Tuesday, September 30, 2014

o captain my captain

Just a quick round-up in the aftermath of Europe's victory in the Ryder Cup. Firstly an updated version of my points table from last time round:

Year Foursomes Fourballs Doubles Singles Overall
Eur USA Eur USA Eur USA Eur USA Eur USA
1979 3 5 11 17
1981 2 6 10½ 4 8 18½
1983 4 4 4 4 8 8 13½ 14½
1985 4 4 5 3 9 7 16½ 11½
1987 6 2 10½ 15 13
1989 3 5 6 2 9 7 5 7 14 14
1991 2 6 6 2 8 8 13½ 14½
1993 5 3 13 15
1995 5 3 2 6 7 9 14½ 13½
1997 5 3 10½ 4 8 14½ 13½
1999 10 6 13½ 14½
2002 8 8 15½ 12½
2004 6 2 5 3 11 5 18½
2006 5 3 5 3 10 6 18½
2008 7 9 11½ 16½
2010 5 3 5 7 14½ 13½
2012 3 5 3 5 6 10 14½ 13½
2014 7 1 3 5 10 6 16½ 11½
Totals 76 68 79 65 152 133 103 113 258 246

What this doesn't show you (since it aggregates the scores from Friday and Saturday) is that for only the third time in the history of the modern Ryder Cup (i.e. USA against Europe, the period covered by the table) a team won all three individual days of competition. Europe won Friday 5-3, Saturday 5-3 and then Sunday 6½-5½. The only other times this has happened were the two thumping European victories in 2004 and 2006. The winning teams also led after all three days in 1979, 1987, 1997, 2008 and 2010, but in these years they all lost a day's competition along the way: Saturday in 1979 and 2008 and Sunday in 1987, 1997 and 2010.

Clearly there's no competition for Welshman of the Day after Jamie Donaldson's shot to the 15th on Sunday. Donaldson was rock-solid on his Ryder Cup debut, and in fact in general the rookies on both sides all did very well, Donaldson and Dubuisson for Europe, and Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker for the USA. I felt a bit sorry for Stephen Gallacher, who got saddled with an out-of-sorts Ian Poulter against a fired-up Spieth and Reed on Friday and then drawn against Phil Mickelson on Sunday, tough enough even had Mickelson not been pissed off at being benched for Saturday's foursomes and out to prove a point.

So once again we can indulge in some amusing speculation as to why the Americans seem to be unable to get to grips with the Ryder Cup of late. The fractious post-match press conference suggests choice of captain may be an issue. Legendary golfer though he is, Tom Watson did have the air of a bemused great-uncle watching the kids running about at times, and at 65 he was 18 years older than Europe's captain Paul McGinley. The 25 years since Watson's last appearance as a player in 1989 is the second-largest margin for a captain in the modern Ryder Cup era, behind only John Jacobs who captained the losing European team in 1981 having made his sole playing appearance in 1955. By contrast, McGinley appeared as a player as recently as 2006.

So here's an esoteric piece of trivia for you - only once in the last nine Ryder Cups (and only 5 times in the modern era) has the contest been won by the team with the captain with the longer gap since his last playing appearance: Europe in 2006 captained by Ian Woosnam (last playing appearance 1997) beating the USA captained by Tom Lehman (last playing appearance 1999). Five times (Langer and Sutton in 2004, Ballesteros in 1997, Wadkins in 1995, Nicklaus in 1983) a captain was appointed who'd played in the previous Ryder Cup, and, uniquely, Raymond Floyd enjoyed an Indian summer to his career that enabled him to play in two further Ryder Cups as a player after his appearance as captain in 1989.

Monday, September 29, 2014

war, HUH, good god, y'all, what is it good for

I was anticipating a bit of cathartic shouting at the radio this morning once it was announced that one of the guests on Start The Week would be Karen Armstrong, former nun and author of many books on many religious topics. Neither of those is a source of annoyance per se (though neither are life choices that I would have made), rather, the annoyance comes when trying to tie down what Armstrong's own religious beliefs actually are, a process very much like trying to grasp smoke. Here are a couple of example quotes:
'God' is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.
I say that religion isn't about believing things. It's about what you do. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.
As an alternative approach, try reading the first few pages of The Case For God via the Amazon preview facility; if you can get to the end of page three without bellowing SAY SOMETHING MEANING ANYTHING and plunging pencils into your eyes then your mellowness exceeds my own.

So I was expecting some weapons-grade bullshit of that nature - as it happens, though, Armstrong was on the programme to plug her latest book which, as far as I can tell, seeks to absolve religion from the claim that it's the root cause of most of the world's wars. Just to be clear, there was still a bit of shouting, since while I agree that it's always a bit more complicated than that, I don't think that entirely lets religion off the hook.

You can certainly argue that basic "human nature", inasmuch as there is such a thing, plays a part. So certainly there are aspects of social behaviour that have developed to increase in-group cohesiveness and loyalty (for instance, a repository of shared ritual and myth such as that provided by religion) that have the side effect of making people view "outsiders" as strange and scary, if not actively malevolent. So you can try and get religion off the hook by saying that it's just an aspect of something more general, something you might call "tribalism" or something like that.

The problem with that, even if you buy it, is that religion does a whole bunch of other stuff as well, and one of those things is to make a whole bunch of (patently false) claims about the gloriousness of the life to come after this one. As soon as you view death as not an ending but merely the gateway from this vale of tears to a glorious eternal bliss with all the ambrosia and virgins you can eat, it makes talking yourself into easing the passage of others (and perhaps yourself) through that gateway all the easier.

I didn't hear Tom Sutcliffe making that particular point, but he did do an excellent job of holding Armstrong's feet to the fire over one of her central claims, which is that there is a significant group of people who hold to the thesis that Armstrong is arguing against in the book, i.e. that religion is the sole (or at least principal) cause of all the world's wars. When challenged to name some of these fundamentalist atheist straw men, the best Armstrong could manage was "a taxi driver I once met", which is pretty piss-poor.

Needless to say the question "yes, but is any of it true?" (i.e. in terms of the central claims made by religions) didn't come up during the section of the programme I listened to, and I'd be pretty confident that it didn't come up at all. As far as I can gather Armstrong takes the Terry Eagleton view on such questions, i.e. that they are a hopelessly gauche attempt to apply science-y concepts like "evidence" to things which transcend the use of such blunt instruments. Or, to put it another way, a great lumpy splattery fusillade of bullshit.

Lastly, a note on pronunciation: throughout, Tom Sutcliffe pronounced "Karen" as if it were the name of the ferryman of the dead from Greek mythology, sort of like the word "caring" but without the last letter. Most of the other guests just pronounced "Karen" like normal people do, so now I'm unsure whether Karen Armstrong pronounces her given name in a strange way, which Tom Sutcliffe was just politely adhering to, or if he just generally pronounces "Karen" that way. Bit strange, either way.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

the last book I read

Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith.

So, what's Tom Ripley been up to? When we left him at the end of Ripley Under Ground he'd just about managed to extricate himself from suspicion in the murder of a couple of people and involvement in a convoluted art fakery scam, so he's felt it best to keep a low profile for a bit at his country retreat near Fontainebleau. His crime contact Reeves Minot still occasionally pesters him for occasional favours, but Tom doesn't get involved with the messy stuff.

That's not to say that he might not offer a bit of advice and guidance from time to time, though, and when Reeves contacts him with the suggestion that there's these couple of Mafia stooges who it would be terrifically useful to have rubbed out, Tom has a bit of a flash of inspiration: there's this guy, Jonathan Trevanny, who he met at a house party a while back, who's got some sort of terminal blood disease, but who seems to be generally walking and talking and physically OK. Why not make him an offer? He's going to be less afraid of death than most, and might appreciate the possibility of a nice little nest-egg to bequeath to his wife and young son when he eventually carks it.

So Reeves contacts Jonathan, and dangles the carrot of some pioneering medical research being done in Germany, which Reeves might be able to bump Jonathan up the queue for. Absolutely no obligation, but at the same time Reeves might have a couple of little odd jobs that Jonathan could carry out while he was there, for a substantial reward of course.

Jonathan is persuaded to carry out the first murder on the subway in Hamburg - your classic shoot someone at close range in a crowd, drop the gun, slip away in the confusion kind of job - and is then persuaded to have a go at the second, the murder of a higher-ranking mafioso on a train. This one is a bit trickier, however, as it requires the use of a garrotte, gunshots being too conspicuous. At this point Ripley has a (rare) attack of conscience, and unexpectedly turns up on the train to help Jonathan dispatch the mafia guy and his minder.

So far so good, except that it turns out that not only did the minder not die (despite having his arm severed when the train ran over it) but he reckons he got a good look at the two guys who murdered his boss and then pushed him out. So now Tom and Jonathan are potentially on a Mafia hit-list, not really a place you want to be. Tom persuades Jonathan to hole up with him at his country pile for a bit for their collective safety, and sure enough a carful of goons shows up. Fortunately for Jonathan Tom is by now a bit of a dab hand at the old murdering game and he dispatches most of them, persuading the survivor to phone his boss and tell him that they'd got the wrong man in exchange for his freedom. Or, rather, in exchange for a promise of his freedom from Tom, a promise that turns out to be worthless, since as soon as he hangs up the phone Tom bashes his brains in with a table leg.

So now (in addition to a bit of floor-mopping) there's some corpse disposal to be done. So Tom and Jonathan take the gangster's car (and one of Tom's) plus bodies to a secluded spot a couple of hours' drive away and torch the lot, but not before Jonathan's wife Simone has turned up at the house, seen everything and had to be drugged and sent home in a taxi. Awkward.

So now they're in the clear again, right? Trouble is, the Mafia have got to Reeves Minot as well, and after a few judiciously applied cigarette ends he's coughed up Jonathan's address. So there's another showdown at Jonathan's house in Fontainebleau during the course of which Tom bashes a couple more Mafia heads in, this time with a hammer, and Jonathan catches a bullet in the chest while trying to protect Tom. Tom's complex moral code obliges him to drive Jonathan to the hospital, but, once it's clear that he's died, also allows him to scarper immediately afterwards.

So now Tom's freedom is pretty much in Simone's hands - she can either shop him to the French police, and forfeit Jonathan's generous pay-off, or keep it and ensure Tom gets away. When Tom unexpectedly meets her on the street in Fontainebleau and she spits in his face, he recognises the emotion for what it is: self-disgust. She's kept the money.

This is the third of the five Ripley novels, published in 1974. Ripley is actually a bit more active in the killing department in this one, being solely or jointly implicated in the knocking off of five people (all Mafia types), compared with two in the first book and one in the second. I have to say I didn't find Jonathan Trevanny's transition from terminally ill and impoverished expatriate picture-framer to murderer (and then tragic self-sacrificing hero) to be at all plausible, but as always Ripley is so fascinating as a central character that that almost doesn't matter. A completely implacable killing machine would be relatively uninteresting, but Ripley is devoted (in his own way) to his wife, capable of normal human responses to beautiful music and the like, intensely attached to his home, and capable of occasional moments of generous behaviour that even he himself does not quite understand.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is probably still the one you want, but the two sequels certainly don't sully its reputation. Like both its predecessors Ripley's Game was filmed, once in 1977 as Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend) and again as Ripley's Game in 2003. The latter features John Malkovich as Ripley, who while as compelling as always is probably a little bit too feline and evil to be strictly true to Ripley as written (not to mention being too old). Matt Damon was criticised for being too "bland" in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but actually that's the whole point; Ripley is just this unremarkable guy who happens to also be an amoral killer. Well, you know, nobody's perfect.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

bravo victor golf uniform

Everyone else is doing their My Favourite Ryder Cup Moments bit at the moment, so I'm going to get in on the act as well. I actually came to the Ryder Cup a bit late; while my earliest live TV golf-watching recollection is of the end of the Duel In The Sun at Turnberry in 1977 (when I was seven), I don't specifically recall watching any live Ryder Cup coverage until 1993, when the USA won 15-13 at the Belfry (their last victory on European soil, as it happens) to retain the cup they'd won back in The War On The Shore at Kiawah Island two years before. My Ryder Cup history since then goes something like this:
  • In 1995 I happened to drop into The Ship on Lower Park Row in Bristol on a Sunday evening for a pint on the way back from somewhere (probably on the way up to my flat from the railway station), only to discover that they had the golf coverage on and they were about halfway through the singles. Several hours later I staggered out and home having witnessed Europe come back to win from being behind after the doubles for the first (and, until 2012, only) time in Ryder Cup history. Nick Faldo's nerveless up-and-down from 93 yards to beat Curtis Strange was the key moment (combined with a calamitous sequence of missed putts from Strange), and Philip Walton's nervy stumble over the line a while later clinched it. This is probably my favourite Ryder Cup experience, just for the general happy unexpectedness of it all - firstly getting to see it at all, and then the result.
  • I watched the climaxes to the Ryder Cups of 1997, 1999 and 2002 at home, but I couldn't say for certain that I watched any of them strictly live; it might have been the BBC's highlights package a bit later.
  • I can certainly say that I watched the highlights package for the 2004 Ryder Cup, having done a bit of Likely Lads-style keeping my head down to avoid finding out the result. Plenty of schadenfreude as it became clear it was going to be a record-breaking rout, but it's never quite the same as a nail-biting finish.
  • 2006 saw the first of two occasions where the Ryder Cup weekend coincided with the Swanage weekend; in this case (largely by luck) we'd just got to the pub after the traditional Sunday walk when the key singles matches started finishing, so we were comfortably settled in with a pint when Henrik Stenson holed the match-winning putt. Again, as great as that was it was another rout for Europe (18.5-9.5, the same score as in 2004), so the nail-biting element was lost.
  • I honestly can't remember watching in 2008, though since Europe got their arse plated up and handed to them I could just have blotted the experience out. I expect it's more than likely I saw at least some of it.
  • In 2010 the Ryder Cup took place at Celtic Manor, a mere mile-and-a-half from our house. Anticipating traffic gridlock and general chaos we decided to go on holiday to Turkey for the week, returning on the Monday, the day after it finished. Inevitably this plan was scuppered by the Welsh weather as the match had to be concluded on the Monday. Swings and roundabouts, though, as we had some hours to kill between checking out of the hotel and getting the coach to the airport and took ourselves plus bags off to the local sports bar, which just happened to be showing the golf. Not only that, but the nail-biting finish to Graeme McDowell's match with Hunter Mahan that delivered the cup back to Europe took place with a few minutes to spare before we had to shoot off and catch the coach. 
  • In 2012 the match once again coincided with the Swanage weekend; this time we were back at the campsite having a barbecue when the climactic Sunday action happened, so we had to keep up with events via Andy's smartphone and a rather intermittent mobile signal. The interminable waits for the BBC Sports page to refresh added an element of suspense of their own.
So what to expect from 2014? Well, I'll be at work on the Friday and at a wedding on the Saturday, but you can rest assured I've cleared out my V+ box in anticipation of recording much of the coverage for later watching. I fully intend to dedicate a big chunk of Sunday to watching the singles, though.

And who'll win? Well, home advantage counts for a lot - only six of the seventeen matches since 1979 have resulted in "away wins", four for Europe and two for USA: USA in 1981, Europe in 1987, USA in 1993 and Europe in 1995, 2004 and 2012. Both teams look very strong, though I suppose there is a question mark over the European wildcards - Westwood and Poulter have both been picked on past Ryder Cup form rather than on having done anything much this year. As for the rookies, Jamie Donaldson is a very solid player these days, Stephen Gallacher is a reserved type who needs to show that he's not intimidated by the raucous atmosphere, and Victor Dubuisson is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a garlic baguette.

There is the Tiger Woods factor, though - the last time he failed to make the team was in 2008 when he was recovering from knee surgery, whereupon a young USA team featuring six rookies won handsomely. The idea that the Ryder Cup format suits neither him nor his team-mates (when he's on the team) is probably an over-simplification, but there seems to be something in it.

A neutral would probably say that another nail-biting finish resulting in a narrow victory for the USA would be the best thing for the long-term health of the competition. To that I'd say: you're probably right, but can we leave that till next time, please?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

hilary killery hilarity

Some extremely amusing furore this week over the publication of some new material by double Booker winner Hilary Mantel, in particular the title story of her new collection of short fiction The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher.

The first thing to say (as this Guardian article does) is that there's a supreme irony in Thatcher's old PR guru Tim Bell expressing some purse-lipped disdain about "taste" or "decency" or "morality", this being the man who did PR work for General Pinochet, for goodness' sake.

Secondly, it does strike me that those kicking up a fuss about this must just be the sort of people who never read any fiction, since fiction does this sort of thing all the time. Heaven forbid that any of them should peruse even the title page of my copy of JG Ballard's seminal (in every sense) 1970 work The Atrocity Exhibition, lest they have some sort of seizure:


I draw your attention to items 10, 14, 15 and the two items in the Appendix in particular. It was Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan that got the book's first American print run pulped prior to distribution. I know I've said it before, but if you have the remotest interest in boundary-stretching 20th-century fiction you really need to read some Ballard, probably The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash plus as many of the short stories as you can get your hands on.

Let's hope nobody tells Tim Bell about what happens at the end of Inglourious Basterds.

he's not actually a REAL professor, you know

You know that thing where you think you've thought of a great thing, and you discover just after putting it on Twitter that you're, like, the millionth person to think of it and imagine they were the first. So before you tweet "hey, war doesn't determine who's RIGHT, just who's LEFT, amirite?! #iraq" maybe just check how original that thought is, to avoid embarrassment.

So I wonder what went through lanky rap guy Professor Green's mind while he was thinking up a title for his new album, and deciding on Growing Up In Public. I mean, I can see that the phrase has a nice sort of self-deprecating ring to it: yeah, I did some crazy shit, but I was young, and now I've mellowed and grown as a person, and - hey - in a very real sense we've been on a journey together, you and me, so you should probably continue that journey by buying my new album.

But a moment's Googling will reveal that this is a title that's been used for a number of works of art in various media over the years, very possibly with each person using it congratulating themselves on thinking up the phrase for the first time in the history of humanity and being far too excited to get on and use it to bother checking whether it really was all that original.

The alternative explanation is that the Prof knew all about the other uses and was entirely relaxed, nay, enthused, even, about giving his hard-hitting rap album the same name. Study the list below and see how plausible you think that is:
  • Lou Reed seems to have coined the phrase, or at least its usage as a title of a work, in 1980 by using it as the title of a solo album;
  • Jimmy Nail followed suit in 1992, using it as the proper title of the solo album most people probably know as "the one with Ain't No Doubt on it";
  • I was going to add: Geri Halliwell also used the title for a volume of autobiography, as I was absolutely convinced that I'd seen such a book in the shops, many years ago now. However, I'm forced to conclude that I imagined the whole thing, since the two volumes listed on Wikipedia are called If Only and Just For The Record. Searching elsewhere on the web draws a blank as well;
  • It was used as the title of a 2000 album by Irish electronic musician Donnacha Costello;
  • It was also used as the title of a 2012 album by Flemish boyband 3M8S (you see what they did there; also, yes, Flemish boybands are apparently a thing).



It's a phrase that crops up in various other places too: it's the title of a chapter section of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, and it's used a headline in this Independent article about Richard Linklater's film Boyhood and this old Melody Maker article about Depeche Mode. The earliest citation I can find is this alleged quote by former teenage film star Annette Funicello.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

bulbous developments #5

You'll be moist with suppressed anticipation at the state of the kitchen light bulbs, given that the last update was back in mid-June, and there had been lots of bulb-exploding action in the previous month or so. Well, as strange as it might seem, there haven't been any bulbs expiring since then, so it's not like I've been holding out on you, it's just that nothing much has been happening.

Up until yesterday, anyway. The uneasy truce that's been in place for three months or so bit the dust yesterday when bulb number 9 died. This was the last of the original surviving 40W incandescent bulbs, so, again, no pence per day calculation, but what can be said is that it lasted at least 142 days, at a pence per day rate of at most about 0.01 pence.



If it helps, here's a little animated GIF of the gradual darkening of the kitchen lights over the last five months or so. Note that as I've documented I have replaced a few of the bulbs, so we're not actually down to two bulbs. There are in fact five in there at the moment, but it is getting a bit dark in some corners so it may be time to do the rounds and replace some.


sit down, you're rocking the boat

Quick follow-up as that last one was threatening to get a bit long: what we REALLY DON'T WANT to get into with the rationalist/atheist movement is this idea that the big (white, male) figureheads of the movement are somehow either infallible or immune from criticism, and we should therefore shut up, stop rocking the boat, and think instead of the greater good. That seems to be pretty much what Michael Nugent (otherwise admirable in many ways, just as Dawkins and Harris are) seems to be saying here.

One of the reasons that's an absolutely terrible idea is that it's exactly what the Catholic Church has been up to for the past several hundred years, and we're plenty critical, and rightly so, of them for that. More generally it's an unthinking deference to authority of exactly the sort that we're trying to argue for doing away with.

So when stuff like the following, involving major figures in the sceptical/rationalist/atheist community happens:
- it behooves people who care about the movement's supposed goals to speak up about it and make it clear that this won't do and we're not having it done in our name.

This Buzzfeed article by Mark Oppenheimer gives a good potted history of all the atheism vs. feminism issues that's probably more comprehensive than mine.

carry on with your knitting, ladies, nothing to see here

Here's the opening part of a conversation (well, a small section of a longer conversation) that happened in the atheist blogosphere and Twittersphere this week:
Big Name Atheist Guy: I see more guys at atheist conferences because, well, I assume guys are just more into, like, critical thinking and the like because of some GENDER ESSENTIALIST SHIT I just pulled out of my ass or something. 
Other atheists, some of them women: you're not wrong about the gender imbalance, but whoah, that GENDER ESSENTIALIST SHIT you're pushing there is perpetuating some lazy sexist tropes and you probably need to think a bit harder about what you're saying.
So far, so innocuous. The whole Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, pink for girls, blue for boys gender essentialism bullshit is very irritating (and, just to be clear, generally unsupported by the science), but it's an easy trap to fall into, and, hey, sometimes we say things without thinking about them enough and fall foul of some cognitive shortcut caused by the culture we've all been swimming in since we were born. It's really no biggie, and certainly doesn't tar the speaker as an irredeemable bigot, just someone who once didn't think before he spoke (or, to use an Americanism, "misspoke"). We all do that; I know I do.

So at this point the conversation can go one of two ways, as follows:

option A:
BNAG: hmmm, yes, you're right, there are clearly a whole host of cultural issues that I'm ignoring here. see how easy it is for even a rationalist to slip into lazy modes of thinking? thanks for the heads-up.
OASOTW: no probs. we all do it from time to time. patriarchy, eh? tchoh. anyone fancy a pint?
option B:
BNAG: OMG you just called me a filthy sexist pig you shrill bullying harpy. HELP HELP POLITICAL CORRECTNESS THOUGHT POLICE WITCH HUNT FEMINAZIS
OASOTW: *sigh*
BNAG: also, some of my best friends are women.
OASOTW: *facepalm*
It won't surprise anyone to discover that option B represents how the subsequent conversation actually went. What might surprise some people is that the big name atheist losing their shit in such a major way was not (as you'd probably assumed) Richard Dawkins, but Sam Harris, author of such seminal New Atheist books as Letter To A Christian Nation and The End Of Faith and, with Dawkins, one of the original Four Horsemen (Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens being the other two). In fairness to Harris I should link here to the original article containing the quote, and reproduce the relevant section:
I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people. People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women. The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.
I hope you'll agree that my humorous paraphrasing above retains most of the original gist. Dawkins isn't in the clear here, though, as he predictably weighed in to accuse Harris' critics of being some sort of Orwellian Thought Police and then went Full Mental Jacket by accusing anyone expressing critical opinions of only doing it to attract traffic to their own websites. Coming from the man whose books, admirable as they mostly are, sell in large numbers at least partly because of his own ability to foment controversy and outrage this sent most people's irony meters off the scale.

Harris has some previous form in the area of blithely assuming his own infallibility, most obviously the lengthy conversation he had with security guru Bruce Schneier in the wake of Harris' suggestion that we should single out Muslims for special treatment at airports. A conversation that can be read in full here and here (and I recommend you do, because it's quite interesting) but can basically be summarised as follows:
Harris: Let's profile for Muslims. Because 9/11. And when I say Muslims, I mean anyone who looks Muslim. And by that I mean brown and possibly a bit beardy, or wearing those funny clothes that they wear; you know the sort of thing. 
Schneier: Even if the sort of profiling you're proposing were ethical or even possible, it would be pointless and self-defeating. Security engineering is complex and often counter-intuitive and you clearly don't understand the first thing about it.
Harris: But Muslims! 9/11!
Schneier: *facepalm*
The lesson here is that being right about one thing doesn't guarantee being right about any given other thing, and that even as a high-profile "public intellectual" you shouldn't assume that you can never be wrong about anything, and that particularly in the age of Twitter you, big atheist celebrity, might actually end up getting taken to task by someone who knows more than you who's just some Joe Public type. The shame of it! The airport security discussion in particular reinforces the point that "common sense" and "intuition" are generally utterly hopeless guides to anything, least of all life-and-death decision-making, and that a prominent public intellectual ought to know this. The other lesson is that if you ever get so self-regarding that you lose the ability to apply your awesome critical thinking skills to yourself or gracefully acknowledge when you've got something wrong then you've clearly jumped the shark in a big way.

Harris, clearly following the Dawkins playbook, later issued a huffy (and lengthy) "clarification" blog post, which basically amounts to saying: some of my best friends are women; heck, I'm even married to one of them. Interestingly he made pretty much the same defence against a charge of using sexist language after writing an opinion piece about Sarah Palin in 2008. Here are the exact words:

2008:
For what it’s worth, the article was vetted by the two women closest to me (wife and mother) and by two female editors at the LA Times.
2014:
Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife.
Well that's OK then. Of course the irony here is that Harris' careless trotting out of the old "women don't like hard sums and thinking because they're all nurturing and shit" trope was instantly self-refuting as he was confronted with a wall of criticism, most of it far from "nurturing" and a good proportion of it from women.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the last book I read

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

It's August 1947, and great things are afoot, specifically the moment that India gains its independence from the cruel yoke of its colonial oppressors. Also, at the exact same moment in fact, Saleem Sinai emerges into the world.

Needless to say in a country as mahoosive as India he won't have been the only one to have popped into the world at the exact hour of India's independence, and so it proves. The group of children born in India between midnight and 1am on the big day (the "midnight's children" of the title) all share some unique qualities, not least the gift of telepathy, a gift they use to contact each other over great distances and share their experiences.

Saleem's own family are having some "experiences" of their own, some of which necessitate upping sticks and moving from Bombay to other places, eventually the newly-created state of Pakistan. It also emerges that Saleem is in fact a changeling, a nurse having switched him and another midnight child, Shiva, for reasons that are unclear, shortly after they were both born.

Enlisting in the army, where his freakishly enormous nose and highly-developed sense of smell make him useful as a tracker, Saleem gets involved in various military misadventures including the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and the war resulting in the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971, during the course of which Saleem spends some time meandering around lost in the Sundarbans after a botched mission.

Returning to Delhi, Saleem once again gets caught up in the sweep of modern Indian history when Indira Gandhi's government uses the pretext of the 1975-1977 Emergency to push through a program of compulsory sterilisation. It turns out that Saleem's old nemesis and childhood rival Shiva has engineered the sterilisation of Saleem and all the "midnight's children" as part of a belated act of revenge at being arbitrarily cheated of his birthright. The whole process is about to begin again, though, possibly with added supernatural powers, assuming they're hereditary, as Saleem is left to raise the child of his dead wife, Parvati, a child who turns out to be Shiva's.

Midnight's Children won just about every major literary award going when it was published in 1981, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize; it later went on to win the 1993 Booker of Bookers and the 2008 Best of the Booker award. It's the fifth Booker winner on this list after G. (1972), The Gathering (2007), Hotel Du Lac (1984) and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993).

So I'm evidently swimming somewhat against the tide here when I say that I found it something of an ordeal. The back cover compares it to both One Hundred Years of Solitude and The World According To Garp, which are both books I enjoyed immensely (and, in the case of Garp, have re-read probably half-a-dozen times), and I can see what they mean - epic sprawling family sagas covering many years in both cases, a good dose of "magic realism" in the case of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. But while they were both great, Midnight's Children just set my teeth on edge with its overabundance of detail, digression, flowery prose, and absence of any characters worthy of actually caring about or even identifiable as human beings from their behaviour. I think my central criticism really is that there's just TOO MUCH WRITING here for my taste. It made me long for a bit of Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy where ten times as much stuff would have happened and we'd have spent a tenth of the time hearing about it.

I should add that it's actually not just me who thinks this; I'll also add that one of the reasons it was such a slog for me is that my (early 1990s - like O-Zone this one has been sitting on the shelves for 20+ years) paperback edition is 463 pages, while the latest edition is 672 pages (though I think that includes a 20-odd page foreword). That (35 lines per page, medium-size print) gives you a better idea of the length of the book than my edition (43 lines per page, small print), which gives you the demoralising sense of not really getting anywhere.

All of which will help to explain why it's taken me 91 days since the last book review to read it, the second-longest stint on this list after Infinite Jest (at 96), which, to be fair, is something like twice as long. That's a pitiful 5.09 pages per day, which is second only to Sunset Song (at 3.91) in terms of slowness, and I have to say I'd rate Sunset Song as a much better book.