Tuesday, September 30, 2008

now that's what I call a VICE president

Still can't spare the several hours required to construct a cogently-argued analysis of the complex issues in the run-up to the US presidential election, so here's a few amusing videos, all election-related, at least tangentially:
Needless to say there's some slightly more sobering stuff out there as well.

o hai

We seem to have a bit of a cat infestation in the garden of late. Not that I object or anything; I like cats. There are a couple of them, both with very similar colouring, sort of tortoiseshell and white. One of which appears to be of the usual skittish cat interloper variety, i.e. he's off under the fence as soon as you look at him. The other one, however, has the slightly unnerving feline habit of just staring back at you unblinkingly as if gazing into the very depths of your soul (and being, on the whole, fairly unimpressed).

Tempting though it is to attach some amusing lolcat text to the pictures, I've resisted - you can, after all, get your fill and more of that sort of thing here. I'm unable to resist a Futurama link, though. All hail to the Hypnocat!

[Footnote: after a more detailed reading of the Wikipedia article linked above it appears that cats with any sort of tortoiseshell colouring are invariably female, for various interesting genetic reasons. Also, cats with the specific colour distribution pictured above are called "calico cats" in the USA. Not in South Wales, though.]

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Swanageathon 2008

Speaking of photos I should point you at the gallery of pictures from this year's Swanage trip, which are here. Imagine if you will last year's activities, just with slightly different T-shirts. I should also point out that I won the Hungover Golf Challenge on Saturday morning (again!), despite Richard having a hole-in-one at the 3rd, the spawny get.

what I did at the weekend

Quite nice not to have any plans for the weekend, so as it was such nice weather on Saturday we made some up on the hoof. Nothing very elaborate, just find a park somewhere and go and sit around for a bit, maybe read a book or something. Oh, and stop off at the garage on the way for a nice bottle of chilled wine to drink.

Perusing my Ordnance Survey map of Newport (Explorer 152, if you're interested) I noticed a large open space over between M4 junctions 27 and 28, about a mile and a half or so from the house. It turns out this is the top end of Tredegar Park, and features an Iron Age hillfort which is, I can now confirm, a very nice place to sit around on top of with a book and a bottle of wine on a sunny afternoon.

The park extends south as far as Tredegar House, whose impressive oak avenue has been lovingly preserved by having junction 28 of the M4 carved into the middle of it.

On Sunday I popped up to Raglan to meet my parents for lunch at the Beaufort Arms Hotel. And very nice too. If you go on a Sunday and can't quite face the full roast dinner, the hake is very good. I really like hake, but you don't see it in supermarkets often, if at all.

To work off lunch we then went for a stroll around Raglan Castle - more impressive than I was expecting, actually. I took a few photos, which can be found here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

this week, I have been mostly dreaming about....intergalactic DC8s

It's not often that I have dreams that are vividly memorable for more than a few minutes after I wake up, if at all, but I had a couple last week. Those of you inclined to oneirology, or, better still, oneiromancy, might be able to pull something out of these:

  • Dream #1: I was at an airport, waiting to board a flight, when there was a terrific noise, the ground shook, bits of glass everywhere, things exploding, etc. It turned out that a Qantas 747 had crashed into one of the terminal buildings and disintegrated explosively, as of course it would in real life. The only clear recollection of the aftermath I have is some heroic chap climbing up onto the wreckage to try and rescue someone, only to be cut in half messily when a crane fell on him from an adjacent building.
  • Dream #2: I was deep undercover at a Scientology convention, the venue for which seemed strangely reminiscent of the prison camp in The Great Escape (low hut-like buildings, barbed wire fences). Sensing that my cover had been blown, I attempted to pass a coded note to one of my fellow infiltrators, but it was intercepted. Now my only chance was to get out of the place unscathed - I got as far as the entrance foyer before being surrounded by smiling brainwashed goons in suits and shades. Noooooooooo.........
An amateur psychologist might conclude at this point that a) I have a deep and abiding fear of flying (true) and b) I have a deep and abiding fear and hatred of Scientology (also true). There's probably also an element in #2 of everyone's general fear of being Found Out and Exposed. You know what I mean. Yes you do.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

twang my whammy bar, baby

There was an interesting article in the Independent yesterday about the 50th anniversary of the Fender Jazzmaster guitar. While the Strat was always the orthodox rock god's guitar of choice (Clapton, Hendrix, David Gilmour, Ritchie Blackmore), the Jazzmaster (along with its counterpart the Jaguar) has been used by generations of punk, new wave and grunge guitarists, partly because of the range of interesting sounds you can get out of it, but also for more mundane reasons like its relative cheapness compared to the Strat.

The list of Jazzmaster and Jaguar users reads like a condensed list of Music I Like - here's a few examples, in no particular order:

  • Elvis Costello - the iconic picture on the cover of 1977's My Aim Is True features him holding a Jazzmaster. The quintessential Costello album is probably its successor This Year's Model, though.
  • Kurt Cobain - a fully comprehensive list of Cobain's equipment (apart from the shotgun) can be found here, if you want it.
  • J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. It looks like a luridly colour-schemed Jazzmaster that Mascis is playing in the picture attached to this post. 1993's Where You Been is the album you want.
  • Tom Verlaine of Television. Television's 1977 album Marquee Moon remains a rock landmark; if you want longer, looser versions of the songs with more guitar playing on them (and why wouldn't you?) try the live compilation The Blow-Up as well. I think that might be a Jaguar in the picture on the right.
  • Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. The blurred close-up on the front of Loveless is of the pickups of a Jazzmaster.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

kudzu believe it?

After the slaughter of the hideous ivy monster perpetrated back in March it was tempting to sit back and not pay much attention to the garden over the summer. So that's what we did.

However, having had a quick scout round the back of the kitchen a few days ago I was alarmed to see that the little area behind the wooden trellis that we exposed by removing the ivy had been largely engulfed in bindweed, which had grown right through and over the rather attractive shrub that's out there (I think it's a camellia of some sort).

I was put in mind of the extraordinary pictures you sometimes see of houses, trees, farm machinery etc. in the south-eastern states of the USA which have been completely engulfed by the kudzu vine, which was introduced into the USA from its native Japan into the 1870s. Here's a few more good examples.

There's something slightly freaky about this sort of blind unstoppable fecundity, a slightly less purposeless version of which (in addition to shameless stealings from a variety of sources, most notably The Thing From Another World) formed the basis of the Doctor Who serial The Seeds Of Doom, which I remember watching when I was 6 years old and being completely terrified by, particularly the bit where the Keeler character gradually turns into a sort of giant cabbage.

Obviously our infestation was on a somewhat smaller and less scary scale and a bit of frenzied shearing and yanking out of roots did the job, for the moment at least.

Kudzu also features on the cover of REM's classic 1983 debut album Murmur. If you haven't got it, do yourself a favour and spend £4.98 at Amazon today.

there's got to be a way.....to Block Lionel

Once again I dodge the awesome responsibility of writing something serious about the Republican vice-presidential nominee; instead I bring you the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator. The Governor of Alaska's own children bear the names Track, Trig, Bristol, Willow, and Piper, incidentally. Not quite Dweezil and Moon Unit, but in a similar ballpark.

"electric halibut" generates the name Block Lionel Palin, which is fairly unremarkable. Entering the name John McCain, as if to simulate some horrific accident with a contraceptive and a time machine, yields the much cooler Steam Fangs Palin.

Friday, September 12, 2008

go and get stuffed

Flicking though a collection of mondegreens on MSN a while back I came across this one featuring Billy Ocean - nothing very remarkable about the lyric bit, but look at the hair! At some point in the past 20 or so years his head seems to have evolved into a squid, kind of like Kevin Costner evolving gills in about the same amount of time in Waterworld.

So I thought he'd be a lot happier in his natural habitat. And with a bit of very rudimentary image-editing I've been able to make it happen. Check it out!

up from the deep, twenty storeys high...

This is evidently old news, but check out the size of this monster sweet potato.

Got it from Tesco's a few weeks back and only discovered it in the cupboard yesterday, but it seems perfectly OK.

Oversized vegetables are all terrifically interesting in their own right, of course, but the most interesting thing about this one is the name Tesco have chosen to give it: Spudzilla! They must have been wetting themselves in the advertising department when they managed to sneak that one through.

For comparison purposes I've put a standard size potato next to it; you can see the difference. I suppose one might think of the standard one as Spudzooky to its larger uncle. You remember him, right?

Anyway, the point is, one of these big orange starchy fuckers can be chopped up into enough chips for several people. Something of a "monster" feed, in fact, ahahahahaha. Oh, please yourselves.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

just in case you're wondering....

....keep abreast of the very latest quantum spaghetti situation here.

the views of my right honourable member

More to follow on the US presidential election later, some of it no doubt in a serious and high-minded vein. Menwhile, in the wake of the media feeding frenzy prompted by the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's Republican running-mate, much of which revolved around the fact that she's a woman, 44, and not unattractive in a slightly scary sort of way, I was prompted to think, in a sort of follow-up to my Women Who Rock list, about Women In Politics, who you, well, you know, who you would, if you follow me. Here's a few for you:
  • Oona King. Former Labour MP for Bethnal Green & Bow and now occasional TV presenter. A lady of considerable charm and erudition, which makes it all the more regrettable that I have to introduce the phrase three cock gob at this point.
  • Julia Goldsworthy. Lib Dem MP for Falmouth & Camborne. Slightly posh and schoolmarmish-looking, but in a good way.
  • Virginia Bottomley. Every teenager's guilty secret during the Thatcher years. It's the posh thing again, I think, plus the suspicion that she might just possibly be into dressing up in a rubber Gestapo uniform in the bedroom and demanding to see if your papers were in order. And also that both parts of her name sound, well, you know, a bit rude. It's also an anagram of "I'm an evil Tory bigot", amusingly.
  • Yulia Tymoshenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine. It's the braids. And it's not just me, look.
  • Mara Carfagna, Italian equalities minister and former topless model. The Italians seem to go in for this sort of thing a lot. Remember La Cicciolina?
  • Rachida Dati, French Minister of Justice. She could deal out some harsh brutal justice to me any time, etc., etc.
  • Several of Zapatero's new Spanish cabinet, including Bibiana Aído, Carme Chacón (pictured) and Beatriz Corredor. I wouldn't mind having a look up her corredor, etc., etc.
  • And, of course, Ségolène Royal.
  • And Hillary Clinton. Come on, you would, wouldn't you, guys? Guys?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

another merciless sweep through Europe

Just a few notes on our trip to Austria last week:

We flew from Gatwick to Salzburg with Thomsonfly; the flight out was about an hour late but apart from that it was all pretty trouble-free.

We stayed at Haus Hislop in Inneralpbach, about 90 minutes drive from Salzburg (or half an hour or so from Innsbruck, but flights there are a bit more seasonal, not to mention expensive, not to mention a bit more hair-raising as there is a bit of a tricky mountainous approach by all accounts). The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that Hislop isn't an Austrian name, and in fact the place is run by Claire Hislop, who's originally from Yorkshire and moved out to Inneralpbach in a Place In The Sun stylee a few years ago after purchasing the plot of land on which Haus Hislop now stands with her twin brother. We booked via the Owners Direct website - further information about Haus Hislop can be found here. The house, the location and Claire's mildly eccentric hospitality are all highly recommended - my top tip is to go for apartment 4 as you then get the use of the fantastic first floor balcony. It's an obvious point to make, perhaps, but being able to make enquiries and finalise arrangements for arrival and departure with someone who speaks English is a huge advantage (unless you happen to speak fluent German). Claire will even do a run to the local supermarket for you to pick up some essentials if you're going to arrive after the shops shut (as we did).

Inneralpbach is pretty small but there are a few local hot-spots, especially the excellent Zirmalm restaurant. We wandered up there for dinner on the Thursday night only to find that the place had been reserved for a private party for the landlord's 50th birthday - nonetheless (possibly due to us having Claire with us, who seems to be a bit of a local celeb) they fitted us in, rustled up a Wiener Schnitzel or two and plied us with free beer and schnapps all evening.

Most people's reaction when asked to think of Austrian cuisine is to conjure up images of massive piles of pork chops and cabbage with potato dumplings, perhaps with a couple of gallons of cream sauce sloshed over the top, and there's more than a grain of truth in this. I would urge you to give the spätzle a try, though, as they're pretty good. Here's a recipe; otherwise they are available in packets from the supermarket, as pictured.

As with the trip to Amsterdam, amusingly named food products are available to the eagle-eyed photographer. Here's a couple that we found in the Spar supermarket in Kramsach:

The Alpbach valley is surrounded by some interesting peaks, the highest one in the immediate vicinity being the Großer Galtenberg, which just happens to be right behind Haus Hislop. So there was no way we were going to be able to get away without going and standing on top of it, which we duly did. It's a long hard steep slog, but presents no particular technical difficulty; it's no more difficult than, say, going up Ben Nevis from Fort William. Heightwise it's pretty impressive though at 2424 metres (7953 feet), which makes it comfortably the highest mountain I've ever climbed. I think the previous record-holder was Ben Lomond near Queenstown in New Zealand at 1751 metres (5747 feet) which I went up when I was there back in 2001.

A couple of days after the Galtenberg trip we went tubing with Sport Ossi near Kramsach - basically flinging yourself down a set of river rapids on top of an inflated tractor inner tube. Great fun.

We drank lots of excellent beer, mainly in the Märzen style; Gösser and Zipfer being the best ones, I would say. We also drank some excellent wine (red, mainly), which shouldn't be a surprise, but the Austrian wine industry is still tainted by its association with the diethylene glycol scandal in the 1980s, unfortunately. Say "Austrian wine" to anyone over 35 and they'll snigger and say "anti-freeze", myself included.

General photos (including our ascent of the Galtenberg) can be found here; the ones of our tubing expedition are in a separate gallery here.

mmmmmm......quantum spaghetti

I know it's not all that important in the grand cosmic scheme of things, not with the world being about to end tomorrow and everything when they switch the Large Hadron Collider on, but can I just point out that the Daily Telegraph have totally nicked my jokes about obscenity filters and search-and-replace algorithms from a couple of months back in this article from last week? At least I had the good manners to reference the original Daily WTF article I'd nicked it from in the first place.

Maybe this is all just evidence of some weird relativistic effects going on and reaching back in time from the moment, sometime tomorrow, when the universe collapses in on itself like water going down a plughole and we all get turned (painfully I should imagine) into spaghetti. Maybe the Telegraph article actually pre-dates mine, and it's only by reading it that I've fixed it in time in some crazy quantum way. And what's that dead cat doing in here?

There's certainly something weird going on - one of the senior CERN physicists, Brian Cox (no, not that one) apparently used to be the keyboard player for mid-90s synth-pop band D:Ream. That can't be right, surely? Next week (not that there will be a next week): Elton John sequences the human genome.

Monday, September 08, 2008

the last book I read

A Small Death In Lisbon by Robert Wilson.

Catarina Oliveira, the daughter of a prominent lawyer, is found murdered on the seafront near Lisbon. Police inspector Zé Coelho, assigned to the case, has to unravel a tangled web of intrigue leading back to the wartime Nazi occupation of Portugal and a complex trail of betrayal and revenge.

I don't read a lot of "straight" thrillers these days, and I have to confess that I picked this one up for two reasons, firstly that it looked a bit out of the normal run of utter ludicrousness, and secondly that it was being offered for 99p in conjunction with a copy of The Times, a few years back now. I'm pleased to say that my literary instincts seem to be as keen as my bargain-hunting ones, as this is very good.

With any primarily plot-driven novel such as this the reviewer has to tread a fine line between giving the reader enough juicy worms to tempt them to read it and spoiling the whole thing by revealing various vital plot points. If I say that the plot divides itself between Portugal during World War II and the activities of the SS in particular, the tensions brought about by the Portuguese coup of 1974, and Zé Coelho's murder investigation in the late 1990s, all of which turn out to be connected, that should be vague enough for you.

It's not just the similarity of spelling that links Zé Coelho to Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen - they share a number of other features as well: a recently ended marriage (divorce in Zen's case, death in Coelho's), a penchant for unsuitable liaisons with female witnesses, a more general procedural unorthodoxy and an almost supernatural nose for finding the truth, sometimes almost by accident. Wilson's novel is much more detailed and tightly plotted then any of the Zen novels, though, which are much more concerned with atmosphere and the amusingly glum antics of the central character.

A Small Death In Lisbon won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award in 1999. In typically anally retentive style I have to observe that I've read the previous winners from 1997, 1991, 1988 (Dibdin again), 1987, 1979 and 1963, as well as the Silver Dagger winners for 1994 and 1987.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

the second last book I read

The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright.

Charles and Daphne Judd have retreated to rural Cornwall to see out their retirement. Their three children have pursued differing paths: youngest Sophie does some unspecified gofer-ing job in the advertising industry in London and is cultivating an affair with an older colleague and a drug habit; middle child Charlie is about to become a dotcom millionaire from his online sock-selling business and is shortly to become a husband and father with his exotic girlfriend Ana; oldest child Juliet is about to be released from prison in America after serving a two-year sentence for her involvement in the theft of a Tiffany stained-glass window from a New York graveyard.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections at this point, as there are a number of similarities between that novel and this one, although this one gets its similar business out of the way a lot more economically (306 pages instead of 653) - the mother organising the family reunion as a desperate attempt to bring everyone together, the black sheep/prodigal son/daughter threatening to throw a spanner in the works, the increasingly eccentric father doing his best to do the same.

Like The Corrections, my main complaint is an entirely unreasonable one of structure and my expectations thereof - specifically, that the implicit point everything is building up to (Juliet's homecoming to her parents' house in Cornwall) is constantly delayed by flashbacks and digressions to the point where it seems almost an afterthought tacked on right at the end, and seems to be resolved a bit too glibly to be convincing. Given that that's an unreasonable criticism, I'd have to say I enjoyed it. Also, just as an aside, the term "keester bunny" really is a genuine slang term used in prisons.

the third last book I read

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

Bloke hangs out with some teenage friends in orthodox coming-of-age stylee. Bloke's closest friend commits suicide. Bloke has brief sexual encounter with late best friend's girlfriend. Girlfriend goes mad and is confined to institution. Bloke mopes a bit. Another young girl at university develops largely inexplicable interest in bloke, pursues him in quirky fashion. Bloke mopes a bit more, visits object of largely inexplicable obsession in mental institution, has crisis of indecision, mopes. Institutionalised object of largely inexplicable obsession tops herself. Bloke has further crisis of indecision, has to decide whether to pursue other girl or continue moping career indefinitely. Betting ends!

On a more serious note: this is the novel which made Murakami a superstar in his native Japan, and forced hime to go and live in Europe and the USA for several years to get away from the madness. This is only the second Murakami that I've read, but the similarities and differences between this one and the previous one, A Wild Sheep Chase, are instructive. The similarities are many: a general air of surreality, and a slight feeling that actual real people don't behave quite like this, a mild obsession with women's ears and mysterious forested locations. The differences are many too, though: Norwegian Wood is much more linear and less bizarre, more of an orthodox love story (Christ knows what A Wild Sheep Chase was actually about, good though it was).

You can see why this was the Murakami novel that sold millions, but at the same time you might feel, having read some books more typical of his unique style, that something has been lost in the process. You might also say that I should read a few more to justify coming to such a conclusion, and you'd probably be right. I'll get back to you.