Monday, September 27, 2004

If this entry was a hamper

and you liked picnics, I guarantee you’d have a somewhat grassier bum after this post. If you like the kind of online food I like, that is! *grin*

I started my online peregrinations today with Incoming Signals which I haven’t looked at since at least March; I could have browsed there all day but ended up thinking that branching out should be done. So, following a link from it, I found a [really good] history resource which then linked me to the frankly amazing Timelines of History. You want something from the past? Need to look anything up in a hurry? Even recent history? It’s all there.

Since I’m reading about the alphabet at the moment (as well as about 10 million other things) I looked on Languagehat, which apart from being a brill read in itself also led me very seriously astray, in the nicest way possible. To a collection of 100 old Japanese Tanka. Unfortunately the translation rhymes, and I squirm at that because there’s really no fucking need for something to rhyme completely and cringeworthily in English when it only half–rhymed (and was more beautiful) in Japanese. Grr.

From Languagehat I moved, also, to the very cultural wood s lot. One selected glint from the riches — a piece of Turkish delight poetry:

To think myself happy
I don’t need a piece of paper or a pen;
A cigarette dangling between my fingers
I enter the blue
Of the painting on the wall.

I can’t remember how I got on to Rich Language but I did, and was pleased to find that an online Etymology Dictionary is mentioned there. (I love sites by people who are addicted to something. They’re so infectious and thorough.) Etymology isn’t definitions of words, but histories of words, how they were first used, that sort of thing. See bum as an example. And via Inappropriate Response, a weblog, here’s news of a couple of really really old American skeletons. And via MetaFilter, the mystery of one more. Via The Minor Fall, The Major Lift comes inhalable alcohol. Good news for those of us who can’t stomach more than 4 pints at once.

Finally, one serious link and one not serious one. It’s entirely predictable that the world’s most active online Dictionary of Literary Terms should be French. And it’s entirely surprising that I live just east of Ered Luin, south of the Ice Bay of Forochel, and not in south Belfast at all.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

It’s about time…

…I put something on here for all you heavy metal lovers, so here’s an article by James Fenton, art–lover and poet, on Rammstein, and the evolution thereof.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Music — An old organ

Tannenberg organ, Old Salem, North Carolina: photo by Taylor and Boody organ builders

Follow the almost miraculous restoration of a noble, battered old instrument in North Carolina to its former glory. And listen to the superbly musical results. (Realplayer required.)

Thursday, September 23, 2004

What a fine stable…

Cover from

…full of young studs. I don’t really know why, but from just this superb drawing I get the impression these two probably are. But even more impressive, if possible, is Taschen’s collection of books. Taschen have traditionally specialised in lavish editions of art and architecture. They are slighlly sinfully better known for their books of erotica. The books themselves are a joy to read, largely due to the care taken with photographs and typesetting, and the precision quality of the printing.

They don’t go quite as gloriously far in the production process as The Folio Society, however.


…the human embryo normally exhibits a “hyperthelia,” an excess of breasts, of which, however, two only normally undergo development; moreover, the breasts of the male, which are now in a state of arrested development, were formerly better developed, and served, like those of the female, the purpose of nourishing the offspring.

Male breastfeeding. Via MetaFilter.

(God knows how many more strange people will end up here atfer this.) Now all we have to do is figure out how to give birth, and I can have a husband and kids.

But he’ll suckle them. I don’t fancy wearing a bra. Or having slippy–nipple.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Should the US be left to decide who is elected President?

I was asked by Joe to put something on the blog about this. So, to start with, I’m going to give you a few factual bits. First, in the US, there is no “one citizen, one vote” system which applies directly to who becomes President.

As of August 2003, the CIA estimated the population of mainland America to be 290,342,554. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that 290,000,000 are able to vote. And for the sake of argument, if 170,000,000 of those voted for John Jerry and 120,000,000 voted for George Bush — a difference of 50 million votes — and there was no dirty dealing, Bush could still be elected President.

Here’s how. Voters in each US State don’t elect the President. They elect people called ‘electors’. The people who can *become* Electors have previously been chosen by each political party’s state meetings and committees.

So when the Election happens, this November, the people of each State will choose their Electors who will, between themselves, cast 538 Electoral Votes (for who becomes President). But because each State has a different number of people in it, and therefore, a different proportion of the total population, the amount of Electors per State varies from State to State.

With me so far? ;o) Yeah, I know, it’s mad.

It gets madder though. The US Electoral College is where the real vote for who becomes President takes place. The Electors assemble there in December. They cast their votes. But:

It is possible that an elector could ignore the results of the popular vote, but that occurs very rarely.
The founders of the nation devised the Electoral College system as part of their plan to share power between the States and the national government. Under the Federal system adopted in the Constitution, the nation–wide popular vote has no legal significance.
Can you believe it?!?! I certainly can’t.

Here’s an FAQ from the Electoral College to explain little things to you. Here’s their full procedure. Here’s a prediction of how the final vote will look, based on current polls. Bush’s approval rating. The US Map as it might look if it was distorted to show the percentage votes by State. More info about the Electoral College, from Wikipedia. A lot of really accurate and really confusing tables. And finally, what happens in a worst–case scenario where the College ties fifty–fifty?

Since the US is a really influential and powerful country, a lot of its most important and most globally political decisions really are global in effect. They affect all of us. So therefore, given everything you saw above, I reckon, if you allow yourself to dream and wish a little, that you’d agree with me that the world should be allowed to vote on this, too.

Of course I’m dreaming when I say that too. But in cyberspace you can dream all you want, and you can cast your vote right here.

Now I’m tired. Thankyou and goodnight!

(Casting in) films

Visiting the Observer’s website this gently grey lunchtime, I was confronted by what I thought was a link to an article but was actually a survey: is Tom Cruise better cast as a goodie or a baddie?

Well, aside from his work as an actor often thankfully dragging him away from his weak–minded, and frankly quite insane adoption of Scientology as a significant influence on the way he practises his life, I reckon that he is better cast as the stereotype he can play intuitively: the flawed goodie. In Eyes Wide Shut, he was a high–powered doctor unable to truly understand his relationship with his wife. Which was pretty much mirrored in reality. ;o) But anyway. On to a film which I saw a couple of nights ago.

The Village (M. Night Shyamalan): aftermath of the night raid

The Village, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is what I can best describe as an atmosphere–piece on the nature of our fear of the unknown. Conventionally, it’s also a thriller, and builds its tension slowly.

Set around the early to mid 1800s, it presents an isolated, almost trappist community in rural America, a small village called Covington whose inhabitants are wary of venturing outside their cleared lands and into the woods for fear of the creatures there. The way it’s filmed and shot, the white–painted clapboard houses which are huddled towards each other in their misty fields seem unenduring, as if they could disappear into thin air at any moment.

And this is the fear of the villagers — that their carefully–built society must be protected. Not only from “Those we don’t speak of” in the woods, but also from the daredevil tactics of a few young men whose games near the woods will anger the creatures therein, and imperil the place’s security. (In a sequence made particularly terrifying because of what we don’t quite see, the creatures move eerily through the village at night, leaving warning–marks on the doors to be discovered in the morning. Shyamalan really makes the audience feel as threatened and polluted as the villagers must be.)

The Elders are perhaps the best–cast group of actors in this refined celluloid tableau: Brendan Gleeson is superb as a troubled, gently sardonic, but oddly worldly village leader (those italics are there for a reason), and William Hurt plays the oddly calm leading Elder who ultimately kickstarts the trademark ‘Shyamalan Twist’ - that overturning of all our expectations in order to explain everything that’s happened. And what a twist it is!

Not wanting to provide blatant spoilers, I’ll move to a few final observations / worries: Joaquin Phoenix and Adrien Brody are miscast. Phoenix should never have been in this film in the first place - it’s not that he annoys, but rather that he doesn’t add anything to the experience. Adrien Brody, on the other hand, is an actor whose talents extend far beyond the narrow confines of his gibbering, ‘Village idiot’ character, and as such he’s wasted.

In this film I see Shyamalan moving away from the refreshing and demanding single–character–centricity of his earlier work, and towards a more general tableau of tension. It’s good to see his trademark colour–coding is still present. And this time, his cameo appearance thankfully doesn’t intrude too much. ;o) Heh.

So, for making a film which chillingly [spoilers ahead!] and intelligently examines the ways in which fear of the unknown can influence us all, especially modern–dayAmerica!, and for making it more metaphorical than goosebumpy, I’ll give Shyamalan 3.5 out of 5.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Coal–fired, wood–fired, red, white…

This is so geeky I couldn’t resist posting it here: while searching for some stuff about Norway, I’ve found what is maybe the only comprehensive site on lighthouses worldwide.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Not for the squeamish

Courtesy of Joe, here’s a fascinating gallery of heart surgery videos. (RealPlayer required.)

Sunday morning miscellany

Berlin wall with my graffiti -

Trundling gently along to Ubiquity this morning, I was astonished to see a photo of the Berlin Wall with Janathan’s name on it. And then I thought, wow, someone’s noticed that and sent it to him. It was, of course, a glorius sham so I went along to LetterJames and made my own, which you can see above. Tried a haiku on the sand, but I can’t connect as I haven’t got enough sleep out of my system yet.

Yesterday having been the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Shanksville, there are plenty of sites offering retrospectives, and just as many commemorating the disaster by connecting it to continuing disaster in Iraq.

MetaFilter has a thread linking to its original discussion of the subject. Gothamist gives an outline of the commemorative events due to take place in the Big Apple, and looks to the future in a post about continuing to live. On the same post, there’s an exciting photo of how the finished redevelopment of Lower Manhattan will appear. No sour grapes here, but I do wish that corporate architecture didn’t get the majority of the masonry money these days. We build beautiful, massive temples to a dastardly and sometimes debilitating work ethic, and that is definitely a paradox. One which could easily be avoided by honouring our houses more, as was done with Fallingwater:

Looking down Bear Run from Fallingwater: photo copyright

Monday, September 06, 2004


John, in Elephant: image copyright New Line Productions, Inc.

I first watched this short film about a month ago and it’s packed such a sly, hard, pervasive punch that I feel I can only organise my head around it now. Filmed on digital video and Steadicam by Gus Van Sant, and loosely based on the horrific massacre which happened in 1999 at Columbine High School, Elephant is a visually poetic, and poetically banal, look at such an… event, if you can call it that.

Columbine, if you’ll forgive the bad choice of words, happened as quickly and shockingly as an explosion or a gunshot and left very little explanation of the question everyone asked at the time: Why?. When this film was released in theatres, a minority of critics panned it. They wanted a film which would explain, which would tie everything up in a neat little package that was easy to swallow and leave you with a warm, complete feeling of understanding.

But maybe a couple of self–sufficient, psychologically alone, monumentally detached teenagers walking into their school and quite coolly and deliberately killing a teacher and more than ten fellow teens, without panic or remorse, is something that you just can’t understand or explain.

Elephant’s camera follows a few identified students around their anonymous, sprawling, concrete–and–linoleum suburban highschool. A few play football; a gaggle of bulimic girls argue in the cafeteria after catching a glimpse of a desirable jock who already has a girlfriend — and who is exclusively followed by the camera, on exactly the same path through the school, in another part of the film. Michelle turns up at the library for her first stint as a student librarian. John arrives late and emotional due to his alcoholic father. Alex and Eric arrive later, in a sickeningly ordinary way, carrying large duffelbags and wearing military fatigues.

So, as I say, it’s all normality. And as I hinted, the camera switches deliberately from one person’s little 10–minute slice of existence to another’s. We follow John for a while; he bumps into Elias and we get back to following John. We follow Michelle for a while, and she hears the exchange between Elias and John... and so on. Some might find this intolerable, but let me point something out.

We know what this film is ‘about’. We know what will happen (and happen it does, dumped flatly and grotesquely, without effects, on the screen) and we know, right up until it does, that these kids are going to die. Or maybe they’ll die. Maybe they’ll be lucky. Certainly, loads survive. But who, dammit?? Because we follow, and understand, their endearingly ordinary lives, we care, and it is like seeing something horrible happening in excruciatingly slow motion, so slow that the true horror itself is not yet visible but everything you see seems part of it. Going over the same encounters a few times just seems to make it more vivid.

Eric, in Elephant: image copyright New Line Productions, Inc.

And how does it end? As ordinarily and quietly as it started. No explanations here: that’s why it’s called Elephant. To be able to explain would belittle the massive difficulty of the problems out there in a teenager’s America, and Van Sant deliberately avoids any explanation at all. He sets out to show the proverbial ‘Elephant in the room’ which nobody could ignore and everybody pretends isn’t really there. And he leaves it to you to tell yourself how it might have got in, and what it really is.

On the more nuts–and–bolts side of things, the filming is gorgeously done, understated, and the temporarily disused school which acts as the set is a triumph of anonymity. There are three wellknown adult actors (Bottoms, Malloy, and Williams) who appear for a few seconds, and a host of real schoolkids who have never stepped in front of a camera before – and that includes the kids we deliberately follow.

Watch it. Love it. Hate it. And by all means read the many pages out there, both about the film and about Columbine, and argue with yourself, and be a litlte fascinated. An event like Columbine, and a film like this, grab us not because they are cultish things. They grab us because we were teenagers, because we are teenagers… because we are human.