Tuesday, October 30, 2012

you're going to need a bigger boat

We haven't done a halibut-related post for a while, so here is the news for halibuts:
  • No halibuts were involved today when an Afghan policeman opened fire on British troops at a checkpoint. A spokesman for halibuts expressed his relief that no halibuts were involved. 
  • One halibut was, however, involved in a tragic trawling incident which resulted in him being, erm, trawled. And then cut up and eaten. This is just the latest in a series of giant halibut stories including this one from 2008 (as previously featured on this blog) but also this one from 2009this one from 2010 and this one from 2011 (this is the fish in the picture - it's the one on the right without the wellies).
A couple of questions arise from that second story, actually - firstly there's the claim that the fish yielded "more than 1,000 portions". That seems like a lot, even from a fish weighing almost exactly twice as much as I do at 186kg (that's a touch over 29 stone in old money). Let's take a look at the maths - I'd say a single portion of fish, if you're not going to be too stingy about it, weighs between 150 and 180 grams. It might even be more if you're inclined to generous portions, but that'll do. Now, a thousand 180g portions of fish (or indeed lead, feathers or anything else) weighs 180kg, which leaves precious little room for throwing anything away, in fact it would mean that all the accumulated guts, eyes, bones, fins and bits of skin weighed a mere 6kg, i.e. a frankly implausible 3.2% of the fish. Even the frugal 150g portion only leaves 36kg of wastage, which at 19.4% of the original fish still seems a touch on the low side to me. And they said over 1,000 portions, remember. I'm not sure I buy it. Or rather I'm not sure I would buy it, if a restaurant offered me 0.1% of the edible portion of a 186kg fish, as I strongly suspect that would be rather a small meal. As a comparison the 2010 story linked above reckons the 220kg fish snagged there would have yielded 970 portions, which if we assume the same portion size range yields a wastage ratio of between 21% and 34%.

Secondly, what is the plural of halibut? I've used "halibuts" in the first couple of paragraphs above, largely for comic effect, but actually I think "halibut" sounds more sensible. I think there may be a rule here, as I can't think of a fish where the plural form sounds sensible compared to just re-using the singular. One cod, two cod, three haddock, five salmon, twelve hake, eighty-six mackerel, four trillion goldfish, and so on. The last one there may hold the key to the mystery - does this rule apply because "fish" is its own plural, and all sub-divisions of the "fish" category therefore inherit their pluralisation rules from it?

Lastly, do not diss the halibut, whether singular or plural. Even a singular one, if it's big enough, can fuck you up pretty good. So watch yourself.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

(I'd) like a virgin

This Daily Mail story about a young Brazilian woman called Catarina Migliorini auctioning off her virginity on the internet (apparently some Japanese guy snagged it for $780,000 in the end) reminded me that I'd collected a group of similar stories a couple of years back with the intention of knocking them together into a blog post, but somehow never got round to doing it. Here's the contents of my Virginity Auction File:
  • Bristol University student Rosie Reid auctioned off her virginity for £8,400 back in February 2004 to a middle-aged businessman called (or possibly not) "Tom". Her lesbian lover kept a lonely vigil in a room a few doors down the corridor.
  • A Peruvian model called Graciela put her virginity up for auction in April 2005, but changed her mind before any money changed hands.
  • Raffaela Fico, an Italian men's magazine model, put her virginity up for auction, with an ambitious reserve of 1 million euros, in September 2008. This one seems pretty definitely to have been a publicity stunt.
  • Natalie Dylan from San Diego, California appears to be the current record-holder in financial terms after attracting bids of up to £2.5 million (or, alternatively, up to one live tiger). There does seem to be some doubt over the genuineness of her, hem hem, "status", and also whether the deal was ever actually done
  • Alina Percea from Romania agreed to surrender the precious flower of her maidenhood to some Italian guy in Venice in May 2009. This one has a happy ending, though: after transacting a deal worth in the region of £8,800 for an unprotected boning the man in question wanted to see her again, presumably to cash in a few more goes for free. Ah, romance. 
  • Evelyn Duenas, 28, originally from Ecuador but lately resident in Spain, auctioned off her virginity in July 2009 to help pay for her mother's medical care. As with Natalie Dylan, although there were rumours of bids up to a dizzying £2 million, it's unclear whether the deal was ever consummated, as it were. 
  • An anonymous 16-year-old from Newry, Northern Ireland offered her virginity for sale online in January 2010, but changed her mind, very probably after becoming exasperated by various drooling newspaper hacks wasting her time. 
  • An anonymous 19-year-old from New Zealand accepted an offer in the region of £20,000 in February 2010. 
I'm sure there were probably several others, most likely back in the heady days of 2009 and 2010 when there was one of these stories cropping up every few weeks.

Now of course you can imagine the sort of unmitigated horror that is the comment thread on a Daily Mail article dealing with this sort of thing, and indeed I would urge you as a general rule never to look at a Daily Mail comment thread on any article on any subject, lest your eyes see things that can never be unseen. Those of us who aspire to a more rational outlook on life, however, can use this as a handy calibration tool to try and analyse our own reactions to these stories, both instinctive and (hopefully) more considered.

What, after all, one might say, is the problem here? As long as the women in question are not being coerced into doing this, as long as the men they end up transacting business with adhere to the specified rules, everyone tries to have a good time within the slightly odd parameters set out in the arrangement, and no-one gets hurt, then surely it's all good. There might be some legal niceties to be straightened out given that this may well be considered to be prostitution in some jurisdictions, but in general as long as you aren't soliciting on the street or giving Hugh Grant a blowjob in a car, then you're probably OK.

On the other hand, one might also say: well, that's all fine, but that blithely ignores that there is a thing called the patriarchy which infects everything everyone does, be they male or female. One could, after all, make the same argument about prostitution in a more general sense being an example of rugged entrepreneurship and business enterprise and all that crap, and in theory it could be, but you know and I know that it's mainly seedy fat blokes running strings of terrified malnourished dead-eyed underage Eastern European refugees out of a warehouse somewhere in East London: i.e. scarcely very empowering at all.

So the whole thing is a little bit problematic in terms of Knowing What To Think. On top of all that, what is this virginity fetish all about anyway? I mean, we all start out that way, and in your formative teenage years there is a pretty good chance that at least one of the involvees in any act of furtive and cack-handed fumblage will be a virgin, but as a general rule sex is like most other things (close harmony singing, yachting, canasta) in that a bit of practice and experience goes a long way. One might also formulate a rule that says any sex-based thing heavily fetishised by Islam, a religion more intensely weird about sex than most others (and, let's face it, they all are to a greater or lesser extent), should legitimately be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

My gorgeous and generously-cheeked daughter Nia and legendary Anglo-American film director Alfred Hitchcock, as immortalised in the little line drawing made famous by the title sequence of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It is claimed that the original line drawing was drawn by Hitchcock himself.

Friday, October 19, 2012


This Daily Mail story about Zoe Ball appears mainly to be a tie-in for her presenting gig on one of the Strictly Come Dancing spin-off shows, with the added bonus of this year's contestant line-up featuring (very briefly, as it turned out) her father Johnny. To be honest I'm a bit mystified about the inclusion of the baby element in the story, as her daughter was born in 2010, but I guess it makes it all sound more exciting. I do hope that the implication in the sidebar headline is just an unfortunate error of phrasing, though, otherwise it sounds as if something unsavoury may have been going on.

I'm sure that's not true, incidentally, though what certainly is true is that Johnny Ball's huge stock of goodwill among people of a certain age (myself very much included) who loved his science-based shows (principally Think Of A Number and Think Again) back in the early 1980s has been eroded fairly considerably in recent years by his idiocy on the subject of climate change. What is most amusing in his paranoid rantings is the suggestion that, because a Google search on his name came back with some pornographic images, essentially the Illuminati had sabotaged the entire internet in an attempt to discredit him, or something. As someone says in the comments to the Deltoid article:
Anyone who does a search for “Johnny Ball” and is surprised and alarmed by porn coming back as a result needs to be warned that they will continually find the internet confusing and alarming and may want to consider never using it.
I'm less concerned by David Bellamy's similar descent into denialism lunacy, as I always thought he was a bit of a pillock. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

that'll buff out, no problem

You'll recall my frustrated and directionless ire when some incompetent buffoon dinked my rear door in Tesco's car park. Well, after three and a half years of damage-free driving since then, the car sustained its second helping of damage a couple of months ago during a camping trip to Christchurch in the Forest of Dean. And to answer the obvious question, no, this one wasn't my fault either.

It was a dark and stormy night.....well, no, OK, it wasn't, but it was a torrentially rainy afternoon, and some water must have worked its way into the delicate electronic circuitry of the automatic barrier at the entrance to the campsite. So once I'd been into the reception area, handed over some money and returned to my car, blissfully unaware of the cruel fate that was about to befall me, I tapped in the barrier code I'd been given at reception, the barrier rose gracefully and I duly proceeded in a forwardly direction.

At which point all hell broke loose - the barrier, having risen in the designated manner, then decided to drop down sharply onto the top of my car and then rise and fall randomly while scraping along the paintwork, making that cackling OM NOM NOM noise that the big pot plant in Little Shop Of Horrors made. And we're not talking one of those flimsy plastic single-bar barriers like they have on the Severn Bridge either; this was the proper half a level-crossing gate job with the metal curtain/fringe thingy under it to inflict maximum damage. So there was a certain amount of scrapey and denty damage to the car:

Now clearly this was all the campsite's fault, and to be fair they shrugged and said, yeah, our bad, get it fixed and we'll sort you out, guv. So I availed myself of the services of Ali at ChipsAway, who in addition to being pretty cheap in comparison to other places will come and pick up your car from your house and deliver it back afterwards, which is nice. Here's the post-repair picture:

Good, isn't it? Unless you took some sort of laser sighting along the panel, you'd probably never know.

the last book I read

Espedair Street by Iain Banks.

Daniel "Weird" Weir is a rock star. Well, an ex-rock star these days, but a ruddy great big globe-bestriding rock star in his day. These days he's living in a converted folly somewhere in Glasgow, having some low-key drunken adventures with various random blokes down the local pub (who think he's his own caretaker), pondering over The Meaning Of It All and trying to decide whether to top himself.

Back in the day, though, Daniel was the bass player and principal songwriter for Frozen Gold, rock legends of the mid to late 1970s. In addition to the multi-platinum albums and the sell-out gigs at the international enormodomes, Frozen Gold collectively managed their fair share of the obligatory rock star misbehaviour, from drugs to smashing up hotel rooms to more life-threatening stuff involving light aircraft. The band's eventual demise is brought about in slightly more mundane circumstances, though, when singer and guitarist Davey Balfour is electrocuted on stage.

The band splits up, Daniel knocks out an indifferently-received solo album, and retires to count his money and have everyone leave him alone. When one of the record company stooges contacts him to break the news that the band's other frontperson (and Daniel's occasional ex-lover) Christine Brice has been shot dead by a crazed fan in Ohio, Daniel decides that the best thing to do would be to kill himself. Cleverly picking a method which will provide him with plenty of time to change his mind, he decides to go to Iona and drown himself in the sea. Sure enough, on the way he has an epiphany in a hotel somewhere up the west side of Loch Lomond upon hearing someone playing some old Frozen Gold tunes in the room next door, and decides that maybe life is worth living after all.

So he heads back to Glasgow, signs away a large portion of his fortune, gives his old drinking buddy McCann the keys to the folly, and heads off north to seek out his old high-school sweetheart Jean Webb, having fortuitously run into her brother in Paisley and discovered that she's recently divorced. Hopping on a train to Arisaig, he asks around until he finds someone who knows her, and parks himself on her doorstep, hoping that she'll be pleased to see him.

This was Iain Banks' fourth novel, published in 1987, and it's probably the most orthodox and non-experimental of all the ones I've read. The rock theme is obviously one close to Banks' heart, as he's clearly a big music fan. Any book featuring the lyrics of imaginary rock songs skirts dangerously close to ridiculousness, though, especially as Banks is clearly a bit of a 70s prog-rock boy, and some of the lyrics do verge on the flowery in places. The general theme of - yes, drugs, sex, excess, playing the guitar on the beach while necking champagne, that stuff is all very well, but will it really make you happy? Hmmm? Really?  No, what you really need is the love of a good woman and the support of a close-knit village community, even if some of them are a bit churchier than you'd like - is all a bit on the cheesy side, even though it's all written with great charm.

Banks also has a repeated theme of people who have enough material wealth never to have to worry about any of that ever again, and how they nonetheless manage to find stuff to worry about: Daniel Weir here, Kate Telman and her cronies in The Business, the Wopuld family in The Steep Approach To Garbadale, and of course The Culture in general in the books Banks writes in his "M" incarnation.

Much of the rock misbehaviour and general incident in the book echoes (no doubt intentionally) real-life stuff: Christine's assassination after some ill-advised religion-baiting echoes John Lennon's, Davey Balfour's onstage electrocution echoes various similar incidents, Leslie Harvey of Stone The Crows in 1972 for one, and even Daniel Weir's nickname echoes the lyrics of David Bowie's 1972 hit Ziggy Stardust:

Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly
And The Spiders From Mars
He played it left hand, but made it too far
Became the special man, then we were Ziggy's band
"Weird" here refers to Trevor Bolder, who, like Daniel Weir, was a bass player. 

Further real-life interest, to me at least, is provided by the locations, Paisley in particular, since I spent a fair bit of time hanging out there with my ex-girlfriend Anne between about 1998 and 2002, as it was where her parents lived. So I have in fact been to Espedair Street, not that it's particularly exciting in itself. As it happens I have also been to Arisaig, or at least passed through it on the way to this remarkable campsite on the sand dunes, where we stopped off in order to facilitate getting the early ferry to Skye from Mallaig the following morning.

Anyway, I would rate Espedair Street more highly (among the non-M Bankses I've read) than Canal Dreams and The Business, but below The Wasp Factory, Complicity and Whit. You should probably start with those.

Monday, October 15, 2012

now that's what I call a trade union CONGRESS

Never let it be said that I don't like a bit of politics from time to time; I mean, who doesn't? I do tend to avoid the party conferences, though, partly because a lot of the main action tends to happen during the week when I'm otherwise occupied, but also because they are - the odd Portillo moment aside -  so deadly dull. Even the leaders' keynote speeches towards the end of the conferences are usually irredeemably drab and awful, but they do provide an opportunity for the keen amateur social anthropologist to observe one of the more bizarre political rituals - the public parading of the political wife, followed by the public demonstration of her uncontrollable sexual arousal following her man having given his all behind the podium.

So basically the drill seems to be: party leader (still invariably male, even after all these years) gets up on stage, talks for a couple of hours - formerly from behind a big podium, but the thing these days seems to be to wander around the front of the stage, thereby demonstrating that you've memorised the speech by heart, but not quite knowing what to do with your hands - and then finishes with some slightly clunky crescendo, at which point the audience realises it's all over and goes mental with a standing ovation in the obligatory fashion. At this point the party leader stands around raising his hand for a couple of minutes and blinking a bit as if to say: all this for me, well, gosh, and then grabs his wife (who has made her way onto the stage) and gives her a big lingering kiss on the lips while she gazes up at him admiringly as if to say: I am so rampantly moist for your policies right now; also, cock.

Here's a little montage of the kisses from the 2012 conference season:

It is peculiar to have to remind ourselves that it's 2012, and all three spouses are career women in their own right to a greater or lesser extent - Miriam Clegg and Justine Thornton are lawyers, and Samantha Cameron (who, I should remind you, was a contemporary of mine at Bristol University, though we didn't move in quite the same social circles) has a slightly comedy job working for ludicrous luxury goods company Smythson of Bond Street, as befits someone only slightly posher than the Queen. And yet they still have to be wheeled out to prove the virility of our glorious leaders - not only can John Q Politician talk for an hour without recourse to notes, he's still got enough left in the tank to service the missus afterwards, and a good thing too, because she's hot for his criminal justice policies.

I predict that this will go one of two ways - either sanity will prevail and the whole thing will be ditched as a cringingly embarrassing sexist anachronism, or someone (and it could be me) will make a fortune patenting the Conference-O-Matic speech podium and integral spousal sex platform with full pelvic height adjustment for easy insertion without having to break your verbal stride. So the missus comes up on stage with 30 seconds or so to go, hops up onto the platform, hitches up her dress, and then it's "so, in summary, the party must go forward, not back [knickers off], look to the future, not the past [unzip, drop trousers], and the future of Britain will be NNNNNGGGGGGHHH [insertion] safe in our hands. Thank you." [standing ovation, commence furious thrusting]. Well it would certainly bring back some of the old cynics who have given up watching; I might even have a look in.

On the subject of sexism in politics, I must just give a quick tip of the hat to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (she's an atheist, you know) for her epic parliamentary smackdown of reptilian opposition leader Tony Abbott last week. It's difficult enough for a woman to become leader of a political party (see above), let alone Prime Minister, and for the tiny number that do the day-to-day sexism and sniping and casual dismissiveness must pile up towards the eyeballs on a regular basis. Margaret Thatcher remained immune to it all by virtue of being a psychopath, but that's not an option available to most. So it was quite refreshing and cathartic to see Abbott getting both barrels; top marks also to the various political analysis websites for the extensive post-speech use of the phrase "ripping a new one".

Thursday, October 11, 2012

horny, porny and corny

I was unaware of the irony of my linking of Fifty Shades Of Grey and the Twilight series at the time I wrote that previous post; just goes to show the value of doing a bit of research first.

Anyway, it turns out that one of the principal reasons that there are so many similarities between the two things is that E.L. James started out writing slightly porny Twilight fanfiction on the internet, allegedly under the pseudonym "Snowqueens Icedragon".

She eventually rejigged the original work, changed the main characters' names, removed all the neck-bitey stuff in favour of some more bondage, and eventually sold it to a meatspace publisher, whereupon it sold a gazillion copies.

the last book I read

Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge.

Douglas Ashburner is one of those grey little men that were the source of much comical mileage back in the 1970s, trapped in a fairly mundane marriage and with an unrewarding job. In a desperate bid to enliven things a bit he's embarked on an affair with Nina St. Clair, a stereotypically temperamental artist. Not only does Nina have a bit of a thing for uncomfortable sex standing up in the kitchen (just in case her husband comes home halfway through and she has to shoo Douglas out the back door), but she's persuaded Douglas to come on a trip to Russia with her, presumably at least partly with the promise of some sex of the lying down uninterrupted variety.

Now obviously Douglas can't just say to the wife: right, love, I'm off to Russia with my mistress for a bit, see you when I get back, don't forget to water the aspidistra, so he cooks up a cock and bull story about going on a fishing trip to the Scottish Highlands, and then hot-foots it to the airport with Nina and her two travelling companions Bernard (another artist) and Enid.

Almost as soon as they get to Russia things start to go awry - Douglas' suitcase gets lost, and after an initial night in the hotel Nina suddenly disappears. Nonetheless Olga Fiodorovna, the interpreter assigned to Douglas' party for the duration of their trip, is keen that they press on and do the requisite sightseeing and visiting of sites of revolutionary significance. It becomes clear during all this that the various dignitaries they meet seem to think Douglas is someone other (and more important) than he actually is; weirdly, everyone seems to know Nina as well, though there is no sign of her in person.

The hapless party ploughs on through Russia in a haze of vodka-fuelled dinners and comical misunderstandings, including a comical misunderstanding on a train where Douglas ends up accidentally having sex with someone, as you do. At all times they are assured that Nina is just ill, and being cared for in a sanatorium somewhere, and will rejoin them presently. Eventually the party returns to Moscow to pack up before returning to Britain, at which point Douglas finds a cryptic note in Nina's handwriting with an address on it. Hijacking the airport taxi to take him to the address, he finds himself arrested as a spy and detained.

And, um, that's it. Unlike in Every Man For Himself, it's never exactly clear what's going on at any point here. Is Nina really sick? Or dead? Or has she just, as Bernard suggests, got cold feet about something and buggered off back to Britain early? And what of Bernard and Enid? Does Bernard really secretly speak Russian, as Douglas suspects? And what has he been doing all those drawings of? Are these the same drawings that turn up in Douglas' fishing rod case at the end and get him arrested as a spy?

Winter Garden was published in 1980, and seems quaintly old-fashioned in some ways now: the heavily constrained tourism options open to westerners during the Brezhnev years, but also the way the principal characters act - like in Hotel Du Lac if you weren't told otherwise you'd put Douglas Ashburner at 60-something, but from the clues given in the book you have to conclude he's mid- to late-40s or so. Having one of the main characters (presumably of a similar age) being called Enid doesn't help either, that being one of those names that is irredeemably associated with old people these days.

Anyway, like the other short novels by ladies of a certain age as listed here, here, here and here among other places, this is tremendously sly and knowing and captures certain aspects of human interaction very concisely. What you don't get is any clear idea of what's going on - as this review says, even in comparison with the the rest of Bainbridge's output Winter Garden is particularly enigmatic and opaque. That's not to say it isn't highly enjoyable though, because it is; I just prefer to know what's going on. I don't generally demand that it be spoon-fed to me; I can work it out, but the information has to be there somewhere.

Beryl Bainbridge died in 2010, between my reading of the only previous book of hers I've read [postscript: actually this isn't true, as I've read her 1977 Whitbread Award winner Injury Time as well, which dents the symmetry of the theory a bit] and this one. She therefore joins Russell Hoban on the list of people who have been killed as a result of my reading their novels; sorry about that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Formerly outrageous hamsterphagic comedian and reality TV star, and current 1970s sex abuse accusee Freddie Starr, and former EastEnders matriarch and comedy earring model Pat Butcher.

Monday, October 08, 2012

storm in a tee cup

A couple of follow-up thoughts on recent posts:

I meant to add to the previous post, having inflicted the terrible lame punning title on you, that if journeyman European Tour pro and one-time tournament winner Graeme Storm ever makes the Ryder Cup team (which I strongly suspect will never happen), then I will be extremely disappointed if the media don't come up with a headline of the form STORM ON THE RYDERS or something very similar.

Also, more shouting at the radio today - the Book Of The Week concerned maps, and therefore sounded interesting, well, until it started anyway. As soon as it did it incurred my wrath with a lot of waffle about Google Earth and satnav and "well, couldn't it be said that maps these days point the way not so much from A to B as from, in a very real sense, ourselves, to, as it were, erm, somewhere else", compounded by the oft-repeated claim that fold-up paper maps are a quaint relic of a bygone age, an accompaniment to some imagined soft-focus 1970s family outing with the Cortina estate and the gingham tablecloth and the Spam sandwiches.

In fact, as the constant stream of stories in the media about people having to be rescued demonstrates, setting out without a paper map is a recipe for disaster, regardless of whether you've got a GPS or a smartphone or some other electrical gizmo with you. Electrical gizmos get wet and malfunction. Electrical gizmos have batteries, which run out. Electrical gizmos get dropped on a rock and broken. Electrical gizmos lose sight of the satellite they're getting their information from. And then, in pretty much all those circumstances, you're fucked. Unless of course you've got a map (and ideally a compass) on you. Granted, this does presume you have the ability to read a map and operate a compass, but if you can't do that then it's probably best you aren't allowed out of doors unsupervised anyway. All the major walking sites, as well as the gizmo manufacturers, issue dire warnings about never relying solely on electronic navigational aids. The additional pitfall of using a smartphone in particular as a navigational aid, of course, is that in a subset of the circumstances described above (wetness, smashage, battery death) you've lost not only your ability to navigate but also your ability to call for help.

So the paper map - or the ritzy laminated versions if you're going somewhere like Dartmoor or the Peak District where it will more than likely shit it down constantly - is still very much alive, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. That Dash4It link is the place to go for OS maps, incidentally, as they are much cheaper than in the shops, and they do free delivery. So if you're currently lost on Dartmoor, pull up the site, order the relevant map, put your last known GPS coordinates in as the delivery location, and then hunker down behind a grassy tussock with a KitKat until help arrives.

I should add that I have no beef with electronic navigational gizmos per se - I own a GPS which I use regularly (though mainly for recording track info rather than navigation) and the smartphone apps using the OS data like BackCountry Navigator and ViewRanger look pretty good. I do take a map as well, though. I assume that also taking stuff like waterproofs, a torch and something to eat goes without saying, but you never know.

Finally, books. I was over at The Mall the other day, and a bit of browsing around WH Smith and Waterstone's revealed the in hindsight completely unsurprising fact that literally everyone is now writing 50 Shades Of Grey rip-offs (or rips-off, if you insist). If you think I may be exaggerating for comic effect, I quite literally am not, as I trust these photographs prove:

It's very difficult to criticise these books purely for their choice of subject matter, since after all what people get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms, or indeed rubber-lined porn dungeons, is no-one's business but their own, and as long as everyone's past the age of consent and enjoys themselves and no-one gets hurt (unless they want to) then it's all good. Nonetheless the themes (in 50 Shades anyway, I can't speak for Bruised Perineum Of Guilty Delight and the rest of them) of female abasement to some mysterious super-rich but troubled pervert whose penchant for stalky manipulation and bondage induces (for some reason) uncontrollably orgasmic sexual frenzy in his (always younger, always virginal) lady friend raise some questions over the psychopathology that underlies all this stuff, and whether it's entirely healthy.

Bizarrely, one can't even escape into the safe and comforting world of children's literature, because the shelves over in that section are literally groaning with the various instalments of the Twilight series, which is essentially just the same sort of thing but with added teen angst and weird crypto-Mormon sexual morality. And werewolves.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

ryders on the storm

Much gloaty rejoicing after Europe's remarkable Ryder Cup victory last weekend, and why on earth not. I was down in Swanage for the annual pub crawl so I didn't get to see very much of it, but I kept up with events in real time through the magic of smartphone technology.

There are a couple of modern-day bits of received wisdom about the Ryder cup that people accept unquestioningly, and they are:

1) Europe are better at the doubles formats because they have better "team spirit" for some reason, but struggle in the singles because the USA team tends to be stronger man-for-man.

Here's some analysis of the scores for the last 17 Ryder Cups, since it started being Europe v USA at The Greenbrier in 1979:

Year Foursomes Fourballs Doubles Singles Overall
1979 3 5 11 17
1981 2 6 10½ 4 8 18½
1983 4 4 4 4 8 8 13½ 14½
1985 4 4 5 3 9 7 16½ 11½
1987 6 2 10½ 15 13
1989 3 5 6 2 9 7 5 7 14 14
1991 2 6 6 2 8 8 13½ 14½
1993 5 3 13 15
1995 5 3 2 6 7 9 14½ 13½
1997 5 3 10½ 4 8 14½ 13½
1999 10 6 13½ 14½
2002 8 8 15½ 12½
2004 6 2 5 3 11 5 18½
2006 5 3 5 3 10 6 18½
2008 7 9 11½ 16½
2010 5 3 5 7 14½ 13½
2012 3 5 3 5 6 10 14½ 13½
Totals 69 67 76 60 145 127 96½ 107½ 241½ 234½

So we can see that it is indeed true that Europe do better at the "doubles" formats, quite markedly so in the case of the fourballs. And it is indeed true that the USA tend to do better in the singles. An alternative view of the results gives:
  • Europe have won the doubles competition 9 times to USA's 5, with 3 draws
  • USA have won the singles competition 11 times to Europe's 6
Other statistical nuggets include the following:
  • Comeback victories (i.e. overall victory after being behind after the doubles) have been achieved by USA in 1993 and 1999, and by Europe in 1995 and 2012
  • The draw in 1989 was unique (thanks largely to Tiger Woods - see below), but the smallest possible margin of victory, 14½-13½, has occurred seven times, USA winning by that margin in 1983, 1991 and 1999, and Europe in 1995, 1997, 2010 and 2012
  • The Cup changed hands in 1985, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2002, 2008 and 2010.
  • While Europe pretty much always seem to start as underdogs, they have now won 5 of the last 6 competitions, 7 of the last 9, and 9 of the last 14. 
2) Tiger Woods is rubbish in the Ryder Cup because he's not really a "team" guy, and gets frustrated when he has to rely on the efforts of others whom he regards as inferior.

I was very interested in Woods' comments after his last-hole 3-putt bogey and generous concession of a putt gifted Francesco Molinari a half in their match. And a very significant half it was too, because it made the match score 14½-13½ in Europe's favour, rather than the 14-14 draw it had been shaping up to be. Woods' reaction to this was basically: meh, whatevs, Europe were going to keep the Cup anyway, so basically I just couldn't be arsed to line up the putt properly or stir my multi-millionaire arse to concentrate and make an effort just for another five minutes. Regardless of the destination of the cup, the difference between drawing the match and losing it is clearly huge, and was obviously evident to the European captain José María Olazábal who went to the trouble of going over to Molinari on the fairway to impress upon him that he was going to try and win the hole, halve the match and win the match overall or he, Olazábal, was going to smack Molinari repeatedly over the head with a paella pan, and quite rightly too.

I'm not sure why I was as irritated by all that as I was, but I find it infuriating - if the match score had been, say, 17-10 rather than 14-13 as Woods and Molinari stood on the last tee then a case could have been made for agreeing a half there and then (though my personal view is that they should have been made to finish - why would you not want to win your own match, after all?), but the overall result was still in the balance. I think what makes it stick in the throat particularly is that you can be absolutely certain that if Woods came to the 18th tee in a major, let's say tied for third and knowing that he couldn't catch the leader, but knowing that a birdie would get him second on his own, you can bet that he would be busting a gut to try and get one, and knowing him probably would. There's an undercurrent of petulance to it: yeah, OK, you won, but shut up, right, 'cos I wan't even really trying anyway, otherwise I totally would have won.

Woods' Ryder Cup singles record is actually pretty good, as it happens; he's only ever lost one singles match (to Costantino Rocca on his Ryder Cup debut in 1997) out of the seven he's played in. The Molinari half was his second; his other four matches all ended in wins. His doubles record is poor, though - won 9, lost 16, halved 1. So do we conclude that this cliché is true as well? I guess maybe we do.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

marxist carx it

Among all the predictable explosions of right-wing vitriol following the death of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (a predictably more affectionate Guardian obituary is here) what seems to have been overlooked is his striking resemblance to a deranged Woody Allen. Allow me do do my bit for posterity by rectifying that omission here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

god exists; therefore god exists

It's nice to see In Our Time back on Radio 4 on Thursday mornings, though it may mean that my Thursday morning punctuality may suffer as there will be a temptation to hang back so as to hear as much of it as possible (and goodness knows I need little enough encouragement to do that as it is).

Last Thursday's was a little bit of a shouting at the radio moment, though, and crystallises some of my reservations about Melvyn Bragg, otherwise wholly admirable as a broadcaster and general force for intellectual good - reservations previously expressed here.

The subject of the programme was Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, which goes a little something like this:
  • God is great. No, really reeeaally great. In fact you literally can't think of anything greater, even if you try. Think you've thought of something greater than God? Well, you're wrong, and you've clearly not understood just how great God is, because he's totes the greatest thing there is, or ever has been. End of.
  • That being the case, let's imagine that he doesn't exist. That would be a bit rubbish, wouldn't it? It would certainly ill befit the greatest ruddy thing ever. Existing would be far better. 
  • We've already established God's status as the greatest thing ever in every respect, and that clearly includes in respect of the question of existence as opposed to non-existence.
  • Therefore, God exists.
  • Allelujah, praaaaaiiiise him, etc. 
No, it really is that stupid. And it's interesting, in a way, to reflect on how pernicious and corrosive to clarity of thought religion and its general unthinking acceptance by society is that this laughable tosh is still being discussed by at least semi-serious philosophers to this day. To be more accurate, I suppose it's really a reflection of how successfully the entirely vacuous discipline called "theology" has glommed itself onto the coat-tails of the occasionally woolly but in general legitimate discipline of philosophy.

In general there's quite a lot of interesting discussion of the historical context in the programme, and certainly not an unthinking acceptance of the validity of the argument, but still, the reverence accorded to it is all a bit Emperor's New Clothes. Really this is about at the level of one of those old schoolboy mathematical proofs that 1 = -1; no-one actually came away from being shown one of those having really been convinced that 1 and -1 were equal, even if they couldn't immediately see the problem (usually a sneaky square root calculation or a hidden division by zero). And while one can unpick the problems with Anselm's argument (general incoherence of definitions, unevidenced assertion, special pleading, circular reasoning, its similar application to unicorns, the perfect cheese sandwich, etc.), it might be better to ask the question: has anyone, ever, been converted from atheism to theism by exposure to it? I strongly suspect the answer is no, or at least vanishingly rarely. The RationalWiki article I linked to above makes the interesting point that in Anselm's time convincing people of the existence of God wasn't really the point, because everyone already unquestioningly believed in him anyway, it was more about providing a bit of faux-respectable intellectual backing for what you already believed. That remains its primary purpose today, even when inflated to astonishing levels of obfuscatory bafflegab by the likes of Alvin Plantinga.

The other thing that the theologians do, of course, like the sneaky little weasels that they are, is to morph from talking about the God of the ontological argument, about whom (even if you accept the argument) nothing is known save for his existence, to talking about the Christian God of the Bible, about whom all manner of real-world claims are made (most of them entirely refuted by reality), without showing their working for all the intermediate bits. Generally the trick here is to tailor which God you're talking about depending on who your audience is.

Anyway, I assert that there is a glass of whisky greater than which no glass of whisky can be imagined. Clearly, in whisky terms, it would be greater not only to exist rather than not to exist, but also to be in my whisky cupboard rather than, say, in someone else's. Back in a bit.