Wednesday, January 30, 2013

a foaming tankard of meades

As usually happens when I tune in to BBC Four, I happened upon something interesting while cooking dinner last night: Jonathan Meades' new series The Joy Of Essex. Meades (or rather the character "Jonathan Meades" with the black clothes and the shades and the slightly arch deadpan delivery that he adopts for these programmes; I don't suppose he's like that in real life) is always good value, and interesting on the stuff he really cares about, mainly architecture, while being wrong (though always interestingly wrong) pretty much constantly about the stuff that doesn't really interest him, like sport, the natural world, all that stuff.

Pleasingly, Meades is also an enthusiastic supporter of both secularism and humanism - here are a couple of Meades quotes lifted from those links:
If you believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden you are deemed fit for the bin. If you believe in transubstantiation, parthenogenesis and the rest of it, you're deemed fit to run the country.
The secularisation of society is vital. That means: quashing faith schools; instituting a uniform and predominantly Anglophone educational system; administering civil laws which do not acknowledge religions’ peculiarities; insisting on the primacy of free expression over the rights of institutionalised superstitions.
Following the BBC Four/atheism theme for a minute, something you may also find interesting is Jonathan Miller's Atheism: A Rough History Of Disbelief. I've mentioned this before, but the whole series is now available on YouTube (in three parts: here, here and here) and is well worth a watch, though one might say the whole thing is a bit wordy and earnest - there is a lengthy discussion in the first programme about what "belief" really means, for instance, which you might want to skip, although it's always good to be clear about these things. One might also argue that Miller is a little bit in love with his own stooping donnish glasses-round-neck polymathic silver fox persona, perhaps to a very slightly grating degree - if so here's an antidote courtesy of Spitting Image.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

the blog you can read between meals without spoiling your appetite

I'm still eating the Brunch bars, just in case you were wondering - as before, not because I imagine they're especially good for me, but because they're very tasty. There has been a change in packaging, though, since I mocked the litigation-dodging faux-healthy claims on the old boxes:

You'll notice they've abandoned any of the weaselly "wholesome" bollocks they were peddling previously in favour of some slightly more fact-based stuff which basically just says: look, it's got cereal, raisins and chocolate in it, and it's pretty yummy. Fair enough. Pity they insist on being passionate about the whole thing, but there's a lot of it about.

A general backing off on ludicrously ill-founded claims of healthiness can also be observed in the updated Milky Way adverts that have been running lately. You'll recall the animated red car/blue car sequence from back in the 1980s - well, the new advert uses basically the same animation, but with a couple of interesting amendments, most notably the conspicuous absence of the line about "won't spoil his appetite", which wasn't just a random flight of lyrical fancy, but the principal advertising slogan for the bar at the time. I suppose this is because pioneering scientific research discovered that gutsing down choccy bars between meals in fact would spoil your appetite, even if perhaps not quite as much as something denser like a Mars bar. So these days the "won't spoil his appetite" line has been replaced with a blander "knows that it tastes just right", presumably to avoid being sued by fat people.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

nothing to get in a flap about

One of the great joys of having very young children in the house is the amusing books you get to read before bedtime, many of them involving some sort of combination of bright primary colours, pop-up bits, textured surfaces or even wacky noises. An associated joy is the number of laboured double entendres that can be made at the regular usage of the word "flaps". Here's a selection:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

jacob's crackers

Here's a short list, which I choose to entitle, pithily, Lady Actors Who I Saw In A Film I Really Liked And Additionally Thought They Were Very Attractive In A Quirky And Feisty Kind Of Way Whereupon Clearly Absolutely No-One Agreed With Me Because They Were Pretty Much Never In Anything Else Of Any Consequence Ever Again. Here goes:
Jacob's Ladder, incidentally, in addition to being a genuinely weird and creepy movie, is a filmic embodiment of a trope used occasionally in fiction (as discussed briefly in this book review) - a narrative pretty nearly the entirety of which turns out to be the thoughts of someone dying, the actual dying bits of which tend to bookend the imagined bits. It was being familiar with Jacob's Ladder that enabled me to nod sagely to myself about ten minutes into The Sixth Sense and say: aye aye, I can see where this is going. Granted, that was slightly different in that the Bruce Willis character is already dead and spends most of the film as a ghost, but I clocked the basic plot premise early on. I'm not saying that makes me a genius or anything, but there it is. Even allowing for that I thought The Sixth Sense was OK; it was the follow-up Unbreakable which was the one that was so utterly terrible as to put me off ever seeing an M. Night Shyamalan film ever again.

Back to the death thing, the canonical example of this (and the apparent inspiration for Jacob's Ladder) is Ambrose Bierce's short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which was made into a short film in 1962, later broadcast as an episode of The Twilight Zone, the entirety of which appears (I haven't watched the whole thing) to be available here.

get involved! get stuffed

There was a brief discussion in the comments to the last-but-one post about further phrases that caused annoyance; my example was "get involved" which I claimed was ubiquitous at the moment. I stand by that claim, and I further claim that this is fairly recent, though I have no empirical evidence of that. These fads come and go - remember how everyone was "passionate" about a whole range of arcane and esoteric stuff a couple of years back?

So anyway, let's get involved. Here's Gerard Butler, recently promoted to Hollywood's second-favourite Scotsman on the retirement of Sean Connery, torpedoing his rugged image a bit by advertising L'Oreal Men Expert Hydra-Energetic Anti-Fatigue Moisturiser. And four seconds in, POW, there it is.

It's not just unnaturally moist bearded Scotsmen, though, everyone's at it. Take a look at these:

Those are from, respectively, the BBC's live tennis coverage, the Fairtrade Foundation, the Liberal Democrats, the NSPCC, the Red Cross, Mencap, Sustrans, Water Aid and the UK Parliament. I could just have easily chosen Macmillan, the Conservative Party, Surrey County Council, the RSPCA, Age UK, Movember, the Girl Guides or Sky Sports.

Once again I find it hard to articulate why this rubs me up the wrong way, but it does. I think it's because I'm not really a "joiner", and the phrase has a slightly cajoling tone of COME ON, let's all just ROLL OUR SLEEVES UP and MUCK IN and we can RUDDY WELL SORT THE WHOLE THING OUT once and for all, plus it'll be FUN, right? I suppose you'd rather just read a book or something, would you? You MISERABLE OLD SHIT. Well, yeah, you got me. Now perhaps you'd like to FUCK RIGHT OFF. Thanks.

Monday, January 21, 2013

cross purposes

Follow-up on a couple of recent(ish) posts:

The latest round of appeals by the much put-upon contingent of British Christians cruelly denied their God-given right to publicly proselytise or publicly display their distaste for the gays has been concluded, and the final score was Christians 1 Ladlefuls Of Hot Delicious Justice 3.

The one case the European Court of Human Rights did find in favour of the Christian side on was the Nadia Eweida case - this one is actually a bit more complicated than you might think, and the complaint that she ended up taking to the ECHR was actually against the UK Government rather than British Airways, of whom it could quite reasonably be said that they did everything they could do to come up with a reasonable solution when presented with an employee who in addition to being a Christian was clearly also a massive pain in the arse (I'll leave you to draw your own Venn diagrams here).

Specifically, after initially suspending her, they then changed their clothing and accessories policy to accommodate her requirements (well, not necessarily specifically for that purpose, but that was the effect) and reinstated her. Her case seems to have actually been about reclaiming the salary she was denied during the period of her suspension, plus of course having another day in court in order to wave crucifixes around and generally whinge about how oppressed she was feeling.

In any case, that one was the exception, the other three being considerably simpler and clearer. The ruling against Shirley Chaplin, the nurse, preventing her from wearing dangly jewellery while working was upheld on health and safety grounds, while the other two cases, registrar Lilian Ladele and Relate counsellor Gary McFarlane, were just your standard garden variety tedious bigoted nutters.

There are still a few slightly worrying aspects to UK employment law, though (about which I do not claim to be an expert), specifically the notion that certain employer-sanctioned dress codes can be overridden by employees of certain religions if those religions have mandatory dress requirements, the classic examples being the Muslim headscarf and the Sikh turban. Part of Shirley Chaplin's complaint was that, since Christianity makes no specific demands of its adherents to make any overt display of their religious allegiance through clothing, jewellery etc., she is getting treated differently from, say, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. And she's right, she is, though where we differ is in the solution to the problem. Her solution would be for her to be allowed to wear the cross/necklace combo, mine would be for health & safety legislation to override religious displays absolutely without exception.

Also, here's a further entry (so to speak) for the virginity auction files - another Brazilian, 18-year-old Rebecca Bernardo, is holding an online auction to raise money for her mother's medical bills. The accompanying video is in Portuguese, but contains lots of shots of Bernardo looking winsome and innocent while bicycling round the village and sitting at her mother's bedside. Her mother has recently had a stroke; presumably the winner of the auction will get to do something similar, boom boom.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

marmite macht frei

I don't know if you've noticed what Sainsbury's have started doing: in common with all supermarkets they are no doubt legally obliged to put stuff like nutritional information and recycling instructions on their food packaging, just so the well-informed and discerning customer can keep tabs on exactly how much toxic filth they're shovelling down themselves. All of which is fine - knowledge is power and all that. But evidently Sainsbury's felt that a bald heading saying "Nutritional Information" didn't convey the right sense of, I dunno, drama or something. So here's what they came up with:

Those are a tube of tomato puree and a bag of baby spinach, respectively. I imagine you've got to sing the "Great for all of us" line to the tune of the "And so say all of us" line that concludes the British version of "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow". In fact you could probably shoehorn the whole thing in:
For it is great to kno-ow
For it is great to kno-ow
For it is great to kno-o-oooooow
It's great for all of us
You can have that one for your next dinner party. Scouting around the fridge I see my breakfast orange juice has been infected too:

Not everything gets this treatment, it seems. This is a loaf of wholemeal bread:

And here's a carton of economy chopped tomatoes (prosaic matter-of-factness) and a pack of turkey breast steaks (soaraway fabulousness). There seems to be little rhyme or reason to it.

Like all the most teeth-grindingly irritating things it's hard to put a finger on exactly why the "Great to know" heading gives me the screaming abdabs. I think it's a general aversion to forced jollity and unreflective conformity. Or, to put it another way: I'll be the fucking judge of whether I think it's "Great to know" or not. I don't know whether they restrict these headings to the halfway healthy stuff or not, but if I saw the fat content on a box of chocolate-covered beer-battered potato twizzlers I might feel that "Mildly alarming to know" would be more appropriate. Or "I'd prefer not to know", perhaps.

No, the whole thing has more than a whiff of Strength Through Joy about it, so I think that in this particular case I'm wholly justified in saying: this is exactly how Nazi Germany started, you know. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

this is a low

It's cricket trivia time again. A question that I've known to come up a few times in sports trivia quizzes is: what's the lowest individual score that no-one has ever made in a Test match? That's not the easiest question to parse at first glance, so consider that every individual batsman's innings ends in a final score, whether the individual is dismissed or not, and furthermore imagine a chart on which these scores are tallied up, so if you make 37 then a tally mark goes in the 37 box, and so on. Well, obviously there are plenty of scores that have no tally marks against them, anything over 400, for instance. So what's the lowest number which has yet to have any tally marks against it?

The current answer to that question, which you should remember for your next trivia quiz, is 229. No-one has ever been dismissed for, or finished not out for, that score in a Test match. But consider this: that must have become the lowest by virtue of someone putting a tick in the box of a lower score. And, if we restrict ourselves to scores of 100 or more, the lowest un-made score before the first Test of all in 1877 must have been (by definition) 100. And once someone eventually registered a score of exactly 100, the title would have passed to the lowest number greater than 100 which hadn't been registered yet, and so on. So it should be possible to construct a list of the upward progression of the record over time, at least theoretically. But you'd need to be able to go through and log the first occurrence of each 100+ score, a task which would have been pretty much impossible before the internet, and the aforementioned Statsguru in particular. Even now, someone would have to expend a smallish amount of effort to do it. And someone has! But who? I'll put you out of your misery: it was me.

ScorePlayerDateMatchSpan (time)Span (Tests)
100JT Tyldesley3rd July 1905ENG v AUS28y 110d84
110WH Ponsford19th December 1924AUS v ENG19y 169d73
114H Sutcliffe15th June 1929ENG v RSA4y 178d23
125PGV van der Bijl3rd March 1939RSA v ENG9y 261d90
139ED Weekes11th April 1955WI v AUS16y 39d133
171IR Redpath11th December 1970AUS v ENG15y 244d271
186Zaheer Abbas23rd December 1982PAK v IND12y 12d267
199Mudassar Nazar24th October 1984PAK v IND1y 306d54
218SV Manjrekar1st December 1989IND v PAK5y 38d134
224VG Kambli19th February 1993IND v ENG2y 80d84
228HH Gibbs2nd January 2003RSA v PAK9y 318d423

So the way this works is as follows: each entry in the list preceded the one below it (in the table, above it numerically) as the lowest un-made score in Test cricket, and was eventually bagged by the batsman in the "Player" column after holding the record for the time in the "Span (time)" column, at which point the record progressed to being held by the next number in the sequence, until it in turn was bagged, and so on. As you can see, the record holder in terms of time is the lowest possible century score, 100, which had to wait until 28 years of Test cricket had elapsed before Johnny Tyldesley bagged it in Leeds in 1905. Of course there are many more Tests per year these days, as the second "Span" column shows, but aside from a bit of a flurry in the 1980s and early 1990s when the record changed hands four times in just over ten years it tends to change hands about once a decade. As if to prove that point, as of today the current record has stood for 10 years and 12 days and 434 Tests. The next few available blank slots, should that one get bagged, since you ask, are 238, 245 and 252.

The way you work this out, just in case you're interested, is to make a list of the first person to bag each individual score, and then put a tick against each score whose bagged date is greater than any of the dates for scores below it. Here's the spreadsheet containing the raw data.

A couple of interesting things emerge from the blizzard of data: firstly that the most prolific score-baggers tend to be people from the earlier days of Test cricket when the list had more available gaps on it. Unsurprisingly this list is dominated, as most batting lists are, by one Don Bradman, who got first dibs on no fewer than eleven separate scores. As so often (and much to his posthumous chagrin no doubt) second place on the list is occupied by Walter Hammond with seven, followed by Denis Compton, Clem Hill and Victor Trumper with four.

Another statistical anomaly is that in all but one case it's easy to tell who the first person to register the score was, just use Statsguru to pull up a list of all the scores for, say, 178, and pick the earliest one (which turns out to be by Joe Darling of Australia in 1898). The only score for which this method fails is 234, since it turns out that both instances of that score were made during the same match, the Sydney Test of December 1946. Even a cursory examination of the scorecard doesn't help, since they were both also made in the same innings, by Sid Barnes and (inevitably) Don Bradman of Australia. So it all comes down to which of them was out first, and remarkably it turns out that not only did they both register the same score, but, having shared what remains a Test record sixth-wicket partnership of 405, were also both out within four balls of each other with the score on 564. Bradman was out first, as it happens (so his name goes in the list), and there is some speculation (encouraged by Barnes himself) that Barnes gave his wicket away shortly afterwards to ensure a share of statistical immortality.

Barnes appears to have been an interesting character; among other things his nickname of Suicide Sid - bestowed because of his habit of taking up fielding positions extremely close to the batsman at some risk of personal injury in those pre-helmet days - presaged the eventual manner of his death, a (probably) self-inflicted overdose of barbiturates. It's still not as good as Stan McCabe chasing a possum off a cliff though.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

just in time for burns night

Another thing we got for Christmas was a fireguard, very similar to this one. Sure, it's not an all-expenses-paid trip to Cancún, but it's a practical and useful thing that we will have need of very shortly once the bairn finishes working out how to walk. Same goes for the stair-gate whose packaging was made the subject of mockery here a while back. And it's packaging-based mockery that is my primary subject here too; bear with me for a second first though.

There's not actually any possibility of Nia catching on fire as a result of straying too near the fireplace in the lounge, as it has no capability of making fire as things stand at the moment. It currently contains a convincing-looking load of faux-coals which previously sat on top of some sort of gas fire which presumably shot flames up through them in a vaguely convincing manner. However, it turned out on getting a gas-safety assessment done after we moved in that the whole thing had been installed in a somewhat amateurish fashion (possibly cooked up by my predecessor in the shed, I couldn't say) without any of the various standard failsafes that ideally would exist to prevent you (or, more likely, some small child) knocking the gas tap on and no-one noticing until you tried to put a match to it later and ended up taking out most of the street. So, given that we couldn't envisage ever lighting it (what with having access to both central heating and sweaters) we had it "capped off". As Red Adair was unavailable (what with being dead) a nice man from British Gas did it for us, pretty much for free as I recall. But nonetheless, should Nia take a trip over the edge of the raised hearth area, she could still end up landing face-first in some coals, albeit cold ones, a scenario I'm keen to avoid. Hence, the fireguard.

Just to digress again for a moment, my childhood memories of fire safety arrangements are of some hilariously flimsy one-piece free-standing fireguard which pretty much any child capable of walking could have brushed aside without too much trouble. This one, by contrast, is designed to be secured to the wall with the necessity for drilling and Rawlplugs and all that jazz. How times change.

Anyway, the packaging. I always think that the main thing with spelling and punctuation is to be consistent: make a decision and stick with it. In other words, if you're going to be wrong, at least be wrong all the time. Clearly whoever wrote this label adhered to that system: right, any word ending in an "s" gets an apostrophe, regardless.

The next snippet, which is from the instruction leaflet, is, as far as I can see, punctuated reasonably sensibly. One might argue that the comma in line two ought to be a semi-colon, but these are minor issues. The last sentence is a bit disturbing, though.

"Your fireguard must be no closer than 300mm (approx 12") - against the wall so that burning fuel can escape". No, heaven forbid that our fireguard should contain a sudden eruption of incandescent shards of white-hot death - no, it's important to ensure that they escape into the room, where they will be safely absorbed by the unsuspecting hands of cherubic innocent children and the eyes of adorable puppies.

I assume what was intended is either some warning along the lines of not putting your guard so near the fire that it gets really hot, or a recommendation to put it far enough away so that if the odd bit of smouldering fuel does escape it'll remain within the fireguarded area. Maybe there's some sort of translation from the original Mandarin Chinese via Hungarian thing going on.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

arseholes on board

Here's a brief round-up of some brief things, in brief:

I popped out to the sandwich shop in the car at about 11:45am today, just in time to land halfway through a programme about Lawrence Durrell on Radio 4. As I said in my bit about Clea, 2012 was the centenary of Durrell's birth, so this programme, supposedly partly to commemorate that, ironically just misses being broadcast in the relevant year (but I dunno, perhaps it's a repeat). Anyway, I didn't hear much of it, but the gist seems to have been that now might be a good time for a bit of a critical re-evaluation of Durrell. Given that they must surely have read my various blog posts saying basically the same thing, I'm just a little bit offended that they didn't ask me to be on the programme. Maybe they tried to ring over New Year while I was away.

Also, a word of advice, based on a conversation I overheard around Christmas: if you are a vocal Christian, and up-front about it to the extent of wearing a Not Ashamed wristband and stuff like that, don't assume that that grants you some sort of indemnity against being judged by your words and deeds, especially if those words include expressing the opinion that the death of the two young boys on the M6 on Christmas morning was very sad for the family and all, but at least it means two fewer Muslims in the world. My suggestion to you is that in those circumstances people will ignore the fine words on your wristband and simply conclude that you are an arsehole instead.

As an aside, the whole Not Ashamed bit is weird, playing as it does on the bizarre persecution complex that Christians have cultivated of late, prompted by a couple of fairly straightforward employment tribunal cases (Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, and Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee) siezed upon by various activism groups and taken all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, where they received the epic curb-stomping they so richly deserved. It requires something of a contortion to paint yourself as some sort of persecuted minority when you have representatives of your religion installed in every public and government institution in the land, to the extent of being the ruddy officially established state religion, for goodness' sake.

Finally, as part of the entirely welcome, much appreciated, but slightly daunting avalanche of baby-centric Christmas gifts we received over the festive period, I was amused to receive a cuddly monkeyesque toy with a "Baby On Board" logo on it and little suckers on the arms for attachment to the rear window. Now normally this would be my cue to jump into some sort of lazy observational-comedy-esque rant about how I was literally just about to drive into someone the other day but then saw the sticker and decided not to (a bit like this one), but instead I can share a couple of interesting facts with you: firstly that the signs originated in the USA in the early 1980s, supposedly as a prompt to the emergency services to have an extra-thorough rummage under the seats, in the glovebox, under the spare wheel, etc. in the event of an accident. Secondly these couple of stories from the Mail and the Telegraph suggest that in fact the view-obscuring properties of the stickers may actually cause accidents. While there may be something in that, I would recommend a pretty healthy dose of scepticism at the "1 in 20" figure that both stories carry, as these are drivers' self-assessments of what caused their accidents, in many cases where the only alternative answer would be "my rubbish driving".

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

but answer came there nun

I only caught a few minutes of Desert Island Discs on my last day at work before Christmas (Friday December 21st), but a couple of things would have made the programme - featuring hermit, art critic and consecrated virgin Sister Wendy Beckett - a bit more interesting.

The first thing would have been, on hearing of Sister Wendy's daily regime of getting up at midnight, seven hours or so of prayer, followed by breakfast, mass, lunch, a bit more contemplation of the ineffable, and so to bed at around 5:30pm, the obvious question to have asked would have been: does it bother you that you, Sister Wendy, an intelligent woman of 80-odd years, have wasted your entire life on an obviously risible fantasy when you could have been out doing useful and fun stuff? I mean, OK, I'm sure the art criticism and the TV programmes have opened many people's eyes to things they otherwise wouldn't have known about, but can you imagine how much more you might have achieved if you didn't spend upwards of ten hours a day talking to your imaginary friend, for fuck's sake? How do you respond to that? I would have been interested to hear the answer.

The other thing that would have been of interest was if she had bucked expectations a bit in her choice of music. So, Sister Wendy, tell us a bit about your first disc. Well, Kirsty, this song made a big impression on me in the early 1980s, and I think in a very real sense mirrors the story of Lot and his daughters in all its moral complexity and ambiguity. So my first choice is Too Drunk To Fuck by the Dead Kennedys. But no, we ended up with the usual Chopin and some Gregorian chanting.

Sister Wendy's full list of tunes can be found here.