Bah humbug

In my last post I made an allusion to priggish environmentalists. I love the environment as much as the next person and, in my limited way as a town dweller, do my bit — bike or walk rather than drive whenever possible, recycle everything, give a good proportion of my salary by monthly standing order to help various worthy causes, etc. I am driven a bit mad, however, by the kind of thing I read about in the Times today "Baubles are for birds if you are dreaming of a green Christmas."

I think of my 80-year-old father, living alone, when I read this advice: "For a really green Christmas the car should be left in the garage and “kith and kin” wished seasons greetings over the internet."

I think of the young children and their sense of wonder at the traditional Christmas scenes when I read this kind of thing:  "

Campaigners want the fairies, stars, tinsel and baubles that usually adorn the tree to be replaced with edible decorations that can be given to the birds when Christmas is over."

And who thought up this gem? "Wrapping paper could, the guide suggests, be replaced with tin foil that can be used later in the kitchen, or with old newspapers, magazines or brown paper." What Scrooges.

Well the people concerned are called the Green Guide, and for £8.50 you can purchase their "Green Guide to Christmas", which according to their website contains the following suggestions for Christmas presents to give this year: "Take out a second mortgage – but for a family in the developing world. A whole new house costs £2,000 and your investment in their building societies will provide the working capital for a revolving fund. Or you could plant chilli hedges to protect villagers’ crops from marauding elephants. And why not give a voucher for an organic cookery weekend or a course on low impact living – or maybe splash out on an environmental research trip."

Who are the people who write this stuff? Nobody on a planet I know. I will not be sending my Dad an email to wish him happy Christmas this year, and I will be giving my children presents wrapped up in attractive paper rather than giving them a card each telling them that instead of a gift I have bought a watermill for a village somewhere. Sorry guys.

Old movies, generation gaps

Over the weekend, several people had colds or were otherwise under the weather, so we watched some DVDs from my stack of "cheap DVDs of films I enjoyed when they came out and might enjoy again if I ever had the time".

First was Local Hero, Bill Forsyth’s whimsical story of a Texan oil company buying up a remote Scottish region for a refinery development, with the enthusiastic assistance of the locals. Malcolm and I both remembered that the movie was gentle, funny and has wonderful music written by Mark Knopfler. It is, indeed, funny, with the best parts being the centrepiece ensemble playing of the villagers — some of them, for example John Gordon Sinclair, appear only in a couple of scenes, and most don’t have speaking parts — but they have lives that you can imagine continuing after the credits roll. In my view, the least successful aspects are the rather preachy story of the Texan guy’s realisation of his empty materialistic life and gradual conversion to the environmental beauty around him; and Burt Lancaster’s psychoanalyst (though I liked the way that part of the story ended). But that’s a cavil: the movie is full of neat moments, particularly the rescued rabbit and  — in my book — any scene with Denis Lawson in it.

Looking at the movie now, the environment-protection theme is remarkably strong; one can see clearly in this kind of historical snapshot that such concerns are by no means a modern phenomenon. Fears 20 years ago were of a global ice-age rather than, as now, of global warming, but the priggish ideology of the youthful eco-warrior is just the same. Malcolm and I were both struck by a message that hadn’t occurred to us first time round — the liberation bought by age. The Burt Lancaster and Fulton Mckay characters, as the astronomy-crazed CEO and the shabby beachcomber, respectively, truly knew how to make choices for themselves, and live for their dreams. Or as Malcolm put it, the first time he saw the movie, he identified strongly with the Peter Capaldi character. This time around, it was Burt Lancaster with whom he empathised the most.

Cathy and Jenny didn’t think much of the film. They couldn’t really get the ironic aspects, eg the phonebox (Peter Riegert stuffing 10ps into the box to talk to his boss) or understand that Riegert was supposed to be a pressured businessman when really he and his colleagues, even in the Texan scenes at the start, seemed to them (and their parents) seriously unpressured, without mobile phones, faxes, email, Crackberries, and with time to eat lunch even though it was out of a machine.

The second movie we watched was My Brilliant Career, a very early Gillan Armstrong movie featuring Judy Davis as a young woman in Australia at the turn of the century (19th, that is) who wants to be a famous artist of some kind to escape both the awful domestic drudgery to which her mother is condemned, and the vapid life of the "refined rich" as lived by her maternal aunt and grandmother. A young Sam Neill enters the scene as a major distraction from this goal. This film was more popular with the girls, maybe because it was focused on the life of the young woman played by Davis. Cathy, however, had absolutely no time for that character’s final decision. Which is interesting, because when I saw the movie when young myself, I was urging Davis to make exactly the decision she did.

Mendel’s seeds of genetics

From Nature:

Beanery_ill Jager_ill_1Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics at The Field Museum, Chicago , until 1 April 2007, then touring the US until September 2008.

by Simon Mawer

Until now you had to travel to the Mendel Museum in Brno, Czech Republic, to see the relics of Gregor Mendel’s life. But in September, the Field Museum in Chicago opened its doors to the exhibition Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics. Visitors can witness at first hand the microscope Mendel used to make his ground-breaking observations — he was the first to demonstrate conclusively that only a single pollen grain is needed for fertilization — and the telescope with which he observed sunspots. Perhaps most poignant of all, they can see the spectacles through which the short-sighted friar viewed his world. Mendel has often been billed as something of a mystery man in the history of science, so, with genetics set to be the focus of much attention in the twenty-first century, it is appropriate that he should be the subject of a popular exhibition.

Continue reading

Flogging a dead horse

I read an article in the Times magazine on Saturday (not available online) about flogs — fake amateur weblogs that seem to tell a story about an ordinary person’s relationship with a product, but actually being produced by the company concerned.

One example of this "scandalously dishonest practice", to quote Times writer David Rowan, is the blog of Laura and Jim, who drove a camper van across America, stopping overnight for free in Wal-Mart car parks. The blog apparently chronicled in heartwarming fashion all the decent, hard-working Wal-Mart employees Laura and Jim met on their travels. Shock, horror, the couple were actually being paid by Edelman, Wal-Mart’s PR firm, and Jim is a Washington Post photographer. (Laura has admitted all on the blog, says Rowan.)

We all know about lonelygirl5 and her YouTube clips (she’s a professional actress), but Rowan provides a list of flogs new to me: McDonald’s used a fake amateur blog to try to get people to talk about a French fry shaped like Abraham Lincoln’s face (said fry turning out to be made of plastic); and Coca-Cola promoted its "zero" brand with a flog celebrating "life’s zero moments", such as "music festivals with zero crowds". Captain Morgan rum and 7-UP are also singled out as floggers.

For obvious reasons, no linking is provided in this post.

(Source: Times magazine, Saturday 11 November 2006, page 12.)