Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Coma

As you may have noticed the news is pretty damn boring this week, so rather than my usual rant about something regarding current affair, I thought I’d try something a little different.

I have on occasion posted some creative writing of mine to this blog. I’ve always really enjoyed writing, but I’ve not really had the time to pursue my interests further. In light of that I decided that it would be fun and interesting to write some short stories and post them here. My problem in this regard is that I tend to set my sights too high, I want to write long books with detailed and complicated plots. I want to create original and complex characters. I want to do things that I can’t really do in the time I have available to me with my current busy life. I need to limit the scope of my writing in order to get any real satisfaction out of it, rather than having dozens of unfinished projects and interesting ideas that never get to become more than ideas. So I have decided to try to do a series of writing exercises from the internet designed to improve your writing skills and pose a challenge that I should be able to finish, rather then leave as a loose end.

With this in mind, my first challenge:

The Coma: Write from the point of view of a person in a coma. This is a permanent condition; the patient will not come out of the coma but still understands the outer world. The catch: voices of loved ones are familiar, even intimately familiar, but the comatose person cannot attach names to the voices. The coma patient has lost this capacity. (500 words – I’m taking this is a rough guide, not a strict limit, in fact the story below is 521 words long)

“Will he ever wake up doctor?” It was a man’s voice, confident, yet betraying hints of weariness. I recognised the voice, but I did not know where from.

“I sincerely doubt it.” I assumed that this voice was the doctor. It sounded youthful, yet irritatingly formal. Although the only sense left to me was my hearing, I could tell that the room was crackling with tension. “I’m sorry.” His tone was professional; he could think if nothing else to say.

There was a pause. I thought I heard the sound of weeping and gentle comforting, but it was too quite for me to pick up clearly. The whirr of the medical equipment dominated my hearing, making it hard to tell what else was going on.

“How long, doctor,” the first man spoke again. The familiarity of his voice nagged at me. “Until…” he could not get the words out. “Until he passes away?”

“His position is stable.” Again the tone was overly formal, unsympathetic. I wondered how long ago the doctor had been a mere student in medical school. “There is no reason to say that his life may go on… indefinitely.”

“So he could remain like this forever?” there was an incredulousness in his voice. I wondered exactly who this man was, and why I could remember his voice.

“As long as we continue to sustain him, in theory, yes.”

“And if we don’t ‘continue to sustain him’?”

“Then he will die.”

“So he is to spend the rest of his life attached to a machine, with tubes stuck down his throat to feed him?” he was getting agitated. “You see, Penelope, what kind of existence is that?” I decided that Penelope was the person who I thought I heard crying before.

“John, he’s your brother! How can you talk like that?” The new voice was obviously Penelope’s. She sounded distraught, her voice close to breaking. She had been crying.

“I’m just saying that it’s not much of an existence. That body, that empty, functionless shell is not the man you once loved.” His words made me angry; the realisation that I could do nothing about it only fuelled my rage.

Clearly his words had had the same effect on Penelope. “I can’t believe you could say that! How do you know that he’s not still alive in there? How do you know he can’t hear us?” her voice was tight with barely disguised tears.

“Doctor, can he hear us?” I willed desperately to say something, to do something to indicate that I could here them. My comatose body could do nothing but listen, powerless to contribute.

“As far as we are aware his mind has all but closed down completely, I doubt if he can even think, let alone hear anything.” I wanted to scream.

“You see Penelope; he’s nothing but a body. He’s an empty shell, a body, nothing more. Not the man you married anymore.”

I heard a door slam.

“I think we should consider turning off the life support machines. There’s no sense prolonging a life so devoid of meaning.” I screamed. And no one heard.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Desert Bus, for the Children

I think I have mentioned, if only in passing, Loading Ready Run (LRR), a sketch comedy troupe from Victoria in Canada. They produce really excellent comedy which you should all go watch here. More importantly however this week they are doing one an incredibly charity event in the name of Child’s Play.

Child’s play is a charity set up by Gabe and Tycho of the webcomic Penny Arcade. It works across the globe, although mostly in the USA, to improve the lives of sick and injured children in hospitals by providing them with Toy and games. Not quite working to alleviate world poverty, but valuable work nonetheless. It’s been going since 2003 and has raised millions of dollars in that time thanks to the philanthropy of the gaming industry. In the last two years LRR have contributed over $80 000.

They have achieved this mostly through an event called Desert Bus for Hope (DBfH, sorry for all the acronyms and hyperlinks), which is happening for the third time in the coming days. DBfH is a gaming marathon whereby four members of the crew constantly play ostensibly the most boring video game every created, Desert Bus. Desert Bus simulates driving in a bus from Tuscan to Vagas and back, an 8 hour round trip along a perfectly straight road. The only thing that keeps the player involved is that the bus steers slightly to the right, forcing the player to continually correct it. The more the public donates to Child’s Play, the longer the crew plays this game. The donation needed per hour goes up each time, so as the marathon gets longer the amount needed to increase the length of the marathon increases. That being said last year they went for over five days and raised over $70 000.

Yesterday, at 6:20 PM (PST), or 2:20 AM (GMT) Desert Bus for Hope 3 started. Having been going for 18 hours already, they have so far raised almost $18 000 dollars. The aim of course is to beat last year’s total by a considerable amount. This is not possible however without the donations of ordinary people worldwide. As in previous years the even is being streamed live on Ustream here. You should all go and check it out, watch the stream for while, donate some money if you have any to spare and generally support the event. They auction off things and give challenges, so it’s well worth checking it out.

Again, please do support the event in any way you can, it’s a great way of forcing a group of Canadians to do your bidding in the name of charity if nothing else.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


Little under a month ago I got the new Flaming Lips album, Embryonic. You would have thought that I’d review it shortly after getting it, and I intended to, but I ran up against a problem. I really like the album, the problem is that I don’t know why. This is not so much a review then as me simply attempting to rationalise what it is about the album that appeals.

I am a really big fan of The Flaming Lips; I have said before that I think The Soft Bulletin is pure happiness condensed into musical form. The reason for my love of them is that they are experts at producing what, on the face of it, amount to pop songs; relatively short, catchy songs which are very radio friendly. These songs however are not the generic, meaningless and talentless dross one normally hears on the radio, they have a deeper musical and lyrical quality to them. They are also completely absurd. These guys have written rock operas about Pink Robots taking over the world, songs full of distorted drums and strange melodies, lyrics about superman and mad scientists. In short they are completely bat-shit loco. Together this means that The Flaming Lips have achieved something very special; their music would be just as at home reverberating around an office at Pitchfork HQ as it would be blasting out of a radio is some kitchen somewhere. They have taken all the pretension and experimentation of indie music and decided that they can do it while still having commercial viability and, more importantly, fun.

That is why I love albums like The Soft Bulletin; it is so packed full of bizarre brilliance and pretentious absurdity that you would think that it would get self indulgent, but it manages to stay away from that. It has some truly wonderful pop songs, like ‘Waiting for Superman’ and ‘A spoonful weighs a ton’. These songs and indeed this album can be understood on so many levels; they are great pop songs, they are also deep, experimental and wholly pretentious. I love it because I can listen to it in pretty much any mood. If I feel happy and want something to match my mood, then I can put the Soft Bulletin on, if I’m pissed off and need something absurd and completely off the wall to take my mind off something, then I can out The Soft Bulletin on as well. If I’m feeling all sophisticated and pretentious I can try to get all uppity about the deeper meanings and experimental genius while I make my way to the closest bridge and throw myself off it. I can literally put all my Flaming Lips (and I have a lot of it) on shuffle and listen to it for as long as I want. It never gets old or annoying. Sure I may crave another band for a time, but I know they are one of those bands that I can always fall back on when I’m at a loss as to what to listen to.

There is one exception to all this. Back in 1997 the Flaming Lips produced the most awful 4 disk mess called Zaireeka. The idea was to put 4 parts of the same set of songs onto 4 different disks, such that in order to actually listen to the album you had to play all 4 disks at the same time. What? What kind of substance do you have to be taking to make that seem like a good idea? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to find 4 CD players, enlist 3 friends and get them all to press play at the same time before fully appreciate an album. I’ve no doubt that when put together you get some pretty decent music, but it’s like giving your fans the drum, guitar, bass and vocal tracks separately and asking them to mix it together for you. Actually it’s worse because having all the different parts to some songs would actually be pretty interesting. When you listen to the album as it comes, ie in four different CDs, it’s just lots of silence followed by occasional snippets of songs. In short, not very fun to listen to. Thankfully they had recovered from this bout of insanity in time for 1999, which brought the release of The Soft Bulletin. And all was well again.

The thing about Embryonic then, after a very long preamble, is that it most resembles Zaireeka in concept; it completely tears down all established conventions about song structure and lyrics. I’m used to lyrics being unclear, but even I still don’t have a clue what half the lyrics actually are unless I look in the lyric book provided with the album. There are no pop songs here; it is solid experimental, pretentious, structureless absurdity. No wonder Pitchfork gave it 9/10. This is the sort of music that I should hate. It represents all the ridiculousness of Indie music that I so ardently stand against. Even The Arcade Fire manage to produce albums full of songs as opposed to what feels like little more than a protracted jam session. It feels like someone shoved The Flaming Lips into a recording studio with a month’s supply of food and E and told them to come up with something. What lyrics there are flirt incoherently between Horoscopes, Evil, nature and The Machine. I should hate this album. And yet I love it.

For some reason, this mess of incoherent, unstructured, confused and wholly absurd excuses for songs appeals to me. It feels like Wayne Coyne (the front man) and co. have just snapped, refused to write any more songs that conform to expected conventions, no matter how sensible they are. Instead of creating an album as such they have simply poured their creative energy unchecked and formless onto a CD in the hope of creating a masterpiece and somehow they have managed it.

I didn’t know at the start of this blog what makes this album so good, and after much thought and many words I still don’t. I encourage you to buy the album because it is an experience that is unique. Few albums that I know of have managed to defy convention is such a stunningly successful way. Sure Rock Operas, concept albums and song which last the length of an album have all pushed the boundaries of conventions, but Embryonic crashes like a speeding train through these boundaries. They have gone so far past what is accepted that they have gone past the point were they can be dismissed as pretentious hipster onto a whole new level. Their album works because is simply refuses to half arse anything. Because of this they have gotten away with what would normally be considered artistic suicide. I’m not saying this album will redefine what is accepted because the very reason is it so outstanding is because it is so unacceptable. In short, it is an album that can only be made once.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

We Will Remember Them

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns fell silent on the western front and the First World War was over. It was called the War to End All Wars and I’m sure that the irony was not lost on those who fought on the same battlegrounds only a few decades later in a war that eclipsed even the Great War. The current conflicts around the world are testament to the fact that the Second World War was not the War to End All Wars either.

Thus, every eleventh of November we have a day of remembrance. But what are we remembering? I think the true meaning of this day is as layered as an onion; we can consider the end of the First World War, which is worthy of commemorating, but surely this is rather less poignant than it was when the veterans of the Great War were only a generation away. They seem to be in the distant past now. Almost no-one survives from the Great War today; while a tragedy it is a distant one.

Are we then remembering all of the great conflicts of the twentieth century? Two World Wars and countless other smaller but no less tragic wars that it would be too depressing to list. Should we add the genocide and ethnic cleansing into that list too? They are certainly worth remembering. But is this all? Is the scope of our mourning and contemplation restricted to one hundred years of slaughter?

Oughtn't we to cast our eyes back over the arc of history and reflect on the sheer brutality of our species? History is drenched in the blood of all those who have died. Ever since we have been building tools to aid our survival, at the same time we have been building more and more sophisticated ways of slaughtering one another. War is a constant theme of history and it can get depressing to flick through the history books and see the same destructive tendencies rearing their ugly heads again and again. At times it can seem that the history of mankind is little more than a history of conflict.

And for what? For what do we fight? Why has all this blood been shed? For what purpose? No doubt those who waged their wars had their reasons; greed maybe, or religious fervour, but the men who lived and died in the trenches in the First World War were not the causes of those conflicts; they were pawns. They chose to fight for their country and there is a lot of rhetoric around about their ultimate sacrifice, but many of the men who died were conscripts in the First World War. In many other wars the soldiers were misguided, press ganged or forced by sheer desperation to join the army and go and ‘fight for their country’.

What do these wars achieve? Territorial gain maybe, or wealth of another sort, perhaps in the form of loot. Materials benefit is no doubt wreaked for the victor, but wealth will do nothing to ease the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, or raise the countless dead from the ground. War can make the strong rich and the weak subservient, but it cannot deal out any form of justice. The victors of war have no right to pillage the wealth of the defeated; they had no right to attack them in the first place. Victory in war; or indeed any type of conflict, does not grant a right to the wealth of the defeated; might conveys no right to anything. War achieves nothing. War is futile.

However, can it be justified? Can the use of force against another human being ever me morally justifiable? Thus far I have not spoken directly of the victims of war. I have not spoken of those who have war forced upon them. Is it moral to fight back if the bully tries to steal your wealth? Yes. The use of force is justifiable under one condition: it is used to defend your rights. There are two key words here; ‘defend’ means that force is only just if it is a reaction to the instigation of force from another. The second is ‘your’, this means that you may only use force to defend yourself, your values and your rights. This is not to say that you should not help other people if they are the victims of force, but just as your own self-interest can and should benefit others, it is not your duty to step in on behalf of another.

If war can only be rationally justified if it is defensive, why is history littered with piles of bodies; the victims of countless conflicts? The answer is simply that doing what is right is hard and doing what is wrong is easy. It is very simple to get what you wish by bullying and forcing other to submit to you, especially is you are stronger than them. Similarly it is easy to cower and capitulate when the bullies come to rob you. It is much harder to get what you want by mutual agreement with someone who has what you want and is willing to trade it for something that you have and he wants. This is both more practical and more just. We can see from history that this is without a doubt the best way of gaining wealth; the societies that have engaged in trade rather than war have become far more prosperous than those what have engaged in war rather than trade.

So, what are we remembering on the eleventh of November? The end of the First World War? The conflict of the Twentieth Century as a whole? The entirety of all conflict throughout mankind’s history? All of them, perhaps. But the most important thing that we remember on this day, and the most important reason why we wear the poppy is the futility of war. The remembrance services that will go on tomorrow, the silences that will fall upon the world periodically all serve to remind us that our past is littered with mistakes. It is littered with people taking the easy road, not the right one. If you take anything away from the next week, take away the thought that if only we used reason and mutual consent, rather than force and compulsion, we might be able to lay the memory of the innumerable dead to rest and live in a world were we no longer trade in force, but in reason.

But until that day, we will remember them.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

More bloody holiday photos

If you didn't know, over the last week I have been in Mallorca. And true to form I am now going to show some photos from my holiday, because I have been completely detached from the world for the past weeks and have no news to comment on at all. So anyway, Mallorca has a decent amount of history, and as someone who really likes history, as in that's what I want to study at university, I made a point of visiting all the historical sites, or at least some of them. So in chronological order:
A pre-historical site made up of lots of rocks which formed the shape of rudimentary building. It was actually pretty dull because there was next to no information about it and pre-history actually kinda bores me... so, moving on.
Actually, there is something interesting about that. This fella up here is a slinger (well it's a statue of a slinger obviously). These slingers were famous throughout the Mediterranean for standing on a rock throwing rocks at people. Ok there's a little more to it that that, basically they were about to defend their islands right up until 123 BC. On the subject of...
There are Roman ruins. Now I'm interested. A place called Pol-lentia (yes that is a correct spelling), the Roman capital of The Balearic islands from about 123 BC, the year in which Consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus conquered the islands.
There are some houses, the remains of a forum and a theatre. It was pretty cool, if you're obsessed by ancient history like me. otherwise they're pretty cool rocks I guess.
The same town had some walls, some of which were Medieval. Not this section, but I don't think I got any decent photos of that. There was also this cool tower that seemed to serve no real purpose...
One feature of the island, being Christian and all, is churches, copious amounts of them, some of which were architecturally interesting. Here is one of them.
A much more interesting church was the cathedral in the capital, Palma. It is a really nice Gothic structure which you should all now admire. It is very cool despite the fact that it is a building constructed for the worship of idols. No! Stop! It is a valuable piece of architecture constructed for valuable religious and artistic reasons.
Also it has what is supposed to have the world's largest rose window, that round thing quite prominent on the end of that cathedral right there.
For those of you who do not like history or architecture then here are some nice photos of some other stuff.

Proper blog next week!!!