Tuesday, December 30, 2008

gyz! soft g, obviously

Apologies for all the GPS and trig point ramblings. I do realise it's interesting to just about no-one but me. We now return you to some obscenities written in fridge magnets.

X as in "X-rated", yeah? That's sort of rude. So, you see, I did use all the letters.

look at the flush brackets on that

Unnecessary extra detail about yesterday's walk, if you want it.

I've been tinkering with the GPS today and I've managed to upload the waypoints and track information I logged yesterday, and also (via the clever people who wrote the GPS Babel application and then, more importantly, kindly made it available for free) converted Garmin's proprietary GDB file format into the KML format that's readable by Google Earth. This enables you to overlay the route info onto a map or satellite image, as below:

The raw KML data is available here should you want to recreate this particular walking experience for yourself.

The little notchy detour between waypoints 003 and 004 was to take in the trig point (309 metres, 1014 feet) which the map told us was there, just off the path in a little wooded glade (absolutely no chance we'd have spotted it without the map). This set me to thinking: I wonder if there's a database somewhere of all the trig points in Britain? Needless to say it turns out not only that there is, but that there is a thriving community of people who go out and "bag" as many as possible, photograph them, log flush bracket serial numbers, etc. Sadly I failed to note down any relevant details from the one we're leaning on on the right, but luckily someone else has already done it anyway.

I completely accept that the distinction I choose to make whereby taking a few snaps next to a trig point you were passing close to anyway as part of some unconnected rugged outdoor activity is OK, but the slightly more obsessive bagging activity and things like geocaching are a bit geeky is a completely arbitrary and subjective one, but I choose to make it anyway. So there.

not out of the woods yet

Last in this brief series of walks around sites of (very) minor interest in the Newport and Cardiff area - Hazel and I went for a walk around the Wentwood Forest (a few miles from junction 24 of the M4, here) yesterday. I had a new GPS to play with, and Hazel wanted to test out her new walking poles.

This is another place that's obviously a haven for off-roaders (and car-thieving joyriders, judging by the burnt-out car we came across at one point), so some of the paths are a bit rutted and waterlogged, but it was nice and quiet (two kids who roared past us on trail bikes were the only people we saw) - photos here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

run for the hills

Back in Newport as of yesterday, so I decided to go for a walk this morning to wear off some of the calories I'd been shovelling in in various forms, both solid and liquid, over Christmas.

North and north-west are the best two directions to head in from Newport if you want to get to high ground, and the nearest serious bit is the big plateau between the Ebbw and Lwyd rivers. Phrases like "nearest hill" and "nearest mountain" are a bit meaningless unless you define what you mean by "hill" and "mountain", but it is true to say there is no summit nearer Newport that's higher than the trig point on top of Mynydd Twyn-glas, so that's where I headed.

This is the highest point on the ridge that the hill fort at Twmbarlwm is at the southern end of, and it suffers from the same problems with being easily accessible to trail and quad bikers, so there's lots of erosion on the main paths. It's probably a bit boggy a lot of the time, and it would have been today were it not for the ground being frozen rock-solid, which was handy. In addition to the bike tracks the plateau is criss-crossed with electricity pylons, so all in all it's not exactly a pristine and unspoilt wilderness. In fact I came over all Jim Morrison for a moment up there:
What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down
Nonetheless it does have a certain bleak charm, particularly on a crisp frosty day, and the two guys on quad bikes I passed near the summit trig point (472 metres, 1549 feet) were the only people I met all day. A circular walk from where I parked the car by Upper Cwmbran Methodist Church took me about two and a half hours.

If you go the same way I did you'll end up coming back past the Blaen Bran reservoirs, which I thought looked surprisingly empty today, considering it's not exactly high summer - it turns out they're abandoned, and there has been a certain amount of legal wrangling about having them made safe so they don't disintegrate and send a stagnant mossy tidal wave into central Cwmbran (however much you might think that would be the best thing for it). Some more pictures and details about the problems with trail bikes and general littering can be found here.

My photos (including the obligatory trig point self-portrait) can be found here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

oh well, I've had a good innings: part II

I was watching a re-run of a relatively recent episode of Top Gear on channel Dave the other day, and they had the usual Hoon It Round The Track In A Rubbish Oriental Saloon Car While Swearing Uncontrollably segment (except they call it Star In A Reasonably Priced Car), featuring, on this occasion, lady newsreaders Kate Silverton and Fiona Bruce. Kate on her own would probably have been enough, as she has that saucy bespectacled head girl and captain of the hockey team (and instigator of all manner of jocular high jinks in the showers afterwards, or so I like to imagine) thing going on, but the two of them sitting together and occasionally doing a bit of girly mutual hand-clasping as they watched the track footage was enough to send me to The Bad Place just for a few moments. So, straight to hell, then. Again.

Monday, December 22, 2008

party on, Garth

For various reasons I didn't get my usual quota of running about racket sport exercise behaviour last week, so I was feeling a bit pent up by the weekend. So we decided to go for a quick walk on the way to visit some friends over in Cardiff.

I had a quick peruse of the map and decided that we should go and have a look at Garth Hill, up north of Cardiff, near Taff's Well and Tongwynlais. It was marked with the OS symbol for a triangulation point, and you know how I have a bit of a thing for those.

It turns out Garth Hill is on the list of Welsh county high points - it's deemed to be the highest point in the unitary authority of Cardiff, at a not hugely impressive 307 metres (1007 feet). So that's one more, slightly inadvertently, for the list.

Anyway, it pissed it down, so we didn't hang about. We were up and down and back to the car within an hour or so, at which point we adjourned to the Lewis Arms in Tongwynlais for a warming pint of Brains SA and a packet of chilli McCoys. A handful of photos can be found here.

One supplementary factoid for you - we turned off the M4 at junction 32, the roundabout at which is reputed to be the largest in the UK, if not the world, although this seems unlikely. It's big, anyway.

more great ideas

Funnily enough I remember discussing something very similar to this during an earlier conversation about inventions. It seems like a perfectly sensible idea to me; again, the human body has an awful lot of energy locked up in it, and it seems a shame just to let it leak away into the atmosphere.

We should probably stop short of the full Soylent Green scenario, though. Though there's no guarantee certain unscrupulous corporations haven't started down that road already. Have you tasted Ross Economy Burgers? I'm not sure what's going on there, but I'm pretty sure I don't like it.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Queens Of The Stone Age frontman and ginger Elvis Josh Homme and property tycoon and tonsorial disaster area Donald Trump.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

patent nonsense

Having just invented the mince pie flavoured cheesecake, here's another couple of inventions what I thought up in my head. The only significant difference is that I have a working prototype of the mince pie cheesecake (well, most of one as Hazel and I ate some of it); these are at the slightly more theoretical stage at present.

Screenless TVs for the blind

It's so simple it's brilliant. Clearly a blind person has no need for the costly cathode-ray nonsense (or plasma or LCD nonsense, take your pick) that comes with a standard television set, but, on the other hand, try picking up Channel 4 on the radio. So what's the answer? Just produce a unit that has the same aerial input business as the standard television, plus the output speakers for the whole sound business, but no screen. Hey presto - essentially the same experience if you're blind, but at a fraction of the cost. You'd need a corresponding change in the TV licensing laws to levy a lower charge for this kind of set. You'd also have to shelve any plans to invite your sighted friends round to watch the footy.

Self-powered cars

Clearly the fossil-fuel-powered car's days are numbered, sooner or later. Electric car technology is progressing, as are other options like biofuel and hydrogen cell technology. All of which is very exciting, but aren't we overlooking an obvious source of energy right under, quite literally, our noses? I mean, haven't you guys seen The Matrix? You remember, the human body creates more energy than, yadda yadda yadda, well, I can't remember the numbers, but it's a lot. So let's harness that energy in some way.

Now it doesn't have to be via the old electrodes in the brain, maybe there's a better way of doing it. Frankly I'm a bit sketchy about the details, but imagine the calorie-burning possibilities. Imagine losing weight while driving. Imagine losing more weight the faster and further you drive. Imagine driving non-stop from Edinburgh to Plymouth and arriving as a small waxy deposit on the driver's seat with a couple of sizzling electrodes sticking out of it.

Maybe something more direct like liposuction would work - plumb yourself in as you set off, and the car will take out as much fat as it needs to keep the engine running. I mean, you can run cars on chip fat with minimal modification, so why not arse fat? Again, you'd have to exercise a bit of caution; you don't want to be knocking it down a gear and flooring it to get past a lorry and getting sucked inside out.

So, sure, there's a few minor wrinkles to be ironed out. But surely a simultaneous solution to the energy crisis and the global obesity epidemic is worth checking out?

Also: you know that stuff they make the black box and the cockpit voice recorder out of on planes? You know, the stuff that always survives the plane crashes? Why don't they just make the whole plane out of that stuff? Eh? Eh? That's your actual observational comedy, right there.

recipe of the day

Hey, it's nearly Christmas! So I think it's time for a festive recipe. And here it is. This is basically a simpler and less instantly fatal (but still pretty rich) variation on the artery-clogging cholestravaganza I attempted a couple of years ago.

Mince Pie Cheesecake

You will need:
  • Half a packet of Hob-nobs
  • Half a packet of ginger nuts
  • Half a packet of butter (125g or so)
  • 2 250g tubs of mascarpone cheese
  • 1 packet of 6 mince pies
  • Lemon juice
  • Brandy
Pulverise the biscuits in a food processor. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add to the biscuits, pulverise some more. Arrange the buttery biscuit crumbs in the bottom of a flan tin; put the tin in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Put the mince pies in the food processor, add a few splashes of lemon juice and a couple of capfuls of brandy. Don't puree it up too much; you just want to break up the pastry but leave the raisins whole. Scrape this out into a bowl, then put the cheese in the food processor and run it for a minute or so (you can skip this bit but it softens the cheese up). Dump this into the bowl with the mince pie bits, mix thoroughly and then smear the whole lot over the biscuit base and stick it back in the fridge for a couple of hours. Then eat.

You could basically do the same thing with any other easily pulverisable sweet foodstuff. Things that might be good include:

the last book I read

The Hunter by Julia Leigh.

I was in one of those "everything £1" shops in the centre of Newport last week and I was having a desultory rummage through their paperback section, not expecting to find anything more interesting than the usual Britain's Hardest Bastards true-crime stuff, when I came across this. The synopsis on the back cover looked interesting, and the Faber & Faber logo is usually a reasonably good indication that it's not going to be utter rubbish. I enquired as to the price - it turned out to be a pound! So I bought it.

The un-named protagonist (identified only as "M" - he does give a name to a couple of people during the course of the book, but we're led to assume this is fake) is, as the book title suggests, a hunter. He's been hired by a biotech company to investigate reported sightings of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger and bring back tissue samples for genetic analysis. Needless to say the tiger is not intended to survive the sampling process (as it involves heart, liver, etc. being removed, which is bound to smart a bit).

He rents a room with the Armstrong family on the edge of the wilderness where the creature was sighted. It turns out Lucy Armstrong's husband disappeared some time previously on an expedition (of an unspecified nature) into this same wilderness, and she has retreated into heavily-sedated seclusion in her bedroom, leaving her children Sass and Bike to run the house. M finds himself torn between the hunter's desire for solitude he feels during his expeditions into the wilderness, and an increasing connection with the Armstrong family.

And that's about it, really. It's another short book (170 pages) and it commendably doesn't waste time giving M much of a back-story; we're just straight into him setting up at the Armstrongs' and heading off onto the plains to smear himself in wallaby dung and set some snares.

Instead of spoiling the ending for you, I'll veer off at a slight tangent - one of the things that induced me to shell out the princely sum of one pound on the book was the central premise, since the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine is a fascinating creature. There's something slightly spooky about large animals (the thylacine was about the size of a large dog) which are extinct, but were around recently enough for photographs to have been taken (the last thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, unless the subsequent uncorroborated stories of sightings are to be believed). There aren't many other examples, but the quagga and the poor old passenger pigeon are another couple.

The thylacine is also a fascinating example of convergent evolution, whereby similar environmental constraints result in two only very distantly related species developing very similar characteristics. In other words, if it looks like a dog and barks like a dog, then it might be a dog, or it might be a carnivorous marsupial. Hope that's clear.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

the last book I read

Spies by Michael Frayn.

It was Kierkegaard who said "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.". So here we are in Bonjour Tristesse territory again, as the narrator recalls the events of a childhood summer years before with the (in hindsight) inevitable tragic consequences.

Stephen Wheatley is an elderly gent (sixty-to-seventysomething, we assume) revisiting the suburban street where he spent a significant chunk of his childhood - specifically, that chunk encompassing World War II. While wandering up and down the streets working out what's happened to his childhood haunts, Stephen reminisces about the events of his childhood.

The first thing you have to realise is that this is an elderly man recalling the events of over fifty years previously. On top of that what he's recalling are the perceptions of a child. So you have to exercise a certain amount of mistrust of what you're being told.

Anyway, back to World War II. Stephen and his best friend Keith have, as young boys do, a rich and vivid fantasy life going on whereby Mr. Gort (no, not that one) down the road is a murderer, the mysterious gyppos in the end house get up to all sorts of murky dealings under cover of darkness, that sort of thing. One day, though, Keith announces that something more interesting is happening a bit closer to home: his mother is a German spy.

So the boys start to spy on Keith's mother, and it soon becomes apparent to them (and the reader) that, well, there is something a bit odd going on - on a couple of occasions she heads out as if to do some shopping and seemingly disappears as the boys try to follow her. And what of the mysterious markings that they find in her diary, with x's marked at an irregular but approximately monthly schedule?

So maybe she is a spy? Further investigation reveals that she isn't actually disappearing, but instead nipping off down the tunnel under the railway embankment to put things in a mysterious metal box, hidden in the undergrowth. These things turn out to be mundane items like hard-boiled eggs, packets of fags, socks, and the like. One night Stephen sneaks out to the box and has an encounter with a mysterious man, the intended recipient, we assume, of the stuff in it.

And so it goes. Frayn pulls the narrative rug out from under the reader a few times, however much second guessing the reader might try to do. A few clues to the real solution to the mystery are scattered about here and there, though.

It's all quite satisfyingly worked out, and the sense of children's utter bewilderment at the actions and motivations of adults (and, indeed, vice versa) is very well portrayed. Like On Chesil Beach though, there's a blizzard of exposition at the end which seems like a slightly jarring change of pace from the rest of the book.

Also like On Chesil Beach, the Guardian have provided an ultra-condensed version for the terminally lazy. It's not a long book, though - 230-odd pages, largish print, so there's not really any excuse for not reading the real thing. Frayn's earlier novel and 1999 Booker Prize nominee Headlong is in a more blackly comic vein than Spies, but is also very good.

that was quick

Just to underline my point about cover versions, I hear the worrying news that X Factor winner Alexandra Burke has released a cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as her first single.

The most famous version of Hallelujah was by the late Jeff Buckley, though as I understand it his version was heavily influenced by an earlier cover by Velvet Underground co-founder and - heck, why not? - Welshman Of The Day, John Cale. Here's a brief Guardian article about Cale - notable mainly for some brief but highly concentrated utter bollocks in the comments section.

Friday, December 12, 2008

step AWAY from the record shop

Today's Independent carries an interesting article about cover versions of famous songs - I infer from the various barbed comments about reality TV contestants that the article was inspired by Leona Lewis' blood-curdling slaughtering of Snow Patrol's Run which is currently sitting atop the UK singles chart, and looks a good bet for the Christmas number 1 spot.

As the article says, we're in the interesting position these days of the wheel having come full circle a bit regarding cover versions - the revolution in bands writing their own material inspired by The Beatles and Bob Dylan has worn off a bit, certainly in terms of the singles chart anyway. So there's a lot of cover versions out there, some disastrously ill-advised (Scissor Sisters' version of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb springs to mind). Strange that the article fails to mention William Shatner's efforts in this area, which defy rational description.

Genuinely good, worthwhile, interesting cover versions are rare - here's a list of some assorted ones, off the top of my head and in no particular order (and without access to my iTunes library for reference):

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival's 11-minute thrash through Marvin Gaye's I Heard It Through The Grapevine
  • Cowboy Junkies' dead-slow version of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane
  • Cat Power's funky electric piano-led rendition of what I tend to think of as Frank Sinatra's New York, New York, although in fact that was a cover version as well (the original being by Liza Minnelli)
  • Tricky's version of Public Enemy's Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos
  • Bob Mould's balls-out assault on Richard Thompson's Turning Of The Tide from the 1994 Thompson tribute album Beat The Retreat
  • Sugababes did a surprisingly funky version of The Beatles' Come Together, which I think I got with a free CD given away with Q Magazine
  • Hindu Love Gods' thunderous rock reworking of Prince's Raspberry Beret
  • The Bangles' rockin' version of Simon & Garfunkel's Hazy Shade Of Winter. Ah, the lovely Susannah.....
  • Gary Jules' glum piano rendition of Tears For Fears' Mad World from the Donnie Darko soundtrack. To quote Jack Nicholson in The Witches Of Eastwick: "Cliché, cliché. Perhaps. But true!"
  • Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. The Nicholson quote applies equally well here.
  • Hendrix's version of Dylan's All Along The Watchtower. And again here.
  • Santana's sinuous Latinification of Fleetwood Mac's Black Magic Woman
  • Iron & Wine's whispery folkification of The Postal Service's skittery electronica original of Such Great Heights
I may add a few more when I get back in front of the laptop that's got iTunes on it. You have been warned....

Monday, December 08, 2008

oh well, I've had a good innings

You ever get that thing where you think: actually I'm a good and worthwhile person, kind to small animals, pay my taxes, occasional charitable donations, that sort of thing? And then you think: actually, no, I'm going straight to hell.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

the last book I read

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler.

There are those - Nick Hornby, Roddy Doyle and Jeremy Paxman among them, apparently - who think that Anne Tyler is the world's greatest living novelist.

I'm not sure I have an opinion about that, as this is only the second of her books that I've read (Back When We Were Grownups being the other), but her style does raise a question that I raised a while back in an album review - is it more difficult to write an 18-minute symphonic rock epic with lots of widdly-widdly soloing and toe-stubbing tempo and key changes, or a two-and-a-half minute punchy three-chord pop song that starts, makes you laugh/cry/dance/sing/think/whatever and then stops again?

The equivalent question for a novelist would be - is it more difficult to write a novel that takes radical liberties with "normal" novel orthodoxies (previous books in this series provide examples in terms of structure and the authorial voice - other well-known examples include Finnegans Wake and Pale Fire) or one in a more linear style, and furthermore one in which no murders occur, no-one flies an aeroplane into a house, or anything like that? When you rule out all that stuff, it could be argued, all you've got left to hold the reader's attention is your actual skill at writing believable characters who interact in interesting ways. Which, it could be argued, is more demanding.

Anyway: Barnaby Gaitlin is the wayward scion of a rich philanthropic Baltimore family (most of Tyler's novels are set in Baltimore). After a troubled childhood and adolescence which saw him embarrass the family with a series of petty thefts that his parents had to cover the cost of (as they never tire of reminding him) as well as spend a period in a reform school (or a school for "the gifted young tester of limits" as their motto has it), he embarked on a brief marriage which produced a daughter, Opal, who now lives with her mother in Philadelphia after the subsequent divorce. Barnaby has settled into a comfortably undemanding existence working for a company called Rent-A-Back which provides odd-job services to the elderly and infirm.

As the novel opens Barnaby is at the railway station in Baltimore waiting to catch a train for one of his regular visits to see Opal; while waiting around he observes a scene whereby a man persuades a woman to deliver a parcel to his daughter who will be waiting at the station in Philadelphia. Barnaby follows her to her rendezvous, and, after a bit of low-level stalking, manages to engineer a meeting with her on a subsequent train journey, and, eventually, spark up a relationship. Sophia is a few years older than him, and seems to be viewed by Barnaby's relatives as something of a sign of belated maturity in the black sheep of the Gaitlin family.

That's about as exciting as the plot development gets, but the unspoken point of the plot, such as it is, is Barnaby's gradual and belated (and slightly reluctant) realisation that he is what everyone else (well, apart from his immediate family) already knows he is: a good guy. The sneaky way that the last sentence of the novel is the same as the first, but carries a totally different meaning, conveys this very neatly.

Let's get a few criticisms out of the way first: it is all a bit cosy and parochial, and it's fairly clear that things are going to work out OK in the end without any major catastrophes occurring (or, arguably, anything very much happening at all). Also, this is a novel written by a woman, in the first person, through the character of a man. I can't think of that many novels like that, so I haven't got much of a basis for comparison, but I didn't find the authorial voice completely convincing, certainly less so than in Back When We Were Grownups, which was written from the perspective of a middle-aged woman - less of a stretch, you would think, for obvious reasons.

However (and returning to my earlier point) it's not easy to rework very similar territory for each book and come up with something fresh every time, but Tyler's observations of human interaction in general and family life in particular are acutely well-observed. And while it's true that everything does, in general, work out OK for those who you want it to work out OK for, it doesn't quite happen in the way you might imagine it's going to.

In any case, going back to the musical comparisons, I've always felt complaints that, say, Oasis keep making the same record again and again to be a bit unfair - it's a good record, and if you get bored with it, as is your prerogative, then you can always go and listen to some Joni Mitchell or something instead. Similarly, any notion that Anne Tyler should start writing experimental lesbian vampire fiction seems a bit unreasonable. Reading this novel and the ones I mentioned above (and the lesbian vampire stuff, if you like) is what will make you a rounded and multi-faceted individual that women will be mysteriously drawn to, like a magnet. Oh yes.