Wednesday, December 30, 2015

more a sort of après vie

Bit of a splurge of blogging tonight as this will probably be my last bloggortunity of 2015, since we'll be away on various New Year travels for the next few days. So, lastly, I must recommend to you the Radio 4 programme Beyond Belief, which I listened to the most recent broadcast of on Monday afternoon while driving back from Staffordshire.

Just a cotton-pickin' minute there, you'll be saying, this is some sort of religious broadcasting spot, isn't it: surely just the sort of thing to make your blood boil? Well, yes, you're absolutely right, but it's fascinating for precisely that reason - a window into a world of wishy-washy nonsense. Wishy-washy since this is the impeccably liberal and inclusive end of the religious spectrum where religion is rarely referred to as such, but more often by the more cuddly term "faith", and all the participants in the weekly discussion are impeccably civilised and no-one calls anyone an infidel or tries to blow themselves up.

This particular programme provided an excellent subject for the participants to chew on: the afterlife. Specifically, what happens to us after we die. Now mainstream science is reasonably clear about this, and the general consensus goes as follows: while there's some greyness over the exact point of transition between being "alive" and being "dead" (more on this shortly), no evidence has ever been found for consciousness persisting in any way after death, and all the supposed bright light/feelings of peace/beckoning relatives stuff can be explained by restricted blood flow to the brain, something that hallucinogenic drugs also induce, with startlingly similar results. It should also be noted that there have been a swathe of books published in the last few years on this subject, some achieving spectacular sales, and almost all being revealed, on the application of a bit of investigative scepticism, to be the products of either epic self-delusion or cartoonish greed and mendaciousness. And, equivocate about the exact point of death as much as you like, once it's happened, that's it: your physical remains (or, at least, those that can't be recycled in some way) are just useless dead meat and will either be burned or buried and left to rot.

So anyway, the principal rhetorical tricks wheeled out in Beyond Belief included:
  • The refusal to commit to any sort of concrete claim about anything. There was a lot of "well, the texts say" but also an acknowledgement that the established churches have said many things in the past, many of them based on things that the texts say, that they've subsequently rowed back on. The key point here is that concrete claims can be tested and found wanting, which is the last thing anyone wants;
  • A general reluctance to criticise other religions, sorry, "faiths", even when their claims clearly conflict with your own and you can't both be right. The only time the discussion got a bit pointed was when someone brought up the 72 virgins thing, but since they apologised for mentioning it almost in the same breath and then agreed hastily that it was a ridiculous question, there wasn't actually much discussion of it;
  • Following on from that: no sceptics or atheists allowed, even if you might think having one on the panel would add a bracing note to the discussion. Imagine, as I fantasised about after a similar listening experience here, having AC Grayling or someone similar on the show.
  • A slippery refusal to define your terms. When some token lip-service was paid to "science" and "rationality" - words that always come with slightly sniffy scare quotes in this sort of programme - they wheeled out the rather flaky-sounding Sam Parnia to explain his research programme into experiences that happen "after death". One of the problems with this is that his definition of "death" is upon cardiac arrest, whereas a more usual one these days is upon cessation of any measurable brain activity, the whole point being that modern science has made cardiac arrest, even multiple ones, an eminently survivable experience, the only downside of which is a load of people who've survived one queuing up to tell their bullshit stories about meeting Auntie Beryl in a big white room;
  • A general amused tolerance for the terrible gaucheness of anyone wanting to tie down claims to things that can be tested. Along with this comes a lot of insistence that the experiences being talked about are in some way "ineffable" and beyond the reach of rational enquiry and in some cases even beyond the reach of language and requiring metaphor and poetry to describe them.
Near-death experiences and the afterlife, in common with most mystical bullshit, require one fundamental belief: that the brain and the mind are two separate entities and that each can exist without the other. Every single test that has ever been done to test this has concluded that they are not, and that the mind, consciousness, call it what you will, is purely and simply a product of the physical substrate. In spite of this simple fact, one which would seem to reduce a discussion of the sort trailed by Beyond Belief to about twenty seconds, or maybe even less - as long as it takes to utter the word "no" - it is still apparently possible in the 21st century for a group of highly-educated people to spin out a discussion of this sort to half an hour and not make a single concrete claim, still less reach any useful conclusion about anything. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

who the bleep is alys?

You'll recall my mild surprise at people's level of confusion when we decided to Welsh it up a bit on the arrival of our first child and call her Nia. Well, we decided to Welsh it up a notch again when our second daughter was born in March of this year and call her Alys. Cue potential confusion of a slightly different kind, as this is pronounced the same as, and is the Welsh variant of, the perfectly commonplace English name Alice. So Alys' cross to bear through life will most likely be people constantly spelling her name wrong, rather than the more fundamental refusal to believe that it actually is a name that Nia will get. But adversity, and triumphing over it, builds character, and I'm pretty confident that both girls will thank us for it later.

Anyway, I thought I'd do the Google predictive search thing again, and this is what I got back:

I have to confess that none of those people are familiar names to me, but I'm sure they're marvellous and worthwhile people in their own right. Anyway:
  • Alys Fowler is a journalist and occasional TV presenter on Gardener's World;
  • Alys Williams was apparently a contestant on the BBC series The Voice. It's very snobbish of me to affect a haughty ignorance and disdain for what goes on on such shows, but there you are, I'm doing it anyway;
  • Alys Einion is an author and lecturer whose name may possibly be a shortened version of Alyson;
  • Alys Carlton is a lawyer.
Other notable Alys's include the daughter of Owain Glyndŵr, Welsh swimmer (and double namesake) Alys Thomas, a minor Game of Thrones character, and the protagonist of the eponymous S4C drama series.

ball tampering

Further additions to the list referred to in this recent post: in addition to Shoaib Malik and Alastair Cook's efforts in Abu Dhabi, both Ross Taylor of New Zealand and Adam Voges of Australia have recently made inroads into the list of scores never before bagged in a Test match. Voges' unbeaten 269 in the first Test of what looks likely to be a horrifically mismatched Australia-West Indies series bagged what was the 6th-lowest unclaimed score in Tests, while Taylor's 290 against Australia in Perth a month or so earlier bagged the 17th-lowest spot on the list.

Taylor's return to Test match form is particularly commendable as he's only recently returned to full fitness following what was euphemistically described as a "groin injury", but was in fact a fairly horrific-sounding freak testicle injury caused by a misplaced box and a direct blow from a delivery during a net session, and which required prompt surgery to rectify.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

interfering with the brownies

As I've said before, I'm slightly wary of getting involved with baking, as the requirement for exactitude and adherence to instructions doesn't sit well with my psychological make-up. But sometimes it's worth getting over yourself and making the effort, and this is one of those times. Here's an excellent recipe for chocolate brownies, given to me by a work colleague and liable to get lost in my e-mail inbox if I don't immortalise it here. A handy side-effect of that, of course, is that you can use it too if you wish to, though to be fair one thing the internet isn't short of is chocolate brownie recipes.

The only way in which I've deviated from the original recipe is to double all the quantities, since I reckon if you're going to make the effort you may as well make lots. This quantity of mix fills a large mixing bowl nearly to the brim and makes around 80 modestly-sized brownies (you want them modestly-sized as they're pretty rich).



370g unsalted butter
370g dark chocolate (any cheapo chocolate works fine but Green & Black's is especially good)
170g plain flour
80g cocoa powder
200g white chocolate chips
8 medium eggs
550g caster sugar
  • In a medium microwavable bowl, put the butter cut into smallish cubes & the chocolate broken up a bit, and microwave for 2 minutes. Stir well until combined & leave to cool
  • Preheat oven to 160°C.
  • Line a tin (the big one I used was about 40cm x 30cm) with non-stick baking parchment. In a medium/large bowl, sieve the plain flour and cocoa powder together.
  • In a large mixing bowl, break the eggs and add the caster sugar. Beat with an electric mixer until mixture is thick & creamy, almost mousse-like and nearly doubled in volume. This can take 3-8 mins.  
  • Pour the cooled chocolate mixture over the eggy mousse (it must be cooled enough or the eggs will curdle), then gently fold together with a rubber spatula (trying not to beat the air out of the mousse).
  • Re-sieve the cocoa and flour into the eggy chocolate mixture. Fold until everything is combined.
  • Add the chocolate chunks, and fold until evenly distributed.
  • Pour into the tin and bake for 30-35 mins. The top will start to look papery and the edges will be coming away from the sides a bit. It will still be quite wobbly but that's fine.
  • Put into the fridge (don't cut it yet!), preferably overnight.
"They'll keep in an airtight container for a good two weeks and in the freezer for up to a month" is what the original recipe goes on to say, but you can ignore that, because they won't last anywhere near that long, because they'll get scoffed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

gum, sodomy and the gnash

You know what you're going to get from this blog, broadly speaking, I like to think: ridicule and/or bile directed at religion and other forms of harmful irrationality, deep deep cricket statology and the very hottest and freshest developments in showbiz dentistry.

It's to uphold my obligations in respect of the last of these that I offer you the news of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan's spiffy new gnashers. These are dental implants that he had done recently, and their construction is apparently the subject of an accompanying documentary Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn. I suppose it's possible that he had to agree to the documentary to finance the work, although you'd think the constant influx of royalties from Fairytale Of New York would have kept him fairly flush. Then again his bar tab must be pretty crippling. I suppose there may also have been a need to pay some medical bills after the incident in August where he fractured his pelvis after attempting, and I quote, "a complicated dance move".

As it happens MacGowan has flirted with reality TV before in the form of the rather bizarre Victoria And Shane Grow Their Own, a one-off 2009 special in which he and his long-time partner Victoria Mary Clarke try to maintain a vegetable garden, with predictably shambolic results.

But just whooooaaaahhh there, Neddy, you'll be saying - I recall a blog post from a while back (early 2010 in fact, though the accompanying story was from May 2009) about MacGowan unveiling a new set of chompers: what happened to them? Well apparently those were a lower-budget set of more traditional dentures and he never really got on with them, so he stopped wearing them. Or, equally plausibly, lost them in a pub somewhere. I should issue the usual caveat at this point about being uneasy with lazy stereotypes of lovable carousing Irish drunks, as the reality is somewhat less palatable, and there's little doubt that MacGowan - an exceptionally talented songwriter - would have achieved more and greater things in his musical career (not to mention standing a better chance of retaining his original teeth) if he hadn't been constantly pissed for the last 35 years.

Elsewhere in high-profile showbiz dentistry news, Lenny Kravitz has been busted by the Bahamian police for running an improperly-licensed dentistry operation. No, really.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

headline of the day

Just a bit of textbook blithering tabloid innumeracy for you - today's Daily Mail contains this headline:

That image is from the front page of the Mail's website; the actual article has had its headline amended to something that at least makes sense.

The interesting thing with these is always not so much to spot the error - that's easy - but more to try to determine what the person who wrote it was actually thinking, given that they'd presumably done a calculation of some sort to get hold of the numbers. The sort of thing you want to be doing as a sanity check here is to say to yourself: if you had a thing at a certain price, and you reduced that price by 100%, it would end up being free. So if my calculation gives any number greater than 100, I've clearly cocked it up somewhere.

In this particular case, a £30 bottle of wine being offered for £7 represents a discount of (23 / 30) * 100 = 77%. I can't actually imagine a way of carving the numbers up to get a figure of 200, but on the face of it a £30 bottle of wine with a 200% discount means Asda paying customers £30 to take each bottle away. If I really thought that was true I'd be down there RIGHT NOW.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

the last book I read

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin.

Shevek is a theoretical physicist, not an especially common occupation on the planet on which he lives - Anarres, an arid desert planet populated by the descendants of a band of revolutionaries who rebelled against the capitalist society on Anarres' more hospitable twin planet Urras and decided to drop out and colonise Anarres into some sort of anarcho-communist utopia.

This is all great, power to the people and all that, but if theoretical physics is the specific bag you're into there are some limitations around time available for research - the struggle just to survive from day to day on a sparsely-populated and pretty inhospitable world being pretty much a full-time job - and ability to share ideas with others, communication with other worlds, specifically Urras, being viewed with extreme suspicion and tightly regulated.

But Shevek's ideas are potentially revolutionary in their own way too, since they concern the very fabric of time itself. And so, reluctantly, and with a good deal of huffing and puffing and lengthy objections in committee meetings from the People's Front of Anarres, Shevek boards a freighter that will take him to Urras and meetings with their senior scientists.

Needless to say the senior Urrasti scientists are very keen to meet up with Shevek and see what he knows, but there's something of a culture shock to be overcome first, Urras being very different from Anarres. Resources are plentiful, there's fine food and wine available and the scientific profession occupy an exalted position in Urrasti society. Shevek is provided with a servant to take care of his daily needs, an honorary lecturing position at the university and time and space to develop his theories.

It's not all champagne and caviar, though: Urras is a planet made up of several nation-states and these have an occasionally vexed relationship with each other. During Shevek's stay the country whose representatives are his hosts, A-Io, gets involved in a war in a country in the planet's far hemisphere, a war which also involves A-Io's neighbour and rival Thu. Shevek also becomes aware of internal political tensions in A-Io, and of a fundamental (and, to us, obvious) truth that his upbringing had not prepared him for: not everyone on Urras enjoys the same standard of living. Moreover, some of those who aren't having lobster for dinner every night are pretty pissed off about it, and moreover are similarly pissed off about a representative from Anarres living high on the hog and selling himself out, as they see it, to The Man.

Contact is made between these groups and Shevek, and Shevek, beginning to understand the society he's living in, gives his Urrasti minders the slip and joins up with one of the revolutionary groups - these being the kind of people, after all, who founded his own world 200 or so years before. He has belatedly realised that he doesn't want to give, still less sell, his idea to a single group of people, but instead to find a way of disseminating it for general use, and eventually finds a group of people who not only may be able to make this happen, but may also be able to arrange for his return to his home planet and to his wife and children.

Like most science fiction books (you may take my regular riff on the meaninglessness of these labels as read at this point) what The Dispossessed describes in its narrative and what it's actually about are two different things. Of course this is true of many other non-genre novels as well, but the setting up of an imagined world in order to better shine a light on some aspect of our own is a very common trope in speculative fiction. On the other hand, some of them really are just lengthy explodey spaceship battles between bug-eyed tentacled purple aliens, but despite featuring (very briefly) a couple of spaceships The Dispossessed is not one of these - what it really is is a lengthy meditation on how a functioning anarchist society might work, and how it would contrast with a more orthodox capitalist society, one perhaps slightly more rapacious and unequal than our own, but then again perhaps not. The sciencey thing that Shevek is trying to perfect (which eventually forms the basis for the ansible, a relativity-busting instantaneous communication device, in later Le Guin books) is really just a MacGuffin that allows a bit of fish-out-of-water drama to happen and a framework to accommodate a few Basil Exposition explanatory conversations.

The Dispossessed was published in 1974, so there's some obvious Cold War, East vs. West parallels to be drawn, as well as an echo of the Vietnam War in the war that breaks out on Urras which the two major powers dabble in. Of course in 2015 we've got the Syrian conflict to illustrate exactly the same sort of thing, and the stuff about the rapaciousness of unfettered capitalism and the inequality it creates between the haves and have-nots is still highly relevant.

Le Guin made no secret of viewing the anarchist culture of Anarres with some affection, but it's certainly not presented as a glorious and faultless utopia - for all their fine aspirations power still unavoidably ends up being concentrated into the hands of small groups, and those (like Shevek) who represent big spiky statistical outliers in terms of achievement are difficult to accommodate within the system.

It's a wordy book, and if you've been drawn in by the front cover of my SF Masterworks edition, which appears to depict an exciting alien location occupied by a Pinky-Ponk-esque spaceship and a Bee Gee in a spacesuit, you may be disappointed at the fairly cerebral content within. I enjoyed it, but it is largely action-free and if action is what you're after you may be better off looking elsewhere. But it has many other fine attributes, not least some proper female characters (most notably Shevek's partner, Takver) who are neither doormats nor sex receptacles.

The Dispossessed won both of the most prestigious science fiction awards in 1975: the Hugo Award, for which my list goes 1962, 1963, 1975, 1983, 1985, and the Nebula Award, for which my list goes 1975, 1985. Le Guin herself, who is still going strong at the age of 86, is probably best known for her Earthsea books, a series of fantasy novels usually considered as being for "young adults", whatever the hell they are. She's also a spendidly feisty old bird who was recently featured in the excellent Letters Of Note for this pithy response to a publisher who wanted her to write a foreword for an all-male SF anthology.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

yours sincerely, Hugh Jorgan

Honestly, it fair makes you proud to be sort-of-Welsh these days with all the enlightened policy-making that's going on. Hot on the heels of the proposal to rename school Religious Education lessons as Religion. Philosophy and Ethics comes the eminently sensible decision to revise the organ donation laws in Wales to what's being referred to as "deemed consent", i.e. an assumed opt-in rather than the current system which assumes an opt-out unless you carry a card on you which explicitly says PLEASE SLICE ME OPEN AND HARVEST MY

Since 99.9% of the arguments against a default right of medical science to make use of your entrails are of the loony religious variety this is an eminently sensible and rational decision, though still mildly surprising in these days of lawmakers still pandering spinelessly to religion. Clearly one can foresee some jurisdictional issues if Welsh residents die in England, and especially if people from outside Wales die in Wales and are torn apart by scalpel-wielding maniacs and have their still-warm organs stuffed into Ziploc bags before you can say, erm, hang on, I'm actually from Karachi. The best way for people based in Wales to make their wishes unambiguously known, therefore, and to allow for the unpalatable scenario of carking it in Kidderminster or some other godforsaken foreign outpost, is still to explicitly register your intention to donate, which you can do here.

strange currencies

I've got a plastic cup on a shelf in my office with some assorted old foreign money in it - mostly coins but a few notes as well. I noticed today that Hazel seems to have stashed some of her old money in there as well, so let's have an audit:

  • 400 Hungarian forints. These would have been acquired on my trip to Budapest for my friend Andy's stag do in May 2005, during which we discovered the delights of Hungary's national drink, Unicum. An acquired taste, you might say, if you were the sort of person who might conceivably acquire a taste for a drink resembling nothing so much as a substantial amount of Kiwi Parade Gloss boot polish dissolved in vodka. Hungary isn't in the Euro, so this is still theoretically worth something; unfortunately that something turns out to be about 90p at today's exchange rates. The beardy chap depicted on the note is Károly Róbert, also known as Charles I of Hungary, a big noise round those parts in the 14th century. 
  • 15 New Zealand dollars, acquired on my trip there in early 2001. Current sterling value: £6.56. The man depicted on the 5-dollar note is Sir Edmund Hillary, whose implausibly large boots I have sunk a pint of Bass while sitting under in the Pen-y-Gwyrd Hotel in Snowdonia. He wasn't in them at the time, though.
  • 33 US dollars, acquired variously by myself and Hazel on a few different trips, including the one to New York for my 40th birthday in 2010. Current sterling value: £21.91. All US banknotes carry pictures of ex-Presidents or ex-Secretaries of the Treasury; our stash comprises three Washingtons, a Hamilton and a Jackson.
  • 5 Australian dollars, probably acquired by Hazel when she went to Australia for nine months shortly after we met on New Year's Eve 2005/2006. An extreme reaction to meeting me, you might say, and I wouldn't disagree with you. Needless to say the picture here is of our very own (and, currently at least, Australia's) Queen. Current sterling value: £2.40.
  • 200 Greek drachmas, acquired by Hazel many years ago, probably during her stint as a photographer on a cruise ship. No current value, since Greece joined the Euro in 2002, but based on the exchange rate at the time of its demise it would probably be about 40p. The splendidly-moustached chap on the note is Rigas Feraios, an 18th-century writer and revolutionary.
  • 9 Maltese lira, again probably acquired by Hazel during a cruise stopover and again currently worthless, since Malta joined the Euro in 2008. At the exchange rate at the time of its demise they'd be worth something like £2.70 today. According to Wikipedia the note depicts "a woman holding a rudder, symbolising Malta in control of her own destiny", so that's nice.
  • 100 Zimbabwean dollars, acquired by me on my trip to southern Africa in early 2000. At an exchange rate at the time of 400 dollars to the pound this was worth about 25p - since then the Zimbabwean dollar has ceased to be a currency in any meaningful sense after several bouts of hyperinflation, though no doubt the 100 trillion dollar banknotes retain some curiosity value. 
  • 10 Namibian dollars, from the same trip. Current sterling value: about 46p. The note depicts Hendrik Witbooi, an early fighter for independence from the German occupiers.
  • Finally, 120 Euros, acquired on various trips to European destinations over the years, and despite being worth £84.22 at current rates kept on the assumption that we will one day make it out of this country again and get a chance to spend it. 
So, including only stuff that's still technically money, that's £116.45 that could theoretically (less a bit of commission and other assorted expense) be realised in an emergency to pay for rusks or nappies or eye-wateringly expensive tiny shoes. Good to know.