Peter Watts came up with the presentation on the biology of vampires I mentioned a while back. He’s finally published two of his novels, Starfish and Maelstrom, on the web. You can download PDFs of them on his site.

The books tell the story of some physically and chemically modified deep sea divers, working on a powerstation built on a geothermal vent in the deep ocean, who find something unexpected down there (and no, it’s not aliens :-). The books have been described as dystopian, but I didn’t find them particularly depressing, possibly because I was enjoying the ideas so much. Watts’s characterisation is better than that of certain other writers with great ideas, though, with people who are believable, if not always very pleasant.

The other night at bluap‘s, I was muttering at somebody about parasites which alter a host’s behaviour to benefit the parasite, and mentioned that I’d read on Watts’s site that a parasite which affects rats and cats also affects humans, making women more friendly and less choosy sexually, and making men cantankerous and unkempt. I couldn’t remember the name of the beast, but it turns out that the organism in question is toxoplasma gondii, which is a parasite endemic in cats. According to the Times, it has the effects in humans I remembered. I think I was making slightly ranty comparisons to the unequally yoked doctrine of evangelical Christianity at the time, as that was where the conversation had started. Unlike Unequally Yoked, it’s not clear whether toxoplasma does benefit from modifying human sexual behaviour, or whether that’s a side-effect of the lack of caution it induces in the brains of the other mammals which host it. Still, it’s fascinating stuff, and the sort of thing which Watts explores in his books.

ladysisyphus wins at the Internet (contains spoilers for the latest Harry Potter book, sort of). Apparently The Wasteland is one of the most parodied poems in English literature.

scribb1e graduated on Saturday, and now has degrees in medicine and surgery. Cambridge’s graduation ceremony is marvelous pantomime: largely in Latin, with doffing of caps and each group of graduands in turn holding on to the finger of the person presenting them to be graduated. Mercifully, there are no speeches telling you how to be a good citizen or giving advice on wearing sunscreen (personally, I favour this version). The college Praelector did a good bit at lunch about how the Proctors used to be able to arrest young ladies caught about town with undergraduates and sentence them to a few weeks labour in the spinning house (mind you, if Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is anything to go by, being a Person of Quality meant you could get away with whatever you liked), but it wasn’t clear that we were supposed to draw from this example.

Speaking of things medical, I ran across the blog of Magnificent Bastard the other day, and liked it enough to read back through the archives. He’s funny, occasionally cynical, and writes about life and religion as well as the usual funny doctor stories.

ObPotter

This post doesn’t contain spoilers, and I’ll warn if I link to one which does.

scribb1e bought the new Harry Potter book, and I read it after she’d finished with it. I didn’t particularly enjoy the last one, which I thought was very long and which we both thought was confusing in places (I couldn’t honestly say I felt I could imagine what the interior of the Ministry of Magic was like, for example). I did like this one. I’m still not quite sure what the fuss is about, but it was enjoyable, well written and more coherent than the last book.

I’d already been spoiled for the book’s biggest surprise by the countless trolls on LJ with their marvelous flashing icons. It’s my own fault for reading Encyclopedia Dramatica (WARNING: Not Safe For Anything), I suppose: I’m a sucker for sarcastic toilet humour. I liked the mock spoilers broin posted in andrewducker‘s journal.

Apparently, some of the people who’ve been writing fanfiction about which characters will get it on have been disappointed. kenboy gives the fanficcers some helpful suggestions (contains spoilers). The people over at Fandom Wank have helpfully collated the very best of Half Blood Prince drama (even more spoilers). It’s all good.

Update: mistful posts some thoughtful comments (spoilerific) on the book.

The Precise Nature of the Catastrophe

Moral reforms and deteriorations are moved by large forces, and they are mostly caused by reactions from the habits of a preceding period. Backwards and forwards swings the great pendulum, and its alternations are not determined by a few distinguished folk clinging to the end of it. — Sir Charles Petrie, The Victorians

This weekend, I’ve watched Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and skimmed through Melanie Phillips‘s All Must Have Prizes.

Gosford Park is an entertaining comedy/murder mystery set in an English country house, with a cast of just about every British actor you’ve ever heard of. The film is set in the 1930s, when the country houses in England had already begun their decline, and is interesting for its accurate portrayal of the relations between the servant and landed classes at the time. It’s a little long, but is gorgeously filmed. Recommended.

The title of All Must Have Prizes comes from the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who, after a nonsensical running race in which the participants stopped and started as they pleased, declared that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.

Phillips’s burden is the decline of the educational system in the UK, which she places in the context of a wider moral decline. Phillips herself is quite a character. During her career as a journalist and columnist, she’s made the transition from newspapers traditionally associated with the political left to the Daily Mail, a nasty right-wing tabloid. But fear not, for the book was first published in 1996, before this transition, and, on the subject of the decline in educational standards, she’s right.

What strikes me as odd is that employers and university teachers (or indeed, anyone who has looked at old O-level papers) know that GCSEs and A-levels have been reducing their content for years, and yet apparently nobody is allowed to say so because it would devalue the work put in by the children taking the exams. Unfortunately, the time spent on work isn’t necessarily proportional to how much a child learns, especially with the amount of make-work kids are given (things like project work, making posters, and often coursework fall into that category).

Phillips places the blame for this on a politicised educational establishment in the Department of Education and in teacher training colleges, who are more interested in making ideological points than in preparing children for work or university. As the title of the book suggests, she believes that their main errors are to insist that children should direct their own learning, that they should not be given work which they may see as hard or boring, and most of all, that they should never be allowed to think they have failed at anything. This leads to everyone being equally mediocre, like in that Kurt Vonnegut story.

But Mom broke up with Brad; she didn’t like craftsmen, she said, because they were too much like actual Victorians, always spouting all kinds of crap about how one thing was better than another thing, which eventually lead, she explained, to the belief that some people were better than others. — Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.

The later, and more controversial, chapters of the book link the decline in educational standards to a wider decline, characterised by an emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities and a lack of respect for authority. Phillips is especially concerned with the decline in conventional family life: while she does not make the mistake of saying that parental divorce always leads to delinquent children, she does argue that it makes such delinquency more likely. Phillips thinks of herself as a left-wing liberal, and pins the blame for shirking of responsibility on Margaret Thatcher’s “me generation”, pointing out that the name “Conservative Party” is a misnomer for an administration which was in fact dedicated to making sweeping changes.

It’s here that I part company with Phillips to some extent. She seems to have moved further to the right these days: on her website, she makes it clear that, for example, she does not approve of the Government’s moves to allow civil partnerships for homosexuals, despite the fact that people who wish to form such partnerships presumably wish to express commitment and responsibility, two of the things which she sees as lacking in modern Britain. Similarly, she laments the decline of the Church of England but doesn’t quite have to the courage to say that she supports religion as a source of social cohesion: if not, then why lament its decline? Phillips teeters on the edge of the faith-based community, somewhat worryingly for her readers in the reality-based one.

On her wider point, though, I find myself agreeing with her. As I’ve said before, people without a culture which makes value judgements are mightily screwed. The current backlash against chavs and suchlike is a reflection of a wider culture which is running out of patience (oddly enough, this entry from epsilon_moo appeared while I was composing mine). Almost everyone on my friends-of-friends list who lives in London appears to have been mugged or burgled at least once. Meanwhile the Government invests in the white elephant of identity cards (Phillips’s prediction that without corrective action we risk tribalism or facism seems quite prescient for 1996) and promises to make more laws which will not be enforced.

In many ways we are better off than we were in the days of Gosford Park, when the rich few lived like, well, gentry, and the lower classes were humble and Knew Their Place, and I know that Greek or Roman bloke also said that the youth of his day had no respect, but these days, talk of Stephenson’s phyles and burbclaves is also looking prescient (the Londoner I know who hasn’t been burgled lives behind a gate and a security guard). So, are we doomed?

A Ship With A View

The Lakes were lovely. We had excellent weather, and the scenery was beautiful. S and I took many, many photographs. We walked up Cat Bells, went to the Sellafield Visitors Centre (which, disappointingly, does not sell fluorescent T-shirts saying “I’ve been to Sellafield”), went on a boat trip, and also managed to do a bit of reading in the evenings.

At Brantwood, John Ruskin’s former home, we happened across a performance of The Tempest by Illyria, who were excellent: a company of 5 actors, a simple set and a rollicking performance, in the best tradition of traveling players (being a Pratchett geek, I thought of Vitoller’s Men in Wyrd Sisters).

We also happened across a “3 for £10” deal on SF classics in a bookshop, so I bought Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowiz. I’ve read Canticle, so that’s gone to S. The Forever War‘s grinding tale of the pointlessness of war came to mind when I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 on Sunday night. My favourite was The Left Hand of Darkness, though, for the evocative and touching description of an alien society. Recommended.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was biased and polemical and relied too much on pathos (or do I mean bathos?), but was quite terrifying for all that. I hope lots of Americans are watching it.

Long View

I recently finished reading Jill Paton Walsh’s Lapsing. The book follows Tessa, a young Catholic woman, through 50’s Oxford. With a title like that, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the she loses her faith eventually. What I liked about this book was how well it evoked the strangeness of growing up, and particularly, the dissociation of losing one’s faith.

<lj-cut text=”The colours change”>

Though any photographer knows how the light changes all the live-long day, how various it is under every passing cloud, in every different climate, latitude, season, hour, for most people the medium of seeing is invisible – a constant white. We can hardly believe that the fabric samples, carefully matched under the lamplight, can so treacherously clash by daylight. “The colours change”, we say. Just so, for the most part, we treat our own consciousness, by whose flickering light we view the world, as an invisible medium seeing: its quirks and tints, and shadows, and changes of hue simply projected as changes in the world outside. Eagerly and hungrily viewing the whole world, the young particularly treat themselves as the invisible constant – though retrospective understanding will later illuminate every one of their friends, enemies, companions – it will always be hardest to find for themselves. Whatever thoughts and actions seem most entirely natural will occasion the most astonished incomprehension later; later everyone’s behaviour will seem explicable except one’s own; and thinking back across the years, Tessa will, of course, be able to see clearly everyone in the circle except herself.



The person I was is out there for all to see, but though I know in abstract what drives evangelicals as a group, my own inner life from that time is alien to me. There are occasional echoes brought on by a song or a sunny day, but I don’t know why I thought what I thought or felt what I felt.

The book’s characters are well described, for all the brevity of some of the cameo roles (which perhaps reflects the rush of Oxbridge life and the protagonists’ own self-involvement). The portrayal of religion is realistic and sympathetic, although the feeling of a lapser is well described too. Catholics named Theresa might enjoy the book 🙂

Just Passing Through

I’m trying out Xjournal, a rather nifty LJ client for Mac OS X. It’s all very pretty. Club 977 is an 80s Internet radio station, by the way. Pure cheese, all day long. Fantastic.

I had a brief stay in Edinburgh, for a wedding, last weekend. I took a few photographs of the place. Edinburgh is full of impressive architecture. Describing it as “pretty” doesn’t really do it justice, as that seems a little twee, which it isn’t.

That was the first of a run of weddings this year. It was a good start, with a ceidlidh afterwards (at which my theory that Karl Sandeman plays all ceidlidhs, ever, was disproved). S asked them to play a slow waltz. We ended up having the floor to ourselves and getting compliments on our dancing. I don’t imagine that’ll happen at the big ballroom dancing wedding in a couple of weeks.

Leonard of Crummy.com, boyfriend to sumanah, has the answer to why prayers sometimes go unanswered. Now you know where you’ve been going wrong.

I recently finished Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, a historical novel set in the late 1600s. It’s a bit of a departure for Stephenson, who usually does cyberpunk, but it’s still got his usual style and frenetic set-piece scenes. The Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, familiar from Cryptonomicon, turn up as a friend to Isaac Newton and as a Vagabond, respectively. I found it hard to keep track of just who was related to whom in the noble families mentioned, before deciding that it was better to just give up and enjoy the ride. The name dropping and anachronisms jar occasionally, but all in all, it’s well worth a read. Stephenson has avoided his usual problem of weak endings by making this the first book of a trilogy, so the ending is not the ending at all.

I’m thinking of getting a new phone, which will of course incorporate Bluetooth technology. Currently it’s a toss-up between the Nokia 6600 and the Sony Ericsson T610. Anyone got any experience of either of those? I’d like one with a decent organiser that I can sync with iCal, as I want something which will go beep at me when I’m about to miss important appointments.

I had an enjoyable weekend. Had dancing and college friends over for a barbeque on Sunday. PaulB turns out to be quite paternal :-). There was an unexpected after-party when some more people arrived just as I’d cleared everything away. We watched Phone Booth, which was suspenseful, short, and, as Salamander pointed out, quite arty for a big release film.

<lj-cut text=”A Fire Upon the Deep”> I finished Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep this week. Vinge is famous for his treatment of the Singularity. He copes with the narrative problem of having inscrutable post-Singularity gods around by positing that the galaxy is split up into concentric zones, with godhood only possible in the outer layers. The book gets rave reviews on SF sites, so it was probably impossible for it to live up to the hype. Like another reviewer out there, I found the manipulation of supposedly sophisticated humans by primitive aliens a bit unrealistic. Nevertheless, it’s worth reading for the ideas. Some similarities between this and Iain M. Bank’s Excession, although I’d say Excession was harder to read.

<lj-cut text=”A History of God”> I also finished Karen Armstrong’s A History of God recently. Armstrong takes us through the history of three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The book is heavy going at times, but worth perservering with. Armstrong has a clear bias towards the personal, inner experience of the divine rather than rationalist religious systems. The book shows that the struggles between the people the mystics and the rationalists have been going on for centuries. She also argues strongly against a personal God.

A quotation from Holbach which struck a chord with me as an ex-evangelical. He writes that poets and theologians had done nothing but:

make a gigantic, exaggerated man, whom they will render illusory by dint of heaping together incompatible qualities. Human beings will never see in God, but a being of the human species, in who they will strive to aggrandize the proportions, until they have formed a being totally inconceivable.

In other news, a controversial display of burnt work has divided the world of art into non-identical halves, like a dead bisected animal. Martian.fm has the full story. Classic.

Well I Was In The Neighbourhood

sitecopy now fulfills my FTP uploading needs, enabling me to maintain my websites without mucking about with Perl or Python scripts. It can be made to look at the files’ hash values rather than modification times, so the BINS program’s habit of regenerating all the thumbnails every time it runs won’t cause sitecopy to upload them all again. Which is nice.

PaulB has pictures of me singing at terriem‘s birthday party. I remember doing “Lady in Red”.

<lj-cut text=”cut for pictures”> I make a particularly good Chris de Burgh. In the words of that Bill Bailey song (1.5 Mb MP3 link):

Beautiful ladies in danger, danger all round the world,
I will protect them, because I am Chris de Burgh.

Beautiful ladies in emergency situations

Beautiful ladies are lovely, but sometimes they don’t take care,
They’re too busy with their makeup, or combing their lovely hair

To take basic safety precautions.

Also me, singing

More pictures from the good almost-Doctor

I have finished Norman Cohn’s Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come and started on Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Cohn says that the early Jews were polytheists who saw the God of Abram as their god but didn’t deny the existence of other gods. It’s interesting to see this played out in the fictional lives of Jacob’s wives in Diamant’s book. I’ll review both of them at some point.