Archive for June, 2008

London: a trip to the metropolis

Posted in politics, travel with tags on June 26, 2008 by Philonous

So here I am. Trafalgar square. Monument to imperialism, war and the triumph of Graeco-Roman educated northern European stiff upper lip over a small beligerent Frenchman. Le Fox of course, being one of our kir-swilling crepe-eating brethren from the-other-side-of-le-manche isn’t with here with me, taking Nelson’s column as a direct insult to the French red, white and blue. Ok, i made that up, but being avian-averse, she wouldn’t have a particularly good time anyway.

I’ve just walked here from Buckingham Palace along Whitehall, the seat of British power. The palace’s environs are full of well-to-do houses, old world clubs and stretches of green, all ceremonially guarded by soldier in funny hats on funny horses. From these treelined streets, Whitehall seemed most clinical. Security guards and tourists everywhere-imposing white buldings from which one fifth of humanity was once governed. It seemed rather apt that the side entrance to Buckingham palace (through which the scones and crumpets pass, never to return) was relatively deserted with a traffic cone blocking the part of the opening not covered by the automatic barrier.

In comparison, Downing street seemed like a fortified bunker with successive lines of huge railings complicated entry systems and stern looking flak-jacketed police. Is the Prime Minister so unpopular? How sad the Queen must feel, no longer inspiring enough hatred in her subjects to warrant greater protection.

BM est. 1759

Posted in culture, history, travel with tags , on June 23, 2008 by Philonous

Finally, since I am in London after all, I thought it only right that I visit the British Museum. The first time i walked into this building, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The huge classical colonade gives way at the entrance to a dark foyer flanked by the giftshop and a couple of galleries. I remember thinking that it would be full of very stuffy old men looking at very stuffy old exhibitions which would be nothing more than the trophy cabinets of dead merchant soldiers.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Walking through, the dark recess suddenly opens into a huge marble space. In the centre is the cylindrical reading room, famous perhaps more for Marx choosing it as his study while writing the communist manifesto than for its books. Now it is simply an architectural curiosity, the constant stream of tourists making constructive thought rather difficult. I suppose that originally, this part was open to the elemts before it was roofed over in the 90s with a perspective warping glass triangulation.
This time my attention was drawn by a 1st century AD statue of a cheeky chappy on horseback, featured to the right. The thing that caught me more than anything else was that he was naked in all the ‘important’ areas, and yet sports a pair of sandals and a lovely oversized handkercheif. Either that or he just hasn’t quite mastered the art of wearing a toga.

Picadilly, Peekahdeelee, Pick-a-Deli…? a culinary exchange

Posted in Cuisine, culture, Food with tags on June 19, 2008 by Philonous

Last weekend we hosted a party at our place for which we cooked a range of popular French party dishes, including a cake au jambon (a cake with ham, cheese, fresh green peppercorns and herbs). Our guests – who were mainly British – had apparantly never heard of a salty cake before in their lives. Some just called it quiche. A few said it was “very good”. Others just looked confused. It was as if we had brought fish and chips and steak pie to the French people: “what eez zeez eengleesh food?!”

When I tell people that I come from Paris, some will automatically tell me how they went there on holiday and how the food was absolutely fantastic. I wonder! The cake au jambon certainly demonstrated that there are differences in culinary tastes and expectations. Parisians know that you have to pay a lot to get good food in their city – and where tourists go is usually expensive and serves mediocre food. Did my friends really have real French food?

Just like I had to discover that in some parts of England having tea means having dinner and having dinner means having lunch, some still have to discover that British super-market quiche and baguette doesn’t taste French. And there was me thinking that Jane Eyre was constantly drinking tea and eating scones and sugar coated cakes! “yes, yes, verrree breeteesh”.

I still haven’t gotten used to steak (and kidney) pie and fish and chips, but there are a few things which I appreciate about English gastronomy:

  1. Pimm’s with lemonade – because it’s got cucumber in it, which I think is eccentric
  2. sausage and mash patatoes with ale – because it’s easy and filling pub food
  3. peas with mint – because other French people hate it
  4. crumpets – who would have thought that bread could have such a consistency
  5. Scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam – because the Queen’s beagles have it for breakfast
  6. pheasant – especially if it’s home killed in fox hunting costume and AGA cooked
  7. christmas pudding and mince pies
  8. jacket patatoes with beans and cheese – because that’s the only decent food from my work cafeteria

Next dish I would like to try: the toad in a hole – because of the strange name!

Meanwhile, if you’d like to cook French I recommend the website People have already posted many of their personal recipes on this site, and the good news is that an English version is also available.
For your next Paris holiday, you’ll get authentic food at Le Balzar. The best time to go is on sunday for lunch. Of course you’ll have to start with an apĂ©ritif like a kir. And after your entree and plat principal, you’ll have to eat one of their delicious dessert.

Love song

Posted in music, New Zealand, TV with tags on June 18, 2008 by Philonous

The other day The Lodger and I were watching Flight of the Conchords:

Acquiring target…

Posted in culture, science, tech with tags , on June 15, 2008 by Philonous

Stalking friends through facebook (hurrah!) I stumbled upon the following bit of Tai Chi for the tech-generation:

my morning ritual
Date: 2004-05-10, 9:56AM EDT I have a morning ritual that I need to share. I
call it “the terminator”. First I crouch down in the shower in the classic
“naked terminator traveling through time” pose. With my eyes closed I crouch
there for a minute, visualizing either Arnold or the guy from the second movie
(not the chick in the third one because that one sucked) and I start to hum the
terminator theme. Then I slowly rise to a standing position and open my eyes. It
helps me to proceed through my day as an emotionless, cyborg badass. The only
problem is if the shower curtain sticks to my terminator leg. It ruins the
fantasy. I think maybe I read too many comic books when I was a kid…

Having returned to my chair from the floor (which I should probably hoover one of these days) I remembered something I’d read recently about research happening at the University of Washington. Forget massive virtual reality headsets from the nineties, forget cinema specs from the noughties, think Terminator style text superimposed on the world – the contact lens display is here.

Ok, it’s not totally here yet, at the moment it’s an array of minute LEDs in a contact lens, but the possibilities are intriguing. These circuts are so small that manufacturing them by hand is impossible. Instead, somehow the team harnesses capillary action to have the components assemble themselves. This to me is a marvel in itself – that a collection of parts can somehow be designed in such a way that it is their very nature to combine in an ordered way is completely mindblowing. This is apparently old hat. The main issue was to make the lens itself biologically inert. To do this, the circuit, which is itself only nanometers thick, is sandwiched between a couple of layers of an inert polymer. Nevertheless, the lens has only been tested on rabbits so far to check for adverse effects.
No doubt this will soon be snapped up by some corporation or other for further investment. In a few years we’ll all be able to play at being Arnie…

The Man With No Name

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June 14, 2008 by Philonous

I just read that most American presidents cite their favourite films as westerns. I really like westerns. I know that most people don’t. For me, it’s probably a cultural thing- I grew up on a farm, my dad is kind of a cowboy, he liked westerns, so I learned to as well.
Traditional westerns (al la Serge Leone) are really really slow. It’s all about the anticipation. Most people hate this pace- they get bored. This is something that’s really copied by Tarentino in Kill Bill which I think is fantastic. Watching the final confrontation in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or many of the scenes in Kill Bill, I just savor the timing. I’m practically bouncing in my seat while other people are looking at their watches. Basically its the complete opposite of say the Transformers or Die Hard. I think that you have to learn to watch these films- just like someone might learn to appreciate opera- to truly get the most out of them.
And don’t even get me started on the music… ah, Ennio Morricone! If only you could do the soundtrack to my life…
Cowboys and the wild west are one of the most popolar and romantic themes in American life. They’re frougth with strife in reference to the reality- the politics of American expansion, the (un)reality of the American Dream/Manifest Destiny. I know both- but if I’m asked I’ll say I wish I lived during this time period. People want to control their own destiny in their own way, they want to think that they’re moral and good, and have the power to act on this. They want to be clever and powerful but independent and self sufficient. Hence the popularity with presidents, I think.
So let me know when you’re ready for me to bring over my dvd collection, and we’ll begin the education…

World Wide Knit in Public Day

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June 14, 2008 by Philonous

For me, not as much fun as cycling naked. Unless I knit naked! Hmm…

More interesting music

Posted in interesting music on June 13, 2008 by Philonous

You are listening to:

  1. Cars -Gary Numan
  2. Get over – dream
  3. Flower of Northumberland – John Renbourn group
  4. The Sea – Morcheeba
  5. Mount Wroclai – Beirut
  6. Let no man steal your thyme – Pentangle
  7. Wonderful life – Black
  8. Is she weird? – Pixies
  9. Silence is golden – The Tremeloes

"Cet affreux cauchemar est termine…"

Posted in film, horror, linguistics with tags on June 12, 2008 by Philonous

Cauchemar is the French word for nightmare. It is derived from cauquemaire used in the 15th century. It is composed of the words caucher and mare.

Caucher is derived from cauchier which means “to press”. Cauchier is probably a mix of the ancient French word chauchier (“to press” or “to tread upon”) and the latin word calcare (“to sprain one’s ankel” or “to heel”)

Mare comes from the Picard word mare, borrowed from the Dutch word mare (which means “ghost”).

Ghost in the Shell

Posted in movie on June 11, 2008 by Philonous

Over the weekend, Le Fox and I, beckonned on by the Manga exhibition at Urbis (which led to the Guerilla Gardening post) decided to watch the first two Ghost in the Shell films. They’re Japanese animated films with the usual futuristic distopia filled with crazed cyborgs and corrupt corporations. Widely cited as major inspiration for The Matrix, it tells the story of two crime fighting cyborgs in a bionic society infused with chips and circuits as they try to track down the mysterious Puppet Master who constantly hacks into things. Surfing the internet is plugging your brain directly into the system – vulgar interfaces are rarely used. I must admit to cringing from time to time however at the pseudo-philosophical pronouncements about being and self. There were certainly times when dialogue gave way to a long and drawn out soliloquy tossed from character to character…

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So man is an individual only because of his intentional memory. But memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. he advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of uncalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought, parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.
Nakamura: Nonsense! This is no proof at all that you’re a living, thinking life form.
Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you? When neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is.

All of this said, I did actually quite enjoy it. One of the marvels of this film is that it is based on a 1989 Manga: it really is incredibly forward thinking in terms of its predictions for technology in society. Alas, the copy of the first film we had was dubbed into a collection of terrible American accents which seemed to jar significantly with the Japanese aesthetic (which was magnificient). Having slated dubbing, Archie pointed out that perhaps I was suffering from what his hero Edward Said would have called Orientophilia. Indeed, perhaps the dialogue in Japanese was just as stilted, and intentionally so – the eyes of all the cyborgs in the film are intentionally unblinking.

Our copy of the second film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was nicely subtitled which certainly added to the experience. This time, the cyborg police investigate a series of murders perpetrated by a new line of sexually enabled robots.
Made in 2004, the visual effects were an age ahead of those in the first Ghost in the Shell. Clearly conscious of its legacy in The Matrix, this film seemed much more overtly philosophical quoting Confuscious every other sentence with some scenes made up entirely of one character sending forth a line from Paradise Lost, the other promptly riposting with Psalm 113. Again, toward the end dialogue gave way to a game of ‘catch the bludgeoning moral soliloquy’. By far the most interesting parts of the film were the aesthetic mastery – there is an astounding parade at one point which took my breath away, the music – which was specially composed and based on Hungarian chant, and the creators’ vision for the integration of technology into every day life.

Both of these films are definitely worth watching – perhaps you are less cynical than me and can rise above the cringeworthy moments. Here are a couple of particularly visually stunning scenes, one from the first and one from the second (I know, youtube hardly does them justice):