Archive for February, 2005

Hot Pope gossip

Monday, February 28th, 2005

This is too good not to share: the latest rumour from Rome is that there are two parties contending over the moribund Pope. The Italians want to let him go gracefully; the Poles want to keep him alive for as long as possible. But the best bit is the proposed compromise: he is to die on Good Friday, thus confirming, at least to Polish eyes, who it is he most resembles. How providential that Easter comes early this year.

random nutter

Monday, February 28th, 2005

I just stumbled across the finest example of anti-Muslim paranoia you could hope to meet. Hurry up and emigrate! This map is only ten years away.

taste and custard

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

I consider myself bound by at least some of the conventions of journaism here. Specifically, if I have told people I won’t use information when interviewing them, I don’t.

But, oh, God, some of the Doctor stories I have come across when researching Oliver Sacks; many of them not about him. Some of the the very best I have said I won’t use. But one, which is marvellous, will be in the profile. The source is Jonathan Miller; the protagonist is Oliver’s mother, Dr Elsie Sacks — “She never made any distinction between domestic life and surgery. I remember her performing an operation, with her bra straps showing under her operating gown, saying ‘Oh blast I’ve just reaslied we’re out of ginger, and I will have to pick up some on the way home. Remind me, will you, sister; and pass me the retractor, please.’ Then, at a big family meal at home, she was telling me about her day’s work: ‘We had this woman in today, an elderly primagravida, obese. I had to cut through masses of fat to get there — and then, when I opened her up, the whole abdo was full of pus. Pass the mayonnaise, would you?'”

This last story I was retelling yesterday to my friend George in an Irish pub in Edinburgh (well, it was called the Au Bar) while he got stuck into his haggis neeps and tatties. I only remembered how shocking it was at first hearing when I saw the reaction of the couple at the next table.

I’m sorry, whoever you were. I hope you liked the custard on your puddings.


Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005

Oliver Sacks is finished, and will be in next Saturday’s Guardian. I spent a lot of yesterday and this morning waiting for people to ring me back with comments, which is nervous-making. It doesn’t, however, normally bring me out in migraines. However, since I was writing about the author of Migraine, I came out in a sort I have never had before, right-sided rather than left-sided; and when I was interviewing a Cambridge historian for the next project this morning, I noticed all sorts of ununsual things happening in my visual field. It is hard to talk to someone whose face is transforming into desaturated lumps of disarticulated flesh.

Later, when I was driving my producer to the station in Cambridge. I couldn’t for a moment remember where it was, and worried that I couldn’t get through the one-way system to the cricket pitch, where, for some reason, I had placed it in my mind. Instead of being a mere brain fart, this became a fascinating cognitive dysfunction.

I don’t think my nerves could have taken much more of the story.

the awful thing,

Monday, February 21st, 2005

By the end, he looked like George Melly. It is also a detail in the Aspen Times coverage that the second crew at the scene were the bereavement counsellors.

I give up understanding American politics

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

Abut a week ago today I climbed off a plane in Philadelphia, and took the little train to 30th street station where I was going to catch a larger train to New York. Somewhere in 30th Station I passed a news stand; outsde it stood three soldiers, looking ridiculously young and gawky: a blonde girl, a white guy and a hispanic. They had baggy green uniforms, the usual guns and so forth. I don’t know what they were doing there, and they didn’t seem to, either. So far as I know, they were about 6,000 miles from anyone who might seriously be trying to kill them. As I walked towards them, a middle-aged couple ahead of me walked right up to the soldiers, shook their hands, all three of them, and said something about how proud they were.

At this moment, I realised that I know nothing whatever about America, and all the American blogs, magazines and so on that I read have been misleading me by concealing some vital piece of knowledge — but I don’t know what it is.

Obviously I have seen armed soldiers (and policemen) patrolling airports and stations before. I this country we have been fighting IRA terrorists for nearly 30 years. But I have never seen anyone go up and shake their hands while they’re on duty, any more than you’d shake hands with pilot while he’s flying.

Neither the soldiers nor their supporters seemed to find anything odd in the transaction at all. Perhaps no one in America would do so. At first I thought, hah! this just shows they’re playing at war. But I think this is wrong too. Then I thought that it showed how Americans still think war can be fun, or ennobling, or uplifting, or all the other things that we stopped thinking some time around 1917. But I don’t know that that’s true, and I don’t think that it’s helpful either.

Suppose it was just a little gesture of patriotic piety, like crossing yourself as you pass a roadside shrine, or removing your hat in a church? This may be true, but how does it help me? The point is that this comes from some continent so far outside my own experience, and so far outside the kind of experiences that my liberal American friends will transmit or admit to that I can’t keep that continent in mind. Yet without that knowledge, everything I read is inextricably biased by my own hemisagnosia, and everything I learn simply leads me deeper into ignorance. So I am going to stop reading all American political magazines and blogs unless I am actually in the country.

The progress of illiteracy

Saturday, February 19th, 2005

Once upon a time, there was a neuter singular Greek noun, kudos meaning glory, or fame in war.

About ten years ago, I started noticing it used as an American marketing term, meaning, of a gadget, useful. Fly Fisherman magazine, for example, used it in their annual awards. At this point, it changed into a plural noun, as if the unit quantity of respect were one kudo.

This afternoon, I noticed the ultimate degeneration: the president of some Linux company writing to the Register, spelling it kudo’s.

I only hope the Kudo comes and gets him in the night, like the wendigo (plural, wheredewent).

Upgrading OOo

Saturday, February 19th, 2005

OOo 2.0 is nearly in beta, and pretty much usable. There are new builds coming out every week or so, and it has finally reached the condition of stability where you can simply copy over the whole user directory to a new installation and it will, just about, work straight off as it was working before. What I do now is to uninstall the old build form the control panel, install the new one, and then, before I run it for the first time, simple make a renamed copy of my user directory which contains all the macros, dictionaries, and customisations that I need to make it usable. This used reliably to crash the thing, back when they were changing the layout of the config files. Now it works fine, which means that it takes five minutes to upgrade, rather than half an hour.

The real secret of Fatima

Saturday, February 19th, 2005

There is a letter from a nutcase in the Daily Telegraph today. And this is news? you murmur. Well, yes, because it is not about Europe, or gays, or fox-hunting, but the Marian apparitions at Fatima in 1917. The last of the three children involved died last week, and Mr William Keenan, of Bramhall in Cheshire, felt that the paper’s obituary had not given proper credit to their account.

As someone who spent 11 years researching the story of Fatima, I wanted to add some important details about Sister Lucia and what happened during the final vision of October 13 (Obituaries, Feb 15).
It had been pouring with rain for several days and the area was a mudbath; the 50,000 people present were soaked to the skin. The clouds parted and the sun began to spin and change colour, and then hurtle towards the earth. The vast crowd were terrified. They thought the end of the world had come and threw themselves on their knees in the mud and prayed fervently. When the sun returned to its normal place in the heavens, these thousands got to their feet, rejoicing. It was then they found their drenched clothes were dry and the mud had all dried up.

The Fatima thing fascinates me because the people who believe in it are committing themselves to belief in a very much greater hallucination than they realise. If what the story claims is true, and the sun really did zoom towards the earth (or, as we suspiciously educated types might put it, the earth zoomed towards the Sun) then the truly remarkable hallucination is the belief of the rest of the world that nothing happened. Imagine a perturbation of the Earth’s orbit big enough to change the size of the sun in the sky. We’re told that it miraculously dried the mud and clothes of the pilgrims. Is that all? The miracle is that it didn’t boil the oceans dry and crash the moon back into the dry bed of the Pacific ocean. The miracle is that all life was not annihilated (except, perhaps, at Fatima).

Such global catastrophes reoccur in the modern American fantasies of the Rapture. But Fatima is supposed to have already happened. There are meant to be 50,000 eye witnesses to the dancing sun. It follows that the billion or so people alive in 1917 who didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary were themselves the victim of a gigantic Divinely organised hallucination. How odd of God to go to all that trouble, and leave the First World War progressing undisturbed. Nor is it just the people. Not one feather from one sparrow trembled as the earth was wrenched out of its orbit and hurled half way across the solar system and back in a couple of hours.

Of course, they don’t really believe this, because they don’t really believe that the Sun is a physical object. These stories are to be understood in the context of a peasant child’s universe, like the one about god making the Sun stand still for Joshua. What makes this odd, though, is that the same people who will claim to believe in the physical reality of Fatima will also claim that the physical reality of the resurrection is as certain and persecute those Christians who might doubt it.

A wonderful discovery

Friday, February 18th, 2005

I have been completely overwhelmed by Picasa. Once upon a time, I played solitaire when I was on the phone, to keep the rest of my mind bubbling along. Now I fool with my picture library, straightening them out and wiping out rubbish. I don’t think I have ever used a better-designed app; and while it’s not quite true that if a picture can’t be fixed in Picasa its not worth bothering with anything more fancy, th eonly thing I would like to be able to do is adjust the mid tones. Anyway; it’s free, it’s quick, and it makes simple things improbably easy.