Sunday, August 31, 2008

Anti-aging dilemma and the New Scientist - Wowing with big numbers

I've just read an interesting article about anti-aging creams in an oldish copy of the New Scientist. The article discusses how the manufacturers are faced with a double edged sword when testing their products - on the one hand they could end up proving their own products ineffective, but on the other hand, if manufacturers carry out rigorous trials and show that products have a real effect, they may have to be classed as medicines in which case they will no longer be available over the counter. Either way, the result is a negative hit to sales.

Interesting stuff, but now for the rant: the bit I didn't like was how the article opened with its comment that we humans spend a staggering $290bn each year on beauty products. But what about the anti-aging cream market specifically, I ask, which is what the article was talking about? No doubt it is big, but it is only going to be a small fraction of this number. Furthermore, taking the $290bn number and working it out to a per capita monthly spend turns it in to a far less staggering £3.60. From experience, when I read something that mentions 'x billions' in an effort to grab our attention, it usually cheapens the rest of the article.

ps - I didn't know oldish was a real world until now.

Film: Scaramouche quote

One more quote from Scaramouche:

Lenore: I don't like you this way, I don't like you at all.
Andre Moreau: I don't like myself.

Film Review: Scaramouche (1952)

Scaramouche didn't strike me as particularly special, but it's one worth watching if you hark back to the technicolor glory days, and it is a notch above your typical weekend matinee. The movie is a light-hearted, enjoyable swash-buckler that moves along at a brisk pace and is littered with quality dialogue and first rate sword play.

*** 1/2

For a more recent film that covers similar themes to Scaramouche, look no further than the 1982 TV adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. In my humble opinion, this is an overlooked piece of five-star gold.

A few quotes from Scaramouche:

Sauage Dealer: Are you mad?
Andre Moreau: Completely sir. We're all of us out of our minds. Have you never observed it?

Lawyer Fabian: Andre, you're dressed very oddly. Are you in trouble too?
Andre Moreau: Well, not yet, darling, but it threatens. I have a young lady downstairs in a coach with an itch to be married. She's made two attempts since breakfast and her temper is rising.

Andre Moreau: I can no longer be taught by the man who taught my enemy. So, what is more fitting in a mad world, then to be taught by the man who taught the man who taught my enemy!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Stephen 'Fry's English Delight'

Not to be missed: Radio 4 are currently airing a nice three-part series on the English language by Stephen Fry and Michael Quinion. The first episode on 'metaphor' ran last Monday. 'Quotations' and 'cliche' are tackled next. Each episode runs at just under half an hour (I spot two metaphors there!).

The series isn't available in podcast format but you can hear each episode on the iPlayer or on the mini-site. It is a bit annoying that iPlayer only keeps its shows for seven days but this is changing and some time in September we will see the iPlayer 'stacking' up popular radio and tv series, when all the episodes of a series will be available for viewing until seven days after the last episode. Good stuff.
---
Notes on the 'metaphor' episode:

In greek, 'metaphor' means to 'carry or transfer'. You can 'metaphor' your furniture or your bank balance. In English, metaphor means to transfer meaning.

Whilst it may be interesting to know the original sense of a metaphor - where it came from - the English language is full of metaphor skeletons, of words and phrases that are dead in the sense that their original sense is forgotten, and there is little practical point in putting clothing on these metaphors by remembering where they come from. Instead, we are better off just accepting their current perception and meaning. Metaphors 'help us ease the passage between concrete and abstract ideas.' They help us to think about things differently. Take for example the idea of 'the future being infront of us'. It is not literally 'ahead' of us, but thinking about it in this sense is useful to us.

The show helped me appreciate how metaphor permeates through our language to differing degrees.

Another good show on the english language is Word of Mouth.

The weight keeps on dropping

When I stopped keeping my food diary and eased off the exercise I was a bit worried that my weight would creep back up. Instead, my mass keeps on reducing; I weighed myself earlier today and I'm bang on ten stone. It just goes to show how small changes can produce big results.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My favourite car advertisements

They just happen to all be for German cars:

- Audi: I call this short ad the '1990's businessman'. It's a work of genius.



- Mercedes: An effective advertisement for a movie that doesn't exist.



- BMW: An ad that is a full ten minute movie in itself, involving a car race for James Brown's soul.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Book - Making Money by Terry Pratchett (not a review)

This is the first time I've picked up a Discword novel in some ten years. In the interim period I've built up a bit of a negative bias against stories containing large numbers of golem's and elves and the like. I'm not sure why this is. Could it be the result of being severely let down by the Harry Potter books and films? Perhaps it is a consequence of trying to watch the extended Lord of the Rings DVDs over a few days? A case of goblin, troll, wizard overkill was inevitable. Or maybe it is simply part of the aging process and associated loss of imagination. Whatever the cause, I find it hard to buy into these fantasy worlds these days.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd give Terry Pratchett's well reviewed Making Money a shot because I have fond memories of the handful of Pratchett books that I have read in the past. Also, Making Money deals with an economic/financial theme, so it at least has some kind of link back to reality.

Alas, at about a hundred pages into the Making Money, I put the book down and thought about giving up. Whilst Terry Pratchett's head is filled with clever ideas and great humour, I found his writing style to be somewhat plain this time around, and perhaps because of this I haven't been able to suspend my belief and buy into the fantasy fiction . On the plus side, it is a quick read and the story is very fast moving. I will keep at it and try and see it through to the end.

Film review: The Greatest Game Ever Played


The Greatest Game Ever Played tells the true story of the US Open in 1913, where US amateur Francis Ouimet came out of nowhere and found himself in a head-to-head battle for the title against the the English great, Harry Vardon. Unlike the story it is telling, however, the film itself is not that great. The fact that both Ouimet and Varden are nice guys makes for a refreshing change but it does mean that we don't have an enemy to rally against. The story instead focusses on good sportsmanship and makes an enemy of the rigid class structure of the time - both characters come from working class backgrounds and they are looked down upon by the golfing society, traditionally a game reserved for those several rungs higher up the social ladder.

The film gets extra marks for using the terms 'mashie' and 'brassie' but alas, I heard no mention of the 'niblick', our favourite club. Care in the detail is appreciated, with the traditional golfers' clothing and equipage of the time well represented. We also see the less manicured course conditions which prevailed at the time, and a more relaxed approach to the game in general (Vardon smokes his pipe mid-swing!).

The Greatest Game Ever Played firmly belongs in Disney's stable of traditional family films, but unless the family is one that enjoys golf I fear it may be a bit like watching paint dry. I liked it.

*** 1/2

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

TV - Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

I watched Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee last night. It is an overly long and not sufficiently exciting film about the last stand and massacre of the Native Indians of America by a US government keen to gain access to the Black Hills that were rich in gold but considered sacred by the Sioux.

Nevertheless, I am giving it three stars because it has some redeeming qualities that make it just about worth watching:

- A rock solid cast (Aidan Quinn, Anna Paquin, Adam Beach)
- Good character development
- It is very well filmed for a tv film
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is based on reality and forms a good starting point from which to learn more. I played Cowboys and Indians when I was young but this is the first time that I have gained some degree of useful understanding of the history of Native Indians.

Take a look at the HBO site for more background information.

***

PS - Why I was expecting some kind of happy ending with this one, I'll never know.

Book review - The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg

The Adventure of English - The Biography of a Language is an achievement to behold. Melvyn Bragg starts with the very origins of English at around 500 AD and charts its course through to the present day. The history of the English language is entwined with the history of the nation and by necessity we are reminded of key events in England's history along the way - in my case, I learning a great many new things.

We learn of the influence on the language from various invaders over the years (Germanic, Danes, French, etc), of how English was eventually accepted by the royal family and more reluctantly by the church, who held tightly onto latin as the preferred language. We learn of how English varied across the country and across society and how it was eventually standardised to some extent by the government.

The story involves a significant international dimension: as the British empire grows and international trade flourishes, so the tendrils of the English language reach across the oceans. There are chapters on the language in America, India, the West Indies, and Australia, discussing how English was absorbed into these parts and how it evolved away from English-English, with new words sometimes returning home to be incorporated into the standard English. The history is presented always from the perspective of the language and masterpieces of English (poetry, novels, religious works, etc) are noted in this wider context with quotes abound from the greats (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth, etc). The breadth and scope of this book is breathtaking and Melvyn Bragg deserves credit for never losing his way and delivering a highly readable book that is just over 300 pages in length. It is a book for anyone with an interest in evolution, words, and English history as well as the history of English.

The Adventure of English is no bland writing-up of the facts, which are interesting in and of themselves, but Bragg writes with a clear opinion; that the English language is a kind of living organism, that it is always changing, evolving, being moulded by the authorities but also growing from up from the streets. He writes with enthusiasm and despite mentioning and quoting endless classic writers, Bragg doesn't assume that we are already familiar with them, a deadly mistake that could have rendered much of this book unreadable (as it did with the terrible How to Read and This I Believe).

I am holding back from giving it the full five-stars because the book does seem to dip a little around three quarters of the way in, when Melvyn Bragg discusses how the spoken language differs from the written language. Other readers may find this material as interesting as the rest of the book, but I felt like the sense of adventure dried up a bit around this point, albeit briefly. Also, while the book has two sections of glossy illustrations, I thought it would have been even more entertaining had it been peppered with pictures throughout (Bears and A Social History of Tea use illustration to perfection).

****1/2

PS - Michael Quinon, a writer on the English language, points out some mistakes in the book. Given the reach of The Adventure of English I expected some errors. Personally, I don't think they detract from the book as a reader can always do a quick follow up on the web.

Notes to self - A History of Surgery: Into the Brain (BBC4)

Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery is a fascinating new series from BBC 4 that is not for squeamish - the programme starts with an open brain surgery procedure, the patient fully conscious as surgeon probes away at her squidgy, grey matter. Eugh.

Notes from the first episode, looking at the history of brain surgery:

- The two brain surgery procedures that are shown require the patient to be awake, but they don't seem to be in any pain. Further research confirms 'the skull and brain have no pain receptors – the incision of the skin on the scalp is what usually leads to pain during the procedure, and this can be alleviated with local anesthesia'.
- By staying awake, the patient can give vital feedback to the surgeons and perform simple test tasks such as lifting their arms and legs, moving their face, etc before the surgeons 'close up'.
- Harvey Cushing was an american neurosurgeon who was totally obsessed with his work. His obsession paid off and Cushing made made brain surgery possible by developing the tools to reduce critical blood loss (clamps, wires etc). Bleeding was a major problem - the brain has over 600 km of blood vessels and uses a litre of blood every minute. After Cushing, operating deaths went down from 70% to 10%.
- But surgeons still needed a decent map of the brain to avoid damaging key parts, etc.
- Famous case - Phineas Gage worked on a railway and was involved in an accident explosion in which a large iron bar shot straight through his head, removing his frontal lobe. This didn't stop his physical functioning, however and he was soon able to walk and talk again. However, Gage became more rude, vulgar. His friends said Gage was no longer Gage. This was proof of localisation, that different parts of the brain are responsible for different things.
- In the programme presenter Michael Mosley shows localisation on himself. He goes into a lab and experiences external magnetic interference on exact parts of his brain. This affects his motor skills in a specific way. The effect is short-lived.
- Walter Freeman, the heavily criticised labotomy man in the 1920s. Thousands of people were housed in asylums and Freeman thought the labotomy would dampen down emotions and cure patients, effectively bringing the damned back to life. Because he wasn't a surgeon, Freeman partnered with the Watts, and together they started the labotomy, a procedure that involved opening the side of skull at both sides, entering the brain using what looked like a butter knife, and trying to sever the connections between frontal lobe and the thalamus. Reported that about 1/3 of patients improved, an equal number were not much affected, and 1/3 were worse off. But it was too time consuming to have a big impact on the thousands in the asylums. They decided they needed a simpler and faster method, and came up with the 'transorbital labotomy' : hammering what is effectively an ice-pick into the brain via the eye socket. This was much easier and could be done in 10 minutes. They went on a type of roadshow and Freeman did thousands of transorbital labotomies himself. They moved away from using the procedure only on extreme cases and started using it on more normal people. More than 100k people were treated, with mixed results - some patients became more docile, others died, others were permanently damaged (paralysis etc).
- In the programme, a high res scan is carried out on Howard, who had the procedure performed on him by Freeman when he was just 12. The scan showed two black cavities, described as being similar to incapacitated stroke victims. This would had affected his long term planning and led to inhibition of responses and an inability to control impulses - the opposite to what the labotomy was trying to achieve. Because Howard was only 12, the brain was able to rebuild and adapt, and some of the surrounding neural connections may have taken over. He went on to lead a normal life.
- After Freeman the idea of using surgery to control behaviour grew. Jose Delgado invented a procedure of inserting electrodes into the brain to control aggressive behaviour. He got permission to try it on a bull-fighting bull. Delgado then jumped in to ring with the aggressive bull, hit his remote and the bull stopped completely. His work led to the line of thought of implanting electrodes in human beings to control aggressive human behaviour but these proposals never found support. Still, it was the beginning of a new psychosurgery, and it led to big advances in the field: deep brain stimulation.
- Episode closes with a deep brain stimulation procedure on Stewart, a Parkinsons's sufferer. He has electrodes implanted deep into the base of the brain (holes drilled into skull, implants inserted, and connect to battery stimulator which is permanently inserted in his chest). It is not a cure to his symptoms or the disease, but it has slowed down progression and stopped his 'freezing' attacks. Stewart says 'I'm a free agent again'. Very life affirming stuff.

The next episode looks at the history of heart surgery.

Film poster of one of my favourite films: City Slickers

Monday, August 25, 2008

Unfinished thoughts, not on a theme

Actually a mixture of experiences and thoughts barely started, a dance of the keyboard and brain with minimal interruption. Apologies in advance:

- In the last dream that I can remember, former President of Pakistan (Pervez Musharraf) has a cameo appearance in CSI.
- I put my v-neck jumper on back-to-front today and thought it looked pretty cool, before putting it back on the right way. If I really didn't care what other people though, I would have carried on wearing it backwards.
- A few hours ago, when changing into my gym shorts, I realised I'd also been wearing my underwear back to front. As far as I am aware, this is a first.
- A few days ago I was disgusted for a brief moment when I had my first sip of a coffee. I had totally forgotten that I had made a coffee and was expecting tea. Within a second, I adjusted my expectation and enjoyed the rest of my beverage. This got me thinking about expectation and satisfaction, and how much information one needs prior to the experience to maximise their satisfaction. For example, I have tried reading 'The Crying of Lot 49' twice now, with no success. A quick scan on the internet suggests a bit of background knowledge with respect to the themes it contains may improve my experience. I love diving straight in and not knowing what something is about, but there are times when this doesn't work. It helps to know a little before we embark. A good example is a Steven Seagal film - cheese all the way through, but if you aren't expecting this, you won't enjoy it.
- Will there come a time when university lectures are given by actors? Why does a lecturer need to know their subject matter. The most important thing is transmitting knowledge effectively to the students. Seminars are another thing, but I can't see the value of the current form of lectures. Economics 101 by Al Pacino, now that will get everyone's attention. I can imagine having the same content delivered in different styles to suit.
- I love the written word, but reading for the purpose of one's 'list' is not true love. There are many types of reading and each man has his own pace, his own rhythm for different materials (newspapers, books, fiction etc). Rhythm can change, but it must not be betrayed.
- I cannot consciously remember the content of the documentaries I watch, or the non-fiction books that I read. I must take notes - it is laborious, but the extra effort is worthwhile, and it changes an enjoyable experience into a true learning experience. Write, write, write, always write.
- It is ruinous to teach literature to students who are not ready for it, and I believe most people who study literature are too young. The english language is one thing, and it must be learned at the earliest opportunity, but literature is something else. Only now do I feel that my brain is suitably pickled to appreciate some of the greats. Oh, what a dull life it would have been had Don Quixote been 'taught' to me. To be forced to read the greats for the first time in a rush, to be tested on these works in a rigorous, structured system. Could there be a more effective way to suck all the joy from these jewels? How many are discouraged in later years by this wholly unsuited regimen.
- To live one's life to the best of one's capabilities, to leave a legacy, to be remembered through one's family and the wider world for one's achievements, for one's ideas. Oh, to influence the world beyond one's life, to be remembered as a winner, a standard setter. To write a book, to break a record, to be a millionaire, to be something, someone, to be recognised. I have none of these ambitions. I will not regret anything on my death bed. It is a fallacy. Likewise, I do not do something for the sake of it, for saying I did it once. I don't see the value in this approach. I have an ego that I try to keep in check because I know I am significant at one level but totally insignificant in the broader picture.
- Be humble in one's opinion. We all change over time, and it is usually our most ardent opinions and beliefs that change most. It is a natural process or living life, absorbing additional knowledge and adjusting one's outlook through experience. Very little is steadfast.
- Read newspapers, but don't read the 'news'. It is a practice that tends to be voyeuristic in the most negative sense.
- Man's existence on earth is something to behold, but it doesn't add up to much in the grander scheme of time. The beautiful Earth is thought to have been around for some 4 billion years. We barely register on this time scale. The world goes through much change and nature is vicious. Romanticism permeates our outlook and desire to preserve the wilderness, but I do not worry about the environment, because I see nature as a force that exists with or without man, with or without the panda, the polar bear, a certain type of tree or a species of fish. We need to ensure balances are maintained for the sake of ourselves: humanity. Nature as a force will take care of itself. Natural selection shapes an ever changing flora and fauna. It is a force like gravity. Slow moving, sure, but only from the perspective of man. Nothing is static. Let us be humble.
- People talk about living in the past, living in the present, and living in the future. What of living 'through time' and 'above time'?
- Why oh why does competition bring out the best in me. I despise myself for that, for the fact that I cannot bring out my best on my own. It is an issue of nature, of celebrating the winner, and thriving to do better. But why can't I perform as I would like to without somebody to compare against, against somebody who necessarily becomes a loser if I succeed. I recognise and hate this.
- I am back from the gym and I feel marginally stronger, with greater purpose and resolve in my actions. This effect seems to result even from moderate exercise. I feel stronger when it comes to small acts such as opening a tin, unscrewing a bottle tap, turning a tap. When I lift a knife and fork they feel smaller and lighter, and I feel bigger. My thinking becomes less fuzzy, more binary (yes, no). It is clearly a biochemical reaction with a shortish half life, but it a good benefit of physical exercise.
- Some of these thoughts will have been subconsciously plagiarised, others influenced by outside variables. True independence of thought is impossible. We are all a product of our time.
- As I've been writing this, my neighbour's cat has run up our stairs, jumped on my lap and fallen asleep. I must go now. 'Hairy Bakers' is on tv and they are looking at the wonderful world of tea time treat. Delicious.

Monkey - The legend, the book, the opera, and the olympics

Can you remember watching the Japanese TV series 'Monkey' (also known as 'Monkey Magic) in your youth?'. It is a bit of a blur, but I remember it as a poorly dubbed, fantasy action program that heightened my sense of wonder of the Far East. I forgot about Monkey until last year, when I picked up 'Monkey: Journey to the West' at my local library, and discovered that the tv series was based on the legendary Chinese novel, 'Journey to the West'. The translation I read is superb, filled with exciting language and touching on deeper buddhist themes that I somehow missed out on the first time around when I watched the tv series (hey, I was only seven or eight years old).

Earlier this year, the BBC Imagine series had a show on a new opera of the legend by Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz fame) and his artist friend, Jamie Hewlett (Gorillaz). The show has gone on to be a success and is currently running at the Royal Opera House. The BBC even commissioned the team to provide the theme for their coverage of the Olympics (video below).

I welcome the return of Monkey into my life.



A few quotes from 'Monkey - A Journey to the West' - retold by David Kherdian

‘Nothing in this world is difficult, but thinking makes it seem so. Where there is true will, there is always a way.’

‘It goes without saying that I am indebted to the Master’, Monkey said, ‘but it is also true that I have worked every day and night to perfect myself. There isn’t a single transformation that I have not mastered.’

‘The adept does not reveal himself.’

Film Review: Hellboy

Hellboy is filled with spectacular special effects and is significantly better than the superhero films released at around the same time (2004). Unlike your average super hero comic however, the story incorporates a much larger element of fantasy, which allows for a wider array of interesting characters. I can imagine this franchise extending for many years, particularly if Guillermo del Toro remains the driving force behind it.

However, despite all this, it simply didn't do anything for me. I found the film moderately entertaining, but not sufficiently exciting or engaging. I am not turning my nose up at it by any means, and I find these films can work if they deal with darker, more adult themes (a la Batman - Dark Knight). All in all, Hellboy is worth watching, even if it didn't have the magic to make be a believer.

***

Pure Evoke Flow - the next wave of digital radio

Reviews are glowing for the PURE Evoke Flow, which is due for release by in September at a cost of £150. I see this as the next wave of radio, offering an easy-to-navigate combination of FM, digital radio (including DAB+) and internet radio (Wi-fi, podcasts, streaming etc). The guys at PURE have been working on this machine for a long time and it clearly shows in the 'less is more' design, which has a nice retro touch about it. Check out this hands-on review for more.

Confession - I'm still using a twin cassette 'ghetto blaster' for my radio needs, but this is the first digital radio that I would consider shelling out for.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Old golf club terminology - the niblick, the mashie, the mashie-niblick

In times gone by, golf clubs used to have cool sounding names, not numbers. Here they are, matched up to their modern day number equivalents.

# [1] Driving Iron
# [2] Mid-Iron
# [3] Mid-Mashie
# [4] Mashie-Iron
# [5] Mashie
# [6] Spade Mashie
# [7] Mashie-niblick
# [8] Pitching-Niblick
# [9] Niblick

(from Wikipedia)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Book review - Leave it to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse

After enjoying Big Money, I had to move straight on to Leave it to Psmith - I do not find it easy to restrain myself from a Wodehouse that sits on the shelf, quietly asking to be read.

Having familiarised with the Psmith character in 'Psmith, Journalist', I looked forward to more of the same, and I got exactly what I wished for. In this story, Psmith is back in familiar England. He has recently left his uncle's fish business and, finding himself hard up for cash, seeks employment by placing an advertisement in the newspaper (the ad starts with: 'LEAVE IT TO PSMITH! Psmith Will Help You. Psmith Is Ready For Anything. ...'). This leads Psmith to Blandings Castle, on a mission to steal a £20,000 necklace. Of course, nothing is simple in Wodehouse's world of coincidences and misunderstandings, and much farce ensues. The story is exquisitely woven together with several hilarious episodes - the best ones concern the 'borrowing' of an umbrella, and throwing of plant pots through a window by the Efficient Baxter (the secretary at Blandings).

Psmith's unique outlook and method of dealing with people and with life in general makes these stories a real treat to read. It makes me sad to think that there are only two more Psmith books in the series.

If you haven't read Wodehouse before, I recommend stepping in to his world with either 'Psmith, Journalist' or 'Leave it to Psmith.' They are perfect.

*****

Book review - Big Money by P.G. Wodehouse

After having my head twisted every which way by 'Fictions', I turned to P.G Wodehouse for relief.

'Big Money is an entertaining romp that revolves around the efforts of Berry Conway and his friend Biscuit to make some decent money, and the complications caused by their engagements to the same woman. It has all the ingredients of an enjoyable Wodehouse story, with mistaken identities, a healthy dose of criminality, several romances, and many hi-jinx that result from mistaken identities and general misunderstandings. Everything comes together to form the usual slice of exquisite lightness, which Wodehouse so capably delivers.

If I could only have one book it would be Don Quixote. If I could only read one author, it would be P.G. Wodehouse.

***3/4

ps - The image on the front cover (above pic) is an illustration of my favourite hilarious moment in the book, concerning Biscuit and a fake beard.

Book review - Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

Fictions is a collection of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges that had my head in a spin. The front cover of the book is fittingly decorated with a portion of the freakily surreal 'The Temptation of St. Anthony', by Hieronymus Bosch. It tells the reader what they are in for.

Many of the short stories are fictions based around the fictional work of fictional authors (eg: A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain). Get it? I like the idea but after a while I felt mentally exhausted and starting thinking 'enough already'. After reading 'The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim' - a critique of an imagined book by the same name, my first thought was 'What the hell have I just read?'. I am not alone in my confusions; the translator comments in the afterword that a close friend of Borges read this short story and tried to send off for the book, which doesn't exist.

Borges is obsessed with literature and ideas. His colourful originality of ideas kept me marching forward more so than the actual writing, which I found somewhat difficult to work through despite the short length of the book.

An example of where Borges writing doesn't work, in my opinion:

From 'Three Versions of Judas' - 'In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith (when Basilides was announcing that the cosmos was a rash and malevolent improvisation engineered by defective angels), Nils Runeberg might have directed, with a singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have destined him, perhaps, for a fiery sepulcher; his name might have augmented the catalogues of heresiarchs, between Satornibus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preaching, embellished with invective, might have been preserved in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or might have perished when the firing of a monastic library consumed the last example of the Syntagma.'

An example of where it does work:

From my favourite short story from the collection, 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote' - 'The first method he conceived was relatively simple. Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I know he attained a fairly accurate command of seventeenth-century Spanish) but discarded it as too easy. Rather as impossible! my reader will say. Granted, but the undertaking was impossible from the very beginning and of all the impossible ways of carrying it out, this was the least interesting. To be, in the twentieth century, a popular novelist of the seventeenth seemed to him a diminution. To be, in some way, Cervantes and reach the Quixote seemed less arduous to him—and, consequently, less interesting—than to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.' (copied from a different translation to the one I read, but essentially the same).

*** I'm giving Fictions three stars because its madness comes with a shining originality of ideas.

Tea and coffee fest

So far today, I've had two normal teas, a decaff tea, three Vietnamese coffees and I am now on my second pot of Chinese Jasmine tea...and it isn't even tea-time!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Praise for The National Trust and an appeal to the younger set


We have been making the most of our National Trust membership (joined at a much reduced rate via Quidco), and have recently visited around ten NT parks and properties.

National Trust sites tend to include a grand house (usually once owned by a successful financier, duke or earl), a large garden, various monuments, good walks, and a tea house that can be relied on to offer a good selection of cakes and scones.

Members get free parking at all sites, and free access to gardens and houses. It's superb value and is the perfect way to appreciate the rich history and heritage of our country. Alas, judging by a survey of its patrons, the world of the National Trust is severely under appreciated by the younger demographic.

Here are the sites we visited:

Anglesey Abbey
Ascott House
Buscot Park & Old Parsonage
Canons Ashby
Cliveden
Ham House
Hughendon Manor
Osterley Park
Stowe Landscape Gardens
Wimpole Hall & Home Farm

(Visited last year: Claydon House, Waddesdon Manor)

Every site was worth visiting.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Film Review: Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone (2007) is a crime drama that is well worth watching. It stars Casey Affleck as a young, private detective who is hired to look for a missing girl. As the film progresses, layers of mystery are added to the story line and the viewer is left guessing all the way through. I do think that Gone Baby Gone reaches a bit too far toward the end, but the very last scenes of the film provide compensation.

The film seems to capture the flavour of Boston as well as any film that I have seen, and the quality of the shoot makes it hard to believe that it is a directorial debut, from Ben Affleck of all people.

****

ps - This is the third film I've seen in the past two weeks featuring Morgan Freeman!

Film review: Glory (1989)

Just enjoyed watching Glory (1989), a great, historical Civil War film about the first black regiment to go to battle for the US Army. Glory is based on a true story (see Wikipedia article), and while it is essentially a character driven film set in the context of a war, it also manages to cover several bigger issues including equality, rebellion, self sacrifice, and winning and losing.

At almost twenty years old, Glory provides further proof that Morgan Freeman ages a hell of a lot slower than the average human being. We also get to see an excellent turn from Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his part.
****

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A new (old) piece of furniture

I recently took delivery of this side unit, which I found it at an Age Concern charity store.

Both unit and purchaser had to withstand a tirade of abuse from my sister, who claimed I had lost my senses, particularly my sense of style. Fortunately, it seems to fit rather nicely in my room - a close shave for any remaining credibility!

The RMF is in it's thirties

Last weekend, we marked the 31st birthday of two RM members with a round of golf and a screening of the latest Batman.

The RMF (established Sept 2005) is getting old in the tooth. It feels as if the twenties are but a distant memory. Where did they go? We are now floating around in the wilderness that is our early thirties - no longer young, not quite middle aged, it is the no-man's land of one's years. We still have our health, mind, and remain fully able to swing a mashie-niblick, and I guess that's all that really matters.

On to the film, I'm happy to report that 'Batman - The Dark Knight', is an excellent film. I expected it to be very good, but to see Abs stay awake through the entire film, well, that tell's me we are on to something truly special. The latest instalment in the franchise is easily the most adult Batman to date, dealing with heavy themes and memorable acting by the cast (it's particularly nice to see Caine, Freeman, and Oldman returning to their roles). The action scenes are very strong this time around, and unlike Batman Begins, The Dark Knight had me hooked from the get go. The Joker - superbly executed by Heath Ledger - steals the show with his scenes. He is the perfect villain, wearing haunting make-up, delivering killer lines, and generally sending Gotham spinning into chaos through his anarchic trickery. That said, the Joker doesn't steal the entire film, which retains a good balance across characters. More of the same, please.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Book review - A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew

I made the most of the hour or so of sunshine today and finished reading the enjoyable 'A Social History of Tea'. In my opinion, this is an almost perfect book for anyone with an interest in the history behind the humble cuppa. It is packed with fascinating facts and excellent illustrations throughout, and the author clearly has a passion for the subject. Jane Pettigrew, who has run her own tea shop in South London for several years, has done a superb job and this book deserves a wide audience.

I'll provide a summary of the interesting points of this book in another post, but right now, I must head off and get a brew going.

**** 1/2

Bernie Mac passes away

Bernie Mac passed away a few days ago (Yahoo article). It is because of this guy that we almost missed a flight from Hong Kong to Vietnam.


I believe comedians provide a crucial service to humanity - they make us laugh. Bernie Mac, we will miss you.

From an earlier post on the Mac: 'The UK never really got a fair slice of this American stand-up comedian, who made it big following a spot on Def Comedy Jam, and after featuring in the 'The Original Kings of Comedy' (a Spike Lee film). His jokes are too vulgar to repeat, but the guy is so funny it hurts; it's not just what he says, but how he says it, his eyes, his body language, the whole package.'

Book review - Buddha Vol 1. by Osamu Tezuka


'Buddha' is the creation of Osamu Tezuka - widely credited as the godfather of manga - and covers the philosophical and spiritual ground that is the story of Buddhism.

The story opens with a moving tale about animal self-sacrifice, and I would have liked to see it carry on along these lines. Instead it shifts toward a much more action orientated storyline. The focus on action scenes and violence seems a bit excessive at times, but given the Buddhist message of the futility of violence, I guess this is necessary. Furthermore, as this is only the first volume of an eight book series (the Buddha is not even born in this volume), there is still much room for the development of storylines, themes, and lessons.

I am amazed at the effectiveness of the graphic novel as a medium. The novel was a very fast read, as expected sitting somewhere between watching an animation on tv and reading a highly readable book. At the same time it was also highly absorbing, with scenes playing back in my mind in the same way as memories of clips of motion pictures. No doubt, 'Buddha' is an ambitious project, but it appears to have been extremely well executed, with superb, detailed scenic landscape drawings, a highly imaginative use of layout that adds to overall effectiveness, and an interesting story to boot.

All in all 'Buddha' is a good first step into the world of graphic novels, especially for someone with little interest in the sci-fi and superhero themes that seem to dominate this format.

*** 1/2

Saturday, August 09, 2008

I love library - part ii

Just got home from the the library, carrying a panoply of books. These include: a manga graphic novel on buddhism, a recent Discworld novel by Terry Practhett, short story collections by Jorge Luis Borges and Vladmir Nabokov, a social history of tea, and two more P.G Wodehouse novels, including another Psmith tale.

When it comes to spending hard cash on books, most people will tend to stick to what they know. However, when you are a member of a library, there is little cost to trying new authors and genres and you can experiment to your hearts content. It broadens your universe, and is another reason to love library.

Book review - This I Believe by Carlos Fuentes


Just finished 'This, I Believe', which is supposed to be an 'An A-Z of a Writer's Life'. The writer is Carlos Fuentes, who is described as Mexico's leading writer.

Fuentes has experienced life and remembers it well. His writing is honest and well crafted, but I found much of this book inaccessible because Fuentes seems to assume the reader is as well read as Fuentes, and boy is he well read. Endlessly referencing other people's work and thoughts with little explanation renders many chapters unreadable, in my opinion. I'm sure my understanding and appreciation would grow many times over if I could relate to all the references, as I imagine can most literary critics, but I do not see that as my job. Also, I see it as a clear failing because it turns the book from 'This I Believe' to 'This I Believe Of Other People'.

The other chapters that fail, in my opinion, are those that cover topics such as economics, globalisation, and man and the environment. I appreciated the quality of the writing in these chapters, and to each man his opinion, but I do not want to hear on these topics when others cover them so well.

The chapters which shine are those that concern the author's life, covering personal topics such as family, death, children, friendship etc. This is the true A-Z of the author's life, and most of these chapters are easier to read as they are lighter on quotes and references to other people's works. But they are too few in number. On the plus side, at least each chapter reads in isolation.

All in all, this book only has a few good bits but, on the whole, it is not interesting enough, and large swathes are unbearably difficult. It often reads like a rambling e-mail of the brain dump variety, albeit from a writer who knows his field inside out.

**

A few quotes from the book. First the terrible:

On Freedom: 'Freedom consistently fills the gap between interior and exterior action, the abyss between interior and exterior reality, the void between determinism and free will.'

On Time: 'But if we travel from one time to another and don't return to the present on time, we lose our memory of the past (if that is where we went) or our memory of the future (if that was the starting point).'

This video sums up my thoughts on such passages.

Now, the wonderful:

On Nature: 'All natural things and beings always seem to be in the right place. As human beings, we displace ourselves, we wish we could be something or somewhere else, and we are always out of place, unlike the Colorado canyons or the waterfalls of the Zambezi River or the tigers of Bengal ... Yes, we admire the order of natural beauty.

On London: 'London is good to me, for it is where I write in peace because nobody call me, nobody knows me. I look out of the window. I don't go out into the relentless rain. My voyage is my desk. My tropics are made of paper. I hear the incongruous telephone. The answering machine serves as testimony of my absence. I am here. I am not here. I write and I write. All I need to hear and understand, I hear from the mouths of my six or so English friends.'

On Don Quixiote: 'Despite his battles with reality, Don Quixote insists upon seeing giants where there are only windmills, and armies where there are only flocks of sheep. He sees them because he has read about them. He sees them because the things he has read have told him to see them that way. His reading is his madness.'

Friday, August 08, 2008

Book review - Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse

Broadly speaking, I can categorise books in one of three ways, depending on how I finish them. If I don't finish a book, my opinion is that it is one not worth finishing. When I look to see how many pages are left in a book and continue reading at the same pace, it is usually a three or three-and-a-half-star book - that is, one that I am enjoying reading but that I will also be happy to complete. Finishing these books has a satisfaction kind of similar to completing a good meal or finishing watching a film. Then there are books that I race through because they are a pure joy to read, but as I get toward the end I try and slow down in an effort to stretch out my enjoyment. I do not want these books to end. They have a taste that I don't want to go away. After reading a bunch of so-so books, I am happy to report that 'Psmith, Journalist' falls into the last category. Psmith Journalist (1915) is an exquisitely crafted story that moves along at a quite a clip. The main character, Psmith, accompanies Mike, his Etonian cricket playing friend, to New York and seeks out adventure, which he finds in spades. The humour is spot on, the dialogue snappy, and the action abundant. In my opinion, this work is a shining example of Wodehouse at his wittiest finest. It leaves me hungry for more Psmith stories.

In addition to the story, I drew no small satisfaction from the physical character of the book. The version I read is a small hardback, printed by Everyman. Much care has been taken in presentation, and the look and feel of the book is perfect in every way.

A quote from the book - Psmith is forced to the ground, following an altercation with a bunch of thugs:

'Psmith rose to his feet and dusted his clothes ruefully. For the first time he realised the horrors of war. His hat had gone for ever. His trousers could never be the same again after their close acquaintance with the pavement.'
Reading Wodehouse, for me, is like coming home. I consider myself most fortunate to find refuge in the work of an author with such a large body of work.

*****

Quick thought - change in our lives

When I was growing up, I used to play football, cricket, marbles, computer games etc. I thought I would never tire of these interests. When I turned on the tv and saw the opera, it was totally alien and had no meaning whatsoever. There were foods I didn't like, beliefs and concepts I accepted as true, and opinions that I held firm. I had a view on what was wrong with the world, and what was needed to make things right. I had views on success and failure, and I had a personal code of conduct that I thought would never change - my unchanging principles. But life is fluid, and always changing.

It is quite humbling to look back over one's personal history to see just how much one has changed over the years. Much of the change comes from the learning of new information, but a large part is personal,with the passage of time itself seeming to alter one's taste and preferences. It is as Heraclitus is reported to have said, "We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not."

Film Review: In Bruges

In Bruges is a refreshingly sincere film about two assassins who have been sent to Bruges for reasons that become clear. It manages to be both dark and light at the same time, and features quality acting from the leads (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes).

As a bonus, the film worked well as a reminder of the sights and sense of what Bruges is all about, minus the shooting, drugs, midgets etc.

****

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Book review - Blood and Guts by Roy Porter

'Blood & Guts - A Short History of Medicine' is an interesting book that can easily be read in a few sittings. Written, by medical historian and prolific author, Roy Porter, Blood and Guts provides an excellent overview of medicine and disease through the ages. From the title and colourful front cover, I did expect a few more interesting, obscure stories of medical practice, and more blood and guts in general, but I guess there simply isn't enough space for these things in such a short book.

While the language seemed a touch dry - which makes me wonder whether the book is a project of enthusiasm or more of a professional project of condensation - Blood and Guts does perform it's central job well, providing the reader an appreciation of our understanding of medicine today over the years.

Worthwhile, but interesting more than fascinating, I'm give Blood and Guts three out of five.

***

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

I want a scribbling machine

I am a scribbler. I scribble at night, I scribble when I'm out and about, I scribble when I'm sitting in a coffee shop, thinking about things.

I await the day when an electronic technology comes about that makes note taking and scribbling as easy as using a pen and pad. I know this scribbling tablet will come to me one day, and imagine something along the lines of an iphone, with a stylus, and a much better note taking system. Will technology every beat simple pen and paper? I hope so, but it's going to be a long wait.

Book review - The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G Wodehouse

A few days ago, I consumed 'The Inimitable Jeeves' in a few large servings. It is the first Jeeves and Wooster book that I have seen all the way through. I have a lot of admiration for P.G Wodehouse, but for some reason I repeatedly failed in my attempts to break into the J&W collection, probably Wodehouse's most famous series.

Okay, I didn't enjoy 'The Inimitable Jeeves' as much as other Wodehouse stories, and I'm not sure that I'll go on to read the rest of the J&W collection, but it was deliciously light and served as a perfectly pleasant way to pass a few hours.

***

PS - I'm currently reading Wodehouse's 'Psmith, Journalist' and loving every minute of it.

Book review key

* Extremely poor (I will never get these minutes of my life back)
** Just bad (not my cup of tea)
** 1/2 Just okay (I am no better or worse off for reading it)
*** Good (acceptable to pass one's time, but no special qualities about it)
**** Very good (would probably read this author again)
***** Damn near perfect (eg: Don Quixote)

Book review - Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

Just finished reading Bad Monkeys, a sci-fi thriller that skips along at a frenetic pace. The story is about Jane Charlotte, a woman who is recruited by a secret society to kill evil people, the 'Bad Monkeys'.

Because Charlotte is telling her stories to a doctor in an interview room of a nut house, the reader is left guessing how much of the protagonist's story is an illusion, all the way through to the end. With shades of Fight Club, the Matrix, and perhaps even Twelve Monkeys about it, Bad Monkeys is action packed, keeps you guessing, and the writing contains some interesting ideas. If MTV made books (they probably do) this would belong in their stable. It's short, snappy, and full of fizz. It performs it's job well, but not well enough to make me want to read more books by the author Matt Ruff. I think I have an aversion to a lot of paperback fiction that lines the shelves these days. I draw a lot of satisfaction from style as well as content, and older books seem to succeed more often in ticking both boxes.

*** (good)

Weight loss surprise

I weighed myself earlier today and was surprised to find that I had lost just under half a stone in recent weeks, without going to the gym (I'm on a two week break) or paying much attention to what I've been eating (I'm no longer keeping a food diary).

I had been stuck at 10.5 stone for a long time but since breaking through that barrier, the weight just keeps falling off. It's not troubling yet, and I don't mind dropping below 10 stone for a while, but anything much below that and I'll have to take corrective action (Krispy Kremes).

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Book review - Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami


'Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman' is a collection of stories by celebrated author, Haruki Murakami.

Murakmi's writing style is fresh and honest, but the stories proved too much of a mixed bag to make the book an outright, strong recommendation. I guess the book is a bit like most music albums - a bunch of good songs, but also a handful of songs that you think the cd could do without, and be no worse for it. Sometimes less is more. Murakami also uses a music album analogy to describe BWSW, with Wikipedia saying he considers the book as 'more akin to a concept album, as its stories were designed to produce a cumulative effect.' However, it is the very idea of a unified thread that is found in concept albums that I found missing, although perhaps I wasn't looking hard enough.

The biggest problem with BWSW, in my opinion, is that the level of the surreal varies too much across stories. The first half of the book just doesn't quite cut it, with several of the stories containing none of the surreal elements that give the stories their memorable quality. However, this seems to change around the half way mark, and the stories get a lot more entertaining.

When I read contemporary fiction I am usually put off by the lack of style. Story is one thing, the delivery another. This is why I don't read Dan Brown books etc - they are all story, no style, and no characters (in my opinion). Murakami manages to achieve something special. Most of his stories are character driven, and he has a beautiful, pure style, at least in most of the stories. He captures the human condition, doesn't seek to explain everything, and mixes in large doses of the surreal, and it all generally comes together very well.

A story by story review:

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman - 1, I found this to be a very disappointing start to the book
Birthday Girl Harper's and Birthday Stories - 3
New York Mining Disaster - 1

Aeroplane:Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry - 1

The Mirror - 3

Folklore for My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism - 2

Hunting Knife - 3
A Perfect Day for Kangaroos - 1
Dabchick - 3

Man-Eating Cats - 2

A 'Poor Aunt' Story - 4
Nausea - 4
The Seventh Man - 4

The Year of Spaghetti - 4.5

Tony Takitani - 4

The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes - 5
The Ice Man - 4.5

Crabs - 4.5

Firefly Extract - 3
Chance - 2

Hanalei Bay - 4

Where I'm Likely to Find It - 4

The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day - 4

A Shinagawa Monkey - 3

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5. If I selected the best stories of this book, it would get 4 or even 4.5.

Here is an excerpt of a 'Poor Aunt Story'. It is an example of Murakami at his surreal best. If you like this, get the book and read the stories ranked 3 and above:

(click to enlarge)

Molly cake - no sugar or fat, or eggs!

Here are two recipes (one, two) for Molly cake. We shared a slice of this tasty delight at a National Trust cafe, in Osterley Park.

I'm not too picky about fat and sugar these days - it's all about nutrients and total calories - but this is one of those few, tasty cakes, that can be made without eggs.

Also, because it's very dense, a small piece goes a long way. Best enjoyed with a cup of tea.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I love library

And why do I love library?

- I can take out up to 15 books at a time. This is so much better than buying because I don't feel guilty for not finishing books. When I buy a book and don't read it in good time, I can feel it tormenting me from the bookshelf. It messes with my head in a way that library books don't.
- Right now I have fourteen books out. These would have cost over £100 if I bought them from the shops.
- I don't feel guilty if I spend half an hour or so just 'grazing.'
- I can access the county's book catalogue. If my local library doesn't have a book I want, they can source it from any library in the region, and send me a note to pick it up in the post when it arrives. This service costs a mere 50p per book.
- The library gives half an hour free internet access to its members (perfect for finding book reviews etc).
- I can renew my books on line up to three times.
- They have an area with food and drink vending machines.
- They have all the broadsheet newspapers, and subscribe to well over a hundred magazines.

It's easy to take the public library for granted. The more I think about it, the more I realise that it is one of truly on of life's wonders.

Rabbit Weg

My sister has come down from Dubai and we are visiting lots of National Trust houses, gardens etc. It's amazing what's on your doorstep when you take a bit of time to look. Anyway, this post is about a game we invented called 'Rabbit Weg'.

How to play Rabbit Weg: When you are driving back home from a day trip, everyone in the car guesses how many rabbits will be spotted on the drive back. The closest guess wins. Simple.

A quick Google search informs me that around 100 million rabbits were estimated to populate the UK in the 1950s. A whopping 99 per cent were decimated by the myxomatosis disease, but rabbit numbers have since rebounded strongly, with a recent estimate of around 37.5 million.

PS - Today saw the introduction of a new game. It's called 'Shoe Weg' and involves guessing the number of shoes, or other footwear, that you will see lying on the roadside. As for the reason why shoes sometimes appear on roadside, I won't even try to guess. Anyway, we were driving back from London today, and we thought the game was dead in the water as we hadn't spotted a single shoe ... but then, with minutes to spare, we saw two good shoes thrown across a dual carriage way in Milton Keynes ... very odd.