Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

August 15, 2017 at 10:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I picked up this book at the airport, as a fairly easy read on the plane. Jodi Picoult is of course a very well known and prolific author, although I’d not read any of her books before.

As I expected, this is a well-written, easy to read book that rattles along. The theme it tackles, however, is far from lightweight; it is an examination of racism and racial tensions in contemporary USA. Against the backdrop of racially-charged police shootings, the rise of Trump and issues around immigration and American values, this is both a necessary and brave book.

Necessary, because these issues need airing constantly, and brave, because Jodi Picoult is a privileged, affluent white person – and writing about race is a challenge to do authentically and fairly when you have no lived experience to draw on.

The story revolves around Ruth; a black neo-natal nurse who is on duty when an medical incident occurs to the newborn child of a white supremacist couple. The baby dies, and Ruth is suspended by the hospital, and charged with negligence and murder. She is defended by a public advocate, and over the course of the novel the motivations, lives and prejudices of all the characters are examined. The book ends with a climactic courtroom scene which, whilst gripping, as a rather over-the-top twist right at the end that to me felt very forced.

It’s a novel that certainly illuminates the racial divide in today’s America. Picoult did a lot of research prior to writing this book; she details much of this in an essay that appends the novel. Aware of the sensitivity of the subject, she tries to do the right thing, and also apologises for any missteps she may have made. Racism is an issue that affects all America (and perhaps the whole world), and Picoult makes the point that this is a book to get whites reading about and understanding at least some of the issues – even if her voice is not the most authentic or original. It is notable that the black characters in the novel come across as the least nuanced and most two-dimensional.

I was interested when finishing the book to read the reactions of black reviewers to the novel. For the most part they are generous and understanding – this is not a ‘black novel’, but as a book that adds to the debate and might break through to some readers who would otherwise not consider the issues raised it has been for the most part praised.

I enjoyed this book a lot; it is a rattling good yarn as well as being very thought-provoking.

Keeping us safe… (updated)

August 8, 2017 at 16:58 | Posted in bicycles | 6 Comments
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I got pulled over the cops the other day. Rather excitingly, it’s the first time I’ve ever been pulled over with lights and sirens blaring!

The reason was that I was riding like cyclists do in 98% of the world – that is to say without a polystyrene hat. In Australia, of course, this deviant behaviour is considered a criminal offence. And not a minor one – the fine is $325. That’s the same as a car driver not giving way to pedestrians on a crossing flashing amber, and drinking alcohol whilst driving.

I spoke to the officers, and explained I have an exemption, and showed it to them. It remains to see if they accept it or if I get a ticket through the post. But what a waste of everyone’s time.

Still, it seems the NSW police are keen to ensure vulnerable road users are suitably penalised for daring to use a Sydney road network that is hostile towards them. A few days later, I was in the city and witnessed no less than five motorcycle cops booking pedestrians who dared to scuttle across a pedestrian crossing when it wasn’t green. Given that this is right outside Sydney Central Station and there are a lot of pedestrians needing to cross, that there is relatively few vehicles, and that the green time for pedestrians is woeful (about five seconds every three minutes), you can hardly blame a few people for crossing on the red man.

But no, the NSW police were there, handing out tickets ($72, if you were interested). Whilst I watched, I saw two cars drive through on very amber lights ($325, as explained above), and one on red ($433), but rather than jumping onto their powerful motorcycles to catch the miscreants putting people’s lives in danger, they just chatted amongst themselves.

Great to know our safety is so important to them.

Update:

In recent news, it was reported that the number of fines issued to cyclists rose massively last year  – $1.99m in fines, compared to $0.33m the previous year. The number of injuries also fell, by about 7% – but cycling participation fell about 25% (from 17% of people to 12.5% of people regularly riding bicycles). This means, of course, that cycling actually became more dangerous last year. All those fines and police activity have driven people off their bikes, and made it more dangerous for those that remain.

And, true to form, I was pulled over yet again this morning. This is on a ride where I saw perhaps 4 drivers using a mobile phone, and close to 10 drivers driving through an amber or red light. So a pretty typical ride. The road safety priorities in NSW (and Australia more generally) are truly f—-d.

police again

Arnott’s Shortbread Cream – Mango and Cream

August 1, 2017 at 15:41 | Posted in biscuits | Leave a comment
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Arnott’s have been busy again, with more ‘Twisted Faves’. This time they have taken the Shortbread Cream, and made it mango flavour.

I love mangoes. They herald the arrival of summer; sweet, luscious and decadent. I like all varieties, although I’m especially keen on the R2D2 variety (that’s not what it’s called, but I can never remember the real name), and the more recent ‘Kerrygold’. The junior Chillikebabs like them too, and we often share a mango after lunch, popping it our into a hedgehog to endless delight.

Mrs Chillikebab doesn’t like mangoes. She says they smell of wee. So how will these biscuits fare? Sweet and luscious, or lavatorial?

Sad to say, they don’t hit the mark. Mango is a tricky thing to do in a biscuit, as that fresh zinginess is pretty hard to recreate. It seems Arnott’s have fallen into the all too common trap of making something too sweet and cloying, without any bite or fragrance. You have to search quite hard to get much mango flavour from these; they are just a bit sickly, with a slightly artificial tang. Tellingly, when I put the packet out in the kitchen at work, there were three or four biscuits left at hometime. This is a rare occurrence, so these are not really doing it for anyone it seems.

Sorry Arnott’s. It’s a nice idea, and good on your for having a try, but these I’m afraid are only getting a three out of ten.

Bike share in Shanghai

July 26, 2017 at 14:47 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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I had to visit Shanghai recently, and was amazed by the number of bike share bikes there were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. The system there does not rely on the docking stations more common elsewhere, but rather the bikes can be picked up and left anywhere, meaning there are bikes scattered all over the place. You literally can’t walk more than a few metres without coming upon one. It’s quite amazing.

Each bike has a unique QR code on the rear, and to use the bike you scan this with an app. This then tells you the unlock code for the bike, and you can punch in the number and ride away. When you’ve finished with it, you simply click the lock, and leave the bike wherever you want. The first fifty minutes of use are free, and after that it’s I think a few Yuan per hour.

They are certainly well used, with people zipping about on the distinctive bikes everywhere. There are no bicycle lanes or facilities, and the traffic is heavy, but it all just mixes together and I didn’t see any aggression from drivers towards cyclists. Cyclists seem to be able to go on and off the footpaths, ride through red lights, down the street the wrong way and so on without anyone really batting an eyelid. I understand they are supported by the government in order to try and reduce the horrific air pollution in Shanghai.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try out the bikes for myself. Maybe next time…

The Restorer – Michael Sala

July 19, 2017 at 15:18 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Restorer is Micheal Sala’s second novel, and is set in Newcastle, a small city a few hours north of Sydney in Australia. It’s a novel about one family, as their father, Roy, attempts to heal the rifts in their past by buying a near-derelict house in a new city and restoring it – and, he hopes, his family too.

At first, things seem to improve, but the bubbling tensions below the surface continually threaten to erupt, driven by Roy’s unpredictable, brooding violence. This is a very bleak book, and we are drawn into the struggles, dysfunction and violence of both this one family, and the wider society they inhabit.

One of the strengths of the book is that we end up empathising with all the characters; they are all in some way trying to overcome their flaws and break free of their pasts. However, ultimately Roy is unable to contain or tame his violence, and as the book progresses it crescendos towards a devastating finale. This is an intense portrait of a violent family, and has its roots in Sala’s own upbringing, and the fear of provoking his violent stepfather. It’s a beautifully written yet brutal story, and is utterly compelling.

Finishing touches

July 14, 2017 at 14:08 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Finally, the last few bits for the transformation of the Radish from a 2 x toddler to a 2 x small girl transporter arrived.

Now the rack passenger has a comfy cushion for their bottom, and foot rests for their feet. I had to buy them from the US, and while the prices were OK, the shipping was (as you might imagine) a bit steep. I wish there was an Xtracycle distributor here in Australia. Surely there’s a market for one? Anyway, thanks to Matt at BikeShopHub in Flagstaff, Arizona, for patiently answering my emails and sorting everything for me.

Separately to getting all the rack bits, I also have had the drive train replaced, as the rear derailleur had sort of lost all its springiness – I guess the weight of that long chain takes its toll over seven years, and it was drooping badly and not changing at all well. It’s now all new and snappy, and feels very nice. Oddly the bike shop didn’t change the chainwheel, despite it being worn into sharks teeth. This meant the chain still rattled somewhat, and didn’t feel smooth. I have no idea why they didn’t change this (as they changed everything else), but it did mean I could buy one online and do it myself. It’s not often I get to use my crank-puller. I have most of the tools for bike maintenance, but for the most part am too lazy to do things myself.  Still, this little job was easy enough, and now the drivechain is silky-smooth and silent. I’m sure it makes for a very relaxing ride for the passengers!

New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

July 4, 2017 at 14:22 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I bought this as an easy read for a long plane trip, and it served its purpose admirably. It’s a sci-fi book (something you might possibly deduce from the title…) set in a world where sea level has risen forty feet as a result of global warming, and the world is finding a new equilibrium. Much of Manhattan is now underwater, but life in the most solid tall buildings goes on, with the streets becoming a sort of Venetian canal network. The weaker, smaller buildings are gradually slumping into the water, whilst even larger skyscrapers are constructed on higher ground. It’s quite an evocative picture of a possible near future, with humanity living both differently yet also rather similarly to today. One similarity is the global financial markets; still managing trillions of dollars of money, all leveraged and borrowed, and ripe for collapse. Both financial and literal liquidity are woven together neatly throughout the book.

Into this scenery is placed an eclectic cast of characters; software coders, a tough policewoman, a social lawyer, a banker, a TV reality star, two savvy street kids and a lugubrious building supervisor. The opening of the book is strong, as these characters are sketched out, and it becomes clear that it is one of those books where the lives of these characters gradually become entangled and drawn together. Ultimately, however, the way this happens and the end result is a bit unsatisfactory – it’s all rather rushed and much too neat. Still, as a book to pass the time its certainly to be recommended, and threaded through it is a commentary on our own time, and our negligence in dealing with the climate crisis the world is currently in.

Postscript: I read the final chapters of this book as the results of the June 2017 UK general election were coming in, and there was a certain frisson in seeing the people perhaps rise up and smash the neoliberal order that has held the world in such a grip since the 1980s – exactly as was happening in the chapters I was reading. Alas, the UK election result was rather more messy and did little more than rattle the hegemony a little, unlike the all-too-neat ending of this book.

Ride and Fly – take 2

June 28, 2017 at 14:07 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Well, I had to travel again, on an aeroplane. So, of course, I rode to the airport. Honestly, I have no idea why I didn’t start doing this years and year ago. It’s faster, cheaper and a lot more relaxing. Easy easy easy. Forgot all those traffic jams, those tense moments in stationary traffic where you wonder whether you’ll make your flight, the waiting around for taxis to pick you up, those eye-watering fares. Just an easy, pretty much flat half-hour-or-so ride, with guaranteed parking right outside the terminal entrance.

This time, I didn’t bother with my towable suitcase. I just strapped a regular case on the back of the Radish, which to be honest was much easier. Easier to ride, and easier when I got there.

I had a quick shower when I arrived at the airport, although with the cool morning I hardly needed it, and caught my flight with ease. Coming home, I strolled out of the terminal, strapped my bag to the back on the bike and pedalled away. It’s actually really nice to be able to get some exercise after sitting on a plane for long hours, and I was home in no time.

Yes, it would be nice if bike access to the airport was a bit better. But to be honest, it’s not too bad if you’re used to riding in Sydney. Next time you need to fly, take your bike. You won’t regret it.

Ride and Fly

June 21, 2017 at 14:00 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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You may remember some time ago I impulse purchased a luggage trailer. My initial review was not 100% favourable, and to be honest since then it’s pretty much stayed in the garage unused.

However, the other day I had to go away on business, and the mid-morning flight timing seemed to suit cycling to the airport, plus the trip was going to need checked-in luggage, so I decided to bite the bullet and ride to the international terminal.

I duly dusted off the trailer, packed it pretty full and set off.

The first thing I noted was when I packed. The internal dimensions of the bag are not as large as the external size would suggest, and the zipper opening only allows you to open just over half of it. So it’s not that easy to pack. If also means the most easily accessible and largest part of the bag is the bit at the top, so this bit tends to end up packed more tightly that the bottom bit. This means the weight is distributed towards the top, which exacerbates the somewhat unstable nature of the trailer. More on this later…

Anyway, I coupled it up to the fixie, kissed everyone goodbye and set off. My family waved me off at the doorstep and then went inside as I pulled away. This was lucky, as had they remained a moment longer they would have witnessed me falling off as I turned out of the drive, sprawling unceremoniously on the road. Why? Well, the nature of the coupling means you can’t take a sharp right hand turn, as the back wheel jams up against the tow arm. It’s not an issue in normal riding, but low-speed manoeuvring  carries this risk. Perhaps this is true of all trailers, I’m not sure, but it certainly wasn’t a very auspicious start.

I dusted myself off, and tried again. From there on it went fairly smoothly, although I did still have this background concern about the trailer stability. Riding in traffic on pot-holed roads is a little hair-raising, as I was conscious that if the trailer hit a pothole it might turn over, pulling the bike out of line. That didn’t happen, but I did experience a couple of issues with trailer stability; it tipped over a couple of times when I had to negotiate curbs or tight corners. I could see them coming, and had for the most part stopped beforehand to push the bike around, but it does underline the problem. This thing is easy to tip up.

However, leaving the shortcomings of the trailer aside, riding to the airport is great. Bike access to the airport is fairly straightforward (even if the shared path is rather narrow and directly adjacent to fast-moving traffic), and you can lock up your bike for free right outside the arrivals area. Given the utter rort on transport options to the airport, this is a rare bargain and by itself makes cycling worthwhile. There are free showers in the departures area too, so I was able to have a shower and change before I checked in for my flight. And when I got home there was no waiting about; I walked out of the terminal, grabbed my bike and set off.

The other thing I hadn’t properly appreciated is how close the airport is to where I live. Even (cautiously) pulling a trailer and having to navigate an unfamiliar route, I got there as fast as I’ve ever got there by taxi. Wow. Eleven kilometres. That’s nothing. It’s an interesting thing; my non-cycling friends consistently over-estimate distances based on driving times. It seems utterly unlikely that a journey that takes over an hour by car is less than 15km, but often that’s the case in Sydney (and pretty much universally true at peak time). Seems I had fallen for the same fallacy with regards to the airport. It’s actually right on my doorstep.

I am ashamed of myself for not doing this before. From here on, I will mostly ride, I think. I might not use the trailer much, given its poor design, but I can certainly see me strapping my bag to the back of the Radish and riding there on that. Too easy.

Scotch Finger Lemon Butter

June 15, 2017 at 13:09 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Lemons are pretty awesome, when you think about it. They can enhance just about any style of cooking or eating – whether desert, main course or drink. They can lift a roast chicken, give zing to a meringue pie or complete a gin and tonic. Yes, I’m a fan of lemons.

Arnott’s have some form with lemons too. The Lemon Crisp is a god among biscuits. It is transcendent. If you’ve never tried one, go and buy some right now. They are addictive.

Funnily enough, there is a link between the Scotch Finger and the Lemon Crisp. When I reviewed the last ‘Twisted Fave’ Scotch Finger, the one with choc chips in it, I noted at the end of the review that they were good, but ‘nowhere near Lemon Crisp territory’. Did some Arnott’s employee read this, and did this create a subliminal link in their mind between Scotch Fingers and lemons, leading directly to this new variety?

Yes, it did. It surely did. It’s surely thanks to me that we have these biscuits.

And you can thank me effusively, because these are good. I really wasn’t sure how they were going to be; on the surface it seems kind of like an odd combo. But they work brilliantly. The lemon is, well, lemony; the bright flavour adding lifted notes to the rich biscuit. It’s like a rich lemon cheescake. I’m going to give these an eight out of ten. Good show, Arnott’s. Oh, and feel free to send me a few cases by way of thanks for the inspiration…

 

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