Saturday, 31 December 2011

Calendar 2012

01; January; Hinton Ampner Residents
02; February; Lido at Plymouth
03; March; Plymouth Dawn
04; April; Pushkin

05; May; Sissinghurst Castle Gardens
06; June; Walking with Wolves
07; July; Oast House Hounds
08; August; St. Thomas in the Marsh

09; September; Nuala with the Hula
10; October; In the Footsteps of Giants
11; November; East Haven Morn
12; December; Dunnottar Castle
Calendar 2012, a set on Flickr.

This year's set of photographs for my calendar (= my cheap and easy Christmas present). Not (quite) a stay-cation collection this time, but all UK.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Ants, Jane and Millie

2011-12-30, Out with Millie a video by Dr Yool on Flickr.

Out to Romsey for a night with Ants and Jane, then a morning with their dog Millie. The former was a curry in the town centre, the latter was a 4 mile (for us; Millie covered about 3 times as much as us) walk around the surrounding fields.

The movie shows Millie getting the most out of us on her walk.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

No Life of Brian

In an attempt to decrease the size of "the pile", a quick catch-up review of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by the UK author, and prominent atheist, Philip Pullman.

Very disappointing. The central idea, that the Biblical Jesus is a composite character of two very different people (an actual good man, Jesus; and a "scoundrel" responsible for the Church, Christ), is a good one, but Pullman largely stuffs up the execution. The writing is uniformly good, but from my perspective Pullman is inconsistent in his presentation of Jesus. A sensible approach for a polemicist like Pullman might have been to present Jesus as an ordinary man and the supernatural tales about him as simple exaggeration on the part of contemporaries, but the novel's Jesus jumps between being a good man and actually performing miracles [*]. So the reader, this one anyway, is left confused about what Pullman is trying to say. Life of Brian, to name one similar Messiah-questioning artwork, handles all of this much more clearly and self-consistently. The "scoundrel", Christ, is also nothing of the sort most of the time, which might, I guess, be part of Pullman's aim. Overall, I left with the feeling that the novel was a bit of a wasted opportunity, particularly so since Pullman had put so many of the pieces in place.

[*] Unless, of course, this is another novel that I've misread!

Pulitzer Prize-winner

Not one from "the pile" this time, but one that I've actually just finished reading. A Visit From The Goon Squad, by the US writer Jennifer Egan, is the 2010 winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Not a prize for which I've read many winners before, the only one I can think of is Richard Ford's excellent 1995 novel Independence Day (for clarity: not the novelisation of the almost-concurrent film). So, is AVFTGS in the same league?

Spanning the 1970s to the 2020s, A Visit From The Goon Squad drops in and out of the lives of a loose group of friends and their families. Broadly centred around the characters of Bennie Salazar, a musician turned music industry executive, and his one-time PA, and kleptomaniac, Sasha, the novel's 13 chapters detail short but significant interludes that milestone their lives, with each told from the perspective of a different character. The first finds Sasha stealing a purse during a blind date with Alex, while the last closes several decades later with Alex astroturfing a word-of-mouth campaign for Bennie. In between, chapters include the breakdown of Bemnie's marriage from the perspective of his wife Stephanie, the death by drowning of a drug-addled college friend, a journey to Italy by Sasha's uncle, Ted, to find her when she goes "missing" as a teenager, and a PowerPoint presentation of her family's dynamics by Sasha's daughter, Alison.

By way of summary, this is one of those novels that, while both admirable and enjoyable, does leave you in head-scratching mode. It starts with the title itself, on which the novel offers only a single reference, and then rather late in the day. But leaving aside the fact that the novel leaves you to do all of the heavy-lifting when it comes to meaning and interpretation (unless, that is, it's just me), it's a well-written and highly entertaining read. And actually quite a lot of fun too. The novel's darkest, at least on one level, chapter involves a genocidal dictator, but tells it, lightly and deftly, from the perspective of the disgraced PR wizard hired to make him more presentable.

As the outline above probably already implies, at times it seems more a collection of connected stories involving the same characters rather than a straight novel, but it is possible to discern some thematic threads that link, rather than bind, Bennie and Sasha's misadventures. By rummaging over such a long time-frame, and dipping into a number of periods of recent (and still to come) US history, it's also clearly one of those "state-of-the-nation" novels so beloved of columnists and prize-awarding committees, though even on this point it's considerably more obtuse than other novels in this oeuvre.

One minor downside of the novel's constant chopping and changing of perspective (as well as its hopping backwards and forwards in time) is that it's very (very) easy to lose track of who various characters are. Sasha and Bennie act as anchors most of the time, but there are, I'm sure, many characters who bridge chapters but who I completely failed to link in. I think this is a weakness, one that contributes to the feeling that this is more a short story collection than a novel, but it's generally a minor one. But I can well believe that it'll annoy readers less prepared to roll with it than I am (having been conditioned by years of outlandish science fiction).

One of Egan's most interesting decisions, and one that I originally thought sounded like a disaster waiting to happen, is to tell Sasha's daughter's story through the medium of a PowerPoint presentation (one slide per page). Alison uses all of the conventional iconography of PowerPoint - shapes, arrows, graphs, speech bubbles - to describe each of the members of her family, and the dynamics that alternately antagonise and bind them. While it did seem like a pretty stupid gimmick when I started Alison's chapter, it didn't take me long to warm to it, and I found some of the slides, particularly those where she dissects her mother and father's demons, surprisingly affecting. In passing, I must add that I'm faintly disappointed that Egan beat the Great Geek God, Douglas Coupland, to this - it's totally the kind of thing one would expect him to do first.

Finally, on the themes that I discerned in the novel, the best I can do is that it's a meditation on how different life can be from the aspirations and idealism of one's youth. So we see Bennie turn from a modestly talented musician into a pretty sharp music executive, into a failed music executive, into a reborn music executive buoyed up by a fake word-of-mouth campaign. And, similarly, Sasha's transformation from a down-and-out petty thief in Naples, via a tragic death and stint as Bennie's PA, to a life as an artist and mother in the Californian desert. There's also something of a meditation on fame and celebrity going on, but nothing that I was able to get a good grip on. The closing chapter returns to this, via Alex's astroturfing, but here there seem to be much clearer messages about modern media-led norms. Specifically, how ubiquitous texting, lowered privacy and over-sharing, and corporate intrusion into the personal, are eroding/changing our relationships with one another. Or perhaps that's just my Web 1.0 attitudes feeling threatened by Web 2.0's openness?

In summary, most enjoyable. I'm not sure how it stacks up against other Pulitzer Prize winners, but I really liked it. I'd love to know what it's all about though ...

P.S. In tracking down a book cover image for this post, I came across this article which includes a number of diagrams of how the various characters in the novel connect (PowerPoint? how meta!). Per my remarks about keeping track of the characters in the novel, well worth a peek.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Rufus Stone

2011-12-27, Subsurface water a video by Dr Yool on Flickr.
Out today to the New Forest to get lost again on a walk we've done before. It's one of those which looks simple on the map but involves crossing an ill-defined region of forest guided only by markers which have long since disappeared. Still, it was fun in the end, and we got to see deer and wild pigs into the bargain.

C also found this rather bizarre water feature when we were crossing a boggy region. It was like a little "blister" of water trapped beneath a "skin" of turf strong enough to take our weights (yes, even mine).

Anyway, it also afforded an opportunity to test out my phone's GPS capabilities. Though it began to be useful by the end, it wasn't a whole lot of use when we needed it. More practise needed I think.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Brighton XL


Brighton XL, a set on Flickr.

To commemorate the loss of my youth, C and I spent the weekend in the fair city of Brighton, West Sussex. Cue surprisingly good weather, lots of art, an appalling number of photographs, too much to eat and a brilliant time all round. If I had any youth left to lose, I'd do it all again.

Thanks to C for an excellent birthday present!

Friday, 16 December 2011

NOCS Christmas Quiz 2011

NOCS Christmas Quiz 2011 by Dr Yool
NOCS Christmas Quiz 2011, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

One of the traditions that's grown up in NOCS in the past few years is the annual Christmas Quiz. And it's one that I've grudgingly commented on previously (here and here) when we've almost won but have fallen at the final hurdle.

Anyway, today was Christmas Quiz 2011, and while it didn't really feel like it during the quiz - in fact, we had a couple of pretty dodgy rounds - change was a-coming.

Despite what should have been a pretty middling score, 43 out of a possible 60, our team, Duncan Who [*], found itself in a three-way tie-break with last year's winners and a team captained by my student, HC.

And, bizarrely, the result depended on a question about, of all things, the radius of the planet Neptune Uranus. Ordinarily, this should have been a walk-over for me, but my pitch, 12,000 km, was much lower than that settled upon by my astronomically-minded team-mates (Simon and Joel), 30,000 km.

Fortunately (or was it destiny?), our rivals shot way too high, both guessing a radius 10 times that of the Earth, when the actual answer is a little less than 25,000 km. So, at last, long-denied triumph was ours to savour. And a prize of £100 - though we donated that straight back to the charity supported by the quiz (in a move subsequently questioned by the most tight-fisted members of our team!).

What a great start to my birthday weekend. But have I perhaps started a little too high? :-)

[*] Our team name, which may yet earn us unwelcome attention, refers to the recent appointment of a distinguished scientist - whose name may, or may not, be Duncan - to the head of our funding agency. An appointment that involved a bit of leap-frogging over our centre's director ... and usual quiz MC. Alas, a conflict of schedules meant that our friend, and former team member, RMA, got the job of hosting.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Magic + Tigers

As a post-script to this morning's post, I had a long discussion with C about what I made of the The Tiger's Wife. During the course of this, I realised that I'd actually misread the one of the concluding chapters and, as a result, misinterpreted a key part of the book. At best, I can only blame my dimness on reading last thing before bedtime. At worst, I read on autopilot with my brain at least partially disengaged. Either way, duh.

The upshot of this is that my only objection about the book, namely that it shifted uncomfortably for me from allegory to magical realism, is actually completely misplaced (or arguably so; another outcome of our discussion was me realising how rigidly I interpret what I read). When I started reading the novel, this is actually what I thought was going on, but I shifted by the end when my brain gear-shifted into neutral. So much my fine reading and analytical skills (though I did only get a 'B' in Higher English). Anyway, all of which serves only to further elevate the book in my estimation. Whew, I got there in the end.

Changing the subject (and drawing a veil over my shame), one thing that C and I did agree on was a certain disconnectedness between the novel's tale of the Tiger's Wife from its other narrative strands. Natalia's story, as well as her grandfather's interludes with the deathless man, revolve around mortality and war. While the tale of the Tiger's Wife isn't devoid of these elements, it's a bit of a leap to tie it in so well. Which isn't to say that it's not an important part of the novel's strengths, just that neither of us entirely got it.

We did disagree somewhat on the novel's various detours. C (and some of her book group) thought these were a little too tangential to the main narratives, and almost seemed short story-like in their drifting away from Natalia and her grandfather. It's merely a matter of opinion, of course, but I didn't feel this way at all. Instead, I thought that what seem to be digressions (often lengthy ones) are actually quite important for setting up the characters prior to the roles they play in the main narratives. So knowing, for instance, of Luka's failures in a distant city makes his behaviour towards his wife comprehensible (if still repugnant).

Anyway, we had a great old discussion, and it was good to be set straight. I'll be sure to read more carefully in the future!

Magic + Tigers

I'm getting seriously behind in writing up what I've read. The "stack", in plain view from our computer, is now high enough to require splitting into two piles. On that note, an overdue visit to this year's Orange Prize winner, The Tiger's Wife by the Balkan/American writer Téa Obreht.

Set in an unnamed Balkan state with events scattered through a war-torn 20th century, The Tiger's Wife is told firstly from the perspective of Natalia, a doctor delivering aid and expertise to communities shattered by the state's most recent bout of in-fighting. Out of her element with a humanitarian quest of her own to complete, Natalia hears of the death of her grandfather, a fellow doctor. As she juggles her medical responsibilities with an attempt to recover her grandfather's personal effects, she reminisces over his life and the stories that he told her of it, in particular, two prominent figures that feature in it, the Tiger's Wife and the deathless man. The Tiger's Wife, a deaf-mute girl who formed a bond with an escaped tiger from a bombed zoo, is a figure from his rural adolescence. The deathless man, first encountered on a medical errand to a superstitious village, has crossed Natalia's grandfather's path several times during his life. The tales of the deathless man convince Natalia that her grandfather may have crossed paths with him once more, and she sets out with an expectation that she, too, may meet him.

Much as with my last read, The Tiger's Wife treads in territory that I'm not usually comfortable with, but does so very enjoyably. On this occasion, rather than fantasy, we're in the realm of magical realism (which, when you think about it, is basically fiction with fantastical elements). All of which means that, though thoroughly enjoying myself, I can't ultimately take the novel quite as seriously as I probably should. It exists in a world tangential to that which we actually occupy, so the lessons proffered probably fall a little onto deaf ears in my case. I'm fine with allegory when it stays firmly as allegory, in fact, I love it, but when it is actually revealed as reality, as here, I'm less sure what to make of it. But I'm getting ahead of myself there, and (needlessly) applying the boot before singing praises.

Anyway, getting back to business ... The Tiger's Wife is a great read, with an engaging story and some just beautiful writing. The novel would be quite an achievement from an old-hand, but Obreht is a first-time novelist, but yet makes it all seem effortless. She juggles a number of narratives, and paces them all well, even managing to seamlessly slide in colourful personal histories of characters as they occur (including, memorably, the Tiger itself). On top of which, the novel communicates a comforting and humane vision of life even as it is set within, and explores, conflict and its fallout. Interestingly, though clearly set against the backdrop of the recent wars in the Balkans, Obreht eschews any attempt to tie her story to a particular place or conflict. I suspect someone more familiar with the geography and culture could make more of what she does say, but I quite liked her approach of making things simultaneously familiar but indistinct.

As hinted above, some of my favourite parts of the novel are its biographical asides. There are a number of passing characters, including the Tiger, for whom Obreht pauses and fills in the background history for the reader. While these should disrupt the narrative, instead they embellish it, adding little gems of extra texture and flavour (to mix my metaphors) to the novel. I suspect that these interludes work best because she uses them to fashion a self-contained story that relatively quickly shines a light over an unexpected section of Balkan society, as with Luka, husband to the Tiger's Wife, but also a composer of songs, wife-beater and closeted man in a macho culture.

(For full disclosure, I particularly enjoyed reading about the novel's various tigers, though it's a hard read at times. At most times in fact - the scenes set in the zoo during the novel's most recent conflict won't be leaving me any time soon. It's perhaps a sentimentalist view, one, I think, borne out the backfoot that animals finds themselves on in the modern world, but I find the plight of animals often more wrenching than that of the humans around them. Unable to see the bigger picture, unable to discern their dwindling future, and profoundly unable to do anything about it, I find their position in novels, and in the world, routinely more tragic than that of suffering people. Largely, I guess, because of my biologist training and appreciation of the (near) future oblivion that awaits most animal species, but it probably comes across as inhuman!)

By way of summary, a very enjoyable, and highly accomplished, first novel. Great central narratives and some excellent detours. I remain a little uncomprehending about the novel's treatment of certain elements, the deathless man foremost, but this didn't seriously dampen my appreciation. Curiously, I found the treatment of these elements more satisfying in The Tiger's Wife than in novels such as The Book Thief, where its dealt with in a more upfront manner. Perverse, I know. Anyway, to be recommended.

There's an important post-script to the above over here.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Smartphone revolution

As of yesterday, I've finally joined the smartphone generation. This post was actually started from my new phone, but after inputting the title I stuffed it up, so I'm completing the usual way, au PC.

Anyway, so what did I go for? The main decision was, obviously, OS. As I've really enjoyed using our iPad the past year, iOS was the immediate front-runner. And not just for the operating system - iPhones are, indisputably, beautiful devices. Particularly the iPhone 4 (= iPhone 4S), but even the iPhone 3 has a certain desirable charm to it (much like, but much better than, my old iPod Classic). But it's not the only contender.

There is, of course, Google's Android OS. But I can't say that I've ever been drawn to this. Principally because it's just a great big iPhone rip-off. While the OS does come in a number of flavours, and is heavily customisable, the bottom line is that Google shamelessly stole its overall look and feel from the iPhone. And since it's clearly not an iPhone, the net effect is to look like a cheap rip-off. Sorry.

Blackberry? Who? Sorry, another non-starter.

Which leaves only the newest kid on the block, Windows Phone 7. Its predecessor, Windows Mobile, was sufficiently poorly executed and adopted that I wasn't even aware that it existed, but at a meeting earlier this year in Paris, I caught my first glimpse of its wholly re-designed successor. I had heard about it on and off since it was released in 2010, but it remained a largely unknown quantity to me until the appearance of some new, and pretty attractive, hardware in the past few months. In fact, when I first visited Carphone Warehouse a few months back, the sales assistant tried his darndest to divert me to iOS and Android.

So, we're back in Apple vs. Microsoft territory.

Anyway, for all of its beauty, both OS and hardware, dropping down from my "big screen" iPad experience, leaves the iPhone a little underwhelming. To be honest, I'm also just a little bit tired of the interface - it's actually slightly alarming how quickly its formerly stylish simplicity now just seems dull. And, for complete disclosure, I'm getting really quite fed up with Apple's smugness and the unquestioning idolatry of its (many) fans.

In fact, Apple has now claimed the place in my personal hell that was formerly occupied by Microsoft in the heyday of its war against Netscape. Which makes it quite troublingly ironic that Microsoft, through (the beautiful) Windows Phone 7, has been the victor in my personal smartphone war. Talk about turning the tables.

So far, I'm not disappointed. My Nokia Lumia 800, while not quite as luxurious as an iPhone, is a great platform for WP7. And the OS is a real joy to use. Possibly just because it's new, but I think it's got legs and I don't expect to tire of it anytime soon. But we'll see. I suspect I'll revisit it from time to time - possibly even more frequently if I work out how to post properly from it!