My super-hero name

Last night, I dreamt I went to inspect my handiwork in a palatial, L-shaped room that I'd stripped of wallpaper the previous day. To my dismay, I discovered that, while I had been away, someone had re-papered the walls and ceiling with a hideous, embossed Anaglypta. The re-papering, I realised, bore all the hallmarks of the Incredible Hulk.

Passing down a long passageway, I came to a door behind which I could hear voices talking. I knocked and entered, only to discover that I had interrupted an earnest conversation between Tony Stark/Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). All three were wearing civilian clothing, rather than being ‘suited up’ in their super-hero garb, but it was obvious even to me that some dire emergency was afoot.

Clearly wishing to get rid of me, Tony Stark informed me that he needed my help on an important mission. He handed me a small metal container, about the size of a tin of shoe polish, but without any of those stupid twisty things on the side to help you open them. As you might expect from the creator of the Iron Man suits, the container looked indescribably cool in gleaming, gun-metal grey—although I was secretly a bit disappointed that he hadn't thought to throw a little hotrod red in there before he got Jarvis to render it. Tony explained that he was supposed to be cooking an extra-special paella for all the other Avengers, Nick Fury, and the senior agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that evening, but that he was now in a bit of a rush, so he needed me to get started on the rice. He had, he said, already made some of his extra-special chicken stock, which I would find simmering in the kitchen. All I had to do was introduce the stock a few spoonfuls at a time into the rice, the requisite amount of which I would find in the cool, metal container. At this point, Natasha Romanoff gave one of her secret little smirks and made her excuses to leave before the only ‘girl’ present was also roped into cooking duties.

I looked down at the cool, metal container in my hand, thinking that it couldn't possibly contain enough rice to go round—especially if Dr Banner transformed into the Hulk—but Tony Stark assured me that the rice was a very special form of genetically modified rice invented by Stark Industries, and that there would be plenty enough for all. So, I headed off to the kitchen to make a start on the paella. And then I woke up.

Our superheroes eating

I don't think helping Tony Stark to cook paella for his super-hero friends and S.H.I.E.L.D. colleagues quite qualifies me for enrolment in the Avengers Initiative, but I do now at least know what my own super-hero name is:

The truth is, I am Rice Man.

A Lidl touch of glamour

The glamour has gone out of supermarkets.

—Prof. Jeremy Baker
ESCP Business School, Oct 2014

Prof. Baker pretty much hits the nail on the head, here: what modern supermarkets most certainly lack is glamour.

When I pulled up at Sainsbury's last week, would it really have been too much to ask for the foreign gentlemen in the car park who offered to wash my car to have worn something a bit more glamorous than damp-looking, brown overalls? Sequins, perhaps, or maybe even a top-hat. Furthermore, within the store itself, I can't help thinking they missed a golden opportunity recently when they installed new spotlights in the bananas section. Would a chandelier or two really have been all that out of place? And as for Deidre on the checkout: a very nice lady, I'm sure, but I reckon someone more of the calibre of Scarlett Johansson, say, or Cate Blanchett, might add a certain je ne sais quoi.

Carte Blanch

Sainsbury's new checkout lady?

Of course, where the supermarkets really missed a trick was at George Clooney's wedding last week. A civil ceremony in Venice is all well and good, but I'm sure, for the right financial incentive, the star of Ocean's Eleven would have been just as happy to lead his blushing bride down the Home Baking aisle at the Dewsbury branch of Lidl.

Tesco and Sainsbury's are in a bit of a mess at the moment. Put me in charge, and I'll soon add a touch of Hollywood sparkle.

Seeing Scarlett

Talking of Scarlett Johansson—which, if you've been paying attention, you'll remember I was—you might have heard that the actress came under considerable flak recently for becoming a ‘brand ambassador’ for SodaStream™: a device that allows people to make their own fizzy drinks. SodaStream™ is an Israeli company that operates in the occupied West Bank. Being associated with the company was seen as being incompatible with Ms Johansson's role as a global ambassador for Oxfam. So she quit her Oxfam role.

This whole sorry SodaStream™ saga has an unexpected bright side, however. In the unlikely event that I should ever find myself at a cocktail party chatting with Scarlett Johansson, I will now be able to explain to her how we have something in common. You see, many years ago, SodaStream™ also landed me in a whole lot of trouble.

It was down to my enquiring mind, you see. Our grandmother had bought my sister and me a SodaStream™ device. We seldom used it. This was partly because you had to buy a special concentrate to covert the fizzy water made in the machine into the flavour of your choice, and this concentrate soon ran out. But it was mostly because we were terrified of the damn contraption. Every time you released the yellow lever to remove the freshly enfizzed bottle of water from the device, the gas pressure made the lever shoot back so violently, it nearly took your arm off. I exaggerate only slightly. So the thing languished pretty much unused in the back of the cupboard.

Until, that is, my mum was enjoying a bottle of white wine one evening, and I decided to find out whether you could use a SodaStream™ to convert cheap plonk into finest Champagne.

The answer to that question turned out to be ‘no’.

What I also learnt that evening was that white wine placed in a SodaStream™ tended to explode in a rather spectacular manner. So spectacular, that only a thimble-full of nasty, fizzy wine remained in the bottle, while the rest was sprayed across all four kitchen walls, as well as the ceiling.

As I say, I don't think it's very likely that I will ever find myself chatting with Scarlett Johansson at a cocktail party—cocktail parties are just not my scene—but, in that unlikely event, at least we'll have something to laugh about together. Perhaps we might even see if it's possible to make fizzy cocktails in a SodaStream™ device. Based on my previous experience in this area, I should imagine the result might look something like this:

Scarlett Johansson exploding

Scarlett Johansson exploding.

Who knows, perhaps Scarlett and I might turn out to be the West's answer to Vyacheslav Molotov.

A head for figures

BBC: Mathematics: Why the brain sees maths as beauty
Brain scans show a complex string of numbers and letters in mathematical formulae can evoke the same sense of beauty as artistic masterpieces and music from the greatest composers.

This news won't come as a surprise to anyone who has studied maths in any detail.

When I was studying maths (double-maths, actually) for ‘A’ level, one of our teachers once wrote a fiendish problem on the blackboard for us to work through as a group. “Any ideas?” he asked.

After studying the equation for a couple of minutes, I suggested that we might like to subtract y2 from both sides.

“Why would we want to do that?” asked the teacher, beginning to foam at the mouth.

“Because that will give us an x2 and a minus y2 on the right-hand side. And x2 - y2 is, well… nice.”

The class burst out laughing. But the teacher, whose foam had turned into a real lather by now, gave them a right bollocking, explaining that Carter was right, and that x2 - y2 was indeed nice. In fact, it was beautiful.

This particular maths teacher tended to foam at the mouth rather a lot. I don't think this was down to his passion for mathematics. I suspect it was due to madness. He talked to trees. I know this for a fact, because he told us so. He also used to play opera at us during our maths lessons. Wagner, mostly. Very loudly.

To a mathematician, a beautiful formula is every bit as aesthetically pleasing as a piece of Wagner, a painting, or even an attractive film-star. Indeed, any red-blooded male mathematician worth his salt would be hard-pressed to choose between:

Scarlett Johansson

Euler's equation.

and

Euler's equation

Scarlett Johansson.

Which is why I never became a mathematician.

Seeing Red and Hearing Scarlett

Today's Observer (our butler reads it) has an interesting interview with Tom Waits.

For those of you not in the know, Tom Waits is to music what Phil Collins is to music divided into ten to the power of Candle In the Wind's awfulness. If Beefheart is God, then Waits is His messenger on earth.

The fantastic news is that Waits has a new 3-CD box set of rarities out next month entitled Orphans (Amazon UK|US), which is split into three themes: Brawlers, Bawlers and (Peter McGrath please note) Bastards.

But the Observer piece contained a blonde bombshell:

The actor Scarlett Johansson has just announced her plan to record an entire album of Waits's songs next year.

Which suggests one rather obvious question:

W H Y ? ! !

Don't get me wrong, I haven't got anything against Scarlett Johansson (unfortunately). In fact, I have a bit of a soft spot for her, so to speak, because, in the right light, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Stense's babe sister. But why do people who clearly aren't Tom Waits have to go and make entire albums of Tom Waits songs as if they had anything to add?

It simply isn't possible to cover a Tom Waits song without messing it up. Hasn't Ms Johansson heard the travesty that was Rod Stewart's version of Tom Traubert's Blues, or Screaming Jay Hawkins's rendition of Heartattack and Vine (which was doing OK until Screaming Jay inexplicably decided to substitute himself for the Supreme Creator in the immortal line, Don't you know there ain't no devil, there's just God when he's drunk)? I mean, even the Boss struggled which his version of Jersey Girl, which is all well and good, but how do you improve on perfection?

No offence, Ms J, but, if you really feel the need to record some songs, why not try writing some of your own? Failing that, why not cover some Phil Collins classics (I use the word loosely)? It would be difficult indeed to do injustice to You And Me In Paradise.

See also: