Friday, November 29, 2013

headline of the day

Today's Daily Mail in particularly fine stating the bleedin' obvious vein:

In other shock revelations, if you look like a duck, walk like a duck and quack like a duck then the latest research suggest you may well be a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae.

Monday, November 25, 2013

distinctly average

An extraordinary amount has been written, and rightly so, on the occasion of the retirement from Test cricket of Sachin Tendulkar, the most prolific international batsman of all time. As with Doris Lessing, there's not much for me to add, so instead I'll dive off at a couple of tangents.

Tendulkar finished with a Test match average of 53.78, which puts him 13th on the all-time list for batsmen who have made over 3000 Test runs. It also puts him in as the latest entry on one of those esoteric cricket lists which I'm so fond of. Let me see if I can explain.

The last man to finish a career of any significant length (again, let's say 3000 runs as a cut-off) with a higher average than Tendulkar, was, rather surprisingly, Australian Greg Chappell all the way back in 1984. Plenty of people have had higher averages in mid-career - Tendulkar himself was averaging over 56 as recently as January 2012, Ricky Ponting averaged between 57 and 60 for a couple of years between 2006 and 2008, Jacques Kallis currently averages over 55, Kumar Sangakkara nearly 57 - but it's all about how you finish. So you might go on to ask, well, who was the last player before Chappell to finish a career with a higher average? And before him? And so on and so forth.

So you end up with the following chart:

Sachin Tendulkar201353.78
Greg Chappell198453.86
Garfield Sobers197457.78
Ken Barrington196858.67
Don Bradman194899.94

The way to read this is: for each entry in the list, no-one who has come after has finished with a higher career average. So if Sangakkara, say, retires tomorrow with his current career average of 56.98, he will instantly erase Chappell and Tendulkar from the list.

The other great debate during most of Tendulkar's career was: who's the greatest batsman in the world? And the two main candidates were almost always Tendulkar himself and the great West Indian Brian Lara, as disrespectful as that might seem to the likes of Kallis and Ponting. I was lucky enough to watch them both bat many times, and my personal view is that for all Tendulkar's metronomic consistency the more mercurial Lara played more individually memorable innings, including the unprecedented feat of breaking the world record for the highest individual Test score twice. To put it another way, if you offered me the opportunity of watching one of them bat for a couple of hours, I'd take Lara.

An interesting contrast between the two players can also be obtained by examining the manner of their exits from Test cricket. Tendulkar departed with all manner of pomp and razzamatazz, but at the end of an extended slump in form, at least by his own high standards (his last Test century having been as long ago as January 2011), whereas Lara had made a double-century against Pakistan in his penultimate Test, and another hundred in the one before that, and was ousted from the captaincy and the team by some shady political wranglings.

Compare, if you will, the last three years of each player's career.


PeriodMatchesInningsNot OutRunsAverage10050
Dec 1990 - Jun 2003961685840451.552141
Nov 2003 - Nov 200635641354956.33137


PeriodMatchesInningsNot OutRunsAverage10050
Nov 1989 - Oct 2010171280301424056.964958
Nov 2010 - Nov 201329493168136.54210

The inescapable conclusion is that Tendulkar probably hung on a bit longer than he should have, whereas Lara could have had another two or three years of prime run-scoring; interesting to speculate how the record books might have ended up looking under those circumstances. Or not; please yourselves.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

count your lessings

Much has been written following the death of Doris Lessing, who died on Sunday at the impressive age of 94. So I won't add much except to link to a couple of obituaries and tributes, as well as to my two blog posts on her books Memoirs Of A Survivor and The Fifth Child.

Quite a few of the articles make the point that she was a chronicler of interesting subjects whose main attribute was her intellectual restlessness and interest in tackling challenging subjects, rather than being an especially soaringly lyrical prose stylist, which I suppose is fair enough. As I said here, I think Briefing For A Descent Into Hell is probably my favourite of the small subset of her prodigious output that I've read (which comprises five novels, by my count, plus a sixth that's sitting on my shelves yet to be read), although I do have a bit of a soft spot for Shikasta, the first of the Canopus In Argos series. This is partly because it's an interesting (if somewhat baffling) read, but also because its lukewarm critical reputation illustrates the literary world's sniffy distaste for anything with even a whiff of science fiction about it. Lessing, as it happens, is on record as saying that these were some of her favourites of her own books. Here she is appearing on Desert Island Discs in 1993.

Far more interestingly, Lessing becomes, by my calculations anyway, the third author featured on this list to die subsequent to my reading one or more of their books, the other two being Michael Dibdin and Russell Hoban. This provides a third category to add to the more prosaic "alive" and "dead" to draw up this list of all 147 authors featured on the book list since its inception:

Died since first book review6

Now the sharp-eyed among you will be saying: hang on, I thought you said there were only three in the Personally Killed By My Book Reviews category, and so I thought, but in doing the basic skim of Wikipedia for research purposes I discovered that there were two more - Richard Matheson, who died in June, and Elmore Leonard, who died in August. All I can say of Matheson is that the only book of his I've read, I Am Legend, is excellent, as for Leonard I would say a case could be made for him being one of the great novelists of the second half of the 20th century; as with Lessing's science fiction stuff, though, he was hamstrung by writing what arbitrary literary critical convention deemed to be "genre" fiction - in Leonard's case crime thrillers, broadly speaking. If you must have just one, I'd say go for Killshot.

[POSTSCRIPT: actually the figure should be six, since it should also include Beryl Bainbridge, who died in 2010. I did mention that here, but I must have subsequently forgotten about it.]

the last book I read

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

It's 1968, and Paddy Clarke is ten years old. He lives in Barrytown, north Dublin, a fairly grim area in reality, but in the minds of Paddy and his friends it's outer space, Wembley Stadium, the bottom of the sea, whatever they need to facilitate their games.

Meanwhile at home Paddy has to cope with his annoying younger brother Sinbad (as annoying as similarly-aged younger siblings always are, his two much younger sisters being far too young and too female to bother about), and his parents - generally good and well-intentioned people, but with just an undercurrent of tension and some increasingly fraught arguments after the kids have gone to bed.

Among the blizzard of anecdotes, the fantastical games, the endless questions, the religious indoctrination, the bunking off school, the casual childhood cruelty, the scatological humour, the booting, biting and bollocking, one thing becomes clear: Paddy's parents are going to split up and there's nothing he can do about it. And as and when that happens, assuming that it happens with his Dad leaving, as generally happens, then at that point Paddy will become the man of the house, and that will mark an end of childhood.

Very much like the other Roddy Doyle book I've read, The Van, this is a series of not necessarily chronological anecdotes rather than a more standard linear narrative. The one major thing that happens plot-wise - Paddy's father leaving - happens literally on the penultimate page, so there's not much time to chew over reactions to it. That's not the point of the book, of course, the point being to evoke intensely what it's like to be ten years old, and to elicit some sympathy for Paddy's circumstances despite also being reminded of what filthy vindictive little bastards ten year old boys are. And in those terms it's very successful - this really is how little boys act, the little shits. While I'd have ideally preferred a bit more narrative drive, the fact that it's taken an age (46 days) for me to read it is more down to my having been busy with a load of household DIY tasks during spare moments over the last couple of months and not having much spare time to read.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993, thus becoming the fourth Booker winner in this list after G., The Gathering and Hotel Du Lac.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

having a funny turn

We went over to see our friends Jenny and Jim at the weekend, since they're imminently going to be elbow-deep in nappies and arse cream and all manner of other baby-related stuff. They have also pushed the likely date of our next Munro-bagging trip back by a couple of years, but hey, I'm not bitter.

Anyway, Jenny and Jim live in Alton, which is one of those places there isn't a really obvious route to from Newport. I'm not saying it's difficult or awkward, just that once you get to junction 13 of the M4 there are a few routes you can take, all of roughly equal time and distance. You can carry on along to junction 11 and down the A33 (this is what Google Maps tends to recommend) or you can get off the M4 at junction 13 and then head down through Newbury and Basingstoke on the A339 (this is what Hazel's satnav tends to recommend) or you can get off at junction 13, carry on down the A34 and cut off to the east at any of a number of places as far down as the M3 (this is what we normally end up doing).

What we did on Saturday was get off the A34 at the junction with the A303, head east as far as the junction with the M3 and then cut across country through Axford and Ellisfield to Alton. Not a bad route, all in all, though almost certainly only fractionally different from any of the others. What makes it interesting is the extraordinary navigational contortions you have to go through to turn left from the southbound A34 onto the eastbound A303. Left turns, even between grade-separated dual carriageways, are normally the easiest ones; just bung in a slip road and you're done, but not here. Check it out:

As with all seemingly mad road design decisions of this sort, there's a bit of history involved here, not to mention geography. There was until recently a pub sitting right in the crook of the junction, in the northeast quadrant, where the south-to-east sliproad would have gone, and no doubt the proprietors were a bit dubious about having a sliproad ploughing through their garden. Add to that a couple of awkwardly-sited bridges making widening (to accommodate sliproads) difficult, some analysis of traffic volumes for each leg of the interchange (the assumption presumably was that traffic for points east along the A303 would have already taken the A339, this being before the building of the Newbury bypass in 1996) and probably a lack of budget for major earth-moving operations and we end up with the current colossal clusterfuck where the left turn involves a dizzying turn through 450 degrees (not to mention traversing two roundabouts) instead of the usual 90.

The splendid SABRE maps website and its even more splendid historical map database gives some interesting historical context. The junction started as just a little spur joining two roads together, then when traffic volume and speed started to make that a bit dangerous it was turned into a roundabout, and only in the 1980s did it mutate into the full spaghettified nightmare.

It's a bit ironic if the pub (which you can see marked on both maps) was a factor in not building the obvious road layout, since I would guess that it was precisely the decision to redraw the road layout that was the death knell for the pub's business. You can see from the pictures that in both of the first two configurations traffic in all four directions would pretty much have had to come past the pub's front door, or at least within sight of it, whereas in the new configuration the pub was relegated to being at the end of a little spur off a slip road in the shadow of a couple of bridges. Scarcely surprising then that business dried up and the pub closed in 2008, the site now being occupied by a scrap metal recycling centre.

Tempting as it is to imagine that they do, road planners don't actively set out to fuck things up, it's just that it's sometimes hard to piece together in retrospect all the constraints they were under at the time stuff was designed and implemented, most significantly the need to use what's already in place as the basis for any future developments. There's an interesting parallel between this sort of evolution and biological evolution, which operates under precisely the same sort of constraints. Magicking up new features from thin air is the sort of thing a "designer" might do, and therefore exactly what tends not to happen, features instead building on and amending stuff that's already there. The classic example of this is the 15-foot detour made by the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the neck of the giraffe.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

porky days and porky nights

As my wife will tell you at prodigious length at the slightest provocation, my daughter takes after me in a large number of ways. For one thing, she loves my spicy noodles - it's a rare occasion indeed when I get to enjoy a full bowl all to myself any more without a small person tugging at my elbow and saying "Daddy, noonles" (that being Nia's version of "noodles") until I twirl up a forkful and deposit them on her plate. That's not really a complaint, as it is rather adorable, but still.

Another way in which she resembles me is in her love of books. We've mostly moved on from the simple flap-based board books now to actual stories, many of them featuring the work of the stupendous Julia Donaldson, mostly in collaboration with illustrator Axel Scheffler. Another thing we've embraced fairly recently is the cute anthropomorphic porcine world of Peppa Pig - not so much the TV programmes, as they're on Channel 5 and we're still pretty loyally bound to CBeebies, but we do have a lot of Peppa Pig clothing (mainly cast-offs from Nia's cousin Kira) and, now, a book.

There's something a bit rum about this book, though - maybe a few sample pages will help you see what it is:

1. Crikey, it's raining, a lot

2. Wow, seems like the whole world is flooded; unless you've got a boat you're pretty much screwed.

3. At last the waters recede, leaving boats high and dry on top of hills, and a bird brings a green frond as a symbol of rebirth or some such shit.

4. And there was much rejoicing.

So, yeah, it's basically the Great Flood/Noah's Ark story from the Bible. Now while I'm instinctively disapproving of any attempt to shoehorn crypto-religious nonsense into kids' heads, I suspect that the motive here was more likely to have been the desire to borrow a story whose authors weren't going to be around to sue for breach of copyright.

In any case, even if the Christian churches were somehow able to get a case together, it would be a pretty hypocritical one, seeing as how the Genesis flood story is itself just a mish-mash of various older folk-tales, most notably the Sumerian Epic Of Gilgamesh. Pretty much every civilisation that started up by farming the delicious fertile soil of river flood plains (and that covers pretty much all of them) had, for obvious reasons, folk tales featuring catastrophic flooding, spun retrospectively as a necessary cleansing act by the gods as punishment for some vaguely-specified acts of depravity and/or disloyalty.

So I think I can manage an indulgent shake of the head here, rather than a full-on book-burning. By the time Nia gets to school she'll have been brutally schooled in critical thinking anyway, so if anyone tries to do any proselytising she'll be well-equipped to tear them a new one.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

psst: your IMPENDING FIERY DEATH light has just come on

Here's a Bloke Skills-related confession: I am neither especially interested in, nor especially knowledgeable about, cars. Just to be clear, I'm very enthusiastic about the benefits of having one - getting to places outside the normal range of public transport, a mobile lockable storage facility for stuff, emergency rain shelter, all of that, but I don't have particularly strong opinions about brands and models, and I certainly don't have much knowledge about the internal workings of cars beyond being able to change a wheel in an emergency and knowing how to top up the oil and the washer fluid. Oh, and I have changed a fuse a couple of times.

So you might argue that my lack of enthusiasm for deep research into what car would be best to buy back when I was buying a car for the first time is what led me to the safe and unexciting choice of the Ford Focus. To which I would say a) yes, you're probably right, but also b) why would "excitingness" be a criterion anyway? I mean, who cares, really? And there's also c) yeah, but my choice has been borne out as a pretty good one given how little trouble the Focus has been over the five and a half years I've owned it and the getting on for 85,000 miles I've put on the clock.

One of the key considerations when owning a car, particularly one of advancing age (the Focus is about 12 years old now), is making the judgment of when it becomes more trouble than it's worth, i.e. when the niggly maintenance issues that inevitably crop up start costing more to fix than the residual value of the car. While I don't think we've reached that stage yet, it is undoubtedly true that I've had more trouble with the car in 2013 than in the previous four years put together.

The only time the car had broken down before this year was in the depths of winter not long after I'd bought it when a coolant hose froze and cracked on a particularly frosty morning causing the car (ironically) to overheat. The first I knew about it was when the little yellow engine management light came on on the dashboard as I was passing the Severn Bridge toll booths (in the non-paying easterly direction) and the car had a sudden loss of power. A quick tow to a garage from the AA and a new hose and that was sorted.

This year, by contrast, in addition to an MOT bill running to several hundreds of pounds to replace a load of suspension parts, I've had a couple of incidents. Firstly, when on the way from home to the motorway one morning, the yellow engine management light started flickering on and off intermittently, there was a sudden loss of power and the engine started to chug lopsidedly like an old tractor. I managed to limp back home and called out the AA man, who plugged his little diagnostic gizmo into the socket under the dashboard and determined that there was a misfire in one of the cylinders. A new ignition coil pack and some new HT leads sorted that at relatively modest cost, at least until the exact same thing happened a couple of weeks later. I was a bit concerned that this indicated some major problem with the engine management computer, but the AA man assured me that, nah, it was probably just a dodgy ignition coil, replaced it at no charge, and to be fair to him it's been fine since.

Then, a month or so ago, as I was driving back to the office after a lunchtime trip to B&Q, the engine light came on again. A constant light this time, and accompanied by no discernible problem with engine sound or power, but a bit worrying nonetheless. The lack of any obvious problem gave me a bit of a dilemma, though - ignore it for a bit, or take it somewhere and get it diagnosed? A no-brainer, you might think, until you see how much motor maintenance people want to charge you just for plugging in a code reader and reading the results out to you. Halfords Autocentres and Kwik-Fit both wanted about 40 quid, and while I daresay there might be an independent who'd do it a bit cheaper it still seemed a bit of a wedge for 2 minutes work. So I decided to take a punt on buying a diagnostic scanner gizmo off the internet, as they're readily available on Amazon, and as it happened this one was available for a mere 13 quid. Obviously I was also taking a punt on the engine not eating itself while I waited for it to arrive, but luckily I got away with it.

So anyway, when I plugged the unit in (having located the port under the steering wheel and located a suitable flat-bladed screwdriver to remove the cover) it told me that there was a single fault logged on the computer, specifically code 0420, which translates as Catalyst System Efficiency Below Threshold (Bank 1), which further translates as, basically, your catalytic converter isn't operating at maximum efficiency. To which, after 12 years and over 140,000 miles, I say both meh and also no shit, Sherlock. Most of the sites which give you more detail about these codes do also specifically say that a cylinder misfire can cause some damage to a catalytic converter owing to the unburnt fuel that then ends up in it, so that makes sense I suppose. I'll keep an eye on it, but since I'm not currently experiencing any obvious loss of power or difference in fuel consumption you'll excuse me if I'm not rushing off to throw money at the problem.

All of that extremely lengthy preamble brings me to my point, though, which is this: in these days when we can put a man on the moon and work out the most complex hire purchase agreements it really ought to be obligatory for cars to display a bit more helpful diagnostic information in the event of the computer detecting a problem - at the very least the diagnostic fault code (or codes), but preferably a bit of explanatory text as well. I'm delighted that we've come as far as having an international standard for the codes, but there's absolutely no reason why the engine computer, having detected and logged a fault, should then say to you: something's wro-ong! but, hey, I'm not going to tell you what it is, because IT'S A SECRET, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! As an aside, the only general rule I've been able to glean off the internet is that, in the absence of an indication of what the fault code is, in general a flashing engine management light is more serious than a constant one.

The good people at American motoring website Jalopnik have decided that they agree with me, and, additionally, that they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more. As one of the commenters very eloquently puts it:
you need to have some way of differentiating "screw the gas cap back in, idiot" from "pull the hell over: impending fiery death"
So in addition to a couple of pithy articles on the subject they've created an actual White House petition to get some form of automatic decoded OBD display mandated on all new cars. The petition seems to be inaccessible now, though - you just get redirected to the petitions home page instead. So I expect that means it'll be getting passed into law any day now, or something.