Saturday, December 12, 2009


As this blog functions as a sort of journal for me, it's not surprising that I often find myself thinking about the subject of memory, specifically mine. I won't link to my previous ramblings on the subject because they're pretty tedious, suffice to say that while it takes months for my memories of interesting or unusual events to become blurred or vague, it only takes a week or two for the individual memories to fall out of my mental card index and get shoved, unsorted and heaplike, into a shoebox somewhere. As a result, the next post will probably just be a heap of scenes, probably in the wrong order. The last post was the same, I just forgot to put this disclaimer at the start. Some of the things that I said happened on the Thursday probably happened on the Friday (or the Saturday) and vice-versa, some of the things may have happened slightly differently to what I remember, and some of the things may not have happened at all. (In case you hadn't guessed, Kristen didn't really demand a car with a keel, although she should have done).

Also, I feel I should apologize for the length of these posts. I used to strive for economy and brevity in my writing, but these days I live by the pen, so to speak, and get paid by the yard. The work philosophy of "write as much as you can, then edit it down" is a good one, but unfortunately I can't be bothered to edit my writing when I'm not at work.

While these posts are intended to be about the Gevelow wedding, the actual wedding will probably only play a fairly minor role. This is for a number of reasons. First, as someone's plus-one I didn't really have much of a role to play in the proceedings other than to be there, so my viewpoint is very much from the fringes of all the planning-type drama. Second, although I was on the fringes of the chaos and the drama, it did occasionally sweep me along with it, as chaos tends to do. This means that the build-up to the wedding is at least as memorable to me as the ceremony itself, and so the Great Event of a Lifetime has to compete for mental space in a way that most weddings probably do not. Thirdly, I don't pay a lot of attention to what's going on around me, so I'm a pretty terrible witness.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gevelow vs. Ida part the second

The following morning I woke up, fully clothed, lying on a sofa in a room I didn't recognise. The room was large, and lit only by the cracks of light that shone round the edges of the curtains and blinds. I seemed to be in a sort of half-kitchen half-livingroom about the size of my parents' house.

To my right there was a heap of sheets on a sofa. The heap of sheets was moving up and down in a slow, rhythmic manner. At this point the higher brain functions were starting to shamble into my consciousness, bleary-eyed and wearing their bathrobes -- one of them pointed out that, as sheets don't breathe, the breathing pile of sheets was probably Kristen. Another higher-function switched on my memory and explained where I was, and why. I remembered the journey, the late-night introductions, and the power-cut. I could remember carrying candles around and I could remember the discussions about air mattresses. I didn't remember going to bed.

I didn't know what time it was. Due to the power cut, all the electrical devices around me were flashing "12:00" and waiting to be reset; my body-clock, after 24 hours of non-stop traveling, was doing the same. My phone told me it was one thirty in the afternoon. After the bit of my brain that does maths and knows about time-zones turned up for work a few seconds later, I figured out this meant it was about eight thirty in the morning, which seemed a reasonable time to get up.


I've eaten a lot of breakfasts in my time, although probably not as many as I've had hot dinners. Usually they consist of cereal, or, more commonly, toast. The toast is usually rendered edible by some form of butter, but in a pinch cold gravy, mashed potato, or custard will do. Breakfast, in case you hadn't already guessed, is not a meal I take particularly seriously and definitely not one that I've ever spent more than a minute preparing.

You can imagine my shock, therefore, when I reached the top of the stairs and was hit by the smell of all manner of cooking. Various early-rising food pixies had prepared a mountain of tasty, which included everything from bacon to what appeared to be bread and butter pudding. It was easily the biggest, tastiest, and most fattening meal I'd eaten in a few months. A few more introductions were made--an assortment of aunts, uncles, and friends who had gone to bed before we arrived. They were all friendly, and I think I managed to make a reasonably good impression--well as good as could be hoped for, considering that I'd traveled halfway across the world, slept a night on a sofa in my clothes (I was wearing the clothes, not the sofa) and still hadn't showered.


After the gargantuan breakfast, I was left at a bit of a loose end. I can't sew, can't bake, and I'm not much good at organizing things, especially things I don't really understand. I had no errands to run, and no important matters to discuss, so I spent a long time just wandering around the house, pushing buttons and giggling. Once that got boring I sat and talked to anyone who'd listen and checked my emails. I watched the heaviest rain I've ever seen bludgeon the landscape, and stared, amazed at the kiteboarders out in the sound -- to whom a hurricane is merely a patch of really good wind. They stayed out there for the whole time we were at the house. Even on the days when we had to batten down the hatches and rope ourselves together if we ventured outside, they were out on the water, leaping off huge waves and jumping over entire islands wearing only wetsuits.


Beyond the poolhouse there is a little wooden jetty. It goes out about 20 meters before it ends with a square deck. The deck has two chairs bolted two it and some mooring hooks around the edges. In the afternoon, after the storm abated, me and Kristen walked out there. It was a beautiful day, not something I'm used to in November. The Pamlico sound was glass-flat and the sky pure blue. For an hour or so we sat on the edge of the deck, dangling our toes in the surprisingly warm water and watching the pelicans flapping about on the shore. My body was deeply confused by all this, seeing as it had just got used to the British winter dispensing with the niceties of the indian summer and settling down to some good old-fashioned, pissing-down rain. Nothing on the same scale as Hurricane Ida's outbursts, but somehow wetter, and more insidiously unpleasant; coupled, as it was, with cold winds and steel-grey skies.

After a while Kristen was called into the house for some reason, and I was left to amuse myself again. To this end I wandered back down the jetty in search of pleasingly flat rocks. There were not many -- I'm guessing many others had rummaged among the shoreline pebbles before me -- but I found a couple of reasonable skimming-stones and one pleasingly boulder-like rock. I walked to the edge of the deck and sat myself down by the completely flat water. Conditions were perfect. There was a small patch of ever-so-slightly rippled water about 60 meters off the shore, but that wasn't yet disturbing my reflecting pool.

Stone by stone, I picked my heap away until nothing was left but the boulder. I'd pick each one up, feeling its weight and shape in my hand, then send it skimming across the water. For few moments after each stone sank I watched the ripples dissipate and interfere with each other. I think I managed to get one stone to bounce seven times, but there was no-one there to see it, and I'm a bit too old to impress anyone that way. Once all the flat ones were gone I allowed everything to settle. I kept my feet as still as I could, and tried not to breath too much. I then picked up my huge boulder (it was about twice the size of my fist, roughly spherical, and weighed about 6kg), raised it over my head like a caveman, and heaved it into the air.

I have to admit, it didn't soar like a bird. It flew with the uninspiring ballistic trajectory of a heavy rock thrown by a rather feeble man. If I'd wanted to see something soar, however, I would have watched the birds. I wanted to see this fall, and fall it did. Splooshing into the water like a giant raindrop. The water was momentarily forced down and out, forming into a crown. It held it for one perfect millisecond then -- with a glooping, flopping slopnoise -- it collapsed and sent another sphere, a clear mirror image of the one that went in, flying up into the air then landing in the disturbed water below. I was still watching the water pull tight and flatten when Kristen came back down the jetty to see what I was doing. We got some more stones, and repeated the process. I was impressed to find that, with sufficient force behind it, you can skim a roofing tile quite a long way.


Later in the day I decided to make myself useful in whatever ways a generally not very useful person can. I held things, chatted to people, and tried to get a kite off the roof. I spent some more time pushing buttons and wandering around the house before it was time once again to eat tastyfoods until we could no longer stand.

Not wanting to sleep on the sofa again, me and Kristen decided to set up camp in the poolhouse after dinner. We brought an airbed the size of a high-jump crashmat and a heap of bedding. Once the bed was inflated and the stereo fiddled with (even the poolhouse was filled with buttons for me to push), Kristen, loaded down with Jetlag and food, fell asleep at 9pm.

I went back up the house and had a fun evening drinking beer and playing a strange card game that I didn't really understand at the time, and don't remember now. I recall that I seemed to be winning at one point purely because I was able to give my explanations in an english accent.

That night I had the strange experience of sleeping in the middle of a hall about the size of the gym in my primary school. After a while the sounds of the sea were drowned out by the sound of the wind in the trees, and then both were overwhelmed by the rattling of rain on the roof once again.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Gevelow vs. Ida

I went to a wedding last week. This is my attempt to record what happened. It will take some time, and probably not do the event justice.

Weddings have never figured much in my social calendar. My family are a pretty godless bunch, for the most part, and my friends are not yet at an age where they crave nuptials, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. As it turned out, even an encyclopedic knowledge of wedding customs wouldn't have helped me understand what was going on. The whole event managed to be nothing like any wedding I've ever heard of while at the same time being the kind of experience that all other weddings aspire to be.

This is not the yet story of that wedding, however, this is the prologue.


For a long time the wedding was a vague and nebulous thing in the potential future -- along with Kristen's arrival in the UK. I'd been told that I would be invited if Kristen came to England, but otherwise not, which seemed fair enough. This pairing of events meant that once I was a confirmed guest, with the wedding a definite fixture on my mental calendar (I've never been organized enough to have a real one), I was inevitably rather distracted. Between a newly tangible Kristen, work, and the need to occasionally eat and sleep, Rachel and Ben's wedding remained largely out of my mind until about a week before the event.

The day of our departure lurched unpleasantly from "some time next week" to "tomorrow morning" in that way that such things tend to do. For me, November 11th, 2009, was the first day in years that started at four in the morning. We dragged our suitcase out of the house in the dark, wearing lots of layers. You get a special sort of silence in pre-dawn suburbia that is smashed into little bits by the rattling rumble of a heavy suitcase's plastic wheels. The little wheels were bucking and jerking the bag around from the start, and by the time we neared the station one of them had gone on strike and stopped turning completely. Kristen tried swiveling it to see if it was jammed with something, but the friction-heated axle scorched a big blister on the fleshy part of her thumb. This seemed a bad omen to me, but as I was facing down at least 20 hours of intercontinental travel I decided to keep such observations to myself. I made sympathetic noises and heaved the bag up to the platform.

The train to London Bridge was pretty dull. Like going to work, only with less people and more baggage. There were two off-duty train drivers sitting on the seats in front of us. Eavesdropping on their conversation taught me a number of things I didn't previously know (but most of which I could have guessed): First, train drivers aren't very interesting; Second, Southern railways are locked in a behind-closed-doors argument with the train drivers' union; and third, train drivers are really interested in trains. Like, really, really interested in trains -- more than I realized you could be interested in any mode of transport, even the cool ones like helicopters, hovercraft, and segways. The second train was equally dull, but more brown.

After the usual tedious business of check-in we shuffled, shoeless and saggy-trousered, through security. Things went in trays, laptops were removed, and liquids were scrutinized one last time -- just to be certain that there wasn't a liter bottle of lighter fluid among the shampoo bottles. I checked my pockets for change and keys, checked my feet for shoes, and my waist for a belt. All clear. I step through the scanner...


It's got to the point now where I am completely unfazed or even remotely embarrassed by the beeping of the metal detector, or the subsequent semi-friendly interrogation and pat-down that the beeping brings. I have no idea why it is but I always set them off. There are no plates in my head, no pins in my bones, and I've never, to my knowledge at least, swallowed any coins. Nonetheless, I get searched often enough to put me right off the idea of becoming a narcotics mule. Once they were satisfied that I didn't have a rocket launcher in my pants, me and Kristen fumbled our shoes back on, refilled our pockets, and stumbled off for some overpriced but sanitary airport food.

The journey from here to Atlanta was pretty much par for the course -- if you've ever flown long-distance then the tedium and discomfort will be familiar. Including the peculiar culinary efforts of Delta Airlines I ate about five meals over the course of the day. In my defense, the day lasted for about two days, so it's not like I'm a total porksnorter. I watched some films on the plane (Harry Potter and the Arse of Beelzebub* and 500 Days of Summer -- which was very good) and slept a little in a neck-crackingly strange position. In Atlanta we had to go through security again for some reason. I guess they were worried that somehow we'd got hold of explosives on the plane and were going to use them to blow up America. Again, shoes were removed, pockets emptied, laptops taken out, and liquids stared at. I stepped forward and...


I was waved through, slightly bemused. I felt like I'd been snubbed. This sense of confusion only increased when I realized that I'd forgotten to take off my belt with its huge metal buckle, or take the coins out of my back pocket. It seems that I make metal detectors work backwards -- perhaps a career as an international smuggler is on the cards after all.

The flight into Norfolk was stomach-distendingly rough. Like trying to sleep on a saggy water-bed that is being carried down a mountain by a group of drunks. Not a particularly pleasant experience. It was like landing in a hurricane or something. Funny that.

While waiting for our bags at Norfolk we looked outside -- Bangladesh-style monsoon rain, Scotland style wind, Southern-style chicken wings -- none of these things seemed to bode well for the drive down to Buxton, NC. Wedding control was contacted, word was that we were go for launch regardless. The weather kept turning uglier by the minute and they wanted us in the house that night in case the department of transportation closed the roads at high tide the next morning. Kristen got an upgrade on the rental car, "something big," she cried to the representative, "with the engine out of a flying fortress and the keel from a goddamn racing yacht." The lady behind the counter gave Kristen the keys to a Chevrolet Malibu, we decided to compromise.

The car smelled of cigarettes and salesman-funk, but our bags disappeared into the cavernous trunk and there was an exciting range of lights, knobs, and switches to play with on the dashboard. After about 20 minutes of pressing buttons we figured out three things: 1. It had no ejector seats, 2. The keel had to be wound down manually, and 3. It was an automatic. Armed with this important information we set the windshield wipers to what my family call "Holiday Speed"** and set off. Kristen driving, me doing some slightly, but not disastrously, incompetent navigation.

We sloshed onto the highway and headed out of town, stopping for some coffee and hash browns at a Waffle House on the way. By the time we reached the top of the outer banks I was already a little nervy. The visibility was low, the roads were under about 2 inches of water, and the wind was literally howling. At this point, just as the roads got smaller and more curvy, the wind picked up to bastard-force, the rain reached an intensity I've only ever seen in films, and giant puddles appeared, lake-like, across the roads. I started wondering if Budget would let us go back and upgrade to a tank.

I'm still not entirely sure whether the rain actually continued to get heavier the whole way, or whether the wind just pelted it harder and harder into the windshield as we got out into more exposed stretches of road. Either way, it wasn't long before it was so heavy I thought it was going to crack the windshield and come rushing into out little haven of dry warmth. In fact, I had quite detailed visions of this happening in my head. I kept this to myself.

We got a call from Kristen's mom. She told us that there was worse to come. I assumed that we were already in the really bad patch she was referring to, and took this to mean that we were making good time. Turns out I was wrong. The conditions did get worse. What was really impressive was when the storm managed to go that extra mile, and get even worse than that.

When we passed Kittyhawk conditions were bad, going on scary. The rain was sloshing around the road, and all the other cars about were leaving swirling, turbulent eddies of water in their wakes. Get too near to another car and the wash would roll up the windscreen like a wave up the beach, totally swamping the wipers for a few seconds and leaving you almost completely blind. At times like that I found myself staring at the blurry patches of red coming from the lights of the cars in front, waiting for them to grow and fill the windscreen, getting suddenly closer... crash! I kept this to myself, and made conversation about the Wright Flyer, particularly the groundbreaking, but fundamentally flawed efforts of Otto von Lillenthal. He hadn't considered the need for a large rear stabilizer, you see, so he ended up tentpegging into the ground...

Over the next hour I went from teeth gritting, pulse-racing, terror to some sort of plateau beyond that point. After driving for a while we reached a long causeway bridge, I couldn't see anything on either side of it, so I have no idea what it was over. Here the wind picked up to such an intensity that the puddles and lakes were gone. The wind was instead flicking the water around in whirlpooling clouds a foot or two above the surface. The road was periodically dotted with strange looking grey blobs, with little smudges of grey spread on the road around them. It took me a while to realize that they were seagulls, surrounded by little trails of feathers, lying where they had fallen after being dashed against the railings of the bridge.

After that we hit a stretch where the road was essentially all there was to the island. A cross section would look like this:


Here the puddles covered the entire road. Kristen had to slow almost to a halt and aim for the center of the road. I held my breath and hoped that they were shallower than they looked. On a few occasions the water was washing across the road like a shallow, slow-flowing river. Driving through these was probably the scariest part of the trip, I ran out of humorous anecdotes to entertain and amuse and just tried to keep my breathing steady.

Later on we were informed that we hadn't been driving through rivers formed by the rainwater overflow. Apparently the waves were breaking over the dunes and washing onto the road. I think if it had been light enough for us to see this we would have screamed all the way to Croatan Ridge and spent the next few days curled up in the fetal position. Luckily for us, and for the wedding (a traumatized, catatonic maid-of-honor wouldn't have been much use to anyone) we carried on unaware of just how scared we should have been.

By the time we reached the dirt road that led to the house, trailing Mark's truck through the headlight-deep pools of water, I really couldn't have cared less whether or not the car went down like the titanic. I knew that we were within walking (or swimming) distance of the house and that was enough to stop me from worrying anymore, my suit could get eaten by fish for all I cared. The void that the absence of fear left in my head quickly filled up with anger. I think this is a built-in automatic reaction with me (something along the lines of "someone has put me in a situation where I have become this scared, someone is going to get a kicking"). By the time I got out of the car I was in a mood to punch someone and scream. I kept this to myself.

There wasn't really anyone I could be reasonably angry at, however, so I tried to keep it to myself. When we got up the house I made a rather theatrical show of being shaken up, I downed a beer and then immediately asked for another, not because I needed to steady my nerves, but because I needed some way of excusing myself from talking for long enough to calm down.

Everyone was lovely and friendly, however, so my urge to scream rapidly faded to nothing. Me and Kristen were led on a tour around the house, or at least around some of it (I didn't realize quite how much of it there was at that point) and received hugs, handshakes etc., from Rachel, Ben, and those of the friends and family who were still awake.

I expect that more happened along these lines, but I was so completely exhausted that I didn't really take any of it in. After a few minutes the power went out, and me and Kristen were led by candle-light to a pair of sofas that had been made up for us. Kristen left the room to find something, and by the time she returned I was out cold, fully dressed, and could not be woken for love nor beatings. During the night the power came back on, along with the lights and a stereo that had its speakers right by my head. I didn't stir.


*The newest one - I don't remember the name, or the film, come to think of it.

**Yes, I'll be honest, a holiday marked by apocalyptic storms is not an occurance I'm unfamiliar with -- I've been on holiday in Wales.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Fun with Parcels

On tuesday a DHL man tried to deliver our new broadband router. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't in, on account of me having a job. Things went downhill from there. I was left a note expressing their surprise and sadness at the fact that I wasn't there to say hi. I was given two options, either have it delivered again (on a weekday) or go and collect it from my "local DHL office [Map on reverse]".

I looked at the map on reverse. I laughed. Local? It's in an industrial estate next to the battersea power station, who the fuck is that local to? The only people it's local to, now I think about it, are the people in the various other parcel distribution warehouses in that area. Other than the royal mail vans and UPS trucks it's a godforsaken wasteland of abandoned railway sidings, four-lane roads, and unlit, barriered-and-concierged office complexes. Oh, and the battersea dog's home. Nonetheless, I call their hotline and select "collect from office" because that option would still be quicker than getting them to continually redeliver the parcel until one day a delivery happened to coincide with me or kristen calling in sick.

The next day I decide to go there after work. It takes about half an hour's tube ride to get to Vauxhall station from my office. From there it's a fifteen minute walk through a biblical deluge, being continually soaked all the way by the lorries roaring past on the dual carriageway. Once I arrive at DHL's office I find it has all the charm of a prison. I'm buzzed through the main gate and have to walk down a path to the "customer reception" surrounded by razorwire-topped metal fences.

"hi, I'm here to collect a package that was sent out for delivery yesterday"
I give him the number on the slip I was given, he types it into the system.
"I'm sorry sir, but that package is not here"
"what do you mean? where is it?"
"it has been sent out for delivery"
"I phoned your call-center last night and said I'd come and pick it up here today"
"it has been sent out for delivery, look"
At this point he turns his monitor round and jabs his biro at a line of text that says SENT OUT FOR DELIVERY 07:38
"That's nice, but I'm not questioning whether it has been sent out or not, I'm asking you why."
He holds up the slip left by the driver
"packages are sent out for delivery three times, if they are not received by then, they remain at the depot for collection"
To help me understand, he jabs his biro at the relevant line on the slip.
"I know, I can read. What I want to know is why it was sent out for delivery when I asked you not to do so"
"did you call the number on the slip?"
"was it an automated service?"
"I'm sorry, the automated service is unreliable, we do not always recieve notifications"
At this point he scribbles a phone number down on the slip
"this is the number for this branch"
"why don't you just put this number on the card in the first place?"
"We have asked management, but they have not printed new cards"
"It would have been useful to know all this before I came all the fucking way out here in the pouring rain"
"I'm sorry sir, call during business hours tomorrow and you can arrange collection"
"Can't I just arrange collection now?"
"no sir. "
"Why not"
"I do not have access to the necessary systems"

There is a pause while I count to ten in my head.

"The vans leave before business hours, yes?"
"yes sir, they leave before 8"
"so if I call you tomorrow, it will be too late to stop you sending it out again"
"yes sir"
"so even if I call you tomorrow the earliest I'll be able to pick it up is friday?"
"yes sir"
"That's not fucking acceptable, how many times does this happen each week?"
"I don't know"
"Is there no-one here who can stop this being sent out tomorrow?"
"not at this time sir"

exasperated pause

"ok, fine."

I give up, pick up my slip, and stomp back to the station, shaking with rage. Despite running at every interchange, I still miss every connection home. This makes me angrier. When I finally get home, just before 8pm, I stamp around the empty house shouting at the air and struggling to resist the urge to smash something. I pick up the pile of mail on the doormat and notice that this time the DHL guy didn't even bother to leave a slip. I go to the kitchen, take a beer out of the fridge and turn on the radio.

The doorbell rings. I see the yellow and red of a DHL uniform through the glass. Iopen the door and sign for my package.

He must have been running late.

I have internet, and I'm glad I won't have to go back to Battersea. But I'm still annoyed with DHL.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Like every British tank since the Centurion, and most other British Armoured Fighting Vehicles, the Challenger II contains a built-in boiling vessel (BV) also known as a 'kettle' or 'bivvie' for water which can be used to brew tea or produce other hot beverages. The BV is a design requirement for all armoured vehicles of the British Armed Forces, and a feature almost unique to the armed forces of the UK.

We may not be a military superpower any more, but at least our Main Battle Tank has adequate tea and coffee making facilities as standard.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Green Cross Code

I was born in south east London, raised in south east London, and currently live in south east London. This makes me, A: not very well traveled, and B: intrinsically suspicious of people who live on the other side of the Thames. Before I started working in Islington I'd never really had much call to go there -- I used to go shopping in central london, and sometimes around Camden Market, but those places are like a sort of demilitarized zone, they're an independent entity, not really part of north or south london. In the two years that I've been working in Islington and Old Street I've learned, unsurprisingly, that north Londoners are much like their compatriots in the dirty south; they have a bit more money, and they dress like prats, but they're otherwise identical.

With one important exception. You see, while working in Islington has given me the opportunity to see how the other half live, it has also given me the opporunity to see how the other half die. While most of them seem to work the normal live, love, get old, get sick, and die pattern, a significant minority seem to want to cut straight to the end. Sit yourself down on a park bench near Angel station and you'll see it clear as day -- the people of Islington cross the road like people who have given up on life.

I don't mean that they're a little cocky with motorists, or that they perhaps misjudge their timing a little. No, I mean they will try and cross a busy dual carriageway by going across the middle of an intersection. Without looking. With headphones in. Writing a text message. I suppose I'd be ok with this if it wasn't for the fact that I don't like seeing dead people when I'm out on my lunchbreak. It really tends to sour the day. Incident boards with "Fatal Accident: Did you see anything" are pretty common pieces of road furniture, and the air ambulance roars over my office so often they may as well just paint a big H in the middle of the Upper Street and be done with it. I've seen the immediate aftermath of 7 fatal car accidents within about 300 meters of my office.

As a result of all this, I found this song interesting. It's well worth a watch, catchy pop song, good video, and it looks to have been filmed around Old Street station.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Raising Awareness

I hate this phrase. I was watching an interview with someone associated with the 'climate camp' thing earlier on and she used it about four times in one minute. The best part was when she said that their aim was to "raise awareness of climate change and what we, at climate camp, are doing about it".

Firstly, informing the public about climate change is a task better done by the scientists that have been studying it for decades, not a bunch of humanities students whose awareness of it consists of the knowledge that it is a 'bad thing'. When it is coopted into the agenda of a radical political movement, especially one that does very little to endear itself to the generally self-interested population, it makes the task harder for those politicians trying to achieve some sort of workable consensus on the issue. I think for a lot of people over here the 'climate camp' movement is like the cocky little kid who shouts "yeah, you fuckin' walk away!" moments after you've decided they aren't worth the trouble of a fight -- it brings out a contrarian streak that makes you do what you'd decided you didn't want to do. The lesson is that while this may give you a temporary feeling of satisfaction, you'll find yourself standing, sheepish and scared, in front of the headteacher soon enough.

The other thing is my continuing dislike of pointless gestures. One day I'll try and figure out the exact mental criteria I have for the boundary between protest, activism, and utterly pointless gestures, but for now I'll just note this rule -- If you say your intention is to Raise Awareness, then chances are that what you're doing is a pointless gesture.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


A 1934 BMW R7. I don't ride motorbikes, I can't even ride bicycles, but oh man. Want. It looks like it's going to pounce on something and eat it. It wasn't ever put into production because it was too complicated and expensive to produce, it was packed into a box and kept in a warehouse somewhere. What with all the war, chaos, etc., it was only a few years ago that it was rediscovered and reassembled.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I know that the standard of debate in the US hasn't exactly been stellar for a while, but I'm finding myself getting increasingly annoyed with the fact that we on this side of the pond are being dragged into the mudslinging. According to the American right wing, we live in some kind of dystopian nightmare state, where government bureaucrats decide whether or not we get medical treatment on the basis of our worth to society.

I feel I should put it on record here that that is not the case. We don't leave the old and infirm to die. Last year my great uncle had an extremely complex experimental heart operation at the age of 90, -- he didn't have to pay anything. My grandmother will soon be having a hip replacement at the age of 84. The NHS is not a terrifying monster -- it's not perfect, and yes, there are waiting lists, but it's cheaper, fairer, and delivers better public health outcomes than the US system. Unlike my friends in the US I don't have to worry about what will happen if I get sick or hurt myself, about affording copayments, or losing my health insurance if I change jobs.

A little example of how healthcare rolls over here: Last year I badly hurt my knee. It wasn't a life threatening injury, nor was it painful to the point where I couldn't work, but it hurt a lot and it left me walking with a Igor-style limp. I saw a general practicioner, then a specialist, then I did a few months of physiotherapy. At no point did I have to pay for anything. Now how would that have gone down in the states? As a non-life-threatening condition, I would not have been able to afford treatment for this on my salary, not even if I had company insurance. Under the US system I would still be walking with a limp. I would be in pain most of the time. I wouldn't be able to go to the gym. I would be fat and unfit again.

Like most people in the UK, I'm happy with the NHS and I'd take to the streets to defend it against anyone who threatened to take it away. This slandering of our system is something that many brits are going to take personally. If the US media is not careful we might start making really barbed remarks. You know, hurtful shit that people won't even realise was an insult until they're on the train home.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

George Fullerton

I saw today that George Fullerton has died. It's not going to be national news, but his nonetheless he was important. His name will be revered whenever two men gather over a pre-CBS stratocaster or an L-2000 and drool.


I've always had a great appreciation for those, like the late Mr Fullerton, who tinker away behind the scenes, who make the unglamorous innovations and get largely passed over by history. I think people like this should be celebrated, not by having their roles exaggerated as some historians tend to do, but by having their contribution noted and appreciated for what it was. People writing histories tend to simplify things, they like to create heroes, visionaries, which are then mythologized as lone geniuses. These brilliant men are held up as the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, the importance of their teamwork, communication, and collaboration are left out.

When I'm writing about the history of science and technology I always try and give a mention to the other people, the people who laid the foundations or did the unglamorous bits. I always try to squeeze in people like Tommy Flowers (The Computer), Ernst Chain (Penicillin), Charlie Taylor (The Aeroplane), and Rosalind Franklin (DNA). Even though those people were, in turn, working with many other people, I feel like including at least one name in addition to the mythologized hero helps introduce at least the idea of collaboration, if not the actual extent of it.

I'm now going to go and play my bass (which is a faithful copy of a Fender-Fullerton design.)


Friday, August 07, 2009

Ben vs. Knees

I have no problem with knees in general, there are even two knees that I'm really rather fond of. However, those knees are not mine. My knees belong to a class of their own -- that is, knees which I deeply dislike. They're not objectionable looking knees, a little nobbly perhaps; and I think the kneecaps are a bit asymmetrical, but they do have an infuriating habit of fucking with my plans.

Around this time two years ago I was a recently graduated unemployed layabout. As I believe is the case with many unemployed layabouts, I found that inactivity bred more inactivity, mentally and phyiscally. I'd made great strides while I was at university; I lost a lot of weight (about 40 pounds) and I'd done a whole world of brainthinky. In the world of rejection letters and endless adverts for jobs in recruitment, however, I found this progress slipping away. By mid-august I'd put about 15 pounds back on, and was rapidly losing the ability to construct coherent sentences (as I'm sure the blog posts from that period will attest) so I decided to do something decisive.

I started going out running every morning. Not very far at first -- the first few times I went out my wobbly and protesting limbs screamed at me to stop within about a minute of my starting -- but I gradually increased the distances I ran everyday, and the speed that I ran it. By october I was running something in the order of 2 miles every afternoon and feeling good. I'd got to the point where I was fit enough that I could do this without once feeling like I wanted to die.I felt myself getting fitter and stronger and I lost about 10 pounds. I even got a job.

A few days after a I started working I went to a local folk night to play guitar with my dad. I was carrying my fretless bass in its bag and thinking about work the next day (I was still new to the world of proper work, and was still expecting to be fired at any moment.) About 10 metres from the door of the pub my left knee made a funny clicking noise and gave way under me. For the rest of the evening it hurt something ungodly. At the time I figured it was something to do with being pitched around in strange directions on the tube; I acknowledged the possibility that my running was a factor, but I assumed that it wasn't the primary cause. This seems a little odd but what you have to bear in mind is that at the time I'd not been out running for three days because of work, and I hadn't ever experienced any pain or discomfort in my knees either during or after running. This incident gets a passing mention in a post I wrote later that evening about all the things about Folk music that get on my nerves.

After a few days, however, it went away. I left it about a week and then went out running one evening after work. This wasn't a very pleasant experience. I wasn't in any pain (again, my knee felt fine during the run) but it was mid-november by this point, and it was dark, and raining, hard. I was running the route that my feet knew off by heart, and there was no-one else around, so knowing where I was going wasn't a problem. Nonetheless, with headphones in my ears and rain splattering on my glasses I was essentially running through a giant, dark, sensory deprivation tank, which wasn't much fun. When I got home my knee felt a little odd, perhaps a bit swollen and tender. The next day it hurt, and continued to hurt for longer than it did the first time. I decided I should knock the running on the head for a month or two.

Over the next few weeks it got worse. It started to hurt all the time. Then hurt more. I started to walk with a limp. A visit to the doctor left me with a support bandage and two weeks worth of muscle relaxants to help the sprain heal. These did fuck all except for making my knee sweaty and uncomfortable when I was at work. I went back to the doctor a few weeks later and got an appointment with the local joint specialist (no, not Stoner Pete) at Queen Mary's.

I described the appointment with the specialist -- and his diagnosis -- here. In addition to explaining why my left knee had so catastrophically fucked up, he was able to tell me why my right knee locked up painfully when I sat in certain positions (a habit it has had for as long as I can remember).

For the next month or two I had to spend every friday morning at a physiotherapy center. I was made to ride on exercise bikes, perform excruciatingly painful exercises involving giant rubber balls, and do odd but difficult things involving frisbees and mini-trampolines. I missed quite a lot of work and had to spend a lot of time on the bus. As there were no showers at the hospital that I could use I had to go all the way home before I could clean myself up. The unpleasant result of that was that I got a yeast infection. On my fucking eyelids. It worked though, and I was able to go back to walking normally. I joined a gym so that I could keep fit without smashing my knees to pieces and was able to go around without looking like a man with a wooden leg.

That's been the situation, more or less, for the last year now -- my knee has twinged from time to time, but not for very long. I've been otherwise fine. That was, until last week, when a routine visit to the gym left me hobbling around like a crone again. I'm currently sitting on my sofa dosed up on painkillers. I have no idea whether this will pass in a few days, or whether I'm going to have to spend another 8 weeks going to the physio every friday and frantically scratching at my eyelids like a crazy person.

Still, I've got Fats Waller playing out of my stereo, and any scientist will tell you that you can't be grumpy while listening to a man who called himself "Fats".


Wednesday, August 05, 2009


I am sitting in my kitchen listening to a little light music and drinking a Gin and Tonic. It's a very nice Gin and Tonic. It has ample quantities of Gordon's gin, Schweppes Tonic, and ice. I don't have a very good memory for shopping lists, so this glass is conspicuously lacking in lime. I'm sure the more blinkered and materialistic of you out there will be thinking that my gin and tonic is incomplete but this is not so. Allow me to explain.

A few years ago I saw a documentary that looked at how the human brain handles arithmetic. As part of their research they went to a Chinese school where the children were taught to use abacuses to calculate fabulously complex sums. They got fast with the abacuses. Very fast. Like a frantic game of table tennis. It was impressive to watch, even though it all seemed a little too much like hard work to me. The really clever part, however, came when they took the abacuses away and taught the children to visualise them in their heads. With a little practice, these same children were able to perform calculations at the same speed as they did before, but just by closing their eyes and wiggling their fingers back and forth for a few seconds.

"This sort of thing is all very well for industrious oriental types," I thought, "but how could it help me?"


For many years the wonder of that technique languished at the back of my mind -- not forgotten, just unused -- until one day I found myself with a shocking absence of limes. I didn't even have any lemons, which are the flavoring of a scoundrel anyway. While a lesser man would have blanched at such a prospect, I simply stroked my mustache thoughtfully, adjusted the set of my monocle, and -- recalling the cunning tricks of the foriegn children -- poured the malaria-preventing drink of kings regardless. While I was doing this I visualised the lime, and chopped it with the power of my mind. I placed this incorporeal lime, this abstract idea of tangy goodness, into my cold glass and drank it down.

The imaginary lime was just as good as a real one, and had fewer calories. Having achieved such a feat of mental prowess I felt like a bhutanese monk. I was proud of the years in which I have honed my powers; meditating on many a clear beverage after a hard day writing about the inscrutable yet fascinating customs of mohammedians. I stood in the kitchen of my london home, feeling like a sadhu in tweeds, and poured myself another.

It remains to be seen whether this lime of the mind is as effective at preventing scurvy.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

New York 3

I'll finish this eventually, probably.

Ellis Island and Liberty Island
During the time I was in the city I took a fairly relaxed attitude to the business of sightseeing -- no itineraries were written out, or lengthy plans made -- I didn't want to waste my time in the city, but I didn't have to work very hard in order to avoid this. There was only one day where me and Kristen actually planned things in advance, and actually went as far as setting an alarm. The night before, in a slightly drunken haze, I'd decided that we should visit Ellis Island the next day, as that was the only major thing that I'd missed the first time.

It turned out that the Ferry to Ellis Island also stopped at Liberty Island. This was an unexpected bonus, although actually going up inside her (snigger) would have required me to have planned ahead and booked tickets some time before I'd even decided to come to New York. The downside of getting a ferry that stops at an internationally known symbol of goodness and the American Way is that you are treated as a potential terrorist from the moment you go near the ticket booth. I went through quite a lot of 'airport style' security while in New York, and had my bag searched* more times than I can count, but the statue of liberty security still came as a bit of a surprise. I mean, their metal detectors were set off by my glasses, for christ's sake, not even when I flew to the US days after a major terrorist scare did I encounter such zealously calibrated machines. We got on the boat after a few minutes being probed in the security tent and were soon chugging away across the harbor. When we got near to the Island the boat started to pitch over at a rather alarming angle as everybody went to the moosh-baroo side to take photos. Kristen, being a salty sea dog** by trade, assured me that this was within safe limits, although it felt still rather precarious to my jelly-like landlubberlegs.

Once disembarked, we walked around the Island and took some pictures of the giant green lady with the big feet. We probably appeared in the background of far more pictures than we actually took ourselves. The statue of Liberty is very big, and very, er, statuey. I've seen her from fairly close up before (on ferries and the like) and well, there are few women who look prettier if you sit at their feet and stare up their nose.

Ellis Island lies just across a narrow channel from Liberty Island. The channel, like most places in New York Harbor, is filled with red and green navigation buoys. Kristen carefully explained the purpose of these but I've probably got all the details mixed up in my head now, so it's just as well that my job hasn't yet required me to man any helms or tillers.

Ellis Island is home to the fascinating Ellis Island museum, which is all about immigration and immigrants (the right sort of immigrants obviously, the ones that politicians are descended from, not the sort that speak spanish). Unlike most New York museums, Ellis Island's is free. It was a fascinating place, filled with little exhibits about the various stages of the Immigration process and the immigrants themselves. It also had some areas where they'd reconstructed what it had looked like when it was in use, which were a bit grim. On the whole though, the impression the exhibits left you with was that Ellis Island wasn't the terrible immigrant marketplace that it's often portrayed as, and that only a tiny, weensy proportion of people were ever rejected and sent home. I do think that they would have been able to process the immigrants much faster if they'd not put the main reception area -- where lots of forms had to be filled out, and questions answered -- in the great hall with the massive windows looking out over Manhattan. I'm guessing that if you'd come from the arse end of the Ukraine, the sight of 19th century New York would have been a little distracting.

The Museum at Ellis Island manages to be free, incidentally, by tapping into an aspect of american culture that I've always found a little sad. You see, in addition to the informative exhibits there were lots of subtle, and not-so-subtle, plugs for the geneological research services they provide on the Island -- "think you might have an ancestor that came through here? Come to our Research-O-Tron and for just thirty dollars we'll tell you."

It's not that I have a problem with finding out about one's past; what bothers me about the sort of research encouraged by Ellis Island is that, most of the time, I feel like it's providing a surrogate cultural identity to people who don't felt that american culture is good enough, or solid enough, to ground themselves in. You know, like the native born New Yorkers who will tell you, with a completely straight face, that they're Irish. Usually on the basis of having one Irish grandparent (I think most people have at least one irish grandparent).

I suppose to many people it's just always more desirable to be from somewhere else, somewhere you can idealise as being more honest, sophisticated, or authentic than where you were born. It's that phenomenon that makes me reluctant to advertise my Britishness when I'm in bars over there -- I've found myself squirming and uncomfortable while some middle-aged guy from the Bronx tells me how he's from Scotland. It's like how a substantial part of the English Upper class have spent the last thousand years or so shutting their eyes, learning Greek or latin, and desperately pretending that they're not in a vulgar, germanic/nordic/celtic country like England. "I mean, ugh, our greatest playright didn't even pay attention to the classiclal unities, how ghastly". The cultural output of the United States has one of the most impressive canons of literature around and american history is marked by a string of noble ideas and well-intentioned individuals that were never able to get the upper hand in Europe. Despite all this, there are still those who cling to the idea that they're not really american, that they're just working over here for a while -- like, I don't know, five generations, and then they'll go home. I feel like these people have missed the point somewhat.

hmm. That was a rather substantial digression.

Rockerfeller Center
Later that day, after stopping to refill on booze, we went to the Rockerfeller center. Not for shopping, or to look at the hole in the ground where the ice rink is in the winter, but to go up it. Of the various things that I'd done in New York last time I was there, the one thing that stuck most in my mind was the view from the top of the empire state building. It was also the one thing that I was determined I had to drag Kristen along to. I didn't want to do the same thing twice though, so I decided to go up the other skyscaper in New York with a viewing area at the top. This was a very wise choice. The top of the Empire State Building, while very high indeed, is ultimately just a narrow balcony encased in a clunky steel cage -- People are constantly treading on your toes, taking photos of the back of your head, and putting the backs of their heads in your photos. By contrast, the Top of the Rock, as it is named, is a three-floor high terrace that covers the whole of the stepped, flat roof of the building. It's big, and comparatively empty. Thanks to the fact that it was closed to the public between the early eighties and the early naughties it's got a well thought through, unobtrusive suicide-guard made from panels of bulletproof glass, rather than the array of steel gratings welded onto other steel gratings that the Empire State Building has.

You can stay up there for hours, and we did, from the early evening to well after sunset. We wandered between the different levels of the terrace, played with the silly art installations, and took photos of darkness settling over the Empire State Building. Through the big binoculars on the rooftop you could see camera flashes from the people on the top of the Empire state building, and the tiny people looking straigh back at you.

Oh, and it had one other really cool feature. As the doors are closing on the lift as you're going up the attendant says "Look up". You look up, and you see a white, backlit drop ceiling. Meh, you think, what's so impressive about that.

Then it goes transparent, and you start flying up a dimly lit liftshaft at the rate of a couple of floors a second. It's like something out of a science fiction film, and quite painfully cool.

So, er. I think that's everything I can think of to say now. I might think of other things at some other time.


* in a manner that manages to leave you annoyed while at the same time being cursory to the point of uselessness.

**one of the pretty ones; she's got no tattoos, and she's never lost a limb to the jaws of the White Whale.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I'm extremely uncomfortable around evangelical christians.

I'm not saying that I can smell faith on people's clothes or anything weird like that -- I don't believe there's an intrinsic quality to the religious that renders them repulsive -- but I find myself in a social situation where there's a lot of jesus flying about I get really uncomfortable and feel an overwhelming urge to run away screaming. I've never been quite sure why this is -- I have long suspected that I'm just a prejudiced asshat with an intellectually superior attitude (which is still likely) -- but I tend to get the creeping heebie-jeebies around my (mercifully few) evangelical christian friends.

I get the same feeling when I'm in restaurants and bars in the US. The glowing friendliness of wait-staff and barmaids makes me incredibly uneasy. These two phenomena share a root cause, although they're different situations in every other way. In both examples I'm bothered by the suspicion that the person I'm talking to is feigning interest in me and what I have to say. You see, I talk a lot of crap; I'm frequently an obnoxious arse and tend to go off on face-grindingly boring monologues if someone accidentally indicates an interest in one of my specialist subjects (guitars, books, most forms of techno-nerdiness). I know this, and it bothers me. I try very hard to be a nice person and, sadly, the only way I know to achieve this is by very carefully watching the reactions of the person or people I'm talking to. If I suspect that someone is humoring me -- whether to get me to attend church or in search of a big tip -- it throws me off completely. I immediately become all quiet and introverted (which isn't something I have any conscious ability to control). If I think I'm being humored then I lose the ability to tell whether I'm being a wanker or not. It's like running around with your eyes shut in a room full of fine china.

It's the proselytising that bothers me, you see, not the jesus. I've got plently of objections to Judeo-Christian religions, but those don't stop me from being friends with religious people, or having tremendous respect for many who have done great things in the name of god. When faced with the prospect of a night out with clean-living christians -- their faces set in rapt attention at my inane babbling, or creased in laughter at my dumb jokes as if they're in the company of Oscar fucking Wilde himself -- I run away and hide.

The only way to bypass this reaction is to get me drunk, as then I cease to care how much I'm offending or boring people, unfortunately there's not generally any booze to be had at religious gatherings.


One of the things that triggered this whole rant off was this article, which I found when doing some research the other day. It clearly shows how modern Christian groups are using all the techniques of secular sociology, anthropology, and psychology, to find those vulnerable enough to willingly jump on their bandwagon.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

New York: Part the rest

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to write the rest later. Well, as often happens when I say things like that, other things came up. Specifically for the last two weeks my job has consisted almost exclusively of writing articles -- which tends to drain one's ability to create anything original outside of work. Twelve thousand words later though, the last of said articles is now done -- I should be able to think about now. Unfortunately that fortnight spent writing a dictionary of Islamic architecture has given the memories time to smunge together in my head. I don't think I've forgotten anything, but the events are now lumped in a big memory sack with 'New York 2009' written on the tag, rather than in little bags for each day. This may mean that I'll mix up days, or put things in the wrong order. So if things seem inconsistent or strange then that's probably why. Without further ado, I'll now return to my babbling.

Central Park
After my last trip to New York city I decided that I could happily spend days on end just wandering around central park. Without the pressing need to see the sights I did precisely that. Me and Kristen went there for the first time on my first day in town. Looking back, it seems a rather odd choice of activity, considering how hard it was raining, but such is the nature of the Englishman on holiday. A childhood of holidays in the UK makes you unwilling to put off anything (even a visit to the beach) just because of rain. If you start getting picky like that then you'll have to get used to spending your whole holiday either in your tent or your car.

One of the first things that we stopped to look in Central Park showed me that it was not just the English who have been indoctrinated with that attitude to outdoor recreational activities. Central Park contains a rather lovely boating lake, you can hire a rowboat and take your lovely amour or your bored kids out on the water. Later in the week I saw it bathed in glorious sunshine, but not on this day. To be frank, it was pissing it down. Me and Kristen sat under a London Plane tree (an excellent import, they keep the rain off and can survive even in toxic polluted cities) and watched a flotilla of amateur oarsmen and their soggy passengers as they moved around the lake. During the really heavy downpours the couples cuddled together under their umbrellas, drifting aimlessly, and the gleefully soaked children laughed like drains as theirdamp, red faced fathers rowed furiously for the shelter of the bridge. What really made the scene perfect was the sheer number of the little rowboats that were being rowed backwards - flat end fowards - often by the aforementioned red faced fathers. Such a display of unfettered landlubbery filled me with love.

We walked up through the park about as far as 130th street, before deciding that we were too wet, too hungry, and too much in need of a drink to keep going any further. On our way up through the park we passed through its many different zones, from the dense wooded areas -- with their big boulders and artfully integrated footpaths -- to the broad playing fields and running tracks -- with signs that said "These areas are reserved for Active Recreation only". A few days later I was amused to find that a similar sign exists on the entrance to the sheep meadow restricting access to those engaged in Passive Recreation -- I recreated so passively there that I dozed off.

We went back there a few days later, after visiting the National Design Museum, which I'll write about in a moment. We had just bought burritos from a little mexican place on the Upper east side somewhere that was actually failing its health inspection while they prepared our order. For ten minutes we sat there while a tall, no-nonsense woman from the Public Health Department rooted around in all their cupboards and demanded to know why they kept hand-soap in the ketchup dispenser ("what if someone thought it was sauce and put it on someone's food?".. "But it's soap, everyone knows it's soap" etc etc.) Bearing this experience in mind, we decided that we'd go somewhere nice (with public toilets) to eat our food (which was actually very tasty and entirely soap-free), so we ended up back in the park. That evening we snoozed in the sun and watched yet another New York sunset. Manhattan sunsets are an odd experience, they occur about an hour before sunset everywhere else on the east coast because in Mahattan the horizon is generally about 50 stories up. I believe manhattan-henge (where the setting sun lines up perfectly with the crosstown streets) occurred at some point while I was over there, but I didn't see it.

On one of the other days we went to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which was designed by the same architects who oversaw Central Park's construction. It was a pretty place, very different to Central Park. Much more, er, natural, somehow. The landscape felt less deliberately sculpted, and there weren't great housing condos looming over you the whole time. The natural vibe of the place was slightly amplified by the fact that it was a little dishevelled. It felt much more lived-in as a result though; there were people having barbeques and parties, children playing football (proper football), and an astonishing amount of wildlife. I saw a bunny (wild, like the ones in Canterbury) and an actual, real-life chipmunk.


It seems that I've done the same thing as I did last time. This was going to be a quick write-up of all the places I'd been, but I've ended up with a huge lump of writing about just one thing. I'll write more tomorrow, for real this time.


Monday, July 13, 2009

New York Part One: Governors Island

As the title suggests, I've been in New York for the last week or two, and I return with tales to tell and things to describe. I was going to write about all the various things I'd seen in one big post, but I got as far as Governors Island and ran out of time to write anymore. I'll keep going tomorrow.

Governors Island
The area around New York city contains a lot of water, more than most foreigners realise I think. I mean, if you stood at any given point in New York and ran in a dead straight line, chances are you'd fall into the sea after a few minutes (for the sake of argument I'm assuming that you, dear reader, are some sort of freight train-like hulk that can run through walls). Within this wetness are many islands. Manhattan is a small Island, Brooklyn and Queens are also on an Island (a Long one), Staten Island is an Island (this last point may seem obvious to Americans, but I live in the land of the Isle of Dogs, the Isle of Purbeck, and the Isle of Thanet -- none of which are actually Islands). While these are fairly well known, inhabited places, there are many smaller Islands in the harbour that aren't as well known, or as developed. With the possible exception of Roosevelt Island (which is essentially a micro Milton Keynes surrounded by water as far as I can tell) I think I've been on all of the Islands big enough to fit two feet on and interesting enough to be worth the effort of doing so. The most interesting of these smaller Islands is a little island about half a mile from the southern point of Manhattan, called Governors Island.

Governors Island is so named because it was where the colonial governor lived back in the days of yore. A location that was chosen, I expect, because islands are conveniently angry mob proof and we British are notoriously squeamish about tar and feathers. There's no remnant of this stage of its history left on the island today (the angry mob won, after all) but plenty more interesting historic things have been squished onto the Island since then.

The island is a brilliant place to visit because it has been spared the development and renewal which has worked its way through the streets of the rest of New York city. Beginning in 1783, Governors Island was owned and controlled by the United States Army. It was a military base, with housing for officers and barracks for the enlisted men. In 1966 the Army decided to relocate their command position somewhere else -- presumably because they believed that the entire of New York City was first in line to be turned to sizzling puddles of glass and the occasional shadow scorched into the bedrock (judging from the fallout shelters that most apartment buildings have over there, I'm guessing this was a commonly held view). From 1966 the Coastguard took over the island, using it as their command base for all operations along the Atalantic coast. I'm guessing at some stage in the following decades some people from the city of New York asked why exactly they simply had to have their base of operations right next to some of the most expensive real-estate in the world, because in 1996 the coastguard packed up their things and left, giving the land, and everything on it (right down to the appliances in the kitchens) to the City of New York.

Since then it has sat largely unused. The city wants to make it into a great cultural and historical destination, but it doesn't seem to know exactly how, and more to the point, needs lots of money to do it (In the US, getting government money for anything that involves the word 'culture' is usually about as easy as sucking dolphins from the exhaust pipe of a 1973 AMC Gremlin). They're doing enough restoration and maintenance on the existing structures to keep them from falling down, and letting people visit to see if they find it interesting. What this all means is that the Island has no velvet ropes, no tacky exhibitions or tours, and no attempt to exclude the structures and parts of the island that aren't relevant to some notable event or period. There are no signs telling you what is important and very few restrictions on where you can go. As Kristen said at one point during our exploration "hey, the tape says 'caution', it doesn't say we can't go through anyway". You spend the whole time you're there feeling ever-so-slightly like you're trespassing somewhere really cool.

We started by looking around Fort Jay -- a star fort that was built in the early 19th century to defend New York Harbor. I found this place fascinating because it was a bog standard cannon fort, something that you see all over the place on the UK coastline, but in America. In addition to this, admittedly unremarkable novelty, there was something else about this fort that made it cool -- it was largely untouched. Forts are built in strategically important places, and these places rarely change that much -- commanding high ground is always commanding high ground -- in UK such a fort would be a complete mess. The triangular bastions would have chunky reinforced concrete blockhouses and anti-aircraft positions from the second world war built over them, and the lovely quadrangle of officers housing would be a bare expanse of concrete where the corrugated iron barrack huts would have been built. In addition to all that, the whole place would have been bombed to buggery. But in the US, the enemy was always further away, and so the forts were not called on again after the Civil War, and they were never seriously expected to have any involvement in that.

Me and Kristen poked around in the neoclassical buildings which once housed the fort's garrison, and walked about on the defensive earthworks for a while. I liked the way that you could walk up to the windows of these grand old buildings and see 1980s fridges and cookers sitting in the kitchens, swivel chairs sitting alone in the middle of empty rooms, and kitschy 1960s light fittings aging under a layer of dust.

Around the fort there were dozens of houses, generally semi-detached buildings, but there were some larger, grander houses, reserved for the senior officers who were able to kiss enough arse and grease enough palms to get one. They were all set in lovely grassy parkland with lots of flowers and shrubs, there was at least 10 feet of distance between each house, and broad, empty roads crisscrossing the island. There was one area with particularly lovely yellow weatherboard houses that was actually set around a little park, as if the other parts of the island were too built up, and the people there needed somewhere green to go and relax.

Closer to the water there were lots of big, impressive victorian colonades, like the big artillery barracks in Woolwich, that had charming, whimsical names like 'Training Group H, Sector 3, Building 7' written on black and white metal signs. These weren't quite as impressive as the little houses somehow, possibly because they seemed familar, but also because they didn't leave me with a sense of powerful yearning to live in them.

Dotted around the Island were various peculiar art installations. As far as I could tell, they've been giving artists room and board in some of the houses on the island in exchange for interesting art that they can display and sell. It was a good way of putting things in otherwise empty buildings, a practice that was great, not for the art particularly, but for the opportunity to go inside and snoop around.

We got lunch at a little food van that was parked up in one of the leafy green areas, and ate it by the waterfront, it was tasty, no-nonsense food, and cost very little for a place with such a captive market. After that we walked over to Castle Williams -- a small stone cannon fort that looks like a red brick barrel from the outside. I really wish we hadn't walked inside. Inside the building, around the small circular courtyard, the army had built a hideously ugly reinforced concrete office building that was set into the internal walls. It was truly gaggingly nasty looking, like the crumbling remains of a 1950's secondary school, only glued to the inside of a historic building like some kind of brutalist architectural fungus. It was amusing, however, to stand inside the courtyard and hear each group of people gasp with horror as they walked in "ahh" "ugh, this is disgusting" "whoa, what the hell is this?" etc.

Between the waterfront and the parkland areas, there were a few houses that were just too lovely for words. One was the Commander's House, a grand brick building with columns at the front and back which reached right up to the roof, the other was the building next to it, which was an older building that had been added to fairly recently. It had a first-floor (second floor to americans) terrace and summerhouse, which overlooked the east river and lower Manhattan. It looked like a very nice place to sit and eat breakfast.

It's also worth mentioning the old Staten Island Ferry Terminal in lower Manhattan that the trip to the island starts from. It is a wonderful creation in cast iron that sits on the Battery Park waterfront next to the glass edifice that took its place. It is neat and functional, and has an eyecatching color scheme. I don't mean eyecatching in the sense of garish or bright, just unusual: It is predominantly dark green but other parts of the structure are painted dark blue, pastel-pink, and pea green. It sounds icky, but I think it looks rather fetching. It is also decorated with beautifully shaped neoclassical corbals and finials that have been shaped out of cast iron and lots and lots of rivets. It makes the whole thing look a little steampunk.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Archeologists find 35,000 year old flute

This isn't the first evidence of ancient music making, not by a long way, but it's further corroboration that it wasn't just a phenomenon restricted to one or two small communities. It makes you wonder, what is it that causes people to make music? I mean, I've been surrounded by music my whole life -- when you consider my social and family background the only thing that's remarkable about the fact that I play instruments is that I didn't start until I was 16 -- but these people didn't have radios or written music to inspire them. What makes someone start playing a little ditty, or singing a tune, if they've never heard music before? I suppose music could have been an everyday part of human life even then, but it must have started at some point.

Did someone get a tune stuck in their head one day and have to invent music to play it? Did someone start jamming to the rhythm of flint knapping? Or were animal skin-clothed early humans singing along with the birds, like some kind of surreal disney movie?

And what the hell is music, when you get down to it?


In other news, I've learned today that if you're half asleep a cat sneezing sounds rather a lot like a silenced pistol. I woke up terrified that I was being assassinated, then I remembed that suppressed weapons are actually only marginally quieter than normal guns, not the muffled sneezing noise you hear in films.

Monday, June 22, 2009


A while ago I was editing an article about the history of the city of Cleveland--Yes, exciting, I know--when I came across the following statement.

"As an industrial city, Cleveland had always experienced problems related to pollution. The city hit a low point, however, in the summer of 1969 when the Cuyahoga River, which flows through the city, caught fire."

The state of the river is evocatively described in this TIME article from 1969.

Today I came across two articles in the New York Times which made me happy. The first is from the twentieth anniversary of the fire in 1989, and is titled "River Not Yet Clean, but It's Fireproof".

The second was published today, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the fire, with the less funny but more optimistic title "From the Ashes of ’69, a River Reborn".

I've not really got anything to add to this, I just thought I'd link some interesting articles.


Thursday, June 11, 2009


I few days ago I was browsing the internets for things of interest when I came across someone in a string of blog comments on some animal welfare topic saying "well of course, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals kill 95% of the animals they take in". Now I'm not usually one to pay much attention to what people write in news/youtube/popular blog comments -- that way madness lies -- but this poster supplied a link to back this potentially slanderous statement up. The link was to a website called - a name which, I have to say, didn't exactly make me think "well, they sound like they'll have a fair and balanced view on the subject".

The stats seemed to be superfically sound but I didn't have anything to compare them to (what do I know about what an acceptable level of euthanasia is?) and the source they gave to back it up was A. a pdf file, and B. too long and complicated for me to bother sifting through. Not wanting to leave this unquestioned, however, I typed various permutations of "PETA 95 percent really" until I found this blog post. Like me, the writer was rather suspicious of any website with such an obviously heavy-duty agenda, but unlike me, the writer had rather more time to investigate. The result, interestingly (and I checked his figures against the VDACS reports) seems to be that yes, PeTA do indeed euthanize the vast majority of the animals they take in, far more than the state average. Additionally it would seem that they do some distinctly shaky reporting in order to make this statistic look lower than it is.

I'd be interested to know whether this is the result of policy or just a small-scale aberration, none of the PeTA shelters seem to be very big operations -- dwarfed by the ASPCA and Humane Society ones -- so it could be that they've just got a few injection-happy staff members. Either way, it's pretty alarming for an organization that claims to support animal rights, even one as morally dubious as PeTA.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Racing Ladas

If there's one thing more prone to wild tangents than a wikisurf, it's a two-man wikisurf. This occurs when two people, both sitting at computers, start sending each other links of things they've found, sometimes an interesting seam of pages is found and both individuals go exploring.

Today, for some reason, my dad linked me the wiki page which lists to the drag coefficient of various cars. From there, I found this strange car, which led, via various other things, to my dad discovering this equally strange car. The last discovery left us baffled, a soviet racing car? Does this mean they had auto racing in the soviet union?

The answer, we learned, was yes. Some races were done with little sports cars like the ZIL, some were done with reverse-engineered versions of the formula 1 cars of the time, but most were touring-car style races done with ordinary saloons. This means that while the decadent west witnessed 200mph showdowns between ford GT40s and Porche 917s, on the other side of the iron curtain people were racing trabants, ladas, yugos, and Zaporozhets (which had mighty 26hp air-cooled engines*). There are a whole load of pictures of these races here.

When you consider that people race snails, beltsanders, and lawnmowers, it makes you wonder if there's some sub-set of the human (generally male) population that are born with an overpowering urge to race things. I suppose we won't know until we find the first fossil evidence of a neolithic tire-wall.

We then discovered the Soviet Jet Train, and it got even stranger from there.

*In the Soviet Union there was a widespread (but sadly not true) urban legend that the engines of Zaporozhets were starter motors from old tanks.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Plastic bike

First Launched in 1981, the Itera plastic bicycle was feted as the future of cycling by it's creators, the volvo car company.

Rather than make the bike out of welded metal tubes, as manufacturers had been doing for about a hundred years, they decided to make their bike entirely from injection molded plastics. They used a variety of strong and durable plastics that had already been developed for use in cars, so they didn't have to do a whole lot of research work to get the project started. The swedish government liked the idea, and gave the company a big grant to get the venture going.

It has been estimated that around 30,000 were made but by the time the factory closed in 1985, only a small proportion of them had actually sold. It achieved a small measure of success in its native Sweden, but was greeted with horror everywhere else. This failure was put down to people being unwilling to adapt to new technology, to poor marketing, and to concerns about the bikes creaking all the time.

What its supporters seemed to have completely failed to take into account, however, is the possibility that the itera bike failed, not because the public weren't ready for its innovative construction, but because it was quite possibly the ugliest thing anyone had ever seen. And this was in the 1980s, remember, a time when people had been forced to acclimatise to much more pervasive and grevious muntiness than anything you might see today.

Even if you disregard the paint-job, which was sadly fairly fashionable at the time (the hall of the house I grew up in was painted a similar combination of brown, orange, and beige by the previous owners) it still looks like a incorrectly molded piece of outdoor plumbing from the soviet union.

Interestingly, while they were a failure in Europe. The warehouses full of leftover bikes were shipped to the Caribbean and sold for a knock-down price. Over there people weren't so picky about looks, apparently, and the idea of a bike that didn't rust away in the tropical humidity had widespread appeal.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I don't think I really have a particular theme for this post, let alone a coherent idea to write about, so this is probably going to be a little disjointed.

The giant book of sex that I've been working on for the last year or so is finally coming to an end now. All that is left to do is the seemingly unending stream of corrections and revisions which, whilst getting more and more minor, never seem to decrease in number. Either way, I think it's going to print soon, so I'll be off writing about something else (religion I think) and probably getting equally nerdily obsessed with that. Something I've noticed is that my interest in human sexuality hasn't diminished as the amount of time I've had to spend writing about it has declined. Obviously, I had an interest in the subject to begin with, but it wasn't a very academic one.

One of the blogs that I read on the subject, by Dr. Petra Boynton, recently linked an article which touched something of a nerve with me in relation to the now mostly completed book. It's called The New Romantics by the brilliantly named Drake Bennett (no idea who he is, I'm just in awe of his name) and discusses the medicalisation of human sexuality.

This article revived a sense of unease I've had with the Big Sex Book from the start of my involvement with it. As it is a reference book, aimed at high schools, it sticks to a very dry, inoffensive tone. Sexuality is discussed in terms of medical conditions, pathological behaviors, and anatomical interactions. There are concessions to the stickier, less easily quantified aspects of sexuality, but usually, these are left out, either for fear of sounding too informal, or because of the possible moral backlash such discussions might provoke. Discussions of teenage sexual activity are usually framed by concepts of social norms, media influence, and peer pressure. The idea that young people, especially young women, might start having sex because they're horny, or because they're in love is rarely mentioned.

In fact, that's a good example. I said, "because they're horny, or because they're in love". The two things usually go together, for me at least they are part of the same thing. The book discusses emotions and ideas of love and affection; it also discusses hormones, reproductive urges, and the whole sticky-sweaty, in-out-in-out, tongues and hands thing. There is always some sense of separation, however, which strikes me as a damaging view to be teaching. The impression I often got from articles was that sex was a side-effect of love, or vice versa - depending on the article.

Hmm. I'll extend and revise this at some point. I've got to go and meet some friends pubwise now/

Thursday, May 21, 2009

cunning id

Before I start this, I feel I should explain that I'm not crazy. That doesn't bode well for the rest of the post, I know, but I've read more of the DSM-IV-TR than most people, and I don't think I meet any of the diagnostic criteria for bonkers*. Under normal circumstances, even in situations of stress or mental anguish, there is only one consciousness in my head, and I have complete sovereignty over the lands of me.There is one particular situation, however, in which I seem to become less of a person and more of a one-man argument.

I don't sleep a whole lot, which means that waking up is often a difficult and confusing process for me. In the seconds that pass between the alarm going off and the sane part of my brain gaining full control, there is a brief period of conflict between the me that usually just wants sleep, food, and woman (I will resist the urge to give my subconscious a name, because that's a step too far into crazyland) and the me that knows I have to get up and go to work. During this time dream-logic still applies** and sleep-food-woman me will use the best arguments dream logic posesses to get me to switch off my alarm and sleep until noon.

Sometimes these are sucessful, sometimes they fail, and every now and then they're just too weird to do either properly. A good example of the latter is the occasion when -- after staying up all night writing an essay --I woke up convinced that in order to switch off my alarm I had to delete my Mum's phone number from my mobile.

These events used to be rare, but my new phone (which I use as an alarm clock) is unpleasantly loud, which seems to make my subconscious especially resentful. There are two buttons on the phone which control the alarm -- one puts it on snooze, the other disables it. I was late to work last week because some part of my brain managed to convince me that the button marked "Stop" actually meant "stop being so damn loud." This morning it went a step further. I thought that it was making me answer quiz questions before it would go back into snooze mode (which isn't a bad idea for an alarm clock). I nearly tricked myself into switching it off twice when trying to think of the answer to the question I was dreaming (hallucinating?) I could see on the screen.

I probably need to get some more sleep, that, or get a more inscrutable alarm clock.


*That particular term isn't in the DSM, but it should be.
**You know, like when Morgan Freeman offers you a lift in his helicopter, whilst somehow being your cat at the same time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Behold, a wheely-bag. These things are always annoying for commuters like myself. They drag along behind the person pulling them and are too low to be seen in a crowd. This means that if someone with a wheely-bag crosses your path in an underground station you are likely to go arse-over-tit on the floor.

While this is annoying, I've done my share of international travel, so I'm not going to rail against big luggage with wheels. I know how much easier they make life. My problem is with shit like the bag pictured above. Believe it or not, it was actually smaller than it looks in that picture -- a small laptop bag with fucking wheels on. Why couldn't he just pick it up? He's not old or weak or feeble, and unless it was filled with gold it can't have been that heavy.

I just want to stamp on them.


Sunday, May 10, 2009


This started as a comment on a friend's photos of their proud culinary achievements. The dish in question looked very pretty but involved copious quantities of asparagus, which made me go into a wibbly-wobbly cinematic flashback.


I used to eat some very strange things when I was a kid. The most peculiar of these were probably the foods I consumed as a result of my close friendship with my grandmother's slightly retarded pet spaniel, Archie. I decided, some time around the age of three, that I wanted to be a dog when I grew up*. The reasons for this have slipped my memory, but they probably had something to do with Archie's ability to evade effort, exercise, and baths. I developed a taste for dry dog food, especially the charcoal biscuits -- I had an unusually lustrous, glossy coat as a child. Once, in imitation of my slightly 'special' canine friend, I ate a big handful of freshly mown grass.

Needless to say, it tasted disgusting, and I think I came very close to spraying some St Patrick's day-style barf across my grandma's neatly maintained garden. The upside of this memorable, if unpleasant, experience was that I became one of the very few people in the world who can adequately describe the taste of asparagus.

In case you'd not figured out what comparison I'm going to draw yet -- it's grass. I had asparagus for the first time on a pizza a few years ago and, after picking most of it off, spent the rest of the evening feeling rather nostalgic for Archie; the overweight, excitable spaniel with an extraordinary phobia of other dogs.

I'm always a little baffled why asparagus is considered such a glamorous foodstuff, considering you can get something just as tasty (and just as digestible, from what I remember of the pizza) for free, and tidy up your garden at the same time.


*I can't scratch my ears with my feet or track people by smell, so I'm going to assume I've failed in that particular ambition.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Fuck you, Maine

First Iowa and Vermont, now Maine has decided to legalise same-sex marriage. This makes me very annoyed.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not in the jesus corner, nor do I think that giving people rights automatically takes rights away from others. I have no problem whatsoever with gay marriage from a social or ethical point of view.

But why, oh why do all these states have to suddenly decide to liberalize their marriage laws this close to my print deadline? The article on Marriage Rights has been amended so many times that there's no room for any more states. I've already had to put Iowa and Vermont into the list of states that allow gay marriage, now I've got to fit Maine in. Maine! Argh. It's five letters and one syllable--I can't hyphenate that. It's going to carry the bottom line over, I just know it, and I'm going to have to spend ages rewording the paragraphs on the next page to stop the crosshead under the picture in column 2 from getting pushed out of place.

Oof, editorial change you can believe in eh? damn democrats and their social reform.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

What has 80 steel wheels and flies?

I've decided that I don't want to move to Lewisham any time soon. For various reasons that are too boring to go into I found myself standing around on the platform at Lewisham station this evening, waiting for a train for 20 minutes. The platforms at lewisham have an interesting feature that I'm sure not many stations have-- they're built over a river (The wonderfully named River Quaggy). The problem with this oddity, I learned tonight, is that clouds of little biting insects appear from the riverbed in the evening. I was standing there for what felt like hours, just swatting these little bugs as they landed on my book, face, ears, and eyelids, as well as getting in my hair.

Eventually the train arrived. It came whoosing down the platform (I was standing about halfway down) at about 15mph and I moved towards the edge of the platform (still behind the yellow line) in ancitipation of the scrum that was undoubtedly about to kick off when the doors opened.

When trains go past at a reasonable speed, they push a sort of air cushion in front of them which can smush you backwards from the edge of the platform. Today that cushion of air was followed by more than just a train. Namely the smoke-thick cloud of little biting insects that were caught in the vorticies around the drivers cab. As it went past me I got a faceful of little bugs. Some of them went in my mouth, others up my nose, in my ears, hair, eyes. It wasn't very nice. I spent the rest of my journey home squishing the bugs that were crawling out of my hair and clothes.

I'm still picking them out of my hair. No house in lewisham for me, even if it is monster cheap and gold-plated or something.


Monday, April 27, 2009


Today is Mary Wollstonecraft's 250th birthday, or at least it would be if she wasn't dead, but that sort of goes with the territory once you get over the age of 100. Not that she made it that far, sadly. Appropriately I've spent my day today writing and reading about the home schooling movement in the United States.

This was a rather eye-opening exercise for me. In the UK home schooling is largely the preserve of ultra-left-wing hairy types who think that even montessori schools are too restrictive, pushy parents of precocious oddballs, and parents whose children have severe mental or physical disabilities which preclude easy integration into the public school system. Only around 15,000 children are educated at home, and this education is closely monitored by education officials to check that it meets with national curriculum standards.

In the US, however, it seems that homeschooling is the preserve of a rather different demographic. A quick perusal of the Department of Education's statistics shows that 72 percent of parents who homeschool their children are motivated by relgious beliefs, and 30 percent of parents polled gave religious beliefs as the primary motivation behind their decision to homeschool their children. Also, rather more children are homeschooled in the US than in the UK -- around 1.1 million in total, or 2.2 percent of the school-age population.

I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to the current state of educational research on the merits of homeschooling in general, so I don't feel able to make any broad sweeping statements about the validity of the practice in general (although I'd really like to). When it comes to the religious homeschoolers though, it's pretty hard to remain neutral on the subject. You see, they go into great detail about the motivations behind their decision to homeschool their children. These reasons range from the merely bigoted to outright batshit insane. Some talk about how high schools are hotbeds of promiscuity and sodomy (where children are told that gay men aren't demons in disguise!), while others rant about crypto muslims, communist conspiracies, and mind-control flouride in the drinking water.

Behind all the rants about the state of the public school system there is one overriding concern that comes up again and again. These people are concerned about their children being subject to influences beyond their control, or worse still, having their ideas contradicted. These children are educated entirely within the bounds of their parents' beliefs, entertained only by media they approve, and play only with the children of other, similarly megalomaniacal, parents. By homeschooling they hope to isolate their children from any and all influences not under their complete control; indoctrinating them with their own warped perspective on the world. In fact, for people so vehemently opposed to cloning, they seem remarkably intent on making identical copies of themselves.

If you doubt the worrying levels of bonkers of which I speak, watch this video or read some of the things on this website. The US has a Marxist education system apparently. Funny that none of my American friends mentioned this...


To go back to Mary Wollstonecraft, here's a little chunk from her 1791 masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which discusses far more than just women's rights. Here's what she had to say on homeschooling --

The good effects resulting from attention to private education will ever be very confined, and the parent who really puts his own hand to the plow, will always, in some degree be disappointed, till education becomes a grand national concern. A man cannot retire into a desert with his child, and if he did, he could not bring himself back to childhood, and become the proper friend and play-fellow of an infant or youth. And when children are confined to the society of men and women, they very soon acquire that kind of premature manhood which stops the growth of every vigorous power of mind or body. In order to open their faculties they should be excited to think for themselves; and this can only be done by mixing a number of children together, and making them jointly pursue the same objects.

A child very soon contracts a benumbing indolence of mind, which he has seldom sufficient vigour to shake off, when he only asks a question instead of seeking for information, and then relies implicitly on the answer he receives. With his equals in age this could never be the case, and the subjects of inquiry, though they might be influenced, would not be entirely under the direction of men, who frequently damp, if not destroy abilities, by bringing them forward too hastily: and too hastily they will infallibly be brought forward, if the child could be confined to the society of a man, however sagacious that man may be.

Besides, in youth the seeds of every affection should be sown, and the respectful regard, which is felt for a parent, is very different from the social affections that are to constitute the happiness of life as it advances. Of these, equality is the basis, and an intercourse of sentiments unclogged by that observant seriousness which prevents disputation, though it may not inforce submission. Let a child have ever such an affection for his parent, he will always languish to play and chat with children; and the very respect he entertains, for filial esteem always has a dash of fear mixed with it, will, if it do not teach him cunning, at least prevent him from pouring out the little secrets which first open the heart to friendship and confidence, gradually leading to more expansive benevolence. Added to this, he will never acquire that frank ingenuousness of behaviour, which young people can only attain by being frequently in society, where they dare to speak what they think; neither afraid of being reproved for their presumption, nor laughed at for their folly.

-- Vindication of the rights of Woman, Chapter 12: "On National Education"

If I ever invent a time machine I'm sending a decent obstetrician and a midwife back to 1797 right away.