Posted on 30.10.11
[A Halloween story.]
THERE are many things that go bump in the night, but Frog’s least favourite was Frog.
Bump! went Frog, as he fell out of bed.
It was cold on the floor and dusty. Face down, Frog wanted to sneeze. He held it in – just – by scrunching his nose. He was scared to make a noise, and lay there on his soft face barely breathing. Not turning over, and certainly not sneezing. Frog lay there in the stillness, listening to the muffled sounds up on the bed, wondering what he’d do when Princess woke.
Earlier that evening, as he lay on the pillow with his warmed-up tummy and Princess’s father read to them, Frog learned something that had turned his tummy cold.
Frog liked his tummy. In winter it was taken out and heated in the microwave. But now it felt funny, as if all the little beans inside were jumping about or hatching into caterpillars. Frog tried not to picture them wriggling and forced himself to confront what he’d heard.
Princesses can turn Frogs into Princes! Eurgh. Eurghhhhhh! It was too horrible for words.
How awful it must be to be a Prince. Never mind the pinkness and the skinniness and the cold tummy – nasty as those were! – but Princes had to do things Frog hoped deeply he’d never have to do. The exact details were unclear because Frog’s head had grown woozy as Princess’s father read on. But there was definitely something about adventures and monsters and something cutting something off something else – Frog scrunched his nose again – and a witch and all of it because a Frog had been kissed into becoming a Prince. That bit Frog was sure of. That was how the whole terrible tale had begun.
BUMP! went something, as it dropped to the floor behind him.
Frog couldn’t see! Face down, he listened to the snuffling and the slick, wet sounds of an enormous tongue. Out of the corner of his eye – just – he watched a hulking shadow move along a wall in the moonlight, slowly, deliberately, sniffing. Was it a monster already? Was this an adventure? Frog’s toes curled as it reached him.
Princess loved her cat. Heavy-set and lumpy-backed, with gangly legs and too-big ears, it had as many names as odd features. Monkey-Dog and Cat-Man and Sausage. Squee! she’d cry when it jumped on the bed. Frog was less excitable: usually it would sit on him or chew his feet.
But Frog knew he had to escape, knew he had to run away from Princess and the monsters and the kissing and the cutting off of things. Maybe Monkey-Dog would carry him out into the safety of the night? He couldn’t just lie there, he’d be found in the morning and –
Still terrified of waking Princess, who suddenly snorted sleepily above him, Frog waggled his toes and the cat grabbed them immediately. It wasn’t the most dignified way to get about – Frog’s face and one of his arms dragged along the floor as the cat trotted to the door – but he was running away! He was escaping a terrifyingly pink and skinny and adventurous future.
But Monkey-Dog stopped! And threw Frog twisting into the air. And grabbed him again and shook him. And sprang onto the bed. The caterpillars in Frog’s tummy froze in mid-wriggle as Princess rolled over.
The cat dropped Frog onto her chest.
Cooing sleepily, Princess pulled Frog into her armpit and kissed him.
Posted on 29.10.11
Written for Felix, Imperial College London’s student newspaper.
There’s undoubtedly a debate to be had about alcohol, but the Social Issues Research Centre ignores basic chemistry to push a click-bait message.
For all the millions it spends on cultivating an image of arch sophistication, Stella is still stuck with its “wife-beater” epithet – even more so now it’s become the tipple of choice for tosspot terriers. But the story of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier attacking a child after someone poured Stella down its throat isn’t the only piece about alcohol abuse that stood out recently.
A couple of weeks ago, the online BBC News Magazine ran an opinion piece (“Is the alcohol message all wrong?”) by Kate Fox, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), a not-for-profit organisation based in Oxford that researches and monitors social and cultural trends. SIRC conducts most of its research by reviewing social-anthropological studies. In the BBC article, Fox seeks to put paid to “bizarre beliefs and weird customs” such as the notion that “heavy drinking causes promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour”. A key claim is that “[t]he effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol”.
Now, I’m no expert on alcohol – not scientifically speaking – but that sounds odd to me. Having only just escaped the death penalty with a plea of diminished responsibility, I’m not sure that dog would be too pleased with the suggestion either. Looking for a second opinion, I contacted Dr. Robert Patton of King’s College London, who is the Health Services Research Coordinator for the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust Addictions Division, and who worked for the Home Office Drugs Prevention Initiative as a consultant in the 1990s.
“I had seen that article and did raise an eyebrow at those comments”, Patton said. I asked him about the idea that changes in behaviour were caused by cultural norms rather than chemicals. “While it is true to say that there is an expectation of the effect of alcohol that does to an extent modify behaviour”, he said, “the fact is that alcohol is a drug that does influence behavior in many ways, particularly those concerned with impulsivity (and restraint), aggression and coordination”.
Even judging by the comments Fox’s article received – over 1000 in half a day, many of them removed by moderators – SIRC’s position seems to be somewhat controversial. Helpfully, one of the commenters linked to a British Medical Journal editorial from way back in 1999 that expressed concern about SIRC’s close connections with MCM Research, a “commercial market research company” with several drinks companies as clients, including The Amsterdam Group, which numbers Bacardi-Martini, Bass Brewers, Carlsberg, Guinness, and Heineken among its members.
The BMJ also discussed SIRC’s criticism at the time of the media’s role in health scares (SIRC also apparently coined the word “riskfactorphobia” back then, but we’ll let that slide) and presciently asked, “how seriously should journalists take an attack from an organisation that is so closely linked to the drinks industry? If, for example, the centre attacked newspapers for exaggerating the effects of alcohol and thereby causing an unnecessary scare, could the centre put its hand on its heart and claim that it was totally neutral on the issue?”
Keen to get a clearer idea of where the organisation was coming from, and whether the BMJ’s concerns were still appropriate today, I spoke to Peter Marsh, SIRC’s other co-director. Marsh told me that MCM Research was “not actually trading in its own right very much these days” but that the work now goes through SIRC. SIRC’s website states that it is now the host for reports and materials of both groups. But on the question of how SIRC maintained independence in its research, Marsh was very keen to establish that the centre hasn’t done work for the drinks industry for several years, and that the last commission in this area “in a 5 year timeframe” was for Greene King on the role of the pub in the local community. That said, he also told me that Fox’s recent opinion piece is based on work begun 15 years ago.
But what of Fox’s assertion about the chemical effects of ethanol – or lack of them? Isn’t it dangerously misleading to suggest that drunken behaviour is simply a cultural norm that people conform to? “Except it happens to be true”, Marsh said, reiterating Fox’s observations, “in this country we expect [alcohol] to make us aggressive … You don’t get that in many other countries”. According to Marsh, “The only common chemical action is to make people go to sleep … the idea somehow that just consuming alcohol compels people to go and beat people up is not supported, certainly by our reading of the cross-cultural evidence”.
Whether or not SIRC have conflicts of interest, it seems irresponsible to draw such stark conclusions about the chemical effects of alcohol solely from anthropological evidence. SIRC’s overall position – that cultural aspects of alcohol abuse need addressing – is uncontroversial. The UK certainly has a problem with alcohol and fresh ideas are needed, but a debate that begins with an equivocation over what it is to be drunk in the first place is not the way to go.
Posted on 20.10.11
Dennis Ritchie (standing) and Ken Thompson
The world has lost two giants of technology in as many weeks.
The news that Dennis Ritchie died on 12 October, aged 70, after enduring cancer and heart disease for several years, elicited a quiet response. Ritchie was the creator of the C programming language and one of the co-inventors of the Unix operating system, which means we’re living in a world Ritchie helped to invent.
“When Steve Jobs died last week, there was a huge outcry, and that was very moving and justified”, said Rob Pike, a colleague of Ritchie’s, speaking to Wired. “But Dennis had a bigger effect, and the public doesn’t even know who he is.”
Pretty much all of the daily interactions we have with technology owe something to Ritchie’s creations 40 years ago. The internet is built on Unix, from the server farms behind Google and Amazon to the router through which you’re locally connected. Your TV probably runs an operating system based on Unix. As does your Mac, your iPhone, your iPad – OS X and iOS are built on BSD, a Unix variant – and of course any Linux machine and Android device.
Then there’s C, the language in which Unix – and a vast amount of other software from the core of Windows to MATLAB – is written. And when software isn’t written in C there’s a very good chance it’s written in a language descended from, or heavily influenced by, Ritchie’s creation, whether C++, Java, or C#.
Unix was developed by Ritchie and Ken Thompson at AT&T’s Bell Labs in the 60s after the project they had been working on – an ambitious multi-user operating system known as Multics – was dropped by the company for being too complex. Young, idealistic, and stubborn, Ritchie and Thompson decided to build a simpler, streamlined version of the operating system by themselves: Unics – or Unix – a pun on Multics was the result.
C was designed by Ritchie initially as a means to an end in developing his new operating system, but its versatility and ability to be compiled to different computer architectures quickly made it an enormously useful tool. The C Programming Language, the book Ritchie wrote with Brian Kernighan, setting out the standard definition of the C language, has become a classic.
Due to its official status as a telecoms monopoly, AT&T was at first unable to enter the computer industry and thus unable to market this new operating system it suddenly had its hands on. So Ritchie and Thompson simply gave their creations away to friends and colleagues in universities, who used them to teach a generation of programmers, engineers, and computer scientists.
Even more crucially, Ritchie’s initial free dissemination of Unix and C led to the free software movement. When AT&T eventually wriggled itself into a position where it could make money from Unix, MIT researcher Richard Stallman started making a free version of Unix under the GNU (Gnu’s Not Unix) umbrella. GNU – along with its Linux kernel and myriad satellite utilities – is at the core of everything open source.
It’s so easy to forget about the countless, unsleeping machines behind the slickness of today’s interactions with technology, but Ritchie lives on in the hearts of most of them. Now’s a good time to spare a thought for both them and him.