The Last King of Scotland

We looked forward to viewing this film last night, a present for my recent birthday. I was sorely disappointed. Aside from Forest Whitaker, who does an amazing acting job fully deserving his Oscar, the acting is risibly poor. The cameo by Gillian Anderson shows up her painfully limited abilities.

But she isn’t helped by the main character, played by James McAvoy, who is simply one-dimensional, gauche, and inept. His expression rarely goes beyond surprise or amazement or shock and even then it’s often hard to make out which one he is trying to portray. There is an utter lack of depth. Only Whitaker’s stunning acting saves the film from being a total flop.

In fairness, McAvoy is not helped by the woeful plot and script. His character is supposed to be this young, innocent doctor who wants to do good for the world by putting his skills to use in a developing country. Right from the start, however, his naive surprise at the fact that Uganda is undergoing a military coup as he arrives is awfully hard to believe. And our belief in him as this intelligent observer is sorely tested by his blindness to Idi Amin’s true character as the film progresses. He is supposed to be surprised and taken aback when a British embassy man/spy hands him evidence of Amin’s atrocities and yet he is supposedly Amin’s “closest advisor”!!

However, all of this pales into insignificance when we watched the “Making of”-type documentary included on the DVD. Apart from the pontificating and hyperbole all these documentaries display (when lovey actors cosy up to darling directors) this one goes one better. One actor comments on how funny Idi Amin really was. Another states how, before Nelson Mandela, Amin was probably the world’s most famous black man (which may be true, but hardly for the right reasons). And on and on it went, all this eulogising about a brutal, mean, paranoid, uneducated, narrow-minded dictator. That it is estimated that he killed 300,000 people in his reign, or that he expelled all Asian nationals, or supported the kidnapping of innocent airplane passengers, or did other countless brutal things, that just seems a quirky character trait. Yeah, funny indeed, how hilarious.

In a deeper sense, we human beings seem painfully drawn in by the “glamour” of power. We are pulled in by the fascination with evil, the horror and the pity of it all. I am a victim of that too. We have a “great man” weakness, an obsession with it, that ends up – I think – normalising it in some way. If Amin had been this gentle, intelligent, moral man, who tried to do good for his country and succeeded, we wouldn’t be making films about him, would we? It just makes for a good story. Which is a pity, because Africa and Uganda sorely need men and women like that, who can make a difference to the lives of their people in an undramatic and democratic way.


Rain in Dublin

Rain in Dublin is not so bad. We’ve only had one spell of rain to speak of this year. It began on May 16th and continued until June 26th…(to paraphrase Woody Allen!)

The neck

Beverley Flynn, in Mayo last weekend, munching some grass

I was going to write a long, carefully-argued post about Beverley Flynn, TD for Mayo, daughter of Pee Flynn, tax-evader, cheat and proven liar. I was going to expound pompously on why Fianna Fail and Bertie Ahern would be wrong to bring this woman back to their party and then propose to make her a Junior Minister. Blah blah. Instead, I think she only deserves a funny picture. Oh, and a very long raspberry sound….

For those who don’t know who Beverley ‘The Neck’ Flynn is, just check out this article, which explains it very well…(might require free registration).

Finding the Answer

I was thinking through my post last week about the Infinite Library and about all the stimulating comments from David Levine and others. I thought: let’s see if we cannot break the problem down a little. Instead of an Infinite library, which would be impossible, let’s accept a hybrid, but incredibly useful, library I choose to call the Answer Library.

Imagine a very short passage of text, say 100 words long only. In this short passage of text, the answer to life, the universe, and everything is embedded (the Answer Text). It might start off something like: “Love life, disdain money, embrace your fellow man, e=mc2, Lord Lucan stole Shergar…” etc. In this dense and beautifully worded text, mankind could finally all agree on something. The Answer Library is just the library of all conceivable 100 word long English texts, containing somewhere within it the Answer Text. How tantalising, that as one scanned the library and opened a random book, one could be looking at the answer to all our problems, the final say on all the big questions.

The Answer Library could be generated by computers. They could be asked to generate all random combinations of words that made text of roughly 100 words length. How many texts would that be? It is hard to tell, but one estimate might be that there are about 5,000 words used in the average vocabulary, so let’s say it is any random configuration of legitimate English words in a dictionary of only 5,000 words. That would be 100 to the power of 5000: a stupendous amount of texts!

Right, we need to winnow this amount down to a manageable amount. We can program the computers with an English library, advanced grammatical reasoning, and other forms of AI to force them to reject texts that are plainly illogical and not reasonable candidates for the real text (e.g. a text with just the word “aubergine” printed 100 times in a row). And they can group all texts that are closely related by choosing just one representative text to represent them all.

Let’s imagine (for this is a game) that this process cuts down the amount of texts by a factor of 100 to the power of 4900 say. That’s a gigantic leap of reasoning and doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny at all, but please bear with me. Even then, we are left with a library with 100 to the power of 100, or 10 to the power of 200, texts. The number of atoms in the universe is only 10 to the power of 80 or thereabouts!

I am reluctantly forced to conclude that any attempt to randomly produce any intelligible text of even such a short length as 100 words is doomed to failure. That’s even before we address the trickly questions of whether such a text could possibly exist in the first place, or whether we’d recognise it if we read it, or whether there wouldn’t be different texts for different circumstances.

My other conclusion is that there might be a simpler way to produce such a text: get the greatest minds of mankind into a room for a week say, and ask them to produce the text through the application of intelligence, reasoning, insight, and poetry. We could ask a physicist, a moral philosopher, an historian, a poet to write the text, and a couple of others.

Oh, wait. They’d never agree on anything. The physicist would want to concentrate on quantum statistics and the Grand Unified Theory, while the moral philosopher would want at least 90 of the 100 words to express the true foundations of moral conduct. The poet would want to squeeze in a particularly apt metaphor or two, comparing man’s quest for the answer to the soul of Confucious chatting to the soul of Buddha. Oh heck…let’s think again about this…

New World Chess Championship Cycle

If politics is the art of the possible, chess politics is the art of the impossible.

FIDE had a previous World Champion (Topalov) play and lose against the current champion (Kramnik) and somehow managed to exclude Topalov from the current cycle to find a new champion (starting with the recent candidates and to culminate in September with a World Championship tournament (WChT), also including Kramnik). Never before has a champion (Kramnik) had to face his peers in a tournament to decide his legitimate title. But a confusing situation has now got even more bizaare.

FIDE have now decided to re-insert Topalov back into the world championship cycle by allowing him a special eight-game challenge, in 2008, against the winner of a World Cup tournament to be held in Nov-Dec this year in Russia. The winner of this match gets to play the winner of another match – this time between Kramnik (if he fails to win the WChT in Sept) and the winner of that WChT.

However, if Kramnik does win the tournament in September, then Topalov gets a direct match against him in 2008. And then the winner of that match plays the winner of the World Cup 2007 tournament in another decider for the title.

This raises a couple of issues which pertain to fairness, legitimacy, and equal opportunity. Firstly, Kramnik won a title unifying match against Topalov in 2006. He now is expected to play a huge tournament against 7 highly motivated opponents to defend that title (a precedent for a chess world champion), only 18 months after his defence. Even if he manages to win out (and he might be favourite, but has to face mighty challengers), he then has to face Topalov again in 2008, and then if he wins there he has to face another strong opponent in 2009. Okay, it could be argued that this is all part of proving he is the champion, but no previous champion has had to face such consecutive challenges (three matches and one tournament) over a period of three years, to defend his title.

More importantly, Topalov gets a huge – and unfair – lift back to another chess decider. If Kramnik wins the WChT, Topalov gets a title decider in 2008, with no extra work. And if he wins that match, there is no mention of a return match for Kramnik. That’s hardly fair, both to Kramnik and to the other 7 challengers in the WChT.

If Kramnik loses the WChT, Topalov gets to play one eight game match (in Bulgaria!!) to go into a decider against the winner of a Kramnik-AN Other match! He gets to a match against Kramnik in altogether different and easier standards (because Kramnik plays a very tough opponent, such as Leko or Anand or Morozevich…while he gets maybe some top-thirty GM because these sorts of 128 person tournaments are lotteries). Is this right?

Another scenario is that, say, Leko, after winning two candidates matches already, then wins the WChT and then plays Kramnik in 2008, before meeting Topalov in 2009. Whew! After four matches and one tournament over four years, he would finally be over that cycle of world championships. He then defends it again in 2010 against someone else. Topalov, meanwhile, has lost a title decider to Kramnik and then might get a one-match head-to-head against Kramnik in 2008 as a reward.

I believe that Topalov is getting a very easy way back to being world champion, while Kramnik is facing into a huge challenge to his title over the next two years. This is unfair, unequal, and wrong. It is brutal chess politics at its worst. What is sad is that Kramnik may feel obliged to challenge FIDE over this decision. If he does, the whole rotten edifice may come crumbling down again and the legitimacy (or not) of the chess world champion will be at risk again.


Ross Hemsworth has placed a bet of £100 with the William Hills bookmakers, at 10,000-1 odds, to prove to them the existence of an afterlife before Christmas. He stands to win £1,000,000. Either he is a fool or a charlatan, or both.

Let’s think about it. This man’s entire business – separating fools from their money via “talks” about the afterlife and the paranormal – rests on the assumption that an afterlife exists. But a reputable bookmaker is prepared to take a bet at gigantic odds that he is unable to prove the veracity of his central claim within a year. He is bound to lose. Both because he cannot prove something which is patently false. And secondly, because William Hill are not stupid and don’t go around putting odds on things that they aren’t confident of winning out on. According to them, they take bets on the moon landings proving to be an elaborate hoax at 100-1! So they consider Mr. Hemsworths claims to be 100 times less likely to be proven than that the entire world has been fooled for over 37 years about the moon landings.

Let’s face it, he wants the publicity for his forthcoming book. William Hill are happily taking his money from him, and the media (and myself!) are colluding in giving him free publicity. Which proves that he is a genius, of a sort, which means that he is definitely a charlatan and not a fool. This is a shameless act of publicity by a cheap, manipulative deceiver.

Infinite Library

I read Jorge Luis Borges’ classic short story, The Library of Babel, recently. In it, he postulates the existence of an infinitely large library of books stretching for mile upon mile in every direction, filled with large books all written in one language. The story explores all sorts of philosophical and psychological questions, such as meaning, knowledge, language, understanding, and reasoning. I got thinking then about this story and the Internet. Isn’t the blogosphere either that infinite libary (not literally infinite, but approaching such inordinate size as to be practically infinite for any one reader) or something approaching it? With all that daily typing, all the 1,110,019 blogs on WordPress (as of today, June 22nd), and all the other blogs on all the other blog hosts, aren’t we approaching a situation where – in effect – we have an infinite library of text?

This is like the infinite number of monkeys typing out a Shakespeare play, if given long enough. Assuming that the average blogger has more intelligence and foresight than the average monkey (a safe assumption…eh?) then you’d think that that mass of people would be capable of producing a couple of masterpieces between them, at least. Is there any evidence of it yet? I don’t know, I have only started in this blogging game…haven’t seen it yet though.

I can’t help but quote Borges himself on this library and what it would contain: “Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’ The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon, the secret and true nature of Rome, the encyclopedia Novalis would have constructed, my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, the proof of Pierre Fermat’s theorem, the unwritten chapters of Edwin Drood, those same chapters translated into the language spoken by the Garamantes, the paradoxes Berkeley invented concerning Time but didn’t publish, Urizen’s books of iron, the premature epiphanes of Stephen Dedalus, which would be meaningless before a cycle of a thousand years, the Gnostic Gospel of Basilides, the song the sirens sang, the complete catalog of the Library, the proof of the inaccuracy of that catalog. Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings. Everything: but all the generations of mankind could pass before the dizzying shelves — shelves that obliterate the day and on which chaos lies — ever reward them with a tolerable page.”

Brilliant. Simply a genius. Read that last line again – is that a vision of the internet today?

I propose a simpler way to produce a new Shakespeare-type play. Solve world poverty, introduce universal education, promote a love of beautiful language and an appreciation for drama in every citizen of the world, get robots and machines to do all the drudgery and work for us to free everybody to write, play, enjoy life, and finally one of us – maybe just one – will have a chance at the new Hamlet or the next King Lear. Simple really. 

Psychotic boss?

The BBC have an interesting story today about psychotics. It is a little known secret among psychologists that, in fact, they are not knife-wielding, drooling Hannibal Lecter types. In fact, they are much more likely to be sitting right next to you in your office, right now. They publish a list of characteristics (see below). Scary. Just think of someone you know. Without giving away too much, but there is an “Al**e” that springs to mind, perhaps a “M**y”, and certainly a “S*******r” out there that I have heard of/know of, who just might fit the definition…or not.

They are manipulative
They lack specific goals
They have superficial relations with people
They are impulsive
They are irresponsible
They crave power and prestige
They lack empathy
They lack remorse
They lie easily
They have predatory instincts
They are cool under pressure
They seek excitement and thrills
They take credit for the work of others
They fly into rages 

Come to think of it, is not every successful politician you’ve ever known a psychotic? That would explain a lot.

Project Management for Idiots

I just finished a course on project management. Project manglement more like. It fried my brain. What is it about business-speak that is utter gibberish? Stuff like:

“To be the big project mangler, select your project spinsters well in advance. The spinsters bring tea and cake to the project party, that breaks the wind of the team. The team is always eleven people, that’s 12 if you are counted, and if it’s good enough for Jesus etc. Your five phasers in any project is igniting, planting, exercising, motorising, and closeting. You ignite the projection to start it; fire helps. Plant the embers deep down under soil for three months to fester gently. Exercise with the team for all time. Then, coax projection gently from the now smoldering soil, motorise it by placing it gingerly in a large car, and drive it to the closet. Repeat until you are fine with it. Present the results to your patient steak holders. They’ll smear it on the steaks for eating. Tell the spinster to bring sauces and ketchup to the closet party. A grate project leaner drives his team over the edge. ” etc etc

Now, did that make any sense at all? At all??

No. I didn’t think so. That is how my brain feels after doing that damn course.

I can’t order a pint in a bar without going through my ingrained project steps. Who are my stakeholders? What are their requirements? I go back to my mates and ask them to sign-off on the requirements before I commit to the next phase. They tell me to go back to the bar and order three pints of Guinness and stop being an idiot. After procuring the three pints from the barman I can’t help testing the quality of the pints (all of them) and reporting it back to the stakeholde…sorry, the friends. They’ve left the bar by now… Life is lonely for great leaders…

“Mainstream Entertainment”

The Irish film censor has just banned the game Manhunt 2 from Irish stores (and it has been banned in the UK too). They said it was banned due to “the level of gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence…”. I have to trust them on that, because I haven’t seen it and don’t intend to either.

Rockstar, the developers of Manhunt 2, say: “Manhunt 2 is an entertainment experience for fans of psychological thrillers and horror. The subject matter of this game is in line with other mainstream entertainment choices for adult consumers.” (My italics).

First, it isn’t “mainstream”. It is a fringe offering for a fringe audience. I find it creepy and offensive when some corporation tries to tell me that something is “mainstream”, as if that makes it normal and sensible. Shrek 3 is mainstream. NBC Nightly News is mainstream. Since when was an interactive video game featuring the beating up, killing, maiming, or mutilation of people “mainstream entertainment”? Or have we as a society completely lost all sense of right and wrong?

Secondly, it shouldn’t be classed as “entertainment”. I can see that some very psychotic individuals may find this entertaining, so in one sense it is entertainment. But only entertaining in the same way that Serbian warlords found killing Bosnians in Srebenica to be amusing. Being entertaining doesn’t justify it.

No doubt, banning the game will increase it’s notoriety for a short time. In fact, it has probably raised the awareness of the game to levels way out of proportion to anything it deserves.

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