Tuesday, December 30, 2008

gyz! soft g, obviously

Apologies for all the GPS and trig point ramblings. I do realise it's interesting to just about no-one but me. We now return you to some obscenities written in fridge magnets.


X as in "X-rated", yeah? That's sort of rude. So, you see, I did use all the letters.

look at the flush brackets on that

Unnecessary extra detail about yesterday's walk, if you want it.

I've been tinkering with the GPS today and I've managed to upload the waypoints and track information I logged yesterday, and also (via the clever people who wrote the GPS Babel application and then, more importantly, kindly made it available for free) converted Garmin's proprietary GDB file format into the KML format that's readable by Google Earth. This enables you to overlay the route info onto a map or satellite image, as below:


The raw KML data is available here should you want to recreate this particular walking experience for yourself.

The little notchy detour between waypoints 003 and 004 was to take in the trig point (309 metres, 1014 feet) which the map told us was there, just off the path in a little wooded glade (absolutely no chance we'd have spotted it without the map). This set me to thinking: I wonder if there's a database somewhere of all the trig points in Britain? Needless to say it turns out not only that there is, but that there is a thriving community of people who go out and "bag" as many as possible, photograph them, log flush bracket serial numbers, etc. Sadly I failed to note down any relevant details from the one we're leaning on on the right, but luckily someone else has already done it anyway.

I completely accept that the distinction I choose to make whereby taking a few snaps next to a trig point you were passing close to anyway as part of some unconnected rugged outdoor activity is OK, but the slightly more obsessive bagging activity and things like geocaching are a bit geeky is a completely arbitrary and subjective one, but I choose to make it anyway. So there.

not out of the woods yet

Last in this brief series of walks around sites of (very) minor interest in the Newport and Cardiff area - Hazel and I went for a walk around the Wentwood Forest (a few miles from junction 24 of the M4, here) yesterday. I had a new GPS to play with, and Hazel wanted to test out her new walking poles.

This is another place that's obviously a haven for off-roaders (and car-thieving joyriders, judging by the burnt-out car we came across at one point), so some of the paths are a bit rutted and waterlogged, but it was nice and quiet (two kids who roared past us on trail bikes were the only people we saw) - photos here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

run for the hills

Back in Newport as of yesterday, so I decided to go for a walk this morning to wear off some of the calories I'd been shovelling in in various forms, both solid and liquid, over Christmas.

North and north-west are the best two directions to head in from Newport if you want to get to high ground, and the nearest serious bit is the big plateau between the Ebbw and Lwyd rivers. Phrases like "nearest hill" and "nearest mountain" are a bit meaningless unless you define what you mean by "hill" and "mountain", but it is true to say there is no summit nearer Newport that's higher than the trig point on top of Mynydd Twyn-glas, so that's where I headed.

This is the highest point on the ridge that the hill fort at Twmbarlwm is at the southern end of, and it suffers from the same problems with being easily accessible to trail and quad bikers, so there's lots of erosion on the main paths. It's probably a bit boggy a lot of the time, and it would have been today were it not for the ground being frozen rock-solid, which was handy. In addition to the bike tracks the plateau is criss-crossed with electricity pylons, so all in all it's not exactly a pristine and unspoilt wilderness. In fact I came over all Jim Morrison for a moment up there:
What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down
Nonetheless it does have a certain bleak charm, particularly on a crisp frosty day, and the two guys on quad bikes I passed near the summit trig point (472 metres, 1549 feet) were the only people I met all day. A circular walk from where I parked the car by Upper Cwmbran Methodist Church took me about two and a half hours.


If you go the same way I did you'll end up coming back past the Blaen Bran reservoirs, which I thought looked surprisingly empty today, considering it's not exactly high summer - it turns out they're abandoned, and there has been a certain amount of legal wrangling about having them made safe so they don't disintegrate and send a stagnant mossy tidal wave into central Cwmbran (however much you might think that would be the best thing for it). Some more pictures and details about the problems with trail bikes and general littering can be found here.

My photos (including the obligatory trig point self-portrait) can be found here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

oh well, I've had a good innings: part II

I was watching a re-run of a relatively recent episode of Top Gear on channel Dave the other day, and they had the usual Hoon It Round The Track In A Rubbish Oriental Saloon Car While Swearing Uncontrollably segment (except they call it Star In A Reasonably Priced Car), featuring, on this occasion, lady newsreaders Kate Silverton and Fiona Bruce. Kate on her own would probably have been enough, as she has that saucy bespectacled head girl and captain of the hockey team (and instigator of all manner of jocular high jinks in the showers afterwards, or so I like to imagine) thing going on, but the two of them sitting together and occasionally doing a bit of girly mutual hand-clasping as they watched the track footage was enough to send me to The Bad Place just for a few moments. So, straight to hell, then. Again.

Monday, December 22, 2008

party on, Garth

For various reasons I didn't get my usual quota of running about racket sport exercise behaviour last week, so I was feeling a bit pent up by the weekend. So we decided to go for a quick walk on the way to visit some friends over in Cardiff.

I had a quick peruse of the map and decided that we should go and have a look at Garth Hill, up north of Cardiff, near Taff's Well and Tongwynlais. It was marked with the OS symbol for a triangulation point, and you know how I have a bit of a thing for those.


It turns out Garth Hill is on the list of Welsh county high points - it's deemed to be the highest point in the unitary authority of Cardiff, at a not hugely impressive 307 metres (1007 feet). So that's one more, slightly inadvertently, for the list.

Anyway, it pissed it down, so we didn't hang about. We were up and down and back to the car within an hour or so, at which point we adjourned to the Lewis Arms in Tongwynlais for a warming pint of Brains SA and a packet of chilli McCoys. A handful of photos can be found here.

One supplementary factoid for you - we turned off the M4 at junction 32, the roundabout at which is reputed to be the largest in the UK, if not the world, although this seems unlikely. It's big, anyway.

more great ideas

Funnily enough I remember discussing something very similar to this during an earlier conversation about inventions. It seems like a perfectly sensible idea to me; again, the human body has an awful lot of energy locked up in it, and it seems a shame just to let it leak away into the atmosphere.

We should probably stop short of the full Soylent Green scenario, though. Though there's no guarantee certain unscrupulous corporations haven't started down that road already. Have you tasted Ross Economy Burgers? I'm not sure what's going on there, but I'm pretty sure I don't like it.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Queens Of The Stone Age frontman and ginger Elvis Josh Homme and property tycoon and tonsorial disaster area Donald Trump.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

patent nonsense

Having just invented the mince pie flavoured cheesecake, here's another couple of inventions what I thought up in my head. The only significant difference is that I have a working prototype of the mince pie cheesecake (well, most of one as Hazel and I ate some of it); these are at the slightly more theoretical stage at present.

Screenless TVs for the blind


It's so simple it's brilliant. Clearly a blind person has no need for the costly cathode-ray nonsense (or plasma or LCD nonsense, take your pick) that comes with a standard television set, but, on the other hand, try picking up Channel 4 on the radio. So what's the answer? Just produce a unit that has the same aerial input business as the standard television, plus the output speakers for the whole sound business, but no screen. Hey presto - essentially the same experience if you're blind, but at a fraction of the cost. You'd need a corresponding change in the TV licensing laws to levy a lower charge for this kind of set. You'd also have to shelve any plans to invite your sighted friends round to watch the footy.

Self-powered cars

Clearly the fossil-fuel-powered car's days are numbered, sooner or later. Electric car technology is progressing, as are other options like biofuel and hydrogen cell technology. All of which is very exciting, but aren't we overlooking an obvious source of energy right under, quite literally, our noses? I mean, haven't you guys seen The Matrix? You remember, the human body creates more energy than, yadda yadda yadda, well, I can't remember the numbers, but it's a lot. So let's harness that energy in some way.


Now it doesn't have to be via the old electrodes in the brain, maybe there's a better way of doing it. Frankly I'm a bit sketchy about the details, but imagine the calorie-burning possibilities. Imagine losing weight while driving. Imagine losing more weight the faster and further you drive. Imagine driving non-stop from Edinburgh to Plymouth and arriving as a small waxy deposit on the driver's seat with a couple of sizzling electrodes sticking out of it.

Maybe something more direct like liposuction would work - plumb yourself in as you set off, and the car will take out as much fat as it needs to keep the engine running. I mean, you can run cars on chip fat with minimal modification, so why not arse fat? Again, you'd have to exercise a bit of caution; you don't want to be knocking it down a gear and flooring it to get past a lorry and getting sucked inside out.

So, sure, there's a few minor wrinkles to be ironed out. But surely a simultaneous solution to the energy crisis and the global obesity epidemic is worth checking out?

Also: you know that stuff they make the black box and the cockpit voice recorder out of on planes? You know, the stuff that always survives the plane crashes? Why don't they just make the whole plane out of that stuff? Eh? Eh? That's your actual observational comedy, right there.

recipe of the day

Hey, it's nearly Christmas! So I think it's time for a festive recipe. And here it is. This is basically a simpler and less instantly fatal (but still pretty rich) variation on the artery-clogging cholestravaganza I attempted a couple of years ago.

Mince Pie Cheesecake


You will need:
  • Half a packet of Hob-nobs
  • Half a packet of ginger nuts
  • Half a packet of butter (125g or so)
  • 2 250g tubs of mascarpone cheese
  • 1 packet of 6 mince pies
  • Lemon juice
  • Brandy
Pulverise the biscuits in a food processor. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add to the biscuits, pulverise some more. Arrange the buttery biscuit crumbs in the bottom of a flan tin; put the tin in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Put the mince pies in the food processor, add a few splashes of lemon juice and a couple of capfuls of brandy. Don't puree it up too much; you just want to break up the pastry but leave the raisins whole. Scrape this out into a bowl, then put the cheese in the food processor and run it for a minute or so (you can skip this bit but it softens the cheese up). Dump this into the bowl with the mince pie bits, mix thoroughly and then smear the whole lot over the biscuit base and stick it back in the fridge for a couple of hours. Then eat.








You could basically do the same thing with any other easily pulverisable sweet foodstuff. Things that might be good include:

the last book I read

The Hunter by Julia Leigh.

I was in one of those "everything £1" shops in the centre of Newport last week and I was having a desultory rummage through their paperback section, not expecting to find anything more interesting than the usual Britain's Hardest Bastards true-crime stuff, when I came across this. The synopsis on the back cover looked interesting, and the Faber & Faber logo is usually a reasonably good indication that it's not going to be utter rubbish. I enquired as to the price - it turned out to be a pound! So I bought it.

The un-named protagonist (identified only as "M" - he does give a name to a couple of people during the course of the book, but we're led to assume this is fake) is, as the book title suggests, a hunter. He's been hired by a biotech company to investigate reported sightings of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger and bring back tissue samples for genetic analysis. Needless to say the tiger is not intended to survive the sampling process (as it involves heart, liver, etc. being removed, which is bound to smart a bit).

He rents a room with the Armstrong family on the edge of the wilderness where the creature was sighted. It turns out Lucy Armstrong's husband disappeared some time previously on an expedition (of an unspecified nature) into this same wilderness, and she has retreated into heavily-sedated seclusion in her bedroom, leaving her children Sass and Bike to run the house. M finds himself torn between the hunter's desire for solitude he feels during his expeditions into the wilderness, and an increasing connection with the Armstrong family.

And that's about it, really. It's another short book (170 pages) and it commendably doesn't waste time giving M much of a back-story; we're just straight into him setting up at the Armstrongs' and heading off onto the plains to smear himself in wallaby dung and set some snares.

Instead of spoiling the ending for you, I'll veer off at a slight tangent - one of the things that induced me to shell out the princely sum of one pound on the book was the central premise, since the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine is a fascinating creature. There's something slightly spooky about large animals (the thylacine was about the size of a large dog) which are extinct, but were around recently enough for photographs to have been taken (the last thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, unless the subsequent uncorroborated stories of sightings are to be believed). There aren't many other examples, but the quagga and the poor old passenger pigeon are another couple.

The thylacine is also a fascinating example of convergent evolution, whereby similar environmental constraints result in two only very distantly related species developing very similar characteristics. In other words, if it looks like a dog and barks like a dog, then it might be a dog, or it might be a carnivorous marsupial. Hope that's clear.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

the last book I read

Spies by Michael Frayn.

It was Kierkegaard who said "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.". So here we are in Bonjour Tristesse territory again, as the narrator recalls the events of a childhood summer years before with the (in hindsight) inevitable tragic consequences.

Stephen Wheatley is an elderly gent (sixty-to-seventysomething, we assume) revisiting the suburban street where he spent a significant chunk of his childhood - specifically, that chunk encompassing World War II. While wandering up and down the streets working out what's happened to his childhood haunts, Stephen reminisces about the events of his childhood.

The first thing you have to realise is that this is an elderly man recalling the events of over fifty years previously. On top of that what he's recalling are the perceptions of a child. So you have to exercise a certain amount of mistrust of what you're being told.

Anyway, back to World War II. Stephen and his best friend Keith have, as young boys do, a rich and vivid fantasy life going on whereby Mr. Gort (no, not that one) down the road is a murderer, the mysterious gyppos in the end house get up to all sorts of murky dealings under cover of darkness, that sort of thing. One day, though, Keith announces that something more interesting is happening a bit closer to home: his mother is a German spy.

So the boys start to spy on Keith's mother, and it soon becomes apparent to them (and the reader) that, well, there is something a bit odd going on - on a couple of occasions she heads out as if to do some shopping and seemingly disappears as the boys try to follow her. And what of the mysterious markings that they find in her diary, with x's marked at an irregular but approximately monthly schedule?

So maybe she is a spy? Further investigation reveals that she isn't actually disappearing, but instead nipping off down the tunnel under the railway embankment to put things in a mysterious metal box, hidden in the undergrowth. These things turn out to be mundane items like hard-boiled eggs, packets of fags, socks, and the like. One night Stephen sneaks out to the box and has an encounter with a mysterious man, the intended recipient, we assume, of the stuff in it.

And so it goes. Frayn pulls the narrative rug out from under the reader a few times, however much second guessing the reader might try to do. A few clues to the real solution to the mystery are scattered about here and there, though.

It's all quite satisfyingly worked out, and the sense of children's utter bewilderment at the actions and motivations of adults (and, indeed, vice versa) is very well portrayed. Like On Chesil Beach though, there's a blizzard of exposition at the end which seems like a slightly jarring change of pace from the rest of the book.

Also like On Chesil Beach, the Guardian have provided an ultra-condensed version for the terminally lazy. It's not a long book, though - 230-odd pages, largish print, so there's not really any excuse for not reading the real thing. Frayn's earlier novel and 1999 Booker Prize nominee Headlong is in a more blackly comic vein than Spies, but is also very good.

that was quick

Just to underline my point about cover versions, I hear the worrying news that X Factor winner Alexandra Burke has released a cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as her first single.

The most famous version of Hallelujah was by the late Jeff Buckley, though as I understand it his version was heavily influenced by an earlier cover by Velvet Underground co-founder and - heck, why not? - Welshman Of The Day, John Cale. Here's a brief Guardian article about Cale - notable mainly for some brief but highly concentrated utter bollocks in the comments section.

Friday, December 12, 2008

step AWAY from the record shop

Today's Independent carries an interesting article about cover versions of famous songs - I infer from the various barbed comments about reality TV contestants that the article was inspired by Leona Lewis' blood-curdling slaughtering of Snow Patrol's Run which is currently sitting atop the UK singles chart, and looks a good bet for the Christmas number 1 spot.

As the article says, we're in the interesting position these days of the wheel having come full circle a bit regarding cover versions - the revolution in bands writing their own material inspired by The Beatles and Bob Dylan has worn off a bit, certainly in terms of the singles chart anyway. So there's a lot of cover versions out there, some disastrously ill-advised (Scissor Sisters' version of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb springs to mind). Strange that the article fails to mention William Shatner's efforts in this area, which defy rational description.

Genuinely good, worthwhile, interesting cover versions are rare - here's a list of some assorted ones, off the top of my head and in no particular order (and without access to my iTunes library for reference):

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival's 11-minute thrash through Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through The Grapevine
  • Cowboy Junkies' dead-slow version of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane
  • Cat Power's funky electric piano-led rendition of what I tend to think of as Frank Sinatra's New York, New York, although in fact that was a cover version as well (the original being by Liza Minnelli)
  • Tricky's version of Public Enemy's Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos
  • Bob Mould's balls-out assault on Richard Thompson's Turning Of The Tide from the 1994 Thompson tribute album Beat The Retreat
  • Sugababes did a surprisingly funky version of The Beatles' Come Together, which I think I got with a free CD given away with Q Magazine
  • Hindu Love Gods' thunderous rock reworking of Prince's Raspberry Beret
  • The Bangles' rockin' version of Simon & Garfunkel's Hazy Shade Of Winter. Ah, the lovely Susannah.....
  • Gary Jules' glum piano rendition of Tears For Fears' Mad World from the Donnie Darko soundtrack. To quote Jack Nicholson in The Witches Of Eastwick: "Cliché, cliché. Perhaps. But true!"
  • Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. The Nicholson quote applies equally well here.
  • Hendrix's version of Dylan's All Along The Watchtower. And again here.
  • Santana's sinuous Latinification of Fleetwood Mac's Black Magic Woman
  • Iron & Wine's whispery folkification of The Postal Service's skittery electronica original of Such Great Heights
I may add a few more when I get back in front of the laptop that's got iTunes on it. You have been warned....

Monday, December 08, 2008

oh well, I've had a good innings

You ever get that thing where you think: actually I'm a good and worthwhile person, kind to small animals, pay my taxes, occasional charitable donations, that sort of thing? And then you think: actually, no, I'm going straight to hell.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

the last book I read

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler.

There are those - Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle and Jeremy Paxman among them, apparently - who think that Anne Tyler is the world's greatest living novelist.

I'm not sure I have an opinion about that, as this is only the second of her books that I've read (Back When We Were Grownups being the other), but her style does raise a question that I raised a while back in an album review - is it more difficult to write an 18-minute symphonic rock epic with lots of widdly-widdly soloing and toe-stubbing tempo and key changes, or a two-and-a-half minute punchy three-chord pop song that starts, makes you laugh/cry/dance/sing/think/whatever and then stops again?

The equivalent question for a novelist would be - is it more difficult to write a novel that takes radical liberties with "normal" novel orthodoxies (previous books in this series provide examples in terms of structure and the authorial voice - other well-known examples include Finnegans Wake and Pale Fire) or one in a more linear style, and furthermore one in which no murders occur, no-one flies an aeroplane into a house, or anything like that? When you rule out all that stuff, it could be argued, all you've got left to hold the reader's attention is your actual skill at writing believable characters who interact in interesting ways. Which, it could be argued, is more demanding.

Anyway: Barnaby Gaitlin is the wayward scion of a rich philanthropic Baltimore family (most of Tyler's novels are set in Baltimore). After a troubled childhood and adolescence which saw him embarrass the family with a series of petty thefts that his parents had to cover the cost of (as they never tire of reminding him) as well as spend a period in a reform school (or a school for "the gifted young tester of limits" as their motto has it), he embarked on a brief marriage which produced a daughter, Opal, who now lives with her mother in Philadelphia after the subsequent divorce. Barnaby has settled into a comfortably undemanding existence working for a company called Rent-A-Back which provides odd-job services to the elderly and infirm.

As the novel opens Barnaby is at the railway station in Baltimore waiting to catch a train for one of his regular visits to see Opal; while waiting around he observes a scene whereby a man persuades a woman to deliver a parcel to his daughter who will be waiting at the station in Philadelphia. Barnaby follows her to her rendezvous, and, after a bit of low-level stalking, manages to engineer a meeting with her on a subsequent train journey, and, eventually, spark up a relationship. Sophia is a few years older than him, and seems to be viewed by Barnaby's relatives as something of a sign of belated maturity in the black sheep of the Gaitlin family.

That's about as exciting as the plot development gets, but the unspoken point of the plot, such as it is, is Barnaby's gradual and belated (and slightly reluctant) realisation that he is what everyone else (well, apart from his immediate family) already knows he is: a good guy. The sneaky way that the last sentence of the novel is the same as the first, but carries a totally different meaning, conveys this very neatly.

Let's get a few criticisms out of the way first: it is all a bit cosy and parochial, and it's fairly clear that things are going to work out OK in the end without any major catastrophes occurring (or, arguably, anything very much happening at all). Also, this is a novel written by a woman, in the first person, through the character of a man. I can't think of that many novels like that, so I haven't got much of a basis for comparison, but I didn't find the authorial voice completely convincing, certainly less so than in Back When We Were Grownups, which was written from the perspective of a middle-aged woman - less of a stretch, you would think, for obvious reasons.

However (and returning to my earlier point) it's not easy to rework very similar territory for each book and come up with something fresh every time, but Tyler's observations of human interaction in general and family life in particular are acutely well-observed. And while it's true that everything does, in general, work out OK for those who you want it to work out OK for, it doesn't quite happen in the way you might imagine it's going to.

In any case, going back to the musical comparisons, I've always felt complaints that, say, Oasis keep making the same record again and again to be a bit unfair - it's a good record, and if you get bored with it, as is your prerogative, then you can always go and listen to some Joni Mitchell or something instead. Similarly, any notion that Anne Tyler should start writing experimental lesbian vampire fiction seems a bit unreasonable. Reading this novel and the ones I mentioned above (and the lesbian vampire stuff, if you like) is what will make you a rounded and multi-faceted individual that women will be mysteriously drawn to, like a magnet. Oh yes.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

the last book I read

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell.

This is the second novel in the celebrated Alexandria Quartet, the first of which, Justine, I read back in January 2007.

To recap quickly, the narrator has retreated to an unnamed Greek island to reflect on his time in Alexandria, his affair with the enigmatic Justine and the various goings-on among the diverse expatriate community.

The second book covers pretty much exactly the same period of time as the first, but from a slightly different perspective - the narrator, Darley, has received a manuscript from his friend Balthazar which throws a new light on the events described in Justine - most obviously Darley's view of his relationship with Justine herself, which, it transpires, was largely a smokescreen for Justine's relationship with the British novelist Pursewarden, who subsequently commits suicide.

So we're in Rashomon territory, as a second viewpoint of a series of events reveals the subjectivity of the first - and, by implication, the second as well. The next book in the series, Mountolive, describes the same sequence of events from a third viewpoint.

As with the first, there's a lot of idle swanning around, and, for a novel sequence ostensibly about "modern love", surprisingly little in the way of passion - not that I demand pages and pages about people's inner thighs, or bodily fluids squirting about all over the shop, but there's a lot of talking and precious little in the way of evidence of actual shagging.

For such a wordy and cerebral (some might say "pretentious") novel, though, it's all quite readable. I suspect that by the end of Mountolive I'll be chafing for an end to the navel-gazing and some progression of the plot, though.

Friday, November 28, 2008

album of the day

Greendale by Neil Young & Crazy Horse.

File this one under spooky coincidences. I was singing along with the final track on this album, Be The Rain, in the car on the way to work this morning after it popped up as part of a random iPod sequence. Then, later, I popped in to Strange Maps in an idle moment at work only to find the album cover staring up at me from this post. The map on the cover is the connection, of course - an interactive version can be found at the album's website.

Followers of Neil Young are subjected to an emotional rollercoaster over the course of his uniquely diverse and mercurial album-releasing career; my take on it goes like this:
  • 1970s good - his self-titled 1969 debut solo album is a bit ropey, but thereafter it's generally excellent, if wildly eclectic, up to 1979's Live Rust.
  • 1980s equally wildly eclectic, but generally not in a good way, from the bizarre vocoder experimentation of Trans up to the lumpy garage/synth-rock of Life. 1988's This Note's For You was an interesting genre exercise, but 1989's Freedom is the only essential 1980s Young album.
  • first half of the 1990s pretty good - from the indispensable Ragged Glory through to Sleeps with Angels in 1994.
  • thereafter stylistically all over the place as ever, but with slightly more uneven results quality-wise.
Anyway, back to Greendale (no, not that Greendale). It's very stripped-down garage-rock for the most part, particularly stark given the absence of Crazy Horse's second guitarist Frank Sampedro. Since the band don't do anything as poncy as overdubs this leaves some of the songs sounding a bit thin, especially when Young heads off on a lengthy solo excursion without the usual chunky rhythm guitar in the background. Also some of the songs are a bit on the long side, particularly Carmichael, Grandpa's Interview and Son Green, each of which check in at over 10 minutes.

Generally speaking it's one of his better recent albums, though. And Be The Rain is a terrific closer, despite featuring a winsome hippy choir warbling "be the magic in the Northern Lights", "we've got to save Mother Earth" and the like, and Young bellowing incomprehensibly through a megaphone, which shouldn't really work. But it's a cracking tune and there's some increasingly manic guitar-strangling towards the end.

The Strange Maps page has a couple of interesting links, most notably this Word magazine list of album cover locations with embedded Google Map facility. You'll be wanting to know that the cover of the Amadildoes' Very Pissed-Off!! was shot in a toilet in Horsens in Denmark, for instance.

Chopraphilia

Those new Microsoft "I'm a PC" ads are quite a cute response to the Apple ads of a while back.

But....if I were dithering over which kind of computer to buy, I'm not sure I'd be swayed by the appearance of quantum woo-meister, Intelligent Design advocate and 1998 Ig Nobel Prize winner Deepak Chopra around 49 seconds in - he's the guy doing the "not a human doing, a human being" bit towards the end. Actually I think he may be a "human doing" of some sort. What a massive tool.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

sausage squad up the blue end

I didn't attribute the Irish Independent article I linked to a couple of posts back to anyone in particular, because the web version didn't carry a by-line. It appears, however, that the culprit was Irish journalist Mary Kenny. A very similar article appeared in The Guardian last week, similar even down to the re-use of words - "gloomy blighters" this time. I'm not sure whether that's better or worse than "miserable blighters". In any case the word "blighters" always reminds me of the Reverend Charlie "Drooper" Hyper-Squawk Smith and his chums. But I digress.

If anything the Guardian article shades the Irish Independent one for sheer mind-boggling stupidity - largely because of this paragraph, which I think I may get framed and mounted somewhere:
Far from relaxing and enjoying life, most atheists I have encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing and nihilistic message that there is no purpose to life so where's the point of anything? They so often fall into the category defined by GK Chesterton: "Those that do not have the faith/Will not have the fun." You only have to attend one of their dreary humanist funerals to see that – I am never going to another of those, just to be made miserable.
Yeah, those humanist funerals are so dreary. Unlike those church ones - I went to the church funeral of a couple of family members a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell you I laughed my fucking tits off. We were literally rolling in the aisles pissing ourselves, spraying silly string around, throwing custard pies, the lot.

The opening sentence is worthy of note, as well:
As I believe in freedom of opinion – as well as God – I have no problem with London's buses carrying the slogan "There is probably no God"; although I would admire the bravery of the advertisers more if they added "or Allah".
This is an increasingly common response by Christians to any perceived slight on Christianity - the assertion that the perpetrator of the slight wouldn't dare to make a similar statement about Islam for fear of getting his hands cut off, or an commercial jetliner flown into his face, or something like that, usually with a note of wistful regret that Christians aren't allowed to do all that stuff. So common, in fact, that it's acquired its own epithet: fatwa envy. Which I think is rather apt. I first encountered the phrase in the wake of the Pharyngula crackergate episode, but it seems to have spread since then.

Swanage: the slightly more sober version

Here's a few photos from our trip down to Dorset at the weekend. Hazel was keen to re-enact some of the activities from our annual Swanage weekends, so we had a curry, went to play golf (but failed as the course was shut) and then went to some pubs and got drunk.

Later in the weekend we went for a walk around Studland and Old Harry's Rocks and then took the Sandbanks ferry over towards Bournemouth to visit our friends Hannah and Mark and their new(ish) baby daughter.

The photo shows me in the legendary Square And Compass in Worth Matravers. Note that I seem to have made a fairly elementary beer-drinking error in plumping for the tiny pint in my hand, instead of the gargantuan one on the table in front of me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

dreary? moi?

A couple of contrasting views on the atheist bus story - the always amusing Daily Mash takes a humorous view of the situation, while the Irish Independent plumps for the barkingly insane view. Apparently atheists, in addition to being "miserable blighters", "dreary and austere puritans", "deeply unpleasant" and "caustically intolerant", are DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE for such horrors as the miserable death of Baby P by our promotion of a godless lifestyle that is, literally, a LIVING HELL.


Well, it's a viewpoint, certainly. I for one know that if I wasn't so heavily sedated I'd be out stabbing old ladies in the groin, ripping the heads off budgies and turning hamsters inside out.

It's at times like this that we need an appeal for sanity.

a dose of unadulterated child's piss

You'll remember, of course, the TravelJohn in-car piss-bag, and the Advanced Mission Extender Device in-plane piss-bag. Two very similar products; here's one with a slightly different purpose, but with a broadly similar theme (i.e. piss).

The Whizzinator is a fully-integrated artificial piss and prosthetic penis solution for the determined drug-abuser. It's ideal for the sportsman attempting to avoid mandatory testing while walking around with a blood supply positively frothing with illegal steroids. Also available are a couple of supplementary products: the Number 1 on-demand liquid urine delivery system, and the Yellow River dehydrated piss capsules.

Amusingly, in a spooky echo of the child's piss scene in Withnail & I (about four and a half minutes into this clip) a couple of celebs have genuinely been caught trying to use these things: American footballer Onterrio Smith and movie star Tom Sizemore. In a shocking display of sense of humour failure the makers of the device have now been convicted of conspiracy in a US court.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

ah, Mr Bond, I've been infecting you

Time for a couple of brief film reviews:

We went to see Quantum Of Solace at the cinema last week. After having heard somewhat mixed reviews I have to say I quite enjoyed it. The new Bond films are still rather uncomfortably in the shadow of the Jason Bourne films, so there's a slight unevenness of tone between the ramping up of the bone-crunching brutality and the ditching of the camper aspects of the Brosnan Bonds like John Cleese's gadgetmeister and the one-liners, and the retention of the recognisably Bondian features like the cars and the absurd plot MacGuffins - in this case we are required to believe that someone could build a couple of enormous reservoirs in the Bolivian altiplano without someone noticing by, say, having a look on Google Maps. Other noteworthy things: a nicely understated in-joke with the Gemma Arterton character's name (revealed only in the closing credits of the film, but also on her Wikipedia page, just in case you don't want the joke spoiled), and one of the more tuneless Bond themes, despite being written by the estimable Jack White. To be fair Casino Royale's theme wasn't great either, only being redeemed by Chris Cornell's gravelly tones.

I watched Underworld: Evolution on TV last night. One of the more stupid films I've ever seen, and the final speech (delivered by Kate Beckinsale in a voice-over as the camera skims across a lake) is a breathtakingly cheeky almost word-for-word rip-off of the speech at the end of Terminator 2 (delivered by Linda Hamilton in a voice-over as the camera skims along a road - about 4:40 into the linked clip). Also, the main male protagonist appears to be essentially Wolverine from X-Men (miraculous self-healing and all) with a less tragic haircut. But no film is without any redeeming features, and Kate does appear in skin-tight black fetish gear throughout, except for the brief moments where she slips out of it for an entirely gratuitous (and probably NSFW, though you don't really get to see anything) sex scene. I suspect in real life getting out of a black rubber catsuit and boots would involve a bit more yanking and squeaking, but, hey, artistic licence I suppose. A several-hundred year old vampire assassin having sex in a metal packing crate with a vampire-werewolf hybrid? Move along, nothing to see here.

The only cheekier bit of film plagiarism I can recall recently was 28 Days Later nicking its entire plot, wholesale, from The Day Of The Triffids.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

oh, Canada

I went over to the Millennium Stadium on Friday night to watch Wales play Canada. Unless you book months and years in advance, or you're a member of a rugby club that has some sort of block allocation, or you shell out a million pounds for a season ticket, it will tend to be only these kind of games against relatively minor (no disrespect to Canada) opposition that you'll be able to get in to see. The flipside of that is that at least these are matches you can reasonably confidently expect Wales to win.

Friday's match was no exception to this rule, but it wasn't a particularly thrilling game. Possibly the most exciting moment was the unveiling of the new change strip, which is a particularly migraine-inducing shade of banana yellow. This is apparently to fit in with the SA Gold sponsor's branding on the front, and is in no way an attempt to screw some more merchandising cash out of the gullible supporter.

A couple of pictures (of no great quality as they were snapped with my mobile phone) can be seen below.



friend only to the undertaker

I knew I had a third bullet to add to my previous post: the Adam Curtis documentary contains much mention of WWII Allied soldiers having vivid dreams about stuff that it was unthinkable to talk about and that therefore they had suppressed conscious thought of.

Coincidentally this is precisely the theme of Ari Folman's animated documentary film Waltz With Bashir, showing at a beardy arts cinema venue near you soon (here, for instance), though probably not at your local popcorn-selling enormoplex, more's the pity. The war in question here is the 1982-1983 Israel-Lebanon conflict, and the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982 in particular. Here's a short trailer for the film.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it

Thanks to the Bad Science blog sidebar (in which much good stuff can be found, much of it splendidly frivolous, some of it not) for this link to the first part of Adam Curtis' BBC2 series The Living Dead from 1995.

Apologies for getting all serious on your ass, particularly after the botty-related theme of my recent postings, but there are a couple of points that seem to be relevant here:
  • However alien the footage of wide-eyed Hitler Youth acolytes barking out Nazi slogans mights be, however much the marching crowds and the swastikas on sticks might seem to be an artefact of the past, the more general lesson is that the sort of hyper-nationalism embodied in all that, with the associated subsuming of individual reason and morality to the needs of the state is (wait for it) A Bad Thing. That might seem an obvious point to make, but somewhere down the other end of the scale is the sort of unthinking US exceptionalism exhibited by the Bush regime - the notion that, for instance, clearly it's OK for the USA to have nuclear weapons (or "nucular weapons", just to take a cheap shot at Bush for a moment) but, equally clearly, it's not OK for, say, Iran to develop the same technology. And furthermore for any questions which might require a more nuanced view of things, like "why is that?" to be met with either blank incomprehension or the equivalent of the child sticking its fingers in its ears and making the "lalalalalalala" noise. Obviously the hope is that the new regime might take a more balanced view of the world. We'll see.
  • The Second World War is the texbook example of a "just war"; the battle to free Europe from the yoke of Nazi totalitarianism, to stop the systematic extermination of the Jews (and whoever else the regime took exception to) and, into the bargain, to foil Japan's Pacific expansion plans. Should it become clear (as it certainly does if you scratch the surface of pretty much any of the accepted version of history), that the simple Manichaean view of things won't really do, what then? What of the supposedly just conflicts of the nebulous War On Terror, which even on the surface are considerably less clear-cut morally and politically? Just in case you were expecting an answer, the answer is: I don't know. Acknowledging that it's a bit more complex than a bunch of square-jawed GI Joes liberating the huddled masses from the evil snickering hook-nosed bearded towel-headed camel-jockeys is a good start, though.
Parts two and three of the series are also available and are well worth a watch, being in the excellent tradition of thought-provoking BBC documentaries that I've previously bigged up here. I'm sure I've also linked to this famous clip from Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man somewhere before as well, but I can't find it, so I make no apology for doing it again. The associated YouTube links includes this one to a TV religion versus atheism debate hosted by Melvyn Bragg a few years back. Notable bits include the remarkable gravity-defying bouffantness of Bragg's hair, and some intelligent panellists, including Gore Vidal, in somewhat more eloquent and sober form than, more recently, on election night.

Friday, November 14, 2008

oooh, no, matron

I will conclude this brief incontinent flurry of arse-related items by linking to the following news story from a couple of weeks ago: vicar gets potato stuck up arse. Top marks to The Sun's headline writers for whoever came up with the one they've attached to this story.

A couple of things to note beyond the general hilarity of the story - it was nice of The Sun to include a photograph of a potato, just in case anyone was unaware what a potato looked like (the only thing that could have improved things would have been the caption "a potato, yesterday"). I assume this wasn't the actual potato in question - if it was I guess they must have given it a rinse first. Also, note the quote at the end from "a hospital trust spokeswoman":
Like all busy hospitals we do see some unusual accidents. But our staff deal with them in a discreet, professional and kind way.
Er, yeah. By telling the tabloids all about it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

other news in brief

Continuing the death theme, drummer Mitch Mitchell died yesterday. This now means that a) all three members of the original Jimi Hendrix experience are now dead, what with bassist Noel Redding dying in 2003, and Hendrix himself...well, you probably know about that, and b) the curse of the rock drummers continues, what with Moon and Bonzo checking out early, Rick Allen narrowly avoiding doing so, and of course Spinal Tap's legendary problems with drummers, as described here.


Interestingly, when I said "Mitch Mitchell" to Andy, he said "what, the bloke who invented the Spitfire?". It turns out he's been dead for over 70 years, principally from arse-related problems, as it happens, though there's no suggestion these were of the same nature as Joanna Lumley's.

Also in the news: Chuck Norris lays down the law to America's new president-elect. Remember - no-one comes near Chuck Norris....and lives. Chuck's ramblings originally appeared on the always highly entertaining WorldNetDaily, home of such charming special offers as this groundbreaking exposé of Barack Obama's real intentions towards the USA. Basically turning everyone into commie Muslim paedophiles, as far as I can tell.

More entertaining idiocy from the inimitable Bruce Anderson in this week's Independent: this article grudgingly acknowledging Obama's overwhelming US election victory actually manages the double whammy of casual racism:
A lot of blacks need to be told to get off thy bed and work.
and patronising sexism:
A lot of conservative Republicans think that Mrs Palin is a feisty girl who ought to be encouraged.
Nice work. Possibly even better, if that were possible, is today's article commemorating Prince Charles' 60th birthday, which is so cringingly sycophantic and shoe-horns so many occurrences of the word "intellectual" into its first few paragraphs that you'd assume Bruce must be taking the piss out of the jug-eared dimwit, if you didn't know better.

Jurassic cark

This is ostensibly to continue my habit of acknowledging the deaths of major writers - like, previously, Michael Dibdin, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer, though, ironically, having just read one of his books, I missed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's death in August - but in reality it's just an excuse to re-use the joke I used on the occasion of Arthur C Clarke's death in March.

Anyway, be that as it may, Michael Crichton died this week. As with Norman Mailer, this puts me in the position of acknowledging the work of someone quite famous without ever actually having read any of it. I have nonetheless had quite a bit of exposure to it through having seen several films he had a hand in - The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and Sphere were based on novels he wrote, and he also directed Westworld and Coma, as well as being one of the creators of the TV series ER. Actually I can't remember whether it's The Andromeda Strain that I've seen, or The Satan Bug, as they do seem quite similar. Could be both, of course.

All reasonably entertaining stuff - less admirable is the fact that he was a prominent global warming denialist, even going as far to write a whole novel (State Of Fear) expounding his views on the subject. The anti-science undercurrent was pretty obvious as early as Jurassic Park, though (even from the film adaptation - I suspect it was stronger in the book, though as I say I haven't read it).

Global warming "sceptics" are notoriously sensitive to criticism (as well as hanging out on the internet a bit more than is probably healthy) so it was no surprise to see this entirely reasonable (though not exactly complimentary) article attract a fair number of loons. Even my humble blog experienced a bit of a spike in comments when I happened to allude to the subject in passing a while back.

Monday, November 10, 2008

phallorida

Via Strange Maps and Pharyngula: here's an interesting sequence of maps showing the voting distribution in last week's US presidential election. Among the interesting things to note is that the population-compensated area scale and the local vote distribution make Florida look even more like a big veiny cock than usual.


More entertaining maps can be found here and here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

music list of the day

Songs that pull a specific lyrical trick on you: refer constantly to a woman by name, or by use of the phrase "my baby" or something similar, and then reveal, late in the song, that she's - wait for it - a real baby, or at least a small child of some sort. Oh, my aching sides.

joanna bumley

I don't know what sequence of random external stimuli made my train of thought turn to the subject of Joanna Lumley's anus, but it happens to us all from time to time, as I'm sure you're aware.

The only reason I mention it is this: does anyone know where the persistent arse-related rumour about Joanna Lumley originated? I would call it, as most do, a "persistent internet rumour", but I'm aware that it pre-dates most people's contact with the internet. I first heard it when I was a student at the tail-end of the 1980s, and I can tell you I'd never done any internetting at that point. That said it is now all over the internet, though there's no indication of where it originated. There are even two Facebook groups dedicated to perpetuating it. Most strange of all is its mention as an aside in a brief article about something quite disturbing. Links are all pretty much SFW in terms of images etc., by the way, though there is some sweary language (understandably lavish use of the word "arse", mainly).

Apparently the rumour about Bob Holness playing the saxophone solo on Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street was started by Stuart Maconie; no-one's taking responsibility for this one though, as far as I can see.

But there isn't a Snopes article debunking it, so I therefore conclude that it must be true. In support of this conclusion I offer you this apparently real news story about a woman in Germany who went into hospital for a routine leg operation but instead emerged having been fitted with an artificial anus.

["Darmausgang" appears to be German for "anus", by the way. Literal translation would be something like "intestinal exit", which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Be careful to capitalise the first "D" or you get "california exit", which is a bit weirder. Maybe that's where they make the plastic ones?]

Maybe Joanna was the victim of a similar mix-up?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

the last book I read

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

It's 1962 and Edward and Florence Mayhew have just got married and are staying in a hotel near Abbotsbury, at the north-west end of Chesil Beach. We join them as they toil through a grey and rubbery roast beef dinner, and contemplate in their differing ways an impending sexual initiation that promises to be equally grey and rubbery.

The date of 1962 is obviously carefully chosen, falling as it does smack in the middle of the period, in Philip Larkin's words, "Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP", during which sexual intercourse was, supposedly, invented. Things evidently haven't kicked off properly yet, as both Edward and Florence are still virgins. Edward is pretty keen, despite his understandable nervousness, but Florence views the whole thing with horror; indeed she has a fastidious dislike of any kind of physical intimacy, even kissing. So the omens aren't promising, and when, after some awkward fumbling and clumsy removal of garments, Edward's fears of, in the quaint phrase of the time, "arriving too early" prove to be all too prescient, Florence panics and makes a run for it.

Incidentally, I know Edward had been, hem hem, "leaving himself alone" for a while prior to the wedding night, but his performance here:
filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid
- would seem to indicate a potentially profitable future career in the porn industry. People pay good money for that sort of performance.

Anyway....Florence flees out onto Chesil Beach, and (after getting some trousers on) Edward goes out after her. A brief and unsatisfying exchange of views follows, at which point Florence hops in a taxi and buggers off. And, erm, that's about it, really.

This is, again, a very short novel - 166 pages, but the large and widely-spaced print means it's even shorter than that makes it seem; if it were printed as small as the Solzhenitsyn book I doubt whether it would be much more than 100 or so. All that there's time for apart from the bald description of the wedding night are some neatly-drawn sketches of the protagonists' family backgrounds - sufficient to get across the point that Edward is marrying slightly "above himself", and also to offer just the merest sniff of something odd going on with Florence and her father on their trips away together on his yacht which might offer an explanation for her frigidity.

If you can't even be arsed to plough through 166 large-print pages, then a light-hearted one-page synopsis of the novel by fellow novelist Jim Crace can be found here.

After the wedding night ends the remainder of the novel takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the rest of the characters' lives (Edward's, mainly). After spending 160 pages describing (with a few digressions) an hour or so, covering the next 50+ years in less than ten pages feels like a bit of a neck-snapping change of pace, and I'm not sure what the purpose of it is, or what the novel gains from it.

I think this is a more engaging book than Saturday, though, which I found unconvincing for reasons I can't really put my finger on. I think it's probably just that I tend to agree with the assertion (made here and more indirectly here) that McEwan's recent output is slightly more cosy and sober and self-consciously "literary" and "writerly" than his early, punky, macabre stuff. If I had to recommend a place to start I would go for the wonderfully weird and disturbing short story collection First Love, Last Rites and then move on to the mid-period novels The Child In Time and Black Dogs.