Friday, January 30, 2004


Roads now mostly clear - only the first couple of hundred yards through the village, and the approach to the car-park at work are still skating rinks, snow pounded to ice, and shaded so that yesterday's bright sun had no effect. I'm glad in a way that on Monday, having to pass an oncoming bus on a very narrow strip of road that I damaged my nearside front tyre enough that I needed to replace it - that and the one that was getting down to the worn out stage replaced, I now have two new tyres on my drive wheels, which is very reassuring in these conditions.

The ice/frozen slush is an inch thick on the pond - so I've had to saw it (a folding pruning saw does very nicely) rather than doing the usual saucepan of hot water to melt an air hole. Wet windy and mild - more Mediterranean conditions - forecast; and it's already overcast in anticipation.

Thursday, January 29, 2004


It was a re-run. What the Met Office forecast as showers turned into a blizzard - so when told by my boss to go home, I did, and the snow was pelting down so hard that I had to have the wipers on full to keep the screen clear. Even clearing the windows before getting in was a bit of a Forth Bridge job.

It took an hour including one false start and loop-around to avoid a road closed by some possible accident. On the main A road, there were a couple of miles where there was nothing else going my way, which was eerie.

Unfortunately it was by then the wrong A road for the main-road route, so I had to make a right turn into country lanes across the traffic fleeing Cambridge, and then crawling over the ups and downs around the Bourne Brook, and the threat of an unwanted tobogganing moment on a down-hill. Not helped when at the top of the descent, I could see a Merc fishtailing at the bottom, when I was wanting to be using that bit of the road in a minute. And each time the chap ahead of me signalled he had reached his own drive, someone else would join the road ahead of me.

Fortunately when I had to cross the next A road, the stream out of Cambridge had left a nice gap that I could slide through; and when I got home, to a power cut, power came on shortly thereafter - and after another couple of minute long blackouts - remained stable from the time it got really dark.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

End of an era

After almost 4 years, and almost daily use, the bread making machine we bought spring '00 - or at least the motor that drives the kneading paddle - packed up. At a marginal cost of somewhere between 5p and 10p per loaf, that still works out pretty economical. Time for an upgrade, with an automatic raisin dispenser (rather than a beep to say "throw the lumps in now"), I think.


The threatened arrival of winter finally happened. A couple of inches of snow fell overnight, melting and refreezing on the car, but being barely rigid not-quite-slush on tne pond. As soon as I got on to the main road out of the village, the roads were clear, but I took the long way round by the 'A' roads, just to be sure. With the usual slight haze over snow, the horizon was pink all the way round, until the sun finally showed at a little before 08:00 (mornings haven't improved anywhere near as much as evenings, with sunset yesterday at 16:36, almost an hour better than the worst).

The clear roads are certainly a contrast to the snowfall a year ago that started during the day, and left all the roads deeply covered - even the main roads were packed snow, with crawling bumper-to-bumper traffic. That time I took the country route home - early - so as to be travelling against the main flow, and only having to worry about whether I'd be able to get up some of the slopes. More snow is forecast for this afternoon, so I hope it's not a re-run.

Monday, January 26, 2004

These Foolish Things…

Talking to friends with children over the weekend, a few snippets stuck in the mind.

Their daughter is nearly 11, and now, being tall and lanky, takes adult size 8 clothes. Child-size clothes were enough of a trial, trying to find ones that are fashionable (i.e. acceptable to the wearer) without looking like a junior trollop outfit. Outfits aimed at teens seem almost entirely to be aimed at the child prostitute demographic.

I wax nostalgic for the days when, if you could read what someone was wearing, that someone was a geek with an obscure T-shirt slogan, rather than everyone who's so much a fashion victim that they consider shopping at French Connection.

Aside from the problems of outfitting a girl of her age without essentially hanging a sign reading "jailbait" around her neck, conversation turned to comics - fond memories (by the blokes, at least) of things like The Trigan Empire in Look and Learn (which spanned enough of a time to be common to the girl's father at 40 and myself at 46), along with others which didn't. And given the pleasure of such memories - and of hunting down fan-sites to feed the nostalgia, prompted the question of how to provide such things for the next generation.

So what do you give an extremely bright 11-year old girl with the social problems from Asperger's to read as a comic - especially given the constraint that it has to have a female lead character, as that's something she's very sensitive to at her age? There is no lack of strong female characters - but not so in stuff suitable for that age group. It's not as if they are all inherently aimed at teenage males - Promethea, being an example. About the best I could come up with would be a careful selection of shoujo manga - but many of the translations of those sell to middle aged men who don't mind reading a book that reads "backwards", the layout having been left un-flopped from the Japanese.

Senior Moments

After a break of some weeks, cycling into town both days left my leg muscles complaining at the unexpected use.

The reason for cycling in on Sunday was to go to the eye test appointment I'd set up the previous day, and here other muscles were being called into question. After the nurse had done the peripheral vision and internal pressure tests, I was handed over to a youngish guy who was the optometrist. He took one look at my date of birth, and prescribed reading glasses. Then he started the measurements.

I still tested out with (at least - they never bother to push the limits of what I can read on the little letters) 20/17 vision - and though I now notice a perceptible fraction of a second's accommodation if I'm looking at stuff closer than 20cm, I had no problem with even the smallest text presented in the near vision test. Sure, a magnifying lens meant that I don't have to do any accommodation - but I'd rather keep the muscles in use while I can, rather than letting them get flabby.

The only time recently I've thought my sight may not be as keen as once it was was trying to read the best-before year on a jar of paté - the year printed as a block about 3mmx1.2mm white on black closely kerned text which made telling 2006 from 2008 a little tricky.

Saturday, January 24, 2004


Standing in Borders today, looking at the World Cinema shelves - wondering whether either of Diva or Mamoru (gratuitous basset-hound scene) Oshii's Avalon were in stock, and not yet turning to the next shelf with the anime, when a young chap - early teens - asked me "Where do they keep the manga?", with the expectation that I'd understand the question and know the answer. And he was right...

Book — Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Just finished Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. If you liked Cryptonomicon, then this distant prequel is for you (run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore). If you thought that Cryptonomicon was too long, then the new one [at 900+ pages and still only part one of his Baroque Cycle] has a ready response - the introduction points at Churchill's history of the period, with the suggestion that those who think that Stephenson is too prolix should simply weigh the history.

And I'm certain that it's the same Enoch Root as in the previous book.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Book — Heirs of Earth by Dix & Williams

Spent yesterday evening reading Dix & Williams' Heirs of Earth, wrapping up their trilogy of the same name. It was enjoyable hokum, rather than great literature, and managed to avoid getting to close to the flame, as 'twere, when dealing with transhuman level entities.

The main thing to take away from this is that if even pulp-level sci-fi these days can face up to the no longer so new paradigms (getting on for 20 years old since Vinge's big splash in Marooned in RealTime), why do we get so many rebadged Ruritanian Romance or Napoleonic Naval SF novels, especially ones that get to win Hugos.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Theatre — His Dark Materials Part 2

This week, part 2 of His Dark Materials. Quite as well staged as the first half, and completely excising the whole wheelie-world digression - frankly, while Pullman is not at the JK Rowling extreme of Harry Potter and the Desperate Need of an Editor, the prolixity of The Amber Spyglass approached that modern nadir, the popular author's work being sacrosanct.

This made the latter half much better on the stage than in the books - though of course it was still shackled to the same safe moralistic outcome, for all the flim-flam sure-to-shock Republic of Heaven stuff, and ignoring the fact that in all the alternate worlds in its universe of discourse, what could be made once - the gate-cutting knife - could be made again, and again, and again.

Overall, better than the books, nice to watch, pity about the fact that the storyline can't sustain its daring all the way through.

TV Suicide

I really cannot begin to recount my disgust with the TV licensing people.

Their "we notice you don't have a TV license" letters may have moderated somewhat over the last decade, and no longer start with quite such a "pay up now you guilty cheating scum!" introduction as they used, but their advertising makes up for that. Last night, on the way into and out of London, I noticed many bus shelters with posters with such slogans as "Buy one or get done", and asserting that there were two choices - buy a license or face a court appearance.

Note the lack of consideration that there is a third option - no TV.

Actually, they seem to be all bark and no bite. Over the Yuletide holidays, we received another of the every 18 months or so letter saying we ought pay up, and they'll be sending someone around to check. No-one called while I was in last time, and so far no-one this time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Nature Notes

The last couple of evenings, it's been "dodge the muntjac" time on the journey home; while during the days, in a most precocious sign of spring, the hares have been bounding around in the car-park below my office window.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Theatre — His Dark Materials Part 1

Went down to London on Saturday, to see the first half of the production of His Dark Materials at the NT's Olivier stage. Very well produced, and making such continuous use of the drum stage to achieve frequent fluid scene changes that I can't see it transferring well to anything other than a minimalist, almost-no-props version in a less equipped theatre. Especially, they get the daemons down just right, with some very clever and effective puppetry.

The play has so far worked through the books in rough order - though cutting out a lot of the boring bits (Will Parry's moping, which especially annoyed me in the books, compared with can-do Lyra; and so far, it seems, the astrophysicist/dark matter thread which also put the latter parts of the sequence on rocky ground for me) - and bringing an amber spyglass into the hands of the witches almost as soon as they appeared.

Next week, part 2, which is only being done as an evening performance, while part 1 is always a matinée.

Of course it's not much good recommending this production as it's now sold out to the end of its run...

The new Jubilee footbridge from Embankment was very convenient - but has succumbed to the temptation of providing disabled access by lift, like on the Millennium Bridge. The lift there has never worked; and the one at the Embankment end was out of service when we returned. Similar disabled access screwups happened at the NT - to access the cloakroom and disabled toilets on level 1.5, there's a staff operated wheelchair lift up a shallow flight of stairs, which also failed to function.

When will people learn that ramps aren't subject to such mechanical failure?

Friday, January 09, 2004

A shiny night…

Early up today, and light pouring in through the bathroom windows. Go downstairs to let all the cats in; a rush of dark shapes in the moonlight surging across the lawn and leaping up to the opened conservatory window. It being the last of the three nights of full, the moon was high in the sky an hour or so before dawn, casting good grey light. Drive to work with it hanging pale and blueish in the sky ahead of me; then tonight, on the last mile, just after moonrise, now obviously gibbous and yellow on the horizon.

An exhausting first week back at work now behind me, but little scope for rest this weekend.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Café Society

On Saturday morning, in weather that was bright but hazy, with a chill wind and air temperature about 0C, I was wandering from King's Cross towards Oxford Street, and at one of the little cafés near the Brunswick Center, there were people sitting out at pavement tables, on a shaded and windswept corner.

Crazy, if you ask me, but a definite sign of something changing in the British way of life.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Open book

It's amazing quite how much gets revealed in inadvertent moments on-line (as opposed to deliberate things like blogs). Not just addresses for spammers to harvest, but in things that are conveniences as well. traces, for example - everyone leaving their marks, so their system can say "if you bought that, then you might like this" based on everyone else who's done similar things. Having over the last year gotten my Amazon book recommendations down to a neat list of hard/philosophical SF, purging all the spaceship fiction crap like David Drake, or David Weber, or Bujold that kept on creeping on each time I looked [It's not true to say the only sort of SF I like is stuff that concerns itself first and foremost with the Fermi Paradox or related topics like Transcendence or Singularity, but it's a very good first approximation. I certainly don't care for stuff that's effectively historical adventure rebadged - I'll read the straight historical stuff instead, thank you - or is in the style of the US Marines Conquer the Galaxy.] I'd just about got it stabilised - until I put the 3rd Dirty Pair Flash DVD onto my wish-list, and admitted to owning the first two and liking them.

And the list filled up with all sorts or anime/manga stuff. And I thought, well, why not have a look at some of the things that they suggest - it worked with the various CDs that I bought having followed up recommendations after admitting to liking Godspeed you! Black Emperor and Dirty Three. And one thing led to another.

So currently I'm part-way through the Chobits manga [and the book recommendations list is now full of other Japanese romance manga, which have to go the way of Messrs Drake and Weber]. On one level, Chobits is a sappy, but very sweet, geek romance story. On another it's the Pygmalion myth meets the Stepford Wives. On another, it's actually touched on issues that are surfacing in the real world - not just the Japanese gimmicks like the Virtual Girlfriend and whatever, but the whole field of affective computing - the sort of thing that was recently described on the SL4 mailing list as "Chocolate chip cookies for the soul". I know that there are only two ways that the story can end - yes or no - (well, four actually, if you also consider the orthogonal happy/sad axis), but the journey looks to be interesting, and I'm not hurrying it (endings being a problem, as I noted in the review of Absolution Gap, at the end of last month).

There are a couple of things that have bubbled to the surface that are truly geeky to comment on. First, it's clear that the translators are not British, or at least not British and a certain age - Little Plum is a Red Indian brave from the pages of the Beano (or maybe the Dandy). Second, the specs given for a laptop personal computer (6GHz processor, 1.28Gb RAM) will be commonplace about 2007 - somewhat earlier than the 2026 internal date of the story - another reason why you should never quote a hardware spec, especially not in conjunction with a date.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Film — The Return of the King

Of course I went to see The Return of the King.

My immediate thoughts on leaving the cinema were "It was better where they stuck to the text. And Éowyn fought like a girl.".

A very disappointing end - a 2-star movie at best - to what started out so well with The Fellowship of the Ring, two years ago. The problem was that the whole trilogy had quality in inverse proportion to the amount of ad-libbing; and, alas, the amount of it kept increasing from film to film.

In the first part, there was sense to some of the telescoping of the slow pace events in the Shire - though not in introducing Merry and Pippin as lovable Gaelic rogues and rewriting their reasons for being on the quest. And there was little reason to add the almost Lara Croft style crumbling staircase in Moria. But while I jested at the time that Boromir's death was handled a bit like "Oh! I'm hit! But wait! I'm a high level fighter, and that arrow only does a d6.", there was little more that I could fault the movie for - and there were enough little touches that showed the text was being followed, even when it would hardly notice if had been skimped - the blink and you'd miss it scene on the ascent of Caradhras, where Legolas is walking on the snow, when everyone else is waist deep or more, for example. Even substituting Arwen for Glorfindel was harmless. And I felt it was good enough that I went to see it again when it was on the week before The Two Towers was out.

But by The Two Towers, the rot had set in. In a part of the story where many threads are transpiring in parallel, why embellish with the extraneous wholesale invention of Aragorn seemingly falling in combat, and definitely being MIA for a while, or give Frodo an extra diversion in Faramir's company, when the fall of Orthanc appeared almost as afterthought? That one got merely a "Mostly Harmless" rating, and there was no urge to see it again.

The final film was, alas, even more of the same, rather than a return to form, and verged on the "I wish I hadn't seen that". In particular, I'm going to have to actively forget that pitiable fight against Angmar, lest it contaminate my previous vision of that scene of last ditch desperate battle between a capable, if terrified, warrior and the all-but-unstoppable Witch-King. Where was the fight choreographer? And what was he thinking?

By contrast with the first film, this time there were so many senseless omissions of material which could trivially have been fitted in where time was being wasted elsewhere in the same scene - let alone when invented padding was being added such as the dragging out of Cirith Ungol, which should have been over in the first 15 minutes of the film; and the gratuitous bringing on-screen of the battle in Osgiliath.

When Frodo was standing on the pier in Orodruin, looking gormless [not that he ever had any other expression] there was plenty of time for him to say "I have come. But I do not choose now to do what I came to do." : all the time that Sam was trudging up after him, I was thinking "Come on, man! Out with it!" - but no. Similarly, the unfurling of the flag of the King when the corsair ships arrive could have replaced the orc captain's sarcastic remark about their late arrival - an invention that served only to drag the episode from epic to commonplace. Why were Merry and Pippin showing no effects of the Ent-draught even at the end, when it could have been remarked on in some banter at Frodo's bedside? Where was the palantír of Minas Tirith, when Denethor was setting the pyre (and why add him taking the longest possible route to throw himself off the citadel whilst merrily ablaze)?

Worse, most of the changes were simply pointless, changing the words and not the deeds - why change the reasoning behind the stratagem of marching on the gates or Mordor - "If we were about to use the Ring, this is what we'd be doing..."?

Even when it stuck closer to the text, I had some quibbles with interpretations - the mûmakil may have been described as being larger than modern elephants, but I think the film rather overextended the licence that bare description gave.