Monday, 31 March 2003

Ain't Gonna Play Sun City

[site news] Something new (and at the same time old) for an old part of the site: International Moves Against Apartheid, a background paper I wrote as part of some research work in the mid-'90s. Someone out there might find it useful, and it might as well sit on the web as sit on my hard-drive.

Also: found in a gorse bush.


Tuesday, 25 March 2003

Time Out

[site news] I'm taking the rest of March and April off. My folks are in the country and will be up here in a few weeks, I've got a ton of other stuff to do in the meantime, and I'm feeling in need of a mental sauna. Speedysnail will return refreshed sometime in May. (There may be some activity behind the front page now and then, but I wouldn't count on it.)


Monday, 24 March 2003

I'd Like to Thank...

[film] My pick them without having seen them experiment didn't go too well; all I got right were best picture for Chicago and best actress for Nicole Kidman's fake nose. The big surprise was the number of awards for The Pianist; I really did think that Polanski's dubious past would rule it out, but I guess the Academy is more forgiving about such matters than the British public. Also a surprise that Julianne Moore missed out. My (22% guaranteed!) prediction is that she'll win something next time for an entirely ordinary performance in some forgettable flick.

Still haven't seen The Hours, Gangs of New York or The Pianist. Chicago was enjoyable enough. Adaptation was fun while it lasted, but a bit too clever for its own good; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind had a better Kaufman script and was a better film all round. Catch Me While You Can was a surprise: surprisingly good, that is, considering how luke-warm a lot of the reviews were, with Spielberg on top form, strong performances, and great style. The portrayal of the flipside of 1950s America in Far From Heaven was also well done, although the intrusive soundtrack was one piece of period authenticity I could have done without.

Now comes the mad rush to fill in the gaps before summer blockbuster season kicks in.


Sunday, 23 March 2003

[site news] A refit of the old Pacific politics section of this site.


Friday, 21 March 2003

Manger du Fromage est Bon

[weblog] Snide talk of "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" making you fureur? Don't get mad, get even-handed, with French week at Idle Words. Day Two is a timely debunking of claims of French cowardice in World War II, while Day Four sings the praises of fromage:

[As] a student in Paris ... I had been hired to babysit a five-year-old boy twice a week, in the hopes of teaching him a little English. One evening, as I was preparing a snack, I held up a piece of cheese.
"Nicolas, in English this is called cheese. Can you say that?"
"Very good! Cheese. What would you call this in French?"
Five years old, and he knew his cheeses by name. I checked him on every one in the fridge. He even knew the names of the ones that were unpasteurized.

And while we're on the subject, another great French gift to civilisation is discussed by its translator here [via languagehat].


Flash in ze Pan

[site news] Flash in ze frying pan, into ze line of fire... with interactive multimedia expert Herr Doktor Komputor, Dipl. und M.A. (Leiden), D.Phil. (Oxon).


Thursday, 20 March 2003

[politics] The label "Cassandra" has been drifting around the web lately, attached with a sneer to opponents of the war. Some people seem to be using it to mean "prophet of doom", with implications of overreaction and false prophecy—which completely misses the point.

Cassandra was a Greek prophet of uncanny accuracy, who fell out with her suitor, Apollo. The angry god exacted his revenge by twisting her power: while her predictions remained as accurate as ever, now no one believed them. The moral of Cassandra's story is not that she was a prophet of doom, but that her prophecies of doom were right, and ignored.

Others have taken to wearing the label with pride, as a preemptive "told you so" about how bad the war would be, or how bad not having the war would be. But Cassandra gained no comfort from being able to say "told you so". Her power was a curse. No one should hope to be Cassandra; certainly no one should hope that their opponents are Cassandras.

None of us have the power of prophecy; all we have are hopes and fears. And I hope my fears are wrong. I hope your speech to the House was well-founded, Mr Blair, and that your belligerent noises have some connection with reality, Mr Bush. And I hope that the voice of Cassandra doesn't sound like this.


[weblog] Want some distraction from the attack? How about an attack of the cutes. Any cuter and they'd dissolve into a pool of treacle. [Via the J man.]


Sunday, 16 March 2003

Native Tongue


Waitin ferthat
wacker Davo
tuh showup
E's a fuckin
Wotcher waitin
 Medad sez
 Yunno, cozzy's me
Yair, bu'fuck
e's a
 Yair, buddy's only
e's still a fuckin
tool, cock
A wacker'na tool
ain't a
E ain't a pulleryet.
E ain't got nothintuh
pull, azzy?
when e asgot
somefintuh pull,
e'll be a wacker,
a puller
anna toolcock
bu' yorrafuckin


Friday, 14 March 2003

The "Now I'm Off the Wagon I May As Well Post Some Links" Post

[weblog] 1. Convincing evidence that Shakespeare was not a lowly nobody from Stratford but someone who had actually mixed with royalty and travelled to the places he wrote about, like Italy, scandalous though that may seem:

If the name "William Shake-speare" is a pseudonym, [the Earl of] Oxford would have had many reasons for adopting this particular nom de plume. Pallas Athena, patron goddess of ancient Athens, home of Greek theatre, was associated with the sobriquet Hasti-vibrans, or "spear-shaker". Oxford's coat of arms bears a lion shaking a spear. At court Oxford was known as "Spear-shaker" because of his skill at tournaments and his crest showing a lion brandishing a spear. ... Upon Oxford's death in 1604 King James had eight Shakespeare plays produced at court as a final tribute. When Oxford's widow died nine years later a group of Shakespeare plays (fourteen in this case) were produced in tribute. ... In an age of copious eulogies, none was forthcoming when William Shakspere died in Stratford [in 1616].

Then there's Malcolm X's point: "From 1604 to 1611, King James got poets to translate, to write the Bible. Well, if Shakespeare existed, he was then the top poet around. But Shakespeare is nowhere reported connected with the Bible. If he existed, why didn't King James use him?"

2. The extraordinarily rich Apollo Lunar Surface Journal [via MeFi] is full of great shots and composites, but my favourite was this one of Apollo astronauts and Soyuz 9 crew at a backyard party in 1970. The warm side of the Cold War.

3. You may have noticed a certain rebranding of fried potato products in the news recently. You may have thought, "That Rory bloke has been carving himself a niche in the competitive field of fried-potato-product commentary; I wonder what he has to say about this?" In which case you'll be disappointed to hear that, in an effort to broaden my range as a Serious Author and avoid typecasting, I have eschewed any further tuberesque talk at this site for the time being.

Offsite comments are, however, another matter entirely.

4. Finally, this interview with ex-war-journo Chris Hedges [via the wondrous chicken] says pretty much all that needs to be said about you-know-what.



[net culture] Tom of, who's been metablogging like crazy lately, has just revisited the subject of trackbacks; which, seeing that I finally got around to changing my trackback system to mimic his a couple of days ago (trackbacks embedded at the end of posts, though not relying solely on autodiscovery as he recommends), got me (re-)thinking.

I explained trackbacks a while ago (in the comments on this post) as an automated version of emailing someone to let them know you'd posted a comment on an entry of theirs, and having them insert an 'update' link at the end of said entry to say that you'd commented on it. Which makes me wonder what the point of having it is at all.

As an automated system, it's open to the sort of advertising abuse Tom points out (although the blog owner can always delete such pings if he or she wishes). But worse, it gives the appearance of conversation when actually there is none. If a blog receives a stack of pings, it looks as if its author is engaged in conversation when actually his or her blog is just being used as a bulletin board. If the author was truly engaged in the discussion, he or she would be talking back in separate posts or comments on the blog, and would be dropping links to other blogs into those as a matter of course.

Automating this process may relieve the owner of the pinged blog of any sense of obligation to hold up their side of the conversation. If they don't want to hold up their side of the conversation, that's fine, but to give the appearance that they are by hosting a bunch of trackback links is a little misleading. And if they do go further than hosting a trackback link by actually commenting on it, well, isn't that the sort of manual linking-back that trackback is supposed to replace?

I can see trackback making sense in group blogs like MeFi where there's no single author being engaged in conversation. I can even see it making sense in high-profile single-author blogs where a community grows up around the blog whose members want to talk among themselves with or without the author's involvement (although surely comments boxes are sufficient for that; you can link to your blog posts in a comment if necessary). But it makes no sense as a substitute for actively taking part in inter-blog conversation.

The only argument for it might be that a trackback ping is more discreet than a direct email, a cough behind the hand rather than an outright request for recognition and response; yet that seems ridiculous. Those on the receiving end of a ping know that it was deliberately sent by another human being seeking their attention (or free publicity). How is that more discreet than a one-line email saying "Hi, I liked your post on XYZ, you might like to read my response here"?

So, after tweaking the trackback system here two days ago, today I'm pulling the whole thing out.


Wednesday, 12 March 2003

Brrrt Brrrt. Brrrt Brrrt.

[site news] Hello, you've reached the website of Rory Ewins. I'm not here right now, but leave a message after the tone and I'll get back to y... Yes? Sure, come in, I was just recording a m... oh my God... what's thaaaaaaauuunnnnnhhhhhhhh



Friday, 7 March 2003

Snail's Pace

[site news] I've been busy, as regular readers might have guessed; busy reading and editing tens of thousands of collectively-written words on staff and student IT skills in European universities. At the end of a hard day's Highlighting Changes in MS Word when everything's a sea of red, there's not much energy left to write amusing anecdotes. Then there's the time spent organising a trip up to Orkney at the end of April, getting out a bit on the weekends, going to the movies in the evenings, and generally not staring at the screen.

It's more than that, though; the busy-ness has coincided with my semi-annual bout of wondering what to do with this site. Last weekend I was running through the books and CDs and movies I wanted to review here and came up with a list as long as my arm, assuming that my arm is a couple of dozen books, CDs and movies long. Which gave me pause; that much writing feels too much like... well, work. What is this, the New Rory Review of Books? Rory Stone? Where's the funding coming from? How long will all of this take? And, more to the point, why do I keep writing about other people's creations instead of creating my own?

The same could be said for the usual link-and-commentary and insta-punditry of blogging. It has its moments, but it all feels so... ephemeral. Stop-gap. And I don't have too many gaps to stop these days.

I'm not saying there'll be none of that here from now on; just less of it. I suspect the front page of Speedysnail is, for a while at least, going to look more like it did three years ago: an old-fashioned 'what's new' page with updates every now and then.

But while I may not have been blogging much lately, I have created something new for the site: the latest instalment of Detail, Castles of Scotland. If a picture says a thousand words, then the 70 pictures in these collages are a whole freakin' novel's worth. Hope you like them.

Oh, and then there's this latest throwaway: found near a rugby field.


The Jean Genie

[music] Spent last night in the giant bronchial ward that is Edinburgh's Usher Hall, fuming at the inconsiderate concert-goers who chose the carefully placed moments of silence in Sibelius' Seventh Symphony to clear their lungs, rather than coughing during the loud sections when no-one would hear them. "Listen to me! My hacking noises are so much more beautiful than the greatest symphony ever written!" Gahh.

Fortunately, Sibelius' greatness transcended even the irritation of somebody's digital watch beeping at precisely the wrong moment. (For God's sake, who wears a digital watch any more? And sets it to chime on the hour?) The Tempest Suite was fun, Andante Festivo pleasant, the Sixth Symphony wonderful, and the Seventh simply the most perfect 25 minutes of orchestral music there is. I'd never heard it performed live before; the crescendos sounded impossibly overwhelming, all the striving and yearning of human existence wrapped up in their few brief minutes. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it confirmed once again that this is the music I want to hear when my soul wanders up the tunnel towards the light, or at least dissipates into nothingness. But then I've already mentioned the mighty Jean S. here, so you know all that.


TV or Not TV

[journal] Television. The drug of a nation; breeding ignorance, and feeding radiation. Or so I think at times. At other times, I wanna grab that tube of electronic goodness and pour its cathode rays down my starving retinas. Which can be difficult when you don't actually own one.

No, we still don't own a TV. A couple of months ago Jane and I spent a cold wintry evening discussing whether it was time to return to its warm glow (see? When you don't have a TV you have so much more time for conversation... even if they do end up being about not having a TV), but our initial feeling that yes, it was, eventually gave way to a determination to hold out a little longer.

We had increased our yearning for the box by buying DVDs of some choice series over the months—Spaced, The Office, Brass Eye—and watching them on Jane's laptop. At Christmas we went overboard, stocking up for the lean months of January and February with hours and hours of The Young Ones, Futurama, Blackadder and, best of all, Simon Schama's A History of Britain. Not a sign, you would think, of people who reject all things televisual; and you'd be right. So why not just buy one and be done with it?

My brother asked that very question when we last saw him, pointing out that we could pick up a TV pretty cheaply second-hand. It's not the cost, I said; we could afford it. Although on reflection it is partly the cost: £100 for a cheap TV or £200 for a halfway decent one; over £100 a year for the licence; £100 for a VCR; £100 or more for a DVD player; and £100 for a digital set-top box. That's over five hundred quid just to get set up. Sure, we spent more than that on our stereo, but when you're spending that much you have to ask what you're getting for it. And when you look at British television schedules, you soon realise that gems like The Office and A History of Britain don't come along too often.

It was the extras disk of Schama's masterly series that clarified it for me. The DVD box included a recording of his Inaugural BBC History Magazine Lecture, 'Television and the Trouble with History'. He spent some of it outlining the clever choices he and his producers made when turning centuries of written history into 15 hours of sounds and images, but at the outset was more concerned with defending television as an educational medium. There can be such a thing as good TV, he argued, and he hoped that his series was proof of that.

Well of course. A History of Britain was, apart from one or two weaker episodes, so extraordinarily good that we limited ourselves to only one or two episodes a week to make it last. But the very fact that we saw it on DVD was a key point: we didn't need a TV to watch it.

There's television the medium, and television the environment. As a medium, TV is as capable of being good or bad as any other; the best television can easily match the best movies, books or albums. And 'best' doesn't only mean high-brow; TV trash can be just as fun to watch as a cheesy B-movie.

But as an environment, TV mixes up its best and worst into an endless visual stew, forcing you to swim through advertising and promos and news 'updates' and schedule-filler in search of an island of meat in the gravy. The hypnotic attraction of vegeing out in front of the box results in countless hours of watching pointless slop, much of it without even kitsch entertainment value. The only way to avoid that is not to have a box in the first place; not to visit TV land at all.

Or at least, it was once. But now there are television-like devices called personal computers, and video-storing objects that work in them, and the choice isn't quite as stark as TV or not TV. It's actually possible to enjoy the best of the medium without daily immersion in the environment. And that's what we've ended up doing.

There are downsides, naturally. It's harder to find out what's worth watching, and it can feel excessive to shell out several pounds per viewing hour. But when you spend that sort of money on every screen minute, you choose carefully and watch less, and the results are generally more satisfying. Missing out on TV news is a problem, as following the news online and in newspapers can be heavy going; but then I'm quite happy not to have had all sense of proportion destroyed by hourly updates showing the same George Bush sound-bites about how threatened and anxious we should all be feeling.

The strangest side-effect of not having a honking great cathode ray tube taking up a corner of the living room, though, is how people react when you say you don't have one. It's as if our personal decisions about how to spend our own time and money are a criticism of their choices—although not having a TV is so unusual in this day and age that people forget that having one is a choice. Once you live in the land of TV, you're never allowed to leave.

But emigrants never completely leave their homeland, and neither have we. We may not own a TV, but we still watch TV (avidly, when we're away somewhere and there's one in our hotel room); we just didn't watch that particular show on that particular channel last night. And we're going out tomorrow night and won't be watching it then, either; sorry.

So that's what I'll tell people from now on when they ask "TV or not TV?": both.

(And now that I've said all of that I'll probably end up buying one on the weekend, just to be perverse.)


Tuesday, 4 March 2003

Runaway Horses


The mind that has no fixed aim loses itself, for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere. ... When lately I retired to my house resolved that, in so far as I could, I would cease to concern myself with anything except the passing in rest and retirement of the little time I still have to live, I could do my mind no better service than to leave it in complete idleness to commune with itself, to come to rest, and to grow settled; which I hoped it would thenceforth be able to do more easily, since it had become graver and more mature with time. But I find ... that, on the contrary, like a runaway horse, it is a hundred times more active on its own behalf than ever it was for others. It presents me with so many chimeras and imaginary monsters, one after another, without order or plan, that, in order to contemplate their oddness and absurdity at leisure, I have begun to record them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of them.

Incessantly to follow one's own track, to be so close a prisoner to one's own inclinations that one cannot stray from them, or give them a twist, is to be no friend to oneself, still less to be one's master; it is to be one's own slave. I say this at the present moment because I cannot easily shake off the tyranny of my mind, which is ordinarily unable to take up anything without becoming absorbed, or to work at anything without devoting all its powers to it. However trifling the subject presented, it is prone to magnify it and expand it to such a point as to require its utmost strength. Mental idleness is therefore to me a troublesome state, and detrimental to my health. Most minds have need of some foreign matter to quicken and exercise them; mine needs it rather in order to relax and compose itself—'the vice of leisure must be shaken off by occupation' [Seneca, Letters, LVI]—for its chief and most laborious study is the study of itself. Books are the sort of employment that distracts it from this study.

Michel de Montaigne [1533-92], 'On Idleness', pp. 27-28, and 'On Three Kinds of Relationships', p. 251, in Essays, translated by J.M. Cohen (Penguin, 1958).


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