Wednesday, 31 August 2011

sexy mermaids redux redux

For whatever reason, people send me mermaids. I tell you, though, what I know about mermaids could be written on one of Carolyn Turgeon's postage stamps, because 'Carolyn Turgeon wrote the novel MERMAID, runs the mermaid-themed blog I Am a Mermaid, and is co-editor of the new upcoming annual MERMAIDS publication.' Wow.

One of my senior merm-aides sent me this piece by Turgeon, about a recent mermaid convention in Las Vegas. There was also a pageant, which involves strong men carrying mermaids onto the stage because everyone knows mermaids can't walk. Of course, everyone also knows that mermaids can't breath the cold bright air, but no one seems to care much about that. Carolyn ended up judging, which was arduous, but...

we judges soldiered on and diligently scored every contestant, and new international mermen, mermaids, and merbabies were crowned, and at the end, every contestant came out on stage to sit on chairs or stretch out on the floor. The little girls were sucking on lollipops as crowns slipped off their heads, and that baby was crawling and smiling in his bright blue fish tail, and all those gorgeous mermaids were posing and smiling, and it was all ridiculous and wonderful and awesome, and I was proud to have lent my services and done my part. I thought, This is why I became an author.*

Other agents have told me about Mami Wata, a Congolese spirit which is usually female, and usually mermaidy, although sometimes the bottom half is serpentine. Her main thing is to upset people's boats, take them into a paradisiacal realm and maybe return them or maybe not. If she does, then they 'usually return in dry clothing and with a new spiritual understanding reflected in their gaze.' I bet they do.

* I don't know why I became an author.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

dissolving countries

Some guy in the athletics World Championships used to run for the Netherlands Antilles, but the Netherlands Antilles were dissolved last year.* Curacao and Sint Maarten decided on status aparte, which means they become constituent states of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (like Aruba, of course). They are going to spend Caribbean guilders as soon as they can get organised. It seems like a lot of trouble to go to just for Caribbean guilders.

Bonaire, Sabar and Sint Eustatius became special municipalities of the Netherlands (they use the US dollar and don't have to print it themselves). They are just like normal Dutch municipalities, as if that's a good thing. They vote for the Dutch government and their own mayor and aldermen. They get social security but not as much as if they were still in Holland.

The Governor of Sint Maarten is Eugene Holiday. Do not confuse Sint Maarten with St Martin (an overseas collectivity of France) because they are completely different places (on the same island).

Sint Eustatius used to be known as The Golden Rock because it ignored British/Dutch/Spanish trade embargoes. It played a large part in supplying the Americans during the War of Independence, and Lord Stormont said in 1778 that if it had sunk beneath the sea in 1775, the Americans would have been defeated. 4,000 people died there during the great hurricane of 1780. Only 3,100 people live there now.

Trans World Radio operates from Bonaire.

Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, is one of the world's larger oil handling ports - it's close to Venezuela - and it's really pretty (see above). Willemstad contains the oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere (1732).

The capital of Saba is The Bottom, and there is one road, called The Road. There is an excellent view from Mount Scenery, which is a potentially active volcano.

* Netherlands Antilles' National Motto: 'Unified by Freedom'. National Anthem: 'Anthem with no name' by Zahira Hiliman, no longer the national anthem but Wikipedia says it still exists as a song. Of course, you can't really trust Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

department of metaphor - schrodinger's ruby

I feel sure I have done this before, but I can't find it, and you may remember the story anyway, but it is just too good for me not to make sure.

In 2009, a company called Wrekin Construction started to disintegrate. The only reason it was technically solvent was that it's balance sheet included The Star of Zanzibar, a ruby which had never been near Zanzibar and which it bought in 2007 for £11m from another company called Tamar, who were coincidentally shareholders in Wrekin.

When Wrekin went into receivership and 400 people lost their jobs, the asset needed selling. But no one could find it. And was it worth what Wrekin said? Wrekin said it was. They said, a note, that 'The fair value of the ruby gemstone was determined by a professional valuer at the Instituto Gemmologico Italiano, based in Valenza, Italy on 31 August 2007'.

On the other hand, Loridana Prosperi, one of the Istituto's gemmologists,* said, 'That is impossible because we were on holiday on Aug 31, 2007.' Also, incidentally, the most expensive ruby ever sold for £2.6m in 2006. Of course, this was a scam, and it was dreamed up by a guy called Michael Hart-Jones who has previously tried to sell bogus AIDS cures. It's probably worth £300,000. He says he bought the stone for $13,000, lent it to a friend who never gave it back, and a lot of other liar's hogwash.

Fun, in a gruesome sort of way, but the bit that I think is great is that until someone looked at the asset for six seconds, it shored up a clearly failing business. It could hardly be more symbolical of the financial crisis.

* Great name, great job.


Listen & Often 2 is up here, or you can subscribe on iTunes. I slightly messed up re-posting it yesterday morning for a reason, and so it was offline for a while. I doubt you noticed.

In other news, I am reading The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner. You know the website which grades books by looking at their Pages 69? Well, this one's p69 is in the Adam Smith chapter.

'Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production,' he wrote, and then proceeded to castigate those systems that placed the interest of the producer over that of the consuming public.

But in Smith's panegyric of a free and unfettered market the rising industrialists found the theoretical justification they needed to block the first government attempts to remedy the scandalous conditions of the time.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

a-levels at the movies: some incisive social commentary

Funny story about schools pimping out pretty girls to be photographed getting results, and a friend pointed out the bonanza that is some pretty Cornish triplets gazing adoringly at pieces of paper getting them into Cambridge (find the link yourself, if you must).

What the annual hoo-ha about grade inflation made me think is this: movie classifications. Some things in the world are on a mixed-metaphorical ratchet squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. It's absurd to say that an A at A-level maths means what it meant in, say, 1973, and it's equally absurd to say that an 18 certificate means the same thing, and those certificates still have official weight.

By which I mean: I watched Badlands a few days ago. It is, like they say, amazing. It's an eighteen certificate. I think that, today, you would only just have to televise after the watershed. It might get a 15 certificate, but it would probably get a 12. I'm not saying what I'd certificate it as, that's not my point. I don't really have a point, like life.

Monday, 15 August 2011

google, motorola, vultures

Ah, excellent, something topical for my long-promised copyright post. If you don't listen to This American Life, well, there it is, but I don't know why. In this episode, about three weeks ago, the show discussed patent law. Apple is always buying someone, and so is Google, and so are the rest of them, and the reason is that vulturish companies buy loosely-written patents so they can use them to sue companies which actually do stuff. Apple and Google mostly buy companies to get hold of patents and protect themselves from the vultures.

The result is that patent law hobbles genuine innovation and software engineers hate and scorn it. This is brilliant stuff, in and of itself, but what it made me think about was creative copyright.

Basically, software engineers and former software engineers in Silicon Valley, etc. are at the forefront of the move to open up content because it 'wants to be free'. I wonder if their bitter experience of patent law trolls feeds into their view of creative copyright, which they then blithely threaten, and which me and quite a lot of other people I know depend on for their living. It's one of those times where two groups of people think they are talking about the same thing ('intellectual property') but they are divided by their common language.

I haven't got a fully-formed, final opinion on this, but it feels like part of a large, more complicated story.

Another part, incidentally, is simply age. A cohort at the forefront of copyright theft is the young. The young are A) Young, and therefore poor and B) Young, and therefore not necessarily aware of the difficulties of earning a living. I think the second of these is in enormously underrated part of the complicated story. The internet population is very young, and there are lots of things about dealing with life that it doesn't yet understand.

(Anyone wanting to explain to me why copyright theft is ok (and let's be clear, I have indulged in it in my time, but it is what it is) should read this first. In fact, everyone should read it.)

Sunday, 14 August 2011

irony is spread thick on british toast this morning

England beat India yesterday and are officially the best cricket team in the world. Cricinfo marks the occasion with a magnificent piece of pseudery:

Irony. One of the most underrated pleasures. Best savoured slowly and with none of the joy and exhilaration that comes with winning or triumphalism. It's almost bitter-sweet in flavour because it brings with it no great sense of personal achievement or patriotic fervour; just a wry smile and a shake of the head.

Ah yes. The English team this morning aren't exhilarated, and nor are their fans.

Irony is spread thick on British toast this Sunday morning.

Oh brother. Then there is some guff about the riots. Then...

On one hand we have a staid, traditional, somewhat old-fashioned country (in the nicest possible way I might add)...

That is the nicest possible way. I've checked on Google.

...showing off an ugly modern face that looked so incongruous among the iconic tourist sights of London.

[But] There is nothing old-fashioned or traditional about this England team, even down to the Irishman in the middle order and the various other players whose heritage can be traced back to the four corners of the globe but who are now as proudly British as you like. No sense of disenfranchised youths among this lot! And all of this in an old British city (Birmingham) that is now as famous for its Indian balti restaurants as anything else. Ironic indeed.

Indeed. Then it explains how India prefers one-day cricket, which is ironic in some way. Then talks about Alastair Cook...

Cook is the quintessential British stereotype in that respect - understated, efficient and classy without feeling the need to convince anyone else. He is unlikely to be the poster boy for junior cricketers in England but for all that anonymity, he might just be the dinosaur that Test cricket, and English cricket, needs to keep the embers burning.

I actually run an agency that hires out dinosaurs to people who need their embers kept burning at bbqs and similar, or even the embers of long-forgotten love affairs.

Some more cricket stuff follows, and then...

Not to be particularly jingoistic - I don't really care who sits on the throne -

Where did this come from?!

but after watching Britain's youth laying waste to a proud country...

Hang on. I mean, they were bad, but I think a lot of cities would swap, even after the wasting. And I think some small pockets of the country escaped the trouble entirely.

...that I so dearly love from my many years of playing cricket and my days as a student at Oxford,

Oh brother.

I can only hope that Strauss and his men realise that cricket needs them to rule with a velvet glove not an iron fist.

What? Seriously? He's going here?

We've seen what can happen when young people feel disenfranchised and ignored by the powerbrokers - regardless of whether we agree with their gripes or not (and frankly, I don't!);

Well, I suppose it's good that you don't, but to repeat, you're going here? You're saying there's some equivalence between being the number one test nation and being an Imperial power, and that exercising that power has consequences for the governed? (The English cricket team, to remove confusion, don't govern anything.)

cricket too, even Indian cricket, can learn something from that. Rule with grace, mind your manners, innovate with imagination but never forget that the roots of the game still lie in slow-growing soil.

Ah, whither the flights of merry starlings I once gazed upon in my gilded Oxonian youth as I splattered out half-baked essays full of specious analogies.

The Tendulkars of the world can grace any stage but his pedigree was born of traditional parenting.

Spare the rod and spoil the child.

Watching a slowly unfolding Border/Dravid/Yousuf/Kallis/Warne masterclass in Test cricket is a pleasure that should not just be for the video archives - there's room in cricket for all types of kingdoms.

Including the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, the fungus kingdom and the three (three!!!) different seaweed kingdoms / In my father's house are many mansions*

* Delete according to taste

The King is dead. Long live the King. That's irony.

Not really.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Why do you come here? If it isn't because you hope for more Cuppy then I don't know. Anyway, here's some more Cuppy.

Khufu's six wives were probably not much fun. In accordance with custom, he had to marry some of his sisters and half sisters, not to mention one of his stepmothers and perhaps other close female connections with exactly the same line of family jokes and reminiscences. When he had stood enough, he could always go out to Gizeh and rush construction work on their tombs.*

* Queen Merytyetes or Mertitiones, the stepmother-wife, survived Khufu and was passed along to his son Khafre. Odd, I must say.

And, on Alexander the Great:

Asia proved to be a regular paradise. In no time at all, Alexander had killed Medes, Persians, Persidians, Cappadocians, Paphlagonians, and miscellaneous Mesopotamians.*

* 'He boldly proclaimed the brotherhood of man.' - FA Wright.


The Persian army was all out of date. It relied chiefly upon the Kinsmen, who were allowed to kiss the King, and the Apple Bearers, or royal guard, who had golden apples on the handles of their spears. Darius believed that if he kept adding more Apple Bearers to his army the Persian Empire would never fall. But life is not like that. Apple Bearers are all right, if you know where to stop. After a certain point is reached, however, the law of diminishing returns sets in and you simply have too many Apple Bearers.


Alexander's empire fell to pieces at once, and nothing remained of his work except that the people he killed were still dead. He accomplished nothing very constructive.*

* But see FA Wright on Alexander's work 'above all as an apostle of world peace.'

Thursday, 11 August 2011

god's incidental musical

'The name's Priest, Joe Priest. Detective Joe Priest by name and priest by nature. This, my children, is God's incident room. For some of you it will feel like Heaven and for some of you it will feel like Hell, but it's neither, it's Purgatory, and don't you ever forget it.'

This is all that's written on one of my pieces of paper. Anywhere from 1999 to 2001.

'never done' jack and 'don't say' dick

1. Writing in the same room for a decade produces an awful lot of a paper. List of ideas and projected projects as long as two of your arms. Some I like. Some are nuts. Particularly like the first drafts of things that morphed into other things over time. I found the idea for a radio play (Man Bites Dog) that mated with the folk song cycle (Unrealistic Songs of Old England) that became The Kilburn Social Club.

2. This is my current favourite song. William Shatner and Ben Folds. Proper contempt for the armchair riders. I can't get enough of it.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


I make notes for myself all over the place. Usually I can remember why. But...

On old South African notebook, mostly filled with (surprisingly neat) notes from the week after I found the document that my PhD would be founded on and was working through how to organise the things I needed to say, in Tipp-Ex or similar: Q WHY DID HE COMMIT SUICIDE AFTER ONE BIT OF THE PIE? SPECIFY, SPECIFY, SPECIFY.

On venerable crappy phone, as supplied by Orange's villainous insurance department, which is a story for another day, in draft text message section, alongside some very sensible ideas: No miracle chance your free to slaughter Roea

Sunday, 7 August 2011

this guy can design my next book

M S Corley is some guy. A while ago, he did some redesigns of the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books, to make them look like Penguins of a certain vintage. Really, go and look at them. They're not all pale orange.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

1. In The Worldly Philosophers, about the underpinning of economics: Be it noted, in passing, that the treasures of the East were truly fabulous. With the share received as a stockholder in Sir Francis Drake's voyage of the Golden Hynd, Queen Elizabeth paid off all England's foreign debts, balanced its budget, and invested abroad a sum large enough, at compound interest, to account for Britain's entire overseas wealth in 1930.*/**

2. Standard & Poor? They're the guys who didn't think people with a history of defaulting on debts and no jobs might default on housing loans, right? Why are we listening to them? This is not a facetious question, even if it's the shape of one. I mean, they're just these guys trying to keep their jobs. And the reason they have them, and the reason we listen to them, is that we're desperate for someone to put numbers on things and make them feel like someone understands them. But we don't. Seriously, people, get a grip.

3. In my next post, I promise, pretty pictures. But seriously, and I have stopped being apologetic about this, listen to a halfway competent historian about America's likelihood of default before you listen to Standard & Poor.

* Not totally sure what that wealth was. WWI wasn't the best for the British economy. Incidentally, I think Golden Hind should be spelled with an 'i'.
** One solution to economic crisis suggests itself, though: treasure ships. Where? Mars? Invest in Adventure.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Nonsense about Doctor Who

'One example is that of Doctor Who writers Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat who began their careers writing fan fiction about the time lord.'

This appears in a BBC feature about copyright It sounds like rubbish to me. I mean, real rubbish. Russell T Davies began his career in a very traditional way by writing plays as a kid, more while he was at Oxford, going into telly and rising up the ranks.

People speak such nonsense about copyright. The article says that reducing copyright freedoms might well expand creativity. I don't know how much the writer depends on copyright for his or her living. Personally, I don't think it's sane to get too worried about people nicking your stuff online. I think you should make it easy for them not to, but they will, and there it is.

I have a couple of other things to say about copyright after listening to an amazing This American Life about patent trolls crippling software creativity. I have to get my thoughts a bit clearer first. You can hardly wait, can you?

(My favourite thing about this ever is from a guy called Paul Cornell.)

Monday, 1 August 2011

don't cry for me, mr dentist

Oh brother, this is going to run and run! I noticed the other day that the funny and inexplicable dentist on the Finchley High Road who thinks that people with bad teeth are best enticed by miserable pop art red-heads offering free consultations is actually a dentist who thinks that people with bad teeth are best enticed by miserable pop art red-heads saying various commonplace things that change over time.

I will keep a close eye on this situation.

debt ceiling

People really care what I think about this, I know.

Nutters is the problem, along with the fact that everyone from commentators to voters assumes nutters can't really exercise power in a modern western political system. And the fact that leaders and voters are just these guys who mainly care about their own jobs.

1. Boehner wants to keep his job. He seriously cares more what the 60 Tea Partiers think than what the more numerous sane Republicans want, because they vote as a bloc, and he needs them (or thinks he needs them) to stay Speaker, which is at least as much of what he cares about, day-to-day, as the sensible resolution of the debt crisis.

2. Glib idiots say that politicians don't have power - it all resides with business giants. Well, politicians do what banks and so on much more than they should, especially in America because they need money for reelection, but the politicians make the decisions that really matter. It just doesn't look like that because they are so often following the agenda of people with money.

This is important when the nutters start getting in. Business people, used to controlling self-interested politicians, think they can control the nutters. They cannot. When the nutters get political muscle, they suddenly start throwing babies out with bathwater. This week, Obama and other non-nutters kow-towed to nutters. I don't think they should have done unless they have a very clear plan for demonising the nutters as nutters, which I don't see. Basically, I think it is very dangerous to assume you will ever have dialogue with nutters, or that they will ever be rational. You have to call a spade a spade.

3. But I can see why that's hard, for people who care about their jobs. Who wants to say: millions and millions of Americans have elected these guys, BUT THEY ARE NUTTERS! It would go down badly.

4. When you have politics becoming extreme like this, you start getting fundamentally irrational decisions.

Partial reading list, like you care: Open World by Phillippe Legrain, The Future of Democracy by Dareed Zakaria, Fascism by Robert O Paxton*, Planet Money and The New Yorker's Political Scene, Marbury.

* I am not saying the Tea Party is fascist. Don't jump on that idea. It's a book about structures of power.