Friday, August 27, 2010

what the hell are we supposed to use, man - harsh language?

I haven't had such an enjoyably cathartic session of bellowing OH FUCK OFF at the radio for quite some time as I did this morning on the way to work, so I'll share it with you. Jim Naughtie's interviewee on the Today programme was Dr. Tom Wright, the current Bishop of Durham. I must have missed the bit where it was explained why he was on, i.e. why his views were specifically newsworthy today, but basically the thrust of his argument seemed to be that actually the received wisdom about society gradually getting less and less religious is incorrect, and that actually people are getting more religious, though perhaps in a sort of secret private way involving stopping going to church so that to the hopelessly naïve observer, bless 'em, it might appear that people are abandoning religion. Not a bit of it, though. Also, that whole enlightenment thing hasn't really worked out, has it? I mean, yes, the electric screwdriver, cancer drugs, kidney transplants, computers, digital watches, all that rubbish, but really it's been a nice but ultimately failed experiment, and instead of all this empirical rationalism nonsense what we really need in these troubled and difficult times is to go back to getting our knowledge about the world from a beardy bloke in a dress. Also, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Obviously that was enough to make the blood boil, but there were a couple of other specific things that are absolutely guaranteed to cause some sort of bile embolism - firstly the refusal to answer a direct question if it's in any way awkward to do so, and to refuse to do so in a tweedily chuckly indulgent Eagletonesque sort of way, as if patting a well-meaning but errant schoolboy on the head as he vainly struggles to understand an algebra problem that's beyond his ability to grasp. Wright even went so far as to say that what the church needed to do was return to a rich tradition of storytelling (cf Jesus' parables) rather than get sucked into discussions it didn't want to have with people not necessarily well-disposed towards it, in other words instead of ANSWERING THE FUCKING QUESTION just wave your hands around and make some waffly old shit up about loaves and fishes or passing through the eye of a camel or something like that. That'll help.

Secondly, almost the first thing he did was to disparagingly refer to critics of religion (and specifically Richard Dawkins, as it always is) as "shrill". This is very interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly because for all his faults one thing Dawkins is not is "shrill", he's always rather softly-spoken and donnish and Englishly polite, a little too much for his own good sometimes. Not that Wright really thinks of Dawkins as "shrill", mind you; this is just a classic bit of othering and well-poisoning - subtly conflate the notions of "shrill, aggressive, unreasonable" with "any criticism of religion" and you have a means to shut down discussion without having to engage with it. Think back a few years. Who remembers the feminist pioneers like Germaine Greer being described as "shrill" in their demands for equal rights? More recently, remember the same word was applied to Hillary Clinton once it became clear she might have had a shot at the Presidency? Think back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. You know, we might be prepared to accommodate those uppity niggras, if only they weren't so goddamn shrill. You know, demandin' stuff and shit? Why can't they just ask nicely, so we can ignore them?

Sometimes I feel optimism about progress being made, and sometimes I hear shit like this and I think, no, just take off, nuke the entire place from orbit; it's the only way to be sure.

[Note: this is an image-free post as Blogger's image-uploading facility appears currently to be broken. Some of the images in old posts aren't displaying properly either. I'm sure they've got their best people on it.][Stop press: seems to be fixed now.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

fry's hungarian deceit

If you watch Dave enough then you will eventually end up watching every episode of QI ever recorded, several times, in a random order (same goes for Mock The Week and Top Gear, among others). While doing this the other day I happened across an episode (series 2, episode 12) where Stephen Fry was describing the odd speech patterns of his Hungarian grandfather, and in particular the bizarre way he used to pronounce "pineapple upside-down cake":
My grandfather always used to call Pythagoras "Peter Gorus," 'cause he was Hungarian, my grandfather. And he said [as his grandfather], "Ah, you go to school; you learn about Peter Gorus!" And I said, "Who is this Peter Gorus?" And I remember saying . . . and I came home, and he said, "Did you do the Peter Gorus?" I said, no, we'd not done any Peter Gorus. He said, "Go . . . go to your . . . ask your mathematics teacher. He must do the Peter Gorus!" And I said, "Are we going to do Peter Gorus?" He'd go, [dismissive] "Shut up, Fry. What do you--" Years later, I discovered he meant "Pythagoras"! He used to pronounce "pineapple upside-down cake" "piniople opshiden-dovne tsoke".
This (here's the clip) struck me as fishy, and here's why: several years back I read a fascinating biography of the legendary Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős (it's by Paul Hoffman and it's called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, if you want to check it out), and in that book it is described how Erdős learnt English from a series of books, but with no audible reference material, i.e. little guidance as to correct pronunciation, and therefore applied his native Hungarian pronunciation rules instead, resulting in some oddities. The example given in the book was of how Erdős would pronounce the phrase "pineapple upside-down cake", and it's pretty much as per the QI version; see for yourself (on page 87):

So I suggest the following as possible explanations for this:
  • coincidence. This seems unlikely, and would additionally suggest the Hungarians have some inbuilt genetic racial fetish for suet-rich 1970s desserts;
  • Stephen Fry read TMWLON (quite plausible), and decided that the story was so good (and that few enough people would have read the book that he'd be able to get away with it) that he'd nick it and append it to the (probably true, for all I know) existing Peter Gorus story for comic effect;
  • slightly more charitably, Stephen Fry read TMWLON and susequently the two stories of eccentric Hungarian pronunciation got melded together in his head and ended up both attributed to his grandfather;
  • slightly more implausibly, Paul Hoffman attended some social function with Fry, prior to 1998 when the book was published, and nicked the story in the opposite direction;
  • finally, both men nicked the story from a third, earlier, comedy Hungarian stereotype and adapted it to their own nefarious ends.
I know what I think, but make up your own mind.

Just to go off at a slight tangent, Paul Erdős, who was one of the most prolific mathematicians of this or any other century, had so many collaborators on various mathematical papers over the years that someone was obliged to invent the concept of the Erdős number to keep track of his huge network of collaborators. Basically an Erdős number of 1 means that you personally co-authored a paper with Erdős at some point, an Erdős number of 2 means you co-authored a paper with someone who co-authored a paper with Erdős, and so on. This provides an amusing (and slightly more fusty and academic) parallel to the concept of a Bacon number, which arises as a corollary of the game Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon, the equivalent concept here being appearing in a film with Kevin Bacon. This is turn gives rise to the concept of an Erdős-Bacon number, something granted (as you can imagine) only to a very small number of people, including some rather unlikely ones such as Natalie Portman.

Finally, here's that pineapple upside-down cake recipe you were wanting. I won't be trying it as I loathe pineapple upside-down cake, comically pronounced or otherwise.

Monday, August 23, 2010

the last book I read

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban.

Kleinzeit is an advertising copywriter; or at least he is for the first couple of pages until he gets sacked for proposing an off-the-wall advertising campaign for Bonzo toothpaste (one that is about as well-received as Reggie Perrin's idea for strawberry lychee ripple ice cream). Thereafter he is afflicted with a series of sudden shooting pains that land him in hospital.

The doctors recommend a series of tests on Kleinzeit's hypotenuse, which are soon extended to his asymptotes and his stretto. Here is our first indication that things are not as they seem, or perhaps just that none of this is meant to be taken too literally or seriously. Soon Kleinzeit is falling in love with a sexy night sister from his ward, making regular escapes to lurk round the London Underground, write cryptic things on yellow paper (a recurring theme), busk with a glockenspiel and then return to hospital to be reunited with the strange characters from the ward. All the time he is conducting an internal dialogue with various portentously-named entities like Hospital, Word, Action and Death, and also reading excerpts from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and reflecting on the relevance of certain episodes to his own life, while conducting a discreet affair with the ward sister and having occasional relapses which result in his readmittance to hospital. Eventually, having resisted the medical staff's efforts to get him to agree to the surgical removal of various fictional organs, he leaves hospital permanently, seemingly cured, though still having occasional conversations with Death just to remind him of the transience of all things, or something like that.

That makes it all sound very silly, and in a way it is, but in a purposeful way. It's clear very early on that this is a comic fantasy and that we shouldn't expect cause to follow effect or for any of the normal rules to apply. Because that's made so clear early doors, the subsequent authorial intervention and metafictional dicking about is not an unpleasant surprise. In that sense it's very much like Invisible Cities, though less episodic and fragmented. I enjoyed it very much, anyway.

Hoban is an interesting character: an expatriate American, he's lived in London since the late 1960s. He started off writing (and illustrating) children's books, but later moved on to writing adult fiction, something surprisingly few authors have done successfully - Penelope Lively is the other obvious example that springs to mind. Hoban also seems to inspire extraordinary devotion and loyalty among his fans, to a frankly slightly scary degree.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

why not visit our museum for a short period

By another not-at-all-spooky-if-you-actually-think-about-it coincidence, here's CRACKED.COM's list of the 7 Most Horrifying Museums On Earth. It doesn't include the Ten Courts Of Hell, but then again that's not exactly a museum in any meaningful sense. I'm not sure the Museum of Menstruation really is either, actually. It seems to me to be not so much a museum, more a desperate cry for help. I should also warn you that CRACKED is probably behind only TV Tropes and crystal meth for addictiveness, so don't come crying to me if you suddenly find four hours of your life has disappeared.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

so be good for goodness sake

Following my shocking revelations about permanent mental scarring and occasional explosive bed-wetting following a chance childhood viewing of the public information film The Finishing Line, I took another trip into Things Best Left Un-Remembered the other day after a bit of random link-following brought me to this page describing the world's most hilariously rubbish tourist attractions. As far as I know I've only been to one of them (the Sex Museum in Amsterdam) - although we did live in South Korea for a while (July 1975 to December 1976 in fact) our parents evidently felt we were a bit young to be exposed to the giant stone genitalia and other sex-based delights at Love Land. Probably just as well; six-foot-high concrete labia might have freaked me out a bit at the tender age of five.

Just as an aside, based on my own travels I would suggest the addition of the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick and the Lamp Museum in Bruges (which "shows the captivating history of interior lighting"; fantastic) to this list. But the first thing that sprung to mind (possibly prompted by the amateurish concrete sculptures in Love Land) was a visit to the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore on our way to Indonesia in late 1978.

There are three Tiger Balm Gardens in the world: one in Singapore, one in Hong Kong and one in China, all conceived and funded by the Chinese family who owned the company responsible for making Tiger Balm, a sort of Oriental Deep Heat, originally containing actual extract of tiger (but not any more - it's political correctness gone mad). Anyway, each park seems to be a similarly garish kitscharama of brightly coloured concrete figures meant to illustrate some aspect of Chinese folklore, the USP of the Singapore establishment (which is now called Haw Par Villa) being the inclusion of a section called (echoey rumbling film voice-over guy voice) The Ten Courts Of Hell! This is a fantastically gruesome series of tableaux depicting the punishments meted out for various sins (a sort of Seven Deadly Sins/Dante's Inferno combo, only Chinese); these include the usual disembowelings and dismemberment as well as some more imaginative stuff - being ground into mince by being crushed between two grindstones is the one that sticks in the mind. It's all decorated with lavish red paint spattering and much evil grinning and Fu Manchu moustache-wearing from those administering the punishments. Quite an eye-opener for an eight-and-a-half-year-old I can tell you; to be fair I think our parents wandered in there with us without really realising what we were about to experience. Like The Finishing Line it was the incongruity and abruptness of the transition from something seemingly cuddly and harmless and predictable into some sort of shrieking acid nightmare that made the whole thing so memorably weird. Check out this photo gallery.

It all makes the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's (which now seems to have been rebranded as Scream!, just in case "Chamber of Horrors" was a bit ambiguous for you) look pretty tame in comparison. When I went there a few years after the Tiger Balm Gardens experience (I would have been early- to mid-teens I suppose) I remember being a bit disappointed not to find any actual gouging and flaying action being depicted, and certainly a much more restrained usage of the red paint. On the positive side, since for the most part the exhibits aren't meant to depict anyone in particular (or at least no-one I'd recognise to look at) they're less prone to the hang-on-this-is-a-rubbish-likeness thing that pretty much all the actual Tussaud's celebrity exhibits suffer from.

Monday, August 09, 2010

vexilological vexation

So I was trawling through Wikipedia, as you do, trying to find a suitable link to attach to my tangential mention of the Irish flag for that last book review. On the way there I stopped off at the general page for tricolour flags of all nations, and on scrolling down to the Irish flag noticed how different the proportions seemed to be from the Italian flag next to it, and the Belgian flag above it. Just a bit of careless image manipulation, I thought, but not a bit of it; in addition to the usual specifications about which colours to put where and which way up to hang it each nation's flag bears some specific instructions about what you might call the aspect ratio as well.

Now you might assume (as I did) that these will all be the same, but, again, not a bit of it; while there are some commonly-used ratios there are more variations than you can shake a stick at:
  • The good old Union Flag has an aspect ratio of 1:2, as do many other flags including the aforementioned Irish one, and also Azerbaijan, Croatia and Ethiopia.
  • Lots of others have the slightly squarer ratio of 2:3, including lots of the standard European stalwarts like France, Italy and Romania.
  • Lots more use the pretty similar 3:5 ratio, including those dastardly Germans, but also many more such as Lithuania and Paraguay, and also the St. George's flag, which means they have to stretch it horizontally by 20% to make it fit on the Union Flag.
2:3 and 3:5 seem to be the most common ones, with 1:2 not far behind. My theory is that these are the two simple ratios that most closely approximate the golden section, with all the mythical flim-flam about it being most pleasing to the eye, and all that tommyrot. Plenty of others are available, though, including (in rough, but by no means exact, progression from squarer to rectangularer):
A quick burst of general flag trivia to finish - since I'm not "flagging" yet, hahahahaha:
  • Libya's is the only flag to be just a solid block of colour (it's green)
  • Wales, Bhutan and Malta have dragons on theirs
  • Moldova, Saudi Arabia and Paraguay are the only double-sided flags, i.e. where designs on obverse and reverse differ
  • Nepal's is the only one that isn't rectangular

Sunday, August 08, 2010

the last book I read

Amongst Women by John McGahern.

Moran is an ex-IRA soldier (who served in the Irish Civil War, we're invited to assume) now settled into a cantankerous middle-to-old age on the family farm near the Northern Irish border (here, or possibly here). Remarried late in life to his second wife, Rose, he lives at the farm with his three daughters Mona, Maggie and Sheila and son Michael, elder son Luke having decamped to London before the novel starts.

Your classic Celtic patriarchal tyrant, Moran is simultaneously obsessed with his and the family's appearance and position within the close-knit local community, and in a state of permanent disappointment with his family in private, their failure to conform to his notions (ingrained in him by his military service no doubt) of appropriate respect, obedience, decorum, tidiness and religious observance (the book's title being a nod to the Hail Mary) invoking a near-permanent state of frustrated rage. As with any abusive relationship where the protagonists are yoked together by a collective mutual dependency this results in a situation where the objects of his ire (Rose and the children) are pathetically grateful for the occasional kind word of acknowledgement or praise.

Eventually, as the girls move through their teens into adulthood, they drift off to Dublin and jobs and marriage, and Michael (the youngest) is left in the house with just his father and step-mother for company. His separation is more troubled, a physical brawl with his father leading to his running away to Dublin and thence (with some collusion from the girls) to London.

So a bog-standard bog-trotting Irish family saga, then, complete with rain and potatoes and Guinness and misery. Well, no, it's not quite like that. Moran's IRA background isn't as much of a feature as you might think (nor indeed as much as the blurb on the back of my Faber paperback edition implies), it really just provides a bit of context for the I-fought-in-two-world-wars-so-you-could-have-those-Rice-Krispies parental annoyance at the kids' lack of appropriate deference and respect. It's also made quite clear early on that Moran doesn't touch alcohol, so there's no suggestion of the whiskey-fuelled Oi'll-morder-de-pair-o-yez red mist as explanation or excuse for his actions (there's also no suggestion of any physical violence against Rose or the girls). It's really an exploration of some pretty universal themes (explored in a gentler and less aggressively Celtic way in The Levels, among other places) of parents resenting the economic, social and sexual freedoms available to their children (and unavailable to them), the grinding teenage resentment of one's parents combined with the continuing dependence upon them for food, shelter and other basic stuff, the necessity eventually to escape one's parents in order to start liking them again and the general trauma involved all round in doing so. The point about Ireland is that the stifling social norms described here persisted for quite a bit longer than elsewhere in the UK (and probably continue to do so in more rural areas) - the novel is very non-specific about when it's set, but if we're to assume Moran was a Civil War soldier (and not implausibly ancient when he eventually dies at the end) then the 1960s would seem sbout right.

So while the jacket blurb and the whacking great Irish tricolour on the front cover might suggest something impenetrably dry and political, it's actually a pretty intimate family saga. Like some other slim volumes in this series, all the authorial sweat that was surely expended to whittle it down to 180-odd economically-written pages is invisible to the reader. And only those raised by wolves would fail to nod in recognition at some aspects of the picture of family life portrayed here.

And now the prizegiving formalities: Amongst Women was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1990, as was The Gate Of Angels (AS Byatt's Possession won that year), it also won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award and the Guinness Peat Aviation Award, the prizegiving ceremony for which presumably involves the winning author being presented with a pint of Guinness, into which someone then drops a lump of peat from a passing aeroplane.

Friday, August 06, 2010

you like that don't you

Always nice to see a bit of reciprocal linkage, particularly on sites I actually like; it's sort of like a cyberspatial reach-around. So it's pleasing to discover the mighty Language Log not only linking to one of my humble posts, but mentioning me by name as well. Aw, shucks. Yeah, I know it was back in January, but I've only just found it.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

next week: mild rimming with joan bakewell

I blame my Facebook friends again: when Steve mentioned that he'd come across (so to speak) a programme called Wild Swimming With Alice Roberts on BBC4 I had a struggle with my conscience of approximately 30 seconds duration before popping off to iPlayer to have a look.

What I can tell you, having done that, is that while it purports to be a celebration of the late Roger Deakin's book Waterlog, which describes a trip round Britain communing with nature in some slightly mystical way by swimming in various murky pools and rivers in the usual variable British weather, it is in fact an hour-long thinking man's crumpet wank fantasy starring the lovely Dr. Alice donning various wetsuits and skimpier swimming costumes and plunging into some of the weed-entangled waterholes that her predecessor visited. Those who can't hold out for the full hour might like to skip to around 23:30 where Alice takes a series of cold showers to acclimatise, and thence to around 5 minutes from the end where Alice finds a secluded tarn in the Lake District for a coyly photographed skinny dip, complete with much invigorated panting afterwards.

I'm not sure this Metro article's references to "stroking out in rivers" and "following in the breast-stroked ripples" are a slyly mocking reference to the BBC's move into pseudo-intellectual porn, or just some unintentional fnarr fnarr moments. Speaking of which, having first misread the title of the series Extreme Fishing with Robson Green by mentally swapping the "h" for a "t" I was never able to bring myself to actually watch it, just in case. Needless to say I'm not the only person to have made this mistake.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

an elephant's head couped gules, armed or

Couple of things I spotted while being entertained by the good people at the BBC over the last few days:
  • Firstly, on one of my mid-morning trips to Tesco today I caught some of Woman's Hour on Radio 4 and noticed they were doing a dramatisation of Isabel Colegate's The Shooting Party, featured here not so long ago. It took me a few minutes to realise it wasn't The Archers, though, admittedly.
  • Also, I was catching up on a couple of old episodes of University Challenge last night and noticed that one of the questions was about the derivation of names of some London main-line railway stations; one of the stations was Elephant & Castle and the programme gave the usual story about it being a corruption of "Infanta de Castile". Trouble is, this lovely plausible story is almost certainly completely made up, the most plausible actual explanation being that it is connected to emblems of London craft guilds, and cutlers in particular. The odd coincidence here is that I was unaware that the usual story is pretty spurious until a week or so ago, when I was moved to look it up for reasons I can't now remember. Spooky? Well, no.
  • Just to piss on your chips a bit more, it turns out that the explanation everyone knows for pubs being called The Goat And Compasses (i.e. that it's a corruption of "God Encompasseth Us" or something similarly prayer-y) has a similarly tenuous link with reality, the real explanation probably being craft guild emblems again. A little crumb of comfort can be gleaned from gaining the knowledge that the word "chevron" derives from the Latin for "goat" (cf the French chèvre), as does the word "caper" in the sense of running about like an arse. Or acting the goat, if you will.