Sunday, 31 July 2011

Product idea of the day

I need something that analyses and remembers the tidying-up operations that I perform most commonly on photographs so that I don't have to faff around with GIMP's various menus. A nice subset of buttons triggering these operations would be just dandy. I'm getting a bit fed up manually selecting "-20% brightness" and "+10% contrast".

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Product idea of the day

What better gift than the chance to re-voice your partner's sat-nav so that it commands said loved one to and from their desired destination in your dulcet tones. All you need is a microphone for your computer and our list of sat-nav phrases that can be composited into full-length directions. Just mail us the resulting file, and we'll process it into something that your significant other will just love!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Final cheerio for Boris

It feels like it's been off in the distant future for ages, but today was the last day for my friend Boris at NOCS. As of sometime tomorrow, he and his family are off to start a new chapter in their lives down under in Australia. It's a huge step for them all (including, particularly, Boris' parents - who are emigrating with them!), but it's one that they're all looking forwards too. Not least because it'll place them comfortably within the bosom of Tamaris' extended family in Melbourne.

Anyway, by way of one final "celebration", a small group of us from NOCS went out to lunch with Boris yesterday. Considering that almost every event we've ever attended together has involved serious, if not raucous, drinking, it was a surprisingly tee-total affair. Possibly, in part, because of the sombre undercurrent because of Boris' imminent absence. But the event was otherwise a highly enjoyable chance to shoot the breeze, poke gentle fun at one another (well, mostly at Boris), and to reminisce.

Part of the lunch involved presenting Boris with a gift that we'd devised to remind him specifically of, well, of us. Following up a sterling idea by Bablu and Simon, I cobbled together the design below in PowerPoint, and we managed to get an engraving company in Plymouth to both expertly create it in pewter, and to pony it to us in time for Boris' departure ...

Australia names v3d

The resulting object can be seen in the grasp of no less than Boris himself below. A close-up of the engraving itself can be found over here.


Anyway, it still feels a little odd today having seen Boris off. In part, I guess, because he's not completely left our academic world, and there's a chance that we'll bump into him at conferences, etc. So it doesn't feel like he's really headed over the horizon yet, and I don't feel quite as down as I thought that I might. I suspect things will be more pronounced when he doesn't make it to our next social events, especially the traditional Biomodellers Christmas Lunch.

Anyhow, as we've all reminded ourselves (and will doubtless do again over the coming months), we haven't so much lost a friend as gained cheap accommodation in a desirable, faraway locale.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Walking with Wolves


Walking with Wolves, a set on Flickr.

In something of a break from the norm, this past weekend we travelled up to a place called Beenham in Berkshire to visit the Wolf Conservation Trust, an organisation that C is a member of. One of the perks of membership is the chance, once a year, to go on a "wolf walk" with several (three in our case) of the wolves that live at the Trust's centre.

We also got to see, usually pretty close up, all of the other nine wolves that the Trust currently has on site, including three new puppies bred there, and three Arctic wolves recently arrived from Canada (and given special quarantine dispensation to stay in the centre).

Anyway, the Trust did a really good job organising and filling our afternoon with the wolves, and we did learn a lot about them. It was particularly interesting to see that while they were somewhat more like dogs than I expected, they were also clearly a whole lot more than dogs at the same time. There was certainly no doubt that, though socialised with humans, they were still pretty switched on in a wild sort of way.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Dragon Tattoo, parts II and III

As trailed previously, I've finally gotten around to polishing off the two remaining titles in Stieg Larsson's truncated-by-a-heart-attack Millennium series: The Girl Who Played with Fire and its hard-on-the-heels follow-up The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. As both novels are far more tightly coupled to one another in terms of plot line than they are to the original novel, it kind-of makes sense to do them at the same time. Hence the following double-act ...

TGWPWF opens with Salander enjoying the spoils of her hacking from the first novel in an extended holiday/ spending spree, and with Blomkvist collaborating with a young journalist, and his criminology-PhD girlfriend, on an exposé of people-smuggling and prostitution in Sweden. After digging a little too closely to authority figures, the charming, young, investigative couple are murdered, and the police are misdirected into labelling Salander as chief suspect. Separately at first, Blomkvist and Salander begin to investigate this turn of events, sharing information only when it suits the preternaturally suspicious Salander. Gradually the tortuous path of evidence leads back towards a figure from Salander's past, Zalachenko, her father and the man she once set fire to as a child, an act that initiated her life-long abuse at the hands of the Swedish authorities. Discovering the centre of his web in a remote rural location, Salander sets out to finish the job she started years earlier.

But that doesn't entirely work out to plan, and TGWKTHN begins with both Salander and Zalachenko nursing serious injuries in hospital. Eager to clear her name, and now more aware of the circumstances that led to Salander's institutionalisation as a child, Blomkvist begins to investigate how the Swedish state came to ride roughshod over her civil rights while at the same time protecting those of a Russian gangster. Meanwhile, the Section, the invisible branch of Sweden's Security Service that has handled Zalachenko since his original defection from Soviet Russia, swings back into action to covertly discredit Salander and to quietly spirit Zalachenko back into the shadows. However, Zalachenko refuses to conform with the Section's plans, forcing the old Cold Warriors that run the organisation to assassinate him, and to instigate surveillance of Blomkvist to find out what exactly he knows. Unfortunately for them, he has been surreptitiously working with the still-hospitalised Salander and has already pieced enough together to engage the help of friends, colleagues and similarly suspicious police officers to investigate the Section. And the trial of Salander provides an excellent opportunity to reveal and turn the tables on their activities, past and present.

Overall, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that my earlier fears of diminishing returns have largely turned out to be misplaced. The successor volumes, while less compelling than the original novel on a number of counts (see below), more or less maintain an even keel, and are about as page-turningly enjoyable as the first encounter with Blomkvist and Salander. They certainly didn't take me a whole lot of time (or pain) to plough through (which is more than can be said for me writing them up here), which is a lot more than can often be said about high-profile, high-page-count, sequels.

Much of the bad news is probably related to this conformity with the first novel. Namely that the actual writing still leaves a lot to be desired - chiefly an editor unafraid to pare Larsson's text down to something less egregiously grating. Much as with the first novel, there are extended descriptions of the utterly mundane, and a plethora of largely unnecessary characters and subplots. And, as before, I don't think that this aspect of the novels can be laid at the door of the translator - I suspect that they've just been too reverent to Larsson's original Swedish prose to wield the knife. All that said, the extraneous components of the novel are less deleterious here than in the first novel, largely because the plotlines are better suited to a broader tapestry of characters and perspectives.

If I can continue being critical, a major weakness is that the two books are co-dependent, and far less stand-alone than the original novel. Unlike that first jaunt, you simply can't just read one of them since the story is very much incomplete at the end of TGWPWF. More annoying still is that the novels commit what to me is the cardinal sin of crime fiction: the story revolves around the investigator. This is more a feature of television crime drama, but it does occur in novels too, including, disappointingly, the very first Rebus novel (as I've moaned on about before). Here, the core of both novels is built on the traumatic backstory of Salander, and while this is somewhat interesting, she was a more compelling character when she was investigating the affairs of others. There's also something more than a little bit silly in how Salander's family is at the focus of a decade-spanning, secretive cabal of spies that threatens the Swedish state. A little like how the galactic scale events of Star Wars revolve, in part, around the dysfunction of a single family. It would have been far more convincing if Blomkvist and Salander uncovered such a scheme while investigating someone else.

But I'm probably being too harsh. Overall I more or less enjoyed both books. I don't think they're as good as the first novel, but I certainly didn't find them a chore to get through. While Larsson may never have learned to write well (to be fair, probably just because he died before he got better at it), he did manage to create an interesting pair of central characters, and wove them into what are quite page-turningly enjoyable books. And, while he doesn't exactly do it with panache, it's pleasingly right-on that Larsson tries to shoehorn feminist themes into the books - though he'd have done much better if he'd eased up on the wish-fulfilment aspects of Blomkvist's love life. Anyhow, by way of summary, largely because of Larsson's clumsy prose and inability to delete redundant storylines, the novels aren't up there with the best of crime fiction, but they're eminently recommendable to genre fans.

Finally, what's a little sad is that TGWKTHN ends in a way that suggests that Salander has finally resolved her issues with Blomkvist, and that the future holds more adventures together for them. Particularly so since, in completing these latter two novels, Larsson has gotten Salander's backstory out of his system, potentially opening the way for more stand-alone and non-cardinal-sin-committing investigations. Tales that, unfortunately, will never be written because of Larsson's premature death. Ho-hum.

A reminder of risk

From a piece co-authored by Ken Buesseler in this week's Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ...
It is anticipated that for most locations the doses to humans from naturally occurring radionuclides, even for avid seafood consumers, will exceed those from the radionuclides released by the Fukushima accident. Near Sellafield, for example, doses to humans from naturally occurring radionuclides in seafood caught in the Irish Sea are about an order of magnitude higher than doses from artificial radionuclides. Total collective dose rates from natural radionuclides via marine pathways on a global basis are four orders of magnitude higher than collective doses from Chernobyl radionuclides. Even in the Baltic and Black Seas, the marine waters most contaminated by Chernobyl fallout, natural radionuclides provide a much larger collective dose to seafood consumers than do Chernobyl radionuclides.
Amid all of the justified concern about the meltdown at the reactors, it's been easy to lose sight of the context. While the piece argues for a full scientific assessment of the release of radionuclides (and is a nice summary of what they are, and what the expected risks are), the paragraph above is a particularly helpful reminder of the natural background, and its relationship - for most people and places - with the reactor release.

Not that such context seems to have calmed the leadership in Japan and Germany. If the alternative was plentiful green (or fusion) energy, that'd be one thing. But as the alternative is likely to be fossil fuel energy, the rush to shove in the control rods is dangerously misplaced. While the connection between nuclear power and harm to humans is far more direct than that between climate change and the harm it causes (and will cause), this easy attribution obscures the vast disparity in the total magnitude of harm from these power sources.

It's been almost 66 years since the power of atomic energy was first revealed to the general public. One might think that this would be long enough a period for people to get over their instinctive reaction to this first demonstration. It would seem not.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Lacuna

Largely because of the adulatory awe in which I hold her, I've been holding off reading Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, The Lacuna, which I actually received as a present from C at the end of 2009. Partly because its subject matter (of which, more below) didn't immediately grab me; partly because in my last post about her, I feared her work may peaked; and partly because I didn't want to exhaust her repertoire yet again. Irrational reasons for sure, but enough to stall me for a good while.

Beginning with a portion from an abandoned autobiography by a (fictional) historical novelist, Harrison Shepherd, The Lacuna is a chronological collage of diary entries, personal letters and newspaper clippings drawn from the life of the writer. Organised by his stenographer, Mrs. Violet Brown, and published 50 years after his disappearance, in part from material that he had ordered her to destroy, the book follows Shepherd's life as he travels back and forth between Mexico and the United States between the late 1920s and the 1950s.

His early years are somewhat itinerant, as he is trailed around an exotically tropical Mexico by a mother in thrall to her own heart's desires. Here, he first encounters the famous (and communist) painter Diego Rivera, and is drawn into Rivera's household because of his skill in preparing the plaster used in the painter's renowned frescos. This introduces him to Rivera's wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, with whom he begins a lifelong friendship, and who encourages his own budding artistic interests. But as Rivera's fame spreads it draws him away to big-paying clients in the US, and Shepherd finds himself unemployed.

Before long he, too, is drawn to the US where his emotionally-distant father puts him through private school. Among other events, there Shepherd becomes a spectator to the brutal crushing of the Bonus Army, a Depression-era protest, by the authorities. Returning again to Mexico, he renews his friendship with Kahlo and Rivera, and becomes part of their household as a cook. Another guest of the artists is the noted revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin's tyrannical repression in Russia, and for whom Shepherd becomes secretary, and later a friend. But the persecution by Stalin's agents, which ultimately proves fatal, as well as Trotsky's ill-judged affair with Kahlo, makes for disruptive living, and before long Shepherd washes back up in the US.

There, after being denied a combat role in WW2 because of his "sexual indifference to the female of the species", he lands himself a government job moving valuable artwork during the conflict. He also finally begins work as a historical novelist, drawing on his knowledge of Mexico to craft swashbuckling novels that weave subversive modern themes into tales about the destruction of pre-Columbian civilisations. The success of these works, eagerly communicated with Kahlo, draws undesired attention, including a coterie of female fans eager to get to know this mysterious bachelor better. But this is the time of HUAC, and his public profile, and Red-tinged past, bring him to the attention of more significant figures. Though he acquits himself well in his appearance before HUAC, Shepherd's career is mortally wounded, and he finds both his friends and his publisher deserting him. Escaping the US with Mrs. Brown, he returns to Mexico and to a favoured coastal locale from his youth, where, in a seeming swimming accident, he finally disappears from view.

Oops. I wasn't intending traipsing through the entire plot of the novel there. But it does have a lot of back-and-forthing that makes summarising it in a few lines difficult. Particularly for someone obsessive about getting things down "right". And especially in a novel that stacks so much (political, artistic, historical) onto its plate. Anyway, The Lacuna is a difficult book to give a straight opinion of. Though it only really follows the life of a single character, Harrison Shepherd is something of a Zelig-like figure whose personal history is richly populated with fairly significant events in, and figures from, the 20th century. As such, there's a lot going on, and while some sections of the novel may not entirely appeal, it's difficult to not find something enjoyable or interesting within its pages.

It's certainly Kingsolver's most overtly political book. Previous novels have had America's less admirable actions in Central America and Africa as distant backdrops, but here Kingsolver puts real historical figures and ideas front of stage, and isn't in the least afraid to cast a favourable light on those that are viewed negatively by the establishment and large fractions of the public. So, we have quite an impassioned defence of Trotsky and the flavour of communism that he favoured, together with a critical take on Stalin's brutal and dictatorial communism, and one that isn't slow to point out that America's friends/enemies in one decade easily flip to enemies/friends in another depending upon what's currently most expedient. It helps, of course, that I largely share her view of history and ideology on these points.

Strangely, though the ideas in the novel are made more concrete by attaching them to the real historical figures with which they are associated, I found that this didn't work in its favour. For me, this made the novel too obviously didactic. Ordinarily in novels, fictional stand-ins for both real characters and situations are used, and the novelist can more gently slip thoughts into the reader's head. And, hitherto, this is exactly what Kingsolver has done in her earlier novels. But here the reader is left in no doubt in either the subjects that Kingsolver is addressing, or her opinions of them. I don't think this is necessarily a lesser approach, but it doesn't work as well for me.

Of course, by putting everything front and centre, the novel does have the advantage of leaving the reader in no doubt about Kingsolver's views of America's treatment of popular socialism. She is clearly, and justifiably, angry about the unyielding demonisation of socialist ideas in 20th century America, and about the deeply repellent consequences of unthinking support for such efforts as HUAC. As such, it's clear that one of the aims of The Lacuna is to get her readers to actually stop, think and re-evaluate socialism and other marginalised ideas, rather than simply lazily misremember them as their Red Scare caricatures. Along the way, she's careful to separate ideology from history, so she's no apologist for how socialism panned out in the Soviet Union, and through dramatising the Bonus Army is keen to remind readers of America's own socialist movements. Overall, it's an interesting message for an American novelist to try to sell in the US!

One aspect of the novel that I never got a definitive handle on was what the "lacuna" of the title actually refers to. It could be interpreted (or misinterpreted) in a number of quite different ways. For instance, the way in which Shepherd, though he is at the centre of the novel, largely eludes understanding. We largely see things through his eyes, but he preserves a degree of transparency throughout the novel. Alternatively, it could refer to the lacuna in our collective memory of socialism's role as a progressive force in 20th century politics. In the present day, socialism has been tightly bound to the evils of the Soviet Union and simply thrown over the side into the depths of history. The idea that it may represent, and at times did represent, a progressive force for good is largely viewed incredulously. Another more straightforward interpretation is merely that it's the literal lacuna into which Shepherd finally disappears. Most likely, all of these interpretations have something to them, but I'm still curious and would be interested to hear other theories.

By way of a passing observation, The Lacuna reminded me of William Boyd's not-dissimilar 20th century novel, Any Human Heart. That, too, followed a novelist character through his life, and inveigled him into being a participant or witness to major events. It's also interesting to contrast the two novels. While Kingsolver's novel is a patchwork of diary entries, newspaper clippings and an aborted biography, Boyd constrains his novel to the diary format, and uses this to (convincingly) convey the changing voice of the narrator throughout his life. A more significant departure is that Boyd's novel is largely apolitical (though favourable towards progressive movements), and instead focuses on the personal life of its narrator, Logan Mountstuart. As noted above, Shepherd's personal life is very much secondary to the political waters that carry it through the 20th century. I suspect that trying to tackle both the personal and the political in the same novel, at least to the degree that both of these novels have, is liable to end in a pompous, over-extended failure that satisfies no-one.

Overall, to wrap things up, an excellent read. But (and debasing things somewhat) much as with Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Kingsolver's earlier works cast a long and deep shadow over this one. The Lacuna is more significant than Kingsolver's earliest novels, but it's never going to be easy for her future works to stand proud of The Poisonwood Bible. But I'll still definitely be looking out for them!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Odelle and Stuart's visit


Odelle and Stuart's visit, a set on Flickr.

We had the outlaws down this weekend. Just a flying Friday-to-Sunday affair, but we had a really good time with them.

Saturday was spent down in Lymington, for a cruise of the shops and market, and then New Milton, for a walk along Hurst Spit. We then followed it up with a curry in a new-ish place on Oxford Street, Rasraj - very nice as it turned out.

Sunday saw us up in Winchester for a bit of a walk around the town as well as some hat fair event. The latter was spread across the town, but we focused on a park with a number of dance/juggling/acrobat acts (always with a large dollop of broad comedy). Most excellent - and great weather too for once.

The next set of outlaws are heading down in three weeks' time ...