Thursday, 30 September 2010

robot salander

Earlier this year I did an event at the LSE called 'How Would a Robot Read a Novel'. A computer program called Alceste had 'read' The Kilburn Social Club and, based on various complicated algorithms, broken it down into its constituent parts. Alceste thought the book was (I can't remember the specifics, but this was the shape of its breakdown) 40% about relationships and friendships, 20@ about business shenanigans, 20% about football club things and 20% about trees.

I finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest yesterday. It was very gripping. If you plugged it into Alceste, I reckon it would come out as 15% about someone called Salander, 15% about someone called Blomkvist and 60% about a Palm Tungsten T10.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

bloody elk

Irish Elk are crazy. They are the ones you see in museums and think cannot be real. Viz.

Still Life, the taxidermy book I may possibly have mentioned, discusses the reasons for their extinction. Were they hunted to extinction? Was it that their antlers over-evolved and their skulls basically couldn't cope? Maybe, though
other theories say that climate change and habitat loss from early humans ... made it impossible for it to find the phosphorous- and calcium-rich plants it required to regenerate new antlers every year. As a result, the species developed a type of osteoperosis and died out. This is the theory that most scientists adhere to today
When I read this, I thought about how deeply scientific theories, like historical ones, are rooted in the societies which produce them.

As I am sure I've written before, in the tons of history books I have read in the past decade, I have noticed the primary focus shift from discussions of the precise structure of decision-making (the sort of micro-detail historians concentrated on during the illusory, Fukuyaman post-historical present) to analyses of what constitutes effective government. How do you actually, effectively get stuff done. (How do you establish and maintain the rule of law? - much more pressing in a post-Iraq War world.)

Now, I worry about setting this down in the context of science, especially if it is going to be read by a lot of muddle-headed English literature graduates who might think I am saying that everything is relative and there is no real truth, in history or science.

Of course, no one is unbiased. No source, history or document is free of its author's prejudices. Everything human contains some error. But simply because we are writing the histories and doing the science that answers today's questions doesn't mean we are getting them (fundamentally) wrong.

So each generation produces a new definitive biography of Hitler. And they each look at an aspect of him. Thus with the elk. Most scientists look at climate change explanations today. They get funding for it; and climate change is very important to them. But the climate change might not have been a problem for the elk if they were not being hunted. And having no calcium-rich plants would have been fine if they had not grown such stupid antlers. So in a time when we are worried about conspicuous consumption we might focus on the stupid antlers, and I bet people did during the late nineties. Nasty man in the seventies. Now, man plus climate.

None of these explanations is wrong. All of these things are part of what killed off the irish elk. Probably.

(This reminds me of a CSI episode where a series of sheer accidents ends with a girl in a suspicious dumpster. It's all about the whole picture.)

Monday, 27 September 2010

maybe this makes me a ghoul

Terry Newton killed himself yesterday. He was 31 and a former GB rugby league star. He was serving a two year suspension for taking performance enhancing drugs. It is, by any standards, a very sad story, and I feel very sorry for anyone who knew him.

Under the circumstances, it is blackly funny that Bradford chairman Peter Hood said of him: "He was the ultimate professional."

Saturday, 25 September 2010

sick pet genius

How clever is your pet. Is he or she clever enough to know that when this happens, it is, as the BBC puts it, a 'sick prank'?

While this symbolises its mad Chinese owner's love? By which I mean self-regard.

Looking back, I see that this post is not very intellectually coherent. I think they're bad things to do to animals, but people do worse. There are a range of similarities and differences between the cases that would make an interesting longer study I do not have time for. It would lead us via man's relationship with nature into more taxidermy, so you're probably grateful too.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

not pravda

Not to downplay the geo-political nightmare of the race for Arctic resources, but it does sound like the premise for an Ealing comedy, especially when you get chumps like Sergey Zavalyov, deputy director of Rosenergoatom, the proposing to operate floating nuclear power stations to create enough juice to keep the operation going. His take on the possible dangers: "We can guarantee the safety of our units one hundred per cent, all risks are absolutely ruled out." Oh, well, my fears are allayed.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

still alive (dead)

I can't promise to write about anything other than taxidermy for ages. I am still loving Still Life, and I am on a chapter about Potter's Museum of Curiosities, which was sold off in tragic bits and bobs a few years ago, which is a story I remember from Classic Angling, which reported from the auction (giant tuna head, among others). When the stupid Smithsonian needed to clear out its whale hall, the blue whale ended up on eBay.

And yesterday, looking for a picture of the Reynard thing underneath, I blundered across Ravishing Beasts, where Rachel Poliquin posts regular updates of a project which began as a doctoral thesis at MIT, and which had (I dare say) its culmination at an Poliquin-curated exhibition last winter at the Museum of Vancouver, which I would love above almost all things to have gone to.

The pictures are relentlessly excellent. How about those stags? How about that crochedermy? Rachel Poliquin and Melissa Milgrom are my current heroes.

Monday, 20 September 2010

grotesque but foxy

You are probably wondering which taxidermological exhibit the crowds went nuts for at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. The answer: Reinecke the Fox, a comical depiction of the Reynard myth put together by the Royal Museum in Stuttgart's Hermann Ploucquet. The only competition was Ploucquet's tableau of a frog shaving another frog. The queen loved that one.

You can see why it started a craze for anthropomorphically posed animals ('the grotesque school'). As the excellent Still Life explains, there were violining crows, squirrels playing Romeo, huge kitten weddings and frogs doing almost everything (Montagu Browne, in Practical Taxidermy, wrote, that frogs are much the best mirth inducing characters. Monkeys, the second-best, are 'not half so funny').

Bonus fact: in birding, 'jizz' means the general impression and shape of a bird. Good taxidermy should capture a bird's jizz.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

sexy kapitoil

Right, I am taking Kapitoil to bookswap tonight. Among the very many good things about it: how Teddy Wayne writes about sex.

Here, our virginal, techie, Muslim hero is in someone's room. This is [virtually] spoiler-free.
I don't remember all the details. I wasn't as nervous as I always predicted I would be, probably because of the alcohol, but when I had difficulty releasing her bra she slightly laughed and made me feel like a novice. I don't believe I was very skilled, because I didn't truly know what actions to take, and at one point I remembered [another girl] and I temporarily lost the desire to continue.

But it was still mostly pleasurable, and I spent much time touching her left breast and observing how it felt like nothing else on my body and nothing else I had ever remembered touching, and the pleasure reached its peak at the end, when it was as if my system crashed but in a delightful way, and for several seconds all my thoughts were voided, which never happens to me. After we finished, we rested on our backs without contacting and she said, 'I came really hard, twice.'
And then I truly started to think about what I had done. I wondered what my mother would say. Possibly she would understand, because she was modern, but she might also say that I was rejecting not only Muslim values but also personal values, e.g., I didn't know or even respect Melissa very much and the main reason I was with her was because she was sexy and I wanted to prove that I could obtain her so that I would also feel sexy, which was never something I was invested in before.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

something i saw on the tube

Just found this note-to-self from 22nd July:
I think yes. I think it is silly to worship a snake god.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Tony Blair vs Donovan McNabb

Regular readers will know that my main Nemesis, globally speaking, is a guy called Mike Tanier who writes for Football Outsiders and The NY Times, among others. I don't confer Nemesis status on monkeys, and last week Tanier wrote a brilliant essay on the disjointed, illogical structure of publicly agreed hatred that made me think of the ludicrous way it seems impossible to enter into any kind of rational debate about Tony Blair without some idiot declaring, as if it were an undeniable truth, that TB is 'evil'.*

Tanier was writing about Donovan McNabb, the quarterback released this summer by the Philadelphia Eagles (Tanier's an Eagles fan). Philly has a 'robust sports culture', and McNabb is hated by a huge and increasing number of vocal fans who don't understand stats and blame him, despite his having been the most successful QB in franchise history, for never having won a Super Bowl.

Tanier calles these people McNabb Denialists. They will not listen to any form of argument. The clear facts are that Philly has had its best ever NFL decade, that McNabb has clearly been a major part of this, that he holds all the major Eagles passing records, that he was, conservatively according to the stats, the fifth of sixth best QB for the decade of his prime (a great decade for QBs in general), and that he never behaved in a way that brought his organisation into disrepute.

The Denier agenda is that he only cared for numbers, choked in big games, and that his team-centred demeanour was all an obvious front for a selfish passive-aggressive agenda. They say he didn't win 'big games' but he won a load of them. They basically define big games as ones he lost.

Read it yourself, even if you don't know about American football. It's as nice a dissection of an irrational mindset that solidifies into a comfortable truism as you're likely to read this year. The explanation of 'two sides' is particularly recognisable to anyone who gets told at dinner parties that science vs aromatherapy is just 'two points of view'. The Tony Blair thing is slightly less of a neat fit, but it is what I instantly thought. The way in which people persuade themselves to one side of an argument as if they never felt anything else and in denial of all common sense is incredibly annoying.

Ok, fun to finish. In this year's Football Outsiders Almanac, the site's head honcho Aaron Schatz wrote the Buffalo Bills chapter. Buffalo is the smallest media market in the NFL and it's a perennial problem, especially when the team has spent a few years without any identity or charisma. Schatz signs off: The Buffalo Bills have now gone ten seasons without making the playoffs. Unless the rest of the AFC East completely collapses, 2010 will extend that streak to 11. Usually that’s one louder, but when a team falls in Buffalo, it doesn’t make a sound. Tell me these guys aren't good.**

* Important note: you can't say that anyone bleating 'Blair is evil' as a truism is being silly and not say the same thing about people who say 'Thatch is evil.' The world isn't black and white. Surely, for goodness sake, we all know this?
** My all-time favourite Tanier piece, I think, is also about McNabb - it's a Beau Geste inflected piece describing McNabb's departure that perfectly captures the awful tedium of football reporting (here and in America) between seasons. You absolutely don't have to be into the NFL.

Monday, 13 September 2010

my computer works again

In celebration of this and also the Normans season on the BBC: William was a fine figure of a man, tall and swarthy, but he wasn't really Matilda's type. Matilda was Matilda of Flanders, and very rich. She had fancied an English guy called Brihtric (known as Brihtric Meaw, or Snow, or Whity), but he had repelled her advances. And then William had Matilda horsewhipped in Bruges, at which point she married him, and they had ten kids and a lot of fun.
As you have probably heard, William got his title of Conqueror in 1066, when he won the Battle of Hastings and was crowned King of England. Matilda went over in 1068 for her coronation, had another baby, and went home again. And what do you think she did about Brihtric, or Whitey? Well, history is mostly guesswork, but it looks as though she robbed him of all his lands, ordered him thrown into jail, and had him murdered to show him what was what. This proves that love is a wonderful thing and that one should think twice before turning it down, no matter how bashful one is.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

no greater love

According to the Sky description, Danielle Steel's No Greater Love is about Edwina, who becomes a woman and then loses her parents and lover all on one terrible night. She's on the Titanic. I haven't seen Titanic. Titanic might be totally different.

Gary Rhodes really is the King of Literally: 'This is literally baking powder'; 'Literally give it a little stir'; 'Literally pour in the wine' and so on.

In other news: I would probably swap computers with you.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

what's the problem, mr wolf?

I love it when you call me Mr Wolf.

The problem is the not insignificant chance that my hard drive is on the verge of terminal disintegration and so in the small pieces of near-fully-functioning computer time I am trying to do actual work.

Normal service will be resumed shortly. I hope. I really hope that my hard drive is not disintegrating.

(There will be more taxidermy. The book I am reading, since I scandalously forgot to link below, is Melissa Milgrom's Still Life. Amazon reviewer says: 'If you're interested in taxidermy this is a must have!' Well, duh. That's not the point. The point is that this is incredibly interesting if you're not particularly interested in taxidermy. There will be also be more NFL.)

Monday, 6 September 2010

standing on the shoulders of giant elephants

I'll say what I like about Sri Lankan taxidermists, and one of those things is that their art form, if it is that, and it might be, reached its publicly highest pitch with Clarence - known as Carl - Akeley, after whom the American Museum of Natural History named its Hall of African Mammals.

Akeley was a perfectionist obsessive who spent fifteen years planning, designing and developing the techniques to bring off a set of huge dioramas, featuring lots of elephants and his very favourite gorillas (The Old Man of Mikeno, the Lone Male of Karisimbi, Clarence, various others; most of which he shot for the purpose). One of the key things about taxidermy, as you know, is that it is about the recreation of individual animals. Trophy stuffing preserves generalities.

So, every elephant, for instance, was sculpted as an individual. Tanning the skins, turning them from 2.5 inch thick hides into supple inch-thick leather (without losing, it was said, a wrinkle, wart or tick hole) took two weeks of daily work. These days, for fairly obvious reasons, the World Taxidermy Champions frequently focus on regularish sort of animals done brilliantly rather than crazy animals done mightily. Fair enough.

Akeley sculpted, obviously. Proof of the pudding is in the sculpture of the lion hunters on the right. And lots besides. I am reading a book about taxidermy, by the way. I got it at one of the bookswaps and it's cracking.

Bonus fact: Akeley invented shotcrete, a kind of concrete you could fire from a hose. He found this useful during WW1 when he served as a major in the Corps of Engineers. The first cement gun was used to fortify the Panama Canal. Akeley never wore uniform, because if he did he wouldn't be able to call his colonel a 'damn fool'.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

want a piece of me?

Yaroslav the Wise (otherwise the Lawgiver): would be attending, had he not died in 1054*

If you do want a piece of me, and history suggests that whoever you are, you do not, then you have so many chances in the coming period that it might be almost like we are friends. Marie Phillips has listed some of these opportunities also. You could pretend to be her friend as a way of stalking me, or vice versa. It's just a suggestion.

Further to all which:

1. Tall Tales 4. On Thursday 30th September, there will be, if you have been to Tall Tales before, more of the same and some of the different. Emma Beddington is in the house. So is Marie. John Finnemore and Susannah Pearse will present another heartrending mini-musical about Unsung Heroes. Also, again, Toby Davies, whose brilliant stories are online. And Benet Brandreth with his lies. And others, including but not limited to an inspiring story of Kilburn life and the further adventures of the Warhorses of Letters.

If you want to come, super, but please do email first to make sure the numbers stay under control. This is the official email account

2. On October 22nd, there's a literary dinner in Windsor which eleven writers will be helping host, for charity and organised by the excellent Melanie Gow.** The authors include me and also some nice people, and we move around between the four courses. As you can see, this means that you only have a 7/11 chance of avoiding me altogether, but if you fail then you will only have to sit on my table for 1/4 of the dinner.

* You are wondering how old this made him. I cannot tell you. His early years are shrouded in mystery.
** Among the authors not attending is Suzanne Enoch, author of The Care and Taming of a Rogue.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

me, me, me

I was on today's episode of Fry's English Delight talking about a robot reading The Kilburn Social Club. It's a good show. For the record: it doesn't mention that the robot was surprisingly good in allocating most of the story to relationships and only a smaller amount to football; and while I do describe a grim bit of Kilburn in downbeat terms, the cutting room floor has me explaining at length how much I love Kilburn and how the grim and defeated look of the residents at the time of speaking was down to the bleakness and rain of the day in question.

I am reading Kapitoil. I'm a third of the way through. It's terrific.* Leaving which aside, isn't that a great cover?

* Usual disclaimer - I got a copy via my agent, who also represents Teddy Wayne, but when I got it, I was ironically on the verge of buying it, so I don't feel very compromised.