Monday, January 30, 2012

the last book I read

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut.

Frank Eloff is a South African doctor working at a delapidated hospital in one of the old apartheid-era homelands. Now that, post-apartheid, these artifical entities have been abandoned, the hospital finds itself largely abandoned, with little for Frank and his colleagues to do, And just as well, in a way, as their pitifully small staff and even more pitiful stock of medical supplies (basically a cupboard full of condoms and a few aspirin) mean that they can only provide the most basic level of medical care anyway, any more serious cases having to go to the better-equipped hospital in the nearest town.

So it's a bit of a dead-end job for Frank, but that's OK with him - having originally fled out there to escape the trauma of his (soon to be ex-) wife running off with one of his best friends he's settled into a nice little rut now as second-in-command to the equally unambitious Dr. Ngema. The only other staff are a married couple of Cuban doctors, and a few native orderlies and handymen.

So it's something of a surprise when Laurence Waters turns up, all young and fresh-faced and gung-ho about Making A Difference and all that sort of stuff, still more so when it emerges that he's actually volunteered to come to this particular establishment, rather than seek a placement at a more luxurious urban hospital. Much to Frank's chagrin it also becomes clear that he's going to be sharing Frank's room, the hospital being long on rooms but short on furniture to go in them.

So the two doctors strike up an uneasy friendship, Laurence's puppyish enthusiasm tempered by Frank's pessimism and apathy. Laurence drags Frank along on a trip out into the bush to check out the possibility of running mobile clinics, and Frank drags Laurence along to the local bar, where the first inklings of trouble are felt - Frank recognises one of the officers in a group of soldiers in the bar, a man he had met during the bad old days of the apartheid regime when he was a young doctor who'd been dragged into a military interrogation room to assess whether a black "interviewee" was in a fit state for further questioning (the implication being that these were the sort of questions delivered with the toe-cap of a boot and various other blunt instruments).

Further complications ensue - Laurence's black girlfriend Zanele (who Frank had assumed was African, but turns out to be an American whose real name is Linda) turns up, and Frank, having been charged with entertaining her for the night, ends the evening by sleeping with her. During the same night out Frank and Zanele have also had a strange encounter with the Brigadier, a remnant of the ruling structure of the old homeland regime. But what is he doing still hanging around? Come to that, what are all those soldiers in the bar doing in town?

Then a chance trip to native handyman Tehogo's room to return some music tapes reveals to Frank that Tehogo has been stealing metal pipework and the like from the hospital, presumably to sell on as scrap. Frank, unwilling as ever to stick his head above the parapet, decides against taking the information to Dr. Ngemba, but makes the mistake of telling Laurence, whose uncompromising moral certainty means that he does tell her. By this time, of course, all the evidence has been got rid of, so nothing can be done, but an unpleasant atmosphere is caused, with resentful rumblings about racism. Eventually the simmering undercurrent of violence breaks through, as Tehogo is mysteriously shot, and then, after the doctors have struggled to save him, abducted in the dead of night, and Laurence with him. But who has done this? Frank's old army acquaintance? The Brigadier's people? And why?

The answer to all those questions is: I dunno, really. Certainly the air of futility and decay after the dismantling of the structure that, however evil, gave the hospital and community a reason to exist is very well drawn, as is the still-present danger of doing something to offend the military authorities and being mysteriously "disappeared" never to be seen again, but it's not entirely clear what conclusions we're meant to draw from the climactic events here. Laurence, as the innocent abroad blundering around with the best of intentions and unleashing all sorts of disaster in his wake, is very reminiscent of Pyle from The Quiet American, with Frank playing the world-weary Fowler role. We never really get inside his head, though, and the episode with Zanele is strangely perfunctory - after their night-time adventures (of various kinds, indoor and outdoor) she pretty much disappears from the story, and Laurence never finds out about Frank's betrayal. So while it's nicely written and the subject matter is interesting, it's slightly uninvolving. It is considerably more linear than Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, though, with which it shares a setting (although that was set while the apartheid regime was still in place); on the other hand it's less ambitious, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.

The Good Doctor was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, the year the prize was won by DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little. The only other book I've read from that year's list is Zoƫ Heller's Notes on a Scandal.

so, OK, no religion....wait, what was the first bit again?

Let's not imagine, even for a moment, that Really Bad Ideas are the sole preserve of the religious, goodness me no. Just when you think we're all on board with the whole abandonment of religion thing (as a component part of a triumphal march of progress towards rationality and empiricism in a more general sense) someone who should in theory be on the right side suddenly pipes up and demonstrates that they just Haven't Got It At All.

Case in point: Alain de Botton's recent publicity binge in promotion of his truly unspeakably appalling idea of having a giant monument to atheism built, a sort of Atheist Temple if you will. It should be noted that de Botton has some previous in this area, having previously argued that we should adopt lots of the rituals of religion in a sort of pick'n'mix stylee, you know, a Jewish bread-making ceremony here, a Catholic bring'n'buy sale there, a clambake and genital mutilation workshop every alternate Sunday, that sort of thing. Because unless we do we will literally be soulless dead-eyed automatons, or, worse still, Richard Dawkins.

Note in the video how he sneakily equates religion and morality a couple of times, and slips in words like "spirituality" without doing that thing that all right-thinking people do when they hear the word - you know, that instinctive shoving of the tongue down into the gap between the lower teeth and the lower lip and then the grunting straining noises and the frantic head-slapping with alternate hands. NNNGGGSPIRITUALITYNNNGGGGHHHH *slappetyslappetyslap*. You know, that thing.

I suppose this is another Bill Maher-esque stopped clock right twice a day thing, in that obviously de Botton is right about the God not existing bit, but wrong about pretty much everything else. He also sets off various of my finely calibrated arsehole alarms by decrying Dawkins and others' "aggressive" and "destructive" approach towards religious belief. This is particularly ill-timed at the tail-end of a couple of weeks of quite concentrated evil religious apeshittery which throws into sharp relief people pointing out that made up stuff is, well, made up stuff. Frankly the more aggressive and destructive we all are towards that shit the better.

It hardly needs stating that all this ritual-observance and temple-building bullshit plays right into the hands of those who trot out the line that "atheism is just another religion", and is therefore quite obviously a huge own goal. What the hell do we need a temple for anyway? There are monuments to empiricism and rationality everywhere, indeed if it were not for empiricism and rationality there would be no monuments of any kind anywhere higher than you could slop together with a bit of wattle and daub and a couple of dead squirrels. What do you think enabled the guys who built Salisbury Cathedral to work out how high they could build the spire without it collapsing under its own weight? Faith? Fuck off.

There's my temple to atheism, right there. Made in Scotland. From girders.

Monday, January 23, 2012

the last book I read

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks.

So here we are again, back in the AI-moderated anarcho-utopia of the Culture. You'll remember from previous visits their technological advancedness and their tendency to get involved and try to massage the development of other (small-c) cultures into directions they deem desirable, with sometimes mixed results.

Well, they've been at it again here - a long-ago skirmish during the war with the Idirans (sort of giant sentient armoured tortoises, as featured in the first Culture novel Consider Phlebas) resulted in the deliberate detonation of a couple of stars, with the inevitable attendant gigadeaths, and now the light from those detonations is about to reach Masaq', one of the Culture's Orbitals. This has been turned into the excuse for a bit of a cultural jamboree, as if to (slightly smugly) acknowledge the Culture's occasional propensity for mistakes, while at the same time revelling in their ability to throw a party and the fact that, as a civilisation that has ascended to the enviable heights of permanent leisure for all and dispensed with bourgeois notions like money and possessions, no-one has to get up to go to work in the morning.

Not everyone views the Culture as an unequivocally benign and civilising influence, though: the Chelgrians have been nursing a grudge for a while after a bit of well-intentioned Culture meddling to try and persuade them to dispense with their barbaric caste system backfired. The Chelgrians are a bunch of bipedal cat/fox/marsupial types (well, apart from the vestigial extra limb in the middle of the body which I've never seen a cat have), broadly civilised but with their predatory past a bit more recent in evolutionary terms than the Culture's inhabitants and therefore more of an inclination to hang on to outmoded notions like honour and revenge.

One of the most famous Chelgrians, Mahrai Ziller, a composer, is a resident of Masaq' Orbital, having fled there from Chel during the caste wars. Another Chelgrian, Major Quilan, has been sent on a mission to Masaq', ostensibly to try to persuade Ziller to return home, but in fact on a deadly mission so secret EVEN HE DOESN'T KNOW WHAT IT IS!!! Yes, it's The Chelgrian Candidate. Quilan's mission is more wide-ranging than just popping a cap in a politician's ass, though; he's planning (well, once he gets his memory back) to blow up the Hub's controlling Mind and kill about five billion people, thereby taking roughly proportionate revenge for the Chelgrians killed during the Culture's ham-fisted intervention.

This is probably the most straightforward Culture novel since The Player Of Games, all of the intervening ones - Use Of Weapons, Excession, Inversions - depicting events on the outer limits of the Culture's society in one way or another. The crazy physical geography of the Orbital is very well realised, as are the day-to-day dilemmas of its inhabitants - not the sort of mundane concerns that you and I have to put up with, but more esoteric stuff like where to go hang-gliding next, what sort of body you want to be reincarnated in should you accidentally hang-glide into a live volcano, and indeed whether it's worth even attempting any physical or artistic endeavour anyway given that with a snap of the fingers you could get an AI Mind to do it far better and quicker than you could ever hope to do.

Portraying non-humanoid aliens is always tricky, and though Banks tries to load the dice in his favour here by having Kabe Ischloear, the Homomdan, be the most rational and level-headed non-AI character in the book, a ten-foot tripedal pyramid who occasionally gets mistaken for an item of modern sculpture is a tricky sell, recalling as it does Douglas Adams' hyperintelligent shade of the colour blue. The Chelgrians are a bit more successfully realised, and he manages to make the tortured Quilan a fairly sympathetic character, despite his intention of committing planet-scale genocide. What's missing is any real suspense, though, the Culture's AI Minds being so clever as to almost eliminate even the slightest possibility that Quilan's scheme could ever succeed, though what Masaq' Hub does with the knowledge is perhaps slightly unexpected.

A couple of other quibbles: it's not entirely clear what the point of the episodes on the airsphere planet is, other than for Banks to have some fun with the gargantuan dirigible behemothaurs (giant sentient alien hot-air balloons, basically) that roam its atmosphere. And presumably the couple of teasers featuring the female Chelgrian assassin who turns out to be a cloud of nanobots from an unknown civilisation (who, we're invited to infer, have manipulated the Chelgrians for their own ends) will be revisited in future books. And the business with the "hilarious" spaceship names really isn't as funny as Banks seems to think it is.

Overall it's as rollickingly good fun as all the other Culture books, though, with the usual crafty swipes at organised religion. There's a bit of techno-geekery as well, but you can skim over those bits to get to the actual plot. Overall I'd say it's better than Excession, but not as good as Inversions.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

they have websites for EVERYTHING nowadays

Here's a couple of amusing items I've snapped on my handy phone-camera recently. Firstly I strayed into Clas Ohlson in the shiny new St. David's Centre in Cardiff back before Christmas - it's a sort of low-rent IKEA with more gadgety stuff and less ridiculously-named furniture. Anyway, I found myself in front of a display of electronic gadgetry and spotted this:

Yes, that's right, it's an AsaKlitt PedoMeter. I know, I know, it's puerile schoolboy humour, but that's what you come here for. Just in case it's not clear enough, here's a zoomed-in version:

Useful to have some sort of scientific method of detection, though, as otherwise all sorts of confusion can occur. As an aside, I hadn't realised that the paediatrician who was mistaken for a paedophile by a bunch of vigilante numbskulls lived just outside Newport (not any more, though, I'm pretty sure).

Then, just last week, back in the seemingly safe and surprise-free environment of the office, I acquired a new stapler, which bore, on close inspection, a rather disturbing legend:

Again, here's the relevant bit for the hard of seeing:

Now I assume that actually Rapesco is meant to be pronounced as three syllables, with the emphasis on the second, i.e. to rhyme with UNESCO, and that they are of mid-European origin, maybe Italian (the website is a bit cagey about their country of origin). That's not how it reads at first glance to a native English speaker, though.

It would be remiss of me not to link at this point to the classic list of unintentionally funny company URLs; Rapesco would slot in quite well next to Therapist Finder (which you'll notice now redirects to a more innocuous URL).

I didn't think to snap the amusing shelf logo in front of the WD-40 display when I was in B&Q last weekend, so you'll have to take my word for it that it mirrored the online product page by saying AEROSOL LUBRICANT in big letters, at which point I was reminded of the immortal Not The Nine O'Clock News Swedish chemist sketch.

gove forth and multiply

Couple of brief items that may be of interest:

If you can't be arsed sitting through the full 158 minutes of David Fincher's adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, here's a condensed version which you can zip though in five minutes and also accurately skewers most of the ways in which the book, though a lot of fun, is in many ways pretty silly.

More school-related religious madness now: Conservative Education Secretary and Pob and Rick Moranis impersonator Michael Gove's plans to give every school in the country a copy of the King James Version of the Bible seem to have stalled a bit, more for reasons of finance restrictions than as a result of any sort of Oh For Fuck's Sake What Was I Thinking moment of clarity or anything like that.

Also, I'm sure this is probably a slight misquote, or at least taken out of context, but the Mail has him referring to the KJV as "the most important book written in the English language". Well, of course this particular version is written in the English language, but if I started saying that, say, Crime And Punishment or The Unbearable Lightness Of Being or Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter was the greatest novel ever written in the English language people would probably take issue with my reasoning, and rightly so.

Note, however, that there are undoubtedly people in the more scary bits of the USA who would probably run you out of town on a rail for pointing out that the English versions of the Bible are translations from the original Hebrew via Greek with all the attendant loss of nuance and mistranslation of idioms that you might expect. I would strongly recommend stopping short of pointing out that even the original manuscripts were just folk myth and other made-up stuff anyway if you don't fancy a hot lead sandwich.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

the last book I read

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien.

Ah, bejaysus. So, anyway, our un-named narrator (a device we've seen before, here, here, here and here for instance) is a young student living with his uncle in Dublin. Like all students he's a bit too fond of going out drinking with his friends, lolling around in bed in an unhealthy manner and generally neglecting his studies, much to his uncle's chagrin.

But there's precious little time for studying with all the wild flights of literary fancy our young friend is committing to various notebooks: wild fantastical tales based on Irish mythology and featuring mad King Sweeny and Finn MacCool (the bloke who's supposed to have created the Giant's Causeway, among other things) and various other goblins and random folk dreamed up for the purposes of narrative mischief.

Things start to get out of hand when one of our narrator's literary creations, Dermot Trellis, conjurs up in turn various other characters - Furriskey, Shanahan, Lamont - who eventually rebel against the narrative purpose Trellis has for them and gather at the (also fictional) Red Swan Hotel to exact their revenge on him, assisted by Orlick, Trellis' son who has recently sprung into existence fully-formed at the age of about twenty-five and is also, handily, a writer.

The revenge takes the form of a rambling tale (written by Orlick with narrative suggestions from the others) describing Trellis' abduction by a Pooka called MacPhellimey, the various tortures and humiliations inflicted upon him and his eventual trial in front of a jury composed, strangely, of his accusers. Just as verdict and sentence are about to be passed, we are interrupted in the real world by the news that the narrator has passed his final exams; his uncle calls him into his study to congratulate him, the book-within-a-book snaps shut and the story ends.

So there you have it. Strip out the story-within-a-story-within-a-story bit and all that happens is some scuzzy student guy has a few nights out and a few long lie-ins and then passes his exams, but then again something similar could have been said for, say, Inception (levels within levels within levels again) and I thought that was pretty good. And At Swim-Two-Birds is pretty good, too, notwithstanding the opinion of some contemporary critics that it carried "a general odour of spilt Joyce" (it was published in 1939, the same year as Finnegans Wake). Since my Joycean reading starts and ends with A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, though, I wouldn't really know about that; all I can say is that the wild flights of imaginative fancy here, especially the outlandish torments visited upon Trellis in the second half of the book, are very amusing, though if you're at all allergic to metafiction and general authorial intereference and smart-arsery and prefer Proper Ruddy Stories you might want to give it a miss.

At Swim-Two-Birds is another book in this list to have also featured in the rather more prestigious list of Time magazine's 100 best English-language novels since 1923, the previous one being Snow Crash. It also fulfils one of the major criteria for being a Proper Serious Work Of Art by selling pretty much zero copies while O'Brien (whose real name was Brian O'Nolan) was alive; O'Brien supported himself by working for the Irish civil service and writing various columns for newspapers. Apparently there was a brief spike in sales of his later novel The Third Policeman after it featured fleetingly in an episode of Lost in 2006 (far too late for O'Brien who died in 1966). There's product placement for you.

Interestingly, it seems that there is a film in the works as well, the brainchild of actor (and now director) Brendan Gleeson, and with some pretty big names attached to the project. If there was ever a book that warranted the epithet "unfilmable" I would have thought this would be it, though.

Friday, January 13, 2012

you will know they are christians by their love

I dunno what the opposite of the Bad Faith Award would be - clearly Good Faith Award won't do for a number of reasons - but if there was one then I reckon the remarkable Jessica Ahlquist would be a front-runner for the 2012 version.

Just in case you missed it, this is the story of Cranston West High School in Rhode Island, which since the 1960s or thereabouts has displayed a School Prayer prominently on the wall of its auditorium, in flagrant disregard of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. That's the bit that ensures separation of church and state, and prohibits precisely the sort of officially-sanctioned religionism involved in splattering an explicitly Christian prayer across the wall of your nominally inclusive, multi-denominational school. A small thing, you might say, but Jessica Ahlquist decided that it was important to make a stand and have it removed.

Despite being caught bang to rights, the school voted to keep the banner, obliging Ahlquist, with some help from her Dad and the American Civil Liberties Union, to take the case to court, whereupon the court applied the law, as they were obliged to do, and upheld Ahlquist's complaint.

Again, this might seem trivial, but it is crucially important to keep chipping away at the foundations of the great edifice of unearned privilege that religion enjoys, and if this makes people think a bit about why they would tend to turn a blind eye to a Christian prayer on a school wall, but would object in the strongest possible terms to a Muslim one, or a Zoroastrian one, or a Wiccan one, then that is a good thing. It's important to realise how courageous a stand this is, too, particularly when you see the outpouring of Christian love and tolerance and general turn-the-other-cheek-iness ("Satan is gonna rape her") prompted by the legal action.

Our very own Daily Mail is predictably insane on the subject, right from the banner headline:

Note the weaselly quotation marks around "religious". You can see where they're going with this, and they get right onto it pretty quickly:
The banner at Cranston West was judged to promote religion because it takes the form of a prayer addressed to 'Our Heavenly Father' and concluding 'Amen'.
Apart from its opening and closing, the banner does not appear to have an overtly religious message.
And it's just telling people to be kind and nice, right? Who could possibly object to that?


Thursday, January 12, 2012

dorries seems to be the hardest word

I'm afraid that unless you got on your bike and went and sought them out yourself you've missed the 2011 Bad Faith Awards. This, you'll no doubt remember, is the award given out by New Humanist magazine to the person who has done the most to thwart and damage the cause of reason and progress during the year, most probably via some form of religious loonery.

To be honest I'm not sure the 2011 list of nominees was as creative as in previous years - two US Republican presidential candidates (Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann) and Melanie Phillips seems like a few too many obvious targets - but the runaway winner was the richly deserving Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries.

Anyone whose clearly stated religiously-motivated views on things like sex education in schools and abortion would ensure (were they ever to be implemented, which thankfully seems unlikely) a generation grew up badly informed about sex, and therefore more likely to experience unplanned pregnancy, and then in turn would ensure that a proportion of those same people died because they were unable to get access to abortion services when they urgently needed them, seems to me eminently worthy of treatment far harsher than ridicule in a magazine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

would jubileeve it

It's Wednesday so it must be time for Pointless Pedantry Hour. Strap yourselves in.

There was a bit on the Today programme earlier in the week (or it might have been on Start The Week, I can't remember) about the dear old Queen's Diamond Jubilee this year. The presenter went on to say that this was only the second Diamond Jubilee year in British history, the other being wacky old Queen Victoria's in 1897.

Now I am not a constitutional monarchy expert, as you know, in fact I'm more of a "first up against the wall come the revolution" kind of guy, but this struck me as surely incorrect. Stay with me and I'll explain.

Here's the thing: either 2012 is a Diamond Jubilee year by virtue of being a year that, when it started, was scheduled to contain the date of the 60th anniversary of the current monarch's accession to the throne, in which case it will remain a Diamond Jubilee year even if the Queen dies before February 6th, or it isn't a Diamond Jubilee year at all yet, but it will be once we've got to February 6th without the Queen buying the farm (and I reluctantly concede that I know of no reason to think she is in any immediate danger of checking out). Or, I suppose, we could say, as a third option: it is a Diamond Jubilee year, but it could retrospectively be declared not one if the Queen should be shot by Prince Philip in a hunting accident or randomly murdered and concealed in a shallow grave on the Sandringham estate (not necessarily by Prince Philip, but who knows) in the next month or so.

Anyway, either way, by most of those definitions 1820 was a Diamond Jubilee year as well, being the year that, when it started, was scheduled to contain (on October 25th) the 60th anniversary of the accession of George III. This never actually happened, as George (who was thoroughly deaf, blind and mad by this time) died on January 29th, but the exact same radio bit could have been done on January 10th 1820, if things like radio had been invented then.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

ooh 'eck it's oobleck

That last post was partially inspired by a link from Ben Goldacre's mini-blog. Here's another from the same source: the splendidly-named Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics, a mind-blowing repository of cool stuff, mainly in video form, demonstrating how fluids behave and interact in the most weird and wonderful and often counter-intuitive ways. There's the inevitable oobleck, of course, but also all manner of fascinating stuff involving what appears to be golden syrup, as well as oil, water, and assorted random explosions.

Clearly no website devoted to fluid dynamics can get away without featuring the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, either.

oh no, not again

There are a number of things which are utterly fascinating about this riveting account of the last minutes of Air France flight 447 leading up to its crash into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, not least that it was a problem entirely caused by human error, bad team management, uncontrolled instinctive behaviour and unchecked assumptions, and not an engineering problem at all, beyond the brief (and hardly unprecedented) icing-up of the pitot tubes that sowed some of the initial seeds of the confusion which led eventually to catastrophe.

There seems to be some disagreement over how much the passengers knew about what was going on during the aircaft's uncontrolled descent. I'm quite prepared to believe that among all the intense turbulence that was going on no-one would have sensed that the aircraft was descending at 10,000 feet per minute - after all if experienced commercial pilots can be bewildered by the input of their own senses then I'm sure your average Jean-Claude can as well - but I do wonder what the in-flight information screens were showing during this time.

As I've said before I do find these irrationally reassuring as they provide some input into what's going on, the complete sensory vacuum and lack of control being one of the things that makes flying so uncomfortable. Even if things are getting a bit bumpy, the back-of-the-seat screen reading out a steady altitude and airspeed throughout is comforting. However, assuming the screens hadn't been switched off, anyone on the Air France flight would have presumably seen the airspeed slow to a crawl and the altitude figures start to scroll downwards in an increasingly rapid blur. Now I don't know about you, but I would have found this somewhat alarming, right up until the point whare I abruptly got turned into gristly strawberry jam.

The other thing that struck me about the article was this line:
At 2:02 am, the captain leaves the flight deck to take a nap. Within 15 minutes, everyone aboard the plane will be dead.
- and, later, this one:
Another of the pitot tubes begins to function once more. The cockpit's avionics are now all functioning normally. The flight crew has all the information that they need to fly safely, and all the systems are fully functional. The problems that occur from this point forward are entirely due to human error.
I was immediately reminded of the bit in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy where the protagonists are threatened by a missile attack from the automated defence system of the planet Magrathea:
The planet in question is, in fact, Magrathea. The missile attack shortly to be launched by an ancient automatic defence system will merely result in the breakage of three coffee cups and a mouse cage, the bruising of someone's upper arm and the untimely creation and demise of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale.
- and later on:
It is, of course, more or less at this point that one of our heroes sustains a slight bruise to the upper arm. This should be emphasised because, as has already been revealed, they escape otherwise completely unharmed, and the deadly nuclear missiles do not eventually hit the ship. Our heroes' safety is absolutely assured.
Of course that one was the other way round, in that that it all ended happily. I know where I would rather have been.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

that's a turn-up for the books

While we're knocking up graphs, here's some updated ones illustrating my blogging prowess throughout 2011. And a sad and sorry tale of woe it is too, with 2011 yielding just 150 posts, a decrease of some 14% even compared with the slim 175 posts I managed in 2010. Here's the monthly breakdown:

- and here's the yearly one:

There is one crumb of statistical comfort to be gleaned from all this doom and gloom, though: not only does the 33 book reviews among those 150 posts represent the highest book-related-blogging:other-stuff-related-blogging ratio ever achieved at 22% (comfortably beating 2010's 13.7%), but it's also the highest absolute number of book reviews posted in a year, beating the previous figure of 28 held jointly by 2007 and 2009. Here's the graph:

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

for whom the bridge tolls

Another year, another increase in the bridge tolls for the Severn bridges, to predictable outrage. I mean, I'm not crazy about it, particularly the 30p increase (a whopping five and a bit percent) after a couple of 10p ones, but what can you do?

What you can do, if you wish, is try and research the history of the toll charges for the bridges since the old one was opened in 1966, at which time you would have pulled up in your Model T jalopy or your Austin Seven and the cheery toll attendant would have taken half a crown off you before sending you on your way with a cheery "mind how you go, squire" and a robust clip round the ear.

The progression of charges post-1992 (and incorporating the addition of the second bridge in 1997) is listed here, but pre-1992 you have to dig around a bit. I eventually found this old Hansard extract which reveals that there weren't that many changes made between 1966 and 1992, the main highlights being:
  • a post-decimalisation knocking off of the spare ha'penny in 1973 (two-and-six being 12½ of those nasty newfangled new pence);
  • an increase to 20p in 1979;
  • various up-and-down-ness in the mid-1980s as an increase to 50p was first reversed after some legal challenges and then reinstated to 50p later, presumably partly to pay all the accumulated lawyers' bills;
  • up again to one whole pound in 1990.
The seemingly vicious price hike to £2.80 in 1992 is partially explained by the rearrangement of the toll system so that you only paid in one direction (going into Wales), and presumably also by the need to drum up some revenue to pay for the new bridge. Increases have been steady since, the total increase of £3.20 between 1992 and 2012 averaging out at 16 pence per year. Here's the whole story in funky graphical form.