September 2011

Flying Rodent thinks Christopher Hitchens is a psychopath.

At one time even I – a man (well, boy) whose blog would have prompted sailors to mutter, “Steady on” – would have thought this rather vulgar abuse. (And I’d still hesitate before applying it to someone.) On the other hand, according to psychologists an awful lot of us are psychopaths. Moreover, the charm and self-importance of the psychopath would make them suitable for the world of politics. If someone is displaying traits consistent with the diagnoses it’s not all that wild an accusation to level at them.

Now I come to think of it, the shallow charm and consequential talent for manipulation means they’re liable to be pretty damn successful in business, politics and so on. Yet also flighty and egocentric enough to be destructive one they’ve reached the heights their, er – skills have equipped them for. I’d be interested to see the psychodiagnoses of our leading politicians and commentators. In fact, one almost feels that they should be mandatory.

Let’s not just pathologise others, though: some of us – like neuroscientist James Fallon – may be psychopaths who haven’t realised it yet. As far as I’m aware they don’t know – or, at least, needn’t know – that their behaviour is abnormal or abusive. The grandiose prescriptions and shallow moralising of blogs is a little odd when you come to think of it. On the other hand, they – as I’m sure my postings have – also scream of insecurity, so perhaps we’re safe.

The Boston Globe has a bleak but fascinating gallery of photographs from North Korea.

They were captured on a tour of Chinese visitors. I can’t say that Pyongyang looks like an inspiring destination…

If you’d like a game to occupy your afternoon with, count the lights in this photograph.

A caption informs us that the North Korean government is trying to show the “vitality and possibilities of their country”. Here’s the picture it’s attached to…

Children, by and large, are the happiest of people. It says a lot about North Korea that they couldn’t find a genuinely happy child.

Christopher Hitchens is annoyed with people who condemn the “War on Terror” as a prescription for endless war…

Human history seems to register many more years of conflict than of tranquillity. In one sense, then, it is fatuous to whine that war is endless. We do have certain permanent enemies—the totalitarian state; the nihilist/terrorist cell—with which “peace” is neither possible nor desirable. Acknowledging this, and preparing for it, might give us some advantages in a war that seems destined to last as long as civilization is willing to defend itself.

I have certain permanent enemies too: germs. They lurk on my table-tops; hide within my furnishings and even conduct daring raids on my leftovers. I’ll never be rid of them! Still, by doing the occasional spot of cleaning; making sure that food’s properly chilled and being sane enough to get through life accepting the limited ingestion of the things I can stay relatively safe without resorting to pacing around my home, clutching bottles of disinfectant and murmuring, “Germs! Germs!”

Similarly, the U.S. may never rid itself of the threats of terrorism, organised crime and the like but with sensible border, airline and internal safeguards; decent relationships with governments that matter; the occasional spot of violence aimed squarely at unmanagable threats, perhaps, and the acceptance of the fact that nations can never be entirely secure it could get by without stalking around the globe; barging into nations and creating more havoc, and inspiring more enemies, than existed before.

It all depends, in other words, on what we mean by “war”. An inability to distinguish between different forms suggests that you don’t have the right to speak of it at all.

As Najib Razak speaks of his “modern, mature democracy” – and even tries to get down wit’ da kids – his Deputy appeals to another demographic…

Malaysia is not ready for the implementation of hudud law, says Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

The Deputy Prime Minister said as a multi-racial and multi-religious country, Malaysia was not ready to introduce hudud laws.

Muhyiddin said hudud laws could only be implemented when the situation was really conducive.

So, the nation isn’t ready for medieval atrocities? Leaders of the Islamist-ruled state of Kelantan are trying to force through hudud laws, much to their rivals’ fear

DAP chairman Karpal Singh…said: “The punishments for these offences are flogging 100 times for intercourse between an unmarried couple, stoning to death for adultery, amputation of hand for theft, death for apostasy, flogging 40 times for alcohol consumption, flogging 80 times for false accusation of adultery and death by sword or crucifixion for highway robbery.”

That’s cool with Muhyiddin, though…

“As a Muslim, I cannot reject hudud law…If Nik Aziz said it would be implemented in Kelantan, it is his wish.”

This is surely relevant to our conversation here. Malaysians have much to gain from liberalisation and engagement with freer nations above and below them. Their investment in their belief, though – an attachment to the identity it’s helped create; the self-righteousness it breed; the fear, perhaps, that it instills and above all the notion that it’s true – holds them back.

I began to keep an eye on Malaysian politics after Najib, the PM, gave a speech at Oxford where he bunched the people of the world on each side of a dichotomy: the “moderates” and the “extremists”. The vacuity of this is evident when you read that the Maldives, where promoting faiths other than Islam is a criminal offence, is seeing an attempt to crack down on “extremist…preaching”. So, theocrats of such imperiousness that they’d jail someone for chatting about other ideas are moderates?

How we judge a person or group depends, to some extent, on what they’re being compared to. Wladimir Klitschko is a weakling to an elephant but I’d still hate to tussle with ‘im. And there are more “extreme” characters around than the Maldivians. I wouldn’t like to live there but at least they pose no threat while I’m here. If they keep an eye on people who are more belligerent then, well –  I’m glad. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doctrinaire oppressors, though. People don’t fall easily between “nasty” and “nice”.

If it wasn’t a theocracy I’d get on in the Maldives, by the way. Their national cuisine is apparently centred around tuna and sweet potato, which I could happily eat for breakfast, lunch and Christmas dinner.

So, a grappling match between two schoolkids was filmed and broadcast on the ‘net. I don’t condone the incident – the reporting of which has spread like wildfire through the UK press – because I’m not sure kids should be having competitive bouts, and even less sure of whether it should be a spectacle for adults. It’s not something I’ve considered but the thought makes me feel a bit nauseous. I’d also be interested to know if submission moves were legal, because I’d have thought they could endanger growing bones. On the other hand, the moral panic – the squall of shock – is really pathetic. A commenter at the Mail tells us why in amusing style…

Has anybody heard of the sport “Ultimate Death Punching”? It’s pretty vicious. Each year there’s people beaten to death taking part in Ultimate Death Punching. In fact, over the last decade, 100s of people have been killed taking part. Well, did you know that in THIS COUNTRY, children as young as eleven, can and DO take part in Ultimate Death Punching?! What kind of sick freaks let their kids do this, let alone watch it?! Substitute “boxing” for “ultimate death punching” and you see why the hype about “cage fighting” is dumb.

Think kids shouldn’t be having fights? Let’s talk about it. Heck, I’m inclined to think you’ve got a point. The idea that “cage fighting” is a sinister new evil is absurd, though. It’s typical of the UK press to focus not on what’s scary but on what sounds scary. There are few things more sick-making than a tabloid panic but at least most were banned to shield the dignity of animals.

Here’s a study on how falling blood sugars can make us – especially the fatter of us – crave great big snacks…

The hypothalamus, an area of the brain, senses the change when glucose levels fall. The insula and striatum, other brain areas, become active – these areas are associated with reward, and induce a desire to eat, the scientists found.

Sinha believes that the stress linked to a fall in glucose levels plays a key part in the activation of the striatum.

This could be another reason why low-fat “diet” foods are such a con. Research has suggested that people, especially overweight people, eat more of them than if they’d stuck with normal products; enough, indeed, that they’re packing in more calories. To some extent that’s the result of ignorance: they equate “fat” with, er, fat and imagine that a low-fat product can’t be fattening. That’s untrue, of course, as many of them are so thick with sugar that there’s a crouton’s worth of calories between them and the real stuff. It may also be significant that these products, with more sugar and no fat to slow digestion, will give a more violent spike to their consumer’s glucose levels and leave them hungering. Even if they restrict themselves to a couple of scoops of yoghurt, then, that box of pringles may seem irresistible later.

This isn’t an issue of world-shattering significance, of course, but I think it’s pretty sad that miserable people are sold a cure that’s liable to make their problem worse. In fact, it represents the worst of consumerism: making people feel they’re dependent on products that, in many cases, will only make them feel more helpless.

Refined carbohydrates are, more broadly, God’s gift to companies and their marketers: cheap to produce and easy to promote. Pack some sugar round some bits of starch, pour ‘em into some garish packaging, call ‘em chocolate frosted sugar bombs and sell ‘em for five times as much as the food to produce. Their success in working their products into diets was considered by Alternet’s Anneli Rufus

Breakfast in America is a corporate scam.

Not all of it. But nearly every breakfast staple — cold cereal, donuts, yogurt, bagels and cream cheese, orange juice, frappuccino — is a staple only because somebody somewhere wanted money. Wake up and smell the McCafé.

Far be it from me lecture someone on what they should eat, or claim that diets should be joylessly premised on health alone. (Orthorexia or, God forbid, anorexia are as or more unhealthy than the most hoggish of diets.) But it’s odd, as Rufus says, that these are staple foods because whether or not they’re worth it they’re completely unsuitable. If you have cereal and juice you’re often, in caloric terms, enjoying sugar with a glass of sugar; a recipe for moodswings, lethargy and hunger. That this is a normal feed for kids awaiting school should bother teachers everywhere.

I don’t get why conservatives become so grouchy when diets and ill-health are linked. A lot of the problems with consumption in Britain and America have sprung from wacky modern innovations and an overly dramatic shift from traditional diets. I understand the wish to disassociate yourself from anything that Jamie Oliver’s involved with but, still – it’s odd.

There has to be a limit to the number of sex scandals involving Berlusconi. He can’t have slept with every Italian woman? Can he? The latest revelations – a veritable novel’s worth, involving wiretaps, cocaine dealers, prostitutes and blackmail – may sink his presidency – though you wouldn’t bet on it – but the awesome question is how he’s survived this far? It isn’t just the affairs, in all their copious, lurid glory; it’s the economic corruption; the shady links to masons and, perhaps, the mafia; the vocal contempt for his own citizenry.

It helps, of course, to own great chunks of the media but there’s surely something that has sustained his popularity. I think the lesson to corrupt politicians everywhere is that if you’re hankering to get your end away or make some cheeky profit on the side it’s futile to pretend that you’re a pretty straight guy. If you’re exposed the public will be angered or amused by your hypocrisy, and their spite could drive you from office. People react violently to (a) the unexpected and (b) realising that they’ve been played for fools. So, promote the image of yourself as a rascal. Make light of your misdeeds; cast them as foibles, not as sins. (People are far more tolerant of those with low standards than high, and people who seem mischievous rather than moralistic.) In time they might just become a part of the landscape. You’ll still have to be competent enough that citizens don’t grow resentful and smart enough to grasp the difference between scandal and downright villainousness but within those constraints there’s plenty of, er – wiggle room.

I wouldn’t give advice, of course, if I thought they were listening.

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