Tuesday, July 31, 2018

France is de la Tour

Not much competition for Welshman of the Day today; obviously it's going to be Geraint Thomas, the man who won the Tour de France at the weekend, thus becoming the third British winner of the event (but, oddly, the first British-born winner) and the sixth British winner in the last seven years. That last sentence sounds a bit contradictory until you realise that in addition to Sir Bradley Wiggins' trail-blazing win in 2012 four of the wins were accounted for by one man, Chris Froome.

It's impossible to celebrate the unprecedented success of Team Sky in the Grand Tours - Froome has now won all three of them, the Tours of Spain and Italy being the other two - without also mentioning the cloud of doping suspicion and allegations that hangs over Wiggins and to a lesser extent Froome. No specific suspicion has ever been attached to Thomas that I know of, but he does ride for the same team and so there will be some suspicion by association, as unfair as that might seem.

Doping, and doping in the Tour de France in particular, is a long-running and complex topic and if anyone has any romantic ideas about the old-school cyclists being unsullied Corinthian paragons who lived on nothing stronger than a couple of glasses of red wine a night then they should read about Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, among a host of others. Just as the selection of one drug and not another for prohibited status is at least partly arbitrary, so is the decision to expunge the wins of Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Floyd Landis from the record books but not, say, Anquetil, who was pretty open about his drug use.

Well, that turned out less celebratory than it should have, so I should follow up by saying that I'm convinced that cycling now is cleaner than it's ever been, but that equally people will find new ways to cheat and new drugs to take that aren't yet on the banned list. Equally, I've absolutely no reason to imagine that Geraint Thomas is powered by anything more sinister than leeks and Welsh cakes - on that subject I should say that I heartily endorse his choice of Tan y Castell Welsh cakes, as they are indeed the best.

I should also say that my wife photographed his wedding in 2015 and he is apparently lovely, and so is his wife. And he's called Thomas so I expect we're probably related.

Monday, July 16, 2018

not resting on my yannys

There are a couple of interesting things about the whole YANNY vs. LAUREL sound illusion thing that's been sweeping the internet lately, but before we can get to them it is The Law that I give you my opinion on the subject.

I suspect that if you first listen to the clip, as I did, on a mobile phone, then there's a higher likelihood that you'll hear "yanny", since that's the high-frequency bit and phones are generally rubbish at rendering lower-frequency sounds. Also, if you're on a phone, there's a higher chance you'll be somewhere with a bit of ambient noise going on, which may well swamp the low-frequency bits. That was certainly my experience, as I head "yanny" fairly clearly. Well, I suppose what I mean is I didn't hear any trace of "laurel"; I couldn't swear that what I did hear might not have been "yarry" or "yally" as it's weirdly rendered through some sort of speech synthesiser. Which specific version of the clip you listen to may have a bearing as well; mine was off Twitter so had very possibly had the Twitter upload algorithm compress the shit out of it.

Listen to the same sounds via a higher-quality link and on a laptop, though, and you may hear something different, The one near the top of this Guardian article seems about perfectly pitched to my ear, as I can hear either word depending on what I've preset my brain to listen for. If pressed to pick one I'd definitely lean towards "laurel", though. There are a couple of clips further down featuring some pitch-shifting which illustrate the nature of the illusion quite nicely.

BUT that's not the interesting bit. Too right it wasn't, you might say, at which point I would cordially invite you to - in the words of the great Lester Bangs - eat a bowl of fuck.

The first interesting thing is what this sort of thing - that is to say the laurel/yanny thing and the disagreement over what colour the dress was - reveals in terms of people's reactions to the disagreement. People more inclined to an authoritarian mindset get quite agitated by these things and tend to react with some variant of YOU ARE LITERALLY STUPID AND/OR INSANE AND/OR LYING IT'S OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK  HOW CAN YOU SAY ANYTHING ELSE, while those of a more analytical bent will say wow, that's really interesting, I wonder how that happens?

Colour perception in particular is a really interesting thing and another good antidote to inflexible thinking. It's important and healthy to realise that having colour boundaries going blue-green-yellow rather than, say, bleen-grellow is completely arbitrary and can vary between cultures, just as the convention that says we have a different name for "light red" (i.e. "pink") but not for "light blue" is completely arbitrary. Maybe it derives from the need to distinguish between things that are roughly the same colour as blood and things that aren't, just to avoid overlooking a medical emergency, but equally maybe that's just bollocks.

Anyway, personally I saw the dress as white and gold and continue to do so even though I know the dress is actually blue and black. Similarly I have never been able to see magic eye images even though I accept that they do exist, as tempting as it is to imagine that the whole thing is a conspiracy designed to waste my time by making me sit in front of swirly pictures making myself go boss-eyed. That one isn't down to colour perception so much, though, and I suppose my own known and medically-documented optical defects (I'm long-sighted) may have a bearing on it.

Now that we've got onto more general optical illusions I can throw in the one that prompted this blog post in the first place. I won't say anything about the specifics until the next paragraph, as it's so good I don't want to spoil it for you. Click here, read the article and look at the images IN ORDER and then come back.

As with all illusions, some will "see it" (although of course the trick here is "not seeing it", at least at first) and some won't. As the author says, though, the really interesting thing is to go back to the original image after "seeing it" and be unable to "unsee it", and, moreover, wonder how you failed to see it in the first place as the visual cues seem so obvious. I think that's one of the best illusions I've ever seen for precisely that reason: everything's there in plain sight.

An almost more interesting question, though, is: was the picture specifically taken to provide an illusion? Or was it just an accident? And given that the person taking it, and the person circulating it as an illusion (assuming they weren't the same person) could by definition "see" it, who was it that realised it'd make a good optical illusion, and how could they know, given the impossibility of "unseeing" it? Did they just say to a friend, look, here's a picture I took of a cigar sticking out of a wall, cool, huh? and have the friend go: hunh? WHAT cigar? Or, if it was specifically designed from the outset, who thought (and why) hey, I know what: if I take a picture of a cigar sticking out of a wall I bet people won't be able to see it? Wait, let me get my camera. And a cigar.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

my session obsession confession

I was in Tesco the other day perusing the special offer shelf for beery bargains, as one does, and I spotted this beer that I hadn't seen before.

So this is Clockwork Tangerine from the Brewdog brewery. It's listed as one of their "seasonal" offerings, which makes sense, nice hoppy IPA being a good summer drink lending itself well to being chilled in the fridge on a hot day. It's not completely clear from the description whether the citrus flavour derives solely from the choice of hops, or whether there really is a whack of tangerine flavouring in there. I assume not, but you never know.

I'm generally well-disposed towards Brewdog - their waterfront bar on the Bristol Bridge is a cool place, particularly in summer, the beer is generally very good, and there is a vast range of different stuff to try. My principal reservations are the general air of hipsterishness, the astronomical price they charge for the beer, and the fact that in general it's a bit too strong for my liking. Their flagship brew Punk IPA, for instance, is very nice, but 5.6% is a bit severe, particularly for a chilled IPA the whole point of which is to quaff large volumes of it on a hot day, and furthermore I'm reluctant to shell out six quid for four miniature 330ml cans of it when I could pick up six half-litre cans of, say, Tanglefoot (which also chills quite well, incidentally) for about the same price.

Back to the strength thing, though: note the legend next to the ABV statement of 4.5% here: "CITRUS SESSION IPA". I recall boggling in a very similar way over another beer of similar strength which was labelled in a similar way but which I couldn't remember the name of until I remembered I'd tweeted about it at the time:

This turns out to be Ease Up IPA from Adnams, very nice as I recall but at 4.6% conforming to no reasonable definition of "session beer" that I'd recognise. The problem, of course, is that there isn't a hard and fast definition, but if I were asked to come up with one then "less than 4% ABV" would probably be the first (and possibly last) item on the list.

I searched my own tweets for "session" expecting a single entry, but it turns out this is a thing I'd tweeted about a couple of other times as well, including a pretty much identical stab at a definition.

The point, I guess, is that this is beer that you can drink lots of while kicking back in the pub with friends and talking bollocks for a number of hours without emerging at the end of this, if you will, "session" foaming at the mouth and ready to punch a policeman. So you want something refreshing and flavoursome but reasonably light on the alcohol.

Back in the day the classic model for tied pubs was to offer three beers as standard: a lighter "session" ale, a premium "best bitter" and something a bit stronger for those that liked that sort of thing. So Fuller's have Chiswick Bitter (3.5%), London Pride and ESB, the late lamented Smiles had Brewery Bitter (probably around 3.5%), Best and Exhibition, Jennings have the standard Bitter (at 3.5%), Cumberland Ale and Sneck Lifter and even Courage had, in addition to the standard Best (blue pump-clip) and Directors (purple pump-clip) a lower-strength ale just called (I think) Courage Bitter, which had a cream/white pump-clip. I think it's the one pictured on the right here, and if this article is to be believed clocked in at a modest 3.2%, which might have been a bit watery even for a session (I don't know, because I don't think I ever tried it).

I guess part of the reason for their decline is the (partial) demise of the tied house - if you're obliged to carry beers from only one brewery then there's some value in having a selection. If on the other hand you're a free house and can source what you like from where you like, you're probably going to go with the premium product. Almost no-one who wants to carry a Fuller's ale, for instance, is going to plump for Chiswick Bitter over the mega-selling London Pride.

So I'm not trying to make this a fogeyish moan about how things were better in my day; for one thing I tend not to get to sit in pubs for long periods these days, so I tend to cash in on the more flavoursome premium product when I do get the chance. It's nice to have options, though. It's really more a moan about word usage and meanings - if "session beer" is a phrase that's ceased to have any meaning we probably ought to ditch it. If it's just being used to mean "beer you might want to drink more than one of" then just "nice beer" will probably do.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

bevan knows I'm miserable nye

It's a few days late for the official anniversary but let me commemorate the 70th birthday of the National Health Service by appointing as Welshman Of The Day its primary architect Aneurin Bevan.

The really interesting thing about the inception of the NHS, a much-beloved institution by all right-thinking people, many of whom are currently rightly concerned for its future, is how unlikely it all was, and how several different things had to align in order for it to happen, any one of which could have scuppered the whole thing by its absence.
  • Bevan's own personal drive, deriving in large part from his Welsh working-class background, was a major factor. The historical narrative which has Great Men standing head and shoulders above their contemporaries and achieving Great Things is generally wrong, or at best a gross over-simplification, but if Bevan hadn't been in the role of Health Secretary at the time, would the changes have been driven through? My friend Ben wrote this article as part of Welsh History Month in 2015 which gives some interesting context.
  • Secondly, the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the general mood of optimism and brotherly love, perhaps accompanied by a general flattening of the class hierarchy after everyone's shared experience of warfare and existential peril, all of which led to the Labour landslide in the general election of 1945 and a massive political mandate to do a bit of the old socialism. But it was a fairly narrow window of opportunity: Labour won the 1950 general election only narrowly and then lost in 1951 after an ill-conceived snap election designed to increase Labour's slim majority. Clearly no-one would be foolish enough to try a similar gambit nowadays, hahahaha. Imagine!
So what do we conclude? Most obviously that it's very possible none of this would have happened but for the unique set of circumstances that existed in the wake of the Second World War, and therefore: no Hitler, no National Health Service. There, I've said it. Obviously Hitler never lived to see the scheme come to fruition, which is a shame as I gather the NHS leads the world in reconstructive testicular surgery and the treatment of cranial gunshot wounds.

Finally, no blog post mentioning Nye Bevan can fail to address the question of what Nye Bevan would have done in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

celebrity/sealevelly lookeylikey of the day

A couple for you today, the first of which illustrates a similar sort of problem as I have with making jokes on Twitter, i.e. how much checking should you do into whether someone else has thought of the same thing already? Obviously with the lookeylikeys there isn't the time-critical element as there is with twitteryjokery, but one could still just Google the two names, or consult one of the other places that specialise in this sort of thing.

In this particular case a Google image search for pictures of the two people in question revealed a few places where the connection had already been made. Nonetheless here's former javelin world champion Fatima Whitbread and CBeebies presenter (usually of programmes involving him being chased by CGI dinosaurs) Andy Day.

There are two rules of children's TV presenters: one is that despite their youthful appearance and brightly-coloured trousers they're always older than you think. Andy Day, for instance, is 37. The other is that bored Mums and Dads forced to sit in front of CBeebies and similar channels for lengthy periods will start to have inappropriate sexual fantasies about the presenters. Most of the top 10s I've seen have been compiled by Mums and are therefore almost exclusively male presenters, and always feature cuddly Justin Fletcher disturbingly highly among the more obvious beefcake (Andy Day included). Lists compiled by Dads are less common but can still be found; all I'd say about this one (which features Topsy & Tim's Mum as previously featured here) is that - while I agree about Maddie Moate - any list of this nature that doesn't have the lovely Cat Sandion at the top of it is a worthless sham and a travesty.

Secondly, a non-human-related one: who's noticed that the Orkney island of Eday is basically just a short, fat, upside-down version of the Russian island of Sakhalin? I know, more like who hasn't noticed, right? Take a look:

Eday on the left, slimmed-down upside-down Eday in the middle, Sakhalin on the right. Stubby at the top, big hooky peninsula on the right about halfway down, narrow isthmus, and then fatter again at the bottom. Kind of like the brontosaurus, but different. Now I'll grant you there is a bit of a difference in scale, since Eday is a modest eight-and-a-half miles long and Sakhalin is a more generous 589 miles along its north-south axis.

Sakhalin has featured once before on this blog, as befits the 23rd largest island in the world; you can't get through the best part of twelve years of blogging without mentioning it at least once. It was mentioned here in connection with its former representation as being split (along an east-west line just above the hooky peninsula) between the Soviet Union and Japan. I have a (possibly wholly imaginary) recollection of seeing it represented like that in reasonably up-to-date atlases during my childhood, so there is a question of when that stopped being the default representation. The Soviet Union basically annexed the southern bit (formerly known as Karafuto Prefecture) in 1945, and gradually repatriated those living there to Japan, and Japan officially renounced its claim over its former territory in 1951. When western European and American mapmakers, whose countries were probably fairly hostile to Soviet expansionism, started to bow to the inevitable and just show it as part of the Soviet Union I couldn't say, but it could have been a bit later even than that.

An alternative map-dating guide can be found here.