At Last! Light at the End of the Tunnel…

… or at least the cool blue glow of a backlit keyboard.

I have my new laptop. It arrived yesterday while I was in deep talks with our new Sales Manager on the subject of international fisheries policy. More interesting than it sounds but not as interesting as finally being able to get back to where I was a year ago. My pet nerd thought it would be funny to hide it and wind me up further by suggesting that the courier had left with my morsel of consumer electronics tucked under his arm. Damn him.

I have it now, time to hit my word limit!

Happy Easter!

Remember, in space no one can hear you over eat!

Happy Easter.



Dirk Gently and the South Bank Show…

The BBC are about to show the new Dirk Gently mini series (March 5th).  I’m in two minds. While I was so looking  forward to the pilot that some disappointment was inevitable I don’t think that excuses the production team any responsibility for the completely unfunny mess that we were given. On the other hand it IS Douglas Adams and it IS Dirk Gently.  I hope that the rumours are true and that the writer has held back on most of the material for this series.  Fingers crossed. I shall at least give it a go.

This blog post isn’t about my fingernail biting worry.  Nor is it about my general contrariness.  What I wanted to share is a set of YouTube links to a South Bank Show special dating back to the early 90s. It’s about the life and works of Douglas Adams.

Take a look at these:

I don’t particularly like Art shows. In the UK they tend towards either the rigidly conservative mainstream or the gloriously pretentious art world.  There are exceptions.  I used to watch the South Bank Show because there was normally something interesting on it. Looking at the links I have posted below it reminds me of a happier time in British broadcasting.  This is an example of the ITV that gave us Spitting Image, World in Action and countless other works before it devolved into meaningless celebrity worship and soap operas.

Of course back then there were only 4 channels (and I dimly remember when there were only 3) but it’s disappointing to look back on ITV and see how good it used to be.

Repeat After Me – Wikipedia isn’t “down” or “blacked out” or “offline”

Turn off that light!

… but you are presented with a dark image and a message.  All of which is very easy to circumvent if you have the know how, access to a Google search or the relevant plug-in for your browser.

According to their FAQ:

‎Is it still possible to access Wikipedia in any way?
Yes. During the blackout, Wikipedia is accessible on mobile devices and smart phones. You can also view Wikipedia normally by disabling JavaScript in your browser, as explained on this Technical FAQ page. Our purpose here isn’t to make it completely impossible for people to read Wikipedia, and it’s okay for you to circumvent the blackout. We just want to make sure you see our message.
I feel like the only person asking “Eh?  What is your point caller?”  This is the definition of a blackout:
Pronunciation: /ˈblakaʊt/
1a period when all lights must be turned out or covered to prevent them being seen by the enemy during an air raid: people found it difficult to travel in the blackout [as modifier]: she peered out through the blackout curtains
(usually blackouts) British dark curtains put up in windows to cover lights during an air raid.
a failure of an electrical power supply: due to a power blackout their hotel was in total darkness
a moment in the theatre when the lights on stage are suddenly dimmed.
a suppression of information, especially one imposed on the media by government: there is a total information blackout on minority interests

2a temporary loss of consciousness: she was suffering from blackouts

In context, of all of these, the only one that makes any sense is: a suppression of information, especially one imposed on the media by government ...  This is the fear of Wikipedia – and the wider community of the internet – and yet their site is easily accessible.
This is a bit like a strike where everyone goes to work – pointless.  I have been told that what Wikipedia is doing is ensuring we get their message.  In fact that is what they are saying in their quote but I ask again – what is the point?  Surely if censorship is what is worrying then take away your service, exercise your right to withdraw your service – show the web what it will be like to be truly without Wikipedia.
Make a point.

The nature of this legislation has sent the internet into paroxysms of indignation while the mainstream media have remained largely mum.   I find that remarkable because it seems that the internet, or rather the sites people use to exchange information, are regularly confused with News by regular journalists.  Perhaps this bilge being reported by Rory Cellan Jones over at the BBC highlights the main problem – a lack of technical expertise in the field?

Students finishing essays, sports fans looking to settle an argument – or perhaps journalists wanting to check a fact – are going to be in trouble today. Wikipedia has gone black.

If you need to find out about other topics, try the mobile site – strangely, still working.

Or use one of Wikipedia’s language sites and have Google Translate render it into English.

By the way that’s taken from the sidebar – the main article isn’t any better.  Rory is one of the top BBC journalists.  Gosh.

SOPA* is not good legislation.  Generally speaking it’s rare anything rushed, ill thought out and the result of outside interference is.  Good legislation is built on: consensus, knowledge and experience.  SOPA is anything but and I’ll let the great Wikipedia explain why.

The irony, Me quoting SOPA** from a supposedly dark Wikipedia, is not lost on me.

*No, not this SOPA.

**I forgot to go on about PIPA which is a related piece of legislation.  At the time of writing support for SOPA has crumbled and likely to collapse.  PIPA will probably go the same way.  This sort of legislation is likely to come round again and keep coming round unless those making the law get a better handle on things.  Lobbies, both for and against, need to get their collective fingers out because it’s clear that the current situation is not tenable.  People who create are entitled to reward, also the costs should be fair for the those purchasing cultural material.  The misty eyed naivety of the Net Utopians or Blinkered Old Guard need to be dealt with –  there must be a third way that is fair for everyone.

Since when did fantasy mean… well, Fantasy?

If can't tand my pretentiousness... click this picture!  Recently I found myself doing some research and ended up reading The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges  which is a series of [very] short fantasy stories.  I was particularly interested in The House of Asterion which invokes a particular Greek Myth.  As I read I was struck by how narrow the modern interpretation of “fantasy” has become.  Ask a person on the street what, in literary terms, the word means and they will likely define it in terms of swords and sorcery, magic, elves and dwarfs or perhaps modern supernatural stories (invariably featuring a moody person staring out of the book cover).  They also mean doorstop books that have very specific story types and you buy them in sets – or the hopes that the overall arc will someday be finished.

I’m pretty sure Tolkien would wonder what he started.

In The Aleph Borges tells a number of tales.  He even goes out of his way in his afterwords to say that the stories should be considered fantasy and he covers everything:  Magic, Myth, The Other, Timelessness and he does it all in very short stories that make you stop and think.   I don’t claim to have discovered Borges after all I he’s pretty famous in certain circles but I only decided to read him from a happy accident.

The problem is genre.

Now I don’t mean genre as story type.  I don’t mean genre as popular writing.  I  certainly don’t mean it as poor writing.

What I mean by genre is that concept of bookshelf.  Perhaps even genre as shopping experience.

Let me tell you a story…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and points to the shelves where there are an array of hooded men vs the dinosaur analogues (some of them are even the good guys).

The man thanks her and wanders off for a browse under the convenient sign.

Genre is a marketing term.  It’s a happy pigeonhole.

Notice that the man doesn’t go and look in the “fiction” section and he certainly doesn’t go to “dark fantasy”.  He goes to the shelf that says this genre and that.

It’s not surprising.  We like our generic handles.  We like being able to buy easily.  That man has also been me.

It strikes me that there are a lot of books out there that we genre fans (and writers) might like but we don’t get to easily read them.  We don’t see them – they’re hiding away somewhere else. There’s a distinct partition “This is our territory and they are over there“.  I also understand why the big publishing companies like that shelf.  It makes it easier to produce books that people are looking for.  And it sells.

But I worry.  That’s a big shelf.  And there’s a lot of hooded men and beardy sidekicks but there’s not a lot of variation.  I worry that there’s a very narrow horizon on display.  It’s hard to find the gems in there (and there are a few great books squirreled away in amongst the rest).  I remember reading horror as a lad, I still like the occasional horror tale now but can you find any decent new stuff?  No, not really.  Horror collapsed at the end of the 20th century as copycat novels and over exposure caused an entire (ancient) story type to disappear.  You still find horror but more often in the generic fiction section or as an extra veneer on other stories.  I am told that there’s a healthy underground but I’ve never managed to find it.

In an ideal world my story would be different…

On a grey day, when rain pounds the pavement, a man walks into a bookshop.  He goes up to the pretty sales assistant and, after flashing his no.1 smile asks, “Where can I buy more of this?”  He flourishes a largish book.  The cover clearly indicates a hooded man and his beardy sidekick slaying the dinosaur analogue.

She gives him a look and says “That’s great.  You can buy some of that over there but we also recommend this stuff.”  They have a chat.  She points out a few different options and the man realises there’s more out there than his habitual spot.

In this story the man widens his horizons and goes off to find gems.  Maybe I’m atypical in my reading habits.  Maybe I’m more arrogant than I like to admit.  But I do like being surprised.  I do like being told stories that surprise and entertain.  I like stories that fill me up and I like stories that show me that there’s no horizons.  I like to read everything – I even like reading about beards and pointy hats but sometimes, just sometimes, I like to worry about what’s round the corner on the other bookshelves.

In short.  Read The Aleph by Borges it’s great.

And recommend me some gems so I am proved wrong.

I, for one, welcome my future-reading silicon overlord…

If we ask it the right question will we get the wrong answer?

Well the news has been abuzz with talk of a mighty new computer that can predict the future.  It managed to predict Osama Bin Laden’s location and when the Arab spring was going to happen.  The computer is called Nautilus and it’s very smart indeed.

Unfortunately it didn’t.

What it did was read the news from some time ago and then some scientists interpreted it would have predicted these events if it had been around at the time.  Now, I don’t know if I am the only one to spot the flaws in this sort of thinking…

I think this quote is particularly interesting.

“I liken it to weather forecasting. It’s never perfect, but we do better than random guessing.”

Yeah that never goes badly.

But here’s the real problem and the one that will really make me put my head in my hands if this sort of tech’ catches on.  We know it’s going to inexact.  Models of chaotic systems can never be infallible – it’s just not possible for us to build a computer that powerful, even if it’s a currently fashionable topic in SF*, even if (just if) we are actually living in that sort of simulation.   But that won’t stop poorly educated politicians and journalists making strident claims based on its output.  There was an outbreak of this sort of thinking after 9/11. A lot of money was poured into large databases at the time.  In fact it had been on the cards for a while anyway – it’s called Echelon.

Many people said at the time that if the US had a big enough database of information then it could predict what would happen.   Nautilus is eerily similar isn’t it?

I wonder what Asimov would have made of this… or for that matter George Orwell.  The sad truth is that I think of all of them Terry Gilliam was probably right when he made Brazil.  Is this really the price we’ve got to pay because of those sad events?

Here’s what Charlie Brooker has to say.

Site of the Day –

A little geeky diversion today… train times.  Yes, one of us Brits favourite topics is whinging about the unreliability of our train network.  Now there’s no excuse.  You can use the excellent  If you live in London there’s even a live geographic map of the Tube Network.  The site’s been around for a while but popped up in a discussion of London’s shiny new bus times predictor…  something we in the frozen north have had for a long time now…

So, I’d like to welcome London to the 21st century.   We’ve been wondering when you’d join the party.


No I am not a train geek.


The Man Himself


So I saw Neil Gaiman yesterday and my opinion remains the same. He is a great writer and an engaging speaker.

He talked at length on how he feels about writing, where he gets some of his ideas from and whether there will be sequels to some of his popular books. I particularly enjoyed the story he told about his favourite book which he found in a bookshop situated in a converted hospital.  I want to go there.

I enjoyed myself.

The Guardian have a selection of quotes from the show.

What did grate was the sycophancy.  There’s no other word for it.  The guy who introduced him gushed for a couple of minutes about how great Neil is.  I wondered if it would be good form to stick fingers down my throat.  I thought, “Yes yes, he is – now can he speak?”  At one point during an anecdote, the audience burst into spontaneous applause (led by an over excited teenage girl) and I leant over to my friend and asked “Why is everyone else applauding? ”  She replied, “No idea.”

But don’t let my irritation put you off.  I believe it’s possible to read his work, watch his films and digest his comics without being infected with over eager fan-ness. And he should be appreciated he is a great author.



What should spaceships look like?

Good question isn’t it?

I once had an exchange over the latest Star Trek film and at one point my other correspondent said, “And another thing, I hate the way the Romulan ship looks like a big jumble of knives.”  I paraphrase but his problem was that the Romulan ship didn’t look like a “proper” spaceship.  Certainly not for the Trek universe.  I pointed out that we’re talking about a fanciful fantasy set in space… why shouldn’t the Romulan ship look like whatever it wants?

This week the BBC news service wonders the same thing, What Should Spaceships Look Like?

And today I thought I would watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again.  Kubrick‘s attention to detail in the ship designs he chose is impressive, I know that he hired staff from NASA to help.  There’s an obvious American feel to the space sections.  The machines all look as you would expect an American ship designer to turn out – almost rigidly functional – and there’s no mistaking that this is what spaceships should look like.  It’s almost a cliché.

You can even see a similar design ethos in the early Star Wars films:  clunky, rigid, spacey craft that nevertheless zip around at fantastic speeds.  It’s popularly known that they are a direct riposte to the sleek futurism of the Star Trek universe.

So what should a spaceship look like?

Well anything you like really.  It’s not like there are aerodynamic limitations in space.  There might be limitations based on whatever method of propulsion (rocket ships… need rockets and exhausts, but I think one of the most imaginative that I’ve ever seen is in the film The Fountain (of which I seem to be the only fan).  I’ve attached a pic to show it in its detail – but I think it clearly resembles the amniotic sac surrounding the Star Child at the end of 2001.. and bringing us back to the 60s once again.  Is there no escaping Stanley Kubrick?

The bubble looks a bit the amniotic sac of the Star Child at the end of 2001.

Scotland’s Amazing Comic Book Heroes

It seems that there’s some benefits to house sitting.

  • Nice food left in the fridge.
  • Quality plonk given as thanks.
  • 50″ plasma screen telly…

But really the best bit was stumbling across a short documentary about the influence of Scotland on modern comics.

Artworks Scotland:  Scotland’s Amazing Comic Book Heroes

This is an iplayer link so the program will not be available for long.

It was great.  I was a big fan of 2000Ad when I was a kid (stil am really) and  I’d never connected the dots between Oor Wullie and Judge Dredd.