Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Up, up and away

It's been trying now for a few days, but I've just seen the fledgling seagull on the roof opposite our office has finally fully taken to the air. The last couple of days has seen it first getting temporarily into the air, then briefly hovering a metre or so above the roof, but it's just gotten into the air and swooped off over the building's towers. No sign of it returning just yet, so perhaps it's now making its way in the seagull-world?

No sign yet of the ducklings following suit. Flying doesn't appear to have quite occurred to them yet.

P.S. Here's a photograph of the seagull chick practicing its first tentative "steps" into the air ...


And, for reference, the chick did return to the roof in the end. So although it can now fly, it still needs help (and food) from its parents for the time being.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


Although C usually decries genre fiction, and doesn't get involved in long series of novels (with the exception of three involving Frank Bascombe), she has been quite taken by the tales concerning Detective Inspector John Rebus written by the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. As she recently finished Rankin's final novel with Rebus, I thought it was time for me to pick the series up again. I started once before, pre-blog, but found the very first novel, Knots And Crosses, fairly unremarkable, and just a little bit clichéd. Of course, I was forgetting that Rankin began writing Rebus long before many of the TV series and films that I mistook the novel as aping. So what I took for the traipsing out of tired storylines was just my late reading of a novel somewhat out of its time. Anyway, with such a gold standard recommendation from C, I thought it was long past time that I got around to Hide & Seek.

The novel begins not, seemingly, with a murder, but with the discovery of a dead junkie, an altogether too-common occurrence in the more squalid reaches of Edinburgh. However, with just about enough quirks to attract the attention of the attending coroner, including a hint of the occult, a more senior officer, DI Rebus, is brought in for a look. Enough intrigues Rebus for him to take an interest in the case, despite a call from his superior upstairs to lead a charitable drive to tackle the city's drug problems. Rebus is aided, as police officers often are in fiction, by a disastrous personal life that makes few, if any, calls on his time outside work, freeing him up for extra-curricular investigation. Before long, his efforts have turned up a friend (girlfriend?) of the dead addict, and a slumming university student with an interest in the occult. These hint at others who may have had an interest in seeing the man dead, including a shadowy figure that Rebus comes to know as Hide, or is it Hyde? Whoever he is, he somehow appears able to skip ahead of Rebus at each turn, subtly interfering and stalling every step of progress. At the same time, through the glad-handing of the drug charity, Rebus gains temporary entry into the world of the corporate gentry who preside over Edinburgh. This gives him tantalising glimpses of men with altogether different appetites, glimpses that begin to trace patterns in Rebus' mind.

First up, this is a better and more enjoyable novel than its predecessor, Knots And Crosses. While it does tread over some of the classic tropes of detective fiction, it's never stale, and it mixes things up sufficiently to keep the reader guessing throughout at what's going on. In surrounding the investigation with layer after layer of seemingly disconnected aspects of the case, Rankin is able to give the reader the experience that Rebus feels during the novel: that nothing makes sense, that the investigation is spiralling wider and wider and that something outside the case is pulling the strings. In a good way, of course. And Rankin's able to tie it all up satisfyingly by the end, which always helps.

What also helps is Rankin's ability as a writer. I've not read an awful lot of crime fiction, but he's clearly a cut above almost all that I have read. While the genre does create expectations that description and character are generally in the service of plot, Rankin still breathes a lot of life into the novel. All of the different facets of Edinburgh, for instance, come alive, albeit to mostly skulk malevolently about the reader.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the first novel was its use of the woefully overused trick of having the central crime twist back on the investigator, such that it's finally revealed that the perpetrator has a personal beef with the officer doing the detecting. It's such a cliché and always rings false: how many cases in the average detective's life are really all about them? While this novel includes a breakthrough that comes somewhat close to home, it's not laid directly at Rebus' door, nor is it the key twist in the plot, so it doesn't detract from or weaken the novel.

In summary, a big step up from the first novel, and an easy and enjoyable read. It doesn't escape from the genre, but I'll be interested to see what Rankin tries with the later novels (of which there are another 15 to read!).

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Trailer for a Talking Head

C got me tickets to see David Byrne at Southampton's Guildhall in just over a week's time. She's not going to be around that night to see him, but I've persuaded AM to join me. I'm not entirely sure what to expect. I guess he might play some Talking Heads by way of crowd-pleasing, but he's got a large solo back-catalogue to draw on as well. It's probably a forlorn hope, but I'd like to hear (Nothing But) Flowers and Dream Operator, but I'm sure I'll lap up whatever's on offer.

Two weekends; Four films; Two outcomes

Public Enemies: Largely an empty, but pretty, spectacle. Setting out to make a film in which the hero is a well-known criminal requires that the film-maker addresses the criminality and either puts it into context, or presents some back-story of a troubled upbringing that, at least partially, tries to excuse it. This film does neither. What's worse it that, at least according to Wikipedia, the film's hero, John Dillinger, really did have something of a following among the masses, in part because he was targeting banks and bankers that many held responsible for the Great Depression. The film almost entirely overlooks this, leaving the viewer to empathise with Dillinger just because he's played by Johnny Depp, and because he appears to have a romantic streak. That's nowhere near enough for me. Also, the film plays very fast and loose with actual history, which is forgiveable on dramatic grounds when the story is broadly true in spirit, but completely unearned here. But it is quite pretty to look at, if I can damn it with faint praise.

Being There: This is one that I've wanted to see for quite some time, but it appears not to have been available on DVD until relatively recently. As far as its central concept goes (an idiot savant employed for his whole life as a gardener by a rich patron, suddenly finds himself out in the real world where, after a fortuitous meeting, he finds his gardening tips are mistaken for sagely advice by the powerful in Washington), it's fairly solid, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It proceeds at a snail's pace; it's not difficult to see what's coming; it makes far too much use of (then) contemporary television; and, unforgivably, it has an overlong sequence set to a disco version of Also sprach Zarathustra. Also, its closing scene includes an intriguing event that presents something of a major disjoint from the preceding narrative. It leaves this completely unexplained, leaving the viewer (this one at least) with the impression that it's a cheap-shot at profundity.

Rachel Getting Married: Another one that I've been waiting a while to see (we missed it at the cinema because of a rubbish screenings schedule), but quite a different experience from Being There. Although it focuses on the event of Rachel's wedding, it's really centred around her troubled sister Kym (a never-been-better Anne Hathaway). Released from rehab to attend the wedding, the somewhat estranged Kym struggles to deal with her own feelings about the event, the often stridently-expressed feelings of her family towards her and with the lingering fallout of a family tragedy that she caused in her youth. While the film revolves about Kym and Rachel, it's fleshed out with an expansive and diverse cast that, notably, also takes in a large number of musicians because of the groom's vocation. And though it's underscored by deep memories and their painful attendant emotions, it also makes the wedding significant and invests it with a lot of love and fun. Stand-out scenes include an inter-generational dishwasher-loading competition, and a tender scene in which Rachel reverses her role and bathes Kym in preparation for the wedding. The only thing the film gets slightly wrong is the somewhat extended and excessive use of music during the post-wedding party. I suspect that the director had so much fun with assembled talented musicians that he couldn't bear to leave any footage on the cutting room floor.

Moon: A science fiction gem, compact but perfectly formed. And, unusually for much of the genre when it comes to the cinema (though not in print), very much focused on ideas. It does borrow significantly (or at least appears to) from the canon of science fiction cinema, but it chooses very carefully. From 2001 it takes its art direction. From Silent Running it gets its solitary protagonist and his faithful artificial helper. Its corporate ethics appear to be straight out of Alien. And the theme of mistreated creations (always one of my favourites) is amplified from Blade Runner. However, it also subverts some of these influences, notably making its passively-voiced artificial intelligence, Gerty, benevolent rather than malevolent. But if this description makes the film sound like a retread, it's really nothing of the sort. It blends them into a vision of its own, and stands perfectly without any viewer knowledge of these past classics. The film has a few missteps along the way (the central character under-reacts in my view to the film's key revelation), but it unfurls logically and stays true to its vision unlike so many other science fiction films.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Death and the Maiden

I've been shirking on my book reviewing duties. This one, The Book Thief, by the Australian author Markus Zusak, is actually from before my trip to Louisville. So much for taking full advantage of my new work laptop and blogging during my journey across the Atlantic.

Appropriately enough for a novel narrated by Death, the novel begins with the death of a young German boy by the side of a railway. Alongside stands his nine year old sister, Liesel, with whom he was to be fostered to a family in Molching, a small town outside of Munich. This fostering is driven by the imprisonment of their communist parents at Dachau concentration camp at the beginning of the Second World War. Liesel is first noticed by Death at this point while he is collecting her brother, but Death also sees her mindlessly steal a book, and so denotes her as the Book Thief of the title. Liesel eventually reaches her destination on Himmel Street in Molching, where she meets her new foster parents, the warm, accordion-playing, house painter Hans Hubermann, and his ill-tempered, foul-mouthed but deep-down loving wife, Rosa. At first life is relatively unperturbed by the ongoing war, but as time passes it circles closer and closer to Molching and the Liesel's new family. In Molching, Liesel comes to know a number of people who will significantly touch her life. Her neighbour Rudy, known throughout the town for a stunt in which he "blacked-up" with coal dust to mimic his hero Jesse Owens, becomes her best friend and a budding, if ultimately unfulfilled, romantic foil. Through her foster mother's work as a laundress, she also meets the wife of Molching's mayor, Frau Hermann, a woman still bereft at the loss of her son in the First World War, but who has a library that Liesel comes to love (and steal from). And then, thrown into the family by the rounding up of Jews by the Nazis, comes Max Vandenburg, the son of one of Hans' friends from his earlier soldiering days. Because of his Jewish identity, Max must be hidden in the Hubermann's home, in which Liesel becomes his contact with, and his source of news from, the outside world. This focused point of contact becomes a strong bond, one which sees Liesel reading the books she steals to Max, and Max writing and illustrating a small book about Liesel. But, as the depredations of the war make life increasingly difficult in Molching, and Hans' kind actions draw attention to their home, Max must again flee to an uncertain fate. Less uncertain, however, is the fate of Himmel Street, whose calamitous end is gradually, and calmly, approached by the narrator.

It's an odd book to describe this one. It's an extremely well-told tale of lives led in the shadow of wartime, and one told, unusually, from the German side of the war, and by a fairly singular narrator. And I really enjoyed it. But because the Second World War is such a familiar piece of collective history, and despite the book's distinguishing points of view, it's not quite as significant a book to me as it appears to be for many of its reviewers. Which all translates into my overall view that, while I'd definitely rate it, I'd not get ecstatic over it.

The book does have a lot to recommend it. The narration by Death is very well done, particularly in that it presents a cool and dispassionate view of the death and destruction of the war at the large scale that makes it all the more moving when it comes to the loss of the novel's principal characters. It helps that Death cuts such a humane figure in the book; though kept busy by the war, his role in collecting souls from those caught terminally in its consequences is done tenderly. This all makes Death something of a pleasing conundrum as a character, caring yet distant, and allows the novel to be hung about his recollections.

The human characters are all drawn well, though more in the sense that you like them rather than them being fully three dimensional creations. There are "good" characters that you come to know and understand well, and "bad" characters who appear too briefly to become any more than cyphers or proxies for the Nazi regime. And the reader is never in doubt about which is which.

On this latter point, the book does occupy the rather uncomfortable "good German" sub-genre. While it's unquestionably the case that many Germans were appalled by the actions of the Nazi regime, this sub-genre is uncomfortable because it's equally unquestionably the case that all too many other Germans bought entirely into the fascist mindset that led to the Second World War and the Holocaust. So art that presents the "good German" is always viewed, at least by this reader, with a degree of probably unjustified suspicion. What makes this particular work more interesting on this score is that Zusak, though Australian, has a German mother and an Austrian, house painter father. So there's a temptation to read a little too much into the presentation of "good German" characters (though Zusak's parents are almost certainly of the post-war generation).

Anyway, regardless of my niggling doubts, and if you're not yet tired of the Second World War, it's an imaginative and worthwhile read. If just for the character of Death alone.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Duck plateau

The quad's duck population is still holding more-or-less (well, "less" mostly) constant with two cohorts of seven and two ducklings respectively. It's been difficult to count them with the weather this week, but the larger ducklings are also making things difficult by not hanging around in a single group any more. So there may not be seven of them, but it seems unlikely.

The roof opposite now only has a single seagull chick, but it's making a lot of progress, and has started practising flying this week. Only little hops to catch the wind so far, but it's already able to stay in the air for a few seconds, and it looks like it would easily manage more if push came to shove.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

A random report on Louisville

Although I spent most of my trip to Louisville for ICoN1 around the Shelby Campus in an eastern suburb, actually about 10 miles from the city's "downtown", I did manage a couple of trips to the centre, as well as two skirmishing raids with fellow scientist drinkers to the Highlands area. In fact, almost all of the photographs from my trip relate to these forays away from ICoN1's venue. So I thought I'd record a few (fairly random) impressions of Louisville since, not being a major city or conference host, I'm not likely to get around to visiting it again.

  • My very first impressions were of the surrounding area. Our plane came down below cloud base some way out of Louisville, so I got good views of the large tracts of forest around the city. I also noticed a sizeable theme park (Six Flags I think) immediately adjacent to the airport - though sadly I didn't have time to visit during my stay.

  • My inbound flight had me next to a woman, a local resident, on her way back from a trip to visit the family in the "old country", specifically Rome (the Italian one). She spoke highly of the city (Louisville, that is), although I now only remember that she told me to avoid the west of the city (where, my arrival being July 4th, I was more likely to hear gunshots than fireworks), and that the airport is the US hub for UPS. Apparently, they're sufficiently important there that the airport is open only to the company for certain periods of the day.

  • On my first full day in the city (a Sunday), I travelled to "downtown" using about the only bus service that runs to and from the distant portion of suburbia where Shelby Campus is located. From this journey, and others I later took, it turns out that public transport is pretty good in Louisville. The journey in was a good 10 miles, and took the better part of an hour (despite it being an "express" service), but it still only cost $1.50, and the ticket I bought remained valid on any other bus route for a couple of hours after I bought it.

  • One immediately obvious feature of the buses, however, is that they cater for a more impoverished portion of society. Which, not uncommonly for the US (though it applies elsewhere too), means that they are used mostly by African Americans. In fact, my first journey into town must actually have been pretty strange for the locals using the bus: first of all, because of me and my fellow ICoN1 attendees, it was disproportionally well-stocked with white passengers; but secondly, none of us spoke with an American accent (3/5 weren't native English speakers). Subsequent journeys were a bit more diverse, but the buses pretty obviously operate for an economic underclass. This was underlined when I spoke to white Louisville residents - I mentioned how good I thought the bus service was, and while they nodded and agreed, none had ever used it.

  • Aside from providing socio-economic illumination, the bus took me over a fair chunk of Louisville to get to downtown, so I got more of a feel for it than I often get on short visits to cities. The overwhelming impression was "low density", or more pejoratively, "urban sprawl". For most of the way in, the city consisted of single or two storey buildings and homes, with large spaces between each structure. It was actually only within a few blocks of downtown that this began to change and Louisville became more like a conventional city. While such sprawl was fascinating to me when I first saw it in Los Angeles in 1992, now it just seems like a whole load of wasted space.

  • It doesn't, of course, help calm effete European sensibilities that the sprawl is regularly provisioned with fast food outlets. The stereotype of American consumer culture was reinforced at least once every city block that we traversed on our journey to downtown. To be fair, it may just have been the road we took into town, which mostly (slowly) followed an interstate's transcity route. Our later taxi rides to Highlands saw a lot more houses and a lot fewer burger stops.

  • Anyway, for all my whining about the buses, I found them a great way to get around town. And both the drivers who ran them, and many of the other passengers I came across on my travels, were extremely polite and helpful. Especially on my last day in Louisville when I managed to totally cock-up my return journey to Shelby Campus to catch my airport shuttle. That all worked out well in the end, but only because I got help from a couple of the drivers and another passenger who, coincidentally, really liked my boots.

  • Turning to downtown, the whole area probably only covers a square of about 7 blocks a side. It's dominated by a number of "skyscrapers", the most prominent of which is an office/retail block with art deco stylings (as celebrated here). There are a couple of other interesting ones, including the Humana Building which features some strange balcony-like tiering and a massive marble entrance complete with streaming water.

  • Downtown also has a number of much older buildings dating from the early 20th century, and some of them are fantastic. At one point I bumped into an old woman who runs one of the tourist information centres, and she was able to point me in the direction of some of these that are actually cast iron. She even gave me a promotional magnet to help me identify which of the buildings were built this way. That was pretty cool.

  • Coolest of all, however, were the various fibreglass horse statues located all over the city centre. These are part of a CowParade-like public art installation called Gallopalooza. Much like the CowParade's cows, the horses of Gallopalooza are brightly painted along all sorts of thematic lines, typically by local artists. Individual horses are sponsored by businesses, who sometimes shape the design chosen, and at the end of Gallopalooza they are auctioned off for charity. Needless to say, far too much time was spent photographing as many of the horses as I could find. I am such a sucker for this sort of bubbly public art.

  • Other sculptures included the brother of William Clark of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame; York, the slave who accompanied said expedition; some cool bicycle racks; and a rather ridiculous building-sized baseball bat at the museum for the Louisville Slugger. Not a bad city for sculpture to say the least.

  • Taking in a broader sweep of the arts, I also travelled to the Speed Art Museum out by the University's main campus. Not a huge museum, but it had a lot of really good stuff. I must have misread its description, as I'd been expecting modern art, but it took in a much wider range including items from ancient civilisations, the Renaissance, French-American etchings, Native American crafts and modern American works. It also had a brilliant (if temporary) photography exhibition going on. It didn't have an accompanying book but, in a curious departure from normal policy at museums, I was assured by one of the attendants that I could just use my phone's camera if I wanted to.

  • One big goof: in an attempt to broaden my experience of US fast food culture, I visited White Castle, a chain I'd heard about but never seen before. Never again. (P.S. Although I did get a great, if super-thick, shake - it wasn't 100% a bad experience.)

  • A strange detail I noticed in the city was that it had quite a number of hospitals in and around downtown that each dealt with very specific illnesses. So there'd be an eye hospital on one side of the street, but a kidney one on the other. More bizarre still, at least from my blinkered, UK-o-centric perspective, was a specifically Jewish hospital. The only thing I could think of was that, once upon a time, the Jewish community needed to build its own hospital to be assured of medical treatment. An interesting thought.

  • Away from downtown, I only really visited the area known as Highlands, and then only on a quest for drinking establishments. While the collective we fumbled a bit finding good bars to drink in (especially on our second night), there was good beer to be had, and we certainly had a lot of fun. We hit a couple of road bumps with places that wanted our IDs, but we had enough natives with us to smooth things over (thanks Tyler).

  • Highlands was quite a hike from Shelby Campus, so we wound up using a fleet of taxis on both trips there. These were quite a hoot too - mainly because the taxi business attracts some interesting staffing. Our first ride was a guy from, I think, Algeria or somewhere in northern Africa. He was interested to hear that some of us were from Europe but we wound up getting into a bizarre discussion when he refused to believe that the Netherlands existed. I think we confused him when we said they spoke Dutch there, which he interpreted as Deutsch. The second night had us in a car with another African driver who it transpired was doing the job to subsidise his masters degree in mathematics - by way of an intro for his planned doctorate. Other ICoN1 attendees managed to land a driver on his first night out, and we were snubbed at one point by a driver who was suspiciously named "Muhammad Aly" (Muhammad Ali being a local boy).

Anyway, despite all of my moaning above, I enjoyed visiting Louisville. It's not somewhere I'll probably ever get back to, but it was interesting enough that I'd recommend giving it the once over should one find oneself at a loose end in Kentucky. That probably sounds like damning with faint praise, but it was definitely worth poking around.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Belated duck update

Because of my visits to Paris and Kentucky, I've not been able to keep tabs on the ducks. However, it appears that we still have most of those that were here before I went away. It's looking like we still have the group of seven large ducklings, plus two survivors from one of the smaller, more recent broods. It looks like the third brood that consisted of a single chick has vanished, however. That said, given the appalling weather this week, it's been difficult to get anything approaching a good headcount.

We may also have lost a couple of the seagull chicks, though again it's difficult to know if they're just under some shelter elsewhere. The top of the roof opposite can't exactly be the best place to sit with wind and rain battering you.


Got an interesting note from Brother John today regarding the ongoing flu pandemic. As part of his research, he's been involved in the development of a website that allows users to sign-up and report their "flu status". The idea being that it'll allow the health profession to better monitor and respond to the expanding pandemic. Needless to say, faced with an easy-to-use interface and the opportunity to spot an approaching tidal wave of infection, what could I do but sign up ...

When I signed-up this morning, I was only one of two people in Southampton, but as of now there are about nine in the city, of which about half are reporting "respiratory symptoms". These people may even be NOCS denizens since I forwarded Brother John's request for participation around the building. How exciting! (Until I get the flu, of course.)

Monday, 6 July 2009


As of late yesterday, I'm at the ICoN1 conference on nitrification at the University of Louisville (apparently pronounced "Looville"), Louisville, Kentucky. I'm here to give a presentation on a paper that I co-wrote a couple of years ago with APM and some observationalist colleagues. As a total neophyte to the world of nitrification, this extremely specific conference has already been quite an eye-opener. My seminar is this evening, but this morning's presentations have already forced me back to PowerPoint to adjust some of my more egregious mischaracterisations of nitrification. It's been quite hard at times following some of the more molecular taxonomic talks, but I'm slowly getting my eye in - at least, I'm learning which parts of a talk I can safely ignore without losing its central thread.