Category Archives: Unreliable Recommendations

I Hate You. I Hate You. I Hate You.

“Sheila taught me a survival technique for getting through seemingly intolerable situations – boring lunches, stern lectures on attitude or time management, those necessary breakup conversations and the like: maintaining eye contact, keep your face inscrutable and masklike, with the faintest hint of a Giaconda smile. Keep this up as long as you possibly can, and just as you feel you are about to crack and take a letter opener and plunge it into someone’s neck, fold your hands in your lap, one nestled inside the other, like those of a supplicant in a priory. Now, with the index finger of your inner hand, write on the palm of the other, very discreetly and undetectably, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you…” over and over again as you pretend to listen. You will find this brings a spontaneous look of interest and pleased engagement to your countenance. Continue and repeat as necessary.”

— David Rackoff, Fraud

Good Stuff

Yahtzee Zero Punctuation, hilarious foul-mouthed rapid-fire videogame reviews (and I don’t even play videogames) • Jan Morris’s Europe—like Last Letters from Hav (one of my favourite books), but not fictional • The Twist, by Frightened Rabbit, from the album The Midnight Organ Fight; I can’t stop listening to it, but have no idea who these guys are • XKCD does it again, with a flowchart on how to read flowcharts • Beethoven, endearingly, never got the hang of multiplication (he’d calculate 9 × 7 by adding up the number 9 seven times) • ReCaptcha, which takes all that useless effort spent typing distorted words (to prove you’re not a robot), and applies it to proofreading blurry text from old scanned books • Instead of saying “music piracy” (because, after all, real piracy is alive and well and not very much like downloading MP3s), reviving the excellent term “bootleggingSports Night• Thomas Benton’s Chronicle advice on graduate school in the Humanities: “Just don’t go• Sports Night marathons via YouTube • The pleasure of actually throwing out a hopeless, waste-of-mental-space book (Cliff Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil, or anything by Ayn Rand)—not all book-burning is bad.


yiddish Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: the perfect gift for people who don’t think they like genre fiction • The best Latin name for your little toe is porcellus plorans domum, lit. piglet crying homeward; porcellus fori, domi, carnivorus and nonvoratus are left as an exercise for the reader • Hard-nosed advice on how book publishing works (and something I wish I’d read before starting the process) from Mark Hurst • Seeing to the “Dark Knight” with someone who rants about tardive dyskinesia and how it’s mean to pick on the mentally ill • Rediscovering that A Pattern Language is a wonderful cult, an architecture book that solves the problems of the world, like Ayn Rand for grownups • Sure, a minus sign isn’t the same as a hyphen or an en dash, but ditto marks are different from double quotes. Who knew?mtgoatspresskit.jpg • The new (and superb) Mountain Goats album Heretic Pride and especially its comic-book press kit • The cunning laser printer trick of sticking a little piece of tape over the toner sensor to get 1000 or so more copies–sticking it to the Man indeed • Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction: funny, novelistic, rich in character, full of ludicrous coincidence–everything crime fiction isn’t supposed to be • And lightning shot in slow motion, more awesome than I can describe.

Good Stuff

charango.jpg New Zealand being the world’s oldest democracy (Icelandic women didn’t get the vote until 1915, and the Isle of Man is not a country, thank you very much) • Jessica caring about apostrophes as much as I do • You Look Nice Today, world’s funniest podcast, is what you would expect from three yappy geeks combining potty humour with Voltaire • “May the sinews of his hams snap suddenly in moments of achievement!”, chant the artisans in Ernest Bramah’s delectable chinoiserie, the Kai Lung stories I recently unearthed from storage • The charango, a ten-stringed South American ukulele played to excellent effect on the latest Minisnap album skull.jpg• That pleasing moment-without-a-name when the song on your car radio and your turn signal are in perfect rhythmic synchrony • The anachronistic typography in the Indiana Jones movie maps (I was proud I spotted the Avant Garde in Crystal Skull) • Having the hatefulness of Comic Sans rudely recognised in the comic Achewood • The disadvantage of an elite American education persuasively argued by William Deresiewicz • Using a true “et” ampersand like Trebuchet’s to write et cetera as etc.gif


corite_rules_illo.jpg Sister Corita Kent’s Immaculate Heart College Art Department rules • Seth Godin’s unconventional and clear-headed Advice for Authors: publishing is venture capital, and books are souvenirs of your ideas • Taking a photo every day: doesn’t matter what of, just carrying a tiny camera everywhere and getting into the noticing habit • The Design Police’s Visual Enforcement Kit of design warning labels, like KERN THIS and BAD LOGO • Nina Simon’s splendid blog Museums 2.0, showing someone is thinking hard about museums and the Net (my favourite is the teen-mag-style flowquiz on how your museum should blog) • Some good tips from Ed Boyden on “How to Think”, including drawing while explaining and photographing the results • brill.jpgBuying a fresh brill from off the fishing boat, scaling, filleting, and frying it that same night in a white wine sauce; we called ours Brian • The moment when playing Spoon’s “The Underdog” on the ukulele where you realise you’re not sure if this is about the other person, or about you–the test of a good bitter love song • My favourite photographer Peter Peryer‘s plain-spoken and thoughtful blog, where he mulls over photos that didn’t make the cut. Why don’t all artists do this? • Migas made with good chorizo and old bread, both from the Farmer’s Market: a no-fuss weekend lunch for friends

Good Stuff

sydney.JPG Wallowing in the seriously comprehensive art and design bookstores of Sydney • J. G Ballard’s 1964 collection Terminal Beach, just for the story “The Drowned Giant” • Buying DRM-free Amazon MP3s; part of the satisfaction is watching iTunes sweating • John Crowley’s reading list of human cultures far weirder than fiction • Clive James’s poetry, particularly “The Pilgrimage of Peregrine Prykke”, and “The Book of My Enemy has Been Remaindered” • Re-reading Code of the Woosters and rediscovering its small and cheerful perfection kete.JPG • The beautiful plating of the ratatouille in the movie of the same name, for which I gather we must thank Thomas Keller • If you have so many fonts they’re effectively incomprehensible and unusable, and start using proper font management software like FontAgent Pro with auto-activation, the scales are lifted from your eyes and you feel ten feet tall • Getting a Christmas kete from your bosses of yummy local and organic treats, including home-made hummus • Buses that don’t just say SORRY, but alternate by flashing NOT ON SERVICE (Christchurch) or NOT IN SERVICE (Auckland)—Mike Bradstock drew my attention to this prepositional shift with latitude. • John Scalzi’s photo-essay of his visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky


Bone Sharps cover Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards by Jim Ottaviani and Big Time Attic, a graphic novel about the Marsh/Cope Bone Wars • Flight of the Conchords, the best New Zealand comedy ever made (not that that’s saying much); adored by American critics, about to screen in its homeland, and you can catch most of it on YouTube already • Finally, someone explains Unicode, ANSI, and the difference between UTF-8 and UTF-16, which may seem trivial but is vitally important if you want to spell Māori correctly. • Endless Things, the final and long-awaited book in John Crowley‘s Aegypt quartet (but newcomers should read Little, Big instead) • Don McGlashan’s post-Muttonbirds solo album Warm Handgapminder.gif• Hans Rosling previewed the amazing global statistical visualisation tool GapMinder at TED, and Google bought it in a fit of non-evilness so we can all have a play • Getting Eastern editions of overpriced textbooks direct from India, dirt cheap • Watching the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra play over a fine breakfast at the Maranui Surf Lifesaving Club in Lyall Bay epitomises all that is good about Wellington • The groovy Flickr toys at Big Huge Labs • Taking down your profile on the Face Book and complaining how it’s not cool any more now the Man is there

Good Kiwi Stuff

airnzreboot.jpg Air New Zealand’s fancy on-demand entertainment system, just what you need on a fourteen-hour flight (although it runs on Windows, so when it crashed I was left staring at a boot screen) • Good fish and chips, including the wonderfully disgusting object that is the battered deep-fried pineapple ring • Isaac Freeman‘s drily witty blog and comics • Anzacs, afghans, toffee pops, and jaffas–the latter make all movie-going complete • Friendly ATMs that play video clips on their TV screen, which for some reason reminded me of Bladerunner • A bus trilogy: advertisements on the side panels of bus shelters that change every few minutes by spooling up from a roller, which is also a bit like Bladerunner, but a low-rent Edwardian sort of Bladerunner • GPS units on buses (a Kiwi invention, everyone will tell you) that lets you read the ETA off a monitor while you wait • Apologetic buses: when not in service they display SORRY as their destination • Meaty bacon, made from happy meaty pigs who have never heard of a hog lagoon (look it up, but not just before eating) • There have always been New Zealanders who, like me, are a bit fanatical about native plants, but this attitude now seems to be mainstream, with city councils putting tussock, flax, three lancewoods and a cabbage tree on every scrap of land plug.jpg• Gourmet food (laksa, ostrich, local wine and olive oil) at places that would be greasy diners in the USA • One thousand people paying to attend a panel discussion by scientists on water use on the Canterbury Plains; perhaps that’s a testimony to Christchurch nightlife on a damp Monday, though • And it is intrinsically more sensible for switches to go down than up, and for wall sockets to have switches on them as well (though now kiwi plugs seem big and clunky, perhaps to cope with our grunty 240 volts)

Things I’ll Miss About the USA


  • Free refills for your soda
  • Toads, snakes, salamanders, and the amazing insect life of the South
  • Real bagels. Last I heard, there was only one bagelry in New Zealand, run by New Yorkers in Wellington.
  • Cheap clothes, kitchenware, books, and magazines
  • The free New York Review of Books at the Duke bookstore, an exotic luxury in New Zealand
  • The American sandwich: toasted, with huge amounts of meat and a salad dressing to bind it all together
  • The New York Times on a Sunday
  • Good Southern fried chicken
  • Texas ribs and Alabama barbecue
  • American gumption and self-confidence okra.jpg
  • Free weekly papers, especially the Village Voice
  • Baseball, mostly because everybody stands up and sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the seventh inning
  • Fresh okra at the farmer’s market
  • The omnipotence of the internet: Netflix, Bookmooch, Lala, Amazon,, Emusic, and all the other sites that only work or only work well in the USA
  • The free zoo and museums in Washington D.C.
  • Autumn in a deciduous forest
  • Taquerías and other real Mexican food
  • American breakfasts, especially waffles and pancakes
  • Cheap gasoline (see also Things I Won’t Miss) squirrel.jpg
  • Effortless access to PDF articles and interlibrary loans at university libraries
  • Bears, bison, and bald eagles
  • Sticks of butter (although the butter itself is nasty)
  • Seeing indie bands that will never come to the Antipodes
  • Peaches and boiled peanuts from a roadside stall in Georgia
  • Shops open almost all the time, including twenty-four-hour supermarkets
  • Not needing a landline telephone
  • Turning right on a red light
  • A rodeo in rural Montana
  • Thanksgiving, especially turkey
  • Turtles
  • Fireworks
  • Squirrels
  • Snow

Good Stuff

helvetica.jpg The film Helvetica, a movie for typeface nerds and the people who love them–if your partner doesn’t understand why you hate shopping at a place with a badly kerned sign, take them to this • Shearwater, a band fronted by an ornithologist (who studies caracaras); try their remastered and expanded album Palo Santo • The ’90s Canadian sitcom Twitch City with multitalented Don McKellar (check out his wonderful 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould) and the lovely Molly Parker, lately of Deadwood • The postmodern ventriloquism of Nina Conti, now on YouTube • Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, an unapologetic rhapsody on fat, pork, salt, and smoke. Sidebar heading: “How real is the danger of botulism?” That’s my kind of cookbook. • Garfield is vastly improved if you remove his thought balloons • Hot Fuzz vs Shaun of the Dead? Which Simon Pegg/Nick Frost film is better? I love the DVD extras for Shaun, but it’s a close call. • Piedmont and Rue Cler, the latest new and promising contenders in the downtown Durham food scene • The point in an Ethiopian meal when you start tearing up the injera that’s been serving, up til now, as a plate.


neutralmilkhotel.jpeg Seeing the moving Lives of Others shortly after a screening of actual Eastern Bloc surveillance footage • Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea–why did nobody tell me about this album earlier? (Well, they did, but I didn’t listen.) • Sleeper film of 2006, United 93, devastating and absolutely not a date movie • Baking cinnamon sticky buns and feeding them to a small child • Sean’s music recommendations are almost always spot on, and especially his recent pick, Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One • ze.jpegZe Frank’s The Show, the funniest thing on the internet, which finally ended after exactly one year • The pleasant feeling when your word processor and bibliographic database work as a team, generating a beautiful reference list at the click of a button, particularly the night before you submit your dissertation • A hankering for poetically brutal scalpers on a sociopathic rampage through the Old Southwest? Why then, you need Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian • Mary Roach’s Stiff, a book about the various fates of cadavers, which had a great Six Feet Under cameo • Watching robins fly about their beaks stuffed with nest-building scraps • The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible–anthem rock for hipsters.

Boone, Blowing Rock, Valle Crucis


Spring is a good time to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains; accommodation’s cheap, the streets are empty of tourists, and although the trees are mostly bare the temperature is just right for hiking. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Homestead Inn and the chocolate and ice cream in Blowing Rock (but avoid the corned beef hash at Knight’s), sipping a glass-bottle Coke on the Mast General Store’s porch swing in Valle Crucis, cruising round the backroad hollars (yes, that is the actual term used on the road signs) spotting crumbling barns and Jesus billboards, and a barbecue dinner at Stamey’s in Greensboro on the way back.

Good Stuff

overclocked.gifThe wittiest and most sophisticated movie I’ve seen in ages, Trouble in Paradise (1932, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), starring the beautiful Kay Francis, in a splendid Criterion reissue with great DVD extras • Cory Doctorow’s new short story collection Overclocked as well as hearing him speak at Duke on privacy and a fizzing mass of other 21st-century things • Julie Taymor’s film Titus, containing some slightly silly touches (like legionaries on wolf-headed motorcycles) but redeeming Anthony Hopkins a little in my eyes–although the man has no scruples about his career, does he? • Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology blog • The extremely French song Le Vent Nous Portera, both in its original Noir Désir and Manu victoriavox.jpgChao version, and Victoria Vox’s ukulele cover from her new CD–I only wish I’d asked to hear it live when she played at the Open Eye in Carrboro • Remembering what really good science journalism can be by reading the Best American Science Writing 2006, edited by Atul Gawande • Baking thin baguettes in a three-loaf pan, because three is the Platonic ideal number of baguettes • I for one welcome our new Mexican movie mafia overlords if they keep bringing us Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men • The chowpatty chaat at Cool Breeze in Cary.


you_are_free.jpgThe Man Who Saved Britain: a Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond by Simon Winder is uneven but full of hilarious insights into the tastelessness of pubescent male Bond fans (my brother and I both qualified); Winder shows how the evolution of Fleming’s fantasy world parallels the grimness of recent British history • You Are Free by Cat Power I enjoyed more than the soulful recent The Greatest • Children of Men for the cinematography, with amazing tracking shots, and the well-realized future Britain–the plot and acting are fine but not its strengths • I’d been wanting to read Epitaph for a Peach by David Masumoto for its elegiac portrayal of the decline of heirloom farming in California, but it’s a beautiful and hopeful book too • Straight Man by Richard Russo — a university novel with just enough absurdism • Finished The Wire (Season 3), which has to be the best show on TV; like CSI and that ilk, but for adults shop_around_corner.jpg• The Shop Around The Corner (1940, with Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart), a better Christmas movie than It’s A Wonderful Life • Noticing a new bulb coming up each day through the mulch of Fall’s leaves • This American Life, now available as a podcast, reminding those of us who got too infuriated by NPR’s hideous pledge drives why public radio matters • Making your own sausage rolls with home-made puff pastry (not the wildly overpriced stuff in Whole Foods) and good North Carolina pork • For too long I assumed Bright Eyes was just for shoe-gazing emo kids, but I’m pleased to have my mind changed when I finally listened to I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning–I’ll have to try more Conor Oberst, as long as he doesn’t cry too much during the songs • Getting the New York Times Sunday edition delivered.

Key Lingo

I’ve traveled a little bit with Americans, some of whom took the trouble to learn a few words of their hosts’ language, and some of whom, well, didn’t. Now my personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is that it’s only fair to learn the basics. What are the basics? For me, they’re the following, divided into the essentials (things you should have memorized before you get on the plane) and desirables (the more of these you learn, the happier you’ll be). First, the essentials; no surprises here.

  • Please & thank you
  • Sorry & excuse me
  • Do you speak English?
  • I don’t speak [whatever]
  • I don’t understand
  • Yes & no
  • Hello & goodbye

I think politeness never hurts. Blame my Mum. And to interact a bit, memorizing the following desirables would be a good idea, lavishly adding please/thank you/excuse me of course.

  • How much?
  • The bill please
  • [Enough numbers to count to 20, and use common sums of money]
  • Where’s the toilet?
  • I’d like [whatever]
  • A [whatever] stamp, please
  • A ticket to [wherever], please
  • Left, right, straight ahead
  • A glass of [plain old faucet] water with/without ice, please
  • [Days of the week], today, & tomorrow

lingo.gif Anything more, and one graduates to actually having to learn the language: namely, understanding what people say back to you. Yeah, that’s the killer. Anyway, to help keep all this straight I threw together a little downloadable PDF cheat sheet that you can print, fold up, fill in, and carry around as an aide-mémoire. Happy traveling!