Monday, December 28, 2009

welshing on the whisky reviews? let me scotch that rumour

I seem to have acquired a couple of Christmas additions to the whisky cupboard, so here they are.

Actually the first one doesn't really justify the note of slight surprise in the previous sentence, as it was by way of an early Christmas present to myself. It's a Caol Ila I spotted with ten quid knocked off in Waitrose a month or so back. A quick note on pronunciation before we start: it's kull EE-la rather than kale EYE-la or anything like that.

Bit of background: Caol Ila is an Islay distillery, so you'd expect a big rasping peaty smoky knuckle sandwich of a whisky. However, this particular one is the 1995 Distiller's Edition which was finished, pretty unusually, in casks that had previously held Moscatel wine. What that means in practice is that you get a whisky with a slightly split personality, quite sweet and vanilla-y to start with but then with a nose-stinging, eye-watering smokiness at the end, like the one that you get when you're standing next to a bonfire and the wind changes direction suddenly. It's not a bad option for a peat/smoke wuss like me as it's not as mouth-puckeringly ashy as, say, Ardbeg. That said one might argue the non-standard cask finishes are a bit of a gimmick - this certainly isn't as well-integrated as, say, Highland Park.

The second one really was a gift, though, from Hazel's sister and her partner, and it's quite an interesting one: Penderyn. Interesting because, while it's single malt whisky, it's Welsh rather than Scottish: The Penderyn distillery is up near Aberdare, about 25-30 miles from Newport as the crow flies.

One of the interesting things about whisky in general is how close a cousin of beer it is; indeed the wash which is the input to the whisky distillation process is to all intents and purposes beer. In the case of Penderyn the wash isn't produced (from malted barley) on-site as it is at most distilleries, but is instead tankered up from the Brain's brewery in Cardiff.

A few variants are available; this one is the standard bottling which is finished in Madeira casks. So the same caveats regarding gimmicks apply as for the Caol Ila, I suppose.

This is a very different beast, though - unpeated so there's no smoke, in fact the first thing you get when you have a sniff is an almost raw, chemical, estery smell, backed up by some sweet, fudgy business as well. More fudgy toffee and caramel when you drink it, as well as something a bit biscuity, like a Twix bar. It's quite "hot", partly because it's bottled at 46%, and probably partly because there's no age statement attached to the bottle, so some of the whisky in it may be quite "young". I'd be interested to have a go at a 12-year-old or something like that, once one becomes available.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

the last book I read

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine.

Just to get the obvious stuff out of the way first, there isn't actually any such person as Barbara Vine, the name being a pseudonym used by crime author Ruth Rendell; the division seems to be that, broadly speaking, she publishes the more orthodox police procedurals, including the series featuring cuddly old Inspector Wexford, under her own name, and the slightly weirder stuff (what you might call "psychological thrillers" rather than "crime novels") under the Vine name. This early paperback edition (pictured) makes the connection explicit, most of the later editions don't.

A Dark-Adapted Eye was the first of the Barbara Vine novels (published in 1986, by which time Rendell had been publishing novels under her own name for more than twenty years), of which I own (including this one) eight. Certain themes seem to be common to all of them: complex family relationships, mysterious and charismatic male characters (often with a bit of a spicy gay undertone), mysterious goings-on with small children, the central crime (if indeed there is one) being buried away in the distant past and only brought into the light of day by later events. My first encounter with the Vine canon was watching some of the TV adaptation of the second Vine book A Fatal Inversion in the early 1990s; apparently A Dark-Adapted Eye was done for TV as well around the same time, but I don't recall ever seeing it.

The subversion of the standard genre thriller starts in the first line here: we're told that someone is going to die, and soon it becomes clear that they're going to be executed for murder. So the "whodunit" bit is out of the way within the first few pages. Other questions remain to be answered of course, like who she murdered and why.

Faith Severn, the narrator, is contacted by a true-crime writer looking to write a book on her aunt, Vera Hillyard, the executed murderer we were briefly introduced to in the first chapter. This prompts Faith to re-live some of the events of her past, in particular those relating to Vera and her younger sister Eden. With about 15 years between the sisters, in some ways they have more of a mother-daughter relationship, which creates friction with Vera's son Francis. Further complications ensue when the Second World War breaks out, Eden enrols in the Wrens, and Vera has a second son, doubts over whose parentage prompt her husband to divorce her. After the war Eden acquires a wealthy husband, but after a miscarriage (which may or may not have been an ectopic pregnancy) she is advised that she will probably never be able to have children. As Vera has been ill, and in and out of hospital leaving her young son Jamie in Eden's care, a custody battle then ensues, with ultimately tragic results.

The "who" I referred to above (i.e. the identity of the victim) becomes pretty obvious at an early stage, and the "why" isn't too difficult to work out if you've got your wits about you as plenty of hints are dropped, though the official revelation doesn't happen until right at the end. What makes the Vine books so interesting is that they manage to keep you gripped despite dispensing with most of the trappings of conventional crime thriller narrative - in the case of the best and strangest ones like The Chimney-Sweeper's Boy, King Solomon's Carpet and No Night Is Too Long this includes dispensing with there actually being a central "crime" at all, outside of the protagonists' heads anyway. A Dark-Adapted Eye isn't quite as good as those, being a bit more conventionally structured, but it's ruthlessly gripping nonetheless.

Just to complete the TV adaptation round-up, No Night Is Too Long was adapted in 2002, starring Hustle's Marc Warren among others, and Gallowglass, the only one of the early Vines I haven't read, back in 1993, and featuring a very young-looking Michael Sheen.

A Dark-Adapted Eye won the Edgar Award in 1987; my brief list for this one goes: 1965, 1970, 1981, 1984, 1987.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

me and him and them and me

We went over to Cardiff last night to sample the BLOOD-RED RAW GLADIATORIAL COMBAT that is LIVE SNOOKER. The Welsh Institute of Sport were hosting a tournament in the new experimental OneForSeven format - it's a sort of attempt to sex up the sport a bit in the way the Twenty20 format has done for cricket.

A few big names: Ken Doherty, Matthew Stevens, Ryan Day - as well as a few spotty little herberts who are presumably the next generation of champion snookerists: Michael White, Ben Woollaston, Andrew Pagett, Alfie Burden and Liam Highfield.

I'm not sure I'm totally convinced by the format - four tables on the go at once, everyone plays everyone else, frames limited to 21 minutes (though in the event none of them ended up lasting nearly that long) and whoever accumulates the most points overall wins, regardless of how many frames they've won and lost. In particular I think they need to make the scoring a bit slicker - they had some volunteers manning the scoreboards, but they only put the points up at the end of each break, and no-one was calling out the break scores as they were happening, so it was difficult to get a grip on what was going on if you arrived at a table in mid-frame. You've also only got a 25% chance of watching the most exciting of the frames in progress at any one time, as proven when Ryan Day knocked in the highest break of the tournament (a 128) while I was elsewhere - possibly at another table, possibly at the bar. Day ended up winning overall, as befits the highest-ranked player present - Highfield was second despite appearing to be about 12, and Burden third.

The general informality is quite nice, though, you can wander round, chat, get drinks in at the bar - a bit like being in a snooker club, only with famous people and less chance of getting beaten up. It's not really conducive to photography, but I did get a few snaps which can be found here. Note the couple of indistinct shots of double world champion Mark Williams hanging out in the crowd wearing some nice baggy sports casuals and supping from a bottle of blue WKD. You don't get that at the Crucible. I also thought I recognised Alfie Burden's coach - turns out it was 1977 UK champion and former world number 11 Patsy Fagan. There's one to tell the grandchildren.

merry bastard christmas

Here's a curious thing - we've had the usual lot of misdirected Christmas post through the door this year, but one item in particular caught my eye. Take a look at this:

My first instinct was that this was some sort of elaborate poison-pen letter, you know: I suppose we should send the Smiths a card, but I never really liked them very much. I know, I'll write a card, but I'll address it to:


Trouble is, this would only work if - by some frankly implausible coincidence - this actually was their address, otherwise they'd never get it and the joke would be lost. And if it actually was their address, well, it would just be their address, wouldn't it? Everyone would be using it.

Something else must be going on here. A bit of pretty basic Googling reveals that there is indeed a York Place in Abercarn, and a bit more Googling turns up this fascinating discussion forum thread trying to determine the location pictured (and cryptically captioned - it reads "NEW DRILL HALL AND SPITEFULL") on an old postcard:

The mystery is solved here - it turns out that the area on the western bank of the Ebbw river round these parts was historically known as "the Spiteful"; I strongly suspect this to be an Anglicised corruption of some original Welsh place-name. The equivalent photograph taken from the same viewpoint today might very possibly show the house to which the Christmas card was intended to be sent.

Pulling on my deerstalker and lighting up a nice pipe of opium I deduce the following: whoever sent the card is probably of pensionable age. The usage of "Spiteful" can only be out of historical habit, I'd be almost certain it's not part of the "official" address any more. The old-fashioned cursive writing style (check out the initial - I think it's an F) suggests that as well. My guess is the recipients are probably of a similar age, as the likelihood is that they've lived there since that address was "current".

Anyway, having wrung all the available amusement and interest out of the card, I'd better go and pop it back in the postbox and see if I can get it redirected. I could just bin it, but that would be - wait for it - spiteful. Thank you, thank you, I'm here all week.

extended oral pleasure

Just a couple of further nuggets regarding the passing of Oral Roberts: firstly an update on the name. There is some evidence that the name Oral might be a German/Swiss derivation of Aurelius, which in turn derives from the Latin for "golden" or "gilded". This in turn is somehow appropriate given the amount of money the old fraud managed to swindle out of his flock.

Secondly, this Guardian interview with Randy Newman from 2003 reveals that Newman's father may quite plausibly have had his hand up Oral Roberts' arse on at least one occasion:
"My father was an aggressive atheist," says Newman, sitting in his west Hollywood office. Newman Sr, a doctor, dismissed religion as "bullshit" and was happy to expand on this theme to his many showbusiness patients. "Whether this is apocryphal or not, it's too good not to tell. My dad used to do house calls, and he got a call in the middle of the night from Oral Roberts [the famous television evangelist] who had haemorrhoids, really severe. My dad said, 'You call me at three in the morning - why don't you stick your own finger up your ass and cure yourself?'"
Finally, we're all aware of the bizarre contortions the religious can get themselves into on the subject of sex - scarcely surprising given that in most cases the god they believe in not only takes a weirdly prurient interest in what they do with their genitalia, but is also watching them absolutely all the time. It's like trying to get jiggy while your mother's in the room. Please note I have never done this, by the way. Anyway, here's a priceless clip in which Oral Roberts gives us the run-down on which sexual practices are acceptable and which are not, with some eye-wateringly specific details. Here's an extended remix.

Monday, December 21, 2009

why didn't he just heal himself?

It would be remiss of me, particularly after my ill-concealed glee over Jerry Falwell's demise a while back, to fail to mention the death of another American evangelical big cheese this week: Oral Roberts.

Less given to inflammatory media outbursts than Falwell, Roberts' main concern was pretty simple: money. Lots and lots and lots of lovely money. Not for him the orthodox view of Jesus' teachings as promoting a life of poverty and simplicity, rich man/eye of camel and all that stuff, oh no. Tucked away in the New Testament among all the lengthy tracts urging you to give away all your money and shuffle about in sackcloth and sandals hugging lepers is this little nugget in the Third Epistle of John:
Beloved, I pray that in all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.
- which apparently makes the rapacious pursuit of wealth not only OK, but pretty much officially sanctioned by the big man. The most famous example of this is undoubtedly when Roberts went on TV in January 1987 to tearfully tell his followers that they had three months to donate $8 million, or God would "call him home". Needless to say they coughed up, and - miraculously - he survived.

The picture in the right is from this gallery of faith-healing pics from 1962; you can see the P.T. Barnum showbiz element pretty clearly. Once TV got in on the act in the 1970s and 1980s they cleaned their whole schtick up, brought it indoors, made it look a bit more churchy, got rid of the sawdust and the goats, that sort of thing.

What isn't clear from any of the obituaries that I've read is how he came by his extraordinary name. What I can tell you is that his full name was Granville Oral Roberts, so that, in a very real sense, "Oral was his middle name". I can't find any further information on where the name came from, or what possessed him to use it in public life in preference to Granville. Maybe I'll give his brother Anal a call later and see what he thinks. I know, it's a cheap laugh, but still funny. As is this Daily Kos headline: Jesus Prepares To Receive Oral.

Friday, December 18, 2009

the amazing perpetual bullshit machine

You'll remember that lovable Irish charlatan and magic bean salesman Sean McCarthy and his company Steorn were going to have some exciting developments for us "by the end of 2009". And here they are: firstly the official Steorn YouTube channel, and secondly and more excitingly a live demo of the Orbo device at the Waterways Visitor Centre in Dublin. That should quieten those pesky nitpicking nay-sayers, right?

Weeeeeelllll......Steorn have been kind enough to provide a graphical breakdown of the kit they're demo-ing in Dublin - here it is. All the sort of stuff you'd expect: bracket, magnet, rotor, coil, magnet, magnet, magnet, D-cell battery, magnet.....WAIT A MINUTE! A battery? No, there really is one. Check out item 28.

Apparently the battery is there to power the electromagnets which spin the rotor which generates energy which charges the battery, and so on and so on, or something like that. So it needs to be there, and is definitely not being used for cheating or anything, right? Note that the original incarnation of the Orbo which was not quite demo-ed over two years ago used an array of permanent magnets, not electromagnets.

It's interesting to speculate what Steorn's business model is: I assume they must have already soaked up millions in speculative venture capital from rich people with more money than sense, presumably with some contractual small print that says they don't have to give any of it back if someone discovers a conclusive reason why it won't work, like for instance THE LAWS OF BLEEDIN' PHYSICS. They are also apparently selling licences for some sort of "developer kit" whereby you can build your own piece of battery-powered spinning perspex pointlessness for the princely sum of 419 euros (is this a subtle joke perhaps?), as well as various other tangentially-related spin-off tat at eye-watering prices.

You do wonder who's going to pony up for this stuff, but despite it all being hilariously bollocks people probably will be queueing up to hand over money. This guy, for instance. His enthusiasm is commendable (though clearly misdirected); I just hope he hasn't remortgaged his house or anything. He also appears to be a highly religious libertarian, just to give you an insight into his critical thinking capabilities.

If that particular flavour of magic bean doesn't light your fire, then other flavours are available: here's Blacklight's website. Blacklight's claim is that they can do magic net-energy-generating stuff with water by cracking it into hydrogen and oxygen and then recombining it - not just any old hydrogen like you might have in your kitchen cupboard, though, no, this is a "prior undiscovered", or, if you will, "made up" form of hydrogen called the "hydrino". So it's chemistry-based bollocks rather than physics-based bollocks, while still very much remaining bollocks, though, obviously. They do have a much cooler name than Steorn, though, and they have knocked out a much more impressive by-product along the way:
The theory upon which BlackLight's technology has been developed is based on the classical laws of physics. The Company recently released the finalized Grand-Unified Theory of Classical Physics that comprehensively addresses many of the basic problems in chemistry and physics using these physical laws without using approximations or pure mathematics, devoid of physics, as is the case for the incumbent atomic theory of quantum mechanics.
So while Steorn offer some sort of over-priced USB-powered magnetic anal probe, Blacklight have literally Sorted Out that whole physics and chemistry thing for us. Respect.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

a boot stamping on Simon Cowell's face, forever

In commemoration of the final of creepily evil orchestra-backed pub karaoke competition X Factor at the weekend, I offer you a couple of brief passages from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four which seem weirdly prescient:
There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section--Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak--engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.
The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound.
A couple of brief footnotes: firstly, yes I have purchased a copy of Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name off iTunes. I was never a big fan of RATM - long on shouty right-on political rage, short on tunes - but this isn't a bad tune, and it's in a good cause. Secondly, if you're too much of a tightwad to shell out actual money for a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the whole text appears to be available here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

the last book I read

The Gate Of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald.

In an earlier review I suggested that there was a group of British female novelists of "a certain age" who share (or rather shared, since most of them are dead) certain characteristics: piercing intelligence, a sort of bone-dry wry humour and a penchant for very short novels (which I tend to think of as being novels under 200 pages). On closer examination the "of a certain age" thing turns out to be slightly bogus, as while Penelope Fitzgerald was born in 1916 (and died in 2000) and Muriel Spark in 1918, both Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge were born in 1932. I think the rest of the comparison is fairly apt, though.

One of the other things they all have in common is becoming published novelists fairly late in life: Bainbridge was 35 when her first novel was published, Spark 39 and Ellis 45. Fitzgerald wins this particular contest hands down, though, as she was 61 when her first novel The Golden Child (not, as far as I am aware, the source material for the 1986 Eddie Murphy film of the same name) was published in 1977. Just as a curious aside, Alice Thomas Ellis' pre-novel-writing occupations included a spell as fiction editor for her husband Colin Haycraft's publishing firm, during the course of which she "discovered" both Beryl Bainbridge and Penelope Fitzgerald. Spooky.

Anyway, the book: it's 1912 and we're in Cambridge. Fred Fairly is a physicist and junior lecturer at the fictional St. Angelicus' College. While cycling through the outskirts of Cambridge one evening on his way back to the college Fred is involved in a collision with two other cyclists and a horse-drawn cart. He regains consciousness to find himself sharing a bed with Daisy Saunders, one of the other cyclists, their rescuers having assumed from the ring on her finger (an heirloom of her aunt's) that they were man and wife. Daisy is an aspiring nurse who has come to Cambridge after leaving her nurse's training in London under a cloud. Having little in the way of other prospects she talks her way into a domestic job with the owners of the country house where she and Fred were taken after the accident, while Fred returns to his college. Gradually a tentative romance develops, though complications ensue when a prosecution is brought against the cart driver and some murky elements of Daisy's past catch up with her.

That's really about it for orthodox narrative, but that's just the basic framework into which all manner of other stuff is woven. The date where this is all set is significant as lots of interesting changes are afoot (as they were in The Shooting Party which is set only a year or so later): Fred's mother and sisters are heavily involved in the women's suffrage movement, and Fred himself has chosen an academic subject in some turmoil as eminent physicists like J. J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford argue over the structure of the atom. Fred and some of his contemporaries have come to the conclusion that the new understanding of the fundamental structure of things leaves no room and no need for God, to the concern of the more senior college staff and Fred's father, an Anglican rector. There's also a brief interlude for eccentric mediaeval scholar Dr. Matthews to deliver a slightly rambling M.R. James-esque ghost story.

I've read Fitzgerald's previous novels Offshore (the 1979 Booker Prize winner) and Innocence, but I think this is the best of the three (it was also nominated for the Booker in 1990, but lost to A.S. Byatt's Possession). I also think that Fitzgerald is (or rather was) the subtlest and cleverest of the group of novelists I mentioned at the start. Fitting all the stuff described above into 167 pages while keeping an unhurried, meandering style is indicative either of a very high level of literary craft and subtlety, or some weird literary TARDIS effect. Take your pick.

Friday, December 11, 2009

vot, you vant I should write another blog post? oy oy oy....

A couple of footnotes to previous posts:
  • In correctly adding Mahela Jayawardene to the multiple 250+ scores list I omitted to mention that ex-Pakistan captain Younis Khan joined the same club back in February when he made 313 against Sri Lanka in Karachi to go with the 267 he made against India in Bangalore four years previously.
  • There's a brief interlude towards the end of Good As Gold where Gold is hanging out at a White House dinner with the ex-governor of Texas, who in alluding to Gold's Jewishness namechecks one Kinky Friedman, in his capacity as lead singer of Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.
  • As befits a Jewish novel Good As Gold has more than its fair share of Yiddish words and phrases scattered about, particularly in a highly concentrated 20-page riff/rant/ramble on the subject of Gold's putative biographee (is that a word?) Henry Kissinger. Yiddish has a uniquely large and comic array of words to describe someone in generally scornful terms, many of which have passed into everyday English usage, particularly in the USA. So to the obvious ones like putz, klutz and shmuck you can add nebbish, shlemiel, shmendrik, momzer, shlump, shmegegge - insults for every occasion. If you want more an online Yiddish dictionary can be found here, so make with the clickage, already.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

the last book I read

Good As Gold by Joseph Heller.

I alluded in my post about The Unbearable Lightness Of Being to there being a small number of books on my shelves that I'd started but never finished for some reason, TULOB being one of them. I listed a couple of others, but missed one - this one. I must have started it shortly after I bought it, probably 18-20 years ago, but never got further than about page 80, for reasons that I can't remember. As with probably 99% of people that buy this book I did so on the back of having read the legendary Catch-22. Heller wasn't exactly a prolific novelist: Catch-22 was published in 1961, its much darker successor Something Happened in 1974, and this, Heller's third novel, in 1979.

So: Bruce Gold is a university lecturer and occasional writer of articles for magazines which have earned him a modest reputation as a political commentator. This reputation cuts little ice with his extended Jewish family, though, who come together for several extended dinner gatherings throughout the novel. Gold's father constantly belittles his intellectual pretensions, elder brother Sid delights in goading him into arguments, and his stepmother seems to be insane.

Gold is trying to negotiate a publishing deal for a book about "the Jewish experience", though he seems unsure as to what "the Jewish experience" is. Meanwhile his old schoolfriend Ralph Newsome, who is now some ill-defined White House "advisor", has picked up on some earlier writings and offers Gold the opportunity of an equally ill-defined government post. Gold relocates to Washington, sets himself up with a mistress, starts researching another book (this time on Henry Kissinger) and waits for his exact rôle to be decided. Unfortunately things aren't quite that simple - Ralph seems unwilling to be tied down on exactly what the job is, his mistress's father (who he is depending on for some political patronage) seems to be an insane wheelchair-bound anti-Semite, and his every move is being spied on by CIA spooks. Gold also hasn't quite got round to leaving his wife, Belle, as he's intimidated by his teenage daughter Dina, and reluctant to have to start doing his own laundry.

There are two stories interwoven here - the classic Jewish family saga with the tragi-comic characters who love each other and hate each other at the same time as portrayed in classic American Jewish novels like Portnoy's Complaint and Herzog, which has a bit of emotional depth and impact to it, and the much broader political satire - farce, almost - of the Washington-set bits, which doesn't. I'm not sure that the two strands knit together totally convincingly; in addition there is the usual problem of black satirical comedy, which is making you care enough about the central characters to bother finding out what happens to them. This is easy in the family segments where Gold's awkwardness at being the socially awkward intellectual among a family of shallow gregarious types is nicely done, less so when Gold is bed-hopping or digging up dirt on Kissinger in Washington.

Heller would no doubt have raged against being stereotyped as someone who'd peaked with his very first novel, but it's nonetheless true: this one is fine, but Catch-22 is the book you want.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

you like thai? thai good; you like shirt?

This sort of thing really is the lowest form of wit, but in heartily recommending the Thai House in the centre of Cardiff for their excellent food (I literally ate so much grub I could barely move or speak afterwards) I can't help but also have a brief chuckle at the unintentional amusingness of some of the names of the dishes to the English speaker.

Why this is inherently more amusing than in, say, an Indian restaurant is partly to do with the unfamiliarity of the names (most people are pretty familiar with words like biryani, tandoori and dopiaza) and partly because most of the names appear to be one-syllable words strung together.

So once you've chosen between the Pak Joop Bang Tord and the Hoi Mang Boo Ob (vegetable tempura and mussels, respectively) to start, you've then got to choose between things like the Gang Musselman Gai and Gang Musselman Gah On, both of which sound like brutal sex crimes but are in fact curries with peanuts and potatoes (chicken and lamb respectively) and the even more disturbing Bed Tord King Dong which sounds very very wrong on at least two levels (it's actually crispy duck), accompanied by a side order of Kow Pat Gung (wrong again: it's fried rice).

The Pak Boon Fai Dang doesn't have a particularly amusing name, but its English description reads "Morning glory and young kale with a hint of chilli." Turns out this isn't what you might think - it turns out morning glory is one of several names for the leafy plant Ipomoea aquatica. Anyway, I'd never had it before, but it was quite nice. Then again most nondescript green leafy things would be quite pleasant with enough soy sauce and chilli on them.


Nice to see I wasn't the only one who spotted the rich comic potential of A.N. Wilson's piece in the Daily Mail a month or so ago. Here's an excerpt from the latest Viz letters page:

Sunday, December 06, 2009

blorenges are not the only mountain

Some quick notes on our expedition to conquer the Blorenge on Saturday:
  • Firstly, yes, it rhymes with orange. Some say there are other words that do as well, though most of them sound highly dubious.
  • Secondly, as you'll know if you watched that QI clip all the way through, the car park by Pen-ffordd-goch pond (aka Keeper's Pond) provides the last resting place of the famous racehorse Foxhunter.
  • The route we took started in the car park by the old railway line in Llanfoist and followed, more or less, a clockwise version of this route, which can be found among many other excellent walks on this page.
  • Highlights include a brief encounter with the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, which is all nice and restored and navigable at this point, though by the time it gets down into Newport it isn't. The limit of navigation is somewhere up north of Cwmbran, I think.
  • Those inclined to schoolboy sniggering will appreciate what some passer-by had attempted to do to a warning sign by the canal: presumably "deep silt" was the original message - the sign as it currently is is on the left in the image below: two suggestions for further improvement are to the centre and right.
  • The middle section of the walk - certainly the section from the cattle grid here up onto the ridge, over the summit, and back down to the road and round to the Foxhunter car park, and possibly some other bits as well - is part of the Iron Mountain Trail, which sounds like some scary endurance challenge but is in fact just an offshoot of the Blaenavon World Heritage Site.
  • We spotted some interesting fungi on the way round - some big brown buggers that I think were boleti of some sort, and what I believe (after consulting the excellent Visual Fungi database) to be Yellow Brain Fungus (Tremella mesenterica) on a tree branch.
  • Llanfoist doesn't appear to have a pub, so we headed back to Newport for a couple of pints of Hancock's HB at the Handpost.
Photo gallery can be found here.

Friday, December 04, 2009

it could suck an orange through a hosepipe

You've got to know when it's time to move on. You can't keep tinkering, changing something here, patching up something there, hoping for the best. You've eventually got to say: bollocks, I need a new vacuum cleaner. And so it was this week, as I bid a poignant and tearful farewell to my old upright bagless Electrolux, which I bought from House of Fraser in central Bristol way back in 2002 (and, in my pre-car days, carted home on the bus) and which had given several years of admirable service, but lately suffered a tragic loss of suction. You try and turn a blind eye, but eventually you have to face the truth - the old girl just isn't up to it any more. So it was with a heavy heart that I went down to Tesco and handed over £59.97 for a sparkly new Samsung SU2920. Vacuum cleaners new and old are pictured on the right. Sic transit gloria mundi, and all that., it's OK, I've just got something in my eye.

Anyway, I tested the new one out, and it REALLY SUCKS. No, but in a good way. I am, however, slightly disturbed by the slogan on the cardboard box it came in. See for yourself:

Crikey. Apparently I DEMAND perfection from not only myself, but EVERYTHING around me as well. Copping out and settling for 99% perfect won't do for me, no sirree, only absolute immaculate impeccable perfection in all things will cut the mustard. That being the case it's fortunate that I've been shrewd enough to purchase a vacuum cleaner that, in addition to the mundane stuff like sucking dust and fluff and hair out of carpets, quite literally creates perfection, in some mysterious way.

I notice that the box contains a spare drive belt and HEPA filter, but that's it. Evidently if the perfection-generating gizmo goes I'll have to get a man in.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

well, I've had a good innings

The fascinating Test series between India and Sri Lanka which is currently in progress has already provided a few statistical highlights for those of a certain mental disposition. Having started a couple of lists relating to obscure records in earlier posts I feel morally obliged to provide an update whenever things change, so here it is:
  • Mahela Jayawardene has now joined the select club of batsmen with more than one 250+ score to their name, courtesy of his 275 in Ahmedabad.
  • My favourite serially murderous batting psychopath Virender Sehwag has rewritten the record books yet again today in the third Test in Mumbai. Not only does his unbeaten 284 put him in the exalted company of Bradman, Miandad and Lara as the only men to pass 250 more than twice, it also annihilates his modern record for runs scored in a day - you now have to go back 76 years to find someone (the mighty Walter Hammond, as it happens) to outdo him. Not only that but he didn't even have a full day's batting - Sri Lanka ate up 6 overs or so finishing off their first innings, plus a couple more for the between-innings break. Given an extra 8 overs Don Bradman's 79-year old record of 309 could have gone. Today's innings was also the second-fastest Test double-century ever made; ridiculously, Sehwag now owns three of the top four in this list, and five of the top nine. It was also the fastest 250, and unless he dawdles in a highly uncharacteristic manner tomorrow (or gets out, of course) he will register the fastest triple-century ever made as well, beating his own record of 278 balls against South Africa in Chennai last year. More significantly he would also become the first man ever to make three separate Test triple-centuries, beating the puny likes of Don Bradman and Brian Lara into a tie for second place.
  • Just to prevent Sehwag getting all cocky, it should also be noted that his getting out for a paltry 131 in the first innings at Kanpur ends his streak of 11 consecutive centuries turned into 150+ scores. Clearly his rampage in Mumbai is the result of the certain knowledge that I was bound to mention it here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

corr blimey

You remember The Corrs? With their dancey-pop-folk-rock tunes ploughing an unerring laser-calibrated furrow down the middle of the road? Everyone liked the Corrs, for one reason or another. And of course in the vast majority of cases it was "another", if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

So you'll be wanting to know my answer to The Corrs Question, which every man asks himself upon seeing them, or even just hearing their name. And that question is, of course: if you really, really had to choose, which one? And my answer is: Sharon, the fiddle player (on the right in the photo). Which is not to say I wouldn't prefer it to be all of them, in a big bathtub full of Guinness.

However, my point, which I'm sneaking up on ninja-stylee, has to do with the person Richard Herring used to call The Man-Corr, during the frequent visits to his Corrs shrine on This Morning With Richard Not Judy. That is to say multi-instrumentalist Jim Corr, who, it is revealed among numerous other pant-moisteningly fascinating facts on his Wikipedia page, is the tallest of the Corrs, as well as being - wait for it - the only male member.

Rather more interesting is Jim's own website, wherein he reveals himself to be a staunch adherent to pretty much every single bonkers conspiracy theory ever cooked up, mainly the myriad ones relating to the New World Order, which will be implemented (probably by David Icke's 12-foot lizards) literally Any Day Now.

I am not a psychologist, as you know, but my diagnosis is this: standing around on stage with his three lovely sisters for all those years, in the certain knowledge that a) every bloke in the world had just started having The Bad Thoughts and b) he, and he alone, was barred by social convention and societal taboo from doing the same thing, despite - oh, the bitter irony - being the one bloke in the world with legitimate access to their dressing-room area, has caused some sort of catastrophic mental meltdown.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

obey the turd commandment

Two things spring to mind seeing this headline on the BBC website:

Firstly, that's not particulary newsworthy, surely? Prisons are big obvious things that you ought to be able to spot, and avoid, no matter how pissed you are. "Urinating student avoids own shoes" would be more remarkable.

Secondly, given the seriousness with which this is all being viewed (and I'm not suggesting pissing on war memorials is OK or anything) I feel I should in all conscience come clean and make the following confession: I have urinated in the fountains outside the Victoria Rooms in central Bristol on more than one occasion. I'm not proud of myself, and it was nearly 20 years ago, but there it is. I feel better now. I'm afraid I can't confirm whether or not my friend Mario ever followed through on his promise to symbolically confirm his rejection of organised religion by having a shit on (or perhaps even in) a church. I seem to recall that the Victoria Methodist Church and the Tyndale Baptist Church - both a short distance from the scene of my own micturatory misdemeanours - were the two most likely candidates.

coma coma coma coma coma chameleon

Here's a little exercise in scepticism and critical thinking for you, just to demonstrate how important it is, and how it is in fact the only way to find out anything about anything. If you want to limber up first, check out the pixie dust/magic finger story from a while back.

You may have seen the various articles (in the Daily Mail and Guardian, among others, and on the BBC website) about Belgian man Rom Houben and the apparent miraculous discovery that he is, inside his crippled and useless body, actually conscious and coherent after 23 years in what doctors had previously thought was a vegetative coma.

So, if you've got your critical thinking hat on straight, the first thing you think is: wow; how did they find out that he was conscious? And the answer seems to be: initially by some brain-scanning technique of an unspecified nature that might be something like fMRI or CAT, but might equally well be something else. The Mail alludes to "new high-tech scans" and "state-of-the-art imaging", but gives no details, nor does it describe how the results of a brain scan can be interpreted to determine "consciousness" or its absence. The Guardian mentions a "state-of-the-art scanning system", but that's about it.

But, hey, none of this should really matter, because the main thing is that he's able to communicate with the outside world, right? Well....the Guardian mentions that he is able to make simple yes/no signals with his foot, which seems clear enough, but in all the pictures, all the video footage and most of the articles he's communicating via a touch-screen keyboard interface with the assistance of another person.

Again, if you've got your critical thinking hat on straight this should set alarm bells off all over the shop. What appears to be happening here is something called "facilitated communication", whereby a "facilitator" guides the patient's hands around until they feel a "twitch" or something similar which they interpret as the patient selecting a letter. The trouble with this is that, bluntly, it doesn't work. Why it doesn't work, and has been proven not to work repeatedly in properly constructed tests, but appears to, is down to fascinating things like the ideomotor effect (the thing that makes ouija boards "work") and the observer-expectancy effect (also, more amusingly, known as the Clever Hans effect after the famous horse that could supposedly do arithmetic).

The sceptical blogosphere has been a-buzzing with indignation over a) blatantly pseudoscientific nonsense being passed off as medical science and b) the hopelessly credulous and unquestioning attitude most of the press and online media have taken in response. The only sceptical mainstream media article I could find (and I should point out I haven't exactly spent hours looking, so there may be others) was this one on MSNBC; significantly it's by an actual science-y doctor type rather than the usual pig-ignorant drunken hacks. In contrast plenty of sceptical and scientific blogs chewed over the story in a more critical way; here's PZ, Orac, the Amazing Randi and the Skepchicks just for starters, but there are plenty more.

It's easy to have an instinctive emotional reaction to what is a pretty tragic story of a life cut short, so here are a couple of disclaimers: no-one is suggesting that either the doctor (Steven Laureys of the University of Liège) or the facilitator operating the keyboard are anything but sincere; the whole point of facilitated communication is that it requires no conscious collusion from anybody. Equally, no-one is suggesting that Rom Houben may not in fact really be just as conscious and lucid as people are claiming he is, just that the "evidence" provided so far provides zero information one way or the other.

Most of the articles, critical or otherwise, have drawn the parallel with the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of the book The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (later filmed). It's been suggested that Houben may be suffering from "locked-in syndrome" just as Bauby was. This seems unlikely given the differing nature of their injuries - Houben was in a car accident, Bauby had a stroke, which seems to be the usual trigger for LIS - but it's not impossible, I suppose. Again, until some proper tests are carried out no-one will ever know.

The other obvious parallel that some people have drawn is with Terri Schiavo, whose case was something of a cause célèbre in the USA in the early 2000s. Schiavo suffered some mysterious brain injury (over which there is still much speculation) in 1990 and then fell into a coma from which she never recovered until her death in March 2005. The legal furore surrounding her husband's bid to allow her to die, and her parents' demands that she be kept alive (with, bizarrely, interventions from Jeb Bush, governor of Florida), dragged on for many years. When you add loony religious notions like "the soul" into a mix already rich (and understandably so) in wishful thinking and denial then you've got a recipe for disaster. I predict the Houben case will be hijacked by some loonies banging on about the sanctity of human life and wanting some retrospective re-evaluation of the Schiavo case any second now. Oh, wait.

Many of the news articles have made use of some variant of the "silent scream of anguish" trope, which makes me think they've probably been reading too much science fiction. Or possibly listening to too much Metallica.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

beer and whisky makes you frisky

A couple of drink-related things for you. Firstly, I purchased a four-pack of Brains SA from Tesco the other day. Nothing very unusual in that, except that I noticed that the plastic thingy that keeps the cans together seems to have been changed - your classic four-pack beer-can harness sits around the top of the cans, just below the top lip; this new one sits about two-thirds of the way up.

So one has to ask: why the change? What does the new one deliver that the old one didn't? It's not that the cans are any easier to carry; the old design allowed the whole four-pack to be picked up by just hooking a finger into the central hole at the top. The new one does come with a flap of plastic that looks as if it's meant to be a carrying handle, but I can't see that this makes things any easier. And getting the individual cans out of the packaging is more difficult that it used to be - before you just had to lift and tilt a can and it would effortlessly come free of the plastic; now you have to grip the rest of the cans and slide the one you want out vertically, with inevitably a bit of a jerk as it comes out. And jerking of cans can lead to trouble when you come to open them, as you know. Basically what I'm saying is that I fail to see how this is an improvement in any way. What's going on?

Secondly, more whisky. I don't go to Waitrose very often, but I did take the opportunity of having a nose around their whisky section when I was at the one in Newbury the other day. It turns out they have some unusual stuff at bargain prices, including a bottle of 12-year-old Royal Lochnagar for £19.99, which I bought.

Here's a couple of Royal Lochnagar facts for you:
  • It's one of the smallest Scotch whisky distilleries, having just two stills. By contrast Macallan has twenty-one, and back when it was the biggest distillery in Scotland in the 1970s Tomatin had twenty-three. I daresay Glenfiddich has quite a few as well.
  • The "Royal" prefix dates back to the time of Queen Victoria, who granted it to the distillery when she first visited nearby Balmoral in 1848. There are only three distilleries in Scotland which are allowed to use the word "Royal" in their name; the other two are Royal Brackla (which is still operational) and Glenury Royal (which isn't).
  • The nearby mountain after which the distillery is named is one of my 273 as-yet-unconquered Munros; in fact according to my Munro bible it is the 21st-highest mountain in Britain. I'll get to it in due course; don't rush me.
Anyway, as far as the actual whisky goes, this is from the Highland region, the same as Glenmorangie, and also the same as Highland Park, if you don't hold with the heretical notion of "Island" being a separate region. Broadly speaking Highland malts tend to be a bit more rugged than the very civilised Speyside ones (like the Aberlour, for instance); this one just about conforms to that by having a light smokiness to it. It's relatively light - less chunky and smoky and outdoorsy than the Highland Park, and certainly less so than the Ardmore. It starts off very butterscotch-y and quite sweet, and finishes surprisingly smoky and dry, all of which encourages another mouthful. I like it a lot.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

looking a bit peaky

I thought the name of Michael Buerk's guest on Radio 4's The Choice rang a bell when it was trailed during the Today programme that preceded it this morning - the couple of minutes of the show I caught provided the necessary context: Cathy O'Dowd, mountaineer, adventurer and author.

I know the name because she features in Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's account of the events on Mount Everest in May 1996 when eight climbers died. The South African expedition that O'Dowd was a part of, led by O'Dowd's husband Ian Woodall (though they weren't married at the time), comes in for some fairly heavy criticism in the book. Krakauer seems to have taken an instant dislike to Woodall in particular - Krakauer's friend Andy de Klerk was one of the original members of Woodall's expedition, but resigned in protest at Woodall's leadership before the Everest attempt, and Krakauer's expedition leader (and one of the eventual list of fatalities) Rob Hall seems to have been of a similar opinion. Krakauer's original Outside magazine article (which mentions O'Dowd and Woodall) can be found here, and a preview of the book can be found here.

I thoroughly recommend reading Into Thin Air, but of course there's more than one side to every story. O'Dowd seemed perfectly sane, humane and reasonable during the interview, which focused on her unsuccessful attempt to save Fran Arsentiev's life on a later ascent of Everest in 1998. Her notes on the 1996 expedition can be found on her website here and here. Yet another view of the events is provided by Anatoli Boukreev's book The Climb, which addresses some of the criticisms of his actions in 1996 made in Krakauer's book. If you're not all Everest disaster-ed out after that, try Beck Weathers' Left For Dead for yet another account of the same events.

It's inevitable that different people have wildly differing recollections of the same events when those events take place in the so-called "death zone" above 8000 metres, where rational thought is as difficult as summoning the energy to move. Much as I love mountains, once you get to a point beyond which you can get up by parking the car, putting your boots on and walking, i.e. the point where ice-axes, crampons and rope start to be required, I lose interest quite rapidly. Also the "death zone" thing is a bit troubling: death = bad in my book.

Friday, November 20, 2009

where we're going we won't need eyes

A bit shout out to my main man Jann for directing to me to the A.V. Club's film flops hall of fame in response to my post referencing Nicolas Cage's performance in the remake of The Wicker Man. Yeah. Props. Respect. Recognize.

Anyway, sure enough The Wicker Man does find a spot on the list, along with another Cage film, Zandalee, which looks as if it features a Cage performance so hammy you could make X out of it, where X is some comically appropriate culinary thing involving a lot of ham that I can't think of right now. A ham sandwich? No, not enough ham. A hamburger? No, that doesn't work. Maybe an installation art piece featuring 140kg of ham piled on a bed? Yes. It's not culinary, but goodness me that's a lot of ham.

There are various other films which prompt me to nod at their unspeakable awfulness, most obviously Pay It Forward which I saw on an aeroplane in about 2001; I have yet to fully recover from its desperate mawkish manipulative cheesy teeth-grinding horribleness. All I would say in defence of A Life Less Ordinary is that no film featuring Holly Hunter in a tight skirt and knee-length boots (even though she does do a really irritating accent throughout) can be completely without merit. The appearance of Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days on the list, however, prompts me to construct this brief list of my own, which I choose to entitle Films I Quite Liked, Even Though Pretty Much No-One Else Did:
  • Dune. I probably liked this (I went to see it in the cinema when it came out in 1984) because a) I was only 14 at the time and the whole outer space and giant worms thing seemed really cool, and more importantly b) I'd never read any of the books (and still never have, and almost certainly never will). I've also never watched it again since, which is probably key to retaining any fond memories.
  • Fearless. One obvious reason to hate this: Rosie fucking Perez and the most annoying voice in the world. One obvious reason to like it: the Dude! I suppose it's obvious that my paranoia about flying should mean that I find this fascinating, but I don't think it's just that.
  • Strange Days. The virtual reality thing has been done to death now, but this was quite innovative stuff when it came out. The A.V. Club guy is quite right, though, when he says that only a fool would fail to recognise that the fantastically foxy Angela Bassett is far more attractive than Juliette Lewis, even a topless Juliette Lewis on roller skates. Plus, it's got Michael Wincott, keeping up his rigorous voice training regime of gargling battery acid and clock parts.
  • Event Horizon. I thought this sci-fi/horror combo was really quite good, despite being about 20 minutes too short - apparently there were a whole load of wranglings between director and studio and a lot of stuff got cut. Consequently the last third of the film feels weirdly rushed and confusing, but it's still good. And Sam Neill is an asset to any film; he was one of the two things that made Jurassic Park bearable (the second being Bob Peck. Clever girl!) Well, OK, Omen III was a bit shit.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

we'll have the primordial soup to start, please, followed by the trilobite

I spotted an excellent phrase on one of the Pharyngula discussion threads earlier, which describes very succinctly the creationists' view of the Theory of Evolution:
from goo, to you, by way of the zoo
Isn't that great? I'd never heard it before, but it's obviously been around for a while, as it seems it's the title of a book by a chap called Harold Hill (no, not him). Some Americans have fond childhood memories of it, though, apparently. It almost has a bit of a Dr. Seuss sound to it, though you can bet what's inside will be considerably less entertaining and educational.

Actually, as scornful representations of the ToE go, it isn't all that bad a catchphrase, as it suggests life formed in very simple forms and evolved through lots of progressively more complex intermediate forms to the wild profusion of life we see today, which is pretty much what all the available evidence suggests actually happened. Ridicule is clearly what's intended, though. Those crazy godless Darwinists!

Whereas the Bible says God created life with the whole Adam and Eve thing, then The Fall (no, not them), a whole load of begatting, the flood, Jesus, yadda yadda yadda, you. Or, if you prefer, from two, to you, by way of some Jews.