Wednesday, December 31, 2014

the last book I read

Turbulence by Giles Foden.

Henry Meadows is a meteorologist, and in the brief sections of the book set in the "present", he's on board a ship made largely out of ice (or, more specifically, a more melt-resistant blend of ice and wood pulp called Pykrete) travelling from Antarctica to the Middle East in 1980 as part of an experimental drought-relief system.

This framing device really just provides a hook to hang the real story off, the real story being that of Meadows' involvement as a keen young twentysomething junior meteorologist in the planning for the 1944 D-Day landings, and specifically the long-range weather forecasting required to fix a date for the invasion in advance.

There's an obvious problem, quite apart from the one of long-range weather forecasting (over a timescale greater than a couple of days) being notoriously error-prone: not only are various advantageous weather conditions (full-ish moon, clear skies, not much wind) required, the element of surprise is also essential and of course the Germans have perfectly capable meteorologists of their own. So the Allies need an edge over the enemy, and Meadows is dispatched to Scotland to sound out the man who just might provide it, Wallace Ryman. Ryman is a maverick meteorologist, who doesn't play by the rules, but dammit he gets results, and those results include the Ryman number, a coefficient which helps make sense of turbulence, something which otherwise wrecks the (already dicey) accuracy of forecasts.

The trouble is, Ryman doesn't seem to be wholly on board with the whole war thing, and seems to harbour some pacifist tendencies, which have led him to largely give up the old meteorology game (hardest game in the world, the old meteorology game) and focus instead on some arcane mathematical theorems for bringing about world peace. Well, you've got to have a hobby, haven't you? So Meadows' assignment is: set up a fake weather-monitoring station just down the road from Ryman's place on the west coast of Scotland, "bump into" Ryman around the neighbourhood and try to get some information out of him.

Although Meadows does strike up a tentative friendship of sorts with Ryman, and they do have some discussions about weather, he doesn't get a lot of useful information out of him. What he does get is a couple of unsettlingly sexually-charged encounters with Ryman's wife Gill, one of which results in a bit of a slapstick oops-oh-no-I've-fallen incident during which bodily fluids are exchanged, though probably not the ones you're thinking of.

All Meadows' ham-fisted scheming comes spectacularly unstuck when his well-intentioned (though slightly drunken) attempt to bring down a Nazi Junkers reconnaissance plane with some booby-trapped weather balloons results, via a rather unlikely sequence of events, in Ryman's death. So with the chances of getting any usable information out of him having reduced from small to zero, Meadows is re-assigned (in some disgrace) to the team collating the various weather readings and predictions from an international team of experts, a more challenging job than it might sound given that none of them seem to be able to agree on anything.

But then Meadows notices some small anomalies in the readings from one of the weather ships in the vicinity of Iceland (no, the other one) and starts to get an inkling of perhaps being able to put some of Ryman's theories to use after all. After a quick dash to the Isle of Wight to make sure the instruments weren't malfunctioning, during the course of which he has a brief reunion with Gill, he returns to the pivotal invasion planning teleconference in the nick of time to persuade everyone that the invasion date should be changed from June 5th to June 6th, as that day will be fine, honest.

And the rest is, quite literally, history. As with all novels of this sort, unless you're going to do some serious post-modern fucking with your audience then the broad details of what's going to happen in the end are not in doubt; in this case that D-Day happens on June 6th 1944 and despite the horrendous casualties is ultimately the platform for the Allies winning the war. So you have to make the story that converges on the known point interesting enough to hold the reader's attention, and Turbulence certainly succeeds there, though not without the odd lumpy moment. As expertly as the circumstances are set up in advance Ryman's death seems contrived and frankly implausible, and while Meadows (from his narrative position in 1980) seems to allude several times to events that happen well after the war is over we never hear about any of that in the main text; instead it's left to what purports to be the text of a commemorative lecture given in 1984 by a German counterpart of Meadows to fill in some of the blanks. And with any novel that features science-y stuff as a central plot feature there's a struggle to fit the necessary exposition in without it being narratively implausible; there's only so much "as you know, Bob, Bernoulli's principle states that...." that you can do without coming over all Basil Exposition.

It's good, though, while probably not quite as good as Foden's first and most famous book The Last King Of Scotland (also filmed). If I'd been obliged to read it without knowing who the author was I'd have made a reasonably confident guess at William Boyd, which I should stress is a compliment. There are obvious parallels to The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page in terms of subject matter, in that World War II features heavily as a plot device. Other novels to feature World War II as a central plot device include Free Fall, The History Of Love, The Office Of Innocence, Island Madness, Restless and The Nature Of Blood. Note that that list is by no means exhaustive.

Friday, December 19, 2014

the last book I read

The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page by GB Edwards.

Ebenezer Le Page is an irascible old codger, as he himself tells us in the opening couple of paragraphs. A proud Guernseyman, he's only ever left the island once, to take a boat trip to Jersey to watch the football, and hasn't felt any need to do so ever again, since he's perfectly happy in his stone cottage, occasionally walking into town to go to the shops and otherwise pottering in his garden, writing down his memories in a series of notebooks and generally bemoaning modern life and so-called "progress".

Born at the tail-end of the 19th century (just like Edwards, for whom Ebenezer is clearly a thinly-disguised authorial alter ego), Ebenezer has lived through some changes, not least two world wars. Fortunate enough not to get called up in time to fight in the first, Ebenezer gets unavoidably caught up in the second when the Channel Islands get invaded and occupied by German forces.

He is a mainly solitary, self-sufficient, pragmatic sort of bloke, so he's able to rub along all right with the occupiers, even striking up a sort of friendship with a taciturn German called Otto who accompanies him on the occasional fishing expedition. That's not to say that he's above a little mischief-making, nor indeed some anti-German involvement of a more serious nature when while on a night-time walk he encounters a German soldier sexually assaulting a young boy and beats him to death with a rock.

Ebenezer never marries, despite the odd dalliance with various local girls. There are a couple of main reasons for this, most notably his general self-reliance and prickliness, and the close view he gets of the various disastrous marriages embarked upon by his contemporaries. There's his best friend Jim Mahy, trapped into a miserable marriage with a local girl who then abandons him and takes their two children away, leaving him to head off to World War I and be killed in the trenches, and his cousin Raymond, almost certainly a repressed homosexual, who dallies with being a clergyman but eventually marries a local girl, Christine, with predictably disastrous results and eventually gets killed by a land mine during World War II.

The other main reason for Ebenezer's long bachelorhood is his relationship with Liza Quéripel, clearly the only woman he ever really loves, but who is such a similar spiky and independent character that they can never stop arguing for long enough to acknowledge their feelings for each other. After their brief, broken courtship when they are both young, Liza goes off and has a couple of kids by a couple of men, bunks up with a few Nazis during the war to keep the wolf from the door and then settles into a dotage of eccentric witchy solitude at the other end of the island.

One of the things that Ebenezer's solitude means is that he's not a big spender of money, and so he's got a bit of a hoard of cash, stored old-school style under various bits of furniture, up the chimney and buried in the garden. Conscious of his own advancing years, he decides that he wants to leave it to someone deserving and sets off round the island on a visiting tour of various nth cousins, all of whom disappoint him in some way with their laziness, stupidity, and embrace of modern ideas like the motor car, feminism or the television set.

Eventually, unexpectedly, Ebenezer strikes up a friendship with reformed hooligan and aspiring artist Neville Falla, and his girlfriend Adele. Recognising in Neville some aspects of his own personality - ruthless honesty, self-reliance, aversion to authority - Ebenezer resolves to make him his sole beneficiary and hurries to get the legal paperwork sorted out before he pops off. Ebenezer seems prepared to forgive Neville his modern obsessions like owning a car, and indeed during a jaunt round the island in Neville's car they find themselves paying a visit to Liza Quéripel's house, where not only are Liza and Ebenezer belatedly reconciled, but after a bit of questioning about Neville and Adele's respective parentage it becomes clear that perhaps their unrequited (and, we're invited to infer, never consummated) love may live on after their deaths in some way.

This is another book that's been knocking around on my bookshelves for 20-odd years since I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop some time in the 1990s. I'm not sure why it's taken so long to get around to reading it; I can only assume that I thought it'd be a struggle to get through. I couldn't have been more wrong, as it happens, as it's extremely easy to read. Ebenezer, almost despite himself, is a tremendously engaging central character and the scenes of island life are convincingly drawn, hardly surprisingly since Ebenezer's lifespan and origins mirror Gerald Edwards' own. Edwards died in 1976, having spent the last few years of his life getting his manuscript (i.e. this novel) rejected by a series of publishers, and it was only five years after his death, in 1981, that The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page was first published.

There are couple of odd parallels with another book published in the early 1980s: John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces. Both authors laboured with their respective books for years and endured countless rejections from publishers, both died with their novels still unpublished and it was only some years later that they eventually saw the light of day, to instant and enduring critical acclaim. And rightly so in both cases, because they're both excellent, in widely differing ways.

Anyway, it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised by a novel, and while I wasn't expecting The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page to be rubbish (otherwise I wouldn't have bought it in the first place, let alone started reading it) it comfortably exceeded my expectations, and I recommend it. You might say: well, the ending is a bit convenient and implausible, and I'd agree, but by the time you've got there you've built up enough affection for Ebenezer and Liza not to begrudge them a bit of happiness, even if it's right at the end of their lives (within a few hours of it, actually, in Ebenezer's case).

This is the second book in this list to feature the wartime German occupation of the Channel Islands (and indeed Guernsey specifically) as a prominent plot point, the other one being Island Madness which I read almost exactly seven years ago, and which features it as the prominent plot point. It's also (by my hasty calculation, anyway) the fifth posthumously-published book on the list after Notice by Heather Lewis and all three of the Stieg Larssons. 

The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page has been adapted for radio and theatre a couple of times, but never filmed, which means this article must be satirical, which is a pity, because it sounds freakin' awesome.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Nuclear-powered immaculately coiffured weirdly unlined futuristic sexbot Gigolo Joe, as played by Jude Law in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and leek-powered immaculately coiffured weirdly unlined futuristic soccerbot Gareth Bale, nominee for tonight's BBC Sports Personality Of The Year. And, heck, Welshman Of The Day as well; why not?

I wasn't quite sure what to make of A.I. when I watched it, many years ago now (though I think I still have the DVD so I could watch it again easily enough). It was famously conceived by Stanley Kubrick and filmed by Steven Spielberg, but not surprisingly the end product feels more Spielberg than Kubrick, most obviously in the central character's being a child. This is unfair, since that was in Kubrick's version as well, but while the visuals were stunning there was just too much sugar and not enough vinegar for me. Spielberg's very next film Minority Report, while in similar futuristic vein, was a great deal better, though both films suffer from going arse-numbingly on for about 20 minutes longer than it feels like they ought to.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

poke her with the SOFT CUSHIONS

The recent publication of the CIA torture report and the accompanying media brouhaha is extremely interesting in itself; almost more interesting is what people's reactions to it, and the question of the use of torture in general, reveal about people's unexamined assumptions, and their willingness to examine those assumptions when invited to do so.

First a confession, freely offered, so there's no need to pull any of my toenails out (though, as we'll see, that probably wouldn't do any good anyway): I was prompted to write this by a good friend of mine retweeting something which on the face of it appeared to be pooh-poohing the findings of the report and offering a big American FUCK YEAH to torturing people.
Now I'm not judging anyone: other opinions than mine are available and maybe this was offered in a mocking, satirical sort of way, or just retweeted without due care and attention. Just in case it wasn't, it's worth noting that Eric Bolling, rather than being some sort of military intelligence expert, is in fact a Fox News Channel presenter and the man who achieved the fairly remarkable feat of making the United Arab Emirates seem less sexist than the USA. The original tweeter also appears to be a boneheaded racist, so it's all good.

The trouble is that if, like most people of a conservative persuasion, you're not really inclined to think too much about stuff, then there is a sort of appealing superficial logic to the use of torture: these are people who HATE OUR FREEDOM and will stop at nothing to destroy it, and so, sometimes, regrettably, it becomes necessary to get answers quickly and sometimes, regrettably, that means tearing up the so-called "rulebook", manning the hell up and doing what needs to be done.

The main problem with that is that every single bit of it is bullshit on even a moment's reflection (so obviously the key is to avoid even a moment's reflection). Most of the arguments for the use of torture involve the wheeling out of some bullshit hypothetical "ticking time bomb" scenario that dissolves at the slightest scrutiny: how do you know you've got the right man? how do you know he'll give you accurate information? what motivation does he have to give you accurate information, rather than a) something he thinks you want to hear or b) literally anything that'll make you stop?

In any case, if you're into thought experiments, try this: let's assume that in the ticking time bomb scenario above, you've also got Mohammed J. Terrorist's wife and two-year-old daughter in the next room. Now Mo might be a tough guy, and able to resist things like having his fingernails pulled out with a pair of rusty pliers, but how would he stand up to seeing his two-year-old daughter raped in front of him? Not so tough now, eh? So we should probably do that, right? I mean, in this bullshit hypothetical situation literally thousands of lives are at stake, right? Or, heck, millions, if you like. And when billions of lives are in the balance, our effete western distaste for the brutal raping of young children will have to be put to one side. So we should swallow our pansy liberal pride, saddle up and get raping. The future of the civilised world depends on it.

Now you might say: well, yes, a moment's thought will reveal that the ticking timebomb scenario is bullshit, and indeed most of the well-established torture techniques are almost guaranteed to produce a mental state where you'll get nothing coherent or useful back, BUT maybe that isn't the point; maybe the point is to strike fear into our enemies. Couple of problems with that, firstly that that is almost the dictionary definition of terrorism, so we might need to reflect on who the bad guys are:

- secondly, one of the things that the limp-wristed girly surrender monkeys who drafted the Geneva Convention achieved was to save countless lives by providing a point to surrendering during a conflict: there's no value in surrendering if you believe that you, as a captive, are likely to be either summarily executed or slowly and lingeringly tortured to death; you might as well go out on the battlefield and try and take as many of the enemy as possible with you. If there is some structure that ensures your safety and survival once the combat situation becomes hopeless, well then that gives you a get-out that saves further pointless bloodshed.

So, to recap, torture is a bad idea because:
  • it surrenders any moral high ground we might seek to occupy
  • it is more than likely counter-productive just on a purely utilitarian lives saved vs. lives lost basis
  • it does not work in terms of getting any useful information
Nonetheless some people have an almost visceral attachment to it as an idea. As always, examining your own motivations is the key here, and it would probably be better to admit that rather than some fictitious idea of obtaining information your key motivation here, in the aftermath of some atrocity that the person in front of you (probably foreign, most likely brown) may or may not have been involved with is a more primal desire for revenge. And if the pansy-ass liberals have ensured that you can't just arbitrarily kill people without incurring a substantial amount of paperwork then the least you can do to avenge your fallen comrades is POUND SOME FUCKING HUMMUS UP HIS ASS, GODDAMMIT.

don't fob me off with that

As with at least one earlier post, this is intended as much as a point of future reference for me as a source of great interest or excitement to my regular blog readership, inasmuch as I even have such a thing. At least now I'll have somewhere I can just search for on the blog that contains nice obvious words like FOCUS and KEYFOB if I should ever need to do this again, rather than having to Google it and then remember which piece of correct advice to pluck from all the bullshit advice that's out there.

So, anyway, my car, as generally trouble-free as it still is, does seem to get through a lot of remote central locking keyfob batteries (they're the little CR2032 watch batteries). Replacing these is reasonably easy, requiring only a bit of prising with a small flat-head screwdriver to get the keyfob housing apart, and of course the obligatory swearing. However, that's not sufficient to complete the job, because now you have to re-synchronise the keyfob with the car's internal electrics. This is actually very easy if you know how to do it, but it is rumoured that if you get a garage or a dealership to do it for you, as I'm sure some people do, they will charge you for the privilege.

Anyway, the second piece of advice on this page describes the correct method for re-synchronising a keyfob with a 2001/2002 Ford Focus; I can't speak for earlier or later models. Assuming that you've already done the battery replacement and swearing bit, here's what you have to do:
  • Put the key in the ignition
  • Turn the key from the OFF position to the II position and back four times in reasonably quick succession (the internet suggests about three seconds); you should then hear a beep and see the immobiliser light flash
  • Press any of the keyfob buttons
  • Turn the ignition to the I position and back to reset things
  • Job done!
If things go according to plan and the new battery doesn't get eaten within the next 6 weeks or so I'm very hopeful that that may be the last time I have to do the replacement and the twiddly ignition-fu (thereby rendering this blog post superfluous), since the plan is not to have the Focus much beyond the end of January. Watch this space!

Thursday, December 11, 2014


We love a book list here at Electric Halibut, as you'll know from previous posts on the subject, so here's a couple that have come to my attention lately that might be of interest.

Here's what Buzzfeed's user community thinks are the 51 most beautiful sentences in literature. As distinct from the numerous lists of best first lines and best last lines (as originally featured here) these can be from anywhere, so the whole thing is even more subjective than those other lists. Nonetheless there's some interest here, not least in noticing that sentences #1, #2, #23, #46 and #48 are from books featured on this blog.

Secondly, here's an interactive clickable cloud of "fiction that everyone should read" from Information Is Beautiful (as already featured on the blog sidebar). I note that I've read 42 of the probably 100 or so books featured. There is an equivalent non-fiction list as well, of which I've read considerably fewer.

Friday, December 05, 2014

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

I was inspired by the children's TV theme the other day to remember the post that I'd meant to do in the wake of this one a few months back. As Doug correctly points out, there is a startling resemblance between me and Ray as pictured on the way up Blencathra in a pair of comedy hats in 2003, and the cuddly gibberish-spouting characters of Igglepiggle and Makka Pakka from the weirdly hypnotic CBeebies show In The Night Garden, which Nia used to be completely riveted by but is a bit meh about these days.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

points usually, but not definitely, make prizes

It's not all your high-falutin' gender politics, post-modernism, literary criticism and improvised contemporary dance round here; I've done a few sport-related posts as well over the years. Never Formula 1, though, or indeed motor racing in any form, as far as I can remember. So, let's have at it.

Now I'm not one for misty-eyed nostalgic maundering about how everything was better when I was a wee nipper; clearly it's an unalloyed Good Thing that drivers, track marshals and occasionally spectators are no longer being flayed, sliced up, decapitated, doused in corrosive flammable long-chain hydrocarbons and incinerated on a regular basis. So while I'm tempted to wax all nostalgic about the glory glory days of Prost, Senna and Mansell, I won't. I mean, they were the top guys during my formative watching years, but I wouldn't want to say that they were objectively better drivers than, say, Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton. In any case I was never really a regular watcher of Formula 1; the fact that I probably did watch more races then than I do now is probably as much as anything a reflection of a more general reduction in leisure time.

A quick diversion for a crackpot theory: most of my early sporting memories date from the period 1980-1981. The only obvious exception I can think of is rugby union, where I have a reasonably clear memory of watching the Grand Slam finale of 1978 (when I would have been eight). As for other sports:
Anyway, the belated point of this post is this: I found myself watching the late stages of the recent final race of the 2014 Formula 1 season, a race that the absurd (and hastily abandoned) rule changes had contrived to have the drivers arrive at with the championship still in the balance. In the end Nico Rosberg finished well down the field and Lewis Hamilton won the race to secure his second championship title, but it would not have required a completely outlandish set of circumstances for Rosberg to have snuck in and won the title. If that had happened then Rosberg would have beaten Hamilton to the title despite (let's say for the sake of argument that he'd won in Abu Dhabi) having won 6 individual Grands Prix to Hamilton's 10 (in reality it was 5-11 in the end). Now of course this is possible by design, the places below 1st being awarded decreasing points to put a premium on consistency during the season as well as race wins, but it did make me wonder how many times in F1 history it's happened that a driver won the championship despite at least one other driver having won more individual Grands Prix during the season.

The short answer to that question is that it's a lot less common lately than it used to be. Ironically the last driver to do it was Lewis Hamilton, who won the title in 2008 despite Felipe Massa winning 6 races to Hamilton's 5. That broke a nineteen-year sequence where it hadn't happened at all, and in turn that 1989 season marked the end of a run of eight occurrences in thirteen seasons, that in turn being preceded by only three occurrences in the previous twenty-seven seasons. Here's the full list:

YearChampionRace winsCompetitor(s)Race wins
2008Lewis Hamilton5Felipe Massa6
1989Alain Prost4Ayrton Senna6
1987Nelson Piquet3Nigel Mansell6
1986Alain Prost4Nigel Mansell5
1984Niki Lauda5Alain Prost7
1983Nelson Piquet3Alain Prost4
1982Keke Rosberg1Alain Prost
Didier Pironi
René Arnoux
Niki Lauda
John Watson
1979Jody Scheckter3Alan Jones4
1977Niki Lauda3Mario Andretti4
1967Denny Hulme2Jim Clark4
1964John Surtees2Jim Clark3
1958Mike Hawthorn1Stirling Moss
Tony Brooks

A few statistical highlights:
  • Massa, Pironi, Arnoux, Watson, Moss and Brooks never won a world championship;
  • Prost, Lauda and Piquet achieved the feat of winning the championship despite not winning the most races twice;
  • Prost is unique in appearing in the third column (i.e. winning the most races without winning the championship) three times, once jointly;
  • Prost also holds the record for the most races won without winning the championship: 7 in 1984; note that one of these races (the Monaco Grand Prix) only carried half the usual points;
  • The biggest deficit (in terms of race wins) between championship winner and rival is three: Piquet v Mansell in 1987 and Hawthorn v Moss in 1958;
  • Hawthorn in 1958 and Rosberg in 1982 achieved the unparallelled feat of winning the championship on the back of a single race win;
  • The weird situation in 1982 just adds weight to my theory that 1982 was a weird sporting anomaly caused by sunspots or the Illuminati or something;
  • A related factoid from here that's too good not to include: Hulme in 1967 and Lauda in 1984 are the only two world champions not to start a single race during the season from pole position; Lauda never even started a race from the front row of the grid. 
I don't really know why the 1980s in particular were such a golden age for this stuff. The scoring rules were different (in some of those years anyway) in that you could discard some of your worst results, although on the face of it that ought to have favoured even more the guy with the most race wins being champion. There were also far more retirements then than there are now, and, hard as I try to resist saying it, the 1980s were also a fiercely exciting and competitive decade with lots of drivers capable of winning multiple races in a season.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Just to lighten the tone a bit, here's Treetog from Tree Fu Tom and the Oracle from the Matrix movies - well strictly from the first two movies, since Gloria Foster (who is pictured here) died before the filming of the third and was replaced with a different actor (with the appropriate retconning, easier in a reality-bending science-fiction universe than in, say, Dallas). Same penchant for predominantly green clothing, same sort of role as a chuckly matriarchal ethnic type with secret super-powers doling out advice to our impetuous young male hero.

thank you for talkin' to me africa

That last post was getting a bit long, and it was bedtime, but the thing I wanted to go on to do was draw a parallel between the furore over #ShirtGate and the rumblings of discontent over the re-re-re-recording and release of the Band Aid single. That might seem like a bit of a stretch, but stay with me.

I was put in mind of the similarity by the astonishingly charmless performance of music promoter and general mover and shaker Harvey Goldsmith on the Today programme on Radio 4 last week. When faced with someone from the area in question (in this case Liberian academic Robtel Pailey) telling you that actually quite a few Africans find this stuff problematic, at least try and listen, even if you disagree. It wouldn't have been that difficult to say: yes, I understand what you're saying, but resurrecting this hoary old chestnut, problematic lyrics and all, is the best way in the short term to raise the big spike of cash that the crisis demands. Instead Goldsmith chose to go with the WELL I SUPPOSE WE SHOULD JUST DO NOTHING AND LET EVERYONE DIE IN A BIG LAKE OF POO THEN SINCE THAT'S WHAT YOU CLEARLY WANT line, which wasn't very helpful.

Saint Bob himself was similarly dismissive, in his inimitable way, of the numerous other criticisms directed at the single and the underlying charity campaign. This interview with Ian Birrell (journalist and co-founder - with Damon Albarn - of Africa Express) sets out a few of them - basically, this is a simplistic solution to a complex problem, it perpetuates a paternalistic "them" (i.e. black Africans) and "us" (i.e. white westerners) mindset, the implication that Africa is some single monolithic entity all currently riddled with Ebola is wildly inaccurate and unhelpful, the past record of charity money getting routed to the right places is not uniformly glorious, charity money of this sort can be counter-intuitively harmful by allowing governments to ignore the underlying chronic systemic problems that allow these crises to happen in the first place, and there's an uncomfortable tension between the spectacle of super-rich music stars tearfully exhorting us to give our hard-earned (after tax) pounds to charity while frantically doing all they can to avoid paying millions of pounds of tax in the first place. Geldof conveniently avoided all these questions (while still getting the publicity he was after) with a bit of calculated sweariness. Have a look at the half-smirk as he drops the bollock-bombs; he clearly knows exactly what he's doing.

And that's before we even get to the lyrics. The original Band Aid single in 1984 was knocked together in a matter of days, a pretty remarkable organisational feat in those days before mobile phones and the internet, and while the lyrics were a bit crass and clunky in places people were prepared to overlook that, since there just hadn't been time to come up with anything more crafted. The trouble is, that excuse has long since evaporated in the 30 years since, but paradoxically the periodic resurrections of the idea are hamstrung by having to do something that sounds mostly the same as the original song, since the perception is that that's what'll sell in the greatest numbers. So a bit of tinkering here and there is the best that can be done.

As it happens I think the Ebola crisis might be one that's more amenable to being treated with a one-off cash injection than the original Ethiopian famine was, and I'm certainly not saying No More Band Aid Ever, just that it wouldn't hurt to acknowledge that this is actually a complex problem and while the overall balance of good vs. harm might well come out in favour of the single and its accompanying charity campaign there are nonetheless people who are hurt and frustrated by it.

The parallels with the comet/shirt debacle are, well, firstly that if you're in the privileged group it behooves you to listen to what those in the non-privileged group are telling you, since it may be about problems that you are completely oblivious to, and secondly that the whole attitude of HOW DARE YOU BOTHER GREAT MEN WHILE THEY ARE DOING GREAT THINGS WITH YOUR PIDDLING OBJECTIONS AND SO-CALLED "FEELINGS" is not very helpful or healthy, since for one thing it implicitly makes the assumption that people can't hold more than one thought in their heads at the same time. Like: Ebola is clearly a humanitarian crisis requiring swift action BUT here are some issues with the way it's being done here. Or: it is clearly unutterably awesome that the ESA Rosetta team has landed a probe on a comet BUT we could have done without the sexist bullshit. Call me a crazy old optimist but I actually think people are more than capable of grasping this.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

why not pop down to your local comet

Let's kick off with a bit of light-hearted smut: here's the BBC News article featuring some high-resolution images of the Philae probe's landing site on comet 67P (more formally: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko). Note the wording of the headline:

I have a suspicion, particularly after looking at the section sub-headings within the article, that this was a deliberate (and clearly successful) attempt to slip something past the BBC website editors. How snigger-worthy you find it will depend on how keen you are on the puerile comedy trope of hearing someone say a sentence with a NOUN in it and responding by saying "what - your HAIRY NOUN?" The word "landing" is clearly eligible for this treatment owing to its similarity in meaning to "corridor" (what, your HAIRY corridor, etc.) and the reasonably well-known phrase "landing strip" (that Urban Dictionary link is work-safe, a Google image search probably less so).

Speaking of comets, and of things which are chuckleworthy among a group of your close friends, perhaps with some alcohol consumption involved, but which would be massively inappropriate at work, the other thing to make the headlines in relation to the comet landing - apart from the basic fact of humanity landing a SPACECRAFT on A FREAKIN' COMET, which everyone agrees is awesome - was British project scientist Dr. Matt Taylor's somewhat disastrous choice of shirt and words for the post-touchdown press interview.

There's been a lot of clueless outrage about the criticism on Twitter, as well as in various other publications who should know better. Most of it can be distilled down to this 6-second This Is Spinal Tap clip, but here's a slightly expanded summary:
  • if you're going with the "chill out, it's just a shirt" angle, it would benefit you enormously to read up on concepts like microaggressions, chilly climate and (most importantly of all) privilege. None of this is necessarily "obvious" or accessible via "common sense", nor would anyone be expected to know about it by default, especially if your daily focus was elsewhere, like, say landing a probe on a comet. 
  • it's also worth noting that three of the world's major astronomy organisations, in America, Australia and Britain, have issued statements echoing the view that it was inappropriate - the American Astronomical Society one went further and made the point that wearing such a garment at work would in many places be a violation of workplace anti-harassment policies. No word as yet from the Astronomical Society of America, though: splitters!
  • by what ought to be a fairly simple process of moral triangulation, if in any sort of discussion about social justice or gender politics you find yourself on the same side as Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi AliThe Federalist, Spiked and Boris Johnson you might want to reflect on whether you're actually one of the bad guys.
  • if you find yourself using the words "feminist" and "bully" in the same sentence, you might want to reflect on your ignorance about power gradients; see also "privilege" as above. Otherwise you might as well accuse Rosa Parks of "bullying" some white guy into a different seat on the bus in 1955.
  • anyway, once the message filtered through to Matt Taylor he issued (during a subsequent Google hangout session) a slightly stumbly but seemingly heartfelt and genuine apology. In response to which pretty much all of the original critics said, well, fair play, that can't have been easy, good man for doing the right thing, let's move on and revel in landing a SPACECRAFT on a FERREAKIN' COMET.
  • inevitably, in a sort of echo of Lewis' Law ("Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism") the backlash against those people flagging up the problem with the shirt (and the words) outweighed many-fold the volume and vehemence of the original complaints, and, despite it being by no means exclusively women who were complaining, it was inevitably women who copped most of the abuse.
If you want more, good summaries of the main points (plus links to some of the more egregious abuse, which saves me linking them here) can be found here and here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

taking myself up the twitter

At some point either yesterday or today something of great significance happened, a shifting, if you will, of the tectonic plates underlying my very online existence, a crossing of a sort of cyber-Rubicon after which nothing, literally NOTHING, will ever be the same again.

Here's a screenshot from my blog post administration page:

And here's one from my Twitter front page:

So you'll see instantly that there was a point where my total number of tweets overtook my total number of blog posts, probably during a futile and unrewarding exchange with an idiot, like this one. Not altogether surprising, you might say, and no doubt you'd be right, but I think I'd envisaged it taking a bit longer than the thirteen months that it has taken.

I suppose, as I near my tweetular sesquicentenary, what this reflects is that I've taken to Twitter more enthusiastically than I thought I might (that number averages out at a bit over three tweets a day), rather than giving up on the blogging project, which I certainly still consider to be my "main" platform for saying stuff, however inane.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

the last book I read

Schooling by Heather McGowan.

Catrine Evans is 13, and her American mother has recently died, so her Welsh father has brought them back to Britain and enrolled her at Monstead, the boarding school he went to as a boy. Cue lots of spiffing japes involving midnight feasts, raids on the tuck shop, hockey practice and hiding from Matron in the sanatorium, right? Weeeeeell, sort of.

Catrine is a spiky, self-possessed and intelligent girl, but with a few challenging events to deal with in her recent past, including the death of her mother, obviously, but also an incident before that involving her American friend Isabelle where they rolled an old car tyre they found in the woods down a hill towards a busy road and knocked a motorcyclist off his bike into the grass verge. Did they kill him? Is she a fugitive from justice? Who knows?

Catrine makes some friends at school, some wisely-chosen, some not: glue-sniffing delinquent Brickie, arsonist Aurora (soon to be expelled for burning down the cricket pavilion) and future head boy material Owen Wharton. She also gets to know some of the teachers, most notably awkward Mr. Betts the English teacher and the more obviously friendly and welcoming Mr. Gilbert the chemistry teacher who also does a bit of art tuition on the side.

Catrine and Mr. Gilbert soon strike up a friendship that extends beyond the normal pupil-teacher relationship, and soon extends into areas that might legitimately be cause for some concern - she poses for a painting, the description rather coyly not specifying exactly what (if anything) she's wearing for the session, and at the end of the book Mr. Gilbert organises an art tuition trip with some amateur pupils which he arranges for Catrine to attend as well, thus getting them both away from the school environment with its stifling notions of appropriate pupil-teacher relations. At this point stuffy old Mr. Betts comes up trumps by turning up to rescue her and whisk her away back to her father.

At least, that's what appears to happen, but it's hard to be sure since the book is written in an intense stream-of-consciousness style that doesn't offer the reader much context for what's going on at any point, and provides a viewpoint that can't necessarily always be trusted. The style makes it more of a challenge to read, as well, and it's interesting to speculate whether the book would have been any better if it had been written in a more orthodox way. Schooling was Heather McGowan's first novel (published in 2001) and there's a suspicion of a bit of stylistic throwing of the kitchen sink at it to make it memorable, whereas perhaps just telling the story in a more linear way would have resulted in a more satisfying, though less ambitious, book. The decision to frame the last chapter (15 pages or so) as a single-paragraph wall of text seems to deliberately invite comparisons to James Joyce's Ulysses, the canonical stream-of-consciousness novel, comparisons which, for all Schooling's merits, can't really end well. My conscience dictates that I should point out here that I have a Penguin copy of Ulysses on my shelves which I have yet to get round to reading.

The subject matter has a queasy fascination to anyone who's read Lolita; another strange parallel is that my Faber & Faber paperback carries a cover image of Thérèse by Balthus from 1938, while the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Lolita carries an image of the same artist's Girl With Cat from 1937. Both are slightly disturbingly sexualised images of clearly underage girls in poses of varying degrees of upskirtiness. Interestingly some of the other editions of Schooling zoom in on the image to reduce it to an area of jailbait-y thigh and knee; I'm not sure whether this makes it better or worse.

Some trainspottery facts for you: Heather McGowan is the second Heather to appear in this list after Heather Lewis in August 2011, and Schooling is the 42nd of the 194 books in this list to have a one-word title.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

[cetacean needed]

Looks like we've got another potential exploding whale on our hands. This one is stinking up a beach in the Camargue National Park in the south of France. According to this Independent article, authorities are considering various options including "one option of using dynamite to blow it up". WILL THESE PEOPLE NEVER LEARN?

I should imagine that what'll actually happen, much like in the case of the Newfoundland whale back in May, is that eventually the bloated carcass will spring a slow leak and gradually deflate in a disappointingly un-explodey manner. Honestly, those Camargue beaches are pretty remote; this one could almost be left to explode and all that would happen is a few of those white Camargue horses might get a bit spattered.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

daddy loves mummy very much so he sticks his manhood in her modesty

I should start this post by saying: you'll notice there's an increasing level of cross-pollination between blog posts and tweets, usually where things start out as either an individual tweet or a series of related tweets and then I think of more to say on the subject. Those of you who are foolish enough both to follow me on Twitter and read the blog might find this slightly frustrating, though I would hope the whole point is that the blog bits expand the tweets without just being tediously repetitious. Or, to put it another way: this shit is happening. Deal with it.

Anyway, I happened across this article on the Daily Mail website a day or two ago, featuring American actress Maitland Ward, of whom I confess I'd never heard before (and no wonder, if her Wikipedia filmography is accurate, since it's blank since 2007). My interest was piqued not so much by that story of sadly unfulfilled early promise, but by the language the Mail used to describe the story, a fairly flimsy one relating to some provocative photos intended to promote the new film Descent Into The Maelstrom, which may or may not be based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. Here's the headline:

And here's my original tweet on the subject:

It occurred to me afterwards that it would be interesting to do a bit of simple Googling to see how many other examples I could find. It turns to be pretty easy. So my crackpot theory for today is that the phrase "flaunting her assets" is the most Daily Mail phrase ever, even more quintessentially Daily Mail (or more accurately, Mail Online) than any amount of bullshit about immigrants or false rape claims (they love a false rape claim story at the Mail, but that's a subject for a whole separate blog post). It's got the perfect blend of prurience and concentrated essence of 1950s, the decade in which the Mail dwells, morality-wise. There's also a liberal dose of Carry-On style attitudes to female sexuality, which basically comprise 1 part phwwooarrrr to 99 parts stark terror. It's also one of those phrases which gradually drains of meaning the more you say it. Flaunted her assets? Flaunted her assets? Flaunted her assets? I mean, what?

Anyway, here's a bit of a collage for your amusement:

These snippets were harvested from articles about (in addition to Maitland Ward as featured above) Ashley James, Sam Faiers, Chantelle Houghton, Jennifer Hawkins, Daisy Lowe, Naya Rivera, Kate UptonKelly Brook and Mariah Carey. "Assets" is occasionally used in a more general sense (and sometimes in the singular) to refer to other things, generally arses, as in these articles about Doutzen Kroes and Coco Austin.

As for my other claims about Daily Mail usage, here are a few citations for "modesty" meaning "fanny"; again, it is sometimes used in a more general sense as well:
  • Lindsay Lohan protects her modesty
  • [Maitland Ward] her modesty was very nearly revealed
  • [Selena Gomez] could barely contain her modesty in the tiny pale blue skirt
  • Britney tries to cover her modesty
Finally, here are some citations for "manhood" meaning "cock":
  • Shia LaBeouf 'wanted to wear camera on his manhood'
  • Robert Downey Jr. talks about his manhood at Cambridge Union
  • Rod Stewart reveals addiction to steroids shrunk his manhood
  • Mick Jagger 'used bees to enlarge his manhood'
  • 'He tried to cut off his manhood with craft scissors'
  • Skinny dipper bitten on manhood by deadly New Zealand spider
The other classic Daily Mail phrase used to accompany a bit of gratuitous leering is to describe a woman in a tight dress as having "poured her curves" into it; "curves" in this context meaning tits and arse, obviously. As it happens I don't need to do any research for this one as there is a whole tumblr blog already dedicated to it. It hasn't been updated for a couple of years, so you can imagine the amount of potential material that must have built up since then.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

loafing around

When you're a busy professional person and parent, you don't get a lot of free time to just wander off and go for a walk. When you're wanting to go for walks with other people who are also busy professional persons and parents, opportunities are few and far between and must be siezed upon when they present themselves. So when I and my fellow NCT alumni Huw and Alex found ourselves with an available Saturday (i.e. today) we decided to go out for a walk and to hell with the direness of the weather forecast.

We didn't have a whole day as Huw had to be somewhere else later, so we had to devise a decent walk featuring a satisfying summit somewhere, but which wasn't going to take more than, say, four hours to get round. So we decided to drive up to Abergavenny and tackle the Sugar Loaf.

I'd been up the Sugar Loaf once before, with my parents, back in the summer of 2010. I can't at this point remember the exact route we took, but I think we took a pretty direct approach by parking at the small car park here. This time we decided to make a bit more of a walk of it by parking in town and walking up the Deri ridge, bagging the summit and then walking back down the Rholben ridge to our starting point.

I think the Sugar Loaf is the most pleasing of all the hills around Abergavenny; not only is it the highest but it is a very definite little mini-Matterhorn peak with a little summit plateau which falls away on all sides. The Blorenge, by contrast, is only 100 feet or so lower but is a great bulky lump which, when you get to the top, reveals itself to be just the end of a great long plateau stretching off over towards Blaenavon, and where if you start from that side you can drive to within about 150 vertical feet of the summit.

Sugar Loaf is also one of the Seven Hills Of Abergavenny - not only that but Deri and Rholben are on that list as well, so we knocked off three at once today. That leaves Mynydd Llanwenarth as the only one I haven't conquered, but since this is just another subsidiary ridge of the Sugar Loaf it isn't the sort of thing you'd make the focus of a day out. Next time I climb the Sugar Loaf I'll go up that way and that'll take care of it.

Here's the GPS-captured track info (click for a bigger version) - a modest 8.3 miles apparently, but it turned out to be about right in terms of distance and duration. Although we were in general quite lucky with the weather (it was clear while we were at the summit, for instance) we did get rained on quite extensively as well or we might have got finished a bit quicker. Four hours for the round trip turned out to be pretty nearly spot on.

A couple of other graphical thingies that may be of interest, firstly essentially the same map but with some colour-coding added to show the changes in altitude (of course you could get essentially the same information by careful reading of the contour lines on the OS map); secondly the altitude profile. Both of these are courtesy of GPS Visualiser.

It was too wet for much photography, and my proper camera is currently on the fritz anyway, but a small number of pictures, including the obligatory summit shot, can be found here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

headline of the day

It's a touching and poignant story of parental love across two generations, but I think the headline writers could probably have done a bit better than this if they'd stopped to think about it for a minute or two:

Before we get all Attack Of The Zombie Mothers here and start running for the hills it's probably worth realising that not all the "she"s here refer to the same person.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

dave gorman and alice roberts having a nude roadside picnic in joanna lumley's plastic anus

I'm not an obsessive porer over my blog stats, but it is sometimes interesting to have a browse around and see what's going on. What you often find is that some old long-forgotten post is suddenly attracting loads of traffic for no discernible reason for a week or so, and then going quiet again. For instance, this week this brief and unremarkable four-and-a-half-year-old post is comfortably the most-visited one (with 40-odd pageviews), presumably because people are Googling Dave Gorman for some reason.

Extend the scope to the last month and the comfortable winner (with just over 250 pageviews) is this post about my spare room CD shelving from May 2012 - strangely, this one is actually the third-most-visited post of all time on this blog with just over 2000 total pageviews. I presume this must be because it includes a reference to the IKEA Lerberg CD racks that I installed (and which have now apparently been discontinued) - I suppose I can now test this theory by seeing if this post attracts a similar volume of traffic. The next two posts are the book reviews of The Heather Blazing from 2007 and Roadside Picnic from 2012 with 150-odd visits each. Roadside Picnic has been attracting quite a lot of traffic for a few months now (just short of 500 overall) and I've really no idea why.

Overall, the winner by a huge margin is the Alice Roberts post from August 2010, which has attracted a startling 6286 visitors in the four years it's been up, almost certainly all from people looking for scurrilous nudey pictures. The second-placed post with 2871 views is this post from November 2008, whose popularity is probably explained by its being the fifth result in a Google search for "Joanna Lumley plastic anus" - again, reasons which do nobody any credit, least of all me.

Another odd result that I'm at a loss to explain is that last month, October 2014, is the month that's seen the most visitors to this blog, by a considerable margin. October's total of 9762 pageviews is something like half as many again as the previous record-holder, October 2008 with 6532, and that was back when I was blogging a lot more regularly than I am now.

I have no idea why that's happened - it doesn't, for instance, seem to be that any of October's blog posts attracted a huge number of visitors, so if the figures are trustworthy it must be, as it were, back catalogue sales that's doing it. It could of course be something as mundane as Google re-tuning their stats-gathering algorithms and not any real-world change in visitor numbers at all.

hot patootie, it's choclafoutis!

I thought I'd just document this, as much for my future reference as anything else, but also because it's simple and pretty delicious and THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW, dammit.

Anyway, you'll remember my original post about the damson clafoutis which I made with the by-products of the 2010-vintage damson gin. Your canonical clafoutis is made with cherries, so I was already diverging somewhat from orthodoxy, but further divergence is possible, not to mention delicious. I have in the past made clafoutis with various kinds of leftover fruit, the one with the apricots being particularly good, but if you ditch the idea of fruit altogether then all sorts of interesting results are possible. On one occasion we had one of those Jamaican ginger cakes left over from some family do or other, so I decided to make use of the standard clafoutis batter recipe and make a sort of ginger cake-y posh bread and butter pudding. Slice the cake up into half-inch-thick slices, layer them in a dish, batter on, oven, bish bosh, sorted.

So when we were required to bring along a dessert to a dinner party with some friends on Saturday, I remembered the couple of packs of Aldi pains au chocolat that we'd had cluttering up the freezer for a while, and decided to batter some sense into them. I amended the recipe slightly as I needed to bulk up the quantity of batter to match the extra bulk (not to mention height) of the bread, so I've put the amended version, as closely as I can remember it, below.

  • 12 pains au chocolat
  • 80g plain flour
  • 140g caster sugar (note that I've reduced the relative amount of sugar compared with the damson recipe, for the hopefully obvious reason that damsons need more sweetening)
  • 5 eggs
  • a pinch of salt
  • 750ml of milk, i.e. not quite a pint and a half
  • a dessertspoonful of decent cocoa powder
Whisk all that lot (except the bread) together; don't worry if the resulting batter looks scarily thin and runny, it always looks like that. Cut up the pains au chocolat into slices (5 per pain worked for me) and layer them in a 20cm by 30cm deep-ish dish - a dozen pains made two layers just about exactly for me. Bake at 180-200°C for about 45 minutes until it's nice and brown on top but still a bit wobbly. Serve with some vanilla ice cream.

Friday, October 31, 2014

no introduction necessary

As you know, I'm all about the Twitters these days, so when I had a thought in the wake of listening to Badge while writing the Jack Bruce bit, I decided to crowdsource its ass and put it out there to see if the Twitterati could make anything of it:

As with all questions of that sort, it's not as simple as it might sound - are there allowed to be any other instruments playing? Does the bass have to be the first thing you hear? How long does the bass-driven bit have to be? As always the lines that get drawn here are pretty arbitrary, but having posed the question I felt entitled to be the one to draw them.

Anyway, after a few valuable contributions from various people we ended up with what I think is a pretty good list covering a wide range of musical genres. There were a whole host of otherwise excellent and interesting suggestions that fell foul of one or other quibbly rule I pulled out of my arse, though.

These are the ones I thought of:
Here are a few suggestions from other people:

From all the suggestions these are the ones I deem acceptable:
Here are a few suggestions that didn't make the cut for various reasons:
  • I Wanna Be Adored by The Stone Roses - 40-odd seconds of ambient noise before the bass kicks in
  • Twisterella by Ride - intro too short to be meaningful
  • Street Tuff by The Rebel MC & Double Trouble - brief spoken intro
  • Groove Is In The Heart by Deee-Lite - slightly less brief spoken intro
  • Steady As She Goes by The Raconteurs - a few bars of drumming before the bass bit
  • One Of These Days by Pink Floyd - some swirly atmospheric noise first
  • Money by Pink Floyd - all that business with the cash registers first
  • Keep The Faith by Bon Jovi - few bars of guitar drone first
  • Too Shy by Kajagoogoo - few bars of synth and drums first
And a couple that I'm still conflicted about:
  • Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes - actually a regular guitar fed through an effects box
  • Ace Of Spades by Motorhead - genuinely a bass but so trebly it doesn't really sound like one
I'll leave whether you include either or both of those as an exercise for the reader. Anyway, put all that lot together and you could make a pretty decent playlist, I reckon. Here's a (much shorter) list on a similar theme from a few years back.