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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Prestige by Christopher Priest (FP: 1995) [360pp] 

Andrew Westly always seemed to get the strange ones – the stories that often led nowhere and always ended up buried deep in the paper. This time he was investigating stories of a cult leader who had apparently appeared at a conference despite being in prison in the US. But it only got weirder from there. Lady Katherine Angier had quite a story to tell even if it wasn’t the one he expected to hear. The tale dated back to the turn of the century when two feuding stage magicians attempted to out-do each other in being the talk of the town and retaining top billing in their theatre appearances. Always looking for a trick or spectacle that the other couldn’t possibly replicate, until one, Kate’s ancestor went further than anyone thought possible – but at great personal cost. The other magician, Andrew’s ancestor, recognised he had finally been defeated but left a legacy that Andrew had been struggling with since he was adopted many years before. He has always imagined that he was a twin, separated from his brother but still connected somehow. Unfortunately for him, he was going to find out the truth that very night... 

I remember enjoying the 2006 movie adaptation by Christopher Nolan starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johanssen. Although the core of the book is largely the same, the wrapping, narrative thrust and conclusion are all very, very different. The main story is told in a series of flashbacks and diary entries of both magicians, so we periodically get the same story from both sides (which does nothing for the speed of the narrative) resulting in interesting and sometimes annoying “echoes”. Even without these distractions and diversions the story is often a slow one as both magicians perfect their trade and begin to compete with each other. It might have been that I have limited knowledge and a lack of interest in 19th/early 20th century popular theatre, but I didn’t exactly find this page turning stuff. This was odd as I’m a fan of the author and have read 7 of his novels previously and have enjoyed all of them – and often very much so. This is one reason why I hesitate to regard this as a bad book. It’s possible of course that the author simply dropped the ball here or that the story simply didn’t appeal to me – unlike the others – but I do wonder if it wasn’t just me. I mean, the story itself was interesting with a scientific ‘twist’ that might have been more intriguing if I hadn’t already seen the movie. So, in this case, the prestige – the WOW effect of the trick – was already known, although it's somewhat different in the book that the film. Maybe that’s the reason – the surprise simply wasn’t surprising. On the other hand, the author did take his merry time getting there so there was that. I think what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t enjoy this much, although other people may do so. It hasn’t put me off the author (a score of 7-1 isn’t bad!) and you’ll be seeing his name again here no doubt. Reasonable.  

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Monday, March 20, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Nanny State Made me – In Search of a Better Britain/A Story of Britain and How to Save It by Stuart Maconie (FP: 2020) [281pp] 

I picked this up for several reasons in addition to the standard ‘Buy one get one Half price’ deal: It was about the Welfare State, it was written by someone I’m aware of and haven’t read anything by him before and it was (by and large) about the North or at the very least from a Northern perspective. Although initially it took me a while to settle into this rather rambling narrative at times, I ended up liking it quite a bit. I’d heard the author talk several times on TV (he worked/works for the BBC), so I actually ‘heard’ him chat away in his own voice in my head as I read along – and ‘chat’ was definitely the word here. 

Part history of, and indeed love letter to, the Welfare State (although in nothing like the detail of my previous book on the subject naturally), part polemic against those who opposed its founding and are even now trying to dismantle it and part autobiography, this was an interesting look into the impact the Welfare State had on also all of us growing up in Britain. Very early on the author makes a very valid (and funny) point. Those in positions of power who disparage the Welfare State by calling it a ‘Nanny State’ are the only ones who HAD nannies – unlike the rest of us. It is, I think, a telling argument. It is only our ‘betters’ who generally oppose a system that is meant to alleviate the conditions that prevailed before its arrival in the late 1940’s - poverty, ill health, ignorance and poor-quality housing. Using his own life story growing up in the North of England – primarily in Wigan, a mere 7 miles where I was coming of age around the same time – as well as fellow beneficiaries of Welfare provision (from schools, libraries, doctors and public parks) this was a very personal ‘take’ on the making of modern Britain. Naturally, given the state of things, this is not simply a tale of good news, a tale of community over greed or a tale of civil society over wealth inequality. It is also a defence of the provision of welfare in all its aspects in an environment where such a provision is under attack as never before, from library closures, privatisation of bus services, ‘redevelopment’ of public parks, the lack of social housing, and the chronic underfunding of so many of the services so many rely on. 

Reading through this rambling but often entertaining (with laugh out loud moments) narrative, I was struck time and again by the close correspondences with my own life. The author was born 18 months after and 11 miles further east than me. He spent his formative years in and around Wigan – only 7 miles away where I lived ages 10-23 – and even taught (briefly) in Skelmersdale College only 2 years after I left with good enough A Levels to attend University. So, we almost met (as he taught Sociology – a subject I took at the College). Weird! Inevitably this was, in many ways, a cosy comfortable read being focused (mostly) on life in the North of England in the years I lived there. Interesting and informative on many levels and full of interesting insights and people this is a great piece of social history. Definitely recommended to anyone who wants to understand how the Welfare State works at the ‘coalface’ and what its loss would mean to so many. More from this author to come I think!

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Saturday, March 18, 2023

(The Lack of) Women Authors 

Prompted by a recent post over at Stephen’s place (Reading Freely) I began wondering just how many female authors I’ve been reading over the last 10 years. I had a pretty good idea that it’d be fairly low – I'd estimate about 20-25% of the total – but surprised myself that even the few authors I did read tended to only have a single book reviewed here. But, so as not to have a (actually not that) long list of such ‘one-offs’ I thought I’d only list authors that have managed to snag my interest more than once. Some of the usual/expected suspects are there but one – Alison Weir – is notable by her absence. I only have a single recorded read of hers in the last 10 years! Amazing! Anyway, this is the list from 4th March 2013: 

Philippa Gregory         

Suzanne Collins 3  

Juliet Nicolson

Agatha Christie

Veronica Roth         

Amanda Hemingway     

Mary Beard         

Alice Roberts         

Helen Rappaport         

So, not exactly an impressive list after TEN years! Inevitably, going through my reviews it become very clear that not only have I read many more male authors, but I’ve also tended to read many more books by those authors too. I’ll post something on that in the next few weeks. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve a 50/50 split between male/female authors for a host of reasons, but I’ll see if I can reduce the distance between them a little going forward. It’ll be interesting (for me anyway!) to see where I stand in a year's time.    

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Color of Money by Walter Tevis (FP: 1984) [236pp] 

It seems to be all over for ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson (Paul Newman in the movie ‘adaptation’). The fame he achieved in his youth has mostly vanished, his wife has divorced him and the pool-hall business he had been steadily losing interest in has had to be sold off. Only his memories of the pool circuit remain and maybe, just maybe that could be his way out, his way back to the big time. Tracking down his most famous opponent, the great Minnesota Fats, he proposes a set of televised rematches in the hope that, even in his fifties, he can jump start his career in a new age. Eddie isn’t really happy with the money he’s offered but just playing pool again, the hustling for dollars, is enough to awaken the drive, the need, to win.  

To be honest this wasn’t the book I thought it was! For some reason I thought it was about Poker – rather than Pool. I guess I was thinking of both another book and another movie. I also confess that I’ve never seen the movie adaptation and, by the looks of a brief glance at the synopsis at IMdb, seeing it wouldn’t have ruined the seemingly very different book. Overall, the narrative is one of loss, regret and the desire to be recognised. Eddie, now middle–aged, both wants and has the opportunity to relive his past glories but learns some valuable lessons along the way – like talent isn’t enough and practice, constant practice, is a vital ingredient. So far, so good. Eddie, however, finds training boring (at least initially) and suffers from a sense of entitlement. To be honest in many ways he’s not a nice person and I honestly didn’t warm to him very much. He certainly has talent and a keen mind but his only real focus in life (or rather foci) is winning and money – but mostly money. His girlfriend, likewise, is generally unlikable. Recently divorced from a comfortable but boring marriage, the achievements she wants seem to be too much effort. She pushes Eddie to succeed (almost in her stead) but then resents the fact that he does so. The word I’d use to describe her is ‘toxic’, although Eddie seems to like her enough to keep her around. Whenever I read something, I much prefer it if at least some (or just one!) of the characters are either likable or interesting. Unfortunately, here neither of the main characters had either of those qualities and most of the secondary characters were generally of the disposable kind. Overall, this wasn’t a badly written book. But I did find I needed more effort than I thought I would to finish it. Possibly this is simply because the pool tournaments didn’t really interest me all that much. I always enjoyed playing pool (mostly during my university years) but I never even considered watching semi-pros playing it as entertaining. So, reading about it didn’t really float my boat. One last thing: I wouldn’t have called this a Classic mostly for the fact that I think it’s far too modern (and, frankly, not good enough to be called one) but as it’s part of the publisher's Modern Classic series I’m going to have to. Hopefully my other book by this author will be more my ‘thing’. Reasonable.

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Monday, March 13, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Fifth Avenue, 5AM – Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson (FP: 2010) [210pp] 

I’m not exactly sure why I bought this. Impulse is the only word that springs to mind – that and it was comparatively cheap. I’d seen the movie YEARS ago and kinda liked it and I had, at that time, the novella by Capote waiting to be read. It seemed like a fun idea to read them concurrently – and it was. 

Despite being a big fan of both movies and books in general it’s rare that I read much about even my favourite films. So, I was pleased by how quickly I fell into the narrative presented by someone who both wrote well and obviously had a love for the subject. Following the trajectory from published work, to script, to filming to awards this was a fascinating and eye-opening look at the US movie industry at the cusp of the 1960’s. I actually lost count of the number of things I learnt and the times my eyebrow went up in surprise. One of the things that didn’t surprise me, however, after reading the book was the controversy surrounding the role and the casting of the main character. As often with these things, Audrey Hepburn wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play the iconic Holly Golightly. That [raised eyebrow] was Marilyn Monroe! Can you imagine the alt-universe this version exists in? Maybe equally surprising was that Hepburn was an early choice for the role of Maria in West Side Story but she turned it down [another eyebrow raise]. Anyway, when Audrey was finally approached to play the main character she turned it down – as both her and her husband considered the part too much of a departure – playing a ‘hooker’ no less – from her usual on-screen persona. It took a LOT of persuading and rewriting of the script to get her on-board. This, naturally, wasn’t the only hurdle to be overcome. The studio originally had several other directors lined up before they finally, and rather reluctantly, settled on Blake Edwards and then there’s the iconic song ‘Moon River’, written with Audrey in mind to sing it, and almost rejected by the studio. In many ways that’s just scratching to surface of the ups and downs of getting this movie made and on screens across the world. Chaotic doesn’t really cover it! 

Apart from the story and the movie adaptation itself, the author spends a significant amount of time looking at the leading lady herself (I know a BIT about her, but I didn’t realise how she struggled with her profession – she always wanted to dance ballet – and with elements of her life) and the impact she and her role in the movie had on women coming out of the more conformist 1950’s into the freer and more individualistic 1960’s. Overall, this was a surprisingly interesting look at an iconic movie and I admit I enjoyed it more than I expected. Maybe I should read more movie related books in future? Definitely recommended for all fans and for anyone interested in the industry or the cultural impact of that little black dress. 

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Saturday, March 11, 2023

 The Bookworm Tag (borrowed from Stephen & Marian H) 

1.  If you had to go into the witness protection program, and they gave you the option of moving inside a book, where would you like to go? 

FUN question! Somewhere safe would be good, so..... I’d go with one of Iain Bank’s Culture novels – on board one of his ships.... Keep moving, that’s the ticket...  

2.  Have you ever claimed to have read a book you actually hadn’t read? 

No, although it doesn’t carry too much risk in that most of the people I do (or have) been around wouldn’t have a clue if I was lying or not! 

3.  What author have you read the most books by? 

That’s a moderately difficult question. It’s *probably* Isaac Asimov, but Larry Niven, Frank Herbert or Robert Silverberg might give him a run for his money.  

4.  Do you ever buy fun bookish merch like mugs, shirts, artwork, etc? 

Probably only book related T-shirts! 

5.  Do you usually read only one book at a time, or do you have several going at once? 

Usually two – a fiction and non-fiction. I had a ‘thing’ ages ago where I thought that I wasn’t reading enough non-fiction so started Non-Fiction Sunday’s. So, if I’m already reading a novel, I’ll switch to the non-fiction choice on Sunday before switching back again on Monday. Odd, I know... 

6.  Are you a mood reader, or do you plan out your reads? 

Mostly ‘planned’ - in that I have a pretty good idea what my next 10-12 books will be – but I also feel free to drop in other books as the mood or interest takes me. 

7.  If you could meet the author of your favourite book and ask them one question, what would you ask them? 

I don’t have a favourite book per se and I’d hope that I could get beyond a bland “Where do you get your ideas from?” type question. I think I’d rather sit in a quiet part of a bar with a drink and chat about things – rather than a single question option. That’d be MUCH more fun and, hopefully, informative. 

8.  Have you ever tried a new food or drink because you read about it in a book or story? 

No, but I have sometimes wondered about knocking back a few Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster’s from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. 

9.  Have you ever named a pet after a book character? 

No, I don’t think so. Our pets either had boringly normal names or didn’t have one (do people name their fish?). 

10.  What book are you reading right now? 

Presently reading ‘The Prestige’ by Christopher Priest (and not enjoying it much presently) and will be starting ‘Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar – Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’ by Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart tomorrow – as its SUNDAY! 

11. If you could spend a day with your favourite author, what would you do with them? 

If it was Iain Banks, we’d be ‘tasting’ whisky in a cosy pub in Scotland somewhere.  

12. What is the longest book you’ve ever read, and did you like it? 

Most probably the single volume Lord of the Rings. It’s well over 1K pages and took me AGES to read as a youth. I do have some longer ones awaiting to be read, but with my review backlog still so small it’ll be a LONG while till I read any of them! 

13. Have you ever cried over a fictional death scene, and if so, which one(s)? 

I’ve been annoyed or disappointed when a favourite character died – but no tears I recall. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

UK Socialist/Labour Governments 

We voted them IN 22 Jan 1924  

Then OUT 4 Nov 1924 

IN 5 Jun 1929 

OUT 24 Aug 1931 

IN 26 Jul 1945 

OUT 26 Oct 1951 

IN 16 Oct 1964 

OUT 19 Jun 1970 

IN 4 Mar 1974 

OUT 4 May 1979 

IN 2 May 1997 

OUT 11 May 2010 

It’s called Democracy. Plus, the Bolsheviks (as another example) gained power in Russia in 1917 with a coup after failing in their attempt to gain an absolute majority in their parliament after a questionable election. Just 74 years later the Soviet Union collapsed with barely a shot fired. Weird, isn’t it, how a catchy slogan often doesn’t do so well after 10 minutes of research, a bit of common sense and a passing knowledge of history....

Oh, and NICE Soviet era PPSh-41. A classic sub-machine gun! 

These days it takes about 90 minutes..... SO much improvement in 100 years [lol]

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (FP: 1958) [158pp] 

Holly (actually Holiday) Golightly is the kind of Girl about Town you meet once and never forget. Falling in ‘love’ with her is easy, she’s a free spirit, a style sensation, a force of nature. Take her out, show her a good time, buy her drinks and dresses and you’ll have an evening to remember. Just never ask her who she really is, never ask her about her past, never ask her where she came from – unless you want to be cut dead, left on the sidewalk, never invited to another famous New York party at her sparsely furnished apartment. Holly has no past and no future. Holly has and is an eternal present. Enjoy it, and her while you can and while you can afford her. 

Like most people, I came across Miss Golightly in the 1961 rom-com directed by Blake Edwards starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly and George Peppard her long suffering neighbour/love interest Paul Varjak (although Paul wasn’t any kind of love interest in the book as he was quite clearly gay). The book – or rather novella/long short story as it’s a mere 98 pages – is VERY different in a lot of ways. For one thing Holly (in the book) in blonde and for another rather than a simple ‘good time girl’ or a girl just out to have fun while she’s young was quite clearly (at best) a borderline hooker. Not surprisingly when approached initially Hepburn wanted nothing to do with it for her reputation's sake. The story, such as it is, is rather ‘thin’ with Holly racing around New York, getting drunk, losing her keys, and looking for her next meal ticket whilst avoiding commitment and her less than glamorous past. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting from this modern classic, but I wasn’t hugely impressed. As it was a rather short work, the book also contains several of the authors' short stories – or should I say shorter stories. They were ‘House of Flowers’ where a prostitute looks for love – and finds it, much to the bemusement of her friends, ‘A Diamond Guitar’ about a friendship between two very different convicts at a labour camp and finally ‘A Christmas Memory’ about the annual baking of fruit cake in a very poor community. Although I wasn’t exactly entranced by any of the offerings here, they were not bad offerings although I did have to remind myself about some of the stories to even offer a one-line synopsis here. Reasonable.  

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Monday, March 06, 2023

 (American) Beauty piled on top of beauty.................

Traffic problems? What problems.....?


Just Finished Reading: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (FP: 2020) [288pp] 

Nora Seed has had enough. Enough of the regret and disappointments of life, enough of the ‘what ifs’ and missed opportunities, enough of the worry – just enough. With the loss of her (admittedly dead end) job and the recent death of her beloved cat she has decided to end it all, tonight and so she does – or doesn’t, it’s not exactly clear. She awakes outside a large building and, having nowhere else to go, she enters to look around. Finding herself in an enormous library she reaches out for a curiously coloured book – all in various shades of green covering – only to be stopped by the librarian. Nora can’t decide which is more surprising, the library itself or the fact that the librarian is the same woman employed by her school decades earlier. She is, assures the kindly librarian, not dead at least not yet. She has time to browse the shelves and pick a life she might have had, a life where different choices were made and different life paths followed. This is her opportunity to erase her book or regrets and live a life she’d always wanted. Will she pick a life where she stayed in her brother's band and became an international success? Or a life studying glaciers in the far north or Norway? A life as a Philosophy lecturer in Oxford or managing a home for abandoned dogs? So many choices, so many paths. As long, that is, she knows what to choose and what will make her happy – and as long as she has the time. 

I’d read some of the author’s non-fiction before and was intrigued by his fictional works. This was, despite what I’d heard recently, a delight although rather tinged with darkness. Nora is being treated for depression so there’s aspects of mental health that won’t be to everyone’s taste. Plus, there’s the initial heavy suicide motif and (if that wasn’t enough) feline mortality issues. So, be warned... If you’re made of sterner stuff and can read beyond this the rest of the book is intriguing indeed. I’m sure we’ve all thought of opportunities missed, offers turned down, paths not followed and wondered if we’d be happier, more fulfilled, more at peace if we’d had the courage or the luck to make different decisions. So, the gift of trying on these other lives like taking a suit out of a half familiar wardrobe is going to be hard to turn down. It’d definitely be an interesting way to spend your time in the afterlife's waiting room/library. Told, I think, with a great deal of sensitivity (the author himself suffers from and writes about mental health issues) and a lot of humour this is a thought provoking read par excellence. I found myself having to put the book down more than once to think about the questions raised and the implications of the ideas being discussed between Nora, the librarian and other people in her various ‘lives’ she followed through books off the shelves. Only really two things (slightly) bugged me: why were the book covers various shades of green and why were the books of varying thickness (I presume this denoted the length of lives lived but it could’ve been for other more obscure reasons). The only thing I really struggled with was how to classify this book to know which labels to apply to it. There was some discussion of the Multiple Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics which would (at least potentially) fit it into the Science-Fiction category but I’m more inclined to err on the side of Fantasy with a slight SF tinge around the edges. If you’re interested in a thought provoking read with a healthy dose of philosophical ideas to mull over this is definitely the book for you. Recommended and more from this author to follow.   

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Saturday, March 04, 2023

Vital Statistics...? [Not really... but interesting ones!] 

Earlier this year I mused on the fact that although the majority of my reading was published after 2000 there is a determined lag before I actually get around to reading anything. Here, prompted by that initial thought experiment, I’ll be looking at my reading that pre-dates 2000. I was curious if there was any pronounced ‘clumping’ or bias towards more modern works. As before this list is derived from books (both fiction and non-fiction) reviewed here between 28th Feb 2013 – when I began regularly noting First Publication [FP] dates - and the Present. 

1990’s: 43 

1980’s: 28 

1970’s: 24 

1960’s: 34 

1950’s: 28 


1930’s: 16 





Although that’s a reasonably long ‘tail’ there’s a quite dramatic drop-off pre-1950's. The ‘blip’ in the 1930’s can probably be explained by a mixture of Agatha Christie novels and other classic crime books. The biggest surprise, and disappointment, for me was the low number of books published before 1900. I honestly thought I’d read more than that. I’ll revisit this in a year and see if the trend continues.   

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Rules of Contagion – Why Things Spread and Why They Stop by Adam Kucharski (FP: 2020) [266pp] 

I’m pretty confident when I say that we’re all far more familiar with the basics of epidemiology than we ever thought we’d need to be even a few years ago. We’re no longer phased or confused by concepts like the R number, by vectors of transmission or, my personal favourite, the word asymptomatic. Even so, it’s always good to read the actual science behind such things rather than relying too much on journalistic or political interpretation of the science.  

This book was a birthday present (yes, I’m THAT kind of person) which has been sitting in the book pile for a few years. It’s not that I’ve had enough of pandemics by now but that it takes me a while to get around to things and this was a heavy hardback version. But it was worth the wait. The author is an epidemiologist, but his interests extend beyond the world of viruses and bacteria into the surprisingly congruent world of computer viruses, memes, conspiracy theories and Facebook fads. Maybe not surprisingly, it's entirely possible to use the methodology and mathematics of infection to track trends in misinformation and rumour. It’s also possible to track infectious ideas across social media from the ice bucket challenge to waves of suicide following an event either in the social media world itself or within the celebrity circus we’ve created. Likewise, we can see how advertising campaigns ‘go viral’ whilst most fizzle and die without much of anyone noticing their existence never mind their demise.  

Covering a vast field, from the earliest ideas of how infections spread (from Cholera and malaria onwards) as well as ways to combat them - once the germ theory had been accepted by most doctors and other medical professionals – before moving onto their non-biological analogues this was a fascinating look at the world of contagion. But one of the things I found most fascinating in the whole book was what wasn’t mentioned – Covid-19. I’m guessing that, despite its publication date in 2020, this must have been submitted for publication just before the pandemic became headline news and all that we’re most familiar with started happening. The author does, occasionally, mention future pandemics but doesn’t dwell too much on them. This made my reading experience a little ‘bizarre’ at times when there’s almost an ‘afterimage’ or echo between reading about this stuff and living through it.  

A substantial chunk of the book looked at the online world, concentrating on a number of things including obvious computer viruses and the way organisations like Facebook attempted to manipulate people's emotions by manipulating their news feeds. There were several interesting discussions of how websites tried (and all too often failed) to make stories ‘go viral’ by design. There was also an interesting debate about both Brexit and the Trump presidential election which poured a fair bit of cold water on the idea that Internet trolls had much effect either way. Overall, this was a fascinating look at the world we have created and provided much, much food for thought – both at how we deal with pandemics (badly!) and how we might better deal with some of the negative effects of social media. Definitely recommended for anyone who wants to look behind the daily headlines.  

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Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Erm.... Stay the heck away from it as much as possible......?

We MADE It! It's MAD March here @ SaLT. So, go get your WEIRD on... You're going to NEED it.... [lol]