Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Mth Dimension

Yesterday was a surprisingly enjoyable day. Allegra, ngaio and myself went to Chester to a mini steam meet. A group of like minded people spending the majority of the day just ‘hanging out’. We had tea in a very hot tea room, sat on the grass by a ruined church, and then had a couple of drinks down the pub. We talked about music and clothing and other things I can’t remember directly. I can only assume that this is what ‘a life’ is. We made semi-organised plans for another meet at the end of July to which I’m looking forwards immensely. I’m sure it’s a combination of the right people and being at a point in my psychological development where I can recognise and appreciate that which made the meeting so enjoyable. I have a feeling I met some good friends yesterday.

The only trouble is the distance. The hour’s drive isn’t prohibitive, but it is a bit of a pain. It might not be a problem for much more than the next few months; work is becoming more and more unreasonable, and if things don’t improve I am seriously considering decamping to the Chester area.

There is a man, called Dylan (to pick a name at random). Dylan can do 100 units of work per normal working week. A change in working conditions means he can now only do 65 units of work per normal working week, and the other 35 need to be done outside of the normal week. Each unit takes 0.2 hours to complete, so Dylan is working 7 additional hours. Dylan’s workload is increased to 120 units, and the number of units he can do during his normal week decreases to 35 units. The extra 85 units are now being done outside the normal week, totalling an extra 17 hours of work. Dylan is then forbidden from doing work outside his normal working week.

In a special dimension where managers exist, the extra 85 units of work are done without problems. This is the Mth Dimension, where time, maths and people work to a different set of laws which are inscrutable to us, trapped in the normal four dimensions. Current theories suggest the Mth Dimension is located several miles up someone’s arsehole.

Friday, 29 May 2009

29, and Old Enough to Know Better

The new companion for Doctor Who has been announced (which is probably old news by now). Ms Gillan, I’m sure, is a fine actress. She’s also 21, which bugs me. The new Doctor is 26. That bugs me, too.

It's not because they’re both younger than me. I mean, it is, but that’s selfish. What bugs me more is what this is saying to people who watch the show. Doctor Who is aspirational. We aspire to be the Doctor and we aspire to be his companion. Now, at seven o’clock on Saturday nights, we’re telling children that they should aspire to be young and attractive. We’re telling them that you can be anything you like, just so long as you’ve got fantastic social skills, a pretty face and aren't old enough to know what a mortgage is yet. If you don't have a circle of friends or you're old enough to support yourself, then stop dreaming and get back to serving the pretty people, damn you!

And this is before I start on the writing side of things. Why is it so terrifying to give the Doctor a strong, male companion? A companion who has some meat and is going to give the Doctor as good as he gets? You know, someone who’s going to do that without being ‘feisty’, or ‘rebellious’ or outright childish. Oh, and someone who doesn’t spend the entire series fawning over the Doctor would be nice.

I should know better. It’s only a kids’ show, I know. But... science fiction was supposed to be a safe place. It was a place we could all go away from the young and popular and attractive people who were made us feel fat and unattractive and unpopular. They were supposed to be going to nightclubs and meeting over the park and other things us people with stunted social skills were told made ‘a life’ (remember being told to, ‘get a life’?). Now they’re in our television shows and playing our computer games. And heavens forefend that we say something which offends them! It is the path to playing it safe, the slow trek to mediocrity.

Of course I’m going to be watching the new series. Why on Earth wouldn’t I be?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

A Review I Didn't Mean to Write

Time for some more spitting into the ocean...

(For full disclosure, Evis T's review provides a suitable counter-point to my little rant.)

I wasn’t going to go into details about the new Star Trek film, because there’s a lot of that sort of thing about right now. The more of it I hear, though, the more I keep on hearing the same thing:
“This film is amazing. The only reason not to like it is if you’re a ‘hard core’ trekkie. The sort of geek that normal geeks shun for being too geeky.”

The above statement is a straw man and tries to lump all those ‘against me’ into a single category, which it then denigrates. You know what? I didn’t think it was amazing.

As I said this morning, the characters were brilliant. The acting and the special effects were, almost without exception, fantastic. They threw the canon out the window, and that’s fine. No, honestly, I’m okay with that. TOS canon was always kind of crappy anyway.

So, why wasn’t it amazing?
  1. Lazy writing. In this case, when you just can’t be bothered to come up with a proper explanation for something, and end up saying, ‘sod it, the audience will let me get away with it’. The alternate universe in the movie was created so they could throw canon out the window. The explanation we get in the film is ‘um, yeah... science done it... Look! Here’s Leonard Nimoy!’
  2. The movie is the birth of a cash cow. It’s a precursor to a new franchise, and it doesn’t even have the decency to blush. Get into the story you want to tell with your new characters and new universe, and give us the back story in a few well-written, gutsy flashbacks.
  3. Lazy writing. Kirk needs to be captain of the Enterprise by the end of the film. He’s just graduated from Star Fleet Academy, and should expect to wait eight years before he gets command of a ship. So... look! Almost TOS music with Leonard Nimoy doing the, ‘Space... the final frontier’ speech!
  4. Mr. Spock Snr. Firstly: Oh no! We’ve written ourselves into a corner. What can we do now... hang on, here comes Spock! Look--it’s Leonard Nimoy everyone! (If only I could come up with a phrase for that...) Secondly: his acting isn’t that great in the film. I mean, he’s about seven-hundred-and-sixty (and still younger than Shatner), but still.
  5. They want to milk this cow for all they can get, but they’re going to have to square it with the canon sooner or later. So, every time I sit down to watch the latest udder squirt, I’m going to be thinking, ‘are they going to square it now? Is this going to be it? Are they going to write themselves out of this hole by fixing it now?’ The new franchise should end by the new Enterprise crew having to choose to end their existence, and the existence of their entire time line, in order for the proper time line to exist. That’s the ultimate test of their character, and of course they pass. But that’s not going to happen. Kill the cow? Even when she’s old, lame, cancer-ridden and has only got one working stomach left? No! There’s milk in there yet!

So, there we are. It was a good film, but not amazing. I write sci-fi and I know my flaws. I don’t forgive them in myself, so I find it hard to forgive them in others. I’m not over-whelmed not because I’m a hard core trekkie nerd, but maybe it’s because I’m a hard core sci-fi writer nerd.

So there.

Same Planet, Different Worlds

I came in to work this morning, and the day started on a bad foot: someone had parked in my space. I always park in the space to the left of the lamp post in the first part of the car park, and today I had to park directly in-front of the lamp post. Some bugger in a fancy black... thing that I’d never seen before was there, sitting in my space. It took an amazing effort to put the incident behind me.

Then, when I came in and sat at my desk, I realised that there are actually two offices instead of just the one. There’s the physical office, where people put numbers into spreadsheets, bitch about our on-line systems and indulge on gratuitous sexual harassment (but we all do it to each other, so it’s okay). Then there’s the virtual office which exists in email land. People have blazing rows, emotional heart-to-hearts, fall in love, fall out of love and get pregnant all without disturbing the physical world, save for the space of a moment or the length of a dream.

We’re not allowed to have windows which open because... the power might go to our heads? Chairs become a way for us to express our personality. Tactic wars erupt over staples and bulldog clips. Pot plants replace children.

We’re a strange lot, really.

Saw the new Star Trek film last night. Too much lazy writing for me to really enjoy it, but the characters were fantastic. Who’d of thought I’d like Kirk, even empathise with him? And it was pretty, which always helps.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Not the monkey.

Anyone else remember the dot-com bubble? How it popped and everyone ended up with bubble juice on their faces?

Now the housing market bubble is bursting. Negative equity is being handed out like swine 'flu at Scotland Yard (...because, you know, police, pigs... see what I did there?). Then there was the South Sea Bubble.

I'm reading this article by the Really-Grand-Pointy-Hat Archdruid of the Incredibly Ancient Order of Druids in American who Really are a Real Religion Honest (founded 1980). I'm only about a third of the way through, but he's made the point that when we run out of fossil fuels we're going to have to abandon our motorways and trains. When they're gone, we're going to have to turn back to canals and other 19th century technologies.

Maybe we're in a fossil fuel bubble. Artificially inflated and due to pop soon, with all the normal wailing and gnashing of teeth and bubble juice going everywhere.

Bubbles always pop. It’s in their nature.

I don’t feel so bad about the end of the carbon-eating world now. It’s just another cycle running its course.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Tea, and cake. Twice.

I’ve been trying my best to find a substitute for my beloved coffee.  The decaf is okay, but...

Anyway, the World of Tea is the new hotspot.  Unlike coffee, tea lets you get your fingers dirty.  Buy your own lose-leaf, pick your own, mix-and-match to your heart’s content.  Even just, you know, go out and pick something you like the smell of, chop it up and pour hot water over it.

I’m still in the pre-game training level, playing around with bagged stuff.  Earl Grey, Lady Grey and English Breakfast all left me rather cold.  I tried, but whenever I drank them I kept thinking, ‘what this really needs is some milk and sugar’.  That felt kind of like saying to your new girlfriend, ‘okay, I kind of fancy you, but never let me see you without your make-up’.

I’m not fond of anything which smells like cloves.  I blame that bag of clove sweets I brought last time I was in the Outer Hebrides.

There’s a vanilla chai I’m quite fond of.  It’s made by the London Tea Company, and can be found in Evis’ Amazing Box of Tea.  I’ve tried their green tea, as well as lose-leaf green tea.  It tastes a bit like those sticks of bubblegum you used to get in packets of collectable cards and stickers. 

I thought green tea might go well with mint (peppermint tea is also quite nice, if a little light for me).  I brought a box of Twining’s ‘Light and Delicate’ Green Tea with Mint, mainly because Stephen Fry told me to.  Light and delicate my hiney!  It does the same thing to my mouth that a can of Coke does.  Which is good news in my books.  The mint is a bit over-powering, though, so I may have to buy some lose-leaf green and mint, and try making my own.

I tried nettle tea today.  It made my tongue sting.  And it tasted like nettles.  Jury’s out on that one.

When it stops raining and blowing a gale, I’m going to go out to the mountains and pick some gorse flowers.  They smell like coconut, and will hopefully make a nice brew.  I’d also like to try rose petal tea.  See, the idea is that I end up using stuff straight from the plant, and ideally plants which are growing where I live.

Also, I have a tea ball.  It is awesome.  It’s a little sieve-like ball that I fill with my lose-leaves, and dunk in hot water to infuse their taste.  It’s on a chain.  The chain is going to be enlargened so it can hang from my belt, always to hand.  The tea ball is the humming, charged nucleus of Tea Land.  It is the centre which holds.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Spitting into the Sea

Problem/Solution marketing is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Convince people that there is a problem, and then sell them the solution. The seller then comes out as a hero, a saviour. Religions do it (sell the idea of sin, and then the idea of salvation); Hitler did it (Jews are the problem, he is the solution); Burger King do it (not being able to have a burger your way is the problem... you just, you know, eat something else...)

This MP expenses is a perfect example. Whip up a storm of anger and resentment among the general public, act shocked and repentant, reform the system*. Sell us the problem, and then come along and solve it. We’re all grateful and have a bit of confidence restored in our leaders. Hey, they’re human and, under it all, descent after all, right?

It’s a smoke-screen, a distraction, and everyone’s falling for it like trout at a fish farm. Can’t fix the economy. Won’t stop abusing human rights in the name of security. Dead soldiers still coming home from the foreign countries with no chance to claim victory--can’t or won’t change that.

Am I pissed off about tens of thousands of pounds of tax payers’ money being used to buy televisions and fund property deals? Sure. I’m more pissed off about the millions and billions being used to sustain our nuclear arsenal; I’m more upset by the millions being used to fund wars; I feel more betrayed by the unwillingness to help the oppressed in Africa and the continuing drive to shift our manufacturing base to oppressive factories in China. Global warming, ID cards, billions in national debt that we and our children are going to be paying off our whole lives, CCTV culture and RFID tags, unsustainable population growth, eduction being used to train children for the workforce...

I’m so angry. If I wasn’t so sure of my reasons for voting, I’d skip the European elections in June. And so I join the other insignificant crustaceans in shouting my futile fury in my tiny voice into the vastness of the ocean; another minnow spitting into the sea. Balls to it. Balls to it all.

I’m going down the pub.

Only I don’t drink and it’s half-six in the morning.

I’m going to have a cookie.

Mmmm... cookie.

*Having MP expenses authorised and audited by an external body sounds like a good idea, right? You know, the people who are asking for the money can’t give it out. Thing is, you move it to the private sector, we lose the right to see what’s happening under the Freedom of Information Act. Convenient, eh?

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Hacker... one who hacks

Back in the 1970’s, men were men, women were women, programmers were people like my dad and hackers were wily people who hacked through lines of superfluous code to create a more intelligent, streamlined program.  Then the nineties came.  Men were trying to be women, women were trying to be men, programmers were tossers in Mercs and Beemers and hackers were seven-year-olds who could access the top secret Pentagon files while their parents were failing to use this new-fangled email thing.

Now, men are trying to be men again, women are trying to be men too, programmers are self-proclaimed geeks and hackers are hacking.

I’ve been mooching around the steampunk thing for a while now, and my slippery paws are beginning to find some purchase.

Hacking is becoming increasingly fashionable, and I don’t think it’s wrong to say that it’s a part of steampunk.  A hack (if I’m understanding the term correctly, of course) is when someone takes something, and adapts it to be either more suitable for the task they have for it, more aesthetically pleasing, or both.  Anything, preferably everything, should be hacked.  Like their ancestors, modern hackers are cutting through the overgrowth of superfluous crap pre-manufactured products come replete with to create something more intelligent, streamlined and suited to purpose.

It got me thinking.  One of my beliefs is that the same patterns are repeated throughout the universe.  The pattern of helplessness, immaturity, selfishness, angst, self-realisation, repentance, identity-seeking, education, hunger and satisfaction is one most people’s lives seem to take, for example.  It’s one societies seem to go through, too, as well as ideas, philosophies, movements and, really, any other complex system.  Once completed, it will start again.  Broadly, one can make the pattern work.

Nothing in the universe is, ‘finished’.  Things are constantly changing and growing with the environment they’re part of.  People, planets, music... Why should a product we buy from the shop be considered, ‘finished’?  Why should things manufactured by people be exempt from the natural cycle of change, adaptation and evolution?

I shall be taking out a subscription to Make and preparing to start the cycle of education from the beginning.  I’ll also be learning to sew in earnest.  Clothes are a vital part of our lives and, more than anything, should be mended, modded and hacked.

Steampunk is, partly, a style of hacking.  It’s a preference for styles, materials and aesthetic, and a reason for doing it.

I think.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Bob Dylan and Ghostfire

Dylan has a huge back catalogue. Everyone has albums they always return to, and albums which quietly collect dust. Modern Times, Love and Theft and Time out of Mind (his last three studio albums) have all found a place in fan’s hearts, mine included. Full of twistingly poetic lyrics supported by a tight band, it’s what we expect from Bobby.

Together Through Life
was a bit of a disappointment for me. There are some good tracks, like Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, My Wife’s Home Town and It’s All Good. Bobby’s band plays like guys who have been playing in the same bar with each other every night for the past forty years. Bobby sings to us like we’re sitting by the fire in that same bar and he’s a much a part of the place as the stag’s head on the wall. When it works, it’s nice and cosy. When it doesn’t, though, we’re left with bland lyrics which lack the poetry I worship Bobby for. The songs sound a bit like they were doodled on bar mats in-between conversations which were far more interesting.

Some of the songs will find their way onto a playlist, but numbers like If You Ever Go To Huston, Shake Shake Mamma and This Dream of You will find collect dust with Wriggle Wriggle and, well, pretty much anything from the 80s. But it’s okay, it’s just a blip. This album sort of budded from a song he wrote for the film Life Is Hard, and he’ll get back to writing proper lyrics soon. He’s allowed his indulgences.

And I’m allowed mine. My latest is Ghostfire, a self-styled steampunk band with an utterly horrible MySpace page (LGT to it and it’s a sod to turn the music off, so you may want to mute your speakers). The lyrics are good but not great, but that’s no sin. The rhythm section gives a constant chugging engine and the lead guitar and organ add well-played and sympathetic augmentation. It’s a sound I’m utterly in love with.

I’ve been having a discussion at the Gaslamp Bazaar about what might go into steampunk music. My contention is that it should sound hand-made and by people who understand their instruments and understand that it’s about embracing the dirty innards of the machine making it beautiful. It’s not about sequences and synthesizers and sounding like any other darkwave or electronica band while singing about airships and wearing goggles. Ghostfire sound like people who agree with me. They sound like people who want to explore their instruments and work with them, not hide behind computer-generated sounds and tie themselves to pre-record samples. Music is about performing, not reproducing.

I actually brought Ghostfire’s EP. Best three quid I’ve spent in a very long time. They're playing in Lincoln... That'll be me, front-row-centre, screaming like a twenty-nine year old who should know better but stopped caring some time last year.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Don't sell me the illusion of participation

Driving into work today, I was caught up in a tailback on the A55 because they had closed a lane on either side of the duel carriageway.  In the ten years I’ve lived in North Wales, I’ve never been able to drive along the length of the A55 without coming across closed lanes.  They never seem to do anything, either.  Most of the time, there’s not even anybody working.  They just put the cones out, close the lanes off and cause major headaches for anyone trying to get from A to B.

They were cutting the grass on the hard shoulder today.  I saw two guys with hand strimmers, and a road sweeper. 

If you hadn’t guessed it already, this is going to be a rant.  Barely logical, entirely subjective and--probably--lacking in common sense and reason.

Road works are a major pain in the arse up here.  There’s always some section of the road closed and it’s always for some pointless reason.  There’s a road--one single road--between my village (Bethesda) and the rest of Wales.  It’s the A5.  A while ago, they closed it.  The whole damned road.  Did it need resurfacing?  No, but they did it anyway.  Waste of time and my (my! I’m a taxpayer, damnit!) money.  I wrote to my MP and they told me they were doing it because it needed to be done, whatever I thought about it.

ID cards are being introduced in Manchester today.  Voluntary, of course, but it’s only a matter of time before you need to show your card to get cigarettes, alcohol, rent a flat, buy a mobile phone (terrorists use them, you know)...  The ID card scheme is just another layer of bureaucracy which to tie us up in red tape, another attrition of our personal liberties in the name of security, another tool the government--or whoever it is that’s in charge, because the policies and tactics really don’t seem to change with the governments--to keep us scared of wil o’ the wisps. 

30 years from now, after a generation of children have been brought up to believe ID cards keep us safe, they’ll be turning around to us and demanding to know what we have to hide.  After all, if we had nothing to hide, we wouldn’t object to carrying a card, would we?

Be scared of terrorists.  Be scared of strangers.  Of hoodies.  Of bird ‘flu.  Swine ‘flu.  Slightly bumpy roads.  Long grass.  But don’t worry--we’re here to protect you!

I’m not so naive to believe there’s some great conspiracy to keep us all scared and keep us all under control.  Get ten people in a room together and tell them to open the door, and you’ll see why large-scale, organised conspiracies are simply outside the nature of humanity.  The people in power are so busy running around after their own tails and jumping at their own shadows, they’re just trying to keep us running and jumping so we don’t notice.

Well, I don’t want to play.  I want to bumble through life in my own way.  I’m small and insignificant, and could be killed by terrorists or foreign superbugs or potholes at any time.  I could be killed by slipping in the bath or being struck by falling tree branches.  I could catch an entirely normal, bog-standard, indigenous bug and die.  There’s so many things out there trying to kill me, it’s a wonder I’ve managed 29 years.  It’s a wonder anyone’s managed for the past four-thousand years at all.

I can look both ways before crossing the road and I don’t eat from tins cans which have holes in them.  You don’t need to protect me from ethereal threats of harm and ghosts and shadows. 

Monday, 4 May 2009

The government will know everything about you

Allegra (my SO) and I were driving home from a long, lovely day of Beltine celebrations yesterday, and my mind was wandering:

ME: They should make cars with plug sockets in them. I mean, on a long trip I’d have my sat. nav.--if I had one--plugged into my cigarette light, my mp3 player plugged into my cigarette lighter, my mp3 player charger plugged into my cigarette lighter... I should have little plugs on the dashboard where I can just have them all plugged in.

ALLEGRA: Yeah, but they’re not going to do that. They’d just have a particular spot to plug your iPod in.

ME: Oh, Gods, you’re right. Ford will enter into an unholy alliance with Apple. If you drive a Ford, you’ll need to own an iPod, a Mac, use iTunes... it’s terrifying because it’s true.

But it goes beyond that. When you take your Ford in to be repaired, they’ll ask for your iPod because the car downloads diagnostic info to it. Don’t have an iPod? Sorry sir, can’t service your car.

And it would make so much sense to have your iPod talk to Google Maps and Google Traffic (give it a few months). Of course, you won’t be able to turn off the traffic announcements any more than you can when they come through the damned car radio. And then, of course, your iPod will talk to Twitter. It can automatically upload your location, your speed and what song you’re listening to. You’ll be able to search Twitter for useful info: ‘between junctions 9 and 10 on the M25, the most popular song at the moment is Chris Rea’s, ‘Road to Hell’. Amazon will be listening to Twitter and looking for patterns. ‘People who like this roundabout also liked... Do you want to download these songs?’

It won’t be long before you can run some other random car your stuck behind’s number plate through your magical iPod, find out what song they’re listening to, where their going and how long they’ve been going there, and Tweet insulting messages to them.

The future: combining road rage and flame wars. Coming to a motorway near you soon!

On another note, check out DM of the Rings. It’s wonderful. It’s amazing. It’s hilarious. It's the entire trilogy as a D&D game. There's no room for fail in that equation.