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 ...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Turkish delight (well, what else could I call this post?)

The Vampire Plagues has arrived in Turkey, or at least London, the first volume has. As you can see it continues the totally not being Twilight in any way shape or form vibe. I don't know whether "Vampir Alacakaranligi" means either "Vampire Plagues" or "Vampire Dusk" but I do know it's not something to say lightly.

In fact a lot of Turkish seems to be made up of words that people forgot to stop spelling. Give or take an accent or two, "Jack Harkett lurked beside a pile of weathered tea crates from a Calcutta merchant ship" comes out as "Jack Harkett, Kalka’dan gelen bir ticaret gemisinden indirilen günes ve rüzgârdan yipranmis çay kasalarinin olusturdugu bir yiginin yaninda salaniyordu". And boutros boutros to you, too. "Goodbye, Father" is (rather sweetly) "Güle güle, baba". I'm very pleased with myself for tracking down a line in the mass of Turkish text without reference to the English at all: "Limon yemek istiyormus da limon onu yemis gibi görünüyor" ("She looks like she wanted to suck a lemon, only it sucked her instead".)

One day - one day, I promise - I will use my Swedish copy of Vampyrguden as a Rosetta Stone for learning my wife's mother tongue. Learning Turkish, for the time being, goes on the back burner.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cathedral no. 3 and Mosque no. 1

Once upon a time I had an interview at Warwick University - which turned out quite well - which meant having to spend the previous night in Coventry. So I had an evening in a new town to myself, and did some wandering around, and came across the two cathedrals - the gleaming new post-war barn and the stone skeleton of the old one next to it, burned out by Luftwaffe incendiary bombs. And as I learned the story of the new cathedral, and how German volunteers helped with the work and how it has developed a worldwide ministry of reconciliation, I fell in love with it and decided I simply had to write a story about it.

It took a few years - had to become a writer, first - but I did write it, and it was awful, thrumming with love and Christianity and general goodness, and for sheer ickiness it broke all known records. Fortunately I could tell it icked and sat on it.

Many years after that, by a miracle, good friend Gus Smith (who writes as Gus Grenfell) suggested a way it could be de-icked, at least a little, and I’m eternally grateful to him for the suggestion, which a character takes up in the last few paragraphs. In fact I would go so far as to say atheist Gus (albeit with a Methodist minister father) came up with a much more Christian solution than I was managing: I love these little ironies. Residual ick may lurk in some sentences but overall it is much, much stronger than it used to be. The story finally got written, and published in Interzone, where it came 46th= in the annual readers’ poll, but what do they know? I called it "Cathedral No. 3", unaware (after three years living in Coventry) that in actual historical fact any new cathedral would be cathedral no. 4.

All this brought to mind by the move afoot in New York to build a mosque near to the Ground Zero site. "Near" is a relative term: one of the comments over at Making Light's take on the story reminds us that in a city anywhere is "near" somewhere else.

Not dismissing for one second the pain felt by those who lost loved ones on 9/11, it's this kind of spirit that always lets society move on and improve upon the past. Whenever dictatorships are replaced with stable democracies, or people of different races accept integration as the norm, or no one cares any longer if you're Protestant or Catholic, it's because people let go of the hurt. Or, failing that, just shut up and don't talk about it and go to their graves bitter and wizened but they keep it to themselves and the poison doesn't leak out into a new generation.

I think a mosque near Ground Zero would be a jolly good idea.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New computer

Is black and shiny. Lots of RAM. Is Windows 7. Is not a Mac. All these good.

It's been nearly 10 years since the last completely new computer, and that was bargain basement stuff that ran on Windows ME and got updated to Windows 2000 as soon as decently possible. For the last four years I've been using a secondhand Windows XP PC, which was the bee's knees when it arrived but since then the bee has grown steadily more arthritic. Upgrading is always at least mildly fraught and in this case it was hanging over me throughout our trip in Sweden, due to the computer arriving the day before we left.

In fact, it's been possibly the most minimally fraught upgrade yet. Everything important has been installed, a few little-used programs remaining to be added when and as. Documents, photos and music backups all just fell into place (even if I did have to reinstate the playlists manually in iTunes, as it couldn't read the library file "because it was created by an earlier version of iTunes". Well of course it was, you fool; you're the one asking me to upgrade by a decimal point every couple of weeks ...). Unlike the old machine, the new (22") screen can display a double page spread in InDesign CS4 of the Delightfully Dotty Car Club magazine that I design and edit, with fully legible text rather than grey blurs. I looked at the spread and felt that warm glow within that says there may be trouble ahead but it's dealable with; the worst is over. That was the primary objective: everything else is gravy.

I like the design of the interface. Of course, "pretty" <> necessarily "more functional" - the TARDIS console can't really travel in time, you know - and the computer would work equally well if the tops of the windows were solid and opaque so you can't see the desktop behind them, and if the close and minimise buttons didn't glow slightly as if lit from within - but it ties in well with what the machine actually does. For the first time ever I am forced to use the words "nice piece of design" in the context of Windows.

This is Windows, though, so obviously it can't do everything perfectly. It finds new ways to insist on being helpful: like when you call up Task Manager to kill a frozen programme (it still happens), it tries to diagnose the fault after you have told it you just want it to drop the programme where it is and walk away. It also keeps asking permission to install stuff, or rather, to make changes to the hard disk. Oh, come on! When did you ever ask that before? And when did I ever say no?

I've had to say goodbye to some old friends which are no longer compatible on a 64-bit system. My Windows Cardfile address book, which has been with me ever since Windows 3.1, couldn't hack the new oxygen-rich atmosphere and so perished. All the data was backed up and has been copied into Google Mail contacts, but even so. The principle. And some long cherished games have gone the way of all things, but I hadn't actually played any for a long time. They were just junk on the mantlepiece, tedious stuff that you have to move and dust around and never use but you don't throw them out because they're there.

I have previously ranted about Office 2007, and just because Office 2010 is three years older, don't think that changes anything. However, after careful consideration it didn't really seem uninstalling it just so I could install my comfortable familiar copy of Word 2000 (which came with the ME machine, if I remember correctly). Into every life a little clunky software must fall.

Further fraughtnesses arose in finding that I hadn't put the installation disc for the old Actiontec wireless router with all the other disks, and anyway the router was't compatible due to its desire to connect to the main computer by USB. The new router from Virgin (also shiny, also black) has two aerials and WPA2 encryption and four ethernet ports: in fact everything is done by ethernet rather than trying to be clever with USB ports. All of these are good things too. During the installation process, run off an .exe file rather than an .html file as advised in the documentation, I only had to guess (not being told) that I had to turn the modem off and on again twice.

Round about now someone always starts trying to extol the virtues of Macs or Linux because "they just work" or "they're modern technology" or some other equally vapid reason. What these people never get - are incapable of getting - is I don't care how it works. I don't care if a little goblin climbs up behind the screen every time I press a key and inks in my chosen letter (in reverse writing, obviously) on the glass while another follows behind it colouring in the pictures. And I don't care if this process is inevitably fatal, like a bee stinging, so that having performed this task the goblin then falls to its death and is blown away by the internal fan. It does what I want, when I want it.

So, looking forward to what 2020 might bring ...

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The murders are all in Ystad so it's quite safe

For anyone googling "good places to eat in Gothenberg", we recommend the Cafe Caprese on Kungsgatan. For anyone googling "places to stay in Gothenberg", the answer is the Best Western Hotell Göteborg. It's reasonably priced, clean and friendly, right on the waterfront and (most of) the rooms have astonishing views over the harbour. Bonusbarn's didn't but who cares, he was only there one night. We were there for four.

Last year it became clear that our annual in-law viewing pilgrimage to Sweden was approaching crisis point. My father-in-law was getting more and more frail, imposing social obligations upon himself that he was unable to meet, and we had seen every single thing worth seeing within a daytrip at least once before. Bonusbarn was on the point of open rebellion. So, this year it was different. First a brief, flying visit to the relatives, and as my father-in-law now lives in sheltered accommodation we stayed in my sister-in-law's apartment. TV! Internet! Water straight from the mains, not from a well and so laced with iron it tastes like blood! No sign of a mouse dropping anywhere near a food preparation area! (Or indeed, before my sister-in-law screams and comes over to kill me, anywhere else either.)

And then we went to stay in Gothenburg. I've only caught glimpses of this before now, en route to and from the airport. It looked like an exciting, historic, European town with a harbour and trams and long boulevards and wide, cobbled squares. And guess what, it's all of those.

The squares are ideal for sitting in and partaking of coffee and sweet cardamom buns while you engage in a text conversation with your mother back in England. This being the southern end of Sweden, the ground is mostly successful at being completely flat, but here and there are outcroppings of smooth rock left behind by the glaciers. There's no doing anything with them except living with them, so they got built around or onto or into. So, you may turn a corner off a boulevard and suddenly find yourself facing a sheer rock face, or a ramp, or a vertiginous little stairway that goes up or down to somewhere, adding exciting new and random elements to your day. Meanwhile the whole city sparkles in the sunshine - in fact, weather was quite unreasonably good for somewhere the latitude of Inverness. Short sleeves every day, short trousers most days, every meal and snack other than breakfast was eaten outside somewhere. The first drops of rain fell literally as we got off the bus at the airport, which I think is good Swedish courtesy to a T.

The harbour is in fact just a wide river, broad and sweeping and a beautiful thing to behold from ground level or a fifth floor hotel room or from the top of one of the aforesaid outcroppings.

From our room we could look right to the historic bit, or left to a still fully functioning modern shipyard.

For the culture, And There Was Light is a highly recommended experience, should it come to a city anywhere near you - a hightech, multimedia exhibition about Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael, put into the context of the times and politics of Rome and Florence and Milan: the things they did, the ways they overlapped. I had never realised, until seeing a lifesize replica (still haven't seen the original), why Michelangelo's David stands as he does in that slightly poncy pose. His left hand is holding his sling and his right hand, which you can't really see from the front, is holding the stone with which he's about to zot Goliath. He stands like that because he is thoughtfully sizing up Goliath across the valley, or possibly thinking "crikey, are other blokes' all that big?"

(Un)fortunately a ticket into And There Was Light also gets you into the maritime museum, the city museum, the art museum ... we were pretty well museumed by the end of it. Even before getting to Gothenburg, we passed through the Aeroseum, an airforce museum inside an old nuclear bunker next to the City Airport. I got to sit in a Saab Draken.

On the harbour front there is also the Maritiman, a static display of ships that you can walk around and clamber over and explore. These include a destroyer (I much prefer the Swedish term "Jagaren" - Hunter!) and a Draken class submarine. So I did a lot of Drakening, one way or another.

For those of a more traditional bent, this chap was moored opposite the hotel ...

... A genuine reproduction East Indiaman. So, from now on, whenever CS Forester or Patrick O'Brien mentions an East Indiaman, I'll know what they're on about.

I love Gothenburg and want to go back. Next year, the coast and islands ...

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Randomly seen in Sweden

Well, it says it like it is.

One church has a particular missionary focus on Japan. Here is one of its mission tools for younger readers.

This advert for a conference organiser translates as: "Mummy has gone to a conference where she can eat as much popcorn and icecream as she likes".

This restaurant could have put anything it liked on its wall ... so naturally it chose the Fibonacci sequence.

And finally: snigger.