with sex or emotion, no real interest in choosing exactly the right word, but a fascination with story structure and form that a "people in the city" story of literary fiction couldn't aspire to.

There is much to celebrate in this age of SF, before the Challenger disaster had made space-colonisation less of an imminent possibility, when individual military experience influenced their priorities, and when nuclear power was a source of both optimism and fear. Since The War this whole narrative frontier had opened up, and these three-penny-a-word wordsmiths were racing each other to homestead the new landscape. While Gollancz's SF Masterworks range (in my opinion, the best thing to happen to SF publishing in a decade) have brought a significant number of lost classics from this period back into print, short fiction — the engine-room where these writers learnt their trade and the real soul of the genre — is mostly lost from publication. The modern fan encountering the shorts of this era will come across the anthologies of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, authors who came to the fore in the '40's and never learnt to polish their work the way the generation of the '50's did. These authors are masters, but they were also the focus of the hardest of SF styles. The '50's was an era when Science Fiction was setting the pace for real science and when the short story had a greater value than as a mere testing ground for journeymen writers.

In the decades since we've had SF as another wild-eyed view of the counter culture, SF as computer-action-fantasy in cyberpunk, to the present where many science fiction writers seem to have more experience of creative writing classes than they do within the tradition itself. The one abiding feature of '50's SF was that it felt justified in sacrificing characterisation and emotion in the name of tightness of plot and concept, I find it a great shame that an author like Mike Resznick can now become the most heavily awarded short SF writer in history with story after story of concept free emotionalising. A creative writing course and an understanding of George Lucas and Joss Whedon can teach you to write fiction set in space. Nonetheless, the tradition — the guts and bones of storytelling developed by Campbell, Gold, Weinbaum, Pohl and their brothers — is a creature that must be studied on its own.

So, grab a yellowing paperback and join me in the last century's darkest fantasies, where rich men walk in radiation suits amongst the wreckage of humanity, and an immortal Christ can be eternally reborn among our distant descendants.

European Belief In God and Yawning Dogs.

by Charles Pooter

[Map of Europe showing percentage of population who believe in God.]
[Click to enlarge, image from Wikipedia]

Note how the “testicle” of Finland is considerably more religious than the “penis” of Sweden.

In other news “Dogs yawn to stay calm in certain situations”. This is according to dog expert Turid Rugaas of Norway. On average she is 10% more likely to believe in God than a Swede but 10% less likely than a Finn, so I think we can probably trust her about this.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

It's Harder Than I Thought

by Unknown

Here, for your entertainment (or outright amusement?) is an early attempt at an action/sci-fi novel because its a slow week and I'm really busy at work. It really is harder than I thought!

Kyle peered through a small gap where the plastered wall didn’t quite meet the doorframe. He watched the separation of the group, paying particular attention to Sword who appeared to be slowly backing away from the crossroads where Broken Nose was carefully un-slinging his machine pistol. Sword slowly placed himself in the corner of two large packing crates covered with shipping labels from the Far East. He was up on the balls of his feet and obviously alert. His right hand strayed to the buttons on the front of his jacket. He undid those then carefully released the single restraining strap on his blade.

Kyle dropped back into the shadows and swore quietly to himself. Flat Cap and Army Jacket were a moment away and he was not going to be able to take them down without alerting Sword. With Broken Nose waving that machine pistol around, Sword would have plenty of time to raise an alarm or call someone.

“Change in plan,” he sub-vocalised as rapidly as possible, “I’m blown so I’m going to hit them hard and fast. There is not going to be time to get us both out quietly so I’m gonna need a full extraction team with medical support and restraints. Get here NOW!”

Even as he finished speaking he rose from the shadows and slammed into Army Jacket, keen to hit him hard and stop him from drawing a gun. As Army Jacket rocked back, the air whooshing out of his lungs Kyle spun on his rear foot and launched the twin darts of the tazer at Flat Cap. Flat Cap made a high pitched shrieking sound as he fell backwards twitching and shaking and Kyle realised that he hadn’t even been aware of the attack until that point.

Kyle quickly pivoted back to Army jacket, leading with a front leg roundhouse kick but Army Jacket had recovered just enough to pull into a tight boxer’s stance and he dropped his right arm and rode out the kick without damage. Army Jacket threw a couple of slow looping punches that Kyle allowed to impact with his side and upper arm. Army Jacket’s look of surprise at Kyle’s complete lack of reaction quickly turned to extreme pain as Kyle whipped a snap kick into his knee cap causing massive damage and sending the entire leg into an uncontrollable spasm. As Army Jacket’s hands fell to the knee to try and grab the pain and stop it, Kyle stepped forward, jabbing quickly into his victim’s face breaking his nose and jaw before snapping round a tight little hook that impacted with his temple hard enough to leave a dent. Army Jacket crumpled soundlessly to the floor.

A sound behind alerted Kyle to the fact that Flat Cap had recovered enough to try and swing the heavy flashlight at his head. Kyle threw up his forearm and the flashlight was stopped dead. Flat Cap started backwards looking surprised, he knew full well that the blow from a metal flashlight should have broken this strange attacker’s arm and he quickly decided he wanted his mates around him to take this guy on. Flat Cap started to move away from Kyle, back towards the crossroads where Broken Nose was pointing his sub-machine gun into the doorway, scanning for a clear shot. Flat Cap kept the flashlight moving back and forth and the broken components inside made a rattling, crunching counterpoint to his sliding footsteps as a he felt backwards with each step.

Kyle knew his time was very limited, he could see Sword talking into a telephone and gesticulating with his free hand. He dived forward and grabbed at either side of Flat Cap’s head. Quick as a thought he felt for that internal twitch that he had come to recognise and triggered both sets of bio capacitors across Flat Cap’s head. His teeth snapped shut biting off the tip of his tongue and all his muscles locked simultaneously. He slumped to the floor, dribbling and insensible. Kyle didn’t know if the two massive shocks in quick succession might have done permanent damage and he didn’t much care.

“You chose the wrong side.” He muttered as he leant back up against the wall and looked through the gap again. Spotting that Sword was calming down he guessed that reinforcements must be on their way. He crouched down by Army Jacket’s still form and quickly pulled out an Israeli manufactured hand cannon from the shoulder rig. The handgun was a natural progression from the venerable old Desert Eagle and although it only held 6 rounds it would pretty much punch through anything, including body armour. Pulling back into the shadows by the doorframe he quickly scanned through the gap and tried to assess his next move.

Jackson stood watching the dark doorway where his two colleagues had passed through and then apparently vanished, just some muffled thumps and a strange, loud crack marking their passing. He held onto the comforting, hard slickness of the imported machine pistol that he sometime felt was the only real certainty in a World that he often struggled to understand. He had fallen in with the local gang when the work on the docks faltered and although he had never really done anything too bad he understood on some level that carrying the gun meant that he would, if called upon to do so. The gun had been gifted to him by the man behind him, whom he only knew as Kaneda, as a reward for many years of loyalty. It was a potent weapon when most hoods owned only jury rigged 2 barrel zip guns or, at best, sawn off shotguns. The best any could hope for were looted firearms and they were only available to those who were prepared to kill.
Jackson was fast approaching the realisation that he did not want to fight this enemy, whoever he was. That just perhaps he had a promising career as a dock worker over in one of the young countries in Europe somewhere. He slowly moved to the right, keeping the machine pistol up he started to scan, not just for an enemy now but also for a pathway out of this trouble that had descended on them without warning.

It was this lack of focus that meant he caught the rapid motion out of the corner of his eye. He reacted better than he ever would have thought possible, shouting “grenade” he threw himself to the ground, orientating his feet towards where he thought the little spinning disk would land to minimise his cross-section to shrapnel. He had seen the effects of jury-rigged grenades and nail bombs and he knew his only chance was to stay low and small.

At the last second Kyle had ditched the hand cannon and pulled one of the small non-lethal Ultra Sonic Weapon grenades from the pouch on his thigh. He had watched Broken Nose’s change in heart, his decision written plain on his face as he started to edge back from the conflict. Kyle had no desire to kill underlings, if it could be avoided. He hated the way that every death deemed ‘unnecessary’ by the group drove him and Helene further apart, she simply could not understand the mentality of the front line soldier. He set the dial fuse for three seconds and then whipped his arm around in the classic, flat arc of a Frisbee fanatic, dropping straight back into a crouch and covering his ears with both arms, trusting to his protective glasses to cut out the worst of the USW grenade’s effects. The USW grenade not only produced a devastating blast of ultrasonic sound but also strobe lights at a frequency that caused temporary epileptic seizures in its victims. Designed as a non-lethal crowd suppression weapon its use was banned by most civilian forces, as the effects were just too devastating.

The grenade was designed to skip like a pebble on a pond so when it hit the concrete floor it skimmed off leaving a puff of dust floating in the air like the a bullet punching through plasterboard. Jackson had a fraction of a second to realise his mistake before the grenade went off almost directly above his head. He never really heard the sounds that took him out of the fight and off the street as his eardrums burst almost immediately under the aural assault. He started to pitch and buck on the floor, his eyes wide open and staring in shock just in time to catch the full force of the light show that tripped his brain into a complete disassociated flux state. Foetal and twitching he was down and no longer a threat and that was all Kyle wanted. Broken nose would likely require serious care for a short while but he was still alive.

Assuming that Sword had not been caught by the grenade, as he had pitched short and directly at Broken Nose, Kyle dived through the door and fetched up against a crate about ten metres short of Sword’s last location. He was no longer there but Kyle knew he would be nearby. He assumed he had spun back behind the tall crates to avoid the grenade but he would be back in position almost immediately. His pride would allow no less.

“I know you’re there, little man”. The taunting voice that would once have been pure street had a lisping pretension to aristocracy that jarred with the surroundings but matched with the expensive suit and sword. The affectation gave Kyle hope; if Sword had come up through the ranks he was unlikely to have the swords skills to match his expensive blade. Duelling was still a fairly rare hobby and good teachers were hard to find.

Kyle leant against the crate with his back against the rough wood with his knees pulled up to his chest. Once again Sword’s voice floated out, more guttural now as the street took hold, the prospect of violence wearing at is his façade like the abrasion of the moneyed at a pit fight.
“C’mon little man. Come out, come out. If you were gonna shoot me you would’ve taken your shot”.

“And missed,” added Kyle quietly as he knew the hand cannon was a very short ranged weapon, with any degree of accuracy anyway. He realised that Sword had gone through the same thought process he had. He needed Sword either conscious and subdued or out cold and in no danger of dying on the way out; he simply was no use for interrogation in any other condition. Neither seemed to be a likely outcome of diving around the corner with his gun blazing. He also knew that if Sword was smart he would have retreated into the shadows and waited for reinforcements. He always preferred a stupid opponent.

“Called your masters have you?” He tried to get a better fix on Sword by goading him into a response. “Asked them to come and rescue you?”
“I have no need”, his response was much nearer than Kyle had guessed. Sword was just walking straight towards him along the pathway!
“We know about you and your capabilities. We know you upgrades but most of all we know your limitations. Do you think you can take me down? Fine, here I am”.

With that there came a mighty kick to the crate that Kyle crouched behind. This guy had just walked up to him. Crazy. Kyle stood and slowly turned to face his target.
“You must be pretty sure of your intel”, he fished, “I could just shoot you where you stand”.
“Ah but you won’t, will you? We know. Gathering data for the Feds. Really, what good do you think it will do? We own them, man. We own them and we own you too. You were bought cheap man, a few threats and less money than this suit cost”.

Kyle struggle to hide his horror at Sword’s words. He had suspected that the security at the group wasn’t as good as they thought but to have it confirmed so brazenly shook him to his core. He needed to know more.
“Do you yield to me?” He asked Sword. “I will leave you your life intact if you do and just answer a few questions”.
“Are you crazy, man?” Came the expected response “I’ll be covered with gold for today’s work”.
“No”, said Kyle.

He threw back the long tails of his coat, customised to be longer than normal and weighted in the tips so they flared back and stayed out of the way. He rested his left hand briefly on the handle of his beautiful Cinqudea blade sheathed across his lower back. At the same time his right hand fell to the heavier slashing sabre at his hip. With a twist of his wrists he unlocked the blades from their combat harnesses and slowly unsheathed one then the other. He pulled them into a ready stance, his right arm forward with the slashing sabre, his body quarter turned and the stabbing Cinqudea ready for any thrust that presented itself. Kyle knew that the Italian twin sword technique was all but unknown, particularly where almost all the sword experience was from watching cheap Samurai flicks with all their attached myths about Japanese blades and he hoped his style would more than compensate for the longer sword of his opponent. He briefly saluted with his leading blade.

“You’re wrong. You’ll be covered in blood”.