search engine queries

Yup, it’s that time of the month again.

Firstly, what might be my all-time favourite, even better than ‘tugged eggcorn’:

squiggly lines in digital cameras are they ghosts?

Some of the others, in no particular order:

rachel whiteread is crap
decadent west blog
i will magnify the lord bible quotation mary
browning gather ye rosebuds
katatsuburi soro nobore fuji no yama
japanese halloween masks
masks that are in films
heraclitean still point

[edited down a bit to avoid providing extra Google-bait]

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spare ribs

I’m not even going to try to give quantities, since I just sloshed things into a bowl, so if you’ve never cooked ribs this might not be the recipe to start with. On the other hand, it is the kind of forgiving food where sloshing things into a bowl works quite well.

Like all of these rib recipes, the base of the marinade is soy and honey – quite a lot of each. I used Japanese (light) soy sauce, honey, lots of finely chopped/coarsely grated ginger, a few cloves of crushed garlic, a generous squirt of tomato puree, some dark rum, West Indian pepper sauce and smoked paprika.

I think this is nicer with smaller ribs rather than the huge meaty kind. Marinade them for a few hours, then cook in a roasting pan with the marinade for about 1h 40m at 160C. After 45 mins, turn the ribs over. With 10m to go, pour off and reserve the marinade and juices to use as a sauce for those who want it. Stir the ribs around so they’re all piled up and can brown all over.

Eat. It’s good to gnaw the meat off a bone from time to time.

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No, not nanowrimo, actual Hell. BLDGBLOG – where Dante and Botticelli meet opencast mining.


From Brad Holland’s helpful glossary of art terms

Abstract Expressionism:
After the Second World War the United States emerged as the world’s superpower. American companies like Cities Service and Esso, which had once been regional businesses, became international corporations. They adopted abstract names like Citgo and Exxon to give themselves world-class status. Since multinational giants couldn’t have little pictures of red barns or weeping clowns in the lobbies of their Bauhaus buildings, Abstract Expressionism emerged as the world’s most prized form of interior decoration.

via Metafilter.

Purple Potatoes

I bought some Salad Blue potatoes at Borough Market the other day, and just ate them (roasted). I was surprised by how disconcerting I found the violet-coloured flesh. After a few mouthfuls, you get used to it, but at first, they look really unappetising. They just tasted like potatoes, though. If anything, they were on the bland side. Next time I buy heritage potatoes, I’ll pick them on the basis of flavour rather than novelty colour-scheme.

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Mask of the Week

A mask from the Tsam (or Cham) ceremony, a masked dance designed to exorcise evil. The ceremony was held all across the Himalayas, but has been nearly eliminated by the combination of Chinese communism and Western influence. This is from Mongolia.

via Golf Mongolia

lyrics I like

When we met, it was in the hot green jungle
Your perfect flesh impervious to anything fungal


‘kalybapita’ is my attempt to translate ‘cottage pie’ into Greek with the help of this English-Greek dictionary. It’s probably wrong. A recipe:

Chop and sweat down a couple of onions, a leek, three sticks of celery, a bulb of fennel and three cloves of garlic. Brown two pounds of minced beef and add to the pan of vegetables. Deglaze with red wine and add that to the pan as well, along with half a pint of fresh beef stock. Add salt, pepper, lots of fresh thyme and rosemary, a squirt of tomato puree, some Worcestershire sauce, and a little West Indian chilli sauce; simmer for an hour or so.

At the same time, thinly slice a couple of aubergines, sprinkle with salt and leave for half an hour. Dry the slices and fry or grill them. Also, make enough mashed potato to cover the top of the whole thing, with lots of cheese and butter in the mash.

Layer up, in a big dish, some meat sauce, then the aubergines, then more meat, then the potato. Put in a 220C oven until bubbling and brown. It’s a kind of moussaka/cottage pie compromise, but none the worse for that.

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wikipoetry and the wikinovel

[WARNING: very long post]

On TUF, there’s a forum called Morning Electroshock where someone starts a story and other people can come along and add to it. Basically it’s intended as a bit of fun. But Scavella mentioned on her blog that the other day it had, pretty much uniquely, actually created a complete story which with some polishing might stand up on its own merits. You can read the result here.

I have a residual interest in this kind of thing because I once set up a site called The Poetry Wiki. Technically I suppose I still run it, but it never really attracted enough interest to need any running. I never even look at it anymore, especially since I moved this blog to a new hosting service. Checking the Recent Changes page, it seems someone last edited it only 6 days ago – but the changes are coming at 2-month intervals. Presumably any edits are by people who wander across it via Google.

Anyway, the point of the Poetry Wiki was to experiment with collaborative poetry writing. Most people have encountered Wikipedia, I imagine, so the idea is fairly familiar. Wikipedia is created collaboratively – anyone who wants to take part can just dive in and start editing the content. It may not be the perfect encyclopedia, but it’s at least successful enough to demonstrate that the process can work. The idea of the Poetry Wiki was that anyone would be able to edit any of the poems, and that (aided by some discussion) something would emerge – who knows what. In the event, it didn’t catch on.

I really started it just out of curiosity and because I could, in the purest spirit of experiment. But I do find idea of collaborative literature is intriguing. People’s usual reaction to the idea is negative – in fact, we talk about something being ‘designed by committee’ when we mean it’s mediocre, damaged by compromise and a bit of a mess. There’s certainly no great tradition of it being done; whether that’s because it can’t be done or because it hasn’t been tried, I don’t know. There are a few examples of collaborative arts, though. Some forms – opera, film-making, TV – are intrinsically collaborative. But as well as being collaborative by necessity (the actors can’t operate the cameras) they are usually more collaborative than is minimally possible. It would be theoretically possible for one person to do the script, score, costume and set design, casting, directing and production, but it’s not the norm. With lots of specialist roles, division of labour becomes an obvious idea.

Poetry-writing doesn’t involve lots of specialist roles, of course. The closest parallel I can think of is the teams of writers who work on US TV comedies (and other series? I don’t know). Friends may not be poetry, but it’s still good of its kind. Would twenty poets sitting around a table be able to work together in the same way? If they were being paid enough, of course they could, but would the result be better than any one of them would be able to produce alone? I don’t know. But I don’t think you can dismiss the idea out of hand.

There is one form of literature which is (sort of) collaborative: oral literature. It’s collaborative in the sense that each scop/storyteller builds on the tradition which has gone before, and each telling inherits material from all the thousands of tellings which have gone before. But each telling is still the work of one individual. And there’s renga, but that still doesn’t involve people editing each other’s work.

Really, the only way to find out whether writing collaborative literature would be possible or desirable is to try it. The real point, perhaps, is that it is easier now than ever before. The internet is the most profound change in the way we present and receive writing since the invention of the printing press. Sooner or later, it’s going to produce a new form of literature, just as printing eventually made the novel possible. Someone has to try out the possibilities – why not me?

I’ve been considering some of the issues as they apply specifically to using a wiki to write poetry and novels. There would be other ways of organising the process, of course; any software which allows people to post text and others to comment would be just about usable. The advantage of a wiki is that it is designed to allow repeated editing of the original text by multiple users; most of the other kinds of online community (blog, forum, mailing list) involve threaded discussions, which means that much of the action would happen a long way down the thread. With a wiki, the latest version would be the first thing a visitor would encounter.

Even using a wiki, there are a range of different possibilities. Most of them emerge from the conflict between two perspectives on wikidom. Is the wiki just a tool for achieving an end, or the manifestation of a whole philosophy?

Wikis are designed to be democratic (anarchic, in fact), open-access, non-hierarchical, intertextual and dynamic. For some people, this is not simply the way that wikis happen to work; it is an ethos which the wiki embodies. As a comparison, Wikipedia is actually quite heavily structured compared to the original wiki software, and there are people who feel that the hierarchy of users with different powers and, for example, the ability to lock pages, is a betrayal of the WikiWay. Despite this, if you spend some time editing Wikipedia, you’ll still encounter plenty of wikienthusiasts who feel that wikiness is actually a positive virtue in itself.

Take the question of open-access. The classic wiki model allows any visitor to edit any page anonymously without even registering with the site. Wikipedia allows this, and is successful because there is a sufficient mass of well-meaning users to compensate for the casual vandalism of passing idiots. Partially this is because the site appeals to exactly the kind of people who are best suited to it – geeks. That’s not intended as an insult, btw; I’m enough of a geek myself to have accumulated a few hundred edits on Wikipedia (and to have started a poetry wiki, for that matter). That geekiness, which is so well suited to painstakingly arguing over fine points of detail, works well for fact-checking. Attention to detail is also important to writing poetry and literary prose. The question is whether you’d ever get a critical mass of people who were not just well-intentioned, but had the literary judgement to know whether an edit was improving or killing a sentence. The bulk of poetry posted on the internet doesn’t give much cause for optimism. Nor does most of the prose style on Wikipedia. The obvious but unwikilike alternative is to restrict membership to people who you trust.

Another question to consider is whether the process has an end in sight. The nature of a wiki is that it is intrinsically dynamic and unstable. There is no point where it is ‘finished’. On the other hand, most people engaged on writing a novel would probably want to produce a finished piece at the end of the process. I tend to think a dynamic model would work better with short pieces – poems or short prose – where one could absorb the whole piece relatively quickly and then start digging into the history to see how it has changed in the past. It would be much easier to get a sense of the dynamic quality because one could compare diffferent versions more easily. A dynamic 700 page novel makes less sense because few people would be willing to read through several versions from beginning to end. It might be interesting, mind you, to produce a book with four or five versions of a 100-page novella, though; that would provide some compromise between the idea of a work in a finished state and the dynamic possibilities. The different versions could either be different stages in a history or different forks of a tree.

Wikis also have a distinctive structure; they’re modular, distributed and accretive. They have no centre, no hierarchy, and they grow a bit at a time in no particular direction. That structure is perfect for an encyclopedia, because encyclopedias are inherently modular; if the article on Dickens is crap, it doesn’t affect the article on Thackeray. Although Wikipedia’s category system imposes a kind of hierarchy for the purposes of navigation, the site is basically an accumulation of independent articles. By comparison, a novel is (arguably?) more holistic. If something is wrong in chapter 4, it can kill chapter 5; if there’s something distinctive about the characterisation in chapter 1, it can affect the way people will read chapter 20. The wiki structure doesn’t naturally provide for the kind of over-arching commentary that would be needed to deal with those kinds of issues. Something could no doubt be improvised, but there is a natural fit between encyclopedia and wiki which doesn’t apply to the novel.

Even more profound as a change from printed literature is that wikis are not normally linear. They make use of links between articles in the way which has become familiar for anyone who uses the internet. There have been various internet attempts to accomodate hyperlinks in literary forms; none of the ones I’ve seen have been very convincing. But to use a wiki to compose a novel or a selection of poems without linking would be to eliminate a major part of the functionality of the software.

All these possible conflicts – open access vs. membership, dynamic vs. convergent, modular vs. holistic, linear vs. hyperlinked – are conflicts between whether to just use a wiki as convenient software for collaborative authoring, or to embrace the wiki as a way to do something new.

If we imagined literature that embraced the full possibilities of the wiki, it would be a radical vision indeed – the wiki as one big hyper-poem or hyper-novel, openly authored, non-linear, hyperlinked, associative, evolving, mixing traditional narrative prose with poetry and who knows what else, and with a thousand routes through the text. It’s a sexy idea; radical, progressive and dramatic. And if you’re interested in the ways that new technologies shape our art, it makes more sense to produce art that is shaped by the technology available, rather than using the new technology as a way of slightly extending our ways of making traditional forms. None of which is worth much if the result is an unreadable mess. Would it ever offer anything beyond novelty value, let alone any kind of advantage over traditional forms? It’s one thing blurring the line between writer and reader, another to produce a text which is only any fun if you edit it yourself.

For once, I’m not claiming I know what the answer is (there could be several answers). Perhaps the very idea of collaborative literature is stupid; perhaps a wiki is the wrong software to produce it in any case. But I find it interesting to consider the possibilities.
A link: is another wiki where people are playing with these ideas.

Grayson Perry

I’ve been very much enjoying Grayson Perry’s articles in the Times. Perry is the artist who won the Turner Prize in 2003 for his subversive/satirical ceramics and is probably best known for collecting the prize dressed as a small girl. [BBC, Tate] Anyway, the latest article is here.

Stanley Kubrick archive

Londonist tells me that University of the Arts London is getting the Kubrick archive. Two things about that. I’d never heard of UotAL; apparently the Camberwell, St Martin’s and Chelsea art colleges and the London colleges of Communication and Fashion are all part of the same institution. Who knew? And also the Londonist article pointed me to this great article by Jon Ronson about visiting the Kubrick archive.

Mask of the Week

A Hooden Horse from Deal in Kent in 1909:

Picture taken from this site about the Kentish traditioning of Hoodening. But also check out a parallel Welsh tradition, the Mari Lwyd.

Tristram Shandy – the movie

There’s a new film of Tristram Shandy which is showing at the London Film Festival. They’ve given it the title A Cock and Bull Story, from the last lines of the book:

‘L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about? –
A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick – and one of the best of its kind I ever heard’

All the comments you read about it make reference to the fact that it’s regarded as ‘unfilmable’. You can see what they mean, but I can’t help thinking that, of all the early novelists, Sterne is the one who would have just loved making films. The book is full of great dialogue and slightly extraordinary characters, slapstick, set pieces, and technical innovation. The man who wrote a novel that includes a marbled page and those little squiggly lines to indicate the shape of his narrative would have loved playing with all the possibilities of film.

Whether or not the new film does a good job of it is another matter. I’m slightly underwhelmed to see all the usual britcom suspects in the cast – Steve Coogan, David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Ronni Ancona, Rob Brydon – because it suggests a film being played for fairly broad comedy. And I’d almost always rather see an actor doing comedy than a comedian acting. Still, it could be fab.

Language whinge

Yup, it’s negative karma all round, today. I promise my next post will be a glowingly positive comment about something.

An article in the Times explains how a government-commissioned report on CBBC (the BBC’s children’s TV channel), as well as criticising the “crass” presentation, “tastelessness and cruelty” of some programmes also criticised the frequent use of bad grammar, citing “ain’t” and “you was” as examples. OK, fair enough, let’s leave aside the question of whether the BBC should allow children’s presenters to use colloquial English, and move on to the rest of the Times article.

Joyce Watts, a retired teacher, complained of “fast, loud speech” where “all the words run into one and cannot be understood”. Ms Watts said interviewers would ask guests, “What d’ya like best” and, “What’s ya faverit number?” Children’s written work suffered as they began to spell words as they believed they should be pronounced.

Ms Watts may not be able to understand English spoken quickly, but it’s something the kids are going to have to get used to if they’re going to be functioning members of society. It is of course the norm for ‘all the words to run into one’ as anyone who’s ever heard a foreign language spoken will know. But more to the point, ‘what d’ya like best?’ and ‘what’s ya faverit number’? strike me as pretty good attempts at writing how those sentences would be pronounced in perfectly normal spoken English. She seems to be bothered by the fact that unstressed vowels are not given their full value – but that’s normal. Perhaps she should record herself speaking to find out.

To be fair, the way those sentences are written may be down to the journalist who spoke to her. Perhaps if one heard the recording it would be more obvious what her gripe is – though I suspect it’s simply that she objects to accents that sound a bit too working class.

As for the statement “children’s written work suffered as they began to spell words as they believed they should be pronounced” – well, the mind boggles. I hardly know how to put this, it seems like such a truism – English spelling is not reliably phonetic. However ‘correct’ your spoken English is, if you try to write things down the way they sound, you’ll often get it wrong. That’s just a difficulty with learning to write. If students believe that words should be spelt as they are pronounced, someone isn’t teaching them properly, because it isn’t true. You don’t learn to spell by learning to speak properly – you earn to spell by learning spellings and, above all, by reading. I suppose it’s too much to hope that Ms Watts taught some other subject than English.

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Art gallery blurbs

I’m feeling a bit pot/kettle for having been rude to Lynne Truss for whinging about things, because this, for the third post in a row, is going to be a whinge.

This time: those blurbs in art galleries. Specifically the ones that tell you what to think, and how you should be reacting. I don’t mind this kind of thing:

Although the inspiration for Embankment came from the single box she found in her mother’s house, Whiteread selected a number of differently-shaped boxes to construct the installation for the Turbine Hall. She filled them with plaster, peeled away the exteriors and was left with perfect casts, each recording and preserving all the bumps and indentations on the inside. They are ghosts of interior spaces or, if you like, positive impressions of negatives spaces. Yet Whiteread wanted to retain their quality as containers, so she had them refabricated in a translucent polymer which reveals a sense of an interior. And rather than make precious objects of them, she constructed thousands.

[some stuff about the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark which I can’t be bothered to type] Whiteread has spoken of wanting to make the Turbine Hall into a kind of warehouse, and this is an intriguing response to a space which was once industrial but is now a museum. For what is a museum, after all, but a storage depot for art?

There’s a certain amount of editorialising there, but it’s mainly concerned with the thought processes and techniques of the artist, which is quite interesting information which the audience can take or leave. But this, from later in the same leaflet, is the kind of thing that really bugs me:

Dwarfed by these towering structures as we wind our way through them, we become acutely aware of our own physical presence. But there is also a spirit of absence here, a ghostly echo of all the abandoned empty spaces that surrounds us day after day.

Thanks, Mr Tate-Curator, but I can decide for myself how aware I am of my own physical presence.

One particular problem with this kind of blurbing is that it invites the audience to disagree. This is from the leaflet for the Universal Experiences exhibition at the Hayward:

This 28-metre-long light table displays hundreds of colour transparencies of tourist destinations visited and photographed by the artists. The pictures evoke fantasies of escapism and are reminiscent of the illustrations in tourist brochures and travel magazines. Combined in this sculptural travelogue these images allude to the increase in global tourism at the end of the 20th century and re-invest their endlessly photographed subjects with a sense of the extraordinary.

To which my reaction is – no they don’t. Re-invest with a sense of the extraordinary, that is. If anything, they banalify the places shown by lumping together such a large number of generic-looking photos. Now the curators at the Hayward might argue that it’s a good thing that I’m being drawn into engaging with the work. Except that I find myself constantly put into a hostile, confrontational frame of mind; and I don’t believe that irritated and argumentative is the best spirit to get the most out of a work of art.

Perhaps all I’m doing is revealing my own character flaws again.

Lynne Truss

If I’d already written a book whinging about how no-one knows how to punctuate properly anymore, and was just starting to do the publicity rounds for a new book whinging about how no-one has proper manners anymore, I’d start to worry about the karmic payback for all that negativity. I used to enjoy Lynne Truss’s journalism in the Times; it seems a pity that she’s turning herself into a one-woman Daily Mail editorial.

Actually, though, I have more sympathy for her new cause than the old one. Whether or not I’d be convinced by her argument, whatever it is, I can at least see that courtesy is important. The way people treat each other in all the mundane exchanges of everyday has a real impact on the enjoyability of life. I really don’t care whether the greengrocer knows how to use an apostrophe, but I do care whether or not he’s rude to me.

Stupid band names

I’m really getting sick of bands who mispell their own name, or the names of their albums and songs, for some kind of cool-value. You know the kind of thing – Reprazent, M!ssundaztood , sk8er boi, Outkast, A Skillz and Krafty Kuts, Bushwacka, Klashnekoff. It’s cheesy and just so twencen. But the habit has reached a new low with one of the bands on X Factor, who are called Addictiv Ladies. For fuck’s sake, you’re not even trying. If ‘Addictive Ladies’ is too mainstream for you, how about ‘Adiktiv Laydeez’ or ‘Adicktiv Lay Ds’? Just dropping the ‘e’ seems so … half-hearted.

Mask of the Week

A Plague Doctor mask. In the C17th, plague doctors used to wear these and fill the long ‘nose’ with herbs to ward off the plague. They’re still worn at the Carnevale in Venice.

From Masquerade, who sell Venetian masks.

‘The Mating Mind’ by Geoffrey Miller

I’ve just read The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller. The book’s argument is that many of the typical characteristics of human behaviour are best understood as products of sexual selection. Sexual selection is the process where you start with some ancestral bird species where the females have a bit of a thing for longer tails, and a few thousand generations later, they’ve evolved into peacocks. I suppose there are two key insights I’d take from the book, neither of them completely new to me but worth being reminded of.

The first is this – it’s easy to think of natural selection as being driven by adaptations for survival, with sexual selection being almost cosmetic in its effects. It doesn’t matter how good-looking you are if you starve, die of disease or get eaten by a lion before you get a chance to breed. But from an evolutionary perspective, there’s no point in living to a ripe old age if you can’t attract any sexual partners. Both scenarios are evolutionary dead-ends. Also, selection is not necessarily an either-or process (either you survive or you don’t; either you breed or you don’t). Rather, it’s driven by differential rates of reproductive success. And within a well-established species, it’s easy to see how the biggest single factor in determining reproductive succcess will often be the ability to attract a mate. The results of sexual selection will often appear cosmetic – coloured feathers, or an attractive song – but that’s just because those are the things a potential mate is able to perceive. It doesn’t mean that sexual selection is a less powerful force than ‘normal’ natural selection. In a sense, this is an obvious insight; anyone who has ever heard a nightingale or a blackbird singing must be aware of how much effort it is costing them, and there are few more spectacular adaptations than the plumage of a bird of paradise. And just because sexual selection mainly operates on external features, it doesn’t mean that it is limited to those features. Applied to humans, it doesn’t have to be limited to skin colour, breast size and hip-waist ratios. There’s no reason why it can’t also operate on people’s ability to hold a conversation, or dance, or sing. The only requirement is that there must be some genetic component.

The other insight is that anywhere in nature where we see an oganism with a physical feature or behaviour that doesn’t seem to have any survival benefit, it’s worth considering sexual selection as the explanation. Natural selection is inherently thrifty – we should never expect to see energy being expended without there being some reason for it. If that reason isn’t survival, pretty much the only other possibility is an attempt to attract mates, either directly or via increased status. And sexual selection can take almost any form. There are reasons why some adaptations are more likely than others, but the process is essentially arbitrary; once some trait becomes associated with sexual attractiveness, it’s a self-sustaining trend. The explanation is almost too powerful – you can see how it would become a lazy assumption faced with anything slightly unexpected, but as far as I can see, it’s very difficult to disprove. Geoffrey Miller certainly sees sexual selection everywhere – he uses it to explain sport, art, poetry, music, language, dancing and indeed just about everything that makes us human.

I find this argument moderately persuasive, I must admit. As ever, there are questions about which human behaviours can really be seen as written into our genes; can music making really be seen as an evolved trait? Or sport? They seem to be human universals, so it’s not a ridiculous idea, but I’m still slightly wary about making the assumption. But for more obviously evolved traits, like language, it seems very plausible that sexual selection would be the principle driving force.

On the whole, though, I found the parts of the book about human behaviour less interesting than those about sexual selection generally. I’ve read about sexual selection before but to have it treated in depth as a subject in its own right was helpful. For example, the classic examples used to illustrate sexual selection involve dramatic sexual dimorphism, as with the drably-plumaged peahen, or the difference in size between male and female elephant seals. But Miller points out that those are a special case where a few successful males account for the vast majority of offspring. Even in species which form largely faithful pairs, there is an advantage in being able to attract the best (healthiest, most fertile) mates. In that situation, the effects of sexual selection will be less dramatic, but will still be present. For example, in bird species where colourful plumage is found in both sexes, they have traditionally been referred to as ‘species markers’; Miller suggests that these could still be the results of sexual selection.

So I would have liked more of the book spent on sexual selection in general, with more illustrative examples from other species, and slightly less of the human stuff at the end. But it’s a good book, and I recommend it.

George Szirtes TS Eliot lecture

I just booked a ticket for George Szirtes’s TS Eliot lecture next month, having been to and enjoyed Don Paterson’s last year. Judging by the Szirtes blog (and indeed his poetry), he should be able to put together a thoughtful and enjoyable lecture. But you never know. I don’t know what it says about me that I find the idea of going to a (good) lecture on poetry more appealing than going to a reading.