Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gruesome twosome

Loath as I am - and it's very, very loath - to defend Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, my inner liberal forces me to consider all sides of the argument. To wit:
  • the offending broadcast went out on a late night show when 2.5 people were listening. Those 2.5, being presumably regular Brand listeners, knew exactly the kind of thing they were likely to be hearing and so their protests can be taken about as seriously as those who watched the sex on Teen Big Brother frame-by-frame before firing off letters of outrage to Channel 4.
  • the aggrieved granddaughter belongs to a group called Satanic Sluts, which rather ups the stakes in trying to prove despoiled innocence.
  • the show was pre-recorded, so while Ross and Brand were doing exactly what everyone expected of them - going for the lowest common humour denominator rather than use their genuine talent to do something clever and original - somewhere there is a producer or editor whose good judgement failed quite catastrophically.
On the other hand, two overpaid twonks are off the air. Result.

And now the politicians are jumping on the bandwagon. Oh dear. Don't they have better things to do, like restore trust in the banking system that underpins the fabric of our existence? Of course, if the offending twosome are to be truly and utterly screwed it just needs Gordon and/or David to express complete faith in them and promise their full support. That's always the kiss of death to any political career.

I'm also delighted that the granddaughter is called Georgina Baillie as it gives me the chance to play this. Seventies cheesefest or francophobe paean to adolescent incestuous longings? You decide.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The martyrdom of St Benjamin

I've decided I have a martyr complex, and I know exactly where it came from. Ten years of stiff upper lip public school education.

Another legacy of public school is hating to travel away from my loved ones. For some reason Woking station after dark always comes to mind, probably because that was where - only a couple of times, but obviously it marked me - I would return to school at the end of a half term break with my grandmother, while my parents were abroad.

Thus, on those occasions as an adult when I still have to travel away from my loved ones the martyr complex kicks in with a whoop of glee. Really heavy duty misery ahead, whoopee! Like, yesterday I had to travel down to Brighton for various meetings this morning. I decided I would head off from work early (4ish), suffer the periphery of the rush hour on the M25 and be bored and lonely all evening.

Result: I was miserable right from saying goodbye to Best Beloved in the morning and for the rest of the day, until finally it dawned on me (thanks to a sane colleague) that I didn't have to do it quite like that. I could go home, have dinner, leave 7ish with rush hour out of the way, get to Brighton, turn right in, not have time to be lonely and do my stuff this morning as planned. The madness is over! The martyr complex is identified and told to go stuff itself!

And so that is what I did. Plus most of the drive was on empty motorways after dark, which I actually quite enjoy. It makes me fell very Vangelis-y.

Bonusbarn comments that I don't have a martyr complex, I just need to develop common sense in certain areas of my life. I cunningly riposte that it's much the same thing, really. Still, I have gained a little in self-knowledge and that's always the first step in self-rectification.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Your result for Howard Gardner's Eight Types of Intelligence Test...


"This area has to do with introspective and self-reflective capacities. Those who are strongest in this intelligence are typically introverts and prefer to work alone. They are usually highly self-aware and capable of understanding their own emotions, goals and motivations. They often have an affinity for thought-based pursuits such as philosophy. They learn best when allowed to concentrate on the subject by themselves. There is often a high level of perfectionism associated with this intelligence.

Careers which suit those with this intelligence include philosophers, psychologists, theologians, writers and scientists." (Wikipedia)

Take Howard Gardner's Eight Types of Intelligence Test at HelloQuizzy

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bringing down the House

The group mind of my regular readers may recall mention of my former colleague C the actress, who left to find fame and fortune in the lights of the big city.

Actually she left to do a year at drama school which included a part in an off-West End play (a term I just made up; well, if you can have off-Broadway then you can have off-West End. Can't you?). So she's done the year at drama school and is just ending her run in the play. A group of us went from work to cheer her on.

The play was on at the New Players Theatre, just off Villiers St between Charing Cross and Embankment, bang beneath the Charing Cross main line. At various points there is an interesting thunder effect from above as the trains roll in and out. It's exactly the kind of place Joey does all his shows in Friends.

The play is The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, a laff-a-minute exposé of pride, Catholicism and sexual tension that (Wikipedia says) "foreshadows the stifling nature of Franco's fascist regime." Bernarda is a proud, aristocratic, newly-qualified widow who declares eight years of mourning after the death of her not remotely mourned husband. She has five unwed daughters, none of whom is marriageable as they are the only young senoritas of their class for about 100 miles around. The oldest, despite this handicap, has still managed to get herself engaged. At first Bernarda is of the opinion that even the marriage should be put off for the eight-year mourning period, but changes her mind when she sees how disruptive the man's presence is on the status quo. Best to get it over with as quickly as possible to get him off the scene. But letting the marriage go ahead just makes things worse, since the other sisters are at least all partially in love with the fiancé and the youngest daughter is having an affair with him. The maximum that can be achieved in infidelity is a snog and a grope through a barred window but that can still be quite enough.

One thing leads to another, Bernarda tries to shoot the fiancé (the audience probably wasn't meant to giggle at the off-stage gunshot, but Lorca wasn't aiming it at an audience of Brits) and the youngest daughter, thinking Bernarda actually hit the guy, hangs herself. A delighted Bernarda announces that you ain't seen nothing yet, now we're really going to get some heavy mourning done. (Actually she talks about "drowning in a sea of mourning" and makes sure everyone knows the daughter died a virgin. Reputation is everything - and, bearing in mind the barred window, it's hard to see how it could have been otherwise.)

No man ever actually appears on stage, but that only adds to it. At one point the sisters are listening to the men marching off to the fields singing a lusty harvesting song, and both they and the audience are almost weak at the knees at the thought of what could be. As so often in literature, the way to make something sexy is not to have any sex at all.

A colleague who has previously seen the play advised me that "if you can get halfway through and not want to throw knives at Bernarda, you're a better man than I am." He's a better man than I am - I made it about halfway through act 1. Apparently the play was finished in 1936 but first shown in 1945, which was a missed opportunity on the part of the Republicans. One showing of this in the West End when it was written would have doubled recruitment for the International Brigade.

Anyway. C has done her time and will doubtless soon be appearing as 3rd Body in Casualty, Worried Mum in The Bill and all the other things actresses do at the dawn of their careers. I already knew for a fact that she made an excellent Perdita and Sacharissa in the Discworld plays and I had no doubt she could do it professionally, but it's good to have the evidence of my own eyes and ears. I suppose I can stop calling her C now. Look for Claire Dixon - which isn't actually her name, but someone of her own name already has an Equity card, so Claire Dixon is what she will be known as.

Incidentally, less than two months after he finished the play, Lorca was shot by the Nationalists. It's an extreme form of criticism but you can see their point. Franco's tastes presumably tended more to the burlesque.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Flows in the attic

  • Contains 3 updates (scroll down)
Nothing chills the heart like the sound of dripping water where none should be ...

I tracked it down, yesterday morning just before I was meant to be leaving for work, to a pool of water on the kitchen windowsill that was dripping onto the floor. I mopped it up and tried vainly to find the source. None showed - nothing dripping from the ceiling (and for reasons I'll come to, I couldn't see how this would be possible anyway) so I assumed it was just a bad case of condensation on the window. A very bad case, but I'm an optimist. Then I went to work.

I came back at the end of the day and found the water had repooled. Now I looked more closely it seemed to be welling up through the window sill. Hmm. I've heard of rising damp, but we're on the third floor. Abingdon is not known for its supercharged artesian wells. The only other answer is that water was coming down between the wall and the wooden frame of the window. Down from ...

... Eyes raise slowly, reluctantly to the ceiling.

The ceiling itself still seemed unmarked and there's nothing above us except a very low, cramped attic space. The hatch is too small and the space is too limited to do anything with it, like store stuff. It's just there, cramped and cold and cobwebby. Even more reluctantly, I climbed up to have a look. It took a moment to work out what was going on.

A brief break for further explanation. There is one more flat above ours but it doesn't extend as far as we do. Their kitchen looks out over the roof above ours. The waste pipe from their sink and their washing machine goes through our roofspace. At one point, for a reason which truly baffles me, it turns a sharp 90 degrees, then another 90 degrees to resume its original direction. Then it goes out of the wall. Just after the first bend, it had broken. It hadn't come apart at the seams, the actual plastic had snapped, clean off. Everything that came out of that pipe now went straight into our roofspace.

And here is where we bless and offer up small sacrifices to the Gods of Victorian Plumbing. There's also an old cold water tank up there, probably from before the house was converted to flats. It's not part of anyone's system now and it's bone dry. Beneath it is a small lead-lined trough set into the floor of the attic. It's about 2m x 2m by 4cm deep, and was presumably to catch any overflow from the tank in days of yore. The broken pipe was pouring straight into this. Thus we hadn't had a deluge through our ceiling the moment the top flat ran their washing machine. We had to wait for it to gather enough water to overflow, probably when they did the washing up. No deluge, just a gentle trickle. Down the walls. Up through our windowsill.

So, we spent most of yesterday evening with me in the ceiling bailing out the trough, into a bucket which I would pass down the hatch to Best Beloved, who would pass it to Bonusbarn who would pour it down the toilet. The question of exactly what would snap a pipe like that was shelved for the duration of the immediate emergency. Once it was down to a manageable level we alerted our top neighbours (who are top neighbours in every sense). Forensic analysis was swift. Their pipe had blocked and they had called in Dynarod, the day before yesterday. We're not quite sure what Dynarod did but it involved a "heavy piece of equipment that went on the floor." Down a plastic pipe? They should surely have known better. Anyway, that's what dunnit.

Dynarod have been summoned back by Top Neighbours; any moment now I will be called upon to let them in, as repair work will have to be done in our attic. I await their comments with interest. Updates will be posted.

UPDATE 1: the plumber has arrived and has tried replacing the broken length of piping. Unfortunately we have established that the block is in one of the still intact lengths, and putting the megablockageblaster down it again will just result in a new rupture. Conclusion: next door also has a pipe running through the same space - this one being straight and with a nice fall. It's the waste pipe from one of their bathrooms (they have several ...) With permission of neighbour (since given), top neighbour's pipe will be tapped into next door neighbour's pipe.

UPDATE 2: pleasantly straightforward. It seems to work. All that needed doing after that was vacuuming out the standing trapped water - of which there was a lot more than I realised. Redoubled prayers of thanks for lead lining. The water was vacuumed out with a device a bit like an aquatic Henry, and of about the same capacity - so several emptyings were needed, after which the toilet looked like the family had had an attack of dysentry. Since restored to its normal gleaming freshness, and now back to work.

As I'd left my lunch at work, Top Neighbour kindly bought us a pizza from Domino's. Told you he was Top in every way.

We'll probably have to get a dehumidifier to dry the attic out again, but nothing structural has got wet.

UPDATE 3: Dynarod are delivering a dehumidifier tomorrow morning.

If you see any more updates it will be because something has leaked. Or possibly the duhumidifier blew a fuse and burnt the house down.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Gregory and his girl

For Saturday night's viewing: Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). I'm still trying to decide if he cheated.

Spellbound stars an astonishingly young (29 years old) Gregory Peck as an amnesia case who may or may not have committed a murder, and Ingrid Bergman as the hypotenuse a psychoanalytic ice maiden who is thawed by his boyish good looks and determined to establish his innocence.

This contains no spoilers as all of the above becomes clear very early on. Many of Hitchcock's films have an innocent man, wrongly accused, trying to clear his name. This is a slight variation in that we don't actually know the accused man is innocent – but if you have a reasonable grasp of movie conventions, and trust Ingrid Bergman's ability to pick the right guy without hesitation, and cannot possibly conceive of Gregory Peck as a baddie (except in The Boys from Brazil, where he is brilliant as Josef Mengele) then you can take a fair stab in the dark.

The difference is that in films like The 39 Steps and the mighty North by Northwest the innocent man goes to a lot of time and effort to find out what is really happening. Spellbound is unusual in that the final revelation comes through a dream, to which Ingrid Hypotenuse applies her superior psychoanalytic skills to establish the truth.

Apparently Hitchcock was ordered by the studio head to make a film about psychoanalysis, and he duly complied. He wasn't too fond of it himself and described it as "just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis".

But like all good Hitchcock, it's still worth watching. You see little quirks and techniques that you barely notice nowadays, and realise he was the first to think of them. The background music is an orchestra complemented with a theremin; this is one of the films that pioneered electronic instruments to create atmosphere. The piece de resistance is the dream sequence itself, shot on a set designed by Salvador Dali.

So here it is.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Eye sight test at Boots

If you can spot one misplaced apostrophe and one typo then your eyes are fine.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ping pong bats

Vampire Plagues! In Chinese!!

Little Brother

Recently I drove home from Northampton to Abingdon. The most logical course for the final stage of the journey would have been to come down the A34 to the south Abingdon exit, then drive towards the town centre and home. A reasonable variant on this would have been to take the north Abingdon exit off the A34 and come anticlockwise round the ringroad. A most unusual and unpredictable variant – and the one I actually used – was to come off at the north exit, drive clockwise around the ringroad to the town centre, head due north again back towards the north exit and this time come anticlockwise round the other half of the ringroad. Essentially, I did a big sideways figure 8 (or an infinity sign, of course). Why? Well, if you must know I was listening to Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" and I wanted to get to the end. It's designed to be listened to in one piece. I've done similar in the past for the William Tell Overture and other pieces of music.

And, well, why not? I’m a free responsible adult. I can take any route I like.

Now, supposing there was a number plate tracking system in place programmed to detect unusual traffic variations, and alert the cops who would subsequently turn up and ask me to prove I hadn't been doing anything suspicious?

Thoughts brought to mind by reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. A book not without its flaws but still one that everyone should read.

About five minutes into the future, a terrorist atrocity in San Francisco kills thousands and the Department of Homeland Security (henceforth the DHS, always making me think of sofas) swings into action with a programme it has obviously had long prepared, just waiting for the right opportunity. A security clampdown begins on absolutely everyone except the right people, i.e. the terrorists. Caught up in this, purely by dint of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is 17 year old Marcus, a techno-savvy geek without (frankly) many redeeming features. Justifiably angered at the illegal treatment he has received at the DHS's mini-Guantanamo in San Francisco Bay, he decides to fight back.

The point isn't to bring down the government or to encourage terrorism. The point is that the DHS has completely missed the point, mistaking looking busy and ideological enforcement for actual results. There is no evidence that terrorists are even in San Francisco at all after the attack, yet the crackdown continues. Meanwhile, with a bit of technical wizardry that anyone can pick up off the web, a kid without a political thought in his head can pull the wool over the DHS's eyes. How much more likely are the real terrorists to get clean away with it?

The situation is not really a thousand miles from what actually happened after 9/11 and continues to happen today. Posters like this one are serious. (Posters like this one, however, are not - mostly.) Have you tried taking any photographs in public lately?

First, things I didn't like.

Marcus is not a sympathetic character, though others will find him so – even some of my friends. He is a cocky techy geek who is heavily into games. Not my kinda guy. He can be bratty and immature. I assume this is characterisation rather than Doctorow's own personality showing through, as Marcus makes mistakes and gets it wrong. He is in love with his own cleverness and can never see in advance that every victory he scores over the DHS will simply make them up the game a little more, thus cracking down even harder. After all, the DHS is run by humans too and they don't like getting it wrong either. Thankfully, Marcus grows up.

There were times that the great cause Marcus et al were fighting for becomes distinctly cloudy. Sometimes it just seems they want to fight for the right to party and be selfish little brats. If Marcus is immature, the self-important rebellion-for-rebellion's sake yoof movement that grows up around him is downright pathetic. There is a fine line to draw between responsible use of freedom and anarchy just because you can. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre, and I really don't care who argues otherwise.

In Denver back in August, I witnessed an exciting confrontation between an American gent who called the Democrats socialists and an American lady who called the Republicans fascists. As the native of a continent with plenty of experience of both, I was thinking "rank amateurs, the lot of them", but Americans get like that when they talk politics (okay, okay, Doctorow is Canadian). Someone in the novel who I’m pretty sure we're meant to take seriously refers to "Gulag America" and that really annoys me. America at its worst under the current administration doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the Gulag. Name calling is just babyish.

"Don’t trust anyone under 25!" becomes a major rallying call. What, and I'm expected to put the major decisions into the hands of children with 24 years or less life experience? Feel free to let the door handle hit you on the way out and leave a nice bruise. For the record, according to Wikipedia Doctorow is 37.

But let's talk about where Little Brother, and Doctorow, and Marcus get it right. The technology – well, I take his word for it on the technology. At least I recognise the words he uses (Xbox, Microsoft, Linux) so I presume it's sound. The minimum lesson to take home from this is that the younger generation will always be ahead of the older in finding new and clever ways to utilise technology. What impresses us is already old hat to the teenagers.

Above all I can't fault the logic of Marcus’s critique of the system. He does the maths for us. Suppose, he says, you have a means of detecting terrorists that is 99% accurate? And you apply this to, say, a city like New York with a population of 20 million, to find a terrorist cell that will have only a handful of members? At 99% accuracy you are still going to accuse 200,000 people wrongly. And the DHS does not have a system anything like 99% accurate. No one does.

Thankfully, what carries the book past posturing and preaching to the converted is that the ending, mostly happy, is brought about by the actions of Marcus but ultimately is attributable to forces he has no control over. The rule of law is brought back to San Francisco's streets but this time it is open, attributable, accountable law by grown-ups (yes, even those over 25) who know what they're doing. And not even Marcus is exempt. As it should be.

I quite enjoy not being blown up by Al Quaeda and I'm very glad there are people out there whose job it is to see that I’m not. I accept that they may from time to time find it convenient to read my email without letting me know, or track my car's movements by CCTV that read my licence plate. Let 'em.

Little Brother says that the old security maxim "those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear" is a lie. Actually, it’s technically true. However, everyone has a lot to fear if all that power, all that surveillance data is put into the hands of morons and empire builders. Ian Huntley and the 21/7 bombers were found out by surveillance and studying old records. I'm not against the concept. But what is needed isn't more surveillance of absolutely everything, it's intelligent surveillance of what we have available.

Here are the basic ground rules for using our astonishing technological abilities to keep ourselves safe and safeguard our liberties. First and foremost, there has to be the simple recognition that dissent and disagreement <> terrorism or treason. Unfortunately, a lot of politicians are unable to make this connection and they're the ones meant to be in charge. In another context, I believe statistics show that teenagers from families which openly discuss sex matters are much more likely to go on to have responsible sex lives. Same thing. Just talking about something should never be a crime and school is where it should start.

Politicians and law enforcement officials must realise that the best way to radicalise people against you is to piss them off. You counter insurgency by winning hearts and minds. There has never been a revolution in a happy country. I'm referring here to the hearts and minds of the people, not the headline writers of the Daily Mail or the US equivalent. They may safely be excluded from any decision making process.

I require anyone with this kind of power over me to know and understand considerably more than I do. If someone can't understand why I would add twenty minutes to my journey just to catch the end of a Pink Floyd album then that person should not be put in charge of surveilling me.

From those to whom much is given, much is expected. The people entrusted with power that could ruin lives must get it absolutely right, or else. One of Marcus's friends is detained for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and kept there simply because it reaches the point where his release would be embarrassing. Now look me in the eye and tell me that isn't the reason a lot of people are still held at Guantanamo. Or, indeed, just cast an eye over reports on the Menezes inquest. The public interest is not the same as saving the blushes of a red-faced politico. If you get it wrong, you are out.

But, they might cry, how can we possibly recruit people into the security services with that hanging over their heads? Well, it's not that different to recruiting people into the armed forces on the understanding that someone might shoot them dead. It happens. Maximise your efforts to make sure that it doesn't happen; but once it has, live with it. They expect us to put up with all kinds of crap for the privilege of not being bombed by terrorists. They might even expect us to lay down our lives ourselves, or at least not raise a fuss if they happen to gun down the wrong person. Expecting them in return to put their career on the line doesn't seem such a hard thing to ask. It's not as if they're left in the library with a revolver and a glass of brandy any more.

I'll close as I started, with a driving-related anecdote. I once gave Cory Doctorow a lift from the centre of Oxford down Botley Road to the train station. En route, a traffic camera snapped me and I got my first ever speeding ticket ...

(For reference, see Farah Mendlesohn’s review.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My strength, my cornerstone

Sometimes I almost feel like an atheist, except that I'm not. It's a position I can sympathise with. I only ask that it be well reasoned and based on true facts.

I sorta have sympathy with paganism. I can understand enjoying the beauty of nature and respecting it, though I draw the line at revering. I tend towards the CS Lewis approach: that God, being God, is ipso facto so fundamentally embedded in his creation that sheer logic says you're likely to find signs of him there.

Deeper aspects of paganism range from leaving me cold to making me want to run screaming – or, failing that, just to bang my head against a trilithon in frustration and shout "why, you fool, why??"

The lovely and totally level-headed Liz Williams, among her many other talents, runs a couple of witchcraft shops in Glastonbury, and blogs about it on the Diary of A Witchcraft Shop in Avalon. The latest entry includes:
"Spent some time this morning explaining to a very nice customer who is new to all this why it probably isn't a good idea to begin one's magical life by working directly with demons, especially those to whom the traditional offering is apparently excrement (mind you, at least it's cheap)."
Now, you see, here's one of those head-banging moments. Here's a thought. Why deal with demons AT ALL, excrement-demanding or otherwise, when for absolutely no cost you can get the services of he whom demons tremble at the thought of? It really is setting your sights way too low.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fish, fiction, friends and Fighting Fantasy

Two months ago it was an American convention centre the size of an airport. Yesterday it was a converted fishmarket in Northampton, just off the market square. The latter is much more fun for a convention.

The Fishmarket has been converted into an arts venue by the council but retains its character. It's an L-shaped building and both arms distinctly slope down towards the corner - a relic of the time when it had to be sluiced down at the end of each day to get rid of scales and guts. As an acoustic environment it is, um, challenging. Vast amounts of space above, in front of and behind you for speakers' voices to get lost in. This was the initial layout for the panels, everyone facing lengthways down one of the long bits.

Thankfully, after the first panel they turned it 90 degrees so that the speakers had a wall behind them and everyone could sit a little closer to them.

The sloping floors aren't the only remnant of the fishmarket past. At one end, where the book dealers dwelt, they still have the old marble topped counters.

(That thing looking like a bizarre sex toy is in fact a cuddly knitted Saturn V ...)

Master of ceremonies was Kevin the Jester, sometimes on stilts.

And the con? My favourite kind. Small scale, personable, interesting panel topics and a chance to meet and chat with everyone you want to. I counted a total of 7 people who had been at our wedding - 8 if you count young master Simon F, who is 18 months old now and was enwombed at the time. Guests of honour were Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Storm Constantine and Paul Cornell. Topics were on the usual range of subjects like which medium holds the future for science fiction, space opera, fantasy, yadda yadda yadda but for once I was getting a real feeling of the future being shaped as we spoke. Everyone was going home with a slightly firmer idea of where we all stand, which for a writer is no bad thing.

My sole public contribution was on the space opera panel ("Is 'New Space Opera' just 'Old Space Opera' in a fresh set of clothes?") which I had a horrible feeling might turn into the Iain + Ken show plus three rabbits blinking in the headlights, a.k.a. Tony Ballantyne, Jaine Fenn and me. Ian Whates moderating. Shouldn't have worried, as Ian moderated well and Iain and Ken are both pro enough and nice enough guys to spread it all about. At one point I said that one reason I didn't write space opera any more was that I could no longer take the navies-in-space idea seriously, in this age when an airliner can take off from Heathrow and land the other side of the world without any necessary human intervention; interestingly, that sparked Iain into talking about his whole underlying philosophy for the General Systems Vehicles and other Culture craft, which I'd not heard before.

There was also my sort of dealers' room - not books stretching as far as the eye can see, which actually can be counterproductive, but a few select ones including but not limited to Erik Arthur from Fantasy Centre with a wide range of good condition ex-review copies at £4 each. At least, that was who I gave most of my custom to. I'm one of those strange people who don't usually come home laden with books but this time I made an exception.

Erik mentioned that a lot of customers my sort of age come in to buy old Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. "I realised I don't sell books," he reflected. "I sell memories."

Making me wonder what today's 18-year-olds will be buying in the 2030s ...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Everyone deserves ...

Autumn: season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; a time when the leaves turn golden brown and Waitrose wants to launch a new range of seasonal goods upon us. So for the backing music of its new ad it turns to ... what else but "Golden Brown" by the Stranglers.

Two theories on this.
  • It's frighteningly possible that not a single person involved in the conception, creation and broadcasting of the ad was alive when the song came out in late 1981 and they have all therefore missed the point that it's about drug use.
  • At least one person somewhere along the line is all too aware of what it's about and couldn't resist the opportunity to pull one over on (a) children he is forced to work alongside and (b) the granddads on the board.
My money, and my hope, is on (2).

The Baby Eating Bishop of Abingdon

Someone - no idea who - once told me that the late Abingdon Abbey was, until the time of Henry VIII, the size of Wells Cathedral. Nowadays of course it's an outline in the park by the river.

But assuming it was not only the size but also the exact shape of Wells Cathedral, here is how an aerial shot of the Abbey Grounds might look today ... I know, marvel at the way the shadows point in different directions.

I feel an alternate history coming on.

I'm in doubt at all that becoming Protestant was one of the best things that ever happened to this country (item: Isaac Newton was born the year Galileo died; item: I doubt we'd have cut the King's head off if we all belonged to the same side; item: ... I could go on) but there was a lot of collateral damage, lives ruined, atrocities perpetrated en route. Just to stop us feeling too smug.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

They Ain't Makin Jews Like Jesus Anymore

Sunday worship is sorted, then.

It's conveniently subtitled, but if you want to read the lyrics all at once, they're here.

Department of So That's All Right, Then

Knocking around in our coffee lounge at work is a copy of "Ethical Consumer", a magazine apparently handed out to Privilege account holders with the Co-op Bank. It contains the following gem in the fizzy drinks section on page 36.
"The Colombian Food and Drinks Workers Union has also called for an international boycott of Coca-Cola, a move supported by the World Social Forum and UK-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign. The union accuses Coca-Cola of "complicity in the assassination of eight trade union leaders in Colombia since 1990", as well as torture, imprisonment and exile. Coca-Cola has denied responsibility, pointing out that hundreds of union leaders are killed every year in Colombia."

Monday, October 06, 2008


Recently I revisited a pair of books I last read about 20 years ago: Vernor Vinge's The Peace War and Marooned In Real Time.

One is a sort-of sequel to the other and they are both linked by Vinge’s short story "The Ungoverned" (full text available). The underlying premise is one of those brilliantly simple ideas that make other authors scream "why not me??" The stories were written in the early/mid 80s. In 1997 scientists at California's Lawrence Livermore laboratory invent a way of generating spherical and totally impervious forcefields known as bobbles. Bobbles weigh and mass the same as their contents, apparently they last forever, and once something has been bobbled it may as well be in a different universe. As not even light can get through, a bobble appears to us on the outside as a perfectly reflecting silver sphere. Anyone enclosed by a bobble, it is assumed, simply dies of asphyxiation.

The bureaucrats behind the project seize control and use the bobble effectively to take over the world. Armies, cities, submarines, nuclear missiles – anything can be bobbled at a whim. They relaunch themselves as the Peace Authority and, as they see it, end the era of war. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that. The chaos of the takeover unleashes plagues and further wars that kill billions ... but at the end of it all, the Peace Authority is in overall charge. It's a dictatorship that tries so hard to be benign but is inevitably corrupted – not just by its power but, as Aung San Suu Kyi has put it in a different context, by the fear of losing power.

Being bureaucrats more than researchers they never looked too closely at their new toy. The Peace War is set 50 years after the takeover and a few unexpected surprises become apparent. Like, bobbles don't last forever. The early, crude bobbles generated by the Peace Authority will burst after ... well, about 50 years, plus or minus. (By the end of the novel, a new generation of technology can generate bobbles on demand for any length of time, to order.) And they don't just enclose their contents. Bobbles are stasis fields. Time stops inside them too. You come out exactly as you went in.

There are interesting implications to this ...

Marooned in Real Time takes place about 50 or perhaps several million years after the first book, depending on your viewpoint. After the fall of the Peace Authority, bobble technology comes into its own. Farmers can sow crops at any time and then bobble them up until the right weather comes along. Deep space explorers only have to worry about getting into orbit; after that they bobble their ships and use nuclear explosions to propel them to their destination. Investors plant a small fortune, bobble up and come out when their deposit has earned enough interest. And one unfortunate policeman is panic-bobbled for 10,000 years by his leading suspect. When his bobble finally bursts he, like everyone else who was bobbled through the 23rd century (about 600 people, all told) has somehow missed out on the total extinction of humanity. Worthy souls are trying to bundle all the survivors together and reboot the human race, and our friendly cop suddenly finds his services in demand again. Because, during a 100 year leap forward for the community of survivors, someone is effectively murdered by being deliberately stranded outside the bobble. Thus, marooned in real time.

It's interesting how time and memory plays games with you. I remember both books as being an enjoyable rollicking ride. I loaned The Peace War to Bonusbarn and was quite surprised when he gave up on it as boring. And now ...

Okay, I can see his point. Maybe I just skipped through the boring bits first time around. Marooned in Real Time is really quite a gripping detective and adventure story, but The Peace War takes a long time to get going and is quite confusing at the start. This is all because of what I totally missed 20 years ago, or just failed to remember in the meantime. The whole brilliant bobbles idea is just a framework for Vinge to hang his main thoughts on: speculation about technological process getting to a point where individuals have more power than governments, thus making governments redundant; and ultimately leading to the Singularity, the point where progress increases so exponentially fast that the lines on the graph just shoot off into the far distance and what happens becomes unknowable.

Hmm. I won't comment any further on this except to say that I honestly can’t think of any circumstances where I would trust a bunch of technologically advanced American libertarians to do the right thing over a representative government. No offence, just saying. That's beside the point. Of late Vinge has been writing books and stories set in the relatively, attainably near future, all getting closer and closer to the Singularity. He has no doubt it's in our future. These books will either prove bang-on prophetic, or be so embarrassingly out that no one will read them 10 years from now.

If it weren't for the bobbles then The Peace War and Marooned In Real Time would already be in the latter category. They would have got a few polite handclaps, some appreciative critical notice and that would be it. But the bobbles are what make these books last. Such a simple idea. Such a good one.


Every few years, Vinge writes a book that is utterly, utterly brilliant. Then he goes away again, with an attitude of "right, SF community, here are your good ideas for the next decade or so. Do what you will with them, and then I’ll write another one a few years down the line." You could hate him, except that he does it so well.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Occasional recipes: chicken that is really pork with mushrooms

The first requirement for this is to get a recipe card from Waitrose for chicken with mushrooms, then note that you had chicken two days earlier and could do with a change. So what the hell, make it pork instead.

The second is to cook it on Jeans for Genes day, meaning everyone at work has a cake bake and you come home laden with pieces of delicious chocolate and coffee cake, so you can scoff them down for dessert.

  • 1 ready to cook chicken breast joint (a.k.a. 3 pork chops)
  • 250g asparagus
  • 100g mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 3 tbsp vegetable stock
  • 4 tbsp creme fraiche
  • 20g chopped parsley
  • 1 sweet potato
All the above quantities apart from the chops are intended for two, so to serve three, round up to whatever seems like a good approximation.

1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees/gas mark 5 and roast chicken for 50 mins (or preheat to 175 degrees/gas mark 4 and roast chops for an hour. Put them on a rack in a shallow roasting tin, fill with water but not enough to touch the chops, and cover with foil. I've no idea why the water - I just looked up how to roast pork chops and that is what Mr Google told me).

2. Ten minutes before the chicken/pork is ready, drizzle olive oil over asparagus on a baking tray and add it to the oven.

3. Meanwhile, fry the mushrooms in olive oil for a couple of minutes, then add mustard and stock and stir in.

4. Add creme fraiche and stir in with the parsley.

Serve the chops with the sauce, roasted asparagus and sweet potato wedges which you have been quietly roasting for the last 35-40 minutes, having parboiled them for ten minutes before that. This is why you should always read the entire recipe before starting. I may write to whoever does the Waitrose recipe cards and point out that putting a key starting point last in the instructions would just be asking for trouble with a less careful cook ...

Oh, and here's another tip. If you have a baking tray sitting on top of the oven, and one corner is sticking into the flame beneath a saucepan, and you want to pick it up, try not to let the bit that was sticking into the flame touch your thumb. Or you may have cause to utter rude words and spend ten minutes with your hand beneath a cold water tap, then get a blister that stretches from the base of your thumb to the joint. Just saying.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Best of Ben

At last available in print! And thanks to my lovely wife for suggesting the title.

Well, Christmas is on the horizon, I'm poised to make it big in the US (a posture I've been maintaining for about 10 years but I live in hope) and I enjoyed the exercise. The definitive Ben Jeapes short story collection is now available in one handy volume costing a snip at $11.01.

Or, if you like, you can just go to my web site and read them for free.

Hmm. I start to see why marketing was always Big Engine's Achilles heel.

This is a self-publishing venture through For the benefit of readers who get confused by various critical views I have expressed in the past on self/vanity publishing, here's the introduction to the volume. Think of it as value added. You're welcome.
"Approach a self-published book with caution. This is a self-published book, so you have been warned.

Normally, when you see a book in a bookshop, this is what has happened. The author sent that book to a publisher that liked it. (It might have been sent to several publishers first who didn’t like it. If that happened then the author might have worked on the story again to improve it, and become a better author as a result.) The publisher’s editor and the author will have worked together to make it even better. The publisher then paid the author and produced the book at its own expense, confident that it would get all that money back from sales. That’s a big vote of confidence.

However, a self-published book has not been sent to a publisher (or if it has, the publisher turned it down). The author has never had to improve the story. The only money that has been risked is the author’s own. The author thinks the book is pretty good – but what else would you expect? Why should you believe him?

This is a self-published book.

On the other hand, every story here – except one, and we’ll come to that – has been through the process described above. It has been accepted by a book or a magazine editor, who worked with me to make it as good as possible, and paid me and produced the magazine or book at their own expense. So, people other than me have believed in these stories and thought they were worth reading. I’m still the one who thinks they could work as a book collection and I take full responsibility (but offer no refunds) if you think my judgement was out.

I’ve sold 18 stories in my time, published between 1990 and 1998. Two of these were to Dr Who collections and so they don’t belong to me, they belong to the publishers of the collections. The remaining sixteen are collected here for the first time. There is also a seventeenth story here, which has been to not one but several editors, and worked on (and worked on, and worked on) but never actually published. It may be rubbish. It may not. This is only my opinion speaking, after all. But I won’t tell you which one it is yet – I wouldn’t want to prejudice you before you read it.

I wasn’t sure what order to put the stories in. I honestly can’t remember the order they were written in. It would be nice to think that if you read the stories in publication order then you could trace my development as a writer, but that would also be completely false. A writer’s style – if he’s doing it properly – changes every time he makes a sale, based on the experiences he has had, the feedback, and what else he has read and written in the meantime. There are also large gaps in the process; for instance, ‘Pages Out of Order’ dates back to at least 1990, but was sold in 1994 and published in 1997. I wrote and sold plenty of other stuff in those gaps.
Then I thought of putting them in alphabetical order, or grouping them by style, or doing it in order of length ... In the end, I just put everything into a ‘this feels right’ sort of order. If it doesn’t work – well, that’s my fault again.

If the stories were in order of being written, it would be interesting to track my increasing confidence in the use of what maiden aunts might call Language. There are occasional mild uses of Language here and there; it’s heaviest in ‘Go with the Flow’. ‘A Holiday on Lake Moskva’ also contains scenes of implied pre-marital intercourse, so only show them to your aunt if you’re absolutely certain she isn’t a maiden. If she loves you, she won’t mind you asking."