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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

August 31, 2005

Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is an old favourite on this blog, and it was with a little, sad, shock that I realised not long ago that I had finally obtained and read all of his books, from his first pot-boiling written-to-length novels to his recent masterwork Declare.

Imagine how pleased I was, then, to read that a collection of Powers' rare short fiction was in the offing. I ordered it immediately, and months went by. Amazon kept emailing me with apologies for the delay, asking if I wanted to keep my order on the system. And then, finally, Strange Itineraries arrived.

It's skimpy, at just over 200 pages, but can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. For example, I read the first story in the collection and immediately re-read it, enjoying it a second time with no pause in between.

What you get for your money is a taster of the weird world of Powers. The opening story features a man who receives an odd phone-call from a rasp-throated stranger, gets badly injured by a gas explosion at his house, and then finds himself living in the weird space of his uncle's old home, where a couple of cases of cold beer might appear from some space-time wormhole at any moment. (Only, with Powers, you don't get SF language like "space-time" or "wormhole." Instead you get "mirage", or some such analogue equivalent.)

In another story, a motorist picks up a hitch-hiker, gets offended by something he says, kicks him out of the car, and then picks the same man up again a few miles down the road. Only it's earlier, not later, and they haven't met yet. Er...

A priest sits down to take confessions, whilst worrying about a previous session in which a parishioner tied him in doctrinal knots with legalistic spiritual arguments. "But you can't absolve me if..." And what if the sin is suicide, and the parishioner is some kind of ghost?

There's often a trick to these stories, a doubling back, a repeat and reverse, which in the short story form works less effectively than it does in his longer works. Ghosts and pilgrims collide, and you get a brief taster of the world-within-the-world that is the Powers milieu. Not as good as his novels, but still good enough for the fan, and an ideal introduction for one who wants to dip a toe.

On this subject, I was discussing yesterday with friends how Science Fiction is incredibly popular, but that often people unfamiliar with the breadth, depth, and variety of SF didn't know they liked it. Desperate Housewives: narrated by a dead woman. Lost: strange things going on on that island (a polar bear in the tropics?). Magic Realism in literature: SF by another name, which is where Tim Powers emerges. If his novels have too much page-turning plot to be considered truly literary, then these short stories are probably respectably obscure.

Climate change

A while ago my wife and I became members of the wildlife trust. Not completely certain why. It seemed a good thing to do at the time and they send us interesting news letters.

This month there was an article on changes to the distribution of plants and animals that underline that, regardless of what is causing it, human or otherwise, there definitely is something afoot. It's been happening now since the 1980s.

They list, on two full pages, all the changes that have been noted in their reserves.

Some of them we've noted on this blog before. Interestingly one of the reserves has become overrun by a species of Mediterranean oak tree that was introduced by accident. In the last 5 years it has started to crowd everything else out.

But in addition to this, there are lots of new species to this country. Including things like dragonflies, which is surprising because some of the new ones are small fluttery things.

And seahorses, turtles, and sunfish.

The trend is a general north-westward expansion of the range of species that formerly lived in central Europe.

We also seem to be losing species found in the North-West - animals that clung on after the ice retreated by adapting to mountainous habitat. Anyway, they're going now.

And many animals that were formerly summer visitors only are now overwintering. They mentioned several species including Red Admiral butterflies and Turtle Doves overwintering now as far north as Lincolnshire.

And I remember certain butterflies that were regarded as uncommon when I was a child that I now regularly see everywhere: the Holly Blue, the Comma, and the Speckled Wood.

I honestly don't think it will be long before we get cuckoos overwintering occasionally on the south coast.

It's still bleddy cold

When it comes to news about Saturn's moon Enceladus*NASA, as ever, are less concerned with science and more with spin, spin, spin. And we're not talking orbits.

Here we have a small lump of icy rock in the depths of space. NASA say that bits of this rock are "hot," meaning that temperatures are as "high" as minus 163° C. Hilariously, they then wheel out their 1969-era party line, "Life could develop there."

Maybe. But it would be the kind of "life" you could could scrape off dog poo and find under a microscope, and not the kind of life we're really interested in: aliens that look like hot human girls with not-unsightly forehead ridges and pointy ears.

If they were willing to fake the moon landings, why not the hot girls with pointy ears? It makes no sense.

*Enceladus, by the way, is Latin for "small and not very interesting lump of icy rock orbiting Saturn."

Addendum: I feel, in fairness, that I should point out here the extremely cool images of Saturn and its moons (see drop down menu on page).

And this audio file of radio signals from Saturn is minus 163 degrees of cool. This one is longer and even better. Hollywood has been getting it right for years. Which proves that there must be hot girls with pointy ears out there somewhere.

Old Hat

Here's a story that I guess is old hat already, if it's in the Guardian. [Quick summary: people typing "I am lonely" into Google were all ending up on the same discussion board and sharing their feelings - and getting abuse, of course.]

I won't rant on the subject of loneliness, because it's a little bit too much like talking about the quality of your stools, but I do think it's interesting that people are making use of Google in odd ways such as this.

I know from looking at how people reach this site that search skills are lacking in the wider community. The search string "I am lonely" only contains one word that Google will pay any attention to, anyway, but even so: the idea of just typing your feelings into a search engine seems a little ancient, a little primitive.

An early human going on a hunt for meat might sketch pictures on the wall of his cave the night before; an ancient Greek would have gone to the oracle. "Three coins in the fountain," goes the song. It's all the same kind of thing. Google as the Oracle, the wishing well, the wailing wall. I know I've typed things into the search box, repeatedly, with little chance of actual results, like little prayers of faint hope.

August 30, 2005

More on Katrina and the waves

Re Simon's post below: that plot's been done.

Not just that, but the usual round of sensationalist, alarmist, chicken-licken reporting, non-factual for the most part, and sheepishly corrected later in the day when nobody is watching or listening any more.

I woke Sunday morning to the news that New Orleans was about to be destroyed, that it was going to be the Worst Storm Evar, and so on. As I lay in bed, I thought, they're sounding so convinced it's "about to hit" New Orleans, but these storms are never so predictable. It won't go on getting stronger, that's the first thing you know. The second thing you know is, they will suddenly veer off and go in another direction. The so-called "course" is only news and weather forecasters doing their usual, "If everything goes on exactly the same as it is now until the end of time, then x will happen..."

So it was downgraded and it veered off, and it was just "one of" the worst storms to hit the USA. And how to they measure it? In terms of dollars worth of damage.

Well, here's a clue: prices go up. Hence a roof blowing off today will cost more to repair than, say, ten years ago.

Here's another clue: people make false claims and lie lie lie to insurance companies.

Why did so many people stay behind? Because they were too poor to afford decent transport or alternative accommodation. And because they've been schooled in the art of ignoring the sensationalist bleating from the media. A David Caruso type will turn up, put his sunglasses on his face and say something po-faced about how people were warned, but just like motorway matrix signs that read SPRAY SLOW DOWN on a dry and sunny afternoon, media outlets trumpeting the next tsunami-like disaster are to be taken with a pinch of salt.

But to all this, I want to add the following: huge swathes of the continental USA are Unfit for Human Habitation. This is why the tribes who lived there before were often nomadic. If it's not tropical storms, earthquakes, and killing winters, it's unspeakable heat and mosquitos biting you half to death. Life that evolves in these places tells you all you need to know: alligators, for chrissake - designed for living low in the swamp, and with a skin too thick for skeeters to penetrate.

15 seconds of fame

I've watched the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina over the last two days.

It's remarkable really that while two-mile-long tailbacks of cars stall along the highways, full of people trying to get out of the way of the hurricane, there is an almost equal and opposite train of vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, full of TV news crews.

You see the footage of tree trunks and cars flying through the air, 160 mph sheets of rain and wind blasting horizontally across the screen, houses being ripped apart, but there, in front of the camera, is the hapless newscaster in his orange kagoul, cowering and bleating almost inaudably.

What's the point? New Orleans must have thousands of the lemmings, clogging up the hotels at the moment. What do they actually do, other than get in the way of the emergency services?

I think that it is about time that they made live news reporting a criminal offense.

The Contrarian of a Generation, Revisited - New York Times

You'll need a subscription to read this article in The New York Times about Martin Scorsese's Bobumentary No Direction Home (bet they stayed up all night to think of that title). The accompanying soundtrack is Bootleg Series #7.

It'll be on telly soon, but the DVD is tbr in Octover.

There's a great picture of Dylan in a rainy English August on the first page of the article - with his weird Coulthard-chaped face, nobody ever looked cooler.

August 26, 2005

Floaters and Sinkers

With a bank holiday about to hit, and most people (yeah, you) already having made the quick getaway, I wanted to leave something substantial on the blog for the weekend. Something for you to get your teeth into, if you have teeth.

When we were kids, my sister had a special name for Number Twos. She called them Badlies. "I need to go Badlies." I was always amazed this didn't catch on and enter the language in wider use. It could be in the Oxford dictionary by now.

I've heard them called Plop Plops, too, but not by anybody whose judgement I wouldn't question.

Sold! To the man with the Lulu hair-do

"The Man Who Sold The Moon," sang young Davie Jones in 1876, and ever since then, enterprising charlatans have been selling plots of the moon from under our very noses. Yes, it's August. But only for five more days. And a bit.
While planning permission is not an issue - there is no law in space - a claim of ownership has been made by US entrepreneur Dennis Hope, who in 1980 spotted a loophole in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

I love that little parenthetical information byte: there is no law in space.

Which sounds like the tag line of a bad movie, with ready-made villains in the form of sleazy estate agents and land-grabbers.

So the NASA guys swing into town, ready to build their moon base, and on their primo plot, they find a little shotgun shack under a dome, with some doofus living in it and an estate agent standing outside, waving a sheet of paper.

"You can't build your moonbase here," he shouts. "This man owns this plot. I sold it to him in 1973."

Our NASA hero looks at the sheet of paper briefly, then says, "Who? This guy?" and shoots the doofus in the face.

There is no law in space.

Food Blogger Map of the World

It's a food blogger map of the world.

August 25, 2005

"only the smarties no the answer to that"

Interesting article in the Guardian about lowering standards in education, written by an exam marker:
"Inarticulate or just inappropriate answers (eg 'I don't no [sic], I don't no, I don't know', 'only the smarties no the answer to that', 'the planet would have blown up a long time ago if it hadn't been for conversation [sic] groups') caused much hilarity amongst the exam markers, albeit not out of any malice, but rather in the case that if you didn't laugh it would have been far too depressing."

The most interesting thing to read was the detail about the working environment (most exams being marked by recent graduates who arse about and listen to their ipods all day), and the pressure to give "positive" marks. Because the exam board wants good results: they're in the business of selling their curriculum to schools. And the schools want good results: league tables. In other words, nobody has a vested interest in seeing fairness and justice applied, and there's no point, kids, in being anything more than adequate at school. Because adequate or average responses are awarded the same marks as good and excellent responses.

Yesterday afternoon I left work early so I listened to a bit of Simon Mayo on 5Live, and he was talking to people about yoof slang. They interviewed some kids in Milton Keynes, and they had some yoof poet from Leeds in a/the studio, being interviewed about her use of slang.

The item was introduced by a clip of Jamie Lee Curtis, like talking like about like how she like learned to like speak like a like teenager. Exactly like that.

And then Mayo asked the yoof poet a question and she answered, without irony, in exactly the manner that Jamie Lee Curtis had satirised. Completely incoherent.

Here's what I think about yoof slang. As we all know, it originates, often, in music subcultures, which are frequently African-American. This was true of Beatnik talk which morphed into Hippie talk, which morphed into post-ironic every day talk. You know, like, middle-aged college professors describing things as "cool."

Anyway, my point is this. Often slang words are just words that are being used by people who don't know what they mean. And then they get adopted by young people who don't know what they mean, or what the original context of the mis-use was. And then they evolve into expressions which distort even the original non-meaning. And we're told, "They talk like that to exclude others, blah blah, it's a youth thing, blah blah." Except. I was young once, and I was very alienated and disrespectful of my elders. I've got a mouth on me that still manages to shock and surprise even the younger people I work with sometimes. And I never adopted anybody else's slang, and I have always known how to spell, construct a sentence, communicate an idea, and use an apostrophe.

So for me, there's no excuse. No matter how "yoof" you think you are, there's no excuse for speaking like an imbecile. These people aren't speaking a certain way in order to exclude their parents. They don't even know they're saying "like" every other word. They have no idea what they sound like or why they sound like it. They're just weak-willed, easily-led, herd animals who copy each other and try to hide behind their uniformity.

They celebrate ignorance and decry individuality: just as my peers did when I was at school. I no this, because I am a smartie and I no the answer to that.

But you can't watch it go by... revisited

Back in July last year, I mentioned that someone at work had just taken delivery of a new Audi A4 estate. It's always exciting when someone at work gets a new car, so you can have a good look around and say all the things that you might not say in a dealer showroom. I was disappointed in the Audi, because it felt like a very small car inside, and I thought the interior was a bit cheap-looking, for a so-called quality car.

Sitting inside the thing is way more important than the way it looks on the outside.

When I was shopping for my last new car a couple of years ago, I sat inside a Mazda 6. It had been well reviewed and I thought at the time that it looked great. But I sat inside and looked at the dashboard area, which is, you know, the bit you're going to see the most, and I knew I'd never be able to live with it. The middle of it had this silvery, fake hammered aluminium look that just seemed tacky, like some demented 9-year-old boy had been let loose in the design studio.

And it's interesting that, all this time later, I no longer like the looks of the Mazda 6 from the outside. Those rear "white look" light clusters (which are common on a whole range of different cars - some of them very expensive ones) just look shit to me now. It's like the car is covered with gold rings, medallions, and chest hair. Things like that are the Gold Taps of the car industry.

The thing I've always liked about VW designs is that they are - wisely - incredibly conservative. They don't go for the striking looks of your Renaults and your Citroëns, and they can indeed look positively dull when first released. A prime example of this is the Touran mini MPV, which is positively generic. But a VW will continue to look generic throughout its model lifetime, whereas your trendy fashion-victim cars look dated very quickly. Such are the vicissitudes of trends.

The new Passat is edging towards trendy. Look at the rear light cluster above: almost as tacky as the Mazda version. Overall, I'm not sure about the looks of the new one, though I like the estate version better. On the other hand, it's edging towards looking like a stretched Golf, which is unfortunately what it is (the old Passat, the one I have, was based on the Audi A6 chassis - which is why it's bigger than an Audi A4 - and the new one is based on Golf chassis and mechanicals).

So someone at work just got a new Passat (saloon), and I went for a spin in it yesterday as it's a company car.

Thinking about it overnight, I'm very disappointed. It was in my mind that I might get a new estate some time next year, and now I just don't know. One striking new feature is the electronic hand-brake, which you notice immediately when you get in, because the space between the driver and passenger seats is now free.

But first things first. The "key" is now a trendy push-into-the-dashboard affair, and you start the car by pushing it like a button. Oh dear. I'd accept this as a Good Thing if the thing you had to carry around in your pocket was smaller than my current, more traditional key. But it's not. It's not even the same size. It's bigger. So you have this great fat lump of metal and plastic to carry around. Bollocks to that.

So then you've got this electronic hand-brake, which is a button on the dashboard, to the right of the steering wheel. A while ago on the roadrage blog, I mentioned my opinion that left-hand-drive cars are a crime against nature, because it feels more natural - to anyone - to use your left leg and left hand to change gear. For the same reason, positioning the hand-brake release button on the right feels counter-intuitive and wrong. It's bad enough pulling out of a space in the peace and quiet of the car park, but to be at a traffic light in heavy traffic, gah!

I'm sure it's something you'll get used to, but it feels like a stupid and unnecessary gimmick, a fashion accessory that we'll laugh at in a few years. This is especially true when you realise what they've done with the space liberated by the absent hand-brake lever. Nothing, really. An arm rest with some space in it for your in-car junk. Whoop-de-do. None of these fashionable cubby holes are ever big enough to be useful, so they just get ignored, or filled with sweet wrappers and receipts or something. That and your cup holders gets you nil points.

Big fucking deal: drink while you drive. Genius. All they need to do is fit a commode or an in-car catheter, and you can keep driving till you fall asleep at the wheel and crash into the central reservation.

More leg- and elbow-room is what I want from a big car, not a fucking cup holder and a waste paper basket.

So what else? This was a basic model, and it felt cheap and nasty inside; plastics not up to the quality I'd expect from VW, and the middle bit of the dashboard: oh dear. Again. They've gone all Mazda, with a great expanse of fake aluminium and/or fake aluminium-coloured fake carbon fake fibre. It looks very, very, nasty indeed.

The seats no longer get adjusted by a quick-release lever under the seat, but by "fancy" electronic buttons. And of course, it's so, so, slow, that you immediately wish you had a quick release - and manual - lever, so you could make the adjustment in half a second and drive away. Yet more pointless gadgetry, designed to make the plebs feel like they're in a "luxury" motor, with the kind of features you'd find in a BMW or Mercedes. Except the plastic switches feel cheap and fragile to touch, and the servo motor comes from a Hornby railway set or something.

I'm hugely disappointed, and can only hope that this nastiness is not present on the slightly better specced models further up the range. But, you know what? I doubt it.

August 24, 2005

Cool Nu Ringtonz for Free Download!

Stuff relating to this new filerm has been invading my personal space, thanks to the global efforts of those wonderful Useful Product Information People.

I don't normally say much about the cinema or movies.

I have to admit though that news of this film made me groan with a thumping tiredness. Don't media people have any imagination anymore? Can't they think of something for themselves? Why this interminable rehashing?

Is it just to satisfy the growing intolerance towards ugliness among the Great American Viewing Public (and the State of Engerlandish ones as well for that matter)?

Or yet another means to fleece the Stupid Ones?

"New and Improved" - the ancient lie.

Is there nothing that hasn't had it's teeth and hair bleached and been converted into a franchised theme pub with bouncers, under-floor cameras for up-crotch live big-screen action, and comfortable leather sofas for pissed twats to sleep in?

There's More?

Just been having a moan with Andrew in the kitchen about album length: one of my hobby horses.

There was a point, wasn't there, in the mid-1970s, when filmmakers lost all sense of propriety and discipline and decided that the standard length for a film would be 2 hours rather than 90 minutes? These days, consumers probably feel gypped if they rent/borrow/steal a DVD and discover the film is "only" 90 minutes long. Lake Placid is like an episode of a TV show, it's so short. But it's a great film with absolutely no flab.

I've been reading over at Danny Stack's blog about scriptwriting, all this Hollywood talk about 3 acts. Acts 1, 2, and 3. The film lacks a 3rd act, they say. What they mean is, the film lacks that shite bit at the end where the killer comes back from the dead and chases everybody around for another 20-30 minutes. You know, to make the length up to the full 2 hours.

So I've been listening to the new Brad Paisley record, Time Well Wasted, and good it is, albeit equal parts corn, cheese, and twang. But it is long, very long, too long. It lasted all the way home, for me, give or take a few minutes catching the headlines on the radio. By the time you get to the Garrison Keillor-type stuff at the end, it's past its bedtime.

This problem has been building since some executive decided that CD audio discs should be the length of Beethoven's 9th symphony. Arse. The correct answer, of course, is that audio discs should be the same length as the pinnacle of pop music: Beatles for Sale, which consists of 14 tracks with a maximum length of 3 minutes. Most of them are just over 2 minutes. Speaking more broadly, an album should be between 30 and 45 minutes in length, and should ebb and flow in a way reminiscent of the days of vinyl. Strong opening, easing back, coming back strong, easing back, big finish.

All that's required of the artist/producer is a bit of critical self-discipline, and the willingness to edit, to discriminate, and to know when something is finished.

In the end, I can't decide right now how much of Time Well Wasted is going to stick, and how much I'm going to end up skipping over. I like "Waiting on a Woman" a cheesy song in which an older man reminisces with a younger on about how he's been doing what they're doing (waiting on a woman) since 1952, when his wife was late for their first date, and there are the usual humorous asides and twangy guitar bits. But it's too great a lump to take in in any one listening.

My favourite thing about albums has always been the way they tend to follow patterns. The first track can be good, but the best tracks are often tracks 4 and 6 - one because it's towards the end of a traditional Side 1, and is there to make you want to turn the record over, and the other because it's at the beginning of Side 2. Track 10, of course, should be the big finish: the one with the gospel choir, or the extended coda, or some other musical craziness going on. There's a reason for these traditions, and I don't think having 15 tracks and then some hidden tracks is really the way to go.

New word

I came across this word recently. I had no idea what it meant and couldn't even guess from the context.

It was explaining how flint arrowheads have a habit of moving up and down over time, in the soil in which they lay, so that you can't use the layer of soil that one is found in as a means of dating it.

Anyway, it mentioned that the ground at a particular archaeological site was podzolised.

podzol - n. a soil that develops in temperate to cold moist climates under coniferous or heath vegetation; an organic mat over a gray leached layer. The etymology is "beneath ashes".

House - so bad it's good.

I've been watching House on Channel 5 since it started, and it's grown on me, over the weeks. Mr. Huge Lorry is up for an Enema award for it, even though his cod American accent seems to borrow freely from one of his sketches with Stephen Fry. And yet Americans, so we're told, didn't realise he was English. Still, most Americans wouldn't recognise an English accent these days; they just think you're Australian, because they think English people talk like the Queen of Englandland.

Anyway, back to House, which I wanted to say something about. At the end of episode two, the formula was starting to look obvious, and it was hard to see how it would sustain interest.

If you haven't watched it, here's the formula:

1. A patient is admitted to the hospital with puzzling symptoms that defy treatments. Either that, or an existing patient being treated for Disease A comes to the attention of Dr House, who becomes fascinated by something that everybody else thinks has Nothing To Do With Disease A.

2. House is consulted, and he reluctantly agrees to get involved, often after being blackmailed or threatended by the hospital administrator. Either that, or he snatches the case away from whoever has it, claiming that they're killing the patient by administering incorrect treatment.

3. House has a brainstorming session with his team, and they enumerate the 6-12 things that could be causing the problem.

4. The first treatment they try nearly kills the patient.

5. They keep brainstorming and experimenting, and nothing seems to work.

6. House discovers something about the patient that everybody had previously overlooked.

7. New treatment successfully cures the patient. Very rarely they correctly identify the problem, but realise that it is too late to treat it successfully. All they can do is make the patient comfortable and wait for him/her to die.

So that's pretty much the pattern. To make it easier for the audience to accept that the so-called genius Doctor House can Get Things Wrong, he is given a Flaw, which in his case is a physical disability. His obvious limp is a sign that Nobody is Perfect. He treats his pain with pain killers to which he is addicted. He is nasty to everybody, making inappropriate and unfair remarks to all and sundry. He mistrusts patients and insists they always lie.

The light relief in House comes when he is forced to see patients in a day clinic. He is nasty to all the patients, with excellent withering sarcasm. Huge Lorry delivers these lines with gusto. The great thing about this bit is that House gets to be very sarcastic about people who have looked things up on the internet; or just people who think they know what's wrong with them in general. He makes wild guesses about what's really going on with them and is usually right. With one patient, he fills a pill bottle from a sweet machine and gives them to him (the patient later returns for a repeat prescription). With another, he cheerfully writes out the requested prescription for Viagra and tells the patient it will probably kill him because he probably has heart disease from ignoring his diabetes.

This is all good stuff.

The reason it's so good is that it's the only medical drama I've ever seen that even comes close to showing how bewilderingly difficult it is to identify the cause of any set of symptoms. I'd go further and say that it's one of the few pieces of drama that manages to show the scientific method at work - to show how it works and what it really means. Hypothesis, experiment, result, further hypothesis, and so on, until you arrive, finally, at a workable treatment. Science is crap, in other words, but it still better than doing nothing, or trusting in your god.

It reminds me, in a strange way, of the classic 70s James Burke series Connections.

Let's just pause for a minute to think about Connections and how good it was, and James Burke, and how good he was, and whatever happened to him, and why did he go so suddenly out of fashion? Not dumb enough, I'd say.

In my dim memory of Connections, I remember Burke taking us through a process, from someone discovering one thing, and how it leads to another, and another, and so on, until you end up at something that seems on the surface to be entirely unrelated to the first thing he talked about.

The other thing about House is that, as well as confronting the hypochondriac in us all and pouring scorn on our attempts to diagnose ourselves on the internet, it dares to point the finger at law and medicine and the interaction between them. House is outrageously rude to his patients and their relatives, and frequently threatened with lawsuits. He's dismissive of patients' wishes and rights, and behaves in the godlike and arrogant way that you might still find in France, say, but will no longer find in the running scared (of lawyers) American health system and, increasingly, in Britain.

Doctors have to be allowed to make mistakes, House argues, they will make mistakes, will almost kill you, will need to get things badly wrong before they get things right. Because this is how science really works. You don't just look in a microscope and say, "It's Lupus, give him an aspirin." At the same time, it argues, patients are not in a position to make meaningful decisions when they don't really know what ails them.

I especially love House's attitude about patients lying to him. Because you know it's true, don't you? Instinctively, you never tell the doctor the whole truth. My favourite bit so far is when House discovers that a patient's family cat had recently died. He looks at a member of his team and berates them for not taking a full family history. In other words, when you don't know anything, anything could be relevant.

Hodge Podge Kitchen: Dutch Baby

Dutch Baby
Originally uploaded by wkwong826.

Discovered this delicious-looking pancake and recipe on Flickr today.

Looks scrunchelicious.

August 23, 2005

Craptastic Chrome Horse Dipsomaniacs

The publicity machine, as if they needed it, of Les Rolling Stones creaks into gear for an album and tour, and we get the gushing press write-ups and mental calculations of their combined ages. Keith Richard's blood is a mere teenager, though, remember, and who knows what black market transplants he's had over the years? New liver, new kidneys? One can only speculate.

Anyway, the local Metro even ran a story about the opening night of the tour (they played "22 songs including Start Me Up and Shattered," apparently. Really? Did they play Sweet Black Angel and Sweet Virginia? Thought not), and I discussed it briefly with Purdy this morning.

Problem is, I don't believe a word of any of what I read about the Stones, because (a) they have never released a decent live album; and (b) they were utterly, abjectly, crap when I saw them myself; and (c) I have never seen a good live performance from them on telly or on film, either.

Given that the fossil record speaks so loudly of a crap band, I conclude, therefore, that they are indeed a crap band.

In a Radio Times article, the journalist even has the gall to trot out the "their best for 25 years" line, which we've seen again and again and again. In fact, I'm sure the Stones' press officer hands out xeroxed sheets with useful phrases like that, so the article practically writes itself.

25 years, incidentally, takes us back to 1980, though I suspicion the journalist meant to say "27 years," in order to land safely in Some Girls territory.

I hasten to add, I am not being age-ist in these comments. Their first live album proper, Get Your Ya Yas Out was craptastic, as was Love You Live from around 1977. As for that Hyde Park concert: also crap.

beanz meanz fartz #4 - jalfrezi

concluding my investigation of the heinz mean beanz range, we come to jalfrezi flavour. on top of a baked potato.

like its tikka friend, the effect is not good. there's an unfortunate clash between the natural sweetness of the bean and the dull curried jalfreziness. an unpleasant experience.

as has been suggested elsewhere, this is really just a marketing thing. you've got your mexican flavour, split into two, and your curry flavour split into two, to produce four flavours. the mexican flavours work, the curries don't.

the final places look like this:

1 sweet chilli
2 mexican
4= tikka
4= jalfrezi


I walk our dog nearly every night at about the same time - around 10pm. We do a small circuit of the street we live on and normally we bump into the same people.

One of our neighbours is Italian and he has a Westie which gets on particularly well with our Yorkshire Terrier so we normally have a little chat. His accent is amazing and we have some fantastic conversations. This was last nights:

Neighbour: 'When does your girlfriend go to work?'

Me: 'Shes back in september as she is a teacher'

Neighbour: 'I know'

Me: 'Are you going on holiday this year?'

Neighbour: 'No. We're going on holiday next month. You got to have holidays - life is...'

Me: 'Tiring? too short?'

Neighbour: 'is like a banana innit. You have to grow...it. What is your job again?'

Me: 'Computers mainly'

Neighbour: 'I know'


Orange Skin and Orange Country

Here's a weird connection for ya.

I was just idly thinking about who are the nice ladies on TV at the moment, and I was going to mention Navi Rawat, who made a guest appearance in last nght's Without a Trace on Channel 4, and who is a recurring character in The O.C. as Theresa, the lovely and less annoying girlfriend that whatsisname could have instead of chasing around after the vacuous Marissa. She's been in Angel, too, so she gets around.

Weird name though.

So I was going to mention her, but then the thought of Orange made me want to mention Sharon from EastEnders. Every time I see her on screen, I want to reach for the remote control to adjust the colour. Surely nobody is that orange? For chrissake, she looks ridiculous. Someone should tell her. Simon loves the orange people, I know, but this is taking things too far.

On another subject entirely I can report that when the new-address confirmation came through from Norwich Union, it was indeed incorrect. So: 10 mins and 45 secs on the phone to a call centre, and they still get the address wrong. All the things I spelt were correct, but they'd included "Long Eaton" in my address (where I lived until last year). Long Eaton is in Nottingham. So now I live in "Buckingham, Long Eaton, Buckinghamshire," apparently.

I wonder if I moved to, say, Luton, whether the address would start to read, "Luton, Long Eaton, Buckinghamshire" or something like that?

August 22, 2005

Indeedy Do

Further to my mildly scathing comments the other day about the so-called "disappearance" of Madeleine Peyroux, turns out I was right on the money:
Bill Holland of Universal Classics and Jazz said they had 'tracked her down very quickly. Much to our embarrassment she was with her manager in New York.'
According to her manager, Peyroux does not want to do any further promotion for her Careless Love record, currently at number seven in the UK album chart.
'He said we should go away and leave her alone,' Mr Holland told BBC News."

So in the absence of the singer, the PR bunnies decided to manufacture a silly season missing person story. I am of course complicit in reporting on the reporting. My bad. Luckily, nobody reads this blog.

Where there's blame there's a claim

I hear that a team of international lawyers are flying over from Brazil to talk compensation deals with the Police. The figure being bandied about is half a million.

So lets imagine that an old woman was punched to death by kids in hoods and baseball caps. They don't know her; they just break in and kick her around a bit by way of encouragement to get her to tell them where she keeps her pension; in which tea caddy, under which cushion.

They break a few bones indiscriminately, leaving her purple and bloody, and get away with a cool twenty two pounds and fifty-six pence, which duly goes a fair way towards the next score.

A neighbour finds her the next day, and she's taken to hospital in an ambulance where she dies that evening.

No international lawyers. No compensation.

That's the real everyday England for you.

More space rocket nostalgia

My mother asked me whether I could remember where we were during that historic moment when they first walked on the Moon.

I know it was the day after my wife was born. I am rather older than her however, but, nonetheless, I couldn't remember it.

I can remember the moonlaunches of the early 70s. They were played continually on the huge black and white television that they had at my school, in the hall. Fuzzy outlines bounding from side to side, accompanied by peeps and crackling voices.

Turns out that when the first ape, ever in all eternity to do so, made his giant leap for all of us fellow primates, we were in a chip shop in Mablethorpe.

Mablethorpe! Ghost town of the East!

Picture it now: Russian tumbleweed blowing through the rusting skeletons of old fairground rides, while a bell rings in an abandoned church tower, its unheard chime echoing around the unending ranks of empty caravans, like those faceless first world war memorial cemeteries in France.

Cock in my pocket

Ha! Got you! Bet you were looking for Iggy Pop lyrics, eh?

I watched a fair bit of the 3-DVD set about the Saturn 1 and 1b rockets. It was interesting mostly. Some of it was boring; without sound. Odd how weird moving footage seems without sound. Even some music would have helped.

Some interesting new facts:
a) rockets sound more like fireworks than jets.
b) even small rockets like these are freckin huge.
c) how did they get the fuel to go downwards out of the bottom of the tanks in zero gravity?
d) apart from the Apollo 1 cab fire, these rockets had a 100% success rate.

I'd always wanted to see a proper big rocket launch by NASA, but I never did and never will so this stuff is the closest I'll get to the real thing.

And the footage is full of that crew-cut toting scientist anti-unamericanist right stuff thing that NASA was in the early 60s. Excellent.

So good in fact that I bought the sister set of Saturn V (the Apollo moon launch stuff) footage.

I would have watched more of it but I ended up having to cut down a rampant cherry tree in my mother's garden yesterday. It took hours.

On an interesting note, I read that NASA are in difficulty with the International Space Station. Now the Shuttle is officially dead, like Concorde, they have no means of getting stuff or people up to the space station.

So far they've got by hitching free lifts on the back of Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but Russia's obligation to provide this ends next year and the USA has a law that prohibits them from buying space technology. As a result the ISS is an expensive piece of junk.

Because they are unable to take any hardware up there, the only experiment that can be done is for men to float around in space, and that's already been done. Lots.

They need to start converting it into an hotel for the good rich folk of the world.

Word Verification For Comments

To all our reader, I would like to apologise for the necessity of enabling the Blogger feature "Word Verification For Comments". This is because, since listing on Britblog, we have attracted the unwelcome attentions of comment spammers and sporgers.

Sorry for the inconvenience. I will introduce self-said-same for GuitarGAS and Roadrage, also, too.

A weight off my shoulders

I had my haircut on friday afternoon.

Nothing too unusual but I rarely attend to matters tonsorial so a visit to the hairdressers is always a bit weird for me. I find the experience equally pleasurable and painful due to the random nature of who will end up cutting your hair.

I prefer women cutting your hair - they tend to give you a haircut that suits you rather than some stroppy prima donna bloke cutting it who gives you the haircut that he wants.

I was lucky as it was a woman but I had picked this hairdressers because of the high female to male ratio. And what a woman she was. Buxom (has that word been used since 1970?)and blonde - she was fighting a losing battle with a boob tube type top she was wearing and had clearly been applying mascara on a daily basis without a thought for removing any prior applications. This was going to be fun.

I sat down and showed her the picture and she looked at me then at the picture then back at me. I could tell her brain was superimposing the magazine hair on my features. She computated it a little longer before giving me the nod. She approved and I was happy.

I was waiting for the chat bit - you know, the bit where they ask you where you're going on holiday and the like.

She did'nt ask. Instead she told she had just got back from Ibiza and she was knackered and not very talkative and she was sorry she was'nt going to be very conversational. Pure joy.

When she'd finished she pointed out the mound of hair on the floor. It looked like Uncle Fester of the Addams Family had melted. She then closed the experience with this comment.

'I can't believe how heavy your hair is/was. My hands are really tired now and I've got a cough'

Great haircut though. Great woman. I shall be going back there again if only to ask what on earth she meant.

August 19, 2005

I hate myself and want to die

Today I have been working with computers.

It's amazing isn't it that they've been improving the user experience for some years now and yet it can still be so utterly agonizing and frustrating that you want to put your foot through the screen to teach the computer something about The Ways Of Righteousness.

I've just spent the best part of a day trying to fix something that doesn't work. I've followed the instructions implicitly, tried fixes, and drifted ever lower into that mire of random straw clutchings and reboots that seems to be the norm now with doing computer work.

I'd reached the point where I coudln't even think of anything else to try. I'd actually ran out of things to try that weren't even related to the thing that doesn't work.

I've given up in frustration and decided to call in the cavalry. You see we have a support pack with 5 free incidents. So I've attempted to register a support incident with the manufacturer. After almost an hour of page after page of forms to complete, each one almost cataleptically slow, I got all the info typed in and clicked submit.

BANG. The browser has bombed saying it can't find the page.

Sometimes you reach the stage of boredom and agony where you have to ask yourself, like Kenneth Williams did in his secret diary, "Oh, what's the fucking point?"

Don't PANIC, don't PANIC!

I love this story about Madeleine Peyroux 'disappearing' into thin air. The record company are hyping this up like some kind of "jumping off the Severn Bridge" suicide, because nothing sells records like a musician who self-destructs at the height of success, does it?

In reality, probably, record company PR bunnies just don't know how to cope when someone switches off their mobile phone - or, god forbid, doesn't own a mobile phone.

Hundreds of people probably think I am dead, come to think of it.

a time of hope

what's everyone listening to at the mo?

joanna newsom was in all the mags a while back. i thought she looked quite purty, so i sought her out. her weird voice frightened me off, but i kept going back and now i have bought the album the milk-eyed mender. it is ace (rob won't like it though).

someone told me if i liked joanna newsom then i might like hope bird, some actress off the west wing. can anyone furnish me with more details?

speaking of hope, it's a few years' old now but i have picked up on the hope sandoval and the warm inventions' lp, bavarian fruit bread. it's a good one.

Yes please thankyou yes

10 minutes, 45 seconds.

That's how long it took my last night to notify my car insurance company that I'd changed address.

10 minutes 45 seconds of repeating myself slowly, and, in turn, asking the call centre employee to repeat himself slowly. First of all, we had an "hilarious" to-and-fro about identifying myself. Because, see, I couldn't remember whether I'd told them my new address or not.

And then, it seemed he just couldn't believe I'd moved house. Or couldn't believe that the change of address was immediate. And then it took him several minutes to key in the details, after he repeated them several times. And he repeated them while he was keying them in, getting some details wrong as he was typing, so that I had to correct him.

And another thing: I hate that bloody Tango Foxtrot Mango Dingo rubbish people in call centres do when you try to spell things to them. It's not fucking Z Cars is it? They do it in the same way that a snotty Starbucks Barista will correct your pronunciation of "Latte" and "Arseacinno." Yeah, my name is Robert. That's Rancid Old Bugger Eats Rabid Toads, you twerp.

He queried my annual mileage (which I've conservatively estimated at 30,000 miles), couldn't believe that. And tried to sell me breakdown cover, of course. It's in the script.

10 minutes, 45 seconds, all to change a postcode and the first line of my address.

Even now, I'm confident that some detail will be incorrect when the confirmation comes through.

I've got nothing against the Indian people or the Indian nation. Call centres are awful to deal with, whether they're in Scotland or Mumbay. A job's a job, and international workers of the world unite, is what I say.

But the problem with this is that a person in Mumbay has as much problem understanding my accent as I do his. And he doesn't know that MK stands for Milton Keynes, so it's not easy for him to understand UK postcodes. And I'm sure there are other bewildering aspects of UK geography and life for him to puzzle over, as he sits there. My point being that I wonder just how cost effective it really is to send a job to India, when it quadruples the time required to handle any call. Surely their productivity has dropped through the floor?

Capitalism, eh? Gotta love its wastefulness.


Urrgh. With the exception of a glass of wine and two cans of lager I've not been drinking alcohol for three weeks now.

However, spurred on by similar sentiments voiced by Andy, I committed the indiscretion last night of having a couple of tins of fizzy pop.

All well and good, except I fell asleep shortly after opening can number three.

I woke up on the sofa at about 1.30 am. There was an horrendous storm raging outside - lightning and rain.

After I went to bed I had a series of vivid dreams. As I remember one concerned arranging a holiday but forgetting to tell my wife until too late. I recognise the emotions of this dream - it's down to work anxiety.

The second one I remember was that I was fishing beside a huge but very shallow lake. I'd borrowed my dad's fishing tackle and I'd got it hugely tangled up. I managed to unravel it and carried on fishing to no avail, until I caught a fish which turned out to be a very small goldfish. What was that one about?

I used to like fishing, but I wonder if the dream was just reflective of my ever growing tendency to hate everything and always expect the worst. Interesting that I can remember how to use a fishing reel.

This morning I feel like I've never slept before in my life.

August 18, 2005

Bad Ads Revisited

We spoke a while ago about how dreary and crap adverts are at the moment. In the news right now are those incredibly annoying shampoo and cosmetic ads with their made-up-on-the-spot scientific justifications and statistics.

It's the made up words that get me. Ceratomaside. Polygenesen. Purkleweevleon. And so on. Our new magic ingredient, Burflewaffleide, actually dissolves wrinkle molecules. What they basically do, they get your bog-standard shampoo, as formulated in around 1927, and they get a tramp to piss in it. They call the piss Follypanomol or something, and they say it's a "new formula."

My little tip with shampoo, especially for the short of hair, is to water it down. Keep your old empty bottle, and dilute the new one 50/50 with water. It lasts ages. Oh, and never "rinse and repeat," either.

This has been a public service announcement.


I've just read Bob's post below. Interesting.

My opinion about state and police powers is different. I'm way more right wing these days. I used to think the police and government were fascist bully boys. I probably still do. Deep down.

But on the surface I now believe that we as individuals have no fundamental civil rights as such. I'm more inclined to think that normative ethics is, really, a nonsense. I'm more inclined toward the social contract view - you live here and you live by the rules, you are tolerated, and you die by the rules, if necessary. Whatever they happen to be at that moment in the minds of those with power to enforce those rules.

Interesting that two words "might" and "power" have a similar modern meaning and also have a similar derivation. The former comes from the Saxon verb michtan "to be able", and the latter from the Old French pouvoir, also "to be able". And that's what it is all about.

Any rights that we have are by agreement and they are a privilege. Nothing god given or absolute. So if the state or one of its representatives decides, for whatever reason, and without apparent justification, to unload 5 bullets in your head because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so be it. No outrage involved. Just unfortunate.

I've realised there are two sorts of people in the western world. Rule Followers and Opportunists. I could reel off a list of examples of behaviour that indicate which camp someone falls into. Opportunists tend to break rules whenever they can get away with it, and ALWAYS put themselves first when considering whether to take any action.

By nature, I'm a Rule Follower. I want to follow the maxim "do unto others", I want boundaries to be laid out in black and white, I want to know where I stand, I like driving at 30mph through populated areas, I wouldn't want to upset someone by contradicting them: metaphorically I resolutely regard it as my duty to go down with my ship.

But I know that I am exceptional in that. Most people are very much Opportunists. In fact, that is the sort of competitive, snatching world that we live in. And it's always been like that. And it will be again.

The very ordered and liberal society in which we live at the present, in which it seems reasonable to talk about rights, is just another social blip brought about in the wake of the 1920s Labour Movement. It's already on its way back to where power rests in the hands of... well, the powerful. And what they say goes. Those who can, do, you see.

So, we are all fair game when it comes to getting trampled to death under the feet of the Great and Good Opportunists while they are snatching amongst themselves; those who happen to be on top of the pile.

We may only be grateful for not getting shot in the head by mistake. Getting trampled to death is merely a function of, on the one hand, being a Rule Follower, or, on the other hand, failing as an Opportunist.

And when we protest about our rights we are really nothing more than naughty children, pushing our luck with the adults. We'll be tolerated and get away with it so far, until true power prevails and we get a bloody cuff on the nose from a grown up.

Like Squirrel Nutkin getting his tail bitten off by Old Nut Brown Owl.

The Lie, the Whole Lie, and Nothing But the Lie

They asked me my name
And I said, "Captain Kidd"
They believed me but
They wanted to know
What exactly that I did
I said for the Pope of Eruke
I was employed
They let me go right away
They were very paranoid

A comment piece in today's Guardian (Simon Hattenstone: "We cannot take them at their word") lists various episodes of police incompetence and/or malice involving people dying in their custody, like the hapless Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot in the head on the tube when, so we're told, he was already in custody and subdued.

There was a lot of warm feelings around and about towards the police-and-emergency-services following the 7th July London bombings; conflating the police with the fire and ambulance services is a bit like conflating "sex and violence". It's not necessarily the same thing. As I was being held against my will in Luton Airport the other night, along with hundreds and hundreds of other tired airline passengers, I noticed that the police tactic (they were called because people were getting increasingly annoyed at the delay in passport control) was to stand, arms folded, looking as mean as possible.

In this way, they sought to criminalise thousands of innocent people who just wanted to get their bags and go home, or onwards to hotels etc. There were no criminals or terrorists in the airport that night, and yet the police looked at all of us as if we were shit on the bottom of their shoes.

What happened to the smiling English Bobby, with his bicycle and his cheerful wave, eh? Institutions conduct themselves now so as to avoid culpability. Airports and airlines get around the pesky notions of human and consumer rights by inventing the phenomenon of "air rage", as if it is just being in an airport or plane that sends people savagely loopy, rather than the incompetence, ignorance, and rudeness of airport/line staff.

More recently, retailers started to talk about "shop rage" or something similar, saying their employees were being "attacked" without provocation. In other words, they're trying to shift the balance of power, because customers are just too uppity. You're not allowed to get angry with anyone these days, not allowed to express annoyance or ask for better treatment. If you do, you're marked as an anti-social element and dealt with as a criminal.

The truly paranoid will always lie on first instinct. It's no surprise to me that the police issued a load of tripe/misinformation in the hours following the Menezes shooting. It's the way things are set up; the truth is not an option, and it would never occur to them to tell it. In this time of crisis, they seized more power and were immediately corrupted by it.

It's a different government, but it reminds me of nothing so much as the Falklands war, when all kinds of jiggery pokery was going on, and we were lied to about it constantly, with Special Branch running around the country criminalising people who dared to ask questions about it all.

August 17, 2005

400 year old hooch

2005, as well as being the 50th anniversary of Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut chapel at Ronchamp, and the 60th anniversary of the end of World War 2, is the 400th anniversary of the famous Chartreuse Liqueurs.

That's interesting, innit?
Only two monks have been entrusted by the Order with the secret of producing the liqueurs. Only these two know the ingredients. Only these two know how these ingredients are prepared for incorporation into the base of wine alcohol. What little is known is that some 130 herbs, plants, roots, leaves, and other natural bits of vegetation are soaked in alcohol for an unknown length of time, then distilled and mixed with distilled honey and sugar syrup before being put into large oaken casks and placed into the world's longest liqueur cellar for maturation.

I laugh gently at this, because while we were in France, my mother in-law treated me to a glass of her 24-year-old home-made not-Chartreuse, which she made from a recipe given to her by "a friend" who had been given the recipe, so the story went, by "a monk".

It involved the purchase of 5 litres of 90% alcohol and a long list of other ingredients, which had to be sourced from a variety of places so as not to raise eyebrows and alarums. In fact, the alcohol was purchased in half-litre quantities from different chemists for the same reason.

Crazy. And not strictly legal. But delicious. A smooth, warm, aromatic drink that went down a treat.

Not much left, unfortunately, but the recipe is still there, scribbled on a piece of paper.

Far out

We've all just been speculating about how fast the earth is moving.

Rtation speed on its axis is easy - you can work it out in your head - 25000 miles circumference in 24 hours makes about 1000 mph. Fast huh? Like a righteous Audi on the motorway.

But the Earth is moving round the sun too, it turns out, at a whopping 67,000 mph. Smokin'!

However the prize goes for the speed at which the solar system (and thus the Earth) rotates around the centre of the galaxy.

That speed is a flipping enormous 465,000 mph, or 130 miles every second. So, since you started reading this, you've traveled something like 4000 miles.

Spaced in Lost

(Well, I'm very happy with that headline. I should work for The Sun.) It can't have escaped your notice that Channel 4 have begun screening Lost, a big budget, glossy, show about plane crash survivors on a mysterious island. Read The Observer Review, if you missed it, and kick yourself thoroughly.

(Incidentally, if reincarnation is true, I would happily die in order to be the fly on the wall at the network TV pitch meeting that features the wannabe producers of a show that is "...like Lost... but in Space.")

First episode suffered from all the usual First Episode problems - too many characters to introduce, too many subplots to set rolling, so that you felt it was clichéed and over-hyped. But I kept faith, because it's J J Abrams, creator of Alias, as preposterous an entertainment as you like, and Officially The Best Show On TV.

Lucky for me, E4 showed the first 3 episodes back to back the night after I got back from holiday, or I'd have missed it, dammit. When we were in France, there was much excitment when the first episodes aired. My brother-in-law called out, at dinner one night, "LOST!! Lost!" crying out that the video should be set (it already was). It reminded me, a little, of an old Perishers strip, in which all the kids jump up excitedly and shout, "The Monkees! The Monkees!" and run out of the room. The final frame showed them all, stopped, looking back at Marlon, who was following with a blank look on his face and a big bunch of bananas in his hand.

Talking of bananas, there's no indication as to what the people in Lost are going to be eating when the airline food runs out. They could have eaten the polar bear, for example, but didn't.

Anyway, I'm into it. There's a nice foccy (and possibly Bad Girl) heroine (except you know she's not), a too-good-to-be-true hero, and a Mysterious Man On The Beach Who Was In Alias. My favourite moment so far is when they picked up the repeating distress signal of the last plane to crash on the same island... all hands lost (or were they?) 16 years before...

J J Abrams! Fucking genius!

Anyway, get into it, before it's too late - or watch out for Channel 4's "all the episodes so far in one night" night.

August 16, 2005

She's wearing Impulse

This morning I received the latest in a long series of stupid impulse purchases.

It's a collection of DVDs covering 6 hours of footage about the Saturn I and IB rockets (not the Saturn Vs used for the moonlaunch - I'll get that one later).

I like this sort of thing. It reminds me of when I was little. And scientists with crew cuts and steel rimmed spectacles. All good stuff.

When I was 7 I probably wished that I was American so that I could be an astronaut for NASA.

Nowadays, thirty-years-plus on from then, we know that the Apollo moon program was all valves and piss-soaked towels, and done on a wing and a prayer.

Apart from that I've never been very good with heights.

Reading gone wrong

My holiday reading list got diverted unexpectedly.

I started off with good intent. I read the book about dragonflies, the one about bumblebees, and even In search of Albion by Colin Irwin (more about which shortly).

But it went wrong when we drove past Criccieth Castle. My youngest saw enough Harry Potter Aspiration Material in it to make a visit to the castle imperative.

So I ended up buying a book about standing stones in North West Wales and also the CADW guide to the monuments and ancient buildings in the area. And that's what I started reading.

We ended up visiting a few old places and a fantastic dolmen in the middle of a farmer's field (complete with humorous and fictional "beware of the bull" sign).

So I learned lots about prehistoric people, which I can summarise here.

a) The last ice age only ended 15000 years ago.

b) There is evidence of humanids in the area from before the last ice age (stone tools that survived in caves under the glaciers).

c) Those humanids in b) were probably neanderthals.

d) Modern humans (us, the species, rather than a race or mind set) only started to appear in Britain about 35000 years ago, while the ice age was still here.

e) In other words there have only been humans in most of the British isles for about 15000 years.

f) Most of the stone monuments were put there by bronze age people (about 4000 - 3000 BC) and the climate was much nicer then (that's why they could have huts on Welsh mountains without freezing to death).

We don't know much about what went on in the minds of people in those days. From what I read I only found four things that give an inkling of humanity:

a) Several dolmen have been known for a very long time as (in Welsh) the lair of the greyhound bitch. There's plenty of wolf and dog folklore in Britain, huh?

b) They liked sticking fucking huge stones in the ground for no apparent (to us) reason other than that they could.

c) Inside a grave containing two cremations from the bronze age they found a fire that had been put out with a stew of lizard, fish, and pig bones, and then carefully covered over with limpet shells.

d) They liked zig zags and spirals enough to carve them into stones.

There's something else that's interesting. In spite of them living in a warm climate in which bears and wolves roamed the countryside their houses were unfortified. And we know from grave goods that they had a sophisticated trade network spreading all around the country. In other words they were peaceful, organised, and pretty much, therefore, civilised. They had weapons, but they were pretty much ceremonial rather than functional. It was cool to get buried with a sword and axe.

But then something happened. At some point settlements were built surrounded by ditches and stone walls. You get loads of hill forts and defensive ramparts. This has traditionally been explained as being a result of the Romans coming. But we know now that it started around 1000BC (well before the Romans were even sucking on a wolf's tit).

So what could bring about the change in the way people lived? Why would they need all this defensive stuff around their communities? Who was attacking them?

Interesting coincidence that at the same time there was a climate change - a drop in average temperatures by about three or four degrees, rendering a lot of the land infertile and unusable. And sea levels were still rising from the last ice age. So they were loosing a lot of land.

Don't be surprised if people get violent with each other when the world's climate changes or we run out of oil, thusly.

Buy a Border fortified house now (one of those houses that looks like a castle in Berwick), with real stone chimneys too. Thank me later for the advice.


We saw the nesting Ospreys in Glaslyn. Excellent. Never seen one before. Saw lots of buzzards and a peregrine too. No puffins though in spite of going to Bardsey Island with its 20,000 saints buried there.

Oh yes - In Search of Albion. I thought it was going to be a catalogue of obscure folk traditions. It wasn't. Colin Irwin was an editor for NME at some point. It started off well with him claiming to drive a rickerty M reg Cavalier and having several other things in common with me. But a large part of this book was more about him recounting his memories of people from the 60s & 70s folk music scene (and the connected extremist Morris Dancing). Interesting to me as I dabbled in folk for a while. Maybe not so interesting to others.

I don't think you'd like it, Bob, but you're welcome to borrow it if you wish.

I did learn from it that Kirsty McColl's folky dad wrote the Roberta Flack hit The first time that ever I saw your face.

And any mention of hobbie horses, nomatter how tenuous, has to be good in a sinister way.

"The weather is better in Alsace."

haute saone
Originally uploaded by mcmrbt.

Plancher Bas, the village in which my wife grew up is in the French Département of Haute Saone, number 70, right over on the eastern side, near Switzerland. It's about as far from the sea as you can get, and it's an economically depressed area, without much in the way of industry, and without even the compensation of a climate decent enough to grow wine. The nearest big town is Belfort, which is worth about 2 hours if you're in the mood for a bit of shopping. It, too, is economically depressed, giving the impression of faded greatness, a sleeping giant. Belfort is the only city in France, apart from Paris, that exists as its own Départment, number 90. Oh, it has an old town and fortifications and the famous Lion of Belfort, but that's not the sort of thing that interests me.

Belfort's status is something to do with the part of France it is in, the area having been invaded repeatedly over the years. Alsace, of which more in a moment, to the North East, has been part of Germany, and part of France again several times. Now, like Wales, Alsace is neither one thing nor the other, insisting on its own dialect, but speaking French and German when it feels like it, and only barely tolerating visitors from across the border.

I first visited Plancher in the summer of 1994, just after I finished my first degree, and we spent a while there, and drove South to camp on the Côte D'Azure for a week, and drove back to spend more time. Since then, we've visited about twice a year, summer and Christmas, and I know the area well enough. My children have spent every Christmas but one in France and know only the French way of doing things.

It's a 10-12 hour drive from the UK, and not the kind of place you'd think of for a holiday destination (especially based on what I've said so far). It's not even a place you'd consider for a skiing holiday: you'd go to the Alps, wouldn't you, where the snow is more guaranteed, and the slopes steeper and longer.

My wife has flown over on a couple of occasions – times when I couldn't make it, for one reason or another. Until recently, flying wasn't very convenient. From Birmingham, you had to fly KLM to Amsterdam, and then from Amsterdam to Basel-Mulhouse, the nearest airport, which is part Swiss, part French (and not very close to Mulhouse, either). For a direct flight, you had to use Crossair, the collaboration between British Airways and Swissair, and fly from Heathrow. Both choices were shockingly expensive, in this age of cheap air travel, and for use only in exceptional circumstances. For a family of four, it was certainly cheaper to use the Channel Tunnel, pay the tolls and drive down the motorways, and even stop for a night in Reims to break the journey.

But now that's all changed: Easyjet now flies direct from Luton to Basel, and for a two-week stay that same family of four can now fly direct and hire a medium-sized car for the same price as the Tunnel/Motorway/Hotel option. For a short break, and if you're met at the airport by your in-laws, it's obviously a lot cheaper. All of the usual caveats about booking early with Easyjet for the cheapest seats apply.

(You also have to be willing to put up with Luton Airport, which is run like a banana republic's version of Jeux Sans Frontiers, but that's another story.)

All of this means that this Eastern part of France is ripe for holiday discovery. Because for "economically depressed" you can read "unspoiled", and you can add other adjectival phrases like "off the beaten track" and "spectacular scenery." For now, at least, this is a part of France that doesn't have to feel "done to death" and where every other car you see on the roads isn't "sporting a UK plate."

So is it worth a visit? I'd say a qualified yes. Children of a certain age won't enjoy the kind of holiday that involves a lot of touring in a car and trudging round picturesque villages and towns. We're lucky in that we can abandon our children with the grandparents, leave them paddling in the inflatable in the garden or visiting goats and donkeys and picking mushrooms in the forest. For the similarly unencumbered, I highly recommend it.

Beautiful? Can you spell G R E E N? And if there aren't exactly mountains to match the Alps and the Pyrennees, you've got your Ballons des Vosges, plenty of challenging climbs for walkers and cyclists (including the Ballon d'Alsace, as seen on this year's Tour), and spectacular views. This is an area where people ski, so you'll see the odd ski-lift, often used in the summer for taking people up for the view, or to run down the concrete luge.

There are markets and festivals, zoos, exhibits, all the usual tourist fodder. For myself, there's nothing beats a pleasant drive along winding country roads, and the occasional stop in an interesting village. ronchamp01Ronchamp, quite near to Plancher Bas, features the just-50-year-old Notre Dame du Haut chapel built by Le Corbusier to replace one that was bombed in the war: that's worth a visit. And you'll find lakes, rivers, forests, unspoiled views, and plenty of fresh air.

Let's be honest about the climate, though. I've seen deep, deep, snow in winter (don't worry, even the smallest village will have roads cleared by snow ploughs - they expect snow, so they're well prepared), and I've experienced the kind of hanging heat of summer that makes you go wow - 37-40 degrees of Celsius. And I've seen amazing thunder and lightning storms (always entertaining), but the weather I've experienced most frequently over the years has been rain.

In winter, sometimes, we've had a week of rain, so much that you couldn't get out of the house to take a restoring walk; in summer, it's always guaranteed to rain once or twice when I'm there. This morning, for example (I'm writing this on the 5th August), we had clear blue skies, and it was lovely all day - till about 4 o clock, when the clouds came over and threatened rain. There were a few spots, but it never really came (though on most such occasions it would).

The day we arrived, this summer, there was so much rain that the basement flooded - something that hasn't happened in the 40 years my in-laws have been here.

On the other hand, we've experienced heat waves, too, and heard about droughts and so on, so it's pot luck, the weather is. Because of all the hills and mountains, the term microclimate applies. The weather really can be different on the other side of a hill.

Which is why you'll want to take several side trips into Alsace, and that's as it should be.
Because if Haute Saone is undiscovered France, Alsace is "second most popular destination" France - and with good reason. It isn't the Mediterranean coast, and it isn't the Vendée, but it is a wealthy and beautiful part of the country (the Rhin Départements are numbered 67 and 68).

In 67, you have Strasbourg, home to European Parliament, and worth a day trip. In 68, you have Colmar, home to mediaeval timbered buildings in labyrinthine streets and good shopping. To reach both, you can either shoot up the N road or Motorway and remark on the scenery, or you can drive through it. You can go to both cities along the Route des Vins, or you could just drive the Route for the sheer pleasure of it. You're surrounded by wonderful views, vineyard after vineyard spread across rolling hills, and even creeping into the villages themselves (people seem to have vines instead of gardens in some places). And the villages are often very, very beautiful, like Riquewir, and fascinating, stuffed full of wineries offering tastings and wine by the case. If not wine, try the biscuits!

Most Brits think Alsatian wine is like German wine, has a reputation for being sweet and/or fruity, but that's because a lot of them haven't tasted Crémant d'Alsace, the local sparkling which is so good that the French seem to keep it all for themselves. I haven't seen it in many British supermarkets, at least, which is odd, because as a celebration drink there's almost nothing better - it's méthode Champenoise, but much, much cheaper (of course). You'll want to buy a couple of cases (of 6) for your next do, I guarantee it.

Several of the wine route villages are worth a stop, and you'll have to try the local dish(es), too, of course. I can take or leave the Choucroutte, which is sauerkraut with spicy sausages, but the tarte flambée, on the other hand, is to die for. It's essentially a very thinly based pizza with cream instead of tomato sauce, topped with lardons (bacon) and onion, and cooked very rapidly in a wood-burning oven. Visit a restaurant cooking them properly over wood, and you'll be served your tarte a very few minutes after you order.

The basic recipe is as above, and you can have it gratinée, with Gruyere, for a more pizza-like experience (not really necessary), or with a huge variety of toppings, just like pizza. Be sure to try the basic traditional recipe before you try the variations. Some places offer toppings with potato, or Montbeliard sausage, or just about anything. I've even seen it offered with snails or frog's legs, but that's just taking the piss.

Wash it down with an Alsatian beer, of course, though ask for a Buckler or Kronenberg Pur Malt if you're driving.
So, where were we? Strasbourg, Colmar, Route des Vins, crémant, tarte flambée, beer... oh yeah: castles. Haute Koenigsburg is worth a visit: it's a 19th century re-creation of the mediaeval castle experienced, perched on a hilltop looking out over those vineyards.

So you'll be spending a couple of days in Alsace, particularly if the weather in poor in Haute Saone, and the weather in Alsace is always better (true). But you wouldn't want to stay there, because Alsatians... well. Just watch out for the drivers with the 68 and 67 plates is all I'll say. You won't miss them: they'll be pulling out on you and tailgating you almost as soon as you cross the border.

And if you get back to Haute Saone, and you've developed a liking for wine tasting, or the weather is still acting up, drive South and you're in Jura - more spectacular scenery (the architecture is more alpine-Swiss there), more lakes, more castles, more wine, and - of course - Crémant de Jura, the local tipple... But that's another story.

August 15, 2005

Gone Country

Originally uploaded by mcmrbt.

Here's a record that divides the critics. Slant Magazine awards it a big fat zero, while other reviews are fair to middling and or generous in their praise.

I'm inclined to be generous myself, because I like Hill's voice, especially when she's up close and personal to the microphone and not trying to out-belt Céline.

Fireflies belongs in a context, the career of Faith Hill, which started quite well with a country pop record, and then fell into peril as vocal nodules threatened to end it before it began. Several voice training sessions later, she returned with her follow-up, a stronger set, in a deeper register.

None of this prepared her audience for her third album, the excellent Faith, packed full of corking songs and crossover hits; so much so that the record company started to get Big Ideas.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that Hill just can't get away from record company meddling. Their muddy pawprints have been all over her subsequent records, including this one.

Breathe was an obvious attempt at full crossover; it was loud, bombastic, and obsessed with genre. And that's the problem with the American music scene. I gave up, long ago, trying to convince people that so-called "Country" is only what we called "Rock" in the 70s, and that so-called "Rock" is what we called "Heavy Metal." Etc.

American music is no longer allowed to be that all-encompassing general category of "Rock". It has to be "Adult Contemporary" or "R & B" or, I don't know. This obsession with genre is a bit confusing for the British ear; and I just can't believe there are people there who want to tune in to one kind of music exclusively. Still, for the American market, falling between categories is a no-no, and for country music in particular, well, you just don't, that's all. They will never forgive you.

Even Shania Twain, to whom Hill is sometimes compared (for no good reason), knows that you can't do everything, all at once, which is why her last record was available in three different mixes. So Hill's Breathe was a bit crap, here and there, and Cry, the follow-up, was a critical and commercial "disaster."

I say, "disaster." That only means it sold half as many as Breathe, which is still a lot, unless you're a record company suit. Cry tried to do power ballads, and I have to admit to quite liking it, but it took Hill so far from her core audience that there was an obvious need to bring her back into the fold.

So here she is, with Byron Gallimore, Dan Huff, and herself producing, and the first instrument you really hear on this record is a... banjo. As a statement of intent, you couldn't get clearer, but on this blog we are very familiar with the expression "unintentional hilarity", and I laughed out loud in the car when it came on.

So, er, okay then, Faith Hill, crossover diva, has "gone country" with this, her sixth album proper.


The guitars are mixed up front, and the songs, for the most part, are chosen for their emotional content rather than pop hooks. In spite of the obvious thumbprints of record company suits, she pulls most of this stuff off quite well. That said, I kind of agree with some of what Slant magazine has to say in the review linked to above. She's no Trisha Yearwood, and sometimes you can detect obvious efforts to demonstrate the kind of superlative vocal control that Yearwood has. It's there all right, but not so effortlessly.

Still, while you wouldn't want Yearwood to stutter just to prove her mortality, I don't think Hill should be criticised for trying to improve her voice, or for trying to reach for the heights Yearwood occupies.

No, for me the false notes here include the track "Mississippi Girl", which wasn't just written for Hill, but about her, and it's just too self-referential and perky. She tries to tell you she's not been changed by her success (read "failure"), to which my response is, "See you down Tesco, then, yeah?"

"Like We Never Loved At All," her usual duet with husband Tim McGraw has been praised elsewhere, but to me it sounds a bit off, as if Tim sneaked into the studio one night, drunk, and "contributed" his vocal without Faith's knowledge or permission.

"We've Got Nothing But Love To Prove" is her "political" statement, and although it's not a great track, and the lyrics edge towards fromage, I admire the sentiment behind it. Rather than running up the Red White and Blue like most country artists these days, Hill chooses to ask questions (like Dylan at his finest). It's about as right-on as you can get without being Steve Earle.

The opener, "Sunshine and Summertime" is great, and there are several other really good ones. The last two tracks are very interesting. I'd love to know the full circumstances of the production of "Wish For You" and "Paris," because there seems to be something very different going on with the vocal sound. It's very "vintage", sounding like nothing so much as a classic MGM musical, or like something out of Capitol in the 50s.

You'd suspect vintage microphones and analogue tape at the very least, but I think Hill is due some credit, too, for making considerable efforts with her vocal technique to sound vintage, too.

I like this record - it's her best since Faith and it's been a long time coming. I doubt she'll be fully forgiven by the country scene (in which context I read the Slant Magazine review), and it's all over the place at times, with several songs sounding like they're searching for the melody, but the production values are as high as ever and her voice is superb.

I look forward to seeing her in Tesco's. Even as a Photoshopped Brunette (and they used the Photoshop Filter That Should Never Be Used, the fools), she's a 4 or a 5. I'd like to point out, vis a vis her husband, that I have a full head of hair and I'm willing to be photographed without my hat.

Apple Mighty Mouse

Just got my hand on one of the new Apple mice - what are they saying about it? "5 button function, 1 button feel." It's more or less the same shape and size as the old mouse, but it has a tiny scrolling nipple* (scrolls up/down as well as back/forth). Squeezy type buttons on the side perform a programmable function. Pressing the nipple is another programmable function.

You can continue to use it as a single-button style mouse, or programme a click on the right half as a right-button click.

It works, but they haven't addressed the key design failings of the previous mouse: its poor ergonomics, which an cause tendonitis-type injuries. I won't go as far as to say RSI, because that's just people crying "me too" when what they actually have is tendonitis, which is a different thing.

It's probably a bad time to try it, because my wrist is hurting at the moment (don't know why) like I've sprained it or something, and so the new mouse exacerbates that (in comparison to the Microsoft mouse I was using at work before), but I'm disappointed they didn't address the shape issue.

The other problem is the way the cable comes out the front. It may be reinforced compared to the old one, which tends to break at the join with the mouse. It seems very similar, but time will tell.

*It's not really a nipple. It's a ball. But I'll call it a nipple in order to upset Americans.

three thrillers three

three thrillers
Originally uploaded by mcmrbt.

Michael Connelly has Bosch back on the force in this latest instalment (The Closers); quite right too. Retirement didn't suit Bosch, nor the life of a private eye. Bosch goes back to an LAPD that is in the process of cleaning itself up, and like the South African process of reconciliation, looking back at old cases with new eyes. Cold cases has become a bit of a televisual cliché of late - although not handled that well in my opinion - and Connelly ruefully acknowledges this, having one of the minor characters work in publicity for such a programme (and ignored by Bosch).

Anyway, it's a decent enough outing for Bosch, though you wonder how many cold cases he can investigate before it gets stale.

Mother and daughter (ew) team P J Tracy is (are?) still on a roll, with Dead Run, their third novel in as many years. This one, 24 style, takes place in the course of one day, featuring many familiar characters confronted with a terrorist poison gas plot gone awry. Good, page-turning genre stuff, but easily forgotten.

California Girl by Jefferson Parker, is much more ambitious, its time scale stretching from the 1950s to the here and now, and its subject matter including local and national politics, social, cultural, and family history, religion, drugs, and the changes brought to the now-familiar Orange County region of California with the years. All this, and the headless corpse of a 19-year-old former beauty queen, makes for a dense and interesting read.

In the end, the necessities of the genre overwhelm the ambition, but for the first couple of hundred pages this is almost good beyond belief. You've got your four brothers, whose father works in the orange groves of california; one gets killed in Viet Nam, one becomes a drive-in evangelist, one a journalist, and one a cop. The novel begins with the brothers having a fight with another family from the wrong side of the tracks, and we get our first sight of the future murder victim: the cute and precocious five year old sister of the "bad" brothers.

Years later, she's been abused by her brothers and involved in underage drugs and alcohol, somewhat adopted by well to do local figures (including a Nixon aide), and becomes, briefly, Miss Tustin (part of The OC), before her appearance on a Playboy cover (clothed) sees her stripped of her title.

A year later her separated head and body turn up in an empty citrus warehouse and the cop brother has his first case as a homicide detective.

The back story is excellent, and I really enjoyed the painstaking attention to detail. The cop brother has to do his time at the county jail, and in uniform, before becoming a detective when he already feels a little bruised and past it. With cameo appearances from Nixon, Timothy Leary and Charles Manson, the background of late 60s California is ever-present, and the destruction of the orange groves and their replacement with housing estates makes you feel the loss that infects the main characters' lives.

It's a good murder mystery, too, and the only spoiler is the knowledge that it opens in the "here and now" with the journalist brother telling the cop brother that he arrested the wrong man. So you sort of know, or can easily guess, the ending, which is all tied up in a couple of chapters at the end. I'd have gladly waited for a sequel to learn about who really did it, if only the same justice could be done to the end of the story as there was to the beginning. But it's all DNA tests and blah blah blah. Shame.

California Girl is good, and well worth picking up, but it could have been great; like Orange County, it's despoiled by modern day stuff. I'd still recommend it, but the ending is a let down after the excellent beginning.

Summer Reading Revisited - Page Turners and Slow Burners

summer books
Originally uploaded by mcmrbt.

As (sort of) usual, I badly underestimated my summer reading requirements. I figured, what with having my guitar for company, I'd not have the endless empty hours to fill that I usually have. But I did. This, in spite of an hour or so guitar practice every day, and in spite of scanning and photoshopping 150 or so old photographs from my wife's family's albums and taking 800 or so other photographs on various family outings.

Time: and lots of it, which is what having a holiday is really all about. It helps that, staying at the in-laws, I cooked just one meal (a stir fry, to demonstrate wok cooking) in the two weeks and really didn't have to do any of those household chores, so I really did have lots and lots of time available.

So my small pile of books, consisting of the latest Michael Connelly (The Closers) and the latest PJ Tracy (Dead Run), a single issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and (a late addition, donated by Andrew) Tragically I was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook; my small pile was inadequate. The two thrillers disappeared within three days (see separate review), and I ploughed through the Peter Cook for the remainder of the week, not really enjoying it, because it's more the sort of book you dip into on the loo or something. I'd taken Swallows and Amazons with me to read to the kids, so I privately fast-forwarded through that, too. I made the Asimov's last until the second Sunday evening by forcing myself to put it down and do something else at the end of each story (and I cursed the fact that I'd left two further unread issues at home, in spite of thinking vaguely for months that I would take them on holiday with me and do them justice).

Monday of the second week, we went on a trip to Strasbourg, and I had it in my mind that, in such an international city, a University town to boot, I'd find a bookshop with some fiction étrangers. And so it proved. Remarkably, there was a damn good selection, and I picked 4 crackers to see me through the rest of the week: two by Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic, and Eleanor Rigby. Ones I hadn't read, though I always think I probably have, since all his books are so similar. Another thriller: California Girl by Jefferson Parker; and gods in Alabama by first-time novelist Joshilyn Jackson. Paid through the nose for them, natch, but not a Euro was wasted.

Proving what? That you can judge a book by its cover, I suppose. The Jackson cover looked a little bit too much like so-called "Women's Fiction," but the blurb on the back was more in the line of genre - it was a literary type of thriller: there's a body involved, but the narrative is chopped up and told half backwards and half forwards, like, y'know, art.


But it was still a cracking read, and a real page-turner. Not enough pages, unfortunately, and I devoured it completely in a single day. It's the story of a girl who promises God that she'll stop fornicating and lying, and never return to Alabama, if He'll just somehow spirit away the body of a High School quarterback she happens to have clouted with a heavy Tequila bottle on the top of a make-out hill when she was 15. Twelve years later, someone turns up looking for the missing quarterback, and everything starts to unravel.

Was four additional books enough? Just about. I saved Eleanor Rigby for the last day, the airport hours, and it was just enough: two weeks, 8 books, and an issue of Asimov's (a skimpy paperback collection of short stories). Given that I had to pace myself a bit, I'd estimate 10 books, or 8 and a couple extra Asimov's is really enough. Should make a note of that somewhere.

As for the Coupland. I always enjoy him, because he writes in the way I'd write, in my dreams, and he's a keen observer of the modern condition who creates pleasurable sentences that speak directly to me. Like this one:

'Life is boring. People are vengeful. Good things always end. We do so many things and we don't know why, and if we do find out why, it's decades later and knowing why doesn't matter any more.'