Friday, November 29, 2019

stay away from the light

Well, it looks like the honeymoon period is over for our kitchen light bulbs. Hot (or rather non-incandescently cool) on the heels of bulb number 4 expiring a couple of weeks ago another one has made the trip to the noxious bulb-interior recycling centre in the sky. This time it was number 10, which the record shows had previously expired on May 9th 2014 and then again on or around October 8th 2014. Apparently its first incarnation only lasted 10 days, and its second, if those dates are correct, lasted 152 days. So its third incarnation of 1878 days is pretty impressive, but the recent trend doesn't look so good. It's probably just a coincidence, though.

There was a suggestion in the midst of the original furious cycle of bulb explosions that positions 4, 5, 7. 10 and 12 were particularly prone to frying the bulbs that occupied them. That would suggest a higher-than-average probability of the next one being 5, 7 or 12. I'll be sure and let you know, but there is of course the possibility that it may happen several years from now, so don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

here comes the flood

I'm not sure what jogged my memory here, possibly Emma's recent post about last year's Lakes trip, but it occurred to me that I'd spent some time searching for online maps after that trip and I should probably share the results here, as The World Needs To Know and all that. I think it was driving down the A591 to get from Keswick to Ambleside and Windermere, a journey that involves a long section down the eastern shore of Thirlmere, that prompted me to wonder about what the lake looked like before it was made into a reservoir, as I was vaguely aware that, like Haweswater in the much more remote eastern reaches of the Lake District, Thirlmere was previously a natural lake.

Finding a pre-inundation map of Haweswater is relatively easy, since the reservoir wasn't filled until the mid-1930s. SABRE Maps has a few, for instance. Finding an old map of Thirlmere is a bit more of a challenge, since it's much older (raising of the water level started in the mid-1890s). SABRE doesn't have anything that old, and it was only when I stumbled across this supposedly Scottish-themed mapping site that I found what I was looking for - this is supposedly a reproduction of an Ordnance Survey map from 1867. Here are Haweswater and Thirlmere now, and pre-inundation, with a ghostly outline of the future water level added by me, just as I did here and here. This video, as well as giving some interesting background info, also contains some shots of maps of the old lake.

A couple of things to note: both of the old, natural lakes featured a prominent "waist" in the middle which almost divided them in two. Haweswater's two sections were widely known as High Water and Low Water, and Thirlmere's joining strait was often fordable and in later years featured a bridge. In both cases you can get an idea of the former lake's extent by looking at the underwater depth contour info (easier if you expand the images by opening them in a new tab first): in the case of Haweswater since the lake level was raised by almost exactly 30 metres, the 30-metre contour gives you almost exactly the shape of the former lake. For Thirlmere it's somewhere between 20 and 30 metres. 

Note that the old mapping site from which I grabbed the Thirlmere images also answers the question of what was in the little valley occupied since 1904 by the Wentwood reservoir (still empty, as far as I can tell; I haven't been up there for a while). The answer seems to be: pretty much nothing worthy of reproducing on a map, just a low-lying area of probably marshy grassland. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

the last book I read

Bear Island by Alistair MacLean.

The Morning Rose, a somewhat geriatric converted trawler, is steaming off into the Arctic Ocean with a film crew aboard, heading for Bear Island (a southerly outpost of the Svalbard archipelago) where they hope to do some dramatic location shooting with the snow and the dramatic cliffs and a bit of the old spume and all that. The crew numbers twenty-four, comprising directors, actors, camera operators and the like as well as some administrative types like accountants, and also Dr. Marlowe, the expedition's medical officer and our first-person narrator. A nice quiet gig for the good doctor, unless anyone is careless enough to fall overboard into the icy waters, you'd think, or at least you might think that if you'd never read a mystery thriller before. For it turns out that they have an extra passenger aboard ... [dramatic orchestral stab] ... DEATH.

It's not exactly been, if you'll forgive me, plain sailing, as the seas in this part of the world are a bit gnarly at the best of times, and a few cases of seasickness are to be expected. But when Antonio, the make-up artist, lurches off greenly to his cabin during dinner only to later turn up dead in a lake of his own vomit, things have entered the arena of the unusual. Even more so when a couple of the ship's stewards turn up similarly dead and a couple more film crew members are only rescued from a similar fate by Marlowe's robust anti-poisoning methods, basically involving administering colossal quantities of salt water to provoke uncontrollable vomiting. By the time the night is over the ship is basically knee-deep in spew and corpses.

Needless to say this puts the whole expedition in some doubt, but as they are nearly at their remote destination now, and there is a significant amount of money riding on the successful completion of the shoot, it is decided by the trip's organisers - led by corpulent director Otto Gerran - that it should continue as planned while the ship steams back to Norway and reports the incidents.

The island has some spartan accommodation which the party make use of, but even this close-quarters living doesn't stop our murderer(s) continuing their killing spree, and a couple of further people turn up dead. By this time it is revealed that Dr. Marlowe is perhaps Not What He Seems, and that he has some interest in the expedition beyond just making sure everyone has enough aspirin. It turns out Marlowe is an agent of the British Government here to investigate certain members of the film company for involvement in crimes dating all the way back to World War II.

Eventually the true purpose of the trip to Bear Island becomes clear - retrieving various items of Nazi treasure secreted in various caches on the island in the latter stages of the war, spiriting it back to the UK disguised as various items of film prop equipment, laundering the ass off it and getting clean away with flipping great wodges of cash amounting to several tens of millions of pounds, back when that was an amount of money worth getting out of bed for. But who is the mastermind? And why the seemingly indiscriminate killing spree?

Strip away the Arctic location and this is really just an Agatha Christie-style country house mystery transposed to a more exciting milieu. The murderer(s) must be from among the twenty-odd people on the boat (and subsequently deposited, bar the odd corpse, on Bear Island), so it's just a question of working out who it is. You would think the story's narrator, Dr. Marlowe, would be above suspicion, but there's always the possibility that the author is pulling a Roger Ackroyd on us. There's a lengthy and very Christie-esque bit of exposition at the end which could entirely plausibly be delivered by Hercule Poirot in a drawing-room in front of a blazing fire rather than by Marlowe inside a mock-up of a submarine lashed to a jetty on a remote Arctic island. Many aspects of Bear Island are reminiscent of what I think is the only other MacLean I've read, Ice Station Zebra, which shared an Arctic location, some general twisty-turniness of plot including some doubt over the reliability of the narrator, and some general killing.

Alistair MacLean has been dead for 30-odd years now, and most of his most famous books were written 20 years or more before that (Bear Island is from 1971), so it's easy to forget what a big deal he was sales-wise. It's unclear what the source of the numbers in the list on this Wikipedia page is, but they're pretty big numbers. Apart from MacLean, the only authors to feature on both that list and this blog are Stephen King, Ian Fleming and Hermann Hesse.

Like Fleming, MacLean's attitude to women raises a bit of an eyebrow these days - there is one occasion when Dr. Marlowe, the nearest thing the book has to a hero, responds to a woman being mildly traumatised by yet another death by hitting her. The general level of alcohol consumption by just about everyone is pretty astonishing, too - I know it's the Arctic, there's not much to do, and you need the odd tot of brandy to keep the cold out, but just about everyone is sloshing back the scotch like it's going out of fashion. MacLean himself struggled with alcoholism most of his life, so maybe this is either a sneaky attempt to normalise his own habits, or just an assumption that everyone else drank as much as he did.

Anyway, Bear Island is good fun, not especially plausible if you think about it for more than a few moments, quaintly old-fashioned in many ways, and, as with most MacLean novels, obvious film material. The hit rate with MacLean adaptations was surprisingly low, though: for every Guns Of Navarone there were a dozen duds, and by all accounts Bear Island is one, despite a fairly stellar cast including Donald Sutherland and Vanessa Redgrave.

Monday, November 11, 2019

there is a light that never goes out

In hindsight, one of the genuine high-water-marks of this blog in terms of excitement and red-hot bleeding-edge consumer affairs relevance was the glorious ten-month period where I tracked in tediously unnecessary detail the regular self-immolation of my kitchen spotlight bulbs before the completion of the transition from last-millennium partially-on-fire bits of literal hot glowing metal to modern-day LED technology which basically, as I understand it anyway, involves nothing more sinister than opening up a tiny wormhole to a dimension of pure evil and chaos to harness some of the intense malevolent energy within in an entirely safe and environmentally neutral way.

The last post on this admittedly fascinating subject was in May 2015, at which point I expected (and said as much at the time) that that would be an end of it, as the full complement of LED bulbs would surely last all the way through to the eventual heat death of the universe, or the date that we eventually move out of our current house, whichever comes first. Not so, though, as it happens, as I discovered a couple of days ago that one of the bulbs has, in a very real sense, expired.

But WHICH ONE was it, I hear you, or possibly just the voices in my head, shout. Well allow me to keep you in delightful suspense for just a moment longer with something slightly tangential but still, as you'll come to realise in the fullness of time, relevant. I acquired a new phone a couple of months ago to replace my old Samsung Galaxy A3 which was getting a bit knackered and had always been slightly flaky in the camera department. The new one is a Samsung Galaxy A40, so pretty similar, though inevitably just a few millimetres larger in every dimension. The one thing that's startlingly different about the new phone is how much better the camera is, and in particular how brilliant the built-in wide-angle lens is. I mention this because you'll recall the slightly confusing multicoloured bulb diagram from the original series of posts, and my doomed attempts to provide a real-world version of it through the medium of lying on the kitchen floor taking photos of the ceiling. Well finally, thanks to this spiffy new camera, I can make that dream a reality. Have a gander at this:

So as you can see the bulb that's bought the farm is number 4, which my research tells me blew twice during the period of the original survey, on or before May 17, 2014 and then again around September 23rd, 2014. So the stint which has just ended lasted around 1875 days, which at the original going rate for LED bulbs of 4 quid a pop works out at just over 0.21 pence per day. Compare that with the rates of up to 25p a day I was pissing away on the here-today-literally-gone-tomorrow old incandescent bulbs and it seems like pretty good value; even more so when you consider (just to get a quick plug for my wife in here) that our current Utility Warehouse package will get any expiring LED bulbs replaced for free.

Friday, November 08, 2019

sexlebrity lookeylikey of the day

The husband of newly-installed White House religious advisor (and, it hardly needs to be said, frothing batshit lunatic) Paula White, and big-haired (and, tragically, weak-hearted) sex guru Daddy from The League Of Gentlemen. Juliet Bravo!

There are many more levels to this than just a superficial and slightly alarming resemblance, though, Firstly, it turns out that Paula White's husband isn't just Some Guy, he is in fact Jonathan Cain, a pretty big deal in some quarters as the keyboardist in Journey, themselves a pretty big deal in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s and mainly famous in this country for their 1981 hit Don't Stop Believin', digitally revived sales-wise in the late 2000s as a result of featuring in various TV shows. You can imagine that a relationship of this kind wouldn't work unless both partners were fully on board with the whole Jesus thing, and Cain's resulting "spiritual awakening" (no, stop it) has apparently caused some intra-band tension.

It's hard to put your finger on why people like Cain look odd, and I think it's partly a visual discrepancy between perceived facial age (Cain is 69) and hair colour, but partly also what I see I once called Rolling Stones Syndrome.

Paula White herself, who is 53, has a slightly curious appearance as well, which I wouldn't like to speculate upon the reasons for, but could be the result of some sort of procedure a bit like this one.

Lastly, the "Daddy" episode (it's episode 4, The Medusa Touch) is from series 3 of the League Of Gentlemen, which, in my opinion at least, marks the point at which the show jumped the comedic shark from the early, funny stuff into the more macabre stuff which eventually morphed into shows like Psychoville and Inside No. 9. That said, The Medusa Touch is one of the better episodes from series 3, not least because of the repeated references to Rummikub as a sort of foreplay device. It just so happens that I played Rummikub for the first time ever earlier this summer on a camping trip and found it to be a) good fun, especially if accompanied by plenty of wine, b) a bit like rummy, as you'd expect, but with plastic tokens instead of cards and c) not particularly erotic.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

the last book I read

The Circle by Dave Eggers.

Whoa, dude, Mae Holland is pretty stoked. She's just landed the job of her dreams at the Circle, an all-encompassing IT organisation with elements of all of the major real-world internet and social media gargangtucorps, a sort of Snapstagramazon or Facetwoogle if you will. No more mundane clocking in to her old cubicle at the utility company she used to work for, and sneaking out for a rubbery sandwich from the canteen at lunchtime, now she's fully jacked into the matrix at a big multi-screen workstation in a massive open-plan glass and aluminium office with all nutritional whims catered for by in-house chefs, from a slice of gluten-free granola and goji berry cheesecake to a kohlrabi and wombat smoothie.

Working at the Circle (based, as these things always are, in the general San Francisco region) is pretty much everyone's dream job, and competition is fierce; Mae has had a bit of a head start in being able to leverage a connection with her old college friend Annie who is a high-ranking Circler and who was only too happy to put in a good word for Mae.

The Circle is all about the total immersion in social media, and the company expects some pretty extreme devotion from its employees (though it doesn't do anything as un-groovy as call them "employees", of course) including outside of "normal" working hours. Mae soon has a couple of odd interactions with people who have evidently mined her social media history for data and then got all huffy when she doesn't immediately respond to suggestions for future interaction. Clearly total immersion is the expected behaviour, so Mae throws herself in and soon becomes something of a minor Circle celebrity.

There is a world outside the Circle, of course, though with the on-site chefs and on-site dormitories available for hire to employees, it's easy to avoid most of it if you want to. Not so easy in Mae's case, though, as her parents live an hour or so's drive away and her father is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. The company's generous medical scheme covers his condition, which is great, but the oldsters don't really seem to "get" Mae's new job. And her ex-boyfriend Mercer is implacably opposed to increasing internet reach into people's lives.

But these old Luddites just don't grok the Circle's mission; a mission which becomes clearer with the adoption by some people of what's called "going transparent", i.e. wearing an on-body camera at all times and streaming the footage live to the internet so people can interact with it. Mae herself adopt this after having the temerity to go on a nocturnal sea-kayaking expedition, getting picked up by the police and subsequently hauled up before Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle's founders, for an Informal Chat about Her Future at the company.

Further complications arise in the area of interactions with men: after an unsatisfactory dalliance with the nerdy and slightly creepy Francis, Mae meets and enters into a slightly furtive relationship with the mysterious Kalden, who seems to flit unchallenged around the Circle's campus and have an unprecedented level of access to stuff but not show up on any searches or have any sort of social media profile.

Mae's internet celebrity continues to blossom now she's "gone transparent", and with the support of Circle management she agrees to be the figurehead of the company's latest mission: digitising and archiving all historical film and video footage, applying face-recognition technology to it and constructing a database of everything anyone has ever been filmed doing, ever. I mean, nothing could possibly go wrong with that, right? And who would Mae like to nominate for a real-time search to see if the internet community can crowdsource his location? Well, why not grouchy old Mercer? Nothing will convince him of the benign nature of immersive internet reach into people's daily lives, after all, than sending a drone to his remote shack to bring the entire internet all yammering simultaneously RIGHT INTO HIS FACE?

Needless to say that idea ends very badly. And Mae finds Kalden trying increasingly frenziedly to make contact with her, and when they find a way of doing it that won't be immediately broadcast via Mae's camera, he reveals the reason for his unprecedented access rights and begs her to help him change the company's course, for the future of humanity, before it's too late.

Dave Eggers is the author of a number of somewhat uncategorisable books that straddle the fiction/non-fiction boundary, including What Is The What and A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. I have the latter on my bookshelves and recall enjoying it, as harrowing as some of it is. The Circle is definitely fiction, though of course the phenomena it satirises are very real things. Much of the detail is slyly plausible, like the blandly benign names given to outrageously invasive bits of technology like the SeeChange video cameras which are ubiquitously attached to walls and, eventually, people, and the superficially plausible arguments in favour of total freedom of information about everything offered by the Circle's evangelists. Equally, much of it is odd and unconvincing, like Mae's meekness and compliance in the face of the increasingly invasive demands being made of her, and the high-speed chase late in the novel where Mercer's car is being pursued by drones with Mae's voice booming out of them before he "logs off" in the most emphatic way, a sequence which reads as if cut-and-pasted in from a completely different novel. And for all the interesting ideas presented in the body of the novel, the one bit Eggers didn't have any great ideas about was how to end it satisfactorily.

So it's far from perfect, but highly readable, as evidenced by my having gobbled up its nearly 500 pages inside two weeks. It did put me in mind of a couple of other things, in particular Isaac Asimov's short story The Dead Past (which I mentioned in passing here), which concerns rather different technology but describes essentially the same dystopian outcome. Here's the last page on my copy of the short story anthology Earth Is Room Enough:

It was apparently made into a film in 2017, though I must say it passed me by, despite featuring some heavy names including Tom Hanks. Anyway, I will now hit "Publish" and, in due course, some automated process will post a link to this post up on Twitter, where it will be available to the entire world, only an infinitesimal sliver of whom will ever know about it. The irony of this is not lost on me, by the way.

Friday, October 25, 2019

up your ayers

Interesting to see that the Australian authorities have now banned altogether the hitherto merely frowned-upon tourist practice of climbing to the top of Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock if you're as old as me).

I have mixed feelings about this, for a number of reasons, and perhaps this is one of those situations where it 's useful to examine what you think, to see if you can work out why you think it, or at least why you think you think it. Here's a few things which I simultaneously hold to be true, and which it may be possible to mash into a coherent worldview which gives due weight to all of them:
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe own the land of which Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta formation form a part
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe also believe various mystical tales involving the rock and its origins, and that the rock houses the spirits of their ancestors in some way
  • none of these beliefs is, in fact, true
  • climbing up bit bits of rock and standing on top of them is exhilarating and fun
In general I'm very wary about rules or conventions which would require people who don't adhere to a particular belief system to modify their behaviour to mollify those who do adhere to that belief system, as you can clearly see how that's problematic in a huge range of situations. It would allow Christian fundamentalists to deny women abortion access, Muslim fundamentalists to restrict women's clothing choices, Jews and Muslims to stop me eating delicious bacon, and I'm sure you can think of a few of your own. Beliefs are not immune from factual examination just because those who hold them are historic victims of oppression (which Australian Aboriginal people certainly are) or have held them for greater than some arbitrarily-chosen amount of time.

On the other hand, you do have to temper the hardline atheist view with some cultural sensitivity, or, to put it another way, consider not being an arsehole just to make a point. I think there's a more obvious anti-arseholery argument against those who decided to strip off at the top of Mount Kinabalu, for instance, and then spend quite a lot of time and effort baiting Malaysian officials about it afterwards. Climbing up on top of a big rock to have a look around seems relatively benign in comparison, and it was pretty much inevitable that there would be a massive spike in people wanting to do it before the ban came into force. It is also worth pointing out that quite a few people have died attempting the climb, some through falling off and some as a result of the heat. Clearly accidents can happen, as demonstrated by the unfortunate young lady in the current Google Maps summit picture.

Obviously an element of this is my own enthusiasm for standing on top of things, and I can say reasonably confidently that if I went to Uluru (which I never have) I would be awestruck and would want to admire it from the ground from as many angles as possible but would also be slightly frustrated at the knowledge that a perfectly feasible route existed by which I could climb to the top but for some people not wanting me to.

I think the best approach is just to see it as a property rights issue and not bring religious matters into it: it belongs to them, so they get to say how it is enjoyed by others. Somebody not wanting me to eat a bacon sandwich is one thing, someone objecting to me devouring one in their front room is something else.

So given that you can't go up it, you have to go round it. Wikipedia reckons the circuit walk is 5.8 miles; that sounds reasonably achievable in a few hours, but I presume that's hugging the perimeter fairly tightly. It  may well be that better views are afforded by going back a bit and walking round keeping a distance of, say, 200 metres. How much further would that make the walk, though?

Well, if you assume that Uluru is sort of elliptical then you come up against a quite interesting mathematical phenomenon that I was previously unaware of: unlike for a circle (and all the straight-sided polygons, obviously) there is no nice neat equation for the circumference of an ellipse, and so you have to rely on approximations. As it happens, while I'd assumed it was either elliptical or a sort of rounded-off rectangle, Google Maps reveals it to actually be more of a lumpy rounded-off triangle that reminds me slightly of one of those prehistoric flint arrowheads (the arrow, in this case, pointing almost due east).

What Google Maps also provides is a distance calculating facility, which I have used before to scope out and assess the feasibility (this is highly company-dependent, obviously) of possible walking routes. Two possible Uluru circuits are presented below, differing by about a mile and a half.

I think that difference is probably slightly less than I would have guessed it would be. Jesper Parnevik's caddy had a very similar experience back in 1999.