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.


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.


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
James Boswell
Ant and Dec
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...]


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.


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


CHATON BLEU: Sinon je vais te casser la gueule!


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


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


BURLY HENCHMAN: Is it time for your nappy change?