Monday, April 30, 2007

One-stop shop

How can this fail to work? Scientists have developed a pill which reduces the appetite AND increases sex drive. Society's no. 1 and 2 obsessions encapsulated in pill form.

Well, it works on monkeys and shrews, anyway.
"When it was given to monkeys, they displayed mating behaviour such as tongue-flicking and eyebrow-raising to the males, while female shrews displayed their feelings via "rump presentation and tail wagging"."
Whether a monkey can actually turn a shrew on by wiggling eyebrows remains unknown, and speaking as an ape descendant, rodential rump presentation and tail wagging leaves me unmoved.

Not that sort of demon

In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, a daemon is a physical manifestation of your soul appearing as an animal. It is typically of the opposite gender to you, it is your constant companion and, when you're a child, it can appear in almost any form. As you get older, it settles down into a creature that reflects your adult personality. It is the single most brilliant idea in fantasy literature since Frodo decided the only way to treat tacky Second Age bling is chuck it into a volcano.

I don't want to boast or anything, but yours truly's daemon is ...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fusion leaves me cold

I have unexpectedly become the owner of a Gillette Fusion razor. It arrived in a little box a couple of days ago, a freebie giveaway from Tesco.

To someone who's used a Gillette Contour for most of his shaving career, it looks very exciting. This is the next generation. Putting them side by side is like putting my present car next to my old Renault 4. The Master's TARDIS next to the Doctor's. Pegasus alongside Galactica.

I don't like it.

It has five blades, and a sixth (apparently) for precision trimming. But you can't get precise. You have no feeling of shaving anything, just dragging a big blunt square of plastic across your face. You have no idea what you are cutting. You can't single out a problem patch that needs repeat attention. It hinges at the bottom, not the middle, so you can't apply any kind of pressure, and it's too big to reach into the angle between upper lip and nose. After a few days of using this I would look like the love child of Adolf Hitler and the weird guy from Sparks. I'm a big fan of Sparks but I have my pride.

So it's back to the Contour. The old ones are the best, especially when replacement blades are a third of the price.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bring me Sunshine in your smile

Is it better to tell an original story in an unoriginal way, or vice versa? Put another way, why is Sunshine (out now) quite good when The Core (2003) is utter tosh?

Both movies are based on equally preposterous notions. In the original-yet-unoriginal camp we have The Core, where the earth’s magnetic core stops spinning, leading to impending doom unless our heroes in a revolutionary digging machine can get it going again by a series of nuclear bombs. On the unoriginal-yet-original side is Sunshine, where the sun is about to die out unless our heroes in a ginormous spaceship can get it going again with just one very big bomb. Both play fast and loose with the laws of physics in the interests of a good story, both suffer damage to their respective vessels and loss of crew ...

And yet.

The Core gives us easy-on-the-eye Big Name actors playing an all-American cast, except for the token baddie who is foreign but still played by an American. Sunshine is from Danny Boyle, who did Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, and is not afraid to put the Differently Photogenic on the big screen. I’d only heard of a couple of the actors (Cillian Murphy, from 28 Days Later and Michelle Yeoh, from Crouching Tiger etc.), and they play what is obviously a truly international crew.

The Core plays to the big spectacle with fantastic gratuitous effects. Sunshine’s effects are spectacular but they are only ever used to further the story and there aren’t that many. (Well, not that many big ones, given that every time we get an external shot of the ship that is an effect. But you know what I mean. Or should.)

The Core gives us the full story of the core stopping moving ... somehow without anyone noticing (ask for yourself what would happen to the angular momentum of several trillion tons of molten iron encased in a fragile planetary crust if the iron just stopped). And then we have the recruiting drive, and then we have the fantastic machine, invented overnight. I only saw this on an aeroplane, so I have to take on faith that it also features a scene where Hilary Swank proves her piloting credentials by landing a systems-crashed space shuttle in the Los Angeles drain system; in-flight movies ruthlessly cut out anything that shows something nasty happening to anything that flies, which made the whole movie a little surreal.

In Sunshine, whatever has happened to the sun is never really explained and doesn't need to be. In fact, it’s such old hat that they’ve already been able to launch one failed mission, seven years earlier. The film starts mid-mission.

Ultimately, The Core is a tribute to all-American ingenuity saving the world, while Sunshine is a character study of a group of people gazing into the heart of the abyss. I say abyss, I mean an average sized third generation main sequence G-type star, but the effect is the same.

Those are the obvious strengths of Sunshine. On the debit side, it also steals unashamedly from 2001, Silent Running, Dark Star and Event Horizon, to name but a few, and it is packed full of logical inconsistencies. The ship has a very convincing hydroponics bay, such as a lengthy space voyage would require for O2 generation; the whole design and technology of the ship is obviously meant to be an extrapolation of where we are now, fifty years on; and yet the ship has artificial gravity that keeps working when everything else fails. Oh, and it’s somehow linked to air pressure, as the gravity comes on when the airlock repressurises, following the Moonraker school of space engineering. (Well, that might explain why we on the planet’s surface in a field of 1g experience 1 atmosphere of pressure ... right?) And even though they’ve had years to plan this voyage the only have one of everything: one payload, one mission specialist ...

But by employing better acting, better respect for its audience and overall better construction, Sunshine somehow manages to be the better movie in every way that matters. If it breaks rules, that’s because it knows the rules and knows how they can break. That’s craftsmanship, that is. The Core pays just enough lip service to science fiction to insult the intelligence of everyone watching. Sunshine just doesn't care, and you can respect that.

It’s a little embarrassing to think that if I absolutely had to write one of them – for whatever reason, probably involving lots of money and a gun at my head – I would most likely come up with something like The Core ...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Saddest story of the day

Choirmaster abuses boys - boys complain - choirmaster sacked but not reported to police as long as he promises not to do it again - choirmaster sneakily does it again without letting church know. [Details]

One of the sad things being, the church in question says it was following best practice at the time - 1990 - and, you know what, it probably was. In fact it probably did more to stop the abuse than many other organisations would have done at the time. Child abuse existed, obviously, always has I suspect, out in the big bad world somewhere, but it just wasn't on the radar as something likely to be perpetrated by one of your own. I speak as someone who was a volunteer youth leader then (at St Christopher's, Cove, not too far from St Peter's in Farnborough) and still am now. Compared to now, then was a shower.

Seventeen years later, in my present church, we have a full time youth pastor, we have child protection officers, we have diocesan guidelines and everyone remotely connected with youthwork is CRB registered. A fact of which I am most proud (and which has come in handy as a children's author in getting speaking gigs, but that's a spin-off benefit). Leaving out the fact that even if I wanted to get intimate with a minor in my care then I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to go about it, I wouldn't have it any other way. Yet when I started we had a part-time and pretty ineffectual youth worker (nice guy but with issues), and to get a job in youthwork you had a nice chat with the vicar and that was that.

But for far too long the church - any church - has been seen as a perfect storm of confluences: ready access to children, a mindset that says we're all sinners and your sin is no greater than mine, a willingness to forgive - in fact, a pride in forgiving - and cluelessness about the realities of the situation. I'll bet you good money that under those conditions a lot of people came into the church for the wrong reasons, and they're still there.

Well, you can't condemn anyone for the contents of their mind, just their actions. Maybe they did come in; there's nothing that can be done about that, except pay attention to the guidelines, which - if followed - are pretty good at limiting the opportunities for abuse. Never letting kids be alone with an adult is a good start. The few times I've had to be alone with a minor, for whatever reason, I make sure there's a good physical distance between us, and they're closer to the door than me. Or we meet at their home, with other members of their family within easy reach and earshot.

My conscience is clear - I can safely no child is in sexual danger from me. (I may want to throttle some from time to time but that's another matter.) I know that, you don't. For your peace of mind it's important that I limit my actions in this way. And by default, the actions of any actual potential abusers will be limited in the same way.

But if they do find a way through ...

It's not the church's place to forgive child abusers. Any forgiveness is purely between the children and the abuser. The church's job is to protect the vulnerable, and that means that if you catch the abusers, you throw them to the dogs.


What kind of extremist are you?
Your Result: Moderate Extremist

You are a muddled, sniping media figure like Joe Klein. You try to occupy the "center" of media discourse, which puts you on the liberal edge of corporate media. To make up for your insecurity, you constantly attack "The Left"

Rational Person
Right-Wing Extremist
Left-Wing Extremist
What kind of extremist are you?
See All Our Quizzes

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Weeny, weedy, weaky

"Latin is a language as dead as dead can be.
It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me."
Time was I thought that was pretty sophisticated wit, along the same lines as using a few pen strokes to change Kennedy's Shorter Latin Primer to Kennedy's Shortbread Eating Primer. Oh, the long winter nights flew by where I come from.

Since giving it up at the age of 14 – which I couldn’t do fast enough – I’ve come to the conclusion that, properly handled, Latin could be fun. It's a language of fluid elegance, with depth and subtlety and a fantastic literature attached to it. The problem was that said literature is not a suitable teaching aid for kids who just see it as dull and dry. If the teacher is also dull and dry then you haven't a hope. Nor does it help if you have absolutely no idea what nominative / vocative / accusative / genitive / dative / ablative actually mean in real life. They took complex linguistic terms that students of English aren’t taught until much later, and crammed them down the throats of nine year olds. Maybe they still do. Nor could anyone ever tell me exactly why I might conceivably want to address a table.

Numerous teaching aids now exist that could make it more fun. Apparently the Vatican maintains a department dedicated to providing Latin terms for modern day words, so that in principle anything can still be translated into Latin if needed. And thus we can get books like Alicia In Terra Mirabili, Harrius Potter Et Philosophi Lapis and my favourite, Ursus Nomine Paddington.

What started all this off was reading that primary school children in Hackney are learning the language by writing postcards to imaginary Roman schoolkids. Good for them, I say. It entails inventing terms like "pedifolle" for football and "campus lusorius" for playground, though the mind still boggles at what cards they might get in return. "Dear Darren. Today we went to the Coliseum. Lions 8, Christians nil."

Or you can just practice on the various dog-Latinisms dropped into the works of Mr Pratchett, though best not imagine an actual Roman would understand them. The city motto of Ankh-Morpork is "Quanti canicula ille in fenestra" – roughly, "how much is that doggy in the window". And of course the immortal motto of the City Watch – "Fabricati Diem, Punc".

Unbearably Satisfied Ben (or, take your USB and stick it)

My pride was stung by the last post – it finally struck me as ridiculous that my laptop's USB port has never worked.

It now works. The credit is not all mine.

The laptop is an IBM Thinkpad that I bought in January 1999, with money from His Majesty's Starship which had been published the previous month. It was the only relatively high-end machine I've bought yet and of all my PCs it's lasted the longest. At the time I had never heard of USB so as far as I was concerned the funny little slit in the back was just another hole. Nor did I know anyone with the requisite networking skills to hook it up to its predecessor, a Windows 95 PC bought in – strangely enough – 1995. So, transferring data involved floppies. Lots of floppies. Lots and lots of floppies, back and forth, back and forth ... I had a filesplitter program that broke down files too big for a floppy (i.e. more than 1.44Mb) into smaller chunks that could then be reunited on the other machine, but of course that just increased the floppy load. Frankly it's a wonder anything worked.

The laptop remained my primary computer for two years, but the second of those years was the first year of Big Engine and by 2001 it was obvious I was going to need a bigger machine. This was a desktop running Windows ME (which, as I’ve said before and will say again, is named after a painful debilitating disease for a reason) and I hadn't yet caught up with CD-R. At least at this point I was able to find someone who could network the two to copy data over, but it took several wasted evenings to work out that the laptop's USB wouldn’t work. If memory serves over the gulf of six years, it was configured for games, not communications. Or something. Eventually the two machines were connected by parallel ports and the data transfer could commence, very, very slowly. It took about 48 hours. The floppies would have been quicker.

By the time that machine came to replaced, I had heard of USB flash drives, I even owned one, and transferring the data took a couple of minutes. I shed a small tear.

A passing teenage whizkid took the laptop into custody for a few weeks last summer to see if he could unravel the mystery of its USB. He confessed failure but I've since worked out he was doing himself down. He got things to a stage where the laptop recognises it's had something plugged into it – but of course, an eight year old machine won't have the right drivers to make the whatever work. They need to be tracked down and installed. And he was using my old memory stick, something cheap and grotty bought off eBay that insisted on installing its own little program called i-Run in the tray on the taskbar. i-Run served no useful purpose I could ever see except to require turning off before you disconnected the drive. Oh, and it made the laptop crash. But, with a new stick from a decent manufacturer, that supplies drivers on its website, and no i-Run – ta-dah! I have a laptop with a usefully working USB port. My technological triumphs are few and far between so I feel it's worth shouting about.

Which is fortunate, because otherwise this would be a load of wibble about something quite fundamentally uninteresting.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Two conversations across the generational divide

From a few weeks ago:
  • Him: have you ever played any RPGs?
  • Me: yes, I was in a couple at university.
  • Him: oh, I didn't think the computers could do that back then.
And from last night:
  • Him: can your laptop take flash drives?
  • Me: no, the USB port doesn't work.
  • Him: [blank stare] then how do you get data off it?
Ah, me, where to start.

But for truly advanced tech you can't beat this notice on the door of the canteen.

I actually want to be there at 6.45 to see exactly who beams down, and how it interferes with the hot food.

My enemy's enemy

I learnt very early on in life that an easy way to feel morally superior is to be prepared to discuss something when the other party isn't. It can be pretty cold comfort when you're not part of the mob and the mob is following the one who shouts loudest, but in school politics you take what comfort you can. You slink back into your hole with a good book (a proudly intellectual and creative activity beyond the ability of the cretins to grasp) and quietly despise the lot of them in the privacy of your own head.

An advanced form of the game is to award points for every emotive buzzword used by the one leading the shouting down of your rational position to disguise the process as debate, e.g. "If you believe that then you're a bent commie."

I can’t remember when I learnt of the Parliamentary practice of talking out; I do remember a sense of disillusion like a slap in the face. It was so important to me to know that there was a place where grown-up, sensible adults could talk about anything in a grown-up, sensible way. Instead I learnt that sometimes, in lieu of an actual debate where – Heaven forefend – people may disagree with you and have the bad taste to point out your errors, clever tricks are employed to use up the allotted Parliamentary time and thus a bill dies like a fragile flower strangled by weeds. It struck me as being on the same level as people who win arguments on technicalities and with clever words, as if that somehow alters the very nature of reality. An activity that never failed to earn my adolescent contempt, and doesn't do too well with me as an adult either.

(Failing that, you can always just ban whoever you disagree with. Can you tell I grew up under Thatcher?)

Nowadays I'm thicker skinned and a little less starry eyed about Parliament, and sometimes you must sup with the devil. On Friday the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that will exempt MPs from its provisions is up for grabs again. This was talked out the first time it came up for discussion, so it went to the bottom of the pile. Unusually, however, all the bills that are now ahead of it are incomplete so it gets another chance for debating in the House.

The bill's originator, David Maclean MP, says it's to protect constituents who need to know that their correspondence with their MP is totally confidential. Opponents say that of course constituents need to be granted anonymity, and they already have it under existing rules. Instinct says that Maclean's position may be what it's for, but it's not how it will be used. It will be used to hide as much they can get away with from the public eye, and that is a Bad Thing.

If talking out is the only way to kill it, then talk, my pretties, talk like you’ve never talked before.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Double chocolate

If Agatha Christie had written like Raymond Chandler, would we have the Murder Mystery Party in its current form? This is the kind of question that has distracted absolutely no one ever, and has constantly failed to plague me since Saturday night and Death by Chocolate. For newcomers to the form, you can get off-the shelf packages of characters, set-up and clues which play out over the course of an evening. The characters are a Christie-esque mix of stereotypes thrown together at a dinner party; an off-stage murder occurs; each character is given set clues and dialogue to drop into the normal interaction over the meal until finally you get a chance to guess who was the murderer, and the murderer is revealed. Meanwhile you have fun rummaging up a suitable costume for your character and playing out the part. In Saturday’s scenario, American chocolate manufacturer Billy Bonka has been killed by a bomb planted in an Easter egg.

And that's just the start of the bad puns. Professor Sigmund Fraud, the psychiatrist.

Dr Doris Johnson, the archaeologist (looking lovely).

Mike Bison, the boxer. Dame Barbara Carthorse, the novelist. It’s that subtle. Others can be subtler. Why was I the only one who laughed when the renowned chocolatier Bertrand decries the use of milk chocolate and claims ‘c’est plain pour moi’? When Ziggy says that we can be heroes, just for one day? Never mind.

In case anyone else uses the scenario, I won’t reveal whodunit, but will say it confirmed a couple of suspicions I’ve always had. And be warned that the accompanying DVD includes an unheralded appearance by Michael Winner, so don’t play it while people are eating.

I think I preferred dressing up in a suit, waistcoat and bow tie to the time at a previous party where I had to play X-It, the world's most famous rapper. But you take what you're given.

Still on the chocolate theme, Friday night dinner showed that perseverance pays off. As usual this was boys’ night to cook. I contributed Thai green turkey curry, courtesy of the BBC and the British Turkey Info Service. Yes, such a valuable expenditure of taxpayers’ money does exist. And for the fourth or fifth time, the Boy contributed chocolate crumb pudding. We had this a few months ago and got it right first time: a delicious chocolate sponge-type pudding, except that it’s not sponge, it’s bread crumbs. With further melted chocolate inside and a white chocolate sauce. In case I hadn’t made it clear, chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate.

Several attempts to repeat the initial triumph have all ended in failure (very nice failures, but failures all the same) but we finally seemed to get there. The trick turns out to be: actually follow the recipe (rather than having the egg whites left over at the end, or mixing up all the crumbs at once when the recipe says just mix half), fasten the foil with rubber bands to prevent ingress of steam to the mix, and give them 30-35 minutes rather than the advised 20.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Guns and poses

I remember this argument from post-Columbine, and apparently it’s been restated following Virginia Tech: the problem isn’t too many guns in America, it’s too few. If there had been more guns on the Virginia Tech campus, the students would have been able to fight back. Problem solved.


Yes, rearing its ugly head again is that good friend to every American, the Right to Bear Arms. It says so. In the Constitution. Second Amendment. So there.

I can’t help thinking that
  • (Right ≠ duty) and (legal ≠ compulsory).
  • If we’re going to quote sacred scripture then I’ll plump for 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 (summed up: even if what you’re doing is okay but it hurts other people, stop, because other people are more important).
  • It’s better to start from a base state where no one can hurt anyone with guns, and the worst thing the psychos can do is pour out their hurt and anguish into bad poetry. From that base start you can gradually work upwards and arm those who probably need a gun (e.g. the police from time) and responsible registered citizens who can convincingly demonstrate their ability to handle such a thing without resorting to mass murder (e.g. farmers, hunters, members of gun clubs)
The advantage of that last point is that in this kind of set-up the bad poetry becomes the option the psychos default to. Or to address a problem that seems more common in our country, the jumped-up punk gangster wannabes default to calling you a rude word that rhymes with brothertrucker. Either way, shooting other people over a mild grievance just isn’t on the radar. The problem with a society where even the budgie is allowed to purchase an assault rifle, a couple of pistols and 3000 rounds of ammunition in case the cat tries to get it, is that guns become the instinctive default option for dispute resolution rather than the last resort.

You might think it’s a very big step from bad language to killing someone, but that’s because you’re a rational, emotionally mature human being. In the minds of some people it’s a very thin line, so they should be given every encouragement to stay the right side of it and denied every opportunity to cross over.

Meanwhile, the episode of the Simpsons where Homer buys himself a gun remains the definitive statement of everything that needs stating. About gun use in the USA, and also about soccer.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bitter? Never

Oh dear, childhood trauma flashback alert.

My godfather came to visit and left me a banknote of some denomination. It was probably a pound (we had one pound notes in those days, children) as a fiver would have been way too much to give to a little boy. The note was delivered into the custody of a parent and when I tried to claim the cash value ... it had been used to purchase a premium bond.

Today is the anniversary of the premium bond system being set up. "Set up" - hmm, an unintentionally appropriate phrase. What a shame I can't also find a way to drop the words "state sponsored scam" unobtrusively into a sentence.

It's a savings scheme, honest. They say. You give the government your money and you can get it back at any time. With interest? Um - no, face value. The interest goes into the prizes, which you probably won't win. So how exactly is it different from just putting money under your mattress? Well, you might win a cash prize! Or you might not. Odds are 24,000 to one, apparently, which is better than the national lottery's 14 million to one but still not something to plan your retirement around.

Anyway, suffice to say that in thirty-odd years of being a premium bond owner, the only money I got from them was when I cashed them in, about ten years ago. At their 1960s and 1970s prices, obviously. Putting your money under the mattress is probably better because you don't have to splash out on a stamp.

I forget if I did anything special with Uncle Dennis's pound, to celebrate.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A first in English

One of the less serious lunchtime suggestions today was that our office's internal waste disposal should be handled by, and I quote, a bevy of trained coypu, who could also handle the shredding.

This is the wonder of English. Both I and the quote's originator will bet good money you have never heard the phrase bevy of trained coypu before, but (assuming you know what a coypu is) you can instantly grasp the sense.

English. Gotta love it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The boys (and girl) done good

Three hearty cheers to Warwick for winning this year's University Challenge. This graduate and quiz buff is proud of you. Though in my day I can pretty well guarantee you'd not have got one of us kissing Ann Widdecombe.

In fact it's quite bizarre even by contemporary standards.

Open letter to Vodafone

For *&!$'s sake, morons, put an option on the automated helpdesk thingy for "I want to change my registered credit card". And do it now.

And don't think you can get negate the effects of ten minutes circular navigation of the menus by finally putting on a sweet Scottish lass with a honeyed accent that would defuse a ticking bomb. Sorry, she was nine minutes and thirty seconds too late.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Three pauses for thought in Winchester

1. The boy with the book. We walked down Jewry Street towards the cathedral and were almost forced off the pavement by a young lad smoking a cigarette with one hand ... and reading a book he was holding in the other. I mean, a proper book. A paperback. A novel of some kind. Everything about this boy - fag, clothes, general atmosphere all speaking to my polite middle class prejudice - said "inconsiderate lout" except for the book, which excuses almost anything. Cognitive dissonance still rattling around inside my head.

2. "Sound II", by Anthony Gormley. Like all cathedrals, Winchester cathedral is worth a visit. Originally built in a Romanesque style (arches upon arches upon arches, layer upon layer, hidden detail and nooks and crannies wherever you look) but then the nave was redone in Gothic perpendicular (fragile curtains of stone suspended from the sky). The transept is still in the old style so you gets yer choice. But the crypt has never been good for anything due to its habit of flooding at a whim. That is, until Anthony Gormley donated a statue modelled upon himself. The layer of water is perfectly still, perfectly reflective; and there, in the distance, alone in these bare stone vaults, is a man looking down at his hands cupped thoughtfully in front of him. Something weighs on his mind. Or maybe he has just come to some astonishing realisation. Something other than "I appear to be standing up to my ankles in water in a cathedral crypt". It speaks to you, somehow, and I've no idea how or why.

3. The poem. Winchester was a Roman colony fallen into ruins by the time the Anglo-Saxons turned up. A poem called "The Ruin" is written on the wall in the City Museum. Some Googling tells me it was written about the Roman remains at Bath; but it could so easily be about Winchester or sixth century zeitgeist generally. Picture this blond, moustached German staring at the remains of a mighty wall and wondering how it could have come to this state. Yep, must be magic ...
"Well-wrought this wall: Wierds broke it.
The stronghold burst...
Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen,
the work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,
Rime scoureth gatetowers
rime on mortar.
Shattered the showershield, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

One of these is wrong

Can you spot which?

I am, of course, none other than blank verse.
I don't know where I'm going, yes, quite right;
And when I get there (if I ever do)
I might not recognise it. So? Your point?
Why should I have a destination set?
I'm relatively happy as I am,
And wouldn't want to be forever aimed
Towards some future path or special goal.
It's not to do with laziness, as such.
It's just that one the whole I'd rather not
Be bothered - so I drift contentedly;
An underrated way of life, I find.
What Poetry Form Are You?

I'm a Nissan 350Z!

You're not the fastest or the most agile, but you have style and power. You believe in looking good and moving quickly -- without breaking the bank.

Bloke Expertly Needing Joyful Affection and Matchless, Intense Necking

Get Your Sexy Name

Biomechanical Electronic Neohuman Justified for Assassination, Mathematics and Immediate Nullification

Get Your Cyborg Name

No? Okay, it's the car. I'm not a Nissan, thank you very much. I'm one of these.

This is Straker's car from the Gerry Anderson series UFO. Two were made. They were sleek and gorgeous looking, with automatic gull-wing doors that whirred excitingly when you got in or out (how else would you know it was a special effect?) and they made a jet turbine whine rather than the usual car noise.

Well, that was the dream. In real life, they were aluminium shells bolted to a Ford Zephyr chassis. The actors hated them because they were underpowered, they steered like pigs, and engine fumes leaked back into the passenger compartment. As for those lovely gull-wing doors, you never saw an entire door open or close because they were operated manually by a stagehand standing just off camera. It was almost impossible to let yourself out of the car without assistance.

But on screen, and in my head, they rock.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A week in Sweden by category

Here’s how it started. Many years ago – four to be precise – I drove the woman who was to become Best Beloved and the Boy, who was then and still is a boy, to Gloucester Green at 1 a.m. so they could catch the coach to London Stansted for their annual holiday in Sweden. Over the next fortnight I realised how much I missed her, how much I enjoyed writing to her, how much I enjoyed getting postcards ... and the next year I too was on the dawn flight from Stansted.

We don’t do that anymore. We now drive ourselves to Stansted at 1 a.m. It means we’re practically delirious from sleep deprivation by the time we reach our destination 12 hours later but it’s nicer than Gloucester Green in the small hours. Mind you, if you started a list headed “Things that are nicer than Gloucester Green in the small hours” then several trees would have to die to provide the paper to finish it.

Things have changed at the other end too. Used to be public transport all the way. Last year for the first time we flew to Gothenburg (Göteborg to the Swedes, but I bet you can’t guess how they pronounce it*), a train for the 200 km to Skövde (same bet with big brass knobs on**) and then hired a car. This year we hired the car at Gothenburg and drove the rest of the way. Avis upgraded our order at no extra cost to a Toyota Avensis, an over-engineered two litre behemoth with even bigger blind spots than a Vectra. I don’t think I hit anything but it’s impossible to tell when A4 wing mirrors and headrests impede your line of sight at every angle, giving you slightly less all round vision than a tank driver.

Still, I warmed to the vehicle as the week drew on. I still think self-regulating rear-view mirrors that sense when you’re being dazzled and turn themselves down are a tad unnecessary, but I became a convert to the joys of self-regulating windscreen wipers, and in particular cruise control.

* Yurterboy
** Hwevder

Home sweet home
This is home – a farmhouse on the plain between lakes Vanern and Vattern.

Turn around and you get this.

It is lived in by a mad one-legged Viking in his early eighties who trundles around the house in his wheelchair, has never been known to have an unshared thought (about which he will rant at length in Swedish), and who likes to demonstrate to his grandson how he gets into bed naked. I refer to my father in law.

Shortly after we first met, Morfar Hugo ran his moped into a car (which did everything it could to avoid the collision, short of going into reverse) and ended up in a ditch with a broken rib and pierced lung. After we had met for the second time, circulation problems meant he had to have his leg removed (with an epidural, not a general). He could have been forgiven for not wanting to meet me a third time last year, but maybe he was mellowed by the fact that I had just married his daughter.

So, he’s still alive and well, and still able (thanks to being built like several varieties of small brick outbuildings, and also to Sweden’s excellent social services) to live on the farm that has been in the family for generations and be master with dignity of his own house. I have the deepest love and admiration for him, and I really should learn Swedish so we can understand each other. For all I know he calls me the English Git, but I don’t believe it’s so. (Actually he calls me Ben-ya-meen.)

Morfar is simply a contraction of “mother’s father”. The Swedes have similar terms for all the permutations of grandparent, uncle and aunt – mother’s mother, father’s father, father’s sister, mother’s brother etc – so you always know exactly where the relationship lies. It’s a language of fiendish intricacy.

Good Friday in Sweden is Långfredag – Long Friday. I have no idea what they call The Long Good Friday if it’s ever shown there. The Even Longer Friday? The Already Long Friday that was Slightly Longer than Usual? Best Beloved hasn’t seen it, so can’t comment.

Anyway, to church on Maundy Thursday and on Sunday. I could vaguely follow the Bible readings, though I got a bit lost on Thursday when I could tell the reading was an altercation between Jesus and Peter, but somehow got it into my head that it was the “three times you shall deny me” bit. It was of course Jesus trying to wash Peter’s feet, which makes a lot more sense in the Last Supper context. I managed better on Sunday, if only because I took my phone which has the full NIV text with me.

The first service was led by Eva, the minister who conducted our Swedish wedding. She sat out the latter in the congregation, sporting a black leather jacket and yellow pashmina combination that our own minister could never get away with.

The Boy wondered how I could enjoy a service if it’s in Swedish, thus completely missing the point – it’s not the language, it’s the fact of fellowship with Christians from around the world, marking respectively Jesus’s last night alive and first day alive (again). It’s at Easter that I always feel so terribly proud of my saviour. And it doesn’t matter where you are in the world – on Easter Day you can still announce “Uppstånding är Jesus!”

I told you it’s a fiendish language.

(There is something purely Pratchett about the fact that “andon” can mean either spirit or duck, depending on intonation and context. This becomes more and more relevant as Pentecost approaches.)

Strangely, I didn’t have any rollmop this time, which is a shame because it’s a lot nicer than pickled herring ought to be. On arrival we were brought back from our sleepless daze by a slapup meal of Swedish pancakes and ring sausage. Swedish pancakes are Morfar's signature dish, the third state of matter between Shrove Tuesday pancakes and Yorkshire pudding, mixed up with bits of bacon and baked in an oven. Ring sausage is ... I’m not quite sure, but it was like someone had rolled up a lump of pure gammon and roasted it.

On Easter Day we ate a traditional Easter feast of meatballs, sausages and Jansson’s Temptation, a totally yum fish and potato dish. Throughout the week, vegetable accompaniment (if any) was boiled potato and carrots of broccoli. You probably can be a vegetarian in Sweden’s farming community and still have a healthily balanced diet, but you would need to work hard at it.

The Swedes have a traditional Easter drink called påskmust – malted (apparently), dark and fizzy like Coke, tastes like Irn Bru. Neither of these last two are bad things in my opinion but they do both rather militate against the “traditional” bit.

Every spring time, hundreds of thousands of cranes stop off at Lake Hornborga and obligingly perform a crane dance. Very decent of them, I say. According to signs, the birds are individually counted through binoculars each day. Strangely, the daily tallies posted were all multiples of 500, suggesting that cranes are very organised birds. It was 12,500 the day we were there.

The Swedes call it trandansen. They pair off and strut about, twine necks, jump into the air and hover, all to get a mate. Much like humans, except possibly the hovering in the air bit. We only saw isolated couples among the thousands doing the dance, but apparently you can see the whole crowd get started which is a truly awesome sight.

They are amazing birds - big, ungainly and also graceful. They are avian 747s. It was the first time I could swear I've seen a bird coming in to land and thinking: "flaps, undercarriage, throttle back a bit ..." Even without the dancing, just watching 12,500 cranes chat, fly about, do a little dancing and generally going about their business etc is pretty cool. You can watch for hours, lost in trandansental meditation.

Then Tiveden, a national park a bit further north. The guidebook says it contains mountains. In terms of elevation they’re more like hills but really they’re boulders left by the glaciers – some the size of a football, some the size of St Paul’s. It’s primeval Nordic landscape where the path scrambles up the side of jumbles of boulders, round the edges of dark brooding lakes and down into ravines where the sun never reaches the ground and the puddles still have ice. The ground is a mixture of bog and every pine needle in creation, held together by tree roots like steel cables. And pine trees. Pine trees everywhere. This is the kind of place where you can believe in trolls.

Cooking and cleaning
-is all that this sign means. I’ve no idea why the Boy should find it funny.

A load of pants
Swedes are heavily into recycling. Most supermarkets have an automated facility where you can return empty cans and bottles, and get your deposit back. The deposit is called the pant, so you take your empties to the Pantstation and use a machine called a Repant Universal. Sadly, I never had my camera to prove this assertion, but trust me. Also trust me that this is the end of the schoolboy sniggering.

Sweden is still in winter mode – the cars have their snow tyres, the B-roads are lined with snow poles to show where the edges are – but for the most part it was sunny and bright with a crisp, cutting wind and no snow anywhere. Dress for going out: a good thick coat and sunglasses. In short, lovely. I’m used to Sweden, or at least to Västergötland in the summer, when that fertile plain of farmland has come into its own and every manner of living thing is scrambling up out of the earth. This was the first time I’ve seen it with trees and bushes bare of leaves, and the grass brown and patchy. For the first time I could appreciate that Morfar’s farm is a little house on a very big prairie.

Then, Easter evening it actually snowed. And you know what? No one cared! Well, no one except the Boy who could finally entertain himself at an appropriate level.

I love a country that is grown up about snow. Two inches? So what! Close the schools?? Give me a break! Come the morning the roads were bone dry and free of slush. I don’t know where it all went but it wasn’t into dirty salty puddles that make your car filthy and rusty.

I love Sweden.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I can't help it, I'm a romantic fool

And the answers are ...
  1. I get high on a buzz then a rush when I'm plugged in you [Goldfrapp / Strict machine]
  2. See the little nuclei, bursting full of information / There's a need to regulate / bring it down to cells and plasma [The Stranglers / Genetix]
  3. Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever [Wings / Band on the run]
  4. I love the colourful clothes she wears [Beach Boys / Good Vibrations]
  5. Well she got her daddy's car and she drove through the hamburger stands now [Beach Boys / Fun Fun Fun]
  6. Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind's elation / Little girls from Sweden dream of silver screen quotations [Red Hot Chili Peppers / Californication]
  7. What's up with my heart when it skips a beat? (skips a beat) [The Coral / Dreaming Of You]
  8. I've been waiting for so long to come here now and sing this song [Howard Jones / New Song]
  9. Where it began, I can't begin to knowin' [Neil Diamond / Sweet Caroline]
  10. Life isn't always easy / This we know my friends / I thought you knew where to go / But you were following me [Turin Brakes / Over and Over]
  11. All I wanna do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes [Toto / Rosanna]
  12. Hot town, summer in the city / back of my neck getting dirty and gritty [Lovin' Spoonful / Summer in the City]
  13. Well did I tell you before, when I was up, anxiety was bringing me down [Talk Talk / Talk Talk]
  14. When are you going to come down? When are you going to land? [Elton John / Goodbye Yellow Brick Road]
  15. Every day I recognise what's deceased and what's alive [The Coral / Pass it on]
  16. Sleep like a baby / my little lady / dream till the sunrise / creeps into your eyes [Tony Christie / Avenues & Alleyways]
  17. Winters cityside / Crystal bits of snowflakes all around my head and in the wind / I had no illusions that I'd ever find a glimpse of summers heatwaves in your eyes [Alphaville / Big in Japan]
  18. Oh, the night is my world / city light painted girl / in the day nothing matters / it's the night time that flatters [Laura Branigan / Self control]
  19. In the beginning was the word, man said: Let there be more light. Electric scenes and laser beams, neon lights to light the boring nights [Hazel O'Connor / Eighth Day]
  20. I never used to cry 'cos I was all alone / For me, myself and I is all I've ever known / I never felt the need to have a hand to hold / In everything I do I take complete control [Lene Lovich / Lucky Number]
  21. I am the one who guided you this far / All you know and all you feel [Genesis / Duke's Travels]
  22. Out on the street I was talking to a man / He said "there's so much of this life of mine that I don't understand" [Gerry Rafferty / Get it right next time]
  23. Here comes Johnny Yen again / With the liquor and drugs and the flesh machine [Iggy Pop / Lust for life]
  24. I'm your only friend / I'm not your only friend / But I'm a little glowing friend / But really I'm not actually your friend / But I am [They Might Be Giants / Birdhouse in your soul]
  25. Love is a burnin' thing and it makes a fiery ring [Johnny Cash / Ring of fire]
  26. What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing? Can't you tell that your tie's too wide? Maybe I should buy some old tab collars? Welcome back to the age of jive [Billy Joel / It's still rock and roll to me]
  27. Vodka intimate, an affair with isolation in a Blackheath cell [Marillion / Fugazi]
  28. My daddy had a 68 Camero / When I was sixteen he went out of town [Cliff Richard (Heaven help me) / What car?]
  29. Are you really going out with Adolf? Ooh yeah! [Boomtown Rats / I never loved Eva Braun]
  30. I pictured a rainbow / You held it in your hands / I had flashes / But you saw the plan [The Waterboys / The whole of the moon]
  31. When I was a little girl I had a ragdoll / only doll I've ever owned [Tina Turner - or technically, Ike & Tina Turner / River deep, mountain high]
  32. You'll say that we've got nothing in common / No common ground to start from and we're falling apart [Deep Blue Something / Breakfast at Tiffany's]
  33. I once met a man with a sense of adventure / He was dressed to thrill wherever he went [Kirsty McColl / In these shoes?]
  34. Marie has set up home with a man who's half my age / A halfwit in a leotard stands on my stage [The All-Seeing I & Tony Christie / Walk like a panther]
  35. When I die and they lay me to rest / gonna go to the place that's the best [Norman Greenbaum (or Doctor & the Medics or - pah - that Gates boy / Spirit in the sky]
  36. It was a slow day and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road [Paul Simon / The boy in the bubble]
  37. I'll protect you from the hooded claw / Keep the vampires from your door [Frankie Goes to Hollywood / The power of love]
  38. I've got sunshine in my stomach, like I just rocked my baby to sleep [Genesis / In the cage]
  39. Your cruel device / Your blood, like ice / One look could kill / My pain, your thrill [Alice Cooper / Poison]
  40. That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane ... [R.E.M. / It's the end of the world as we know it]
And the bonus point - Martha & the Muffins, with the immortal "Echo Beach", faraway in time.

A stop-gap post

Well, the adventures of the last few days and the answers to the previous post will be, um, posted when I've had time to catch breath. Congratulations to all three entrants, all of whose answers were by and large correct, and especially to Mr Toon who won.

But I must say to Sarah - Gareth Gates? Gareth freakin' Gates?? Leave the room.

John, in answer to your question "where would you stand on songs that start with samples? Something like, say, Kate Bush's frankly magnificent "Hounds of Love" ("It's in the trees! It's coming!")", no. 29 should provide an answer.

At university (Warwick), the air conditioning on the top of the engineering block emitted a hum at exactly the same note and pitch as the synthesiser at the start of Ms Bush's "Running up that hill". I always expected the drums to come in whenever I walked past.

You may now google.