Thursday, March 30, 2006

Think of England’s English Grammar, Comprehension and Literacy Examination (Advanced)

So you think you can speak English? Then try my fiendish test, and think again. The questions are in order of difficulty, and a link to the answers is at the bottom.

NB. No googling, you’d only be cheating yourself

1. How should the word ‘ghoti’ be pronounced?

2. What do the words ‘cleave’, ‘sanction’ and ‘fix’ have in common?

3. What is unusual about this conspiracy theory: ‘Neil A, NASA’s pet, steps as an alien’?

4. When the Americans built a missile, the Russians built an anti missile. So the Americans built a missile to counteract that missile, and the Russians built a missile to counteract the counteracting missile. This happened ten more times. What did the Russians end up with?

5. Correct the punctuation of this sentence:
Woman, without her man, is useless.

6. Correct the punctuation of this letter:
Dear Tony Blair,
I would like to compliment you. I can't stop thinking that you are one of the best Prime Ministers we have had. So many leaders go ahead and propose policies and then botch the job. We expect it. From you, in years to come, I know we will have better results.

7. Punctuate the following sentences so that they make sense:

a) She told her friends were pointless.
b) The horse rode past the barn fell.
c) Dogs dogs dogs bite bite bite.
d) Badgers badgers badgers badger badger badger badgers badgers badger.

8) Write a sentence with five consecutive uses of the word ‘and’ that makes grammatical sense.

9) Write a sentence with eleven consecutive uses of the word ‘had’ that makes grammatical sense.

For the feeble-minded, the answers are here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Duncedom beyond measure

Activist group fails to thank rescuers
(from The Times)

THE Christian group whose activists were freed in a British-led raid in Baghdad yesterday did not thank their rescuers but instead called on them to withdraw from Iraq.

In a long statement released in Toronto, the leaders of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) described how delighted they were to hear about the release of their three abducted members. But they pointedly failed to acknowledge that the hostages had been freed in a military operation involving British, American, Canadian and Iraqi forces. Instead they blamed the presence of foreign troops for Iraq’s problems.

Doug Pritchard, co-director of CPT, said the hostages knew that their only protection was in “the power of the love of God and of their Iraqi and international co-workers”. No mention was made of the special forces, intelligence officers and police who worked for months to secure the men’s release.

“We believe that the illegal occupation of Iraq by multinational forces is the root cause of the insecurity which led to this kidnapping and so much pain and suffering in Iraq today. The occupation must end,” Mr Pritchard said. “Today, in the face of this joyful news, our faith compels us to love our enemies even when they have committed acts which caused great hardship to our friends and sorrow to their families.”

Next time, how about loving your enemies somewhere where our soldiers don't have to waste their time and risk their lives saving your useless hides?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Howling mad

I watched two very different animated films this weekend: the Wallace and Gromit movie, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Hugely enjoyable as the former is, it’s the latter, a Japanese anime movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Spirited Away fame, that sticks in the mind. Spirited Away was perhaps the first anime film to really achieve mainstream success in the West, and the fact that it and Howl’s Moving Castle have been successful at all in the West is pretty remarkable.

It’s remarkable not because of any lack of quality in the film-making – Spirited Away especially is full of haunting, beautiful, strange images (like the one below) which live long in the memory – but because the Japanese seem to have a fundamentally different approach to storytelling.

Indeed, the Japanese films dispense with the two absolute basics of Western story conventions: the linear plotline, and the concept of ‘Goodies and Baddies’.

All western children’s films, even the really good ones like Wallace and Gromit, The Incredibles, Shrek etc – are essentially very predictable. The Baddies will threaten the Goodies’ way of life, the Goodies will suffer a reversal then triumph against the odds, the Baddies will have their deserved comeuppance and finally the Goodies have a happy ending.

But Howl’s Moving Castle has none of this. There really is no predicting what will happen next, which is very disorientating for the Western viewer, who is taken far out of his comfort zone.

And there is a completely fluid approach to characters. There are no absolute Goodies or Baddies: ambiguous characters perform alternately selfish and selfless deeds throughout. The apparently wicked witch, who turns our young heroine into an old lady, is adopted by the ‘Goodies’ about halfway through the movie for no apparent motive. And although there is a Happy Ending, this is not achieved through any destruction of the ‘Baddies’, but because individual characters break free of their self-imposed spells and the World War is for some reason just called off.

In other words, it’s a whole bunch of people doing one damn thing after another. If it weren’t for the mutating blob-men, demons in the fireplace, walking castles, hopping scarecrows etc, it would almost be just like real life.

Friday, March 17, 2006

This will drive you mad

If you fancy frittering away some precious time, try out this fiendish little game, which will test both your engineering skills and your patience to the limit:

When you get the ball to hit the target it is pretty difficult not to utter a triumphant yelp.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Grauniad Samizdat

With the advantage of three years of hindsight, politicians' failed predictions about Iraq make dispiriting reading. "Any war will cause a refugee crisis of huge proportions," insisted Charles Kennedy. Iraqis proved him wrong by distinguishing perfectly well between a war on tyranny and a war on them, and stayed put. "The same doctrines [of pre-emptive war] could equally be applied by India vis-a-vis Pakistan, or in any dispute where a state feels threatened," warned Shirley Williams, shortly before India and Pakistan initiated talks to resolve the Kashmir dispute. In his tirade before the US Senate, George Galloway eulogised his own wartime perspicacity, which presumably included his assessment of Saddam Hussein: "I think he will be the last man standing in the bunker….

….Mainstream opponents of the war accepted a delusory picture of containment's accomplishments, and understated the costs. Even the Islamists and Leninists of the Stop the War Coalition were less evasive; they can be faulted for lack of candour only in describing themselves as anti-war, rather than anti-American and anti-British. "While war lasts by far the lesser evil would be reverses, or defeat, for the US and British forces," declared Socialist Worker when war broke out.

So writes Oliver Kamm in today’s article We Were Right to Invade Iraq.

The astonishing thing is where he’s written it.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Any way you look at it, we lose something

David Aaranovitch writes one of the sanest things I’ve read on Guantanamo. The whole article is well worth a read here.

The suspension of habeus corpus is grim enough. The orange boiler suits and the cages are a PR disaster on the world stage.

But 9/11 and then 7/7 gave our Governments an impossible dilemma: we demand that our security forces protect us from people who look like everybody else, but that they do so without being seen to suspect anybody who looks like everybody else.

Don’t let on that tennis balls are for girls

US President George W Bush was hit by a ball at the heavily-guarded US embassy in Pakistan - as he tried his hand at the country's national sport, cricket.

The baseball-loving leader was shown how to bat and bowl by members of Pakistan's national team, using tennis balls instead of harder cricket balls.

"I don't quite have the skills yet," Mr Bush said later, when asked if he had enjoyed his first brush with the game.

He hit two deliveries from the crease, and was struck on the shoulder by one.
The US leader has been touring India and Pakistan.

Cricket remains an obsession in both countries, where the sport - introduced by the British more than a century ago - is a spur for national pride and fierce regional rivalry.

The Pakistani captain said the president had been looking for "a comparison between cricket and baseball".

Mr Bush told a dinner party on Saturday that he had been bowled over by a "googly" - a type of ball where the bowler seeks to surprise the batsman.

As I’m sure everybody is perfectly well aware, a googly is an off-break disguised as a leg-break bowled with a wrist-spin action by a right-arm leg-spin bowler to a right-handed batsman.

Not to be confused, of course, with a chinaman, which is also an off-break bowled with a wrist-spin action to a right-handed batsman, but by a left-arm unorthodox wrist spin bowler.

And only the greenest schoolboy could mix up either of these with the doosra, which is a leg-break disguised as an off-break bowled with a finger-spinning action to the right-handed batsman by an orthodox right-arm off-spin bowler.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Taking the Michael

From the BBC:

Campbell fills top Lib Dem posts

Newly-elected Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell has begun unveiling his frontbench team.

Defeated leadership rival Chris Huhne is made environment spokesman.

Nick Clegg, a key backer of Sir Menzies' leadership campaign and - like Mr Huhne - an MP only since last year, takes over at home affairs.

Michael Moore gets foreign affairs, Vincent Cable retains his post as Treasury spokesman, while Julia Goldsworthy is made his deputy.

I know they’ve got an anti-Bush agenda, but surely that's a step too far even for the Lib Dems?

Friday, March 03, 2006

The practical abstract

From the BBC:

The London Underground map, the Spitfire and Concorde have been voted Britain's three favourite designs of the last century.

Design Museum visitors and viewers of BBC Two's The Culture Show were asked to choose from 25 design icons.

Among them were the Routemaster bus, the Mini and red phone boxes as well as more recent inventions such as the internet and video game Tomb Raider.

A public vote will decide which of the three is Britain's most iconic design.

The London Underground map was designed by Harry Beck in 1931 when the Tube grew so large it became impossible to map the lines and stations geographically.

Instead, Beck designed the map based on an electrical circuit, with each line in a different colour and diamonds for interchange stations.

Told you so.

As well as being a beautiful object, the Underground map represents one of those great leaps of human imagination. It's so obvious afterwards, but nobody thought of it before.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

There is nothing useless to men of sense*

From the Times's 'Thunderer' a few days ago:

THE OXFORD philosopher, Sir Peter Strawson, died this week, full of years and honour. For decades, he had won golden opinions by his work on meaning. He was a fine man. Even so, his career had no meaning.

In Greek, philosophy means love of wisdom. It is widely assumed that philosophers are wise men who employ their learning to answer the ultimate questions: the existence of God, the good life, the fundamentals of politics. That was once true, but from the 17th century onwards, there was a steady retreat from the big questions.

Philosophers began to inquire how we can be sure that the external world exists (earlier philosophers had discussed this, but not exclusively). The answer is that we cannot, but that this does not matter. Asked what he thought of Bishop Berkeley’s anti-materialism, Dr Johnson kicked a stone. “I refute it thus, Sir.”

Then there was a further retreat, to analysis of language. How can we be sure that the meaning of words corresponds to reality? In his essay, “The Theory of Descriptions”, Bertrand Russell pondered the phrase: “The golden mountain does not exist”. If it does not exist, how can we talk about it?

The idea that men could wax eloquent about non-existent gold would come as no surprise to a high street bank manager, but that is not enough for philosophy. Russell thought that he had solved the problem. Strawson thought that he had proved him wrong by homing in on a crucial point in Russell’s argument: the phrase “the King of France is bald”.

In a popular guide to philosophy, C. E. M. Joad wrote that after a couple of hours with the hard philosophers, historical or literary works would seem so easy: like bounding along on a country walk after being freed from the weight of a heavy pack. Philosophy does sharpen the mind, but this newspaper’s Su Doku puzzles do too. On the questions that vitally concern mankind, Su Doku is as useful as Strawson.

At committee meetings, Strawson was often silent. His Times obituarist wondered whether “such gatherings provided better opportunities for the observation of folly than for the dispensation of philosophic wisdom”. Yet it is hard to believe that the discussions were anything like as foolish as an argument over the King of France’s baldness. As practised in the Russell-Strawson debate, philosophy had become nothing more than an argument between two bald men over a comb.

There’s a very funny scene in the first Austin Powers film, where Dr Evil has captured Austin.

Rather than just shooting his arch-enemy, Dr Evil has of course contrived an absurdly elaborate method of execution involving dipping Austin into a tank of deadly stingrays or something, thus affording the spy ample opportunity to escape and ultimately thwart his plans. Scott Evil, his son, is bemused - leading to the following exchange:

Dr Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism. [guard starts dipping mechanism] Close the tank!
Scott: Wait, aren't you even going to watch them? They could get away!
Dr Evil: No no no, I'm going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?
Scott: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow their brains out!
Dr Evil: Scott, you just don't get it, do ya?

This particular Thunderer just doesn't get it.

May the Gods preserve us from ‘usefulness’.

Virtually everything you ever learn anywhere is ‘useless’ if you are so strict, or so unimaginative and literal, about what ‘useful’ means.

Philosophers began to inquire how we can be sure that the external world exists ... The answer is that we cannot, but that this does not matter.

That's true enough: virtually everyone who takes a philosophy course ends up there.

But the journey, not the destination, is the point of studying philosophy.

*Jean de la Fontaine (a wise frog)