Saturday, May 31, 2008

new links

A couple more sidebar additions for you: xkcd for all your geeky humour needs, and Weebl's Stuff for Weebl & Bob's latest adventures, as well as other cartoons such as the legendary badgers, and some frankly disturbing stuff involving cows.


Time for another recipe. I was asked to write this down by a friend who came round for dinner the other night, so I thought - hey! - why not stick it on the blog. so here it is: Dave's Legendary Meatballs.

  • 1kg beef mince
  • 1kg pork mince
  • some bread (1/3 of a normal-sized ciabatta, or 3-4 slices from a sliced loaf)
  • enough milk to cover the bread (so, I dunno, 1/2 a pint or so perhaps)
  • salt & pepper
  • 3 large-ish red onions (or white, if you like - hey, whatever works for you)
  • garlic (as much as you like)
  • 3 tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 bottle of passata or sugocasa or something similar
  • 1/2 a carton of tomato juice - if you don't drink the stuff you may as well throw the rest in too, otherwise make a couple of bloody marys with it while you're cooking
  • 1 vegetable stock cube dissolved in about a pint of water
  • a slosh of balsamic vinegar
  • a similarly-sized slosh of lemon juice - couple of teaspoons or so
  • a generous slosh of red wine - maybe a glass
  • some mixed herbs
  • black pepper
It's a pretty bog-standard Italian meatballs in tomato sauce kind of thing, but there's really no call to be over-elaborating this kind of dish. There are only three secrets to this, and they are as follows:

1) Make lots

This is one of those dishes that involves a bit of fiddly preparation, so there's a strong argument for scaling things up, doing lots, and then filling up your freezer. These quantities make about 10 good-sized portions. Scale them down as required if you don't want that much.

2) Do the sauce first

Like anything sauce-y the key is long, slow cooking. So do the sauce before you start thinking about making the meatballs; then it can be simmering away while you're doing them. So: fry up the onions and garlic in some olive oil till they're softened (but not brown), chuck in all the rest of the sauce ingredients, turn the heat down a bit and leave it alone - well, stir it occasionally to make sure it's not sticking. If you can manage at least an hour of cooking before the meatballs go in then it'll be much nicer.

3) Meatball composition

Half pork, half beef, very important. Pork tends to be a bit fattier than beef, so it helps them not to dry out. The other thing that helps them not dry out is the bread and milk mix: turn the bread into breadcrumbs in whatever way you deem appropriate - food processor, coffee/spice grinder, tearing things up with your own bare hands, whatever. Then put the crumbs in a bowl, and pour in enough milk to just about cover them, stir it about with your finger (or a spoon, if you must) and leave it to stand for ten minutes or so, so that the bread can soak up the milk. Then put meat and bread in a big bowl and mash it all up with your hands. There's no substitute for your bare hands here, so don't be squeamish.

a giant meatball, yesterdayNow - balls. What you want here is something a little bigger than, say, a squash ball, but not as big as, say, a snooker ball. Too big and they'll fall apart; too small and they'll be too dry. I find the quantites here make about 45-50 meatballs. You shouldn't need to flour your hands or anything like that as it'll just make a mess - unless you've gone overboard with the milk and the mixture's all sloppy, but, well, then you're on your own, frankly. Anyway - fry them 6-8 at a time in a non-stick frying pan for a few minutes, turning them frequently. You don't want to worry about cooking them, just to give them a bit of colour and make sure they don't fall apart later. Drain them in a big bowl with some kitchen paper in it. When you've done them all, chuck them all into the sauce and stir it all around - not too frenziedly or they'll disintegrate.

You probably want another half hour to an hour or so of gentle simmering now - any more and things will dry out.

Serve with some ribbon pasta (linguine, fettucine, tagliatelle, whatever). Final tip - once you've drained the pasta, throw it back into the pan you cooked it in and ladle in a generous dollop of the tomato sauce and stir it in before dividing it up. Stops the pasta sticking together in the bowls.

Friday, May 30, 2008

follow me to the slagroom, where we will toss hoengkwee into a cockring

You'll have already seen the collection of photos we took on our weekend in Amsterdam. Here's a few randomly assembled thoughts about the weekend.

Dutch is a language that seems to lend itself well to the generation of words and phrases that have unfortunate connotations in English. A small montage of some of the best ones we found and photographed is displayed below.

Just a quick run-through:
  • U kunt means "you can"; the full sentence read U kunt ook met muntgeld betalen, which means "you can also pay with coins".
  • hoengkwee appeared on the menu in the Indonesian restaurant we went to (see below); it was translated as "hoengkwee" which left us none the wiser. We didn't order the item in question (some sort of sweet coconut drink) so I can't speculate on what it might be; probably just as well.
  • slagroom is Dutch for "whipped cream"
  • SISSY-BOY HOMELAND appeared to be some sort of clothes shop
  • AANSLAG appears to mean "onslaught"
  • TOSS is some sort of game - not entirely clear about the rules but I suspect the naked ladies on the box may provide a hint
  • and finally COCKRING did genuinely appear to be some sort of sex club
Playing Scrabble with a set designed for words in another language (as we did in the La Tertulia coffeeshop we went to on Saturday afternoon) is slightly odd; not only does Triple Word Score become 3X Woord Warde, but the letters aren't worth what you're used to them being worth. A Dutch set, for instance, has more Js and Zs than an English one, and they're only worth 4 points each as a result. So my JIZZ, for instance, is worth considerably less under Dutch rules, which is a shame. Tile distribution for each country is as below.

We ate at the excellent Indonesian restaurant Kantjil & de Tijger on Sunday night; a bit of a nostalgia trip for me as we lived in Indonesia for a couple of years when I was a child (8-10 years old, roughly). So the nasi goreng and the rendang brought back some memories, as did the Bintang beer which I recall my Dad & others tucking into at various expatriate gatherings.

The Rijksmuseum is currently undergoing some extensive renovations, so various wings are being closed off at different times. They keep the major attractions on view at all times though, which I guess for most people will be the Rembrandts, the Vermeers and the odd Frans Hals (though not the Laughing Cavalier as this is in the Wallace Collection in London). I like Vermeer a lot; the rest I can take or leave.

Possibly more interesting is the Van Gogh Museum, depending of course on whether you like Van Gogh's work or not. Personally I do, so that's good.

And you probably have a moral duty to go to the Anne Frank House as well, though if you are going to go I seriously recommend getting there before the 9am opening time, otherwise the queues will be round the block. Doesn't take long to get round the place, maybe an hour or so at most, because it is, after all, quite small. All very sobering; funny the things that strike you at these times though - "Anne" was short for "Annelies", and with the German/Dutch pronunciation would have been rendered as "Anna", or near as dammit anyway, so we've been saying it wrong all these years. There are various quotations written on the walls in the museum; the one that brings a lump to the throat is Primo Levi's:
One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way: if we were capable of taking in the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.
I must confess I've never read the diary; it's a cliché but I think its main appeal is to girls of a similar age. If you want a holocaust memoir then Levi's If This Is A Man and its follow-up The Truce (generally available as a single volume) are pretty much indispensable, I would say.

The history of the Netherlands is very interesting, particularly the massive civil engineering effort required just to stop the entire country slurping inexorably out into the North Sea, being as it is largely just a collection of low-lying silty deposits and sandbars. None of which is going to save them from being first against the wall come the revolution; well, them and Bangladesh. And Norfolk.

time for my medication

Something of a surprise in the Independent today: an article by Dominic Lawson with which I find myself, near enough, in complete agreement. I expect there'll be some raving right-wing religiosity spliced to a bit of climate-change denialism on Monday, just to balance things up a bit.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

2-item music list of the day

This is really a subset of a larger list entitled something like Songs People Really Don't Listen To Properly And Thus Don't Realise That They're Not Really Love Songs At All. A list which would include, off the top of my head:
- as well as plenty of other stuff, no doubt. Today's list is a bit more specific, though, and I've decided to title it Songs Which Are A Barely-Concealed Demand For A Blow Job. So far I've got:
No, OK, I made that last one up.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


You may remember my pointing out some of the truly alarming frothing arsewittery displayed on the BBC's Have Your Say forums following the death of pig-ignorant corpulent xenophobe Bernard Manning last year.

It really is all too easy to mine some comedy gold out of the slack-jawed goons who parade their ignorance on these forums; just to prove the point here's a couple of gems from this recent debate on "boot camps" for unemployed youths:

At last this is what we need. I am sick to death of funding these lazy, bone idle parasites. Next death penalty to all knife carrying thugs!! Conservatives you have sealed my vote

martin jones, london


Richard Buxton, Reading, United Kingdom

I think we can consider the world now put firmly to rights. There's some good stuff in the thread about recently-deceased film director Sydney Pollack as well:

Unlike birth, death creates huge curiosity as it occurs. In a nursery of plants, if one sapling withers, the gardener leaves the rest and probes the cause of the one dead. He feels lost in the benefit that would have been if the sapling were not dead. That is why governments seek protection to its people from even the authorities abroad. This is the basic tenet of the cost and worth of life.

Depth Sentence, India

Well, quite. You don't want to be trawling through all the bland duck-billed platitudes to find the loonies though, you want someone else to do it for you. And that's what spEak You’re bRanes is here for. Here's a couple of crackers from the recent debate about human-animal hybrid embryo research, for instance. I've stuck a permanent blog link in the sidebar too, as it's well worth regular visits.

anyone fancy a shmoke and a pancake?

A longer bit about our weekend trip to Amsterdam will follow when I have time, but for the moment here's a link to some photos.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

have zygote news for you

It's pleasing, and a bit of a relief, to be able to report that sanity appears to have prevailed in the House Of Commons in both the abortion debate (in that the call for a reduction in the current 24-week limit has been rejected) and in the hybrid embryo research debate (in that a proposed ban has been rejected).

Needless to say the people advocating a cut in the abortion limit and a ban on embryo research are, broadly, the same people and fall, broadly, into the category called "religious loonies". If you're making statements like:
In embryos, we do have the genetic make up of a complete human being and we could not and should not be spliced together with the animal kingdom.
- and your answer to the perfectly natural questions "why not?" and "who says?" are along the lines of "because it says so in this book dictated by my imaginary friend to some Middle Eastern goatherds a couple of thousand years ago" or "because a celibate ex-Nazi in a dress in a jewel-encrusted palace in Rome says so", you need to realise that that's not good enough. I mean, the voices in my toaster tell me to kill women, but you've got to exercise a bit of common sense.

Just to name and shame a bit, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries campaigned and voted for a reduction in the abortion time-limit to 22 weeks, partly as a result of being heavily lobbied by Andrea Williams of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship; I know this as it was featured in the scary Channel 4 Dispatches programme In God's Name a few nights back, wherein the cuddly-sounding LCF reveal themselves to be the usual rabble of homophobic racist nutters, as expected. Ruth Kelly, the current Secretary of State for Transport, voted the same way, hardly surprisingly as she is a known member of the barking Roman Catholic sect Opus Dei, and therefore almost certainly turned up to the voting chamber wearing barbed wire suspenders, the kinky bitch. What is it with religious loons and underwear?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

the bowler's Holding, the.....oh, you know the rest

One of the great joys of early summer in Britain, along with cuckoo-spotting and dying of a hideous allergic reaction after making pea-shooters out of giant hogweed is the first home Test match of the summer, and the accompanying return of Test Match Special.

As this is the 21st century, you can now listen to it online as well as on the wireless, or your home-made crystal set. I hesitate to enthuse about Great British Institutions, lest people imagine that I am a dewy-eyed supporter of the monarchy, fox-hunting, Delia Smith, etc., when in fact nothing could be further from the truth in each case, but I think TMS qualifies as one. There's something quite comforting and heart-warming that in no other country in the world would something as bumblingly schoolboyish and amateur be allowed on the airwaves, or certainly not by the country's flagship "official" broadcaster anyway.

I listened for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon, just to see if Michael Vaughan could reach his century (he did, in the end), and even during that short period there were a few highlights:
  • new addition to the team Phil Tufnell adding a bit of gruff Cockney barrow-boy banter to the generally fairly public-school atmosphere, with much talk of "the ball nippin' abaaaahht aaahht there" and the like
  • Henry Blofeld plummily responding to Tuffers' claim to have once scored 67 for Middlesex "all in fours" by saying "you're mathematically incontinent, my dear old thing"
  • the team goading Geoff Boycott by getting scoremeister Bill Frindall to list all the occasions he'd been out for a duck in Tests - strangely enough they all turned out to have been duff umpiring decisions, according to Geoffrey anyway
Nothing as unintentionally hilarious as Christopher Martin-Jenkins' ill-chosen "rod" analogy from earlier in the match, and certainly nothing to match the Brian Johnston/Jonathan Agnew "leg over" incident from 1991, but highly entertaining nonetheless.

remember: chicks dig scars

Some things are clearly meant to be - I was half-tempted to share a couple of personal "accidents with blades" stories as part of the magic regenerating finger post of a few days ago, but couldn't be arsed in the end.

However, the appearance of this pair of posts prompts me into action, finally. Not that I have anything particularly exciting to share with you, certainly nothing as good as the Pharyngula commenter who has "minor ocelot mauling scars". If there's one thing chicks dig more than scars, it's ocelot mauling scars. No word on whether or not he was titillating the ocelot at the time, sadly.

Anyway, my paltry collection of duelling scars comprises the following:

  • A strange gristly lump in my lower lip from where I had a couple of "soluble" stitches put in it after executing a graceful dismount from a climbing frame in the garden and landing on one of the metal bars with my face.
  • Probably the best one of the lot: an inch-long furrow on the right-hand side of my head from playing the jumping up and down on the bed game with my sister in a remote holiday house in the south of France when I was about ten, and having her chin connect with my skull at high speed. It could probably have done with about four or five stitches, but it didn't get any, as we were in the middle of nowhere at the time. I seem to remember a makeshift dressing being constructed from one of my Dad's handkerchiefs and some sticking plaster.
  • Another scar further back on the same side of my head from running into the corner of an open metal-framed window at high speed. Probably a similar-sized initial wound to the previous one, but this one got four stitches, so the scar isn't as noticeable.
  • A small triangular scar on my left index finger from attempting to cut up carrots in my ex-girlfriend's flat with a really blunt serrated knife, and instead cutting a nice neat flap of flesh out of my finger.
  • I also used to have a three-inch scar across the back of my right thigh from slipping on some wet grass while attempting to climb over a barbed-wire fence, but I don't know if it's there any more - I don't see the backs of my thighs all that often.

Monday, May 19, 2008

insert male member A into foam ring B

You will of course remember the TravelJohn disposable piss pouch from a few months back. Maybe you've got one attached right now. And because you're a smart cookie, and you've got your eye firmly on the ball, you'll have been thinking, well, OK, but what if you're driving? Do you get the wife to attend to the deployment of the various attachments while you keep your eyes on the road? And what if you're on your own?

To which one answer is, of course, pull over, get out and have a slash in the hedge. Although the same argument could be applied to needing a wee while being a passenger, which does sort of throw the necessity of the whole piss-bag concept into question. However, one scenario where you certainly can't just park up for a minute as the mood takes you is when you're piloting a modern military jet aircraft. No, you're going to need something a bit more sophisticated. And here it is. Yes, the Advanced Mission Extender Device allows you to fly the most demanding of missions with no danger of, erm, emissions.

Frankly the whole electric pump attachment is a little alarming. And the consequences of having to eject while, if you will, ejecting don't bear thinking about.

What you do if you need a poo isn't adequately explained - and if a Russian MiG-29 suddenly appeared on my tail I'm pretty sure I would need one. Cavers and potholers have the same problem; they solve it by creating what they call a "cave burrito", as described here:
A bowel movement is a little more complicated underground and requires some specialized gear that is fondly known as a "cave burrito". This consists of an old Tupperware container with a lid, a plastic bag or saran wrap, aluminum foil and toilet paper. If you have to go, break your burrito fixings out. Lay out the plastic and go on that. You will want to be careful to keep the solid waste separate of the liquid waste. When done, drop all your toilet paper in with the solid waste, wrap it in plastic, than wrap the plastic in aluminum foil, double bag that and store the burrito in your Tupperware. An extra bag for the Tupperware may be a good idea. This is not a burrito you want to have come undone accidentally.
Wise words. Not sure you'd have the time or the space for that in an aerial combat situation though. Probably best just to shit yourself and tidy up later.

More poo-related stories can be found over at Andy's place.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

what I did at the weekend

I was at a bit of a loose end this afternoon, and it was a nice day, so I took myself out to the Newport Wetlands nature reserve down at the mouth of the Usk, no more than 20 minutes drive from the house. This has been tarted up quite a bit in recent years, partly (apparently) to offset the loss of habitat associated with the construction of the Cardiff Bay barrage; the reed beds are old storage lagoons for fuel ash from the Uskmouth power station, which still looms somewhat incongruously over one end of the nature reserve with a massive cat's cradle of fizzing power lines attaching it (presumably) to the National Grid. Beyond the general unsightliness and the possibility of taking off from your reedy nest and flying smack into a pylon, any worries about "bad vibes" from the power lines affecting the wildlife are largely illusory; it's just an odd juxtaposition. In any case, any notions of man interfering with "nature" here are absurd, as this is an almost entirely man-made environment anyway.

Now, I'm not a hardcore wildlife enthusiast - I'll be as excited as the next man if a pine marten pops out onto the path in front of me and starts doing the dance of the seven veils, but in general I don't have the patience - a minute or two into an all-night badgerathon and I get a bit twitchy. However, I spotted a few things of interest:
  • yer basic coots and a few ducks - a few bog-standard mallards but a few of what I think were shelducks
  • swifts - hundreds of them engaged in archetypal swiftish swooping about hoovering up insects behaviour
  • a cuckoo - didn't see it, but heard it; and it was a real one, none of your cheap imitation collared dove or wood pigeon nonsense
  • a couple of nice willow trees growing out of drainage ditches. "Willow likes to have its feet wet" is one of my collection of old country sayings. The other one is as follows: "If you see a rook on its own, it's a crow; and if you see a whole bunch of crows, they're rooks".
None of the fauna I've just described stayed still long enough to be photographed - I did manage to catch the willow tree though. Nonetheless I did get some photos of the general landscape, and here they are.

Just to illustrate the man-made nature of the landscape, here are a couple of flagrantly copyright-defying scanned images from Ordnance Survey maps - one from a 1948 1 inch to 1 mile edition, and one from my latest 1:25000 Explorer. The lighthouse is a good point of reference. Here's Google Maps' aerial view.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Just to revive another regular feature: recently retired world #1 tennis player and Famous Belgian (there are exactly 259 of them! Who could forget Edward de Smedt, the inventor of asphalt?) Justine Henin, and should-have-been (but wasn't) 90s fem-rock superstar Liz Phair. Similar hair (Henin looks a bit unfamiliar as hers is normally tied up under a baseball cap on court) and similar air of petite combativeness. Oh, and their tits are about the same size as well. Wait - did I say that out loud?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

albums of the day

I've just noticed I haven't done a proper one of these since the end of 2007, so I thought I'd better rectify the situation, pronto. I wouldn't want you to think that I either haven't been doing the washing-up regularly, or haven't been listening to the occasional album while doing so, it's just that I haven't had as much time to write stuff up. Anyway, here's a brief synopsis of my recent listening:

Saturnalia by The Gutter Twins.

The Gutter Twins are Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees (and a lengthy solo career), and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs. If you're at all familiar with their respective output you won't be expecting a collection of sunny bubblegum-pop with singalong choruses, and you'd be right not to, as this is a relentlessly black and sepulchral collection, with lots of industrial clanking and grinding behind the two gravelly vocalists.

Clearly you've got to be in the mood for this sort of stuff, and the tracks Dulli dominates suffer from the same problems as the Afghan Whigs' stuff suffered from, i.e. plenty of dark rocky energy but a shortage of melody. The Lanegan-led mid-section from Idle Hands through Circle The Fringes, Who Will Lead Us? and Seven Stories Underground is the best bit, but it's all pretty good. Even The Sun liked it, slightly strangely.

Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós.

We're back in "post-rock" territory again here. Crazy Icelandic blokes playing electric guitars with a cello bow and singing in a made-up nonsense language probably isn't for everyone, and it's all a bit one-paced, but when it works it's terrific. Generally these are slow-building mid-tempo tunes which build towards some sort of anthemic crescendo towards the end - when this works it's fantastic, particularly on the 10-minute Viðrar vel til loftárása which is much the best thing here. A lot of the other songs strain for transcendence without ever quite getting there, though; you can almost see the neck veins standing out as the song lumbers along the runway without ever quite taking off. Jónsi Birgisson's wavering falsetto vocals are something of an acquired taste as well, but, again, as long as you're in the mood, great. Note that this probably wouldn't be the same sort of mood as for Saturnalia, just in case that wasn't clear already.

The Caution Horses by Cowboy Junkies.

Blimey, this takes me back. I seem to recall Doug and I playing this album a lot when we were sharing a student flat, which would have been around the time the album first came out in 1990. Critical opinion seems to have decided that it's not as good as its more lo-fi predecessor The Trinity Session, but I suspect it depends on which order you encounter them in. To the impartial observer this is still pretty sparsely instrumented, just Michael Timmins' softly strummed electric guitar, his sister Margo's vocals and the occasional bit of pedal steel or accordion. The best things here are the opener Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning and the radical reinvention of Neil Young's epic Powderfinger; some of the other songs can tend to be a bit florid in the lyrical department (Rock and Bird being an obvious culprit). Again, the right mood is essential, so, to recap, what you'll be needing is:
  • Saturnalia: sleazy druggy bleakness and depravity
  • Ágætis byrjun: wide-eyed transcendence and optimism
  • The Caution Horses: lovelorn melancholy, possibly while milking a three-legged goat in a log cabin, or something like that

incidental music spot of the day

I Lost It by Lucinda Williams over the closing credits to Virgin Memories on BBC2, part of the Bare Facts season. Chosen presumably for the obvious suitability of the title, rather than for the lyrics being about anything specifically relevant to the content of the programme.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

the last book I read

Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge.

So, we're on this large ocean liner steaming from Southampton to New York in April 1912. It's night-time, the ship is at full speed, and there are icebergs about in the north Atlantic. I won't spoil the ending for you....

Well, needless to say it's not really about the Titanic, fascinating subject though the whole business still is nearly a century later. Rather this is a book about the end of the carefree years of optimism and progress of the early 20th century, an ending suggested by Bainbridge's previous novel The Birthday Boys (about the ill-fated Scott expedition, also in 1912), and one that would be echoed on a much larger scale by the outbreak of the First World War just a couple of years later.

The main narrator, Morgan, an adoptive nephew of the owner of the shipping line that owned the Titanic and a minor engineer involved in its construction, is a slightly awkward initiate into the world of privilege inhabited by the passengers on the ship's maiden voyage, some of whom are based on real-life passengers like John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim. There are various darkly humorous incidents exposing the idleness and pomposity of this particular section of society, and, more importantly, their utter helplessness when faced with a genuine crisis.

Bainbridge has a particular liking for people's cosy routine being rudely shattered by outside intervention, in this case, of course, a ruddy great iceberg. None of the characters is really sympathetic enough for us to expend much energy rooting for them to survive, except perhaps Morgan himself. Then again one of the drawbacks of the first-person narrative is that you already know that the narrator survives the events being described, unless something awfully post-modern is going on, which isn't really Bainbridge's style.

Needless to say a mountain of books and films have been made with this as the subject; one that's interesting for unique reasons is Morgan Robertson's Futility, or The Wreck Of The Titan which describes the sinking of the world's largest passenger liner, the Titan, after hitting an iceberg in the north Atlantic. The unique bit is that this novel was first published in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic sank. Spooky. I remember first reading about this odd coincidence in a book I had as a child called Oddly Enough which was a collection of odd and coincidental stories. Unsurprisingly there are rather a lot of books which have this string in the title, and most of them are collections of crazy and amusing anecdotes from this wacky old world of ours. I would need a cover picture to be completely sure, but I have a feeling this is the book I'm thinking of. Looks like it's out of print, but it can be had second-hand. Maybe I'll get hold of one for old times' sake and share a few more nuggets with you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

don't mention the bears! I mentioned them once, but I think I got away with it

Some more photos for you: our long weekend cycling in the Forest Of Dean. The photo captions are fairly self-explanatory, but just a few notes:
  • The campsite at Christchurch is very good: run by the same people as the Spiers House campsite that Hazel and I stayed at in Yorkshire last year, as well as some of the campsites in the New Forest that we stayed at on our last cycling trip.
  • The well-maintained series of old railway lines that form the main trails through the main part of the forest are very pleasant to cycle on. More information about the original lines can be found here; some interesting stuff on the remaining bits of track can be found here. If you search on that page for "Mierystock Tunnel" you'll see a couple of interesting pictures: the situation as of now is very much as per the second picture, i.e. the northern tunnel portal has been dug out, but there's no evidence of any work currently being done to restore the original route through the tunnel (the path is still routed up and over the road at this point). Maybe they ran out of grant money?
  • The path up the Wye from Monmouth to Kerne Bridge is less pleasant to cycle on; large sections are not really suitable for bikes at all. The bit between Biblins footbridge and Symond's Yat is OK, the rest not so good. And carrying a pannier-laden mountain bike over gates and stiles is really tiring.
  • The picnic and barbecue area at Beechenhurst Lodge is a great spot for lunch on a hot day, especially if you've pre-arranged to be met with supplies of sausages and lager.
  • Apparently you shouldn't mention bears in Ruardean, for various insane reasons. We passed through at about 9:30pm on Saturday, and we weren't stopping, so we couldn't test the theory out, unfortunately.

waiting for Garfield

More internet genius for you: take Jim Davis' original Garfield strips, remove (via some sort of Photoshop wizardry, presumably) any trace of Garfield himself from them, and what you're left with is a series of brief vignettes of almost Beckettian emptiness and despair. Have a look at garfield minus garfield for some examples; here's a couple.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

dude, pull my finger

Here's a perfect illustration of the abysmal quality of science journalism, as well as the more general tendency of journalists to cannibalise each others' work to occasionally ridiculous effect: the story that's been all over various news sources this week about the bloke who miraculously grew back a finger after having it sprinkled with some magic dust (aka "extra-cellular matrix").

Those of a naturally healthy sceptical bent would have reacted first with fascination and secondly with various questions, such as: a) how much finger did he lose in the first place? b) is this sort of recovery unprecedented? c) how do we know it was the "magic dust" that did the trick? The answers given in the articles vary a bit but can be summarised as being, respectively: a) ooh, lots b) ooh, yes, I expect so c) well, it's magic, isn't it? The lack of anything resembling detail in any of the stories, and the fact that the original incident seems to have happened way back in 2005, would lead you to smell a big fat sweaty nicotine-stained journalistic rat at that point.

Needless to say it turns out that the truth is somewhat more mundane, in that the actual answers are: a) the whole finger-tip, essentially, but not all of the nail and little or no bone b) not at all c) we don't, in fact it seems highly unlikely that it was.

Bad Science has some more detail, including some amusing backtracking by the news sources when it became clear we weren't about to be able to lop the odd limb off during a bit of careless gardening, sprinkle some magic pixie dust on the gushing stump and have it spontaneously regenerate chameleon stylee. Here's the BBC's effort.

The only morsel of actual interest in all of this is the revelation that doctors have discovered that it's better, in situations like this, to leave the stump alone as much as possible for it to heal, rather than do what they used to do, which was to apply a skin graft over the exposed stump. It turns out that this inhibits the regrowth of the dermal and epidermal layers (presumably by "confusing" them in some way) and results in the wound healing less well and invisibly than just leaving it to sort itself out. That's an actual science story, right there.

Friday, May 02, 2008

berry nice

Couple of quick links for you:

I haven't done a squid post for quite a while, so here's one for you: the colossal squid caught off New Zealand just over a year ago has been defrosted and dissected by an international team of scientists at the Te Papa Tongarewa museum in Wellington. A brief photographic summary can be found here; more details are available at the Te Papa blog. Nice to see that they've done the taste test and confirmed that it tastes of piss.

Secondly, I've set up a YouTube account to post occasional amusing stuff to. I've got a couple of things lying around to post, one of which I've uploaded just as a test. It's a short film shot and directed by Andy and starring me. The subject matter is the slightly odd loganberry-flavoured beer we were drinking at the legendary Square & Compasses pub in Worth Matravers on our last Swanage trip. It's called Logan's Berry (you see what they did there) and it appears to be brewed by Downton's in Salisbury. I couldn't honestly say I'd recommend it, but then I don't really like beer that's been mucked around with, which rules out things like Young's Waggledance and Chocolate Stout as well.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Derry good

Here's a slightly more detailed synopsis of our Irish trip, if you want it:

We flew from Bristol to Derry with Ryanair for the princely sum of 1 penny Sterling per person each way. Ryanair being Ryanair it didn't quite work out as cheap as that, what with credit card booking fees and various sneaky mystery surcharges levied at the airports, but we still got to Ireland and back for around ten quid each, which is pretty good.

Day 1 (Saturday) we just hung around Derry, checking in at the excellent Abbey B&B in the Bogside, which turns out to be an ideal base for checking out the city. We had a walk round the city walls and then went to the pub to sample the local Guinness - and very nice too.

On the Sunday we went over into the Republic Of Ireland - the border is only a couple of miles from the city, and in contrast to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s you'd barely know you'd crossed it apart from the change in the format of the road signs and the speed limits changing from miles per hour to kilometres per hour. We drove out via Donegal town to the Slieve League cliffs, which claim to be Europe's highest sea cliffs, though this seems to be a subject of some dispute. They are certainly extremely impressive, though I would say a cliff purist (if such things exist) would probably prefer the Cliffs Of Moher near Galway. Why? Well, the Slieve League cliffs are essentially just a large-ish (a smidgen under 2000 feet) mountain that happens to be next to the sea, and thus one face falls impressively precipitously (though not vertically) into it, while the Cliffs Of Moher are a proper level-bit-of-land-sudenly-ending-in-a-vertical-drop kind of thing. Here's a photo of the Cliffs of Moher, taken by me on our boys' drinking trip to Galway and Connemara in early 2006:

And here's a graphical representation of the comparative topography (not to scale, obviously, Slieve League is considerably higher), just to illustrate that it all depends on how you define "cliff" (not like this, I would suggest):

Anyway, whatever the respective merits, we gazed upon the rocky majesty of the cliffs from the car park, at which point I suggested that we really ought to go and climb up on top of them. My very understanding and tolerant girlfriend agreed, so we did (photo link in previous post).

The following day we went north-east into County Antrim to visit the Giant's Causeway. Since we didn't come to Ireland especially to visit it I don't feel qualified to comment on Dr. Johnson's famous quote, but it was pretty impressive, so I suspect Johnson of being, in this particular instance, a bit of a johnson. We also visited the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge and the Bushmills distillery. Unfortunately we were too late for a distillery tour, but we bought some miniatures which we necked back at the B&B, which seemed to do the trick.

On Tuesday morning we took a guided tour of Derry organised by the people at the Museum Of Free Derry. And very fascinating too - if you're of a similar age to me, your earliest memory of The Troubles will be of the coverage of the IRA hunger strikes, and Bobby Sands in particular, in the early 1980s, and the bizarre reporting restrictions involving having an actor read Gerry Adams' words over footage of him speaking in the 1980s and 1990s, but of course the conflict has much deeper and more complex roots than that, including Bloody Sunday which, it turns out, happened not 100 yards from our B&B in 1972.

The current peaceful power-sharing situation really does give even a raddled old cynic such as myself cause for optimism: if what seemed like a completely intractable conflict can be resolved as satisfactorily as this then there may be hope for other similar problems as well (and God knows there are plenty of them) in other parts of the world. Most remarkably, it seems that bellowing old demagogue Ian Paisley will more than likely be remembered with some affection by people on both sides of the conflict following his recent retirement from front-line politics, something that seemed utterly impossible when I was growing up.

Anyway, I seem to have gone on a bit, but my point is that this is a part of the world well worth a visit - Donegal in particular deserves a bit more than the day we were able to spend on it. So, to summarise: dere's more to Oireland.....dan dis.