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January 30, 2003

The Care of Listed Buildings

Until a couple of weeks ago, we had a local cinema. A fine, large, listed building that had seen far better days. Amongst its many charms was one of the very few remaining cinema organs still in place and working. It was the only cinema in Walthamstow, or indeed anywhere in Waltham Forest.

Several months ago, it was sold to a church. And not just any church, but the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, linked to the Victoria Climbié case, and being investigated by the Charity Commission because of questions about child protection issues and fund-raising strategies.

A vigorous campaign began to save the cinema and prevent the change of use application from going through. Planning permission was refused, but the cinema closed anyway shortly after New Year. But the cinema could not be used for church activity pending a public inquiry, tentatively slated for the summer.

It is common, when planning permission is turned down for listed buildings, for accidents to happen to the original fixtures and fittings. Very sad. Then, when the person or organisation wanting the change of use appeals, they explain that there's no need to keep the original fittings, because they've been destroyed anyway; and hence no reason to refuse planning permission.

Over the weekend, only a couple of weeks after UCKG took over the building, there was an illegal rave at the cinema. It went on for thirty hours, with police refusing to intervene due to lack of manpower. From the news article:

A police officer contacted the UCKG on Tuesday to ask about damage, and was told to fax his questions, and then they might respond.

When the Guardian contacted the group, the press officer refused to take our calls and sent a fax claiming they were "responding" along with the police.

But the police said the UCKG, which bought the cinema for £2.8 million, had not been in contact to report the damage.

There's been extensive damage to the screens, seats, projection equipment, and that unique organ. All of which makes it far less likely that the cinema will ever be returned to its proper use.

Posted by Alison at 07:45 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 27, 2003

A List of Songs

There's an Internet meme going round about songs that remind you of things. I find it hard to answer these properly; I keep thinking of other songs that mean different things, that the quiz doesn't remind me of. And then there's loads of questions I can't answer. So here instead are some songs.

A song that reminds me of lost love: "The First Picture of You" by the Lotus Eaters. It was, obviously, a holiday romance; but quite a successful one as these things go. I still stalk him on Google sometimes.

The first time I realised songs could be really meaningful and speak to my heart: "Forever and Ever", by Slik. Sometime later I realised that some art only speaks to certain people at certain times; and for this one you had to be a misunderstood ten-year-old protogoth.

A song to chop onions by: "Lies" by Stan Rogers. Floods of tears, every single time. I cannot even read the lyrics on a website without crying.

Most unlikely cover version ever: "Oops I Did It Again", covered by Richard Thompson. Bitter, vitriolic, superb.

The song we got married to: We played a set of five tracks at the register office, but nobody could hear them because the sound was turned down. If just one, it has to be "Maybe Then I'll Be a Rose" by Les Barker (as sung by June Tabor). (Marianne, who was 20 months old at the time of our wedding, had a shirt to cover up her bridesmaid's dress that included a line from this song: "ten out of ten for true true love, nought out of ten for timing"). If we'd had dancing, the song for the first dance would have had to have been "Blood Wedding" by the Oysterband.

A song I'd be quite happy to never hear again: The BBC's version of "Perfect Day".

A song I'd like to wake up to: I don't really like to wake up, so I don't really like to wake up to music. I especially wouldn't want to wake up to "I got you, Babe".

A song I wouldn't know about if it wasn't for an efficient PR girl: "Kiri's Piano" by James Keelaghan. I first saw James Keelaghan because his PR agent had read a review I wrote of an Oysterband gig at the Borderline, and suggested I might like to go see Keelaghan there. I did, and I took some friends; which was a good thing, as there weren't very many people at that gig who weren't card-carrying Canadians.

Speaking of card-carrying Canadians: This isn't really intended to be an all-Canadian music post, but I have to mention something by Moxy Früvous. It could be "Fly", or it could be "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors". Or it could, really, be almost anything in between. We saw them live, at the Mean Fiddler, on the evening of a tube strike. It was quiet. They called out "any Canadians here tonight?" And then, surveying the response, "is there anyone here tonight who isn't Canadian?"

A song I like from my parents record collection: They had one Beatles single; just one, to register the phenomenon rather than because they liked it. I've always liked the B side, "Thank You Girl". And of course, my father has many, many records by the late Jimmy Shand.

A song that reminds me of Steven: "Oh Baby I" by Eternal. Not our sort of music at all. But it was a huge hit when I first moved to London, and we used to chortle at its gloriously conditional declaration: "for as long as we're together I will cherish this everlasting love".

(via Swiss Tony)

Posted by Alison at 10:06 PM | Comments (3)

January 25, 2003

Stick Close to Your Desks

Last night I took my mother to see H.M.S. Pinafore at the Savoy. The evening was primarily intended as a treat for my mum, but I enjoyed myself hugely, and have been humming the tunes ever since.

This production places the story thirty years or so forward in time to the era of ocean-going liners. That was a clever move which makes room for a sharp, metallic set, a set of highly mannered, smartly drilled sailors, and a female chorus of dotty suffragettes that brought the house down every time they appeared. The choreography was charming, nobody ever puts a foot out of place, and there is no suggestion that the production is taking itself too seriously.

I made the mistake of describing Pinafore as lowbrow to my Mum. But really, what more might you want from an evening out than wickedly funny songs, lovely music and a batch of nice camp sailor boys?

Now, one nice thing about G&S is that it's in the public domain. Remember that? So the G&S Archive has libretto & midi versions of all the operas. The librettos are available in Palm format from the wickedly titled Palm Pirates. You can even download early recordings as mp3s, entirely free and legally, though in a rather convoluted way; and there is a 100MB per day limit, which got me all of Pinafore and about a third of The Mikado. So now I would be able to read the libretto on my Palm while listening to the music on my iPod, on the tube; if only I could refrain from singing along.

Of course, I don't really want early recordings, although they're fine; I would really have liked to have gone somewhere and downloaded, with no fuss and for a reasonable fee, the cast recording of the production I saw last night. I have no further use for the little shiny discs, or the packaging; instead I want minimalist files, a quick and convenient download, no middleman, and none of the cost overheads of packaging, distribution and retailing. What's more, I think this will soon be true of everyone else. I wonder whether the record companies will work this out before they all go bust?

Posted by Alison at 01:14 AM | Comments (1)

January 21, 2003


I went to read the slashdot thread that Patrick mentioned. I disagree with Patrick's point in any case; the key 'stop waiting for pages to load' feature is 'open new page in background' (a none-too-intuitive Cmd-shift-click in Safari), not tabbed browsing.

Although there was certainly a lot of noise in the thread, something slowly became clear to me. I suspect that I like tabs because I'm not hardwired to use either the Window or Dock menus. It's not Safari, it's me, still scrabbling around at the bottom of the Mac learning curve. And when they say that developing tabs would take energy away from the important stuff, they're probably right. Not to mention that Safari is intended to be a majority browser; which should leave plenty of room for niche products like an improved Chimera. But I'll be over here, teaching myself to choose a window from a menu rather than cycling through dozens.

I did like the "Welcome Safari User" logo on the Apple homepage. It made me think they care.

Update: Patrick e-mailed, to tell me that I can open pages in background, and do other things, and that there's a list of Safari shortcuts buried deep in the package at file:///Applications/ Turns out they're also in the Help; I'm already sufficiently habituated to Macs that I automatically assume:

Posted by Alison at 10:38 PM | Comments (3)

January 20, 2003

Staring into the Abyss

"When will we three meet again?" Oh, sometime in the summer. Maureen Kincaid Speller, Bridget Bradshaw and I had lunch and discussed the business of the League of Fan Funds. Now complete with bank account, we seem to be better at collecting money than disbursing it. Though not for long. Watch out for a website in a week or two; and it may well look quite a lot like this one.

After they'd left, I went into full-on Domestic Goddess mode, baking a proper birthday cake, biscuits, fairy cakes, and Cheesy Orange Pigs.

A Cheesy Orange Pig

The birthday cake had no icing in accordance with Marianne's wishes; but was filled with whipped cream and strawberries and raspberries. Which was all a lot better for the adults; and the children no more eschewed it than normal for birthday cake.

Had a brief chat with Kim Huett, luckily Not-at-all-Singed of Canberra. A close call, though, with damage only a few streets away. Also chatted to Dr Plokta, whose brother is in Canberra, and who has a brand new blog, Ask Dr Plokta. The blog appears to be very, very geeky; his switching journal is very much more technical than mine, for example. He mentioned that Steve Davies has taken the plunge and bought a Powerbook; which means that the Plokta households are 3/4 Mac now. And he suggested that I should be mounting my Windows shares with SMB Browse, which works ever so much better than the Finder.

I've discovered another interesting feature of Marianne's globe; it shows the International Date Line. Which appears to be rather more complex than last I looked. I was inspired to set a small trivia question. Supposing you want to sail a great circle route past the IDL in such a way as to cross the line as often as possible. What route (roughly) would you choose, and how often would you cross the line?

And this afternoon came the onslaught. Along with Caroline Mullan and Max, we fought bravely against the legions of battle droids, but were hopelessly outnumbered. After we'd cleaned up the devastation, Steven and I sat down to watch Attack of the Six Year Olds. Or something like that.

Posted by Alison at 12:56 AM | Comments (7)

January 18, 2003

Press Misrepresent Worldcon Shock

Newly on the web, thanks to the industry of Keith Stokes, is the following snippet about sf fans being abused by journalists:

Did you see the write-up ... (the magazine) gave to the convention? If you did not, you are lucky ... When the ... reporter showed up at the Hall, somebody evidently button-holed him and piloted him around, at the same time blowing off his mouth. The resulting write-up ... treated the whole thing as if: fandom were a bunch of children; pro mags catered to these children with ray gun thrillers and Martian invasion epics...; we didn't have much intelligence; and we gave off steam writing such letters as: Quote: "Gosh! Wow! Boy-oh-Boy!"

From the scans of Bob Tucker's Le Zombie 10, August 5, 1939. As you know Bob, the convention was Nycon; the magazine was Time. Le Zombie also announces "prints pictures", and indeed, the photo's clearer than some I see in fanzines now. (via Earl Kemp writing on Memoryhole)

Posted by Alison at 11:49 PM | Comments (0)

January 17, 2003

Even Minutiae are Limited on Weekdays

Yesterday I suffered from unaccountable melancholy; so I got enough sleep, got up today at a sensible time, took my vitamins, ate proper meals with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and cheered up a whole lot.

Picked up coffee at lunchtime, and also a loaf of nut bread and a (great) sandwich from the French bakery. Also more fruit and tea bags, and I broke my anti-consuming resolution by getting a cheap-in-sale china tea mug with integral strainer and lid. Which was worth it; the black tea tastes a thousand times better. It's partly the heat, but I also think it's partly the china; it cools the tea much less than the old mug. My grandmother would only ever drink tea from a china cup. She only ever bought one sort of tea, too; broken orange pekoe packed into miniature tea chests and sold in London by the now defunct Ceylon Tea Council. (A couple of years ago, remembering some but not all of this, I established the rest of the tale by talking to a man at Fortnum & Mason who knew everything about tea.)

When we got the coffee home, we helped Marianne find where it was sourced on her globe (Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, roasted today, and an organic Ugandan, if you're interested. I've never had Ugandan coffee before). Turning the globe, she said "That's China! Like in Mulan. Where did the Huns come from?" The globe also plays music for each country, but my faith in this feature was severely bashed when I failed to recognise the British music. There are two tunes for Britain; one is 'Greensleeves', and the other... isn't. Of course, the two most likely tunes, "God Save the Queen" and "Land of Hope and Glory", have both been appropriated by the Americans for other purposes. And my guess is that "Jerusalem" would just confuse people.

I had various plans for this evening; a soothing bubble bath plus book, or curling up with Steven and a nice film. Instead, I spent much of the evening registering for Fast Track for the two of us, on the Congestion Charging website. This site loads 35 different graphic elements every time you load a new page. And you will have to load at least a couple of dozen pages to register, as long as you're careful not to explore any of the options. Whoops! Was just about to mention my views on congestion charging. A narrow escape, eh?

Posted by Alison at 11:11 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2003

Bloggy Snippets

Here's a good idea; long thin photos of London streets, so you can work out what that really cool shop you went to the other day was. Covent Garden is near where I work, though mostly the maps tell you that it's all a whole lot less interesting than it used to be. This one shows the Monmouth Street Coffee Shop, though, and Base, the shop where I bought my favourite jacket of all time. (via BoingBoing.)

Marianne's birthday present was the Leapfrog Explorer Globe. I'm sure she'd like it if only Steven and I would stop playing with it for a minute. We race against the clock, with Steven griping about the US-centricity and unusual enunciation, and me not having the faintest idea which continent Laos is in. It's clear that a week with this toy will teach me more political geography than I learnt in 16 years of formal education.

Meanwhile, Greg Costikyan wonders why Snood gets no respect. His correspondents quickly point out that the answer is "because it's a clone of Bust-A-Move". But the general question is a valid one. "Little games", like Bejewelled and Word Shark, get almost all of my (very limited) gaming time at present. But nobody pays any attention to them at all.

Posted by Alison at 01:10 AM | Comments (1)

January 14, 2003


My daughter is six today. She is dizzy, forgetful, stroppy, mercurial. Sometimes she throws her arms around me and tells me I'm the best mummy in the whole world. Sometimes she bursts into tears and tells me she hates me and I'm horrible. Sometimes whole minutes go between these two events.

She engages everyone she meets in conversation, and she wants to know about everything. Watching Mulan, she asks about war, and soldiering. Why just the men? Why are the Huns invading? What's an emperor? Why can't kids fight in wars? Why do people have wars anyway? After ten minutes, I contemplate pointing her at a copy of Sun Tzu. But she's moved onto arranged marriages. What's a matchmaker? Why does she want a husband? How can that be a dragon?

As we calculate what curtain accessories we need, she hounds down an unsuspecting John Lewis Partner. Why are there lots of different curtain poles? Why are they called finials? How do the bay connectors work? Why do you need special curtains for bay windows? What are bay windows? Why do we have curtains? Can she choose our living room curtains? (No.)

Her hair is totally out of control and she is missing two teeth. I feel vaguely guilty about this, as if I should somehow be able to control her defiantly grown fringe when hairbands, plaits, slides and kirby grips have failed; or if her next teeth would grow in faster if I paid more attention to her. She is skeptical about the tenets of all major world religions, but has an unswerving faith in the tooth fairy.

Steven sat her down and explained to her that he used to hold her on his forearm. He would cup her head in one hand, and rest her body on his arm, and her legs didn't quite reach his elbow.

She drives me completely bananas.

i really like Jamaica Ginger Cake

Posted by Alison at 11:59 PM | Comments (6)

Find the Golden Powerball

It's like something from the Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone pinball game, that is. I was roused from slumber by a particularly insistent radio ad. "Find the Golden Powerball! Yes, you can find the Golden Powerball and win £100,000!" Inside specially marked packets of Finish dishwasher tablets, apparently. I suddenly had a flashback.

We were doing a lot of dishwashing, on one of those dark days between Christmas and New Year when the house was full of people. I loaded the dishwasher, pulled a tab randomly from the box in the cupboard, and noticed that they'd changed the colour of the silly little ball thing again. Sometimes they're red, sometimes they're a sort of pale blue. I don't know why they bother. Do they really think that the public is naive enough to think that a dishwasher tablet with a little gold-coloured ball in the middle will wash dishes more effectively? And I put it in the dishwasher, washed my dishes, and thought no more of it.

Until this morning. When I suddenly realised that what I'd chucked in the dishwasher was indeed a marketing ploy, but probably a different one to the ploy I'd first thought of. I went and looked carefully at the box of tablets for the first time. They all seemed to have little red balls in the middle. And the box didn't say anything special, though that's not particularly surprising. We habitually open a new box and tip the tablets into the old box, or vice versa, to save space.

Was it a golden powerball? It certainly washed the dishes. Perhaps there was an insoluble golden powerball clogging up my drains at that very moment. But I'd cleaned the filter since then, and I think I'd have noticed a powerball. I rang the customer service line. I asked, diffidently, about the promotion, without mentioning that I might have washed up a golden powerball. "It's on the packets in shops," explained a helpful woman. "There's a golden powerball. If you find it, you win £100,000. There are also silver powerballs, worth £5000, and bronze powerballs, worth £100." Ah. "How would you tell the difference between a gold and a bronze powerball?" "It's obvious," she explained. Well, not two weeks after you've washed it into oblivion, it's not.

Posted by Alison at 11:37 PM | Comments (12)

January 13, 2003

Vertical Blinds

On Mondays, I get my fifteen minutes of exercise before breakfast. After dropping Marianne off at school, Jonathan and I went shopping. A package from the post office turned out to be a moose from John Dallman, which Jonathan fell on with great glee. We dropped off four huge bags of clutter at Scope, a charity which benefits hugely from having the nearest charity shop to my house.

Spurred by feelings of maternal guilt inspired by the bookshop comments thread on Electrolite, I registered myself and my children for Walthamstow Central Library, and borrowed a variety of picture books and the DVD of Attack of the Clones.

Many secret purchases for Sunday's party later, we picked up Marianne and returned to the house exhausted. Steven then bounded in, swept us all up and off to Bluewater to look at curtain poles and curtains for the living room. We chose curtains (from M&S) which weren't in stock, and stopped just short of buying a bespoke pole to cover the full five sides of the bay. Even so, the pole and curtains will cost as much as, oh, a small swimming pool of Starbucks. Perhaps we should have gone for vertical blinds.

And so to bed; in fact, I fell asleep before we got home, and woke up only just long enough to get from the car to my bed.

Posted by Alison at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

Upgraded from Comments

Austin mentioned this in a comment, but I felt I had to blog it. glenn mcdonald, who writes an excellent -- and expensive for Austin -- weekly music review, The War Against Silence, turns out to be a rabid switcher.

I suppose I'm thinking hard about the whole switching thing at present. In the last 24 hours I have spent more time tinkering with one of my PCs than I've spent in total tinkering with my iMac. I guess the upgrade I didn't have to do (Mac OS 9 to X) might have been as hard as this upgrade, though it seems vaguely unlikely. I've been trolling all round the web in search of drivers for my hardware; none of it rare or obscure. Why weren't these drivers all bundled with the OS?

And for what? Well, it's more stable; but shouldn't an operating system be rock solid in the first place? Compare to my move to OS X, which was revolutionary. And then 10.2, which, as an upgrade, was no harder than installing a screen saver on a Windows box would be, and which allows all sorts of astonishing stuff (like, for example, Safari). And which keeps delighting me. I'm sure I don't need a text editor that automatically uses ligatures for fl. But I'm really pleased I've got one.

Posted by Alison at 04:21 PM | Comments (1)

January 12, 2003

72% Formatted

On rising I found Lucy Huntzinger on iChat, staying up very late. She explained that she found all my Mac evangelism very amusing. Resisting the temptation to spend all day online, Steven and I followed Flylady's prescription for crisis cleaning. 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there, occasional 15 minute breaks, use a timer to keep on track. Marianne helped while Jonathan hindered. The house looks quite changed; the living room, hall, kitchen, downstairs loo and Marianne's room are completely respectable now. This has finally got rid of the vast majority of the pine needles, allowing me to return to the dancing game. Our main meal, spicy chickpeas and rice, felt very January. And so to bed, leaving the gargantuan hard disk 72% formatted.

Posted by Alison at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)

Leap of Faith

Dr Plokta suggested that I would be happier if I upgraded my Windows machines to Win2K. Once the children were safely tucked up in bed, I started off the process, accepted all the options recommended by the setup program, and set it going. As far as I can tell, nothing has happened since then; the progress bar is stuck resolutely at zero.

I asked Dr Plokta about it on iChat, and he did the geek equivalent of sucking in his breath sharply and shaking his head sadly. "You do believe in burning your bridges, don't you?" He then explained just exactly why what I'd done was very, very stupid, and suggested I leave the machine overnight in the forlorn hope it will sort itself out.

How thorough a switcher am I? I am never, ever going to buy another Windows PC. Not until Hell freezes over. Not until Hell freezes over twice.

Update: After an hour or so I cancelled out and my Win98SE installation is just fine. I'm now installing clean onto the shiny new hard drive instead; which is what I should have done in the first place. But my resolve was shaken by Windows telling me that none of my hardware was compatible.

Posted by Alison at 09:17 PM | Comments (2)

An Apolitical Blog

Avedon writes, "I've hesitated to add Alison Scott's Macadamia to the blogroll because it's so apolitical (a requirement of her job, alas)". I thought I should explain a little about this, for those who don't know. I'm in the 'politically restricted' group of civil servants, which mean that I'm prohibited from undertaking various activities, including:

holding, in a party political organisation, office which impinges wholly or mainly on party politics in the field of Parliament or the European Parliament; speaking in public on matters of national political controversy; expressing views on such matters in letters to the Press, or in books, articles or leaflets; being announced publicly as a candidate for Parliament or the European Parliament or on behalf of a political party.

Now, you will notice that this says nothing about the Internet; and it's largely unchanged from when I first started worrying about this sort of thing. I was posting to rec.arts.sf.fandom, back in about 1993 or so. Certainly, the odd chunk of political argument slipped out among the thousands of Usenet posts I made, but archiving was a bit dodgy at the time. I did consider, then, asking about their view of posting to Usenet on political matters, but I thought that if they thought about it, they'd probably decide it was a bad idea.

Blogs feel rather more clear-cut to me; it seems incontrovertible that a blog in my own name is equivalent to 'speaking in public'. So, if I slip and inadvertently express an opinion on a matter of national political controversy, rest assured that it's a mistake. Of course, to some extent this is a front; I have little urge to write about political subjects in any case. On subjects other than my speciality, my intellectual deficiencies are too painfully obvious to me. When the argument moves into my field, I struggle both with the difficulty of making cogent points that can be understood by somebody who's never studied the area, and the need to not talk about things that are not public knowledge, such as proposals under development or not-yet-published research.

So what do I want to write about? Well, clearly short essays on subjects that interest or trouble me, but that aren't political. Mail order, for example. But reading Pepys, I wonder if I should also record the minutiae of my day:

Saturday was fine and cold, and we drove with some difficulty to Croydon. The entirety of South London is covered with roadworks. We gathered up Mike Scott and went to the best Indian restaurant in an undistinguished Croydon suburb. There we met Mark and Claire Fishlifter, and Pat McMurray, who eat there so often that they have a loyalty card. We had a cheerful, rambly conversation. Back to Mike's, who showed me Weather Pop, a menu extra for those of us who are so computer bound we never look out of the window. We watched Princess Mononoke, ate a very small supper, and then drove home while Marianne quizzed us thoroughly on the motivations of characters. "Why does the Great Forest Spirit become the Night Walker?" On arriving home I chatted with Damien Warman, who was resting before going out to a Thai restaurant. We marvelled at Safari, now with an updated beta. And so to bed, though not till about 2am, which was very foolish.

Posted by Alison at 11:08 AM | Comments (2)

January 09, 2003

Word of Mouth

OK, here's an experiment that deserves to succeed. For a while there's been some evidence that posting the entire text of books online increases, rather than reduces, sales. It's not uncommon for technical books, in particular, where there is a distinct advantage to having the physical text in front of you. Novel publishers have been slower to jump, though it's clear that the existence of Project Gutenberg has stimulated interest in public domain classics. For more recent books, the Baen Free Library includes the texts of quite a lot of good books (often, though not exclusively, the first of a series). Baen has also experimented with selling e-texts by subscription far cheaper than the paper price; and the latest David Weber novel includes a CD-Rom with e-texts of all his other books, and some by other Baen authors. Occasionally, novels (such as Geoff Ryman's 253) have been originally written for web publication, and published as novels later.

But as far as I know, nobody's tried giving away the entire text of a brand new, professionally published novel, at publication, to see what would happen. Cory Doctorow's new novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, has just come out from Tor, and Cory's released the text under a Creative Commons License. Kudos of course to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Cory's editor, and Tor Books. No doubt lots of authors would like to do this; normally the publisher is doubtful. (I bet the publisher's doubtful this time, too, but sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.) Cory says "first-time novelists have a tough row to hoe. Our publishers don't have a lot of promotional budget to throw at unknown factors like us. Mostly, we rise and fall based on word-of-mouth".

Link everywhere. Tell everyone.

Update 10.1.03: Number 1 on the Daypop Top 40. This is what we want to see.

Posted by Alison at 08:18 PM | Comments (1)

Love Your Body

The New Republic has an article (you'll need free registration, but 'cypherpunks' works) questioning whether any of us are dying from being fat. As one of those people with a Pooh-type body shape, I've been vaguely aware for some time that the evidence was not entirely clear that being overweight was, in itself, a significant health risk.

But what about all that research?

University of Virginia professor Glenn Gaesser has estimated that three-quarters of all medical studies on the effects of weight on health between 1945 and 1995 concluded either that "excess" weight had no effect on health or that it was actually beneficial. And again, this remains the case even before one begins to take into account complicating factors such as sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition, dieting and diet drugs, etc. "As of 2002," Gaesser points out in his book Big Fat Lies, "there has not been a single study that has truly evaluated the effects of weight alone on health, which means that 'thinner is healthier' is not a fact but an unsubstantiated hypothesis for which there is a wealth of evidence that suggests the reverse."

Of course, it's easy to sell books by telling people that it's all right to be tubby. The alternative view, of course, is that being overweight takes years off your life.

But this is a largely uncorrected study of the sort decried by the previous article. So, what's the real problem? The New Republic argues that it's largely the diet industry, and appetite suppressants in particular. Perhaps that is part of the tale. Certainly, I suggest you avoid diet products. They are unlikely to do you any good and in some cases they may be dangerous. But further down the TNR article is this:

Quite simply, when researchers factor in the activity levels of the people being studied, body mass appears to have no relevance to health whatsoever--even among people who are substantially "obese." It turns out that "obese" people who engage in moderate levels of physical activity have radically lower rates of premature death than sedentary people who maintain supposedly "ideal-weight" levels.

In other words, activity level is a highly significant predictor of premature death, and weight and BMI aren't. Now, overweight people tend to do less exercise, and find it harder to find exercise regimes to suit them. But if the answer's to exercise more, why the obsession with weight?

And what of our activity levels? They're not high. Those of us reading Pepys' Diary as a weblog have been struck by the extent to which Pepys' normal day, and that of everyone else he knew, consisted of walking around central London doing business with people. And he would have led a sedentary lifestyle compared to most of his contemporaries. "Moderate exercise" means the equivalent of half an hour brisk walking a day. Most of us don't do that; the article suggests only 20% do, but my guess is that this figure is high. Certainly I noticed a huge improvement in my physical fitness after only a couple of months of playing the dancing game, and I was already doing quite a lot of not very brisk walking and cycling. (via the Sideshow)

Posted by Alison at 06:55 PM | Comments (9)

Back to Basics

This is, after all, a switching blog. Safari is very speedy, and has that nice brushed-metal finish. It doesn't appear to spell-check forms, though, and it's not tabbed. It also quits occasionally for no apparent reason; but then, so does Chimera.

I wasn't exactly sure about iSync and iCal. My phone's not compatible, and if i'm carrying around my Clié, why would I care about contact info on the iPod? I'd like to keep a calendar online, but I can't do that without a .mac account. Though perhaps I should look into using the Apache server right here on the iMac.

Anyway, Dr Plokta encouraged me. "Preparing to synchronise Alison Scott", it said. I looked around nervously but do not appear to have been assimilated.

Oh, yes, and of course I fancy a new laptop, only marginally smaller than a suitcase, for only 892 venti eggnog lattes.

Posted by Alison at 12:55 AM | Comments (6)

January 08, 2003

Snowy Morning

My children had never seen falling snow until yesterday. There was sufficiently much snow today that many of our plans were disrupted. Outside my office window, the facade of the Royal Society for the Arts looks like a street scene Christmas card, with snow settling on roofs, window ledges, railings and statuary. While I had a rare quiet lunch with my husband, half my staff nipped out to Embankment Gardens, built a snowman, and had a snowball fight.

This is a very austere time of year, especially for journalists. But nestled in amongst the weather reports, resolutions, detox plans, and recommended fitness regimes comes this counter-cyclic article, which makes me deeply hungry just thinking about it. I've eaten some of these things, but not the majority. These reminders of the ones I have eaten (food pulled straight from the ground, extremely good chicken, durian, and so on) leave me agreeing enthusiastically. What I really need is to eat a perfectly ripe durian straight from the tree.

Bad news report of the day: Fizzy Drinks 'affect children's sleep', explains the BBC. I click through hungrily, astonished by the headline -- I know that carbonic acid isn't the best thing for teeth, but what could carbonation possibly have to do with sleeping patterns? Of course, if they'd said 'Caffeinated Drinks affect children's sleep', it would hardly have been news. The poor quality of this article is not confined to the headline; the term 'fizzy' is used repeatedly in the text too. Marianne explained confidentially to me that Orangina Rouge is her very favourite drink. Which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that it's packed with enough stimulants to wake the dead.

Posted by Alison at 07:20 PM | Comments (4)

January 07, 2003

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

I drank my first latte at ConFrancisco, in 1993. There was a coffee cart in the lobby of the hotel I was staying in. And, in fact, there were coffee bars everywhere else in San Francisco. I drank a lot of large milky coffees that holiday.

I missed them when I got back to London, but soon we had coffee culture here too. Work is hard; it's not unreasonable to have a large, expensive coffee drink to help you get through the day, is it? Or two. At first it was quite hard to find latte, but help was at hand when the first branch of EAT opened just around the corner from my office. And it wasn't just the coffee; these shops sell pastries too. But I'm not poorly paid. I can afford a coffee and a croissant.

By spring last year my purse bulged with a festoon of cheerful coffee loyalty cards. A typical work day would involve me getting up, sleepily feeding the kids breakfast, walking Marianne to school, and walking to the station, where I'd buy a coffee and a Guardian. That would sustain me for the tube journey; on the way into the office I'd buy a grande skinny latte (see my concern for my health?) and a chocolate twist from EAT. At lunch I'd go to another coffee and sandwich shop, usually Pret. I'd have a baguette, a cake or croissant of some kind, and another large coffee. If I worked late I tended to nip out at 5 or so for another grande latte; otherwise I just bought the Evening Standard for the journey home.

When I bought a new toy computer I tried, experimentally, to knock the coffee habit on the head. In particular, I stopped buying stuff before getting on the train in the morning, and read the newspaper on my Clié. And I started going to Benjy's for coffee and toast at £1.10. It worked; though I eased up a bit after I was promoted. I mean, I could afford the computer and the coffee now, right?

Just before Christmas, as a lark, I had a cup of black tea. I remembered that I liked black tea. This is notable, because I don't really like Benjy's huge 60p cups of filtered coffee. So now I could just get the toast, and no coffee, and make black tea in my office for 4p a cup. No newspapers either. Back to Benjy's for lunch (in this cold weather, my super favourite tuna melt toasted panini), and more black tea, and water cooler water. The only downside is that I have to drink a gallon of Whittards Earl Grey to get any adequate caffeine rush.

And compared to my former habits, a single day of the new regime saves £7.50 or so. That's £30 a week, as I only work 4 days. Enough to buy four books, two DVDs, or a round of drinks at the Silver Cross. In just under 5 months, I'll have saved enough to buy a new digital camera.

But hey, don't I deserve a nice cup of coffee?

Posted by Alison at 11:00 PM | Comments (5)

January 06, 2003

So where's everything gone?

Radio started to eat my posts. Apparently it's a bug. Anyway, I've got the posts back and they're stored in an archive. But this is the sort of thing that causes people to switch blogging tools, and I have. I've quickly upgraded my hosting package, and I'm now using the much loved Movable Type. Thanks to Dr Plokta for installing it for me, in about three minutes flat. I think it would have taken me several hours.

Changes to the default layout may happen. Archived Macadamia posts should still be here. I am importing the 2003 posts, including the chewy half-eaten ones , and they will appear, complete with their comments, below. It does not appear to be trivial to edit the time and date stamps on comments, however, so they'll be wrong.

Should you happen to subscribe to my old rss feed, you won't get any updates. The new feed is here instead. Just a different default setting.

Posted by Alison at 01:24 AM | Comments (2)

January 05, 2003

Only two common words in English come from Icelandic

Interestingly, I discovered this from both the coffee table books I read this weekend while staying with my parents. The first, Iceland: The Warm Country of the North, by Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson and Torfi H. Tulinius, is a book of lovely pictures along with a little supportive text. It has the feel of the sort of book you buy at the airport when leaving your holiday destination, to remind you of how nice it all was. Just the thing to read instead of getting out of bed this morning.

The second book, lying around on the coffee table only because my parents would never dream of keeping books in the loo, was Schott's Original Miscellany, one of those books that pops up for the Christmas market and is suddenly found in bathrooms all across the land. An almanac for the internet age, this concentrates not on what you may need to know -- because everyone can now look those things up in a trice -- on stuff you'd never particularly realised was important. Everything's jumbled up, but it's a short book with a thorough index, so it doesn't really matter.

I didn't notice any facts that were clearly wrong, but plenty that were a bit dubious. For example, the list of notable Belgians included the Flemish painters (who we disqualify on the grounds that they predate Belgium), and a load of people we'd never heard of (who we disqualify on the grounds that they're insufficiently famous). And I work just off the Strand, so am skeptical of Schott's claim that it's properly known as just 'Strand'. All very well to tell you that a millihelen is the amount of beauty that will launch a ship, but the really interesting measurement is the milliantihelen -- a face that would sink a ship. [depressing aside: I just googled on that, and it seems I've used it online twice before, and nobody else has at all ever. As against many thousands of references for millihelen. So perhaps I'm the only person who thinks it's funny.] Worse are the Bowdlerisms (and Schott tells you the origin of that and many other words inspired by people). I have never, personally, seen the Internet abbreviation "RTBM", and the list of rhyming slang omits "Berkshire Hunt".

But Schott makes no claims to be exhaustive or authoritative, and there is plenty that's entertaining here. Far more than it's possible to lists, really. A list of famous horses, including Bucephalus, Rosinante, Silver, Trigger and Shadowfax. The recommended driving route from Lands End to John O'Groats. The list of London Thames crossings. Washing symbols, iceberg sizes, the plimsoll line, and, of course, a list of words which English has appropriated from each of many other languages, including geyser and saga.

I'd recommend this book, but you were probably given it for Christmas. Though if you're American, you can improve your stock at dinner parties by snapping up the UK version before US publication in July.

Posted by Alison at 10:36 AM | Comments (3)

January 03, 2003

here a blog, there a blog

Time, I think, to draw your attention to Snail Musings, which has been on my blogroll for a few weeks. I can't succintly describe the theme of this careful pan through the web in search of occasional tiny particles of the philosophically transcendant. And the author appears to wish to remain anonymous, which inhibits me from writing about my personal reaction to the blog.

The other exciting new blog is of course that of Samuel Pepys. "If the diarist Samuel Pepys were alive today, he may well have used the web to record his thoughts", explained the BBC. Well, indeed, and we would have been much the poorer for it. Most political diarists do write with a view to the possibility of eventual publication, but I think it's safe to say that if Pepys had known his diary was being published instantly, it would have been very different.

Just as Pepys was publishing his first online diary entry, so Lucy Huntzinger was writing her last. The archive is still there, though. Although Lucy's diary was always intended for publication, she started it at a time when writing online was scarcely more public than writing in a fanzine. There was no particular reason to suspect, for example, that your future employers would investigate your online persona as part of any recruitment process, that your ex-partner might seek out your fan fiction, or that grubbing through the personal detritus of your colleagues would be a standard Friday afternoon trope.

The last of my houseguests, Green Amber, explained cheerfully that privacy was dead, and complained that nobody ever linked to individual LiveJournals. This was all during a chill out and detox day on which we didn't quite drink our own weight in half-price Tesco Vina Mara Rioja Reserva. She also gave me the first book I've read in 2003, Forever Summer by Nigella Lawson. Of course, cookbooks scarcely count as reading 'cos you don't really do it cover to cover, and you've not properly read a cookbook till you've cooked out of it, and despite Nigella's cheerful protestations, I'm buggered if I'm going to cook seared tuna salads in the darkest days of winter. Nevertheless, I'm counting that as 1.

My New Year's Resolution, you see, is that I'm going to borrow Maureen Kincaid Speller's practice of keeping not just a note of which books she's read, but also which she's started. Do I really leave so many books half-finished? I have two on the go at present; Daniel Deronda, and The Lord of the Rings. Just call me media-tie-in girl. The Eliot is my current e-text; much more compact on the Clié than in a book. And I do not intend to become one of these people who reads LOTR every year. But having seen The Two Towers, I am struck by a desire to read about nobility.

Posted by Alison at 08:05 PM | Comments (6)

January 01, 2003

Fact Number 15

Back on Live Journal, there is, as usual, a meme going round. So I sat down with the intention of writing a hundred random facts about myself. However, half way through fact number 15, I got sidetracked.

As a child I liked to sit in the garden on sunny days with a calculator, writing out long lists of primes, squares, cubes, triangular numbers, and so on.

As a fact, this left something to be desired. I mean, I don't think I'm insane, and I don't think I was insane then. But taken like that, it certainly sounds like an odd way to spend the glorious long sunny afternoons of a dimly remembered childhood. We had a large garden, with a large lawn, with a slope halfway down it by the pond. So I'd sit on the slope, in the sunshine, with the calculator, and work out the next prime, or cube, or whatever, and write it down, and carry on until teatime. I am fairly certain this was not an obsessive compulsive disorder. The lists of numbers were useful, you see.

I used the lists to make it easier to solve crossnumbers. Not just any crossnumbers, but the beautiful, complex and fiendishly tricky crossnumbers set by Rhombus. They occasionally appeared, as alternates to beautiful, complex and fiendishly difficult crosswords, in The Listener. We didn't, of course, take The Listener, but we did take Games and Puzzles, which reprinted some of them. I found them astonishingly hard. But given time, and application, and long lists of useful numbers, I could occasionally solve them.

In 1978, when I was 13, I got occasional access to a computer for the first time; our school had a terminal which connected to the minicomputer at the local college. Very nearly the first thing I did was to get it to print out a list of the first several thousand primes. This took a few minutes.

I remember holding the printout in my hands and being enchanted with the sense of possibilities that it represented. It wasn't that I regretted all those hours I'd spent in pointless calculations, exactly. Instead, they were my own personal pebbles on the seashore, being washed away by the incoming tide. That printout was my first glimpse of the way in which computers would come to change the world in which I lived in. Everyone kept talking about the big stuff. But what really made the difference were the things that were personal to me, like fanzines, weblogs, personalised Christmas cards, one-off t-shirts. And lists of prime numbers.

From time to time, over the years, I've googled for references to Listener crossnumbers, or for Rhombus. And today, for the first time, I found some more useful than just a vague reference. This page includes a link to a file containing 20 Rhombus puzzles, including a few errors, noted separately. And this lengthy article on how to solve crossnumbers makes it clear, in passing, what I have long suspected; that nobody before or since has come anywhere close to Rhombus's mastery of the art.

Posted by Alison at 09:47 PM | Comments (2)