Thursday, 28 April 2011

End of The Wire

It's been a long time coming. And though consumption of this precious, all-too-finite resource has been carefully regulated, we've finally watched our way through the final episode of The Wire. It's a little sad to see the last of McNulty, Bunk, Kima, Daniels and Freamon, but all good things must (eventually) end. And with the story largely coming round full-circle (bangers still bangin'; po-lice still chasing up murders; addicts still finding their fix), it was probably time to get off. It'd be great to spend a few more hours in the company of, for instance, the inimitable Bunk Moreland, but he's already shown us enough about how the city, its institutions and its citizens, play off against one another, and how the limitations of the former corrupt the best intentions of the latter.

So, onwards to new series, like The Killing and Rubicon. But will we ever see anything so grand and all-encompassing as The Wire again?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Being rude to a Toryboy

We were visited yesterday evening by one of our too-young-to-shave Toryboy councillors, out canvassing ahead of next week's elections. Heckles appropriately raised, I first replied to his probing that I wouldn't be voting for him. But I went on to put the boot in (relatively speaking) by replying to his query, as to who I would be voting for, by saying "whoever keeps you out". Duly chastised he politely retreated.

The strange thing is that I now feel very uneasy at having been this rude. And it didn't take long for this to set in either - almost immediately, I flipped from triumphantly sticking it to him, over to "I don't know why I needed to be so uncivil; he was very polite; and what's with all this odious self-righteousness anyway?". Not at all a reaction I thought I'd ever get around to experiencing.

So perhaps there are things that I unknowingly judge as worse than being a Tory - being rude for instance? I don't think that this is me getting soft on the Tories, but even today I'm still aghast at my uncouthness.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, 25 April 2011

A much (much) earlier trip to Paris

Thanks to my twisted ankle over Christmas, I spent a few days scanning in old family photographs. Including some of a certain high school trip I went on to Paris. Check out my quality circa-1985 glasses and hairstyle ...


The full horror can be found over at Flickr.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Wickham walk

2011-04-24 Wickham walk by Dr Yool
2011-04-24 Wickham walk, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

A very nice, but not especially photogenic hike north of Wickham.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Border control cleared

My fears concerning passport validity the other day were ultimately misplaced, and I got to Paris without any hitches whatsoever (the RER is just great). The MyOcean meeting itself went largely as expected (no jeering, no heckling), though was a lot more interesting than 2010's Exeter jaunt largely because more time was spent on the science.

Anyway, as ever, Paris was the highlight of the trip. I wasn't there very long, but I had an evening to traipse through the streets around Jussieu with our slowly dying camera (RIP Fuji F610). One of the highlights of which was a sans-scaffolding Notre Dame ...


I don't think I've ever seen ND without a blanket of steel poles and plastic sheeting covering up at least a big chunk of it. Not this time!


And here's the Seine, looking lovely as ever.


And this is the venue for our meeting, Tour Zamansky on the Jussieu campus. We were up on level 10 (about halfway) so got good views over the city, sadly not of Paris' most famed buildings, but Paris is good looking in most directions.

Oh, and I managed to dine out (admittedly on beer and pizza) without dropping once to English. There weren't even pictures to point to on the menu!

Anyway, there's a full set of photographs over at Flickr.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Source Code

Playing a little like an action version of 1990s TV series Quantum Leap, the latest feature by Duncan Jones, Source Code, manages to blend time travel, romance and (faux) quantum physics into an extremely pleasing thriller.

Its central protagonist, Captain Colter Stevens, a military pilot whose last memory is of a helicopter crash, awakes on a train to Chicago seated opposite a mysterious woman who appears to know him. Completely disorientated, he flounders through the train, discovering along the way that the face in the mirror is different from his own just before the whole train is destroyed by a terrorist bomb. He then awakes in darkened chamber where he is cagily informed that he is on a mission to discover the identity of the bomber, a task that exploits an experimental technology, the Source Code of the title, that allows him to relive the last 8 minutes of the life of a passenger on the train. Repeatedly "sent back in", Colter gradually uncovers the evidence sought by his military handlers, but he also exploits the technology to discover more about his own fate outside the Source Code. He also forms a connection with those people he meets through the Source Code, and ultimately uncovers a transformational secret about the technology unknown to its stern and ambitious creator.

Another clever gem from Jones, IMHO. Not one that will appeal to everyone I suspect, but it pushed a number of my buttons: science fiction, quantum mechanics, consciousness, noble self-sacrifice, etc. It even threw in a cute, if rather perfunctory, romance. The only thing I thought that it got slightly wrong was in the way it handled its central conceit. Basically, it borderline fluffed it, and almost made something high concept which seemed straight out of a Greg Egan novel seem like a glossed-over MacGuffin. A few more words from Jeffrey Wright's scientist, perhaps even ones minted by Egan, and it would have cruised over this. As it stands, the film's final revelation will for many people seem like a tacked-on happy ending instead of what it actually is, a rather clever variant of Many Worlds. Still, being versed in Egan, this didn't spoil it for me. I was genuinely impressed that a film, an action film, was able to make something of ideas similar to those that populate his books, and still find space to make me care about its characters.

Grade: A (low +3 on the Leeper Scale)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Langstone hike

2011-04-17 Langstone walk by Dr Yool
2011-04-17 Langstone walk, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

A nice figure of 8 jaunt around Langstone harbour. More photographs over here

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Fingers crossed

Off to Paris today for a MyOcean meeting. Well, I say "Off to Paris", but this morning I spotted to my horror that my passport expires in a little less than two weeks. So I may, in fact, be "Back to work" if the border control agencies aren't convinced I'll be returning to the UK before my passport finally gives up the ghost. Anyway, I'm assuming that the date on my passport actually means what it says rather than being a rough guide as to when I can cross borders. We'll see.

In the meantime, here's a slide from my presentation showing (or so I'll claim) the "triumph" of our local plankton model, MEDUSA, over the UKMO's "equivalent", HadOCC, ...


Saturday, 9 April 2011

Thea Gilmore

06-04-11_2121 Thanks to the sharp eyes and organisational efforts of JA, I was out Wednesday night to catch the rock/folk musician Thea Gilmore in the Southampton venue The Brook. I only got acquainted with her music courtesy of a birthday present last year (from JA and AM), and that was a very enjoyably aberrant Christmas album. Given that it's now April, songs from this album were unlikely to make the night's set list, so did the rest of her work live up to this?

06-04-11_2142 In a word: easily. The night was a great mix of rock/folk drawn from (as I gathered) her various albums, along with the occasional eclectic cover version. I'm usually a little twitchy about folk, because of its worthy, sandal-wearing roots, but Gilmore's nothing like a purist on this score, and any fears I had were quickly dispelled (there was even a gag at folk's expense when guitar-tuning was described as "good enough for folk"). As for the band, it was a four (sometimes just two) person affair, with Gilmore, her husband-collaborator Nigel Stonier, and two additional tour musicians, Tracey Browne and someone on drums whose name I've forgotten (sorry). That said, it certainly felt more like a long-established troupe of players familiar with one another (though I'm obviously no music pro).

06-04-11_2146 Of Gilmore's own material, the main things I'd say was that it was diverse, polished and really made the most of her best asset: her voice. With this, she's got charm, control and range, and is perfectly capable of joyously belting out one number only to follow up with a more delicate song from the opposite end of the spectrum. As such, we got slow ballads, upbeat raunchier numbers and tracks such as Icarus Wind, which were more sparing musically, but really let Gilmore's singing shine. And she finished the evening with a solo, music-less lament that used only her voice. Re: the cover versions, we got a bit of Dylan, Dolly Parton (the Archers-pertinent Jolene) and, bizarrely but brilliantly, Guns N'Roses (via a great folk version of Sweet Child o' Mine). In introducing the first of these, Gilmore revealed that: (a) for her next project, she has re-recorded Dylan's album John Wesley Harding in celebration of the singer's (Dylan's) 70th birthday; and (b) she can do a mean Bob Dylan impersonation!

06-04-11_2208 Overall, it was a really enjoyable gig. Made all the more so by Gilmore's humourous engagement with the audience - she's no shrinking violet or tortured, introverted artist. I'll definitely be looking out for her again in the future (or, more likely, JA will, and he'll tell me about her).

I should add that the support act, Jo Long (+ friend), half of the local band The Pure Drop, were a good match for Gilmore. While narrower in terms of the range of material they performed, presumably in part because they had a smaller slot, they held up well in comparison. Their set was perhaps a little too heavy on more folky ballads for my taste, but I was still impressed. And somewhat surprised too, since the last time that I saw Jo (not that I know her at all), she was pulling pints in NOC's local, The Platform. I haven't seen her there for a while, but she's clearly been making good use of her time by the sounds of things.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Shuttle cost

DSC02721b I just read a piece in this week's Nature that evaluates the cost per launch of the shuttle. Over the whole programme of 131 flights, the cost averages out at $1.5 billion a pop. Making the assumption that a post-doc costs approximately £100K per annum (including overheads), this means that a single shuttle launch (at today's exchange rate of £1:$1.64) works out at about 9150 post-doc years. Though I've always been a big shuttle fan (see image), I wonder if that's good scientific value for money? As I guess some of the $1.5 billion goes on things like researchers, it's not quite as either-or as I'm implying there for one thing. But it's still a whole lot of cash.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Feet of clay

It's been a good long while since I last read a novel by Douglas Coupland, who, at least historically, is easily one of my favourite writers. He does not, to be sure, crank them out, but at the same time I have been stalling a bit on this one because I've been less a fan of his more recent work. That, and I've not been doing well of late with recent novels by authors that I've previously enjoyed. Can Generation A turn the tide?

Set in a near-future in which (projecting forward certain trends) there are no longer any bees to pollinate crops and flowers, the novel begins by introducing five diverse, 20-something characters: Zack, a slacker from Iowa; Samantha, a New Zealander with recently-godless parents; Diana, a Canadian with Tourette syndrome; Julien, a French World of Warcraft player; and Harj, a Sri Lankan call-centre worker left family-less after the 2004 tsunami. Though spread around the world, they become united by the same remarkable occurrence: they are stung on the same day by bees. Borderline-kidnapped by anxious authorities, they are each interned for several weeks in a featureless facility and subjected to a battery of tests to determine why they, of all people, were stung. The tests, which even involve strange assessments of emotional state, seemingly turn up nothing, and the five are released, now minor celebrities because of their semi-unique, social insect experiences. However, isolated by their new status and curious to meet one another, they gradually come together before, again, being semi-kidnapped and secreted on a remote Pacific island. There, under guidance of the mysterious Serge, they invent outlandish stories, bond with one another and slowly uncover the truth about the bees, their stories and an addictive, mind-altering medication, Solon, that is driving a wave of self-absorption across the world.

The above will probably immediately sound either intriguing or completely insane. As a fan of science fiction, part of me went into the novel holding the former opinion. But as a suspicious follower of Coupland, a larger part of me adopted the latter opinion. OK, well maybe not going quite so far as assuming "completely insane", but certainly my eyebrows and heckles were both raised.

Overall, it'd be accurate to say that this latter approach to the novel is the appropriate one. Generation A firmly falls into the category of lesser novels. Much as with its fellows in this category, this is largely because of its reliance on stupid or implausible plot elements. It actually doesn't start too badly on this front (the collapse of bee colonies), but then immediately takes a half-step in the wrong direction (5 protagonists coincidentally stung on the same day), before disappearing into a pretty absurd closing phase involving group storytelling.

Particularly annoying is that Coupland's writing is, on a sentences and paragraphs basis, up to his usual standards, and is peppered, as ever, with great Couplandisms about modern life. For instance, Harj on US geography:
And why are there two Dakotas? Why was your country's map-making and state building left to cartographers of such feeble vision? Could you not have at least named North Dakota something more dramatic, like Avalon or ... Heathcliff?
But all this cleverness and wry humour is just wasted in a novel whose plot makes it almost impossible to take seriously.

Worse, it's clear that Coupland has some interesting things to say behind this infuriatingly daft plot. For instance, though he articulates it fairly artlessly via the outlandish stories that occupy much of the novel's final third, Coupland is clearly concerned with aspects of modern life that lead to people disconnecting from wider society and becoming steadily more self-obsessed. He is also critical of the steady erosion of attention spans and what he sees as the death of the novel and, by extension, storytelling [*]. But expressing this so baldly via transparent and inane stories is patently not the mark of great writing.

What's particularly disappointing is that having characters telling zeitgeisty stories is also part of Coupland's first and best-known novel, Generation X. Coupland already knows how to do this, to do it well, and to do it within a plotline that resonates with contemporary life. Here it just feels contrived, shoe-horned into a largely ridiculous plot. And the choice of title of this novel, which obviously harks back to his first book, just seems like a crass attempt to cash-in on a bona fide classic. Generation X isn't my favourite of his earlier novels (though it's up there), but after reading Generation A I went back and flicked through it, only to be rudely reminded of just how good it is by comparison.

Overall, crushingly disappointing. I'm not sure if it's his weakest book to date, but it's definitely in the running. Which isn't to say that it has nothing at all to offer. If only. I think that the worst part of it is that Coupland clearly has style and substance and ideas, but that his sense of how to make a novel work has left him. He seriously needs to get back to his realist roots. Then his work stands a chance at being perceived, at least by this reader, as relevant rather than gimmicky.

[*] He does this in part through an amusing story in which space aliens (from Gamalon-5) harvest humans for meat, and judge the best flavour to be found in readers of fiction. The aliens at first applaud the arrival of Amazon-dot-com since it increases book purchases (presumably real and virtual), but ultimately realise that this is down to the need of humans to own books, and doesn't actually translate into more book reading.

Friday, 1 April 2011


While part of me always thinks that watching, or reading, coming-of-age works is self-indulgent and vaguely nostalgia-pandering, that doesn't stop me from enjoying them, and today's trip to the cinema, the comedy-drama Submarine, was no exception. Set in a coastal Welsh town (apparently Swansea), it is narrated by nerdy schoolboy Oliver, and is focused around two of his obsessions, his classmate Jordana, and the intrusion of an old flame into his parents' faltering marriage. He attempts to woo the former by helping her bully a classmate, but their budding relationship only blossoms when her attempt to blackmail him results in a playground beating for him when he stands by her (it's not as tortuous on-screen!). While awkwardly navigating the choppy waters of this first love, he also inexpertly investigates his parents' marital strife, and amateurishly attempts to solve their difficulties, at the cost of ignoring Jordana's troubles at home. Anyhow, that crude summary doesn't do it justice at all - it's done with a lot more wit and careful observation, and while it touches on familiar adolescent territory at times, still brings its own style to the proceedings.
Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)

Taking off on a tangent, Submarine reminded me of an issue that occurs to me whenever I see a film about tentative romance between young characters (e.g. Gregory's Girl, Garden State, Youth in Revolt; to name several random examples that immediately occur). Namely, that such films are almost always told from the perspective of a male protagonist. While there are rare romances, such as the excellent Before Sunrise (magnificently sequelled, BTW), in which both leads are given equal weight as characters, I can't think of (m)any corresponding coming-of-age films in which a female protagonist is the focus, while the male is more peripheral. For instance, can anyone think of a gender-reversed Gregory's Girl? Alternatively, am I just unable to mind-flip gender in films such that a boy-girl reversal actually appears to me as a different sort of film to that which I identify as male-led romantic coming-of-age? Any ideas?