Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Except you become as students ...

I hadn't realised how old I'm getting until I realised how long it's been since I had a decently silly theological conversation.

I had made the offer of transferring my collection of Dr Who videos to Middle Godson's family. Middle Godson's father and I were at uni together. At one point the discussion of the terms of the transfer, conducted devant une des enfants but phrased to avoid arousing excitement until a conclusion was reached, lapsed into New Testament Greek. The years just fell away.

MG's vicar father has also developed the Christingle concept for other festivals where the quotient of unchurched punters on pews might be higher than usual: Eastingle (chocolate eggs instead of oranges) and Harvestingle. This is an idea that could run and run. The higher forms of church could pick it up too. I propose Annuncitingle. Children could all clutch a parthenogenetically grown fruit on which they have drawn a very surprised face. Stick a cross in it, hold it upside down and you've got a ♀ .

I wonder if the student Richard Dawkins and his friends ever lapsed deliberately into really bad science just for the fun of it?

Friday, February 19, 2010


I look around at my co-workers on a Friday afternoon ...

Everyone seems so normal. We are mostly white and middle class. I would guess that the huge majority have a university education. No one here has ever really known deprivation or the breakdown of society. I'm sure we were all spanked by our mothers from time to time when we were naughty.

And yet, the forensic evidence suggests there is a male in this company who pees into the toilet bowl without putting the seat up. It's the kind of thing you could write a thesis on.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Edited by Bonusbarn

This is the modern equivalent of putting your kid's work up on the fridge door.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Got wood

This chappie is 190cm high and 234cm across, which give or take about 0.5cm is the exact width of the living room wall behind it. Like God, Gaul and the Saturn V it divides into three parts, but the largest of those is 142 x 191cm, which also give or take about 0.5cm is the space available halfway up our stairs where two quickly successive 90 degree turns must be negotiated. But we managed, with the help of Best Man, summoned at an hour's notice (and after one failed attempt by just three of us to negotiate the 180 degree bend) under Emergency Friendship Protocols that allow this kind of thing.

Ex Mother in Law in Law is having a clearout and it would have been a shame to let this one go when we have so much junk that needs storing a wall so perfectly suited to taking it.

Should we move house, we either get removal men in or dismantle the house, whichever may be cheaper.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nothing but the roof

This is the man who has come to stop our roof leaking. It looks much scarier when you realise that he is standing beyond the gully of the two roofs, on a ledge that extends beyond the left-hand roof for about ten feet; and while the roof on the right extends to the end of the ledge, on his left there is a four-floor drop.

When he came to give us an estimate he calmly waltzed out onto the ledge, squatted down, checked the lead, stood up, pirouetted a couple of times, scratched himself and performed a quick interpretative dance to the tune of what I presume was the Czech national anthem. When he came today, lugging his flamethrower and associated gas tank, I expected him to get out onto the ledge by a series of backflips just to show that he can. Anyway, I was sufficiently convinced that this guy is used to working on roofs. It also helped that having seen the stains on the walls of the flat below, he could head straight for the site of the leaks and find the holes. Rather makes you wonder what the earlier cowboys did, doesn't it?

So, all done and no more leaks. We hope.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Man is a Success who has Lived Well

I've never expected to be wanted for my body and especially not at a funeral, but so it came to pass yesterday. My two cousins, with a combined height of about 4 metres, wanted to bear their father's coffin - but unless they did it all by themselves, this was going to present a problem, so they needed equally vertically gifted pallbearers to balance the load. As it was I was the only one they could find. The excellent undertakers, who can cope with practically anything, did what they could to even things out so the coffin was born in by me + senior cousin J (back), junior cousin R + tallest undertaker (getting a free ride) (middle) and two regulars at the front. There was a slight incline but nothing to worry about. You learn to walk like a duck so as not to kick the heels of the guy in front.

And what an honour it was. Afterwards I said I would try and reciprocate when the equivalent occasion comes up in our family, but that event might also include things like Union Jacks, guards of honour etc. so it might just be best to leave it to the professionals. They understood. Anyway, we'll cross that one when we come to it.

It was a wonderful service at the Parish Church of All Saints Weston, full of love and happy memories for a life-loving man with a long and successful career. The readings - Robert Louis Stevenson and Ecclesiastes 3.1-13 - summed him up perfectly; my cousins kept their brimming emotions contained in their tributes in a way I'm really not sure I could match; and the Revd Fred Harte did wonders with bringing the Christian message of hope to a not particularly religious congregation, without issuing an altar call or invitations to Alpha.

Then to Putney Vale crematorium, which has seen off most of that side of the family over the last 30 years or so. The coffin moved off to Bunk Johnson's "Walk through the streets of the city", an exciting bit of New Orleans jazz I've not heard before. We were then expected to leave to the sound of Roxy Music's "Avalon", except that when the undertakers opened the door next to the sound console they knocked something and the music switched back from soppy 80s crooning to New Orleans jazz again. Would that all Bryan Ferry's works went the same way. If (and it's a big "if") I must have Roxy Music at my funeral, please make it something like "Love is the drug" or "Do the Strand".

Then home, to find that Bonusbarn had eaten the last pizza, so we did what we very rarely do and went out and bought fish and chips. And, stillfeeling keyed up from a long day, washed it down with a brandy. Extravagance! But fully in the spirit of the closing verses from the reading.

My father shared a memory that I wasn't going to mention to my cousins but afterwards thought maybe I could have, because they joked that thanks to my uncle's Eastenders connections, when the curtains closed over the coffin they could have played the famous intro drumbeat - duh, duh, duh-duh, duh, duh-duh-duh ...

So anyway. On the occasion of one of my great aunts being sent off at Putney Vale, the furnaces were obviously going at full strength that day. There was the distinct smell of smoke and bits in the air and it really was unpleasant. My uncle took a deep breath and remarked, "Ah, ze ovens are vorking vell today!"

He was bombed out by the Luftwaffe as a boy. He's allowed to say things like that.

He will be missed.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Get yer Ben here

Anyone within striking distance of Oxford on May 8 may like to know that The Write Fantastic is holding a 5th anniversary event at St Hilda's College, of which yours truly will be a part.

My windows shiver as an ignorant nation bellows: "What is The Write Fantastic?" It is "an exciting initiative by professional authors aiming to introduce fantasy fiction to readers who have yet to experience the genre. Its mission is also to ensure existing readers know the full breadth and depth of current fantasy writing." Said professional authors include such lovely people as Juliet McKenna and Chaz Brenchley and it's all well worth it.

Anyway, I love mixing with people I first met on a panel of debut novelists at a convention over 10 years ago sharing our experiences about how we got our first novels published and who are now leading lights in their field with sales in a list of countries as long as your arm and not feeling remotely bitter about it (hi, Jules!).

And before that, on 6-7 March I'll be in Exeter for the university SF society's annual Microcon. Remembering the extremely steep hill you have to get up and down to arrive at or leave the campus, I expect to be marginally fitter on 8 March than I was three days earlier.

Lovely as it would be to see the same familiar faces at both these, I might start to worry that I'm being stalked if I do.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Coming soon: Tarot Trumps

I wasn't sure how to tackle this because I really don't want to jump onto an Internet rumour hobbyhorse that later proves embarrassingly hoaxish. But my source is a level headed individual I know and I respect, and has nothing on it, so here goes:

It appears ToysRUs is stocking a toy ouija board. Said board is manufactured by Hasbro. It's aimed at little girls, so it's pink and frilly.

This is so far from a good idea that the light from a good idea will take several million years to reach it. And that's just the pink and frilly. I also have deeper objections. The reliable source I was talking about is the proprietor of a witchcraft shop in Glastonbury (don't ask) and they think it's a really dumb idea too. [What they have to say about it.]

Another site even has a picture of the thing, looking disturbingly like something from the back of an Ann Summers shop (I mean, ahem, I would guess) but aimed at girls aged 8+. Clicking on that page's product link to ToysRUs now gets a "not found" page, but search there for "oujia boards" and you do still get a glow-in-the-dark one, which is presumably for boys.

Boycott ToysRUs? Boycott Hasbro? Write to the Times, your vicar, your youth pastor? Pray hard? Write to Richard Dawkins? I don't really know: I leave it up to you. There is a boycott Hasbro page, but having seen some of the comments there ... Hmm. Even though I know the speaker is ultimately on the same side as me, the low-church Protestant in me does find sentiments like "St Joseph, slayer of demons protect us, St Michael, St Gabriel, St Raphael protect us, St Anthony protect us" to be not entirely different to the problem being discussed in the first place. But that may just be me.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Book disposal part 2

This was my core science fiction collection as of 26 June 2006. Exercising ruthlessly stringent criteria I had whittled it down to these four simple shelves. Since then various of its components have come and gone but the quantity has remained the same.

Until last night, when it got whittled down by a further two shelves worth. We are inheriting a big kind of dresser-thingy which will take up most of one wall and comes up to the level of the second shelf: ergo, at least two shelves had to go. I was as ruthless as the first time round, with similar criteria honed after a further 3.5 years of life-changing events: am I really likely to read this again? And could anyone else benefit more from its ownership?

That second one was actually quite easy to answer, as Senior Godson has turned into quite the SF fan. About one shelf's worth went to him, the rest to a jumble sale for Haiti. I like to think my selection criteria made sense. Not too light? Not too heavy? Too much sex and violence? Not enough? Is this a classic that a developing young mind should read? And so on. I gave him all the Asimovs but kept all the Clarkes: getting rid of those would be tearing out a piece of my soul.

But. Two shelves down, about 10 titles in from the right, red text on a yellow spine - that would be my copy of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics (and here's how I came by it). Not really the kind of thing a godfather should give his godson, and not really the kind of thing I feel should be unleashed on the unwitting public via a jumble sale, even for a good cause. So I've hung on to it. Ironic that Senior Godson's father works for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: now I begin to understand the dilemmas faced by other purveyors of toxic waste.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

10 types of people

I was shocked - shocked! - that the winning team on last night's University Challenge can't do binary. St John's Oxford couldn't solve three simple binary sums, like 1100011 divided by 1001*, and express the answer in decimal.

Even stranger is that they were obviously using the same method I was using, except that I got it right: work out the value of each column with a 1 in it and add it all together. Not hard.

Even more shocking was learning that apparently I'm the only one in the family who could do this. This must be how my father felt when he learnt I can't do long division.

It's simplicity itself to work out a spreadsheet that will convert numbers into binary. However I can still remember Mr Turnbull's lesson on how to make a binary calculator with nothing more complicated than a pen, some paper, some Pritt and some scissors, in those long-ago days when no one had heard of spreadsheets and "do it in Excel" would have been meaningless. I may have to dust off this skill.

(* 11)

Monday, February 01, 2010

Dog fight

We all want to side with the underdog. When there's a clash of overdog vs uberdog I suppose the overdog's position is still relatively under, so that's why I say "excelsior!" to Macmillan and "ha ha" to Amazon.

In the space of 48 hours Macmillan and Amazon went from minor border skirmishes to all-out war, declared by Amazon and lost by same a short while later. Ultimately it all came down to Amazon's vastly inflated idea of its rightful place in the affairs of man, finally clashing with a publisher big enough to say "no". Amazon tried to impose terms on Macmillan, Macmillan weren't having it and so Amazon withdrew its listings for every single Macmillan title.

Macmillan controls a lot of imprints. Suddenly, with no warning or reason given, a very large part of the global book supply was unavailable through the world's largest book supplier.

To save you crawling all over the interwebs for further details, Charles Stross has written a useful guide to the battlefield: Amazon, Macmillan: an outsider’s guide to the fight.

If you're more a bottom line sort of person, John Scalzi has written an entertaining analysis of Amazon's kamikaze strategy: All the Many Ways Amazon So Very Failed This Weekend.

As you may have gathered by now, Amazon lost.

I'm not published by Macmillan or any of its imprints: other than general principle, I have no declarable interest in this. But I am still smarting, nearly 10 years later, from the punitive discounts Amazon imposed on Big Engine in return for the privilege of receiving a basic competent service from them: one that listed my titles accurately, didn't unilaterally declare them out of print and so on. Now I feel those wounds healing. A little.

Except you become as little children

"I'm off. I've left the dehumidifer running in the bathroom."

[Exasperated teenage sigh.] "You know, it's never going to dry out the bathroom completely because the toilet's full of water."

"No, but it will help the air dry and that will help the paint dry."

"What paint?"

"Didn't you notice that mum had repainted the wall?"

"No." [Pause.] "I did notice the bare patch had gone."

"Did you think it had just healed?"

"By the grace of God, strange things can happen even to walls ..."