Wednesday, October 29, 2014

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Comedian and ubiquitous quizcom panellist Sean Lock, and film director Danny Boyle. I like Sean Lock, but I think he's one person who is actually at his best when he's got people to bounce off on panel shows, rather than in the more traditional stand-up setting. As for Danny Boyle, everyone likes Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and everyone agrees A Life Less Ordinary was a bit shit. Where I perhaps diverge from most people is in that I was distinctly unimpressed by Slumdog Millionaire, and in that I really enjoyed Sunshine, indeed it was the link to the Sunshine clip that I included in the earlier post that set the train of thought off that eventually ended up here.



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ace of bass

Just a quick and slightly belated (since he died on Saturday) RIP for Jack Bruce, singer, songwriter and musician of many hats over the years but most famously singer and bass player (and joint frontman with Eric Clapton) of legendary late-1960s power trio Cream.


As I've said before, the compilation album Best Of Cream (the one with all the vegetables on the front, as pictured above), issued in the immediate aftermath of the group's break-up in 1969, is one of the definitive musical soundtracks of my childhood, probably rivalled only by the 1972 Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits compilation and Book of Dreams by the Steve Miller Band for sheer relentless number of plays over the years.

That particular compilation isn't available any more, but there have been a gazillion others over the years, the ones I own being the 1983 compilation Strange Brew, which duplicates the vegetable album's track listing except for the two extra tracks Politician and Anyone For Tennis (and also has the full version of White Room rather than the single edit), and the more extensive 2005 compilation I Feel Free - Ultimate Cream, which is probably the one to go for. That Wikipedia link suggests there was a second disc of live material with that one, but the version I've got doesn't have it. That's OK, as it happens, since for all their formidable reputation as blues-jazz-rock improvisers in a live setting I think it's the tight little psychedelic nuggets they produced as singles that hold up best: Badge, Tales Of Brave Ulysses and SWLABR are probably my favourites, Bruce's bass-playing on Badge being particularly memorable.

lupin the loop

Couple of brief follow-up notes regarding previous posts, one recent, one not so recent.

Firstly, it was unforgivably remiss of me to neglect to mention that as a result of the explodey demise of bulbs 5, 7, 10 and 12 I can now declare myself the winner of Kitchen Light Bulb Connect Four! Yeah, eat my randomly coincidental linearly-connected bulb filament self-immolation pattern, losers.

Secondly, you might remember my amusedly baffled WTFery at being presented with Wagamama's list of possible food allergies. To be honest, after getting a link to a Monty Python sketch and a couple of cheap fart gags out of it I thought no more about it, until today when I was presented with a list of allergy information from Chef & Brewer's website (a Chef & Brewer establishment being the likely venue for the office Christmas lunch some time in December). And what do I see listed? Lupins!

A bit of internet research reveals that the lupin bean is actually quite widely-used as a foodstuff, particularly in Latin America and the Mediterranean, and crops up (in dried and ground-up form) increasingly frequently as a gluten-free substitute for wheat flour in various culinary applications. Anyone planning, on learning this, to pop straight out to the garden and dig up some lupins for dinner should be warned that unless carefully prepared the lupin bean can contain toxic quantities of certain alkaloids, and you don't want to get lupin poisoning. And that's if you're not allergic to it.

That's all very well, you'll be saying, but I DEMAND to know which of Chef & Brewer's delicious generic pub grub options have potentially dangerous lupin products in them, lest I start tucking into a portion of cod and chips only to unexpectedly have my liver turn inside-out with alkaloid poisoning. Well, you'll be relieved to hear that the answer appears to be: none of them. Not a single one. Still, it's nice that they at least allowed for the possibility.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

the light stuff

It's been a while, hasn't it? And great things have been afoot, so listen up.


Following the last round-up, I decided that it was time to re-populate the ceiling with some new bulbs, as we were down to five and it was getting a bit dark. This was on September 21st; I know this because I tweeted about it at the time:


As luck would have it, I had exactly seven incandescent bulbs left (all bog-standard 40W ones from B&Q), so I was able to exactly fill all the slots and briefly have the full complement of a dozen bulbs blazing down. Needless to say it didn't last.


By September 23rd we'd already lost one, number 4. By September 30th we'd lost number 5 as well, and by October 8th we'd also lost numbers 7, 10 and 12. We're HAEMORRHAGING FILAMENT HERE, PEOPLE.

There is a pattern to the way they've expired, though. The original batch expired in the following order: 2, 3, 10, 4, 5, 12, 7, 1, 11, 9. I replaced 2 and 3 with IKEA LED bulbs, thus effectively taking them out of the equation. The new ones have expired as follows: 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, i.e. the same 5 as last time (different order, admittedly). At this point the only bulbs to remain intact from the batch installed in April are numbers 6 and 8.

So at the weekend I'll install the 5 IKEA LED bulbs I've got in the cupboard (again, spookily, just the right number) and the whole cycle will begin again, although hopefully periodic exploding activity will be confined to the remaining bulbs which are not either long-life or LED, i.e. bulbs 1, 6, 9 and 11. Once these all buy the farm and are replaced with LEDs this particular topic will hopefully be replaced by a yearly bulletin saying NOTHING TO REPORT. We'll see.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

that's the storify of my life

Here's the brief post-Swanage round-up. A bit of a mixed bag this year in terms of weather, but to be fair both the golf games were conducted in the dry (in the sunshine, even, on Saturday) and it was really only on Sunday that we got properly rained on.

If I were to fill in the last line in the big table I included in the previous post, it would look something like this:

Year Dates Transport and Pubs General Notes
2014 10-13 Oct Andy's Landy
The Crow's Nest
The Bull and Boat
The Square and Compass
The King's Head
In-car Stella pouches. High five! Harry wins the golf?! Corben! Corben? Wet and windy walk to Worth. Y-shaped dog turds. Pumpkins. Chickens. The tiny island of Estonia. The world's worst game of darts. Continue along Cockrod for 1.3 miles.

Photos can be found here. As promised we did also live-tweet a bit of pub-crawl action on the Saturday, and various other inconsequential stuff at other times. Twitter's hashtag-viewing facility obviously has some weird algorithm in it that excludes tweets (even from the "All" view) based on some impenetrable set of criteria, so only a small handful of the full set of tweets are now available via the standard hashtag link.

This simply will not do, so what I've done instead is use Storify to create a (hopefully) permanent record of our inane witterings and drunken blurry gurnings; have a look at this. It's ordered with the most recent tweets first, so drop down to the bottom and work up if you want them in chronological order. [STOP PRESS: I found the button that orders them the other way, so you shouldn't need to do this now.] It is also alleged that one can embed the Storify timeline in a web page, so let's have a go:



Monday, October 20, 2014

the last book I read

Fremder by Russell Hoban.

Fremder Gorn is having a bit of a peculiar day. When we meet him, he's floating though space without spacesuit or helmet, the freighter Clever Daughter that he was on a few seconds before having spontaneously dematerialised from around him. By chance he gets rescued by another passing ship, and needless to say the authorities are keen to know what happened, and how he escaped.

Fremder is a flickerhead, someone fitted with a cranial implant that enables him to be the conduit for a sort of hyperspace drive that allows ships to traverse huge interstellar distances in next to no time. While accidents do occasionally happen they don't usually leave any survivors, so Fremder is a source of considerable interest, not least to giant supercomputer Pythia, who conducts an interrogation to find out what Fremder has been up to, particularly the stuff he doesn't even know about himself.

Fremder is also of interest because of his ancestry: son of Helen Gorn, the inventor of the flicker drive, along with her brother Isodor. Both of them died by their own hands in mysterious circumstances, in Helen's case a couple of months before Fremder was born (some sort of incubator being presumably involved for the remaining time).

It turns out that not only is the thing implanted in Fremder's head not quite the bog-standard flicker implant (it's got some special properties), but also that Pythia isn't the giant supercomputer he thought she was - the truth is somewhat more weird, and explains why at the end of the book Fremder finds himself on board Clever Daughter II heading for the same co-ordinates as before. Can he escape again?

This is the fourth Hoban in this list, which equals the record jointly held by Iain Banks (with and without the M), Lawrence Durrell and William Boyd. It's quite "hard" sci-fi in places, in contrast to Riddley Walker which was post-apocalyptic, and Kleinzeit and Come Dance With Me which are set in recognisable versions of contemporary London, but it's still as quirky and charming as any of the others. It's somewhat more oblique in its approach to its subject matter, and a lot of the sciencey stuff is hand-waved away, but it still packs a lot of density into 184 pages. It's probably not as good as Riddley Walker, but that's a pretty high bar.

For all the trademark Hoban idiosyncrasies there are some common themes here: most science fiction works that require people to travel between star systems (rather than just orbiting their own planet) are obliged to cook up some form of hyperspace drive just to compensate for everything being interstellar distances apart and the trips taking many thousands of years otherwise. So you've got the warp drive in Star Trek, the Millennium Falcon making the jump to light speed, the ill-fated gravity drive from Event Horizon, and the flicker drive here. Similarly, there is a long history of fictional teleportation systems, and what happens when they go wrong, from Stephen King's short story The Jaunt to The Fly.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

making plans for nigel

I have a confession to make, and it's a slightly shameful one. Here it is: there is one thing about Nigel Farage that I find admirable. Phew: there, I've said it. It's good to get these things off your chest.

I'll tell you what it is, if you like. There is a long and generally excruciatingly embarrassing history of politicians doing photo-opportunities in pubs, and on these occasions, pretty much without exception, they try to bolster their down-to-earth, man-of-the-people credentials by supping on a pint. It's almost without exception a pint of ale, as befits someone committed to great British traditions, and pretty much without exception you can almost hear the slight wincing gagging noises being made as Joe Politician raises the glass to his lips and has a tentative sip. That's George Osborne there on the right in a particularly fine example.

I honestly don't know why people do this, as the public know that the political classes in general are from a social stratum that would much prefer a nice gin and tonic or a glass of a nicely chambreed Chateau Lafite Rothschild to something as proletarian as a pint. But, like the furious tonguing of the wife after the conference speech, it's a tradition that no-one wants to be the first to try and shake off.

So it's quite refreshing to see that when Nigel does a photo-op holding a pint and grinning (and most of Nigel's photo-ops involve him holding a pint and grinning) it's because he really fancies a pint. And when he's drunk it, he might very possibly go and get another one. I should make honourable mention of Barack Obama here, too, who when presented with a pint of Guinness on a trip to Ireland, downed it with obvious relish.

Note that none of this absolves Nigel Farage of being a colossal gurning nitwit and an unpleasant right-wing opportunist, just to be clear. Nor should this post be taken as an endorsement of drinking during working hours, however much Farage and Boris Johnson (and William Hague back in the day) might think it's a terrific idea.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

pale, male and stale

It was, of course, inevitable that in the wake of the mainstream media interest in the atheist community's sexism problems there would be a backlash from that most oppressed and put-upon group, Angry Blokes.

Basically this gist of this bone-headed article is: hey, dude, look up "atheist" in a dictionary! It just says "lack of belief in gods", right? Nothing about racism or feminism or any of that shit, right? CHECKMATE, etc., etc. Or, to rephrase the complaint a bit: "nobody told me that when I started being an atheist I had to stop being an arsehole".

Well, firstly, nobody is telling you that you have to stop being an arsehole, just that it would be nice if you did, and, furthermore, that we reserve the right to tell you when you are being one.

The depressing thing is, this is actually quite simple. Putting the dictionary aside, anyone who bothers to be an "out" atheist and tell people about it, as opposed to an "out" a-unicornist, say, is effectively already making a political statement, one which says: I'm bothering to mention this because (by contrast to the unicorn stuff) there are real-world consequences of people believing this stuff, most generally hostility to reasoned enquiry and dissent, the tendency to kill each other for believing in slightly differing flavours of nonsense, and the brutal oppression of women. Furthermore, you're making the (hopefully fairly obvious) statement: I think these things are bad, and that the world would be a better place if they stopped, as far as is possible.

To come at it from another directiom, I maintain that atheism does imply and entail a concern for feminist issues, because in large part the social structures which maintain patriarchy have been established and enforced by religions. So if you hold to the idea that, say, brutal Islamic oppression of women is bad (which it undoubtedly is) then you can't really go on to say that you're fine with, say, Sam Harris' lazy trotting out of sexist tropes. Or, at least, not unless you're a) engaging in some extreme denial about the existence of institutionalised sexism in western societies or b) pulling a Dear Muslima and suggesting that because one is "worse" than the other (by some imaginary metric) that we can safely not care about the one involving the rich white dudes whose books we like.

Among the things that involves ignoring, though, are things like the terrorist threat made against Utah State University TODAY for having the temerity to invite computer games writer and activist Anita Sarkeesian to speak. This isn't the first death threat that's been made against Sarkeesian, and the authorities are taking it extremely seriously, not least because the guy mentioned admiringly in the e-mail, Marc Lépine, was very real and killed 14 people (injuring 14 more) at the École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, supposedly because of a similarly virulent anti-feminist agenda. And let's not forget that this is all happening because Sarkeesian dared to put out some videos making the (fairly self-evident and uncontroversial, you'd think) case that the video game industry has a problem with how its products portray women.

The barely believable follow-up to that is that the talk has been cancelled, not by USU but by Sarkeesian herself, over concerns for her own safety once it became apparent that Utah's barking gun laws would permit attendees to carry concealed weapons into the venue even after a threat such as this one had been issued.

Back to the original article - one of the more chucklesome elements is the juxtaposition of the pooh-poohing of "liberal issues" and "social justice" and the photo-montage the author (or an editor) saw fit to illustrate the piece with. Take a look:


It may be instructive to list the people illustrated here:
  • Penn Jillette, 59, white, magician, comedian, tedious hectoring loudmouth, likes calling women cunts;
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson, 56, person of colour, astrophysicist, occasional inaccurate quote-rememberer, generally pretty good on recognising social justice issues, BUT a man who, crucially, does not self-identify as an atheist, for what I think are weaselly bullshit reasons, but nonetheless that's not a label that he accepts;
  • Bill Maher, 58, white, comedian, talk show host, pseudoscience advocate, likes calling women cunts;
  • Lawrence Krauss, 60, white, physicist, unfortunate choice of friends, rumours of inappropriate conference behaviour;
  • Christopher Hitchens, 62, deceased, white, journalist, casual dismisser of women;
  • Sam Harris, 47, white, writer, neuroscientist, careless perpetuator of sexist tropes and taker of great umbrage when called out on it;
  • Daniel Dennett, 72, white, philosopher, cognitive scientist, no known form on the subject that I know of;
  • Richard Dawkins, 73, white, evolutionary biologist, tweeter without due care and attention;
  • Ricky Gervais, 53, comedian, purveyor of thoughtless ableism, likes calling people cunts;
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 44, person of colour, writer, activist, regrettable neo-conservative wingnut.
Just to summarise, of these ten people, only 9 of whom actually self-identify as atheists in the first place, eight are white, nine are male, and all but two (of the nine who are still alive) are over 50, with the youngest being 44. If the list had been specifically chosen to satirise and undermine the article it was attached to, and perfectly illustrate the point being made by the people it was dismissing, then I'd say they'd done a pretty good job.

sirhowy you? fine, thanks

Swanage 2014 photos to follow in due course, but in the meantime here's a small gallery of pictures I took when we went on a brief family walk near Newport a week or so ago. We went to the Sirhowy Valley Country Park, the car park for which is a few miles west of Newport over near Wattsville. The main path follows the route of the old Sirhowy Railway and is consequently nice and level, though you can branch off either south up onto the ridge that eventually takes you to Mynydd Machen (thus duplicating the walk I did to bag it back in 2009) or north down towards the Sirhowy River, which is what we did here, as it seemed likely that nearer the river would be a good place to hunt for muddy puddles to jump in.

As always there's a high proportion of shots just of Nia being adorable; if you can't be bothered to scroll through these one by one I've put together a little animated GIF of her throwing some dance moves which you can view here. I should also plug the people at gifmaker.me for their free GIF-generating facility, and also remind you of this earlier example featuring me, Doug and Anna re-enacting the old Morecambe and Wise going-off-stage routine on Penarth pier in 2007.