Thursday, November 26, 2020

celebrity cookeylikey of the day

The Velvet Underground's bass- and viola-wrangler (and, hey, why not, Welshman of the Day) John Cale (pictured here in 1967) and absurd Turkish steak-wrangler and internet viral sensation Salt Bae (real name Nusret Gökçe, so, yeah, Salt Bae it is). Note that literally the only difference between them is that Bae's chin hair extends to a goatee whereas Cale restricts himself to a thing that I would call a "soul patch", but which apparently has various other names including a "jazz dot" and, incomprehensibly, a "Nollsey". That last one may of course just be a mischievous Wikipedia edit (the only person I could locate who goes by that name is this guy) and so should probably be taken with - no, wait for it - a pinch of salt.

Monday, November 23, 2020

the last book I read

Behind The Waterfall by Georgina Andrewes.

Jo Kelly is restless. Sure, she's got some useful qualifications and a nice steady boyfriend, Rick, but he's a bit squishy and unambitious and she has a yearning for adventure and to be doing things that matter in some way. So she signs up for a project to build water infrastructure with a women's group in Kenya, something that will put her engineering qualifications to good use.

Rick isn't especially happy about it, as Jo's assessment of the state of their relationship (basically that they're bimbling along amiably enough but not really going anywhere) is a bit of an unpleasant surprise to him, and harsh words are exchanged, but in a way this just makes Jo's decision to go easier. She arrives in Kenya and reports to the headquarters of the international aid agency she'll be working for, whereupon she is introduced to Mr. Katambo, the regional administrator for the village where she'll be living and working. He has taken it upon himself to provide transport for the long drive to Kingangi village, but the journey turns out to be even more protracted then Jo had anticipated, as several stops are made on the way to run various errands and drink beer.

This experience, and the discovery that the house Jo is supposed to be living in is a bit of a shambles, soon knock the corners off Jo's misty-eyed idealism, as do the thinly-veiled hostility and suspicion from some of the women she is supposed to be whipping into shape as a well-drilled self-empowered feminist water-engineering collective. But the country is beautiful, exotic and mysterious and the neighbours are friendly and generous. In particular Jo befriends Jerusa, the young woman next door, and through her meets Isaiah, a teacher at a local school and a fiercely intelligent political activist, with whom she starts a relationship. 

This is all very lovely, of course, but there are certain realities in a post-colonial country like Kenya that make an interracial relationship tricky. Is Jo just sleeping with Isaiah because she fancied an exotic shag? Similarly, is Isaiah just clocking up a notch on his bedpost so that he can boast to his friends later about fucking a white woman? Other questions arise as well: is Isaiah's commitment to political activism going to get him into trouble? Is Jo going to see any progress on her project or is she just going to spend all her time writing grant applications to various agencies? Will she be able to overcome Mr. Katambo's scepticism about having a female engineer in charge of his project?

Other realities intervene brutally when Jo's house is broken into at night by a gang of knife-wielding men, one of whom rapes her. She is then subjected to a further ordeal when she reports the attack to the police, the police chief asking why she hadn't resisted more, and implying that she must have either encouraged the assault or enjoyed it when it happened. In the face of this discouragement Jo nonetheless insists on bringing a case, and finds an unexpectedly resolute ally in Mr. Katambo. Isaiah, meanwhile, is notable by his absence, having been caught up in the events of the failed military coup in Nairobi. 

The wheels of justice turn slowly, though, and Jo returns to work and resumes living in her house. Rick travels out from England to spend time with her, and they resume their relationship in a non-committal sort of way. Rick eventually departs, and Jo's superiors at the aid agency inform her that they've regretfully decided that they can't guarantee her safety and that they're therefore terminating her placement. With the trial of her rapist in its final stages, a big fund-raising event for the village in the offing, and Isaiah now returned safely from Nairobi, Jo has to decide whether to try to make a future in Africa, or return home.

That's the story in rough chronological order - it's not presented that way in the book, though; we're plunged straight into Jo's night-time assault and rape on page one. The rest of the story plays out in a series of jumps backwards and forwards in time after that scene. This stuff never happens by accident, and the idea presumably was that the brutal opening would cast a shadow over the rest of the book, the scenes set before the rape in particular. It's impossible to view Jo's innocent delight at discovering the village and her neighbours, and her carefree outdooor fucking with Isaiah (including on a ledge behind a waterfall near the village, an episode which gives the novel its title) in quite the same light, knowing what we know.

It's a fairly short book (under 200 pages) which has some interesting points to make about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa, even those interventions made out of a genuine desire to help and do good, which cannot help but be tainted by the obvious fact of Western interference having fucked up many of these countries in the first place. Throw interpersonal and interracial relationships into the mixed-up mess of power structures and things get messy pretty quickly. 

Behind The Waterfall doesn't do anything terribly startling, but on its own terms I think it works pretty well, and Jo is an engaging central character. It makes a lot of the same points about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa as The Poisonwood Bible, though less luridly and more concisely. Other novels on this list to have been set principally in Africa include A Good Man In Africa (obviously) and Henderson The Rain King in central(ish) Africa and Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, The Conservationist, Age Of Iron, The Good Doctor and Frankie & Stankie in South Africa. 

Behind The Waterfall also won a Betty Trask Award (an award specifically for first novels) in 1988; the most recent book on this list to win the same award was Pig, whose review contains a links to a few others. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

this book is dead good

One further note following the Harvest post: the bit near the end where the hitherto sober, stolid and unadventurous protagonist Walter goes on a homebrew bender and then chows down a load of dubious mushrooms as a hangover cure is oddly jarring, the mushroom bit in particular, and the section which follows (basically most of the remainder of the book) has a weirdly woozy, spooked quality to it which could just be the after-effects of a skinful of ale and some hallucinogenic shrooms, but also just made me wonder: are we perhaps meant to infer that Walter has died? I guess the shrooms are the most likely culprit if so, and what follows would be some extended point-of-death hallucination à la Jacob's Ladder, or some sort of weird afterlife shit. A similar reading is much more explicitly suggested by Lanark, as I mentioned at the time.

Another book where this sort of reading is possible, and may even be the most sensible reading, is Iain Banks' Dead Air, which I read back in 2015. You'll recall the ill-advised drunken answerphone message which Ken goes on a wholly implausible breaking-and-entering spree to try to erase before sinister gangster type John Merrial can hear it, and the horribly efficient abduction of Ken by Merrial's henchmen once Merrial views the CCTV footage shortly afterwards. Ken, gaffer-taped to a chair in some dingy London basement, fully expects to be killed once Merrial has interrogated him a bit, and literally shits himself fairly early in the ordeal, just to prove he's taking things seriously. But, after a convincingly outraged performance from Merrial's wife Celia following the suggestion that she and Ken have been fucking (which they totally have been, needless to say), Merrial cools off a bit and lets Ken go, with strict finger-wagging warnings about what will happen to him if he ever blabs about any of this. 

I mean, maybe it's just me, but it strikes me that a proper ruthless gangster would probably just have Ken rubbed out at this point, rather than leaving him free to shoot his mouth off indiscreetly, something it was after all literally his job to do as a talk-radio host. So maybe the best approach is to view the brief epilogue where Merrial fucks off to Amsterdam semi-permanently and Ken and Celia are free to go semi-public with their relationship and eventually skip through the streets of Glasgow hand-in-hand as being as real as the last section of Vanilla Sky, only without quite as many Scientologists.

The really annoying bit about all this is that I'm convinced there's a small section in Dead Air, probably buried in one of Ken's pop-culture rants, which mentions a film or a book which uses this plot device (there have, after all, been many), something which is just possibly meant to foreshadow the book's ending and give you a clue about how to interpret it. Of course I'm fucked if I can find it now, short of re-reading the entire book, and it's too late to ask Banks himself for a ruling from the chair.

[EDIT] I'm going to break with tradition and put this here, rather than in another post: I found it, on page 232 of my copy. It's a brief discussion between Ken and one of his mates about the ending of Total Recall (the 1990 Arnie version), and the fairly respectable theory that the whole middle and end sections of the film were a dream and that Doug Quaid aka Arnie has never left the couch at Rekall. Is it meant to be a clue? Who knows?

Lastly, anyone following me on Twitter and wondering about the provenance of the various scurrilous cropped sections of text in this thread should wonder no longer: it is of course extracts from Moby-Dick

Saturday, November 14, 2020

the last book I read

Harvest by Jim Crace.

Walter Thirsk has got himself into a nice comfortable little rut; in fact so has everyone in his village. Cut off from regular passers-by in their sealed-off little valley they pass the years in simple country pursuits: planting barley, harvesting barley, making porridge and beer out of the harvested barley, occasionally throwing in a bit of wheat to mix it up a bit, some small-scale livestock husbandry, extreme suspicion of and open hostility to strangers, the usual sort of stuff.

The trouble with getting into this sort of a rut is that you can find yourself ill-equipped to adapt to quickly-changing circumstances, and WAIT A MINUTE here are some circumstances quickly changing just as the novel opens: a couple of the younger villagers, hopped up to the tits on some shrooms they've foraged in the local woods, accidentally set fire to the local squire's dovecote and roast all his prize doves. At roughly the same time a small group of strangers sets up camp just inside the boundary of the village. After a tense stand-off when the newcomers - two men and a woman - are discovered, a convenient ruse presents itself: why not fit them up for the dovecote fire? That way we get to put a veneer of justification on the ill-treatment we were itching to mete out anyway, these newcomers being strangers and all.

So the two men are locked up in the town pillory for a week, uncomfortable and humiliating (especially given that you presumably don't get let out when you need a shit) but not usually fatal. However, the older man is a bit on the short side and unexpectedly dies of strangulation after several hous of standing on tiptoe.

Further unwelcome change is afoot when the lord of the manor's brother-in-law turns up and asserts his right to have a say in how the manorial lands are managed (the current lord having married into the job rather than having any hereditary rights himself). Screw all this subsistence-level faffing about with barley, let's open up the field system a bit and get a couple of hundred sheep in here. The locals won't like it? Well, screw those guys, they'll have to get used to the idea.

Word gets around and disgruntlement ferments: one of the new lord's men is badly beaten and stabbed and someone kills the current lord's horse messily with an iron spike. Some of the village women are hauled before the new lord and accused of witchcraft and released only on the condition that they banish themselves from the village.

Suspicion is rife among the villagers, and falls particularly on Walter: firstly because an injury sustained while trying to fight the dovecote fire has meant that he's been unable to take part in this year's harvesting activities and therefore might have had some free time for a bit of the old treachery, and secondly because despite having lived in the village for many years and married a local girl (now deceased) he was not born there and is still in some sense an "incomer".

Gradually all the villagers except Walter drift away, afraid of further retribution. Walter is taken into the confidence of the lords up at the manor house and told to mind the village in their absence, not that there is much to mind as everyone else has upped and gone. The only other souls left in the place are the man still in the pillory and the woman, revealed to be his wife, who has been lurking in various now-uninhabited bits of the village. Walter releases the man from his confinement and persuades him to collaborate in an act of defiance against the new regime: plough the recently-cleared barley fields and sow them with winter wheat. This task complete, Walter retires back home to get pissed on some home-brew and sober up the following morning with some of the magic forest shrooms. Arriving back at the manor in a bit of an addled state he finds that the man has now been reunited with his wife and together the pair have trashed and robbed the place and are now conducting their own personal act of revenge by torching all the houses in the village. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, and not fancying waiting for the lords of the manor to return, Walter stashes some belongings in a rucksack and heads off out of the valley and beyond the village boundary stones to seek his fortune in the outside world.

This is, I think, the sixth Jim Crace novel I've read, three of which have featured on this blog: Arcadia, The Gift Of Stones and The Pesthouse (the other two are Quarantine and Being Dead). All are excellent, but I think Harvest is probably the best of all. I love a tale of time-travelling space zombies battling robot Hitler on an exploding neutron star as much as the next person, but there's something very appealing about a simple and unadorned tale told in a simple and unadorned style just saying: look, you see, here are people; this is how people are; this is how they treat each other; you see what happens. You'll recall that despite my enjoying The Pesthouse greatly I had a few quibbles about its structure and plotting: I have no such quibbles here. One thing that was unusual about The Pesthouse was that it specifically named its location (America, though admittedly that's relatively non-specific) - most other Crace books are very cagey about when and where they are set and how closely this is meant to resemble any real-world location. While we assume Harvest's location is England in the Middle Ages no specific indication is ever given, apart, perhaps, from Walter's surname which suggests a northern location.

Harvest won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2013; previous winners featured on this blog include The Road, The Corrections, Midnight's Children and G. It also won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2015; the previous winner featured here is Remembering Babylon.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

findus crispy pandemicakes

We haven't done a recipe for a while, have we? I can see that I wrote down a very hand-wavey summary of what I did to make some spiced roasted pumpkin soup in this post from a couple of Hallowe'ens ago, but the last post I can find that actually had a formal list of ingredients in it was this one from 2016 for the latest incarnation of what I still think of as my clafoutis recipe, but these days is really a sort of cakey bread and butter pudding.

Anyway, here's a couple of things we've cooked up during lockdown - I say "we" as the girls, Alys in particular, are quite into a bit of the old cooking these days. The first is a sort of variation on some previous recipes which can be found here and here and which I tried as a means of using up some leftover mashed potato. The first thing to say is that you need less potato than you might think - if you've got enough to fill, for instance, one of those  ramekins that everyone has a stash of in the back of a cupboard, you've probably got enough for 3-4 decent-sized pancakes. Or, looking at it another way, if it's too much for you to say: fuck it, I may as well just eat that now, then it's probably enough to save and have a go at this with.

So, here's what you need:

Potato panbread flatcakes

  • Some leftover mashed potato
  • An exactly equal quantity, by volume, of self-raising flour (you're not an idiot, but just in case, the easiest way to do this is to empty the container you had the mash in into a larger mixing bowl, fill that now-empty container to the same level with the flour and then tip it in too)
  • Some liquid just in case you overdo the flour (pretty much anything will do, water for instance, or if you're feeling a bit more creative maybe some plain yoghurt)

Smash everything together in a bowl, cut it into as many fist-sized pieces as it will make, flatten then with either a rolling pin or a fist or both to about 3-4 mm thickness and place in a dry, un-oiled, non-stick pan for a couple of minutes on each side. Hey presto, potato-ey pancakey things which are somewhere between the farinata (which is a proper floppy pancake) and the yoghurt flatbreads (which are properly bready and quite stiff) in terms of texture, and very nice with a whole variety of things.

You'll be wanting some dessert after that, so here's a supremely simple chocolate cheesecake we made when my parents came over for a post-lockdown reunion the other day:

Chocolate cheesecake

  • 300g condensed milk (about 3/4 of a standard tin)
  • 300g soft cheese - I used light Philly; usually the full-fat versions are better for this sort of thing but it doesn't really matter here as the condensed milk whacks the fat and sugar content back up to dangerous levels
  • 200g dark cooking chocolate (anything but dark would make the end product far too sweet)

Make a standard smashed-up biscuits and melted butter base and put it in the fridge or freezer to set. Melt the chocolate, beat the condensed milk and soft cheese together, add the chocolate, beat some more, pour the resulting goop onto the biscuit base, refrigerate for a few hours, eat. Simple! These amounts fill what I think was a 10-inch flan tin; we made an initial experimental version in an 8-inch tin with ratios of 200g:200g:100g, which worked fine, although I think the slightly higher chocolate content in the second one improved things (as it generally does).

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

oh no, it's moby derek

A couple of further items related to Moby-Dick - firstly the 1956 Gregory Peck film, while the most famous adaptation of the book, certainly isn't the last word on the subject, far from it. There were film adaptations as early as 1926's silent The Sea Beast (featuring the immortal dialogue intertitles pictured here), later talkified as 1930's Moby Dick. Both films starred John Barrymore, but of course as admirable as Barrymore is, all anyone wants to know about these (and indeed any) adaptations is: how rubbish where the whale effects? From the brief clip I've seen I would say: not great, but not as rubbish as you might think. As with any effects achieved using a combination of scale models, carefully-shot articulated body parts and stock footage of real creatures there are some jarring scale transitions, from mildly irascible trout to something the size of a house, but this is hardly a problem exclusive to 1930s films; Jaws suffered from it too.

Subsequent to the 1956 adaptation there were several more, including a TV movie in 1998 (starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab and featuring a cameo from Peck), a film adaptation in 2010 starring, bizarrely, Barry Bostwick aka Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Ahab, and a TV series in 2011 starring William Hurt as Ahab. Anyway, here's the lowdown on the various whales in each of those adaptations:

  • 1930 - not bad, considering, though not particularly white
  • 1956 - appropriately gnarled and wrinkly and scarred and harpoon-laden and overall pretty good, considering, though a bit rubbery
  • 1998 - surprisingly rubbish - presumably some early CGI but far too clean and smooth and just generally fake-looking
  • 2010 - utterly ludicrous, no doubt intentionally since this was a film by The Asylum, the company that brought you the Sharknado series, not to mention Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus
  • 2011 - again, a bit CGI, but much better

That's restricting ourselves to films specifically named Moby Dick, but there are other works which owe it a debt, notably the 2015 film In The Heart Of The Sea, which is actually a rendering of the true story of the demise of the whaling ship Essex in 1820. So not a direct adaptation of Moby-Dick, but since the novel borrowed heavily from the Essex's story, and the film seems to focus on the battle with the whale rather than the subsequent murder and cannibalism activities, it's an adaptation in all but name.

Other non-filmic works have taken inspiration, or maybe just a name, from Moby-Dick, notably Led Zeppelin's instrumental song of the same name, which was mainly a vehicle for John Bonham to indulge in that most reviled of rock traditions, the drum solo. A just-about-tolerable four-and-a-half minutes in its original studio incarnation (about three minutes of which is drum solo), it was expanded to interminable length in concert, presumably to allow Plant and Jones to wander off and have a cup of tea and Page to bang a couple of under-age groupies. The version on the definitive Zeppelin live album How The West Was Won is 19 minutes long, which is a larger amount of time than I'm prepared to sacrifice to listening to a drum solo, as thunderously legendary a rock drummer as Bonham was. The other obvious song to mention here is Mountain's Nantucket Sleighride, inspired by the story of the Essex and which I see I've already mentioned here, as well as cashing in a couple of cheap gags, which I now feel that I can't do again here. Oh well, no use "blubbering" about it, hahaha.

Lastly, Moby-Dick is another in the intermittent sequence of books featured here which contain a map, a list which includes The End Of Vandalism back in mid-2019 and this list of books from around five years earlier which includes a few books I own which haven't appeared on this blog as well as A Small Death In Lisbon, The Name Of The Rose, Faceless Killers and Sunset Song of those that do. The map just shows the Pequod's voyage from Nantucket to the site of its eventual demise in the mid-Pacific. Here it is:

Friday, November 06, 2020

the last book I read

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

Hasten ye back with me now, if you will, to the wild and woolly days of the mid-19th century, where men were men, women knew their place and if you wanted a light to see by during the hours of darkness you were obliged to fire up some dangerous contraption powered not by a couple of hundred volts of nice convenient alternating current out of a hole in the wall but by the literal rendered life-essence of a colossal sea creature, who didn't just hand it out willingly to passers-by but had to be relieved of it somewhat invasively by being protractedly speared to death, peeled, boiled and wrung out into barrels by hordes of malodorous rum-crazed sailors.

It's tough work, roving the seven seas searching for giant aquatic mammals to violently murder and butcher, and carries some risks: scurvy, starvation, drowning, falling off a mast, being speared with your own harpoon or being smashed into mince by the thrashing fluke of an enraged whale. Nevertheless young men are queueing up to be taken on by a whaling vessel, including our narrator, who introduces himself in the book's famous opening sentence. He has travelled from New York to New Bedford, Massachusetts to enlist on a whaling ship. Stopping off at a crowded inn for the night, he is obliged to share a room and a bed with exotic South Sea Islander Queequeg, who it turns out is also seeking similar work as a harpooner. 

Striking up a friendship, Ishmael and Queequeg travel to Nantucket together to enlist as crew members on the Pequod, soon to set sail around the world a-slaughtering and a-rendering, aiming to return three years hence stuffed to the gunwales with enough whale oil to make everyone's fortune. They meet with the ship's owners to discuss the terms of their employment but don't get to meet the captain before the ship sails. They do learn something of his reputation, though: Captain Ahab, a harpooner in his youth but now a fierce and a grizzled fiftysomething sea captain, recently inconvenienced by having one of his legs chomped off at the knee by a sperm whale. 

The ship trundles off and the crew go about some standard sea-going business, giving the reader the chance to meet some of the crew: mates (in descending order of seniority) Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, each of whom commands a whaling boat with a harpooner, all of whom are of exotic race: Starbuck has Queequeg, Stubb has a Native American called Tashtego and Flask has an African called Daggoo. It later transpires that Ahab has brought along his own secret team of crack oarsmen and his own harpooner, a Parsee called Fedallah, who seems to be a bit of an amateur soothsayer and issues some slightly Macbeth-esque prophecies about events that will have to come to pass before Ahab can die.

Ahab eventually puts in an appearance and explains the unusual nature of the Pequod's mission: find Moby Dick, the white sperm whale who took his leg, fuck his shit up and ultimately pop a cap in his ass. All other considerations are secondary, including the usual bagging of as many whales as possible on the way. Since the acquisition of as much whale oil as possible is the direct means by which the crew get paid, this causes some consternation, but Ahab's crazed enthusiasm carries the crew along with him.

And so the Pequod and her crew set off on a journey round the Cape Of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific, where Ahab expects to find Moby Dick. On the way they do manage to bag a few whales, just to keep their eye in, which gives the narrator an opportunity to explain in some detail certain aspects of harpoon and lance technique, processing of whale carcasses, extraction of oil, and also to examine the distinctions between different whale species (the Pequod is a ship specifically designed for hunting sperm whales and Ishmael is somewhat scornful of the mainly European crews who hunt other varieties, mainly right whales) some aspects of the whale's anatomy, including an entire chapter (chapter 95, "The Cassock") devoted to describing how to make a trench coat out of a whale's foreskin

The Pequod also meets a few other ships on the way, and Ahab is keen to quiz their respective captains about sightings of Moby Dick. Eventually as they head south-east from Japan towards the equator, they start to hear news of recent sightings, and eventually a spout is sighted attached to an unmistakable white humped back, and Ahab smells the sweet sweet scent of revenge. There then follows a three-day chase with several excursions in the whaleboats and much furious thrashing of those boats into matchwood by Moby Dick while the crews manage to stick a few more bits of iron into him to slow him down. Eventually the climactic battle sees Moby Dick turn on the Pequod and stave its side in, sinking it, while also dragging Ahab down to Davy Jones' locker by getting him entangled in a harpoon rope. While everyone else either goes down with Moby Dick, drowns, or is eaten by the circling sharks, Ishmael manages to climb upon a piece of buoyant wreckage and floats for a couple of days before being rescued.

Moby-Dick is the sort of book where it's almost futile to express an opinion, its critical status being so unquestionable, partly because of its age (published in 1851, the only entries on this list which pre-date it are Pride And Prejudice (1813) and Fanny Hill (1749)). For what it's worth, though, I found it to be a rollicking adventure story, though not without some thick and chewy language in parts which demands your full attention and a series of digressions into tangentially-related topics which some might find baffling or irritating but which I found, in the main, fascinating. Obviously it's not just about slaughtering whales and making luxurious outer garments out of their genitals, it's also about obsession in a more general way, and its corrosive and destructive effects on those who harbour it and on those around them.

I found that I was already familiar with quite a bit of the terminology through having read Willard Price's Whale Adventure many times as a child. What was vaguely apparent to me then and blatantly so now is how totally implausible the central plot conceit was, i.e, that there existed in the world of the 1950s whaling boats which conducted themselves, for no obvious reason, according to the technology-free conventions of a century earlier, keel-hauling, manual harpooning and all. In hindsight this contrivance was shoehorned in solely to enable Price to swipe large chunks of plot and whale-related exposition from Moby-Dick and only introduce modern-day stuff like helicopters at the end when the Hunt brothers needed their asses conveniently rescuing.

I also recall watching the 1956 film a couple of times on TV during my youth; the only bit I (or anyone else) remember is the ending where Gregory Peck shouts at the whale for a bit before lashing himself to its back and being dragged to a watery grave. Chunks of Ahab's final rantings (the "from hell's heart I stab at thee" speech) also crop up at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

I've had the old Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick on my shelves for probably upwards of 25 years; what prompted me to read it was partly the feeling that it was about time for another Project, but also a rather odd article in the Guardian featuring quotes from a whole host of people who took some pride in never having read it (an article which I slightly annoyingly now can't find) which just tweaked my contrarian instincts enough for me to promote it to the top of the to-read pile. Like a few other books on this list with a daunting reputation for difficulty and general indigestibleness (House Of Leaves and Lanark being two fairly recent examples) I was pleasantly surprised at its readableness; it's probably only fair to observe that the current lockdown conditions are pretty much ideal for concentrated reading of attention-demanding books, while being a massive pain in the arse in many other ways. 

Monday, November 02, 2020

sudoku? yunohu tugotu

Nia has been getting into some more adult puzzle-wrangling lately, including sudoku, which reminded me of a couple of things that intrigued me about it back when it was suddenly A Thing a few years ago (mid-2000s seems to have been the start of sudoku-mania in the Western world). Firstly, I'm still slightly vexed at how many people mispronounce it, but I have come to accept that some people just seem to have a general sort of word-blindness and once they've fucked something up once will never be able to (or, more judgmentally, care enough or be capable of exercising enough intellectual curiosity to) avoid continuing to fuck it up in perpetuity. I also experience slight annoyance every time someone describes them as "mathematical puzzles", generally as an excuse to avoid engaging with them, since they are clearly nothing of the sort. The usual set of nine things arranged in the grid is a set of numbers, admittedly, but it could just as easily be any other set of nine distinct things; there's no mathematics involved.

I dabbled with quite a bit of sudoku back in the day, and I might still have a go if I happen across one in a magazine during an idle moment, but the thing that always intrigued me about them, more than the actual solving of them, was how the partly empty grids were constructed. Clearly the starting point is a fully-filled in 9x9 grid containing the "solved" puzzle, and the challenge (essentially the reverse of the "actual" puzzle) is to remove a number of the values from the grid until you arrive at a grid (the starting grid for the solver) which is acceptably "hard" depending on what sort of a challenge you're aiming to provide, retains enough information for the solver to be able to reconstruct the grid you started with, and, moreover, for that grid to be the only valid one reconstructible from the set of starting values. 

This Wikipedia page has what appears to be a good and comprehensive summary of most of the relevant mathematics (unlike the puzzle-solving itself this undoubtedly is a mathematical puzzle); on the other hand it might be utter horseshit, I'm not really qualified to judge. The bit that is of interest to the layperson, though, is this section wherein it is revealed that the minimum number of clues you need to provide for a uniquely-solvable puzzle is 17, and that this number varies depending on the specific characteristics of the grid layout you've chosen.

Similar thoughts occurred to me during a game of The Genius Square, a game I was given for Christmas last year and which Nia has taken to with frightening speed, with Alys not far behind, as the picture below shows. 

Basically this is a sort of horizontal Tetris where you have to fit a set of 2-D pieces into a grid, the twist being that the grid is a slightly different shape every time owing to the presence of seven "blockers", whose placement is dictated by a set of dice.

The parallel to what you might call the sudoku meta-problem here is: given the set of pieces you're provided with, you can clearly construct a theoretical blocker placement which would make filling in the grid impossible (see below). 

So there must be some constraint which ensures that this can never happen, and the clue is in the claim made on the box that there are 62,208 distinct puzzle layouts. Now there are seven blockers and therefore seven dice and therefore in theory 67=279,936 possible permutations; a moment's thought should reveal that this is impossible, though, as there are 42 dice faces and only 36 squares, so some square addresses must appear in more than one place. And sure enough while 5 of the 7 dice have six distinct square addresses on them, the sixth has four (two appearing twice) and the seventh has just two (appearing three times each). Sure enough if you do the maths 6x6x6x6x6x4x2 turns out to be 62,208.

So what the three diagrams above show is as follows: the first one just shows what values appear on each face of the seven dice. The second shows, for each square in the grid, how many distinct dice faces it appears on (and therefore indicates how likely it is to come up during a random throw of all seven dice). The third, which is probably the most interesting (though clearly this is all relative), divides the grid up into seven "zones", each corresponding to the set of values contained on a single die. The important point here is that for each of the seven coloured zones, you will only ever have a single blocker in that zone during a game. Note also the rotational symmetry between, in particular, zones 2 and 5, and 3 and 6. You can see how the corners are the "awkward" spots and how it'd be desirable to increase the likelihood of having a blocker in a corner (and that the dice configuration ensures that you'll always have at least one corner blocked), but how you get from there to a mathematical demonstration that the dice layout provided guarantees a solution in every case I have no idea.