Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sound fella

I mentioned my almost-blind great-aunt. Today I finally sat down and started doing what I thought of doing ages ago. She relies heavily on audio books ... so what better Christmas present than The New World Order (about the only one of my titles likely to appeal) narrated by the author, her great-nephew?

Chapter 1 has been recorded for digital posterity already. At the rate of one chapter a night, it should take about a month. Easily doable. And tell me - professional audio titles might be much more swish, but how many times on (say) the author-recorded audiobooks of His Dark Materials do you get Philip Pullman saying "I'm sorry, I read that completely wrong, I'll try again?" Hey?

And fairness makes me report that Windows XP actually impressed me. At the back of the computer there's a green in-socket and a pink in-socket. I plugged the mike into the green one and a little window popped up, asking (almost with a sense of resignation) "what did you just plug into the green socket?" I selected "microphone" and it came back with "you plugged it into the wrong one." A clear, concise, accurate, helpful Windows response. Lucky I was sitting down.

Soldiers of Christ, just shut up

Yea verily I say unto you, just as thou art feeling all smug and holy and secure in your faith, along comes a telling reason why not everyone sees things as you do. I mean, as thou dost. And all you can do is agree, and cringe.

Like the ongoing narration of events in Glastonbury by a friend who is a lovely person, an excellent author, a pagan and the proprietor of a witchcraft shop that opened earlier this year. (As opening day approached, I asked her when it was, purely so I could boycott it as a good evangelical; her reply was along the lines of, yes, please do boycott it, we need the publicity, we're doing very badly on that front, our local vicar has joined our druidic order.)

Anyhoo, there is apparently some kind of Christian rally going on in town. Spin-off incidents she has reported so far include:
  • the man who entered another witchcraft shop, addressed the proprietor as 'witch-whore', produced a cigarette lighter and remarked that he was looking for some witches to burn
  • the rioter who remarked as he was being arrested, 'I've come 150 miles to undertake some ethnic cleansing'
  • a group of marchers blockading the local bakers to stop people buying sandwiches which are allegedly made by Satanists (somehow missing the point that a pagan can't be a Satanist because they don't believe in him)
Guys, we have a problem. Which, of course, the Boss knew about a long time ago.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Two landmarks

First, the Report.

The Report is something we are contractually obliged to deliver to our funding overlords by 31 October each year. It's a full colour fancily-designed glossy brochure detailing all the cool stuff we have done in the last 12 months. Editorship revolves around the editorial team and this year, guess whose turn it was?

The lucky editor gets to trawl through all our quarterly reports and newsletters for the last year, picking out the gems and ignoring the hand-waving "here we are, still alive" pieces. Then it gets woven into a rough sort of coherent narrative. Then the designer is briefed, along the lines of "come up with something we like". (This is one of the few jobs, thankfully, designed out of house.) Then the first draft is drawn up and circulated around the editorial board. At this point it's a good plan to lay down some plastic sheeting for the evisceration that will follow. Some of the board members will return it with a single superfluous comma crossed out. Some will want ... more. Pause to sob - but not as much as the designer - as the carefully designed aesthetic of the layout disappears beneath approximately half as much text again as you had carefully put in. Then remind yourself that you're getting paid for this and you're at best the surrogate mother, not the actual parent.

Anyway, six drafts later, we have our final approved version and the electronic copy has been sent to their fundingnesses. Fortunately that counts as publication. Paper copies to follow.

And so, on to the second landmark. After three years and at least 100,000 words, though edited down to 87,000, I've finished the first draft of the latest novel. Wow. Three years! That's longer than I've had this job. That's about as long as I've been in a remotely serious relationship with Best Beloved. And in the interim I've written three Vampire Plagues and two Midnight Libraries. So it's been a busy three years, but even so. Much of this related to not quite being sure what the hell happened next. There's two brothers. One of them goes on a journey. Fine, I could write that, up until he leaves. Since I hadn't the foggiest what happened to him next (I knew where he was going, but with little idea of what happened when he got there), I then wrote the story of the second brother. Then it had to be back to the first one again - a couple more adventures, and finally I was on ground I had previously thought about, i.e. what happened when they met. (This being science fiction, one brother stays consistently nineteen and the other goes from a day old to almost 40.) So, three distinct yet related strands, written at three distinct times, which had to be untangled and edited together. Not without bloodshed, in the form of two characters who were tentatively written in, before I decided they didn't fit and took them out again. I felt a little sorry for one of them as I had previously tried to fit her into Wing├Ęd Chariot, with exactly the same result. Perhaps this woman exists only to catalyse the stories of other characters. One day she may finally get a book of her own.

Anyway. Now to see what various trusted opinions think of it.

Three years. Suddenly there's this gap in my life. I daresay I'll find a way to fill it. Like, wait for the evisceration of the novel, which will feel a lot more personal ...

I get my affirmation from OKCupid

Not that there was any real doubt ...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Dawkins Delusion

A colleague at work tells me that I’m the kind of person Richard Dawkins likes the least. It gives you a warm fuzzy glow, a bit like being denounced by the Daily Mail – the feeling that you must be doing something right.

My crime is not being a fundie religious bigot – the kind (my colleague tells me; Professor Dawkins himself may of course differ) Dawkins can just dismiss as beyond any kind of reason. I commit the faux pas of believing the world to be billions of years old, based on all available evidence, and yet continuing to believe in God too. I cherrypick the best of all worlds and so fall squarely between them. Neither hot not cold, therefore will I spit thee out of my mouth. My colleague says Dawkins says.

The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker are books beyond compare – they should be on every bookshelf. They are two very good reasons I am not a young earth creationist. When I’ve tried to devise various alien species, I’ve always done it from a Dawkinsist point of view, creating creatures that are viable for the environment in which they live. On the other hand, I admit I’m unlikely to be reading his latest work, The God Delusion, unless possibly I get it for Christmas. Which is not impossible, as apparently it’s tipped (not without irony) to be a popular Christmas present. Maybe anyone given a copy to mark a religious festival should return it on principle.

The BBC site is having one of its discussion forums on “Should modern Britain be a more secular society?” (To which I reply, yes.) One of the respondents has said that The God Delusion should be taught in schools to help us all get over this religion thing once and for all. To which I reply, that’s the equivalent of teaching intelligent design. It’s one man’s opinion, it answers nothing and it blithely ignores astonishing amounts of evidence to the contrary.

Why do I believe in an old world? Because people told me so? Well, yes, at first, that was exactly it. Then I got older and looked afresh at the evidence, and drew my own conclusions based on what I saw. Which is that, regardless of the sophistical gymnastics performed by the intelligent design crowd and all that, I see OVERWHELMING evidence for Earth being billions of years old.

Why do I believe in God? Because people told me so? Well, yes, at first, that too was exactly it. And again I took a fresh look at the evidence as I grew up. First it was just the evidence of other people’s lives. God’s Smuggler was the first Christian book I read and it marked me for ever. Further evidence came with time and experience, from sources much closer to home. I just can’t ignore the evidence of testimonies from trusted individuals known to me, who are not fools. And finally there’s the accomplished healings and miracles and fulfilled prophecies – and that’s just the ones that have happened to me, never mind anyone else. So, my worldview has to accommodate both these facts, because both have been experienced by me.
  • The world is old
  • God is real.
Dawkins should title his next book Black is White: Why the Personal Experience of Millions of People, Not to Mention Books Like God’s Smuggler and Run Baby Run, and the Lives of People like Jackie Pullinger and Philip Illot, and Miracles Ben Himself has Experienced, is Wrong, and I, Who Have Experienced None of the Above, Am Right.

I’d read that.

Friday, October 27, 2006

This is just silly

But fun.

So Torchwood is ...

... not unmissable.

Not bad but not unmissable either. However, I liked it more after the second episode than I did after the first, and will probably keep coming back when I have the time without actively clearing my calendar.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way about a series – I only kept watching Buffy because I had nothing better to do and Farscape I made the deliberate decision to stop watching, until opinions I trusted told me I was missing out. Both took a while for the hooks to sink in. I’m prepared to believe that could happen this time too.

Torchwood is well made. It’s smart, it’s sassy and I bet Cardiff has never looked so sexy on screen. It has potential. It has a hellmouth rift.

But it doesn’t have a heart. We have five lead characters, only one of whom is remotely likable (and I don’t mean Jack). On the strength of things seen, it looks like Gwen will become the moral conscience of the organisation – but the fact that the others got to where they did without her doesn’t hold out a lot of hope. We have no reason to care for them. In fact, the biggest driver will be learning more about Jack – the Who fans will want to know how he got back from the far future after the TARDIS stranded him, the non-Who fans will still want to pick up on his character’s evident mystery.

Episode 1 also suffered from over-familiarity. It’s by no means the first series in which an innocent bystander is determined to track down the mysterious secret organisation and ends up being recruited. I remember the excellent, underrated, one-season-only Dark Skies, in which I was on the edge of my seat, almost screaming with the desire to know more. And thanks to the recent series of Dr Who we already know what Torchwood is and does. To be honest, they could have left episode 1 out altogether and launched with episode 2. The X-Files gave us five minutes of Mulder meeting Scully and then it was on with the weirdness. Let the back stories of the characters unfurl. Much better.

So far we’ve had boy-girl, boy-boy and girl-girl. There’s one further combination that comes to mind, and if I was the Weevil they have looked away in the cells, I’d be worried.

Finally, if anyone wants proof that John Barrowman isn’t just a pretty face in a Group Captain’s overcoat (why does he keep the insignia?), here it is.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My fair ladies

- Knock knock
- Who's there?
- Li'l old lady
- Li'l old lady who?
- Didn't know you could yodel.

In my new capacity as a family man we marked the first two days of half term with an extended weekend with my parents, of which highlights included the Boy being taken (deer) stalking by my father, a trip to Bovington tank museum, and an average of slightly under one quite formidable little old lady per day.

Little old lady #1: great aunt on my mother's side; physically quite rugged for someone in her early nineties, eyesight virtually non-existent, mind in tip-top condition ("I've still got a top storey") despite the necessary perceptual blinkers that come with being to the right of Pinochet. On hearing we were down for a long weekend and we had dropped in on our way, she perceptively remarked: "doing the rounds, are you? Well, I'm delighted to be included," with a knowing twinkle in her eye. This aunt was Senior Wren in Sri Lanka during WW2. (UPDATE: apparently it was after WW2 that she was Senior Wren.) When she was promoted to Commander she wrote to her brother, my grandfather, also on the sub-continent, claiming precidence. He wrote back to say that when she could spell precedence, she could have it. Yes, that man's DNA is in my genes.

Little old lady #2: my grandmother, only grandparent I've had since 1980, aged 97, eyesight and hearing not quite as bad as she can make out but still pretty limited. When you sit down beside her you have to choose the side with the good eye or the good ear, but you're not getting both. I have to admit this visit was more out of a sense of duty, but was very pleasantly surprised to strike conversational gold. Turned out she and my grandfather honeymooned very close to where we did, which led to talking about the penury of their early married years (what you get for marrying a subaltern), but their first married posting was Dover, which was the best place for being poor because the herring were so cheap. A fascinating window into a world that was recognisably modern but not yet buggered up by WW2 and the Cold War.

Little old lady #3: not a relative of mine but almost-family to Best Beloved: the matriarch of the family she used to work for. A mere nipper at 87. Born and bred to White Mischief-type society in Kenya; retired to Ireland at 77; didn't like it and returned to Kenya; didn't like that either and re-retired to Lyme Regis. Wow. Also possessing a top storey but not much hearing to go with it, which led to this conversation when I described myself as a technical editor.

- Her: what exactly do you mean by technical?
- Me: well, I work for a computer network. [She smiles brightly, nods, turns away.]
- Her [conversationally to daughter]: it's jolly hard when you're deaf.
- Daughter: didn't you hear what he told you?
- Her: no, I didn't. ['He', i.e. me, was sitting three feet away from this discussion.]
- Daughter: well, don't act as if you did or he won't repeat it!
- Her: but if you ask everyone to repeat themselves you sound like a ninny.


Do other countries have little old ladies like ours? Some nations have withered old things who sit by the fireplace wearing black and gossip with the other women of the village. Others have elderly women who are basically like younger women, but older. Only we have this type: cut glass accents; impeccable manners; a dress sense that can alternate between glamour and animated rummage stall, and make it work either way; political views about as incorrect as a scantily clad page 3 model serving you a whale cutlet while smoking and telling jokes about Muslims; and effortless charm. As you approach their aura, so you move back in time and if you actually touch them you find yourself transported to the height of the British Empire. Which you rule, and don't you forget it.

Gawd bless 'em, every one.

Shiny, let's be bad guys

Haven't done one of these for, oh, weeks.

You scored as Serenity (Firefly). You like to live your own way and don't enjoy when anyone but a friend tries to tell you should do different. Now if only the Reavers would quit trying to skin you.

Serenity (Firefly)


Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)


SG-1 (Stargate)


Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)


Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)


Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)


Enterprise D (Star Trek)


Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)


Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)


Moya (Farscape)


Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)


FBI's X-Files Division (The X-Files)


Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in? (pics)
created with QuizFarm.com

Apart from it putting Babylon 5 below Stargate, and Farscape below both Trek and Andromeda (the horror!) I'm reasonably okay with this. I have never seen or indeed heard of Cowboy Bebop. Nor, with a title like that, do I wish to.

Monday, October 23, 2006

More hoodie than hooded

Accidentally found myself watching five minutes of Robin Hood on Saturday evening, as the Boy channel surfed. It featured this priceless dialogue, as a dying assassin believes (wrongly) that at least he hit his desired target:
  • Assassin: "I shot the Sheriff!"
  • Sheriff (Keith Allen, slumming it): "actually you just shot my deputy."
And that is why I don't intend to watch any more Robin Hood, ever.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why editors should rule the world # 5237

Maybe it's because it's just not my thing, but I think I lagged behind the rest of the world in first hearing of Ali G. I finally learnt he existed when it became physically difficult not to know. For similar reasons, I had never heard of Borat until Kazakhstan complained about his misrepresentation of their fine country.

However, today's story that Kazakhstan has managed to issue bank notes that spell "bank" wrong hasn't really helped their case.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Unexpected e-mail of the day

A very nice lady at the University of Massachusetts' Neuroscience & Behavio(u)r Doctoral Program(me), who teaches a writing course to junior undergrads, asks permission to print out my webpage Harry Potter & the Flawed Arguments "to use in class as an example of a well-constructed argument."

She's welcome. Spread the word!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

I keep my promises

I said we'd have a photo of my youth stag thing, so here, for the sake of completeness, we are.

I really am quite tall, aren't I?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Winston Smith lives

In a brief flurry of historical revisionism, I have just changed the word "verbal" in my two most recent posts to "oral". Any promise or communication with words in it is verbal, however the communication is delivered. An oral promise or communication can only be spoken, and that is what I meant.

Now off to watch the company six-a-side team. Unless I'm mis-remembering and it's only five a side, in which case this line too will be revised shortly.

*ankers away

Unexpected advice from a senior relative (male) received last night by email:
"Have nothing to do with British Gas. They are all *ankers."
Except that the missing letter was left in. I omit it only out of consideration for any users of cybernanny software.

Even more amusing is that the email was transcribed by a senior relative (female) from an oral communication.

Anyway, having finally got a straight answer out of a very nice lady at British Gas, who took my details over the phone and gave a quote even higher than the too-high quote received a couple of days ago, the contract has been cancelled.

To save the effort of any smart alecs out there, the missing letter was not b, c, d, h, l, r or t.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It's a gas, gas, gas

Margaret Thatcher, bless her insane blue cotton socks. In her delusion that the market is the supreme impartial regulator and arbiter of all matters spiritual and temporal, she genuinely believed that by throwing open the doors of the monolithic nationalised industries she could create a brave new world. Men like her husband and her father, hard headed sharp nosed businessmen, but public spirited with it, would come out of the woodwork and take over. They would run the businesses efficiently and ruthlessly, yes, but also profitably, not only for themselves but for the country.

I think she honestly had no idea she was just empowering a whole new generation of shysters who would gladly run everything into the ground, get rich doing so, and then jump ship just before it hit. Whyever would someone run a railway who had no interest in running railways? British Gas selling electricity? The AA doing personal finance? I mean, come on, in the mindset of 1979 it makes no sense at all. Yet such is the world we now live in.

All on my mind recently because we are Changing Suppliers. Long ago in the Way Back When I got my electricity from Southern Electric and my gas from British Gas. Then, as a result of being accosted by an irritating young twerp in the doorway of the Virgin Megastore, I switched to Virgin (I know, I should have better reasons, but their prices really were cheaper). Virgin's energy division promptly changed their name to EDF Energy and charged more, but I stuck with them.

Until last week, when we decided it was time to re-evaluate our options. Some web searching and price comparing led us to decide we should switch both gas and electric back to British Gas.

All well and good, until we get our customer contract this morning and see that they are planning to charge us more than we currently pay. I call the number they give us, but the nice lady there can't help because that is only for telephone customers whereas we are internet customers. So I call a second number. The slightly less nice lady there can't locate our account and do anything with it, because it's still being set up. But, she says, if we were genuinely quoted a lower price, then we can call back in a few weeks and they will change the amount they charge to match it. In the meantime we will have to go ahead with the present contract.

So, our options are now two.
  • Scrap the contract and stay with the present supplier, on the grounds that the alleged savings aren't worth the hassle.
  • Accept a contract that, in print, quotes the higher price. Do as the lady said, call back in a few weeks and get them to change to the quoted lower price ... all in accordance with a purely oral promise.

Can I just add that we are trying to be green here, and the British Gas deal involves them using sustainable renewable emission-free low calorie fat free CFC friendly sources of electricity like windpower, and planting new trees. The small print said that the promise only applied to the electricity side of the deal, not the gas. You mean, they're not going to kill billions of microscopic marine animals and bury them for millions of years to replenish the supply? I'm shocked.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Limbo dance

I was interested to hear that a group of theologians are meeting in Rome to discuss the matter of Limbo, and are widely tipped to be advising Palpatine the Pope that it should be dropped as a concept.

One major non-Biblical stumbling block removed, how many more to go ...
  • women priests
  • contraception
  • married clergy
  • Purgatory
  • the whole Hail Mary thing
At the rate of one every 2000 thousand years, this means that by the year 12,000 AD they'll have it sorted.

Actually that's unkind because the last 2000 years also saw - admittedly at the later end - Vatican 2, where amongst other things Latin was dropped as the sole language of churchgoing and the Pope admitted that actually other denominations were at least worth talking to. So, that's three points every two thousand years, giving us a worldwide church of unity by 6000 AD, tops.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Do you buy milk at Tesco?

A lot of people do, so I suppose the side of a milk bottle is a good place for the Department of Work and Pensions to be posting its public service advisories. Presumably the campaign is paid for by all the tax credits saved.

Somehow I doubt they do this to the milk in Waitrose.

Sainsburys, maybe.