Tuesday, 28 October 2008

leopard man

The cat who came in from the cold: After 20 years living in a remote and derelict stone cottage without electricity, the famed tattooed 'leopard man of Skye' has moved into a flat. He tells Neil Stephen why, at 73, life in the wild finally lost its charm
- Guardian, 28 October. I'd never heard of this fellow.

ross and brand fuss

Our idiotic, coarse Auntie: Ross and Brand's oafish style defiles the airwaves, and to say so is no sop to the authoritarian right
- John Harris in the Guardian, 28 October

sinister presidents

Revealed: The leftist plot to control the White House.
Amid the many conspiracy theories swirling around the US presidential race - Barack Hussein Obama's Islamist takeover, say, or John "Bush" McCain's plans to steal the election - a truly sinister confluence of events has largely gone unnoticed. Some see the devil's hand at play in an election that, whatever the outcome, will see America make a a fundamental shift, not from right to left, but from right-handed to left-handed. Both Obama and McCain are sinistral - lefties to you and me - in contrast to the present incumbent of the Oval office. One of them will be the fourth left-handed president out of the five past holders of the world's most powerful office, a fact that has intrigued neurologists and confounded probability theorists.
Obama or McCain will become the 44th US president, and within that distinguished company will be the eighth known to be left-handed. The victor will become the sixth lefty out of 12 presidents since the end of the second world war, stretching back to Harry Truman. The other postwar lefties-in-chief are Gerald Ford, the ambidextrous Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton. Since 1974 the only right-handed presidents have been Jimmy Carter and the outgoing Bush. Roughly one in 10 of the population is left-handed, so to have four out of five recent incumbents in the top job drawn from that group is striking: the probability is 0.00009. Some statisticians would say it is just a coincidence that over time will be evened out. Certainly, the prevalence has been lower among the 12 postwar British prime ministers; only two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, were left-handed.
- Guardian, 24 October

guardian belief

The Guardian has introduced a new Belief strand in their Comment Is Free section.

Andrew Brown introduces it in his article, 'Religion: the resurrection. Not long ago, organised faith seemed to be on its last legs. Now it is again a force to be reckoned with.'

He also writes on the bus adverts - 'Atheism: still less popular than donkeys. But the bus ad campaign signifies that many feel increasingly threatened by other people's religion'.

the feylin phenomenon

The Feylin phenomenon: When Sarah Palin entered the election race, Tina Fey's success was guaranteed. Her uncanny impersonations on Saturday Night Live have turned her into a household name.
- Guardian, 21 October. As if everything else about Sarah Palin wasn't enough, she has to look exactly like Tina Fey.

more on the atheist bus ads

Daily Telegraph article of Friday 24 October; Nick Spencer Daily Telegraph blog entry of 21 October; Mary Kenny Guardian column of 24 October.

As ever, the charmless tail of comments to be avoided (also as ever, no correlation between charmlessness and opinion held).

Monday, 27 October 2008

charlie brooker's latest

So, you think it's funny to laugh at irritating celebrities when their lives fall apart, do you?
- Charlie Brooker's column in today's Guardian, reflecting at least partly on whether his own approach has contributed to such harsh unkindness as he writes about.

Key extract:
I couldn't quite work out which was worse - the fact that they'd written this ['a comic mock-news article a reader sent in, concerning Kerry Katona's already-notorious appearance on This Morning'] in the first place, or the assumption that I, specifically, would find it funny. Having poured countless buckets of deliberately puerile abuse over people for several years, to the point where I've developed RSI, I figured I only had myself to blame. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps I'm mellowing in my old age, or perhaps I've grown 15% more human, but kicking real people when they're down doesn't really activate my chuckle cells.

Sure enough, Katona's apparent meltdown - assuming her slurring performance was a meltdown and not, as she claimed, a reaction to antidepressants - became "YouTube material" within minutes of the broadcast. And although many of the comments underneath expressed concern or pity, there were plenty of cackles too. "Haaaaaa haaaaaa haaaaaa," wrote one warm-hearted chum of humanity, because a simple "Ha ha ha" just wouldn't suffice.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

folk club visits

In June I went down to Tooting to Court Sessions, which had relocated since my last visit to the function room upstairs at The Selkirk. Lauren McCormick and Emily Portman were performing, and were good; I knew them as two-thirds of The Devil's Interval, whose song The Cuckoo I'd heard on a cover CD, and I bought the Devil's Interval CD on the night. I also sang Highland Lament.

The last Tuesday in September I went to Sharp's, which was another singers night, which was enjoyable as ever. It was a bit thinner on the ground than often in the second half, so Jim who was chairing it said that folk could sing two songs if they liked, and I think most people did. In the first half I sang Highland Lament. In the second half I sang I Know My Love (though I only knew two verses and there's at least a third which folk were ready to join in with, perhaps thinking I'd just forgotten how it went rather than didn't know it. I also had a go at Stop The Cavalry, in a spirit of adventure and experiment, since I think it's an anti-war folk song disguised as a Christmas novelty hit; I'm not sure they were convinced. I'm trying to be more sociable, now that I've been a few times, though irregularly, and start talking to people, and did a bit. I'm also planning to try to go along more often. It's a friendly and warm-hearted place, not at all stiff as one might fear the EFDSS club might be.

And this Tuesday I was at Sharp's again, when the guest performer was Steve Turner, who was good. I had just started reading The Great Push by Patrick MacGill that day - the 'navvie poet', apparently, this was his account of his experience in the Battle of Loos. I picked it up secondhand in Lewis in the summer; so far it's good when it's straightforward, less so when it's being 'poetic'. The first chapter was prefaced by one of his poems:

Now when we take the cobbled road
We often took before,
Our thoughts are with the hearty lads
Who tread that way no more.

Oh !boys upon the level fields,
If you could call to mind
The wine of Café Pierre le Blanc
You wouldn't stay behind.

But when we leave the trench at night,
And stagger neath our load,
Grey, silent ghosts as light as air
Come with us down the road.

And when we sit us down to drink
You sit beside us too,
And drink at Café Pierre le Blanc
As once you used to do.

I noticed it was common metre, so I sang it, reading it from the book, to the tune Kilmarnock, which seemed to fit quite well. Common metre is also known as ballad metre; I read an interesting bit somewhere online, can't find it now, which if I remember rightly indicated that posh church music had shunned the 'common' folk metres, but the more populist nonconformist Protestant hymn-writers and psalm-translators embraced them. This is why you can sing so many psalms and hymns to traditional tunes like House of the Rising Sun.

Friday, 24 October 2008

stephen king's god trip

Stephen King's God trip: On the 30th anniversary of "The Stand," the novelist confesses what haunts him about religion and today's politics.
- interesting interview, dated 23 October, in Salon with Stephen King. I read The Stand long ago and enjoyed it, as I've enjoyed most of his novels that I've read (although I abandoned, very long ago, his cowrite with Peter Straub) - I read them all, in order, up to a point; then stopped for a few years, and resumed more slowly a few years ago, still in order of course. I'm not sure I can bring myself to read the extended version of The Stand, though. There's a lot less of life left than there was.

busy families

The time of their lives ...: Tennis at 3.30pm, riding at 5pm, then hockey. Wake up and it's guitar at 9am, then drama, rugby and gymnastics ... Elizabeth McFarlane talks to three families who are so busy they barely have time to breathe. Why on earth do they do it?
- Guardian, Saturday 11 October

guardian cartoon

The Saturday Guardian magazine cartoons have been almost uniformly humourless in all the years I've read it, but this Saturday there was one in the food section on Saturday which was good. Little bits of fruit, possibly mincemeat, in a background of varying browns, and one piece is saying, 'Everyone, please remain calm! We're just trying to establish whether we're in a jam or a pickle here.' I might take it to work.

hoggart column bits

I went to the party to launch Alan Coren's posthumous collection Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks (his line was that Switzerland was famous mostly for chocolate and snow, both of which melt, so they had to invent the cuckoo clock to allow people to buy souvenirs). There I ran into Andy Hamilton, who is touring the country with his Hat Of Doom show. He told me a true story which he's incorporated into the act. He was on a crowded and sweaty tube train, when a truly ugly customer got on. Shaven head, aggressive expression, tattoo round his neck - the lot. He squeezed next to Andy, who is very short, and began bellowing down his mobile phone: "Gary, I'm going to kill you, you fucking [very bad word indeed]!"

Andy felt this was pretty intolerable, "so I decided to see if humour would work. I said, 'excuse me, but this is a very crowded train. Would you mind threatening your friend in a slightly lower tone of voice?' He gave me a look, and I thought I'd really let myself in for it. But instead he picked up the phone again and whispered into it 'Gary, I'm going to kill you, you fucking [same very bad word indeed]!'"

Other people I've run into this week include an American chap who has lived in Britain for some time, but is still on the voting register back home. "People keep telling me that John McCain spent five years in a Vietnamese prison," he said. "Well, so did Gary Glitter, and I'm not voting for him either."

- two bits from Simon Hoggart's Guardian column of Saturday 18 October.

The temptation to try to catch up using the online archive of favourite columnists and features in newspapers and magazines - the Guardian alone gives Simon Hoggart on Saturday, the readers editor columns, Charlie Brooker and the Saturday Review - is great, but life is short.

humph's scriptwriter remembers

The joke's on me: Humphrey Lyttelton was a born comedian - but even he had a script. Iain Pattinson the man who wrote the gags for I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, recalls his razor-sharp wit
- Guardian, Mon 20 October

secret tunnels

100ft down, the capital's cold war warren gives up its final secrets: Workers shed light on maze of tunnels that housed MI6 and the transatlantic hotline
- Guardian, Saturday 18 October. Tunnels under Chancery Lane and High Holborn area. The online article comes with a video.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

matt santos and barack obama

Haven't we seen this election before? The Obama v McCain race for the White House has been run before - NBC's The West Wing pitted a charismatic, non-white Democrat against a maverick, experienced Republican.
- BBC magazine, 15 September. They did indeed draw on Obama for Matt Santos, it says.

jon stewart

How a satirist became America's most influential TV personality: He started out as a comedian on the fringes of TV but now US politicians and presidential candidates are desperate to be interviewed by him. David Smith charts the rise of Jon Stewart - and asks if he might yet play a crucial role in this year's election
- Observer, 14 September. I continue to marvel at the excellence of the Daily Show.

chris hoy

Olympics: Success will not change humble Hoy: Cycling's triple gold medallist is bewildered by his newfound celebrity
- Guardian interview-based article, 24 August. Best quote:

Next day, Hoy meets some Scottish journalists. One puts it to him that: 'In the last 24 hours everyone has been offering an opinion on Chris Hoy. But what does Chris Hoy think of Chris Hoy?'
Hoy doesn't miss a beat: 'Chris Hoy thinks that the day Chris Hoy refers to Chris Hoy in the third person is the day that Chris Hoy disappears up his own [bum - I shall say, ever coy].'

arsene's retirement

"I used to promise my wife I would retire at 55. Then I got to 55 and said 'Make that 60'. Now I don't speak about it any more."
Mrs Wenger won't be going on that six-month cruise any time soon.
- from the BBC's sports quotes of the week, 30 September

private eye cartoons

One fairy says to another, 'If you don't believe in banks, they die.'

The man at the foot of the stairs asks the woman at the top of the stairs, 'How did it go at the risk assessment course?' Every step of the staircase has 'mind the step' written on it.

shakespeare is one of us

An interesting book review from Christianity Today's Books & Culture, a review of Godless Shakespeare by Eric Mallin. Funnily enough I was just talking the other day to someone about how Shakespeare is one of those people/things which everyone claims as their own, as being one of their group (including Christians). It's also interesting just how little we know of him, and how precariously preserved his plays were, a striking contrast with Jesus and the Bible a millennium and a half earlier. Of course, it's equally extraordinary to us today the absence of documentary evidence - audio, photo or video, I mean - of Kennedy's assassination less than fifty years ago, just that one bit of home movie footage.

bus adverts

All aboard the atheist bus campaign: It's real, it's happening: you can sponsor the first atheist advert on a bus – and Richard Dawkins will match your money
- Guardian, 21 October (as ever, best not to spend too much time reading the comments). The slogan on the ads, it says, is going to be, 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life'.

It seems a funny idea. Dig that 'probably'. It's not exactly revolutionary; most bus adverts already are implicitly founded on a belief that there's probably no God. It's probably counter-productive, more likely to promote discussion about religion than anything else; better to let the implicit ads do their insidious work. It also suggests a curious belief that people who believe there probably is a God worry and don't enjoy life, while people who don't believe there is a God don't worry and do enjoy life; I'm not sure that thesis would stand up to much testing. Funny old world.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

radio times

The Radio Times regularly surprises you with interesting titbits. This week I learn that Sherilynn Fenn is Suzi Quatro's niece. Also that part of the inspiration for Alien was a parasitic wasp which lays its eggs inside a caterpillar; the larvae eventually eat their way out of the live caterpillar, they patch up its skin, and the caterpillar then spins a cocooon to protect them.

And that Harry Hill's TV Burp, which is back this week, hurray, is put together not by a team of researchers who divide up the week's soap operas, reality tv shows and so on between them and then bring gems from their programmes, but by Harry and the team of four writers who will all watch all the soap operas, reality tv shows and so on and then compare notes (by videoing clips as they go, since they view them all on preview tapes). Their workload's going to increase because the BBC are letting them use their stuff now. He says, 'It's quite a painful process because there's no limit to the amount you can watch. If you've got workaholic tendencies, you can always say, "Yeah, I've got an hour to spare. I'll watch another Wife Swap." It's very boring for my wife. She sits in the kitchen a lot of the time.'

He also says, 'The fact I was once a doctor hasn't been much use in my career. It's a nightmare in taxis. Cabbies either want to tell you a joke or what's wrong with them. And I was on a flight back from Amsterdam recently when an announcement went out asking if there was anyone medically qualified onboard as a passenger was ill. So I get up and as I walk down the plane, the passengers are shouting, "Go on, Harry, sort it out!" The guy was on drugs and having some kind of panic attack, but luckily another doctor was already there. I don't know what would have happened if the guy had come round to see me standing over him.'

As the article says, the comedy of TV Burp is always warmhearted, and also very family-friendly (which is partly, but not simply, code for clean), which Harry Hill pretty much always is, and which explains why such a surreal comedian is filling ninety minutes of Saturday evening family teatime viewing, with You've Been Framed and TV Burp back to back.

The fact that we get Radio Times rather than another tv listings magazine of course marks us out as hopelessly old-fashioned and middle class.

And an acerbic little preview of Ricky Gervais's Fame: 'Gervais's inveterate boasting is loosely the theme of his third stand-up show, which is again well below the quality of other big-venue comics. As well as celebrity, he covers rape, autism and famine, breaking taboos just for schoolboy kicks. "One false move and I'm Jim Davidson!" Well, quite.'

Friday, 17 October 2008

new robert johnson photo

Tipped off by the Word podcast, this Vanity Fair article is about the apparent discovery of a third photograph of Robert Johnson. Look at those scary fingers.

I do enjoy the Word podcast, especially when Mark Ellen is on, who always sounds so happy and good-natured. Imagine if he'd been the member of Ugly Rumours who became prime minister. David Hepworth would have to be his chancellor, still charming but with a steely business mind.

ringo's autographs

Poor Ringo got a lot of stick this week for giving fans a deadline after which he wouldn't sign autographs on anything sent to him for signing, but I think the extraordinary thing is the idea that up until now it's been possible for fans to do that at all and get something back. Famous people are in a cleft stick about autographs, really; and so many of them just get sold on.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

electric elephant

Our local councillor Caroline opens our new local cafe, Electric Elephant. I went in for the first time today.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

saving penalties

Fact: Goalkeepers dive too often for penalties, as opposed to standing still, which is more effective
Fact or fiction? 'Form' in football: Always back a striker in form to score... or should you? A new book explodes some of the widely held beliefs about the game, as Nick Harris discovers
- interesting article from Independent of 8 October. Most interesting section below - one which always seemed obvious to me, but interesting to see the specific dating of the 'innovation':

Fact: Goalkeepers dive too often for penalties, as opposed to standing still, which is more effective
Two German economists, Wolfgang Leininger and Axel Ockenfels, suggest that the very nature of the penalty kick altered when Johan Neeskens became the first player in a truly high-profile match – for the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup final – to shoot down the middle, as opposed to one side. He scored.
This "clever innovation" was then successfully replicated by Czechoslovakia's Antonin Panenka in the final of the 1976 European Championship.
To simplify a hugely complicated subject, the perception of the "penalty game" shifted from being two-strategy (left or right) to three (middle as well), and the theoretical chances of success for strikers rose. One study of 459 penalties in France and Italy from 1997-2000 (Chiappori et al, 2002), showed that kicking down the middle, on average, has the highest success rate, of 81 per cent, against 70.1 per cent success aiming to the right corner, and 76.7 per cent to the left. But the convention of "right or left" holds sway, generally. A separate study by two Israeli academics suggests staying in the centre of the goal might enhance a goalkeeper's chances of making a save.
In a study of 286 spot-kicks, they observed that goalkeepers who stayed in the middle saved a much higher proportion of kicks aimed at the middle compared to keepers making dives for shots placed to the sides. But to simplify again, numerous studies suggest an "action bias" in goalkeepers: they would rather move and fail to save than stay put and fail, even knowing that staying put might be a better strategy.

Monday, 13 October 2008

religion and politics

Christianity Today has recent articles on Obama (Preach and Reach: Despite his liberal record, Barack Obama is making a lot of evangelicals think twice.) and McCain (Talking the Walk: After years of ambiguity, Senator McCain reveals his spiritual side for public viewing. How will evangelicals respond?). (Don't sully your eyes with the awful readers comments on either.) The Obama article in particular covers similar ground to a R4 Choice podcast version of the first in a pair of documentaries, Soul and Skin, on religion and race in the presidential election.

Of course, to us Brits even the Democrats are fairly right-wing.

It's the traditional approach expressed - I'll vote right-wing because of their supposed more-Christian position on issues of personal morality while ignoring on the one hand their unChristian position on issues of public morality and on the other hand the absence of any implementation of said more-Christian positions during the years in which they are in power (ah yes, those glorious years 1979-97 in the UK and 2001-08 in the US when those nations became Christian paradises; what a lot of repealing of laws the left-wing had/will have to do when they got/get into power) (which is also the reason it's hard to take seriously all those kindhearted things the Tories say they would do if they were in charge, as if they've forgotten that not that long ago they were in power for eighteen years and had plenty opportunity to do those kinds of things and didn't).

The most interesting thing in the R4 documentary was the extent to which, unlike the Evangelicals, the Catholics are not a right-wing block vote, despite their very similar positions on the 'hot button' issues of personal morality. What about abortion, the interviewer asked; there's that, yes, said the lady from the Catholic political organisation, and there's also the fact that the pope and the US bishops declared clearly against the morality of the Iraq war, so you have to weigh everything up...

Politically, all quite different from things in the UK, as Ruth Kelly says in this Catholic Herald article of 3 October: 'It is difficult to be a Christian in politics these days. The public debate has become more secular and believers are portrayed as a bit odd. That doesn't reflect the reality in communities, where churchgoing and belief is considered normal.'

Saturday, 11 October 2008


I had to go to Zurich with work for a conference a few weekends ago, rather more exotic than my usual conference locations and my first time in Switzerland. Although the schedule was quite full, the venue was so central (the YMCA with attached hotel and chapel) and the city so small that I managed to get to see a lot of it. Our hotel was in a former industrial district, now revitalised into quite an arts/student area. The conference provided us with travel passes for the weekend, which made things much more relaxed about exploring as they had a good tram system and we could hop on and off without having to speak to anyone, although almost everyone I had cause to speak to spoke English (the conference itself was bilingual, German and English, with headsets for simultaneous translation, another first for me). It was an interesting place to wander about, with old areas and narrow streets on the slopes down to the river. It was an expensive place - at first I wondered if we were just hitting the touristy or rich areas, but we weren't. Eating was expensive, but buying from ordinary supermarkets for food and souvenirs helped the budget (I used up my remaining currency in the airport, where I spent quite a bit of time, as I felt I'd done Zurich justice and wouldn't feel relaxed until I got there - I got my Swiss music CD there - local music being my souvenir of choice - and most of my other gifts there or in the Coop supermarket or department store). I'd forgotten that Euro 2008 was partly in Switzerland until I saw tourist tat obviously left over from then. It wasn't just so much smaller than London, but much quieter and less busy also (on the Sunday morning before church the streets I wandered around in the centre were almost completely empty). The weather was warm when we got there on the Friday and gradually got cooler until it finally began to rain when we were on the plane ready to take off on Monday. As we came in over London and headed north-west and then east for City Airport, having come in up across south-east London , Duncan, Henk and I were all able to see our houses - I saw ours very clearly, we were really quite low at that point. Seeing the land from the air never ceases to be a pleasure.

Things I saw in Zurich. Some good large-scale graffiti (though this search hasn't thrown up much of it). Trams (the transport map was atrocious). The Industriequartier is where our hotel (Etap) was. On the Sunday evening we took a train up a hill to Uetliberg, with a hotel (where we had a meal) and a tower (which I climbed) with panoramic views over Zurich and the surrounding countryside. I visited Grossmunster, which was Zwingli's church. On Sunday morning we went to a service in Predigerkirche (pictures). The conference venue was just off the main, expensive, shopping street in the centre, Bahnhofstrasse. I saw, of course, Lake Zurich and the Limmat river (I crossed almost every bridge over it in the centre, one way or another).

I didn't go into any museums, galleries, theatres, or such, except the Opera House - of which more later.

All this of course revolutionises my memorabilia hoarding, since I can now dispense with pretty much all the Zurich-related maps and leaflets I picked up, instead of putting them in the pile of stuff in the cupboard. I'll be sorry when the internet implodes, but I'm sure that'll be the least of my worries then.

Friday, 10 October 2008

the globe academy

Ed Balls visits new Globe Academy on first day: Children's secretary Ed Balls visited SE1's newest school - the Globe Academy in Harper Road - on its very first day of term.
- London SE1, 12 September. The most interesting thing about that is that our borough is now the only one in the country which doesn't have any directly-controlled secondary schools - they're all faith schools or academies. The education system down here is a very different kettle of fish from the Scottish kettle in so many ways.

the island that tried to buy the world

The party's over for Iceland, the island that tried to buy the world: Almost overnight, its population became the wealthiest on Earth. Tracy McVeigh in Reykjavik finds that the credit crunch is making the cash disappear.
- Observer, 5 October

tube logo

A sequence of photos in the Guardian of 3 October showing the tube logo through the ages.

safe as houses

Safe as houses: When it was introduced almost 30 years ago, Right to Buy was hailed as 'one of the most important social revolutions of the century'. But far from seeing council estates transformed by their home-owning former tenants, it has led to fractured communities, the rise of exploitative landlordism and a lack of housing so severe that some councils are now trying to buy their old homes back. John Harris reports.
- Guardian, 30 September; interesting, surprisingly long article

women's work

It had not been a very satisfying day but then most of my days are the same: checking and cross-checking, filling in blanks, detail work that was absolutely essential to the job but scarcely dramatic stuff. The basic characteristics of any good investigator are a plodding nature and infinite patience. Society has inadvertently been grooming women to this end for years.
- p36, A is for Alibi, Sue Grafton

grafton, evanovich, cornwell and rankin

Earlier this year I read a double edition of Patricia Cornwell's first and third Kay Scarpetta novels, Postmortem and All That Remains (as with most Wikipedia crime story entries, watch out for plot details given away - Alibi below especially complete). I read somewhere her being credited for the interest in forensics that led to, for example, the CSI series. But the lead character was drawn very coldly and unsympathetically - perhaps deliberately, but it didn't make me want to read them or be very interested or engaged with them. Also the solutions came out of developments in evidence which came out of the blue to the reader, not things or people you could have thought of (or had necessarily even appeared) - there was no sense that you as the reader were putting the picture together or could get closer to the solution yourself, no sense of progress and unity in the story.

Today, coincidentally, I got in charity shops the second in two series of which I read the first this year - Janet Evanovich's Two For The Dough and Sue Grafton's B Is For Burglar. One For The Money was fine, and I thought I wouldn't be averse to reading another. A Is For Alibi was good, and I thought I'd probably go with more in the series; Sue Grafton was a screenwriter first, and it showed, it was very well structured, lean, everything mattered and contributed, you could imagine it being filmed (though Wikipedia says 'She has refused to sell the film and television rights to her books, as her time writing screenplays had "cured" her of the desire to work with Hollywood. Grafton has even threatened to haunt her children if they sell the film rights after she is dead.'). Conversely, Janet Evanovich started with romance novels; also conversely, 'Shortly before the book [One For The Money] was released, Evanovich sold the movie rights to Columbia Tristar for $1 million; as of 2007 no movie has been made'.

Also this year without realising I'd got so far I caught up with Inspector Rebus after starting late and read the last in the series this summer. it's interesting to see the raft of other early Ian Rankin novels, and how he used up so much back story in the first Rebus novel, and so to see how he hadn't planned or anticipated Rebus as a series that would take off. It reminds me of what Stephen King said happened around his third or fourth novel, where his agent or publisher stopped saying hopefully, 'your next one's not going to be another horror novel, is it' and started saying hopefully, 'your next one is going to be another horror novel, isn't it?'

september ansible

AS OTHERS SEE US II. A rare good word for sf: 'The science fiction "community", unlike most groups to which that word is attached, really is a community, and a good many of the people in it are charming and normal.' (Andrew McKie, _Telegraph_, 9 Aug) [TL]
Why _War with the Newts_ is underrated: 'Another problem is the annexation of [Karel] Capek by the science fiction community ... Keen to upgrade its image, science fiction apologists have displayed a propensity to aggrandize its domain, sticking the label on writers who have precious little to do with space opera or monster hide and seek.' (Peter Swirski, _From Lowbrow to Nobrow_, 2005) [ADH] That is: giant talking newts just aren't sf.

THOG'S MASTERCLASS. _Tripodal Stability Dept._ 'She crouched on a three-legged stool as if warming herself before the fire, but Will knew her chill would take more melting than that. He knelt down before her. The stool wobbled under her when he took her hands, the one leg shorter than the other that his father hadn't mended in fifteen years gone past.' (Elizabeth Bear, _Ink and Steel_, 2008) [CS]
- September Ansible

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

confessions of an rnc security guard

Confessions of an RNC security guard: From sushi-scarfing Secret Servicemen to drunken Sarah-Palin lust, witness the underside of the Republican shindig.
- Salon, 6 September. RNC being Republican National Congress.

Best line: 'In addition to my team of black-clad officers, there are hotel security personnel, Minneapolis police, an odd guardsman, state trooper or sheriff's officer, another squad of hired officers (from a different private firm), and members of the FBI, Capitol Police (in suits) and Secret Service (in nicer suits). If you include the Evangelicals, nearly every person at the RNC headquarters has a voice whispering in his ear.'

Monday, 6 October 2008

mystery worshipper

Sheena's blog tips us off that our congregation had a visit from the Mystery Worshipper this summer. Given the tendency there seems to be to more brutal MW reports, I think we came out of it okay.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

terrible things to hear your mother say to you

It is hard to make sense of the photograph on the cover of Janice Galloway's remarkable new book. A girl of about six is squashed between two women on a sofa. One looks too old to be her mother, the other too young. The older woman is placatory, the younger truculent, the girl anxious. Her mouth is pressed shut. In this picture, Janice Galloway sits between her sister Cora, 17 years her senior, and her mother, Beth, who had her at 40 thinking that her symptoms were the menopause. She later told the child repeatedly that had she known she was pregnant, "things would have been different".
- Guardian review of her childhood autobiography, Saturday 13 September 2008

the end of the world 2 - web

I had never heard of Web by John Wyndham before I picked it up secondhand in Shrewsbury earlier this year. It was published ten years after his death (first published in 1979, my copy a Penguin edition first published in 1980). (Interestingly, the biog at the start of the book indicates that he turned to science fiction later on, and that formerly, presumably among other things, he had written detective novels, which I've certainly never seen any of, although I saw a BBC documentary about him - Chris Langham was possibly playing him in the same way he did in one on George Orwell, speaking words he'd written - and remember something of this, and that he wrote under various names.)

As the blurb on the back says, 'a millionaire English lord dreams of founding a Utopian community on a remote Pacific island . . . but it is already inhabited. By a species programmed to resist and dominate any invader.' As the title and the cover indicate, it's spiders. It's a 'survival of the fittest' end of the world novel: the era of humans as the top creature in the world is coming to an end, because another species is evolving further - the spiders are learning to communicate and work together.

The Utopian society is interesting. On the one hand, because what it instantly makes you think of these days is a reality show - people responding to an advert and selected to go and live as a mixed group in isolation. On the other, because the lord's idealism of founding a new community free of things like religion is so ill-thought-out; he talks vaguely about his ideas and his aims but gives no idea of how it's actually going to get there in practice or what's expected of people either in terms of thoughts or actions - the people are a mixed bag and are taking themselves with them.

(Interestingly, in the lord's speech of explanation his starting point is, he says, the fact that God created man in his own image. The final quote from his speech, a couple of pages later: 'You are setting out to plant that seed ['the small seed of a great intention'] in a brave new world. To care for it and coax it until it produces fair, fresh, uncontaminated crops to sustain a new society liberated from superstition, purged of blind faiths and ignorant beliefs, freed at last from the cruelty, misery, and frustration that these things have plagued mankind with from time immemorial . . .' (p18).

On p53, this from the narrator on their sea voyage: '[The voyage] cleared my mind, and with consequences that were not altogether reassuring.
'It came, for instance, as a disconcerting discovery that it brought home to me that the provision of means and opportunity had not produced identical opinions on the ways to employ them. I seemed in my earlier, or lyric, phase to have been thinking with the naivety of an early socialist that all must love the highest rationality when they saw it. I began to perceive, as if for the first time, that rationality is not a constant - it varies subject to individual concerns and the pressures of personality - and as a consequence that our progress towards the formation of an ideal community might be less smooth and less selfless than I had envisaged.
'In fact, I became aware of my faculty of judgement stirring again, as if from hibernation.
'One of its effects was to make me increasingly conscious of the very general, not to say sketchy, nature of some of our intentions. The more I thought of the way we had taken the co-operation of everyone for granted, and failed to make provision for the settlement of disagreements, the more uneasy I became. I perceived the need of an authority for reference, established by consent and available for matters in dispute, as offering greater stability than ad hoc settlements.'

There's a longer quote later which I'll put in separately.)

It was an enjoyable read; everything of his I've read reads well, and this was certainly of equal quality to his lifetime-published stuff.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

the end of the world 1 - I am legend

Without planning it, I read in a few months earlier this year three novels which were all about the end of the world, in one way or another. The most recent of the three, I think, was I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

In fact I was reading it - a library copy - the day I went to the Amused Moose comedy club.

I remember that because it was a hot day and I thought I'd have to get something to drink, but knew if I got something in the club it would be small and expensive, so I first thought I could go to a newsagent and get something which would be cheaper, then I realised it would probably be cheaper still to go to the Tesco between Charing Cross Road and Covent Garden, which I did, and got a litre of Minute Maid orange juice for less than a pound. I was leaning on a pub across from Tesco which had a handy windowledge, drinking my juice and reading my library book, having a flashback to my early days in London when this was just the kind of thing I'd have done (including arriving far too early for whatever it was I was going to), when a guy walking past saw what I was reading and told me not to bother, that he hadn't got more than halfway through it.

I quite enjoyed it. The last man on earth bits were well done, his day to day living in particular. What was fascinating was how much of the book is virtually essay material, trying to create a scientific explanation for both vampirism in itself and the myths which had grown up around it. A longer, or more recent, novel would have spent much more time on the sequence at the end, on the new vampire society - this new stage/evolution in the history of man where the last non-vampire is the thing of horror (although I don't think he managed to convey the idea that he had become the 'legend' of the title convincingly). People today don't seem able to write short books, especially science fiction and fantasy.

I haven't seen either the recent Will Smith film of the book or the older Omega Man version with Charlton Heston; it's thanks to the former that I got to read the book in the end, as I'd been looking out for it for ages and the copy I read was a film-tie-in edition.

Wikipedia entries on the book, the author (I was interested to see in my copy that he'd also written The Incredible Shrinking Man - I see from this entry that he also wrote Duel and the famous Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), the new film (the most detailed entry) and the old film (I see there was an older film, which I don't think I'd heard of, an Italian production which starred Vincent Price and which seems from the plot summary to be the most faithful to the book).

The Wikipedia entry on Nightmare has a nugget which is good when you know that William Shatner starred in the original episode and John Lithgow played the same role in the Twilight Zone film: 'Parts of this episode's plot have been repeated and parodied several times in popular culture, including television shows, films, and music. For example, an episode of Lithgow's 3rd Rock from the Sun featured William Shatner as “The Big Giant Head”. Lithgow picks up Shatner at the airport and when Shatner mentions he saw something on the wing of the plane, Lithgow exclaims, “The same thing happened to me!”'

rapt in black and white

Rapt in black and white: Never mind a dummy - a new book offers another, less conventional, way to calm a fractious baby: a dose of contemporary art. Viv Groskop reports, while Rob Fearn gives his son a private viewing
- Guardian, Friday 26 September.

Best para:
Black and white picture books for newborns have been around for years - Lazenby always gives them to new parents as a present ("They say, 'Where's the cute teddy bear?'") - but this is the first time anyone has suggested babies might enjoy contemporary art. Although the project has a tongue-in-cheek feel (and is surely designed less for babies than for parents who want to get up to speed on contemporary art), as Stoppard puts it: "If you are going to introduce images to your baby, why not introduce very good ones?" Indeed, if you are going to put pictures up in the nursery, then why not a challenging Opie image instead of a hideous Teletubbies frieze? Perhaps putting a Malevich above the cot is no more pretentious than some faux vintage Babar poster. However, the project has limits, says Stoppard: "Will it encourage an artistic temperament? No. That is going way too far."

early christianity in lewis

Early Christianity In Lewis - The Ness Connection:
It is well-known that the Church in Lewis today is perhaps the strongest in the whole of the UK, dating from the advances made by evangelical Presbyterianism in the first half of the 19th century. But in this new illustrated booklet, Ian Stewart-Hargreaves claims that the island also has some of the earliest Christian sites in Scotland, established several centuries before the Columban church reached Iona in the sixth century. He believes the north of Lewis had pre-Christian ritual significance, that the Pictish Christian church became established there as early as the third century AD, and that Ness was the destination of a medieval pilgrimage route. The booklet also contains a paper by professional archaeologist Rachel Barrowman which looks dispassionately at the archaeological evidence for early Christianity in Ness. Altogether, a most thought-provoking publication, based on the successful Book Trust symposium held in September 2008.
- book summary from the Islands Book Trust site, picked up from a story in the Free Press

insufficient reasons for writing books

The Guardian had a set of free booklets on writing, each weekday in the last full week of September. A couple of nice paras from the first chapter of 'How to write books for children' (by Linda Newbery):

There are powerful reasons for wanting to write for children, but let's get rid of some that aren't likely to get you far.
I'm writing the next Harry Potter. You may think so; so do countless others. As Philip Pullman has put it, no one was looking for the first Harry Potter (nor for His Dark Materials). The best books often come as if from nowhere, not from an examination of market requirements. Publishers' lists reach at least two years into the future, and what you see as a hot trend may be nearing the end of its run.
I've written this short story and my friends say I should get it published. But why? You may be able to cook a reasonable pasta dish, but you don't therefore see yourself as rival to Gordon Ramsay or Nigella Lawson. Yet, for some reason, it's a common belief that any coherent piece of writing deserves publication. Publishing isn't a reward for effort; it's a business.

royal institution

Went to the Royal Institution (official and Wikipedia) today for a family day, which was really rather good. I'm sure I'd not heard of any events or exhibitions there before this year, but they're obviously in the middle of revamping their museum and going more overground. The bits of museum that are there already are fascinating. Michael Faraday gets a lot of mentions, local boy (born in Newington Butts - he's got a plaque on the library and a memorial in the northern roundabout), great experimenter and discoverer, and serious Christian. What a time it must have been to be a scientist, the 19th century, with so much to discover and experiment on in the everyday world, when the ordinary was still uncharted territory. A lot of Faraday's groundbreaking work was done in the basement where we were, and it was also good to be in the lecture theatre, which has seen lectures and presentations not just to the public - though that's an important part of their work - but to the scientific community; the kind of thing you see in films set in the 19th century where a scientist presents his new discovery or theory to a packed house. It was good just to see in the building itself.

We went to illustrated lectures on fireworks and illusions both optical and auditory. In rooms across three floors of the building they had interactive experiments of various kinds, many perhaps deliberately of the kind you could do at home - fingerprints, 3D bubbles, chromatography, alka seltzer rockets, balloon powered vehicles, and lots more. It's a paying museum, which we don't usually do these days, but we got our money's worth, and would go back for another family fun day - they don't do all the same experiments all the time. The cafe wasn't cheap but was okay; they've got a large restaurant which looks very expensive, as befits its location - they've obviously developed it as an income-generator in its own right.

private eye cartoons

From the current issue of Private Eye:

1. Two mums and small boy stand by fridge. Star chart on fridge has two columns for Jonny and Thomas. Jonny is doing well for stars in all the categories - tidy room, share things, eat nicely, help mummy - while Thomas only has one star for 'eat nicely'. Mum says to friend, 'Thomas? Oh - he's my husband'.

2. One-frame cartoon headed 'Nanny State update', containing three items each with signs attached: a goose which has laid a shiny egg with a sign round its neck saying 'Stop! Do *not* kill'; a hen roost full of eggs with a sign saying 'Warning! Wait for hatching before counting'; and a drain cover, with a sign saying 'Throw bathwater here', over which is a sieve-basket with a sign saying 'Baby catcher'.

Friday, 3 October 2008

new pressure over faith schools

New pressure over faith schools: Ministers are being urged to stop faith schools in England selecting pupils and staff on the basis of their religion. Accord, a new coalition of secular and religious figures, wants the government to stop state-funded schools engaging in what they say is "discrimination". It argues that all children should have equal access to good local schools and that segregating them on religious grounds harms community cohesion. The government argues faith schools can help boost standards in deprived areas. There are about 6,850 faith schools in England out of a total of 21,000 schools. The vast majority of these are Roman Catholic or Church of England. But they also include about 40 Jewish schools and a handful of Muslim, Sikh and Greek Orthodox schools.
- BBC, 29 August

bible style guide

'We need to take the Bible back from the bigots': A modern new guide to the Bible aims to improve religious affairs journalism
- Independent, 8 September


I used to look at the Found website regularly; haven't for ages; here's a Guardian article on its origins, and a set of examples.


Bible study and the Gideons - Interesting article from the Economist of 9 September

bank robber recruits gang online

The Yahoo News headlines on my email homepage rarely draw me in, however tempting, and when I do click they rarely live up to the headline, but this one did:

Bank robber finds getaway on Craigslist: A man is being sought after he successfully used Craigslist to cover up a bank robbery. He posted an advert on the popular classified web site offering landscaping work on a road maintenance project in Monroe, Washington for $28.50 an hour. One man who contacted the advertiser about work was told to meet the rest of the crew outside a Bank of America branch wearing a yellow vest, safety goggles, a respirator mask and a blue shirt. The man met a dozen other men waiting to start work on the job, all dressed in a similar fashion. No hirer appeared and the men thought they had been stood up but later discovered they were unwitting accomplices in a bank robbery. As the men gathered outside, the robber went into the bank wearing the same clothes as those stood outside. He pepper-sprayed a guard, snatched a money bag and made his escape. The robber, described as 'a white man in his 20s, between 5ft 7in and 5ft 10in, wearing a dark blue shirt, jean shorts and a mask' is now being sought by the police. He was last seen floating down Woods Creek on an inner tube.

london murder map 1888

Murder map of London, 1888: The year is best known for Jack the Ripper's reign of terror in the East End, but while his crimes dominated the headlines, there were many more - pathetic, vicious, suicidal or accidental. Click on the map to read the original reports
- a fascinating archive feature on the Times website, dated 3 September

class sizes

The Big Question: Why are class sizes in the UK so big, and do pupils suffer as a result?
- Independent, 10 September

Thursday, 2 October 2008

british canals

British canals: A watery palimpsest. Admiring what remains of an antique network.
- Economist, 18 September. Article on canals today, mostly the London ones.

mark steel on bankers

Mark Steel: Bankers should bail themselves out
- Independent, 17 September. Mark Steel's always angry, of course.


Is it true the brontosaurus never really existed?
- Straight Dope article

primary school sex education

Sex pamphlet for 6-year-olds horrifies family lobby
- Times, 18 September

creationist britain

Creationist Britain (would you Adam and Eve it?): The creationism row at the Royal Society has exposed the number of Britons who believe Darwin was wrong about man's origins – and the Bible right. James Macintyre investigates.
- Independent, 19 September

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

similes and metaphors

I've seen this list of 'bad student similes and metaphors' before as genuine, though Snopes indicates they're not. I think some of them are rather good, though.