Saturday, 30 November 2002

Homage to Barcelona


Sagrada Familia La Rambla Markets Gaudi's House Sagrada Familia Interior Barcelona Cathedral Street Tiles by Gaudi Sagrada Familia Ceiling Gothic Quarter Shop Window



Friday, 29 November 2002


[weblog] Server-hassle fatigue has sapped me of the will to write, but in the meantime here are some things worth seeing:


Thursday, 28 November 2002

Feed Me, Seymour

[site news] While I was in the middle of completely rebuilding the whole %£$@^£& MT database, I figured I may as well throw in something I'd been intending to roll out with the forthcoming redesign: RSS feeds for Speedysnail. Personally I'm not a NetNewsWire addict yet, because most of my favourite blogs don't have RSS, but I can definitely see the attraction. Also, a couple of visitors have been looking in vain for an 'index.xml' on the site, and who am I to disappoint them?

So here they are: 0.91 and 1.0 (fight among yourselves over which one is best). Subscribe today and receive extra Speedy content, whenever I remember to write tailor-made excerpts for them.

By coincidence, Mark Pilgrim has some pertinent things to say on the subject at the moment [via].


Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

[site news] Ye gods, what a rare form of torture. Everything was going okay until the new server ran up against the Movable Type database. Then it hit this problem, and the suggested fix didn't work. I almost gave up and went back to the old server, but had a burst of inspiration: hand-edited my most recent exported database, reinserted dummy entries to replace a few I'd deleted so that the Entry IDs would all line up properly, cleaned out the database directory, restarted MT from scratch, reconfigured everything, imported the cleaned-up entries, tweaked a couple of folder permissions, and voila.

Apologies for the disruption, which was exacerbated by the fact that I'm now in a time zone 11 hours behind my web host; and apologies to Ed for leaving the blog comments switched on when MT was switched off, which ate his lengthy comments about Klein and Schlosser.

Now at last I can post some back-dated entries written over the past few days.



[music] In the early days of the 12" single, before they became the exclusive domain of 'remixes' consisting of the main vocal over a wildly inappropriate 140 bpm backing-track (I'm looking at you, U2), extended singles were just that—singles extended with new verses, bridges and solos, creating a fuller, more complex version of the song. Or an even more irritating version of 'The Reflex'. (A favourite early music-listening moment was hearing Duran Duran on a local FM station being ripped from the turntable in mid 'fle-fle-fle-' by a DJ saying 'That's enough of that.')

The days of the extended version are gone—in an age of hour-long CD albums, the standard versions are extended versions—so I was surprised to be reminded of them when listening to, of all things, a symphony.

Not just any symphony, either, but one of my favourites: Sibelius' Fifth, matched only by his Second and Seventh (though I love them all). When I was 22 and seriously exploring classical music, I must have played Leonard Bernstein's controversial 1989 recording of the 5th and 7th dozens of times, soaking their nordic grandeur into my pores until I smelled of pine-o-cleen.

There were other symphonies I admired, by Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninov, but the Finn surpassed them all. Grand without being pompous; emotional without being sentimental; icy without the icing; the raw, elemental, geological forces of nature trapped in notes. Sibelius' music is mountains, forests, glaciers: it makes everything else sound indoorsy.

My love for it must be genetic, because Dad loves Sibelius too, giving us another point of musical agreement to add to 'Leo Kottke plays a mean twelve-string' and 'Roger Whittaker sure can whistle'.

If things had gone a little differently I might have ended up even more of a classical aficionado; but the next year was the year punk broke (again), the year of indie music and Achtung Baby, the year that saved rock and roll. I'd still listen to a spot of strings now and then, but more often it was the Clouds.

But circumstances change; specifically, neighbours change, from raucous 20-somethings who are too busy playing their own loud rock music to notice yours, to interfering old busy-bodies who call a body corporate meeting if you sing in the shower. Not that we've had any complaints—well, just the one, on the one day of spring when it was warm enough to have the windows open and I foolishly dropped Redneck Wonderland into the CD player—but it's worth being cautious. And frankly, at the end of a dark winter evening I'm rarely in the mood for a Peter Garrett freak-out. Instead, I've been listening to a disturbing amount of latin jazz and ambient techno—two genres I'd never have tolerated a decade ago—and rediscovering classical music.

Mostly, that means 'classical lite', or at least 'quiet': Beethoven's piano sonatas, Schubert's impromptus, John Williams playing solo guitar, and so on. But rediscovering the soft stuff has led straight back to the hard stuff, to ol' baldy himself—which kind of defeats the intention. You're hardly going to appease a crotchety neighbour with an acute sensitivity to bass notes when there's a Fjord Thunderbird revving its trumpets downstairs.

But who cares. They're going to hear plenty of Sibelius in heaven, so they might as well get used to it now.

In this renewed state of Scandinavian awareness, I noticed on the shelves of the Edinburgh Music Library the familiar black cover of a BIS CD, a label known for its comprehensive coverage of the region's composers. This, to my surprise, was a disk of the original version of Sibelius's Fifth, which hadn't been recorded when I first discovered his music, and hadn't even been performed in years. So of course I borrowed it and took it home—which is where I had my fle-fle-flashbacks.

The Fifth debuted in 1915, but Sibelius rewrote it heavily before its publication in 1919. To anyone familiar with that final version—so familiar they can whistle the whole thing in the shower, like Roger Whittaker live in Helsinki—the original sounds drastically different. It's stuffed with extra intruments, extra bars, extra notes; the first movement is split in two; the final stark blows from the brass section are backed by strings; and the whole fourth movement is just too long. The last five minutes are particularly disconcerting; it's like seeing your grandmother in a Batman costume.

It's not bad—Sibelius was almost 50 when he finished the original, after all, with four other symphonies to his name—but the final version is so clearly better that it leads one to wonder how many other less-than-perfect works would benefit from four years of painstaking revision in the middle of a world war.

It seems that in symphonies, as in singles, the extended version isn't always the best.


Wednesday, 27 November 2002

Changing Places in the Heart

[film] This growing list of blended film titles continues to be one of the funniest threads anywhere on the Web, and I eventually couldn't resist adding to it:

24 Hour The Party People
Peter Sellers stars as Manchester raver looking for 'birdy num-nums'.

2001: An Office Space Odyssey
Dave has a hell of a day at work.

Morvern Callar of the Wild
Scottish girl wigs out after death of boyfriend and flees north to become a sled-dog.

Fargo and Away
Quirky Minnesota detective sees Nicole Kidman put Tom Cruise through a woodchipper.

Driving Miss Days of Thunder
Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy get lapped 38 times in this high-octane dose of high-octogenarian action.

On Goldenfinger
Bond and Blofeld 'suck face'.

Reign of Mrs Doubtfire
Robin Williams stars as everyone's favourite old dragon.

Super Marathon Brothers
Bob Hoskins and Laurence Olivier fight video-game villains by pulling out their teeth.


[travel] I forgot one thing in my roll-call of things to remember about Barcelona: travelling down in the lift one morning and hearing an Iberian-looking couple speaking a language that sounded like none other; it couldn't have been Russian, or Hungarian, or Finnish; it had to be Basque. And it really does bear no resemblance to any other European language; not a single recognisable word. It's like listening to a human version of machine code.


About 1 a.m.

[site news] The site's now on the new server, but the MT database needs to be upgraded, which may or may not be straightforward; either way, I'll know soon. In the meantime, please don't try leaving comments on posts, because the Great Bit God will eat them.


Sunday, 24 November 2002

Dogged by Problems

[site news] There's some weird stuff going on around here. For some reason new comments aren't registering in the comment count. This may be related to other glitches, which hopefully should be solved soon by switching to a new server. With any luck this won't lead to further down-time. [25/11/02: The switch is underway, so I've closed off new comments until it's complete.]

Meanwhile, a kind word from a visitor about the venerable Cartoon Lounge prompted me to scour through the archives and dig up a few more to add to it, like this old T-shirt design and this nostalgia for the early 1970s dating from the late 1980s, when I was in the full throes of Whitlam fandom (apologies to non-Aussies to whom that means nothing). I also came across the sketch below, which still appeals to me, slips of the pen and all—even if it has no actual punchline.

Sketch from 1993


The Reading Festival

[books] Been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, most of it good. Here's a few thumbnail reviews.

1. Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy. Eminently readable account of six major philosophers and their advice on living, perfect for dilettantes like yours truly who never read philosophy at uni. (It clashed with first year calc. Now there's a choice I'd make differently today.) It's reassuring to measure your own personal philosophy against the likes of Socrates, Epicurus and Montaigne and not come up too badly. Seneca, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche did less for me, but de Botton's account of their tortured lives and often egomaniac thoughts is always entertaining.

2. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation. If it hadn't been two years since my last fast-food-chain burger I might not have made it through this. The main reason for that personal defacto boycott was that the last one I ate tasted like crap; after reading Schlosser, I'm now wondering if that was literally true. Before he gets to the health risks of contaminated ground beef, though, Schlosser gives plenty of equally disturbing reasons to reject the burger culture: the union-busting ways of fast-food chains; the marginalization of the traditional cattle-farmer; the horrific risks of working in the meat-packing industry. E. coli-infested all-beef patties are almost the least of it.

3. Naomi Klein, No Logo. Catching up with the zeitgeist two years late. After an abortive start on this earlier in the year, I finally made it past the dry introduction and into the book proper, which turned out to be fine, if not as readable as Schlosser's. Given the cynical reaction No Logo has drawn in some quarters, I half-expected a Socialist Worker's Party rant, but it turns out to be measured, thorough, subtle, and free of hypocrisy and cant, even if its arguments won't win it friends in the big end of town. A year after 'the day that changed everything', Klein's objections to the extremes of logo-driven global culture remain depressingly relevant. Worth reading in conjunction with Paul Krugman's article For Richer for added sense of corporate oppression.

4. Richard E. Grant, With Nails. Hollywood is, of course, at the vanguard of globalization, and the success of the Swazi-born Grant is in a small way a sign of that. Grant's show-business diaries are infectiously enthusiastic, and their behind-the-scenes glimpses of the movies revealing and intriguing. In the course of his book Grant moves from wide-eyed penniless actor unable to believe his luck, to a more worldly, successful actor unable to believe his luck. His sharp wit and self-deprecating charm make him an ideal guide to the studio world, as does his presence on what seems like almost every film of note made between 1985 and 1995. But for all of its UK film industry and Hollywood gossip, the most affecting part of the book is the tale of his father's funeral in Swaziland.

5. Nicholas Craig, I, An Actor. Lavishly illustrated and lovingly prepared, this 2001 revision of Craig's 1988 memoirs remains the essential account of life on the English stage, desperately thrilling and brutally frank in its portrayal of the titanic struggles every truly dedicated thespian must undertake in order to succeed. Craig, best known for his portrayal of Lord Foppishness in the under-appreciated School for Fops, is quite possibly the finest actor never to become a household name, perhaps because of an uncanny resemblance to former Young Ones star Nigel Planer (who, by coincidence, was also involved in the preparation of this volume). Indeed, so impressive are his achievements, so wise his advice, and so superhuman his sense of taste and restraint, that if it wasn't for his name on the title page you'd almost think this was a work of fiction.


Friday, 22 November 2002

You Better Listen to Him

[music] Graham's collecting a list of Australasian Albums of the '80s at Records Ad Nauseam. If you're of an Austral persuasion, why not suggest a few.


Things to Remember About Barcelona

[travel] The glorious weather on our first and last days, as warm and clear as the hottest day of summer in Edinburgh (24 degrees), staying warm into the evening. The leaves were just starting to turn brown; back home, they're all gone.

The stone turtles at the base of the columns on the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's most impressive legacy and Barcelona's most famous building. I could still remember them from my first visit in 1986, and of course they're still there, patiently enduring the noise and dust as construction on the cathedral enters its thirteenth decade. It's inspiring to contemplate a project spanning not just years but lifetimes, like the great cathedrals of the past. When it's finished, the Sagrada Familia will be as great as any: the projected central spire will be almost twice the height of the eight flanking towers that currently exist. In the space between them, dozens of new tree-like columns branch upwards to support the tower still to come. I hope I'm around to see it.

The diamond-shaped squares at the intersections of the gridded streets of L'Eixample, the 19th century expansion of Barcelona. I remembered these, too, not for their shape but for the way the locals park along each edge of each corner (in designated 90-degree parking spots), then double-park and even triple-park each other in, neatly filling in the diamond and turning it into a normal intersection. Bad luck if you're in the middle.

The narrow streets of the old city, near-deserted in the bright glare of the afternoon, when the shops shut for three hours. And the shops themselves, like the one selling masks for 18th-century-style balls and quirky finger puppets.

The graffiti. It stands out all the more for Barcelona being so clean and elegant—and for the graffiti being so distinctive (it was even carved into the prickly pears on the hill above Parc Güell). There's the occasional hip-hop tag on the alley walls, but those look uninspired next to the sort of stuff that could only come from the city of Miro and Picasso.

Speaking of whom: the Miro Foundation was better than the Picasso Museum, but they're both worth a visit. The latter is strong on Picasso's early years (it's certainly impressive to see him master and then move beyond the traditional and experimental styles of his day before he'd reached his mid-20s), but there are glaring gaps where all his best work should be. The Miro is more even, and seems to better match its location—especially when you emerge afterwards into the blue early evening and look up at a full moon that could have come straight from one of his paintings.

The National Art Museum of Catalonia, full of church interiors removed (for conservation purposes) from the small country towns of Catalonia in the early twentieth century, and now set into its white gallery walls. I was in two minds about this: the relics were amazing to see, but how much more amazing they would be in their original locations, which now have only reproductions. But then, many Catalonian churches were burnt out in the Spanish Civil War, so perhaps this saved them. And what treasures worth saving: not just the sophisticated gothic paintings of the 14th to 16th centuries, but the bold and colourful Romanesque frescoes of the 11th and 12th, full of biblical images that seem strange indeed to the modern viewer: angels with six wings, each one dotted with open eyes.

Trying to remember a few words of (Castilian) Spanish from two weeks in the country half a lifetime ago, and failing. Remembering how much less English is spoken in southern Europe than in northern. Remembering that half of what people are saying is in Catalan anyway.

The tallat, or cortado in Castilian: a shot of espresso with a little milk and a lot of sugar. When I was 18 I thought it was the best coffee in the world. I've drunk a lot of coffee in a lot more places since then: Melbourne, Seattle, San Francisco. The tallat is still the best coffee in the world.

Small balls of syrup-soaked cake coated in toasted honeyed pine nuts. Malaga grape-flavoured gelati. The 'Restaurant Tipica' that looked chintzy (bulls' heads on the wall, saddles on the stools in the bar downstairs) but turned out to be genuinely tipica, full of locals and good food. The breakfast buffet in the hotel like a cake-shop, full of custard-filled pastries, with a slice or two of tortilla (the classic Spanish potato omelette, not the Mexican flat bread) as the token savoury item.

The way the people of Barcelona stroll en masse in the warm evening air, families and friends cruising the shopping streets of the Gothic Quarter before heading to dinner at 9 or 10 o'clock.

Their meticulous fashion sense. In the Metro on the way to the University of Barcelona one morning, it was hard to believe I was sharing the train with students—they looked as if they'd stepped straight off the catwalk.

A typically small Spanish dog sitting quietly inside a canvas bag on the lap of its middle-aged owner on the Metro.

The ridiculous number of commercials on Spanish TV. We counted 34 in one ad break. Even at fifteen seconds a spot, that's way too many—and many were longer than that.

The fresh food markets off the bottom of La Rambla, Barcelona's main street. More varied and lively even than the Vic markets in Melbourne, with piles of quinces and dried Malagas, bags of snails and racks of pheasants, one man carrying a sack of live crabs and another carrying a slaughtered pig over his shoulder.

Rows and rows of red devotional candles in the city's gothic cathedral. The rain at dusk collecting on its roof and pouring through the mouths of gargoyles to shower onto the polished flagstones of the alley below.

Parc Güell, Barcelona


Thursday, 21 November 2002

[science] American scientists are preparing to create a new form of life, but first have to hit the delete key:

Many of the 200 genes to be deleted will be ones that confer the ability to survive in a hostile environment, so that the end result will be a delicate creature, at home only in the warm nutrient bath of a laboratory dish.

Sounds just like certain old forms of life. Mmmm... warm nutrient bath.


Kill, Crush, Destroy

[infotech] I've alluded to Bayesian spam filters before—now there's a way for Mac OS X users (including those using Eudora, like me) to try them out. Even keeping the potential problems in mind, it's got to be worth a try.


Wednesday, 20 November 2002

He Dwindles in the Distance

[people] The trouble with reading 180-year-old essays and wanting to link to them online is that they aren't always available, or available in a screen-friendly format. The upside is that because they're in the public domain those problems are easily solved. Here, then, is William Hazlitt's On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority.

Don't let the haughty title or dated references put you off; try reading it with weblogs in mind. (More Hazlitt.)


Tuesday, 19 November 2002

B is for Back

[site news] It wasn't actually my intention to follow a few days away with a few days of 'The specified server could not be found', but I suppose the domain gods figured I'd been having too much fun lately, and that losing email access and the website would pull me into line. Although the DNS problem is now fixed, the CGI scripts seem to be on the blink, so no Movable Type-powered comments or search function. Grrr. Guess I'd better go sacrifice a goat.

So, the tales of travels give way to travails for another day or two yet. Sorry. More to come when everything's back to normal.

By the way, B was for Barcelona.


Monday, 11 November 2002


[journal] For someone who's getting on a plane in 18 hours, I feel ridiculously underprepa


[minutiae] I replaced my desktop picture today with a photo of a rough-textured wall from a street near our place, all algae- and soot-encrusted, mortared and multicoloured. It was only afterwards that I realised: whenever I close a window from now on, I'll end up staring at a brick wall.


Sunday, 10 November 2002

Interesting Times

[weblog] The last month sure has been fraught for some of my favourite bloggers. Shauny has lost her grandfather, Chris has lost a dear friend, Jerry has lost his job, and now Tom and Ed have lost their apartment. Not to mention Matthew's jury duty, Graham's bike accident, Matt's hacked site, Bill's server woes, and Scott's disappearance from cyberspace itself.

Follow enough weblogs for long enough and every peak and trough of life passes before your eyes, one entry at a time. It's enough to make the purveyor of anecdotal trivia feel a little inadequate. Certainly, there were plenty of days last month when nothing I wanted to write about could compare with what my virtual compadres were going through. As often as not, that meant ending up writing nothing.

Of course, it may just be the effect of the suddenly shorter days here at 56 degrees north. This time last year they'd already driven me into weblog hibernation. But I'm determined to see 2002 through to the end.

So in the absence of anything more dramatic, the site gets a few throwaway lines, a growing backlog of book reviews, and glaring gaps between entries. More of those to come, in fact, because I'm off on another work trip on Tuesday. In a sad attempt to eke what suspense I can from my mercifully uneventful life, I'll keep the destination a mystery for now. (Hint: it starts with B.)


The United Colours of Ben Elton

[books] The last thing I'd planned to do this week was read not one but two novels by Ben Elton, but after spotting Dead Famous in the library and devouring it within 24 hours, I pulled my unread copy of Blast from the Past off the shelf and knocked that over in a day or two as well. Both were very good, tight and topical thrillers—like most of his early novels, really, but somehow memories of The Thin Blue Line had put me off the whole Elton oeuvre.

He's long since moved on from the eco-thriller setting of Stark and Gridlock, after squeezing the life out of it with This Other Eden. The Tarantino spoof of Popcorn was a better indication of what lay ahead: Blast from the Past features an '80s peacenik, a stalking nutter, and a four-star general in the US Army, while Dead Famous is a murder mystery set in a Big Brother-style house. Neither is particularly comic; the occasional laughs, good though they are, are definitely secondary to the themes of murder and menace. But they're both genuine page turners, effectively concealing their secrets until the end. (Okay, I'd half-guessed Dead Famous, but couldn't be sure.)

It's enough to make me want to read his new one, High Society, and to track down a copy of Inconceivable, even if a novel about IVF probably doesn't involve any actual murders. But I draw the thin blue line at his Queen musical—for now, anyway.


Aloo Zeera

[journal] Adapted from Sameen Rushdie's Indian Cookery. Serves two.


750g baby potatoes
1-2 tbsp ghee or oil
1-2 tsp 'Very Lazy' chopped chili preserved in vinegar
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tsp dried coriander leaves
500g Plum Yoghurt
2 tickets to Morvern Callar


Partially cook whole potatoes in pressure cooker, allow to cool, then peel off skins and cut into small halves or one inch cubes. Heat large frying pan and fry potatoes in ghee or oil until brown. Add salt and turmeric and stir to coat. Scoop in a teaspoon of chili. Scoop in another for luck. Stir through until chili hits sizzling hot surface of pan. Inhale lungful of pure capsaicin emitted from frying chili. Stagger coughing from kitchen. Return reluctantly to staunch burning smell through constant stirring. Add cumin seeds and coriander leaves and cook until potatoes are done, breathing through handkerchief clenched in fist. Serve with rice, waving arms to disperse fumes that have permeated the entire flat. Open windows and leave ajar. Eat large tub of yoghurt to soothe inflamed throat. Evacuate building and head out to movies.


Thursday, 7 November 2002

The Pleiades


In the autumn night
of the countryside
The glow of streetlamps
has no reach, and
the sky
is a coal-black beach

scatters its sands
caught in a wash of foam
As southern eyes
search out a cross
to anchor them
to home

No constant here
in northern air
breathed in these past
breathe in
turned year
breathe out

But then they find
a clutch of pearls
and disconcertment fades
A new anchor
to fix this sight
in mind and heart
The Pleiades


The Fifth

[uk culture] Edinburgh's streets echo to the bangs and whistles of explosives. Lines of light trace across the sky. Smoke pours from burning piles of wreckage. Three nights of bombardment, with no end in sight.

This isn't Guy Fawkes, this is the Gulf War.


Tuesday, 5 November 2002

The Postmodern Condition

[science] Postmodernism: a field noted for impenetrable prose marked by a sense of irony, uncertainty and play, popular among French social theorists and hoaxed by a physicist.

Physics: a field noted for impenetrable prose and rigorous scientific method, popular among scientific theorists and hoaxed by two Frenchmen.

I was never the biggest fan of pomo jargon, but this one is going to run and run. The ironies are just too irresistible. [Via MeFi.]


Monday, 4 November 2002

[music] Oh God, not again.

Four hours of exposure to Catatonia's International Velvet and I'm already singing "Every day when I wake up/I thank the Lord I'm Welsh".

I mean, I'm not even New South Welsh.


Sunday, 3 November 2002

South to the North

[journal] While the site was on ice I was at ICE, three days of stimulating papers and good company in the fresh air of the northern Lake District. Volunteering to help drive the shuttle bus to and from the train station gave me the chance to see a bit of the countryside (and almost bag a few slow pheasants), and to take a few photos of the scenery—click around to see them:

Higham Hall Lawn Higham Hall Lawn Higham Hall Bassenthwaite Water

The Lakes

A good conference helps to get your own ideas flowing, and thanks to this one I think I've finally found the right ones to frame some of the subjects I've been chipping away at over recent months, which was a welcome result. The after-dinner quiz was a result, too, because I won one of these. A brain full of net trivia comes in handy at last.

Good thing there weren't any questions about English surnames, though. As I stood admiring a painting of a stout colonel hanging on the wall, particularly his polysyllabic surname of 'Fetherstonhaugh', one of my colleagues put me to 'the Australian test' and asked me how it was pronounced.

"Featherst'nhaw," I guessed.

"Fanshaw," he corrected me.

That's ridlous.


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