Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pulled Pork, and Other Stuff

Yesterday while in the car, Crox Minor asked me what was special about human beings, expecting some profound answer, perhaps that we are the only creatures capable of conscious thought, or reason, or space travel, or some such. I'd have thought she'd have known me better than that by now, given my now well-advertised exception to human exceptionalism.

My first reaction was that humans are the only organisms that look really funny with no clothes on.

My second, more considered reaction, was that humans probably taste very nice.

A third, which only occurs to me now, is that humans are the only creatures capable of posting pictures of their cats on the internet.

Day 34: The Earthlings still haven't grasped my true nature.

Which topic led to a current preoccupation, which is the vogue for something called pulled pork. You see on menus everywhere, except when it's pulled chicken, which is probably something different. So what is pulled pork? What is it about the pulling that makes pork special? And what is meant by 'pulling' in this context? Several possible meanings have thusfar intruded upon our sensoria, including, but limited to:

- 'pulled pork' is marketing-speak for 'mechanically recovered' meat, in other words, all those wibbly bits of meat concerning which one probably shouldn't inquire too closely, yanked from carcases after all the good bits have been removed;

- 'pulled pork' is a euphemism for masturbation;

- 'pulled pork' is derived from pigs that have been stretched prior to slaughter;

- 'pulled pork' is a euphemism for 'long pig', itself a euphemism for human flesh. Mmm. With fava beans and a nice chianti.

Well, really. 'Pulled Pork' is actually a means of cooking pork at a relatively low temperature for a long time, so that the meat becomes very tender and can be 'pulled' off the bone. It can be used for otherwise tough and gristly bits, and in the colonies has been referred to as 'Boston Butt'.

So now you know.

Isn't the internet a wonderful thing?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Life In The Blurbs

Being as I am a pillar pillock of the community pillock with many friends who are writers I am increasingly asked to read books wot they have wrote, whether as drafts or as near-completed works, on the cusp, as it may be, of publication, for the purposes of writing a blurb.

As you probably know, a blurb is one of those pithy epigrammatic apothegms, usually by some famous person, which, when inscribed on a book's cover or inside pages might induce the unsuspecting punter to delve into the said book's contents and maybe even part with yer actual money.

I am always flattened flattered to be asked to read a daft draft book, or contribute a blurb. Many is the occasion when I have asked other people for blurbs, and, usually, I have sent an electronic version of the manuscript, either as a word file or a pdf. Only now I've read a few myself, I know what it's like, and what a favour this is to ask of someone.

I love e-Books. I have four three four devices which serve me very well as e-Readers, and they are a boon, especially when I am travelling. But I look at screens an awful lot, so, when I am reading purely for pleasure, I prefer to read something printed out on paper.

And, no, not an unwieldy pile of A4 pages, but something that is properly bound, like a book. This is easier to handle, much kinder on my ageing eyes, and will give a much more authentic book-reading experience, so, hopefully will inform my blurb with a more accurate … er … accuracy.

So I'd like to make this request - please might I receive something that looks like an actual book?

It's very easy to do.

All you need to do is upload your book to a print-on-demand site such as Amazon's CreateSpace, or, (my preference because I've used it), Lulu.

It's very easy to upload a pdf (the program will even create the pdf for you, from a regular word-processing document); create a generic cover, and so on. The program is practically idiot-proof and will guide you at every stage.

At the end you'll have a book which people can buy for a modest sum and have mailed to them. You could, as an author, get a few made up and sent to yourself, which you can send to people you ask to provide a blurb.

You can set the program so that the title, when 'published', is searchable only by yourself or by people you invite, so that your not-quite-ready tome won't be visible to the general public. You can, of course, write some disclaimer in the text that this copy is for review only and not for sale, or some such.

Your home-made book will, with a little artfulness, look like a realio trulio book. All my books published by ReAnimus Press, if ordered as paperbacks, will have been printed on demand through CreateSpace. Before ReAnimus took them up, I'd self-published several of my titles - By The Sea and The Sigil trilogy, on Lulu. In fact, I still have one self-published title on Lulu, the adorable micro-epic Defiant The Guinea Pig: Firefighter! ('like Backdraft for pets' - Professor Trellis of North Wales) - order it now for Christmas.

Call me old fashioned. Go on, call me old fashioned. I won't mind. I'll have you know that my beard is dyed fluorescent purple.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Benefits Of Knowing How To Spell

This weekend Mrs Crox and I were enjoying a bottle of Waitrose South African Merlot. Finding it to be a pretty decent drop, I of course scrutinised the label with an intense scrute (force of habit - years and years of scientific training) and this is what I saw.

On FB I wondered aloud whether we'd suffer lead poisoning, or if the proofreader had enjoyed the Merlot as much as we had, and was drunk.

On Twitter, though, I decided that Messrs Waitrose  et Cie. should know about this and wrote
@Waitrose Shurely Shome Mishtake?
Their response came at the very start of business today (Monday)

Oh no! Can you please DM me your address, shop where you bought it so I can raise this with our supplier? Thank you.

So I did, and the reply was just as quick.

Thanks, Henry. I've raised this with our merchandise complaints department who'll follow this up with our supplier so the next print should read plum, rather than plumb. I'm also sending you a Waitrose/John Lewis gift voucher in the post. Thanks for telling us about this. Ant.

This goes to show that companies can be extremely responsive to social media, especially Twitter, and you also get the sense that you are dealing with a real person. Thanks Ant! 

It's not just Waitrose of course. I once had cause to tweet about a problem with online booking with the airline KLM, and they were back to me within the hour. 

Notwithstanding inasmuch as which I've also had an entertaining discussion with Homebase about the design of lavatory seats (we know how to live, here in Norfolk.) 

But wait, there's more: the Twitstream of my rail service provider, Greater Anglia, is unfailingly helpful, useful and adds that personal touch which can mean all the difference between a dreadful commute and a tolerable one.

Social media might have its downsides but one of the benefits, I feel, is the instant communication it offers with companies and suppliers, and this can only be a good thing. It makes customers feel that their complaints and suggestions are being noted, and it keeps companies up to the mark.

And if you can spot a spelling mi$take, you might even get a gift voucher. I wonder if they sell that Merlot by the case?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Laughing Last

Perhaps it's because I live here, but I do tend to be rather sensitive to Norfolk being the butt of jokes emanating from the Great Wen. Norfolk people are characterised as being dim and inbred. 'I wouldn't live in Norfolk for all the toes in Wroxham,' said my friend Dr R. P. G. of Rotherhithe, albeit affectionately. It is a rather good line, I admit, though perhaps eclipsed by this characteristically brittle exchange from one of Noël Coward's plays, Private Lives:

ELYOT: I met her on a house party in Norfolk.
AMANDA: Very flat, Norfolk.
ELYOT: There's no need to be unpleasant.
AMANDA: That was no reflection on her, unless of course she made it flatter.
To say that Norfolk is in a different time zone from the rest of Britain - the 1950s - is a hoary comedy standby.

The disdain of the literati runs deep. In his otherwise excellent novel Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro has some of the protagonists visit Cromer. The Cromer in the novel bears absolutely no relationship with the real Cromer, and it's plain that the author just stuck a pin in the map, never bothering to actually visit the town himself. He probably thought that nobody in Cromer would be literate enough to read his book. Well, the joke's on you, Mr Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go is a set text at GCSE, studied by pupils at Cromer Academy, who can - whisper it soft - read, and they are not happy at this obvious slur.

And, oh yeah, there's Nicholas Parsons and Sale Of The Century and 'And-Now-From-Norwich' and the ghastly Alan Partridge. But wait, there's more. Just in the past week we heard that Norwich is the capital of Y-fronts, the baggy and definitely untrendy style of male foundationwear; and heard the laughter on social meeja when two students at the University of East Anglia suggested that one might save water by peeing in the shower.

But we have the last laugh. Norfolk is one of the nicest and most crime-free counties in Britain in which to live. It has fresh air all the way down to the ground. Terrific sandy beaches that go on and on for miles. The beer is excellent and a lot cheaper than in London. Norwich is a beautiful city, with loads of great independent shops, cafés and other stuff. Norfolk can boast of being the home county of Horatio Nelson and Stephen Fry, national treasures both.

And, yes, Norfolk has quite a lot of very decent education. When seeking a good sixth-form college, for example, Crox Minor has been spoiled for choice, with at least three colleges in easy bus range competing for her custom. Crox Minor attends the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, specialising in science and in which studying A-level maths is compulsory, and in which the nerdery in the after-school chess club is quite something to behold.

Isn't this a cuckoo in the nest, though? A diamond in the rough? Not at all. Norwich hosts not just a major University, but a large teaching hospital and several world-class scientific research institutes including the John Innes Centre. Norwich also has an international airport with easy connections to Amsterdam Schiphol and thence the world, so one can go abroad without having all the expense, overcrowding and hassle of having to do it through London.

But what really gets up the noses of the metropolitan chatterati is that we get all the best theatre before it comes to London. Some years ago, for example, Mrs Crox and I went to see a production of Samuel Beckett's pithy piece, Waiting for Godot, staged at the Theatre Royal in Norwich. It stared Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup.

Tickets were plentiful and cheap. The theatre is forty minutes easy drive from home, and parking is a doddle, right next to the theatre itself. None of that expensive and uncomfortable business with tubes, taxis and London's rip-off prices.

The production was, as you'd expect, marvellous. And for months and months afterwards I was able to boast to my London friends that I'd seen it long before it transferred to the West End. Our wait for Godot was much, much shorter than theirs.

So that's why people make Norfolk the target of their sneering jokes - they are just jealous.

Monday, October 6, 2014

No Nobel for Radiolumbricometry

Once again, my ground-breaking work on how radioactivity can be neutralised by earthworms has been passed over.

Once again, my brilliant research, which posterity will rank alongside that of Galileo and Newton, Watson and Crick, Laurel and Hardy, notwithstanding inasmuch as which Professor Trellis of North Wales, has been blatantly ignored in favour of work by lesser scientists.

Once again, the long-distance call from Stockholm has, by some mischance, failed to connect.

It started like this. Many years ago, at school, my lab partner and I were doing some work on the radioactivity of everyday objects. Being proper scientists, and all, we were keen to establish controls, so measured the background radiation of our lead-shielded jam jar, empty of any other contents. Then we placed an ordinary garden earthworm in the jar and repeated the procedure.

Much to our surprise, the radioactivity in the jar was less than that of the wormless jar!

The conclusion was clear - earthworms not only absorb radioactivity, but by some mechanism as yet unknown to science, neutralise it. We instantly named our jam-jar-Geiger-counter-combo the 'radiolumbricometer' and thought of a golden future in which nuclear waste could be rendered utterly harmless by feeding it to earthworms, and a completely hazard-free nuclear age could dawn.

It is a measure of the bigotry, shortsightedness and bias of the Nobel Committee that this work has been ignored.

Never mind that we never published it. Never mind that we didn't trouble ourselves to repeat the experiments exhaustively to determine whether the effect was real. Never mind that we didn't repeat the experiments on worms of different sizes and masses; with dead worms; with other garden invertebrates; with better-shielded and more sensitive equipment.

All such considerations are irrelevant.

Simply, what has happened is that the Nobel Committee has failed, as it often does, to appreciate our genius.


Cambridge: Its Part In My Downfall

This morning I was touched by this article in teh Grauniad reporting the collapse into eating disorders and depression of a Cambridge undergraduate who, arriving in that notorious goldfish bowl, discovered that she was no longer Little Miss Perfect, but just another small fish in a large pond of perfection. For the hard of linking, the message is clear - sometimes it's OK to fail.

The article (oh look - here it is again) struck a chord with me (A-flat diminished.) I had spent three wonderfully happy undergraduate years at the University of Leeds. Yes, I got a good degree. One of the best. But I also had a good time. I played in rock bands, hung out with Hell's Angels, lost my virginity, got high, lived in houses that could have served as inspiration for The Young Ones, and generally enjoyed being part of a gritty Northern city where the locals were friendly, hospitable and called a spade a fookin' spade.

Then, without pause, I went to study for my Ph.D. at Cambridge. So it was that in October 1984 I hit the ground running, but in a research group of one (me); with a supervisor conspicuous by his general uselessness; bereft of much any pastoral support; surrounded by people who were much more buttoned-up than they had been at Leeds; and no guidance to help me through the many layers, sliding panels and peculiar customs of Cambridge, I shut it all out by working as hard as possible. I became nocturnal, working in the basement of the Zoology Museum until the early hours, feeding myself on kebabs and off-licence whisky.

The following February they found me in the basement trying to slash my wrists.

The response of the University was, in total, this - to go away and come back when I felt better. I do hope they are better at this sort of thing nowadays.

So I went home. I did some schoolteaching, joined a dope-fuelled rock band led by a dope-fuelled Glaswegian whose utterances I could only understand when he was singing, went to Israel for a bit, sowed some oats, and came back to Cambridge. I joined another rock band, made friends and just got on with my life. Eventually I got my Ph.D.

Many years later the lessons are clear to me. First, joining a band is always a Good Thing. Second, sometimes you have to admit to yourself that you can't do everything. You can't run at a hundred percent all the time. If only - if only - someone had said to me, as I was starting my Ph. D., that I should spend the first year just chilling out, not trying to reprise the workaholic madness of the run-up to my finals.

I am now more than a little concerned for Crox Minor, who, having got ten A-stars at GCSE, is now studying at college, and, finding that everyone there is as bright as she is, seems to study half the night and all day at weekends, and is getting a bit stressed out. She's been at it for just a month...

Friday, October 3, 2014

Are Museums Turning Into Playgrounds?

I was struck earlier today, rather as one is struck, if glancingly, by an airborne haddock, by this article in which sociologist Tiffany Jenkins argues that museums and art galleries are turning into playgrounds, such that anyone who attends without a child in tow might be legitimately asked if they were lost, or even be mistaken for one of the exhibits (okay, I made up that last bit) and that this is a Bad Thing.

It's hard, Jenkins maintains, to get into that contemplative zone one requires to appreciate exhibits (she is particularly interested in art) in the congested hullaballoo of school parties and harrassed parents with strollers and screaming toddlers. Restaurant facilities and shops seem geared down, if not to nursery level, then, at least, well below the adult. Museums and art galleries were once decorous temples for cultural improvement, rather than a mosh pit to take the kids when it rains, a kind of do-it-yourself babysitting service.

'Today,' she says 
museums are not just child friendly; they are child centred, organised around every perceived need of the little ones. Science museums and natural history are especially bad, but art galleries want a piece of the childcare action too. All have a packed programme of activities devoted to under 5s; 5 to tens and the teenage crowd: treasure hunts, storytelling, touch zones (that’s touching an object or a dead animal), crafts, crayons and dressing up. And they encourage you, the adult in fawning attendance, to convince yourself that the visit is educational: the brats aren’t just playing – they are learning, as they mess about with paper mache [sic] in a gallery once devoted to Greek antiquities.
I have to admit she has a point, and it's a good one. However, I do not agree with it, or, at least, not all of it.

My introduction to museums came at the age of three when I was wheeled around the Horniman Museum in southeast London, then very much a cabinet of curiosities with little concession to children. I loved it. At the age of five I graduated to the Natural History Museum, which, back then, was in the middle of a dusty and impecunious nadir, bereft of visitors or indeed anything shiny or kid-friendly. Not that this would have meant anything to the infant Gee. As far as I was concerned I had the whole glorious thing pretty much to myself, my own Secret Garden. It was me, alone, in vast spaces, in front of crocodiles, the whale shark, and - wonder of wonders - the Blue Whale (note capitals.)

I was, however, particularly attracted to the Hall of Fossil Fishes, and I have retained a love of fossil fishes to this day. The fact that my doctorate thesis was about fossil cows was no hindrance. Cows were simply highly evolved fishes adapted to living in water of negative depth. At my wedding, the Best Man said that he was 'the other nerdy kid' to have wandered the long-forgotten hall of extremely dead fish. Nowadays I am Bone-Botherer-In-Chief at the Submerged Log Company, and have a soft spot for fossil fishes; my Best Man is a distinguished professor who studies - you guessed it - fossil fishes.

The forbidding cabinets and incomprehensible labels in the old Fossil Fish gallery, then, pulled at least two children in, and held them for life. For palaeontology, two is presumably better than none. But consider this from the point of view of a public museum. The late twentieth century (such as it was, then) was not the late nineteenth - people no longer visited museums for educational improvement, but to be diverted, entertained. In the twenty-first century, even more so. That two nerdy kids back in the 1960s were educated, diverted and entertained was not enough: would that it were. People had to be pulled in who wouldn't necessarily end up as scholars in fossil fishes. The exhibits had to become interactive, tailored to school curricula, made 'relevant'.

There is no doubt that 'relevant' exhibits attract children of all kinds. I loved pushing the buttons and gawping and planes and boats in the Science Museum as much as the next child, without necessarily knowing why I was doing so, or what scientific points such gawpery was meant to inculcate. And that's just the point. If Museums are to pull people in who might lack the motivation to find out all by themselves, these people will expect to be welcomed as well as challenged. If at least some of them go out with more comprehension than when they went in, then that's a bonus.

One does wonder, however, whether the trend towards child-centredness in museums is not a symptom of the general infantilisation of society, in which people expect to be served everything in bite-sized portions without their having to make much of an effort; instant gratification is not so much desired as required; and nobody is expected to have an attention span much beyond that of a four-year-old. Perhaps. 

In the end, though, I think Jenkins protests too much, for I detect that museums and galleries are not just catering to children, but to everyone. Perhaps less well-advertised are lectures, seminars and exhibitions tailored to older people. Not every gallery in every museum always throngs with children - they tend to flock to some more than others. 

When I took Crox Minor (then aged four) to see a special exhibition at the Natural History Museum on the Feathered Dinosaurs of China, it was tucked away in a side-gallery (probably the old Fossil Fish hall), well away from the free public dinosaur exhibit, always rammed with children. We had to pay a little extra to get in - a mechanism ensuring that only those who really wanted to see the exhibit actually did so. Whether one agrees with such a policy is neither here nor there - the result was a quiet space in which one could appreciate the fossils without the jostle and hoopla of school parties.

And there are museums from which children are entirely banned.

One of my favourite museums is the Frick Collection on 5th Avenue in New York, which does not admit children under ten. And quite right too. This means that grown-ups can appreciate beautiful art, furniture and antiquities as they were meant to be viewed, without being corralled like cattle in a stockyard, and can get right up to the exhibits without fear of the priceless canvases being smeared with sticky fingers. (When I last went the lower age limit was fourteen - straitened times have presumably chipped away at the Frick's resolve.)

Why shouldn't children be admitted, though? Why can't they go in now? Well, for the reasons given above, and also for that rare thing nowadays - that there should still be the option to have things to look forward to, once one has attained a respectable tally of years, so that their eventual consummation will be all the sweeter. It's not as if children don't already have the run of plenty of other public educational spaces, now, is it?