Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Christmas of Multiple Malfunction

All within the space of a few days ...

1. The shaving mirror light. Not the end of the world - the main bathroom light casts enough light to shave by, even if I do have to probe the razor into the deeper crevasses of my rugged features guided by little more than guesswork.

2. The boiler pump. Considerably more tedious: a trickle of warm water into the hot water tank and nothing at all into the radiators. But we have enough electrical heating devices to keep us warm, even if it does mean we can't move about in a comfortable ambient temperature; rather, nice warm room through sub-arctic hallway into nice warm room again. And it inspired us to work out how to bleed the flat's ancient and idiosyncratic system of wainscot radiators.

3. The renewed living room leak. Very, very, very, very, very tedious indeed, not least in its sense of timing - first detected by Bonusbarn shortly after midnight on Christmas Day, meaning he never got to see the end of that classic slice of festive cheer, Scarface. Just like in the glory days of a couple of months ago when the builders were battering and clattering in the flat above, thread-like streams of water were trickling down the outer wall of the living room. From previous experience, this means they will also be trickling down the wall of the kitchen in the flat above, but invisibly, behind the plasterboard and newly fitted cupboards. Most baffling of all was that it had rained heavily the previous day (and many times over the last month, of course) and nary a drop; now, out of a cloudless crystal sky, it came. A bit like those horror movies where the walls inexplicably start weeping blood, only in this case it was water. After baffled wails of "why now?" and putting out the buckets and towels, I emailed the flat's owner in the childish hope that he would read it early on Christmas Day and have the rest of the day spoiled, which is exactly what happened, so there. Rather satisfying was his response: he's also baffled, and annoyed because he has recently paid off two roofers, arf. My current theory is that the freezing weather had undone something that they did. It leaked again overnight between Christmas and Boxing Day, and is now in full trickle as a result of 24 hours of sleet and rain.

The Daily Bread Bible notes for Christmas Day concentrated, perhaps a little predictably, on the birth of Jesus as recorded in Luke 2. I liked the point they made that Mary, having been so obedient in everything according to the divine plan, might reasonably have asked why she now had to travel 100 miles on donkeyback and give birth in a manger - but, she trusted. Things like this help you trust if you're open to learning. I hope we're learning. I think we are.

But apart from that, a lovely Christmas, thank you. The main meal on the 25th was mostly vegetarian, simply because of the large proportions of vegetable: roast potatoes, sweet potatoes and parsnips, plus a very large helping of stuffing provided by Ex Mother in Law in Law, and Delia Smith's red cabbage and apple recipe, which Delia says feeds four but neglects to add "for a week". And of course the Christmas pud, set alight with the help of Tesco's Three Barrels VSOP brandy, which is one price tab up from Tesco Value Brandy and does at least come in a proper brandy-shaped bottle. Then to my parents and now back here again, finally settling into one place so we can do things like call electricians and gas engineers.

Before setting off to my parents we put aside the new DVDs received for Christmas, so that even if we returned to an uninhabitable living room we would still have something to watch as we moved into hotel accommodation / in with friends /whatever. And that, I think, is what we will go and do now.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Very little of what follows is a spoiler because you'll work most of it out for yourself in the first five minutes, leaving you with 2h35m of brain candy to absorb.

Avatar doesn't have a fresh idea in its pretty little head but its head is very pretty. If you've seen Tarzan (fantastic tree-hugging jungle escapades), Dances With Wolves (out-of-town boy goes native), Aliens (bone-headed military with technofetish hardware) and the work of Roger Dean then you've pretty well got it - but it joins these well-established dots very nicely, with not a single bad performance and nary an unconvincing special effect. Sigourney Weaver - well, naturally, excellent. The aforesaid hardware will appeal to anyone who grew up on Gerry Anderson. Even the bad guys are a little better rounded than in Aliens - the chief civilian would really rather not massacre innocents if he can possibly help it, and the chief jarhead has a job to do which, okay, he relishes a little too much.

The story really is engagingly naive and would have us forget every example from history of what happens when more and less technologically advanced peoples collide. Even in Dances with Wolves, Dunbar knows he's only checked the advance temporarily: he and his friends must head west. Anyone who thinks, at the end of this one, that the humans won't be back in far greater force is a fool. "Nuke the entire site from orbit; it's the only way to be sure," Sigourney once sagely uttered in an earlier Cameron movie. Nukes wouldn't be needed in this case, just masses and masses of weed killer.

Then there's the whole questionable morality of turning so totally upon your own people. I can understand disagreeing with them to the extent that you go and live somewhere else but a massacre of these proportions just isn't on. We've been told that one check on the power of the colonists is public opinion back home, but when word of this gets back to Earth, surely politicians will be elected on the sole mandate of shipping the weed killer to Pandora. And, fatally, it actually gives a bit of sympathy to the chief jarhead. "How does it feel to betray your own people?" are his not unreasonable dying words.

So, zero advance in science fictional story telling but astonishing advances in the visual medium of telling stories. Even without the 3D, the alien world would inspire awe and the 3D itself isn't intrusive. I could comfortably wear the 3D specs over my own glasses and everything on screen looks completely natural. There is no gratuitous waving-things-at-camera to remind the audience they're watching in 3D and you half - but only half - forget it's there.

Whether a story needs that kind of visual telling is another matter. This one doesn't. I would love to see Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, which is a factual 3D documentary filmed around the wreck of the Titanic. That would be worth the extra effort. As it is, the 3D is a tool but that's all. Technologically, anything that makes the user jump through one more hoop to achieve an effect is doomed to failure, even if that hoop is as simple as putting on a pair of special glasses. (The behind-the-scenes people may of course be jumping through no end of hoops - that doesn't matter.) 3D will have arrived when viewers can comfortably snuggle down in front of the TV equivalent and watch it with exactly as little effort as they can switch the TV on now.

The CGI effects blend seamlessly with the real actors, so you can see 12-foot blue skinned humanoids and human beings travelling in a futuristic helicopter without once spotting the joins. And yet, when I think back on it everything including the humans appears in my mind's eye as a Playstation-quality generated image. Strange.

And finally, a prayer. The marines are so obviously of the same ilk as the ones in Aliens that I could well believe this to be the same universe ... and therefore, please God let no idiot studio exec decide that what the world really wants is Aliens and/or/versus Predator and/or/versus Avatars.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Deleting comments without an icon - a public service announcement

Friday's whimsical little post about "While shepherds watched" got spammed in the comments by some fool plugging a URL for publicising my blog.

Normally I just delete such comments without a thought. (Why do they do it? Why?) It's easy because if I'm logged in as myself then, when I view the comments, a little dustbin icon appears next to each one. This enables me to consign it to the Void, rightly forgotten and unmade. For some reason that wasn't happening on this occasion: the icon was determinedly absent. Maybe the spammer had been busy and so the icon was running from blog to blog in an effort to catch up. So I left a plaintive message on the blogger.com help forum, and the very next morning, there the solution was.

Needless to say, the very next morning the dustbin icon had finally arrived anyway, but I tried the forum method out of curiosity and it worked. So, for the benefit of search engines and frustrated users, to delete comments without the dustbin icon use the method shown at http://www.blogdoctor.me/2008/09/delete-comments-without-trash-can-icon.html.

You're welcome.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Holy nativi-tivi, nativi-tie

Just in case any Scrooge-like feelings come creeping in this Christmas, I know I'll be cheered up by my recent discovery that "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" (most irredeemably boring of all 19th century Yuletide dirges) can be sung to the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from Mary Poppins.

I doubt I will hear it sung this way, but just knowing it exists will bring me no end of festive cheer. The only thing that could make it even better would be if it could be sung by a chorus of dancing penguins.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Even a broken clock gets it right twice a day

I remember once reading a short story featuring a boys' school set on a spaceship. The ship was travelling from (probably) Earth to (probably) some colony world. Scientific accuracy was not rigorously enforced: witness the fact that the ship had no artificial gravity (so far, so good) and so everyone on board wore, um, weighted boots. In fact, I think one jolly schoolboy prank involved surreptitiously unlacing one boy's boot so that when he tries to come up to the front of the class his foot and leg float upwards, to general hilarity.

I must have been about 7 or 8 and I'm pretty sure it was included in a collection of similar gosh-wow boys' adventure tales. I'm guessing it wasn't a forgotten gem by some big name author.

But chiefly I remember a wonder material called, I think, viviform. As I recall this was a putty-like substance that could be moulded by hand and would then set diamond-hard. Useful for almost anything, really. I'm sure it played a key part in the plot, though I can't remember what or why. I didn't know it at the time but my generation was probably the first that really reaped the benefits of things like blu-tack and silly putty, and so viviform made sense. Much more than the school on the ship – which was essentially a terrestrial classroom; no prophetic visions of learning technology or anything like that – or the weighted boots, I know this made me think "yeah, why not?" Which is a very important think for a science fiction writer to have.

Why do I mention this now? Because someone seems to have invented viviform, that's why.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ben the instrument of change

Following the last report about libel reform, I sent the webmaster at www.libelreform.org an email explaining exactly why I wasn't signing. And they've changed it. I can now sign (and have signed) the petition without also spamming Evan Harris.

Excuse me for feeling smug, but apart from once signing up to a demo at university that I never actually went on, this is about as activist as I've ever got, so I may milk it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

This is not how to campaign for sense in science

I've blogged previously about Simon Singh being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel, in a case that debases both science and the libel laws of our glorious land. So far, so good.

An update email from the campaign today asks me to sign a fresh online petition. "Sense About Science has joined forces with Index on Censorship and English PEN and their goal is to reach 100,000 or more signatories in order to help politicians appreciate the level of public support for libel reform." Brill! Point me at it!

It's at
www.libelreform.org. Fired with enthusiasm I go there and hit the "Sign the petition" button. I fill in my details and hit the "Sign now" button to record my total opposition to the ludicrous law that lets dogma triumph over facts.

... And rather than feel a smug glow of righteousness, I get presented with a pre-filled in letter to my MP (his identity presumably gleaned from my post code). There is a note at the top saying "[Please put your address here - MPs often do not respond otherwise]", and a button at the end saying "Send the message". Nothing about the petition that I thought I was signing.

Hang on, hang on. This is not what I signed up for. (a) I don't believe MPs pay any attention to a form letter, even if it has been individualised with the addresses of their constituents. And (b) how do they know I haven't already written to Dr Harris? Maybe I don't want to spam the poor man with duplicate messages. But actually signing the petition (if I haven't already: there is nothing to say either way) seems to lie beyond that "Send the message" button.

So, no, I won't, sorry. This is completely the wrong way to do it. This is a petition about transparency, for Pete's sake. So be transparent! Have a button marked "sign the petition", and have it sign the effing petition. Don't lower yourself to the level of the opposition. Stop trying to be clever. Don't try to orchestrate our campaigning for us.

The email also asked us to "
please spread the word by blogging, twittering, Facebooking and emailing". Glad to oblige.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Shuffle! The Musical

Driving to Oxford and back I had to decide what to set the iPod to. Of late I've worked through all my REM songs, my collection of carols, all the classical stuff, all the synth pop ... I know, I'll set it to shuffle through the musical tracks.

And then I'll pass the time by working out a plot to encompass them all.

Track 1: "At the end of the day" (Les Mis). Easy. There's a lot of poor, discontented people and one woman in particular is forced to prostitution for losing her job.

Track 2: "Everything's alright" (Jesus Christ, Superstar). Sounds like she landed on her feet, falling in with a nice guy who stands up for her even when one of his friends complains about her expensive tastes in perfume. Mind you, he also comes out with the slightly bummer comment that the poor will always be with us, which coming after track 1 is perhaps a little smug.

Track 3: "Invitation to the Jellical Ball" (Cats). Our girl's luck is still in: she gets an invite to the coolest party on the block.

Track 4: "I feel pretty" (West Side Story). Her star is truly in the ascendant. She's met an even nicer guy - or maybe she's just fallen properly in love with the nice guy from track 2 - not sure (the libretto could do with a bit of work here). Her friends are sceptical. To be quite honest, though the tunes are fun this is turning out quite a dull, feel-good sort of thing that Doris Day might have starred in.

Track 5: "One day more" (Les Mis). Aha! Revolution is brewing. That's more like it. I knew there had to be something more.

Can't wait for Act 2.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Random Park Lane-centric musings

The Swinford toll bridge at Eynsham sold at auction yesterday for £1.08m. I have forked out many a 5p to cross this - it's often been a handy short cut to get between north Abingdon and Witney without having to come round the ringroad to the southern A34 junction - but I had no idea I was contributing to an annual income of c. £195,000, nor that the bridge has its very own Act of Parliament (1767) exempting it from all kinds of tax. Cor. Nice little earner - though as the report does point out, maintenance of the bridge also has to come out of that £195k.

I'm going to go out on a limb and bet that the salaries of the spotted youths who sit shivering in the tollbooth day in, day out make a very small dent in the £195k indeed.

Apparently the auction was done in Park Lane. I was in Park Lane yesterday, as Marble Arch is one of the drop-off points for the Oxford Espress. I could have popped in and made a bid. I was however in the area for the much more important Random House Children's Authors Christmas Party, off Berkeley Square. Had a nice chat with John Dickinson and this year finally did get to tell him that his father gave me nightmares when I was 10. He seemed delighted to hear it and told me about the nightmare his dad had, of being burned as a witch, that inspired The Changes in the first place. I also met a couple of fellow ghostwriters: one for someone I have always suspected of being ghostwritten but had no proof, and one for someone I had no idea was, um, writing at all. Officially. We all shared a slightly baffled but gratefully smug bemusement that ghostwriting is actually legal. I mean, it's lying! To children! (Which is not always a bad thing.)

A childhood spent playing Monopoly means I can never quite feel happy in Park Lane. I have a lingering fear I will make the wrong landing and go bankrupt. My cousin's childhood Monopoly strategy was to eschew all properties except Park Lane and Mayfair. Sometimes it paid off richly but it was a high risk strategy with a lot of attrition on the way. I doubt he kept this up for long.

I must have passed it often before without blinking, but for the first time I noticed that Park Lane has a quite large war memorial - certainly larger than a lot of the ones you see for humans - for animals who died in conflict. The statues show pack animals like donkeys carrying machine guns: the engraving on the wall states "they had no choice".

Well, true, they didn't. I would however say they had more of a choice than the people who made them carry the machine guns. A donkey that refused would probably get sworn at. A man that refused would get shot by his own side. That is what I would call having no choice.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Our one source of energy, the ultimate discovery

Came home yesterday to a message on the answerphone. The five second silence that tells me it's an automated call, followed by a sweet old lady's voice saying this was an automated call from a company whose name I didn't catch "on behalf of your electricity supplier". Please could I phone up with a meter reading, or alternatively enter it at a URL that I also didn't get. It really was a crackly recording.

Hmm. They're calling on behalf of my electricity supplier yet can't actually name the company. My electricity supplier can't make a call like this itself. I suspect a cunning plan to enmesh me in a conversation that will lead to my changing suppliers to whoever is behind this little scheme.

Sadly it's probably not illegal, apart from the outright lie of "on behalf of your electricity supplier". There's no law that says you can't ask someone for a meter reading, or try to persuade them to change suppliers. But no, I don't think I will be making that phone call. If it's genuine they'll try again. And the worst they can do is cut m-

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Excuse me, you're standing on my principles

A few years ago - must have been more than four, because that's how old this blog is and I would have mentioned it - round about this time of year I got a mailing from the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists. These are artists who would be very talented even if they were able to use their hands to paint. They can't, for sundry reasons, hence the name of the outfit, and thus are even more worthy of respect. Their pictures are very good indeed, which I say in the full knowledge I couldn't draw my way out of a paper bag. Nor do they want to live off charity - they intend to pay their way. Respect.

What a shame they do it in the most unseasonably cynical, manipulative way possible. The mailing contained a bundle of Christmas cards painted by said individuals. Very nice Christmas cards. Proper Christmassy scenes. Nothing cutesy or twee. With a Christmas message inside - none of this "Season's Greetings" twaddle. The covering letter said I was under no obligation whatsoever but if I liked the cards they really hoped I'd buy them ...

Which I did, with a covering letter of my own saying that admired their work, despised their tactics, and any further unsolicited bundles of cards would be treated as a gift. I didn't hear from them again for at least five years, until last week when they kindly sent me another present.

AAGH! Curse these principles of mine.

The cards are good. The artists are amazing. Their marketing is beyond contempt. If they had just repeated the stunt year after year I would find it much easier to live up to my promise and treat the cards as a gift. But, five years minimum? They may well have a new marketing person. They may be working off an old backup. Or, are they just thinking that enough water has passed under the bridge for me to soften up. How's a guy to know? How annoying that the one known, guaranteed constant is their utterly shameless, scheming emotional blackmail.

So, no, sorry. I said what I'd do and I'm doing it. I've sent the cards out to various friends (hey, free advertising! They do get something out of this) and I'm not paying. There are plenty of charities out there that play the game. Okay, this lot emphasise they're not a charity ... well, there are worse things, you know. You don't have to Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children. And if you were a charity, any donations could be Gift Aided.

Anyway, what are they going to do? Beat me up?