Wednesday, November 25, 2015

be selective, be objective, be an asset to the collective

Couple of brief follow-ups regarding earlier stuff:

Firstly, halibut news. Doug is a man whose expertise on matters zoological I trust implicitly, so when he told me the other day that I should go and Google "olive flounder" I immediately went and did so, with only the smallest amount of suspicion that I was being pranked and that it would turn out to be some eye-watering sex act that cannot be described on a family blog. With pictures. But, mercifully, it turns out the olive flounder really is a thing, relevant to this blog because it's also apparently colloquially known as the "bastard halibut". I see no evidence for this particular flatfish being any more unpleasant, obnoxious or untrustworthy than any other, so I assume the "bastard" bit refers to its not really being a proper halibut. Getting your Paralichthyidae mixed up with your Pleuronectidae is social death where I come from. Nonetheless, I like olives, and my swimming style is best described by the word "flounder" (or, if you catch me a few minutes later, the word "drown").

Secondly, a quick update on my wildly ambitious project to catalogue the full lexicon of Daily Mail euphemisms. Anyone who follows me on Twitter (and why wouldn't you?) will have seen my occasional flagging of Mail stories with the #assetbingo hashtag - the rule being the word "assets" has to be in the main headline, and it has to unambiguously refer to tits, ideally with the word "flaunting" in there somewhere as well.

A sighting of "assets" used to describe a bodily attribute other than tits is a rare beast indeed - here's one from a couple of days ago in a bit of a non-story about a woman with fairly long legs (these being the assets in question).

Rest assured women are still "pouring their curves" into things as well: recent examples can be found here, here and here.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

jesus? omnipresent, miss

I've written before about the difficulties posed for the committed atheist by the myriad ways in which society, even in the 21st century, for fuck's sake, unthinkingly privileges the religious viewpoint as the default setting, be it swearing on the Bible in court to the reflexive parrotting of meaningless stock phrases in the event of some natural disaster.

My antennae are especially sensitive to this sort of thing at the moment, though, because with Nia starting school next autumn (and already attending pre-school classes) I'm constantly vigilant for ways in which she'll be exposed to religious nonsense. Just to be clear, I don't expect her to be able to go to school without coming into contact with that stuff, I'd just like as much prior warning as possible as to when and what and how it's being presented.

We did a bit of fairly cursory due diligence when selecting a school for Nia to go to, since we were in the catchment area for a couple. Just as an aside, the school we did eventually choose, Ysgol Gymraeg Casnewydd, is, as the name (which translates, rather prosaically, as "Newport Welsh School") suggests, a Welsh-medium school, which means that the primary language spoken there is Welsh. While this sounds challenging, since neither Hazel nor I have more than a few words of Welsh, mostly gleaned from road signs (so I know how to say "slow down" and "no parking", but not "bread" or "man"), we were assured that the kids generally take to it without batting an eyelid. And so it's proved, as Nia seems to be soaking it up at frightening speed, although, to be fair, she is a frickin' genius.

Anyway, while we were having our guided tour of the school the topic of conversation did turn to Religious Education lessons, which the school does provide, in accordance with the law. We were assured that it was more of a comparative religious studies kind of thing, although I do fret a bit about it, since it seems almost inevitable that there'll be a temptation, even in these multi-cultural, multi-ethnic times, to privilege the cultural default (i.e. Christianity) over other things, and avoid engaging at all with the question of whether any of it is true. Not to mention the ludicrous situation of the legal requirement, believe it or not, for a daily act of primarily Christian collective worship in schools, although a lot of schools, to their credit, just quietly ignore it.

The additional screaming nightmare scenario, of course, is that some otherwise excellent schools have religious affiliations which would, for instance, require prospective parents to have their children baptised in order to be considered for a place. Thankfully, since I would have been implacably opposed to such a course of action, that scenario didn't arise for us, but I do know people of no particular religious affiliation who have had their kids baptised for precisely that reason, which seems tragic.

There is, as it happens, some encouraging news on this front, in Wales anyway, as the Welsh Education Minister, Huw Lewis, proposes changing the name of these lessons to "Religion, Philosophy and Ethics", which sounds a lot more sensible, though you can bet your ass there'll be howls of protest from the religious faction at the loss of their unearned privilege.

Religious education lessons have been in the news this week, as it happens, as there's been a bit of news interest in the legal challenge being mounted by various concerned parents to get humanism included in the religious education syllabus. While I completely understand the motivation, and I salute anyone poking the cosy status quo in this area, I have to say I'm not sure, strategically, that this is the best approach. Getting humanism (which, just to pre-empt any criticism, I'm aware is different from atheism) classified as a religion, whether implicitly or explicitly, seems to be stretching the definition of "religion" beyond the elastic limits of reasonableness or usefulness, and quite apart from anything else invites people like Andrew Brown to write this sort of article in the Guardian. You might define religion as "a set of opinions about stuff that sort of combine into a semi-coherent worldview" or "a thing that causes people to gather together in rooms and talk about stuff", but my personal view is that unless it includes some sort of assertion of supernatural stuff going on, then what you've got there is, at best, a philosophy.

A better approach, I think, is to support the switch to a more general study of philosophy and ethics, which by all means would include some stuff about religion, since it's indisputably true that lots of people throughout history have believed that sort of stuff and based their actions on it, utter nonsense though it undoubtedly is, but would also make it clear that not believing any of the myriad conflicting claims about magic men in the sky is also an option, and possibly even float the idea that there might be ways of weighing the relative value of these (often conflicting) claims by checking them against reality.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

cook slowly for 14 hours

The recently-concluded Pakistan-England series in the United Arab Emirates yielded up, as well as some exciting cricket and a feeling that England acquitted themselves pretty well and probably should have done better than to lose 2-0, a few statistical nuggets that should probably be listed here since they follow on from some previous posts.

Firstly, Alastair Cook's 263 in the first Test, in addition to being the third-longest individual innings in Test history, was also the first score of 263 ever made in a Test match. Not only that, but Shoaib Malik's 245 in Pakistan's first innings was the first score of 245 ever made in a Test match. Those two innings wiped the 3rd and 5th lowest scores never made in a Test off the list, which can be found here. The top five now reads as follows: 229, 238, 252, 264, 265.

Cook's innings also added him to the select list of players who have made scores of 250 or more more than once in Test matches. That list now comprises 16 players, as follows:
  • Don Bradman (1930)
  • Walter Hammond (1933)
  • Javed Miandad (1987)
  • Brian Lara (1994)
  • Graeme Smith (2003)
  • Sanath Jayasuriya (2004)
  • Virender Sehwag (2006)
  • Kumar Sangakkara (2006)
  • Stephen Fleming (2006)
  • Younis Khan (2009)
  • Ramnaresh Sarwan (2009)
  • Mahela Jayawardene (2009)
  • Chris Gayle (2010)
  • Hashim Amla (2012)
  • Michael Clarke (2012)
  • Alastair Cook (2015)
Bradman leads the way with five such scores, Sehwag has four, Lara, Sangakkara and Miandad have three, and the rest two each. Split it by country and West Indies and Sri Lanka lead the way with three players each. Cook is the second Englishman on the list, after Walter Hammond 82 years ago.

Speaking of Virender Sehwag, there was much tribute paid a few weeks back when he announced his retirement from international cricket. In truth this was a bit of a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, as he hadn't played a Test since March 2013, and was unlikely to be in line for a recall, but it provided a good opportunity to reflect on his achievements, the signature one being maintaining a Test average in excess of 50 from his 21st match to his 102nd, while also maintaining a strike rate (runs per 100 balls) in excess of 80, previously unheard of for a top-flight batsman, let alone an opener, traditionally the guys who'd weather the early storm and wear out the bowlers for the dashing stroke-players in the middle order. It's instructive to compare his stats with those of a man to whom he was regularly compared, Viv Richards - almost identical run aggregates and average, but Richards' strike rate, for all his legendary aggression, and despite owning the joint-fastest Test hundred ever made, was a touch under 70. Sehwag's opening contemporaries Chris Gayle and Matthew Hayden, both considered pretty aggressive and quick-scoring batsmen, had strike rates of around 60.

With a batsman like Sehwag you never knew what you were going to get, but the chances were it'd be worth watching. The last time I saw him bat, when he'd been recalled, after an injury and far from fully fit, to the team for the tail-end of the series against England in 2011, he promptly bagged a king pair. So it goes.

One last thing: Alastair Cook also took his 123rd catch during the Pakistan series, to move ahead of his old opening partner (and predecessor as captain) Andrew Strauss as England record-holder. The overall record holder (for a non-wicketkeeper) remains Rahul Dravid with 210.

Monday, November 09, 2015

the last book I read

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

It's 1955, and Frank and April Wheeler have established themselves in a little suburban community in Connecticut, as mid-1950s stereotype demands that they should, this being the acme of what an intelligent young professional couple with a couple of kids should aspire to.

Frank and April like to think of themselves as a bit out of the normal run of bovine company men and their compliant stay-at-home wives, though, able to recognise and laugh at the sterility and conformity of suburban life and think back fondly on the bohemian days of their courtship in Frank's New York apartment, impromptu afternoon delight and all.

Frank has a pretty decent job, which he affects a lofty sardonic disdain for, and April was in a previous life an aspiring and moderately talented amateur actress. April's pretensions are mercilessly skewered in the novel's opening scene as the local amateur dramatic company mount an excruciatingly disastrous adaptation of Robert E Sherwood's The Petrified Forest. Frank's fatal flaws take longer to be revealed, but are exposed when April decides to act on their boredom with suburban life and proposes uprooting the whole family to Paris to start a new life. Frank is hereby presented with a dilemma: he can't openly object to the scheme, since it's the logical consequence of all his talk about how dreadful suburban life is, but actually he's quite attached to his job, the associated salary, the clandestine affair he's having with one of the secretaries at the office, and is fundamentally a bit too comfortable and a bit too much of a coward to just throw it all in and jet off into the unknown.

Frank's job is made somewhat easier when April unexpectedly falls pregnant with their third child, and he's able to persuade her a) to keep it (her first instinct being to abort it) and b) that it would be better to stay in the USA until after it arrives. This proves a brief respite, though, as the aftermath of their decision to stay brings various built-up frustrations to a head, Frank and April have a climactic row, and, after an interlude of eerie calm the following morning as Frank gets ready to head off to work, April attempts an amateur home abortion on herself, and, after the inevitable botchery and emergency trip to hospital, bleeds to death.

Here, in a nutshell, is the antidote to the warm fuzzy Daily Mail idea that the 1950s were some sort of golden era of law-abiding respect and tranquility that we should in some way aspire to ape the values of: the reality is a ghastly facade of picket fences, gleaming chrome bumpers and gabardine slacks concealing the underlying brutal sexism, racism, phenomenally heavy drinking, stagnation, boredom, sexual repression and general inability to communicate on even the most basic level that could find a couple of otherwise intelligent young people waking up one morning in their sterile little suburban box and realising that they don't know each other at all.

It's exceptionally bleak, brutal and unsparing in its tracking of the Wheelers' downfall, and their inability to break free of the prevailing culture in which they find themselves. Obviously the novel's real target is 1950s suburban society and its unbearable sterility and hypocrisy, but it doesn't spare the Wheelers for their cowardice and inability to break free of conformity. Clearly the general arc of the story is a massive downer, but it's a mark of how good the book is that that doesn't matter. There is also a whiff of schadenfreude about seeing Frank and April and their highball glasses and their shagpile carpets brought low by nothing more than not having had a meaningful conversation with each other for a decade or so. The only slightly grating note is struck by having near-neighbours Mr. & Mrs. Givings bring their son John over to the Wheelers' for occasional visits from the mental hospital where he spends most of his time, and having him act as a sort of straight-talking plot MacGuffin: is he insane? or is he SO SANE HE JUST BLEW YOUR MIND? We could probably have got through most of the plot without him having to spell out big chunks of it for us.

Revolutionary Road was filmed in 2008 by Sam Mendes, starring his then wife Kate Winslet as April and Leo DiCaprio as Frank. It also features in Time magazine's list of 100 best 20th-century novels as featured here multiple times before. Here's an interesting long-ish New York Times essay about it by another great 20th-century American novelist (and former featuree here), Richard Ford.