Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I have been tagged

Wow, so this is what it feels like. A strange sense of ... making no earthly difference to my day-to-day existence on this crazy world of ours.

Anyhoos. The idea is that I list seven things I approve of and then tag selected numpties lovely people of my own choosing to do likewise. So without further ado, and listed alphabetically to avoid any notion of bias:
  1. Abingdon. My home town by adoption; by which I mean, I moved there when I was 26 and have now lived there for a little over 16 years. Compare that if you will with the 24 (I think) places I had called home beforehand. Okay, that includes school and university, but even so. If you’re born into that transitory kind of world, as I was, then you think it’s normal – it wasn’t until my late teens that I was crying out (inside) for somewhere I could just be. Until Abingdon. The shops are within walking distance. Oxford is easily reachable if I want anything bigger. I'm not a teenager so am not driven to screaming distraction by the lack of a cinema or bowling alley. Most of it doesn't flood because most of it was built 500 years ago when they had more sense than modern town planners. And I live on the second floor. I love Abingdon.
  2. Best Beloved. The lady I am proud to call my wife. Wow, where do I start? If I’m going to be out-pouring of the praise then really it should be to her rather than to the 135 unique visitors that Statcounter assures me this blog has had over the last seven days. She took the habits of 41 years of bachelorhood and painlessly turned them on their head. She’s the first person I see each day and the last each night, with a smile that is only for me and fresh and brand new and different every time. As a kind of 2(a) I suppose I should also add the Boy, who with his mother has completed the revolution of my life, and even when tears and tantrums flow (I’m not saying from who because it varies) and I’m on my emotional last legs, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  3. Books. Take away my TV or take away books? TV, please. Take away my car or books? Car, thanks; I can read a good book on the bus. Take away my computer or books? Oh, do what you will with the pile of junk; all it does is cut into my reading time. Books rule. Walls and distances disappear when you have books. No book has ever had an insufficient effects budget; no book has ever been badly cast with actors that aren’t quite as you imagined the characters.
  4. Cornwall. The southern bit, with the mighty granite cliffs against which the waves endlessly dash, breaking down into seething foam that sucks and gurgles as it runs in fractal shapes back into the sea. A wild and untamed landscape. We had a house in Mullion when I was young. Best Beloved and I honeymooned a bit further along the coast. Land of smugglers and wreckers and Poldark and Jamaica Inn. Nothing but good in Cornwall.
  5. Dr Who. You may say, from the sublime to the ridiculous? Say away, I don’t care. Please note I’m not talking about the modern series, which smarms its way with witty one-liners and sexual tension and a barely hidden gay agenda into our living rooms. Oh, it’s fun but it’s not like it once was. As Philip Pullman once said, ‘thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten but ‘once upon a time’ lasts forever. At the formative stage of our lives where religion is still a hypothetical fairy tale that may or may not actually be true (thanks to Bookzombie, IIRC, for the sentiment), the Doctor beamed a set of case studies on moral behaviour straight into our forebrains, subversively, at tea time on a Saturday, and no one even noticed. He was never cruel and never cowardly, and he made it safe to be scared (attrib. S. Moffatt). He taught us that yes, there are monsters, and they can be defeated.
  6. Indoors on a rainy day. When the rain lashes against the windows and it can’t get in, and you’re warm and dry and quite possibly tucked up with a good book. (See (3) above.)
  7. Outdoors on a blustery day. Maybe just a hint of rain but not too much or you get cold and wet and you can’t see out of your glasses. (I hate raindrops on my glasses.) But mostly it’s the wind, a powerful beast battering against you but the human will prevails, especially if you’re nicely wrapped up, which isn’t hard to do and can be achieved with only a little foresight. Made especially nice with the knowledge that at any time you choose, you can be back indoors.
Right, now I have to tag someone else, do I? Okay ... um ... let’s see. I’ve very cautious about this kind of thing. Have to be someone who probably wouldn’t mind. Oh, all right. Semicolon and Pennski.

Thunderbird 2, afloat

Well, that was what I thought anyway.

Ships on legs:

Monday, January 28, 2008

He never did the fandango

Finished Galileo's Daughter over the weekend. A fascinating read that confirms some of the legends, sweeps away others and replaces them with facts that are ten times more interesting. Rather than just be a straight biography it chronicles Galileo's life through letters from his daughter, a highly intelligent, capable woman stuck in a convent under the nunly name of Maria Celeste. Sadly we only have her letters to him. His letters to her were almost certainly destroyed by the nuns when she died (a few years before he did) in case they were tainted by association with an infamous heretic. Even so, we don't just get Galileo's life but we get a pretty good cross-section of life in Renaissance Italy generally.

The conventional view is that stuck-in-the-mud corrupt, totalitarian church says the earth is stationary, Galileo says it orbits the sun, Galileo is tortured by Inquisition into renouncing his views.

Well ...

Galileo lived from 1564-1642, which in English terms means he was born the same year as Shakespeare, lived through the reigns of Elizabeth, James I and Charles I, and died in the early years of the English Civil War. I think I'd rather have spent that period in Italy, where the weather was better and most of the down sides to life (like the occasional outbreak of the Black Death, and you really didn't want to drink the water) would have applied anywhere. Meanwhile they already had a lot of the science and maths that build up a civilisation and make life bearable, and they seem to have had a basic knowledge of hygiene and medicine; Maria Celeste was forever sending her dad little medicines for his various ailments.

Contrary to the popular view, the church wasn't a black-clad evil empire forever poised to oppress and torment the helpless. Galileo had a lot of good friends, even among churchmen, who braved the wrath of the Pope. After his disgrace he was taken in and helped by the Archbishop of Siena, whom even the Pope couldn't just silence, but several rank-and-file Fathers also came to his support.

Not that society was by any means perfect. Galileo never got round to marrying the mother of his three children because the class difference made it unthinkable, which made them unmarriageable. He could pull strings with his aristocratic friends to have his son officially legitimised, but for his two daughters there was no choice but the convent.

Before his fall Galileo was the darling of the establishment, which was quite strongly pro-science and pro-mathematics. He was a highly respected mathematician courted by church and aristocracy – who were mostly Medicis and who behaved very honourably towards him; not a trait we've become accustomed to identifying with that particular family. In his mid-thirties he invented a device which "could compute compound interest or monetary exchange rates, extract square roots for arranging armies on the battlefield, and determine the proper charge for any size of cannon." It made him a fortune.

And Galileo was a devout Catholic, horrified at the very thought of going up against his beloved church. His fame led him to become quite pally with the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who encouraged him in his writing.

But I don't think either party realised until too late that what drew them together wasn't a love of science, it was their love of Catholicism. Galileo held that there were things even scientists wouldn't figure out, and he stated it very poetically, which Barberini loved. But Galileo's God also acted logically and consistently; Barberini's God could do what he liked. Galileo rightly pointed out how astonishingly complex it would be to have the sun revolve around the earth and the other planets around the sun. Barberini's attitude was, yes, isn't it? God's so clever. Then Galileo realised that the sun itself seemed to revolve at different angles (i.e. the sun revolves around its tilted axis, and so does Earth, so to us the sun seems to wobble), making the whole system an order of magnitude more complex. Or, from Barberini's point of view, making God even cleverer.

Galileo believed the Bible was about the relationship between God and Man, and how to get to heaven. Barberini believed the scriptures are there to micro-manage our day to day existence and are just as valid as scientific works as they are on matters of faith and morals; and anyway, sunshine, what are you doing interpreting the Bible yourself? That's our job. He would have got on very well with a lot of Creation scientists today, except that they tend to be Protestant and the Catholic church nowadays has no problem with the ancient earth thing.

And Barberini went on to become Pope.

The work that got Galileo into trouble actually started out as a treatise on tides, and if he had stuck to it then nowadays no one would remember it because he got the causes of tides spectacularly wrong. But no, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems went on to discuss Copernicus, who held that the earth went round the sun. Hypothetically. Earlier in his career, Galileo had been told not to 'hold or defend' the Copernican view; he was still allowed to discuss it hypothetically. Galileo went through all the approved steps of seeking church permission and censorship to have the book published and finally had a bit of paper from the church saying it was acceptable. By the time it was published, Barberini had become Pope Urban VIII.

As Popes go he was, by all accounts, a pretty rubbish one, beleaguered with critics. He got Rome caught up in the Thirty Years War, he ran up massive debts and he badly over-reached himself. So he was already in a pretty bad mood when the Dialogue came out, and it seemed to push Copernicus way too heavily. Here was an easy target to restore papal authority, so the matter was referred to the Inquisition. Galileo never had a chance.

He wasn't tortured, just interrogated, but he knew where he stood. Once it was obvious that even his old friend the Pope was against him, Galileo knew he had no choice but to sign a formal retraction and repentance. The Dialogue was banned – in Italy – for the next 200 years. If they had had eBay, bootleg copies would have been popping up almost immediately.

The sentence ended Galileo's public career in Italy, though the Pope continued to be irritated by the number of mathematicians and scientists who sought him out for private consultation. The final and finest work of this devout Catholic, Two New Sciences, had to be published in the Protestant Netherlands.

And this was the book that mattered. The book that gives him a reason to be famous. Face it; yes, it is important how the planets work, but we could get by to a great extent without knowing. And other people, with telescopes, safely outside the range of Rome, would have worked it out eventually. But Two New Sciences dealt with materials and objects in motion, stuff that isn't immediately obvious to the naked eye but must be worked out. It was a work of genius.

Imagine an arbitrary period of time. Let's say it's the time it takes for you to count to ten divided by the number of times the cock crows – it doesn't matter. Just be consistent. Call it anything you want. Call it the oobamasquif.

Now measure the speed of a falling object and time it. After two oobamasquifs, its speed will be its speed at one oobamasquif, squared. After three oobamasquifs its speed will be its speed at two oobamasquifs, squared. And so on. However you measure it – seconds, hours, minutes, oobamasquifs – acceleration increases by squares. How astonishing is that?

And Galileo worked this out, without benefit of clocks or any kind of mechanical aid, and in doing so laid down the foundation for modern science. Newton, born the year Galileo died, couldn't have done his work on gravity without Galileo backing him up. All this from a book written in his seventies, after his public and national disgrace.

As an author in his forties and yet to be famous, I find that quite encouraging.

Blurb riting fur beginnerz

Ashamed to say I wasn't the one to spot this.

According to the blurb on the back cover of Time's Chariot, there's "more twists than a coiled spring."

In other words, where n = number of twists, n > 1.

Probably not what they meant.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gerry Anderson & the Return of Wind Power

A sleek, futuristic vehicle takes off and splits in two. One part is piloted safely back down to the the ground, the other heads for orbit. And there - this is the really cool bit - it changes shape, reconfigures and then returns to earth itself.

This is of course Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo design, unveiled today. It could so easily be out of a Gerry Anderson adventure - well, maybe apart from the fact that it returns safely. There's an added thrill in realising the project is backed by a multi-millionaire, though sadly not one with five sons and a purely platonic relationship with the flower of English aristocracy.

Gerry Anderson's vision of the future was of course flawed - it was undeniably technophile but the Health & Safety Executive was obviously strangled at birth (hence mile-high skyscrapers with no sprinker system, brought down by a fire in the basement) and, crucially, there were unlimited resources for all. If it didn't make lots of smoke and flame, it wasn't a proper machine. Sadly we know it's not going to be like that.

That's why I'm betting he never imagined that one day supertankers would be crossing the Atlantic powered by kites - my second favourite story from the BBC's Science/Nature page. I'll be honest - that's even cooler than SpaceShipTwo (though I don't want it to be) and a lot more useful.

When I accidentally lived in London for six months, I did all the touristy things one does and I was astonished to find that Westminster Abbey was white, Parliament was a kind of golden yellow, other buildings were all kinds of shades. You could see the stonework. When I came up to London as a kid, everything was black. London had finally cleaned itself up while I was growing, shedding centuries of soot and exhaust and grime. Go London.

We know so much more than we used to about the environment, about materials, about micro-engineering, about energy conservation. We can manage a pretty good lifestyle for a whole lot less than we did. There will be further changes ahead and some of them will take getting used to: I doubt I'll be cooking or heating my house with natural gas for the rest of my life and I certainly won't be driving a car powered by fossil fuels for much longer. There's a lot of inertia to overcome, dead infrastructure to get rid of. New superpowers will arise and the West will decline. But a new equilibrium will be found and it will be worth it. I really feel that future historians will decide it was during my lifetime that we finally found the balance between a decent standard of living and looking after the world. That makes me quite proud.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Things you learn

A document I was working on this morning contained the line:
"... its muxes can be connected by a leased wavelength within third-party infrastructure."
Y'what? So I looked up muxes.

I eventually learned that it's shorthand for "multiplexers". Equally meaningful within the above statement, though probably not what the author meant, it's the Zapotec term for homosexual. Or maybe, to go by the Wikipedia entry, for transvestite. Either way, who knew? Apart from the Zapotecs.

(Likely answer: I know, probably everyone. My life is sheltered.)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ben on Brand

Okay, I promised various loyal readers I would share my thoughts on Russell Brand's My Booky Wook.

On the one hand, reading about his life is watching a car crash. On the other, it's a car crash with style where the driver knows exactly what he's doing. And on the gripping hand, you're aware he only got away with it through sheer luck. He's a man of undoubted, genuine talent – a school performance (Fat Sam in Bugsy Malone) got him into the Italia Conti Academy for acting, which doesn't just hand places out by rote; and after that he got into the Drama Centre. He also managed to get thrown out of both.

And there's the nub, the car crash aspect. Until very recently – apparently, though I won't hold my breath – he's been set to self-destruct. Every time fame has coming knocking at the door, cap in hand, he's found a way to slam the door in its face. Those of us who do it the other way round, going begging cap in hand to fame and actually, you know, putting a little effort into it might find this a little galling. Maybe fame is a Darwinian process – you have to surrender everything, burn your every possession on its altar, and even then it only chooses to come to you, and for every one person who makes it a thousand don't. Though frankly, if 'fame' = presenting for MTV or Big Brother, I'd say you took a wrong turn somewhere.

The book starts with RB describing his enforced stay in a Philadelphia treatment centre (or even center) for sex addiction. Then he goes back to the beginning and talks about his childhood onwards, and ends shortly after his treatment for drug addiction and the first tentative steps towards stability in his 30-year-old life. It is not, in any way, an easy read. Maybe his one saving grace is that he doesn't brag, but nor does he self-pity or beat his breast (in fact there's quite an amusing passage where he talks about how you can get away with confessing almost anything if you preface it with 'To my shame ...'). You have to take the same attitude as him. He is simply stating the facts (often with humour, where humour is to be had); you simply have to read them. And on the way you may actually learn something - like, exactly what it is like to be a heroin addict. Your life can probably proceed unhindered without this item of knowledge, but you may be a lot less quick to criticise if you do read it.

Both the drug and the sex addiction treatments were done on the orders of his agent, John Noel. In both cases RB was told by the managers of the respective clinics, 'you have to want to come', to which his agent replied, 'fook that, he's going.' And RB meekly went.

This is where you could get really psychological and talk about father figures. It's facile to say that any kid from a broken marriage, or any boy brought up primarily by women, is going to end up like Russell Brand, because clearly they don't. But it is telling that almost as soon as he introduces Noel he uses the word 'patriarch', and Noel does seem to be the only man in his life who can give him orders.

The failings of RB's dad as a father are Dickensian in their magnitude, even though RB clearly adores the man. I don't have a toddler of my own and I don't have large stashes of porn on me – but if I did I wouldn't be leaving the one lying around the house for the other to read. I doubtless have my weaknesses as a stepfather, but I can safely say I won't be taking the Boy on a grand tour of the brothels of Hong Kong and Bangkok, as Brand Snr did to his son when RB was 17. The cost of the flight must have meant they couldn't afford separate rooms – or maybe sharing a room while they both banged their way through the local talent was just Brand Snr's way of bonding. Either way, eeeuuugh.

On the way back home, Brand Snr apparently made a remark about going out with a boy, coming home with a man. No, Mr Brand, you went out with a damaged child and you came back with a permanent head case.

BUT: it does look like RB is making it and I hope he does. He's clean of his addictions, apparently; someone with sense finally diagnosed him as depressive and prescribed treatment; and he's intelligent enough to take action on his self-knowledge. There's talk of acting work appearing on the horizon, too soon before publication to say how it will go. So far in life, as he freely admits, his motivation has been to be noticed – hence it's no big deal whether he's acting or doing stand-up or presenting MTV or Big Brother. But I hope it's the acting that really works, because that's a way of building up a body of work he can really be proud of, to carry him through the lows and sustain him for a lifetime, while in everything else you can be yesterday's news five minutes from now.

Beethoven: shows promise

I probably don’t love listening to Beethoven just because one of my earliest memories is the mighty Emperor (the fifth) piano concerto. An equally early memory - my parents had some old, tough, indestructible LPs that I was allowed to play with on a banged-up old record player - is Bert Kaempfert's Swingin' Safari and I won’t stop everything to listen to that if I happen to be channel surfing.

So it’s a double pleasure to come across this page (thanks to Making Light), which not only lets you enjoy the heartbreakingly lovely Allegretto of Beethoven’s 7th in its own right via YouTube but also tells you what Beethoven is doing without being too poncy about it, so adding another level to your enjoyment.

After completing his symphony, Beethoven confided to a friend: "I am at last learning to compose."
Yeah, he did okay.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In which Ben and the Boy dodge minor inconvenience by 20 minutes

So we went to Fairacres to get the Boy a new computer chair. Brought it back, were assembling it in his room, when - BOOM.

And five minutes later, another BOOM.

With lots of sirens in between. And a cloud of black smoke rising behind the police station.


First thought - Al-Quaeda are bringing down the might of the West by bombing Dalton Barracks - seems to have been an exaggeration, and anyway, the black cloud was too close. Here's the reason, apparently. (UPDATE: the two missing people have been accounted for, alive and well.)

The recipient of the chair asked: "if it was a terrorist attack and we were all evacuated, would I have to get on with my revision?"


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Too good to be true ...

... and yet in-depth Googling tells me it's genuine. From the homepage of The Astrological Magazine:
"We regret to announce that due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control, the publication of The Astrological Magazine will cease with the December 2007 issue."
Follow the link to see for yourself. And should they take it down, here's a screenshot.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Dice Man goeth

Sometimes, and it's entirely my own fault, I lose track of a central requirement for reading a book. That it should be fun. Not necessarily funny, no, no, no. But fun. Not worthy. Not dutiful. Fun.

Time was that once I had started a book, I gamely soldiered on to the end. Thankfully Big Engine cured me of that one. I don't discard a book readily, but discarding is an option. Sometimes the old compulsion to finish it returns and I must once again master it.

I only did this once last year. The author of one of the first three Torchwood novels (Another Life, Border Princes, Slow Decay), gave me a set of all three. I could manage two of them - in fact, they were quite fun and I'm glad to say my colleague's was one of them - but I simply couldn't get into the third. I wasn't interested. The main plot was just about keeping me going, but then a secondary one opened up beneath me and my attention collapsed.

This created an archival conumdrum. While I was reading it, it was on the Reading or Read list. Had I finished it, it would have stayed there as having been read. But if I am no longer reading a book, and have not read a book, there is no accurate way to record the fact.

So I am starting a new list on the left: "Life's too short to read ..." I don't expect it to have many takers. The first and hopefully last 2008 addition to this is The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart.

This is rather a shame, not just because on principle no book should be too dull to read, but I had heard good things of it. Very 70s, very counter-cultural, doubtless deeply significant ... nah. The guy's a git and that's it. From Oxfam it came, to Oxfam it shall return.

The biggest downside of this is that I must now turn to the next book on the list, which is - because I promised the Boy, oh gawd ... Russell Brand's My Booky Wook. I'm going in. Wish me luck.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Stand and deliver

If you hate crowds then this is the most depressing sight in the world ...

... Olympia, full of stalls. There's another, larger hall next to it, two levels each, both packed full of strangers, thousands of 'em, wandering around and trying not to catch your eye in case you want to talk to them but yet (in a paradoxical way) possibly seeking exactly the knowledge or services that you have to offer. And there's the freebies, of course. I got the Boy a pen and, in honour of his GCSEs, a Bitesize badge from the BBC stand. How his little face lit up at one and his eyes narrowed at the other.

I've had good cause to get to know Olympia at exhibition time, primarily from the days when I worked for the organisers of Online Information. On one occasion, after everyone had gone home, we were walking down these stairs ...

... and found a discarded paper napkin that, from the shape of its fold, had obviously been pressed into service as an emergency sanitary towel. We left it to the cleaners.

So, eight years after I was last on a stand, there I was again, today, at BETT. Look very closely and you can see me, second from right, photographing myself on the videoconferencing screen. When you're manning a stand you make your own entertainment.

I'm actually pretty pleased with myself. I stood for most of seven hours but I talked to complete strangers and even got sensible answers out of them. It's quite easy. Someone hovers nearby for whatever reason. Approach them with a friendly smile, ask if they're familiar with the product. Usually they say "yes, but ..." And you're in.

Manning a stand can have its advantages. I plotted the second half of The Xenocide Mission while on the company stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 1998. This had the advantage of looking a lot like actual work, and people who came up to me with queries actually apologised for interrupting. Well, quite, art was happening. I was on my own with a fridge full of beer. People from the nearby Scholastic stand kept popping over for a bottle.

At our stand at the European Association of Urology's 1999 meeting in Stockholm, I got to introduce Dr X, who was editing a book on one urological disorder, to Professor Y who was editing a book on another. "Dr X, prostatitis; Professor Y, erectile dysfunction."

No such fun this time, though the neighbouring Oracle stand occasionally staged a little song and dance routine, nicely timed to coincide with our videoconferences until we asked them not to. They were very apologetic.

And I don't know who these people are but I'm guessing they charge their customers too much.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Funk to funky

After the funeral, the ash spreading. To Bournemouth one more time with the three people who loved him most (mother, son, ex-wife), and as I love two of them and at the very least like the third a lot, that has to be some kind of recommendation.

A very nice man in black gave us a few minutes to choose a place in the grounds of the crematorium; the only real contender was the one evergreen, a pine that kept its needles while all trees around it were bare. Then he spread the ashes in a circle around the base and I read Psalm 23, my ex-mother-in-law-in-law getting too choked after verse 2. No great drama, very peaceful and a real sense of closure. The cemetery is close to a school and as we stood silently the playground racket came drifting over the trees. Surrounded by all these lives at the end of the great race, a reminder of those just starting the course.

Afterwards we asked at the crem office for the range of possible memorials. The Boy and EMiLiL seem pretty set on a memorial bench. My ears first pricked up when the lady there said "Well, a 10-year lease ..."


Then I think my ears hit the ceiling as she went on to say "... is £700 ..."

Seven hundred ...

Okay, it amortises to £70 p.a. but even so ... Look, when I go, just give £700 to a struggling writer and we'll call it quits.

The Boy drew the line at having a cup of tea in his dad's bowls club - preferring to sit in the car and read Making Money - but he was there for all the important bits and we're all very proud of him. Symbolically of something or other, he went down to Bournemouth in the back seat and came home in the front. We're pretty certain he's now taller than his mother - when he stands up straight and she flattens her hair down - so it seemed only right.

En route on the way down we passed through Christchurch to eat our lunch at the quay. I took this picture of the swans enjoying the total absence of tourists that January brings.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Long before Carol Vorderman ...

Countdown was my reading of choice as a child and it quite possibily influenced me more than any other reading matter before or since. I think I picked up my first copy simply because it had Jon Pertwee on the front – or rather an artist's rendition of the man in his most famous role. Countdown published cartoon adventures based on TV shows, mostly science fiction. Some were original, like Dr Who; most were reprinted Gerry Anderson adventures from TV21, whose existence overlapped with my lifespan but entirely passed me by. Either way, with the unlimited effects budget of pictures they easily surpassed their TV counterparts for sheer excitement.

And there was the titular comic strip, "Countdown" itself. This was brand new, unique to the comic, and even I could tell it was edgier and darker than the ever-optimistic, technophile Anderson strips. All the spaceships were modelled on designs taken from 2001 (the Countdown itself was essentially the Discovery) which automatically gave it an ’arder feel and the artist, John Burns, used much more modern comic techniques (images bursting out of their frames, use of light and shadow to hide or reveal) than the hand-drawn photoframes of the others. The Countdown is a deep space exploration ship which returns to Earth after many years to find the planet in the grip of an evil dictatorship, with resistance led by the lunar colony. Our heroes are helped by the fact that on their voyage they picked up a friendly alien (called Bill) who helps them out with his advanced technology, not least a teleport and nifty little devices called whisperwheels which enable telepathic communication between wearers.

Thus, seven years before Blake's 7, we have the crew of an alien-enhanced starship fighting an evil dictatorship. Hmm.

A few years ago I started gathering old editions of Countdown off eBay. I now even have the very first issue. Wow. The first "Countdown" strip has hardly any dialogue – just a series of pictures that take the reader through the dark, cold corridors of the ship, closing in on the crew in suspended animation. Seven years before Blake's 7 and eight years before Alien.

I was also struck by the way the evil dictator strongly resembled the late Robin Cook, but I'm prepared to put it down to coincidence.

As well as all the above, Countdown also ran factual stuff full of a sense of wonder: a lot on the then current Apollo landings; what I would now call an unhealthy obsession with UFOs and matters related; full page, full colour photos of giant hydroelectric turbines, nuclear reactors, anything big and techie. It made me what I am.

Countdown metamorphosed into TV Action, expanding its remit beyond science fiction to TV adventures generally. It wasn't as good and it folded in summer 1973.

It was in TV Action that I first learnt the name of the Time Lords' home world – Gallifrey! And therein lies a puzzle that bothered me for years. It is part of Dr Who lore – of which, okay, I know a little – that Gallifrey was first named in the Pertwee-era adventure The Time Warrior, broadcast December 73-January 74. But hang on, I hear you cry, you said TV Action folded in summer 73? Well, quite.

But now the puzzle is solved, thanks to getting The Time Warrior on DVD for Christmas. (DVD! A marvellous invention! Was there really a time when it took four whole weeks to watch a four-episode adventure? When you simply had to remember what had happened up to a month previously? When if parents or fate decreed you would be out at Saturday teatime, you missed the episode with no hope of ever seeing it again? Answer to all of the above: yes.)

The Time Warrior was indeed first broadcast in December 73 – but it was filmed in May of that year, and producer Barry Letts had a guest slot in TV Action to answer readers' questions about the show. And that was when Gallifrey was first named publicly. A world exclusive, breaking news. Nothing would ever be the same again. I had no idea.

Pay attention, children. You never know when the world will change.

Monday, January 07, 2008

All you need to know about Jeremy Clarkson

So, Jeremy Clarkson didn't believe in identity fraud. "Honestly, I've never known such a palaver about nothing," he apparently said in his column in the Sun (pa-la-ver .... surely rather a long word for the Sun?), about the loss of the two CDs by HMRC containing 25 million people's personal details. To prove his point, he kindly published his account details in the same column - name of bank, account number and sort code - on the grounds that "All you'll be able to do with them is put money into my account."

Can you guess what happened?

It could have been worse: someone simply set up a £500 direct debit from his account to a charity. Whether JC has since cancelled the direct debit isn't recorded.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Mellotron metatron

The mellotron was one of the funkier instruments of musical history. In the days before digital sampling of sounds, each key was connected to a tape of an instrument playing that note. Thus one player could command, say, an orchestra of violins. The Moody Blues managed to make an orchestra go on strike when they realised they weren't needed.

Not that it had to be a musical instrument that had been recorded. It could be anything. Sometimes the tapes stretched or distorted which added an interesting electronic effect. It was large, and clunky, and limited to the tapes available, but progressive musicians of the 60s and 70s could do things with it to much more effect than any kid today with a synthesiser, which starts with a few basic tones but manipulates them in an infinite variety.

Sometimes I feel I'm talking to a mellotron. I open my mouth and utter a carefully synthesised opinion. What happens inside the other person is that I press a key that plays a tape. You hear politicians do this all the time - ask them a question and you get back the appropriate taped response, which being pre-recorded is probably not exactly the response you asked for. It can happen anywhere doctrinal purity is at stake. In the context of fellowship, fr'instance, I have occasionally whispered a sentiment along the lines that - say - not every non-Christian goes automatically to Hell. But I've learnt not to, because all too often I have simply activated the tape labelled "suppress heresy of universalism and suggestion that the sacrifice of Christ is meaningless", even though I have said - and believe - nothing of the sort.

Or sometimes there's no set doctrine being contradicted; I merely touch too closely to someone's core values, possibly with a scenario that wasn't considered when those core values were formed. Or they haven't quite grasped what I'm on about. Or they haven't twigged that I'm not actually soliciting a response; I would simply like them to listen. They can't let the opportunity for a conversation pass by. So they come back with the nearest tape they can find to a meaningful answer.

You can, if you feel so inclined, play games. You can take that basic armoury of tapes and play it like a virtuoso, Tony Banks or Rick Wakeman, wringing sounds and permutations out of it that the owner didn't even know were in there. But more often, if I feel (or indeed know) that someone is a mellotron, it's much easier not to say anything.

I'd much rather talk to a Prophet.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

And death shall have no dominion

Funerals I have been to in my life:
  • 1 grandmother. My first and quite weepy.
  • 2 elderly great aunts. Sad but dry eyed. Elderly great aunts die - it's a fact of life. More fraught was the fact that they alternated with:
  • 2 children. A 4-year-old with a hole in the heart, and a 15-year-old with cancer. Both heartbreaking. I didn't know either of them but I worked with their parents. The 15-year-old's classmates all turned up and we exited to Tubthumping; and while I don't advocate bumping off the occasional teenager from time to time pour encourager les autres, I'm betting his friends all went back to their homes a little more seasoned and mature than they left that morning.
And then there was today's. Someone I didn't know well and only saw occasionally - but, I'm pleased to say, someone I had begun to chat to on the few occasions we did meet. I speak of the Boy's father who died a week before Christmas.

An interesting day. I'm sure the hearse was trying to very slowly shake us off en route from funeral parlour to crematorium, though that might just be the twists and turns of the Bournemouth road system. At the other cremations I've been to the coffin was put on a moving belt that would take it beyond a pair of doors at the key moment. Here I was interested to see it was placed on a plinth that would sink down into the floor; but we were all ushered out before the key moment came, so I hereby give notice to anyone who outlives me that I want everyone's last sight of me to be sinking down like the anti-Wurlitzer. The service was led by my ex-mother-in-law-in-law's Salvation Army captain, then after for tea and sandwiches at the deceased's local bowls club. The deceased's boa-owning neighbour commented how much he had liked the service; "very light, not hitting you over the head". Well, quite, like all the best under the counter evangelism.

Readings were from Psalms and Corinthians and Dylan Thomas. Musicwise, we came in to "Be still for the presence of the Lord" and left to the Stuart Townsend version of "The Lord's my shepherd". But somehow it's a completely different tune that sticks in my mind, due to the fact that the outfit worn by the rather formidable chief lady undertaker was very reminiscent of this lady ...

Am I a bad person?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Reading: not just a town in Berkshire

Last year I decided to start a log of all books I had read or was reading in 2007. There turn out to have been 60 in total of which (some are in more than one category):

Sf/f 30
Crime 6
Historical 9
Other 3
Y/a or kids 8
Autobiography 2
Biography 4
Commentary 3
Review 7
Translated from Swedish 4
Read for the first time 44
Read before 16

Or, put another way:

Which I find interesting. You might not. For one thing, not so long ago that would have been nigh on 100% sf/f titles rather than a piddly 50% at 30. And where does that "read before" come from? Time was everything would have been a first timer. Almost a quarter of that 30 were books I only read because I was asked to review them, so let's assume 23/60 were science fiction & fantasy titles read because I wanted to. And of them (which doesn't show in the table, but hang on, I'll do a quick count ...) 8 were re-reads of Terry Pratchett and one was the last Potter.

And I wouldn't be surprised if 2008's haul is even less. A perk of doing a review is you get to keep the book in question, but I've not kept one of them. Only one, Chris Wooding's The Fade, came even close to it. I think the only sf title that made me go "wow!" at the end of it, apart from Northern Lights for the second time, was Philip Reeve's A Darkling Plain. Meanwhile, out in the real world, the sf market is still turning out highly accomplished stuff ... but it's leaving me cold.

Big Engine started this - that was when I first began to lose the ability to read sf for enjoyment. But something else has changed too, in the world outside my head. Far too many of the 30 sf titles were lacking in warmth, charm, humour, characters you could relate to. It didn't used to be that way. Did it? And I just don't have the heart for that kind of stuff anymore.

SF is going out in my own head, too. SFnal ideas don't flood in like they used to. They still tend to be weird by mainstream standards but I don't see myself doing any more space opera.

I don't think I'll ever deny that my first four novels were science fiction - in fact you have permission to shoot me if you hear me ever say any such thing - but it's just possible that some of you will one day be able to say "ah yes, I knew / first read him when he wrote sf." "Ah," your conversation companion will reply, "the early days."

For the record, here's 2007's full list.
  • Making Money, Terry Pratchett
  • A Darkling Plain, Philip Reeve
  • The Fade, Chris Wooding
  • Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
  • The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett
  • Soul Music, Terry Pratchett
  • Frozen Tracks, Åke Edwardson
  • The Tyrannicide Brief, Geoffrey Robertson
  • The Court of the Air, Stephen Hunt
  • Johnny & the Bomb, Terry Pratchett
  • The Fifth Woman, Henning Mankell
  • Woodenface, Gus Grenfell
  • Waylander, David Gemmell
  • Maskerade, Terry Pratchett
  • The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
  • In War Times, Kathleen Ann Goonan
  • The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke
  • So Far, So Near, Mat Coward
  • Pride & Perjury, Jonathan Aitken
  • I, Jack, Patricia Finney
  • George's Marvellous Medicine, Roald Dahl
  • The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks
  • City of Pearl, Karen Traviss
  • The Unadulterated Cat, Terry Pratchett
  • The Lost Art, Simon Morden
  • Dissolution, CJ Sansom
  • Saturn Returns, Sean Williams
  • The Loom of Youth, Alec Waugh
  • Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling
  • The Greatest Raid of All, C.E. Lucas Phillips
  • Slide Rule, Nevil Shute
  • HMS Ulysses, Alistair MacLean
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Fly for Your Life, Larry Forrester
  • Windfall, Desmond Bagley
  • Shout at the Devil, Wilbur Smith
  • Dark Space, Marianne de Pierres
  • Vice Versa, F. Anstey
  • Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson
  • Mary Anne, Daphne du Maurier
  • The Sea Shall Not Have Them, John Harris
  • The Good Shepherd, C.S. Forester
  • The Land God Gave to Cain, Hammond Innes
  • The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton
  • The Time of the Reaper, Andrew Butcher
  • The Wine of Angels, Phil Rickman
  • Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson
  • Thief of Time, Terry Pratchett
  • Dublin, Edward Rutherfurd
  • Slow Decay, Andy Lane
  • Border Princes, Dan Abnett
  • The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
  • Glorifying Terrorism, ed. Farah Mendlesohn
  • Iron Sunrise, Charles Stross
  • The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Selma Lagerlöf
  • A View from the Bridge, Arthur Miller
  • The Forest, Edward Rutherfurd
  • Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
  • Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
  • The Last Letter Home, Vilhelm Moberg

Fans of Roger, don't get your hopes up

Finally saw The Golden Compass yesterday. Pretty impressed and a little puzzled.

The sets and costumes have the feel of the book perfectly; the casting is pretty well spotless (Ian McKellen is obviously aiming for the coveted Tom Baker voiceover slot, and you have to not giggle when the evil Fra Pavel turns out to be Dibley's choirmaster); the plot is necessarily condensed (sometimes a little over-condensed) and thankfully minimises Philip Pullman's penchant for having his characters explain matters to each other, at length. Sometimes the dialogue really could have been more polished (that will be the over-condensation), though I think it was only three times that they shoehorned "alethiometer" and "golden compass" into the same sentence for the benefit of any thickies who found I Am Legend was sold out.

In short, I'm pleased I went. But it ends, allowing for chops and changes to the plots, on page 360 of my copy of Northern Lights. The book goes on to page 399 and a lot happens in those extra 39 pages.

I suspect it was to give the film an upbeat ending and to concentrate on Lyra's main drive: to rescue Roger, which she does. But still, it's like finishing Order of the Phoenix before the raid on the Ministry, or Fellowship of the Ring after Lothlorien. It raises hopes that can only be dashed. I'll be interested to see how they deal with the small matter of pages 391-399 in the next movie, assuming there is one.