Sunday, November 30, 2008

So that's Thanksgiving

Mashed potatoes with turkey? I know, shocking.

We have an American vicar, for reasons I've never quite gathered. (I know why we have a vicar, because we're that kind of church, and I know why he's American because you don't really get a choice in that when your parents are American and you're born in Pittsburgh. I've just not yet quite understood how he ended up here, but I'm very glad he did because he's a great guy.)

Last night we commorated the fact with an American-style Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn bread, peas and sweetcorn. All ingredients genuinely American, acquired somehow from a US airforce base. And the menu ...

The vicar explained beforehand that American palates are not quite the same as British ones. They don't draw the same distinctions between sweet and savoury. And how! The corn bread is essentially dry Victoria sponge. It could have served with the sweet potato casserole as our dessert - except of course that dessert was pumpkin pie and pecan pie. (I was surprised to hear how many people present had never had pumpkin pie - I've had it often thanks to my mother's cooking at home. Never had pecan pie, though.) I think the Americans must have invented cranberry sauce in a desperate attempt to drag it at least a little over to the savoury side of the taste spectrum.

But I quibble. This was my first Thanksgiving dinner and very nice it was too. It certainly whetted my appetite for the real thing in 25 days time ...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ofsted, 16th century style

We popped into the Guildhall to buy our annual load of charity Christmas cards. They were being sold in a room adjacent to the Roysse Room, which of course has a certain interest to us as it was the site of the original Abingdon School. (Oh, yes, and we got married there.)

In the lobby outside you can read the rules of the original John Roysse School. They knew their stuff in those days.
The children shall come to school at 6am in the summer and leave at 5pm. In winter school will start at 7am at the discretion of the Mayor and headmaster.
And ...
The headmaster will not allow the children to play for more than four days a year. If he lets them play for more he shall pay three shillings and four pence to go into the school funds.
And (my favourite):
Every six months the Mayor and Principal Burgesses shall visit the school to make sure that all these rules are being kept. The second time they find things not in order the headmaster shall be expelled, especially if he is not doing prayers.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fraudulent slip

We have very excitingly triggered the first ever investigation into fraudulent activity on the family credit card.

It's that time of year when we book tickets for next year's annual Sweden holiday. Usually we book so far in advance that our carrier of choice, Ryanair, will take us at 2 shillings and sixpence if we promise to strap-hang at the back, plus a small mortgage's worth of airport taxes. This year we've left it late enough that Ryanair is actually slightly more expensive than SAS, so that's who we will be going with, with the concomitant advantage of flying out of Heathrow rather than Stansted and landing at a proper airport at the other end rather than a converted airforce base.

Anyway, I came home this evening to what sounded suspiciously like a phishing scam on the answerphone from the card company. "This a message for-" (change tone) "Ben" (change back again) "-concerning possible fraudulent activity on your card. Please press any button on your phone now ..."

It turned out to be a genuine query and I set their minds at rest. For some reason the ticket purchase had tweaked their antennae and they wanted to verify it. But it's not the first time I've spent a sum like that and previously it's always gone through without a quibble.

"Obviously," I said to Best Beloved as I hung up, "they've got us down as Ryanair customers ..."

Musical movements

A colleague at works likes to sing on the toilet. I discovered this fact today. I didn't recognise the voice or the song, but singing it was.

It wasn't the guy who likes to make mobile phone calls from the same place. His accent is distinctive and Scottish. I'd have recognised him. Today's singer was more generically middle England and there's a lot of us about.

I thought of sending back a few bars of the first song that came to mind, but didn't, (a) because he might regard it as a challenge and (b) because the first song to come to mind was John Rutter's The Angel's Carol, and it would be ironic if he ended up thinking I'm the weird one. There could be a blog out there saying something like "guess what, I work with a guy who likes to sing carols in the toilet ..."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The fourth horseman

I'm pleased to see the Survivors have picked somewhere with an Aga. That will be handy when the cold sets in (assuming they have a continued supply of gas or oil) but is also a subconscious link to the original series. That one was flawed by the fratefully naice middle classness of it all. Our Survivors for a new generation are mixed in race, colour and class ... but they still end up in a house with an Aga.


I vaguely remember the original 70s series, though I didn't see much as it was on after my bedtime. Possibly the main attraction for 10-year-old me was that it was devised by Terry Nation and he invented the Daleks. I finally got to see the first series on video about ten years ago and found it pretty superior fare. The first episode remained the best, starting as the remake did with the virus already in full sway but few realising the danger they were in. The remake pinched the scene of Abby staggering through her home town, finding nothing but dead bodies and pleading, "please God, don’t let me be the only one!"

Then, as now, groups of survivors band together; some get it, some don't. Anyone clinging to the old ways, or claiming authority based on who they were before the plague, doesn't get it. Abby does, mostly thanks to a lecture from a surviving teacher at her son's prep school (who here has transformed into an instructor at an outward-bound adventure school; a nice way of keeping a theme of the original plot, Abby searching for her son, in a way a modern audience can relate to). She says she can find an axe in a hardware store. Yes, but what happens when the last axe head breaks? Could you repair it? Could you smelt the ore to make a new one? Because that's how long things are going to take to get better.

Eventually Abby's group settle down somewhere nice and secluded with large grounds (specifically, this place) for growing crops, keeping animals, accreting more survivors, and dealing with ethical issues like how do you deal with a sex offender in a world without courts (especially when you realise you've got it wrong – bummer).

Our new group has already found somewhere nice and large, though not very secluded – it seems to be a mansion in the suburbs of Manchester, which can't be very pleasant on a hot sunny day when the heat gets to the bodies. Some flaws of the original series seem to have been dealt with, others not. The original class homogeneity has been diversified into a precisely calculated group of mixed men and women. They seem to be dressed a bit more practically, but who knows – maybe their outfits will be as laughable in 30 years time as the costumes sported with pride by our original heroes. The one exception to the original niceness was the almost offensively stereotyped cowardly rat-faced Welshman who was of course the villain, Tom Price; Tom now seems to have a lot more going for him. On the down side, our survivors still manage to keep amazingly clean and there are very few hints indeed that they are surrounded by millions of decaying corpses. I was hoping for something grittier.

Almost 100% of the first episode matched its original series equivalent. Last night borrowed about 50% (see? and this one ...) To judge by the trailers, next week will use about 25%. Zeno's Paradox suggests that the series will never be entirely original but the last few minutes of the last episode will come pretty close.

The definitive post-virus text is of course George Stewart’s Earth Abides which doesn't pull any punches as to the likely consequences of a worldwide plague. Think rats, think insects, populations exploding overnight and then collapsing Malthus-style as their, ahem, food supply gets used up. Significantly, the book doesn't have a happy ending in terms of civilisation restarting, but at least we no longer worry for the future of the human race. By the end of it the children of the survivors have grown up, unfettered by memories of what once was, and they can start a new hunter-gatherer society with the instinctive ease of kids picking up any new talent.

Knowledge of the original Survivors affected me more than I might have realised. Ever since, I've thought – just every now and then, you understand – in terms of what would happen if a worldwide plague came. Frankly, I'd be quite happy with option A which would be dying and making the surviving someone else's problem. But if by some perversity I survived ...

Well, it would be very convenient if the plague could strike while we're on holiday at my father in law's farm in Sweden. Failing that, there is at a specific location in our fair land a house that I know of that was originally designed to be kept warm without central heating, and which contains a gun locker with a hunting rifle and (I think) a shot gun, and I know where the keys are kept. I think I would go there. Bonusbarn points out that if I just want weaponry, RAF Benson is a lot closer and Dalton Barracks practically on the doorstep; well, yes, true, but other plus points may not apply. Salisbury Plain is on the doorstep of the house I'm thinking of. Neolithic man thrived there once; we can do it again. My bible would probably be Bear Grylls: Born Survivor. And the house I'm thinking of has an Aga.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Beenip loses another member

Thanks to Major Clanger for alerting me (via a story in the Times) to the concept of the Hitler Tantrum Mashup. Not something I'd encountered before. The rules are very simple: take the above scene from the excellent Downfall, and insert your own subtitles.

On the Times story linked above you can also get others including "Banned from World of Warcraft" and "Windows Vista problems". You can't (as I write) get this one.

And for the fun of it, here's the one where Hitler twigs someone is re-subtitling him.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Yesterday was the tenth birthday of the International Space Station, measured from the first module being fired up into orbit. Last Saturday (thanks for the up to the minute coverage, Beeb) was the twentieth anniversary of something even more exciting – the one and only flight of Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle.

Buran was cool and it wasn't just a steal from the US version, unlike the Soviet's version of Concorde; there's only so many shapes something designed to be a space shuttle can be. The Shuttle is a bodge, the rump remnant of a much more ambitious space programme left over from the sixties; Buran did exactly what it was designed to do, and did it well. The Shuttle is inferior technology bolstered up by the politics of the richest nation on Earth; Buran was superior technology let down by a state that couldn't afford it. The Shuttle has to include its own engines to assist in lift-off, and once it ceases its burn those engines are just dead weight until the next time it takes off. Buran left all the taking-off business to its Energia booster, so every ounce and cubic inch on board could be dedicated to being a nifty piece of space kit.

It was also better designed generally. I hadn't realised, until reading the BBC link, that apparently on its test flight it landed within 3 metres of the centre line of the runway, in winds that would have made the Shuttle cancel altogether. And this was under remote control.

Another key difference between the two was that Buran could fly. But it had no engines, I hear you cry! No, but in good Soviet make-and-mend fashion it could. For its test flights, you could strap on some jet engines with some sellotape and string, and it could take off like an aeroplane ...

Basically, the Soviets watched far too much Gerry Anderson.

Of course, this is how a space launch should look.

No computers for the kids, though

This 1969 vision of the computer-enabled household is surprisingly close, in some areas. There's still the occasional gem ...

"What the wife selects at her console will be paid for by the husband at his counterpart console." (We see husband shaking his head dolefully as he survives the wife's expenditure ...)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Beenip and Sergeant

My responses to two items of recent news:

1. Clearly John Sergeant should be the next Doctor Who. Saturday evenings reclaimed – problem solved.

2. The BNP membership list ... oh dear. One of the weaknesses of the McCain/Palin ticket was that it could potentially put the world's most powerful nuclear arsenal into the hands of a woman who couldn't protect her Yahoo email account. Similar thoughts come to mind here. They didn't even have the decency to leave it on a bus, like Labour do with their sensitive information.

Without going into detail I'll admit I have seen a copy (hint: don't use Google, try p2p). What makes it art isn't so much the names as the margin notes. "Owns 13th & 14th century suit of armour. Can do jousting at rallies." "Lives mostly in Spain so opts for overseas membership rate" (yay, clinging to your principles FTW!) And apparently someone was suspended for having "an inappropriate tattoo". Black Power? Luv U Mum? The mind boggles.

A distressing number – i.e. any number greater than 0 – live in Abingdon, including one in Alexander Close, which I had always thought was the heartland of moral middleclass respectability, not to mention a Christian ghetto. (Of the right kind of Christian, not like the Revd Robert West of the Apostolic Church in Holbeach, Lincolnshire.) So, if you live in Alexander Close and your skin is of anything less than snow white perfection, be sure to greet your neighbours with an enormous hug. If you can ham up a fake Jamaican or Indian accent, that would be even better.

The Register kindly provides a link to a nationalist blog where you can entertain yourself reading the howls of BNP outrage. (And doubtless there are plenty more like it.) The image that comes to mind is of cockroaches scurrying for cover when the light goes on.

Disproving the old adage that my enemy's enemy is my friend, Christian Voice also attacks the BNP for being, amongst other things, racist, white supremacist, paganist, volkist, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and ... um ... evolutionist. All quite clearly agendas with equal space on Satan's to-do list. The very next sentence on their site reads "Angry, chippy and defensive are words which characterise a website lacking in Christian humanity"; they probably mean the BNP but you can't be certain.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Not quick enough

With a heavy heart I must consign another book to the "Life's too short" category. And I so wanted to like it.

The last, and first, to suffer this fate was The Dice Man back in January. That one went with much rejoicing and lightness of heart because it was truly quite pants. The latest, tragically, is Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver.

Neal Stephenson wrote two of the greatest SF novels of the nineties. Snow Crash made cyberpunk hip and enjoyable and compulsive reading - something William Gibson, who only invented the genre, could never quite manage - and The Diamond Age is the perfect primer for life in a future, post-national, post-scarcity society. And then the new century was ushered in with Cryptonomicon, which defies categorisation and tragically sows the seeds for The Baroque Cycle, of which Quicksilver is the first volume.

Y'see, each of the above books was getting longer. It wasn't hard to plot ahead of the curve and see that sooner or later Stephenson was bound to turn in a 380,000 word opus and that his editor would let him get away with it. Sadly said editor didn't bother editing.

Quicksilver, which is set around the dawn of the modern scientific age and the Restoration in the late seventeenth century, could have been such fun and is so boring. Pages and pages (and pages and pages) of people talking to one another for no reason than to convey all the research Stephenson has done. I knew the book consisted of three smaller (for a given value of "smaller") books and vowed I would at least get through the first one; then I'd see how the second was going. And it started well ... until two characters spend six (six!) pages riding across Europe to a destination they could have reached in a paragraph if they weren't so intent on telling each other what they already know, or didn't but have no reason to either, for no reason than to give us more of the author's Research.

Life is too short.

Stephenson has a lovely dry way of writing that makes the fun bits a real pleasure to read. Here is lapsed Puritan Daniel unable to shake off his upbringing as he finally has sexual intercourse for the first time with the crucial aid of a sheepgut condom:
"Does this mean it is not actually coitus?" Daniel asked hopefully. "Since I am not really touching you?" Actually he was touching her in a lot of places, and vice versa. But where it counted he was touching nothing but sheepgut.

"It is very common for men of your religion to say so," Tess said. "Almost as common as this irksome habit of talking while you are doing it."

"And what do you say?"

"I say that we are not touching, and not having sex*, if it makes you feel better," Tess said. "Though, when it is all finished, you shall have to explain to your Maker why you are at this moment buggering a dead sheep."
(*an irritating and deliberate stylistic touch is to combine seventeenth century spellings and styles with slap bang modern idioms.)

Or this, about life on the Isle of Dogs in 1665:
"The Irish worked as porters and dockers and coal-haulers during the winter, and trudged off to the countryside in hay-making months. They went to their Papist churches every chance they got and frittered away their silver paying for the services of scribes, who would transform their sentiments into the magical code that could be sent across countries and seas to be read, by a priest, or another scrivener, to dear old Ma in Limerick.

In Mother Shaftoe's part of town, that kind of willingness to do a day's hard work for bread and money was taken as proof that the Irish race lacked dignity and shrewdness. And this did not even take into account their religious practices and all that flowed from them, e.g. the obstinate chastity of their women, and the willingness of the males to tolerate it."
More of that, and less drop-of-the-hat extemporising about the sociopolitical state of Europe and inter-relationships of the various royal families, and Quicksilver would really be quite readable. It is one of the few books where a Readers' Digest condensed version would actually be a good idea, and I don't often say that.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The One with the Silly Title

Quantum of Solace isn't the worst Bond but it's far from being the best. It's far from being as good as Casino Royale. That one rightly won praise for re-inventing Bond. This one is ... more of the same, really. The first one gave us mean, moody hurtin' Bond. This comes perilously close to giving us Bond the Big Baby. Oh get over it, you want to cry out.

Let's not be too negative; let's talk strengths. Daniel Craig is still flippin' good. Judi Dench is even better. Bond is just so beautifully irritating to the baddies. The bad guy isn't a world-dominating ogre, just a well-acted bad guy; and like most bad guys, it wouldn't actually make that much difference to the greater good of the greater whole if he won. But you're glad he loses.

We get tantalising hints of the new Big Bad, Quantum, which might just might just possibly might be a SPECTRE for the twenty first century. And it will be interesting to see how well this films in Bolivia – or maybe they'll dub the name of another country. Not many people want to be told their homeland is a corrupt coup-prone rat infested banana republic. Even if it's true.

The fact that Bond doesn't go to bed with Bond girl gives their relationship a sense of plausibility. Sadly said Bond girl has to be one of the densest of the lot, and frankly that's pretty dense. Having ascertained that her boyfriend has sent an assassin after her, she twice confronts him in a situation that he completely controls and where he could quite easily have her killed without anyone batting an eyelid, and then acts surprised when – um – he tries to kill her. Pattern recognition not her strongest point.

And then there's the fighting. Oh dear, the fighting.

Remember the fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love? It was gripping, brutal and to the death. 007 was up against someone who was at least his equal and you could believe (and you cared) that he might not make it (apart from the obvious given that he would make it – but it was fun to see how). Every blow, every shot counted. The camera often stayed stationary for seconds at a time. You could tell what was happening.

Three, four, five times QoS gives us an action scene so fast, furious and blurry you can’t (a) tell or (b) give a toss what's happening. It's a case of wake me up when Bond's won and we'll get on with the movie. At least one of the chases I could swear I've already seen, in the last Jason Bourne movie. Run across rooftops, check. Jump through windows, check. Perhaps the producer got confused.

Please will the producers and directors of thriller movies start trusting the intelligence of the audience again and give us scenes we can follow and care about. Thank you.

Here's how fight scenes should be done.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

If you're in a hole, stop digging

Best Beloved served up some really quite nice rice pudding for dessert. I went to boarding school: "nice" and "rice pudding" have never belonged together in the same sentence. This was hot and creamy with a hint of cinnamon.

Quoth Bonusbarn: "it's a bit like phlegm, isn't it?"

[Transfixed by twin glares]

"I mean, good phlegm, obviously."

[Glares do little in the way of abating]

"The kind that's out, not still in and making you feel unwell."

I think we then talked about the weather.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Face of the Other

So there I was idly reinforcing my insecurity complex by Googling my own name when my eye is snagged by one of the search results: "Ben Jeapes is on Facebook".

To which Ben Jeapes's immediate reaction was "no he flaming well isn't, for reasons chronicled elsewhere but revolving around having a life." Then I looked a bit closer and I thought, oh, so that's him.

For there are in fact two of us, as I discovered a couple of years ago. There's little danger of our being confused as Junior is, so far as I can gather, a pupil at Gravesend Grammar School. And he seems to be quite good at sport, which is why his name gets onto the school website and hence Google in the first place. I wish him well in life; I only ask that if he goes into writing, please could he use a different name. Unless he becomes wildly successful and attracts millions of devoted fans who will buy anything with that name on the cover, in which case please use the name you have with my blessing.

And now I know what he looks like, and if I had a good memory I could name his friends. This all happened yesterday. Recreating the search conditions today fails to get the Facebook link back. Did Facebook release it into the public domain by accident? I've tried going to Facebook with the intention of searching, but they expect me to sign up even to do that much. So take my word for it, he seems a sound, outstanding fella as befits anyone with such an illustrious name.

On a COMPLETELY different topic - except that it relates to online privacy, which isn't completely tangential to the subject at hand - see this page from the ACLU for proof (if it were needed) that you can have too much information.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dulce et decorum est

I've never had to fight for my country and would be surprised if I ever do. I still like to think that if the need arose then I would answer my country's call. Then I would be so big, clumsy and easily confused that I would be shot during my first taste of combat and the average competence of the army I was serving would go up slightly. So, some good would come of it.

I always took some solace, growing up during the Cold War, that my country's call would be worth answering. I emphatically don't think "my country, right or wrong"; some wars, like the American War of Independence (okay, not a recent example) I am very glad indeed that we lost. We were incompetent and deserved it. But it's not like the Middle Ages: like doesn't go to war with like anymore just because King A's distant ancestor had a claim on territory currently held by King B. When we go to war nowadays it is – mostly – over way of life, and for all the many faults of the western world, I prefer our way of life to any other.

WW1 served no directly useful purpose at all. It broke the age of empires – but that was an unintended side effect. The empires slugging it out considered themselves unbreakable and were as surprised as everyone else when it all went to pieces. Sometimes I treacherously wonder how bad it would have been if we’d lost. Would we have produced some home-grown hate-filled little corporal who would rise to dictatorship and start another world war? Possibly. It's unknowable. What happened is what happened, so let's start from there. I would say that, with the grip of the aristocracy broken, other unintended side effects could come crawling out of the woodwork that include feminism, civil rights for non-whites and much more representative democracy than before. It took time, but it happened. I would rather live in a world that has these things, and the unfortunate legacy of WW1 to look back on, than a world still trundling along under the smugly patrician tug-yer-forelock outlook of the early twentieth century. The war taught us new and modern ways of killing people but it taught us to be better in new and modern ways as well.

Of course, even in the justest war ever (whichever that was), in the bloody heat of combat no one ever thinks about the issues. It comes down to: that person's trying to kill me, better kill him first. We have the advantage of being able to look back.

So, I honour the memory of those who died and I was glad to take a couple of minutes out at 11am to think of them. I don't honour their memory because what they did was in any way glorious or heroic. (They certainly didn't think so.) I honour them because they laid the foundations of the era in which I was born and grew up; and because of them, even though we still go to war from time to time, since 1918 we have put more effort into preserving peace than in starting a new fight. It doesn't always work, and when it fails it fails spectacularly, but it works more often than not. That may be as good as it gets.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

How can you not buy this book?

I'm honoured (genuinely) to announce that Time's Chariot will be a Junior Library Guild Premier Selection in the US in January. They've sent me a copy of the January JLG Monthly in which the book is listed, from which I see I'm rubbing shoulders inter alia with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Told you I was honoured.

Each book gets a breakdown of topics listed. Some of these I will gladly admit were in my mind when I wrote it; some I have to say were just brought in to make sense of particular paragraphs. But anyway, for Time's Chariot we have:
Falling. Murder. Anti-gravity. Time. Time travel. Martial arts. Genetic engineering. Knowledge of the past. Codes of ethics. Making powerful enemies. Scientific expeditions. Respect for others. Official reprimands. Class structures. Apologies. Abuse of an official position. Parties. Beatings. Social conditioning. Technology. Prison. Witchcraft. Guns. Illegal activities. Investigative services. Artificial intelligence. Security services. The elite class. Blackmail. Going home. Escapes. Interrogation. Revenge. Trials. Reunions. Choices.

It reminds me of the old joke that Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sounds like one heck of a fun party ...

But as I say, how can you not buy this book!?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The things old people say

Lunch today was with my grandmother in the communal dining room at the Home for Aged Retired Empire Matriarchs. During the starter course I was surprised to think I heard a particular phrase drift over from the gaggle of little old ladies on the next table.

"Did that old lady just say something about exposed canine genitalia?" I asked my mother.

"Maybe," she replied. We listened carefully. A few moments later, there it was again. It rhymes with bogs rowlocks.

"Yes, she did," she confirmed.

Forensic analysis of what we could hear suggests the lady was talking about QI and Stephen Fry's explanation of where the term comes from. I think I could have guessed. I mean, if you've ever seen a dog that hasn't been Done then the reason stands out like ... well, something very standing out.

But, even so. The standard of little old lady that you get today is just shocking.

Shortly after we heard a conversation starting "Of course, when my husband was at HQ UKLF ..." and we felt we were back on familiar ground.

When her husband was at HQ UKLF, I wonder if he was positively vetted?