Saturday, December 24, 2005

The even newer New World Order

Got my author's copies of the paperback New World Order yesterday, and it rocks.

The cover is everything I've ever wanted in a paperback. Strongly reminiscent of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines et al, it features:
  • an airship
  • an army attacking a
  • burning castle
Could there be a better reason for buying it? The fact that these three elements don't coincide into one scene at any point in the narrative - in fact the castle doesn't burn at all - has nothing to do with anything. Buy it. Now.

Meanwhile, a colleague suggests a reason for those infuriating gaps in Tacitus mentioned previously, and I must confess it's more plausible than my theory of supernatural entities known only as writers intruding into our time/space continuum. Time travellers, it is posited, went back to the Library of Alexandria and withdrew the manuscripts in question. Sadly we haven't yet caught up with whichever bit of the future they went to. But there's hope it may happen in my lifetime.

This is almost certainly the last post before Christmas, so HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The unbearable cuteness of being 3

My (almost) 3-year-old nephew has combined two of the trad elements of the Christmas story, discarded words he doesn't know in favour of similar words that he does, and decided that Baby Jesus was visited by three leopards. Ah-h-h-h.

In other news, I learned last night that the altar of a church somewhere in Germany, near where a friend's family lives, contains a sacred relic of a virgin from Cologne. It's a bone. And straightaway, as if divinely inspired, there came to me:

A certain young maid of Cologne
Was frightened of dying alone
She got to the altar
With scarcely a falter
But just in the form of a bone.

And finally, I'm still reeling slightly from hearing Elaine Paige (Elaine Paige!) singing Greg Lake's (Greg Lake's!) "I Believe in Father Christmas". One of the great Christmas ballads about the lies and disillusion of this most commercial of seasons, reduced to a showtune. Bring on the leopards.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


M'fellow Warrior for the Lord Tweed has set me this challenge, a meaningless list of lists in no particular order:



  1. Explore the lost civilisations of South America
  2. Visit the wreck of the Titanic
  3. Get really good at guitar
  4. Go to Mars
  5. Learn Swedish
  6. Learn to fly a helicopter
  7. Write a successful screenplay


  1. Think of the Daily Mail without contempt
  2. Be remotely interested in soap operas, sport or reality TV
  3. Regard the prospect of an over-crowded, over-loud party where everyone is expected to have a good time with anything other than fear and loathing
  4. Tolerate bad logic and/or science and/or theology and/or writing
  5. Speak Urdu
  6. Enjoy rap
  7. Remember faces


  1. Stupid bloody machine
  2. Exactly
  3. Oi!
  4. Not interested
  5. Your reckon?
  6. Yer what?
  7. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen

...BOOKS I LOVE (my own not included)

  1. I, Claudius
  2. Ender’s Game
  3. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  4. Dune
  5. The Cruel Sea
  6. Jan Guillou’s Templar trilogy (they must be available in one volume ...)
  7. The Sacred Diaries of Adrian Plass / Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal / Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn (ditto)


  1. Alien(s)
  2. The Day the Earth Stood Still
  3. The Iron Giant
  4. The Jungle Book
  5. Master and Commander
  6. North by North West
  7. Once Upon a Time in the West
  8. GalaxyQuest
  9. Forbidden Planet

I know that’s 9, so I’ll deduct two from the next.


  1. Daniel Matthews
  2. Dhon Do
  3. Joel Gilmore
  4. Michael Gilmore
  5. Rico Garron

Your call REALLY IS important to us

Well, I wasn't expecting that. Contents insurance is up for renewal, so I called the company, and got the usual Boolean "If ... Then ..." instructions, plus a quite lengthy litany on what this company is and isn't empowered to do, then a return to the Booleans. Finally I seemed to be through, but of course all operatives were busy, so I settled down to a nice half hour of Brian Eno's greatest hits punctuated by esteem-lowering protestations that my call is important, no, really.

But then, get this, I got the option to enter my phone number and they would call me back. So I did, and they did, and within 10 minutes I was giving my card details to a nice Welsh lady.

Every other company in the entire world with an automated switchboard, please take note.

Unwins RIP

I’ve always tried to give my alcohol-purchasing patronage to the local Unwins when I can. It's a two minute walk from home and I like to support the little man in the War Against Tesco.

The other day I wanted a bottle of wine for Friday evening. The wind was howling and the rain was lashing down, so it seemed a good idea to stop off at Unwins on the way back from work. I could park in the lay-by outside the shop.

This actually meant driving past Unwins on the other side of the road, disappearing into some side streets, taking several right turns and finally turning across the main stream of traffic to put me on the same side of the road as the lay-by. When I got there, I found the lay-by was coned off by road works. So I went home anyway, and walked back through the torrential downpour, and found that their stock consisted of about two bottles of bubbly and that was it. "Try Tesco ..." the lady suggested. So I walked back home and drove to Tesco, dripping quietly in my nice dry car.

All this, I might add, in a Friday evening rush hour, never exceeding an average speed of about 3mph. That bottle took close on an hour to purchase. Less to drink, though.

It’s all dead symbolic, because Unwins has been struggling for a year to keep its head above water. Stock at the local shop has been in steady decline for months; every time I’ve been in there has been less on offer and more effusive promises that a complete revamp by the new owners is just around the corner. Yesterday brought the news that Unwins had gone into administration, with 400+ staff laid off. Today brings the news that the remaining 1400 staff have been laid off and a buyer is being sought for the numerous properties scattered at key, community-friendly locations around the country. A sad day for small business and an even sadder one for the staff.

I’d wish them a Happy Christmas but I’m not sure those are the best words to use. No, I’m wrong, they are. If you know an ex-Unwins employee, or anyone in straitened circumstances, you can wish them a Happy Christmas and really mean the good wishes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Beat the Christmas stress in church

Going to church on Christmas Day isn't a guaranteed remedy to Christmas stress. It's certainly not the only one. But it does help.

The worst thing about Christmas is the sheer inevitable machinery. It's Christmas so we [delete as appropriate] have to eat brussell sprouts / visit the relatives / go to some ghastly fun-enforced party ... and so on. A service on Christmas Day won't solve any of those, but it will help to give a bit of context. Maybe make you feel there's something worth celebrating. It will strip away the modern trappings of Santa et al and get you down to the basics. Listen carefully to the words of the carols and you'll get the whole Christmas message, encapsulated into soundbite form.

You also get some structure to the day, something to work around, and best of all, it's all someone else's problem. For a couple of hours that morning, there is not a single thing you can do to change how the rest of the day will proceed. So put your feet up and let someone else do the work. And for those precious couple of hours, the kids will be physically distanced from presents, food and drink. If you find a church with a good creche, they can be someone else's problem too. For a couple of hours.

Of course, for some people the whole going-to-church thing may be part of the mechanical process. Well, you have to be selective. If the church wants you there then it's the church's job to make itself attractive. So, if your church is cold and uncomfortable and the services are long and boring and incomprehensible, vote with your feet and try another. They don't all have to be like that. Ours isn't ...

Getting the right church may require some reconnaissance beforehand, so why not be well prepared for Christmas 2006 by starting in January?

Monday, December 19, 2005

I can't think of a witty Kong pun

I won’t say too much about King Kong for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it. But I will highly recommend it.

Peter Jackson goes to the source and tweaks it, ever so slightly. His triumph is to bring the settings alive and to add character. Skull Island, even more than Middle Earth, is a place scattered with ruins so old that archaeology has practically become geology – everywhere we see tantalising glimpses of an ancient civilisation, whose descendants now cower in savagery in a barren enclave on the coast. The island is verdant and alive, while they starve out of fear. And the film is more brutally honest about depression-era New York than the original ever was, with shanty towns and soup kitchens at the feet of the nascent skyscrapers.

Jack Driscoll isn’t a hero, he’s a playwright. Ann Darrow is already nine tenths in love with him, sight unseen, because of his writing, in which (yes, really) she discerns qualities that she later also sees in Kong. The two of them both have too much taste to take part in the hideous Kong-o-rama that Denham lays on in New York, yet how they still both end up getting involved makes perfect sense. And Ann Darrow, a woman who can wear only a skimpy satin number on a cold winter’s night in New York and not even goosepimple, makes several unilateral decisions on her own that affect the outcome of the plot. Fay just screamed, as I recall.

Even the supporting characters have life. Carl Denham convincingly shows flashes of a genuinely decent man buried beneath layers of monomania, and I even found a soft spot for the gruff Captain Englehorn, despite my feeling that within the next ten years he’ll be sizing up Allied shipping through the periscope of his U-Boat.

The 1970s Kong is wisely ignored -- though that effort did improve on the original in one respect. In the original, and in this, I couldn't help thinking: how exactly did they transport Kong to New York?

Strangely, though, I thought the film lets itself down with its effects. They are every bit as state of the art, for their time, as the original – but still, like the original, there are moments you’re thinking “Oh, come on”. These usually relate to Kong shaking Ann Darrow like a ragdoll in a way which would snap every bone in her body. Or Ann being so still and rigid in his hands that you suspect it isn’t really her.

But those I could forgive. What I can’t is those scenes where the effects take over and the characters vanish. It’s a sad descent into Van Helsing or Phantom Menace territory – never mind the quality, feel the bandwidth. Digital pixels go mad with digital pixels and you begin to think – so what? Kong has a fight with not one, not two but three dinosaurs ... and he fights ... and he fights ... and he falls down a ravine ... and so do the dinosaurs ... and Ann ... and they fight ... And after a while you really are beginning to fidget and wish something new would happen.

To get the most of Peter Jackson’s Rings films, you need to see the extended editions. Here I felt I had seen the extended edition, and I was wishing I was watching an edited cut. But for all that it is, like the original, a film that gives us so much that lesser film makers will be nibbling off it for years to come.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Caesarion section

So, Pullo and Vorenus continue to tick off items to attend on their I-Spy List of Key Events Surrounding the Fall of the Roman Republic. This week they managed to be present at the conception of Caesar and Cleopatra's child, Caesarion. Titus Pullo -- who is basically Joey from Friends, with the added ability to kill people -- managed to be even closer to the event than Caesar, which is quite a feat.

Meanwhile the fast-forwarding of the writers through history continues: Caesar's year-long siege in Alexandria and the gestation and birth of Caesarion are dealt with in about 30 seconds, much as Pharsalus was last week. I've discovered there is precedent for this in the unlikely form of Tacitus, whose Annals of Imperial Rome I am currently reading. Writing safely in the reign of Hadrian he is able to give a good warts-and-all overview of the early days of the Empire, backing things up with facts and figures and (occasionally tedious) minutiae. Then when he comes to a really good bit -- like the fall of Sejanus, or the entire reign of Caligula -- we just get a dry footnote to say that this portion of the manuscript is lost.

Once, I could forgive. When it happens twice, I start to suspect a conspiracy. It's those writers, I tell you. Their influence is spreading beyond the fictitious metaverse of early Rome. They don't want us to read the official histories. They want us to watch Rome and I, Claudius.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Son of an MP

MPs do have a reputation for increasing the population by means other than the sanctity of the marriage bed. It's probably unfair and grossly exaggerated ... and yet, I'm sure you can name more MPs who have sired sprogs the wrong side of the sheets than you can fellow co-workers.

I had a sudden insight into why this might be when listening to the Today programme report on Charles Kennedy, the sixth Tracy brother, and the treatment he received yesterday in the House. Now the Conservatives have set the trend for changing leaders, it seems certain people are rather hoping the Lib Dems are going to follow it. Or put another way, if CK isn't yet in an IDS situation, they very soon hope he will be even if they have to manufacture it themselves. Anyway -- "Mr Charles Kennedy", intones the Speaker, and the entire august body of honorable members erupts in laughs, jeers and catcalls. It was like a five year old's birthday party, but with less measured debate.

A quick Google tells me that the average age of MPs in 2005 is 51, meaning that most are of an age to have young-to-teenage children. But if that is the kind of behaviour Daddy gets up to, how can you ever hope to be entrusted with the responsibility of raising offspring? If kids look to their parents as exemplars then the children of the present House will be tomorrow's looters and rioters.

As Eric Burdon of The Animals once said, it's very hard to raise a kid when you're best known for singing "It's my life and I'll do what I want." I'd have said he's best known for singing about a Louisiana brothel, but I suppose the end result is the same.

Anyways, it follows that since any kind of responsible family life for an MP is out of the question, the only way to propagate is to inseminate your mistress and let her take the rap for the child rearing. Put that way, being an MP's bit on the side is almost a civic duty, which is surely the only possible explanation for the late Robin Cook's private life.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Faint praise

I have few intellectual pretensions. I was never a great scholar. I had a pretty good education but I never excelled at anything.

My weakest subjects were the sciences, which is maybe why I'm easily impressed by anyone who is good at them. My O-levels got me a C in Biology, a C in Physics at the second try, and an E in Chemistry, which frankly I thought was pretty good.

But I'm still brighter than those morons on Space Cadets.

And these people have votes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Little credit for the taxman

Dear HM Revenue and Customs,

Are we perhaps unfamiliar with the idea of this new-fangled web thingy?

Today's news brings us the sad tale of up to 1,500 staff at the Department for Work and Pensions who have had their identities stolen in a tax fraud. The fraudsters' work was made easier by the fact that, having swiped a few basic details from the hapless DWP folk, all they had to do was enter said details on your website and emigrate to Marbella on the billions that you kindly channelled into their bank accounts. It was made doubly easier by the fact that tax credits don't even have to be paid into the same bank account as the person they are allegedly for.

You have responded by the utterly non-panicky, considered and measured step of completely shutting down the online service, so that now honest people can't even calculate what they might be eligible for.

A spokesman on the news tells us that in fact online applications are subject to a number of tests, but won't go into details for security reasons. Well, quite, we can all see how useful that would be.

It seems your mistake was to assume that the purpose of the web is to give away money. It is not. It is however quite a useful gizmo for sharing information. You will find most banks and building societies offer online mortgage and loan calculators for the convenience of customers, which in no way actually commit said
banks and building societies to hand out dosh. But they do let everyone know where they stand, which is useful.

You will find that the difference between calculating eligibility and automatically assigning money to someone is about one and a half lines of HTML code, or at the worst, maybe Javascript.
If you like, I will be glad to remove these lines for you. My rates are most reasonable. You will then be able to offer a commitment-free calculator service, and everyone except the conmen will be happy.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Quit fauning, Tumnus

Things I learnt from watching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe yesterday:
  • Evil witches have the best style and biggest hair. Said hair can double in volume overnight if battle is looming and we need to look good.
  • In Narnia as elsewhere, you send in your air support first to pave the way for the infantry.
  • Nasty, near fatal gut wounds don't show even the slightest drop of blood.
  • If you fall over in snow wearing nothing but pyjamas and a dressing gown, you don't try to brush it off.
  • Wolves talk like American gangsters. Beavers talk cockney, and look cute in chainmail.
  • You can run from Father Christmas but you can't hide.
And one unanswered question: who were Tumnus's presents for?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Roma ad scribendi

"They have powerful gods," observes Caesar of Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, and their ability to turn up at every single key event in the Roman civil wars. Indeed they do. Entities more powerful even than Capitoline Jove watch over the lives of our heroes. Powerful creatures known only as writers.

The existence of the writers is surely evident to anyone with eyes. Cynics may sneer and point out that in an infinite universe billions of years old then surely any combination of events can occur in an apparently causal manner. But, I ask you: Vorenus and Pullo are stranded on a deserted sandbank in the middle of the Mediterranean. Vorenus, a man who has previously shown no evidence of imagination or scientific insight whatsoever, spots how high a bloated corpse is floating in the water, has a sudden insight about Platonic ether, and in no time at all he and Pullo have lashed together a raft of flotsam and bodies that gets them all the way to Greece and (even more important) tosses them onto the beach right in front of Pompey Magnus. Who can disbelieve after that?

Like the Roman gods, the writers aren't perfect, and they sometimes spend so much attention on one area that they forget about another. There can be no other reason for the non-battle in which Pompey is finally defeated. "Send word to Rome," barks the Man. "The decisive battle takes place today." Cue stirring music and lots of manly strapping on of armour. Then ten seconds of two legionaries fighting in slow-mo, and Caesar's triumphant return to camp. What??

But, as if to make up, the writers did give us some unexpected hot girl-on-girl action back in Rome between Caesar's mistress (raddled trout) and the future wife of Mark Antony and grandmother of Claudius (young teen nymph). If we'd got to read about that in my Latin lessons then I wouldn't have given up the subject when I was 14.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Widdle while you work

Just got back from the Random House Children's Books Christmas party in London: an annual event to commemorate the birth of Christ by packing 200 people with glasses of wine into a couple of rooms and having them conduct conversations by shouting very loudly. Still, it's a pleasant time.

When I went to let some of the wine out before starting home, there were a couple of authors ahead of me who had just got to the washing hands stage, talking to each other about the genres they wrote in, publishing deals, etc. etc. From questions like "so why did you start writing" they obviously hadn't known each other long. Probably not from before entering the washroom. It was also obviously an advanced stage of the conversation -- so advanced that either they had been washing their hands for a very long time, or else had been conducting the conversation and possibly the initial introductions during the earlier stage of the process that gave them something to wash.

Now, I'm all for networking, but there's a time and there's a place ...

Every car should have a story

My first car was a Renault 4. That's like a 2CV, with backbone. One of its more entertaining features was that the engine could keep chugging on at reduced power, sometimes for up to 10 seconds, after you turned it off. Eventually there would a pfft as all the stray gases running around the system blew out a hose that was plugged on just below the air filter. All you had to do was plug it back in again when you wanted the car to start, and you were fine.

My next car was a Ford Escort. Oh, the delight of being able to turn up at KwikFit with a blowing exhaust and have them just take a new one off the shelf! But then this car also developed an idiosyncrasy in that the engine would not restart, if you turned it off and left it for more than about a minute, until it had cooled down for about half an hour or so. On occasions where I had no choice but to turn it off, with a chance of restarting within half an hour, I had to open the hood to let it cool. This was eventually traced to a faulty ignition coil.

The present vehicle was doing fine in the idiosyncrasy stakes until last night when, approahcing 11pm, I tried to turn it on and got -- nothing. Zilch. Not even that whirring turning over noise a car makes when the battery is flat. Nothing. And I was miles from home, and it was raining. Thank the Lord and all his little angels for the AA.

Turned out one of the battery terminals had eroded right off the battery. It was still securely held by the cables that connected to it -- but not to the battery. My Knight of the Road (or is that the RAC?) had never seen anything like it. But he soon put a new battery in and that was fine.

Except that now the electronics need rekeying or something. He warned me this would be the case. The radio and tape player won't work.

Which brings me back to a rant of a few days ago. Modern electronic devices in cars. Why?!?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

You couldn't make it up

Despite being older than the Leader of the Opposition, I am prepared to concede that the boy Cameron may have some ability. Enough to make his lot a decent Opposition party, anyway. I'm not sure I would actually want them in government, but then, I don't particularly want the current lot either. I'm just undecided and vacillating and my views should not be taken seriously by any politician.

Besides, one can make over-confident assertions before all the facts are in. I have a newspaper cutting which I found behind the mirror of my wardrobe -- you really couldn't make this kind of thing up; can you imagine a plot device like that being taken seriously in a story? -- from, I think, the Daily Express of 1925. One of the stories, "Sir T. Beecham as Politician", tells how the previous night Sir Thomas Beecham had made a speech at Queen's Hall. He was angry about the Locarno Pact (which is how I know this was 1925, possibly early 1926) and also about Mr Stanley Baldwin's appointment in 1924 of a new Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Baldwin came to power, he said, with "a considerable wealth of youthful talent, enthusiastic talent burning to work." He goes on: "Whom did he take? The despised and rejected of another political party ... [Ben tantalisingly cuts the name of the individual] ... I regarded his appointment as one of the tragic circumstances of English politics."

Sadly, he was right in that the gent in question was a rubbish Chancellor ... but I believe he enjoyed some success in the next job up the greasy pole a few years later. And the name of the gent was, of course, Mr Winston S. Churchill.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Dawkins' God

Well, I finished it and I would recommend it to anyone. Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, by Alistair McGrath, ISBN 1-4051-2538-1.

What's immediately refreshing is that McGrath is also less than favourable towards a couple of unconvincing Christian arguments in favour of God -- the "mad, bad or God" argument (sadly, a staple of the otherwise pretty good Alpha Course), and Paley's Watch, which apparently had already come under heavy criticism from theologians like John Henry Newman before Darwin.

That's because, quite simply, McGrath is a scientist as well as a theologican, and has much more regard for logic than, apparently, Mr D himself. Time and time again he takes Dawkins' arguments and shows in simple terms how they just do not add up. Let no one doubt Dawkins' excellence at describing evolution, but please, let no one take seriously his own blind leaps of faith, from that to "therefore religion is all rubbish."

There is no doubt that Darwin, evolution et al is completely incompatible with the waffle of the creationist brigade -- but then McGrath, unlike Dawkins but like most Christians I know, is entirely aware of the faults in their own stance as well. McGrath knows Christians. He gets Christians. And he shows just how wrong, pure and simple, wrong is Dawkins' view of us.

Read the book -- he says it all so much better than I could. But I will just mention his excellent treatment of the argument that goes roughly: religion has caused untold harm, therefore it is bad, while science is pure and rational and enlightened and therefore good. Both have caused good, both have caused bad. If Dawkins was right then the officially atheist Soviet Union really should have been the Earthly paradise that its propaganda claimed -- yet it gave the world the gulag and, because bad science (Lysenko) was more ideologically acceptable than good science, millions starved in a famine that could easily have been avoided. Yet Dawkins doesn't cite this as a good reason to abandon all science -- because, of course, it isn't, any more than the Inquisition is a good reason to give up on faith.

It would no doubt surprise Dawkins, in the unlikely event of his ever hearing of me and/or caring what I thought, to learn that if I want to find out more about the world in which we live, I will choose science every time. And if the findings of that science seem to say that my understanding of some matter of religion is wrong, then I will (I hope, happily) change my understanding of religion. Human understanding, in science and everything else, is all over the place, but the facts remain true.

Creeping age

When I woke up this morning I was already older than Dr Who, James Bond, JK Rowling and our vicar. I'm now older than the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Poo.

Christ 1, Artemis 0

Thoughts occasioned upon today's Daily Bread reading ...

Acts 19: 23-41 tells the sad tale of a riot stirred up in Ephesus against St Paul by the silversmiths who made souvenir idols of the goddess Artemis (or Diana). And presumably other gift shop tat -- you know, tea towels, Clarecraft models of the temple, erasers with a picture of the goddess, tasteful stuff like that. The concern of the rioters was that this new Christian message would lead to a decline in Artemisism, "the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited, and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty."

Fast forward 2000 years to Buckfast Abbey, Devon, where one of the sidechapels is paved with marble taken from the ruins of the great temple at Ephesus.

Altogether now: "o-one nil, o-one nil, one nil, one nil ..."

Monday, December 05, 2005

Why Myrtle moans

The first two Potter films were a good way to kill a couple of hours but, frankly, unnecessary -- they were just picture books of the stories that Rowling told so much better in print. The third film made a valiant effort to be a better film, with a redesigned Hogwarts and a greater use of imagery and mood. Unfortunately its rejiggery of the story led to a few key omissions that made the actions of the characters unintelligible if you didn't already know them.

But the fourth film ... ah, the fourth film gets it right. It's the first Potter flick I can honestly recommend. The closing scenes of Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire are pivotal to the entire series -- the point at which both Harry and the story come of age, the point of no return. If the film didn't get them right then the previous 2 hours would have just been a waste of space. And the film gets them exactly right.

This was the first book where everyone was saying that someone died. I remember getting to that point and thinking, "is that it??" I couldn't even remember who the victim in question was from previous books. But it grew on me -- even if he was just a supporting character, I found that the casual brutality of Voldemort said more about sheer evil than any kind of speechifying. Death leaves raw bleeding gashes in people's lives -- which is what Rowling was trying to show, and which is what the film does so well too. It also helps that young Radcliffe really is quite a good actor. This is the most emotion he's had to show yet and he does it well.

I'm also certain that no one, four years ago, would have expected a scene of Moaning Myrtle lap dancing Harry in the bath ... And did anyone else spot a slight inconsistency in that Harry valiantly tries to conceal his modesty with bubbles, but at one point they both duck under the surface where presumably everything on offer is on view?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ow ow ow pain ow

And ugh, solpadeine tastes foul.

Somehow, driving home last night around 10.45, I managed to pull something in my neck. Or push it. Whatever -- I can no longer turn my head more than a fraction of a degree to the right without pain. In fact, having it slightly to the left is the most comfortable position.

Still, after a restless night it gave me the opportunity for a little DIY sensory deprivation. A good hot bath, with all but my face submerged so that the warmth could reach the afflicted area. Having your ears underwater is just weird. Every glug and gurgle of your internal system -- and there's a lot of them, before breakfast -- is magnified out of proportion. Even the ones you can't actually feel happen. Strange whoops and howls and rattles trail off into the distance, like the cries of the night wildlife in a low budget drama set in Africa or some exotic far off planet. And at one point there was a distinct knocking, like the little man who lives under my bath was rapping on the ceiling and asking me to keep the noise down. Then I remembered I don't as far as I know have a little man who lives under my bath and I put it down to sleep deprived hallucination.

This happens just as the mouth ulcer that was bugging me for most of last week -- at the corner of my lips on the left, just where the canines meet -- goes down. How easily we take for granted a body without pain ...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The road goes ever on

Not far from the office there is a small, potholed little road that doesn't even classify as a B, called Milton Hill. The main road, the A4130, takes you down the eponymous hill to the A34 and the Milton interchange. Milton Hill (the road) turns east off the main road, then takes you down the hill, parallel to the A4130, to a modern housing estate called Milton Heights. I've never quite been sure why Milton Heights is there. It seems to be an attempt by Didcot to plant a colony to the west of the A34, a bit like Europeans planted small towns in North America as a basis for claiming the entire continent for their king/queen/Pope.

But I digress. Half a mile away, the other side of the A34, is the village of Milton. You would never think to connect the rutty little not-B-road and Milton High Street, still not exactly the Appian Way but much better looked after and an important access route to the industrial powerhouse of Milton Park.

But get this. I was looking at an old, early 1900s map of Oxfordshire, and Milton Hill and Milton High Street are actually the same road. In the old days, to get up Milton Hill, that was the route you took. Then some clown built the mighty A34 and the entire middle section of the road was replaced by the grandeur that is the Milton interchange.

But it takes a lot to kill a road. It has been reduced to two unconnected stubs, but it's way older than the A34 and I have no doubt will outlast it. Perhaps our civilisation must fall and a new one arise, but I am sure that road will one day be connected again, a vital arterial route in the heart of Oxfordshire, and generations as yet unborn will be heading up and down Milton Hill, perhaps looking (if they have time) at the sad remains of the A34 and wondering at the people who built it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Power to the Vectra

A few weeks ago I became aware of a strange noise my car was making as it went round corners. Just a loud whir that you couldn't hear over the music. In very short order, the whir came a grinding drone and the drone became a constant background noise from the moment you turned the engine on.

It was swiftly diagnosed by the fine folk of Bellingers as air in the power steering mechanism. A new pipe, a refill, a couple of hundred quid on the Mastercard and that was that.

Except that it's started again, and the car's return trip to Bellingers is now booked in for tomorrow.

Power steering is all very well but I've driven estate cars before that didn't have it, and suffered no grievous harm. They still went round corners. Twentieth century society got by for decades without it. Okay, their cars knocked a whopping great hole in the ozone layer, but they could still steer. And in the good old days of horse drawn carts, if a horse made a funny grinding noise as it went round corners then that was the next season's dog meat bill taken care of.

Why exactly do we have power steering?

(And thinks: if I can get the garage to certify the likely cause of this leak was transporting four teenage males to Banbury and back for paintballing, can I bill the church?)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Allegedly transvestite sportsman RIP

I'm indebted to m'former learned colleague Justin Ruffles for putting the death of George Best into some kind of perspective. And Mr Ruffles, I should point out, is quite the fan of the game. Meanwhile m'other former learned colleague Joella asks a pertinent question about liver no. 2.

I think the only significance for me is that George Best was (indirectly) my introduction to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- faint praise at best -- and the first footballer whose name I knew. I knew there was this thing called football and things called teams that people supported. Oh, and boys at school who wore strange pullover shirts with coloured patterns on them. Bit by bit it all fell into place. And from somewhere I learned that the greatest of all these footballers was called George Best. I clung onto that bit of trivia and milked it for every ounce -- and we are talking ounces -- of street cred I could wring out of it, the same way I officially supported Chelsea because (again) they were the first team name that I learned, only this time we're talking about street cred by the microgram. Until finally I just gave up and decided I was the only one in step by not being remotely interested in the bloody game, an attitude I retain to this day. Nowadays I even have to have Chelsea pointed out to me.

One thing I will concede for our celebrity footballers is that their talent is genuine. Frankly, anyone with a figure you could stick a pin through and a so-so voice could be a Spice Girl, while being able to Bend It Like Beckham is not something you can fake.

Meanwhile I leave you with a little ditty based upon a football chant of my youth:

Georgie Best
What a prat
Killed himself by boozing
And now that is that

Fun facts about porcupines

All I knew about porcupines before today was that they are spiky and King Solomon had a lot of them. Thanks to Wikipedia I now know a lot more.

You know the old joke -- how do porcupines make love? Turns out the traditional answer (very carefully) is incorrect. Instead, male porcupines urinate on the female to soften the spines. I would prefer to say it with chocolates and roses, but may consider this method in extremis.

Wikipedia also tells me "Fishers sometimes successfully attack porcupines by biting their faces." My boss is often found on the river bank in his spare time and this makes me see him in an entirely new light.

And finally, there are Old World porcupines (which presumably Solomon had) and New World porcupines, which spend most of their time in trees. The Old World ones separated from the hystricognaths about 30 million years ago, presumably because they couldn't pronounce hystricognaths. I mean, they're rodents, and those enlarged front teeth must be the devil. When the New World porcupines separated from the hystricognaths isn't recorded. Possibly they took to the trees when the hystricognaths came looking.

So there you are -- some fun facts and a revised punchline to an old joke. Your lunch time is complete.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

CO2 powered weapons are no match for the power of the Force

Sad and geeky, I know. What can I say? The boys made me do it.

Anyway, the snow held off, we paintballed and we paintballed good. I wore my trusty leather jacket beneath the camo and it worked for the couple of shots I received to the upper body area. Most of the shots I got were straight in the face and splatted on the visor, which is strangely pleasing in a macho sort of way.

- Siward: Had he his hurts before?
- Ross: Ay, on the front.
- Siward: Why then, God's soldier be he!
(Macbeth, Act V, Scene VII)

Embarrassingly I was first to be shot in the first game. Even more embarrassingly, it was a lower body shot from a range of about 10 feet, through just two layers of clothing, and it hit about an inch away from denying the future Mrs Ben any lasting marital satisfaction. I now have what looks like a hickey on my inner thigh, which should serve as a conversation starter if it looks like talk is hitting a lull.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Roma et Augustus vivat

Rome was a highly civilised place with carefully defined rights and laws for different kinds of people that made the republic a quite bearable place to be for 400 years. If you weren't a slave, and very often if you were. That's twice as long as the American republic has so far managed, and it had slavery for all of that time. Go figure. Of course, I wouldn't want to go and live in the Rome of 2000 years ago now, but if a freak wormhole event took me back to that time, there could be worse places.

Those laws weren't much good if a future Emperor and his thuggish bodyguard decided to torture and murder you in a sewer for sleeping with thuggish bodyguard's best friend's wife, but those are the breaks.

Yes, I watched Rome last night. And have every episode so far. And will doubtless continue. It's fun.

Young Octavian is the star of the show and also a prime example of why we shouldn't take it too seriously. The real item's mother was an exemplar of Roman matronly virtue and he was never referred to as Octavian in his lifetime -- he was Octavius, after his father, until later historians decided otherwise. But at least this way we all get to know who he is.

He's played by a teen actor called Max Pirkis, who was the one-armed midshipman in Master & Commander, now a few inches taller and deeper voiced. He was the moral heart of that film; here he is the centre of gravity. As he grows, so will events come to centre more and more about him. Uncle Julius will bring down the republic, but it will take Octavian, as the Emperor Augustus, to perpetuate the mighty empire we've all come to love. Meanwhile, like Octavian, we take a seat and watch events unfurl about him. Last night was a leap forward, as for the first time we see him leaving the maternal home, doing things on his own initiative, and being a right ruthless machiavellian little brute while he's about it. One day he will have to stand up to Mark Antony, 20 years his senior. I can already believe he will do that.

Octavian was 18 when Caesar died; he had to march to Rome to claim his inheritance, knowing that he would either end up as boss, or dead. And modern teenagers worry about spots and GCSEs. That's the great triumph of Rome. It gives us recogniseable human beings with recogniseable human nature that we can relate to, and it makes them as alien as creatures from another world.

(Caesar's name became the title for future Emperors and gives as words like Kaiser and Tsar. What would it have been like if Pompey had won? And what would Portsmouth now call themselves?)

Caesar himself is played brilliantly by Ciaran Hinds, though the actor playing his slave Posca may have been a better choice as the real JC was similarly challenged in the follicle department. My only hangup is that his slightly dry voice and his way of looking at you askance make me think of Peter Cook. Specifically, Peter Cook playing Richard III in The Black Adder. Nowhere was this more evident than a couple of weeks ago with Caesar making grand speeches to rouse the hearts of his men. "Let Pompey's genitals be hung upon a tree in Rutland!" As Caesar probably didn't say, but probably should have.

Accountancy for bankers 101

That last mini-rant about the Jobcentre seems to have opened up a seam of unarticulated resentment, but that's what blogs are for, eh?

So here's a story about the time I took a pile of coins into NatWest in the hope they could change them for something of equal value but more portable. Like, a banknote. First question: are you a customer? Well, no, but I don't want to do anything involving bank accounts, just change some cash for some more cash ...

We can't do that unless you're a customer.

We could have passed my pile of coin of the realm, legal tender in any part of the UK, back and forth about five times in the time it took to explain. I expect the explanation alone cost them a lot more than the effort of changing coins for a note. But here's the gist of it. These guardians of the nation's currency are convinced it costs them money to open a drawer, take some money out and put some back in.

They are of course incorrect, so for the benefit of any bankers reading, let me make it simple.

Janet has five one pound coins. See Janet's coins:

£1 £1 £1 £1 £1
= £5 total

John has a five pound note. See John's note:

= £5 total

Janet gives her coins to John. John gives his note to Janet. Now see John's coins:

£1 £1 £1 £1 £1
= £5 total

Now see Janet's note:

= £5 total

Can you see that neither of them has lost or gained anything by this transaction?

Janet can.

John can.

Can you?

Your call is important to us

This is sheer spite on my part but there's a certain thrill in hearing the shortcomings of Jobcentre Plus being exposed on national news this morning. In this case it's their computerised calling centre. In my case it was the rules concerning the self-employed. In both cases it's skilled, helpful people doing a job that many saints would turn down as too stressful, being let down by the crap they are expected to work with.

My company went under, I was reduced to 15 freelance hours per week at £13/hour. Not really enough for any more than scraping by, especially when you have a mortgage and loan to pay off. But said mortgage and loan were insured, so that if I hit hard times, payments could continue. All I needed was to get a monthly certificate signed for each by the Jobcentre, to say that I was claiming ...

I already knew that because I had at least 10p in my pocket there was no earthly way I was actually going to get any money out of HMG in return for my diligently paid taxes and national insurance. Absurd idea! But at least I could claim, and the Jobcentre could say I was claiming, and they would sign my bits of paper and that would be the mortgage and loan taken care of for another month. Right?

First obstacle was that I was due to go abroad on a scheduled, paid-for trip while my initial claim was being processed. If I did that, I was warned, the claim would be cancelled and I would have to reclaim once I got back. This is apparently a measure taken in light of all those people who fleece the state for thousands of pounds and go off to live the high life in Benidorm. God knows how they do it. So I'll let you into a little secret. I didn't tell them I had gone abroad. They are welcome to sue me for every penny they didn't pay.

For the first couple of months (while the claim was being processed) it worked -- I signed on, got my bits of paper signed, and in the meantime (I really should add) was genuinely looking for work. Then my claim got processed and came back as refused, because I worked more than 15 hours a week, so was ineligible to claim anything.

3 hours a day, 5 days a week somehow worked out at more than 15 hours. "Maybe it averages out at more than 15 ..." someone said vaguely, using an obscure form of calculus in which the average is able to be more than the total. And oh, the fun and joy I had from that, trying to get a real live human being to explain it to me. To do that, they had to squeeze an answer out of the computer themselves, which is easier said than done. But eventually someone managed and explained it in words of one syllable, which is what was needed. You see, this freelance work meant I was self-em-ploy-ed. And if you're self-em-ploy-ed then the time you take tra-vell-ing to and from work is ad-ded to the time you spend work-ing. In my case this was an hour's travel every day. So, 20 hours per week! How dared I even show my face at the Jobcentre door?

I could go on -- like, the way their most useful suggestion, visit Connexions which was just down the street (and isn't just for teenagers, though I had always assumed it was) -- came after six months, when it should have been suggested on Day 1. But I won't. That was the personal failing of one individual; my larger problems stemmed from the fact that they have to work with one of the sillier laws on the UK statute books, designed purely to keep the claims figures down and not actually help anyone. It's not their fault.

Connexions, by the way, were marvellous and their service included an in-depth critique of how my CV was all wrong. So I redesigned it and within a month I had my present job. Which I got by filling out the standard company application form. No CV needed. Poo.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow but only after Saturday please

When it hails so hard you can hear it over the headphones, you know it's hailing with attitude. Checked the BBC web site for weather and saw that no snow is forecast -- forgot to check for hail. The reason it's all of such interest is I'm taking a group of teenagers paintballing in Banbury on Saturday, which is great fun but a notoriously outdoor sport.

I have my old leather jacket, which is both warm and as kevlar where paintballs are concerned. Found a drawback to this at the last paintballing session in July, when I got so warm my visor steamed up and even the good old scuba trick -- gob in it -- didn't work. Only solution was to remove jacket and expose my delicate torso to the possibility of bruising. Fortunately everyone else was fogging up too, so if you got hit it was just bad luck more than malice. But looking at the forecasts, I don't see overheating being a problem this time.

Still, after Saturday I have no outdoor pursuits planned other than the usual this side of Christmas. So if the snow can just hold off for 48 hours, that would be great. Actually, if it can make 49 hours, that should cover the return trip too.

The Doubting Meme

Always such a thrill to start a new book and find that you're enjoying it straight off. My new read, begun last night, is Alistair McGrath's Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life. It's well written and it's exactly the kind of book the world needs -- someone with a similar intellect and scientific background to Dawkins who can respond meaningfully to some of his, let's say, more simplistic or downright inaccurate warblings.

I have a huge respect for Dawkins based on the books I've read - The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. His account of the sheer science involved in evolution cannot be bettered, and whenever I've devised an alien race in my head I've always had one eye mentally on Mr D so that, in my own head, I can account for how this race came to be. But I have always been frustrated by his evident conviction that the leap he makes from these facts to a QED denial of the existence of God has some form of logical basis -- mostly because whatever he holds up as "Christianity" bears so little resemblance to the Christianity I know.

I'm sure he's not making it up -- I suspect his notion of Christianity is genuine within his own head and is based on the dead, moribund type taught in his youth by a complacent Church of England. It just seems sad that, having rightly rejected that, he doesn't bother to look a little further and see what else might be on offer. It's like rejecting the whole rich field of science fiction because of a particularly bad episode of Trek. But of course, to do that you would have to want to do that, which he clearly doesn't. My suspicion is that those who want to be atheists will be; those who don't, won't. Atheists often have good reason, up to a point, rejecting religion for very Christian reasons -- disgust at hypocrisy, rejection of pointless ritual, wanting to live in the present rather than the past. But that only works up to a certain point because for every bad example of Christians there are many more good ones out there. The only really honest reason for being an atheist is to say "I just don't believe it."

An example in point. In one of the above mentioned titles -- and I have to confess I forget which -- Dawkins says that the church condemns Doubting Thomas for, well, doubting, when in fact he was asking perfectly valid questions. Well, maybe, but not any church I've been to recently, where questions are positively encouraged on the basis that the truth of God will withstand any kind of scrutiny. Again, perhaps the church of Dawkins' childhood was like that. It was an unviable meme which lost out against the much more viable meme of honest questioning. Someone should tell him, but I doubt he would listen.

Sadly such memes are still alive and well in other areas of the church, leading to the intellectual anaesthesia of creation science etc etc etc. Rather than just say "I believe ..." they have to contrive reasons where none exist for believing. Which is kind of sad.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Falling averages

There comes that moment in your relationship with any new computer when you lose a game of Freecell. No matter how well you do after that, your average will never again be 100%. Damn damn damn damn damn.

Same sort of thing today. Last week, the first postage-paid customer satisfaction postcard to be returned from our latest mailing gave the document in question 5/5. It gets no better than that. But a postcard received today for the same document merely gave it 4/5. One of the 1800 people to whom it was mailed thinks it's only quite good. The swine.

Silly conversation of the day: a suggestion from a colleague that skyscrapers be built on hydraulic jacks, so that when a rival building beats it in height, yours can simply be jacked up a few further feet. In the same way, if a hijacked aircraft is detected in its vicinity, you let the jacks down and the aircraft misses. Same principle as Marineville, where the entire building was lowered into a bunker whenever battlestations sounded -- like all the best Gerry Anderson, a tad over-engineered. It would be a lot easier to just have the headquarters in a bunker -- unless (my hypothesis), due to planning restrictions, Marineville had to keep the same skyline as whatever earlier building it replaced, so they had to do it that way.

Sudden flashback by way of subject of terrorism to one of the more annoying times I've been badly edited. I used to write a monthly column intended to contrive humour from the content of various websites, usually where no humour was intended. One such website displayed results of a scientific survey showing that with the decline of air travel immediately following 9/11, even for a few days, the amount of vapour in the atmosphere from aircraft exhaust dropped noticeably. Important stuff, but because it was meant to be humorous I finished with what I thought a suitably flippant punchline. See if you can spot the subtle difference between what I wrote:

"Osama Bin Laden isn't usually credited as an eco-warrior, but maybe the beard should have been a clue."

- and their edited version:

"You have to wonder who can make scientific capital out of a tragedy like that."

My but aren't we righteous?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Charity Channel

Guess who's visiting the canteen this week? Here's a clue on the right.

All part of Children in Need. Apparently there'll be a Dalek turning up on Friday which you can pet in return for a donation. I doubt I'll partake of the offer. I already have a photo of me with a Dalek, and a Cyberman (see top of page), and I have Tom Baker's autograph. Twice. So I feel no further need to prove my sad fanboy credentials.

CiN is a worthy cause and I will probably donate. But honestly, is it any worthier than ... let's see ... cancer research deaf people blind people starving people paraplegic people thalidomide victims forces veterans diseased donkeys? Actually, it is worthier than diseased donkeys but then so are the rest. And where is all the media hoo-hah about them?

What we need is a Charity Channel -- non-stop wall to wall 24/7 endless charity broadcasts for those who like this sort of thing. They could still be the slick polished multimedia telethons that we know and love from CiN and Comic Relief -- but they wouldn't forcibly take up an evening's viewing and no one who didn't want to would cringe at the sight of worthies like Andrew Marr and Michael Buerk trying to be hip and with it. I mean, Michael Buerk! -- the man whose reporting of the Ethiopian famine inspired Band Aid, who was expelled from South Africa for his anti-apartheid reporting ... It breaks your heart.

The Charity Channel would be a bit like having a dedicated channel for TV sport -- those who want to suffer, I mean watch, can and the rest of us can get on with our lives, giving money where it seems like a good idea. And by the way, does anyone else share my suspicion that a charity which blows its funds on pens and free keyrings may have its priorities wrong?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I bet he's never even been to Liverpool

Apparently the new line-up for "Help, My Career's at a Dead End and I have Insufficient Native Talent to Resurrect It" has been announced. Annoyingly, I've actually heard of some of the people and even have to admit some of them may have a smidgin of native talent etc. Unlike most if not all previous contestants -- the ones I've heard of, anyway -- it might actually be quite interesting to talk to some of them. Jimmy Osmond, world's most famous teeny Mormon? I'm sure we could chat for hours.

Still no intention of watching the show, though. The embargo continues on anything with "Celebrity" in the title, at least until we get Celebrity Execution, Celebrity Autopsy and Celebrity Stargate: SG-1.

The English language badly needs a word that means what Celebrity used to.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Hatless Ones

Very exciting - first post to my first blog.

For absolutely no reason I can think of I have been renewing my acquaintance with Men Without Hats, Canadian masters of bilingual synth-pop from the early 1980s. The wonders of downloading music, I tell you. Consider this from the track "I got the message" on their album "Rhythm of Youth":
I got the message and the message is proof
There really is a thing they call the rhythm of youth
It will pick you up and it will make you wiggle this way
Et c'est facile a dire and it's easy to say.
For you, maybe. But strangely the song goes on:
They got a thing they call the rhythm of life
It says to settle down and get a dog and a wife
And everybody's doing it all over the land
Oh oui je ne comprends pas, yes I don't understand.
And why should you? Surely the two notions are incompatible: rhythm of youth and rhythm of life, yet the song clearly equates the two. The way both excerpts are sung at exactly the same tempo and with exactly the same emphasis shows that they are clearly part and parcel of the same bigger picture. MWH are making a searing statement about the universality of the life experience, or possibly, what happens to your mind if it snows too much during a Canadian winter and you don't go outside for months.

Note also the utility of bilingualism. Who needs to fill in with nonsense words to make a line scan or to force a rhyme when you can just drop into another language? Men Without Hats, we salute you.