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Welsh rarebit

Cheese on toast is about my favourite comfort food, and today I had the urge to make Welsh rarebit [i.e. Welsh rabbit]. I couldn’t remember exactly what was in it, except that it’s a tarted-up version of cheese on toast. When I found a recipe for it I wasn’t terribly excited, though: it didn’t seem like the extra fuss would be justified by the result. But I made it anyway, and it was nice. The version I made was like this:

Toast four slices of bread on one side under the grill.

In a saucepan, melt together 8oz (220g) of grated cheddar, 1oz of butter, 1 tbsp of English mustard, 4 tbsp of brown ale, a dash of Tabasco and some black pepper.

Put the cheese mixture on the untoasted side of the bread and grill until brown and bubbling.

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Terracotta warriors at the BM

I went to see the terracotta warriors at the British Museum. It’s unusual for them to be on show outside China, so it’s a big event; they have about a dozen terracotta figures and lots of associated material.

It’s certainly worth going to, but the warriors themselves didn’t have the wow factor you might hope for. I may not have seen them in the flesh before, but they are so familiar that it felt like I had. I don’t know why some artworks—paintings particularly?—are so much more effective in the flesh than in photos, while others aren’t. In the particular case of the terracotta warriors, I think part of what makes them incredible is the sheer number of them: the iconic image is of them standing in massed ranks. And although the figures are beautifully made—they are modelled in great detail and famously every one is slightly individual—I don’t know that they are great works of Art. Whatever that means. They were made on a production line basis by prisoners doing forced labour; I don’t know whether that’s relevant.

banliang coin

So for me the most interesting thing was all the context: the stuff about the ‘First Emperor’, his conquest and unification of about a third of modern China and the standardisation of the coinage, weights and measures, and writing system; the architectural details of his palaces; and all the other stuff that was buried with him. It’s not just warriors; the exhibition had terracotta acrobats, civil servants and musicians. And all those things were found at sites away from the main tomb mound itself, which has never been excavated out of respect for the emperor. And there’s probably lots of good stuff in the tomb. This is Wikipedia:

According to the Grand Historian Sima Qian (145 BC-90 BC) [i.e. about 100 years after the event], the First Emperor was buried alongside great amounts of treasure and objects of craftsmanship, as well as a scale replica of the universe complete with gemmed ceilings representing the cosmos, and flowing mercury representing the great earthly bodies of water. Pearls were also placed on the ceilings in the tomb to represent the stars, planets, etc.

I particularly liked the writing, a form called Small Seal Script. It’s the ancestor of modern Chinese script, and they had a sample next to the modern equivalent that allowed you to see the similarities. But the seal script looks like petroglyphs: much more varied than modern hanzi, and sort of more organic, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. Partially the difference is between a script written with a pointed implement and one written with a brush, but it’s also presumably the effect of two thousand years of standardisation. There’s an interesting chart of various writing styles on this Wikipedia page.

One thing I find interesting is the terms which they chose to use to talk about the emperor. Qin Shihuangdi’s achievement in conquering the neighbouring kingdoms and unifying them was undoubtedly remarkable. But he was a megalomaniac despot. He declared himself divine emperor of the universe. His tomb complex—built, remember, by prisoners, and designed to be buried—is just him extending his megalomania into the afterlife. So when the BM refers to him as ‘one of the greatest rulers in history’, I find myself a bit uncomfortable. In some sense it’s clearly true, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to live in his empire. And I find the fact that the Chinese aren’t willing to excavate his tomb slightly creepy. It’s hardly a uniquely Chinese thing, of course: it’s easy to get caught up by the romance of someone like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, but it’s hard to argue that they increased the sum of human happiness. I wonder, by the way, since the Chinese government is clearly currently running a campaign of cultural diplomacy, whether they exercise any editorial control over exhibitions like this. I imagine the BM would have been absolutely gagging for the opportunity to host the show, so they wouldn’t need to be heavy-handed about it: just a gentle hint here or there.

» There aren’t really any pictures of the warriors on the BM website, so I found a picture of a Qin dynasty banliang coin from their collection just to have something to illustrate the post.

Night owls

I dreamt last night that owls had started coming to the bird feeders.

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Kidneys! Kidneys! Get your kidneys here!

I’m fascinated by this story—that the British government is considering changing organ donation to an opt-out system. So the surgeons would be able to presume consent unless the patient had specifically asked that his organs not be used.

I think it’s such an interesting ethical question. In some ways it would so clearly be a good thing: having organs which could save someone’s life and not using them just seems criminally wasteful. But I don’t think you have to be a full-blown libertarian to feel uncomfortable with the government giving itself the right to treat the bodies of its citizens as a resource to be harvested.

Anyway, at least having the story in the news made me finally get round to registering as an organ donor, something I’ve vaguely been intending to do for years. So even if the law doesn’t change, they can have any squidgy inside bits they have a use for.

Millais at the Tate

I went to see the Millais at the Tate today. After my scathing comments about the Pre-Raphs last year, it may not surprise you that I was a bit half-hearted about visiting this. But I’ve got a Tate membership, so I didn’t have to pay, and the exhibition is about to close; so I thought I’d check it out.

Because it’s the last weekend the exhibition was absolutely heaving with people, which didn’t help, but I tried to give Millais a fair go and see if I could find things to like about his work. And… well, there were some nice paintings there, but he’s not suddenly my favourite painter. He left the Pre-Raphaelitism behind fairly quickly; his painting style loosened up a bit and his subject matter changed first to more contemporary subjects and then to less literal-minded story-telling—both shifts in the right direction—but he never seemed to quite lose the narrative instinct. He couldn’t just paint a picture of a woman in chair, it had to have some story implied: she’s holding a black-bordered envelope and she’s wearing mourning, or whatever.

portrait of Louise Jopling by Millais

So I rather liked the room of portraits, like this one of Louise Jopling, because if you just stopped him from trying to tell a story for five minutes he was a pretty good painter. I’m not quite sure whether there was actually anything wrong with his narrative paintings or if I’m just prejudiced against the whole genre, but I found them stiff and heavy-handed.

As ever, the Tate have put together a really comprehensive website for the exhibition with loads of pictures online, so judge for yourself.

Primarily peculiar

Is it just me or is the American system of state primaries really bizarre?

And I don’t just mean the Iowan ‘we don’t believe in the secret ballot’ thing. The very fact that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire take on great significance is a clear sign that something isn’t working properly. I mean, no disrespect to those two states, but they account for less than 2% of the country’s population between them. And yet if Clinton does badly in New Hampshire, her two losses will be seen as seriously damaging her chances.

And indeed they probably will affect her chances, because there will be a storm of media coverage which will have a psychological impact on voters elsewhere in the country. I know it would be too much to expect that the pundits might treat these early results with the lack of interest they deserve, since it’s their job to express opinions and they’ve been dying to actually have some scores to report on from months now, but it just seems like madness.

I don’t know. I’m only seeing it from outside. Perhaps I just don’t get it. Perhaps there’s some reason why it’s actually a brilliant idea.

» The Purple Finch and American Goldfinch are the state birds of New Hampshire and Iowa respectively. The photo was posted to Flickr by Grant Leavitt.

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Moby Dick

I thought I ought to reread some of those Great Novels which are sitting on my shelves and I haven’t read for years. I’m not sure why I picked up Moby Dick in particular, but after a few pages I was thinking oh, man, I’d forgotten how funny this book is, and so brilliantly written. But after a couple of hundred pages I remembered why it has a reputation for being unreadable, or at least unfinishable.

whaling scene

The opening scenes, where he meets Queequeg, and goes to the whaling chapel, and joins the Pequod, and the crew are all introduced, are truly superb: grotesque and funny. But then after they get to sea, the book loses forward momentum. Partially because there’s not much plot going on, and it’s very episodic, but especially because of Melville’s (or, I suppose, Ishmael’s) long discourses on whales and whaling. Even those are interesting, and frequently well-written and entertaining. But there’s an awful lot of it, and it’s just rather pale and conventional compared to the weirdness of the narrative stuff. It’s as though Bram Stoker had decided that Dracula would be greatly improved by a few chapters about folk customs in Romania and the best techniques for garlic cultivation.

So the book is rather becalmed. But towards the end it picks up again and builds to a suitably grotesque crescendo when they finally track down Moby Dick.

In all seriousness, although I do think this is a great novel, I also think you could greatly improve it by judicious editing. You could cut it down to about the half and length and change it from a sprawling, discursive tome into something short, dark, strange and intense. Like Heart of Darkness with whales.

Since it’s out of copyright, I suppose I could do it myself. As a public service.

Bird of the Year 2007: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

There’s lots of choice here; I’ll just give a hat-tip to the big trees of Kew Gardens and Greenwich Park which I got over excited about in the autumn.

But most of the possibilities were in Crete. Crete has more species of plant than the UK, and a bundle of them are endemics. In spring, it’s an amazing place for wildflowers. Among too many species to mention were little white cyclamens, two species of asphodel, and at least eight different orchids. For example, according to my own notes on Flickr which may or may not accurate, this is either Ophrys phryganae or Ophrys sicula:

Cretan orchid

Either way it’s a cute little thing. But marvellous though all these delicate little wildflowers were, my plant of the year was something bigger and more grotesque: Dracunculus vulgaris, the Dragon Arum. I was just blown away by this thing. I mean look at it! It’s about four foot tall and apparently gives off a smell of rotting flesh, though on balance I’m pleased to say I didn’t notice it.

Dragon Arum

Best Insect

A quick mention for the attractive/destructive rosemary beetles that have been eating my herbs. And I saw Scarce Swallowtail in Crete which is a nice butterfly. But the clear winner this year is the Jersey Tiger moth that appeared in the garden. In the UK the Jersey Tiger used to be confined, as the name suggests, to the Channel Islands and the south coast of Devon, but over the past couple of years a colony has mysteriously sprung up in south London. No-one knows how they got here but it’s very exciting. Particularly as I hadn’t heard the news when I saw one in the garden.

Best Invertebrate (other) and Best Fish

Considering that invertebrates make up such a large proportion of the world’s species, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit I can’t think of a winner. Not a single noteworthy crustacean, mollusc, cephalopod, arachnid, cnidarian or anything else. The fish thing is less surprising, as I didn’t spent any time in a boat or diving or snorkelling last year. Still, in 2008 I must do better.

Best Amphibian

A tree frog I saw in Crete.

European Tree Frog

Best Reptile

I was having some difficulty thinking of any contenders here, but in the end I came up with two, both lizards. One was a slow-worm, a species of legless lizard, which I saw on a country walk; the other was the Balkan Green Lizard, remarkable for being big, fat, and super-super-green. I think the BGL edges it.

Best Mammal

I could only think of one possibility here, but it’s quite a good one. It’s an unidentified bat species. I was in Chania, in Crete, and kept hearing distant bat-squeaks. But despite plenty of street-lighting, I couldn’t see any bats, so I was starting to wonder whether it was something else. But standing in the square in front of the church and gazing up one evening, I managed to see the bats flying around. I noticed than sometimes one bat would chase another one, and I could hear the squeaking get louder and faster. But what was really exciting was seeing a bat chase a moth, and hearing the bat’s calls, which were normally quite sporadic, accelerate up to a crescendo as it approached the moth. I knew that bats did this: given that they ‘see’ with sonar, it’s their equivalent of shining a flashlight. It lets them see more accurately. But I didn’t really expect to observe it with the naked eye (and naked ear). So that was cool.

Best Ecosystem

Up in the mountains above the Lasithi plateau, I found what I think was the closest I’ve ever encountered to a wild version of the classic Alpine garden: lots of big rocks, and growing between them were these delicate little dwarf flowers in endless varieties. It’s an ecosystem for obsessive-compulsives; walk slowly and keep your eyes at your feet. Or to be more accurate, climb up off the path and scramble over the rocks, keeping your eyes at your feet. I took lots of pictures of the flowers but none quite capture the general appearance of the mountainside as I remember it. This will do, though. It’s a picture I took of an orchid, possibly Orchis tridentata:

orchid among rocks

That flower spike is probably only five or six inches tall, and it was all like that: small flowers between the rocks. The casual walker might get an impression of plentiful floweriness, but to really appreciate the richness of the environment it needed careful, patient searching.

I’d always imagined Alpine plants being kept small by cold and wind; as having a short growing season when the snow melted. In this case the opposite was true; they have a brief, early flowering season before Crete becomes bakingly hot and dry. And above all the ecosystem is maintained by goats. Give it three hundred years without any goats or sheep, and Crete, like all the Greek islands, would apparently revert to forest. It’s an interesting angle on the richness of Crete’s flora; I don’t know how long the goats have been there, but it’s a thousands rather than millions of years. Were all those Cretan endemics existing in tiny fragmentary environments beforehand, but able to take advantage of the changes the goats created? Or have they evolved in those few thousand years?

cyclamens in Crete

Either way, if you get the chance to visit Crete in April, I recommend it.

Links of the year 2007

After a quick and dirty winnowing-out, here are what might be the best of the links which I posted last year.

Arctic artefactsAttack of the GIANT NEGROES!!

Bait-Fishing CrowsBeautiful Specimensbird-eating batsBuilding Stonehenge

C19th London snail-gathererschilled bees & yellow rainChinese building blocksCollege RepublicansCormac McCarthy & the semi-colonCroatian bees sniff out landmines

Defiant Gardensdogs in elk

English Accents and Dialects

Faster speciation in the tropics?Fela Kuti documentaryFlags By ColoursFlight ExposureFossil Rivers

Galveston on Stilts

hamster-powered paper shredderhobo nickelsHothead: 1902how to camouflage a whole factoryhuman yellowhammer

Iggy Pop’s concert riderIntensified continuity revisited

Jamaican Label ArtJapanese Love HotelsJen Stark paper sculptures

Kyushu Medical Books

La Tonnara and the Chamber of DeathLarge ejaculate from a spiny genital organlook-a-like portraits

on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ

Pac-Man the text adventureParasite manipulates host’s sense of smellPhotosynth demopigeons alignerPlains Indian Ledger Artplaster casts of termite moundsPolk MillerPolynesian Stick Charts

Rafael Benitez The MagicianRIP Joe Engressia, the original Phone PhreakRoxanne Shante: Who need a royalty check?

Simon Norfolk photographsSome So-Called Out of Place Artifactsspiny anteater reveals bizarre penisstripper polaroidsSuper Mario levels that play themselves

Taliban portrait photosThamesmead, Riverside School, 76-78The Bhagavata PuranaThe Broken Column HouseThe Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-BressonThe Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the WebThe flipping shipThe Visual Erotics of Mini-Marriagesthread in spiderwebsToutes les autos de TintinTypography and HMS Victory

X-rays of paintings

Enjoy.

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Puy & pea soup

I cooked a ham over Christmas so I had ham stock in the freezer; which means pea soup. But I didn’t have many peas in the freezer so I added some Puy lentils (those little tiny green French ones). And it was very nice. The earthiness of the lentils and the freshness of the peas worked well together.

Puy & pea soup

I chopped up a potato and an onion and sweated them down for a bit, then added the ham stock, brought it up to the boil, added the lentils and simmered them for about 40 minutes. Then I added some frozen peas, simmered it for another 5 or 10 minutes, and blitzed it with a blender. It will probably be improved with a little seasoning, but bear in mind if you’re using home-made ham stock it may be a bit salty already.

I would have added some chunks of ham if I’d had any left, but it didn’t need them. And if you were being really perfectionist for some reason—like the Queen coming to dinner—you could pass the soup through a sieve before serving; but again, it was fine as it was.

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