Tuesday, March 31, 2009

i never promised you a herb garden

It's now over a year since the Night Of The Long Shears and (a bit of weeding aside) we haven't really done much with the garden beyond occasionally sitting in it eating barbecued food and necking wine (not that there's anything wrong with that). So, inspired by another visit from my parents on Monday, we set about tidying things up a bit. Here's a couple of views of the state of play before we started:

- and here's how things looked after a bit of frenzied pruning, some digging out of rubble and a trip down to our local B&Q to pick up a few plants and some compost.

The stuff that my glamorous assistant is watering is our new herb patch, which I'm hopeful will survive without being chomped down to the ground by slugs. We'll have to wait and see. Unfortunately my ruthless pruning of the privet bush in the picture(s) on the left exposed a blackbird nest (with some chicks in it) to the elements, and I think the parents may have abandoned it. Which is a shame, obviously, but I'm not going to get all maudlin about it. The blackbird is not exactly an endangered species, after all, and I'm confident Mr. & Mrs. Blackbird would agree that the wholesale slaughter of their offspring is a small price to pay for me to have some nice herbs to put on my dinner.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

we have always been at war with eastasia

Last one today: I know I've missed the boat a bit as far as World Book Day goes, what with it being three weeks ago and all, but I'm struck by their list of books people claim to have read but haven't. Here's the top ten, in case you missed it:

1. 1984 - George Orwell (42%)
2. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (31%)
3. Ulysses - James Joyce (25%)
4. The Bible (24%)
5. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (16%)
6. A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking (15%)
7. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie (14%)
8. In Remembrance of Things Past - Marcel Proust (9%)
9. Dreams from My Father - Barack Obama (6%)
10. The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins (6%)

- many of which are entirely understandable, as long as you accept that it's reasonable for people to lie about these things; I mean, Ulysses, War And Peace and À la recherche du temps perdu are all big forbidding tomes that one could be forgiven for not quite getting round to (though I'd like it noted that I have read War And Peace). What I find utterly extraordinary is that one might lie about having read Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most thrilling and accessible and yet life-changing novels ever written, and really not all that long at 300 or so pages. If you're over, say, 16, and you haven't read it, I don't care whether you lie about it habitually or not, get a copy and read it.

further corny material

Here's a recipe. I don't do baking, generally, as it requires a degree of exactitude in terms of measurement of ingredients and cooking times that I simply can't be arsed to adhere to, but this is very easy. So:

Cornbread Muffins
  • 150g cornmeal (or polenta, if you will)
  • 125g plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 250ml milk
No need to ponce about mixing them in any particular order; my advice is just to chuck it all in a food processor and blitz it into a grainy yellow batter. Then divvy it up into a twelve-muffin muffin tin and stick it in a 400F oven for about 20 minutes. What you end up with is something like this:

Classically you'd eat these with chilli con carne or something like that, but, hey, knock yourselves out.

what do you call an Irish double-glazing salesman?

Here are two jokes. I'd like you to give me your opinion on them. First, joke number 1:
Q: What do you call an Indian cloakroom attendant?
A: Mahatma Coat
You can probably see where this is going. Now, joke number 2:
Q: What do you call a Scottish cloakroom attendant?
A: Angus McCoatup
Now, what I'd like you to do is to explain which of those jokes is racist. Take your time. Your options are:

a) joke 1
b) joke 2
c) both
d) neither

Of course this isn't something I've just plucked out of the air; joke 1 (with a small variation which I'll come to in a minute) is the one that recently got David Jason into trouble after he told it on Christian O'Connell's radio show.

Generally deconstructing humour to see how it works is a pretty pointless exercise. It's very much like deconstructing your cat to see how it works - you might learn something useful, but that particular cat will never be quite the same again. However, I think it's worth pursuing a bit here, at least to the extent of observing that both of the jokes above work in exactly the same way, i.e. by making a fairly facile pun out of what an outsider might deem to be a typical name for someone from the country in question.

Back to the pop quiz above - clearly c) and d) are logically consistent positions to hold. I suspect b) is an opinion that would be held by very few except the odd rabid Scottish nationalist. If you're going to go for a) you've got three options open to you as I see it, and they are:
  • argue that David Jason's mis-telling of the joke by using the word "Pakistani" instead of "Indian" (Mahatma being a Sanskrit word denoting a figure of great veneration and respect, like, most famously, Gandhi) is indicative of an unthinking racism of the "they all look the same to me" variety - the implication therefore being that the version as written above would not be considered racist
  • argue that the apparent misuse of "Mahatma" as a given name rather than a title is indicative of racism - the implication being that everyone who refers to "Mahatma Gandhi" in that way is guilty of the same thing, however respectful the context
  • argue that although the two jokes are identically structured, the background context of abuse, colonial occupation and repression of Asian countries by Westerners makes it unacceptable to apply it in this way; again, McGlashan might disagree
My preference is for option d), and for everyone to just chill out a bit.

For further deconstruction of quasi-humorous material as presented by David Jason, here's Stewart Lee (from the excellent new series Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle) with a lengthy rant on the subject of the Del Boy falling through the bar clip from Only Fools And Horses.

And if you haven't already heard the joke referenced in the title of this blog post, the punchline is: Paddy O'Doors. Yes, you've rumbled me - I am a racist. You bog-trotting shamrock-munching toothless ginger kneecapping terrorist bastards.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Evangelical Christian halfwit and fruit enthusiast Ray Comfort, and Welsh rugby legend Gerald Davies.

It does seem almost sacrilegious to juxtapose these two, but there is a resemblance, and Electric Halibut is nothing if not scrupulously fair and even-handed in all matters.

As it happens Hazel was privileged enough to meet Gerald Davies (who will manage the 2009 Lions in South Africa) a couple of nights ago at an event she was photographing - an privilege only slightly tarnished by not really knowing who he was. Anyone in a similar position should follow some of the upcoming links - a specific YouTube search on his name doesn't bring back much, but he features heavily in two rather good compilations of 1970s Welsh rugby moments: Davies tries (some of the 20 he scored in 46 appearances for Wales) feature at (approximately) 1:10, 2:20, 4:30, 6:00, 7:30 and 8:00 in part 1 and at 1:20, 3:35 and 4:05 in part 2. Couple of further footnotes - the try against Scotland at 1:10 in part 1 is the try that set up John Taylor for the "greatest conversion since St. Paul" to give Wales a 19-18 win and set them up for the 1971 Grand Slam. Also featured at about 1:50 in part 2 is Davies' involvement in the build-up to Phil Bennett's try against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1977 that still features in most top ten lists (mine included).

As for Ray Comfort the best I can muster is further mockery and some advice not to disrespect the banana. Remember the gruesome fate Viz characters Billy "He's Got A Head Shaped Like A Banana" Bananahead and Tommy "He's Got A Big Banana" Johnson were doomed to suffer at the end of every strip in which they featured.

And don't forget the dangers inherent in being attacked by someone armed with a piece of fresh fruit.

Monday, March 23, 2009

11 girls 1 cup

Hearty congratulations to the England women's cricket team for winning the World Cup in Australia at the weekend. And hearty condemnation to the reporting media for not working in the title of this blog post as a headline somewhere in the aftermath. My having used it now may skew slightly the highly informative xkcd survey on the subject - in case you're unaware of the context I would advise extreme caution in actually doing any of the Google searches specified. I'd certainly advise against clicking on "Images" if you do.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

work the banana. cradle the grapes. say my name.

work it, babyLet's laugh at some lunatics: we haven't done that for a while. Here's the priceless Ray Comfort on why bananas - yes, bananas - prove the existence of God. Stop sniggering at the back.

Well, obviously there's a couple of problems with this, most notably that the banana in its current form is a prime example of deliberate cultivation and artificial selection by man (wild bananas being somewhat lumpy and unpalatable). Also, because the propagation process involves non-sexual reproduction (cuttings taken from cuttings taken from cuttings, and so on) and therefore all cultivated bananas being genetically identical, the current Cavendish strain is in danger of being wiped out (as a commercially viable concern, at least) by disease, just as its apparently more delicious predecessor the Gros Michel was in the 1950s. Not a very clever piece of "design" after all, then, really.

Amusingly, Comfort now claims that the video that's been doing the rounds for some time now has been "doctored", and that the original version a) contained some reference to a can of Coke, which was removed, and b) was a parody anyway. So to ignorance about fruit cultivation and the theory of evolution you can add not knowing what the word "parody" means. And, if you were feeling particularly judgmental, being a big fat liar who looks just a little bit like a 1970s German porn star. Isn't there something in the Ten Commandments about not lying? I don't know about the porn star bit, maybe that business about not coveting thy neighbour's ass covers it.

There are other problems with the banana theory, such as this: if the banana's seemingly perfect design proves, or at least strongly suggests, the existence of God, what about things that are more difficult to eat? Why is it so bloody messy eating a mango? What about all those spiky bits on the outside of a pineapple? And don't even get me started on vegetables. Is the globe artichoke conclusive proof for the existence of Satan? I would say yes: yes it is.

Finally, consider this: are we saying everything shaped roughly like a banana was designed specifically for fitting in the human mouth? Try that one on your girfriend tonight and see how far you get. Or, conversely, are we saying that every orifice in the human body of roughly similar dimensions to the mouth was specifically designed for having bananas stuck in it? Try that one.....well, you get the idea.

Ray's blog can be found here and has lots more stuff to amuse, astound and stupefy.

mars holes

Here's something tangentially linked to my previous post: when Laurie aka Silk Spectre travels to Mars with Dr. Manhattan to try to convince him to end his self-imposed exile there and return to Earth to prevent nuclear Armageddon, the pair go on a brief tour of the Martian landscape in the bizarre craft Dr. M has magicked into existence. As always Alan Moore's research is spot on, so their tour includes two of the planet's most distinctive features: Olympus Mons (the largest known mountain in the Solar System at over 88,000 feet above the planet's surface) and the Valles Marineris (the largest known canyon, with the obvious exception of yo mamma), before finishing up at the Galle Crater which mimics (if you squint a bit) the book's trademark smiley-face motif.

Anyway, Google Mars now provides the facility for looking at all this stuff in more detail. Here's Olympus Mons, Valles Marineris and the Galle Crater.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the last book I read

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Well now. You might remember I made some slightly scornful reference to comic books and graphic novels in a post a while back. But a couple of things sowed the seeds of curiosity with regard to this particular one - firstly, I'm aware that it's always been regarded as the War And Peace, the Ulysses, the Citizen Kane if you will of graphic novels, secondly it's recently been lavishly filmed, and thirdly Amazon were flogging it for half price. So I thought all right, I'll give it a go.

We're in 1985, but it's a slightly different 1985 - Nixon is still president, kept on for several extra terms by the success of the war in Vietnam (and the successful cover-up of the Watergate conspiracy after the mysterious, hem hem, "accidental" deaths of Woodward and Bernstein), electric cars are commonplace, and, most obviously, this is a world where masked superheroes operate to fight crime, although they've been outlawed since 1977, and most of them now lead normal lives with their capes and masks stashed away at the back of the wardrobe. The only one whose activities retain official sanction is Dr. Manhattan, who coincidentally is the only one with any actual superpowers. He acquired these as a result of being disintegrated to his constituent quarks in a lab accident in 1959; on reassembling himself by force of will a few months later he was found to possess near-godlike powers over matter. Needless to say this makes him a formidable Cold War deterrent.

The novel opens with the death of retired old-school superhero The Comedian, thrown out of an upper-story window to a messy death on the pavement below. This sends shockwaves through the clandestine ex-superhero community - malodorous maverick Rorschach, gadget-y Batman-alike Nite Owl, scantily clad temptress Silk Spectre and pompous Alexander The Great obsessive Ozymandias. Is there a conspiracy against ex-"masks"? It seems so, especially when a media campaign is cooked up against Dr. Manhattan which results in him exiling himself (via some handy teleporting capabilities) to Mars, Rorschach is arrested and an attempt is made on Ozymandias' life. Meanwhile, with Dr. Manhattan out of the picture, Russia is emboldened to invade Afghanistan and push the world closer to nuclear war.

Inevitably the ex-masks strap on the capes again and set out in the Owlmobile to kick some ass; said ass isn't quite whose or where they expect it to be, though. Dr. Manhattan, despite his increasing detachment from the concerns of the human race, is persuaded back from Mars, and there's a big superhero showdown in your classic Bond villian secret lair in Antarctica. Meanwhile a bizarre and grotesque tragedy plays itself out in New York, and the world has to adjust itself to a new sort of threat.

Lots of clever structural tricks - each chapter is closed with a bit of related text: extracts from an ex-mask's autobiography, contemporary news articles, interviews with some of the protagonists, letters, etc. Interspersed throughout some chapters is a parallel narrative, Tales Of The Black Freighter, presented as another comic book being read by one of the minor characters and which shadows some of the events in the main narrative. Even within the main story the timeline is fractured and non-linear.

So has my mind been changed? Well, not entirely. It's undoubtedly very clever, and various eminent critics like it enough to include it (as the only graphic novel to make the list) in Time magazine's list of the 100 best 20th-century novels. Any novel celebrating, however qualifiedly, the activities of superheroes is going to struggle not to have a slightly fascistic Nietzschean quality to it, though; in addition there's a note of slightly fastidious disgust with sex and physicality in general as befits the slight detachment from everyday reality of a bloke who lives a slightly hermitic existence in Northampton, of all places. I just think, in a more general sense, there's a question over the justification of the use of the word "novel". What reading something like this resembles much more is going to a movie; the irony of its protracted journey from book to film is that although it may only be now that CGI technology has advanced sufficiently to realise the effects required, there's always been an instant storyboard in the form of the book itself - you could just lift many scenes as drawn and film them. Not much "interpretation" required, in other words.

It's good to try new things. And, although I'd qualify my praise by saying I'm probably not going to be rushing out to buy another job lot of graphic novels, I enjoyed it. Some of the artwork is terrific, particularly the rendering of the Martian landscape during Dr. Manhattan's brief exile there. And although Alan Moore shares with Iain Banks, among others, the slightly irritating fault of not being quite as clever as he thinks he is, he tells a compelling story, even if it does get a bit silly towards the end. Just don't imagine that this gets you as many points as a "proper" novel.

Monday, March 09, 2009

handling magnets: here's a couple of tips

Remember the magic pixie dust severed finger miracle cure story? Here's a similar one - similar in that the "after" pictures are remarkable in the degree of regeneration that's happened (with no magic being involved). The original accident is a bit more interesting, though - the older story had the unlucky bloke sticking his hand into a model aeroplane propellor; this one was a far more spectacular accident with a pair of bulky neodymium magnets.

The problem with these, and the reason even the pretty well-informed get into trouble with them, is the counter-intuitive strength the big ones have - we tend to think of magnets as being just about strong enough to do amusing tricks with iron filings and paper clips with, or to stick postcards of the Eiffel Tower to the door of your fridge with, but step out of line with the big rare-earth magnets and they can and will mash various sensitive and vital parts of your anatomy into pâté before you have time to blink. As a gentleman called Dirk discovered when he handled a couple of big chunky blocks with insufficient respect and had the end of his finger flattened to a fraction of a millimetre thick. Exaggeration? Take a look at this:

The pink matter trapped between the magnets is the remains of Dirk's fingertip - the thing that looks like a little sliver of metal is his fingernail. Some more graphic and gruesome pictures, as well as a fuller description of the accident, can be found here. Scroll down to the bottom, though, and you'll see some pictures from a few months later. I mean, it's not the prettiest finger in the world, but it's quite a remarkable improvement nonetheless.

As ever, Dan has more informative and educational detail. You should be careful following any of the links in the comments section here, though, as there seems to be a bit of disgusting image oneupmanship going on. Don't say you weren't warned.

sonic cathedrals

I don't normally succumb to Facebook memes, but the fake album covers one that's currently going around piqued my interest a bit, so I thought I'd give it a try. If you're a deeply disturbed individual like myself, you can imagine what the fake album inside the fake cover might sound like.

Instructions can be found at any of the links above, but it seems to be a condition of the meme that I replicate them here, and it's probably bad juju not to, so here they are:
My fake album collection looks like this:

1) Weather Forecasts And Economists by Molly Hagan

I think Molly is probably some sort of bespectacled Lisa Loeb-alike, maybe slightly more tending to the macrobiotic hippy end of the scale, with a hemp skirt and Birkenstocks.

2) On Hurting That Bothers Me by BLS

I think BLS are probably a bit Nine Inch Nails meets Korn, or so they'd like to think. Probably a bit more like Linkin Park, really.

3) And You're Halfway There by Exhibition Of The Industry Of All Nations

This lot do wordy indie-pop that's just a little bit too pleased with its own cleverness; a bit like Scritti Politti used to do, or Maxïmo Park more recently.

4) Make Us Least From Ourselves by Stoner Creek Stud

Imagine Kings Of Leon crossed with Godspeed You! Black Emperor. You've still got the artfully distressed facial hair and the tight jeans, but also longer, heavier songs with more atonal skronking and bonging going on. If this really existed, I'd buy it; it sounds brilliant.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

a finger of fudge is just enough to get you twenty years in the nonce wing

Right. Never let it be said that Electric Halibut doesn't tackle the pressing and thorny fudge-related issues of the day head-on. So, without further ado, Cadbury's Fudge bars. There are two, and only two, things to be said here. You'll need to listen to the famous jingle first, which, if you're of a similar age to me, you'll be able to sing along with word-for-word.

Firstly, what the heck does "full of peppery goodness" mean? Now I know it's actually "full of Cadbury goodness", but listen and tell me (about 12 seconds into the YouTube clip I just linked) that that's what he's actually singing. That's right, "peppery". Christ knows why. I mean, it tastes of fudge to me.

Secondly, is it just me or does the famous phrase "a finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat" sound just a little bit dodgy? It's PAEDOGEDDON! Erm, again. I mean, granted, a Mars bar would be worse, what with being all thick and veiny and all, but no-one's suggesting that, are they?

it's snow joke

Some more photos for you, this time from our trip up Snowdon at the weekend. This was a group of about ten of us, mainly from Hazel's business networking group, walking to raise money for the son of one of the participants, who has cerebral palsy (and more generally for the Bobath Centre).

We went up the Pyg (or Pig, or PYG, take your pick) track and down the Llanberis path. I don't know why the Pyg and Miner's routes are traditionally suffixed "track" while all the others are suffixed "path", but there it is nonetheless. This nice interactive clicky map thing gives you a good idea of the contrasting routes up the mountain (as does its Wikipedia page).

The two main routes I have yet to try are the Watkin Path from the south (arguably the most "honest" way up as it starts from only 200 feet above sea level and thus involves the most ascent; the Pyg track by contrast starts at the Pen-y-pass car park at about 1200 feet) and the Crib Goch traverse, which branches off from the Pyg track about halfway up and is apparently somewhat hair-raising, as can be gauged from the recent couple of deaths up there, and many more in the past - quite a large proportion of which were caused, I would guess, by people missing the Pyg track turn at the junction and stumbling up onto, and subsequently off, a 3000-foot knife-edge mountain ridge in jeans and trainers carrying a Tesco's carrier bag full of Stella. If one has designs, as I do, on one day doing the Welsh 3000s Challenge, though, Crib Goch is an integral part of it. I think some spare pants may be required, though.

After Wayne aka Joe's sterling efforts in organising the whole thing I should also plug his website - a group of linked business ventures offering everything from fine champagne to luxury apartment rental to finance for your next combine harvester purchase. I don't think that he has any connection to the somewhat bizarre-sounding Joe Fizz Coffee Soda, though.

The lavishly rebuilt summit café and toilet block (and railway terminus and probably tea-towel shop and who knows what else) appear to be just about complete, but aren't open yet. I don't know that there is an official opening date set yet - the semi-official summit blog has some interesting photos of progress, but the last entry is for September 2008 (only a couple of months after Hazel and I were up there last).

Monday, March 02, 2009

celebrity encounter of the day

Meant to mention this in the general Edinburgh post - we got the early morning flight from Cardiff and while we were blearily waiting around at the baggage reclaim conveyor belt at Edinburgh airport at about 8am somebody whispered to their travelling companion, "Hey, isn't that John Higgins over there? You know, the snooker bloke."

And sure enough, it was the Wizard of Wishaw himself, looking slightly unshaven and morose and standing off to one side reading a newspaper and trying to look inconspicuous - though picking up a really long thin suitcase off the conveyor along with his normal suitcase was a bit of a giveaway. It turns out he'd been beaten by Australia's Neil Robertson in the second round of the Welsh Open the night before. Lucky he's a reformed character these days or we might have had a repeat of this incident, and I might have been obliged to get all vigilante on his ass and subdue him.

Previous thrilling near-encounters with Z-list celebrities can be found here and here.