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.