Monday, 28 June 2010

Some internet things

I think my google reader subscriptions have reached capacity now. If I leave them alone for just a few days it takes ages to catch up. But here are some things I have liked recently:

This story about a four-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto will make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

These people think no e-mail should be more than 5 sentences. Not a bad idea. But sometimes one writes a long e-mail because one doesn't have time to write a short one. (I'm misquoting someone, but I've forgotten whom.)

This man has what I can only assume is an ironic tattoo. Seriously, American Psycho much? (I'm allowed to talk like that because I own all seven series of Buffy on DVD.)

John Hodgman's Today in the Past podcast (itunes link) has mysteriously skipped 27th June. What happened in the past on 27th June? Was it something that the molemen are not yet ready to tell us?

The New York Times goes a bit Onion-y in their banner headline. We all knew that America seeing itself as part of the world, even in something as straightforward as football, couldn't last for long.

Here is a cool bridge which reminds you which side of the road you should be driving on.

I like these prints of collective nouns.

Here are the 2010 locus award winners. I intend to read most of them.

And here are the Scissor Sisters doing Kylie's All the Lovers as a Dolly Parton song. (Here's the related story on, where else, popjustice.)

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Notes from a notebook

I found some old notes of things I'd liked in books I'd read.

Here's a quotation from J. Stubb's ebullient Donne biography, about Ann Cockayne:
In 1616, not long after she gave birth to her youngest child, her husband Thomas had a crisis of commitment and left her, to pursue his lifelong dream of writing a Greek dictionary.

Jan Morris, Last Letters from Hav:
"We are intellectuals you see," Mahmoud bawled in my ear. "There is no subject that we cannot discuss, and all subjects make us angry."

G. Howells, Daughter of the Desert. Gertrude Bell on a mongoose she had been given by the Mayor of Baghdad's son:
It's a most attractive little beast. It sat in my hand this morning and ate fried eggs like a Christian.

I'm afraid I didn't note where I found the great Liselotte on Racine's Berenice's reaction to losing Titus:
All the howlings she sets up about this make me impatient.

And the excellent Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder:
There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop.
...He had read all the literature of antiquity and forgotten all about it except a general aroma of charm and disillusion. He had been learned in the Fathers and the Councils and forgotten all about them save a floating impression of dissensions that had no application to Peru. He had read all the libertine masterpieces of Italy and France and re-read them annually; even in the torments of the stone (happily dissolved by drinking the water from the springs of Santa María de Cluxambuqua) he could find nothing more nourishing than the anecdotes of Brantôme and the divine Aretino.
... Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely read could be said to know that they were unhappy.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Unbibliographical references

I'm doing a lot of bibliography-style work at the moment, tidying up things that say "ref. to James article on Bury here" by turning them into proper short references, with page numbers, and a corresponding long reference in the bibliography. Take how dull that sentence was, and multiply it many times, and you'll get a sense of the way this is failing to grip my net-browsing E4-watching concentration-averse brain. I tried listening while working to a playlist I made of Handel arias, because I thought I'd like to be that sort of person, but I just ground to a halt and had to revert to Bodyrox feat. Luciana, Kele's Tenderoni, and Lady Gaga's Remix album, of which this is my favourite at the moment:

By the way, have you noticed the little football symbol on Youtube, under the video, which adds vuvuzela noise to any video? The Onion's take on the whole vuvuzela phenomenon is quite funny.

This thing about quorum-sensing bacteria is wierd and makes my brain hurt. It took me a while to realise that they didn't mean some sort of computer bacteria, and I didn't know that bacteria could sense quora, let alone that we should be disrupting this (or pretending to disrupt it while dodging serious legal charges in Arizona, or whatever). Maybe instead we should turn it to our own uses. Maybe they could come up with something on the same lines for certain sorts of committee meetings. I remember several early Governing Body meetings where the quorum was quite an issue, and someone would have to keep an eye on it: "I fear, Master, that with the departure of Dr Wellington we are no longer quorate". I know that people have made strides in making computers out of bacteria recently, which is another head-hurting thing.

Here is a nice explanation of why the platypus plays the keytar. It won't hurt your head, quite the reverse, it will soothe it.

It turns out that there's a music festival happening this summer within walking distance of where I live, called Wattsfest. The local newspaper (The Culm Valley Gazette) has been much exercised by the worry that the loud noise will startle a nearby herd of buffalo, kept for both meat and milk, who will stampede us all to our deaths, probably starting with Tiverton High Street. I don't want to be trampled to death by buffalo but I feel that if I were, in the cause of obscure places in mid-Devon having their own family-friendly world music festival, that would have a nice rounded feeling to it.

This man goes around being rude about people's favourite dinosaurs, which is not very polite.

This attractive art thing is in a field in Wiltshire at a place which is part of my Anglo-Saxon charters book.

Everyone else has probably seen this already but my bibliographising has meant I've spent less time watching viral videos recently: here's the new OK Go video, now with added goose. I actually really like the song too.

Apparently we're all supposed to be making toys out of paper now. You print them out and fold them together, and then you feel happy. It's a sort of fusion of origami and kawaii. Here's one good site, and here's another, plus I like these paper trout. I have to admit I haven't got round to it yet, but it does look pleasing.

Charlie McDowell's Dear Girls Above Me is good if a bit wrong.

Anyway it's back to bibliography and Lady Gaga for me. I think I have listened to the Remix album so many times now that I may even have to move on.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Some things I saw

1. I'm quite fond of Glee the program. It's not that it's a work of staggering genius or anything, just that it's an hour in the week which is likely to raise a smile, and I'll be a bit sad after it finishes tonight. I wouldn't have said it had anything much more to say to the world than "Jazz Hands!!!". So I was interested by this perspective on it by Christina Mulligan, pointing out that an awful lot of what these kids get up to is utterly illegal, like putting Sue Sylvester's humiliating Physical workout footage on the web. The fictional Olivia Newton John's response consisted of remaking the whole video with Sue Sylvester in an Eric Prydz "Call on Me" style (lots of wobbly lycra-clad buttocks) and cashing in on the YouTube sensation; this is obviously more sensible than the probable real-life response, which would be serving draconian take-down notices. Those who make mash-ups online, a very illegal thing to do, appeal to their listeners to rediscover the original music, and that's how I first found M.I.A., Plastilina Mosh, Justice (remixed by MSTRKRFT) etc. In their use of mash-ups Glee has brought them just that bit closer to the mainstream, and has made a "fair use" case in a very compelling way. It would be ridiculous to argue that what kids like these do is in any way harming pop music or musical theatre. Is this the message of Glee? Is it putting forward the argument for the copyfight? I do like the way that reasonably low-brow TV can often say things that serious media or actual people could never get away with, like Battlestar Galactica's take on suicide bombing. (NB there are good mash-ups by Party Ben (I recommend the 2010 remix of Boulevard of Broken Songs) and Pheugoo.)

1a. Actually, I suppose it's more likely that this Fox, i.e. Murdoch-owned, program is just sublimely unaware of the whole thing. Heigh ho.

2. Lady Gaga's Alejandro video is out. Alejandro, which I have posted before, is probably my favourite Lady Gaga song. Go Lady Gaga! It annoys me that people say this sounds like Ace of Base; only insofar as it sounds like part of a European tradition of which only Ace of Base made it into the English consciousness. Lady Gaga wrote the whole of the Fame Monster album while touring the Fame album across Europe, and this one is clearly her tribute to a particular sort of Europop (as well as to how much she likes the gays). The three Lady Gaga albums (Fame, The Fame Monster, and The Remix) are among the very very few albums I listen to entire any more. Anyway, here's Alejandro:

The kids from Glee are unlikely to recreate this, even if Rachel and her mother did do a duet of Poker Face with all the stuff about bluffin' with my muffin left in.

3. Here's some of that great Europop: BWO's Barcelona.

In Sweden this is one of the biggest bands, and usually makes a pretty strong showing in the Melodienfest, the process by which the country's entry for Eurovision is chosen. In England no one takes pop very seriously, and it's been ages since any actual good pop act was entered for Eurovision. The fact that in order, apparently, to revive the standard of British entries they called in Andrew Lloyd Webber rather than, say, Calvin Harris and Dizzee Rascal says a lot. This saddens me, and I haven't watched it for a while, although it may be better now Terry Wogan has stopped commentating on it. In Italy they haven't taken part in Eurovision since 1997, which is obviously a serious lack to the competition. They have their own song competition called San Remo, which was apparently the inspiration for Eurovision in the first place. I first found out about it while I was living in Italy, and I could tell something was on one week because of the way suddenly everyone was indoors watching TV. They take it very seriously: it seems to have at least as much popular pull as the X Factor in the UK, and the same guarantee of chart success and magazine stardom for the winner. But even the X Factor in England avoids pop for ballads.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Some things I thought of

1. Leaving aside the whole [job] thing (square brackets indicate whispering), I'm pretty lucky in how I'm situated at the moment. I love Devon and I love living here, and I also get to visit Cambridge and catch up with the excellent people there, and look at interesting manuscripts. So that on the one hand I get the view of miles of countryside from my desk, and the majority of noises not made by humans, and on the other I can get away and talk to people about interesting things and dip back into the faster pace of Cambridge life, where people spend little if any time talking about TB. Dining off an omelette made from eggs not yet laid that morning vs being able to choose from a huge variety of interesting food shops within a few minutes' walk: watching the buzzards circle up and up on the thermals over the back of our paddock vs market stalls selling cheap paperbacks. It's all good stuff.

2. The human brain! I have mixed feelings about Isaac Newton in general; I was an undergraduate at Trinity, which is full of pictures of him scowling, and I knew he would have disliked me because I'm of the female persuasion. But you have to love him for sticking bodkins in his eyes. (There's a brilliant bit about this in the excellent Neal Stephenson Baroque trilogy.) He did it because a scientist needs to understand his instruments, and for observing the movement of points of light across a wall his eyes were his instruments. If he changed the shape of his eyeballs by slightly compressing them from one side, would his observations change? The biggest scientific instrument of all is of course the human brain, but in eyeball terms it's not perfectly spherical, much as we'd like it to be. This is fascinating stuff. I'd like to know more about it but the problem is that so much of the material looking into this seems to be horrendously naive. I have participated in basic surveys of brain-related things, not to mention those endless online questionaires which offer you entry into a raffle in return for your "feelings" about your mobile phone service etc, and I have tried to give appropriate answers, because it would be arseholey not to try. Now, animal behavourists apparently say that you shouldn't work with cats, they will mess up your data; and essentially in this circumstance I end up being a cat imagining myself as a dog, and answering that way, when in real life the answer to most questions would be about five more questions to try to work out what if anything the question means, or different answers depending on all sorts of criteria which my polite dog self tries to disregard. I can't believe that isn't true of most people, or most educated people with an interest in the subject, or most educated and a bit neurotic people, and frankly there are a lot of us out there, and I'm at least as interested in our brains as brains in general. Maybe the scientific method isn't such a great tool for looking at the human brain, maybe I learn more about it from reading novels than from coming across any number of surveys which report an average 7 percent increase in cheerfulness among people who tried a certain mental exercise, etc. Or maybe I'm just looking at the less effective end of the study of the brain and reading the wrong things. I'm not immediately sure how you'd test the idea that the human brain behaves differently under test conditions, for example. An instance of something I read on this subject is :59 seconds by Prof. Richard Wiseman (which is an excellent pseudonym if it is one). It was readable, and interesting, but as an insight into the human mind it seemed tremendously naive. (On the other hand, if you were looking for an actual self-help book then it might be quite useful as long as you carefully thought yourself into a naive frame of mind beforehand.)

3. The world cup! I don't of my own accord watch football -- when it comes to sport I prefer the clean abstractions of snooker. But I still quite like the World Cup, even though it's inescapable and of no intrinsic interest to me, because it's nice to get to surf on other people's enthusiasms a bit. The one before last I was working on the tills at Marks and Spencer, and it was genuinely really nice the way that during England games the customers would tell you the latest score all unprompted. Management arranged for us to have a TV in the break room, though because M&S is a matriarchy it was usually turned to Big Brother rather than the football matches.

4. Does Mozart help the decomposition of sewage? If so, why? I don't know. The world is very interesting and odd, because at least one of these two things is true: the music of Mozart helps the decomposition of sewage; people really would like to believe that the music of Mozart helps the decomposition of sewage. And the fact that the second is probably true does not in itself mean that the first isn't (though I do fear it).

5. I continue to be challenged about whether or not I am squeamish. We are overrun with rabbits here, they appear at dawn and dusk in huge numbers and eat things, like fluffy locusts. Unfortunately all the local cats are too busy decimating the finches and sparrows to do anything about them, and the foxes prefer the taste of chicken if they can get it. Mr Underhill, the excellent farmer from whom we bought this land before we built the house, occasionally brings one or two dead rabbits over for us, and my mother reluctantly cleans and cooks them. She's not that keen on the cleaning, but it's mostly that she doesn't like eating things with lead shot in, and she won't let my father buy a gun and go out to bag a few himself. However, yesterday at a show she got talking to a man with some kestrels and ferrets, and he's going to give us a quote for coming out and hunting over our fields -- it's one in particular, where my father's botanical specimens are, which needs doing. So: we have too many rabbits; a quick death for the rabbits followed by eating them fits the same moral criteria which I apply to say, lambs; and we would be supporting the sort of skill which I would hate to see lost, and killing the rabbits in one of the ways they're most likely to die anyway, if the buzzards were more efficient. (The buzzards have a good time on road kill and smaller mammals.) But will I be able to go out with ferrets and a hawk and hunt rabbits? I think I will have to, for the sake of my self-respect.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

What people think about when they should be thinking about Latin

1. Yay, yay! One of my favourite Lady Gaga songs remixed by my favourite band. Although this mix is so very Pet Shop Boys that in the comments to this video people have even suggested it's not by them at all, rather rudely I think.

2. This bat is made up of other bats. I read this amazing thing recently suggesting that caterpillars and butterflies are actually separate species, because apparently there's a sea urchin or something which trundles along quite happily in the sea until it enters a period of metamorphosis producing a completely different sea creature, which splits off from the urchin and swims away to lead its own life, while the sea urchin continues as before as if having recovered from indigestion. Apparently because a lot of sea creatures reproduce by dumping vast amounts of seed out there in the currents, and producing eggs which they just hope will bump into the right stuff, it's possible that very very occasionally something reproductively wierd would happen. It's a cool concept, anyway.

3. So, someone's already training dolphins to use ipads. Bloody dolphins.

4. This cafe is a research cafe. For a long time I had a theory that the coffee machines at Corpus High Table were complex psychological experiments.

5. I do like these anti-venereal disease posters from the WWII era. Many of the slogans work better if said in the voice of Peter Cook as Roger's father in this sketch about the facts of life.

Right, now I ought to get back to the order for the sign of the peace at the high mass on a duplex feast of nine lections. Did you know that the Latin verb to kiss is deponent? It's true, but it's not very interesting.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

I've calmed down now

On the plus side, Wolf Hall is really excellent. It reminded me of War and Peace, so well written it almost seemed like it hadn't been written at all, it's just something you're at. And the latest Ariana Franklin is good too.


I have just finished Liz Jensen's Rapture, and I am annoyed. It's pretty well-written and constructed, but it hasn't a shred of humour, the characters are all mildly annoying people -- in real life you'd overhear them talking on a train and put your ipod on to avoid their conversation --, the plot is predictable, and the premise hackneyed. (Of course evangelical Christians beat their children to get the devils out of them.) It's about a psychiatrist of doubtful stability one of whose patients keeps making awful predictions that come true. I was getting really worked up about its stupid portrayal of evangelical Christians, of whom I am and always have been one, until I read in her acknowledgments her huge gratitude for his advice on the matter to someone I knew at university. (He was one of those charming people who makes you feel stupid, a reaction I have since learned to mistrust, though I expect he really is as bright as he seemed then.) Lazy novels like this just add to the little wedge that is constantly being gently tapped at the divide between those who have a religious faith and those who do not, and we need no extra power to that wedge, in case one day it really does get some purchase.

But this is just one of those things, and no more than one expects when one reads thrillers aimed at a vaguely popular market. The reason it has upset me so very much is that it's by Liz Jensen, who is one of my favourite authors, and someone whose interesting mind I have in the past envied. She has written some of the most inventive novels I know, ones I revisit from time to time when I want to read something intelligent, unusual, and fun. She used to be on my list of authors whose books I would always read, an author with whose reviews I never bothered. I really highly recommend Ark Baby and Egg Dancing, for example, and in fact all of her previous books (although I wasn't that impressed by The Paper Eater). The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is quite startling. And now she has produced a novel which is the definition of pedestrian. I suppose it's a money thing.

And while I'm at it, I can't stand Kate Mosse, who is quoted on the front of this book as saying it's a warning of the dangers of evangelicalism. I suppose Mosse has at least never set high standards to fall from. Not only are her books badly written but it is fatuous in the extreme to be all sentimental about the Cathars, who weren't much better than the popes of the time, and given the popes of the time that was really going it something.

Anyway one day I might write a novel, and if I do it may well not be very good, and I suppose I shouldn't cast stones &c. Heigh ho. But I am seriously saddened by the loss of Liz Jensen from the ranks of the unusual.

That is all.