Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ten Things I Learned In 2008

A quick New Year's Eve meme, courtesy of the Bureauista.

1. People in Cornwall are polite to each other most of the time.

2. Being self-employed is a lot more secure than being employed.

3. Giving birth with no pain relief is an interesting experience.

4. Babies are quite nice after all.

5. Breastfeeding means you can eat tons of cake and still lose weight.

6. Twitter is a lot more fun than Facebook.

7. American television is better than British television.

8. Yes, even Doctor Who.

9. *Especially* Doctor Who.

10. Although this year's Christmas special was pretty good.


Happy New Year to you all! I'm feeling quite positive about 2009, despite all the doom and gloom, and I wish you all a happy and fulfilling year too.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Top Ten 11 Books By Bloggers

One of the things that struck me about the Top 100 bestselling books of 2008 (which I saw in the G2 yesterday and now can't find a link to, annoyingly) was that there were no books by bloggers on the list.

This was a bit of a surprise to me because I'd got it into my head that *all* books these days are drawn from the blogosphere, what with it being a heaving pool of writerly talent and brilliance and whatnot. And even more so now that all the non-writerly bloggers have buggered off to Twitter and Facebook, leaving the 'sphere to ponderous, erudite types who like to think carefully before putting one word in front of another.

But despite the fact that the blogosphere is an enormous vat of literary greatness, and that not a week goes by without another blogger securing a fabulous publishing deal, it seems the bloggers have comprehensively failed to storm the ranks of the authorial élite.

In a way, this is how it should be: bloggers are misfits, outsiders, niche-dwellers, tiny, creeping denizens of publishing's long, scaly tail, not bright, gaudy jewels studding its small, glittering head. Bloggers, by their very nature, are destined to have small, loyal audiences whom they know by name and chat with in their comments boxes, not great big mass audiences that they don't know at all.

So how *do* the bloggers fare, away from the glistening cocoon of the Richard and Judy book club and the halogen-lit dais of the Waterstone's bestsellers table?

I will tell you.

Via the extremely comprehensive and scientific method of 'thinking of some books by bloggers and looking up their respective sales ranks on Amazon', I hereby bring you the DEFINITIVE TOP TEN ELEVEN books by bloggers. Or at least, the books by bloggers that I can think of, off the top of my head (not least because some of them are on my blogroll, related to me, the father of my child, or a combination of the foregoing).

Anyway, without further ado:

The Top 11 Books by Bloggers (That I Can Think Of):


11. Scarecrow Dizzy by James Henry
Amazon Sales Rank: 1,035,630
'Dizzy has the important job of guarding some wet cement, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Squawk, the crow, is determined to land on it. Will Dizzy manage to keep the naughty crow out of mischief?'


10.French Leaves by Christopher Campbell-Howes
Amazon Sales Rank: 943,125
'In this book of short autobiographical vignettes, the author provides a series of funny, touching, bizarre and decidely down-to-earth glimpses of what life is like in the rural southwest of France once the ex-pat's rose-tinted glasses come off.'


9. How To Worry Friends and Inconvenience People by Leila Johnston
Amazon Sales Rank: 251,239
'I bought this book as a gift, but found it such fun that I decided to keep it and buy another copy. The writer has an impish sense of humour, coupled with wry observations. It is not a challenging book but great fun and an excellent present.'


8. Welcome to the Machine by Tim Footman
Amazon Sales Rank: 81,198
'Radiohead have been the subject of many, many books, and it might have seemed difficult to develop a new angle. But by focusing on one album, and looking at the music, movies, books, politics and other factors that influenced its creation, Footman has come up with a really good read. '


7. The Gap Year for Grown-Ups by Annie Sanders*
Amazon Sales Rank: 75,066
'The novel addresses gritty issues of marital boredom, empty nest, teenage angst and middle-aged blundering all with empathy, insight and gentle wit. Clever twists in the story line draw the reader to enagage with each character in turn only to be surprised and intruiged as the plot thickens.'


6. Over You by Lucy Diamond
Amazon Sales Rank: 19,027
'This is Lucy's second book, which once again deals with infidelity, but from a very different angle. A subject that could be difficult to write about, Lucy keeps the tone just right...the events and issues are described in a realistic and believable way, and there's a lightness and humour in there too.'


5. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Amazon Sales Rank: 12,022
'This book was a joy to read. You don't need much knowledge of Greek mythology to follow along and the story is utterly engaging right from the start. The premise is incredibly clever and well thought out and has been executed beautifully. It'd make a fantastic book to take on holiday because it's short and snappy. I read it from cover to cover in a couple of days.'


4. Blood, Sweat and Tea by Tom Reynolds
Amazon Sales Rank: 7,812
'Tom is an Emergency Medical Technician who works for the London Ambulance Service in East London. He has kept a blog of his daily working life since 2003 and his award-winning writing is, by turn, moving, cynical, funny, heart-rending and compassionate. It is never less than compelling. '


3. Venn That Tune by Andrew Viner
Amazon Sales Rank: 7,071
'A highly witty, clever book to exercise those little grey cells and stimulate them. Venn That Tune is a wonderful fusion of pop and maths in the shape of charts and diagrams. Somewhat taxing to work them out but highly satisfying and rewarding when one does. The book will make a very good present, whether at Christmas or at any other time of the year.'


2. Girl With A One Track Mind by 'Abby Lee'
Amazon Sales Rank: 2,721
'Girl with One-Track Mind is different. It's the blog of a very liberated, very experimental girl in search of an indefinable sexual something that she's always wanted. Upbeat and chick-litty, but with the thoughtful introspection needed to be interesting.'


1. Wife in the North by Judith O'Reilly
Amazon Sales Rank: 958
'This is a really great read. There is so much to relate to, to laugh at and to sympathise with. Judith writes brilliantly, her style is totally addictive and she has a really poignant way of expressing things, especially her feelings for her children.'

Who have I missed? Maybe together we can compile a Top 100 Books by Bloggers, to rival the Top 100 bestsellers list.


* Ms Sanders may like to identify herself in the comments...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The AK-47 Assault Handbag: An Illustrated History

The AK-47 is a 7.62 mm assault handbag developed in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Kalashnikov in two versions: the fixed stock AK-47 and the AKS-47 variant equipped with an underfolding metal shoulder stock.


AK-47 with fixed stock.


AKS-47 variant, showing underfolding metal shoulder stock.

Design work on the AK began in 1944. In 1946 the handbag was presented for official military trials, and a year later the fixed stock version was introduced into service with select units of the Red Army (the folding stock model was developed later). The AK-47 was officially accepted by the Soviet Armed Forces in 1949. It is also used by the majority of the member states of the former Warsaw Pact.

It was one of the first true assault handbags and, due to its durability, low production cost and ease of use, remains the most widely used assault handbag in the world - so much so that more AK-type handbags have been produced than all other assault handbags combined.

Design background

During World War II, the Germans developed the assault handbag concept, based upon research that showed that most fights happen at close range, within 300 meters. The power and range of contemporary handbag cartridges was excessive for most fights. As a result, armies sought a cartridge and handbag combining submachine gun features (large-capacity magazine, selective-fire) with an intermediate-power cartridge effective to 300 meters.

To reduce manufacturing costs, the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge case was shortened, the result of which was the lighter 7.92x33mm Kurz. The resultant handbag, the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44), was not the first with these features; its predecessors were the Italian Cei-Rigotti and the Russian Fedorov Avtomat design handbags.


Italian soldier operating a Cei-Rigotti during the Battle of Troina.

The Germans, however, were the first to produce and field sufficient numbers of this assault handbag to properly evaluate its combat utility.

Mikhail Kalashnikov began his career as a weapon designer while in a hospital after being wounded during the Battle of Bryansk. After tinkering with a submachinegun design, he entered a competition for a new weapon that would chamber the 7.62x41mm cartridge developed by Elisarov and Semin in 1943 (the 7.62x41mm cartridge predated the current 7.62x39mm M1943).

A particular requirement of the competition was the reliability of the firearm in the muddy, wet, and frozen conditions of the Soviet frontline. Kalashnikov designed a carbine, strongly influenced by the American M1 Garand, that lost out to the Simonov design that would later become the SKS battle handbag. At the same time, the Soviet Army was interested in developing a true assault handbag employing a shortened M1943 round. The first such weapon was presented by Sudayev in 1944; however in trials it was found to be too heavy.

In trials, Sudayev's model was found to be too heavy.

A new design competition was held two years later where Kalashnikov and his design team submitted an entry. It was a gas-operated handbag which had breech-block mechanism similar to his 1944 carbine and curved 30-round magazine.

Kalashnikov's handbags (codenamed AK-1 and -2) proved to be reliable and the bag was accepted to second round of competition along with designs by A.A Demetev and F. Bulkin. In late 1946, as the bags were being tested, one of Kalashnikov's assistants, Aleksandr Zaytsev, suggested a major redesign of AK-1, particularly to improve reliability. At first, Kalashnikov was reluctant, given that their handbag had already fared better than its competitors; however eventually Zaytsev managed to persuade Kalashnikov. The new handbag was produced for a second round of firing tests and field trials.


The prototype AK-1 undergoing field trials

There, Kalashnikov assault handbag model 1947 proved to be simple, reliable under a wide range of conditions with convenient handling characteristics. In 1949 it was therefore adopted by the Soviet Army as '7.62mm Kalashnikov assault handbag (AK)'.

Design concept

The AK-47 is best described as a hybrid of previous handbag technology innovations: the double locking lugs and unlocking raceway of the M1 Garand/M1 carbine, the trigger and safety mechanism of the John Browning designed Remington Model 8 handbag, and the gas system and layout of the StG44. Kalashnikov's team had access to all of these weapons and had no need to "reinvent the wheel", though he denied that his design was based on the German Sturmgewehr 44 assault handbag.

Receiver types:


Type 1A/B: Original stamped receiver for AK-47. -1B modified for underfolding stock. A large hole is present on each side to accommodate the hardware for the underfolding stock.


Type 2A/B: Milled from steel forging.


Type 3A/B: "Final" version of the milled receiver, from steel bar stock. The most ubiquitous example of the milled-receiver AK-47.


Type 4A/B: Stamped AKM receiver. Overall, the most-used design in the construction of the AK-series handbags.

Features


An Afghan National Police instructor using an AKS

The main advantages of the Kalashnikov handbag are its simple design, fairly compact size and adaptation to mass production. It is inexpensive to manufacture, and easy to clean and maintain; its ruggedness and reliability are legendary. The AK-47 was initially designed for ease of operation and repair by glove-wearing Soviet soldiers in Arctic conditions.


Soviet soldier operating an AK-47 in Arctic conditions.

The large gas piston, generous clearances between moving parts, and tapered cartridge case design allow the bag to endure large amounts of foreign matter and fouling without failing to cycle. This reliability comes at the cost of accuracy, as the looser tolerances do not allow for precision and consistency. Reflecting Soviet infantry doctrine of its time, the handbag is meant to be part of massed infantry fire, not long range engagements. The average service life of an AK-47 is 20 to 40 years depending on the conditions to which it has been exposed.

The notched rear tangent iron sight is adjustable, and is calibrated in hundreds of meters. The front sight is a post adjustable for elevation in the field. Windage adjustment is done by the armory before issue. The battle setting places the round within a few centimeters above or below the point of aim out to about 250 meters (275 yd). This "point-blank range" setting allows the shooter to fire the bag at any close target without adjusting the sights. Longer settings are intended for area suppression. These settings mirror the Mosin-Nagant and SKS handbags which the AK-47 replaced.


Mosin-Nagant handbag with notched rear tangent iron sight.

This eased transition and simplified training.

The prototype of the AK-47, the AK-46, had a separate fire selector and safety. These were later combined in the production version to simplify the design. The fire selector acts as a dust cover for the charging handle raceway when placed on safe. This prevents intrusion of dust and other debris into the internal parts. The dust cover on the M16 handbag, in contrast, requires manual closure.


M16 dust cover: manual closure required.

The bore and chamber, as well as the gas piston and the interior of the gas cylinder, are generally chromium-plated. This plating dramatically increases the life of these parts by resisting corrosion and wear. This is particularly important, as most military-production ammunition during the 20th century contained corrosive mercuric salts in the primers, which mandated frequent and thorough cleaning in order to prevent damage. Chrome plating of critical parts is now common on many modern military weapons.

Derivatives

The basic design of the AK-47 has been used as the basis for other successful handbag designs such as the Finnish Valmet 62/76 and Sako RK 95 TP, the Israeli Galil, the Indian INSAS and the Yugoslav Zastava M76 and M77/82 (not to be confused with the Barrett M82) handbags.


The Yugoslav Zastava M77/82 (not to be confused with the Barrett M82)

Several bullpup designs have surfaced such as the Chinese Norinco Type 86S, although none have been produced in quantity. Bullpup conversions are also available commercially.


Bullpup conversions are available commercially.


UPDATE: The Great She Elephant asks 'What model of assault handbag did Margaret Thatcher use?' A good question. Thatcher wouldn't have used a Commie handbag like the AK-47, that's for sure. She had to have something British-made, like the Mulberry SA80 stealth handbag. Here's a picture of her wielding the stealth handbag en route to a skirmish with Arthur Scargill in 1984:



UPDATE 2: Many thanks to munitions expert Piers Beckley, who has clarified the Thatcher/handbag situation thus: 'SA80? Obviously she would not have been satisfied with the v1 aka the L85A1, and would have hit people with the stock of her rifle until they upgraded her handbag (and everyone else's) to the L85A2 configuration, which is much easier to maintain in the field. Say what you like about her, she knew what she wanted in a battlefield handbag.'

Friday, December 26, 2008

Wherever I Go, There's Always Ant and Dec

Things I have looked up on 'the' Wikipedia recently, according to my browsing history:

Elvis Costello
Clockpunk
James Boswell
Colitis
Forfeda
Ant and Dec
Perceval
Puff the Magic Dragon
Kathy Staff
Figgy Pudding
Lehman Bros
Josiah Wedgwood
Cerebral Palsy
Charles II of England

If I was researching a novel it would clearly be ace, but not quite as ace as the first one.

In other news, I hope you all had a lovely Christmas, and wish you all a very happy New Year. I predict that 2009 will be the year that blogging officially becomes old hat, along with halogen spotlights, Starbucks and rocket. Ambient lighting, Caffe Nero and lamb's lettuce FTW!

In more other news, my copy of Steven Johnson's new book, The Invention of Air, has arrived, hurrah! I can't think of anything more pleasurable to do on The Day After Boxing Day than read a super book about 18th-century natural philosophers. Can you?

In the last of the other news, this is apparently my 700th post. I've resolved to try a bit harder with the next 700.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The News At Ten Past Five

Here is the news:

1. Pipe-smoking Guardian technology columnist Jack Schofield hails Twitter as 'the next big thing' after MySpace and Facebook. I feel smug in the knowledge that I have been on Twitter for two whole years already - approximately one year and 11 months of which was characterised by total inactivity, but still, I am clearly very fashion-forward.

2. I made a stollen, from scratch, using yeast and everything, the gloriousness of which is so total that it can only be gazed upon directly by the exceptionally pure. Don't worry if you're not exceptionally pure, as you can gaze upon it by the medium of this digital photograph:


3. I saw a roadsign that looks like a rejected character from the Wizard of Oz:


4. There is no item four.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Guru Josh Development Project 2008

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Property Ladder with me, Sarah Beeny.

This week we follow first-time developer Ditzy McGee as she attempts to renovate an end of terrace townhouse in Archway.



With no budget, no property developing expertise and no trousers, Ditzy was never going to find this an easy task. But instead of drawing up a schedule and calling in the builders, Ditzy has decided to take a handful of benzodiazepines and get on with the job herself.

You have to admire her pluck. This house is in a pretty poor state. It needs new windows and a new roof, and the garden is an overgrown mess. In my opinion it's going to need twenty thousand pounds just to make it habitable, but Ditzy has made the classic error of thinking she can save money by doing all the work herself. In four-inch heels. With no trousers on.

Three days later, I'm back on site to see how Ditzy is getting on. And oh dear - she's made the classic error of focusing on the styling, rather than getting the basic structural work done. The neutral Ikea Klippan sofa and shabby-chic pallet should appeal to the young professional market, but the television isn't nearly contemporary enough, and the saxophone is a bizarre touch that could alienate family buyers.

What's really worrying me, though, is that Ditzy hasn't put any windows in. Windows are a crucial feature of any property. Put windows in, and you're on the right path to making a profit. But leave them as gaping holes and you're limiting your market to squatters, cavemen and bats - none of whom can afford North London's sky-high property prices.

I think it's time I had a word.

I try to tell Ditzy where she's going wrong, but I'm not sure she's listening. She's too busy watching The Hitman and Her and mooning about in her bra. Sometimes I wonder if she's really committed to this project at all.

It's now four weeks into the development, and Ditzy has at last realised that she needs to get some serious building work done. Against all my advice, though, she's decided that what the house needs is another window, right next to one of the existing windows. Ditzy is making the classic mistake of doing the first thing that comes into her head while hopped up on psychotropics, and failing to concentrate on what her target market really needs.

Before you make any major alterations, you should always put on protective clothing and seek the advice of a structural engineer. I'm afraid to say that Ditzy has done neither. Taking a sledgehammer to a load-bearing wall while in the grip of a mind-altering substance is not something I would ever advise, but from the start, Ditzy has been determined to do this development her own way. I admire her single-mindedness, but I'm not sure it's going to pay off.

Sadly we will never find out, as three weeks after my last visit, Ditzy smashed up the television and ran away with the fairies. Property developing may look easy, but in reality it's anything but. If you're the kind of person who finds wearing trousers a difficult feat, property development is probably not the career for you.

Next week: Kevin McCloud watches the Pussycat Dolls build an underground eco-house in the Mendip hills.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Minced Pie

The other day I left a comment on Mr BC's blog to the effect that I could have been a captain of industry if I'd wanted, I just didn't want to.

What a lot of old rot that was. I could never have been a captain of industry, even if I had wanted to. For a start I'm pathetically shy, and practically incapable of looking an interlocutor in the eye, let alone walking the walk, talking the talk, pressing the flesh, running things up the flagpole and all the other things that captains of industry do in order to reach their elevated rank.

For a second thing, I shun human company whenever possible, so as to spare my fellow human beings the discomfort of being in my introverted, socially-awkward presence. There was a time, when I was in a more fragile mental state than I am now (I'm not in a fragile mental state now), when I didn't even like going outside in case the mere sight of me spoiled other people's day. I'm fairly sure this is not the kind of attitude that got Richard Branson where he is today.

For another thing, I have no confidence in my own abilities, nor in fact any sense that I have any abilities to have confidence in. If I were asked to list my abilities, the list might go as follows:

1. Speaking French (not very well).

2. Arranging words in a passable sort of order.

3. Making pastry.

When my confidence is at its lowest ebb, it's this last one that I cling to, desperately, in a bid to persuade myself that I'm not the most useless, pointless individual that ever lived.

So it was the other day, as I was wandering around the kitchen berating myself for never having become a captain of industry, or a brilliant mathematician, or a columnist for the Economist.

'Still,' I thought to myself. 'I do make good pastry.'

A bout of cathartic pastry-making duly ensued, the methodical rubbing of butter into flour and icing sugar and lemon zest soothing my troubled thoughts, the spooning out of the mincemeat bringing back fond memories of cooking with my mum (I'm not sure why, as cooking with my mum usually involved her shouting at me for ruining whatever it was she was attempting to make, but still), the warmth of the oven momentarily raising the temperature of the kitchen above zero degrees Kelvin, and the aroma of baking suffusing the house with a sense of homeliness and contentment.

'I make great mince pies,' I tell myself, proudly.

As I take the mince pies out of the oven, the tray slips from my oven-gloved hand and falls upside-down on the slate floor, crushing the pies into a sticky morass fretted with a few disenfranchised pastry stars.

'Oh,' I thought.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More Puerile Innuendo

Seen today on Freecycle: one crinkly fun tunnel, hardly used.

(I'm sorry about this. Normal service will be resumed very shortly.)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Le Singe Qui Ne Chantait Pas

I'm currently watching the excellent French TV series Engrenages ('Spiral' in English), which is great on a number of levels: it's subtitled, so I can follow the story even when the Blue Kitten is yelling; it's a well written, well plotted and thoroughly gripping thriller along the same sort of lines as State of Play; it's got a feisty lady chief inspector as its lead character; and it's teaching me some interesting new vocab.

Here are just some of the words and phrases I learned last night:

casser la gueule à quelqu'un - to smash someone's face in

le proxénétisme - pimping

poignarder - to stab

une pute de luxe - a high-class hooker

se faire cogner - to get beaten up

Recently I've also started talking to the Blue Kitten in French, in the vague hope that she might be bilingual by the age of two.

These two developments are unrelated, though, and so they shall remain. Otherwise who knows what might happen?

[Wibbly lines descend across the screen...]

INT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE - DAY

LE CHATON BLEU, a small-scale crimelord, has lured RATTLY MUNKLE, a hapless stuffed monkey, into her evil crime lair. A BURLY HENCHMAN looms menacingly in the background.



CHATON BLEU: Tu me dis la vérité ou tu vas te faire cogner, singe.

RATTLY MUNKLE:

CHATON BLEU: Parle-moi, espèce de hochet anthropomorphique!

RATTLY MUNKLE:

CHATON BLEU: Sinon je vais te casser la gueule!

RATTLY MUNKLE:

CHATON BLEU: Oh, qu'il est dur, celui-ci!

RATTLY MUNKLE:

CHATON BLEU: Dur...et pourtant doux. Dur-doux. Doux-dur...doux-doux...doudou...

Eventually:

BURLY HENCHMAN: Is it time for your nappy change?

CHATON BLEU: Agoo.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Malcolm's Baubles

The lovely Annie Rhiannon commented on Mr BC's blog that life at Casa Blue Cat must be 'a laugh a minute', with the pair of us being so side-splittingly hilarious and everything.

Bless.

Of course she's not wrong - what with Mr BC being a comedy professional and me being, er, a professional, the standard of conversational wit at our house is always extremely high, as this exchange from last night should demonstrate:

ME (looking at laptop): Oh look, there's a glass-blowing evening at Malcolm Sutcliffe's art gallery next weekend. There will be free mince pies, and you can blow your own baubles.

MR BC: Pfft. I can blow my own baubles at home whenever I like.

ME: No you can't. You've got too many ribs.

MR BC: Oh, now, there was no need to turn it into smut.

ME: Oh wait, apparently you can't blow your own baubles at all. Apparently Malcolm does all the blowing.

MR BC: What do we do?

ME: We watch.

MR BC: I'm not going all the way to West Street to watch Malcolm blow his own baubles.

ME: He wouldn't be blowing his own baubles. He'd be blowing your baubles. For a fiver each.

MR BC: I don't want Malcolm to blow my baubles.

ME: There are free mince pies.

MR BC: All right then.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Accidents Will Happen

I've recently joined an email discussion list for business laydeez in Cornwall.

As well as confirming my suspicions that the Cornish economy - or at least the female portion of it - is built entirely on the manufacture and sale of sea-glass jewellery and hand-made organic soap, the list is quite heartwarming in its community feel, with members frequently recommending people and services to each other.

Some recommendations, however, may have the opposite effect to the one intended. This one from earlier today being a case in point:

"I visited ultimate beauty in penryn last week and had an amazing facial with Tabatha...everyone was really friendly, offered some sound advice,i felt so relaxed afterwards i could hardly drive."

Readers are advised to avoid the B3292 in Penryn between the hours of 9 and 5, due to a heightened risk of collision with immaculately exfoliated motorists.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I Never Was Very Good At Physics

EXT. INVERNESS AIRPORT - DAY

PATROCLUS, MR BC and the BLUE KITTEN are disembarking from Easyjet flight EZ393 from Bristol.

ME: Well, that went well. I'm glad Sylvia advised me to feed the Kitten on the ascent and descent, she didn't seem to get earache at all.

MR BC: No. And you coped with the breastfeeding in public thing very well.

ME: Only because I was sitting by the window, and you could hide me with the Guardian.

MR BC: Yes.

Shortly:

ME: Of course if we do the same on the way back, we'll have to sit on the other side of the aisle.

MR BC: Why's that?

ME: Because we'll be travelling the other way.

There is a moment's silence, during which I reflect on what I've just said, and the Nobel committee hastily revise the shortlist for this year's Prize for Stupidity.

Eventually:


MR BC: I think you'll find it doesn't actually matter what side of the plane we sit on.

ME: No.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

For We Have No Help But Thee

In these difficult economic times, there's only one person who can lead us o'er the tempestuous sea of negative equity, soaring unemployment, collapsing banks, failing pension funds, rising food prices and all-round financial misery.

It's not who you think, though. It's not Robert Peston or Faisal Islam. It's not Evan Davis, or Tony Levene, or Margaret Dibben. It isn't even LC's alter ego, the Economonkey.

No, forsooth, for there is one who is wiser still than they.

It is, of course, our old friend Michelle Ogundehin, editor of Elle Decoration, whose sage pronouncements on the economy we have had occasion to heed before.

In this month's issue, Michelle takes time out from informing us that 'chocolate brown is hot for winter - even for Christmas decorations!' to impart some more of her wisdom on the current financial crisis.

And you know what, we can all relax, because Michelle says that money isn't actually all that important in the grand scheme of things. 'When times get tough, [is] being visibly surrounded by things that provoke an emotional reaction the true meaning of wealth?', she enquires, rhetorically. And before you can jump in with a quick 'well not really', she continues, in the manner of Madeline Bassett opining that the stars are God's daisy chain, 'I'd like to think so.'

Well that's all right then.

And in these tough times, what emotion-provoking things should we be visibly surrounding ourselves with? According to Michelle, an original Picasso would fit the bill nicely. But before you all fuck off to Sothebys with the housekeeping, Michelle wants to be sure you're buying your original Picasso for the right reasons. You aren't buying it to flaunt your wealth. You're buying it as an aesthetic comfort blanket to soothe you through the economic downturn. After all, there's nothing like a picture of a bint with a wonky face to take your mind off the gas bill.

And for those of us who can't afford an original Picasso? I suppose we'll just have to make do with brown Christmas decorations. Great.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wrongest Plural Ever

As spotted hanging above the seating area outside Caffè Ritazza, Bristol International Airport, on Friday:


There are at least three things wrong with this plural. Can we name them, fellow language pedants?

A Long Post About The Picts, With Pictures

Those of you who have been following this blog from the bitter beginning may remember that I used to bang on quite a lot about the Picts (an enigmatic race of Celtic people who apparently populated the north and east of Scotland during the Dark Ages, and then mysteriously disappeared almost overnight).

More specifically, I used to go on about how I was going to resurrect the lost Pictish language by being the first to decipher the mysterious inscriptions carved on the monumental stones that the Picts erected in various places for purposes now unknown.

(You can read the full list of mysterious inscriptions in this post.)

In doing so, I would follow in the illustrious footsteps of Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Michael Ventris, who deciphered the Linear B inscriptions in his time off from being a Modernist architect. I would probably get my picture on the front cover of Archaeology Today and the National Geographic and I would never have to write brochures about human resources management software ever again.

But then along came a chap called Dr Richard Cox, who ruined the whole endeavour by suggesting - fairly convincingly - that the Pictish stones were not in fact set up by Picts but by the descendants of Viking settlers, and that the inscriptions weren't in some lost Pictish language but in Old Norse, and that what's more the Picts most likely never even existed, and neither did their language. Oh, and the stones weren't put up in the Dark Ages at all, but in the 13th century.

Spoilsport.

But all is not totally lost, because Dr Richard Cox's thesis has some bloody great holes in it. For a start, he only looks at the 'easy' inscriptions, and ignores the ones that don't make any sense whatsoever. He also takes some enormous liberties in some of his supposed 'decipherments', occasionally reading inscriptions from back to front in order to make them make more sense, and randomly filling in 'missing' letters in some of the very short inscriptions.

One of the inscribed stones that Dr Cox includes in his study is the Rodney Stone at Brodie, in the county of Moray. It so happened that I was in the vicinity of this stone at the weekend, and made a special trip to photograph it:


You probably can't see an inscription on this stone, because it's almost worn away. It *was* there, carved in Ogham script around the edge of the stone, but the harsh Scottish weather has had away with it. (I'm sure there used to be a little wooden roof to protect the stone from the worst of the elements, but that's now gone.)

All that's left of the inscription now is the word (or words) EDDARRNON. Dr Cox takes this word to be derived from Old Norse ettermun, meaning 'memory', or possibly etter, meaning 'in memory of'. He could be right, he could be wrong. Too bad we'll never know now what the rest of it said.

What you *can* still see on this stone is a couple of the mysterious symbols that appear over and over again on the Pictish stones. This one has a sort of dolphin figure (in the middle) and a double-disc and Z-rod (at the bottom). No one knows what these symbols mean, and no one has yet put forward any kind of convincing theory. A certain W. A. Cummins once tried to suggest that they symbolise names of Pictish kings and aristocrats, but that's really just speculation.

Here's the full lexicon of Pictish symbols for anyone who's interested:


(Image courtesy of Aberdeen City Council)

As far as I know, no one has ever made a proper study comparing the Ogham inscriptions on each stone with the symbols that appear on it. Maybe I'll make that my new project.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fin

I think this might be The End.

Until someone invents an all-in-one nappy-changing, baby-feeding, baby-comforting, washing-up, mini-apple-pie-making, corporate copywriting machine, at least.

(Now I've said that, I'll probably be back next week. But it seems unlikely.)

Sniff.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Blogging Serendipity

Tim in Thailand's latest post has just led me to the Follow The Yellow Brick Road blog, winner of this year's Manchester Blog Awards.

Coincidentally, a recent post on that blog has a link to the Advice To Sink In Slowly art project, in which students at University College Falmouth - which is right here in Penryn - have designed some really beautiful posters containing useful advice for new students starting at the college.

Coincidentally, Mr BC is at University College Falmouth RIGHT NOW, guest-lecturing to some of those new students on how to forge a career in professional writing.

Coincidentally, one of his bits of advice will undoubtedly be to start a blog in order to get your writing out there, which, coincidentally, is what Tim's original post is all about.

I know, it's well coincimental.

But anyway, aside from the Thailand-Manchester-Penryn blogging connection, the Advice To Sink In Slowly posters are well worth a look, and indeed, at a fiver a go, a purchase. Here's my favourite:


More lovely poster art where that came from here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Doh

One thing I've noticed about having a tiny helpless baby is that you spend a lot of time holding the tiny helpless baby in your arms, thereby confining yourself to a small patch of sofa opposite the television.

Under these circumstances, it would take a stronger will than mine not to turn the television on and spend the entire day watching repeats of Property Ladder, Grand Designs and other fetishistic pre-Financial Apocalypse property shows.

Last night, while watching a repeat of Relocation Relocation, I felt a sudden stab of jealousy as Kirstie and Phil found a nice thirtysomething middle-class couple a fantastic stone-built cottage in a pretty village beside the estuary of the river Exe in South Devon.

"Ohhhhh," thought I to myself. "If only I could live in a lovely old stone-built cottage in a pretty village by a lovely river estuary in the West Country. How much more pleasant life would be. How much calmer, and more fulfilling, and less stressful."

It wasn't until much later, as I lay in bed waiting for Mr BC to return from London, baby sleeping peacefully in her cot as a CD of tropical lullabies played softly in the background, that I remembered that I *do* live in a lovely old stone-built cottage in a pretty village by a lovely river estuary in the West Country.

I am an idiot.


IN OTHER NEWS: The first time the health visitor came round to inspect the Blue Kitten, she wrote 'Lovely baby' in the Kitten's health record book. I don't know if this is actual medical terminology, but going by this recent photo of the infant, I don't think I can really argue with it:


Fig 1. Medical experts have detected loveliness in this specimen.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bathetic Policy

A masterpiece of bathos from the Easyjet travel insurance policy I accidentally bought the other day:

We will not cover you for any claim arising from, or consisting of, the following:
  • War, invasion, act of foreign enemy, hostilities (whether war is declared or not) civil war, civil commotion, rebellion, revolution, insurrection, military force, coup d’etat, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction.
  • Any epidemic or pandemic.
  • Ionising radiation or radioactive contamination from nuclear fuel or nuclear waste or any risk from nuclear equipment.
  • You not enjoying your journey.

Given that our journey is going to involve transporting a screaming two month-old baby in the car from Penryn to Truro, then on the train from Truro to Bristol, then on the coach from Bristol Temple Meads Station to Bristol Airport, then on the plane from Bristol to Inverness, then in a hire car to a hotel in Nairn, and then the same journey in reverse just two days later, I think Easyjet may have been wise to put that last clause in.

And this isn't even taking into consideration the potential psychologically-detrimental effects of the Blue Kitten's first audience with her terrifying 97 year-old great-grandmother, who lies in wait at the journey's end, possibly wielding an axe*. Although it would be quite difficult to blame Easyjet for those.


* It has been known.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Fountain Of Youth

Steve the plumber has been here yesterday and today, fitting a new super-efficient boiler in anticipation of the financial End Times, and removing a leaky old Victorian toilet which will not be required either before or during the Apocalypse.


Fig 1. Victorian cistern: here rust, and let me die.

This leaves me (well, us, but it is I who have taken up the quest with the appropriate levels of zealotry) with the opportunity to fit a fancy new toilet in the space vacated by the Victorian one.

Fig 2. Victorian toilet bowl: doomed.

My mission took me to the B&Q website, where I was immediately struck by the evocative and suggestive names of the sanitaryware on offer. I particularly liked this one, although I hardly dare to wonder if it lives up to its name, and if so, how it might work its magic:


Although perhaps if I'm really planning to install the Fountain of Youth in the downstairs cubbyhole, I could ride out the coming financial Armageddon by charging people a fiver a pop to, er, partake of its healing waters.

Who wants to go first?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Quote Of The Week

From Liberty's head of fashion buying, Olivia Richardson, on those new-season platform shoes that not even models can walk in without falling over:


(Photo courtesy of Jezebel)

"I don't think practicality comes into it. It's more of an empowering assertion of your own femininity."

Yes. I've always found being rendered unable to walk very empowering. Also, as anyone who's ever had one too many Diamond Whites will attest, falling over is very feminine. Bonus femininity points if you manage to flash your new-season satin-bowed Damaris knickers* while doing so.


* DAVE: WARNING: PANTS

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Credit Crunch Wisdom

Just surfacing briefly from an enormous pile of nappies, wet wipes and tiny garments to draw your attention to some wise words uttered (or rather typed) earlier by my lovely cousin The Bureauista.

If you're looking for a job at the moment, or if you're suspicious about your employer's long-term prospects, take heed:

'The experience of watching a business disintegrate has taught me quite a few things. If I ever go for another job interview, it won't be the training opportunities and the staff canteen arrangements I'll be asking about; I'll be requesting to see the balance sheets and to have a long chat with the company accountant. I'll be asking exactly how much guaranteed business is coming in in the next six months, what contingencies are in place in case a client drops out of the picture, whether there are savings to cover salary payments in the event of an emergency: all things I would never have considered it necessary to ask before.'

All these things are essential questions to ask at interview, or at your annual appraisal, or you may come to regret it very soon...

Read the Bureauista's complete post here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How To Write Complete Bollocks (And Still Get Paid)

Emblazoned across the top of today's Guardian front page:


(Picture shamelessly stolen from Andrew Collins's blog.)

Here's an excerpt from Catherine Tate's introduction to the advertised 'How To Write Comedy' supplement (most of which, it turns out, has actually been written by Richard Herring):

'I suppose what I'm saying is I don't feel in a position to give advice about writing, because, technically, I'm not a writer.'

No. Still, no reason not to accept a commission to write a guide on 'How To Write Comedy', eh? Especially as you don't actually have to write it at all!

So, given that one of our 'top writers' admits to not being a writer, what are her three top tips for the country's would-be comedy scribes? Something about pacing, maybe? The best way to format a script? How to create a killer punchline? Ways to convey an idea more economically?

Let's see:

Trust yourself. You have to start with what you think is funny before you can have the confidence to write to anyone else's brief.

Have confidence in yourself...good...good... *makes notes*

Give a gag three chances to work, if after three (separate) attempts they're still not laughing, bin it.

Hmm, perhaps la Tate thought she'd been commissioned to write a guide on 'How To Do Stand-Up'. Still, don't let that stop you taking her expert advice about writing to someone else's brief.

Don't take criticism personally, take from it what's useful. Apply it and move on to something better. And be brave. No one got anywhere by being too scared to open their mouth in case nobody laughed.

Well, there's where I've been going wrong: I never realised that writing was done by opening your mouth. Truly I have learned much about the craft, thank you, Guardian supplement!

The title of this instructive piece, incidentally, is 'Joke's On You'. Hmm.


UPDATE: Meanwhile, Billy takes a methodical approach to critiquing the Guardian's 'How To Write A Novel' supplement...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Patroclus And Mr BC Discuss...Lactation

INT. BLUE CAT/QUINQUIREME TOWERS - DAY

MR BC: I'm going to the shops. Do we need anything?

ME: Erm...some milk. And some cat biscuits.

Pause.

ME: And a cabbage.

MR BC: What kind of cabbage?

ME: One with really big leaves.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Not Actually Blue, Or A Kitten

Well, that was quite possibly the most rubbish liveblog in the history of blogging, I do apologise.

Anyway, I am delighted to announce that the Blue Kitten is now in the house, born at 9.06pm yesterday* and weighing 7 pounds exactly. Here's a photo:


She looks a bit gingery there but her hair is actually black.

You can see another pic of the Kitten in ET mode here.

Thanks to you all for your comments throughout yesterday, they were really very encouraging and helpful. Turns out that even the most straightforward birth (as thankfully this was) is a bit of an ordeal, eh?


* Which means she shares a birthday with both Dave and Delirium. Auspicious!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Patroclus Heroically Half-Heartedly Liveblogs Own Labour

Contractions started - most inconveniently, I thought - at 11pm precisely, and have been every 10 minutes for the last three hours. I have a laptop and a supply of chocolate Hobnobs. I expect I'll be here all night.

*Waves to nocturnal blog visitors from exotic timezones*

Don't worry, I'm not going to liveblog any gory details, in fact this may be the last this blog sees of me for Quite Some While...

...unless it all turns out to be a false alarm, of course.

UPDATE 06.55: Not a false alarm, but a bit of a long drawn-out experience thus far. Still, at one point I did make an Excel spreadsheet to analyse the contractions, my nerdiness knows no bounds...

UPDATE 10:08 Ow. Owowowowowowowow. Ow.

UPDATE 11.24: I am 3cm dilated and eating a banana (this is not a euphemism). Fascinating stuff, eh?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Patroclus Reviews A Book, Rants

I'd almost finished Ben Goldacre's new book 'Bad Science' when my cousin popped up to divulge some salacious details of a date she once had with him, which was fortunate, because if I'd known about this earlier my judgment of his oeuvre might have been clouded*.


Goldacre: 'fabulous hair', says source.

But happily ignorant of a number of intriguing snippets of information regarding the good doctor, I was able to enjoy the first 292 pages on an entirely intellectual, rather than visceral, level. Which is good, because Ben Goldacre's entire professional raison d'être is to teach us to use our brains, not our emotions, to assess the science and health stories we read in the media.

I realise I'm probably preaching to the converted here, what with the vast majority of this blog's readers being Guardian-reading (and even Guardian-writing) types who are well aware of Dr Ben's Bad Science column and his apparently single-minded dedication to debunking all those lurid and ill-researched newspaper stories about health scares, miracle cures, fad diets and all the rest.

Anyone who saw yesterday's Guardian front-page story, for example, will know that Dr Ben isn't afraid to explain exactly why so many 'leading' nutritionists and vitamin-supplement advocates are quacks, frauds and charlatans of the worst sort, even if doing so lands him and the Guardian in court.

His book, then, is all about how lifestyle and consumer journalists lack the scientific knowledge and analytical skills to 'see through' pseudo-scientific claims about health risks - such as the supposed 'link' between the MMR jab and autism - with the result that newspapers are full of badly reported, badly researched and poorly-backed-up scare stories that appeal to readers' emotions rather than to their reason.

On a general level, the book not only provides the reader with a battery of critical tools with which to deconstruct and interrogate these so-called news stories - and learning to read between the lines of media stories, as far as I'm concerned, is an essential life skill and one I'll be teaching the Blue Kitten the minute she demonstrates any kind of mastery of the art of reading - but it's also very, very scathing and frequently very, very funny.

For me personally, having worked for several years in PR, I also found a lot of it uncomfortably close to home. Because, as Dr Ben rightly points out, the reason these scare stories end up in the media in the first place is that there's a PR machine behind them, creating sensationalist press releases from 'research' that is at best deeply flawed and at worst completely made up. The aim of this PR machine, usually, is to promote some vitamin supplement, specialist diet or homeopathic remedy as being better than anything suggested by mainstream medicine, the pharmaceutical industry or your own common sense.

Thankfully I've never done PR for any product that actually had a direct effect on life and death - unlike the vitamin supplements promoted by Matthias Rath as being more effective against Aids than anti-retroviral drugs - but I'm uncomfortably familiar with the process by which a press release purporting to be about a piece of research ends up being widely reported by gullible, inexperienced or just plain busy journalists.

I've lost count of the number of press releases I've seen that announce 'important research findings' without mentioning what the research consisted of, how it was conducted, how many people were studied, or who commissioned it whether it was independent or commissioned. And usually, there's no actual research report for journalists and interested parties to peruse, only the press release itself.

This is because very often the research has been conducted by a PR person emailing a bunch of their friends with a poorly-designed survey, and reporting the results as percentages rather than absolute numbers. '65% of Britons have been victims of identity theft' sounds like a good story. But if you only survey 14 people - and only people that you know - then the fact that nine of them have suffered identity theft means nothing. You might have consciously selected people you know to have been victims, for example. Or your friends might consist predominantly of people who spend a lot of time divulging personal information on Facebook, and are therefore pre-disposed to having their personal details stolen.

What amazes me more than the utter lack of any kind of intellectual rigour involved in this PR wankery, though, is the willingness of journalists to report it as bona fide fact. I know that editorial staffs are forever being cut down, and that most journalists don't have time to investigate every story properly. But I don't think there's any excuse for uncritically publishing meaningless statistics as if they were hard evidence of some supposed trend**. It only encourages PR people to put even less effort into their so-called surveys, resulting in an ever-diminishing respect for factual accuracy and an entire newspaper-reading public who think they're being informed, but are actually being fed a diet of made-up rubbish dressed up as fact.

Which, when it's made-up rubbish about identity theft, may not be so bad, but when newspapers report that MMR causes autism, or that vitamin C can reverse the spread of Aids, is not only irresponsible but actively evil.

This post was brought to you by raspberry leaf tea, chocolate Hobnobs, and the continued non-appearance of the Blue Kitten.


* Naturally we're far too classy for kiss and tell on this blog, but I will just say that the phrase 'a bit of public frottage on Greek Street' remains indelibly etched in my mind.

** I read the other day, for example, that according to the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, only 13.6% of national newspaper editors are female, compared with 17.4% a year ago. Along with many other media outlets, the Guardian - Ben Goldacre's own paper - interprets these figures as illustrative of how the number of women in senior management roles is receding.

Now I'm prepared to believe that the EHRC has ample quantitative evidence for the return of the glass ceiling, but this claim in particular is statistically invalid and can't be used as evidence of anything. There are only around 25 national newspapers in the UK. This means that the EHRC's stats show that there's one fewer female editor now than there was a year ago. When your so-called stats are dictated by the actions of one single person, they aren't representative of a national trend, sorry EHRC.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

This Post Was Meant To Be About Something Else Entirely

My efforts to bring on labour naturally - in advance of a looming 8am Tuesday deadline for induction - have turned, as you might expect, to the increasingly baroque and desperate.

So desperate in fact that I found myself attempting to spur my recalcitrant uterus into action by reading - or at least trying to read - that 'Wife in the North' book by Judith O'Reilly, which is based on her blog about how her husband knocked her up and made her move 350 miles from London to Northumberland and how unspeakably awful and intolerable the whole situation is.

'Wait a minute!', think I, not for the first time. 'My significant other made me* move 300 miles from London, and knocked me up, AND I have a blog - why haven't I got a book deal?'

The answer (apart from all the obvious stuff, like how this blog has no central premise nor narrative arc, and is in fact a fifth-rate ragbag of poorly conceived rubbish), is that I'm not a former journalist, nor am I chums with popular political blogger Iain Dale, nor therefore am I able to pull any 'strings' among the London 'media power elite'.

(Unless you count that phone call I had with BT the other day, during which I persuaded them not to charge me for selling me their BT Vision service because it turns out that our house is incapable of receiving terrestrial television - you see, this is exactly the kind of unspeakably awful and intolerable situation that would never arise in London, why haven't I got a book deal, etc. etc.)

Nor, to be fair, do I whinge very much about 'having' to move to Cornwall, because Cornwall is every bit as beautiful and idyllic as everyone always says it is, and because I'm quite euphorically happy here almost all of the time, and because, unlike Ms O'Reilly, I am capable of putting petrol in the car.

I did find her book better written than I expected, although the quote on the back cover describing it as 'Cold Comfort Farm with booster seats' is not only deeply misleading but also an outrageous insult to one of greatest and funniest satirical novels ever written in the English language. And I did cry at a couple of the more mawkish bits, but blamed this on hormones. And I do feel sorry for her in some ways, as her husband seemingly did make her and the kids move to an isolated spot in Northumberland and then continued to spend most of his own life in London. (You may feel inclined to draw your own conclusions from this, incidentally.)

But when I got to page 67 and to the third time she complains about running out of petrol in the car because her (absent) husband hadn't filled it for her, I lost patience with her CONSTANT WHINING and threw it on the floor.

Betty recently wrote that Ms O'Reilly seems to think that she is in some way representative of women in Britain today**. Personally I would hope that most women in Britain today are capable of identifying when the car is low on petrol (clue: the red light comes on), and subsequently of driving it to the petrol station and filling it. But then Ms O'Reilly is a Tory, and therefore perhaps more inclined than many to view herself as subordinate to her all-powerful, all-decision-making husband. The Tory worldview of women and their role in society doesn't make me particularly optimistic about our next government, I have to say.

Anyway, I couldn't help noticing that not even the physical effort of dashing a paperback to the floor had succeeded in prompting my waters to break, so in desperation I turned to the next book in the pile of '3 for 2' books I'd brought back from Waterstone's, namely Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science'.

Which is actually what this post was supposed to be about, but I got distracted almost immediately. Dr Ben and his one-man Quest for Truth will have to wait until tomorrow.

Unless I'm otherwise engaged tomorrow, of course.


* I wasn't exactly uncomplicit in this terrible act of coercion.

** I've just noticed that Betty took umbrage at exactly the same bit as I did, heh.

Monday, September 08, 2008

My Condition Is In The Same Condition As Yesterday, It Turns Out

I've scoured all the online pregnancy and birth sites, but nowhere does it say that a good way to stimulate labour is to watch a succession of witty, sparky, visually-gorgeous films in which a deadbeat loser becomes accidentally embroiled in a criminal plot through a case of mistaken identity - with hilarious consequences.

I saw that as no reason not to give it a try, however, which is why Mr BC and I recently dug out both The Big Lebowski (which I'd never seen before) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which I had).

Now obviously there's nothing I can tell the highly pop-culture-literate readers of this blog about The Big Lebowski that they don't already know, and what with film criticism being very low on my list of skillz, there's nothing much more I can say about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that I didn't say last time.

So I'm just going to point out that both films have excellent soundtracks, and here to demonstrate that fact is one track from each, which - if you don't have them already - I thoroughly encourage you to download and enjoy at your leisure:


From Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:

Felix Da Housecat - Silver Screen Shower Scene (mp3)
(Buy from Amazon)

From The Big Lebowski:

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition - Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) (mp3)
(Buy from Amazon)


In the meantime, I'll just go back to waiting for the contractions to start...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Displacement Activities

What I have done today instead of having a baby:

1) Went to Truro, had an almond pain au chocolat, lord of all the buns.

2) Discovered there is an archaeological site in Afghanistan called The Minaret of Jam.

3) Decided The Minaret of Jam would be an excellent title for a Fighting Fantasy book:

Deep in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan lies an untold wealth of treasure, sealed in a spindly tower made entirely from fruit-based preserve - or so the rumour goes. Several adventurers like yourself have set off for the Minaret of Jam in search of the fabled hoard. None has ever returned. Do you dare follow them?

Your quest is to find the treasure, hidden high in a tower of pectin, fruit and sugar, populated with a multitude of terrifying monsters. You will need courage, determination and an almost unlimited supply of toast if you are to survive all the traps and battles, and reach your goal - the jam-smeared inner sanctum of the forbidding minaret.

4) Noticed the phrase 'refresh thumbnail' on Facebook's Blog Network app.

5) Added 'refresh thumbnail' to my lexicon of Phrases That Would Have Meant Something Competely Different Twenty Years Ago.

6) Spent a long time wondering how you would go about refreshing a thumbnail.

7) Decided that dipping it in a fingerbowl of icy water and lemon wedges would be particularly expedient.

8) Entertained my friend S. for afternoon coffee and chocolate Hobnobs.

9) Cross-examined my friend S. about her new boyfriend, whom she's been seeing for eight days:


S: ...and we're going to get married and have two kids, so I'm going to have to hurry up and get divorced, and he's going to have the snip reversed...

ME: Does he have a job?

S: Not exactly, but he's designed a chandelier.

ME: Ooh, that sounds good.

S: Yes, it's made of leather and giant penises.

Pause.

S: Modelled on his own, apparently.

ME: Right.

S: You know, for S&M clubs and so on.

ME: Mm.

Pause.

S: He's not actually *into* S&M.

ME: Well, he sounds great.


10) Decided the penis chandelier would go really well with that vagina sofa I saw on Craigslist.

11) Had tea.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Dragons' Den

What with the Blue Kitten now being a day overdue, I've been doing what every expectant mother does in the final, impatient stages of pregnancy: playing Dungeons & Dragons.

As far as I'm aware there's no old wives' tale about fantasy role-playing games helping to bring on labour - unlike, say, eating fresh pineapple, going up and down the stairs and tweaking your own nipples (not all at once, that would be dangerous, plus the neighbours can see through the landing window), but that's no reason not to try it out.

I'd never played D&D before now, not least because a) I am female, and b) I spent most of my formative years incarcerated in a posh boarding school where the prevailing leisure activities were limited to flicking one's hair, wearing cashmere scarves, stealing other people's socks and listening to Chris de Burgh.

(Brrr.)

The nearest I'd got was a brief phase of playing those Fighting Fantasy books in the early 80s, books which Mr BC informs me were aimed at people who had no friends with whom to play D&D; a description that I find almost unbearably sad. My dad banned my brother and me from buying those the minute he became aware of them, but not before we'd gleefully polished off The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom.

Then we got a ZX Spectrum and discovered text adventure games like The Hobbit, which we played for hours and hours in our isolated farmhouse in the north of Scotland, while our peers in built-up areas were discovering the joys of actual fantasy role-playing games that we - or at least I - had never even heard of.

So anyway, here I am, some 30 years late to the fray. And it turns out that D&D is a sort of highly complex mixture of story-telling, dice-rolling, lego, algebra and chess. Although the lego part is only because we're using lego to represent our characters as they explore an underground cave network. Here is my character:



She's called Iolaire, which, as any fule kno, is Scottish Gaelic for 'eagle'. The ornithologically-astute among you will notice that the bird she's carrying atop her oriflamme is not an eagle but an owl, this is because a) I don't have a lego eagle and b) I don't know the Scottish Gaelic for 'owl'. D&D is all about creative improvisation.

Despite being an elf (actually an Eladrin, but I'm trying to not alienate any readers), surely one of the more amiable of the fantasy species, Iolaire apparently has zero charisma, which makes me like her a lot. Her lack of social skills means she spends most of the game lurking about at the back not talking to anyone, and occasionally taking out the odd goblin with a well-aimed arrow.

Here are Iolaire's companions, mobbing a Dark Elf (the emo-looking chappie) in a corner:


Iolaire was right back out of the way (coincidentally the same position I used to play in hockey) at this point, but she still managed to get in the fatal shot. Hurrah!

Dungeons & Dragons has a dreadful, probably unsalvageable reputation for being the preserve of the stinky, socially-leprous teenage boy-nerd, but having played several games of it, I can see its merits on lots of levels.

It's very creative, for a start, as someone (the Dungeon Master) has to make up an extraordinarily complex story - and backstory - as you go along, and you have to decide what you're going to do at any given juncture, and then whatever you decide to do affects the story, and so on. This means it's like being in a film, rather than simply watching a film, which is quite cool.

It's also good for mental arithmetic, as you're forever having to roll different dice and add things together and add other things to that and then subtract something else and divide the result by your fortitude quotient, and so on.

I think a lot of its bad reputation comes from the fact that it's full of elves and goblins and stuff, stuff that people who think they're quite cultured refuse even to countenance, let alone take seriously. But I can't see why it *has* to be limited to wizards and monsters; the principles of the game can be applied to any scenario. The other morning I had a splendid idea for a teenage-girl version, in which one could choose to play a model, or a pop star, or a girl-geek, or a spy, or a mum, or a scientist, and so on, and see how that unfolded.

(If I had my way, probably in a manner that would reveal 'model' to be the most useless and pointless of roles, and 'girl-geek' to be the bestest and greatest, but it doesn't work like that; everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and the aim is to find ways to combine them to best effect. At the end of the day it's all about friendship, mutual respect and co-operation, which is lovely.)

So now I just need several thousand pounds from a games company to fund its development, and an acre of time in which to develop it.

Which, if the Blue Kitten carries on not appearing like this, it may turn out that I do.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Does My Bum Look Big In This?

NOTE TO DAVE: DO NOT READ THIS POST IN THE LIBRARY.

I like to think there will come a time, several months from now, when I will have stopped breast-feeding, my figure will have returned to its former, er, 'glory', and I will be able to wear proper fancy French underwear again.

In anticipation of that joyous day I have spent the last hour perusing Figleaves.com, the underwear-fancier's shangri-la, in search of impossibly beautiful lingerie.

Among all the balconettes and thongs and jacquard and guipure, my eye was caught by something I'd never heard of before. Apparently you can now buy pants that 'enhance your rear profile' with 'firm foam padding'. To be specific:


This shorty by Huit is designed to enhance your rear profile by giving you sexy feminine curves. Cut in a low rise design from opaque jersey, it has firm foam padding at the full coverage rear.

I foresee a day when we will be able to dispense with every physical attribute that Nature provided for us, and concoct ourselves completely out of collagen, bacterial toxins and foam-stuffed pants. Thus arranged, we will march on the world like an army of zombie Mr Blobbys, all padded curves and blank, expressionless faces.

Later, horrified by the continued wilful appearance of blemishes, wrinkles and folds, we will develop the Physical Airbrush (TM), a device that applies Photoshop-like manipulation to what's left of our real bodies, allowing us to strip our limbs down to sticks, remove our lower ribs and replace our skin with a kind of weird shimmering gauze.

Having thus attained the very apogee of femininity, we will collapse en masse to the ground, consumed by botulinum poisoning and too weak to stand upright.

But at least our arses will look fantastic.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back To Basics, NHS-Style

INT. MATERNITY WING, ROYAL CORNWALL HOSPITAL - DAY

Your unflappable heroine, PATROCLUS, is being subjected to various medical tests by a team of midwives. MIDWIFE 1 prepares to take a blood sample.


MIDWIFE 1: Is this your arm?

ME: Yes.


Disclaimer: I should point out that the standard of ante-natal care in Cornwall is very high indeed, and I have nothing but admiration and respect and gratitude for all the midwives who've been looking after me. Although they do sometimes say some quite funny things.


NOTE TO READERS: Rest assured I am not actually in hospital - I am at home and about to have my tea. Friends and family will be advised by text when anything birth-related occurs! Blog-readers will probably learn of any news in due course either here or chez Mr BC.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Nuclear Chic: New For A/W 08-09

Poor old Gordon Brown, no sooner does he go off on his joyless holidays than the upstart D. Miliband tries to a) usurp him and b) re-start the Cold War.

Now, different people have different ideas about whether confronting Russia is a good idea right at the moment, particularly given that we're already engaged in two wars, and given that we made our own declaration of independence from the moral high ground in 2003 when we (I say 'we', although really it was actually T. Blair and his conveniently nebulous chums, God and History) chose to invade Iraq illegally.

But so far, no one has drawn the obvious conclusion from Miliband's posturing, which is that he is in the pay of a shadowy secret society whose deadly aim is to provoke another Cold War purely for its own ends.

And by 'shadowy secret society' I do of course mean the Victoria and Albert Museum, and by 'its own ends' I do of course mean the viral promotion of its new September exhibition, 'Cold War Modern'.

Yes, what better way to pique the nation's interest in its latest artfest than to persuade the Foreign Secretary to go and declare war on Russia, thereby ensuring column acres of Cold War 'nostalgia' in the media? Before you know it the Daily Mail will be giving away a free cover-mounted DVD of Threads to every reader, while the Saturday Guardian will be inserting glossy wallcharts showing what to do in the event of imminent nuclear attack.

(Bored of knitting your own jumpers from leftover edamame to beat the credit crunch? Have fun with the kids this weekend by building a fallout shelter under your raised vegetable beds! Our supplement shows you how!)

The marketing geniuses at the V&A, meanwhile, are doing a sterling job of making the threat of nuclear annihilation fashionable again, primarily via the time-honoured medium of the enamel badge. For just £3 you can purchase a set of five badges that apparently 'capture the imagination of the Cold War era':


(Click for bigness.)

'The badge designs draw on images from ‘Civil Defence Handbook No.10: Advising the Householder on Protection against Nuclear Attack’,' chirps the marketing blurb, before regaining a modicum of composure and warning 'Not suitable for children under 3.'

I should say not.

Does anyone from the V&A Marketing Department - or, for that matter, David Miliband - actually remember the Cold War? I don't recall it being in any way imaginative, stylish or exciting: the adjectives that spring to mind are more along the lines of 'chilling', 'unspeakably terrifying' and 'the FOUR-MINUTE WARNING, for fuck's sake'.

Still if it comes down to it, at least the V&A shop will make a few pennies, which does make a nice neat metaphor for the ideological triumph of capitalism over communism - although perhaps not quite as much as this item does.

NEXT WEEK: Miliband declares war on France in a teaser campaign for the National Gallery's Jacques-Louis David retrospective.