Thursday, 27 February 2003

[uk culture] Walking back to Queen Street station in Glasgow yesterday, I saw a man in front of me wearing: red tartan knee-high socks with tassles; a green tartan tweed jacket; green plaid draped around him in proper Highland manner like a tartan toga, leaving only his knees showing; a battered blue tam-o-shanter; straggly black hair, and a beard. In Edinburgh you see buskers dressed up in immaculate Victorian-era gear all the time (the kilt was actually invented in the 18th century by an Englishman), but this guy's clothes looked well lived-in, like he'd just walked off the set of Braveheart. Sure, it may have been an exercise in postmodern fourth-world identity construction, but it was still something to see; and made me think how anonymous and rootless the clothes I was wearing were. There I was, an Australian in Britain, and just about everything on me came from Canada. Quick, hand me an Akubra!... but make it fur-lined.


[art] How pleasing to see that Daniel Libeskind's design has been chosen for the WTC site in New York. The exteriors look properly distinct from 20th century style, as a group of 21st century skyscrapers should, and the interiors and ground-level spaces will, if the Jewish Museum in Berlin is anything to judge by, be amazing. [Related Mefi bun-fight.]


Tuesday, 25 February 2003

Love Song

[politics] Inspired by Bill's persistence, I too am stepping once more into the breach, silence be damned. All irony aside, I think at the heart of my misgivings is the very question of regime change. My fear is not just that innocent Iraqis will die, or that Westerners face a terrorist backlash, but fear of what could happen if the negotiations leading to war are mishandled, even if the war itself is a military and humanitarian success.

We can argue about how much threat Iraq poses to the world until the cows come home, but a pre-emptive strike against that threat is not, no matter how much people try to draw the comparison, equivalent to Britain's declaration of war against Germany in 1939 or America's against Japan in 1941. Saddam's borders haven't expanded since his attempted invasion of Kuwait in 1990, they've contracted. He has in effect been locked up for twelve years—and now the hawks want him executed. So what are they saying? That he's fixin' to bust out of jail and go on the rampage. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn't. Maybes aren't really getting us anywhere.

So Tony Blair, at least for his domestic audience, has shifted his emphasis to Saddam's human rights abuses. Human rights are certainly of concern to me; I spent some time as a postgrad studying them. One of my interests was in changing international attitudes towards human rights abuses occurring within particular states, and how the balance was shifting away from paramount respect for state sovereignty. So I've been keenly interested in the role that the international community has (or has not) played in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, East Timor, and so on.

But the Yugoslavian wars were not just about human rights, they were about protecting regional minority groups; they were a series of civil wars, with the international community lining up on one side or the other. And Rwanda, where the international community did almost nothing, was about a horrific orgy of genocide. This coming war, leaving aside the supposed threat Iraq poses to other countries, will be a new kind of animal: a war to remove the government of a sovereign state because of its human rights abuses. Effectively, we will have judged it a menace not only to its neighbours, not only to minority groups (whether clustered in distinct geographical areas or not), but to all of its own people.

I value human rights, and believe that no state is unanswerable to the world for its crimes. But at a moment like this we have to ask: who is this "we"? Who is doing the judging? Because if "we" are about to judge a regime criminal and bring about its removal on the grounds of crimes not against us (because those haven't actually happened, even if some fear they might) but against its own people—something that has not happened in quite this way ever before in the history of the modern nation state—we have to be very, very, very sure we're doing the right thing. Not just out of fear for our own safety, but because of a determination to do justice.

In the West we believe that only an institution as significant as the state should try an individual for his or her crimes, through its proxies in the legal system: judges, juries, defenders and prosecutors. Who, then, is fit to judge a state for its crimes? Not another state, but something bigger than states. Not the prosecution alone, but the whole court.

The cheerleaders for war bristle at this idea, because the only thing that looks like a court capable of judging entire states is the United Nations, and the UN is a flawed institution (as if there's a perfect alternative out there that everyone is stupidly refusing to use). They reject its findings before it's even found them, and reserve the right to ignore whatever it concludes. We don't need a UN, they cry; we don't need international consensus; we don't need a second opinion. We're the strongest military power on the face of the earth, the world's policeman, and if we want to be judge, jury and executioner as well, no one can stop us. We're Judge Dredd, and we are the Law.

There are Americans telling themselves that US leadership of this kind is only right and proper, as the US is the world's oldest representative democracy, and democracy is the fairest kind of government there is. The UN, by this same logic, is patently undemocratic, a talking shop stuffed with equal numbers of representatives from tiny principalities through to giant dictatorships. But international politics is not a democracy, and never has been; international politics is a talking shop. We talk and we talk and we talk, saying to each other, "Let's try not to go to war; let's buy each other's stuff; let's not fuck up the world," and hoping that the other guy listens. If the US is to assume the mantle of supreme arbiter on the basis of being democracy number one, who will it represent? And when does the rest of the world get its democratic say in whatever it decides?

If America dons the judges' robes and passes its own sentences on other states—which it is certainly within its military power to do—then the world will have changed far more profoundly than on September 11. American influence will have become explicit interference; the covert will have become overt. The world may be more peaceful, for a while. But beneath that peace will build fears and resentments far more threatening in the long term than the ones that concern the US at this brief moment in history.

America has an empire of influence, built on image. Its prosperity is built on the fact that a great many people in the world want, at least a little bit, to be like Americans. We buy American goods, we watch American movies, we listen to American music, we visit America, and some of us even emigrate to America. We do it because behind all of America's problems and faults we love what it stands for. There are people everywhere as kind and good as Americans (and others just as rotten); there are landscapes just as intriguing. But there is a certain spirit—of independence, of confidence, of optimism—that much of the world identifies with the US.

It's hard to reconcile that spirit with the role of self-appointed policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. In contemplating that role for America, Bush risks diminishing American influence where it counts the most: in the hearts, minds and wallets of the rest of the world.

If the world falls out of love with America, the American century really will be over.


Friday, 21 February 2003


[weblog] See, this is what I was talking about. It took me three weeks—three weeks—to finish reading a single Guardian Weekend magazine, with new ones piling up week by week, reading them all at once, in between work and web and movies and DVDs and three other books on the go. But that 25 January issue was a particularly good one:

And it's Friday. And there's a new one tomorrow.


[comics] Same Difference is a 16-part web-comic with echoes of Daniel Clowes' Ghost World. A terrific read. [Via MeFi.]


[net culture] One of the best MeFi-related commentaries I've ever read, on the unfolding forwarded-email saga. (Via MetaTalk, where I added this.)


Thursday, 20 February 2003

Celebration of a Nation

[uk culture] You may suspect, given how frequently I post on the subject, that yours truly has something of an obsession with the humble chip in all its forms. But even I almost missed the advent of National Chip Week 2003. It's a good thing we were desperately low on chips on the weekend and had to drag ourselves to Sainsbury's, or we never would have picked up the leaflet about it.

"Make a point of celebrating the great British chip from 17-23 February," it implores. So I've been doing just that. On my way home from work last night I stopped in at the local chippie and insisted on purchasing an entire portion stuffed full of vitamin C and complex carbohydrates (which "release energy slowly, leaving you feeling satisfied for longer"). He tried to weaken my resolve, oh yes; tried to tempt me with additional battered goods and carbonated beverages; but no, I said, this is a matter of national pride, of saturated celebration, and your wanton greed shall not spoil this pure moment. I made my point, I think.

As I consumed my thick-cut morsels containing "less fat than a pot of natural wholemilk yogurt" (per chip, one assumes), I pondered the low-key nature of this fried festivity. Why hasn't the National Chip Board (or is it Ministry?) done more to promote its week of weeks? Where are the billboards? The adverts? The people dressed up as giant potatoes roaming the streets and forcing free samples on anorexic passers-by? Where's the promotional footage of the Queen stuffing her face full of greasy crinkle-cuts? And what about a mascot? Why no jolly old man in apron and toque scattering lumps of spud to good children everywhere?

Well, I'm doing my bit. I hereby declare this National Chip Day at the Republic of Speedysnail, and humbly offer my recipe for...

The Ultimate Chip


1.5 kg potatoes
4 litres oil


1. Choose your spuds carefully. New potatoes are far too small for deep-frying, as they would probably just dissolve. Large baking spuds are best.

2. Wash potatoes to dislodge any prominent lumps of topsoil, reserving these for stock. Remove sprouty eye bits and use later in Bean Shoot and Sprouty Eye Bit Salad.

3. Peel. Reserve peelings to sell at New Age Fayre as organic sticking plasters, 50p apiece.

4. Remove flammable objects from kitchen. Don protective clothing; asbestos is fine, provided you don't inhale. Pour oil into large pot to depth of six inches, and heat until smoking.

5. For thin 'French fry' style chips, cut potatoes in half. For proper British chips, leave whole.

6. Drop chips into oil while holding nose and shouting "Bombs away! Take that, Gerry!"

7. Run blistering skin under cold water for 25-30 minutes while chips cook. Call fire brigade if required.

8. When chips are golden brown, test centre with skewer or knife. Pushing hard should force it through. Hold chip aloft on knife like ancient Briton about to go into battle. Sprinkle with salt and vinegar, and serve.

Variant: Wedges

Prepare as above, but do not peel.

Chips and sauce


[site news] Found ten metres apart.


Wednesday, 19 February 2003


[politics] I've been sparing you and me both the joy of yet another online rant on the subject of war, but days of gnawing dread compel me to write at least something, so that I won't look back at the archive in a year's time and wonder why I was so quiet two weeks before the storm. Although looking back at last year I could just repost what I wrote then. What a long wait for the inevitable.

For inevitable it has been, which I suppose is why I chose not to spend every hour discussing it; all I would have done is made myself sick of the sound of my own voice. It was inevitable as soon as it was sayable; as soon as it was imaginable. A leader who wants to look strong Does Something. A president in his first term who wants to win a second Does Not Back Down. The strength or weakness of the case against his long-demonized foe Does Not Matter. And neither does polarizing electorates worldwide, provided the magnetic fields point in the right direction.

So I tried to focus on the positive side. Saddam is, after all, a dictator, hated at home and abroad, and in absolute terms his removal from power would be no bad thing. And American military technology is now so sophisticated that this removal can be achieved swiftly and humanely by a single bomb in a matter of minutes. Sure, there's some uncertainty about which bomb will be able to do the job, which means accompanying the lucky explosive with a number of less fortunate ones; and dropping those will take up several minutes on either side of the few in which Saddam will be swiftly and humanely removed. No matter; any non-dictatorial Iraqis of the kind begging to be liberated have had plenty of advance warning, and will have been able to relocate somewhere safe by now. Just like we Westerners are now safe from Terror.

And there is such a thing as a just war: look at the proud record of Western intervention in Bosnia, or Rwanda. All it took in Rwanda's case was five thousand troops, and we prevented genocide. Sorry: all it would have taken... to prevent genocide.

But this war is just, surely; Saddam's a bad guy. He gassed his own people, in that village; you know, back in the Iran-Iraq war—c'mon, it was on TV all the time. Except... it turns out that US intelligence wasn't so sure it was Saddam; it could have been Iran. So one of the key rhetorical claims about his monstrous wickedness is as substantial as Schrödinger's cat. Fortunately, rhetoric plays no part in determining anything as serious as the timing of war.

But that aside, he's still a major threat. It's only six short years since he first came to power, and already he's annexed Saudi Arabia, been handed Kuwait by weak-kneed appeasers, and now has invaded Jordan. You think he's going to stop there? Good God, no. Once he reaches the shores of defenceless Israel it's only a few short miles to the coast of New England.

Which is why we see an American government contemplating punishing Germany for not going to war... by withdrawing what was originally an army of occupation... and redeploying it to a new front line in Poland.

And they say irony is dead. But then they said that about Bin Laden.


Tuesday, 18 February 2003

Bizarre Tribal Rituals

[weblog] Given my recent musings on teen movies and the educational demands of today, it's probably inevitable that I'd link to this essay on the social dynamics of high school. It's misleadingly titled, and the MeFi thread about it takes that mislead and runs with it. The strongest insights are halfway in, where Graham talks about how the very nature of the modern American (and Australian, for that matter) high school shapes the lives of those in it, while simultaneously questioning our modern tendency to blame everything on hormones:

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.


[net culture] Shelley Powers at Burningbird has taken blog comment management to the next level. Her new PHP-driven links page allows readers to see every comment associated with a particular URL that has been posted to her site. A brilliant feature for weblog neighbourhoods, which if widely implemented could cut down on the fragmenting effect of scattering our comments far and wide.


Monday, 17 February 2003

¡Español es Divertida!

[journal] Hola. Me llamo Rory. En el año dos mil y tres, me aprendo español. Aprendo, pero no comprendo. Está muy difícil, y soy un poco estúpido. ¡Muchas preguntas y muchos deberes! «¿Cuántos años tienes?» «Tengo treinta y cinco anos.» «¡No! ¡Anos es muy mal! Años. Aññññños.» Estoy pensando «¿Qué quiere decir anos? Anos... anos... ¡caramba! Tengo treinta y cinco arseholes.» ¿Es doloroso, no? (La verdad es que «ñ» es fácil, pero c, h, j, g, y rr son difícil. Hijo, ahí, rehacer, herrero—¡arrg!*)

*Se pronuncia «aaaadddrrrgggghhhhh»


Friday, 14 February 2003

I Love Youse All

[site news] Happy Valentine's Day. Here's a present. Don't eat them all at once.


Thursday, 13 February 2003

Rage Against the Dying of the Light


Dear List,

Re: Odeons Under Threat (461)

How depressing to read of the imminent closure of the Odeon on Clerk St. I've only been here 18 months, but this cinema has been one of the best things about Edinburgh. I've visited movie houses from pirate-video joints in Tonga to the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, and none could compare with watching The Fellowship of the Ring on screen one at Clerk Street.

Back home in Australia anything that classy was refurbished into a soulless multiplex twenty years ago—exactly the kind that's springing up around Edinburgh and Glasgow today. They have their place, sure, but does every place have to be like that?

The saddest part is knowing that in a few years' time everyone will be sitting in the movie theatre equivalent of Economy Class wondering why they ever gave up their First Class seats, and by then it will be too late.


Rory Ewins.


Wednesday, 12 February 2003

And The Winner Is...

[film] The Oscar nominations have been announced, and I've managed to see only one of the five Best Picture nominees. Since three-quarters of Academy voters will be in the same boat, this makes me ideally qualified to pick the winners—armed with nothing more than the abridged list of nominees in today's Metro, a reasonable knowledge of Oscars form, and ingrained cynicism. Hey, it worked last year.

Best Picture: Chicago. The Academy always welcomes the chance to give the gong to a much-loved but long-neglected genre; and a gong for Chicago will serve as pseudo-gong for Cabaret, which missed out in the early 1970s. The Hours sounds too clever by half; anything to do with Polanski (The Pianist) doesn't have a hope in these paedophiliphobic times; Gangs of New York has lost its shine; and The Two Towers* won't win for the same reasons Fellowship didn't.

Best Director: Stephen Daldry, to balance losing Best Picture; conversely, Rob Marshall will have to be satisfied with same. Almodovar is too Spanish, Polanski is too wanted by the FBI, and Scorsese was too slow to finish Gangs.

Best Actress: Nicole Kidman. Julianne Moore is a strong contender, given that the world has suddenly realised that she's been in every movie released in the last five years, but the Academy never awards actors at their peak. Renée Zellweger won't get it because of her funny name, and Salma Hayek and Diane Lane won't because I have no idea what they did, and therefore three-quarters of the Academy won't either. No, Nic will get it: not because of her acting per se, or because of a belated break-up-with-Tom sympathy vote, but because the role called for a prosthetic nose. Fake physical deformities are Oscar gold—unless they're oversized hairy feet.

Best Actor: Michael Caine. Everyone says Daniel Day-Lewis was the best thing about Gangs of New York, but he's had his Oscar already, and just hasn't been in enough films lately. Jack Nicholson was brilliant in About Schmidt,* but that's too indie and interesting for the Academy. Nicolas Cage is great in Adaptation by all accounts, but how many Oscars did Being John Malkovich get? And Adrien who? Nope, this is the Academy's chance to give the gong to a veteran, show how much they loved Zulu, and give some timely Hollywood-liberal support to a film that suggests that not everything about US foreign policy is perfect.

Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore. Consolation prize for not getting best actress. La Streep will have to be satisfied with a record number of nominations and her past gongs; Zeta Jones with public spats with Hello; Bates with her previous Oscar, and the pleasure of having appeared in About Schmidt; and Latifah with being Queen (see also: Funny Names—Zellweger).

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Walken. Paul Newman's had his chance. Ed Harris—ehhh. Chris Cooper and John C. Reilly—ruh? A gong for Walken is another chance to acknowledge a stalwart actor, and to honour Spielberg without having to honour Spielberg.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Hours. Another consolation prize for not getting Best Picture, and proof that the Academy really does like clever writing, honestly. About a Boy* is pleasant but slight, Adaptation too smarty-pants, Chicago is getting the main prize so doesn't need this, and The Pianist has that Polanski connection.

Best Original Screenplay—you guessed it: Gangs of New York. The Academy has to acknowledge Marty's pet project somehow. Far From Heaven, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Talk To Her and Y Tu Mama Tambien hardly have that Scorsese cachet.

Best Animated Film (when did this get its own category?): Ice Age.* It should be Spirited Away, judging by what others have said, but anime won't get the gong. Treasure Planet stiffed, Spirit sounded pretty ordinary, Lilo & Stitch ditto. Ice Age wasn't as good as it should have been, but wins by default.

Other Oscars: Chicago will scoop up a bunch of costume and music awards to boost its overall haul to respectable levels; Two Towers might get a special effects award, but then again might not, because after all, it's only make-believe, and wasn't there some digital work on Nic's nose in The Hours?

You saw it here first, folks. Bookmark this post and revisit in a month's time. Meanwhile, I'd better go out and see a few more of these nominees. (* marks the ones I've actually seen at the time of writing, which shows how seriously you should take these predictions. But if you win money on them, I want a cut.)


Teen Angels

[film] Being reminded of Alexander Payne's Election the other day got me thinking about teen movies, and in particular the romantic and comedic teen flicks of the 1980s. It just so happens that I was a teenager from 1981 to 1987, and spent those impressionable years soaking up the finest hours of the brat pack on the big and small screen. Which gets me wondering which ones I would include in a personal top ten.

The problem is where and when to draw the line. All teen movies ever made? Movies aimed at teenagers, or about teenagers? In the end I've kept the focus on the 1980s: the movies don't have to have been released then, but have to be set during that decade. This means leaving out older classics like The Graduate and more recent ones like Election itself, but saves having to explain why Clueless and Rushmore just didn't do it for me. The movies also have to be about teenagers per se, and not just, say, vampires who happen to be teenagers. And finally, they have to be movies I would actually want to watch again.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986): John Hughes spent half the '80s trying to make the perfect teen movie, and managed it precisely once. Weird Science, 16 Candles, and The Breakfast Club all have their merits, but none quite get there for me. Ferris Bueller, though, has it all: the cocky hero, the endearingly nerdy friend, the malevolent teacher, the beautiful girlfriend, the knowing asides to camera, and the outrageously hot car. Packed full of classic lines and moments, Bueller is let down only by the 'day off' itself, which can't hope to match the build-up of the first act; but is redeemed by an ending which will forever stamp Yello's 'Oh Yeah' into the minds of those who've seen it. For making Bueller, Hughes can be forgiven just about anything—even Curly Sue.

Risky Business (1983): Matthew Broderick may have killed a fine car in spectacular fashion in Ferris Bueller, but Tom Cruise killed one even more spectacularly three years earlier. That scene alone makes Risky Business a contender—add the 'pimp from home while mom and dad are away' plot, Cruise dancing to Bob Seger in his jocks, and the screen debut of the hilariously lame insult 'a-hole', and ladies and young gentlemen, we have a winner.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987): Hughes churned out teen-movie scripts by the several in the mid-80s—more than he could direct on his own. Howard Deutch filled the director's chair with Pretty in Pink and this, its gender-swapped counterpart. In a first for a Hughes teen script, Some Kind of Wonderful is played completely straight, and is the stronger for it. No goofy male nerdling as the unrequited lover here, but instead a cute tomboy who frankly could have done a lot better than Eric Stoltz.

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991): Bill and Ted were shamelessly derivative, both of SNL's Wayne's World and of early '80s landmark Fast Times at Ridgement High (which hasn't aged well). But even if Keanu was just aping Sean Penn's surfer dude, he's still Keanu, dammit, and the Bill and Ted flicks were the crucible in which his Keanuness was formed. The first B&T was pure '80s, and although it was released in 1991, so is this sequel. Bogus Journey trumps its predecessor for its brilliant parody of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, ensuring an afterlife of in-jokey enjoyment among cineastes everywhere.

Back to the Future (1985): Purists might argue that Back to the Future is not first and foremost a teen movie but rather a science fiction movie. Without its teenage themes, though, this would be no more than an average episode of The Twilight Zone. As it is, it brilliantly contrasts 1980s and 1950s teendom, touching on all the essential elements: young love, jocks, nerds, rock and roll, and hot cars. And it does it with a great sense of humour, a tighter than tight script, and Michael J. Fox, small-screen teen icon of the decade. How could you not include it?

The Big Steal (1990): So far, my list has been all-American. I've racked my brain trying to think of a British movie worth including, but Absolute Beginners isn't it. Australia, though, produced a couple of genuine classics about adolescence during the 1980s. The first, The Year My Voice Broke, would be on this list if it wasn't set in the 1960s. The second, The Big Steal, may have been released in 1990 but was shot in the late '80s, and captures the time perfectly. Its star Ben Mendelssohn was the essence of the gawky Aussie adolescent: neither nerd nor jock—just a Good Bloke trying to impress a girl (the curvaceous Claudia Karvan) with his hot car. For once, the auto-drama revolves around repair rather than destruction, as Mendelssohn gets his revenge on a car dealer who's double-crossed him. Was there ever a more deserving target of teenage pranksterism?

Dead Poets Society (1989): Peter Weir's fraught vision of New England private education is remembered as a Robin Williams vehicle, but the focus was no more on captain, my captain than it is in any school; it was the students who made this story work, and Dead Poets was as good a portrayal of teen earnestness, angst and aspiration as there's ever been. Or so I thought in 1989; it'd be interesting to see how well it's aged.

Donnie Darko (2001): An instant teen-angst classic, as previously described; and thanks to its 1988 setting, one that definitely qualifies for this list.

O.C. and Stiggs (1987): Filmed in 1985 by Robert Altman from a National Lampoon storyline, this went straight to video in most countries, and divides viewers still: half hate it, half hail it. I don't know which half I belong to, because I only saw half of it, in the small hours of the morning six or seven years ago. But that brief glimpse of two gonzo teenagers in a monster truck puts this at the top of my list of Possibly Great Teen Movies I Fell Asleep In The Middle Of And Want To See Again, which is a good enough reason to include it for me.

And: This space intentionally left blank. Which essential teen movie set in the 1980s have I missed?


Tuesday, 11 February 2003

The Machine That Goes Ping

[net culture] Despite the concerns raised by Tom Coates and his readers, I might implement SimpleComments here to merge trackback pings into the comments box, if only because the unloved 'tb' link at the end of these posts annoyeth me (and inadvertently reminds me of George Orwell's sad fate). We'll see.


Verdict: Malfeasance

[weblog] "These FINAL REMAINING CONCEPTS will soon be GONE FOREVER and there will be absolutely no reason for anyone to publish anything more, ever." From the marsupial cataloguer who brought you The Field Guide to Vampire Hunter Romance Authors.


Monday, 10 February 2003

Link and You'll Miss It

[weblog] This really is way too many links to put into separate entries, using up valuable permalinks as if they were dime-a-dozen. So much more efficient to dump them all into one entry where they can be safely ignored.

Ftrain—My Name is Blanket:

My father Michael wanted to protect us, to give us inauspicious, normal lives free of the media spotlight. ... In retrospect, the logic of his parenting was ambiguous at best. Nonetheless, I had my own giraffe.

Fun with perspective, via Kafkaesque.

Brewer's Unoriginal Miscellany, via LMG.

Stavros rounds up a bunch of links discussing Clay Shirky's piece on power laws in the weblog community. Twenty percent of weblog readers will be interested; eighty percent will wish we'd all talk about something else.

Rhymer's Travel Diary, also via Stav. Naturally I read the Australian bit first:

I spent a lot of time 'doing' what I used to do in London: i.e. eating out, hanging around in bars, shopping and playing the James Bond game on Andrew's Playstation until 2am. As Andrew pointed out to me, although there were many interesting things to see in Australia, there were also many interesting levels to see on the James Bond game.

These Japanese pencil carvings are close competitors to Dalton Ghetti's pencil-lead sculptures. And I thought reading a whole book about pencils was obsession enough.


[weblog] Too often my (mostly) web-free weekends, meant to give my mind time to sort out all the stuff being jammed into it, end up being stuffed full of newspaper. But some of it ends up being more than mental ticker-tape. This extract from sociologist Richard Sennett's new book featured in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, and has been scrabbling about in my head since:

In adult life, lack of respect comes less from overt signs of contempt by people of a higher class than from invisibility. People above simply don't notice you exist as a distinct individual. ... What then can be done to "earn" respect of that sort, a sense of worth felt not only by others but by oneself? In my experience, an inner sense of dignity comes from developing a skill.

Then there's this poignant article from the weekend about North Dakota, buffaloes and rural decay:

"I had this epiphany moment," she says. "It was just after my mom died and I was in this little, little town with five streets and a lot of empty buildings. I realised I was looking at something that was dying and it wasn't pretty, it wasn't quaint. It was death, and I'll never forget how sad I felt."


Thursday, 6 February 2003


[minutiae] Cold winter evenings bring out the true spirit of apathy.

"I just can't be arsed getting up."

"To do what?"

"I dunno."


[minutiae] A while ago I was cold-canvassed by our bank to join their life insurance scheme, with the first two months of cover free. Since the chance of my choking on a brazil nut at Christmas was greater than zero and free was not, I thought 'what the hell' and signed up. Yesterday I got a reminder letter that they would soon be charging Real Money every Actual Month, and so—given that the immediate choking danger had passed—rang them and cancelled it.

When I mentioned this to Jane she pointed out that the whole thing was a bit pointless, because it wasn't like the extra money would have made much difference if I'd actually died.

"Yeah," I said, "but having £80,000 is better than not having it."

"Sure," she said, "but it's not like it would get rid of the smell."


I Know What It's Been, But What Is It Now?

[uk culture] Remember the roast turkey flavoured crisps? Well, the artificial flavouring chemists at Walker's have been working overtime. Ladies and gentlemen, your corner shop proudly presents: baked bean flavoured crisps.

As if that isn't enough, they have a serving suggestion for baked potato topped with baked beans and baked bean flavoured crisps. Don't they know they risk setting up an infinite bean-and-potato loop? You'd be lucky to get out alive.


You Don't Know Jack

[film] Alexander Payne's Election was one of the better films of recent years, so I had high hopes for his latest, About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson—and they weren't in vain. Not much happens in this story of one man's life after retirement, but it's beautifully observed—one of the most real films I've seen in ages. Nicholson's stereotypical Jack-ness is wound back to 1, leaving a perfectly pitched performance. It's a comedy, in parts, but takes its time getting there, building up the mood carefully and deliberately, and making the eventual laughs all the more effective. It could almost work as well without them: its framing device of the letters that Schmidt writes to his sponsored 6-year-old in Tanzania is as poignant as it is funny.

A great film. And a refreshing change to see one that focusses on 60-somethings, not the usual 20-somethings or 30-somethings.


Sound Advice

[music] Go forth and read Paul's verdict on Lemon Jelly's Lost Horizons. Get ye to the nearest CD store and purchase forthwith. Listen and enjoy. My favourite album of the year so far, no question.



[music] Been going out a bit over the last week or so. We took advantage of a mailout offer from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to see Sir Charles Mackerras conducting two Schubert symphonies last Thursday. I'd never heard either, as far as I could remember. The first was pleasant enough, though nothing remarkable—'The Tragic', written when Schubert was 19—but the second, composed seven years later, was great; and named, appropriately, 'The Great'. Full of melody and drama, and well performed by the SCO.

Surrounded by grey-haired patrons and matrons and watching young violinists and cellists, I couldn't help thinking back on what I was doing at the ages of 19 and 26. Not quite in the same league as writing a couple of symphonies. But it's hard to imagine too many teenagers or twenty-somethings tackling a symphony, given the educational demands of today. Now that everyone is encouraged to stay in school until 17 or 18, in university until 21 or 22, and even in graduate study after that, when will anyone find the time to sit down and score a hundred instruments? How many could-have-been Greats are there—or aren't there?


Insert Insight Here

[net culture] A piece in the Guardian [via Exploding Fist] argues that the best blogs are written with conversation in mind:

Weblogs can approach the quality and texture of real conversations. Great bloggers leave lots of gaps and readers rush to fill them, producing insight in the synthesis of the original words and the reader's response. The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts.

You don't say?


Tuesday, 4 February 2003

Snow Business


The Mound, Edinburgh, 3 February 2003

Edinburgh had more snow lying around yesterday than at any other time in the 18 months we've been here. Elsewhere in Britain it's been causing motorway gridlock and airport chaos, but here it made for some great wintry photographs.


[weblog] Are we really better off with Octopus Robots?


Monday, 3 February 2003

The Mating Habits of Snails

[suggested] This reader suggestion may seem a tad obvious, given the ol' domain name, but hold on to your shells—the mating habits of snails are far more disturbing than you think.

Since I can't claim to be any sort of expert on our molluscous friends, I had to turn to the secret weapon of the highly trained yet inherently lazy researcher to find out more about this lurid subject. Sure enough, it turns out that 1,840 people find snail sex so fascinating that they've mentioned it on one of their web pages. Measured against the global population, this translates into a rate of 1 in 2000,* making it highly likely that your town or suburb harbours one or more perverted gastropoidophiles. You can help stamp out this twisted practice by watching for silver trails around the lips and chins of neighbours, and reporting keen 'gardeners' to your nearest screaming mob.

So what of the slithering capsules of lust themselves? The first page on Google's list plays down their kinkiness, making them sound almost modest:

Snails court for hours before mating, often twisting themselves around each other, and covering each other with a slimy material. Once the mating process has finished, each individual snail goes in search of a place to lay its eggs. Snails lay an average of 75 eggs, a few inches into top soil. Within 2-4 weeks, the eggs hatch. Snails are rapid reproducers, breeding as often as once a month.

Twisting around... slimy material... breeding once a month... so far, so middle-class suburban. But the next link reveals their sordid secrets for all the world to see and, in 0.05% of cases, be unhealthily aroused by:

Hermaphrodites can take male or female roles in mating and reproduction, as circumstances dictate. The garden snail fulfills both sexual roles simultaneously.

Cross-dressing intergender sexual-role-playing gastropods! Quick, fetch a garden hose and douse these brazen hussies before they harm the children.

These snails punctuate their mating ritual by puncturing their partners with a calcified "love dart." ... Garden snails court from 15 minutes to six hours by circling each other, touching with tentacles, and biting on the lip and genitals. Just before mating, hydraulic pressure builds up in the blood sinus surrounding the organ housing the dart, and when the second animal touches the darter's genitals, it fires that dart. After snail number two responds by firing its own dart, the snails simultaneously mate.

Ohmygodthatsthefunkyshit. Genital piercing snails! S&M snails! Hard-core biting and stabbing snails! All under our very noses and/or lettuces!

I'll never be able to look at Speedy the same way again.

Still, it gives me some great ideas for my forthcoming line of site merchandise. As well as a Hotwheels Speedy with friction-propelled action and shell that ejects on impact, we can do a self-sliming Inflatable Speedy with pop-up dart. 1,840 of those at fifty bucks a pop should do nicely.

*Or, if you are more skilled with a calculator, 1 in 3,260,000. See comments.


[site news] Found reconfigured.


Last Requests

[events] Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man was one of my favourite books as a kid, and one of my favourite stories in it was about an astronaut falling to earth after being thrown from his ship by an accident. As he falls, space debris shoots through his body, taking out his limbs one by one; he desperately seals off his spacesuit above each entry point, prolonging his life for a few extra minutes, until finally he burns up on re-entry. An awful fate, but Bradbury balances it with a poetic vision of the last thing the astronaut sees in his life—the arc of the Earth.

After the shock of Saturday's news, the sadness for the families involved, the concern about its implications... after pondering the parallels with Challenger, and reliving 17-year-old memories of newspaper headlines on the streets of Rome... all I could think of was that story.

They died at the end of the mission, not at the beginning; not staring into darkness, but looking down on the whole blue Earth.


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