Saturday, October 31, 2009

a million shrugging garlicky frenchmen can't be wrong...or can they?

The bottle of Highland Park I bought back in early June finally bit the dust the other day, so I had half an eye out for another one while I was in Tesco earlier, and sure enough my eye was mysteriously drawn to the bottle of 10-year old Aberlour they were practically giving away for £18.

Bit of background: Aberlour is a Speyside whisky, Speyside being by far the most distillery-rich of the whisky-producing regions with something like fifty distilleries. It's fair to say Aberlour is not one of the big Speyside glamour boys like Macallan, Glenlivet or Glenfiddich, though it is apparently the biggest-selling single malt in France; this is probably down to its being owned by French drink-based gigantocorp Pernod Ricard. According to this page, the biggest seller in Spain is Cardhu, and the biggest seller in Italy is Glen Grant. Fascinating stuff.

Anyway, you'd expect certain things from a Speyside whisky - heavy on the fruit, light on the smoke, sweetish, darkish, etc., and Aberlour ticks all those boxes. It's lighter and less intense than the Macallan, though, which is a real slap around the chops with a sherry-soaked Madeira cake (but in a good way). I'm tempted to quote the Paul Giamatti character from Sideways and call it "quaffable but....far from transcendent", though that would be a bit harsh, as it's perfectly nice. No danger of it not getting, consumed, anyway.

[Update after drinking a proper-sized glass while watching the rivetingly awful League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen on TV tonight: it's got a really interesting marzipan-y nose which you don't get with the Macallan and the other Speysiders, followed by the usual sherry stuff afterwards. Second impressions were better than first, anyway, if that helps at all.]

une femme-frappeur, s'il vous plaît

I'll tell you what annoys me about those Stella Artois 4 adverts, since you ask. It's not the general content of the adverts themselves, which is as excellent as ever - whoever came up with the whole "reassuringly expensive" thing back in the day was a genius - it's the name of the product and the way it's presented in the adverts.

In both of the adverts I've seen (which you can have a look at here and here) there's some hilarious French Riviera-set action, culminating in the main character sauntering nonchalantly into a bar and saying "une Stella Artois Four, s'il vous plaît", followed by the obligatory product shot and seductive female voice-over (in English, this time, just in case we hadn't worked out what he was talking about).

Trouble is, the four doesn't really work when you're delivering the rest of the sentence in French, since of course the French word would be quatre. I guess Stella Artois must have concluded that the English-speaking public couldn't cope with that, although interestingly Beck's seem to have come to a different conclusion with their lower-alcohol product Beck's Vier.

It gets worse, though, because they pronounce the four with a proper rolled "r" (because they're French - why do you think they have this outrageous accent?). This makes it sound like the French word fort, which could conceivably be applied to beer, because it just means "strong". Trouble is, the whole point of SA4 is that it's less strong than the standard wife-beating brew. Confusing, isn't it? Even worse, SA4 is marketed in Canada as Stella Artois Légère, and légère means "light", i.e. just the opposite of fort. Phew. Now I need a drink.

Two other things to note before we move on: firstly that Google's language tools offer the following translations of légère: slight, feathery, promiscuous. I suppose there might be a connection with the use of words like "flighty" or "loose" in English to denote the same thing, if you're a 70-year-old Daily Mail reader anyway. Secondly, note that the InBev SA4 web page describes the beer as "a good pallet cleanser". I assume that what they meant was "a good palate cleanser"; if they really did mean it was good for removing stubborn stains from these then I might give it a miss, to be honest.

What I won't be doing instead is going and having a pint of Carling, for reasons that their latest series of beermats make clear, in what I assume is an unintentional way. I've enlarged the slogan below the main picture, just in case you can't make it out: no way will the Advertising Standards guys be on their backs about this one; that's one claim that I'm pretty positive is accurate.

Friday, October 30, 2009

assaulted Nutt

There's a much longer post to be written about Home Secretary Alan Johnson's sacking of the government's chief drugs advisor Professor David Nutt - basically for presenting them (in exact accordance with the terms of the job he was hired to do) with some scientific data about drugs and their associated risks that happened not to tally with the government's preconceived ideas about what they wanted the answers to be - but I don't intend this to be it. Tomorrow's papers will probably take care of it.

Mainly I want to give a tip of the cyber-hat to the BBC's correspondent Mark Easton for managing to work the words "Nutt" and "sack" in close proximity into two successive headlines on his blog, within about three hours of each other. Just in case the web police tidy them up, here they are:

The only thing that needs to be added is this quote by an anonymous "source" purporting to speak for Johnson from the Times article about the sacking:

"Anything that appears to downgrade the dangers of drugs is just not acceptable and it should not have been said."

I don't want to drag religion into every single post (no, really) but this illustrates the underlying problem of which religious belief is just one symptom: most people's inability to do even the most basic critical thinking. As Professor Nutt said in his Radio 4 interview earlier this evening (starting about 30 minutes into this iPlayer link, which may disappear in due course), if the government are going to abandon any pretence of drugs policy being evidence-based and make it some sort of moral crusade, then they should come out and say so. I would add that if they are going to do that they should additionally state very clearly on what basis they are making their moral judgments. Divine inspiration? A craven desire to keep fuckwits like The Sun's Jon Gaunt happy? Let's hope not.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

a seemingly unremarkable blog post....OR IS IT?!?

I'm grateful to the people at spEak You're bRanes for their championing of the fine work of novelist Cuger Brant aka regular BBC Have Your Say contributor Bruce Grant.

Don't be fooled by the availability of the Brant oeuvre on Amazon - publishers Epic Press are a "self-publishing" (or, less kindly, vanity publishing) operation. Amazon's "search inside" facility does allow you to get a taste of the truly epic awfulness of the content, though. Have a look at Something Wicked This Way Comes, for instance. Note that the title is taken from Shakespeare via the 1962 Ray Bradbury novel of the same name. Then have a look inside. Woo hoo!

Obviously being a really awful writer doesn't preclude your being a really successful one; just look at Dan Brown. Brown's stuff (and I confess I've only read excerpts, never a whole book) seems to me to be just generally ploddingly, leadenly awful rather than reaching the truly dizzy heights of dreadfulness that Brant is capable of.

Maybe Matthew Reilly would be a better comparison? My impression (again, only from the odd chapter, never a whole book; I don't think I could take it) is of someone far more hilariously shit than Dan Brown. On the other hand, his books are published by a professional publisher who, you'd like to think, might at the very least prevent books being published with large-font spelling mistakes on the front cover.

No, I think the only valid comparison here is with the baleful bard of Barnes, weaver of dreams, titan of terror: Garth Marenghi. Just as the full series of Darkplace was suppressed by The Man for being "too subversive, too dangerous, too damn scary" so it is with Cuger Brant's Cassandra-esque shamanistic prognostications. Did you reject my novel because it was shit? Did you really? Or was it that it just BLEW YOUR MIND? Yeah? Yeah? Oh, right.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

what a bunch of cults

It would be remiss of me not to link to the other Scientology story of the week, which is the one about the CoS getting fined the best part of a million dollars by a French court for fraud. The Daily Mash makes the obvious point, though in fact the specific fraud perpetrated here was to do with Scientology's wacky medical treatments and "personality tests" rather than their even wackier supernatural belief system. This follows similar slapdowns in 1997, 1999 and 2002, as Scientology continues to fight for the freedom for religious organisations to run massive unaccountable brainwashing schemes and commit massive fraud. Although they prefer to shorten it to "freedom of religion", generally.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

stuck in an electronic incident

If, in a scenario even more unlikely than the previous one, you decide to follow the flowchart path that leads you to Scientology, here's a couple of pieces of recent news that may be of interest.

Firstly, the high-profile defection of amusingly-named film director Paul Haggis (director of Crash and In The Valley Of Elah, and also writer of Million Dollar Baby and Quantum Of Solace, so it was presumably he who cooked up all that tosh about secret reservoirs in Bolivia). This was after a dispute over gay rights, and also about the Church of Scientology's policy of "disconnection" which Haggis had personal experience of, but the existence of which which was nonetheless denied outright on network TV by Scientology's chief public mentalist Tommy Davis. The full text of Haggis' letter can be found here.

You will of course remember Tommy Davis from this earlier post; his usual strategy is to turn up all clean-cut and suited as the friendly public face of Scientology, and then become weirdly hectoring and aggressive really quickly in a (usually successful) bid to freak everyone out and suppress any serious discussion. Full credit to Martin Bashir, then, for persisting with what should have been a totally innocuous line of questioning - one that CNN's John Roberts had a go at in the earlier clip but didn't pursue - what exactly is it that you believe? Davis' response is so peculiar it really has to be seen to be believed.

I suppose what Bashir could have done would have been to ask a couple of what you might call meta-questions on the same basic subject, like: one of the defining features of religions is that their adherents are keen to talk about them - scarcely surprisingly, since that's how they get converts. Sure, they might gloss over a few of the less palatable or more obviously ridiculous bits, but basically they'll be positively falling over themselves to tell you about how great it all is. What are we to make, then, of an organisation that claims religious status, with all the legal protections and tax breaks that go with it, but resolutely will not engage in any discussion of what the fundamentals of its belief system are? What possible motivation could there be for members of such an organisation to behave in such a way?

Secondly, if you missed the extraordinary Tom Cruise video, then I urge you to watch it; if you saw it, well, watch it again. It is mesmerisingly weird and awful. Then consider this story. The Cruise quote goes like this: "They're squirrels. Stuck in an electronic incident. It makes me so angry!". For the benefit of those not indoctrinated in the insane CoS jargon, a "squirrel" is someone who changes or subverts CoS founder, prescription drug addict and fat insane fraud L. Ron Hubbard's original texts, and an "incident" is some sort of pivotal event in human/thetan history trillions of years ago (that's right, thousands of times older than the known age of the universe), the lingering echoes of which cause psychological problems to this day. If you read the list on the Wikipedia page it sounds like Hubbard was either a) pissed or b) taking the piss when he dreamt them up. The Gorilla Goals? The Obscene Dog Incident?

Much more information is available from the in-depth investigation of Scientology done by the St. Petersburg Times. Almost inevitably, the best bit of all this is the magnificently mental response from the CoS to the allegations made by a couple of escapees, made by, you've guessed it, Tommy Davis. Two weird further things about Tommy Davis: firstly if you were listening carefully to the earlier CNN interview you'll notice his evasive response to the "what do you actually believe?" question (at about 5:10). Note the reference to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Here's where he got it from (at about 1:00). Secondly, I used to quite fancy his mother. That's that ruined then.

choose wisely

In the frankly unlikely event that you've been inspired to go and join a religious group by reading this blog, you'll be wanting to know which one to join - and you'll be in need of some guidance, as there are a bewildering array of sects out there, all a-bowing and a-scraping to a host of different deities.

This flowchart has been popping up all over the blogosphere the last few days (it seems to have originated here; I first saw it here, but it's also here, here and here), so you may have seen it before, but I think it's worth reproducing. Clickification should provide embiggenment, if you need it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

there really IS a word for everything

You know that chest on the floor, arse in the air thing dogs do when they want you to chase them, throw a stick for them, or some other depressingly stupid activity that dogs find endlessly amusing? Well, doggy behaviourists call it a "canid play-bow", apparently, and it's a pretty universal signal among the whole doggy family (including wolves). That's "bow" to rhyme with "now", not with "low", incidentally, just in case it isn't obvious.

Next week: that 360° rotation thing cats do on your lap before lying down.

music list of the day

Songs that have repetitive codas (varying from the brief-ish to the interminable) that, on the whole, they'd be better off without.

SongArtistProper bitCodaTotal
Accidents Will HappenElvis Costello and the Attractions2:130:473:00
Hide And SeekImogen Heap3:231:064:29
LaylaDerek and the Dominos3:103:557:05
Hey JudeThe Beatles3:093:557:04

Things to note:
  • Accidents Will Happen is one of Costello's best songs, but the animated video is pretty dated and horrible. The starker (and no doubt cheaper) ones like Pump It Up have aged better.
  • Here's a live acoustic version of Insomniac from 2009 (the original was from 1994), which I link to less for the quality of the performance (the sound is pretty shitty) than to demonstrate that Sonya Madan is still absolutely lovely even 15 years on.
  • The inclusion of Hey Jude might be a bit controversial, but, come on, it would be an even better song if they all just shut up after 3-and-a-bit-minutes and skipped all the na-na-na-na-ing, wouldn't it?
  • Note the spooky similarities between Hey Jude and Layla in terms of timings - the coda bits are exactly the same length (and longer than the "proper" song in both cases). Note also that in the case of Layla the coda seems to have been parachuted in from a completely different (and slightly rubbish) song.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

no further questions, your honour

An interesting discussion in the comments to a recent post prompts me (via some thought association which isn't perhaps immediately obvious) to link to some stuff I've had knocking around in the to-blog pile for a while.

There was a bit of a furore recently about the decision of the Atheist Alliance International awards panel to give an award to American comic and talk-show host Bill Maher in recognition of the impact made by his film Religulous (this site claims to have the whole movie in downloadable form).

No complaints about the film, though I haven't seen it, and from the YouTube clips available he does seem to be having a pop at some pretty easy targets (David Icke, for goodness' sake, though on the other hand this bit is pretty good), but the sceptical and scientific blogging community were not best pleased given Maher's well-known and very public barking nuttery regarding medicine, and vaccination in particular. On top of all this, the fact that the award is called the Richard Dawkins Award (though Dawkins isn't personally involved in the selection process) and that Dawkins himself had already agreed to turn up in person and present it caused a bit of flak to head Dawkins' way as well.

In the end his website issued a slightly sniffy statement defending the decision (or more accurately distancing Dawkins from it slightly), and insisting that we should all focus on the movie, and according to those who were there on the night Dawkins issued a mild rebuke (in a very civilised English sort of way) about Maher's bizarre anti-science crackpottery before handing over the award, and honour was generally seen to have been preserved on all sides.

The whole affair raises some interesting questions, though, like: is it possible to arrive at the right answer by the wrong route? Well, that one isn't so interesting, because clearly the answer is yes. However: how accommodating should the sceptical community be to people who've arrived at, say, atheism through an irrational process? Back when I was sitting mathematics exams you were told to "show your working", and marks would be docked if you failed to do so, or if there were errors in the method you used to reach an answer, even if it was the right answer. After all, science is a method, it's not a set of answers. If you haven't grasped the method, what use are your answers? Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

In Maher's case I suspect it's a general knee-jerk contrarianism and iconoclasm, which would explain him being simultaneously an atheist and an anti-vaxxer - i.e. it's just a case of finding what the consensus of opinion or the most powerful lobby group is on any particular issue and taking up an opposing position (I suspect Penn & Teller of doing the same thing). Interestingly, I gather that Maher has spoken in favour of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, presumably because his finely-calibrated controversyometer told him there was more mileage in pissing off the religious lunatics who oppose it on the grounds that it is a one-way ticket to an endless teenage bukkake sex orgy (I'm paraphrasing Stephen Green of Christian Voice here, but only slightly).

But does it cheapen or undermine the sceptical/rationalist/scientific cause to sweep objections like that under the carpet in the case of Maher? In other words, should the AAI have given the award to someone else? Or is it just the best and most pragmatic approach to fall in behind Religulous and the award on the grounds that that'll expose the film to the widest audience? Or is there a danger that this will be seen as some sort of endorsement of Maher's position on vaccines, particularly as whenever someone on his show is able to get a word in edgeways and challenge him on it, he does the usual trick of putting his hands up and claiming he's only asking for a "debate" on the subject? I mean, debate is good, right? This is trick #1 in the creationist playbook, after all. Or (last one, promise) would a public dispute be playing into the religious media's hands? You can see the headlines now: Atheists In Schism Over Dogma - We Told You Science Was Just Another Religion.

The image on the right here is from this brilliant range of Teach The Controversy T-shirts. Just watch yourself wearing them in certain American states. There's even a David Icke one! And a Bertrand Russell one!


As the weather forecast for today was quite good I had planned to go and have a look at Fan Brycheiniog over in the less-frequented western half of the Brecon Beacons National Park. In fact I'd even got as far as putting some stuff in the car before it started raining. Now I'm not normally put off by a bit of rain, so I thought: I'll set off and see if it clears up as I go. It was hammering it down by the time I went past Cardiff, and continued to do so as I went past Pontypridd, at which point I thought: fuck it, I'm going home for a bacon sandwich. Another time maybe.

Instead, here's a selection of photos from the walk I did with Hazel and my parents last weekend in the better-known eastern Beacons, and in somewhat better weather. It includes a trip to the top of Fan y Big, not the highest point in the area by any means at 2359 feet, but interesting for the rock "diving board" you can stand on at the summit, if you feel inclined to do so. I dug up some ancient photographs when I mentioned it last time, so the one on the right is an up-to-date one for comparison purposes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

celebrity lookeylikeys of the day

Firstly, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell and actor Gary Oldman in his guise as Count Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film. It's the hair, of course.

Secondly, the lovely Sally Bretton, star of such TV comedy fare as Green Wing (excellent), Absolute Power (not bad) and Not Going Out (not so good), and the equally lovely Victoria Pendleton, world and Olympic cycling gold medallist.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: that's all very well, but that's not the Victoria Pendleton photo I want to see. And what I'd say to that is: I know. Here it is.

the last book I read

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate.

It's the autumn of 1913, and a party of guests has gathered at the country estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby. In addition to the usual lavish banqueting and quaffing of burgundy and port, there is also to be a game shoot; the regular hosting of these on his estate is a source of some pride to Sir Randolph, and to his team of gamekeepers and beaters.

We meet the guests: Lord and Lady Hartlip, Bob and Olivia Lilburn, Count Tibor Rakassyi, Sir Reuben Hergesheimer, Charles Farquhar and Lionel Stephens. We also meet some of Sir Randolph's family: wife Minnie, daughter Ida and grandchildren Cicely and Osbert. A couple of expertly-sketched scenes are enough for us to get to know them a bit better: Gilbert Hartlip is a taciturn and humourless type, his wife Aline is a bored society lady whose boredom has led her to a string of affairs (most recently with Charles Farquhar, who she nonetheless doesn't seem to like very much) and gambling debts; Bob Lilburn is a dull and stolid sort of bloke whose wife Olivia, starting to realise how boring he is, is conducting a flirtation with Lionel Stephens; Tibor Rakassyi is a Hungarian nobleman who has his eye on young Cicely, and Reuben Hergesheimer is a middle-aged Jewish banker.

Below stairs, as it were, lurks another group of characters, including head gamekeeper Glass and his bright and ambitious teenaged son Dan, odd-job-man and occasional poacher Tom Harker, maid Ellen and footman John.

The shoot begins, disrupted briefly by the appearance of blood sports protester Cornelius Cardew. His arrival prompts some of the more self-aware and reflective members of the party (Olivia Lilburn, for instance) to wonder: what is all of this for? Not just the slaughtering of hundreds of pheasants, woodcocks, ducks and who knows what else, most of which will never be eaten, but the whole social circuit of endless weekends at country houses, meeting the same people, talking inconsequentially about nothing but whose country house you were at last weekend, the endless changing of clothes for rides in the country, drinks, dinner, the ruthlessly enforced social structures and strictures preventing you from ever saying what you really think.

Of course the date at which all this happens is no accident in this regard: it's barely nine months or so until the outbreak of the Great War and the start of the inexorable process by which all the stuff that underpins these people's lives will be swept away. We see an example of this in the book: young Dan Glass dreams of being a scientist and going to university to study: this sort of increased social and economic mobility among the "lower" classes is the beginning of the process that would bring the old class system down, the additional irony being that in offering to fund Dan's studies, Sir Randolph is helping to sow the seeds of his own demise.

Of course it would be very easy to draw the crusty country-house types as braying chinless buffoons, but Colegate is cleverer than that. Sir Randolph is a kindly old geezer and so is his wife Minnie (though slightly dotty), but hopelessly bound by notions of social position and duty. Similarly Olivia Lilburn and Lionel Stephens are reasonably sympathetically portrayed, though they are ultimately unable to act on their love for each other by the fear of being excluded from "polite" society (and, even more ultimately, by Lionel's eventual death in the war).

Sir Randolph considers any overtly competitive stuff like practising shooting or keeping tabs on your individual tally of kills to be a bit vulgar and not quite the gentlemanly thing; however this doesn't stop Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephens and their respective loaders conducting a private battle. It is this rivalry which prompts the novel's climactic events, when, knowing he is trailing Lionel Stephens' tally of birds, Gilbert Hartlip reflexively takes a shot at a low-flying woodcock and hits Tom Harker in the face, fatally as it later transpires.

If you're seeing some similarities in all this to the film Gosford Park, you wouldn't be entirely wrong - Julian Fellowes admits as much in his foreword to the latest Penguin edition of the book (which, rather oddly, in its online version at least, misspells her name as "Isobel" throughout). The Shooting Party itself was made into quite a celebrated film in 1985, featuring all manner of heavyweight British actors. The book won the W.H. Smith Literary Award in 1981; my fairly brief list for this one goes: 1960, 1981, 1986, 2002.

I don't know whether that award carries any sort of cash prize along with it, but I can reassure you that regardless of that Isabel Colegate probably isn't short of a bob or two, what with having sold Midford Castle near Bath where she lived for many years to actor Nicolas Cage in 2007 for a cool 5 million quid. Strangely neither of the lazy drunken hacks who wrote the articles in the Daily Mail or the Independent at the time bothered to find out that "Mrs. Briggs" was actually a renowned and award-winning author (the Times managed to make the connection). An amusing footnote to the story is that Cage now seems to be selling up to finance the settling of a large tax bill from the IRS.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

warsi versus nazi

In the light of the decision to allow fat odious racist buffoon Nick Griffin to appear on BBC Question Time tonight and the storm of media commentary surrounding it, let me offer you another quote, this one from the late Linda Smith:
I don't want to give them the oxygen of publicity. I don't even want to give them the oxygen of oxygen.
I believe that was originally offered in relation to Neil and Christine Hamilton, but it works equally well here. I should qualify all this by saying I think it was probably the right decision to allow Griffin to appear, but regrettable that his loathsome party have acquired enough of a platform to make it necessary to consider the question at all. A cogently-argued alternative view can be found here.

As always the Daily Mash captures the mood of the nation - the huge TV audience the show will no doubt attract won't be people keen to see democracy in action or people taking a genuine interest in the BNP's policies, it'll be people hoping Griffin comes on in full Nazi regalia and starts denying the Holocaust or calling Baroness Warsi a Paki on live TV.

quotes of the day

In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
Thomas Jefferson
There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dares not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.
Bertrand Russell (found here). Incidentally Russell was born in Trellech in Monmouthshire, which makes him eligible for nomination as today's Welshman Of The Day.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ludo: game over

Today's notable death of someone I didn't even know was still alive: broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, who was 89 (actually, about a fortnight short of his 90th birthday).

I'm too young, fresh-faced and cherubically innocent to remember Kennedy's heyday as a broadcaster (which was in the late 1950s and early 1960s on news and current affairs programmes like This Week and Panorama); my only recollections of seeing him on television are of the rather gentler TV review and discussion show Did You See..? in the 1980s.

But he was also a long-standing campaigner against miscarriages of justice, one of the prime movers in getting the UK death penalty abolished in the 1960s, in later years a campaigner for a sensible policy on voluntary euthanasia, and a vocal humanist and atheist and author of All In The Mind: A Farewell To God in 1999, thereby scooping Dawkins, Harris and the like by about 7 years. All of which makes him a Good Bloke in my book.

From a family of sport and games enthusiasts, he is survived by his brothers Cluedovic and Judovic Kennedy, and his sister Jengavic Kennedy.

Monday, October 19, 2009

damsons in distress

Second instalment of the great pre-Christmas drink brewing extravaganza: damson gin. I won't go into the recipe in great detail as it's already available here: basically this year's batch comprised three two-litre jars, each loaded with about 600g of damsons, 200g of sugar and a litre of gin.

Give it a couple of months and it should be ready to decant. Also, the gin-soaked damsons can be made into a crumble, though one somewhat hazardous to human health, what with the alcohol content and all, plus the ever-present danger of someone sparking up a cigarette and the resulting fireball taking out most of the street.

step AWAY from the pork chops

We've had kosher telephones. We've had kosher light switches. This week's contenders for the prize for extreme religious silliness are as follows:
  • The kosher lift.
  • The kosher fridge - what makes these fridges special is that they come with a "Sabbath Mode" capability which can be engaged by those concerned about desecrating the sanctity of the Sabbath while reaching for a pint of milk. Basically it's a sort of stealth mode where the light doesn't come on when you open the door, the compressor doesn't try to compensate for the inevitable rise in temperature when you open the door, etc. etc. I like to imagine that it's engaged by flicking a big switch whereupon a siren and big flashing yellow lights come on, a big rumbly computer voice intones "SABBATH MODE ENGAGED", and then the fridge settles down to a low hum, refuses to dispense anything except unleavened bread and gefilte fish, and keeps reminding you to phone your mother.
Of course even if you do manage to get hold of the milk without desecrating the Sabbath in any one of the myriad available ways, you still need a kosher kettle to make a cup of coffee. At which point you should probably seek professional assistance - fortunately much advice on kosher kitchen design is available, most of it entirely insane.

Friday, October 16, 2009

you disgust me

Couple of follow-ups (follows-up? I dunno) to the previous posts which may be of interest:
  • Ralph Lauren have taken the criticism of the doctored Filippa Hamilton photo on board and have responded in a measured and sensitive manner by....firing Filippa Hamilton for being too fat. Just as an experiment I fed the figures (5 feet 10 inches, 120 pounds) quoted in that article into an online Body Mass Index calculator, and it returned a calculated BMI of 17.2. So it's true, she is a BIG FAT HEIFER.
  • In response to being threatened following the initial blog post, Photoshop Disasters have dug up another alarming-looking Ralph Lauren advert from the archives.
  • In a related story, Karl Lagerfeld offers us the benefit of his considered opinion on the skinny models question, presumably having come to the conclusion that being a freakish wizened 76-year-old gay man in black leather fingerless gloves makes him some sort of expert on what makes a woman desirable. And his opinion is, basically, if you have any objection to the use of skinny models then you're just jealous and you should shut your big fat sweaty disgusting gob, pie-face, and for God's sake stay indoors on the sofa where no-one can see you, you disgusting wobbly oaf.
  • The Daily Mash has the latest on the Trafigura affair, and in particular the legal furore following "its decision to hose down some Africans with a big boat full of shit".

Thursday, October 15, 2009

surely the firestarter should be getting cremated?

There's an entertaining interview with The Prodigy in this month's Q magazine, wherein Keith Flint outlines his plans for the steps to be taken in the event of his death.

Firstly, he wants to be "buried with my arse sticking out of the ground, so people can park their bike, they plug their bike in and it plays Firestarter". And his preferred epitaph? "He Was Such A Cunt".


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

apple-y ever after

This year's festive fruit drink: apple brandy. We got a big bag of apples from Hazel's parents last weekend, and I can't be arsed making the jelly again (it never quite set properly anyway). So I thought: Calvados is quite nice, so let's try something vaguely similar. I assume that something akin to the sloe gin method will probably work, so here's the method, in the style of one of Gordon Ramsay's recipe interludes:





don't mention the toxic waste; I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it

As if prompted by my musings on the Streisand effect yesterday we were presented with an even more sweet and juicy example yesterday with the unbelievably foolish and farcical attempt by oil company Trafigura, via their solicitors Carter-Ruck, to gag the press from reporting on a parliamentary question to be asked that day in relation to the report (available via Wikileaks here) produced following the enquiry into illegal dumping of toxic waste materials at Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.

I can only assume that the pinstripe-and-braces brigade at Carter-Ruck spend more time eating spotted dick and drinking port in their clubs than they do engaging with the real world, for within a predictably short space of time the whole thing, naming names and all, was all over the internet, and the Twittersphere in particular. The predictable upshot of which is that a) they had to back down and withdraw the injunction and b) everyone has now heard of Trafigura and knows that there is a strong probability that they are unscrupulous lying bastards. Not really a PR triumph.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

wear our clothes and look like....yikes

The amusing controversy over the extraordinary Photoshop job someone at Ralph Lauren did on already pretty skinny (though not actually a scary enormo-headed stick-insect alien in real life) model Filippa Hamilton seems to have made it into the papers, including the Daily Mail and the Irish Independent. This allows me to do two things:
  • Firstly, link to the always amusing Photoshop Disasters blog where the image was first posted, before BoingBoing picked it up and ran with it.
  • Secondly, cite this as another example of the Streisand Effect as previously noted here and here - Ralph Lauren's lawyers might have imagined that getting all DMCA on both Photoshop Disasters and BoingBoing's respective asses would have helped cover their embarrassment, but they couldn't have been more wrong. PD's ISP (Google) caved in immediately, but BoingBoing just responded with further mockery, which inevitably exposed the whole episode to a larger audience. (I gather BoingBoing's ISP being based in Canada rather than the USA is significant here, but IANAL, as you know. Chilling Effects has useful info if you're getting hassled by The Man.)

Friday, October 09, 2009

the last book I read

A Fringe Of Leaves by Patrick White.

It's 1836, and Ellen Roxburgh and her husband Austin have travelled from England to Tasmania to visit Austin's brother Garnet. It turns out the reason that Garnet is in Australia in the first place is after being banished for some unspecified "indiscretion" back in England. The likely nature of this "indiscretion" becomes clear when Garnet and Ellen have a brief but sexually charged encounter in a woody glade after Ellen falls off her horse.

Unsettled by the incident, Ellen arranges their departure from Garnet's house and eventually the Roxburghs board the ship Bristol Maid for their passage back to England. Some further back-story is provided: Austin is an sickly chap with a heart condition and is also quite a bit older than his young wife (I would guess fifteen, maybe twenty years); Ellen was not born into high society but started life as Ellen Gluyas, a Cornish farm-girl.

A few days into the voyage disaster strikes - the ship hits some submerged rocks and starts taking on water. The crew and passengers abandon ship for the longboats and set off for shore, which they reach after a journey of several days and some loss of life; a handful of crew members and also the baby Ellen Roxburgh was carrying.

On reaching dry land the survivors soon discover their troubles aren't over - most of them (including Austin Roxburgh) are immediately speared to death by the native Aborigines; Ellen herself is stripped naked and taken prisoner. Over the days that follow she is gradually accepted by the tribe and allowed to participate in some of the tribal rituals, including a spot of cannibalism. At a corroboree with some other tribal groups Ellen meets another white person, escaped convict Jack Chance, and the pair slip away into the sand dunes and escape. The pair flee across country in a bid to return to civilisation. Before they can do this they have to survive, though, and alone, naked, hungry, in unfamiliar territory, inevitably - hey - one thing leads to another. Well, you've got to keep warm, haven't you?

Eventually a white settlement is sighted - but just as redemption seems in sight for both of them, Jack panics (presumably fearing being re-imprisoned or executed) and flees back into the forest, leaving Ellen to return to civilisation alone. Which she does, and is sympathetically provided for by the locals, but finds it hard to re-adjust, and to decide which of the many Ellens she should be - the simple farm-girl, the gracious lady, or the sensual forest nymph with the gathering of the roots and the carefree rutting on the riverbank and so on. As the novel ends Ellen is on another (hopefully more seaworthy) ship bound for England with these questions still seemingly unresolved, though maybe a few weeks at sea with that nice Mr Jevons the wealthy merchant who also seems to be on board will help....

Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973; this is one of his later books (published in 1976). It's based on a true story, that of Eliza Fraser, after whom Fraser Island is named. It's also reminiscent of several other books, including Strandloper which was also based on a true story (that of William Buckley), but also Matthew Kneale's English Passengers with its 19th-century Tasmanian setting and lengthy periods spent at sea, and Rodney Hall's The Second Bridegroom for the theme of the white man "going native" among the Aborigines. Other novels I'd recommend (just to be clear, I'd recommend A Fringe Of Leaves as well) by Australian authors where the Australian landscape itself features as a major character include:

herta feelings

Just to complete the literary awards round-up, the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Herta Müller. No, me neither. Not that I am any sort of expert on German literature - I can think of Heinrich Böll, Herman Hesse (both former Nobel laureates themselves) and W.G. Sebald (here, for instance) that I've read stuff by, but that's about it.

So I can't pronounce with any authority on her literary works,but I can tell you that her frankfurters are excellent. I don't eat yoghurt, so I can't help you there.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

mantel piece

I see Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize (it's now the Man Booker Prize, strictly) for 2009 - she was the heavy favourite throughout the run-up to the announcement, though apparently there is a bit of a history of favourites not winning in recent years.

The book, Wolf Hall, is a 650-page historical epic about Henry VIII's sidekick Thomas Cromwell; by all accounts a fairly sympathetic portrayal, contrasting with his portrayal (by Leo McKern, aka Rumpole of the Bailey - on the right in the picture) as a weaselly Machiavellian schemer in the classic 1966 film A Man For All Seasons. Just as an aside, the first time I saw A Man For All Seasons was when I was about 9 years old; it was shown to us at Bandung International School in Bandung, Java which I attended between late 1978 and early 1980. What the motivation was in showing a film covering some fairly complex religious and political matters and ending with the principal character getting his head cut off to a class of 9-year-olds of assorted nationalities I have no idea. I assume they just needed to fill a 2-hour lesson slot after running out of teachers, or something like that, and perhaps it was the only thing they could find. If you haven't seen the film, then a) you should, and b) have a look at the clips here, here and here.

Anyway, while I'm probably not going to be rushing out and reading Wolf Hall (both the length and the subject matter are a bit off-putting, though the Henry VIII era does have an awful lot of entertaining beheading action), I'm sure it's very good. There is perhaps a sense of this being one of those occasions where the Booker is being awarded for a body of work rather than a particular book, though, rather like when actors like Paul Newman get Oscars late in their careers for relatively undistinguished films. Looking at the list of past winners I'd say this applies to:
  • possibly John Banville in 2005
  • probably Margaret Atwood in 2000
  • definitely Ian McEwan in 1998
  • possibly Graham Swift in 1996
  • possibly Penelope Lively in 1987
  • probably Kingsley Amis in 1986
  • possibly William Golding in 1980
The two Hilary Mantel books I have read are Fludd, which is a slightly odd, short and blackly comic novel involving priests, and An Experiment In Love, which is a more orthodox girls at university coming-of-age novel. Both good without being massively startling or memorable, I'd say. Just to do the obscure award-spotting bit, Fludd won the charmingly-named Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize in 1989 (my list goes: 1983, 1989, 1998) and An Experiment In Love won the 1996 Hawthornden Prize, as already noted here.

Monday, October 05, 2009

at it like bonobos

Just a quick footnote to the stuff about our trip to Bruges in this earlier post: I meant to mention that we'd stayed in the Bonobo Aparthotel for the three nights we were there. A few things which may be of interest:
  • It's very conveniently located near the centre of the city, almost under the tower of the Church of Our Lady, which unfortunately was clad in some unsightly scaffolding while we were there. Then again if it was keeping it from falling down and killing everyone I suppose it was for the best.
  • You can book the individual apartments either on a completely self-catering basis (as we did) or with the usual hotel-style add-ons like bed-making and breakfast (for a few extra euros).
  • Your hosts Hans and Magda are very welcoming, and speak excellent English, as does pretty much everyone in Bruges. One of the advantages of Bruges for the lazy Anglophone is that there's no expectation that the casual tourist will be able to speak the principal language, i.e. Flemish, so everyone just converses in English by default. Our boat-driver for our sightseeing trip round the canals managed to conduct commentary in English, Dutch (of which Flemish is a dialect) and French, which was quite impressive.
  • I have no idea what the significance of the name "Bonobo" is; clearly it's not as if actual bonobos habitually roam the streets of Bruges, swinging from the lamp-posts, drinking Leffe and eating waffles. It did occur to me to wonder whether perhaps this was a coded reference to the bonobo's legendarily indiscriminate sexual habits (image is from here), and that I should therefore infer that the hotel was a hotbed of Chimay-crazed wife-swapping and mayonnaise-smeared group sex. Sadly not.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

run for the hills

Couple of smallish photo galleries - both from walks I've taken myself off on on the last couple of weekends. Nice though it is to have a couple of weekends at home after the various gallivanting around we've been doing over the last month or so, I get a bit stir crazy if I can't go and burn off some energy by climbing a hill.
  • Firstly, Mynydd Machen; this is a mile or so south of Risca, which in turn is about 4 miles west of Newport. I parked at the car park for the Sirhowy Valley Country Park, just off the A467 here. From there I walked up the hill onto Mynydd Machen, via some interesting old mining spoil heaps and a section of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Footpath - the summit has an unexpected trig point on it; unexpected to me anyway as my OS map doesn't show it. Details here, photo here. Full photo gallery is here.
  • Secondly, Mynydd Margam - this is over near Port Talbot, just off junction 38 of the M4. Hazel had an assignment photographing people doing the Go Ape! challenge (in aid of the Stroke Association) at the new course in Margam Country Park, so I tagged along and fired off up the hill like a loony while she was doing that. Unfortunately it rained most of the way up which was a bit of a pain; in addition to that the trig point on top of Mynydd Margam is far from easy to find, being as it is a couple of hundred yards off the forestry track in the middle of a treacherous wasteland of half-concealed ankle-breaking logs, grassy tussocks and pine saplings. You know that kind of shit isn't going to stop me bagging it, though, any more than the persistent horizontal drizzle is going to. Details here, photo here. Full photo gallery is here.

youtube clip of the day

It's Claude Lelouch's notorious 1976 short film C'était un rendez-vous, which is essentially a berserk 8-minute drive through Paris from somewhere out on the Périphérique to the Basilique du Sacré Cœur in Montmartre at hideously unsafe speeds. Apparently it was filmed in the early hours of the morning to avoid most of the traffic, though as you'll see there are a few near-misses with delivery vans, pedestrians and other cars. The opening titles make the claim that no camera trickery or speeding-up of the footage was done, on that basis some people have tried to calculate the actual speeds involved. It's emerged since that while the footage is real, the car involved was one of these (driven by Lelouch himself), while the manual gear-shift noises on the soundtrack were dubbed in later from one of these. The route taken is mapped here. Anyway, here it is:

In similar vein, here's London to Brighton in three-and-a-half minutes.

Friday, October 02, 2009

it's too whisky-y for crows

The exact rules governing my whisky-buying habits have yet to be formalised, as the whole process is still in its infancy, and I reserve the right to make them up as I go along anyway. Two rules I do broadly adhere to though are:
  • It's got to be on special offer for me to seriously contemplate buying it, the more money off the better of course
  • If it's a proper single malt I like the look of and it's under £20, then I'll almost certainly snap it up.
Having applied these rules to the whisky section in Sainsbury's on the way home from work this evening (it being Friday probably helped) I ended up walking out with a bottle of Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve at the bargain price of £19.49 (it's normally about £28). Not to be confused with Kia-Ora, though of course that was "Reserve" in a sense as well, in that it was just for me and my dawg.

If Dr. Whisky is to be believed (and I'm sure he is) this stuff differs from the standard 12-year-old Glenfiddich by being finished in casks that previously held Islay whisky, which adds a bit of dark smokiness to what's normally a pretty light and citrusy whisky. It's almost certain that the first single malt I ever sampled was a Glenfiddich 12yo, as it happens, as my parents' drinks cupboard used to have a bottle in it (which I suspect may have originally belonged to my grandfather), and I'm pretty sure I would have tried it on one of our occasional raiding trips while Mum & Dad were out.

Anyway, taste-wise it's lightly smoky and less sweet than you might imagine from sniffing it. You know that fruit cake you make by soaking the fruit in cold tea? It's a bit like that. In terms of the previous ones in this series, if you were to mix equal quantities of Highland Park and Glenmorangie together you'd get something not unlike this, without being quite as nice as either one individually.

It's easy to be all sniffy about Glenfiddich, as they make and sell an absolutely insane quantity of whisky worldwide, far more than any other single malt manufacturer, but the whisky itself is perfectly fine. You could argue that there's an inevitable all-things-to-all-men blandness to the product to avoid offending their enormous market's sensibilities that the smaller distilleries don't have to worry about, and you might be right, but, you know, some days you want a bit of Napalm Death, and some days you just want to listen to Rumours. And it was Glenfiddich who pioneered the sale of single malt whisky as a premium product, so all the other distilleries owe them a high five. And the triangular bottles are pretty cool.

And if I hadn't put "glenfiddich" into the YouTube search box I would never have found this hilarious series of videos of two guys enjoying whisky and cigars together. Just, you know, two regular guys....