Wednesday, December 30, 2015

more a sort of après vie

Bit of a splurge of blogging tonight as this will probably be my last bloggortunity of 2015, since we'll be away on various New Year travels for the next few days. So, lastly, I must recommend to you the Radio 4 programme Beyond Belief, which I listened to the most recent broadcast of on Monday afternoon while driving back from Staffordshire.

Just a cotton-pickin' minute there, you'll be saying, this is some sort of religious broadcasting spot, isn't it: surely just the sort of thing to make your blood boil? Well, yes, you're absolutely right, but it's fascinating for precisely that reason - a window into a world of wishy-washy nonsense. Wishy-washy since this is the impeccably liberal and inclusive end of the religious spectrum where religion is rarely referred to as such, but more often by the more cuddly term "faith", and all the participants in the weekly discussion are impeccably civilised and no-one calls anyone an infidel or tries to blow themselves up.

This particular programme provided an excellent subject for the participants to chew on: the afterlife. Specifically, what happens to us after we die. Now mainstream science is reasonably clear about this, and the general consensus goes as follows: while there's some greyness over the exact point of transition between being "alive" and being "dead" (more on this shortly), no evidence has ever been found for consciousness persisting in any way after death, and all the supposed bright light/feelings of peace/beckoning relatives stuff can be explained by restricted blood flow to the brain, something that hallucinogenic drugs also induce, with startlingly similar results. It should also be noted that there have been a swathe of books published in the last few years on this subject, some achieving spectacular sales, and almost all being revealed, on the application of a bit of investigative scepticism, to be the products of either epic self-delusion or cartoonish greed and mendaciousness. And, equivocate about the exact point of death as much as you like, once it's happened, that's it: your physical remains (or, at least, those that can't be recycled in some way) are just useless dead meat and will either be burned or buried and left to rot.

So anyway, the principal rhetorical tricks wheeled out in Beyond Belief included:
  • The refusal to commit to any sort of concrete claim about anything. There was a lot of "well, the texts say" but also an acknowledgement that the established churches have said many things in the past, many of them based on things that the texts say, that they've subsequently rowed back on. The key point here is that concrete claims can be tested and found wanting, which is the last thing anyone wants;
  • A general reluctance to criticise other religions, sorry, "faiths", even when their claims clearly conflict with your own and you can't both be right. The only time the discussion got a bit pointed was when someone brought up the 72 virgins thing, but since they apologised for mentioning it almost in the same breath and then agreed hastily that it was a ridiculous question, there wasn't actually much discussion of it;
  • Following on from that: no sceptics or atheists allowed, even if you might think having one on the panel would add a bracing note to the discussion. Imagine, as I fantasised about after a similar listening experience here, having AC Grayling or someone similar on the show.
  • A slippery refusal to define your terms. When some token lip-service was paid to "science" and "rationality" - words that always come with slightly sniffy scare quotes in this sort of programme - they wheeled out the rather flaky-sounding Sam Parnia to explain his research programme into experiences that happen "after death". One of the problems with this is that his definition of "death" is upon cardiac arrest, whereas a more usual one these days is upon cessation of any measurable brain activity, the whole point being that modern science has made cardiac arrest, even multiple ones, an eminently survivable experience, the only downside of which is a load of people who've survived one queuing up to tell their bullshit stories about meeting Auntie Beryl in a big white room;
  • A general amused tolerance for the terrible gaucheness of anyone wanting to tie down claims to things that can be tested. Along with this comes a lot of insistence that the experiences being talked about are in some way "ineffable" and beyond the reach of rational enquiry and in some cases even beyond the reach of language and requiring metaphor and poetry to describe them.
Near-death experiences and the afterlife, in common with most mystical bullshit, require one fundamental belief: that the brain and the mind are two separate entities and that each can exist without the other. Every single test that has ever been done to test this has concluded that they are not, and that the mind, consciousness, call it what you will, is purely and simply a product of the physical substrate. In spite of this simple fact, one which would seem to reduce a discussion of the sort trailed by Beyond Belief to about twenty seconds, or maybe even less - as long as it takes to utter the word "no" - it is still apparently possible in the 21st century for a group of highly-educated people to spin out a discussion of this sort to half an hour and not make a single concrete claim, still less reach any useful conclusion about anything. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

who the bleep is alys?

You'll recall my mild surprise at people's level of confusion when we decided to Welsh it up a bit on the arrival of our first child and call her Nia. Well, we decided to Welsh it up a notch again when our second daughter was born in March of this year and call her Alys. Cue potential confusion of a slightly different kind, as this is pronounced the same as, and is the Welsh variant of, the perfectly commonplace English name Alice. So Alys' cross to bear through life will most likely be people constantly spelling her name wrong, rather than the more fundamental refusal to believe that it actually is a name that Nia will get. But adversity, and triumphing over it, builds character, and I'm pretty confident that both girls will thank us for it later.

Anyway, I thought I'd do the Google predictive search thing again, and this is what I got back:


I have to confess that none of those people are familiar names to me, but I'm sure they're marvellous and worthwhile people in their own right. Anyway:
  • Alys Fowler is a journalist and occasional TV presenter on Gardener's World;
  • Alys Williams was apparently a contestant on the BBC series The Voice. It's very snobbish of me to affect a haughty ignorance and disdain for what goes on on such shows, but there you are, I'm doing it anyway;
  • Alys Einion is an author and lecturer whose name may possibly be a shortened version of Alyson;
  • Alys Carlton is a lawyer.
Other notable Alys's include the daughter of Owain Glyndŵr, Welsh swimmer (and double namesake) Alys Thomas, a minor Game of Thrones character, and the protagonist of the eponymous S4C drama series.

ball tampering

Further additions to the list referred to in this recent post: in addition to Shoaib Malik and Alastair Cook's efforts in Abu Dhabi, both Ross Taylor of New Zealand and Adam Voges of Australia have recently made inroads into the list of scores never before bagged in a Test match. Voges' unbeaten 269 in the first Test of what looks likely to be a horrifically mismatched Australia-West Indies series bagged what was the 6th-lowest unclaimed score in Tests, while Taylor's 290 against Australia in Perth a month or so earlier bagged the 17th-lowest spot on the list.

Taylor's return to Test match form is particularly commendable as he's only recently returned to full fitness following what was euphemistically described as a "groin injury", but was in fact a fairly horrific-sounding freak testicle injury caused by a misplaced box and a direct blow from a delivery during a net session, and which required prompt surgery to rectify.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

interfering with the brownies

As I've said before, I'm slightly wary of getting involved with baking, as the requirement for exactitude and adherence to instructions doesn't sit well with my psychological make-up. But sometimes it's worth getting over yourself and making the effort, and this is one of those times. Here's an excellent recipe for chocolate brownies, given to me by a work colleague and liable to get lost in my e-mail inbox if I don't immortalise it here. A handy side-effect of that, of course, is that you can use it too if you wish to, though to be fair one thing the internet isn't short of is chocolate brownie recipes.

The only way in which I've deviated from the original recipe is to double all the quantities, since I reckon if you're going to make the effort you may as well make lots. This quantity of mix fills a large mixing bowl nearly to the brim and makes around 80 modestly-sized brownies (you want them modestly-sized as they're pretty rich).

CHOCOLATE BROWNIES

Ingredients:

370g unsalted butter
370g dark chocolate (any cheapo chocolate works fine but Green & Black's is especially good)
170g plain flour
80g cocoa powder
200g white chocolate chips
8 medium eggs
550g caster sugar
  • In a medium microwavable bowl, put the butter cut into smallish cubes & the chocolate broken up a bit, and microwave for 2 minutes. Stir well until combined & leave to cool
  • Preheat oven to 160°C.
  • Line a tin (the big one I used was about 40cm x 30cm) with non-stick baking parchment. In a medium/large bowl, sieve the plain flour and cocoa powder together.
  • In a large mixing bowl, break the eggs and add the caster sugar. Beat with an electric mixer until mixture is thick & creamy, almost mousse-like and nearly doubled in volume. This can take 3-8 mins.  
  • Pour the cooled chocolate mixture over the eggy mousse (it must be cooled enough or the eggs will curdle), then gently fold together with a rubber spatula (trying not to beat the air out of the mousse).
  • Re-sieve the cocoa and flour into the eggy chocolate mixture. Fold until everything is combined.
  • Add the chocolate chunks, and fold until evenly distributed.
  • Pour into the tin and bake for 30-35 mins. The top will start to look papery and the edges will be coming away from the sides a bit. It will still be quite wobbly but that's fine.
  • Put into the fridge (don't cut it yet!), preferably overnight.
"They'll keep in an airtight container for a good two weeks and in the freezer for up to a month" is what the original recipe goes on to say, but you can ignore that, because they won't last anywhere near that long, because they'll get scoffed.




Tuesday, December 22, 2015

gum, sodomy and the gnash

You know what you're going to get from this blog, broadly speaking, I like to think: ridicule and/or bile directed at religion and other forms of harmful irrationality, deep deep cricket statology and the very hottest and freshest developments in showbiz dentistry.

It's to uphold my obligations in respect of the last of these that I offer you the news of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan's spiffy new gnashers. These are dental implants that he had done recently, and their construction is apparently the subject of an accompanying documentary Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn. I suppose it's possible that he had to agree to the documentary to finance the work, although you'd think the constant influx of royalties from Fairytale Of New York would have kept him fairly flush. Then again his bar tab must be pretty crippling. I suppose there may also have been a need to pay some medical bills after the incident in August where he fractured his pelvis after attempting, and I quote, "a complicated dance move".


As it happens MacGowan has flirted with reality TV before in the form of the rather bizarre Victoria And Shane Grow Their Own, a one-off 2009 special in which he and his long-time partner Victoria Mary Clarke try to maintain a vegetable garden, with predictably shambolic results.

But just whooooaaaahhh there, Neddy, you'll be saying - I recall a blog post from a while back (early 2010 in fact, though the accompanying story was from May 2009) about MacGowan unveiling a new set of chompers: what happened to them? Well apparently those were a lower-budget set of more traditional dentures and he never really got on with them, so he stopped wearing them. Or, equally plausibly, lost them in a pub somewhere. I should issue the usual caveat at this point about being uneasy with lazy stereotypes of lovable carousing Irish drunks, as the reality is somewhat less palatable, and there's little doubt that MacGowan - an exceptionally talented songwriter - would have achieved more and greater things in his musical career (not to mention standing a better chance of retaining his original teeth) if he hadn't been constantly pissed for the last 35 years.

Elsewhere in high-profile showbiz dentistry news, Lenny Kravitz has been busted by the Bahamian police for running an improperly-licensed dentistry operation. No, really.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

headline of the day

Just a bit of textbook blithering tabloid innumeracy for you - today's Daily Mail contains this headline:


That image is from the front page of the Mail's website; the actual article has had its headline amended to something that at least makes sense.


The interesting thing with these is always not so much to spot the error - that's easy - but more to try to determine what the person who wrote it was actually thinking, given that they'd presumably done a calculation of some sort to get hold of the numbers. The sort of thing you want to be doing as a sanity check here is to say to yourself: if you had a thing at a certain price, and you reduced that price by 100%, it would end up being free. So if my calculation gives any number greater than 100, I've clearly cocked it up somewhere.

In this particular case, a £30 bottle of wine being offered for £7 represents a discount of (23 / 30) * 100 = 77%. I can't actually imagine a way of carving the numbers up to get a figure of 200, but on the face of it a £30 bottle of wine with a 200% discount means Asda paying customers £30 to take each bottle away. If I really thought that was true I'd be down there RIGHT NOW.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

the last book I read

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin.

Shevek is a theoretical physicist, not an especially common occupation on the planet on which he lives - Anarres, an arid desert planet populated by the descendants of a band of revolutionaries who rebelled against the capitalist society on Anarres' more hospitable twin planet Urras and decided to drop out and colonise Anarres into some sort of anarcho-communist utopia.

This is all great, power to the people and all that, but if theoretical physics is the specific bag you're into there are some limitations around time available for research - the struggle just to survive from day to day on a sparsely-populated and pretty inhospitable world being pretty much a full-time job - and ability to share ideas with others, communication with other worlds, specifically Urras, being viewed with extreme suspicion and tightly regulated.

But Shevek's ideas are potentially revolutionary in their own way too, since they concern the very fabric of time itself. And so, reluctantly, and with a good deal of huffing and puffing and lengthy objections in committee meetings from the People's Front of Anarres, Shevek boards a freighter that will take him to Urras and meetings with their senior scientists.

Needless to say the senior Urrasti scientists are very keen to meet up with Shevek and see what he knows, but there's something of a culture shock to be overcome first, Urras being very different from Anarres. Resources are plentiful, there's fine food and wine available and the scientific profession occupy an exalted position in Urrasti society. Shevek is provided with a servant to take care of his daily needs, an honorary lecturing position at the university and time and space to develop his theories.

It's not all champagne and caviar, though: Urras is a planet made up of several nation-states and these have an occasionally vexed relationship with each other. During Shevek's stay the country whose representatives are his hosts, A-Io, gets involved in a war in a country in the planet's far hemisphere, a war which also involves A-Io's neighbour and rival Thu. Shevek also becomes aware of internal political tensions in A-Io, and of a fundamental (and, to us, obvious) truth that his upbringing had not prepared him for: not everyone on Urras enjoys the same standard of living. Moreover, some of those who aren't having lobster for dinner every night are pretty pissed off about it, and moreover are similarly pissed off about a representative from Anarres living high on the hog and selling himself out, as they see it, to The Man.

Contact is made between these groups and Shevek, and Shevek, beginning to understand the society he's living in, gives his Urrasti minders the slip and joins up with one of the revolutionary groups - these being the kind of people, after all, who founded his own world 200 or so years before. He has belatedly realised that he doesn't want to give, still less sell, his idea to a single group of people, but instead to find a way of disseminating it for general use, and eventually finds a group of people who not only may be able to make this happen, but may also be able to arrange for his return to his home planet and to his wife and children.

Like most science fiction books (you may take my regular riff on the meaninglessness of these labels as read at this point) what The Dispossessed describes in its narrative and what it's actually about are two different things. Of course this is true of many other non-genre novels as well, but the setting up of an imagined world in order to better shine a light on some aspect of our own is a very common trope in speculative fiction. On the other hand, some of them really are just lengthy explodey spaceship battles between bug-eyed tentacled purple aliens, but despite featuring (very briefly) a couple of spaceships The Dispossessed is not one of these - what it really is is a lengthy meditation on how a functioning anarchist society might work, and how it would contrast with a more orthodox capitalist society, one perhaps slightly more rapacious and unequal than our own, but then again perhaps not. The sciencey thing that Shevek is trying to perfect (which eventually forms the basis for the ansible, a relativity-busting instantaneous communication device, in later Le Guin books) is really just a MacGuffin that allows a bit of fish-out-of-water drama to happen and a framework to accommodate a few Basil Exposition explanatory conversations.

The Dispossessed was published in 1974, so there's some obvious Cold War, East vs. West parallels to be drawn, as well as an echo of the Vietnam War in the war that breaks out on Urras which the two major powers dabble in. Of course in 2015 we've got the Syrian conflict to illustrate exactly the same sort of thing, and the stuff about the rapaciousness of unfettered capitalism and the inequality it creates between the haves and have-nots is still highly relevant.

Le Guin made no secret of viewing the anarchist culture of Anarres with some affection, but it's certainly not presented as a glorious and faultless utopia - for all their fine aspirations power still unavoidably ends up being concentrated into the hands of small groups, and those (like Shevek) who represent big spiky statistical outliers in terms of achievement are difficult to accommodate within the system.

It's a wordy book, and if you've been drawn in by the front cover of my SF Masterworks edition, which appears to depict an exciting alien location occupied by a Pinky-Ponk-esque spaceship and a Bee Gee in a spacesuit, you may be disappointed at the fairly cerebral content within. I enjoyed it, but it is largely action-free and if action is what you're after you may be better off looking elsewhere. But it has many other fine attributes, not least some proper female characters (most notably Shevek's partner, Takver) who are neither doormats nor sex receptacles.


The Dispossessed won both of the most prestigious science fiction awards in 1975: the Hugo Award, for which my list goes 1962, 1963, 1975, 1983, 1985, and the Nebula Award, for which my list goes 1975, 1985. Le Guin herself, who is still going strong at the age of 86, is probably best known for her Earthsea books, a series of fantasy novels usually considered as being for "young adults", whatever the hell they are. She's also a spendidly feisty old bird who was recently featured in the excellent Letters Of Note for this pithy response to a publisher who wanted her to write a foreword for an all-male SF anthology.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

yours sincerely, Hugh Jorgan

Honestly, it fair makes you proud to be sort-of-Welsh these days with all the enlightened policy-making that's going on. Hot on the heels of the proposal to rename school Religious Education lessons as Religion. Philosophy and Ethics comes the eminently sensible decision to revise the organ donation laws in Wales to what's being referred to as "deemed consent", i.e. an assumed opt-in rather than the current system which assumes an opt-out unless you carry a card on you which explicitly says PLEASE SLICE ME OPEN AND HARVEST MY
DELICIOUS PRECIOUS ORGANS, BUT, AND I WANT TO MAKE THIS QUITE CLEAR, ONLY AFTER I'M DEAD.

Since 99.9% of the arguments against a default right of medical science to make use of your entrails are of the loony religious variety this is an eminently sensible and rational decision, though still mildly surprising in these days of lawmakers still pandering spinelessly to religion. Clearly one can foresee some jurisdictional issues if Welsh residents die in England, and especially if people from outside Wales die in Wales and are torn apart by scalpel-wielding maniacs and have their still-warm organs stuffed into Ziploc bags before you can say, erm, hang on, I'm actually from Karachi. The best way for people based in Wales to make their wishes unambiguously known, therefore, and to allow for the unpalatable scenario of carking it in Kidderminster or some other godforsaken foreign outpost, is still to explicitly register your intention to donate, which you can do here.

strange currencies

I've got a plastic cup on a shelf in my office with some assorted old foreign money in it - mostly coins but a few notes as well. I noticed today that Hazel seems to have stashed some of her old money in there as well, so let's have an audit:


  • 400 Hungarian forints. These would have been acquired on my trip to Budapest for my friend Andy's stag do in May 2005, during which we discovered the delights of Hungary's national drink, Unicum. An acquired taste, you might say, if you were the sort of person who might conceivably acquire a taste for a drink resembling nothing so much as a substantial amount of Kiwi Parade Gloss boot polish dissolved in vodka. Hungary isn't in the Euro, so this is still theoretically worth something; unfortunately that something turns out to be about 90p at today's exchange rates. The beardy chap depicted on the note is Károly Róbert, also known as Charles I of Hungary, a big noise round those parts in the 14th century. 
  • 15 New Zealand dollars, acquired on my trip there in early 2001. Current sterling value: £6.56. The man depicted on the 5-dollar note is Sir Edmund Hillary, whose implausibly large boots I have sunk a pint of Bass while sitting under in the Pen-y-Gwyrd Hotel in Snowdonia. He wasn't in them at the time, though.
  • 33 US dollars, acquired variously by myself and Hazel on a few different trips, including the one to New York for my 40th birthday in 2010. Current sterling value: £21.91. All US banknotes carry pictures of ex-Presidents or ex-Secretaries of the Treasury; our stash comprises three Washingtons, a Hamilton and a Jackson.
  • 5 Australian dollars, probably acquired by Hazel when she went to Australia for nine months shortly after we met on New Year's Eve 2005/2006. An extreme reaction to meeting me, you might say, and I wouldn't disagree with you. Needless to say the picture here is of our very own (and, currently at least, Australia's) Queen. Current sterling value: £2.40.
  • 200 Greek drachmas, acquired by Hazel many years ago, probably during her stint as a photographer on a cruise ship. No current value, since Greece joined the Euro in 2002, but based on the exchange rate at the time of its demise it would probably be about 40p. The splendidly-moustached chap on the note is Rigas Feraios, an 18th-century writer and revolutionary.
  • 9 Maltese lira, again probably acquired by Hazel during a cruise stopover and again currently worthless, since Malta joined the Euro in 2008. At the exchange rate at the time of its demise they'd be worth something like £2.70 today. According to Wikipedia the note depicts "a woman holding a rudder, symbolising Malta in control of her own destiny", so that's nice.
  • 100 Zimbabwean dollars, acquired by me on my trip to southern Africa in early 2000. At an exchange rate at the time of 400 dollars to the pound this was worth about 25p - since then the Zimbabwean dollar has ceased to be a currency in any meaningful sense after several bouts of hyperinflation, though no doubt the 100 trillion dollar banknotes retain some curiosity value. 
  • 10 Namibian dollars, from the same trip. Current sterling value: about 46p. The note depicts Hendrik Witbooi, an early fighter for independence from the German occupiers.
  • Finally, 120 Euros, acquired on various trips to European destinations over the years, and despite being worth £84.22 at current rates kept on the assumption that we will one day make it out of this country again and get a chance to spend it. 
So, including only stuff that's still technically money, that's £116.45 that could theoretically (less a bit of commission and other assorted expense) be realised in an emergency to pay for rusks or nappies or eye-wateringly expensive tiny shoes. Good to know.

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 though 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 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.

Monday, October 05, 2015

the grim reader

Look upon my blogular works, ye mighty, and despair, for if my basilisk gaze should fall upon any part of your novelistic oeuvre and feature it on this blog, your days upon this earth are surely numbered and in due course you will feel THE ICY HAND OF DEATH UPON YE, just you wait and see.

Sure enough when Swedish crime author (most famously creator of detective Kurt Wallander, maverick cop, doesn't play by the book etc. etc.) Henning Mankell opened the front door this morning he found a gentleman in a hooded garment waiting for him who'd come about the reaping.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 2y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 7y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 7y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 7y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d

Mankell had been living with cancer for about a year and a half, so it wasn't totally unexpected, but nonetheless he's the third-youngest of the eleven authors on the list, and the curse length is well below the average of a little over four years. There's plenty of variation, from two months to nearly eight years, but the point is that CERTAIN DEATH AWAITS YE. Possibly with nasty big pointy teeth, possibly not.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

incidental music spot of the day

Led Zeppelin's Achilles' Last Stand over a montage of first-half highlights from the crucial England v Australia game in Pool A. Presumably chosen because its massive juddering riff and vaguely heroic subject matter symbolise the physical conflict of a top-level rugby game in some way, or maybe someone just thought it was a cool tune, which of course it is. Here's a live version from Knebworth in 1979 featuring Jimmy Page at the height of his cadaverous junkie zombie period.

Friday, October 02, 2015

the last book I read

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.

It's the early 1970s, and Serena Frome, in her final year at Cambridge, is having an affair with a high-ranking MI5 spook, as pretty much everyone was doing in the early 1970s. Serena's lover, Tony Canning, is married, so things are inevitably going to end badly, but once they have it transpires that Tony has recommended Serena for a post at MI5.

Serena and the small number of female employees at MI5 (including a thinly-disguised Stella Rimington) have to wade through a mountain of sexist bullshit every day - again, par for the course for the early 1970s - but eventually Serena reaches a position of trust secure enough for her to be handed a key role in Operation Sweet Tooth, a long-term campaign to stealthily fund, via some convincingly-constructed charities and other "front" organisations, some writers broadly sympathetic to MI5's cause, which means, broadly speaking, right-leaning and anti-communist.

Serena is a voracious devourer of books - one of the reasons she got the job in the first place - so she's well-placed to assess possible candidates and make a judgment as to their suitability. Having chosen a candidate, Tom Haley, she is also nominated to play the part of the representative of one of the fictitious charitable trusts and persuade him to come on board, for an appropriate fee of course. Though the initial "persuasion" takes a relatively blameless route, Serena's ongoing monitoring of Haley's output and commitment to the project eventually starts to involve sleeping with him. As their relationship starts to get more serious, and one of Haley's short novels wins a serious literary award, Serena is faced with a dilemma: what should she tell him? Matters are soon taken out of her hands when some investigative journalism reveals not only the murky links between MI5 and the literary charities, but also Serena and Tom's relationship and Serena's involvement with MI5. What will Tom say when he finds out?

The first thing to say about Sweet Tooth is that although it appears to be a spy thriller (like, say, Reckless), it's actually a book about writing. McEwan has quite a bit of fun describing the synopses of some of Haley's early short stories, and borrowing extensively from his own oeuvre to do it, as well as throwing in a few cameos from his real-life 1970s chums (Martin Amis, for instance), and then right at the end delivers the twist which throws everything that's gone before into a different light. Seasoned McEwan-watchers will recognise that he pulled essentially the same trick towards the end of Atonement, a more ambitious book (but one which I nonetheless failed to completely get the hang of). Other books in this series that pull similar tricks include The Medusa Frequency, The History Of Love and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

The second thing to say about it is that I enjoyed it, though, as with a lot of McEwan's recent output, not as much as some of the earlier stuff. You expect a bit of le Carré-esque twisty-turniness once it's been established that there's an espionage story going on, for instance, and we never really get very much of that. In fact, for all that it's billed as a spy story, the actual work that Serena ends up doing is pretty far removed from anything resembling "spying" in the generally accepted sense, though I accept that this sort of thing probably went on back in the 1970s. Basically her job seems to have been some light literary criticism with a bit of extra-curricular shagging on the side; nice work if you can get it. As far as McEwan's novels in general go, I still say the late 1980s and 1990s stuff (including The Child In Time, Black Dogs and Enduring Love) is the best.

Friday, September 25, 2015

staycation vacation location

Here's a couple of photo galleries documenting a couple of small holidays we had during late August and early September. You might describe them both as "staycations", depending on your definition of the word - i.e. is it a break from work where you stay at home, or just a regular holiday where you don't leave the country? Both definitions seem to be in use. Actually, now I think about it, the first trip might contravene even the second, more generous definition, since we live in Wales and the campsite is in England, though only just.

Our first trip was to the Forest Holidays campsite at Bracelands, near Christchurch in the Forest of Dean. We've been here a couple of times before, once as part of our Forest of Death cycle trip in May 2008, and once almost exactly three years ago, when Nia was about the same age as Alys is now. This was the trip where the campsite entry barrier attempted to eat my old Ford Focus, a scenario we avoided this time in a few ways - firstly by not having the Focus any more, secondly by attaching a large roof box to the top of the Mondeo as a barrier (though I suspect it wouldn't have stood up to having a site entry barrier land on top of it), and thirdly by actually going to a slightly different place, the tent section of Bracelands having moved down the road a bit since we were there before. The site we were previously in now contains some little log cabins which look lovely, though they do seem to be eye-wateringly expensive to hire.

Secondly, we made a repeat visit to Bluestone in Pembrokeshire, this time with our NCT chums Huw and Zoe and their two children. Lots of the obligatory hooning around in the pool with the kids, one cheeky visit to the onsite pub for a pint (very decent Reverend James this time, though it is by no means my favourite thing - a bit dark and malty for my taste), and one bit of adult time (steady on, it's not what you're thinking) where we put the kids in the crèche for the morning and went off to do their High Ropes challenge, which is Go Ape! in all but name. Interestingly the only way in which the Bluestone version differs from Go Ape! proper - which we've done twice, once at the Forest of Dean and once at Margam Park - is that it doesn't include the Tarzan Swing into the big cargo net, which is the scariest bit as it requires a proper step off into the void. Perhaps they didn't want to traumatise the Mums and Dads too much before they went back to pick up the kids.

We also took a trip to the beach at Tenby, where Huw and I had a go at throwing a boomerang (one of these, I think) he'd recently acquired. I have thrown a boomerang precisely once before in my life, in a school field in Market Drayton in about 1992. On that occasion a good hour or so of attempts yielded precisely one successful throw and catch; here maybe half that time yielded two, plus a couple of near misses. Perhaps my technique is improving. Remarkably I have photos of both sessions: compare and contrast the differences in both boomerang technology (the 1992 model was an old-skool green wooden V-shaped one) and my waist measurement over the course of about 23 years. Note also how my beautiful daughter has done her best to photobomb the recent photo.



There are some quite interesting and extensive caves in the cliffs at the south beach at Tenby (the boomerang picture above is taken from a vantage point just in front of them), some brief exploration of which yielded the inevitable scalp injury which you can view below, and compare with the earlier one inflicted by the kitchen doorway at our old flat in Newport.


One of the myriad benefits of having a luxuriant thatch of head hair is a fraction of a second's early warning that you're about to hit your head on something, allowing you to take evasive action - plus of course a bit of padding in the event of an impact. If I'd still had the 1992-era haircut I'd have been fine.

Anyway, Forest of Dean photos can be found here, Pembrokeshire ones here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Topsy and Tim's Mum (as portrayed by Anna Acton) in the newish (and mildly controversial in some quarters) CBeebies adaptation of the venerable old book series by Jean and Gareth Adamson, and Dave Bartram, lead singer of 1970s pop stalwarts (and, in hindsight, much as I loved them at the time, ghastly cheesy novelty act) Showaddywaddy. Similar hair, cheekbones, enormous gob.


Tuesday, September 08, 2015

come and have a rifle through my pottery barn

Here's a quick round-up of some recent arrivals in my Hotmail inbox. There's a lot of tedious low-level spam, which I won't bore you with, though I must say there has been a disappointing dwindling in the number of 419-type scam e-mails I get and also the amount of Arabic pornography.

I'm still getting mail from the barely-restrained potential spree killers at Bud's Gun Shop, though. Nothing as good as the bullet earrings for the wife, but I do like the way the latest assault rifle offer comes with a tasteful background of what appears to be (tastefully monochrome) blood and brain splatter, just to illustrate what you can expect to see when you decide to prove to your boss that you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it any more.


I've also had an e-mail from the apparently respectable retailer Pottery Barn; a receipt for a purchase I supposedly made on September 1st. Just to be clear, I have never bought anything from Pottery Barn, but I was interested to see what they thought I'd bought, especially as its original retail price was $121.99, though I apparently ended up paying a bargain price of $49.97. This was a branch of Pottery Barn in Edmonton, Alberta, which I apparently visited in person (i.e. rather than doing the whole thing over the internet), so these are Canadian dollars. At current rates of exchange that works out at £24.57 - not a fortune, but I'd want to know what I was spending it on. The trouble is it's almost impossible to tell from the description on the receipt (see below) which renders it as follows: CLFT CYL TBL LB BL.


Well clearly there's been a bit of radical disemvowelling and abbreviation here, so my best guess is that this is a CLEFT CYLINDER TABLE LABIA BALL, which I assume to be some sort of heavy-duty sex device which requires securing to a table prior to use.

Fortunately there's a product number on the receipt as well, and you can use that on the Pottery Barn website to retrieve the details you want. It turns out what's being described is CLIFT GLASS CYLINDER TABLE LAMP BASE, LIGHT BLUE. To which my reaction is twofold: a) how disappointing and b) bloody hell, one hundred dollars (Canadian, admittedly) for an empty bottle with a light bulb stuck in it. A two-and-a-half-feet high bottle (and presumably a reasonably large light bulb), but still.