Wednesday, October 31, 2007

we're all doomed, I tell ye!

Funny how some stuff leads you on to thinking about other stuff. Isn't it? I'm sure Alexander Pope must have coughed up a few similar bons mots on the subject. Just to digress for a moment: Dave's Rule Of Famous Quotations states that if you've got one which you don't know the origin of, since 99% of famous quotes originate from either Pope or Shakespeare, toss a coin and pick one and you've a good chance of being right.

To un-digress again: I was reading an interesting article by the always perspicacious John Lanchester in the London Review Of Books which delves into some of the murky politics behind global warming aka climate change, and the motives of the denialists in particular. The brief follow-up article touches on the furore surrounding Channel 4's The Great Global Warming Swindle, for which I trust Channel 4 are suitably embarrassed (as are those who brought it up as a sensible contribution to the "debate" in the slightly rabid comment thread attached to my previous post which touched on a similar subject). He provides quite a good pithy litmus test for a proper, meaningful climate-related government policy (something we haven't, by the terms of this test anyway, seen yet) during the course of the second article: "something that pisses somebody off".

I'm not really here to get into an argument about climate change - arguing with someone over whether or not it's happening is very dull and depressing, arguing over what can be done is slightly more interesting - but one of the defining features of all complex systems, and one which undoubtedly has been a factor on this planet in the past, is for small perturbations of a seemingly stable system to result, via complex and ill-understood feedback mechanisms, in sudden, catastrophic changes. The whole business of Arctic sea ice levels and albedo is a pretty obvious example, and one which leads me, tangentially, to the slightly more general (i.e. than the one about quotations earlier) Dave's Fundamental Rule Of Everything, which goes like this: however much you think you know about anything, It's Always More Complex Than You Think.

"Albedo" is an interesting word (just to digress again for a second). Sounds a bit like "albumen" (and this is no coincidence as they both derive from the Latin albus meaning white) and at the same time a bit like "libido". This puts me in mind of, well, some stuff I won't share with you. Suffice it to say you wouldn't want to eat the eggs afterwards.

The global warming/feedback/sudden catastrophic change thing was put into my head this morning by reading an article in The Independent regarding the latest on the apparently suspect Mosul Dam in Iraq. The attitude of those who have a powerful interest in the status quo (the Iraqi Government) and in avoiding both losing face to the foreign occupiers and spending vast sums of money on repair work is, hardly surprisingly: well, it was OK yesterday and it's OK today, so it'll be OK tomorrow. Which is probably true - today - but keep saying it and one day you will be disastrously, catastrophically wrong.

Those responsible for the Banqiao Dam in China could perhaps argue they couldn't have foreseen a typhoon landing on them, but those responsible for the spectacular Vajont Dam in Italy had no such excuse, just poor geological surveying and a desire to sell the whole concern on to private enterprise for a big wedge generating a fatal inaction in the hope everything would be all right. Needless to say it wasn't.

I trust the parallels don't need spelling out.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

the last book I read

Vertigo by WG Sebald.

For all the rich variety of novels out there, long, short, funny, sad, etc. etc., they generally adhere to a broad pattern: some characters get introduced, some stuff happens to them, some more stuff happens to them, in some cases just because it's exciting and funny, or sexy, or whatever, in other cases to reveal a few deeper truths about the human condition, yadda yadda yadda, the end.

For all the various and considerable merits of the books I've read and posted thoughts on here over the past year and a bit, most of them can be described in those terms because, well, that's what novels do. Very few authors are unmistakably and uncategorisably sui generis. WG Sebald is one.

You can tell this by looking at the categorisation of the book on the back cover: it's recommended you file this under FICTION/TRAVEL/HISTORY. So if even his publisher didn't know what to call it, what chance has the reader got?

On the face of it, this and the other Sebald I've read (The Rings Of Saturn) are ostensibly the story of some random wanderings by an un-named narrator (though the first-person style invites us to assume it's one WG Sebald, or a thinly fictionalised alter ego thereof) around Europe (Italy, Austria, Switzerland and eventually Germany in Vertigo, East Anglia in The Rings Of Saturn), with the various people and places encountered providing a jumping-off point for all manner of Proustian reveries about history and the author's past life and experiences. In the case of Vertigo these are split up by a couple of briefer interludes describing some incidents from the lives of Stendhal and Franz Kafka respectively. Even here Sebald refuses to make any concessions to the reader; the chapter on Stendhal never refers to the author by his famous nom de plume; you have to do the legwork to establish that that's who Marie-Henri Beyle was better known as.

The text is broken up by various black and white images, some obviously related to the text near which they appear, some not. Some of these are Sebald's own photographs, others are old postcards, restaurant receipts, handwritten notes and so forth. All of which, combined with Sebald's own hilariously glum and lugubrious tone when relating his own wanderings (often deeply mundane when you strip away the flights of fancy they provoke; at one stage he spends three days in his hotel room in Venice living on red wine and sandwiches) lends the whole thing a strangely mournful tone.

It's hard to characterise why these books are as weirdly affecting as they are; in the case of Vertigo it's probably as much for what he doesn't include - he returns to the village where he was born in 1944 and relates various stories in which his parents feature, but without mentioning anything about the war - this odd omission of something which must have had a profound effect on his childhood merely throws it into sharper relief.

Sebald spent most of his adult life in England, where he was a lecturer at the University of East Anglia until his untimely death in a car crash in 2001. It would have probably given him a perverse satisfaction to note the strangely Sebaldian juxtaposition of a New York Times interview to promote his last novel Austerlitz, and the recycling of large chunks of that interview in his obituary a mere four days later.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

brill! or possibly cod....

Well, we haven't done one of these for a while, and this really is a contender for the easiest recipe ever. I did it for lunch today and the total preparation time must have totalled, oh, I dunno, a minute and a half, tops. To paraphrase our saviour Jesus Christ: who doesn't like cod in breadcrumbs?

Dave's Fishy Miracle
  • 2 white fish fillets: I've done this with brill and cod before, and today's fish was pollock. Basically any bog-standard white fish will do the job.
  • some cherry tomatoes
  • a pot of crème fraîche
Erm, that's it, really. What you do is: pick out a shallow ovenproof dish, put the fish fillets in it, fill the gaps with cherry tomatoes, slop the crème fraîche over the top, maybe a bit of seasoning (some parsley, perhaps, and a grind or two of black pepper, maybe a splash of lemon juice), and then whack it in the oven for half an hour or so. Serve with some pasta or something.

Friday, October 26, 2007

I see the joke, but....

....surely that should be Möbius?

or, to put it another way.... last post in stick-men cartoon form. If you can't read this, click either on the image or in this link to the source material. Then have a browse around - it's all a bit geeky but quite amusing.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

happy birthday, planet Earth!

Actually, I'm a couple of days late with this, but that's pretty much par for the course - I'm rubbish with birthdays.

October 23rd is the Earth's birthday. No, it is! Eminent scientists have calculated the date of creation of the Earth to be October 23rd, 4004 BC, which means that Tuesday was the planet's 6010th birthday - remember there wasn't a year zero, and for the purposes of this calculation we're ignoring the missing 11 days associated with the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

So how did these eminent scientists arrive at the figure above? Well, here's how. Using state-of-the-art scientific techniques, science pioneer James Ussher calculated the date of the Earth's creation by, erm, adding up all the ages of the people in the Old Testament right back to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Simple! And the answer turns out to be October 23rd, 4004 BC.

I could go on. But, in fact, the answer to your question is: yes, this is all barking nonsense. All the available evidence points to the planet being around 4.5 billion years old. So the Young Earth Creationists are out by a factor of merely 748,752. Which is a scale of error rather like me claiming that my cock is 141 miles long.

One shouldn't be too hard on Ussher, though. He actually had to do quite a lot of work cross-referencing the Bible with various other old historical documents. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, he was starting from the wrong place, but believing the Bible unquestioningly in the mid-17th century isn't so surprising. Believing the same stuff today, however, is less excusable. And don't imagine that it's only the fundamentalist whackjobs who believe this stuff. Well, OK, it is, but there's a lot of them, and some of them are extremely rich and influential.

Let me give you a couple of examples: Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis crew, not to mention their shiny new museum. Yes, it's a museum. Of creation. Humans cosying up to dinosaurs, that sort of thing. Their take on the 4004 BC thing can be found here. And then there's Kent Hovind and his Creation Science Evangelism cronies. Kent doesn't see much of his cronies in a social sense these days, because, well, he's IN PRISON. Tax evasion, apparently. Aaah, the irony. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and all that sort of thing.

Anyway, look: it's hard to mock all of this because, paradoxically, it's too easy to mock all of this. The point is that there really ARE some people who believe all this stuff, and, although he doesn't allude to it much in public, it's quite possible that one of them is the current President of the USA.

I say, you fellows....'s a topping jape: collect search strings that Googlise your blog as the top entry on the list.

Obviously extra points are awarded for the comicalness of the juxtaposition of the words in the search string (and for the degree of difficulty involved - obviously the less words in the string, the more difficult it is for your blog to top the list). The Holy Grail would be a Googlewhack involving your own blog, but I haven't quite managed that - I have a couple of two-word phrases that return one result, but they fail to qualify on a technicality, sadly (one or both of the words isn't in Google's dictionary).

The strict terms of this particular internet meme say you should list five entries only, but I say bugger it, I'll do as many as I like. Feel free to pick your favourite five if you like. The rules also don't seem to explicitly disallow quoted strings, but this seems like cheating to me, so I haven't done it. Here we go:
Of course the very act of compiling this sort of listing changes the Google profile associated with the phrases in question in a quasi-Heisenbergian kind of way, or at least it will once the Google crawlers pick up this page. Hang on - now I can win for "shat chilly Heisenbergian testicle effluvia" as well. Brilliant!

Monday, October 22, 2007

in other news

Brief round-up of some other random nonsense harvested from the most inaccessible, fluff-filled nooks and crannies of the internet:
  • In English, ignoring spaces, the longest palindrome in Morse code is INTRANSIGENCE (.. -. - .-. .- -. ... .. --. . -. -.-. .)
  • Pierre, South Dakota is the only US state capital that does not share at least one letter with its parent state.
Those two were both from this interesting wordy trivia site. Other sites of interest include Dan's How To Spot A Psychopath site, which features all manner of geeky marvels. Nice to see someone else shares my enthusiasm for Tim Kreider's cartoons, as well.

Footnote to my Kurt Vonnegut book review - for many years the film rights to The Sirens Of Titan were owned by the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, as discussed in this interview.

Finally two bits of cricketing trivia - both slightly spooky coincidences:
  • Legendary Australian batsman and captain Ian Chappell made the 1000th Test century against West Indies in 1968-69. He was eventually out for 165 - the exact same score Charles Bannerman made while compiling the first Test century, in the very first Test of all, 92 years earlier.
  • To commemorate the centenary of that first Test match, a Centenary Test was arranged in 1976-77. The result - Australia won by 45 runs: the exact same result as the first Test a century before. Cue spooky Twilight Zone music.....

album of the day

Live At Massey Hall 1971 by Neil Young.

Part of the massive series of reissues from Young's archives, this is the second album released as a teaser for the gargantuan 8-CD box set. This catches Young at an absolutely pivotal moment in his career - After The Gold Rush had come out the year before and kicked off his solo career after his various successes with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and this tour saw him previewing songs that would appear on Harvest, the 1972 album that briefly made him a global superstar.

It's a sparse acoustic concert, basically just Young accompanying himself on either guitar or piano. Considering the vintage of the recording the sound quality is astonishing; either they wheeled in a high-tech set of kit for the original concert, or they've done a state-of-the-art digital post-production clean-up job, because it's pin-sharp throughout.

As for the songs: in typically perverse style the majority of the songs performed here would have been unfamiliar to the audience at the time, but he was banging them out faster than he could commit them to record - as he himself says in the preamble to Journey Through The Past:
I'm going to sing mostly new songs tonight....I've written so many new ones that I....can't think of anything else to do with 'em other than sing 'em.
A number of the new songs turned up on Harvest, including some gems like Old Man and The Needle And The Damage Done, though no amount of acoustic stripping-down and reinvention can disguise the fact that A Man Needs A Maid is a rotten song, and There's A World isn't much better. A couple of the others sound better in their original studio incarnation: take away the meandering electric guitar excursions from Down By The River and there isn't really much of a song left, and See The Sky About To Rain isn't quite the same without the gorgeous Wurlitzer electric piano accompaniment it came with when it finally saw the light of day on On The Beach in 1974.

Those minor quibbles aside it's straight aces all the way: On The Way Home, Tell Me Why, Journey Through The Past, Helpless, the previously unreleased Bad Fog Of Loneliness, Ohio, I Am A Child. If you want an introduction to Young's acoustic troubadour incarnation, this wouldn't be a bad place to start. The beauty of Young's career, though, is his absolute refusal to do what the public, his fans and the critics might want or expect him to do; Exhibit A in this respect is the dark, noisy, messy album Time Fades Away he released as the follow-up to Harvest, thus quite calculatedly and deliberately alienating his new-found mainstream audience, or, as he put it:
[Harvest] put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.
Young Mark II is the lumberjack-shirt-clad rocker grinding out long, slow, ramshackle rock epics with his legendary backing band Crazy Horse. Here's a good example: Like A Hurricane from Hammersmith Odeon in 1976.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

cheeses H Christ

Our cheese racing exploits in Swanage were of the sadly disappointing variety, caused - I reckon - in the main by the sub-standard quality of the disposable barbecues we used. They were struggling to cook the meat, so there was precious little heat left to incinerate cheese with. In addition to that we'd bought a wide variety of experimental cheese products (as pictured on the left), which may have muddied the cheesy waters a bit.

So it's nice to see that there's some really textbook cheese racing video footage out there on YouTube. Check out some of these:
  • Some crazy Americans in a field - this one is already available directly from the website, I think. Excellent deployment of the official Cheese Racing apron, a bit too much focus on the whooping participants and not enough cheese footage in the early stages, but it gets more cheese-centric after a minute or so. And the interviews with the participants are excellent: "Why do you cheese race, Joanie?" "Because I'm from Wisconsin."
  • Some very good footage, apparently from Manchester. Barbecue looks, if anything, a bit too hot, but there's some textbook inflation, plus some excellent pulsating of the victorious cheese at the end.
  • This is an interesting new departure - cheese racing in a toaster oven. But there's no arguing with the results - and the dramatic music (Phantom Of The Opera, I think) adds an extra frisson of tension to the whole thing.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

the last book I read

The Sirens Of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

It's the 22nd century, and Winston Niles Rumfoord is in a slightly odd position. After flying his private spaceship into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, he - and his dog - have been smeared into a sort of quantum energy wave thing, and materialise in various parts of the universe for the short period when those parts intersect his waveform. One of the consequences of this is that he appears for an hour or so on earth every 59 days; another consequence is that he knows everything that has ever happened or will ever happen. Which is nice.

Malachi Constant is the richest man on Earth. Summoned by Rumfoord's wife Beatrice (at Rumfoord's request) to the latest materialisation, he is sent (or, more accurately, manipulated into going) by Rumfoord on a bizarre series of adventures involving being press-ganged into the Martian army, repeatedly brainwashed, marooned at the bottom of a cave system on Mercury, brought back to Earth briefly and then fired off to Titan to (it transpires) deliver a vital spare part for a stranded alien whose race have been manipulating human history to their own ends.

This was only Vonnegut's second novel (published in 1959) and it's much more orthodox SF (indeed much more orthodox novel-writing, period) than his later stuff. It's all relative though - though this has much less of the authorial intrusions and general smart-arsery that I found slightly trying in later books like Breakfast Of Champions, it's still recognisably Vonnegutesque (to quote Bridget Jones). You'll remember me banging on in similar vein around the time of Vonnegut's death back in April.

What it mostly is, though, is a sneaky attack on organised religion, from the comical randomness of the events described, to Rumfoord's Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, to the whole business with Salo the alien on Titan - if life on Earth is designed and/or manipulated by a higher power, then why does it have to be God? Why not tangerine-coloured space aliens trying to co-ordinate the delivery of an intergalactic head gasket from Kwik-Fit? And then there's this rather lovely quote:
....a Universe composed of one trillionth part matter to one decillion parts black velvet futility.
Its influence on Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy books is obvious, in fact Adams himself said as much in interviews while he was alive.

Only one criticism, really - the quote on the back (also printed, with exactly the same wording, inside the front cover, so it's not a random misprint) reproduced here: doesn't anyone proof-read these things? That would be MeaninglessNESS, presumably. Otherwise, hats off to the Gollancz SF Masterworks series - lots of other good stuff to be found here as well.

and they're stealing our women, as well

Highly amusing and highly predictable outrage over DNA pioneer James Watson's inflammatory remarks on his visit to Britain this week. Which is not to say that I think that he's right to say what he said, just that it's inherently amusing to see the liberal intelligentsia tying themselves up in knots about the whole thing.
[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.
- putting it another way, he said, regarding the hope that everyone was equal:
...people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.
That popping sound you hear is a big squirmy can of worms being opened. So: where to start? Well. What's Watson actually saying? Could it be that IQ testing reveals Africans score consistently lower than white Americans? Well, that's true. And what conclusions do we draw from this? That Africans are less intelligent than white Americans? That depends on what you mean by "intelligence". If you mean "the ability to pass IQ tests" then, yes, OK (the same tests also, interestingly, reveal that Asians score best of all). And to what do we attribute this discrepancy? Obvious environmental factors like upbringing, social factors, education, public health? That seems to be an acceptable conclusion to draw. Do we attribute it to a possible difference in genetic make-up between white Americans and Africans? That seems to be the point at which the racism alarm goes off all over the shop.

On the other hand, is it racist to claim that there is, say, a higher incidence of, say, Tay-Sachs Disease among Ashkenazi Jews, or of Gaucher's Disease among Norrbottnian Swedes? Or of, closer to home as regards this discussion, sickle-cell anaemia among sub-Saharan Africans? Because, in all cases, there is. And, in all cases, it's those bad old genes that are to blame.

The point is, there is no such thing as racism in science. This is what's so great about it. There is only truth; there are only hypotheses which turn out to be true, and hypotheses which turn out to be false. If it turned out that black Africans were genetically inclined to be less intelligent than white Americans, and there was conclusive scientific proof of this, we would be obliged to swallow it and adjust our worldview accordingly, regardless of the fact that, rather inconveniently, it happened to tally with what groups like the KKK were saying all along.

As it happens, no such evidence exists. And, to be fair, Watson didn't seem to be specifically saying that there was a genetic component to it, though the second part of his remarks seems less defensible. Not least because you need, in addition to defining "intelligence" a bit earlier, to define "black", and defining race in scientific terms is trickier than it might sound - the genetic lines don't match up to what you might call perceived ethnicity as closely as you might imagine.

Christ, I'm rambling a bit. I think what I'm saying is that Watson's remarks are profoundly stupid, but we should condemn him not for being racist (because I'm not sure that you can draw that conclusion from his remarks, tempting as it might be), but for being intellectually lazy and just wrong. That's a proper scientific judgment, right there.

Friday, October 19, 2007

big AND clever: conclusive proof

Here's an interesting article about swearing by psychologist Steven Pinker in The New Republic. Longish but well worth a read. And there's lots of swearing in it! Contrast it, if you like, with George Carlin's views in my previous post.

Another lookey-likey sprang to mind while I was writing that: the aforementioned Steven Pinker and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. I think it's mainly the hair, to be honest. See what you think:

they're everywhere!

Follow-up on a couple of previous posts:

Firstly my post about the various Lounges around Bristol: I missed a couple of Bristol ones; firstly the original Lounge in Bedminster, and secondly the Banco Lounge in Totterdown. Since posting there have been a few new ones (following my shrewd prognostications about "future expansion"): the Velo Lounge in Bath, the Juno Lounge in Cardiff and the excitingly named TBC Lounge in Penarth (opening early 2008, by which time they'll presumably have thought of a name for it).

Secondly, my much more recent post describing my thrilling near-meeting with Robert Glenister in Sainsbury's. A couple of other thrilling celebrity encounters from my years in Bristol:
  • I once gave directions to the Bristol Old Vic to DS Jo Morgan from The Bill, shortly after she was gunned down and killed in the line of duty.
  • Me and my old friend Jonny stood next to The Sundays at the bar in the Highbury Vaults. I very foolishly said to Jonny something like "don't look now, but that's The Sundays over there", which needless to say (certainly needless if you know Jonny at all) prompted much conspicuous meerkat-esque looking around and shouting "where? where?", all slightly embarrassingly. Harriet Wheeler has a weirdly enormous head, incidentally.
  • I'm pretty sure I passed Kathy Sykes (that's Professor Kathy Sykes to you) on Blackboy Hill a couple of weeks ago. And she gave me a rather lovely smile, which was nice.
  • I once sat opposite Derek Thompson aka Charlie Fairhead from Casualty on a British Airways flight from Glasgow to Bristol.
  • Sticking with the Casualty theme, I also once arrived back at Bristol Temple Meads on a train to find all the station signs had been covered up, slightly confusingly, by ones saying "Holby Central". No sign of any camera crews, but they must presumably have just finished filming.
  • Still sticking with the Casualty theme, I once queued up behind Christine Stephen-Daly aka Lara Stone from Casualty in Somerfield on St. Michael's Hill. Strangely enough we were both buying toilet rolls, though I couldn't think of an opening conversational gambit to take advantage of this. Something along the lines of "Aha! I see you.....go to the toilet as well. We've got so much in common!" perhaps. Perhaps not.
Lastly, relating to the same post and the brief mention of Hustle: it's diverting enough entertainment, but if you want proper brain-scrambling twisty-turniness on the subject of confidence trickery and the "long con" in particular, then you should watch David Mamet's House Of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. And they don't do the annoying thing that Hustle does of trying to make you like the con artists, or give them some self-justifying back-story. They're criminals. Deal with it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

my brain! it's melting....

We went to a pub (the Royal Oak on the road back into Swanage) after our Sunday fishing exploits, and there was a bloke in the pub who spotted the fishing rods and engaged us in conversation - solely, it turned out, to regale us with tales of his own carp-wrangling exploits in a local lake. He'd had a 25-pounder, a 23-pounder, a couple of 18-pounders, and, well, you get the idea.

I was not the only one to be reminded of Paul Whitehouse's Fast Show pub bore character (not the frizzy-haired "hold the bells" bloke, that was Simon Day): "...hardest game in the world, the old fishing game". Apparently he was called Archie, though I don't think it was ever mentioned in the programme.

Aaaaaaanyway, the reason I mention all this is that I Googled "hardest game in the world" and came up with, among other things, this online brain-teasing puzzle thingy. Have a go, but be prepared for your head to hurt. And you'll need some time, unless you're some sort of genius.

Swanage day 3: Sunday

Well, it's late so I'll keep this brief - Sunday usually involves going for a healthy walk somewhere before segue-ing into a slightly more leisurely and less poisonous pub excursion than on the previous day.

So we set out along the coast path westwards past Dancing Ledge to Winspit, where Andy and Robin got their tackle out. Fishing tackle, that is. We'd forgotten to bring any bait so we had to hunt around for some limpets, and luckily we found a couple of whoppers - a bit of frenzied gouging and slicing later and we were sorted for bait.

Frankly I was somewhat sceptical about the likelihood of catching anything, apart from maybe pneumonia, but after a long fruitless (and indeed fishless) start we caught three medium-sized wrasse within the space of about ten minutes.

I'd never been directly involved in the transition from live wriggling fish to beautifully prepared Filet-O-Wrasse before, but actually it's quite simple, as long as you're not at all squeamish. Just give it a quick bash on the back of the neck with a heavy rock. slit it open, scoop all the internal goop out into a convenient rock pool (on no account fill your Thermos from this pool afterwards) and then cut its head off. My Dartmoor knife was ideal for this sort of work. For larger specimens like, say, tuna, or whale sharks, I might have to deploy the axe instead.

Internet opinion seems divided to say the least on the edibility of wrasse, but we chucked them on the barbecue with a couple of slices of lemon from the corner shop and a sprig of rosemary harvested from someone's garden hedge on the way home, and it was really quite nice. I reckon the cat piss on the rosemary cancelled out the raw sewage in the fish.

Anyway, the full series of pictures from the weekend is now up on the gallery, as are some photos from a trip to Reading last weekend. Most of these are from a walk round the Warburg Nature Reserve - Doug has more info over at Blue-Grey.

celebrity encounter of the day

Robert Glenister at the next checkout in Sainsbury's at Clifton Down. Maybe they're filming Hustle in Bristol or something. Didn't run into Robert Vaughn in the pizza aisle though.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

anyone hungry?

Well, you may not be after reading this interesting article. Maggot-infested cheese anyone?

There's a couple more which may be of interest as well - think of them as possible accompaniments to the stuff the guy at Weird Meat eats. "Hermaphrodite frog guts" is the latest one, if you're interested. Get a load of these:
  • Surströmming - yes, it's those crazy Scandinavians and their fish-fermenting antics again. These are herring.
  • Sannakji - more seafood, this time baby octopus from Korea. Chopped up and stuck in a bowl, still twitching, and then dunked in a bit of sauce and eaten. Check out these videos.
  • Ortolan - cute little birdies. Look at their pretty yellow feathers. Then - as the French do - catch one, take it home, poke out its eyes, force-feed it, drown it in armagnac, and then eat it. Whole. Technically this is just a little bit illegal these days, but the French still do it. Oh, and so does Jeremy Clarkson.
  • Huitlacoche - what's for tea, ma? Why, it's hideously infected fungally tumourous sweetcorn, little Johnny - your favourite. You can gnaw it directly off the plant, or you can get it in tins down your local Mexican supermarket. Great!
After all that, I could do with a nice cup of coffee. Ideally one made with beans that have been eaten and then shat out by a small tree-climbing mammal. Mmmmm.

Friday, October 12, 2007

the last book I read

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes.

Chester Himes had a long and distinguished career as a writer of hard-boiled detective novels set in and around Harlem, New York, including the source material for the 1991 film A Rage In Harlem, but he also wrote plenty of non-genre fiction, including this, his first and most famous novel, originally published in 1945.

So: Bob Jones is a bright, well-educated black man employed as a shipyard worker in Los Angeles during World War II. On the face of it he seems to have a lot going for him: a beautiful girlfriend, some money to spend, a cool car, and on top of that he's just been promoted to foreman at the shipyard, at the time an unusual position for a black man.

But over the course of the book (which is compressed into a period of just four days) the casual racism of Bob's white colleagues and superiors, the chicanery of those seeking to use the circumstances of the war for their own political ends, and Bob's own frustration, aggression, sexual incontinence and intolerance conspire to bring about his downfall. Firstly he gets demoted for cursing at a white woman who refused to take orders from him, then it becomes apparent that his promotion might have been politically motivated in the first place, and finally he gets involved with an altercation with the female worker who cost him his promotion which results in an accusation of rape.

Bob isn't an especially sympathetic or likeable character, but that's obviously intentional - there are a couple of lengthy conversations between Bob and his girlfriend Alice which illustrate the two sides of the argument: a polite request for more civil rights to be granted (Alice the well-integrated Negro) against grabbing society by the throat and shaking it until it gives you what you want (Bob the uppity nigger). Bob's (short-lived) promotion illustrates the problem: this was a time when some civil rights concessions had been made, but the expectation among the white majority was that the black community would be grateful for what they'd been given and shut up about it.

It's clearly semi-autobiographical, as many first novels are, and it's a bit clunky in places - Alice for one seems only to exist as a source of exposition on race relations - but it's pretty brutally compelling nevertheless. It struck me as quite similar in a lot of ways to Thomas Keneally's The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith, and also to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart; all three feature a character brought low not just by oppression and discrimination but by his own aggression and refusal to bend and compromise. The general air of feverish wartime racial paranoia in the USA is also reminiscent of David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars, though that focused specifically on the Japanese community.

A somewhat lengthy analysis of the novel and the wider issues of wartime racism is here, if you want it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

that turbo cocktail recipe in full

We drank these on Sunday evening. A fuller run-down of Sunday's activities will follow, but try a few of these while you're waiting:

  • 1 part homemade damson gin
  • 1 part Jägermeister
  • 2 parts Red Bull or some other taurine/caffeine sugary energy drink - we used Tesco's Kick which tastes pretty similar to Red Bull to me.
The result tastes not unlike alcoholic Benylin cough medicine, possibly with a dash of Ribena added. It's like medicine, only it makes you worse.

Note that the bottle of HP Spicy Woodsmoke Flavour BBQ Sauce in the picture is not one of the ingredients. Electric Halibut accepts no responsibility for injuries sustained after drinking cocktails with HP Sauce in them. On the other hand, if it's delicious, let me know.

that golf scorecard in full

Full details of the 2007 Swanage Pitch & Putt While Slightly Hungover And Supping From A Can Of Wife-Beater Open are below (click on the image for a bigger version):

And yes, I know I put the overall totals in the "Total Out" boxes. For comparison purposes last year's scorecard is below. Note that a) the scores and result are exactly the reverse of this year - the pupil has become the master! and also that b) Andy's commentary on Richard's 2nd hole birdie was prompted by Richard hammering a putt from off the green into the flagstick at approximately Mach 3 and seeing it drop like a stone into the hole. That's golf, folks.

recent visitors - scum, mainly

The more observant of you will have noticed the little web counter at the top right of the page - and also that the page now takes slightly longer to load. Sorry about that, but it's because I've installed some software from StatCounter which logs visitor activity, including where they came from. And this is all quite interesting when you look at the "Keyword Analysis" to see what people have been putting into search engines to end up here. Top answers include:

some combination of "muddy funster" / "harry enfield muddy funster" / "muddy funster enfield" leading to this post
"david skrela's wife's name" - absolutely no idea how this one found it's way in; presumably to one of these two rugby-related posts
"willard price clam death" leading to my tangentially whaling-related post here
"terry eagleton dawkins hensher" leading inexorably towards yesterday's rantings
"victoria coren posh totty" leading to my feverish pantings here
"kate ashfield" - leading to my mildly feverish pantings here
"saxondale incidental music" - clearly someone who didn't recognise Hocus Pocus by Focus
"j.p.chenet world cup merlot 1997" - no idea what this person was looking for, but they found this bizarre rant about funny-shaped wine bottles

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Swanage Day 2: Saturday

Swanage Saturday is about three things: playing golf, going on a pub crawl, and eating charred meat out of white bread buns while sitting in the dark wearing a head torch. It's also about starting the day with a nutritious full English breakfast washed down with a can of Stella.


Fortified by this we walk the mile or so to the lavishly appointed Kirkwood Park pitch & putt course - 1058 of the Queen's yards of pure golfing majesty. And graced, on this occasion, by one of the greatest rounds of golf ever played. I refer to none other than my own calm, precise yet swaggeringly virile and masculine 64, good enough to win by four shots from Andy's workmanlike, worthy but ultimately utterly inadequate 68. By the end he was a broken man, ruthlessly impaled and run through by the rapier of my own pitiless genius.

And so begins the legendary Swanage pub crawl. I haven't collated the photos as yet so that link will have to wait, but here's a summary:


Formerly The Peverill, and since subject to a not entirely welcome makeover, this is now a sort of up-market sports bar. Which was quite handy, as it happens, because we were there just in time to catch the end of the England-Australia rugby World Cup semi-final, drink a couple of pints of Grolsch, play a couple of games of pool, and move on. To....

The White Horse

A nondescript sort of place, formerly a bit of a lottery beer-wise but now serving some quite good Ringwood Best and Fortyniner - Ringwood seem to be making a bit of a push into Dorset, and a good thing too, I say. Just the one here and then we moved on to....

The Purbeck

Home of the legendary test-tube rack of Jägermeister, as well as very good London Pride (both pictured), as well as more pool. They also have an intriguing bit of above-the-urinal reading in the gents' - tune in for the photo link later to see what I mean.

Then on to the gruelling and physically demanding middle section of the crawl, and where we usually lose track, in later recollection, of exactly what pubs we went to and in which order. Well, not any more. Photographic evidence reveals the truth, and it goes something like this....

The Ship

This place has gone a little up-market as well, since we first came here - they've gone all gastro-pubby on our ass, as well as getting rid of the dartboard. It's also had a bit of a beer rethink - it used to serve some slightly ropey local Dorset brew, but it's gone all Ringwood as well. I had a pint of Huffkin, and very nice too.

The White Swan

This illustrates nicely the benefits of real ale consumption - leave aside the sculpted physique, manly musky odour and uncanny attractiveness to the ladies, what drinking proper beer also does for you is allow you to enjoy a pint (Ringwood Best again) even when there's a power cut (which there was). Suck it, lagerboy!

The Anchor

Third step in the "difficult" middle section, this one stands out from all the others by virtue of being on the other side of the road. Other than that it's not especially memorable. More Ringwood I think.

The Red Lion

This was always the banker location as far as getting in a decent game of arrers was concerned. That may still be the case, but on this particular occasion things had been moved around somewhat to accommodate some artists performing as part of the Swanage Blues & Roots Festival. Which was all fine; we were in no fit state to object (let alone chuck darts) by this point anyway. Very nice Timothy Taylor's Landlord as well.

The Black Swan

Phew. Last one. More blues action here, though a bit of disappointment on the beer front. Normally they do very good Shepherd Neame Spitfire, but by the time we got there they'd run out of, well, pretty much everything. So Guinness it was.

The point, in retrospect, is that all of these pubs are within about a mile of each other. So there's no wasting time with too much walking about between pubs, and more quality time sitting around drinking and talking bollocks.

And so to bed. No, hang on, there was a barbecue to be had yet. So we got back to the tent, sparked up the barbies and loaded them up with meat. And I mean a lot of meat (see left). That's what you need (plus bread) when you've got a skinful of ale to soak up.

Swanage Day 1: Friday

Over the years (with a few slight changes in personnel) we've honed the annual Swanage weekend to a pretty fine art. I'll break it up into its constituent days so as not to make it too indigestible for you.

Friday breaks down like this: we pack up in Bristol and head off in the biggest car we can find (which in this instance was Andy's Subaru Forester), down the A36 and A350 to Blandford Forum, where we ransack the local Tesco's for as much beer and meat as we can fit in the car. Then it's off south again, for the first major attraction of the trip....

The Spetisbury Bumps

Turn right off the A350 in Spetisbury onto the B3075 (signposted to Wareham). Take a right/left chicane across the A31 and carry on down through Morden. Take the left/right chicane across the A35; this brings you onto the road across the nature reserve at Gore Heath. Almost as you pass the first picnic area on the left, the road straightens up into a half-mile stretch of dead-straight undulating road, all dips and humps, like a giant tarmac rollercoaster. At this point, assuming you haven't got someone crawling along looking for a picnic spot in front of you, you floor it and fire off the top of the bumps as fast as you dare with a large 4x4 estate car full of fat blokes and lager. Actually taking off is the thing to aim for here, ideally without removing the entire underside of the car when you land.

Once you reach the crest of the final bump you're nearly in Wareham. From there we branch off to Worth Matravers and the next attraction....

The Square and Compass

There is a Facebook group called "Is the Square And Compass the best pub in Britain?". Now, granted, there's probably a similar group for a number of other pubs, some pretty undeserving, but I can see where they're coming from here. The first time I came here, when I was about 15, it was run by a couple of lavishly bearded elderly brothers, who may very well have been ZZ Top's dads. Apart from the old blokes being gone the place hasn't changed at all. Everything you want in a proper rustic British pub is here - real ale served straight out of the barrel over a little hatch, skull-crushingly low headroom and murky lighting, random dogs sleeping in corners, etc.

After a cheeky pint here we head off into Swanage, book into the campsite at Priest's Way, crack open a couple of tinnies, get the tent up, and then head off down to the first Official Swanage Pub of the weekend....

The Globe

This is the nearest pub to the campsite, so it's ideal for easing into the weekend gently. Very nice Ringwood Best and Fuller's London Pride, and a pool table ideally suited for a pool marathon. At closing time it's a short stumble across the road to the Golden Bengal Indian restaurant to pick up a take-away curry.

so to recap then: wrong and, erm, wrong

Nice to see Philip Hensher standing up for Kingsley Amis in today's Independent after the furore surrounding Terry Eagleton's re-issued book, the introduction of which he uses to have a pop at his new Manchester University colleague Martin Amis and, in slightly less restrained terms (there being no danger of libelling the dead), his father:

a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals
The two books which Hensher uses to illustrate Amis' attitudes to homosexuality happen to be two that I haven't read (The Anti-Death League and The Riverside Villas Murder), and there are so few references to Jews or people of other races in the ones I have read (and it's a considerable number) that I don't feel able to comment.

The much more usual accusation levelled at Amis père is that he was a misogynist, and I must say I've never been able to see this one. There's certainly a very general misanthropy running through Amis' oeuvre, humorously so when skewering 1950s attitudes in the early ones like Lucky Jim or That Uncertain Feeling, and with a more corrosive bitterness in the later ones like Stanley And The Women or The Old Devils, but the men get it just as badly as, if not worse than, the women. Characters like Jenny Bunn in Take a Girl Like You and Difficulties With Girls or Christine in Lucky Jim are much more sympathetic than their male counterparts who are generally pompous drunken buffoons.

None of which is to suggest that Amis was anything other than a cantankerous old git, though, because he clearly was. But, for all that, there's no excuse for anyone not having read Lucky Jim, one of the greatest comic novels ever written. And anyone who's ever woken up suddenly in a strange room with a monstrous hangover will recognise the genius of this excerpt:

"Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad."

Eagleton also produced a famously scathing review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which from line one commits the most fundamental of errors, an error which has also driven a whole fortnight or so of blithering on the Independent letters page (though it's taken until today for someone to invoke the Flying Spaghetti Monster) - PZ Myers calls it The Courtier's Reply. I assume the parallels are obvious.

Friday, October 05, 2007

gentlemen, start your livers

It's nearly time for the yearly trip to Swanage for a weekend of drinking, pitch-and-putt golf and eating semi-cooked meat products (and hopefully some cheese racing). In fact if Andy's on time we should be off in about half an hour (but he probably won't be).

I'll post a more detailed run-down of the weekend's events after I get back, complete with photos and an itinerary of the legendary Swanage Pub Crawl which we'll be doing on Saturday afternoon. One of the reasons for taking the camera is that no-one can ever quite remember, after the event, what the pubs are called or what order they're in (for reasons which I assume are obvious), so the plan is to document things photographically this year so that we, and future generations, will know. Some photos from last year can be found here - the one on the right is the four of us (l-r: Richard, Andy, Robin, me) in the Purbeck, home of fine Fuller's London Pride and test tubes of Jagermeister (I think that's what we're holding in the picture). No, I know, but it always seems like a good idea at the time.

Monday, October 01, 2007

I just felt I had to bring this up

Say what you like about those late-night phone-in word games - like, for instance, they're shit - the Swedish presenter of this particular one showed a certain amount of composure under pressure. Perhaps it's that natural Swedish lack of embarrassment with bodily functions that enables her to say: hey, sorry about that sudden bout of vomiting, folks, but I'm having terrible period pains at the moment.