Thursday, January 31, 2008

a haulage company and a smiiiiiile.....

Does anyone else, when they see one of those orange Hapag-Lloyd containers go past on the back of a truck, instinctively start humming the theme to the Harold Lloyd shows from the 1970s and 1980s? You know: Hooray for Hapag-Lloyd, doo doo doo doo doo doo be doo doo, Just me then. If you've forgotten how the tune went, there's a link to a sound file here.

These of course are the inanely voiced-over and generally ruined versions of the original classic silent films, which Lloyd's Wikipedia page describes as "poorly presented, with intrusive narration", which is fairly mild, really, as it was a constant series of "what's crazy old Harold up to now? Hey, mind that girder, Harold! Boy, that was a close one!" done in a "zany" hyperactive stylee that made your brain bleed after a while. DVD releases have been packaged a bit more sensitively, I think, which is good, as the films themselves are actually quite funny (classics like Safety Last! - the one with the clock - in particular), unlike the work of certain big-shoed umbrella wranglers I could mention.

run for the hills!

Don't you just hate it when you stumble across a blog which seems to be written by an intelligent and clear-thinking human being, only to discover that they won't be adding any more contributions to it because they're, well, dead? Happens all the time, but specifically when I encountered the late Chris Lightfoot's blog the other day. Well worth a look - everything from some quite detailed stuff about the Government's proposed identity card scheme (and the campaign against them) to more everyday concerns like Jaffa Cakes and how Amazon's "you might also like this" recommendations really suck. Another example of this is my own purchase of a Pentax digital camera a while back - I was then bombarded with e-mails saying, essentially, we see you've just bought a digital camera, so what you'll probably be wanting now is, erm, another digital camera of very similar specification. Well, no, actually, I don't want one. Or, more accurately, I do want one, but not two.

By a series of tenuous and tangential links this leads me back to the subject of maps, a topic close to my heart, as you know (though separated from it by a thick layer of calcified fat deposits and mayonnaise build-up). Chris Lightfoot produced, prior to his untimely death, some interesting maps for MySociety based on travel times in Greater London, the second set of which has some cool interactive slider bars that you can play with.

Staying with the map theme, here's an interesting blog linking to some widgets that people have bolted onto Google Maps. Just a quick browse round a couple of them revealed some interesting stuff, for instance: when the lovely Hazel and I decided to move in together we wanted, in a spirit of fairness and partnership, to choose somewhere roughly equidistantly between our former places of residence (Cardiff and Bristol, respectively). We didn't actually get the ruler out, but if we had we would have found that a strict midpoint of a line between the two cities would have put us approximately here. I suppose we could have bought a houseboat or something.

A more sensible estimation, based on actual distance by road, would have put us somewhere in the vicinity of Magor. Handy for the Little Chef at the services, but otherwise not very interesting, so we shifted west a bit instead.

Finally, when the day of judgment is at hand and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt, it's good to know at what point your house will be inundated with flood water and you'll be obliged to swim for it. I'm therefore reassured to learn that it will take a sea level rise of at least 14 metres before Baneswell in central Newport is flooded, so there'll be a bit of time to make good my escape, assuming that hordes of homeless locals haven't stormed the house by then, flayed the flesh from my living carcass and made a crudely-fashioned flute out of my tibia. A 14-metre rise in sea level will result in the inundation of large parts of central London, the Somerset Levels, East Anglia and East Yorkshire, so there could be a fair amount of orgiastic ritual slaughtering going on by then, I reckon.

Oh, and if you live in Holland, Bangladesh or southern Florida, you're boned. Sorry.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

thank heaven for the ladies

Just a quick follow-up to my post of earlier today: I have a crackpot theory for you, and it goes a little something like this: bands who have attractive guitar-playing (lead, rhythm or bass, it doesn't matter) ladies as members but who aren't the lead singer, just "one of the boys", as it were, are inherently cool.

So otherwise splendid people such as Debbie Harry, Grace Slick and Polly Harvey are ineligible thanks to their front-person status, but the following qualify:
Supplementary rules: all-girl bands are cheating, so while I bow to no man in my admiration for Susannah Hoffs of the Bangles, she's out of the running. I exclude the lovely Miki Berenyi of Lush as well, as I deem her to be a co-lead singer, and the fact that Lush were a bit rubbish spoils my theory a bit. Both are pictured in this earlier post, if you must.

An alternative view of the whole Ladies Who Rock subject can be found in this Blender article.

who gives you extra? why, Sexcriminal and Dutchelmdisease, of course

You may recall my earlier post about amusingly-named estate agents. Well, following my move to Newport (of which more in a later post, when I've got time) I can offer you another one.

Want to move house as painlessly as possible? Want to deal with honest, upstanding people who'll make the experience of relocating a pleasant one? Why not put your dealings in the hands of the good, clean, fragrant people at Crook & Blight?

If we decide that we can't help you, then we'll pass you on to one of our trading partners, who'll be only too happy to assist you in any way they can.

tunes help you breathe more easily

I'm "working from home" today, hem hem, so I've got iTunes in random selection mode in the background and it's been kicking out some great sequences of stuff, in addition to some stuff of a slightly more ropey nature. I was jotting down some notes just to see if I could get a randomly selected run of ten songs which I would not only be happy to admit to owning, but would be positively keen to recommend to others in order to enrich their lives. We had a few runs of 7 or 8 before iTunes stepped on a musical landmine (White Christmas by Bing Crosby on one occasion), but we got one in the end. And here it is:
  • New Slang by The Shins. Featured in the film Garden State, here in fact. Full version is here.
  • Roscoe by Midlake. From one of my favourite albums of 2006. Here's a rocking live version (with slightly muddy sound) from Seattle in 2007.
  • Long Flowing Robe by Todd Rundgren. Legendary uncategorisable rock maverick, stepfather of Liv Tyler (good), producer of Bat Out Of Hell (unforgivably bad) and constant re-interpreter of his massive back catalogue, as this frankly bizarre bossanova reworking of I Saw The Light from 1997 shows.
  • Heartattack And Vine by Tom Waits. Nice spiky guitar work on this one, which dates from just before Waits gave up on instruments as conventional as the guitar and started playing things like water tanks and bicycles instead, most famously on Swordfishtrombones in 1983. Here's a slightly less guitar-y, more big-band-y live version which looks like it was recorded in about 1948.
  • Little Lover's So Polite by Silversun Pickups. I downloaded this off iTunes after hearing it on Radio 6 Music a while back. Good song, but the main selling point for me is the deliciously filthy guitar sound, more of which can be heard on Well Thought Out Twinkles and the album Carnavas.
  • Shasta Beast by Eagles Of Death Metal, Queens Of The Stone Age's Josh Homme's not entirely serious side project. It's an irresistible song, though, a short clip of which (with some odd animation) is available here.
  • Resurrection Fern by Iron And Wine, from the new album The Shepherd's Dog. Whispery acoustic folk, although some of the other tracks on the new album branch out into more ambitious instrumentation, some of it electrically powered. Back in the folky idiom, this is the older song Naked As We Came (no, it's not what you think).
  • Birthday by the Sugarcubes. It's Bjork. She's bonkers.
  • Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft by Klaatu. Like most people I grew up thinking this was a song by The Carpenters, but it isn't. There was a bizarre rumour going around for a while that Klaatu were actually the Beatles who'd reformed anonymously after their break-up. The other interesting Klaatu fact is, of course, that they were named after the Michael Rennie character in the film The Day The Earth Stood Still. Klaatu barada nikto!
  • Farmer In The City by Scott Walker. Slightly odd lyrics to say the least ("can't go by a man with brain grass / go by his long long eye gas"), but it's by a distance the most listener-friendly thing on his frankly terrifying 1995 album Tilt. Apparently the song is about Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, not the most obvious of subjects for a pop song, but his demise (being repeatedly run over with his own car on a beach) is appropriately grim. Incidentally Pasolini's Wikipedia page includes him in the category Modern Pederasty, not a category people are clamouring to be included in I would guess.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

who'd have thought I would write this blog post

Detailing the vocabulary and usage differences between American English and UK English would take a blog entry far larger than I would ever aspire to write, but here's one that struck me the other day: the Americans use the phrase "who knew?" pretty much exactly where we in the UK would use the phrase "who'd have thought it?", most often as a little spicing-up interjection tacked onto the end of another sentence. Until you've worked out that that's what it means, certain news headlines and blog entry titles can look oddly alien, such as these two sporting ones (both about ice hockey as it happens), or these two telling you to, respectively, visit Toronto and steer clear of Eritrea. Many more random examples are available in the blogosphere, for instance here, here and here.

In both UK and US versions the idiom can mean either "I was somewhat surprised to learn this" or "I was not at all surprised to learn this", depending on whether it's being used ironically or not. I suspect there are examples of both in the links I've given you, in fact I would guess the ironic usages outweigh the non-ironic ones. No clues though!

Counterexamples of the UK usage can be found here and here, in fact the phrase is so ingrained in UK culture that we even have pubs named after it.

I'm not saying there's an absolute divide, and that you can pin-point someone's nationality from which idiom they use, but I suspect you wouldn't be wrong often if you tried. I would guess that while there may be some Americans who use what I'm calling the UK usage, there are very very few people from the UK who use the American usage, unless they watch an enormous amount of US TV or spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet. This sort of asymmetrical intersection between two sets precludes me drawing you a Venn diagram, unfortunately, otherwise I would.

et in Arcadia Lego

If you're wondering about the best way to infuriate a Christian - and you should be - you can do a lot worse than getting them to explain what the dickens is going on in Leviticus with all that law-giving. This isn't just a bit of academic nit-picking as it's from Leviticus that the Jews derive their prohibition on eating pork (Leviticus 11), and also whence those who disapprove of homosexuality for whatever reason derive their Biblical justification for doing so (Leviticus 18 and 20, as well as some stuff in Genesis).

In addition to these prohibitions, though, Leviticus makes a whole swathe of others which include trimming your beard at the sides, wearing clothing made from a blend of wool and linen, and getting a tattoo. The obvious question to ask is: why adhere to a cherry-picked few of these as the infallible word of God, and ignore the rest? And who decides which ones you get to ignore, as there's no clue in the text? (Though some of them seem sensible enough: declaring the meat of the ossifrage an abomination seems a convenient way of avoiding having to grapple with one and possibly lose an arm or something.) And the answers you get to pick from are either: a) well, quite, it's all self-evidently bollocks or b) by indulging in some slippery and ultimately self-defeating interpretative relativism generally known as hermeneutics to decide which arbitrary rules to obey and which to ignore.

Anyway, all this leads me to the rather wonderful Brick Testament, which is an illustrated guide to Biblical law through the medium of Lego. Specifics regarding food can be found here, but do look at all of it, it's tremendous. And particularly appropriate given that this week marks the 50th birthday of Lego (I think strictly speaking it was yesterday). The Biblical theme does preclude the use of any of the more outlandish spaceship stuff, though, which is a shame.

And apologies for the poncy classical allusion in the post title, but I couldn't stop myself. Turns out I'm not even particularly original. Oh well.

Friday, January 25, 2008

more smack, vicar?

It's always fun to see people's irrational superstitious dogma come shuddering up against the harsh metallic buffers of reality. This particular case is especially delicious, for some reason: legislation is being mooted throughout Ireland to reduce the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08% to 0.05%, to howls of protest from - wait for it - Catholic priests, who are concerned about being able to reach remote members of their flock after chugging back chalice upon chalice of communion wine at Mass.

Now, I know what you're thinking - hang on, I thought the Catholics believed in the whole transubstantiation thing, i.e. the cheap wine and wafers being miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ? Isn't that what they believe? So, in other words, if they really believe what they purport to believe, no increase in blood alcohol should result from Father O'Fiddly necking what's left of the communion wine, as Catholic doctrine dictates that it's all been converted into the holy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ? Doesn't their admission that communion wine contains alcohol constitute an implicit admission that the whole transubstantiation thing is, well, bollocks?

Needless to say it's not as clear-cut as that. More gibberingly incoherent bollocks has been written on this subject than almost any other, from Thomas Aquinas through to the committee responsible for the rather flabby and uninformative Wikipedia article. For instance (emphasis mine):
Reason, of course, can’t prove that this happens. But it is not evidently against reason either; it is above reason.
To which you might respond: oh, for fuck's sake, and I wouldn't blame you. The original news item has a couple of pearlers as well - try this one, on the same subject:
I don't like to use the word wine, as it is Christ's blood in the Eucharist - but it still has all the characteristics of wine when in the blood stream.
This one is even better:
Irish priests are saying that even if the lower limit is enacted, Catholic doctrine and the needs of their parishioners would trump the law.
Yeah? Tell that to the judge. Failure to realise that the exact same argument could be used to justify, say, Islamic "honour killings" of one's own sisters really does genuinely constitute some sort of mental illness, I think.

The current Irish limit of 0.08% is actually quite generous compared with a lot of countries, though it's in line with the legal limits in the UK and USA. Most places have around 0.05% as the limit, but there are some places where it's as low as 0.02%, including some counter-intuitive places like Norway, Estonia and Russia, where you'd tend to assume that everyone's driving around smashed out of their tiny minds on potato vodka all the time. Or maybe that's a minimum level.

y Reg gubes, ra!

Quick follow-up to a couple of earlier posts: you can add Ypsilanti to my list of things that look as if they've been written down the wrong way round. Surely this should be Itnalispy? Same applies to any of the (fairly few) words that start with a "y" and then a consonant; they just look wrong. So you could have Yggdrasil (aka Lisardggy - which sounds like a charming little Cornish seaside town), ytterbium (aka muibretty) or ylang-ylang (aka gnaly-gnaly) as well.

Secondly, I see from the IMDB entry for the film of Algis Budrys' classic paranoid science fiction novel Who?, as mentioned in my last book review, that the film was retitled Roboman for its subsequent release onto video, and saddled with the tag line "the kill machine with the megaton mind", which anyone who's read the original quite cerebral and wordy novel in which not a great deal actually happens will know is hilariously inappropriate. Anyone expecting Robocop would have come away severely disappointed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

all my clothes fell off!

Don't you just hate it when you don't get the whole story? Let me give you a couple of examples.

This story was featured prominently on the BBC website a while back: Woman jailed for testicle attack. Have a read; you'll like it. While you're admiring the unruffled insouciance of the mutual friend who just handed the unfortunate victim his own testicle back with a cheery "that's yours", ponder what the story doesn't tell us, which is: where were his trousers? Or indeed the rest of his clothes? The victim's statement says:
That caused my underpants to come off and I found I was completely naked and in excruciating pain.
Hmm.....OK. So you were just wearing underpants at the time? There's a whole story here we're not being told.

Strangely similar is this testicle-related story from 2001 (in fact you might say there's not a vas deferens between the stories, if you were inclined to that sort of humour). The sentence that invites a whole world of intrigue and conjecture is this one:
Mr Hutchinson's testicle was later found by police under a picture frame.
Well....if he was wearing trousers, as he allegedly was (frankly I'm not entirely convinced), then the only way that could have happened is if his detached (and slightly chewed) testicle had slid down his trouser leg and out over his sock and shoe onto the floor. You'd think you'd notice, wouldn't you? No, again, there's more to this than meets the eye.

In slightly different vein, I watched the BBC Horizon programme about sensory deprivation last night - it was moderately interesting, though my usual complaints about recent Horizon programmes apply, i.e. not enough actual science. More specifically, though, we were invited to believe that a group of half a dozen or so people were confined in various ways for 48 hours with no input from or interaction with the outside world. Yeah? Well, how did they go to the toilet, then? Either we have to choose to believe that they just, erm, "held on" for 48 hours, or we choose to believe that some facilities were provided, and that the programme-makers chose to cut all reference to it out because it would have broken up the narrative flow, and, more importantly, diluted the drama by revealing that the participants weren't, in fact, cut off completely for 48 hours at all. I strongly suspect that there would have been a legal requirement to provide drinks as well, which again we weren't shown.

The point is if you focus on the "how did you feel about that?" aspects at the expense of telling us what actually happened, then people expecting some actual science come away feeling somewhat frustrated. Well, I did, anyway. The main conclusion seemed to be that if this technique was used to try and extract information from prisoners then the information extracted wouldn't be very reliable, which is lesson #1 in why torture is pointless as well as immoral, though the ongoing saga of Guantánamo Bay (where sensory deprivation treatment has apparently been used) and the recent furore over "waterboarding" shows a great many people haven't grasped this yet.

the last book I read

Utz by Bruce Chatwin.

The eponymous Kaspar Utz is a descendant of minor middle-European nobility who lives in Prague and is an obsessive collector of porcelain figurines (and Meissen porcelain in particular). The un-named narrator, a British writer and art historian, visits Utz in the late 1960s, initially as part of some research into a book, but soon becomes fascinated by the story of Utz and his collection. We follow Utz's life story back from his childhood, through the German occupation of World War II, and subsequently the Soviet occupation, and we see how Utz, despite being allowed (unusually) to leave Czechoslovakia periodically by the authorities, is unable to leave his collection and so is effectively imprisoned by it. The novel starts and ends with Utz's death and funeral.

The un-named narrator (mirroring the real-life author in a number of ways), the middle-European setting, the discursive nature of the story and the casual displays of erudition regarding art and history are strongly reminiscent of WG Sebald, as is the general tone of fastidiousness and mild disgust with messy matters like sex. In Chatwin's case the obvious assumption is that this is all bound up with his own conflicted sexuality, culminating in what sounds like a particularly miserable decline and death from AIDS in 1989, just a year after Utz was published.

It's beautifully written, very short and, like one of Utz's figurines, it's slightly unclear, beyond the surface gloss, what it's actually for. Chatwin is more famous for his travel writing, which I haven't read any of, but if you want a Chatwin novel, I'd recommend the much meatier and more involving On The Black Hill.

Short novels have a charm all their own, though, and are also excellent source material for films, as they need much less of the original story cut out to translate them onto the screen. Here's a few short novels from my collection that I'd recommend, in no particular order:
  • Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan: 108 pages (filmed in 1958)
  • Silk by Alessandro Baricco: 104 pages (filmed in 2007)
  • The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll:116 pages (filmed in 1975)
  • Who? By Algis Budrys: 159 pages (filmed in 1973)
  • Love by Angela Carter: 120 pages
  • Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald: 140 pages
  • The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway: 109 pages (filmed in 1958)
  • Chronicle Of A Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez: 122 pages (filmed in 1987)
  • The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan: 127 pages (filmed in 1993)
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: 120 pages (filmed in 1954)
  • Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck: 95 pages (filmed in 1939)
I'm not saying I recommend all the films, as I haven't seen most of them. The books I do recommend without exception, though, and come on, they're only short. It won't hurt.

Monday, January 21, 2008

we like a bit of that, don't we

Must just share this picture, too. Don't get me started on TV chefs.

ahoy there!

Here's a few pictures from the wedding of my friend and fellow Dartmoorist (and, in slightly less gruelling conditions, fellow Swanageist) Richard and his (now) wife Elan at the weekend. The wedding venue was the SS Great Britain in its dry dock in the Floating Harbour in Bristol. The SS Great Britain was of course the brainchild of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and so it was nice of him to put in an appearance at the wedding (see picture).

Friday, January 18, 2008

OK, I acquiesce; now I'm off to convalesce

You just know when you dash off some half-baked musings on this sort of subject that someone will get all pedantic on your ass. I was only trying to shoehorn in a joke about wanking, for goodness sake.

Anyway. I've had mail drawing my attention to some other words of the -esce/-escent variety. They were sent to me as a list of -esce words, but as the general consensus seems to be that these are back-formations I'll list them in their -escent form. Here they are: has -esce verb forms for all of them except calescent, detumescent, juvenescent, recalescent and rejuvenescent. Frankly I'm not entirely convinced by some of them, but there you are.

I should have known evanescent because of slightly ropey crypto-religious goth-rock one-hit-wonders Evanescence, and I should have known acquiescent because a) it's quite a common word and b) because of the (early - circa 1995 - and quite good) Oasis song Acquiesce.

Heil Xenu!

A couple of tangentially-connected follow-up thoughts after the last book review:

There's a sub-plot in the book regarding a plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb. This mirrors quite closely the real-life plot to assassinate Hitler in a similar way carried out by a group of German army officers in 1944, most famously Claus von Stauffenberg. There's a new film, Valkyrie, in the pipeline which portrays the events leading up to the assassination attempt (which failed because the meeting where the bomb was to be detonated was moved at the last minute from a concrete-lined bunker to a wooden hut, and because the bomb was placed under a sturdy oak table which shielded Hitler from most of the blast), and there's been some highly entertaining furore surrounding the involvement of the actor playing von Stauffenberg, Tom Cruise. The Germans take (as I've mentioned before) an admirably no-nonsense position on the legal status of the sinister cult aka massive organised crime syndicate aka The Church of Scientology that Cruise is an increasingly unhinged proselytiser for, and were not too keen on allowing Cruise and the production company access to certain sensitive military sites, a position seemingly motivated by nothing more than a desire to be as surly and uncooperative as possible, an attitude I find myself in complete sympathy with. I understand all these "misunderstandings" have now been "smoothed over", which I guess proves that money talks, and it's persuasive. Or possibly that money doesn't talk, it swears. Take your pick.

Anyone inclined to give Cruise the benefit of the doubt over his loony sofa antics on the Oprah Winfrey Show and his unedifying spat with Brooke Shields over her post-natal depression should watch this video footage (made, as I understand it, as motivational material intended to be distrbuted among the Scientologist community only) and be very, very alarmed. Since the Scientologists deem themselves qualified to give completely unfounded psychological diagnoses, I offer you this one: Cruise had a difficult relationship with his father and was bullied at school. He's also quite short. Look into his eyes and listen to that maniacal cackle: this is a deeply confused and frightened man. Danny Baker used to do a bit on his radio show where he'd go through one of the day's newpapers, pick suitable full-face photographs of celebs and biro the word TURMOIL on their forehead (other photos would have WE FEAR CHANGE daubed on them if that seemed more appropriate). Which you'd think wouldn't really work on radio, but it was very funny. I've had a go at replicating it here: see what you think.

Well, I went on a bit there, so I'll keep the second one short: back in 2000 my friends Mario and Smeg and I joined a motley band of travellers for an overland adventure trip through southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, specifically) organised by the good people at Guerba World Travel. Our fellow adventurers were from all over the world, and included a young German lady who caught Mario's eye. So far, so good. However - knowing in advance that there'd be a lot of sitting around in the back of a truck involved, we'd all brought some nice fat books with us to read. Mario's choice of reading matter was, erm, Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen. Cue a lot of hilarious sitcom-style shenanigans to keep this a secret from the lady in question - suggesting that her immediate ancestors were probably anti-semitic murdering fanatics not being much of an aid to seduction, in general.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

the last book I read

Island Madness by Tim Binding.

So, as the title suggests, we're on an island. In fact this is Guernsey, and it's during the German occupation of World War II. The exact date is never mentioned, but the references to Stalingrad suggest it's perhaps early in 1943.

So, anyway, you're a small island community and you're occupied by an enemy force who plan to use your island home as a bridgehead for the impending invasion of Britain. So what do you do? Resist? Make the best of it? Try to co-exist? Try to snag yourself a German boyfriend so you can get extra butter rations? Needless to say the various inhabitants of the island deal with the situation in varying ways.

Things are complicated somewhat when one of the islanders is found murdered, her body dumped in a ventilation shaft in one of the German lookout posts. The head of the island's native police force, Ned Luscombe, has a delicate balancing act to perform as he tries to track down the killer, dealing with the islanders' resentment of the invaders on the one hand and the occupiers' hamstringing of his authority on the other.

This isn't 'Allo, 'Allo, so the German characters are as three-dimensional as the islanders, prey to the same doubts, foibles and sexual indiscretions. The specific time at which the book is set is significant, as well - Stalingrad marks the point where things start to go wrong for the Third Reich, and the very real possibility arises of the Germans losing the war.

The wartime occupation story and the murder mystery/whodunnit story feel slightly uncomfortably glued together, and the motivations for the bizarre behaviour of the murdered girl's father after the murder seem slightly sketchy, but those minor criticisms aside this is very good; thought-provoking about a little-understood period in recent British history, but also very easy to read.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

do not disturbate

You can see why Johnny Foreigner has so much trouble. Even English words that appear to derive from similar roots have subordinate forms derived in different ways. For instance, we say disturb and perturb, but we say disturbance and perturbation. Come to that (if you'll pardon the pun) we say masturbation, but we say masturbate instead of masturb (just as we don't say disturbate, though some do say perturbate, wrongly I would say).

I was thinking (as you do) earlier about words ending in the fairly unusual combination -esce. Words that spring to mind are coalesce, luminesce and fluoresce, and that's about it off the top of my head. It appears the latter two, at least, are verb back-formations from the original adjectives luminescent and fluorescent, which brings other words like adolescent and pubescent into the equation, and begs the question why (this single reference aside) the equivalent back-formations haven't caught on....
Dad: Where's Nigel?
Mum: In his room.
Dad: What's he up to?
Mum: Well, he said he was going to adolesce for a while, and then pubesce later on if he had time before Top Of The Pops.
Dad: So, wanking, then.
Mum: Yes.
Postscript: a couple of others spring to mind: convalescent and putrescent. Just to illustrate the point, the first of those does have a fairly commonly used verb form, while the second doesn't - i.e. we say convalesce, but we don't say putresce. The very similar word putrefaction provides the verb form putrefy which does the same job, so maybe that's why.

Monday, January 14, 2008

so, can we have your liver then?

Couple of interesting articles from today's Independent:

Firstly a leading article in favour of the suggestion that Britain adopt an "opt-in" system for organ donation, i.e. that the default assumption should be that people are happy for their organs to be used to help others unless they specifically state otherwise. The exact opposite of the current system, in other words. And very sensible and enlightened too, given that the only arguments in favour of the current system are either of the loony religious variety, or motivated by a general desire not to have to think about things of an icky nature involving blood and death. Being a good and humane and enlightened policy the lunatic fringe will almost certainly try and derail it, though, and the government will probably cave in like a pack of cards.

Secondly the ever-reliable Bruce Anderson nails his colours to the mast regarding the American presidential race: apparently he reckons Mitt Romney is the man for the job. And he has, as you might imagine, some trenchant views on the female candidate:
In attack, she will be mean-minded, clawing, spitting, vicious: no blow too low. Under attack, she will react as if every wrong which the female sex has suffered in the course of human history is being re-inflicted upon her.
Presumably worried that he might be being a bit soft on her, he goes on to suggest that:
After all, in the age of chivalry, she would have been burnt as a
Word to the wise: if Bruce's liver is ever up for transplantation, I'd give it a miss if I were you. Same goes for the spleen, as well.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

single to Shitechapel, please

Certain things make me irrationally suspicious of people. Just off the top of my head, these would include: people who don't drink, people who claim never to read books (so no dinner party invites for Tim Henman or Victoria Beckham), men who have no discernible interest in sport, and of course the Dutch.

You can add to this list people who aren't completely fascinated by maps. I mean, what could be more fascinating? And, on a more practical note, how would anyone find their way around without one? I don't want to start another discussion about evolution, but if you want to venture beyond the immediate environs of your cosy cave in the Neander valley (and have any expectation of being able to find your way back), you're pretty much obliged to invent the map in some form or other before you do, or you'll be in trouble. Not to get all drum-bashingly patriotic, but here in Britain we have the best mapping in the world. No, we really do; try getting 1:25000-scale (or similar) maps with some proper terrain information on them in other countries, it's not easy.

Anyway, this preamble is all by way of an introduction to another addition to the sidebar: Strange Maps. Everything from a satellite image illustrating Korea's north/south divide (so not technically a map, but who cares?) to something a bit more geeky.

While I'm at it I must also link to one of the many mirrored versions of the original Silly Tube Maps site. The original has been taken down after much legal heavy-handedness on the part of Transport for London - full story can be found here - but the internet community doesn't bow to The Man that easily. Highlights include the geographically accurate overlayed satellite picture, the anagram map, and the shamefully funny sweary version.(snippets of which you may have spotted here already if you're paying attention).

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I hereby deny the Holy Spirit. May God strike me down if AAAaaaaaarggghh....

Hats off to the National Secular Society for pushing for the abolition of the laws regarding blasphemy in this country (the full text of the letter can be found here). We are absolutely right to complain about and condemn absurd situations like the one that Gillian Gibbons found herself in in Sudan a month or so ago, but it should be a source of embarrassment that as we do so we still have similar laws on the statute book in this country. Laws which are clearly absurd not only to the rational segment of the community, but should also be absurd to the faith-based community as well, i.e. if you truly believe in an all-knowing and omnipotent deity of any kind, then he can pretty much look after himself, without the need for you to get all aerated on his behalf. Any earthly punishment that could be inflicted upon those who mock and deny him is as nothing compared to the fiery torment that awaits us in Hell, right? Right?

I've added a couple of related links to the blog sidebar - the aforementioned NSS and the Rational Response Squad. If you feel inspired to a bit of militant goading of the faithful after this, then why not take the RRS's Blasphemy Challenge? You could win a DVD, and all it'll cost you is either a) nothing or b) your immortal soul and an eternity of having your flayed entrails stirred into a lake of burning sewage, depending on whether God exists or not. Good luck!

Monday, January 07, 2008

I incur the wrath of The Man

Look what I got in the post today:

To: {my e-mail address}
Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2008 14:31:22 -0800
Subject: Account deleted for violation of Terms of Service

Your MySpace account has been deleted for violating our Terms of

This is usually due to one of the following:

* Nude images, sexually suggestive or violent photos
* Covering our banner ads with HTML
* Harassing other users
* You do not meet the minimum age requirement
* Spamming the classifieds, forums, bulletins, or other sections of the site
* Attempting to artificially inflate scores
* Scripting the site

Your account cannot be restored. If you choose to return to MySpace, please follow the rules.


At MySpace we care about your privacy. This email is never sent

If you think you've received this email in error, or if you have any
questions or concerns regarding your privacy, please contact us at:

MySpace, Inc.
8391 Beverly Blvd. #349
Los Angeles, CA 90048

©2003-2007 All Rights Reserved.

What did I do? Clearly I must have transgressed one of the regulations in the list above. I knew I shouldn't have hosted that nude volleyball tournament for those nuns.

Or, alternatively.....MySpace has recently been taken over by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, and a few stories have been doing the rounds about people suddenly having their MySpace accounts terminated for reasons that seem unclear and arbitrary, at best. Murdoch, NewsCorp and its various subsidiaries have some previous in this area, including the business with HarperCollins and Chris Patten's Hong Kong memoirs back in 1998.

Anyway, this is all a good opportunity for some ultra-paranoid apocalyptic ramblings of this nature, but the fact is I do not have, and never have had, a MySpace account. So you'd think this must be spam, but in fact it appears to be genuine. I'll try dropping the (also genuine) e-mail address at the bottom a polite WTF-type query (pointing out the "never sent unsolicited" bit specifically) and see what happens.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

renowned blogger electric halibut staggered grimly through his latest post

On the day his farm was attacked with overwhelming force, Jack West Jr had slept in till 7:00 am.
Normally he got up around six to see the dawn, but life was good these days. His world had been at peace for almost eighteen months, so he decided to skip the damn dawn and get an extra hour's sleep.
These are the first words of Australian thriller writer Matthew Reilly's new novel The Six Sacred Stones, as printed in a little 20-page promotional extract that fell out of a magazine I bought today (either Q or Empire, it must have been). The Amazon blurb describes it thus: "The Six Sacred Stones will take you on a non-stop rollercoaster ride through ancient history, modern military hardware, and some of the fastest and most mind-blowing action you will ever read." Amusingly, Wikipedia alleges that his first novel was rejected by every publisher it was sent to on the grounds that it was "unoriginal and full of clichés and tired synonyms". You can say that again. If I didn't know better I'd have said it was a parody of the genre, with obligatory square-jawed rugged-yet-sensitive protagonist and quasi-mystical quest-based bollocks à la Da Vinci Code (which is itself amusingly deconstructed on Language Log here and here, among other places) thrown in.

I don't read a lot of what you might call "straight" thrillers these days, but if you want a recommendation of one that delivers constant thrills but doesn't require a lobotomy, then I have one for you: try Green River Rising by Tim Willocks.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

fancy a shag? well, how about a cormorant, then?

Some more photos for you: this time of our New Year exploits in London. Couple of points of interest:
  • the couple of photos of Hazel and me necking beer are taken in the Lyric pub in Soho, here. Most internet resources seem to think this pub is closed, but I can assure you it's open.
  • the ones of all of us (including Doug's cousin Derek and his girlfriend Sarah, both from Vancouver) in the pub were taken in the Crown & Cushion near Waterloo station, here.
  • the ones of us hanging out with ducks and dead squirrels were taken at Walthamstow Reservoirs on New Year's Eve
  • the one of the cormorant begs the question: why do cormorants do that thing with their wings? Most sources say it's to dry their wings, because cormorants don't have oily waterproofing on their feathers - theoretically because this prevents the build-up of air bubbles when they're diving for fish. Other theories are available, though.