Friday, 29 October 2010

Whose Body Is It, Anyway?

This is not a review of the Stiff. Apart from a hearty recommendation, that is. Do read it. It is very good indeed. In fact it was such a good read that it set me thinking - which is an unmistakable sign of a good book, by the way. I also learned something. Well, actually, I learned a lot. I can't say I was too well versed into stuff that happens to people once they're already dead. Best of all, it made me change my mind (to an extent, at least). And if you know me, you must realise how difficult that is. Let me then tell you what's it all about...

First, have you ever thought about what would you like to happen to you once you're dead? In answering this question, did you spot the first fallacy? Did you ever give any thought to the fact that once you're dead, there is no more "you" to speak of. There is now just a body - a lump of meat and bone, really - and, if you're deluded religious, maybe a "soul" or whatever is headed for heaven, hell, or whatever fate your particular flavour of delusion religion "teaches" you. For my purposes, I will disregard the latter option, and that will lead me back to the title of this post. let me present it to you in it's expanded, full form:
There being no "you" any more, who does the body that is left behind belong to now?
I am not going to go into (or anywhere near) any legal implications of the above, but I will confidently state that it most certainly does not belong to you. There being no "you" any more, that should be perfectly clear and indisputable. And now we can go back to another question I already asked. I will again rephrase is slightly for your convenience:
Have you ever thought of mandating what happens to your body after you die?
Where I'm really aiming at with this is, if you have thought of dictating the fate of your dead body, maybe you should think again. One reason is that, as we've seen above, that body is not really - or rather not at all - yours any more. Not being yours, what right you have to make any demands on it? Remember, by the time the question of what happens to the body comes up there is no "you" to have any stake in it.

This is where I have come to agree with Mary Roach: in all reality, your dead body belongs to your surviving nearest and dearest. It is they who have to continue living with both your death, and memories of your life. It would only be sensible, not to mention sensitive to their needs, to let them deal with your death - and your dead body - in any way that will make their lives easier. It is, for all intents and purposes, their body - the one that you left behind.

Does this mean that you should not make any wishes be known for the fate of your remains? Not at all! Do let your nearest and dearest know of all your ideas and plans, but with one big caveat attached: make it clear that they need not follow your wishes if, when the time comes, they do not feel comfortable doing so. And you need to make that caveat amply clear, too, not just let it be assumed. Otherwise, especially if your nearest and dearest have religious delusions ideas of an afterlife, they may be bullied by your all-seeing "soul" into something they wouldn't otherwise do.

So, by all means become and organ donor, or bequeath your body to science, but let the living make the final call. Who knows, they may even love you (or rather the memory of you) so much that they will honour your wishes even if they themselves do not necessarily agree with them. It won't matter to you either way.

Oh! I guess you also wanted to know what my position on the matter was before reading Stiff. I've no problem telling you that I had ideas of detailing everything that should (and should not, for that matter) happen to "my" dead body, no ifs and no buts. I also have no problem telling you that I still plan to do it, but now with the added caveat I have just explained above.

But will I tell you what that plan may entail? Sorry, but no. Or maybe, yes, but not here.

I know it is well nigh impossible to imagine the not-being, but that is not the proof of there being an afterlife. It is probably more a proof of the efficiency of evolution: there is no evolutionary benefit in being able to think of oneself - or rather, non-existence of oneself - after one has died. Being able to do so will not enhance your chances of leaving viable offspring one iota. In fact, being a brainy nerd who can, and does, probably means you have much less chance of getting any sex at all, let alone the sort that has a chance to lead to offspring. If you don't believe me, just go to a singles' bar and try to strike a conversation along these lines...

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Hear, Hear: The Adventure Of English

I have a confession to make: The Adventure of English shouldn't really be figuring in My Reading List. The reason? I haven't actually read it as such. You may now ask, and rightly so, how could I have then rated it (and so highly) - not to mention this attempt at a review? The fact is, I have actually listened to it. And what a wonderful experience it was, too!

As you may, or may not, remember this is not the first audio book I "read", and also not the first I am reviewing. And while I enjoyed the experience of The Grand Design (even if I found faults with it), I would dare say that The Adventure of English is best enjoyed as an audio book, with just reading it off the paper coming only a distant second.

Dealing with the history and development of English language, it is - quite naturally - full of quotations from various versions of English, but also other tributary languages. Now, you may be an expert in all the tongues, ancient and modern, but I am not. And it has nothing to do with being a native speaker of English (or not, as the case may be). So, pretty much anyone reading the book off the paper will be denied the sound of a lot of the quotes. The language being, first and foremost, a spoken affair this is indeed a great loss, and at times will certainly hinder full enjoyment, maybe even understanding, of the book.

Not to be misunderstood, the book will certainly be a joy to just read. It really does justice to the title, portraying the history and development of the English language as a true and proper adventure. At times it reads more like a dramatised history novel than a treatise on language. It certainly makes the history and development of English language sound exciting, interesting, and important.

All this is not to say that other languages' histories are any less interesting or important. Of course they are, each in its own way. And that surely applies also to the languages where attempts have, and are still being made, to prescribe and restrain them (notable examples being French and German). All of them certainly deserve their own history books. If such books do exist, and are only half as good as The Adventure of English they will have been very well served indeed.. If not, prospective authors could certainly do worse than look to The Adventure of English for guidance and inspiration.

By now you must have noticed a conspicuous lack of detail about what exactly can be found inside this book, and may be wondering at the sort of review this is. Well, for one, I never said this was a review (or if I did I didn't really mean it). Consider this just a pointer towards a book very well written, hugely interesting (if languages are your thing, and probably even if they aren't), and well worth a read. Or rather, much better enjoyed being read out by a good voice actor. This may be one of those rare cases where spending a lot more - both money and time (it is a good 12 hours worth of listening) - on an audio book does make sense.

Oh, and one thing that wouldn't make sense at all: reading a translation...

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Introducing: My Reading List

By popular demand (yeah, right!), I have decided to tell the world+dog about my reading habits.

Sort of.

While I may still treat you, my faithful readers (all two or three of you), to an odd book review (or three), this is not an announcement of that particular type of post becoming in any way regular. Instead, I am taking a shortcut and at the same time inviting you to find out more about what I read - yourselves!

As of today, this page will be regularly updated with information about books (and booklets) I have read. To help you along a little bit, I am including links to a good bookseller, sometimes a link to an author's web presence, my rating of the title in question (out of 10), and last but not least, a (potential) link to a post of mine that reviews - or at least talks at reasonable length - about the book in question.

As the page itself mentions, the list is presented in reverse chronological order, the top titles being the ones I read most recently (and some I am in the process of reading). I've cast my mind's eye as far back in the past as I could while being able to vouch for any accuracy. Sadly, this means that the list stretches back barely more than six months. It may also be missing a few titles between three and six months "old". One thing I can guarantee, however, is that as of October 2010 the list will be kept up to date.

So, there you have it then. Food for (my) thought(s) laid bare for all to see - and share...

Please come in, and help yourselves...

Monday, 18 October 2010

X Factor (And Becks) Beat God Any Day

As promised, here's a re-post from an unusually long, and not so unusually not news related post on my other blog, NEWT'd. Also as promised, I've changed the title to something more appropriate and apt. And I've added the mandatory pic at the top (yes, it is a shameless plug)...

I am half way through a rather charming The Fry Chronicles, a sort of a sequel to an even more charming Moab Is My Washpot, both by that superbly charming Stephen Fry (and no, I am not gay).

So, you may (rightly) ask, what does that have to do with religion? After all, Stephen is not known for his religiosity - to put it ever so mildly. How could a very gay, very much Jewish of origin English public school and Cambridge educated man, steeped very deeply indeed into the Christian tradition be in any way connected to religion? Unless it is to renounce it, of course. And, make no mistake, renounce it he does. What I wanted to share here is a view of a particular religious nonsense that something I read in The Fry Chronicles made me realise we share. Indeed, after the first sentence (the one with Aaron in it) I already started composing a little post to elaborate on it in my own words. But as you do, I kept reading. And having kept reading I found Stephen expanding on it, and so much better than I ever could. Therefore, I decided not to bother, and hoping it falls within fair use rights, treat you to the whole thing, straight from the book. Verbatim, as it were. So, with greatest of thanks to Stephen, and apologies if I'm trampling on his intellectual property rights, here goes:
In the story of the Ten Commandments I was always on the side of Aaron. I liked his golden calf. Biblical colour plates for children showed it garlanded with flowers, revelling idolaters dancing happily around it, clashing cymbals and embracing each other with wild, abandoned joy. The music and the hugs were clinching proof (especially the cymbals) in the minds of Victorian illustrators that Aaron's followers were debauched, degenerate, decadent and doomed to eternal damnation. With the party in full swing, Moses returns with those fatuous tablets tucked under his arm, dashes them petulantly to the ground, melts the golden calf and grinds it to powder, which he mixes into a drink that he forces all the Israelites to swallow. Next, being such a holy man of God, he slays 3,000 men before hauling his vengeful arse back up Mount Sinai to get a second batch of commandments. I think we can celebrate the fact that we now live in a culture, flawed or not, that instantly sees that, while Aaron may be a weak voluptuary, his brother is dangerous fanatic. The gilt bull beats the guilty bullshit any way you choose to look at it. We humans are naturally disposed to worship gods and heroes, to build our pantheons and valhallas. I would rather see that impulse directed into the adoration of daft singers, thicko footballers and air-headed screen actors than into the veneration of dogmatic zealots, fanatical preachers, militant politicians and rabid cultural commentators.
You'll find this at position 3959 in the Kindle edition of the book.
So, there you have it. Oh, and I almost titled this post: X Factor Beats God Hands Down...

Apologies for a long post. I will consider moving/copying it to Grey Noughts. With the proper title, too. Heck, I'll do it NOW. I'll just make sure you see it here first.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

A Right Ti(m)e To Die

Is there a right time (or a way) to die?

We always read about "devastating sudden deaths", but also of equally devastating deaths after a "long illness". Then there are those horrible people who die too young - where "too young", on a case by case basis, tends to take any value you care to think of between 1 and 71 years old. And, of course, nobody's jumping for joy even when a centenarian keels over. Well, in any case not always...

Is there a way to die then, and avoid, if not grief of family and friends, then any of the above (and worse) exultations? After all, to die is as natural a thing as to live or be born. That's what life's all about: living, but dying, too. If it wasn't, can you just imagine having every single one of your ancestors come to your 10,000th birthday party - up (or down) to and including the very first "replicator" that gave rise to a gene, that gave rise to... I can, and while I admit it'd be quite fun for the fist, oh, let's say 119 birthdays, I'm sure it's very quickly grow old and boring. I certainly wouldn't know what to do with all those socks and sweaters!

So, we shall agree (or at least I will) that there's nothing really wrong with dying. In the wise words (well, a shout, a scream even, if you will) of a Nate from Six Feet Under: "Everybody dies! Everybody!" (if I haven't read too much Pratchett for my own good, I'd have adorned the quote with much more exclamation marks). And they do. Trust me. Whatever some sillytraditional (and otherwise) religions may tell you.

Do I mean to say that there are deaths that need not be mourned? Of course not! To mourn someone's death is only natural. There is nothing wrong with mourning. My beef here is with those - usually outsiders to the death in question - that feel the need to grade it, as it were. I am sure that families and friends concerned couldn't care less about such "grading". They're certainly too busy feeling their loss, and in a very private way that really does not concern outsiders.

So, in the final analysis, is there a right time (or a way) to die? Of course not! But in the same breath, any time is as good as any other. It is slightly different with a way, though. For the one actually dying, surely any way will not be the same as any other. Also for those who genuinely (by which I mean closely) cared for them - friends, family, and suchlike. In this particular area this may even spill over into all well-meaning (or even ill-meaning, in their own evil way) bystanders.

But again, I have to come back to what transpires to be the crux of my argument: however and whenever one dies, it is to be hoped that outsiders, bystanders, and others who come to feed on the news, should really refrain from trying to pass judgement on whether it was too early, too difficult, or whatever "grade" they want to award it. This judgement is not theirs to pass. It may not even be the surviving family's and friend's. Really, the only person who know, or could know if they weren't dead already, is the deceased. But as already mentioned, they're dead. They are no more (to paraphrase the iconic, no historic Dead Parrot Sketch). So they can't actually pass any judgement. Even if they wanted to.
A side note to believers into "life after death"

I will indulge your delusion here for a moment to demonstrate that even if true (which would be extremely ridiculous, but anyway...) my conclusion above stands - at least as far as the inability, or in your case inapplicability, of the deceased passing judgement on the quality and timing of their own death.

Let's assume the typical Heaven & Hell scenario...

Option 1: The deceased was deserving of Heaven. They die and are transported to a place of eternal bliss, happiness, virgins, or whatever rocks the particular religion's boat. Once they realise where they are, someone comes up to them and wants to inquire about  the manner and timing of their death, or rather, the quality of each. What is the most likely reply to this query going to be? If you ask me, any person deserving of Heaven hopefully has enough wits about them to reply: "Does it really matter? I'm in Heaven, for Heaven's sake!".

Option 2: The deceased was a right bastard - or at least offending their unknowable deity of choice (or their parent's choice more likely - it's worrying how little say people have in these matters). So, after dying in whichever manner and at whichever hour they find themselves a) cooking in a cauldron of oil, b) freezing to death, c) surrounded by virgins (there's no accounting for tastes), d) whatever. For one, do you really think there'd be someone down (or up) there who cared in any way about how the new arrival got there? And even if there were, do you think that said new arrival would care to compare the potential agony of death to a certain eternal agony of, well, death? In any Hell worthy of its name it is to be assumed that anything that went on before you got there was infinitely better, almost by definition. Otherwise, some would find it a Heaven - and most deities would not allow that. How else would they be able to maintain their street cred?

Option 3: For those who believe there is also a purgatory I'm afraid there's no hope, so I won't even try to entertain them with more than this sentence - at least it's longish...
So, yes. Even the Bible thumpers seem to deserve to be left alone in death. At least for them it just might be an actual place, with actual things to do (however unpleasant). For us others, who fully expect to just cease to be, well, let our families and friends retain their dignity in mourning by not imposing on them the "degrees" to which it should go.


Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Repost: You're Too Old For That!

I thought this was worth re-posting...

Regardless of how old you are you must have heard it, too. Almost as soon as we can walk and talk we start hearing this horrible admonition:

"You are too old for that!"

And, in a few select cases, this may even be true. For example, you may really be too old to hope to be able to run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds, or a mile under 4 minutes (for some, under 30 minutes). You may even be too old to father (or bear) a child. Even if all the systems are still go, it may be unfair to orphan your own child too soon. After all, nobody lives forever...

Some other things we are being told not to do, because it "does not become your age", are, if I may put it very mildly, silly. Who is it decides you're too old for that t-shirt? That hat? You can look silly in either, or both, true, but that has nothing to do with age, does it? In most cases you'd have looked silly in them at any age anyway. Then, there's "acceptable" art forms to enjoy, and pastimes to indulge in. The list of examples is, well, endless. I'm sure I'm too old for this blog, too!

So, is there anything that should be done about this? There's no doubt something must!

My suggestion, and personal approach, is to just shrug it off without looking back. Do you enjoy shooting monsters while on the train even if you're well past forty? Go and buy that Sony PSP and knock yourself out (or better yet, some Nazis). Just make sure you use headphones or a SWAT team may board at the next stop! Did that t-shirt with a silly slogan, and even sillier colours catch your eye? Buy it, and wear it proudly, even if you're sixty (or even sixty-four)!

Finally, what to say to all those who keep telling you're too old?

Well, you can either just shrug them off, too, or tell them they're way too young to be so serious about things! And for their next birthday buy them something to make them cringe!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Lisbon: European Trinidad

I suspect that Portuguese (and other Lisbon-lovers) might just want to have my guts for garters after reading this post, but then I never said I was here to please anyone (apart from myself, of course)...

But wait, you may say, Trinidad (the one in Cuba) is quite high;y regarded as a tourist destination. And I will concur - happily. I've been there. Have you? Yes, it is a nice specimen of colonial architecture, and still harbours almost tangible ghosts of times past. Yet, it is a sad town to behold all the same.

The reason for this is - and if you've been you'd have to be blind not to have noticed - is that it is so horribly dilapidated that it almost made me physically sick. And Lisbon, well, it most certainly is not in anywhere near as ruinous state as Trinidad, but for a western European country it is most decidedly in a sad state of repair. Or rather, in quite a bad need of a lot of repairs. To be honest, a large part looks as if people fled with no plan of ever returning - whole buildings empty, crumbling, and boarded up. And I'm talking very close to city centre here (see photo on top, for one example, not five minutes walk from the high street).

There's a fair bit to be seen, for sure. There's history, architecture, art - the usual lot of an ex-colonial power capital. Unfortunately, most of what is there to see (and worth seeing) is marred by bad organisation - something that seems to be a very Portuguese thing. It's either unclear how to go about seeing something - and what actually is important to see once you do get inside, or there are massive queues for no good (or at least no apparent) reason whatsoever.

Oh, if you expected me to now list attractions and tell you what to see (or not) in Lisbon you've come to the wrong place. There are much better guides, both in content and style than I can ever attempt to create. Plus, I run a risk of putting you off too much, by being left cool by things that you may actually like.

Instead, I will give just a few dos and don'ts from my (admittedly short) Lisbon experience. I think they'll stand you in good stead, being quite practical. And because I expect you to be good, I may even throw in a place or two that you actually should go and see.

Now, without further ado, my dos and don'ts of Lisbon:

DO: Go to and see Lisbon. It is well worth a weekend. But not much more.
DON'T: Do it at the height of the tourist season. Queues for everything are only just bearable outside it.

DO: Take a taxi from the airport. The queue is horrendous, but it actually moves quickly. And it's cheap.
DON'T: Laugh at the way armed policeman direct who goes into which taxi.

DO: Get all your tourist information beforehand. Tourist information points either aren't or are hidden behind a massive queue.
DON'T: Buy a Lisbon Pass. The public transport is cheap as it is, and there are better museums elsewhere.

DO: Go see Castelo de Sao Jorge, Torre de Belem, and Jeronimos Monastery.
DON'T: Go see the latter two other than on a Sunday between 10am and 2pm when they're free.

DO: Go see Torre de Belem first thing, before the queue snakes for a mile.
DON'T: Try jumping the queue to the top. This is where the Portuguese get very, very mad.

DO: Go into the long tiled room in Jeronimos Monastery - and try the acoustics by raising your voice. Fabulous.
DON'T: Go into Jeronimos before the end of the mass when the queue beggars belief. But make sure you get in before 2pm when they start charging - it's not quite worth paying for.

DO: Have a look at the old lift in the centre of the city.
DON'T: Bother queueing to get up only to have a look and get down. Views are better from the Castelo de Sao Jorge, and the Se.

DO: Try proper home made Portuguese cuisine (even if it looks repulsive).
DON'T: Bother with the famous patisserie in Belem. The "famous" pastries are substandard.

So, it seems you have been a good audience, and I have rewarded you with a few sightseeing cues and clues. Well done. To finish off this little travelogue (hey! look! I didn't split the infinitive!) here's a final thing not to do:

DON'T: Visit Lisbon if there's any chance of rain stronger than a brief shower. Any strong rain (and we had more than our fair share) will make streets, shops, and even four star hotels flood. And the foru star hotel when flooded, everybody knows this, suffers from a power cut. For which it does not have either a emergency diesel generator, or a supply of safe lights for the guests. We had to settle for a handful of mood candles from the bar, kindly donated by the barlady. reception didn't have any, and in any case were too busy phoning the fire department (for whatever reason, one would thing that coast guard would have been more appropriate), and trying to shove all the water from the reception back into the street - with limited success (after failing miserably to stop it coming in in the first place by throwing a few snow white hotel towels in the floor). The inept hotel name? Jeronimos 8. It is an excellent hotel otherwise, but in an emergency - well, a bit of torrential downpour which can't be so much out of character for a city on the Atlantic ocean - totally useless. Polite, pleasant and attempting to be helpful, but still useless.

Do you still want to go see Lisbon?


But you'd be wrong! It is worth seeing.

Have a look at some of the photos here.

It's just that you should manage your expectations.

Very carefully.

Monday, 4 October 2010

(No) More Tea For Me, Please

Or: How blogging does not (always) lend itself to dead tree trilogies.

After slogging through Down Among The Dead Men, Amazon recommendations page threw up a real pearl (and trust me, it doesn't do so very often - even after being their customer for almost a decade). Understandable, really, as the pearl also deals with medical profession, only this time it is one tiny step removed from the mortuary. Maybe not so obvious from the title, Blood, Sweat, And Tea deals with day to day experiences of the London Ambulance Service paramedic.

The book came about after the success of the Random Acts Of Reality blog. It is an excellent, and gripping read, too. Unfortunately, it received much less publicity than Belle De Jour - but then, sex is always easier to shift than pain, sickness, and death. I also doubt that Blood, Sweat, And Tea will ever make it into a TV series (not that it was any good, mind you). Fortunately, it was (much) more than a fizzle in the pan Sex At Oxbridge decidedly was (and still is - I just had a look).

So far so good.

Not a lot of reading time later (did I mention it was a gripping read?) I was looking at the Amazon recommendations page again. And, lo and behold, there was a sequel sitting there. I actually didn't mind the unimaginative title of More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea. Quite a mouthful, and as I said not very creative, but it was definitely in character. And it is the character of the first instalment that I liked (alongside all the other good stuff there, of course).


A minute later, the book was on my Kindle. Half an hour later, and I started to hear a faint fizzle. Quickly checking the kitchen (Kindle in tow, of course) I realised nothing was cooking (I was home alone at the time, after all). Going back to a more comfortable reading spot I continued looking for more of the three fluids from the title. Unsurprisingly, all three were there alright. Sadly - and unfortunately, and on reflection, not unsurprisingly either - all three have gone off, ever so slightly. The blood clotted a long time ago (at a guess, a few months after the first book was published), the seat had a bit of a staleness to it (from overexertion and rinse-repeat of both the job, and the book), and tea was really cold and weak (the latter very likely due to the tea bag having been reused one time too many).

Now, don't get me wrong. The second instalment is almost as good a read as the first one - even if one can detect ever so slight a strain showing at the seams. This is most likely due to two factors. First, I believe the author also felt that the sequel does not necessarily bring anything radically new to the table, and has tried his best to spice it up. He did a rather good job of it, but the effort shows, and that makes it ever so slightly annoying. Second, there is a visible effort to make the text more book-like, rather than having a raw pace and feel of the original - which was very obviously just ever so slightly edited copy of the blog itself. Which was a good thing. The thing that made the read so lively, gripping, and ultimately powerful.

So, while I do believe that the author deserves the increased income from a book deal (even if the Kindle edition of both books are free), I also think it serves to show how various written forms - and possibly blogging in particular - do not necessarily, or easily, translate into each other. You can no more turn a book into a (successful) blog by posting a chapter every now and then - as you run out of book sooner or later, and a blog wants to be a perpetual publishing outlet, than you can (most of the time) turn a successful blog into a book - especially not a series of books. It is one thing popping round a blog every now and then to check what's new (or not, as the case may be), and quite another to pick up a book with the same content and feel compelled (as you do with books) to read it all in one sitting. And when the blog deals with a subject that is - by its very nature - rather repetitive, publishing book after book of essentially the same stuff surely isn't a very clever (or successful) thing to do.

Not to mention that it is quite difficult to keep even a blog on a single subject interesting for a very long time. You just need to pop over to the three I mention here (and elsewhere on this blog) and see for yourself. Oh, and I am also painfully aware that it is quite literally impossible to keep a hodge-podge blog like the one you're reading interesting in the first place. Which is not to say that: a) I will not continue writing it (I do it for me, after all), and b)I will not continue having (strong), and expressing, opinions - and advice - about others. Since they more likely than not do not read this I might as well. If they do, so much the better - for them.

In the meantime, I'll somehow manage to wade through the remainder of the More Tea, but next time I think I may think twice before picking up a sequel to a blog-cum-book. There's too much to read, and so little time to read it in already that I need to start economising. Or learn speed reading... Or maybe not, as I think this quote from Woody Allen is quite telling:
I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
'Nuff said...