Wednesday, 28 July 2010


As of a few minutes ago, both seagull chicks from the roof opposite are now able to take to the air. They seemed to do a few minutes in the skies around NOC before landing back where they'd started together with one of their parents. Much loud (congratulatory?) calling out then ensued. It seems like 2010 is yet another successful year for the NOC roof rookery.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


I find myself in the position of both (generally) supporting the war in Afghanistan, and supporting the release of intelligence documents by Wikileaks. Although it is not a point seemingly recognised by the authorities (at least officially or in press briefings), given that the latter has revealed some interesting and unpleasant truths about the former, I think the release will keep things honest and transparent, and will ultimately better serve the interests of Afghans and ourselves.

Admittedly, in the short term the release will (justifiably) cause outrage in Afghanistan and (unjustifiably) consternation in the West, and this may even serve to undermine the war. However, in the longer term the release will (hopefully) make our generals and politicians less gung-ho in action and less self-serving in reporting. It will also (again, hopefully) make the general public realise that actions such as those in Afghanistan aren't as clean as they are presented, while at the same time providing a base from which it's possible for an interested observer to quantify and compare the positives and negatives of military action.

What I haven't heard anyone say yet, and what I hope the general public is smart enough to pick up on, is that the "negatives" in Afghanistan need to be properly contextualised. This is one of the largest unintended declassifications ever, making our view of the war in Afghanistan much more complete than for other, corresponding wars. As such it would be very easy to mistakenly assume that Afghanistan is aberrantly bloody, and judge it accordingly. In all likelihood, other conflicts are similarly indiscriminate in their separation of friend and foe, but just not reported on as thoroughly (though I note that this "intelligence malfunction" is largely thanks to a single operative rather than dedicated work by journalists).

A similar phenomenon occurs with so-called "friendly fire" incidents that are now widely reported in the West. Until Gulf War 1, I don't think I'd ever heard this term used, but by Gulf War 2 (the sequel) it was common currency in war reporting (and even used to foster anti-American sentiment in some quarters). Does this mean that there were no incidents in earlier wars in which soldiers from the same side shot one another? Obviously not; and transparently so when one considers that battlefield communications are now vastly superior to how they were in the early 20th century. But the asymmetry in the quality and quantity of information available between modern and historical conflicts should always be carefully considered.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Unpleasant characters

A bit of an ostensible modern classic this time, The Bonfire of the Vanities by the American journalist Tom Wolfe.

Sherman McCoy is a Master of the Universe, a Wall Street trader with the world at his feet. He has a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter, a Park Avenue town house and a sexy southern mistress, Maria. However, lost one night in the Bronx with the latter, he also has an traffic accident that leaves a young black man in a coma. Persuaded by Maria and his own self-confidence, Sherman decides not to report the accident, reframing it in his mind as a botched car-jacking. But he has set in motion a chain of events that will threaten his reign, and in which his high-flying status becomes more of a liability than an advantage. This change in fortune is driven by a scheming minister eager for a crusade, a drunken English journalist desperate for a story, and an envious assistant District Attorney keen for a dash of fame with which to impress an attractive juror.

As I've noted above, this book seems generally viewed as something of a giant in modern American literature, at least in the comedic farce sub-genre section. A giant painfully shackled, in the public consciousness at any rate, to a terrible film version (which I've not seen; though the casting seems bizarrely at odds with the novel). Nonetheless, it comes with quite a bit of pomp and ceremony (= baggage).

There are definitely things to like, or at least admire, about it. The writing is good, and Wolfe does a great job sketching out the worlds and perspectives of the various leading characters. One very well-executed running gag is how Maria's southern drawl is translated to the page, and interpreted by different characters. And the novel definitely catches something of its time and place, with McCoy standing in for the triumphalism of 1980s western capitalism. It even has some amusing contemporary relevance, as when McCoy tries, and fails, to explain the mechanisms of his high-faluting financial work to his daughter, with echoes of derivatives.

But it's also an over-long book that, after slowly and carefully advancing its plot to crescendo, wraps up all of the fallout in a five page coda framed as a newspaper story. After wading through 715 pages, this was something of a let-down, and it smacks of a novelist eager to wrap things up and make way for a new project. Admittedly, I'm not terribly patient with long books, but so long as a novel is structurally balanced and its pay-off is handled well (cf. The Poisonwood Bible), I can be extremely tolerant. Here, I didn't find the sudden end, and the seemingly tacked-on coda, to entirely satisfy.

A related hindrance is the novel's population by unpleasant characters, at least those from whose perspective its told. This would work really well in a shorter book, but played out over 700+ pages it just ramped up my antagonism towards the novel. It's the unremittingly dismal view it paints of, well, everyone that's a little wearing. Now, I can see why Wolfe is doing this, and it's a great exercise in writing for him, but I found my patience stretched as the novel wore on. It's perhaps telling, on this point, that the novel originally appeared as serialised instalments in Rolling Stone. I can see that periodic dipping into it might work better than the long bath that the novel provides.

Wolfe uses the egotism of the characters who surround and seek a piece of McCoy to portray a society debased at every level, and in every institution. This makes for an enjoyable satirical read, but Wolfe presses it to make McCoy gradually emerge almost as a flawed hero, albeit in a comedic tragedy of his own making. For me, this pushed the satire too far, since McCoy, leaving aside his occasional flashes of insight and late-onset-morality, is not a heroic character. By painting everyone as corruptly chasing personal gain rather than, say, examining institutional failings that conspire against doing the right thing, Wolfe's portrayal of New York seems steeped in a reactionary cynicism that's not easy to share.

Putting the boot in just a little more ... for a novel that appears to be aiming to draw in the whole of New York, it is singularly remiss in its treatment of female and black characters. Women appear more or less as ornaments, and the novel never seriously presents their perspective. That said, at least they occur in the same world as the central characters, even if only as objects, which is more than can be said for non-white characters. At first, the novel's near-complete marginalisation of black characters could be read as part of the satire (i.e. a reflection of the worldviews of the novel's cast), but after 700 pages Wolfe's steadfast segregation seems to suggest that the antipathy or disinterest shown by the novel's characters may also extend to its author. I'm sure that's not the case, but the novel doesn't exactly help Wolfe on this point.

Anyway, all that said, I'd return to my first remarks about the novel definitely having aspects to recommend it. It is largely enjoyable but, equally, it's weighed down by other aspects, not least of which are its length and the way it fritters away any remaining good will from the reader at the end [*]. Which is a shame really, since Wolfe, in small doses (and judging solely from this novel), is a great observer, commentator and humourist.

[*] I also can't let the author's introduction to the novel pass by without comment. Being at the front of the book, it's what I read first, and as well as being over-long (surprise, surprise), it's a rather self-congratulatory affair in which Wolfe shamelessly blows his own trumpet. He could have at least done the decent thing and gotten a crony to do this for him. Or, since it's clear he wanted to hold the reader's attention even longer, he could have put his thoughts at the end of the novel. Self-aggrandising from the get-go is just plain stupid.

dDuck / dt = 0

A brief update just to say that nothing has changed in the quad. Brood 1 is still at full strength (7 adult-looking ducklings); Brood 2 still has its solo survivor; and the newest brood still has 2 surviving members. So, no change.

It's similar over with the seagulls. The two chicks seated on the roof opposite are increasingly practicing flapping their wings, but neither has taken to air yet any further than a few centimetres. The other chick I mentioned last week has learned enough now to swoop quite gracefully around the towers. No sign of any further crashes.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Sky Ride

Today we took part in Southampton's Sky Ride 2010, one of about 10 similar events across the UK in which portions of cities are closed to traffic and turned over to cyclists (and, at least in Southampton, roller-bladers and skate-boarders).

In Southampton's case, the route took in the city's main thoroughfare ("The Avenue"), which allowed it to string together most of the parks that are scattered across the city ...

2010-07-25 Sky Ride route

The route was about 10 km in length, and took us almost exactly an hour to complete. Not exactly an Olympic-qualifying time but it wasn't meant be - it's clearly aimed to be a comfortable jaunt around your home city, free of peril from cars. Actually, given the large number of Sunday cyclists and children, it would have been positively dangerous to try for a land speed record.


The ride started and finished in Hoglands Park, where the good work done on the ride could be quickly undone at any one of a number of fast food tents. To be fair, there were also a lot of tents aiming to inform people about other healthy endeavours. And there was even an ongoing interview between some MC and one of the UK's Olympic cyclists, Victoria Pendleton.

Anyway, it was good fun to take in Southampton car-free, and generally nice to see so many people out on their bikes. It's certainly quite a pleasing change from my daily commute.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Up and away

Spotted the first lift-off of one this season's gull chicks a short time ago. It was a relatively brief affair which ended with the chick crashing, unharmed, into one of the building's towers (although I now see that it's flown off to a different roof, so it's improving). The chick in question wasn't one of those I've been watching the past few weeks, but they're both getting close to achieving the same feat. If previous years are anything to go by, their first flights will be prompted by heckling parents. No sign of that happening just yet - at the moment, movement in the chicks is restricted to following their parents to beg (in a high-pitched squeal) for food, and tracking the shade provided by the tower opposite.

The only duck news to report is that we're down one further chick since last time. The third brood, which had 3 small chicks, now has only 2. Confusingly, the family group still has 3 chicks, since it includes the remaining survivor from brood two. Brood one still appears to have its full complement of 7 chicks - which now look just like adult females.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Birthday sculpture

Having recently been to, and enjoyed, another outdoor sculpture exhibition, this year C plumped for a quiet birthday trip out to a sculpture park that we first visited 4 years ago. It's out by Churt, about an hour northeast of Southampton, and basically consists of a large triangular park, centred around some large ponds, that's stuffed to the gills with a diverse range of sculpture. It's possible to get an idea of the layout from out 4.2 km (3 mile) wander through it, logged faithfully (if not entirely accurately) by the GPS ...

2010-07-13 sculpture park walkabout

It hasn't changed a whole lot since our last trip there, though there has certainly been sufficient turnover to justify our return visit. And, of the ones we were seeing for a second time, enough of them were favourites from the last trip to not be annoying ...


It's difficult to say what my favourites among the new recruits were, but one that caught my eye immediately was a rather large circle of figures that appeared lifted from the 1979 film The Black Hole ...


Anyway, in spite of rather foreboding weather, it made for a great day out. And, as usual, there was ample opportunity for sculpture abuse ...


Full set of photographs available over here.

Friday, 9 July 2010


Having seen them periodically over at the Astronomy Picture of the Day, and more recently on GS's photostream, it was nice to finally see some noctilucent clouds for myself ...


These were only visible for a short period, and more-or-less disappeared while I was trying to photograph them (stupidly sans tripod). Anyway, now that I've seen them over the city once, I'm on the lookout for a repeat performance.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Super-long cloud evolution

Had the day off today sorting out C's birthday presents, etc. While wrapping these in the afternoon, I set up a cloud time-lapse ...

The camera initially estimated that its memory card had enough space for about 1700 low resolution frames, but I never stopped to check how it was doing and in the end it managed to take 3800. I guess skies that are mostly blue can be compressed pretty seriously. Anyway, though the movie is overlong (and periodically interrupted by birds), I still like the mesmerising result.

Monday, 5 July 2010


A couple of changes over the weekend: sticking to tradition, these are downward adjustments in juvenile avian numbers.

Firstly, the most recently duckling cohort has lost one of its members along the way, so now stands at 3. Actually, if we include the sibling (or semi-sibling) from an earlier cohort, it still sits at 4, but either way we're one duckling down since Friday.

Secondly, we appear to have lost one of our gull chicks. I've never seen more than 2 on the roof at once today, and while it could be that there are 3 but I only see 2 at any one time (hey, they look identical to me), this seems unlikely.

Anyhow, no additions to report at this time. Neither ducks nor gulls.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

A return

Earlier this week, we spotted that there was a new brood of ducklings in the quad. Only four, which suggested that the brood had actually been around long enough for a larger cohort to have been thinned somewhat.

Anyway, much more interestingly, the solo duckling, hitherto abandoned by its mother, now wanders around with this new brood and its mother. Given that mother ducks are pretty intolerant of non-immediate-family ducklings, this points to the new brood being half brothers and sisters of the (formerly) solo duckling.

In other news, the seagull chicks just get bigger and bigger. They're still all grey and fluffy, but they've already started trying out their wings. Completely unsuccessfully as yet, but their development is a lot faster than that of the ducks. I guess that illustrates the superiority of the regurgitated seagull diet over the insects-and-bread-based one of the quad-bound ducklings.