Friday, August 31, 2012

there's always a catch

Much has been written about Andrew Strauss' departure from the England captaincy this week, so I'll restrict myself to a couple of statistical observations. Firstly, Strauss ends his Test career with 21 centuries, just one short of equalling the record for an English batsman. It's a bit of a statistical oddity that the English record is so low, as the overall record for individual Test centuries stands at a monumental 51 (and since Sachin Tendulkar is still playing, this could yet go up).

If you survey the individual record-holders by country in the table below you'll see how low in the table England are, with only the Test-playing minnows (apologies to New Zealand) below them. England are also the only country where the record is jointly held. Also, curiously, two of the England record-holders had interruptions to the prime of their careers that robbed them of the chance to add to their tallies - Walter Hammond lost 7 years of the prime of his career to the Second World War, and Geoff Boycott voluntarily exiled himself from Test cricket for three years between 1974 and 1977 in a prolonged sulk at not being offered the England captaincy.

Strauss' retirement means that he won't be the man to break the record, but it almost certainly will go in the next year or so - ironically the next man on the list, also on 21 centuries, is none other than Kevin Pietersen, who is in the middle of a bit of a career hiatus himself at the moment, this one entirely of his own making. So the most likely scenario is that it'll be the new England captain Alastair Cook, who currently has 20, who'll break the record, perhaps some time in 2013.

WhereWhoHow many
IndiaSachin Tendulkar51
South AfricaJacques Kallis43
AustraliaRicky Ponting41
West IndiesBrian Lara34
Sri LankaMahela Jayawardene31
EnglandWalter Hammond22
EnglandColin Cowdrey22
EnglandGeoff Boycott22
New ZealandMartin Crowe17
ZimbabweAndy Flower12
BangladeshMohammad Ashraful5

Strauss' other record is that he has taken more catches as an outfielder than any other English cricketer, his total of 121 catches putting him one ahead of Colin Cowdrey and Ian Botham. Most of Strauss' catches were taken in the slips, most famously this electrifying effort to get rid of Adam Gilchrist in the Ashes Test at Trent Bridge in 2005.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

the last book I read

Idoru by William Gibson.

Colin Laney has a weird talent - he's able to detect patterns in computer data by picking out "nodal points". This makes him very useful in certain contexts and he's spent a while working for a TV network called Slitscan who specialise in celebrity stitch-ups and gossip.

That all ended in some unpleasantness, though, when Laney's pattern-recognition skills led him to correctly conclude that one of Slitscan's stalkees was about to top herself, and he made a botched and ultimately futile attempt at a real-life intervention.

So he's looking for another job. Luckily he's landed himself an interview for one over in Tokyo, recently rebuilt after a massive earthquake (as described in Virtual Light), where he meets the enigmatic Mr. Yamazaki and giant Australian bodyguard Keith Blackwell. It turns out they want him to do his data-sniffing thing on rock star Rez (of the band Lo/Rez), who has recently expressed a desire to get married to a lady called Rei Toei - nothing so unusual there except that she's a digital construct (a "synthespian") and not a real person. So basically Laney is supposed to find out if Rez has flipped his lid, or is being manipulated somehow, or if some other weirdness is going on, all by sifting through the spoor of his online existence.

At the same time 14-year-old Chia Pet McKenzie has been dispatched to Tokyo by her chapter of the international Lo/Rez fan club to try to find out what's going on. She gets talking to a woman called Maryalice on the plane and ends up inadvertently smuggling some contraband through customs for her. Her subsequent attempts to focus on what's going on with Lo/Rez are hampered by various heavy types' interest in the contraband - principally Maryalice's boyfriend Eddie and various scary Russian types who work for a shady outfit called the Kombinat.

In parallel with all this real-life stuff there is an accompanying narrative conducted solely in cyberspace - Laney's attempts to make sense of Rez's data, Chia's attempts to keep in touch with the international network of Lo/Rez fans, and increasingly influential interventions from the idoru, who it becomes clear is the human-friendly face of a massive and growing artificial intelligence. Influential in real life as well, as when it looks like Chia is in serious trouble with those who want to retrieve her smuggled package - which turns out to be some sort of nanotechnology starter kit - things are arranged so that honour is satisfied with the Kombinat, Chia is able to go home unmolested, and Rez and the idoru are free to take their relationship to the next level with some help from the nanotechnology gizmo.

This is a sort-of sequel to Virtual Light, but apart from a couple of brief appearances from Berry Rydell, one of the main protagonists of the earlier book, and being recognisably set in the same universe, there's not much of a narrative thread that links the two. They aren't that similar plot-wise, either, Virtual Light being (despite the title) relatively free of the sort of cyberspace shenanigans that were such a feature of Neuromancer, while Idoru has lots and lots of matrix-based action. Nothing wrong with that, of course, though one of the other things that Virtual Light had was a compelling plot, and for all the portentous hints that Rez and the idoru's relationship is significant of some Momentous Mystical Stuff about to happen (some sort of melding of human and AI with a bit of nanotechnology thrown in, presumably) none of that actually happens during the course of the book.

This isn't really that much of a problem, though, as Gibson's twisted visions of the future are compelling enough without any crash-bang action being required. That said this is probably the weakest of the three Gibsons I've read - as I've said in an embarrassingly large number of places, Neuromancer is one of the great novels of the second half of the 20th century, regardless of genre, and everyone should read it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

two-and-a-bit-item list of the day

Brand names that I never really "got" until having a belated forehead-slapping moment of "oh, riiiigghht!" revelatory clarity surprisingly recently.
  • Jonelle - well, it's just some vaguely French name, isn't it, probably some obscure little French linen goods company that got bought up by some big conglomerate or something. It was only when I noticed that the goods were only ever sold at branches of John Lewis and nowhere else that my brain made the (in hindsight completely obvious, as these things always are) vital connection and I realised that it's just "John L" said in a comedy French accent. Merde pour les cerveaux!
  • Titleist - I always wondered why people pronounced this one wrong all the time as "tight-list". Just look at the spelling, you idiots! It's clearly "tit-lyste"; probably some obscure little German golf supplies company that got bought up by some big conglomerate or something. It was only after seeing some TV adverts that used the same "tight-list" pronunciation that I had to digest the unpalatable fact that everyone else was right and I was wrong. Having swallowed that bitter pill it was a short mental journey to realising that it's meant to be "title-ist", i.e. one who wins a lot of titles. Scheiße für Gehirne!
I do still maintain that Titleist is a pretty badly-thought-out brand-name, though; something totally unambiguous in pronunciation terms that conveys the same message would be better, like perhaps Titlehound or Titlewrangler or Titlemonger. The only disadvantage of any of those would be the 50% increase in the size of golf balls that would be required in order to fit the logo on.

In terms of badly-thought-out advertising, though, you'd have to go a long way to beat the Enterprise Rent-A-Car advert that's currently doing the rounds. Here it is; check out the little exchange of trans-Atlantic mutual incomprehension that starts at about 22 seconds in:
Yank: Give Enterprise a try - just look for the aluminum signs!
Brit: Aluminium.
Yank: (laughs) No it's not.
Brit: It is. It's got a "u" in it.
Yank: Shut up!
Brit: No, I'm serious: aluminium.
Now this is of course all very droll in a two-nations-divided-by-a-common-language kind of way, but a moment's thought will reveal that it doesn't make any sense. In order for it to have made sense the British guy should have said "It's got an "i" in it", that being the letter by which the words "aluminum" and "aluminium" differ. Others have noticed as well. That the so-called "creatives" in whatever advertising agency dreamed the advert up (and it must be said that it's a pretty dreadful and lazy piece of clichéd hackery even aside from the crass error) just waved this through the review process without noticing it is a testament to the heroic amounts of cocaine they must all have been on at the time.

Just to be clear, incidentally, the deal that was struck with IUPAC in 1990 is that the Brits get their spelling of "aluminium" as the official standard, but that in return the Americans get their spelling of "sulfur" as the official standard. So actually the British guy in the video is right, despite also being wrong.

Friday, August 24, 2012

headline of the day

This one from a couple of days ago on the BBC website:

This is of course another crash blossom as previously mentioned here and here. Needless to say it is the murder of Delia Hughes by person or persons unknown that is the subject of investigation here, not the murder of various members of the police force by a group of crazed crime profilers, however much the headline might seem to suggest otherwise.

Monday, August 13, 2012

the last book I read

Age Of Iron by JM Coetzee.

Mrs. Curren is a retired classics professor living in Cape Town at the tail-end of the 1980s. Not only is the country locked in what turned out to be the vicious death-throes of the apartheid regime (although this wasn't apparent at the time), but on a more personal level has she just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

She starts to compose a letter to her daughter, long since escaped to America, in the anticipation that this will be the last contact they will have. As if to give her something other than dying of cancer to write about, things immediately start to kick off - a homeless man, Mr. Vercueil, takes up residence in her back garden, and eventually they strike up a grudging friendship and he moves into the house.

Meanwhile her housekeeper Florence's son Bheki has been in some low-level trouble with the law, and the police's callous lack of interest in his fate after a minor traffic incident puts him in hospital motivates Mrs. Curren to some uncharacteristic political activism. Following a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night, she drives out to a nearby black township and witnesses government troops burning it. Later the same night she sees Bheki's bullet-riddled corpse on the floor of a nearby house, and is rudely brought to the realisation that the black community's anger is not solely directed at those whites who are active agents of the oppressive apartheid regime, but also at those who acquiesce in the same oppression by living in the system it maintains, even if they salve their own consciences while doing so with a bit of woolly liberal hand-wringing at the awfulness of it all.

So she decides to take action - after all, what has she got to lose? She considers something spectacular like soaking herself in petrol and driving her car up to some government building, but that's all a bit...spectacular, not to mention painful. Some of the decision-making is taken out of her hands when one of Bheki's friends turns up at her house, closely pursued by the police, and there is a stand-off which ends predictably messily. Eventually she realises that messily is probably how her life is going to end as well, rather than on some neatly climactic note.

You'll remember I've dabbled with Coetzee before, in the form of Slow Man, fully five-and-a-bit years ago. That was quite self-referential and playful, albeit in Coetzee's own slightly po-faced way; this is a different beast altogether, much more like Disgrace in its ruthless dismantling of white liberal sensibilities and assumptions. That said, there is just the possibility, particularly on reading the last couple of pages, of reading the character of Vercueil as not just some random tramp but as some sort of angel of death ushering Mrs. Curren into the netherworld. That aside (and it could be just me) this is pretty stark and uncompromising stuff, a contrast to the heavily allusive and tangential approach to pretty much the same subject taken in Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, but none the worse for that, just the opposite in fact.

Here's a rare video of the famously reclusive Coetzee speaking in public, while introducing David Malouf (as also previously featured in this list) at a literary festival in Adelaide.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

the year of the sexist olympics

Leaving aside a bit of disagreement on how best to handle the foul stench emanating from their groinal areas, we're all pretty much down with the idea of equality for the ladies, right? And what better place to demonstrate how egalitarian and groovy we've all become than at the giant festival of all that's best about the human race, the Olympic Games? Especially with the influx of lady athletes from some of the Middle Eastern states that have previously not allowed them to compete - that's all good, right?

Well, let me just offer a small counterbalance to the warm fuzzy feeling everyone seems to be getting about this. While it's certainly true that there were a couple of female Saudi athletes competing in the games, in both cases they hardly represent your average Saudi woman. The judo contestant Wojdan Shahrkhani's father Ali is a judo referee, and while she grew up in Saudi Arabia she doesn't live there, and 800-metre runner Sarah Attar was born - and lives and studies - in California. It's also fair to say that this development - forced upon the Saudis and others under the threat of exclusion from the Games if they didn't comply - hasn't exactly been trumpeted and celebrated back in the country, nor has it yet resulted in any changes to the way girls and women are discouraged and indeed actively prevented from taking part in physical and sporting activities.

But, hey, at least us enlightened Westerners are all about the equality and the celebrating of sporting achievement regardless of gender. Weeeeeelll, yeah, no. Have a look at the series of bizarre reactions to American gymnast McKayla Maroney's being unable to conceal her disappointment at losing a vault contest she clearly felt she should have won. No-one but herself to blame, as she overcooked the take-off on her last vault, pretty much missed the horse altogether and did a fairly spectacular arse-plant into the mat. She still won the silver medal, but clearly was pretty pissed off about the whole thing, and why not. Clearly female Olympians, and female Olympic gymnasts in particular, aren't really meant to want to win quite so nakedly, though, and should instead stand around smiling winsomely under several inches of slap and glitter and try not to sweat or anything similarly unladylike. I mean, I think there's a case for bringing some sort of prosecution against her and her parents for their egregious mis-spelling of "Michaela" as "McKayla", but that's about my only critcism.

In the spirit of not taking cheap shots at female gymnasts' appearance, I abandoned the link-following activities I was indulging in solely to garner a few cheap laughs about Beth Tweddle's teeth. I must just highlight the snippet that I found in the comments to this YouTube clip, though, as it may just be the greatest typo in the history of the world:
but she has shown that she is a world class qymnast- well done Beth!
I think we'd have to get our heads together and thrash out some clear rules, but the women's quimnastics is something I'd really like to see brought in for Rio 2016, even just as a demonstration event.

Just as a footnote, combine the religious intolerance, quickness to claim "offence", nasty authoritarian streak and general sense that there are ways in which women should behave and being a bit too assertive and shouty really isn't quite the thing and you end up with the situation the members of art-terrorism group Pussy Riot find themselves in in a Moscow courthouse at the moment. I suppose the difference is that while I reluctantly accept that there is an element of devout religious belief (however misguided that is in itself) associated with the restrictions placed on the Middle Eastern athletes, the religious element here is a pretty flimsy smokescreen, Pussy Riot's real crime being criticism of lovable old judo enthusiast and ex-KGB chief Vladimir Putin.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

kneale before zod

Just a quick addition to the last post: my teasing reference and subliminal link to Nigel Kneale's 1968 drama The Year Of The Sex Olympics set me off on a bit of a YouTube odyssey through some old salvaged 1960s sci-fi drama clips. TYOTSO itself is a satire of an imagined dystopian future where the public are kept docile by being fed a televisual diet of increasingly explicit "reality" programmes, all of which seems strangely prescient now, and stars Leonard Rossiter (pictured) and Brian Cox among others. Nigel Kneale was most famously the creator of the Quatermass series, and by an odd coincidence the man whose given name he borrowed for his central character, Sir Bernard Lovell, died only a couple of days ago. As well as TYOTSO, much of the Quatermass stuff is available in full on YouTube, as well as the haunted house drama The Stone Tape from 1972. Here's a BBC Four documentary about Kneale, with some interesting interviews, from 2003.

Other things that may be of interest include a couple of episodes of the series Out Of The Unknown, in particular Thirteen To Centaurus and The Dead Past, adapted from short stories of the same name by JG Ballard and Isaac Asimov respectively. Both men are pretty heavily anthologised, so these stories probably appear in several places, but I have these two in the collections The Voices Of Time and Earth Is Room Enough respectively.

Nigel Kneale was also the husband of Judith Kerr, who wrote the Mog series of children's books, and father of Matthew Kneale, who wrote the excellent English Passengers, which I recommend thoroughly to you.

the year of the sex olympics

I suppose it's obligatory to do a post at least tangentially related to the Olympics, so here goes. Tangentially, though, remember, so no complaining.

Firstly, here's the photo-finish picture (nicked from here) from Sunday's men's 100 metres final. No particular need to consult it to find out who won, nor indeed who was second, though it might have been useful in determining that convicted drugs cheat Justin Gatlin pipped non-convicted non-drugs cheat Tyson Gay (aka Tyson Homosexual) to the bronze medal by one hundredth of a second. However, it does provide a superb example of the phenomenon of "ski foot" I described earlier, modelled here by none other than Usain Bolt himself.

As you'll remember, this phenomenon happens when an athlete treads on the finishing line in the act of crossing it. Interestingly Bolt did the same thing when he won the World Championships (in a world record time of 9.58 seconds) in Daegu in 2009.

Now, no doubt a lot of the ladies will have enjoyed watching Usain Bolt run around in his close-fitting shorts, and there's no doubt that one of the joys of the Olympics is seeing the remarkable feats that the human body is capable of when trained specifically for certain events, however strange and esoteric those events might seem. Or, to put it another way, gawping at the startling lycra-clad loveliness on display by your chosen gender or genders. And it's not just the spectators; by all accounts the athletes are jumping each other at every opportunity as well, and why not.

Clearly the lovely Victoria Pendleton and the equally lovely Jessica Ennis (despite apparently being a big fat heifer) are high on most straight men's lists, as are the beach volleyballists in a much more general sense (i.e. the sense of not actually knowing any of the individuals' names). A couple of my personal favourites are Croatian high jumper and freaky lanky bug-eyed sexy space alien Blanka Vlašić, who sadly had to make a late withdrawal from the 2012 Games owing to injury, and toothy American sprinter Allyson Felix. Now I know what you're going to say: Felix is one of those tedious American sporting God-botherers, and probably (like her team-mate Lolo Jones) on some kind of tiresome virginity kick, so forget it. To which I reply along the same lines as the Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons:
You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that's most important to her. Surely you understand that.
You probably found that quite disturbing, so let's move on. What you'll no doubt find even more disturbing though, as I did, is the shocking revelation that the whole London Olympics opening ceremony, which you thought was nothing more sinister than a sometimes lumpy but overall less embarrassing than we'd all feared cheesy showbiz spectacle, was in fact some kind of huge ritualised Satanic invocation designed to conjure up some sort of invasion of blood-sucking Illuminati space lizards. Or something like that, anyway, if you can make sense of David Icke's ramblings. Also, as if that were not plainly and self-evidently obvious enough, there are giant outlines of heraldic creatures literally carved into the landscape around London, hidden from view only through the flimsy device of the outlines being thinly disguised as roads, rivers and the like, and no doubt by some freaky Matrix-esque reptilian mind-control shit.

Lastly, speaking of the high jump, as I was a moment ago, reminds me that I was watching this fascinating video of the high jump event at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City earlier, 1968 being the year that Dick Fosbury revolutionised the sport by introducing the "Fosbury flop" to major athletics competition. It's fascinating to look back at a time not that long ago when everyone except Fosbury was doing the event in what seems like a horribly archaic and inefficient way, invariably using the straddle technique, like this. Despite it looking horrendous (no doubt partly due to its unfamiliarity), and the undoubted higher physical efficiency of the Fosbury flop (which allows the athlete's centre of gravity to pass under the bar rather than having to be hauled over it), it's mildly surprising that the world records using the two techniques are only ten centimetres apart, Javier Sotomayor's 2.45 metres with the flop beating Vladimir Yashchenko's 2.35 metres with the straddle.