Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Eve.

My favourite day of every year is Christmas Eve.  My family has some really good traditions for the day: my dad and I do some cooking to prepare for the feast on Christmas Day, go out to a nice dinner, head over to my best friends' parents' house to spend time with them, and then either go to midnight mass or drive around looking at lights or sometimes both.  It's got a nice routine to it.  There's mountains, sometimes there's snow, and good friends and my parents... 

Unfortunately this year, I am spending Christmas Eve sitting alone in a hotel room in Prince Frederick, Maryland, listening to John Denver songs and reading the stupid Christmas stories on denverpost.com, after spending all day trying to keep my mother's family from imploding on itself.  I'm thousands of miles away from Colorado, and thousands of miles away from my home.  

Luckily I've got high hopes for Christmas Eve, 2011.


Sunday, 12 December 2010

When life gives you lemons in the form of made-for-TV Lifetime movies about marriage proposals, you have to make gender-stereotype lemonade

Sometimes you have to take one for the team, and apparently that's what I'm doing tonight, because my mother wanted me to watch the Lucy Liu Lifetime vehicle "Marry Me" with her, and so here I am.  Yes, this is what it has come to: I am watching a made-for-TV movie about how much every girl wants to get married.

So... pretty much my feminist nightmare incarnate.

1. The overriding one: the meaning of every woman's life is to get married.  Not to be married, but to GET married. 
1a. BABIES BABIES BABIES BABIES BABIES BABIES BABIES BABIES
2. And its necessary corollary: the meaning of  man's life is the opposite.  

... I've actually pretty much summed up the movie.

However:
3. "Men have something to teach us: you don't have to have emotions for everything."  MEN ARE ROBOTS WOMEN ARE DELICATE FLOWERS.
4. If the man is rich, that makes up for a MULTITUDE of sins.  
5. Women should withhold sex until they receive jewelry.
6. Even if you come from a broken home, you still believe in the traditional heteronormative suburban family American Dream.
7. Nice guys always finish last, because they are kind of losers.  Women find it much more romantic to be insulted a lot by sleazy dudes than to be treated well by someone who isn't portrayed as an "alpha dog".
8. You can know someone is "the one" either by seeing them for the first time or within the first few minutes of meeting them.  Learning about someone's personality can come LATER.
9. "Boring men are reliable.  Romantic men cheat."  Also: all men except our hero need to be given ultimatums in order to give out proposals.
10. Calling a man while he is on a business trip is similar to telling him that your biological clock is ticking.
11. If a woman says "I love you first" it is the worst tactical error OF ALL TIME and all your friends will scream in horror if the witness it.  EVEN TEENAGE GIRLS KNOW THIS.  Actually I think teenage girls are the only ones who are supposed to "know" this.
12. All babies are delivered in hospitals where the walls alternate pink and blue.  If I'm ever in labor, and someone takes me to a hospital to have the baby, and the walls look like that gendered NIGHTMARE, I will go outside and have the baby in a fucking taxi.

OK END PART 1.  No, really, this movie is To Be Continued.

Can I just add that the viewer is supposed to sympathize with the heroine when she breaks up with a guy because he takes her out for a dinner where she expects to be proposed to and instead he tells her that he just got a major grant to take photographs of frogs around the world?  And then everyone makes fun of him for being "frog guy".  I feel like I'm actually kind of "frog guy" in real life and that there's a very real chance I could be dumped for being "tephra girl" so I was really identifying with him.

A side discussion led me to do some internet research on being left at the altar.  I maintained that this could never happen as often as it seems to in the movies, where its prevalence as a deux ex machina must be statistically out of hand.  The resulting internet search revealed that only women are left at the altar, only men end engagements, and women are always blindsided by it.  I'm not sure what to make of this but it is an interesting note.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

These birds are ANGRY

I've recently become obsessed with playing Angry Birds, which I realize makes me pretty late to the game, but I can't be on top of trends about everything (or very much at all, really).

Initially the game was mindless fun, but rapidly its details began to disturb me.

If you've never played it, the premise of the game is this, told in a series of flashbacks at the start: some nasty pigs have stolen the eggs of their kindly, nuclear-family oriented (and one may presume solidly middle-class and heterosexual) red bird neighbours and so the birds begin to wage a war against the pigs.  It is not clear, from the original flashback, whether the ultimate goal of the war is the return of the stolen eggs or a more Greek-tragedy cry for revenge following the eggs' destruction.

The pigs, as is their fairytale wont, are inveterate house-builders, choosing to construct elaborate henge-like structures whose complexity increases as the war continues.  However, these are not your grandwolf's piggies: they employ glass, stone, brick, and wood.  There's no straw in sight.  Furthermore, the pigs are social creatures rather than eccentric loners who only turn to their siblings when they are literally homeless.  These pigs cluster together inside of their houses, peeking out of the windows so that they appear from the perspective of the player (and by extension the birds) as disembodied, chortling heads.  Their defensive strategy calls for no surrender, and as such they remain undisputed champions unless all of them are dead.

The birds, meanwhile, take up position at a location some distance (it is unclear how this is determined or who in the birds' chain of command determines it) from each Pig House and erect a slingshot.  They then climb, one by one, into the sling and launch themselves at the Pig House.  Their goal is to kill every pig inside.  For the birds, this is a one way trip: the launch of the sling marks their final flight, for they are inevitably killed in the violence of their attack.

The first hint that something inside of the Angry Birds world was very, very wrong came when I played the game in a silent room with the media volume turned up.  As soon as each level began, I realized that the birds were chirping with a sinister intensity as they awaited their turn in the slingshot.  Glancing away from the field of battle (the Pig's House) towards them, I saw that they were arrayed along the ground behind the slingshot, hopping up and down and chittering in an almost-orgiastic frenzy as a solitary bird -- presumably closely related to those on the ground, as a husband, wife, neighbour, friend... -- hopped into the slingshot and readied him/herself for the drawback, precise arc of last flight, and demise upon the broken remains of the Pig's House.

At first, I didn't begrudge the birds' their suicidal frenzy.  Historical precedent from similar types of soldiers (think: Viking berserkers) suggests that, prior to entering battle, they must have taken some form of mind-altering substance, perhaps due to their own desires or perhaps on the orders of a higher ranking official.  Tripping out of their tiny bird minds, terrified of their impending doom, they express themselves as best they can with a series of hops and chirps that may be societally coded.  We, the human player, cannot fathom these without being culturally embedded in the world of the bird -- and the game's entry level is low enough that we are allowed a glimpse into the warfare practices of this society without having to learn the language.  So while it disturbed me, I put it aside for several levels, thinking it was a cultural misunderstanding.

The level where it became impossible to ignore the birds' agitated clamouring for blood was when the original red birds -- the wronged parties whose eggs were allegedly stolen by the pigs -- were joined at the slingshot by smaller blue birds.  To say that this development disturbed me is to understate the case.  The introduction of the blue bird allies was jarring and their bloodlust, if anything, appeared even more frenzied than that of their red bird counterparts.  The sight of their tiny bodies -- only a few pixels in size -- gyrating in motions of simulated and overtly sexual acts of violence -- began to sicken me, as the true nature of the birds' campaign against the pigs began to reveal itself.

Why would the blue birds, who in a normal social order are prey species of the red birds, join in if the goal of the war was to rescue the red birds' eggs?  Successfully hatched red birds' eggs result in dead blue birds.  The carefully constructed narrative -- complete with its propagandic documentary -- began to crumble.  If the blue birds were there to help the red birds, then the eggs of the red birds must be dead, and the war is not a rescue mission at all...

The next obvious conclusion is that the red birds know that their eggs are dead.  Biologically, if the campaign goes on longer than a few hours, this must be true -- the eggs will have grown cold.

The passage of time is unclear in the game.  It is difficult to tell whether the attacks against the pigs' houses are simultaneous or taking place over time.  Given the fact that all parties involved are dead at the conclusion of each level, there is no reason to believe that the attacks are not simultaneous; however, the pigs seem to have some notion that time is passing and of the tragedy of their fellows' deaths, for, as mentioned above, their houses become more and more elaborately defensive as the war goes on.

The increasingly desperate defensive erections of the pigs brings us to another disturbing point, and that is the nature of the birds' enemy, the pigs.  In the flashback, a single pig family is depicted as having stolen the birds' eggs and yet the war seems to be a genocidal one, with the birds not resting until all the pigs are dead and their houses destroyed.  In fact, this may explain the presence of the blue birds -- they may be a slave species, pressed into service at the hands of the red birds in order to ensure the total destruction of the pig race.  The red birds may even be holding the eggs of the blue birds hostage.

And even if the pigs as a race have a long history of egg stealing, why would the red birds leave their eggs in plain sight of the pig territory in the farmyard?  Why wouldn't the red birds make an effort to incubate and raise their offspring in a safe, pig-free environment?  Unless... those initial eggs were somehow bait for the pigs, placed there deliberately by the red birds so that they would be stolen... and would provide a convenient excuse for war?

Monday, 8 November 2010

Anderson-Hale Expedition to Southeast Utah/Southwestern Colorado Part II

As mentioned in the last post, blogspot got upset with me about the quantity of photos that I was posting from our trip so I had to split this into two parts.  Then I got distracted by various things and so the second half of that story hasn't been written until now.

Upon turning off down the road towards the Henry Mountains, we drove up a narrow dirt road through various ecozones.  Ascending in elevation, we passed through the desert floor, up into a more vegetated but still sandstone and red-dirt based level, and then gradually up into the pine trees and aspen groves of the mountains.  It was mid-autumn and the aspens were incredible.  The road was covered in a thick carpet of yellow aspen leaves and as we watched, the wind rattled the branches and the falling leaves gave the impression that it was snowing fat, yellow flakes.  The road continued to narrow and N took us up it expertly until we broke through the trees.  We stopped in a high meadow and turned to look out across the landscape.  There was a freezing wind, and above us, the peaks of the mountains were snowcapped, but below us there was the red of the desert floor, and the dry canyons we'd just come from, and far in the distance, the snow-capped La Sals (which we initially thought might have been the higher San Juans, in Colorado, but in retrospect they were much too far away).

From there, we turned and drove out of the mountains and back into the desert, to see Lake Powell.  Lake Powell is part of the enormous Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and it was a very strange sight to see.  I had never been there, had only read about the flooding of the natural sandstone canyons when the Colorado was dammed in the 1960s to create reservoirs to feed water-hungry cities in Arizona, Nevada, and California, and to see a lake in the middle of the desert was very strange.  Moreover, the lake is ENORMOUS!  I can't even express how big it was -- and how strange it looked. Unlike it's downstream partner, Lake Mead, Lake Powell does not seem to have gone down very much in the past few years of drought, but there are still areas where it is clear that the lake has shrunk from a previous high level.  The strangest part of it was the presence of green water reeds clustered down along the shoreline -- these do not look right in the red sandstone canyons.  Edward Abbey mourned the loss of the unexplored canyons that were flooded to create this thing in Desert Solitaire, which I read several years ago, but I didn't fully understand what was lost until I saw it.  Just the thought of all the archaeology submerged below its surface...

We stared out at the lake from clifftops for a while, and then had a look at where the river flows into it, and talked about all these things, and then started to drive back towards Denver in earnest.  We were many hours away and had a lot of ground to cover.  We skirted around Canyonlands National Park and then turned towards the La Sal Mountains and on towards the Colorado border.  N chose a route for us that would take us on a road we'd never taken before -- hard to do between the two of us in Colorado, but he managed it.

We drove along the path of the Dolores River.  I once camped for a week along this river on the Colorado/Utah border, but had never followed it closer to its source in the San Miguel Mountains (near Mt Wilson).  This took us through Paradox Valley, so named due to the fact that, paradoxically, the Dolores flows across it rather than down its length.  The area is sparsely populated but beautiful.  Following that we moved back into the red sandstone of the Dolores River Valley, and travelled through a very wild, uninhabited region.  We passed the "Hanging Flume", a relic of an engineering feat from the age of mining, whose signpost proclaimed that it was just as endangered as the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal (complete with pictures comparing the three) (here's a picture of the Hanging Flume from flickr, for your comparison purposes: http://www.flickr.com/photos/80651083@N00/172358020/). 

From there we carried on, away from the desert and up into the snowy Rockies, then down again to Denver.  The most notable happening of our final portion of the trip was when we turned on the radio as we neared Grand Junction with the hopes of hearing the score of the Broncos game... and heard that the score was 38-0 in the first half... before hearing that the Broncos were the 0 side of that equation.  N's jaw was literally hanging open for a few minutes after that.  Luckily he managed to pull it together and we made it back home without further incident. 

And thus endeth the account of the Third Anderson-Hale Expedition to Southeast Utah/Southwestern Colorado in the year of Our Lord 2010.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A trip to the wilds of southeastern Utah/southwestern Colorado

N and I went on a road trip this past weekend, leaving from Denver on Friday morning and heading across Colorado and into Utah.  After driving for many hours, we stopped at some slot canyons south of the town of Green River, Utah, and went for a short hike.

Apologies for low-quality pictures, I forgot my camera and had to use my mobile!

The landscape here looks tortured from the air, the product of many many years of water winding its way through the desert:

View Larger Map

Looking towards the Henry Mountains from south of Green River, Utah
That night we ate in a small bar in Green River and watched the Rangers finish off the Yankees in the ALCS.  There was not a lot of Yankees support amongst the patrons or bartenders.


The next morning we went to another series of slot canyons for more hiking.  This notice was posted at the trailhead:
Poor Grumpy.
During this hike, we were near to the slot canyon where Aron Ralston had his fateful adventure in 2003.

The wide part of the wash, leading back towards a series of slot canyons.
Slot canyons are narrow (sometimes very narrow!) canyons formed from water running through soft sandstone.  The sandstone can be exceedingly beautiful, and is often shaped into fabulous curves and waves by centures of rushing water. 
Colors on wet sandstone.
Sandstone also changes dramatically when wet; we had the (good?  bad?) fortune to be visiting during an exceedingly wet weekend, and the rain makes the sandstone look darker and redder.  It also makes it more crumbly and sand-like to the touch.
Fun sandstone formations.
Some of those slot canyons are very narrow and in a few instances we had to climb up over obstacles or inch our way along the sides ("stemming" as it is known).

N provides some scale to a slot canyon.  If he was a bit skinnier, this picture would work better.
Due to the rain I mentioned above, the slot canyons were wet and somewhat dangerous places to be.  If a storm had come up when we were in them, we would have had to climb to safety because of the risk of flash flooding.  Luckily that never happened but we did come upon a blocked passage full of icy water and had to turn around. 
Water blocks our way!
This did not prevent us from greatly enjoying our hike though!
Obligatory slot canyon portrait.
Our next stop was Horseshoe Canyon, which is part of Canyonlands National Park.


View Larger Map

Our hike here took us down into the canyon, about 750ft below the desert, following an old mining road.  The valley itself had high sandstone walls and a small creek running through it, with cottonwoods lining the creek edges.  There was clear evidence of recent flash flooding.  The walls of the canyon have several panels of rock art along them, which you can read about here

One panel, high up on a sandstone wall.
It seems likely that the rock art dates from 500 BC - AD 1, and the dating evidence rests on motifs  in the designs and radiocarbon dating (as detailed in that pdf above).

The canyon was stunning.
Walking through the canyon, it was easy to get a sense of the prehistoric landscape and the people who had come before. 
N provides scale to an alcove.

Rock art panel.

"Great Gallery" of rock art.
The rock art here is characterized by armless, anthropomorphic figures with dead looking eyes and smaller human and animal figures. 
Close up on one portion of "Great Gallery".
The creek in the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon.

Exit of the canyon, with the rocks rising like citadels.
Just as we neared the end of the hike, having emerged out of the canyon and approaching the cars, we came upon the smallest rattlesnake I've ever seen.  He was so small that he could barely rattle.  He was sitting in the middle of the path and was positively terrified of us, trying to twitch his tail as fast as he could.  We warned the people behind us and left the poor little guy alone. 
A tiny cactus, found near to a tiny rattlesnake.

After our hike, we returned along the washboarded, muddy road back to the highway, chased by a massive lightning and rain storm.  The skies were dramatic:
Storm approaching as we finished our hike.

Map of our hike.
The skies were really indescribable:

N takes a picture of the coming storm.
That night we ate in tiny Hanksville, UT, which is a town with not a whole lot going on.  I ordered a milkshake I'd been fantasizing about all day and it did not disappoint.  Afterwards, we drove down a random desert road, trying to catch the Giants/Phillies game on a wavering and fading AM radio station from who knows where, and stopped the car in the dark to camp.  Exhausted from our hikes and driving, we fell asleep almost instantly, dreaming of coyotes from space coming to howl at the nearly full moon as our desert lullaby

Morning light on the Henry Mountains.
We woke up to a spectacular sunrise creeping up the distant Henry Mountains and sat in our sleeping bags watching it illuminate first the snowy tips of the peaks, and then the pine-clad slopes, and then slowly the red of the desert below.


After a very satisfying outdoors toothbrushing, we headed down the road towards Lake Powell.  Along the way we saw a road leading off towards the Henry Mountains and decided that we couldn't pass it up, so we turned off.


View Larger Map


I'll finish up the trip in my next post, blogger has gotten unhappy with how many pictures I've put in here!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Books quiz

I stole this meme from my favorite book blog, Stuck in a Book.   I haven't had much time to read for fun in the past few months, and I've really been missing it (my Amazon wish list is getting out of hand).  As I was reading his post, I was having fun coming up with my own answers, so I figured I might as well just answer it for myself!

1. Favourite childhood book? 
I Want to Go Home by Gordon Korman.  This book still makes me laugh out loud.

2. What are you reading right now?
The Kraken by China Miéville
Rough Guide to Italy
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austin

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
 Nothing.

4. Bad book habit? 
Hmmm.  I used to have a bad Star Wars novel habit, but I got over that.  I can't think of any just now!

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
 
Per the Bodleian's catalogue:
The eruptions of Hekla in historical times : a tephrochronological study by Sigurður Þórarinsson
Groundwater in geologic processes by Ingebritsen, S. E.
Multivariate data analysis with readings by Hair, Joseph F.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
 I don't, but my phone has a Kindle app that I've been using to read Northanger Abbey

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
 I am usually reading several books at a time, but once I'm about 100 pages into one I'll usually stick with it until the end.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
I definitely read fewer books than I used to before I started spending a lot of time on the internet, though that's not related to having a blog.  I also find out about more books, read more book reviews, and have my all-powerful Amazon wish list. 

9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far?)
I haven't read any bad books this year!

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year?
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.  I adored this book, even its melancholy ending.  Like all David Mitchell books, it had the nesting of stories within stories -- but this one nested cultures within cultures and histories within histories and was also incredibly textured historical fiction. 

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
I'm not really sure what my comfort zone is, but I think that the answer is not often.  For example, I don't ever read swords and sorcery type fantasy, or romance novels, which are probably the two genres that I avoid hardest. 

12. What is your reading comfort zone? 
This question should probably have been before #11 :).  I would say that it is more defined by what it's not, as mentioned above. 

13. Can you read on the bus?
Yes, though reading on my phone Kindle on the bus is less pleasant.

14. Favourite place to read?
Perhaps on a train or the London underground; or else curled up on a couch in front of a fireplace with someone I love.
 
15. What is your policy on book lending?I love loaning out my books.  I don't mind losing a few so long as I convert my friends to good new reading material!

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?Yes, I have been known to be rather hard on books including folding pages, breaking spines, and annotating. 

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?Occasionally, but I am much more likely to underline my favourite passages instead.  I always get a bit worried that I'll loan the book out and get judged for what I wrote or liked (for example, underlining a lengthy oral sex scene in Gravity's Rainbow).  As a result my very favourite books only get loaned out to my very favourite people.

18. Not even with text books?Oh, I underline and annotate the hell out of textbooks.  It's one of the ways I retain information.

19. What is your favourite language to read in? 
Uhm, English.  The only language I can read quickly in.

20. What makes you love a book? 
Lots of things.  A good plot.  Humour.  Amazing imagery.  Lyrical writing.  Compelling characters.  Compelling worldbuilding.  Love of landscape. 

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
 Usually the books that I recommend are ones that are "gateways" into a particular author's work -- for example, I would recommend To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis if I was hoping to get someone into her other books.  Another thing that will inspire me will be if I am talking to someone and I realize that they are interested in a certain genre or type of plot and I know the perfect example.

22. Favourite genre?
Historical science fiction or cyberpunk.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
Biography.

24. Favourite biography?
Well isn't that odd.  Samuel Pepys: The Unqualified Self by Claire Tomalin is a fascinating look at a very interesting man and an even more interesting time.
 
25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
I've read some of the "X for Dummies" books, does that count?  Also a neighbour gave me the book Emails from God for Grads when I graduated from high school, though I have to say that I never got around to reading it.

26. Favourite cookbook?
Anything by Jamie Oliver!

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
Probably, again, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  It's not traditionally inspirational, but I liked its message that every individual, no matter how small their role in the main story, has his or her own story to tell.
 
28. Favourite reading snack?
An iced chai tea, a smoothie, or a milkshake.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
Hmm, I can't really think of any...
 
30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
I am usually much more forgiving than your average reviewer.
 
31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
Like I said, I'm usually quite forgiving, but if a book is bad, I'm not afraid to say it.  Robert Jordan, I am talking to you (RIP).
 
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?
Icelandic :).
 
33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
I'm not sure!  Probably The Sound and the Fury.
 
34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
I'd like to read Ulysses but have definitely been put off...
 
35. Favourite Poet?
T. S. Eliot, hands down.  I adore his imagery.  And yes, literature PhDs, I've heard your theories about how he ruined literature for the common person.  From "The Hollow Men" to "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock", I don't care.
 
36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
If we are talking academic books, about 10.  None from the public library just now, though when I do that, it's usually about four or five. 
 
37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
I hate doing this, so, as rarely as possible.
 
38. Favourite fictional character? 
She's a total Mary Sue, but I love Y.T. from Snowcrash.  I also love Daniel Waterhouse from the Baroque Cycle.  The narrator from Black Swan Green is right up there.  But the real answer is... Remus Lupin. 
 
39. Favourite fictional villain?
Mrs. Coulter from the His Dark Materials trilogy.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on holiday?
If the holiday is somewhere remote where I'll have lots of free time, I'll try to bring something long and immersive.  I took Gravity's Rainbow and Dune to the Orkneys and Shogun to Iceland in 2009.  And Bleak House on a family vacation.
 
41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
I... don't know.  Maybe a few days?
 
42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
I couldn't finish Madame Bovary and never intend to do so either.
 
43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
The internet -- wanting to talk to people. 
 
44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel?
Haha, I'll have to say Jurassic Park.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
The one that disappointed me most in theatres was The Lost World, but I was also terribly disappointed by the end of the third Harry Potter movie.  Basically if you cut out my favourite scene, I will cut you.
 
46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
Well, if we're counting the AU bookstore, I had to drop something like $200 on textbooks my first term there, before I discovered amazon.com for ordering them.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
This literally never occurred to me.  People do that?
 
48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
If it was boring, I suppose.  This rarely happens though.
 
49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
I do, alphabetically.
 
50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
If I like the book enough to want to read it again, or it's a reference book, I'll hold onto it.  Otherwise I'd like to get rid of it as quickly as possible because I don't like owning very much stuff.
 
51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
The second, third, and fourth Twilight books? 
 
52. Name a book that made you angry.
My favorite history book of all time, A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester.  I completely disagree with his thesis but I love the way he wrote it.
 
53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.  After reading A Distant Mirror, I did not expect anything by this woman to be good, but my dad convinced me to try it.  I'm not sure why WWI was so much more inspirational than the 14th century but... apparently for her it was.
 
54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
The Time Traveller's Wife.  It came highly recommended from someone I usually really trust on books but I just did not like it.

55. Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

This damned tephra problem

I hate to bore my usual readers with research problems but... I'm having a research problem.

I've been mulling over the slides from the Drangajökull outlet glacier core microtephras for some time now, but this week I've finally been able to focus on the problem (as I was microprobing other samples last week). Basically the microtephra from the peat core taken near the outlet glacier comes in three varieties: generally silicic, generally mafic, and then crazy microlite-studded bright orange. My samples from the archaeological peat core, and from the lake, which were cored about 5km away as the crow flies, have the first two -- and absolutely nothing like the third.

My first guess is that the orange colour is the result of some chemical leaching in the soil. I found a paper a few minutes ago that might tell me more about it but it's 11pm and my brain is fried so I'll check it in the morning.

The microlites are a more serious issue. They indicate that the microtephra has come from a source close by -- but the archaeological site is closer to any source volcanoes than this core. And if the tephra was transported by air, then it should have fallen in both places anyway. The presence of the glacier might create a rain shadow? Or something like that? Or meltwater pulses? I'm trying to come up with any reason why this might be the case. I need to come up with something convincing and interesting, however, because I'm giving a paper at the GSA on Halloween and part of it has to do with this research.

Blergh!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Epping Forest bike ride!

This past Saturday, Rachel and I went for our long-awaited bike ride to Epping Forest (and beyond). You can see our route here:


Now I didn't take very many pictures during the ride, because we were mostly riding, but I did take a few! The first came from the slightly disappointing Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge, an English Heritage-owned property at the southern end of Epping Forest. I mean the FIRST Queen Elizabeth, by the way. The Victorians painted over the Tudor-style beams and as a result the wood started to rot, so the building has now been entirely whitewashed to prevent further decay. It was built around 1540 for Henry VIII and would have been open-walled, the better to party and hang out of whilst shooting at deer.



Further inside of the Forest, we saw several cows. We liked their horns!

The Forest itself was very impressive to see, but did not photograph well. It is covered with mountain bike trails and then wider trails for walking and horseback riding. Rachel's bike is a road bike so we stuck to the wider trails. In the forest, the trees were so thick that I could easily imagine Robin Hood hiding in there...

There was also a hidden church and cemetery in the northern part of the Forest. It was decorated beautifully for a wedding that would take place later that afternoon.

After leaving that church, we rode our bikes towards what we thought would be a deer park. However, we wound up going down a very long, very steep hill, and emerging out of the trees and into open farmland. Afterwards, we decided that we really did not want to go back up that hill, so we stayed on the road and followed it to the town of Waltham, Essex. This involved going outside the M25, London's ring road -- we were really in the country now! Almost to "London" Stansted Airport! Waltham had a large church, where another wedding was taking place.


It started to rain quite hard as we were in Waltham, so we sheltered under some trees by a mill stream with several ducks, swans and cygnets, and hens. We were in the grounds of the ruined Waltham Abbey, next to the largest remaining portion of it -- a 14th century gatehouse.

Here's a view to the church from the Mill Stream (having just walked through the gatehouse).

On our ride back into London, the sky started to clear. We rode most of the distance alongside the Lee River, which is lined with canal boats. It's a very beautiful, peaceful place.

We rode back through Hackney Marshes and over to see the Olympic building site. I have to say, I was very impressed by everything I saw there, and I'm looking forward to what London will do in 2012...


Following that we made it back to Dalston, against Razorlight's best advice, and staggered into the Morrisons to buy some food. Rachel made me a delicious dinner of bbq burgers and sweet potato fries, we watched some terrible British TV, and then I made my way back from Finsbury Park to Paddington across central London on a Saturday night (probably the most exciting cycling I did all weekend!). All in all, it was a fantastic adventure!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

One month left in the UK

As of today I officially only have one month left living in the United Kingdom. Although I've gone home fairly often it will be an interesting experience to return to my own country and no longer be a "stranger in a strange land" as I have been for the last four years (almost exactly -- I arrived in the UK on 26 September, 2006). My relationship with the UK has been love/hate at best, and during my time here I've become a completely different person than the naive 22 year old I was when I first stepped off the plane at LHR with my dreams and a cardigan.

It's been an incredible, almost indescribable four years, in which I've seen some amazing places, been let in on some amazing secrets, and, most importantly, developed some amazing relationships with fascinating people -- both here and at home. And, for all that, I know that it's time to move back to Colorado.

I always knew I'd go home again -- I'm too in love with where I'm from to not do that -- but only very recently has that become something solid and real, an endpoint that I can envision down to its finest detail. I bought a plane ticket last Thursday. Now I know the duration of the flight, the airline, even the seat assignment -- I can picture where I'll wait in Heathrow and what it will smell like when I get off the plane and walk up the gangway in Denver. I can also envision packing up all my possessions once again, as I have done so often for the past eight years , and stuffing them into the requisite two suitcases and two carry-ons. If only baggage limits had stayed the same over that time period...

Anyway, this isn't meant to be a retrospective or some big "This Is What I Learned" or even an ode to my Gap Yahs. I have one month left in this country and this is what I want to do:

1. Bike to Epping Forest (plans are afoot!)
2. Bike to Uffington Castle/Uffington White Horse
3. Visit Kew Gardens
4. Do something bad in the shadow of the Rad Cam and then sing "BNC 'til I die"*

Ok... go!

*JK, JK, JK

Monday, 30 August 2010

Thanks!

Harpa, T's friend who we met in Vík, posted a really lovely picture of us on her blog in front of her house. Thanks again to Harpa, that lunch was one of my favorite memories from Iceland!!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

It's always better on holiday part II: Ísland

Well! This got long! Apologies, but I didn't want to forget anything!

After the inevitable and eternal train ride from Stansted, N and I arrived back in Oxford quite late on the Friday night and almost immediately went to bed. The next morning I got to introduce N to E and we enjoyed some delicious, delicious Manos before hitting the Museum of History of Science. Then I went to print our boarding passes for Iceland and sent N to check out the Pitt Rivers, completely forgetting to tell him that he needed to walk through the University Museum to get there... I feel a bit bad about that. He seems to have enjoyed the UMNH though.

After a somewhat fraught race across Oxford, we made it onto the bus with seconds to spare. Our ride to the airport ended with us observing the seemingly endless parade of 747s owned by British Airways that just... taxi round and round Heathrow. Our flight to Iceland was nice -- N had gotten us exit row seats -- and the Icelandair flight attendants were gorgeous as always.

We landed at Keflavik very late and staggered our way to the Flybus. I had a great sleep on the Flybus but was so exhausted that somewhere in this journey I left behind my hiking boots. I still have not found them and am very, very sad about it -- I haven't felt this sad about losing something since my bike was stolen in 2005. I haven't lost something this valuable to me since that bike either, so it makes sense.

We arrived at our flat and were pleasantly surprised by it. For 200 euros for seven days, we got a great deal. It was a bit tight, and the acoustics were a bit too good (Jim, downstairs and quite far away, yelled at us that he felt like we were in the same room), but otherwise it was lovely. We went to bed, feeling exhausted from constant travelling, and were awoken early the next morning by the delightfully long Icelandic summer morning.

For our first day, we enjoyed the sights of Reykjavik, N got his first taste of Skyr, and we walked across town to the beach at Nauthólsvik. This was a beach that I had wanted to visit on my first trip to Iceland -- it's heated by geothermal springs pouring out into the icy North Atlantic. We spent some time in the hot pool before trying out the spot in the ocean heated by geothermal water -- there are some mixing problems, naturally, with the cold water staying at the bottom but currents of hot spiralling above. So long as I swam, I wasn't cold, but if I put my feet down...

Next I decided that I wanted to swim in the actual, non-heated North Atlantic. I headed over to the beach next to the geothermal one and decided to swim out to a buoy. I was joined by N and J, who seemed to see getting into the water as some sort of sporting challenge -- I just enjoy cold water! Eventually we also convinced R to join us, but the others remained in the hot pool. To complete our time in the ocean, N grabbed my hand and we dunked our heads under water together. So refreshing! I missed Iceland so much!

N and I also did a bit of shopping and he bought us both adorable Icelandic hats. Hats were clearly the theme of the holiday. It also would not have been a complete Icelandic vacation without all of us spending some time agonizing over which 66 North gear to drop an absurd amount of kroner on, so we did that too. I got myself a nice red fleecey/sweater/jumper/zip up thing.

The next day, the others went horseback riding, so N and I explored the church, Hallgrimskirkja, that towers over Reykjavik's skyline. We were able to go to the top of the church and look out across the brightly coloured buildings of Reykjavik, and across the Flaxafloi towards Videy and brooding Mt Esja, which was covered in cloud for the duration of our trip.

Another thing that we saw in Reykjavik was the ninth largest personal yacht in the world -- Octopus -- owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. It has two helicopters and two submarines! Apparently it was docked in Reykjavik harbour because they were using it to look for a sunken ship. From the moment I saw it, I was consumed by a desire to tell Kanye West about it. Thanks to Twitter, I did.

On Tuesday afternoon, we all took a trip the island of Viðey, the largest of the many islands in the bay just north of Reykjavik. We purchased our tickets and then took an extremely small ferry across a short but choppy channel to the island. Viðey is essentially a low, flat, volcanic blip in the middle of the bay, covered in green grass, with the occasional rocky beach and wildflower outcropping. It reminded me strongly of Rottnest Island off the west coast of Australia near Fremantle, but only because it was a small island that I walked all the way around.

Our initial intention was to take one of the free bicycles around the island that we had read about in the guidebook. We walked away from the small cafe to a shed with a motley collection of bicycles outside of it. I selected one with a flat tire and spent a bit of time negotiating in broken Icelandic/broken English with several men inside the shed to get it aired up. Several of them came out to help, but unfortunately used a car pump. I kept tapping the rapidly airing tire and making encouraging, please-stop-now noises, and they kept tapping it and nodding, and then it exploded. Cue lots of Icelandic laughing and taking the piss of the guy running the pump. We decided against the bikes and set out of on foot around the island for an enjoyable walk.

That evening we met several of Tom's friends, and then N and I headed off in search of some dinner alone.

On Wednesday, we rented a car with the others for a little bit of the classic Americans Abroad + 3 Britons road trip. We were promised a car that would fit seven, but the car we received was a Toyota Corolla Verso, which actually fits five, and then has two seats in the trunk (boot). R and I crammed ourselves into the back for most of the trip, sitting on what was essentially the floor, with tiny holes to peek out of at either side and our knees twisted sideways. We travelled in this way to see the fantastic waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, which is where T and J got engaged a year ago. The waterfall is immense, pouring off what was once Iceland's coastline onto the flat, lava-made plain that now stretches for a few miles down to the sea. The force of the water hitting the pool below it makes a fantastic roar and it's possible to walk behind it -- so, donning our raincoats and covering our cameras, we did! Pictures all around!

On our way to the waterfall, we were greeted by the ethereal sight of the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) floating above the water in a jagged line, their bases obscured by cloud. This was one of the most beautiful things that we saw that day.

From the waterfall, we drove onward to Vik. Vik is a town along the southern coast, in the warmest and rainiest part of Iceland. Like every Icelandic town I've ever seen, it's a cheerful place, with neat, brightly coloured houses. We went there to meet a friend of T's, who kindly took in all seven of us and gave us a delicious lunch with fresh fruit, bread, and a homemade cake. After all of her kind hospitality and conversation, she also offered up a fresh sample of tephra from her back porch from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. T scooped some of it into my nalgene and we headed back up the coast from Vik. Meeting T's friend was one of the highlights of the trip for me!

Immediately around the curve of the hill to the west of Vik, we came to a black sand beach with some stacked basalt caves. A glacial river flows in huge meanders through the black sand to the sea and, north of the beach, the white tip of Myrsdalsjökull -- admittedly recently covered in ash, and so not too white just now -- looms over a massive glacial lagoon. We wandered around the beach and up onto the basalt stacks before piling back into the car.

Our next stop was Solheimajökull, one of the tongues of Myrsdalsjökull. Pictures from the year before taken by Tom and Jim show a blue and white glacier; this year what we saw was one covered almost entirely in black ash. Black piles of ice clustered around the river at the mouth of the glacier and there was only a thin sliver of blue ice -- from a recent crack -- visible anywhere. We walked to the base of the glacier and looked at it through brooding weather -- as when I hiked to Drangajökull, the glacier seemed to generate its own nasty weather, a spitting cold rain that turned to snow as we prepared to leave.

Our next stop was Skógafoss, "Forest Falls", a strange name for a waterfall with no trees in sight. This waterfall seems to tumble from an incredible height to smack into a wide, shallow pool. N and I walked as close to the edge as we dared and then scampered up the side of the hill beside it to overlook the top.

The final thing we saw on our road trip was Eyjafjallajökull, the most famous little volcano in the world as of late April 2010. We could not see the actual volcano itself, just the glacier, which was quite literally black with ash. Although Iceland seems to have done an excellent job of cleaning up from the tephra fall and ensuing jokulhlaup (glacial flood), there were signs everywhere during this day trip of the destruction caused by even this very small eruption. Imagine if Katla were to go off -- T's friend told us that Vik has an evacuation plan, but I don't want to think about the destruction that it would cause to this place...

On the Thursday, N and I took a Reykjavik city bus to the neighbouring town of Hveragerdi and walked from the bus station out of town to an extremely active geothermal area nearby. This area is part of the Hengill volcano, and is full of springs and fumaroles -- the Hengill volcano powers much of Reykjavik through the geothermal energy it produces. This area is popular for hiking and Icelandic horse riding tours because the hot springs feed into glacial rivers and create some great pools for outside swimming. N and I hiked past many of these things until we found the perfect pool. The weather was cloudy and the vast amounts of steam generated a very foggy effect. We decided to enjoy the hot spring sans bathing suits (costumes) and spent some incredibly relaxing time floating in the warm water. It was probably something like 38C (100F).

After a briefly fraught escape when an entire train of horse riders filed past just as N attempted to get out of the pool, we got our clothes back on and continued to hike. We had seen a spectacular series of warm waterfalls on our way there and after hiking around several hills, we decided to turn back and strike out without a trail to reach them. N led the way and I followed, slightly sad as I soaked my non-hiking-boot shoes (but actually quite pleased with their performance -- I'll take a good pair of sensible Merrells over good-looking shoes anyday). We came to several boiling spots of mud and water, and then had to ford a stream in order to get down to the waterfalls. I really really hate stepping on sharp, slippery rocks in streams and was quite averse to crossing, but N talked me through it and encouraged me and eventually I gave in and made it across. I was rewarded with a gorgeous view down the side of the waterfall, not to mention a warm hug. N also noted that the sheep we saw beside the waterfall were the first sheep he'd ever been close to, which I found quite funny -- he clearly needs to spend more time in the North Atlantic.

The Hengill area is full of contrasts, talus slopes of fragmented basalt towering above incredibly lush green valleys. The earth itself is shockingly orange where iron-rich mud bubbles out of the ground. Sulfurous clouds can be choking, but it's beautiful in its extremes. One of my favorite sights was coming around a corner into a brilliantly green valley with a steaming meander of a stream -- dew condensing on every blade of grass -- and seeing a tight circle of dark Icelandic horses placidly eating grass as they waited for their riders to stop bathing. While hiking we were confronted with the problem of wanting to carry on in every direction and explore new things, but next time I'd like to carry on along the route and hike all the way to Thingvellir, which I'm told you can do -- it's 30 miles, not too bad if we camped along the way...

For the Friday, our last full day in Iceland, N and I rented a car again and headed off to the northwest of the country. We drove first to Barnafoss and Hraunfoss, two spectacularly different waterfalls located to the west of the Kaldadalur route that I took with J and L last summer. From the waterfalls, several of Iceland's smaller glaciers are visible -- Ok, Eiriksjökull, and some of the outlets of Langjökull. Barnafoss has water flowing violently beneath a stone arch, while Hraunfoss is created by water welling up from rocks -- no water flows along the surface to get there -- and looks peaceful enough to lie under (though since we could actually see the glaciers that the water was coming from, it seems likely that it wouldn't be quite warm).

From there we took one of my favorite drives onto the Snaefellsjökull peninsula. The first time I came to Iceland, I went to this place and saw the volcano, Snaefells, that rises at the end of the peninsula like an exclamation point -- and I knew that I had to take N there. After all, one of our favorite Colorado mountains is named after this one (Mt Sneffels!). Unlike Hekla, depicted by religious medieval types as the entrance to hell, Snaefells played an important role in early science fiction -- this is where the adventurers in Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth set out into the core. But I'm getting ahead of myself -- first we had to drive down the coast, from Stykkisholmur to Grundarfjordur, where last summer I had a fantastic camping experience beneath several waterfalls, and then on to Olafsvik where we ate mushroom soup in a small cafeteria. The coast there, and especially the many islands in Hvammsfjordur and the incredible Alftafjordur, as well as the strange landscape of Berserkjahraun (berserker's lava), is some of my favorite in Iceland and can't really be described (but I'm going to try). There are towering mountains, their tips shrouded in mist, and the haunting conjunction of cold, clear, silver sea and rocky coast, with the occasional red-roofed Icelandic church or farm standing alone on the edge of it all. Waterfalls pour down every hillside.

We then rounded the tip of the peninsula and came to a series of beaches. The first was white sand, and the water was a beautiful icy blue. The second was black sand and located next to it was some archaeological remains of an old fishing village. At this point the weather, which had never been spectacular, really started to close in -- we could barely see the volcano and the cloud and fog that shrouded its glaciated top really moved down now. We headed to a third beach, and as we arrived, the rain started in earnest. We got out of the car and walked down onto the beach. It was covered entirely in basalt rounded by the sea into "lava tears". Rain -- sleet really -- was sliding horizontally across the landscape, obscuring our view out to sea. We walked across the beach to take shelter behind some black basalt stacks and watched a crowd of evil Arctic terns (kria in Iceland) darting and diving into the crashing waves, trying to catch fish. Deciding that it was, on paper, the least romantic beach on earth, we turned back to the car and continued our drive along the southern edge of the peninsula. We turned briefly up the road that crosses the mountainous spine of the peninsula (54, I believe) but turned back due to fog and drove on to Reykjavik. As we drove through the tunnel from Akranes back to Reykjavik, I got progressively sadder and more introspective -- I didn't want to leave Iceland, or N, behind! Luckily Icelandic pop radio kept up a steady stream of the theme song of the vacation -- "California Gurls" by Katy Perry -- to annoy me out of the mood.

On Saturday, N and I returned our rental car and found ourselves unexpectedly stranded at the rental agency with very little time to catch our bus. We managed to get a taxi to BSI, Reykjavik's main bus terminal, and from there went on to the Blue Lagoon, our final stop in Iceland before Keflavik airport.

There's not too much to say about the Blue Lagoon -- it's not my favourite tourist attraction, especially given its price, but it certainly is a nice way to relax for a bit. I enjoyed a delicious strawberry skyr shake from the floating bar, too! Unfortunately I am now 2/2 for being at the Blue Lagoon on a warm, sunny day, when the blue-white water reflects enough to almost blind me -- I'm sure it's better in the winter, or in cloudy, cold weather. After that we went to Keflavik, where N and I attempted to locate my hiking boots, failed, ate a final skyr, shopped duty free (N bought an adorable bottle of Brennivin wrapped in a knitted jacket!), and then said some very sad -- but also promising of more fun times in the future -- goodbyes. N headed to his flight to New York and I headed on to my flight to London.

Just listing things that I did in Iceland doesn't really sum up my second trip to this gorgeous place. I also got to revisit things that I loved -- Icelandic food and drink, outdoor pools, the incredible landscape, the kind people... my second visit only taught me that I want to keep working on learning the language (albeit much more slowly than my housemate T), and that I can't wait to go back for more visits! I wouldn't mind visiting Iceland every year for the rest of my life (so long as I could go other places too) and I hope to continue the trend into 2011.

St Margaret's Church, Binsey

Today was a lazy, hazy late summer day here in Oxfordshire, so I headed off on a lazy bike ride with E. Along the way, I finally managed to see a small country church that I have been longing to see for some time now -- St Margaret's Church, in Binsey, which is just to the east of Port Meadow. It's a 12th century Norman church dedicated to St Margaret, who supposedly escaped a dragon by making the sign of a cross at it. Although that technique did not appear in "How To Train Your Dragon", it seems as effective as any other remedy against a marauding dragon, so I'll believe it.

The last time I tried to see this church, there was a wedding happening there, so it didn't seem like the time or place for me to stick my bike-sweaty head inside. This time, however, the church and churchyard were deserted. I pushed the kissing gate open and into this place:



There were quite a few new gravestones in the churchyard, as well as quite a few old enough that their faces were wiped clean and/or they had sunk into the ground. Here was the oldest legible one:

There is also a well in the churchyard -- prompting me to observe that I wouldn't want to drink out of a shallow well that shares its water table with a lot of decaying corpses. E said, "Isn't that how the Brontes died?" A little bit of wiki research into the Bronte family indicates that a. that wiki article is in dire need of editing, because while it is stuffed to the gills with information it is terribly written and b. "The following year [Charlotte] died aged 39. The cause of death given at the time was tuberculosis, but it may have been complicated with typhoid fever, the water at Haworth being so contaminated from the lack of any sanitation and the vast cemetery that surrounded the church and the parsonage...". Wiki also indicates that every other member of the family also died of some complication from TB. So: don't drink from this well.

A bit more research [read: google search] also uncovered that the well was a site of pilgrimage from the Anglo-Saxon period, as it apparently has healing properties credited to St Frideswide, Oxford's patron saint and founder of the abbey where Christ Church College is now. It is also probably the "treacle well" from Alice in Wonderland. The church's webpage encourages visitors to say a prayer at the well, not to take a drink.


Though the church is quite small, it has a neat little bell tower, very similar to many others in Oxfordshire (and presumably the rest of England):

Stepping inside, the church has quite a few treasures. Immediately facing the doorway is this wall hanging depicting the lion and unicorn crest of Great Britain. The letters in the top -- A and R -- indicate that it dates from the time of Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702-1714 (apologies for flash).
One of the more legible memorial stones on the floor of the nave:
And a view looking away from the altar... E noted that the ceiling beams had been redone in the past century, as they were sawn by machine.
Crest of Oxford, carved into the pulpit!
The altar.

Unknown crest and Google Goggles could not figure it out. Why not, Goggles? All I can pick out is a Yorkshire rose...
Pretty statue of the Virgin on the a windowsill.
Outside of the church, there were a few curious goats in a pen. They had little beards and bangs and were quite cute!


All in all, a lovely way to spend a morning.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Clash City Rockers

Several months ago, I had the idea of producing and presenting a radio show based on historical tales of different late 20th century music movements. The idea began from reading England's Dreaming, by Jon Savage, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols alongside vignettes from other seminal figures in the British punk scene of the late 1970s. I decided that it would be awesome to get the music for a show based on the book -- some Sex Pistols, some Clash, some Siouxsie, some New York Dolls, etc. -- and then find some good anecdotes and historical facts and put it all together into a 2 hour special.

From there my idea grew to include episodes with other times and places, again based on books about music I either have read (the first two) or want to read (the latter two):

1. Rip it up and start again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds: Talking Heads, Joy Division, Public Image Limited... though I feel that with me at the helm, this show would be about 70% Talking Heads

2. Britpop: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock by John Harris: One of the first books I ever read about rock and roll, we'd hear Pulp, Suede, Elastica, and of course Blur and Oasis

3. Our Band Could be your life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad: Haven't read it yet but I've heard it's one of the best books about music ever, so I really need to get on this if I'm to make this radio show happen!

4. Same goes for Can't Stop, Won't Stop
: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

I like each of these books because they don't just talk about the music -- they're not biographies. They're also about the wider social and political happenings, and how the music and musicians related to that. England's Dreaming is not just about the Pistols -- who made some really crap music -- but about how some clever (and not so clever) people managed to tap into a sense of public anger and outrage and react against it in a very fraught time in English history.

And then at the end of each episode of my little radio show idea, I would have 15-20 minutes of more recent (say, last decade) music that was inspired by the movement.

This is all a roundabout way to start talking about The Clash, in my opinion one of the top five greatest bands of all time, and, in terms of personal preference, tied for first.

I first discovered The Clash via No Doubt -- one of the latter's many bootleg live mp3s that I downloaded in the early days of file sharing on the internet (back when ftp sites were cool, even before audiogalaxy!) was a cover of "Hateful"*, which is originally from 1979's London Calling, an album that a few years later I would literally wear out from listening to so much (the cd actually warped from the heat in my truck's cd player).

The summer of 2004 was when I finally, truly, fell in love with The Clash. I can't remember what spurred it but I spent the majority of that summer sitting at a desk job, trading emails with N, headphones on and "I'm So Bored with the USA" drowning out the sounds of the printer behind me.

I was 20 years old, and super bored with the USA -- leaving in August for four months in the UK, a serious Anglophile's first trip to the Sceptred Isle. There was definitely that aspect of it -- getting ready for the journey -- but the Clash's lyrics totally captured me. A few decades too late for me, they had channeled their anger into brilliant songs about politics, culture, art, society... I won't go on about it too much, but just take a look at either "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" (written in the aftermath of the Brixton riots) or "Lost in the Supermarket" for two of my favorite examples.

To be fair, the Clash can be difficult to get into nowadays. There's the songs that get played on oldies stations -- "Train in Vain", why? -- and then there's this nebulous body of work beyond London Calling that's full of strange, experimental styles ranging from dub to Beach Boys parodies about the Cold War. You won't be able to understand the lyrics -- you'll definitely have to read them. And they a two-part album, Sandinista, that is often described as a "brilliant but failed experiment" that I think has some of their most important music.

It's also important to me to note that I once tried to claim ownership over a page torn out of an NME with a picture of Joe Strummer lying on a bed with his trousers unbuttoned by saying that I owned Sandinista and had listened to the second half.

So back to the radio show: I'd still really love to do something like that, but I'd like to make an episode specifically devoted to the Clash, and in fact I think I could fill up maybe two or three episodes with them. Unfortunately I don't think that Oxide Radio is exactly the format for it -- the station would probably explode, and my five listeners would just want to be in the chat room talking about Yo Dawg graphics rather than listening to me blather on about musical social history. I'm definitely still thinking about it, though.



*There were a number of covers No Doubt had that led me on to other bands/songs -- from Sublime to the Beatles' Ob La Di, Ob La Da -- and to all you haters out there, I'm never going to regret how much of my teenage years was spent in my room with Tragic Kingdom on the stereo.