Sunday, 31 August 2008

No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die!

Part two in my series where I shamelessly read my way through C's birthday books. This time it's the new James Bond novel Devil May Care, by noted literary novelist Sebastian Faulks ("writing as Ian Fleming").

In a rundown part of Paris, an immigrant drug-dealer is murdered in a brutal, but seemingly trademark fashion. Meanwhile, Bond is on medical leave in southern Europe, where he runs into, but turns down, the attractive wife of a banker (a declined opportunity that even Bond can't believe). Returning to London, he is quickly brought up to speed on a suspected drug-lord called Dr. Gorner, a British-educated Lithuanian, who switched sides during the Second World War and who has a curiously deformed left hand, a "monkey's paw". Sent to Paris to meet Gorner, Bond again meets the banker's wife, Scarlett, who reveals herself as someone seeking his services against Gorner, who runs her sister, Poppy, as a drug mule. Bond stages a meeting with Gorner at a tennis club, where they play a game together, a game which Gorner's henchman, Chagrin, attempts unsuccessfully to swing for Gorner. Bond is then sent to Persia to follow the drug connection, where he meets up with Darius, the UK's local contact. A tip-off from Poppy sends Bond to a Caspian Sea port where he discovers an amphibious plane, advanced Soviet technology but with British markings. Visiting the plane for a second time, this time with Scarlett who was also tipped-off by Poppy, Bond is not so lucky and is captured by Gorner. Flown to a secret airbase in the Persian desert, Gorner reveals his plan to bring down Britain by flooding it with drugs and by provoking an international incident with the Soviet Union. For an extra dash of credibility, Gorner forces Bond onto an aircraft destined to be shot down by the Soviets to spark this incident. However, the plan fails when Scarlett secretly infiltrates this plane, and Darius is able to warn London about the amphibious plane. Parachuting to safety from the doomed aircraft, Bond and Scarlett find themselves marooned within Russia, but make their way to Finland with the help of a anti-Soviet trawler captain, eliminating Chagrin along the way. Back in the west, Bond attempts to meet up with a French contact but is ambushed by Gorner. Taking advantage of Gorner's embarrassment at his deformed hand, Bond turns the tables on him, forcing him to dive into the Seine where he is killed by the paddle wheel of a steamer. With Britain saved, Scarlett reveals herself as a British agent, thus explaining her impeccable timing and sharpshooting ability. Bond finally gets to take up the offer of Scarlett's that he previously declined. The End.

Much like the films and, I presume, Fleming's original novels, Faulks' novel follows the standard narrative structure. The only things missing, and these might be an invention of the films, are the opening action set-piece and the closing "James Bond will return in ..." legend. It seems stupid to me now, but until a newspaper dissection pointed this out, I'd never thought through just how narrowly formulaic the Bond stories actually are. Perhaps I just enjoyed them too much.

Anyway, this novel doesn't disappoint Bond fans. All of the familiar details are in there, and the novel even finds time to squeeze Bond's old ex-CIA chum, Felix Leiter, into the action. Faulks is clearly is fan, and references a fair bit of Bond lore in passing, including nods to Goldfinger and Hugo Drax among others. And he does a very competent job of the Bond oeuvre, the high living, expensive tastes, exotic locales, faintly camp enemies, dastardly henchmen, hi-tech weaponry, and so on. From what I've heard about the novel in reviews, Faulks has excelled in capturing (or is that pastiching) Fleming's style, and I can believe it.

A couple of other details interested me. As already noted, Gorner is something of a camp villain, and there are a couple of places in the novel that hint of homophobic attitudes. I think that might just be Faulks allowing his style to ape that of Fleming, or Fleming's time, a little too closely. There's also a streak of amusing Francophobia there too, with a subplot in which Bond's French counterpart, Rene Mathis, wrapped up with his fine dining and mistress, makes precisely zero headway in a parallel investigation, while Bond manages to begin, engage with, and close his investigation in the same time-frame.

Another interesting aspect is that Faulks seems to have included a few subversive details along the way (subversive, that is, to the "Bond worldview"). Rather than being staunch allies, the CIA are presented as fairweather friends, keen to get Britain to join them in their Vietnam adventure, and not above allowing Britain to take a hit to nudge it in their direction. Similarly, the character Darius gives a potted history of Persia/Iran that is, rightly, unflattering for Britain. However, these hinted details aren't allowed to interfere with the narrative, but I think they do represent Faulks having a little bit of fun with the Bond legacy. One of the weaknesses of Bond, and something that has been successfully inverted by the Jason Bourne films, is its portrayal of an unambiguous black hat-white hat world, something very much at odds with the known history of intelligence organisations. Still, I'm guessing that one of the terms and conditions for Faulks writing this novel was that he didn't subvert Bond along these lines. I'm guessing that it would be too easy to do this for it to be fun for Faulks anyway.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see if Faulks picks this up again. Rather like successful actors slumming it in pot-boiler studio projects to subsidise scripts closer to their hearts, I'd imagine that there would be advantages for Faulks' literary work from cranking out another Bond novel. Although the apparent success of this novel may mean that he's already set-up for life. We'll see.

Friday, 29 August 2008


A quick duck update. The Runner is still with us, but looks like he/she still has a bit of growth to go before leaving the quad is an option. The seagull chicks, however, appear to have finally gone. I don't think I've even seen them this week. They could be hiding on the other side of the roof, since I can't access a viewpoint for there, but up till now they've split their time between the two sides.

In other roof news, although there doesn't appear to have been an increase in seagull activity (in fact, it seems the reverse), there's certainly been an increase in guano production. The roof opposite has gone from slate grey to a rather speckled appearance. This happened last year too, and required a good dose of autumnal rain to sort it out. The strange thing is that it does seem to have happened in the absence of any change in seagull activity. Perhaps NOCS serves as an overnight rest-stop for seagulls who've spent the day gorging at the local dump or something? Clearly the world is just full of mysteries ...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Love letter to Twee-town

I'm now working my gradual way through the books that I bought C for her birthday (I'm sure that there's something ethically dubious about buying presents that you then get to use). First up, A Boy Of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews (which, according to the WP, is pronounced "Tayvz"; how does the written form of a name come to depart from its pronunciation so badly?)

Hosea Funk (comedy name #1) is the mayor of Algren in Canada, not just a small town, but statistically almost as small a town as towns can get. After Canada's prime minister rashly promises to visit Canada's smallest town, Hosea's mission is to keep Algren's population at exactly 1500, and his duties expand to include regular checks on the pregnant and the dying, and the redrawing of the town's boundaries to include or exclude necessary or superfluous citizens. The root of this obsession to win this visit lies with a story that Hosea's mother once told him, that the prime minister is actually his father. Meanwhile, Knute (comedy name #2), a former resident of Algren has had enough of Winnipeg and is returning to live with her mother and her ailing father. In further consternation to Hosea, she's bringing her young daughter, Summer Feelin' (comedy name #3), and there are rumours that the estranged father, Max, is also winding his way back to Algren from Europe. However, Hosea's demographic troubles also lie closer to home - his girlfriend Lorna wants to leave the city and move in with him. Can Hosea keep his citizens in check? And can Knute and Max bury the hatchet?

As the description above implies, this novel has something of a spiritual connection with the small town Americana epitomised by the likes of Northern Exposure and (the comedy elements of) Twin Peaks. All of the characters are fairly likeable, and all are pretty quirky in various ways. Among others, there's Max's mother, an alcoholic famed for periodically driving her combine harvester up and down the town, and the town's fire chief, a widower with an existential crisis that requires he sleep with more women.

The plot is similarly quite quirky, and never really deviates much from where you expect it to go when it starts off. That's not necessarily a problem at all, and it would describe any number of novels, but the rest of the novel is pretty slight. There is a small amount of character development along the way, but it's difficult to discern if there are any deeper themes here. There's almost an interesting relationship between Hosea and his dying friend Tom, but it's handled with almost too light a touch, such that one neither quite gets the point of it nor engages particularly with either character, despite the somewhat tragic situation. Equally, while the novel is quite whimsical, it never fully adopts this as its mode either, so it sits uncomfortably for me.

So, although it was quite fun to read, it's very much at the lighter end of literature, but it doesn't really make its lightness a virtue, or convince you that's what it's trying to do. Possibly it just didn't quite work out the way that the author intended - it's only her second novel after all. And her later novel, A Complicated Kindness, seems to have been much more successful (C really liked it when she read it).

In passing, a rant. While Knute is, I think, supposed to be a likable character, she frequently just wound up annoying me, what with her laziness when she was supposed to be working for Hosea, and with the rather hippy-ish choice of name for her daughter. If that was supposed to be endearingly quirky, it misfired badly with me - all I could think about whenever Summer Feelin' turned up was the drubbing she'd be getting when she went to school. If you like a dumb name, get a deed poll and inflict it on yourself, not on your children.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

And then there was one

It looks like the two eldest chicks in the quad are definitely gone for good (well, at least until next season - they seem to come back to breed each year). Meanwhile, the Runner is still biding his/her time in the quad, and is currently in the large water trough. Hatched around a month later than the eldest chicks, the Runner should be ready to leave the quad before the end of September. Perhaps we'll be leaving NOCS at the same time?

Monday, 25 August 2008

Pigs In Heaven

Not something that you expect from a writer of literary fiction, but Barbara Kingsolver wrote a sequel to her novel The Bean Trees. Called Pigs In Heaven, it picks up and continues the story of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle.

The novel begins with an incident involving Taylor and Turtle at the Hoover Dam that attracts the attention of the local press, and ultimately gets the pair onto an edition of Oprah. Afterwards, while they gradually slip back into their daily anonymous lives, the programme is seen by a young and ambitious Native American lawyer, Annawake Fourkiller. Seeing an echo of traumas from her own past in the life of Turtle, she tracks down and visits Taylor, who she puts the wind up of by questioning the irregularities of Turtle's adoption. Fearful of losing Turtle, Taylor takes her and goes on the run, abandoning her easy-going boyfriend, Jax. However, life on the road is more difficult than she anticipates, and their adventure quickly becomes a litany of temporary jobs and poverty line surfing. Meanwhile, Taylor's mother, Alice, attempts to track down Annawake to explore the legal alternatives on offer. Alice is helped by a blood connection to the Cherokee Nation, and family that coincidentally lives in the same Oklahoma town as Annawake. Further in the background, Cash, a Native American artisan tired of working in the tourist traps of Jackson, Wyoming, decides to return to home to Oklahoma to his tribe and whatever remains of his destroyed family there. Of his two daughters, one is an abused alcoholic long gone, while the other is dead, and he has no idea what became of his grand-daughter. With everyone converging on the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, there's a lot of scope for unanticipated meetings and endings.

In large part, the novel is very similar in texture and tone to its predecessor. Narratively, it shares the same multiple strand structure, although the connections are more obvious, so their binding together is more inevitable. Because it's a sequel, and because its central plotline (the possibly illegal adoption of Turtle) is identified early on, it's much more straightforward than The Bean Trees. While there are some unexpected developments along the way, where the novel ends up comes as no surprise. But this isn't a bad thing, and its a worthy sequel to the original novel.

However, it's still odd that the original novel was sequelised at all - it just isn't the sort of novel that one expects to see a follow-up for. My own (retrospective) theory is that the root of this novel is what appears a rather minor and glossed-over detail in The Bean Trees, the origin of Turtle. The first novel has a number of concerns, a major one being its commentary on events in Central America. That Turtle just happens to be of Native American descent is lost among these larger themes. C picked up on it, but I, not trained in even the less subtle aspects of equal opportunities, completely missed it (in my defense, Kingsolver really doesn't make a big deal of it). However, any Native American readers aren't likely to have seen it that way, and the adoption of one of their children by a white woman, however good-willed, is liable to have stirred up memories of events in this community. These are dealt with explicitly in Pigs In Heaven through the life history of Annawake, whose brother was "adopted" by a white family. Reading this, it's clear that what seemed a passing detail in The Bean Trees is actually an open wound for the Native American community. Now, given the way that The Bean Trees plays out, I doubt that Kingsolver originally intended to produce a sequel that picked this up. It seems more likely to me that her first novel inadvertently touched on this issue, producing a reaction that led to Pigs In Heaven. Having read several of her novels now, Kingsolver strikes me as someone who wouldn't let such a misstep lie, and would go out of her way to correct it, and draw attention to such a community-related issue.

With everything else that America stands for, good and bad, it's very easy to forget about the rich Native American cultures that were practically annihilated along the way. Having visited quite a bit of the US myself, I can certainly vouch that Native American culture is in large part invisible. So this novel acts as something of a salient corrective. It has certainly reminded me that while "red indians" seem a thing of the past, they emphatically aren't.

On an unrelated, astronomical sidenote, the eponymous Pigs in Heaven refer to the stars of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. It's explained in the novel that there are six pigs (one of the low magnitude Seven Sisters is dropped), and that they represent six lazy boys that were turned into pigs and cast into the heavens in a Cherokee legend.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

End of the Olympics

To mark the end of the Beijing Olympics, and to pave the way for the UK's hosting of the games in 2012, Southampton had a bit of a sports and culture event at its Civic Centre. As well as some gymnasts and a team of cheerleaders, Southampton's Chinese community provided a dragon.

Here's Southampton's mayor painting in the dragon's eyes in order to "bring it to life" ...

And here's it doing the dancing around outside of the Civic Centre ...

The Runner ...

... is last man standing. It looks like the elder cohort has stretched its wings and headed off into the wider world, but looking at the pictures below, it's clear that the Runner's wings have got a bit more growing to do before he/she can take the same step.

Solitary swimming

You can't fly with these

Friday, 22 August 2008

Ducks gone?

This week started with all three remaining chicks in the quad. In fact, in a rare display of (unphotographed) tolerance, I saw all three bobbing around in their water trough together.

However, after Tuesday, there's been no sign of the two older chicks, and bar what sounded like the Runner on Thursday, there's been no sign of him/her since Wednesday. There has been a lot of guttering action in the quad this week, but I would still expect to have seen the chicks at some point most days.

Death or departure then?

Whoops - stop the press! I've just clocked the Runner in the small pond. Looking a bit lonely, but otherwise appearing fine. That's a bit of a relief since, unlike the two older chicks, I didn't think that the Runner was able to leave the quad under his/her own steam, so was beginning to think the worst.

Never get attached enough to animals that you name them. That appears to be the main lesson to draw from life (= death) in the quad.

Anyway, I'll try to snap off a photograph of the Runner before I depart today. Assuming he/she hangs around long enough. The Runner isn't quite as active now that his/her mother's upped sticks and left.

In the pipe

Well, I've just this minute fired off my latest, and probably last, attempt to stay in the financially lucrative and high prestige world of science ...

The position I've applied for is entitled "marine biophysical modeller", and the role will be to run, analyse and publish biogeochemical aspects of the new NEMO model. In something of a change from my current position, this is a step up the scientific food chain. That has salary benefits, but brings with it pretty big expectations about getting funding. From the job specification, a day or so a week would be spent chasing cash. That's quite a change for me. Still, it comes to all research scientists sooner or later and, to be fair, I've dodged this particular "bullet" for a long time now.

Anyway, the plan appears to be that interviews will take place next month (September), and if I'm successful I should be in-post in time for the end of my current position. Of course, if I'm not successful, well, that'll see the start of an altogether new career, possibly in high street retail!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Betrayed by Judas?

We're back in sequel-land, this time with Judas Unchained by Peter Hamilton, the follow-up to Pandora's Star.

By the end of Pandora's Star, humanity has triggered the collapse of the barrier that surrounds Dyson Alpha, releasing the aliens known as the Primes, and fomenting a devastating attack on Earth's colonies by the Prime known as MorningLightMountain. Meanwhile, only slight progress has been made by Bradley Johansson and Adam Elvin in their attempts to blow the Starflyer conspiracy. And Californian slacker Ozzie has just sailed off of the edge of a water world, seemingly catastrophically.

Judas Unchained begins with these, and many other, threads all up in the air. By its end, the influence of the Starflyer has been revealed, MorningLightMountain has been beaten back to Dyson Alpha and life is returning to normal in the Commonwealth.

While still an enjoyable science fiction romp, firmly in the high opera camp, much of the original novel's promise is, well, diluted by the sequel. First of all, it's far, far too long. While it weighs in only a little longer than the first installment, it replaces set-up and world creation, which are definitely strengths of the first novel, with a long-winded and occasionally tedious unravelling of various plot elements. The unravelling compounds this mistake of being largely action-driven, as if a long chain of fast-paced (i.e. confusing) sequences is somehow a substitute for gradual build-up and scene-setting.

Another mistake the novel makes, or rather continues, is its rather random switching between long stretches spent in different strands. It's even clearer in the sequel that Hamilton should have broken the strands into shorter sections so that one never completely lost touch with the developments in each. Here, strands can be left unattended for tens of pages, and it's made worse when Hamilton uses the return to a strand an an opportunity to instantaneously bump it forwards a bit. It may have been better to supplant some of the violence-laden passages with actual narrative development.

A bigger disappointment for me was the novel's banishing of two of the more interesting characters to only occasional sidenotes or mentions. The alien MorningLightMountain gets rather short shrift this time around, with the most interesting bits (including its fate) being only hinted at by the end. The artificial intelligence known as the SI gets similar treatment, possibly only so that it can appear a potentially malevolent off-stage actor. The "alien-ness" of both of these in the first novel (which, to be fair, they were also only sketched in) made them far more interesting that most of the human characters. More generally, while setting up a lot of interesting alien species in Pandora's Star, Hamilton simply dispenses with them here.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but if I can raise another flaw in the sequel ... A significant portion of the novel deals with the pursuit of the Starflyer across the planet Far Away, and a key plot point here is that some/one of those doing the pursuing are actually sleeper spies working on behalf of the Starflyer. That's fine at first, except that the cast is gradually whittled down until it consists only of important characters, or those too peripheral for them to be interestingly revealed as Starflyer agents. Hamilton tries to play this for suspense, but he seems to forget that all of these characters, bar one, has been a narrator for the novel's strands. So there's actually no suspense, except that which is accidentally generated by a non-suspenseful situation being drawn out over many dozens of pages. By that point one starts wondering if Hamilton's going to pull a fast one on you. (He doesn't.)

Despite the foregoing, the novel is still fun to read, with some strands being considerably more enjoyable than others. Some of the novel's flaws are those of any sequel: the diminishing returns that inevitably result when a well-crafted world and storyline need to be resolved. Even books like The Lord of the Rings struggle by the time they get to the third book (which, to be fair, is only a separate book because of a publishing decision; actually, in terms of length, the whole thing is shorter than Judas Unchained!). But, as evidenced above, there are flaws beyond those brought on by it simply being a sequel.

Positioning it on the pulp-o-meter, I'd stick with my last assessment and place it somewhere between Neal Asher and Alastair Reynolds. I might even get around to reading some more Hamilton, but as most of his novels seem impressively wide on the shelves of Waterstones, it may be a while before I get back to him.

Friday, 15 August 2008

No News From Duck Quad

Friday afternoon. And no change in the duck numbers this week. We've still got the 3 (2; 1) that we had at the start. But there are no mother ducks now. Even the Runner has been abandoned, although that probably won't be a problem as the Runner's quite big now. However, despite their advanced developmental state, there's no sign of any of the ducks stretching their wings and leaving yet. Same for the gull chicks. The latter will probably get the message when their parents completely stop feeding them. It's probably a little early for the NOCS staff who feed the ducks to stop, definitely for the Runner.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Why ducks need mothers

That's why. No surprise that the chick count took another dip after the mother of the youngest brood abandoned her remaining chick. We're now back to 3 chicks (2; 1) much as we were at day 150. Still, in total this took almost 30 days, much the same as the one of the two first broods took to die out.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Overdue, partially forgotten but a tour-de-force

This is a long overdue write-up. Delayed, in part, because I was still mulling it over some time after I finished it. It's my second Philip Roth novel, but the one for which he's possibly most well-known, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral.

It's difficult to summarise it in the conventional manner I use here, and that's not likely to do it any favours. While there is a story within its pages, that's not really where its strength lies.

The novel is structured into three long sections. The first, "Paradise Remembered", is written from the perspective of Roth's alter ago, Nathan Zuckerman. It describes his attendance at his high school reunion in New Jersey, and his meeting there with Jerry Levov, the brother of the recently deceased Seymour "Swede" Levov. The Swede, as he was known, was a legend at Zuckerman's high school, blessed with success throughout his life until the day that his daughter, Merry, disappeared in the aftermath of a Weathermen-esque bombing. Having met the Swede on a few occasions after this defining event, Zuckerman sets out to imagine and flesh out his charmed, then damned, life.

The second and third sections of the novel are written from the perspective of the Swede, but are essentially the product of Zuckerman's imagination (the novel within the novel, etc.). The second section, "The Fall", follows the Swede's life in the months and years after the bombing, as he tries to understand why, or if, Merry was involved in the bombing, his coming to terms with this, and gradual revelations about the fate of Merry. This section also describes at length the Swede's rise, his idyllic marriage to Mary Dawn Dwyer, 1949's Miss New Jersey, and the family glove-making factory that he ultimately comes to run.

The final section of the novel takes place against the backdrop of a dinner party organised by the Swede and Mary Dawn. While the Swede has confided what he now knows about Merry to his unsympathetic brother, he has withheld it from Mary Dawn because of his fears for her mental wellbeing. Neither of them have handled Merry's implosion well, and their marriage is under considerable strain. During the course of the evening, the Swede discovers that this strain has not just led him to an extramarital affair, but it has also led his wife there. Entitled "Paradise Lost", this section describes in lacerating detail the destruction of their marriage and the catastrophic damage that Merry's actions have inflicted over both of their lives.

The above is a rather truncated version of the narrative, and glosses over the extensive digressions, flashbacks, remembrances and introspections that occur during the book. I've also completely skipped over a number of key themes in the narrative, including those of Jewish identity and the experience of second/third generation immigrants, post-war politics and the growth of 60s counter-culture ideology, and lots (possibly rather too much) about sex.

To my mind, the novel's main strengths lie in the incredible detail about characters and situations that it squeezes into its pages. Roth's writing is really fluid and able to convincingly create the novel's world. It's almost the writing equivalent of making a miniature portrait. On top of that, Roth allows his characters (and, looking backwards, himself) to go to some rather dark places at times.

On this latter point, there are a couple of places where this becomes a weakness for the novel. For example, in Zuckerman's imagining of the Swede's life, there's an ostensibly key episode that Zuckerman's fictional Swede reflects on as being the first cracks in his relationship with Merry. Zuckerman (which is to say, Roth) then puts what seems a needlessly sexual tinge to this episode. Bearing in mind that this is a fictional treatment of a fictional novelist's imaginings, it didn't ring true, and instead comes across as, well, just pervy. This is followed by a rather surreal (i.e. unconvincing) and sexual episode when the Swede is on Merry's trail. One doesn't know whether to read these episodes as being about Zuckerman (= Roth) rather than the Swede, or whether they're supposed to taken straight up and simply fit in with the otherwise credible and convincing narrative. To me they sort of broke down the novel's realism and stretched my credulity too much.

However, all that said, American Pastoral is a real tour-de-force of a novel. While its not the most inspiring or "life-positive" of novels, and while I've several "concerns" with a few of its more purple passages, Roth is clearly firing on all cylinders here. There's a real virtuosity in some of the set pieces, in the characterisation and in some of the details. By way of a trivial example, there's a lengthy description of glove making that's incredibly detailed but written in an almost completely effortless way, almost as if Roth has been making luxury gloves his whole life. And it captures the interior lives of its characters to what seems an extraordinary degree. In this sense, it's rather different to the other Roth novel I've read, The Plot Against America, which is much more focused on external events. Although completely different, Richard Ford's series of novels about Frank Bascombe is the closest I've read that focuses so clearly on its characters' thoughts and motivations.

Anyway, notwithstanding the above, C was considerably less convinced by the novel that I was. I think the needlessly pervy aspects didn't help and, let's face it, it's a real downer of a novel.

Kingsolver Number 1

Another novel by Barbara Kingsolver, this time her very first one, The Bean Trees.

The novel centres around Taylor Greer, a spirited young woman from rural Kentucky with two goals in life: avoiding pregnancy, and getting out of Kentucky. Having been successful in the former, she tries the latter, driving out west in a clapped-out banger. However, at a rest-stop in Oklahoma, she is accosted by a young Native American woman who coerces her to take a young child, Turtle, on her journey. When her car finally gives up the ghost in Arizona, Taylor meets Mattie, the owner of a garage, Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, a chance meeting that also affords her a job. While she works to fund the repairs to her car, Taylor begins to both face up to her new responsibilities as a mother, and to fit into the small community that her life has washed up into. Meanwhile, in the background to these domestic events, this is the time of Central American death squads and, with Arizona bordering Mexico, Mattie offers more than just service as a mechanic.

Overall, The Bean Trees is an enjoyable and humane novel dealing with the relationships between individuals, and with their immediate community. In its relative simplicity, wholesome characters and life-positive story, it reminds me of novels like The Honk and Holler Opening Soon by Billie Letts. In fact, were it not for the strand concerning refugees from Guatemala, it could easily be mistaken for a novel by the latter author. It's also one of those novels where - in a good sense - one can almost imagine the film of it. It has just the right complexity and eventfulness to make for a good film.

It's interesting to read this Kingsolver novel after reading two of her later novels. While The Bean Trees is less ambitious in terms of its structure and themes, it was her first novel after all, and it's not hard to see the beginnings of her later, more complex novels in this one. In terms of structure, multiple narrative strands appear here, but are used more to push the plot forward than to provide alternative viewpoints or texture. Like Animal Dreams, politics plays something of a role here, although only latterly and considerably less angrily. One absence from this novel is any mention of ecology. That said, it wouldn't be an obvious theme to sit alongside the novel's narrative. It may also be that Kingsolver didn't want her first novel to challenge readers with what can be a preachy theme.

Friday, 8 August 2008


Today's duck count is the same as Wednesday's (2; 1; 1), though things aren't looking good for the youngest chick. It looks like its mother has abandoned it to the less than tender mercies of the quad. While the mother of the two oldest ducklings has also abandoned them, they're practically adult ducks now (at least in size). In this latter case, I think their mother was trying to tell them something - something that they don't seem to have picked up on yet. Anyway, so far the youngest duckling is still with us, and will likely still get food courtesy of NOCS staff, but there's no-one looking out for it now, so its fate isn't looking good. Mother Nature truly is a bitch.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Wikipedia survey

I took part in an on-line survey that an academic is conducting on Wikipedia editors who edit medical articles. Those aren't exactly where I spend most of my time there, but I've made a few edits over the years, so I thought I'd give it a whirl ...

Q: What is your Wikipedia user name? Optional: please also include any demographic information you are comfortable sharing (e.g. age, sex, nationality).

A: I'm user Plumbago. I'm a 36 year old, white male, born and living in the United Kingdom. I am educated to doctoral level and working as a postdoc in oceanography.

Q: How much time per week do you spend contributing (e.g. editing articles, discussion pages, user talk pages, monitoring contributions) a) to Wikipedia in general b) to medical and health-related articles

A: It varies a lot, but I probably spend around 3-5 hours a week editing Wikipedia. I don't primarily edit medical articles, but I do try to focus on scientific articles, which sometimes include medical ones (my original background is as a biologist).

Q: Do you have any formal training in healthcare? If so, what? Do you have any informal training or experience (e.g. a patient with a condition, a drug rep, an avid reader)?

A: No training whatsoever. As noted above, I was originally trained as a biologist, so probably have a little more understanding of medical matters than the average member of the public.

Q: Why do you contribute to Wikipedia? Why do you contribute to medical articles in general?

A: Originally, just because I spotted errors/omissions. Latterly, I've become sold on the concept of creating something valuable like the Wikipedia. While it has its flaws (and there are many of them), for general knowledge about a topic, it's really very good in most places.

Q: Why do you contribute to the specific medical articles you have?

A: Possibly by accident! My main focus has been on oceanographic/ecological/geoscience articles, but periodically I find myself following links to related science articles, some of which are medical. If I spot anything I can correct there (which may just be style points), I'll do it.

Q: Do you tend to collaborate with any particular editors? If so, how do those relationships shape your editorial activity?

A: There are a number of editors with whom I have loose collaborative relationships. We edit the same articles and will occasionally ask one another for assistance. But bar a few isolated instances of closer collaboration, most of the time I essentially work solo. My field, oceanography, is not well organised on Wikipedia, so there are no teams for me to work more interactively with. That said, even if there were, I'd probably be reluctant to join such activities because my time-commitment to the project isn't as strong as many other editors.

Q: Does the editorial process behind medical articles differ from the editorial process of other Wikipedia articles? If so, how?

A: I don't believe that I can answer this question directly because of my limited experience of medical articles. Speaking more generally about science articles, I find that the relatively good availability of high quality sources (that is, the scientific literature) makes editing science articles much more satisfying than in other domains, where there may be less consensus on what qualifies as a good source. Determining which information is worth including or removing from an article is much easier in this sort of framework. Essentially, scientists have this body of knowledge to draw on which they know if of a particular quality. This is less true for other domains (e.g. art, politics, religion, culture).

Q: In your opinion, what factors are most closely associated with the development of a quality article? Which factors most detract from article quality?

A: From experience, targeted article improvement drives can be very successful. However, they can be difficult to organise and tend to focus on major articles. Away from these, it generally appears to be the efforts of individual dedicated editors that shapes article quality. While it's difficult to generalise, single (or few) editor articles tend to have more consistency in style, but the collaborative aspect of Wikipedia is, fundamentally, its greatest strength.

As regards detractions in quality, one important factor is whether an article remains of interest to an expert or interested editor. I've seen many good articles go to the dogs just because an editor(s) has left it to do other things. And articles can be weakened not just by vandalism, but also by good-intentioned edits by sporadic editors. Adding an extra piece of information to an article as a one-off often improves an article, but if 10 or 20 editors do the same thing an article can quickly become a stylistic mess. Only part of an article's strength is derived from its information content - a large part is derived from the organisation of this information.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Down another duckling

Damn. We're down another duckling. One of the youngest cohort appears to have joined the choir invisible. That brings us down to four chicks (2; 1; 1). I'm a little surprised, since things seem to have stabilised out there, but looking at the graph again, I guess I shouldn't be. While there's been a lot of workman action in the quad the last couple of days, I don't think that has anything to do with this. Oh well.

The last survivor ...

The Runner flapping its proto-wings ...

The Mystery 40%

Mike Z got me to review a rather interesting small grant proposal today. For years now he's been looking at what the smaller end of the plankton community are up to. In oligotrophic regions of the world ocean (e.g. the subtropical gyres) the typical view is "not much", but there are are hard-core of bacterioplankton eking a living there.

In earlier work, Mike has found that ~60% of these bacteria are "conventional" [*] autotrophic bacteria performing photosynthesis, and have a high genome size. The remaining 40% are classed as low genome size, and have genomes that are trimmed right back to what people believe are the bare essentials. This is probably an evolutionary response to oligotrophy, since an organism's genome can be a not-inconsiderable portion of its cellular budget. Now, of the 40%, around 60% are identifiable as members of the SAR11 clade, and they're relatively well-characterised. However, the remaining 40% (or 16% of total bacterioplankton) are something of a mystery. Hence Mike's proposal.

Speaking to Mike, one idea is that these bacteria are using light in simple proteorhodopsin photosystems (i.e. not photosynthesis) to enable them uptake organic material. Rather than respire this material for energy, it is used directly to build cellular structure. So unlike most organisms, these would operate on an extremely tight energy budget that relies on the availability of macromolecules (amino acids, polypeptides) that can be used directly instead of going through a catabolic/anabolic loop.

Anyway, all news and exciting to me. I'm sure it's true for many scientists, but everyone else's work always seems more interesting than my own!

[*] That is, "conventional now" - 30 years ago people knew practically nothing about them.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Gull-human interaction

Q: Will the seagull chick dare to cross over to the other roof section ...
... A: no.

But the chick is interested in the guy replacing the guttering ...

But he doesn't appear to be offering any food ...

Monday, 4 August 2008

Not so special

In a previous blog entry I bemoaned the tactic used by religious scientists of dragging up physical constants as if their values indicated fine-tuning and, ipso facto, The Good Lord. Given that we're rather ignorant about the consequences of different values for these parameters, it's always seemed rather presumptuous to me to state that the ones that we've got are particularly special.

Well, someone's now actually done some calculations to shed light on this conundrum. In a recent paper, a chap called Fred Adams has picked three fundamental constants (gravity, G; the fine-structure constant, α; a composite nuclear reaction rate parameter, C) and explored the consequences for star formation over ranges of values for them. When analysing the resulting model output, his criterion for success included things like star lifespan and energy output. Stars needed to stick around long enough, and produce enough energy, for things like us to do OK.

Not too surprisingly, he found that relatively large regions of parameter space were capable of producing star-like objects capable, to first order, of producing conditions favourable to life. He goes on to qualify this with reference to whether the resulting stars undergo sufficient nucleosynthesis to produce carbon, water, etc., in sufficient quantities, but that's for a future study. Interestingly, Ward spends some time in the paper considering the ability of stellar objects like black holes, neutron stars and exotic dark matter stars to produce conditions conducive to life. Although these aren't included in his headline analysis, he suggests that they could play a role and, in principle, this could further extend the region of viable parameter space.

Anyway, it looks like one of God's Gaps has just gotten a bit smaller. Surprise, surprise.

August headcount

Just to note that all ducks are present and correct this morning. No losses since the last recorded check.

The Runner and its mother sun themselves ...

The seagull chicks are quite active on the roof opposite us ...

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Art Vaults 2008

Every summer for the past few years, Southampton City has opened up several buildings and vaults within the old city walls to host an art exhibition. Called Art Vaults, the exhibited works usually draw inspiration from their settings (commonly dank and dark). Although completely illegally obtained, the following are some images from this year's show.

Essentially a lot of cloud-like shapes made of eggs shells. But it's much better than that sounds. In the dark, and slightly green-lit vault, it's really quite nice.

Cause of Life
The word "consciousness" spelled out in tea lights. Again, it doesn't sound much in principle, but its really very effective.

This is supposed to illustrate the recolonisation of a human space (= the vaults; post-greenhouse?) by sea creatures. All fairly planktonic in appearance, so especially nice for me. Another cool use of the vault space.

Stepping Lightly On 88 Pillows
Pretty much what it says on the tin. 88 concrete pillows (with embroidery!) arranged in a path around the building's interior perimeter. The idea is that you walk around the space stepping from one to the next. There's bound to be a few ankle injuries before the Vaults season finishes ...