Wednesday, February 27, 2008

much funnel be had here......geddit?

I'm glad it's not just me who finds glory hole spillways and associated reservoir architecture fascinating - there's some more pictures (plus a reciprocal link back to my original post, which is nice) here. If, like mine, your Spanish is a bit ropey, try Google's auto-translated version.
Interestingly, one of the featured reservoirs is at Pontesei in Italy, and features a spillway that towers high and dry over the water level in the lake. This is because there was a landslide after it was built which necessitated lowering the water level well below the top of the dam - understandable paranoia since this reservoir is just round the corner from the notorious Vajont dam, and the authorities were understandably keen to avoid a repeat of that incident.

more brainfarts

Another couple in the Hapag-Lloyd vein for you:

BBC crime correspondent Ben Ando has been popping up on the TV news a bit lately. I can't hear his name without humming Abba's Fernando to myself: "...there was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Ben Ando". If only he was the astronomy correspondent it would be perfect.

Speaking of Fernando, the second verse, which goes like this:
They were closer now Fernando
Every hour every minute seemed to last eternally
I was so afraid Fernando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die
And I'm not ashamed to say
The roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry
- reminds me of JG Ballard's short story The Garden Of Time, available in various collections over the years, most recently the very-nearly-comprehensive collection The Complete Short Stories. You really should get hold of this, if only so that you can read the story and see what I mean.

And finally, Esther, Indian fast bowling prospect Ishant Sharma has a name that will have you humming John Lennon songs to yourself: "Ishant Sharma's gonna get you - gonna knock you right on the head.....".

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

your high-brow quiz of the day

Yes, folks, it's Name That Cathedral! I think this could be a winner, though obviously there is a finite amount of material to work with, and it'll never be as compelling televisual entertainment as Numberwang.

I achieved the pitiful score of 8 out of 28 by recognising Bristol, Coventry, Exeter, Guildford, Lichfield, Lincoln, Rochester (actually this one was a guess) and Wells cathedrals. See how you do. Cheat by swotting up here first if you like.

worship Nader! but not this year, please.....

Much gnashing of teeth and exasperated slapping of foreheads among Democrat supporters as Ralph Nader announces his intention to run for President of the USA in the upcoming election. Those same Democrat supporters will be hoping that Nader's support runs at 2004 levels (just under half a million votes), and not 2000 levels (just under 3 million votes), and that the race isn't as close as it was in 2000.

It's as certain as it's possible to be in hindsight that Nader's election campaign in 2000 took more votes from people who would otherwise have voted for Al Gore than it did from people who would otherwise have voted for George W Bush, and that therefore Nader is directly responsible for the Bush presidency. So if you're inclined to dismiss him as a harmless crank, or enthuse about him adding a bit of much-needed colour and interest, etc. etc., well, think on.

As ever, one of Tim Kreider's pictures speaks a thousand words. And there are words too, if you want them. It's slightly amusing that Nader's own campaign website features an image of big bolts of lightning coming out of the sky as well. Maybe he's seen the cartoon.

Just to shoehorn a religious reference in here, I'm reminded that there was a bizarre sect in Greg Bear's excellent science fiction epic Eon called the Orthodox Naderites who worshipped, erm, Ralph Nader (long since dead in their particular reality). The link is taken from this site which lists religious cults and practices depicted in fiction (largely science fiction, in practice). It's got the space-station-dwelling Rastas from William Gibson's Neuromancer, so it's OK with me. Neuromancer, incidentally, appears in the Time magazine 20th-century classic book list I referenced in my last book review. And rightly so.

Monday, February 25, 2008

ah, Mr. Quentin O'Sellers, I've been expecting you

Much fanfare and excitement as the title of the new James Bond film (the 22nd in the official series, no less) is revealed. And it's......erm.....Quantum Of Solace. O-kayyyyyyy.....

There's always the possibility that the producers are tweaking our collective nipple, gently yet insistently, and that it's actually going to be called Buckets Of Blood Pouring Out Of People's Heads or No That's Not a Walther PPK In My Pocket, It Actually IS My Cock, Miss Moneypenny, or something more sensible like that. Given the trouble the American audiences had with Licence To Kill (originally called Licence Revoked) you'd think they'd want to stick to words of one syllable or less. Though it must be said the main problem with Licence To Kill wasn't the title, more that it was utter rubbish.

Some good suggestions as to rhymes for "solace" for the theme tune on the Guardian arts blog. And the notion of just singing the title to the tune of Guantanamera is pure genius.

a measly 30 grand?

Just to illustrate my point about the false notion of scientific "fairness" whereby everybody's vote on a complex and nuanced topic counts equally, regardless of how blitheringly ill-informed they are, here's a heartwarming story about the aftermath of the MMR hysteria. I think an appropriate and proportional response would be the resignation and subsequent suicide of a prominent media hystericalist, let's say Melanie Phillips. Come on, Mel, you know it makes sense.

To cheer ourselves up after that, let's all apply for this job. Sounds like a thrusting young executive may be required, though the demands of the job may leave you shagged out by the end of the working week.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oh. My. God.

Post-rant health warning: I seem to have done a certain amount of gratuitous swearing in this post. Approach with caution.

You know how some days you wake up with a song in your heart and a spring in your step, the sun shines, and the streets are filled with kindly old gentlemen and apple-cheeked urchins who smile as you give them a friendly clip round the ear as you pass?

Not today though.

I think it might have started here. Don't be fooled by the URL, this is nothing as innocent and harmless as hardcore pornography. If you've never encountered Jack Chick before, you're in for a treat. One very important point: this NOT a parody. This is NOT satire. I promise, it's real - this guy really puts the MENTAL in FUNDAMENTAL. So, let's dive in with:
  • Islam. Hilariously, the main planks of the reasoning by which Islam is declared to be false seem to be that its holy book isn't internally self-consistent, it's a mish-mash of ideas inherited from earlier, abandoned religions and that its adherents use circular reasoning to deflect questioning about it (i.e. the Koran is infallible because God is infallible and the Koran is the word of God, and we know these things because, well, it says so in the Koran). All of which is perfectly true, but, well, I'm sure I don't have to spell it out for you. Seldom have pot and kettle been in such close proximity.
  • In very similar vein, Buddhism;
  • And Mormonism;
  • The Freemasons;
  • Occultism;
  • The gays. Remember, kids: "if anyone tries to make you gay, stay away from them".
  • Sex in general, including the claim that wearing condoms gives you AIDS. This really is beyond satire.
  • And, inevitably, last but not least, evolution. You knew it was coming. And remember, kids: "if you believe in evolution instead of Jesus, you'll end up in hell".
On a good day like the one described in the first paragraph, the response to this might be pointing and hysterical cackling laughter. And maybe that's an appropriate response. But I have a feeling that's only because here in good old (mostly) secular Britain these things seem quaintly unbelievable to us, by which I mean the notion that this stuff is intended in any way seriously, and is fed to their kids by people. But it is. Much liberal hand-wringing followed Richard Dawkins' labelling of religion as a form of child abuse, to which I say, of course it fucking is. Any doubters might like to re-visit the links above, and pay a bit more attention this time.

And don't give me the "No True Scotsman" argument about Chick being an extremist, and how I shouldn't lump him together with the moderate majority. Of course I fucking should. The only difference between Chick and the nice cuddly old bearded Archbishop of Canterbury and people like him is that their mental illness takes a subtler form whereby they're able to compartmentalise their wacky beliefs in such a way that they're able to function as seemingly normal people most of the time. This is arguably more insidious and dangerous, given that it's the same barking nonsense they're peddling. There's an argument that the fundamentalists are being more intellectually honest - unless you're prepared to follow through with your belief in what it says in the Bible (and rest assured none of what Chick says is in conflict with it - those chapter and verse citations in the cartoons are real) then you're practising a form of Orwellian doublethink. Then again anyone who derides the theory of evolution and takes antibiotics for an infection is doing the same thing.

Speaking of evolution, gird yourselves up for an explosion of big-budget gibbering stupidity in April, when Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed hits the cinemas. Well, I doubt whether it'll hit many cinemas here in the UK, but you can bet your bottom dollar it'll be in a few in the USA. Not that the film's backers are leaving anything to chance - they're offering kickbacks to school administrators to get their kids to go and see the movie. That's some more child abuse, right there.

Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. Expelled tells the shocking story of how a sinister cabal of scientists have perpetrated a massive global conspiracy whereby scientists who differ from the received orthodoxy regarding the development of life on Earth are hounded out of their jobs and denied access to research facilities and funding - all for putting forward the exciting new scientific theory of Intelligent Design in place of the tired and largely discredited theories of Charles Darwin.

Let's rewind a paragraph or so - back in the real world, Expelled is the religious propagandists at the Discovery Institute's latest salvo in the war on reason. Very little surprises me in this area any more, but even I am mildly taken aback at the sheer quantity of money they must have to throw around - films with international distribution don't come cheap. These guys must be absolutely minted, because I cannot believe they're expecting to make a profit on the movie. Fortunately for them, that isn't really the point; the oxygen of publicity is what they're after. And their main weapon seems to be that they've paid minor character actor, ex-political speechwriter and TV quiz show host Ben Stein to front the movie. Stein's appeal presumably was that he's got some sort of spurious intellectual credentials with the credulous slack-jawed inbred hicks in Pigfuck, Arkansas owing to the aforementioned quiz show, as well as by virtue of wearing glasses and having grey hair and a comically monotonic vocal delivery. And he wasn't so very rich and famous that he could allow his conscience to override the offer to whore himself out for a nice fat wedge from the wingnuts at the DI. Or maybe he really believes this stuff. I'm not sure, as I've said before, which is worse.

It's almost pointless to say this, but the film seems to be, on the basis of the few reviewers who weren't either hired DI hacks or forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, unsurprisingly, a tired rehash of the usual tired, long-debunked, mendacious drivel about evolution, offers no actual definition either of evolution or of Intelligent Design (hardly surprisingly since it makes no scientifically testable claims whatsoever), and lapses shockingly early into the tired and intellectually absurd canard of blaming Darwin for the Holocaust (interestingly, Jack Chick blames the Catholics). And they're showing this to children, in schools. That's a form of child abuse probably not quite as bad as anally raping each and every one of them, without lubrication, but it's very much in the same ballpark. Promoting the notion that what you believe about reality has any bearing on reality itself, or that you get to have some sort of fucking popularity contest like the fucking X Factor to decide by what laws the universe organises itself, or that your batshit beliefs confer upon you the divine right to interfere in and constrain other people's lives, is not something I would be happy to have my children being taught. In fact I might be tempted to put the second HL Mencken quote in my earlier post into action.

So far, so depressing. However, there's been an entertaining spat between the film's producers and a few of the high-profile scientists featured in it - PZ Myers for one. It seems the film they were told they were being interviewed for was somewhat different from its final incarnation. As always, once PZ's cage has been rattled he won't leave it alone. Best of all, though, the response to Richard Dawkins' complaint was as follows - quote from the Expelled Wikipedia article:
The film's proponents point out that Dawkins participated in the BBC Horizon documentary "A War on Science", whose producers they allege presented themselves to the Discovery Institute as objective filmmakers and then portrayed the organization as religiously-motivated and anti-scientific.
Religiously-motivated and anti-scientific?! Say it ain't so! Like I say, beyond satire.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

that's the ticket

Unpacking a couple more boxes today and I discovered a big stash of old tickets to various events that I'd hung onto for no apparent reason (actually they were pinned to a cork board in the old flat). Anyway, I can't really justify hanging on to this sort of junk, but I thought I'd scan them in and immortalise them before throwing them away. There's a couple of vest numbers from old running events in there as well. This (as so often) is far more for my own amusement than anything else, but if you want a look, be my guest.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

the last book I read

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré.

Interesting things, pseudonyms. Just as William Henry Pratt decided that his fairly mundane given name didn't give off enough of an intense humming of evil for an actor in Hammer horror films, and hit upon the more suitable handle of Boris Karloff instead, evidently David Cornwell decided that his name was insufficiently enigmatic for a writer of twisty-turny spy thrillers and opted for something a little more exotically European-sounding instead. Or maybe it was just that since he was still gainfully employed by MI6 when he was writing his early novels it was deemed unwise to use his real name. Not that he would have been using his real name for his spying work, what with, you know, being a spy and all.

I read le Carré's later novel The Little Drummer Girl back when I was about 15 - my school friend Mungo was a big le Carré buff and I was keen to be seen to keep up. I have to say that I recollect very little about it other than a general sense of not really having any idea what was going on.

However, I enjoyed this greatly. You've got to come to an acceptance of your position in the grand scheme of things when reading a book like this, in the sense that there are the things that the protagonists know (or, at least, that the author chooses to allow you to know they know), and then there are the things you know that the protagonists don't, and then there are the things that the author knows that neither you nor the protagonists know. There's really no point in trying to constantly second-guess what the things in the last category are, because the author knows you'll be trying to do this, and so it won't be the things you're expecting. Clear?

A plot synopsis is a bit pointless for a book like this, and indeed counterproductive if the intention is to inspire people to read it. A very brief synopsis would go something like this: it's just after the Berlin Wall went up and weary fiftysomething British agent Alec Leamas is licking his wounds after the collapse of his Berlin spy-ring. Back in London his superiors persuade him into one last big job, the intention of which is to bring down an East German agent who has been responsible for the failure of many British intelligence missions (including the one Leamas was running). Or is it? Leamas plays along with the necessary subterfuges, pretends to defect, and gets picked up by the East Germans as planned. Thereafter things don't go quite according to plan. Or do they?

It's consciously gritty and downbeat throughout - the suspicion is that this is as a deliberate riposte to the James Bond novels; this one contains an awful lot of sitting around in dingy flats, or being driven around in cars to mysterious destinations, and precious little gunplay, sex or wisecrackery. Even Len Deighton's The Ipcress File and its successors featured a hero who cracked a few jokes and had a bit of a way with the ladies, not to mention some rather more implausible plot devices.

Just to echo my earlier post: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was included in Time Magazine's list of the 100 best modern English-language novels back in 2005. My usual obsessive-compulsive instincts compel me to look at the complete list and calculate how many of them I've read. And the answer is, I think, 29.

banal Booker blitherings

No money (or none of mine, anyway) is going to change hands at any bookmakers over this one, but I'm guessing that the winner of the recently announced Best Of The Booker will come from the last 10 years or so, by the same reasoning that dictates I always predict that the winner of the "best album ever" polls that people like Q magazine and Channel 4 run will come from the same period. In fact, since it's usually OK Computer, I now need to extend that to 11 years, but you get the general idea. Which is basically that Joe Public has a short and selective memory. Start involving the great unwashed in these polls and you tend to end up with the results you deserve, if you follow me. So it'll probably be Life of Pi or something.

John Walsh's musings on the same subject prompt me to offer a few Booker-related observations. If you're in any way interested may I suggest you open this full list of Booker nominees and winners in a new window.

  • Booker winners I've read: Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshore (1979 - good, very short), Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils (1986 - excellent - his best book after Lucky Jim), Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger (1987 - not her best book, but pretty good, with some spicy incest action thrown in at one point), Peter Carey's Oscar And Lucinda (1988 - a bit of an ordeal, to be honest), Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992 - very good, and the film adaptation featured Kristin Scott Thomas getting her kit off, for which I'm profoundly grateful), James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late (1994 - good, but written in a pretty chewy Scottish vernacular, so not easy to read), Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (1995 - probably the weakest of the Regeneration trilogy, but you should read all three), Graham Swift's Last Orders (1996 - good, but not as good as Waterland), Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (1998 - oddly, the weakest thing he's ever written) and JM Coetzee's Disgrace (1999 - excellent).
  • I've never read a complete shortlist - since the shortlist was standardised at six I've managed half of it a few times; 1984, 1988, 1989, 1999 and 2001. Note that this doesn't mean that I read the books in the year they were nominated (I was only 14 in 1984, in my defence), just at some point since.
  • The only years where I've not read a single book on the shortlist are 1969, 1970, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1990, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. The latter half of that list is a reflection of the fact that I generally shop for books in second-hand and charity shops these days (a reflection of my gradually turning into Norbert Colon in my old age) - it takes a while for the recently published ones to filter through onto the shelves.
  • Shortlisted books which didn't win, but should have (in my opinion): Graham Swift's brilliant Waterland in 1983, Jim Crace's Quarantine in 1997 and Matthew Kneale's English Passengers in 2000.

celebrity lookylikey of the day

This one struck me immediately upon reading the latest on the Northern Rock debacle. And I was very pleased with myself, right up until the moment I noticed that someone else had got there first (image is at the bottom of the page, or it was when I posted this - hover over it for a larger version).

But, what the hell, it's a good one so I'm going to do it anyway. Today's nominees are: Ron Sandler, recently appointed chief executive and scapegoat-in-waiting at Northern Rock, and all-purpose weaselly Jewish character actor Saul Rubinek - who you'll remember from such movies as True Romance, and, erm, some others. I'm almost, but not completely, sure that Ron Sandler is not Adam Sandler's dad.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

throw another decapod crustacean on the raised framework of sticks, Bruce

In another example of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, no sooner have I posted some pictures of my shiny new barbecue than an article appears on the excellent Strange Maps depicting a map of the barbecue sauce preferences of the residents of South Carolina (some of whom take this whole barbecue business very seriously).

The article also touches on the etymology of the word barbecue, a subject also touched upon in the comments to a recent post on the equally excellent Language Log. In brief: it's from the Caribbean word barbacoa meaning "a raised framework of sticks". Any suggestion that it's from the Frencah phrase barbe à queue meaning (roughly) "from beard to tail" and supposedly denoting the cooking of the whole animal (presumably a goat for the "beard" reference to make any sense) is a folk etymology and not accepted by the people in the know. It's nice to see that even in the rarefied academic atmosphere of a Language Log comments thread people can still get all arsey at the drop of a hat. There's less of the usual u suck lol pwnt abbreviations and use of the word asshat, but it's still quite amusing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

new toys

We've got a bit more room in the new house, both indoors and out, so that gives me an opportunity to play with some new toys. And here they are:

Toy #1: an electric organ. Specifically, it's a Farfisa TS 600, so none of your rubbish. Inherited from Hazel's parents, who wanted to get rid of it. So all I need to do now is, erm, teach myself to play the organ. I did do grade 2 piano back when I was about 11, so I know which notes are which and I can pick out a few chords and read music, after a fashion, but that's about it.

Toy #2: a gas-powered barbecue. Specifically, it's an Outback Granite, so none of your rubbish. Inherited from Hazel's parents, who wanted to get rid of it. Fortunately I already know how to play the barbecue; in fact I am something of a virtuoso. The 13kg propane cylinder was purchased separately, at surprisingly exorbitant cost (you have to pay 30 quid deposit on the cylinder, plus 20 quid for each cylinder-full of gas), from B&Q.

Toy #3: a punch bag & speedball combo. Originally purchased from Argos back in about 2002 when I moved into my previous flat in Bristol, whereupon it immediately became apparent that it was far too big and heavy to accommodate anywhere in the flat, so it went straight down to the cellar, where it stayed for about 5 years until I went and retrieved it last week. The cellar room in the old place was a bit damp, so I was fully expecting it to have mushrooms and vines growing out of it, and baboons nesting in it, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it's actually all in pretty good nick. It's now in our much bigger (and drier) cellar room in the new house, where I confidently predict it will actually get used, finally.

Toy #4: a dart board. Specifically, a proper Winmau sisal board, so none of your rubbish. I've had this since about 2000, if not earlier, but never had anywhere to put it. It is now up on the wall in the cellar room, where I like to think the occasional dart mark in the wall won't be noticed or objected to too much. You can rest assured that the bull is the requisite 172cm from the floor, and that the bit of Duck tape marking the oche is the requisite 237cm from the wall. Arrers!

i'm in ur chest cavity, stealin ur ribz

No doubt you'll remember the Old Testament in Lego. Well, now you can have the Old Testament in lolcats. Start at the very beginning if you like, or compare the advice on food and sex with the brick version.

If you're not convinced by that, try this: Greta Christina hosts this fortnight's Carnival Of The Godless. Just to spice things up, the links (most well worth following) are illustrated with some splendidly lurid pulp fiction covers. I think Pagan Lesbians and Lust In Orbit are my favourite two, but they're all good.

Monday, February 18, 2008

clearly I need to go to more pubs

I won't duplicate Andy's post regarding the award of the prestigious title of CAMRA National Pub Of The Year to the Old Spot In Dursley - Andy can claim legitimate bragging rights as it's his local.

I did go and have a look at the list of previous winners at CAMRA's website though - the only previous winner I can say with any confidence I've definitely been to is The Bell at Aldworth (winner in 1990). And very nice it is too - funnily enough I was thinking about it the other day at Ian & Kate's wedding (pictures here) as there was a barrel of Arkell's 3B on the go, which is what they always used to serve in The Bell.

album of the day

Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth.

A slight break with tradition here, in that it's not an album that I've been moved to write about after listening to it while doing the washing up. Instead, I was moved to think "I really must listen to that again" after reading about it in an article in The Independent this morning.

It's in the news because the painting which featured on the cover (Kerze by Gerhard Richter - Kerze is German for candle, language fans) is up for auction at Sotheby's next week and is expected to fetch many times its catalogue price of two and a half million pounds. Which is, it must be said, quite a lot for a painting of a candle.

An alternative approach might be to scoot over to Amazon and invest in the album itself at the bargain price of £5.98. This, in contrast, seems like very little money at all for one of the great rock albums of the last 20 years (a double album as well, from back in the vinyl age - 1988 - when that term still had some meaning). If you have some sort of aversion to electric guitars, electric guitar feedback and general noise, you might want to take the opportunity to augment your Daniel O'Donnell collection instead, though. It's really up to you.

Friday, February 15, 2008

the last book I read

Bluesman by Andre Dubus III.

It's 1967, and 17-year-old Leo Suther lives in the backwoods of Massachusetts with his widowed father. Over the course of the summer he learns to play the blues harmonica, falls in love with local girl Allie Donovan, works as a building contractor for Allie's father and learns about his mother (who died when he was very young).

So it's your bog-standard coming-of-age novel then. Well, yes, pretty much, but with some interesting twists. The 1967 setting means that the Vietnam war is a constant backdrop, both in terms of Allie's father Chick Donovan's radicalism and the constant insecurity among men of eligible age over the draft. And the author's obvious knowledge of and enthusiasm for the blues music that Leo and his father Jim play brings those passages to life.

Therein lies one of the oddities though - 1967 was a seminal year for popular music, the year of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?, Disraeli Gears, Forever Changes and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. There's no sense of this rock revolution impinging on Leo & Jim's blues purism at all; I suspect a real-life 17-year-old would have been out buying Hendrix albums on the quiet along with the Big Bill Broonzy albums, even in rural Massachusetts.

Leo and Allie's relationship seems implausibly adult for a pair of 17-year olds as well - their courtship (which I define as the period between their first conversation and their first act of penetrative sex) seems more than a little compressed. To illustrate this, and for a bit of prurient fun, here's the timeline as portrayed in the book:
  • page 14: first exchange of words
  • page 25: some dry humping in the woods
  • page 37: full sex in Leo's bedroom
  • page 42: some fingering action in the truck
  • page 57: full sex in the truck
  • page 73: full sex in Leo's bedroom
  • page 74: full sex in Leo's bedroom
  • page 128: full sex on Allie's parents' sofa
  • page 183: full sex in the truck
No doubt this is to facilitate getting on to the bits of the story the author wanted to concentrate on, but it didn't quite ring true for a pair of 17-year-old kids in 1967, Summer Of Love or not. Full marks to Dubus for a sane and sympathetic portrayal of an abortion, though: one neither carried out by slavering coat-hanger-wielding monsters nor causing of lasting injury or mental trauma to the recipient. When a Hollywood movie dares to portray something similar we'll know we're getting somewhere: for all the undoubted merits of Knocked Up and Juno their worldview, in this respect at least, is still a deeply conservative one.

There were just a couple of moments, also, (the more flowery descriptions of house-building or harmonica-playing especially) where the prose threatened to tip over into something resembling Eli Cash's novel extract in The Royal Tenenbaums (which I suspect was intended as a parody of Cormac McCarthy in particular):
The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. "Vámonos, amigos", he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.
While we're on the subject of films: Dubus' father, Andre Dubus (you've got to keep your wits about you here) was also a novelist whose short story Killings was later adapted into the acclaimed film In The Bedroom. Dubus III himself is better known for his later novel House Of Sand And Fog, adapted into a film in 2003.

Finally - my copy of the novel has pages 187 and 188 missing. Hard to tell if this is a printing/binding error or whether it just got torn out at some point. I don't think anything pivotal to the plot happens on those two pages, but if anyone thinks there's anything I need to know, let me know.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

it's not ALL lolcats and porn, you know

Here's the internet as a force for good, education, etc. - now that the BBC has largely abandoned its lofty Reithian ideals, it's nice to know that you can get hold of some genuinely interesting stuff on YouTube from back in the days before wall-to-wall reality TV cookery marathons and endless re-runs of Guess My Arsehole. Here's episode one of James Burke's Connections from 1978, divided up into five ten-minute chunks (let's call them, for the sake of argument, parts one, two, three, four and five). Burke is a bit of a loony, but he knows how to keep your attention despite some intellectually challenging concepts being thrown around.

Slightly more heavyweight is Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man, also available in a lavish DVD box set. I also have a soft spot for Carl Sagan's Cosmos, if only to hear the five-course meal Sagan makes of saying the program's title.

Monday, February 04, 2008

the bridges of Gwent county

Forget Petra, Angkor Wat and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, we've got what you need right here in Newport. The Newport Transporter Bridge is the largest remaining example of this very unusual style of bridge architecture - there are only eight left in the world. It's a Grade I listed monument and was repaired and generally tarted up a few years ago: ordinarily it's open at weekends but sadly it's currently out of action so we couldn't take a trip across (and ideally back).

Despite having to do it from the riverbank I took a few photos, and here they are. We walked back into town along the Usk so you get a couple of pictures of the City Bridge (winner of a prestigious Structural Steel Design Award when it was opened in 2005) and the George Street Bridge (the first cable-stayed bridge in the UK!). Spantastic!

the obligatory 6 Nations gloating

Well. I can only echo Doug's slack-jawed disbelief in the comments to the previous post. The England-Wales game has to be one of the strangest I've ever seen - Wales were desperately poor for the first hour, gave the ball away in contact constantly as well as getting regularly cleaned out at the rucks, and only some heroic defence (James Hook and Huw Bennett's desperate efforts to stop Paul Sackey grounding the ball at the end of the first half in particular) kept them in it. For all that England should have been further ahead, and paid the price when the Welsh got things together and England simultaneously, and inexplicably, went to pieces. Glorious stuff for the Welsh supporter, but I don't think many firm conclusions can be drawn. I was strongly reminded of the England-France game from 1997 when they imploded from an almost identical scoreline after an hour in a very similar way.

Plus points: the half-backs, Hook and Phillips. Gavin Henson had a quiet first half but put himself about a bit more in the second. Lee Byrne had a good game too, though Shane Williams had people tearing their hair out (as always) with some of his decision-making. Alun Wyn Jones and, inevitably, Martyn Williams did well too. Minus points: they need to stop giving the ball away in tackles and rucks. And if Shane Williams could stop trying to score tries from behind his own goal line that would be good too.

The other two games couldn't match that one for excitement. I stand by my comments about Ireland - Italy are much improved but they really should have put them away more convincingly, and the French were comfortably too good for the Scots without ever looking brilliant.

Here's a gripe for the IRB, though, as I'm sure they read this blog: forward passes. Have they stopped being illegal and no-one's told me? Generally it's the little close-range offloads out of the tackle that allow an attacker to pop through a gap that look dubious; Vincent Clerc's pass to Cedric Heymans in the build-up to France's first try on Sunday is a good example. And because they know they can get away with it, attackers run very flat lines so that the passer almost has to pass the ball forward to avoid it going behind the intended recipient. Which can be counter-productive as it precludes delaying the pass - if you do that the receiver will have run past you by the time you want to give him the ball.

Two other things: moaning about scrum-halves being allowed to put the ball into the scrum crooked is probably pointless, but referees could, if they wanted to, do something about defensive lines being constantly offside. I haven't done the sums, but I bet there are more interception tries than there used to be. And why? Because people are constantly a couple of bleedin' yards offside, that's why. Which leads me, in a roundabout sort of way, to the Lewis Moody rugby flowchart.

Friday, February 01, 2008

the obligatory 6 Nations preview

There's a sound of weary reluctance to the post title, which might make you think I'm not excited about the imminent kick-off of the 2008 Six Nations Championship. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact, but I don't know that I have any pearls of wisdom to share with you, as this looks like being one of the most open tournaments for many years. So these little sketches may be fairly brief.

Wales: Once again we've got a new coach, and once again there's a certain amount of optimism in the air. There may indeed be grounds for a bit of cautious optimism, what with Warren Gatland having persuaded Martyn Williams (the best back-row forward in Britain) out of international retirement and Gavin Henson being (seemingly) fully fit (as long as he can stay out of trouble with the law). The half-back partnership of Mike Phillips and James Hook, though partly forced on Gatland by injury, looks tasty too. Ultimately they probably just haven't got enough size and grunt in the tight five to win enough ball, and I suspect this is where they'll come unstuck against England tomorrow. It's also 20 years since we last won at Twickenham.

England: The retirement of Martin Corry is a big blow, and there's an odd mix of grizzled old-timers (Vickery, Gomarsall, etc.) and youngsters (Strettle, Narraway). They were runners-up at the World Cup playing an ultra-conservative style of rugby, but Brian Ashton has aspirations for something a bit more expansive. We'll see.

Ireland: I think the current exceptional generation of Irish players may have peaked. O'Driscoll probably still has a few more years in him, as does O'Gara, but I think if they had a Grand Slam in them they would have had to convert one of their numerous runners-up spots (5 in 7 years or something ridiculous like that) as I don't think it'll be this year. If they don't improve radically on their World Cup form I think it'll cost Eddie O'Sullivan his job, new contract or not.

Scotland: Frank Hadden continues to earn the respect of many, myself included, for making the most of limited resources. You still have to say that mugging them on a rainy, windy afternoon at Murrayfield is their best chance of a win over one of the big boys, though. Maybe if they can catch the French cold (in every sense) on Sunday?

France: Another team with a new coach in Marc Lièvremont, who seems to have had a radical rethink of team tactics and selection, though having Ibanez, Pelous, Betsen and Dominici all retire on him will have forced his hand a bit. And new outside-half Francois Trinh-Duc looks as if he has a name that's an anagram of something more sensible. And sure enough it's Rancid Ostrich Fun.

Italy: Another new coach - ex-Springbok Nick Mallett - and they seem to continue to improve. Can they keep it up? They still haven't turned over one of the big boys, only Wales and Scotland (twice each, I think, in addition to a draw with Wales). This year? I would guess not.

Here's my final table. I suspect the middle four might very well only be separated by points difference. On that basis I've chosen to be wildly optimistic about Wales, mainly because I may as well cash in on the 24 hours I've got left before reality comes crashing in. I also predict there will be neither a Grand Slam nor a Triple Crown won this year.


There you go. Bring it on!

I now expect to get a roasting fork in the midriff

I realise I'm treading on thin ice here, shopping my own girlfriend for linguistic solecisms, but it's done in a caring way, and because I find the whole business inherently quite interesting.

We were out walking around Newport the other day and the lovely Hazel was complaining about a draught round her "midrift". Problem solved fairly easily by doing her coat up, and I didn't feel moved to correct her at the time, but of course the word is midriff. As the Eggcorns entry says, midrift sounds intuitively more sensible in a lot of ways, but that's the English language for you.

Just to be even-handed I should point out that my ex-girlfriend Anne always used to pronounce (and may still do for all I know) the word mischievous with the accent on the second syllable and an extra i after the v, i.e. "miss-CHEE-vee-us". I think it may be a Scottish thing.

My ex-landlady and ex-boss Catherine always used to mis-render specific as Pacific, which used to amuse me no end as well. I don't recall her ever having to attempt the phrase "so, which specific ocean are you talking about?", but if she had the resulting confusion could have taken hours to clear up.

Moving a bit further afield I lose count of the number of sporting pundits (Mark Lawrenson springs to mind) who mispronounce the word lackadaisical by sticking an extra s into it so it becomes laxadaisical, presumably from a misplaced belief that it comes from the same root as the word lax.

These pages contain some more common misspellings and mispronunciations. There will be a test on this stuff later.