Friday, September 29, 2006

English as a foreign language

Siobhan, my brother's lady companion, is learning to teach English as a Foreign Language. It can't be that hard, can it? I mean, she already speaks English, right[1]?

(Ignoring the self-evident facts that teaching is a discipline that requires talent and hard work to learn and that all her students will, by definition, have bad or no English).

Anyway, tell me what's wrong with this sentence:

Look at that big beautiful Italian red sports car!

(say it out loud if you can't see it. If you still can't hear it, swap sports with big and try again)

Ah, adjectival order. We don't get taught grammer in school anymore, so you can't tell me what the order is without looking it up, but you know when it's wrong. If you want to know more about adjectives, this site, which is American, is pretty good.

First person[2] to send me the sentence with correct adjectival order wins their choice of a bucket of beer[3] or one free range egg.

Update: Note that adjectival order is different in other languages, which is why you have to teach it to people who don't speak English. Foreigners who have not learnt English to an advanced level will often get it wrong. You can use this to try and spot them. Watch out! Foreginers are everywhere! (Especially in other countries)

[1] Having spent several years living in Vermont as a child, she occasionally speaks American, but foreigners mostly can't tell the difference.
[2] To handicap Stan, who has too much time on his hands, he will have to send me an illustrated version.
[3] In this case, bucket means pint glass or bottle.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Yet another post about violence and profanity

Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions of injuries (and one two swearwords), and the Vas Internet Preview Board has classified it as "Slightly Gruesome".

Somewhere in my mind (and in the back of one of my many notebooks) the third and hopefully last part of the Trial is growing, and it's also cross-pollinating with the third Claire Parker/Life on Mars post for another blog I operate; there's a post on something that happened a couple of weeks ago that I should really write; and I'm still grinding out my novel, one bloody word at a time.

So why do I feel now's the time to write a new story?[1]

Let me talk about why I've not put up the first chapter of my novel yet, as it may give you some idea of what I'm thinking. I'm cribbing fairly heavily from Xenophon's Anabasis, a historical report of an expedition by Greek Mercenaries into Mespotamia as part of a civil war in the Persian empire. Now, if you've chosen to write about a war, you need to address violence; if you're loosely basing your soldiers on Greek hoplites, you need to write about melee combat. Melee combat is messy, hard work, dangerous and horrific. To write honestly and well about it, you need to squeeze some of these characteristics into your narative; to write about violence so well and so graphically, it is truely shocking.

People tend to swear at times like this, which is where the profanity comes in.

The first chapter of my novel is an attempt to write a violent action scene that is powerful and shocking. (I'm not quite there, but there would be another draft before it made it's way here). There's also just a touch of the whole honour, glory and exhilaration thing as well - the characters are mercenary volunteers, slightly in love with the romance of war. The problem is that that's all it is. No context. Just a long scene of fighting, mutilation, exhaustion, breaking bones, faces tearing open, hands being cut off, blood spurting from necks and groins, skulls caving in, legs being crippled, a magic sword and people saying "fuck" a lot.

Yeah, yeah, now you all want to read it.

[Update: I gave the first chapter a re-read after writing this post and made this note: More shit and piss; also blood, sweat, tears and other bodily fluids.]

Now I could give it context by putting more chapters up or I could jump straight to Chapter 2, but I don't feel up for redrafting any character-centred scenes right now (not until I have some idea how the characters are going to turn out later in the story).

As I said in the footnote, the story that keeps creeping into my notebook is related to the novel, although not part of it, as a character in the story can't appear explicitly in the novel. I might need to write the story to understand what happens in the middle of the novel. Also, as a complete story, the violence and swearing will be in context, or as much context as they're going to get anyway. So I'd really rather post that, except I have to write it first.

Of course, this is also a way of putting off writing the novel (and the other stuff mentioned at the top). Worse still, while writing this post, I'm putting off writing the story itself. Blogging: Self-centred, self-referential, narcissistic procrastination for the 21st Century.

[1] It's not very new; I've had the idea for some time, and it's a spin-off from the novel. But you get the idea

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dark Tower

I'm probably the last person who cares about this to have their say [1], and everyone else has said it better. But say it now I will, rather than waiting ten years:

I'm with Sai King; I'm not keen on the ending, but it's the only one that make sense. Once the story becomes metafiction, and we know that ka is a wheel; when it becomes clear that the Dark Tower is The Dark Tower, then what else can Roland find in the last room?

[1] If you've not read it you'll probably saying "Seven books? Seven? You expect me to read seven volumes? That first one is really thin - but look at the price! And the last four are really thick - how do you expect me to get through them?"

John M Ford

John M Ford has died.

This means that, as well as being 10 years late with this message I'm also too late.

Go out and buy The Dragon Waiting. Go now. Buy it. Read it. It's about the War of the Roses and Alternate History and Religion(s) and Vampires. You'll like it. Go. Go now.

Other things by John M Ford can be found online by going to this post at Making Light; I like the poem Cosmology, but I'm into that sort of thing.

Would you like chips with that?

Ah, I'm getting a heavy spamload from the email address I use for this blog (and associated stuff). Nice to see it's all phishing spam[1] of some scam or another too. If any real humans want to contact me make sure you aren't congratulating me on winning the lottery or complaining I haven't sent you something you bought on ebay; you will be deleted.

On the offchance that spambots have attained self-awareness and are wasting their time parsing this blog:

I insist you ask for my consent before putting me into a lottery;
This address isn't used for any credit card, Paypal or bank accounts;
The item number for the "package" I haven't sent you comes up as a Ford Cobra on ebay;
Sending the ebay security "your account is being used for fraudulent trading" message a couple of days after the missing package complaint is a nice touch but I don't have an ebay account associated with this email.

[1] No Jim, this is not something that would appear in your tinned fish collection.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Well it amused me...

Last night, for my Mum's birthday we went to a Hungarian restaurant that was on Greek street! Hungarian food, served on Greek street! Hilarious! Even funnier were quite a lot of pictures of various old-style left wing figures such as John Ruskin, George Bernard Shaw, and Trotsky. Also many slightly outdated cartoons and several pictures of cavalrymen.

Well, if you're not laughing yet, I guess you won't crack a smile when I tell you it was the Gay Hussar.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


For a little while now, my default suggestion when people are being slow, stupid, or ignorant has been to poke them with a stick. Usually I've not go to the stage of actually finding a stick and poking them with it, but the poking people with sticks idea has certainly appeared a lot in my recent dialogues.

This links in with my Dad's theory of weapons development; that all weapons are variations and improvements on the pointy stick [1]. Improvements are usually either to make the stick more pointy (put a metal head on to make it a spear; make it entirely from metal and shoot it out a gun; essentially making it better at putting holes into people) or longer (pike; also shooting it from a distance).

My usual counterpoint is to point out weapon's that are clearly descended from the blunt stick. Today though I'm thinking about people with long pointy sticks; Macedonian Phalangites armed with sarissas (for reasons that regular readers may appreciate, here is Dr Victor Parker holding a replica sarissa).

For a long time I was terribly impressed by the fact that they marched with these enormously long pikes all the way from Macedonia to the Indus valley. Also, although the shafts do grow on trees, a 15 foot straight pole needs either some pretty industrial coppicing, or you're using trees that you'd otherwise want for ships or buildings. And if your shaft breaks while crossing the Hindu Kush, where do you get a spare?

Sadly though, when I finally got around to doing some research I found out that sarissas are made from two shafts, held together with a metal collar. It's just as easy to carry as a standard hoplite spear[2], so marching across most of south west asia becomes merely extraordinary rather than ludicrous. Also, for the hill fighting in Bactria[3] and Sogdiana[4] they were almost certainly rearmed, so once again my visions of men with stupidly long pikes charging hill forts go to show why Alexander the Great was a great general, and I just blog about great generals.

I'm still puzzled about why the Swiss, who's country is filled with mountains, would want to carry enormously long spears around, especially at just the moment when pikes became obsolescent, but until I get around to spending some time looking into it, it'll have to stay a mystery.

[1] In Dad's theory, the primeval weapon.
[2] If any hoplite army actually had standard equipment.
[3] "Northern Afghanistan"-ish
[4] "Ukbekistan"-ish

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Yet more Astronomical News

2003 UB313 has been given the name Eris.

The BBC have pointed out how appropriate this is.

Everybody else on the internet is saying "Hail Eris!" "All Hail Discordia!" and "Kallisti!". If you don't know why then this slightly po-faced wikipedia page may assist you.

It also means the free solar system chart I got in Tuesday's Independent is already out of date. Welcome to the 21st Century!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Links, Links, Glorious Links

I've finally got around to putting my series of "Unlikely Links" into the link field on the right. Any future ones will go there too, unless I forget, or can't be bothered or something. If you'd like your site to get a link there and gain the outside chance that one of my three readers will click on it when they're bored follow these simple steps:

1. Come up with something interesting and entertaining
2. Use this idea to create an interesting and entertaining webpage
3. Wait for me to stumble over it while I'm looking for cake recipes or pictures of unicorns or the text of the Genva Convention or whatever

Easy! Although in the interests of full disclosure I should point out that's not how I get linked to; that was due to an aggressive email-and-comment[1] campaign on other peoples sites. You could try that too, I guess. But then you'd be like me, and no-one wants that.

[1] I continue to comment at Monkey Fluids, partly because it seems to me to be a kind of competitive literary martial art. You can find my comments easily - I'm the one who isn't funny.


Doing the good guest thing, I brought my brother some Rock Cakes when I went to stay over the weekend. Here's the recipe, which due to the original dating back to 1955 is kind of Imperial (I tarted it up ever so slightly for 21st Century tastes and labour-saving devices ):

Rock Cakes

8 oz self-raising flour
pinch of salt
teaspoon of baking powder (I'm paranoid about cakes not rising, so if you're confident you can leave this out)
3 oz hard margarine
3 oz sugar
2 oz currents
2 oz cut mixed peel
Zest of 1 lemon
1 egg
3 dessert spoons milk

Prepare a baking sheet by smearing it with margarine. Turn on the oven to 400F (Gas Mark 6, 200 C).

Sieve the flour and put it into a food processor. Cut the margarine up and stick that in too. Turn on the food processor until the margarine is mixed in (the mixture looks a bit like breadcrumbs). Beat the egg and milk together in a bowl. Add the milk and egg mixture to the food processor along with the sugar, fruit and zest. Whizz the processor again, just long enough to mix everything together, but not so the fruit is chopped entirely up.

Put little (dessert spoon) heaps onto the greased baking tray and put in the oven for about 15 minutes (this was a fan-assisted oven, so it may take a little longer) when they were nicely brown (also nearly double in size).

This batch were just a touch dry, but that's okay for rock cakes anyway. My next baking trick will probably be a cake in the style of a black forest gateau - I just hope mine doesn't turn out like Antony Worrall Thompson's (check the picture).

Monday, September 11, 2006

Things to do in New Zealand

While in London this weekend, I was caught up in a conversation of all the things we've never done in London, despite living in the South East. There'll probably be a post on this later, but it will be a collaborative effort (I'll take other peoples ideas, put them into a list and take the credit) and so will need a bit of time to organise. However, I've been picking up some New Zealand traffic recently, so here's a slightly patronising list I call:

Tourist Traps in New Zealand that are so interesting, even New Zealanders ought to visit them:

The Sky Tower
Did you know it's the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere? Well, you ought to as I was told this ever-so-many times. But it has a magnificent view, and you can prove how fearless you are by walking on glass floors that are over 200m of empty air. Also, you can spy on people in the sky city hotel pool.

Tongariro Crossing
It's a magnificent walk, even when it looks like this. Coming from a flat and tectonically inactive part of the world, crossing a mountain pass between two volcanoes is a really exciting thing to do. Note that older guidebooks refer to this area as the Tongariro National Park, rather than it's modern name of Mordor. Don't believe me? Tell me that isn't Mount Doom[1]. (The crossing is the low bit between the two peaks, above and to the left of the kiwi sign). Note: This activity has been awarded the Vas seal of approval.

New Plymouth
Admittedly, the reason I pick New Plymouth is because of the Wind Wand. But it's a nice place to visit for other reasons; you can climb Paritutu for a view of the Sugar Loaf Islands; Puke Ariki is an interesting museum; plus, if it happens to be your birthday, you can round up a bunch of people from your hostel and go out to an Irish Bar and dance around to a covers band (there's a story here which I may tell later, when I've made up a few bits to make it more interesting).

Fox Glacier/Lake Matheson
If you can't be bothered to get up at dawn, you can get a professional shot of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman reflected in Lake Matheson for NZ$49. On the other hand, you can just hike down there and shoot off a few pictures of it. Plus - a glacier! (Remember, from flat lowlands in a temperate climate...)

Stewart Island
Go to the South Island. Keep going south, until you run out of land. Then hop on a boat to go a bit further south. Stop! You're there. It's not quite as remote as it sounds (although it does have New Zealand's southernmost pub) but it really is on the edge of wilderness, and is absolutely full of wildlife. I'm not sure exactly why I liked it so much, but, despite good facilities for visitors, it felt as though it would get along happily in just the same way without us. Note: As well as the Vas seal of approval, Stewart Island was given a questionable shake of the head by a man I met in Auckland who invited me to a meeting of the Church of Christ (New Zealand)[2].

[1] I mean, that is Mount Doom, without all the CGI make up it had for the filming.
[2] In the interests of full disclosure I should also point out that he recommended the Sky Tower.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Trial Part 2

Stan: So, to recap, you were married by fairies, or, as 'politically correct' people call them, the sidhe, at the Glastonbury Festival, for a year and a day, which has now passed, thus lapsing your marriage.

Jim: Well, yes, but it wasn't quite like that...

Stan: I think we've heard enough of what it wasn't like. Perhaps you could explain why you didn't attempt to adjust the sidhe calender to extend your marriage.

Queen Mab: As a point of information, I would like it noted that the sidhe calender is the turning of the seasons, the motion of the heavens, the growing of the trees and grass; as we are part of the fundamental nature of the universe, our measure of time is time itself.

Stan: So the question I put to you, Jim, is this; why did you make no attempt alter the flow of time, when you knew that, unadjusted, the unidirectional nature of the time continuum would inevitably lead to the end of your marriage?

Jim: Change time? I don't know anything about this...

Stan: Did you even go to school? Why do you think course such as Introductory Cosmology and Basic Quantum Chronodynamics[1] are on the curriculum? For precisely this kind of situation! Why, can you even tell me how many dimensions there are?

Jim: Ten! No, Twenty Six. No, Ten. No...

Stan: Quite. Time is merely one of these dimensions; by leveraging one of the other dimensions, you could stretch time to allow you to consult with a professional dimensional engineer. I have an expert witness here, who may clarify the situation...

Professor Stephen Hawking: Thank you Stan. By swapping dimensions, Jim could have travelled in time by travelling in space, which would...

Jim: Professor, if there are Twenty Six, or maybe Ten dimensions, why can we only see Four?

Professor Hawking: You can actually only see Three, Time is perceived by it's effect on objects in the other Three...

Jim: Right, but what about the other Twenty Two? Or even Six? Wouldn't we notice? I mean, wouldn't monsters burst out of other dimensions?

Professor Hawking: They are all rolled up very small.

Jim: So small that we can't see them, or indeed detect them? So small that they only have existence within the high energy density of a Chromatic Bond between quarks, where their particular configuration leads to the fundamental constants and constraints of the univers?[2]

Professor Hawking: Not that small. Small enough to store in Stan's cellar.

Stan: Yes, I have Twenty One, or sometimes Five dimensions rolled up in my cellar.

Jim: So One dimension is missing?

Stan: Not so much missing as lent out...

Jim: One of the fundamental elements of the universe and you lent it out?

Stan: Sure. How else could people alter time, space and the nature of the universe to avoid, for example, being embarassingly chatted up by their sister's friends?

Jim: [inaudible]

Stan: Hey, it's not too late, I could get it back from Neil, who is even now rescuing himself from a toilet in 2000.

Jim: Just to clarify - what's the charge again?

Queen Mab: Clerk - please read the charge.

To be Concluded...

[1] This is a fairly bad physics in-joke. Sorry.
[2] Yeah, yeah. I haven't really looked into this for nine years, so I may edit this section later to include new developments and remove my confusion and ignorance.

A new blogging paradigm

This post from way back in January set me thinking. Not the main body, which is quite entertaining, but the first line. Since I'm sure you have better things to do than click on my links, here it is:
Like all bloggers, I’m a fat beardo with rubbish hair.
Well, enough is enough. Today I'm rebelling against the blogging stereotypes. No more will I be just like the next blogger (who, today, appears to be in South Korea, has neat hair, no beard and looks relatively slim from the photo). From now on, I will blog uniquely, in my own way, blazing a new trail and setting a new standard.

Yes, the beard's come off (again).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Blogging Schedule

Now the initial excitement has died down, I seem to have exactly the number of regular readers I predicted: three. (Hi!)

I've come down from the high partially induced by events related in this post, so expect postings to be shorter, less sugary-sweet and more cynical for a while. As I'll be away from home next week, they may also be infrequent (assuming I don't spend all my time in an stormswept internet cafe in Doncaster, in which case they'll probably be hourly). Before I go I hope to post on the following topics:

Sticks (been floating around for a while)
The Trial Part 2
The secret cache of books I found
Anne's birthday poem (still not done, although there is a poem about me not finishing it)

And elsewhere:

"Kung Fu Schnee" Outline Part 2
"Pornography" Script Part 1
Flying Freeholds and Gay Icons

Also: Steve Irwin died, apparently from a stingray barb through the heart. I never got to his zoo[1] when I was in Australia, mostly because I never got up into Queensland, but everyone who had been there raved about it.

[1] I did go to the national zoo in Canberra, which was very proud of it's big cats. I mean, only I could go to Australia and see snow leopards.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Big questions

Last weekend I found myself in a discussion about whether you should be introduced to Shakespeare by reading or watching the play[1].

(So far Night of the Hats has generally kept away from the subjects of what I sometimes call Big Questions (politics, religion etc.) as there are hundreds of websites giving informed and/or interesting commentary on these topics[2], and you aren't here for that anyway I'd have thought. I will occasionally talk about art here as, if this blog is about anything[3], it's about the creative process. One of the reasons these are big questions is that they don't have simple answers. I'll be trying to put both sides of the argument here, but as I was on one side, my grasp of the other side may be incomplete. Bear with me)

As I was saying, I found myself discussing with Claire[4] about whether you should be introduced to Shakespeare by reading or watching the play. Now I think it should be the play as they were written as plays to be seen; the language is a bit opaque, but you can pick up on the meaning by watching the action; the rhythm of the blank verse (and other verse) comes out when you read it; and, of course, as my Mum comes from Stratford and we would visit often when my Nan lived there, I saw half a dozen Shakespeare plays before I ever sat down to read one, and if it's good enough for me, I don't see why everyone else shouldn't do it that way.

Claire's points, which as I noted above I may be distorting, were that you should read it first as:

1. It was written first before it was acted;
2. The opacity of the language is reduced by reading, re-reading and looking things up;
3. You pick up more of the structure and design by reading which is hidden when performed.

(It may be worth noting that Claire works as a photographer, while if I have a preferred form of expression, it's the written word).

Well, noone was convinced before my brother arrived with the cheese platter. But since then I watched Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Now I could have sworn that I'd seen it before, and thought I'd read it at school. But it turns out I hadn't. And it was a bit opaque. And I couldn't tell if it had been abridged. And I was about half a second behind on the jokes. And this is supposed to be accessible, sexy Shakespeare.

So maybe there's something to reading it first after all.

[1] For a variety of reasons we didn't touch on the option of introduction by acting in the play, which is sort of reading-while-figuring-out-how-to-act.
[2] There's at least 10,000 more that aren't interesting or informed, and that's just the ones I've looked at recently.
[3] Which it isn't.
[4] Not that Claire. This is a friend of my brother (the dream-obitury-genius brother from a few posts back).

Friday, September 01, 2006

Stand Bys

As previously noted I didn't really do anything interesting cooking-wise over the bank holiday, but kept to some of the old stand bys. Some of you may be interested in my stand bys - the recipies I use when short of time or inspiration. Here's a couple of starters:

Crab and Avocado thingies

Serves 4

2 Ripe Avocados
1 Dressed Crab
Some Grated Cheese (last time it was Gruyere and Parmesan)

Cut the avocados in half and remove the stones. Fill the stone hole with crab meat. Give everyone some brown and some white. You can probably make one crab do six avocado halves if you want. Cover with grated cheese. Put under the grill until the cheese has melted and, depending on the cheese, starting to go brown. Serve quickly (not immediately or someone will burn their mouth on melted cheese).

Note that almost-ripe avocados will do as well - they cook a little under the grill which softens them. If they are rock-hard and you can't wait for your avocado goodness, throw them in the microwave for 30 seconds (this tip from Anne's sister via Anne).

Hot Bacon Salad

Serves 3 to 6

A bowl of salad leaves
3 to 8 rashers of bacon

Cook the bacon until crisp. Cut up into small bits. Throw onto the leaves.


You can just dress it in the bacon fat if you want; this is great with french dressing, but a nice simple squeeze of lemon juice and glug of olive oil followed by tossing the salad works fine.

More! More!

Croutons are hardly ever out of place on a salad. If you've always got stale bread about, you can make your own by pouring a touch of olive oil on cubes of bread and put them in the oven until they go brown. Just toss a handful or two onto the salad.

Nuts - someone is always allergic to nuts, so if you get the chance use them. Walnuts are best.

Shaved Parmesan is good on most salads.

Tomatoes make it a kind of BLT salad, and there's no way that can be a bad thing.

Black Pudding - once you've started down this route, eventually you're going to try this. It's actually very nice on a salad, but black pudding leaks fat, so you need another dressing ingredient.