Saturday, January 29, 2005

You can never love your Moleskine…

…too much, but you can love it so much that your ideas for how extensively to use it become faintly ridiculous. (For those who don’t know (and why the hell don’t you?! HUH?!): Moleskine.)

Moleskinerie, an excellent, excellent blog on the pleasures we can find in the tactile, the retro, the writerly and open–eyed ways that passionately using any notebook implies, has recently linked to a guy who tells you how to organize your Moleskine as a blog. This strikes me as obviously silly. A blog is, and to be a blog pretty much has to be, a hypertext document displayed on a computer with an internet connection.

The connection is the key to a blog, allowing you to surf away from the blog using its links, and then to surf away from those links, using theirs. The possibility of a non–self–referential, chaotic surf. When you write, however creatively, in a notebook, what you have is — a notebook. Repeat: a notebook. Not a blog. A notebook. Lots of paper? Writing? Hard covers? No USB port? Ah yes, that’ll be a notebook.

The addition of page numbers or little sticky tabs to your notebook is your choice and may be helpful. But, more and more, these ‘moleskine hacks’ jarringly make me think of a hypothetical kid who likes a piece of driftwood he found on the beach so much that soon we hear the refrain: “If I find out how long it is I can use it as a ruler! Look, I can dip it into my soup, it's a spoon! If I burn the end of it, it can be my pencil! I’ve drawn a face on it, it’s a cat! Meow!”


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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Wintry, brrrr.

A satellite image of New York under snow

Well, New York’s certainly taken a bit of a battering lately. In fact, the whole of the Northeast has. The picture above shows a white New York – white because of snow. From memory, the Northeast has had some (literally) killer snowstorms for the past few winters. And we, here in the UK, have had none. Dammit. But every winter, various sites come to our rescue, and a few days ago, it was a MetaFilter poster who linked to the Digital Snow Museum where you can see loads of fascinating and notable snow photos going back to the start of the century.

Lake effect snow events are especially devastating, it seems — just take a look at this photo page of an 86–inch fall. What happens is that winter–storm winds move across lakes (in America, usually the Great Lakes) and they pick up vapour from the warmer water and the vapour freezes and is deposted across the lee shores.

While we’re on the theme of winter stuff, those you who have seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining will know of this short scene:

Hey, wasn't it around here that the
Donner party got snowbound?

I think that was farther west in
the Sierras.

What was the Donner party?

There were a party of settlers in
the covered wagon times. They got
snowbound one winter in the
mountains. They had to resort to
cannabilism in order to stay alive.

You mean they ate each other up?

They had to, in order to survive.

The Donner Party is something I knew about only from the movie, and then leading on from that MetaFilter thread I found another one which points to a PBS site called, appropriately, ‘The Donner Party’. (It’s not about celebrations in which delicious spicy strips of beef stuffed into pitta bread are eaten.) The transcript of the associated programme is fascinating — check it out here, and for more harrowing, cannibalistic goodness, be sure to read more sources around the web.

And with that, good night. Stop by some London Underground station photos on your way out.Update: the patches are working, I don’t feel nicotine cravings at all!, but I still love the thought of a cigarette. Meh.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Oh, the evils

Each cigarette of my chosen brand delivers 0.6mg of nicotine into my body. Gallaher’s website lists 4 ingredients added to tobacco; it also has a page on nicotine addiction which is filled with qualifiers, prevarication, avoidance, and an amount of fudge which would make a child clap its hands.

Addiction is a tricky conversation–piece for many. Forest, the UK’s smokers’ rights group, says that nicotine isn’t addictive — or, at least, that smokers aren’t addicted to nicotine. They can quit, therefore there’s no addiction. Right? Wrong. Addiction as a dictionary definition isn’t really that useful a thing to discuss; better to judge whether or not the chemical manipulation of cigarette ingredients by tobacco companies makes the enjoyment of a cigarette chemically exceptional — and exceptional enough to strongly encourage having another, and strongly discourage stopping.

Another problem is that there’s a lot of bullshit on both sides of the smoking argument. Organisations like Ash (anti–smoking), while clearly on the ball that smoking is bad for you, tend to supplement their source material with manipulative presentation and exhort governments to violate the civil rights of smokers. Organisations like Forest, which are pro–smokers’ rights, are often honest about the health effects of smoking on smokers, but also often strangely say that smoking isn’t an addiction but a habit, and that there are no health worries about passive smoking. Presumably this is to bolster their “it’s not scientifically apocalyptic, therefore you needn’t ban it” attitude.

I’m not going to spend more time on all this; a few quick google searches give you an endless resource.

But, I think that: smokers have a right to smoke unless it is completely outlawed; passive smoking is not always significantly harmful by any means; it is highly unpleasant to most non–smokers; tobacco companies are the devil incarnate; well–intentioned friends and family can seriously become unintentional demons incarnate in their often well–intentioned but hamfisted efforts to get someone to stop; smoking is highly pleasureable but not just chemically:

If alcohol is queen, then tobacco is her consort. It’s a fond companion for all occasions, a loyal friend through fair weather and foul. People smoke to celebrate a happy moment, or to hide a bitter regret. Whether you’re alone or with friends, it’s a joy for all the senses. What lovelier sight is there than that double row of white cigarettes, lined up like soldiers on parade and wrapped in silver paper? I love to touch the pack in my pocket, open it, savour the feel of the cigarette between my fingers, the paper on my lips, the taste of tobacco on my tongue. I love to watch the flame spurt up, love to watch it come closer and closer, filling me with its warmth. … Tobacco and alcohol, delicious fathers of abiding friendships and fertile reveries.
—Luis Buñuel

And yes, I agree with all that. Fervently. Giving up cigarettes, for me, is going to be a matter not of being a total non–smoker or a light smoker. It is going to be a matter of being an occasional smoker. Why? For the same reason I’d not give up drinking champagne, eating wild mushrooms or buying very expensive books. But why, then, am I crapping myself at the prospect of quitting my regular smoking? Because it’s breaking an addiction. I’ve tried to find material online about the health effects of enjoying 10 fine cigars a year, and I can’t, but I’m fervently hoping I can break the addiction, and be like the people I know who enjoy a single cigar (perhaps with some good port or even tokay) every few weeks.


One thing which quitting smoking can really screw up is other people’s heads. I plan to be a prime example: in a while I will have what probably won’t be the last cigarette in my life (keep reading for why) and sometime after that, I will dig out my shiny new patches, and stick one of them to my lower back.

It’s going to be a difficult journey. I am, after all, addicted to nicotine. It is the most powerfully addictive drug known to man, exceeding even heroin and cocaine in its apocalyptically intense withdrawal symptoms. But that addiction is not why I’ve kept smoking for just over 8 years. That addiction does not completely explain why it’s going to be so difficult. Why? Because, in a way, that addiction doesn’t matter. I am a difficult smoker, probably one of the most difficult of all, because I like smoking in and of itself, and would smoke nicotine–and–tar–free cigarettes like a train if they existed.

That’s why the title of this post is emphatically not ‘smokefree’. To be free of someone or something, you’d have to have sort of disliked them or it, wouldn’t you? Smoking: oh you alluring thing, come into my boudoir. Nicotine, on the other hand — fuck off away from me, you squalid whore.

I do want to be nicotine–free, very much so. I am someone who (from now on — hopefully) smokes very very rarely indeed, loves smoking, and hates the tobacco companies for chemically manipulating and messing with the dried leaves of the tobacco plant in very many harmful ways. They add nicotine, for god’s sake. They then boost its effects to get you hooked on it, and thanks to the expertise of the scientists and lawyers who work for them, they deliver the world’s most addictive drug to you for the rest of your life and you give them a massive amount of money in return.

They don’t care about an addiction–free product and a smooth, warm taste. They are in the nicotine–delivery business, and they care about that — and your money.

Now, on to part 2.

Sunday, January 16, 2005


A photo of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan

That, there, is a composite panoramic view of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, taken during the recent descent of the Huygens probe. The Cassini spacecraft, which dropped the Huygens probe, is on a four–year–long mission to orbit Saturn, has already been able to send spectacular images of the rings back to us here on Earth, roughly 9 a.u. (or 1,350 million kilometres) away. In addition to the image above, there are other really amazing photos — take a look.

From what the scientists can glean from the data they’ve collected so far, it seems that the surface is an orangey colour, and is the consistency of wet sand or firm mushy ice. The dark areas seen above could be seas, or could be areas where seas or bodies of water have mostly dried out. The lighter lines near the top of the panorama are either present or former coastlines, with land above. There seems to be a peninsula of some kind just right of centre. The temperature is a couple of hundred degrees below freezing, and the atmosphere is mostly methane. The clouds are methane. The seas, if there are seas, will be liquid methane — in other words, very cold lighter fuel!

Of course I know that humans haven’t made it to Titan, but I’m still quite excited by all this — I mean, think about it! We can blast a very light, very hi–tech piece of metal through our robust atmosphere, somehow point it in the right direction, and send it where we want it to go! Not just 100 miles out. Not just 1,000. Not just a million. But nearly one thousand million miles away. We can control it precisely from a distance like that! We can take photos, we can even tell what’s in the ‘air’ around it! Is that not — truly and literally — marvellous?!

Just re–reading the above, it might seem that I’m doing the all–too–usual crowing: the “how powerful we humans are” speech. I’m not. I’m marvelling at this because we are so small know so very few things, and it’s just plain miraculous, a massive stroke of luck, that we are able to do this kind of thing at all. Clearly, a lot of the scientists are still speculating excitedly:

…European colleagues spent a sleepless night analysing data transmitted from Huygens during its four–hour life on Titan.

The mission's success has raised hopes of understanding the evolution of the solar system and of life on Earth. As Al Diaz, science associate administrator of Nasa — which has collaborated on the Huygens mission — said: ‘Titan is a time machine that gives us an opportunity to look at conditions that existed on early Earth.’

There were a few glitches, however. These included the loss of half the 700 images that were to have been beamed back to Earth, a failure that occurred because one of Huygens’s data channels was not switched on automatically. The European Space Agency, which built the probe, is to carry out an investigation.

But the loss was a minor one, and European scientists yesterday hailed the mission as their greatest interplanetary success. Among the sensational information beamed back from this strange, freezing world were images of what seemed to be rocky shorelines lapped by a dark liquid sea.

Phew. Quite something, huh? :o)

Monday, January 10, 2005

Right. That does it

No more shopping at Waterstone’s for me. Not online, not in person, not ever. I really am torn by this decision because as a former employee, a book–lover, and a longtime browser of the great stores like that at Piccadilly in London, I’ve grown greatly attached to the place. But when a company slowly becomes a soulless travesty of what it once was, and then acts truly brutally towards its staff, it’s time to start denying it your money.

Waterstone’s has sacked a very long–serving member of its staff for writing — satirically, ocasionally, disguisedly, and on a specifically satirical blog — about his work there.

I pointed out that I had over my eleven years promoted Waterstone’s in many ways, sometimes on my own time. I have organised and hosted more author events with more writers for the enjoyment of more book-buyers than I can recall. I have written for the guide books which Waterstone’s had printed on various genres. I have appeared in print media and broadcast, talking on the BBC in my own time about literature, introduced as an expert bookseller from Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. That’s publicity you can’t buy. I had contributed to the Edinburgh International Book Festival when Waterstone’s still sponsored them. I told them that there were numerous authors who would tell them that I had been an excellent ambassador for the company. I even defended them when the company was attacked in the Scottish press for not supporting independent Scots publishers (oh the irony). None of this seemed to matter to Waterstone’s yesterday.

What appears to have happened (so far) is that someone unknown saw his blog, complained, and his line manager — or the store manager — decided to sack him. At the disciplinary hearing he was told he’d brought the company into disrepute and… well, he talks about everything on the link above.

Not surprisingly, other bloggers and book–lovers aren’t at all happy about this. But none of this will make a difference unless the many notable writers who know this unfortunate guy start to help by speaking out. Waterstone’s used to be a chain which wasn’t really a chain: the sort of place bibliophiles were actually glad to see colonising our towns and cities.

Since HMV bought the business, (interestingly, Waterstone’s’ founder, Tim Waterstone, wants to buy it back after accusing it of going down–market) it has become a place where, if you work there, it’s apparent that money and bureaucracy have a joint rule above all. That’s quite a thing to say about the way a bookshop is run.

And it is the way in which it is run that I am attacking. Individually, the staff conform to the workaday type of the bookseller: there are those who work for the money, but more who also work for the books, and their love of books. My manager, for example, had worked his ass off to open Waterstone’s Piccadilly when he could have sat on it in another part of London. My colleagues, who hailed mostly from the UK and were sprinkled with some international arrivals, were young, educated, and (mostly) either really liked books or loved them.

By cutting the budget of each branch that does not perform as well as it is told to each Christmas, Waterstone’s sets in motion a process which causes any such branch to perform less well on each succeeding Christmas, and the stock at other times of year starts to suffer. Of course, many stores of many kinds do this. (Not many managers, however, would sack a longtime bookseller who could write well, and who wrote satirically once in a while, and who was personally known, which is why I reckon this was a Regional Manager or Head Office slaying.) But it is the difference between what was, and what has now come to pass, that slowly drags a book chain’s reputation down among those who count.

Update: this story has hit the bigtime, and there’s a useful page of links here.


Something inside me couldn’t quite let go of the desire to celebrate the festive season just past while I’m still on holiday. So, since it’s back tomorrow to the world of work for me, here are memories, laid down for your nosiness and my present and future nostalgia. A long post, but the memories are worth it and I don’t care.

(List of characters: Dad = my dad. James = my brother. Liz = his wife. Coralie = my niece. Simon = my nephew. Sarah = my sister. Chris, Giles, Mark, Steve, Ryan = my friends. Thea = a jolly, eccentric friend of the family.)

Walking through the carpark at Sainsbury’s, our local supermarket, as it neared midnight on the 23rd, feeling the rain on my skin. Thinking about where the turkey, vegetables, etc. came from, and looking forward to the atmospheric, loving preparation on The Day.

The ritual of kneeling on the floor of my room, door closed, on Christmas Eve, and wrestling with presents, wrapping paper, and sellotape. Sitting in my chair to inscribe books. Feeling The Day very close indeed. Later, a late night kitchen, the roasting–tin, covered with foil, sitting on the floor to receive the turkey. Covering the turkey with butter and streaky bacon, thinking of the Christmas tree in the living–room next door, and the fire burning in the hearth. Wandering upstairs, earlier in the day, midway through preparing the stuffing, and hearing the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio.

Pouring bourbon into tumblers as the clock ticked towards midnight and the start of Christmas itself. Waking early on Christmas morning, happy, and recognising with joy that it still felt like a day removed completely from any normal week or month. Pulling back the curtains and seeing deep snow outside. In the kitchen, seeing that the oven was already on and the turkey inside. Snow–light shining into the house.

The doorbell ringing as Thea arrived, and immediately getting the ’96 Veuve Clicquot out of the fridge. Easing the cork out slowly, hearing the muffled thunk and pouring it quickly.

Snow falling steadily outside the window as we ate. Curling up on the settee afterwards, dark outside, the tree glittering in the corner. Passing the room where we ate, seeing the candles still burning at the warm, littered table.

Gleefully gobbling some of the crisped bacon which came off the turkey later that night. Generally, pulling corks. Wandering around in the snowy back garden, drawing a smiley face with freezing fingers on the lid of the old bin. The following morning, seeing the snow gone, smiling, and settling into the settee with coffee and a big book about wine.

A few days later, walking into the kitchen at night by the back door and hearing the front door open and James’s voice shouting “Hiya, Peter!”, and walking into the hall and hugging him, Coralie, Simon, and Liz. Sitting in the living–room, the fire glowing, and sharing some whisky as presents were opened and chatter warmed the world.

A big meal the next day, children’s faces glowing in the candle–light, a toast proposed with a cluster of clinking glasses high above the table. Photographs of the festive table tweaked on the computer.

Walking in Belvoir Forest on New Year’s Eve with James, Liz and the kids, and a longtime friend of James’s, glorying in familiar trees and streams revisited with a big brother who hadn’t seen them for far too long. In the evening, being in the kitchen as James and Liz bickered goodnaturedly over the preparation of dinner, and seeing dad making a massive salad of tomatoes, basil, mozzarella and a delicious homemade dressing.

After the meal, hearing shouts from the living–room — Liz rushing into the kitchen and yelling “Where — IS — THE KITCHEN ROLL!” and seeing little scared Simon sitting all bloody after falling headfirst onto the edge of the living–room door. Their deliberations over a visit to casualty on New Year’s Eve. Their departure, Liz’s anxious wait, my fear that midnight would pass with my nephew in hospital.

Their triumphant return at half eleven, Simon smiling, packed off to bed. Glasses of wine, and hugs from James, and a stupendously long and spectacular firework display from London on TV. Drunk phonecalls from Ryan. Later, in my bedroom, voice lowered so that Coralie didn’t wake in her room next door, a long, drunk phonecall from Steve and an elderly, eccentric, port–swilling, cigar–smoking member of Northern Ireland’s fading aristocracy. Downloading scores of Bach’s organ music. Sleep.

The next day, traditional New Year emptiness nowhere to be found or felt as the house was buzzing with scampering children and smiling, relieved parents. A late lunch of roast sirloin of beef, almost maddeningly delicious red wine from Bordeaux, (I imagined Loire châteaux for some reason) and conversation.

The day before they left, having lunch and afterwards being in the Crown with James. An attentive, thoughtful, cathartic catch–up over many pints of Guinness. James deeply appreciating Belfast pints. Dark, atmospherically crowded with people, James ordering ‘one for the road’ before we hailed a taxi and went home to a murder mystery on TV and bowls of hot Christmas Pudding and brandy butter.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004

A photo of the effects of the tsunami

Well, it doesn’t seem nearly a fortnight ago that it happened, because even after two weeks, this most devastating of natural disasters is still creating daily havoc.

On Boxing Day, the TV networks were saying that the best information they were getting on the tsunami was over the internet, because the comparatively primitive communications infrastructure in many affected regions had been wiped out. So people blogged and blogged and blogged, and Wave of Destruction rapidly became the place to go for video and photo footage.

Flickr, which hosts some of the more recent photos on this blog, has a tagging function for photos, allowing this ‘tsunami’ page to become a photofilter of a kind, and Tony Denmark’s ‘before and after’ satellite photo gallery is taking so many hits that is getting angry with him, so go to Digital Globe’s original, fullsize tsunami photos as well / mostly!

Typically, Wikipedia has an extensive set of tsunami articles — the link goes to the category for the 2004 earthquake, from which you can browse for varied info.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Great Banknote Robbery

You know, you hardly hear of robberies of massive amounts of actual cash anymore. And why? Because the stuff is just so unvaluable in terms of its bulk, compared the the equivalent bulk of jewels, for example. Or paintings. Or bearer bonds. Just about any other robbable, desirable commodity you can name, really.

Which is what makes last month’s Belfast robbery of nearly £25m (over $40m for my Stateside friends) so audacious and gloriously old–fashioned. What is also old–fashioned is the clunky way in which it was done. Hold the families of two staff members hostage, tell them you'll kill the families if they don’t help you get the booty.

And then, after leaving such a locally familiar calling–card, tell everyone around you that it wasn’t you. Yes, IRA. We believe you. Even though you are the largest and most complex terrorist organisation in the UK, and have an impressive track record of hostage–taking, robbery and intimidation, it couldn’t have been done by any of you. At all. Course not.

OK, OK. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that. But at the same time, the BBC story’s headline “Police ‘could link IRA to raid’” made me laugh because everyone else here did that on the 21st of December! Ha! Catch up, police, FFS! :oD

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Picture of fireworks

That word really doesn’t fit in with this time of year, does it? I’m prepared to allow a bit of abstemious thought on New Year’s Day itself (any my god, did you see the fireworks in London at midnight?! wow!) but now all those resolutions have been abandoned, abstinence just feels wrong, doesn’t it?

Not to some American kids, it doesn’t — and I am of course talking about Bush’s drive to indoctrinate teenagers in sexual abstention instead of giving them sex education, or even safe sex education, come to that!

At Shoemaker High School they use an abstinence-only course popular across Texas called Worth the Wait — a trademarked brand.

Koehler continued her lesson by listing the sexual activity that fell in the ‘danger’ category. ‘Regular intercourse; anal intercourse; oral intercourse; skin–to–skin under clothes; genital contact; and there are some problems with deep passionate kissing — these are risky behaviours.’

Holding hands, hugging with clothes on and ‘light kissing’ were OK, the teens were told. Koehler then ran through the gamut of sexual diseases. ‘How are you going to keep yourself safe?’ she asked the class. ‘Abstinence,’ they chorused.

‘What do you also hear will keep you safe?’ she asked. ‘Condoms,’ they answered.

‘Do they keep you safe?’ she asked. ‘No,’ they chorused.

Koehler believes young people are unreliable in their use of contraception. She is banned by law from promoting the benefits of correctly used condoms.

It is not simply appalling that such brainwashing occurs in schools in a highly–educated and scientifically advanced western country. It is not simply cringeworthy to watch young people’s very bodily freedom be dictated to by such a behind–backs religious and sexually trappist agenda.

It is, quite obviously to me at least, bloody dangerous (psychologically, ethically and sexually) to teach teenagers that sex is hazardous outside marriage, blissful in marriage, and that the only correct thing about contraception is that it shouldn’t be used. Because quite apart from the harm this crackpot scheme would do to the sex lives of these teenagers if it actually caught on, it’s worth remembering that they will — oh, yes they will — have kids some day, and will talk to their kids about sex.

A thoughtlessly abstemious attitude like this one is irresponsible and I hope that ultimately American kids will treat it with the contempt it deserves and feel free to have safe, responsible, mindblowing sex whenever the hell they freely choose to.

And on that note, Happy 2005! :o)