Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Hurray-hurray-hurray! suffering and dismay!

It's been a grey, drizzly and uninspiring day. The news seems almost all bad - even the tabloids have gone all panicky and apocalyptic over the economic news - I noticed the Sun on the news stands today had abandoned the usual tosh about immigrants eating our swans or some manufactured confrontation on a reality TV show, to wail that it was the "blackest Monday on the markets" (in my humble opinion they should have gone for "even blacker" - once you've used "blackest", you've got nowhere to go if things get even worse). When the economic outlook is so bad that even celeb-obsessed gutter journos at the Sun are putting the economy on page one, we're probably all doomed.

At least there's a little silver lining to the universal trans-global gloom. I notice that it's not only the global economy that's looking like a car crash - apparently the public pronouncements of the know-nothing red-neck creationist idiot and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin have an air of burning rubber and twisted metal about them, too. So refreshing to see that idiocy doesn't always triumph, but sometimes receives the mockery it so richly deserves. Here's the Toronto Star observing her embarrassment with semi-detached Canadian amusement. Perhaps she could come over here and help Dave Cameron out - heaven knows, we could do with a laugh, too.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Murder in Little Steeping -a novel by Mavis Enderby

I'm quite fond of places that sound like people. I once moved to Leighton Buzzard, partly because I liked the name - it sounded to me like the name of a Dickensian villain - a sinister doctor or an avaricious lawyer, perhaps. Now I'm living on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, which has the character of a very confused economist, created out of an unlikely mixture of DNA from Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. Just down the road, we seem to be back in Dickensian territory (or perhaps Thackeray World), graced as we are by the presence of several minor but self-important aristocrats, such as Husborne Crawley, Marston Moretaine, Clifton Reynes and Yardley Gobion.

I know I'm not the only person to have a soft spot for places that might be people - the comedian Boothby Graffoe takes his stage name from the eponymous Lincolnshire village. He's not a comedian I'd I'd make a particular effort go out (or stay in) to listen to, but I like the name. So I was rather pleased to read, in the Feedback column of this week's New Scientist, that a Lincolnshire road sign reading "To Mavis Enderby and Old Bolingbroke" has been defaced, (or possibly improved) by some local wit adding the words "the gift of a baby son."

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Funiculì, Funiculà

Just back from holiday, which in the end involved pootling around the bits of Somerset and Devon within a few miles from our holiday cottage - anything more ambitious would have been a bit too much with a lively two year old in tow. So no visit to Bristol and the S S Great Britain this time.

I did see a bit of nifty Victorian engineering on a smaller scale, though. The little seaside town of Lynmouth, which I hadn't visited before, is connected to the pretty neighbouring resort of Lynton up the hill by a funicular railway, built in the late 1880's. I like the elegant simplicity of the design, powered by nothing more than water and gravity. The railway has two cars, each with a ballast tank filled with water (gravity fed from the West Lyn river). To set the thing going, the ballast water is let out of the bottom car, which becomes lighter than the top one and is pulled up by the weight of the descending heavier car. Once the two cars have changed places, the top one is topped up with ballast water, the bottom one is emptied of water and the process repeats. More technical detail here.

The principle is almost the same as the funicular in Scarborough, where I grew up (the Scarborough funicular was the first to use water as a counterweight), but the Lynton-Lynmouth example is even more elegant as it needs no additional power source - in Scarborough, the water had to be pumped uphill, whereas in Lynton-Lynmouth, gravity does all the work. More on funicular railways of the UK here.

Mention of funicular railways inevitably has me humming Funiculì, Funiculà, that jolly rousing Neapolitan celebration of the now-defunct Vesuvius funicular railway. Here's a stirring rendition by, of all people, the Moscow Male Jewish Capella.

Speaking of curious musical fusions, and for no other good reason, here are the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain with their version of the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

And on one more musical note, as we were driving home from our hols, I caught one Tim Minchin performing on Radio 4's Loose Ends. I wasn't previously familiar with Mr Minchin's work, but his song If I Didn't Have You made me laugh like a simpleton on laughing gas. Warning - if you're of a romantic disposition, stick your fingers in your ears - this ain't Stevie Wonder. If not, snort with unseemly laughter here.

Friday, 19 September 2008


Feeling busy, stressed, not enough time? I know I am. Now you know who to blame - the Chronophage a fearsome beast, featured on a new clock, just unveiled outside the library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. No blogging likely in the next week as I'm on holiday, but any other absences or anything else I don't get round to doing can be safely blamed on the fearful Time Eater. It's a disturbing reminder of little time we all have, but I feel strangely better for having an external personification of the things that the less charitable might blame on my laziness or poor time management. You see, it's really not my fault...

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Excuses, excuses...

Off on hols soon and busy trying to get various things sorted before departure, so blogging has been light to non-existent recently. Meanwhile, here's a very silly ad for oil which I missed the first time round (didn't have a telly for most of the 1980's & 90's).

Tuesday, 9 September 2008


I see they're thinking of resurrecting I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue. Not sure about that idea - I think that Clue without Humphrey Lyttelton would be like Irish coffee without the whiskey. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong but unless we witness of the second coming of Humph, I think it'd be better to lay Clue to rest and move aside for something new.

Less sorely missed than Humph by a factor of several zillion is the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il who failed to show up at North Korea's 60th birthday bash. Nobody knows what's become of him. What a pity -and it looked like such a swinging party, too. And there was I, just thinking about him at the end of my last post. Spooky.

Beware the Robin's curse...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Pick and mix

A mixed bag tonight, rather like the old pick and mix counter at Woolies, First off, all of human life (at least the seedier side) can be found down the Old Bailey. If you had hours to spare, you could waste them pondering the follies and wickedness of mankind at the searchable edition of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1913. Strangely compelling stuff.

Over at Dark Roasted Blend there's an interesting article on the S S Great Britain's big sister, that wonder of the steam age, the Great Eastern. The Dark Roasted Blend article draws on an another intriguing article by John H Linehard of the University of Houston, comparing and contrasting the Great Eastern and the Titanic:

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the Great Eastern, was the greatest artist ever to work in iron. He was remarkably thorough, and the Great Eastern reflected that care. It was to be a passenger liner, and no cost was spared in making it safe. It had a double hull. It was honeycombed with bulkheads that created almost fifty water-tight compartments.

The Great Eastern was overdesigned and inefficient, but it still provided transatlantic service for two years. Then, in 1862, an uncharted rock in Long Island Sound tore an 83-foot-long, 9-foot-wide, gash in its outer hull. But the inner hull held. And it steamed safely on into New York Harbor.

The Titanic was another matter. Transatlantic service was now lucrative business. Bit by bit, safety standards yielded to commercial pressures. The Titanic's hull boasted a double bottom, but it had only a single wall on the sides. It had fifteen sections that could be sealed off at the throw of a switch, but the bulkheads between those sections were riddled with access doors to improve luxury service. It didn't have enough lifeboats. Why did everyone think it was so safe? Well, its luxurious beauty was seductive. Historian Walter Lord said of the Titanic, "The appearance of safety was mistaken for safety itself."

When the Titanic grazed a North Atlantic iceberg in 1912, it suffered nothing like the continuous gash in the side of the Great Eastern. Instead, rivets popped and its plates parted from the hull over a 250-foot length. Without a double sidewall, that let in enough water to sink it within a scant two hours and forty minutes.

Fascinating stuff - the whole of Linehard's article is here.

It is better, I mused a post ago, to be able to elect (and eventually kick out) an idiot than to have no say at all in how you're governed. If you're unfortunate enough to live in North Korea, it seems, you get the worst of both worlds - no vote and a tyrant who's also a world-class idiot. Step forward, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, spoiled brat, ludicrous playboy and serial human rights abuser.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Two cheers for idiocracy

I see that the creationist Sarah Palin went down a storm with her "keynote" speech to the Republican National Convention and is perhaps on her way to securing herself a place in the annals of American idiocracy alongside such political heavyweights as Dan Quayle and George W himself. Although my disrespect remains fully intact, I'd better qualify my remarks by making it clear that I think everybody has the right to a say in how they are governed and if the majority favour a blundering dunderheaded troglodyte, then they have an absolute right to choose the said troglodyte. And, of course, to vote him or her out if they come to their senses.

That's democracy - not pretty, but better than a system of government where those in power rule by fear, deception and force rather than by the consent (at least to some degree) of those they govern. I made a lazy joke in my last post about how scary it would be to have this know-nothing from a frozen offshoot of the Bible belt with her finger on the nuclear button. But looking at recent history it becomes apparent that the very worst man-made tragedies have been unleashed not by elected idiots, but by unelected dictators - no democracy, I think, has ever killed so many as Stalin in the great famines and purges of the 30's or Mao in China's own famines of the 50's and the Cultural Revolution which he unleashed in the 60's, (mostly, as far as I can see, to defend himself against those Party elements who actually realised what a disaster he'd unleashed in the previous decade). So no cheers at all for unrepresentative government.

So when I'm rude about democratically elected politicians, I do mean it, but I do also acknowledge that having the option to throw the bastard out and to be as rude about them as I want to be without being censored, locked up or forcibly, and perhaps permanently silenced by a bunch of heavies is way better than the alternatives on offer by more authoritarian forms of rule. At least two cheers for democracy, even when you can't stand the dork who got elected and three big, hearty cheers for the freedom to be disrespectful.

And here's another controversial opinion on a topic of great importance - my son was watching CBeebies the other night. Whilst we were waiting for In The Night Garden to come on, they played an episode from the new series of Andy Pandy (well relatively new - I think it was made in 2002 - I mean the one which wasn't made in black and white with the strings showing). Goodness me it was terrible; a bored sounding narrator, really pointless, stupid new characters like Missy Hissy the snake and Orbie the ball. I don't know who thought that remaking the series was a good idea, but they were wrong, wrong, wrong. It's not even as if the original was that great. Give me Iggle Piggle any day.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Dumb and dumber

For those who've made a living poking fun at President George W Bush, the sands of time are running out fast. Sadly, for Humphrey Lyttleton, they've already run out - but here he was on top form taking the mick out of the man whose intellect and rhetorical gifts were, amazingly enough, deemed sufficient for him to blag his way into the top job anywhere.

The good news, for those who like to savour the absurdity of the richest and most powerful characters in the world's richest and most powerful country, is that the Republican vice presidential candidate (potentially a 72-year-old's heart beat from the presidency) apparently believes that the world is only about 6,000 years old. To carry on with a running theme, we may not know whether the neanderthals were brighter or dumber than most of us, but I suspect they might well have been brighter than someone who might be getting her hands on the nuclear button. Sweet dreams, everybody.