Amazon is getting on my tits

I find it incredibly annoying that Amazon has started inserting advertising (or ‘sponsored links’ as they prefer to call it) in your search results. I accept that large chunks of the web can only survive because free services are paid for with advertising, and that seems fair. But Amazon is a shop. It’s trying to sell stuff to me. I’ve already spent more money there than I care to remember. Why the fuck should I have to scroll past extra advertising while I’m shopping?

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search engine queries

The pick of the search engine queries used to find this site during September:

nelson cricket anecdote
chipotles canned sainsbury
england cricket jerusalem listen
banana shallot photo
rik auden
maradona gastric bypass
richard gere films
dead land
maskless diving
poetry perfidious albion
old american pinup
what are the kennings in the seafarer poem.
processions that lack high stilts

What a lot of disappointed punters.

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a poem

Today feels like a day for posting a poem. This one, by Hopkins, will have to do:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

A flask of wine, a loaf of bread, – and thou

Apparently, if you ask wine experts to match the tasting notes to the wine, not only are they unable to identify them on the basis of other people’s notes (beyond obvous things like ‘it’s a sauvignon blanc’ or ‘it’s oaky’), they are unable to identify them on the basis of their own tasting notes from a few months ago. In other words, all that stuff they come out with (“I’m getting a slight hint of candle-stubs and grass”) is too impressionistic to be really informative.

Presumably the same would apply to a lot of poetry reviews.

you gotta love open source

I just downloaded The Gimp as a substitute for Photoshop. And so far it looks pretty damn impressive. The interface is a bit Windows-y (Unix-y?) for my liking – not because there’s anything wrong with that, but because I’d prefer all my software to be consistent. And it’s a tad geeky (a menu called ‘Script-Fu’? Puh-lease).

But as an alternative to ordering £500 worth of Photoshop from Apple, a five-minute free download takes a lot of beating.

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I’ve got a sparkly new iMac.

Which is nice.

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Bad science reporting

Ben Goldacre says (full article here):

There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well – it’s a small middle-class world after all – and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

Amen, brother.

Of course, it’s not just science reporting. Any time you read an article in the paper on a subject where you have some specialist knowledge – Anglo-Saxon poetry, or birdwatching, or husky racing – it’s always riddled with inaccuracies and misleading phrasing. But inaccurate reporting on Anglo-Saxon poetry is pretty harmless, whereas inaccurate reporting of, say, research into the MMR jab can scare a lot of people, undermine confidence in medicine and potentially cost people their lives.

I vaguely assume that in the core news subjects (politics, business and sport, especially) the reporters have enough real expertise to know what the important stories are and how to present them accurately, even if they don’t choose to do so. But perhaps they’re floundering around in the same fog of ignorance that seems to afflict science journalists.

Tennyson, Browning, populism, Victoriana

A couple of posts back I lumped The Charge of the Light Brigade in with Kipling and Newbolt as ‘populist poetry’, as contrasted with ‘literary poetry’. I’m still not wild about that distinction, because it seems to imply an inverse correlation between accessibility and merit. But it does seem to capture some sort of truth. Notice it’s nothing to do with being ‘avant garde’ – in the comments to that post I contrasted Kipling and Hardy, and Hardy was no modernist. Highbrow vs. middlebrow would be part of the distinction, but that’s not quite right either.

Anyway. The Charge of the Light Brigade is interesting in this respect because Tennyson also wrote poems like In Memoriam A. H. H., which are (clearly?) ‘literary’. And Browning, who was also a ‘literary’ poet, wrote things like The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It’s a very Victorian tendency, a thick streak of populism in serious art. All those awful narrative paintings with titles like Faults On Both Sides, and the shamelessly crowd-pleasing novels of Dickens. In some ways it’s very democratic, so it seems a pity that the results were so awful. All aspects of the visual arts (architecture, painting, fashion, design) seemed to produce abomination after abomination, it’s one of the weakest of all periods of poetry in England; only the novel seemed to do well on it.

Does populism lead to bad art? Or were they both symptoms of something else?

Stubbs and Quinn

I went to see the ‘Stubbs and the horse‘ exhibition at the National. But first things first; the Alison Lapper statue works much better in the flesh then I expected.

For those of you who don’t know, at the corners of Trafalgar Square are four plinths to hold large statues. Three of them are occupied (by George IV, General Charles Napier and Major General Sir Henry Havelock). But the fourth plinth remained empty from when it was built in 1841 until 1999, when campaigners from the Fourth Plinth project managed to persuade everyone involved to use it as a site for temporary artworks. Its position in front of the National Gallery gives it a natural connection to the world of art, but it’s also in an automatic dialogue with all the other statues in the Square – including Nelson, of course. The new occupant is a marble statue by Marc Quinn of disabled artist Alison Lapper pregnant. I haven’t got a photo of the actual statue in situ, but this is a model from the commissioning process:

picture of 'Alison Lapper Pregnant' by Marc Quinn

What you don’t appreciate from that is the scale – 3.55m tall, apparently. That immediately ties it in with the other statues in the Square. It feels like a piece of official public art; it has something of that heavy blandness to it. But because of the unusual subject matter, that depersonalisation actually works in its favour; it makes it seem natural to have a huge marble statue of a pregnant naked woman with no arms.

The Stubbs on the other hand was less interesting. Horses, horses and more horses. What I liked most about them – a kind of stillness, a posed, statuesque simplicity – was, I suspect, due to Stubbs’s technical limitations rather than an aesthetic choice, because late in his career he did some action pictures of horses being attacked by lions, and they’re terrible.

There was something quite democratic about the paintings, though; it doesn’t matter if you’re the Duke of Portland or a stablehand, you’re still going to play second fiddle to the horse.

cricket poetry

A couple of people have found this blog by googling ‘cricket poetry’. Well, I have one poem of my own that features cricket, and I wandered across this (very bad) poem on th’internet, but I can’t immediately think of any others except for this one, written about 1900, which I know is very well-known in the UK but any Americans reading may not have encountered before:

Vitaï Lampada
by Sir Henry Newbolt

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

How strange and creepy is that? Everything about it seems like a parody of Boy’s Own Britishness, down to the classical tag for a title (which translates as ‘light of life’, apparently), but it’s completely unironic. And, as unsettling as the poem is, it’s actually pretty well-written. Orwell, in his essay on Kipling, described him as ‘the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language’ [i.e. East is East, and West is West. The white man’s burden. What do they know of England who only England know? The female of the species is more deadly than the male]. Newbolt has some of that same vigorous phrase-making quality. The first four lines of Vitaï Lampada have been quoted a few times in the newspapers during the Ashes because they capture the tension of a close cricket match. The first four lines of S2 tend to be avoided, but actually they have the same vivid immediacy. Compared to Newbolt, or Kipling, or The Charge of the Light Brigade, Billy Collins starts to look pretty high-falutin’. He may write a somewhat watery version, but it’s still recognisably literary poetry. Vitaï Lampada is *real* populist poetry. Scary, innit?

‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ by Richard Dawkins

I’ve just read The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. The book traces back human descent to the earliest forms of life as a ‘pilgimage’, marking the points where other branches of our family tree ‘join’ us; the first rendezvous is with the chimps, then the other apes, then the rest of the primates and so on back to the simplest forms of life. At each rendezvous, Dawkins picks out one or two species from those who have joined, and tells their Tale, which is used to illustrate some point about natural selection – the Peacock’s Tale is used as an occasion to talk about sexual selection, for example. Some of these points are theoretical, others deal with practical issues like the difficulties of dating some of the points on the tree, or interpreting fossil evidence.

The approach allows him to touch on all sorts of different aspects of biology and build up an overview of evolutionary science, while also maintaining a kind of narrative structure. If you’ve read some of his other books, many of the preoccupations and some of the examples are familiar, but there are always enough surprising bits of information to keep you interested (in many plants, the thread-like roots are actually created by a symbiotic fungus). The family tree is interesting in itself; I was surprised to learn that we are more closely related to sea urchins than to snails and bees, for example. Or if that relationship is a bit distant: We are more closely to trout than trout are to sharks. That is, we share a common ancestor with trout which is more recent than the common ancestor of the trout and the shark. We and the trout both have bony skeletons; the shark is cartilaginous.

It’s a big fat book, and occasionally it drags a bit, but on the whole I found it absorbing and Dawkins’s prose is (nearly) clear as ever. So I’d recommend it.

pasta in three cheese sauce

It’s just turned cold and autumny here over the past few days, which may have been what persuaded me that pasta in cheese sauce was a good idea, since it’s an Italian equivalent to cheese on toast – comfort food.

Anyway. I cooked some penne, chucked in butter, olive oil, chopped stilton, chopped dolcelatte, grated parmesan and a pinch of smoked paprika, then stirred it until it formed a sauce. At which point the tubes of pasta looked like sections of artery clogged with fat. Tasted good, but very rich indeed and a touch salty.

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‘Cosmicomics’ by Italo Calvino

I finally got round to reading Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino.’s editorial review describes it as

An enchanting series of stories about the evolution of the universe. Calvino makes characters out of mathematical formulae and simple cellular structures. They disport themselves amongst galaxies, experience the solidification of planets, move from aquatic to terrestrial existence, play games with hydrogen atoms — and have time for a love life.

which is pretty fair, though it possibly makes it sound even frothier than it is. Key words would be – surreal, whimsical, intellectually playful, that kind of thing. Which I found wore thin pretty quickly. It’s clever, it’s well-written, it’s often funny, if not belly-laugh funny; but in the end it just seemed a bit silly. Rather than engage with the science in a really interesting way, it just used semi-digested fragments as a kicking-off point.

curly quotes

This is mainly a note to myself, in case I want to change it back later – I’ve turned off curly quotes because I don’t think they look very good in this font. On my computer. With my browser. Which may not say anything about how anyone else sees them.

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‘Forgotten Empire: the world of ancient Persia’

Forgotten Empire is an exhibition at the British Museum of artefacts from ancient Persia. They’ve got together with the National Museum of Iran, the Persepolis Museum and the Louvre, so it’s a rare opportunity to see a lot of the objects. The title and a lot of the hype emphasise how little most of us know about the Persians compared to their contemporaries in Greece; and by implication the exhibition is supposed to act as a corrective. The period covered is about 500-300 BC; i.e. about between the golden age of Athens and the conquest of Persia by Alexander.

I was certainly persuaded that the Persian empire was impressively rich and powerful. The palace at Persepolis had columns 20m tall, apparently. That’s about the height of a seven-storey building. But the stuff in the exhibition was all relentlessly about power and wealth. It was all decorated in macho emblems – bulls, lions, sphinxes, war chariots. All the palaces seem to have been covered in endless friezes of people bringing tributes to the Persian king; everything was ostentatious, in your face. Not an easy culture to warm to, even if individual objects were attractive.

The implied comparison with Greece didn’t really work in the Persian’s favour. I wouldn’t want to buy whole-heartedly into the Greeks’ assessment that they were civilised and the Persians were barbarians; even I know enough about Greek history to know they were capable of being aggressive, ruthless, power-hungry and greedy themselves. But I look at the Greek civilisation and my idea of it is tinted by Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Sappho and Sophocles. No doubt there were great ancient Persian poets and thinkers, but I don’t know about them, and without that knowledge all I can see is the physical evidence of a megalomaniac culture. And in fact, aesthetically the classical stuff is more pleasing. The Persian figures are all very stylised and stiff, repetitive in the way Egyptian or Assyrian figures are, and wandering from the exhibition to the Parthenon sculptures, I was struck anew by how much more naturalistic and varied and fluid they are. Classical sculpture has become a bit of a visual cliché over the past two thousand years, but it looks pretty remarkable compared to a lot of the earlier traditions.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that my lack of enthusiasm is purely based on an idea of the Persians as imperialist megalomaniacs compared to the (somewhat) democratic Greeks. I’ve been very impressed by work from other cultures which seem equally megalomaniac, like the Egyptians and the Aztecs. The Persians just seem to lack visual pizazz, somehow.


I went to Abeno for lunch, near the British Museum. It claims to be the only specialist okonomiyaki restaurant in Europe. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese omelette-y thing that is cooked in front of you on a hot-plate at the table. I had one with pork and kimchee (spicy Korean fermented cabbage), which was topped with dried bonito flakes. It was nice, though not as good as the rice dish I ordered – rice with green tea poured over it and dressed with nori. Yum. And then I had that flaked ice dessert the Japanese do – in maccha flavour (i.e. the powdered tea used for the tea ceremony).

I recommend it if you’re going to the BM.

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One last Ashes post

All summer, every time I saw the scar on Ricky Ponting’s cheek, it was like a symbol of the lost innocence of Australian cricket.

Note to Wayne Rooney: if you can win us the World Cup, you’ll be able to turn up to 10 Downing Street so pissed you can barely walk straight and everyone will still love you.

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The Golden Ticket

At the start of the summer, it was uncertain whether this would be a very useful object:

Oval ticket