Friday, October 25, 2019

up your ayers

Interesting to see that the Australian authorities have now banned altogether the hitherto merely frowned-upon tourist practice of climbing to the top of Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock if you're as old as me).

I have mixed feelings about this, for a number of reasons, and perhaps this is one of those situations where it 's useful to examine what you think, to see if you can work out why you think it, or at least why you think you think it. Here's a few things which I simultaneously hold to be true, and which it may be possible to mash into a coherent worldview which gives due weight to all of them:
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe own the land of which Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta formation form a part
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe also believe various mystical tales involving the rock and its origins, and that the rock houses the spirits of their ancestors in some way
  • none of these beliefs is, in fact, true
  • climbing up big bits of rock and standing on top of them is exhilarating and fun
In general I'm very wary about rules or conventions which would require people who don't adhere to a particular belief system to modify their behaviour to mollify those who do adhere to that belief system, as you can clearly see how that's problematic in a huge range of situations. It would allow Christian fundamentalists to deny women abortion access, Muslim fundamentalists to restrict women's clothing choices, Jews and Muslims to stop me eating delicious bacon, and I'm sure you can think of a few of your own. Beliefs are not immune from factual examination just because those who hold them are historic victims of oppression (which Australian Aboriginal people certainly are) or have held them for greater than some arbitrarily-chosen amount of time.

On the other hand, you do have to temper the hardline atheist view with some cultural sensitivity, or, to put it another way, consider not being an arsehole just to make a point. I think there's a more obvious anti-arseholery argument against those who decided to strip off at the top of Mount Kinabalu, for instance, and then spend quite a lot of time and effort baiting Malaysian officials about it afterwards. Climbing up on top of a big rock to have a look around seems relatively benign in comparison, and it was pretty much inevitable that there would be a massive spike in people wanting to do it before the ban came into force. It is also worth pointing out that quite a few people have died attempting the climb, some through falling off and some as a result of the heat. Clearly accidents can happen, as demonstrated by the unfortunate young lady in the current Google Maps summit picture.

Obviously an element of this is my own enthusiasm for standing on top of things, and I can say reasonably confidently that if I went to Uluru (which I never have) I would be awestruck and would want to admire it from the ground from as many angles as possible but would also be slightly frustrated at the knowledge that a perfectly feasible route existed by which I could climb to the top but for some people not wanting me to.

I think the best approach is just to see it as a property rights issue and not bring religious matters into it: it belongs to them, so they get to say how it is enjoyed by others. Somebody not wanting me to eat a bacon sandwich is one thing, someone objecting to me devouring one in their front room is something else.

So given that you can't go up it, you have to go round it. Wikipedia reckons the circuit walk is 5.8 miles; that sounds reasonably achievable in a few hours, but I presume that's hugging the perimeter fairly tightly. It  may well be that better views are afforded by going back a bit and walking round keeping a distance of, say, 200 metres. How much further would that make the walk, though?

Well, if you assume that Uluru is sort of elliptical then you come up against a quite interesting mathematical phenomenon that I was previously unaware of: unlike for a circle (and all the straight-sided polygons, obviously) there is no nice neat equation for the circumference of an ellipse, and so you have to rely on approximations. As it happens, while I'd assumed it was either elliptical or a sort of rounded-off rectangle, Google Maps reveals it to actually be more of a lumpy rounded-off triangle that reminds me slightly of one of those prehistoric flint arrowheads (the arrow, in this case, pointing almost due east).

What Google Maps also provides is a distance calculating facility, which I have used before to scope out and assess the feasibility (this is highly company-dependent, obviously) of possible walking routes. Two possible Uluru circuits are presented below, differing by about a mile and a half.

I think that difference is probably slightly less than I would have guessed it would be. Jesper Parnevik's caddy had a very similar experience back in 1999.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

shelf abuse

We recently had to get an electrician in to sort out some dodgy wiring, and the location of the fault turned out to be above the main light fittings in the lounge, or, to put it another way, under the floorboards in our bedroom. This was not great news, as our bedroom, like everyone else's, is a bit of a mess of piles of children's books, discarded clothing and countless Tesco carrier bags full of our own decomposing faeces.

More importantly the bit of carpet that needed to be rolled back sat under my bookshelves, so we were faced with the unpalatable prospect of having to dismantle them. But, no use sitting around crying and generally dilly-dallying, what must be done must be done. And in fact it was a less onerous job than you might imagine, largely because of the clever modular IKEA IVAR shelving that houses the books. These shelves have occupied at least three different houses over the years so I'm reasonably well-practised at dismantling and remantling them.

Once the problem had eventually been located and fixed, it only remained to rebuild everything. You can't (well, assuming you're not literally insane) just chuck stuff back on the shelves willy-nilly, though - when you own something like 900 fiction books you need to put them in an order (alphabetically by author's surname, obviously) that will allow you to subsequently find something when you want it. Additionally, I do of course have an electronic record of which books I own which is very helpful in ensuring you're getting the books back on the shelf in the right order with no gaps, since filling gaps later involves much shunting of books along to accommodate the new entries and the associated wailing and gnashing of teeth. Much better to get it right first time.

A thing struck me while I was refilling the fiction section, though:

Fortunately when you have a database at your fingertips you can check this stuff very easily. Here is my book collection grouped by first letter of author's surname:

Letter Total Read Unread Unread%
A 62 56 6 9.68
B 114 107 7 6.14
C 49 45 4 8.16
D 52 49 3 5.77
E 12 9 3 25.00
F 74 69 5 6.76
G 38 35 3 7.89
H 55 54 1 1.82
I 11 10 1 9.09
J 15 13 2 13.33
K 44 41 3 6.82
L 65 61 4 6.15
M 71 62 9 12.68
N 7 6 1 14.29
O 17 15 2 11.76
P 22 16 6 27.27
Q 1 1 0 0.00
R 12 9 3 25.00
S 56 48 8 14.29
T 37 33 4 10.81
U 6 5 1 16.67
V 15 14 1 6.67
W 37 37 0 0.00
Y 2 2 0 0.00
Z 1 0 1 100.00

As you can see, my tweet did not lie - the first half of the alphabet accounts for more than three times as many books as the second half, 662 to 213. I would imagine some sort of discrepancy in this direction exists among the entirety of novels published in English, since the second half of the alphabet contains a few more gnarly letters like Q, U, X (the only letter I have no novels under) and Z, but surely not a threefold discrepancy. 

B is the top-ranking letter with a stonking 114 books; if you rank all those with over 50 books in descending order you get the phrase BFM LASHD which coincidentally is a codename for some of the more eye-watering sexual practices I like to indulge in at weekends.

Monday, October 21, 2019

the last book I read

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen.

We're in Florida, and political fixer and lobbyist and general all-round sleazeball Palmer Stoat is out hunting rhinoceros. Wait, you'll be saying, rhinoceros? In Florida? Well, yes, courtesy of the Wilderness Veldt Plantation, a slightly shady operation specialising in acquiring cast-offs from zoos and elsewhere and presenting them in a vaguely convincing wilderness location so hunters can come and bag them for their trophy collections.

When he's not taking pot-shots at geriatric pachyderms, Palmer's day job involves greasing the wheels of various political schemes, and of course creaming off some nice fat fees for doing so. The latest one involves the development of an island off the Florida coast, facilitated by the building of a shiny new bridge. Many snouts are in this particular trough, including Robert Clapley, a real-estate developer, Dick Artemus, the current state governor, and Willie Vasquez-Washington, another local politician. A nice little stitch-up seems to be coming together which will enable everyone to profit from the development scheme - well, everyone except the current inhabitants of the island, mostly toads. The developers have thought of this, though, and are having an environmental assessment done just to ensure that they won't be wiping out any endangered species.

Things start to unravel when Palmer Stoat indulges in one of his other favourite pastimes - throwing litter out of his moving pick-up truck onto the highway verge - and attracts the attention of Twilly Spree, slightly unstable and excitable eco-campaigner. Twilly is one of those convenient novel characters who is independently wealthy (an inheritance from his real-estate-developer father) and therefore can get on with doing plot development stuff rather than anything tedious like having to go to work. He decides that Palmer needs to be taught a lesson, and having failed to achieve the desired results by dumping a truckload of refuse in his car, ups the ante somewhat by breaking into his house and kidnapping his dog. In the course of this kidnap he encounters Palmer's wife Desie who tells him that the best way to get back at Palmer is to mess with his bridge project.

So Twilly decides to ransom the dog (a black labrador called Boodle whom Twilly renames McGuinn) to get Palmer to call off the project. Palmer is quite fond of the dog and does try to get the bridge delayed so that he can get him back, but it's not solely his project any more and others are very keen to press on with it and involve various heavies to try and ensure it gets pushed through. These include Mr Gash, who has a fetish for listening to real-life 911 calls on his car stereo, Karl Krimmler, the construction foreman who has a hatred of nature after once being bitten on the scrotum by a chipmunk, and, most barkingly of all, Clinton Tyree, former Florida state governor who now lives a hermitic existence in the Florida wilderness and subsists largely off roadkill.

Much skullduggery ensues, a few people get knocked off (mostly by being bulldozed under the island with the toads), Twilly hooks up with Palmer's dissatisfied wife and strikes up a friendship of sorts with Clinton Tyree. For all this, though, it still looks as if the bridge is going ahead. In the end it is Robert Clapley's obsession with his two East-European girlfriends which is the project's undoing. He has an obsession with Barbie dolls and is gradually funding a series of cosmetic operations which will turn the girls into human versions: blonde hair, giant tits and all. To keep them interested he wants to obtain some rhino horn extract which has aphrodisiac properties the girls find irresistible, and so he persuades Palmer to organise another trip to the Wilderness Veldt Plantation to bag one. But Twilly, Tyree and McGuinn have followed them and ensure that the hunt doesn't quite go to plan.

This is the second Hiaasen I've read after Lucky You way back in 2007. It shares a lot of features, which seem to be general Hiaasen themes: Florida setting, humorous crime-based plot involving political corruption and an ecological angle, lots of crazy assholes doing a bunch of crazy asshole shit. Sick Puppy struck me as slightly more ludicrous and over-the-top than Lucky You, but I may just have forgotten some of the wilder stuff in the intervening twelve years. I suspect Hiaasen may be one of those authors where a couple of books is all you need and the themes might start to get a bit repetitive after a while, though that's not to say there's anything wrong with either of the books on this list; they're highly entertaining, if a bit silly at times.

A couple of things which set off literary echoes of other works of fiction: Karl Krimmler's hatred of nature after the chipmunk incident reminded me vaguely of the character Cap in Stephen King's Firestarter who developed an obsession with snakes after Charlie's Dad did one of his freaky Jedi mind tricks on him, and one of the major characters (Clinton Tyree) being nicknamed Skink reminded me of the identically-named (though much less sympathetic) character in Willard Price's Underwater Adventure, who in a quite adult bit of plotting engineers the death of one of the other characters by making him (admittedly rather implausibly) step in a giant clam and be drowned by the rising tide while attempting to free himself by sawing his own foot off. Don't have nightmares, kids!