Friday, May 30, 2008

If they didn't care, it would be unbearable

My call is important to the AA and I am currently being held in a queue that will last at least 5 minutes, but I'm to rest assured it will be dealt with as soon as possible.

It has taken 2.03 minutes of automated switchboards, recorded disclaimers and unsolicited information notices to get this far.

All I want to do is change my credit card details for renewing membership.

Alternative options become more appealing with every 80s electro synthpop beat ...

[Finally: I talk to a human at 7.52]

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Considerably more than 39 steps

295 more to be precise - a total of 334 from the ground up to the bells.

Guess where we went today?

Anyway, Robert Powell got it completely wrong. 334 steps, as I say, and the filigree on the clock faces is 3" thick wrought iron. You really wouldn't be smashing through it in a hurry.

You probably wouldn't even have the breath to try. Our guide at least gave us breaks on the way up. The first was about halfway up - the level at the bottom of the photo here - which contains the Prison Room, where the Serjeant at Arms can retain recalcitrant Parliamentarians if necessary. Last used in 1880 when the atheist Charles Bradlaugh MP refused to swear his allegiance to Queen Victoria on the Bible.

The Prison Room is Room 1. Just as we were setting off up the steps the guide thrust a bunch of keys at the first of our group (my mother), said "Room 1," pointed upwards and disappeared into a sideroom. So we all trooped up the stairs with my mother holding the keys to locked rooms in an actual palace. Security, eh? "You're a general's wife," I pointed out. "You were born to this."

Photos are forbidden inside so I'd better get it down from memory, helped by the pamphlet they handed out. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting at the top, but I think it involved a vast chamber with a mass of clockwork in the middle and the four translucent clock faces all around. In fact the mechanism is in a small room at the centre of the tower and you get to the faces by going into a narrow grey-painted gallery the next level down. Behind each face is a bank of very large low energy light bulbs, but the rungs are still there from the time when the clock was gas-lit and someone had to climb up and light each lamp with a match.

The mechanism is either impressively big or surprisingly small, depending which way you look at it. It would never be used in a movie because it takes up too little space - but there again, it's 15 feet long and about 5 wide, which in practical terms is large. It has all the requisite cogs and wires that you'd expect and it's clockwork. Clockwork! After 150 years, it still uses the original mechanism of weights and pendulum (4m long) which dangle down the central shaft of the tower. The only concession to modern times is that there is now a motor to wind it up again. It's kept accurate to half a second a day - the speed of the pendulum is regulated by adding or subtracting old pre-decimal 1p coins. Add 1 penny and the clock gains 2/5 of a second in 24 hours. At one end of the chassis are four little levers, about a foot long, connecting to cables which disappear into the ceiling above. These ring the quarter hour chimes just like a music box - a wheel turns, teeth on it strike the levers in a set sequence, the bells chime.

The tune is adapted - loosely, I would say - from "I know that my redeemer liveth". Didn't know that, did you? There's even, officially, words to it: "All through this hour / Lord be my guide / and by thy power / no foot shall slide."

From the clock room it's up the final 101 steps to the bell chamber, home of Big Ben itself, which is level with the top of the faces and open to the elements (but grilled against pigeons). There are no more levels to climb after that - the whole of the roof space is one big chamber, but full of iron girders and gantries. We were there for the 11 o'clock chimes. Ear plugs were handed out but even so ... wow! You don't just hear the chime, you feel it - the main bong, and a whole range of harmonics that vibrate in your ribs and your teeth and the back of your head and last much longer than the chime does. Big Ben was originally hauled up the central shaft which was then sealed off so they could put the mechanism below it - so they're in trouble if it breaks. It cracked soon after installation so they simply reduced the weight of the clapper, turned it 90 degrees so the clapper would hit a different bit of the bell and crossed their fingers. 150 years later it's still going strong.

I've been to the Tower, I've been on the Eye, I've been inside the Dome, I've been to Westminster Abbey and all the cathedrals, I've even been to the Palace on a couple of occasions ... but I now truly feel I have Done London.

An interesting little coda to the day was chatting to a very friendly, pleasant young man with Down's Syndrome on the Tube. First he complimented my lovely wife on her hair, then got on to asking what sights we had seen, had we been in the Queen's house (he had), had we met any royals (he had; Princess Anne, rosette for Riding for the Disabled, 1983), did we know why Bond Street was called Bond Street (neither did he) ... A fairly surreal conversation, finally topped with:

"Have you met Una Stubbs?"
(Wistfully) "I would love to meet Una Stubbs ..."

Then he got off at Green Park.

Monday, May 26, 2008

When Indy met Erich

Great Zimbabwe is an ancient ruined city, south of Harare, east of Bulawayo. The country of Zimbabwe was named after it. It wasn't until the twentieth century that Europeans began to admit, reluctantly, that it had been built by Africans. Previously they had bent over backwards to "prove" that it was built by the Queen of Sheba, it was King Solomon's mines, it was built by Phoenicians or Greeks ... anything rather than admit that the blacks had once been quite gifted at building stone cities. And at a time when we in Europe weren't.

Erich von Däniken built a career taking this mentality to the next stage, attributing the civilisations of ancient America and God knows what else to aliens from beyond the stars. I freely admit falling for it myself, as a kid. It was exciting and romantic. Unfortunately it was also a defence shield for smug, cosy westerners who liked to believe they were the epitome of human knowledge. It was camouflaged as a sense of wonder when in fact it was designed to shut down the imagination and the sense of wonder completely. What, humans built those fantastic pyramids and temples and palaces in the middle of the jungle? Humans more gifted than us? You want me to celebrate the wonderful thing that is the diversity of human ingenuity? Don't be ridiculous. It must have been aliens.

You can still build quite good science fiction on the notion of early alien intervention. Unfortunately, hard on the tail of Erich came Roswell and the Greys. Somehow they all got tied together and now the Greys are the archetypal, default alien - thin, grey, spindly, with a penchant for intervening in our prehistory. They are invoked as an explanation for something alien that requires no further thought.

I'm going to quote myself in an online rant I posted on this subject a few years ago, since I've already substantially paraphrased it. To save you following the link the apposite paragraphs are:
"... science fiction is meant to evolve. Here in the early twenty first century, every grey alien is a nail in the coffin of originality. It is like equipping every fictional starship with a warp core and dilithium crystals, just because that's how Trek does it. It's safe — it's a way of hanging up a sign to say that we don't intend to explore this particular avenue any further. "These guys are the aliens, okay? So don't bother your pretty little head — now let's tell the rest of the story." But in a story that has aliens, the aliens should be the freakin' story. Otherwise, why are you bothering with aliens at all?

I'll tell you why. Asimov deliberately chose a humans-only universe for most of his output, because he found the alternative of his contemporaries — a Campbellian, mixed-species-but-humans-triumphant universe — too similar to the barely veiled prejudice he had encountered as a Jew growing up amongst gentiles. By eliminating the aliens, he bypassed the problem. Since then, science fiction has evolved to be able to accommodate aliens without necessarily classifying them as Jews, blacks, communists or generally un-American. Sadly, the advance of the greys is a step back towards the Campbell days. Aliens are rendered instantly understandable and dealable with; and by implication, it's immediately them vs. us, and we had better be the winners.

Science fiction is better than that. We are better than that. I'm not afraid to be challenged. Give me aliens. Give me intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, or give me physical forms and intelligences shaped by evolution on an unimaginably alien world. But unless they're lined up with their backs to a wall and blindfolds over their pupil-less eyes, don't give me any more greys."
And it is all of the above that lies as a fundamental flaw at the heart of Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and means that it could never, ever be a great film. This is a great shame because it is undeniably fun. It doesn't hide Indy's advanced years; it makes a virtue of them. It has all the required chases and adventures and sword fights between two combatants who are each standing on a jeep driving very fast down parallel roads in the Amazon jungle (which of course is positively riddled with parallel roads). The opening scenes, as well as being prime Indiana are also chilling in a way that lies at the heart of the 1950s. Cate Blanchett is a superb uber-bitch baddie. Spielberg very wisely uses CGI as sparingly as he can - most of the stunts are with good old fashioned stuntmen and models and special effects. It's almost vintage.

Yet, Indy found fame battling bad guys under the McGuffin of mystical forces that were never entirely understood and best treated with reverence. Was that really the Angel of Death in the Ark? Did Christ really drink out of that cup? We never really knew; we were never meant to know. But we were on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens next.

Indy4 brings in the Greys. "Oh look," we say dully, "it's the Greys. Pass the popcorn."

Um. Would now be a good time to add "spoilers ahead"? Better late than never.

Incidentally, I intend to see Prince Caspian for the simple fact that Eddie Izzard does the voice of Reepicheep. Eddie Izzard was born to deliver Reep's best lines. "Cake or death, poltroon?"

Sunday, May 25, 2008

When principles clash

After reading the following, call me a heartless bastard only if:
  • you have never heard of Madeleine McCann
  • you go to Google Images and are unable to retrieve an image of her in less than five seconds.
Now, if a child of mine went missing, there's not a mountain I wouldn't move to get her back. If a nephew or niece went missing I'm pretty certain I could say the same. And so it's very hard to condemn Madeleine McCann's uncle for organising what is essentially a global spam to try and find her.

Hold that thought.

I enjoy a reasonably spam free existence which I put down to careful use of my email address online and my ISP's very good filters. However I also have another email address used for my freelance work as editor of the club magazine for what I shall call the Dotty Enthusiasts Club of Great Britain. A few days ago the Madeleine email was sent to this editorial address. Since then I've had three or four of the obnoxious "do better in bed"-type spams every day.

Why do I not think this is a coincidence?

Because the email urges recipients to pass itself on to everyone in their address list. I say I received the spam; in fact I received an email containing an embedded email containing an embedded email containing the message in the form of a PDF. The sender of the version that reached me, according to her automated sig, is PA at an oil firm, so really should have grasped the hang of basic email hygiene. Add all those emails together and you have a few hundred addresses, displayed for all to see, including my Dotty Enthusiast editorial address. A spammer's gold mine, in other words.

I've ranted before about people who thoughtlessly forward emails, and I made myself a hostage to fortune with the following words: "I do not forward circular emails, warnings, prayers, or any other of that ilk. Ever. No exceptions."

Perhaps I should have added: "... because, even if the intent is good, I believe that the irritation, the inconvenience and the tacit encouragement of bad practice outweighs any good that the spam might do."

Faced with my first ever spam that is for a genuinely good cause, my resolve wavered. A little. I left it in the inbox while I cogitated. And then I deleted it anyway.

I don't believe I can help find Madeleine McCann. I do not let this blind me to the good, albeit on a much smaller scale, that I can do in other areas. A world with no lost children but plenty of spammers will be a much nicer place than a world with no spammers but the occasional lost child. The two evils aren't remotely comparable; but, it's fighting the lesser one where I can make the greater contribution.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

You tease

On day 1 there was the blue box. DON'T CARE / NOT US! It came addressed to my manager and in it was a chocolate heart.

The next two came in the same post on day 2, which suggests a teaser campaign that ran out of patience. CAN'T DO IT / OH YES WE CAN had a chocolate Swiss army penknife (rather neat, I thought) and BAD EXPERIENCES / I DON'T THINK SO had 18p in chocolate money. One chocolate 10p and four chocolate 2ps. It also contained the business card for a firm of printers that wants to do business with us and, by all available evidence, charges its customers far too much if they can afford to do teaser campaigns like this.

My fellow technical editor N got the heart for his girlfriend, my manager R got the penknife for his little boy and I got the problem of how to divide 18p in chocolate coins equally in a family of three.

The small print inside the green, final box includes the threat promise of a phone call. We may hold out for more chocolate.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lodged at John Mason

I like all the people I know who have come or are coming through John Mason school (age range of set: 15-42). And I liked the ones I met there today when I ran a couple of workshops in the library learning resource centre.

The do was arranged by Mark Thornton from Mostly Books and the librarian learning resource centrearian – all I had to do was turn up, while Mark lurked at the back and sold books in the break. And so I talked about worldbuilding in science fiction – not (necessarily) creating a whole new planet, but a background, a setting, that all the characters will consider totally normal but which has to be explained subtly to the reader. What, your soul doesn’t follow you around as a shapeshifting animal? Weirdo!

Ben’s clues for worldbuilding, many based on examples that I rejected for Big Engine:
  • If you can remove the sf element and still have a story, it’s not sf. (1)
  • You can’t change just one thing. There must be consequences to your change. (2)
  • The world must make sense to the people in it. (3)
  • There must be limitations to your world. (4)
  • Only have other races if there is something about them that could never be human. (5)
  • You're not limited by an effects budget in a book. Go mad!
There were 21 in the first group, 15 in the second; mostly year 9 with a scattering of 8 and 7. Quite a few girls turned up - in fact they were the majority in the second group, which I found very encouraging. Mary Shelley, Ursula le Guin – there’s a substantial female heritage to science fiction that gets ignored all too easily.

The learn- oh soddit library already has a copy of Wingèd Chariot. One boy decided he prefers the original title and the present cover: clearly a young man of great discernment. I explained to another boy that Time’s Chariot is a slightly rewritten and generally updated version of the former. ‘Why did you write the same book twice?’ he asked. ‘That’s just stupid.’


Photos may follow.

  1. Big Engine reject: a story that was allegedly on an alien world but was basically a 1930s Chicago gangster adventure, so should have been set in 1930s Chicago.
  2. Big Engine reject: a world in which the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in nuclear war; 40 years later, background radiation is so high that the race can only breed by cloning. And yet everything else is the same as now: US still a superpower, no nuclear winter ...
  3. Big Engine reject: the European parliament outlaws women, making all of Europe male and gay and reproducing by cloning. A fearless underground women’s resistance army is determined to smash the reproduction centres and make European blokes hetero again. This was meant to be a dire warning about the perils of ideology and cloning but ended as merely dire.
  4. ‘Frodo, you must throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Now we’ll just ask the giant eagles to fly us down to Mordor and be home for tea.’
  5. Elves add nothing!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Those damned busters

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Dambusters mission. A Lancaster flew over Derwent Water, where they rehearsed their bombing runs and tested the bouncing bomb.

Only, you see a Lanc flying over a dam and it's not Derwent Water you think of, is it?

We love our European allies. Honest.

Buy the DFC

There, that’s the subliminal advertising done.

I couldn’t possibly say what DFC stands for, but if I mention that it’s published by my publisher David Fickling and it’s a comic, you may be able to work it out. Issue 1 is out at the end of month and it was launched yesterday at a do at the BFI.

Comics were big in my day. The newsagents were packed with them. My character was permanently shaped by Countdown, which became TV Action and then folded when I was 8. There were (and still are) the obviously comical comics – Beano, Dandy. There were (far too many) war-based ones – Warlord, Battle, Victor. There were the more generic ones, which I think were my favourites: Valiant, Hotspur, Tornado, Bullet, each of which covered a variety of genres. Oh yes, obviously, 2000AD, launched in 1977 when 2000AD was still in the far future. And Starlord, which had a brief fling in the late 70s before merging with 2000AD but which I frankly think was better. I’d probably not have written Time’s Chariot if not for their ‘Timequake’ series.

Mergers were a common thing, which was unfortunate if you had a subscription to two comics which became one. For a while they would present themselves as X & Y – Battle & Hotspur, 2000AD & Tornado – before assimilation would complete and the name of the Y partner would mysteriously vanish from the masthead. The exception to this was Whizzer & Chips which actually was one comic pretending to be two.

And for the gels, bless them, there was (I believe) Misty and – heaven help us – Bunty. Bunty?? I still can’t quite believe my life encompasses a time period when girls were expected to identify with names like Bunty. Why not just call it ‘Frumpy Bluestocking’ and be done?

But what they all had in common was good ol’ straightforward story telling, a maximum of plot and a minimum of words, week after week after week without fail. Blimey. As a kid you just took it all for granted but the creative effort must have been stupendous.

And now the DFC. If you’re a regular blog reader with a really long memory you might remember me coyly announcing two great pieces of news, 15 months ago, that I couldn’t then expand on. Time’s Chariot was one and the DFC is the other. David is launching a new comic, bringing the standards of the golden age that he (and I) grew up in to today’s online media-savvy interactivity-drenched younger generation. It’s a proper paper product but only available by subscription, thus avoiding the ruinous discounts and terms required to get any magazine into a newsagents. He’s pushing it heavily at schools. The stories run the whole gamut of all the comics mentioned above, with drawing styles and plot lines that should cover most of secondary education. It’s a lovely thing just to hold. I showed it to my designer colleague this morning and it appealed to four of his five senses (he didn’t, as far as I could see, taste it). And Philip Pullman has contributed a strip which is good boy’s own adventure and doesn’t seem to push atheism. In short, nothing to hate, everything to love.

The launch do was held at the BFI, tucked away beneath Waterloo Bridge. In fact as far as I can tell it’s part of the bridge’s integral structure. Having walked three sides round a large square to get in at the BFI’s front door, I found that the party was in the Film Café, which opens right out onto the south bank.

So, 400 people crammed into quite a small space for wine and nibbles then, mercifully, we were released out onto the riverside where David (left, dark jacket) and Mr P (right, light jacket) released 100 balloons with complimentary subscriptions attached to them for any finders.

Can it work? I’ve no idea. But if David (and the full resources of Random House behind him) can’t do it then I’ll concede no one can.

In other news my favourite bookshop, Abingdon’s Mostly Books, has won the Booksellers Association New Bookshop of the Year Award, And quite right too. Nice things, excellent things are happening to people that I like. They are not necessarily happening to me. I may feel a little on the periphery, but I’m big enough to share their joy.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Psychic pspam

I can't remember ever enjoying a spam so much as this one, though it's also one more reason not to put your date of birth, email or indeed name anywhere online.

What is a little eerie is that she has my work email. I'm pretty sure that has never appeared with my date of birth anywhere on the web. Ah well.

Anyway, I was going to paste this in verbatim, but couldn't resist adding the occasional pensée of my own in square brackets. Everything else is sic.
Dear Ben,

I've actually got something a little unusual to tell you about and I am sure that you will find what I have to say very interesting indeed. What I came accross first started out as a rather strange coincidence. I was working a reading for another person which I am helping at the moment and I suddenly started thinking about you very strongly and I wondered why. I then became very excited as I noticed that this person shared certain startling similarities with you Ben. This person was also male, born Aquarius and was around about the same age as you. The similarity between your personalities was the most striking however as this person also had huge untouched sources of inner potential which were completely unused and was also struggling with a number of obstacles which prevented certain important opportunities to be fully exploited. In fact now I think about it, this person was born on the same day as you the 14 February 1965 [good grief!] but just a year before on the 14 February 1964 [so in other words not the same day at all]. Fac ed with such a host of strange coincidences I wanted to check whether or not this was in fact your astral twin (we each have an astral twin [but not a hand twin?] and it is always very interesting to discover this other person as we normally share very similar destinies, often with only a few years of difference).

I did check a little further and unfortunately this person was not your astral twin [poot!] but as I was studying your configuration I came across some very interesting information which could be even more important than your astral twin and I am writing to you today to tell you about this discovery.

In fact this person who came to consult me just a few days ago asked me to study their Karma and to help them regress into their Past Lives. This may seem unusual to you but I was asked for help as this person often had the bizarre impression to already know a place when it was in fact completely new to them or to seem know someone when meeting them only for the first time [it's called cyberstalking]. By investigating this deja-vu and Karma and by regressing into past lives we made some startling discoveries. We were able to make some good advances together and we were able to understand more about this person's capacities and why certain problems kept cropping up. We were able to find some good solid solutions to this person's pre-occupations.

You must be asking yourself what this all has to do with you Ben and I will now explain this to you. There are significant coincidences which exist between this person and yourself and I quickly came to realize that although you two were not at all astral twins it was also vital to produce the same kind of reading for you. I then began working on this regression for you Ben. I wanted to help you and satisfy my own curiosity about the great destiny I began to suspect that you had in store for you. I made a startling discovery....

It is clear to me that you have been living through the same series of problems throughout all of your past lives. This is in fact damaging to you as it stops you from liberating yourself completely from a few of the problems which have been haunting you for some time now in this lifetime and which you really want to get rid of. I had to write to you straight away as you have already told me that you want to get out of this vicious circle. I know that you have lived through some fairly traumatic events in a number of your Past Lives [I died in each one of them] and that you now have a difficulty bringing out all of your talents. These difficulties [a difficulty or difficulties? Be consistent, woman. Your researches should have at least told you you're talking to an editor] are indirectly linked to certain events in your past (events which took place hundreds of years ago) and their roots are deeply set in your unconsciousness. I have come to realize today is that it is possible to free you from these constraints and to liberate you from this past trauma and to help you lead the life you truly deserve to live. You will finally be able to be serene and in harmony with yourself.

I also know that for you to accomplish this Ben it is important to come to terms with the concept of past lives so let me now tell you just a few things about past lives in general before going on to explain how you can use this technique to liberate yourself from the problems which have been ruining your life for such a long time now.

Far too often we blindly believe in what we have been taught without using our own faculties to examine the world around us and to come to our own conclusions. The concept of reincarnation and of Karma has existed since the dawn of time and it forms the foundation of a number of the great religions of the East: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. Japanese esoteric Dadaism [Dadaism? I do not think it means what you think it means], Tibetan traditions and other disciplines of South-East Asia also make use of these ideas. In ancient Greece, the main scientific and philosophical schools accepted the principal of past lives, notably the Pythagoreans, Aristotelians and the Platonists. Ancient jewish groups such as the Hessians, the Pharsians and the Caraites include the notion of past lives in their teachings and these branches of jewish faith form the basis of modern day Christianity. The Gnostics, the Kabbalistes, Amerindians, pre-columbine cultures [i.e. cultures existing before the high school shootings?], Polynesian Shamans, Celtic Druids and the wise men of African, Peru vian, Columbian and Brazilian cultures also share this faith as do many modern schools of thought such as the Theosophies and the Anthroposohes.

I have used past life regression techniques for many years now as these are fantastically efficient techniques and are capable of plunging the client deep into the subconscious to do a little 'spring-cleaning'! Unfortunately in the West science has rejected spirituality as an irrational dream even though in antiquity the Greek, Egyptian, Mayan and Incan societies spent a great deal of time researching the psychic nodes of the past and therapeutic techniques developed to dissolve these nodes became a part of everyday life. [The Mayans and Incans also spent a great deal of time sacrificing each other so this is not a recommendation.] However it must be said that through the work of quantum physics a certain notion of reincarnation has been re-introduced over the past few years. [As in, you don't know if you've reincarnated until you open the box and see?] Today many experiments have sought to prove re-incarnation and these experiments have been greatly supported by the reports of spontaneous past life regressions which have occurred to people in various states of altered consciousness. These regressions occur whether or not the individual previously 'believed' in past lives. In a number of these cases, the regression can be objectively assessed. I have battled for a long time now against the commonly held belief that the past is just the past and that is has zero impact on the present. The many seances I have performed and the research I have undertaken into regression and past lives have shown me exactly how I can help my patients to explore their past lives and then solve the problems and dilemmas of the present. This exploration is also therapeutic as my patients are able to throw off the weight of the traumatic events they have lived through in the past and discover the power and beauty of hidden talents. A few months ago for example I performed a past live regression for a 12 year old boy and I discovered that he had an innate skill for music which came from a life he had lived through 130 years previously as a musician in Italy. The boy himself had never taken up music, either through a lack of time or simply because the opport unity to do so had never came up. I advised his parents to enroll him in music classes, which they did, and the boy naturally chose the violin. His teacher was amazed by the speed at which this boy acquired his new musical skill and he is now generally regarded as a young genius with an unsettling musical ability. Despite the short time he has been learning the violin he gives the impression that he has been playing for years and years, which is indirectly true!

But lets get back to you Ben, after this brief technical digression. As I have already told you it would be good to work on your past lives. A regression would be very revealing. I don't want to begin this regression without your full consent but I must admit that I have already start to look a little bit further and I can tell you now that I have come across a great deal of information which will be extremely useful for understanding exactly what kind of person you are today. I have also come to realize that a complete past life regression will allow you to come to terms with the concern which you have at this time. This regression will help you to avoid re-living certain of the trauma you have experienced in the past and which stem from an unresolved interior conflict which began in one of your past lives. Above all this regression will serve as an efficient tool, armed with the personal knowledge which this regression will bring you will understand yourself even better, yo u will find answers to all the questions you ask yourself about your personality, your relationships with other people and you will reveal hidden talents which you acquired during past lives.

You will then understand your aim in life and where exactly your destiny is taking you and you will find out what your objectives and challenges should be and which lessons you should work on to satisfy the thirst of your soul. This regression is probably the most useful tool you can get hold of to discover exactly what your goals are in life and where the direction of your life is going to take you. You will be beginning a fascinating voyage in time and space and you marvel at your previous lives, how you lived these lives, where and who with. You will discover who you have been before and why you have chosen to be yourself Ben in this lifetime when you re-entered the world on the 14 February 1965.

I will not, as I have just said, begin this past life regression without your permission as there is, I must admit, a very heavy workload. I just need your consent and I will then start dealing with the rest. I will work on your regression and I will send you the results of this work in a full personal reading. You can request your past life regression on the following page:

[[which I have no intention of telling you]]

Your friend,
Jenna [she chose a strange career path after Blake's 7]

Strangely, following the link takes you to another of those slightly stilted mail mergy personalised pages addressed to me Ben, and a form for me to fill in for my ($30) chart. Fill in? Come on, lady, you already have my name, address and date of birth. Put in a little effort here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How crime proceeds

Back in 2002 one day the front page of the Daily Mail fulminated about drug criminals profiting from their illegally gained fortune. Whichever vindictive bastard we then had as a Home Secretary (I know, doesn’t narrow it down, does it?) read his Daily Mail over his breakfast, choked, and hurriedly scribbled down an Act on his napkin that would remedy the situation. He was able to courier it to the House, fast track it through the committee stage and it was law by elevenses.

Or something like that. I may have glossed over some of the details. The point is, we now have the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, a.k.a. POCA, which says that offenders convicted of a drugs-related offence can have their assets seized. And why not? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this could. The Times reports that a man with a drugs record was suspected – only suspected – of having gained his £4m fortune illegally, and so his assets were frozen. Obviously it went to court and he needed a defence, but because his assets were frozen, he couldn’t afford a decent barrister skilled in drugs law and no such barrister was prepared to work for the legal aid rate. So when it came to court, on the one hand we had the full might and majesty of the Crown Prosecution Service and on the other a financially embarrassed millionaire with no qualified representation. And so the judge halted the proceedings as an abuse of process – there was no chance of the guy getting a fair trial under English law. Whether he was guilty or not we will never know.

Yeah, go POCA!

Alternatively, chalk up one more victim to New Labour’s smugly self-righteous delusion that the affairs of man can be micro-managed by legislation, and if only everyone would apply the law exactly as it was meant to be applied when it was rushed through Parliament then everyone would be better off. I’m sorry, examine the legislation? Think ahead, try to predict and head off the unintended consequences? How could there possibly be unintended consequences? Look, we’re fighting the bad guys here. What is your problem?

Even Thatcher was never so smugly self-righteous as the current shower. Self-righteous, yes, but as far as she was concerned, if you didn’t agree with her then go screw yourselves because she was going to do it anyway. Which ultimately was her downfall. Thatcher, strange to think, had a certain minimal faith in human nature - that people could at least think for themselves (which they did, hence why she got chucked out). But Labour now has no faith in you, me, or itself, and certainly not the courts, which is why it has to fiddle and fine tune the law at every step. We’re all morons, needing legislation to guide us through every moment of our lives. There is no spirit of the law. Just the letter.

If Labour was an author, it would write a fairly decent and digestible 80,000 word novel, then gradually crank it up to about 500,000 words with endless explanatory paragraphs, adjectives and changing points of view so that at no stage was the reader’s imagination challenged, or indeed, exercised.

If Labour was a band, it would start as a bunch of mates in a garage with guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. It would then spend the next ten years over-producing an album in which every instrument (having gradually worked their up to a full orchestra, multi-ethnic choir and musique concrète) was balanced at exactly the right output for optimal listening on one particular highly specialised make of speaker, but rubbish for more popular brands that people actually use.

If Labour was a web designer it would start with a few simple lines of HTML and then Flash and Shockwave it out of existence.

Sadly Labour is none of the above. It’s our government.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Stardust is golden

A few years ago my old school was in the habit of hiring recent leavers to phone around ex-pupils and ask them for money. And indeed it probably still does, but I asked them to stop phoning me. I had one memorable conversation with some bepimpled oaf whose five years of privileged education had yet to introduce him to (a) the harsh realities of life or (b) tact:
  • Him: (paraphrased) can you give us money?
  • Me: (verbatim) I was given notice today.
  • Him: (equally verbatim) Oh ... when do you think you’ll be able to make a contribution?
But on the other hand, I did once have a very pleasant conversation with a bright young man who obviously did understand harsh realities, which was fortunate because he wanted to be an actor. I still didn’t give him any money (I think) but we did chat pleasantly about his aspirations and he impressed me with tales of what he had already accomplished – bit parts here and there, gatecrashing sets, talking actors into letting him crash on their floors, etc. You can tell I was impressed because I made a rare exception and actually remembered the name of a complete stranger. Charlie Cox, and a couple of years ago I noticed his name was starting to appear on movie posters. First there was The Merchant of Venice, which I didn’t see. And then there was Stardust, which I finally saw last night, having (also finally) read the book earlier this year.

Stardust the book is a witty fairy tale by Neil Gaiman which is a pleasure to read because of its sheer fairy taleness. Now, anyone can write a fantasy with its own rules. (Though not anyone can do it well ...) Combining fantasy world with real world rules to get a third set of rules completely, internally consistent and limited to the confines of a book’s covers, is another matter. In Stardust, on the one hand you have pure fairy tale logic. The fastest way to travel is by candlelight? Naturally. A girl can be enslaved by a chain made of cobwebs and moonlight? Well duh! And on the other hand there is the logic of our own world. A fallen star may be a numinous young girl in the land of faerie but in our world it’s a lump of pitted iron. Our hero Tristran (from this world) sees a falling star and vows to bring it back to his beloved. She is a right little ball teaser and ends up getting what she deserves, but don’t let me get ahead. To retrieve the star our hero has to cross the border into faerie, and after that different rules apply. And yet, to the reader, it can all co-exist in the head without effort. It’s preposterous but you enjoy its preposternousnessness. Meanwhile the humour is pleasantly dark; good and evil are plainly good and evil; there is change and redemption; and boy gets girl (the right one) in a way that manages to be touching, innocent and realistic even to cynical adults.

Stardust the movie isn’t quite the classic it could be. It’s no Princess Bride, a movie which contains at least two lines that have made their way into popular culture (can you quote them? Go on!) and which is even more knowing about fairy taleness. But it’s no dead end of actors parading around in silly costumes either. The overall plot is retained. The story of Tristran’s origins is less satisfying, but on the other hand it’s over quicker, letting them get on with the tale. It adds a denouement which wasn’t there in the book but is probably needed: the evil witch is actively defeated, rather than just (as she does in the book) giving up. Michelle Pfeiffer obviously loves hamming up the part, and even Robert de Niro weighs in with some well-motivated method hamming of his own, greatly expanding on a bit part in the book. (Which was probably necessary to get de Niro’s services in the first place.) It doesn’t quite trust the viewer’s intelligence as much as the book did, with voiceovers to explain the bleedin’ obvious, but I suppose they knew they had to play to a broader audience. And a mercifully brief role seems to have been created for Ricky Gervais simply so that his character can be stabbed to death, which is as good a reason as any.

And most astonishing of all, both Tristran (young Charlie) and Yvaine (Claire Danes) are exactly as they should be. I’ve not seen a book-based movie before where the actors so exactly mirrored the characters from the book, but here they manage it.

The only really jarring notes come right at the end. Without any spoilers, let’s just say that Tristran is elevated way above his station and frankly looks ridiculous. And then as we fade to credits the movie uses a technique found in far too many fantasy movies to drive out the audience and get the cinema ready for the next showing – it puts a contemporary pop song over the end credits. Lord of the Rings used Enya for the job. Stardust uses – I can hardly bear to write it – Take That. So if you see it, just turn off when the movie quite obviously ends (hint: there are two stars in the sky) and preserve your happy memories.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

That's him in the corner, that's him in the spotlight

I feel Bonusbarn may not take his Religious Studies completely seriously. Witness the following from his class notes on "The Use of Animals in Medicine", dated 13/9/07 and reproduced with his permission. Having dealt with the Catholic View and the CofE View he gets onto My View:
"I think that we can test on animals, as if we weren't meant to, the animals would fight back in some form of uprising."
And RS is his first GCSE this week. Oh dear.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Light absorbing ovines

For many, many years (until the advent of the internet) the only Jeapeses I knew, or knew of, were ones I was directly related to. Then suddenly, around the mid-nineties, others started getting in touch. Eventually it was even possible to piece together a fairly sketchy history of the Jeapes family. It still seems odd to see a first name that isn't one of a repertoire of eight (nine if you include my lovely wife) appended to my surname.

Like Jesse Jeapes, for instance, who lived in the mid nineteenth century and who had four daughters.

And today I learnt that Jesse was a policeman, constable no. C146 to be precise. (Unless, of course, there were two Jesse Jeapeses, which isn’t impossible.) A right little thief taker he was too, being cited as a witness in 13 of the 19 cases you get if you enter JEAPES as a search term in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

George Jeapes, a witness in two cases, was constable D152. We’re a law abiding lot.

Apart that is from William Jeapes (17) who on 25 February 1895 pleaded guilty to a burglary in the dwelling-house of John Campbell Wells, and stealing a purse, a pair of stockings, a pair of gloves, and £2 10s. in money. I am shocked, shocked to my core. Mind you, I happen to know there was a William Jeapes who was a company director in 1929, so maybe he went straight. The little brute got six months hard labour so maybe some good came of it.

Henry Jeapes, witness in a fraud case of 16 November 1903, was an accountant, so there are black sheep in every family.

Monday, May 05, 2008

If you like lolcats then you'll love ...

... Graphjams.

Actually you may like graphjams even if you don't like lolcats. Or you may loathe them both. See, I'm already thinking in terms of statistical presentation. Too much browsing of the site will do that to you.

Okay, put it this way. If you find the following funny, or even just plain understand them, then you will at least enjoy graphjams. If you don't, you won't, so don't say I didn't warn you. (Not all are musical, like these, but they do tend to be the funniest.)

End of public service announcement.

I may make one of my own soon.

song chart memes
see more song memes

song chart memes
see more song memes

funny graphs
see more song memes

funny graphs
see more song memes

I ought to acknowledge Major Clangar, (a) for bringing these to my attention and (b) for his own contribution, which I understood immediately and which made me laugh out loud.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Doing the Watlington Walk (with a circular dead sheep)

Okay, we didn't do the Sarsen Walk. In previous years it's been combined with a visit to the parental home, but for various reasons that wouldn't work this time round. And we didn't fancy getting up to get to Avebury by 8 a.m., walking across Salisbury Plain and driving back home again.

So we did Watlington Walk no. 3, one of several kindly provided by the good folk of Watlington to help you enjoy the Chilterns. A fraction of the length of the Sarsen Walk, but a perfectly acceptable substitute. We missed out on crossing the highest point in Wiltshire, but on the other hand we got to walk up Watlington Hill and get really quite astonishing views across Oxfordshire instead. And we must have seen upwards of fifty red kites, soaring and hovering with their six foot wing span sometimes only 20 or 30 feet above the ground. They're carrion eaters, but so gorgeous to look at that you really can't complain. It did dawn on me that my hat is made of sheep leather and they were maybe trying to work out if the circular dead sheep ambling through the countryside below them was worth a nibble. None of them chanced it.

By the famous White Mark of Watlington (why is it famous? Because Watlington says so; don't argue) we saw two deer with such an appalling sense of self-preservation I can only assume they were teenagers. They didn't even hear us approach, and we weren't trying to hide. The thought processes of the nearest deer must have gone something like:
Nom nom nom nom nom [holds head up; totally fails to see us] nom nom nom nom nom [holds head up again] OMG humans! What do I do now? Hmm. Yes. Good one. Let's see. They don't look that dangerous. They're not pointing long thin things at me. Should I go back to nom nom nom? Maybe not. I'll ... um ... I know, I'll lift up one of my front legs as if I was about to make a bolt for it. (But who am I kidding? This Chiltern grass is just so nomsome.) No, they're still not making a move. I'll ... I'll make a run just in case ... [scarpers for about ten feet, barely making the cover of the trees, stops and looks back] They're still just standing there. Aw, they look so cute. I know, I'll go and tell my friend about them, even though it means exposing my full flank to them for about ten seconds while I wander over to him. Hey, Frank, look what I found!

Frank: OMG humans!

Yes, that's what I was thinking. What shall we do?

Frank: ooh, hang on, I read about just this situation in a book once. All things considered, we should probably run.

[Together they make a half hearted dash for the trees. Stop and look back again. We take a step forward]

Eek! [Exeunt as if pursued by Ben]
And we may do another tomorrow.