Wednesday, July 25, 2012

new model salami

Never mind Allah writing his name in aubergines and all that stuff, here's a haunted piece of salami I found last night!

Now I assume you can see what I see, because it jumps straight out at me; a sort of morose-looking emo guy with a slightly floppy Phil Oakey-esque fringe half-covering his right eye. It is dangerous to make that sort of assumption with these things, though, so just in case you can't see it here's a slightly digitally-enhanced version for the hard of seeing:

And yes, I know Phil Oakey didn't sing that, it just seemed appropriate. Face recognition in everyday stuff is a fascinating subject that provides some fascinating insight into how the human brain works, what its built-in biases are, and how hard it is to train computers to emulate its workings.

And the salami (purchased at the Cardiff food festival last week) was delicious, thanks for asking. Once it was all mixed up with a load of mushrooms and pasta it was hard to tell whether it was me or Hazel that got the haunted bit, and will therefore be doomed to wander the earth for all eternity possessed by the unquiet spirit of some mumbling spotty teenage herbert in black eyeliner. Time will tell, I suppose.

one little prick and it's all over

It was a double helping of early morning shouting at the radio in the car last week. And a good thing too as I find it really sets me up for the day. Last Thursday's discussion was regarding circumcision, which has become a bit of a sore point (you see what I did there) again recently in the light of the German ruling against it. There's been some tremendously bonkers articles written in the British press about it in the last couple of weeks, for instance.

This particular bit, crammed into a 5-minute segment at the end of the Today programme, was a discussion between Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain; naturally I don't need to tell you who was on which side of the debate. Basically there are a few arguments generally trotted out in favour of ritual male circumcision, some of which Dr Romain managed to tick off on his Bullshit Bingo card during the short time available to him. Here we go:
  • It's traditional, innit? And cultural and religious and stuff like that. And any suggestion that things done for religious reasons are morally wrong in some way is literally an attack on the very right to exist of the people who hold that particular set of beliefs, so shut it.
  • Yes, it's primarily faith-driven, but it's also simultaneously totally for health reasons. Look, here's a study that says circumcised men are at lower risk of HIV infection.
  • Female "circumcision"! That's bad, isn't it? I think we can all agree on that. Well we don't condone that at all, goodness me no. And in comparison, male circumcision doesn't look so bad, does it?
  • We only do it on tiny babies, and they essentially either don't experience pain and trauma, or don't remember it afterwards. 
The problem with the first and third ones is that they contradict each other. Female genital mutilation is done for cultural and religious reasons as well, so really it should be immune from criticism, shouldn't it? Or, to flip the argument around, if your objection to FGM is that it's pointless violation for no good reason and to hell with the religious tradition stuff, well then that torpedoes your argument for male circumcision as well, doesn't it? As for the health benefits, well, it may be true that there are some statistics (though opinions differ as to their reliability) pointing to lower rates of various STDs in circumcised men, and of cervical cancer in their partners, but it seems highly likely to me that these statistics are skewed somewhat by the strong cultural prohibitions in societies that routinely practise circumcision (i.e. Jews and Muslims, mainly) against pre-marital sex and all that sort of fooling around. In any case, it would be possible to reduce the risk of these things to zero by removing the male genitalia altogether at birth, but I don't see anyone advocating that. I could also completely obviate the possibility of my baby daughter ever suffering from corns, ingrowing toenails or athlete's foot by chopping both of her feet off with a cleaver, but I'm not about to do that either. And as for the fourth point, well that's just bollocks.

Just as with the gay marriage thing, it's the remnants of the lily-livered cultural deference to certain particular brands of voodoo nonsense that's the problem here. I mean, if I went round carving lightning bolts into baby boys' penises with a Stanley knife because I totally believed that the Harry Potter stories were true and that this was what adherence to the books required, they'd put me away, and rightly so.

Two other things: firstly it's instructive to compare this furore with the one about tail-docking of dogs which has resulted in the practice being outlawed in most European countries, and question whether our collective moral compass is balanced quite as well as it could be. Secondly it does seem to me to be a pity that this ruling, which penalises Jews among others, should have been made in Germany, with all the associated cultural and historical baggage that entails in terms of policies which might be seen as discriminating against Jews. It muddies the waters a bit in terms of what is actually a pretty simple issue, i.e. - you're cutting baby boys' foreskins off? Just stop it, you mentalists. That's not to say, incidentally, that it's impossible for otherwise admirable anti-circumcision activism to have overtones of anti-Semitism about it - the slightly bizarre "intactivist" superhero Foreskin Man, for instance, while no doubt motivated by good intentions, is all a bit square-jawed Aryan crusader thwarting evil hook-nosed Jewish baby-mutilators to be an entirely comfortable read. Superheroes are inherently fascist anyway, as we know.

Then again, as I said before, the Germans are admirably tetchy about religious stuff in general, which I of course salute, particularly with regard to the Scientologists.

Monday, July 23, 2012

the last book I read

The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston.

Stella meets Martyn on a train, some time in the early 1960s. She is an impressionable young woman and he is a professional illusionist, forever hoicking coins out of people's ears and such like. Soon they strike up a relationship and get married, despite not really knowing each other. Or, to be more accurate, without Stella knowing Martyn - she is open enough with her past and introduces him to her parents, but finds out precious little about him.

They have a daughter, Robin, and move to a large house in the country, an arrangement largely instigated by Martyn which Stella goes along with despite it meaning her giving up her job at a London publishing house. She settles into childcare and cooking Martyn's dinner while he cooks up increasingly elaborate tricks involving a whole flock of doves which he keeps in a large barn next to the house. There are various mysterious comings and goings from the barn, as well, principally the mysterious Peter Magill and Dr. Rhodes, neither of whom seem to register or acknowledge Stella's existence.

Stella's former boss Bill comes to visit her out at the house, and gives her a gift of a typewriter and a couple of reams of paper, and persuades her that she should start writing. Seeing it as a chance to escape from her increasingly fraught and remote relationship with Martyn, Stella throws herself into it, and finds that she has a talent for it, much to Martyn's displeasure, since he doesn't want a wife with her own career, but just someone to ply him with shepherd's pie once he's finished dove-wrangling in the barn.

Eventually the tension between Martyn's increasingly mysterious behaviour, obsessive devotion to his craft and long unexplained absences and Stella's burgeoning literary career come to a head, there is a climactic confrontation, and Stella leaves, originally intending to take Robin with her, but having to leave alone when it becomes clear that Robin wants to stay with Martyn.

The novel starts and ends 20-odd years later, with Martyn having been killed in an IRA bomb explosion in London and Robin stopping in to stay with Stella in Dublin on the way to fulfil her duties as executor of his will. A will that, just to confirm all Stella's old suspicions about Martyn's "other" lives, contains a few surprises.

So basically boy meets girl, boy seems all sexy and mysterious with the hand-waving and the cape-twirling and the unexpected production of rabbits out of hats and the like but actually turns out to be your standard run-of-the-mill nasty controlling manipulative selfish bastard, girl leaves boy, boy gets blown up, secrets are revealed, initial diagnosis of nasty selfish bastardry is confirmed. But most artistic works can be reduced in that way if you try hard enough. You know, Hamlet: bloke's Dad gets killed so he mopes a bit. The trick is in making you care about the protagonists, a trick Johnston pulls off pretty well, despite a few niggling loose ends, like: Martyn's tricks, particularly the ones with the doves, seem phenomenally elaborate for a bloke who's doing gigs in Chiswick. Some of the flying around the stage malarkey wouldn't have been out of place in a David Copperfield show. So given that he isn't doing that, where is he getting his money from? I suppose the point is that we're mostly seeing things from Stella's viewpoint and she probably never knew either.

Anyway, for all the occasional niggles this is very good - if I hadn't read the cover before diving in I wouldn't have been totally surprised to have emerged to discover it was written by Penelope Lively, which I should make clear is a compliment. Jennifer Johnston has written a few books (including Shadows On Our Skin, nominated for the 1977 Booker Prize) which touch on Ireland and the Troubles directly, but this one, despite starting with a death in an IRA bombing, doesn't really touch on that at all, in the same way that Amongst Women didn't quite turn out to be about what you thought it was going to be about.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

god sinks a long one

Here's your regular religious arsebasketry round-up.

Firstly another data point in support of my theory that most high-profile American sportspeople are tedious evangelical halfwits - I caught the tail-end of the final round of the John Deere Classic on Sunday night, including the two-man play-off between Troy Mattesson and Zach Johnson, which Johnson won with a sensational 200-yard shot out of a bunker to about six inches for a tap-in birdie.

That was all very exciting, and as it happens Johnson is a golfer I admire very much - very much not in the modern golfing mould of a great muscle-bound 6-foot-plus hulking brute who hits the ball 350+ yards and then dinks it onto the green with a lob wedge (of which his namesake Dustin is a good example), but someone who still manages to compete despite this (this was his second PGA tour win of 2012, a feat matched only by Hunter Mahan and Jason Dufner, and exceeded by Tiger Woods) by being very accurate off the tee, having a great short game and being one of the best putters in the world. But it does set my teeth on edge a bit when he starts the post-victory interview with David Feherty on the 18th green by thanking "my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ".

This article from just after his Masters win in 2007 (in the early days of this blog) may contain the explanation, though:
[...] when I gave an invitation toward the end of the course was when Zach asked Jesus into his heart [...] it was a slow progression for him to that point, and then once he accepted Christ he just went crazy.
Ah, OK, that would account for it. Further support of my theory can be found in the depressingly long lists of publicly Christian US golfers here and here. Two further things prompted by those links, firstly this little snippet regarding Rickie Fowler (emphasis mine):
While the American golfers kept their religion quiet when playing for the Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor in Wales, the youngest member of the team, Rickie Fowler, only 21, engraved his balls with 4:13, quoting Phillippians, which said: "I can do every thing through Him who gives me strength."
Ouch. Also, you'll notice that the second link is titled "Golf's Tim Tebow". For those not in the know, Tebow is the engagingly meat-headed and terrifyingly devout Denver Broncos and New York Jets quarterback, responsible through his very public displays of religiosity for a mildly amusing internet meme, one which at least shows that Americans aren't so monolithically in thrall to religion that some of them can't take the piss out of it.

Secondly, I was afforded the opportunity to shout incoherently at the radio this morning when there was a brief discussion about gay marriage on the Today programme, featuring among others some bloke from the Catholic Church in Scotland who had been assigned the seemingly thankless task of spinning his superior Cardinal Keith O'Brien's words back in March into not seeming like the bile-filled tirade of bigotry that they actually were. He gave it his best shot but unsurprisingly couldn't really manage it.

I do think, as it happens, that the counter-argument trotted out here that goes along these lines - well, if you don't want to get married to a partner of the same sex, then, hey, just don't do it, and let us get on with it: haha, checkmate - is something of a rhetorical error. It sounds superficially like a good argument, but it falls foul of not taking the religionists' position seriously enough, or more accurately not taking seriously enough how firmly they believe in it. It's the same as the argument used against anti-abortion people that goes - hey, if you don't want an abortion, well then don't have one: haha, checkmate - but ignores that fact that they think abortion is murder. You wouldn't seek to justify legalising murder by just saying, well, if you still think it's wrong then just don't murder anyone, yeah? Same with the gay marriage thing: if you really believe that other people marrying each other is going to consign the whole of humanity to the eternal fires of hell for all eternity then you will feel entitled to regulate others' behaviour, even if you're not indulging yourself.

In a way I think this is a bit of moral and intellectual cowardice, in that it's avoiding really engaging with and confronting the ludicrously flimsy basis for their believing what they claim to believe, and in so doing giving religion an easy ride that wouldn't be granted to other similarly absurd belief systems. Really delving in and unpacking what basis they have for thinking what they think and for seeking to regulate the private behaviour of others would be much better, but would risk a public confronting of the truth claims at the heart of religion, something the media are a bit squeamish about. Whereas I say we need to stop perpetuating religion's privileged status and thereby enabling bigotry. And if in order to purge the bigotry the religious belief has to go, well, too bad. Or, to put it another way, so much the better.

I should add as an aside that most of the "pro-life" camp who claim to believe that abortion is murder give the lie to that claim by their actions and the political positions they take up. The chart attached to this blog post illustrates this very nicely.

Lastly, I'd just like to register my eager anticipation at the potentially hugely lulzy avalanche of schadenfreude unleashed by the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes divorce. Disappointingly it seems there will not now be an undignified public squabble over custody rights, but there will surely be an increased level of interest in all things Scientological, which can only be a good thing, especially as the church tends to respond to intrusive media attention by going completely mental. Watch this space.

Friday, July 13, 2012

meet me on the other side

Here's a cool addition to the list of Interesting Things You Can Do With Google Maps - a little widget that shows you where in the world the exact antipodal opposite point is for any given place you care to select.

You'll soon find, though, that if you select anywhere in the UK the results will be disappointingly watery - for instance Newport is opposite this rather damp location in the South Pacific a few hundred miles south-west of New Zealand. Indeed it's actually quite difficult to pick a land location anywhere that has an antipodal point which is also on land. The reasons for this aren't immediately obvious until you realise that if you pick your central point carefully enough (apparently somewhere in the vicinity of Nantes in France is best) you can divide the Earth up into a land hemisphere (which contains seven-eighths of the world's land) and a water hemisphere, where any point in the former must have an antipodal point in the latter.

The main areas which do have a land-to-land correspondence are:
  • while most of North and Central America are in the Indian Ocean, various bits of South America are in Indonesia, and quite a big chunk of southern Chile and Argentine is in China, and at the other end a fair bit of Nunavut is in Antarctica;
  • in an ironic echo of the UK/Argentina dispute, the Falkland Islands lie slap bang on the border between China and Russia;
  • most of Europe, Asia and Africa are in the Pacific - the only significant exception being the big overlap between Spain and New Zealand, and between bits of northern Siberia and Antarctica.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

the last book I read

Cell by Stephen King.

Clayton Riddell is a graphic artist, and he's in a pretty good mood, because he's just been to a meeting with a publisher in Boston who's interested in picking up some of his work. He can't wait to tell his wife and son the good news, but that'll probably have to wait till he's back at his hotel, since he doesn't own a mobile phone (I'm going to use the American coinage "cellphone" hereafter, just to fit in with the book's usage, and indeed title). He never gets the chance to make that call, however, since at 3:03pm that afternoon the pivotal event known as The Pulse happens, everyone who's using a cellphone at the time (or at any time afterwards) turns into a slavering feral beast and civilisation as we know it disintegrates in the blink of an eye.

Clay isn't the only person left unscathed, fortunately, and the few people left with un-fried brains band together and decide to head out of the city. Clay's little group comprises himself, Tom McCourt, who he met on the street immediately after The Pulse hit, and Alice, a teenage girl they rescued while temporarily holed up in Clay's hotel. They retreat to Tom's house in the outer suburbs while they try to come to terms with what has happened and work out what to do next. It turns out Clay knows what he wants to do next - head north into Maine to try to find his wife and son and check whether or not they've been zapped into a state of mindless savagery, and if they haven't whether they've been able to avoid being eaten by those who have.

So the group sets off again, making sure to avoid the groups of roving imbeciles wandering about. It soon becomes clear that their roving about is starting to settle into a pattern, though, mainly involving mass migrations during the day and inactivity at night, so the group travels mainly at night. When they hole up for a few days in an abandoned school it becomes clear that the behaviour of the "phoners" is developing some alarming aspects - firstly they seem to have taken to flocking together and roosting at night like birds, and secondly they seem to be able to communicate with each other telepathically. Joined by the School's headmaster and the one remaining unaffected pupil, Jordan, Clay's group hatch a scheme to wipe out their particular group of phoners, who have taken to doing their mass roosting activity on the school sports field. They achieve this in a quite lidderally explosive manner, by parking a couple of propane tankers from a nearby gas station in the middle of the field and blowing them up.

Unfortunately it turns out that the phoners' telepathic capabilities have become more powerful than the group can possibly imagine, and the great disturbance in the force occasioned by the fiery immolation of a couple of thousand people prompts a reaction from the phoners - firstly the public torture and execution of various "normies" yanked out of various houses nearby, and secondly a visitation in the group's dreams from a mysterious stranger (who they take to calling the Raggedy Man) and vague premonitions of being the subject of some kind of mock-trial and ritual execution. Via further telepathic communication the Raggedy Man makes it clear that Clay's group are expected to head off on the road again to a place called Kashwak, where (it soon becomes clear) other groups of "normies" are being herded as well. Since the Headmaster isn't up to the journey he is further "persuaded" to take himself out of the game by committing messy suicide.

So Clay's group heads off again, and it soon becomes clear that they are being telepathically watched over and protected so that they can be saved for the ceremonial fate that awaits them at Kashwak. Two young hooligans who attack them on the road (killing Alice in the process) are telepathically induced into a messy murder/suicide combo as an example to others. So they remain unscathed as they make a quick detour to Clay's family home to discover - unsurprisingly - that the wife and son have moved on, and that they've probably been drawn to Kashwak like everyone else. Any idea that this (since it's a cellphone "dead zone") might be a sort of "normie" reservation where they will be allowed to live in peace is revealed to be a fantasy as it turns out people are being herded into tents as they arrive and exposed to a mobile phone signal that zaps them into the same state as everyone else.

Clay's group arrives at Kashwak (in a school bus they've picked up on the road, and with three new companions in tow, who have also engineered a phoner massacre and are similarly untouchable) and meets the Raggedy Man, who locks them in a barn overnight in preparation for the special fate he has in store for them the next day. Jordan is small enough to wriggle out of a window, though, and while the phoners are doing their nocturnal roosting activities he manages to drive the bus into their midst, at which point Clay blows up the large consignment of dynamite put there by their new travelling companion Ray, who had wired it up earlier, told Clay about it and then shot himself so that he couldn't give the game away telepathically.

So the gruesome public execution has been averted, the Raggedy Man is dead, and the group heads off north again. But what of the remaining phoners? Well, Jordan has a theory that the Pulse is gradually being degraded by some sort of worm/virus thingy, since the recently zapped people seem to retain more of their human characteristics and don't do the zombified flocking behaviour as well as the original zappees. He also has a theory that for these people a second zap might cancel out the first by inducing some sort of brain reboot, restoring the affected person to normal. Encouraged by this, Clay sets off again to find his son (the wife having been caught up in the bus explosion) and, when he eventually does find him, try this radical cure on him. The book ends with Clay and Johnny holed up in a motel, with Clay holding a cellphone to the boy's ear.

I used to hungrily hoover up every new Stephen King paperback as soon as it came out, after having read The Shining when I was about thirteen and deciding that it was the GREATEST THING EVER. I stopped doing that after the triple whammy of The Tommyknockers, The Dark Half and Needful Things convinced me that he might have jumped the shark a bit. Since then the only one I've read was the fairly bog-standard haunted-house story Bag Of Bones from 1998. So it's been a few years since I've read a Stephen King book, and like all of them (even the ropey ones) this grips like an intensely grippy thing, perhaps a rabid boa constrictor or a giant pair of pliers. It's easy to be snobby about this sort of thing, but the ability to keep the reader up till 4am desperate to know what happens next is a rare and cherishable gift.

That said, and while Cell certainly delivers on the grippiness front, this isn't up to the standard of his earlier stuff for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are apparent from the knowing dedication at the front of the book: to George A Romero (director of the Night Of The Living Dead films) and Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend). Cell owes a big debt to both of these, from the zombified state of the first phoners to the more philosophical stuff prompted by their later incarnation as a hive mind. The delivery of the mind-erasing bug via electronic means has some echoes of the virus from Snow Crash as well, and there's some similarly weird large-scale flocking and roosting activity in King's own 1989 novel The Dark Half, though that was featuring actual birds. It's uncomfortably close to some of the themes covered by King's classic 1978 novel The Stand in places as well, from the small wandering group of survivors of a catastrophe to the shared dreams haunted by some beckoning demonic figure, though the Raggedy Man is a pale shadow of The Stand's Randall Flagg, and the climactic public execution of the "normies" (again, echoing The Stand) is escaped with hilarious ease by the simple means of waiting till everyone goes to sleep and then setting fire to them and scarpering. The details of what caused The Pulse and why are never really explored, either, and the notion that someone exposed to the decaying worm-ridden Pulse signal can be cured by re-exposing them to the same signal skirts perilously close to the cartoon trope of curing someone of the effects of a blow on the head by hitting them again.

I suppose the Romero dedication in particular signals that this is intended to be a big, goofy, tub-of-popcorn sort of book rather than aspiring to the cerebral end of King's output. You can see that from the way it starts; while King's longer books feature leisurely build-ups allowing us to get to know the central characters before it all kicks off, Cell has people biting each other in the neck by about page 3, at which point we've barely met Clay, let alone started to care about him.

I would say your prime King period runs from The Shining in 1977 through The Stand and The Dead Zone and up to 1980's Firestarter, which I think is the single best thing he's ever written. You really should read all of those.

One little aside: the novel's opening action occurs on the edge of Boston Common, which immediately set off the Woo Hoo I've Been There alarm - here's a picture of my friends Jonny, Graham, Matt, Alex, Matt and Dominic on Boston Common in late summer 1994 while we were over there for Matt's (the one on the right) wedding. Fortunately cellphones hadn't been invented so we were able to enjoy a leisurely afternoon eating ice-cream and throwing a football about without getting attacked by drooling zombies.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

how do you slam a problem like maria

Here's a thought that occurred to me while watching Maria Sharapova win the French Open a couple of weeks ago. No, it wasn't that, you filthy pervert. Well, all right, it was that, but there was another thing as well.

Sharapova's win gave her a full set of all the Grand Slam singles titles; she is the seventeenth person overall and the tenth woman to achieve this feat. What makes Sharapova's version of the feat interesting is that she has done it in the most efficient way possible, i.e. by winning each tournament precisely once - Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008 and now the French Open in 2012. It occurred to me to wonder whether anyone else had achieved the feat that way, without wasting time and effort mucking about winning lots of multiples of individual tournaments on the way and pointless nonsense like that.

So here's a couple of lists for you - firstly the women:

PlayerTournament achievedYearWins to date
Maureen ConnollyFrench Open19535
Doris HartUS Open19545
Shirley Fry IrvinAustralian Open19574
Margaret CourtWimbledon19637
Billie Jean KingFrench Open19727
Chris EvertAustralian Open198214
Martina NavratilovaUS Open19837
Steffi GrafUS Open19885
Serena WilliamsAustralian Open20035
Maria SharapovaFrench Open20124

Then the men:

PlayerTournament achievedYearWins to date
Fred PerryFrench Open19355
Don BudgeFrench Open19384
Rod LaverUS Open19626
Roy EmersonWimbledon19646
Andre AgassiFrench Open19994
Roger FedererFrench Open200914
Rafael NadalUS Open20109

Since golf has a very similar major tournament structure, one might ask the same question there as well. Note that it's almost impossible to construct a women's list here as the tournaments which qualify as majors have fluctuated so much over the years, so we'll have to make do with just the men here.

PlayerTournament achievedYearWins to date
Gene SarazenMasters19357
Ben HoganOpen19539
Gary PlayerUS Open19654
Jack NicklausOpen19666
Tiger WoodsOpen20004

People whose feat matches Sharapova's are in bold in the tables - needless to say they also have a "4" in the "Wins" column. In case it's still not clear they are:
  • Shirley Fry Irvin (tennis)
  • Don Budge (tennis)
  • Andre Agassi (tennis)
  • Gary Player (golf)
  • Tiger Woods (golf)
You may have that factoid for free for your next dinner party. No, you're welcome.

Friday, July 06, 2012

appealing daintiness is assured

We've all seen those hilarious adverts from the 1950s for "intimate hygiene" products, and had a good old chuckle at the hilariously stilted language, the pictures and the ludicrously outdated view of gender relations and sex. Here's one:

For best results you have to read the text in the style of Harry Enfield's Mr. Cholmondeley-Warner. Now that's all very amusing, and one of the reasons that it's amusing is that we've moved on - after the various liberation and consciousness-raising movements of the 1960s and 1970s women are free to be confident and open about sexual matters, and not be spending hours hosing out their front bottoms with neat bleach for fear that hubby might catch a whiff of something a bit too biological and come over all faint. No, we're all open and groovy enough these days to know that a vagina smells like a vagina, and so much the better for that. If, on the other hand, yours smells like a dead badger in a herring and gorgonzola warehouse, you might want to get yourself checked out by a medical professional.

The change wasn't instant, of course - teen magazines were still pushing these products sufficiently hard in the early 1970s for Monty Python to deem it worth satirising in one of their comedy books:

But, come on, it's the 21st century now. Except it turns out we haven't come that far after all. Now I have clearly been living in an ivory tower of obliviousness to the latest developments in vagina-shaming, as it appears that even in the 21st century there are still people making it their business to make young girls terrorised and paranoid that their genitals are giving off some sort of toxic radiation that needs to be bleached and perfumed into submission.

Amusingly, Femfresh recently started a Facebook page, as lots of companies do, and stuck a load of the sort of teeth-grindingly twee and infantile language above on the banner, at which point the sisterhood rose magnificently as one and comment-bombed the page into submission, so much so that the page was eventually taken down, but not before this rather marvellous screen-shot had been captured.

If Femfresh isn't right up your alley, so to speak, why not try the pads advertised in this Malaysian commercial. Basically the message here is: your minge stinks of dead fish and durian, and these pads will make it smell of green tea instead. Which will be better, and not at all weird. Or, if you don't fancy that, how about a vagina mint?

Just in case us blokes feel left out, though, you can now get individually-wrapped pre-packaged cock wipes. You know, when you're with a proper classy bird, one whose fanny smells like PG Tips and Polos and that, wiping the old chap on the curtains just won't cut it. What you want is a dedicated penile hygiene maintenance solution for the 21st century, packed with made-up sciencey ingredients, at the bargain price of £1.99 for a box of eight. Or you could just have a shower, like normal people.

Next week: arse lemons.

the last book I read

The Gift Of Stones by Jim Crace.

1327, schmirteen-twenty-seven. That's practically last week. Let's go right back to the Stone Age.

So our un-named narrator (see also exhibits A, B, C, D and E) lives in a small village by the sea, where the primary source of subsistence is the making (and selling to passing trade) of flint tools - blades, arrow-heads, axe-heads, that sort of thing, plus the odd bit of ornamental jewellery.

He doesn't do much of the old knapping himself, as only having one arm (well, one and a half, really) makes that sort of thing a bit tricky. The arm was lost after an encounter with a raiding party on one of the narrator's periodic trips out wandering about beyond the bounds of the village, something the rest of the villagers rarely do. His subsequent unfitness for flint-knapping duty allows him the time to do a bit more of this, and he soon settles into a role as the village storyteller, bringing outlandish tales of life beyond the village.

On one of his wandering trips along the coast he arrives at an area of estuarial salt-marsh where a woman, Doe, scratches out a living with her young daughter, mainly by exchanging quick knee-tremblers in the long grass with passers-by for food and other supplies. Our narrator strikes up a Platonic relationship with her and the child, and makes regular visits on his trips out from the village.

When the salt-marsh is raided by incoming settlers who want to ensure the birds which inhabit it don't steal their crops, Doe and her daughter are obliged to flee their encampment and take refuge in the narrator's village. Well, not exactly in the village, as Doe is viewed with some suspicion and is obliged to make a makeshift shelter just outside it. She soon carves out a role for herself as a collector and transporter of "raw" flint to be worked by the villagers; that's a lot of hard work, though, especially when there are easier ways of earning money and a village full of inquisitive men right on her doorstep.

The one person Doe withholds her favours from is our one-armed friend - after all his efforts rescuing and providing for her he's a bit resentful of this. After a trip down to the shore to gather some samphire in a last-ditch attempt to win her round (well, chocolates hadn't been invented yet) he arrives back at the village to discover that a raiding party on horseback has been through, and that Doe is lying dead in a patch of grass with an arrow in her back. But the arrow-head is not the usual heavy flint; this is something new - brown, shiny, smooth, cold to the touch. Yeah, welcome to the Bronze Age, peasants.

Some of the villagers - primarily the flint-sellers rather than the flint-knappers, sales skills being more easily transferable - sense which way the wind is blowing and leave immediately. The rest continue to eke out a meagre existence once trade has dwindled to just about zero before eventually deciding to set out and seek their fortune in the wider (and unfamiliar) world. Our one-armed friend leads them off down the coast, not letting on that his knowledge only extends a mile or two and then he's in the dark as much as they are.

Actually my reference to the one-armed guy as the narrator is not quite accurate - strictly the story is narrated by his (also un-named) adoptive daughter, orphaned when Doe is killed. His narration is sort of a narration-within-a-narration - any confusion here is almost certainly intentional as alongside the basic story thread this is a book about storytelling. The one-armed man tells deliberately fanciful stories to the other villagers, but assures us that what he tells us is true. Should we believe him? Even when he offers us three equally plausible explanations for Doe's death, one involving him killing her, but coyly refuses to pick one as the "real" one?

This is the second Jim Crace book in this list - this one pre-dates Arcadia by a few years (it was Crace's second published novel), and is much shorter and starker. My personal view is that it's also better, even if it seems strongly influenced by William Golding's The Inheritors in its depiction of a prehistoric people about to be engulfed by the pitiless march of progress. The Inheritors depicts the transition from Neanderthal man to Cro-Magnon man as the dominant race on the planet rather than the (much later) transition from Stone Age to Bronze Age, but it's the same sort of thing, with it only becoming clear in the last few pages how completely their world has disintegrated around them.

Anyway, it's a simple tale, powerfully told, with some metafictional stuff around the edges which you can ignore if you want to, and it's only 170 well-spaced pages, so you'll knock it off in a couple of days during Wimbledon rain breaks.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

nia rest and deer rest

Normally the fact that I live in Wales while I work and occasionally socialise in England doesn't have any major impact on my life, except for the regular need to pay the bridge toll. There are little things you notice on the English side of the bridge, of course - the road signs only being in one language, the difficulty getting hold of ready supplies of Brains SA and Welsh cakes - but generally it's a fairly seamless transition. They even drive on the same side of the road and everything.

People's names is another obvious point of difference - while plenty of people in Wales are called Brian and Colin and Karen and the like, significantly fewer people in England are called Ieuan and Illtyd and Arianwen and Rhianedd and stuff like that. That all seems obvious, but there are name differences that are perhaps less obvious. For instance, when we decided to call our beautiful baby daughter Nia, not a name you run into every day in Wales but not exactly unusual either, it seems we underestimated how exotic and baffling it would be to non-Welsh people.

The two most usual mis-renderings are either to assume it's Mia, or to mispronounce it as Nye-ah (it's Nee-ah, rhymes with Mia and fear and beer. No-one's gone with Nina yet, but it's probably only a matter of time. I would guess the Nye-ah pronunciation thing may be influenced by the character of that name in Mission: Impossible II, as played by the lovely Thandie Newton, although I should point out that was actually spelt Nyah. I should also point out that M:I-2 is one of the stupidest films I've ever seen, though interestingly not the stupidest film in John Woo's oeuvre, since he also directed Face/Off.

The Welsh name Nia is of similar derivation to the Irish name Niamh, as it happens, though the latter is probably more well-known in England. Similar pronunciation issues exist, of course (it's "Neve", to rhyme with "Steve"). Both names mean "radiance" or something similar. Anyway, I thought I'd do a quick internet survey, so as to be all scientific and shit. Google's intelligent query-prompting thing offers the following results:

Note that there isn't actually a person called Nia Birmingham, as awesome as that would be; it's actually a large entertainment complex. As for the others, Nia Griffith is the Labour MP for Llanelli, Nia Long is an actress and Nia Parry is a TV presenter.

Wikipedia reveals a few more Nias - broadly these divide into four categories:
  • Proper Welsh people like Nia Griffith and Nia Parry as mentioned above, but also Nia Caron (actress), Nia Davies (politician), Nia Medi (actress), Nia Roberts (actress) and another Nia Roberts (TV presenter).
  • People who have the given name Nia but were given it because there is a name Nia of Swahili derivation, like Nia K├╝nzer (footballer) and the aforementioned Nia Long.
  • People who go by the name Nia but actually have a different given name for which Nia is either a shortened form or a nickname, like Nia Peeples (actress, short for Virenia), Nia Dinata (film director, short for Nurkurniati), Nia Ramadhani (just a nickname) and, lastly and probably most famously, Nia Vardalos (writer and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, short for Eugenia).
  • Things that are not actually people, like Nia vibrissa, which is a fungus, and Nia Nia and Nia Khorram, which are both places, one in Africa and one in Iran.