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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

December 31, 2005

Enjoy new fiction - get a subscription

While we were away in France, I caught up on my Asimov's reading.

I subscribed, I think, around this time last year, when the dorrar was very weak against the pound, but it took ages for my first issue to come through (I think it was the April/May double issue). I may even have subscribed considerably before I think I did, and moved house at least once before the first issue arrived. Even then, there was excess postage to pay on it, which I could never work out why.

Anyway, I think my subscription is at an end now, but I wasn't going to renew just yet, because I'd only read up to August, which meant I had September, October, November/December, and January backed up on the shelf. But, of course, five days in France and I devoured the lot (in between naps and meals), and I'm gonna renew straight away.

I've always been fond of the short form of SF. Each issue of Asimov's usually gives you a novella (I'm thinking 40,000 words? Correct me if I'm wrong), a couple of novelettes, and several short stories, and the quality is consistently high. It's a great way to discover (and support) new writers or rediscover those you thought were dead (!).

I particularly enjoyed the Kristine Kathryn Rusch novella, "Diving into the Wreck," from the December issue. So impressed, I just ordered 4 of her books from Amazon. As is traditional with Science Fiction, the cover illustration is a long way from being illustrative of the story itself, which is a spooky tale of "deep space diving" into an abandoned ship which is 5,000 years old, and a long way from where it could possibly be, given its type etc.

The story is an example, I suppose, of the New Space Opera. This sub-genre has moved on from speculating about the next few hundred years and has leaped ahead, dealing with mind-boggling numbers, sending humanity into impossibly distant futures. It's exactly the kind of thing that would have saved the Star Trek franchise from falling over itself so badly, by squeezing the various spin-offs too close together. Imagine if they'd jumped forward, say, 5,000 years, into a future in which Earth is a mere legend among the Diaspora of humanity.

Anyway, you can't see that kind of thing on the telly, so you have to read about it in Asimov's and its ilk. The stories will vary, from New Space Opera to Alternate History, to retold legends and myths, psychological puzzles, end-of-the-world tales, stories about the future of the War on Terror, the post-oil economy, nanotech, biotech, that kind of thing. Occasionally, you'll read something so brilliant that you'll head off to check out the rest of that writer's bibliography.

Other SF Magazines are available, or you can try Ellery Queen for mysteries or Hitchcock for horror.

December 28, 2005

Jesus (undergraduate essay style)

You may remember that I've just finished reading the penguin translation of Josephus' Jewish Wars.

It documents the attempts of the Roman militia to subdue the Jews from the time of the emperor Nero (is it earlier than this? It must be but I can't remember direct mention of earlier emperors) through to Vespasian (The action ends in around 70 AD).

One of the more interesting accounts is the capture of the hill fort at Masada. This takes place at the very end of the book. The fort was basically impregnable, with its own wells, food supply, and heavy fortifications at the top of a ravine that surrounded the fort on three sides with sheer drops of several hundred feet.

The romans simply piled up rubble at the side, built a road of stone up to the top, used a battering ram to knock a hole in the outer wall, then set fire to the inner wall (made of wood and earth). When the roman's finally broke through the following day they found the entire population dead as a result of a suicide pact.

Nearly a thousand of them: children, women, and the men.

It was said that one woman survived, by hiding in caves during the mass suicide, to tell the tale. Each man had killed his own wife and children, before being killed by one of 10 other men. The 10 men who remained then drew lots to see which of them would kill the other 9 before finally killing himself.

This, apparently, was to enable them to retain their dignity, and, practically, to prevent the children being sold into slavery and the women being raped. The men would have been killed by the romans anyway so for them it was a "no brainer".

One of the things that particularly struck me throughout the whole thing is that in this translation there is nothing about Jesus. Certainly a lot of the narrative is contemporary with the supposed life of Jesus, and yet there is nothing. Strikes me as odd since he was supposedly a bit of a bad ass trouble maker.

Apparently, according to an appendix in this translation, there was an alternative manuscript found, written in Slovenian, that mentions certain things pertaining to the early christian church, but these are not thought to be authentic: they're thought to be added later by interested others.

Last night I watched a program on TV called Digging for Jesus. It was very much a yes-we-have-no-bananas sort of affair but reasonably interesting nevertheless.

The conclusion was that although the archaeological evidence is consistent with the accounts of the New Testament, there is no hard evidence for Jesus whatsoever. That's hardly a surprise is it? It mentioned that the relics are actually very much dependant on a huge act of faith for their religious value rather than actual history.

It conceded that Pontius Pilate was a roman governor in Judea during the rule of the emperor Tiberius. I'm sure Pilate is mentioned in The Jewish Wars, so again that pre-dates Nero. In fact I'm sure it was the mention of Pilate that made me think "wot no Jesus?" in the first place.

One thing I did learn is that the "Bet" prefix in biblical place names (e.g Bethlehem) is equivalent to our "ham" suffix (e.g Nottingham). It means a farmstead.

On a very tenuously related note I was surprised that in most European countries it is a criminal offense to deny the existance of the holocaust. The UK is an exception although there is strong lobbying in favour of compliance.

What a very strange law. It seems like a law forbidding gay men from being attracted to other men. And how could you enforce it? Maybe I'm missing the point. I would have thought that anyone who seriously tried to deny the holocaust would be laughed out of the door anyhow.

Snow and other fun

For the first time in living memory it snowed last night and settled on the ground.

I went to work today. The roads were all covered in ice. Unfortunately our office is located at the top of a hill. I tried three different roads up. Failed each time.

First one, I gradually slowed to a halt with my wheels spinning. Even crawling as slowly as I could without stalling failed to provide any traction. I rolled back into a driveway and went back down the hill. At the bottom my car slid straight out into the main road. Fortunately nothing was coming.

Second one, I didn't even get that far. Managed to roll back slightly into a reverse turn and turned back onto the main road.

The third one was even worse. It was a narrower road with lots of parked cars. I got further up, and I thought I was going to be alrighert, but sure enough I slowed to a stop, with the car going sideways as the wheels span on the ice (towards the parked cars). I had no option but to go into reverse and let the car edge back down the hill. Again, at the bottom, the car just slid out uncontrollably yet gracefully into the main road.

I ended up parking quite some distance from the office.

By then I was shaking, because it isn't nice to be driving a two ton lump of unsteerable metal. I was thinking that there was something wrong with my car; the tyres?.

But as I walked towards the office I realised that I was not alone. Lots of my colleagues were in the same boat.

It seems that anyone with a two-wheel-drive car any heavier than a nippy lady's hatchback couldn't get up any of the hills round our way.

December 23, 2005

It's about this time of year...

...that I like to spend a happy 3 minutes and 33 seconds watching things like this little movie of our Whitsun holiday in the Vendée.

It's a 7.1MB QuickTime file, very compressed, with a nice F a i t h H i l l song on the soundtrack, from her album "Now That's What I Call Fair Use."

Good times. Sunshine. And Summertime.

Something for the (xmas) weekend

I woke up at 4.30 this morning, and immediately my mind started ticking away, making it impossible to get back to sleep.

You'll know that on this blog, for several years now, we've been dropping thinkbombs (as Rashbre calls them) about all sorts of formerly unfashionable things, like climate change, evil supermarkets, imposing stricter speed limits, and many many other things.

But these sorts of matters form the majority of news stories today, don't they?

It's sometimes difficult to realise that only four generations ago most people in the UK would have been forced to work 52 weeks a year, 6 days a week, 12 hours a day in order to subsist in the most un-sleb like hovel imaginable. But that is the case. They were only conceded Sundays in order to fulfil their obligation to attend church, too.

Well, I started thinking about what it would take for us to return to that sort of situation.

Imagine if economic collapse, such as that which may happen when the carbon-economy goes haywire, happened. Imagine if under those circumstances the banks, money lenders, and mortgage providers were to forclose all debts you have with them.

Where would you stand? What if they took all of the stuff that you haven't actually paid for yet? What if they took goods to the value of your debts?

What if the bailiffs came along and took goods to the value of all your debts and repossessed your home: where would you be?

And lets say the only work you could find would be that which was within walking distance of the place where you sleep. What sort of income could you expect?

Think how easily we all came about the wealth and status that we all now have and take for granted, and how easily we could lose it all, overnight even, and have the sort of life that our great great grandparents had.

Because it could happen.

Yet another quiz... it is Christmas

This time it's the Guardian bumper news quiz.

I scored 38 out of 50. Would have been 39, but I second-guessed myself on one of the answers (which artist's record sales fell after Live8).

Fixture Congestion

It's around this time of year that top football managers' thoughts turn to fixture congestion - between now and the end of the season. And they worry, too, about injuries hobbling their performance, as the season heads into its second half.

Some managers bitterly resent the larger sides' ability to ride out fixture congestion and injury crises with squad rotation, and it struck me the other day that there's a brilliant solution to this, if only.

My visionary suggestion is that - if a team's squad is over a certain number, pick a number - then they can quite legitimately be required to play games back-to-back, or even simultaneously.

When your Liverpools and Manchester Utds and Chelseas swan off to the FIFA World Club Championship, they would still be required to field a team in domestic competitions at home.

When Arsenal play a Wednesday night Champions League game, they'd also have to play, I dunno, Birmingham in the Premiership. This would level the playing field for the other teams, and make for an "interesting" domestic competition.

Unless they chose to have a smaller squad, thus levelling the playing field the other way. Arsenal field a B-team of youngsters in competitions like the League Cup anyway, so why not just formalise the arrangement?

You know it makes sense.

Those Crazy Frenchies

Today's shock news is that the French are to change their "rational" system of car number plates.

I find this strangely upsetting. Apparently, it's considered a waste of money that, if you move house to a different département, you have to change your number plate. But as far as I'm aware it's one of the many laws that most French people ignore, unless they are forced into it - at least until it's time to buy the annual road tax disc.

My in-laws live in the 70 département, Haute-Saône, which is a bit like the French equivalent of Bedfordshire: least visited county. Up the hill in Auxelles Bas, though, the number plates are Belfortian: 90. Belfort, like Paris, has a number all to itself, although the Territoire de Belfort does take in surrounding villages.

We don't play the boring number plate game with our kids in the car - they've been too young for stuff like that till now - but I do like to be aware of the kind of people in front of me. For example, contrary to what the BBC article suggests, Parisians tend to drive like nutters wherever they are. The other thing is, if you're stuck behind something slow, it's sometimes of comfort to know it's a local that you're following, which means they're likely to turn off sooner rather than later.

Anyway, changing the whole system just to save the expense of changing plates when you move is crazy. Why not just register the car once (like the hire companies do) and then keep the same plate regardless of where you end up living?

December 22, 2005

Bad Ideas in Publishing

This morning I received an email from a pro-audio magazine, publicising their new on-line, all-digital edition. This is something I have, up till now, received through the post, in print.

I occasionally read bits of it, scanned the news, scanned a couple of reviews. Nothing much.

Do I want to "click the link" in the email and read a flash-based version?

First of all, "click the link" doesn't work in my email client of choice. So I had to open the mail in another client. Then I had to visit the web site and view the huge flash file, "complete with advertiser links."

Er, no. I'll read on-line articles of interest. I'll read blogs. But I won't hand around for a high-bandwidth, all-singing, all-dancing, animated-page-turning, Flash monstrosity. Ever.

Review of the Year

  • January - kept hanging on me, making me sad with its eyes
  • February - I opted out of this month
  • March - Was this when summer was? I don't remember
  • April - Who said, "April is the coolest month, for people like myself"?
  • May - I think we went on holiday this month
  • June - Blank
  • July - Coma
  • August - I may have had some kind of holiday this month
  • September - Not so long ago, and yet I do not remember
  • October - Or was this when summer was?
  • November - CJ was 8, that's a fact.
  • December - Didi is 5. It is very dark.

That is all.


Yeah yeah yeah.

me too.

PS. I've already done it and I know all the right answers so it's impossible to beat me.

The Exploding Whale! - Google Video

Just found this mad Exploding Whale video over at Google Video. It's a 1970 news report detailing the unbelievably stupid decision to blow up a whale on a beach.

It's worth watching to the end, to see the aftermath, and to wonder.

I always carried a kind of romantic yearning to see a dead whale skeleton on a beach, y'know, like in comics and cartoons. One you could stretch a tarpaulin over and live in, should you ever run away from home. Never did, though. That, and a light aircraft wrecked in a remote jungle, as recently seen in Lost.

What I've mostly been listening to...

a) & b) Hawkwind - Space Ritual. 3 more old favourites (Born to go, Space is deep, Orgone accumulator). You already know the rest. Double live CD from about 1972.

c) Elvis Presley - Elvis at sun - This has the early stuff (that's alright mamma, blue moon of kentucky, and mystery train). I love some of this stuff. I love Scotty Moore's rockerbilly take on the riffs: syncopated arpeggios on dominant 7th chords if you must know. What is shocking is how many of these songs don't sound like Elvis: there are a number of balads that are very un-rock-n-roll, and on a number of occasions his voice is very feminine sounding.

d) Alice Cooper - Killer - I played this to death when I was 13 so buying this was a bit of a nostalgia trip. Alice Cooper has quite an irritating and whiney voice at times. But there are some great songs: "under my wheels" is fun.

At the school I went to they had an annual concert thing where we mimed to a song (just like Top of The Pops). One year I did Alice Cooper: spitting fake blood and all sorts of stuff. I had long hair then too, and had the pleasure of walking around school all day wearing eye-liner. Actually it gave me one of my 15 seconds of fame in that little fishypool. We were probably quite punky actually, which would have fitted in with the times.

Listening to one of the tracks last night proved to be a bit surprising. The track "dead babies" came across as just quite tasteless, whereas we though it was quite cool and shocking at the time.

e) & f) Various - Shake Rattle 'n' Roll - a 50 track double CD compilation of hits from the 1950s. The odd thing about this is that every track is instantly recogniseable and capable of being described as a bit of a classic.

Enormously embarassing driving around with this sort of stuff playing. Lots of stuff on it that I wouldn't normally have bothered with. At last I have a recording of Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry.

Highlight for me is Little Richard. Boy could he belt them out. Nobody like him since.

Undocumented Features

For most ordinary Mac OS X users (and I include myself), some of the clever little extras of the OS, like the Services menu, can pass you by. Now, I was aware that I could highlight text and summarise it (in any application written in Cocoa*) using the services menu, and I've been aware for some time of the global spell check that works in any application (written in Cocoa), like this Blogger compose window, for example, so I can use a single global spell check dictionary on anything I write.

Providing the application is written in Cocoa, of course. Which (I suppose) explains why the spell check didn't work in Firefox 1.5.

What I've not really been aware of, until today, is that the Services menu can be populated with just about anything that application programmers choose, and that you, as the user, don't have much of an option to switch it off, bar deleting the application. This Macworld News article goes into detail.

One of the things I miss about the Classic Mac OS 9 is the ability I had to switch off all the unnecessary bits that used processor cycles and RAM. OS X doesn't give you anything like that control, unless you are comfortable in the Terminal window and know UNIX commands, which I do not.

Anyway, the Rob Griffith's call to action prompted Peter Maurer to write Service Scrubber, which allows you to go through much of the menu and switch off Services you don't use and have no intention of using.

Very useful, and it leaves you with a Services menu that might actually be useful. I wasn't able to get rid of absolutely everything, but I did kill a lot, and I went and found the Asia Text Extras and deleted the Chinese text Converter, because (a) it couldn't possibly work properly and (b) if I come across an Asian web page, I have no idea whether it's Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc; and (c), I can always use Google or Babelfish for that kind of thing.


*Cocoa, in case you don't know, is the silly name for the programming language used to write "native" Mac OS X applications. I think 100% Cocoa applications are supposed to work better: quicker, more stable etc., but there are some major applications that don't use it, for whatever reason. Microsoft Office is one, I'm pretty sure.

December 21, 2005

How the mighty fall

A few years ago, I won a three-month film pass in a Guardian film quiz. During those three months I saw everything that came out (over 60 films, as I recall). This year, I didn't go to the cinema. I didn't rent any DVDs.

I guessed 90% of the answers in the Guardian quiz of the year and scored 19/30. Not bad, considering.

How very dare you!

I don't usually watch that Catherine Tate show, but saw it last night as I was zombied out on the recliner playing MacPipes. Correct me if I'm wrong, but one of these two blokes who got married today is Catherine Tate, no?

Laugh if you must

Two years ago I bought my wife some earrings that she really liked.

Fast forward two years to two months ago. The Lakeside gallery in Nottingham sent out a brochure listing forthcoming events.

I bought those earrings in their shop.

On the back of the brochure was a shot of a necklace matching those earrings. No credit or mention of the person who created the jewellery was involved.

My wife announced, "that is what I want for xmas" (the necklace).

I went to the Lakeside today to see if I could source one. You know the outcome, don't you? None for sale, no idea who made them, no chance of finding one.

So that means I'm doomed to giving the usual Now That's What I Call Music #34322 CD from the local petrol station, purchased on the way home on xmas eve, while hazily driving the car, dazzled and dowsed in lunchtime alcohol.


UPDATE: I've been in touch with the University's marketing department (Lakeside is affiliated with Nottingham University). They're looking into this. It's now likely that I will at least get a name. They may even have the necklace somewhere too. We shall see.


UPDATE2: The marketing department contacted the person who liaises with the people who do the work (I was tempted to say "crafty ones" but that is plain wrong). She believes that I'm referring to a series of work entitled "hotmetal". If so then they should be able to get me one of the necklaces. Not in time for xmas (it is only a day or so away and I don't have the time to go over there today) but early in the new year. How's that for proof that the enormous wheels of Marketing have true power.

Anyway, a huge huge "thank you" Sofia Nazar and Camilla Moore at the University of Nottingham for being so helpful.

learning salsa the "hard" way

Simon will enjoy this.

Having done embarrassingly well on Marie's quiz, I went seeking information about my incorrect answers, and came across her very funny account of a salsa dancing session.

You find yourself squished up in the arms of someone breathing a bit too heavily and sweating a bit too much and quite obviously getting a bit too excited in other ways if you know what I mean. Suffice to say that there is a reason why men dance forwards and women dance backwards.

Most hexcellent.

Queen is Ralf

Thanks to Marie for her comments on Rolf Harris' portrait of the queen, and how, actually, it looks a bit like Rolf himself.

But I think the dress looks good. Quite convincing, really. Anyway, I like Rolf.

I saw him on TV recently and he said in the interview that he had difficulties during the painting of the portrait with the face. He had to do quite a bit of revision to stop her majesty from appearing bozz-eyed and sticky-out-toothed. That's a very brave and candid admission.

However I think that the portrait also bares a great resemblance to actor Phil Davis.

And, for that matter, Little Britain character Ray "Yeyers" McCooney

** I found this post intellectually challenging: it was extremely difficult to avoid spelling "rolf" as "ralph" or "ralf". Even more so to avoid actually pronouncing it as the more correct "rafe".

Io Saturnalia!

Today is the Solstice, so a JesusChristChrist and a ChristyChristChrist to you all. As Wogan said this morning, it's all downhill to Spring from here.

Fact of the day: December 25th was the date of the Winter Solstice in the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar was invented by comedian Kenneth Williams for a special episode of Round the Horne in 1968. ("I'm Julian, and this is my friend Sandy.")

Challenge of the day: How quickly can you hit the delete button when yet another corporate e-card lands in your inbox?

Answer of the day: to the person who arrived at this blog searching for "open presents boxing day" - that is a myth. Boxing day is so-called, because it was the day that all the apprentices ran around collecting tips, in a, you know, collection box, which they then shared out. Open your presents when you bloody well feel like it. Today, for example, because it is the Solstice. Or on the 24th, in the evening, as we always do in France.

One man's freedom is another's selfishness

I've read my share of political and ethical ranting.

Talking of libertarianism, reading this book by Robert Nozick exposed everything about the Old Style Conservative policy development. It was a true revelation. Like seeing the green numbers of the Matrix.

But, no matter how clever and well argued the case may have been, I just found myself fundamentally disagreeing with it.

And these days, we hear so much banging on about rights in the libertarian sense. The right to do anything we like. The right to smoke, the right to drive like an utter fuckwhit, the right to put myself in front of others; the right to compete, since, as I heard my colleague say the other day, "everything is a competition".

My own moral preference is equally misguided. I can't help but apply the Golden Rule: do unto others. It's the way I feel, and it is probably something to do with my working class upbringing and knowing my place.

The best treatment of the subject of ethics I've read is in a book by J L Mackie. He reaches the conclusion that "valour is the better part of discretion." In other words, we construct morality rather than discover it in a set of fundamental commands that we should all follow.

And I agree. That's why there's no nemesis. Equally, that's why laws can be challanged.

It means that there is no right to a welfare state; no right to a pension; no right to spend your life drawing dole; no right to a free education. Right enough.

But it also explains why libertarianism is wrong. There is no right to drive like a bastard twatface; no right to snatch out of the hands of somebody else just because you can; no right to put yourself first; no right to consume. No right to win.

And most people would do well to remember that. So called "rights" are a privilege and a benefit of being a member of society. You earn "rights" by respecting others and following the commonly accepted codes of conduct in a society.

You can't take ad infinitum if you're not prepared to give back, shirking social responsibilities. If you do you are, unquestionably, a parasite and forsake all rights.

That's why we're fucked. Thanks to pervasive Tory libertarianism we're in a moral version of the South Sea Bubble, and, at some point, it has to burst.


George Monbiot in the Gonad yesterday, talking about car culture, transport policy, and Jeremy Clarkson (of course)... totally ripping this and (the late) Roadrage blog off.

It is strange to see how the car has been overlooked as an agent of political change. We know that the breaking of the unions, the dismantling of the welfare state and the sale of council houses that Margaret Thatcher pioneered made us more individualistic. But the way in which the transition from individualism to the next phase of neoliberalism - libertarianism - was assisted by her transport policies has been largely ignored.

Indeed. It's the kind of thing we've been banging on about for ages.

Here's Simon on the subject, back in July of '04. And my own post, to which he refers from that same month.

More recently, we discussed the Thatcher legacy and how it has fucked not only our transport system, but power generation and pensions, too.

As for Monbiot, he's a fully paid-up member of the global warming lobby, and rails against anyone who holds a more, shall we say, Crichtonesque view. That's his position, and he hates Clarkson and his disciples, too.

Well, if Clarkson has disciples, then they're morons. Clarkson is a great, and funny, writer, with strong opinions with which one is free to agree, or not. Clearly, to agree with everything he says is a form of madness, but that's all part of the humour. Personally, I think we need Clarkson in the same way the Victorians needed Cholera. The equivalent of indoor plumbing and better sanitation for transport will be driven by the likes of him. You need him up there on the screen, because there's nothing mealy-mouthed or weasely about him. He exposes to the world the selfish, grasping, blinkered aggression of the average driver, and it's something we need to understand in order to deal with it effectively.


My last 3 motorway trips have all been marred by Clarksonesque behaviour. A small-penised Ford Focus driver who charged up the outside lane in order to try to prevent me pulling out to overtake a lorry yesterday morning, and then flashed his headlights and blew his horn at me. All this in the 40 mph speed limit section on the M1 (and I was doing at least 45 mph). And then the small lorry driver who did the same thing last night as I puled into a gap - closed the gap, and even as my car was half way into the lane, attempted to use the size of his vehicle to intimidate me out of the way. And again, the white van man with one headlight this morning. Trying to occupy the clear space on the road into which I'd indicated to pull out, and then flashing his full beams at me (now I can see you, you twat). Here's a response to all these people: when I signal to pull out, I'm not asking permission.

Fiendishly Easy Quiz

Taking a leaf from Lisa's, I've created a quiz over at QuizYourFriends.

I found it fiendishly hard to think of questions after the first one. So sorry.

December 20, 2005

Lauren McLaughlin on Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy

Following on from my post of yesterday, about how some writing defies genre, and how I reckon people like Sci Fiction but just don't know that they do, here's

Lauren McLaughlin in similar vein, talking about a debate going on over here.

Hmmm.. enough links for one post I think.

Lauren suggests some entry-level SF for people-who-say-they-don't-like-it, which is an interesting thing to ponder. A bit like trying to recommend country music for people-who-say-they-don't-like-it (try Beatles For Sale or Help!).

As I said, TV shows like House and Numb3rs are proper SF. I don't like things like Gibson and Simmons, myself, but I know that trying to get Roy interested in Larry Niven didn't work. I'd probably stick to Kate Wilhelm, myself, as she's such a genre-crosser anyway, and her books always have a strong humanist streak.

last chance to send a stupid piece of cardboard to someone who you never see and don't even like much if you're honest

i just thought i'd remind you that if you live in the uk, today is your last chance to send a christmas card to that special someone.

on the whole, i tend not to bother. i'm sort of not part of a family this year so that makes it a bit more complicated. some people DID get one but it's not an exact science. most of the "inner circle" didn't get one. the inner circle know each other too well and are far too cool to fall for all that commercial nonsense. in fact, if i got a christmas card from most people in the inner circle, it would be a danger sign more than anything.

i sent about five. to people i don't know very well. my first ever girlfriend sent me a card and she's inner circle but we've always sent cards so that's different. i might possibly have sent a couple more, but i missed the overseas posting dates by a surprisingly (to me) wide margin.

we used to pass christmas cards around in the office, but thankfully that seems to have ceased, unless there's going to be a last-minute deluge. someone in the office has given me a christmas card today, and i don't know if i should knock a quick one up now to give back. maybe cross out the names in the card i've just been given and return it as from me.

if you are going to send cards, today is a very good day to do it because it will be too late for the recipient to send one back, which is an added bonus. in my twisted mind, anyway.

Talking of...

Annoying advertising media.guardian.co.uk (registration required) reports that the BBC had to pull that horrible digital tv promo that featured the giant head made up of lots of little heads.

It really was an image straight out of the horror genre, the kind of thing likely to give people - especially children - nightmares, and I just can't believe the BBC weren't aware:
"We have been very conscious that some viewers disliked the nature of the trail, although clearly it was not our intention to offend," the corporation said in a statement posted on its complaints website.

I'd just love to meet some of the coke-addled media monsters who came up with the idea. Maybe they're planning future trails in which an adolescent girl turns green and rotates her head like an owl; and one in which an analogue viewer gets his ear chopped off. (James has just said he didn't see it: if you have a mental picture of that woman who was found in hospital with maggots crawling all over her face? That's what it looked like.)

They withdraw the ad, but they don't apologise, or admit they were wrong, like the weasels they are. Weasel words: "The BBC said it received a positive response when tested in front of viewers, and that there had been a rise in digital inquiries since the image went on air."

In other words, fuck you, you complaining bastards, we fucking liked it, and it fucking worked, so fuck off.


Which last sentence reminds me of the bit on the Daily Show last night, where John Stewart's colleague did a report on the craziness of renaming Christmas. He signed of with, "A Jesus Christychrist and a Christychristchrist."


Talking of...

Murder, do you think it would be justifiable homicide if I killed all the people involved in those irritating Marks and Spencer adverts? You know the ones, "This is not just any old voiceover. This is the most annoying voiceover you've ever heard..."

It's the heavy rotation that gets me. On some of the digital channels, you get it in every single ad break. "This is not just any old handgun. This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world..."

more life expectancy

here is another test of how long you might live for. probably a little more scientific than the death clock (see rob's post), but somehow just as daft. it would have been a nice touch to calculate the date as the death clock does, but it doesn't and i certainly can't be arsed to work out what the date will be when i am 83.2 years' old.

Sugarland: Twice the Speed of Life

Sugarland are a country supergroup, with a big-haired, big-voiced singer (Jennifer Nettles who also co-writes) and two other songwriters - one of whom, Kristian Bush, is one-half of Billy Pilgrim, and the other, Kristen Hall, has released a couple of solo albums.

Busy, busy people who are certainly not fresh out of the egg, but Twice the Speed of Life is fresh, jaunty, polished (produced by Garth Fundis), and right up my street. Saw them performing "Something More" on the CMA awards and had to get the album.

The back story is interesting. Kristen Hall was sick of baring her soul every night, singing deeply personal songs; so she called Kristian Bush, who was coincidentally starting to think of Billy Pilgrim of more hard work than fun. In other words, this is a case of two songwriters probably sick of the sound of their own voices, who wanted a front. Enter Jennifer Nettles, who clearly has a lot of front, and the voice to match.

I think this is great, a good, commercial country rock record stuffed with corking songs. If you've got sound on your 'puter, head over to the Sugarland web site, which will play some of the album at you as you browse (works if you leave it on a tab in the background). They're on tour with Brad Paisley and Sara Evans at the moment: now, that's a gig I'd like to see.

December 19, 2005

molly's teeth

molly's teeth
Originally uploaded by doglas mccake.
we can't find an nhs dentist for my daughter, and this is the result.

usually she wears a brown paper bag on her head with two holes for the eyes.

Macca at Abbey Road

Watched something on telly the other night. Paul McCartney at Abbey Road, with his acoustic and some various gadgets from the past that looked like props from Quatermass or something.

In spite of the fact that I couldn't avoid suspecting that it was all a clever marketing ploy to promote his new CD, I actually found it genuinely enjoyable.

Some funny tinkerings with 4-tracks and looping over-dubs, that help you to understand just how piss-easy it is to record music now compared to the old days.

Weird too that there are people around who were there at the beginning. Not many fields in which you can get first hand accounts of history, although in these twilight years I think that their perceived importance will fade.

There was an undeniable creepyness about it too. You could almost shiver at the ghosts passing through the valves and wood in the studio.

You Love It

Simon's been talking about books he hasn't got around to reading, and the sinking feeling that accompanies the realisation that, in fact, you might not get around to reading everything before you kick off.

Then we got into a discussion about books I'd loaned him in the past, and why they are so hard to get hold of (and expensive). Rare books? Who'd a thunk it?

I've always understood that you might want to own a book because of the way it was printed (it used to please me that the Long Eaton Library had a copy of De Aetna, a 15th century book that featured one of the earliest examples of a Roman typeface, and one that for me has a timeless beauty and is still one of my favourites - in the form of Bembo. It's the lettering I always do in my daily doodles). On the other hand, it's surprising how often fairly decent writers become hard to find.

When I was younger, I used to get a warm feeling looking at the wall-of-yellow that was the Gollancz-dominated Science Fiction section of the Luton library. Then, as now, I was cavalier about reading stuff and not knowing who had written it. I'm bad with names and titles, but one writer I became aware of (by the 3rd book of hers I'd read) was Kate Wilhelm. She's a unique voice, and has also crossed genres, writing thrillers and courtroom dramas, detective stories - all with aplomb. As an SF writer, she's more Margaret Atwood than Arthur C Clarke, a fine example of how even pseudo-science can make good science fiction.

Wilhelm writes social science fiction, more than anything, the kind of thing that can be as much detective story or courtroom drama as future history, or can join together the fields of genetic engineering, sociology, and environmental science to create great literature.

I keep meaning to collect together all the various Wilhelm editions I've accumulated (mostly thanks to the internet) and work out which ones I have still to get. My wife got one (miracle!) from the local library the other day, and I said, "Haven't we got this?" We had - but it did take me half an hour to find it - most of our bookshelves are stacked two layers deep.

Talk of Wilhelm's genre-defying habits reminds me that I've been wanting to say something about how popular science fiction actually is - it's just that some people don't realise they're watching it. It's well known that the Fantasy genre is phenomenally popular (Pratchett, LOTR, Narnia, Harry Potter), though there are better fantasy books that haven't been franchised in quite the same way. Beyond the obvious fodder like Doctor Who, Star Trek, Smallville, Stargate, The X Files, etc, The Simpsons, for example, is as much part of the genre as the more obvious Futurama (anything can happen in Springfield, and nobody ever gets older). Then there's House, which (as I've said) was a fantastic explication of the scientific method as applied to diagnosis. Not to mention Numb3rs an FBI/Cop drama which solves crimes using mathematics.

Lost, of course, is pure science fiction, and the ever-popular "what if" style of alternate history (like Fatherland) rests on SF foundations. In fact, a lot of this stuff is much more like science fiction as-it-is-written than the space-time-based material.

Book lists (the prognosis is dim)

A very long time ago I set myself up with several programs of reading.

The first one was to understand European literature. I started off with classical greek. I started to learn classical greek itself but soon slacked off and started reading translations (Loeb, Penguin, Oxford classics etc).

Yes, they can be dry and dusty like an old man's cock, but I've been from Homer's star-roofed plains of Troy to the Munchausian tales of Lucian; from the youthful, sexy iambs of Archilochus to the crusty poetical jigsaw puzzles of Callimachus. Never mind the sheer and rocky tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, or the Bucolics of Theocritus, Bion and the rest.

All these years on, I've got 7 books left to read before I can begin reading translations of literature written in Latin from the Roman empire.

But something awful has happened. Recently I've taken to noting dates in the covers of books when I start to read them, and again when I finish them. Partly vanity, partly a practical way of tagging a book to say that I have read it.

It seems that since August 2003 I've read just two books. Translations of Arrian's "Campaigns of Alexander", and Josephus' "Jewish Wars". This is horrifying news. On that basis it may be another three years before I finish the Greek stuff.

It get's worse though. Not only is this a startling reminder of my own mortality and status as a Failed Reader of Literature: it is also a shocking indicator of the folly of much that I do.

You see, I have lists of translations of Sanskrit, Anglo-Saxon literature, the Viking sagas, Middle English stuff, Renaissance works, Tudor stuff, The Romantics, Fin de Siecle poetry, First World War stuff, James Joyce, Kathryn Mansfield, Virginia Wolf. And that's just the European Literature.

Here alone I'm forced to conclude that I already have more books than I will get to read before I snuff it.

Three years ago I stopped reading computer books: they are the modern equivalent of the chap book; disposable trash that is of no use to anyone who isn't terminally bored.

There's music too. I have a cabinet of bookshelves full of books about music: tutorials, theory, about guitars and amplifiers. What about all of those?

There's my philosophy list. When I say "philosophy", I mean analytical philosophy rather than the looser modern bookshop definition along the lines of "New Age" or "Religion". Theory of Mind. Formal Logic. That sort of stuff. I'm currently bogged down in Kant (and probably have been for about 5 years now).

And there's all the miscellaneous clutter I've picked up along the way: stone-age history, Egypt, Incas and Mayans, early China, a book about the Queen of Sheba. There's a cupboard full of books about war that my mum's friend Eddie has leant me.

And the current list of "must read soon" books that don't fit into a list:
a) Where late the sweet birds sang - Kate Wilhelm (Rob lent me this several lifetimes ago).
b) The history of association Football which I want to read as a sort of posthumous cap tipping to my dad.
c) The labyrinth of time - saw it mentioned in an astronomy magazine and thought, "yes".
d) A fat book about wild flowers that seems to offer no practical use other than as coffee table fodder.
e) The fossils of florissant - it is possible to know what butterflies looked like 30 million years ago.
f) History of Country Music.
g) A Basque grammar that I bought for a laugh.
h) Last but not least, a book about how to be self sufficient, which my wife bought me. It has a useful chapter on how to manually slaughter pigs and cattle. This may well be the ace up my sleeve come the post-oil-economy apocalypse.

Mostly listening to...

a) & b) Bill Frisell - East West - unlike the other Bill Frisell CD I have, this double live recording actually features him playing guitar (yes, he's a guitarist). Once more some of the material comes painfully close to what they pipe out in lifts. But there are a few diamonds in the matrix: a version of Patsy Cline's crazy played as an instrumental - the melody is played on an acoustic slide guitar (think Paris Texas sound) but the backing seems to be played on old chinese string instruments and chimes. It's exotic and charming.

c) Various - These ghoulish things - I suspect this compilation was put together in a clever marketing scam at halloween (trick or treat day) to scratch some more royalties from the bottom of the barrel of long dead recordings. It's a collection of 50s rock 'n' roll and ballads with references to those horror-genre b-movies. It's got Monster Mash, and the theme tunes to The Adamms Family, and the Munsters. But there are over 20 other songs, all very much in-keeping with the theme and genre. Why was this so prolific? You wouldn't think that there would be a market for all those bands to go round singing about zombies and vampires. Fear of communists? Making those squares see just how crazy you are? I dunno.

d) Hawkwind - Doremi Fasol Latido - I'd not listened to this since the late 70s but it was all instantly familiar - "down through the night", "time we left this world today". I almost felt 14 again.

e) Nickel Creek - Why should the fire die - I expected a lot from this and was disappointed. Chris Thile seems like a virtuoso Mando player even if he does remind me of Quentin Tarentino with a Clint Eastwood syrup on, and this is bluegrass for the naughties. I've even seen it amongst the entries of people's top albums for 2005. As I said in the other place, this is Green Day crossed with River Dance. It has all the full-blooded cock-throbbing vitality of vegetarian bacon. Thanks for trying.

f) Hawkwind - In search of space - This is still as good as stoner rock gets. Who needs QOTSA when you can have Lemmie doing bass chords, saxophones parping like dog farts, mesmerising three chord riffs that take you back to the dreamtime in the womb and, as Patrische so rightly reminded me, Stacia dancing on stage with her tops off. Blimey! Where did I leave those purple hearts? And this version has Silver Machine as one of the new fangled bonus tracks.

Rhythm and Blues

Saturnalia will soon be here, and with a mere two days to the Solstice, getting any sunlight on the back of the head is a task indeed. For this reason, I am grateful that a Sunday roast dinner always prompts the kids to ask, "Can we go to the park?"

We always seem to arrive when most people are eating dinner (we eat early and often in our house), so it's always quiet, though it seems extraordinary that at around 2 in the afternoon the sun is too low in the sky to be seen through the trees.

We have a good time, though, and although they can swing themselves using the pendulum method, they love to be pushed. I got a great rhythm going, standing behind and between the swings, pushing one with left hand and then the other with right, to squeals of delight.

Then we played on the slide and I taught Didi the art of going down face first... remembering too late that she still has all her own teeth.

James May in the Torygraph: England's green and pleasant land

Fans of Top Gear's best presenter will be keen to read James May's latest column in the Telegraph, in which he argues that people who live in the countryside and who aren't actual farmers should stop complaining about the motor car:
"The harsh truth is that cod country living is a privilege bequeathed entirely by the roads and motor transport. So if you live in Chodford and despise all things automotive, you should live as I imagine country folk did before the car was invented. That is, like a chicken; in your own poo, driven mad by blight and at the mercy of wild animals.

You should ride a donkey, and the road to your damp dwelling should be a rough track beset by bandits and deranged inbreds with huge hands and one eye in the middle of their faces."

What did I say, Roy?

Just before we switched over to Creature Comforts last night (y'know, for the kids), Top of the Pops was on, and they showed 1984-vintage footage of Wizzard singing "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday."

Didi asked me who the man singing was, and I said, "Roy Wood." At which point CJ piped up, "Is that your friend Roy?"

Tee hee. But what really had me chuckling all evening was the amorous crab at the end of Creature Comforts, saying, "Oooh, I pulled a mussel."

December 18, 2005

Kim Stanley Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain

With the recent publication of Fifty Degrees Below, a sequel to Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, I thought it was time to check out Robinson's take on climate change.

As one Amazon reviewer puts it, with this climate change trilogy, Robinson is setting himself up as the Anti-Crichton. Michael Crichton has recently caused controversy with State of Fear, his take on environmental issues, and has been adopted by some elements of the US Congress as a credible sceptic on the issue of global warming.

On this blog, we like to cover the big issues. Which means we don't pay much attention to the whole Iraq thing, which is going to seem very small potatoes indeed should our civilisation come crashing about our ears.

'We can go to them and say, look, the party's over. We need this list of projects funded or civilisation will be hammered for decades to come. Tell them they can't give half a trillion dollars a year to the military and leave the rescue and rebuilding of the world to chance and some kind of free market religion. It isn't working, and science is the only way out of this mess.'" - Forty Signs of Rain, p290

Global warming and climate change can be slippery terms. I believe the latter is probably inevitable, but I think we all know that a phrase like global warming is counter-intuitive, because one of the ways the climate could change is that a lot of us could get very, very cold indeed. Cold enough to consider killing cats and dogs for their fur, perhaps, Mr McCartney.

The issue rests on two questions. Is climate change a result of human activity? And, if so, can human activity do anything about it? I think the answer to the first question is not enough data (which is essentially Michael Crichton's position). And I think the answer to the second is, well, then it's probably too late.

And let's not confuse things by pointing out that the polar ice caps on Mars, as well as those on Earth, are shrinking.

I've never been much of a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson's writing style. He goes in for Hemingwayesque zero-degree narration, which is quite clever, but when the subject matter of the book is a little bit dry, well, it can be a little bit too dry. But it is a sophisticated style, and unless I'm being particularly thick, things aren't necessarily all that they seem. Here, for example, is one Amazon reviewer's take:

this is not as billed - most of the story is lost in the minutia of venture capital funding and the mechanics of scientific research. The most important event in the book (the stopping of the Gulf stream) is disposed of in a short telephone intercept...

Indeed. This reader was certainly reading for the plot, and didn't really enjoy the stuff about venture capital and real-world politics. But, actually, that's the most important thing in Forty Signs of Rain. Robinson's setting it up that way because the way science is conducted, and the way politics works, is precisely why there is not enough data on climate change and why the political will to do something about it is absent.

One of the main characters, Frank Vanderwal, is on secondment to the National Science Foundation in Washington. Just before his year is about to end, he issues a parting shot, complaining that science is conducted wrong, that it shouldn't rely on proposals and response to proposals, and should instead be setting the agenda and demanding funding for certain research. What's wrong with science, and with the politics of global warming, is that it relies entirely on lobbying - on the one hand - and on grant application and review on the other. What governments should be doing, argues Vanderwal, is commissioning research, asking or telling scientists what to research based on what organisations like the NSF - in collaboration with similar organisations all over the world - are saying.

It's quite hard to get your head round, but that's what Forty Signs of Rain is about. First of all, scientists aren't really free to collaborate because of the obsession with capital and money and patents and exploitation of discovery. So there's too much secrecy - and that's within one country, before you even consider the paranoia of governments and security agencies. And research is too dispersed and scattershot, again because scientists are working in commercial environments, looking for breakthroughs that will be profitable.

So scientists aren't really speaking to each other, and they don't really understand each other, and this atomised approach to a huge potential problem like climate change means that nobody is joining the dots, seeing patterns, and identifying possible solutions. And if someone does spot something potentially interesting - as Vanderwal does - then they have too much self-interest for it to be shared with the wider community.

This is one of the cleverest aspects of the book. Vanderwal's internal monologue is sometimes anthropological (we are all primates, fresh from the savannah, and a lot of our behaviour is based on the instincts of primates) and sometimes concerned with game theory, and in particular whether altruism or selfishness will win the game.

This could fool you into thinking that Vanderwal is a good guy, the moral compass to point us through the maze of Washington and scientific politics. Like this Amazon reviewer:

...some fairly poor attempts to inject some excitement in to these scenes of domestic bliss, in the form of an encounter with deadly nightshade and a near miss with the kid and some passing traffic (and with another characters pointless road rage encounter)

The character who has the "pointless" road rage encounter is Vanderwal. Except it's not pointless, obviously. The point is, Vanderwal (observing humanity dispassionately, thinking of us all as primates driven by instinct) is not perfect, and not infallible. He's driving in the multi-occupancy lane and attempts to avoid detection by cutting up a pickup truck in order to hide his car from a patrol car. Clever, he thinks, except the pickup truck driver has an attack of road rage and pursues him through the streets.

In other words, Vanderwal thought he was controlling a situation, but got it badly wrong.

Lesson two. Vanderwal sees a grant application from a mathematician that could have some exciting impact on research into gene therapy. He happens to have connections with a company doing research in gene therapy, so he "cleverly" sees to it that the funding application is refused, in order that the company can make the researcher a job offer and keep his research for themselves.

Except, of course, Vanderwal is outmanoeuvred by another scientist on the funding committee who has exactly the same idea about a company she is connected with, doing research that (it will turn out) is loosely related to gene therapy, but more directly relevant to finding a viable carbon-fixing solution.

As for the deadly nightshade, it was actually poison ivy, and I wouldn't care to suggest that the encounter will prove to be irrelevant.* It might even be interesting, later on.

In any event, Vanderwal is not as clever as he thinks he is, and when he meets a mystery woman later on in the book, you get the feeling he's being played. This is all going to pay off in the sequels to follow.

Forty Signs of Rain lays out the problems with scientific research, the difficulties of political lobbying, and the sometimes awkward human relationships involved in both. The sequel will describe the onset of severe climactic change, when the global temperature plummets. This is set up with two slices of beautiful irony. On the West Coast, an unusually lashing storm (part of a Hyperniño in its 42nd month) causes massive erosion of sandstone cliffs at Encinitas, near San Diego. This is not a fictional threat. This, from the Las Cruces Sun:
Sand and solitude
Want to escape the hordes that descend upon most San Diego beaches? Go to Encinitas and turn west on D Street. The avenue dead-ends where the land plummets to the ocean, and there you will find a wooden staircase leading to the small, narrow beach about 60 feet below. Down here, you will find no hot-dog stands, no lifeguard and no restrooms. But you will find room to spread out, especially on the weekdays. (The beach can be thick with surfers on the weekends.) Just make sure you plant yourself well away from the cliffs, which look about as solid as Social Security's future. "

Turn west on D Street, it says. The land plummets to the ocean, it says. Where are Streets A, B, and C, I hear you ask? Lost to the sea, in October 1889. Robinson merely points out that what happened once will surely happen again.

And on the other coast, more irony. First victim of the coming catastrophic changes in climate? Why, Washington DC, of course, which is a mere 10 feet above sea level and built on a swamp. A couple of storms converge, coincident with a high tide, and politics-as-usual is under water.

Excellent. I'll read the first sequel in the new year.


*Poison ivy has interesting properties: only a billionth of a gram of the potent Urushiol oil is needed to cause a rash; and only 7 grams of the stuff would be needed to cause a rash in every person on earth. It remains active even on dead plants for at least five years; and samples centuries old have still caused rashes.

December 16, 2005

Fancy Pants Orange Juice

I'm not one for buying fancy pants orange juice, or indeed any other kind of juice. Own brand does me, most of the time. Just lately, I've taken to buying variations of V8 vegetable/fruit juices and all-fruit smoothies, because it means I don't have to think about eating actual fruit, and can top up a portion or two of my 5-a-day when I'm falling woefully short.

Fruit in liquid form is infinitely preferable to the real thing.

Anyway, for about 70 million years, I have suffered from excess acidity in my stomach, and there is a huge list of foods I never (or rarely) eat. Orange juice has been on my stink list for years: until now.

Because I am just dead impressed at Tropicana's Low Acid OJ, because it really is. Low acid, I mean. And it tastes smooth and goes down easy, without burn.

Top marks.

charlatans, thieves, frauds

Yesterday, I thought I'd phone my insurance company, make sure they had all the paperwork etc. they needed, and that they weren't sitting on my claim waiting for some information that they hadn't bothered to ask me for. You know what these people are like.

First time I phoned, I got a message saying they were experiencing a "high volume of calls", and if it was a "non-urgent" matter, please try later. I decided to do that, because I had things to get on with, but then I got the same message when I tried later and realised that the same message goes out, regardless of time of day and volume of calls.

The truth is that the cheapskate bastards don't employ enough people to cope with the volume of calls, and they use that mechanism to discourage people from contacting them.

Once they've got your money, that is. Because I bet if you phone the quote line, you get a fairly swift answer, even if it then takes half an hour to establish the spelling of your surname and your post code.

So when I phoned again, I ignored that message and waited. 25 minutes.

During that 25 minutes, I probably heard the "Your call is important to us and thank you for your patience" message - well, 25 times. At the best of times, that kind of message is irritating. Irritating because it's meaningless, and because it's insincere. But I defy anyone who has heard it 25 times (and I know 25 minutes is only an average length of time to be on hold) not to be enraged to the point of apoplexy by it. So, not only meaningless and insincere, but counterproductive and stress-inducing.

So I finally got through, and said I was just calling to check whether they had everything in hand. Did I have a claim reference number? No, because I haven't heard anything from you since I made my claim. After we established who I was, she saw that they'd been notified - initially - by the AA, which I knew. And I asked if they'd received the actual form I'd completed, with all the exhausting detail asked for (much more than I gave the AA). No, she said, but really they preferred to do everything by phone.

Oh, really? Is that why you make me hold on for 25 minutes until someone answers?

Anyway, she said she'd check that the form had been received (I sent it on Tuesday the 6th, so 10 days ago) and phone me back to confirm.

Even as I put the phone down, I knew I wasn't going to hear anything. I'd been well and truly fobbed off. See, my worry is that organisations like insurance companies rely on a system of inertia. Like estate agents and conveyancers, they do precisely nothing until you phone them up to give them a nudge. If you don't phone, they assume you don't care enough, and don't ever bother with it. And if you wait too long to phone, your paperwork will be lost and you will have to start again.

And yet, we increasingly live in a culture in which the person who complains is treated as a criminal. I knew, for example, if I expressed my extreme annoyance at the standard-operational-bullshit of being kept waiting for 25 minutes, that I would be addressed as some kind of freak or nutter.

You'd make a note of it, not to ever have dealings with this company again, except they all fucking merge with each other and become one huge edifice which you're obliged to deal with by law, and which has one central call centre with one part-time operator at the end of a labyrinthine voicemail system.


the quality of mucous

can anyone tell me, is mucous the same size in children as it is in adults? i mean the little molecules inside mucous. if the organ or whatever it is that makes mucous is smaller, then surely the stuff that comes out of it is smaller? i don't mean the quantity, i mean that which makes up mucous.

if you know the answer to this, then please let me know. maybe it depends on where the moon is in the sky.

Breaking News About the Moon

Reading up on how the moon was so big and bright last night (turns out it's going to collide with the Earth this weekend, but they're keeping quiet about it, so as not to alarm the public), I came across this BBC Magazine story about why the moon was looking so big in June (first inklings that it was going to hit us).

Apparently, nobody can explain why the moon looks bigger when it's on the horizon than it does when it's high in the sky. I always thought it was some kind of fishbowl effect, caused by the atmosphere being thicker lower down. Obviously incorrect, and yet it's something I've taken for granted for about 30-something years.


December 15, 2005


I was talking to Neil at lunch time about this word.

I often use the phrase, "what about an oven glove then, love?" to express abject hopelessness.

I used to have a friend who, at a low point of his life, became a door-to-door salesman, and he told me that even though he knew that the door was already metaphorically shut in his face, in the death throws of his pitch he would desperately suggest "what about an oven glove then, love?"

It's that use of the word "love" to refer to someone, especially a stranger. Has it ever struck you as odd?

Well, it comes from the days when we had a smattering of Old French in our vocab.; medieval times. It's cognate with "lief" and "liege" and all those feudal words. It means "someone that I respect" much as we might say "sir" or "madam" today.

And, etymological fallacies aside, it means it would be perfectly proper to ask the Queen, "care for a Woodbine, love?"

No toilets

The toilets are broken in the office.

The nearest functional ones are on a different floor of the building.

You already know that I'm frightened of the toilets at work because they are so exposed. It's like dangling your bits in the mouth of an especially grumpy Yorkshire Terrier.

There's only one thing worse than having to resort to public toilets though, and that is having to treck half way across the world to use somebody else's public toilet.

It also means that there will be over 40 people competing for the same cubicle.

And that in turn means it is statistically guaranteed that the person who has a dead rat up his arse will have contaminated the air in there.

Getting Oneself Off Others' Shitlists...

Or GOOOS for short...

I was going to call this 'Karmically Challenged' or 'Karmic Deficit', but despite never having heard either expression in the wild, there is a blog named as per the former, and the latter expression is in common use too. Just goes to show there is officially no such thing as originality.

Anyhoo, I am feeling smug today, as contrary to my announced interests in my Blogger profile 'Not giving Simon his CDs back' (as read by probably four of you who aren't fellow hoosiers), I have today done that very thing.

The most assiduous of readers will have read Simon's occasional elliptical references to musical exchange/retention with/by myself, with two of his rather short Top '89' falling into the 'ask Patrick' category.

I have never been much of a lender, because I know how lousy a borrower I am.

Only several hundred other transgressions to address and I should be in Karma Surfeit territory again... (actually I don't think I ever have been, probably never will be...)


ribena is made by glaxosmithkline. on my bottle of no added sugar really light ribena is written: "...95% of all uk and irish blackcurrants grow up to become ribena berries." 95%. that's too much, and it's not anything to boast about.

More seasonal cheer

We're now into that part of the year when office xmas dinners take place.

The best ones are the lunchtime ones.

As a long standing non-redmeat-eater I've been to enough of these events to be used to the "I'll see if the chef can do you a couple of fish fingers" options if you don't want turkey.

Less of an issue these days though, and I'm not complaining anyway. One of the features of xmas is excessive feasting on the flesh of beasts and birds: it would be churlish to resent others for doing exactly that.

I have been told "sorry sir, you're only allowed two potatoes" though, which is an issue when you can't have meat or gravy. Especially when you don't like any of the green, yellow, or orange vegetables. £15 for two potatoes? Thanks for trying.

But by far the funniest thing is all the fellas who get utterly lashed up on free wine and beer by 2.30pm (yes, I've done it as well).

You start off with a glass of wine and before you know it you've emptied all the other bottles on the table, you can't hear what anybody else is saying, and you've decided that the receptionist (either very young or very old depending on whether you work in the private sector or civil service respectively) is your best friend.

You can tell when somebody else is in this state. You see them often on the tube at this time of year. Unseasonably in shirt sleeves because they forgot to pick up their coat when they were turned out of the restaurant, carrying a bunch of flowers (they've just remembered that their wife/girlfriend is also their bestest friend, but none-the-less will justifiably squash their testicles for getting into such a state, so the man vainly hopes the flowers will atone for the extreme squiffyness and thus diminish the battering accordingly**), and they're asleep (it's only 3.15 in the afternoon).

I once saw a very respectable-looking office worker slightly zig-zag down the platform at the tube station and hock up an about-a-meter-wide lake of very wet vomit onto the floor. Splesh splash! He then continued down the platform as though he had just been temporarily possessed by a vomit monster, and got on the next train.

It was very memorable as it was composed almost entirely of green and pink food - I'd say avocado and salmon. It looked so fresh you could probably have safely scooped it up, washed it, and after a minute in the microwave, eaten it again.

** a characteristically flawed combination of male logic and the beer talking.

Topical Post

You can't have missed the recent flurry of controversy over Christmas decorations being renamed "Holiday Trees" by some organisations - and the occasional volte-face following customer complaints.

I even read some journo the other day who said something along the lines of, "It's understandable if Christians get annoyed about this kind of thing. After all, we did steal their festival."

Which just puzzled me, to be honest. Because I find it hard to believe that there's anyone who really thinks that we secularists have done anything other than to continue to celebrate the festival in more or less the same way it has been celebrated since the first time someone accidentally ate fermented fruit.

The word is a problem, because Christ-mass does have connotations, obviously. But then so does Holy-day! If anything, renaming a Christmas tree a Holiday tree just reveals the depths of someone's stupidity.

I've mentioned below, vis-a-vis the stream of winter road incidents (and before on Lisa's blog) that the milestone of the shortest day, Dec 21st, when the days really do start getting longer, and we've broken the back of the Dark Half of the year, really is something worth celebrating. If Christmas hadn't already been invented, I would start it now! Personally, I don't care what you call it. The word Christmas is entirely divorced from its religious context - just as the word holiday clearly is for most people. It's as religious as me shouting, "Jesus Christ!" when someone infuriates me.

Anyone who gets up early feels the full force of the Dark Half of the year from the end of October to the end of February. When we were a rural folk, we all felt it, which is why we had a fucking big blow-out at the end of December and another fucking big blow out in the Spring. It's why we light fires at the end of October or beginning of November. Darkness, rain, ice, fog, and wet snow: all these things are shit. For farmers, postal workers, shift workers, for crazy fools who live too far from where they work, the dark days are dark indeed.

If you don't leave the office at lunchtime, if you just sit at your desk all day, you see no daylight. Arrive at work in the dark, leave work in the dark. No wonder people get depressed, no wonder they invented a celebration to cover the period when things are at their darkest, just before they get better. It's our festival, the People's Festival, if you will. It doesn't belong to Christians, or the Coca Cola company, or religionists of any ilk. We celebrate because it's fucking dark and we fucking hate it, and we want it to be over.


Branding shock

Sometimes you find something out that is truly shocking.

I found out today that Nobby's Nuts (and crisps) are actually Walkers.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, because you don't get the dorrar to be able to do that much marketing if you're a startup, do you?

Walkers though! Who'd have thinked it.

Your Apple Aperture Questions Answered

Q. Is there a Windows version of Aperture?

A. No. But look out for a version compiled to run on an Intel Processor in 2006!

Q. Does Aperture run on Panther?

A. No, it does not. You need Tiger version 10.4.3 as a minimum.

Q. Will Aperture run on an iMac G5?

A. If you have a 1.8GHz processor, maybe. But you also need to have the right graphics card. The GeForce FX 5200 is not supported, for example. To find which graphics card you have, choose "About This Mac" from the Apple menu, and then click the "More Info" tab. Select PCI/AGP cards from the Contents list, and you will see the card you have installed. You need one of the following:

ATI Radeon x600 Pro or x600 XT
ATI Radeon X800 XT Mac Edition
ATI Radeon X850 XT
ATI Radeon 9800 XT or 9800 Pro
ATI Radeon 9700 Pro
ATI Radeon 9600, 9600 XT, 9600 Pro, or 9650
ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 or 9600
NVIDIA GeForce 6600 LE or 6600
NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra DDL or 6800 GT DDL
NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GT
NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500

Q. Is Aperture a Photoshop killer?

A. No, we don't think so. Not in version 1.0, anyway. The editing tools are too basic, and you will need Photoshop for comping, masking, and advanced editing techniques. Think of Aperture as iPhoto on steroids. It's a very quick way of working with RAW digital camera shots - a pro application requiring a pro-spec machine. Now you know why a PowerMac G5 costs more than an iMac.

Thursday Jinx Strikes Again

Since I started working from home on Fridays, Thursdays on the roads have been more of a nightmare than they were before. I'm actually off today because one of the kids is ill, but if I had tried to get to work, I would have encountered this incident, in which 3 people have died.

A southbound truck hit another truck that was on the hard shoulder (asleep at the wheel? It's around 1000 miles from Warsaw to Northampton) and then careened across the road, smashed through the central reservation, and hit a northbound car. "A man has been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving."


Update: BBC News is reporting that the motorway is still closed, and has been since 04:30 a.m. Southbound may reopen soon, but most alternative routes are completely gridlocked.

So glad I stayed home.

December 14, 2005

The Death Clock

It's being so cheerful etc.

According to The Death Clock, I am going to die on Valentine's Day 2042. I will be 79 years old.

This doesn't really depress me, except for the thought that my youngest daughter will more or less be as old as I am now. I want my kids to be young forever. Or forever young.

ITV News Channel axed

Question 1: Did you know ITV had a news channel?

Question 2: Have you ever watched it?

I can say that I have watched BBC News 24 and it's RUBBISH! I can't believe how amateurish and shambolic it is. With just one thing to get right - the news - they manage to make a complete hash of it, unable to synch sound and picture, or match the script to what you see on screen. And they have big, dumbass graphics all over the most interesting bit on screen, and a range of identikit presenters who must feel suicidal at the prospect of working there.

Registration required to read MediaGuardian.co.uk. The funniest bit is at the end of the story:
Staff had been hoping for a reprieve until after Christmas after ITV delayed a decision on its future at the beginning of this month.

Only a fortnight ago it hired former Sky News presenter Scott Chisholm to host the news channel's breakfast show, which launched on Monday.

Now, that's comedy.

Buddy Holly - The Singles Plus

Buddy Holly - The Singles Plus

About a century ago, we were talking about 89 essential albums and that, and Buddy Holly was on my list, only the Buddy Holly records I owned were on something called vinyl, long ago sold at a car boot.

So I ordered this from Amazon, and it finally arrived this week. It's an enormous collection, over 40 tracks, and it has everything that I used to own on two vinyl compilations and more. Some of them may be different versions, but it's too long ago for me to remember.

I had a brief discussion with Roy about Holly yesterday. Roy said, "Buddy Holly gives me the creeps. I know it's great, seminal, but there's something about it."

I actually know what he means. These tracks are seminal, archetypal even, but it's hard to be anything other than a detached observer. He was creepy-looking, and he had a creepy voice. Over and above that, you get the feeling that - even after a couple of years - he was being sucked into an entirely different kind of musical direction, and that, had he lived, he would have betrayed all his early promise.

People talk about his innovative arrangements - the strings on "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" for example - but what I hear is the attempt to repackage him, make him "commercial", to de-countryfy him, knock off the rough edges. And when I hear clarinet and saxophone on other tracks, I just think it sounds wrong in the same way those Elvis soundtrack songs sound wrong.

The key to Holly was that he was a skinny white boy and he wore glasses. In appearance, he was your standard all-American nerd. A nice boy who would represent no threat, who would go to college and become an insurance salesman. But then he was singing all this weird stuff, and if he could do it, then it was open to anyone. Buddy Holly wasn't, like Elvis, the white man who sang black music, and he wasn't, like Chuck Berry, a black man who played rock 'n' roll guitar. Holly's music sounded white, but still - obviously - came from the same place that Elvis' and Berry's music did.

When you read about the young Bob Dylan (or the young Robbie Robertson), tuning his radio late at night and picking up powerful stations, bounced across the heavyside layer from hundreds of miles further south, swimming up through the ether with strange-sounding music that opened windows and doors in the mind, this was very much the kind of thing. In fact, it's hard now to listen to Buddy Holly and not think about movie moments of radios tuned to distant sounds that were passing strange.

Don't think of "Peggy Sue" when you read that, or "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." There are songs on these records that are much stranger than that. For example, you know how sometimes (especially in childhood) you can cry so much that for ages afterwards you don't so much breathe as sob? How an intake of breath can have several stages, as the air passes into your lungs in lumps? On one of these tracks, every word that Holly sings sounds like that, every word a sob. Can you imagine being 14 years old and hearing that come over the airwaves late at night?

But how can such absolute anguish sound so cheerful?

It's important, too, that these songs are simple, brilliant, and short. They're easy to play, and they inspire you to try to write your own. You can hear the Beatles on here, from vocal mannerisms to guitar licks. But you can hear the Pixies, too. When Black Francis wanted to Gil Norton to understand why Pixies songs were so short, he pointed to a Buddy Holly record. I once joked that the songs on the Beatles' best album, Beatles for Sale were all around two minutes long: "some are even longer." As I was driving to work this morning, I was on disc 2, and at track 13 it was 7.13 a.m. By 7.32 a.m., track 22 was over.

There's a danger, with nostlagia, that entropy makes everything seem more or less the same, and history is rewritten to incorporate things that didn't fit. Six months ago, we were thinking about "Like a Rolling Stone," and what an amazing thing it must have been when that song first snarled out of a transistor radio. It's hard to imagine a world in which you don't know what someone looks like, where they come from, or what they're about. When you live in an era of Velvet Underground songs in commercial breaks, a world in which implacable foes reunite for the cash or for charidee, it's hard to believe that the world was ever shocked by Paul McCartney and appalled by Ringo.

But Buddy Holly, now. He still has the power to creep you out. And when you think about it, that's pretty powerful stuff.

Badgers, cows, and tuberculosis

I see that we're about to succumb to a TB epidemic. Apparently it's carried by cows and badgers.

The government are looking into culling said cows and badgers. Some farms have already been closed down because all the cows were carrying TB.

Curiously where badger culls had taken place the preliminary evidence seemed to suggest that there was even more TB. Maybe badgers soak up the surplus TB that would otherwise infect us monkeymen.

I wouldn't have thought they'd need to cull them. The fecking things are suicidal if the number of roadkill badgers round our way is anything to go by.

Still, TB? I suppose it arouses a certain amount of nostalgia for Victorian Times. You could pretend to be a consumptive poet like Pete Doherty.


I went to my son's nativity play at school yesterday morning.

I, like all parents watching their own offspring, felt proud as punch as I watched him do his bit.

I took the digital camera with me, under orders from my wife.

So did everybody else. But mostly they had video cameras as well.

I got there early. I didn't take a seat because I knew I would be taking photos and I didn't want to commit an act of extreme rudeness by blocking the view of people behind me.

I stood at the side of the hall where I could get a clear view without blocking anybody else's view.

Except we don't live in a world of politeness anymore do we.

You should have seen them all, pushing and conniving to get to the front and get the best shots on their new-fangled digital equipment.

Most of the seats were empty by the end. With everyone standing up. Stupid and out of control. Like a filthy selfish rabble.

At one point I couldn't even see the stage because there were so many people standing in front of me, nudging each other out of the way.

I had to work very hard to prevent myself from unleashing a bit of ultra-violence on them.

Dingoes Ate My Boyfriend - the aftermath

There are two things you can be certain of in high-profile murder cases.

The first is that the sobbing relative at the press conference is probably the chief suspect, and that the police have encouraged them to make "an appeal to the media" in order to watch their reactions.

The second is that, following a guilty verdict, you will find out all the things the jury weren't allowed to know, all of which confirm the guilt of the suspect, and it becomes gobsmackingly obvious what a huge risk a "fair trial" can be.

Wild generalisations, I know, but that's the subtitle of this blog. Sort of.

As Marie said in the comments the other day, and as Leesa agrees, the media had it in for Joanne Lees from the beginning, because she didn't play their game. They hated her because she was too savvy. Too savvy to weep on demand, too aware of the prurient interest in her b r e a s t s to pose for photographs like the good grieving girlfriend.

The first thing to nail is that tabloid journalists, on the whole, know nothing about the behaviour of people who have really been traumatised. Those of them who are still arguing that Lees' behaviour was "weird" are just fucking stupid. People's reactions to grief and or trauma cover a wide spectrum, from numb to head-banging hysteria. Nothing is "normal" and nothing is "weird."

I would love for some of them to be put in real fear for their lives for a few hours and see how they react and how many details they remember afterwards. To be a little selfish for a moment, I had a very scary accident on the motorway a couple of weeks ago - a 65mph tail spin caused by a truck pulling into my lane and nudging me - and only blind luck saw me end up, relatively safe, on the hard shoulder. But I didn't weep, fall apart, or take a week off sick. You might think me totally unaffected, but - for example - my legs turned to jelly yesterday when I was overtaking a lorry and it started to signal to pull out into my lane. I still get in a car every day and drive to work, because I know that if I gave into the fear I've been feeling, my life would be fucked.

So Joanne Lees held herself together, and because she didn't put on an act for the media, some of them decided to smear her good name. The person who has murdered a family member and hopes to get away with it will step forward and appeal for help to find the missing one. Lees, on the other hand, must have known from quite early on that Falconio was dead, and that no appeal would bring him back. The only questions she would answer concerned her opinion that the media were bang out of order with all their innuendo.

Last night on 5Live, I heard one of the writers of the (5 so far) forthcoming books continuing to imply that there were inconsistencies in her story, and that - even after the verdict - people would still wonder what really happened.

This came even as we learned that Murdoch had - almost certainly - abducted another girl using similar methods, had a huge collection of firearms and ammunition, a collection of press cuttings on the case, had been telling people - before he was arrested - that he was being framed for the murder, and had changed his appearance and been hiding out in some shotgun shack for 6 months in an attempt to avoid arrest. He had full access to all the police evidence and a laptop computer in order to prepare his defence - and the jury still took just 8 hours (after 8 weeks and 85 witnesses) to find him guilty.

These are the details you learn later, when you realise that the evidence heard in court was the tip of the iceberg. This is the bit I knew was coming. Here's a good colour piece from the Austrlian, which gives some of the flavour.

At the trial, evidence was heard from people who testified that Murdoch had mentioned having to "get rid" of someone who was following him; that he'd discussed the best way to dispose of a body; that he had indeed taken steps to change his appearance. When he was arrested for the alleged rape of a 12 year old girl, police found home-made cuffs made from cable ties - exactly the same as those Lees was wearing when she was picked up by the rescuing road train driver. A lot of the evidence was thrown out by the judge in the interest of a fair trial. Still, Murdoch kept meticulous notes throughout on the judge's behaviour: already preparing for his appeal, knowing he would be found guilty.

And still the writers who have a vested interest in selling their books come forward with the innuendo. Is it a surprise that Joanne Lees is sketchy on the details of what happened? She had a gun in her face, it was dark, she couldn't see her boyfriend, and she thought she was going to be raped or killed. And she can't remember how she ended up in the back of the truck? Dear me. And you know what? I can't remember how I got from the middle lane to the hard shoulder, or how I managed to stop the car.

December 13, 2005

Dingoes Ate My Boyfriend - Blimey!

Quick verdict (8 hours): Murdoch guilty of Falconio murder

Murdoch sentenced to life in prison.

(Earlier, the Jury asked the judge to clarify whether they could find Murdoch guilty without a body. To which the judge replied, "Well, duh. Why do you think we had a frickin' trial, you morons?"


December 12, 2005

It comes around, it goes around

Here in the seen-it-all-before department, we like to keep tabs on current cultural icons, and remind ourselves where we've seen it all before. I think we've established by now that Robbie Williams is an updated (and slightly less gay, apparently) Elton John (close your eyes and the resemblance is uncanny). But what about some of the current crop of stars?

The escaped mental patient who sings at a piano and wears a hat to conceal a bad hair day? That's right: Daniel Powter is Gilbert O'Sullivan:

Singer-songwriter who sings like a girl and annoys everyone?

Dark-haired songstress who gets your dad all hot under the collar? Call off the search, it's Elkie Brooks:

Slightly old hat by now, but lest we forget, Chas and Dave modelled their act on a once-famous pair of brothers: