All entries for December 2009

December 19, 2009

Christmas Number One Thoughts

It’s been happening for a few years now. Some reality TV show winner puts out a single right before Christmas, and then a bunch of people on the internet try, and eventually fail, to get another song to the number one spot instead. Most notable was last year, where to protest a cover of
Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah taking the top spot, the internet hoards tried to get a different cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to number one instead.

But let us not forget that strange week a few months back where Web 2.0 and social media finally seemed to be growing some teeth. In the course of just a few days, members of Twitter both exposed a huge cover-up by oil giant Trafigura and alerted the world to the fact that Jan Moir was an unpleasant person. After that, everything went a little quiet, but now the impotent fury of the middle classes is once again manifesting itself, but this time on Facebook, a site that remains far more popular than Twitter solely on the basis that you can’t use Twitter to archive photos of your friends looking like tits for all eternity. Well, that and Farmville.

So with X Factor ready to churn out some more garbage, a Facebook group was formed with the intention of getting Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name to the top spot instead, primarily because it would be funny to have a song with the word ‘fuck’ in it as Christmas number one. Things snowball. And for the first time, it looks like this might actually work. I hope it does. But I just can’t bring myself to buy the track.

There’s a couple of things fishy about the whole enterprise – firstly, both the X-Factor track and Killing In The Name are on a Sony label, meaning the proceeds from both end up in the same corporate pockets. Secondly, Simon Cowell himself started talking about the campaign which gave it more media exposure than it could ever dream of, and the kick up the arse needed to give it a real shot at working. Of course, whatever you think of the man, he’s not a fool and he didn’t do this by accident. Instead he’s purposefully created what seems to be a genuine race for number one. It means people like me, that would otherwise have let the whole thing pass them by and ignored the charts this Christmas suddenly know more than we ever want to about X-Factor (someone called Joe is doing a cover of a Hannah Montana song) and it also pretty much guarantees, with the extra media attention, that even if Joe only makes it to number two, he’ll still have out-sold last years’ X-Factor winner by a fair chunk.

But essentially I just can’t bring myself to buy Killing In The Name as I don’t really like it much. It’s a song of its time with the lyrics and meaning co-opted in to being something else. It’s early 90s shouty teen anarchy and frankly we’ve moved on since then. It’s no longer particularly edgy to shout ‘fuck’ a lot. As a friend of mine opined, if people really wanted a subversive Christmas number one they should have started a campaign to get people buying Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas With all that considered, I just don’t want to be buying a song I don’t like without really thinking about it simply because my friends think I should; that’s the logic that leads to X-Factor getting 19 million viewers.

I hope it does make it though. It would be a victory for music that at least has some passion and thought behind it, even if that thought is about twenty-years too old. Personally I’m backing another horse: there’s a far less popular campaign to get the wonderful Tim Minchin’s White Wine In The Sun in to the Top 20. It’s not going to make number one, but it’s a lovely, touching, amusing piano ballad about loving Christmas despite all the cheesiness and dodgy religious connotations. Buying it won’t piss-off Simon Cowell, but it’s a great song and y’know, is actually about Christmas. Which makes it good enough for my 79p.


December 07, 2009

Scrubs Med Review

The show was meant to be called Scrubs Med. It was meant to be a spin-off show. But instead the network insisted it be called Scrubs Season 9. This is your fault. If you don’t believe me, put your hand up if you would have watched an eleventh series of Friends. Now keep them up if you persisted with Joey for more than ten minutes. Exactly. The metaphor falls down, however, as Joey was gut-wrenchingly awful while Scrubs Med is actually alright. (Don’t even get me started on Stargate Command).
Scrubs Med 1
The one concession to sanity is a little logo under the Scrubs one in the title sequence that says “Med School” on it, other than that the show does everything it can to suggest that it’s business as normal. It opens with JD, Elliot and a joke about boobs, Braff is still doing the narration and all the regular cast crop up with the exception of Carla, even if only briefly to explain why they’re not going to be in the rest of the series.

Still, something is odd. The sets are new while the characters stay the same. Except with three new ones. One interesting thing to note is that two of our three new characters are stunningly hot. Lucy and Drew, Kerry Bishe and Michael Moseley, are your typical beautiful Hollywood actors. It’s only on seeing them you realise how the original cast were shockingly normal-looking for a prime-time network sitcom. Zach Braff is possibly one of the oddest looking TV stars out there, it’s practically a running joke on the show that Donald Faison gets about halfway to Denzel Washington then bottles it, and Sarah Chalke is lovely but brings that sort of geekish girl-next-door appeal meaning she never appears quite so intimidatingly hot as our two new stars. The fact that they both appear topless in the first two episodes (alas, only from the rear in Bishe’s case, this isn’t HBO) is hardly co-incidental.

But still, that doesn’t matter as long as it’s funny. And it mostly is. We get shared narration between JD and Lucy, and it works well, though Lucy’s fantasy sequence was a bit of a disaster, here’s hoping she develops the range to play the more over-the-top crazy daydream sequences Scrubs lives on.
Scrubs Med 2
The tricky thing is that Braff’s character is very much at the forefront of these two first episodes, his antics with Turk being a major part of the show, as per usual. But unless they really start bringing the new characters to the fore in future episodes, it’s going to feel really awkward when JD vanishes after six episodes. Have to admit, would rather they’d been a little braver and let Lucy take the narration from the start, using JD as a background character. It would have certainly helped the show find it’s own tone a lot more easily. Despite what they might want you to think with the name, it’s never going to be the same as the old show and I can’t help but think it would have been more beneficial to let it strike out in its own direction right away, rather than attempt this strange transition from one show to another. It’s kind of like deciding to have a break-up by only seeing each other once a week for a bit – you don’t really have what you used to have but you can’t get on with the rest of your life either.

So with that said, I can’t wait to see what happens after these first six transitionary episodes. Here’s the other reason it’s not like Joey: hand’s up if your favourite Friends character was Joey. Now hands up if your favourite Scrubs character was Dr. Cox. If you’re going to spin off a show, may as well keep the characters with the best lines.


December 02, 2009

New thoughts on intelligent design in schools

I’ve written plenty on this in the past. It’s fairly obvious what my opinion is. And hundreds of others have debated it to death too. So I kind of wanted to throw out some stuff that I haven’t seen talked about before. These are half-formed and part-informed ideas but maybe they’ll be interesting.

It started with me reading this article, It treads the same old ground and my initial uncharitable response was that it’s just another old man, who when faced with his own mortality, is desperate to cling on the to hope that there’s something after. Mean and somewhat ridiculous but no more so than the bollocks he’s spouting.

So my initial counter-point was the same as ever: intelligent design isn’t a scientific theory (there’s no falsifiability to it for one), and even if you cast it in such a light that it could charitably be deemed to be one, it’s still a really bad one. It’s basically psuedo-science at best, and if we’re going to teach that in science classes then we may as well throw in homeopathy, psychics and UFOs too. They could all claim to be based upon scientific theory and evidence, but just like intelligent design, the so called ‘evidence’ has not been throughly vetted or peer reviewed, so it doesn’t get taught in science classes.

I fall back to my default position: intelligent design has it’s place in RE, let’s leave science to focus on real, respected theories. I’ve always adopted that position. It’s the obvious one for those of us arguing against the invariably religious intelligent design advocates: “you get your say here, let us have ours here, and lets all get along”.

What I never considered was the inverse.

Lets say we scientific folk bow to the pressure of the intelligent design lobby. Fine, you win. We’ll start teaching it as a theory in science lessons. If you want rid of this demarcation between science and belief then okay, we’ll start presenting it next to evolution as an option. To be fair it’ll probably be five lessons studying the development of evolutionary theory over the centuries, then five minutes at the end going “magic man done it” (thanks to Robin Ince for that one) as that’s the entire ID theory, but fine, we’ll mention it.

There are, however, consequences.

I want my science in your RE lessons. It sounds preposterous, but when you think about it carefully you do start to wonder why our schools teach Religious Education and not the broader subject, Philosophy, of which religion would simply make up a (not insignificant) component. Why was I taught about Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism at length, but never once encountered the phrase ‘secular humanism’ until I started reading the internet? The reason given, of course, is that religion is a big part of the lives of many people, and it’s essential to teach children about it as it’s part of making sure they can live and operate in modern society. Essential knowledge, just like learning how to use Google and Microsoft Word or learning how to read. It’s a notion that seems fair at first glance, those of us that aren’t religious are in the minority after all and kids need to know how to deal with what the majority think, even if they grow up to disagree with it. Problem is, last time we checked only 19% of Britons regularly went to a religious service and 33% don’t believe in a higher power at all. A third! Don’t believe at all! I’m not even in that group and I’m writing this!

Back when we weren’t a primarily secular nation the RE thing made sense, but now I no longer see why it should get special treatment. Sure, lets teach our kids about Jesus and Allah, but lets also teach them about Descartes and Popper. The religious apologists continually throw out that claim that ‘science is just as much of a belief system as Christianity’ and while you can explain how they’re technically wrong, you can also see the point they’re getting at. So next time you hear that one, how about suggesting we start covering the scientific method in RE classes instead? See where it goes. I’d be intrigued.

And y’know what else. In these new philosophy classes, we can teach our kids proper fucking science as well.

One of the criticisms the ID movement use of modern science teaching is that things like evolution aren’t presented as theories, they’re presented as fact. As much as I hate it, they done have a point. Pretty much all science is just a theory. Tim Minchin has a brilliant line about if everything is just a theory, maybe the theory of gravity will stop applying and the apologists will just “float the fuck away”. The irony there being that a lot of Newton’s theories were proven to be untrue in certain circumstances by Einstein. It’s not until you hit relativity in A-level physics that you’re introduced to the idea that what you’ve been learning the past ten years is all in flux and that science is a developing field, and you’re being taught theories, not absolute truths. The ID people think this is terrible, and I somewhat agree.

Funny thing is, I’m fairly sure the fact that science (and for that matter, history) is taught this way is the reason we still have 67% of the country believing in a god. Because if you start encouraging kids at a young age (or even at bloody GCSE age) to think for themselves, to question what’s given to them, to seek out alternative theories… well my friends, you’re going to raise a generation of atheists and agnostics. Because kids aren’t, on the whole, dumb. You tell them to start questioning what they’re taught in science class and you can be sure they’ll be applying that to RE too. More to the point, they might start asking difficult questions of mommy and daddy on the weekly trip to church. Maybe they’ll question the preacher or the cleric. It really is playing with dynamite, and I’m in favour of blowing their minds wide open.

Because science at school does sort of suck. Yeah, we get to set stuff on fire and see chemicals react, and we sure as hell have the scientific method beaten in to us: hypotheses, method, results, conclusions. Every GCSE science kid writes down those headings about a hundred time over the two years. It’s the way you do it, it’s the scientific method. But they never teach you why. They never tell you where it comes from, or the philosophical basis behind it. Which really sucks as it’s bloody annoying at times and a lot of kids grow up thinking we do stuff that way because their teachers were pedants that wanted everything in a set format. Or because that’s what you need to do in the exam. You never get taught about why it’s there and why it’s so important. Perhaps because that’s not really science either. It’s philosophy. Which we won’t teach at GCSE. Because RE is more important.

The message for the proponents of intelligent design is simple: you can’t have it both ways. And personally, at least once you get to GCSE level, I’m in favour of giving the kids the benefit of the doubt. Let them drop ID in next to evolution and let us get rid of this pointless, increasingly irrelevant ‘religious education’ and start teaching kids how to think, not what to think, instead.


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