Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Separated at birth

One of these is Dr Conrad Murray of Los Angeles. The other is Dr Julius Hibbert of Springfield.

I know which I'd rather be right now.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Alpha beater

Just watched Channel 4's Revelations: How to Find God, which this week was a documentary about the Alpha course as run by St Aldates. Interestingly it highlighted several of the reasons why I am no great fan of the course ... and threw up some problems that I hope are unique to St Aldates.

I myself have Done Alpha. I held out for a long time but eventually I cracked, and I enjoyed it. I had no great revelations myself but then I was already about as committed a Christian as I will ever be. I met some nice people. My group leader was one of the saintliest, wisest, most head-screwed-on people I know. My problems?

Well, even Richard Dawkins couldn't argue with the idea of Alpha. A simple, straightforward presentation of Christian belief, in a friendly, non-threatening setting. Something to counter all the misconceptions the average bod is likely to pick up through a lifetime of half-heard truths and strawman targets and the Vicar of Dibley. What could go wrong? Show them the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.

I don't know if this is how all churches do it, or just us - but the first thing our meetings kick off with is a couple of choruses. Now, to the people running the thing this may be as natural as breathing and it wouldn't occur to them to do otherwise, any more than they would set off in a car without putting on their seatbelt. However, my most positive feeling towards those songs is grudging tolerance, and that's when I'm in a good mood. I go to my church for the fellowship and the friends that I love. I don't go for the singing. And so I honestly couldn't invite someone to Alpha with a straight face, telling them it's all a simple, straightforward presentation etc. but knowing they'd be singing "Hungry I come to you" before anything else.

Second is the content itself. It'll be no surprise to anyone that I fully agree with all the main conclusions of the arguments ... just not always the route taken to get there.

Example: in the session on Sin, the official Alpha coursebook contains a handy little story about Arthur Conan Doyle sending telegrams to a certain number of friends saying "flee, all is discovered", whereupon most or all of them cleared straight out of town. The point is meant to be that we all have a guilty conscience, or something. But the number of friends varies from telling to telling, I'm sure I've heard exactly the same story told about Mark Twain (in whose case it sounds much more likely), and this very day I came across this handy little thread that seems to conclude the tale is apocryphal.

Again, to some people it's completely natural to trot out a half-understood urban legend in the genuine and sincere belief that it's just as good as hard, solid fact. There is no intention to deceive. But it isn't as good as hard solid fact and that's all there is to it. Give me citations, or leave it out. I have ranted about this before. If a speaker demonstrates that he's a very nice bloke but will uncritically receive any pile of tosh that comes to him from another Christian, why should anyone believe what he has to say on ... I dunno ... Jesus?

(I've also read the Christianity Explored coursebook, which is for people who find Alpha too liberal and non-commital (a bit like actuaries being people who find accountancy too exciting). But whatever your views on it, the content is based squarely on direct anecdotes from the author's life, or illustrations drawn from movies that everyone will have seen. In that respect, Christianity Explored is streets ahead.)

And then there's the old CS Lewis chestnut about Jesus being "just a good teacher". No one, he said, could make the claims he did and just be a good teacher. He was God, or he was a deluded lunatic, with no middle ground. Well, this is one of the few times I have to say that old CS was talking cobblers. Mother Teresa is a perfect example of the contradiction CS Lewis says is impossible. The love and devotion she showed the poor of Calcutta was exemplary. Her teachings on contraception verged on criminal irresponsibility. Of course you can have both those extremes in one human being. We are complex people.

Again, no surprise to regular readers to know that along with Lewis I also believe Jesus was God. But I don't believe it for that argument, not least because that argument doesn't work. It is illogical. It should not be used.

It is used.

The content that works best in Alpha is never intended to be a show-stopping argument, but still it tends to get used as such. There is an answer to every objection I have ever heard raised, both at my own sessions and on the TV show, but these are not absolute arguments designed to sweep away all doubt. They are simply counter-arguments that take the game back to 15-all. There is no other way to do it. Yet, they are used as absolute arguments, and the Alpha leaders seem strangely confused and upset when doubts remain in the mind of the questioner.

To the TV programme, and the specific St Aldates thing I really disliked was the matter of Tongues. It may just the editing, but it looked horribly like speaking in Tongues at St Aldates is the indicator of success for the Alpha weekend away. And again I say unto you: cobblers.

Two of the participants walked out during the Holy Spirit session on their weekend away, and my heart went with them. One of them said straight out that if he had known, if he had realised it would be like this ...

Meanwhile the Reverend quotes the first half of 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul states: "I would like every one of you to speak in tongues ..." But you can't have the first half of that verse without the second: "... but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified."

Not every Christian speaks in Tongues. Not every one has to. A Christian message that says otherwise is just Wrong.

Overall, Alpha - at least, as practiced as Christ Church in Abingdon and apparently at St Aldates - starts off as the presentation thing, but it tries just a little too hard to make you click into one particular slot and it doesn't make it clear that there are many, many, many slots available. And if you don't make that slot, yet you conclude on the evidence presented that this is all that's available ... well, then, obviously you decide you're not going to be a Christian and according to official Alpha doctrine you're destined for Hell.

Fortunately I don't believe that either.

Let's not diss it. The Spirit works wherever he is given the opportunity and that includes Alpha, including the Wrong bits. I can say this because he works in all of us, including the Wrong bits, because he has to: down here on Earth there are no bits that are wholly Right. Alpha does great things. I will gladly help set up and deliver puddings for the meals. I even have that sticker in the back of my car of Bear Grylls on top of a mountain with his arms held out. I do all this because I want Alpha to succeed, which means giving the Spirit a chance to act and overcome the foibles of his human servants.

But I'm not of the Alpha slot.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A whole in my mind

I have fragmented knowledge of bits of Oxford. The Wycliffe area. St Giles. Broad Street, the High Street ... I very rarely travel from one to the other, though. I make each one my destination for whatever purpose, and go there and back again. So, how do all those fragments fit together?

I could look at a map, or, I could walk it.

Park the car at Wycliffe. Along Norham Gardens and then down through the University Parks to the High Street, via St Cross Road - a handy back-alley route I didn't know and the first of the threads to link the different bits together. Past Magdalen and over the bridge, hanging a left to St Clements and the Islamic Centre, looking suitably Islamic as it towers over the leafy green trees.

Then turn left just before the Magdalen Sports Ground and you're in Mesopotamia - a shaded walk between two streams of the Cherwell, a mill stream and the natural channel, named with impeccably accurate Oxonian clever-gitness as Mesopotamia means "between rivers". The walk is along a concrete causeway with overgrown banks on either side. You join at the point where the two streams merge again and the upper one pours down in a weir, so the air blowing at you down the alley is cool and moist. After that, though, you begin to see that it rained quite heavily earlier in the weekend - not a sign of it now, but it's all evaporating and the air hemmed in by the overhanging undergrowth is humid.

You follow this as far as the point where the two streams diverge in the first place. The slipway with rollers at top left is presumably for getting punts between the two levels, but to my fevered imagination I could see it being an emergency punt launching device, for those occasions when the punt has to be in the water now.

And then you're back in the University Parks again, walking up the Cherwell, and a couple more fragments have been sewn together. But you're only just starting the trip into terra incognita because now you cross the river again and strike out for points east, or Marston, whichever comes sooner. This is the flood plain of the Cherwell, completely flat, immaculate sports ground on one side and overgrown grazing-and-hay-making-meadow on the other. You cross fields and go down more leafy tracks, and even though it's completely unknown you see things like the minarets and a cluster of trees in the middle of the sports ground and the roof of the JR - each line of sight a further thread to bind the whole. Then through Marston itself, deciding not to look at the inside of the 12th century church, round in a big anticlockwise circle via the Victoria Arms on the Cherwell, which you do decide to look inside. Oh, so that's what this place is. I punted here on a company social once, but obviously I came by river. Anyway. Now you're heading back down the Cherwell again and suddenly, presto, you're back in the University Parks and on the way back to the car.

Then home, via Summertown and Wolvercote. A final binding thread around the top of the town.

Six miles, apart from the driving bit, according to the book of walks; lovely weather; and not one hayfevery sniffle. How a Sunday afternoon should be.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Misplaced childhood

It's lunchtime and the BBC newsfeed in the lobby still says "Breaking news: Michael Jackson is dead". Well, it's hardly going to change, is it? The news reveals the astonishing facts that (a) he's dead and (b) his friends miss him. Well, did you ever.

Today I leaned a new word: Huxleyed. It means, roughly, to be reasonably famous such that your death should generate a few column inches, and then have that completely swamped by someone even more famous dying at the same time. The word originates from Aldous Huxley who carelessly died on 22 November 1963 shortly before JFK was shot. With slightly fewer knock-on effects for the future of planet Earth, Farrah Fawcett today found herself completely Huxleyed by the weird non-black guy.

I love the British sense of humour. During WW2, official Nazi news channels ranted about the alleged Jewishness and degeneracy of the royal family and Churchill. We retaliated by singing "Hitler has only got one ball". We won. So it came as no surprise at all to log on first thing this morning and find a bulletin board already posting Jacko jokes. Now is not the time to repeat any, but some are quite funny.

What isn't funny at all - in fact, heartbreakingly sad, once you're past the vomiting - is this collection of memorabilia that he was selling off to pay his bills. A common theme, apart from the gag-retching awfulness of it all, is children having fun - rather, Jackson's idea of what constituted children having fun, which isn't necessarily the same thing at all. And it's obvious he never had any at all. Fun, that is. Other interpretations will be up for discussion for a long time to come.

It's not often you can genuinely say "I hope he's at peace" but in this case I'll give it a go. He was a hugely unhappy guy and the only people he really made happy himself were the ones who couldn't get enough of him and therefore fed his unhappiness. I can't say anything for his legacy, apart from making the Today programme presenters talk about him as if they cared and bringing high production values to the world of music videos. That latter is frankly a dead-end alley as far as the evolution of civilisation goes. All those videos today of hundreds of people dancing exactly the same way with joyless robotic precision probably come down to him. As for the actual music ... well, "Billie Jean" had a certain toe-tapping something. I never could see the big deal about "Thriller", and Lenny Henry's version was much better.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fulminate Against Chiropractic Twaddle

I love FACTS. Not the Federation Against Copyright Theft (though I don't dislike it, apart from its irritatingly obtrusive and unavoidable adverts on my legally acquired DVDs) but actual facts. I love the presentation of information that is clearly, unavoidably and sometimes interestingly true.

Part of this I might put down to the headmaster I had at a formative age, and the hurt and misery oft caused by his fantasised, evidence-free declarations of reality. But most of it is just who I am. It's why I like quizzes. It's why I have been known to play Trivial Pursuit. It's why I'm not a Creationist and believe in democracy and freedom of speech and have always preferred working in some form of scientific publishing. Science is the ultimate playground of fact. If something is true then scientific method and experimentation will show it to be so. It's inevitable. It can't help it.

Hold that thought.

I can personally testify to the purely physical benefits of chiropractic treatment, i.e. adjustment to the spine, curing backache, aiding posture etc. If however my chiropractor told me it could also cure my asthma, I'd demand proof. Okay, I don't have asthma anyway. Hayfever? Yes. So if someone made the same claim about hayfever, I might ask why I've been having the treatment for over 7 years now and, while my back is fine, I still get the odd itchy sniffle. Does my back need adjusting in a different way? Surely a reasonable question to ask.

Hold that thought too, and combine it with the first one.

So when journalist Simon Singh cast doubt on the ability of chiropractic treatment to cure childhood diseases such as asthma, the British Chiropractic Association surely just had to wheel out the results of a few double blind trials to prove him wrong. No?

No. They took him to court for libel, and it's still rumbling on.

Read Singh's account here. Read much more authoritative accounts than I can give here and here. None of it is happy reading.

Why? Well, reading this lot, I've learnt interesting things about English libel law. Libel is the only kind of court case where the burden of proof is reversed – the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. The plaintiff has to convince the court they have a reputation to defend in the UK, but then simply say that X has sullied that reputation. X then has to prove that no, he hasn't. Further, preliminary hearings can define the scope of the actual trial way beyond the original cause. In this case, the preliminary hearing by Mr Justice Eady has decided Singh was maliciously accusing the BCA of deliberate falsehood – which he wasn't, but suddenly that is what he has to prove he wasn't doing, rather than stand by his simple original assertion that there is no direct evidence for the BCA's claims. To use a complex legal term coined by one of my godsons, Mr Eady is a poo-poo head (capitus excretus excretus).

I've also learnt from today's reading that "chiropractic" is an anagram of "critic - oh, crap".

I confess I'm still not entirely certain why the case can't simply run as follows: chairman of BCA put on the stand; given copy of article to read out with instructions to put his hand up when he gets to the bit where he's called a liar; gets to the end without putting his hand up; judge throws the case out. It's all more complex than that. Apparently.

But that is grounds for a separate rant. Grounds for this one are as follows. Facts are facts. Dogma is dogma. The two are irreconcilable. When a fact contradicts dogma it is the dogma that is at fault. There is no reputation at stake. There is no libel to be had. And libel laws should not be used to suppress science.

Sense About Science has published a statement to this effect, to which all sorts of famous and non-famous (like me) people have added their signatures. Go thou and do likewise.

Let's give the last word to Stephen Fry, another signatory:
"It may seem like a small thing to some when claims are made without evidence, but there are those of us who take this kind of thing very seriously because we believe that repeatable evidence-based science is the very foundation of our civilisation. Freedom in politics, in thought and in speech followed the rise of empirical science which refused to take anything on trust, on faith, on hope or even on reason. The simplicity and purity of evidence is all that stands between us and the wildest kinds of tyranny, superstition and fraudulent nonsense. When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh's reputation then anyone who believes in science, fairness and the truth should rise in indignation. All we ask for is proof. Reasoned proof according to the established protocols of medicine and science everywhere. It is not science that is arrogant: science can be defined as 'humility before the facts' - it is those who refuse to submit to testing and make unsubstantiated claims that are arrogant. Arrogant and unjust."

free debate

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How would I feel being outed (as a blogger)?

Well, first of all I would congratulate the outer on their hard work. My name is embedded in the URL of this blog, I never fail to plug my books where the possibility arises, and the column on the left contains a link to www.benjeapes.com, which itself has a headline feed from this blog. So, it would be good to know the art of investigative journalism wasn't completely dead.

If I was Detective Constable Richard Horton of the Lancashire Constabulary, I might feel differently. He anonymously created the Night Jack blogger, giving an insider's view of the workings of Her Majesty's Northern Plod. It garnered awards and has been turned into a series. He took the Times to court to try and stop them revealing his identity, and failed. Now identified, he has been given a written warning, the blog has been deleted and no further action will be taken. I surprise myself to find my sympathies are with the police, in this instance.

Yes, bloggers should have a right to be anonymous, if that is their choice. If they commit libel, or the public interest or national security are adversely affected, a court should then be able to order their identity to be revealed. (Public interest and national security <> sparing the blushes of the powers that be or catering to the public taste for titillation – but that too is for the courts to decide.) It's also up to them to make a reasonable effort, however. Horton wasn't so much leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind him as several unsliced loaves. For instance, mentioning his jiu-jitsu activities, when the Lancashire Constabulary jiu-jitsu club only one lists member who is a detective. I have my suspicions as to why, after 17 years on the force, he's still only a constable.

Under those circumstances, pleading a right to anonymity is just silly. Note that in this case it wasn't the repressive forces of law and order that tracked Horton down – it was the Times, following a perfectly reasonable line of enquiry now that his blog had made the big time. I would guess Lancashire Constabulary was quietly ignoring the matter, until it became unavoidable.

So, why the reprimand? It's a question of balance. I rarely name my friends or even family, though it's no secret I live in Abingdon. I don't deliver the juicy gossip from work or reveal stories about my colleagues – but I don't hide the nature of my employer's business or its geographical location, so Woodward & Bernstein would track it down in about 30 seconds (the Abingdon Herald, maybe a minute). Horton, apparently, was not only giving hints on how to act when arrested (not such a bad thing) but giving out information that could affect cases in progress (very bad indeed). Your work is your work, it's not your hobby or your life; but even then, an employer can reasonably assume a reasonable degree of loyalty from its staff. 17 years on the force, remember – it's not as if he was suffering in a hellhole with his blog the only outlet for his righteous resentment.

How could he have played it safer? Easy. Make up names for everything, including Lancashire. Leave out the links to the jiu-jitsu and anything else associated with him. Make it impossible to pinpoint himself or his activities. As long as the made-up names were consistent, the truth of his posts would be unaffected. Has Belle du Jour been positively identified? (No, she's not Billie Piper.) I don't think so. Does her discreet use of pseudonyms affect her veracity? Not at all. See, easy.

Monday, June 15, 2009

50 not out, and Biblical hit jobs

If either of us makes it to our 50th wedding anniversary we will be in our nineties. My parents are a little younger but then they started earlier. Still, 50 years, eh? The oldest friends I am still in touch with, I will have known for 31 years this September - I met them upon starting at a new school in September 1978. That's still not 50.

So, a weekend given over to due celebration of the Big Gold, and quite right too, in far better weather than we had any right to hope for. Mostly shirtsleeve order, with just the occasional sprinkling of a few molecules of water to remind us we were having the weather by special dispensation of grace only.

Saturday saw two dozen friends and family converging on the parental home, the criterion for non-family being that they (or at least a spousal partner) had to have been at the wedding itself. I asked one of the former bridesmaids if she was retired now.

"Yes, thanks. Fifty years, remember?!"

Well, okay, point taken but she was quite a young bridesmaid.

The one of my father's close army pals who isn't one of my godfathers, i.e. the one who became a multi-millionaire, remarked that he had been married for a total of 45 years. "To four different women, of course ..."

As well as hundredth birthdays, the Queen will apparently send congratulations to long-lasting couples ... but only starting at the 60th anniversary, so the Aged Ps will have to stick with each other for a while longer.

For Sunday we (family only) gatecrashed what used to be my grandmother's local church and was the one where the ceremony had taken place, 50 years and 24 hours earlier. I'm delighted to see it now has a lady vicar and what looks like a really thriving all-age congregation, and all that without going all ghastly and modern. Good on them.

It's a very pictureskew little village south of Salisbury but I had always thought of it as a rather staid retirement community. In my thirties, to my surprise, I met a retired Spitfire pilot who during the War had been shot down by Adolf Galland. Blimey, someone interesting! Where had he been all my life?

And yesterday I had someone pointed out to me: "He designed part of the Eurofighter ..."

And in my grandmother's former local, where we had lunch, there was a poster with photo in support of the village's team entry into the Spire FM Naked Gardener competition. (Apparently they won, too.)

Eurofighter gent also drew my attention to the legend inscribed around the pulpit: "I have a message from God unto thee." Even though I spent probably about half my Sunday mornings between the ages of 8-13 in that church, and many more before and after, I had never really noticed it and it would certainly never have occurred to me to look it up. Now I was gleefully told it is from Judges 3:
"... And Ehud said, I have a message from God unto thee. And he arose out of his seat.
21And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly:
22And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly; and the dirt came out."

There's lovely. I hope that's the kind of Bible reading they still do in their Sunday School.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Days the Earth Stood Still, as a game of tennis

The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur: the two exceptions I will allow to the golden rule of Do Not Make Remakes.

Case in point: The Day the Earth Stood Still. The classic 1951 original gave us a film that can still hold its head up with pride today: good acting; properly thought out science fiction; a clever story; a ground breaking, eerie theremin score; Gort; and a b&w 1950s movie that wasn't about Commies in disguise. The 2008 remake gives us … a wonderfully snarky review by Roger Ebert (Keanu Reeves "makes Mr Spock look like Hunter S. Thompson at closing time").

1951 serves.
  • 1951: gets straight into the action.
  • 2008: utterly missable prologue set in 1928, in which a lone mountaineer (Keanu Reeves plus a beard) encounters a strange glowing sphere which, presumably, takes a DNA sample so that he can be recreated later, though why anyone would want to recreate Keanu is a problem not tackled.
  • Score: this is a bit of a cheat but the alternative would be to give 2008 minus points from the off. So, by sheer virtue of doing nothing, 1951 leads 15-love.
  • 1951: flying saucer lands in the national mall, Washington DC and is immediately surrounded by troops.
  • 2008: big glowing sphere lands in Central Park, New York and is immediately surrounded by troops.
  • Score: 1951 let itself down a little by jumping on the flying saucer bandwagon, though what we saw was impressive. It was blank and featureless; when it opens and closes it does so without even leaving a seam behind. But it is still obviously a flying saucer. What the 2008 sphere is and how it works is anyone's guess. Utterly alien technology, totally unlike anything seen on Earth. 15-all.
  • 1951: spaceman Klaatu emerges and is shot by a panicking serviceman. Gort emerges behind him and destroys a couple of tanks before Klaatu tells him to stop. After which, he just stands there.
  • 2008: as above, though Gort doesn't at this point cause any destruction and just looks scary.
  • Score: new-Gort looks scary because he's a 50' tall CGI robot. Old-Gort was a mere 7' man in a shiny suit - in fact two shiny suits, one with the zip in front and one behind, so that it could be filmed from any angle and appear seamless. Both have the same basic humanoid layout, with a single beam weapon hidden behind a visor in the head area, but old-Gort comes across as much more menacing because he's there and doesn't look like something off a Playstation. 30-15.
  • 1951: in hospital, Klaatu is revealed to be Michael Rennie. His default expression throughout the movie is a slightly quirked smile, like a parent so totally in control of his toddler that he will let the kid think he's the one in charge. When that smile vanishes - and it does - you know you're in trouble.
  • 2008: Klaatu eventually becomes Keanu Reeves, a man who we know from Bill & Ted and Parenthood can in fact laugh and smile and have fun, until 10 years ago he got typecast in The Matrix and hasn't cracked a smile since.
  • Score: On that basis alone I would make this 40-15. However, whereas old-Klaatu wore a (fairly futuristic looking) spacesuit, new-Klaatu is clad in an organic false skin akin to a placenta that everyone at first assumes is his natural form. This nicely follows the philosophy of his sphere - it's so advanced it doesn't resemble anything we have, and is therefore nicely sfnal. So, 30-all.
  • 1951: Klaatu has a conversation with a bone-headed government functionary, is told it will be impossible for him to address the UN, and is put under lock and key from which he effortlessly escapes - though we never see how.
  • 2008: as above, though this time we do see how he escapes and for the first time get an inkling of just how unstoppably powerful this man is.
  • Score: Very nice. The functionary is slightly more sympathetic, but whereas the 1951 version could never have seen ET, she must have so her actions are even more inexcusable. 30-40.
  • 1951: Klaatu, now in civvies, finds lodgings at a Washington guest house with a diverse mixture of fellow guests, including war-widow Helen Benson and her son Bobby. As plan A, address the world leaders, isn't working, Bobby fairly plausibly sets up a meeting with Einstein-alike Dr Barnhardt, world-famous scientist and thinker who happens to live in a quiet DC suburb.
  • 2008: Klaatu goes on the run. We have already met Helen because here she is one of the scientists drafted in to handle him, and one of the few to be sympathetic towards him. He gets in touch with her and uses her help to meet up with - um - one of his own race who has been here for the last 70 years. Here we learn that the plan is to exterminate humanity to save the other forms of life on the planet. Smaller spheres start emerging all around the world - presumably they were here all along, or had slipped past our defences - and creatures of all kinds start heading into them. Watching human scientists deduce: "it's an ark!" Helen then sets up said meeting with Dr Barnhardt.
  • Score: this is where the 2008 story breaks down. So they've been here all along? So they intend to exterminate us anyway: it's a foregone conclusion? So what possible purpose does Klaatu's public arrival in Central Park serve? Deuce.
  • 1951: Klaatu meets Barnhardt, points out the errors in his life's work and agrees on plan B - he will address a meeting a world scientists and thinkers.
  • 2008: Klaatu meets Barnhardt, points out the errors in his life's work and agrees that maybe humanity deserves a second chance - he will call off the extermination, if he can.
  • Score: here the new version actually improves on the original. Part of that is the surprise choice of actor for Barnhardt who plays the role completely straight; part of it is the convincing meeting of minds; part of it is that some shots and dialogue are lifted directly from 1951, but reworked. The ease with which Klaatu is persuaded to call of the extermination, however, robs it of a point. It would have been a pretty weighty, well-thought-out decision in the first place and so not something to be randomly overthrown by a field worker. So, score steady at deuce.
  • 1951: Klaatu is betrayed to the authorities by Helen's irritating boyfriend. Shot and killed, but not before giving Helen the famous instruction that should Gort go on the rampage, the words “Klaatu barada nikto” will calm him down again.
  • 2008: Klaatu is betrayed by Helen's even more irritating stepson. Nice one!
  • Score: Advantage 2008.
  • 1951: Gort goes on the rampage. Helen calms him down with the safe phrase. He retrieves Klaatu's body and, back in the ship, manages to bring him back to life.
  • 2008: Gort goes on the rampage and begins the extermination, for no particular reason except perhaps irritation with the humans who keep trying to blow him up or take samples out of him.
  • Score: Nice visuals - new-Gort dissolves into a storm of nanobots that destroy anything artificial, and which goes on a rampage across the US. But it still raises the question - why now? Why not the moment he landed? Deuce.
  • 1951: Klaatu addresses his meeting. We're under observation, and the powers that be are worried about us. If we keep on as we're going, they'll step in and destroy us. Oh, and Gort, who we've all assumed is Klaatu's servant? Actually it's the other way round. He's one of a corps of galactic peacekeepers. Don't make them angry. Bye!
  • 2008: Klaatu's human body is destroyed getting back to his sphere, a victim of the nanobots, but he still manages to call off the attack. The sphere takes off. It's all over.
  • Score: Pathetic ending. Advantage 1951.
  • 1951: The Day the Earth Stood Still: this actually occurs earlier, but I put it here for ease of comparison. Barnhardt persuades Klaatu that we could do with a demo of his power, so he arranges for (almost) every electrical device on the face of the planet to come to a halt. For 30 minutes, 12-12.30 eastern seaboard time. Crucially, that "almost" does not include hospitals, aircraft in flight … it's a benign but terrifying demonstration of his total superiority, and of course it just convinces certain parties that he Must Be Destroyed.
  • 2008: The Day the Earth Stood Still: the price for humanity's continued existence is that the EMP that disables the Gort-swarm also disables all electrical devices on the face of the planet, presumably for good.
  • Score: So, hundreds of thousands have already been killed by Gort, millions more will die of starvation and humanity is knocked back to the Stone Age. But look on the bright side - the race survives, Earth abides, and bratty stepson finally accepts stepmother as his new mum! Gee, thanks so much. Game very definitely 1951.
Remakes. Don't.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A vampire that doesn't suck

I could never be or have been J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, because it honestly would never occur to me to write a novel about teenage wizards or vampires. Not having completely sold out on my early ideals (yet, give it time) I try to make each novel different, and as far as I'm concerned everything that can be said or done about either genre has been said and done. What I've read of Rowling and heard of Meyer only confirms this opinion.

I will admit this could potentially backfire because it means I could never have written John Ajvide Lindqvist's Låt Den Rätte Komma In / Let the Right One In either, which is a vampire novel and a bloody good one and everyone ought to read it. Or failing that, watch the movie, which I've just done and which sticks pretty close to the book though loses some of the subplots and depth.

Not that it particularly says anything new - it owes too much to Interview with the Vampire for that - but it says it very well. Much more Ingmar Bergman than Neil Jordan. That novel featured Claudia, a little girl who was vampirised at an early age and thus fated to be a child-shaped immortal with a taste for blood. It followed the consequences of this idea through with remorseless logic. Similar set-up here, except that even as a human Claudia was a brat, and Eli is actually quite pleasant. Yes, innocent people must die to feed Eli's unfortunate habit, because if s/he (the gender is ambiguous in the novel, less so in the movie) takes any nutrition from source then the source must be killed or become vampirised themselves. Eli didn't ask to be made into a blood sucking monster, but since that is the hand that fate has dealt ... The logic is followed through just as remorselessly, but because Eli is fundamentally sympathetic, the triumph of the novel and film is that we understand. We're rooting for Eli.

It's satisfyingly bleak and Swedish and so we can thank our lucky stars Hollywood never picked it up. In fact, Hollywood couldn't pick it up. Hollywood simply could not produce a movie which climaxes with a gang of twelve-year-old bullies being dismembered. The vampire would have to pay for it. Or, the bullies would have had to have done something truly evil to deserve their fate. Or at the very least, make them older. No, they're just bullies, faces cherubic and voices unbroken, and no, the vampire doesn't pay for it.

Eli does it because she's protecting her friend, Oskar, a lonely, alienated boy of 12. And Oskar would rather go along with a creature who can't help the fact that people must die for her to live, rather than the human bullies who may be small children but were there entirely by choice.

And, being 12, Oskar can't help pushing his luck, like deliberately making Eli demonstrate exactly what happens if you do enter without permission.

I've barely begun to scratch the surface. Read Roger Ebert's review, and either watch the movie for the story-lite (e.g. missing out on exactly how Eli became a vampire, and her relationship with the man she lives with who gets her blood) or, best of all, read the book.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Requiem in Pisces

Jimmy, the fish who brought love and laughter into the hearts of literally some, passed away quietly during the night. He (we presume he was a he) was thought to be about 5 but his precise date of birth was never known. His owner, Bonusbarn, was described as "consolable".

Jimmy is known originally to have been part of a pair, but the other half died very soon after moving into Bonusbarn's bedroom at his old house, under circumstances that were never fully explained. When asked for his reaction, Jimmy's mouth was seen to open and close a few times but no words came out, so overcome was he with emotion.

Soon after moving in with his owner's stepfather, Jimmy moved into enlarged premises of his own, which themselves were placed in the main living room so that all his new family could enjoy his wit and wisdom, though they soon got bored waiting and went away. He spent the rest of his days quietly swimming around his bowl, being constantly amazed whenever he swam past the toy sign saying "no swimming" and composing his memoirs.

A telling tribute to his character was paid by the friends who looked after him while his adopted family went to Sweden earlier this year. At the same time his hosts were also looking after another friend's hamster, which they discovered to have a habit of horizontal projectile urination, such that they had to surround the entire cage with newspapers. "Jimmy was a much better house guest," they were heard to say.

He will lie in state until this evening, his bowl covered with clingfilm to stop him smelling preserve the scene for forensic analysis, and then be buried in a private ceremony. Donations to Tesco Garden Centre.

Monday, June 01, 2009

I will wear the green willow

Sometimes I think my childhood was just too innocent.

For instance, it was only a couple of days ago that I was listening to Steeleye Span's "All around my hat", a song about a girl staying faithful to her far, far away true love despite the attentions of a much nearer poor, deluded young man. And it contains this line:
"the other night he brought me a fine diamond ring
but he thought to have deprived me of a far better thing"
I looked at that for a while, and thought, crikey, they sung that on Crackerjack.

Then I whiled away a large part of a gloriously sunny afternoon yesterday re-reading Alan Garner's Elidor. I want to get into the zone of writing children's fantasy and it's a classic, though one that left me stranded at about the age of 10. I remembered the gist of it – three brothers and a sister from sixties Manchester have to preserve the four treasures of the land of Elidor from the encroaching darkness. The darkness will only be banished for good when the Song of Findhorn, whatever or whoever that is, is heard.

It could so easily nowadays be derivative fantasy pap, but what makes it is the relationship between the kids, with their simultaneous love and bickering; the depictions of bombed out Manchester matching the desolate, blasted Elidor; and the resolutely respectable middle class Watson family, at a time when families would plan their evening TV viewing together. I remember our TV misbehaving in exactly that way, though probably not for the same reasons.

And then there is the weird stuff as Elidor starts to encroach on the Greater Manchester urban area. Trinkets in Christmas crackers bear a strange resemblance to the treasures. Household appliances start to switch themselves on, energised by the treasures' energy field (reading it now, I see that Garner brings a very scientific sensibility to his fantasy, which is added points). And two shadows on the wall gradually take on the form of armoured men, the more you look at them, and you can't help not looking at them …

Meanwhile the sister, Helen, finds a broken pot depicting a unicorn and the legend:
"Save maid that is makeless no man with me mell."
The kids scratch their heads over what this can mean, and get on with their lives. Then we learn that Findhorn is in fact a unicorn (not much of a surprise in my edition which showed a rearing unicorn on the cover, towering over young Roland). There is a certain minimum qualification for unicorn whispering and Helen has it.

Oh, so that's what makeless means. Not that Garner spells it out, and I'm betting at the age of 10 I still wasn't certain. But I do wonder how many 10 year old kids in class demanded to know. "Are you makeless, Miss?"

Next stop, Garner's The Owl Service, which again left me stranded as a kid because it turned out not to be about a service either run by or providing owls.