Monday, January 31, 2011

Ground floor: perfumery, stationery and leather goods ...

On Saturday I amazed myself by watching Are You Being Served for the first time in about 30 years, and amazed myself still further by actually quite enjoying it. It was followed by a Making of documentary. Hey, I was ironing and it was a good diversion. It was also interesting to compare what I knew then with what I realise now.

(I often do this. I enjoyed Dad's Army when I was young but I appreciate whole new levels to it now. Like: the Home Guard are inept but no one for a second doubts their courage. Like: the class difference between Wilson and Mainwaring, which the socially superior Wilson doesn't care about at all but the technically superior Mainwaring cares about intensely.)

I think, even when I was young, I understood that Mr Humphries was Not the Marrying Kind. I'm impressed now that although this opened up all kinds of possibilities for innuendo, he could also play the part with dignity and be accepted by all the other characters as an equal. I also hadn't realised he is also one of the two most intelligent, switched-on characters in the show – the other, surprisingly, being Young Mr Grace. (I also got the joke that Young Mr Grace was extremely old and doddery and constantly staring down his nurse's cleavage; I didn't get the fact that he was played with a pronounced nasal London/Yiddish accent and displayed a ruthless business mind beneath the geriatric vagueness.)

I hadn't realised the humour of the firmly defined pecking order in Menswear that went Mr Grainger -> Mr Humphries -> Mr Lucas. Captain Peacock would intercept gentleman customers as they arrived on the floor, then aim them at the appropriate sales assistant based on their perceived spending power. Thus lines like: "Mr Humphries, are you available for a clip-on bowtie?" / "I have never been available for a clip-on bowtie ..."

Strangely there wasn't anything about Mrs Slocombe's feline companion. Maybe it wasn't such a running joke as I remember.

In this episode the staff had been disciplined by Young Mr Grace for some reason – I didn't quite catch the beginning – and made to spend the day in the Toy department instead of Clothing. This not only led to jokes about Mr Humphries' Wibbly-Wobblys but was a fantastic nostalgiafest for 1970s non-electronic, pre-computing kids' games. It ended with all being forgiven and even Young Mr Grace joining in with playing with the railway set. It was really quite sweet.

I was pleasantly surprised but I don't think I'll be buying any DVD sets to catch up. As I say, first time in 30 years, and once every three decades is probably about right.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve just finished reading a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson by Claire Harman. Hmm. Interesting man, interesting life.

It’s also interesting to compare the life of a writer then and now – the similarities and the differences. The similarities: you can work for 10 or 20 years to be an overnight success. Stevenson was made famous by Treasure Island, and then went stellar with Jekyll & Hyde, but he had been writing for over 10 years when Treasure Island was written for serialisation in a magazine, earning a decent wage for a while but not creating much of a splash. It then sat in a drawer for two years until a friend had the idea of pushing it as a book to a publisher. Yup, I can sympathise with that.

The differences: the fact that Jekyll & Hyde could sell 40,000 copies in the UK, which Stevenson knew about, and 250,000 in the US (some legal, some pirated) which he didn’t. Copyright and IP wasn’t quite as vigorous then as now. And the whole publishing world was so much smaller. You get the feeling that it was like science fiction used to be in, say, the 50s – small enough that, in principle, you could read everything that was written.

Another difference, though: any successful author that I know today is organised, plans their plots, pays their tax and national insurance on time, and above all is disciplined in the writing. Stevenson was certainly a disciplined writer, but as for everything else he was vague, woolly minded, useless with money, constantly overflowing with noble dreams and projects which withered on the vine before he had got the first paragraph down. But for a few lucky breaks and an undeniable talent once he actually got writing, he would have been forgotten as yet another wealthy dilettante. This is probably why I would want to slap him if I had ever met him – except that I wouldn’t, because I’m nice and because one good blow would probably have killed him.

I frankly find it amazing that heroes such as Jim Hawkins and David Balfour – steadfast, brave, reliable, exemplary role models of integrity – could be created by someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, who wasn’t any of the above. It shows he was at least aware of the desirability of these virtues. Stevenson was the only son of a successful Scottish engineer, who was the wealthy head of a family firm that specialised in building lighthouses. His general uselessness at related subjects like maths made it clear to everyone, even eventually his reluctant father, that he wouldn’t be following the family trade, so instead he trained as a lawyer, in which after qualifying as an advocate he handled precisely one case, which didn’t even require him to speak and yet he still managed to bungle. The only interest he ever had was in being as writer and that was what he stuck at, living off his parents until eventually he got lucky.

Note that I do not criticise him for being useless at maths and physics, or not being a good lawyer, or even not following in his father’s trade. I do however get immensely fed up with the sense of entitlement shared by Stevenson and far too many wannabe writers that because they are clearly meant to be a writer, the world owes them a favour until such time as the fame kicks in. Like 'eck it does. Get a job, you sponger. There is a poetic justice in that just as he got rich, he started having to support his own generation of parasites – mad wife, lazy stepson, not much less lazy stepdaughter and alcoholic stepson-in-law. Still, at his death he was probably the best known and best selling writer in the world, and to many was considered the best writer, period. That’s quite a hat trick.

To be fair, one thing against his ever settling down and earning a living –had he been so inclined – was that he had to travel constantly to stay alive. He was never well; in fact it’s astonishing that he made it through childhood, where received wisdom was to make a child’s room as hermetically airless as possible, and his mad Scottish nurse filled his head with Wee Free guilt and terrors, and then when this already highly strung child couldn’t sleep would dose him with strong coffee.

By the time he reached adulthood the cold and damp of Edinburgh was killing him. A pattern for over thirty years was that he would leave for a dryer climate, get better, return to Edinburgh and have a relapse. He was only ever really healthy when he settled in the South Pacific in the last ten years of his life, and that is when his life really gets interesting. I find it fascinating that he lived at a time when the world was mostly at peace and a well-off Victorian gentleman could go pretty well anywhere he liked. It is also amazing that in the 1880s and 90s there was already enough of a global communications network that a man could settle in Samoa and conduct a successful literary life, living off the earnings he was making in Europe and America. However, it was a one-way process as he lagged a long way behind what other writers were doing. It meant he was writing into a vacuum and it probably wouldn’t have worked at all if he didn’t have a loyal contingent of friends back home seeing that his stuff got into print. He could fire off manuscripts of all shapes and sizes and subjects with a reasonable expectation that they would still get into print regardless. (Another difference with today’s writers …) Inevitably he became more and more isolated from the contemporary writing scene and it is interesting to speculate whether he could have stayed quite so successful without suddenly dying at the age of 44 and making the matter academic. By the time he was my age, he had been dead for two years.

I must read Weir of Hermiston, which apparently ends mid-sentence because that’s where he put his pen down to take a break on the day he died.

The character I find most admirable in his story is his mother, Margaret. After her husband died when she was in her late fifties, this respectable Edinburgh widow decided to take an extended holiday with her son and his family across the US and then on a yachting cruise around the Pacific. In fact, she liked it so much that she then decided to move fulltime to Samoa. With her piano. Still a respectable widow throughout, photographs show her dressed and looking a bit like Queen Victoria, complete with starched widow’s cap. Go girl!

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Bens 2011

Your admirable patience since this time last year is rewarded. The Bens are in for the best movies watched by me in 2010. That is the sole criterion for consideration, so even quite old movies can be up for awards. Remember, it's now what it's about, it's how it's about it.

So ...

Best movie shortlist
Winner: Toy Story 3

Judge's Comments: a very strong choice of movies that were well made, well produced, well acted and (crucially) in which I had no idea where they might be going. For instance: movies where it is not a given that the hero(es) will survive. But in the end it had to be Toy Story 3. How many of these would I get on DVD and re-watch? Exactly.

Best actor shortlist:
Winner: Lotso Hugs

Judge's comments: Lotso wins because, despite the handicap of being a CGI animation with no actual physical form, from the moment he appears he manages to come across as genial and friendly and slightly creepy and threatening, all of which he in fact is. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets an honorable mention for so spectacularly not being the Operative from Serenity in his portrayal of a transvestite club singer. And his songs are pretty darn toe-tapping.

Best SF short list
Winner: Moon

Judge's Comments: Not such a strong list of contenders, frankly. Moon would have stood out in any year but neither of the other two really deserve an urgent repeat viewing. Very cleverly done, yes, but ... but. Moon however has a standout performance by one actor playing two men, and an old-school approach to practical, model-based special effects that is a huge relief after endless vistas of CGI.

Best thriller shortlist
Winner: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Judge's Comments: Another clutch of well-made movies where you really didn't know what was going to happen or who would live and die. The Girl has to waltz off with the prize, however. What else could you do with a movie where the lead character has her probation officer tied up naked, is forcing objects inside him via the bodily orifice that isn't the mouth, forcing him to watch a video of him raping her so she can blackmail him into releasing her from probation ... and that's just character background?

Best paranoid conspiracy theory
Winner: Defence of the Realm

Judge's Comments: The judges surprise themselves on this one, expecting The Ghost to be the shoe-in due to its topicality and dislike of Tony Blair. Defence of the Realm came up from behind. It was made in the eighties, which only occasionally shows, but is still just as taut and unexpected as, say, State of Play. In fact, without Defence of the Realm there might have been no State of Play. Or indeed The Ghost.

Best Swedish Film
Winner: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Judge's Comments: Okay, so the field was limited to two choices anyway - but even so. See comments above about the winner. Arn suffered a little from trying to compress a quite long trilogy into one 2 hour movie and from a certain Swedishness along the lines of: "oh look, something exciting is happening over there / has just happened here." Mind you, I was at school with one of the villains which gives it a notch up.

Best comedy
Winner: The Big Lebowski

Judge's Comments: Ooh, this was a hard one. The Big Lebowski scrapes it, just, but a very honorable mention to Tamara Drewe, not least for all the writer jokes.

And finally, some one-offs - categories of one which still deserve a mention because that single category was so noticeable.

Best facial hair
This movies features players like Longstreet, Lee, Chamberlain, Armistead and Pickett, so the facial hair was always going to be key. As it turns out, their beards and whiskers were present at one of the most important battles of modern history and prove well up to the challenge.

Worst waste of Bill Nighy
Bill Nighy as a hitman. So much promise ...

Best use of a screen legend
Michael Caine continues to prove that his one-style-fits-all acting method really does fit all. The man is a marvel.

Until next year, then!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Read and watched in 2010

For personal record only. Further analysis may or may not happen.


Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Windows wow, Macs meh

First day back at work = first time in nearly a fortnight of having to sit and stare at this lump of obstructive machinery perched on my desk in front of me, otherwise known as an Apple Mac Pro 3.1. Mac OS X Version 10.5.8; processor 2.8Ghz Quad-Core Intel Xeon; Memory 4 GB 800 MHz DDR2 FB-DIMM. Apparently.

All kinds of wibble is spoken by either side in the endless Windows vs Mac debate. The Mac camp generally plug for assertions of superior technology, easier troubleshooting, better software ...

Let me state my definitive case on this.


One thing and one thing only am I interested in where computers are concerned: how they arrange their files, and how they let me interface with them. Two things only am I concerned with. How they actually achieve this is of the sublimest indifference. I have stated before that 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. I consider the possibility my computer is so energy-inefficient that an entire parallel universe might suffer heat death just to supply the power for a game of Minesweeper, and the ennui overpowers me. If it does what I want, when I want it, that’s good enough for me.

I am remarkably consistent in my views, might I add, because I used to think Macs were better – back in the days of DOS and then Windows 3.1. This is hardly a meaningful statement because throwing darts at the keyboard across the room was a better way of interfacing with the computer than Windows 3.1 allowed, but I do want to emphasise the consistency of my philosophy. I’m not grinding a technological axe here, folk.

So here is why, in their current incarnations, Macs fail and Windowses win.

1. The desktop ornament has no hash key. Let me repeat that. The desktop ornament has no hash key. Having repeated, let me rephrase that. The stupid pile of overrated junk lacks one of the most common symbols required for HTML coding. It’s not quite like leaving the letter ‘e’ off the keyboard but it’s pretty similar to leaving out the ‘r’s or ‘n’s.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, you get a # by pressing ALT+3. Hardly intuitive.

2. Minimising applications. I gladly admit that a strength of the Mac is the ability to minimise all open applications with a simply keystroke, specifically F11. Windows could well do with this. However, Macs then go and blow this advantage by having all the applications pop back into view when you select just one of them, missing the point that you actually had a reason for choosing to minimise them all in the first place. I wonder what it could have been?

3. CMD/CTRL + TAB. Related to (2), Macs nicked the Windows shortcut of cycling through minimised applications by pressing CMD+TAB. Except that once again they singularly miss the point of what the user is trying to achieve. The chosen application comes back to the front, i.e. the menu bar in the top left of the screen now relates to that application. But the open window of that application stays resolutely minimised, requiring you to click on it with the mouse anyway, missing the point of a freakin’ keyboard shortcut, you morons.

A Macficionado once tried to explain to me how I could recreate this Windows effect using Spaces - in other words, jump through one extra hoop to get what I can already do in Windows because the system is helpfully designed that way.

4. The inexplicable hang-ups. Even when running a native Mac app, the thing can inexplicably freeze for a few seconds, then remember that it has a fuming user sitting not too far away who is entertaining thoughts of what he could usefully do with a pickaxe, so decide to show a pretty coloured spinning wheel to defuse the situation while it tries to remember what it was doing. Mac software runs more quickly? My nads it does.

5. File selection. Windows and Macs both allow you to choose different icon styles when looking at a folder: small, big, thumbnail etc. But only Windows allows you to select multiple files with a single sweep of the mouse regardless of the icon view.

Let me turn to C.S. Lewis here, possibly for the first time ever in this particular debate. He commented that when he was small he liked lemonade but disliked wine; as an adult, he liked both wine and lemonade. Therefore the growing up has enriched him with an additional experience. He would be impoverished by adulthood if he now liked wine but disliked lemonade, keeping the net total of likes at one.

If Windows lets you do two things, and Macs only one, the superiority or otherwise of the underlying technology is irrelevant. Windows is better. It’s simple maths.

6. Folder listing. Related to 5: Windows and Macs list the contents of folders alphabetically (or by size, or by type etc.) In the alfy view, however, Windows lists first the folders, then the files. Macs list the whole lot in simple alfy order.

It is likely that I might select multiple files to copy/move/whatever. How likely is it that I might select a mixture of files and folders? The answer you’re looking for (hint) is ‘unlikely’. The Windows way of doing it is more helpful.

7. Shortcuts. In Windows, the pop-up menu buttons often have shortcut keys associated with them: rather than click on ‘Save’ or ‘Discard’ you can just hit S or D. On a Mac you have to move the mouse. Again I invoke C.S. Lewis. Windows lets you do more things, more easily, therefore is better.

8. Menu bars. I won’t go into the plusses and minuses of a menu bar that stays in one place as opposed to a menu bar for each open window. I suppose they both have their points. But guess which one I prefer and which one I find prissy and didactic.

So there you have it. A definitive set of arguments that will surely settle this old chestnut once and for all and bring the Applistas defecting over in flocks. Y’know, I might have brought down a mighty empire today. I feel pretty good about that.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Empire of the Clouds

One of the joys of my particular childhood was that where some kids get dragged out to the park or the common on a Sunday afternoon, we got drug to the SAS training ground at Pontrilas, just down the road from Hereford. I could scavenge the derelict buildings for the plasticine left over from the boys' plastic explosive training; sometimes I might even get to shoot a gun; and there were a Vampire jet fighter and a Canberra bomber, both there for the boys to practice blowing up. They obviously weren't very good at it, or else just shouted "BANG!" at the right moment because either way the planes were resolutely still there every time we visited. The Canberra was either sealed up or else the entrance was just too high up for a small boy to get into, but the Vampire was easily accessible so at a moment's notice I could become Scott Tracy or a fearless starfighter pilot or whatever I wanted.

(This was also probably where I learnt the word "Vampire". Also probably the word "Canberra", but that one hasn't really entered the mythology in the same way.)

All brought back to mind by reading the wonderful Empire of the Clouds by James Hamilton-Paterson: an unashamedly boy-geek book about Britain's post-war aircraft industry, and why for a while we were producing the best (or at least most promising) aircraft in the world, and how it came to pass that nowadays we singularly don't. It was a different age. A plane could disintegrate at the Farnborough airshow, killing both pilots and 27 spectators, and the programme would carry on with the pilot of the next plane up simply being advised to keep to the right to avoid the wreckage on the runway. The test pilots of the Comet knew when they had hit a certain speed because the external skin flexed with a particular banging sound - only later did it occur to them that this might mean the construction was quite flimsy. The mustn't grumble/austerity way of life that had been perfected during WW2 carried on into peacetime and meant people could get away with risks and lifestyles that nowadays would get the entire fleet grounded. Unfortunately this attitude cut both ways, with the recommendations or outright pleas of experienced pilots being overruled by arrogant and complacent management who just expected them to get on with their job. The chief test pilot of Gloster, a decorated war hero and ipso facto one of the most important jet pilots in the world, was on a salary of £1500 - which translates to about £20k today.

And the politicians really didn't help. For not very long in the fifties, but for just long enough to be truly suicidal, official policy was that the days of the fighter were over and from now on it was all guided missiles. The Fairey Delta, a truly world-beating fighter craft, was commissioned by the UK government, but new rules about supersonic overflight of populated areas meant it couldn't be tested in the UK. Also, the government refused to pay for damage caused by sonic bangs and no UK insurance company would touch the matter. So, the head of Dassault invited the Brits over to France to test the plane there, and also put them in touch with a French insurance company that would cover the entire test for £40. The Fairey Delta was to fall by the wayside while Dassault was to produce the highly successful Mirage - which looked astonishingly similar, but to be fair that's probably convergent evolution at work.

To be even fairer the author tries to show both sides of the coin. The cancellation of the TSR.2 was something that still causes people of a certain generation to spit out bits of ground glass, and was part of a Night of the Long Knives defence cut by Denis Healey that closed down four projects and ultimately left the RAF having to borrow fighters off the navy. And yet, the book does give the other picture - the reasons why the projects had to be shut down, which might have been inevitable but not necessarily with the same crass insensitivity.

History repeats itself in so many ways ...

I think much of what the book describes was inevitable. The WW2 culture of dozens of companies turning out dozens of designs was never going to last long - too expensive, too inefficient. As planes get faster and faster, face it, they do all start to look astonishingly similar, so the wonderfully varied Thunderbirds-type future of my childhood dreams was doomed from a very early age. This book is still required reading for what was, what might have been, and what wasn't.

Occasional recipes: Spicy bacon and pepper pasta

This comes to you courtesy of Ready Steady Cook and is what we had on Christmas Eve. The original plan was to have a suitably Scandinavian ham-based Yule feast, until we saw the price of ham. Bacon is equally pig-derived and a lot cheaper.

The original recipe is for 1, so scale up according to the number of diners. Lifted verbatim from the BBC:
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • ¼ leek, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 150g fresh pasta, cooked according to packet instructions (We went for tagliatelle.)
  • handful basil, chopped
Fry the bacon in the oil. (Opinion varies in our household over this, one member maintaining that when you fry bacon its own fat is all the oil you need. The other, i.e. me and the one doing the cooking, maintains that a bit of olive oil will liven anything. So anyway.)

Add everything else and cook for a few minutes, then stir in the cooked pasta and basil and serve. Simple! The red pepper makes the whole thing exactly moist enough, and the colours - red pepper, green basil, white pasta - make the whole thing look good and Christmassy. This was an unintended effect but still a good one.