Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Friday, July 29, 2005

There is quite a lot in the online versions of the mainstream media about home education.

Here is a Guardian review of a new children's novel about a home educating family.

domestic business


Although renting a house is financially completely pointless compared to buying one, we have no choice other than to rent, due to the fact that we each own half a house already, and the other half of the owners are still living in them. However, there are some advantages to renting. Today, a nice man is mending the back door and our landlady is repairing the bathroom sealant. We do not have to pay for this, so it feels like free repair-people, which is quite luxurious. I am getting (I think) slightly better at returning the traditional friendly Texan greeting,


I say, "good, thanks," in as bright and sunny a way possible given that I am still in recovery from spending the last 37 years on a cold damp island in the middle of the North Sea.

Anyway, speaking of Texas, I am very glad to see that the Manolo approves of the boots of the cowboy. It's far too hot to wear them in Texas for most of the year, but maybe I'll get some for the 3-week winter.

I bought some fresh basil in Central Market the other day. It's my favourite herb, and Central Market is my favourite grocery store. The bread area is gorgeous and they have everything European you could possibly want, even Maltesers, white chocolate buttons and Hungarian paprika. My travelling days are over. Anyway, now I am thinking what to do with the basil. I found this Martha recipe for tomato tarts, it doesn't say basil, but I might add basil and take out the cheese, but I thought it would be better on puff pastry, so I got some of that from Central Market too. Which means my plan bears no relation now to Martha's recipe except being allowed to be called a tomato tart, really.

Anyway, does anyone have other delicious suggestions for the use of basil, at all?

Thursday, July 28, 2005


Perusing the Guardian's Sunday newspaper, the Observer, I was surprised to find this in a readers' letters to the resident psychologist section.

Q We thought we had a bright spark (not a genius, but clever and curious) and then my son (now five) started school. His teacher says something is not quite right but she can't put her finger on it (poor handwriting compared to verbal skills, daydreaming, tripping and bumping into things). I have looked into conditions like dyspraxia, but am concerned about labelling children at a very early age. I'm surprised at how many other parents admit to similar concerns. Alternatives like Montessori or home educating are suddenly very attractive. Or should we just be grateful that the school is picking up on a potential learning difficulty early on? (name withheld)

A A large and rarely referred to body of evidence shows that school destroys the enjoyment of learning in the vast majority of children by the age of nine. I doubt very much there is anything wrong with your son; there is plenty wrong with the goals and methods of our education system. What is a parent to do? At the least, I would try and delay schooling until seven. If you think you would function well doing home ed, then go for it.

I wasn't expecting to find that idea in that particular place at all. I wonder how much more mainstream homeschooling is going to be in another few years' time.

Sometimes I think I should collect such articles, copy them and send them to everyone I know. Maybe a yearly folder with their Seasons Greetings card would be a good idea. But can I be bothered, though?

another piano-playing post


Well, Emma asked for it...

The problem with my piano-playing is, all the music I want to play is just a bit too hard for me. I need to work on it. And I need to do exercises, so my fingers can actually get round the notes, and exercises hurt. They don't bore me like they did when I was a teenager, I quite like the repetition now (patience or brain-damage, I do not know), but it's like any exercise, you're not building your strength unless there's a little bit of the burn. Owwww.

At least I have discovered now that you're not supposed to just suffer terrible pain indefinitely, only exercise to where you can feel some effect and know the muscles are making an effort. I won't be like that famous composer who destroyed his own digits on a home-made rack-like stretching machine (anyone know who that was?). But unfortunately, I am a complete wuss. I don't like hurting my own fingers, even slightly. And before I am ever going to have a hope of playing the last movement of Beethoven's Moonlight sonata anything like up to speed, I will have to make my fingers hurt slightly for probably months on end.

That's the other thing, if you do exercises for a few days then give up in a pathetic huff, your fingers go right back to being as feeble and banana-like as before.

So, it's regular pain, or... well, I don't know what else. Suggestions? Miss Kitchen used to tell us if we kept up our Hanon exercises we'd be able to play anything we wanted. She never mentioned that if we didn't keep up our Hanon, we wouldn't be able to play anything we wanted. I wonder if Vladimir Horowitz ever had this problem.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


The Telegraph today here and here goes into British values, a survey asking people what Britishness was about, and a new rise in positive self-identity among the Brits stemming from their refusal to be afraid of terrorism.

Fairness and fair play, the right to say what you think, politeness and tolerance, that sort of thing. Good sportsmanship, honesty and decency, calm confident moral assertiveness, standing up for what is right, King (or Queen) and country.

If only everybody over there actually enacted those values, instead of just talking about how much they like the idea of them. In my experience, it is perfectly possible for outrageously obvious wrongs to take place in the UK without anyone ever mentioning that it is "unfair". The standard response to having a great big injustice stuck in your face is to keep your mouth shut and walk away. But it's not enough just to demand that everybody else plays fair; the ball has to start rolling somewhere.

I'm talking about social conventions and the general culture here. Politics has only itself to blame.

Not convinced. Sorry.

Personal challenge

Today, I will be going round the blogosphere trying to make as many (relevant, not completely rubbish) comments on other people's blogs as I can. Then I will link the blogs here that I have commented on. Not so you can go and read my comments, although obviously any stalkers might feel inspired to do that, but as a way of recommending blogs to you. Although I cannot help suspecting that anything I recommend you will already know about. So if you find somewhere new as a result of following one of the links, please do say so, as that kind of thing is nice and encouraging.

Stacey's Shmata From Texas. What more recommendation do you need? Very good blog, too.
Jen- Bat Noach Her headscarf is cute, but she also has excellent choice in hair-colour.
Seraphic Secret Robert Avrech's tale of how he met and married Karen is great, and you should read it (look up past chapters), unless you are a bitter old cynic, in which case, good luck.

Manolo mentions Gerard Depardieu in passing, which reminds me of my latest game. Which is, to work out which film actor is the Depardieu of his country. After seeing Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy, I decided that Antonio Banderas is the American one. Javier Bardem is the Spanish one. The basic idea is that they have to be rugged, masculine, and ugly. And good actors. Not the kind of actors that just play themselves or their own fantasies, like Tom Cruise. Speaking of ugly, also see Manolo's brilliant comparison of Donald Trump and the emperor Nero. Uncanny.

Can I just note yet again that I am NOT a far-right, gun-slinging, racist evil redneck dimwit, and despite these extraordinary facts DO regard Texas as the best place in the world and my spiritual home? Actually, I am a quietly conservative, no-gun-yet, socially 85% liberal**, non-denominationally theistic Cambridge (UK) Master of Arts. Just saying.

Ooops, forgot not to blog... more links soon.

** in the real sense of the word, not the one where "liberal" means "over-emotional Marxist".

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

exciting news!

I corrected the spelling of Penrhyndaedraeth, the small town in North Wales, on a page of Wikipedia!

Ah, fame and glory...


I have been wondering what to blog about, and felt obliged to reject pretty much all my own ideas. It is quite annoying. I am hoping very much to be able to open up more subjects here soon, but right now I feel like Martha Stewart under house arrest in her leg-irons or whatever they've put on her. All I can post about without risking upsetting someone or inspiring trouble seems to be playing the piano and politics. And I still have a personal embargo against politics. Argh.

Anyway, I apologise for the dullness of this blog in the meantime. G-d willing, I'll figure out a way to solve this.

Monday, July 25, 2005

it's not what you think, it's the way you express it

This is the essential difference between a suicide bombing homicidal terrorist maniac, and a reasonable, peace-loving citizen. I don't care whether the average Muslim genuinely wants or believes in worldwide Islamic law: what I care about is whether they seek to achieve it by humane persuasion or by blasting innocent people to smithereens.

I think we need to get away from debating what is best, and get down to debating properly. Peaceful protests are fine by me. Civil disobedience in democratic countries is not: the solution to coercive government in those places is already enshrined in the system. Get involved in party politics and influence it, spread good ideas and influence public opinion, stand for president yourself and at least raise awareness so the other parties shift in a good direction: it's a tough job, but if it needs doing why should other people be responsible and not you? And if you believe in G-d, then pray. The government does not owe us everything- it's our job to take responsibility from the bottom up for the people we choose to represent us. We are as powerful as we want to be. Only cynicism prevents people from using their own freedoms to do good.

Which is why I agree thoroughly with David Bogner's post here. What is more, I don't think the war on terror or the quest for world peace (same thing, depending on which side of the argument you look at it) will be won/ achieved until we all understand the basic concept. The biggest divide in the world now is not really about who should be in charge of whatever country or piece of land or what they should do once in charge: it is about how a reasonable people should go about furthering their ideas on such issues. Democracy is the first step. Respecting and making responsible use of the democratic system is the second. Terrorism is the world's least civilised way of trying to further ideas. War is better than terrorism because it does not target innocent civilians and has specific measurable ambitions, such as, reducing the number of innocent people killed per year, as has been successfully achieved by removing Saddam from power in Iraq. And neither is any way to deal with a democratic government or its people.

Islam is not going to be wiped out, neither is Israel and neither is the Western concept of freedom. Terrorism is doomed, but the rest of us need to live with each other. I think David's sentiment about Israel here applies to the rest of the world as well:

What this country needs is a couple of years of marriage counseling to learn how to fight amongst ourselves. Both the right and left need to learn that at the end of the day we will all be sharing this big lumpy bed called Israel with 'those people' (meaning those with whom we are presently angry)... so everyone needs to fight fair and not say too many things that can't be taken back.

Terrorism works not merely by scaring people, but by relying on this fear to reduce them to acting in uncivilised ways. It makes them turn in rage against each other, fight amongst themselves and target the wrong external enemies with unjustifiably sweeping and inhuman judgements. It seeks to bring everyone down to its own sub-human level of unreasoning. It wants us to give up being human. It will never win, but we will hasten its end by refusing to compromise our moral principles. No standing by to allow fascist dictators to murder thousands of citizens a year when such a thing can feasibly be stopped at significantly lower cost of life. No sacred book burning. No dismissive judgements of Muslims, Jews, Westerners or religion in general, including atheism.

Only evil acts should be condemned, only according to their degree. If all the major newspapers could just understand that one, we'd be a long way further forward.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Martha and the 80s

I paid far too much for Martha Stewart's 1982 classic, "Entertaining", in the thrift store the other day, but I'd been wanting it for nearly twenty years without knowing what it was, and was too excited to check out the Amazon price as I should have done. On the other hand, it is a first edition, and judging from ebay those are worth the extra. To those who want them. Which is not me. Oh well.

It is a great book, from a time when being completely over the top extravagance was just about to become more socially acceptable than it has ever been since (the 80s), and I wish Martha had just continued right into that stratosphere instead of becoming more small-scale domestic, but then everyone else downsized too, so one can hardly blame her for that. "The most sumptuous book on entertaining ever published" says the back cover, and when I read it as a teenager teaching myself to cook it seemed entirely fantastical and extraordinary: who were these people who threw "A sit-down country luncheon for one hundred seventy-five"in their back garden? Who would make eleven kinds of tiny weeny cocktail snacks for fifty guests? A gingerbread mansion for "The holiday party", complete with pediment, finials and cupola plus internal lighting? The mile-high lemon meringue pie- "My mother and I baked it when we had extra egg whites on hand, and made a meringue as high as the oven would allow"- went on my mental list of lifetime ambitions, along with plenty of other things nobody in England had heard of in 1982- pissaladiere, tabbouleh, filo pastry, tempura, and on and on.

Anyway, it is a work of genius, and it sums up something incredibly exciting and creative about the eighties that I didn't think about at the time, but which I think is now due for a revival. I don't mean shoulder-pads, brassy jewellery and merchant bankers waving fistfuls of cash, and I definitely don't mean striking miners and recessions. It's more the way people were willing to stick their necks out and be extreme and extravagant, go over the top in pursuit of an idea without having either to insult all and sundry or kill each other. There were new amazing things happening all the time and it wasn't predictable, it was fun. Well, that's how it seems/ed to me, hindsight notwithstanding. For instance, all that fuss in the press about the avant-garde fashion movement, along the lines of "could anybody actually wear these clothes?" These days, designers make wearable things. Then, even normal shops were full of bonkers outfits, the kind of things that today would be considered ugly and unflattering. But that's partly because today, "flattering" means skin tight and revealing.

Then there were other cultural tidal waves, and it was over. Well, when the tide turns once again and we go back to sack dresses, flat shoes and baggy jumpers, I will be whipping up one of Martha's small dessert parties for fifty, even if I have to eat it all myself. Maybe I'll hire a few episodes of "Dynasty" to go with that.

what I love about Texas: #1 manners

People round here have excellent manners. After living in England forever, it is truly wonderful to hear people calling each other sir and ma'am. It's not just shop assistants and waiters etc calling the customers those things, it's a general form of respectful address for people you don't know in any kind of public setting.

There is a difference between good manners and perfect etiquette. Etiquette is about fussing around with your cutlery (silverware), whereas manners are about treating people respectfully. Americans sometimes go over the top with the etiquette because they actually care about good manners and are trying hard. Personally, I think it is wrong to leave your napkin on your seat when you go to the bathroom in the middle of a meal, in case someone pops over to chat with whoever you were next to and parks their behind momentarily on your mopped-up old gravy. Folding your napkin inwards to keep crumbs inside then leaving it beside your plate seems fine to me. However, at least American people actually think about what constitutes good manners. The general view in Europe these days seems to be that "airs and graces" should arouse deep suspicion and rudeness, cynicism and negativity are sure signs of wisdom, whereas kissing everyone you meet is a sign of spontaneous heartfelt affection (pah).

Hooray for sir, ma'am, helpful friendly shop assistants and waitstaff (waiters and waitresses), and helpful friendly people in general. Hooray for people shaking your hand and introducing themselves (although I could do without the hand-shakes personally, but they are well meant).

So, in summary:
Q Why do you want to live in Texas?
A Because the people here are friendly, polite and respectful.

I will continue this series, but in the meantime I ask you- is there a better reason than that for living anywhere?

Thank you for shopping at Alice in Texas, we hope you enjoyed your visit and will come again soon.

Friday, July 22, 2005

crockery versus the Mona Lisa


I am never happier than when making something. Give me a lump of clay, a bag of flour or a ball of wool, and I'll be busy till the next one comes along. Hitherto, I have preferred making things with a Useful Purpose: "people will always need plates" as Maureen Lipman once said in the memorable British Telecom "ology" advert. It's the one where she's the Jewish grandma on the phone to her grandsom hearing about his GCSE exam results. He says he failed everything. Everything? she asks. Well, I passed pottery... That's good! she says. People will always need plates!

Then he admits he also passed (I think) sociology, and she says, "An ology! He gets an ology and he says he failed! You get an ology, you're a scientist!"

Actually, plates are really quite difficult. I made the rest of pretty much a complete dinner service years and years ago (it's all lost and broken now), but not plates. Too hard to get them off the wheel without causing them to fold up, ripple-style.

So, some time ago, I decided that the world did have enough plates already, and put a lot of thought, work, research and general singing and dancing into formulating some idea of how to produce actual art, as opposed to plates. Because it seemed to me that if Leonardo had painted the Mona Lisa on a great big turkey-server, well, it would have been less good rather than more so. And I came up with a way of making pictures that I enjoy and find aesthetically acceptable, which for me means original in its format as well as content. Because I agreed with British artist Tracy Emin when she said something like: there are hundreds of people painting the seaside, but that's not art, what I do is art.

It doesn't matter whether you think Tracy Emin's stuff is art, or good art: she is right that another bunch of watercolours of the seaside are not art. It's been done. Art has to say something new (and, I would hasten to add, valuable and good) to count as art. Otherwise we may as well all paint copies of Van Gogh's sunflowers. There is no point in that, because machines could do it for us. What no machine can do is create the next Mona Lisa.

Incidentally, last time I went to IKEA I saw that they were selling a giant-sized painting with real thick paint and brushstrokes. Behind it was another, and another, and another, and another. All the same scene, with the same identical thick brushstrokes. Machines are making 3D brushstroke copies now. It wasn't VG, but I'm sure they could now do a Van Gogh sunflower, and it would be indistinguishable from the real thing. What value will the original end up holding? Weird.

So, as I was saying, I am now making these pictures, but there is still a nagging voice telling me they are not useful, and should be plates instead. However, I am ignoring it. My best opinion is that my pictures are good in all the ways I believe art should be good, in other words I like them. They mean more to me than plates. I guess I'll keep at it.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Well, I predicted the US election right, so here's my tuppence-worth on the London bombings.

I think the first set of bombers were not suicide bombers, I think they were tricked into getting killed. There are arguments to this effect in various quarters, but my main one is I think the average disaffected British young man would be perfectly happy to murder other people but extremely unlikely to kill himself at the same time. I just don't think they would have wanted to do that. One of the arguments supporting this theory has been that suicide bombers strap bombs to themselves, they don't put them in rucksacks. Quite so: they need to be sure they will die instantaneously, and their superiors need to ensure they can't change their minds. But I also think it is irrational to assume they meant to die just because they did die, when their deaths were most convenient for the co-ordinating group rather than themselves (and their families).

The second set of attempted bombs was very similar to the first set. I think this indicates it was the same group organising things. But the second set of bombers threw their rucksacks then ran off, whereas the first set got killed next to their rucksacks. This is because the second set were avoiding death more carefully than the first. Luckily, they also avoided other people's deaths, by having useless bombs that did not go off. Which is quite funny, really.

My prediction is that whatever UK-based group made all this happen will be discovered and dismantled fast. It doesn't matter who is in charge, the co-ordinating centre will be taken out, representing a big defeat for terrorism to add to the utterly humiliating failure of today's damp squibs. They are on their way out.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Good afternoon from Texas

It is now the afternoon, and I had a very nice slice of pizza from lunch, from a New York-style pizza place where you can get one proper slice, instead of having to buy a whole substandard pizza.

David Bogner has an interesting thread going on, inviting you to suggest the most depressing song lyrics ever. I was going to say Paul McCartney's Frog Song, on the grounds that this is the writer who produced such greats as Eleanor Rigby previously, but while looking for the lyrics of the Frog Song (actually I'm not sure it has any lyrics) managed to get my computer infected with malaria or something, which caused some amount of trouble for a while.

Surely country music does have the most depressing lyrics ever, but this is because it also has the jolliest tunes. You always feel with country music that everything will be OK in the end, because the happy harmony communicates that subliminally. And this is exactly how country music can be so outrageously negative and get away with it. Country music is also the funniest music ever. I never really understood country music until I came to Texas, but now I love it. It sums up all the totally brilliant things about America that Europeans so often sneer at. There is nothing so fun as a hyperactive country band like the one we saw by accident last week (consisting of young studenty-looking people with nose-rings and tattoos, not what you would expect). The moment they began their act with a great big "Yeee-hawwww!" it was impossible to be miserable in the same building. Then they sang lots of songs called "Why I like to drink" (because his life was so miserable, obviously) and suchlike. Personally, I do not believe it for a moment. They looked like very cheerful young folk to me, and why not.

The continuing hatred of the rest of the world for all things Texan absolutely baffles me. It's always people who have never been here, too. Texas is surely the best place in the whole of Europe and North America at least! OK, so you may not agree, but I am fairly old and fairly well-travelled, so please concede that my opinion is worthy of respect at least unless you have been here yourself. I am not saying there aren't horrible ugly bits of this state, because there are. But there are also fantastic bits, the area where I live is brilliant, and the countryside is fabulous. And people are NOT raging right-wing racist crazies who shoot everything in sight, actually. They are incredibly well-mannered and very friendly. And if you want to live in a vegan chemical-free household with no air-conditioning because it is bad for the environment, I can point you in the direction of the advertising wall of my local laundrette. There are loads.

Also, I have discovered Big Lots (that isn't Texan, it's everywhere). Big Lots is the shop that answers the question posed by Wal Mart. Whereas Wal Mart seems to have cheap handy stuff, it it depressing and miserable. But Big Lots is fun because it has all sorts of rejected discounted stuff from other places. If you want a giant pretend light-up electric palm tree right now, Big Lots is the place to go! It doesn't look anything like a palm tree, and I don't know where you would put it, but it is definitely a bargain if you like that sort of thing. Go America!

Good morning

It is a beautiful, dull, un-sunny, cooler-than-average day here in Texas. I love the hot weather, even 100 degree heat is a treat when you've lived in the UK as long as me, and I love the rain and any slightly cooler dips as well because they are a nice change, and it means the lawn sprinkling is already done for me. After a good storm, when you go outside it can be like stepping into a sauna.

The sun is out now, so I will go and have my morning coffee in the garden. See you later.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


When I used to work in marketing/advertising, which I did for an extremely short time ages and ages ago, I was once at a job interview being asked what recent commercial I thought was good, and why. It was a washing powder which was new at the time, but has now vanished. Very big in the early 90s, this powder was, and now it's gone. Maybe you can remember it, because it had neon adverts that were very in your face, and frankly that is absolutely the sum total of what I can recall. The ads were what you would describe as "post-modernist", which is another way of saying they insulted the consumer. Neutron, it was called, something like that, or Neuron. Whatever. I checked, and it is nowhere to be found: all the powders in supermarkets now existed well before this newcomer that cost all that advertising money then died a death. Maybe you know what it was called?

Anyway, they were famous at the time, so I explained that I thought they summarised the values of efficiency, effectiveness and lack of made-up nonsense. Something like that. Whatever. I set out the messages I thought the adverts were communicating, how they did it, and why I thought it worked alright.

No, said the interviewer. You are wrong. The reason those ads are good is... (drum roll) BRANDING!. End drum roll.

OK, I said, and my brain switched off from then. What he thought he was saying was, "the best thing about those ads is the way they stick in people's minds." To me, this was a meaningless interpretation. They only stuck in people's minds if there was some kind of content that people could hang onto, that they actually found meaningful, in the sense of being valuable.

Well, there was not. The washing-powder died. So that way, he was right: the people who designed its public image went for "branding", without content, and that's what they got. And it died. To me, however, branding without content was a meaningless concept not even worth considering. I still think I was right there, and I still think the 80's power-exec interviewing me was totally wrong. Because he went on:

"What is the motivation of agencies like this one?" he asked me.
"To sell things," said I. That's obvious, right? Advertising agencies sell things?
"To win awards," he said. "Agencies design ads in order to win awards from the rest of the industry. Awards get them contracts."

So that was my rude awakening to the business world, because I found these ideas completely nuts. Marketing, in my view, was about selling stuff, not about getting more marketing contracts by winning awards for doing whatever the advertising community regarded as good. And a good commercial, in my opinion, was one that expressed the precise characteristics of value clearly and specifically, not merely one that "imprinted" identity on people's minds.

True, there are sensible innovatory people out there who treat the customer decently, believe in their product and sell it by showing off its good points. But there are also hangers-on in the business world, who may be doomed in the longer term but succeed in getting by for some time through no good or even realistic deed of their own, companies as well as individuals.

No conclusion- that's it.

piano playing update

I wrote a long post about Beethoven, Mozart, and Romantics (Choping and Rachmaninov, specifically), and which appealed to which different age-groups. Blogger ate it.

Oh well. I could have just summarised it thus anyway:

"Although I used to think that Romantic music was kind of Teenaged (accessible and sentimental), I now wonder if it isn't actually quite Grown Up (straightforward and honestly expressive)."

Of course, all the great composers mentioned above are great, therefore it is rather trivial to compare them in this kind of way. But it means something to me, despite being more of a thinking-exercise than anything applicably true.

Any opinions welcome, and also any recommendations of piano music I should be playing next. No concertos please: I don't have a spare orchestra to accompany me locked away in the closet. On my list already: Bach preludes and fugues, and English suites; some Brahms but I don't know what, and I do also have Debussy preludes. Thank you.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

the tyranny/ loveliness of having stuff


I haven't done much cooking lately, mostly just fajitas (chicken ones, fish ones, and ones with just the vegetables) because moving house takes quite a lot of your time and energy for quite a few weeks, if you insist on having everything perfect like me and going through each individual book and replacing each ugly plastic thing from last time round with just the right yet also bargain better version, which means also spending a lot of time researching your shopping in order to get everything cheap. We did really well though, I found a really nice wardrobe a hundred years old (which is unusual in America) for fifty dollars, it just took a lot of small-ad research, a long drive out to the people who owned it, and then some more drives back and forth to hire a truck (Home Depot hires trucks for I think about one hour for about $19, which is very good) and all the time it took to do all this and the moving. Then multiply that lots of times, because similar work went into buying all sorts of other things.

Sometimes people sell things because they are moving, and you can tell that really they don't want to, they just think they have to. Every time I look at the nice pot-plant on the sideboard, I think of the chap who really should have just taken it with him to Boston- it's only a plant, he could have carried it on the plane, surely? I hate the way people accept unnecessary loss and distress as part of everyday life when all they need to do is make a bit more effort and hang onto the things they care about. Not just pot-plants, obviously- the good stuff they believe in. In my view it is morally imperative to be as cheerful as possible, and anything that makes your mouth curve down in dismay must be changed or conquered. If you really can't take the pot plant, come to terms with that. Sometimes, it is true, you really can't take the pot-plant.

On the other hand, I prefer people who move and grieve their pot-plant to people who refuse to move because they think they can't take their pot plant. It's just a pot plant. But stuff can be a great tyranny, which is why I wrote that post on the last blog called "Crap in the attic".

Today I am going to try and buy a large rug for the living-room floor. The floor is very old hard wood which needs some protection. There is an old half-price rug from Wal-mart down at the moment, which looks acceptable but there is something wrong with the colours. People seem to think that if they make sure rug colours are dingy enough, they will go with anything. The opposite is true, they just drain the life out of everything around them. Rugs should either be nice colours, or neutral. There are plenty of acceptable cheap neutral rugs in Home Depot, but I would rather have something more alive. Target has a bright orange one which looked good on their website, but in the flesh it is rather nasty. Large oriental rugs cost a fortune even at IKEA, so if there is nothing in the rug shop we are visiting today, the Wal-mart one will stay for the time being. Or I might end up making one myself from plaited bits of fabric, but that would take about a year, with the distinct risk of turning out bad in the end anyway.

Dilemmas, dilemmas. People tend to think it is "superficial" to concern oneself with such things, no doubt because their every waking second is filled with far loftier things, what they are I know not but I am sure they are most impressive and include voluntary work at the local soup-kitchen. I will probably be doing that too soon, though, because once the house is perfect it will be onto the next thing. I'm not changing anything else ever again, too much hard work.

Friday, July 15, 2005

oh, never mind

I am so fed up with procrastinating about my blogroll, the embarrassingly short list you see there on the right. Of course, there is nothing more ludicrous to blog about than the dilemmas of blogrolling, but now I know I am not the only one who obsesses about such things, because in his return to blogging Brian Micklethwait mentions the same sort of dilemma. I am very glad to see that Brian is back and also "unplugged", as it were, from the specialist disciplines (culture and education) that previously defined his writing, and newly determined to sort out my own blogrolling problem forthwith. Tonight is a good time to begin because my (was going to put an adjective here, but frankly none are good enough) husband is working all night from home, which means I will probably be up for ages too.

So, I have decided just to link everything I ever enjoy reading, whether or not I agree with everything it says, and in no particular order, because categories are just impossible to organise, and there it is. And I think I will probably be blogging more often from now on (yes yes, more ludicrous self-referential blogging about blogging, I know) because, well, I just feel that way.

Expect random variations on all sorts of themes in no particular order. And, happy Saturday.

Thursday, July 14, 2005


I have to tell you, I have completely given up watching TV these days.

To put it more accurately, I have completely given up trying to find anything on TV worth the effort of watching it. People think watching TV is easy, all you have to do is turn it on, sit back and play around with a few buttons. This is completely wrong. Actually, you need either the patience of a saint of the encylopedic knowledge of an astrophysicist in order to find anything fractionally interesting or entertaining. You can flick channels for hours, but every time you do that there are minutes of observation to be done before you can tell what is actually on, including waiting through commercials. You can look up the TV guide, which is work, and unless you know the shows already won't help tell you if they are any good, so you can read reviews of shows, and then you need to know which reviewers are half-sensible, so, more research work.

Even with the best possible research, you can still get to the end of a show (this also applies to movies) and it can be a great big letdown, maybe the conclusion makes no sense or there are stupid bigoted ideas that cause you to reinterpret the entire thing and realise it was terrible, and then you have wasted your time.

Of course, if you like watching other people suffering, or if you are obssessed with food, or something similar, then it is easy. TV satisfies people's material obssessions quite well. But if that doesn't get boring after quite a short time too, there is something wrong with you. I spent some time a while back watching all the DIY and cookery shows, but then I finished watching them because there wasn't anything new to see. Cook books are much better, plus you can take them in the kitchen and follow the instructions at your own leisure. Same with gardening, home decorating etc books. And if I absolutely have to know what is going on the world I would rather read it on the internet than watch hundreds of people on TV weeping and protesting and so on, which is distressing and does not teach me anything.

I have been watching one DVD only, lately, and it is a sci-fi series called "Farscape". A small minority of the episodes are extremely duff, and they occasionally have completely excruciating (but not explicit) romantic scenes, but on the whole it is very good and very meaningful. The episode I saw the other night was absolutely brilliant, all about how metaphorically blind people crave the thing they do not understand, and will lie, steal and exploit others in order to get what they don't know how to achieve for themselves. Yet they never do get it, they just get closer to it, and crave it all the more, causing ever-increasing trouble until they are stopped. And at the same time, they only get away with this for as long as the people being exploited fail to trust their own good moral instincts, and allow them to get away with it. And this episode contained some of the funniest drama I have ever seen in my life, I was literally crying with laughter. Some of this comes from knowing the characters well, probably, as I have seen every episode in order from the beginning.

But I have also seen some terrible movies in the last year, and I take it personally when this happens. The idea that you can "just switch off" unpleasantness is false. When you start watching a dramatic work, you enter into a deal with the makers of it. You trust them to tell you something useful, good and/or entertaining. And sometimes all they do is trick you into getting involved with their convincing, sympathetic characters, before murdering them in gross ways for no morally comprehensible reason whatever. I think this is exploitation of the audience. Quite a lot of films exploit the audience, and if the audience doesn't mind then that is just depressing. There comes a time in some movies when one just wants to join in the murder of the totally appalling lead characters, or when one wants to take revenge against the author for their meaningless exploitative suffering. The energy that some people put into proving that the world is a pointless, arbitrary, death-driven place is evil and disgusting. We would not want to go and see a movie that turns out halfway through to be secretly arguing that the Nazis were right. We rely on the judgement of the moviemakers, audience and reviewers who have gone before us to make sure that doesn't happen to us. But it does happen, and when it happens we generally just accept the evil worldview as another version of truth.

I am sure there are some good things on American TV. I just don't have a long or boring enough life to want to invest the necessary effort in locating them. Please do not suggest the Tivo: all my favourite shows of the past, I happened upon by accident. That is the joy of British TV, where there are only four channels worth watching, it is very easy to spot something new and good and the quality is very high, there is probably one show most days of the week that I would want to watch. Which is about half of one per cent of the entire terrestrial TV output. Massive.

the end of fashion


Here's a good way to lose half my remaining reader (actually, there could be hundreds of you for all I know, as I haven't bothered adding a sitemeter): I am now going to talk about fashion.

The significance of clothing to the world as a whole is obvious- witness the hijab and the burqua, the black hats of the Chassidim, and the staggering amount of time, effort and money that goes into producing clothing in the West. We even have a Western kind of clothing "ethic" now, in organic, ecological clothing lines. But the idea of fashion, always changing and based on nothing other than moneymaking for its own sake, is inherently offensive, or at least boring, to a lot of sensible people; and for very good reasons indeed.

However, from this churning mass come up occasionally good ideas, and as a person who believes it is the good ideas that will ultimately stick, I find this encouraging. You might think, walking down the street, that such optimism is utterly bonkers. What about all that uncovered, wobbling, unappealing flesh? Why do young people these days all model themselves on Shaggy from "Scooby Doo"? Only the other day I saw someone cycling along in a t-shirt bearing a legend that would have had him arrested for obscenity not so many years ago. And it is obvious that the idea of exposure has never been more extreme than it is now, what with the pants (yes I mean trousers)-falling-off-to-show-six-inches-of-underwear phenomenon, the clinging tracksuit (surely the last thing you need to cling?), the RSJ push-up cleavage bra, and so on and so on.

So I will not blame you for a moment if you do not share my optimism that lots more people are going to be looking stylish, decent, pleasant to the eye and overall undisturbing, in a year or two's time. But that is my prediction, based on a slowly emerging new line of thought in the fashion industry (slow emergence being in itself highly unusual in this field of thought). Fashion trends are always about reacting against the last trend, and this one, I think, reacts against the entire idea of fashion, which makes it pretty radical. It is, instead, about beauty. Not the beauty of the female sexual form, but the beauty of the clothes, which complement the female form rather than just revealing it or obliterating/overriding it.

If you don't mind looking like a slob, then fine. But the ideal clothing, in my opinion, is comfortable, practical, easy to wear (which means not revealing), and also beautiful in itself. Beautiful clothes should make the person wearing them look beautiful, but not in an artificial way, merely because they do not interfere with the wearer's inherent, or natural, beauty, by distracting from it with either attention-seeking of their own, or jarring ugliness.

And I think when we get these clothes, which will happen not just when they are available but when we "get" these clothes, it will be the end of fashion as we understand it now. There will still be new shows and new collections, and there will still be people wearing horrible things, and so on, but these will be insignificant. Whereas, throughout the history of fashion so far, trends have had a huge influence on what we wear and how we perceive clothes, far stronger than most of us are aware of. We are more aesthetically sensitive than we think, and our opinions often change simply because fashion dictated it. How many female readers once wore black leggings and baggy tops all the time, and now regard them as horrendously awful, ugly, dreadful things? They seemed comfortable and attractive at the time. What happened? Fashion changed, that is all.

But if I am right, the next set of trends to come in will stick forever, and never be regarded as ugly. We know that this happens with clothes: plain old-fashioned jeans will never be ugly (although low-rise flared ones shortly will); straightforward t-shirts will be worn forever; and the relatively recent "vintage" trend is the most significant beginning of the end of fashion- some of us have been wearing decades-old things for twenty years, because really good clothes can and do stay beautiful. Not that people will stop buying new clothes, there will always be room for positive change in an individual person's life- but the constant perception-shifting that is caused by fashion's latest trends will stop.

Not many people notice this in themselves, because no-one likes to think that their aesthetic perception is subject to their cultural environment. But perhaps if I suggest that the clothes you have to see other people wearing might well dramatically improve in the next year or two, that could sound like good news. And maybe if I suggest that there will be lots more nice, good, non-dating, "classic" clothes for you to buy and wear, that would sound like good news too. Personally, I am very excited, because nice clothes make me very happy, but I can't wait all that time so I may have to get a sewing machine soon.

Next post, I will talk about examples of actual clothes.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

home-grown terrorism

So British politicians and important people are shocked and dismayed that the London bombers hailed not from the mountains of Afghanistan, but the United Kingdom itself.

Well, obviously. Homicidal maniacs are supposed to be the product of poor, deprived, miserable countries such as "Palestine", otherwise why would they want to do something like that? Some kind of lesson to be learned here, methinks.

Luckily, some other people are being a bit more emotionally resilient. You have to look at this "We are not afraid" photo gallery. The people who photographed themselves ages ago apologising for the war in Iraq really started a handy meme there. There's always something good to be got out of something bad, if you look hard enough for it.

Monday, July 11, 2005



motives of terrorism

A further level of difficulty in the attempt to fathom the mind of the terrorist is the question of whether, in fact, there is anything much there to fathom.

It is often said about the serial killer Harold Shipman that we "may never know" what his motives were. As if it is possible to explain rationally why someone would murder hundreds of innocent, irrelevant, inoffensive victims in cold blood; in his case, without anyone even noticing at the time.

However, surely the real point is that Shipman's crimes were exactly as evil as they were motiveless? The other example of "I did it because I could," that springs to mind is obviously Bill Clinton. We accept that people will take bad things that make them feel good if they think they can get away with it, in the case of adultery. But in the case of murder, it is also true. Murdering makes people feel good. Particularly evil, messed-up people really will do it simply because they can.

Some human beings are capable of doing horrific things just for a "hit". We expect murderous dictators to have underlings tortured to death just for fun. Because they can. Well, non-powerful non-dictators can too, sometimes. Shipman did. So did Al Qaeda. Millionaire Bin Laden perfectly epitomises this rule. He could, he did, and so far he has got away with it uncaptured.

Motivelessness is inexplicable: except if you accept that murder is something that makes some people feel good, and that plus the opportunity and maybe sometimes a bit of encouragement (and Palestinian suicide bombers often get a lot of "encouragement") is the only motive some people need.

There are two kinds of motives. Rational motives, of varying degrees of logical, come from conscious reasoning. Sub-rational motives are instinctive, and they often direct you towards doing things that make you feel good. If it seems to you trivial or harmless, you don't care about the consequences, and it makes you feel good, then you will very likely do it. This is very common indeed. There are a lot of people who engage in petty, trivial meannesses and so on, for the sake of making themselves feel more powerful, and who have practically no emotional attachment whatsoever to the idea of being or actively doing good. This is why evil is often described as "mundane". But the idea of motiveless evil does not, in itself, require explanation. It's an everyday occurrence.

Some terrorists are perhaps sincere religious fanatics, taking certain passages in the Koran literally, and trying to follow instructions. Others simply enjoy killing, and assert the above belief so they can be in on the next big spree. Neither has an identifiable "motive" in the right-or-wrong-but-still-identifably-done-by-reasoning sense, because their internal goals are met in the action, not its outcome. We aren't going to get anywhere by looking for "motives" in the usual way. "Are they perhaps being reasonable?" is the kind of question only a self-absorbed egotist would bother asking about a bunch of people who blast innocent commuters to smithereens, a bit like asking, "Did the Jews bring the Holocaust on themselves?" Well, if they had been armed to the hilt and gone and occupied Israel in large numbers fifty years earlier, they would have avoided the Holocaust perhaps. If the people blown to piece in London had become millionaires and not needed to use the tube or bus anymore, they might have avoided being murdered. But neither brought it on themselves by not "doing better" at something else.

We may eventually end Islamist terrorism with a combination of measures such as establishing democracy in terrorism-sponsoring dictatorships, through temporary occupation or international pressure, and the progressive distancing from and ending of support for Islamist terrorism by Islam itself. But we have a lot of motes in our eyes. The idea that terrorism can ever, under any conceivable circumstances, "win", is the most notable. I think it comes from our own sense of failure at not understanding "why" they want to do this to us. Although we are not "bringing it on ourselves", we need to understand this before we can get more confident and assertive in the directions that might help.

We have power. We just don't realise it. Under democracy we surrender freedoms for one reason only: we decided to. That's not loss of freedom, it's plain stupidity. When people care enough to do something constructive about their problems, democracy responds to their demands. The problem right now is that, almost inevitably in the information-age, the people with the loudest mouths are the ones with the worst ideas. The complacent ones seeking what Mark Steyn calls the "quiet life option" are not antiwar marchers but their fearful political opposites, who sit silently at dinner parties for fear of upsetting the somewhat over-emotional other side.

A march against terrorism is being planned for London, and I hope other people join Jackie in attending. It's a start. Freedom is not going to support itself. The most powerful force in the world is inertia.

Friday, July 08, 2005

goals of Islamism

I am interrupting my embargo on all things depressing and political to write something about the London attacks. Being British and having lived longer in London than any other part of the UK, it feels necessary to gather some thoughts on the subject and share them here. But I want to do it properly, which means putting some thought in. I want to say something about the "what do they want?" question.

This article in the Times sets out quite clearly that while the Islamist strategic goal is clearly defined:

With the advent of Islam all previous religions were “abrogated” (mansukh), and their followers regarded as “infidel” (kuffar). The aim of all good Muslims, therefore, is to convert humanity to Islam, which regulates Man’s spiritual, economic, political and social moves to the last detail.

... there are differences within the movement on how this should be achieved. The three main approaches are:

1. Dialogue, leading to the world willingly converting to Islam. (I do now know enough about Islam to have an opinion on whether it can be consistent with a live-and-let-live approach to other religions, but in any case if all religions stuck to mere dialogue no trouble would be caused between them).

2. Tactical land war, as espoused by Bin Laden's
... supposed No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who insists that the Islamists should first win the war inside several vulnerable Muslim countries, notably Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

3. Pure terror, or ghazavat:
... others, including Osama bin Laden, a disciple of al-Maudoodi, believe that the Western-dominated world is too mired in corruption to hear any argument, and must be shocked into conversion through spectacular ghazavat (raids) of the kind we saw in New York and Washington in 2001, in Madrid last year, and now in London.

And indeed, Westerners are rushing out in their droves to sign up at the nearest mosque. Erm, not. Shurely there is shome mishtake here, and I intend to pin it down a little more in my next post. Feel free to make suggestions in the meantime, if you are still reading this blog.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

London attacks

Instapundit says,

One hopes that the British authorities will respond to these attacks by cracking down on the rather large number of Muslim extremists who have set up shop in London.

I agree with that. I also think these attacks are a great big Al Qaeda failure. Not enough dead and not enough of a political excuse/ "connection" to hang them on. I think there is simply so much hatred brewing in certain mosques, it was going to spill over eventually unless stopped in advance. But people will continue working in London, and I doubt there will be any identifiable outcome for the terrorists a la Madrid. They should have timed it with the General Election. Bunch of hopeless incompetents.

Poor London. When will the bombings end for good.

Sunday, July 03, 2005


One sure sign of getting old is deciding you prefer Mozart to Beethoven. Young people always prefer Romantic music to Classical music, because they are so full of emotions swirling all around inside themselves and appreciate the discovery that they are not the only person who ever felt that way. But when you get on a bit, calm down and start involuntarily noticing mundane things like the beauty of everyday plants, all that emoting becomes rather exhausting. Even worse, you begin wondering suspiciously if it isn't occasionally a little bit... sentimental? Not that I would say Beethoven is sentimental at all, but when one is having a nice life appreciating the sunshine and discovering beef hot-dogs, wallowing around in feelings of death, doom, depression and (alright, I'll say it) deafness, does seem somewhat inapropriate.

Anyway, I am finding that whereas I only feel like playing Beethoven sonatas once or twice a day, the Mozart one I am learning (in C, k306) is completely addictive and impossible to put down. It is both very very catchy, almost in a pop-song sort of a way, and at the same time constantly surprising so you never get bored of it. (Well, I never get bored of it, but I don't know whether the next-door neighbours feel the same way. They can definitely hear, the houses round here are just little wooden boxes).

The other uncanny thing about this sonata is, there are many many bits which are exactly like the Beethoven I've been playing (number 17). I don't know if the Mozart one is quite late, but it has suddenly loud, dramatic, quite chromatic passages, chromatic broken chords in octaves in left and right hands, happy-tunes that are slightly less innocent than they sound, and lots of other very Beethovenish characteristics. So I suppose Beethoven really does follow on from Mozart in a smooth kind of a way. The only problem is, after getting so into the Mozart it can seem like Beethoven is less good, really milking the ideas rather than keeping them concise, clever and under control. (And that's enough alliteration for one day.)

On the other hand, I played through the super-famous first movement of the Moonlight sonata today, and it is definitely nothing like Mozart at all. Beethoven's pianistic genius really produces a completely different sound from the instrument than anything Mozart probably even imagined was possible on one of the more basic pianos they had when he was writing. Apparently, crescendos were only invented in the middle of Mozart's time, when they became possible on a keyboard. Before then, you had to pull out stops to make definite dynamic changes. My piano teacher, Miss Kitchin, once told me that when Mozart first played one of his compositions with this newfangled crescendo thingie in it, people were so scared they ran out of the room. I expect they thought if the piano got any louder it might explode, or something. These days it is practically impossible for any kind of artist to frighten anybody. We are scared of nothing except death, and our own phobias. Or so we say, but I am not entirely convinced that we are telling ourselves the truth.

Friday, July 01, 2005

do what you have to do


I think this is possibly the best advice anyone ever gave me.

Note that it does not mean:
- do what you feel like doing
- do what makes you feel good
- do what you can justify
- do what you can persuade others to go along with
- do what you can coerce others into going along with
- do what you want.

Sometimes there are things we have to do even if it means being rejected, loathed and despised. But it seems to me that if you do what you have to do, things will very likely come together eventually: whereas if you don't, then they never can.