Wednesday, November 25, 2015

be selective, be objective, be an asset to the collective

Couple of brief follow-ups regarding earlier stuff:

Firstly, halibut news. Doug is a man whose expertise on matters zoological I trust implicitly, so when he told me the other day that I should go and Google "olive flounder" I immediately went and did so, with only the smallest amount of suspicion that I was being pranked and that it would turn out to be some eye-watering sex act that cannot be described on a family blog. With pictures. But, mercifully, it turns out the olive flounder really is a thing, relevant to this blog because it's also apparently colloquially known as the "bastard halibut". I see no evidence for this particular flatfish being any more unpleasant, obnoxious or untrustworthy than any other, so I assume the "bastard" bit refers to its not really being a proper halibut. Getting your Paralichthyidae mixed up with your Pleuronectidae is social death where I come from. Nonetheless, I like olives, and my swimming style is best described by the word "flounder" (or, if you catch me a few minutes later, the word "drown").

Secondly, a quick update on my wildly ambitious project to catalogue the full lexicon of Daily Mail euphemisms. Anyone who follows me on Twitter (and why wouldn't you?) will have seen my occasional flagging of Mail stories with the #assetbingo hashtag - the rule being the word "assets" has to be in the main headline, and it has to unambiguously refer to tits, ideally with the word "flaunting" in there somewhere as well.

A sighting of "assets" used to describe a bodily attribute other than tits is a rare beast indeed - here's one from a couple of days ago in a bit of a non-story about a woman with fairly long legs (these being the assets in question).

Rest assured women are still "pouring their curves" into things as well: recent examples can be found here, here and here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

jesus? omnipresent, miss

I've written before about the difficulties posed for the committed atheist by the myriad ways in which society, even in the 21st century, for fuck's sake, unthinkingly privileges the religious viewpoint as the default setting, be it swearing on the Bible in court to the reflexive parrotting of meaningless stock phrases in the event of some natural disaster.

My antennae are especially sensitive to this sort of thing at the moment, though, because with Nia starting school next autumn (and already attending pre-school classes) I'm constantly vigilant for ways in which she'll be exposed to religious nonsense. Just to be clear, I don't expect her to be able to go to school without coming into contact with that stuff, I'd just like as much prior warning as possible as to when and what and how it's being presented.

We did a bit of fairly cursory due diligence when selecting a school for Nia to go to, since we were in the catchment area for a couple. Just as an aside, the school we did eventually choose, Ysgol Gymraeg Casnewydd, is, as the name (which translates, rather prosaically, as "Newport Welsh School") suggests, a Welsh-medium school, which means that the primary language spoken there is Welsh. While this sounds challenging, since neither Hazel nor I have more than a few words of Welsh, mostly gleaned from road signs (so I know how to say "slow down" and "no parking", but not "bread" or "man"), we were assured that the kids generally take to it without batting an eyelid. And so it's proved, as Nia seems to be soaking it up at frightening speed, although, to be fair, she is a frickin' genius.

Anyway, while we were having our guided tour of the school the topic of conversation did turn to Religious Education lessons, which the school does provide, in accordance with the law. We were assured that it was more of a comparative religious studies kind of thing, although I do fret a bit about it, since it seems almost inevitable that there'll be a temptation, even in these multi-cultural, multi-ethnic times, to privilege the cultural default (i.e. Christianity) over other things, and avoid engaging at all with the question of whether any of it is true. Not to mention the ludicrous situation of the legal requirement, believe it or not, for a daily act of primarily Christian collective worship in schools, although a lot of schools, to their credit, just quietly ignore it.

The additional screaming nightmare scenario, of course, is that some otherwise excellent schools have religious affiliations which would, for instance, require prospective parents to have their children baptised in order to be considered for a place. Thankfully, since I would have been implacably opposed to such a course of action, that scenario didn't arise for us, but I do know people of no particular religious affiliation who have had their kids baptised for precisely that reason, which seems tragic.

There is, as it happens, some encouraging news on this front, in Wales anyway, as the Welsh Education Minister, Huw Lewis, proposes changing the name of these lessons to "Religion, Philosophy and Ethics", which sounds a lot more sensible, though you can bet your ass there'll be howls of protest from the religious faction at the loss of their unearned privilege.

Religious education lessons have been in the news this week, as it happens, as there's been a bit of news interest in the legal challenge being mounted by various concerned parents to get humanism included in the religious education syllabus. While I completely understand the motivation, and I salute anyone poking the cosy status quo in this area, I have to say I'm not sure, strategically, that this is the best approach. Getting humanism (which, just to pre-empt any criticism, I'm aware is different from atheism) classified as a religion, whether implicitly or explicitly, seems to be stretching the definition of "religion" beyond the elastic limits of reasonableness or usefulness, and quite apart from anything else invites people like Andrew Brown to write this sort of article in the Guardian. You might define religion as "a set of opinions about stuff that sort of combine into a semi-coherent worldview" or "a thing that causes people to gather together in rooms and talk about stuff", but my personal view is that unless it includes some sort of assertion of supernatural stuff going on, then what you've got there is, at best, a philosophy.

A better approach, I think, is to support the switch to a more general study of philosophy and ethics, which by all means would include some stuff about religion, since it's indisputably true that lots of people throughout history have believed that sort of stuff and based their actions on it, utter nonsense thought it undoubtedly is, but would also make it clear that not believing any of the myriad conflicting claims about magic men in the sky is also an option, and possibly even float the idea that there might be ways of weighing the relative value of these (often conflicting) claims by checking them against reality.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

cook slowly for 14 hours

The recently-concluded Pakistan-England series in the United Arab Emirates yielded up, as well as some exciting cricket and a feeling that England acquitted themselves pretty well and probably should have done better than to lose 2-0, a few statistical nuggets that should probably be listed here since they follow on from some previous posts.

Firstly, Alastair Cook's 263 in the first Test, in addition to being the third-longest individual innings in Test history, was also the first score of 263 ever made in a Test match. Not only that, but Shoaib Malik's 245 in Pakistan's first innings was the first score of 245 ever made in a Test match. Those two innings wiped off the 3rd and 5th lowest scores never made in a Test off the list, which can be found here. The top five now reads as follows: 229, 238, 252, 264, 265.

Cook's innings also added him to the select list of players who have made scores of 250 or more more than once in Test matches. That list now comprises 16 players, as follows:
  • Don Bradman (1930)
  • Walter Hammond (1933)
  • Javed Miandad (1987)
  • Brian Lara (1994)
  • Graeme Smith (2003)
  • Sanath Jayasuriya (2004)
  • Virender Sehwag (2006)
  • Kumar Sangakkara (2006)
  • Stephen Fleming (2006)
  • Younis Khan (2009)
  • Ramnaresh Sarwan (2009)
  • Mahela Jayawardene (2009)
  • Chris Gayle (2010)
  • Hashim Amla (2012)
  • Michael Clarke (2012)
  • Alastair Cook (2015)
Bradman leads the way with five such scores, Sehwag has four, Lara, Sangakkara and Miandad have three, and the rest two each. Split it by country and West Indies and Sri Lanka lead the way with three players each. Cook is the second Englishman on the list, after Walter Hammond 82 years ago.

Speaking of Virender Sehwag, there was much tribute paid a few weeks back when he announced his retirement from international cricket. In truth this was a bit of a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, as he hadn't played a Test since March 2013, and was unlikely to be in line for a recall, but it provided a good opportunity to reflect on his achievements, the signature one being maintaining a Test average in excess of 50 from his 21st match to his 102nd, while also maintaining a strike rate (runs per 100 balls) in excess of 80, previously unheard of for a top-flight batsman, let alone an opener, traditionally the guys who'd weather the early storm and wear out the bowlers for the dashing stroke-players in the middle order. It's instructive to compare his stats with those of a man to whom he was regularly compared, Viv Richards - almost identical run aggregates and average, but Richards' strike rate, for all his legendary aggression, and despite owning the joint-fastest Test hundred ever made, was a touch under 70. Sehwag's opening contemporaries Chris Gayle and Matthew Hayden, both considered pretty aggressive and quick-scoring batsmen, had strike rates of around 60.

With a batsman like Sehwag you never knew what you were going to get, but the chances were it'd be worth watching. The last time I saw him bat, when he'd been recalled, after an injury and far from fully fit, to the team for the tail-end of the series against England in 2011, he promptly bagged a king pair. So it goes.

One last thing: Alastair Cook also took his 123rd catch during the Pakistan series, to move ahead of his old opening partner (and predecessor as captain) Andrew Strauss as England record-holder. The overall record holder (for a non-wicketkeeper) remains Rahul Dravid with 210.

Monday, November 09, 2015

the last book I read

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

It's 1955, and Frank and April Wheeler have established themselves in a little suburban community in Connecticut, as mid-1950s stereotype demands that they should, this being the acme of what an intelligent young professional couple with a couple of kids should aspire to.

Frank and April like to think of themselves as a bit out of the normal run of bovine company men and their compliant stay-at-home wives, though, able to recognise and laugh at the sterility and conformity of suburban life and think back fondly on the bohemian days of their courtship in Frank's New York apartment, impromptu afternoon delight and all.

Frank has a pretty decent job, which he affects a lofty sardonic disdain for, and April was in a previous life an aspiring and moderately talented amateur actress. April's pretensions are mercilessly skewered in the novel's opening scene as the local amateur dramatic company mount an excruciatingly disastrous adaptation of Robert E Sherwood's The Petrified Forest. Frank's fatal flaws take longer to be revealed, but are exposed when April decides to act on their boredom with suburban life and proposes uprooting the whole family to Paris to start a new life. Frank is hereby presented with a dilemma: he can't openly object to the scheme, since it's the logical consequence of all his talk about how dreadful suburban life is, but actually he's quite attached to his job, the associated salary, the clandestine affair he's having with one of the secretaries at the office, and is fundamentally a bit too comfortable and a bit too much of a coward to just throw it all in and jet off into the unknown.

Frank's job is made somewhat easier when April unexpectedly falls pregnant with their third child, and he's able to persuade her a) to keep it (her first instinct being to abort it) and b) that it would be better to stay in the USA until after it arrives. This proves a brief respite, though, as the aftermath of their decision to stay brings various built-up frustrations to a head, Frank and April have a climactic row, and, after an interlude of eerie calm the following morning as Frank gets ready to head off to work, April attempts an amateur home abortion on herself, and, after the inevitable botchery and emergency trip to hospital, bleeds to death.

Here, in a nutshell, is the antidote to the warm fuzzy Daily Mail idea that the 1950s were some sort of golden era of law-abiding respect and tranquility that we should in some way aspire to ape the values of: the reality is a ghastly facade of picket fences, gleaming chrome bumpers and gabardine slacks concealing the underlying brutal sexism, racism, phenomenally heavy drinking, stagnation, boredom, sexual repression and general inability to communicate on even the most basic level that could find a couple of otherwise intelligent young people waking up one morning in their sterile little suburban box and realising that they don't know each other at all.

It's exceptionally bleak, brutal and unsparing in its tracking of the Wheelers' downfall, and their inability to break free of the prevailing culture in which they find themselves. Obviously the novel's real target is 1950s suburban society and its unbearable sterility and hypocrisy, but it doesn't spare the Wheelers for their cowardice and inability to break free of conformity. Clearly the general arc of the story is a massive downer, but it's a mark of how good the book is that that doesn't matter. There is also a whiff of schadenfreude about seeing Frank and April and their highball glasses and their shagpile carpets brought low by nothing more than not having had a meaningful conversation with each other for a decade or so. The only slightly grating note is struck by having near-neighbours Mr. & Mrs. Givings bring their son John over to the Wheelers' for occasional visits from the mental hospital where he spends most of his time, and having him act as a sort of straight-talking plot MacGuffin: is he insane? or is he SO SANE HE JUST BLEW YOUR MIND? We could probably have got through most of the plot without him having to spell out big chunks of it for us.

Revolutionary Road was filmed in 2008 by Sam Mendes, starring his then wife Kate Winslet as April and Leo DiCaprio as Frank. It also features in Time magazine's list of 100 best 20th-century novels as featured here multiple times before. Here's an interesting long-ish New York Times essay about it by another great 20th-century American novelist (and former featuree here), Richard Ford.

Friday, October 30, 2015

that's a moray

Wait a minute - do you realise that it's over a year since the last whisky post? I'm not going to bang on about having two kids to feed and all that, as I've moaned about that in at least three previous posts, so enough, already. But nonetheless it's fair to say the halls of Halibut Towers haven't been flowing with endless streams of whisk(e)y over the intervening twelve months.

I have been able to rustle up the occasional few shekels for a dram or two, though, and this is probably a good moment to log a couple of items that were new to me.

So here's a half-bottle of Glenlivet (or "The Glenlivet" to give it it's official title) which I think I was bought for me either last Christmas or for my birthday in February. We have featured a Glenlivet before, here, but that was a very sherry-rich version not typical of the regular official bottlings. According to Wikipedia it's the biggest-selling Scotch whisky in the USA, and I would hazard a guess that the bulk of that is in the form of the standard 12-year-old, which is what I've got here.

As with the Glenfiddich, you'd expect very little to frighten the horses here, and sure enough it's very inviting. It smells very sweet, with just enough of a hint of cork and leather to keep you interested. You get the same when you taste it, with just a hint of something a bit fresher and zingier, like maybe Listerine. It's very quaffable, but the big pudding-y sherry monster version I had before is probably more interesting.

The other bottle is a standard-size Glen Moray I picked up in Tesco for £20 a couple of months back. Like Glenlivet, Glen Moray is a Speysider, but somewhat less celebrated, and often to be found at the bargain end of the supermarket ranges. But we're not at home to whisky label snobbery here, so I thought I'd give it a go. As it happens this isn't the standard no-age-statement version, but a 10-year-old that's been matured in casks that previously held Chardonnay wine. We've had a red-wine-cask Bruichladdich and a port-pipe-matured Glenmorangie here before, but I think white wine is a first. I also have to say I don't particularly like Chardonnay to drink (indeed I'm not big on white wine generally), so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

While it was obvious that something non-standard had been done to the Bruichladdich and the Glenmorangie, both by look and taste, I'm not sure I'd have known anything out of the ordinary was going on here if I hadn't read the label. It's the usual Rice Krispies and custard creams and bananas that you get with bourbon-cask-matured whisky, although there is a hint of magic marker in there as well, something you'd ordinarily associate with younger, rawer whisky like Penderyn. Maybe that's a bit of sharpness from the Chardonnay coming through.

They're quite similar, these two, as befits classic examples of the Speyside style, nothing to ruffle the feathers too much. As I've said before, my preference is for something slightly more rugged and outdoorsy, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with either of these. If I had to express a preference I'd probably go with the Glen Moray, as it's just a bit darker, richer and more interesting. I'm still not drinking any Chardonnay, though.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

avant moi, le déluge

A couple more photo galleries for you, documenting some recent travels. Firstly the annual Swanage trip (Swanage XIV according to the agreed though potentially confusing and/or inaccurate numbering system), conducted in general in much better weather than last year, although thanks to some torrential rain during the preceding couple of days we found the golf course under several inches of water on the Friday, and, while much improved, still somewhat soggy on the Saturday.

Sadly in my case the conditions induced a state of extreme mental derangement and Andy won both the Friday and Saturday competitions. But, y'know, whatever, let's adjourn to the pub. And just as well we did, as we managed to catch the thrilling last quarter of the Japan v South Africa match in the White Horse. The obligatory Sunday walk this time saw us get a lift out to Corfe Castle and then walk back along the dunes and heathland at the southern edge of Poole Harbour to Studland, where we had a richly deserved pint in the Bankes Arms before getting a bus back to Swanage. A whisker under 9 miles in total according to the GPS; route map is below.

Here's the traditionally-formatted entry for the Swanage history list:

Year Dates Transport and Pubs General Notes
2015 18-21 Sep Dave's Mondeo
The Crow's Nest
The Bull and Boat
The Square and Compass
The Bankes Arms (Studland)
Woodhenge. Waterlogged golf. Kirkwood's storm flaps. Jag and Japan in the White Horse. Walking to Scotland, and thence to Greenland. Topless bus action. 

Secondly we went back, with my parents, to the cottage in west Pembrokeshire we'd been to back in 2012, when Nia was just a couple of months old. Again, the weather was pretty good, which allowed a couple of trips to the beach at Abermawr, and also allowed Hazel and me the opportunity to get out for a walk on our own, something we don't get to do much these days. Just a low-level one of just over 9 miles, but nice to get out - Mum and Dad very kindly minded the girls for us.

All the GPS info above was captured on my phone using the BackCountry Navigator app, which is free as long as you don't mind a few easily-ignorable ads along the bottom of the screen, and despite sounding like a proprietary brand of buttplug is in fact excellent and very handy for impromptu navigation and track recording.

Anyway, Swanage photos are linked from the table above but can also be found here; Pembrokeshire photos are here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

the last book I read

Talk Talk by TC Boyle.

Dana Halter is making the best of the cards life has dealt her: profoundly deaf, she's making a living as a teacher at a school for the deaf, and she's on her way there via a stop-off at the dentist when her life falls apart. Stopped by a traffic policeman for the relatively minor infraction of running a stop-light, she's somewhat surprised to glance up after he's gone to run her licence through the computer to see him bellowing (silently) and pointing his gun at her.

It turns out Dana Halter is wanted for various crimes in several states; places in the main that Dana Halter has never been. Well, not this Dana Halter, anyway. Once the inevitable communication and mutual comprehension difficulties have been resolved it becomes clear that Dana has been the victim of identity theft. And so, after much delay and frustration, and landed with a bill of several hundred dollars for getting her car back from where it was impounded, Dana is free to go.

For all the heartache and inconvenience Dana has been caused, not to mention the damage to her future creditworthiness, investigating the crime doesn't seem to be a high priority for the police. Dana's life experiences have given her an uncompromising streak, though, and with a bit of help from her boyfriend Bridger Martin she locates the man who's stolen her identity and sets off across the country in pursuit.

The man who's stolen Dana's identity, Peck Wilson, has made something of a career out of it, and built a comfortable lifestyle on the back of it - nice car, expensive kitchen equipment, nubile Russian girlfriend, things he's understandably reluctant to give up. So when he realises the jig is up with the Dana Halter identity, he simply takes out a load of new credit in Bridger Martin's name and flees across country to New York state, with his (now slightly suspicious, but quelled with some shiny new trinkets) Russian girlfriend and her daughter in tow.

But Dana has the bit between her teeth now, and isn't going to take buggering off to the opposite side of the country for an answer. So she pursues him, Bridger in tow. The trouble is, both parties are so fuelled by relentless rage - Dana at the invasion of her life, and more generally the uncomprehending bullshit she has to put up with from the hearing world every day, Peck by his sense of entitlement to his comfortable lifestyle and his sense of it being due payment for having been wronged by the world and generally unappreciated in his former life - that they haven't really considered what they're going to do when the inevitable confrontation happens.

Actually, this is the problem with the book itself - as thrillingly as Boyle sets the plot up in the first few chapters, you get the impression he didn't really know what to do with it thereafter. Even if you can get past the fundamental implausibility of Dana and Bridger not going straight to the police when the fraudster is discovered, but instead phoning him up and tipping him off that they're onto him, you then have to endure a lengthy cross-country pursuit with no real idea what the purpose of it is, or what the protagonists imagine is going to happen at the end of it. And pretty clearly Boyle has no more idea than the rest of us, since the ending, once a couple of key confrontations have happened, is pretty unsatisfactory.

Just as in Riven Rock, though, Boyle is good at characters with a bit of light and shade and moral ambiguity - Dana is a blameless individual and clearly the injured party here, but a lifetime of enduring quizzical looks from people who assume she's mentally deficient has left her with a short fuse and a simmering sense of injustice, and Peck, while clearly a career criminal with a similarly short fuse, isn't completely irredeemable. There's not a huge amount about the details of how identity fraud works, but it's really just a MacGuffin to get the plot going anyway, and an excess of detail would probably have made for a duller book.

Dull is a thing TC Boyle, one of my favourite contemporary novelists, is incapable of being, and this is very entertaining and readable throughout, but it isn't one of his best books. I'd start with Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain if I were you.