Tuesday, 31 August 2010

On yer bike

Taking advantage of usually nice weather for a Bank Holiday, we headed over to just outside of Beaulieu (Hatchet Pond to be exact) for a 16 km cycle around the forest.

2010-08-30 New Forest cycle

Though clear and sunny, it was a pretty cold ride at first while we were cycling through a more heath-covered portion of the New Forest. Bizarrely, we passed by a mini-runway set up for the exclusive use of miniature airplane enthusiasts. We were even buzzed by something that looked like a Messerschmitt at one point (it had the black Luftwaffe cross on the underside of its wings). But once we got into the trees in the more northerly part of the ride, things warmed up nicely, although there (modest) hills sapped energy levels ...


While C was recovering her strength, I took the time to try out a panorama of that portion of the New Forest (the photograph has a linked map) ...

2010-08-30 New Forest panorama

There are a couple more photos over at Flickr.

3 films, 3 paragraphs

The briefest of brief run-downs of recent cinematic highlights (precluding TS3, of course).

Adventureland is little gem of a film, a paean to crummy summer jobs, doomed workplace romance and the growing awareness in post-adolescence that the adult world is more complex than the caricature that one grows up with. But it leavens these heavier themes with a lot of great gags and more Lou Reed than I thought possible to enjoy. It also features the currently ubiquitous Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, both of whom sometimes seem like they're in every second or third film we see at the moment.

The Proposal, by contrast, is much more of your Hollywood money-printing machine, dangling, as it does, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds (in less sleazy form than in Adventureland) in front of pretty Alaskan scenery (or perhaps, Northern Exposure-style, somewhere that just looks like AK). Wise heads less in thrall to the charms of Ms. Bullock might justifiably deride it on any number of counts, but I found it perfectly tolerable if overly derivative of her finest hour. I am such a sucker.

Unlike all videogame tie-in films, which essentially provide confirmation for the view that games are derivative and violent nonsense, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World actually takes this much-maligned medium seriously (after a fashion), and uses it positively to create a narrative and an aesthetic that's pretty unique (the excellent Run Lola Run got some of the way there first). The film is chock-full of neat references and dynamics that parallel those of action games, even structuring itself around infamous boss battles. While the "real world" romance at the centre of the film is sketched out a little too perfunctorily to be convincing (Michael Cera's generic slacker performance is wearing thin), its co-opting of so many tricks from gaming make it an infectious blast. More so for those in the know, but I reckon it'd be fresh and fun enough for most jaded cinema-goers.

Friday, 20 August 2010

A MP replies ...

Well raise my rent! I got a (super-prompt) reply through the post from my MP. Or his private secretary at any rate. However, as a Shadow Minister (which is disappointing less sinister than it sounds) my MP is "unable" to sign either of the Early Day Motions (numbers 243 and 185). However, my letter has "prompted [my MP] to carefully consider the issues [I] raised", and the Minister of State for Schools, one Nick Gibb, has been advised of my concerns. Apparently I am to be informed of the outcome of this.

I'm actually rather impressed. I guess that MPs are pretty well set up for this sort of correspondence, but it's still rather pleasing to hear back so quickly. Especially given that Early Day Motions seem generally to get a pretty short shrift in parliament. Anyway, I await the next response with trepidation.

In passing, while checking up on them in Wikipedia, I came across mention of this delightfully misanthropic corker of an EDM.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

A constituent writes ...

One of the many worrisome things that The Coalition is rushing through parliament is a change to how schools can be managed, and how closely they need to follow some nationally-set curriculum. Basically, schools can, in principle, be set up from scratch by interested third parties, and appear set to have a lot more freedom in tailoring what they teach to students. In principle (again), this sounds like it might just clear the first hurdle of plausibility. For instance, like existing academies a school might decide to specialise in some particular way (e.g. business, science, arts), and might like to tweak their curriculum appropriately.

Needless to say, that last sentence was not my first thought. Instead, internet-hardened creationist-hater that I am, it occurred to me that this might provide a new route by which faith schools might bring down The Enlightenment. Ordinarily, this thought would then be followed up by seething rage, a bit of a sulk, and then complete inaction. Fortunately, an e-mail from the BHA spurred me into action. Well, spurred me into following a link to a website that, after a few clicks, automatically drafted me a letter to my MP. Slightly embarrassed that my name would be tied to some generic message, I duly edited this down to that below, then fired it off.

Dear Mr Denham

I am writing as both one of your constituents and as a professional scientist (oceanographer) to bring to your attention two Early Day Motions which I am asking you to support. EDM number 243 reads,

"That this House notes the value and importance of science in the schools' curriculum; further notes the importance of the specific inclusion of evolution and natural selection in the schools' curriculum; regrets that evolution has been dropped from reforms to the primary school curriculum, along with other reforms proposed; further regrets the inclusion of creationist and other pseudo-scientific theories in the teaching of science in some schools; and urges the Government to ensure that all schools teach and promote science and the scientific method and to include the theory of evolution in the science curriculum at both primary and secondary levels."

And EDM 185 reads,

"That this House congratulates the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the re-opening of the Ulster Museum; regrets that there is pressure to include creationism in the proposed exhibition of evolution and diversity; and believes that the teaching or promotion of religious beliefs should be separate from the teaching or promotion of science."

Both relate to potential and actual attempts by creationist organisations to pollute science education by introducing their evidence-free literal interpretation of religious texts. While greater freedom over the curriculum may afford certain advantages to students, it is fundamental that deliberate misinformation is excluded from science curricula. Put simply, there is *no support* for any creationist ideas within the scientific community, and to permit the teaching of the contrary is damaging both to students and to our wider technological society. Further, the focus they place on particular interpretations of certain religious texts is liable to needlessly foster disharmony between faith groups.

Evolution is the most important concept underlying the life sciences, it is of paramount importance that it is included in the science education of children. Undermining it by failing to exclude the pernicious nonsense of creationists is in direct opposition to the best information that our science provides, and it will have repercussions far beyond the classrooms.

I urge you to add your support to EDMs 243 and 185.

Yours sincerely,


Needless to say, I could rant on all day about the evils of creationism. However, I won't on this occasion, except to just harp back to one of the most annoying aspects of the modus operandi of creationists.

Basically, rather than engage with scientists whose ideas oppose their own through the conventional approach of actually sitting down and doing science, they skip this bit and head straight for the public and politicians. There, in front of an audience with limited time to play with and non-expert knowledge of the subject, they make their case, knowing that it need only sound superficially plausible, and that their main goal, publicity, is already accomplished. Then, with a metaphorical foot in the door, they can then argue, ridiculously, that their ideas be taught to school children alongside "conventional" / "mainstream" / "naturalistic" science. To give them credit, they've long since realised that displacing real science from classrooms is a non-starter, and have rather cleverly latched onto playing the "fairness" / "balance" card. "Teach the controversy" they say, knowing full well how effective sowing baseless doubt can be with an audience of inexperienced and receptive children.

Anyway, enough seething for now. Not least because it's (similarly) baseless until the result of this new Coalition legislation becomes clear. I've already received an electronic reply from my MP's PA, saying that my note "will receive attention", but it'll be a while before the full fallout of these plans makes itself known.

Saturday, 14 August 2010


It's taken me 9 months (since November 2009) to clock up a further 10K ...

Playing up view-envy to the hilt, this picture has 10K hits alone! Grrrr ...

Sunday, 8 August 2010


I am such a sentimental sap.

Way back in the dying days of my PhD, an evening spent cruising the drinking dens of Leamington Spa finished up in the house of a friend-of-a-friend, with us all raptly watching the original Toy Story. I fell in love. Not, as might be expected for me, with the whole computer animation aspect, but instead with the emotional / sentimental pull the film exerted on heart-strings I never knew existed.

Several years later, my heart beat a little faster with the news that a sequel was to appear but, knowing sequels, it was a guarded tachycardial rise. Oh ye of little faith. Said heart strings were pulled once more by Toy Story 2, a follow-up that more than matches its ancestor in cleverness and its wholesome brand of sentimentality. To the degree that it's now a touchstone in film criticism (at least when I'm around) as the best example of a violation of the law of diminishing returns (though there is competition).

Imagine, reader, my excitement in hearing the news that a sequel2, a threequel, was in the works. This time around fears of failure were (largely) cast to the wind, and cardiac muscle was much exercised. All justifiably as it now turns out. Toy Story 3 cements the good work of both previous generations, and completes[*] the life-cycle of the child-toy relationship. While, unsurprisingly, things get all emotional at the end (diffused pleasurably by the end-credits sequences), I was much more stretched and strained by the near-death experience faced down by Woody et al. that was immediately preceding.[**] Pixar truly know their onions if they can play an old cynic like me as if I was some finely-tuned sentimentality instrument.

[*] Technically, a sequel is not out of the question, and could pop up in the future if Pixar need a sure-fire financial hit. But it's unnecessary, and would be a mistake given that TS3 essentially closes the "circle of life" for toys. Still, one should not underestimate the power of money.

[**] Again, more excellent diffusion here, with one of the best running gags ("the claw").

Friday, 6 August 2010

All good things ...

It seems like no time ago at all that I was singing the praises of the magnificent Fallout 3 to the rafters and looking forwards to playing its seemingly vast expanse of extra add-on content. But I've played my way through the lot now, and am facing down the barrel of a Fallout-less future ... well, at least until the fortuitous autumn release of Fallout: New Vegas!

Anyway, so what were these mini-adventures in the Capital Wasteland like? Well, in the order that I played them ...

Broken Steel
Fallout3 2010-06-19 07-25-01-48 Although not the first released, Broken Steel is an obvious first port-of-call since it affords the player character a less self-sacrificing climax to Fallout 3 and the chance to continue their adventures in the Wasteland. Perhaps more importantly, it ups the cap placed on the experience level of the player character, allowing them to acquire even more refined huntin', shootin' and, well, nukin' skills. Also, unlike the other expansions, it is a straight continuation of the main Fallout 3 storyline, and deals largely with the continued pursuit of the dastardly Enclave by the saintly Brotherhood, partly through the Wasteland, but also in new areas just outside of it (most significantly Andrews Air Force Base).

Fallout3 2010-06-19 07-09-36-72 This is a pretty fun add-on. Playing it, as I did, straight after the main Fallout 3 storyline, made it a fairly seamless experience that slotted nicely into the events that took place then. It makes good use of a couple of peripheral locations in the Wasteland, and tacks on a nice, if somewhat sparsely populated, rendition of Andrew AFB for the finale. Which includes, needless to say, a bit of spectacular nuking (or back-stabbing betrayal if I'd chosen the Dark Side). However, picking up on the success of Project Purity, it also involves a few enjoyable side missions that take in the economics and politics of the sudden availability of fresh and safe water in the Wasteland. I almost enjoyed these more than the more straightforwardly militaristic main storyline.

Operation: Anchorage
Fallout3 2010-06-19 07-28-05-64 Eschewing the subtlety and role-playing elements of the main Fallout 3 storyline, Operation: Anchorage heads off in a more traditional first-person shooter direction. It begins (and, in a sense, remains) at an Outcast bunker in the Wasteland, where the player is inducted into a virtual reality simulation of the Alaskan conflict that led up to the Great War of 2077. Solo or as part of a hand-picked squad, the player must negotiate a series of frosty hurdles to liberate Anchorage from the Red Chinese. Defeating the simulated Reds will unlock a strong room back in the Wasteland bunker, making available some valuable technology to both the Outcasts and to the player. The missions in the Alaskan simulation involve disabling the heavy guns that are shelling Anchorage, destroying a series of strategic targets in the town, and facing down the Chinese commander one-on-one.

Fallout3 2010-06-19 07-41-15-30 I have to say that this add-on was something of a disappointment. After the complexity of Fallout 3, this really is just harking back to more conventional "shooters" of bygone days. Interactions with NPCs are bare-bones affairs at best, and the purported squad-based combat seemed to serve only as another impediment to clear. I struggled to put a squad together, but once I saw their battlefield performance, I made sure to ditch them the first chance that I got. In its defense, this add-on is set in an extremely attractive polar setting, especially in the early sections that take place in the mountains that surround Anchorage (though it doesn't take much to be more attractive than the Wasteland!). But this scene-setting prettiness is let down by the linear plotting and utterly conventional combat.

The Pitt
Fallout3 2010-06-19 08-12-48-51 Alluded to several times in Fallout 3, the backstory of the Brotherhood of Steel includes an episode on their journey from California to Washington DC in The Pitt, formerly Pittsburgh. Here, they found, then wiped out, a large Raider encampment, but left behind one of their number, Ashur, for dead. 30 years later, Ashur has resurrected The Pitt's industry and runs a massive foundry there. However, he has done so on the backs of slaves, and the player is drawn to The Pitt by an escaped slave, Wernher, who is ostensibly looking to free all those indentured there. Posing as a returning runaway slave, the player must infiltrate the foundry, then work up the ranks to reach a position where a slave rebellion can be instigated. This career progression is hampered by the conditions in the foundry, and by its infestation with Raiders and sub-human "trogs", victims of The Pitt's extreme radiation. However, the prize of freedom for the slaves, and the hint of a cure for the radiation sickness, are strong motivating factors. Or are they? Things are not are as morally black-and-white as they first appear in The Pitt.

Fallout3 2010-06-19 08-21-33-39 A much better expansion this time around. The Pitt is far more in keeping with the balance between role-playing and combat that was established in Fallout 3. Along with the new, industrial setting, there are a large number of characters to meet, help or betray. What's more is that they're worked into a nice plot in which "doing the right thing" is not as straightforward as it first seems. Having single-handedly wiped out Paradise Falls in the original game, I blazed into The Pitt thinking I'd found a whole new set of slaves to liberate, only to belatedly uncover circumstances that were a lot less clear-cut. If I could be a little critical, The Pitt is somewhat on the small size, consisting more or less solely of a central quest with no substantial side quests. Also, though it again introduces a whole new map, exploration is not a big part of it, and it doesn't take very long to get the measure of the foundry and its surrounds. But leaving these quibbles aside, it's a more fully realised expansion than the previous two, and one that's both truer to Fallout 3 and a lot of fun to boot.

Mothership Zeta
Fallout3 2010-06-19 07-53-43-66 Drawing from the rich repertoire of B-movie science fiction, Mothership Zeta takes the player out of the Wasteland, in fact right off of the Earth. After being drawn by a mysterious beacon to the crash site of a downed UFO, the player is teleported aboard the eponymous spaceship. While some scientists have speculated that only peaceful and friendly civilizations are likely to survive long enough to develop interstellar travel, the aliens of Fallout 3 obviously haven't read this research, and favour electrocution and disintegration over pan-galactic harmony. Thrown in with a number of fellow abductees, some of whom have been in cryofreeze for centuries, the player must escape from their alien captors, then work slowly through various levels to ultimately hijack Mothership Zeta.

Fallout3 2010-06-19 07-54-13-27 Upfront, I was convinced this would be a great add-on.[*] The retro-futurism of Fallout 3 should have gelled perfectly with the raygun aesthetic of 1950s science fiction that the aliens are drawn from. Certainly, a lot of effort has clearly been ploughed into the visual (and accoustic) appearance of the add-on, what with its classically Grey-like aliens, tail-finned rayguns and a beautifully-realised spaceship. But all this promise is lost in an add-on that, while admittedly sizeable, boils down to little more than conventional shootin'-and-key-findin'. In this regard, Mothership Zeta has a lot in common with Operation: Anchorage, being both rather beautiful but also rather shallow. There is a bit more NPC interaction in this add-on, but it serves as little more than a route for plot exposition, since there's nothing sophisticated or clever about what the player has to achieve (namely: seize control of mothership; escape from mothership). In fact, since Operation: Anchorage is shorter, its lack of complexity is less tiresome than that of Mothership Zeta. I was more than a little pleased to finally take charge of the mothership, but only so I could get straight back down to the Wasteland.

Point Lookout
Fallout3 2010-06-19 10-59-02-40 Last, but about as far from least as is possible to be, comes Point Lookout, set in the swamplands of the eponymous State Park to the south of Washington DC. The player is directed there from the Wasteland by Catherine, a mother fretting about her runaway daughter, Nadine, who has headed there to find her fortune. One paddle steamer voyage later, and the player disembarks in a landscape that, while spared from the bombs, is still dangerously radioactive. Once Point Lookout was a tourist destination, with a seafront carnival, a big wheel, and a rich heritage. Now, alongside its handful of ragtag survivors, it plays host to smugglers, moonshiners, a religious cult and rancorous, mutant hill-billies. Furthermore, the swamps are also full of much older dangers and secrets, some from the Great War, some dating centuries further back to the Civil War. As gradually becomes apparent, some of these secrets need investigating, while some need laying -permanently- to rest.

Fallout3 2010-06-19 11-16-18-29 By complete chance I saved the best of Fallout 3's expansion packs for last. Point Lookout stands head and shoulders above the other add-ons, and deftly balances a diverse range of "missions" with a large map ripe for exploration, all wreathed in a rich, Southern Gothic atmosphere. It was very pleasing to be freed up to explore again, and to gradually uncover all of the swampland's secrets for myself, rather than just following some A → B → C trail rigidly dictated by geography or single-purpose NPCs. Best of all, it was nice to be enveloped in a story (well, a series of interlocking stories) in which that rare commodity, imagination, had been used. As well as tracking down Nadine, I also found myself following in the footsteps of a long-dead Chinese spy, brewing up moonshine, investigating the murder of a natural gas-prospecting geologist, joining a cult that reveres a hallucinogenic plant, and settling a centuries-long battle of wits between two arch-rivals. All (and more) of which were both carefully plotted and populated by interesting NPCs. I particularly liked the little ancillary missions that had me digging for buried treasure in a flooded delta, and getting Point Lookout's lighthouse back into working order. There's also a fantastic hallucination section in which the player character's fears and disappointments are vividly brought to life. Finally, while it does pander to stereotypes somewhat, it's difficult not to be amused by Point Lookout's southern references, especially the introduction of hillbilly mutants. Very Deliverance.

By way of summary, and in case it's not obvious already, I'd rank Fallout 3's expansions as follows ...
  1. Point Lookout
  2. The Pitt
  3. Broken Steel
  4. Operation: Anchorage
  5. Mothership Zeta
For my money (not that I spent any; this was a birthday present), Point Lookout clearly deserves top billing among the various expansions. Its gameplay could be criticised as being too similar to Fallout 3, but that's a bonus in my book, especially when deviating from the Fallout 3 formula appears to produce such limp results. I'd place The Pitt next, followed by Broken Steel, although this is a bit more of a toss-up because the former is a little on the short side, and the latter does raise the level-cap (though still not enough for my liking). Operation: Anchorage and Mothership Zeta bring up the rear, but distantly. In spite of looking lovely, both are just too straightforward and linear to hold a candle up to the other add-ons. Given all the fun that's to be had with Fallout 3, it's rather damning to say that Mothership Zeta is too lengthy. This drags it firmly into last place, though it's still well worth a look, with the emphasis on look.

Anyway, that's the end of my journey in post-apocalyptia until at least later this year. Arse. Next up, and courtesy of some good friends, I've got a choice of vigilante violence or Grand Theft Jungle.

As for my earlier stay in Fallout 3, there are a number of screenshots from the expansion packs over at Flickr.

[*] Leaving aside any issues I have with the quality of Mothership Zeta, I'd add that it also introduces, well, existential issues to the world of Fallout. By explicitly introducing a world beyond the ruined Earth, even one filled with murderous aliens, the devastation wrought during the Great War somehow loses its power. It's important (at least for me) that the survivors in the Wasteland have to make the most of it, and that its only through their efforts that things are going to get better. The presence of an alien civilization advanced enough to travel to the Earth opens the door to shortcut fixes, and to the possibility of just leaving the Earth behind. Which conflicts, in my mind, with the efforts to "build a better world" as the game encourages the player to do. Further, judging from the time period that the aliens have been sampling humans for (hundreds of years), one is left with the suspicion that they may even have precipitated the Great War. Part of the power of Fallout lies in the knowledge that humanity is responsible for the destruction wrought on the Earth. Anyway, it is obviously only a game (and is the least "serious" of the add-ons), but as well as being something of a duff installment, Mothership Zeta also serves to cloud the significance of the events playing out in Fallout's shattered world.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Military intelligence

Jon Ronson does a great line in exposing some of the more bizarre aspects of modern fixtures such as extremists, conspiracy theorists, governments and the military. I've read a couple of his books over the years, and have always enjoyed his documentaries. Unlike many seemingly similar journalists, he appears to establish genuine connections with people at the fringes of society, and always brings something human out of them, even if they are still certifiably insane or dangerous.

One of his more interesting projects looked at the US military's investigation of the paranormal and New Age "techniques". I was familiar with some of the material he uncovered before reading the book, but I was still astonished at the variety of the craziness studied by the military, how seriously this sort of stuff was taken, and for how long. It certainly reminded me of the old joke about military intelligence. Anyway, his work was turned into a fictionalised film version which we caught today. Any good?

Not really is the simple answer. Which is a shame since both Jeff Bridges and George Clooney try their best to breathe life into a lame script that splices snippets of Ronson's investigations into a pretty stupid journey through a militarised Iraq. What's particularly annoying is that though the film points out that it's partially factual from the start, it's not obvious which parts are based on real events, and which parts are completely made-up or heavily embellished. To the extent that part of me wonders if the US military bankrolled the film - what better way to discredit Ronson's facts than mix them up with fiction?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Space opera

Back to this blog's favoured science fiction pulp-meister, Neal Asher, and a return to his "main sequence" of novels centred around the cybernetically-enhanced Polity agent, Ian Cormac. It seems like yesterday, but I last read one of this series back in summer 2007. How time flies. Anyway, Line War picks up more or less hot on the heels of the earlier volume Polity Agent ...

As is the "standard model" for Asher's novels (including the last one I read), the novel picks up a number of characters that have graced earlier titles, and then runs them through a breakneck, multi-stranded plot. The cast consists of (among many others) the necessary (Ian Cormac), the unsurprising (Dragon) and the unstoppable-force-of-vengeance (Mr. Crane). As is also a popular motif with Asher, a vaguely bad character from an earlier novel returns here and is rehabilitated (Mr. Crane previously; here it's Orlandine). And, as has become increasingly the norm across all of Asher's work, Jain technology is at the fore, subverting Polity AIs and generally causing galactic-scale mischief. However, while pitched battles against the Jain still feature strongly, this time around Asher is cutting to the heart of his fictional utopia and suggesting that the bedrock on which it is grounded, the all-powerful AIs, is somewhat less considerate of human life than has hitherto been supposed.

Anyway, the above replaces my traditional plot summary because, let's face it, Asher's labyrinthine, fast-paced plots are largely superfluous to describe, and require a lot of backfilling to explain characters and their motivations. Which, to be fair, Asher usually does provide (albeit in fairly clunky, Basil Exposition-style shorthand), presumably to accommodate readers less familiar with his canon. Suffice to say: usual characters; usual multi-stranded plot that gradually comes together; usual "goodification" of previously "bad" character; usual extended battle scenes; unusual subversion of fictional universe's founding principle.

This latter shift, hinted at for the last few novels, is the most interesting thing here, though it is a little reminiscent of a plot thread in Iain (M.) Banks' novel Excession. And the dénouement here, that the morally ambiguous actions of the Polity's de facto ruler, Earth Central, will ultimately benefit humanity, also has a whiff of a similar argument sketched out by an AI protagonist at the close of Banks' (most excellent) Look to Windward.

Anyway, notwithstanding the above familiarities and parallels with Banks' (much older) work, Line War is still a passable and broadly engaging addition to Asher's body of work. Much as I suggested previously, I still think that Asher's tying in of everything to the Jain is going to cause him trouble down the line. Further, Asher should really draw a lesson from the work of Alastair Reynolds, and explore his Polity universe with different characters, different story structures and different perspectives. Reynolds' original Revelation Space series got bogged down with the same, tortuously-entwined characters, but he's kept his future history interesting subsequently by doing standalone novels set within it ... much like Iain Banks has been doing for several decades with his Culture novels.