Sunday, 30 November 2003

The Huge Ever-Expanding Brain at the Centre of Edinburgh

[uk culture]

The Big Merino

Since April, a bunch of us amateur ethnographers have been investigating that noble British institution, the pub quiz. Dozens of them are held every week around Edinburgh, in pubs ranging from the noisy to the cosy. Some cost a pound a head to enter, and have hefty jackpots at stake; others are free, but all you win is a cheap bottle of wine.

Our first few outings were to the Pear Tree, a pub near the heart of Edinburgh Uni. The quizmaster had what turns out to be standard-issue facial hair, with bonus long wizardly locks; his questions were good, and he reminded me of my AM radio-listening days by including a guess-the-tune round. But the quiz was undermined by the serious money at stake—hundreds of pounds—as the place was full of wired students surreptitiously phoning a friend on their mobiles, presumably ones armed with a modem and Google.The Big Merino

One of our crew knew a quieter place, so we shifted there, even though it was on the other side of town from most of us. The Bailey in Stockbridge is a basement-level pub with real character, and its quizmaster is a real character too, with snowy hair and a Holmesian cape. No guess-the-tune round, but one question every week always has the answer "Belgium" or "Belgian", which gives everybody a sense of achievement at being able to guess the answer to the most obscure question of the night. And the questions seemed to be pitched at just the level our group could handle. Our first two weeks there, we took home two bottles of wine for first and second place. The Big Merino

The biggest question in any pub quiz isn't one of the quizmaster's, though: it's what to call the team. Serious players pick a distinctive name and stick to it; dabblers change from week to week. We took the middle path of variations on a theme. Our team is the Big Merino, after the Goulburn landmark beloved of our Australian team-members and bemusing to the rest (who demanded photographic evidence to be sure we weren't taking the piss). After week one, we became El Merino Grande; then Das Gross Merino; then Le Grand Merine. We hopped around the languages until boredom and lack of linguistic ability set in, never quite getting to the Fijian version, Na Sipi Levu. Last time out we shifted direction with a musical reference: the Huge Ever-Expanding Merino at the Centre of the Universe. Next time, my vote is for the Towering Merino.The Big Merino

The bigness of the monicker reflects the bigness of the team, which has had anything up to nine members at a time, depending who makes it on the night. You could almost feel the heat in the room from the other three- or four-person teams glowering at us as we used our combined mental might to crush the opposition and take home £2.99's worth of red. Lately, though, the numbers have shrunk to five or six regulars, and the bottles of red have shrunk to nothing.The Big Merino

A month or two into our quiz-going the Bailey quizmaster (who also runs others in the area) announced an annual grand final for the Stockbridge area, with an entry fee and teams limited to four people. Shauna, Gareth, David and I fronted up, just for the hell of it.

The Big MerinoThe heats were held in a pub that had a big atrium out the back, with tables arranged in disturbingly exam-room-like fashion. There was time for a drink beforehand, so we got to hear the hard-core contestants swotting up, asking each other, "Quick, what's the capital of Croatia?" (Fools. This quiz was a Zagreb-free zone. Abu Dhabi was the one they should have studied.)

It started well enough; almost everyone got the questions in round one. In the Bible, who dreamt of a ladder to heaven? The French TV show Jeux Sans Frontieres is the equivalent of which British show? What was the name of the ship that took the pilgrims to America? Which was the third country to launch manned spacecraft? What does SUV stand for?

The Big MerinoRounds two and three went okay, too. Our mix of UK and Australian team-members helped us pick up some of the more obscure questions (to Brits), like "Who was the first president of Indonesia?" We dropped a few in the final rounds, but made up for it by getting nine of the ten countries with the greatest total length of roads (in no particular order, US, China, Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil, India... but we had Mexico instead of, surprisingly, Japan). In the end we came fourth out of eight teams, just scraping through to the final.

Where we got slaughtered.

The Big Merino

Sure, we guessed which British actor married the daughter of Eugene O'Neill in 1943. One of us even knew the name of the new leader of the House of Commons. But how were we supposed to know which Graham Greene novel was set in Sierra Leone? Couldn't they ask which one was set in Brighton? And which John Cleland novel was subtitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure? How about "Who the hell is John Cleland?" Or which Rugby Union club was about to play at Stoop Memorial Ground? Who in Great Britain gave a toss about Rugby Union before last weekend?

The winners were the same people who won last year. And the year before, I'll bet. Worse, there were only three of them, implying that we all had twenty-five percent less grey-matter than they did. They surveyed the room serenely through their thick lenses and large unruly beards.

The final put our brief winning streak into perspective, and it hasn't really mattered that we haven't won a single bottle of wine since. What use is knowledge when all it wins you is the title of Smartest People Who Turned Up For Something To Do On A Tuesday? It's the turning up that's fun: turning up to meet your friends, and turning up strange pointless facts from the clutter of your brain. Whether your pointless facts beat someone else's seems beside the point.

Jacob; It's a Knockout; The Mayflower; China; Sport Utility Vehicle; Sukarno; Charlie Chaplin; Peter Hain; The Heart of the Matter; Fanny Hill; and (not that you can tell without the date) London Irish.


Go Fly a Kite

[weblog] Obsession of the week: Kite Aerial Photography. It's caught the imagination of photographers and hobbyists around the world, and some of the results are spectacular:

[First posted to MeFi on Wednesday.]


Tuesday, 25 November 2003

Breaking the Mould

[journal] Spent the weekend visiting our friends in Nottingham. We'd all had a stressful week, so we whiled away Friday night drinking red wine and listening to Lieutenant Pigeon's 'Mouldy Old Dough', a song I'd never heard before but became so obsessed by that I tracked it down when I got home. The lyrics give you an idea of the wit and sophistication of this 1972 UK chart-topper (you have to imagine them drawled out by a grizzled Londoner over a honky tonk piano and penny whistle backing):

Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough

I reckoned if someone did a techno cover of it they'd have a sure-fire hit. Turns out that some people already have. Sort of.

On Saturday afternoon we went driving in the Peak District, stopping at Matlock for lunch. (Obviously the town the mouldy old Australian cop show was named after. The Nottingham area is rife with action-hero town names: Eastwood; Arnold; Ripley; Attenborough. There's even a Gotham.) After walking into—and straight out of—a restaurant which smelled more -room than -aurant, we found one with a rave review from the Guardian outside the door, and ate relievedly well.

By the time we emerged it was mid-afternoon and freezing, but at least the fog had lifted. We drove up through Bakewell, home of the Tart; and then, with the light going, down the A515 through the heart of the Peak National Park. As the sun set I took photo after photo, before it finally disappeared behind the hills and we disappeared into a pub.

The Peak District, 4.10 p.m., Saturday 22.11.2003

Our final destination was Derby, where by uncanny coincidence another friend was making his professional theatre debut (as opposed to all that other larking about on stage he's been getting paid for for years). It was only when James posted about the play on his blog that I realised we'd be in Nottingham—only a few miles away—while it was on, so I couldn't very well not go. Before that, though, we had to find a place to eat, since we were too late to join him for an early dinner before he disappeared backstage.

Derbians, we soon learned, don't eat. There's no other explanation for the complete absence of restaurants in the inner city. We looped around and around the central streets, running out of time before the show, wondering if we'd end up eating at Sainsbury's. The place was deserted at six o'clock on a Saturday, apart from four bakewells strutting to a bar in high heels and underwear. We ended up with some suspicious chips from a kebab shop and a few snacks from a café that short-changed us ten quid. (To be fair, they worked hard for it, enlisting two members of staff and the manager to convince us that the customer is always wrong.)

But all that was put aside when we saw Joe Orton's Loot expertly staged and performed by James and his colleagues. The sight of Lucy Montgomery as Nurse Fay wrestling the clothes off a dead old woman was one of the funniest I've seen all year. It was hard to argue with those renowned theatrical organs the Uttoxeter Echo and the Derby Evening Telegraph, both of which loved it; there was nothing mouldy about this old dough.


Dead Again

[journal] I can't seem to function without deadlines—the deadlier the better. But last week I thought I really was dead. I had a paper to present on Thursday afternoon, and after a week of Barton Fink-like agony it was still only half-written by Tuesday. I was having Freudian dreams of skidooing up the side of a mountain and then down into a field of mud. I spent ages staring at the latest Bob and wondering where I could get one of those buttons.

Somehow I managed to dump an hour's worth of words onto the screen, and recite them into the air. Now I have to rewrite them into something that will sit respectably on the page.

As if that wasn't enough, there was a grant application to write by Friday afternoon, and the night after my talk was over all I could do was stare blankly at the wall. Yet at 2 p.m. on Friday there was a completed form with supporting documents sitting on the screen, which read exactly as if it had been written by me. I'm still not sure where that came from, but submitted it without asking too many questions.

I keep feeling I should reassess my whole approach to procrastination, but I'm pretty sure it can wait a while.


Monday, 24 November 2003

[weblog] The drawback with hiding the links blog in an RSS feed is that when I'm too busy to post anything except quick links it looks like I'm not updating the site. But I was, guv, honest... well, a bit.

The Great Spread Debate continues · LRB: The Future of Higher Education · Put a turkey in your tank · USPTO looks again at Eolas patent · Me on Thursday? · Dive into Mark on weblog spam · Go, go, gadget Mil! · Begun, this Clone War has · 'It is to the life of the mind that I must cling!' · Jerry Kindall: Liquid Thanksgiving · He shoots, he scores!


Sunday, 16 November 2003

Ice Ice Baby

[uk culture] The precarious state of the Gulf Stream was in the UK news again this week, with scientists warning that fresh water from melting polar ice is about to shut down the giant jacuzzi and leave Britain lying in a cold bath. While the rest of the world sits on the hot jets, we'll be stuck in a January that never ends. Since January is only six weeks away—and already I'd like it to be over—I'm not looking forward to this one bit.

One way or another Britain is due another cold spell: if it wasn't for global warming (and who started that ball rolling, eh?), the world would be facing another ice age round about now. The last one left an impressive number of smooth curving valleys all over this green and pleasant land, which just happen to be the exact same size and shape as a bloody great glacier. Sooner or later the ice will be back, and everything built while it was away, from Skara Brae to the local Safeway, will end up as gravel.

Nobody's sure when it will happen: maybe in fifty years; maybe next year. My only hope is that the Caribbean goodness keeps flowing our way for a few more years, and that the snow doesn't start compacting into an unstoppable wall of ice before we sell our flat. Nothing like the prospect of your home being ground into a powdery residue to knock a few percent off its market value.

Still, it's a while since we had a good environmental scare around here, and at least it'll give the hard-core survivalists a chance to use up all those beans left over from Y2K. And there's a perverse appeal in the idea of millions of Britons seeking asylum in sunny Queensland, only to be told by the Howard government that there's nothing in the Refugee Convention about glaciers, so they're all going to a holding camp in Nauru. Irony, eh. So good, they named an age after it.


Tuesday, 11 November 2003


The Flaming Lips, 9.11.03

Introducing the Band Balloons in Usher Hall Wayne Coyne Strobin'

The Flaming Lips may not be the biggest band in the world, but the critics sure love 'em, and so do half the music fans on the Web. I liked Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and The Soft Bulletin just fine too, so I was looking forward to the Edinburgh instalment of their UK tour. It was a real show and a half, as Jane's photos show: dancers in animal costumes, giant balloons bouncing across the crowd, and a string of strange but infectious songs sung by a dapper gent in white suit and beard. As well as the best tracks from their two most recent albums, the show featured their '90s hit "She Don't Use Jelly", covers of the White Stripes and "White Christmas", and (my favourite) the new Chemical Brothers collaboration "The Golden Path". All of that, and two good support acts (we were all copying the lead singer of Alfie's dancing afterwards), made for one of the happiest gigs I can remember. Who wouldn't like spending an hour and a half punching balloons up to the ceiling?


Monday, 10 November 2003

[weblog] The latest batch of links from the feed, wrapped up in yesterday's newspaper:

'If you could have dinner with any five people...' · Crooked Timber: Blogs for the Boys · Crooked Timber: Bad language · Shauna saves me from having to write about what we did on Sunday · 'I suddenly felt that they were, like, stifling and canonical' · An educational software breakthrough! · Curse you, obscuring city lights of Edinburgh · Pranks · BBC: How to avoid libel and defamation · The Flaming Lips were every bit as good as this in Edinburgh last night · Ogg Vorbis decoder plugin for iTunes/Quicktime 6.2+/MacOS X 10.2+ · How to run multiple IEs in Windows XP


Friday, 7 November 2003

[minutiae] People say that Australian cooking used to be bland and unvaried before multiculturalism took off in the '70s and '80s, but one look at the original Australian Women's Weekly Cookbook published in 1970 and you can see that this just isn't true. It's full of recipes inspired by ethnic minorities: Italians... Chinese... Zombies.


Thursday, 6 November 2003

All About Chemistry

[books] When I mentioned Mil Millington's brilliant first novel here, I noted the uncanny overlap of its themes with some of my own preoccupations. So when his second appeared recently and turned out to be set in the very city I live in, I had to buy it, even in overpriced, oversized "tradeback" format. Buy, and read within six days.

The Edinburgh angle turned out to be the least interesting aspect of A Certain Chemistry. Apart from a few brief scenes set in the obvious tourist locations, and a few characters being Scottish, there wasn't much of the place in the book—not as much as I'd hoped, anyway. The lead character was still English, and still spoke with the Millington voice (which in itself is no bad thing).

More of a disappointment was the lower joke-count of Mil No. 2. The wry tone is still there, and there are some good comic scenes, but compared to the sustained high of Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About it's a bit flat.

Those quibbles aside, A Certain Chemistry tells its story painfully well. It's the story of an affair, from beginning to end, and Millington captures every high and low with scientific accuracy. Literally scientific: between chapters, God steps in to explain what's going on under the skin of the characters as various molecules flood them with powerful emotions. Tom and George and Sara, he reminds us, are just experiencing what anyone in their situation would—even as Tom's first-person narrative of the affair dwells on its uniqueness.

Millington keeps the story rolling along like a gathering snowball headed for the small village of Domestic Bliss, Population 2. The last third of the book is the strongest—and, given what it describes, the least funny. Behaviour that would be entertainingly farcical in a less emotional context seems desperate and pathetic here; it's hard to laugh at people whose worlds are falling apart. But where a weaker writer would play out a series of comic vignettes and a fairy-tale ending, Millington seeks and finds a more satisfying truth.

A Certain Chemistry succeeds, then, but for Millington's fans I wonder if it's success enough. Because our man Mil has something that most writers haven't: the ability to write page after page of gaspingly funny stuff. His first book of gaspingly funny stuff managed to say some intelligent and true things about relationships along the way; his second focusses on the truth of relationships—the scientific truth—but at some cost to the gasp.

There's no doubt that he's got what it takes, though, and that number three will be worth reading.


Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Press Play-Record

[net culture] One of the relics I unearthed at my parents' place last month was the instruction booklet for a long-gone tape-deck from the 1970s, complete with surreal illustrations by an unknown Japanese graphic artist. Rather than let them languish, I've borrowed a few for this harmless diversion: The Recording Industry Guide to Home Taping.


Saturday, 1 November 2003

I Mite be Wrong

[whatever] It's a small victory, but—I like to think—a significant one.

A couple of months ago we had a bunch of friends over for afternoon tea—the easy-catering option that saves on washing up!—and while they were around, I enlisted them in a blind taste-test to establish once and for all whether New Zealand Vegemite tastes different to Australian Vegemite.

Back in April my parents replenished my dwindling supplies with a jar of the Oz stuff. Then Jane's brother visited from Auckland and brought us multiple jars of the Kiwi version. But when I opened one, the Kiwi jars seemed different. Not just because they were made of plastic instead of glass—nothing new there. No, the Vegemite itself was different: glossier; slipperier; stinkier. Not a huge difference; it wasn't like ten years ago, when out of a craving for yeast extract in the Vegemite-free wastelands of England I bought a jar of Sainsbury's own-brand imitation Marmite and forever regretted it. But it was different.

Or was it just me? I had to find out. Half the room didn't want to know, but Shauna, Rhiannon and Gareth all volunteered, and I handed them two pieces of Vegemite on toast each.

Shauny and Rhi, true blue Aussies both, successfully identified the Australian Vegemite. Gareth, a Scot who'd never tasted the stuff, successfully avoided falling to the floor and writhing uncontrollably.

Two significant data points, then, and one near-miss for the stomach-pump. But the statistician in me needed more; a proper test should have at least thirty samples. Yet my Kiwi supply far exceeded my Aussie supply; if I kept doing matched taste tests I would run out of the good stuff. And those tiny imported jars you can now buy in Sainsbury's for £1.50 each wouldn't go far.

Luckily, we were headed back to Oz soon. Once we were down in Tassie, it was time for a special trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies.

I was a bit disappointed to find none of those 900 gram jars that last even the hardest sandwich-a-day man a whole year. But the 450g jars sported a snazzy 80th anniversary label, which made up in aesthetic appeal what they lacked in catering-friendly volume.

The big surprise was the range of alternatives to Vegemite.

Oh sure, there was Marmite—the original formula imitated and easily surpassed by the Vege variant. There was always a rump of Marmite eaters at school: children of British immigrants unwilling to adapt, just as their forebears had struggled to plant crops according to the southern seasons.

Then there was Promite—I'd forgotten about Promite. The lost mite, known only to a few, who would wander the playground at recess, seeking to swap their provisions for a taste of the one true mite.

I'd heard, too, of entrepreneur Dick Smith's attempts to promote Australian-owned produce over multinationals like Kraft. And here was the result: a jar of patriotic Aussie Mite.

But that wasn't all. Dick had inspired another Aussie-owned-and-made imitator, the mitier-than-thou Mighty Mite. The Aussie consumer is now faced with a choice of five mites, and the mite tester with a budget and weight-allowance blow-out.

The Five Mites

It was tempting to buy all five and perform an elaborate quintuple-blind taste test with a hundred and eighty permutations of mite; but I stuck to the original plan, and bought a single anniversary jar of Vegemite.

Back in Edinburgh, it's taken longer to find thirty mite-tasters than planned. I know only a few other Aussies here, and they've already performed their mites of passage. So I've had to plough on alone, working my way through jar after jar in the name of science.

But there's been a surprise development. The other night, as a bunch of us met up to watch a video, Gareth told us that he's actually developed a taste for Vegemite. He's already halfway through a small jar; he's past the thin-scraping stage and almost at the carve-off-a-slab stage.

And suddenly, the whole Australia versus New Zealand question seems irrelevant. The mission is surely now that of missionaries everywhere: to spread the word of Vegemite beyond antipodean shores, just as we spread Vegemite beyond the edges of the toast and onto uncolonised crackers and crumpets.

They may have brought the might of Empire to our shores, but we have made Britain part of our Empire of Mite. Beauty!


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