52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Friday, August 29, 2008

stars fading but I linger on, dear....

Earworms of the Week

> "Last Stop:This Town" - Eels

Eels have featured rather prominently on my internal jukebox over the last twelve months. My stats on Last FM stats show that I've listened to them nearly twice as much as the next nearest band (the next nearest band? Flight of the Conchords, but then Elbow and Nick Drake...ok?) It's probably not all that surprising really. I discovered them years ago when "Novocaine for the Soul" was first a hit back in 1996, but I only really started listening to them properly about a decade later when I finally gave "Electro-Shock Blues" a fair go and fell head over heels in love with E's unique and often stunningly beautiful music formed on the back of some pretty terrible personal tragedy. Awesome. This song comes off that album too. I know I keep banging on about it, but there really are very few albums that come anywhere near this one for sheer emotional impact. Brilliant. Not cheerful, sure.... but brilliant.

> "Five to One" - The Doors

I'm never quite sure about The Doors. I haven't listened to them properly in ages, and I think that's partly because their music reminds me of an unpleasant guy I went to school with, but mainly it's because I always get the distinct impression that Jim Morrison was a bit of a tit. In fact, I think he was a lot of a tit. Sure, he was talented, but he was only talented up to a point, and not half as talented as he clearly thought he was. "The End" is a case in point: it's a very interesting song, but for me it quickly degenerates into nonsense as Jim Morrison decides that his stream of consciousness rubbish is more interesting than what was actually a pretty good song. Still, this song popped up on shuffle the other day and it's a classic, with Morrison's voice and that instantly recognisable keyboard sound. Thankfully it doesn't slide into self-indulgence and thus helps me to retain my interest throughout. Mind you, looking at the wikipedia entry for this song, Morrison was so drunk when they recorded this, that he needed to be helped by studio staff on when to start singing and the song contains some of his nonsensical drunken rambling, and listening to it again... indeed it does. Wiki also contains the interesting nugget of information that the ratio of the title may refer to the proportion of whites to blacks, young to old or non-pot smokers to pot smokers in the USA of 1967. I'm guessing that Morrison didn't put that much thought into it.

> "Hoppípolla" - Sigur Rós

A crushingly obvious choice, but I was listening to "Takk" the other day, and this duly and inevitably took up residence inside my skull. Good song, mind.

> "Names" - Cat Power

Not the catchiest or most cheerful of songs, this is nonetheless a standout track on "You Are Free". It's a rollcall of awful things that have happened to children: a ten year old physically abused by his father, a sexually active eleven year old, a twelve year old sexually abused by her father, a thirteen year old drug dealer, and a fourteen year old driven to become a rent boy by his crack addiction. The song is carefully personalised by making sure that each child is called by name before the abuses are catalogued. Not cheery subject matter, for sure, but achingly beautiful nonetheless, with just Chan Marshall's lovely voice and a lone piano. Powerful.

> "I Know What I'm Here For" - James

Quite why "Millionaires" didn't take James up into the stratosphere after the success of their Greatest Hits album beats me.... but it also kind of sums the band up: somehow managing to always snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Forget what the record sales might say, it's a cracking album with a string of songs that are equally as good as anything on that hits collection. This is a real corker. Classic James with a chorus as tall as the sky. Oh hold on, is this used in the coverage of Champions League football games? Crap. That might be the reason I'm earworming it. Good song. Great band.

> "Get Rhythm" - Johnny Cash
[just look how good Cash looks in this clip...]

Cash has been haunting me this week. I listened to an old playlist I'd put together of his early stuff at the beginning of the week, and then successively and persistently songs from his "American Recordings" period kept popping up on shuffle. Not that I'm complaining, of course, because Johnny Cash was a collossus, and shame on the Republicans for trying to suggest - on the basis of nothing at all - that John McCain would have been Johnny Cash's kind of president. For shame! This song is one of the really early ones, and the who driving rhythm of the song conjures up images of a boy on the streets, cheerfully shining shoes for a living. Also a fairly memorable scene in "Walk the Line", although I'm fighting not to have my mental image of Johnny Cash replaced by that of Joaquin Phoenix.

> Theme tune to the Muppet Show

We've been planning our campaign to get tickets for the 2009 Ashes series against Australia. Demand is certain to be high and there's no Trent Bridge Test to look forward to, so we've been carefully working out when tickets go on sale at each of the grounds and how we can maximise our chances of success. Clearly, we can't have a conversation about the cricket without turning our minds towards what fancy dress we might wear to the game. I think that the muppets is impractical, but it's funny trying to assign characters to everyone. Statue John is definitely Beaker, anyway. Coincidentally, it seems that the Muppet Show may be making a TV comeback! Aces! I wear a Kermit badge on one of my jackets (it's in aid of the MS society), but I've always had something of a softspot for Rowlf, myself, but apparently Miss Piggy is the one that all the stars want to work with.....

> "Dream a Little Dream" - Doris Day / Mama Cass / Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong

> "Mr Sandman" - The Chordettes

I've been reading a lot of comics recently. Initially inspired by "The Dark Knight", I've trawled my way back through some of the Batman graphic novels I've got. Then I made my way through the Marvel Civil War series, and I've finally alighted back onto possibly my favourite of all: Neil Gaiman's Sandman. It's the story of Dream, but it's also so much more than that. I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan at the best of times, but his storytelling here is absolutely sublime, seemingly effortlessly creating his own mythology out of some very disparate strands. I love it. Anyway. Early in the "Preludes and Nocturnes" volume, one of the characters is haunted by songs that all somehow refer to dream in general and the figure of the Sandman in particular. Not surprisingly (and they're generally classics), a couple of them have stuck....


Right, well that's your usual motley lot for the week. I'll no doubt be back next week with some more, but I'm starting to think I might want to host a few guests in this slot soon.... Del has volunteered, but anyone else fancy (another) go? All welcome. Just leave me a comment here or send me an email to the address in my profile.

Have a good weekend, y'all.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

this is the job that people die for....

As I was walking into the office this morning, I noticed that a great big sign had been stuck up outside the front door. It said, in really big letters underneath the company logo, "Support Office". It might have been there for months for all I know, but today was the first time that it caught my attention, and I think The Man intends this to be a significant moment. I can't remember if there was a sign there before, but since time immemorial, the building where I work has been known as "Head Office". We're predominantly a retailer, so the change is supposed to symbolise that we're here purely to service the stores and we're not in any way to be seen, or to think of ourselves, as superior.

Actually, I can see where they're coming from: the money that pays my wages ultimately comes from the money that goes into the tills in our shops and I think the people who work here would do well to remember that. I'm sure most big companies are the same, but most of the rubbish and the silly rules and the nonsensical processes that end up cluttering up the stores and making life there a misery have their origins in some stupid brainstorm by some half-cut nuggets with shiny shirts, big-knotted ties and pointy shoes all sat in a meeting room in front of a flipchart and about to break for latte. The building is actually in the East Midlands, but it might as well be on the moon for all the proximity some of the people working here have with the sharp-end. Putting a big sign up in front of the building and trying to change what people call the place can't do any harm, can it?

You see? I'm trying not to be cynical about the change and I'm actually embracing it as at best being representative of a more positive inclusive culture and at worst meaning bugger all. I'm trying. I'm really trying. After all, it's my perceived cynicism and reluctance to take the things that I'm told at face value that is probably the reason that I've got a job and not a career. So hell, why not embrace the change with a smile instead of a shrug?

.....but then again, it was only a couple of years ago that The Man also decided that we were no longer "staff" but should instead be referred to as "colleagues". Apparently that's more respectful and implies that we are less employees and more stakeholders in the taking the business forwards together. Partners, even. They were dead serious about this too: at great expense we had to change the messages that appear on the tills informing our customers that "staff" nearby would be happy to help, and replace them with a new phrase involving the word "colleague". Unfortunately, the character limit on the till screen meant that the message had to be completely rejigged to include the longer word and now didn't really make any sense.....but it symbolised a real change in the way the company worked and how we could push on together to bigger and better things. Onwards and upwards! Today: selling nailbrushes, support stockings and toe-clippers to pensioners. Tomorrow: the world!

The Man knows best. You don't get to be a senior manager at a grand old company like this without having some smarts, eh? eh? ......but as long as we still have staff rooms, staff discount cards and staff numbers and so on, please don't expect me to think of the change as anything other than tokenism. A tokenism, what's more, that takes all us staff colleagues for idiots who will credulously swallow this crap down as if it was actually worth a damn.

So Support Office?

Perhaps I'll reserve my judgement for now, eh?

Plus, when it really comes down to it, they can call the damn place whatever they want for all I care. Why set the limit of your ambitions at "Support Office"? Why not "Valhalla, I am coming" or "Xanadu" or "BUY MORE TOOTHPASTE, FOOLS" or perhaps even "LOOK ON MY WORKS YE MIGHTY AND DESPAIR, FOR I AM THE HAMMER OF CAPITALISM".... Call it what you damn well please, it'll always be a small circle of hell to me, and the day I forget that is the day I might as well curl up and die as I will have given up.

...This, in a nutshell, is the reason I will never, ever reach the giddy heights of senior management.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

it's a fashion that we follow that we should be forgetting...

You know when you walk past someone that you vaguely know, and just at the last possible moment they don't just smile or say hello or something, but they also ask you how you are? They can't seriously be expecting an answer as you both continue to walk in opposite directions, and yet how often do you find yourself stopping, turning around and replying to their ever more distant back, perhaps even going so far as to call out after their back to ask how they're doing? The fact that they keep moving says to me that they're only asking out of pure reflex and they aren't really interested in how you are at all. With that in mind, the logical thing to do is probably to give a quick answer and keep walking, or even to just keep walking. In fact, a smile is probably enough, but no one wants to seem rude, do they? Once the question has been asked, it sort of requires an answer, and conversational norms also dictate that you should follow up your answer with the same polite inquiry. The fact that the other person is now several hundred yards away from you and likely won't even hear you asking is neither here nor there. It's just the way things work.

I sometimes find myself having terrible dilemmas when I see people that I vaguely know standing in a queue that I'm about to join. If I join the line behind them, then small talk is inevitable because horrible, awkward, forced small talk is clearly much better than blanking someone and pretending that they're not there. This happens quite a lot at work, and I have to say that I will quite often delay my coffee for 5 minutes just to avoid a mildly uncomfortable social situation. It's ridiculous. I know it's ridiculous, but there you go.

I don't think I'm very good at small talk. I think I understand the unwritten rules on paper, if you see what I mean, but I have a nasty feeling that my practical application of the theory is woefully lacking. I had to get in work early the other day, so after my first meeting, I joined the breakfast queue to get a bagel. A colleague of mine that I vaguely know joined the same queue moments later. Hiding was not an option, so I resigned myself to the fact that conversation of some kind was now inevitable. I've worked with this person before, so my opening move was a thin smile of acknowledgment. Often that's enough, and far better than a total blank, but I rather think she saw this as encouragement.

"Hello. How are you?"

My usual gambit in conversations like these is to make some weary comment about how near / far we are from the weekend. A shrug and a resigned "It's Monday" will be taken by most people as being a more than adequate response that somehow conveys lots without actually saying a great deal. Similarly, remarking that "things can never be that bad on a Friday" somehow expresses how drab a week in the office is, but also hints at the approaching nirvana of the weekend and all the exciting and possibly nefarious things you have planned. Most importantly of all, neither phrase exactly invites more conversation on either side unless you want it to. A chuckle and a raised eyebrow is more than sufficient. Thus your small talk obligations can be easily fulfilled with one short sentence. This particular day was a Thursday morning though, and still quite early: the weekend still felt a bit far off to discuss. Hm. I tried to keep things simple.

"I'm fine thanks"

I'm aware that the norm here would be to ask my partner in this reluctant conversation how she was in return. I didn't want to leave that door open, so I didn't ask. Is that rude? Do I have to return her feigned interest in me with a feigned interest of my own? Sadly, she clearly expected more from the conversation and persisted.

"Did you have a good weekend?"

Wow. Asking about my weekend on a Thursday? Her grasp of the rules that govern small talk seemed tenuous at best.

"Yes thanks."

Again, no expansion on why my weekend was good and no polite rejoinder to inquire about hers.

"Anything planned for this weekend?"

Sure, the long bank holiday weekend was in sight and this was perhaps a valid inquiry, but she clearly wasn't taking her conversational cues from my increasingly monosyllabic responses. Damn her eyes.

"Nothing much. I've got friends coming up."

There you go. There's some actual information about my weekend. Are you happy? Eh?

"Oh, for the whole weekend?"

Oh for Christ's sake!

"No. Just on Saturday evening"

Luckily, before she could extract from me the vital information that they were coming up around about 7pm and that we were thinking of having a barbeque, her toast appeared and she tottered off to get a coffee, leaving me to wait a few beats longer than necessary when picking up my bagel to make sure that she had actually gone before I went to order my own Americano.

The funny thing is that she actually seems to be a perfectly pleasant person, and I hadn't really set out not to talk to her or anything... I just wasn't really interested enough to have a nothing conversation with her, and ultimately I just wasn't very interested in knowing how she was and what she had planned for the weekend.

Does that make me a bad person? It certainly makes me feel a little socially inadequate.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

forget it brother, you can go it alone....

No sooner did Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, receive the Olympic flag at the Ceremony to close the Beijing games, than the carping began. Or rather continued, for even though there was widespread delight when the games of the XXX Olympiad were awarded to London in July 2005, the sniping and cynicism was never very far behind. I listened to a phone-in radio programme over the weekend where caller after caller was ringing in saying what a disgraceful waste of money the Olympics was, how vast and unjustified sums were being invested in white elephant stadia and on the athletes themselves, how we were going to embarrass ourselves before the eyes of the world.... On the back of a games that has been notable for the success of the British team, it takes a special kind of pessimism to think like that. A very British kind, you might say.

As the Olympic Torch was extinguished in the Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing, London officially became the Olympic city, and the countdown to the games really began: 1431 days and counting. A modest eight minute segment amidst the fuss and fireworks of the closing ceremony even granted us a glimpse of how London will attempt to follow the conspicuous expenditure and ruthless efficiency that so marked the Games in China. We saw a slightly scruffy and bumbling mayor chuckling to himself at the enormity of the expectation, a queue of conspicuously ethnically diverse commuters with umbrellas waiting for a (presumably late) red London bus, we saw our Olympic gold medal winning cyclists dressed in suits riding on bikes with their briefcases, we saw the winner of a reality TV singing contest performing with an extremely sweaty rock legend and, praise be, we saw David Beckham in a horrible black leisure suit hoofing a football into the crowd. It was quirky, a touch chaotic, but it felt warm, humourous and welcoming and was a very welcome contrast to the drilled, military precision of the Chinese. We certainly won't match the Chinese for conspicuous expenditure, but hopefully we can deliver a games with a soul and an awareness of their own absurdity. Besides, I'd take "Whole Lotta Love" over over choreographed nonsense any day of the week.

I fear there's a whole lot more moaning to come yet. I watched a bit of the celebration party in London that took place after the closing ceremony. It was all a bit overly sponsored (it was a "Visa Party" apparently) and low rent, hosted as it was by the broadcasting collosus that is Claudia Winkelman and featuring as it did acts as stellar as the cast of "We Will Rock You", Sophie Ellis Bextor, the Feeling and Scouting for Girls. Ah, Scouting for Girls, bless them, decided that this was the perfect opportunity to unleash onto the unsuspecting world their triumphant cover of "London Calling" by the Clash. Superficially, it's a great choice for a party to celebrate London's invitation for the world to join them for the games in 2012.... sadly, it's actually a very political song about social unrest and nuclear attack, presumably something that the London Games will be very keen to avoid. Changing some of the lyrics to celebrate our gold medal winners instead of referencing "yellowy eyes" probably didn't help improve the temper of those outraged Clash fans watching either. Yes, it was naff and yes, perhaps it was inappropriate.... but you can take this kind of thing too seriously, if you ask me. I'm sure this isn't exactly what Joe Strummer had in mind for the song, but I rather think he'd find it more funny than insulting. I know I did. How about we stop wasting energy moaning and fretting about how disastrous the 2012 games are going to be, and focus instead upon how good they could be, how they could be a glorious celebration of sport and of life and of Britain.

The games could be brilliant, if only we give them a chance to be.

My final thought on how the Olympic Games is about so much more than winning, comes from the experiences of a swimmer who finished 16th out of 24 in the 10km swim. Natalie Du Toit was ony 1m 22s off the gold medal winner's time, but if winning was everything, then she might as well have been a million miles behind and not have bothered at all. The thing is though, that Natalie Du Toit had her left leg amputated below the knee after a road accident in 2001. That she was there and competing at all is nothing short of remarkable, a fact recognised when she was chosen by South Africa to carry their flag at the opening ceremony

L'important n'est pas de gagner, mais de participer.

Britain seems to be breeding a harder type of athlete for whom a medal is not good enough unless it's gold: for every Bryony Shaw, delighted with a bronze there's a Kath Grainger, inconsolable after winning a silver. That kind of winning mentality is fantastic and a huge step forwards for a nation who revere plucky losers and who sometimes seem to find winning to be a touch vulgar. It's worth remembering that sometimes, as with the case of Natalie du Toit, winning really isn't just about finishing first.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Answering your mystical call....

Earworms of the Week

A slightly-more-embarrassing-than-usual edition of this weekly feature.... and that really is saying something. Well, it's not my job to censor what's been in my head, only to report it. Think of me as one of those reporters embedded on the front-line and wearing a helmet and flak jacket. It's not pretty here, but someone has to take the responsibility to tell the world what's really going on.

> "Feelgood Inc." - Gorillaz

This one may have crept in as the Damon Albarn composed "Monkey: Journey to the West" theme has been used by the BBC as the opening credits to their coverage of the Olympics, along with a rather nifty Jamie Hewlett animation of Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy. It's only a short step from here to the soundtrack to the "Monkey" TV programme, but thus far I've been able to resist it. It's based on a 16th Century Chinese novel, of course, thought to have written by Wú Chéng'ēn. Sounds a bit like a Chinese Pilgrim's Progress to me, but will always be accompanied in my head to the image of a bloke with massive sideburns riding on a pink cloud. Anyway. I think I like the second Gorillaz album a lot more than the first. It seems to be a lot more coherent as a whole. Having said that, it also features a couple of really strong singles, including this. If I remember correctly, I that think someone not very far from here has a parent called "Phil Goode", and I should imagine that this is a lot more persistent an earworm in their head than it is in mine. If I was them, I'd have this as my ringtone for him....

Mmm. Fizzy good make feel nice.

> "Hold the Line" - Toto

Cheesy MOR! YES!

> "Phantom of the Opera" / "Hallowed Be Thy Name" - Iron Maiden

I've been listening to a couple of Iron Maiden tribute albums this week. I picked one of them up from the front of a Kerrang magazine celebrating the band's recent gig at Twickenham, and it features lots of fairly current metal acts like Avenge Sevenfold and Metallica. The second is older and features covers by people like Steve Overland, Doogie White and -- a bit tragically -- Paul Di'Anno, the original Iron Maiden vocalist. Actually, it's the Di'Anno tracks that stand out, and he does "Iron Maiden", "Wrathchild" and "Phantom of the Opera" with even more fury than he did on the original recordings. Anyway, as with most cover versions, they've sent me scurrying back to the originals. I'm not a massive fan of "Hallowed be they name" on the whole, but there's no denying that it's powerful, and "Phantom of the Opera" will always remind me of Daley Thompson exploding onto a running track in a Lucozade advert, but that's surely no bad thing?

> "Golden Brown" - The Stranglers

Beautiful song. Apparently Hugh Cornwall -- who has a new album out -- is a touch embittered about the fact that he is remembered principally for his work in a band that threw him out. I can sort of understand that, but at least he's remembered for something. I prefer "No More Heroes", but this is a keeper.

> Theme to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Along with Mike, Sarah and C, I attended the pub quiz hosted by Nottingham's very own Mr Sex on Wednesday night. It was a great quiz - not one of those brewery jobs, but one where a great deal of care and attention had clearly been put into every round. There were two music rounds, one of which featured tv theme tunes played backwards. Now, some people can pick out music played backwards with ease, but I'm not one of those people and was generally pretty useless. One song stood out for me though, with a very characteristic driving drum beat. It was one of those ones where I was simply relieved when I at least identified the song that I thought it was - whether or not that song happened to be the right answer. It was the right answer, as it turns out. Good theme tune. Nice and rocky. I had no recollection of there being a voiceover at the beginning though, and that nearly threw us. I should also probably mention at this point that Mike got the theme to Crossroads almost immediately....

> "We Didn't Start the Fire" - Billy Joel

Billy Joel apparently doesn't think much of this, but I think this is such a clever song. It's a good idea, for one thing, but I can barely imagine how much effort Joel had to put into his lyrics to get them to flow so well:

"little rock, pasternak, mickey mantle, kerouac
Sputnik, chou en-lai, bridge on the river kwai
lebanon, charles de gaulle, california baseball Starkweather, homicide, children of thalidomide"

LB always says that this is the song he uses as the foundation of his knowledge of the order of heavyweight boxing champions of the world and the year the won / lost their title. Actually, the lyrics are a pretty handy pocket guide to the history of the twentieth century full-stop, and have probably served lots of people well in pub quizzes and games of Trivial Pursuit over the years.

> "Cemeteries of London" - Coldplay / "Cemetry Gates" - The Smiths

I had "Viva La Vida" on in the car the other day, and I gave it a proper listen for the first time in a few weeks. I'm a fan, of course, but is it me or has Chris Martin really been working on his lyrics since "X&Y"? Yes, "Soldiers you've got to soldier on" isn't exactly brilliant, but this isn't too shabby:

"So we rode down to the river where the toiling ghosts spring,
For their curses to be broken…

We’d go underneath the arches where the witches are in the saying,

There are ghost towns in the ocean…
The ocean…

He does seem to be writing as though he was an eighteenth century poet, but it's a lot better and a bit more mystical than in the past, and I like it. It's more cryptic.

Mind you, talk of cemeteries and lyrical dexterity brings a really great lyricist to mind.... he might not be able to spell, but no one touches Morrissey for lyrical wit and dexterity, surely?

"So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives

Where are they now ?
With loves, and hates And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived
And then they died

It seems so unfair
I want to cry"

Who says the Smiths are a depressing band? Just listen to the playfulness of both words and music....

> "Too Much Love Will Kill You" - Brian May


The other music round in Wednesday's quiz featured songs played on a bontempi organ. Some were more obvious than others, but I recognised the melody of one of them immediately. I couldn't place my finger on exactly what it was, but I knew the song well enough to sing the tune ahead of the recording. I knew it. Female diva. Husky voice. Not Dion or Carey or any of that lot. Possibly Streisand or something? I chewed on it for the rest of the evening until the answers were read out. You know who it was? It was only bloody Brian bloody May. On such little things are terminal earworms spawned. Now, perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but is Brian May singing about Freddie here, or what? He's being so cryptic that it's hard to tell....

Just as soon as none at all? Eh?


Not a patch on "Driven By You".

> "Devil Woman" - Cliff Richard

Played on a bontempi organ or not, there's no disguising the genius of some songs, and we all got this one within a few seconds (although, again, I should point out that Mike was onto it way faster than anyone else...)

"If you're out on a moonlit night
Be careful of them neighbourhood strays

Of a lady with long black hair

Tryin' to win you with her feminine ways

Crystal ball on the table

Showing the future,the past

Same cat with them evil eyes

You'd better get out of there fast!

I think this must be based on a true story and describes the events that put Sir Cliff off women for good. Or was that Una Stubbs? or is it about Una Stubbs? Only Cliff can say, and he's not telling...

Great record. My mum loves it. I used to listen to this on a tape in the car when I was a nipper, along with a tape by some chap called Peter Skellern ("brr brr brrr busy line!")

Like I say... when a song pops into your head and sets up camp, what can you do?

Have a good weekend y'all.


my brain is working overtime....

Yes, he's an easy target, but he'll soon be gone and he won't be quite so funny when he's a former President. Less scary, for sure, but....in his own way he'll be missed.

More here.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

harder, better, faster, stronger....

After a month's enforced layoff, I finally got the go-ahead to resume running early on Monday evening. About an hour later, and about 5 minutes after I had arrived back home from the hospital, I was in my kit and back out through the door for a relatively gentle 40 minute jog.

It hurt.

In an effort to avoid being completely inactive as my eyes recovered (I won't pretend that I understand the science here, but apparently exercise raises the pressure inside your eyes, and when your eyes have stitches in them and are trying to heal, raised pressure is a bad thing),I'd done a fair bit of walking. I'm sure the layoff from running did my body no harm at all. Walking is nice enough, I suppose and the weather was pretty good... but I tell you what, it takes BLOODY FOREVER. Whereas normally I could nip out for a quick 30 minute run, a walk over exactly the same route would take nearly three times that long. It's as if you're moving more slowly or something. Yeah, I could drag my wife along and actually talk to her for a change, or I could plug in my iPod and renew my relationship of mutual respect and understanding with the Canada Geese and Swans that live alongside the rivers and canals of Nottingham.... but 90 minutes is a hell of a lot of time to find in your day, and it only got more difficult to find that time once I'd gone back to work. I stuck at it, though, nipping out every evening for at least a short walk and was hopeful that I'd managed to retain a reasonable level of fitness.

You know what? Walking? COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to running. It's like you're using a completely different set of muscles. No....it's like you're using a completely different set of legs. I was okay for a bit, but after a couple of miles, once I'd crossed the toll bridge over to the other side of the Embankment, my legs began to feel a bit weird. Then, a bit further down the road, they started to feel wobbly. Before I reached Trent Bridge, they just plain hurt. Obviously, I gritted my teeth and finished the run without stopping, but when I woke up the next morning, my legs weren't just stiff, they were actually painful.


I had Tuesday off, but decided that a gentle run on Wednesday night could be just what I needed to ease of the lingering stiffness in my legs. Perhaps it was, but if I did initially work it all out of my muscles, before long, all the run was doing was storing up a whole new world of pain to my legs when I woke up on Thursday morning. Only now, because I had resumed the exercises I do to in an effort to stop the muscles in my upper body wasting away (another happy side-effect of the WTs), my shoulders, arms and stomach were hurting now as well.


You know what though? I'm going to try to sneak out of the office for a run tomorrow lunchtime, and I'm definitely going to get out on my normal Saturday morning run too. In preparation, this evening I've even treated myself to a new pair of running shoes (you're supposed to change them every 500 miles, but I've probably done at least 2000 in my old pair and I doubt there's much support left in them.... which can't be helping my aching muscles much, eh?)

Running bloody hurts, but it's good to be back.

Pain is temporary, right? Although I suppose that degenerative knee problems, tendinitis, osteoporosis, back problems and shin splints are probably forever....

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

ticket to ride....

It looks as though hundreds of fans hoping to attend festivals this year have been ripped off by their ticket agency. They'd bought their tickets from SOS Master Tickets and the tickets never turned up. Some poor sods were even advised to travel to the V Festival last weekend to pick up their tickets at the door from one of their agents who would meet them. They travelled, but of course, the agents never turned up, switched their mobiles off, took their website down and were never seen or heard from again. It looks as though hundreds more are going to miss out on the Reading & Leeds Festivals this weekend when their tickets fail to turn up.

Oh dear. The thing is though that, whilst I am sympathetic to the plight of these fans to some extent, my sympathy is somewhat limited by the fact that SOS Master Tickets is, and never was, an official ticketing agent for any of these tickets. The tickets that they sold to desperate people and were being sold way over the face value. I'm sorry, but to hand over hundreds of pounds to an unofficial ticketing site and expect the tickets to turn up without a hitch is simply being naive. Even Ebay has a recommendation system that offers you at least some degree of assurance that a trader might be kosher, and even then I think you're better off giving the whole thing a miss. Buying tickets from this kind of website isn't very different to buying penny stock on the recommendation of a spam email or sending money to Nigeria to help liberate a vast sum of money that will, in time, be transferred over to your bank account.

I see that the official ticketing agencies are wasting no time in getting onto their high horses. It's not their fault, of course. The Director of the V Festival said:

"As concert promoters, we urge the public not to get tickets from these secondary ticket outlets, whether that be unofficial ticket outlets or through auction sites, as it could well lead to disappointment."

Yes, but let's not forget that even the official ticket promoters are far from spotless in this affair, after all... they sell tickets on to these secondary ticketing agencies in large quantities, don't they? Besides, the official ticket agencies are the ones who charge their own mark up in the shape of extortionate booking fees and postage PER TICKET that you buy; they're the ones who release the tickets online in a carefully controlled way that means that all of their servers will crash and all the phone lines will be engaged for hours at a time ; they're the ones who will take your credit card details and not send you a confirmation that you've got your tickets for days; they're the ones who will sometimes allocate you tickets, even telling you the seat numbers you've got, before emailing you back a few hours later telling you that there's been a problem... a problem for you, the poor mug customer, that is.

You take your chances when you fork out above face value for a ticket from an unofficial dealer, for sure, but it's not as though the official agencies are really that much better or a great deal more reliable, is it?


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

happy and glorious....

I won't bore you with the true depths of my Olympic obsession*, but I just wanted to share two of the things that have really tickled me so far:

1) Great Britain is having the most incredibly successful games, with a veritable golden shower [ahem] of medals that are really setting the bar high for London 2012. You would probably think that all of those medals are a cause for celebration, but we Brits are unaccustomed to this kind of thing, and I was delighted to see that we were quick to revert to type: the British team have now won 7 gold medals in the velodrome from a possible 10 in track cycling. Amazing. Or is it simply the trigger for a debate about how this level of British success is bad for the sport? Being good is bad and Team GB are the Chelsea of world cycling, apparently....

which brings me to.....

2) The philological debate that has been triggered by the Olympics. People seem to be getting very upset that the British team is being called "Team GB" and many are also rather hot under the collar that the word "medal" is being used as a verb. To medal. Our athletes are medalling in many events. Now, I'm a stickler for accuracy myself, but I really do struggle to see this as something to get especially irritated by. Can't we just be happy to have the winningest team we've had at an Olympic Games for 100 years?

People can be such nuggets, can't they?


* Want an insight into my world at the moment? Ok. Well, there's a lot of talk that Usain Bolt is in with a real shout at Michael Johnson's incredible 200m World Record at the moment... but I was interested to see that Johnson ran 19.32s in 1996 and Bolt's best time over the distance is 19.67. That's one of the most amazing records. When Johnson set that time in the Atlanta Olympic games, he broke his own mark of 19.66s. To take more than 3/10 of a second off in a sprint event was nothing short of phenomenal, and the next quickest time that anyone has ever run is Tyson Gay's 19.62 last year. If Bolt beats that World Record tomorrow, then that's a race I want to see. All the stats you will ever need on this are to be found here. I've been spending a lot of time there.... See what I mean? And don't get me started on whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian that ever lived, or if he's simply the one with the most medals... by my books, you could have competed in a single event in a single Games and failed to win a medal and still be the greatest Olympian, because it's not simply about winning, is it? What's so hard to understand about that? What was it that de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics said? "L'important n'est pas de gagner, mais de participer..." [with apologies to the Ultimate Olympian, who I stole that line from. He also came up with this as evidence that you don't have to win to be the greatest Olympian.....case closed, I should say]

Actually, double gold medal winning swimmer, Rebecca Adlington is from Mansfield and trains at the Nottingham University pool. One of my colleagues, who swims there before work, was telling me how he recognised her on the telly as he sees her down there quite a lot. About four times a length, I should think.....

That's more than enough of me not boring you about the Olympics, eh?

Before I go though, I have a question for you....... Why do men run the hurdles over 110m, but it's only 100m for women?? Answers in the comments box below, and no prizes whatsoever for the winner, except the certain knowledge that you are probably as much of a nerd as me.


Monday, August 18, 2008

hey runner, what are you running from?

I was back at hospital today for a follow up on my eyes. It's now exactly 28 days since I had the operation to insert a lens into my right eye, my left having been done the week before that, and it was time to see what was going on in there.

You might remember that, a few weeks ago, I was busy fretting about the quality of the vision in my left eye. Well, apparently the antibiotic and steroid drops that I was prescribed to help with the healing process have the side effect of disrupting the membrane over the surface of the eye and thus have a negative effect on the quality of vision. You only use the drops for 28 days, so I stopped putting them into my left eye at the end of last week, and the quality of the vision in that eye has been improving ever since, to the extent that I have gained a whole line on the chart. Not bad. The quality in my right eye, the one that was noticeably better immediately after surgery, has been a bit more variable, but I stopped putting the drops in last night and I'm confident that it will get stronger and stronger with a bit of time. In any case, the professor tested my eyes this evening, and with both eyes together I can comfortably read the bottom line on the chart. That's one line better than either of my eyes on their own, and apparently an excellent sign that my brain is starting to adjust to the new balance of my eyes. Pressure was down too. It's all good.

My other big worry is the ghosting that I get in my right eye in dim light. It's absolutely fine during the day and most of the time at night (including night driving, thankfully), but I get a faint, but distinct ghosted double-image cast by some lights. It's not awful, by any means, but I notice it. And when I notice it, I focus on it. I mentioned it to the professor and he all but rolled his eyes at me. Apparently I have fairly large pupils, and the ghosting happens when my pupil dilates and approaches the edge of the implanted lens (which, as a rigid toric lens, is slightly smaller in my right eye than in my left). This is entirely to be expected and, I was told with a sigh, I just need to give my brain the time to adjust and tune out the superfluous images. It's not all that different to the way that a glasses wearer learns to tune out the unfocused image past the edge of the frame of their glasses. Indeed, apparently the same thing happens within the lenses of a pair of glasses, but your brain learns to only focus through the very centre of the lens. Apparently, so the professor told me, this only really bothers either the very intelligent or the very obsessive. I think that was a polite way of telling me to stop worrying about it and to let my brain work it out in its own time. I got the hint, anyway.

So. Good news, really good news.

Oh, and he told me I could start exercising again too. I have to wait another couple of months before I can climb into the bacterial soup that is a swimming pool, but I can go running again. In fact, as soon as I got home, that's exactly what I did. C. asked me if I had missed running terribly during my enforced lay-off. The honest answer, as I had time to reflect as I dragged my sorry, complaining body around the Trent Embankment, is that whilst I might have missed being able to go running, I missed the actual running itself rather less. I like pies, I like cake, I like beer and I like sitting on my arse doing nothing an awful lot more than I like running. This is why I have to run. So I ran, and now I can hardly walk. It seems that all that walking I did when I couldn't run is actually no substitute for the real thing. Still, I did manage to lose weight during my layoff, so....

In other news, look who's coming to town!

Looks like pastel coloured jackets with the sleeves rolled up are no longer a key part of his wardrobe, but he's a legend nonetheless.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

we've talked the whole night through....

Earworms of the Week.

Evening. The usual motley selection again this week. Same old same old.

> "Substitute" - The Who

I've earwormed this pretty solidly, on and off, since it first burned itself into my head as Geordie, the character played by Daniel Craig, strutted around Soho in "Our Friends in the North" with this as the perfect soundtrack. It's still my favourite song of theirs, and I'm not sure whether it's because of the brilliant tune or the (often slightly surreal) lyrics.

"I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.
The North side of my town faced east and the east was facing south


> "Souljacker pt I" - The Eels

I've listened to the Eels an awful lot over the last twelve months, and they've been a pretty regular occurence on these lists. I've not actually had them on the stereo this week, but I did happen to start talking to someone about the Mark "E" Everett's father and his "many worlds" theory. I still can't quite get my head around quantum mechanics and Schrödinger's cat, but I do quite like the music of Hugh Everett's little boy. This song, and the "Souljacker" album in general are quite different to the really personal stuff that features on some of his other albums. It's quite a lot rockier, and that's illustrated best of all on this song, which is both quite full on and pretty sinister sounding. Brilliant.

Now, is that cat dead, alive or both....?


> "Sonnet" - The Verve

I don't get the Verve. They were the best thing I saw at Glastonbury in 1993 and they've done some amazing songs, but I simply cannot listen to a whole album. I proved this to myself yet again by popping on "Urban Hymns" the other day. Dear oh dear. The singles I can cope with, but who told them that all those overly long, swirling dirges were any good? Well, they're not. The odd decent song is not enough of a reason for a band to strut about the place as though they're the greatest band on the planet. It's bad enough when Oasis do it, but somehow Richard Ashcroft doing it is even worse. "Forth" came out this week, and I won't be bothering with that, I don't think..... although I see that the band have already managed to fall out with each other again, so perhaps we won't have to put up with them much longer, although I imagine that Ashcroft will hang around like a particularly persistent stain. This song?

"Yes, there's love if you want it
Don't sound like no sonnet, my lord

Yes, there's love if you want it

Don't sound like no sonnet, my lord

My lord

Is that profound or just shit?

> "Sex Bomb" - Mousse T feat. Tom Jones

This began to play on a loop in my head as soon as I heard that it was being played extensively at the Beach Volleyball match between Russia and Georgia, along with "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Burning Down the House". Given that the two nations were at that very moment engaged in a rather nasty war, that may just about be the least sensitive soundtracking to a sporting event ever. The fact that the victorious Georgian girls were in fact both Brazillians fast-tracked to citizenship for the sole purpose of winning a medal is neither here nor there. Also, this is a terrible, irritating song and I have no desire to have it playing in my head, thanks very much.

> "Highly Evolved" / "Get Free" - The Vines

I got a bit stuck in the "v" section of the artists list on my iPod this week. It may have meant that I listened to The Verve, but it also meant that I listened to some other rather better albums, including this delightful and most welcome blast from the past. Yes, perhaps they're rather in thrall to Nirvana, but "Get Free" in particular never fails to give me a rush.

> "Gone Daddy Gone" / "Blister in the Sun" - Violent Femmes

Another band from the "v"s. Good band (thanks Cat!) and fantastic songs both. "Blister in the Sun" has been slightly sullied by being used in a crap advert, but thankfully it hasn't been ruined, and that snappy drum will live for ever.

> "I Want You To Stay" - Maximo Park

I don't know where this one came from, and I didn't actually even recognise it at first and had to google the lyrics I was humming to work out what it was. I should have known, really... Paul Smith writes some fantastic lyrics:

"I rewrite my life beneath the moonlight,
Please hold me now till my breath runs out,

There are many things that I am not,

But there's one thing that I cant deny

A double bluff you fed me lines,

The shortest cut you're searching for,

A mesh of tones surround your eyes,

I wish I knew how it came to this

I always said you could rely on me,

Now it seems that I was wrong,

I want you to stay,

I want you to stay with me

Well, alright, perhaps those are a bit random and A-level schoolboy poetry, but heartfelt, passionate, Geordie..... Maximo Park are all these things. I love'em.

> "Gold" - Spandau Ballet

A rather inevitable by-product of the winning performance by the British Spring Cycling team at the Velodrome this afternoon. I was at work and so only watching on a live updating screen on the BBC Website, but I was absolutely thrilled. The cyclists have already returned us 2 golds and a silver medal at this games, but there's a whole lot more to come. I've only one more thing to add, and it's a cry that throws me right back to being in Athens four years ago. CHRIS HOY! 'Nuff said.

Oh, and it's a ridiculous song.

> "Mansard Roof" - Vampire Weekend

Initially planted in my head a couple of weeks ago when a builder (incorrectly) told me that the little extension thing he had built onto the attic roof of a house he was working on was a mansard roof. Recalled to mind when I popped the album on when I was cooking some roasted vegetable and chorizo pasta the other night. It's a good summer listen, certainly. Another "v", you'll notice. If the week was any longer, I'd probably have got round to the Velvet Underground, Verbal Warning, Suzanne Vega, The View and the Von Bondies....

> "Good Morning" - Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly & Donald O'Connor

When this one started circling around my cerebellum the other day, I was under the impression that it was sung by Doris Day. As ever, google quickly proved me wrong and told me that it was on the "Singin' in the Rain" soundtrack (I thought that was only one song long?). I haven't even seen the bloody film and yet here we are.

This one is weapons grade. You just try shifting this....


Right. That's your lot. Have a good weekend, y'all.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

leave them kids alone...

Well, say what you like about the kids of today - and let's be honest, they get a pretty terrible press on the whole, what with all those hoodies and knives and binge drinking in bus shelters and things.... but they are "working harder than ever before" and are clearly getting brighter and brighter.

A-level results are out today, and that's the only possible conclusion to be drawn from the fact that the pass rate and the number of 'A' grades awarded has risen for the twenty-eighth consecutive year, with the pass rate (papers achieving grades A-E) now sitting proudly at 97.2%. Over 25% of all papers marked now get 'A's.

The Government, of course, deny that the exams are getting easier (whatever would give people that idea?), but have been forced to go on the defensive against the Universities: record numbers of university applicants now have three 'A ' grades, making the allocation of places something of a lottery. Many of these candidates will struggle too, finding the gap between the end of the A-levels they excelled at and the beginning of their degree course has become mysteriously large. Ministers have announced plans to expand the number of pupils who undertake university-style dissertations - worth half an A-level - in the form of an extended project while doing A-levels. So, exams aren't getting easier, and A-levels haven't been fatally devalued, but students are going to be asked to do more work to supplement their results and to provide some kind of an indicator of their academic potential? Where do you go after 'A*'? Is an 'A' the new 'B'? Much though I'd like to get on my high horse about how things were so much harder back in the day, I actually feel sorry for the kids here. From their point of view, I'm sure the pressures of sitting these exams are pretty much the same as they ever were, and the wait for that envelope (or txt msg or whtevr) isn't any easier. They can't help the fact that everyone says the exams are easier, and in fact, if I was in their shoes this morning, I'd be feeling righteously annoyed at the haters denigrating (only got a 'A' in English? use a dictionary...) my achievements.

To be honest, the thing that disturbs me most about this whole thing is the realisation that I sat my A-levels in 1992.... 16 years ago.... and people were saying even then that exams weren't what they used to be.

Sixteen years.


In them days [gestures vaguely into the distance], this were all fields......


Wednesday, August 13, 2008


So, what do you reckon: more in-depth analysis of the geo-political situation in the Caucasus, or should I go back to writing thoughtful commentary on the really important stuff, like pissing in the shower and whatnot?

My conversational range is simply vast....

....and largely wasted as I spend all the time at the parties people are daft enough to invite me to hiding somewhere away from other guests and looking at the books and CDs. And anyway, how many people really want to spend their time at a party listening to someone droning on about Abkhazia?

Still, that's what the internet's for, right?

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

This morning I played chess with Death, said the knight....

I see that Russia has agreed to a ceasefire with Georgia. In a deal brokered by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy*, both sides have agreed to withdraw to the positions they held before fighting broke out last week. Russian troops will, however, remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to "uphold security" and today's deal apparently promises fuller discussion on the future of the two breakaway provinces. Russia would love to have them secede from Georgia entirely and become part of Russia, but although they welcomed today's news of a ceasefire, this is a course of action that seems unlikely to appeal to the USA.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice almost said as much today:

"I want to make very clear that the United States stands for the territorial integrity of Georgia, for the sovereignty of Georgia, that we support its democratically elected government and its people,"

As I was saying yesterday, although on the face of it that remark looks like a general statement against Russian aggression, actually it's a statement laden with wider warnings to Russia and the breakaway territories that the USA will not tolerate the breaking up of the Georgian state, whatever the people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia might actually want. Hell, who cares what they really think? They're just the victims here; victims of pipeline politics and Russian muscle-flexing against the West (as the Guardian puts it: "But with a surfeit of petro-dollars in the bank and its fingers on the energy valves that keep Europe warm, the Kremlin appears blithely contemptuous of any potential western retribution").

If you can tear yourself away from the blanket coverage of the Olympic Games, the start of the football season, concerns about the credit crunch and the falling value of your house, do spare a thought for the people of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia: pawns in a game of political chess. 'Twas ever thus, but I'm not sure that thought provides any more than cold comfort for the people of Georgia tonight.


* an avid reader of this blog who was stung into action upon reading my insightful analysis of the crisis in the Caucasus.


Monday, August 11, 2008

worn out places, worn out faces....

Back in October 2006, I found myself engaged in a classic pub conversation: I was convinced that there must be a country that would appear before Afghanistan in an alphabetical list. LB was less sure. As it turns out, we were both kind of right: we discovered a small state struggling to assert its independence from Georgia but learned that although it was apparently a de jure independent state, it hadn't actually been recognised by the UN. The argument then predictably became a stand-off as LB adopted the purist line that until Abkhazia was recognised by the United Nations, then it didn't count as a country and Afghanistan was still first. For the purposes of my argument, I became a staunch advocate of Abkhazian independence and began to do a bit of research that might back up my point. What I discovered was something of an eye-opener, as I stumbled across a fierce conflict that had completely escaped my attention and probably the attention of at least 99% of the rest of the world.

Here's what I said at the time:

"Land of beauty and contrasting landscapes, from coastal forests and citrus plantations all the way through to snowcapped mountains. Home to some of the tallest trees in Europe and the world, with some Nordmann Firs reaching as high as 70m / 230ft. It is also home to one of the most bitterly fought (and yet strangely unreported) struggles for independence in Europe. Abkhazia has a history dating back to the ancient kingdom of Colchis, the legendary home of the Golden Fleece and the destination of the Argonauts. More recently, Abkhazia was an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union. Georgia declared independence from the USSR on 9th April 1991, and the following year the ruling military council announced that it was abolishing the Soviet Constitution. The Abkhaz government saw this as an attempt to abolish their autonomous status and on 23rd July 1992 they declared secession from Georgia. Troops were despatched and a bloody struggle began with gross human rights violations being reported on both sides. A ceasefire was agreed and independence was declared in 1994, but this has not been officially recognised by a single country (although, oddly, Abkhazia is apparently internationally recognised as a de jure autonomous republic, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what the distinction is. Afghanistan and Iraq are presumably both therefore de jure puppet states of the USA)

Tensions between Abkhazia and Georgia remain high. The fragile peace is maintained by UN military observers and by Russian peacekeepers. The UN patrols the buffer zone which keeps the Abkhaz and Georgian sides apart. There are sporadic shootings and kidnappings with the potential for violent explosion never far beneath the surface. Abkhazia, turning increasingly towards Moscow, insists there can be no settlement until Georgia recognises its independence, something which Tbilisi has sworn it will never do. There is no sign that a way out of this volatile impasse will soon be found."

Oddly, my post was picked up by antiwar.com as a reference for a post that Justin Raimondo made on the "Conflict in the Caucasus". Leaving aside for the moment any thoughts you might have on why an apparently serious article would use me talking about a pub conversation as a reference, the antiwar.com article itself was actually quite interesting. It highlighted the conflicts in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia - both autonomous regions of Georgia struggling for their independence. The 'ethnic Russians' in South Ossetia had been calling for 'reunification' with Russia (I think as much because the Russians weren't Georgia as because of any genuine desire to be reunited with Russia). Apparently John McCain was over there in August 2006 long before he got the Republican nomination for the 2008 Presidential election and had dipped his oar into the debate:
"I think that the attitude there is best described by what you see by driving in [Tskhinvali]: a very large billboard with a picture of Vladimir Putin on it, which says 'Vladimir Putin Our President.' I do not believe that Vladimir Putin is now, or ever should be, the president of sovereign Georgian soil."
As the article points out, "Is it really the role of a U.S. senator to decide what is and is not 'sovereign Georgian soil'?"

Is it the role of any foreign politician to make that kind of a remark? Of course, recent events in Georgia have brought all of this into stark focus: Georgia made a move to quell what it saw as unrest in South Ossetia, and now Russia has responded by sending in the troops to 'protect' their people from Georgian agression. Thousands of people have been displaced and who knows how many people have been killed as the Russian troops advance deeper into Georgia and largely cast aside the pretence that they are there on a peacekeeping mission.

The antiwar.com article from 2006 suggested that the real reason for US interest in the region was an attempt to exclude Russia from the oil bonanza in Central Asia and to claim the region as a viable alternative source of energy to the Middle East. The conclusion was stark:
"What seems like a small, obscure dispute could balloon into a major crisis because of the stakes involved. The rising amount of U.S. aid to Georgia greatly aids [Georgian President] Saakashvili's military buildup: his belligerence begs for a stern rebuke, perhaps an aid cutoff. It's time to rein in this would-be Napoleon-of-the-steppes and nip Georgian imperialism in the bud – before it destabilizes what is, after all, a volatile region. If John McCain, George Soros, Anne Applebaum, and the usual neoconservative suspects have their way, Georgia may be the first battleground of a revived Cold War. The problem is that the conflict may turn hot with frightening swiftness."

Now, this is very politically slanted, but that last remark about a conflict turning hot seems remarkably prescient. Prescient, that is, unless you are a student of the politics of the area, in which case it has been brewing for years. Georgia is a key transit country for oil from the landlocked Caspian sea. Indeed, there is a pipeline, the second longest in the world, running through the country taking oil from Baku in Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Meyhan on the mediterranean. The pipeline was built to deliberately avoid Russian soil and to deny them a key source of influence. Oil is one thing, but denying Russia any possible source of influence is a key part of the US strategy. They are also keen to see Georgia join NATO as soon as possible, moving them even further away from Russian influence, an idea opposed by other NATO countries like France and Germany. Needless to say, Russia don't like this idea very much either, and see Georgia as part of their natural, USSR-era, fiefdom. They've been stirring up trouble in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for years, and now they have seized the opportunity to try to take back by force what they rightfully believe is theirs.

The tragedy is that neither the USA or Russia appears to have any genuine interest in supporting independence in Abkhazia or in South Ossetia. The USA has stated loud and clear this week that they support the integrity of the Georgian State. On the face of it, this means that they want Russia to stay out, but it's also a clear signal that neither will they be supporting any moves that will strengthen Russian influence in the area - so they certainly won't be supporting any struggling states in their quests for independence. Not here, anyway. Distracted by the Middle East and unwilling to confront Russia, the USA is extremely unlikely to send troops to the region. It would surely be political suicide for no obvious gain. Russia, meanwhile, are happy to use South Ossetia and now Abkhazian claims for independence as an excuse for an armed incursion into Georgia to strengthen their grip on the region and to remove a president who has been a thorn in their sides since his election in 2004 to replace Eduard Shevardnadze (he is a president, incidentally who has been a keen supporter of the Bush "War on Terror" and has sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq... no wonder the US are reluctant to criticise).

As fate would have it, Georgia and Russia are scheduled to be squaring up at the Olympics this week: a beach volleyball court will be the somewhat unlikely setting for these two nations to meet on Wednesday. As ways of settling your difference, it might seem a little unorthodox, but compared to tanks, it's surely got a lot to recommend it. And the uniforms are more appealing to the spectators. Russian and Georgian athletes have already made a show of unity on the podium at the 10m airpistol event this afternoon. Is this a symbol of the Olympic ideals in practice, or is it utterly absurd that they can carry on as normal as their two nations are at war and as innocent civilians are apparently being slaughtered? What were Putin and George Bush doing watching the opening ceremony in Beijing the other day, even as the first shots were being fired? Apart from making sure that they were seen together by the cameras, what are they actually doing? How much does either side really want to stop this conflict?

Once again, I find myself marvelling at how little I know about the world and how much a simple pub conversation has opened my eyes about one tiny little region of the world that is now -- together with some sporting event in China -- capturing the attention of the world.


Friday, August 08, 2008

kill my innocence....

Earworms of the Week

> "Living Well is the Best Revenge" - R.E.M.

I've not really listened to the last R.E.M. album anywhere near as much as I should have. Not because they are a band with such a good track record, at least back in the day, but because it sounds like a real return to form. "Supernatural Superserious" features a proper old school guitar riff on it, of all things. They're a good band, but most importantly of all, they remain an interesting band.

> "Prince Of Parties" - Flight of the Conchords

Yes, yes. I realise that not everyone is as hooked on the Conchords as I am. But what am I supposed to do? They're funny, and their songs are properly good. I can't help what floats into my head, can I? And let's not forget that the whole point of this list is not to showcase the stuff that I particularly like or I would like people to think that I like... it's to try and capture that everychanging tracklisting on my internal jukebox. And, as it happens, Flight of the Conchords are much played in there at the moment. This isn't one of their most obvious songs, perhaps, but it's one 60s pastiche that has very much stuck. Pretty party clothes crocheted of snow? Why not?

> "Meltdown" - Ash

For all their pop sensibilities, Ash were always at heart a bunch of metalheads. On this track, and on this album as a whole, those sensibilities are a little closer to the surface than usual. "Orpheus" is probably the song that people remember. For all the rock bluster and flying V guitars though, Tim Wheeler can't quite hide his way with a tune. Good band.

> "Back in Black" - AC/DC

The best opening 30 seconds of any song ever?

> "Spiralling" - Keane

The new song, and available to download off their website, until Monday, anyway. It's like Keane, only it's perhaps a bit more 80s than you might have expected. LB is probably in heaven, but I'm a little bit unconvinced, to be honest. The last We Are Scientists album had a few songs a bit like this, and if I'm being brutally honest, I think they carried it off a bit better and without sounding quite so much like pastiche. Having said that though, it's been growing on me with every play, and I refuse to do them down for the simple reason that at least they are trying: I heard some awful, lazy europop shite on the radio the other day, just before they played this, and it made me realise that at least Keane are trying to do something interesting and aren't content with standing still or just churning out the old crap that they know will sell. I take my hat off to them for that.

> "Too Drunk To Fuck" - Nouvelle Vague

It does make me think of the incomparable original, to be honest, but this is the version that was on my mind, so it's the version that makes the list. They're not quite a comedy band, but they walk that line.... although it did make superb background music at the party the other day. With their set list of classic new-wave songs though, it's kind of hard to go wrong.

> "4st 7lb" - Manic Street Preachers

In some ways this is the song that sums up what is brilliant about the Manics. Who else could write a song about anorexia that is both so appallingly shocking and yet so starkly beautiful? Who else could come up a lyric as good as "I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint"? They're a bunch of awkward buggers, sure, but there's been no one quite like them, before or since. Awesome band.

> "MmmBop" - Hanson

This one's a bit hard to explain, but bear with me. Yes, I know that this is an awe inspiringly efficient piece of pop, but that's not the reason that this has crept onto my playlist.... it's the US PGA Golf Tournament this week. It's the last Major of the year, and it represents the culmination of the tipping contest that Statue John has been running for me, Pollstar and the Ultimate Olympian. A list is produced of all of the competitors, broken into three sections based upon the latest odds for each player. All we have to do is to pick two players from the top section, three from the middle section and four from the bottom section. If Tiger is playing, he's excluded from the list as he's far too obvious. At the end of the tournament, the prize money for each of your picks it totted up and the winner is declared. I'm doing really badly, but it's a good game nonetheless, and shows just how hard it is to pick a winner in golf. Anyway. It's become a running joke throughout the season, that the bottom section of the list contains two players called Hansen and one called Hanson. None of them have really done much in the US Masters, The US Open or the Open, but somehow it's become traditional to pick them. For the last major of the summer, I've picked all three of them. Three Hans(e)ons? and there's your earworm.

> "Climbing to the Moon" - Eels

Such a beautiful record. Seriously. One of the very best that I own, and prone to move me to tears at the best of times. If you don't own Electro-Shock Blues, then you simply must get hold of a copy. It's a brilliant, brilliant album.

> "Queen of the World" - Ida Maria

Ida Maria is a funny one. I fell in love with her from the moment that I heard her play "Oh My God" on Jools Holland, but she's difficult to define. Is she pop? Is she rock? Is she for real? The sticker on the front of her album tries to tell me that she's the meeting point between the Strokes and Amy Winehouse. Hmmm. I sort of see what they mean, but that doesn't get it either. She's poppy enough to be getting lots of airplay on Radio One and to be singing novelty Abba covers with one of their DJs, but I think that's really misleading. Listen to the album and although it's all very upbeat sounding, listen to the lyrics and the story changes. These are songs of loneliness and desperation and of drinking. There's a certain tristesse about Ida Maria, and for me it lifts her up above other, similar artists. Take this song:

"whiskey please
I need some whiskey please
so bring me consciousness
and kill my innocence
please lay your eyes on me
lead me in the dance
give me no chance to reconsider

I'm queen of the world
I bump into things
I spin around in circles
and I'm singing
why can't I stay like this
they're gone
let me be young and stay please
let me stay like this oh oh oh"

It sounds so upbeat, but that's pretty heavy stuff, I think. She's playing Nottingham soon, and she was pretty good at Glastonbury, so I think perhaps I should get myself a ticket.

Anyway. That's your lot. I'm off to London to hang out with an old friend I haven't seen in years who is over from Hong Kong.

Have a good weekend y'all.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

our house....

We've never really had a garden before. It's probably overstating the case a bit to even call it a garden. It was a postage stamp sized square of patchy grass, a mass of overgrown bushes and some sandy concrete that was perpetually wet underfoot. In the four or five years that we've lived here, I've barely spent any time out here, and most of that has been since last July when we picked up a cat that we discovered really loved playing stick amongst all the bushes. She loved it so much that, in the end, she actually wore away some of the grass into a little bare patch of mud where she span around chasing the stick.

I'm not much of a gardener, but C. likes to spend a bit of time pottering around outdoors. She has especially enjoyed it since she started spending a lot more time abroad and away from home. It wasn't much, but it was a little sanctuary away from the world. A few months ago, she decided that we should do something with it, and invited a landscape gardener round (actually, a guy who used to work for C and had set up his business after C had encouraged him to seize the chance of taking voluntary redundancy). He drew up some plans, I feigned interest, and then before too long - in fact on the very same day I had my first eye operated on - he was round with this three workmen with a big skip and a load of stuff, ready to take the garden to pieces.

Two weeks later, and we were pretty much done.

Now, even I have to admit that he's done a damn fine job... both of design and execution. I've spent more time outside this house in the last couple of weeks than I think I have ever done. It feels at least twice as large as it did before, and it's now just a really great space to just sit down and chill out in.

I've even got a shed.

It's still a work in progress, of course, but the herb garden outside the back door is really starting to take shape, and we've already had a really lovely garden opening party out there.

It's all good.

The cat's not too sure, but... to be fair... she has only just discovered the Cat Mint and the Catnip. I think she'll like it just fine.

Since the garden has been done, C. has already arranged for the fireplaces to be restored so that they can be used as open fires again, arranged for the boiler to be replaced with something worthier and only the other day we had a builder round to look at our attic. We were initially thinking that we only had room to turn the loft into useable storage space, but apparently we have oodles of room up there, and certainly enough for a double-bedroom and a bathroom.

C. has spent the last few months idly on the lookout for a bigger, three storey house in the same neighbourhood, and only a few weeks ago was seriously viewing a property just around the corner before deciding that it wasn't quite right.... I get the distinct impression that, perhaps because she's now away so much, she's decided she quite likes where we are now and is starting to nest.

I quite like it.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

ready to go....(?)

Well, it looks like our summer break is almost over.... the football season is nearly upon us again.

[blows on tiny party horn]


Not excited by that?

(me neither....)

Pressurised by the impending kick off, I have finally pulled my damn finger out and managed to pull together a particularly half-arsed review of my own predictions for the 2007/8 season over on Cheer Up Alan Shearer.

You can read it here.

It took me bloody ages too.

...And I'll have to document my wild guesses for this year in the next couple of days too.

Mutter mutter.

I'm not predicting Spurs for the top 4 again, I know that much.

...But I don't fancy Stoke's chances much.

...and I'm counting on Berbatov's move to Man Utd to complete my fantasy team, although as I've also picked the little Croatian fella and I've got Bentley, perhaps it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Oh, but aren't they all Spurs players?


Curses. It looks as though I'm getting into the swing of things now....

Stupid, neverending game....


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

let's talk about sex....

I received a brilliant email yesterday. It looked as though it had been addressed to me personally, but I imagine it's been sent to hundreds if not thousands of people. Hell, you might have it. You should check your inbox -- it's definitely worth a look.

It's from someone glorying in the name of Dr. Tuppy Owens, and it's a press release for the "Erotic Awards Showcase & Ball".

Sounds promising already, right? And that's even before you get to the quote from Grayson Perry saying that the event is
“The Glastonbury of sex – these are the good people in a gloriously mucky Business". Wow. Grayson Perry, Turner Prize winning artist and cross-dresser said that? Maybe this is worth a closer look, eh?

Well, a quick perusal of the press release reveals that:

"Fundraising The Night of the Senses (now in it's 22nd year) and the Erotic Awards are the main fundraisers for the Outsiders Trust, a charity set up by Dr Tuppy Owens in 1979 for disabled people to enjoy sexual pleasure and form relationships."

Cool. Apparently, "The night begins with the announcement of the winners, who are presented with Golden Flying Penis Trophies which have been hand carved in Bali."

Hand carved Golden Flying Penis Trophies from Bali? Sounds brilliant. Apparently the award ceremony is then followed by the performances onstage: "fashion shows, performance art and striptease, a hot show that warms up our guests so they spill out merrily into the maze of pleasure palaces. Every taste is catered for: the Sensuality Chamber where couples make love serenaded by musicians, the Roissy Dungeon, the Infinity Dome, Golden Pond, Massage Garden, Boys' Back Room, Women's Womb, Café Shebeen and Grope Box."

My absolute favourite bit though is the announcement of the guests. Amongst the various artists, academics and international film makers, we have:

"Sue Newsome, Tantric sex worker from the West Country"

I don't know where to begin with that, really: the distractingly normal-sounding name that could (and perhaps does) belong to a jam-making pillar of the community; the fact that she's not just a sex worker, but a tantric sex worker; the fact that she's from that infamous den of iniquity in the West Country.....

This looks real enough, but I don't really know if this has been sent to me genuinely (but a little mystifyingly) as a press release or if it's simply a mailing that my spam filter has missed.... what I do know is that it made me smile and it's a whole lot better than the vast majority of the crap that I get sent offering me "v1agr@", or promising an appendage that "even lions will fear" or asking me to enter the personal security details for a bank I don't even have any accounts with.

If it's real, then I salute you and the cause you are upholding. If anyone reading this is interested in finding out more, then they should check out (at their own risk and presumably NSFW):

www.erotic-awards.co.uk (check out some of the acts in their showcase)

and apparently they have a presence on Facebook and MySpace.

A quick look at the websites and it looks like a proper event to me, and the more I think about it, the more pleased I am that it exists. Good luck to them. I'd buy a kiss off Mat Fraser, wouldn't you?

....I am curious about Sue Newsome, Tantric Sex Worker from the West Country though. I can't get her out of my head. She sounds like fun.

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