Saturday, January 31, 2009

Occasional recipes: honey mustard pork chops with peppercorn

This one comes from the BBC Food site (apparently Mike Robinson from Saturday Kitchen), with adaptation.

1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp runny honey
2 pork chops
50g/2oz butter
1 red onion, halved and sliced
2 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and cut into 8 slices
200g/7oz new potatoes, lightly cooked and halved
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
6 shredded fresh sage leaves

For the sauce
3 finely chopped shallots
1 tbsp green peppercorns
small glass cider
100ml/3½fl oz double cream

I've done this a few times before with the drawbacks that (a) Bonusbarn doesn't like it and (b) the original recipe suggests griddling the chops for 6 minutes each side with the honey mustard sauce already slathered on them. This means you do the rest through a haze of pork flavoured smoke.

Oven roasting the chops takes longer but makes them much nicer. Cover and roast for 1 hour in an oven at gas mark 4, over a tray full of water to keep them moist. Mix the honey and mustrad together and, at the 55 minute mark, paste it over the chops, then return them to the oven for another five minutes.

Before that, stick to what the original recipe said:
  • Melt some butter, add the onions and apples and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  • Add the potatoes and another teaspoon of mustard.
  • For the peppercorn sauce, melt some butter in another pan, add shallots and peppercorns and cook for a minute. Add a splash of cider and bring to the boil, then add the double cream and cook until it thickens
  • Serve it all together. Pork chops lovely and moist, sauce deliciously creamy, potatoes and apples adding body and interesting flavours to the mix. Yum.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

TVM but WTF?

A supplier tells us they have a procurement process "from EOI to BAU".

EOI = Expression of Interest.

BAU = ...?

Binned and Unread?
Broken and Unmaintained?
Bugger All Use?
Bold and Underline?
Bloody Awful Users?
Bored and Underwhelmed?
Baryonic Asymmetry of the Universe?
Beirut Arab University?

Why people can't speak in clear English Baffles All Understanding.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The half-abbey habit

Who needs a whole abbey anyway? That at least was the pragmatic approach taken by the people of Malmesbury when the tower and spire of their abbey, taller than Salisbury cathedral, collapsed 500 years ago and took the entire east end of the building with it. They consolidated, built internal walls to block up the suddenly inconveniently open bits, and carried on as before. Now the building is a fully functional church with ruined bits at each end ...

The big arch on the left is where the tower used to be, and there was about the same amount of abbey to the left of that, once.

The long stay carpark is at the foot of the hill with the abbey at the top, next to a tributary of the Avon. Then you get this sheer hill with steps leading up it. It's the kind of place that you can tell has been manipulated by the hand of man since centuries past, to the extent that the artificial enhancements of yore are essentially the geology of today. A fantasy writer's dream. Once you're up the hill you get a lovely little town, probably infuriating to drive in but full of character and secondhand shops that we proceeded to plunder. Living there would be nice as long as you had a proper native Malmesbury home and not one of the McResidences springing up around the edge. A home like this one, say ...

... an old water tower, reachable only by walking down a narrow lane, with a penthouse at the top.

Anyway, the abbey. Despite being old it's clearly a warm and friendly community, with comfortable chairs and plenty of outreach into the town. A proper community as these things should be. At the top of one of the pillars is what looks like a private box ...

... which apparently was where the sick monks were allowed to sit and watch the service.

There's also a stained glass window in tribute to local hero Eilmer the Flying Monk, who legend has it observed the flight of birds, made his own gliding apparatus and got permission to test it. He flew 200 metres, or at least fell that distance with style, and attributed his subsequent crash and lifelong crippling to not having included a tail. Sadly he didn't get further permission from the abbot to continue his researches. But, 10/10 not only for effort but also for scientific powers of observation and reasoning.

It's now possible we've officially Done every abbey within a day trip of Abingdon, or at least every one of the free entry ones. But there's still a couple of cathedrals we can think of.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pratchett, games and lists

To the Unicorn Theatre last night for the latest of the Studio Theatre Club's Pratchett plays. The group has gone back to its roots with a revised version of the very first such play that it did, in 1991, a few months before I came to Abingdon and a year before Bonusbarn was born. Wyrd Sisters: The Director's Cut.

The usual high standards; nigh on perfect casting all round. It was a shame they left Death out but you can't have everything. Plays also can't include lines of narrative text: I remember from the novel the lovely line "they turned to see a dwarf trying to loom over them". Also difficult on stage would have been the bit where someone tries to sit in a chair occupied by the ghost of the dead king. "Is someone sitting here?" / "Yes ..."

On the way back home Bonusbarn gave an interesting insight into the politics of gamery, or the workings of his own mind, or both, speaking contemptuously of the people sitting in the row in front, who I would guess to have been students. "I’m never going to be that nerdy. They were talking about Magic: The Gathering. That’s a card game."

… which led on to a discussion of which is better, a technologically accomplished piece of work graphical like World of Warcraft, where everything is laid out for you on screen, or a proper role playing game (you may see where my prejudices lie) where you may have a few props and enabling items but the main action takes place in the imagination.

… which led on to a reminder (following from his suspicious identification of my ability to recognise authentic player-talk) that I was in the university SFSoc in my day, even though I hardly ever went to a meeting because they clashed with scuba diving on Thursday evenings and so I just turned up to the end of term video weekends.

[Sigh] "Were you the president?"


"Did the president have long hair and a trench coat?"

Um. Thinks. I do remember a long(ish) haired president. I also remember a trench coat. I forget if they were the same person. But …


Which leads on to something almost completely different but saves me doing two blog posts where one will do. Apparently the Guardian is having one of those prescriptive moments that the national press do so love and is listing the 1000 books everyone must read. They’ve now got down to science fiction and fantasy titles. There’s 149 of them (for the sake of convenience Discworld, Narnia, His Dark Materials etc. count as one title each) and the full list is kindly summarised here so I pinched it.

Some I've never heard of; some (I'm looking at you, Rowling) I'm thinking "what??" With the possible exception of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I'm thinking that any book published in the last five years is too recent to say everyone should read it; I'd say published this century except that China Mieville's there (though not with the title I'd have chosen). But anyway, here's the list again, with the ones I’ve read (60/149 = 40%) in bold.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Brian W Aldiss: Non-Stop (1958)
Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin (2000)
Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
JG Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
JG Ballard: Crash (1973)
JG Ballard: Millennium People (2003)
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory (1984)
Iain M Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)
Clive Barker: Weaveworld (1987)
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)
Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships (1995)
Greg Bear: Darwin’s Radio (1999)
William Beckford: Vathek (1786)
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956)
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Poppy Z Brite: Lost Souls (1992)
Charles Brockden Brown: Wieland (1798)
Algis Budrys: Rogue Moon (1960)
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)
Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The Coming Race (1871)
Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1960) [seen the film; does that count?]
Anthony Burgess: The End of the World News (1982)
Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess of Mars (1912)
William Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
Octavia Butler: Kindred (1979)
Samuel Butler: Erewhon (1872)
Italo Calvino: The Baron in the Trees (1957)
Ramsey Campbell: The Influence (1988)
Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus (1984)
Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000)
Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End (1953)
GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)
Michael G Coney: Hello Summer, Goodbye (1975)
Douglas Coupland: Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves (2000)
Marie Darrieussecq: Pig Tales (1996)
Samuel R Delaney: The Einstein Intersection (1967)
Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Thomas M Disch: Camp Concentration (1968)
Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
Michel Faber: Under the Skin (2000)
John Fowles: The Magus (1966)
Neil Gaiman: American Gods (2001)
Alan Garner: Red Shift (1973) [didn’t understand it, but read it]
William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland (1915)
William Golding: Lord of the Flies (1954)
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)
M John Harrison: Light (2002)
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
Robert A Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Frank Herbert: Dune (1965)
Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game (1943)
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker (1980)
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Michel Houellebecq: Atomised (1998)
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
PD James: The Children of Men (1992)
Richard Jefferies: After London; Or, Wild England (1885)
Gwyneth Jones: Bold as Love (2001)
Franz Kafka: The Trial (1925)
Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
Stephen King: The Shining (1977)
Marghanita Laski: The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953)
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
Ursula K Le Guin: The Earthsea series (1968-1990)
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)
Doris Lessing: Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56)
MG Lewis: The Monk (1796)
David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions (2008)
Hilary Mantel: Beyond Black (2005)
Michael Marshall Smith: Only Forward (1994)
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend (1954)
Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Patrick McCabe: The Butcher Boy (1992)
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006)
Jed Mercurio: Ascent (2007)
China Miéville: The Scar (2002) [why this and not Perdido St Station?]
Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997)
Walter M Miller Jr: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas (2004)
Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)
William Morris: News From Nowhere (1890)
Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1995)
Vladimir Nabokov: Ada or Ardor (1969)
Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)
Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970)
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman (1967)
Ben Okri: The Famished Road (1991)
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)
Chuck Palahniuk: Fight Club (1996)
Thomas Love Peacock: Nightmare Abbey (1818)
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth: The Space Merchants (1953)
John Cowper Powys: A Glastonbury Romance (1932)
Terry Pratchett: The Discworld series (1983- )
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000)
François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34)
Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)
JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)
Joanna Russ: The Female Man (1975)
Geoff Ryman: Air (2005)
Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)
José Saramago: Blindness (1995)
Will Self: How the Dead Live (2000)
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)
Dan Simmons: Hyperion (1989)
Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker (1937)
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)
Rupert Thomson: The Insult (1996)
JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)
JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
Mark Twain: A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889)
Kurt Vonnegut: Sirens of Titan (1959)
Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto (1764)
Robert Walser: Institute Benjamenta (1909)
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes (1926)
Sarah Waters: Affinity (1999)
HG Wells: The Time Machine (1895)
HG Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
TH White: The Sword in the Stone (1938)
Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun (1980-83)
Virginia Woolf: Orlando (1928)
John Wyndham: Day of the Triffids (1951)
John Wyndham: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) [what happened to The Chrysalids?]
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We (1924)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No one would have believed, in the early years of the 21st century ...

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day from NASA is a 360 degree panorama from the Spirit rover on Mars. It's been up there five years, trundling around doing its stuff. Five years! Those rocks and sedimentary layers and grains of sand have been unobserved for millions of years, but now Wall-E's distant ancestor is rolling around up there and taking it all in. It fills me with almost as much wonder as the thought that America now has a black president.

Making the picture even more fun is spotting the number of features named after science fiction people or ideas. There's Arthur C. Clarke, Roger Zelazny, Jack Williamson and Frederic Brown, not to mention Monolith, Martian Chronicles and Malacandra. Someone at NASA is reading far too much of exactly the right stuff.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sew and sew

During our pre-marital compression and elimination of surplus material goods, Best Beloved somehow managed to get rid of her sewing box, and has been pining for a new one ever since. But no longer, because after months of trawling eBay and second-hand shops we finally found this ...

... a solid oak sewing stool from Chissock Woodcraft. This is in the grounds of Yeldall Manor, a rehabilitation centre for drug and alcohol addicts, which teaches them useful craft skills to help them get back into the community. So, we get a nice stool and we support an excellent cause as well.

The place is south of Henley, down one of those nice bits of the Thames valley where the sides are steep and wooded and the road winds roughly along the 10' contour. Sharp rise and screamingly expensive houses on one side, river on the other. On this, the first decently warm and sunny (if windy) Saturday of the year, it was a lovely drive, apart from those heartstopping moments where the southbound road disappears into a white glare in the low noon-time sun and there's a bus coming round a tight corner towards you.

We had lunch in Henley itself and wandered around, making the first time I've had a chance to look at the town properly rather than just drive through it as a congestion-busting shortcut to or from the M4. I was delighted to see that although it has the usual high street names it's also heaving with small, independent specialist shops. After Abingdon's monoculture of opticians and second-hand shops, it was a nice change. But then we remembered that this place too is screamingly expensive - I mean, Heseltine and then Johnson were the MP, remember? - and the denizens are probably used to paying an extra penny or two for good service.

So, anyway, the sewing box is installed, all the other furniture has moved along one space and the item at the end of the row has disappeared into a space-time anomaly which is the only way to make room. Now we just need to sew something. One step at a time, eh?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bonus Bonusbarn

Work has had a desktop calendar printed for customers and clients, advertising a different service for each month of the year. January's is for educational videoconferencing content and features the face of a schoolchild reflected in an astronaut's visor as he peers in.

I don't know who the astronaut is but the schoolkid who posed for the picture is none other than my stepson, the one and only Bonusbarn. Except that he's no longer one and only, we had 1000 of the things printed. All my close-by colleagues have one on their desks. I walk around the office and I see him everywhere. Please, roll on February.

At least I'm not at the BETT show this week, where our stand includes a 10ft high image of the same glowering down at the public. [Shudders]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Please deselect this man now

"A Labour MP has claimed dyslexia is a myth invented by education chiefs to cover up poor teaching methods.

Backbencher Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley, describes the condition as a "cruel fiction" that should be consigned to the "dustbin of history". (The full Beeb report)"
Never mind that the condition was first identified over 100 years ago. Never mind all the verifiable scientific research that has been done since. Never mind that it pops up all over the globe. Why let facts spoil a good dose of prejudice?

And the amazing thing is - this guy isn't even a Conservative.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's a Mac trap, and we've been caught

There are occasional advantages to IT Support's geological speed of response. It's been a full four months since I was forced to submit a request for a Mac. Now it's arrived, it took me a full four minutes to decide we weren't going to get on. My gay trill of laughter when it looked like my email files (a) hadn't transferred to the new system and (b) wouldn't be compatible if they did made the windows rattle. (My recent discovery that, even though I can still use Firefox to compose this, the keystroke on my PC that made the cursor jump between words here just closes the tab has had a similar result.)

Fortunately that little giggle seems to have been resolved. After a morning's acquaintance I have decided we can have a relationship, as long as I can go home at the end of each day and tell my PC at home all about it.

The "genie" effect, whereby a minimised application seems to be sucked into the dock, made me queasy and I've replaced it with the good old shrink effect that Windows uses (which, I know, it got off Apple). The fact that there's only one toolbar regardless of the application is an annoyance but I'll get over it. What fool thought it would be neat to swap the " and @ keys around, and why, I will never guess.

Sadly, my biggest and loudest complaint about the Mac isn't actually Apple's fault. This one is all Microsoft's. In using Word 2008 for Mac I've regressed over a decade. Ever since I switched to PCs from my old Amstrad, ever since, I've recorded a macro to swap two misplaced letters around. The commonest spelling mistake, as you may recall me saying before. On early PCs I used the Windows macro recorder. Then Word grew up enough to record its own macros and so I used that instead. Every time I have moved to a new computer or got a new verison of Word, that is the first change I've made.

No more. Word 2008 for Mac doesn't let you record macros. I am flabbergasted. What do they think they're doing?

(Answer, courtesy of my manager: they know exactly what they're doing. They grudgingly admit that there are Microsoft users who use Apples, and they cater for the market, but they don't make it easy in the hope that said users will see the light and switch to PCs. Easy)

You can still assign keystrokes to existing menu commands. All is not lost. And in some ways, the return to the classic Word interface after months of struggling with Office 2007 [spit] is a relief. Maybe we'll call this a draw.

I'll try to be positive. The overall look of the Mac is nice. I will gladly bow to Apple's ability to make technology attractive; to slip into your life and be part of it, rather than a beast growling in the corner. The downside is of course that you do it Apple's way or not at all. To make my point I've changed the wallpaper to <geek>a screen shot of the TARDIS console room</geek> (<ubergeek>specifically the secondary console room as used in series 14</ubergeek>), that being the ultimate machine where the user's requirements are paramount.

Most satisfying of all is that once you've got your head back on you notice a certain strange sense of familiarity. The CMD+Tab combination to cycle through applications, which is almost like ALT+Tab ... oh, and the keyboard. The keyboards of early Macs were truly alien beasts. This has a forward-delete key; the funny Apple key is labelled ALT; there's a CTRL key too. The overall effect is ... Windows-like. Okay, so it's about as convincing as Del-Boy's attempts to appear classy by speaking French, but you recognise that it's trying.

Note this well. The two systems did not meet halfway. They came to us.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

But no Turkish Delight

Boar's Hill on a subzero January day does a passable imitation of Narnia towards the end of the Witch's reign.

Look close and you see that everything is picked out in lines of frost. It's like the setting on Adobe Illustrator where you can reduce a picture down to a line drawing.

At one point we crossed over a small stream trickling down between two of these exquisitely outlined frosty banks, leading me (sorry) to start gibbering "Aslan is coming! Aslan is coming!"

The event: friend DW, who I must have known for a good decade or more (as opposed to DW, who I've known since about 2001 or DW who I've known since about 2004) has a birthday at this time of year and always organises a birthday walk with friends drawn from all walks of his life. Ten years ago the group was exclusively adult but suddenly babies started happening, all mysteriously at the same time, leading to a group of kids all about the same age (and mostly male, for some reason).

DW isn't actually giving them communion, just chocolate coins which are of course renowned for their warming effect.

From the Fox, through some fields and frosty woods that are still primeval Oxfordshire and where wolves really ought to prowl, up to Jarn Mound to look at what would have been quite a view if the mist hadn't been there, then back to the Fox for a warming luncheon. Hardier souls continued with part 2 of the walk, less hardy or those with some serious blogging to do peeled off and headed home.

It just wouldn't have been the same without the frost, but now we've done that, we can have the warm weather now, thanks.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


A distant memory stirs like some sluggish primeval beast. It's been so long that for a couple of seconds I was even taken in by the envelope: "72-hour notice of document delivery".

"Wow," I thought, "this must be important ..."

... plus (half a second later) "so why not just send the important document now ..."

... plus (finally) recognition. "It's them. They're back."

I am one of the 2% of households in Abingdon invited to take part in the Reader's Digest prize draw. I could shortly be the winner of £250,000! The envelope came complete with a certificate that a total of £300,000 has been deposited at the NatWest to cover all the prizes. First prize: £250,000. Number of prizes: 2058. Do the maths to get the average runner up prize.

If past form is anything to go by, they will send me six personal numbers which might just might be eligible for entry into the draw. I have a sneaking suspicion they will be eligible. It would be an awful lot of bother to go to just to send me a load of duff numbers.

There's a picture of the large orange envelope that will fall through the letterbox. It has all the usual seals and barcodes on it to make it seem Very Important. (What exactly are we to make of "This communication to be delivered to named addressee only"? Who else is it likely to be delivered to? Is a busy postman expected to ring the bell and wait, shivering on the doorstep to press it into my eager hands?) The envelope will positively shriek that if just one of those numbers wins then £250,000 could be mine. Much the same way as I could walk down the road where I live and heave a brick through each window. "Could" does not equal "probably will". In fact the brick-through-window scenario has a greater chance of happening and I like to think I'm a model neighbour.

Even in the unlikely chance of my not winning anything, I will probably be invited – just because it's me, you understand, and they like me so much – to purchase one of RD's publications at a knock-down rate. In the past I've purchased their road atlas and maybe a couple of other things, knowing this would just make me a mark for further top priority hands-only mailshots. I have always declined their offers of Reader's Digest Condensed Novels. They would have more luck offering Jamie Oliver a supersize cheeseburger with extra fries, cheap.

Back in my day the prize draw manager was the improbably named Tom Champagne. Nowadays it's the slightly more plausible, blokey Nick Shelley. There's even a brief paragraph assuring us he does exist. At least he has a likely-sounding name.

Oh, balls, it's all so bloody Daily Mail. It's Hyacinth Bucket. It's a relic of a time when the middle classes were busting out like never before and craved respectability. The intent was to fool them into thinking they had it. How better to seem respectable than to have rows of condensed classic works of literature lined up on your stone clad bookcase, gleaming in their leather binding with gold embossed text? Sniggering at us? Who's sniggering?

And they're still doing it.

The last time I got one of these, I think, I had never heard of (or indeed received) a Nigerian spam. Now it finally dawns on me that these wastes of treeware are Nigerian spam's only slightly better good twin. Okay, they're not invitations to criminal activity but they are equally insulting in their own way. Not by a blithe assumption that a large enough sum will induce me to participate in serious fraud; just by thinking that all the bells, whistles, seals, certificates of authenticity, strident letters assuring me I'm through two out of three stages but could fall at the third so don't delay, act now and the general good simulation of personal attention will actually make me take them one atom more seriously.

Spam makes it money by costing only pennies to hook in one sucker every few million. It's all they need. I don't doubt that Reader's Digest is actually legal and genuine; someone somewhere will be winning that £250,000. But to fund that, and to pay the considerably higher overheads, they must have to sell a lot of condensed novels, and that's the most depressing thought of all.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

American presidents

The last movie watched in 2008 was The American President, which I first saw about 10 years ago and wanted to see again because it was a kind of dry run for The West Wing and now that I'm familiar with the latter I wanted to see how it held up. Same warm heart, same creator, a lot of the same cast, same attitude, a lot of the same lines and unashamedly Democrat.

And it does hold up, because like TWW its two greatest strengths are: (1) it actually uses real-world issues to drive its drama, and the result isn't always a happy one, and good people are forced to do bad things because not doing them would be even worse; and (2) it loves the presidency. Not for what it's become but for what it should be. It should attract people of the highest calibre. It should be such a power for good. To be addressed as "Mr President" should be the greatest honour a country can bestow, and it should only be bestowed on people who are utterly worthy of it. Presidents Shepherd in The American President and Bartlet in The West Wing - and indeed the future President Santos in the same - are such people. You can't help respecting and liking them. Why can't we get them in real life?

Also over the holiday period we reached the end of series 6 of The West Wing - one more to go, even if I do know roughly how it ends. Series 6 ended with the battle lines being drawn up - the end of the presidency in sight, the two new presidential candidates confirmed. And true to form and its own internal guidelines, it doesn't make the Republican guy a cipher who will easily be beaten. He's just as good and honest a man as Bartlet, who is well aware his own party can only produce slimeballs and second-raters and is actively worried that they can't find someone to stand against him. Until the underdog Congressman Santos enters the fray, of course, but some conventions of drama have to stand.

It got me wondering: when was the last time a Democrat president handed over to another Democrat? (Not counting Clinton who should have handed over to Gore, but that's history ...) A quick check isn't encouraging for the future. The last two Democrat successions both came about by the incumbent dying - Kennedy and Johnson, and before that Roosevelt and Truman. In both cases the former VP then won a single term in his own right but was followed by a Republican. The last time a living, breathing and compos mentis Democrat president was followed by another Democrat was Franklin Pierce in 1857, who was pro-slavery and had been disowned by his own party after a single term. The last two-term Democrat to hand over to another Democrat (though Clinton had two terms ...) was Andrew Jackson in 1837.

So, fingers crossed for Mr Obama in 2016, eh? He's already broken a couple of records; another one or two shouldn't be a problem.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Nation and other books

One of the best books I read in 2008, I just managed to squeeze into the year. I finished it about five minutes before the bongs, on the same day its author's knighthood was announced.

Nation by (Sir) Terry Pratchett could have been a Discworld novel but it wouldn't pack half the punch it does. It's more or less set in our world's nineteenth century, with just enough variance for Pratchett to have fun. But the underlying premise simply isn't funny and he doesn't try to pretend it is: the Nation is a Pacific island (one of the Mothering Sunday islands, which are an extension of the Bank Holiday Monday group) whose population is wiped out by a tsunami following a volcanic eruption. Mau is the sole survivor. On the island he meets Daphne (née Ermintrude, but in Pratchett style she chooses a name that better reflects her personality), scion of the aristocracy and related more closely than she realises to royalty, who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck caused by the same tsunami. They both have a great deal of pain to get through. Being Pratchett heroes, of course, they manage; and then you remember the author's own recent personal tsunami, his diagnosis with Alzheimer's, and you realise this is Pratchett's Book of Job.

I hadn't realised before how well Job works for non-believers as well as believers. I remember Pratchett saying in an interview that he's a humanist, and therefore an atheist, and either way that unfortunately means he can't get angry with God because he doesn't believe in him. Job, and Nation, show that you can still scream WHY? at whoever you do or don't believe in, and either way you get the same answer: "Because. Who's asking?"

After all that, don't get the idea it's heavy going, because it isn't. Pratchettism abounds. When you hear a sentence like "it only needs 138 people to die and your father will be King!" then it's just asking for trouble - the humour equivalent of the gun on the mantelpiece. The platonic love story - Mau and Daphne are still children - is funny and moving, and there are sideways views of science and religion and civilisation and wonderful turns of phrase left, right and centre. One of my favourites was a description of Daphne's great-great-aunt: "apparently a young man had smiled at her on her twenty-first birthday and she's gone straight to bed with an attack of the vapours, and stayed there, still gently vaporizing ..."

It's great fun, and it's also one of the few books I actually feel honoured to have read.

And here's everything else I read in 2008. In summary, with last year's figures in brackets:

total: 53 (60)
science fiction/fantasy: 30 (30)
translated from Swedish: 4 (4)
gave up reading: 2

In full:
  • Nation, Terry Pratchett
  • Black & Blue, Ian Rankin
  • The Turing Test, Chris Beckett
  • Enigma, Robert Harris
  • The Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde
  • Fool Moon, Jim Butcher
  • Storm Front, Jim Butcher
  • Halting State, Charles Stross
  • Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
  • Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
  • The Locked Room, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
  • Marooned in Real Time, Vernor Vinge
  • The Peace War, Vernor Vinge
  • Jingo, Terry Pratchett
  • Invasive Procedures, Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
  • The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
  • Smoke & Mirrors, Neil Gaiman
  • His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik
  • Coyote Frontier, Allen Steele
  • Coyote Rising, Allen Steele
  • Empire, Orson Scott Card
  • Notes from a Big Country, Bill Bryson
  • The First Rumpole Omnibus, John Mortimer
  • Pied Piper, Nevil Shute
  • Imperium, Robert Harris
  • Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett
  • Saturn's Children, Charles Stross
  • Keeper of Dreams, Orson Scott Card
  • A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
  • Wife to Charles II, Hilda Lewis
  • Round Ireland with a Fridge, Tony Hawks
  • I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  • Ireland: Awakening, by Edward Rutherfurd
  • The Great Siege: Malta 1565, Ernle Bradford
  • Snakehead, Anthony Horowitz
  • The Digital Plague, Jeff Somers
  • Simon and the Oaks, Marianne Fredriksson
  • Then and Now, W. Somerset Maugham
  • Leviathan Rising, Jonathan Green
  • Stardust, Neil Gaiman
  • Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • Mister Monday, Garth Nix
  • Looking for Jake & Other Stories, China Miéville
  • Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge
  • Causing Chaos with Jeremy James, David Henry Wilson
  • The Queen's Tiara, CJL Almqvist
  • The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman
  • The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
  • Frankenstein Unbound, Brian Aldiss
  • The Dilbert Future, Scott Adams
  • Galileo's Daughter, Dava Sobel
  • My Booky Wook, Russell Brand
  • The Twinkling of an Eye, Brian Aldiss