Thursday, 17 April 2003

The Fog Descends

[site news] ...literally and figuratively. I'm escaping the Edinburgh fog by heading north, and will be in and out of town over the next six weeks, so it's back into hiatus for the snail. Follow the links to see what's been, or check back in a month to see what's next. Seeya.


[weblog] Homesickness [via Portage]. I probably own some of these. There's my valley. That's my town.


Keep Moving

[film] MeFi has been discussing and augmenting a list of the modern movie canon, one that contains only a single entry more than ten years old. As a roll-call of influential movies of the past decade it's reasonable enough, but Ty Burr's discussion of its '90s focus makes pretty sobering reading for the film enthusiast. I love The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, The Matrix, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction—all of those usual suspects— and would rank them highly on a list of '90s favourites of my own. I also loved the postmodern games of Being John Malkovich, the most surprising omission from this list. But postmodernism to the exclusion of all else gets tiresome, and if all we have to look forward to is pomo movie-making feeding on its own regurgitations, the movies of 2008 are going to look pretty tired.

Not for the first time, I feel grateful towards the main sources of my film education: the local video store in the 1980s (back in the 'pigging out' days); the ANU Film Group in the 1990s; the black-and-white classics on the ABC; and the foreign movies on SBS. Amelie was enjoyable enough, but it was no Le Vacance de Monsieur Hulot; Run Lola Run was terrific, but will it linger in the mind for as long as Aguirre, Wrath of God?

Can you really know the movies of the past decade if you haven't held a butterfly in Close to Eden, wept at the border in Journey of Hope, suffered the blows of Once Were Warriors, sat in the pink bathroom of Harry, He's Here to Help, or run after a chicken in City of God? Can you really know movies, full-stop, if you haven't fought in the rain with The Seven Samurai, gripped the steering wheel in The Wages of Fear, listened to the sound of your own air supply in 2001, dodged a biplane in North by Northwest, trimmed the bushes in Mon Oncle, danced with Hitler in The Producers, danced with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, plucked a banjo in Deliverance, hauled a paddle-steamer in Fitzcarraldo, or felt pity towards Citizen Kane?


Wednesday, 16 April 2003

Tangerine Dream

[infotech] More and more of those copy-controlled I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-a-CD!s have been turning up in record stores here, and I've been trying to think what they remind me of—apart from the thousands and thousands of dollars (and now pounds) that I've given to short-sighted record company executives over the past twenty years.

In fact, they remind me of twenty years ago: of the first year I properly listened to pop music. If it had been up to record company marketers, it would have been the last year I listened to pop music, because I got sick of the Top 40 pretty quickly. But thanks to friends with good record collections and access to evil copyright-infringing technology, I discovered a whole world of albums to explore, by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, and so on, all lovingly hand-recorded onto magnetic tape. Albums I've long since bought on CD in order to have a 'proper' version, an authentic artifact, with a proper cover and the sweet smell of permanence.

But it's not the tapes that copy-controlled disks remind me of.

At around the same time, I was into RPGs, when RPG meant 'geeky pastime involving funny-shaped dice' and not 'heavy weaponry used in Iraq'. Role-playing games involve a lot of books and booklets, all of them exactly the right size for a photocopier, and in those penniless student days a fair bit of copying and swapping went on. It would be hard to argue that we were depriving the publishers of money, because my friends and I already spent all of our pocket money on new manuals and modules; all we were doing was fuelling our obsession even more, fanning its flames enough to burn up all of our cash and whatever advances we could wangle out of our parents. Teenage obsessions far outstrip teenage income.

But publishers in the early '80s saw the advent of cheap plain-paper photocopying as the End Times, and some of them took measures to prevent it. The most memorable was the Tangerine Game. It wasn't actually called the Tangerine Game; this was a game with a manual printed on tangerine-coloured paper. Which photocopies as a sheet of solid black.

This masterstroke was, unfortunately, self-defeating. Tangerine paper is incredibly hard to read, and rules that can't be photocopied are hard to share with friends—the same friends you want to play the game with. So we never bought or played the Tangerine Game, and now I can't even remember its name.

As friends moved on, our game-playing circle broke up, and I switched my pocket-money allegiances to music. My friends and I educated each other by sharing tapes of favourite albums, and our names were forever associated in each other's minds with those albums, long after the tapes were gone and replaced. The music wasn't just music, it was social glue. Music was our never-ending game.

Now I stare at these copy-controlled non-CDs and think: corruptions of long-established manufacturing standards are not 'proper'; crippled versions of proper CDs are not authentic; data that can't be reliably accessed by high-end stereos and digital devices is not permanent; and the people who would sell these fruits of paranoia to their customers of the past twenty years are not my friends.

A copy-controlled disk is a Tangerine Game.


ART. art. ART. art. ART. (Not Really. But Valuable.)

[net culture] A fascinating discussion. One that fills me with the urge to start a new blog in which every entry is filed under the category 'Creative Expression' and outlines the True and Real events of my every waking moment, as told from the viewpoint of Harvey the imaginary cat.

I don't really mean that; I'm being insincere.

Everything written below is a lie.

analys is
tear apart
ideas of art

Can you see the real mememememememememememe.


Knowledge is Power

[politics] Ladies and gentlemen, the President.

My fellow Americans. Throughout this struggle our goal has been to remove the Iraqi regime and to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. We have achieved the first goal—and, I am proud to say, are well on track for the second. It has been a difficult task, thanks to the devious nature of Saddam and his minions. These weapons had been dismantled and hidden in civilian locations throughout Iraq: in hospitals... museums... and private homes. But with the enthusiastic support of the Iraqi people, every last component has been found and disposed of—on the black market, where they can now be safely recycled. More importantly, scientific manuals that may have led to the discovery of new ways to threaten America have been destroyed. True, some of these were not themselves new; some were in fact several centuries old. But this simply confirms the long-standing nature of the threat posed by Saddam.

Our aim has been nothing less than the defense of our nation and the peace of the world. Overcoming evil is the noblest cause and the hardest work. It is an objective worthy of America, worthy of all the acts of heroism and generosity that have come before. If the Ba'ath party had deciphered the cuneiform on those piles of clay tablets, who knows what might have happened—what ancient spells and incantations they contained. Where would we have been had Saddam unleashed armies of wing-ed lions with the heads of mighty kings against us?

My fellow Americans, it was essential that we destroy these weapons of mass instruction. Once again, we applied the power of our country to ensure our security and to serve the cause of justice. And we prevailed.

May God bless our country and all who defend her. Semper fi. [Applause.]


Tuesday, 15 April 2003

[whatever] Which reminds me, I never did post my favourite corny joke of last year. Probably trying to cultivate an air of seriousness, or some such nonsense:

What's orange and sounds like a parrot?

[Comments. Answer. Now.]


[whatever] One happy thing about moving to another country is that the differences in vernacular open up a world of corny jokes that, even though they would sound stale to the average nine-year-old, cause your unprepared foreign brain to short-circuit. So:

What do you call a chicken wearing a shellsuit?

[Answer is in the comments.]


Heart of Glass

[whatever] A £10m public inquiry into plans for the tallest building in Europe, known as the Shard of Glass, is beginning on Tuesday.BBC News.

For centuries, Londoners have asked themselves one question: how can we prevent the sky from falling? The answer is obvious: scare it away with a bloody big spike. Early attempts using church spires were defeated by the Great Fire of 1666, and Wren's replacements were entirely too round and smooth. The 19th century, however, gave us two important developments: buildings made entirely of glass; and the gothic revival that saw the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster graced with the tower of Big Ben, or 'Ol' Pointy'.

By the late 20th century, after the sky-wrought devastation of the Blitz underlined the need for more protective spiky buildings, Londoners redoubled their efforts. The multi-pronged Millennium Dome held out hope for a new golden age of sharpness, but the effect was undermined by a failure to use jagged glass shards in its construction, and by that crap exhibit about The Body.

But now, as London enters the 21st century, Southwark Council promises a new line of defence against rogue cumulonimbi. Taller than any European or even British landmark, pointier than the Post Office Tower run through a giant steam-powered pencil sharpener, and with room for 660 individual greenhouse allotments, the Shard of Glass will provide new inspiration to London-based Egyptophiles and dagger-wielding psychopaths alike. London Bridge Tower: The Sky's Delimit.


Sunday, 13 April 2003

In tha House

[music] Speaking of friends online and off, James has posted one of his songs on his site. Go and listen to it before he signs a major label contract and in the excitement forgets to read the electronic rights clause and their lawyers rip into him for ripping his own stuff. [File under: indie/electronica.]


[weblog] Child's play:

I asked Aurora whether they often play War in Iraq at school. "Oh yes, we've played it fifty or maybe hundred times!"


Everybody Bounce


"How come they never make spacehoppers in adult sizes?"

"Yeah. They should."

"I want a spacehopper. Can you buy me a spacehopper?"

"Aw. I want a spacehopper too."

"Tandem spacehopper."

"Yes! That's brilliant!"

"I'm going to invent one."

"It could be a peanut shape."

"But you'd both have to bounce at the same time, or you'd knock your heads together."

"Or the gravitational forces would tear it apart. You need some kind of coupling between two individual spacehoppers."




In Darkest Edinburgh

[net culture] As I was hinting to a friend over email the other day, you can get a bit apprehensive meeting people in the flesh who you've only known over the internet. You can't help wondering whether your judgement was totally wrong and they'll spend the whole time talking about port-scanning and cracking jokes in Klingon, even if everything they've said online suggests the opposite. And then you worry about sounding a bit Klingon yourself.

It's weird, because my first meeting of this kind turned out entirely for the best, when the context should clearly have meant otherwise: we knew each other through the mike oldfield mailing list, and some fans of mike oldfield have a well-earned reputation for being insufferable geeks: three-foot home-made sculptures of tubular bells in their bedroom, that sort of thing. And we met up at an Apple conference, for crying out loud. "I am not a stereotype!" I wanted to yell. "I can't tell my SCSI from my EIDE! I like going to art galleries!"

Neither of us even knew what the other looked like, except that we both had red hair. I was imagining some (insufferably?) geeky looking redhead like me. Not a burly bloke with a beard who would've fit right in with Leif Eriksson and crew. "Uh... Paul?" I ventured; "Rory!" he cried, "how are ya." And we've been great mates ever since.

(Paul's Viking appearance has stood him in good stead. He's defused more than one ugly situation in a dark alley by puffing up his chest under his M.U.A. sweater; and in recent years has developed a sideline of TV work as 'trucker number two' and the like. You may know him from the second row in the courtroom scenes in Sea Change...)

Not every meeting with internet people is cause for apprehension, though. If you're meeting them at random at an event of some kind, that's fine. If you only know them a little, that's fine too; you might even want to get to know them better, online or off, after you meet. But when you've known each other for years online, emailed each other, left comments on each other's sites, all of that, there's a bit more at stake. You don't want to be let down, or be a let-down. Thank God Stanley and Livingstone didn't have weblogs.

Fortunately, my friend felt the same, and the subject of port-scanning didn't come up once.


Saturday, 12 April 2003

Girls Who Love Boys

[music] If you spent the mid-'90s listening to Dog Man Star, Parklife and Elastica, you'll definitely want to read this story about the love triangle behind Britpop from today's Grauniad. Who'd have guessed that Brett Anderson was initially headed for a life of town planning and cosy domesticity?


Friday, 11 April 2003

Links. You Know You Want Them.

[weblog] Vertigo is one of my favourite films (Ever, if not Of All Time and Until the End of Beyond), and San Francisco is one of my favourite cities. So I was bound to enjoy this comparison of Vertigo locations, then and now, which I found sitting on the front page of Blogdex buried away in a cosy corner of the internet.

Everyone linked to this make a Starship Enterprise out of a floppy page, too. But did everyone make one? No! Because they're all pitiful fools chained to the floppy-consuming demands of obsolete operating systems, ha ha, whereas we disciples of Job(s) are free to break our idolatrous floppies and bend them into sacred shapes. When we're, um, supposed to be finishing an 8,000 word report. (Now finished, praise-be and hallelujah.)

Via MeFi: April Winchell's mp3 collection; Windows RG; test your geographical knowledge; and more screaming and screeching about current events than you can eat.

Remember that Hazlitt essay I posted here? Quite possibly. Here's an article from last weekend's Guardian about attempts to revive the great man's memory. Between him and Montaigne (whose essays I'm still savouring, slowly), it's enough to make the latter-day scribbler feel pathetically inadequate.

That is all.


Sing, Fatwa Lady

[politics] I've gotta say, those pictures sure remind me of the fall of the Berlin Wall. You remember—that amazing day in 1984 when a bunch of GIs drove the truck over from Checkpoint Charlie and hooked up a tow-rope and pulled the whole damn thing over? Sure, the Soviets were pissed, and it was a real bummer when they nuked Minneapolis, but you can't deny it was one hell of an uplifting moment. And with practically no fall-out whatsoever. Metaphorically speaking.


Thursday, 10 April 2003

[weblog] The many faces of Ludwig van Beethoven.


Wednesday, 9 April 2003

Of Mutton and Men

[travel] We were down in Dumfriesshire on Friday and Saturday, for the wedding of one of my oldest friends. He and his girlfriend were eloping to Gretna Green, the British equivalent of Las Vegas, and as the only friends living nearby (and a long way from everyone they didn't want to find out beforehand), we were their lucky guests.

Gretna Green is the Bognor Regis of all things marital, so there was just a hint of cheesiness to the ceremony. This wasn't helped by the fact that traditionally it was the local blacksmith who wedded the 16-year-olds who crossed the border to take advantage of relaxed Scottish laws—a tradition that persists in the 'striking of the anvil' to declare the happy couple man and wife. All that was missing was one of those fairground poles with the ringer to show how many years the marriage will last.

But the emotion of the moment made the surroundings irrelevant, as it always does. It was one of those times when all of your happiness for your friends, and your happiness that they are your friends, gets concentrated in time and space into the now and here that you're standing in.

We spent the rest of the day and night in Comlongon, a 14th-century castle turned fancy hotel near the Solway Firth (only a few miles from another castle we visited a year ago), eating fine food and drinking champagne. The next morning, livers still reeling from the chemical attack, Jane and I drove west along the coast from Dumfries to Kirkcudbright, taking in ruined castles and abbeys, villages and gardens. Those are the things we photographed, at least, but what I suspect I'll remember most are the lambs.

Lambs near Kirkcudbright

Lambs everywhere: some of them the brand new white of A4 bond; others the sooty black of puffs of toner; others white and black in spots like so many photocopied bleats. Bouncing and basking and suckling and running in the sun.

Somehow wherever I go I end up surrounded by sheep. Growing up in the Tasmanian countryside makes it inevitable that you become well-acquainted with the sophisticated humour deriving from an ovine environment. The joke I particularly remember from my days at university, home to many a budding Wilde sharpening his wit, was:

Huonville: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who could forget that? Or the hilarious variant I encountered on moving from Tasmania to Canberra:

Tasmania: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Oh ho ho! But it got better. In the early '90s I spent a year in England, and heard:

Australia: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

And then there's the one from when I was about to leave Australia and go and work among the Kiwis for a while:

New Zealand: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Be still, my bleating heart!

Imagine my joy, then, on hearing this old favourite after moving back to the UK, from none other than our good neighbours down south:

Scotland: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who would ever have thought that such comic subtlety was so universal in its appeal.

Admittedly, I'm a touch defensive on the whole subject of lanoline lust, because I actually did grow up with sheep in the back paddock: three or four at any one time. They were pets, basically, giant woolly lawn-mowers, and like any pets had names: Torny, Wrinkles, Lambert, Handlebars. They would graze contentedly all year, growing wider and woollier until shearing time in summer. Then we would herd them into the chook shed, where one of the local shearers would peel off their fleeces with a trimmer disturbingly similar to the one Dad used on us boys. A few sacks of wool later, the naked ewes and wethers would stumble out into the sunshine and go back to extracting Essence of Sheep from the tender green shoots hidden in the dry grass.

Usually the sheep put up minimal resistance to being herded to the hairdressers, but in the late '80s we had one that always did: a young wether called Rabuka, after the Fijian coup leader (the letter b is pronounced 'mb' in Fijian, which gives you the pun; he was 'Rambo' for short). We suspected that the wethering operation had somehow gone wrong, because there was way too much testosterone in this one. He was a pain in the arse, never going where you wanted him, breaking through fences, and generally causing trouble; and eventually, Mum and Dad decided he had to go—to that great paddock in the sky, via Cordwell's the butchers.

But Rambo was fiercely independent to the end, and refused to be herded into the back of the Rangey. Four of us weren't enough to cover every possible escape route as we closed in around him, and he would break through and bolt for the far corner of the paddock as his brothers Wether and Ornot looked on.

Beneath the seat of every old four-wheel-drive, however, lies rope.

Dad fashioned a lasso out of the hairy red rope we used to tie down the trailer, and the next time Rambo went galloping past dropped it neatly over his charging head. Rambo jerked the noose tight, bucking and pulling against it until his cheeks turned scarlet, giving the four of us time to hoick him upside down into the back and close the hatch. Dad loosened the rope before the poor critter throttled himself, so that his last minutes on earth wouldn't be too miserable, and down to the butcher they went.

But Rambo had his revenge, in death if not in life. Normally any sheep we butchered ended up as stewing and roasting cuts, since they were usually too old and muttony to be edible as anything except curry. Rambo was only a couple of years old, though, so as an experiment my parents got half of him turned into sausages.

We tried him a few nights later, with peas and boiled spuds. Only then did we discover the truth about mutton sausage: it's horrible. Soft, grey and pasty, with that intense sheepy aroma known only to country-dwellers, because sheep older than a few months never end up on supermarket shelves.

We gave it to the cat. The cat wouldn't eat it.

Fast forward to Scotland, where men are men and sheep are turned into the national dish. You know the score: sheep's stomach (traditionally, or nowadays an artificial sausage skin) stuffed with mutton offal, oatmeal and spices. I first tried haggis a month or so after arriving here, in what was probably the wrong way: as a pizza topping, in a Stirling takeaway. (Jane dared me, of course.) It was ghastly: soft, grey, pasty, and very, very familiar. Like that of William Wallace, Rabuka's spirit lived on in the auld toun of Stirling.

I never ate haggis again—until last Saturday. If the banquet the previous evening was any guide, Comlongon's Full Scottish Breakfast probably tasted as good as it looked on the menu. The only drawback was the haggis substituting for black pudding (which despite its congealed-blood origins I actually like, in small doses; white pudding even more). But what the hell, I thought, I can always leave that aside; so I ordered it.

It was, without doubt, one of the finest hotel breakfasts I've eaten in the UK, matched only by the perfect porridge served at a small B&B in Kilmartin. Even the haggis was good—firm and granular in texture, tasty on the tongue—and there wasn't a hint of throttled testosterone about it.

It was so fine that I recorded it for posterity. (Elements of the dish conveniently marked for non-Britons; the tomato was grilled, and the potato scone is a flat bread, this one fried in bacon fat. Be still, my bleating arteries.)

Later that day, I stared at all the sheep as we drove through Galloway, shouting out 'lambs!' whenever a new flock came into view. Brilliant white symbols of spring; of the renewal of life; of care-free gambolling under the sun.

Every one an incipient haggis.


Robert Pirsig, Come On Down

[journal] The fog has lifted, as you can see. Am I back? Maybe. Almost. Today, anyway. Next Thursday, I really will fall silent for a few weeks while Mum and Dad are in town. Then there's a trip down to London a week later to see them off; and Jane's bro is coming to visit in late May. So, it'll be patchy. This is a holding pattern.

Whenever I take a break from this thing to let the mental cistern refill, I end up looking over old archives. Hence the academic paper brought to the surface last week, and this post at MetaTalk about archiving comments there. As part of the process, I had a frenzy of exporting old blog entries from Blogger into MT import format in case I ever need them; and after that, curiosity prompted me to do a proper word count of it all—text only, sans titles and tags. (The leet BBEdit grepping skills came in handy.) I left out the extra pages that didn't form blog entries, but it gave a pretty good estimate of how much I've written at this joint in the past few years.

Walking West, or everything from 2000 and 2001, came to 125,000 words. The entries from last year and the first three months of this year came to 100,000 words; so much for 'winding back'. With the other odds and ends here and there, I've probably written over a quarter of a million new words for this site over three years.

That's two or three books' worth. It even feels like two books, looking back on it: Walking West was one, and 2002 to March 2003 another, with some fuzzy transition periods at either end. (Welcome to the fuzzy transition period.)

Now there's something to get you thinking, especially when you have another book lying around half-written in drafts and in your head. It gets you thinking: If I didn't do this, I could have finished that. But it also gets you thinking: Wow, look what I made. Because it hasn't all been asides and ephemera. It wasn't even mostly that, really.

Of course, the ballooning writerly ego is soon punctured when you consider the string of no-comments that most entries get, here or at most blogs. It's hard to put hours into any creative task and get little or no response; but hey, welcome to the creative life. This modern age has conditioned us all to crave rock-star fame and instant-feedback praise, but it's the opposite of what artists and writers have been able to expect throughout history.

(Fame shouldn't be the goal of the writer; the goal should be quality. Fame or renown of any degree is only useful as an indication of the quality of your work, and it stops being useful the moment you no longer believe that it reflects the quality of what you're doing now. So forget fame, and focus on the work. A few friends can tell you if it's worth doing as readily as a thousand strangers, and when they're not around, you can tell yourself.)

I don't know what the next Book of the Snail will look like, or even when it will properly start to take shape; the offline book is going too slowly, dammit, and Something Must be Done, which bodes more holding patterns here. But if and when I get the chance to post something, I'll try to make it good.


[site news] I've added a few more links to the bogroll lately: the eclectic plep; the poetic Dan; and the fiendishly funny Skot, one of those names you see around MeFi but don't realise is totally brilliant until you follow someone else's link to their blog. It's good to see Ed back on the boil, too. I have a queue of others waiting to take up residence on 2003's links page when I finally get around to it, but ehh, it's sunny outside.


Tuesday, 1 April 2003

Mars, Blog of War

[whatever] Let's kick some Marji butt!


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