Saturday, 20 December 2008

Moon shot


Dsc04218
Originally uploaded by Dr Yool
Got a nice view of the Moon yesterday morning around about halfway from a full to a new moon.

This shot also doubles up as an attempt to post to Blogger direct from Flickr. I think I might stick to the more conventional method for posting, although the picture above does link straight to the Flickr original.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Birthday art

We made the now-traditional pilgrimage to London for my birthday yesterday to take in some of the current art exhibitions and to catch up with friends. This year we were able to take in five ...

  • Landscape Photographer of the Year 2008 at the National Theatre

    This was probably the best exhibition that we caught. Basically a mixture of amateur and professional photographers and a range of subjects, from traditional "natural" landscapes to those dominated by human activity. The descriptions next to each image were very interesting at times: some photographers staked out a location for weeks or months until the ideal opportunity arose, while others caught a lucky break. Another thing we spotted was that quite a few of the more professional shots made use of long exposures with water to create that milky effect. I reckon that I'd need a neutral density filter for that sort of thing. Anyway, overall it was an enjoyable show.

  • Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms at The Hayward

    Moderately interesting this one. I've been to a couple of Warhol shows over the years, but this one paid more attention to his work in the 60s with film than I've seen before. Although, that said, I can't say that I'm a huge fan of this side to his work. I think it's very much of-its-time: nothing much to write home about now, but really quite unusual and interesting when it was originally done. Other than these, they had a modest selection of other works (paintings, photographs, interviews), and there was certainly an attempt to show off the breadth of his work. Useful for someone like me, but I've seen more comprehensive treatments before, and I suspect that many people might, seeing the films, just leave the show with the view that Warhol was a fraud confirmed.

  • Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery

    Another photographic competition, again with a mixture of professional and amateur photographers. Not quite as diverse a range of styles as we saw last time, but still worth a look. As I'm not a portrait-taker myself, I've not really got a good eye for this, so I'm not a good judge to say the least. Still, the range of subjects always makes this prize worth a look, even if many of the portraits appeared quite pedestrian to my badly-schooled eye.

  • Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

    I've seen individual Bacon works on and off for years in galleries, but this is the first time I've gone to an exhibition devoted solely to him. He's probably most famous for his series of "screaming pope" works, and they're certainly pretty striking. Generally, his works seem to convey a rather nightmarish vision of the world, in which his subjects are frequently "caged" within framing structures used in the paintings. The use of dark backgrounds, contorted or ambiguous facial expressions and occluded subjects all add up to convey a rather malevolent tinge to his pieces. They're sometimes physical, conveying activity with blurred or distorted bodies; particularly in one interesting piece which depicts a dog apparently wrestling with something. A few of the images, particularly those in "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion", verge on depicting truly nightmarish monsters (or biomorphs). In some respects these sorts of images reminded me of Gerald Scarfe, who may well have been inspired by Bacon. Anyway, overall, while I wouldn't go so far to say that I actually liked Bacon's paintings, I certainly admired them. Interestingly, while many artists change either their style or subjects over their careers, I didn't feel that Bacon did. I could imagine shuffling the order of his paintings and not really noticing. That's not a criticism, but it's relatively unusual in my experience of art. Most artists show gradual trends in their works that stand out in retrospectives like this one, in the case of Picasso, he seemed to undergo several reinventions.

  • Turner Prize 2008 also at Tate Britain

    As usual for the Turner, a bit hit and miss. In part, I go to see the Turner as an instinctive reaction against the dismissive recoil from modern art that's popular with conservative cultural commentators. The prize is pretty much an annual blood sport for them, but the arguments are always the same, and I don't buy them. More or less, their standard critical questions boil down to: (1) is it pretty?; and (2) could my 5 year old do it?; to which the "correct" answers are, respectively, "yes" and "no". And while I do have similarly reactionary responses to some artists (Rothko anyone?), I always like to be challenged with something new or unusual. I don't always respond positively, but I do like the challenge. The winner this year was, to me anyway, easily the best of the bunch, at least in terms of the material on show. He had a mixture of rather interestingly projected films and photographs, of which the latter was a nice rip-off of the "photograph exploration" scene from Blade Runner. I don't think that the winner was quite as impressive as some of those from other years, but the work was at least a bit interesting. The others consisted of: (1) rubbish geometrical sculpture and weak photo-montages; (2) a literal pile of rubbish - well, found objects arranged inexplicably; and (3) a series of three incomprehensible films, of which only one (of some Heath Robinson device) was even vaguely interesting.

    In passing, post-art, we caught up with Ann, Andrew and Sarah, and wound up dining in a somewhat bizarre Polish-Mexican restaurant. Not fusion food, although that could have been interesting, but an apparent confluence of two separate restaurants or something.
  • Robbed in the Christmas Quiz

    Today was NOCS's annual Christmas Quiz. We came in second place last year, and had high hopes of winning this time around. Unfortunately, an ignominious upper quartile placing resulted. However, the real insult to injury is that I was accidentally responsible for our crashing and burning. As team captain, I had to pre-select an unidentified round as our joker round. Reasoning that the first round was likely to be for warm-up purposes, that's the one I picked. Instead, it was non-general general knowledge one, in which the highest score recorded by any team was only 4/10. We scored 1/10. The subsequent rounds on which we could have played our joker instead netted us 9/10 and 10/10 (we did particularly well on the opening sentences of novels). Had we placed our joker on either of these, we would have won the quiz by a point or two. Gutted doesn't begin to describe it.

    Wednesday, 17 December 2008

    Biomodelling Christmas Lunch 2008

    Yesterday was the annual "Biomodellers and friends" Christmas Lunch over at the Royal Southampton Yacht Club.

    While they're not the cheapest Christmas lunch option, we've gone there for the previous two lunches on account of the location and quality, and yesterday didn't disappoint. For once we were just one of several parties, but that didn't affect the experience at all. If anything, it created a nice background Christmas bustle.

    Post-meal saw us (briefly) in what used to be the Cork and Bottle pub, before we finally ensconced ourselves in our traditional bolt-hole, The Platform. Packed as usual, but a good venue. Even if they did, latterly, have some live jazz.

    A photographic record of the event can be found over at Flickr.

    Wednesday, 3 December 2008

    RandShock

    A different kind of review this time: a computer game rather than a book or a film. I mostly make do with old favourites like Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, but I get through a couple of new titles each year. However, though I pick carefully, they're rarely as interesting as BioShock. At first glance a first-person shooter (FPS) with role-playing (RPG) elements, there's a bit more going on in this title.

    BioShock begins with a spectacular plane crash into the Atlantic ocean which deposits the player amidst burning wreckage but close to a mysterious mid-ocean lighthouse. Investigation of this reveals a bathysphere that takes the player to the underwater city of Rapture. However, Rapture is in trouble and is now far from the utopia that its founder, businessman Andrew Ryan, envisaged when he secretly began its construction in the aftermath of the Second World War. Framed as a refuge for scientists, artists and entrepreneurs from the evils of government and God, it initially attracted the great and the good, including Bridgette Tenenbaum, who pioneered massive advances in genetic engineering. However, its isolation from the outside world also attracted less desirable elements, such as the gangster Frank Fontaine, who created a black market that risked Ryan's control of the city. The resulting war between these men devastated the city, killed Fontaine and left behind a violent mixture of genetically damaged Splicers to control Rapture's ruined structures. The war also led to escalations on both sides that saw desperate depredations on the inhabitants of Rapture, including the enslavement of female children.

    This is the world the player is thrown into, but with the help of Atlas, a survivor trapped in another part of Rapture who communicates via radio, the player is led through what remains of Rapture and gradually introduced to the story of its rise and fall. The player is introduced to Adam and Eve, the factors that allow genetically-based powers to be acquired and fuelled, and also to a range of weapons that can be used for defence against the dangerous Splicers. Most significantly, the player quickly encounters the Little Sisters and their guardians, the Big Daddies (see picture), who come to play key roles both practically and morally in the game. Furthermore, as the player advances through Rapture, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems, and that the player character is more connected to Rapture than even he himself understands.

    Judging the game in conventional terms, it's a very playable FPS with a large and complex environment to explore, and with an impressive range of weapons/powers to assault enemies with. Visually, Rapture is an extremely well-realised city, with brilliant Steam/Diesel/Biopunk flourishes spread across a series of diverse habitats (gardens, hydrothermal power stations, medical facilities and even a museum). Being damaged, and located on the ocean floor, it's also running through with water, and displays some really nice tricks to convince the player of this. Water's not often modelled well in games, but it's done very well here (though obviously not as impressively as ICOM). Attention to detail is extremely good, with Rapture heavily art deco styled (I was reminded most of works by the artist Tamara de Lempicka), and with a lot of period detail (the game is set at the very end of the 1950s). These features alone make it a more interesting title than those that occupy more conventional futuristic or dystopian environments.

    In terms of its gameplay, BioShock has quite a good mix of exploration and combat. There are a lot of interesting things to see, and frequently-found tape recorders play out the story of Rapture in an atmospheric way. Just as well really, since as a FPS fan, I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the scenery (unless it's hostile), so specific verbal cues about the backstory suit me. On the whole, combat works pretty well, although I did take a while to get used to routinely using my genetic powers. My first port of call was typically projectile weaponry until I realised that if I immobilised (with electricity) or terrorised (with fire) my enemies, I could finish them off more easily. That some of the enemies have similar powers mixes it up nicely, although I was only rarely subjected to the same treatment that I routinely doled out to my Splicer foes.

    There were a couple of problems with combat, however. First of all, with both weapons and powers, sometimes a fight got messy as I struggled to select exactly the one I wanted (refusing, as I do, to use the keyboard to select things properly). Frequently I wound up photographing my enemies as they were bludgeoning me. This is compounded by weapons which have multiple ammunition types that require panic-inducing periods of time to switch. Secondly, death isn't actually all that big a deal in BioShock. Most games will throw you back to your last save-point and cost you all of the progress you've made since then, but BioShock resurrects you in a "Vita-chamber" and allows you to continue where you left off (much as with the Grand Theft Auto series). This has a number of problems:
    • it means you can then track down and finish off more easily the now-damaged foe who killed you
    • as dying has no major consequences, letting it happen saves you from having to use up valuable health kits to save yourself (i.e. encourages you do go down guns blazing rather than carefully extricating yourself from fatal situations)
    • only you can do this - no-one else you meet and kill seems to know about these handy Vita-chambers, which seems at least a little unfair
    Generally, the Vita-chambers make gameplay a little too easy, although I'd certainly accept that the more standard alternative, Quicksave, carries its own limitations. Finally, while it sometimes took me a while to work the best way to kill an enemy, once I'd done it, combat became a little bit of a chore, especially where I was only confronted by a single foe at a time. For Splicers, electroshocking them or icing them, followed by a shotgun blast to the head, typically sorted them out (and it became child's play once I had the crossbow). Initially difficult, Big Daddies became very easy to take down once electric gel and RPGs came into my possession. And the final boss battle I finished first time by applying my Big Daddy tricks.

    However, notwithstanding the above, BioShock holds up as an atmospheric and entertaining game. It does take a bit of getting into, and there's a lot to learn about its world, but these are often good things as far as I'm concerned. Fantastical books like Northern Lights and The Lord of the Rings don't lay everything out on a plate for you right at the start - you've got to work through them gradually to understand the worlds they're creating (except the former's film, which does exactly this to the film's detriment). So BioShock's something of a winner, which will come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading its reviews for the past year (... while I was awaiting the purchase of a computer fancy enough to play it on).



    On top from the above, there are two other quite special aspects to BioShock not yet touched on. First, the game heavily co-opts the 20th century "philosophy" of Objectivism formulated by the Russian-born writer Ayn Rand. To the extent that several characters have names derived from Rand or her works, including Andrew Ryan (= Ayn Rand), Frank Fontaine (= The Fountainhead) and Atlas (= Atlas Shrugged), and the backstory of Rapture's origins is lifted her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. During the game, Ryan is frequently heard extolling an essentially Objectivist worldview, and the unregulated (= "free" for Objectivists) technological innovation in Rapture is in keeping with its tenets. I mention this as special, since I don't think I've ever played a game which wears its intellectual origins upfront to this degree, nor integrates them into the plot and setting so well. All that said, BioShock could easily be read as a scathing critique of Objectivism. Instead of the planned utopia, Rapture is quickly reduced to a nightmarish dystopia, both physically and ideologically. Ryan starts by creating somewhere that scientists and entrepreneurs can run free and unbridled by government, but winds up a tyrant presiding over a state in which science is twisted to malevolent ends, and where murderous anarchy is the prevailing civic order.

    The other notable aspect is its handling of the morality of the player's actions in the game. It doesn't take this very far (and it has very few practical consequences), but set against the majority of other titles where morally ambiguous (or even actively immoral) behaviour is common, this still marks it up as noteworthy. Basically, as already alluded to above, key actors in Rapture are the Little Sisters, who act as agents for collecting Adam from the city's dead. Their protection by the Big Daddies means that they can represent quite a danger to the player should they be antagonised in some way. When the first Little Sister is encountered in the game, Atlas strongly advises the player to "harvest" (= kill) her to secure her supply of Adam and to gain enhanced genetic powers. However, the player can also "rescue" the Little Sister from the modifications made to her by Ryan's scientists, but this provides only a small Adam reward to the player. At this early point in the game, the player has very little information on the Little Sisters, and the decision is largely left to the player's innate judgement. When I reached this part of the game, the fact that the Little Sister wasn't hostile towards me, plus that she was clearly a child, made me choose to save her. And I continued to do this throughout the game, coming to see it as my duty to rescue them as I heard more and more about the wrongs inflicted upon them (in that special sense of "duty towards virtual characters in a fiction"). My "reward" for being nice was only, as far as I can tell, a different end sequence upon completing the game ...


    However, it still makes a change to have a game that's at least keeping tabs on how I'm treating NPCs.

    The handling of morality in the game could also be read as a further critique of one particular (narrow?) reading of Objectivism. While it would serve the player best to treat the Little Sisters as a harvestable resource (c.f. "his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life"), the game rewards, albeit with just a pat on the back, sacrifice on the part of the player for them. This is in conflict with certain core Objectivist ethics - so, needless to say, appeals to me. Although my own views occasionally overlap those of Objectivism, I don't believe that its extremism would actually work successfully in the real world (much as with the related political movement of Libertarianism). Among other things, I think there are good biological reasons to believe that (self-interested) altruism plays a significant role in many organisms including humans, and that it's possible that facts of human evolution (evolving in small, tight-knit communities) mean that we're more indiscriminately altruistic than one might otherwise expect.

    Anyway, enough pontificating already. This was just supposed to be a computer game review!

    Tuesday, 2 December 2008

    One moon and two planets

    Yesterday evening saw an occultation of the planet Venus by our Moon. While I had heard about this, I completely forgot on the day. However, while cycling home, I did spot something interesting around the Moon ...


    Although the occultation was passed, Venus was still visible just to the lower right of the bright limb of the Moon. On top of that, Jupiter (top right) was also in close proximity to the Moon, making for a nice triple. The above is my attempt to capture this from the front garden (full size version).

    Thanks to Simon (former professional, now amateur astronomer) for identifying Jupiter for me.

    Wednesday, 26 November 2008

    What makes a Man Booker prizewinner?

    An interesting book this one: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. It's this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, and the first that I've read from the shortlisted titles (I'd expected to see Netherland there, but it didn't make it).

    The novel is constructed as a series of seven letters written nightly by the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the People's Republic of China, soon to visit India. The letters present Balram's rise in Indian society (or wealth at any rate) as a model of entrepreneurial culture in modern India, one that Balram believes that the Chinese Premier should adopt. The letters tell the tale of Balram's rise from a poverty-stricken background in the "Darkness" of rural India, to his position as director of his own small company in Bangalore. From the outset, Balram admits to being the murderer of his former employer, and his letters gradually reveal how this came to happen. Along the way he describes a very different India from the one that presents itself to the outside world, the one that Wen Jiabao will see. Balram describes a future-less life of penury and servitude in the Darkness, one that he escapes from through luck and guile, only to take up a similarly put-upon life in Delhi. In this new life, Balram reflects on the inequity and corruption that surrounds him, and comes to understand the features of public life in India that preserve the status quo for the rich. This realisation prompts Balram's murderous assault, and the initiation of his new life.

    It's not immediately obvious how this novel came to win the Man Booker. It's not a particularly literary novel in terms of its writing, and in large part is driven by events in Balram's life. However, it does have a rather striking narrator who, though something of a self-aggrandising monster, is surprisingly engaging. And although Balram's story is heavy on event, the novel contains a vivid if excoriating portrait of modern India. Needless to say, the Indian tourist board won't be proudly parading this novel as an example of a culturally strident nation. Having not been to India, I can't attest to the veracity of the novel, but it paints a fairly convincing picture, and one that's liable to keep me away from India!

    Overall, while having initial misgivings (did I really want to read a book narrated by a rather opinionated murderer?), I really quite warmed to it as I went along. It does conjure a fairly dystopian India, but does so in a fashion that's never uninteresting. Though it is frequently unpleasant (there's a rather repellent description of the cockroaches with which he shares his Delhi hovel). I suspect that its exotic nature won over the Man Booker judges, but it's certainly a lot more engaging than other prizewinners that I've read over the years (The Sea, for instance ...).

    Interestingly, the novelist was on the radio the other day talking about the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. While he presents an extremely negative picture of India in the novel, in talking about the attacks he was quick to emphasise its essentially liberal democratic nature, somewhat at odds with his scathing portrayal of its politics as terminally corrupt. I guess that while recognising its faults (to understate the case!), he still harbours a love for his home country.

    Saturday, 22 November 2008

    Little Rocket Man

    Hiding my "addiction" well, I don't much mention computer games here. However, in "testing" our new PC I played through Half-Life 2: Episode Two again, but this time tried to complete one of its most awkward achievements: Little Rocket Man ...


    Basically, one has to transport the garden gnome pictured above through the entire game from start to finish (echoing the travelling gnome prank popularised in the 2001 film Amélie). The ultimate aim is to place the gnome in the pictured hatch so that he can be launched into space, thus playing his own small role in this particular battle against the Combine.

    Anyway, though tiresome at times, it was actually fairly easy to do, although the gnome doesn't make for a particularly good projectile weapon (he's not really heavy enough). Aside from accidentally leaving the gnome in a location that can't later be accessed (the section involving retrieving the car springs to mind), the only really awkward portion was driving with the gnome. The game designers need to put a proper boot (or doors!) on the car - the gnome continually falls out of the car whenever you reach, say, 5 MPH. As a result, you wind up punting the gnome, shot put-style, then driving to where he's landed and then repeating the procedure. Annoying in usual conditions, highly frustrating when a helicopter gunship is roasting you at the same time.

    Still, mission accomplished in the end.

    Friday, 21 November 2008

    Not Frank Bascombe

    One of the books I tagged up in my list of Top Ten Books was the 2006 novel The Lay of the Land by the American author Richard Ford. The book is a rich examination of the inner life of realtor Frank Bascombe, but one in which only a limited number of external events occurs. Reading his earlier novel, 1986's The Ultimate Good Luck, is an altogether different experience.

    Set in a then-contemporary Mexico, the novel tells the event-filled story of Harry Quinn, a Vietnam War veteran all at sea in the city of Oaxaca. He has travelled there to expedite the release of a former girlfriend's drug-running brother from prison. Sonny, as well as being caught carrying cocaine by the untrustworthy local police, is suspected of trying to cheat the shady local crime boss that employed him. As a result, Quinn finds himself caught between the corrupt legal authorities and the violent henchmen of Sonny's employer. To further complicate the situation, Quinn's former girlfriend, Rae, is travelling to Oaxaca to see her brother, posing both concerns for her safety and emotionally unsettling questions for Quinn. Against this dangerous foreground, the lawlessness and casual violence of Mexican life unsettle all bets on the outcome.

    The preceding cliché-ridden summary probably doesn't do the novel any favours, but it covers the bases, at least in outline. What makes the novel more successful and interesting is that Ford brings his literary style to what is an otherwise conventional noir setting. So although the novel is given shape by the events that Quinn finds himself amidst, Ford gives a strong voice to Quinn's perceptions and his memories. While not entirely resolving the plot in a convincing fashion (unless I missed something!), he does a good job using it to ratchet up the tension. Quinn is forced down a twisting path where his available choices and his freedom for action are continually narrowing.

    Given Ford's Frank Bascombe books, its interesting to read quite a different sort of novel from him. Certain things remain constant, principally the introspection of his central characters, but it's pleasing to see Ford successfully handle a more plot-driven piece too. Time to check out his other work.

    In passing, given that this is the work of a literary giant and that it has a relatively straightforward plot, I'm amazed that an indie film director hasn't picked it up yet ... Actually, a quick look at the IMDB finds the Ford-penned Bright Angel, which seems to borrow somewhat from The Ultimate Good Luck. So there goes that idea for my entry into the upper echelons of Hollywood.

    Wednesday, 19 November 2008

    Conflict Thesis

    We went to another of the Christians in Science biannual seminars last night. This one was given by an OU historian of science called Colin Russell, and was entitled "Science and Faith at War: Myths and Fables, Old and New". It focused on the so-called conflict thesis of the relationship between science and religion.

    Essentially the thesis is that, both historically and theoretically, these two cultural forces are irrevocably at war with one another. The thesis is pretty mainstream in the culture, but the contention of the speaker is that it is both founded on myths and has no theoretical basis. This latter view, of course, doesn't sit well with the likes of Richard Dawkins or A.C. Grayling, while the late Stephen J. Gould proposed the concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) to try to diffuse the purported conflict.

    The speaker's main strategy was to cast doubt on the historical basis for the alleged conflict. This, actually, is quite successful, since ostensibly famous examples such as Galileo and Darwin (both discussed by the speaker) turn out not to be quite as straightforward as the conflict narrative has handled them. This isn't to say that there was no conflict in their lives with religion (there obviously was some), but that building the case for the conflict thesis around them is misplaced.

    That said, while the speaker was somewhat successful is dismissing aspects of the conflict thesis' case, he seemed (to me, anyway) to go far too far the other way, and blithely ignored or discounted the somewhat weaker evidence that the examples he dismissed still provided. Generally, there was something of a whiff of a straw man about the presentation of the conflict thesis by the speaker. It was almost as if he was arguing against the great proponents of the thesis by (rightly) countering their overstated bluster with his own.

    However, where the speaker really came unstuck was on the topic of present day creationism. Possibly because he realises that it truly does represent a latter day conflict, he essentially dismissed it as some sort of fringe activity that wasn't representative of current religious thought. While he's right that many religious figures and organisations have disavowed it, it was a bit disingenuous of him to write it off just because he doesn't happen to believe it. He provided no grounds for an impartial observer to favour his view of religion over that of the literalist creationists. Instead he seemed to just imply that they're luddites who haven't yet come to understand his much deeper comprehension of the Christian faith.

    Although I think that they're at best simply ignorant, I do think that the creationists have got something here. While they go to absurd lengths of fantasy to justify a literal reading of Genesis, they recognise that once you start labelling a religious text as a mixture of metaphor and literal truth, you're on something of a slippery slope. That said, while I don't buy it (= understatement of the year), I think that it's perfectly possible that a metaphorical Genesis gave way to a literal Jesus. But given that almost all religions deal with events that can't now be objectively verified or which occurred before accurate or comprehensive records were maintained by historians, the factual basis for any of their wilder claims is never going to materialise (short of divine intervention, of course).

    Anyway, after this, the speaker dissolved into a long series of platitudes and the sort of "neither metaphor or literal" gibberish that appears common in these lectures. The latter is like a red-rag to me - it might play well with the faithful masses, but it's (a) ineffective and confusing; (b) a deliberate misuse of language to muddy the intellectual waters (c.f. Garrett Hardin's "literate filter"); and (c) leaves me with the suspicion that an otherwise intelligent person realises that there's no empirical basis for their faith (surely the definition of faith?) but that they won't come out and say so. Basically crazy-talk.

    In passing, regarding the speaker's presentation style, he was clearly born and educated not only long before the Powerpointocene Epoch, but actually prior to the Overheadozoic Era. It was a classic talking-only lecture. Which, unfortunately, didn't suit the speaker's memory. There were a couple of occasions where he seemed to lose the thread of his argument, despite the fact that this was an overview talk rather than something very specialised or detailed. This wasn't important to me, since I know a bit about what he was talking about, but must have been a bit confusing for people less familiar with the ideas.

    Anyway, all that said, while I profoundly disagreed with the thrust of what he said (though I completely accept the overstatement of the conflict thesis), he was certainly one of the more honourable of the speakers that Christians in Science have attracted. No McGrath-style duplicity and lawyering here.



    P.S. I forgot to add above (probably because it's just so ridiculous if taken at face value) that the speaker identified Jesus' resurrection as the most historically verified event ever. Or something like that. It's possible that he meant only the subcategory of "events that happened to Jesus", rather than "events that have occurred in the world at some point". But he wasn't exactly clear on this point.

    I think this was the moment, and it's affected all of the speakers in this series of lectures, when he "jumped the shark" and used the authority that he'd built up during the lecture to dress up his personal faith in Christianity as if it were a hard, undeniable fact. Even though all of the speakers have had some connection to science, at some point in the evening they make a non-sequitur where suddenly the mythology underlying their particular beliefs suddenly becomes empirical truth.

    This is the kind of thing that should cause cognitive dissonance, but all of the speakers have been able to "hold it together". Speaking as a heathen, I read this "leap" as a declaration of their faith, although all of them have presented it in quite different terms. It's almost as if, as scientists, they know that they can't join-the-dots from base reality to their particular beliefs, and that they know that this is a major stumbling block. If they can't make the connection, how do they know that their beliefs are the correct ones? So, to get around this, they baldly state that (their particular flavour of) Christianity is plainly and unimpeachably a fact of the universe. No supporting evidence; no suggestion that this is an article of faith; just a straight "I'm a scientist, so this must be true" statement. If you say it often enough to yourself maybe it even becomes true and no longer requires a leap?

    Wednesday, 12 November 2008

    Top Ten Books

    C was telling me yesterday about a feature that appears in her work newsletter in which senior management figures list their top ten books and describe why they like them. Avid reader that she is, she's already got a top ten and was thinking about whether to submit her books to the newsletter for universal acclaim/derision.

    Not to be outdone, I had a think about what I would pick. It was quite a bit of a think since I tend to forget even great books (at least from my working memory). Anyway, in purely chronological order (ranking is dangerous), and strictly for today (might be different tomorrow), my top ten would be ...

  • The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke, 1956
    A bad sign: starting with science fiction. Still, this is definitely a classic of the so-called "golden age" of the genre. It sports robots, aliens, a disembodied and benevolent AI, a deep mystery, a journey between the stars and tantalising glimpses of Grander Things. Marvellous.

  • Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, 1973
    A very difficult book to describe, and not one that would sound that appealing from a plot summary. A salesman gradually becomes insane, believes the writings of a hack science fiction writer are factual, and runs amok at a literary convention. But Vonnegut's writing (and drawings!) is melancholically brilliant and surprisingly humane. And he carries off introducing himself as a character fantastically.

  • Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks, 1990
    One word here: structure. While set within the science fiction utopia of the Culture, this novel uses an impressive jumbled narrative to both take its central character on a journey to seek redemption, while delving into the reasons why this is required. The handling of its revelations is brilliant, being melded perfectly into the narrative. Not the most "world-building" of the Culture novels, but that's beside the point.

  • Brazzaville Beach, William Boyd, 1990
    A biologically inspired choice here (there's another one later). This follows the life of Hope Clearwater, a biologist, through several strands of her life. Much of the novel takes place in a well-realised Africa, with civil war and Hope's research on primates providing its focus. The novel blends in science wonderfully, and contains some dark truths about the nature of human and animal conflict.

  • The Tortilla Curtain, T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1995
    A great study in contrasts on either side of the wealth divide in southern California. One half of the novel follows a middle class writer, his love of the Californian wilderness and the threats he feels it's under. The other half follows a pair of illegal Mexican immigrants, pressed up against the hard realities of poverty and struggling to make ends meet. They occupy the same living space, but their worlds couldn't be more different, a theme that the novel explores as the narrative gradually weaves the two strands together. Without giving anything away, it ends with a brilliant moral cliffhanger.

  • Microserfs, Douglas Coupland, 1995
    I simply love this novel. It may be that it embodied a time in my life that was particularly significant, but I think it's more than this. It basically tells the story of the lives of a group of Microsoft friends (the Microserfs) who quit that monolith to begin their own start-up company. That sounds rubbish, I know, but it handles the interpersonal relationships between the characters brilliantly (and lovingly), and speaks volumes about our lives today (at least to me). Anyway, it's a novel I've blogged about before (at length).

  • Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver, 2000
    Another novel influenced heavily by biology. It's spread across three distinct strands: a young hunter drifts into the life of a lone biologist tracking wolves in the forest; a former biologist suddenly has to come to terms with the death of her husband; a pair of antagonistic old timers grudgingly come to terms with one another and their lives. Beautiful writing, with a real sense of nature, but written with a biologist's appreciation of the savageness that underlies its apparent beauty.

  • Unless, Carol Shields, 2003
    While set around the quietly domestic life of a female translator and novelist, the novel is driven by her growing anguish at the apparent breakdown in her relationship with her daughter, and her anger at the casual sexism she encounters in her working life (expressed through a series of letters that she writes during the novel). These themes are not as isolated as they appear, and they are articulated in beautifully written prose. It's a real shame that Shields died shortly after completing this novel.

  • The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford, 2006
    The "conclusion" of a trilogy of novels about the novelist / sportswriter / realtor Frank Bascombe. It probably isn't the best of the trilogy (the second novel, Independence Day, is more solid), but it's the longest, and immersion is the key here. Ford creates an internal life for Frank that's just amazingly well-realised, and the writing describing it is simply sublime. As with the "prequels", the events of the novel take place over only a few days, but the depth and texture of the writing makes it feel like you're with Frank for years (in a good way).

  • The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon, 2007
    Ah, the perils of adding a recently read novel ... I loved this trans-genre work (see here), but it's quite possible that I'll look back in bewilderment at a later date. It tries to take on the crime, noir and (possibly) science fiction genres, weave in some Jewish themes, while using literary flourishes throughout.
  • Tuesday, 11 November 2008

    Hope

    The Grauniad has an item this week about spoofs of Obama's rather stylish "HOPE" poster. Never having been one to miss a chance to goof off with Paint Shop Pro, here's my attempt at spoofing.


    Those in the know will immediately understand the significance of my message.

    Wednesday, 5 November 2008

    Fingers crossed ...

    We stayed up late (till 3:30am) to catch the results from the US elections. It afforded us an opportunity to use something that we picked up during our trip to Florida ...



    By bedtime it looked pretty clear that Obama was Whitehouse-bound; a result that was predicted by our mug, and confirmed the next morning. Since this outcome had seemed likely for much of the past two months (even if it was loudly denied to beat back complacency), it wasn't quite as exciting a final night as other elections, but it was still a blessed relief.

    That said, I do feel a bit sorry for McCain. Until he ran for the Presidency this time, I'd always (inasmuch as one can as a sporadic observer from a foreign land) had time for him, and he was an interesting and moderately non-partisan player in Washington. He'd garnered a lot of sympathy from me because of the dirty tricks played on him by the Bush campaign in the 2000 primaries (which I think many commentators seem to have forgotten about). In fact, because of this, I was initially quite afraid that he might be able to beat the Democrats by playing against Bush and his cronies. But rather than run this way, he gambled instead that he should remain quite anodyne on the Bush administration. As a result, he completely diluted the personal brand that he'd built up over the years, a dilution that was pushed to almost homeopathic levels when he appointed Sarah Palin. While that was a smart move in terms of shoring up his Republican base, it again didn't seem like the kind of thing that "maverick" McCain would have done. He'll doubtless come in for a drubbing from his much-reduced party, but much of that will likely miss the point that the only way he could have won was to play against the existing (and much disliked) party structures.

    Anyhow, Obama gets to sup from the poison chalice. I can only hope that the fate that befell 1997's popular UK poll-winners doesn't happen to him. Still, even Blair only made a few significant mistakes but, boy, were they big. Hopefully Obama's cool and collected campaign will be reflected in his tenure in the Whitehouse. We'll see.

    Tuesday, 4 November 2008

    Off to Kiel

    Spent Sunday (2nd) to Tuesday (4th) this week in Germany visiting the PI on my last contract. We've got a couple (ha!) of things to sort out on two papers we're preparing, and since he's been AWOL from NOCS for more than 2 years, a bit of face time was in order.

    Anyway, my trip took me to IFM-GEOMAR ... ... in foggy Kiel ...
    Although this was mostly a work trip, I did get a chance to wander around the city a bit. It's of comparable size to Southampton and shares many other features, like being a working port and having the crap bombed out of it during the Second World War. The latter means that a lot of it is relatively new, but there's still a lot of interesting stuff to see. Here's one of several sculptures I came across ...
    There's a more complete set of pictures up on Flickr.

    Sunday, 19 October 2008

    Autumn in the Forest

    After getting a bit lost last week in the New Forest, we returned today to make best use of the continuing good weather. This time we brought our bikes, so heading off down lanes of unknown length posed less of a problem for getting back to the car.

    Having complained to Adrian about never having seen any wild pigs in the New Forest, this trip furnished a whole herd of them ... ... although the rings through their noses were suggestive of them either being Goths or less wild than their reputation suggested. They were quite impressively sized beasts either way.

    We also took in the arboretum down Ornamental Drive for some autumnal colour (plus, obviously, lemon meringue ice cream from the car park). The latter can be seen here, but here are my "best" shots of deciduous leaf action.

    Green ...
    Yellow ...
    Red ...

    Flickr sorted

    Finally sorted out my Flickr account. Unlimited (I think) uploads beckon - quality control can safely go out of the window!

    One of the first things uploaded were the (quality controlled) photos from our recent trip to the Brecon Beacons. I've also posted up (selected) photos from Dr. Morris' birthday bash. These supplant those uploaded last week.

    Anyway, these seem to have worked out OK, although there are issues for me to sort out about image rotation and image ordering. Paint Shop Pro 7 strips the EXIF information from my photos, so makes Flickr's job organising my photos difficult. Have to think about that one - Photoshop, a possible alternative package, is a pain in the arse to use (sorry Graham).

    Thursday, 16 October 2008

    A new toy

    Our home PC is getting on for 5 years old. It's also getting on for being the slowest computer that I've used (short of my parents' Windows ME monster). Perhaps more significantly, it has become rather constraining given certain interests/addictions. Anyway, I've just ordered its replacement: a XPS 420 from Dell. Probably not the best value in the world (though it was on special offer), but our current PC, as well as several of my work PCs, have been Dell boxes and have all done pretty well, and I've had very bad experiences before with other suppliers. Still, it's not all bad news for our home PC - assuming Parcel Force's prices aren't prohibitive, it's being put out to grass with my parents (thus relieving them of the burden of Windows ME).

    Wednesday, 15 October 2008

    Palin-bonanza

    Bit of a bonanza today on on-line material about potential future VP Palin (i.e. nothing from me).

    First, a quality point-and-click website depicting her in the White House.

    Second, an interesting "concerned citizen" e-mail that appears to be doing the rounds in the US, but which (at least according to a few Republican blogs I've come across) appears to be broadly credible. I've reproduced it below for future reference (though hopefully only in a "dodged that bullet" sense).




    ABOUT SARAH PALIN
    I am a resident of Wasilla, Alaska. I have known Sarah since 1992. Everyone here knows Sarah, so it is nothing special to say we are on a first-name basis. Our children have attended the same schools. Her father was my child's favorite substitute teacher. I also am on a first name basis with her parents and mother-in-law. I attended more City Council meetings during her administration than about 99% of the residents of the city. She is enormously popular; in every way she's like the most popular girl in middle school. Even men who think she is a poor choice and won't vote for her can't quit smiling when talking about her because she is a "babe". It is astonishing and almost scary how well she can keep a secret. She kept her most recent pregnancy a secret from her children and parents for seven months. She is "pro-life". She recently gave birth to a Down's syndrome baby. There is no cover-up involved, here; Trig is her baby. She is energetic and hardworking. She regularly worked out at the gym.

    She is savvy. She doesn't take positions; she just "puts things out there" and if they prove to be popular, she takes credit. Her husband works a union job on the North Slope for BP and is a champion snowmobile racer. Todd Palin's kind of job is highly sought-after because of the schedule and high pay. He arranges his work schedule so he can fish for salmon in Bristol Bay for a month or so in summer, but by no stretch of the imagination is fishing their major source of income. Nor has her life-style ever been anything like that of native Alaskans. Sarah and her whole family are avid hunters. She's smart. Her experience is as mayor of a city with a population of about 5,000 (at the time), and less than 2 years as governor of a state with about 670,000 residents. During her mayoral administration most of the actual work of running this small city was turned over to an administrator. She had been pushed to hire this administrator by party power-brokers after she had gotten herself into some trouble over precipitous firings which had given rise to a recall campaign. Sarah campaigned in Wasilla as a "fiscal conservative".

    During her 6 years as Mayor, she increased general government expenditures by over 33%. During those same 6 years the amount of taxes collected by the City increased by 38%. This was during a period of low inflation (1996-2002). She reduced progressive property taxes and increased a regressive sales tax which taxed even food. The tax cuts that she promoted benefited large corporate property owners way more than they benefited residents. The huge increases in tax revenues during her mayoral administration weren't enough to fund everything on her wish list though, so borrowed money was needed, too. She inherited a city with zero debt, but left it with indebtedness of over $22 million. What did Mayor Palin encourage the voters to borrow money for? Was it the infrastructure that she said she supported? The sewage treatment plant that the city lacked? or a new library? No. $1m for a park. $15m-plus for construction of a multi-use sports complex which she rushed through to build on a piece of property that the City didn't even have clear title to, that was still in litigation 7 yrs later--to the delight of the lawyers involved! The sports complex itself is a nice addition to the community but a huge money pit, not the profit-generator she claimed it would be. She also supported bonds for $5.5m for road projects that could have been done in 5-7 yrs without any borrowing. While Mayor, City Hall was extensively remodeled and her office redecorated more than once. These are small numbers, but Wasilla is a very small city. As an oil producer, the high price of oil has created a budget surplus in Alaska. Rather than invest this surplus in technology that will make us energy independent and increase efficiency, as Governor she proposed distribution of this surplus to every individual in the state. In this time of record state revenues and budget surpluses, she recommended that the state borrow/bond for road projects, even while she proposed distribution of surplus state revenues: spend today's surplus, borrow for needs. She's not very tolerant of divergent opinions or open to outside ideas or compromise. As Mayor, she fought ideas that weren't generated by her or her staff. Ideas weren't evaluated on their merits, but on the basis of who proposed them.

    While Sarah was Mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire our highly respected City Librarian because the Librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. City residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter. People who fought her attempt to oust the Librarian are on her enemies list to this day. Sarah complained about the "old boy's club" when she first ran for Mayor, so what did she bring Wasilla? A new set of "old boys". Palin fired most of the experienced staff she inherited. At the City and as Governor she hired or elevated new, inexperienced, obscure people, creating a staff totally dependent on her for their jobs and eternally grateful and fiercely loyal--loyal to the point of abusing their power to further her personal agenda, as she has acknowledged happened in the case of pressuring the State's top cop (see below). As Mayor, Sarah fired Wasilla's Police Chief because he "intimidated" her, she told the press. As Governor, her recent firing of Alaska 's top cop has the ring of familiarity about it. He served at her pleasure and she had every legal right to fire him, but it's pretty clear that an important factor in her decision to fire him was because he wouldn't fire her sister's ex-husband, a State Trooper. Under investigation for abuse of power, she has had to admit that more than 2 dozen contacts were made between her staff and family to the person that she later fired, pressuring him to fire her ex-bro the r-in-law. She tried to replace the man she fired with a man who she knew had been reprimanded for sexual harassment; when this caused a public furor, she withdrew her support. She has bitten the hand of every person who extended theirs to her in help. The City Council person who personally escorted her around town introducing her to voters when she first ran for Wasilla City Council became one of her first targets when she was later elected Mayor. She abruptly fired her loyal City Administrator; even people who didn't like the guy were stunned by this ruthlessness. Fear of retribution has kept all of these people from saying anything publicly about her. When then-Governor Murkowski was handing out political plums, Sarah got the best, Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: one of the few jobs not in Juneau and one of the best paid. She had no background in oil & gas issues. Within months of scoring this great job which paid $122,400/yr, she was complaining in the press about the high salary. I was told that she hated that job: the commute, the structured hours, the work. Sarah became aware that a member of this Commission (who was also the State Chair of the Republican Party) engaged in unethical behavior on the job. In a gutsy move which some undoubtedly cautioned her could be political suicide, Sarah solved all her problems in one fell swoop: got out of the job she hated and garnered gobs of media attention as the patron saint of ethics and as a gutsy fighter against the "old boys' club" when she dramatically quit, exposing this man's ethics violations (for which he was fined). As Mayor, she had her hand stuck out as far as anyone for pork from Senator Ted Stevens. Lately, she has castigated his pork-barrel politics and publicly humiliated him. She only opposed the "bridge to nowhere" after it became clear that it would be unwise not to. As Governor, she gave the Legislature no direction and budget guidelines, then made a big grandstand display of line-item vetoing projects, calling them pork. Public outcry and further legislative action restored most of the se projects--which had been vetoed simply because she was not aware of their importance--but with the unobservant she had gained a reputation as "anti-pork". She is solidly Republican: no political maverick. The State party leaders hate her because she has bit them in the back and humiliated them. Other members of the party object to her self-description as a fiscal conservative.

    Around Wasilla there are people who went to high school with Sarah. They call her "Sarah Barracuda" because of her unbridled ambition and predatory ruthlessness. Before she became so powerful, very ugly stories circulated around town about shenanigans she pulled to be made point guard on the high school basketball team. When Sarah's mother-in-law, a highly respected member of the community and experienced manager, ran for Mayor, Sarah refused to endorse her. As Governor, she stepped outside of the box and put together a package of legislation known as "AGIA" that forced the oil companies to march to the beat of her drum. Like most Alaskans, she favors drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She has questioned if the loss of sea ice is linked to global warming. She campaigned "as a private citizen" against a state initiative that would have either a) protected salmon streams from pollution from mines, or b) tied up in the courts all mining in the state depending on who you listen to. She has pushed the State's lawsuit against the Dept. of the Interior's decision to list polar bears as threatened species. McCain is the oldest person to ever run for President; Sarah will be a heartbeat away from being President. There has to be literally millions of Americans who are more knowledgeable and experienced than she. However, there are a lot of people who have underestimated her and are regretting it.

    CLAIM VS FACT
  • "Hockey mom": true for a few years
  • "PTA mom": true years ago when her first-born was in elementary school, not since
  • "NRA supporter": absolutely true
  • social conservative: mixed. Opposes gay marriage, BUT vetoed a bill that would have denied benefits to employees in same-sex relationships (said she did this because it was unconsitutional).
  • pro-creationism: mixed. Supports it, BUT did nothing as Governor to promote it.
  • "Pro-life": mixed. Knowingly gave birth to a Down's syndrome baby BUT declined to call a special legislative session on some pro-life legislation
  • "Experienced": Some high schools have more students than Wasilla has residents. Many cities have more residents than the state of Alaska . No legislative experience other than City Council. Little hands-on supervisory or managerial experience; needed help of a city administrator to run town of about 5,000.
  • political maverick: not at all
  • gutsy: absolutely!
  • open & transparent: ??? Good at keeping secrets. Not good at explaining actions.
  • has a developed philosophy of public policy: no
  • "a Greenie": no. Turned Wasilla into a wasteland of big box stores and disconnected parking lots. Is pro-drilling off-shore and in ANWR.
  • fiscal conservative: not by my definition!
  • pro-infrastructure: No. Promoted a sports complex and park in a city without a sewage treatment plant or storm drainage system. Built streets to early 20th century standards.
  • pro-tax relief: Lowered taxes for businesses, increased tax burden on residents
  • pro-small government: No. Oversaw greatest expansion of city government in Wasilla's history.
  • pro-labor/pro-union. No. Just because her husband works union doesn't make her pro-labor. I have seen nothing to support any claim that she is pro-labor/pro-union.

    WHY AM I WRITING THIS?
    First, I have long believed in the importance of being an informed voter. I am a voter registrar. For 10 years I put on student voting programs in the schools. If you google my name (Anne Kilkenny + Alaska ), you will find references to my participation in local government, education, and PTA/parent organizations. Secondly, I've always operated in the belief that "Bad things happen when good people stay silent". Few people know as much as I do because few have gone to as many City Council meetings. Third, I am just a housewife. I don't have a job she can bump me out of. I don't belong to any organization that she can hurt. But, I am no fool; she is immensely popular here, and it is likely that this will cost me somehow in the future: that's life. Fourth, she has hated me since back in 1996, when I was one of the 100 or so people who rallied to support the City Librarian against Sarah's attempt at censorship. Fifth, I looked around and realized that everybody else was afraid to say anything because they were somehow vulnerable. CAVEATS I am not a statistician. I developed the numbers for the increase in spending & taxation 2 years ago (when Palin was running for Governor) from information supplied to me by the Finance Director of the City of Wasilla , and I can't recall exactly what I adjusted for: did I adjust for inflation? for population increases? Right now, it is impossible for a private person to get any info out of City Hall -- they are swamped. So I can't verify my numbers. You may have noticed that there are various numbers circulating for the population of Wasilla, ranging from my "about 5,000", up to 9,000. The day Palin's selection was announced a city official told me that the current population is about 7,000. The official 2000 census count was 5,460. I have used about 5,000 because Palin was Mayor from 1996 to 2002, and the city was growing rapidly in the mid-90's.

    Anne Kilkenny
    [e-mail address withheld]
    August 31, 2008
  • Sunday, 12 October 2008

    Dr M birthday

    Up in London on Saturday for Dr M's birthday. Did a spot of art stuff too ...

    First, Rothko at the Tate Modern. Can't say I was a fan beforehand. Certainly can't say I'm a fan afterwards. His sort of über-abstractism (monotone canvases labelled as "untitled [1967]") does nothing for me. In his defense, I'd say that the one bit I did (mildly) enjoy was one room from the exhibit in which a number of canvases had been hung, partially in line with his own plan for them. That kind-of gave me a hint of an inkling of what some people might see in him (i.e. whole greater than the sum of its parts), but it was small consolation for me. Still, it was a hugely popular exhibition judging from patron numbers, and everyone else did seem to be drawing a lot more from it than me.

    Next, after meeting up with Dr M and Sarah, we wandered over to the Courtauld Institute (one of Sarah's old haunts) and took part in an "art happening". Equipping ourselves with paper, pencils, chalk and charcoal, we did a bit of sketching for half an hour.

    In a postmodern vein, here's my sketch of Dr M making a sketch of me ...
    And here's my sketch of one of the dancers that the Institute laid on as subjects for visitor's to sketch ...
    It's been years and years since I did any drawing at all, so the fact these weren't completely awful (to me anyway) came as something of a relief.

    Next up was a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, not for art this time, but to use their rooftop bar. Here's the view south from the bar taking in Nelson's Column and Big Ben ...
    Finally, we washed up in a pub near the LSE for drinks, company ...
    ... and food ...

    Not just an Oasis album title

    Romance is a difficult genre to pull off in film, at least for me. In my experience, syrupy messes are the most frequent result. The best (only?) way to salvage something, and garner brownie points with me, is to aim for the tricky "romantic comedy" sub-genre.

    This Friday's DVD-in-the-post was the unlikely sounding Definitely, Maybe. Despite the anodyne description that accompanied the disc, and which almost put us off from the get-go, this was a surprisingly good addition to the stable. It didn't get off to a great start, with what appeared a treacly framing device involving the lead character's young daughter. However, this was deftly offset by giving her a sex education-inspired vocabulary and deploying it to good comic effect. The framing device itself borrows from The Princess Bride, but tells a very different story in which the lead character presents how he met his daughter's mother as a comical mystery involving three very different women. The daughter, showing a movies-only level of childhood intuition, picks up on the subtext in this tale, ultimately leading to the obligatory (if still enjoyable) happy ending.

    Particularly helping the movie's palatability is Kevin Kline in a supporting role as a lecherous novelist and sometime lover of one of the leading female characters. There's a great gag involving his being accused of leaving this character for a sophomore student, to which he responds that he did no such thing, and that it was actually two freshmen students. Acting as a foil for the lead in this way he steals laughs whenever he's on screen (even as his character is seriously ill in a hospital bed).

    Another interesting recurrent strand is the film's use of former President Clinton. The film begins with the lead working proudly on Clinton's ultimately successful campaign in 1992, but its timeline then charts the creeping disillusionment caused by the subsequent "scandals" (sidenote: which now seem completely ridiculous relative to the true scandals of the Reagan-Bush-Bush presidencies). However, despite this disillusion, the film still seems like a love letter to Bill to me. The lead character may have been let down by him, but he still loves him (even waving forlornly and unnoticed at Clinton as he, and his bodyguards, jog passed him in Central Park).

    Anyway, clearly the lesson/cliché here is not to judge a book by its cover.

    Thursday, 9 October 2008

    Testing, testing ...

    Can I link my Flickr images here without consuming my Blogger diskspace allowance ...


    ... Looks like I can. That's worth knowing.

    Art or Madness?

    Dipping once again into C's birthday stash, another intriguing read is The Reserve by Russell Banks, author of the novel that became the memorable film The Sweet Hereafter.

    Taking place in the summer of 1936, primarily within an isolated and exclusive resort for the rich (the eponymous "reserve") in the Adirondack Mountains of northeast New York state, The Reserve focuses on Jordan Groves and Vanessa Cole. The former is a self-made man, renowned for both his art and for the books that describe his travels and adventures in far-flung parts of the world. The latter is the troubled daughter of a rich family, recuperating from a divorce (and suspected breakdown) with her emotionally distant parents at their retreat within the Reserve. Despite the former having a wife and the latter possessing fragile mental health, the two are attracted to one another when Groves visits to assess the art collection of Cole's father. When Cole's father subsequently dies, her mother begins moves to put her in the care of European psychiatrists, and arranges passage for her across the Atlantic on the Hindenberg airship. However, somewhat unhinged and fearful of receiving a lobotomy, then a novel en vogue treatment, Cole kidnaps her mother and imprisons her in the family cabin at the Reserve. Quickly realising the limitations of her "plan", Cole then involves Hubert St. Germain, a local Adirondack guide, and Groves in it, with unintended but fatal consequences. Interspersing this main narrative are interludes with Groves' wife, Alicia, and St. Germain who, unbeknownst to Groves, have been conducting an affair. And bookending the novel's chapters are short flash-forward sections which follow Groves and Cole in the months immediately after the events of the main narrative.

    While written well enough, the novels falls down for me for a number of reasons. For one, the two main characters don't work at all well. Groves is a rather over-achieving and over-blown caricature of an Ernest Hemmingway figure, while Cole is an unconvincing parody of the insane-but-alluring femme fatale stereotype. Neither is particularly convincing, nor are either engaging. It's left to more peripheral characters like Groves' wife, Alicia, and her obedient lover Hubert, to establish the novel's connection to reality.

    Structurally, I found the intermittent flash-forwards rather cumbersome and damaging to the novel's narrative. While Banks tries to make their connection to the main narrative obscure at first, it doesn't take a genius to see what's going on. Furthermore, since the events that they describe are clearly heading towards a stereotyped tragic conclusion, they sort-of deflate the central narrative ahead of time. Using flash-forwards (or flash-backwards) is a not uncommon feature of modern novels, and is often used to good effect (c.f. Use of Weapons by a different Banks). But here seems a less skillful example that actually damages, rather than heightens, the central narrative. While they allow the conclusions of the events on the Reserve to coincide with the events that take place in the months that follow, that's about the only way the flash-forwards help here.

    One niggling thing that bothered me during the novel was Cole's concerns about receiving a lobotomy. While it's been known for a long time that this procedure is basically serious brain damage that mostly serves to improve patient compliance, the first lobotomy in the US was only performed in 1936 (according to the WP). So Cole's fears about the procedure (justified, as it turns out) seemed somewhat anachronistic to me. Understandable now, but rather unlikely for a society heiress in 1936. It's probably just ignorance on my part, but knowing how slowly the negative aspects of novel medical procedures become clear even today, Cole's concerns seem to indicate precognitive powers.

    Anyway, not a novel I'll be recommending any time soon.

    Sunday, 5 October 2008

    End of my mercenary days

    I should have posted this up before, but I was fortunate to bag the "marine biophysical modeller" job in the end. In fact, I officially started it earlier this week. I've still got some odds and ends to wrap up from my old job first, but I'll probably get round to starting with NEMO (my new modelling framework) later this coming week. It sounds like I've got to get a major running going pretty damn quick, so it could be quite a learning curve.

    First, though, I've got a seminar on my OCCAM work to knock out. Perhaps unwisely, I've decided to fuse two separate pieces of work together under the auspices of a talk about the joys of synthetic data (i.e. "model output"). That might just wind up annoying all of those scientists (the majority at NOCS and the world in general) who collect real data. Still, I think that modelling's viewed all too often as an after-the-fact chore that needs bolting on for "completeness" rather than something that can more directly inform studies. We'll see if my colleagues agree on Wednesday. After which, the plan is to celebrate the end of my mercenary, post-doc-for-hire days at the Platform. Doubtless there'll be photos ...

    New Amsterdam

    Every year C tries to get a couple of the contenders for the Man Booker prize under her belt before the winner is announced. One of the bookies' favourites this year was the long-listed Netherland by the Irish ex-patriot novelist Joseph O'Neill. However, against the odds, the book never made it to the short list, so C was no closer to having an opinion about this year's competition. Still, as a fêted book, I thought I'd give it a go.

    Netherland is a primarily New York-set tale concerning a Dutch banker, Hans van den Broek, his English wife, Rachel, and a businessman formerly from Trinidad, Chuck Ramkissoon. Prompted in part by the events of September 11th 2001, but foreshadowed by earlier and growing lapses in communication in their marriage, Rachel leaves Hans in New York and returns with their son to stay with her parents in England. Alone in New York, and lacking direction, Hans returns to a childhood passion for cricket, and through this strikes up an ill-defined and unlikely friendship with Chuck. Chuck's dream is to open his own cricket pitch in New York and to create the foundations for the acceptance and growth of the game in the cricket-agnostic United States. As Hans gradually fumbles his way through his disintegrating trans-Atlantic marriage, his friendship with Chuck grows, but increasingly reveals questionable aspects to Chuck's "business".

    Quite an interesting book this one, with a number of rather incongruous themes intersecting in its pages. A major theme (as outlined above) is an exploration of a dissolving marriage: the loosening of the bonds of Hans and Rachel's marriage, the no-man's land that opens up in their lives while they are separate, and their gradual coming back together. Another major theme is that of (male) friendship between Hans and Chuck: the first tentative encounters, the shared good times, but the distance that still persists between them as they keep separate the various facets of their lives. This latter aspect is used to give the novel some plot structure, by prefacing the novel with a flash-forward that reveals the demise of Chuck in questionable circumstances.

    Where the novel really succeeded for me was in its beautiful prose. O'Neill is clearly an excellent writer, and he does a great job both describing characters and events, and by blending together the themes and time-lines of the novel. His writing really is effortless as he shifts from Hans' memories of growing up in Holland, to his solo predicament in New York, to his omniscient future self looking back on the events of his time with Chuck. Many writers would simply fragment the text through chapters to achieve this, but O'Neill simply skates from one strand to another and back again (is this why the novel's cover depicts an otherwise unconnected skater?). It's great writing.

    Where the novel succeeded less well for me was what the point of it was. In blending quite disparate themes (post-9/11; male-female relationships; crime), it's not entirely clear what the reader's to draw from it. An obvious contrast can be drawn between the tense relationship between Hans and Rachel, who share much together (including a son), and the rather easy relationship that Hans forms with Chuck, who ultimately share very little in common. But this contrast is clouded by the connections to 9/11 and the criminal underworld. In the end, while I really enjoyed reading the novel, I just wasn't sure what to make of it. Each aspect on its own is telling an interesting story, but splicing them together just left me wondering if I was completely missing some key subtext.

    Still, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever O'Neill does next.

    Monday, 22 September 2008

    Malthus 30, Ducks 2

    For completeness, the final time-series for the chicks in our quad. It's a few weeks late, in part because I was hoping that the Runner would somehow return. Sadly, it was not to be. Still, I reckon that the two chicks that survived from the first brood [*] made it out alive. All I have to do now is stick around here long enough to see if they return next season ...


    [*] Although we've no evidence one way or the other, the two surviving chicks probably came from the very first brood of 7 chicks. They may have been from the coincident second brood, which had 11, but it went into such steep decline (and unrecorded; a lesson for next year) that Lisa and I didn't think that this was the case.

    Missed my anniversary

    I completely forgot to record that this past weekend marked the first anniversary of this blog. My first post was on Friday 21st September 2007, and since then I've managed a further 120 posts. That makes an average posting frequency of 3.024 days. Admittedly, 42 of those posts dealt with the at first delightful, but then tragic, tale of the ducks (in fact, I still need to post a final graph for the breeding season). Apparently, I also managed to cover 36+ books, which clocks me at one every 10 days, although the balance is, sadly, shifted heavily in favour of pulpy science fiction. Still, by my own meagre standards, I think my blog's been successful enough for me to keep going. I've never gotten into the habit of using it to record anything significant (whatever happened to the manifesto?), but there's always the future. And, with regard to my previous post, I may have a lot of time on my hands before too long ...

    The other side

    OK. Survived that. I think I did generally alright, and I didn't come unstuck with any of the questions. I may have rabbited on too much on a couple of them though, but I was able to stop myself going too far I think. Anyway, there are three other candidates, so it'll be a day or two before I know what's happening one way or the other. However it works out, I feel OK about how I got on today.

    In the pipe (again)

    Another D-Day today. This time it's the NEMO modelling position with NOCS itself. I'll be giving two short presentations (10 minutes a piece) and answering questions in just over an hour's time. As usual, I don't feel like I've prepared enough. But I suspect that nothing short of regular monthly interviews would dissipate the dread that I have when I face these. In a way, it could be argued that it's a good thing that I don't have a whole lot of experience, that I'm good enough at what I do not to require routine reassessment. But, this morning anyway, I'd much rather have had buckets of experience and be much more blasé about the whole thing. Anyway, it should all be over in a little over two hours.

    Friday, 19 September 2008

    Patron of the arts

    C's become a patron of the arts!

    For the last few years, we've been visiting a chap called John Souter in Winchester during the Hampshire Artists open-house weeks in August. He's a former engineering lecturer (if I remember correctly) who does sculpture in his spare time.

    Anyway, every year that we've visited him, all of his best pieces have already gone by the time he opens up his garden to visitors. Well, fed up with this, C asked John if he did commissions, and while he didn't take specific requests, he did promise to contact C the next time he did something that he thought she'd like. And here it is ...

    Pushkin looks on, unimpressed ...

    The sculpture's current resting place indoors ...