‘Damn it, now we have iodised salt, so the brine will have iodine in it. I wonder if that changes the martini. It must make it taste different from the martinis they drank before salt was iodised.’
‘I’m sure it does. Actually it’s potassium iodide.’
‘It’s good to know things like that. I suppose it’s possible to find non-iodised salt.’
‘It’s worth looking into. The French also put fluoride into their salt.’
‘Damn. We have to find our way back to pure salt.’
‘And get thyroid problems from lack of iodine?’
-Frank Moorhouse, Martini: A Memoir
The last time I was in Germany I made the amateur mistake of forgetting to bring sufficiently English reading material. Conversational English was all well and good, Kirsten’s friends generally being fluent or at least competent by comparison to my German. However it lacked the verbal dexterity and linguistic extravagance which I inevitably crave. This time Frank Moorhouse’s book filled the role in style. A memoir of sorts, it is told through an exploratory history of the martini and series of discussions and incidents from the author’s life which orbit the cocktail most deserving of the classic title.
From time to time a writer in residence at King’s College, the opening scene is set in Cambridge — the bar at Browns restaurant to be precise. Much of the book unfolds through dialogue in similar settings, the extract above being a perfect example and the one that influenced me to buy the book in the first place, having opened it at random. Every element of the drink is covered from the alcohols involved to the glass to the garnish to the botanicals at work within, and always the author is able to weave a compelling tapestry between inconsequential facts about the martini and personal musings upon and insights into both the drink and life. Undoubtedly pretentious at times (as any memoir, itself the height of self-indulgent arrogance elevated to an art form, ought to be) and yet wonderfully rewarding with dozens of asides to slip into conversation at that next cocktail party.
On an unrelated note I might point out that I have absolutely no opinion upon the new Transformers trailer. That major liberties were being taken with their appearance was already common knowledge, so one can hardly claim to be surprised at what one sees here. Evidence of substance remains at best veiled.
Here in Germany the majority of the Christmas celebration occurs on the evening of the 24th rather than Christmas Day itself. This includes a visit from der Weinachtsmann, the slightly ominous sounding German equivalent of Father Christmas, which kept Nele buzzing all day long. Prior to that we attended a children’s service at a local church which included a nativity performance by a group of cute (if worryingly blonde haired, blue eyed — “Only the best!” Kirsten quipped) kids.
Andre, a friend and former colleague of Kirsten’s from the club at which she used to work, was our Weihnachtsmann and did a sterling job. I always thought there was a veiled insult in being asked to perform as a rotund bearded fellow in fur-trimmed garb. Nele was required to sing for her a presents, a procedure which I am told is traditional, though fortunately a torture I was spared. Fortunate for everyone since my ability with German poetry pretty much ends with “Maus/Haus” (yes, Nele taught me that one too). For a young child, rather than being from individuals, presents from all the family are delivered by der Weihnachtsmann or in more religiously minded families the unseen Christkind, an angelic Christmas child.
Traditional food differs from the English dry turkey and sprouts of which I am far from fond. On Christmas Eve the most common dish is actually a kartoffel (potato) salad, although due to the high apfel (apple) content of ours I redubbed it kartopfel salad. This was eaten with grandparents (and presumably any other immediate family members), while lunch on the 25th was for the household alone. Duck or goose is the main dish depending, I suppose, on the number in attendance. Kirsten cooked her first goose athough I had a slightly Hansel and Gretal moment upon being handed an entire hind quarter of the beast. It was difficult to shake the feeling that I was being fattened up. Not that it stopped me — it tasted great!
Although my flight to Germany was delayed by several hours due to foggy conditions and Gatwick supporting a swathe of redirected flights from Stanstead, it seems that this is actually to be considered rather fortunate. Kirsten informs me that over the following two days several hundred flights to Germany were cancelled as the fog thickened. Once here I was fairly exhausted so did not manage to check out Hamburg’s legendary Christmas market. One of my fellow passengers on the plane was an ardent proponent of the event which, unlike my original understanding, features little shopping and rather more Glühwein (literally “glowing wine” and not Glugwein as some foreigners mishear it) and food.
Yesterday I put up the Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) with Nele and Kirsten. Although Kirsten is entirely set on real trees, the downside stretches beyond merely dropping needles everywhere — this one didn’t even fit in its base. What this actually involved was her father gesturing to the tree, handing me his “best saw” and being told to go for it. I would love to say that hilarity ensued, but actually sawing away with virile vigour I think I got the job done admirably. Once it was opened up we found it was what Kirsten described as “rather asymmetrical”. My explanation that this is what real trees look like didn’t go down terribly well. Decorating the tree was a somewhat less energetic enterprise than hacking bits off. Nele could only reach the lower branches so required some adult aid, while the lights required replacing a bulb before more than two thirds agreed to operate. The end result was a pretty, homely tree.
Kirsten and I spent this evening at a secluded woodland hotel booked by her parents as a Christmas present. She was treated to a massage and the dubious joy of having various substances of apparent health qualities liberally applied to her face. I declined hoping for a pre-dinner shower only to discover the water had been turned off. Dinner itself was an awesome four-course affair at a restaurant several minutes drive away but owned by the same people.
And on an unrelated note, Industrial Light & Magic have created an interesting mini-site showcasing the special effects in Dead Man’s Chest, the Pirates sequel. An interesting look at just how far the fusion between animatronics and digital animation has progressed, of particular interest is the quiz testing your eye at distinguishing between real and digital scenes.
I was gutted that I could not find any footage of Ban ki Moon at the UNCA ball, which was to form the central story of today’s post after glimpsing him on the news late last night. Not only did the tuxedo-clad South Korean Foreign Minister open with, “I am Ban, but not James Ban”, he then proceeded to sing his own rendition of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, inserting his own name. Whether the future Secretary General has made a list or, indeed, checked it twice, is questionable but if he can keep this up the next few years should be a riot. If you spot a video online, please let me know. In the meantime you can read Global21’s propercoverage on the UN transition.
Sony’s (year of?) advertising woes just seem to be mounting as their latest attempt led to a swift admission and removal. The unwieldy site alliwantforxmasisapsp.com purported to be the work of two teenagers in an effort to convince their parents to buy the device. In fact it was revealed to be Sony’s attempt at viral marketing which failed spectacularly as it coincided with the FCC announcing an investigation into veiled marketing practices such as this. Sony fessed up and the site seems to have been removed. The boys at Penny Arcade were none too amused, pointing out that viral marketing necessarily was transmitted by users own interest and could not be engineered injury is the release of the SplitFish MotionFX, an attachment that adds motion sensing to a PS2 controller, making it better than the PS3’s “revolutionary” sixaxis because they’ve found a way to maintain the device’s rumble feature. Apparently Sony were too rushed to make it work…
And yet the weirdest news actually came from Microsoft. Distinguishing between the software giant and its illustrious leader is often difficult as he really is Mr. Microsoft, his immense charity work notwithstanding. I am not used, it is safe to say, to agreeing entirely with what he says in public. However he recently went so far as to denounce DRM as having “huge problems”, suggesting consumers buy regular CDs and rip them instead. He clearly stated his view that this was legal (where the RIAA may disagree) and one only wishes this had been reflected by Microsoft itself in developing the Zune. Refusal by Microsoft to bow before the temple of facetious RIAA claims (“we are the music industry and so deserve a cut from your product’s sales”) could have been a real blow to them.
Today’s Christmas lunch with future (and current) trainees from Bird & Bird was not terribly festive but highly enjoyable (which is what counts), and it was nice to put faces to the list of names that has been circulating for a while. Rachel, Matt and I had a slight advantage having been on the same vac scheme, making the room full of new people less daunting. I was also finally able to meet Tessa in person, having discovered a few months ago that she knew an old friend of mine and we would be working together. Despite the last minute venue change Row, Laura and Lynne did a great job, providing (and circulating) more than enough food and drink as we mingled. The conversations reinforced just how varied people’s backgrounds are in arriving at a career in law — the North, South, Scotland and Wales were all represented while many of those starting with me in 2008 are currently doing the GDL having read a variety of subjects at university. It was also great to catch up with some of the trainees we met over the summer and hear what they’ve been up to since, which often, it seemed, involved swanning off abroad for several months (to work, they claim). They’re already planning another gathering in the near future and I’m certainly looking forward to it. But I would say that since Laura is probably reading this!
Mel Gibson’s Apocalyptico is a film I had been largely ignoring based on a rather plotless trailer that appeared to be nothing more than yet another attempt at the (apparently) hallowed title of “epic”. However critics suggest it is actually rather good, pointing to its intense closing third which is essentially a 45-minute jungle chase sequence. Gibson has, however, found himself in trouble with Guatemalan activists who claim he is racistly portraying the Mayan people as violent savages. Aside from the bizarre notion of playing the race card regarding a film about a long-dead civilisation, in all fairness the Mayans were generally known for brutal human sacrifices upon stone altars long before Mel made his little film. It’s sort of like the Italians claiming that they’re being misrepresented by Sparticus and that the Romans were actually quite nice people once you got beyond the feeding of Christians to lions which really just shows their cuddly animal friendly side because the lions were ever so hungry.
And finally, you may know that Dyson waddled along to see Happy Feet with a few friends fully decked out in Penguin costumes (the animal, not the deformed Batman villain as I suggested). Feeling that was not enough, they proceeded to enter a short dancing clip in a competition to win a trip to Australia. Aside from being slightly disturbed by the fact such things are actually made in adult sizes the amusing clip is worth 30 seconds of your time. They are very… cute. Apparently they rose to #1 briefly before suddenly dropping which one presumes may be due to foul play by their competitors voting negatively. They are clearly the best of the bunch so please take a look and help them out!
As I’ve said previously, I have never played the launch game before, so there is a sense of accomplishment in snagging a Wii for my sister on the day of release. Although I knew of them by reputation, I had not used Gameplay before and have been extremely impressed by their level of communication throughout the preorder and launch period. The unit itself is sleek and tiny compared to its bulkier next-gen cousins, although conversely the Wiimote is slightly larger than it looks in photos. I was pleasantly surprised that despite its quirky design installation was a snap. Strangely the sensor bar required no calibration at all, aside from stating whether it had been placed below or above the television.
The console ships with the Wii Sports game included, a great showcase for the new controller and actually great family fun too, although it requires several controllers to properly enjoy as a group activity. As well as attracting a wider audience to videogaming, the new control mechanics prove a great leveller. In the first few minutes I felt absolutely rubbish at it (while thoroughly enjoying myself) and my sister was delighted at beating me. It was Romina who pointed out that I was trying to understand the control system when I should really let go and “just play tennis“. She was right. For games of that ilk it is remarkably intuitive in that respect, and bowling in particular is guaranteed hit — alleys ought to be worried, particularly with the ability to populate the game with cartoonish but recognisable avatars of you and your friends, each called a “Mii”.
Wii then moved on to Zelda which demonstrates the console’s “proper” gameplay. Undoubtedly some of the control usage is a gimmick and fishing swiftly becomes infuriating, but generally it is surprisingly easy to use in everything from horseriding to swordplay. The graphics are certainly not on par with its rivals, and nor are they meant to be. It is a significant step up from the GameCube and Zelda in particular shows the polish that good artistic direction can produce even without the raw graphical power at which the competition excel. Any complaints? One is that although the speaker contained within the Wiimote is a nice touch adding a little more depth to sound cues, it delivers a poor quality, tinny sound which can be quite out of place if you have a decent speaker setup. Another is that having only a single analogue stick can cause some camera control issues. But these are minor quibbles when this system is just so much damn fun. Nintendo’s idea of fun is evident in warning images that have emerged from the console’s Japanese manual, resulting in a flood of “subtitles” by various fans, my favourite being the above.
Today has been spent filing and organising last term’s work, updating software on my family’s home computer, and designing business cards for Kirsten’s mother. All seem to have gone pretty well. I was also contacted by Bird & Bird who wished to inform me of a change of venue for our Christmas Party next week. Apparently our intended establishment, tapas bar and restaurant Shadans, is currently crawling with forensics experts following an involuntary forcible fatality (you know, a murder). I thought it might have added a little spice to the proceedings, but on second thoughts perhaps the relocation is for the best. We just want to have fun and those forensics bods are such sticklers for etiquette…
GameSpot produced an interesting graphical comparison of the Xbox 360 and PS3 based on the handful of games that are available for both systems. Having had a few months to tweak and polish the games for the PS3 launch, it certainly seemed like the probable victor. Surprisingly, then, it was the Xbox 360 that overwhelmingly came out on top. Even where the visuals were barely distinguishable it tended to produce better framerates. An alternative conclusion is that this simply means it will take developers a while to learn how to optimise code for the Cell processor, but it certainly makes these machines look far more evenly matched that Sony’s boastful claims.
Wired News reports that a Firefly MMO game may be on the cards. At first this sounds like great news for Browncoats but I have some reservations. The quality of the show was due largely to the characters and the patented blend of sharp Whedon dialogue, not just the world he created (like, arguably, Star Wars). This clearly will not translate into a player-controlled MMO. I’d love it to be a success because any external success increases the odds of willingness to reinvest in picking up the series again (I think it’s now accepted the format is better suited to television than film). Whether this proves to be a great expansion of the franchise, a last ditch attempt to save the Firefly/Serenity ‘verse, or simply an attempt to cash in on an established fanbase and proven addictive gametype remains to be seen.
Home is quiet as usual, with parents at work all day and my sister still at school. However it has given me some quality time with the Xbox as well as allowing me to watch some DVDs I just haven’t got round to seeing yet. Having taken a few days off, it’s probably time to get some work done unfortunately. As usual the quiet life, devoid of university frivolics, will result in fewer site posts until everyone else gets back and things start happening.
The fact my sister’s copy of Viva Piñata arrived yesterday was less exciting than it should have been with the revelation that the game is another PAL-60 only product, an annoying trend with a small but not inconsiderable number of Xbox 360 titles (particularly worrying from a British developer, Rare). Although technically superior, using the PAL colour system with the higher NTSC refresh rate, it’s not so much a standard as a botch job that requires less translation between the US and UK so there are still many British TVs that do not support it. Age is not the defining factor as ours was a flagship model for Philips’ ambilight technology just 3 years ago. I have found a possible way to make them compatible which I can only confirm once some new cables arrive.
I recently came across a delightful piece dedicated to nice guys. It was a pleasant surprise to hear such things being said by a girl. You can also read more of her amusing rants. In many ways I find The Mask to be the ultimate “nice guy” film. Traditionally it is difficult to make a guy like Stanley Ipkiss charismatically alluring, or even interesting, on the surface. However using the mask itself as a vehicle the filmmakers are able to reveal his repressed inner romantic and playful, capricious personality. Yet ultimately he learns, somewhat implausibly winning Cameron Diaz, that it was him with whom she fell in love and not The Mask.
I’m back in Croydon now, but had a fantastic final day in Cambridge. How better to spend an evening than Pan’s Labyrinth followed by an extravagant poker game? First off, the Guillermo del Toro helmed film is an adult fantasy masterpiece. Visually stunning, it finally shows that elaborate realistic CGI effects are no longer the domain of Hollywood/Japan alone. I knew the Spanish film was dark in tone, though I was unprepared for just how brutal some of the “real world” violence would be. This is not merely the Tim Burton brand of dark fantasy; it is definitely intended for adults alone. The dichotomy between the whimsy of Ofelia’s imagination and the all-too-real backdrop of fascist Spain is perfect for the film’s mood and intent, weaving the two together in the most powerful ending I have witnessed for some time. Hopefully a full review will appear soon, but in the meantime you must see this film.
About a week ago, no doubt still soaring on a lingering Bond high, Ravi and I frivolously discussed the possibility of holding a poker game in black tie. At the time the situation seemed to merit it. One week later we found ourselves going ahead with it because, well, we hadn’t done anything suitably silly for far too long. Booking a T staircase supervision room for its large table, eleven of us (including Angie, Sparkie, Sonya, Irina, Andy and a certain Fellow) gathered to do battle. Where lack of money could not, the dress code lent suitable charge to the proceedings along with a variety of alcoholic beverages to taste. It also enabled the establishment of a new tradition when going “all in”, now to be accompanied by undoing one’s bow tie with a flourish (requiring, of course, that all participants wear real ones). Perhaps puerile and definitely one of those “only in Cambridge” flights of fancy, it was definitely worth it and provided and a perfect end to a pleasant term.
Shreena just blogged about a video in which the BBC Culture Show visits Whitby Gothic Weekend. It’s a slightly superficial insight into the Goth community (you’d need rather longer than 7 minutes) but is an interestingly open-minded exploration, with musings on the future of the culture and why after twenty years it has not already disappeared like so many others.