Sunday, February 28, 2016

names occupying regions with intense communication hardship

Bear with me once again as I indulge my fondness for map-related trivia. Here's an interesting little website that uses data from the UK electoral roll to pick out hotspots for particular surnames, i.e. regions of the country where that name is statistically over-represented. As the explanatory blog post explains, it's far from infallible, but it's quite interesting nonetheless.

Also interesting is the feature whereby you can put in your name and your spouse's name and see if it can work out where you might have met. As it happens there's absolutely no chance of it identifying where I met my wife, for a couple of reasons - firstly because we met (10 years ago this last New Year's Eve!) in Thornton Heath in south London, somewhere neither of us has ever lived, but secondly, and more interestingly, because the hotspots for our respective pre-marital names, Thomas and Hannant, are about as far apart as it's possible to get in mainland Britain, in terms of east-west separation anyway.

The hotspot on the left, somewhere just a few miles north-east up the River Towy from Carmarthen in west Wales, is the one for Thomas. It's obviously pretty unsurprising that this should be in Wales, although as I understand it most of my forebears lived a bit further east, nearer Cardiff. The Hannant hotspot is a few miles north of Norwich, about a third of the way between Norwich and Cromer. I seem to recall my father-in-law telling me he thought the name was of French origin, although other theories are available, including a possible Scottish origin.

Anyway, thank goodness for increased social mobility, as it would take quite a bit of dedication to sustain a relationship over that distance - even if you're ignoring the exact centres of the hotspots and just going from Carmarthen to Norwich Google Maps reckons it'll take somewhere in the region of five-and-a-half hours to drive, or seven-and-a-half if you're on the train.

Friday, February 26, 2016

it's a steady job, but he wants to be a paperback reader

I got the train and bus into work this morning, something I used to do every day but now only do when there's a specific reason to. That reason is usually (and tonight is no exception) that I'm planning to go straight to some sort of social event afterwards involving alcohol consumption and don't want to be sipping orange juice and lemonade all night.

One of the most important things to remember when taking public transport, for the serious bookworm at least, is to take a book with you. I always have my current book in my laptop bag anyway, which is fine for going to work, but I'm planning to leave the bag in the office later so I need to remember to transfer the book to being on my person in some way. This prompted a couple of thoughts about problems which solely afflict dedicated Book People like me:
  • if you're not intending to carry a bag, you need a pocket big enough to slip a paperback into. You can generally just about fit a standard A-format paperpack (a standard Penguin, say) into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, but only if it's not too thick (and, I suppose, if you haven't got such a massive arse that the back pocket has no "give" in it at all). This is a bit unsatisfactory, as you'll discover as soon as you try to sit down. What you really need is a jacket with some of those big internal pockets that I like to call "poacher's pockets" although they're actually something slightly different. My battered old Nike fleecy zip-up jacket illustrates what I mean perfectly, as well as giving a tantalising glimpse of my current reading material. No clues!
  • even if you have the right sort of jacket, you can still have a problem. Most obviously, it might be glorious summer weather and you don't really want to be wearing a jacket at all. One alternative that I have occasionally resorted to in the past is slipping the book into the external side pocket of a pair of cargo shorts. You need to be careful that it doesn't fall out when you sit down, though, although if you're sitting down for any length of time you'll presumably have the book in your hand anyway, as you'll be reading it.
  • freakishly outsize books can cause a problem - these problems range from very thick standard-size paperbacks (Infinite Jest, say) which cause an unsightly bulge in your coat and weigh one side of it down, to paperbacks only available in the giant C-format (aka "trade paperbacks") which probably won't fit in a pocket at all. One example on my bookshelves (which I have yet to read) is Mark Z Danielewski's House Of Leaves, which seems not to be available in any smaller format, presumably because all the crazy typesetting trickery in the original makes it un-reformattable. Probably best to save these for holiday reading when you only have to lug them as far as a sun lounger.
  • another nightmare scenario is: you need to take a trip such as the one I'm taking today, but you've nearly finished your current book, and aren't confident that you'll have enough reading matter left to see out the trip. So what do you do? Take a different book? That's unsatisfactory as it means starting one book before finishing another, which not only contravenes some unwritten rules but also muddies the narrative flow. It's like having a glass of beer followed by a glass of wine - lovely, but if the last sip of beer and the first sip of wine have to be mixed together that'd probably be a bit grim. The alternative is to take two books, which is probably better, but the combined bulk may start to cause what I like to call Infinite Jest Syndrome, as above. You could always carry one in each pocket, I suppose, just to even out the weight distribution, although it might then start to look to your fellow travellers as if you were wearing some sort of suicide belt.
  • lastly, you'll know you're a proper bookworm when you can't take a trip to the toilet for a sit-down visit without taking your current book with you, and moreover get all twitchy and nervous if you need a poo but can't find your book.
  • a corollary to the last one is: I've often wondered about the acceptability of getting my book out of my laptop bag at work and taking it to the office toilet with me. My gut feeling is that it's probably not an acceptable thing to do, but of course all I'm going to do instead is surf Twitter on my phone, so it's not as if there's any productivity cost associated with it.
All very much #firstworldproblems, of course, but none the less real for all that.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

is there an eco in here? not any more

Recoil in horror, readers, as the Electric Halibut LIIIIIIBRARY OF DEEEEEEAAAAATH claims another victim. This time it's Italian polymath Umberto Eco: novelist, philosopher, semiotician, literary critic, leg spin bowler, masseur, plasterer, surgeon, groovy cat, gentleman, scholar and acrobat. A formidable CV indeed, but one that did him no good: once I'd read The Name Of The Rose and posted a review to this blog, it was literally guaranteed that he was going to die at some unspecified point in the near, medium or distant future. And so it proved.

The roll call of those directly and specifically slaughtered by this blog, therefore, now reads as follows:

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 2y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 7y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 7y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 7y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d

Eco's death doesn't affect the stats much, as it happens, since the average age for authors to be offed by my book reviews is around 80, and the average time for the curse to take effect is around four years. My nominees from June 2015 (on the occasion of James Salter's death) were Joyce Carol Oates, David Lodge and Milan Kundera. Since I failed to spot Eco then those may as well stand for next time.

Here's an interesting long and wide-ranging interview Eco gave to the Paris Review in 2008, during the course of which he inexplicably failed to predict my hand in his eventual demise.

Monday, February 15, 2016

looks like I've peaked too early again

A couple of brief additions to the previous post: firstly you'll notice that there appear to be two summit shots in the photo gallery, one at a low cairn and one at a trig point. This is because Fan Fawr is relatively unusual in having a trig point on its summit ridge, but not at the highest point - the trig point is located half a kilometre or so south-west of the summit and about 20 metres lower.

It's easy to get into the mindset of thinking that trig points are there solely for the walker's navigational and photo-compositional convenience, and simply denote the highest point of a mountain, but of course their original purpose was nothing of the sort. The vast majority of the time if there'a a trig point on top of a mountain it'll be at the summit, but there's no guarantee. In this case the idea presumably was to allow a line of sight off the south-western end of the ridge. The nearest obvious trig points that you might want to be able to see are on the nearby tops of Fan Frynych and Fan Nedd; all three of these seem to have been subjected to a fairly recent smartening-up regime comprising a nice coat of white paint and a stencilled-on red dragon.

While fretting over the slightly unsatisfactory end to the walk route, it occurred to me that you could of course do the walk the other way round, unless you had some quasi-mystical fear of travelling widdershins. At least that way you'd get the scrambling around to get across the ridge, down the steep slope to the Dringarth and down to the footbridge (unless it was high summer and you could just stepping-stone across the river) out of the way while you were still fresh.

The only trouble with that is that it would put the high point of the day (Fan Fawr) no more than a third of the way round the walk, which seems unsatisfactory to me. This is one of those things that you don't realise you have an opinion about until you stop and think about it, but I reckon the ideal arrangement is to have the day's main summit about two-thirds of the way round your route. You don't want it so late in the day that you're too knackered to get up it, but equally you don't want to knock it off too early and have the rest of the day be an anti-climax. Something like four distinct peaks of which the third is the big one would be about perfect, I reckon. Obviously the first rule of having a rule is that you get to break it all the time, as a look back at the high points of some previous walks reveals:
  • a smidgen over half-way into the Sugar Loaf walk;
  • just over a third of the way round the Table Mountain walk;
  • almost exactly halfway round the Pen Y Fan trip (but something like 75% of the way in terms of effort, given the severity of the conditions);
  • a textbook two-thirds of the way round the Radnor walk;
  • halfway round my epic Black Mountains round-trip (but that walk has a longish low-altitude tail on it);
  • about 60% of the way round the stag-weekend Black Mountain walk;
  • just over halfway round my Llangorse royal-wedding-avoidance trip;
  • two-thirds of the way round our Exmoor walk.
I suppose I'd qualify the rule by saying: it applies best to classic ridge walks taking in a few summits - if you're just bagging a single stand-alone peak (the Sugar Loaf, say) then it's inevitably going to be at roughly the halfway point.

what becomes of the brecon hearted

As I've said before, when you're a parent of two, and (in my case) married to someone whose work commitments often extend into weekends, you don't get many opportunities for a free weekend day, without childcare commitments, to just go and do what you like, so it's important to capitalise on those opportunities when they arise.

So when it became apparent that this Saturday was just such an opportunity, I decided to get out and walk up some hills, and to hell with the weather forecast. Fortunately my fellow NCT alumnus Alex was available as well, so we drove over into the Brecon Beacons to walk a route of my own devising.

My principal objective here was to do something I hadn't done before, so instead of finding a new way up Pen Y Fan I decided to try a circular walk starting at the Blaen Llia car park just north of Ystradfellte and taking in Fan Fawr, the highest point in what you might call the "central Beacons", that is to say the area west of the Pen Y Fan range and east of the Black Mountain, both bits incorporating higher peaks but also higher numbers of people.

The route basically described a sort of teardrop/horseshoe shape around the ridges surrounding the Dringarth valley, which for the last 100 or so years has incorporated the Ystradfellte reservoir. The weather forecast wasn't great but actually we got through the entire day without being unduly troubled by either extreme cold, high winds or stuff falling out of the sky (a bit of wispy snow excepted). The major weather phenomenon we were hampered by somewhat was low cloud. which became a major problem as we started to head round the head of the valley and towards Fan Fawr. As reasonably confident as I am with a map and compass it's reassuring to have some GPS backup at this point, and in particular it was invaluable to have the BackCountry Navigator app on my phone, which gives you an instant graphical view of where you currently are on an OS map. If we hadn't had this available to us we'd probably have had to bail out of attempting the ascent of Fan Fawr, as it was only intermittently visible even when we were standing right in front of it.

Of course this sort of techno-wizardry is a double-edged sword in many ways, not least in that it tempts you into attempting stuff that you might otherwise think better of (if you were only armed with a paper OS map and a compass, say), and also that it does tend to drain your phone battery, which is problematic if you suddenly have a need to phone, say, mountain rescue.

There was a light dusting of snow on the ridges on the way round, and quite a bit of snow on top of Fan Fawr, although it looked fairly recent as it was still quite powdery and hadn't acquired the treacherous icy crust which made our previous jaunt up the main Beacons peaks a bit dicey. Overall I'd say this is about 80% of a really great walk, the only drawback being the unsatisfactory end, whereby instead of being able to just cut back across country to the car park when you cross the Afon Dringarth via the footbridge below the reservoir dam, you have to do a detour south to get back onto the road and loop back north to the car park. It may well be possible to find a route, but we couldn't see one, so we decided that rather than scramble about fruitlessly we'd accept a couple of miles of extra slog along well-marked paths and road. In hindsight (assuming there isn't an obvious route back that we just missed) it would have been better to leave the car in Ystradfellte village and have that as the start/finish point, at the cost of maybe a mile's extra overall distance.

Anyway, here's the route map (via Map To GPS) and altitude profile (via GPS Visualiser) - total distance according to the GPS track log (which I have no reason to doubt) was 13.2 miles. As always, click to provide embiggenment. A small selection of photos can be found here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

pulled off at half-time

A bit of unfortunate slapdash photo-captioning in this match summary of France's slightly unexpected 10-9 win over Ireland in the first Six Nations match on Saturday. I didn't see any of it as I was slogging up a mountain in the snow at the time (more on this later) but it sounds like it was a pretty desperate and attritional affair, only livened up - or so I gather from the photo caption below, anyway - by the spectacle of Irish outside-half Jonathan Sexton being furiously "milked" by a bald-headed member of the backroom staff. It's all part of the coaching and motivational routine, and presumably serves to settle the nerves before key place kicks.

Just in case you can't read the caption there, it reads as follows:
Johnny Sexton was frustrated to have to come just before France's match-winning try
In reality I assume there's a missing "off" before the word "just" there, but like I say I didn't see the game so I couldn't say for sure.

Friday, February 05, 2016

voodoo chilli (slight reburn)

I have a bit of a thing for spicy food, as anyone who's kept up with my periodic documentation of my Korean noodle fetish will know. That love for chilli-based stuff extends to having a few bottles of chilli sauce in the fridge, just in case anything needs spicing up at short notice. My collection doesn't begin to compare with that of my friend Jim, who has a whole kitchen cupboard full of various chilli-based weaponry, most of it probably technically illegal under some UN chemical weapons treaty. Here's my current hall of fame:

From left to right:
  • a somewhat elderly (best before some time in 2012, but I'm pretty sure no germs can survive in there) bottle of Encona West Indian chilli sauce. This is nice, quite sharp and vinegary, but still good as a plate-side dipping sauce;
  • a bottle of Flying Goose brand sriracha sauce - purchased in Tesco a couple of days ago. More on this in a minute;
  • some bog-standard Thai-style sweet chilli dipping sauce from Asda, pretty mild;
  • a bottle of Heinz-brand green sauce supposedly made from jalapeno peppers, not as fiery as you might think, and also probably a number of years past its best before date;
  • a bottle of Mama Sita's Hot Pepper Sauce - this is supposedly made from a chilli called Labuyo that is cultivated in the Philippines, very similar to Tabasco but a bit hotter;
  • your basic bog-standard Tabasco - no self-respecting bacon sandwich or Bloody Mary should be without it;
  • a bottle of Fiesta peri-peri sauce from (I think) Aldi.
I was prompted to compile this list by purchasing the bottle of sriracha sauce on a whim in Tesco a couple of days ago, and discovering that not only is it ferociously addictive, but also that there is a whole sriracha sub-culture out there engaging in furious debate about which one is the best. The original one is produced by Huy Fong in the distinctive green-topped bottles from their factory in Irwindale, southern California (in the news a year or so ago after suspicions of noxious chilli sauce fumes spilling out into the town and inconveniencing people) and is, amusingly, known in some jurisdictions (thanks to the rooster logo) as "cock sauce". Most of the imitators try to emulate the big clear bottle/green squirty top convention, including the Flying Goose brand that I've got hold of here.

These are all within what I deem to be the acceptable boundaries of good sense when it comes to chilli sauce - my rule of thumb being that if licking a few drops off your finger causes either a heart attack or severe finger and tongue blistering and the need to quaff three pints of full-fat milk afterwards, then you've strayed into the realms of comedy sauce products which are no use to anyone for any actual culinary purpose. Despite that there is a bit of an arms race going on to create things that rate highest on the Scoville scale of chilli intensity. Consider that both the sriracha and Tabasco (and probably the Encona as well) rate at about 2000-2500 Scoville units - the Mama Sita's might be a bit hotter; then consider that Dave's Insanity Sauce, one of the trailblazers for pointlessly hot and inedible sauce products, weighs in at about 180,000 units. Then consider that some of the products made by Blair's rate at over 10 million Scoville units. Then ask: why?

Thursday, February 04, 2016

the last book I read

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis.

A man walks into a remote Kentucky town. Not your typical Kentucky town-dweller: tall, pale, skinny. His name is Thomas Jerome Newton, and he's from another planet.

Having made a few exploratory trips into town from the site where his spaceship crash-landed to sell various items of precious metal jewellery, partly to raise some initial cash and partly to verify that he can interact with humans without being detected, Newton moves on to more ambitious pursuits, like building up a multi-million-dollar business empire off the back of various patents for technological wonders, knowledge of which he has brought with him from his home planet.

It's difficult to start and maintain such a business without becoming publicly-known, though, still less without having to trust other people to do some of the work for you. Among the people Newton chooses to trust are borderline-alcoholic housekeeper Betty-Jo and physicist Nathan Bryce. He needs Bryce's help for his Big Secret Project, which turns out to be building a spaceship - this spaceship will return to Newton's home planet Anthea (supposedly in our own solar system, though Newton is cagey about exactly where; it pretty much has to be Mars, though) which has been ravaged by war and drought, and bring back a small number of surviving Antheans to live on Earth, co-exist with humans and, through their prior experience and superior technology, save the human race from annihilating itself and rendering its planet a wasteland.

Obviously it would be unwise just to blurt all this out and expect people to go: yup, OK then, here, let me help you with that Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator. So Newton maintains the pretence of being an eccentric, though human, businessman by continuing to wear the fake nipples and contact lenses that disguise his true form. Eventually Bryce starts to smell a rat and rigs up an X-ray machine to capture an image of Newton, weird alien internal structure and all, without his knowledge; eventually Newton is forced to confide in Bryce that yes, he's from another planet, but we come in peace and just want to help you avoid blowing yourselves up. None of that nice planet, we'll take it stuff, good lord no.

Inevitably, though, the authorities get wind of what's going on and take a more paranoid view of the whole situation. So they spirit Newton away to an undisclosed location and get down to some serious probing. Having failed either to conclusively establish that he's from another planet, or get him to confess his plans for world domination, they're obliged to let him go, but not until they've done a couple of last-minute tests on him. Unfortunately one of these tests involves shining high-power X-rays into his eyes, blinding him.

So Newton's plans for sending a ship to Anthea are thwarted. When Bryce finds him again, supping gin in a bar in New York, some sort of political crisis is happening which makes Newton's help more vital than ever. But why would Newton - blind, alcoholic, and with no hope of ever seeing anyone from his home planet again, now that the planetary alignment has shifted - want to bother helping?

The Man Who Fell To Earth (first published in 1963) is most famous for the 1976 film based on it starring David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton - Bowie's first major film role and probably still his most successful one, playing some drug-addled emaciated weirdo not being that much of a stretch for mid-70s Bowie. I must confess I haven't actually seen the film, but the book is a tight, fairly short and highly entertaining and provoking read. As always it's about things other than nipple-less aliens building space rockets: more general alienation, loneliness, alcoholism, the impossibility of ever really knowing anyone else, that sort of thing. It's suggested that it may be at least partly autobiographical, and the struggles with alcoholism certainly echo Tevis's own.

There are echoes of other science fiction here: the thing of a representative of a tired, weakened, enervated civilisation on its last legs but still technologically in advance of our own looking for a new start on our green and fertile planet has been done a few times elsewhere. There are also a few echoes of Algis Budrys' Who?, not least in the general Cold War paranoia, but also in the central character's being a figure of suspicion to the authorities, not conclusively enough that they can pin anything on him, but just enough for them to never be able to leave him alone.

The other Tevis in this list, The Queen's Gambit, is probably better, but this is also very good, in its understated way. My edition (featuring a picture of David Bowie from the film) is a Sight & Sound special edition that I assume was originally given away with a copy of the magazine.