Tuesday, October 21, 2014

that's the storify of my life

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

the last book I read

Fremder by Russell Hoban.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

making plans for nigel

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

pale, male and stale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sirhowy you? fine, thanks

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

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

tweet fanny adams

Just a very quick one to say: if you happen to want to keep up with the 2014 Swanage activities in real time then your best bet is to do one of the following:
  • keep an eye on the live webcam at the Bull and Boat - if we adhere roughly to last year's schedule we'll be there about 5pm on the Saturday;
  • watch out for tweets with the hastag #SwanageXIII - I can't promise how much live-tweeting action there'll be, as we may be too busy necking ale and talking bollocks, but we may manage a few, no doubt of increasing profanity and incoherence as the evening wears on.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

in dorset? yes, I certainly do

Next weekend sees us head off in Andy's Land Rover for the annual Swanage trip, a fixture in my social calendar for, ooh, ten years now. Or is it eleven? Or twelve? One of the problems with remembering the history of this sort of thing is that recollections tend to be hazy, for obvious reasons.

For instance: it was the generally received wisdom that the first year we did a "proper" Swanage trip was 2003, when we actually did two, in May and November, to coincide with the release of the second and third Matrix movies. However, evidence (i.e. some photos) recently unearthed from the depths of Andy's laptop reveals that in fact we (Andy, me, Robin and Harry) did a trip in October 2002. This is simultaneously fascinating, because we all look about twelve in the photos, and troubling, because it means that our proclaiming of the 2012 trip as Swanage X was incorrect, as it was actually Swanage XI. I suppose we can just do a bit of Stalinist revision of history and say that the 2012 trip marked the tenth anniversary of the first trip, and that therefore it was, in a very real sense, Swanage X. Whatever, I'm not going and changing all the photo captions now.

So it seemed like a good idea to capture some historical info before our descent into senility and incontinence is complete, probably any day now. The first thing I've done is to upload all the historical photos I've got, all the way back to 2002. Click on the year in the table below to go to the relevant photo gallery.

The Saturday pub crawl has evolved slightly over the years, so this list from 2007 is now slightly out of date. The canonical town centre pub list now reads as follows:
Rather than list all those every time I've just noted where the crawl differed from that list in a way that any of us can remember, or if we visited any other notable pubs on our Sunday walk. The columns are hopefully self-explanatory; some of the cryptic notes in the "General Notes" column can be illuminated by clicking on the links (usually to a relevant photo), some are probably best left slightly mysterious. I've included the 2005 trip to Llangennith as a sort of honorary Swanage as it filled the same slot in the calendar and followed pretty much the same format.

As for attendees, Andy, Robin and I have a perfect 100% attendance record so far, Phil made his solitary appearance in May 2003, Richard joined us for the Llangennith trip in 2005 and has attended every one since, and Harry started in a blaze of glory attending the first three trips and then took a breather for just the nine years before rejoining us in 2012 and 2013 (and 2014, all being well).

Year Dates Transport and Pubs General Notes
2002 18-21 Oct Andy's Saab Swanage 0! Andy's Mum's static caravan. Cheese racing. Port. 
2003 23-26 May Andy's Saab
The Vista Bar
Phil! Matrix Reloaded. Rhythm Sticks. Table tennis in the Vista Bar. Phil’s Famous Backwards Golf Shot. Snow Flaps. Police layby interview with Carling tinnies. Phil being banned from Swanage forever.
2003 7-10 Nov Andy's Saab
The Vista Bar
Last trip to the caravan. Grappa and blue Aftershock. Matrix Revolutions. Harry asleep in the Red Lion. Table tennis and bowling in the Vista Bar aborted due to child invasion. Harry's wrist exerciser. Harry's "special interest" videos (aka wrist exercisers).
2004 3-6 Sep Andy's Saab Camping! Sunny weather. Train trip to Corfe. Russian porn model. Banged shins. Vomiting. Wurzels.
2005 14-17 Oct Andy’s Scooby
The Worm's Head
The King's Head
Llangennith! i.e. not actually Swanage at all. Richard's first trip. Overloaded Scooby. Cats (small, far away). Quaver Dog. Barmaids. Angry snake. Herbal interruptions. Fireworks. Splintered/splinted tent poles.
2006 22-25 Sep Andy’s Scooby
The Mowlem
Seafront wave chicken. Lighthouse walk. Farty Globe. Ryder Cup climax.
2007 5-8 Oct Andy’s Scooby
Square and Compass
The King's Arms
Royal Oak
Blues Festival! Power cut. Caving. Fishing at Winspit. Fish supper. The Matraverses. The legendary 23lb carp. Stan being gutted. Weird starey kid in The Royal Oak. Pumpkins. Loganberry beer
2008 19-22 Sep Dave’s Mum’s Scooby
Square and Compass
Scott Arms
Richard's hole-in-one. More fish. No buses to Scott Arms. Taxi to Scott Arms. Chapman's Pool. Ryder Cup again.
2009 11-14 Sep Andy’s Landy
The Ship
The (Studland) Bankes Arms
The Village Inn
The Crow's Nest
First trip in the Land Rover. Camo hats. Folk festival! Morris dancers. Bender in a Bun. Kyle. Kyle's Mom. Sandbanks. Bus on a boat. Nudists! Last of the (late) summer Purbecks. Will Killeen and his mum. Crazy Clogging Care in the Community Crystal Carl. Or was it Chris?
2010 15-18 Oct Andy’s Landy
The Greyhound
The (Corfe) Bankes Arms
Green Bastards. Vote For Yourself! Train to Corfe. Demise of the Purbeck. Hypnocat. Appletise? Appletiser? Burning the fencepost
2011 16-19 Sep Andy’s Landy
Various Wareham pubs
The Square and Compass
Decaf coffee!? Orange women. Bus to Wareham. Pigs! Supermodels in the Old Granary. Pickle the dog. Barbecuing Andy's pants. Beaver Maintenance. 
2012 29 Sep - 1 Oct Andy’s Landy
The Greyhound
The (Corfe) Bankes Arms
Return of the Harry! Swanage X (or so we thought at the time). Ridge walk to Corfe. Exploding Party Grill. Ryder Cup smartphone updates. 
2013 11-14 Oct Andy’s Landy
The Crow's Nest
The Bull and Boat
Do Not Touch This Window. The Bull and Boat webcam. Very wet walk via Peverill Point. 
2014 10-13 Oct Andy’s Landy Who knows?

Thursday, October 02, 2014

bar stewards

You might remember my adventures in the loft a while back, and the ancient yellowed newspaper fragments I retrieved, which included (among other things) a list of Newport pubs, most now sadly defunct or, at best, turned into trendy wine bars, not that Newport is generally a trendy wine bar sort of city.

Well, here's another much larger list of South Wales pubs which are now closed - I think the idea is that the closures are all relatively recent, i.e. within the lifetime of the average reader. Anyway, of the 84 on the list I count ten in Newport, as it happens several of which are within a stone's throw of our current or previous homes.
  • The King's Arms in Caerleon is a bit more than a stone's throw away, but I start with this one as it's the only one of the ten I've actually set foot in, not while it was the King's Arms but following its transformation into Spice Corner, a quite decent Indian restaurant. If you look closely at the sign you'll see they do retain the subtitle "at the King's Arms" just in case of any confusion. 
  • The Black Horse on Somerton Road is still standing according to Google Maps, though I can't say I'd ever noticed it was there, even though I drive past it several times a week. Local residents' protests apparently saw off Tesco who wanted to turn it into a store, but that didn't save the pub which is due to be demolished any day now. 
  • The King was a very impressive building just a bit further down Somerton Road - I say "was" because some time in the last few months it transformed itself into a big pile of rubble. As recently as May 2013 it had changed hands with much talk of redeveloping it, but no, they just knocked it down.
  • The old Corporation Hotel on the corner of Cromwell Road and Corporation Road is being converted into flats, following an only very slightly suspicious fire just after the new owners took it over
  • The Oddfellows & Foresters in Baneswell was definitely still a going concern when we lived just round the corner in York Place, though I don't think we ever went in; this list reckons it closed around 2011 (we moved the year before).
This list from 2009, containing 40-odd closed Newport pubs, paints a fairly grim picture. It should be said that some places do buck the trend from time to time, though - that list contains The Gladiator in Malpas, just the other side of the M4, for instance, and it's still derelict in StreetView as of today (though the magic time-travel facility suggests it was open in 2008), but in fact it seems to have now re-opened as the Usk Vale, a slightly more upmarket operation by the sound of it. Good luck to them, I say.

If you do find yourself stuck in the centre of Newport and you need a pint, then the best thing I can suggest is that you either get yourself over to Ye Olde Murenger House or take a short walk to Stow Hill and either the Pen & Wig or the Red Lion, any of which should provide you with a) a reasonably decent pint and b) a better than 50/50 chance of making it out alive. In central Newport that's about the best you're going to get.