Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hugos there

For no other reason than that I've seen several other bloggers do this; for public information; and for the education and enlightenment of those who look to me for the same:

The complete list of Hugo Award-winning best novels to date, with the ones I've read marked in bold.
  • 2005, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  • 2004, Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • 2003, Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer
  • 2002, American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • 2001, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling (see what happens if you let fanboys vote?)
  • 2000, A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge
  • 1999, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
  • 1998, Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman
  • 1997, Blue Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • 1996, The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson
  • 1995, Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • 1994, Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • 1993, Doomsday Book, Connie Willis
  • 1993, A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
  • 1992, Barrayar, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • 1991, The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • 1990, Hyperion, Dan Simmons
  • 1989, Cyteen, C. J. Cherryh
  • 1988, The Uplift War, David Brin
  • 1987, Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card
  • 1986, Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
  • 1985, Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • 1984, Startide Rising, David Brin
  • 1983, Foundation's Edge, Isaac Asimov (unfortunately)
  • 1982, Downbelow Station, C. J. Cherryh (I think)
  • 1981, The Snow Queen, Joan D. Vinge
  • 1980, The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1979, Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre (another I think)
  • 1978, Gateway, Frederik Pohl
  • 1977, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm
  • 1976, The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  • 1975, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • 1974, Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1973, The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov
  • 1972, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer
  • 1971, Ringworld, Larry Niven
  • 1970, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • 1969, Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
  • 1968, Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
  • 1967, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein (sorta - gave up halfway through, if that)
  • 1966, Dune, Frank Herbert
  • 1966, "...And Call Me Conrad" (This Immortal), Roger Zelazny
  • 1965, The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber
  • 1964, "Here Gather the Stars" (Way Station), Clifford D. Simak
  • 1963, The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  • 1962, Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1961, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M., Miller Jr
  • 1960, Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1959, A Case of Conscience, James Blish
  • 1958, The Big Time, Fritz Leiber
  • 1956, Double Star, Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1955, They'd Rather Be Right (The Forever Machine), Mark Clifton & Frank Riley
  • 1953, The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester

Actually, that's a quite respectable turn-out. And many I still have. I'll carefully not rate them by enjoyability: even suggesting that 'Foundation's Edge' wasn't great could get me blacklisted in some quarters.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Pizza Stopping Service

Just tried to book a table at Pizza Express.

"Yeah, if I can make the pen work ... Hang on ..." [Muffled, to someone else at other end.] "I can't make this work ..." [Back to me] "Can you call back? I don't have a pen that works."

NOT hugely impressed.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Weekend ramblings

By the standards of some of my friends, this isn't a book collection. This is a sample, and not a particularly representative one either. But this is my SF collection, post pruning* and proudly installed on its new shelves. Just. The ones lying flat at the ends are surplus copies of The Xenocide Mission and The New World Order.

[*I had to be ruthless. Was I likely to read it again? Was it a classic? Would Best Beloved want to read it? Should the Boy want to read it? If it couldn't score a yes in at least one of the above, out it went.]

So, my books have a home at last: not just these, but the non-SF titles, the reference library etc, all safely ensconced. Just a small little tweak but suddenly this flat became much more like a normal home again over the weekend.

Meanwhile, as OneTel efficiently disconnected Best Beloved's phone a week before they were meant to, the Boy decided he no longer had any reason at all to keep his computer at home, so it has moved in here, a week ahead of the rest of the furniture. And been linked to this computer via a wireless network. Which, thanks to a passing Teenage Whiz Kid, has been encrypted. Now, I know I work for a company that by the end of this year will have launched a nationwide 10 Gbit/s fibre optic multiplexing bandwidth channelled network that links the nation's universities, research councils, schools etc ... but I'm still impressed, mostly because I set up the wireless bit. We're making progress.

An interesting discovery was that a book in my reference library has a photo of the grave of Teenage Whiz Kid's great great uncle. This was a man called Herbert Cave, who was a steward on the Titanic and died when the ship went down. He's buried in Halifax. On his body was found a list of the first class cabins and their passengers. This is the only known record of which passengers went where, which was very useful for James Cameron on his Titanic dives and other researchers.

TWK decided to show off by finding a proxy server in Australia that could generate a hit on my web site. He was a little deflated to find that there were three other hits from Aus too, presumably genuine. (Did I mention I'm finally on Google Analytics, six months after applying?) His next challenge is to get me a hit from Antarctica. Watch this space.

Alfred of Abingdon

Not everything gastronomic in this household is an unqualified success, though the odds are improved when the cook doesn't leave the naan bread unattended to demonstrate proudly to his elders that he's got a spark out of the gas lighter.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Sorting my life out

Ever since February, when the Magician Electrician rudely demanded access to the floorboards beneath where my books were stored - and then to the floorboards beneath the place to which I had thoughtfully moved them in advance - my book collection has been shunted from pillar to post around the flat. Recently it suffered the final indignity of having about 300 titles weeded out of it as I face up to the realisation there's not enough room for them plus three humans here.

This is what's left ... of the science fiction. Sorted, as you can see, on the Boy's bedroom floor into alphabetical order by author. Now to be sorted into alphabetical order within author name and put on their new, final home - the shelves that went up in the living room last week.

Then the remaining books - about the same number again - are to be sorted into fiction, non-fiction, reference, comic, religion etc and have the same treatment. All ultimately to be blended with Best Beloved's own collection, of course.

Obsessive? Me?

Thursday, June 22, 2006


For lunch at the end of my first week working in Oxford, I was taken to the Fox Inn on Boars Hill. A week beforehand, on my last day working in London, I had been sitting at my desk looking through a street grimed window at the traffic ten feet away, queuing at the lights at the top of Pentonville Road. My desk vibrated with the engines of the big puff-wagons. Now I was looking out across the Vale of the White Horse on a lovely sunny day.

The Fox has been special to me ever since.

So it was good to be there last night with friends David and Tom. The garden has been improved since my initiation; decking has been installed to take the edge off the sharp slope and tall trees surround it, buffeting in the wind but not letting much through (though it was still bloody cold). We could chat and catch up and be astonished at the annual miracle of being able to see each other clearly at 10 o'clock in the evening.

Happy solstice!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

If it hurts, take drugs

I have a bite on my foot, about an inch back from the big toe, right over the bone. Two Sundays ago I was wearing sandals and walking over recently cut grass; when my foot started to itch beneath a sandal strap I assumed a blade of grass had got inside and the end had dug in. When I had a chance to inspect it, there was a perfectly round little red mound, and a perfectly round blob of blood on top of it. Probably not grass, I thought.

Some little six legged brute must have got in and taken the chance to inject its poison into my metatarsals because it's spread. There is now a mound the size of a typical mosquito bite; a bruised area around it, about the size of a 10p piece, covered by a thin ridge of hardened skin; and a reddened area beyond that, about the size of a 50p piece. Photos can be provided if enough people ask.

You can tell this is serious, because last night I put the American Cream on it.

The American Cream, according to the tube, is Hydrocortisone Cream USP 0.5%. I like American pharmaceuticals. I like the way it doesn't try to sweettalk you into buying New Improved HealySkin(tm) Lotion. It's quite open about the fact that you are about to rub chemicals into your epidermis. A couple of years ago I was in Boston for Worldcon, and I slightly overdid the exploring, History Trail etc., on foot, on a warm, humid day. I got a small but very intense heat rash, so I went into a chemist on Huntingdon Avenue, near the YMCA where I was staying. I bought the American Cream, applied it, and the rash was gone the next day.

Since then the cream has been carefully preserved, and only brought out for really serious occasions.

Likewise the American Pills that I bought at the same establishment, when I pulled my back. These do have a name - Aleve. Small, blue tablets (hmm ...) in a little triangular plastic bottle that take your pain, screw it up into a little ball and toss it away with contempt. Also for serious occasions. For normal aches and pains I just make do with Tesco brand paracetemol.

And the American Earplugs. I bought these on a whim, unlike the other items, but I had perceived the need because the Y wasn't air conditioned, I had to sleep with the window open, and the room backed onto the air conditioning equipment of a big building belonging to Northeastern University. I've used earplugs before but those were just little foam plugs that simply don't work. These, though, are little waxy balls that stop up your ear hermetically. Nothing gets in or out. Perfect for sleeping in the Y; also perfect for sleeping on the flight back, for recent summery mornings when the bloody birds start cheeping at 5a.m. right outside your window, and for when my former neighbour from hell, the double glazing salesman, was screaming his idiosyncratic terms of endearment ("you f---ing c--t, you f---ing f---ing c--t") at his partner at 3 in the morning.

I was, possibly, a little rude about Americans a couple of days ago. So let me apologise, and just say there are many more plus points to the US of A.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Saturday's Dr Who managed to straddle two time zones which, like the fate of the monster, pulled it apart into an incoherent mess.

Half of it was set in the here and now, the post-modern era of smart, intelligent Dr Who that has been with us since Christopher Ecclestone blew up the department store last year. A touching and well acted story about loneliness and friendship - about a sense of community and human worth evolving from a handful of very different people thrown together by circumstance. Really quite charming.

The other half was set twenty years ago, as the original series assumed the vertical position immediately prior to its final nosedive into the depths. We had a monster that was quite clearly a man in a rubber suit, played by a man in a rubber suit, with no effort on the part of the actor or the producers to disguise the fact that it was a man in a rubber suit, or the identity of said man, and (the cardinal sin) not even trying to take it seriously. Dr Who can be pretty preposterous at times. Everyone knows that. But even at the heights of zaniness it has kept one foot on the ground. The evil that the Doctor has always fought has always been evil. It has torn innocent lives apart. Stopping it has been a moral imperative, and the Doctor has known it.

By playing it for laughs, they gave the evil all the threat and menace of a strand of overcooked spaghetti. Bringing back Bonnie Langford would be an improvement.

And I never thought I would be saying that.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Take a good look because it's the closest you're ever getting.

These are orange pancakes with chocolate sauce. You can find the recipe here. We ate them last night courtesy of the Boy's cooking. Yum.

Never mind looking for a wife who can cook (though I'm getting one of those too). Look for a stepson.

Friday, June 16, 2006

And now that I've actually watched it ...

Well, it passed the time while I was doing the ironing. I watched the Horizon programme about the sperm bank.

The bank was started by Robert Graham to collect the germinal material of Nobel prize winners, scientists, artists ... all kinds of intelligent and successful people. He suffered a setback when the frankly barking and objectionable eugenicist (and inventor of the transistor) William Shockley came out in support of him, but otherwise did pretty well.

Ben says: it follows that if a successful, wealthy, white collar AB couple are unable to have children on their own, so resort to outsourcing, then they will want kids that are as close to what their own children would have been as possible - hence, will want the sperm of a successful, wealthy, white collar AB male. So, no argument there. (First parenthesis: I couldn't help noticing there were no black donors shown ... but that might be more a reflection on the US in the 70s and 80s when the sperm was collected. I honestly don't know if there were black American Nobel prize winners then, or have been since. A topic for later research.) (Second parenthesis: I can understand the parents' motivation, I can't understand the donors'. I can't see how anyone would want to let complete strangers have their kids without their knowledge.)

However, Graham's basic concept was surely flawed. Someone once suggested to Einstein that he should always carry a notebook so he could record his good ideas. He replied: "oh, I very rarely have any good ideas." Yes, the good ideas that he had changed the entire face of science and the world around him, but they were few and far between. So, chances of a kid from the bank coming up with a revolutionary theory about the time/space continuum ... quite slim.

Every one of the bank's children spoken to - four or five out of over 200, so, okay, not representative - agreed that even though they've done pretty well in life so far, and their DNA will have played a part in that, they owe just as much to the fact that they were raised in a loving and nurturing environment by stable, level headed parents. And indeed, Graham only ever sold the goods to couples from a well to do, secure and steady background. Which might raise the question - could he have done just as much good, if not more, by pouring his money and his considerable enthusiasm and energy into more socially useful programmes aimed at bettering conditions generally?

Funniest bit: the aforementioned Professor Jim Bidlack demonstrating the best way to masturbate in a motel bathroom ... at least, if you want to preserve the product for future use. Quite a big if. It reminded me of when US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign after suggesting that the subject should be covered in the school curriculum, and some wag remarked that only Americans would need lessons.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Open to abuse

Has sperm ever come up at a dinner party you've attended? Personally I haven’t ticked that particular box in the great checklist of life. One Professor Jim Bidlack, however, must have found the small talk rather dull at one such party because he was asked there and then if he would provide a sample for the Repository for Germinal Choice. And did. To judge by his picture on the BBC site there was a photographer standing by to record the moment.

This blog doesn't talk much about sperm – well, maybe once – so let’s splash out. Horizon’s "The Genius Sperm Bank" will be broadcast tonight (15 June) at 9pm on BBC1, safely after the watershed. Apparently it spills the story of Robert Klark Graham, millionaire inventor of the shatterproof spectacle lense. Worried about the state of the world, he decided to take matters into his own hands and created the world’s first catalogue-based sperm bank, which only took – indeed, actively solicited – deposits from very clever people. Such was its success, and the demand for its product, that it could hold its own against the plethora of lesser institutions that handled the accounts of hard-up students and other impoverished types who wanted to take a load off their worries. Funding was pulled in the late 90s after Graham’s death and it closed – account cleaned out, assets flogged off, inventory liquidated. But it single-handedly changed the face of the sperm bank industry and its legacy lives on.

"There was so little sperm, never enough sperm," says former staff member Julianna McKillop. Perhaps they were doing it wrong, but it’s really quite easy to whip up several million of the little blighters for quite modest outlay. Get a grip. Be your own best friend. No need to stew in your own juices.

And so on.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Better late than never

Back in 2000 I was one of the 6.5 million visitors to the Millennium Dome. Senior Godson was approaching his fifth birthday and we wanted to give him something to remember 2000 by. It was either that or the divorce of his parents. As it was he got both, but at least the Dome was slightly – and I say slightly – more positive.

The Millennium Dome should have been a terrible warning for us all about New Labour – magnificent promises that you can tell just by looking simply won’t work, but Tony insists loudly that they will and so they follow them through anyway. The exhibits were like a primary school’s science fair, only more rubbish. The much vaunted Body Zone was a hot, over crowded, rubber lined cave where you shuffled through a series of papier mache fistulae between organs with as much relevance to the layout of the human body as a mid-period Picasso. You emerged feeling almost as depressed as a dead suicide bomber who has just discovered that actually the promise was for 72 Virginians.

But, all things told, it wasn’t a bad day out. Blackadder Back & Forth was fun, not least for its French-bashing, and the central stage show was impressive. The brand new all-original Peter Gabriel composition seemed to be mostly offcuts from his fourth album but he was probably down to his last couple of million and needed the money.

I’m 90% certain I didn’t return home with a millennium time capsule, yet somehow in the intervening six years I have acquired one. It has a raffle ticket stuck on it, which is a clue as to how I might have got it, though I have no memory of the event. I thought nothing of it until the Boy discovered (a) the capsule and (b) the loose floorboard in his room, which today will be covered up by carpet; and if this one lasts as long as its predecessor, the board won't be seeing daylight again for a long, long time. So we are having an emergency, six-years-too-late millennium inhumation. Let’s see, what to put in it. A photo of the three of us. Maybe a newspaper – possibly a TV guide for this week, but on the other hand, why depress the people of the future? I thought of the Collected Works of Ben, but the capsule is too small for a CD (bad foresight there, guys), the floppy is almost extinct as a medium, and there’s no way I’m sacrificing an expensive memory stick for the task. Anyway, the thought of the future being Windows compatible is even sadder than the thought of the future seeing what our TV listings were like. So posterity might get a print out of the home page, and of this blog. Maybe some hair cuttings so we can all be cloned in the future.

Civilisation could be rebuilt from the contents of this small little tube. That's quite a responsibility.

Friday, June 09, 2006


First, there was the sound so high pitched that only teenagers could hear it. It was put into a device that could be played in places where the tribes like to gather - shopping malls etc. - to disperse them without even realising it.

A few days ago, m'friend Simon reported that the teens have struck back by adopting it as a ringtone so that only they can hear their phones go off in class.

The Today programme this morning now reports that Sydney shopkeepers have resorted to playing Barry Manilow to move the herd on. I can pretty well guarantee this will never be used as a teenager's ringtone, but I await the next development with interest. Sooner or later it will cross that indefinable line into cruel & unusual; in fact I'd say it's nudging the line already.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Scrofulee, scrofula

It was once believed that the touch of the King (or Queen) could cure scrofula. Scrofula (which I had always assumed to be vaguely venereal) is a disfiguring form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes of the neck, leading to unsightly swellings. King George I put an end to the practice as "too catholic".

Now, whatever your issues with the Church of Rome, "too catholic" (or "zu katholisch" - he didn't speak English) hardly sounds like a scientifically rigorous reason for discarding the practice without some kind of test. I'll bet good money, at least a fiver, that no one has ever conducted a double blind medical trial on the subject. For all we know, it still works. With the NHS in the state it is, and TB figures slightly on the rise, I say that if we have this useful resource then it badly needs to be researched.
  • Does it only apply to the reigning sovereign, or to anyone in the line of succession too?
  • Do other members of the family have it in diluted form - for instance, could the touch of three or four lesser royals be the same as one touch by Her Majesty?
  • Does it immunise in advance, or do you have to have the disease to be cured of it?
  • Can it also be passed on by waving, or is physical contact the key thing?
  • Will Charles get the power the moment his mother dies, or will he need to be formally crowned? (Now, there's a man who will appreciate the non-traditional approach to disease management.)
  • Could Charles act preventatively by touching people now, but the cure only takes effect when he becomes king?
  • What is the active agent in the process? Is it the Queen's DNA? Pheromones? Is it something that could be isolated and mass produced in a lab? Could it be transmitted more efficiently by tablets, injections or sprays?
I'm sending in my grant application now.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Happy devil's birthday

Yes, it's the sixth of the sixth (in 06), the alleged birthday of the antichrist (ever since The Omen raised the idea as long ago as, what, 1976?), and pregnant women who were scheduled for inducements or caesarians today are asking if they can be rescheduled, I hear.

Believe it or not, I did know a D. Thorne born on this day at school (he was born before he went to school but you know what I mean) - however, the D didn't stand for Damien.

Ansible Information have a very handy little freebie download (see called BEAST.ZIP, "written to spoof mystic numerological connections like the awesome discovery that, using a cipher table in which A=100, B=101, C=102 (etc), the letters of HITLER add to 666". You can enter ANY text string and get 666 out of it. Amaze your friends!

The Number of the Beast is, of course, an unbelievably crap novel by Robert Heinlein that should not be read by anyone, least of all anyone who has ever read anything good by Robert Heinlein and who wants their memories preserved intact. As a public service, and just in case you haven't seen the countless versions doing the rounds on the internet, I reproduce here the following variations on the dread Number (with thanks to Molly):

  • 666 Biblical Number of the Beast
  • 660 Approximate Number of the Beast
  • DCLXVI Roman Numeral of the Beast
  • 665 Number of the Beast's Older Brother
  • 667 Number of the Beast's Younger Sister
  • 668 Number of the Beast's Neighbour
  • 999 Number of the Australian Beast
  • 333 Number of the Semi-Beast
  • 66 Number of the Downsized Beast
  • 6, uh..., I forget Number of the Blond Beast
  • 666.0000 Number of the High Precision Beast
  • 665.9997856 Number of the Beast on a Pentium
  • 0.666 Number of the Millibeast
  • X / 666 Beast Common Denominator
  • 0.00150150... Reciprocal of the Beast
  • -666 Opposite of the Beast
  • 666i Imaginary Number of the Beast
  • 6.66 x 102 Scientific Notation of the Beast
  • 25.8069758... Square Root of the Beast
  • 443556 Square of the Beast
  • 1010011010 Binary Number of the Beast
  • 1232 Octal of the Beast
  • 29A Hexidecimal of the Beast
  • 2.8235 Log of the Beast
  • 6.5913 Ln of the Beast
  • 1.738 x 10289 Anti-Log of the Beast
  • 66.6% Tax Rate of the Beast
  • $665.95 Retail Price of the Beast
  • $710.36 Price of the Beast plus 6.66% Sales Tax
  • $55.50 Monthly Payments for Beast, in 12 easy installments
  • 666 F Oven Temperature for Cooking "Roast Beast"
  • Lotus 6-6-6 Spreadsheet of the Beast
  • Word 6.66 Word Processor of the Beast
  • Windows 666 Bill Gates' Personal Beast Operating System
  • #666666 Font Color of the Beast
  • i66686 CPU of the Beast
  • WD-666 Spray Lubricant of the Beast
And finally, apparently Hollywood is working on a sequel to the Da Vinci Code - I Know What You Had Last Supper.

Monday, June 05, 2006

A fitting end

I'm working from home, it's my lunchbreak and I can't get into the kitchen, which is very frustrating.

But I don't mind because - freude schöner götterfunken and let fireworks soar majestically into the sky - the vinyl fitters are here. Fitting, appropriately enough, vinyl. And not just to the kitchen floor but to the living room and bathroom too. Having been stood up without even an apology from not one but two vinyl fitters already (all from the list of recommended bods supplied by Mays World of Carpets) it's worth celebrating.

The first guy on the list, who fitted the bedroom carpet, was a star and we would gladly use him again - except that he doesn't do vinyl. Completely different skillset, apparently. So we worked our way down the list, ploughing bravely through the ones who don't answer, or respond to voicemails, or (q.v.) show up ... and finally we seem to have arrived.

And I get to sit at my computer on a glorious day in shorts and t-shirt, which I don't really feel comfortable with at work. So everyone's a winner, except that I go hungry until they're finished in there. Or pop out to McD's. I think I'll go hungry until they're finished in there.

Names and contact details of the ones who showed up will gladly be shared with anyone who asks; likewise details of those who didn't. It's usually nice to think that you can just vote with your feet and not use the services of someone who lets you down ... except that they presumably have so much work on they won't even notice. Which is nice for them.

So, again, everyone a winner, and I'm slightly hungrier than when I started.

Not X-cellent

X-Men 3 is okay, not brilliant, mostly because of what it does with Magneto. In previous films he and Xavier were opposite sides of the same coin - you could see where he was coming from, even if you didn't necessarily agree with him, and that made him interesting. But here he just goes for all-out bonkers and ends up no different from the "normals" that he despises so much.

Still, the movie has a higher body count than previous entries, the identity of some of those bodies comes as a surprise, and there are few sights more inspiring than a squad of six angry X-Men leaping into action to defend the innocent. I also have a friend in San Francisco who, given the city's propensity for earthquakes, refuses to take the tunnel under the bay; after seeing this he might also think twice about taking the bridge.

But, children, there are two lines that no character in a film should ever, ever speak, and Magneto utters one of them. It is: "what have I done?", as the full impact of the error of his ways finally blasts into his frontal lobe. Any script writer who perpetrates that authorial abomination should be hung upside down in a scorpion pit next to whoever thought it was a good idea in Episode 3 for Darth to go "No-o-o-o-o-!"

Which is the other one.