Thursday, August 28, 2008

sausages. Esther. Esther. sausages.

You know when you cut an aubergine in half and it has the word "Allah" written across the middle of it? Or those cock-shaped carrots that people used to send in to That's Life? Or any number of similar occurrences involving eggs, beans, melons, tomatoes, chapatis, you name it. What you have to conclude as you look at this series of pictures of random sliced fruit and vegetables is one of the following:

  • it's a bleedin' miracle and God (of one denomination or another) has decided to manifest himself by hiding in a tomato and hoping that it gets cut in the correct orientation (or ensuring that it does by exerting some spooky influence) to reveal some gnomic non-sequiturs, rather than something a bit more obvious and reliable like, say, turning up in your kitchen with a deafening blast of celestial trumpetry and having a nice sit down and a cup of tea with you and really Thrashing The Whole Thing Out once and for all.

  • what we're witnessing here is a fascinating example of a phenomenon called pareidolia, whereby the hyper-evolved human brain insists on resolving stuff into patterns that fit with its preconceptions of the world, even when the things being observed are, in reality, entirely random jumbles of stuff.

Needless to say I find the second explanation more plausible. Another good example is the "face" photographed in the Cydonia region of Mars by the Viking orbiters. Despite many more detailed photographs being taken from a variety of angles, all of which reveal that it's just some rocks that the sunlight happened to be falling on at the correct angle when the original images were captured, some people still cling to the notion that it's some sort of alien observatory or some such nuttiness. Faces seem to be a bit of a theme, for reasons that aren't too difficult to work out if you think about why these pattern-recognition abilities must have evolved: here's another one magically imprinted into the turf at Selhurst Park. And then there's the ones found in the smoke from the World Trade Centre on 9/11, or in a nuclear mushroom cloud. Some people take photos of ordinary clouds, too, for reasons best known to themselves.

More generally, any attempt to explain life, the cosmos, belly-button fluff, etc. by resorting to some notion of an external agency directing proceedings is committing the same error. No prizes for guessing the sort of thing I'm referring to here.

But I'm not here to talk about religion. No, I'm here to talk about the Olympics. A week late and via, I'll grant you, something of a roundabout route, but stay with me.

One of the things that always fascinates me about the Olympics is the photo-finish images that they occasionally show after the shorter sprints. Here's an example:

The pareidolia connection is as follows: it's almost impossible for the human brain not to interpret these images as being snapshots of the entire field of runners at the moment the race ended, i.e. as the winning athlete crossed the line, whereas in fact they are a montage of hundreds of individual narrow "slit" images of the finishing line itself, with time passing as you scan from right to left across the image. This is why the "track" always looks a bit weird in the images; it's just a tiny image of the finishing line itself "smeared" out over the whole strip.

Certain things look a bit weird; the feet tend (with some exceptions I'll come to in a minute) to look very small in comparison to the rest of the legs and body, and there's some slightly strange curvature of the shins going on, particularly for those runners who happened to be leading with a knee when they crossed the line. A couple of moments thought about the mechanics of snapping a constant series of images of the same spot reveals why this happens; basically bits of body travelling fast will be disproportionately narrow in the finished image and, conversely, slow-moving things will be disproportionately wide.

This doesn't destroy the illusion, but things start to get a bit weird when one of the competitors happens to tread on the finishing line in the act of crossing it. Then you get a phenomenon I've heard described colloquially as "ski foot", and you can see why:

It's all down to the complex mechanics of running - your head might be doing a constant 20 miles an hour, but if you consider the speed of each individual foot relative to your head's speed things get a bit more complicated. There's less chance of things ending up looking quite that weird when you're on wheels, although there's something a bit crazy going on with the spokes in the bicycle photo here. Again, if you think about the speed of any given spoke-hole on the wheel-rim relative to the (constant) speed of the wheel hub you'll see why this happens.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Inspired by the success of last year's culinary exploits, and also by a huge consignment of fruit from our visit to Hazel's parents' place at the weekend, I've started on a couple of new projects:

We had a load of blackberries, so I thought I'd do something in the sloe and damson gin vein and make some blackberry vodka. No real idea about proportions of ingredients, though I guessed that blackberries are a bit sweeter than damsons, and that therefore a fruit to sugar ratio of between 3:1 and 4:1 would be appropriate. We'll see in a couple of months. There's about 2 litres here, so that should see us through the winter months with a smile on our faces.

Secondly, we had a ridiculous quantity of apples, so, again after giving as many as possible away, I've used most of the remainder to make some apple and mint jelly. Well, we're at the juice-draining stage so far; the boiling up with sugar and putting in jars bit comes tomorrow. The last lot, though delicious, was a little reluctant to set properly, so I've got some special sugar to give this lot a helping hand.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

heavy medal mayhem

This (via Strange Maps) is very cool indeed: an interactive series of maps of the competing countries in each Games in the modern Olympic era, with the size of the country dictated by its total medal tally.

While we're on the subject of the Olympics (again), let's do a Welshman Of The Day: sprinter Christian Malcolm, who has just qualified for the men's 200m final, though unless one of Usain Bolt's freakishly long legs comes off at some point during the race the result seems like a foregone conclusion. He's from Newport, you know (Malcolm, not Bolt). There's lovely. Isn't it.

do NOT flay your fists; it'll hurt

I'm going to take a punt and conclude that ex-Australian opening batsman Justin Langer doesn't employ a ghost-writer for his occasional columns on the BBC Sport website, and furthermore that he fancies himself as a bit of a dab hand with a pen in his hand, just as he is with a bat.

If he did employ a ghost-writer, or at the very least a copy editor of some sort, that editor might have made a few comments about Langer's recent piece about Mark Ramprakash's 101st first-class century (following quickly on the heels of number 100, now the pressure's off). He might have said, for instance: look, Justin, the "eye of the storm" bit here is OK, if a bit flowery:

In his stance he is so still, it is as if he is meditating and minding his own business as the bowlers rush in to the wicket. His stillness is comparable to the eye of a storm.
....but you might want to watch the metaphors a bit, particularly here:

Within this serene and almost peaceful pose is the spirit of a prize fighter who is ready to unleash his fury on the ball, which is granted such a limited margin for error.
That's OK, I suppose, but:

Etched in his face and synonymous by the muscles jutting from his clenched jaw is an aggression and determination reserved usually for a prize fighter.
....I'm not sure "synonymous by the muscles" is actually proper English, you know. And enough with the prize fighter thing, already.

In one moment you see a Zen master weighing up his options, the next it is like Ricky Hatton flaying his fists and decimating another opponent.
You've done it again, haven't you? And I'm not sure what you think flaying means, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean what you think it means. There's been reams of stuff written about the correct usage of decimating, so I won't expand on it here. And while we're on the subject, what's all this about?

Standing in the slips with Marcus Trescothick we were discussing the prospect of a 2,000-run season. As he pointed out, he has had what would be considered a great season so far and yet he is still 900 runs away from the illusive and almost mystical 2,000-run mark.
Well, I suppose you could mean illusive, but I'm pretty sure what you actually mean here is elusive, isn't it? Unless you mean allusive?

This is all very nit-picky, and, given that this isn't Langer's day-job, his not being Graham Greene is entirely forgivable, certainly more so than a whole novel of utter drivel.

Talking of Langer reminds me of another item from the sporting lexicon as touched upon here - left-handed batsmen are grouped for journalistic purposes into two categories: the tall willowy elegant variety such as Garry Sobers or David Gower or Graeme Pollock, and the shorter pugnacious variety personified in years gone by by Allan Border, and more recently by Graham Thorpe. The almost universal adjective of choice here is, for some reason, "nuggety". Google "nuggety left-hander" and you'll get (as of today, anyway) 175 hits, Google "nuggety right-hander" and you'll get 6.

Just to prove the point, the first three hits for "nuggety left-hander" refer to Gary Kirsten, Mark Richardson and Langer himself.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

next on Olympic Grandstand: the hop, step and apostasy

I'm not a big fan of athletics, archery, Greco-Roman wrestling etc., but it's impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of the Olympic Games. I'm not going to get into dicussing any of the individual events as more than enough has been written about them already, but I do have a couple of observations about the BBC commentary team.

Firstly, I don't know how the BBC persuaded the legendary Michael Johnson to come on board, but hats off to whoever did it, because he is an extremely intelligent and articulate summariser, which provides a merciful contrast to the inane witterings of Sue Barker and the somewhat camp but in no way gay Colin Jackson. Johnson even puts up patiently with Sue's insistence on discussing the plucky Brit who came 7th at interminable length, rather than the actual winner - who's probably from some rubbishy country like Poland where they reward you at school if you win a race, the filthy swines.

Secondly, I was interested to read the other day that BBC commentator and ex-Olympic and world triple jump champion Jonathan Edwards has renounced his Christian faith - he was formerly quite a high-profile celebrity Christian, presenting Songs of Praise and for a time in his early career refusing to compete on Sundays, in addition to having that slightly intense, earnest, groovy vicar air about him - the sort of vicar who'd tell you that if Jesus was around today he'd be, in a very real sense, hanging out with the kids in hoodies and doing a bit of parkour down the skateboard park in between miracles.

A couple of interesting points in the numerous articles written about this - firstly the Daily Mail article says:
He has a deep, theological comprehension of the Bible, making his spiritual meltdown even more unlikely.
In fact, my experience from reading a large number of "deconversion" stories is that that closer a reasonably intelligent person's reading of the Bible is, the more likely they are to decide, eventually, that the whole thing is self-evidently ludicrous. Secondly, this Times article includes Edwards' own observation that:
Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief.
Bingo. Religion's weapons by which they keep the masses in line are: suppress questioning, silence dissent. Once you break out of those mental shackles you're halfway out of the door into the sunshine.

One of my occasional random forays into watching BBC athletics coverage was to watch the coverage of the triple jump at the 1995 World Athletics Championships in Gothenburg, at which Edwards performed one of the more remarkable athletic feats I've ever witnessed - raising his own world record by a total of 31cm within the space of about half an hour. The only YouTube clip I can find is in Swedish, unfortunately, but you get the idea. This represents an improvement of 1.72% on the previous record, which doesn't sound much, but which is, coincidentally, almost the same amount that Johnson improved his own 200m world record by during that historic run in Atlanta (that was about 1.76%, to be precise). Just to put that in perspective, that's about the same as Usain Bolt improving his own 100m world record from 9.72 seconds to 9.56 seconds - something he could very well have done yesterday if he hadn't stopped running after 85 metres or so and started celebrating.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

don't be a dumbo, try some jumbo gumbo

Here's a recipe for you. It's very very easy, so there really is no excuse. I was hosting a poker night on Friday and I'd promised to feed everyone, so the gargantuan vat of stew option seemed like the way to go.

Cajun Gumbo

Here's what you need, presented in both picture and word form. These quantities make something ridiculous like enough for 12-14 people, so feel free to scale down as appropriate. Bear in mind though that it's no more difficult to make lots, like the meatballs (although this requires a mere fraction of the preparation time) and you can always freeze the leftovers.

  • A couple of large onions
  • Garlic - several cloves, or you could do what I did and just use a couple of big scoops from a jar of pre-chopped stuff
  • Chillies - a few, or again you could go with the lazy option - a couple of scoops again
  • Chicken - this is around 2.5kg, a mixture of boneless thighs and diced boneless breast. The original recipe called for bone-in thighs and drumsticks, but boneless is easier.
  • Chorizo sausage - I've got one and a half of the U-shaped ones that you can get in Tesco and Sainsbury's here, just because that's what I had in the fridge.
  • A jar of passata
  • A couple of tins of tomatoes
  • A 3-pack of mixed peppers
  • Okra - 3 biggish packs. This is very important, as technically it's the okra that makes it a gumbo (as it's an alternative name for the vegetable). It's a tough sell, okra, as it's a bit weird, what with the gluey texture when you cut it up, but it's perfect for stews like this as the glutinousness thickens the sauce up. I've made this dish a lot, and I have had to manage without the okra occasionally, as you can't always get hold of it, and I can tell you it's just not the same.
  • Fresh coriander
Right. Chop up the onions and peppers and dice the chorizo (quite small). That lot and the garlic and chilli go in a pan with some olive oil.

Fry them a bit - the chorizo will leak its oily goodness everywhere and turn everything orange. This is a good thing. Then dice up the chicken (leave it quite chunky) and lob it in.

Toss that about a bit until it starts to colour (probably orange, again). Then empty the passata and the two tins of tomatoes in. Grind lots of black pepper in and a handful of dried mixed herbs. A generous splash of red wine vinegar and lemon juice wouldn't hurt at this stage, as well. You'll probably need a bit of water to top up the liquid levels - feel free to use vegetable or chicken stock if you like, but it's not really necessary. Then chuck in the okra.

What's true of stews in general is doubly so of this one - it's at its absolute best on the day after you make it, or even the day after that, as the flavours really develop as the whole thing thickens up and everything starts to disintegrate. After day 3 you probably won't have any left anyway, and it'll start to go a bit soupy, though it'll still taste great. Don't be tempted to bugger about refrigerating it between reheatings (if you've made a vat as big as the one pictured you won't be able to get it in the fridge anyway), just put a lid on it to stop flies and buzzards flying in and leave it on the stove top (remember to turn the gas off though).

The coriander (chopped up) goes in 5-10 minutes before you eat it. Best accompaniments are either some plain white rice, or lots of garlic bread. And beer; you need beer.

That's it. Simple. Like I say, leftovers can be frozen, but in my experience that's generally not an issue.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

high there

Just to complete the picture, here are the equivalent high-point lists for Wales and Scotland. A few surprises in the lists, not least that Dyfed appears not to be a county any more (since 1994 in fact). Who knew?

For the record, my Welsh collection comprises Gwynedd, Powys and Ceredigion, and my Scottish one comprises Inverness-shire, Aberdeenshire, Banffshire and Stirlingshire. This is slightly misleading, though, as the middle two seem to share a highest point (Ben Macdui), which sort of implies that they overlap, like a massive cartographic Venn diagram.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

top, sorted, mad for it

Footnote to my previous post - despite being the largest and most impressive area of high ground in the county, the Long Mynd is not the highest point in Shropshire - the Stiperstones are a bit higher for a start, and the highest point is actually the top of Brown Clee Hill over the other side of Wenlock Edge. Which got me to thinking, and, during the thinking process, finding this Wikipedia page listing the highest points in each county in England.

My recommendation is to click on the Type heading on the right and ignore the ones marked as "unitary", as that's just a bit silly (it would, for instance, require you to recognise Milton Keynes as a county in its own right). Of the ones which I deem to be "proper" counties, I've stood on the highest points of surprisingly few, specifically Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon and Oxfordshire.

Maybe I should try and do the rest (although some of them look deeply unimpressive) - I reckon there might be a book in it, you know. Maybe I should pitch it to a publisher - it's no more stupid a premise for a travel book than McCarthy's Bar or Round Ireland With A Fridge, for fuck's sake.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mynd blowing

Momentous events at the weekend as our good friends Doug and Anna got married in Shrewsbury. As I was on best man duty I didn't have any spare time to take pictures, so those will have to wait for a bit. In the meantime, Hazel and I decided to break up our journey back by staying over in Church Stretton (15 miles or so south of Shrewsbury).

Needless to say as it was a nice day on Monday I persuaded Hazel that we should go up on top of the Long Mynd, which we did, and very nice too. Some photos can be found here.

The Long Mynd, the nearby Stiperstones and various other local landmarks feature heavily in the books of Malcolm Saville, which I used to read obsessively when I was younger - similar I suppose to Arthur Ransome's more famous Swallows and Amazons series in that they feature a recurring cast of characters and are set in an instantly recognisable part of the country (the Lake District in Ransome's case). And yet I could never get into the Ransome books, while I thought the Savilles were brilliant.

the last book I read

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

It's been a long time since I did one of these - by my calculations 65 days since the last one. This is (because, needless to say, I have gone and done the maths) comfortably the longest gap between books since I started doing this - the previous record-holder being Margaret Drabble's A Natural Curiosity which took me 42 days to read. This works out at a pitiful 3.97 pages per day, which is pretty piss-poor compared with, for instance, my knocking off the 316 pages of Barbara Trapido's Juggling in 2 days.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is my reduced opportunities for reading now that I'm driving to and from work, as discussed here. The other is that some books are just more difficult to read than others, without that being intended to imply any judgment as to their relative quality. A novel about recognisably modern events written in recognisable modern English is going to slip down a lot more digestibly than a book published in the early 1930s (and set a couple of decades earlier) about rural Scottish farming life written in broad (and occasionally incomprehensible) Anglo-Scots demotic.

The fictional community of Kinraddie is in the north-east of Scotland, and is home to a wide cast of characters, including the novel's de facto heroine Chris Guthrie. The 20th century (it's 1911 when the novel opens) is making its presence felt, and the new opportunities offered by motorised transport, increased social mobility and easier access to education are eroding the old certainties and providing Chris and others with a dilemma - stay and work the land like her parents, or go and see what the newly accessible wider world has to offer. Chris is torn between her love of books and learning and her love of the land, but decides to stay on the farm, at which point the obligatory disasters occur: her mother kills herself and her two youngest children, her father has what appears to be a stroke and dies, and her brother marries a local girl and then ups sticks and emigrates to Argentina to start a new life there.

At this point Chris meets and subsequently marries Highlander Ewan Tavendale, and they take over the running of the farm. Brief happiness ensues, but then World War I breaks out, and gradually, despite the community's isolation, starts to have an impact. Ewan eventually enlists and returns, brutalised by army life, for a brief - unhappy - visit before being packed off to France, where he is eventually shot as a deserter. The book ends with Chris engaged to be remarried to the new minister, who dedicates a memorial to those who have died during the war.
So far, so grim, but it isn't as bleak as it sounds. The most surprising thing about the book is how modern it all feels - the strong female central character, the obvious sympathy with the free-thinking iconoclastic characters like Long Rob of the Mill and Chae Strachan, the mistrust of authority in general and organised religion in particular, and the robust and unflinching treatment of subjects like sex and childbirth.

The language is a bit of a challenge at first; you can either keep one finger stuck in the brief glossary at the back for quick reference, or you can let it wash over you and gradually soak up the rhythm of it like you have to with the Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. It's not easy, and it takes a bit of time, but, just to turn into my grandfather for a moment, sometimes worthwhile stuff takes a bit of effort. I might plump for something a bit easier next though, just for a bit of contrast.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

distinctly average

Great catch by Dominic Lawson in today's Independent: Don Bradman would have been 99.94 years old today. I wonder if that's the most recognisable number in sport? I suppose the Americans might make a case for 714 or 755, though those records have both since been surpassed now; I'd bet pretty much everything I own that Bradman's record will never be approached, let alone surpassed, by anyone.

The article makes reference to the notorious Bodyline series and the theory that Bradman was afraid of fast short-pitched bowling. Whatever the truth of this, it's worth pointing out that Bradman still topped the Australian batting averages for the series, his 56.57 being nearly 14 runs more than the next man, Stan McCabe. According to Wikipedia McCabe died after falling from a cliff near his home after attempting to dispose of a dead possum, which sounds a bit careless.

Quick follow-up to my previous post - I was half-right about Virender Sehwag's record-setting innings: India's 329 is the lowest completed innings to include a double-century, but the previous record was 344 (including 202 not out from Len Hutton) by England in 1950.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Kevin help us all

A brief cricket round-up following this week's excitement:
  • Michael Vaughan's departure following South Africa's thrilling victory at Edgbaston was pretty much inevitable - as Jonathan Agnew rightly points out it was his own personal lack of runs rather than problems with his captaincy per se that did for him in the end. I'd have been inclined to give the job to Andrew Strauss, as he led England pretty well to victory over Pakistan in 2006 and should have been captain for the Ashes series that followed. But I can see why they've given Kevin Pietersen the job - they'd stated a preference for having the same captain for both Test and one-day sides, and he's the only guy who is a dead cert for both teams.
  • Mark Ramprakash finally made his hundredth hundred with an innings of 112 not out at the fag-end of a drawn game between Surrey and Yorkshire; his total of 676 innings to reach the figure slots him in at eighth-fastest on the list of 25. Incidentally the Cricinfo article listing Ramprakash's predecessors waxes somewhat hyperbolic about Geoff Boycott making his 100th 100 in his 100th Test match - actually it was his 65th Test match (his 100th being at Lord's against Australia in 1981 - one of the first Tests I remember watching on television).
  • Virender Sehwag produced another of his trademark innings with 201 not out for India against Sri Lanka in Galle - I haven't been able to confirm it conclusively, but I'm pretty sure that the Indian first innings total of 329 is the lowest completed Test innings to include a double-century; I think the previous record-holder was Graeme Pollock's 209 out of a total of 353 for South Africa against Australia in 1967. Sehwag also extended his record of successive 150+ scores to eleven.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

what I did at the weekend

Just got back from a weekend up in Snowdonia, where the lovely Hazel and I climbed some mountains. Specifically, we went up Snowdon on Friday, and did a traverse of the Glyder ridge on Saturday.

We stayed at a campsite near Beddgelert run by the excellent Forest Holidays - this provides easy access to the western flank of Snowdon. We started by catching a steam train run by the Welsh Highland Railway from the station at Rhyd Ddu which dropped us off at the halt by the Snowdon Ranger youth hostel. From there we went up the Snowdon Ranger path and down the Rhyd Ddu path to the Cwellyn Arms pub in Rhyd Ddu village. This is the same route as we took for our training run for the Three Peaks Challenge in June 2006, though weather conditions were slightly different, to say the least, as you can see from the two pictures below, both taken by the finger of rock which marks the point where the Snowdon Ranger path joins the main path to the summit.

On the Saturday we drove over to Llyn Ogwen and went up on the Glyder ridge, in somewhat better weather. We started off up Y Garn (3107 feet) and then went eastwards along the ridge over Glyder Fawr (3278 feet) and Glyder Fach (3261 feet). We missed the path down the ridge towards Tryfan so there was a bit of undignified scrambling down a scree gully before we got down to Llyn Bochlwyd, also known as Lake Australia, because it looks uncannily like a map of Australia - look:

Pictures can be found here.