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 ...

(No) success in the garden

For a couple of years now I've been growing sunflowers in the summer. As further evidence of our rubbish summer, the following is the pinnacle of my green-fingered efforts this year ...

My poor sunflower never even managed to bloom fully. While the insects got to it too, its slow growth during the summer was what really did for it. Arse.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Q: Who watches the Watchmen?

Something of a break with what I usually read: a geeky graphic novel (as opposed, I guess, to geeky science fiction).

In the past few weeks, Alan Moore's seminal deconstruction of the "superhero", Watchmen, has been getting a lot of airplay because of an upcoming film adaptation, and the release of a rather impressive trailer to herald this. Watchmen has actually been a defining fixture of the comic book scene since it was first published back in 1986-1987, and my attention was first drawn to it around about then (= high school) by Graham.

Needless to say, I didn't take his superlatives seriously at the time, and it's taken till almost the arrival of a big screen version for me to get around to it (although I'm in good company there - a columnist at the Onion has recently made the same journey).

The novel [*] is set in an alternative (and then-present) 1985 in which "costumed adventurers" (or "masked vigilantes" depending upon viewpoint) are, or were, a real phenomenon. Starting in the late 1930s, a succession of individuals began dressing up and fighting crime in the cities of the US. As the phenomenon grew, a group of these individuals formed, and called themselves the Minutemen (and, later, the Crimebusters). However, as scandals, tragedies and personality clashes took their toll, the group disbanded, and "costumed adventurers" were finally outlawed in 1977 following police strikes. Some, however, still continue in their activities as either illegal vigilantes or government-sponsored operatives in the Cold War. The latter plays a key role in the novel's backdrop (perhaps unsurprisingly given its publication date), with tensions between the US and the Soviet Union ratcheting up following the latter's invasion of Afghanistan.

The novel begins with the brutal murder of one of these government operatives, the Comedian, and the subsequent investigation by one of his Crimebusters colleagues, Rorschach, the only vigilante still active (and whose name stems from the interpretative inkblot psychological test). Rorschach becomes convinced that this murder is part of a plan to eliminate former "costumed adventurers", or "masks" as he calls them, so he sets out warning his former colleagues. These include the Nite Owl, a Batman-esque "mask" who formerly specialised in high-tech gadgets to fight crime, and whose now quiet life is punctuated with regrets about the end of the Crimebusters. Rorschach also visits Dr. Manhattan, another government operative and the only Crimebuster with real superhuman powers ("gifted" on him accidentally in a particle physics experiment). Dr. Manhattan is practically god-like, and is the US's main "weapon" in the Cold War, responsible for success in Vietnam in this alternative history, and a potential "nuclear shield" if the missiles start flying. However, Dr. Manhattan's abilities are gradually eroding his humanity, a fact only too obvious to his girlfriend, and former "mask", the Silk Spectre. Informed of the Comedian's death, she is almost pleased because of his attempted rape of her mother, a defining event that she has never forgiven him for. Finally, Rorschach visits Ozymandias, a retired "mask" but now a successful high-tech businessman and philanthropist, and Moloch, a former super-villain but now a withered shell of a man, dying of cancer.

These meetings with Rorschach inspire reflections from each of these characters on the Comedian, an utterly amoral man with a supremely nihilist view of human nature. They also trigger further plot developments. During a press interview, Dr. Manhattan is publicly accused of causing cancer in his associates, causing him to leave the Earth for Mars, and abandoning the Silk Spectre. Ozymandias is almost the victim of an assassin's bullet. Rorschach himself is captured by the police, and framed for the murder of Moloch, who had previously supplied him with telling information about the Comedian. And, now separated from Dr. Manhattan by a falling out and his self-imposed exile on Mars, the Silk Spectre becomes a house-guest of Nite Owl, a development that awakens both memories of their "mask" days, and new feelings for one another. These developments lead the Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to take up their "masks" again, convinced that Rorschach's investigation was onto something. After springing Rorschach from Sing Sing, the investigation continues apace, with subsequent discoveries revealing a dark conspiracy. Ultimately, events transpire to create a peaceful new world order, albeit one with rotten foundations, and whose morality asks much of the remaining "masks" who know its secrets.

From a purely structural perspective, Watchmen is considerably more challenging than its comic book origins might imply. Much like other more conventional novels, rather than being a simple, linear narrative, chapters are devoted to different characters and viewpoints, and there's a considerable amount of reminiscence that carefully fills in the backstory. Furthermore, aside from its graphic panels, the novel also includes short, full-page text sections at the end of each chapter. These take various forms including excerpts from a biography, magazine interviews, a psychologist's report and even a scholarly publication. They don't supplant the main graphic panels, but they also impart a lot of significant background material to flesh out incidental aspects of it. And then, on top of this, the graphic panels themselves feature a comic-within-a-comic, a gothic horror tale of a stranded seaman's disastrous efforts to get back to his family, and to save them from malevolent pirates. (And I'm sure that there are between-panel tricks going that are too clever for me to work out.)

The characters themselves are also framed in a far more rounded way, and have individual complexities and moral depths that one might expect more from literary fiction than a stereotypical comic. None of this came as a big surprise to me, since I've read a handful of the "more serious" comics over the years (plus a smattering of the more, well, conventional), but it's still rather singular that one graphic novel might contain several distinct moral visions. The most prominent of the novel's characters are Dr. Manhattan and, particularly, Rorschach, although Ozymandias brings his own brand of utilitarianism and even the Comedian is given a degree of complexity and ambiguity. Throughout the novel, Dr. Manhattan gradually loses his ability to empathise with the humans around him, eventually coming to see their plights in a sort of "value-free" light, remarking at one point that:
A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?

Rorschach reaches somewhat similar conclusions to Dr. Manhattan about the nature of the universe, and the meaning it puts on our lives, but he responds to this very differently:
Looked at sky through smoke ... and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us ... The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.

Admittedly, the characters are drawn rather heavily with stereotypically individualistic philosophical outlooks (e.g. existentialism, nihilism, objectivism, utilitarianism), but together they present a far more interesting moral tapestry than most fiction. And, to my mind, it's always useful to be confronted by outlooks in opposition to one's own, so that one can re-evaluate and clarify one's own thinking. Mainstream fiction may have many virtues, but it doesn't frequently engage so transparently with these sorts of issues. Although, equally, that might just be me completely missing the subtext of all of the books I read!

Still, if you can't expect overblown dissections of morality from the inherently overblown superhero genre, where are you going to get them from?

A couple of quick final points. The calamitous event in New York near the end of the novel now foreshadows a later event in our own world (albeit with direct consequences around 1000 times more dire). Interestingly, they also provoke similarly positive international reactions to those that occurred in our world almost exactly seven years ago. However, we now know from first-hand experience that the good will and cooperation created by terrible disasters can be dissipated rather rapidly, something that even Watchmen doesn't consider.

Overall Watchmen is a worthy read. Obviously its genre (and format) means that it operates at a more simplistic and, well, cartoonish level than more conventional fiction often does, but its still an impressive piece of work. And, regardless of its individual worth, it's clear that it has cast a long shadow over much of popular culture in its aftermath. Watchmen's deconstruction of superheroes (together with The Dark Knight Returns), in particular, has clearly been a significant shaping force. TV series like Heroes, and films such as The Incredibles are considerably in its debt (the latter even steals, and plays for a joke, an episode from Watchmen that illustrates the perils of wearing a cape).

Anyway, back to regular fiction for my next book I think.

But will it make a good film? While there are always doubters whenever anyone tries to convert a favourite novel to the screen, and Watchmen does present a number of challenges, I don't think that it's impossible to pull off. Unlike conventional novels, its art design is obviously already fleshed out (and, looking at the trailer, has been carefully followed), and while there are internal monologues, they mostly carry character development, and the novel's central questions of morality can be posed through the action carrying the story.

However, this latter point is something of a weakness, since lazy filmmakers may be tempted to shave off the character development and just rely on the plot to make their points. While the resulting piece might still make a fairly solid action film, it would only be a shadow of its source material. Whether this happens may depend on how the studio sees the film - is it to be allowed the sort of length afforded to "classics" like Lord of the Rings, or is it to be a standard, truncated 2 hour action film? The former may allow the filmmakers to create the world of Watchmen faithfully, but the latter seems a not unlikely outcome.

On another point, one thing that's noticeable from the trailer is that the cast appears rather young. In the novel, the youngest character is still 35, and the others are in their 40s or even older. This may seem a trivial point, but it's not unimportant that these people are at this later stage in life. They've seen a lot, they've had their characters and morals tested, and have made certain accommodations along the way. I'm not sure whether actors in their 20s or early 30s can pull this off convincingly, but we'll see.

Anyway, in principle, given both a sympathetic filmmaker and (more importantly) studio, I think it could be pulled off rather well. But it could easily be a huge fiasco. Shortening it is pretty much a sure-fire route into trouble, one travelled frequently by book-to-screen translations, including the recent film of Northern Lights. But there are plenty of other ways that could stuff it up, and some of these, such as "updating it" to take in recent events, are an obvious temptation. Come next March, we'll see.

[*] Although, yes, it is a comic book, I'm going to do it the courtesy of calling it a "novel" here. Partly through geek-respect, but also because it's less time-consuming than writing "graphic novel" every couple of sentences.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Arundel and The Dogs

Off at a 40th birthday event in Brighton on Saturday. The journey afforded us an opportunity (my first) to visit the somewhat posh town of Arundel along the way. As well as having a pretty impressive castle (now a public school), it has a couple of rather impressive religious buildings ...

St. Nicholas Church ...
A rather interesting, and life-sized, biblical diorama ...
The main altar of Arundel Cathedral ...
An interesting version of Mary, here with what appeared to be a barbed wire halo ...
The birthday boy (and wife; left) blowing out his candles ...
The dogs on parade, pre-race ...
One of my dogs (the red/magenta blur) losing out to one of C's (the orange blur) ...

A rather unsuccessful evening from a betting standpoint. Of 10 races bet on [*], I managed to score an impressive 10 losses. Still, at £1 per race, I wasn't breaking the bank. C was somewhat more successful with one outright win, and one second place. Given the odds, however, that still meant a cash loss, but she was able to leave with her head held high.

[*] My record is actually even worse than this sounds. Due to a mistake making a bet, during one of the races I had actually backed 2 out of the 6 dogs that were running. And I still didn't win.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Ocean iron fertilisation

We had a seminar today from XXXXX XXXXX, the XXXXX of XXXXX, a private organisation interested in technology for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, primarily via ocean iron fertilisation (at least for now).

The seminar was a bit long-winded, and apart from being very "research positive" (i.e. more research would be nice), I wasn't entirely clear on what XXXXX was all about. Most of the aspects of the presentation that I found interesting were focused on non-OIF issues, such as the London Convention and the acceleration of CO2 emissions (which, apparently, are increasing faster than previously estimated). So, while the background and legal aspects were covered pretty well, the OIF bits were given slightly short shrift. Then again, I think the speaker was assuming we were all au fait with those. Fair enough really given that NOCS people (myself included) recently produced a review of the technical aspects of ocean geoengineering.

Overall, I'm still rather hesitant about getting behind geoengineering. It's pretty much not what we should be doing, but at the same time I'm well aware that it'd be a conscious and (hopefully) rational change to a biosphere that has already been heavily impacted by (largely) unconscious changes. And there are a lot of technologies and strategies other than geoengineering that I'd really prefer that we tried first (even expanding nuclear fission!). Mostly those focused on decreasing emissions in the first place - surely the obvious strategy? One of XXXXX's main messages was that these possibly weren't sufficient, but I'm less sure about that.

Though the ocean is, in some respects, less impacted than the terrestrial biosphere, and could probably take the hit, I'm just reluctant to bring another part of the biosphere under our control. We've not got a good record on noticing or preserving ecosystem services, and it can't be a good idea to start messing with those that the ocean provides.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Ducks = 0

It's finally happened: we have no ducks left in the quad. I've been looking all this week, but there's no sign of the Runner. While I'd like to think that he/she has merely left the quad, I'm pretty sure that flying out wasn't an option. Unbeknownst to me until yesterday, the woman who organises feeding the ducks was taken ill last week, and this may factor in the Runner's "departure". By coincidence, I'd mailed her last week to see if she needed a hand with the feeding - I had thought that the zero response meant "no".

Anyway, assuming that I'm correct, that's a bit of a sad end to this year's duck season. It would also make for rather grim breeding success stats: 2 out of 32; a rather paltry 6.25%. And that's just to leave the quad - survival rate is unlikely to improve in the big wide world (actually, knowing the quad, perhaps it would!). It certainly puts a new spin on the "mother" of "Mother Nature".

Random Republican Ramblings

I caught some of the Republican Party's conference last night on News 24. There are many bad things that one can say about them, but you've got to hand it to them that they're brilliant at squaring circles.

For instance, their slogan this time around is "Country First". Who would have thought that a party practically dedicated to dismantling all of the infrastructure that gives a country definition (bar, tellingly, the military) would have the nerve to so baldly use the opposite sentiment in their campaign?

And, of course, a perennial bugbear of mine is the Republican Party's relationship with Jesus. It's difficult to understand how any organisation as avaricious and dedicated to personal/corporate selfishness could conceivably wave Jesus around as a totem. Does the lesson of Jesus and the money changers say nothing to them?

While I obviously have no truck with of the deification of Jesus, the guy said a lot of interesting and valuable things; things that are difficult to square with (at least as I perceive them) touchstones of the Republican Right. Gun-totting, gated communities, corporate greed, a blatant disregard for the less fortunate, "environment? what environment?", et cetera.

So, hats off to them. They're able to carry off with aplomb the political equivalent of having their cake and eating it. Wrapped up in a flag, and hand-in-hand with a presumably reluctant Jesus, they're able to barefacedly trumpet policies that, in part, constitute the reverse. But it's all up-front, so one can't reasonably complain about it. Kudos.

Monday, 1 September 2008


After following them for more than 17 years (since 1991's Out of Time), I finally went to see R.E.M. in concert in the Southampton Rose Bowl on Wednesday 27th August, accompanied by C, Dr. Morris and his new (to us) girlfriend, Sarah.

For most of these 17 years, I've been a big fan of R.E.M., but since their first post-Bill Berry album, Up, I've gradually drifted from them, and I've not (yet) bought their most recent album, Accelerate. It probably reflects both a change in my musical tastes, and their weakening as a musical force. Their latter albums, while not at all bad, have lacked quite as many stand-out tracks as their earlier efforts, and there has been something of a change to their music, in part down to compensations made for Berry's absence.

Anyway, all that said, I've always heard that R.E.M. are at their best live, so there was part of me that was keen to hear them before, presumably, I wrote them off for the longer term.

Just as well that Dr. Morris prompted me about their tour.

While my Faith was wavering going into the concert, it was thoroughly restored during it, and I left completely buoyed up with R.E.M. again. They got off to a winning start for me, with their off-album single Bad Day. It's a brilliant and energetic track to begin, well, anything with, and given my wavering Faith, it was something of an electrifying start. Seconds away, and I was already singing along with them.

Wisely, while they followed this up with a new (and short) track, they kept to old favourites for the next few tracks. With What's The Frequency, Kenneth?, I was reminded again that their much maligned album Monster, is actually a secret (if belated) success, and they returned to it later with Let Me In.

They also visited my favourite album, Lifes Rich Pageant, a number of times, again reminding me why it is my favourite. Other albums, most noticeably Murmur, got surprisingly short shrift, although generally there was pretty good, and at times surprising, coverage of their back catalogue. But they weren't dwelling too much on past successes, and they performed six tracks from their latest album by the end. While I shouldn't really have been surprised, these were all pretty good, and I'll doubtless add the album on my next Amazon spree.

Two particular highlights for me were Ignoreland and Electrolite. The former is an angrily political song that stems from the ring-wing control of America from 1979 through 1992. It's rather bombastic, but I'd almost forgotten how much I love its self-recognised venom. The latter is difficult to categorise, but it's a lovely, almost existential song. A great closer for its parent album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but an even better concert song. Although it was only the twelfth song, it was so good I could have left then and been satisfied.

In introducing the political Ignoreland, Michael Stipe gave the first of several short diatribes about the current US administration. A bit of a soft-sell at a R.E.M. concert in Europe, but still good, and entertaining, to hear R.E.M.'s views. It certainly got a lot of applause from the Rose Bowl.

After a few quirky choices, including 7 Chinese Brothers and Auctioneer (Another Engine), the band finished their main set with the excellent Orange Crush and It's The End Of The World As We Know It. Just. Brilliant.

The encore had us guessing the song that they'd finish on, Man On The Moon, and I think Sarah picked that one out. We'd also been expecting, and were rewarded with, Losing My Religion, which (unsurprisingly given its success back in 1991) was the first song of R.E.M.'s that I ever knowingly heard.

Anyway, a fantastic night out. My Faith in R.E.M. has been restored. And the whole evening was topped off nicely with a surprisingly easy return journey home.

While I was only able to reconstruct those parts of the set list that I recognised (pretty much everything bar the last two albums), the full set list is available from a number of websites and was ...

1. Bad Day
2. Living Well Is The Best Revenge
3. What's The Frequency, Kenneth?
4. Fall On Me
5. Drive
6. Man Sized Wreath
7. Begin The Begin
8. Hollow Man
9. The Great Beyond
10. Ignoreland
11. Animal
12. Electrolite
13. I'm Gonna DJ
14. Pretty Persuation
15. The One I Love
16. 7 Chinese Brothers
17. Nightswimming
18. Let Me In
19. Auctioneer (Another Engine)
20. Horse To Water
21. Orange Crush
22. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
23. Supernatural Superserious (Encore)
24. Losing My Religion (Encore)
25. Imitation of life (Encore)
26. Man On The Moon (Encore)

In passing, the support acts were Guillemots and Editors. Both pretty good, although the latter, with a very Joy Division and Smiths influenced sound, were definitely the better of the two.