Saturday, December 29, 2007

album of the day

Elastica by Elastica.

A lot of things are great at the time, but a bit shit and/or embarrassing when viewed with the benefit of sober hindsight. Various clothing and hairstyle choices, eating caviar off that male prostitute's scrotum, that sort of thing. Britpop is a bit like that - when you look back now a lot of it has deservedly been consigned to the dustbin of history - Shed Seven, anyone? No? Even hugely popular stuff like Oasis's (What's The Story) Morning Glory? and Blur's The Great Escape turn out to be a bit suspect in hindsight.

This, by contrast, is a punky little gem. Only four of the fifteen songs exceed three minutes, and four of them are less then two minutes. There's no extraneous cor anglais solos, either, just some guitars and Annie Holland's trebly Stranglers-esque bass. The Stranglers comparison is apposite in other ways, as there was a bit of furore over some, hem hem, "borrowings", specifically The Stranglers' No More Heroes in Waking Up and a couple of Wire songs in Line Up and Connection.

There's a Liz Phair-esque sexual up-frontness to the lyrics as well, from Car Song's fantasising about being bent over car bonnets to Stutter's ridiculing of a boyfriend with brewer's droop. Add to this that all the women in the group (i.e. everyone except the drummer, who was a bloke - the same sort of deal as the Corrs, in other words) were very attractive in a slightly grimy black jeans and Doc Marten's kind of way, and you've got something considerably more appealing than, say, Embrace. Not that that would be difficult.

this future is rubbish - where's my rocket pack?

I know it proves nothing, and the laws of probability say it will happen every so often, but still, it's a bit irritating. You shell out the extra money for an energy-saving light-bulb, and in addition to the metaphorical rosy glow of eco-friendly self-satisfaction you expect to get a non-metaphorical actual glow of light emitted from the bulb for up to ten times longer than a standard filament bulb, like it says on the box.

So you feel slightly cheated when one gives out on you after no more than three or four months. Again, that's not to say that the old-style bulbs didn't occasionally go phut after a tenth of that time (a week and a half or so), particularly in my current flat, which seems to eat light bulbs particularly quickly, but still.

For that reason, and also because I'm moving house fairly soon (I'm having the energy-saving bulb out of the spare room when I go, as well, oh yes), and also just general miserableness, I've replaced it with the standard old-style planet-raping variety. Screw you, Mother Earth!

oh no! I've got the wrong head on!

Just another observation along the lines of my earlier post about the phrase "different class" and associated stuff - when did it become acceptable political-ese and journalist-ese to use the clumsy term "wrong-headed"? Deborah Orr of The Independent does it a lot, but she's by no means the only culprit. Here she is writing about cannabis:
Even now, I know a number of people who smoke dope with their teenage children, under the impression that a "French" approach to cannabis will work in the same way as a "French" approach to wine. I now believe this to be an extremely wrong-headed attitude.
And here about Sudoku:
Until now, this has been put down to gender differences in brain function. She herself, having laboured under the cultural pressures subtly placed on the few women who try to break into the tight little world of chess, has always considered this to be a wrong-headed and frankly illogical assumption.
Here's journalist and noted Scientologist-abuser John Sweeney writing about our legal system:
Information, in itself, about anything, is light. I want every reporter in the country to understand that the plan in our judicial system is to switch that light off. To understand just how wrong-headed this is, humour me.
Here's US presidential candidate and magic crotchless underwear devotee Mitt Romney on the Iraq war (incorporating an amusing slip regarding Barack Obama's name):
Actually, just look at what Osama - Barack Obama - said just yesterday. Barack Obama, calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. ... It's almost as if the Democratic contenders for president are living in fantasyland. Their idea for jihad is to retreat, and their idea for the economy is to also retreat. And in my view, both efforts are wrongheaded.
And here's Osama, I mean Obama's response:
Apparently, Mitt Romney can switch names just as casually as he switches positions, but what's wrongheaded is continuing a misguided war in Iraq that has left America less safe.
Note that the hyphen appears to be optional. My point, if you're still with me, is that the word these people are looking for, and are substituting "wrong-headed" for, is "wrong". I suspect that what's happening is that there's a slight reluctance to use as dogmatic and final-sounding a word as "wrong", and so "wrong-headed" has evolved as a slightly weaselly alternative. One which also hints at the bizarre notion that these people have a choice of heads when they get up in the morning, which, unless you happen to be Zaphod Beeblebrox, is unlikely to be the case.

it's the vinyl countdown

So you're (like me) old enough to have a substantial collection of vinyl LPs, and you're not crazy about the idea of re-purchasing all the albums on CD. Well, there's an answer. To ensure I haven't got to rediscover all the settings next time I do this I thought I'd document them here.

Actually, there are several anwers, depending on whether you currently own a turntable. If you don't, then you might want to consider buying a USB turntable, just to make the whole connecting to the computer bit a bit easier.

If you do already have one, then presumably you've got it connected to an amplifier, so what you need to do is run a lead from the "TAPE/REC OUT" sockets on your amplifier to the microphone input socket on your computer. Chances are this will involve two RCA phono plugs on the amplifier, and a mini stereo headphone plug at the computer end, so you'll need an adaptor. One of these would probably do the trick.

Connect everything up. Then set the computer up by ensuring that the recording control (found under the Volume Control settings) is set for Microphone input. Set the amplifier up by ensuring that it's switched to PHONO and that TAPE MONITOR is switched on (i.e. as if you were recording an LP to tape, like we oldsters used to do in the previous millennium). Also ensure that you mute the output to the speakers or you'll get a nasty hum on your recording.

You'll also need some wave editing software on your computer. If you've got CD burning software then you'll probably have one as part of this. I've got Nero Burning ROM 5.0 (old, but very good - newer versions are available), and it has a thing called Nero Wave Editor bundled with it, which does the job very well.

Then put the needle on the record, hit Record on your wave editor, and sit back. There's no getting away from having to do this in "real time", so you're looking at 20-25 minutes per side of vinyl LP. Pop out and have a cup of tea or something.

Once it's finished, stop recording and save the resulting wave file somewhere. Then you just need to split it up into individual tracks. Here's how I do it:


Select the bit of wave file that contains the track you want. Allow a bit of leeway either end to avoid snipping bits off by accident. Then hit Copy, create a new file, hit Paste, and save the track under an appropriate name. As I'm sure you can tell just by humming the waveform in your head, this is Ballad Of Hollis Brown by Bob Dylan.

Then all you need to do is tidy up the ends of the track, which you can do using the Fade In/Out options, like this:


At this point you're pretty much done. Further effort can be expended depending how fussy you want to be about sound quality. I generally restrict myself just to sorting out the really obvious pops and scratches; these are generally fairly obvious just by visual inspection. There's one (the incongruous-looking spike) about a third of the way along the section below:


The best way to remove these is just to cut them out. A spike like this occupies a couple of thousandths of a second at most, so you won't notice anything "missing". Zoom in until the spike resolves itself into a waveform:


Then select the offending bit, and just delete it.


Done! Now all you need to do is use your CD-burning software to burn the lovingly-prepared tracks to a CD, and you're home and dry. Remember if any of the original LP tracks segue into each other that a) you'll need to be careful where you make the split when cutting up the original wave file (obviously don't use the Fade options under these circumstances) and b) you'll need to remove the standard 2-second delay between tracks that a lot of CD-burning software puts in by default to preserve the original flow of the songs.

It sounds more complicated than it is - once you get the hang of it it's quite easy. You're probably looking at between an hour and an hour and a half to transfer a complete LP, but you can be out in the kitchen drinking tea or solving quadratic equations for a large chunk of this time.

Finally, some hints about iTunes - if you want (as clearly you will) to add the tracks you've just created to your iTunes library, the best way to do this is to rip them off the CD after you've created it. Don't be tempted to import the raw WAV files into iTunes (even though you can) as it just generates trouble with conversion to MP4 format. Plus, if you've done a reasonably faithful job of replicating what was on the original LP, the unfeasibly clever Gracenote CDDB software will retrieve the track names for you when you put the CD in, so you don't have to do any typing (you will have to if you manually import the files).

Oh, one other thing - you'll need to check your computer's audio set-up before you start, specifically that the computer has a dedicated sound card. My old Dell desktop PC has a Sound Blaster sound card which works perfectly, while my shiny new (and in most other respects far better) Dell laptop has something called SigmaTel Audio installed which isn't really up to the job. It sounds like it has some built-in noise reduction stuff which just gets in the way, particularly in quiet passages, which are reminiscent of the problems I used to have with Dolby B noise reduction when taping LPs, in that the whole thing sounds like it's being played through an old sock.

There you go. This has been a public service announcement, as well as a convenient point of future reference for me. We now return you to your regular scheduled blogging.

ding dong merrily on high

Right, listen up. Obviously pretty much everyone's experiences of Christmas are very similar, at least in this country. Those who dwell primarily in a mud hut in the Kalahari or a yak-butter-grouted yurt in Mongolia would probably find things panning out slightly differently, but otherwise people generally gather with various family members, eat and drink excessively, exchange presents and then go home again. And my own experience is, largely, no different.

Generally these are relatively orthodox Christmas shots then - the main point of interest (arguably) would be the walk that my Dad and I went on on Boxing Day up the Black Hill (known as the Cat's Back by locals) - this is the same Black Hill that Bruce Chatwin wrote about in his novel On The Black Hill.

Anyway, it occurred to me while I was posting the Boxing Day photos, which include a shot of me leaning on a trig point, that I have been involved, over the years, in an awful lot of similar photographs. So I decided, largely for my own amusement, to compile an album of similar stuff. As if to illustrate how fickle weather conditions can be, kids, consider the following pair of photographs - me on top of Yes Tor on Dartmoor in 2000, and Robin and I on the exact same trig point in 2007. That'll be yer fickle English weather for you, folks.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

album of the day

Desire by Bob Dylan.

A bit of an anomaly in the Dylan canon, this, for a number of reasons. Most of the songs were co-written (unusually for Dylan who was never much of a collaborator) with lyricist Jacques Levy, and prominently feature violinist Scarlet Rivera, and backing vocals from Emmylou Harris. It's very much a studio-bound version of his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue from 1975, and it doesn't really sound like any other Dylan album.

It's probably most famous for a couple of lengthy protest songs: the terrific Hurricane (about boxer, possibly wrongly convicted murderer and biopic subject Rubin Carter) and the somewhat dirge-y 11-minute Joey (about, slightly less defensibly, gangster Joey Gallo), but there's some great other stuff as well: Isis, One More Cup Of Coffee, Romance In Durango and the slightly desperate Sara, where Dylan spends five and a half minutes begging his wife not to dump him (unsuccessfully, as it turns out).

This was the second half of Dylan's mid-1970's renaissance (it followed Blood On The Tracks), and, since he hasn't done anything as conveniently Hendrix-esque as die since, one has to observe that he's spent the last 31 years not releasing anything that's as good.

Here's Dylan and band giving Mozambique a good kicking in concert in 1976.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

season of goodwill, season of schmoodwill

You can tell it's Christmas by the number of religious-themed stories in today's paper, some of which are quite amusing. Here's a little sampling menu for you:

Borders bookshop (and CD, DVD and coffee shop and who knows what else these days) have apparently been giving away cards with the only slightly amusing legend "O Come All Ye Faithless" written on them with every edition of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Not a particularly interesting sales gimmick in itself, but it's prompted some amusing foaming at the mouth from certain Christian groups. That in turn has provoked some scathing comments at the Dawkins discussion forum, including this little gem:

Surely this must be deeply hurtful to all other faiths, as their imaginary friends are bent over and recreationally back-passaged by these deeply hurtful cards, without I might add the courtesy of a reach-around, or forgiveness and a Snickers bar from Father O'Badtouch.
British political party leader in unequivocal statement of atheism shocker: stand up Nick Clegg, newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. It's a sad reflection of the hysteria that inevitably follows such statements that he felt the need to "clarify" his position later on by saying that no, this didn't mean he was advocating setting fire to churches, putting Christian children into food processors, etc. The next mark of progress will be the leader of a party with a realistic chance of actually getting elected saying something similar. Nonetheless it's a pleasing contrast with dead-eyed shape-shifting vampire lizard in human form David Cameron's words on the subject (words which, just as an aside, make no grammatical sense anyway):

I believe in God and try to get to church more often than at Christmas, but perhaps not as often as I should.
Latest in the amusing spat over The Golden Compass: the Vatican steps in. The irony of the Catholic Church conforming pretty much exactly with their thinly-disguised portrayal as a brutally paranoid authoritarian regime in the books is piquantly delicious. And remember, kids: condoms give you AIDS.

Lastly, Ricky Gervais debates the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, about theology. Funny guy and all, but couldn't we have had Jonathan Miller instead? Now that would be a debate worth watching.

Anyway - happy Winterval!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

the last book I read

Spanking Watson by Kinky Friedman.

Kinky Friedman is what you might call a man of many talents: singer with Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys (signature tunes: They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore and Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed), politician (candidate for Governor of Texas in 2006), novelist, animal welfare campaigner and maker of quality salsa.

In his incarnation as novelist he's written a dozen or so novels featuring a character named Kinky Friedman as an amateur private investigator based in New York having a series of quirky adventures with his gang of local misfits the Village Irregulars. Needless to say there's a certain degree of metafictional stuff going on here - the Kinky character is a former country singer, and some of the Irregulars are based on real people.

Raymond Chandler on some serious mushrooms would be an obvious point of reference - basically there's a certain amount of inconsequential dicking around early doors, and then some actual plot in which some actual stuff happens in the second half of the novel. The setting of the novels within a pretty narrow range of situations (mostly revolving around the Kinkster's Manhattan flat and Winnie Katz's lesbian dance class upstairs) means there's a law of diminishing returns with the books (this is one of the later ones, written in 1999), and to be honest the earlier ones like When The Cat's Away and Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola are better.

But you've got to love someone who can immerse themselves in the political process and come out with their sanity intact. Absolutely zero chance of getting elected anywhere, but so much the worse for America. Kinky for President!

this week: abseiling into an exploding hippopotamus

Good to see Ian Stewart back running around and gurning Scottishly into the camera at unnecessarily close range on BBC2 in Earth: The Power Of The Planet. I was perhaps unnecessarily harsh in my earlier diatribe relating to his earlier series Journeys From The Centre Of The Earth, though there is a certain amount of unnecessarily hyperactive running about and jumping into holes, the sea, live volcanoes, etc. for no good reason. Watch the clips and note how, even when he's just doing a piece to camera (though it'll probably be while dangling into a crevasse on a rope) he waggles his entire upper body and head around, just to inject the necessary dynamism and urgency.

Now I wouldn't want you to think that I disapprove of the series in a general sense - far from it. It's a lavishly budgeted exploration of what is, pretty much by definition, one of the most fascinating subjects there is - how the Earth was formed, how it developed into the state it's in today and what's likely to happen to it in the future. I just question, in a friendly and enquiring manner, whether the relentless crazy camera angles and regular stripping off and diving into lagoons really helps - i.e. the notion that science isn't particularly exciting unless you're performing the necessary calculations while tobogganing backwards down a glacier on a hollowed-out giant redwood careering towards a boiling lava lake full of radioactive sharks.

But it's probably just me. Top marks for being unequivocal about global warming, and for bringing up a few interesting topics, e.g. the periodic drying-up and re-flooding of the Mediterranean basin, the Chicxulub meteor impact which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the hypothesis explaining the unusually close relationship between the Earth and the Moon.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

albums of the day

A veritable mountain of washing-up to be done today, plus a stew to cook, so I had a bit of time to fill, hence three - count 'em! - albums for you today.

Innervisions by Stevie Wonder.

I think I own precisely two albums issued by the legendary Motown label. This is one of them. Its nearly-as-good predecessor Talking Book is the other. You may, if you wish, deduce from this that soul music isn't really my thing, and you'd be mostly right. But you've got to defer to genius, and I think that just for a handful of years in the early 1970s (Innervisions was released in 1973) that's what we were dealing with with Stevie Wonder. Needless to say by the time I Just Called To Say I Love You came out in 1984 that time had long since passed.

Wonder had renegotiated his Motown contract in the early 1970s to give him complete artistic control over his albums, and he exerts that here - almost all the instruments on all the tracks are played by him. He'd also become a lot more politically conscious and a couple of the highlights reflect that - Living For The City and the ridiculously funky Higher Ground (later covered by the Red Hot Chili Peppers). But it's all great - and if you're not up and dancing during the final two tracks Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing and He's Misstra Know-It-All then you are clearly either too white for words, or paraplegic, in which case I apologise.

Temple Of Low Men by Crowded House.

Speaking of too white for words....Crowded House never really did themselves any favours by having (possibly not of their own volition) a slightly "wacky" image, reinforced by their more straightforward (and hence popular) songs like Weather With You. Dig a little deeper, though, and there's something a great deal more interesting going on, and this, their second and least commercially successful album, is the best thing they ever did.

It's less lushly produced than their big commercial breakthrough Woodface and its follow-up Together Alone, but that's a good thing as it gives Neil Finn's songs some room. And strange and wonderful things they are too; in your basic pop-rock idiom musically, but dark and mysterious lyrically. Into Temptation in particular has something very disturbing going on, and When You Come is unequivocally the sexiest song ever written or recorded, anywhere, ever.

The Velvet Underground by, erm, The Velvet Underground.

It's another mellow, getting-it-together album following a couple of more abrasive efforts, in this case The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat, both of which had their terrifying moments. This is a lot more friendly, and it's probably their best album.

You can spot the difference right from the start - Doug Yule's almost folky Candy Says - and the rest of the album is in similar vein, lightly-amplified and relatively undistorted electric guitars and some conventionaly-structured songs, the best of which are What Goes On with its ringing guitar coda, the much-covered (by R.E.M. among others) Pale Blue Eyes and Beginnning To See The Light, which may just be the most joyously uninhibited vocal the notoriously grumpy Lou Reed ever recorded.

There you go. And the stew was excellent, by the way.

anybody got any salmon? sorted

Here's my latest purchase from the fantastic Kin Yip Hon Oriental supermarket: a great big jar of pink pickled ginger.

This stuff tends to be used as an accompaniment to sushi, along with the usual wasabi and soy sauce. You can just eat it straight out of the jar, as I sometimes do, but don't overdo it or you'll ending up making the noise denoted by the little green bit of text on the label, which I assume is just there as a warning of some sort.

You can also cook with it, and this is what I did with it last night: get a load of it out of the jar, chop it up finely, chop some garlic and chilli up finely as well, stick it all in a bowl, add some lemon juice, sesame oil, soy sauce and some teriyaki marinade (Kikkoman do a good one). Then get a couple of salmon fillets, put them on a doubled-up sheet of foil, crimp the edges together into a parcel, and before crimping shut the last edge pour the contents of the bowl into the parcel. Then stick it in the oven for about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop and fry up some red pepper and mangetout. When the fish comes out of the oven, snip off the end of the parcel and pour the liquid into the pan - scrape in the garlic/ginger goop as well. Sprinkle in a bit of Chinese 5 spice powder, then bung in some stir-fry noodles (Amoy are good), stir the whole thing around until the noodles are cooked and the liquid has cooked off a bit, then stick them on a plate. Put the fish on top, and eat.

Friday, December 14, 2007

the last book I read

The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis.

Aunt Irene, a middle-aged lady of Slavic ancestry, lives in Chelsea with her dissolute nephew Kyril. Irene's sister Berthe is a Reverend Mother at a nunnery, and sends one of her apprentice nuns, Valentine, to Irene, ostensibly to give her a taste of the real world before her nunly initiation, but in reality because Valentine has been disrupting the smooth running of the nunnery by performing minor miracles.

Sure enough Valentine starts to have an effect on the motley cast of characters who pass through the house: snooty housekeeper Mrs. Mason and her alcoholic husband, lovable cockney gyppo Mrs. O'Connor and Aunt Irene's lodger Mr. Sirocco.

What's it all about? Not entirely sure, to tell you the truth. It's blackly comic in that bone-dry way that seems to be peculiar to British ladies of a certain age: Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge spring to mind. There seems to be a bit of a sub-text of religion good, nasty modern sexual so-called "liberation" and scientific so-called "enlightenment" - ha! - bad, which ordinarily would drive me into a gibbering psychotic rage, but which is presented here through the mouthpiece of Aunt Irene who is slightly batty in a endearing sort of way, and so can be not taken too seriously if desired. Which is not to say that these weren't Ellis' real-life views, because by all accounts they were. It's a tribute to her skill as a writer, I suppose, that I enjoyed the book in spite of all that.

It's also the second book in this series to feature a central character levitating. Go figure.

celebrity lookey-likey of the day

I'm going out on a limb a little bit here - probable next England football coach Fabio Capello and restaurateur (and now TV presenter) Heston Blumenthal.














Now I know what you're thinking, and I agree - the hair is a bit of a distraction. Focus instead on the glasses and the slight underbite that gives them both a slightly pugnacious look. Or try this expertly re-haired simulation:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

crisatunity!

A couple of interesting articles from the good people at Language Log (link on sidebar on the right): firstly, continuing the general spoilsport-y tone of the bumblebee bit in my previous post, here's a debunking of that widely-used motivational management bollocks about the Chinese word for "crisis" being a combination of the words for "danger" and "opportunity".

More amusingly, and continuing the Chinese theme, here's a good one about amusingly mistranslated signs in public places. It's good to know that even a website as highly educated and erudite as Language Log can produce articles chock-full of swearing. Fuck the certain price of goods!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Baz knows his onions about films.....and, erm, onions

Did you know Barry Norman had his own brand of pickled onions? Well, it's true. An old family recipe, apparently. Nice to see the jar and website design are in no way trading on his film-related fame. Still, I'm sure they're very nice, if you like pickled onions (and I do), though they'll have to be very good indeed to top the mighty Garner's, the guv'nor of pickled onions.

Famous people branching out into food isn't a new thing, of course, the most famous example probably being Paul Newman and his salad dressing. Well, I say salad dressing (the original recipe stuff is quite nice, by the way), but in fact there's now a bewildering variety of sauces and marinades to be had as well, not to mention lemonade and popcorn, for goodness sake.

And Blur bassist, Fat Les co-founder and former Groucho Club-frequenting showbiz media slag Alex James is launching his own brand of cheese.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

vote for the magic underpants

If, God forbid, you're a Republican and looking for a suitable candidate to throw your weight behind in the 2008 US Presidential election, you've got some interesting choices on your hands at the moment. So do you plump for:

Rudy Giuliani: Hero of New York City following 9/11, but a tricky one for the conservative wingnuts for a couple of reasons - firstly his somewhat "colourful" marital history, including marrying his cousin, various extramarital goings-on and allegations of certain financial and expenses "irregularities" during his clandestine affair with the woman who is currently his wife; secondly he has inconveniently liberal views on such conservative "dog-whistle" issues as gay marriage and abortion.

Mike Huckabee: former televangelist, bass guitarist, slightly weaselly Young-Earth creationist, and, more importantly than all this, bumble-bee flight denialist. Can we stop with this shit about the bumble-bee?
"It's scientifically impossible for the bumblebee to fly," he told a crowd in the small town of Newton. "But the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, flies anyway."
It's all very charming and quaint, but, as I believe I've said before, the truth matters. And the truth is - and this should hardly be surprising to anyone - we do know how the bumble-bee flies. It's 'cos of, you know, physics and stuff. The baby Jesus's involvement was not required. And yes, I know, the Huckabee/bumble-bee thing is a headline writer's wet dream. But still, let's keep our eye on the ball here.

Mitt Romney: it's getting better. Firstly: Romney is a Mormon. You may shrug indifferently, but they believe some really wacky things. Best of all is the magic underwear thing. Actually, even better than that is the story of the family dog when the Romneys went on holiday. Apparently the dog loved it, though, so that's OK. So that'll be why it explosively shat itself all over the back window then. His recent keynote speech regarding religion is pretty worrying too.

That air-traffic controller bloke out of Die Hard 2.

Plus some other no-hopers. It's really not an inspiring selection, unless you're some sort of insane religious fundamentalist, like, erm, most American voters. Oh shit.

Snap out of it, America. Vote for Hillary!

let's kill God!

A few pithy, or possibly pissy, quotes to liven up your lives and stimulate the cerebral muscles. Health warning attached: these are shots in the ongoing science v religion war, so if that's not your cup of tea, or you're sick of me going on about it, read no further. And bugger off.

Let's start with the aforementioned Jim Crace, from an introductory piece written about Quarantine for amazon.com:
I do not like to give offence to Christians. I say, if asked, that I’m agnostic. But the truth is I'm an atheist, impatient with the simple-mindedness of orthodox religion, its lack of imagination, its bafflegab. I never go to church. I’ve never prayed. I’ve not been Christened, yet. So, when I began my novel Quarantine (which retells the story of Christ's forty days of temptation in the wilderness) I expected – indeed, intended – to inflict some bruises on religious dogma. An easy target, I thought. Christendom has never been in such an undernourished and diminished state. Every week the godless mechanics of the universe, from Big Bang to the tiny chemical percussions of the brain, are revealed in finer detail. Meanwhile, with two thousand years in which to collect its evidence, the church – no longer able to claim that Earth and all its creatures have come ready-made from God’s Creation Workshop, or that thunder is really the Almighty stamping with displeasure at our sins – has been reduced to ritual and display. Plenty of incense smoke, but no divine cigar.
Now here's quantum physicist and bongo-player Richard Feynman highlighting the fundamental difference between the two disciplines:
One of the ways of stopping science would be only to do experiments in the region where you know the law. But experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.
More Feynman here.

Finally, I've seen this attributed to Penn Jillette in various blogs, though I can't find any independent citation for it. Doesn't really matter, though it's certainly consistent with his views:
There is no god, and that's the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing was passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it out again....Evolution is the truth. And with truth comes a lack of panic....The bad guys always have to fight for their ideas to be taught. They must cheat. Government force, propaganda, and hype are the tools you desperately need when you're wrong. Truth abides.
Here's some amusing ranting on the subject of Biblical self-inconsistency from Penn & Teller's Bullshit!. And finally here's a page of links to further amusing video resources in similar vein.

the last book I read

Arcadia by Jim Crace.

Aha! You see the fiendish genius of my master plan? See how I snap my fingers and the world rearranges itself imperceptibly (to you, anyway) to suit my mysterious purpose. No sooner do I casually mention Jim Crace's brilliant novel Quarantine in a blog post than Joan Bakewell invokes it and its author towards the end of a slightly rambling piece for The Independent four days later. Only then, a couple of weeks later, do I reveal that I've been reading another book by the same author all along! See as I cackle maniacally to myself, stroking a white cat while bejewelled flunkeys hasten to do my nefarious bidding.

Enough of this. Victor is a self-made millionaire celebrating his 80th birthday. His fortune derives from running the Soap Market, the central market area in an un-named British city (it's not London as this is mentioned elsewhere; the obvious assumption to make is that it's Crace's home city, Birmingham) at an unspecified date (most reviews say "the near future", but it could equally be a slightly twisted parallel present - it doesn't really matter). Victor decides that he wants to leave a more permanent mark on the world after he dies, and so instigates the construction of a new covered market, Arcadia, on the site of the old Soap Market. Meanwhile various other lives play out in the shadow of these events: Victor's devious ex-right hand man Rook, homeless chancer and petty criminal Joseph, Rook's occasional lover Anna, and the various traders and stallholders who populate the market.

The market setting gives Crace free rein to indulge one of his main passions: writing about food. So there's much description of "the waxen probity of lettuces", "the seductive, bitter alchemy of quinces", that sort of thing. There's even more of it in his later book The Devil's Larder, and he even manages to sneak some juicy prose about eating dates into the blasted desert setting of Quarantine.

Glorious prose aside, what's less clear is what the novel is actually about. It's something like: the desire to leave a mark after one's death, the conflict between the city and the countryside and the city-dweller's naive romantic yearnings for the supposed simplicity and purity of rural life, the impossibility of corralling and regulating human endeavour and enterprise, or any combination of the above.

It's good. But it's not as good as Quarantine or Being Dead. Start with one of those.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

this blog is different gravy

Here's a little linguistic oddity for you: when did the phrase "different class" become an adjective in its own right, as if it were one word? I was reading Brian Viner's interview with Ricky Hatton in The Independent the other day, and Hatton used it to describe fellow boxer Joe Calzaghe:
I don't think you'll find better fighters than me and Joe anywhere, and I can't speak more highly of him. He's different class.
There are any number of other examples to be found - here's jockey Jim Culloty about the late racehorse Best Mate:
But after I got over the second last I said right go. He is absolutely different class, you could go down to a fence with your eyes closed.
Peter Beardsley (another Brian Viner interview, strangely) on his mentor Kevin Keegan:
He's different class....He's great with my kids, takes them out on quad bikes and that. The man's just different class.
Aston Villa goalkeeper Scott Carson on manager Martin O'Neill:
Martin O'Neill has been different class since I have been at Aston Villa.
Finally, Bolton Wanderers captain Kevin Nolan on goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen:
I make no secret of the fact that I think he is the best keeper in the Premiership, if not the world. He is a fantastic goalie and a wonderful professional - his attitude to training is different class and reflected in his performances.
Later in the same article Nolan makes his own bid for a sporting neologism when he refers to Ryan Giggs as "different gravy". Well, it might catch on.

In each case strict grammatical correctness would seem to require the addition if the words "in a" before "different class". Note that these are all sporting references, and I suspect that's no coincidence. Sporting journalism has its own unique lexicon - you can file "different class" in this context along with "over the moon", "110 percent", "back of the net", "sick as a parrot", etc.

Friday, December 07, 2007

watch as I get the horn

I beg your indulgence for another strange transgeneric synaptic brainflash; don't worry, I'll keep it brief. There's an article in the Arts supplement in today's Independent about Mark Wallinger, recent winner of the 2007 Turner Prize, and it comes with a large picture of his 2001 work Ghost, which is essentially a photograph of a dark-coloured horse with a narwhal tusk pasted onto its head and then the whole thing flipped into negative, so that it appears to be a white unicorn. Just some fairly low-grade Photoshopping, you might argue, and you might be right, but the final image is quite arresting, I think.

Anyway, probably because of my ramblings about Alan Garner's books in my earlier post, I was instantly reminded of Findhorn, the unicorn that appears fleetingly in Garner's Elidor - the first of his books I ever read, and, as always, heavily influenced by myth and folk-tales, mainly English and Irish in this case. And, I suppose, Scottish, as that's where Findhorn (the place) is. I suppose the "horn" bit was a bit of a temptation when picking a name for a unicorn.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

there is no chin under Chuck Norris' beard; there is only another fist

The faith-heads really are getting their cassocks in a twist about The Golden Compass. Not only are The Catholic League (I think that's the one below the Unibond League, isn't it? So Brigg Town and Radcliffe Borough could find themselves there next season) unhappy, certain gibbering lunatics over on Fox News are unhappy but, far more importantly, Chuck Norris isn't happy. The Chuck Norris! And when Chuck gets angry, well, bad things happen.

Monday, December 03, 2007

anti-God, but pro-armoured polar bears. what's not to like?

Much highly amusing furore over the impending release of the Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass - mainly in relation to its being supposedly an atheist tract liable to corrupt a whole generation into godless anarchy, whereupon they will run amok flaying each other with machetes and raping each others' eye sockets, or something like that.

My completely uninformed view (as I haven't read any of the books) is this: Pullman is fairly unabashed about the books' anti-religious viewpoint (and why shouldn't he be?), and I suspect if I was a 12-year-old I would find these to be a great deal more interesting than the Harry Potter series. But they are still children's books. Let's retain a bit of perspective here. I might despise you slightly less if I spot you, as an adult, reading one of these on the bus (i.e. compared to a Potter), but I will still despise you. So be warned.

On a similar subject, I note with a sort of appalled resignation the recent film adaptation of Susan Cooper's classic The Dark Is Rising sequence - this really is a classic work of children's fantasy literature, a rich blend of Celtic and Arthurian legend. I'm not saying the film is bound to be crap, but I'm slightly troubled by the fact that they've felt the need to make the central protagonist Will Stanton American, for no readily apparent reason. I wouldn't be totally surprised if he cracked out the Uzi 9-millimetre and started wasting people in the second half of the film.

Even better is Alan Garner's Weirdstone Of Brisingamen (referenced in an earlier post) which, coincidentally, was dramatised (along with its sequel The Moon of Gomrath) on the radio recently. This, by contrast, is heavily influenced by Norse legends. If I ever have kids, they'll be getting this to read, and they'd better be grateful, the little bastards.

album of the day

The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips.

A bit of a parallel with my earlier Grateful Dead review here: band renowned for herculean drug intake and wildly ambitious but essentially unlistenable sonic experimentation (in this case their previous 4-disc album Zaireeka, which was designed to be listened to on four different stereo systems simultaneously. Well, of course) kick back, sober up a bit, get it together and release an album full of short punchy songs and wide-eyed charm.

Not that they've left the weirdness completely behind - the lyrical concerns are still pretty non-standard right from the opening Race For The Prize, and it's mixed somewhat weirdly - the drums are oddly splashy, echoey and trebly, as if they'd been recorded in someone's garage (and maybe they were?). But mainly the focus is on Wayne Coyne's reedy Neil Young-ish vocals and some great songs: Race For The Prize, A Spoonful Weighs A Ton, Waitin' For A Superman and the joyous closing track Buggin' being the pick of the bunch.

The follow-up albums Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and At War With The Mystics are the ones that really put them on the map commercially, and they're great, but this is The One.

monkey, nuts, etc. - this stuff pretty much writes itself

Ordinarily I don't lower myself to showbiz gossip, but I see that singer, guitarist and all-round spotty little herbert Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys is "dating" (that's a showbiz media term meaning "rogering") TV presenter Alexa Chung, who is very attractive, though a couple of good solid roast dinners wouldn't do her any harm. I wonder if they'll have fun tonight? And, furthermore, if he'll Wang Chung tonight? I know I would.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

further onanism

Inspired by the Jack Vance title in the previous post I offer you this amusing photograph taken at Harare airport in February 2000 as Mario (pictured) and I were about to catch a plane back to Britain.

Amusingly, or perhaps sadly, in this age of instant international communication and mass media such linguistic fnarr-fnarr moments are less and less likely to occur. Wankie National Park has now been renamed, almost certainly to avoid ignorant tourists disturbing the peace with their constant sniggering. And in fact later editions of the Jack Vance book changed Wankh to Wannek throughout, to the hilariously pompous indignation of some fans. Wankhers!

it's hard to hold a book in these hairy palms

Another amusing Cracked.com list is this one: the (depending on your point of view) best/worst science fiction and fantasy book covers. In most cases it's the cover illustration that's the amusing bit, but not with the one displayed here.....

I used to read quite a bit of science fiction, but fantasy is a genre that I've hardly read at all. I mean, I've read Lord Of The Rings (then again who hasn't?), but I never felt the urge to dive into the whole David Eddings sword and dragons epic saga business. Maybe I'm missing out; I mean, some of the covers are pretty hilarious. And anything featuring Raven, Swordsmistress Of Chaos is OK with me, assuming that's her arse prominently displayed on the cover.

The best I can find among my book collection are these, which I offer for your entertainment:

1) Maia by Richard Adams. Yes, that's right, the same guy who wrote Watership Down. This probably does fall squarely within the fantasy genre, though I reckon it's probably a bit better-written than most, and there is quite a lot of sex in it, in contrast to most fantasy fiction which I suspect is targeted at an audience of early-teens boys who haven't discovered girls yet and would find that sort of thing a bit icky, and prefer a good healthy dose of slaughtering instead. Good cover, though, depicting as it does Occula and Maia, the novel's two main protagonists, standing around in a desert showing a bit of leg in swirly dresses. That's right, they're ladies. With breasts and everything.

2) Friday by Robert A Heinlein. This is most definitely science fiction, but the main protagonist is, again, a lady. And one with a bit of a penchant for metal bra-and-pants combos, it would appear, worn over the clothing. Good book, though.

3) Ubik by Philip K Dick. This is a bit of a stretch, as I'm only 90% sure that is a woman on the front cover. If it is she's got the same fetish for slightly skimpy metal clothing, though, with the added bonus that you can't see anything below the shoulders, so you can make the rest of it up yourself to fit in with whatever depraved fantasy you like. A titanium thong? A molybdenum miniskirt? A neodymium negligee?

You won't get any clues from reading the book as nothing as orthodoxly sci-fi-esque as this scene (with rockets & launch-pads, etc.) features (as far as I can remember anyway) - instead it's the usual Dickian mindfuck of overlapping alternative realities, time running backwards, bizarre drugs, etc. And very good it is too.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

God says some cold-blooded shit before popping a cap in yo ass

You thought the Bible was all about loving thy neighbour and turning the other cheek, didn't you? Well, even leaving aside the fact that those two activities (especially when juxtaposed like that) sound just a little bit gay (never mind that business about coveting thy neighbour's ass), you're reckoning without the big bad gnarly Old Testament.

Forget those touchy-feely long-haired girly men (Jesus, this means you), the Old Testament kicks ass. Ezekiel 25:17 be damned, the Old Testament God will get properly mediaeval on yo ass.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

oh Christ

It'll be December on Saturday, so I think even the most bah-humbug of us may have to concede that Christmas is on the way. So, just to get you in the mood, here's a couple of photos taken at Winter Wonderland in central Cardiff last night.



Monday, November 26, 2007

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Another sporting one: ex-Welsh football international, ex-manager of Fulham and very possibly soon to be ex-manager of Real Sociedad Chris Coleman, and ex-New Zealand cricket captain Stephen Fleming.

let's get demotivated

Christmas is coming up, and you'll be wanting some present ideas. If you're not keen on the standard motivational calendars, try making your own de-motivational one from some of the designs available here.

Even better than that, you can knock up your own designs using these templates. So you can produce all manner of designs tailored to your own squalid inadequacy and failure. Great!


that's novel!

My linking in my previous post to my earlier Sufjan Stevens album review reminds me that I alluded in it to certain songs reminding me of the novels of Douglas Coupland and Dave Eggers. I was reminded of a couple of others yesterday:
  • Massive Attack's Teardrop always reminds me of Jeff Noon's cyberpunk-y classic Vurt. It's the line where Liz Fraser warbles mysteriously about "feathers on my breath" that does it.
  • Mark Lanegan's No Easy Action (from his best solo album Field Songs, coincidentally reviewed in the same post as the Sufjan Stevens album linked above) with its swirling Middle Eastern backing and his gravelly rumbling about "I stagger in a daze outside my tent" always puts me in mind of Jim Crace's Quarantine.
It's a sort of musico-literary synaesthesia. A bit less spectacular than the real thing, I'll grant you, but there you are.

sporting malapropism of the week

Carlton Palmer on the BBC's Final Score on Saturday afternoon, talking about Everton's drubbing of Sunderland, and the trying afternoon endured by keeper Craig Gordon:
The keeper's had an absolute....holocaust....out there
Interesting. I assume that word just popped into his head as a synonym for "nightmare" or something. Although if Gordon had been conducting some sort of genocidal atrocity during the game that might account for his attention wandering a bit.

Another interesting one is the use of "horror show" in the same context, i.e. synonymous with "nightmare". The interesting bit is that it's a phrase made famous by Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange (and Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation), as part of the invented slang language Nadsat, but it was used to mean "good" rather than "bad" (like most Nadsat words it's an Anglicised version of a Russian word), i.e. precisely the opposite of its intended meaning by the sporting pundits.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

albums of the day

Era Vulgaris by Queens Of The Stone Age.

I reckon Josh Homme is a pretty smart bloke. In music as in other things, dumb isn't much fun, but knowingly dumb is. And while hard rock is, as a rule, pretty po-faced and self-important, QOTSA clearly have a fairly well-developed sense of their own ludicrousness, something that would have prevented Axl Rose and David Coverdale, to name but two, from being such complete berks.

Having duly bigged QOTSA up I now feel obliged to tell you, to restore the delicate balance of the Force, that this, their most recent album, isn't their best.

Their previous album Lullabies To Paralyze was a stylistic mish-mash, everything from fairly poppy stuff like I Never Came and In My Head to the turbocharged rifferama of The Blood Is Love and Someone's In The Wolf (plus some amusing Blair Witch pagan/Satanic imagery in the artwork just to wind up the nation's moral guardians). This one, by contrast, has a much more heavy, muddy, industrial sound which pretty much doesn't let up for the whole album. When it's used in the service of a decent song, like the opener Turning On The Screw with its relentless two-note fire-engine riff, or the single 3's & 7's it's fine, but there isn't much light and shade, apart from Make It Wit Chu which, slightly bizarrely, sounds a bit like Brass In Pocket by The Pretenders.

In the end, as always, it's down to the quality of the songs, and despite some enjoyably gonzoid moments like Misfit Love and Battery Acid these just aren't quite up to the standard of the three previous QOTSA albums Lullabies To Paralyze, Songs For The Deaf and Rated R. Any of those would probably be a better place for the uninitiated to start. Or have a look at this acoustic yet rockin' performance of Hangin' Tree featuring an authentically terrifying undead vocal performance from the legendary Mark Lanegan.

The Avalanche by Sufjan Stevens.

You've just released one of the most critically-lauded albums of 2005 (Come On Feel The Illinoise!), and you've announced that it and its 2003 predecessor Greetings From Michigan will form the first two parts of a somewhat ambitious scheme to release an album for each of the 50 US states. So what do you do next? If you're sensible, crack on with some haste, as your current every-two-years release schedule will see you complete the set in 2101 at the age of 126.

But no. What Stevens actually did was knock together an album of out-takes, discarded songs and general odds and ends from the recording of Illinois and release it as an album in its own right (this one). Er, and then crack on and pick another state, right? Well, actually, no. What he actually did was release a 5-CD box set of Christmas-related songs. As you do.

Anyway, back to The Avalanche. This could have been horrible: Illinois was finely balanced on the edge of self-indulgent whimsy, and reading the track listing reveals that there are no less than three "alternate" versions of its centrepiece Chicago - a great song, but still, too much of a good thing and all that.

As it happens, though, this is great. There's nothing as brilliant as Decatur or Casimir Pulaski Day here, and the right version of Chicago was undoubtedly picked for the main album, but the standard is remarkably high considering there's a total of 43 songs on the two albums. It's the quieter banjo- and acoustic guitar-based stuff like Saul Bellow, The Pick-Up and Pittsfield that does it for me, but the more baroque stuff like Adlai Stevenson is fine too. A few of the atonal instrumentals can be safely skipped over, though.

Now get on and do another state.