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Archive for March 2003


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Guess I’m not the only Tom Lehrer fan out there – here’s a Flash animated version of one of his songs: The Elements.


Written by brian t

March 31, 2003 at 8:48 pm

Posted in humour, music


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I feel shitty, oh so shitty,
I feel shitty and gritty and pained…

(with apologies to Lerner and Loewe)

It was the first time I’d been to this particular pub, to see off a departing colleague, and a nice place it was too. It even had the Erdinger wheat beer I like a bit, the company was great, but the smokers were out in full force. This must be what they call “smoking craic”, eh? I got out of there at about 2am and woke up at 11am with the kind of hangover only I seem to get. Nearly everyone there drank much more than I did, and do this far more often than I do, but they obviously don’t feel like this, or else they’d be as wary of pubs as I am. This is why I don’t go more often, and don’t drink much while there.

On top of coffee and ibuprofen, I have recently found a sure remedy for a hangover: a healthy dose of Tom Lehrer. Tom started writing and performing while a student at Harvard, and recorded and released the albums Songs by Tom Lehrer and More Songs by Tom Lehrer, which gathered a cult following in the 50’s. Since then he worked as a college maths teacher, being occasionally tempted back to stage or studio, on one occasion writing songs for the topical TV series That Was The Week That Was.

I was introduced to his songs in around 1980, when they were compiled into the Tomfoolery revue which even reached as far as South Africa then. I didn’t think about in any more until one of my work colleagues lent me Songs and More Songs by Tom Lehrer, a recent CD compilation.

About the songs… imagine misanthropic parodies of music hall styles with heavy doses of black humour and schadenfreude. He had a theory about folk music, saying “the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by ‘the people'”, and went on to show how Clementine might have turned out if written by Cole Porter, Mozart, the “cool jazz school”, or Gilbert and Sullivan. “One can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale, full of words and music and signifying… nothing.”

The song I remembered most from Tomfoolery was Poisoning Pigeons in the Park:

So, if Sunday you’re free, why don’t you come with me,
And we’ll poison the pigeons in the park;
And maybe we’ll do in a squirrel or two,
While we’re poisoning pigeons in the park;
We’ll murder them all, admit laughter and merriment;
Except for the few we take home to experiment..!

Another cult favourite is We Will All Go Together When We Go:

No more ashes, no more sackcloth;
And an armband made of black cloth
Will someday never more adorn a sleeve;
For if the Bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbours too,
There’ll be nobody left behind to grieve.

Tomfoolery even included some of Lehrer’s more controversial material, such as I Wanna Go Back To Dixie:

I wanna go back to Dixie, I wanna be a Dixie Pixie,
And eat cornpone till it’s coming out of my ears;
I wanna talk with southern gentlemen, and put my white sheet on again,
I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years…

Then there’s I Got It From Agnes, which Lehrer himself was a bit wary of performing – after all, who else was writing cute ditties about VD in the 50’s? It still made it into Tomfoolery, though I don’t remember it – it must have been beneath my 12-year-old radar:

Max got it from Edith,
Who gets it every Spring;
She got it from her daddy,
Who just gives her everything.
She then gave it Daniel,
Whose spaniel has it now,
Our dentist even got it
And we’re still… wondering how.

Ah, but I got it from Agnes, or maybe it was Sue?
Or Milly or Billy or Jilly or Willy, it doesn’t matter who.
It might have been at the pub or at the club or in the loo,
And if you will be my friend, then I might –
Mind you, I said might
Give it to you!

Written by brian t

March 29, 2003 at 12:45 pm

Posted in humour, music, work

a bird in the hand

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Got my paycheck today with a nice surprise, the “performance-related” bonus that’s been talked about for a while. I think I know what I might spend it on, too: a new PDA.

I’ve had my old HP Jornada 545 for two years now, a bargain since I bought it factory-refurbished from Morgan Computers in London. My digital camera (Nikon Coolpix 880) was a similar bargain, from the same place, I suspect it was sent back because it has one (1) dead pixel in the LCD, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the picture quality.

I bought the Jornada 545 before the HP / Compaq merger was announced, but was still the butt of a few jokes later. “Trying to get in with the new bosses, eh?” It’s tough, and has survived some nasty knocks that would mean the end of an iPaq, but the problem I have with it is its size. Its screen is tiny, and it has no keyboard. The next step up is the Jornada 720 family, but they’re still horrifically expensive, even though their specifications are now outdated.

That’s been it, till now, but my interest has been raised by the new Samsung Nexio S160, which is looking like the very thing I’m after. It may be slightly too large, I’ll need to make a few measurements, but the screen is that much bigger. The keyboard is optional, they say, but I’d definitely want that. Excellent for commuting, since you can get some real work done, especially if a wireless internet connection is available. (On a train? That’s exactly what Amtrak are doing in the USA.)

By the time it gets to Europe, though, I wonder what the price will be like? The news is never good on that count.

Written by brian t

March 25, 2003 at 4:40 pm

Posted in economics, technology, work

morris prancing

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I have recently seen news reports about the proceedings of the Morris Tribunal. The Tribunals are Ireland’s version of public legal enquiries. Never mind that the fact that this “tribunal” has only one presiding member, Justice Fred Morris – this is Ireland, after all, such considerations are academic. The “terms of reference” page on that website has the fundamental details of why it was started. It appears to involve the Garda (police) in Donegal, some of whom may have been faking bomb hoaxes, planting fake bombs and bomb materials, then finding them and taking the glory. There have also been threatening phone calls and an arson attack, just to complicate matters, and more juicy details can be found if you search Google.

I thought no more about it until I saw a sign in our office complex for the Tribunal; it’s being held in the office literally next door to ours. What are the chances of bomb hoaxes or worse as a result of this? If this site doesn’t get an update for a week or more without warning, it may mean that someone has trucked in a few barrels of fertilizer mixed with fuel oil, and had a little impromptu fireworks party. Going out with a bang, as it were.

Written by brian t

March 23, 2003 at 5:35 pm

Posted in ireland, politics

it’s all about power

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Back in 2003, the war in Iraq continues apace, with the added complication of the Kurdish Army trying to carve out a new Kurdistan in the north of Iraq. Turkey is very concerned by this, knowing that a large chunk of eastern Turkey is also part of the Kurdish territorial claim. As before, more Allied soldiers have been killed so far in crashes and other incidents than by the enemy. Last night a disgruntled US Army sergeant used grenades on his commanding officers, after he had been reprimanded and told that he “might not get to see any action”. Maybe he has now, but that’s as far as he’s going in the army.

I’m surprised that I haven’t heard any commentary discussing the similarities between modern Iraq and ancient Babylon. The ruins of the city of Babylon are just 80km south of Baghdad, and the Kingdom of Babylon covered all of modern Iraq and large chunks of Iran. The history of the region is one of near-constant warfare, with only the early Islamic era as a respite after their initial expansion from Mecca across the region, before Islam was factionalized and it all went downhill again.

The 1980-90 Iran-Iraq war, on the other hand, is a more useful guide. It illustrates what Saddam Hussein was capable of before the USA was involved. He invaded Iran in search of oil and out of concern about the ambitions of the new hard-line Islamic regime in Iran – so much for his claims that he’s a defender of Islam. His war included the use of chemical weapons against Iranians and against his own civilians.

So, what is my position on this war? I’m not sure that I have one. I’m not in possession of all the facts, pro and con, and have little patience with people who are so sure they know what’s right based on what they read in the media. I’m left juggling multiple sources of information, some of which may be biased or revisionist. My previous paragraph on the Iran-Iraq war, for example, was informed by encyclopaedias, new and old media reports, and a “what is more likely” analysis of the current situation.

I don’t put much stock in the protests that this is about oil: the USA has its own oil, and access to more, closer to home. If oil was really the issue, they would invade Venezuela first. What I do expect to see, however, is immense relief on many sides once this particular itch has been scratched, heartless as that may sound. The world’s stock markets are already creeping up in anticipation. It remains to be seen whether a clear-cut result will come from all this, though – the same was said twelve years ago.

  • Why is the USA doing this? Because it can, it has the power. It sees a threat, and is trying to neutralize it.
  • Why is the USA the most powerful nation on the planet? Because it has enormous wealth. Some of that wealth has been channelled into weapons production, without the need for outside approval.
  • Why does it have enormous wealth? Because capitalism, like it or not, is best at generating real wealth. People like making and spending money, and capitalism is what happens in the absence of a planned economy (and sometimes beneath a planned economy).

Unlike a dictatorship, however, the USA is vulnerable to worldwide public opinion. It is going to pay an economic price for its actions, and it is all too aware that the magnitude of that price will depend on its actions and how it justifies them. Hence the emphasis on minimizing casualties on both sides, and the talk of relief efforts for the region. Iraq has enough oil of its own to sell at a fair price, once trade relations are restored.

I didn’t get much chance to read Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor site last week, but I was shocked to see he’d published a letter written by an American that basically advocated the destruction of Islam and all Muslims, mixed in with more sensible remarks. Jerry didn’t comment further – I think he’s waiting for others to rebut this correspondent – and I’ll see what happens tomorrow. As if Islam would go away if attacked directly? I admit to concern about religions that advocate literal application of teachings that include the killing of non-believers, but Islam is not alone in holding such views – just ask the Crusaders.

This is not Truth; it’s not even exhaustive analysis, but it doesn’t need to be for my purposes (this Blog). Getting it wrong has no serious consequences. If it did, it would take much more research time before I could say or type a single word, assuming I had the luxury of time.

Written by brian t

March 23, 2003 at 3:30 pm

Posted in america, history, politics

watch out

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I’ve just finished Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, and it’s going to take some time to digest fully. It’s a whole level up from his earlier works, with everything about it improved. The character of Sam Vimes has now featured in several of his Discworld books, and seems to be serving the same purpose as Jack Ryan does for Tom Clancy – an ordinary man placed in extraordinary situations. In this case, he is accidentally sent back in time thirty years while battling a cunning murderer named Carcer, to a time when Ankh-Morpork was on the verge of rebellion against the current Patrician’s draconian policies. The presence of the two invaders from the future complicates matters, as you can imagine, and their knowledge of the events to come places them at the centre of affairs. Not that it helps them that much, since their presence changes the history they thought they knew.

If Night Watch is more “conventional” than Pratchett’s other novels, it’s also more rewarding, illuminating the history of Ankh-Morpork and its City Guard during those days of civil unrest. The city of Ankh-Morpork is also a character in its own right, imposing its own manners and logic on the others. The cavalry, brought in to quell the rebellion, find this out the hard way and play little real part:

“You know what they call a horse in the Shades?” “Yeah, sarge. Lunch.”

The “rebellion” behind all the trouble is led by one Reg Shoe, a cobbler who thinks too much, egged on by a motley bunch of middle class dimwits. Their attempts to formulate their revolutionary demands run up against the pragmatic Vimes:

Reg had a hunted look. He made a dive for safety. “Well, at least we can agree on Truth, Freedom and Justice, yes?”

There was a chorus of nods. Everyone wanted those. They didn’t cost anything.

A match flared in the dark, and they turned to see Vimes light a cigar.

“You’d like Freedom, Truth and Justice, wouldn’t you, comrade sergeant?” said Reg encouragingly.

“I’d like a hard-boiled egg,” said Vimes, shaking the match out.

There was nervous laughter, but Reg looked offended.

“In the circumstances, sergeant, I think we should set our sights a little higher–”

“Well, yes, we could,” said Vimes, coming down the steps. He glanced at the sheets of paper in front of Reg. The man cared. He really did. And he was serious. He really was. “But… well, Reg, tomorrow the sun will come up again, and I’m pretty sure that whatever happens we won’t have found Freedom, and there won’t be a whole lot of Justice, and I’m damn sure we won’t have found Truth. But it’s just possible that I might get a hard-boiled egg. What’s all this about, Reg?”

“The People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road!” said Reg proudly. “We are forming a government!”

“Oh, good,” said Vimes. “Another one. Just what we need.”

We also learn more about Havelock Vetinari, who later became Patrician (like a Mayor with weapons), but who was a young Assassin at the time of the rebellion. At the end, in the graveyard on the anniversary of the rebellion thirty years earlier, Vetinari as Patrician thoughtlessly proposes a monument to the members of the Night Watch who died then, but Vimes will not hear of it:

No. How dare you? How dare you! At this time! In this place! They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it, and you can’t give them anything. They fought for those who’d been abandoned, they fought for one another, and they were betrayed. Men like them always are. What good would a statue be? It’d just inspire new fools to believe they’re going to be heroes. They wouldn’t want that. Just let them be. For ever.”

Food for thought, in the light of current events.

Written by brian t

March 23, 2003 at 12:12 pm

Posted in books, humour, philosophy

monday morning blues

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The month of March is inevitably going to remind me of my mother. Her birthday was on 9 March, and she died on 23 March 1981, 22 years ago today, around 11am. It was a Monday morning, a normal school day for me, and I had just started travelling to the Dundee High School in Natal, South Africa by bus, after attending the local Dannhauser Primary school for six years. (The school year in South Africa matches the calendar year, because summer in the southern hemisphere runs from Nov – Feb.)

My sister and I never knew how ill my mother was, or had a chance to prepare for her death – that information was kept from us. We knew she had cancer of the larynx, but not that it had metastasised and was terminal. My sister never forgave me for not immediately bursting into tears when we were given the news after being picked up from the bus stop by a friend of the family. That’s not my way, and it didn’t signify anything.

Since my mother, Caroline, died before I turned 13, I have to admit that I never really knew her. My main memories of her naturally include smoking, but I also remember how tall she was, how she had to be coaxed on to the stage to sing in a cabaret revue, and then stole the show. I didn’t share her Catholic beliefs, though, and stopped going to church as soon as I politely could, after she died.

Compared to the tragedies endured by others, I know that I’ve had it easy. I can’t claim to have been deprived of anything, since things could have been much worse, more likely worse than better. Still..?

Written by brian t

March 23, 2003 at 11:19 am

Posted in history, south africa