Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Bearing down on the deadline

The past few weeks I've been stuck creating a NERC fellowship proposal at work. There have been ups and downs galore, but now, as the deadline closes in (1st November 2007, Thursday, 4pm) things are gradually coming together. Not necessarily in the sense that the proposal is being refined and perfected, but more that its obvious dents and imperfections are being hidden under make-up, and the collaboration cast-list is being whittled down.

The proposed research itself, in particular, has gone from seeming like a good idea, to (in some respects) a well-honed Achilles. It sounds good, but a poke and a prod in the right place may unearth its weaker spots. I don't think it's absolutely fundamentally flawed, but it has big ambitions, and gambles a bit on the outcome of portions of the work. Still, the truth will out in the end.

Assembling my cast list has certainly been an interesting experience. While my immediate colleagues have graciously offered their staunch support, I've been tip-toeing around some of my more remote colleagues to get their support. It's a side of science I've not had to deal with much before, but it can be quite an effort. As it's proposed research the benefits are all in the future and are partially illusory. So to get someone onboard, one has to convince them that there's something in it for them too. I do feel that, on this occasion, I have more to gain from the support of some colleagues than they are liable to gain from the association! Still, collaboration is partly the long game, and I might find myself on the other end one day.

Anyway, I didn't want this to go unrecorded (the rest of this blog makes it look like I do nothing else but sit around reading science fiction and watching films). I'm sure that as soon as the proposal's been fired off I'll gradually start forgetting the effort it took to create it. I might remember again should I be recalled to defend it in front of a panel, but the odds aren't good, and a skilled panel may yet fell my Achilles.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Once Upon A Time At The Cinema

I forgot to add that we saw a rather brilliant film yesterday at the HL, Once. It sounded like an earnest, rather worthy piece that I'd ordinarily hate: a drama with a whole lot of music spliced in; heavily hyped by reviewers left, right and centre; lo-fi and cheap with lots of "soul"; et cetera. But I was completely blind-sided by it.

Nutshell synopsis: A depressed, 30-something musician is scraping a living repairing vacuum cleaners with his father, and busking on the streets of Dublin. During the day he plays crowd pleasing numbers that bring in the Euros, during the evening he plays songs he's written himself. One evening he meets a Czech woman who compliments him one of his self-penned songs. He finds out that she too is a musician, leading to them duetting in a music shop. He introduces her to more of his work, and she agrees to put lyrics to some of his music. Buoyed up by this success, they arrange a recording session in a local studio, and recruit some fellow street musicians. In the background, the two are gradually drawn to one another, but romantic history intervenes: he is still in love with an ex-girlfriend, she is married, though estranged, and has a child. Ultimately, they decide together to give their past loves second chances, and the man departs for London, both to find his lost love and to try to sell his music.

The above probably sounds awful, but this is an extremely romantic film, certainly up there with similar films like Before Sunrise / Sunset. The budding relationship between the two central characters is extremely well played and convincing. However, more importantly, the film's use of music is quite spectacular. It's not a classical musical where reality pauses while a song is sung. Here things are naturalistic (a "diegesis" according to the Wikipedia) and the songs flow from the narrative. This isn't forced at any point, and the writers have squeezed songs into the action extremely cleverly. And the songs are extremely good. Perhaps a bit ballady for my tastes, but I'm more forgiving when songs are used in service of a film. The high point is the song they record at the studio, "When Your Mind's Made Up", but the others don't disappoint either. Even the comedy songs that the man plays on the back of a bus to describe his failed relationship.

Anyway, I'm not usually one for romantic films, but every now and then one comes along, and this is certainly one of my favorites. It'll sound pretentious, but it's one of those films that refreshes my faith in cinema as a form. Capable of moving one without recourse to cheap sentimentality, et cetera ...

Man Booker

2007's Man Booker Prize was announced this week. Much to C's surprise, it was the finalist that she liked least (Enright's The Gathering). Too much the classic depressing Irish novel. With that domestic assessment, I've neither read it, nor will. I have, however, recently read two of the other finalists.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid takes the form of an extended conversation between two strangers over a traditional dinner in Lahore, Pakistan. Actually, it's really only one side of the conversation, that of a young Pakistani man regaling his dining companion with the story of his previous life in the United States, and how, post-September the 11th, this life unraveled and he returned to Pakistan.

The title of the novel would appear to relate to how the man went from being someone almost proud to be an adopted American, to someone who may harbour less than friendly intentions toward it. On this latter point, the novel is somewhat ambiguous on how far the central character has gone. His dining companion is an American man, who may even be a government operative, but much of the description here is sketchy.

Structurally, the novel generally works really well, with the conversational tone succeeding in portraying the central character quite warmly. That he's always extremely polite certainly helps make him engaging. The life history that he describes is also told in quite a compelling fashion, with two strands, the professional and the personal, woven well together. The first strand documents his rise from a scholarship at Princeton to a job with a prestigious management consultancy, while the second describes his parallel infatuation then budding, if doomed, relationship with a female friend.

My only complaint with the novel is that its ending seems rushed, and is might be seen as a little too ambiguous as a result. The narrator's journey from wannabe-American to possible anti-American fundamentalist happens over a rather short period of the novel, and only describes his present life in Pakistan in a somewhat sketchy fashion. And, after spending almost the whole novel having dinner, things pick up rather too quickly in the final few pages. The ending could be read in a number of ways, at least partially because there's very little time to develop or describe what happens.

Still, I really enjoyed this one. Though its shortness will doubtless have helped there!

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, while otherwise completely different, again takes the form of a story narrated by a single character. The novel describes near-present day events on a small Pacific island torn apart by what appears to be a local conflict. The narrator is a 13 year old girl, part of a community consisting mostly of women and children, since the men are all off fighting. To give the children some semblance of an education, and to keep them occupied, the village arranges for classes to be given by a strange white man who lives among them. This man, Mr. Watts, uses Great Expectations as a framework for his lessons, first reading it to the students then, later, having them reconstruct it from their memories.

Again, one of the strengths of this novel is the central narrator. Her 13 year old world is quite brought to life, and her gradual absorption into Great Expectations is handled very convincingly. The conflict the girl encounters between the reality of Mister Pip from the novel and the reality of the God that her mother unflinchingly teaches about is a particularly believable and interesting idea (which, given my predilections, is obviously likely to appeal to me). It sets up a dynamic that makes later events all the more poignant.

All that said, there are a small number of elements that don't entirely stack up for me. Firstly, the horrific denouement of the island conflict occurs extremely quickly which, while not unrealistic, isn't emotionally satisfying to my mind. The extreme violence is offset by its brevity which seems to take something away from it. Bad things happen but, almost before you know it, the novel has moved on.

Secondly, the novel goes into fast-forward towards the end. The narrator escapes the island and, in a matter of pages, is reunited with her father, grows up and apart from him, leaves for university where she later completes a thesis on Charles Dickens, and then visits key locations from Great Expectations on a trip to England. Then, finally, she tracks down the first wife of Mr. Watts, but the novel provides surprisingly little context for this and flits away all too quickly. What seems like a meeting designed to illuminate earlier events neither establishes very much nor pointedly fails to establish much either (i.e. the narrator doesn't make a big play about the opacity of the lives of others, et cetera).

Despite these shortcomings, Mister Pip was still well worth reading for the quality of the writing. I'm almost certainly being too harsh, expecting a tidy or trite ending which, were the author to have written it, I'd have complained about.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

A.N. Other Nature "publication"

A second post today to note the publication of a letter (in the conventional sense) in the science weekly, Nature. The letter (well, "correspondence") deals with James Lovelock's recent suggestion that "ocean pipes" should be used to funnel nutrients from deep water up to the surface where phytoplankton (finally - plankton make it into the blog!) can consume them and, in doing so, draw anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere. It sounds great, until one remembers that it's not just nutrients that come up the pipe.

Anyway, by a rather modest amount of text editing and discussion, I managed to wangle myself onto the author list (JGS, DIR and me), making this my second appearance in Nature this year (bizarrely, my previous appearance spawned two further mini-appearances including an [electronically] published photograph). I might even appear a proper scientist to the untrained eye. Though "correspondence" really doesn't count for much.

Aside from this letter, I'm doing some more work in the background with OCCAM to explore Lovelock's scheme, but it looks a total no-hoper (though slightly less of a no-hoper since I found an error in the underlying assumptions of earlier simulations that I'd done). This work may yet turn into something publishable that'll hopefully put paid to this sort of misguided scheme. Of course, none of this has stopped someone in the US from trying to crank money out of these ocean pipes. Still, their hearts are probably in the right place (with their wallets not far behind).

Photography 101

We attended our first "Photography For Beginners" lesson last night at Wyvern Technology College. Being the proud owners of a Sony digital SLR that has all manner of manual and automatic control settings, we thought it was about time we learnt how to use them. Or even what they were.

Anyway, the class size was about 14, with the majority having SLRs or SLR-style cameras ("bridge" cameras according to the tutor; i.e. bridging between compacts and SLRs). For an ostensibly "beginners guide", the course did accelerate off hard - by the end of the evening we'd already covered practically all of the functionality of manual cameras. Detail was a little thin on the ground at times, but we did shutter speed, f-numbers, white balance, slow sync, manual / automatic focus and film speed (ISO).

I can't say that I understood everything that was said, but I now have a much better feel for these functions than I ever have before (I'd possibly have been able to half-define some of them before). The proof of the pudding will be using the camera to explore the effects of these function. Roll on the weekend.

Anyway, while the tutor was rather brisk in his treatment of the above, and seemed to assume rather a lot about our existing knowledge, he was certainly up for taking questions from the floor, and expanding when people didn't follow him. He's a professional photographer in RL, and teaches BTEC courses as well, so I'm confident that the course will work out.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Coupland complete

Finished The Gum Thief. Hmmm. Definitely one of Coupland's minor novels, but not bad. By way of summary ...

The novel takes the form of "journal entries" written by about five different characters, together with chapters from a (short) novel one of the aforementioned characters is writing. There are two central characters, Roger and Bethany, co-workers at a Staples outlet (cue classic Couplandian discourses on printer paper and shop floor etiquette), but as the novel progresses a few more barge in to offer their perspectives. Roger is a 40-something divorcee, who has lost a child and is spiraling downwards with alcohol and a dead-end job. Bethany is a early 20s goth, somewhat lost in the world, with a mother she hates and a no-good boyfriend. The novel begins with Roger recording his thoughts in a journal (just like here!), but drifting into imagining Bethany's life. However, Bethany accidentally finds his journal and, after initial displeasure at being parodied, joins in by interleaving her thoughts with Roger's. Roger then begins to augment his entries with a domestic drama of a novel about novelists, while Bethany joins in with short stories about what it's like to be a piece of toast (again, classic Coupland). Eventually, the wheels come off of Roger's life, and Bethany is stood up by her boyfriend on a trip to Europe. However, the bond they've formed, and the other people they've brought into their lives, offer a lifeline that brings both of them back to a happier equilibrium.

As noted already, there's a fair bit of classic Coupland in this novel. Product placement, diatribes about the emptiness of modern living, clever existentialist conversations, ..., they're all here. However, as is the generally unsatisfactory plot. To be fair, he doesn't throw it away with a deus ex machina this time. There are two minor strands during Bethany's Eurotrip where she meets, improbably, Johnny Depp plus a regular customer from her store back home. They're a bit more low key than similar stunts Coupland's pulled before, and don't derail things. But the novel would clearly have been better without them [*]. Still, overall it's probably still one that fans of Coupland will get something out of.

How does it fit into the wider scheme of things? Well, I skipped Coupland's later novels (post-Microserfs) in my earlier post. But I suppose I could rank them now (at least how I see them now).

I'd definitely put Hey Nostradamus! top of the pile. Although, as a theme, it's becoming over-done, it does the whole high school shooting thing in a very convincing way, even if it does have one character narrating from beyond the grave.

Miss Wyoming is probably up next. Its improbable event is a main character being the sole survivor of a plane crash, although that's where it starts from rather than being something the that the novel pulls out of thin air halfway through. Another main character is a dead ringer for the drug-fatality Hollywood producer Don Simpson, although the novel rather tenderly rehabilitates him. It seems silly now, but I rather liked how Coupland took this celebrity car-crash from near his lowest point (i.e. he doesn't die in the novel) and spun meaning and redemption into his life. But, then, I'm always a sucker for redemption stories.

Although flawed, I reckon JPod is probably next. Here's what I said about this (to AMG) when I'd read it ...
Well, first of all, it's really not, as the blurb would have it, "'Microserfs' for the Google generation". In terms of its use of geek language and computer programmer-speak, it does resemble 'MS' very strongly. It also has much of the same sort of humour, possibly more in fact. What it doesn't have is the characterisation that brought Dan, Karla and the gang to life in 'MS'. I think it's got something to do with the way that Coupland uses extreme plot developments to move things along. He isn't happy to let characters develop on their own, so instead sets up a series of hoops for them to jump through. Some of the hoops are plausible, some less so. The net effect is that I didn't like the characters in the same way as those of 'MS'. I didn't feel I'd grown close to them, or cared so much about what happened to them. While the dilemmas that face the casts of both novels are somewhat similar, 'jPod' resolves them fairly soullessly. This isn't all bad, since it allows Coupland to be treat his characters (which include a version of himself - not as bad an idea as I thought it was at first) more humourously. He also gets some more politics in with some commentary on corporates. But at the end of it, it just felt like 'MS' with the heart sucked out of it. It's actually still a very good read, easily one of his better novels in the last decade ('Hey Nostradamus!', I think, is the best post-'MS'), but 'MS' it ain't.
Next up Eleanor Rigby, another novel which, while having some great Coupland-esque moments, doesn't quite stack up in the plot stakes. Utterly bizarrely, its deus ex machina involves an inexplicably radioactive meteorite, but the plot also crumbles under a rather unconvincing lapse of memory. I don't doubt that these things can happen to people, but I didn't buy it here.

Then we have All Familes Are Psychotic, a bizarre tale involving all sorts of improbable plot connections. It does, however, have one of my favourite Couplandisms in it:
One person in six million will be struck by lightning. Fifteen people in a hundred will experience clinical depression. One woman in sixteen will experience breast cancer. One child in 30,000 will experience a serious limb deformity. One American in five will be a victim of violent crime. A day in which nothing happens is a miracle, a day in which all of the things that could have gone wrong didn't. The dull day is a triumph of the human spirit, and boredom is a luxury unprecedented in the history of our species.
This captures something that's often forgotten about modern life. That for all the problems it appears to assault us with, it's really a remarkably safe and stable time to exist. Certainly, to my mind, compared to the sort of life that our ancestors, even recently, enjoyed. Or, rather, didn't enjoy. Anyway, aside from this, the book's just too mixed-up to my mind.

And that takes us back to Girlfriend In A Coma, which I've already ranted about ...

[*] For reference, this whole thing Coupland has about introducing improbable or semi-religious events is something I'd steeled myself to ask him about when I saw him at a book-reading in London. I was all set to do it, but before I had a chance, the person in the queue behind me hijacked him, and steered him onto a conversation about Chuck Palahnuik, another novelists she'd name-droppingly recently met. Curses. Still, I at least shook his hand. Anyway, maybe I should drop him an e-mail?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Waterstone's crime spree

Not quite as interesting as that title. Out tonight to use up a friend's tickets to an evening of crime writers at one of our local Waterstone's shops (Above Bar). Unusual (in my limited experience) in that it had four authors on the billing: Mark Billingham, Graham Hurley, Meg Gardiner and June Hampson. Of them, we'd only heard of Hurley, since he's a local writer whose crime novels take place in Portsmouth. Now having visited my beloved Wikipedia, I realise that Billingham is by far the most famous of the four (i.e. the only one with an article about them!).

Format for the evening was an introduction from each of the writers in turn, followed by a passage or two from their most recently published works. After all four had finished, it was turned over to questions from the floor.

First up was Billingham. As noted already, we didn't know him from Adam, but found his introduction very amusing (an anecdote about meeting Mickey Rooney at the Beeb). As it turns out, in a previous life he was a stand-up comedian, and seems to have been involved in a number of famous TV and radio comedies. So, retrospectively, his performance was unsurprising. Anyway, he read two sections from his novel, both of which were quite good. Certainly drew you into the novel somewhat, although they were a bit clichéd in a way.

Next up was Hampson. Another local writer, this time from Gosport. Most interesting was her route into writing. After a couple of abusive marriages and a career running a market stall in Southampton, she slipped first into writing stories (presumably short stories) and then, more recently, novels. I wasn't terribly convinced by the two passages she read out though. The first (her main character is about to power-drill the head of a naked man she's tied to a bed) sounded like a terrible cliché topped off with an abrupt character transformation (after she comes close to using the drill, she's bought off by an unconvincing promise). The second, which took place at the opposite end of the novel, was overshadowed by the complete reversal of the situation in the first - the main character is now (unconvincingly) in love with said naked man. Admittedly, we did skip over the whole central section of the novel, but still ...

Then we had Gardiner, an American writer now living in the UK. She gave quite an engaging introduction, but the novel fragment she chose was terrible. For starters, it wasn't really crime fiction. It was clearly a thriller. But it was more like a screenplay for a run-of-the-mill Hollywood potboiler than for a novel. You could almost visualise how the scene she was describing would be shot. She may just have chosen poorly (i.e. an action scene), but I wasn't buoyed up much by her description of the rest of the novel.

Finally, we had Hurley. Much, much better all round. His introduction gave a lot more insight into how he goes about researching his books, and was told very humourously. Interestingly, he again had a TV background originally, but he had also been a "conventional" novelist before his publisher suggested that he try writing crime fiction. What was particularly interesting was that, as he tells it, he wasn't convinced by this idea at all, and it took some doing to get him on his way. Anyway, his introduction dealt with all of the background research involving the transport police that he did just for the opening chapter of his latest novel. This chapter itself was altogether much better written than anything the other authors had read out (it dealt with the start of the day for a train driver who finds, and hits, a body on the tracks). I doubt I'll ever read it, but his was certainly the first work I'd turn to from the evening.

Questions and answers after the readings were very interesting, and most amusing. We got stuck first on the topic of why female crime writers seem more violent that male writers (it pertained to some firefight that Ian Rankin recently found himself embroiled in). I'm not sure that we reached any sort of conclusion on that, beyond that female writers "seem to prefer" writing about dark motivations, or something. Most of the other questions covered similar ground to what these Q&A sessions usually seem to. We even had a painful session with a struggling writer. Still, it wound up being both interesting and informative. And overall the evening passed much more enjoyably than we'd imagined for an evening of genre fun.