Sunday, November 30, 2003

brace yourselves

it's early december - a beautiful, crisp, sunny winter's morning - and what better way to spend it than to go out on the moor and kill something?

it's degenerated somewhat, the sport of kings, from the good old days of the gormless, the chinless, the talentless, and the titled gathering to see how many brace of birds they could bag before luncheon. the aristos themselves - crippled by death-duties, poor dears - can only afford their traditional pleasures now by hiring out their killing fields to the corporate upstarts, the meeja hoes, the rock stars, the pimps, the visiting sons and daughters of the Russian mafia - and the usual americans. these people have to have it explained to them that it's a sport, of course, otherwise they'd come onto the moors blazing away with uzis and M47's.


children, of course, are brought up to understand that 'sport' is something involving skill and rules.


a typical driven pheasant shoot (anything between £600 and £1,000 per gun per day) involves waiting around with a loaded shotgun in your hands and the other in your loader's whilst the birds fly overhead. (guns are sold in pairs - the Holland & Holland 'Royal' side by side sells at £96,250 plus VAT per pair - but you commoners can probably pick up a pair for three grand or so.) you'll be one in a group of six upwards - in the good old days a line of Edwardian shooters would extend over half a mile or so of gorse and heather, but things were less well-regulated then, and they did tend to accidentally shoot each other with tedious regularity. at a given signal, the beaters - hired for the purpose from the local Surly Mumbling Locals Agency - who have been waiting invisibly and silently in another long parallel line opposite you some half a mile or so off - start moving forwards, noisily. between you and the beaters is a confused flock of pheasant.

this is their day, this is what they were hatched for, and cosseted in well-appointed pens supervised by the only person in the present assembly with any skill at anything - the gamekeeper - a curious atavistic hybrid of naturalist, stock-keeper, farm manager, tracker, vet, and policeman. having raised the birds to maturity, he has earlier supervised their release from their protective cages into the concealing shrub of their moorland habitat.
pheasant spend most of their lives on the ground. they are designed for protection on the ground. they are better at hiding and running than at flying, and are, in fact, unwilling to fly unless all other methods of escape from predation (ie concealment or running) have failed.
right now, they are a little dazed and confused. they pick listlessly at the grit. they are not hungry - they have never been hungry - just a bit nervous.
naturally shy, as the beaters' line gets nearer, they start to run away.
when they realise that the beaters are getting even closer, the first of them decides to take off.
they are slow to take off - they are powerful creatures, with well-developed leg muscles (good for chomping down on later) but insufficiently developed wings for prolonged flight - so their method of flying is to flap up to around ten metres or so, then glide, when they arrive at a top speed of about 40 mph.
perfect for game.
as soon as the first bird arrives overhead, you fire.

you don't have to be particularly accurate.
a typical cartridge case contains about a hundred little lead balls the size of a small bead - the shot - packed tightly into a fat four-inch tube. once the firing pin strikes the percussion cap at the base of the cartridge, the shot is propelled from the barrel at a muzzle-velocity of around 1,400 feet per second. depending on the barrel's 'choke' (the amount of constriction in the barrel's bore), this mass of lead spheres spreads out in an expanding conical pattern, so that at a distance of 40 metres (or the 'killing range limit' of 35 yards) it is scattered over a distorted circular lens about 1.5 - 2 metres in diameter. at that range, and with that degree of spread, you only need to wave your gun vaguely in the right direction and pull the trigger at the right time to stand a fair chance of hitting a bird. it's rather like throwing stones at a tin can. some smartass will always end up grabbing a handful of pebbles and flinging them all in a spraying arc in order to knock the can over. you really have to be a complete moron to miss. on a driven shoot, the average expectation is a ratio of four shots to one kill.
the velocity of a non-aerodynamic projectile such as a piece of lead shot decays rapidly through air-resistance after firing, and has lost more than half of its original speed - the lost energy converted to heat through friction - by the time it reaches a distance of 40 metres. however, a pea of hot lead travelling at nearly four hundred miles an hour is more than enough to inflict devastating damage on a bird averaging 3lb in weight.
it is never a clean kill. this is one of the myths of game-shooting. think about it. the chance of a single piece of shot entering the body of the bird at a point which would cause instantaneous death is so slight as to be negligible. what happens is that the piece of hot shot tears into a wing-muscle, or penetrates some part of the torso, causing sufficient damage to interrupt the bird's capacity to fly, so that the injured bird falls from the sky, still alive, flapping frantically to no purpose. this stalling fall isn't vertical, of course: depending on how high it was when you shot it, and how fast it was flying, it describes a parabola that will finally thump onto the ground as much as a hundred metres away behind you. you, however, have better things to do right now than to walk over and retrieve it - that's what gun-dogs are for.
the beaters have now advanced well into the field, and half of the flock has been flushed, flapping noisily towards you, each bird gamely fulfilling its destiny, doing exactly what it's supposed to - flying directly over a line of blazing guns.

you and your neighbours are banging away as if your lives depended on it. you're experiencing the kind of rush that's associated with all the defensive postures of sport - the batsman facing the fast bowler, the goalie facing the penalty, the tennis player waiting for the ace serve, the full-back facing the winger. it's irrelevant that the 'threat' is threat-less - that this isn't a charging sabre-toothed tiger. the point is that it's alive, it's moving, and, unlike in most other sports, you're allowed to kill it to stop it.
as soon as you've blasted off both barrels, you reach behind you and exchange your smoking gun for the freshly-loaded one that your loader has ready: he will then re-load whilst you shoot again, and again, in a bang-and-swap relay, until the air reeks of cordite, your ears are ringing, your shoulder is bruised from the recoil, your cheeks are flushed with arousal (you'll laugh it off as the heat of the barrels), and all the birds have, finally, lifted and been dropped.
a few will escape, of course - they'll eventually make their way back to the safety of their pens, until the next time.

meanwhile, once the mayhem subsides, the dogs are sent to find and retrieve the bodies littering the moor behind you (lifting the dying birds in ironically gentle jaws), necks are finally wrung, whisky flasks are unscrewed, the banter about whose bag is best begins, the beaters trudge on to their next starting line, and the gamekeeper's landrover moves discreetly in, rocking over the tussocks with a fresh batch of birds in tow to freshen up another part of the moor for the next drive.
roast pheasant is an-over-rated, acquired taste: the stall price of game is kept artificially high for its snob-value. and the meat has other, hidden drawbacks: aristocrats have famously bad teeth, easily and frequently cracked on the pellets of shot left embedded and undiscovered in the preparation of a shot bird's carcass.

cave venator.

the hunters 'n' shooters are fond of blathering their mealy-mouthed protestations that it's 'unsporting' to kill an animal unless it's for the table or for culling purposes. the truth is, pheasant as food is not the point. who really needs that excuse? the point is, it's early december - it's a lovely, crisp, sunny winter's morning - and what better way to spend it than to go out on the moor and kill something?

Thursday, November 27, 2003

durham, north carolina. 1940 (photographer: jack delano)

photographers working for the Farm Security Administration Historical Section (later transferred to the Office of War Information) were encouraged to document continuity and change in many aspects of life in America during the years the unit was in operation. they were particularly encouraged to photograph billboards and signs as one indicator of such developments. although no documentation has been found to indicate that photographers were explicitly encouraged to photograph racial discrimination signs, the collection includes a significant number of this type of image.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Bill Clinton to become fashion model

Bill Clinton is reportedly set to become the face of a men's clothing brand based in China.
The former US president will be paid around £1.3million to model for Fapai, in Wenzhou, eastern China.
According to Taiwan's United Daily News, Fapai chairman Peng Xing has been trying to enlist Clinton's endorsement for the last three years by sending him a selection of suits, shirts, ties and shoes.

Friday, November 14, 2003

my local paper - today's front page

(sometimes it just makes my toes curl)
(and yes, I have fired off an e-mail to the editor, phoned my local councillor, and spoken with the Mendip DC racial awareness officer - I am a wee woolly guardian-reading liberal, after all.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

heartbreaking and profoundly moving - this story from the miami new times about how street children in miami - in common, apparently, with homeless children in many other places as well - have developed a mythology as dense and descriptive as any in the orthodox canon.
"On Christmas night a year ago, God fled Heaven to escape an audacious demon attack -- a celestial Tet Offensive. The demons smashed to dust his palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. TV news kept it secret, but homeless children in shelters across the country report being awakened from troubled sleep and alerted by dead relatives. No one knows why God has never reappeared, leaving his stunned angels to defend his earthly estate against assaults from Hell. "Demons found doors to our world," adds eight-year-old Miguel, who sits before Andre with the other children at the Salvation Army shelter. The demons' gateways from Hell include abandoned refrigerators, mirrors, Ghost Town (the nickname shelter children have for a cemetery somewhere in Dade County), and Jeep Cherokees with "black windows." The demons are nourished by dark human emotions: jealousy, hate, fear."
full story here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

behold - the ten-point bulleted path to happiness:

  • inherit a genetic propensity to happiness
  • marriage
  • make friends and value them
  • desire less
  • do someone a good turn
  • have faith (religious or not)
  • stop comparing your looks with others
  • earn more money
  • grow old gracefully
  • don't worry if you're not a genius

assez simple, non?

Nigerians are the happiest people, and Romanians the unhappiest, apparently - according to this report from the New Scientist.
(I'll save the path to melancholy for another time)

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Judith Scott, a fifty-five year old woman with Down's Syndrome, has spent the past ten years producing a series of totally non-functional objects which, to us, appear to be works of sculpture, except that the notion of sculpture is far beyond Judith's understanding. As well as being mentally handicapped, Judith cannot hear or speak, and she has little concept of language. There is no way of asking her what she is doing, yet her compulsive involvement with the shaping of abstract forms in space seems to imply that at some level she knows. Judith possesses no concept of art, no understanding of its meaning or function. She does not know that she is an artist, nor does she understand that the objects she creates are perceived by others as works of art. Whatever she is doing she is definitely not concerned with the making of art. What then is she doing? More here

Friday, November 07, 2003

one tiny little jewel in the steaming pile of last night's mtv awards - a rather surprising 'best video' to sigur ros for their video of 'untitled #1' (aka 'vaka') - track 1 on their most recent album '( )' - which is available for download

Thursday, November 06, 2003

I'm a couple of weeks late in noticing this, but iTunes is now available for Windows! Slashdot has a review here
so (provided you're on 2000 or XP) trash that woefully inadequate Windows Media mess with all its associated msn crap and download the real thing - you won't regret it.