Thursday, 31 July 2008

Le Grande Mangez

The day after Mexican Night afforded a chance to explore the local countryside, take in some fine French cuisine (i.e. oodles of bread and cheese), and even some water-sports ...

Here, Ants and I practise our canoeing ...

Before trying out some swimming (wonderful, wonderful freshwater) ...

The second party night was a more formal affair, with an N-course dinner (where N is a large number), a further album cover quiz, an oversupply of wine / champagne, and then a series of speeches.

C and birthday-boy-18 try to work out some of the more fiendishly difficult (and potentially embarrassing) album covers ...

Birthday-boy-50 is rewarded with a speech (with embarrassing photo accompaniment) from his brother ...

The end of the evening - the prizes have been given out, and all that remains is the dance floor ...

... which, fortunately, no photographs survive from.

Lisa's Last Look

A back-dated post this time. I was away canoeing and swimming around the time this duck count was made, but it marks the last day at NOCS for Lisa, my officemate and fellow duck-counter.

Lisa came to Southampton with my current boss, Andreas, and completed her doctorate here on the planktonic iron cycle. While one can always read up on a subject from the literature, nothing beats getting a primer directly from someone who's worked on it, and Lisa was my iron contact. She developed a model for this elemental cycle that incorporated several key (if arcane) pools that interacted with (or snubbed) the normal biological components of plankton ecosystem models (AKA my bread and butter). Among other things, this model even included extremely short time-scale events such as photochemical effects. Lisa's good humoured antipathy towards the known unknowns of the iron cycle was a refreshing and wholly credible antidote to the proliferating array of confident (read "arrogant") iron cycle models clogging up the literature. While we're still quite ignorant about iron, we know enough to know that it's not a simple thing to bolt on to existing elemental cycle models. Or, rather, we should know enough - although there still appears to be plenty of researchers who'll ignore this to chase their favoured gravy train. Anyway, though I'd loosely known Lisa since her arrival at NOCS, sharing an office with her (or anyone for that matter - I'd been solo for 9 years) was something of an unknown quantity. As it turns out, we got on really well together, no doubt helped by our common interest in the engaging (not to mention tragic) antics of our quad's duck contingent. Already the office seems somewhat uncomfortably quiet. While Lisa's currently seeking work beyond the low-pay-no-future world of science research, a return to NOCS, albeit in a completely different role, is not out of the question.

Oh, for reference, all ducks present and correct.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Mexican Night ... in France

A quick hop over to Limoges for an "89th birthday party" celebrating the 50th, 21st and 18th birthdays of one of C's friends and two of his children. They were all over in France for a whole week's worth of partying, but we joined them for two specific party nights. First up: Mexican Night!

Faux-Mexican costumes were requested; dodgy (is there another kind?) moustaches were the order of the day ...

As were dodgy ponchos; here's me looking like I'm wearing Joseph's technicolour dreamcoat ...

The dodgy moustache spent much of the evening doing the rounds and being in photographs ...

After a quiz on movie posters, the party went on into the small hours of the morning ...

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Stability for ducks

No change over the weekend. We've still got 5 chicks over the full range of sizes (2; 1; 2). Interestingly, the mother of the two oldest chicks appears to have flown the coop. Perhaps she's trying to tell her offspring to get moving? No sign of that yet though. Neither has even tried to fly in the quad yet. Waddling around and sitting in the sun seems the order of the day.

Of the other chicks, the middle brood survivor is coming along in size now. It's still something of a taskmaster for its mother, and when we see them together it's routinely dragging her around the quad. We've nicknamed this chick "The Runner" because of its rather wide-ranging habits. The two youngest chicks are still delightful bundles of fluff, but they appear to be coming along fine. Unlike the Runner they tend to follow mum, not the other way around.

At the weekend, C and I saw some ducks living "in the wild" around the pub The White Swan. Interestingly, despite living in what one might believe a more dangerous environment (foxes, etc.), the broods here appeared larger. Given that the ducks in our quad even receive food, they seem to do remarkably badly. Unless there really are unseen predators taking them out. With no bodies, that does seem somewhat likely, but we've never seen anything in the quad that could be doing this.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Deflated population

While the new brood of chicks has continued to decline this week (4 then 3 on Monday; 3 then 2 on Tuesday), it seems to have bottomed out for the moment at 2 chicks, making a current quad total of 5 (2 large; 1 medium; 2 small). As the plot below shows, the drop-off in numbers of the latest brood is the fastest during the whole summer. Hopefully, however, the decline will now tail off and allow the extant chicks to mature.

In passing, the two oldest chicks are practically adult-sized now, and have taken on the colouration of adult females. That's taken them circa 80 days in total, suggesting that the most recent brood may take until early October to reach the same stage. I'm not sure how plausible that is. Time will tell.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Recording the survivors

After having 11 chicks last week, these 2 are all that remain ...

Meanwhile, the seagull chicks are doing well ...

Although their parents appear vocal on their fledging the nest ...

Meanwhile, the Runner continues to grow (and lead its mother around) ...

Monday night with the Boys

Out Monday to celebrate the acceptance of a paper by Mike Z in no less than Nature. He's done some rather careful laboratory work that finds that small eukaryotic autotrophs (flagellates) are actually moonlighting as the study system's major herbivores (grazing on bacterial cells). In fact, they are more important than closely related and co-occurring bona fide heterotrophic flagellates. Mike believes this is related to the oligotrophic status of the waters they occur in: simply put, bacterial cells are a better source of phosphorus than seawater. Coupled to the fact that bacterial cells appear better able to acquire phosphorus from seawater than the flagellates (so effectively serve as the middleman for flagellate phosphorus supply).

Anyway, photographs were taken. First up: Adrian and Mike ...

Adrian, Bablu and Mike ...

Monday, 21 July 2008

Mass extinction

Duck disaster! After recording 11 new chicks on Friday, this number has been thinned to just 4 today. That's an unprecedented rate of die-back, even considering the fate of the first two broods (down from 18 to 2 chicks). As usual, no bodies ...

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Birthday presents

By way of augmenting/replacing my memory, C's birthday present list:

Before the winnowing

Some photographs of our new duck brood ...

On the march

Lead the way

Swimming in their drinking dish

Just the chicks

And from the older broods ...

Brood 1: Looking like mum now

Brood 2: Still some growth to go

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Filmic folly?

We saw an interestingly dividing film last night, The Fountain. C hated it, while I really liked it. A surprising and uncommon result, although given the film's adoption of science fiction elements, perhaps not so surprising after all!

The linked Wikipedia article does a good job on the film, but by way of brief plot summary ... In the past, a conquistador sent by the Spanish Queen seeks out the Tree of Life in the jungles of New Spain, sworn to find eternal life for her. In the future, an astronaut tending a dying tree travels to a nebula containing a dying star, an event that will trigger the rebirth of the tree. In the present, an oncologist is in a race against time to develop a cure for his wife's cancer, against the backdrop of her growing acceptance of her fate.

If that all makes the film sound overblown and pretentious, well, I don't think that's entirely possible to dodge. C certainly wasn't impressed, and found the film, with its frequent flits between this triptych, to be both confusing and heavy-handed. Even I found that it walked the fine line between heartfelt and overwrought a little too carelessly at points. However, as a sucker for existential films of love and death, especially ones which incorporate science fiction elements, I loved it.

As becomes clear during the film, the past and future narratives are allegorical in nature, and are guided by the male lead's raw passion to secure eternal life for his Queen (the past), and his philosophical realisation of the limits of life and the transcendence of love (the future). Elements from the story in the present are incorporated as icons in the allegorical streams: the plant-derived, cancer-curing chemical becomes the Tree of Life in the past, and the dying tree of the future; a nebula identified by the dying wife becomes a placemarker for a Mayan temple in the past, and the destination for the astronaut in the future; the wedding ring that the oncologist misplaces in the present is given to the conquistador to symbolise the Queen's promise to marry him, and its absence is recorded by a tattoo on the astronaut's ring finger in the future.

As the film progresses, the conquistador narrative is revealed through a novel that the wife is writing, a novel that she wishes her husband to finish when she is gone. The astronaut narrative appears instead to be the husband's fantasy for saving his wife, possibly even his completion of her novel. It is infused with elements from the present and the novel's imagined past. As the film approaches its conclusion, the astronaut reluctantly appears to gain enlightenment about the fate of his dying tree, and the narrative briefly fuses with that of the conquistador. A Mayan priest sees the enlightened astronaut as the First Father, the god who gave his life to start creation. This allows the conquistador to find the Tree of Life, but it is not what it appears, and instead sparks a rebirth. These allegorical outcomes are bound to the oncologist's acceptance of his wife's death in the present.

Although the foregoing could be described (and was last night) as heavy-handed, it is achieved through subtext rather than any direct exposition. It is left to the viewer to draw out the connections, or rather, the connections that they perceive. So what I've written above may be a complete misinterpretation of the film, but it stands as a response to its art.

I can't finish up without mentioning the art direction of the film. While the past and present are mostly seen through darkened jungles or laboratories, the future is bizarrely beautiful in its representation. The astronaut is a shaven-headed monk-like figure, while his spaceship is a glass sphere, almost like a snowglobe. His journey, especially as it approaches its end and the dying star, is quite fantastic, in both senses. The imagery at this point shifts between science fiction and Buddhism, while the (relatively spare) musical score pulses the narrative towards its conclusion.

Overall, not a film that's likely to find much of an audience. Quasi-existential treatments of undying love between people rarely make the top of the box office. But brilliant. At least in 50% of the house (the cat's view is unrecorded).

High opera

A new operatic author to report on: Peter F. Hamilton, and his 2004 novel Pandora's Star.

It is 2380 and, after the development of wormhole technology by a pair of Californian slackers, humanity has colonised hundreds of neighbouring planets, and united almost all of them in an interstellar Commonwealth. Life continues much as it did in the twenty-first century, but leaps in biotechnology means that citizens can live forever through infrequent "rejuvenations", or survive death itself through the electronic storage of their mind states. Humanity has also met aliens: friendly ones like the High Angel, a sentient spaceship; disinterested ones like the Raiel; and mystical ones like the Silfen, who communicate in near-riddles and appear capable of travelling without wormholes. However, there are other aliens too. One of these is known only through its crashed spacecraft on the contested world of Far Away. And now, hundreds of light-years from the Earth (and the same number of years in the past), a distant pair of stars suddenly disappear to human astronomers. Looking in the infra-red, however, the stars appear to still exist, but are now surrounded by a shell. Scientists immediately suggest Dyson spheres, but when a tenacious old astronomer jumps to a distant Commonwealth planet to observe the construction of the sphere [*] he discovers that it appeared instantaneously. Confronted by such unimaginable technology, the Commonwealth assembles a spacecraft, something wormhole technology hasn't made necessary in centuries, and brings together a diverse crew to pilot it to the distant stars.

Against this backdrop, the novel weaves a large number of other plot strands. In one, a gifted police investigator who solves all of her cases, Paula Myo, is continually thwarted by a 130 year old one. In another strand, we follow her antagonists, Bradley Johansson and Adam Elvin, as they plot the liberation of Far Away, while spinning a conspiracy theory about the role of an alien, Starflyer, at the heart of human affairs. The novel also follows the adventures of one of the Californian slackers, Ozzie Isaacs, as he travels the paths of the Silfen aliens to learn more about them and what they know about the shelled stars. And in one of the more interesting strands, the life and times of the alien MorningLightMountain provides a counterpoint to the human stories.

The novel is high space opera, taking in an impressively imaginative sweep of planets, technology and aliens. This sweep is, at first, something of a hindrance, since readers are initially presented with a scattergun view of the novel's world, and the disparate plot strands are often interrupted by lengthy visits to other, seemingly unrelated strands. Seasoned readers of this genre will know to hang in there, enjoy the ride and wait for later enlightenment. As it happens, full enlightenment requires the reading of the novel's sequel (see later), but the novel is structured well enough to support this longer narrative.

In terms of its writing, the novel is something of a page-turner, and falls somewhere between Neal Asher and Alastair Reynolds in terms of writing quality. Nearer the former if I was being critical. Like many science fiction authors, while Hamilton is brilliant on the ideas and the world-building, characterisation is not his strong suite. The novel runs along great when it's purely plot-driven, but often stalls unconvincingly whenever it veers into character-character interactions. Particularly where they're of a more intimate nature. This contrasts with other space opera authors: Iain Banks easily handles characters; Alastair Reynolds is less sure-footed, but appears to know this is a weak-spot and typically avoids long digressions into characterisation (at times to the point where his novels feel almost set within "The World Without Romance").

Not, of course, that this novel should really be judged on the basis of its literary merits. As space opera it's excellent. The set-up is intriguing; the gradual unveiling of details of Hamilton's world keeps the reader moving headlong into it; and its all done with a commendable lightness of touch and a degree of satire. Crooked deals between aristocrats and governments in the future are presented as much the same as those of today. Meanwhile, relationship politics (MF, MM and FF; the novel presents characters covering the spectrum) now have to contend with massively extended human lifespans.

The handling of this latter technology is interesting in the novel. While longevity is frequently seen as a bad thing in speculative fiction (a relation of this theme is even a key part of the political backdrop to my purely imaginary science fiction novel), here it's presented more positively, although Hamilton also illustrates its pitfalls. As suggested already, it creates interesting questions for personal relationships (age/experience gaps between partners can now extend to centuries; even while the older partner, through rejuvenation technology, is physically younger). Rejuvenated characters also frequently remark on how refreshing (though sometimes tiresome or childish) so-called first-lifers are. And it's clear that inherited wealth (technically not inherited, since you didn't die) makes for some very large socio-economic gradients. First-lifers find themselves born into a world in which the financial topography seems as fixed and permanent as mountain ranges. Though there are these issues to the technology, an undercurrent (one that Hamilton has alluded to in interviews) is that longer lives lead to a greater degree of stability in society. And the ability to "recover" from death means that risky thrill-taking (such as the high-altitude gliding one of the characters undertakes for fun) still goes on to stir one's life up.

Overall, a very enjoyable romp. Not as surefooted at Banks or Reynolds, but its imagination more than makes up for that. Dare I say the new Asher? (At least for this blog) The sequel awaits my reading of another book (Pigs In Heaven), but I'm very sure I'll get to it soon.

[*] Instantaneous travel via wormholes would obviously let you do this by jumping ahead of light. In this way, it would be possible (were wormholes possible; something of a longshot at this point) to witness the same event as many times as you wanted. I suspect Hamilton is perhaps showing something of this character's lateral thinking. In an age of wormholes, only he realises that he can watch the events around the stars for a second time.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Chick bonanza

I got a rather pleasant surprise this morning when I looked into the quad and saw 11 new chicks foraging around with their mother. This brings the current chick total to 14. Of course, attrition being what it is, it'll be interesting to see how many survive the weekend, but it's certainly nice to see tiny chicks running around again. Photographs to follow.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Holding steady

The duck count is holding steady this week at 3 chicks: two large from the first brood; one small from the latter brood. The large chicks are approaching full size now, and with a colouration that quite closely matches that of their mother (do young male ducks look like fully grown male ducks?). Hopefully this all means that the quad will successfully fledge three chicks this summer. Of course, the Rev. Malthus might have something to say about the longer term consequences of two ducks successfully producing three chicks ...

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Birthday cycle ride

Breakfast: awaiting a greasy spoon at The Platform ...

Patience: waiting for the Hythe Ferry (note the specially decorated birthday bike to right) ...

Tradition: obligatory flutter on the races ...

Racing ahead: Tony and C take the lead ...

Rest stop: a Beaulieu drinking establishment ...

Our destination: Picnic at Hatchet Pond ...

Friday, 11 July 2008

Birthday trip to London

As has become traditional for birthdays, we took a trip up to London to catch some of the latest exhibitions at the Tates. We saw a great ones on orientalism and photography, and a truly terrible one of Cy Twombly's work. Poor aesthetic, ugly2 technique, indecipherable content - very much "travelling up my own arse" territory. Still, it was a great day out. And some photos too ...

The new Martin Creed at Tate Britain. Basically, every hour for half an hour a succession of runners sprint down the main axis of the gallery. Dodging visitors and being illegally photographed along the way. The work is supposed inspired by a just-before-closing-time sprint Creed and his friends did around a catacomb of priestly remains in somewhere I can't remember. Creed wanted to capture to the joie de vivre that this sprint instilled. I know exactly what he means. And the piece certainly grabbed the attention of visitors to the gallery.

Fun with murals outside of Tate Modern.

C and Ann: our London fellow art lover.

A fantastic interactive light-and-music installation just outside the Royal Festival Hall. It consisted of about 36 (6x6) pillars with LEDs on one side of them. The LEDs responded to electronic music that's being played, and there appeared to be a weaker interaction with people walking around the pillars. Anyway, as an aesthetic experience it was absolutely brilliant.

Monday, 7 July 2008


Another week, another duck update. Despite some pretty awful weather over the weekend (which, to be fair, would traditionally be described as "good weather for ducks"), our chick count is still 3 (2; 1). No new photographs just yet, but here's an updated version of my chick count graph ...

This now shows the arrival of the second "wave" of duck chicks (after day 110), but also their attrition to a single chick (by day 130). Still, the surviving chick from the most recent brood has lasted quite a long time now, and with a mother all to itself may make it to the finish line (fingers crossed).

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Shades of grey

Although I love cinema, I rarely (once so far; and for a film entitled Once!) write about what I see there. Basically, I find it hard enough to keep up with the relatively few books that I read without describing any of the many more films that I see. However, every now and then a film comes along that's worth writing about. Gone Baby Gone is one of them.

The film centres on a private investigator, Patrick Kenzie, who is drawn into a missing child investigation by the child's aunt and uncle. The crime has taken place in one of Boston's rougher suburbs and Kenzie, still a resident having grown up there, has the local knowledge that might find the child. Initially mistrusted by the investigating police officers, Kenzie's familiarity with the area pays off, and he and his partner (who is also his girlfriend) soon come to play a crucial role in the investigation. As they delve deeper into the events surrounding the child's abduction, the grim circumstances of the child's life become clearer.

Without going into detail about the film, it is fundamentally a morality play, firmly grounded within the crime genre. While the latter aspect is handled brilliantly and makes for an engaging film in of itself, the former is where the film is more successful and much more interesting.

From the moment that the child's mother is introduced, it's clear that the film-makers are trying to achieve something more significant than a police procedural. Given the circumstances, the mother is a character that one might expect to empathise with, but her portrayal here completely defies such an instinct. Succinctly described by one character as a "crack whore", she presents a series of problems to viewers expecting an easy ride.

But the film goes further still, presenting conflicting views of "Old Testament" justice, and climaxing with a brilliantly balanced moral dilemma. While the film has Kenzie ultimately "doing the right thing", at least in my judgement, another primary character makes the opposite judgement. And I would imagine that some viewers could quite easily take a different view to my own. In fact, examining my own instincts, I suspect that, confronted with the situation in the film, I might pragmatically make the opposite judgement to that I feel is right.

In passing, while viewers may feel that the Kenzie's decision sets the scene for future problems, in a coda to the main action, the film softens the future by suggesting that his continuing interest in the case, and in the consequences of his actions, may still lead to an ultimately positive outcome.

But, much like a large fraction of the film, this is only implied; just a shade of grey in a moral world far from black and white.

Postscript: I forgot to mention a further point about my reaction to the film. Some reviewers have drawn out the parallels with the earlier film, Mystic River, which shares the same source novelist, and the overlaps many of the same themes. Having seen both films, it'd be remiss of me not to say something about the intercomparison.

From a purely narrative point of view, Mystic River is slightly less satisfying, since it becomes clear long before the end that a tragedy is gradually working itself out. Fine if you like tragedy, but just gruelling if you're tired of the genre. By contrast, the outcome of Gone Baby Bone is far less clear, and though the plot appears to abruptly change direction at several points, it's really the working out of well-placed strands in the story.

For me, Mystic River has a major flaw in one of the closing scenes of the film, a flaw that greatly diminishes its power (especially because of its timing). The wife of one of the main characters, someone who has practically been part of the wallpaper until this point, suddenly transforms into a Lady Macbeth archetype, and delivers a powerful but completely misplaced speech that absolves her husband of his wrongdoing. My guess is that this was included because it is an important scene in the novel, but one which is gradually led up to through a carefully-crafted backstory. In isolation, it's as if someone has jump-cut in footage from another movie which just happens to share the same actors. Possibly a producer-error rather than one by the director, but with Clint Eastwood helming, it's likely that he got final cut.

Gone Baby Gone wins out any day here. While helped by a strong screenplay, Ben Affleck has done a sterling job directing his first full length feature film. Given that his acting career has been languishing of late, it's all the more impressive.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Avian photo round-up

A quick round-up of photographs from this week in the quad ...

The newly-emerged gull chicks on the roof opposite our office. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their precarious position, and unlike the duck chicks, these guys seem to test out their wings from an early age.

The gulls again, this time with mum/dad.

The sole surviving chick from the most recent brood. While the earlier broods spent much of their time following their mothers around, this chick instead drags its mother around the quad.

Mother and chick sunning themselves.

A swimming lesson.

The two survivors from the original brood enjoying their water trough.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Back to the Glitter Band

Another posting, another science fiction novel. The Prefect is a further Alastair Reynolds novel, again set within his Revelation Space universe, albeit at an earlier point in its history. While the last of his novels that I reviewed, Chasm City, took place against the backdrop of a ruined Glitter Band, Reynolds' The Prefect takes place at an earlier time when the Band is still fully operational. For reference, the Glitter Band is an orbital ring of 10,000 separate habitats (space stations) around the planet Yellowstone.

The eponymous Prefect is Tom Dreyfus, a senior operative working for the Glitter Band organisation known as Panoply. Working in large part to coordinate the complicated democracy of the Glitter Band, Panoply is the closest it has to a police force, although security is only an occasional task for Panoply and its remit prevents it from acting against the often perverse internal activities of Glitter Band habitats. The novel opens with Dreyfus investigating two seemingly unrelated crimes, the first an infringement of Glitter Band democracy, the second the destruction of one of the Band's habitats. Both first appear as open and shut cases, but the latter lacks a credible motive, a fact that Dreyfus latches onto and doggedly pursues. While his investigations gradually uncover deeper machinations, the conspiracy that links the two crimes is accelerated, and powerful forces are unleashed into the Glitter Band. Faced with an overwhelming enemy, and hampered by both the restrictions placed on Panoply and a mole operating within it, Dreyfus is forced to revisit the events surrounding an earlier Panoply debacle, and to the realisation of his involvement in it. There he finds a dark secret from history, a key into his own past and an unlikely ally in the fight to save the Glitter Band.

Similarly to Chasm City, The Prefect makes good use of settings and events that are only alluded to in other Revelation Space novels. Also similarly, The Prefect is an isolated one-off novel with a fresh cast, and so avoids the flaws of the main sequence of his Revelation Space series. Structurally, the novels have less in common: The Prefect is more conventional than the time-split narrative of Chasm City, and instead has a simple, forward time-stream broken into a small number of strands that follow major characters.

By its setting at a much earlier point in the history of Revelation Space, The Prefect allows us to see the Glitter Band at its highest point, completely free of the Melding Plague that would later engulf it. Reynolds writes the Glitter Band as a democratic but anarchic mixture of societies, one that includes habitats where occupants can volunteer to be enslaved or fatally hunted. That such places exist in the Glitter Band allows Reynolds to explore just how far democracy can and should go, while also providing one of his antagonists with a defensible motive for the "sensible" actions that he takes.

The setting also allows Reynolds to have some fun with technologies that the Melding Plague would later render extinct because of their dangerous limitations. The most obvious of these is so-called Quickmatter, a nanotech material that can quasi-intelligently organise and repair itself, and from which even clothing is made. Reynolds also directly tackles his Alpha- and Beta-level simulations of people by featuring three as major characters. That Tom Dreyfus is, at least initially, sceptical of the sentience of Beta-levels allows some digression into this aspect of Glitter Band technology.

Overall, another worthy addition to Reynolds' canon. Both entertaining in its own right and, much like Chasm City, fitting in nicely with the rest of Revelation Space.