Sunday, September 28, 2008

On sounding like a pompous git, #451: letters to the paper

The Oz had a shocking editorial last weekend about how the New South Wales English syllabus needed more Aussie literature, or something like that. Anyway, that prompted me to send in the following email to their letters page. It never got published, so here it is for posterity:
Dear editor,

In your Saturday editorial (Weekend Australian, September 20-21), you claim that "there cannot be too much emphasis on Australian literature". You also write that the English Teachers Association of NSW reasonable criticism of the latest attempts to politicise the English syllabus is "in a word, nonsense."

Your editorial is, in a word, nonsense.

The literature of Australia, the nation, is two hundred years old. But all Australian writers draw on much older, more substantial traditions - principally the tradition of English literature, which is over one
thousand years old. One Australian playwright you mention is David Williamson: he writes in the shadow of a much greater English playwright, William Shakespeare. You also cite Banjo Paterson, a popular bush poet; but he writes in a tradition that has been shaped by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Byron, by Tennyson, and by Thomas Hardy. Clearly, any emphasis on the study of Australian literature that caused these writers to be sidelined or ignored would be 'too much emphasis'.

Your peevish criticisms of the ETA are horribly misguided. It is regrettable that the ETA felt the need to use such language as 'hierarchies in generic form' when describing ministerial suggestions for the syllabus. But their criticism is sound: any course for high-school students that focuses on Australian literature purely for the fact that it is Australian, and not for the inherent qualities of the writing, will tend to either mislead the students, or put them off literature altogether. The basis for any English literature syllabus should not be a bastardised, inward-looking cultural jingoism; rather, it should be a humbling, outward-looking curiosity, that explores and discovers. In such a spirit of discovery students will find their true strength. In the words of an (English) poet, Tennyson, who you would do well to read: 'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'

Yours sincerely,
Tim Train
I wondered about closing with a Tennyson quote, but I figured my sounding like a pompous git would give the editors something to sympathise with.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Duck Cat Dog Friday

It's Grand Final season in Melbourne, and you'll find footy fans of all shapes and sizes.

Football is definitely the only thing on this fan's mind. Either that, or where she buried her last bone.

Perplexed? Puzzled? So am I.

It's a Melbourne thing.

(Photos courtesy of a work colleague, who's almost as enthusiastic about the game as D. here.)

Muslim cemetery decreases quality of life for dead people

Locals furious at Muslim cemetery plans

Members of an Anglican parish are outraged over plans for a Muslim cemetery in the grounds of a historic graveyard in south-west Sydney.

The St Thomas Anglican Cemetery is near Camden, where the local council rejected a proposed Islamic school in the face of widespread community opposition earlier this year.
Dead people have raised concerns about their quality of life following plans for a Muslim ceremony in Camden Fields.

The dead people, who are too dead to express concerns about this concerning matter themselves, have had their concerns expressed by a live spokesman, Len English.

"I'm not dead yet," says Mr English, "But I'm getting there."

However, an alternate group of people, also dead, have expressed in a joint statement through their live spokesman that they are relatively unconcerned about the concerning presence of other dead people in their vicinity.

"Sure, it decreases their quality of life, but it actually adds to their quality of death," says a currently live spokesman for the dead people.

Islamic dead people who wish to be dead in the vicinity of the Anglican dead people have yet to express their position on the matter.

However, just last night another live person in Camden Fields became a dead person, and is reported through a live spokesman to be reconsidering in death the considerations he made earlier in life, and now has a few concerns about his previously expressed concerns concerning other dead people.

"Whether we're dead or alive - can't we all just get along together?" says this dead person through his live spokesperson.

We will bring you further news on this matter as it develops.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Etiquette quiz

Sitting on the noon-day train to work, you notice that the person across from you has a small white moth wandering idly across their hair. Do you:

a) Lean over and brush it off, causing them to stare at you, shout at you, or hit you?

b) Get their attention and announce 'You have a moth on your head', possibly causing them to begin squirming with distaste?

c) Let the moth and the person carry on as they have done unmolested?

More than one answer is accepted. I myself went for option c).

Maybe the moth is still wandering across her head now.

Biographica critica

In biographical criticism, the critic attempts to relate the life of an author to their works. C S Lewis hated biographical criticism of others, and would have deplored any attempt at biographical criticism of his own writing. The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter, is a biographical criticism of C S Lewis's own writing. There is a difficulty here! For one thing, Carpenter finds himself in disagreement with Lewis himself:

Lewis's attack was partially justified. In its extreme form this 'biographical' tendency in criticism is objectionable. Yet there are also grounds for supposing that Lewis's attitude to it grew from something deep-seated in his own personality.

Realising the evident irony here, Carpenter immediately backtracks and attempts to justify his argument:

In saying this one is of course falling into the very Personal Heresy that he attacked.

But the justification that he attempts in the next sentence turns out to be no justification at all:

Nevertheless it needs to be said.

One of the advantages of writing about the dead of course is that they so very rarely argue back. But you encourage other scurrilous critics (or bloggers) to do the very same thing about yourself when you're dead. (Hi Humphrey! Hi future readers!)

In other respects, The Inklings is a very good book, detailing the history of Lewis, his literary friends, and their regular meetings that took place during and after the war. Of course, some of the best passages are quotes from Lewis and his friends themselves (the book would be only one-third the size minus the quotes). Often these quotes seem to be taken out of context - I suspect that Carpenter may have taken the words of Inkling Charles Williams to heart:

... he chanted lines of verse almost as if they were magical formulae. They were not always lines that made any great sense out of context - 'And thus the Filial Godhead answering spake' from Paradise Lost and 'Felt in the blood and felt along the heart' from Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' were among his favourites - but he did not believe that the actual meaning of such lines was especially important. 'There has been a great deal too much talking of what the poets mean,' he wrote in The English Poetic Mind. And in another context he said: ' It isn't what poetry says, it is what poetry is.'

Writerly squib for those interested in such things: when he started writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien apparently referred to Strider/Aragorn as 'Trotter'.

UPDATE - Of course, the best biography of C S Lewis was written by C S Lewis himself - Surprised by Joy.

On poetry by journalists

O Robert, O Robert Drewe -
Your hey-diddle-diddling
Is Olympically middling
Your masterful metrical hand
Has set thumbs a-twiddling,
And fingers a-fiddling
Throughout this wide brown land.

O Robert, O Robert Drewe -
Your rhyming of 'medley'
With 'steadily' was deadly -
But did you think no more than twice
'Ere happily rhyming
(With journalist's timing)
The word 'nice' with 'Stephanie Rice'?

O Robert, O Robert Drewe -
I fear your career
Has reached its nadir;
Now what will you, what will you do?
It's straight to The Age's
Sunday letter pages
- For your verse is too bad to be true.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A horrifying confession

Oscar Wilde said that doing nothing is hard work, and he was certainly right about that. I had nothing to do this weekend, and instead, I found myself -

doing the laundry
taking the old laundry down and putting it away
doing the dishes (several times)
doing the groceries (twice)
cleaning the toilet
writing three (no, wait, make that four) blog posts
taking out the recycling
tearing up a huge box that I have about my place, and taking that out to the recycling
taking out the garbage
breaking up some bits of styrofoam that I have around the house, and stuffing that in a garbage bag, and taking that out
buying a new bookshelf
taking books off my old bookshelves and restacking them on my new bookshelf (I now have a poetry bookshelf all to its own, yahoo!)
taking apart the couch
vacuuming the couch
writing about 800 words in Microsoft Word
going to bed on Saturday night, taking my laptop with me and continuing to fiddle around in publisher with a zine idea I have, and then subsequently hardly sleeping for the rest of the night

Within the space of a few short hours, and with a little cleaning and tidying, my garret has gone from a state of very-squalid-indeed to slightly-less-squalid. Thanks to my hard work and effort, that is.

I am absolutely ashamed of myself. Some weekend this has turned out to be!

Foot-in-the-door-in-the-foot journalism


Hello folks. It's me, your Intrepid Reporter, here in my house, where just the other day, without warning or provocation, my door suddenly slammed me in the foot. Now let me remind you, if you actually did need reminding, that's a door in the foot that I normally use for foot-in-the-door journalism. Is that any way to treat a respectable journalist, or for that matter, myself? Are all Intrepid Journalists going to be treated like this by their doors?

I've decided to go to the source and ask the door itself.

(CUT TO: Shaky camera footage of journalist confronting the door)

Mr Door, would you be able to say why you hit me in the foot the other day?

Mr Door, will you guarantee that this will not happen to journalists in the future?

Mr Door, why aren't you speaking to us?

Mr Door, do you have anything to say to the thousands of viewers out there who you or your kind may have shut on?

(CUT BACK TO: Intrepid Reporter in his house)

Well, unfortunately, before I was able to get a foot in the door to speak to the door about the door-in-the-foot-in-the-door incident, the door almost closed on my foot again, making this the most appalling case in recent times of foot-in-the-door-in-the-foot-in-the-door-in-the-foot-again journalism of recent times.

Worse still, other examples of inanimate objects attacking innocent Intrepid Reporters (ie, me) have been noticed. Just yesterday, I happened to fall off my seat at the table. I decided to take the case up with the seat this morning. Here's what it had to say for itself:

(CUT TO: Intrepid Reporter confronting the seat at the table)

Mr Seat, do you have anything to say for yourself?

Anything at all?

Mr Seat, do you have any concerns at all about your treatment of Intrepid Reporters?

Mr Seat, will you admit here and now to your mistakes?

(CUT BACK TO: Intrepid Reporter in his house)

Well sadly, before I could get a foot in the door to speak to the seat at the table, my window of opportunity with that seat at the table closed.

Speaking of windows of opportunity, I also had a close run in with my window yesterday, which tried to close on my hand.

(CUT TO: Footage of Intrepid Reporter waving the microphone around in the window)

Mr Window, why did you just try to do that? Mr Window, are you going to speak to me at all?

(CUT BACK TO: Intrepid Reporter in his house)

Could this predict a breakdown in reporter-window relations? I tried to get a seat at the table to get a foot in the door to speak to this window, but the door closed before I could get to the window of opportunity there. I didn't even get a door in the foot, much less a foot in the door. The window is refusing to answer all our questions.

Coming to you from a very dangerous house, your extremely Intrepid Reporter. Back to you.

Confusing confusion, and passwords

Skeptic Lawyer has a good post up about how she hates passwords, and I certainly agree.

Looking at the amount of passwords I have, though, you might come to the conclusion that I love them. I've certainly got a lot of them - probably almost twenty by now, certainly over ten. There's the password I use for blogger, the password I use for my email address, the password I use for my other email address, the password I use for my other other email address, and even the password I use for my other other other email address. There's the pin number I use for the bank, and there's the code I use to get onto Rentpay (something I invented on the spur of the moment and for some reason stuck in my head), the password I use for Pollhost. There's also several other subsidiary passwords that I've had to make up on the spur of the moment in order to use some website function, or get a new internet connection, or access something at work.

I rarely write passwords down, since I do a lot of re-using and recycling of old passwords. After all, when I go to the trouble of remembering a randomised string of numbers and letters given me I like it to stay remembered. Sometimes, indeed, I do write passwords down in case of my forgetting them: but this is a largely futile exercise, since I promptly forget where I have written them down in case of my forgetting them.

More often, though, I forget what websites or functions or computers I have remembered the passwords for, and as a result, I end up typing the wrong password into the right box at the wrong website, or the right password into the wrong box at the right website. Sometimes, too, I get my user names and passwords confused, and end up typing in a user name into the password box, or a password into a user name box. This is not really as hazardous as it might sound, since a lot of the email addresses and user-names that I have are little more than randomised strings of digits anyway. So although it can be confusing sorting out the wrong passwords from the right passwords, it's sometimes even more confusing when you type in the right passwords and the right user name. And that confusion is itself confusing.

Which is, strangely, reassuring.

And then there was what happened when I went to the bank on Friday to pay a bill, and ended up typing in the wrong pin number. Now there was an altogether different level of confusion: you see, my pin number for the bank is probably the oldest password I have. I know it better than I know the back of my hand. I certainly know it better than my phone number. It's got to the point now that when I go to a bank or an ATM, I type in the number automatically.

However, when I got to the bank I found myself automatically typing in another number that I have to remember, also four digits, but quite different to the pin number for my account. When I tried to remember what my real pin number was, I just couldn't bring it to mind.

So oddly enough, it seems that I remembered that password so well that I forgot it. To quote the preacher, Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!

So saith the preacher - and so saith I.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ad Homonym!

"If a thing's worth saying, it's worth taking a long time to say," says Treebeard in J R R Tolkien's The Two Towers. If anything, this merely understates Tolkien's general position on writing.

I wonder what Treebeard would have to say about spelling, though? Lately, I've taken to unconsciously mispelling words by throwing in a few extra letters, sometimes turning them into a homonym. My favourite seems to be 'throw/through', but I have to keep on catching myself out when writing 'deceit'. I want to turn it into 'deceipt'. Conversely, I have no problem at all with writing out the word 'receipt', and never want to shorten it to 'receit'.

For all you know, some of these mispellings could catch on in years to come. Writing out the word 'slow' is one thing, but the added letters in 'slough' really give you time to draw the whole experience out. Whereas before we 'get' into 'debt', afterwards, we could 'gebt' into 'debt', and meals would not be 'et', they would be 'ebt'. A 'site' of land would become a 'sight' of land (I've had to catch myself out on this mispelling from time to time), and critics could dismiss bad books as 'tright' rather than 'trite'. And, taking a spelling technique from the prefix 'pseudo-', all words currently beginning in 's' could begin instead in a silent 'p': 'pstops', 'pstarts', 'pshiver', 'psimper', 'pstamp', 'psue', and, my personal favourite, because it sounds so onomatopaeic, 'pspit'. Also, I've always been a fan of the queue of letters after the 'q' in the word 'queue' that turns it from a letter into a word. We could equally apply this effect to other letter/word homophones. For instance, 'be' and 'bee' would become 'beee' and 'beeee', or, perhaps for the facetious, 'B1 and B2'.

Then again, perhaps I'm wrong, and the trend of the SMS generation will continue so that, in five years, the whole of human expression will be rolled into one simple, easy to follow, impossible to understand, four-or-five letter acronym.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Buddy, you got any faith to spare?

"THE TEN Commandments, one of the most negative documents ever written." With that provocative claim posted high over two city streets, controversial cleric Francis Macnab yesterday launched "a new faith for the 21st century", a faith beyond orthodox Christianity.

- Jesus 'just a Jewish peasant'
- Cleric launches new faith
- Ten Commandments 'too negative'

Dr Macnab says Abraham is probably a concoction, Moses was a mass murderer and Jesus Christ just a Jewish peasant who certainly was not God. In fact, there is no God, in the usual sense of an interventionist deity - what we strive for is a presence both within and beyond us. - The Age

Apparently, all you have to do for people to have deeply-held beliefs now is to make those deeply-held beliefs up for them. No need to worry about intellectual inquiry, living your life honestly and suffering for your ideals, or struggling with challenges to your beliefs - all you have to do is pick up a new, branded, production line faith from the supermarket once your old one has worn out. Is it Thursday? Care for a spot of Scientology this morning then? No thanks, not for me, I'm trying to cut back.

I've got an idea. In this age when every two-bit guru offers some new idea to believe in (but when it becomes harder and harder to believe in the person offering the belief), I could make up a faith of my own. I'll retain some of the aspects of other beliefs. For instance, environmentalists believe the world will be destroyed by global warming. I could choose to believe the world will be destroyed in an event called 'the apocalypse', or 'Armageddon'. Macnabbians believe in the teachings of a Melbourne psychotherapist. I could choose to believe in the teachings of a 2000-year-old person called 'Christ'. I could call our religion 'Christianity'. (I know, this all sounds a bit wild and way out, but think about the advantages of believing a man 2000 years ago, as opposed to a guy who announces a new religion over his morning coffee and croissants. It'd be so much harder to challenge him!) Whereas Scientologists believe that our lives are manipulated, behind the scenes, by sinister intergalactic supervillains, I propose instead a belief in two principal metaphysical figures, one representing the good (known notionally as 'God'), the other representing evil (known hypothetically as 'The Devil').

I'm going out on a limb here, but I'd like to propose some other important aspects of this religion. We could do good deeds to one another (let's call this ethical concept 'doing good deeds'), and exercise compassion and kind to the poor (we could call this 'helping' the 'poor'), and emphasise the importance of humility and truthfulness (in the forthcoming release of this new religion of mine, this will be referred to as 'humility' and 'truthfulness'), as well as courage and self-sacrifice (referred to, in short-hand, as well as long-hand, as 'courage' and 'self-sacrifice').

Obviously I've been a little unoriginal here and stolen some of the ideas from some of the traditional religions - Scientology, environmentalism, and Macnabbianism*. But hey. They sound like good ideas to me.

Hell, some sucker person might even believe in them!

*I guess it's traditional, since this new faith has been in existence for at least two days now.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The live dog and the dead lion

"Suppose you had spent an evening among very young and very transparent snobs who were feigning a discriminating enjoyment of a great port, though anyone who knew could see very well that, if they had ever drunk port in their lives before, it came from a grocer's. And then suppose that on your journey home you went into a grubby little teashop and there heard an old body in a feather boa say to another old body, with a smack of her lips, 'That was a nice cup o'tea, dearie, that was. Did me good.' Would you not, at that moment, feel that this was like fresh mountain air? For here, at last, would be something real. Here would be a mind really concerned about that in which it expressed concern. Here would be pleasure, here would be undebauched experience, spontaneous and compulsive, from the fountain head. A live dog is better than a dead lion. In the same way, after a certain kind of sherry party, where there have been cataracts of culture but never one word or one glance that suggested a real enjoyment of any art, any person or any natural object, my heart warms to the schoolboy on the bus who is reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world beside. For here also I should feel that I had met something real and live and unfabricated; genuine literary experience, spontaneous and compulsive, disinterested. I should have hopes of that boy. Those who have greatly cared for any book whatever may possibly come to care, some day, for good books. The organs of appreciation exist in them. They are not impotent. And even if this particular boy is never going to like anything severer than science fiction, even so.

The child whose love is here, at least doth reap
One precious gain, that he forgets himself."
C S Lewis, Lilies that Fester

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's a party at my house and no-one's invited

Today, instead of going out partying to celebrate my birthday, I did something much better: I read in the bath. Reading in the bath is a simple, affordable, and achievable pleasure for just about anyone, and really, you have no excuse not to do it.

One (1) bath;
One (1) book, magazine, or other item of reading material (do NOT under any circumstances make it an electricity bill. That's just sick, man.)
One (1) towel ready at close quarters.

The bath must of course be sufficiently hot to allow a good long soak, and sufficiently deep so that you can sink into it and slosh about at your leisure. A ledge should also be handy to place your book on, so that it doesn't become wet while you slosh around. The towel should of course be handy so that when you pick up the book after sloshing around, your hands have been dried and the book doesn't become damaged.

In my particular case, I forgot about the towel and therefore had to blow on my hands when they had become wet to help them dry. In addition, because of peculiarities with my hot water system, I run out of hot water quickly. This means that I had to turn the hot water on full bore when running the bath to get it of a sufficient depth to slosh and loll about in (those thinking of preparing a bath in which to read, be careful to plan and prepare for such eventualities before bathing).

However, I am happy to report that the bath was indeed of sufficient depth, the sloshing and splashing was as jolly as any that have occured in the regions of a bath, and the book was fabulous: P G Wodehouse's 'Right ho, Jeeves', in point of fact. A book-in-the-bath quote for you:

Frankly, I was shocked by the unfortunate young prune's appearance. At Cannes she had been a happy smiling English girl of the best type, full of beans and buck. Her face now was pale and drawn, like that of a hockey centre-forward at a girls' school who, in addition to getting a fruity one on the shin, has just been penalized for 'sticks'. In any normal gathering, her demeanour would have excited instant remark, but the standard of gloom at Brinkley Court had become so high that it passed unnoticed...

I suppose there are some people who might insist on going out for one's birthday, but really, why do that when you can have a one-person party at home with your bath and your book?

Bloody hell

I just heard a guy who was allegedy the CEO of the NZX talk about TZ1, the ETS, and the NZU.

It's just, like, totally OMFG!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Yet another further further fable for our time

The constant bird

There once was a constant bird who was known near and far for his unwavering commitment to the dull routines of life. His other bird friends would fly and frolic and frivol about in the forests, engaged in morning games or afternoon work or seasonable activities. They would urge him to be up with the early bird, to hark like the lark, to soar about the sky like an eagle, to fall in love with a dove, and even to ostentatiously strut about like the cock-of-the-walk (the cock-of-the-walk in fact held regular strutting lessons for the other birds willing to pay a small fee). In winter, migratory birds would urge him to fly south; in spring, the spring chickens would encourage him to come out and enjoy the spring; and in summer, other migratory birds would urge him to fly north. But no: this constant bird just wanted to stay inside and watch TV.

If truth were told, this bird did not have a very exciting life. He had tried internet dating for a while, but couldn't get on with the other birds. They all wanted to fly high or sing sweetly or catch insects in the tree or swim about on the pond or hold wingtip-to-wingtip and gaze endlessly into one another's eyes while making peculiar honking noises. They weren't really interested in sitting at home and watching TV, and consequently, the constant bird wasn't really interested in them. He was as unmoved by the pleas of his mother to find a nice girl and make a nest and raise a family of eggs as he was by ominous documentaries he sometimes saw on the nature channel about survival of the fittest.

One day, men came to the forest and bulldozed the land, and chopped down the trees, and drained the pond that the ducks swam in. All the larks and chats and ducks and twits and penguins and geese and pigeons had to move out and go on to welfare. The constant bird, however, was staying in his house as he usually did and watching another episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. He therefore did not hear about this great natural disaster until days afterwards. He caught a report on the news channel.

MORAL: The early bird catches the worm. The late bird catches the next episode of Oprah.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I also liked their plastic icecream desserts

Hey, what do you know, apparently Cafe Scheherezade in St Kilda is closing down. What the hell!

For 50 years, it's been the cafe of 1,001 stories. A home away from home for many East European refugees, Cafe Scheherazade in St Kilda is closing its doors after a long dispute between the original owners and the new operators.

Their coleslaw was horrible, but their borscht was excellent. They served huge meals. Once I saw my brother eat a huge duck*, all by himself. He "offered" to let me have some at several points, but I was just agog at the sheer amount he'd already put down his stomach.

By the way, you don't have to bother reading the rest of that ABC report. The only real news you'll get is that there's been a 'dispute' betwen owners and operators. The rest is just atmospherics (Cue the imitation Klezmer music! Cue the name dropping! Cue the references to St Kilda landmarks!)

*Sorry to have to break this news on Duck Friday, but there it is.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On the eve of ultimate destruction, I have a slight cold

Beware of anything that comes with an acronym: ECT, EBL, ASAP, AVO, ALP, LNP, KGB, ATM, ASBOS. There's a reason why James Bond was mortal enemies with SMERSH.

And now we've got another acronym to worry about: LHC. That's short for Large Hadron Collider, which is long for... I don't know what.

There's something thrillingly cryptic about the name 'Large Hadron Collider'. Wherein does the largeness consist? Is the LHC a large thing that simply collides hadrons? Or is it a little thing that collides large hadrons? What are hadrons anyway? Do hadrons come in large and small and in-between sizes? Why would you want to collide them, and what do you collide them with? Is this how boffins get their boffinly thrills, by crazily smashing a bunch of random hadrons into one another as if they were involved in a game of quantum conkers? Or do they collide the hadrons with something else (an old race guide, perhaps, or a puppy), throwing them about the LHC any old how and just hoping for them to end up any old where? Apparently, they want to find the Higgs-Boson, which is a bizarre theoretical something postulated in order to explain the existence of another bizarre theoretical something.

It's all charmingly naive, this idea of throwing hadrons around a large collider, or throwing large hadrons around a small collider, or whatever: it sounds like the ultimate of eccentric hobbies. But there's a sinister side to it, too: a few theories suggest that just by scattering a couple of hadrons about the place to see what they smunch into, physicists might - just might - create the conditions for the annihilation of the earth, the moon, the sun, and the solar system. That is, if everything these physicists say turns out to be right. Or wrong. Depending on your point of view.

So, to sum up: an ambiguous thing that performs strange functions to vague sub-molecular objects in order to find a hypothetical entity may, or may not, cause Armageddon. That's reassuring, isn't it?

I'm sure there's a very good answer for all of this. I have absolutely no idea what it might be.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Disaster strikes in the wrong place!

ALICE SPRINGS - Huge landslides outside town this morning might have nearly killed people if they had been closer, and could have almost disrupted houses if they had been nearby.

Shaken locals, who remain unhurt by this disaster that luckily struck in the wrong place, have spoken to WTFF of the wave of fear and horror that struck them when hearing of this disaster.
"I was at work when I heard about it," comments June. "If I hadn't been at work, and I had been elsewhere, that elsewhere possibly being out of town, then I very nearly might have been killed."
"It was just shocking to hear that if my house was on the other side of town and the landslide had been just ten kilometres closer, then I might concievably have been on the verge of almost losing everything. Though I was out shopping at the time, anyway."

Local authorities have issued a statement saying "this disaster that could nearly have wreaked havoc if it had been closer is almost certainly too close for comfort, and we will certainly do something important about it sometime."

However, a shopkeeper who wishes to remain unnamed has expressed his gratitude. "It's about time a disaster happened in the wrong place. We should have more accidental disasters like it."

SYDNEY - A woman yesterday dropped a feather on her foot which, if it had been bigger, and made out of concrete, and she hadn't moved her foot out of the way in time, would quite possibly have hurt or wounded her. The woman, who wishes to be known only as 'Tina', is currently in counselling.

However, experts at Sydney University point out that if the feather had been a knife, and if the knife had been pointing downwards instead of upwards, then Tina's foot may have been cut, and the accidental disaster that occured may have been accidentally very disastrous indeed.

In addition, WTFF believes that further investigation is required into the possibility that the feather may have been a lump of plutonium which may have exploded on being dropped. If this had been the case, then the catastrophe that occured would have been positively tragic.

In the tradition of all great journalism, we will be further delving into these extremely remote possibilities of disaster in the days and weeks to come.

INSIDE: OPINION COLUMN - "It's high time the government did something about relatively unlikely accidents involving household furniture with potentially destructive consequences."

PORT STEPHENS - Disaster struck the town's weekly paper when near tragedy struck the town two days after the paper's deadline. The near tragedy - a flood which could, if it had been higher, potentially have caused property damage, and if it had been more violent, possibly caused drowning - failed to occur on schedule, forcing editors and journalists at the paper to scramble for news. Also, it wasn't much of a flood either - someone's lawn just got a bit mooshy.

Thankfully, the almost tragic lack of near-tragedy was avoided at the last moment when a second cousin of the editor's dog lost a hair pin that could very easily have been an item of jewellery worth a million dollars, just in time for the deadline.

Also, thanks to quick thinking, the editor was able to arrange for the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt to be moved forward a few years and several months to coincide with the paper's deadline, at only minor inconvenience to the now dead participants.


Saturday, September 06, 2008

Important things to note on a Saturday morning

In 1955, the Hollywood film 'I am a Camera' was made based on Christopher Isherwood's book Goodbye to Berlin.

I think I'd rather watch a film titled I am a Gamera!

Gentlemen, cognite your engines...

Thoughts on reading a new old book by Brian Aldiss

The wise old owl sat in the court
The less he knew, the more he thought,

The more he knew he thought, the less he thought he knew -
Why can't he think he knows it all like me and you?

- Myself

I recently bought a book of non-recent essays by Brian Aldiss, This World and Nearer Ones: Essays exploring the familiar. They're from the late 1970s or thereabouts, but they're new to me. Aldiss has written so much, and so much of it is so very different to all the other stuff that he writes, that this is a relatively common experience for people. Aldiss suffers from the predicament of the prolific author: not only will you never get to the end of what he writes, you sometimes hardly get to the beginning of it, either. On the other hand, such is his ability to churn out new ideas, and make old ideas seem fresh, that every book you get a hold of is an adventure - so it all balances out nicely.

And most of what you'll find of Aldiss, too, in the bookshops, is from the 1960s and 50s, a time when he churned out a number of high-grade science-fiction novels, like Hothouse (think futuristic jungles where people are hunted by plants, and giant spiders spin vast webs between the planets) and Non-Stop (a weird pastiche novel involving dwarves and Jungian archetypes on a interstellar ship somewhere in outer space). Oftentimes his publishers try to excuse his elaborate flights of science-fantasy with cover blurbs that explain how he's been an editor of literary supplements, a film and art critic, a journalist, and a poet. Sometimes they'll even threaten to confront you with evidence of this. All I can say is I've never really seen it.

Aldiss, by contrast doesn't even seem to be interested in excuses of this sort. What he's done in books like this is to write about science fiction as a critic. By this I mean, he hasn't just published a collection of reviews of science fiction books, or judged the rest of world literature by the extent to which it echoes or is influenced by science fiction - he seems, thankfully, entirely disinterested in this sort of self justification. No, what he's done is write a collection of playful critical essays reflecting upon new themes that have arisen in science fiction, meditated upon the connections between science, art and progress 'Since the Enlightenment' (the title of the introductory essay), written about encounters with fellow fantasy authors, looked at images of science and fantasy and surreal in the work of pulp artists, and even written one or two essays on ideas that would previously have only been the basis of science fiction stories or novels. What's good for the author is good for the critic as well, it seems:

Mr Chairman, Fellow Mortals I suppose you all know what death is. It's that last great MOT test in the skies, that undiscovered bun-fight from whose custard-pies no traveller revives. Undertakers used to charge £95 per head for it; this week it's gone up to £120 per head, and I daren't tell you how much for the body.

That's from 'Looking Forward to 2001', an address to the Oxford Union, and it's worth buying the book just for that piece alone.

Coming to think about his novels now, I suspect that he's approached a lot of his fiction like a critic. His novels will satirise or imitate the work of other authors, or he will argue with himself, or at his worst (a worst which is better than the best of some other science fiction writers) he will belabour a theme or idea in his writing so that it becomes slow-moving and pedantic. So, too, I get a sense that he approaches criticism like science fiction. He makes so much of it up; it is so full of fast-moving arguments and opinions that sometimes you are unable to stop and pin him down to an argument. He can rely on glib journalistic generalisations and his arguments can be designed to put people in their place. In 'California, Where They Drink Buck Rogers', he says 'on the whole, these are culture-free people'. Culture here could have several meanings, but this sentence is primarily designed to appeal to an English audience - it was written for the Guardian. So it's a put down. Elsewhere, we get: '... that Man (rarely Woman) has various God-like abilities. In the knockabout farces of their pulp universe, Man always won through by force...' But Man can have different definitions here, too - 'Humanity' or 'males'. He teases with one definition and then makes clear that it is the other, probably to imply his sympathy with a feminist readership.

Occasionally he attempts to clobber you with strange, unheard of words from the depths of his home dictionary:

The basic imaginative donné of the pulps...

In fact, according to both and the Oxford Dictionary, this word is 'donnée'*. If you tease the reader with obscure words then get the spelling wrong, you're unlikely to be caught out. But it means you're probably doing it more to impress than to make an argumentative point.

Elsewhere: he criticises the eminently criticisable original series of Star Trek, but in a strange way. He's picked the right show to tick off, but the wrong reasons. He says 'the nice guys are of course all American, and, indeed, All-American'. Maybe the show did reflect an American ethos, but this is the ethos of an immigrant culture: the main characters number among them Russians, African-Americans, Scottish, and Chinese (and, of course, one Vulcan). In 'Looking Forward to 2001' he claims to be 'a firm admirer of America', but you get the sense that he wants to categorise them, too. The urge to categorise in this sense may be meant as critical - but it seems like a kind of social categorisation, too.

More strange and wondrous are various mispellings and slips of the fingers. He mentions horror writer L P Lovecraft (a confusion of L P Hartley and H P Lovecraft, perhaps?) In an essay on French writer Jules Verne, Aldiss compares him to the 'two great English writers Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy'. Has Aldiss arranged some kind of posthumous English-Russian writerly exchange program? I would love to see a novel by the English author Leo Tolstoy. Or, for that matter, a play by the Russian writer Oscar Wilde. These Aldissian Slips are signs of the speed and prolixity with which the author is able to rattle of cultural references and names and are quite tantalising in their own way: by not saying what their writer means, they mean more than they should.

He is good on mistakes and misappropriations of others; his piece 'SF Art: Strangeness with Beauty' is affectionate criticism. Talking of an early 20th century astronomer who looked through his telescope and concluded that the planet Venus was in the midst of 'a Carboniferous age, with luxuriant vegetation growing in hot cloudy conditions', Aldiss deduces 'From this inspired - and totally incorrect - guess have sprung a thousand Planet Stories scenarios'. And then there is this:

When the technophile Gustave Eiffel erected his great iron tower in Paris in 1889... it was an inspiration to technophiles everywhere - so much so that the tower appeared truncated on a Wonder Stories cover some years later as mining equipment on Pluto.

Also of interest is the way this book as a whole prefigures and echoes themes which occur in other Aldiss books. The various travels that Aldiss takes to the Soviet Union, Sumatra, the USA, and the Balkans have obvious parallels elsewhere in his ouevre, including the short stories in A Tupolev Too Far, his Life in the West quartet, and (a book I'd love to get) his travellers guide to the Balkans. He mentions in his essay on SF art a project by enlightenment artist Philip James de Loutherbourg to create 'moving pictures, ingenious optical effects, and, again, striking effects of light' - a forerunner of the cinema. Something like this appears in his alternative-history fantasy A Malacia Tapestry. Also appearing in that novel are hot air balloons as a form of air transport, which he mentions (follow me here) in his book The Detached Retina, in passing, in an essay on Mary Shelley's little known book The Lost Man, which contains fantastic passages about voyages across a plague-ridden Europe in hot air balloons and dirigibles.

This World and Nearer Ones is an oxymoron in more ways than one - it is big for its size; it is a single book that contains multitudes. Aldiss is always even handed, and where he sometimes has a habit of contradicting history, as noted above, he also has a way of contradicting himself. The self, for him, is as much a matter of opinion as is history. These contradictions are splendidly obvious in 'Looking Forward to 2001', though there is another in 'From History to Timelessness', a standard (for Aldiss) exposition of the right-brain/left-brain dichotomy. Aldiss has always been banging on about the person as two-in-one - body against flesh, mind against soul. In The Detached Retina, however, almost on a whim, he speculates that maybe inside people there are seven separate and distinct persons who emerge at different times in one's life. I'd like to think that this endless capacity for contradiction demonstrates Aldiss' ongoing vigour of mind and creativity.

Now, after speaking of another writers contradictions, I have to admit to doing a bit of an Aldiss myself on reading his essay 'Burroughs: Less Lucid than Lucian' - having to pull myself up halfway through when I realised he was writing about ER Burroughs, not William Burroughs.

Doing an Aldiss Slip. Is there room in the Oxford Dictionary for that, do you think?

*The subject, theme, or motif of a story, play, etc.; a datum; a basic fact, assumption, etc - Oxford Dictionary

Friday, September 05, 2008

Guess the headline!

Given the recent round of hirings and firings in New South Wales Parliament, what do you all think the headlines on the weekend papers will be?

Premier, Treasurer out in Cabinet reshuffle





Thursday, September 04, 2008

Stuff sold on ebay

- 1930s cocktail party.
Genuine article. Slightly worn round the edges. Fey evening gowns, original martinis, cigarettes + wealthy dowager. Much witty discussion about W C Fields. Several authentic jazz cylinders being played on permanent rotation. Party started at Gayle and Freddy's house, but just kept going and going and getting bigger and bigger so Gayle and Freddy had to shift it off to the countryside, where it's been going ever since. Original party-goers dead, but spirit of the occasion - the impressive art nouveau gloss to the whole affair - carries on regardless.

May need to have licence to own monkeys.


- Spiro Agnew's soul
It does exist! And in mint condition. Verified by several eminent theologians and philosophers. But please, don't bid if you are Satan or his minions.


- My little brotherz underwear
Quik, halp me buy thiz be4 he getz home from cricket plz!


- The severed head of John Gorton
Separated at last! And perfectly preserved, thanks to the knowledge I learned during my time amongst the headhunters of the Amazon. Will also throw in Bert Newton's smile (separated from the rest of his body, obv.) for the right customer at the right price.


- An apostrophe.
Complete with original packaging.


- The Genuine Article
This Genuine Article is the genuine Genuine Article. No article could be more genuine than this genuinely Genuine Article, especially not those frauds and shams masquerading as fake Genuine Articles or genuinely Fake Articles.


- The thought of a hot apple pie with ice-cream


- The desire for a beautiful woman


- Seven vague and evanescent emotions about tulips


- Roses without the petals


- The nose hairs of sasquatch.
Some flakes of sasquatch snot still attached.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Short short story

He passed away due to an excess of tea in his poison.

Pay attention, drones

If ____ ruled overe your faceless gigantic corporation: a speculation

If Phil K Dick ruled over your faceless gigantic corporation, he'd weep over the photocopier and give the staff Powerpoint presentations explaining cosmic conspiracies at corporate strategy meetings. He'd arrange office furniture after hours into complicated patterns as an effort to communicate with the Gods, and he'd sidle up to you as you were doing your work and ask "Hey - got any? You know what I mean."

If Dylan Thomas ruled over your faceless gigantic corporation, he'd be busy having an affair with the secretary behind his personal assistant's back, and vice versa. He'd drink all the time, and go on a lunch break when he wanted to become sober. He'd call up random clients out of the list on the computer, and insult them in Welsh; and if they were Welsh he'd insult them in Spanish. And once, he wrote a long poem on the back of a print-out of corporate data and snarled at the company manager when she tried to take it off him.

If Dr Johnson ruled over your faceless gigantic corporation, he'd spend all his time drinking with poets at the coffee houses, and hardly come in to work at all. As the company went to pieces, he'd come into the office at random intervals and shout long and elaborate sentences composed of obscure adjectives in the ear of the person two seats away from you. He would attack the glass partition between his office and the rest of the room with his cane, and he would hurl several computers out of the window with his bare hand. When confronted by other staff and asked to leave, he would deliver off-the-cuff epigrams like "Some might say I live to drink. Others might say I drink to live. I say you are a scoundrel!" Or, more pithily, "Bugger off, ye sodding twats."

If Voltaire ruled over your faceless gigantic corporation, he'd set you all free and then go after the other executives with a blunderbuss.

Monday, September 01, 2008

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