Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Prolix menus

I got to eat out at a fancy-pants place tonight because my smaller half took me out to celebrate Willie Nelson's birthday, as she does every year. The food was great! But I started to get really annoyed with the menu. You know how dishes these days don't have names, they are just lists of ingredients. For example, if Chicken Kiev was invented now it would be called Boned Chicken Leg Filled With Runny Yellow Stuff That You Hope Was Put There By The Chef. It caters to the cowardly diner who is then too easily able to avoid the bizarre and/or unpleasant dish and frankly, it takes all the fun out of it.

Worse still, this place had dish descriptions that were ridiculously redundant. You've probably seen Oven Baked Bread before, it's a pretty common one. I'm not claiming that all bread is invariably baked in an oven, I'm just saying it's often enough the case that perhaps they should just list only the exceptions, like Manifold Baked Bread, or Armpit Warmed Rolls.

And have you noticed that only some types of food preparation get mentioned? Have you ever seen Boiled Pasta on a menu? Boiling seems to be the type of thing that we aren't prepared to pay other people to do for us, so they just keep it quiet and hope we don't notice. And no-one ever boasts of their Washed Lettuce.

Anyway, this place I ate at tonight had the most ridiculous description I have yet seen:
Knife Cut Italian Sausage

If they had offered Axe Cut Sausage I would have ordered it, on the proviso that I was allowed to go into the kitchen to watch the preparation. Scalpel Cut Sausage would have implied some degree of surgical precision from the chef which perhaps those more refined than myself could appreciate. Even Chainsaw Cut Sausage might be worthwhile if they started with a really large sausage. But has anyone, anywhere, ever thought to themselves, "These sausages have so much potential, if only they'd been cut with a knife." No, they have not.

I ask that you, the fine diners of the world, rise up with me and boycott menu items with foolish, redundant, or downright wanky descriptions. Chicken Kiev all round.

Happy Birthday!

Willie Nelson turns 75 today! Rock on.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


I frequently say "left" when I mean "right", though I seldom say "right" when I mean "left". Strange that it should be asymmetrical like that.

Strange also that I have no such difficulty with the arguably more complex concept of "clockwise" versus "anticlockwise". Why should that be? (Although I should note that I once got very confused trying to screw in a screw with my left hand and the screwdriver pointing up. Once I stopped thinking about it things got easier. As is true of many things in life.)

I was wondering the other day what the word for "clockwise" is in other languages. If anyone knows, I would be interested to hear - especially if they don't involve the concept of clocks.

After a bit of pondering, it seemed to me that clock hands move the direction that they do because that's the direction that a sundial shadow moves in the northern hemisphere, where they like to invent mechanical things like clocks. But before mechanical clocks came around how did they describe the two varieties of circular motion? In Latin, for example - was it something to do with the sun?

It seems to me that the only thing which consistently moves in the same circular direction is the sun and things that follow it, like shadows or sprouting plants. Maybe in other languages the word for clockwise is shadowwise, or plantwise. That would be much cooler than naming such an important concept after a purely arbitrary mechanical convention. We might as well say "closing-the-jar-lid-wise".

And why don't clocks go the other way round in the southern hemisphere like the shadows, plants and jar lids do?

Monday, April 21, 2008

A short story that geeks will find funny

On Sunday morning we went to the farmer's markets (or is that the farmers' markets??) and we bought a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. We went to find a table to sit at, and then my smaller half went off to get coffee.

"They'll shout out my name when the toastie is ready", she said.

"Why didn't they give you a number like they usually do?", I asked.

"They ran out of numbers."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

An unstoppable reading machine

Reading has many virtues that make it ideal for procrastination. It is:
  1. Portable. You can always put off anything, anywhere, by whipping out a book.
  2. Intellectual. Even the worst pulp crap has a thin veneer of self-improvement that computer games will never have.
  3. Time-consuming. It is possible to while away hours, even days, with ease.
  4. Cheap. Libraries are free! Some stores aren't bad either if you don't mind a few nicks.
  5. Fascinating. Each book you read is not only a story, but it accumulates a little story as you read it since it becomes a part of you.
In the past two weeks I have done a shed-load of procrastination. Here are the books I have read, and some remarks about them. In the original version of this post I included numerical ratings. But then I thought, "Numerical ratings are for beauty pageants! Books deserve better!", so I have edited the ratings to make them more descriptive.

All The Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy. Follow the link for my review. My smaller half found our copy in a second-hand store and paid $8 for it several years ago. Since then it has moved from Canberra to Brisbane to Adelaide without being read. I finally snapped and read it, since last year I read his book "The Road" and loved it, and also I was feeling bad that I had neglected it for so long. Rating: If this book was a piece of furniture, it would be an old dusty armchair.

The Midwich Cuckoos, by John Wyndham. I've had a soft spot for this author ever since I read Chocky when I was much much younger. He writes very British sci-fi. Absolutely outlandish things happen, which are conveyed to the reader through characters discussing the extraordinary events in the neighbourhood over a cup of tea with the vicar. I tried to read The Midwich Cuckoos before, also when I was much younger, and did not finish it. I grew impatient with the interminable discussion of ethical quandaries in the book, whereas these days that is much my kind of thing. I paid 50 cents for this book at a Volunteer book sale at the hospital. I'd read the telephone book for that price. Rating: If this book was an item of food, it would be a cucumber sandwich, with a hint of mustard chutney.

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick. I love PKD. And this is by far the best of his books that I have read. His other books contain extraordinary ideas and cardboard cut-out characters. This book is almost a character piece, focussed on an undercover drug agent whose superiors assign him to monitor himself. There is not much plot, but lots of paranoia, darkness, and gloom. I was really surprised, in a good way. This one is going on the "keeper" shelf. I got it for $6, in as new condition, from a store in Strathalbyn! Rating: If this book was a cult, it would be the Leopard Society.

Ubik, by Philip K. Dick. More in line with his other books - crazy crazy ideas, and characters whose names you don't bother to remember because they're all the same. I got this one is Strathalbyn too, for six bucks. It was good, but I don't think I'll re-read it. I felt kind of sorry for this novel because I read it straight after A Scanner Darkly and I think it got the worse of the comparison. Still, it's a funky cover on this edition - bright orange with a line drawing of an aerosol can on the front. The blurb on the back is printed at 90 degrees to the usual, like a postcard. Cute - but I might try to get rid of it soon. Rating: If this book was a piece of clothing, it would be a beanie with a propeller on top.

Travels With My Aunt, by Graeme Greene. I like Graeme Greene too. He could write a train timetable and it would be great (except for an Adelaide one, because the Adelaide train network is so hideously broken). I'm kind of cheating here since I'm only half-way through, but I'm really enjoying it. This one cost me 50 cents from the same book sale as The Midwich Cuckoos. I actually bought it expecting it to be an autobiography. It turned out to be a novel. The premise is so appalling I almost didn't begin it: "Retired bank manager befriends his outrageous aunt and they strike out on a journey together" but like I said - it's by GG and hence is highly entertaining. Provisional rating: If this book was a Member of Parliament, it would be Bob McMullin.

Man, I really miss my old book club in Canberra. It was a great source of reading material and a wonderful generator of conversation. My chief problem in trying to get hold of good books is that 90% of them are crap (Sturgeon's Law), so having a book club on hand to filter the garbage out was fantastic. Now, however, I have at hand a pool of people with demonstrably excellent taste in reading: youse guys.

What recommendations do you have for me?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Inflammation: everything you need to know

This week I've had several hours of prac sessions and lectures and I've learned a lot about inflammation. The most important thing I've learned about inflammation is that it is completely incomprehensible. However, some things did seem obvious, so I've decided to share them with you.

When you look through a microscope at normal healthy insides, they are pink. They are squiggly and mushy looking, and there may be some holes. However, if you have inflammation, you will get lots of purple dots throughout the pink. These purple dots are on fire, which is why we call it "inflammation". You are literally about to burst into flame. Thus, we get the four classical signs of inflammation known since the Middle Ages when people first started to decipher Latin so they could read their Bibles.
  1. Rubor (redness). Purple is darker than pink, and makes you look red.
  2. Calor (heat). The burning purple dots are really hot!
  3. Tumor (swelling). The gas released by the burning purple dots makes you swell up.
  4. Dolor (pain). All this superheated gas trapped inside you hurts.
The purple dots are known to doctors as "polymorphs". Polymorph is Latin for "many shapes". All polymorphs look the same, except to each other. To each other, every polymorph is a special individual with a name, a family, a home, and hopes and dreams just like you and me.

I don't know where the purple dots go when the inflammation stops, but here are two possibilities. First, maybe the water you drink washes them away and you pee them out. The water would put out the fires too!

Alternatively, a doctor could get them out by doing a procedure on you called an "autopsy". You will have all the parts of you infested by purple dots cut out and mounted on slides for medical students to look at. They will be labelled as "fallopian tube", "lung", "liver" and so forth, to ensure that the slide boxes are full. It doesn't matter what part of you was cut out, since all slides look pink and squiggly. With lots of purple dots on them. Exactly the same, except to each other.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Book review: All the pretty horses

First up, well done to Cormac McCarthy for writing a book. It must be hard. I only get round to writing a few paragraphs every couple of days. So let's not overlook the fact that he wrote the book at all. In fact, let's not overlook the fact that he has written a bunch of books. Good for you, Cormac!

The book is well-sized. There's nothing more annoying than a 500-page monster that you just know is going to get tedious. (Although it's well-known in these parts that "Lonesome Dove" by my good friend Larry McMurtry is the exception that proves the rule. And yes, I do know that "prove" used to mean "test".) Conversely, it's hard to shell out your hard-earned cash for a 120-page novella that will be gone in 90 minutes. Even second hand I wouldn't be willing to pay more than, say, 8 cents per page.

Another plus is that the cover has neither Matt Damon nor Gwyneth Paltrow on it. Many fine books have been spoiled by having movie edition covers featuring lollipop-headed actors on them. Even "The Name Of The Rose" has been defiled like this, although since it was Sean Connery we can probably afford to not get too upset by this. I have no idea if a movie has been made of "All The Pretty Horses" but I wouldn't put it past the publishers to find some clear-skinned, blond-haired, squirrel-toothed model to put on the cover to make you think it WAS a movie and thus was popular and worth reading.

The text inside, once we're done with the cover, is good. But it is not perfect. Unfortunately, Cormac eschews the use of quotation marks to delimit speech. This sometimes makes it hard to figure out if the words represent speech, thoughts, or actions. This is compounded by referring to the characters only by "he" more often than is usual, despite there being multiple male characters in the scene. A typical example:

You gonna ride out and see?
Could be.
He might be there.
He might.
He ate more of his beans.
Or he might not.

I made that up just to demonstrate the point and to avoid being bankrupted for copyright infringement, but you get the idea right? Did "he" eat the beans? Or were they talking about a third party eating more beans? It's usually clear from the context, but when I'm reading a novel, I don't want to be a fact-checker, I want a story.

Another thing that bugged me about this otherwise good book was the lengthy exposition by one of the characters concerning Mexican political history. Yawn. If I wanted to find out about Mexican history I would read ... (google google...) Octavio Paz. Anyway, never in my life have I been subjected to an hour long lecture like this, except in an actual education institution, and the great advantage to them is that if you fall asleep the lecture goes away. In a book the lecture stops when you drop off, so you still have to wade through it anyway.

Apart from these quibbles, the blame for which I am ascribing to Cormac's editor rather than him, the book is good. It's kind of like a Western (ie: cowboy, not Renaissance) version of "Into The Wild". Young bloke, disillusioned, breaks free for better life in rugged conditions, bad things happen, lessons are learned, young bloke keeps his integrity and becomes sadder but wiser.

There's quite a bit of wistful contemplation of the great virtues of horses, of the "they'll never let you down, they're so honest and true" variety, which in my opinion ends up sounding like it's written by a closet misogynist. I'm sure that Cormac is not like this, he's probably just like Eminem, and it's the character who is.

What's the book about? I'm not sure to be honest. Maybe it's about the virtue of the simple life, or perhaps it's about the strength to be found in adversity. Neither of these quite fits. Maybe it's just a hymn to the myth of the American west. Or maybe it's just a long character sketch. I got the feeling that he ran out of things to write about. The main character returns home, visits a bunch of other minor characters who all proceed to praise him in words drawn from Johnny Cash songs, (make me as honest and as open as the plains) and then you're looking at cardboard and the book is over.

I was left wanting more. 6 out of 10

Monday, April 14, 2008

The evils of self-consciousness

Something astonishing has happened. My blog is now being read by more than just me and my brother. Even my smaller half doesn't read my blog, although I suppose I do rush breathlessly up to her as soon as I have posted, giggling and strutting like a pigeon, so she probably doesn't need to.

So I was surprised to see today that there are now at least two (2) other people in the world who have read it. I know this because they left comments! Hmmm, maybe they didn't read it - maybe they just posted coincidentally on-topic remarks without bothering to read my posts. Nevertheless, I feel like Ray Kroc must have when he sold his third burger: I want to put a big sign up at the top of the building saying "Prone To Reverie: now more than 3 readers!" (Note here my arrogant assumption that at least one person out there has feasted on the fruit of my labours and fled like a thief in the night without leaving feedback to thank me...)

The downside of all this is that now I feel like a suddenly famous garage band releasing its second album. (I am aware that there are probably lifestyle differences, but bear with me.) Not only am I pumped up on the excitement of having an Audience, I am also suddenly very self-conscious that people who may not know me very well may read this, and I am eager to impress. It must happen to every blogger at some point.

It's all well and good having my relatives read this babble because they know what I am like. How do I handle people who don't know what I am like? Should I try to impress them with my erudite vocabulary? (See, I used the word erudite.) Should I try to drop some pop culture references like ... okay, so I won't do that, I'm too out of touch. See? Until I overcome this self-consciousness I will be unable to write anything at all, except for agonized soliloquys on self-consciousness. And how dull that would be.

The fundamental problem here is either to figure out why I am writing at all, and write to address that need, or to think "the hell with those readers, they're jerks, they'll read whatever garbage I choose to serve up to them", which seems a little too Rupert Murdoch-esque for my liking. My solution, therefore, is to identify why I am writing.

There are two main reasons I can think of:
  1. Ego. I am writing because I would like to think that at least some of what I write will be either funny, insightful or just strange.
  2. Procrastination. Let's face it: I really do have better things to do than churn this stuff out. But study is hard, and this is easy. THREE main reasons.
  3. Writing itself. It was bugging me that I kept having thoughts about stuff that 5 minutes later would float off into the ether and vanish. Now I can post it here and, just maybe, something of worth has been captured for a time, and people reading it will think, "hey yeah!"
This leads us to you, Dear Reader. Factor 1 (ego) requires that you provide feedback wherein you sing my praises. Factor 2 (procrastination) requires no participation on your part unless you too are doing this to procrastinate, in which case I say "Shame on you! Procrastination is the thief of time!", and invite you to procrastinate further by leaving feedback. Factor 3 (writing itself) requires that you provide feedback if and when I have something interesting to say, or I have managed to say something uninteresting in a stylish way.

Meanwhile, just like the suddenly famous garage band's second album, this blog has just got way too po-mo and self-referential for my liking. Normal service to resume shortly.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Freaky! Alexander's Bum - Yep!

Last night I came within one letter of the alphabet (and about 50 cm) of being able to slap Alexander Downer's bare buttocks! Oh so close, yet so far.

Okay, confession time. It wasn't the real Alexander Downer, it was an actor playing him in the Adelaide show of Keating! The Musical. The Hon. Mr Downer came down into the audience during his big number, "I'm Just Too Freaky", dressed in fishnet stockings and a black corset over bike pants and threw himself all over the front row. At that stage, I was relaxed and comfortable, since I was in seat G37, quite a few rows back, on the side aisle. However, the Hon. Mr Downer announced that he was a naughty boy who needed to be spanked, turned around, pulled down his pants, and shimmied his way up the aisle towards me. Fortunately, someone else was the apple of his eye: the lady sitting directly in front of me in seat F37.

He wiggled his butt around in front of her for a few seconds and she really looked like she wasn't into audience participation that much. I was seriously considering leaning forward and having a swing myself when the Hon. Mr Downer turned his head and said, "I can wait all night sweetie!", and she caved in and swatted him lightly across the buttocks, and the show got back on track. Gold.

Keating! is a great show. You probably wouldn't like it much if you're not fairly leftish in your persuasion; on the other hand, apparently Peter Costello went to see it a few years ago and killed himself laughing, so who knows? Also, unless you follow politics and have done so since the early 90's, some of it may not register. Still - I think it's worth seeing even if you don't fit in that ideal demographic. It's clever enough and irreverent enough to get some laughs no matter who you are.

My favourite moment? John Howard's 1996 election campaign featuring him stamping his way back around the country dressed in his green tracksuit, his army fatigues, and his moleskins and chambray shirt and extremely flat Akubra, singing "on the Mate-ship, anchors away, we'll let you know if you're welcome to stay!". It was so good I think that song belongs on the next release of Pop Star!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Can we have fun without ratings?

Last night I was at a friend's house with a bunch of other people. After dinner, a couple of them started playing this playstation game called Pop Star! For the uninitiated (as I was), the game involves singing into a microphone to a backing track, just like karaoke, but the game measures how on pitch you are and scores you as you go. It sounds dry and dull but it's actually a hoot! You can battle it out head to head against a friend, sing duets, even play pass the mic or sing medleys.

One of the other people there was originally trained in Music Education (whatever that is), which made me very self-conscious since like most people I can hold a tune but I'm not exactly Pavarotti, and in the Modern World, you're not supposed to show off your mediocre talents. But she pointed out to me that the most important part of music is participation, not perfection, which soothed my ego enough for me to continue.

I had a great time, but like all overeducated westerners, I subsequently succumbed to the temptation to analyse the situation in greater depth. So I got to thinking, isn't it great that the kind folks at Sony (or whoever developed the game) have brought that community attitude back into our jaded, participationless lives? Perhaps this will really change the way people think of their interaction with music. And then I thought a bit harder and thought that it was really depressing that in order to cajole us into singing we had to be told who 'won'. We had to have scores, games, gimmicks. Isn't that sad? It takes the whole point out of it. We might as well just play first-person shooters.

But then, after a good night's sleep, I decided that it probably doesn't matter. I had fun.

Pop Star! Play it if you can!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Have a good bit part

While watching Six Feet Under tonight on DVD, I had a Deep Thought. It isn't unusual for Six Feet Under to give Deep Thoughts (to me at least) since it's the best darned TV show ever made. It's about life, death, and everything in between so it has some passing relevance to me. What's noteworthy about tonight is that I got my Deep Thought from the credits.

Two actors had played the roles, "Boy asking for cheese", and "Leading lady #2" (not the same episode, you Six Feet Under buffs). I got to thinking about what it would be like for an actor to have a career consisting of nothing but roles like that. And then I thought to myself, that's all we are in most other people's lives. Bit parts. We get to say a line or two, then we move on. We have starring roles in our own lives of course, and maybe in one or two others if we're lucky. In a few shows we'll be notable characters, but in most we come on, do our brief spiel, and then leave forever.

What kind of bit parts do we create for ourselves in other people's lives? Just today I was probably "Enthusiastic customer", "Pontificating pedestrian", "Interested student #1", and "Forgetful neighbour". And that's pretty much the sum total of my contribution to the world at large today. Not too bad, but not too good either.

What were your bit parts today? Did you improve someone else's TV show, or detract from it? Did you add humour, drama, or pathos?

Greg Egan wrote a short story called "Seeing" about the value of eliminating the subjective point of view we have of ourselves - about viewing yourself as a character in an unfolding story and choosing to act as you would have that character act - unselfishly, generously. Like Peter Singer's ethical philosophy of acting without considering our own viewpoint as being special in any way I suppose. These ideas are similar to what I'm talking about, but perhaps they are bigger ideas, grander ones. I'm really only talking about the incidental parts of life. The parts where we are a customer in a shop undertaking a simple transaction, or a person getting on a bus, or an office worker answering someone else's phone. Maybe life is just made of a billion different fragments rather than anything bigger. Maybe we should pay more attention to the small moments and let the big ones look after themselves.


Hmm, no, there would be fewer than a billion fragments in life. As we computer geeks know, one second is about a nano-century, so if each fragment of life lasts 10 seconds, and since we spend a third of our lives asleep, and life expectancy is about 75 years, that makes about 50 million fragments of life that we get. Make them count.