Monday, April 20, 2015

the last book I read

All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson.

You remember Berry Rydell, right? Ex-cop, now security operative for hire, last seen in Virtual Light heading off into the sunset with sexy ass-kicking bike messenger Chevette Washington, having foiled some slightly incomprehensible plot involving using nanotechnology to regenerate areas of earthquake-devastated San Francisco.

You remember Colin Laney, right? Gifted with the ability to "see" patterns in the flow of online data, last seen in Idoru helping to facilitate some slightly incomprehensible business involving the titular idoru, a female AI construct called Rei Toei.

Some unspecified amount of time has passed. Chevette Washington and Berry Rydell have had a bust-up and gone their separate ways, Chevette to live with a rich and punchily abusive new boyfriend and Rydell back to his old job as door security. Meanwhile Colin Laney is spending almost all his time immersed in the virtual world, living in a cardboard box at a Tokyo railway station, looking for patterns and connections in the data as his physical body atrophies rankly around him.

Laney has become obsessed with a shadowy PR guru called Cody Harwood, who he is convinced is shortly to have some key involvement in what Laney calls a "nodal point", a key moment in history, recognisable as such to most mere mortals only in hindsight. For reasons that no doubt seem completely obvious to Laney (but not so much to everyone else, the reader included) he decides that what needs to happen is for Berry Rydell (who Laney met, briefly, in the early stages of Idoru) to go to The Bridge (you'll recall from Virtual Light that this is the remains of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge rendered impassable to vehicles by the last earthquake) and act in such a way as to come to the attention of a certain individual. It turns out the "coming to the attention of" bit is fairly simple, it's the staying alive afterwards bit that might be difficult, since the individual in question turns out to be some sort of Taoist assassin, a bit like Yoda but taller and less green (and without the verbal tics) and wielding a Japanese tantō instead of a light sabre.

Meanwhile Chevette has escaped from her abusive boyfriend, and with the help of her Australian friend Tessa has temporarily holed up at Chevette's former place of residence, The Bridge. Inevitably she hooks up with Rydell again, but there's no time for any gooey romantic stuff, as it appears there are a large number of people out to kill him, and who if they can't take him out individually are quite prepared to torch the entire bridge and everyone on it. Fortunately the dagger-wielding assassin is on Rydell and Chevette's side, and turns out to be pretty useful with assorted other weaponry as well. Rydell has another ally in Rei Toei, who makes a crucial intervention during the climactic showdown to foil whatever it was Cody Harwood was trying to bring about.

What exactly Cody Harwood was trying to achieve is never very clear, beyond that it was something to do with nanotechnology, but, just as with the magic sunglasses in Virtual Light, that's largely irrelevant anyway. All Tomorrow's Parties is nominally the third book in the Bridge trilogy, Virtual Light and Idoru being the other two, but actually since those two were barely related to each other it reads better as simultaneously a sequel to each of them, the whole trilogy then forming a sort of two-pronged fork, a Y-shape if you will, rather than a straight line. 

That said it's much more similar to Virtual Light than Idoru, and you could criticise it (as this New York Times review does) for being basically a bit of a rehash of the earlier book with a few elements out of Idoru thrown in. The plot doesn't really make sense, and it doesn't really give Chevette in particular enough to do other than be rescued from peril a few times. The ineffably cool knife-wielding assassin (who it turns out is called Konrad) is really the star of the show here, along with the brilliance of the basic concept of the Bridge as high-rise semi-anarchic shanty town. 

As always Gibson throws in some prescient stuff involving technology - Tessa's relentless filming and documenting of her own life and adventures using a miniature camera attached to a remote-controlled airborne drone seems bang up-to-date, even though the book was published in 1999. 

So, as always, if you must have one and only one Gibson it still has to be Neuromancer. If you want one other it'd have to be Virtual Light, but I'd recommend you read all of them.

Friday, April 17, 2015

only a masters of evil, darth

I am, as I think I've said before, not a betting man. I'm too mean, for one thing, and secondly I'm just too damn lazy to put in the legwork and do the amount of research necessary for my selections to be anything more than hopelessly blind stabs in the dark.

So even if you'd asked me for Masters tips when it would have been useful, I doubt whether I could have given you many useful ones. I mean, I think if you'd said - I'm thinking of having a punt on Jordan Spieth, what do you think? - I'd have probably nodded and said, yes, that's a pretty good pick. And so it proved - it also proved, as it happens, that my pre-tournament idea of just going straight to the PGA Tour money list and picking someone from the top five there wasn't such a crazy idea after all.
I mean, it's not exactly a ringing endorsement of either the idea generally or Spieth specifically, but you can't deny I did mention his name. Twice. Anyway, that set me to thinking - how much would just following the form book help you decide who to bet on at the Masters? The answer is: quite a bit actually.

The PGA tour has recently re-jigged its season to do away with the Fall Series and have the season start as soon as the previous season ends, i.e. after the FedEx Cup play-offs. For the purposes of this analysis I'm going to ignore this and deem each "season" to start on January 1st. A typical PGA tour season from 1970 (my arbitrary starting point) features 40-50 events (it varies slightly from year to year) of which typically 12-14 happen before the Masters, which is generally scheduled to finish on the second Sunday in April.

So my childishly simple theory says: look at the dozen or so PGA Tour tournament winners so far this year (fewer if anyone's won multiple tournaments), by all means apply a bit of further selection if you want, and then pick one of them. In the 46 Masters tournaments since 1970, the winner was someone who'd already won on tour that year on no fewer than 18 occasions (or 39.13% of the time), as follows:
  • Jordan Spieth in 2015
  • Bubba Watson in 2014
  • Phil Mickelson in 2006
  • Tiger Woods in 2005
  • Phil Mickelson in 2004
  • Mike Weir in 2003
  • Tiger Woods in 2002
  • Tiger Woods in 2001
  • Tiger Woods in 1997
  • Fred Couples in 1992
  • Ian Woosnam in 1991
  • Sandy Lyle in 1988
  • Craig Stadler in 1982
  • Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979
  • Tom Watson in 1977
  • Jack Nicklaus in 1975
  • Jack Nicklaus in 1972
  • Billy Casper in 1970
Now of course you might say, well, OK then, let's flip that around and say you'd actually be better served by a strategy of ruling out anyone who'd already won, since 28 of the 46 winners were people who hadn't yet won on tour that year. To which I'd say, yeah, well, good luck with that, losers.

Note that my two picks, Jimmy Walker and Henrik Stenson, finished tied for 19th and tied for 38th respectively.
Stenson's sore knee would have been caused by this irate club-snapping incident at the 13th during Friday's second round. I'm a big fan of Stenson, partly because he seems to be a wryly humorous interviewee when he's in a good mood, but also for the occasional flashes of equipment-abusing temper on course, something all too painfully familiar to me. Here's a couple more Stenson moments, one from the US Open in 2011 where he eventually finished in a tie for 23rd, and one from the BMW Championship in 2013, the third tournament of the four-tournament FedEx Cup series which Stenson went on to win and be showered with unimaginable riches for. Imagine how annoyed he'd get if he was playing badly! Stenson also features (twice!) in this compilation of the top 5 club-throwing incidents. I think the one at number 4 is my favourite - the casual toss of the club over the shoulder into the lake, not even looking where it's gone - textbook stuff.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

shoot that poison arrow to my she-e-e-ed

Let's do another mystery object, as we haven't done one of those, for, erm, about three and a half years. So, uncle and youngest goldfish, what's this?


This one is actually more in keeping with the original spirit of the Ask The Family mystery object round than the mannequin leg spike thingy, in that generally once you weren't viewing the object from a crazy angle it was plainly obvious what it was. And so it proves here:


Zoom in a bit for something Googleable and you find this:


This in turn yields some links which reveal that this is some proper serious hunting kit, not a child's toy or anything. All of which raises the question: how the hell did one of these 85cm death-dealing devices end up in my garden? Because that's where I found it, up on the decking near the shed. I have no idea, but common sense dictates that it must have come by an aerial route. We do get a demoralising amount of rubbish just blowing in off the street and under the gate, but this is too heavy to have been wind-borne, and it would have taken some serious twister action to launch it up onto the decking. Which raises the further question: so is someone in the neighbourhood just launching these into the air to fall to earth they know not where? If so, is that technically legal in a built-up area?
I should add that the arrow didn't, as far as I can tell, have a deadly pointy tip attached to it; small mercies and all that. Nonetheless if you collected an untipped arrow in the side of the head at launched-from-a-bow speeds I expect it might smart a bit. Those tips are called "points" among the hunting cognoscenti, people who will no doubt be nodding sagely over the product descriptions here, while the rest of us are sniggering childishly over each occurrence of the words "penetration" and "shaft".

Saturday, April 11, 2015

the last book I read

Dead Air by Iain Banks.

Ken Nott - né Ken McNutt before he de-Scottished himself a bit - is a radio DJ on a popular London station, a station owned by an aging rock star entrepreneur type who also owns an airline, if you're following me. He's styled as a "shock jock", but of a slightly more cerebral and less lurid kind than people like Howard Stern; Nott's thing is more about unfettered political discussion, sticking it to The Man, telling it like it is and to hell with that political correctness nonsense, that sort of thing.

Ken's ranty shtick has gained him a wide audience and made him into something of a minor celebrity, something he has gleefully exploited to get into the pants of a whole series of women, including his current girlfriend Jo, a punky type who works for a record company, but also including a few ill-advised bunk-ups with wives of close friends, and a series of liaisons in posh hotel rooms with the exotic and enigmatic Celia, who turns out to be married to a guy called John Merrial, a notorious London gangster and the sort of man you really don't want to get on the wrong side of, particularly by repeatedly fucking his wife.

So when a bit of promising-looking flirting with a mysterious female admirer in a late-night bar results in Ken getting his drink spiked and being whisked away to some unspecified East London location, he has some cause to wonder which of the many people he's pissed off is responsible. For what exact purpose the whisking was done we never discover, since Ken manages to rouse himself enough to punch his erstwhile lady friend in the kisser and escape out of the cab window.

It turns out, some time later, that this incident was nothing to do with the shadowy Mr. Merrial at all; instead it was cooked up by some other shady character who was keen to have some traffic charges (for an incident where Ken was a witness) dropped. So that's a relief. But, never a man to sit back and savour his chips when he could be pissing on them instead, Ken makes an unwise phone call after a night out getting spectacularly drunk, and ends up leaving an incriminating message on Celia's landline answering machine at the London house she shares with John Merrial.

When Ken phones Celia's mobile in panic he discovers that both she and John are (separately) out of town for the day and there's just a slim chance that he can avert disaster by breaking into the house, erasing the contents of the tape, and then getting the hell out again. Yes, there are alarms and locked doors and all that stuff, but Celia can talk him through that. As if it weren't already complicated enough, though, Ken's phone battery is low, and he's got the mother of all hangovers.

As remarkably successfully as the break-in goes, considering, Merrial inevitably finds out about it (who'd have thought a major gangster might be paranoid enough to have CCTV?) and so the scene is set for the climactic scenes whereby Ken is whisked away again, this time by professionals who aren't going to let him escape, for a nice little chat with Mr. Merrial. Can Ken's quick wit and silver-tongued talky skills get him out of this one?

Dead Air was published in 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which feature tangentially in the plot and are clearly the inspiration for a couple of Ken's rants (either on-air or in the pub, since he's one of those guys who doesn't seem to have an "off" switch), not to mention being the inspiration for the cover image on my paperback copy. Other than that they're not really central to the plot; one of the reasons for this is that there is almost no plot to speak of. Apart from the attempted kidnap incident (for wholly contrived and implausible reasons) about halfway through, the only real action that occurs is the break-in to the Merrial house, which commences around page 360 of a 430-page novel. The panicked attempt to get to an answerphone to erase a message before it's heard has a strong 1980s sitcom feel about it, to the extent that you can almost imagine it happening in speeded-up motion with the Benny Hill theme playing in the background. It's a trope that featured in Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency as well, and no doubt countless other places.

Ken Nott is clearly an authorial alter ego, and a pretty transparent one at that, his job providing Banks with a convenient mouthpiece for some fairly facile anti-Bush and anti-religion diatribes. It's a bit of authorial wish-fulfilment having Ken's ranty articulacy make him strangely irresistible to women, too. Ken is also, with his penchant for drink and drugs, something of a retread of the Cameron Colley character from Complicity.

The basic problem with Dead Air, a bit like its immediate (among the non-"M" mainstream fiction, anyway) predecessor The Business, is that despite being written in Banks' engaging style, and therefore being very readable, nothing of any great significance actually happens, and it's therefore difficult to see what the point of it was. This Guardian review suggests that maybe he gradually came to find the separation between the wildly imaginative science fiction strand (as "Iain M Banks") and the mainstream fiction stifling to the latter. It's certainly true that while The Business (1999) and Dead Air (2002) are not especially great, the M-branded book between them, Look To Windward (2000), is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Dead Air is the second book in this series to feature the events of 9/11 as a plot device, the other being Falling Man.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

out of focus

Indulge me briefly, if you will, and permit me a misty-eyed eulogy to my trusty old Ford Focus, which I sold earlier this week after owning it for about a week short of seven years.

Actually it's not a particularly misty-eyed tribute, as I am not especially interested in, still less sentimental about, cars. Anyone wanting a genuinely heartfelt farewell to a car is urged to read Doug's tribute to his old Skoda Fabia here. My attitude to cars is more or less the same as my attitude to televisions and computers: I want them to work, I want them to facilitate me doing stuff I would otherwise be unable to do, or at least would find a great deal more difficult and time-consuming, but I'm not really that interested in them per se, certainly not in their internal workings, certainly not to the extent of feeling that I personally need to get involved. As far as cars specifically are concerned, that means I can change a wheel, a headlamp bulb, and a fuse, and I can top up tyre air, coolant, washer fluid and oil as and when required, but that's about it. Anything else warrants getting a man in.

The Focus did have a lot of good points, not least a decent-sized boot which you could get a surprising amount of stuff in, especially with the rear seats down. Here's a Facebook picture of an almost certainly unsafe quantity of smashed-up decking about to be taken down to the municipal tip in July 2012.


The only petrol-headed comment I'll make, beyond that it was perfectly pleasant to drive, is: I liked the gearbox. Nice and notchy and definite, even compared with our newer Mondeo which is a bit vague and rubbery in comparison, and even with the Mini, which has reverse gear in a position where it's just (if you're not really paying attention) possible to get into reverse when aiming for first, which is never good.

For all that, the Focus earned my affection mainly by being low-maintenance and trouble-free. You might not have got that impression from this post back in November 2013, written in the wake of a concentrated burst of trouble and expense, but there was little to report between then and last week apart from a lower-cost reprise of the suspension issues at the 2014 MOT (basically replacing all the bits that hadn't been replaced the previous year), and an alarming-sounding but actually trivial incident a few months back where the car overheated because I'd forgotten to put any coolant in it for, ooh, about a decade. Even the 2015 MOT which I'd been anticipating with a certain amount of trepidation (partly because the car had been sitting on the drive unused for the best part of two months following our acquisition of the UW Mini) resulted in the first clean pass since (I think) 2011.


So anyway, I posted an ad on Gumtree with the expectation of having to wade through some unrewarding interaction with semi-literate trolls. And so it proved - and, just as with the stuff I'd previously sold, the first person who enquired and appeared to be a reasonably close approximation to a normal human being bought the car. The image above is a farewell picture of it being driven away. Notice how I've forgotten to reclaim the Halfords child-protecting sunshade thingy from the rear window - the only other things I know I left in the car were the Haynes manual (though this was intentional) and the Land Rover-branded tax disc holder Andy bought me when I passed my driving test back in March 2008. That would have been kept for sentimental value at best, though, since you don't need a tax disc any more.

Perhaps the text of the Gumtree ad can serve as an epitaph:
Ford Focus 5-door hatchback, pepper red (i.e. sort of burgundy). This is my beloved and trusty old Focus that I've had since April 2008; the previous owner had it since it was new in September 2001. Great car, very reliable, used for daily commutes to Bristol & back every day up until about a month ago. Wife's shiny new company car forces sale. Brand new MOT from THIS WEEK, good until April 2016. 158,000 miles on the clock, 97,000 or so of them put on by me.

All the usual kit: alloy wheels, heated windscreen, electric front windows, Sendai CD/radio with aux input for iPods. I'll even throw in the Haynes manual in the passenger seat pouch. Bodywork generally very good, bit of minor rust on a couple of door edges. Did I mention that it's got a BRAND NEW MOT? And there's half a tank of petrol in it as well. My Newport-Bristol commute generally yields around 35mpg.

Maintenance since I bought it: various tyres, new ignition coil, various suspension parts replaced after an MOT failure two years ago, apart from that it's been very low-maintenance. Only times it's broken down have been when the ignition coil packed up and when a coolant hose split and it overheated. 

Bargain price reflects age, mileage and my desire for a quick sale to free up some drive space. 
I can also tell you that over the period I owned the car I clocked up an average of just over 38 miles per day, which is just under 13900 miles per year, and around 97000 in total. In reality it was somewhere between 15000 and 18000 for the first few years, when it was our main vehicle for long-distance trips away as well as being my day-to-day commuting vehicle, less after we acquired the giant Ford Mondeo estate in late 2012 in the wake of having Nia, and only about 9000 miles in the last year thanks to a couple of months of idleness in February and March. Comparing what I paid for it with what I sold it for reveals that it depreciated at an average of just under £1.30 per day over the period I owned it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

incidental music spot of the day

The Dress Looks Nice On You by Sufjan Stevens in episode 7 of series 4 of Stella on Sky the other day. I'm a big fan of Stella, just as I was of Gavin & Stacey, though in both cases the whole comedy/drama/tears/laughter not-quite-one-thing-or-the-other thing won't be for everyone. The same could probably be said of Sufjan Stevens - I love it, but: whispery folky gorgeousness? or insufferably fey twee whimsy? It's a fine line. However, his songs certainly seem to be rich pickings for incidental music compilers; previous spottings can be found here, here and here.

Stevens' Fifty States project (of which 2005's Come On Feel The Illinoise! was the second instalment) now seems to be permanently parked. If this 2009 interview is to be believed he was never that serious about it anyway.
His Fifty States Project, which he announced in 2003 as an epic song cycle about every American state, hasn't quite got off the ground. It began with an album about Michigan, then came Illinois, but there it stopped. "I have no qualms about admitting it was a promotional gimmick," he laughs.
There is a non-state-related new album, Carrie & Lowell, out now. Generally well received but I haven't got round to sampling it yet.

Back to the original song: The Dress Looks Nice On You features on Stevens' 2004 album Seven Swans, an album awash with religious and indeed explicitly Christian themes. That it's still so great despite all that is a testament (YSWIDT) to the quality of the songs. Here's The Dress Looks Nice On You in concert - the clip doesn't specifically identify when & where it's from, but similar clips are supposedly from Austin City Limits in 2006, which sounds plausible.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

far canal

Funny what you notice when you're only half paying attention. I put the old Ford Focus in for an MOT today, and much to my forehead-slapping chagrin forgot to take my current book with me (no, it's a secret, you'll have to wait and see). So, faced with a half-hour wait, I was reduced to scouring the little table in the reception area at the MOT centre for reading material. Pretty slim pickings if you're not a fan of motoring magazines, but there was one item of interest: a slightly foxed hardback copy of Wales From The Air, with a foreword by Jan Morris.

Well, that'll do, I thought. Let's start at the beginning. Hmmm, that's odd....


You may be having difficulty reading the text on the left as it'll be a bit small. You may also be having difficulty reading the text on the right, but that'll be because it's in Welsh. Here's a larger version of the English text:


This is all very interesting, but the trouble is that the picture above isn't of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. The Pontcysyllte aqueduct looks like this, and, as you can see, spans the Dee valley in glorious isolation without a railway viaduct next to it. I know this because I have been across it, in both directions, in a canal boat. This was on our canal boating holiday in April 2000 - here's a couple of pictures:



Both of these pictures show us travelling northwards across the aqueduct; neither of them features me, sadly, since I took them, but as a bonus you do get my mate Martyn doing the hilarious "falling off an aqueduct" pose.


The aqueduct pictured in the book is the Chirk aqueduct, a few miles further south. We went over this one a couple of times on the same trip, as previously mentioned here - note the (slightly higher) railway viaduct also featuring in the picture. The Chirk aqueduct crosses the River Ceiriog, a tributary of the Dee, which this page boldly claims to be the fastest-flowing river in Wales. 

As proof-reading howlers and basic failures of research go this seems like a pretty major one to me. I don't know if the pilots who took the pictures were given specific instructions as to what to photograph, or whether they just flew around and snapped anything that looked interesting and relied on the book people to label it accurately. Someone dropped the ball here in a big way, anyway.