Thursday 13 December 2007

Holiday hokum from the dictatorship HQ

I suppose the only interesting bit about this piece of revulsion is the fact that Tony Blair's delivery in speaking to Barney the White House dog is of exactly the same pitch of earnestness as his declarations as he led a strenously and vocally unwilling British nation into war against Iraq, insisting that it was all in the nation's good, and he simply knew stuff that everyone else didn't. The thing that is usually touted about Tony Blair these days is that he was just a good actor, a showman. This video kind of puts the lie to that. Too much mining the same seam has confined his skills to a single caricature. He's a one trick pony, it seems.

The Brooklyn Bunker

Beat Whippet

Epithalamion for a pair of Brooklyn whippets

Wednesday 12 December 2007

You can take the fear out of the mouse but you can't take the mouse out of the cat's mouth

Very interesting video clip in an article from this morning's Guardian. Scientists in Japan have created a genetically modified mouse which has no fear of cats. They have eliminated the gene that recognises the smell of a cat as a source of danger, and thus something to be feared. So this piece is reported with a quite endearing little snippet of video of a curious mouse investigating this landscape of fur that really ought to send it shuddering to the nearest hole in the wall or deep deep behind the telly, and instead it goes running through the cat's legs, getting sat on by the cat, generally being very friendly and interested in the cat. Watch it, you'll probably enjoy it.

The cat, for her part, though the piece insists she has not been genetically modified to be friendly to mice, is preternaturally accommodating and courteous to the mouse, and it doesn't seem like the usual cat pretext of mouse-wooing prior to one of the slowest painfullest kills known to the animal kingdom (have you ever actually WATCHED the play of a cat and mouse as they dance their dance of death?). The cat in this clip, if anything, seems slightly concerned and embarrassed by the antics of her small sleek friend, electing to look tactfully away when the mouse gets particularly close and personal and probably provocative, because she's just not that sort of cat.

And then the confident, happy scientist shows up at the end to show us the unfortunate place that science and humanities can sometimes go when one of them takes the other roughly by the ears and makes it do something it doesn't really want to: he says, we can now genetically engineer other creatures in the animal kingdom to have no fear of their natural enemies. Punchline. Ba boom.

Well, congratulations. You've learned how to fast track the natural world to extinction. Things have NATURAL enemies for a reason. We eat each other in the natural world. That's just how things work. And that's why the mouse has an innate fear attached to the smell of the cat, because his ancestors have passed down that response as a common-sense gesture, to keep him safe, alive, to keep the mouse species on the planet. However, I have connections in cat circles who would be very keen to hear this kind of news.

I feel there is some kind of a super-sinister subtext in this little piece of scientific wizardry. Can you hear in the notion of genetically eliminating natural fear responses in "animals" , the suggestion that perhaps we can genetically modify ourselves, each other, or indeed, just herd up our enemies, once we've conquered them, and genetically modify them from their natural antipathy, to like us instead? Well now. This sounds like a VERY interesting potential solution to the thorny issues of terrorism, for instance. At any rate, that lab is sure to be given a few quid in sponsorship, to get a lot more adventurous.

But ultimately I suppose what I find most depressing is the implicit dilettantism in matters of elemental forces. There are different kinds of fear, and by far the most prevalent one on this planet is the natural kind, the kind of fear that is really a signpost for common sense and deep intuition; the fear that the healthy mouse experiences at the smell of the cat, the kind of animal fear that is also innate in humans, that gets triggered in situations that the human senses are dangerous or predatory. This is really common sense at work in its strongest physical expression. It's the death of naivete, it's evolution in motion, it's the natural world at work. Get rid of this stuff and the natural world won't know its arse from its elbow.

And then there are the kinds of fear that aren't based on the needs, tendencies and feeding appetites of the natural world. This kind of fear exists solely in the human realm. And it manifests in behavioural tics, that become encoded and enshrined in culture, becoming norms by consensus and wide practise. This is not the kind of fear that you can genetically modify out, quite so easily. And for the most part, it is totally and utterly useless. If anything, it inhibits life.

The video probably wouldn't have looked so cute with a normal cat, who would have dispatched the mouse with glee, of course. "We can make mice who get along with cats", says the scientist. Sweet. But can we make cats who get along with mice (without eating them)? Notice that it isn't the cat who is being genetically modified out of her predatory nature.

How far could this idea go? How about applying it to consumer markets, for instance? Genetically modify the herds of consumers as they are marketed to? This is also a cat and mouse game, a game of predator and prey. Marketing and advertising strategies have become incredibly sophisticated when you contrast them with the clunky ad strategies over the past fifty years, for instance, and the fact that marketing didn't even exist as a concept until relatively recently. But it's still a cat and mouse game, and the space left for its evolution is increasingly slight. It's the law of diminishing returns. Why keep mining that tiny tiny space that is the battleground of persuasion politics, when all you have to do is find a very pleasant, painless way to eliminate all resistance in the market altogether?

So here's my guess about how this kind of genetic interference is likely to impact on nature: the mouse is returned to a state of naivete, doesn't recognise the inherent danger in the cat, goes up to schmooze and make friends, cat goes hurrah, and begins the torture process, and how does the mouse respond at that point? My guess it would take at most a couple of generations for the mouse - returned to any natural environment even with this genetic modification- to spring back to its natural state again.

But this is the dynamic balance of the natural world that is being fucked with. My point is that once you start messing with one part of this dynamic balance, the whole thing gets thrown out of whack in ways that are probably exponential in proportion to the original interference. Just like the disappearing polar ice shelf, though let's keep our epic planetary themes to one at a time, today.

Tuesday 11 December 2007


I ran into a pooch called Romance last night. He was very eager to get up close to a certain white whippet of my acquaintance. She sniffed, then turned her back. His owner pulled him away. I don't think he noticed me.

Why are you here? Why, really?

I had dinner in Marseille one evening this past June, with a Japanese woman and two French men. I had met the Japanese woman and one of the French men on the top of a hill, by the entrance to an old world war two bunker, as I contemplated sleeping there for the night. The view and the air were magnificent, I was fresh from a swim, but a cold breeze was blowing and I didn't have a sleeping bag or even any long sleeves. A couple of nights later I slept up those mountains, and discovered a more pressing and painful reason to stay indoors on Proven├žale evenings: mosquitoes that settled on my eyelids for a midnight snack, as I dozed amongst the wild thyme bushes, by the open bay, filled with the mediterranean sea.

Anyway, the couple invited me to dinner and so I found myself sitting in a car with them, snaking around the Marseille backstreets, looking for a parking space. They dropped me off on the corner where they had arranged to meet their friend, and I was given a description and instructed to wave. He found me first, he had apparently been instructed too. And we went to have crepes in a little Cuban place. The second French man - the one that found me in the street - had spent a year in Sweden some years previously, and so, over dinner, he and I conversed in languages that were not our first, he in Swedish, which amazingly, he remembered very well, and me in Danish. And for the most part, we understood each other. It was fun, being an Irish woman and a French man, sitting in a Marseille cafe, speaking Danish and Swedish together, and understanding each other.

I feel called upon to explain myself, sometimes. Do you know that feeling? But this is a BIG topic, and it's important to differentiate the various nuances of this kind of demand.

So, for example, I had an unsatisfactory exchange with an MTA official one afternoon, involving delayed Q trains and bus transfers and changed minds and unlimited cards that said no, no no... and we had something of a heated interaction that probably could have been abated had I EXPLAINED my actions clearly enough for her to understand that they were in perfect synch with her rules and to just press the beeper on that big beeping door that lets people through when there's been some sort of fuckup with the turnstiles, or they have big luggage or babies.

So there's that kind of explanation. The functional kind. The kind of explaining you do when you go to a fancy cheese shop and you need to communicate your desire for particularities.. or the kind of explaining you need to do when you go to a dentist with toothache and you want to give her more than a hunch about what ails you.

And then there's the kind of explaining yourself that your schoolmistress demanded of you when you rocked into school wearing contraband mascara and The Wrong Jumper.

And then there's the sort of explaining yourself that is demanded of you by a lover, when you've broken the invisible contract that he has in his head, because we have these invisible contracts floating around inside us, and we don't usually even know about their existence ourselves until they get broken, and suddenly we're upset.

Or the sort of explaining that some people feel some innate need to do, to EXPLAIN their existences altogether, and this can, sometimes, lead to the making of music, of paintings, of tall buildings, of businesses, of children, of novels, of poetry for some, or to the purchase of very large and unattractive cars, for others.

And then there's the sort of explaining that you can see being asked for in someone's eyes when they meet you for the first time in a context that they really don't expect to find you in, perhaps, and their eyes hold that demand for explanation from you, in a quizzical sort of way, without any overgroundness in it, and without any real expectation of being addressed or given. And the whole process is sort of inaccessible really, in these situations, because the following through of them demands some kind of social transgression in itself, some kind of breaking through of innocence that just isn't socially acceptable amongst adults, normally.

This happens sometimes, when I meet people. Often, the question doesn't get asked. Funnily enough, I was inundated by the question in Denmark. It was so much the only thing in the room there, when I met someone for the first time: why are you here?! Hvorfor er du i Danmark? Why are you here? In three and a half years I never had anything satisfactory to offer that one. Here, it seems to be more circumspect, tactful. But sometimes it gets asked, tactfully or not. And I still don't have an answer.