The baby boom there won’t be.


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I love Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’.  It’s a programme about statistics (and data) and it’s brutally anoracky.

But I care not if you think this makes me socially unacceptable, because you learn fascinating things .

Like how misguided you are when your friends say, “Well, there’s gonna be a massive baby boom in nine months after this, eh?” and you nod; because of course there will be.

Well, I have news for you.

There won’t be.

Never is one.

When big events like this happen, and people are unexpectedly shacked up together, for long and even short periods, it simply doesn’t happen.

Not even once.

Not after epidemics, pandemics, floods, power outages, wars.

Never.

That’s what I learned on this week’s episode (available here for a bit).

Here’s why it won’t happen.

a) The biggest cause of pregnancy is teenagers fooling around without protection – but they are all at home: masturbating.

b) In vitro fertilisation has stopped.  It’s bigger than you might think.

c) Family planners have stopped planning families – would you want to conceive right now?

On the other hand…

d) Prophylactics have vanished from the shelves because they’re mostly made in China.

So mistakes will happen.

But a, b and c outweigh d.

I thank you.

 

 

Borostounness Episode 5: The Articulate one.


OK.  As we settle into lockdown Helen and Rab have one small advantage.  Their pals Jeanie and Bill have already had the virus so they can come and go as they please.

They’ve popped round to cheer Helen and Rab up with a friendly game of Articulate.  (The Game in which you have to describe the words you see on cards under the category that your playing piece is on.)

It can be a little frustrating.

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Virus reading. An excellent novel about the aftermath of a global pandemic in animals. Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica. My review.


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Clearly this will not appeal to everyone.

As we ride out the early stages of a global viral pandemic it struck me as a good time to read a novel about a global viral pandemic.

This one infected animals so that their meat became poisonus.  Consequently a global order was put out to kill ALL animals.

Then there was ‘The Transition.’

In a carnivorous world what meat will carnivores then eat when there is no ‘meat’?

Well, obviously they eat human meat, but not wanting to sound like cannibals the authorities do not allow the citizens to call human meat, ‘human meat’ – that’s punishable by death,  and the sale of the resulting cadaver as ‘meat’.

So they are called ‘Heads’, have their vocal chords surgically removed just after birth so that they can’t talk/scream, and are raised to a variety of quality standards.

The hero of our novel is a slaughterhouse manager who is responsible for the buying of Heads and their processing, by way of slaughter.

But his life is complicated.

His beloved Dad is dying, his sister is horrible and leaves him to manage the care of their father, his wife has left him and his young son has died.

He’s lonely, he hates his job, his life and his family.

Then, one day, as a thank you for doing good business with a Head-seller he is given his own young, living, prime-grade female to take home and butcher.

This is an Argentinian novel and is quite heavily stylised, with little or no emotion – that’s left to the reader to take their own views on the proceedings, much of which describes this new, very odd and strangely acceptant society, in dispassionate terms.

It’s short, sharp and to the point and much of it is an allegory for how we consider the meat we consume today.  In that respect it’s a great book for vegetarians/vegans to enjoy triumphantly.

The way Bazterrica describes the slaughtering and butchering process is exactly how our animal meat is processed today.  Her trick is to anthropomorphize the process and, in so doing, begs the question as to whether this is morally acceptable.  “You wouldn’t do it to humans…’ is the central tenet here, if not actually stated.

It’s clever.  It’s interestingly, if a little coldly, written and it’s page turning.

It’s a really good political polemic and I found it engrossing.  Much is made of societal mores – class, privelege, behaviour, tradition, sexual politics.  It’s actually a pretty complex and multi-layered read.

I recommend it.  (But only for those of a stout literary constitution.)

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Book Review


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I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.

I have previously reviewed and lamented Sweet Tooth and Solar – both stinkers, but sandwiched between them was The Children Act, a book of great beauty and provocation.

I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling.  It’s at the heart of  what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.

The moral conundrum here is truth.

Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury.  But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?

This novel works on many levels.  It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.

A fake past.

1982 to be precise.

A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s.  Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.

It’s playful and brilliant.

McEwan plays with the value of things like money.  Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth?  It’s unexplained.)

Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).

Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.

In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.

So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.

The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.

The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.

I adored this book.  One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read.  It’s a noughties write, so who knows.

 

 

The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson: Book Review.


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Gideon Mack is a Scottish Minister, a man of the cloth.  Indeed the son of a man of the cloth.  But he doesn’t believe in God.

His Dad of the cloth was an absolute bastard and that probably contributed to his lie of a life.

Awkwardly, he also fancies his best mate’s wife and, more importantly, and centrally to the story, falls into a river near the fictional Scottish village of Monimaskit – where a raging river flows under it.

In trying to save a dog, who wanders too close to the edge of the canyon that carries the torrent into the unknown, Mack slips and falls to his death.  Or so the villagers think.

In fact, he survives the fall and meets, in an underground cavern, that the raging river takes us to, The Devil, with whom he strikes up an agreeable relationship before returning to his kinsfolk three days later, bruised and bloodied, but very much alive.

What follows is Mack’s difficult reconciliation of his shot-to-pieces faith, the retelling of his unlikely story that nobody believes and the death of an old friend.

James Robertson’s tale is a stirring Scottish romp through the double-standards of the Scots’ particularly Calvinist take on Christianity, duty, sanity and illicit love.

It’s a terrific yarn with much to recommend although I think it found its level on the Booker Prize Long List; any further would have been to have exalted it a little above its station.

Nevertheless, a most agreeable read.  Reasonably strongly recommended.

 

11pm, Friday January 31st 2020. The hour the music dies.


Just because I’ve shut up about Brexit recently doesn’t mean I feel any less saddened, deeply saddened, by the UK’s xenophobic attitude towards its island nation state.

We now have a fool, a dangerous one at that, at the helm, leading our country into a black hole, one that no right-minded economist recommended.  One where international trade deals are talked of in multiple-year time frames, some even in decades.

The fool continues to gainfully employ the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg – a man who in any other capacity would find himself on the dole queue for his outrageous sociopathic views and utter disregard for humanity, despite his fervour about the Roman Catholic faith – a faith that proclaims love of thy neighbour; ABOVE ALL ELSE.

As the bell tolls I will be contemplating what it means to live in Scotland – a nation that rejected this nonsense, OUT OF HAND – although that doesn’t mean I will be banging the drum for Scottish Independence.

One of its 2014 clarion calls was that Scottish independence was the only way to guarantee remaining in Europe (at best an optimistic call even then).  That prospect, (or at least the prospect of re-entry to the European family), if the last 36 months or so is anything to go by, seems an unlikely one now and a colossally difficult task.

For those bunting-waving leavers that will be popping their English sparkling wine and guzzling their John Smiths on Friday night, you were warned of the consequences of this before you voted for change ( I’m particularly looking at you Sunderland and South Wales).

I won’t be schadefreuding you in years to come.  I’m doing it now.

London didn’t vote for this nonsense, Northern Ireland didn’t vote for it and certainly Scotland didn’t vote for it.

Even Nigel Fargae didn’t vote for this outcome.

God bless Europe.

 

 

Worth Dying for: The power and politics of flags by Tim Marshall: Book Review


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The title is a statement, not a question.  So is the author suggesting that, yes, flags are worth dying for?

In this terrific book Tim Marshall explores, over about 300 pages, why it is that flags have become such strong semiotic devices across the 21st century globe.

As Amazon says in its splurge; In nine chapters (covering the USA, UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, international flags and flags of terror), Tim Marshall draws on more than twenty-five years of global reporting experience to reveal the histories, the power and the politics of the symbols that unite us – and divide us.

I absolutely loved this.

Marshall has a nice line in sarcasm although he keeps that to a minimum.  Largely the book is a fascinating historical insight into the power of flags, usually three colours or less.

Why green is so important in Islamic countries.  Why blue can represent sky, sea and many other things.  Why red is typically the colour of blood.  Or, of communism.

Why maybe a half of global flags have a religious significance, almost all of those crosses are, yup, crucifixes.

Why regions congregate around themes.  Ever wondered why all the Scandi flags are left biased crosses, just with different colour ways?  Find out here.

It’s not just political flags either, we read about the chequered flag, the Olympic flag, the red cross and more.

A great read and a great opportunity to increase your score on University Challenge.