Tuesday, July 31, 2007

album of the day

Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

In theory it sounds great to have a whole bunch of independent singer-songwriters in your band; everyone's only got to write a couple of songs each, so you can just cherry-pick the best ones from each party.

Of course in practice this can make for rather lumpy and inconsistent albums; the later Beatles albums, for instance, like The White Album or Abbey Road, suffer from this problem.

And, to be fair, so does this one. The first Crosby, Stills & Nash album was a bit more consistent in tone, but the addition of Neil Young to the mix had a couple of effects: a slightly harder and more electric sound and a general increase in the levels of anarchy and chaos - this is par for the course for anyone working with Young, as Jimmy McDonough's fascinating biography Shakey makes clear.

So the album is divided into four distinct sections (all mixed up with each other): Stills' folk/rock numbers Carry On and 4+20 and his cover of Joni Mitchell's Woodstock, Crosby's amusing cocaine paranoia on Almost Cut My Hair and Déjà Vu, Nash's romantic pop sentiments on Teach Your Children (lovely) and Our House (nauseating), and Young's gorgeous Helpless and slightly overwrought Country Girl. Stills and Young's collaboration Everybody I Love You finishes things off.

The key to all this, of course, is the three and four-part harmonies, and I suppose it's a bit like loud electric guitars, in that it either sends shivers down the spine, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, take a look at yourself, have a word, and possibly have your vital signs, pulse, etc. checked.

incidental music spots of the day

A couple of Who songs on the opening credits to two of the CSI spin-offs: Won't Get Fooled Again on CSI: Miami and Baba O'Riley on CSI: New York on Five US. Both can be found on the essential Who album Who's Next from 1971.

I didn't watch much of CSI: New York, but I can say that CSI: Miami is undoubtedly one of the stupidest things I've ever seen on television. This is partly down to the absurd orange wash that is plastered over everything (especially the ludicrous bit at the end where they're all walking along the beach in silhouette), but it's mainly down to David Caruso. Maybe the orange filter is just put on to tone down the effect of his hair. Anyway, if you don't believe me, an amusing montage of ridiculousness has been compiled here.

Monday, July 30, 2007

probing the corridor of uncertainty

A few pictures from our weekend trip to Nottingham for the Test match between England and India at Trent Bridge can be found here. Sadly it looks as if our 100% record of England victories in matches we attend (England v Pakistan at Headingley in 2006 and England v Australia at Edgbaston in 2005 being the previous two - in the Ashes match the moment of victory occurring on the day we were actually there, which was nice) will be no more after tomorrow.

eco-apocalypse! so let's hide in a tunnel

Interesting article in the Independent today about what an imagined future world might look like if humanity were suddenly to disappear. Actually it's a preview of a new book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

It's an interesting thought experiment, a sort of turbo-Gaia (by which I mean the more cuddly Gaia-redresses-the-balance-of-things imaginings usually involve at least some humans surviving, even if they are reduced to savagery). As the article acknowledges, it's been done before (the imagining bit, not the extermination of humanity) - the two examples given here are a New Scientist article by Laura Spinney from a few years back which references the book After London by Richard Jefferies - written in 1885 and still in print, and the novel A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright.

I was mildly surprised at the omission of one particular name, though, because the whole premise screams JG Ballard to me. Ballard wrote a lot of books on these themes in the 1960s, from the more straightforward stuff like The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World and The Burning World (later republished as The Drought), to the later, weirder stuff like The Crystal World and Hello America. All of which is great, but for me his reputation rests on the more profoundly disturbing and experimental stuff he got into in the early 1970s. If you haven't read Crash (later filmed) and (in particular) The Atrocity Exhibition, then your life is missing something. More Ballard can be found here.

The picture I've included above is Europe After The Rain by Max Ernst, whose painting I like very much, as it seemed somehow appropriate. A portion of it was also used as the front cover design of a volume of Ballard short stories in the 1980s.

Anyway, the reason all this struck me with particular force was that when we were up in the Brecon Beacons last weekend we passed the remains of the Torpantau tunnel, formerly the highest railway tunnel in the UK (it closed in 1962). It's not part of the Taff Trail, though that does run along the trackbed nearby, but is very much still in existence, and you can get inside if you've got a decent pair of wellies and no qualms about what is, essentially, trespassing.

I was looking for a picture after getting home, and I found several, including this one. Two questions occurred to me at this point:
  • isn't it a slightly strange pursuit to keep an extensive archive of photographs of old railway tunnels? Interesting though some of them are...
  • and secondly, might an alien observer not conclude, on seeing some of these pictures, or on parting some wild verdant fronds to reveal the portal of one of these tunnels, quite likely in a secluded place well removed from any current evidence of human habitation or activity, that in fact the cataclysm envisaged at the start of this post had already occurred, and that we, the current dominant species on the planet, were simply following in the footsteps of some earlier, grander, more ambitious race?

Friday, July 27, 2007

random news articles

Inspired by Andy's cutting-edge research into all that's new in the world of poo, I humbly and respectfully submit this as the best news headline I've seen recently: Nude man has anal screwdriver.

And just in case you were starting to get a warm, fuzzy, cuddly, one big happy family kind of feeling about the human race, take a look at this, and the comments section in particular. I know it's a bit of a stretch to include those who read The Daily Express under the banner "the human race", but stay with me. The last comment (first chronologically) is the best, instantly rendering further comment pointless. It's so perfect you almost assume it has to be taking the piss. Er, and then you remember it's The Daily Express. They even manage to work a Princess Di reference in there as well. Genius.

Finally, did you know that Dick Cheney was President of The United States for a brief period earlier this week? Well, it's true - George W Bush was anaesthetised for a routine colonoscopy involving the removal of some polyps, and during that time the Veep assumed the powers of POTUS, to coin a couple of amusing colloquialisms. I seem to remember catching a whiff of brimstone, hearing the theme from The Omen in the air, seeing a baboon give birth to a badger - the little things that tell you something, somewhere, is Very Very Wrong. Others seem to have sensed the same thing. This Daily Show clip seems to have been removed from YouTube (do we detect the scaly taloned hand of Cheney at work again?), but the truth is still out there, if you know where to look.

I never drink......wine. Oh go on then

Wine. Sometimes a bottle just isn't enough.

That's an advertising slogan that I think could be a winner for the wine industry, though I'd be wanting a cut of any profits accruing from its use. They could pay me in wine, as a gesture of goodwill.

Anyway, if you do decide, in advance of making any oenophilic purchases, that a standard 75cl bottle just won't do the trick, your usual obvious course of action is to buy a box. 3 litres (i.e. four bottles' worth), and because there's no glass involved you can convince yourself that you're saving the planet into the bargain. Plus, you can, once it's finished, remove the internal foil bag, inflate it by blowing into the tap and use it as an emergency camping pillow.

Or....you can avail yourself of one of these (see below). This is a 5-litre box of Côtes du Ventoux from the excellent Cave de Sylla in Apt, which I bought when we were in Provence back in June. See how its bulging beefy majesty dwarfs the puny 3-litre box of Banrock Station Shiraz Mataro which I've included for comparison purposes. Also - the Aussie wine was a very reasonable £12.99 from my local Sainsbury's, but this one was a mere 14 euros, which, at today's exchange rate, works out at £9.38. So that's £1.88 a litre (£1.41 a bottle), compared with £4.33 a litre or £3.25 a bottle for the Aussie one. All depends on the quality of the wine as well, of course, but the Cave de Sylla allow you to do a bit of pre-emptive tasting before you buy, and this was definitely the best of the boxed ones.

Incidentally the legend on the left-hand side reads "un chant plein de lumière et fraternité", which I would translate as "a song full of light and brotherhood". Which is all well and good, though "a big box full of cheap booze" would probably have done just as well. There is a slogan on the other side as well, and it reads "il faut se rendre à ce palais magique" which I think broadly translates as "you must go to the magic palace". I've no idea what that means, but I suspect necking 5 litres of wine at one sitting might grant you some sort of insight. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, July 23, 2007

incidental music spot of the day

....Jacksonville by Sufjan Stevens (from the fabulous Come On Feel The Illinoise! album) on the little between-programme spots where they flash up the channel logo (just in case you'd forgotten which channel you were watching) on Five US on Freeview (I was waiting for House to start, since you ask). I believe they're called "idents", actually. In fact if you click on the Five US link here you'll hear a brief clip.

weekend fun

I'm lucky enough to have a very understanding and accommodating girlfriend. And I don't just mean the weird sexual stuff. An example for you: when the drizzly rainclouds settled over South Wales on Saturday like a blanket of rancid porridge, most people would have viewed my suggestion that we should probably go outside and climb some mountains with about as much delight as a bucket of tepid sick.

But, instead, she actually seemed to be (or at least gave a convincing act of being) quite keen, so off we went. To here, approximately, i.e. the red circle doesn't quite mark the place where we left the car, as it's halfway up a hill - it was actually in the car park marked just to the right of the circle. Then we walked up onto the ridge (following the pink diamond-marked path on the map, broadly) which bends around to the west towards Pen Y Fan, got all optimistic as the cloud seemed to be clearing a bit, got as far as the crossroads of paths below the ascent onto Cribyn (pictured, in somewhat better weather), realised the weather was getting worse and decided we probably ought to head down out of the clouds before we fell off the ridge, and descended via the path by the reservoir (top left on the map page above - hit the up arrow to see the rest, or click here).

Shame not to make it all the way round the Pen Y Fan ridge (which had been our original intention), but it did mean we were back in Cardiff early enough for a couple of pints of Brains SA for me and an SA Gold for Hazel in The Albany. So not all bad news then.

Walk photos can be seen here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

for the love of God

I wonder if it would be wrong of me to permit myself a brief chortle of glee at the High Court's throwing out of Lydia Playfoot's case against her school for preventing her wearing her so-called "purity ring" to school in contravention of its dress and jewellery code. Well, bugger it, I'm going to do it anyway. (It's probably wrong that the phrase "purity ring" makes me come over all Finbarr Saunders, as well. I was hoping to have the text "Lydia Playfoot's ring, yesterday" pop up when you hovered your mouse over the image, but I don't have the l33t skillz, or indeed the inclination, to work it out. Postscript: it works in IE, but not Firefox. I'll leave it now.)

Lydia Playfoot's ring, yesterdayPerhaps it would also be wrong of me to compare the deeply sinister Silver Ring Thing organisation (and their UK chapter with whom Lydia Playfoot is associated) with the Hitler Youth? It's the whole wholesome apple-cheeked Strength Through Joy jollity of it all, I think. And the intense humming of evil that emanates from them both.

Bottling stuff up, including perfectly natural and normal stuff, is always counterproductive - insert your own champagne bottle/dam burst/Cliff Richard's testicles metaphors here. There's plenty of anecdotal and more rigorous scientific evidence that in the area of sex education in particular what kids need is just information, delivered in a timely and non-judgmental way, ideally without any reference to the big magic pixie in the sky who'll be watching you and be really angry, for no rationally explicable reason, if you and that cute little redhead from your sailing group sneak off for a quick hand-job behind the boathouse.

In the light of all that, and observing that Lydia Playfoot looks quite young for her 16 years, it would probably still be very wrong of me to speculate that once the hormones kick in in a big way she'll be ravenously fellating the entire school first XI behind the science block.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tour de France extras, plus swearing

Things you can encounter while riding the Tour de France
  1. a dopey labrador
  2. Borat
Further non-cycling-related fun can be had here. Pick your favourite swear-word, or suggest some new ones. And be assured it is both big and clever. Skid pipe!

which is better - liar or twat? I dunno....

Amusing fall-out from the (unsurprisingly) abortive demo of Steorn's somewhat implausible perpetual motion machine in London a couple of weeks ago; an interview with the CEO of the company, Sean McCarthy.

Now claims for having actually produced a perpetual motion machine seem pretty uninteresting, in that doing such a thing violates some pretty fundamental laws of thermodynamics. I'll let you in in a secret: I reckon they haven't really done it. Bet against me if you like, but I'd recommend small-denomination banknotes.

No, in my view a more interesting question is the one prompted by reading the recent McCarthy interview. Now he comes across as reasonable, articulate, fairly knowledgeable about the scientific concepts involved (he has a background in mechanical engineering, apparently, though I don't know to what level), and humorously self-deprecating about the failure of the demo. So, you have to assume one of the following two things is true:
  • he is a charlatan who is trying to suck as much venture capital as possible into his completely fictional smoke-and-mirrors (and probably some big hefty batteries) project before finding a way to abscond with the loot;
  • he genuinely believes that his organisation has come up with something, and has deluded himself to such an extent that neither the failure of the demo, nor the comprehensive dismantling of it by the proper scientists, should they ever be allowed to look at it properly, will dissuade him.
This is a fascinating question - Eric Ash on the BBC plumps for the second option. I was going to say "charitably", but I'm not so sure it is; it's weighing up an intellectual crime against a moral one, and I'm not sure I have a correctly calibrated set of scales. My guess, for what it's worth, is that it's the first; a bit of lovable Irish blarney goes a long way. As does some sympathetic newspaper coverage of the "little guy" and his plucky fight against the stifling powers of scientific orthodoxy, especially when the little guy claims to have something that will benefit humanity.

An almost exact parallel of which was in the news this week as Andrew Wakefield was up before the beak for irregularities involved with his research into autism. Needless to say the papers used it (despite the specific case here having nothing to do with it) to rehash the tired old stories about the spurious "link" between MMR and autism. None of which was very interesting, but asking the same two questions about Wakefield is: i.e. is he a charlatan whose motivation was just financial, or does he really believe what he says, despite his own claims being disowned by his co-workers at the time, his methodology being comprehensively dismantled, and all the studies done before and since the scare (well, sadly it's still very much alive) showing no link whatsoever?

I have no idea. Next week, how wi-fi causes global warming. Wi-fi is pretty recent, right? And global warming is like, recent too, yeah? QED.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

back in the saddle again

It's the start of the second week of the Tour de France, so it's about time the world, or at least that infinitesimally small proportion of it that drop in on this blog occasionally, knew what I think about the whole event.

Here's what I believe to be a few salient observations about the Tour de France:
  • It is, without doubt, and by a distance, the most gruelling, athletically, physically and mentally demanding event in world sport. Imagine cycling from, say, Cardiff to London every day for three weeks, with that routine only broken by the occasional stage which is either a shorter (40 miles, say) individual time trial where you've just got to hammer the whole thing out as fast as you can, or a mountain stage involving cycling up mountains twice the height of Ben Nevis.
  • Consequently, while cycling still has a bit of a doping problem, what's even more surprising is that there are guys who can complete the course at all without being out of their minds on drugs.
  • There are certain parallels between watching the Tour and watching Test match cricket, in that each day's action is long drawn-out (a full-length stage can last between 4 and 6 hours) comprising long periods in which not much happens, punctuated with moments of frantic action.
  • The flat mass-finish stages aren't all that interesting, to be honest, except for aficionados of sprint-finishing (i.e. the fight for the green jersey, probably the least interesting of the individual competitions). The real interest is in the mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrénées, and in the various individual time trials which are where the Tour is won and lost.
  • Usually the winner is a time trial specialist who can hold his own in the mountains. All the great multiple Tour winners of recent years, Armstrong, Indurain, LeMond and Hinault, have fallen into this category.
  • Interestingly the Tour this year might be won by a pure climber, Michael Rasmussen. It's quite rare for this to happen, the last time was in 1998 when the late Marco Pantani won. The last man to win the King Of The Mountains competition and the overall yellow jersey in the same year was the legendary Eddy Merckx in 1970.
My first memory of watching the Tour de France was in 1985 when we went for a family holiday to Brittany. This was the year of the last of Bernard Hinault's five victories, and he was a Breton, so the whole place went quite literally bonkers. I don't remember watching much of Greg LeMond's first win the following year (the picture is of LeMond and Hinault, who finished second in 1986, ascending the legendary Alpe D'Huez), but I watched most of 1987's Tour when Irishman Steven Roche narrowly beat Pedro Delgado, including a legendarily insane mountain descent to make up a potentially Tour-losing time deficit and put him on course to be only the second man to achieve the legendary Triple Crown of Tour of Italy, Tour de France and World Championship in the same year (the inevitable Merckx being the other).

I also clearly remember LeMond's two victories in 1989 and 1990 after a life-threatening shooting accident in 1987, including the closest Tour victory in history when he hurtled through Paris at record speed to deny local boy Laurent Fignon (the picture is of Fignon and LeMond racing wheel-to-wheel the same year) in the closing time trial in 1989. The Indurain years, 1991-1995, were a triumph of ruthless efficiency over excitement, and the Armstrong years, through no fault of Armstrong's, were a bit monotonous as he ruthlessly destroyed the competition every year.

This year's Tour looks like it could be the most wide-open for years, and hopefully without the drug scandals that have dogged cycling in the past, not least after Floyd Landis' (now disputed) win last year. We'll see. The finish is on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday the 29th, but the likelihood is the Tour will be decided by the end of the last mountain stage on Wednesday 25th, or at the latest in the final individual time trial on Saturday 28th. My guess is it'll either be Rasmussen (pictured), if he can grab enough time on the mountains, or one of the allrounders like Andreas Klöden or Cadel Evans, if they can nick enough time off Rasmussen in the time trials.

Monday, July 16, 2007

high five!

Finally got round to signing up to Facebook this evening - I can already see it's going to be hugely addictive, particularly for people who have far more friends than me. I'm sure it's a force for good, socially speaking, though, unless you're some kind of crazy sinister stalker type (and no way am I one of those). Already, just to give you a for instance, I have made contact, of a sort, with my old mate Graham who I haven't spoken to, still less seen, for many years. There is an argument to be had about whether sitting hunched over computers in separate rooms, and indeed separate cities, really constitutes "socialising" in any rational sense, but hey, at least you can't catch anything.

Postscript: this appears to provide a link to my profile. What with the whole cross-confirmation of friendship thing the uninitiated may find it doesn't work. So sign up already!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

the last book I read

The Anatomist by Federico Andahazi.

Here's one to recommend to your grandmother. Physician Mateo Colombo discovers the clitoris, scandalises mediaeval Italy and is banged up in prison for heresy and Satanism.

It's based on a true story, in the sense that Mateo Colombo was a real person, who did some genuinely groundbreaking work in the area of blood circulation, work later built upon by our very own William Harvey. It is also true that he published a work called De Re Anatomica which included mention of "the seat of pleasure" in women, but the claim that this is "the discovery of the clitoris" is somewhat dubious to say the least.

None of which really matters, as this is a work of fiction after all. And a generally pretty entertaining one, though also fairly light and insubstantial. It received a lot of publicity when it was published in Argentina in 1997 as it was awarded a major prize which was then rescinded at the request of the prize sponsor on the grounds that the author was a "Communist porn artist". You can't pay for that sort of advertising, especially when your themes are sex, science and the suppression of knowledge.

That's part of the problem, though - the suppression of knowledge (particularly sexual) and the repression of women in the 16th century are pretty easy targets, and the Mateo Colombo presented here is a strange and enigmatic figure whose motivations are never entirely clear, beyond of course experimenting with the effects of drugs by getting fellated by prostitutes after smearing his penis with belladonna. Then again who hasn't done that? Anyway, it's an entertaining read whose subject matter and the furore surrounding its publication suggest a profundity and significance that probably isn't really justified. Unless of course you're a religious fundamentalist, in which case you'll almost certainly have some sort of aneurysm. Enjoy!

On a more serious note, I say: stimulate her clematis. You can't go wrong!

hot festival action

Well, as it happens we got a glorious sunny day on Saturday, sandwiched between a slightly damp one on Friday (but not enough to make it seriously muddy, luckily) and a torrentially wet and horrible one today. So my sacrifice to the mighty and merciless sun gods was answered, which was nice. And no-one will miss a couple of goats, so it's a victimless crime, really.

Anyway, we got the festival bus over from Clifton, got the picnic blankets down, cracked into the pork pies and cheese and got stuck into some serious drinking, mainly based around the beer tent and the Pimm's bus, the latter handily located about 50 feet away from where we were sitting. Hic! The beer tent sold excellent Gem as well as the organic blonde beer Wild Hare - this goes down very well indeed on a sunny day, I can tell you. The Bath Ales website is a bit too Flash-y for its own good so I can't link you to the beer page directly, but you should be able to work it out. There were occasional distractions from the bands on the main stage as well, though the only act we made a point of watching was the very wonderful Beth Rowley in the acoustic tent at 8pm. Once she'd finished we had to decide whether to head back to the main stage for The Fall at 9:30pm, or head off back into town to beat the rush at the end of the day. Having experienced the nightmare that is getting out of Ashton Court with 40,000 other people in previous years we decided to make a break for freedom, and we were vindicated in this decision to the extent of being back in the Pennyfarthing on Cotham Hill by about 10pm, enough time to wind down with a few pints of Wadworth's 6X.

Found the time to take some photos as well - here they are.

Finally - 40,000 people eating Thai curry and drinking ale is going to generate some waste products to be disposed of - luckily the organisers had enlisted the help of the redoubtable Andyloos to cater for all of their human effluvia disposal requirements. Sadly the festival-goer wasn't presented with anything up to the standard of The Millennium, just your bog-standard (geddit?) plastic cubicle. No indication on the website as to whether they're any relation of Rebecca Loos, ex-"personal assistant" (hem hem) of David Beckham and occasional pig-masturbator.

Friday, July 13, 2007

here comes the sun, lalalala - no, it's gone again

It's the Ashton Court Festival this weekend (more details here and here) - Bristol's very own mini-Glastonbury, only cheaper, with better beer, and no bands you've actually heard of to distract you from the serious business of sitting around in a field getting drunk. I've been for the Saturday for each of the last three years, and the weather has been cloudio (but dry and warm), scorchio and scorchio respectively. Good form, then, but this year's forecast isn't looking too good. Sunday looks worse, mind you.

Not to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic, like I occasionally do about early-1990s trips to Glastonbury, just to annoy people, but when I first went in 2004 it was a fiver to get in (way way back it used to be free) and you could cart in as much booze as you liked; this year it appears that tickets cost £12 on the door, and, more disturbingly, you can't bring in your own booze any more! All out of the festival organisers' control, as it's one of the conditions imposed in order for the festival's licence to be granted, but still, it's a bit of a pain. Luckily the very excellent Bath Ales are one of the local sponsors of the festival and have a substantial beer tent selling a range of their excellent wares (Gem is probably the one to go for, unless it's absolutely roasting, in which case SPA might be a better bet). So I should be all right. Slightly tangentially I find it just very slightly disturbing that the hare logo on the bottle is rather reminiscent of the animated filmic rendering of The Black Rabbit of Inle. No? Just me, then.

Actually, looking at the line-up I see the mighty Fall are playing at 9:30 on Saturday night. I generally make a point of not remembering anything after about 6:30 on these occasions, owing to spending too much time in the Bath Ales tent, so don't expect any reports on whether they were any good or not.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

album of the day

Beyond by Dinosaur Jr.

Well, this is a pleasant surprise. The original line-up of Dinosaur Jr. last played together on an album in 1988's Bug - the group continued after that as a J Mascis solo project in all but name until 1997's Hand It Over, while original bassist Lou Barlow went off and formed Sebadoh, who were reasonably successful in a low-key sort of way, but who I never really got the hang of.

But now they've re-formed and released a new album, this one in fact. And it sounds pretty much exactly as you'd expect it to sound. Their 2001 compilation Ear-Bleeding Country sums it up pretty succinctly; these are fairly simple country-rock-tinged tunes played by a thunderous rock power trio fronted by a mad guitar genius, Mascis, who these days seems to have turned into a cross between Jerry Garcia and Gandalf.

It's a more ramshackle, less produced affair than their best album, 1993's Where You Been - you can hear that on the first track, the rockin' Almost Ready, where someone seems to have turned the recording apparatus on a couple of seconds after the song started. The other contrast with that album is that Barlow gets to sing a couple of songs here, Back To Your Heart and Lightning Bulb - weirdly he sounds a lot like Bob Mould. There's the obligatory weird plangent acoustic number (I Got Lost) in among the noise, otherwise it's the usual showcase for Mascis' absurdly brilliant guitar playing. The YouTube collection of video clips is all a bit lo-fi; this one of them playing This Is All I Came To Do in Northampton, Massachussets last November is probably about the best.

what does she DO to them? I think we all know...

One last tennis-related story as Wimbledon fever dies down a bit - Martina Hingis had a pretty forgettable Wimbledon by her standards; surviving a couple of match points against chubby ginger British no-hoper Naomi Cavaday and then going out to Laura Granville of the USA in the third round. No, the real story here is Hingis' recent(ish) engagement to Czech player and former world #8 Radek Štěpánek.

Nothing so remarkable there, you might think, and I'd be the last person to encourage feverish and sweaty-palmed prurient speculation about female tennis players' private boudoir activities, but just this once: the "Swiss Miss" has a bit of previous in this department, as it happens. I'll take you through it:
  • Justin Gimelstob went out with Hingis briefly back in 1997. He has suffered from chronic back injuries ever since, though he still plays on the tour.
  • Up-and-coming (no, stop it) Spaniard Julian Alonso started dating Hingis the following year. From a career high of world #30 that year he quickly sank without trace.
  • Magnus Norman reached the French Open final in 2000 (losing to Gustavo Kuerten) and started seeing Hingis the same year. He retired in 2004 after struggling with severe hip injuries since 2001.

It's all earned her the nickname "The Black Widow" in some quarters. And now....Štěpánek has had a back injury since late 2006, roughly when he popped the question. Coincidence? I want you to picture a series of robust, healthy tennis players filing one by one into Hingis' bedroom and emerging a few months later as shrivelled, exhausted, hollow-eyed, broken men. If that isn't fevered enough for you, imagine ex-doubles partner (no, stop it) Anna Kournikova doing it as well.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

the last book I read

The Autumn Of The Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez.

Well, this is a rum do, and no mistake. The dictator of an unnamed Central/South American country lies dead in his presidential palace, with cows and goats nibbling at his toes, and the people he has oppressed and terrorised for untold years emerge blinking and trying to decide whether they should laugh or cry.

So far, so straightforward. You'd expect a bit of back-story at this point as well. And you get it, in a strange sort of way, in that you get whisked backwards and forwards through time in a surreal series of snippets demonstrating the madness and brutality of the regime, with no particular pointers as to which event preceded which, or even who the narrator is at any point in time (it shifts around randomly throughout the book from various unnamed participants to the dictator himself and back again).

It's constructed in a very strange way as well; six or seven 30-page chapters, each of which has no paragraph breaks at all and is made up of 3 or 4 massively extended sentences at most. All of which (no doubt entirely deliberately) gives a strange, hallucinatory, stream-of-consciousness feel to the whole thing; on a more practical note it also makes it quite hard to read if you're tired, or to leave and come back to. It's only reading a book like this that you realise how you normally find your place when coming back to a book - you scan through the first few words of each paragraph and find the last one you remember, and then go from there. No such luxuries here.

No-one writing a book about Latin American dictators would be short of real-life inspiration: people like Marcos Pérez Jiménez, Juan Vicente Gómez and Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, as well as examples further afield like Franco (apparently Márquez was living in Barcelona while he was writing the book) provide all the atrocities and abuses of power, and demonstrations of the truth of the maxim about absolute power, that you could want.

It's a less cuddly and accessible read than Márquez 's masterpiece One Hundred Years Of Solitude or Love In The Time Of Cholera; no-one here, even those who do survive long enough to make an impression, is remotely sympathetic, and the stylistic weirdness makes it a pretty relentless experience. But again, no doubt that's the idea. It's powerful and compelling stuff all the same. Just as long as you don't mind tracking back 10 pages to find the start of the sentence every time you come back to it.

Monday, July 09, 2007

incidental music spots of the week

Interesting tunes spotted being used as incidental music recently:

  • Led Zeppelin's Black Mountain Side being used on the BBC's never-ending series Coast to soundtrack a piece about a yoga-based commune on Caldey Island in West Wales.
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son featured in and playing over the closing credits of the entertaining but somewhat ludicrous Die Hard 4.0.

the Illuminati do not exist (this advert paid for by the Illuminati)

Sometimes it's refreshing and cathartic and healthy to let your wildest paranoid fantasies run amok. Anyone wishing to do so would have been given an obvious jumping-off point this week by the news of George W Bush commuting the 30-month jail sentence handed down to Scooter Libby. Obvious contrasts were drawn with his reluctance, during his tenure as Governor of Texas, to consider pleas for clemency for cases where the sentences were somewhat more draconian (i.e. yer actual death) and the evidence somewhat less clear-cut. Those defending the decision pointed out that Libby was still hit with a $250,000 fine, a not insignificant sum to most, though strangely he seemed to have little trouble coughing up a cheque out of petty cash.

An interesting footnote to the Libby case is the (genuine) digging up of his past life as an author of slightly suspect bestial porn. Link is quite safe, by the way. Don't expect to see this in the "the last book I read" category any time soon, though if anyone has read it, do let me know.

Other signs of the last days include: the usual two-headed goats being born, George W Bush and David Cameron, twelve-foot lizards both, rising to power (in Cameron's case I actually find this quite convincing), etc. More temporally, the whole business with Cheney and Bush blithely declaring themselves exempt from various legislation designed to promote openness in government, Cheney's blatantly unconstitutional shredding of documents, Bush's cosy relationship with Kenneth "Kenny Boy" Lay of Enron fame, his open admission of being guided by the voices in his toaster (or, as he would characterise it, "God"), the outrages perpetrated to this day at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, their general smirking snickering contempt for the electorate and the rule of law - I could go on. Oh, hang on, I have. It all points to the imminent Rapture, with us unbelievers left behind to rut like beasts (great!) while the chosen ones sit around in heaven in white robes necking ambrosia (yawn!), or perhaps something more mundane.

Such paranoid ramblings lead one to speculate - will MonkeyBoy and He Who Casts No Shadow really just relinquish the reins of power in 2008 as the flimsy old US Constitution dictates? Or will some reason be found to stay on, in the interests of the country and the war on terror no doubt? Probably not. But.....

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Wimbers post-mortem

Having just watched the end of the thrilling Federer-Nadal men's singles final this seems like as good a time as any for a few thoughts on the last fortnight.

Men's singles

For all my kind words about Tim Henman in my previous Wimbledon post, it was quite refreshing that his second-round exit and Andy Murray's wrist injury removed any British interest and allowed the less partisan of us to sit back and enjoy the tennis. It was a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest, Roger Federer cruising through serenely with only a couple of brief moments of concern against Juan Carlos Ferrero (and the extra help, as if he needed it, of a bye when Tommy Haas pulled out injured). Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, had to battle through five-setters against Soderling and Youzhny, and was lucky to have been spared another in the semi-final against Novak Djokovic when his opponent had to withdraw with a foot injury at one set all.

I was disappointed that Marat Safin didn't give Federer more of a match when they met in the third round, but that's the engima of Safin for you in a nutshell - massively talented, but unlucky with injuries over the years, and fundamentally a bit mental. It looked as if he was going to dominate men's tennis for years after he blew away Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final, but it hasn't quite worked out like that, although he did win the 2005 Australian Open, and his epic five-set defeat of Federer in the semi-finals there makes him the last man other than Nadal to beat Federer in a Grand Slam event, fact fans.

Anyway, we got the final we wanted, and it was all very exciting. It's a classic rivalry, really, Federer's touch and elegance against Nadal's pace and thunderous power, the rapier versus the broadsword if you will. If the progression from last year's final to this year's is continued next year then Nadal should win. To be fair he should really let Federer have the French Open in exchange.

To everyone's surprise, given the weather, the major competitions were finished on time, but some people had to cram an awful lot of matches in to achieve it. I wonder if the prevalence of injuries in the later stages of the men's singles - Djokovic and Gasquet in their respective semi-finals, and Nadal's knee twinge in the final - might have been down to the compressed schedule?

Women's singles

Less to say about this, really. Much respect to Marion Bartoli for getting to the final, but unless Venus Williams' weirdly long and slightly scary Anansi The Spider-Woman legs snapped off or something she was never going to win, and so it proved. Some dramatic matches on the way, though, of which Jelena Jankovic (of whom more below) against Lucie Safarova was probably the best one I saw; Jankovic against Bartoli was pretty good as well.

As was, for different reasons, Serena Williams against Daniela Hantuchova. Much to be said about the Williams sisters: they are incorrigible drama queens, and, I suspect, not above faking or exaggerating the odd injury to gain an advantage (not that Serena's initial calf injury was faked, by the look of it), and they both play a thwacking, grunting style of tennis that is far from aesthetically pleasing to watch. But, more importantly than all this, they really, really want to win. There was a moment when Serena came out after getting injured and losing the second set to Hantuchova where she looked across the net at her as if to say: I'm on one and a half legs, at best, here, but I still reckon I can beat you. Do you have the balls to prove me wrong? I don't think you do. And she was absolutely right, as Hantuchova promptly went to pieces so fast people in the front row of the crowd got hit by the shrapnel. Which is one of the reasons Serena is an ex-world #1 and multiple Grand Slam champion and Hantuchova, while making a nice enough living out of the game (and the modelling contracts) will never win a major tournament. The other reason is that Hantuchova is the frail willowy type and Williams looks like she could go ten rounds with Iron Mike Tyson and still have enough energy left to crack walnuts with her buttocks.


The only thing I have to say here is: I'm watching the mixed doubles final now and if the fevered tabloid rumours are true regarding the off-court relationship between Jamie Murray and Jelena Jankovic, then he is an extremely lucky boy, as he is a slightly weedy pale Scotsman who looks a bit like Doogie Howser MD, while she is what I can only describe as Very Fit Indeed.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

nurse! the screens....

So you've got your very own piece of internets, a bit of prime unreal estate if you will. How exciting! So what you do with it, naturally, is fill it with details of your fantasies of wrapping the late Roy Orbison in clingfilm. And invite like-minded members of the public to share their own thoughts on the subject in the form of haiku.

It's an interesting reflection on the interests and hobbies of those who put content on the internet that the seemingly innocuous picture of the rolls of clingfilm here was half-inched from a site that has nothing to do with food preservation, and a lot to do with kinky sex games. The specific page linked to here is perfectly safe, click on any of the links on it and you're on your own, though. We never even had this conversation.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

tragic news

Two bits of tragic news, actually:

Firstly, the demise of the splendid independent music retailer Fopp. Where am I going to buy obscure CDs for a fiver now? Well, Amazon, I suppose, but it's just not the same as a real shop.

Secondly, Ben Goldacre's Bad Science website seems to be a victim of its own success. Unless some altruistic geeky type can offer some help and advice for free, that is. Otherwise where am I going to go to laugh at snake-oil salesmen, creationists and people who don't understand statistical analysis? The fools.

Monday, July 02, 2007

the legendary Nosmo King

Well, we're officially smoke-free in pubs, clubs, etc. now. Which is great. Or.....well, I dunno. I find myself with just a niggling sense of uncomfortableness about the whole thing, probably because I'm finding my own preferences and convenience in conflict with my instinctive social liberalism, and indeed libertarianism, on this particular issue.

Let's deal with the easy issues first. It is a positive pleasure to go to the pub for the evening, stay for several hours, come home, and not wake up the next morning to find your clothes reeking of stage cigarette smoke. Soaked in beer and flecked with blood and vomit, yes, but smoky - no. And as a non-smoker it's an obvious massive improvement to have the atmosphere, while you're in the pub, not choked with other people's fag smoke.

Then there's the health issue. This is simultaneously more and less complicated than some might imagine. It's more complicated because the evidence for the risks associated with passive smoking is less clear-cut than you might think. My view is that the balance of probability is that there is a sufficiently increased level of risk to justify concern, and that I have to treat the protestations of lobby groups like Forest with a certain amount of scepticism. To misquote Mandy Rice-Davies, well, they would, wouldn't they? We're not in an Intelligent Design situation here, in that there really is some debate in the scientific community, but not as much as the lobby groups and the scientific spokesmen for the tobacco industry would have you believe. The motivation of those people is clear enough; what the motivation (if we assume that it isn't just reporting the science) of those who insist it is harmful might be is harder to imagine - unless you're Richard Littlejohn or Garry Bushell you will, I trust, be aware that such concepts as the "nanny state" and the "self-hating liberal elite" don't actually exist. Less complicated because, actually, the health thing is a bit of a red herring, after all. It probably wouldn't do you any lasting physical harm to have the bloke sitting beside you in the pub urinate repeatedly on your trouser-leg, but that wouldn't make it any more pleasant, nor would it make your trousers smell any sweeter in the morning. Unless of course your incontinent neighbour was diabetic.

Smoking is a uniquely tricky one though, in that it is (even if you don't accept the science) almost unique in that it's a drug habit whose practice, in public, affects others by its very nature. Not true of drinking, eating hash flapjacks, nor even of mainlining heroin on the bus next to schoolchildren. The very act of smoking a cigarette impinges on those around you. I'm not going to end up cirrhotic, fat and impotent (or no more than I already am) from sitting next to someone drinking a skinful of lager, any more than I'm going to end up smelling of beer if they spill it over themselves. Sure, drunk drivers kill people, crack-crazed lunatics steal and kill to fund their habit, and these are serious issues, but they are secondary knock-on effects, caused in the case of crack, since I mention it, by its illegality as much as anything. I'll come back to this in a minute.

Now it might sound from all this that I'm right behind the smoking ban, and I mostly am, but....did we really need to legislate it out altogether? Couldn't we have provided an opt-out for establishments to say, right, we're going to remain smoky, and in order to do that we're going to purchase a licence (in the same way as you're required to do to serve alcohol) for a nominal but non-trivial fee (to encourage most places to remain smoke-free), and along with that licence we'll be issued with a few large signs to be displayed in prominent places so no punters can claim ignorance of the rules (the impenetrable smog should be a bit of a giveaway anyway).

That's probably enough about smoking. Just to cast a bit more chum into the water, how about legalising all drugs? A few brief discussion points:
  • Who are the government to be telling me what I can or can't be putting in my body?
  • I'm allowed to purchase and eat fatty food, pork scratchings, Bernard Matthews' Turkey Drummers etc., which are bad for me, so what's the difference?
  • Come to that, I'm allowed to purchase things like Mr. Muscle Drain And Plughole Unblocker which would hollow me out like an apple-corer if I drank them, so what's the difference?
  • People die in the sea all the time, but we don't ban going in the sea, do we? Because, well, it's fun, isn't it?
  • Surely the vast majority of the "war on drugs" budget is spent preventing or following-up crime caused by the drugs in question being illegal in the first place?
Hey, it's never going to happen. But that doesn't mean that focussing for a minute on the rampant hypocrisy and inconsistency of the laws as they stand at the moment shouldn't give us pause for thought once in a while. It's good to question things. Especially when those things prevent me getting a regular supply of da 'erb.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

album of the day

Crosstalk: The Best Of Moby Grape.

The 1960s is almost certainly the most minutely examined and documented decade in popular music history, and it's no great mystery: the birth of "rock" music, The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors, Dylan, Hendrix, The Who, etc. etc. Even so, there are some nuggets to be found among the groups who don't normally make it onto these sort of lists. Try Love's Forever Changes, for example, or Spirit's Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus.

Or try this. Moby Grape weren't even the most famous band in San Francisco; Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead grabbing most of the headlines. And you can hear the connection, though they're less strident than Jefferson Airplane, and more concise and less druggy than The Grateful Dead. So what you're left with are some cracking two- and three-minute psychedelic pop-rock nuggets, with some great harmonies and guitar playing; just the sort of thing you can imagine naked hippie chicks with flowers in their hair grooving to, as I like to do (the imagining, that is, not the naked grooving).

The tracks are arranged in chronological order, which means that, for a group who sprang into life fully-formed and gradually disintegrated over the next couple of years (1967-1969), the best stuff tends to be at the start, songs like Hey Grandma, 8:05 and Omaha. Which isn't to say the later stuff like Ooh Mama Ooh and Going Nowhere isn't pretty good too. And they even manage to sound a little bit Sly And The Family Stone on the funky Murder In My Heart For The Judge.

One of the reasons they never quite cracked it was the instability of founding member Skip Spence. An excellent advertisement for the hazards of mixing schizophrenia, alcohol and gargantuan quantities of LSD, Spence drifted around for the next 30 years or so before dying a couple of days before his 53rd birthday in 1999. And, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can tell you that if you ever want to visit his grave, you need to pop over to Soquel Cemetery, a few miles down the coast from San Francisco. And be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. And then take them out of your hair, and pop them on the grave. It's what he would have wanted.