Monday, 29 August 2011

Product idea of the day

Despite its great convenience and speed, who among us doesn't think that e-mail represents a decline in the great art of human communication? Who doesn't look back with fondness to a time when letters arrived in physical form delivered by hand by a friendly postal worker, and when reading and writing letters was an exercise in anticipation and satisfaction? Our new service, e-Snail, can take you back to this halcyon time, while retaining the convenient aspects of e-mail such as font choices and spell-checking. Sign up with us, and all e-mails that you send will be swiftly channelled to our finest quality printers, printed in the style and on the paper that you choose, and then sent by First Class post to your intended recipient. And all for only a little more than the cost of a stamp. What's more, with only the slightest effort, your family member, friend or significant other can quickly and simply reply to you in the same way [*]. All you need to is register with us today, link the entries in your electronic address book with postcodes in the real, and then get back to a time when "slow communication" really meant careful, thought-through prose which alternately amused, charmed and delighted.

[*] Or even by e-mail if they've yet to embrace e-Smail. They will!

Down With ... The Fighter

Finally caught up with The Fighter, the only one of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees that I missed but wanted to see. It's a relatively lo-fi "true story" that charts the rise of the boxer Micky Ward alongside both his brother-trainer Dicky Eklund's struggle with crack addiction, and his own struggle with an overbearing and highly combustible family. It's got some great angles, like the slow realisation that the film crew documenting Dicky are actually interested in his drug problems and not his earlier boxing career, but it really stands out in its performances. In particular Christian Bale, who delivers a pretty remarkable turn as the frazzled but talented Dicky (again in anorexic-method mode à la The Machinist). But the whole cast pulls together to make for a compelling and enjoyable tale, especially in gradually getting the viewer behind characters such as Micky and Dicky's harridan mother, who spends much of the film as a borderline monster. And it doesn't hurt to have another great turn from Amy Adams, though I do say that as someone who has nursed a crush on her since Enchanted.

Grade: B+ (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)

By contrast, I had practically no interest in the less well-received 2003 comedy, Down With Love. We recorded it quite a few months ago on a whim, and finding ourselves in-between DVD series last night, decided to give it the benefit of the doubt ... well, for 10 minutes or so. But how wrong could we be? While it's certainly no work of genius, it was considerably better than we'd expected. Extremely stylishly shot, it lies somewhere in-between a pastiche, a parody and a homage of the 1960s rom-coms of Doris Day and Rock Hudson that play with the rising status of women in society. Renée Zellweger plays a proto-feminist writer whose book, the eponymous Down With Love, aims to elevate the status of women by revealing their subservience to love and marriage, while Ewan McGregor plays a rakish journalist who sets out to seduce her and undermine her book's ethos. As noted above, the film both mocks and celebrates its sources, and it's not absolutely clear to what end (post-feminism?), but it's done pretty infectiously with some wry double entendre and great repartee between the leads. And it's more than ably supported by the likes of David Hyde Pierce (in full Niles-mode). So, I guess the lesson is: don't judge a book from its cover.

Grade: B- (high +1 on the Leeper Scale)

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Another visitor ... [*]

Had the unusual pleasure of a visiting student this week, one JH from Stockholm University. I'd hosted her PhD. supervisor, JN, for a Friday Seminar last year (on a somewhat arcane physical oceanographic subject), and at the time he mentioned a new student he had who was moving into what, for him, was new research territory: the carbon cycle. Anyway, said student finally came to NOC this past week, and TT and I tried to pass on some of our hard-earned "knowledge" on the topic.

Actually, it was travelling at least as much in the other direction at times. Building upon some rather theoretical work one of her PhD. co-supervisors did in the 1990s, J's work was largely based on a clever re-framing of the ocean's carbon cycle that throws out DIC and alkalinity, and replaces them with acidic-carbon (aC) and basic-carbon (bC). This originates, in part, from the somewhat strange nature of alkalinity as a concept, which sees it regulating DIC concentrations at the ocean's surface while itself being composed of a number of ionic species including bicarbonate and carbonate. I've never really liked its definition, and always struggle with it when I think of what changes to it result in.

A key upshot of J's model is that the organic carbon portion of the biological pump drives aC, while the inorganic portion drives bC, which nicely separates processes. It also makes the changes driven by riverine carbonate (to bC) and anthropogenic CO2 (to aC) more straightforward to follow. Which, for her work on oceanic CO2 storage, is pretty handy. To be honest, I didn't follow it at first, and I'm still not quite sure I've got the full measure of it yet, but I now see that it's a pretty clever way of framing things (rather than very strange as I first thought).

The rationale for J's work is to create a simplified ocean carbon submodel that can slot nicely and cheaply into an integrated assessment model (IAM) and outperform the existing decay term that's currently used. From what she showed us, her model's a definite improvement on this front - though it will now make the behaviour of this IAM a bit more complicated and time-dependent (the price of quasi-realism). And it'll hopefully make for a nice publication for her to boot.

Anyway, considering the rather narrow focus of this rationale, as well as the simplicity of her model's ocean biogeochemistry, I was pretty impressed at J's knowledge and grasp of wider issues in marine biology (DOM, acidification, PFTs, ect.). She pressed me pretty hard on most angles, and I found myself in arm-waving territory on more than one occasion. She even got me on the defensive and playing my "until-there's-a-complete-description,-I-refuse-to-add-your-process-to-my-model" card. Usually I manage to fob people off long before they get there.

I'm now half-thinking about trying to apply her model in my own work, though I'm less sure that it'll make quite as interesting an exercise as I first thought. Squeezing aC and bC out of my DIC and alkalinity terms is easy because of the assumptions involved, but that may also make it less interesting. Still, to demonstrate the utility of this approach in more complex, 3D frameworks, it's probably worth having a go. I just have to pull my finger out to find and plug the holes in MEDUSA's leaky oxygen cycle ...

Anyway, aside from the science, J was nice enough to chat about Swedish crime fiction (obviously), the highlights of Southampton, intra-UK politics, desirable conference destinations, nationalist parties in Sweden and the UK, Jane Austen and blue plaques, etc. I say "chat", but I'm not sure she got a word in edgeways. (Note to self: more listening, less pontificating)

[*] ... stay awhile, stay forever

Saturday, 27 August 2011

A bit more Culture

It's been quite a while since Iain (M.) Banks last had an outing for (probably) his most famous creation, the Culture. But after a non-M. title that was patently science fiction, his book-writing cycle has definitively rolled back into M. territory with Surface Detail, novel number 8 in his Culture oeuvre (for those who're counting).

Opening with the murder, at his hands, of Y'breq, the indentured, and heavily tattooed, "companion" of the malevolent industrialist Veppers, the events of Surface Detail take place against the much grander backdrop of a "War in Heaven". For countless millennia, civilisations have constructed virtual realities in which to pleasurably immerse themselves, but a few have constructed virtual Hells in which punishment is meted out to those who are outcast, for whatever reason, by those societies. But the continued existence of these barbaric torture chambers is being challenged, and a virtual War is being bloodlessly fought to decide the outcome. But the War isn't going well for those who favour abolition and, contrary to the rules agreed upon by both sides, they are considering opening it out into a conflict in the real.

The Culture, who have grudgingly elected not to join the abolitionists, are watching the War from the sidelines with more than a passing interest. Their attention is focused by the unexpected resurrection of Y'breq in a distant Culture starship, and her unsurprising desire for revenge on Veppers, a player at the centre of the War. Meanwhile, Veppers is secretly finessing both sides in the War, promising to deliver destruction of the Hells to the abolitionists, and their continued secret operation to their owners. Alongside these (and other) strands in the real, several others play out in the virtual: academics Prin and Chay have hacked into their society's Hell in order to publicly expose its horrific purpose; meanwhile, Marshal Vatueil fights (and repeatedly dies) for the abolitionists through a series of radically different military campaigns.

As the Culture, as well as several other civilisations, become gradually aware of both Veppers' duplicity and of the plan to spread the War into the real, they are drawn into a quickly-evolving, and deadly, stream of events.

The first thing to say is that, as ever, this was a great read. I raced through its 600 pages, and more-or-less thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. It's perhaps not quite as richly baroque a tale as his last Culture outing but, much as with that novel, it still manages to pleasingly embellish the Culture universe. So here we have a slew of new civilisations, Culture-level and below; a considerably fleshed out and detailed virtual plane of existence; and a vast, mothballed system of factories built by a now-absent elder civilisation. Some of these aspects have been touched on in earlier novels (or in Banks' A Few Notes on the Culture), but I certainly hadn't expected a deeper delve into virtual reality to do so via anything like simulated Hells and a "War in Heaven". Chay's journey through Hell stands out as particularly striking. Regular readers can be assured that Banks is still keeping his universe unpredictably fresh, quite a contrast with another blog regular (and Banks wannabe), Neal Asher, who seems, instead, be intent on tying up all of his universe's loose ends.

That said, it's difficult to discern any deep theme in this Culture novel. Previous books have dealt with more weighty issues that (as much as science fiction can) parallel some from our own world, but there's nothing here that seems to fulfil a similar role. Focusing on Y'breq's desire for simple revenge, the novel seems more straightforwardly personal. The portions that deal with wider politics either don't have analogues in our world (at least ones I can perceive), or are too weakly fleshed out for them to be taken seriously. On this latter point, I think Banks missed a trick a bit by so briefly dealing with the politics of the pro-Hell civilisations. That, I suspect, would have been worth pursuing for its parallels with contemporary religious societies (whether Islamic or Christian), and would be right up Banks' street as a card-carrying socialist atheist. But, surprisingly, it doesn't get nearly enough attention.

Also, I am getting a little tired of the degree of hyper-threading in Banks' Culture novels these days. While he's never really told things in an entirely linear or straightforward fashion (The Player of Games comes closest; Use of Weapons is where he uses threads best), his use of a large number of typically loosely connected strands is getting to the point where it over-stretches my memory. It still works here, but it can be quite troublesome remembering who, exactly, all of the strangely-named aliens are, and it's certainly getting difficult to keep track of all of the plot convolutions and political machinations. I certainly lost track of some of the more minor players this time around, and I certainly struggled working out the various allegiances by the end. Banks may just be trying to keep readers on their toes, or perhaps simply illustrating the real complexity of events, but at times I thought he was instead being wilfully obfuscating.

Another curious malaise is that, increasingly, Banks makes his visits to the Culture a little too flippant. In earlier novels, serious events occurred and were discussed seriously, if with dark humour, by serious characters. While this still occurs, I find the tone a lot more uneven. Particularly so with the Culture Minds, which are now often a bit too "blokey" for the kinds of characters that they are (= benevolent, god-like AIs). There were a few places in Surface Detail where I found Banks dawdling a little too close to the line that separates him from the likes of the aforementioned Asher. While it can be enjoyable to read, it mostly just comes across at Banks playing to the gallery, and undercuts any more interesting points that the novel is trying to make (which, being science fiction, it might not be).

There's also a couple of odd conclusions to the novel. The first has the Culture essentially engaging in revenge after steadfastly sticking throughout to its humanitarian position abhorring it. While the Culture has some form on retribution from earlier novels (Look To Windward closes spectacularly on this point), it's done with more purpose and justification than here. While Veppers is deeply unpleasant, and is responsible for quite a number of deaths (including, of course, Y'breq's), his crimes don't seem on quite the right scale. The second is Surface Detail's epilogue which, while pleasing (for reasons I won't go into), is a little bit too much of playing to the fanboys. I liked it, and in fact had suspected it, but I just thought it an unnecessary extra detail that felt like Banks was trying to appropriate some of the fame of a certain previous novel for this one. One of the more distinctive aspects of Banks is that, while revisiting the same universe, he has largely resisted the temptation to return to previously crowd-pleasing settings or characters - long may it continue.

Anyway, notwithstanding my criticisms, which serve mostly to quibble about Surface Detail's ranking in the Culture pantheon, I'd thoroughly recommend the novel to Banks fans. Not the best of introductions to the Culture, and certainly not the most significant of them, but a very enjoyable tale, solidly told.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Skyride, 2011


Skyride, 2011, a set on Flickr.

Today's outing was on the Skyride around Southampton. Basically, parts of the city get coned off and cyclists get to roam the roads unmolested. Which sounds slightly more cyclist-friendly than it actually is. Much as with last year, the dilemma of annoying car drivers is resolved by routing cyclists through portions of the city that are largely unused anyway. Last year it was Southampton's extensive parks, this year it was the city's extensive docks. Which, actually, was pretty good, since the docks we went through today are ones that are usually completely off-limits to the public. So much photography of the unlikely-to-be-seen-again scenery resulted. Also as with last year, today's Skyride was a pretty fun and friendly thing to do, with heaps of families taking part.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Hillier Gardens


Hillier Gardens, a set on Flickr.

Out to Romsey today to see Hillier Gardens' "Art in the Garden", their annual sculpture exhibition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Hillier's primary role in horticulture, the emphasis is firmly on the "garden" part, to the extent that we were hunting high and low for some of the sculptures. We got almost all of them in the end, and while we've seen much better sculpture exhibitions elsewhere, it was cool to see the gardens as well.

Overall, I think I prefer too see art in a nice place ahead of a nice place with some art in it.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Infidel

Summary: under-written and over-long. A potentially good idea (Muslim family man finds out that he was born Jewish then adopted), is all but ruined in its execution. Good jokes are thin on the ground, and the film is far too long for the material. Its "surprise" conclusion is quite ridiculously contrived, and its attempts to engage with more weighty issues (racism, Israel) are just fatuously lame. Very disappointing, particularly so given the talented names involved.

Grade: C- (low -1 on the Leeper Scale)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Trans-cosmic journey

It wasn't that long since my last trip there, but it's time for another visit to (so-called) "classic" science fiction territory, on this occasion with Poul Anderson's epic 1970 novel, Tau Zero.

Beginning on Earth in a not-too-distant future when humanity has just begun to travel out to nearby stars, Tau Zero is the story of the crew of the Leonora Christine and their journey to a distant solar system. Fuelled by hydrogen from the near-vacuum of space, the ship's Bussard ramjet accelerates it towards light speed allowing it, through time dilation, to reach across the 30 light year journey in just a few years from the perspective of the crew. Chosen for their ability to both crew the ship and colonise the Earth-like planet discovered in the faraway system, the 25 women and 25 men aboard the Leonora Christine expect never to see the Earth again, but busy themselves with science and learning, and also with shipboard romances.

However, while the ship is still accelerating, it passes through a wandering nebula critically damaging its systems for deceleration. Initially shocked that the ship is still accelerating and that their original target is now completely unattainable, the crew rally around a plan to continue accelerating out of the Milky Way and to repair the damaged systems in intergalactic space, before decelerating into a new system. But on exiting the galaxy, the Leonora Christine finds the "empty" space still too rich in matter to safely switch off the ramjet, so the crew decide to press on, increasing the ship's speed and further dilating time. The setbacks continue, and before long the crew begin to fray as there appears to be no end in sight to their journey, and the passage of time exceeds the lifespan of Earth's solar system. Worse, the universe around the ship is changing, and the astronomers aboard belatedly realise that the Big Crunch is underway ...

This is one of those books that's better in theory than it is in practise. The set-up is great, and a really neat exercise in special relativity, but the execution is very patchy, and the novel is quite dull for long stretches. Largely, and perhaps unsurprisingly, because the characters don't quite work on the page. Much like the physics in the story, they appear something of an intellectual exercise, with personalities that serve primarily to just bump the plot along - not a good way to imbue a novel with human interest. To be fair, Anderson does well setting up a very existential dilemma for the crew (press on and simply hope for the best, or destroy the ship and end the journey with dignity and sanity), one that's interesting to ponder outside the novel, but one that's not nearly as satisfying within it.

All that said, it was still well worth reading. For all its flaws in characterisation, it never descended to the sexist farce of certain other "classic" novels. Sure, it wasn't really quite up to the giants of the era, but its good bits more than balanced out its more tedious sections. I particularly liked how, as the ship approaches light speed and "tau zero", the universe becomes akin to regularly-spaced speed bumps, as galaxy after galaxy are sped through in subjective seconds, and serve only to feed the maw of the ramjet. And while the physics at the end is now very much out of vogue, I still rather liked how Anderson concludes the journey of the Leonora Christine. In part, probably, because said eschatology still seems somewhat more satisfying than the more probable alternatives.

Overall, I won't be rushing out to raid Anderson's back catalogue, but I'm pleased to have finally knocked this "classic" off.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Random observation: riots and social media

A common thread in reporting of the UK's current riots is how they appear to be organised in quite a sophisticated fashion using social media services and portable devices. That is pretty interesting, but is in keeping with the recent student protests (or were they riots?; depends who's reporting I guess).

One related aspect that I've found interesting is how people I know (and people who know people I know) have reported their views of the riots on social media services like Facebook. A swift perusal of my news feed on Facebook reveals a nice selection of Daily Hate viewpoints being expressed by (essentially uninvolved) people on the subject of the riots. For instance, that rioters should be shot, jailed, lose their benefits, be sent to Afghanistan, et cetera. My brother even advocates bringing on martial law (though, to be fair, he is in the military so has something of a vested interest there).

What I guess I find interesting is that these rather authoritarian views are expressed completely publicly, non-anonymously and rather stridently. Within limits, I can, of course, understand the views themselves - as the riots appear to be decoupled from the original public anger, it's difficult to empathise with the rioters. But it still seems fairly novel to me that people should record such views in so transparent (and checkable-by-employers) a forum. Then again, having occasionally seen racist and homophobic views bandied about on Facebook (thankfully friends-of-friends at closest approach), perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


A quick, easy report this one. What a great little film!

Centred around Oliver, a graphic artist catering to musicians in need of album art, Beginners at first appears to be focused instead on his father, Hal. After the death of his wife of 40 years, retired art historian Hal stuns Oliver with the successive revelations that he is 1. gay; 2. keen to pursue new sexual relationships; and 3. suffering with terminal cancer. The film picks up after Hal's death, but jumps back and forth over the immediately preceding years, and back to Oliver's childhood and relationship with his mother, Georgia. In the "present" (2003, according to Oliver's insistent narration), as well as tying up the loose ends of Hal's life, including adopting his dog, Arthur, Oliver begins a relationship with a French actress, Anna. His previous relationships, documented in his art, have all disintegrated because of his creeping disengagement, and as his romance with Anna blossoms, he begins to fear repetition. But Anna also has inhibitions that stretch back to her relationship with her parents, and, together, they hesitantly piece together a plausible future for themselves.

There's just so much to like about this relatively low-key film. It's played great (though Ewan McGregor still struggles with a US accent); it's not afraid to trust the viewer to follow its novel-like narrative (your hand is not held); it has some great moments of humour in it (e.g. psychoanalysis at a party; consciousness-expanding graffiti vandalism); it has a star-turn from a talking dog (you'll see); it's quietly didactic on the progress that's been made in gay rights (and artfully done too); and it is, ultimately, a crowd-pleasing, feel-good film that is still far from the predictable mainstream. Some might find that elements of the film's cuteness, for instance the talking dog (who's not really talking, just so we're clear), are a little too much, but it suited me just fine and, anyway, it totally earned any excess cuteness. Some might argue that it flatters liberal values too much, but, well, those are fine, progressive things to stand up and be proud of (even while there's still a long way to go). Anyway, to conclude this gush-fest: highly recommended.

Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)

Sunday, 7 August 2011

West Dean Gardens


West Dean Gardens, a set on Flickr.

Out to this year's chilli festival courtesy of Alex. As usual, lots of chilli-themed culinary experiences to be had, including some quite strange ones - chilli fudge anyone?

Anyway, as on previous occasions, the best bit was the chance to wander around West Dean's walled garden. As evidenced by the (inevitable) plethora of photographs.