Wednesday, 29 April 2009


In a display of shameful vanity, I've edited the formatting of Strange News From The Plankton such that it now has ...
  • Three columns (code from here)
  • A Flickr badge (code from here)
  • A tag cloud (code from here)
The latter development means that I've now dispensed with the old "labels" widget. My tag cloud doesn't say how many articles have each tag, but I can add this functionality in later if I want to keep track.

Anyway, an improvement? Or is it now too busy? It's nice having more of the sidebar stuff visible, but it does tend to squeeze the blog a bit. And since that's what this is all about, perhaps a triumph of style over substance?

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Fall

Microblogging momentarily, I just have to mention that I caught the film The Fall yesterday (sans C I should add - she bailed shortly before the one hour mark; fantasy isn't really her bag). While it definitely owes more than a little to The Princess Bride, and constantly teeters between overblown and pretentious, it's incredibly imaginative, visually-speaking, and is regularly exceptionally beautiful. It seems to have been shot all over the world - well, all over the most beautiful parts of it at any rate. And it has some extraordinary sequences in it - in particular, the marriage ceremony in a tower full of spinning dervishes is a stand-out moment. It's liable to leave many people cold and/or confused, but I'd recommend it to anyone who likes visual cinema (... and is prepared to put up with a bit of fantastical story-telling).

Monday, 27 April 2009


It's bluebell season again ...


... and we took far too many photographs up in Micheldever Woods this past Sunday. Although the pictures look tranquil, the woods are located right next to the M3 motorway, so unless you happen to be deaf the "rural idyll" spell is pretty much broken from the get-go.

Clarifying chaos

While out at dinner the other night someone raised the overly-familiar "well, if you can't predict weather, how can you predict climate?" objection to climate change. At the time I dispensed it with the usual, and likely unsatisfying, "climate isn't weather" riposte, but thinking about it again this morning, a helpful analogy occurred to me ("helpful", that is, to me, so it might do nothing for anyone else).

Consider the lottery. Specifically, consider the sort of lottery that uses one of those ball-tumbling machines that "randomise" the generation of the winning numbers by bouncing a large number of numbered balls within the enclosed space of the tumbler. If we think of a case in which only a single ball is used, we can view the exact position of the ball inside the machine as being akin to the weather. If we observe the ball at one time, we can probably reasonably estimate where it'll be for the next few microseconds, but beyond that chaos prevents a reliable prediction. Similarly with weather, where we can only go a relatively short distance into the future before the so-called butterfly effect overwhelms predictability.

To continue the analogy, climate is not like the ball, climate is like the tumbler itself. This contains the ball, and gives a shape to the possible positions in space that the ball can find itself in. So climate describes the range of possible states that weather can find itself in. Rather than initial conditions, climate is dependent on larger scale phenomena like latitudinal solar heating, the position of oceans and continents and on certain factors like air density and composition. As such, it becomes much more predictable - much like the shape of the tumbler itself. Of course, if some of these phenomena change, as they are currently doing under anthropogenic guidance and as they have done in the glacial-interglacial cycles of the past, the shape of the tumbler changes and different weather can result.

Anyway, when I next get the chance, I'll test out this analogy, and see if it's any more satisfying. If nothing else, it may make me feel better. As it stands, I always come away from discussing climate change with non-scientists with the feeling that I've either patronised them and/or have a pulled a fast-one by relying on science-platitudes like "climate-is-not-weather". While analogies have their limits, and can themselves be used to convey misleading information, I tend to think of them as being a useful short-hand to getting some scientific idea across.

In The Loop

We caught In The Loop at the HL yesterday. It's a spin-off (ha!) from the successful BBC TV series The Thick Of It, with much of the same cast, plus a host of US actors to represent their American counterparts. In many ways, it's just like a TV special for that series, which is both a plus and a minus point. While it's (profane) fun like the TV series, it isn't especially cinematic so winds up feeling like you're watching TV in an enlarged living room with whole load of strangers. Also, having a longer gestation period than the TV series, its satire isn't quite as cuttingly up to date. Admittedly, it is trying to tackle a "big theme", the run-up to Gulf War II, but this does mean that it can never feel quite as contemporary as the TV series. Finally, although it uses the same cast, with a few exceptions (Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, most notably), they're playing similar but different characters. This actually puts newcomers to The Thick Of It in a better position than old-hands, who wind up wondering why, for instance, Olly is now called Toby. Overall, probably one more for DVD-viewing than the cinema. Too late now, of course.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Martian adventure

A bit of a light read this time, Red Thunder by John Varley, one of my favourite science fiction authors.

In near-future Florida, a group of teenagers watch the launch of Ares Seven, America's hasty and high-speed riposte to a Chinese mission already well on its way to the red planet. On the way home from the night launch, Mannie and Dak, and their girlfriends Kelly and Alicia, take in an illegal drive over the Florida sands, only to run-over (almost) a drunken, and disgraced, former astronaut. After taking him home to his strange cousin, they release a collective sigh of relief that nothing more serious happened. Returning later to check on the astronaut, a Colonel Travis Broussard, they become intrigued by his NASA past and take an interest in his return to sobriety. Mannie also becomes intrigued by a strange silver "bubble" that he finds in Broussard's back-lot, something which seems to defy the physics he gobbled up in highschool. It transpires that the "bubble" is something created by Broussard's quasi-autistic cousin, Jubal, and it really does defy physics, at least as it is currently understood. As well as creating force fields beyond the ken of modern physics, Jubal also realises that the American mission to Mars is doomed by its risky adoption of a high-speed drive. With these pieces falling in place, Mannie et al. embark on the unthinkable: an independent mission to Mars using the "bubbles" as an even higher-speed drive, both to beat the Chinese and to rescue Ares Seven along the way. But there are a lot of hurdles in the way of these bright but unqualified teenagers. Just as well they've an ex-NASA astronaut, a scientific prodigy and an excess of enthusiasm to draw on.

The novel follows in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein's "juvenile" series of novels for teenagers. That's not to say that Red Thunder is an easy read for adolescents, but it does mean that things are kept slightly simpler (no complex, meandering storyline here) and that there's a distinct lack of "sex and violence" (although, the characters being teenagers, the former is certainly alluded to). To an adult, it just seems a little tame at times.

Anyway, while not, in science fiction terms, quite up with his Eight Worlds novels (which certainly contain non-juvenile elements), this is a solid and enjoyable read. Perhaps a little too much of a slow burner (it doesn't reach space until the final quarter), but it does invest a lot of time putting its characters and their lives into place. For instance, Mannie and Dak, while clever and enthused by the space race, come from unprivileged backgrounds and broken homes. Mannie's family runs a small motel on just the right side of solvency, and his poor Hispanic background causes a number of difficulties, not least with Kelly's rich, but racist, family. Varley fleshes all of these details out gradually, not forcing them, and makes the disparate crew of the Red Thunder one that the reader can really get behind.

Varley also does a great job on some of the fringe details that would surround such an ad hoc mission to Mars. How can you get hold of space suits without making the authorities suspicious? What will said authorities do to you when you land back on Earth? And, most amusingly, what about merchandising? He handles all these playfully, and much as with his last novel, Mammoth, he puts in a dose of political commentary that's very appetising to someone with my persuasions.

Overall very enjoyable, though I'm still looking forwards to Varley's return to his Eight Worlds - that said, poking around on the web, I find that Red Thunder's sequels already hint at a connection with this series!

As a sidenote, having recently been to Florida and seen a launch myself, I appreciated his commentary on the state much more than I otherwise would. I even recognised several of the places he describes, including Everglades City (which really is no city). We even stayed in a Cape Canaveral motel not so dissimilar to the one that Mannie's family toils in.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Mark Thomas

We took a rare trip to "Beastly" last night to catch the campaigning comedian Mark Thomas at the Point. He's currently on his "It's The ^Stupid Economy Stupid" tour, with a sideline to promote his recent book about Coca Cola, Belching Out The Devil.

I've watched Mark Thomas on the TV for years, so was wondering what he'd be like in front of a live audience. With non-live TV, there's a lot of scope for post-hoc editing and for careful scripting of jokes. As it turns out, his live performance was largely the same as his appearances on TV. He's a good stand-up comedian, with lightning quick responses to audience feedback.

As it happens, this was especially important in this show which centres around audience participation to generate a manifesto for Thomas to campaign on. Basically, prior to the show, and during its interval, the audience is encouraged to submit manifesto ideas which Thomas then vets and discusses on stage. At the end of the evening, once all of the crazy ideas (some of which were brilliant) have been filtered out, the audience votes on a small subset, the winner from which is one that Thomas then picks up and runs with. Previous shows in this tour have selected ideas such as Thatcher paying for her own state funeral and a FTSE-style league table of MP performance metrics.

After an initial selection of about ten ideas, last night's proposals were whittled down to: 1) solar panels on all new-builds, 2) a maximum wage, and 3) a shortening of the period of time that government material can be held secret for. In the end, maximum wage won out (I actually voted for shortening the secrecy period), and this has been duly added to Thomas' list of proposals for his manifesto. Part of the show dealt with progress Thomas has already made on the proposals selected at other tour dates. On the Thatcher proposal, a downloadable standard letter has been prepared so that individuals can register their outrage (in various comedy fashions) with the Queen. On the MP league table, Thomas has hooked up with the New Economics Foundation to make use of already collated data to produce the tables.

Aside from the manifesto portion of the show, Thomas ranged over a number of campaigns that he's been involved with recently, as well as plugging his new book about Coca Cola. As with his TV show, this translated into a series of "sketches" about his adventures with the police (mostly), politicians and lawyers. Also much as with his TV show, these stories (illustrated by PowerPointed photographs) were quality items, and Thomas did a great job extracting maximum humour from tales of the destruction of his fingerprint record and his appearance in front of a House of Commons Select Committee. What he does especially well, and very playfully, is to use due process to expose absurdities in law or in enforcement agencies. And some of the examples are pretty absurd.

What I'd forgotten about Thomas is how infectious his enthusiasm for justice, fairness and equality is. By the end I was really stoked up by the issues he spoke about. Unfortunately, the decay term for my enthusiasm is dispiritingly high, but judging from the audience reaction, a lot of people left primed for direct action.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Finally, as of yesterday, the chicks are back. About 14 counted today as the picture below shows ...

Apparently there were some around last weekend, but it being the Easter weekend, no-one was around to feed them and there was something of a Malthusian lockdown. Anyway, it appears that feeding's being arranged for the new batch. Or possibly batches - there's more than one mother duck hanging around the quad.

Anyway, in spite of foreknowledge of their grim Malthusian fate, it's nice to see them again. Hopefully we can improve on last year's shockingly bad success rate (2/33).

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Gran Torino

For a man almost in his 80s, Clint Eastwood doesn't seem to be slowing down and, if anything, seems to be doing more and more. Just a few months after seeing his 1920s Los Angeles-set Changeling, we recently saw his latest, Gran Torino, and what a different film it is. Not happy with just directing this time, Eastwood also plays the lead character, Walt Kowalski, an ageing and embittered Korean War veteran. The beginning of the film finds Walt mourning the death of his wife, bemoaning the bad manners, ingratitude and materialism of his children, scornful of the young priest presiding over his parish, and horrified by the arrival of Hmong neighbours. The latter fly in Walt's ointment both feeds his latent racism but ultimately provokes him to change. By the end, well, by the end things have changed.

While enjoyable and well-played for the most part, there are a couple of little flaws which detract from an otherwise solid entry to Eastwood's body of work. One is simply the rather obvious manner in which the film is told - Eastwood spells everything out for the audience, and even has his character think important development points out loud and generally garrumph his way through the indignities foisted on him. No subtle approaches here.

Secondly, while the main themes of the film is the acceptance of other races and cultures, it has a strange way of showing it at times. For instance, in what are admittedly a pair of very funny scenes, (Polish American) Walt and his (Italian American) barber exchange a slew of nationalist insults that clearly establishes their long-standing friendship. Unsubtle as it is, the film puts this completely in context so that no-one in the audience could possibly mistake these characters for simple racists. However, by continually painting racist or nationalistic language in (more) acceptable contexts, the film could (easily, IMHO) be interpreted as suggesting that verbal racism is completely harmless. At times it felt like a cheap two finger salute to politically correct orthodoxy, one that both forgets that language can be a subtle weapon, and which glosses over genuine racism in society.

Or perhaps I'm just getting oversensitive in my old age?

Friday, 10 April 2009

A misanthrope writes

Although he's well-established in the UK literary firmament (and actually quite amusing when he does turns on Radio 4), until a few months ago I'd never read anything by Sebastian Faulks. In part, this is down to his most famous novel, Birdsong, being set in the First World War, and me having had quite enough of that from poetry classes at highschool. And then, when I did finally read Faulks, it was his crowd-pleasing James Bond novel, Devil May Care. While that was an enjoyable romp, it appeared hemmed in by Faulks' determination to remain "in-character" as Ian Fleming. Buoyed up by this success, and by C's recommendation, I've now read his preceding novel, Engleby.

Written in first person, the novel describes the life of Mike Engleby from his formative years in private school and Cambridge University, to his subsequent career in journalism and beyond. Emotionally disconnected from his poor family, his violent father dead, his mother and sister mostly eliciting pity, Engleby cuts an odd and alienated figure. Awarded a scholarship as an underprivileged student, he experiences a typically brutalising time at his private school. At Cambridge things pick up somewhat. Although remaining largely a loner, Engleby's studies pass relatively successfully, he becomes involved to a degree in student life, and he meets a young woman, Jennifer Arkland, who he admires from afar. However, in the run up to finals, Jennifer suddenly disappears. Orbiting at the edge of Jennifer's circle, Engleby attracts the attention of the police, but her vanishing is unresolved and life goes on. Moving to London, Engleby at first applies his "nat. sci." to writing popular science journalism, but his work is successful and he gradually rises up the journalism food chain, ultimately interviewing establishment luminaries including (the subsequently disgraced) Jeffrey Archer. Despite this success, Engleby remains a disconnected figure, developing only loose relationships with other people and even juggling his schedule to avoid workplace interactions when he can. However, although long-forgotten, the past now re-enters Engleby's world and turns it upside-down.

The first thing to say about this book (other than to say that I'm about to reveal some fatal spoilers) is that it's probably an extremely dividing read for most readers, one that's likely to leave many hating it. The writing is superb but, and its a big but, its plotting contains an important element that is liable to drive many readers up the wall. In fact, when I first had my already growing suspicions confirmed, I was all set for membership of the haters club. As a first person novel, said plot element completely runs against the grain (as wittily noted in the Guardian's Digested Read of the novel). However, and here's where I'll be parting company with the haters, when the nature of the first person framing device is revealed, I became a lot more forgiving of the book, and by the end came to admire it.

And it's not hard to admire it. Faulks creates a great narrator in Engleby. While he's not exactly someone you'd like to know well, his take on the world is always interesting. He's also extremely funny in places. No doubt borrowing from Faulks' own background in journalism, Engleby is a misanthropic and acerbic commentator on it and on publishing in general. For instance, listening to a grandstanding speech by a literary-turned-crime novelist who claims the key to success is never using three syllable words when two will do, Engleby remarks:

"You'd think it was James Joyce up there. I mean, Christ,how
many syllables are there in the words 'it', 'butler' and 'did'?

Faulks also does a convincing job (to me anyway, C was somewhat less convinced, though she is a mental health professional) in the latter part of the novel on the more clinical aspects of Engleby's psychology. There's a lot of rather technical detail here, but Faulks integrates it into the flow of the novel well, and it never comes off as "here's some research I spent days on so absolutely have to shoe-horn into my novel" (although the nature of the narration allows some latitude in how this is actually done). What I particularly liked was its presentation of a number of competing schools of psychological thought. Coming from my own background, that seemed a rather realistic portrayal of the subject area (albeit softer, psychological science).

However, as I've indicated above, it was a bit touch and go with this novel, and with a few less deft moves Faulks could easily have come a cropper (IMHO). He stayed on just the right side of the unreliable narrator for my liking. By way of contrast, another novel I read a while back, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, very much erred on the wrong side. It was similarly well-written, but needlessly introduced something late-on that would have been useful, but plot-damaging, to know earlier. Here, Engleby's nature, as well as the narrative's framing rationale, make the unreliable narration explicable. In the case of The Sea, the unreliability seems only because the novelist couldn't plot well enough, with the result that the reader (this reader at least) feels a bit robbed at the end. Not a good way to finish a book - the Man Booker judges should have been a bit less forgiving.

Anyway, I don't know if I'd recommend this one, but I'll be keeping an eye on Faulks in the future. Unless, that is, he writes more First World War stuff!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

What plants do when you're not looking ...

... or what they do if you're patient enough to watch them over a long period. Or, rather, get your camera to do the donkey work for you.

Light should only be coming from the left of the image, but the rightmost tall plant seems to have a change of heart late-morning. Anyway, I can whole-heartedly recommend plant life as a good photographic subject.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Kingley Vale

Took a trip to Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve this past weekend. It's noted for having Europe's oldest and largest stand of yew trees. Usually confined to churchyards, here the yews individually sprawl over wide patches of ground, and collectively have spread over the hillsides of the vale. They're pretty impressive, though a bit stumpy and rather reminiscent of Treebeard from Middle-earth with their gnarly features. Needless to say, lots of tree photographs resulted.


We also made use of the GPS again. Firstly to log our path ...

2009-04-05 Kingley Vale walk

But also to track the hike's (steep-in-places) terrain ...

2009-04-05 topography

And plot up the locations of the resulting "Kodak moments" ...

Flickr map

I also took the time to try out some panorama-making software that I'd acquired from APM. After a number of attempts, which involved fruitless hand-edits and removing seemingly irrelevant frames, I finally got this to create a quasi-sensible result ...

2009-04-05 panorama

Anyway, the full set of pictures is available over at Flickr.

Five guys, no girls

This morning finds five male ducks drinking from the pond in the quad, but no sign of any females. Perhaps word has got out in duck circles that the quad is a magnet for annually returning females? Or perhaps some of these males were raised in the quad in previous years? Anyway, if this year follows last year's pattern, we should have some (doomed) chicks in the quad within the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, 5 April 2009


Another week, another biopic. One, given its subject, that I wasn't expecting to see, but football fan C wasn't going to miss it: The Damned United. Structured around Brian Clough's disastrous 44 day spell in 1974 at Leeds United, England's best, but dirtiest, football club, the film tracks the events in the immediately preceding years that led to it. But much more significantly, the film documents Clough's working partnership with Peter Taylor. Judging from the film, this was much more of a loving, if sometimes fractious, marriage than a professional relationship. Although there's a lot of history in there that went completely over my head, it's really very enjoyable even for a fair-weather football fan like me.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Credibility on Creationism

Back to science fiction again, this time a novel entitled The Night Sessions by a chum of Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod.

Set in a post-global warming, post-peak oil, post-Faith Wars future, the novel centres around a police investigation into the murder of a number of religious figures in Scotland. While things have settled down since the world came to terms with this triumvirate of calamities, these murders in the now-underground faith community suggests a potential return to the past. The murders also have an international dimension in that they appear connected to a series of sermons, the Night Sessions, delivered by a creationist to an eager flock of robots that work in a creationist theme park in New Zealand. The investigations also turn up a connection to the bad old days of the Faith Wars, a development that hints at robots "getting religion".

In theory, this all sounds pretty good. It touches on a number of topics that I find perennially interesting, principally creationism, but also climate change and, sad to say, robots. But it seemed to me a completely flat, tone-deaf, science fiction-thriller combo that had taken only a dash of these genres' high points, but a long swig of their weaknesses. So while we have space elevators and (brief) dissections of free will, we also have an unholy alliance of two-dimensional characters and a labyrinthine plot, such that the novel quickly becomes an over-complicated puzzle that you couldn't care less about.

The novel also contains a singular howler in the sudden, Damascene conversion of the main creationist character from his literalist beliefs. Anyone who's ever dealt with creationists will know that no amount of evidence or reasoned argument will shift them from a faith-based to a reality-based perspective [*]. So making a character suddenly realise that their belief in crazy-talk like flood geology is misplaced (to say the least), comes over as simply unbelievable in a novel already straining its reader's patience.

I have to add that setting what's ostensibly a globally significant story in a lazy future-Scotland seemed altogether too parochial to me too. Almost certainly because I'm from there, but it did feel at times that MacLeod had merely looked out of his window, wrote what he saw, then added a few details (like a gender-bending MI5 agent) to push it safely into the future.


[*] That's less true when people are young, and their world-view and self-image is less invested in a crazy literal reading of a single religious work, but after about age 20, and certainly by age 30, people tend not to budge (... if I can stereotype wildly).

Thursday, 2 April 2009

More top ten books

A good while back, I concocted a list of "top ten books" in response to a series that runs at C's work. Anyway, said series has now published C's top ten. There are a couple of overlapping titles (not in the science fiction genre, strangely enough), but quite a bit of difference. My list, for instance, was philistinely free of classic tomes, but C's has brought the average back up. Mine also dodged any suggestion of a considered political outlook, while C gives the nod to a couple of titles notable for progressive viewpoints. That said, my list isn't entirely without merit - for example, it doesn't contain any Nick Hornby.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Age of Stupid

Another day, another trip to the Harbour Lights. However, this time to see quite a different sort of film: the climate change documentary, The Age of Stupid.

First of all, it's not an entirely conventional documentary. Instead, while using a range of disparate contemporary footage, it links this all together within the framing device of the ruminations of a future archivist. The year is 2055, and the archivist lives in a giant tower in the ice-free waters of the Arctic, guarding over the biological and cultural treasures of the world but isolated from the rest of the otherwise ruined Earth. The archivist asks the simple question: why, given all we knew about future climate change, did we persist with "business as usual"? Splicing together a montage of footage made from a handful of stories from around the world, the archivist attempts to find the answer.

When I first heard about this film and, in particular, its use of a futuristic framing device, my heart sank. Another climate change documentary, made "audience-friendly" by a stupid Mad Max setting. However, I hadn't banked on my love for things science fiction, and for the frame's ability to tie the disparate, but personal, documentary stories together. It might seem more obvious to take in the bigger picture, or focus on stories that were more obviously linked, but this would have lost the people in the stories, or would likely have come across as overly contorted and contrived.

The documentary footage ranges over French glaciers, windswept Bedfordshire fields, poisoned African villages, an Indian EasyJet knock-off, a ravaged Middle East and unreconstructed, post-Katrina New Orleans. The stories shown touch on an eclectic mix of climate-relevant topics, shown through the prisms of very different lives. Among other tales, Katrina is viewed by a oil industry geologist gradually awakening from denial. The changing seasons are melancholically described by an aged mountain guide. "Business as usual" is vividly evoked by an at times bullying airline entrepreneur. And solid British NIMBYism is shown confronting and defeating the best efforts of a wind turbine businessman.

While I'm aware that some of my party thought these stories were a bit disjointed, I thought that their diversity, with its strong human angle, was actually a strength. And the framing device actually worked as very successful glue at keeping together what would otherwise have been difficult strands to juggle. But, then, I am a sucker for science fiction.

My main concern with the film was that I'm fearful it'll just preach to the choir. Generalising and stereotyping wildly, last night's audience certainly looked like the choir for sure. That said, by taking such a different tack to Al Gore's more straight-laced effort, it improves its chances of reaching a different audience and broadening the public's understanding of climate change.

Actually, that said, it's not exactly the most positive of films. While it's peppered with upbeat and hopeful messages, the stories told are frequently rather downbeat, and the apocalyptic nature of the framing device doesn't help on this point. In fact, I actually really enjoyed the short portion of the film which details the descent of the present day to a desperate future. There's something about destroying the world that's hard to resist revelling in [*]. Or perhaps that's just me?

While I don't expect it to change the world, I'd certainly recommend it to my friends in the vein of a constant drip-feed of climate change awareness. I'm conscious that our efforts are pitifully slow, but films like this can only collectively help.

Of course, I say all that, but am already scheduled for two flights (one trans-Atlantic) this year. Paraphrasing Hardin, with friends like me, the environment needs no enemies!

[*] Although describing the end of civilisation, surely a bad thing, the film makers put a few really good gags in this rather vigorous section of the film. Among the best were the news story that New Orleans was not going to be rebuilt after its third flooding, and a well-deserved passing shot at Channel 4 who, in an overheated 2030, were putting on a documentary questioning climate change.