Gooseberry liqueur

Much as I like cooked gooseberries, I was trying to think what I could do with some gooseberries that would keep that sharpness and fragrantness that they have when they’re raw. So I thought I’d try making gooseberry liqueur. I couldn’t actually find any recipes for it, but the basic principle of making fruit liqueur seems pretty straightforward, so I topped and tailed the berries, pricked them all over with a fork, and put them in a jar with a load of sugar and vodka.*

I’m going to leave them to soak for four or five weeks in a cool dark place, strain off the liquid into a bottle and then possibly leave it a little longer to mature. My ideal result would be a kind of gooseberry version of limoncello: sharp and flavoursome. But I’m just making it up as I go along, so I’ll let you know how it turns out in a few weeks.

* Just for my own benefit if I want to remember the quantities later: 800g of gooseberries, 300g of sugar and about 3/4 of a bottle of Stoli.

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Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

Full title: Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life. The bacteria Escherichia coli is best known for occasionally causing food poisoning outbreaks, but most strains of it are harmless and indeed a normal part of our gut flora. It’s also one of the most-studied life forms on earth because, like fruit flies and white mice, they are used as a standard laboratory research subject. So Zimmer has been able to use E. coli as a way of looking at a whole range of related topics: evolution, cell biology, genetic engineering and so forth.

'Metallic green E. coli on EMB plate'

As I would expect from him, he writes clearly and well, and the book is certainly interesting, but I wasn’t as excited by it as I expected. The material was broadly familiar: I wouldn’t claim to know the subject well — I only know the bits and pieces I’ve picked up in other popular science books and New Scientist — but there weren’t that many wow moments when I learnt something surprising and new. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m not too excited by bacteria.

I do tend to find microbiology rather hard going. It’s not that it’s too conceptually difficult, I think, at least at the level it’s being presented here; it just doesn’t seem to stick in my head. I think it’s partially that I can’t visualise the action, and partially that there are all these long names for enzymes and proteins and I can’t keep track of them.

This book is pretty good, but if you haven’t read anything by Zimmer, I’d suggest you read Parasite Rex first, because that’s one of my favourite science books ever.

» The photo, Metallic green E. coli on EMB plate, was posted to Flickr by YW Lim and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

Divisionist Painters at the National Gallery

Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters 1891-1910, to give the exhibition its full title. Divisionism is a style of painting where the image is built up of lots of individual brushstrokes of pure colour which, ideally, merge together for the viewer but create a more luminous effect than if the colours were blended on the palette.

Angelo Morbelli, 'In the Rice Fields', 1898-1901, © the owner

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s Pointillism under a different name. Apparently the Divisionists had heard about Pointillism and were inspired by it but hadn’t actually seen the paintings; they generally use long thin brushstrokes rather than the little dabs favoured by Seurat, but the principle is the same. Divisionism was also apprently an important stepping stone towards Futurism, the rather more famous Italian art movement.
I didn’t have very high expectations — I think obscure artistic movements are often obscure for a reason, I don’t like Seurat that much, and it got a bad review in Time Out — but, perhaps because of that, I enjoyed it. Some of the symbolist and political stuff had aged badly, but there were some really very likeable landscapes. Since the optical effect which is the whole point of Divisionism is destroyed by reproducing them as little jpegs, the pictures on the website don’t do them justice, but hey-ho.

» The picture above, taken from the exhibition website, is Angelo Morbelli’s ‘In the Rice Fields’, 1898-1901, © the owner

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This is the latest of Pinker’s books on various aspects of language and psychology. Specifically, it looks at what language can tell us about the ways the human mind understands the world. For example, the various tenses available to us might tell us something about the human brain’s inherent models for understanding time. Or different kinds of action verbs tell us something about the underlying concepts our minds use to understand the interaction of objects. All his examples are from English, but he assures us, on his honour as a linguist, that the points he makes are more broadly applicable.

weasel diorama

He sounds very plausible, but as so often with these things I don’t really have the expertise to judge. I daresay there may be other linguists/cognitive scientists/psychologists who strongly disagree with everything he says, but I have no idea what their arguments might be. What has a broad plausibility for me is that Pinker provides a layer of cognitive concepts that act as a framework to make language-acquisition easier without being too implausibly complex. In other words: I am persuaded that infants learn their mother tongue so quickly and easily that their must be some kind of (presumably innate) cognitive headstart. Pinker’s model requires really quite a lot of innate ideas, and I can imagine some people boggling at it, but it is at least an idea of what kind of explanation might be needed. So I found all that broad process interesting.

If anything, I sometimes found myself fighting the instinct to dismiss it because it seems too obvious. I read him arguing that the human mind understands something in such-and-such a way and there was a bit at the back of my head saying “well yes, obviously” even though there’s nothing inevitable about it. It might just be that these ways of thinking seem obvious because they are innate. On the other hand I’ve read books about psychology which have been full of surprising insights, so there’s no reason to assume that we have a clear idea of how our own minds work.

sad lion

So the project is an interesting one. And Pinker writes well, on the whole: it’s sometimes heavy going, because the subject requires lots of close attention to fine details of usage, but he writes clearly and, as far as possible, he keeps the book ticking over with peculiar facts, anecdotes and other sparkly objects designed to hold the attention of the magpie mind. If anything, I get the sense that he has slightly toned down that aspect of his style, though I haven’t done a direct comparison: I seem to remember that in The Language Instinct, which was the first of his books that I read, he could hardly go half a paragraph without some kind of popular culture reference or joke, and it sometimes came across as trying too hard. But there’s still enough there to help sugar the pill.

When I read The Language Instinct I was at university doing an English Literature degree, so I naturally read it with half an eye on whether it could tell me anything about literature. There are two observations I’d make about that: firstly, although many of the literary/critical theories I was introduced to were implicitly or explicitly theories about language, none of them bore any relationship whatever to the ways of analysing language I found in Pinker. Literary theorists, in trying to understand language, had not apparently felt any need to talk to any linguists. The only linguist whose name came up was Saussure; and while I don’t hold Saussure responsible for all the ridiculous things that have been said by the people who name-check him, I’d at least point out that he died in 1913, and linguistics has moved on since then.

bear and dog

The second observation is that, although I found this state of affairs irritating, I didn’t suddenly find I had lots of new and interesting insights on literature after reading the book. It’s only a popular treatment and I didn’t make any attempt to follow it up by reading other books, but still, I spent time thinking about it and didn’t get anywhere. The same goes for The Stuff Of Thought; it’s all quite interesting, but it doesn’t instantly give me any new way of thinking about the literary use of language. In the chapter about metaphor, there’s a short discussion about literary metaphor, which is fine but doesn’t offer anything that you wouldn’t find in a good book on how to write poetry.

Linguistics, cognitive science and other disciplines which examine language and the interface between language and thought don’t actually need to offer an insight into literature to justify their existence. We can’t claim to have a complete understanding of language until we can say how poetry works, but I guess that can wait; in the meantime, The Stuff Of Thought is an interesting read.

» I couldn’t think what pictures to use for this post, neither language nor thought being very visually striking, so I went with stuffed animals. The weasels are by dogseat; the lion is by cenzMounted bear and the hunting dog who found him, and was killed by him is by Curious Expeditions. All are used under a by-nc-sa licence.


British Orientalist Painting at Tate Britain

The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting is an exhibition of ‘the responses of British artists to the cultures and landscapes of the Near and Middle East between 1780 and 1930’. So the East here is Cairo, Jerusalem and Constantinople, and not Bombay, Singapore or Nagasaki.

Unknown artist, Sir Robert Shirley, Envoy from Shah 'Abbas of Persia to the Courts of Europe, before 1628

You can hardly touch on the subject without a name-check for one of the few bits of cultural theorising that’s so famous that even I’ve heard of it, and the Tate mentions it right up front:

In the 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East.

So I went round with that argument somewhat in mind, and I had a yeah-but-no-but reaction to it. The Tate’s one-sentence summary of the argument — a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control — makes it sound like a coordinated propaganda effort to push a particular agenda, and it clearly isn’t that; but then I imagine that Said’s original book was rather more nuanced anyway.

Yes, there’s a focus on the picturesque and the exotic, and a certain superficiality in the images, and some particular subjects which bring out the worst in the artists, like the slave markets and the harem. And I’m sure they did travel around with a bone-deep sense of their own culture’s superiority. But to offer a couple of points in lukewarm defence: firstly, this is tourist art. Most of the artists travelled in the region for a year or two, so it’s a rather more immersive kind of travel than most modern tourism, but still, these are visitors painting for the British market. I think much of the picturesqueness can be explained simply by their tourist status, without the need to invoke some kind of deep cultural agenda. Not that the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

The other point is this. The bulk of the work here is C19th, and when you look at C19th paintings on other subjects — scenes from Shakespeare, or the Bible, or British history, or even contemporary life — you see a similar tendency towards the picturesque, the colourful, the sentimental and the didactic. These were not people keen on ambivalence and self-doubt.

Arthur Melville, An Arab Interior, 1881, National Gallery of Scotland

The one subject where cultural differences collide most spectacularly is the harem. Obviously, none of the male artists had ever been inside a harem — there’s not much point in sequestering your women if you let a load of nosy foreigners come in and paint them — and the idea of them came to occupy a rather sweaty part of the artists’ imaginations. The harem paintings in this exhibition are relatively tame (apparently French versions had rather more flesh on display), but they are clearly an opportunity to paint some exotic totty, rather than a sensitive and nuanced exploration of cultural difference. There’s one painting by a woman who had actually been inside a harem, and apparently it caused a minor sensation at the time for revealing what the harem was really like: not in fact a rich, tapestry-draped, incense filled hothouse full of scantily clad odalisques, but a rather plain domestic interior full of woman doing boring domestic stuff.

Other paintings were perhaps not exotic enough. There’s a great scene in Brideshead Revisited, where Charles Ryder, having established his reputation as a painter of country houses and English scenery, has been on a trip to South America, and has been getting rave reviews for an exhibition of South American scenes when Anthony Blanche turns up, takes him to a seedy gay bar and precedes to eviscerate the pictures.

“Oh, the pictures,” they said; “they’re most peculiar.” “Not at all what he normally does.” “Very forceful.” “Quite barbaric.” “I call them downright unhealthy,” said Mrs Stuyvesant Oglander.

‘My dear, I could hardly keep still in my chair. I wanted to dash out of the house and leap in a taxi and say, “Take me to Charles’s unhealthy pictures.” […] and what did I find? I found, my dear, a very naughty and very successful practical joke. It reminded me of dear Sebastian when he liked so much to dress up in false whiskers. It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers.’

There was certainly something of that about the exhibition: a failure, for example, to communicate any sense of heat.

I chose the two paintings here because I like them, rather than because they’re typical. In fact, I like them because they’re not typical. Most of the paintings left me underwhelmed, and that’s my real problem with the show; it’s fairly interesting, but it didn’t excite me very often as art.

» The paintings, both taken from the exhibition website, are Sir Robert Shirley, Envoy from Shah ‘Abbas of Persia to the Courts of Europe, painted by an unknown artist before 1628, from the collection of R.J. Berkeley; and Arthur Melville’s An Arab Interior, 1881, from the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, is a selection of letters between the various Mitford sisters, who were an extraordinary bunch. From oldest to youngest: Nancy was the novelist who wrote Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love; Pamela was least remarkable; Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists; Unity went off to Germany and became a personal friend of Hitler; Jessica ran away from home to join a cousin fighting on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and became a civil rights activist and writer in America; and Deborah, the only surviving sister, is now Duchess of Devonshire and spent most of her life working to make Chatsworth House into a profitable outfit.

Among the notable names that crop up: Hitler, Goebbels, Churchill, Harold Macmillan, General de Gaulle, JFK, John Betjemen, Evelyn Waugh, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Queen, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Noel Coward… so there’s lots of good material there. 

The main interest in the early part of the book is the Big History stuff: the Nazis and Hitler most of all. I read it trying to get some sense of what appealed to Unity and Diana about Fascism, but although there are lots of letters about Hitler, and going to rallies and so on, I never quite got a handle on it. I suspect that for Diana, it was as much because of her attraction to Oswald Mosley as any ideology, but it can’t have just been that. And Unity seems to have had an with Hitler before she met him in the way someone might have an obsession with Elvis or Princess Diana. She found out where he regularly went to eat and kept going there until she had the chance to wangle an introduction.

I suppose since half of Europe went Fascist in the thirties, there’s no need for a special explanation. The same thing appealed to them as to everyone else: whatever that was. It’s perhaps easier to look back and empathise with the appeal of communism, but still, with that too it would be interesting to know what triggered it: was there some particular conversation or book? What would be enough to make Jessica run off to Spain in pursuit of it?

As the book goes on and the sisters get older and less active, the focus narrows down from these Big Issues onto their family dynamics, which are often made rather tense by the growing interest in them and the various books and TV programmes made by themselves and others. It’s still fascinating, though. 

It helps that they all write well: their letters are chatty, funny, sometimes serious, and frequently quite bitchy. Nancy had the sharpest edge, but they all had their caustic moments. I probably ought to quote something, so here’s a fairly random bit that I thought showed a sharp eye. This is Diana writing to Deborah in 1960; Max is her son. He’s the Max Mosley currently in the news, as it happens.

Yesterday Max fetched me in the Austin Healey Sprite & drove me to Oxford where Jean had made a delicious middle day dinner. The flat is marvellous, not one ugly thing, & a view over playing fields to real country & a garden with an apple tree. ALL the wedding presents were being used — your car, Desmond’s china, Emma’s Derby ware, Viv’s pressure cooker, Muv’s pink blanket on the bed and (pièce de résistance) Wife’s coffee set — also of course Freddy Bailey’s canteen of silver.

Oh Debo, the pathos of the young. Don’t let’s think.

Charlotte Mosley, who edited the book, is daughter-in-law of Diana, so one wonders if she is, or could be, completely objective — it’s impossible to know whether she has quietly laundered anything out, and apparently, even at 800 pages, what appears in the book is a tiny percentage of the total — but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

» the image, which has nothing to do with the Mitfords beyond the obvious, is POSTER – WOMEN OF NAZI GERMANY, posted to Flickr by Bristle’s Film Posters [ W1 ]. If it’s working, that is: Flickr seems a little flaky today.


I watched Cabaret again tonight. First thing: it really is a very good film, and if by some chance you haven’t seen it, hurry up and do so.

I was struck by how grown up it seems: it touches on serious subjects (Nazis! homosexuality! abortion!) but does so, mainly, in a stylishly, darkly humorous way. It made me wonder when I last saw a new movie which didn’t talk down to its audience.

It also made me want to read some Christopher Isherwood.


Tweaking sports

Watching Wimbledon, I was thinking about how much the appeal of tennis depends on the scoring system. You have to win games by a two-point margin and sets by a two-game margin, so at the key moments in the match, when it’s tightest, the drama is artificially enhanced: the balance can swing back and forth between the players.  But on the other hand, a 40-0 game is worth exactly as much one that goes to deuce and a 6-0 set is worth the same as one that goes to a tie-break. And that means that there is always the chance for the losing player to pull back.

As a thought experiment: the minimum number of point you have to win in a five set match is, if I’ve got my maths right, 72. So what would tennis be like if you scrapped the games and sets, and the winner was the first to 120 points? I assume it would be much less entertaining, as one player would tend to gradually pull out ahead and the match would just peter out.

But what would happen if you altered other sports? Some have made the experiment for us. There are various forms of cricket that use basically the same rules but take different amounts of time to play; the extremes are test cricket (five days) and 20-over cricket (about four hours). The five day game is gradual, attritional; it rewards virtues like concentration, will-power and consistency. The short version is explosive and fast-scoring; it rewards power, flair and risk-taking.* Both versions can produce great drama, but they are quite different to watch.

It gives me the urge to tweak other sports. For example, I don’t know much about ice hockey, but when I have watched it, as a soccer fan, it seems like the ice is just too crowded; there’s not enough time and space for anything to happen. So how would the game change if the rink was four times the size? Hell, let’s do the same with basketball — a much bigger court, perhaps a couple more players on each team.

I’m not suggesting that these innovations would definitely make for a better sport: it’s just a curious thought experiment. Maybe there’s a something waiting to be invented, some simple change to an existing sport that would magically make it much much better: American football with smaller teams, ping-pong with bigger tables, soccer without goalkeepers, indoor polo. Perhaps (probably) these ideas are stupid, but who knows?

If any of these ideas are, unexpectedly, brilliant — well, we’ll never know. There’s the weight of tradition that makes sports fans scream bloody murder at the idea of tinkering with their favourite sport; but also it would often take years to find out if a radical rule-change was, on balance, better or worse. It’s not enough to take existing players, ask them to play to new rules, and see what happens: you need time to see how it develops, for thoughtful people to come up with ideas and try them, for a new style of play to develop. Time for the law of unintended consequences to kick in, but also for people to adapt to to it.

But it’s fun to consider the possibilities, so any suggestions about how to improve your own favourite (or least favourite) sport should be posted in the comments.

* I won’t try to explain why this is true, since I know most of my readers come from non-cricketing nations, and those who know about cricket will understand already. And for those who do know about cricket: yes, this is probably an over-simplification, but hey-ho, it’ll do.

» The photo is Men’s Wimbledon Final 2008- Federer Vs Nadal, posted to Flickr by and © channy937.