The book of this blog

cover 001So here it is then. A condensed and edited version of this blog, with a few bonus highlights from my first (Hoses of the Holy, which started back in 2003).

Why? I was on the edge of deleting this blog, but then I thought I might create an archive of all the entries before doing so. And then I changed my mind about deleting it, but quite liked the idea of doing it as a Kindle book. Partly, this was prompted by someone saying to me that he preferred my non-fiction writing to my fiction. This is a fair enough comment.

The 118,000 words or so of this represent about half of the content of Frequently Arsed Questions, which seems like a lot to cut out, but I did, for various reasons. There were too many of those whingeing about cycling entries, for example. There were reviews of various appliances, which (while popular in terms of generating page views here) wouldn’t really make any sense in the context of a book/collection. I’ve tried to highlight the category of the entry above the title, but it’s fair to say that there is no one topic for this blog. Eclectic. When I’m ranting about the bastards who run this country, I’ve used the quaint term “Holding forth” rather than “rant” because I like to think I’m not really ranting.

I’m quite pleased with the cover. The image of the dude with the pipe came from a 1969 Nouvelles Galeries catalogue (that’s a department store in Belfort, France). I knew when I was snapping photos of the pages back in the summer that it might come in useful. He seems to personify the authorial voice of my blogs. Just as every thin person has a fat person on the inside, we all have a middle aged white dude in a beret with a pipe inside of us. Probably.

The title, Nobody cares what you think, is my inner voice, talking to me throughout my blogging career. You can put the emphasis on any word you like. Inadvertently, my typographical choices seem to put the emphasis on THINK, but that’s just sloppiness.

Anyway, I priced it as low as I could. Here are the links to a few of the Amazon Kindle stores. As usual, if you do download/read, I’d be grateful if you post a review. But if you can’t say anything nice…

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon India

Amazon DE

Amazon FR

Innori Natural Light LED desk lamp

maxresdefaultI’ve been sleeping really badly of late – the past year or so, actually. I’m so tired that I often struggle to stay awake early in the evening, and if I give in to sleep I then have trouble getting to sleep later; all of which becomes a self-stoking cycle of broken sleep. I’m also waking up way too early – between four and four-thirty. On a weekend, this means I’m awake then, and still awake until work-day waking up time, at which time I seem to be able to doze for an hour or so, which is cold comfort. On work days it just means I’m awake long before I need to be.

I’ve got this horrible long commute now (‘long’ in my terms is anything over my previous 30 minutes), which I hate, and which is also tiring – especially on days when the motorway is seized up and all routes home seem blocked by standing traffic. When you spend two and a half hours driving home and then struggle to sleep and then wake up early, it all becomes a bit stressful. I’ve also discovered that waking up early and leaving early is pointless. The traffic on the A41 is actually worse if I’m arriving at work around 7:30 am, than it is if I arrive at, say, 7:50 or 8:00. So leaving home at, say, 06:20 offers no advantage compared to 06:40.

I’m not helping my own situation, I know, by reading at night on my phone. I know, I know. I spent a fortune getting the 6 Plus for reading and now I’m admitting that the main purpose is one of the causes of my insomnia. At work, I found all of the Game of Thrones books lying around. I’ve read the first volume (on my phone), but thought it would be a good idea to read the rest on paper, and stop this phone night reading habit.

Which brings us to the topic of reading lamps. Traditional bedside lamps aren’t designed for reading. And modern lighting in general re-creates the phone problem. The light is too white, too blue, too close to daylight, and too likely to disrupt your sleep in the same way that reading on the phone does. (On the Apple iOS Wish List: a “night mode” that changes the screen light temperature to a warmer yellow, thus aiding relaxation and sleep.)

I considered, seriously, a lamp from the Serious Readers range. These are highly engineered built-for-the-purpose lights designed to give years of service. But, oh my, the price. The cheapest comes in at £99, and the most expensive is an eye-watering £349. That’s almost iPhone money. If I hadn’t already bought the flaming phone…

But, encouraged, I kept looking, and came across the Innori natural light desk lamp. The downside: it’s a desk lamp, not a bedside light. It looks incongruous and spaceship-like in the bedroom. It has a sturdy metal base for stability, but its body and arm is made from lighter weight plastic. But it does have several clever features.

The first clever feature is the mode-switching. It has four different settings: Reading; Studying; Relaxing; Sleep. Each setting changes the temperature of the light. The most daylight-like is Study Mode: you don’t want to be falling asleep, so it’s a wide awake 6000~7000°K. Reading Mode is a warmer but still bright 4,300~5,300°K, and Relax Mode is a dimmer setting at the same temperature. Finally, Sleep Mode is the dimmest of all, and the warmest, at 2,500~3,300°K. K stands for degrees Kelvin, by the way, and it’s counterintuitive, but the lower temperatures in °K equate to what is usually termed “warmer” light. That’s because firelight is right down at around 1,700°K. As a point of reference, moonlight is measured at around 4,100°K; a warm fluorescent lamp is around 3000°K. Temperatures around here are going to encourage your inner cave person to sleep.

The second clever feature is the built-in 60 minute timer. This switches the light off automatically, which means you can keep reading with your eyes drooping and then just chuck the book to one side when the light goes out. It means you’re less tempted to keep reading when you’re hooked on a narrative.

The third clever feature is the built-in USB port, which means if you have limited plug sockets near your bed, you can charge your phone through the lamp. You can even use a hub to charge more than one device.

In use

With the light assembled and plugged in, use is straightforward. Push the glowing on-off button, select a mode, and (if you want) adjust the brightness using the +/- buttons (5 steps are available). In a darkened room at night, with you sitting right next to it, you can actually read quite comfortably even with the light set to Sleep Mode. If you need more light (because there are two people reading), then the Reading Mode offers more light, without going into the wake-up Study Mode.

I’m pleased with this. After two nights, I’ve already been sleeping better (not awake for hours with my mind racing about work, waking closer to 5:30 than 4:00). It’s not perfect, but improving. The lamp doesn’t buzz. There is a red stand-by light, but I can live with that. At £40, this was considerably cheaper than the desirable Serious Readers lights. Recommended.

Career moves

country-house-coverIf I ever give any time to the reasons why a person might want to become an MP, I come up short. There are going to be a few who do it because they want to make a difference, have fire in their bellies and want to serve the public. I mean, there have to be some, right? But of course, in order to get there, they have to immerse themselves in the various party machineries and then get sucked into the moral vacuum that is Westminster.

I’ve often fantasised that it would be nice to be an MEP – just to be able to live in Strasbourg, but that’s as far a my ambition goes. I wouldn’t want to live in London, but I guess some MPs have nursed that ambition. I think for many of them it comes down to lifestyle. And I think a lot of them, they see being an MP as a career move, a way to open doors into well-paid consultancy gigs and lucrative part-time board memberships.

The latest cash-for-access scandal lays bare the innards of that particular crowd. They have this problem, don’t they, which is that in their own minds they stand above the rest of us and therefore their income should reflect that. They’re important people and they should eat at all the best restaurants and be at all the important openings. But then they discover that a non-cabinet MP is paid a “mere” £67,000, which puts a crimp in their London lifestyle ambitions. Outside the bubble, looking in, £67,000 is two and even three times what working people usually earn. Many of us could live far more comfortably than we do if we were paid that much. We’d be getting the bathroom fixed and a new kitchen and maybe a extension. But for the MP who thought it would be all cocktail parties on the South Bank and a house in the country and a nice German car, £67,000 isn’t nearly enough. So they start grubbing around for extra cash and it all gets a bit undignified.

Maybe its worse for the ones who had a taste of Cabinet-level incomes and then had to take a pay cut, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy. They should have saved some pennies in an ISA.

Brugge – but where’s Jeff?

trees3If only, I tweeted, there was somewhere in Brugge to buy chocolate. Brugge was a one-night stop for us on the way to our place in France. Bit of a change, something different to do, a little city break on the way to our rural (and rustic) second home.

My wife spent some time looking for a nice little hotel. When she asked for help I just went straight for the Novotel. I like a chain. We’ve stayed at a Mercure once or twice, and even Ibis. I like a place that’s going to be clean, and have standard features. I don’t believe in spending too much on a place that you’re basically only going to use for sleeping and showering. On that basis, I just want a good shower and clean linen. Where better for that than a Novotel? Providing its not miles outside town on the ring road or something, it’s ideal. Not to mention the fact that you can usually book a family room for three.

trees

The Brugge Novotel is close enough to the city centre to be on a cobbled street (both front and rear). It also has a convenient underground car park. Step outside onto the street and you’re immediately a few metres from the first of many chocolate shops.

Brugge is, what? Ninety minutes or so from Calais. We crossed via Eurotunnel at the usual hour, which was way too early, really, and meant that we arrived in Brugge at around 7:30 in the morning, local time. Way too early to check in, and way too early for even the keenest chocolate shop to be open. Still, the car park was open, so we left the car and walked in the early dawn down to the town centre, the central square, taking our time. It was cold, really cold, and although I was wearing four layers, I was shivering. But the place was slowly waking. One of the cafés on the square had already lit its open flame gas fires and the manager/waiter was opening up, putting out the signs. I walked over to take a photo of the inviting interior and the guy beckoned us inside, where we were offered coffee and hot apple pie.

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My daughter and I partook of the pie, and we sat by the fire, getting warm. It was lighter when we emerged, and you could see more of the town. Brugge is a place that does things right. The city centre is very unfriendly to the motor car, but has open arms to the bike. There are also horse-drawn buggies, which were lining up in the early light, waiting for the first tourists. These horses were still working more than twelve hours later, clopping round the narrow cobbled streets with Valentine’s couples in the back. Brugge is so cycling friendly that there’s even a free bike pump near the Post Office.

So we wandered the streets as the shops were opening and saw the market, and then, around ten, wandered back to the hotel. We were too early, and they pointed this out, but the room was ready so they gave us the key. We had a small overnight bag between the three of us and some other bits. Had a couple of hours sleep, then went out for some lunch. The daughter wanted a burger from Quick, so that’s what we did, but there was no Quick’n’Toast, so what’s up with that? In the evening, we ate dinner at a small Lebanese restaurant, which offered a lot of vegan options as well as kebabs and rice dishes. It was good. Brugge, like Amsterdam, has the feel of a proper international destination, with restaurants of many different types. There was even a bookshop with books in English, just like the one you find in Strasbourg. There are few places in France where you’d find Italian and Indian and Chinese and Lebanese and Thai eateries, and so on. Most of the restaurants were fairly full, and the Lebanese place seemed a bit neglected. Perhaps that’s because they trumpeted their vegan options in the window? Who knows? Anyway, it turned out they didn’t take credit cards – maybe that’s why we were the first customers of the night. It was full by the time we left, though, but before we left I had to hunt the streets looking for a cash machine.

It was quite hard to find the cash machine. I hadn’t clocked a bank all day. There wasn’t a bank on every corner. It didn’t feel like a place with a phone shop through every other doorway. While there were some chain stores, it had more of the feeling of a unique destination, largely thanks to the chocolate thing.

But where was Jeff? In Mulhouse, there’s a Jeff de Bruges chocolate shop, and I’ve seen them in other places in France. But not a sign of Jeff in Brugge itself. Weird.

trees2

A nice place, Brugge, blessedly free of motor traffic for the most part. Pedestrian and cycle friendly, with interesting architecture. I could live in a place like Brugge, though of course you wouldn’t be living in the cobbled centre, would you? You’d be out in the modern bit of town – but even that was properly cycle friendly with separate cycle paths and stunning flyover bridges.

We drove back to France via Luxembourg, entering France near the Northern industrial city of Metz. I’m not keen on that particular French motorway. Belgium looked pretty good, though, apart from the bewildering circulation of Brussels, which I remembered from my last visit (1983) as a blighted landscape of motorway interchanges. It was there we encountered the worst of the aggressive Belgian drivers, people who would overtake you on the inside, in your blind spot, and act like you were the problem for trying to pull into the inside lane. Aggressive, or passive aggressive, seem to be the two speeds for Belgian motorists. Anyway, it felt like a bit of a trek to Auxelles Bas. The sat nav decided to take us by an unusual route, too. I didn’t have to follow, but I was getting tired and had already zoned out at a couple of junctions.

The anatomy of missing a turn is interesting. You’re tired, that goes without saying. It took me about four days to recover from these two journeys and unsocial hours. Arriving in Brugges at 7:30 in the morning and sleeping in the middle of the day created a jet lag effect. Anyway, We’re on the motorway, the one I don’t like. Partly this is because it doesn’t have the usual 130 kph speed limit. It varies between 110 and 90 kph. So there are bit where you’re doing just 90 (60 mph) on a three-lane motorway – with speed cameras at regular intervals. We were driving around Nancy, and I was watching my speed (90 kph at this point), overtaking a coach, watching that the coach didn’t pull out on me, with the sat nav’s voice muted. So I missed the instruction to turn, couldn’t see the sign (because of the coach) and ended up heading in the wrong direction. All Google Maps does at this point is point out that your journey time is half an hour longer, and it waits until you pass another junction before offering a ‘quicker’ route – back the way you came. So then you travel to yet another junction to turn around.

After all this, there was a point where – as the crow flies – we were just 28 miles from home, but still another hour or more away by the usual route. The sat nav suggested a route that went more directly, across the countryside and over the Ballon d’Alsace into Giromagny. I think the locals would reject this option, knowing that you’re going to be climbing a mountain on switchback roads with hairpin bends. But this intrigued me because I suspected (correctly) that some of the roads had been upgraded in recent years, thanks to various Tour de France visits. So although we were stuck behind a couple of slow vehicles, the route wasn’t too bad at all. Still, it was a shock to the system to climb to the top of the Ballon d’Alsace, to encounter very deep snow and winter pursuits in full flow. Skiing, snowboarding, huskies. It was foggy, too, a thick fog that clung to the hills for days on end, only clearing on Thursday, giving us just two days of lovely February sunshine, with snow drops already piercing the soil in the garden, which was still, otherwise, 50% covered in the snow that’s been on the ground since December.

Winterland Night – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Winterland Night (Live)UK iTunes Store users who are also Bruce Springsteen fans will have noticed a burgeoning of bootlegs on the store over the past couple of years. There’s some kind of loophole, right? There are so many by now that it’s hard to choose between them. For example, from the 1978 (Darkness on the Edge of Town) tour alone, there are: Capitol Theatre, Passaic (New Jersey); Roxy Theatre (LA); Fox Theatre (Atlanta); and Winterland (San Francisco). Being unlicensed recordings, many of these are available in more than one version – at more than one price.

Take Winterland Night, which was broadcast on the radio in December of 1978 and famously features a live performance of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” You can buy this show for £7.99 or £14.99. Both are complete shows. Both are rip-offs, since the original recordings are bootlegs. What to do, then? Well, I used to have Winterland Night on a cassette tape, back in the day. I wanted to hear it again, so I thought about it for a few days and bought the £7.99 one.

I first heard it back in the early 1980s, when, through a friend of a friend, I had a regular supply of Bruce boots. The recordings were always on tapes, and always recordings of recordings of recordings, so quite stretchy with lots of wow and flutter. I was quite keen to hear the digitally mastered version of the original radio broadcasts.

The audio quality is okay. Like all radio broadcasts, it all sounds a bit over-compressed, and there’s a strong sense of “through the desk” with very little crowd noise. Sometimes, a bootleg from-the-crowd, while being of worse quality than a radio feed, will have more of the feel of being there. Still, Winterland Night is a decent document of a single gig on a single night. Knowing he was on the radio, knowing it would be bootlegged, Springsteen performs for posterity.

1978 was a very good year for Bruce gigs. He wasn’t yet so huge that he was playing the vast stadia he’s been playing ever since Born in the USA (1984). We’re also still in the era of long, long intros, stories, and a regular repertoire of crowd favourites such as the Detroit Medley. For me, this is the foundation of his reputation as a live performer. It’s pre-Nils Lofgren, but also pre-having too many guitars and other musicians on the stage. This is hard-core E Street Band, with much of the burden borne by Roy Bittan and Springsteen himself on lead guitar. The album just released, Darkness, is one of his very best, and the live versions of songs such as “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Prove it all Night,” “Racing in the Street” and “Candy’s Room” are electric.

I mainly bought this so my youngest daughter could have a definitive version of her favourite, “Prove it all Night,” which at thirteen minutes and twenty-three seconds includes the full, unfiltered, Professor Roy Bittan piano intro and the scorching, hyper-real, guitar solo – all of which takes place before the song-as-recorded even begins.

Other highlights? “Fire”: “The Fever,” (as recorded by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes); “Because the Night”; a fourteen-minute “Backstreets” and the Detroit Medley. Hold your nose, but recommended.

p.s. A very special thanks to Autocorrect for changing Winterland to Hinterland every time I typed it.

They gave us Science Fiction – Jupiter Ascending

I went to see Jupiter Ascending, having as usual avoided all pre-release reading and spoilers. All I knew about it was that a couple of people I follow on Twitter had felt moved to defend it, like this, for example:

ASF_0505I wasn’t sure what to expect and I ended up pleasantly surprised. I can see why it’s going to struggle at the box office, however. There was so much world-building and so much exposition that for a non-fan of the genre it would soon reach information overload. But, for a long-term SF reader, there was nothing here that wasn’t familiar from any number of short stories and novels. In terms of plot, there wasn’t a lot to go on. The thing with science fiction is that it is so often the world building that matters – the implied narrative of how things came to be as they are is the plot, so in terms of this film, it’s the background of the interstellar empire and the cultivation of human life on various planets in order to harvest it.

There is something of a kitchen sink approach to this film. Interstellar empire? Check. Faster-than-light travel? Check. Immortality achieved through some hideous and unethical process? Check. A labyrinthine central bureaucracy? Check. An anchor character to whom all this is new? Check.

TMRRWNDBND1978So I’ve read stories in which humans are genetically spliced and get wings and stuff (“New Light on the Drake Equation” by Ian R Macleod, for example). I’ve read stories in which the ultra rich can achieve immortality while regular people continue to endure desperate (and relatively short) lifetimes (“Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, for example). You could point to all kind of antecedents, but the Wachowskis have taken the credit for an original screenplay. I believe the idea was to create a fiction world that could be turned into a franchise. If it flops at the box office, then maybe not, and so much the better. The Matrix wasn’t terribly successful in its sequels.

Apart from all the good, solid, science fiction ideas, the film’s visuals were also spot on. There were moments (approaching the centre of the interstellar civilisation) that looked like the cover art for any number of classic science fiction novels. From the ships to the cityscapes, the crowd scenes and the shots from orbit, the art direction was excellent. The costumes, too, played with lots of ideas from myriad sources.

analog-november-2008On the negative side, there were too many lengthy peril-free CGI-driven action sequences. They say they used stunts for much of the action, but it was still a bit of a yawn that could have lost 20 minutes from its length without adversely affecting the plot exposition.

In the end, it wasn’t so much a genre film as a film about the genre. The kitchen sink approach meant that it didn’t quite hang together as a movie regular punters would want to see, while at the same time paying homage to the genius of science fiction, its ability to build worlds and ask questions about humanity like no other genre. As a commercial property, it may fail, but as one of the very rare examples of proper science fiction in the movies, it succeeds.

Well, that was a huge disappointment

ascension

Misleading much?

Ascension, the Syfy mini-series that just finished on Sky (NowTV in our house) was so incoherent that I became convinced it was being shown in the wrong order. Wikipedia bills it a ‘6-part’ mini series, but it has not been shown in 6 parts (anywhere, as far as I can tell) and was instead shown in three incomprehensible chunks. I don’t think it was edited by humans, anyway. I think somebody chucked a load of raw footage into iMovie’s ‘SyFy Mini Series’ template.

As is my preference, I read nothing about it in advance, so didn’t know it was going to turn out to have the twist that was revealed at the end of episode 1 (or 2). Spoiler alert. So it turns out that the quite promising premise of a generation ship on its way from earth to a new planet is in fact a fake generation ship that never left the earth and has instead merely been keeping 600 or so people prisoner in some kind of science experiment for 50 years.

On the one hand, I was intrigued by the early similarities to one of my favourite SF novels, Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo. On the other, I was crushingly disappointed in its similarities to much earlier SF from the likes of J G Ballard and Bruce Sterling (neither of whom are writers I enjoy reading).

The internal politics of the ship, the class system, the conflicts – all of this was promising (even better if there had been a signal to follow, the discovery of an abandoned alien ship, and so on). But for it all to be based on Earth (yawn) with Earth politicking and constant cross-cutting between events on the oblivious ship and events in the all-knowing secret facility, well, that was disappointing on all kinds of levels.

Disappointing because the plot (over the three extended episodes) moved both too quickly and too slowly. Because the characters never had a chance to grow, develop, and interact in an organic way. They would appear in one extended episode only to be bumped off in the next. Because there were too many twists and turns and revelations. Part of the plot concerned a young girl who had developed psi powers (because the whole experiment was some kind of breeding programme). Fine, except one minute she’s having visions and the next she’s throwing up enormous, ship-destroying power surges and the next she’s teleporting people to strange planets. It all developed too quickly.

It was a show that just couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. If the main thing was supposed to be about a selective breeding programme, fine: make Huysman’s Pets, then, and forget the generation ship stuff. If it was about the people on the ship, then forget the crappy Earth plots and give us a story about a real generation ship with all its conflicts and challenges. And whatever you do, do not  commit that worst of all televisual sins: the crappy cliffhanging ending. Because having invested six hours in something that turned out to be utter tripe, your chances of ever making a second series and of tying up those loose ends are very slim indeed.

It finished with a preposterous murder, a man stranded on a planet with no food and no apparent vegetation, and a ship with broken systems on which it was actually raining. I could just see the disinterested writers’ room, in which people shouted out desultory plot ideas around the table, but nobody cared, and whoever was tasked with writing the show just put them all in. All of them.