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.