Friday, December 26, 2003

Hungry Like Ms Wolf

I see in my Sunday Times that well-known feminist Naomi Wolf has a longish article discussing/celebrating the 21st century's new generation of American Jews, who are so much more comfortable with their culture than their predecessors, such as Ms Wolf herself, were.

The article is replete with everything we associate with Ms Wolf: it's overly-earnest, humour-free (Naomi is aware of humour, and tries (earnestly, of course) to pin it down but the little rascal keeps seeming to escape her formaldehyde jar) and, like so much of Ms Wolf's opera, the piece is a long dissertation about a very short observation of dubious import.

In a fellow spirit of earnest scholarship, I'd like to propose a four point GET OVER plan for Ms Wolf to deal with the many traumas that seem to assail her as she fights her way through life. Firstly, get over being a woman; you were born that way, you're unlikely to change now, 'twasn't your fault and nobody is blaming you. Secondly, get over being Jewish; the Jewish faith is one that never prosyletises, and, in a world whose history is bloody with wars fought over religion, that's a hell of a lot to be proud of. Thirdly, get over your sense-of-humour bypass, and fourthly, why don't you get over here and make An Spailpín a nice cup of tea.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

A Seasonal Thought

As the Old Man begins his day long sleigh ride to all the good little kiddies in the world, it seems utterly apposite to share the love by introducing a little science into things, thanks to something that was published, in the seventies I believe, and posted on another site in cyberspace. Happy Holidays.

1) No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not completely rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2) There are approximately 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't appear to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total 378 million according to the Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes that there is at least one good child in each.

3) Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/lOOOth of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75 and 1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding, etc.

This means that Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second and a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4) The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium sized Lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point # 1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, the job couldn't be done with eight or even nine. We would need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload not even counting the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison, this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship.

5) 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as a spacecraft re entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them and creating deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandth of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion: If Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he's dead now.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2003

The Thady of Shalott

With sincerest and heart-felt apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The Thady of Shalott

On either side of the slash-hook lie
The cleavèd heads of passers-by,
Who didn’t know they had to die,
For you need permission to apply
To pass the site ‘round Camelot.
The penitent man must advance and kneel
Amidst the cans and orange peel,
And humbly present his sad appeal
To the Thady of Shalott.

The smell of cider pervades the air
And fills the nostrils of all who go there;
The boys are all just back from the tear
With hangovers worse than man can bear
When they return to Camelot.
But no-one’s left to walk on a grave
Or in any other way behave
To make him think you a fool or a knave,
The Thady of Shalott.

The boys arrive at twenty to two,
The dole collected and nothing to do,
Except cider to drink and grass to chew,
As rough a bunch as stood in a shoe,
Assembled outside of Camelot.
Then he arrived on a piebald ass,
Bearing his seal, a ring of pure brass,
And he called on his legion to arise, amass!
The Thady of Shalott.

Their brows all blackened a terrible frown
When they heard what had gone on in town,
And they’d have satisfaction before the sun went down.
The buffers would remember from all parts aroun’
That crazy crew of Camelot.
He’d gone to a bar and called for a drink
The guards were called and threatened the clink;
He had to retreat and all the way home did think,
The Thady of Shalott.

The crowbars were massed and carefully sent;
The cudgels and hurleys, with nails in them bent;
The bushman saws that make such a rent;
And the slash-hooks, those weapons of fearsome intent,
Distributed all through Camelot.
Then, making the sound of a thousand tin cans,
Like the last of the wrenboys with the last of the wrens,
With their master, commander, in the first of the vans,
The Thady of Shalott.

The first man met they cracked open his head,
The second months lingered on his sick bed;
The third took one look and then fled;
The fourth ran on to warn up ahead;
Of the van of vans from Camelot.
He split to the left, and he split to right;
The screams of the battle wailed on through the night;
He’d had enough parlay, he was here to fight,
The Thady of Shalott.

It took the guards from counties four,
In a fight that lasted six days or more,
Where the bodies maimed made up three score,
To haul them away and haul them ashore,
Back to their berth in Camelot.
They passed round the flagon and spoke of the battle
How the buffers they ran as if they were cattle;
Stranger, if you see him, be sure to skedattle,
From the Thady of Shalott.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

When is a Scandal Not a Scandal?

This morning's main news, concerning An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's alleged writing of an alleged letter to delay some sort of work on an alleged quarry in the alleged county Roscommon is an interesting indication of just how rotten the Irish political system is. We don't even know what a scandal is anymore.

On the face of it, an elected TD, even if he's only an opposition back-bencher, isn't meant to be sticking his snout into planning matters, the decisions of which are meant to be autonomous. However, the reality is that the chief thing we as a nation seek in a politican is someone who's sufficiently thick to have nothing better to do with his time that write letters to the Department of Social Welfare demanding a toothpaste allowance for a man with no teeth, or else bollock the head of some misfortuntate in the County Council who interprets the law (which in theory has been legislated by our bellowing friend on the end of the phone) as saying that a farmer that wants to build a pigsty modelled on the castle that was on the start credits to the Wonderful World of Disney is out of bloody luck.

We elect them to write letters and then profess to be shocked when they do? We deserve all we get.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


It's heartening, even for a flinty-hearted Spailpín such as myself, to see the success that Lynne Truss is enjoying with Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Even though I found the tone a little twee, it's rather thrilling to see a book of rules about punctuation leaping off the shelves. Nice to know that there are standards left.

Interesting also to see the effect that here book is having already: only yesterday, An Spailpín was checking the news headlines on the text service on his television, and I discovered a semi-colon nestling happily in a land where previously only the hardy hyphen dared bloom. And it's nice to see that Lynne Truss is a woman that deserves her day in the sun; she wrote a very lovely piece about being being a woman in the men's world of sports reporting in Secrets of the Press: The Penguin Book of Journalism some years ago, and there's an equally lovely profile of her in today's Daily Telegraph. Lynne Truss is a woman that loves the Uniball Pen - is there a greater sign of taste and character?

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Keep Your Mercedes-Benz - I Only Travel by Pram

Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians that when he was a child he thought as a child, he spake as a child, he understood as a child; but, when he became a man he put away childish things. If the good doctor were to return today, he would be a very unhappy man.

The infantilisation of society continues apace, with the result of the BBC's nine-month search to find the best book ever written throwing up (and I choose my words carefully) The Lord of the Rings. This is staggering - that a society of adults, after what we presume years of reading, learning and maturing, still returns a book that is written for children. And I'm not the only one staggered - Zoe Williams gives the Big Read a good shoeing in today's Guardian.

It is voguish at the moment to praise children's literature. An Spailpín can make no claim for authority in that field, but surely to God one of the definitions of a children's book is that it's aimed at the mind of children, that it operates at a child's level of understanding. If it's any more complex than this, then the child doesn't get it and the book isn't read.

All very well, but what if you're old enough to shave or (and/or, considering the way our society seems to be going) wear make-up, your brain should surely demand greater stimulation that what rang your childhood bell. As a child, I considered Battlestar Galactica to be the finest program on television. I saw the pilot again a few months ago, and I was forced to review my opinion. I have also discovered that stout is superior to fizzy orange, that children should indeed be seen and not heard, and, the greatest revolution in my childish world of all, Girls are People Too.

I like to think that my reading tastes have matured also. But what I don't understand is how, after people are grown to adulthood, they can find a book like The Lord of the Rings stimulating. In fact, I am rather surprised that children find its thousand plus pages stimulating.

The book itself commits the sin that no Work of Art can be allowed get away it - it's painfully, wretchedly, eye-wateringly, stength-to-live sappingly boring. Tolkien himself described it as "a tale that grew in the telling"; is there a better definition of bad writing than a tale that grows in the telling? It was either Steinbeck or Faulkner that said a good writer must "murder his babies"; what he meant was that a writer must go back over what he or she has written, and cut the thing to ribbons until all that's left is on the money. This is something that Tolkien manifestly fails to do in Lord of the Rings.

I call as the first witness for the prosecution, Tom Bombadil, the Ned Flanders of Middle-Earth. Come in Tom, sit down, take a load off. How can any writer, once the effects of last night's fun wore off, read Tom Bombadil and not tear up the pages in burning shame? Tom did not make the movie, currently running forever at a cinema near you, and I haven't heard one peep of complaint from the Tolkenistas. Something tells me that they too know that old Tommy is a bit of an ass, but they're too chicken to admit it.

And as you go through the book, you wade through page after page of turgid prose to look back over 1000 pages to see - nothing. There is nothing memorable in those thousand pages whatsoever. We remember Behometh the Cat from The Master and Margarita; Remedios the Beauty from One Hundred Years of Solitude; Cathy, the monster born to human parents in East of Eden; Marlowe, the man in the mean streets who is not himself afraid in anything by Chandler, but in Lord of the Rings we can see nothing. And this is the greatest book of all time?

Pass the Liga.

Monday, December 15, 2003


Nothing so terrorises film critics than when an auteur director makes a popular, or shall we more accurately say populist, picture. When the auteur sticks religiously to the idea of Cinema-with-a-Capital-C the critical fraternity are at one; another triumph of thoughtful cinema filled with arresting images from one of the major talents of our day, irrespective of how mind-numbingly dull and unspeakably boring the film may be. When the auteur makes a movie though, a movie that people will hand over hard-earned gelt to see, the Emperor has no clothes defence will no longer wash. The pretence that the critic has a greater sensibility to the masses falls when the masses are addressed by the picture, and thus we understand how critics scattered for cover this summer when Ang Lee’s Hulk was released.

There were no reviews lauding Hulk, nor were there any condemning the film. It was just there, impossible to ignore, rather like the protagonist’s own green self. I believe it performed adequately at the box office, in that it wasn’t an unmitigated stinker like the Charlie’s Angels or Matrix sequels, but neither was it a runaway success like Independence Day was all those years ago. It was just there.

An Spailpín finally caught up with Hulk courtesy of his local video library, and has come to this conclusion: Hulk is a very fine comic book film indeed, and is a worthy addition to the pantheon of comic book adaptations, up their with the great ones like Tim Burton’s Batman and the first X-Men movie, and well away from the basement, such as Joel Schumacher’s Batman and the second X-Men movie.

In choosing his source material, Ang Lee looked past the seventies TV series and to the original Incredible Hulk comics themselves. This was a brave move to begin with, as it was through the TV series that most people came to know the Hulk in the first place. Instead, Lee instructed his CGI designers to make the Hulk look more like his comic self, and less like Lou Ferrengo.

The comic’s influence is manifest throughout the picture, most marvellously in the cuts from scene to scene. Lee uses split screens and all the tricks of his trade to replicate the look of a comic strip in the movie, and it works tremendously well. The casting is good also – even a giant of the method such as Hoffman or Day Lewis would be hard to put to replicate a situation where the hero grows to twenty feet tall and turns green whenever he’s in a bit of a snit; as such, the best thing to do is to go with caricatures and take it from there. All Eric Bana has to do is look troubled, and this he does with aplomb, not least in the marvellous line, “what worries me most is, when the rage comes on me, I like it.” A great line for this movie. Jennifer Connolly must simply look equally concerned and beautiful, which is no hardship to her, and the great and legendary Sam Elliot is unable to put a foot wrong on any occasion, even in a role as thankless as his in We Were Warriors, with Mel Gibson. Even Nick Nolte hams it up like a man that comes from the Planet Egg.

The CGI graphics are very well done, sufficiently arresting of belief to stop us from asking the age old question: if the Hulk gets so massive, how come all his clothes are shredded par those necessary to preserve modesty? Far better than in Sam Rami’s Spiderman, for instance, where the CGI business was the only disappointment in an otherwise admirable adaptation.

Finally, the debt the movie owes to Bill Bixby and the original TV series is not entirely forgotten – there is one line in the movie that will have devotees grinning with the happiness one enjoys when one meets an old friend, and where’s the harm in spreading the joy?

Always on my Mind

Radio DJs, or 99% of them, are the most despicable shills for the music industry. There are some exceptions, but in the main the man on the radio who answers to Rick invariably declares the next release from the next plastic packet of talentless pop pap the best thing since, well, the last release from the last plastic packet of talentless pop pap, irrespective of how plastic the pap actually is.

There was one exception to this that always sticks in An Spailpín’s mind, as I have never been able to come to terms with it. When The Pet Shop Boys released their version of Always on my Mind, DJs always seemed to add the caveat that they themselves didn’t like it. It was either out of loyalty to the Willie Nelson original, or else a sort of loyalty to the Pogue’s Fairytale of New York, which was famously denied the Christmas Number One spot by Always on my Mind.

The loyalty to Willie is understandable, if not quite believable. Think back to the last time you heard Willie Nelson on the radio if you don’t believe me. That’s right, and you won’t hear him either, until the old man joins Johnny in that big honky-tonk in the sky. The loyalty to the Pogues is a sad joke. The most mentions that the Pogues ever got on mainstream radio was either for their exemplary levels of alcoholism or for the state of Shane McGowan’s teeth. The fact that Shane McGowan could write a song as beautiful as Rainy Night in Soho, which contains one of the greatest lines ever written in a pop song, “you’re the measure of my dreams,” mattered not a whit to the DJ-ing fraternity.

And yet they hated the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always on my Mind. I never understood it at the time, but then I was in the ideal demographic for plastic packets of talentless pop pap then – at home, in my teens, doing yards of homework and listening to the radio. So when I heard the Pet Shop Boys’ Always on my Mind in a grocery store last night, I stood listening to it, to see if I had bought a pup by liking it at the time.

No, I had not. Always on my Mind by the Pet Shop Boys is one of the great pop songs of all time, it deserved to be Christmas Number One and it will still be played wherever the Eighties are remembered. The comparison to the Willie Nelson original is spurious – when Willie sang Always on my Mind, it was an old man’s song of loss; neither loss nor old men are welcome in pop music. The only reason I can figure for the Pet Shop Boys’ decision to cover the song in the first place is that the rising notes of the Always on my Mind line fitted into the soundscape of the production that they were creating at the time. They could have used a lyric from a phonebook for all the import that the lyric made to the song.

What makes the Pet Shop Boys’ Always great is the terrific electro-pop opera-fabuloso values of the production. As with Britney’s Baby One More Time you’re hooked after the first few chords, and on pretty much the same principles – Boom, boom-boom-boom-boom. The remaining three minutes of Always and Baby are just a question of rounding up the usual suspects, as the song has already won the day. The Pet Shop Boys created a fabulous electro-gothic atmosphere of heightened sensibility for the three minutes of Always that they hinted at in West End Girls, and often tried to emulate afterwards, not least in their nineties comeback attempt Go West. But it was only in Always that they reached the heights they have striven for, and to deny the Pet Shop Boys their three minutes of popular music glory is churlish and misguided at best.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

What's in a Name?

The Buffalo Sabres ice hockey team have a player who glories in the name of Miroslav Satan. Jesus - you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him, would you?