28 February 2010

Vince Clarke

Vince Clarke is probably most famous as half of Erasure, the other half being Andy Bell, and one can get a pretty good idea of the 'Vince Clarke sound' simply from taking a trip through Erasure's twenty-four consecutive top 20 hits. For a more comprehensive overview, you'd have to take in his work with the early Depeche Mode, his acclaimed time as half of Yazoo (or 'Yaz' in the US) with rootsy blues diva Alison Moyet, and the various other projects he's had a hand in (West India Company, The Assembly, The Clarke And Ware Experiment, Robert Marlowe, Paul Quinn, Feargal Sharkey, Habit, Genderfix… I'll stop now; there's too many). Through his career, a strong association with Daniel Miller's Mute Records is evident, as is a preference for producer Eric Radcliffe.

Vince is an electronic musician, famous for his love of analogue instruments, although in later years he's started to branch out into digital. He's a competent guitarist, as well, but it's in the realm of synthesizers where Vince's genius lies. His particular brand of electronic music has a genuinely recognisable style, particularly when it comes to the instrumental pieces that scatter their way across the many b-sides of Erasure's work. Vince also remixes, occasionally, turning tracks from artists as diverse as Rammstein, Sparks, Happy Mondays or Polly Scattergood into shiny synthpop treats.

Vince currently lives in Maine with his wife Tracey and their son. At 48 years old and with no sign of Erasure slowing down, there's still plenty of synthpop heaven to come...

(Caption competition winner: 'Alison and Vince quickly regret accepting the Poltergeist soundtrack commission.' Thank you Mrs B. Smegma, Warrington.)

27 February 2010

Jet Propulsion

A method of propulsion by which, in accordance with Isaac Newton's third law of motion 'to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction', an object is propelled forwards by a stream of gas or liquid (the jet) expelled in the opposite direction.

Within the animal kingdom, creatures such as squid or octopuses make use of short bursts of jet propulsion to move quickly. In general, water is taken into a muscular sac and is expelled rapidly through a small opening to provide a rapid acceleration in the opposite direction. The simplest example of jet propulsion in the underwater world is jellyfish. Although not all species of jellyfish use jet propulsion to travel, many species fill the umbrella section with water and then push the water out in a stream of short duration. However, the jellyfish has little control over direction. Squid, on the other hand, are able to control the direction of the jet, allowing them to move in a definite direction. Some squid are able to reach speeds high enough to shoot them out of the water and onto the deck of a ship.

Several shelled animals such as clams or scallops can use a more primitive form of jet propulsion to rapidly escape from enemies. They achieve this by bringing the two halves of their shells together rapidly, although like the jellyfish they have little control over the direction of the expelled liquid, and therefore little control over the direction of their movement.

Outside of the animal kingdom, the most common use of jet propulsion is the widely-known jet engine or turbojet. The turbojet is a kind of gas turbine, in which air passes through a forward-facing intake, is compressed and fed into a combustion chamber. Fuel is sprayed in and ignited, producing a rapidly expanding ball of hot gas which proceeds rearwards, spinning a turbine in the process, which drives the compressor. The hot gas is finally ejected from the rear of the unit, usually a nozzle or some form of tail-pipe, at very high speed. This is the simplest form of gas turbine, used in supersonic aircraft.

The turboprop, used for moderate speeds and altitudes, adds extra stages that absorb most of the energy from the gas stream to drive a propellor shaft. The turbofan is best suited to high subsonic speeds, and features an extra compressor in front. Some of the airflow bypasses the core engine and mixes with the jet exhaust stream, providing a lower temperature and velocity. Compared to the turbojet this modification results in improvements in economy, efficiency and quietness, yet provides a higher speed compared to the turboprop.

The turboshaft is a form of jet engine used to drive the rotors of helicopters, as well as providing propulsion to hovercraft, ships and trains. Essentially a turboprop without a propellor, power from the extra turbine instead being delivered to an output shaft or a reduction gearbox.

The ramjet is used for a variety of missiles. When running at twice the speed of sound (Mach 2), the pressure in the front intake of the ramjet engine is such that no compressor or turbine is required. It is cheap and light, but consumes a high amount of fuel, which is burnt in the widest section of what is essentially an open-ended barrel-shaped tube. The lack of a turbine, however, means that the rocket must be boosted to operational speed before the ramjet engine will function.

Variants of the jet engine include vectored thrust engines, allowing vertical takeoff, reverse thrust, used to slow down a jet plane on landing, and reheat or afterburning, used in military aircraft to provide short-duration increases in thrust.

25 February 2010


Muntjac are a small species of deer which, when fully grown, may reach a height of approximately fifty centimetres. Indeed, at first glance a muntjac is easily mistaken for an extremely large hare, though a quick second glance is usually enough to restore a feeling of sanity. (Being stubborn, I steadfastly refused to believe in tiny deer for some time, until a fateful night in the pub where my over-confident tales of giant Norfolk bunny rabbits cost me an entire round of drinks.)

Muntjac are equipped with good eyesight; their large eyes allow them to see well in low light conditions. They have good hearing, too, with prominent, almost translucent, ears. They have distinctive facial markings - a prominent v-shape which begins below the eyes is a clear identification feature on the buck; similarly there is a dark kite shape on the doe's forehead.

Furthermore, large glands are visible beneath the eye. These secrete a thick, waxy substance which is used to scent mark territory. Cloven hooves, a dark-brown or grey winter coat (chestnut red in summer) and a long tail with a white, alarm-raising underside complete the muntjac's appearance.

Muntjac were introduced to England during the nineteenth century, but are more commonly found in their native environment: They are indigenous to South-East Asia and are common in India, South-East China and Taiwan. Many Indonesian islands also feature breeding colonies of muntjac. It is a testament to the Muntjac's versatility that it will happily occupy any area which has plenty of thick cover and enough food to sustain it. Muntjac are now a well established feral species of deer in England, and are common around the Thetford Forest region of Norfolk.

21 February 2010

Charlie Dimmock

Charlie Dimmock is a gardening expert and television presenter, who rose to fame in 1997 when she joined Alan Titchmarsh (already well respected), Tommy Walsh and Will Shanahan on the BBC television programme Ground Force. Since then, she has gone on to present her own programmes, including Charlie's Garden Army, The Joy Of Gardening and River Walks.

Charlie has also published several gardening reference books, aimed squarely at the popular market, has presented the BBC's coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show, and has even managed to get herself on Celebrity Masterchef. She currently enjoys some success with work for American TV company CBS with a small section of The Early Show, and writes a gardening column for the Mail On Sunday.

(Oh, okay - I was hoping to get away without mentioning it... er, them. Besides her expert gardening skills, her friendly and no-nonsense approach to water features and a good knowledge of all manner of flora, you won't be able to get through a single conversation with almost anyone on the subject of Charlie Dimmock without her penchant for not wearing a bra bursting into the conversation at some point. That's right... all that intelligence, skill and earthy knowledge pales into insignificance when compared to the sight of her dimmocks slapping together as she lifts an old railway sleeper into position. Deep breath, and... move along now.)

20 February 2010


The Multiface, product of Romantic Robot UK Ltd, was designed to be a multi-purpose interface. You can see where the marketing boys came up with the name...

The basic idea was quite simple. The Multiface 1, a small black box with a red button on top, was wedged into the expansion slot of your Spectrum where it would patiently sit, waiting to spring into action. One press of that red button later and up popped a menu allowing you to perform all manner of amazing feats.

Back up the entire contents of memory to cassette, cartridge, wafer or disk. Fill the 8k RAM extension with whatever sneaky code you could think up. Use the 'Multi Toolkit extension' to POKE around in the gubbins of your Speccy - infinite lives, anyone? And, last but not least, there was a Kempston-compatible joystick interface stuck on the side.

This was heaven! The Multiface 1 provided unprecedented access to the guts of your machine, and most importantly of all it allowed you to take a snapshot of your entire machine and 'back up' your games collection. And your friend's game collection. And, in fact, any games you could get your hands on. Depending on your moral standpoint, of course, which led Romantic Robot to make the following statement:

MULTIFACE 1 is NOT designed to encourage PIRACY!
Please note that you must not use it to copy, reproduce or infringe in any way any copyright material without the clear permission of the copyright owner. ROMANTIC ROBOT neither condones nor authorises the use of Multiface for the reproduction of copyrighted material - to do so is illegal!

Technically, the Multiface was extremely clever. The Z80 processor at the heart of the Spectrum had a non-maskable interrupt line. This means little to most of us, but rest assured that when the red button was pressed, a NMI was triggered, and the Multiface quickly paged outthe Spectrum ROM, replacing it with an entirely new program: that of the Multiface. It was cunning, no doubt, but most importantly of all it allowed you to hack and crack those games with consummate ease...

Oh, and it only worked in 48k mode. So Romantic Robot developed the Multiface 128 and, in time, the Multiface +3, each designed to work specifically with those systems. With each incarnation came further benefits; compare the feature set of the Multiface +3, which offered transfer of programs from various formats, copying of screens to the printer, the use of DOS commands in 48k mode, and an expanded toolkit for fiddling about with memory contents.

In its time - that's October 1986 - the Multiface was one piece of equipment any hardcore Speccy owner had to have, despite its £40 price tag. The proof of this worth may well be its inclusion in so many emulators today, and you'd be hard pressed to find a latter-day Spectrumowner who doesn't have equally fond memories of their multiface.

But, the ingenuity of Romantic Robot doesn't end there, for the Speccy wasn't the only machine around with a solid Zilog Z80 chip sitting at the heart of it. The Amstrad CPC, too, was prime candidate for a multiface attachment. With much the same abilities as the Spectrumversion, the Multiface 2, 2+ and 2E caused similar joy in the lives of many Amstrad users...

18 February 2010

Laibachkunstderfuge - Laibach


You just think you have Laibach all worked out, having recovered from their last album (Volk)which reworked a range of national anthems into a series of rather biting commentaries about each nation, and giving just about everybody apart from Spain a damn good thrashing. And then along comes another completely bizarre move; in this case, what they describe as 'the laibachian interpretation of Johann Sebastian Bach's work The Art Of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge).'

Bach wrote the Art Of Fugue sometime between 1723 and his death in 1750, whilst living and working in Leipzig. The Art Of Fugue is a lengthy collection of fugues and canons which form a sort of demonstration of the possibilities of various transformational techniques: augmentation, diminution, permutation matrices and so on. No instruments are specified in the work, and as the whole thing is based on mathematical algorithms, Laibach have taken this to its logical conclusion: Laibachkunstderfuge was programmed and performed entirely on computer, live, to an appreciative audience on June the 1st, 2006 at the Bachfest in Leipzig. (Judging from the generated vocals in Contrapunctus 7, they've gone for Macs. Very wise.)

If you've heard Wendy Carlos' switched on Switched-On Bach, then parts of this will bring Moog-like memories flooding back. Other aspects recall Laibach's foray into disco-techno with their NATO album. Contrapunctus 2, a twenty minute epic, is breathtakingly lovely, and track seven, mentioned above, is a delightful little musical joke that recalls Camille Saint-Saëns' musical puns blatantly sneaked into The Carnival Of The Animals. There are jolly parts, and darker sounding parts. And yes, it's all based on the same simple subject in D minor, so after an hour and twenty minutes much of it begins to sound the same, despite the varying styles and instrumentation. I like it, and no doubt many others will agree, but I'd be more than willing to say it's probably a musical curiosity, one for the fans or those interested in unusual electronic versions of classical tracks.

LAIBACHKUNSTDERFUGE was available primarily as a digital download, but there are CD versions out there now. Volkswagner, a kind of thematic sibling based around the works of Wagner was performed in April 2009 and is scheduled for an early 2010 CD release.


LAIBACHKUNSTDERFUGE, released Monday, 5th May 2008

1. Contrapunctus 1
2. Contrapunctus 2
3. Contrapunctus 3
4. Contrapunctus 4
5. Contrapunctus 5
6. Contrapunctus 6, A 4 Im Stile Francese
7. Contrapunctus 7, A 4 Per Augment Et Diminut
8. Contrapunctus 8, A 3
9. Contrapunctus 9, A 4 Alla Duodecima
10. Contrapunctus 10, A 4 Alla Decima
11. Contrapunctus 11, A 4
12. Contrapunctus 12, Canon Alla Ottava
13. Contrapunctus 13, Canon Alla Duodecima In Contrapunto Alla Quinta
14. Contrapunctus 15, Canon Per Augmentationem In Contrario Motu

17 February 2010


Before the cannon was invented, the most common method of hurling destructive weaponry at the enemy was the catapult. Known as engines, there were three main types: the ballista, the mangonel and the trebuchet. Cannons did not appear until the 14th Century, the first recorded use being in Florence in February of 1326. From this time onwards the cannon was used on an ever-increasing scale throughout the world. By the start of the 1700s the cannon was a common weapon in European armies, with artillery units becoming of equal importance to the cavalry.

Cannons come in a range of types and sizes. Guns, mortars and howitzers are all considered to be smoothbore, which simply means that the interior of the cannon's barrel was not rifled. Rifling was the cutting of a spiral groove along the interior of the barrel, which gave the projectile spin.

Guns shot at a low trajectory and were useful for long or short range battering of fortifications. They could also be aimed with some accuracy and were therefore useful for destroying enemy cannon. Mortars, on the other hand, shot at a high trajectory, and were most suited to firing overwalls. The high trajectory made them an excellent choice for raining bombs onto the enemy, and with careful planning the bomb could be timed to explode over a group of men and thus cause widespread injury. Howitzers shot at a trajectory someway between the gun and the mortar, with the added advantage that they could handle projectiles considerably larger than the other two methods.

A variety of projectiles were available, the three basic types being those that did not explode, those that did and projectiles that scattered small fragments without exploding. The size of the projectile was dictated by the size of the cannon's bore diameter. Measured in inches, the calibersize tended to closely match the weight of the iron shot at smaller calibers. A cannon with a bore of three inches would shoot an iron ball which weighed between three and four pounds. Similarly, a cannon of bore diameter nine inches would manage an iron ball of between seven and ten pounds. Eventually, the cannon came to be referred to in terms of the weight of shot they fired. A four-pounder, for example, would shoot four pound iron shot. Cannons available ranged from one-pounders right up to thirty-two-pounders, suitable for siege work.

Solid shot was any projectile which did not explode, and included cast iron spheres, bar shot and chain shot. Early artillery, such as the ballista, had shown that spherical objects moved through the air much more effectively than oddly-shaped projectiles. Working on this principle, rounded stones were initially a good choice of projectile, later augmented by a thin layer of iron to improve their shape. An obvious development was to cast perfectly round balls, with varying degrees of success. Early shot featured a raised seam mark from the two part moulds used to cast the shot, though the process was quickly perfected.

Bar and chain shot were simply methods of altering the basic solid ball design, such modifications being made with the specific purpose of tearing into wooden structures, whether on land or at sea. Bar shot consisted of the two halves connected together by a short iron bar, whereas chain shot used a length of chain to achieve the same thing. While this new design was particularly good for tearing through structures or, indeed, rigging, they were of little use in maiming larger quantities of humans, and for this purpose other types of shot had to be devised.

Bombs, or explosive shells, were hollow spheres of iron into which gun powder was poured. A fuse would be inserted and then lit. By ensuring the sphere opposite the hole was slightly heavier the bomb could be encouraged to land upright, helping to avoid extinguishing the fuse. Some bombs were constructed with a short iron lip around the fuse so that it could be grasped with a pair of tongs, allowing it to be easily inserted into the cannon. (Yes, this is exactly the sort of beum encountered by Inspector Clouseau on a daily basis...)

Bombs were well suited to killing soldiers, as were scatter shot projectiles. A canister, into which was loaded small objects, would be fired into the midst of the enemy, where it would break apart and cause widespread injury. Small round shot was a favoured packing, as was grape shot, so called because it came packed in a cloth bag, wrapped around a wooden spindle, the appearance being similar to clustered grapes.

The basic cannon has, of course, long been superseded. In its time, however, the destructive capability of the cannon was considerable, and the importance of such weaponry in a wide range of battles is, as a result, undeniable.


It would seem the British have always been blessed with good cheese. That's not to say the rest of Europe aren't catered for in the cheese department - France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany all have massively distinctive varieties of cheese. Then there's the Dutch varieties, which I used to turn my nose up at, only having experienced what was labelled 'edam' and 'gouda', and which came complete with a mad woman with a flag and a smile that would shame a shark, which somehow projected beyond the waxy coating to illuminate the surroundings with a ghastly, Netherlandish air. I rightly put those words ('edam' and 'gouda', should you forget) between apostrophes for a reason: having tasted something I bought from the supermarket called 'Old Dutch Master' (note respectful apostrophes with capitalisation contained within). I am in a state of near ecstasy over this particular variety of Dutch cheese and can only assume there is better to follow. I conclude that an aged edam is at least as exciting as an aged Cheddar or a toughened-up Lancashire. Emmental, Brie and Rauchkäse: you have nothing to fear from this. Europe is safe, and America should quake.

Today's lament is for American cheese. What went wrong? We browse your supermarket aisles, America, and we find 'sharp cheddar'. Worse still, upon further investigation, 'Vermont cheddar' appears, or 'Colby', 'Longhorn' or 'New York Style'. It's okay - we too have these abominations that do not deserve to be called cheese. They're clearly labelled 'cheezstrings', 'Dairylea' or 'SUPERMARKET OWN BRAND DO NOT TOUCH'. No-one in their right mind dares to touch these things. It would appear, watching Jeremy Kyle, that we make allowances for those with children in tow, and that brings up a different world, with the accompanying irony of the common intimations of 'bringing up'.

Let us clear our palate. Cheddar in the UK isn't always capitalised. In fact, anyone in the UK, or indeed the world, can make cheddar by following the appropriate recipe, which usually involves kneading the curd with salt, cutting and allowing the whey to drain off, then repeating until you have something firm enough to age. Anything which gets to such a stage is usually marketed in the UK as cheddar, although I privately think of it as a 'cheddar-style cheese', which works pretty well for me, anyway. Certainly, any cafeteria or restaurant I've been to which claims to offer a cheddar-based product has always provided something I have taken or mistaken for cheddar. I dread to think what would happen in the US, but here in the UK it seems easy provide something similar to cheddar. (America, it's probably obvious by now that I hate your cheeses. Even Monterey Jack. Sorry.)

For real Cheddar, with the capital and the people who taste it and fashionably faint, by which I mean they actually contact brow with hand and lapse backwards, you have to visit Cheddar country, in the same way that anyone wishing to procure real Champagne would have to visit… well, the nearest supermarket. But relax… your supermarket has reached out to Champagne country for your posh wine, has it not? Well, it's done the same for your Cheddar. Nearly.

Cheddar has no protected designation of origin, and in fact it's only Stilton which has achieved any sort of protected designation of origin in the UK, which means that any bugger with a bit of congealed milk can call it cheddar, and even capitalise it if they wish. The European Union, bless their hearts, are a bit more stringent and will only allow you to label something as 'West Country Farmhouse Cheddar' if it's made in a traditional manner with local ingredients in either Somerset, Dorset, Devon or Cornwall. Join with me and 'whoopee', and then taste many of the bland, pointless, soul-destroyingly tasteless cheddars you can buy across Europe, to say nothing of the massive range available to the UK anti-gourmand.

Here in the UK, I have come to a solution, and that is if you can't find something labelled 'West Country' then avoid anything that says 'mild', 'everyday' or 'mature'. Go for 'extra-mature', and don't be fooled by things like 'young but mature', 'milky and full of taste' or 'magic and with a hint of plastic!'. Hold out for your rights like Jackson Browne, and all will be well. Don't be tempted by Philadelphia, Quark or <shudder> Supermarket Own Brand Slightly Yellow Cheddar. Similarly, don't be swayed by waxy-paper wrappers, sheeny-silk-pink plastic wrappers, rustic-looking paper-that's-actually-plastic trays. Do you really think the best product commands the best package? Use your judgement. Ask to taste. Let them prove it to you… make them prove it to you.

Cheddar… mmm. If you try.

16 February 2010


Draconite is a mythical stone, a gem of some kind, found buried deep within the still-living brain of a dragon. To obtain draconite, the brave hero must cut the gem free whilst the dragon is still alive, or the draconite will be useless, all traces of hardness having ebbed away with the dragon's strength. The time-honoured method of acquiring draconite, therefore, is to render the dragon somehow unconscious. Many stories feature herbs, either magical or otherwise, scattered about close to the beast and ensuring the deepest of slumbers, so deep that even having your skull cracked open and a gem dug out from the centre of your still-pulsing brain does nothing to disturb you. Of course, you could put the dragon to sleep and simply hack off its whole head; probably a more prudent course of action if you want to keep yours.

Draconite is hard; harder than diamond, even. Nothing can ever be carved or engraved into the surface of draconite, we're told, although it appears to be brittle enough to be chipped to form spears and arrows. Of course, in mythologies, such a gemstone was precious beyond words, and described as having magical and beneficial properties.

Pliny describes it as a white gem which drives away all poisonous animals and cures envenomed bites. It crops up in alchemical texts, and in English and Irish writings from the middle ages. There is a slight difference; these stories describe draconite as a mystical black gem, and there's little doubt that the gem being described is actually obsidian - among a range of Irish terms for draconite is the word obsianus, and it features strongly in the story of Mongan's death. Mongan, deserving of it or not, is struck by Arthur with draconite, an act which quickly results in Mongan's demise.

The idea of draconite is not merely part of Western myths, though; Chinese stories are big on dragons and precious stones, be it a pearl beneath the chin or the blue, lined object found in front of the dragon's horns in the Sun Kwang-hien. Finally, current usage of the word draconite, often as part of RPGs, extends to describing creatures which are half-dragon, an unknown metal of extreme hardness, and a stone formed from dragon's blood. It's easy to see how these have their origins in the draconite myth.

14 February 2010


Baccara are a Spanish pop duo, most famous for Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, which reached number one in October 1977. With a penchant for peculiar song titles, including Ay Ay Sailor and Sorry I'm A Lady, the duo stacked up a variety of europop and disco hits before quietly disappearing.

It started back in early 1977. Mayte Matee and Maria Mendiolo were discovered on the Spanish island of Fuerteventura by RCA, where they performed cabaret and flamenco for the tourists. Named after the Baccara Rose their first song, Yes Sir, I Can Boogie reached number one in the UKand became a massive international hit. Followed swiftly by a second single, the hilariously camp Sorry, I'm A Lady, and a self-titled album, Baccara were a hit. Briefly.

Of course, more singles followed: Darling, Ay Ay Sailor, The Devil Sent You To Laredo, and an appearance representing Luxembourg on the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest. But this appearance pretty much marked the peak of their career. They faded swiftly from fame in the UK, though they remained popular in Germany, Scandinavia and Japan for some years. By 1981 their fourth album release, Bad Boys, was largely ignored in most of Europe, and was not even released in the UK.

To further complicate matters, Mayte and Maria decided to split, both releasing solo albums in countries with a strong Baccara fanbase. Furthermore, each group wished to retain the Baccara name and form a new band, leading to the introduction of Baccara (Mayte's version of the group) and New Baccara (Maria's version). New Baccara still exists today, featuring the talents of Maria and new girl Marissa Perez. Their success remains limited.

13 February 2010

Final Destination

On the surface Final Destination appears to be a straightforward teen movie, released in 2000 by James Wong, who will be familiar to some as one of the producers of The X-Files. Indeed, the film bears much in common with a stand-alone episode of The X-Files, and despite the jaded appearance lent to it by the increasingly clichéd 'teen cast' device, the film is worth viewing, particularly if you're a fan of Wong's previous (or indeed, later) works.

Unlike most horror films, there is no personification of the 'evil' within the plot; it's simply a logical consequence of having reached the end of one's lifespan. The basic premise concerns the logistics of death, that there is a time at which each individual is supposed to die; death will, basically, get you in the end. Yet having beaten the pattern once because of Alex's peculiarly gory visions, the cast are left to spend the rest of their lives trying to beat the system one more time. Most of them fail, of course, leading to a series of spectacularly grotesque deaths.

The premise is good, and the philosophical questions it raises are intriguing - superficially, at least. But there is no doubt that the characters are designed to complement each other perfectly: there's the confused male with peculiar powers, the attractive, kooky girl and the dumb high school jock complete with girlfriend-who's-not-prepared-to-put-up-with-much-more. The appearance of Seann W Scott is more unsettling than anything - seeing Stifler from American Pie in a horror film is slightly incongruous. By the end, also, the amazing co-incidences on the part of 'death', while clearly designed to show that fate is pretty difficult to wriggle out of, have become almost unbelievably convenient for the writers.

There are, despite the niggles, some genuinely great moments in the film - at least one death is so unexpected it rivals Samuel L Jackson's moment of shark-devoured glory in Deep Blue Sea. The producers must have spent half the budget on gore, as well; just about every scene is drenched in blood. What would have made it better? Less teen actors and a bit less formula, perhaps: how many mortuary assistants (Ex-Candyman Tony Todd, no less...) do you know who find kids creeping around in the dead of night but take the time out to helpfully explain the logistics of existence? ('You can't cheat death.' - Deus ex machina plot crowbar, anyone?) That said, on the whole Final Destination is a pretty good evening's entertainment. If you're thinking of seeing it, though, do yourself a favour and see Donnie Darko first. It'll make less sense, but ultimately it'll be far more enjoyable. Alternately, the sequel Final Destination II is considered by many to be superior to the first movie, although it maintains its own set of minor flaws.

Cast: Devon Sawa (Idle Hands), Ali Larter (The House on Haunted Hill), Seann W. Scott (American Pie), Kerr Smith (Dawson's Creek), Kristen Cloke, Amanda Detmer, Chad E Donella, Brendan Fehr, Daniel Roebuck, Roger Guenver Smith, Tony Todd (Candyman), Barbara Tyson

Director: James Wong

Screenwriter: Glen Morgan, James Wong from a story by Jeffrey Reddick

12 February 2010

Blue Bell Knoll / Cocteau Twins

Blue Bell Knoll is the sixth album by Cocteau Twins, and was released in 1988. It followed The Moon And The Melodies, a collaboration with minimalist composer Harold Budd, and was followed two years later by Heaven Or Las Vegas.

As is common with Elizabeth Fraser's style of echolalic singing, very little in the way of lyrics are definitely audible as words. The style of the album, short as it is, is relatively cheerful, the band long-ago having abandoned the darker sound of their first album, despite the blackened-looking fingernails of the Blue Bell Knoll cover. In fact, once you're past the title track, the album is very warm and ambient sounding, suffused with joy. The track For Phoebe Still A Baby hints as to why, and Liz's transition into motherhood had a marked effect on the next few albums' sound.

Blue Bell Knoll is also notable for its change in style. Previous Cocteau Twins releases were entirely guitar-based; well, that and the drum machine. Simon Raymonde would get quite agitated in interviews, saying 'The idea is that we are a synth band. We have none. Our only keyboard is a piano, treated'. Nevertheless, Blue Bell Knoll experiments with marimba, xylophone and harpsichord. If it's not a synth, then what is it? (Actually, it's possible it was an actual marimba, xylophone or harpsichord, I guess...)

Seven and twelve-inch singles were released for the tracks Carolyn's Fingers and A Kissed Out Red Floatboat, and promotional videos exist for Carolyn's Fingers and Cico Buff. Later on, singles of Athol-Brose and Iceblink Luck were released to the Japanese market.

Incidentally, there are two meanings to the word 'knoll'. One is a kind of grassy hillock. The other is more closely related to the word knell - a mournful ringing. Part of old English mythology, to hear the bluebell's knoll - that is, to hear them tolling - meant that death was upon you. The sleeve cover of the album, perhaps Carolyn's Fingers, seems dark, maybe even frightening. The title and cover, strangely, seem at odds with the warmth of the music. Another Cocteau Twins mystery to add to the rest...


01 Blue Bell Knoll
02 Athol-Brose
03 Carolyn's Fingers
04 For Phoebe Still A Baby
05 The Itchy Glowbo Blow
06 Cico Buff
07 Suckling The Mender
08 Spooning Good Singing Gum
09 A Kissed Out Red Floatboat
10 Ella Megalast Burls Forever

09 February 2010


Isinglass is a semi-transparent, whitish substance, and is essentially an extremely pure form of gelatin. Initally it was produced by cleaning and drying the air bladders of the sturgeon, although it is now also obtained from cod, hake and other fish. After removal the bladders are cut open, soaked in water and rubbed to remove the outer membrane before being allowed to dry.

Isinglass is extremely useful as a fining agent when beer or winemaking, and will quickly clarify a stubbornly cloudy wine. It also has uses in the manufacture of fish glue, court plaster, stiffening jellies and in the creation of handmade paper. In recent years its use has greatly diminished, however, due to the rise in use of gelatin and other synthetic materials.

The name isinglass is also commonly applied to a gelatinous substance obtained from certain seaweeds, and also to a range of minerals that consist of hydrous silicates of aluminium or potassium. Such minerals crystallise in forms that allow them to split perfectly into very thin leaves. There is considerable variation in composition and colour, which can range from pale brown or yellow to green or black. Transparent forms were of considerable use in lanterns, stove doors and so on, though their use has long since been replaced by artificial alternatives.

07 February 2010

Why Did We Call Them Sperm Whales?

You probably know that spermaceti is a waxy substance which is contained within the skull of the sperm whale, and sadly often obtained from the same. It's white, and a large whale contains up to three tons of the stuff. If you can make it through to chapter seventy-eight of Moby Dick you'll become an expert in how it was extracted, and probably won't envy Tashtego falling into the depths of a whale's head whilst using a bucket to get out all the good stuff.

So, here we have a thick white, gloopy substance. And what might that remind you of, particularly if you're a sailor who's been at sea for a month and you've just thrown one over your thumb earlier that morning? And it all becomes clear: one sperm whale, containing up to three tons of spunk.

And so, we must ask - is there not a better name for the poor thing than Sperm Whale? Well, how about cachalot, the original Spanish and Portugese name for this poor, mis-titled creature. Mind you, cachalot still means 'big head', so it's not that much of an improvement... particularly when you consider the Dutch potvis, or the German pottwal, both of which reference the large head, sticking out like a pan or pot. At least they're descriptive, I suppose.
"Now, had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale."

05 February 2010


The macaw is the common name for a group of birds in the parrot family. They are brightly coloured, with long tail feathers and strong, curved beaks. The majority of these beautiful birds are found in the American Tropics, though most species are classed as endangered.

Deforestation, coupled with the relatively slow reproduction rate of the macaw, is the main cause of the problem. Macaws like to nest high up in dead trees, gnawing an appropriately-sized hole in which to lay the egg. As well as being high up, macaws are keen to retain a considerable distance between them and another nesting pair. Thus the increased removal of dead trees has caused increased competition between macaws. With many of the higher nesting sites gone, nesting pairs are forced to roost lower down, leaving their babies vulnerable to a range of predators. The loss of one baby macaw really does have a profound effect on the viability of the species. Seventeen living species remain; several West Indian varieties are now extinct, and the only species which enjoy a reasonably secure population are the Blue and Gold Macaw.

The Blue and Gold Macaw, along with the Red-Shouldered Macaw, are commonly seen in pet shops and zoos. The majority of these are legally exported from South America to other parts of the world, though there is also a number of illegal exports. Macaws are a colourful, exotic and endlessly intriguing pet, but they are large, loud and demanding. As a relatively intelligent animal, a macaw will need attention and toys to keep them busy. Their strong beaks are designed for chewing, and this activity is something a macaw will gleefully engage in, blissfully unconcerned about whether it's busy carving an antique chair or an old log. In short - if you want to keep a macaw, know what you're getting into.

The lifespan of a macaw is anything up to a hundred years, although about 50 to 65 years is more common. Bear in mind that macaws are monogamous and mate for life. A solitary macaw will bind primarily with their keeper, and are extremely demanding of attention. Not, in other words, the ideal pet unless you know exactly what you're doing and have read far more than this short introductory article.

02 February 2010

Radio Times

The Radio Times (casually, if alarmingly, subtitled 'The Offical Organ Of The BBC'), first published on the 28th of September, 1923 was the BBC's own radio and television listings magazine. Until 1955 it enjoyed a hallowed status as the only listings magazine, ultimately due to the fact that independent television did not exist in the UK. Even when Associated Rediffusion and ATV arrived on the seen it was immediately established that each channel produce its own listings magazine. The BBC stuck with its own two channels, staunchly against the independents' publication: TV Times. Alternately, the daily newspapers also carried the television listings, but only a day at a time; the big advantage of the TV and Radio Times was being able to view the whole week.

We are familiar, nowadays, with a range of television magazines, each holding a week or more of listings. Even the newspapers come with their own seven-day listings. This change came about, for the Radio Times, in March of 1991, when it began to list the other commercial channels alongside its own offerings; undoubtedly a survival-based move in what was becoming an increasingly competitive market.

Radio Times is nevertheless a continuing success, containing listings for terrestrial channels, satellite (or cable) and radio, relying on its reputation and quality to maintain a healthy readership. It reached its four thousandth issue in 2002 and continues to offer seven day's worth of forward planning for the eager telly addict.

01 February 2010

The Idiots / Idioterne - Lars Von Trier

The Idiots (also known as Idioterne) is a film by Lars von Trier; a rather peculiar film by all accounts. Certainly it's far removed from popular Hollywood fare, not only because of its subject matter but also because of its adherence to the Dogme 95 rules. Dogme 95 is a controversial manifesto concerning the production of films, limiting film-makers to shooting only on location, recording only those sounds found on-set and using only handheld cameras, amongst other things. The full manifesto can be read at www.dogme95.dk, which makes extensive use of The Idiots for examples of appropriate Dogme 95 practice.

The plot is simple: a group of young people come together with the aim of exploring idiocy. To achieve this aim they spend time in 'normal' society behaving as one might expect an idiot to behave. Drooling, unprovoked outbursts, wanton sexual behaviour - all these are demonstrated by the actors, unleashed on an innocent society which, by all accounts, copes as one might expect. Diners in a restaurant, in the opening scenes of the film, are clearly uncomfortable as they observe what appears to be two mentally retarded individuals being taken out for lunch. The reaction of the other diners is a familiar one, whether through our own observations of others, our own treatment at the hands of others, or even our own attitudes towards those around us.

It is here that the controversy of Idioterne strikes. Some may not wish to watch people pretending to be idiots, finding the provocative message too disturbing, perhaps, or merely too foolish for consideration. Perhaps we know people who cannot help but display such behaviour, and feel offended on their behalf. Perhaps we cannot understand why one would wish to indulge in such behaviour: is it merely an extended practical joke, only slightly above wanton vandalism when it comes to being a mature, upstanding member of society? Perhaps, strangest of all, we're drawn towards such indulgences - we've all made public spectacles of ourselves at one time or another, surely. And sometimes, the sensation of guilty pleasure is overwhelmingly good.

Karen, the main character in the film, is a mixture of all three reactions. Initially angered by the group, she is gently drawn into their world, and as the course of the film allows their small, indulgent society to slowly break apart, Karen is the only one who can prove her commitment to the cause. A display of idiocy before her family brings the film to a close with a strange sense of triumph.

The Idiots was released in 1998 by Lars von Trier. Rated R in the USA for strong sexuality and nudity, the film was banned in several countries, and cut heavily for other releases. At 110 minutes, The Idiots is a pleasantly disquieting way to spend a couple of hours, though its joyful depiction of the idiots in question will do little to secure your happiness in society.