May 31, 2007

Hotscot's London Stage Debut

A quick summary of my improv show last night:

It was tough. A bunch of my friends who had never seen me perform before were in the crowd, so I was feeling under pressure to really do a great job. Also, Alan, the organiser, seems to believe that I am some sort of improvising god (which is flattering, but a bit bewildering), and during the interval kept saying things like, "It's up to you, Andrew, you have to just be jumping in and leading every scene."

But, all that said, it went pretty well; I'd give it a seven out of ten. I did an evil twin scene that went gangbusters, and I really enjoyed the typewriter scene we did that – thank you, prurient audience! – was about a character called Vaginaca Semen ("Oh, please, call me Vag.")

It was also interesting in that it felt very different from any show I've ever done with McGill Improv. Instead of planning games that are good for gags and that the players felt comfortable with, Alan tended towards picking games that would make a well-rounded show and that inspire 'good improv'. It was Theatresports, too, so it was a little less relaxed than most McGill Improv shows.

Another difference between last night's show and a McGill Improv show was that afterwards, instead of doing notes over a hot chocolate and going home, I went to a Soho nightclub and drank a $200 bottle of gin with some people from work.

Then I came home, tried to return a missed call from Alison, dialled entirely the wrong number, spent five minutes drunk and angry because I thought she had changed her number without telling me, and then eventually got through to her and interrupted a date with her new boyfriend.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is, doing improv in London is a little less dignified than doing improv in Montreal. But I'm going to keep at it.

May 28, 2007

Nepotizzle

Rather a remarkable thing happened here at the offices (ahem) of plethoric pundigrions last week: I was contacted by an academic promising me a scoop on an explosive new piece of genetic research. And by "an academic" I mean my father, and by "explosive" I mean "linguistics-related and therefore limited in how explosive it can really be", but still: my first exclusive!

Also, by "exclusive" I mean a press briefing that all media outlets got, and that in any case was embargoed until the actual research was officially released by the very august journal publishing it.

And, okay, by "very august journal" I mean the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which may sound august at first, but it more commonly goes by the acronym PNAS which, come on, is basically a word for male genitalia.

What I do have in the way of an exclusive, however, is an in-depth interview with my father in which he discusses the research.
ME: So, could you boil down your research into a punchy tagline for my instant-gratification-accustomed blog readers?

DAD: Um … Well, I guess our main conclusion is that certain alleles on two genes involved in brain development might actually have a causal effect on—

ME: Punchier.

DAD: Okay. It looks like some genes might predispose certain populations to develop tonal languages over non-tonal languages. Could you pass the salt, please?

ME: [Passes salt] Look, I know you're a traditional media kind of guy, but the thing is, taglines really need to be five words or less.

DAD: I can't compress a complex piece of genetic research into five words.

ME: I bet Steven Pinker could.

DAD: Go to your room.
I did, perhaps, fictionalise some of that. The real discussion after the jump.

The gist of the research is that Ladd the elder and his collaborator (Dan Dediu) have discovered a pretty neat statistical correlation between two brain-related genes and incidence of tonal languages. To wit: in populations with a high frequency of a certain set of alleles, tonal languages are significantly less likely to appear. (English is a non-tonal language, because it differentiates words only though vowel and consonant sounds; Chinese is a tonal language, because it also distinguishes between words based on the pitch of those sounds.)

The reason we (or, at any rate, linguists) should care about this is that it threatens to turn on its head the traditional wisdom about how languages have historically evolved, which is, roughly speaking, that it's all down to historical and geographical coincidence rather than meaningful biological patterns.

What this research suggests instead is that certain people are genetically predisposed to find the acquisition of tonal languages easier. While this doesn't mean that any particular person will fail to learn a tonal language if they are lacking the right set of alleles, it does mean that in a population where the right set of alleles is less common, tonal languages are less likely to be transmitted intact over a number of generations.

And since I'm always complaining about people discussing genetic research without being absolutely clear on its implications, I must also add the caveat: this absolutely does not mean that any given ethnic group is superior to any other in the intelligence department. It doesn't make you "smarter" or "better" to be able to speak (or not speak) a tonal language. It just means you (and, more importantly, your ancestors) had a language-learning apparatus that was set up a little differently.

It's analogous, if I may, to the difference between a Standard tuned guitar and a Dropped-D tuned guitar; you can play the same songs on both, but one requires a different bit of fiddling before you start.

Anyway, it's an interesting piece of research and the scatterplot of the results is really, at the risk of sounding geeky, breathtakingly conclusive. If you want to find out more and are Gil or Mariana, check out the paper itself (scatterplot included); alternatively, head on over to the official Spark notes at my dad's website.

Thus ends my first (and hopefully only) foray into linguistics.

May 27, 2007

Sinking Feeling

I will fully admit to feeling stultifyingly uninspired this week in general, and tonight in particular. However, I will take my customary five minutes to pan the latest summer blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Ahem.

More like Pirates of the Caribbean: At Wit's End! Am I right? It was the most confusing two hours and forty-seven minutes of my life. The filmmakers make absolutely no attempt to remind viewers of the key points from the (already ridiculously convoluted) plot of the previous film, instead launching straight into a tangled web of double, triple and even quadruple-crossings that make an average season of 24 look like Goodnight Moon. I honestly, without any hyperbole, had no idea what was going on for most of the movie.

Also, crikey, for a movie with prepubescents as a key demographic, it is pretty gruesome. The opening scene is a ten-year-old being hanged! And then that segues classily into a scene about looking at Keira's genitals without her knowing. Nice, eh? Why not just go the whole hog and throw in a gang rape or two? Kids these days can handle it, obviously.

So, in conclusion: even worse than Spiderman 3. In fact, apart from Keith Richards's cameo, pretty much the only redeeming feature in the whole three hours (which, seriously, is a ridiculously long time) is that I got to eat popcorn.

May 25, 2007

May 24, 2007

I Swear I'm Not Making This Up...

Dan and I got a postcard from one of our friends today:
Greetings from Morocco. […] Our nomadic guide in the desert was born in a tiny mud hut with only his grandmother for help, but yet he still has a Facebook account! Get with it Andrew!
Sigh.

May 22, 2007

And Now That The Chickens Have Hatched...

From plethoric pundigrions: Humbuggery (March 26, 2007)
And, no, I have still not joined Facebook. I have to say, one of the nice things about not being a student this year has been not having to answer that question several times a day.
Today at work:

Co-worker 1: Hey, have you guys heard of Facebook?

Co-worker 2: Oh, yeah. Though I prefer MySpace.

Me: Khaaaaaaaaaan!

--

Ethical dilemma: if you see somebody drop their packet of cigarettes on the street, should you (a) stop them and return the cigarettes, knowing full well how much they must have paid for them, or (b) say nothing, knowing full well how damaging cigarettes are to their health?

--

And now for the part of my post where I explain an earlier pop culture reference for my bewildered readers.

"Khaaaaaan!" was famously screamed by William Shatner during the thrilling final act of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It is often used by parodists wishing to convey a sense of desperation or anger. In the above dialogue, it could be most accurately translated thus:

Me: Oh, fiddlesticks, yet another of my ivory towers stands penetrated by hordes of intractable netizens.

--

I will be performing in my first ever non-university improv show next week! Hooray for tiny steps towards real world legitimation of my hobbies!

May 21, 2007

Jimmy Hate

From BBC NEWS | World: White House hits back at Carter
The White House has dismissed former US President Jimmy Carter as "increasingly irrelevant", following his sharp criticism of President George W Bush…

White House spokesman Tony Fratto on Sunday said: "I think he is proving to be increasingly irrelevant with these kinds of comments."
Fratto continued, "You know, irrelevant. Like WMDs after we invaded Iraq. Or the Kyoto protocol. Or the right to a fair trial for enemy combatants." Mr Fratto continued with his list of irony until a giant cane appeared from stage left and dragged him away.

I mean, seriously, what kind of person says such mean things about a sweet old man in a global forum? That's just callous.

And, while we're at it, what kind of person calls a Nobel Peace Prize winner "irrelevant"?

May 20, 2007

Don't Bank On It

With Paul Wolfowitz departing yet another international theatre with his trademark scandal and disgrace, the first question on everybody's mind is: who will be the next president of the World Bank? (The second question: whatever happened to Yanni? Nobody's mentioned him in months.)

In association with the creepy bookie around the corner, a rundown of the main contenders:

Tony Blair (2-1): Blair's a talented statesman with a winsome smile, and his non-threatening brand of socialism plays well even with conservatives. Also, now that Labour has given him the bum's rush, he will have plenty of time on his hands and, frankly, I think everyone would rather he do something constructive instead of traipsing around the globe charging a million bucks a speech like Bill Clinton.

Donald Rumsfeld (5-1): Rumsfeld fits the mould perfectly. A Bush administration official who was put to pasture because of the Iraq debacle, he has a proven track record of royally fucking things up and then pretending like nothing's wrong; precisely the sort of can-do attitude that can help someone go far at the World Bank. He's also recently shown his publicly-spirited side by drafting plans for an educational foundation to help train future Defense Secretaries, compounding the need to distract him somehow.

Al Gore (7-1): I dunno, everyone seems to think Al Gore should be the president of something these days.

Shambo (25-1): It looks like this sacred bull is no longer welcome at his Welsh Hindu temple, after testing positive for TB in a routine screening. Public health officials want to have the animal put down, apparently not aware that killing their sacred cow is pretty much the worst thing you could do to a group of Hindus. Said a spokesperson: "Hey, we figured we've already pissed off half of Islam, why not go that extra mile?"

Drafting Shambo for World Bank president would help defuse a delicate cultural misunderstanding and also, quite likely, reduce the amount of bullshit that comes out of the World Bank president's office. Hey-oh!

Prince Harry (40-1): At least if he were appointed World Bank president, we could finally stop wasting ink speculating on whether or not he'll be sent to Iraq. (He will! He won't! He will! He won't!)

Yanni (80-1): Seriously, whatever happened to that guy?

John Bolton (100-1): I guess the Bush administration just puts him on the list for any position that comes up these days.

A well-trained and competent economist with a proven track record (1,000,000,000,000-1): Don't be silly.

May 18, 2007

May 16, 2007

Burdening the Shoulders

Some of you may already know that, since moving to London, I've been having a lot of problems in my wrists and forearms. I don't know if it's because of being in front of a computer for eight hours a day or all the capoeira I've been doing, but it got bad enough in February that I went to see my GP about it and was referred to a physiotherapist.

Today was my first session (it's covered by the NHS so there's a long waiting list), and I have to say, it was nothing like I had expected.

First of all, it was in an old building with some stone stairs out front and no ramp up to the door, which, honestly, seems like an exceptionally poor design choice for a place where people with physical disabilities go on a regular basis.

Second of all, the staff. Now, normally at NHS facilities, the staff look haggard, hassled and pasty; in short, they look publicly funded. Not these people. They were all so trim and healthy-looking, it was like being treated by the cast of The O.C.. I suppose that isn't so surprising considering they obviously give a great deal of thought to physical fitness, but still, yowza, if you have a tendency to compare your physique unfavourably to those around you, I would recommend you avoid going to any physiotherapist conventions.

Third of all, the treatment. I figured the woman would ask me a couple of questions about my physical activities, my desk set-up at work, etc., and then fiddle with my arms and hands for a while and send me on my way. Instead, she told me to take my shirt off. I was pretty uncomfortable with this, considering I don't normally take my shirt off in front of girls unless they are dating me or drunk, but thankfully I managed to resist the urge to defuse the tension by making a crass joke (that's what the blog is for, after all).

She then proceeded to put me in all sorts of weird positions and subject me to a battery of tests to see what my muscles were doing. There were props, there was latex, there was touching; it was (sadly) the most action I've had all year. Indeed, the biggest difference between all the tests she did and a casual sexual encounter was that I came out of it with fewer health problems.

Actually, though, I don't want to seriously characterise it like that, because she was extremely professional and her bedside manner was so good it was inspirational; I left thinking, "Gee, maybe I should become a physiotherapist."

The last part of the appointment consisted of me being given a double-sided sheet of paper on which were listed probably about fifty ethnic groups. I was asked me to pick which category best described me, so that the local NHS trust could ensure it was not discriminating against anyone (except, obviously, the illiterate and/or impatient). After looking through it I said, "Uh, I guess Scottish," which was met with a dubious look and the response, "What? With that accent?" I explained my complicated background and we decided that the best category for me was, in fact, 'White Other' (which makes very little sense from the perspective of postcolonial theory, but I suppose is pretty accurate).

The diagnosis, by the way, is weak shoulders (form a line, ladies), and not, as my GP had feared, carpal tunnel syndrome– so I can continue to blog away to my heart's content without fear of permanent physical disfigurement. Huzzah!

May 13, 2007

Jiminy! Cricket!

From BBC Sport | Cricket: Aussies pull out of Zimbabwe tour
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has ordered the country's cricket team to pull out of a scheduled tour of Zimbabwe in September...

Mr Howard has long been a critic of Mr Mugabe's government but this was his strongest condemnation yet, says the BBC's Nick Bryant in Sydney.
Not the cricket! For the love of God, NOT THE CRICKET!! John Howard, you are ruthless, even in your diplomatic sanctions.

"We don't do this lightly," explained PM Howard. "But how else can we get through to the wicket regime in Zimbabwe? I'm stumped."

Robert Mugabe is reported to have been bowled over by the Australian announcement. "This really puts us out," said the dictator. "But we're not going to run, let's leave it at bat."

Diplomats on both sides were hopeful that once the affair had blown over, improved relations between the two countries would rise from The Ashes.

Ugh, you know you've been living in England too long when you start doing cricket gags. This move to the States can't happen soon enough...

May 11, 2007

May 09, 2007

I've Got Your Back, Chuck

On a scale of one to infinity, with one being the least startlingly idiotic Op Ed article ever written, I believe I am now capable of defining infinity.

From Human Evolution Has Stalled on Kuro5hin.org:
Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a whole host of other medical conditions too numerous to mention here were all once fatal to humans. Many are now treatable to the point that sufferers can extend their lives well beyond what would be their natural lifespan otherwise. In many cases, this allows people to survive long enough to reproduce, thereby passing on their inferior genes to a new generation… Medicine (and in particular, modern medicine) bypasses [evolution] and promotes the idea that each and every human life is of equal value, even though (from a strictly Darwinian viewpoint) this is palpably false.
From a strictly Darwinian viewpoint this is, in fact, palpably irrelevant. The theory of evolution makes no value judgements about individual human lives relative to one another except inasmuch as some contribute less to the reproductive pool than others. But that has nothing to do with how we treat the sick, elderly, or genetically unfortunate (Darwin, of course, didn't even know what a gene was).

In any case, the claim that modern medicine "bypasses" evolution is so irredeemably misguided that it has merit only for giving me an excuse to go off on one of my habitual rants about how much I hate people who talk about evolution without actually understanding it.

To wit, I hate people who talk about evolution without actually understanding it. This goes not just for the author of the above article, but for the numerous people who left comments "debunking" it by saying something along the lines of, "Human evolution hasn't stalled, it has just reached a higher level at which culture is more important than biology."

This is bull. Culture affects selection pressures indirectly by changing, one, the resources available to individuals and, two, the nature of the competition between those individuals. But natural selection is still, by definition, a biological process, and culture doesn't affect it in any more profound a way than, say, a tornado.

No, the real reason why the mostly anonymous columnist at Kuro5hin is wrong is that he/she conflates two very separate Darwinian concepts; diabetes is not a selection pressure, it's an individual trait. As such diabetes does not itself represent 'natural selection', it just provides something upon which natural selection can act. Now, if the Earth was conquered by evil alien overlords who enslaved humanity and forced us all to subsist on high fructose corn syrup, that would be a selection pressure that would affect diabetics disproportionately, and you can bet we would see some hot Darwin on Darwin action in the gene pool. It really has nothing to do with diabetes per se, though; our evil alien overlords might also insist on compulsory insulin injections, and then the rest of us would be pretty fucked.

The point is, you can't make a priori judgements using human values about what traits are good or bad from an evolutionary standpoint, because natural selection is not human and acts indiscriminately and pretty much at random on genetically diverse populations of individuals. The number of people who have cancer or diabetes is immaterial until a selection pressure that acts upon those traits comes into play.

Indeed, the increasing number of people who rely on modern medicine to survive is setting us up to see natural selection get majorly kickstarted if modern medicine ever falters. (One of the few ways in which we can actually study evolution over the infinitesimal period of our lifetimes is by looking at our immune systems: those of us alive today are demonstrably different from those who lived before, for example, the 1918 Flu Pandemic.)

Anyway, long story short: natural selection acts on genetic diversity, so the only way it could ever "stall" is if every single human on Earth was genetically identical. That will never happen. Ipso facto, buy a biology textbook and don't speak again until you've read it.

--

I'm off to Boston tomorrow morning, so you can expect CWG on Friday and, most likely, little else for the next week.

May 06, 2007

Europe Goes Crazy

It's been a long, strange week in European politics.

And kind of interesting, I promise.

So, first of all, Scotland had an election. Let me run it down for you in bullet points ("ballot points", surely?):

•100,000 "spoilt" ballots, including 10,000 in Glasgow alone. Officials have re-named the city "Scotland's Florida" in it's eighty-millionth attempt-to-make-people-forget-it's-the-knife-crime-capital-of-Europe rebranding this month.

•Record gains for the Scottish Nationalist Party, who now hold a narrow one-seat lead over Labour but who are also, mercifully, well short of the sixty-five they'd need to form a majority government and push through their referendum on Scottish independence.

(Note to Canadian readers: independence for Scotland is a good idea in the same way that independence for Quebec is a good idea.)

Also, I don't mean to be condescending, and if someone could present me with some well-reasoned plans about how Scottish independence would practically work, I would gladly read said plans over a pint of Tennants. But the four reasons, from the SNP's website, why being governed from Westminster is bad:

1. Scotland has high poverty (I admit this is a problem but fail to see how it is Westminster's fault).

2. Scotland has low economic growth and a declining population (welcome to the developed world, baby!).

3. Dangerous nuclear weapons are stored in Scotland (this is a problem, but independence is hardly the solution).

4. We were dragged into an illegal war in Iraq (wow, I have just stopped listening to you).

•Sorry, that last one was kind of a long bullet point, eh?

Elsewhere, the French also elected a loopy nationalist nutbag, and have already tear-gassed a bunch of protesters. Way to go, France!

Oh, and T-Bone Blairdog announced that, later this week, he will announce plans to announce the announcement of the announcing of his resignation, or something like that. Evidently, having a relatively sane and competent Prime Minister is totally déclassé these days.

Sigh.

May 05, 2007

Punch Punch Punch

From Newsvine: Prosecutors Seek Jail Time for Paris Hilton

I smell another sex tape sensation!

--

From an email forward at work this week:

This cowboy walks in to a German car showroom and he says "Audi!"

--

Again from Newsvine: Affectionate Plane Passenger Convicted
WILMINGTON, N.C. — A California man who prosecutors said got a little too friendly with his girlfriend during a flight was convicted Thursday of interfering with flight attendants and crew members…

Charges against girlfriend Dawn Elizabeth Sewell, who was accused of assisting Persing, were dropped this week.
After a prolonged and insipid kissing session with members of the jury, it was concluded that she was unlikely to have spurred on her boyfriend in any way. (Seriously, WTF? How can you convict the guy of kanoodling if you drop the charges against his girlfriend?)

--

I'm having a dispiriting evening looking at Boston apartment listings online. But this one made me smile:
$800, 2br - 2 Bedroom Minutes to Boston…

Conveniently located off of Cranston Avenue minutes from the Atwells Avenue exit, Downtown Providence.
So, to be precise, forty-five minutes to Boston...

--

I did five hours of capoeria training today. I am very sore. Tomorrow I'm doing improv all afternoon; then Monday another three hours of capoeira, Tuesday another few hours of improv, Wednesday another three hours of capoeria, and Thursday I will spend the day barely alive on the plane to Boston...

May 04, 2007

May 03, 2007

Gore Text

I know this is a couple of days old already, but I figure since we've already had "Eat It, Cultural Studies," and, "Shut the fuck up already, Harvard kids," this week, a quick "Piss off, Al Gore," wouldn't be a bad idea.

From Newsvine: Gore Calls Canada Climate Plan a 'Fraud'
TORONTO — Al Gore condemned Canada's new plan to reduce greenhouse gases, saying it was "a complete and total fraud" because it lacks specifics and gives industry a way to actually increase emissions…

He acknowledged that as an American, he had "no right to interfere" in Canadian decision.
Well, um, gee, Mr Gore, don't you think that the highest-profile environmentalist in the world publicly criticising Canada's environmental policies might sort of, I don't know, interfere with those policies?

Okay, so maybe I overestimate the effect of media soundbites on government policy a little. But seriously, Al, I am getting really tired of hearing your self-righteous proselytising all the damn time, whenever anybody leaves the fridge door open for more than a few seconds. You think just because you win one Oscar you have the right to criticise everybody about anything to do with the environment? Piss off. (Ding ding ding!)

What about your own electricity bill? Yeah, okay, it was a cheap shot by some douchey right-wingers, but let's not pretend that makes it a completely invalid criticism. And your response? "Oh, yes, we DO have a large carbon footprint, but it's okay, we purchase carbon offsets, so it's like our giant heated pool doesn't really exist." Well, excuse me, but I'm going to call bullshit on that, because carbon offsets are just a way for the rich to buy peace of mind. Instead, you will get a piece of my mind. Ha!

Point one: only the rich can afford to buy carbon offsets (on a scale of 'need-to-have' items for a normal family, they come somewhere between a lamp shaped like a banana and a Tamagotchi). The tendency of the rich to have larger-than-average carbon footprints notwithstanding (thanks to all those heated pools, Hummers, etc.), this means that carbon offsets only tackle a really tiny percentage of the total carbon output of the planet.

Point two: even if everybody could afford to purchase carbon offsets, the more fundamental problem is that they are complete nonsense. If solving global warming was really as simple as just paying money to some carbon-offsetting company, do you think Al would have his knickers in such a twist to begin with? All the carbon offsets in the world will do precisely diddly-squat to reduce the amount of carbon actually produced by human beings.

So, while, yes, Canada's new environmental policies might be a little vague, I would like to heartily repeat my advice to Al Gore: piss off. Everybody is tired of hearing your voice.

May 01, 2007

Back in Black

From Newsvine: Among Black Students, Many Immigrants
NEW YORK — Something in the crowd made Shirley Wilcher wonder. As a college graduate in the early 1970s, her black classmates were like herself — born in the United States, to American parents. But at an alumni reunion at Mount Holyoke College last year, she saw something different and asked for admissions data to prove it.

"My suspicions were confirmed," said Wilcher, now the executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. She found a rise in the number of black students from Africa and the Caribbean, and a downturn in admissions of native blacks like her…

Wilcher would like to know why. She asks if her cause has lost its way on U.S. campuses, with the goal of correcting American racial injustices replaced by a softer ideal of diversity — as if any black student will do.
Oh no! We can't have that, can we? What we need is a system that can somehow artificially discriminate against some black people more than others. I mean, sure, the Constitution says, "All men are created equal," but it doesn't say that all black men are created equal. What the founding fathers were getting at was that all black men are created in an equally unjust and hierarchical way to white men. And what is this bullhonky I hear about women wanting rights all of a sudden?
Last month, a Harvard Black Students Association message board asked, "When we use the term 'black community,' who is included in this description?" A lively debate ensued, with some posters complaining that African students were getting an admissions boost without having faced the historical suffering of U.S. blacks.
Yeah, fuck, those African kids have it SOOOO easy. It's enough to make you close your MacBook in disgust and stop posting on the student association messageboard at the university that has a larger endowment than the entire African continent gets in aid.

Sorry, folks, I know as a privileged upper-middle-class white boy (twit?) I can't even begin to understand the intricate racial politics of being black in America today. But it seems to me that if you start whining about immigrants, and advocating discrimination on the basis of, uh, being black, you are not doing anybody any favours.

And seriously, Harvard kids? Shut the fuck up already. You go to HARVARD. You're in. You've made it. You might have to put up with that condescending ass Pinker every now and then, but frankly as long as you're not living under the cloud of genocide and/or dictatorship, you're having a pretty good year.