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Archive for February, 2008

Shoot ‘Em Up

Big fat novel wordcount: 28,423
Random story I started a fortnight ago wordcount: 7,862

Those nearly eight thousand words up there are one reason I haven’t posted that much here lately. I’m working on some other things, but topical ramblings might be a little slow in coming while so many other words are happening so easily. But this is worth talking about. I have just seen the most amazing movie ever. It’s called Shoot ‘Em Up.

It’s hilarious. It’s an uproarious knockabout comedy of the most gloriously farcical nature. If you were paying very little attention, or have no sense of irony, I can see how you might mistakenly get the idea that it’s an action movie, but you’d be completely missing the point. It has Clive Owen as an action hero, which is funny right off the bat.

But oh, it just gets better and better from there. This review will be cobbled together from the scattered notes I made while watching it, and will entirely fail to do justice to just how wonderfully ludicrous it is. It’s a film with a death-by-root-vegetable count of two, for god’s sake. Most films’ death-by-root-vegetable counts don’t even get off the ground, which I can only attribute to lazy writing.

It had a plot, I’m fairly certain, but mostly it’s about ass being kicked and shit being blowed up good, in a way that is absolute comedy genius. And Clive Owen fighting for HIGHWAY JUSTICE and the APPROPRIATE USE OF TURN SIGNALS.

Other menaces that shall not be tolerated include people who SLURP THEIR COFFEE TOO LOUDLY.

And once he has dispatched such scourges of decent society, the quips and snarled one-liners make James Bond look like Oscar Wilde.

“Eat your vegetables.”
“Nothing like a good hand-job.”
“Talk about shooting your load.”
“So much for wearing your seat-belt.”

Never before has a movie made me think to myself, “If Paul Giamatti doesn’t get his thumbs ripped off at some point before the credits roll, I will be hugely disappointed”. I’m thinking it of Clive Owen most of the time, of course, but that’s for different reasons, not plot-related at all.

At one point, he carefully arranges a number of automatic weapons around an entire building, along with a complicated pulley system, and then sets up a control room, where he can fire any of these weapons at will by tugging on bits of string. The bad guys trying to get him continue to stand conveniently right in front of all these mounted machine-guns, and die by the dozen. This film is basically Home Alone 12, where Kevin has grown up to be a complete maniac.

A film like this would normally be on very dangerous ground having any of its characters uttering a sentence that begins “I hate those lame action movies where…”, but somehow, having worked so hard to disassociate itself from logic and moderation entirely, this one kinda gets away with it.

And then, at the very end, there’s a callback to the hero’s horrific past which was mentioned earlier, and for a moment it looks like there might be some tragic denouement as the nightmares from his history return to haunt him again and put him through the same pain of loss as before, but then the film basically goes “Fuck that” and is just about how awesome it can be to shoot a bunch of people.

One billion stars.

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Happy FunTime Maths Hour – 1

So, because this blog still needs some more things that might actually get me writing in it, I’m re-establishing one of the perennial favourite segments from my previous journalling. In this feature, I will provide a brief but rigorous explanation for some of the aspects of my degree subject that have come up in conversation with my many, many, many fans, for the purpose of informing and enlightening the tragically uninformed and unenlightened mass that is my readership.

Many of you, it appears, in your boundless ignorance and lamentable misconception, still fail helplessly to understand, and in some cases actually fear, even the most approachable and easily grasped concepts: circles, binary numbers, imaginary square roots of things that don’t exist, and many other such delights and wonders of formalised logic to which you are so blind and irredeemably oblivious.

But there is still hope. You might still be saved from your stinking pit of innumeracy and ineptitude. And it is I who can save you.

Welcome to the Happy FunTime1 Maths Hour.

Today: Numerical systems using place-value notation and positional bases. (Don’t worry, you know a lot of this already.)

These days, when most people use numbers (disregarding some awkward foreigners with their own systems, which I find unfamiliar and intimidating, and am thus choosing to disregard), we use place-value notation. This is the system by which the position of an individual symbol in a number affects its value.

For instance, the digit 8 in 836 represents a value of eight hundreds, but in 386 it represents eight tens (also known among some academic circles as “eighty”). It’s still an eight, but the question of eight whats is resolved differently in each case. Because we’re working here in base ten, the 8 might just mean eight, or eight tens, or eight tens-of-tens, or eight tens-of-those, and so on, depending on where in the number the digit occurs.

Some of this probably sounds familiar to you. You may have used these numbers, or others like them, in your own life or work. Maybe you have an amusing anecdote about seven, or a moving tale about how you were personally affected by nineteen point four. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

It so happens that we have ten digits in common usage in our numeral system. They’re the ones just above the letters on your keyboard, the ones that don’t spell words in any language other than “obnoxious internet teenager”. In case this needs further elaboration, they look like this: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Nifty.

But why are there exactly that many of them? Who’s to say we wouldn’t be better off with another digit or two stuck on the end there, aside from the practical difficulty of my keyboard not being able to type them? Or alternately, why do we need so many? When was the last time that poncey upside-down 6 on the end there did us any good? I’ve always said he was no use to anyone. 7 should hurry up and eat the bastard2, if you ask me.

There’s absolutely no reason to have ten digits rather than any other number. Well, there are reasons why we do, of course, but none related to mathematical coherency. We use ten digits essentially because we have ten fingers, which were themselves often useful to keep track of things we wanted to count, back in the days before Maths came along and rendered the whole concept of fingers unnecessary and obsolete.

We also use base sixty, as part of our system of measuring time, because of a Sumerian counting method involving three knuckles, on each of four fingers (twelve knuckles total), being counted off five times on the other hand (five lots of twelve knuckles = sixty. True story. Those Sumerians are crazy). And it’s not that hard to imagine a system with fewer, or more, digits involved.

Imagine seeing inside a mileometer on a car, reading 000000. For each digit, there’s a little loop of numbers, laid out sort of like a conveyor belt, looking like 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 0 , joining up with itself at either end. The far-right position on the display is constantly rotating very slowly as you drive, and moves round one digit for every mile you travel. So, the first 9 miles are counted out easily by just that digit on its own, making almost a complete rotation around its loop, and giving us a final reading of 000009.

Obviously if this digit keeps moving, it’s going to go back to 0 next, so as it does this, the second place along, in the tens column, also moves around to show the next digit, so the display now reads 000010. The right-most digit continues moving on steadily, and once it gets back to 9, the process repeats, and after twenty miles the second digit ticks over again to show 000020. Once the total mileage reaches 000099, the right-most completed revolution causes the second positon to also complete a revolution back to 0, so now the third digit makes its first move around, and we’ve gone 000100 miles.

You may be following this all quite easily and making impatient gestures with your hands to encourage me to get to the point, if you’re familiar with this material – say, if you’ve ever seen a car, or can already count up to one hundred.

But now, let’s say that this mileometer can be easily taken apart and reassembled. Imagine that we pull each of these loops apart, snip off the parts with the digit 9, and reattach them, all with the 8 now adjacent to the 0. They’re still all completed loops, just slightly smaller. Now what’s going to happen as we go for a drive?

For the first eight miles, it’ll be business as usual, but after that, the digit on the far right doesn’t have a 9 to turn to – it’s got to loop back to 0, one mile earlier than it would’ve done before we took a screwdriver3 to the inside of our car. This means that the second digit has had to tick over a mile earlier too, so the read-out is showing us 000010 after we’ve done only nine miles.

Another nine miles later, we see the same thing. It goes from 000018 to 000020, as we drive from mile seventeen to mile eighteen. The second position is now a count of how many nines of miles we’ve driven, rather than how many tens. It carries on like this up to 000088, the biggest number that can be represented using two digits when you’ve taken away the 9’s, at which point we’ve actually only gone eighty miles (eight nines, plus eight). Then the third digit ticks over, and we’re at 000100 after doing eighty-one (nine lots of nine) miles.

The upshot is that numbers now get bigger by a factor of nine for every zero you stick on the end, instead of ten (and what we’re used to calling ten now looks like 11). And it works the same way on the other side of the decimal nonary4 point, too: 0.1 is one ninth, 0.01 is one ninth of one ninth, and so on.

So that’s pretty much how other bases work. With higher bases it’d be the same idea – insert a few extra symbols (generally just the first few letters of the alphabet, but you could choose whatever you like) after the 9 before it loops back to 0, and you’ll get a display of 000010 after you’ve gone, say, thirteen miles. Hexadecimal, or base sixteen, is often used in computer code, where counting goes 0-9, A-F, then 10 (representing sixteen), and so on up to FF (fifteen lots of sixteen, plus fifteen), and then 100 (sixteen lots of sixteen, or what we would normally write as 256 in base ten).

Of course, in terms of the mathematical construction, any one of these is as valid as any other. We happen to group things together in terms of tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, and so on, but it’s only because we’re so used to thinking in base ten that these are defined as being “round” numbers. Nine thousand, two hundred and sixty-one might be wonderfully neat and round and easy to work with, depending on how many symbols are in your numerical system.

You may, bewildered wretches that you are, be torn up inside with wrenching anxiety, even now, from the one true mystery that still remains – that of why I care whether you know or understand any of this stuff in the first place. Well, it’s primarily because I enjoy talking about it (and you may draw from this whatever perverse conclusions about my depraved and bestial predelictions that you wish). But there are actually some interesting repercussions as well.

I won’t get all post-modern on you – I fear that if I did, my head might explode, either from the same kind of concentrated bafflement that always ensued whenever my former housemates (for whose benefit these essays were first created) tried to explain post-modernism to me, or from the large and unforgiving gun I would surely feel morally obliged to swallow if I turned into the sort of person who deliberately provides post-modern explanations of subjects of interest.

That said, it can be worth appreciating just how artificial and arbitrary many of the expressions of reality, which we take entirely for granted, actually are. Under a different base system, the way we think about and describe any numbers would be totally different. You could be forty-twelve or eleventy-one years of age. Clocks might strike thirteen, as in that famous George Orwell novel, 1544.

The fraction one-third is conventionally represented as an endlessly repeating decimal, 0.333333…, but in base twelve, it is simply 0.4; the infinite becomes finite. People would speculate in their online journals about bizarre alternate number systems where nobody uses the number ¬ at all, yet somehow they still manage to count up to it. Someone would write a lengthy, rambling article in his blog, to explain how such counting systems could exist with only a scant ten digits, and nobody would really be interested.

The Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, And Everything really could be “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?” – if we just worked in base thirteen, as many Douglas Adams fans have observed before me, the universe could actually make some fundamental sense.

Everything would be different, with – I would hazard a pitifully uninformed guess of my own – some fascinating anthropological repercussions. And maybe pi really does contain a secret message from God, answering all our questions about the meaning of life, and how to achieve eternal happiness, somewhere within its unending numeral expression – if only we’d invented another number or two.

If you’ve read this far, well done. If you’ve understood some of it, even better. If your brain now requires some recuperation, I suggest you go and make yourself a nice cup of tea, and enjoy some relaxing pornography or hard drugs to help you wind down.

Tune in to the next Happy FunTime Maths Hour for: “Infinity – it’s bigger than it looks.”

1 Now with CamelCase.
2 You know, like in that terrible “seven ate nine” joke which endlessly amuses people with a mental age of one of those numbers? Too esoteric?
3 Or some other tool or piece of mechanical hardware which I’d be able to name if I were any kind of a real man.
4 “Decimal” means base ten, so the point is now a “nonary” (base nine) point.

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Cloverfield

My two-word Cloverfield review:

Holy. Shit.

Another one with slightly more words in:

That is one impressively resilient video camera. I am now going to drink all the tea in the world to try to calm my nerves.

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Well, I figured it’s about time I had a go at this whole social commentary malarkey, and tried throwing my own quirky and hilarious take on some much-discussed current affairs. Or something. Anyway, to that end, I finally watched a trailer for Expelled, Ben Stein’s new Intelligent Design propaganda film. It was seven and a half painful minutes, and now I get to share them with you.

My first thought was to wonder whether I’ve misunderstood the hype, and if this is actually a horror film. There’s some spooky music playing. We see a dim hallway, with a badly lit janitor sullenly cleaning the floor. Then a classroom, with rows of empty seats, and the sinister mantra “Do not question authority” being chalked onto the blackboard, over and over, by some short stubby bald guy. Then the voiceover starts and totally undermines the whole eerie atmosphere they’d been building up. Even Ben Stein’s voice is lame these days.

Ben Stein, we soon learn, has Big Questions. One of these Big Questions is, “Are we, the Universe, and everything in it, merely the result of pure, dumb fate and chance?” Which is a pretty badly phrased question, but just wait. There’ll be plenty of time for the science to get misrepresented and misrepresenteder soon enough.

Steiny is of the opinion that “everything was created by a loving God. Rocks, trees, animals, people…” I can’t tell whether he’s being deliberately patronising, or he’s explaining things this way because he doesn’t expect his audience to understand the concept of “everything” unless he really spells it out, or whether that’s just how he talks. Absent from his list are malaria, HIV, parasitic worms that eat through people’s eyeballs, and city-levelling earthquakes and tidal waves, which presumably also fall under the umbrella of “everything”. Just sayin’.

Obviously there is some disagreement on this matter, however. Fortunately, The Steininator is here to boil all thought on the subject down into two simple categories, helpfully biased so that you’ll know which one is right. Isn’t it nice when other people do all your thinking for you?

The two sides of the debate, then, are the “loving God” side, who believe that people all contain the “spark of the divine”, and the others, the “Darwinists”, who apparently claim that humans are “nothing more than mud animated by lightning”. Here you get a two-for-one bargain on logical fallacies, since this is a false dichotomy containing a straw man. It’s simply not true that there are two exclusive and all-encompassing positions on this subject, of which you must choose one; and the secular and naturalistic position that Steinamo thinks he’s arguing against is entirely fictitious.

“Mud animated by lightning” is nowhere a part of evolutionary theory, and isn’t even a useful or coherent way of simplifying or summarising the position. (The phrase “cosmic mistake” is used later, and is similarly inappropriate.) There follows a brief “overview” of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which takes an uninformed layperson’s ideas on what the theory is, and then dumbs it down even further.

Steinz Varieties generously has “no problem if people want to believe that sort of thing”. It seems that the misrepresented scientific idea, the one supported by a body of work with over a century of scientific experimentation and research clarifying and expanding on it, is the position being characterised as the kooky idea someone cooked up out of nowhere someday, which has gained ground among ideologues with a self-promoting agenda. “But… but… you’re the religious nut, dammit!” I splutter, apoplectically. “You don’t get to grandiosely tolerate us!”

This dangerously liberal approach of his, that scientists should be permitted to hold all the wacky, evidence-based beliefs they want, is justifed by the reminder that this is a free society, and more specifically that “this isn’t Nazi Germany”. Now, I have no experience with documentary film-making, and perhaps if Louis Theroux read this he’d bitch-slap me for my ignorance, but do we really need a clip of Hitler there to remind us what Nazi Germany was, and why it was bad? Maybe he is just highlighting the important differences between that horrific regime and the world of free love and peace on Earth in which we live today, but there’d be no need for the imagery if he wasn’t expecting us to associate it with something.

We are then introduced to some guy, who FrankenStein describes as a “mild-mannered research scientist”. Are we expected to take a liking to him because he sounds inoffensive, harmless, and an all-round jolly good chap? Or to wonder whether he has a crime-fighting alter-ego with super powers? Anyway, this guy’s story is that he edited a scientific journal, published a paper by some other guy (watch the trailer yourself if you want detail and nuance), and suddenly found himself “under attack”. The mood he felt from the rest of the scientific community, he says, went from being “chilly to… outright hostile.” So… it was chilly beforehand? Did they already not like you? Maybe because you’ve been a crappy scientist for years? Objection, speculative ad hominem. Okay, maybe I’m being harsh.

The article that caused all the trouble is said to have asserted that “there are signs of design in nature.” Now, I think that sounds vague and tentative enough to stop it from being all that controversial. “Signs” are not necessarily conclusive, and this could nearly be just another way of interpreting the claim that the theory of evolution is not complete, that there are some elements of observed biology which cannot wholly be explained to everyone’s satisfaction by our current understanding. This is certainly true, and does not mean that anyone’s suggesting that the entire field, and one of the absolutely fundamental necessities of modern biology, should be completely uprooted and discarded. There are just some things which, if they did come about through natural processes, we don’t yet know precisely how they did it.

However, a breath later, as if that last point was merely being rephrased or clarified, we hear, “The digital code in our DNA could not have come about by accident” (emphasis mine). Now, that is one Juggernaut of a claim, and a far cry from the “signs of design” suggested a moment ago. You’d have to know a whole lot about what can come about “by accident”, and how it does so, before you can say with such confidence that anything could not have done so. You know who probably does know a whole lot about the levels of life and complexity that can arise by accident? I’m guessing evolutionary biologists. People who’ve done experiments, and research, and spent years trying to find about more about it. Ben Stein-O-Mite… maybe not so much.

All our beleaguered Clark Kent wannabe (the research scientist guy, not Ben “Lisa Edel” Stein) is asking for is the freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Yeah, because the evidence is really what’s on your side, in this stand you’re taking against one of the most solidly established and empirically supported areas of study in contemporary science.

His only crime – this poor fellow, who could never hurt a fly, and who wanted so badly to be a published scientific journalist – was daring to question the supposed “mud animated by lightning” theory. What I’m guessing this means, in more specific terms, is that this paper was deeply scientifically uninformed, disregarded mountains upon mountains of evidence gathered over decades of investigation, deserved to be ripped to shreds by the peer review process, and should never have even made it into print for all its factual and theoretical holes and misconceptions. I say I’m guessing, and I could certainly be wrong, but we’re really not given a lot of detail as to what it actually said, which might give us some idea how suitable or otherwise its publication in this particular journal might have been. (You may notice that I’m too lazy to put any time or effort into actually finding out, from any other sources, what the article in question was about. I offer no apology for this.)

To emphasise the unfairness, we are told how publishing this paper “would not have been an issue, if we were living in the time of Galileo, or Einstein”. First of all, again with the unnecessary imagery, this time disembodied heads coming right at me. Secondly… Dude. If someone is publishing articles in a scientific journal, based on a scientific understanding over a century out of date, they should be laughed out of the gene pool, let alone out of academic journalism.

But “this is the era of Darwin”. Accompanied by an image of a cheetah chasing down and mauling a gazelle. Because, you know, animals never did that in Galileo’s or Einstein’s time. (Yes, I realise the metaphor he’s trying to invoke here, but come on.)

There are other poor souls suffering similar horrors, and being “denied publication in scientific journals”. I truly don’t know how they cope. My minimal experience from the sidelines of the scientific world leads me to understand that, even if you do know what you’re talking about, and you actually have some evidence on your side which can’t easily be (and hasn’t already been) demonstrated to be useless in support of your ideology, getting yourself published in a scientific journal of any repute is still pretty damn tough.

And this stigma is inflicted upon these cursed, hopeless individuals, “all for questioning Darwin”. Again, this is bollocks. Scientists have questioned Darwin plenty. The guy died in 1882, do you think biologists have had nothing to do since then but twiddle their thumbs, glue some human jaw-bones to chimpanzee skulls and burn the occasional Lamarckian? They’ve moved on since his day. More than most creationists seem to have done.

Benny to the S bemoans the vastness and the overwhelming power of the Establishment which he is up against. “The media’s in on it, courts, the educational system…” Well, the more people who are against you, the more indignant you can be about your underdog status. Quite why all these far-reaching organisations would be so universally keen to exclude certain ideas is never explained, but there’s clearly a national secular conspiracy at work here, with unknown but definitely sinister motives. Yep, it’s way more likely to be the non-religious groups who are campaigning avidly and crying repression in an attempt to promote their personal ideas and ideological agenda. (I hope you’re not getting too dizzy from the rate at which I’m spinning back and forth between sincerity and sarcasm. I think it’s at least usually clear which I’m shooting for.)

Then there’s the suggestion that Darwinism (a term only those with an anti-evolution stance ever seem to use) might be “not only improbable… it might actually be dangerous.” This is followed, after a brief shot of what might just be some sort of Gulag or concentration camp (the subtle associative imagery continues), with a brief selection of half-second quotes from Dawkins, Dennett, and presumably some other similarly outspoken atheists or scientists with whom I’m less familiar. These, at first, fail to make any point at all. There’s so little context that I can’t even tell whether what they’re saying is supposed to come across as damning.

And then Richard Dawkins, in a shocking moment of candour and openness about his role in the Evil Atheist Conspiracy, tells us: “As a scientist, I am pretty hostile to a rival doctrine.” Something of a money shot, catching someone as prominent as Dawkins engaging in such blatant dogmatism.

But it’s a money shot of not more than eleven words. Dawkins has written many, many more words than that before, very clearly and elaborately expressing the precise opposite opinion, arguing strongly for the vital importance of science’s ability to adapt to new information, and that unconventional doctrines be heard and examined as dispassionately and fairly as possible. Has he suddenly changed his position? Has he been cleverly caught out, and had his true feelings revealed, by those cunning and tricksy documentary-makers? Or was he perhaps not really claiming that his present belief system is unshakable and must be defended at all costs? Were there maybe more than eleven words in the paragraph he was speaking, of which we saw only a snippet, that would alter our interpretation of his intent, if we could hear the rest of it? The very definition of a straw man argument involves deciding what you want your opponents to say and then attacking them for it, whether or not it represents what they actually believe.

Sweet Child O’ Stein’s next point is that scientific research is apparently the one area of society where we don’t tolerate free speech. This is hardly less wacked-out than anything that’s gone before. Nobody wants to deny people the legal right to express whatever unorthodox ideas about biology they want (except possibly some equally barmy zealots who in no way represent the scientific community). But if you want to be a science teacher, it’s not an unreasonable demand that you teach some science, which creationism fails to be. If you want to be published in a scientific journal, it’s probably necessary to submit a scientific article. Are you seeing the pattern here? It’s not censorship or intolerance of free speech if some magazine or university refuses to expend their resources in pandering to an uninformed and irrelevant demographic. I can send in as many as I like of my fascinating and brilliantly written articles on the latest hot crochet designs to hit the streets, but What Car? magazine are entirely within their rights to repeatedly ignore me in favour of whatever they consider more suitable to their readership.

Back to Saint Valenstein. “People who are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism.” Oh, wow, do you ever not understand how science works.

And in the closing moments it just gets ridiculous how much they overplay the importance of what they’re doing. He’s “trying to warn others before it’s too late”. Ben Stein’s on a mission from God. Ben Stein aims to misbehave. The fate of the planet is in Ben Stein’s hands. Only Ben Stein can save us now. Help me, Ben Stein; you’re my only hope. Ben Stein, Texas Ranger. Fear can hold you prisoner; Ben Stein can set you free. Ben Stein: fuck, yeah.

Even watching this movie could get you in trouble. You might lose your friends and your job, just from watching this film. Apparently the only way they can sell this film to anyone is by stirring up paranoia, and playing into the part of people’s minds that knows that rebelling against authority is cool and wants to be Neo in The Matrix. And that’s got to be some heavy duty paranoia right there. If you buy a cinema ticket to see this movie, the government will track your credit card, hunt you down, and see that you never get published in a scientific journal again. So make sure you pay in cash. And watch out for those black helicopters.

“If you’re a scientist with a future, I suggest you leave right now.”

Dude. YOU ARE BEN STEIN. YOU ARE NOT THAT POWERFUL. YOU DO NOT HAVE AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE THAT THE MEN IN BLACK ARE TRYING TO STOP YOU SHARING WITH THE WORLD.

And now it’s nearly over. We’re back in the school hallway from the opening scene, and then the empty classroom. The janitor we saw what feels like months ago cleaning the floor comes along, sees the writing on the blackboard, and shakes his head sadly. But wait… what’s this? He’s taking something out, and… it’s a blackboard eraser! He’s cleaning the board! He’s wiping away all that damnable Darwinian propaganda! Oh, happy day! Thankyou, mister janitor man, for saving us from this menace! (Yeah, I’m kinda bored by now.)

The final shot is of the rows of empty chairs in the lecture hall, with Austein Powers’s not-very-ominous voiceover: “Will anyone be left to fight this battle? Anyone? Anyone?” … I honestly can’t tell if it’s meant to be a self-parody, or if he’s taking himself seriously. Anyone else want to hazard a guess?

Anyone?

Bueller?

Bueller?

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SEX!!

Now that I’ve got your attention: sex.

This particular spleen-venting is adapted from two previous essays, and is intended to encapsulate many of my (largely tragically uninformed) opinions on sex. So prepare to loosen your collars, people – this is gonna be hawt.

(Quick disclaimer: all statistics quoted below were plucked from the air to represent my memory of what I think I heard, and are not intended to accurately convey reality.)

There have been a few documentaries on TV in recent years about abstinence groups, mostly in America, who promote the exciting and alluring world of not having sex, and/or support the teaching of abstinence-only sex education in schools. One of these, titled American Virgin, was about the organisation Silver Ring Thing, whose members wear a ring on their finger to remind them of their pledge to abstain from sex until marriage, and plan to hand this ring over to their partner on their wedding night (while also offering, less metaphorically, themselves).

They didn’t come across as nearly so much of a sinister or cultish hive-mind as my cynical side had rather hoped. Although they all obviously tended to agree on the main theme, there were a lot of contrasting opinions between them. They’re a Christian-based organisation, but for many of the members religion had little or nothing to do with it. Some people were just interested in their own health, and chose to err on the side of caution. Others had some strange ideas about wanting to be emotionally committed to somebody before sleeping with them. None of this can possibly be objected to – whatever reasons you might have for not wanting to have much sex (and I surely have my own), the harshest criticism anyone can really lay on you for it is that you’re foolishly missing out on some fun.

The criticisms get harsher when people start scaremongering and spreading misinformation about the damnable horrors of contraceptives. Actually, they get pretty merciless rather sooner than that, such as when religious organisations try to shut other people up entirely on the subject of safe sex, and enforce a system of “education” which deliberately serves to do as little educating as possible.

One of the regulars on this documentary, and somebody the organisation seemed keen to sell as one of their predominant spokespeople, was a 16-year-old girl, who we first saw on the set of a promotional video she was making.

“Hi, my name is Nikki,” she introduced herself, and something about her made a part of my brain complete the sentence with, “and welcome to Wet ‘N’ Wild Teens on Spring Break!” Disappointingly, she started talking about how great it is not shagging anyone instead, and how sad it was that the government apparently allows some schools to teach kids about possible methods to avoid the possible negative consequences should they decide to, you know, “do it”.

She asked us at one point, “Safe sex? What is that? And safer than what?” Clearly this was meant to be rhetorical, but isn’t it just begging a sensible answer? Couldn’t you think of quite a lengthy and reasonable response off the top of your head? Safe sex involves making some preparation before the event itself, so that if you decide, as many millions of people regularly do, that abstinence is actually quite boring, you can have sex, quite possibly within a loving and committed relationship, while dramatically reducing the dangers of any negative side effects occurring.

And the dangers will be dramatically reduced, if you know what constitutes “safe”, and how to use condoms effectively, and so on – if, say, someone’s been allowed to teach you about these things without having to worry about breaking the law. Safer than what? Well, a hell of a lot safer than being one of the many uncertain teenage girls who decides to try having sex, but thinks that they can’t get pregnant on their first time, or that a shaken-up can of coke can wash away sperm. You know, the kind of misconceptions that arise when you deliberately don’t teach people anything.

Another highlight of this gathering was the moment while Nikki was talking about her own decision to save herself till marriage, when two guys in the audience nudged each other, nodded towards her, shared a look, and grinned. Now, maybe I misinterpreted this gesture – maybe it was taken out of context by the makers of the documentary with precisely this misinterpretation in mind – but it highlights the flaws in the idea that everyone signing up to this chastity lark is a pure and special snowflake and will remain thus until happily ever after.

In the history of fucking, I’m willing to bet that more vows of chastity have been broken than condoms. Obviously the most effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and infection is not to have any sexual contact at all, but nobody’s arguing that we shouldn’t tell people that. The apparent controversy is over whether teachers should clam up before getting any further with the purported sex education than “Don’t have sex”, or whether the availability and effectiveness of some of the alternatives might also be worth mentioning. There are safe alternatives out there, and it’s not unthinkable that even that epitome of irresponsible recklessness, “the adolescent”, might be able to go about things in an intelligent and informed way – finding out about their partner’s sexual history, getting themselves tested – if, that is, anyone’s legally allowed to inform them.

There were definitely some abstinence advocates capable of intelligent thought, but many really didn’t have any good reasons for what they believed. Don’t get me wrong, nobody owes me a damn word of an explanation for what they want to do with their own lives and bodies. Personally, I don’t consider adultery to apply retroactively, but if you want to view any pre-marital sex as cheating on your future spouse, as some of these people did, then you go ahead and remain faithful to someone you haven’t met yet. My hackles only rise (and you know I hate when you people do that to my hackles) when you start telling other people that what they’re doing is wrong. So, to all you people trying to suppress the distribution of information in schools, here’s why what you’re doing is wrong.

– Don’t compare a detailed sex education, which includes instruction in the use of contraception, to a lesson in how to safely shoot up on heroin. Personally, I think the latter could also be a damn good idea, but leaving that aside for now, a potentially beautiful expression of love can’t be so easily equated to the potentially lethal consumption of illegal narcotics.

– Don’t claim that America is facing an AIDS epidemic comparable to the kind of thing that terrorists might hope to achieve by launching a particularly virulent disease into the general public. If the most devastating biological warfare our enemies can wage on us is something we need to insert body parts into each other to spread, and which can be made 98% less contagious by the application of a small, cheap, and easily-acquired piece of plastic, then I think there are more pressing concerns in protecting the integrity of western civilisation. C’mon, smallpox might be tricky to get hold of, but even the ‘flu can be passed on by just sneezing in someone’s general direction.

– Don’t give me Biblical lectures on purity and expect this to have an impact on the running of state-sponsored education. He’s your god, they’re your rules, you live by ‘em. And honestly, who on the planet has spent a single pure day in their lives, going by what that book says? Though I wouldn’t put it past some fundies to genuinely make sure that they always bathe themselves and make the appropriate burnt offerings after every time they touch the skin of a pig, or sit in a chair previously occupied by a woman who “have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood”. Yes, apparently that’s the actual Biblical term for menstruation.

– Don’t tell me, “Anything you cover up, you cover up for a reason.” Yes, the reason is unhealthy and outdated sexual repression.

The abstinence-only crowd fail to acknowledge the vital, simple, and universal truth that kids don’t bloody listen. No, really. Have you met any teenagers lately? They’re always causing absolute mayhem, the way they insist on acting and thinking independently, making their own decisions without slavishly adhering to every joyless command their buzzkill elders hand down. It’s a nightmare. But also, surprisingly often, they’re not idiots. Anyone who actually understands what can result from careless sex, and how to prevent it, isn’t going to keep doing it – or if they are, chances are they’re not going to be the kind of person who’d go a bundle for total abstinence either.

They’re also quite capable of doing their own research, and if they don’t have somebody more informed around, to help them sift the useful information from the fiction, then they’re potentially screwed, and not in a good way. Condoms are hardly a national secret, and teenagers are going to find out about them, however much you try and hide away this terrible secret. But their proper usage and true rates of effectiveness are the kind of info that might pass a casual user by.

A lot of this is illustrated in the other programme that got me ranting on this theme. More recently, Davina McCall, ubiquitous television personality and host of that great moral bastion of purity and virtue, the game show Big Brother, embarked on a campaign for more and better sex education in Britain’s schools. Apparently it was a fairly brief campaign, not lasting noticeably longer than the hour-long documentary on Channel 4 last year detailing her adventures. She’s said she hopes to do for sex education what Jamie Oliver, popular TV chef and mockney restaurateur type, has done for school dinners.

Now, Jamie Oliver still has a lingering reputation, from his early, Naked Chef days, as an annoying, slack-tongued halfwit – you may recall that series of film posters which were photoshopped to refer to him as a cunt in a variety of amusing ways. However, he has actually managed to change a few things over the course of his own crusade, and I’m not sure Davina is quite going to have his credibility or gravitas. (I might hesitate to use words like “credibility” and “gravitas” to describe Jamie Oliver, if I had any credibility of my own to worry about, but fortunately I am not so hampered.) And, indeed, nobody seems to have paid her any attention since then, despite the importance of her cause.

A class of 16-year-olds and their headmaster were participating in the programme. They came from some secondary school which currently doesn’t have a great deal of sex education, beyond the standard hour on reproduction in biology lessons, but the head would like to introduce a much more detailed, consistent syllabus. The show started out by giving a written, multiple-choice exam to the kids, their parents, the school’s teachers, and Davina, in which some qualified sexpert declared that everyone really ought to score at least 80%, if they’re not woefully uninformed about all things carnal.

I’m not sure there was a single person in the room who scored that high, and the kids averaged somewhere in the 30s. I knew most of the example questions we were given, but I was flummoxed by whatever it was they wanted to know about the Fallopian tubes, and if questioned further on the details of all the mechanical jiggery-pokery (pardon the technical jargon) my ignorance would no doubt be swiftly proven. To the shock and amazement of nobody, it seems that sex is a subject on which many people in this country, children in particular, are deeply ignorant.

Davina then went with this class to the Netherlands to sit in on some lessons there, and talk to some of the local teachers, parents, and students about their thoughts on sex education, in a country with teen pregnancy and STD rates less than 25% of our own. They sat in on a class of (I think) 12-year-olds, and were almost universally shocked and appalled by the graphic nature of the videos they were being shown. It was a fairly simplistic animation, but it depicted two little cartoon people having penetrative sex, and the British teenagers were generally agreed that kids this young should not be exposed to this kind of thing.

But, to broach the obvious but often unspoken question, why the fuck not? At their age, most kids are charging rapidly toward learning plenty about sex anyway, if not from practical experience, then certainly from far less academic study than they’d get in a classroom, be it in playground rumours, stories from older siblings, or the good ol’ interwebs. Every time a kid takes a bath, the discovery of one set of genitalia right there in front of them is going to be hard to avoid; after a decade of this, does anyone really think they’re not going to start asking a few innocently curious questions about it, and listening to whatever answers they’re given by anyone who doesn’t just tell them they’ll understand when they’re older?

What the Dutch seem to have figured out is that if you establish a subject in kids’ minds as something which can be talked about, learned about, and discussed maturely and reasonably, before it becomes relevant to their lives, then you save yourself a whole lot of hassle trying to straighten them out once the damage has already been done. This might be even truer for the social side of sex than for the purely biological discussion.

We also saw a class of six-year-olds, discussing with their teacher things like different types of love, the very basics of how people make new people, and even introducing concepts like homosexuality. There was a fair bit of giggling going on, because it’s a classroom full of six-year-olds, but they were learning things, things that they’ll remember and understand later on in life, and they were managing it without visibly being disgusted, or offended, or having their purity and innocence twisted and destroyed.

The parents who wrote to complain to this headmaster about his plans (a very small minority, encouragingly, but still quite capable of kicking up a major fuss) blathered predominantly on the theme of “destroying our children’s innocence”, but I think I’ve hit upon the fundamental misunderstanding here. People are confusing the concepts of innocence and ignorance.

What’s happening to these Dutch kids is called education, which is about making people more knowledgeable, and less ignorant. But while they’re learning about sex, their innocence remains unaffected; they sit around the classroom, idly chewing crayons and being told that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, then scamper off as soon as the bell rings to run around, climb trees, trade Pokémon cards, or whatever the hell six-year-olds do for fun these days. They’re no less innocent for the lesson they’ve just had, because their world is still just as much about having childish fun as it was yesterday. 13-year-olds in Britain, on the other hand, are throwing their innocence aside at alarming rates and with little care, in no small part because their ignorance about sex tends to remain more or less intact throughout their education.

I am firmly convinced that devoting much more time to an intelligent, mature, regular timetable of sex education is absolutely the right thing to do, and would accomplish much in nurturing a better-informed, healthier, and generally less screwed-up society. The problem, of course, as is often the case, is that you can’t get there from here. If the system were to be suddenly overhauled, and hordes of parents had to start having awkward and embarrassing conversations about what their precious darlings had learnt in school today, the ensuing outcry might just bring the country to a standstill.

I’m less convinced that we’re quite ready for such a dangerously liberal policy being applied universally, all at once; some of us are still struggling with the idea of women wearing long trousers and children being kept out of chimneys and coal mines. But surely we can do better than this. We’re being pwned by the Dutch, for fuck’s sake.

(I’ve got no beef with the Dutch really. That’s just the way the rhetoric seemed to be going.)

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