Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Cook Food: Candied Ginger

No crystallized ginger in the shop to make ginger cake. Concious mind awakens back at home where I am adding fresh ginger to sugar syrup and asks "Do I actually know how to candy things or have I just watched guys on TV?". Scientific method suggests that whatever the situation before I do now know how to candy things as these are firey-sweet awesome.

Candied Ginger

80g of root ginger, peeled and cut into small chunks
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons water

Put the water and sugar into a small saucepan. heat over a low flame, stirring occasionally. When the sugar is mostly dissolved, add the ginger. Continue heating and occasionally stirring until there is about half as much liquid as you started with (probably 10-15 minutes). Allow to cool before eating, but if you're using them in a cake, you can just plonk them in.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

SGR: I Didn't Realise When I Demolished The Shed I Was Opening Up A Doorway To Ancient Feudal Japan

(I'm writing about the webcomic Scary Go Round. My introduction is here.)

Chapter 11: Robot Town Hall

Click on the chapter title above to read this chapter; when you get to a page where Amy has failed to repair a robot and suggests going to see Tim you have reached the next chapter which is beyond the scope of this post.

Review

Shelley mishears the Mayor when he mumbles around his pipe and twins the town with Robotania, a former Soviet Republic where all the communist robots ended up. They arrive and cause chaos. Hijinks ensue.

This was promised back in Down, and now it arrives. The robots predictably wreck things, then, when put in the bus station, find themselves in the soviet robot equivalent of a high class brothel. This is quite short as a chapter, which is just as well as otherwise the strip would inevitably be taken over by a cast of ex-soviet war machines. Although amusing, it almost takes a backseat to the domestic drama of Shelley and Amy moving out of Fallon's house due to ninja attacks and moving 20 minutes out of Tackleford, where things are less dangerous, except for the demon possessed tractor.

The moving certainly gives us some insight into Shelley as housemate - the list of houserules, and one of the moving boxes is labelled fun things a-f.

Also I think this is the first time that a swearword appears blacked out. The word "tupping", an archaic term for sexual intercourse, has been standing in until now. Tellingly, Amy says it on page, but Shelley actually came up with the word. Later Amy uses the word "rutting", again for robot sex.

Finally, with the robot drinks dispenser destroyed, Amy tries to repair it. Does she have a prayer? Find out in Bad Religion.

Best Lines/ Alternative Titles

I'm sorry Shelley. I didn't realise when I demolished the shed I was opening up a doorway to ancient feudal Japan.

I'm moving to Top Mareswich. The Greatest danger there is a runaway demon-possessed Tractor. The estate agent assures me this basically almost never happens.

Shelley's list of houserules:

1. No nuts after 10.30 at night (exc. pistachio)
2. No mildew
3. No singing/whistling out of tune
4. Respect for royal family + landed gentry AT ALL TIMES

You may see an educated pig taking tea with the vicar. That is nature being awesome.

I don't know if I can eat an egg when I can see the chicken it came out of.

You should be applying that shame to the many areas of your life that require it.

I suppose brain surgeons wouldn't mess around in brain goo if they didn't like it.

God knows what people who weren't born as fabulous eye candy do.

Women of Robotania smell of old diesel, also rarely serviced.

Reality is a pie of which I do not require another slice.

Later in the dream I solved all the problems by singing sweetly. The song concerned a cheeky corncob who loved chocolate.

"Shel, you should enter the lame Olympics." "My main event would be 'drawing a picture of a pathetic, wobbly looking duck'. Or maybe 'laughing at inappropriate times in a thin, high voice'."


Characters

Fallon, who has infested the house with ninjas
Shelley, tired of ninjas, makes a small but important error at work
Amy, also tired of ninjas, is not 100% useful as a housemate
The Mayor, initially unhappy with his town being destroyed by Ex-Soviet robots finds his happy place with prescription medicine
Hugo, making a cameo appearance, is shocked by Shelley's language
The Robot Drinks Dispenser, making a brief reappearance
Supporting cast of Communist Robot War Machines

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

I've been reading a history of the First Afghan War, which I will review later. There has been some criticism of the amount of baggage the British took with them. Famously, during the invasion of 1839, the officers of one regiment had two camels just for their cigars.

However, after they occupied Kabul, but before regular commerce started up, there was a shortage of such things as wine, port, spirits and indeed cigars, to the extent that at one point they were selling for a rupee a piece. Moral of the story: Not Enough Cigars.

(The real problem was that camels, excellent beasts of burden throughout most of the British Raj at the time, were very poor in the cooler, wetter, higher and rockier conditions in Afghanistan. Mules, ponies or donkeys should have been carrying those cigars)

Monday, March 28, 2011

What I've Been Drinking

This year, my mixed drinks have mostly been one of these two. One is non-alcoholic! For shame.

Virgin Mary

Put a couple of ice cubes in a large tumbler
Nearly fill with V8 or other tomato based vegetable juice
Splash in some Worcestershire sauce and 5-6 drops of Tabasco
Stir with a length of celery

If you add a measure of vodka this becomes a Bloody Mary. Two or more measures an it becomes a Bloody Hell! Mary.


Campari, Lemon and Lime

Pour a generous measure of chilled Campari into a tumbler. If you don't usually drink Campari be cautious as it is very bitter. Add a similar amount of chilled lime cordial. Top up with chilled lemonade.

My Mum brought this recipe back from New Zealand, with no information on it's name or origins.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Sweet Smell of Democracy

Here's the thing - I love voting. Politics is interesting, and I often find myself digging through all kinds of lurid wonkish details to try and find out the answers[1] but I can take it or leave it. I've barely followed the budget details this time, if only because all the important stuff was in the one the coalition presented after they won the election.

But voting, I always do that. At every opportunity. The best one is the Presidential General Election where for one day my vote counts the same as even the Prime Minister[2]. "In your face Major/Blair/Brown" I've had the chance to say, "Today I am as important as you. My vote counts as much as yours!"[3]

You know, MPs get to vote hundreds of times a year. Maybe that's why people lie down in the sordid bead of politics!

So I got my voting card for the council elections. Another, funnier, view on voting can be found here.



[1] If you have to dig through the details, usually the answer is "maybe".
[2] Not the Queen though, who doesn't get to vote. Does she for local elections? Do Peers get to vote for their council? I should maybe look this stuff up.
[3] Due to the first past the post system and since no parliamentary candidate I have voted for has ever been elected, while in the same elections Major, Blair and Brown presumably voted for themselves and all got elected to their seats, technically this is not true.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Other Beef Stews Are Available



You know, this advert doesn't encourage me to buy the stuff in the packet, but to fiddle with this recipe of my own. And yes, you can cook it for 5 hours, but look at that beef! That is some excellent meat there, but you cook it for 5 hours, it's going to fall apart.

"But" you ask "is there a happy medium? Can I make excellent Boeuf Bourgignon without having to do all that work? I'm more of a sling things in a pot person, me." Why yes there is. Try this recipe from M & S using pre-prepared ingredients. Wait, cook slowly for three hours? Not five hours? How are we supposed to trust Marks and Spencer now? It's not like the old days.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

You Know What I Mean

On Antiques Roadshow last night a couple had some Beatles memorabilia. The lady had written to Paul very early in their career (the address was his family home and he blatantly plugs their "LP" - which from date and context is Please Please Me) and asked him what the lyric "She was just seventeen/ You know what I mean" meant.



Paul's reply in the letter was (from memory) this:
We meant she wasn't sixteen or eighteen, but somewhere in between... you know what I mean.


Well quite.

More information on this song, including an earlier version of the line can be found here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SGR: Did You Know That Lollygagging Promotes Communism and Causes Sterility?

(I'm writing about the webcomic Scary Go Round. My introduction is here.)

Chapter 10: Shopgirl

Click on the chapter title above to read this chapter; when you get to a page where Fallon is fighting ninjas you have reached the next chapter which is beyond the scope of this post.

Review

So Amy is cut off by her Dad and gets a Christmas job as a shopgirl. But it seems that when the managers go to the pub on Christmas Eve something happens that leaves the shop floor covered in blood...

It's a short story and a lighthearted one. The store starts as satire, but quickly goes full on weird. Shelley tries to be cautious and sensible but then goes off the deep end. With magnets! The girls bicker and are rude to each other, but in the end they make it up.

Another Scary word. Skellington, demond and dinosaurus are now part of the lexicon.

There's no actual bodies, and no numbers are given, so the bodycount is zero. I note the swift action of the fire brigade. perhaps they are more efficent than the police.

The next chapter is the long promised but often delayed Robot Town Hall. Excellent.


Best Lines/ Alternative Titles

I asked him if it was the ninja car of Jesus.

Would you like to buy this 1951 copy of Racist Christmas by Sid Sulley's Swinging Six? It was banned for being too uptempo!

Two miles away a man is feeding sawdust to his child.

Did you know that lollygagging promotes communism and causes sterility?

Bees make honey... but wasps don't make jam. And I mean it's not like they couldn't... They have access to fruit.

Were you bitten by a dinosaurus?

The dinosaurus is cunning. He hides in the swamp wearing a hat shaped like a baby bird.

Hugo, can I have the lonely Christmas combo meal with extra gin?

Mrs Ivan is still as spry and appealing as she was in 1959.

I don't act the fool Miss Amy. Threw a paper aeroplane in 1952, next day, the King was dead.

They may be fatuous bumpkins but they're fatuous bumpkins at Christmas.

It does not respond to magnets!

On the ruining Christmas scale we've reached 5, equivalent to punching a shepherd in the stomach.

Ruined Christmas Level Ten: Shot the little donkey and cooked it.

They are not strong magnets. They are only for Christmas fun. I am sorry that they are only designed for fun.

Christmas would have been a lot worse if I had found out you had been eaten because I wasn't there.

Every time I saw a partially gnawed skeleton I would weep.


Characters

Amy, spoiled brat earning money in a shop
Shelley, her friend and reluctant co-investigator of mysteries
Len, Amy's father, teaching her self reliance by cutting off her money supply.
One of Mrs Birch's cronies, now working in the record shop in Ryan's place
Ivan, Caretaker
Mrs Ivan, still as spry and appealing as she was in 1959
Old Man Wallis, Department store owner

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gold, Ivory and a Happy Ending

The young man has been in Kabul several times in the last few years, but the Tillya Tepe gold has always been on tour. So on Friday we went to see the Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World exhibition at the British Museum.

As we looked at the extraordinary detail on the ivory furniture supports, my brother muttered to me that the best of it - the jewel of the Begram hoard - had been stolen in the civil war. This was a great tragedy for the National Museum in Kabul, whose motto is "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive".

We continue on and past the gold we arrive at the last room, room 6. And what do we find but some of the stolen ivories, which were recovered last year in London and are being conserved by the British Museum.


Who had them has not been made public. As was made clear at the exhibition, the objects here were hidden in Afghanistan during the wars and have only lately been recovered. They might have been taken in good faith to keep them safe.

One last interesting thing. Many of the artifacts we saw were sealed in storage rooms when the cities of ancient Afghanistan were being attacked by nomads. Later they were sealed in safes and buried by staff at the National Museum to keep them safe during the war. We shouldn't draw too close a parallel, but hiding these objects while the country is under attack is certainly a recurring motif.

Friday, March 18, 2011

SGR: You Are Going To Have To Speak Up Friend, I Do Not Understand Sonar So Good

(I'm writing about the webcomic Scary Go Round. My introduction is here.)

Chapter 9: Ballad of the Man

Click on the chapter title above to read this chapter; when you get to a full page of Amy's torso you have reached the next chapter which is beyond the scope of this post.

Review

This is a sad story. But it's only sad because it's happy in the middle!

Ryan is failing with the ladies because he can't talk to them, doesn't wash and his landlady discourages Lady callers. When Amy and Shelley get him ready for his date they burn his clothes, which have been his costume since the strip started. Unlike the ladies, Allison hasn't got too adventurous with Ryan's clothes... until now! Dressing him like Columbo is inspired. He's also clean shaven until his 5 o'clock shadow reappears... at the moment when he starts to have fun talking to Natalie.

His date is awkward, as Poppy is a fanatical whittler, but not so much as to use the "coward's door". I salute him.

Despite his pessimism, he's very down when his date isn't good. Hey, this is Tackleford! No one went mad or died or disappeared into the 4th dimension! That's a win! And as it turns out, it is. he meets Friend bat and Natalie.

Natalie talks rubbish. But it's exactly the sort of rubbish to get Ryan out of his depression. The funniest word is "erotic". Brilliant.

Meanwhile Ryan's landlady and her cronies are evil. E.V.I.L. She calls Amy and Shelley whores and believes Natalie to be a succubus, or some other sort of demond to be driven out with a spoon. Then failing to exorcise her, they send an Orangutan to burn her out of her caravan.

A lot of people note Chapter 3, Meddling, when Shelley returns from the dead as a zombie as where Scary Go Round really comes into it's own. If so, this story is where it grows up. Again someone Ryan cares about is dead. This time it's worse than before. He's devastated. Him falling under his landlady's spell is humorous, but it's a dark humour, tinged with pathos.

The fancy dress party, where Shelley goes as Fallon, Fallon goes as Amy and Amy goes as Shelley shows up a problem with the art. Their wigs are too good and their faces too identical. Fallon is taller than the other two and Shelley has green eyes; Amy has tattoos; other than that, they actually look identical.

Shelley is referred to as "tiny lady" and other references to her smallness occur elsewhere in the comic. I believe she is later described as 5 foot 4 and is fairly slim, but she's not all that small. I don't know where I'm going with this, just noting it as something to keep an eye on.

Bodycount for this episode is 1, for a run total of 26.

So Ryan is down, and out for the moment. Natalie is dead and burned so unlikely to return from the dead. Obviously it's time to focus on another member of the cast as she becomes a Shopgirl.

Best Lines/ Alternative Titles

Is bare-knuckle boxing a way men show that secretly they love one another?

Escort your chattering whores from the porch Mr Beckwith! They are spoiling my enjoyment of my hearing trumpet.

Those were good clothes. They been with me a long time. Life's going to be hard now. People don't like a guy who just wears underpants. Guy like that rolls into town folks start talkin' trash.

This seems like a pretty decent sort of menu. Meat, fish, everythin'!

No Pressure on a hermit. Just drinking rain and gettin' on with growing a beard.

Oh my, what an erotic mailbox. it gives ze postman ze chills!

Please pass me a can of peas. Wait, no, do you not have one zat is more erotic?

An artist must know suffering, so i decide to summer here in England.

You are going to have to speak up friend, I do not understand sonar so good.


Characters

Ryan - looking for love
Hugo - tired of Ryan looking for love
Shelley and Amy - willing to help Ryan look for love, but not provide it themselves
Fallon - subject of a control experiment
Mrs Birch - Ryan's evil landlady. The rent is very reasonable.
Friend Bat - a bat
Natalie - not looking for love, but finds it
Mrs Birch's aged cronies - also evil, but mostly confused
Tim, Tessa, Rachel and Ralph - cameo appearance at the costume party

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saint Patrick

Compared to St Valentine, we know quite a lot about St Patrick. Perhaps too much in fact. The Annals of Ulster suggest he was born in 340, began preaching in Northern Ireland in 428 and died in 440 (on 17 March), a lifespan that strains credibility. Historians tend towards the "Two Patricks" theory which suggests that two real missionaries were conflated into one legendary figure

Interestingly, there are two documents generally accepted as written by Patrick. One of them, his confession, describes his life, starting as a highborn Roman, being carried off as a slave by Irish raiders, his escape, joining St Germain in an expedition to Britain to stamp out heresy and finally as missionary to Ireland. Exciting stuff!

Strangely none of this mentions black[1] beer, leprechauns or banishing snakes from Ireland. As well as Ireland, Patrick patronises all kinds of snake related fears, engineers, the excluded and Nigeria.

[1] Or even green

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dream Diary 21

I had a dream I was part of a boyband who moonlight as tax accountants. There were many microstate islands in the North Sea without sufficient population to maintain full time accountants, or boybands, so we could sail from one to another doing the tax forms and performing in the evening. We had a heavily armed mini-submarine to travel between them from our homebase in Cromarty Firth.

However, the dream opened with us watching television. I suspect the earlier part of the dream had been retconned into a TV program. In that part of the dream, a dark-haired not-quite-french female artist was getting more and more frustrated with the shallow and stupid conversation of her and her boyfriend's friends. She was thinking of leaving him and living on a North Sea microstate.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

SGR: Long Playing Records Here Come Out On The Popular "Shouting Melon" Format.

(I'm writing about the webcomic Scary Go Round. My introduction is here.)

Chapter 8: Where The Dumb Things Are

Click on the chapter title above to read this chapter; when you get to a page where Ryan and Hugo are talking about how Ryan has lost his powers with the ladies you have reached the next chapter which is beyond the scope of this post. If for some reason, rather than reading the comic you want to stay here, at the bottom of this post is the plot synopsis and character list I made to keep everything straight in my head.

Review

The conclusion to Dimensionality. So the 4th dimension is filled with cute creatures that look a little like things from our dimension, but a bit off. Things work a bit like here, but always a bit off to the side, or at an angle. There are records, but they're on shouting melons. There are buses, but they're floating whales. If you aggravate something in the forest it will fly after you (and you can escape by diving under water) but in this case it's winged eyeballs. The locals talk, but in almost understandable glyphs.

On balance I like the 4th dimension. We leave fairly quickly, before it has a chance to outstay it's welcome. Rockstar Amy in the 4th dimension has funkier hair, even skimpier tops and seems more confident and strong willed. Rachel becomes, if not more evil, certainly more cunning and ruthless. The major revelation is Shelley's past. She was a hotshot lawyer, but quit after her first case, due to a phobia of judges. Combine this with being dead, then a zombie for a while and her scattershot career becomes almost understandable. She's being a bit big sister here - looking for Amy in the previous episode, representing William in this one - standing up and being sensible while everything is going crazy.

The funny stuff is mostly Rachel and Tessa bickering and the 4th dimension being hilarious. On the other hand I found the exchange about sausages inexplicably amusing. The big Shelley's judge phobia joke I found too sad to be very funny.

So the next comic will be back in the 3rd dimension (this being a comic on a screen or page, those three dimensions are of course height, width and page number). It brings us back to Ryan who will sing The Ballad of the Man.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I Cook Food: Beef Stew

I have maybe three basic beef stews that I make variants of. I use the word maybe as they cross-pollinate each other. This is a Beef Stew With Wine as opposed to Beef With Onions or Spicy Beef Stew.


Beef Stew With Wine

750g stewing beef, cubed
2 onions, sliced or roughly chopped
12 small mushrooms
2 carrots, peeled and cut into circles
half a stalk of celery, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and cur into bits
4 tablespoons flour
olive oil
4 dessert spoons soy sauce
half a bottle of decent but not too nice red wine[1]

Serves 6-8

Turn on the oven to low, perhaps 120C. In a large casserole dish, pour two or three tablespoons of oil and heat. Add in the carrots, celery, onion, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally. While these are cooking, season the flour, then coat the beef in the flour. Keep any leftover flour in case you want to thicken the stew later.

When the vegetables are starting to brown, add the mushrooms and cook until everything is starting to brown. Transfer the vegetables to a dish to keep warm, add a little more oil to the casserole then put the beef in. I usually do two batches. Brown off the meat, then add everything back into the casserole, add the wine and bring to the boil for a couple of minutes. Stir and put in the oven.

It cooks for usually at least two hours, After an hour have a look, stir, add the soy sauce and, if it's thickening too much so it might burn add a little water. Keep doing this until the meat is tender.

As with many meat-cooked-in-wine dishes, this will actually get better if you cook it, leave it overnight and reheat. This makes it good for guests who have uncertain arrival times.


A Moment of Science

Alcohol has a lower vapour point than water, so when you bring something with alcoholic content in to the boil, the alcohol evaporates from it. I note this for those who are nervous of cooking with booze - if you've let it boil for a few minutes, it's not alcoholic any more and can be safely served to drivers, small children, lightweights and teetotallers without getting them drunk.


[1] The rule is, if you won't drink it, don't cook with it. Since I am perfectly happy to swill most of the fermented grape juice I've come across, this is pretty easy. Nevertheless, the subtleties of finer vintages disappear in cooking, so cooking with expensive wine is wasteful.

Friday, March 11, 2011

SGR: Officer... sniff ... Is It Wrong To Report A Crime?

(I'm writing about the webcomic Scary Go Round. My introduction is here.)

Chapter 7: Dimensionality

Click on the chapter title above to read this chapter; when you get to a blue page with Tessa, the words Cha Cha Cha and the small and faint title Where the Dumb Things Are you have reached the next chapter which is beyond the scope of this post. If for some reason, rather than reading the comic you want to stay here, at the bottom of this post is the plot synopsis and character list I made to keep everything straight in my head.

Review

My, how unpleasant Rachel and Tessa have become. Their self-centredness comes to the fore in this story - they don't care if Len is guilty or innocent or what happened to Amy. Their motivations are money, curiosity and bitchiness. Their interest in men in solely in what they can get from them and their interest in women is limited to being rude to Shelley.

Of course, this makes them all the more effective. While Shelley pursues mundane methods - missing posters for Amy - it's Rachel who confronts the mystery of Amy's disappearance in genre terms: Look for clues, add in your intuition, research your hypothesis, then jump in, head first.

This is a classic genre hook - ordinary people try to solve their mundane problem and running into an extraordinary mystery. Frankly the first part with the bickering girls worried about money is a slow start, but once they get into needling Shelley, coercing William and talking smack about the Fourth dimension it takes off. Although our protagonists aren't especially likable, they're still fun and they're doing good, even for the wrong reasons.

The sidelining of the regular cast is done very smoothly - Tim ill with the pox at the start, Amy missing is where it kicks off, they're not going to work with Shelley because the just don't like her, and they've forgotten about Ryan because he's just some crazy talking drunk.

The police are good here - funny, more interested in their personal problems, ignoring the troubling aspects of the case. I was arguably wrong when I said there are only two Hitler jokes in Scary Go Round. One appears here. One is in Meddling. And one is in a guest comic between this story and the previous one. The stuff about the 4th Dimension is funny, although I'm coming to the conclusion that science in the Scary Go Round world isn't done in quite the same way as in our world.

I run into trouble with my bodycount here. Having not literally counted bodies before, does the open murder investigation into Amy count? We don't count Rachel and Tessa dead, and I'm ignoring how things turn out, so I'm scoring 0 for this one.

We've finished with Amy missing, Len and William in police custody and Rachel and Tessa in the fourth dimension. We'd have to be stupid to miss the next chapter. Like really stupid. Like the dumbest things to ever come from Where The Dumb Things Are. Only Dumber.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Homonymphobia

discreet adj Careful to avoid social embarrassment or distress, esp. by keeping confidences secret; tactful. [C14 from Old French discret, from Medieval Latin discrētus, from Latin ḏiscernere to DISCERN] - dis'creetly adv - dis'creetness n

Usage Avoid confusion with discrete

AND

discrete adj 1 Separate or distinct in form or concept 2 Consisting of separate or distinct parts 3 Statistics 3a (of a variable) having consecutive values that are not infinitesimally close, so that its analysis requires summation rather than integration 3b (of a distribution) relating to a discrete variable. Compare with continuous (sense 4) [C14 from Latin discrētus separated, set apart; see DISCREET] - dis'cretely adv - discreetness n

Usage Avoid confusion with discreet


What the hell? I've been getting this wrong for at least 15 and maybe 20 years. Why did no one tell me?

It's not that bad. Mostly I (correctly) use the word discretion which bizarrely refers to discreet rather than discrete.

Homonyms causing confusion. Who'd have thought it?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Carstairs and Topper: The Case of the Purloined Pornography Part 2

Part One can be found here. And now the conclusion...


The door opened as Carstairs and Lady Glenshire approached the Belgrave Square address. "Milady, sir," said the tall, liveried man inside.

"And this is?" said Carstairs, indicating the servant with Topper.

"Jackson, the footman," said Lady Glenshire.

"The footman. I see."

"Can I take your hat, sir?" said Jackson.

"No... hmm? Actually could you get someone to give him a brush? Just to get the worst of the dust off. Please be careful with the nap, eh?"

Carstairs watched as Jackson carried Topper away towards the kitchen. "Lady Glenshire, let us not delay. Can you show me where the papers disappeared from?"

They entered a small library, one that had obviously seen a lot of use. A short, middle-aged man working at a desk, jumped up at their entrance.

"Carstairs, this is Humperdinck, my husband's private secretary."

"Secretary, eh?" said Carstairs.

"Indeed Mr Carstairs. Is there anything I can assist with?"

"I think we can manage, Humperdinck," said Lady Glenshire, "Would you mind giving us some privacy?"

Looking along the shelves, Carstairs spotted a set of folios. "I presume the sketches came from here, perhaps under 'B' for Bonaparte, where everything has been taken out and replaced recently."

"Quite" said Lady Glenshire.

"I see someone has checked under 'N' for Napoleon."

"I doubt any Englishman would index documents to do with the Corsican Tyrant in that way, but it was better to be sure that Humperdinck had not made that error."

A young man entered, with Topper. "Here you are sir - good as new!"

"Thank you Mitchel," said Lady Glenshire. In answer to Carstair's raised eyebrow she expanded "The bootboy".

"Are there any other servants who might have access to the library?" asked Carstairs.

"Only I, my husband and Humperdinck have keys. The butler did, but we dismissed him last month. Due to Lord Glenshire's position in the government, his belongings were searched before being returned to him, so he can't have stolen them."

"If it were last month, I would expect that he would have sold them already if his motive was profit. Such a sale in London would almost certainly have come to the attention of the gossips in the Rascal's Club. So they must be abroad, as he hasn't tried to blackmail you."

"Oh!" said Lady Glenshire, raising one elegantly gloved hand to her mouth. "He had written in oblique terms about a better reference... I must find the letter." She left the room at a great rate of knots.

When she returned, Carstairs was standing next to the "K" folios. Lady Glenshire seemed a little flustered, but her search had brought colour to her cheeks and a steely glint to her eye. "I am afraid that, following my husband's instructions, the letter has been used for hygienic purposes. I suppose we shall have to track him down to his seedy lair in the foul depths of London's underbelly."

"No need Lady Glenshire." said Carstairs.

"Ah?" she said, with perhaps the faintest hint of disappointment.

Carstairs picked up Topper to reveal a loose collection of papers. "I would hypothesise that your butler, anticipating his dismissal, hid the sketches in this folio, intending to claim he had stolen them. If you attempted to go to the police, there would be no evidence. The perfect crime. You had best examine them to ensure they are all there."

"How on earth did you find them?"

"Topper gave me the clue. One of the folios, under J, had been recently repaired. Checking it, I realised that this was the work of your husband, Lord Glenshire. However they were of two different styles."

"But how did you know that these were the Bonaparte sketches?"

"Bonaparte was trained as a draughtsman and his drawings are accurate renderings of the female form. Your husband is clearly an amateur and exaggerates certain features of his model."

"Mmm."

"Of course, Lord Glenshire signed his, while Bonaparte used his monogrammatic N."

"I see. Well thank you Mr Carstairs. It seems we owe you our thanks."

"You owe me nothing; it was my pleasure Lady Glenshire. Topper and I will put the word out so that your former butler will find England very uncomfortable."

"Please Mr Carstairs. After all this I must at the very least insist that you call be by my given name."

"Well if you insist, then I shall Lady Jane."

The End.


If you're not interested in where I think I found the bits that inspired this story then this is the end. If you want to go a little deeper into my brain read on.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

SGR: Short Man Idly Fingering Bowler Hat etc.

(I'm writing about the webcomic Scary Go Round. My introduction is here.)

Chapter 6: Romania

Click on the chapter title above to read this chapter; when you get to a page declaring a new Tessa and Rachel adventure with a picture of the giant black beetle Krakkagar you have reached the next chapter which is beyond the scope of this post. If for some reason, rather than reading the comic you want to stay here, at the bottom of this post is the plot synopsis and character list I made to keep everything straight in my head.


Review

It's the sexy super spy, fan favourite Fallon Young ladies and gentlemen. Fallon has been transplanted from John Allison's previous webcomic Bobbins. Following her we find out Romania has the same elements of strangeness as the Tackleford of Scary Go Round.

That Fallon lives in a crazy spy world is not unexpected (see her origin story). I'm not sure she actually completes her mission (did we ever find out what happened to the previous agent?) but this is in the fine tradition of Bond - send him out to keep an eye on something unusual and he comes back a few weeks later with a suntan and a new girlfriend and leaves behind a ruined base that was probably being used for something bad.

The bad guy has a face for a skull and a base full of monkeys who decide Tim is Primate Prime. But that's not what the story is about. Fallon is in charge, but Tim takes no orders from no man, or woman. They wrangle over details and compete over Scrabble. Meanwhile they dance to a romantical song, Tim takes risks to rescue her and they have clear affection for each other. At the end Fallon decides it's not going to work, but lets him down gently with the old "If I weren't an international super spy it could be different line". How many times have we heard that one gents?

It's the back-and-forths rather than the one liners or sight gags that stand out here. Ryan exaggerates the pathos of his life but it's clear that he's pretty low (although he may yet go lower). His lack of common sense after Shelley's warnings is a bit too much; he's gone beyond adorable child-man to dangerous idiot.

It's clear that Tackleford is not the only place that strange things happen. I note that Fallon counts 1 British agent and 7 other people gone missing, so I'm adding 8 to the bodycount, which is now 25 for the run so far.

Finally Guest Comics! They range from Meh, to Exactly Right, to If Only to Wowie Zowie.

After the Guest Comics Allison promises us a new Rachel and Tessa adventure. Compared to the rest of the cast those two have seemed a little cartoony, a little flat. Perhaps in this story they will show some additional Dimensionality.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Carstairs and Topper: The Case of the Purloined Pornongrphy Part 1

Carstair and Topper's previous adventure, The Mystery of the Missing Port can be found here.

Relaxing in the steam room of the Rascal's Club with a copy of The Times, Carstairs was surprised to hear a commotion outside. A lady in a dove grey outfit entered the room and strode towards Carstairs.

"You have the advantage of me Madam," he said. "Forgive me for not rising to greet you" He lowered the newspaper to avoid any undue embarrassment.

"Mr Carstairs. I require your assistance in a matter of the utmost discretion."

"Indeed you do... Lady Glenshire." At her surprise he continued, "A lady who needs the services of a discreet gentleman-detective urgently and who also possesses uncommon resource and force of personality enough to impose her will on the staff of the gentleman-only Rascal Club to the extent of entering the Steam Room. Combine that with your striking good lucks, fashionable dress and relative youth, there can only be one such person in London."

"Quite," said Lady Glenshire, looking slightly peeved.

"If you would care to retire to the Circumspect Room, I will join you when I have dressed appropriately for an investigation."

"I look forward to seeing more of you," said Lady Glenshire turning to leave so swiftly her truly enormous hat nearly took flight.

"Just so," murmured Carstairs.

----

As he entered through the curved doorway of the Circumspect Room Carstairs spotted Lady Glenshire sitting at a table with... Great Scott! His partner and trusty top hat, Topper! "That was devilishly quick work, even for Topper," he muttered to himself. Adjusting his cravat he joined them.

"Lady Glenshire. May I offer you some tea?"

"Please."

"Johnson?"

"Your tea sir," murmured Johnson, appearing at that moment with a tea tray.

"Mr Carstairs. As I said, this matter must remain discreet. However some documents belonging to my husband have been stolen."

"In general, as I'm sure Topper will have attempted to convince you, the police..."

"My husband will not have the police involved. The documents would be both embarrassing and cause an international incident. You see these are sketches by Napoleon Bonaparte of his lover Countess Marie Walewska[1]. Intimate sketches."

"I see. The French would certainly want them returned, and the nature of the pictures would be inappropriate for a peer of the realm. Where did the robbery take place?"

"At our townhouse. Shall we go?"

"I think so." Carstairs finished his tea, and, sweeping up Topper with his right arm, offered Lady Glenshire his left. "Johnson! Call my carriage."

"Yes Milady", murmured Johnson, vanishing into the mews.

TO BE CONTINUED...

(Part 2 can be found by following this link)

[1] Countess Marie Walwewska was Napoleon's mistress from 1806 to 1809 and bore him an illegitimate son. As part of his training as an artillery officer Napoleon became a competent draughtsmen. In reality, these sketches have never been in private hands and are kept in the Archives nationales.

Friday, March 04, 2011

I Read Books: Ghost Wars

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10 2001 by Steve Coll

My brother runs tours to South Asia, and he ordered this book. While waiting for him to pick it up I read it. It is an extremely well researched and generally excellent[1] history of what happened in Afghanistan during the period it refers to. It's coverage of the American, Saudi and Pakistani National Security communities, Bin Laden, and the other notable figures and most importantly how they interacted is unparalleled. Coll interviewed many of the players himself for the book, and from the notes has read every document available as well as having foreign interviews translated. If you want to know what happened, this is the book for you.

At the end of the day there are no great new revelations, in part because it was published in 2004[2]. It's nevertheless fascinating, seeing how after the revolution in Iran shockwaves spread across the Islamic world. Later that year many events loosely connected to it occurred including attacks on the American Embassy in Islamabad and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and inspiring and radicalising many students, including Osama bin Laden. In many ways the coup by the Marxist-Leninist government in Afghanistan was a mirror-image of the Iranian revolution.

There are many, many interesting anecdotes[3]. Which is just as well, as this wealth of detail gets overwhelming. It's not that it's not interesting, but Coll goes out of his way to present just the facts - not making judgements beyond what people said and did, not speculating beyond the evidence - and to write in a clear style. Sometimes I found myself bogged down by this. It's not a popular history. It is a fine introduction to the region and the issues, but it's not written to entice you to read on. To a certain extent we know how it ends[4] which is enough to keep me going, but I did stop a couple of times part way through and take a break (by reading some Rowling and Brookmyre, obviously). So what do I think to sum up?

Read This: If you want to know what happened in Afghanistan, and what Bin Laden and the CIA were up to between 1979 and 2001
Don't Read This: If you have no interest in the region or you just want a brief overview rather than every single detail.



[1] And the Pulitzer board agreed, giving him the prize for general non-fiction in 2005
[2] The edition here is updated with documents from the 9/11 Commission, which Coll says mostly served to improve the precision of the chronology
[3] My favourite being Shortly after William Casey became Director of Central Intelligence. The previous CIA head had kept the place teetotal. Casey sticks his head out his office door, shouts "Two Vodka martinis" and shuts the door, leaving the executive suite puzzled - where do they get two vodka martinis from, and whose job is it to get them?
[4] Actually you don't, because it stops on 10 September 2001.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Not The Virgin Mary

Daily Telegraph: Image of Virgin Mary spotted in Newquay cliff

It's very impressionist.

You know it's the lamp that makes me doubt*. I've spent hours of my life staring at pictures of the Virgin Mary and I've never seen her with a lamp. So what does the lamp symbolise? I find this which sounds plausible:

The lamp is most often used to represent the Word of God. It may also be used as a symbol of wisdom taken from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25. The lamp was associated in the Old Testament with worship, where it symbolized God's presence (see Candlestick). A lamp can also represent life itself, or the Holy Spirit's indwelling.


I don't know - do you need that and her being pregnant? Seems overkill, and the non-iconographic won't get it anyway. Onwards: What saints have a lamp or lantern as their emblem? I get Saint Lucy and Saint Gudula. Hey remember Saint Lucy from the festival of lights?

Saint Gudula it seems was very religious woman in 7th century Flanders. She would go to church before dawn. A demon would put out her lantern but God would always re-light it for her.

So we're all good then? Not the Virgin Mary, but Saint Gudula or maybe Saint Lucy. Also she's not pregnant, that's a cushion up her robe for praying on.


(Why is it always the Virgin Mary? Every female figure! Also, from the way she's holding it the object looks more like a jug, but I've spent more time on this than it deserves already.)


* Also my scientific training and my middle name.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

SGR: You Shame Science With Your Lies

(I'm writing about the webcomic Scary Go Round. My introduction is here.)

Chapter 5: Down

Click on the chapter title above to read this chapter; when you get to a page where Ryan is explaining how the moon is an optical illusion caused by the sun reflecting off a bald guys head you have reached the next chapter which is beyond the scope of this post. If for some reason, rather than reading the comic you want to stay here, at the bottom of this post is the plot synopsis and character list I made to keep everything straight in my head.

Review

The last page of the previous story advertises "Robot Town Hall". Although this episode includes a robot and the town hall and puts the one in the other, the chapter called Robot Town Hall doesn't appear until Chapter 11 (which would have been 10 months in old money when it was new). Allison obviously changed his mind.

Perhaps because of this, the chapter is short and undramatic. Ryan and Amy go to lunch at a new place, Shelley gets a new job at the town hall, Tim builds a robot vending machine and sends it to the town hall. It's an off-speed set up chapter. Perhaps because of this, there's some good gag pages. Tim's optimism about the robot not going wrong under any conditions is good, leading to the title of this post. The list of his inventions (The Cake Hammer, The Acne Sander, Sex Dust) is good, better still his book Electromagnetism: One Bad Mother, and best of all his planned next job as hot-air ballooning vigilante. Hugo's sandwich shop is almost suspiciously cool.

Interestingly all the cast we see, we see at work in this episode; Tim inventing, Amy working for Tim, Shelley at the town hall, Ryan at the record shop and introducing Hugo at the Sandwich shop and the mayor at the town hall. Amy looks strangely off in this episode - always puzzled or vacant. The bodycount is zero, as might be hoped between wacky adventures.

All in all, it's not really a chapter, but a long interlude between the previous episode and the next, when Scary Go Round takes it's first trip abroad, to Romania.