Ah, Horse Thieves  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be
a steep and rough trail. This is us.
- George W Bush

So Bush’s inspiring, proselytizing Methodist is in fact a horse thief fleeing from a lynch mob. It seems a fitting marker for the Bush presidency. Bush has consistently exhibited what psychologists call the “Tolstoy syndrome.” That is, he is completely convinced he knows what things are, so he shuts down all avenues of inquiry about them and disregards the information that is offered to him. This is the hallmark of a tragically bad executive. But in this case, it couldn’t be more precious. The president of the United States has identified closely with a man he sees as a mythic, heroic figure. In fact that man is a wily criminal one step out in front of justice. It perfectly reflects Bush the man... and Bush the president.

Scott Horton's articlette, "The Illustrated President", in Harper's, is an interesting read. For a start, it turns out that Bush mistakenly named his autobiography after a painting of a horse thief. Of course, it turns out that Salon.com spotted this first.

Eyeless in Gaza  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

It's important to occasionally rail off some statistics to put things in perspective. For example, how many children would you say were killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict last year? If you guessed 60, you're hella right. 60 kids. That's pretty fucked.

Here are a few things to remember. When the news (and that includes mainstream New Zealand media) talks about Hamas "taking control of Gaza", they were actually democratically elected by the Palestinian people. They are the democratically elected government. That's important to remember. Also, "Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas" refers to "unelected Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas".

Here's another interesting point. What's going on in Gaza at the moment is FUCKED. For those who don't know, essential supplies have been blocked from getting into Gaza, including food and fuel. The fuel is used for generators. The generators are used for the hospitals. The hospitals are used for keeping people alive. This is collective punishment. Blatant collective punishment.

So, punishment implies a crime. What is the crime for which 1.5 million people are being punished? Rockets being fired at Sderot, an Israeli town. You can read the LA Times article here , about how hard life is in Sderot:

They take quick showers, afraid to miss an alert, no longer sleep in upstairs bedrooms and avoid public places at what are considered peak Qassam times. And when the alert sounds, people drop everything, including their unpaid groceries in the aisles, costing Daniel Dahan more than $100 a day, he said. He owns Super Dahan, the grocery his father started. They run to one of the square concrete shelters, known as betonadas, after the word for cement, that increasingly dot the town. Then they pull out their phones, to check on their children.

And let's face it, that's pretty terrible. Living with that kind of fear must suck. Dropping your groceries, phoning your kids... Hell, it's going to cost US$25,000 per house to add safe rooms to protect people. Who can afford that?

Well, presumably the people of Sderot can afford that. And apparently they have groceries and phones. Yes, it's a tough life there. And their kids! I mean, as I said above, 60 children died in the conflict last year. Some of them must have come from Sderot, right?


Well, some of them must have come from Israel, right?

Yes! Yes, one child out of 60 who died last year from violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict was Israeli. His name was Mahmoud Ibrahim Mahmoud al-Krenawi, 11, of Rahat, near Beersheba. He was a Bedouin with Israeli citizenship, and he was shot by the Israeli Defence Force, in his head and pelvis, while picking figs.

Oh, wait. Even the Israeli kid wasn't killed by Palestinians. He was killed by the Israeli Defence Force too. This is very disconcerting. So, basically, hospitals are being shut down, 1.5 million people have had their vital supplies cut off, who are living in shit anyway, because they democratically elected the wrong people and include some minority who fire unguided rockets into a town 1km away, disrupting grocery shopping and killing one Israeli child every two years, on average, since they began being fired in 2001.

There's another statistic for you. On average, since 2001, Qassam rockets fired into Sderot have killed 1 child every two years. Four children since 2001. THREE KIDS HAVE BEEN KILLED IN GAZA BY THE IDF IN THE LAST MONTH! NO CHILDREN HAVE BEEN KILLED IN SDEROT IN THE LAST YEAR! This is not a proportionate response.

It's just fucked. And the media's attempts to "show both sides" and "be objective" just results in a ridiculous presentation of the affair as being roughly equal, with equal accountability and equal power to resolve the situation.

Anyway, according to Tom Feeley, here is how to donate food directly to Palestinian kids. No political, religious or militant groups involved.

PS. Statistics from Remember These Children.

PPS. Yes, life in Sderot is fucked, and it shouldn't be. Missile attacks on civilians are by definition terrorism. It's just fucking paradise compared to what the IDF do to Gazans.

Books That Make You Dumb  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Get a friend of yours to download, using Facebook, the ten most popular books at every college (manually -- as not to violate Facebook's ToS). These ten books are indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college. Download the average SAT/ACT score for students attending every college. Presto! We have a correlation between books and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

Books <=> Colleges <=> Average SAT Scores

Plot the average SAT of each book, discarding books with too few samples to have a reliable average. Post the results on your website, pondering what the Internet will think of it.

Click here to see the interesting results of this odd notion.

True Story  

Posted by Ryan Sproull

Clearly, I'm not much of an artist,
but you get the idea.

Crash and Burn (CDs)  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

The pm webserver has been compromised […] As a side note, please do not ever use the old passwords on anything.

I am loving Portfolio's online mirror. I've recently read a whole series of quality articles there. Check out this one on online piracy and a neat meeting with a teenage hacker. Or maybe you'd be interested in an article about Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's Funny or Die online comedy site. Or perhaps you'd just like to go to Funny or Die and check out Jerry O'Connell doing Tom Cruise.

Must Be Funny  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

Sorry, this is the best pic I could find.

Would you rather earn $50,000 a year while other people make $25,000, or would you rather earn $100,000 a year while other people get $250,000? Assume for the moment that prices of goods and services will stay the same.

Surprisingly -- stunningly, in fact -- research shows that the majority of people select the first option; they would rather make twice as much as others even if that meant earning half as much as they could otherwise have. How irrational is that?

Read the rest of this interesting LA Times article:

Why people believe weird things about money.

History Lessons  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Watch It Before It's Gone  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Uploaded by downcrush

Now available from here.

Keep out, Cheryl!  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

I'm a massive geek. Here is one of the reasons. Television brought me the future today. A room-sized computer with a name and bespectacled owner... who did magic tricks?! His ballet-doing girlfriend and closet homosexual athlete friend and BMX-trick-doing black-guy friend?! AND THEY SOLVE CRIMES, HOLY SHIT. With a little help from their detective friend, and his detective mate "A Martinez" (not to be confused with "The Martinez").

So digital! So watch-out-for-static!

And can it be that there is an entire fucking episode of Whiz Kids on YouTube? Yes, it can be.

Sounds Like a Summer Sport  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

Here's a curious thing. Scylla, at the Straight Dope message board, decided to try waterboarding himself to see what the fuss is all about. For those who don't know, waterboarding is an interrogation technique used by American intelligence on detainees. It simulates the sensation of drowning without actually drowning you, triggering the Fuck I'm Gonna Die reflect.

Read Scylla's report here.

Life on Earth  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Ian Wishart has kindly responded to my recent post on chapter four of his book The Divinity Code. Rather than create a bulky ongoing commentfest, I prefer to post further articles (mainly because Blogger's comment system combined with my layout equals shit).

One of my criticisms was that Ian's application of the anthropic principle assumed that earth life is the only kind of life. At least, that is the premise that would have to be added to make the reasoning sound. I made a separate criticism that his argument assumed that life is special enough to demand more explanation than any other kind of physical phenomena. While I made the points separately, they can be made together. Here is Ian's argument.

1. Life requires exactly earth-like conditions to arise.
2. The chances of earth-like conditions arising are impossibly small.
3. Therefore it is unreasonable to believe it happened by chance.
4. Therefore it was done on purpose.
5. Therefore God.

I suggested that there was an implicit assumption that earth life was the only kind of possible life - or else the first premise is false. If earth life is not the only kind of possible life, then the first premise becomes "earth life requires exactly earth-like conditions", which is tautologous and therefore true, but invalidates the argument. To illustrate this, I made an analogous argument:

1. Ryan requires exactly Ryan's Life conditions to arise.
2. The chances of Ryan's Life conditions arising are impossibly small.
3. Therefore it is unreasonable to believe it happened by chance.
4. Therefore it was done on purpose.
5. Therefore God.

The Ryan argument seems obviously silly, because the chances of anyone else's life being just right for them to arise is just as unlikely as Ryan's life. The earth-life argument seems less silly because while we're familiar with the idea of other potential people, we're less familiar with the idea of other potential forms of life.

We know from everyday experience that there are millions of people who could correctly think, "Fucking hell, if Mum and Dad hadn't had that last oyster 27 years ago, I wouldn't be here!" It requires more thought to imagine the possibility of other potential kinds of life which could reflect on their existence and say, "Fucking hell, if we didn't orbit a binary star system, we wouldn't be here!"

Ian has recently been given a similar response, where someone has replaced "earth life" with "Cambridge cosmologists". Ian quotes their counter-example:

1. If an all-powerful god made the world so that Cambridge Cosmologists would thrive, then Cambridge Cosmologists would thrive
2. Arguably Cambridge Cosmologists do thrive
3. Conclusion: An all-powerful god made the world so that Cambridge Cosmologists would thrive.

His respondent adds, "The problem with this argument is that Cambridge Cosmologists can be replaced with anything (including yours truly or tape-worms) and therefore is vacuous."

It's worth noting here that this is not really the argument that Ian was putting forth in chapter four. There is nothing like the first premise ("If God made the world so that Cambridge cosmologists would thrive, then they would") in his argument.

Ian's response is thus:

Your context is set too vaguely. If Cambridge Cosmologists, and only Cambridge Cosmologists, appeared to exist, this would be a closer analogy to the situation we currently find ourselves in...

It's not an entirely adequate response to Mr Cambridge, but I'm not going to go into that, because Mr Cambridge's email was not an entirely adequate response to Mr Wishart.

What it shows, though, is that I need to be more clear in my Ryan's Life analogy. Presumably, what Ian is saying to me by quoting his response to Mr Cambridge is that my analogy would only be analogous if I was in fact the only person to exist. That's fair enough, given how difficult an analogy it was. I'll make it a bit clearer.

Ryan = earth-life.
Ryan's Life = the conditions on earth that give rise to earth-life.
Other people = other potential forms of life.
Other people's lives = other potential lives that give rise to non-Ryan people.

The surprise that I am Ryan and not someone else is analogous to the surprise that earth-life exists and is not some other kind of life. It is analogous not because Ryan is the only person who exists, but because Ryan is the only person who is Ryan, amongst others who are not. The difference is that we can see other people, other potential lives, but we cannot see other potential forms of life. That was, in fact, my whole point - that this is why it's intuitively compelling to believe that earth-life is unbelievably special, whereas it's not intuitively compelling to believe that Ryan is unbelievably special. Because we have examples of alternatives to Ryan, but no examples of alternatives to earth-life.

This isn't lost on Ian, and he's provided a few arguments that, in fact, earth-life is the only possible kind of life. Biochemists have suggested that only carbon or silicon has the versatility and stability to be a basis for life, and carbon moreso than silicon. That narrows "life" down to "carbon-based life". A fair enough argument. The problem is that carbon is fairly prevalent in the universe, and we don't really know what other potential self-replicating patterns of matter could arise involving it.

We can speak of the unlikelihood of an entire cell forming spontaneously. We can speak of the lower unlikelihood of RNA forming spontaneously. We can speak of self-catalysing molecules - some of which we have produced. But we don't have comprehensive knowledge of every possible self-replicating molecule and the chances of it forming spontaneously in conditions earth-like or not. We really don't know the odds, though we do know that there's an awful lot of time and an awful lot of space for them to play out. In other words, we have no reason to conclude that exactly earth's conditions are required for carbon-based life to arise - still only the tautology that exactly earth's conditions are required for exactly earth's carbon-based life to arise.

Those paying close attention will note another analogy here. There's no end to my statement, "We don't know all the possible arrangements of matter and their likelihood of spontaneously occurring." We can never know. Isn't that analogous to the God of the Gap of the Origin of Life? A "Get Out of Argument Free" card?

Well, perhaps, and I suspect that's the attitude of many scientists. "We don't have a definite naturalistic explanation for the origin of life on earth, therefore there is a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life on earth that we don't know." It's not even worth throwing "yet" on the end of the statement, because we can never know for sure, as I mentioned earlier.

Again, we're back to the odds. Scientists assume there is a naturalistic explanation for life on earth - either one they've imagined already or one that have not - because there always has been in the past. Schizophrenia is not caused by demons. Palsy is not caused by fairies. Lightning is not caused by gods. Rainbows are not placed there by God. Mental states are not souls, but directly alterable chemical processes. Almost everything in the past that was previously given a supernatural explanation now has a proven naturalistic one. What are the odds that this one is different?

Let's say you line up a thousand people, and you ask each one, "Have you ever lied?" Each one tells you they haven't. Then you come back with a lie detector and ask them all again, "Have you ever lied?" The first 999 were lying, but when you get to the last guy, it turns out he died earlier that day. You can't test him with the lie detector.

What do you believe about him? That he was the one guy in a thousand who actually had never lied? Do you believe neither that he had ever lied nor that he had? Or do you believe that he was the one guy in 1000 who had never lied, because some people are telling you so, and it's just dumb luck you can't prove for sure that he lied?

That's the reason for the "faith" in naturalistic explanations of the origin of life. It's a habit born from centuries of experience. It's just unrealistically unlikely that this is the time that supernatural explanations trump naturalistic ones, after the last thousand examples of naturalistic explanations trumping supernatural ones.

But I digress. Back to the matter at hand. I claim we can't know the odds of life spontaneously occurring somewhere in the universe, sometime from its beginning to its end, even if we limit ourselves to carbon-based life. To me, it's a safe assumption that life of some sort is inevitable in the universe - there's a lot of universe. If those incalcuable odds are different, I could be wrong, and life may well not be inevitable. It may be incredibly unlikely. Let's look at a different part of the argument, the most fundamental:

Even if life of any kind is incredibly unlikely, why does that demand special explanation? There are innumerable things in the universe that are incredibly unlikely. It's incredibly unlikely that the third neutron from the left of the exact centre of Alpha Centauri is moving in the direction it is. Why does this particular phenomenon - life - demand special explanation when nothing else does?

13 Gho... Grandmothers  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

WE, THE INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF THIRTEEN INDIGENOUS GRANDMOTHERS, represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come. We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. We believe the teachings of our ancestors will light our way through an uncertain future. We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.


Posted by Ryan Sproull in , ,

"Will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark?"

Season three, episode six of Veronica Mars is all about Veronica trying to clear her name from plagiarism allegations. Meanwhile, her awesome boyfriend Logan keeps writing a few seconds after an exam is finished. The lecturer doesn't accept his paper.

He asks, "Do you have any idea who I am?"

The lecturer says, "No, and I don't care."

And Logan puts his exam inside the pile and walks off.


Still, I like the Veronica Mars writers enough to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe this was a witty little joke about plagiarism. After all, they did the cool homage to Lebowski - "You're entering a world of pain, Larry" - and didn't make a big deal about it. I make a big deal for them. I'm like that.

DC: The Improbability of Earth  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

A month ago (yes, a whole month), I reviewed chapter three of Ian Wishart's The Divinity Code. Towards the end, I said:

Ian declares at the end of the chapter that this is going to be a major theme of his book. There are so many things that "could have" been different, therefore we are so lucky to be here that it is unbelievable that our being here is not the result of sentient intention.

Chapter four, "The Improbability of Earth", continues this theme, so it's worth recapping the three thoughts with which I ended the last review:

1. The assumption that it is intelligible to speak of what "could have happened" in the universe.

2. The assumption that earth life, or even sentient life at all, is special enough to require special explanation.

3. The assumption that there aren't "other universes" which fall victim to exactly the sentient-life-less fate we're told we narrowly avoided, and that this just happens to be one in which sentient life is possible.

Now, both (1) and (3) are more applicable to the preceding chapter than to this one, because while the preceding chapter was about the way the universe happens to be, this chapter is about where in that universe earth happens to be located. The arguments of the chapter can be summed up as follows:

1. Current hypotheses regarding the origin of life on earth are inadequate.

2. A life-producing earth-like planet is so unlikely as to be practically impossible.

3. Scientists believe in God, therefore you should.

There are several assumptions underpinning the arguments in Chapter Four.

The assumption that earth life is the only kind of possible life.

My working definition of "life" is "any self-replicating pattern that has the potential to evolve". In other words, "any self-replicating pattern that can vary from one generation to the next and exists in an environment of scarcity/competition". That category includes earth life, but also includes any such self-replicating patterns of which we have not yet conceived or we have not yet discovered.

Wishart spends a lot of time explaining how earth is inexplicably tailored for the arising of life. To be clearer, he is talking about how earth is inexplicably tailored for the arising of earth life. Put in those terms, it doesn't seem quite so incredible. The reasoning goes like this:

1. Incredibly unlikely things require special explanation.
2. (Unspoken assumption: earth life is the only possible kind of life.)
3. Earth life required exactly earth's conditions in order to arise.
4. Earth conditions are astronomically unlikely to occur exactly like this.
5. Therefore life requires special explanation.

Without the unspoken assumption, the odds of life arising increase by an order of the number of every possible - existent or non-existent - planets with conditions that could give rise to any kind of life (not just earth-like life).

If this is still not clear, consider this analogy:

1. Incredibly unlikely things require special explanation.
2. (Unspoken assumption: Ryan Sproull-like people are the only possible kind of people.)
3. Ryan Sproull required exactly Ryan's Life in order to arise.
4. A person's life conditions are astronomically unlikely to occur exactly like this.
5. Therefore the existence of a person (me) requires special explanation.

Because we're familiar with other kinds of people, the flaw in the argument seems obvious to us. But because we're not familiar with other potential kinds of life (existent or not), the flaw in Wishart's argument is not so immediately apparent.

It may well be that life of any kind is still unlikely enough to fit Wishart's criteria for requiring special explanation. Just because life in general is more likely than earth-like life, that doesn't mean that it is as inevitable as some scientists erroneously believe that earth-like life is. But really, we don't know what these increased odds are, because we don't know all of the possible forms of self-replicating patterns in the universe.

All of Wishart's arguments are based on earth-like life. Many are based on theories of the spontaneous arising of complex life in the form of the simplest cell possible. It may seem like "the simplest cell possible" would be a simple form of life, but really, even a simple cell is incredibly complex. For this reason, molecular biologists have long since abandoned theories of such cells instantly forming, in favour of cells themselves having evolved from simpler processes. No conclusion has yet been reached (see next section).

Wishart refers to a Dawkins argument that addresses the unlikelihood of earth-like conditions arising.

[Dawkins] disarmingly concedes the point. Yes, he admits, we appear to live on a unique planet. Yes, the moon is crucial for the existence of life [note the implicit equating of "life" with "earth life"]. Yes, we inhabit the Goldilocks zone.

"Earth's orbit," he agrees, "is so close to circular that it never strays out of the Goldilocks zone."

Faced with all of this, Dawkins tries to convince readers that despite everything having to be "just right", science still has a natural answer.

"The great majority of planets in the universe are not in the Goldilocks zones of their respective stars, and not suitable for life [now Dawkins making the earth-like life assumption]. None of that majority has life. However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it."

Simple, really. Using Dawkins' logic, you can wave all the unlikely preconditions aside, put it down to blind chance, and say, "Well, here we are, then, so it must have happened naturally."

Richard Dawkins' fatal mistake here is the assumption that his very existence and ability to ponder the probability of it all proves in itself a natural first cause.

A subtle misreading of Dawkins' argument lies behind Wishart's responses. To hear Wishart tell it, Dawkins' argument is, "We are here, therefore it happened naturally." That is not what the quoted argument is saying. Instead, it is saying, "If it happened naturally, here we would be. Here we are, so it could have happened naturally." And it is in response to the design argument, "Here we are, so it couldn't have happened naturally."

The Assumption that Not Knowing Means God Did It

We don't currently know for sure how life arose on earth. Without a time machine, we will never know for certain. Hypotheses can be forwarded that fit the observable facts, but by their very nature they are untestable. We cannot observe what happened millions of years ago, and we cannot reproduce conditions that include millions of years of time. There is a gap in our knowledge and there will continue to be so.

So unlike many other objects of enquiry in science, there cannot be conslusive proof of a given abiogenesis hypothesis. This also means that conclusive proof is an impossibly high standard to demand from origin-of-life theories. Any argument that rests on the lack of such inconclusive proof is an argument that rests on an unfalsifiable premise, and so is flawed.

What we have with appealing to God when science has no conclusive explanation is the "God of the gaps". The gaps continue to shrink, as scientific explanation expands, but the gaps are still there, and so the God of the gaps persists. What we have here is a situation where the gap will never completely disappear - it is beyond the ability of science (unless we sort out time travel) to conclusively fill the origin-of-life gap. And so it is a place where the God explanation can sort of surviveo forever if needs be.

Wishart is a big fan of pointing out improbabilities. What are the odds that, with every other phenomenon having a naturalistic explanation, the one that cannot have a conclusively proven naturalistic explanation is the very phenomenon that has only a supernatural explanation? Incalculable, but I'd say they're pretty slim. They're certainly slim enough for me to give naturalistic explanations the benefit of the doubt.

The Assumption that Life is Special

This is the really big one, of course. We can give Wishart's arguments the most possible benefit of the doubt, and yet this assumption remains. We can give his argument the unwarranted assumption that life of any kind is so unlikely as to be practically impossible. We can give his argument the unwarranted assumption "God did it" is an appropriate response to something that demands explanation. But we are still left with the anthropocentric assumption that life demands a special explanation.

To be more clear, the assumption is that life demands a more special explanation than any other phenomenon does. In other words, two hydrogens and an oxygen forms water, splitting uranium atoms releases energy, gravity pulls everything together - all of these could be true and it would just be a boring old universe anyone could imagine floating around. Add life - especially sentient life - and suddenly it becomes a universe that demands an explanation.

There is simply no logical reason for this leap. The formation of a particular kind of crystal may be incredibly unlikely and rare, and occur in this universe, but that does not mean that the universe now requires special explanation, nor does the occurrence of this crystal require special explanation. The same holds true for life. While life may be very important to the living, its importance does not hold outside of its own self-reflection, regardless of the odds of it occurring.

There is no objective standard of importance against which we can judge ourselves to be more important than a quasar, and so there is no means of singling this universe out among the infinite imaginable potential universes against which we compare this one when we say that it is unique, life-bearing and important.

I may write a little more on abiogenesis and potential non-earth-like forms of life later.

G is for Geek  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

This neat little work is called The Geek ABC's, and it's half Gorey-esque alphabet thingee and half geek test. Sadly, I'm familiar with more than half of the geeky little wossnames throughout. (If you haven't read Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies, click here.)

Swamp Thing  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Long before V For Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or From Hell, classic horror series Swamp Thing was the first of Alan Moore's literary creations to be watered down to slop for the big screen. It was also turned into a kids' TV show in the '80s, with the theme song to the tune of Wild Thing. So those unfamiliar may be unaware of just how awesome Swamp Thing is.

The story starts off fairly simple. Alec Holland is a biochemist who's come up with a kind of super-grow fertiliser to solve the world's hunger problems. Evil industrialists blow him and his research up. He goes running on fire out into the water of the bayou, and Swamp Thing is born. The stories are dark, subtle, pretty complex at times. Swamp Thing is also whence the character John Constantine came, only later spinning off into his own Hellblazer series.

The first issue of Swamp Thing is available from DC Comics, here, for free. If you're inclined to download a bit more than that and are fond of torrents, you might want to download Comical to read the usual formats. Trade-paperback compilations of Swamp Thing are generally available from comic stores or Amazon. And if you're keen for taste of some other good comics you might not have read before, check out this list from Daily Bits.

Cary Grant's Musings on LSD  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in , , ,

Cary Grant: the dude what dudes would turn gay for since 1932

I suppose if a healthy youngster walked along a street in a bathing suit to allow his or her youthful pores a little more oxygen from the meager amount obtainable in our smog-infested cities, he or she would be arrested. “Here now, none of that trying to keep a healthy body in this city. Go to the beach!” “In which direction, officer? This is Kansas City.” Even bare feet and a rare acquaintance with the earth beneath them would be sufficient to disassociate you from the association of your embarrassed associates. Civilization! Oh, brother! And you, too, sister!

Hmm? Oh, yes. Cary Grant, in the (successful) search for increased mental health, took acid to see what his subconscious held.

Click here for the relevant excerpt from his autobiography.
Say a prayer for Metafilter as you do so.

New Zealand's Answer to Borat  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

While British comedy is well known for subtlety, some New Zealand comedic art is so subtle that few realise it's satire.

In 1998, Britain's The Eleven O'Clock Show introduced a new character in the line-up. Ali G was the "voice of da yoof", and his caricaturish portrayal of British "wiggers" was an immediate success. The man behind Ali G, Sascha Baron Cohen, was a young and talented comedian from the socialist-Zionist theatre scene. His skill with creating and portraying characters had already been noted - his "Bruno" character had appeared on the Paramount Comedy Channel earlier the same year, and a precursor to his later "Borat" character had caught the attention of a British producer.

Cohen almost never gives interviews out of character - when in the eye of the media, he is seldom himself, but rather Ali G, Borat, Bruno, or perhaps others. While some may dismiss this as shyness, others might applaud it as a commitment to his craft. Both his characters Ali G and Borat have been very popular in New Zealand, spawning terrible memes that involve people saying things like, "Very nice, I like," then pausing for laughter.

What few people realise is that New Zealand is itself the unwitting possessor of a comedic talent that rivals Cohen in skill and perhaps surpasses him in commitment. Whereas Cohen occasionally steps out of character, such as to get married, New Zealand's comedic artist never breaks character. Her commitment to the role, the art, the pure comedy, is more akin to Christian Bales' character in The Prestige - relentless living of the art for art's sake.

It's not publicly known when the character "Liz Shaw" was first invented, but several leaps of infamy have thrown her into the consciousness of a great many urbanite Kiwis. She began her performance at Auckland University in 2004, parading in bold attire, attracting enough attention to warrant mentions of "that girl who wears short dresses and no underwear" in student magazine Craccum. Her impassioned and in-character replies to her critics became a regular feature in the magazine until 2006, when editor Ryan Sproull - not yet realising her genius - banned the use of her name. (The only exception was BT Boyle's satirical letter listing "The Liz Shawshank Redemption" as a hypothetical pornographic film.)

In 2005, Auckland pornographer, businessman and later mayoral candidate Steve Crow published an advertisement in Craccum for an "A+ model search", which promised one lucky and adventurous lady a prize of $10,000 off her student loan. '05 editors Alec Hutchinson and Stian Overdahl became aware of the true nature of the advertisement too late to prevent it from going to print. The meeting with evangelical Christian student-association president Greg Langton was apparently hilarious.

The advertisement, which was not repeated in the magazine, was actually searching for models for a pornographic movie. Seeing an opportunity to promote the Liz Shaw character, the anonymous artist behind the character immediately put herself forward for the competition. Though she did not win the $10,000 - and I am not certain that anyone did - she was offered a much smaller sum for tasteful nudes in Steve Crow's gentlemen's magazine NZX. She accepted the offer.

After the photo shoot, The Artist Currently Known as Liz Shaw (or "TACKALS") wrote an article for Craccum detailing the experience, in her intentionally awkward English phraseology. She described it as a fairly positive experience - a position she reversed some several weeks later.

Craccum readers, unfamiliar with the subtlety of the humour, wrote letter after letter criticising and insulting the Liz Shaw character. Undaunted by a complete lack of appreciation, TACKALS made her next move: she enrolled the Liz Shaw character in the Young Nats group at Auckland University. While this information was not kept secret, the public still did not realise the extent of the joke being pulled on them.

TVNZ's current-events show 20/20 took a closer look at Steve Crow's competition, and TACKALS managed to get an interview with "Liz Shaw" included on film. The unsuspecting journalists bought the act hook, line and sinker. The footage is available online here.

Even with such a coup under her belt, TACKALS did not rest. Incredibly, nor did she break character. Reports of seeing Liz Shaw on buses began to spread through the Auckland University student populace, her attitude and attire (a studied, consistent "previous-year's Karen Walker") never dropping even for a moment.

TACKALS also entered the realm of New Zealand's blogosphere and cyberspace, first gaining infamy for her Liz Shaw character on the late Craccum Forum and the NZ Games forum, but quickly spreading from there. She was soon known as the "Candyman" of the Internet - speak her name three times and she arrives. This has yet to be confirmed, but one source suggests that she uses Ian Wishart's trick of Google Alerts to inform her of any reference - such as to his book "The Divinity Code". When someone posts anything anywhere about The Divinity Code, Ian Wishart is alerted and comes running, to see what is being said about The Divinity Code. It has to be in that order, too. Not just "Code Divinity The", but "The Divinity Code".

On the Internet, TACKALS found further chances to hone her "Liz Shaw-speak" abuse of the English language, revealing more of her genius. Such a perfect misuse of English comes only through an incredible literacy, akin to a clown's seemingly mistaken juggling, which actually requires years of practice. She was being noticed by major figures in the Kiwi blogosphere, too, with Kiwiblog's DPF calling her "an interesting Young Nat".

The end of 2005 marked a turning point in the art of TACKALS. She experimented with a darker kind of humour, claiming that her experience with Crow's NZX and the subsequent public criticism had caused an eating disorder. Cruder observers, if they were aware of the performance, might believe TACKALS was introducing a kind of offensive humour to liven up the character. A finer understanding of the art of Liz Shaw, however, appreciates the new evolution of the character as borderline Asperger's with a narcissistic disorder, parodying the youth of today.

In making this and other outrageous claims, commonly understood to be "cries for attention", TACKALS brought the Liz Shaw character full circle, eliciting both pity and disgust from an audience suddenly unsure of how to react. While the Liz Shaw character appeared merely ignorant and slightly out of kilter with societal norms, her audience could mock her with social impunity - the same kind of mockery was exacted daily on many others, by chauvinistic men and insecure women. The introduction of psychological and even psychiatric illness to the character threw this state of affairs into disarray. Perhaps the most perfect expression of this new development was Otago's regional TV show Cow TV ringing Ryan Sproull for comment about Liz Shaw. Sproull pleaded over the phone, "Please don't give her any more attention. I really do think she's ill. It's become a matter of ethics."

The next surge in Lizmania was provided by sickening TV show New Zealand Idol. In 1999, an obscure group of New Zealand Satanists attempted to immantise the Christian eschaton by creating a reality-TV show that sought members for a pop group. Popstars created TrueBliss, and the concept was sold first to Australia, then the UK and US. The virus mutated overseas and returned to New Zealand, whose immune system didn't recognise it and was infected again. So New Zealand Idol was born.

A major feature of the show was the initial auditions for short-listing. Realising that the televised auditions were selected for entertainment rather than for quality, TACKALS entered, secure in the knowledge her character, her art, was entertaining as hell - even (especially?) to those who did not realise they were being fooled.

Once again, people bought the Liz Shaw character without question, even after she selected a song with the lyrics "crash and burn" and badly performed it with such precision that she was interrupted and derided by the judges almost immediately. In her most public performance yet, TACKALS emphasised the mental illness of the Liz Shaw character, criticising the judges, including Frankie Stevens' male-pattern baldness. It was a calculated move, and it paid off. "Liz" having signed away the rights to the filming of the audition, South Pacific Pictures on-sold the footage to Telecom, through which it was played again and again on national television in the form of a cellphone ad.

2005 was truly an annus mirabilis for the Liz Shaw chracter. In the words of her website:

NZ Idol changed Liz in many ways and she has decided to pursue her goals of running her own newspaper. in October of this year, Liz started her own newspaper, The Right Word, which is distributed weekly. Unbeknown to the public, Liz had been planning this publication for over a year. Alongside Liz's latest project she continues to study at the University of Auckland and in summer is going to resume her diploma in advertising in order to gain the skills and knowledge required to make her newspaper a success.

Liz also has a part time job. She works for a small market research business, Prime Research in Auckland.

Liz has been a lover of cats all her life and she currently has a black and white kitten named Scratchy whom she adores.

The website, Slinky.net.nz, has sadly since disappeared, but much of the material remains available in the Wayback Machine, here. With this valuable source, the public can examine not only The Right Word - itself a masterpiece in political satire - but also TACKALS' experiments with poetry and song-writing. Here is just one sample:

I used to have a casual sex partner, for over ten months
and we always got sexually satisfied
sometimes I didn't mind but other times I wanted more
it's not about him, well maybe a little
I thought I knew him but I knew OF him for a long time

[chorus] Casual sex, casual sex everyone wants it till they've got it
no commitment and no problems it all seems good till you get it
casual sex casual sex it can do any harm to you
well this is wrong so very very wrong

I was attached to him, he knows this but he wasn't attached to me
I wish he was but he told me that he wasn't and will never be
I did enjoy the sex with him but he was very selfish
and there was no emotional connection, not on his part anyway

What the reader must understand is that while lesser artists, like Sascha Baron Cohen, might invent such events, TACKALS' dedication is such that she would actually engage in sexual practices with young men whom the Liz Shaw character would find personally and politically appealing. To match our Kiwi-made performance artist, Ali G would literally have to find someone named M'Julie and sleep with them.

Exhausted by the events of 2005, TACKALS took a brief sabbatical, directing her creative energies. Her performances were getting more and more blatant, and while they confronted such contemporary issues as mental illness, body image and politics, her art continued to be unappreciated. The situation is reminiscent of the Yes Men and their ever-increasing obviousness in parodying the positions of their victims. What Liz needed, to continue the analogy, was a huge inflatable phallus. She found that phallus in Shortland Street.

Television had worked in the past, and so to television TACKALS returned, this time finding work as an extra on hit New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street. Naturally, she understood that her standing in the public was not yet such that she would be noticed simply by being in the background of a soap-opera scene. Already having established an online presence at the Shortland Street fan site, TACKALS, still playing the Liz Shaw character, leaked essential plot details - ones South Pacific Pictures had invested considerable money in marketing. The uproar was immediate and, for the artist, gratifying.

The use of performance art to highlight contemporary issues in New Zealand society is a recurrent theme in the Liz Shaw project. Previously putting the spotlight on things like the porn industry, the National Party and mental illness, she now turned New Zealand's attention to the wasteful nature of capitalism and the amount of wealth that goes into promoting something as pointless as a soap-opera plot. TACKALS' point was left unmade directly, with mainstream New Zealand media seeing the "finger" and not the "moon" to which it pointed. Newspaper and television media leapt on her previous performances in NZX and NZ Idol, both failing to understand her art and, in a way, making her point for her.

What next for the Liz Shaw project? Well, I intend to interview the artist, though I have no hope that she will break character. Her latest performance in progress is a political blog, entitled Political Passion, where it seems she will be mixing emotional/sexual confession ("passion") with her own brand of studied drooling conservatism. Unable to resist the chance to broadcast the Liz Shaw character via video, she has introduced video-blogging to her repertoire. So far, she has recorded 10 performances, though there are sure to be more soon. They are all available on YouTube here.

Additionally, she has fooled "Don't Vote Labour" founder Andrew Moore, who has placed the Liz Shaw character as a moderator on the site's forum, where she has produced such gems as, "If National are elected then they will also reduce taxes therefore you'll have more money in the pocket. People are worried about health care, but having experienced both public and private, I can say that given the choice I wouldn't use public." Pure genius. She adds given the choice to highlight the fact that only those who can afford private healthcare have a choice in the matter at all. Her performance on the site is chronicled here. It's not yet as impressive as her other work, but no doubt she will work up to something great.

So there you have it. New Zealand's answer to Borat, infamous but not famous, well-known but not well-liked, dismissed but not understood - and yet undaunted. We can only hope that as more people understand the lifelong performance-art project of "the Liz Shaw character", she will find her place amongst our classics: Fred Dagg, the Wizard of Christchurch, and Brendan Horan.


Posted by Ryan Sproull

...for the new layout.

I'll find a better background image soon.

Interactive Advertising - Awesome?  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

Pronet Advertising's blog gets a hat-tip for spotting these
cool BBC World billboards in the US.

Labour Should Lose This Year's Election  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in , ,

The word "should" is ambiguous. Or even polyguous. Here are a few:

1. If you set the kindling properly, the fire should light.
2. You should refrain from punching old ladies in the face.

The first one is a prediction, and the other is a moral imperative. So when I say, "Labour should lose the election," while most people would be making a prediction, I'm actually issuing a moral imperative: do the right thing, Labour, and lose.

Yes, it's pretty likely that Labour will lose this year's election, though there is plenty of time yet for some absurd bullshit to come out. And that's kind of what I'm talking about here. The absurd bullshit. Because at this point, what's going to shift the average voter's vote is either a competition of tax cuts or some stupid scandal where it turns out John Key's boning Gerry Brownlee or something.

And really, neither of those things should have any impact on sensible voters at all. TV3 News authoritatively declared a few weeks ago that Labour would have to promise a $25/week tax cut in order to retain power after the next election. Seriously, this was national 6pm news. "Here is how much each person in New Zealand must be paid by the political party in order to get their votes." As if, you know, that's what democracy is all about - voting for whoever promises you the shiniest balloon and the sweetest lollipop.

And the stupid scandals are just stupid. There will be some this year. And they are stupid.

Throughout the past century, there has been a shift in attitudes towards democracy, from voters being seen as rational individuals who should be exposed to arguments about the best policies for the nation as a whole, to voters being seen as essentially consumers in a market economy of votes, driven by irrational desires rather than rational thought.

This shift has infected what used to pass for left-wing parties in Western countries. We saw it with Clinton and the Democrats, and then Blair and British Labour. Both parties were responding to tactics that had already been introduced by Reagan and Thatcher, appealing to the atomised society of selfish individuals who don't see themselves as part of a community. The emphasis shifted from good policy to good marketing - echoing a shift already effected in the economy, from rational purchasers to subconscious desire-driven consumers.

In New Zealand, the political left is already basically non-existent. The nature of parliamentary politics in the market economy of votes has a feedback effect on the policies of "leftist" parties. Over time, there is an inevitable shift from true left and true right towards the "centre" - which is essentially a compromise between capitalism that accentuates the rewards for those at the top and capitalism that mitigates the effects on those at the bottom. "Left" or "right", New Zealand political parties are capitalist, which makes them essentially right-wing in my book.

There was a conversation between Clinton and one of his advisers, when he started creating policy based on phone polling. "What's the point of being elected if we don't have any real policies?" asked the adviser.

Clinton replied, "What's the point of having policies if we don't get elected?"

At first glance, this sounds like a sensible practical view. In a representative democracy, politics must surely involve some compromise. The problem is, though, that the compromise is no longer a political or economic ideological compromise ("OK, we'll raise taxes, but also offer incentives to start-up small businesses"), but instead are cynical vote-buying strategies akin to the marketing of retail products.

Labour's on the defensive. They're down in the polls thanks to skilful spin and misinformation from National surrounding the repeal of Section 59, the Electoral Finance Bill and tax cuts - misinformation that was picked up and carried by Kiwi media too excited by revenue to tell the (very) plain facts. It is simply the case that when things are going pretty well (well enough for Kiwis to have the education and wealth necessary to move their families overseas if they choose), people stop caring whence good living conditions come and start caring about who's going to give them personally something they want in exchange for their vote.

Unless there is a radical shift in the attitude of the Kiwi populace (unlikely), the only way Labour will win the upcoming election is by focussing even less on good policy and even more on the kind of brand marketing National has spent the last few years perfecting. Even if they win the election, they will lose what remains of their integrity. And the effect on the voting populace will be one that shapes a nation of voters who care more about stupid shit than about rational policy.

So, Labour, boldly lose the next election. Concentrate on coming up with policies you think will work in the long run, campaign on information about those policies, don't continue to stoop to National's level of brand-marketing politics, and let National fuck things up for everyone. It's the only way they'll learn.

(more from the comments)

You supposed that Labour will lose the next election.

I said it certainly looks like Labour will lose the next election, though there's time yet for that to change.

You also supposed that Labour will fight the election with cheap stunts rather than real policies.

I said that campaigning with good policies rather than brand marketing probably wouldn't win it the election, and the chances are that Labour wants enough to win to prefer emulating National's tactics to losing.

You decided that Labour ought to lose the election, so that the public will be taught a lesson about how silly they were to vote National.

That's where I was unclear. What I meant was "it's the only way they'll learn to vote for good policy rather than be swayed by brand marketing". The manner of learning would indeed probably be National fucking a bunch of things up.

I didn't say that Labour should intentionally lose just to demonstrate how bad National is. I said that Labour should campaign on good policies even if that means losing the election.

If the current trends continue, elections will be more and more fought in terms of competing brand marketing rather than good policy, and in the long run that will be increasingly bad for New Zealand as a civic society. Labour could set a good example and try to push the trend back in the direction of policy, but to do so might result in bad things for New Zealand in the short term - a National-led government. But in the long term, I think we will suffer more if politics continue down this path.

Labour should campaign on policy, even if that means losing.

Hole in Space?  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

The answer to this must be something really simple that I'm overlooking. I first found this about 10 years ago, got a maths exercise book, cut the pieces out, and still couldn't work it out.
It is weird.

World of Warcraft March for Ron Paul  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

The sad thing is, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

Click here for details.

In Case Anyone Missed It...  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Last year, Japanese scientists worked out how to turn skin cells into stem cells.

That is fucking cool.

More info here. Sadly, we must bit adieu to our dystopian sci-fi fantasies of clones being raised in confinement to provide us with spare livers and such.

A Deluded Man Talking to his Cat  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Garfield: it's funnier when he doesn't talk back.

Tweebiscuit discovered (two years ago) that Garfield strips become absolutely hilarious when you remove Garfield's thought bubbles. Instead of dialogue, there's just a weird bastard talking to his cat.

Click here to check them out.