Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Facebook gets its man

You can run from Facebook but you can't hide. Middle Godson's father tells me:
"You now have a Facebook page: because people like me have said that we like your books in our facebook profiles."
Well, whoever the other guy is, thanks to both of you and I will try to be worthy of your trust.

I have occasionally thought of reviving my Facebook account. I could defriend-

[Defriend? How the hell did that word ever become meaningful? If language shapes cognition - the jury will always be out, but face it, it must do to at least some degree - then a whole generation is growing up with the idea that one of the priceless treasures of being human, the ability to have friends, is something that can, nay should, be ended with the click of a button. It's a horrible, horrible word. If Facebook is ever hauled before some kind of Nuremberg for the crimes of society, this will be the first item on the charge sheet.]

- everyone I rashly signed up with in the early days when everyone was doing it, change my status to "writing" and leave it at that. This would be a way of dealing with all those people who start a conversation with something like "are you writing anything at the moment?" or "how's the writing going?"

To which the best answers are respectively "yes" and "fine, thanks, how's the marriage?", though I've never quite had the courage to use the latter because I know they're just trying to be friendly and wanting to have a conversation, and it would be like kicking a puppy. The implication of the latter response is meant to be that the question is far too personal and complex for the kind of short-term small talk they're thinking of.

But, speaking of writing, this is my morning pre-work writing time so I'd better get on with some. I'm within 20 pages of finishing the current Work-in-Progress's final comb-through. See, I'm sharing information already.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Resurrection of the Soldiers

This is "The Resurrection of the Soldiers" by Stanley Spencer and it's the first thing you see as you enter Sandham Memorial Chapel. It takes up the entire altar wall. No photography allowed so I scanned a postcard, but the real thing I could look at for hours.

The walls are lined with these grotesque (in the artistic sense), blank faced paintings of Spencer's war experiences: little emotion gets through via the faces but the body languages and the distortions make up for it. On either side the paintings lead inexorably to the Resurrection. The last painting before it on the left shows men in the trenches emerging from their foxholes at the start of another day - but even some of them are glancing over their shoulder towards it, as if aware something amazing is going on which they will get to in due course, having first got through the next 24 hours. Or not.

We've all seen paintings of the Last Days and all that: God's somewhat smug elect with eyes raised adoringly to Heaven, the other lot all descending down unto gleeful demons and pitchforks. But even among the upward-bound crowd, the glorious crowd of witnesses, I've never had the feeling of any kind of relationship between them other than that they all made the right life choices (or possibly the right death choices).

But here we see a crowd of men who didn't have time for thought-out choices; they lived and died together very suddenly, knocked flat by the full brutality of modern warfare, and the first thing they see on being raised up again is each other. Being British they shake hands in a rather po-faced way: "What ho, Pongo. Heard you bought it at the Somme. Jolly good show." But judge it by the context of the times, the 1920s, and you immediately see what it's getting at. The Resurrection isn't just a box-ticking exercise to round off God's plan for mankind: it's personal and awe inspiring.

Having shook, they all trudge off to present their crosses to Christ, who looks rather surprised at the gesture. "What, for me?"

There's probably theological significance in this chap at Christ's feet, studying the image on the cross rather than the living original behind him. I'm wondering if he can't quite believe it yet: he's taken on board the theology, he knows what's happening but can't quite make the leap from the theory to the practical. Well, no one's rushing him - he has all the time in ... um ... the world.

The colours are dull, the people are brutal and ugly, but I find more hope in Spencer's Resurrection of the Soldiers than in a thousand of Michelangelo's.

Fezzes are cool

Okay, I know everyone was waiting for my reaction to the Dr Who finale, like my good opinion is the sole decider on whether there's a new series.

Well, you can all relax because I enjoyed it. Enjoyed it because it wasn't as sheerly awful as the last few DW finales have been. Enjoyed it because faith in the Moff has been vindicated. Enjoyed it because it was heart warming and well acted. Enjoyed it because after far too long we finally get a vaguely menacing Dalek - ironically, after their relaunch in new child-friendly dayglo colours, in monochrome.

(When this one is up for a Hugo (as I suspect it will be), and they play a clip from it, I hope they show the bit with River and the Dalek. Edited update that occurs to me hours later: "One alpha meson burst through your eyestalk would kill you stone dead." So why doesn't it just look away? HA-HA! I AM TURN-ING MY HEAD! YOU CAN-NOT SEE ME!)

But, it was still just as silly as all the other finales - just better done. It's still TVSF, a medium on which I have previously recorded my thoughts. So I will spoil everyone's fun and pick holes in it.

First of all - my one disappointment - I was hoping that the extremely unlikely grand alliance of unholy races at the end of last week was yet another illusion because it was just so unlikely. But no, apparently not. We'll put that to one side.

Now, 1800 years ago, it appears, every star in the universe was unmade. I lost track of whether they subsequently never had existed at all, or whether they just exploded, which would have bathed this world in a sterilising wash of radiation that burned the very microbes off the topmost layer of rock. Never mind. We can assume that since then Earth has developed more or less as before but with absolutely no knowledge of stars. Heat and light in the meantime provided by a permanently exploding TARDIS.

Yet everything else we saw about history seems exactly the same. They had World War 2. They have Richard Dawkins. Did they have Copernicus? Galileo? The heliocentric theory came about as the only one to explain the movement of stars, sun, Earth and other planets all in relation to each other. Did that happen? Somehow during WW2 fleets of Luftwaffe bombers still managed to find their way in the dark to London. Handy things, stars, if you've got them. Not easily replaced if you don't.

(Besides, it's an established fact that a race which grows up with no knowledge of stars turns into a race of charming, delightful, intelligent, whimsical, manic xenophobes.)

I know, I know. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey. But like so much TVSF, it all falls apart if you look too closely; and while the logical treatment of time travel verges on Einsteinian by RTD standards, Bill & Ted did it all more funnily a long time ago. Books will always be better ...

But, it was a very nice bit of TV, for all the above reasons. However, I do hope that people stop phoning the Doctor up with their problems - he's not Batman, you know. His adventures work best when he turns up at random. Much more of this and they'll be summoning him by beaming the image of the Seal of Rassilon onto a planet.

We have an interesting dynamic in the TARDIS crew, with a married couple now on board, but as it is still their wedding day I hope the Doc allows them a little privacy. I don't believe there's any canonical record of that kind of activity on the ship before now but there's a first time for everything.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Today I was in a videoconference. Sitting in the videoconference suite (in the same place as Richard Dawkins once sat: cor) there were two screens opposite me, one showing a live image of me and the other the same image after it had been through the network, with about half a second delay.

First I worked out that if I kept my head still, looked away with my eyes and looked back at the screen, I could see my own eyes apparently move independently.

Then I worked out that if I lifted up one hand and then the other very quickly, I could do a Mexican wave with myself.

That's what technology is for.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Back when pad didn't even mean "pad" ...

What do you mean, what is it?

It's a JNT PAD. It says so on the front, in a font that looks suspiciously like Comic Sans, only that didn't exist back when this baby was made.

JNT = the Joint Network Team, the group set up to research and ultimately implement a UK-wide computer network for research and education, which lives today as JANET. PAD = Packet Assembler / Disassembler - a device used to connect circuit-based computer terminals to a packet-switching network such as ... oh, I dunno ... the Internet.

In other words, this little gadget - well, I say little, it measures 21 x 27 x 46 cm - was quite important in the history of networking.

It could presumably connect 16 terminals to a network, judging by the connections on the back - plus, which makes it so sweet, in the top left corner, a socket for connecting a cassette facility. Bless! That was the point at which I actually wanted to hug it.

The JNT sponsored its development in 1980 and placed an initial market-glutting order of 50 with Camtec. A further impetuous (gasp) 85 were ordered in 1981. The mad, mad fools! It'll never catch on.

Photos taken by friend and colleague Sue, who is available at reasonable costs for any respectable function requiring skilled photography.

Monday, June 21, 2010

If you see the wonder of a fairy tale

I'm guessing you missed the royal wedding. No, not that one. I refer to Saturday's nuptials between Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and Mr Daniel Westling, now Prince Daniel, Duke of Västergötland. There's a whole slideshow of pictures at the royal website and what struck me most was that they look like they're having fun. They're a couple who look like they really mean it and would have wanted to spend the rest of their lives together even if one of them wasn't one day going to rule a chunk of Scandinavia. If you asked one of these two if they're in love, I don't see either coming back with "whatever love means."

Which is of course as it should be, and I'm happy for them.

I remember our own royal wedding being described as "fairy tale" and I was never really convinced, even at the time, even before the revelations about Camilla etc. She was an under-educated over-privileged Sloane Ranger; he was a much older future King who had to ask his mother's permission to kiss her in public. Fairy tale how? All she did was move up the ladder slightly. Whereas in this case: she was the (slightly older) future Queen; he was a personal trainer and gym owner from a long line of farmers with a slight Clark Kent vibe going for him. Now, that's fairy tale.

No jokes about "Dancing Queen", however: apparently they were all made back in 1976 when the present King and Queen were married. Said ceremony was preceded the day before by, yes, an Abba concert, where that song premiered.

Sudden image of scores of Daniel's former clients lining the route to Stockholm Cathedral, all singing, "If you change your mind, I'm the first in line ..."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Old Blue

I enjoyed this morning's Radio 4 Point of View, which was inspired by the government's successfully fulfilled campaign pledge to repeal the Identity Cards Act. It led into a history of identity documents generally, and made me think fondly of my own Old Blue - my very first passport. (Even if Old Black would be more accurate.) The present EU-standard Little Red Book is a natty little document, true, but it just doesn't look as imposing as the old one:

This was issued to me at the age of 12 and made me feel so grown up in all sorts of ways. Just the fact of having my own passport was pretty grown-up, of course, ipso facto: I expect everyone feels that way, except possibly babies who get issued with them (bloody stupid law!) and would just try to suck on them if they could. Previously all my foreign travel had been on my parents' passports, but now some anonymous civil servant had gone to all the trouble to hand write my name, personally, in the panel at the top of the front cover! I and my sister needed our own passports now because we would be travelling to and from Bangladesh as Unaccompanied Minors; so, my first passport is also the one with the most stamps in.

Then there was the message at the front stating that Her Britannic Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary. There was the definite feeling that if Johnny Foreigner tried to give me a hard time he could expect a gunboat to be showing up at his nation's principal port soon after.

(Astonishingly this message almost survives in the present day passport: just the job title has changed, to a mere "Secretary of State". Her Majesty still Requests and requires etc: the editor in me asks, but doesn't know, why it's big-R Requests and small-r requires. Still, looking at Best Beloved's and Bonusbarn's passports, it seems King Carl XVI Gustav has no particular views one way or the other on what happens to his subjects when abroad, so that's a tick for QE2.)

One drawback is that 12 is a very silly age to be issued a passport at, because while I might have looked like this at first:

... it wasn't long before passport officers were visibly recoiling at the contrast between cute child in photo and hulking adolescent in front of them. It was only a five year passport so when I was 17 it could be updated with a new pic on page 13:

... which looked reasonably like me until I was 22 and got a brand new one anyway. That one stayed virtually unused for the next 10 years: I either travelled within the EU, where they don't bother stamping, or to Russia which stamps in spades but only on the separate visa with which they issue you, and which they take back when you leave the country so you don't get anything even as a souvenir, chiz.

By today's security standards Old Blue is probably riddled with more holes than a Swiss cheese on a machine gun range, and doubtless passports will get more and more high tech as the years pass. But whatever happens - even if they come to exist in virtual form only, or are tattooed in invisible dye on our retinas before we're born - if they don't have that message from the Secretary of State then Old Blue will always be superior.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Just what is the point of having a stepson if he can't even let you know about a literary festival happening at his own school under his very nose?

"Did you know about the Larkmead Literary Festival?"

"The what?"

"It'll be launching an anthology of short stories written by Larkmead students, put together by your writer-in-residence."

"We have a writer-in-residence?"

And so forth.

And it does sound to have been a Jolly Good Idea: respect to all involved. Mostly Books has a report, as does the Abingdon Herald, so that's all points covered, though there may be the slightest sliver of bias in the Herald's reporting. As well as P. Pullman coming along to help launch the anthology, it reports:
"The visitors included authors M.G. Harris and Julie Hearn, illustrator David Melling, Paul Mayhew Archer, television scriptwriter for The Vicar of Dibley, and Mark Edwards, sports editor of the Herald's sister newspaper, the Oxford Mail."
If Pullman and the Oxford Mail's sports editor represent two ends of a spectrum, I know which end I'm closer to, which gives me all sorts of hope.

My only criticism of reports I've read is that apparently proceedings went on until 8.30pm, which surely is far too late for Year 13s to be up.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Present danger

Finish this sentence from a classic hymn, concentrating especially on the next noun you're going to use.
"Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were ..."
You're an intelligent reader (look around you on screen: QED) and doubtless went for "an offering far too small." Which is the right answer. Well done. I won't insult you by reminding you that this is of course the last verse of "When I survey the wondrous cross", and it finishes:
"Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul, my all."
Oh, drat.

Sadly, you are not the fool who wrote the version displayed in church this morning that would have it as "... a present far too small."

A present? A present? Can you honestly not tell the difference between a present, a token exchanged between friends, and an offering, a sacrificial presentation with the potential range to include absolutely everything you have? Who gives God presents? (Apart from these guys.) Can you not see what Isaac Watts was trying to say? Can you really not?

Anyhoo. I'm very glad to report that the congregation was far more old school than I would usually have given them credit for and most seemed to sing "offering" too. As it should be.

Present. Honestly!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Crime scene

All entrances to Albert Park sealed off this morning ...

... and lurking beyond the trees we could see men in white boiler suits crawling about on the ground. Probably not the local bowls club.

And here's why, it turns out: reports of a serious sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl around midnight last night; 16-year-old boy in custody.

I don't hold with twaddle about contributory negligence, or the she-was-asking-for-it defence, or no-really-means-yes. If an assault was committed, string the brute up by whatever body parts might have been involved. But I can also think of an absolutely foolproof method that guarantees no 14-year-old girl will ever be assaulted in Albert Park at midnight. See if you can guess what it is.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Comment spam

"I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post."
I shouldn't let it get to me but still I do. Comment spam. WHY??

Courtesy of "Oxygen Plant", the above little gem popped up suddenly in the comments on my recent Wytham Woods post, at the end of a brief exchange on the virtues of the late Robert Holdstock. It's not hard to spot the slightly bogus aura of the safely neutral praise, even for a conversation not about Robert Holdstock. And sure enough a quick Google search on the exact text produces a lot of results.

I have no intention of revealing where Oxygen Plant comes from - you can do your own Googling, if you like - but suffice it to say it really is from an oxygen plant: in fact, according to its site, "a Family owned professionally managed company incorporated in 1963 for manufacturing industrial gases."

So I say again, WHY??

Their chairman "is considered as the pioneer and founder of air separation plant manufacturing in India. All other Companies manufacturing similar products like oxygen plant are using Designs & Technology Pioneered by him."

But despite his obvious business and scientific acuity, he thinks the best way of drumming up business is to spam as many blogs as he can? Does anyone really think, well, I was going to hold fire on ordering that oxygen plant but now, goodness gracious me, I do believe I'll splash out?


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

10% off

Looking for a good read to while away the summer break? The lovely folk at are offering 10% off Jeapes Japes, the collected short works of y.t. with added value editorial. They advise:
"Use coupon code SUMMERREAD305 at checkout and receive 10% off Jeapes Japes. Maximum savings with this promotion is $10. You can only use the code once per account, and you can't use this coupon in combination with other coupon codes."
I have no way of confirming this because self-purchases aren't eligible but I have no reason to doubt it works ...

Monday, June 07, 2010

Ben & the Saint in St Tropez

I have a Google Alert set for my own name (there, I said it) which usually just provides a daily summary of eBay links to my books. Until yesterday:

"They're talking about me in St Tropez?" I thought. Strangely ... no.

What you get is page with the opening blurb from my Wikipedia page (yup, got one of those too) followed by a lot of guff about finding property in St Tropez. You can see from the URL that this is a specific web page named after me. So, someone - or more accurately, I suspect, something - has created it.

I would guess, without too much thought, that a hapless webbot roams Wikipedia, picking out the entries of individual people and creating a St Tropez page for them. At least, that was initial theory. However, that would suggest there must be a lot of them and when I did a web search based on this hunch I could only find one other Wikipedia entry that has had the same treatment:

Yes indeed, if my theory is true then the two people with Wikipedia entries judged most worthy of this treatment by our friend the webbot are Ben Jeapes and the Saint. To be quite honest, the bot may be out of a job soon.

Alternatively, I suppose it could be the work of a fan with similar taste to mine: I mean, I'm a fan of Ben Jeapes and Simon Templar, so why shouldn't someone else be? The test of this theory will be whether pages like this appear dedicated to C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, Miles Vorkosigan, Terry Pratchett, the Doctor, Rumpole ...

I hope it's the George Sanders Saint because he was the best.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Standard of crosswords still quite good, though

Question in today's Times, summarised:
"I just walked in on my 15-year-old son having sex with a girl he barely knows in our living room and I'm not sure how to talk to him about it."
Answer, summarised:
"Look up your local STD clinics and leave a glass jar of loose condoms in the bathroom, topping it up occasionally so you can never really tell if the level goes down."
Did you know the Times was once considered so important to the British way of life that Goebbels ordered a daily translation?