Tuesday, September 29, 2009

stop, little orbo, stop

More on Steorn's magic bean generator aka magic perpetual motion gizmo the Orbo, which I'm sure you'll remember from previous posts. The latest exciting news is that the company are "nearing readiness" to give a product demonstration "by the end of 2009". This is, it turns out, the sort of demonstration done over a live internet video-stream from an unspecified location, so not exactly rigorous peer review. As you read this Q&A with Steorn CEO Sean McCarthy, you should be doing two things, firstly, still trying to work out if he's a well-meaning but self-deluding nitwit or a massively brass-necked con-man, and secondly marvelling at the fact that there is a publication called Free Energy Times. Their puppyish enthusiasm for the patently impossible is quite endearing, but I fear that their high hopes ("I think the latter end of 2009 could prove to be very interesting") are probably going to be dashed.

On the other hand, maybe McCarthy will crank up the Orbo, forget the words to the magic incantation to stop it and it'll eat the universe. And we all thought it'd be the Large Hadron Collider! Oh, the irony.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

hey, piper - shut it!

Here's an entertaining short film aka long advert about Johnnie Walker whisky (the film is also on the main page of their website) starring Robert Carlyle, who never quite lapses into Begbie and starts nutting and stabbing people the way you expect him to. Anyway, a couple of points of interest:
  • The Johnnie Walker label colour hierarchy goes (in ascending order): Red, Black, Green, Gold, Blue. A bottle of bog-standard Red will set you back around £15, while the premium Blue will cost you upwards of £120.
  • Each slanty label is applied at a slanty angle of exactly 24 degrees.
  • I assume this was one long Steadicam shot. If so (and I suppose it's not impossible that some seamless computer-assisted splicing of several takes was done) then it's very clever. The timing alone must have taken some practice; arriving at the barrels at exactly the right moment to point at them, for instance.
  • The closing credits reveal that it was filmed at Inverlochlarig, which is here. It must have been the long track in the bottom left corner that they used, with Carlyle walking from the corner towards the red circle in the middle. Zoom the map out and pan north slightly and you'll see that the site is about four miles due south of the summit of Stob Binnien, which we were (briefly) on during our Scottish trip a couple of weeks ago. On a clear day you can probably see the valley from the top - the day we were there was far from clear, though, sadly.
  • Inverlochlarig is home to this purveyor of yummy-looking venison and lamb products; they also deliver.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Sad news this week as Cockney - if you will, Rockney - music duo Chas and Dave announce that they're splitting up. Yeah, I know, I assumed they had already split up back in about 1985 as well, but apparently not.

Anyway, by way of a tribute I'm drinking a beer that I got out of the sideboard here; I also offer you this link to them performing Rabbit back in 1981, and also this animated GIF which is a visual representation of the brief zoology lesson offered at the end of the song.

never wrestle with a pig - you just get dirty and the pig enjoys it

What's so fascinating about this lengthy YouTube debate is not so much the content (though it has its moments) but the way it illustrates the difficulties in having a meaningful debate between the reality-based community and the religious one. There are those who say that such debates are futile and self-defeating and refuse to get involved: Richard Dawkins to name but one.

Certainly there is a sense in which engaging with people at all legitimises their point of view to some extent - just to offer a reductio ad absurdum if some bloke demanded a televised debate with a celebrated historian, Simon Schama say, because he was convinced that he was Napoleon and wanted to challenge Schama to refute him, he wouldn't get much of a response. Similarly people aren't queueing up to debate the TimeCube guy, massively entertaining though it would undoubtedly be. So by wanting to be seen to be even-handed and not just dismiss things out of hand there's a danger of legitimising the whole pernicious "teach the controversy" thing.

There's another problem, and it's a presentational one, illustrated very well by the protagonists here:
  • Firstly, seasoned YouTube campaigner Thunderf00t, whose channel is full of good and interesting stuff and is well worth a visit. I don't want to make unwarranted assumptions based on nerdy stereotypes, but my guess would be that he is an academic of some sort. And in keeping with those who work in academia, and scientific academia in particular, his appearance is somewhat hairy and dishevelled, and he ums and ahs a lot in response to questions. Now of course this is a good thing, as it shows that he's actually expending some thought, but it's not very showbiz. Nor is his insistence on reiterating the conditional nature of scientific knowledge, the openness to something coming along in the future which forces us to completely re-evaluate the laws by which we think the universe operates, and the absolute acceptability of "I don't know" as an answer to a question.
  • Secondly, evangelical Christian, banana fetishist and certifiable maniac Ray Comfort. Now Ray is a proper old school street-corner evangelical huckster; it is Ray's business to be able to just turn the mouth on and let it run. The absence of any necessity to engage the brain is a positive advantage here - it's like a reflex, brain involvement would just slow the whole thing down. So Ray comes across as very sure of himself, easily able to marshal his arguments - like most evangelical types he's very clean-cut, preppily dressed and well-presented as well.
So one can see how it might be possible for a disinterested observer who knew nothing about the subjects being discussed to conclude: well, the nice smiley man with the moustache seems very sure of himself, while the hairy guy seems a bit stuttering in his responses - and he's all slumped in his chair, look. Also, the moustache guy is appealing to stuff that I think I know about, like common sense, right? While the hairy tramp guy is all supercilious and sciencey, like he's cleverer than me or something.

The terms of the debate, once agreed after some initial wrangling, seemed to include posting the whole thing, uncut, so it's quite long, over an hour. I'm not sure I'd recommend watching it all the way through unless you're really keen (I didn't), but dipping in here and there is quite educational, just to get a flavour of the debate. Thunderf00t's post-debate reflections can be found here.

It's a tricky balancing act and I'm not sure I know what the answer is. I'm inclined to think debating with these fools plays into their hands, and that, just as a close reading of the bible is one of the best methods of provoking a conversion to atheism, just letting these guys blaze away at their own feet by producing things like the banana video probably changes more minds than engaging in debate does.

Friday, September 25, 2009

rucksack hardbacks

As a brief follow-up to the earlier Munro-related stuff, if you are at all interested in bagging a few and not dying in the attempt then it behooves you, in addition to kitting yourself out with some proper walking gear, to do a bit of up-front research about where you're going. This should include getting hold of the relevant 1:25000 Ordnance Survey maps, but it's probably also useful to get some general reference material. Here's a couple of recommendations, both of which I own:
  • Cameron McNeish's The Munros: Scotland's Highest Mountains. This is simultaneously a nice coffee-table book and also a source of nicely-summarised route information for each peak, as well as some recommendations on which ones you can string together into a day out. My advice is to photocopy the relevant pages before you go and take them with you , rather than try and shoehorn a glossy coffee-table book into a rucksack.
  • Irvine Butterfield's The Magic Of The Munros. This is unashamedly just a coffee-table book with some great pictures in it, and none the worse for that.
Both of those are under nine quid on Amazon, which is pretty good. The Scottish Mountaineering Club's Hillwalker's Guide (which Jim brought with him) is worth a look too, though a bit more expensive. For more general Scottish walking stuff, not necessarily Munro-focussed, try McNeish's Scotland's 100 Best Walks, or possibly Wainwright In Scotland.

gawd bless yer, ma'am

Couple of interesting things about the review of William Shawcross's biography of the Queen Mother in the Independent today:
  • Firstly, the reviewer makes the common error of writing the phrase "soft-pedal" as "soft-peddle". Unlike "get shut of" this one is in the Eggcorns database, and the comments make the astute point that this sounds plausible because "peddle" means "sell", and "soft sell" is a phrase in reasonably common use. Whereas the musical derivation of "soft-pedal" is a bit less obvious. But it's right and "soft-peddle" is wrong, so deal with it.
  • Secondly, and more entertainingly, the book provokes Johann Hari into this tremendously vitriolic hatchet job on the Queen Mum, everyone's favourite lovable fishbone-inhaling Nazi grandmother. Then again if the very fact of us having a ROYAL FAMILY, for fuck's sake, in the 21st century doesn't provoke you to pull your own face off in rage and frustration then there may be something wrong with you.

mind you don't get sand in your eye

A few brief notes on the last couple of weekends' activities:
  • The weekend before last saw our annual trip to Swanage for the usual drinking, golf, barbecue and walking adventures. This time our Sunday walk took us over to Sandbanks and thence back round the coast via Studland, Old Harry Rocks and Ballard Down to Swanage.
  • Studland is most famous for a section of the east-facing beach being reserved for naturists. There seems to be a bit of controversy going on at the moment about a possible restriction on the areas through which one can gambol with one's genitalia flapping freely in the breeze - there is even a website campaigning for greater freedom (needless to say most of this is NSFW). Whether the guy who had parked himself at the extreme south end of the nudist zone, literally about 5 feet from the "please put some pants on now" sign, with just a t-shirt on and his exposed genitalia pointing towards the "textile" zone, was executing some sort of nudist activist protest in relation to this or whether he was just a pervert I do not know. Despite having no particular urge to cavort naked in the dunes I am broadly sympathetic to their cause, but I don't think waving your cock at people to make a point (as it were) necessarily helps.
  • Last weekend Hazel and I went to Bruges for a long weekend. I haven't seen In Bruges, as it happens, so all I can say is a) we went to some of the locations in the film and b) it looks like it might be quite amusing.
  • What the world needs now is probably not a list of things to do in Bruges, but I would recommend a visit to the De Halve Maan brewery, where you can go on a brewery tour and then sup a complimentary Brugse Zot afterwards.
Anyway, about these photos: Swanage here, Bruges here. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

my sainted aunt

It occurred to me while I was sitting on the sunny terrace outside the Betjeman Arms at St. Pancras International station last Friday waiting to catch the Eurostar to Brussels (and quaffing an excellent pint of their Betjeman Ale, brewed exclusively for them by Sharp's) that despite the name being dulled by over-familiarity there must actually at one time have been a bloke called St. Pancras. Not a stunningly perspicacious insight, I'll grant you, but it (plus yesterday's Scottish football team list) set me to thinking about other things (places, mainly) that are so familiar you might almost forget they are named after actual people (or, in a lot of cases, actual mythical people). Here's a few:
Just working through the villages in Cornwall named after saints could keep you occupied for days. I think it's a Celtic thing. Maybe there's a travelogue-stylee TV series in it?

help me get shot of my confusion

I was in a meeting earlier (can't tell you what about - top secret) and someone used the phrase "get shut of" with its usual meaning of "get rid of". This always sounds jarring to me, because I say "get shot of" in that context, and I've always arrogantly assumed that that's the correct usage and that "get shut of" is based on a mis-hearing of the phrase.

It occurs to me that I've no basis for that view other than a blithe assumption of my own rightness, though, which is always dangerous. So I had a bit of a search, and there doesn't seem to be anything which gives a plausible derivation for either phrase, still less specifies which one is correct. There's a fragment of an OED definition for "get shut of" and a couple of discussion forum threads, the second of which is from the excellent Eggcorns database; the main site doesn't have an entry for it, though. Many online dictionaries carry both definitions.

A highly unscientific Google test returns 108,000 citations for "get shut of" and 3,440,000 for "get shot of", which would tend to support my version of the phrase as the correct one. Hardly conclusive, though.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

forfar four, east fife five

As so often with BBC4 you drop in just for a second and end up catching something really interesting. Tonight I dropped in just to catch the last five minutes or so of Nicholas Crane's programme about Sir Hugh Munro and his mountain-cataloguing activities - inspiration for countless hillwalkers who've followed in his footsteps, myself included of course. That was followed by the always entertaining Jonathan Meades and his eccentric tour of Scotland, Off-Kilter (you see what he did there). The whole thing seems to be available on YouTube as well - start here.

There are very few people who can hold the attention just by talking at you, occasionally while walking round some deserted location, but Meades is one - you never quite know where he's going with his train of thought, but it's usually somewhere interesting. One of the interesting points he tossed out in passing this evening, while using a tour round some of the lower-division Scottish football grounds as a jumping-off point for musings on various subjects including architecture and Irn Bru, was how many Scottish football teams have names totally unrelated to the communities they represent.

Almost all English league clubs' names are just the place they represent plus some qualifier, be it Rovers, United, City, whatever. A lot of the Scottish ones are not, for some reason. The obvious ones like Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibs aside, here's a selection:

St. JohnstonePerth
St. MirrenPaisley
Queen of the SouthDumfries
Raith RoversKirkcaldy
Ross CountyDingwall
East FifeMethil
Albion RoversCoatbridge

Maybe it's a sort of escapism - being reminded where you're actually from being too depressing?

young girl with eyes like potatoes

Sorry for all the interminably long posts recently, by the way. I'll try and throw in a few quickies to make up for it.

Here's one, for instance. Have you heard the new Madonna single? It's called Celebration, and I was slightly taken aback when I first heard it (at some sort of open-air aerobicsathon in a historic square in the centre of Bruges at the weekend - more on that later), as the chorus appears to go something like:
'cos I'm not farting, yeah
could anybody - genital goo
let's get the Scottish, yeah
'cos everybody wants to party with you
Have a listen - starting at about 45 seconds in if you don't want to sit through the whole thing. The "genital goo" (or possibly "genital glue") bit is particularly vivid. Needless to say these aren't the actual lyrics, more's the pity, which are:
'cos I’m gonna party, yeah
'cos anybody just won’t do
Let’s get this started, yeah
'cos everybody wants to party with you
I've submitted my misheard version to the Kiss This Guy database. They've already got a few Madonna ones, including many versions of the first line of La Isla Bonita, though not the one that goes "last night I wanked off some dago", regrettably.

have I got stews for you

Things I Like On TV This Week (Or Thereabouts)

My former university contemporary Derren Brown is laughing at us. Well, not at me; I know the score. But at you. Well, most of you anyway.

Why? Well, imagine you're an illusionist. How do you gussy up an essentially fairly bog-standard mentalism act into something a bit more appealing to TV schedulers? Because run-of-the-mill card tricks and conjuring a bunch of plastic flowers out of a hat won't cut it any more. Just ask Paul Daniels; he's still bitter about his prime-time show being cancelled 15 years ago.

So what to do? Claim divine inspiration? Probably not a good idea in these increasingly secular times. No, better to plaster a thick veneer of cod-mystical bullshit over the parlour tricks and ramble mysteriously about the "wisdom of crowds", hold cryptic objects up to the camera when trailing your programmes, speak in an odd way and repeat or emphasise certain words in an unnatural manner as if this holds some mysterious significance. Strike just the right note of hollow pseudoscientific significance and the punters will lap it up.

Just to be clear, I'm quite confident Derren Brown himself views what he does as a series of parlour tricks dressed up with a bit of flummery to get the punters in. As he himself says, just to have people wondering if he could really predict the lottery numbers (check out the byline on the Daily Mail article - now that's magic) or work out which gun chamber had a bullet in it by the spooky power of his Zen mind-control techniques is testament to the success of this approach, and very clever it is too. Having a special bonus programme to tweak the credulous public's collective nose a bit more by offering up a deliberately hilariously lame "explanation" of the illusion was a nice touch - short of coming on stage in a pair of clown's shoes and bellowing "it's a magic trick, you fucking cretins!" I don't see what more he could have done. It was worth him making the effort just to see the BBC's apparently unironic piece afterwards:
.....some mathematicians have dismissed his explanation as "complete nonsense".
You think?

Things I Hate On TV This Week

Back in the day, Masterchef was a harmlessly diverting Sunday-evening cookery show with a very simple format: get some non-professional cooks in, get them to cook some grub, and whoever cooked the best grub won. That simple formula, plus Loyd Grossman's extraordinarily mangled vowels ("oh, that is MAAAAARRRvellous", "PAAAAAAARSNIP mash with a RAAAAAAASPBERRY coulis", "DELIIIIIIBBERAYDING and COOOOOOGITAYDING") saw them through ten mildly entertaining years. Plus it gave us the source material for one of Vic & Bob's most glorious moments.

Needless to say when the BBC chose to revive the show a couple of years back the sobersided old formula didn't cut the mustard, oooooohhh no. What we were going to need was something that aped the reality TV formula of The X Factor and Big Brother, since clearly the simple art of cooking food wasn't exciting enough on its own. In addition, it was clearly deemed necessary to get some new presenters in to replace old Loyd who obviously wasn't hip and happening enough.

So, to recap, the old formula was as follows:
  • cook food
  • taste food
  • pick the best food
  • erm, that's it
The new formula appears to be as follows:
  • some cooking
  • a gibbering fat-tongued Aussie twat and a grinning baldy Cockney wanker shouting at the contestants and, slighty oddly, each other, especially in the series of clips they have in every show where they tell each other how important the whole thing is: "THIS is where things REALLY GET SERIOUS", "they've got to REALLY WANT IT NOW", etc., etc. These are always set up the same way, with the two talking heads never in the same shot, but bellowing diagonally across the camera in opposite directions, alternately, as if holding a conversation at a Metallica concert, or from fifty yards apart in a wind tunnel. I like to think of these clips being filmed in a quiet little bistro with just a faint wisp of tasteful piano music wafting though the air, not many customers around, except these two gurning buffoons at a corner table bellowing vein-bulgingly into each other's faces from six inches apart: "it's SO IMPORTANT that my steak is PERFECTLY COOKED", "I REALLY fancy ANOTHER GLASS OF WINE, JOHN", "GET THE BILL, would you, Gregg, I'm going for a REALLY BIG SHIT", and so on.
  • some restaurant-skills bits where they have to work in a kitchen for 24 hours without becoming a nervous wreck or stabbing anyone with a carving knife
  • some mind-rotting bullshit segment where the contestants have to convince Gregg and John of their "passion" for food. What? What? I mean, what? How about if I just sit there not answering any questions at all, but just emitting a high-pitched whining sound and carving I LIKE HAM into my forearm with a Stanley knife? Is that "passionate" enough for you?
So in other words it's mutated from being a straight cookery competition where the only criterion is how good your grub is, to some sort of Chef Factor (as an aside, I have a great idea for a show about omelettes called Eggs Factor) reality TV thing where someone gets the chance to (maybe) go and be a real chef. Which is fine, though less interesting than the original format. There's really no excuse for the presenters, though. Incidentally John Torode appears to have been dropped from the latest incarnation, which is called Masterchef: The Professionals and seems to be for people who are already chefs. And the winner gets to...erm...what? Keep being a chef? Great.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

the last book I read

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

We're in the former United States after some unspecified apocalyptic event. No details beyond a vague flashback reference to "a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions", but whatever it was has cast a pall of ash into the atmosphere that has blocked out the sun and caused the death of just about all plant and animal life except a tiny remnant of the human race scratching out a pitiful doomed existence on the blasted remains of the planet.

Through this desolate landscape trudge an unnamed man and his unnamed son (whose age is never specified, though I would guess around ten). With them they drag a cart containing all their worldly possessions, which comprise a gun with a couple of bullets, a few blankets and whatever food they've managed to scavenge recently. As there's no plant or animal life and everything is still covered in a film of soot this means whatever tinned supplies they can loot from the former homes of those who died in the event or its aftermath, the bleached and dessicated bodies of some of whom still litter the roads and houses.

Desperate times lead to desperate measures, and while there aren't many other people about, some of those who do remain have resorted to the unthinkable to stay alive. There's a brief encounter with a cellar full of people who we assume are being kept alive for food, some of whom have even had limbs amputated, and a gruesome discovery in a wooded clearing of a skewered human infant on a spit over an abandoned campfire.

Then again, what would you do? The available stock of food, fuel, ammunition is so tiny that if you meet another traveller on the road with supplies that you want, taking them from him could be the difference between life and death for you. What then? Do you preserve your lofty moral principles and condemn yourself to a slow lingering death from starvation? Or do you do what needs to be done? And if you do, and you cling to the notion that you are "the good guys", what would you not do to survive? And what will you do when you meet people who will do those things, and more?

There's no miraculous happy ending here, though to be honest it's a good bit more optimistic than I expected. Dad, having been coughing up blood for most of the book, eventually succumbs to whatever respiratory thing has been ailing him (Pneumonia? TB? Radiation sickness?), and the kid is forced to place his trust in some strangers; an unaccustomed thing to be doing after the months on the road.

So, following on from the brief discussion in the previous post, I ask you this: is this science fiction? It's got the post-apocalyptic setting familiar from, say, Stephen King's The Stand (although that was a virus rather than a nuclear conflict and at least left some plant and animal life around), and the thin-veneer-of-civilisation-peeled-back-to-reveal-the-primal-urges thing from Lord of the Flies. It's an unfamiliar world, isn't it? And if we're only saying that it isn't science fiction because McCarthy is in the rank of authors that we arbitrarily deem to be "literary" and therefore above that sort of thing, well, where does that leave us?

Science fiction or not, what it is is extraordinarily powerful writing; all the more so for being (like Strandloper way back in the early days of this blog) pared down to the bare minimum of expressiveness - it's almost entirely made up of short paragraphs, made up in turn of short, matter-of-fact sentences; there are almost no chapter breaks that I can recall. If this book were any more distilled down to its bare bones it would literally disappear off the page in front of your eyes. Despite that, or possibly because of that, it's both unrelentingly gripping and remarkably optimistic, considering the unremitting hopelessness of the setting. It's simultaneously a big story (in that it's about the end of the world) and a small one (in that it's really about the unbreakableness of the human spirit and the bond between parent and child). What I'm basically saying here is that it's sensationally good and you should read it.

Among those august bodies agreeing with my assessment were the committees awarding the 2007 Pulitzer Prize (so you can add this one to this earlier list) and the 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (don't think we've done this one before, so my list goes like this: 1924, 1934 (both), 1948, 1981 #2, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1994, 1996 #1, 2002, 2005, 2006). Also, The Road features at number 1 on this Entertainment Weekly list of the best novels of the past 25 years. A list whose credibility is only slightly dented by having Harry fucking Potter at number 2. Other notable inclusions are the aforementioned Neuromancer at number 26, and other previous books in this series at numbers 13 and 50.

the second last book I read

Virtual Light by William Gibson.

Chevette Washington is a bike messenger in San Francisco. Not motorcycles, you understand, strictly pedal power. After dropping off a delivery in a high-rise block in the city she drifts into a party on the next floor, where she gets hit on aggressively by some fat middle-aged guy. As she leaves she takes, on a whim, the intriguingly-shaped package from his jacket pocket.

Berry Rydell is an ex-cop working for private security firm IntenSecure. After IntenSecure are obliged to "let him go" following an embarrassingly high-profile bungled bust in Los Angeles, he ends up working for the mysterious Lucius Warbaby in San Francisco. Warbaby runs his own more clandestine security operation, and is investigating the gruesome murder of a fat middle-aged guy who "lost" a vital package that he was supposed to have been couriering between certain shadowy organisations.

I'm sure you're keeping up, so it'll be no surprise to you when these two plot strands come together and Rydell finds himself assigned the task of tracking down this bike messenger who was in the building on the night the package went missing and remains unaccounted for. It turns out one of the reasons Chevette remains unaccounted for is that she lives in a bizarre shanty town constructed on the suspension sections of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. We're in a world where the long-anticipated Big One has already happened (cutting off the bridge from through traffic); we're invited to infer that a similar seismic catastrophe (colloquially referred to as Godzilla) has befallen Japan as well. In addition, mutant strains of HIV have killed millions, but the virus is now under control after a particular mutant strain carried by a male prostitute called JD Shapely enabled a vaccine to be created. In the wake of this, and Shapely's subsequent assassination, a bizarre religion has grown up around his memory - well, no more bizarre than any other religion, I suppose, actually.

Anyway, Rydell manages to track Chevette down, but his conscience is troubling him regarding the contents of the package (a pair of "virtual light" sunglasses, which project images straight into the optic nerves), the punishment meted out to the original courier for his failure to deliver, and what might happen to Chevette should he hand her over. So when an opportunity presents itself to do a runner with her and the glasses, he takes it. Needless to say those seeking to recover the glasses are not best pleased and various goons are dispatched to bring them back. Having seen off the first one by giving him a sneaky drug overdose in a can of Coke, Rydell decides he needs to fight back - luckily he has a few contacts who put him in touch with the Republic Of Desire, the mysterious cyber-terrorist group who were responsible for the hacking that resulted in the incident which got Rydell fired from IntenSecure in the first place. It seems the hackers are very interested in the data on the glasses (plans to level and rebuild San Francisco using nano-machines, since you ask, but this is pretty much an irrelevant plot MacGuffin at this point) and might be interested in helping make Rydell and Chevette's problems go away.....

Gibson is the man who made science fiction cool again in the early 1980s as the figurehead of the cyberpunk movement, in particular with his 1984 novel Neuromancer, which you should read almost immediately if you haven't already (you can finish reading this post first, if you like). There was a lot of computer stuff in that (including the coining of the now-hackneyed terms "cyberspace" and "the matrix", as well as one of the most famous opening lines in modern fiction), something there is surprisingly little of in Virtual Light. In fact what this most closely resembles is a futuristic Elmore Leonard novel; Gibson has the same economical way of sketching characters and rendering dialogue.

So is it science fiction? Well, I guess the answer is: it only matters if you imagine that there is a rigid dividing line between science fiction (or what JG Ballard used to prefer to call "speculative fiction") and "proper" fiction. Is Pride And Prejudice science fiction? Well, it depicts events that never happened. OK, let's restrict the definition to events that could never happen, or ones where the surrounding world is unfamiliar to us. Well, what about Doris Lessing? What about Inversions? What about Nineteen Eighty-Four? You see how pointless these distinctions are. What is far more pointy is that this is a highly enjoyable futuristic thriller with some typically sly observations about modern culture and where it might go next, not as revolutionary as Neuromancer - and I'd still recommend reading that one first - but none the worse for that.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

scot the lot

And finally a few random Scotland-related loose ends, in no particular order.
  • The Caledonian Sleeper is a very civilised way to travel - meet up in London, go out for some food and a few drinks, then get on the train, dump your bags in your cosy berth, adjourn to the lounge car (which has proper comfy chairs) for a few more drinks, take some stupid self-timer photos (see right) and then retire to bed ready to wake up as the train pulls into Glasgow Central at about 7:30am the following morning. As always The Man in Seat 61 gives you the skinny.
  • We stayed at Portnellan, which is a couple of miles east of Crianlarich on the A85. A variety of very nice accommodation - we had one of the old farm buildings, but there are some log cabin affairs available up in the woods, and also some McWinnebago motorhomes for hire if you want to move around a bit more.
  • Crianlarich is a major road and rail interchange for north and west Scotland, and has a few handy pubs and restaurants, including the Ben More Lodge where we had some quite decent grub on our last night. My chicken stuffed with haggis was very good anyway.
  • However, if you want shops that will be open at an hour when you might plausibly be wending your drenched and knackered way back after a hard day's Munro-bagging, then Tyndrum is probably a better place to stop. While the Londis in Crianlarich appears to close at 6pm, the fantastic Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum is open until 9pm or later all year round. This Times article reckons it's one of the five best service stations in Britain. Incidentally it's Tyne-drum, not Tin-drum; just so you know.
  • The Clachan Inn in Drymen, a short drive away from the Glengoyne distillery, is claimed to be the oldest pub in Scotland, and is also claimed to have once been run by Rob Roy's sister. Confusingly, it appears to be Drim-men, not Drye-men. Make your minds up!
  • The strange monument that dominates the skyline over Oban and resembles the Colosseum is called McCaig's Tower or McCaig's Folly.
  • Oban is also the setting for the Scottish sections of Alan Warner's powerfully strange novel Morvern Callar (later filmed with Samantha Morton in the title role); it's very obvious from the descriptions (of the folly, for instance) where it's meant to be, though I don't think it's ever explicitly named during the novel. It's been a long time since I read it, though.

he drinks a whisky drink

Let's do the whisky stuff next. I got back from Scotland with three bottles of whisky - all of which, rather miraculously, survived being in my luggage and thrown around on a seven-hour train journey from Glasgow Central to Newport via Crewe.

Each of these was bought in the distillery at which it was made - in the case of Oban this was just a visit to the distillery shop as the tours were fully booked, but at Glengoyne, which has the enlightened policy of not requiring bookings for parties of less than ten, we did the full tour. In fact we did the full "Tasting Tour" which not only gets you a look round the distillery but also samples of all four of their "standard" whisky bottlings (the 10-year-old, the cask strength 12-year-old, the 17-year-old and the 21-year-old). There is also, amusingly, a "Wee Tasting Tour" which isn't what you might think but is in fact just a reduced-alcohol-consumption version of the Tasting Tour (i.e. you only get two to try).

Anyway, I was so impressed with Glengoyne I bought two bottles - the standard 10yo at £26 and the 17yo at £49, which is comfortably the most I've ever spent on a bottle of whisky (actually I got a £3 off voucher with the tour so it was "only" £46). The Oban 14yo pictured is their standard bottling. The distillery is tucked away in the town centre and is very small, which means the volume they can produce is quite limited. They've made the best of it and tried to make this exclusivity a selling point, though - needless to say one of the ways they do this is by making the whisky quite expensive for a standard bottling at £34. But, what the heck, I bought one anyway.

Here's an idiot's guide to what they're like, just in case you fancy one:
  • The Glengoyne 10yo is very pale and light. Glengoyne make a selling point of using no peat to dry their malted barley, so it's all very smooth. Not unlike Glenmorangie in some ways, but tending more to the grassy and citrusy where Glenmorangie is a bit more vanilla custardy.
  • The Glengoyne 17yo is a fair bit darker (though still not as dark as the Oban, as you can see from the photo). Glengoyne mature their whisky in sherry casks so you get the usual fruity sweetness as you do in, say, Macallan, but a bit of darker woodiness as well. This is really, REALLY good stuff.
  • Oban's location on the west coast puts it between the Highlands and Islay and sure enough it's got a bit of Highland mellow cakiness but also some Islay peat smoke. It's very dark, and it's got an almost rubbery, licoricey element to it, which sounds disgusting, but isn't. Oban is also one of the 14 "Classic Malts", which sounds very grand, but is in fact some slippery marketing-ese that just means it's one of the 14 distilleries owned by Diageo, who also own all manner of blenders like Johnnie Walker, J&B and Bell's and presumably just slapped a copyright on the phrase "Classic Malts", the cheeky bastards.

munros by any other name

A more general post about our trip to Scotland to follow later with links'n'stuff, as well as some ramblings about whisky-sampling activities. In the meantime here's a link to some photographs.

One of the principal aims of the trip was to do some walking and bag a few Munros in the process. We managed to do four, bringing my personal total to ten, which I list here as much to ensure I don't forget which ones they are as anything else. They're in very rough chronological order of the date I climbed them (or first climbed them in the case of Ben Nevis, which is the only one I've done more than once). Feel free to refer to this marked-up Google map and/or this numbered list (ordered by height) for reference.
  • Ben Nevis. The highest mountain in the British Isles at 4406 feet (1343 metres). Obviously you've got to do this one, and I think I've been up here three times, most recently on the Three Peaks Challenge in July 2006 (as pictured). Things to note include it being easily reached from Fort William, one of the most "honest" Munro ascents since you start from nearly at sea level, and one of the few Munros on which it's likely that you'll meet a lot of people, especially if you go up by the normal zig-zag "tourist" path up the western face of the mountain. The best route (though significantly longer and tougher) is to start from the same place but go round and approach along the ridge which approaches from the "back" (i.e. the east) - spectacular views and also the opportunity to bag another Munro on the way round. And that Munro is....
  • Carn Mor Dearg. This is just the highest point of the aforementioned ridge. Well, I say "just", but it's 4003 feet high (1220 metres), so it's no picnic. The arĂȘte connecting it to Ben Nevis is pretty spectacular, too.
  • Ben Lomond (3196 feet, 974 metres). The most southerly Munro, and easily reachable as a day trip from Glasgow. Not too demanding a climb; my only specific recollection of doing it (which would have been in about 1999) was that it was a glorious sunny day, which stick in the mind when Munro-bagging as you don't get too many of them.
  • Cairn Gorm (4081 feet, 1245 metres). I think we missed the proper path when climbing this one, and ended up slogging through the ski-lift workings which scar the hillside, which wasn't particularly pleasant. Once we'd negotiated that, the summit is a pleasant rocky dome with views and paths across to most of the other big Cairngorm peaks, including....
  • Ben Macdui (4296 feet, 1309 metres). The second-highest peak in the British Isles, and apparently once believed to be the highest. It's big, anyway.
  • Sgurr nan Gillean (3162 feet, 964 metres). This is the top point on the Black Cuillin on Skye, and a jagged and scary beast it is too - a very different proposition from the enormous domes of the Cairngorms. The Wikipedia article alludes to "exposed scrambling" to a summit which is a "small and airy platform" and they do not exaggerate. I'm pretty good with heights and scrambling but I was mildly alarmed by the whole experience. No trig point on this one, because there isn't enough room. I had originally intended to traverse the Cuillin ridge to do the other two Munros on it as well, but as I couldn't see a way down onto the ridge that didn't involve dying in a jaggedly messy and painful way I decided to head back down the way I'd come up and head back into Sligachan for a pint and a change of pants.
  • Ben More (3852 feet, 1174 metres). This was the first of last week's Munros, and was pleasingly reachable on foot from where we were staying. The 16th highest peak in Britain, also apparently the highest peak south of the Tay - to put it another way, there's nothing south of it in Britain that's higher, if that makes sense. Unrelentingly steep climb, and pathless for the first half of the ascent until a path miraculously appears to take you to the summit, which has a trig point, which is nice.
  • Stob Binnien (3822 feet, 1165 metres). Directly south of Ben More and linked by a ridge path to it.
  • Ben Lui (3707 feet, 1130 metres). Reached from a car park in Glen Lochy via a set of stepping stones across a stream - well, at least it should be, but with all the rain the stream had turned into something of a torrent by the time we got there and there were no stepping stones to be seen. So we had to slog upstream for a mile or so to find a footbridge, climb over the padlocked gate and the various signs warning of dire punishments and fines for trespassing, hop over the Crianlarich to Oban railway line and then slog through some pathless pine forest to get to where we wanted to start from, which was a bit of a pain. OK after that though - another fairly steep and pathless ascent to a narrow-ish summit ledge with a cairn. Then a quick drop down to a short ridge path to....
  • Beinn a'Chleibh (3005 feet, 916 metres). A nice easy one to finish with. The only difficulty was negotiating the flooded ford back down where we'd started, which we did by the simple method of just plunging in and wading across, and then taking our boots off back at the car to empty the water and frogs and trout out of them.
After the recent downgrading of Sgurr nan Ceanniachean this means that I've got just the 273 left to do. I have no expectation of ever doing them all, incidentally, but there are lots more within easy reach, so I reckon I can get the list expanded a bit before I'm too decrepit to bag any more.

Monday, September 14, 2009

the last book I read

Winterwood by Patrick McCabe.

Redmond Hatch is a journalist. He's also an Irishman, hailing from the (presumably fictional) settlement of Slievenageeha in the mountains of mid-Ireland. As the book opens in 1981 he's back in Slievenageeha interviewing geriatric fiddle-player Ned Strange for a magazine feature.

Later Redmond relocates to London with wife Catherine and daughter Imogen, and reads in an Irish paper that Ned Strange has hanged himself in prison after allegations of the abuse and murder of a young boy. This prompts further recollections of their earlier conversations, including the suggestion that Strange murdered his own wife some years before on suspicion of some infidelity, possibly real, possibly imagined. Or maybe he never had a wife and made the whole thing up? Or maybe there's something a bit stranger going on, especially as Redmond's life seems to be echoing certain aspects of Ned's; by this time Catherine has left him, he's drinking too much, working a succession of menial jobs and under a court-imposed ban on visiting Catherine or Imogen after some ill-advised stalking activity.

Then things get more strange: are we to believe the story of Redmond's subsequent turning around of his life, lucrative job in television and marriage to the high-flying Casey? And why has he changed his name to Dominic Tiernan? And what of the allusions to having drugged and abducted his daughter Imogen before this sudden change of fortune?

Later still Redmond is back on his own, working as a taxi driver in Dublin, and, as "Auld Pappie", the genial elder statesman of the cab firm, more like Ned Strange than ever. He reminisces about his childhood in Ireland, and his father's brother, Uncle Florian, another red-haired rural Irishman, and the strange requests Uncle Florian used to make of him while they were out on their country rambles together. He has a chance encounter with Catherine and takes the opportunity of spiriting her away to the magical kingdom of "winterwood" - the same place he took Imogen.

So what are we to make of all this? Ned Strange, Redmond and Uncle Florian seem to be three aspects of the same person - are we to believe they are all real? Has Redmond really murdered and concealed the bodies of his estranged wife and daughter? Was any of the bit about marriage to Casey and the job at RTE true? And what of the strange ending where it's revealed that at least some of the later events were not only made up but also seemingly narrated from beyond the grave?

Search me, frankly. Perhaps the blurred boundaries between the multiple characters are intended to be an echo of Irish shape-shifting legends like the Children of Lir? Certainly there's a general theme of revealing the darkness and desperation behind the lovable old Irish drunken stereotype - the misty soft-focus Guinness advert Ireland where pretty red-haired colleens cycle down country lanes past strapping muddied young men with hurling sticks over their shoulders to a murky pub where some bearded fiddler saws away while the landlord leads a white horse out of the back room. But what of the toothless old guy in his regular seat in the corner? He's in every day, chasing down his pints with the occasional whiskey, always a smile for the young ladies, a wealth of yarns about the old country, and how old Willie O'Flaherty once punched a cow to death after a three-day drinking marathon. What's his story? Chances are it may not be as jolly as you'd think.

Winterwood won the Irish Novel of the Year award in 2007. And while I'm loath to question their judgment on the matter, or indeed Irvine Welsh's interesting (and complimentary) Guardian review, I have to confess to being left slightly cold by it. The evocation of rural Ireland is well done, but if it's unclear which of the events described is real, or even whether the narrator is real, it's a little difficult to care about what happens. Not that I'm averse to some occasional healthy bafflement, as it's probably good for you, and I'd hate for you to think that I'm turning into some red-faced old buffer in Tunbridge Wells who demands PROPER BLOODY STORIES that tell you WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON, as nothing could be further from the truth. Honest.

Friday, September 04, 2009

status: hiatus

I'm off to Scotland for a week, so no blog posts till I get back. Try and behave yourselves, won't you? Here's something to stare vacantly at in the meantime.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

take me home, country roads

My mention of the M50 in the Go Ape! post leads me to the ridiculously comprehensive road information websites CBRD and SABRE, both of which have interesting things to say about junction 3 of the M50 (otherwise known, slightly more grandly, as the Linton Interchange), where we got off to head for Parkend. SABRE calls it "arguably the lowest-standard motorway junction in England" and CBRD includes it in its collection of Bad Junctions. Sure enough it is pretty hair-raising, particularly to the uninitiated - heading west as we were you get a shortish deceleration lane before a 90-degree bend through a gap in the hedge and then another 90-degree bend almost immediately. Judicious use of the handbrake may be required at this point. It'd be a death trap if the M50 wasn't one of the quietest motorways in Britain (junction 1 which we also negotiated on Monday isn't a lot better). It's all a legacy of the M50 being one of the oldest motorways in Britain - it was mostly finished in 1960.

View Larger Map

My nomination for the Bad Junctions page is a bit more controversial, but as I have to negotiate it every morning I think I'm qualified to complain about it. It's the south-western corner of the Almondsbury Interchange. Now of course the Almondsbury Interchange is a poster-child for good junction design, and I have no argument with that in principle. The trouble is the purity of the junction itself (J20 of the M4, junction 15 of the M5) is ruined by having junction 16 of the M5 only a couple of hundred yards away. So if, for instance, you're coming off the eastbound M4 (as I am every morning) and want to get off at junction 16 for the business parks at Aztec West and Almondsbury, you have to cut across all the traffic coming off the westbound M4 and wanting to get onto the southbound M5. Similarly if you're coming off the northbound M5 to get onto the westbound M4 you're in conflict with the traffic coming on at junction 16 and wanting to immediately either get on the northbound M5 or the eastbound M4. This conflict between entering and exiting traffic at adjacent junctions is called "weaving" and is generally considered a Bad Thing. I have no suggestions as to how J16 could be improved, just pointless griping. I hope that's clear.

our survey said: map map

You'll all be aware of my enthusiasm for maps in general. Here's another interesting resource - well, interesting to me, anyway - an interactive map of Britain of a similar type to Google Maps or Multimap, but using old Ordnance Survey maps from the 1940s (which are now out of copyright and hence in the public domain). So we're pre-motorways and pre-Beeching, and therefore the landscape looks quite different.

It doesn't quite have the rich functionality of the other two sites (mouse-dragging of maps and mouse-wheel zooming are handy features, for instance) but it's fascinating nonetheless. You can also contribute to the project by finding your place of residence and providing your postcode, thereby enabling future visitors to search for locations by postcode. If you happen to know mine you should now be able to go straight to it. Here's central Newport to get you started.

While we're on the subject of maps, if you do want current OS maps (and who doesn't?) then I recommend Dash4It, who not only seem to have a constant 30% off offer on the go, but also offer free postage. Bargain.

warning: may contain damp hessian and clock parts

Just to prove the point, here's my Go Ape! certificate of course completion. Notice how it's signed by the Chief Gorilla. Not just any old rank-and-file gorilla, the chief one.

We were originally planning to have a bit of pre-activity lunch in Parkend, where we stopped off on our Forest of Dean cycling trip last May, but there seemed to be some sort of carnival going on, so we bailed out and ended up in The Rising Sun at Moseley Green, which is very nice and only a stone's throw from the Go Ape! site at Mallards Pike Lake.

While toying with the remnants of my cod and chips in the pub garden I got to reading the back of a sachet of mayonnaise, as you do, and it struck me that this particular one carried the biggest and most wide-ranging food disclaimer I'd ever seen. I've captured it below, as well as a self-made version which says essentially the same thing but in slightly different words. See if you can tell which is which.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

wild? i was absolutely livid

You can't just sit around in the pub on a Bank Holiday Monday, can you? Well, obviously you can, if you want to, and good luck to you. But as we were over near the M50 corridor on Monday lunchtime we decided that we should indulge in some outdoor activity in the way back to Newport. And what better way than by visiting Go Ape! in the Forest of Dean?

For the uninitiated, Go Ape! is a high-wire-based forest adventure site (well, sites, there are 20-odd of them) where you clamber, swing, plummet, etc. through the forest canopy over a series of obstacles (and via a series of tree platforms). Their home page has some embedded video, but more clips can be found here, including one of a trip down the UK's longest zip wire in Aberfoyle in Scotland, which looks pretty awesome. All perfectly safe as you are harnessed and karabinered on at all times (well, at least, you are if you're following the instructions in the safety briefing you got at the start).

I hadn't been down a zip wire since I was about 11, but they're pretty easy, especially as you can feel the tension in the wire before you step off the platform - that's me in the picture executing a textbook high speed sliding two-heels-one-buttock landing at the bottom of one of them. The swing into the big cargo net requires slightly more bottle as you do get a second or so of free fall before the wire goes taut and you twang face first into the net. I recommend the whole experience highly to anyone who doesn't instantly get the screaming abdabs with heights; if you do it's probably best avoided. There's always the pub.

Anyway, you can take your camera with you, as long as you attach it round your neck with a lanyard with a safety release thingy so you won't get strangled if it catches on something. Photos can be found here, if you want them.

the bill, please

We went to see Bill Bailey at the Bristol Hippodrome last Thursday - Tony organised the tickets, despite having his fingers burned by the last trip he organised not exactly being deemed a universal success.

That was a trip to see Steve Coogan at the Colston Hall (also in Bristol) back in October 2008. I think the reasons for the slight general disgruntlement of the group with the quality of the show were twofold:
  • firstly, while I'm a big fan of his work, I don't think the sort of acutely observed character-based comedy Coogan does comes over that well on stage, where what works best are big visual things and obvious punchlines.
  • secondly, he did seem to be phoning it in slightly - I'm not sure if it was getting towards the end of the tour or something, but I got the impression he was more interested in the usual Cooganesque post-gig pursuits (if the tabloids are to be believed) like champagne, caviar and snorting cocaine off a prostitute's inner thighs, and was therefore keen to fulfil his obligation to actually perform on stage in as speedy and perfunctory a manner as possible.
Anyway, no such worries with the Bill Bailey gig, which was excellent; the usual mix of orthodox stand-up stuff (i.e. yer actual jokes) with lots of musical bits. As well as the obligatory Kraftwerk parodies there was some entertaining mucking about with some exotic musical instruments, including:
  • a theremin - you'll recognise the sound from its obligatory appearance in the soundtrack of most 1950s sci-fi films (Forbidden Planet, for one), as well as from Led Zeppelin's 1970s stage show. If you want one of these it'll set you back the sterling equivalent of about $400, so maybe £250 or so.
  • an oud, which is a sort of fretless lute - looks like you can pick up one of these for a couple of hundred quid.
  • a Tenori-on, which is a fascinating bit of electronic kit from those inscrutable Japanese fellows - this Independent article has a couple of embedded videos which give you the general idea. These are like gold dust at the moment, but if you don't mind waiting you can probably expect to pay around £800 for one.
While we're on the subject of music, here's an interesting use of YouTube - In B flat is a kind of build-your-own-music facility. Have a go, cue in the various videos periodically, mix them together; it's quite cool. At least, as long as the kind of music you want to build is of the noodly ambient mantra type, which admittedly won't suit every mood, but will be perfect for those more contemplative moments. I mean, dude, have you ever really LOOKED at your HANDS? Whooooooaaa. Mine are, like, HUUUUUUGE.