Archive for November, 2005

A Jack Vance Restaurant

Saturday, November 19th, 2005

I was introduced yesterday to the most absurd and delightful Chinese patisserie in Soho, possibly in Europe. The exterior walls are sheets of blue glass; even the urinals seem made from slabs of blue perspex, with a stepped slate trough for the handbasin. In the cellar is a restaurant, which looks crowded, dark, and painfully hip and on the airy ground floor dim sum and patisserie from another, very prosperous galaxy. You can get things like Cactus Biscotti, or the “Jade Ganache” that I had, which turns out to contain a sort of absinthe trifle enclosed in a cup made of eggshell-thin chocolate decorated to look like enamelled metal, and topped with pistachio-coloured cream that tasted of something quite pleasant but from another solar system where the fundamental chemistry of life is different.

There is a three page tea menu, with the Chinese teas grouped into colours — Green, White, Black, and — the largest section — blue. I shared two pots, one of which was utterly sublime. At £4.00 a pot, it bloody well should have been, but that was comparatively cheap. There was one tea which cost £28. The nibbles and the dim sum were priced to match the drinks. Wearying of tea, I ordered a glass of mandarin jiuice with chili, mint and lemon grass. It was the best fruit juice concoction I have ever drunk but the grass was absolutely crammed with ice, and it cost three pounds.

Central London is full of places charging extraordinary prices for quite ordinary pleasures: the fancy hotel opposite the BBC in Portland Place sells a small, single expresso for £5.20. You might as well be drinking printer ink. Afternoon tea in a grand hotel can easily cost £25 per person and it won’t be nearly as good as you might find in the right bit of the provinces. Do any English people eat tea at all nowadays?

This place, which feels so gratifyingly like the best restaurant on one of Jack Vance’s planets, actually delivers some fun for your money. Poking around the reviews, it would appear that the cellar restaurant does not. Pop round for tea in the afternoon, is my advice.

Gmail is not a word processor

Friday, November 18th, 2005

I was bewildered by Vic Keegan’s article on gmail as a word processor; I should have been illuminated. It shows how many journalists still use a computer as a typewriter with fancy formatting.

He wants a fast and lightweight program with which to process words. Don’t we all? Word is too big for him, and OOo too nerdy. The plain text editors, he’s heard of aren’t powerful enough. ”I’ve tried a few free ‘memo pads’ but they are primitive as they do not want to provide competition for paid-for alternatives”

So now he writes his articles as gmail messages, because it has the “word processing” features that he needs —

“seven fonts and four type sizes (including huge) plus colour, bold, italic, indenting, justification and quite a good spell checker.
It also has a link button of the kind you get on blogs, which inserts a hypertext link to a website behind a word you have highlighted without the need to type in any code. The only thing it seriously lacks is a word counter.”

Absolutely none of these, except a word count and, perhaps, for a link button, would be on my list of essential text editing functions. My lightweight word processor needs only have:

  • movement by word, sentence and paragraph
  • deletion by the same units, forward and backward
  • a function to cycle through upper, lower, and title case
  • the ability to transpose the two characters either side of the cursor
  • drag and drop cutting and pasting
  • word count
  • spell chicking
  • autosave
  • a format that can be indexed for fast later searching in old articles.


Another patent story I missed

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

OK – I only found it after the deadline. But some idiot in the US Patent Office has approved one for “a flying saucer which depends on antigravity.” In a way, that’s almost more shocking than patents on hyperlinks.

That Sony rootkit

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

I have a big piece on IP going into Saturday’s Guardian. I’m not very happy about it, because I think it misses an important point about Sony’s rootkit, one of the most egregious examples of corporates taking ownership of things we consider our own, like the computers we have bought.

It is going to be a huge PR disaster for Sony, since the software opens one security hole, the removal kit another, even bigger one; and the whole thing turns out to be a violation of copyright itself, since it contains, in a delicious irony, portions of the (copyright protected) DVD-playing program that got the Norwegian teenager Jan Johansen pursued into court by the record industry.

But only this afternoon did I see the really important point. This wasn’t aimed at consumers at all. The particular target appears to have been Apple (some of the stolen GPL code was there to detect Apple software). They really did not want these songs ripped to iPods. The customers’ computers were merely the battlefield for these two unlovely corporations to fight their DRM wars on.

Different from Kipling, how?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

There is a long plug/interview with Robert Kaplan in the Atlantic Monthly online (not sure if it’s paywalled) which fills me with a soft despair. Here’s why:

Instead of the oppressive colonial domination that characterized other empires, Kaplan describes America as spreading its imperial influence through humanitarian aid efforts such as well-digging, medical care, and school construction. These days, imperialism means that soldiers seek to adapt to the mores of the places where they’re stationed, rather than forcing those places to knuckle under to imported ideas. Green Berets in Afghanistan wear keffiyas and grow beards; they drink tea with tribal leaders and take time to know both people and place. Instead of fierce generals or conquest-hungry marauders, Kaplan found thoughtful, caring, and disciplined soldiers who everyday face the impossible task of “making countries out of places that were never meant to be countries.”

I’m quite prepared to accept this as sometimes true, and always, among the decent imperialists, an aspiration, though perhaps a naive one: I don’t remember, from childhood visits to the unimaginable profusions of the PX in Bonn, very much engagement with the German culture around it. And let’s leave Iraq out of the picture for the moment, though it is the central front in the American imperialist project. The most astonishing thing is Kaplan’s assertion that these “thoughtful, caring, and disciplined soldiers” are unlike all their predecessors. What does he think the British empire was like, or even the French? That phrase about making countries out of places that were never meant to be countries translates quite well into French — I think it would be something like La mission civilisatrice. And the idea of our brave soldiers accepted by their brave enemies is one that everyone finds irresistible, whenever they invade Afghanistan. The wars there all seem to have the same outcome, though.

This isn’t (just) point scoring. If American can’t even acknowledge its predecessor empires, let alone learn from their mistakes, what chance does it have of avoiding their fate?

The Wall Street Journal comes out for torture

Monday, November 14th, 2005

The Wall Street Journal has come out for torture in its leader on Saturday:

“Yet according to many Bush Administration critics, the aggressive and stressful questioning techniques used successfully against the likes of KSM put the U.S. on a slippery slope to widespread ‘torture’ and the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. John McCain (R., Arizona) has pushed an amendment through the Senate that would effectively bar all stressful interrogation techniques. The danger for American security is that this would telegraph to every terrorist in the world that he has absolutely nothing to fear from silence should he fall into U.S. hands.”

updated after the fold


Showing the instruments

Sunday, November 13th, 2005

Call me sentimental but I would like to believe that if Mr Bush and Mr Cheney had actually run for office on a programme of legalising torture, they might have lost the 2000 election. Possibly they had no strong opinions on the subject. Yet we see now the extraordinary spectacle of the Vice-President of the United States lobbying hard for executive branch to be granted the legal sanction to torture foreigners wherever and whenever it wants; and it is pretty clear that this is simply legalising a process already well-established.

Why does Dick Cheney love torture so? What’s in it for the torturers? This is an important question, if they are going to govern us. Obviously, for some minority, there is a direct pleasure in the infliction of pain. But this is hardly going to be the motive of the vice president of the united states. Besides, he doesn’t actually drown people, beat them or place electrodes on their tender parts. He might not even want to to watch it done, though he is determined that his servants should do it.

But for most of us, and for most of the people who acquiesce in it, the pain is the most shameful part of torture. It is a means, and not an end. The end is fear. Torture is worthwhile because it demonstrates that we can do it. It frightens people whom we want to go in fear of us.


Sex and slavery

Friday, November 11th, 2005

There was a glorious story in an Australian-owned tabloid about two teachers meeting in Queensland, where brothels have just been legalised. One of them had gone as a customer; the other was working there in her spare time.

I don’t know how the story got out. The woman was “counselled”, but could not be sacked, and neither could the man. The anti-discrimination commissioner has announced that it would be illegal if either of them were to be sacked for engaging in sexual activity which is perfectly legal in itself. This seems to me to miss some important points about teaching, and the difficulties of maintaining classroom discipline if one’s hobbies are unusual.

Anyway, I was thinking about the moral issues involved, for a worm’s eye column, and realised that there are two grounds on which legalised prostitution can be defended. In a slave-owning society, or even on where women have no rights, then it is none of the state’s business what happens to a slave. In a free society, individual consenting adults may into transactions with each other, and that’s none of the state’s business either.

The trouble with prostitution in modern societies is that as a matter fact it involves both free and slave labour. I have no idea whether Belle du Jour was real, but I’m pretty certain Tracy Quan was. Both of them qualify as free agents. There must be others like them. Somehow this makes the slavery aspects even worse.

It still seems entirely wrong that only one side of the deal should be criminalised, but whether both or neither should be is less clear. What’s obvious when you think about it, though, is that slavery should be treated as murder, punished with mandatory life imprisonment, and investigated with as many resources as a murder is.

A Phlegmagogue for the Elaphure

Sunday, November 6th, 2005

I’ve been dithering about what to put in this slot. In a linkier and shorter place I would simply put the two delightful words I found while cheating at the FT crossword yesterday — elaphure and phlegmagogue. An elaphure is actually a Père David’s Deer, so now we have an animal with two beautiful names, though I prefer elaphure. A phlegmagogue is not — as you might think — a teacher of snot, but a medicine which expels it. The word has been little used since the 17th century, according to the OED, which has no quotes after 1737, but one lovely cite:

1671 Salmon Syn. Med. iii. li. 570 Electuary of a good Phlegmagogue.

UPDATE: Google Print, however, has four results, for phlegmagogue and twenty pages on elaphure. That’s pretty impressive, though none will give you a definition.


Friday, November 4th, 2005

The next entry on this blog will be the thousandth. I’m not sure how I should commemorate this milestone — perhaps proclaim a year of Jubilee? — but in the meantime, here’s a twelve sting guitar and a curiously shaped capo:

Twelve strings