Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mondeo memories

I got my car back today. Where has it been, you cry? Well, at the end of November a work colleague was a bit too eager to get away and turned a bit too sharply in the work car park, taking out my front right indicator and scraping the paint. Being a Volvo driver, she didn't even notice until she got home, saw her own scraped paint and put two and two together.

I do so love it when it's unequivocally, entirely someone else's fault and there isn't even a hint of contesting the matter - as it should be when the victim vehicle is unattended and parked squarely within a clearly marked parking space. The car hire company fixed up by her insurers was going to give me a 1 litre clown car, but when they heard what it was replacing they upgraded it to a 3-month old Mondeo at no extra cost (at least, not for me).

As with all new technology, it has ups and downs ...

Ups - the Ford heated front window system is nothing short of a marvel in this weather, and even on its own it's more than enough to swing my vote in favour of getting a Ford when the current car finally has to go, as one day it must. It was great for getting to Hertfordshire and back in the recent inclemency. The door handle (right hand side) and central console (left hand side) were great for resting my elbows on as I drove. Or rather, cruised. With the diesel engine I could pretend I was driving a tractor - sorry, tra'r - while at the same time the excitingly hi-tech dashboard and control-studded steering wheel pressed all the right Gerry Anderson fanboy buttons within me.

Downs - said central console means the handbrake has to be off the centre line, over to the right, and you almost dislocate your wrist getting the right angle to pull it upwards. I usually listen to my iPod via a tape adapter, and as this was too new for a tape player I got to try out the iTrip I once bought myself in a fit of technological experimentation ... which was okay, but crackly. The proximity alert, especially in our crowded little back yard, sets off a veritable dawn chorus of differently toned beeps whenever I turn it on and put it into gear, which was quite a surprise the first time. It wouldn't have done this quite so often if the car wasn't so darn unnecessarily BIG and therefore already a lot closer to everything else than I would normally park. (And I now find I've got so used to it, after just a fortnight, that my ability to judge a safe parking distance has vanished and I want to park feet away from anything.)

But I have to say the good points outweighed the bad, and so it's probably as well that I have the old car back before I was entirely seduced. It's not perfect but we have a relationship based on long-term familiarity and trust and affection and an understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses. Which is as it should be.

Meanwhile I have now been phoned out of the blue by two separate ambulance chasers asking if anyone was hurt. Into every life a little slime must drip.

The rivals, consenting to be photographed together ...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

When Jesus met Santa

Another animation!

Yes, Jesus is a woman. Your point?

Sword arch in the snow

Memories of T. the Sailor:

- the only 8-year-old in the world to start a sentence with the words "Bearing in mind that ..."

- the teenage years: mind of a 40-year-old theologian, sense of humour that can only be described as clinically evil.

- the minor contretemps of a few years ago that almost killed him.

- and this weekend, a sword arch in a blizzard, upon the occasion of his marriage.

As his father-in-law later remarked, it was the snow that drew everyone together. We went up a day earlier than planned with one eye on the weather. 2 hours on the M25: could have been a lot worse. Kings Langley is a pictureskew little place in Herts just off the motorway, where every flat surface has a building on it and the rest is all slopes. I should really have thought a little harder before choosing to park on the quite steep road where the church is, as the snow began to fall ... We got out eventually, but only by turning round and going deeper in to get out again further down the valley.

And so it snew and snew. We were inside so didn't mind that much. The bride however was 40 minutes late, due to the hired Bentley not being able to get up one of those slopes to the house. (It was theorised she might have turned up but no one could see her against the backdrop: maybe the navy contingent could walk around a bit, and she might occlude one of them and become visible.) Eventually she walked from home, and they went away after in a Landrover.

The sword arch were the icing on the icy cake: nine brave men standing at attention as the snow piled up on their heads and shoulders, slightly dreamy expressions suggesting that inwardly they were a long way away in a warm and happy place.

But they snapped to attention at the right moment, and the newly wed couple walked through, and all was well.

The couple were meant to be heading off on honeymoon to Brazil from Heathrow today. I don't think so.

This car was completely snow free when I parked it, three hours earlier.

It got us there safely, and then up another of those slopes to the reception, and then back home again today at a sedate 50mph down a mostly empty, 2-lanes-mostly-clear M25 and M40. Shame it's only a hire car - looking forward with interest to seeing what the regular one can do for us next weekend.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dawn Treader forebodings

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a pretty good stab at the original novel, with added action which was still part of the original plot (mostly). Prince Caspian was likewise, but with a lot more additional plot, there being a lot less original plot to work with. But the extra plot slotted in well and I liked it. It even drove home the point Lewis was trying to make: trust Aslan.

But I wondered even then what they would do with Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It's a picaresque novel, a series of only loosely connected adventures. It's also the one where the kids from our world really are surplus to requirements. They are along for the ride. Caspian could easily have done this all on his own and told his friends about it when they met up again in The Last Battle. How, I wondered (with some trepidation) would they turn that into a Hollywood movie?

The answer, apparently, according to Rober Ebert, is they've turned it into a bloody quest.

I suppose it was inevitable - it may even have been the only thing they could do. And I hope it works, because it's my favourite of the novels, and if this tanks then there might be no Silver Chair, which would be a shame and which really is a proper quest adventure. (I would love them to get Alan Rickman as Puddleglum ... but they probably won't.)

But even so. To quote Mr Ebert: "Narnia is threatened by evil forces from the mysterious Dark Island, which no one has seen but everyone has heard about. There is a matter of seven missing magical swords representing the Lords of Telmar, which were given to Narnia by Aslan the Lion (voice of Liam Neeson) and must be brought together again to break a spell that imprisons the lords." Gak, gak, gak, and eek.

It may yet work. I may even watch it, but probably not in the cinema unless there's a 2D version. Yup, to rub it all in, it's 3D. Meh. But! Even if it doesn't stink completely, if it doesn't have the Dufflepuds, and doesn't have Eustace the dragon, and most especially if it doesn't have Reep finally getting his heart's desire at the end of the world ... well, I tell you now, I will be very stern and disapproving.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Rutter season

I have been playing with Xtranormal's State, which lets you make CGI animations out of a menu of pre-defined backgrounds, characters and actions. Dialogue is entered by you the user and recited in monotone HAL-like American (though user voiceovers can be recorded) and additional soundfiles can be inserted.

So, from last year's Christmas Eve Christingle service I give you "Light of the world". Dialogue by YT and Logan Walker. Music by G.F. Handel and John Rutter. Based on an original idea by St Luke.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Occasional recipes: Paprika chicken with spicy red cabbage and beetroot

Haven't done one of these for a very long time. I still feel a traitor to the childhood me when I serve up something with beetroot in it but trust me, it's actually quite nice. Under the right circumstances. I.e. not boiled to within an inch of its life, like at school.

  • 3-4 chicken breast fillets. (If you get absolute slabs, like I did, experience shows you might want to slice them into thinner slabs ...)
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 400g red cabbage, finely shredded nuked by food processor
  • 1 tsp crushed chillies
  • 250g beetroot, chopped. (Instructions from Waitrose say "fresh, scrubbed, trimmed and cut into matchsticks." Ben says chopped. And have something to catch the drips, because opening and cutting up cooked beetroot is what badly planned open heart surgery must look like.)
  • paprika
  • 75g creme fraiche
Dust chicken breasts with paprika. Make several deep scores diagonally across the meat and fry chicken pieces in olive oil, scored side down. Reduce the heat to lowest setting and fry for 20 minutes, turning halfway through. (Be aware that the Waitrose notion of "lowest setting" might still be substantially higher than what your cooker goes down to.)

Meanwhile fry onion for about 5 minutes, add cabbage and chillies and cook for a further 5 minutes.

Add the beetroot, cover and cook for about 10 minutes.

Pile cabbage onto warmed serving plates, place a chicken fillet on top of each. Stir creme fraiche +1 tbsp water into pan juices, heat until bubbling and pour on top of chicken. Serve with buttered new potatoes.

At school I always found beetroot insufferably bland and often still do, despite my eyes having been opened as to the miracle that is borscht by a student trip to Moscow in 1987. But that same blandness and texture nicely complement and counteract the chillies. Trust me.

And if you can, follow this up with your wife's apple and mince pie.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Wouldn't have made much difference if they did

Every now and then I read a book that makes me wonder why I don’t just give up trying to write the things myself, because I’ll never get that much under the reader’s skin or into their minds.

The latest is We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

One April in 1999, shortly before Columbine (whose participants he regards as pathetically amateur, juvenile attention seeking losers), 15-year-old Kevin Khatchadourian joins the woefully long list of teenage perpetrators of high school massacres, taking out seven fellow students, a teacher and a cafeteria worker (who wasn’t meant to be there in there) in the school gym. On that day, one way or another, his mother Eva loses everything – husband, daughter, company, house, livelihood; in fact, the one thing she doesn’t lose is ... Kevin himself.

The novel takes the form of a series of letters from Eva to her husband, chronicling their life together before and after Kevin’s birth and the nearly 16 years since. It’s a therapeutic exercise for her as she rhetorically asks all the inevitable questions, not really expecting an answer. Was it my fault? Was it ours? Did I/do I love him? Could we have done anything different? This itself makes the book an interesting exercise in reading between the lines. We’re getting Eva’s point of view, she’s writing with hindsight anyway, and in between all the clues and pointers towards what we know is coming, there must have been a lot of time in their day to day lives when life was relatively normal. Was Kevin really that bad? Was her husband really so blind? But even though we know what’s coming, it never gets boring. There is still room for revelation and “oh, I see ...” moments, and when the massacre finally happens it’s almost – in a very guilty way – possible to admire it. There is nothing random about this; Kevin knows exactly what he’s doing, and by the end of the book, Eva and we know exactly why he did it. We have no excuses, because there are none; but we do have reasons and they make sense.

There’s still room for humour, albeit very black; like, the simple description of Kevin’s unsuccessful year in a Montessori nursery school, which is predicated on the basis that everyone is innately good and capable of self-improvement. Maybe it was coincidence that all their plants started dying at the same as Eva absently notes the absence of a bottle of bleach she could have sworn was there. The obnoxious school bully that everyone lived in fear of might have had a very good, non-Kevin-related reason for locking himself in a closet and refusing to come out like that. And so on.

One of the few things Eva and Kevin can agree on is their disdain for a world where everything must be someone’s fault, and when something goes wrong you find someone to blame and sue ’em. Where they differ is in how they tackle the problem ... It sounds very posy to start quoting William Blake at this point, because believe it or not I don’t have the complete works of Blake committed to memory, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice, but is just so happens that Bonusbarn is studying “Auguries of innocence” and we were discussing it while I read the book. And so it reminded me:
“Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.”
In their own ways, neither Kevin nor Eva rightly knew it.

My one fault with the book isn’t the author’s fault: it’s that the kid on the cover is blond whereas we are oft reminded that Kevin has dark features inherited from his Armenian mother. However, I see there’s going to be a film of it and he will be played by one Ezra Miller, who I've never heard of (hey, he's a kid) but who looks perfect. Meanwhile Eva will be Tilda Swinton, who excels at vulnerable ice queens, and Kevin’s dad is John C. Reilly, who was the lovable chump of a husband in Chicago. It’s almost a bit too perfectly cast, but I still look forward to it.

Probably watching it on my own, though ...

Friday, November 26, 2010

A modest proposal: Waldo-Duvet Inc.

So, it's like a normal duvet, see, right, yeah, but about 12 inches from the top, right, you cut two holes, yeah? And over these holes you sow a pair of long-armed gloves, see, yeah, right, and they're padded or whatever for extra warmth, yeah? And so you can lie in bed, right, see, with the duvet like right up to your neck so you're all snug and warm and that, yeah, right? But you can also hold a book and read it!

Clearly both duvet and cover will have to be synchronised.

This is my chance to make up for not pursuing the idea I had for price comparison websites back in, um, 1996 or so.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Conquering the world, one iconic mountain at a time

Last year my good friend Peter went on a Himalayan hiking holiday and had a copy of The New World Order in his backpack as he gazed down on Everest Base Camp.

This year, on behalf of Guildford Town Centre Chaplaincy, he ended up on top of Kilimanjaro. And this time he thought to take a picture of his holiday reading.

Well worth the £20 I sponsored him for.

He points out that I now have until summer 2012 to get another book out, which is when he's hoping to do the Inca trail.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Non nobis domine, dives in omnia!

If it happens two years running then it's annual, right? Thus the now annual Mostly Bookbrains Literary Quiz, held last night at the Manor School in aid of Friends of Abingdon Museum. I maintain that coming 5= out of 12 teams is a perfectly respectable position. I mean, anyone could mistake a picture of Stieg Larsson for Mark Haddon or forget that the hero of C.J. Sansom's series of Reformation crime novels is Matthew Shardlake, not Shadwell.

I take no pride in knowing who wrote the Wheel of Time series - though perhaps a small shred of it in not having read any - but I felt quietly smug for knowing that 2001: A Space Odyssey was based on "The Sentinel". In that particular round, a bit of music commonly associated with a movie was played and we had to name the literary original that the movie came from. Thus for the theme from Schindler's List, the correct answer was Schindler's Ark, geddit?

For 2001, though there is a novel of the same name, it was written concurrent with the film and I thought it worth mentioning that technically "The Sentinel" would be the right answer. And got a bonus point.

Which was lost later on in the same round by what some might call the strange confusion of Henry V (modern version) and Porterhouse Blue. The confusion is that both feature quite a catchy earwormy Latin number. From Branagh's Henry V:

(Look closely and you might see Inspector Wallander carrying a dead teenage Batman across the battlefield, in a single 4-minute take: cudos to Christian Bale for not sneezing.)

And from Porterhouse Blue:

See? Easy mistake to make.

For the completists, the Henry V words are: Non nobis domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam, i.e. "Not to us O Lord but to your name give glory."

The Porterhouse Blue words are too long to put here but are translated here, and despite being made up were well in keeping with the spirit of the series. That's one of the things that made it such a good show to watch: that, and Ian Richardson, and David Jason, and the college exploding under a load of gas-filled condoms.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Prayers for Hallowe'en

There aren't any. At least, none that I was prepared to use when I led the service this morning.

There are people around who distinctly don't like Hallowe'en. I'm not one of them - or rather I am, but only because I find it irritating to be dragged down two flights of stairs to find a group of munchkins demanding trick or treat with menaces. I don't have a problem with the supernatural aspects. (I remember Giles in Buffy revealing that supernatural activity on November 31 is decidedly down because the vampires all find it rather vulgar and embarrassing.) But there are people who have deeper issues with it and chances are good some of them are in the same congregation. So I did some searching for a good prayer.

First category: the type I couldn't say with a straight face. Only one that I found actually falls into this category, the traditional Scottish prayer:
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
Anyway, the only thing that goes bump in the night around here is an extremely non-supernatural teenager stumbling sleepily to the bathroom. Though I will grant he falls into the long-leggedy camp.

Second category: the, let's say, trans-Tiber camp, which I might be tempted to say at Christ Church on Long Furlong just to see the reactions, especially when invoking or addressing Michael the Archangel. Some good All Hallows Eve examples here. But a good chance I wouldn't be asked back, so maybe not.

Third category: okay, straightforward prayers against the powers of darkness etc, all much closer to the Thames than the Tiber but still ... No. If I say a prayer, I have to believe it first. If I don't then I keep quiet. If I could find a prayer against crassness, commercialism, creeping Americanisation of our culture then I'd say it: but there's nothing about powers of darkness on this day of the year that isn't equally valid on any other.

So I redefined the problem and looked ahead to tomorrow. All Saints Day! What could go wrong with that? The Collect for All Saints Day goes:
Almighty God,
who hast knit together thine elect
in one communion and fellowship
in the mystical body of Your Son, Christ our Lord:
Give us grace so to follow Your blessed saints
in all virtuous and godly living,
that we may come
to those ineffable joys
that thou hast prepared for those
who unfeignedly love thee;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth,
one God, in glory everlasting. Amen
(Book of Common Prayer, 1979)
And if you can't see at least two mines in that particular field then you haven't been around.

1. Saints? Saints?? We're Protestants, Godda- I mean, God bless it. We'll have none of your papist-deriving-from-Roman-paganism saints, thank you very much.

2. "All virtuous and godly living?" We're Protestants, etc. etc. and it's all about grace, thank you very much, mutter, grumble, where's my hammer I need to nail some theses to a door somewhere ....

And so on.

So in the end I settled on the Collect for Grace, which I've always liked anyway and which surely can't upset anyone:
O Lord our heavenly Father,
almighty and everlasting God,
who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day;
defend us in the same with thy mighty power;
and grant that this day we fall into no sin,
neither run into any kind of danger,
but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance,
to do always that is righteous in thy sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen, and so there.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Makes you laugh, makes you cry, and somewhere in between

One of those quirks of synchronicity brings three instances of unprofessionalism to my attention within 24 hours, ranging from "disgraceful + should be a hate crime", to "disgraceful, but ..." to "disgraceful but ... oh heck, it's hilarious."

Item 1: a trans woman in San Francisco (i.e. for the slow of uptake, someone who "used" to be a man, though she would probably say she's always been a woman, just now it's more obvious) went to get her driving licence updated with her new details. The apparatchik who processed the application then wrote to her, privately, at her home address, to say that that 1. she had made a "very evil decision", 2. that she was "an abomination" and that 3. homosexuals should be put to death.

Assuming this individual to have been motivated by a form of Christian belief (isn't it sad that I inevitably make that assumption? Yet the inevitability is, well, inevitable), I would respond that points 1 and 2 really should be referred to the Creator, and point 3, quite apart from being wrong, isn't germane to the issue since we're talking about a trans woman. Get your facts right for goodness sake.

Anyway, that's the "disgraceful + should be a hate crime". I hope the twit gets fired and some good, positive case law comes out of it.

(Later edit: more on it here. The writer apparently signed the letter, "In charity, Thomas.")

Item 2: A couple who thought they were renewing their wedding vows at a ceremony in the Maldives, by some priest guy chanting in some quaint foreign religious language type style, were shocked to learn he was in fact informing them that: "Your marriage is not a valid one. You are not the kind of people who can have a valid marriage. One of you is an infidel. The other, too, is an infidel - and we have reason to believe - an atheist, who does not even believe in an infidel religion. You fornicate and make a lot of children. You drink and you eat pork. Most of the children that you have are marked with spots and blemishes. These children that you have are bastards."

The tape appears to cut off before he moves on to "Your mother is a hamster and your father smells of elderberries."

That's the "disgraceful, but ...", the "but" being in this case that it's quite possible the guy is getting fed up of his religion being used as a picture postcard by well-off westerners to whom it's all gibberish but looks pretty. He probably sees many more of these than the American motor clerk sees transgender drivers. Everyone has a blowing point.

And finally ... The Australian guy who went to the tattooist to have a a yin-yang symbol and some dragons tattooed on his back, and unknowingly came away with a 16" picture of a ... well, something else, for which 16" is pretty darn impressive, if probably not very comfortable.

His suspicions were aroused when he showed it to his housemate, who replied, "I don't think it's the tattoo you were after."

This is of course hilarious for so many reasons, not least that it gives us a post by Scott Adams who says it all much better than I could.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wrong Card plays Tony Blair

Orson Scott Card has written some of the best science fiction and fantasy I've ever read. He also wrote the Homecoming Saga.

The column he writes for his local paper usually touches on a number of bases in no particular order. SF&F: always worth reading even if you disagree with him. Commentary on other artforms (audiobooks, TV series, plays etc.): often worth a look even if you're not familiar with the works in question. Local trivia: only really for anyone who happens to live in Greensboro, North Carolina - which is not unreasonable for a local paper.

And politics: strictly for broad-minded individuals looking for a bit of entertainment.

Card is regrettably one of those people who seem to believe that there is an organised body known as the Extreme Left which is out to destroy America - nay, western civilisation - and it begins just west of David Cameron. It's a belief that colours far too much of his worldview. For example, of Jeffrey Archer he once wrote:
"as a conservative, there's almost no chance of his being favorably reviewed by London's critical establishment, since the British intelligentsia are, if anything, even more leftist than the American."
No, Scott, Jeffrey Archer has almost no chance of his being favorably reviewed by London's critical establishment because the man is such a repellent individual. Granted that an adverse review based on the author's character is just as lax as an adverse review based on the author's politics, but at least get your facts right.

In Card's latest column, he describes his joy at discovering New Who (which is rather touching) and we learn he has read Tony Blair's autobiography. Ha-hum ...
"The way he stood firmly with President Bush when it was time to take a stand against terrorist states like Afghanistan and Iraq reminded me of the days of transatlantic solidarity during World War II -- though Blair was actually more loyal and reliable as an ally to Bush than Roosevelt ever was to Churchill. "
That's because while Roosevelt and Churchill may have made realistic assessments of the strengths of their respective positions, and acted accordingly, they regarded themselves as moral equals. Blair made the policy decision that he would be Bush's poodle. And bitch. (Not necessarily the same as a female poodle. You know what I mean.) More precisely, Blair decided he would be the poodle/bitch of whoever happened to be President of the United States. Before being best buddies with Bush, whom Card admires, he was best buddies with Clinton, whom Card despises. Such a thing should not be physically possible, yet it happened. Card is silent on this paradox.

Blair "was eventually turned out of office the way Churchill was", and Card finishes on a note of pure fantasy:
"Still, he was and is a good man who kept his word when he came to power, and he did a pretty good job of governing, which puts him way, way above average. I recommend the book, if only to see how a rare bird like that was ever able to get off the ground and fly!"
Ha-hum again, and again I say, ha-hum.

One book I'm guessing Card won't be reading is Robert Harris's The Ghost. I read this last year and saw the movie at the weekend. Even if you find the movie contaminated by association (it was the one Roman Polanski was working on when he was arrested), read the book. Robert Harris sticks it in with all the anger and bile of a disillusioned convert. An unnamed ghostwriter is sent to the US to ghostwrite the memoirs of ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair Adam Lang - Pierce Brosnan in the movie. The previous ghostwriter died in mysterious circumstances, which is just the start of the fun. Then the UK government announces that it is cooperating with the International Criminal Court with a possible view to prosecuting Blair Lang for war crimes. There is a wonderful scene where Blair Lang is told that no, he can't go home at the moment but he can travel anywhere that doesn't recognise the ICC. Um - Iraq, North Korea, Israel ...

It's not Harris's best book, because the sound of the axe grinding in the background does get in the way of the enjoyment. It was also written in apparently ignorance of social networking. What do you do nowadays with a good conspiracy theory? Stick it on Facebook, watch it go viral and then let the CIA try to silence it, ha ha. (What they do to you is another matter, of course.) But it is enjoyable and thought-provoking. Y'see, a key question that arises - and the answer is beautifully unexpected, so I'm not spoiling anything here - is whether or not Blair Lang was recruited by the CIA at Oxford Cambridge. I wouldn't dream of saying yay or nay, though I will say the book ends more convincingly than the movie did. But one character asks a question that really gets the wheels of the mind spinning: "In ten years as Prime Minister, can you name a single decision that wasn't in the interests of the United States?"

I still incline towards the poodle/bitch interpretation myself: the simplest explanation is usually the right one. But still ...

This is where I would like to come up with a nifty, pithy one-liner that ties these various strands together, but I can't and it's the end of my lunchbreak and the black helicopter full of CIA Mormon SF fans outside the window is being really distracting so I'll stop now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mother Nature makes an overture

Nature and technology coincided in a dramatic multimedia event as I drove home this evening. Classic FM was playing the William Tell Overture - not the famous bit at the end portrayed variously by the Lone Ranger, Mike Oldfield and Kenneth Williams but the whole four-part movement, of which the second represents a storm whipping up over Lac Leman: first a few raindrops and then a sudden escalation into nature's fury, beautifully conveyed through the orchestral medium.

And just as the storm hit Geneva on the airwaves, so it hit Harwell in real life: the dark clouds over Didcot were suddenly much closer, the wind was whipping the leaves off the trees in a cloud you could barely see through, and then came the rain, so strong I had to slow down.

Classic FM's marketing department has a surprisingly strong reach. I will look around cautiously the next time they play the theme from Jurassic Park.

Here's the bit I mean.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Steady, aim ...

Yesterday I watched a skilled, trained, experienced NHS professional fail to extract blood from Bonusbarn by the simple expedient of sticking a needle into him. I'm not doing her down: I know it's a matter of finding the vein, and if the vein isn't prominent then success isn't guaranteed. She tried again and this time got the required few drops into the vacuum container thingy.

But, bearing in mind that the distances involve can be measured usefully in millimetres, somehow it makes sinking a shaft you could easily step across half a mile through rock into a gallery only a few metres wide all the more remarkable.

Of course, veins aren't generally positioned by GPS.

Anyway, here's the last man leaving the mine. Wow. Towards the end it looks like they're playing with him. We're bringing you up! No we're not. Yes we are! No we're not. Tee hee.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A day of multiple procedures

Following on from last month's fun that almost saw the accidental death of a meter man and the burning down of the property, they came back today to put right what once went wrong. To be fair it wasn' t them that did it wrong originally, it was whoever wired this place up when the flats were converted in the 70s. But, damage had been caused and "as a gesture of goodwill" the meter men agreed to do all the remedial work on a no liability basis.

Well, okay, if you twist my arm.

For reasons lost in the mists of time, the meters are 10 feet up in the air behind hatches that hinge at the top. I'm sure it all made sense to the same people who thought it would be a wheeze to daisy chain the four neutral feeds in the first place. Advanced technology is needed to keep the hatches open while work goes on: any similarity to a long handled pair of clippers perched on top of a green box is purely coincidental.

I love hard work: I can watch it for hours, especially when it involves people doing open heart surgery on my home. All those wires, carefully disconnected, paired up and either reconnected or in some cases discarded (there was at least one completely redundant fusebox in there too, not to mention a large red switch marked NIGHT STORAGE HEATER, which none of us has) and made to work safely again. I may jest, but on the other hand if all the electricians and all the editors in the world suddenly vanished tomorrow, I know for a fact who would be missed first.

And because I was going to be in anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to book Dynorod in for the same day. An obstruction had been detected in the drains and they needed to put a camera down to have a look.

My thinking this was a good idea lasted until the man's opening words: "do you have access to a power socket?" Biscuits. I assumed the equipment worked off batteries: as indeed it should, only the batteries had drained on his last job. Fortunately he was able to pick up a generator from a colleague and still do the required endoscopy. So now I know what the inside of our drains look like.

And should I ever forget, apparently we get a DVD! The long winter evenings are going to fly by.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Young guns, having some fun

I've had boys on the mind in the last week or so, but only in a good way. I've been reading the adventures of young James Bond (Silverfin by Charlie Higson), young Sherlock Holmes (Death Cloud by Andrew Lane) and young Alex Rider (Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz). Young Alex of course has never been anything but: the series started when he was 14 ten years ago and a decade later his fifteenth birthday is scheduled to happen shortly after the end of the book ("next Thursday"). The other two are prequels to the adult adventures, authorised by the respective estates and drawing on what we know of the protagonists' early lives to give pointers as to how the boy became the man. Horowitz however can do what he likes with Alex – and frequently does – without having to worry about staying canon: we've never seen the man Alex and don't know what he will turn out like.

The secret of a good boy's tale is get rid of the adults as soon as you reasonably can and have them drawn into good, wholesome, sex-free adventures without too much wild coincidence or suspension of disbelief. That is an inevitable weak point of both young Bond and young Holmes. As adults, they always have the advantage of being given a case or assignment to solve, though in Bond's case coincidence also played a part a bit to often – in both Goldfinger and Thunderball he has a chance encounter with the bad guys before it becomes official. That is the genius of Alex – he is a kid recruited by MI6, so he too gets given the assignment, though again not without some helpful coincidence first to pave the way.

In order of enjoyment:

3rd place, Silverfin. It's not bad, you understand. Charlie Higson knows his Bond. Ian Fleming could never quite decide how old Bond was: in the early books there's a reference to work he did "before the war", whereas by the later books he was obviously too young for that; Higson seems to have fixed on a 1920 date of birth, meaning that he could have been in naval intelligence by 1945, if not 1939. The original books provide a good deal of information about young Bond in the form of an obituary published in You Only Live Twice (don't worry, it's premature). That's how we know his father is Scottish and his mother Swiss; he was raised by his aunt after the death of his parents; and educated in reverse order at Cambridge, Fettes and Eton, having to leave the latter after only a couple of terms because of an "indiscretion" with one of the maids. Apparently a later Higson book tells the truth of that "indiscretion" and it isn't what you might think. However I will be very surprised if he also covers the trip to Paris aged 16 on which Bond lost his virginity – also canon in the original books and a little less susceptible to reinterpretation for a young audience.

And that is the problem with Silverfin, really. Higson's young Bond is a nice lad. Adult Bond is anything but. He is arrogant, sexist and minimally moral – they don't hand out Double-O licences to boy scouts, you know. Young Bond does not have to become old Bond: these could be the adventures of any 1930s boy hero.

Also, the coincidence level that gets him into the adventures is just a bit too high for my liking.

2nd place: Crocodile Tears. This series has ranged from middling to superb and this is at the upper end. A few years ago there was the feeling that Horowitz was just turning them out and quality declined accordingly, as it always must – but this comes after a couple of years' reflection and recharging. Still not quite up to my favourite, Scorpia (the eponymous organisation is quite obviously SPECTRE by another name), and the baddy isn't up to Damian Cray of Eagle Strike, who was quite obviously an evil Elton John. But fun.

Alex of course is young James Bond, essentially: he has similar adventures with similar suffering, similar gadgets, similar villains and even a similar on-off girlfriend, Sabina Pleasure (think about it). But what sets him apart is that he emphatically isn't Bond: he hates the things he has to do and he is aware of how each adventure damages him. In almost every case his motivation is to prevent the widespread suffering that will ensue if the bad guy has his way. Alex is a likeable, moral lad and there is a good chance that the adult will turn out the same way.

1st place: Death Cloud, and I'm not just saying this because I happen to get a mention in the dedication. Young Holmes is well drawn as a sympathetic, slightly insecure, very intelligent, socially awkward boy and here you can actually see the seeds of the man being planted. He already has a querying, analytical mind and during the novel it is taken and moulded by a tutor who teaches him to use it, as well as have adventures.

There is very little early Holmes biographical material in the original stories, other than the existence of Mycroft, so Andrew Lane fills in the gaps with his own invention and by plundering the canonical, off-the-cuff references to earlier adventures. The villain of this one is Baron Maupertuis; the next will reveal the truth about the Red Leech. Andy knows his Holmes and he knows his Victoriana, which gives the book a good period setting. Young Holmes is much easier to get on with than the adult but you can still see how the one will lead to the other; and even at his most insufferable, adult Holmes has redeeming qualities: a deep unspoken love for the people closest to him, a thirst for justice and the plain enjoyment of the intellectual challenges of each case. But he too is a damaged man and without pulling many punches we see the first signs of the damage being inflicted.

And absolutely no Watson or Moriarty. That would not be canon.

I wasn't planning on doing any further plugging, but random web searching led to Andy's original proposal and thus the official web site. The proposal itself is worth the price of admission: this is how these things should be done.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Misty moisty mains pipe

How nice to walk into the bathroom and not hear a strange, baffling, gradually increasing hissing noise.

It started a few weeks ago. Took a while to notice because it was very similar to the noise the toilet makes just before it's full, and you don't hang around in the bathroom waiting for the flush to finish, do you? But I became aware that the hissing was still going on.

The mains pipe and waste pipe for the flats above ground level go up in the corner of the bathroom, masked off by some wooden trunking. It was fairly easy to identify the sound as coming from the trunking. The cause was another matter. No sign anywhere of any kind of leak. One thing I thought I knew about this old building: it does not conceal leaks well. When it has a leak, it makes sure everyone knows about it.

A plumber identified the noise as water moving along the pipe rather than coming out, and wondered if someone somewhere had a tap running, or maybe a faulty toilet valve so that the toilet kept refilling but overflowed straight into the bowl, so no one noticed. Checks were performed. No one saw anything. The noise grew louder.

If there was a leak, I thought, then logic suggested the basement flat would be the ones who would really notice. I asked and, yes, they had heard the noise but no sound of a leak. The tenant's partner's father is a plumber - he'll look at it. Oh, good.

The noise grew louder ...

Sunday evening, the tenant mentions that water is coming through the rear wall of the bathroom.

Things I didn't know about the old place: because the pipes visibly run through our bathroom, I assumed they did likewise downstairs. They do not. They are the other side of a partition wall that separates their bathroom from the empty space beneath the front steps. The space is lined with concrete and could do a lot of filling up without anyone noticing ...

In fact it was only about 2" deep. The water was jetting from the mains pipe straight onto the waste pipe, which nicely atomised it and caused it to spread around the cavity as a gentle mist. That was what was accumulating on the partition. Mr Dynorod was called and we heaved a sigh of relief to see that he was a skinny type who could easily fit through the inspection hatch in the partition, which is about the size of a large computer monitor.

The water drained away overnight, which is kind of a shame because I was looking forward to playing with the siphon pump I bought off Amazon for a fiver. Now to blast the space with heater and dehumidifer.

Tenant's Partner's Father hadn't looked behind the partition for fear of liability - eviction proceedings are already going on and they feared that it might cause damage would be one more thing to hold against them. I could do it as a member of the management company. One very positive outcome of this has been her learning that there is someone friendly and sympathetic in the building - it's possible she thought we were all in thrall to her landlord. But this is a public blog and I'll keep that for another time and place.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Long time, no meme

Haven't done one of these for a while, but as my friend Mr Bookzombie points out, it's a little more grown-up and assumes a little more life experience than the usual round. So without further ado:

1. What bill do you hate paying the most?
As I no longer have to pay printers' bills and all the usual domestic ones are comfortably covered by direct debit, none of them hold much terror for me.

2. Do you miss being a child?
I miss the excitement about (what I now realise are) really quite mundane matters, but that's all. The tingle of opening that week's Countdown/Warlord/2000 AD; the warm glow of anticipation as a good Saturday evening's TV viewing hoves into view ...

3. Chore you hate the most?
Picking with tweezers through someone else's badly written HTML.

4. Where was the last place you had a romantic dinner?
Well, we dined out every evening in Gothenburg this summer, which was quite high on the him-and-her scale. If you're talking a properly constituted duly certified romantic dinner(tm) that would probably be our anniversary dinner at Kitson's ... Um, that's last year's anniversary.

5. If you could go back and change one thing what would it be?
Probably nothing. What hasn't killed me has made me stronger. On the other hand, 10 years of compulsory rugby led to the need for regular chiropractic adjustment, probably for the rest of my life, so that is something I could do without whilst still retaining my essential character.

6. Name of your first grade teacher?
"Grade?" The first sign that this quiz was dreamt up by an American. Anyway, Miss Barker. I think.

7. What do you really want to be doing right now?
Putting down the flow of words that come effortlessly to me as I write my next novel.

8. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Time Lord. Or a pilot.

9. How many colleges did you attend?
The second sign of transatlanticality. I attended just one higher education institution, thank you.

10. Why did you choose the shirt that you have on right now?
It's Thursday.

11. What are your thoughts on gas prices?
Quite reasonable really for a very convenient but rapidly declining resource. Oh, you mean petrol prices, right? Ludicrously high.

12. First thought when the alarm went off this morning?
The alarm has gone off.

13. Last thought before going to sleep last night?
I often spend this time thinking of what to do with the next morning's writing slot.

14. What famous person would you like to have dinner with?
I once had dinner with the Northern Ireland Commander of Land Forces*, the Chief Constable of the RUC, the Northern Ireland Secretary and the head of MI5 in Northern Ireland, so I'm not that easily impressed. (Though I was still quite nervous about having dinner with Terry Pratchett ...)

* In fact I have spent quite a lot of time with this guy, one way or another.

15. Have you ever crashed your vehicle?

16. If you didn't have to work, would you volunteer?
Probably. To do what?

17. Get up early or sleep in?
Depends on day of the week, dunnit?

18. What is your favorite cartoon character?
Shouldn't that be "Who is ..."? Not to mention "favourite". Anyway, Calvin's dad.

19. Favorite thing to do at night?
Those few seconds as you sink into the mattress with a good book and the duvet settles around you and the day is over.

20. When did you first start feeling old?
I have always resisted the feeling, though it gets harder when you're older than the Doctor, the vicar, James Bond and the leaders of all three main parties. Or when you realise that children of friends, who you knew before they were babies (if you see what I mean), are now an age that you remember being quite well.

21. Favorite lunch meat?
What on earth is lunch meat? Is there an animal bred specifically to be eaten at lunch?

22. What do you get every time you go into Wal-Mart?
I have been in a Wal-Mart exactly once, and while my host bought some cat litter I remember goggling at the guns and thinking "My God, it's true."

23. Do you think marriage is an outdated ritual?
That implies marriage requires a ritual. The sense that it does is probably on the way out, and what we currently (for legal purposes) call "marriage" and what we call "civil partnership" will blur more and more into one. I suspect the pairbonding instinct will always be there and hopefully lifelong partners will require fewer hoops to jump through to attain legal recognition of this fact.

24. Favorite movie you wouldn't want anyone to find out about?
Operation Petticoat. No, stuff that, it's a comic classic - everyone, watch it. "Today we torpedoed a truck ..." [Breaking news: think of it as a memorial to Tony Curtis who died today.]

25. What's your favorite drink?
A good red wine - or (for its rarity value) a G&T, but that's really a one-off whereas a good red wine you can have seconds of, and thirds, and fourths, and fitfs anbd si-... sh- ... wh'ver comsh neksht.

26. Who from high school would you like to run in to?
Run in to as in walking along the pavement, or run in to as in driving a car while he walks along the pavement? Different questions, different answers.

27. What radio station is your car radio tuned to right now?
Classic FM.

28. Sopranos or Desperate Housewives?
Sopranos, because (a) it's the only one I've seen and (b) nothing about Desperate Housewives, from the title onwards, really interests me. If I want more Teri Hatcher in my life then I just watch repeats of Superman.

29. Worst relationship mistake that you wish you could take back?
There is one moment the memory of which makes my toes curl still - but the sheer joy of actually comprehending the scale on which I am loved and forgiven probably means I wouldn't change it. Plus it means I probably won't do it again.

30. Do you like the person that sits directly across from you at work?
I face the window.

31. Have you ever had to use a fire extinguisher for its intended purposes?
Other than the basic training I had to do when I started my present job, no.

32. Last book you finished reading?
Silverfin by Charlie Higson.

33. Do you have a teddy bear?
Only by marriage. I do however retain the Clanger my mother made me following instructions from Valerie Singleton on Blue Peter. He was made out of a grey sock, because we only had b&w TV and didn't know Clangers were meant to be pink. (Technically, as a spherical object orbiting the sun, the planet of the Clangers must have tropics and an equatorial region but observation suggests there are no environmental factors leading to selection of a darker skin in those areas for ultraviolet protection.)

34. Strangest place you have ever brushed your teeth?
Not strange as such, but I do remember getting stuck into it at Knutsford M6 motorway services at 3am, shortly before discovering they turn the water off for the night.

35. Do you go to church?

36. How old are you?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Game plan

Pay attention because I'm going to talk about writing, which I don't often do. At least, not my current writing. Not my actual work in progress stuff.

It weighs on me more with every passing year that there hasn't been a genuine original Ben Jeapes novel published since 2004. And guess what - following yesterday's meeting with my publisher this doesn't look immediately set to change. But there is a renewed sense of purpose in the air, which makes a pleasant change.

I haven't exactly been twiddling my thumbs in the meantime: 3 Vampire Plagues, 2 Midnight Library collections and 3 $INSECT_EATING_TV_GUY ghostwriting gigs bear testimony to this. Time's Chariot was also reissued in 2008, which was nice.

Part of the problem is precisely all that hackwork, which pays bills nicely but gets in the way. I'm happy to be in a position now where I can turn down such offers without regret, unless they pay really well (like $INSECT_EATING_TV_GUY did).

Part of the problem was that when I put the last full stop at the end of New World Order that was the end of the stories that had been burning inside me for years. Thereafter I had to start writing new stuff from scratch rather than just giving voice to pre-existing collections of thoughts. Ideas I can come up with until the cows come home, but plots ... plots! Don't talk to me about plots! Sticking needles in my eyes would be preferable to cudgelling my brains to work out what the £$%& happens next.

So with New World Order out of the way I started on a work which we will call for convenience Untitled Space Opera, or USO. The set-up for USO had been bubbling away for a while but it soon appeared that a satisfactory plot wasn't going to develop, and anyway I had other distractions like getting married and what with one thing and another USO did get finished, after a fashion, but was never really fit for release into the wild. And anyway, in the meantime I had rather gone off space opera so my heart wasn't in it. My heart was in a complete change of direction: taking an old short story of mine, "The Grey People", and stretching it and expanding it backwards and forwards and generally developing in into a novel - a present day urban fantasy set in Salisbury with a present day slightly geeky teenage hero. Called Ted, so call this book Ted1. Even then the plot fairy wasn't entirely beneficent and it did a lot of bouncing back and forth between me and the publisher, who correctly identified a lot of what wasn't working and which lead to a lot of rewriting.

(I mean, a lot. Imagine if Rowling's publishers had said "Well, we like Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone but the Philosopher's Stone bit doesn't really work - can you fix it?" That's the kind of lot I mean. Eventually I had to write up a list of scenes, essentially delete anything with $NON_WORKING_ELEMENT and fill in the gaps with added Plot to make it work better. Which it did.)

It was meant to be standalone but a sequel did suggest itself within the last pages, so while Ted1 moldered with the publisher and in between the hackwork I started on Ted2, which is now almost finished. And guess what, it was meant to be standalone but a sequel is suggesting itself so there could well be a Ted3 and I'll have committed trilogy for the first time. But trilogies are good. Trilogies are sellable. I also want to do another alternate history fantasy which we will call N, possibly because that actually is what I might call it anyway.

Cut a long story short, fast forward to yesterday ...

He likes Ted1. A lot. He also thinks it's such a departure from my current track record with Random House that he could buy it but RH wouldn't really be able to do it justice. In a couple of years he might (for currently undisclosable, but good, reasons) be in a position to do better, but not now.

BUT over the last few years USO has also been bubbling at the back of my mind, and it's had a couple of very useful critiques from friends. I now think it's fixable, and what's more we both agree it's more in line with my other titles.

So, I have a game plan! This is exciting and makes me feel all grown-up.
  • Finish Ted2
  • Rework USO
  • Sit on Ted1 pro tem
  • Write N and/or Ted3
  • USO gets published
  • Teds 1, 2 and possibly 3 are published in short order
  • N gets published
This all assumes 1 publisher - it would get more complicated if another publisher were to show an interest in a Ted trilogy, which can't be ruled out if my agent cogitates in that direction. You could probably draw a flowchart but for the time being I'll keep it in my head.

So, there we are and here I am. Onwards!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Not impressed, Vale

From the official Vale of the White Horse literature on Abingdon's new bin system:
"Live in a flat or communal property?
You will still be able to recycle more and have your food waste collected although your new service may not start in October. We will be in touch with you to let you know when the new service will start."
Oh good, I thought, because I live in a flat and the thought of one grey + one green wheelie for each flat all stacked up in a row is just too silly. It will take up too much room. Still, October is getting close and no squeak from them yet; maybe I should drop them a line to ask what service we will be getting instead. A nice automated reply tells me that I will get an answer from the appropriate authority. Oh good, I think, anything but a row of bins, one per flat.

So guess what we come home to today:

Well, that avoids confusion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

More than MGs and Morlands

Today was Abingdon Heritage Open Day, when the nooks and crannies of our own little hometown are opened up to the public gaze. It's the kind of thing a future Neil Gaiman could write a story about to flex his muscles before going on to write something like Neverwhere.

Descend into the very bowels of the earth beneath the town hall ...

... and encounter a Mamod enthusiast's wildest dream, the gas-powered engine that used to pump water to north Abingdon. "North" being, of course, a relative term that nowadays could more accurately be described as "central" - the Vineyard, St John's Road, Swinburne Road, that sort of area.

Sadly not working or even moving, though apparently that will change after the forthcoming museum restoration. This was one of the few solid facts to pass the lips of the lady guide down there, who must have said variations on "I don't know how / why / if ..." more times per minute than any other guide I have ever met.

Onwards, and a more mobile relative of the water pump lurks beneath the Abbey archway. Anyone who knows me more than passingly well will detect another reason for photographing it. Anyone who doesn't will be left dangling in tantalising speculation.

The Abbey Baptist church is Tardis-like, much bigger inside than the exterior would suggest. The main doors rather appropriately follow the Tardis motif.

(Unfortunately, this visit meant I had a variant on a classic hymn going through my head for the rest of the day:
"On Jordan's bank the Baptists cry;
If I were Baptist so would I.
They do not drink, they have no fun,
I'd rather be an Anglican.")
Behind the Abbey buildings and on the other side of the Long Gallery lurks this secluded little garden, backing onto the millstream which is far too dirty and obscured by overgrowth to be worth photographing.

An exhibition in the undercroft includes a vital reference map for any (alternative) historian of what the old Abbey layout might actually have looked like. I can see myself coming back to this.

Lunchtime beckoned and so we thought we would leave the attractions of East St Helens Street and the Long Alley Almshouse for the afternoon, which as it turns out with one thing and another will have to be another day in another year. Instead we wondered home via the Abingdon School chapel. Some quite attractive modern stained glass ...

... and an eagle lectern apparently modelled on Sam the American Eagle.

Don't say you can't see it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?

My no. 1 favourite American clergyman of all time is our former vicar. My least favourite is still Fred Phelps, I think (hey, everyone should have a list like this) but pasta-brained Terry Jones has shot to the penultimate position. Both have a lot in common, not least a total absence of anything in their ministry that resembles something Jesus Christ would be proud to see his disciples doing. (Edited to add: this will change if TJ actually backs down, turns the other cheek etc. which actually would be vaguely Christlike.)

I confess I have now lost track as to whether or not Jones intends to proceed with his burn-a-Koran-day plan tomorrow. I think he has, too. Anyway, people seem to have forgotten, or probably not noticed, that Phred was apparently way ahead of him back in 2008 (there's a link on his, ahem, "church"'s site: if you're curious enough you can find it but I ain't putting it here) and intends to repeat the stunt himself. Never try to outshow a showman.

Back to Jonesy: what has been so repellent about the whole thing has been watching this vile little man - well, little in every conceivable way except for his moustache - relishing his position as the cameras of the world turn on him and even the President of the United States has to ask him not to, please. The scale of his self-delusion and aggrandisement is staggering, really; imagining that he is now a world player, able to affect the siting of the New York mosque at the cost of a few hundred ordinary lives - which won't be his fault, no sir, no. Even Phred isn't quite that big-headed, but only because he has officially given up on the entire world except for his congregation and has no intention of trying to influence anyone.

There is however a Facebook group apparently run by Muslims: INTERNATIONAL BURN A QUR'AN (onto a CD) DAY. Nice one.

Back to Jones again and, ooh, scripture: that reminds me. I can do that. 1 Corinthians 10.23. Also, Matthew 7.22-23, and since I'm in the zone a bit of Romans 12.17-21. So there.

Shame Obama couldn't just stand up and rattle those off. Bartlet would have. He's my no. 1 favourite American President, you know.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Guess who's back on Facebook?

I don't know how it happened. Well, okay, I do. A confluence of influences. Influence conflued.

Apart from the general grumpy old mannish acceptance that it really isn't going to go away no matter how hard I ignore it ...
  1. A friend (real-world meaning) whose blog I enjoyed reading, but which hasn't been updated for months, admitted he's pretty well given it up and now just uses Facebook. So if even intelligent people regard Facebook above all others, and there's a whole generation out there who wouldn't think of looking for me anywhere else, and I am (as ever) poised on the brink of worldwide fame ... that's where to be.
  2. And then another friend (also real-world meaning) tells me he's said something online that, from the nature of our real-world meaning friendship, I know I'll find interesting, but it's on Facebook ...
... and that was what did it. I just sort of slipped in. Being a Gmail user, I clicked on his message and found myself being invited to join up through my Google account. So I did. And then it kindly read my contacts list and showed me all the ones who are also on Facebook. Maybe I would like to invite them to be friends? (Well, maybe they already are, so nyah. And in some cases, maybe I would pay money not to be friends with them but I still need them in the contacts list. This is grown-up life, children: the ying and yang, push and shove, give and take, awareness that we live in a world where all is not sweetness and light and it sometimes just pays to smile and be polite - deep, adult concepts a world away from the pimple-ridden adolescents who designed Facebook in the first place. [No offence intended to any pimple-ridden adolescents reading this, who will be real-world-meaning friends and therefore lovely by definition.])

So, here I am. It's a clean break with the past - a new account as opposed to reactivating my old one. I let the old one get out of control. This one I will keep a tighter grip on and just use as a means to guide people to more erudite pensées such as this. It means I'm no longer the first Ben Jeapes on Facebook ... well, technically I suppose I am since that account is still there, just dormant. But anyway. And any former Facebook friends - is there another way of saying this? ffriends, with a silent eff? Well there is now - any former ffriends who want to stay ffriends will have to renew the invite, though I won't just blindly accept invitations from anyone; there are people I can live without being ffriends with even if they happen to be friends. No offence, just ... you know. And if you don't know, learn.

Onwards with the big adventure ... and I'll try to ignore Twitter. Really, really hard.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


So we got a letter from persons acting on behalf of our electricity supplier, bzztpower PLC, saying they needed to replace our meter. I know from previous attempts to do this that our meter and the meters of our neighbours above and below are connected in a stack with ours at the top, so disconnecting us will also disconnect them. So, I let them know the work is going to happen: you're getting a 20 minute power cut on Wednesday morning. Any problems? Excellent.

Meter Man arrives. We turn off everything in the flat. He mounts his ladder. He gets to work on the collection of meters in the porch. He removes a very large fusey type thing. Downstairs Neighbour sticks his head out of the door and shouts that his equipment is smoking. I can't see his face in the gloom of the hall and assume he's joking.

He isn't ...

It's not only smoking, it's smoking quite excitingly: clouds of strangely clear white smoke as if someone inside is spraying out very fine talc. Playstation, TV, laptop all fritzed.

Supervisor is called, from Somerset via Reading so I'm impressed by how soon he arrives. Eventually establishes that not only are the meters wired up in series, they're also non-compliant. Rather than each having a neutral feed of their own, they share a single neutral feed that goes through all three meters. This is the kind of thing frowned upon by the better class of meter man, as disconnecting the neutral feed from our flat therefore also removed it from the other two flats and they got the full blast of 415 volts. Top flat has a breaker which immediately tripped (astonishing; last year's East European cowboys that caused us so much entertainment and diversion did something right) and so the flat was protected, but downstairs flat started tripping in quite another way. And if Meter Man had touched the end of the neutral feed, he too would have started smoking; at least, in the brief period of contact before he got thrown thirty feet away, but his passage through the air would probably have extinguished any flames.

NotNorthernLeccy, who supply the other two flats, are called as our guy isn't allowed to open up another supplier's meter and together they make a go at rewiring the whole meter caboodle, before working out that they're outclassed by the needs of the wiring. To cut a long story short, after much head scratching and discussion, we will need a local electrician to do quite a bit of rewiring (the meter guys only do meters), plus representatives from bzztpower and NotNorthernLeccy to rewire the meters, and this will all need to happen on the same day, starting quite early, if it's all going to be done during hours of warmth and daylight. Meanwhile the insurance companies of bzztpower and NotNorthernLeccy are expected to have a pleasant game of pingpong with Downstairs Neighbour's claim for the slagged gear. Fun, fun, fun.

It occurs to me that plumbers might get cold and wet sometimes, but they would have to try very hard to die just by touching the wrong pipe.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Giggle (okay, so I'm glad it wasn't a small child)

Driving home this evening: 4x4 driver in Drayton reverses into (I presume) his driveway and in the process runs over his green box which is out for collection.

Statement made?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


A colleague has gone off to football practice in his lunch hour and has left what he is currently working on live on his screen. It's some kind of presentation and features the word "assesment" (sic) displayed very prominently.

Oh dear.

Do I correct it? Do I leave a post-it on his screen? Do I drop him a polite email?

There's nothing in Debrett's about this, probably because the kind of people who read Debrett's could not conceive of someone not being able to spell "assessment".

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Hunt for Red October: Beginner's Edition

Can you see it yet, children?


Red October, as any fule kno, was an Akula class ballistic missile submarine, NATO codename Typhoon: the largest and (to a certain mentality, such as mine) coolest such vessels ever built. And to such a mentality, the wealth of pictures on this site here verges on the fetishistic. Enjoy, boys. Lots of pictures of a Typhoon, inside and out. Some of the first interior ones are alarmingly damp and rusty, but I think they're from inside the sail, which floods when the boat is submerged, so they're meant to be like that.

The first picture is of a cat that obviously commands its very own Red October. All cats were born to command their very own Red Octobers.

Friday, August 20, 2010

70 years of Few and Phew

In Roald Dahl's autobiography Going Solo, one tale he tells is of going out by himself for a drink in wartime London. He was wearing his RAF uniform. He came across a gang of bruisers who had had a few too many and were all set to beat up someone, anyone in uniform. He was their next obvious target, until he turned round and they saw his pilot's wings. Then they left him alone.

That is how highly RAF pilots were respected during the Battle of Britain. Not that Dahl flew in that at all - rather ironically he had already been invalided out of flying duties due to a bad crash earlier. But anyway.

It's 70 years since Churchill's the Few speech, in case you hadn't heard. ("Excuse me, sir, I want to join the Few." / "Sorry, we've got too many" etc.) There's an interesting set of pages on the Beeb. This one describes why the other side came second: our side actually (despicably, if you ask me) used tactics and planning and good communication while Jerry was more of a "it's better to travel hopefully than arrive" disposition. There was also the simple fact that we were over home territory, so if our boys baled out they landed at home and could get back into another plane and take off again. For them, the war carried on. And such tactics as Goring had made the somewhat elementary error, when dealing with Britain, of requiring 4 consecutive days of blue skies. Is this where "blue sky thinking" comes from?

And then there's this one, which gives a day-by-day graphic of planes and men lost from 10 July-31 October 1940. And, wow. Take 15 August 1940, the Luftwaffe's worst day. Boys in blue, 35 aircraft and 11 men lost. Boys in grey: 76 aircraft, 128 men, the imbalance being because our planes were single seat fighters and theirs were both fighters and multi-crew bombers.

On the RAF's worst day, 31 August: 41 planes and 9 men on our side, 39 and 21 on theirs. Looking at the chart I don't think there's a single day when our losses outweighed theirs.

It's hard to talk about this and not sound like I'm gloating or discussing cricket scores. Whenever I catch myself heading in that direction I try to think of it in the terms of the time: the death columns in the papers, the telegrams from the War Office and all that.

Doesn't stop the warm glow, though. And if you should chance to meet a Battle of Britain veteran, take time to thank them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Battleground God

Official: my religious views are mostly consistent. That's nice.

In fact, Battleground God is an enjoyable exercise to be undertaken vaguely seriously. You are taken through a perfectly reasonable progression of philosophical questions to rate as True, False or Don't Know: for instance, "If God does not exist then there is no basis for morality." (For the record, false: Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative immediately comes to my mind as just one example of a viable, non-deity-based moral framework.) The cumulative impact of your responses is used to judge the logical consistency of your position. If you bite a bullet then you have stuck to your logical guns even though this may have led you to a belief that "most people would have found strange, incredible or unpalatable". If you take a hit, that means they detect a logical self-contradiction. I took three.

My first hit:
"You say that if there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, then atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality. Therefore, it seems that you do not think that the mere absence of evidence for the existence of God is enough to justify believing that she does not exist. This view is also suggested by your earlier claim that it is not rational to believe that the Loch Ness monster does not exist even if, despite years of trying, no evidence has been presented to suggest that it does exist."
One word: categories.

In slightly more words: the Sainted Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker posits a computer-based model of evolution in which biomorphs, creatures existing only in a computer's memory, evolve characteristics over time. Let's get science fictional and assume that by some William Gibson / Neal Stephenson handwaving quirk of electronicness, the biomorphs actually start to evolve intelligence and end up with their own little ecosystem in the computer's RAM. They even develop their own philosophers and scientists, as well as myths and legends of the Great Old Biomorphs that will come again. One of these is NessieMorph, never seen, oft speculated about. The biomorph scientists will be able to make reasonable deductions, from the absence of evidence, as to the non-existence of NessieMorph. However, they will never be able to prove, or disprove, the existence of Richard Dawkins.

Moving on. My second hit:
"You say that God does not have the freedom and power to do impossible things such as create square circles, but in an earlier answer you said that any being which it is right to call God must be free and have the power to do anything. So, on your view, God is not free and does not have the power to do what is impossible. This requires that you accept - in common with most theologians, but contrary to your earlier answer - that God's freedom and power are not unbounded. He does not have the freedom and power to do literally anything."
Yes, but you didn't say "literally anything" in the earlier question, did you? The exact text of the question (no. 3) is "Any being which it is right to call God must be free to do anything". Debating whether God has the power to create square circles is meaningless; to answer your question I assumed meaning in it; therefore I assumed you did not mean "literally anything".

Even in your own FAQ you even say "omnipotence isn't normally felt to require the ability to do the logically impossible". So there, as Wittgenstein might have said but probably didn't.

My third hit:
"Earlier you said that it is not justifiable to base one's beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, paying no regard to the external evidence, or lack of it, for the truth or falsity of this conviction, but now you say it's justifiable to believe in God on just these grounds. That's a flagrant contradiction!"
No, the question was : "It is justifiable to base one's beliefs about the external world on a firm, inner conviction, even in the absence of any external evidence for the truth of these convictions." Sure it is - in the absence of external evidence. Those beliefs should change, however, if contradictory evidence comes along. But that, again, is something you didn't say originally.

So there you have it. Ben: mostly logical. Not a Vulcan, not a Creationist either. I find this a good place to be and will gladly seek a definitive reconciliation of these remaining contradictions as soon as I've finished deciding whether light is a wave or a particle and which is right, quantum physics or general relativity.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Vroom vroom bork bork bork

In Switzerland, apparently, speeding fines are determined by the speed you were doing and by your ability to pay. So, the Swedish gent who was clocked by Swiss police doing 290km/h or 180mph in a Mercedes sports car "could be given a world-record speeding fine of SFr1.08m ($1m; £656,000), prosecutors say."

This being Switzerland there will be four words for "schadenfreude", one of which is "schadenfreude".

And yet ...

This guy is Swedish, which I happen to know means he comes from a land where the average speed limit is 80 or 90km/h. Occasionally, just occasionally, a really good stretch of road will let you up to 100 and sometimes they go mad and let you do 110 for a stretch of about five miles before welcome sanity kicks in and they rope you back to 80 again.

For ease of reference, 8km = 5m. Do the maths.

Approaching a junction, even if you're in a 110 zone, the limit goes down to 70. And there are a lot of speed cameras. They're sign-posted but they're also unobtrusive - just slender little blue poles by the side of the road.

Not that most Swedes pay the limits the slightest attention, as far as I could see. We were rocking in the slipstream of Saabs and Volvos more times than I could remember. But even so, I do sympathise that this guy has probably wanted to go fast since he was born, and putting him a Merc in another country is just asking for trouble.

Should have been a fighter pilot, then ...