Saturday, May 30, 2009

the last book I read

The Accidental by Ali Smith.

The Smart family are on holiday in a rented cottage in Norfolk. There's Eve, successful writer of pseudo-historical fiction but currently having something of a crisis with writer's block, her husband Michael, university lecturer and serial shagger of his female students (which he assumes Eve doesn't know about, though in fact she does), precocious 12-year-old daughter Astrid, who spends most of her time wandering around filming things with her video camera, and withdrawn 17-year-old son Magnus (like Astrid, Eve's child from her first marriage), who is harbouring a terrible secret - he was involved in an e-mail prank at his school which prompted the butt of the joke (some faked nude pictures) to hang herself.

Their holiday is disturbed by the arrival of Amber, a hippy-ish blonde thirtysomething whose car has apparently broken down nearby, and who immediately begins to exert a strange influence over the whole family. No sooner have they invited her to stay (or, rather, been unable to do anything as direct and confrontational as ask her to leave) than she has destroyed Astrid's camera and popped Magnus' cherry for him (shortly after dissuading him from hanging himself in the bathroom). Both Eve and Michael seem to have fallen in love with her in their own ways, as well.

Eventually there is a confrontation, and Amber leaves. When the Smarts return home they find that their house has been burgled (we're led to understand that Amber had a hand in this), and that Michael's latest indiscretions with his tutorial students have caught up with him. Michael has what seems to be some sort of breakdown, and Eve jets off on a promotional book tour that turns into an extended flight from reality (and her family).

The enigmatic stranger gatecrashing the family gathering and bringing all sorts of repressed stuff bubbling to the surface is a well-worn plot device, including in a previous entry in this list, and also in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1968 film Theorem, which mirrors the plot of this book quite closely.

I was left slightly meh by the whole thing, though. It's odd that the first half of the book (in Norfolk) focuses heavily on Astrid and Magnus, and then the second half focuses more on Michael and Eve, just when you'd started to stop caring about them. Amber's background and motivation are almost non-existent; we're invited to assume that the majority of what we do get is fictitious anyway (well, obviously it's fictitious - this is a novel after all - but I mean made up by Amber, i.e. fictitious within fictitious). And Eve's behaviour at the end of the book, though providing a nice circular ending in the way it mirrors Amber's first appearance, seems a bit unlikely. Having said all that it's entertaining enough, easy to read, and takes some interesting liberties with structure and narrative voice (although it's all third-person, each chapter is narrated from the viewpoint of a different character, with no immediate clues as to which one it is).

And now the awards bit - The Accidental won the Whitbread Novel Award (now the Costa Novel Award) in 2005. My list (for the novel award, not the overall Book Of The Year Award) goes like this: 1977, 1980, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2006; also the First Novel Award winners from 1982, 1990, 1996 and 1998. Wikipedia doesn't provide a handy list of the novel award winners, so I had to get it here.

Following on from the brief but entertaining discussion about typesetting and related topics last time, here's a quick survey - lines per page in books in this list, all B-format paperbacks.
So Independence Day has exactly 50% more lines per page than, say, On Chesil Beach. And that's not considering the number of words per line, which would be proportionately higher as well, what with the print being smaller. The same proportion? Who knows? I could probably find out, but, well, you know.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

album of the day

Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.

I know, it's not very "out there". But it's interesting to come back to something dulled by over-familiarity and realise what it was that was so great about it. Here's a selection of things:
  • It's Lindsey Buckingham's arrangements that hold the whole thing together - his anarchic instincts (given free rein amid a blizzard of cocaine to less focussed effect on the follow-up album Tusk) stop Christine McVie's songs in particular from being too sugary - a couple of rude guitar interjections in Bill Clinton's favourite song Don't Stop, for instance, just about save it from being a great big galumphing turkey of a song.
  • Oh Daddy is very peculiar song - maybe Christine McVie has some issues that need working through, especially since she wrote one called Sugar Daddy on the previous album as well.
  • Listen hard right at the start of The Chain (the BBC Grand Prix theme tune) and you can hear a wearily whispered "fuuuuuck" from Buckingham just before the song kicks in. They snipped that bit on the BBC.
  • Go Your Own Way is the centrepiece of the album, though. It's instructive to try and analyse what makes great rock songs great, so here goes: the complete commitment of the singer to some fairly withering lyrics; the delicious irony of having Stevie Nicks (who the song is about) warbling away in the background on the chorus; the way the guitar playing gets gradually more savage through the song to the point (2:37 if you want to skip straight to it) where the last chorus ends and the climactic minute or so of guitar-strangling starts, finishing with the series of bashed-out guttural chords as the song fades out; John McVie's bassline in the chorus; but mainly it's Mick Fleetwood's drum pattern - the lopsided wounded-hippo off-beat pattern in the verses, then the ratatat fill leading into the four-on-the-floor driving rhythm of the chorus. Tension, tension, tension, release. That's what music is all about. And sex.
  • Also, Stevie Nicks circa 1977. Gorgeous, though perhaps just slightly more bonkers than you might ideally want. But you can't have everything.

Monday, May 18, 2009

if you tolerate this your stationery will be next

Always nice to read an interview with the Manic Street Preachers as in this month's Q magazine - one of the reasons this is such a pleasure is that bassist and de facto band spokesman Nicky Wire is so refreshingly willing to pontificate on all subjects, and generally make an utter tit of himself. I have a sneaky affection for him, but clearly not half as much as he has for himself. I offer you the following jottings, which form some sort of half-cocked manifesto:

You might have to click on it for a larger version if it's illegible. Just a quick trawl though the list:
  • Points 1-3 are the usual self-aggrandising bollocks.
  • #4 I bet Kubrick could bleedin' spell "stationery" though.
  • I've no idea what #5 is about; that's precisely what makes the internet so great. Well, that and the porn.
  • #6 is the usual Mr. Benn & Bod nostalgia bollocks. Nothing wrong with a bit of Dik & Dom, it's just that I'm not six any more.
  • #7 refutes #5 a bit - log onto the internet, Nicky, there's lots of knowledge just lying around waiting to be picked up. Did you know the gastric-brooding frog is now believed to be extinct? I did.
  • #8, well, yes, I agree. The South Bank Show must be starting to suffer from This Is Your Life syndrome, though, i.e. there's no-one left alive who hasn't been done. Me next, I reckon.
  • #12, Christ, Tutti Frutti. Great series, I'd snap it up like a shot if it came out on DVD. The "destruction" referred to is of the original film stock, which makes DVD-quality picture a bit tricky. That doesn't rule out a release, though clearly the air of imminence given off by this 2006 article was a bit premature. I was briefly in love with Emma Thompson in her ginger-haired incarnation as feisty guitarist Suzi Kettles around the time the series was shown - she appears briefly in this clip.
  • #13 - Simon Jenkins? This Simon Jenkins?
  • #14 oooooh, get you with your poetry appreciation skills. And in touch with the feminist struggle as well, right, sisters?
I mock in an affectionate way, of course - it's refreshing to read interviews with people who have actual opinions about things, and sound as if they might have read the odd book. Intelligence is undermined somewhat if you feel the need to keep pointing it out, though. Nonetheless I hereby anoint Nicky Wire Welshman of the day, just because I haven't done one for a while.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

two for the price of one: doom AND gloom

After the brief euphoria of West Indies' narrow series victory over England in the Caribbean over the winter they seem to have come back down to earth with a bang now that they're in England - to be fair this seems to have been a hastily-arranged series, played far too early in the year at grounds unsuited to Test cricket in May (including the most northerly Test venue in the world - smart thinking), and the West Indies players don't exactly seem to be brimming with enthusiasm about the whole thing.

As I speak the two senior batsmen, Ramnaresh Sarwan and the admirable Shivnarine Chanderpaul, are trying to extract the West Indies from the dicey situation they find themselves in. My suspicion is that further Arctic weather may well enable them to get away with a draw, especially as we've lost a whole day already.

Anyway, the current debacle has resulted in a whole rash of opinions on why West Indies cricket has declined. I don't have much to add to what's been written on the subject already; I'll just add another couple of personal observations.

Firstly, you can keep your Australian "Invincibles" of 1948, and your record-breaking Waugh/Ponting Aussie team of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the best Test team I've ever seen is the 1984 West Indies team that destroyed a pretty decent England side (Botham, Lamb, Gower, Willis and all) 5-0. Just look at the names: Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner. That set the West Indies up for a period of dominance that lasted until the Australians beat them at home in 1995.

The point is that most of the current West Indies side will have grown up wanting to emulate the greats of this long period of dominance - all the players I've already mentioned plus the likes of Richardson, Lara, Walsh and Ambrose. If that's the case and they're still in the shambolic state that they are, what of the next generation, who will have grown up watching the slightly less magnificent talents of Clayton Lambert, Reon King and Tino Best getting beaten by all-comers? You can hardly blame them if the lure of basketball or football seems more tempting.

As if to confirm this gloomy thinking both Chanderpaul and Sarwan are now out and West Indies really are in the poo.

I'm leaving the Ashes previewing for another day. Watch this space.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

ah, the gift of laughter; and booze.

Couple of additions to the blog sidebar for you: firstly the consistently amusing Daily Mash, whose latest stories include more Pope-baiting as well as a pop at Ryanair's increasingly deranged plans to squeeze even more money out of their passengers while simultaneously making their travelling experience even more grindingly stressful and miserable.

If I remember rightly the latest actual news story related to the airline removing their physical check-in desks from airports and making everyone check-in online, instead of the current arrangement whereby they employ people to sit at check-in desks shouting AHA! at people when they turn up and then charging them a fiver each for not checking in online, thus increasing the cost of their flights by 50,000%. They do seem to have backed off on the scheme of charging people to go to the toilet, though, and probably just as well. You can push the great British public only so far before they run whooping through the aircraft waving their genitalia around and urinating freely (actually some stag parties do this already); you don't really want to be arriving in Perpignan on a hot afternoon in a plane festooned with faeces.

Secondly, Dr. Whisky's blog. I'm not a big consumer of, or expert on, whisky, but I do like to have a nice bottle of single malt in the house. My current one is a rather unadventurous but very palatable 10-year-old Macallan; the previous one was a 10-year-old Bushmills which I bought after getting back from the Irish trip mentioned above. Much lighter and paler than the Macallan, but I still liked it, though Dr. Whisky isn't so keen. Anyway, as always the tasting notes are a hoot - if I'd gone for the Fine Oak 10yo Macallan I could have sampled flavours that are, simultaneously "like kissing a woman (man?) wearing lipstick" and "like sucking a wooden spoon". Or I could save 30 quid and just go and suck a wooden spoon.

Whisky preference is a very personal thing, of course - I know Andy is a big Islay fan, Laphroaig and Caol Ila in particular, while beardy Phil is a Talisker man. My Dad, despite being (like me) a devout beer drinker by habit, has a bit of a taste for Ardbeg, while my brother-in-law Ben, as befits his Irish ancestry, drinks Bushmills.

The Macallan isn't far off being finished, so if you have suggestions as to what I should try next, feel free to leave them here. Sainsbury's in Newport have an Old Pulteney for a bargain £23.99 which looks quite tempting.

Friday, May 15, 2009

funny peculiar

You know that feeling you get when your late and affectionately-remembered ex-girlfriend turns out to have starred in a critically-acclaimed film five years after her untimely death? No? Well you can file this under Slightly Weird then.

I recall mentioning a while back that my mate Tony's wife Lianne was the only person I knew (though as it happens I hadn't actually met her at the time) who had a legitimate Wikipedia page. Well, it turns out the other person I know (or, rather, knew) who has one is my ex-girlfriend Posy Miller - hers is mainly concerned with the aforementioned film which is called Sam Jackson's Secret Video Diary and was constructed from a series of short 4-minute films shot during 2002 before Posy's sudden death from acute leukaemia on Christmas Eve of that year. The clips weren't intended for any particular purpose at the time, as I understand it, and the director Guy Rowland only hatched the idea of building a film around them afterwards, which, after much legal wrangling, was released in late 2007. You can imagine how slightly peculiar it is to watch the clips now, having had no idea they existed until a few hours ago.

A trailer can be viewed here - or you can download the while thing here. You'll need the DIVX codec as well.

Just to continue the morbid death-related theme, among Posy's drama contemporaries who I met briefly during our time at Bristol University (including a few people mentioned in a previous post) was celebrated playwright Sarah Kane, who committed suicide in 1999. I remember walking her home from a performance of one of her early works at the Bristol Students' Union in probably 1991 or so and observing after dropping her off that she could probably stand to lighten up a bit. Sadly I never got to walk Dominik Diamond home in a similar manner or he might have met with a tragic "accident" which would have truncated his fledgling TV career before it started.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

you can't blog in here, this is the spare room

Lest anyone should assume that my reference to Scott Mills as a "deviated prevert" in the last but one post was either a piece of casual homophobia or a typo, allow me to direct you to the original scene from which the phrase was ever-so-slightly misquoted (it's "some kind of deviated prevert", not "some sort of deviated prevert").

We were having a conversation in the office a while back about a list of the Most Quotable Films Ever. Dr. Strangelove must be on that list somewhere; in fact the following list I've cooked up off the top of my head (which broadly matches the one we came up with at the time) has it at number 4.

1. Aliens. Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen!
2. Withnail And I. The fucker will rue the day!
3. This Is Spinal Tap. So when you're playing you feel like a preserved moose?
4. Dr. Strangelove. I...first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.

news in brief

News flash: man spends time in Jordan for publicity purposes, conflict ensues, but he emerges unscathed.

Also in the news this week: man spends time in Jordan for publicity purposes, conflict ensues, but he emerges unscathed.

See what I did there?

Monday, May 11, 2009

o man you are HURTIN dem wid dis shit

I had that Scott Mills in the shower this morning. Or rather I had his Radio 1 show on the radio - and just as well, as I gather he's some sort of deviated prevert. Anyway, he was relating a conversation he'd been having with fellow DJ, ex-public schoolboy, son of the Bishop of Peterborough and Ali G prototype Tim "Westwood" Westwood about trainers (or, depending how much of an upper middle-class English white man affecting to be a brutha from the Bronx you are, "sneakers"). Westwood is a devotee of the old skool keepin' it real hip hop stylee "box fresh" look, as he says here:
I buy a pair of white on white like every three weeks; none of this shit lasts for ever, especially in the clubs. You want that box fresh look – when they dead, throw them out. You don’t keep every pair of underpants you ever owned. For me, it’s all about co-ordination; I’ve got mad different colour laces to set shit off.
Now that's a viewpoint, of course, but as it happens I tend to take the opposite view, just as I do with jeans, i.e. I only really start to like them just before they fall apart (as a Levi's ad campaign said a few years back). My current pair of Converse All Stars are a case in point - it's only now they've got a bit ratty and grimy and have got shit on them that I really like them.

Evidently I'm not hip hop enough. What undoubtedly is hip hop enough is Westwood's Twitter feed - like the quote above you've got to read his tweets while doing the Westwood voice and randomly pointing at things (the ground is a good place to start) with both hands every few seconds to get the full effect. Randomly emphasising WORDS at RANDOM helps too.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

the last book I read

Rider On The Rain by Sébastien Japrisot.

I didn't expect to be doing another one of these quite so soon, but this is a very short book, and, in contrast to the last one, it's written in such a way as to be shorter even than the number of pages (151 in my Harvill Press edition) would suggest.

Just to digress for a minute, it would be a much more accurate and useful measure of a book's length to state the number of words in it as well as the number of pages. Since this one has a lot of dialogue in it (for reasons I'll come to in a minute) and since it's a smaller A-format paperback (my copy of The Double is in the larger B-format) its words-per-page ratio is considerably lower. Print size and spacing can vary considerably between books as well; for instance despite all being B-format paperbacks Independence Day and Riven Rock have quite small, tightly-spaced print while Arcadia and On Chesil Beach have larger, more widely-spaced print (almost absurdly so in On Chesil Beach's case - the publishers were obviously keen to bump up the page count as much as possible).

Anyway, I digress. Japrisot is quite a celebrated crime writer in France, though I'd never heard of him until I came across a couple of slim paperbacks in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye the other day. Many of his books have been adapted into films, most famously A Very Long Engagement which was filmed in 2004. If my research is correct, however, this one is a retrospectively-novelised version of Japrisot's screenplay for the 1970 film noir starring Charles Bronson and Marlène Jobert (a few clips can be found here, here and here. Just as a tempter, the last one features Bronson gruffly speaking French and slapping some French bird around, and then having a fight).

I seem to have digressed again. The amusingly-named Mellie Mau lives on the French Riviera with her frequently-absent husband (a navigator for Air France). One day she sees a stranger get off the bus in a rainstorm. That evening the same stranger breaks into her house and rapes her; she later confronts him in the cellar, kills him with a shotgun and disposes of the body over a nearby cliff. Shortly after she meets American Harry Dobbs at a wedding - Dobbs seems to know a lot about her, her assailant and the events of that night, and a cat-and-mouse (chat-et-souris, if you will) game ensues. As you'd expect from a noir-ish crime thriller there's plenty of twisty-turniness and trickery before the end.

It's not just because it's quite short and dialogue-rich (since it's essentially a screenplay) that you can zip through it quickly, it's because it's genuinely compelling. It's a bit like an Elmore Leonard book transposed to a French Riviera setting with more smoking, Gallic shrugging and pretty women with Jean Seberg haircuts driving open-topped sportscars along winding clifftop roads at unsuitable speeds.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

After that last book review I feel almost obliged to do one of these. Luckily I've got one ready to go. I'm always tempted to start these posts with "is is just me, or..." but since the answer is invariably "yes; yes it is" I will try and get out of the habit. Anyway, is it just me or does American shock-jock and subject of another spectacularly crass Jacqui Smith own goal Michael Savage strongly resemble Harrods owner and barmy (but hilarious) Royal Family conspiracy theorist Mohamed Al-Fayed?

Only with a beard and (some) hair, of course. You've got to get past the beard. Here, let me help you:

the last book I read

The Double by José Saramago.

History teacher Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is half-heartedly watching a video he's rented on the recommendation of a colleague when he notices that one of the minor characters is played by an actor who appears to be his exact double in every respect. He embarks on an obsessional quest to track down firstly every other film in which the same actor appears, and then, having established his identity, to track down the actor himself (this is more difficult than you might anticipate, as we seem to be living in a world without the internet).

It's soon apparent that we're in cautionary be-careful-what-you-wish-for unforeseen consequences territory here - the actor (whose name turns out to be António Claro) suggests meeting up at a house he owns out in the countryside, but insists on bringing a pistol with him. When the two men meet in person it soon becomes apparent that they are not just very similar but identical. They agree to go their separate ways, but find themselves unable to. Things become complicated when their respective partners become involved and it becomes clear that neither can tell the two men apart - this provides an obvious channel for escalating acts of aggression and revenge - Saramago's implied rationale for this being that none of us can bear the thought of not being unique.

I enjoyed this greatly; the prospective reader should be aware of a few things though. It's constructed in great dense blocks of text (a sample extract of the first few pages of the book can be found here) with very few paragraph breaks and no direct speech - in fact the speech is reproduced in such a way as to make it quite difficult to work out who's saying what at times. No doubt this is intentional, particularly when the two main protagonists are talking to each other. The effect can be a bit exhausting, though not quite as much as in The Autumn Of The Patriarch - the plot structure here is a bit more linear, mercifully.

There is also plenty of metafictional authorial intervention (as in Slow Man) throughout, which may not be to everyone's taste, though it's playful rather than pompous. In this respect, and in particular in the slightly twisty ending, it's quite reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller (which is brilliant and you should read), although much more orthodox generally in plot and structure.

I'm dropping a few names here, so I'll add one more: the other author I was reminded strongly of by this is Paul Auster, whose New York Trilogy (the only Auster I've read, as it happens) seems very similar to this in a lot of ways, though it's less playful and more.....more.....I'm struggling not to cheesily juxtapose "Auster" and "austere" here, but I can't manage it; sorry.

Anyway, and now the obligatory prizegiving section: Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. You don't get the Nobel prize for any particular work, so my list has simply to be winners I've read anything at all by - I've also restricted it to novelists as there are a few poets and playwrights on the list as well. And it goes like this: 1946, 1954, 1962, 1970, 1972, 1976, 1982, 1983, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2003, 2007.

noodle news

Bit of a noodle crisis at Halibut Towers: not only have I run out of the first choice Nong Shim Korean noodles, I've also run out of the excellent back-up Sutah Ramen noodles. So while I'm waiting for my latest consignment of internet noodles from Wing Yip to arrive I've had to take a plunge into the unknown and one of the random selection of packets I picked up on my last trip to Kin Yip Hon in Bristol.

These particular ones are made by Nissin Foods, who, crucially, are Japanese rather than Korean. Possibly because of this they're quite different from the two previous brands: only the one sachet in the pack, containing the powdered soup base (i.e no dried vegetables like you get with the Korean ones), and the soup is much paler and less red then the Korean ones, which suggests it's not going to be nearly as fiery, and so it proves. It's a bit watery, actually, as well as being rather salty. The noodles are slightly thinner, as well.

Verdict: well, there's nothing wrong with them, but they're not in the same league of dangerously chilli-laden deliciousness as the Korean noodles. Those are a meal in themselves; I'd suggest if you were going to make a habit of eating these you might want to use them as a base for adding some extra ingredients to as they're a bit bland on their own. On the other hand, the soup base does bear the splendid name of Yuk See Mein, so it's not all bad news.

beware of windfallen apples and of men whose eyebrows meet

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no subject so arcane and obscure that there won't be a) a word for it and b) a website dedicated to it. For instance - having eyebrows that meet in the middle. Popularly known as a "monobrow" or a "unibrow", the correct word is apparently synophrys. And the website celebrating all things monobrowular, or synophrystical if you will, is here. A gallery is available; if you want a couple of magnificent specimens to start you off try this one and this one.

Not all men whose eyebrows meet in the middle are werewolves, of course. But some of them are.

Friday, May 08, 2009

oh, the chemicality

Re-reading my Hindenburg post gave me a bit of an acid flashback to my school days (many many years ago now of course). Anyone who's done O-level or GCSE Chemistry will remember the test for hydrogen: stick a burning spill into it and listen for the noise. It's universally descibed in all the textbooks as a "squeaky pop" - this video has a good example.

If you're thinking what I'm thinking after my linking of those two topics, you'll be thinking: Christ, the Hindenburg must have produced the BIGGEST SQUEAKIEST POP EVER. Frankly it's a miracle Herbert Morrison could make himself heard over it.

freudenstein must be destroyed

The fun never sets in our office: Phil was just asking us to guess the name of his dentist. I know - crazy! Apparently it's Anderson. Yes, I know, I was expecting something more exciting too, but it turns out it was a prelude to a series of obscure Matrix jokes.

During the period leading up to this slightly disappointing revelation, though, we speculated on various names like Dr. Fang, Dr. Scaleandpolish, Dr. Phil McAvity, that sort of thing, which set me to looking up the Wikipedia article on nominative determinism, and being linked from there to a couple of pages of amusing (but allegedly real) medical practitioners' names.

Which, in turn, reminded me that I used to live round the corner from a medical practice when I lived in Bristol - a slightly intimidating Gothic-looking building that would make any prospective patients a bit nervous, I would imagine. This nervousness would only be increased should they read the list of doctors fixed to the outside wall and see that one of them bore the name Dr. Freudenstein. (Imagine a crash of thunder and a couple of big orchestral stabs at this point, if you will. Thanks.)

This link reveals that his initial is U, which prompts some speculation - I mean it's probably something Germanic like Uwe or Ulrich, but it could be Unspeakable or Unholy or Ululating or possibly Unglaublich. A quick visit to the practice's website, though, reveals that in fact it's Ulrich.

That won't save him though. Shall we say 8pm outside the front gate? Bring a torch and a pitchfork.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

oh, the humanity

Yesterday was the 72nd anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster. Despite the relatively light death toll (35 passengers plus one person on the ground) it still exerts a weird fascination. I think there are a couple of reasons for this: firstly it's one of the earliest disasters for which actual video footage exists, secondly there's Herbert Morrison's iconic commentary, thirdly in this era of jet aircraft the whole business of these big inflatable cigars gliding silently through the sky is a bit strange and alien, and fourthly of course there is the Nazi Germany connection. Oh, and there is the Led Zeppelin connection as well.

Also - although it's generally dismissed as having been a bit rubbish, I remember going to the cinema to watch the movie back when we lived in Bandung, Java in the late 1970s (I guess it would have been 1979). Needless to say I had absolutely no idea of what it was about in any wider context, but I remember being so enthralled I hung about and sat through the whole thing again immediately afterwards. The bit where George C. Scott fails to defuse the bomb and it goes off in his face (about 2:45 into this clip) gave me nightmares for weeks.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

campaign for real blogging

Now that I am in my 40th year it's time to put away childish things, and prepare for a lengthy period of dotage whereby I sit around tweedily smoking a pipe and chuckling indulgently at the mischievous antics of the young 'uns, before embarking on a slow descent into senility and incontinence and, ultimately, death. So I've paid my £20 and joined the Campaign For Real Ale.

Actually, of course, not only do CAMRA do a sterling job supporting and promoting a great and unique British product that we should be a lot more vocally proud of than we are, but they are in a wider sense a model for consumer pressure and advocacy groups in general. Their name has also given rise to a bit of a trope which is a boon for the lazy journalist or, indeed, blogger. Here's a brief and fairly unscientific survey of numbers of records returned by Google searches for various other "Campaign For Real X" strings:

Campaign for Real ...Count
pet food644

"Beauty" scores so highly because the phrase was used in an advertising campaign by Dove (the soap people), whereas "time" scores for a couple of reasons - mainly because it's the name of a band, but also because the phrase featured in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy novels. "Ale"'s seemingly slim lead is bolstered a bit by the fact that a search for "CAMRA" yields 766,000 hits. "Blogging" should be up to 2 as soon as Google's indexbots get hold of this page.

Monday, May 04, 2009

oh, and that's a bad miss

You'll remember my close encounter with snooker superstar John Higgins at Edinburgh Airport back in March, of course. Obviously at sensitive times like these you don't want to steam in and start offering advice, not at 8 o'clock in the morning after a difficult and disappointing defeat, but I gave him a significant look as our eyes briefly met across the baggage carousel, and it was a look which said: you've let yourself down a bit here, John; sure, Robertson's an up-and-coming guy and he's got all the shots, but is he really all that? Has he won two world championships? Pull yourself together, get back home and recharge your batteries and get yourself sorted mentally for the World Championship - that's the one that really matters, not some half-arsed tournament in Newport, for all that it's a fascinating place with some interesting and - dammit - sexually attractive people.

Now I don't want to start claiming that it was my firm yet understanding touch with the telepathic coaching that inspired Higgins to his third World Snooker Championship tonight, but equally clearly without my advice he would have been a hollow shell-shocked shadow of the granite-tough matchplayer he was tonight. It's really very difficult to put a price on that sort of brief yet pivotal intervention - indeed some might say he owes all his success, and therefore the associated prize money, to me. I think that might be overstating it a bit, but I would say something in the region of 20% of tonight's and future winnings might be a fair return for my time and psychic effort.

Friday, May 01, 2009

you've made a right dog's dinner of that

Remember those Pedigree Chum adverts back in the 1980s? There were a few of them, but they all had a bit at the end where a tin of Pedigree Chum was emptied out, whole, and then cut in half with a sharp knife so that half of it fell over sideways, with the voiceover saying "it's SOLID nourishment" synchronised with the moment the big jellified lump hit the table. I can't find that particular ad on YouTube, but it was an iconic 80s moment nonetheless. Partly because you could, with proper care and attention, perform the same trick with a tin of Campbell's meatballs - the gravy ones were the best.

It turns out you can do a 21st century rendition of the same trick with a can of Old El Paso refried beans. You need to be a bit careful as they're quite squishy, but it can be done. Photographic evidence below.

aporkalypse now

The Daily Mash captures the mood of the nation, as ever, in relation to the swine flu pandemic. I also heard a conversation on the Today programme this morning between The Guardian's Simon Jenkins and virologist Professor John Oxford. This was brought about by Jenkins' article in Wednesday's Guardian blaming scientists for stoking up public panic by making wildly apocalyptic claims about virulence and death rates. The prof made the obvious comeback that actually he'd simply made some bald statements of risk and the journalists who put the story out had sexed it up with It's Piggin' Swine-Eleven headlines, as they do. Interestingly Jenkins' latest article shifts the focus slightly back onto his hack journo colleagues, so maybe he's getting the point.

None of which invalidates Jenkins' central point, which is that we're not very good at rational assessments of risk. However, in having a pop at the "it's non-zero therefore it's the most important thing ever" mentality that generates the regular tabloid paedo-hysteria outbreaks, he trots out the equally specious "it's quite small therefore it's zero" argument. If I believed that not only would I never buy a lottery ticket ever again, but I'd be a lot happier about getting on commercial jet aircraft.

If you want proper sciencey information on the swine flu issue then I'd try the two Scienceblogs sites Aetiology and Effect Measure. Alternatively, Bad Science has less science but some nice puns, including the one I stole for the title of this blog post.