Thursday, April 26, 2012


In our previous house, in Andover, on several occasions we opened the upstairs windows to find hundreds of flies sheltering in the gap. It was a horror film as the black buzzing horde invaded the bedroom.

Here in Wells we've had a mini rerun. To escape the endless rain, wind and cold the vile flies have been creeping into the exhaust vents of the bathrooms. After a few hours, four or five have made it all the way past the fan and are buzzing around the wash basin and toilet. Yeuk!

I have taken to spraying insecticide into the fan.
Just installed Google Drive, which looks a lot like DropBox.

Acts of Conscience - William Barton

This is the product description from
"This is the story of Gaetan du Cheyne, Class 10 Spatial Machinery Mechanic at the great spaceship refit station known as Stardock. Gaetan du Cheyne. No mother, no father, no children, no wife, no friends, no home, no nothing. Just a job. A empty man, a hollow man, paid well enough for his complex skills that, when he's not consuming a steady diet of net porn, he gets to play the stock market.

Until, one fine day, he finds himself in possession of a prototype FTL starship, and goes out among the worlds in search of... something. Anything. Maybe only the lost, empty dreams that were all he had as a child, dreams that deserted him as an adult. What he finds, in the end, if you can understand the man, if you can understand his lost dreams, may change you forever, if you're lucky."
I don't really agree with this eblurb. Gaetan du Cheyne is not a tremendously pleasant person, and at various points other characters describe him as 'a bit odd'. He's introverted and a loner; a highly-talented mechanic but hopeless with relationships. He has no ambitions or goals in life and is classically 'alienated': 'life's a bitch, and then you die.'

If his employers required him to take a Myers-Briggs test, he'd score ISTP. But buried away in his subconscious is a conscience, a sense of morality. It's well-hidden and often suppressed, but over the course of this complex novel Gaetan begins to pay attention and perhaps to rejoin the human race.

Reviewers have described this as Barton's best novel, and it's true he writes with deep anger at the cruelty of humanity. Du Cheyne traverses an arc through violent down-at-heel bars, seedy brothels and genocidal shooting parties: his novel is peopled with characters who never met a stranger or sentient being that they didn't want to beat-up, violate, kill, and/or eat.

What makes Barton controversial, especially in matters sexual, is not that he gets masculine thoughts and desires wrong (nobody would then pay the slightest attention). Rather, he gets exactly what someone like Gaetan du Cheyne would think and do and writes it down unsparingly. That's what's so shocking.

I don't think this novel will change your life, but it's well-written and packed with energy, with the bonus that the author is emotionally vested in every word.


I've packed away the extension leads and replugged everything back into the wall sockets. The electrician has replaced the faulty fuse-box blade and everything works again.

As I write Clare is taking a nap and still recovering from this really bad cold which has afflicted the two of us this past fortnight. I think it'll be next week till she's truly over it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Outage, illness, Vodafone and C&W

The main electric circuit in our kitchen-diner-office failed this morning. This took out our fridge, washing machine, Internet router, computer power and Vodafone femtocell.

By mid-morning I had jury-rigged extension cables and power bars snaking into the kitchen: stuff works again.

The electrician, found via "Rated People", diagnosed water in the socket beneath the sink and a reset fault in the fuse box. Repairs should be complete by Thursday.

Clare caught that horrible cold from me, and is recapitulating my symptoms a few days behind. As we huddle indoors from the rain and clouds, coughing with our eyes streaming,  visitors must think they've arrived at some kind of nineteenth century sanatorium.

Vodafone bought Cable & Wireless today. I wish them luck in fixing a company that has resisted more than two decades' attempts. The underlying problem is lack of scale, which undermines every business case attempting to modernise and simplify their network, products and processes.

Perhaps rich Vodafone can see a return  'out there' for the many millions of pounds they'll now need to invest.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kindle plus National Trust

My new Kindle Touch arrived this morning with its elegant tan cover & built-in LED light.

Just a few teething problems. The instructions say "Press Menu" and "Settings" to get the WiFi sorted. However, this requires the home menu, not the in-book menu. The menus are context-sensitive and so there's more than one of them. I eventually figured it.

We rejoined the National Trust this morning. We have the debate every year: have we seen every property in our area ... should we let it lapse?

Then we get in the car for a mini-break and end up rejoining. We should know ourselves!

So go for it! We get the 5 years of prior membership discount and the over-60 discount and it's affordable without these annual quibbles.

We stood at the window this morning, exchanged chesty coughs and thought the day had promise. As I write the dark clouds have rolled in again; I anticipate the splatter of tiny raindrops any time soon.

Back to my new Kindle  ...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Recent SF Books (reviews)

I eventually got around to John C. Wright's "Count to a Trillion" (2011), a space opera set in the 2240s featuring a dystopian future Earth and an antimatter star 50 light years away. The automated starship which visited found a strange, partially-decipherable monolith and potential free-energy for the entire planet for hundreds of years, if the AM could be mined.

The hero of the tale is Menelaus Illation Montrose, a gun-slinging attorney in the backwater which is future Texas after the global biowar. Montrose is a math genius who takes an experimental IQ-enhancing nanoware potion as he joins the first manned expedition, an act which scrambles his mind for the duration of the mission. Most of the tale is set after the starship returns with its antimatter cargo: devastating consequences follow.

This is a strange book to read, bringing to mind all those criticisms that SF is all head and no heart. Wright is widely read and intelligent and deploys legions of physics buzz words (Lie Groups, Grassman algebra, Hilbert spaces) to convey super-intelligence. The plot is complex and time-shifts around.

The problem, as usual, is with characterisation. The personalities of the main characters and their motivations don't really invite empathy or identification - sometimes even comprehension. All the characters are constructs, well-made and complex to be sure, but not real enough to engage and involve. In the end this is a clever intellectual exercise but still cold and people-by-numbers.


I have been looking a long time for "When We Were Real". I had faint memories of a foxy lady starship pilot, a boy growing up in a space habitat run by a suffocating Icelandic matriarchy, a series of vicious adventures. I couldn't recall the title or the author, and googling the concepts just mentioned led nowhere. In the end I brute-forced it: went through the alphabetical Wikipedia list of SF writers and luckily the author I was searching for was William Barton.

Barton has been characterised by feminist critics as misogynist in this book (I googled for that too!). Darius Murphy, his first-person protagonist, certainly thinks about sex a lot - in fact whenever he meets an attractive girl for the first time - but that's not what this book is about.

Murphy is good looking, sensitive but basically lost and homeless in an amoral extra-solar society which couldn't care less. The writing is excellent: exactly what you hope for in a novel and an object lesson in how to do it right (Mr Wright, I am still thinking of you!).

Barton continues to write and I'll definitely be looking to some of his other works.

The benefits of a science education

Q. Are there an infinite number of flies on Earth?

A. An infinite number of flies would have an infinite mass. This would breach the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit leading to the collapse of the earth into a Black Hole. This has not happened, hence there are not an infinite number of flies on Earth, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.
Q. Will my cold persist for ever?

A. If your cold persisted for an infinite time, this implies that for all possible times t there would be a time t + δt at which you would still have the cold (and hence be alive). This contradicts the human mortality axiom. Hence your cold will eventually stop, possibly via your death, despite how it looks to you today.
Q. Will it ever stop raining?

A. This is England - don't be silly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It must be a pandemic ...

Surfing the Rainbow
London Paddington to Castle Cary. As the train sped westwards through the rain, a glorious rainbow travelled alongside. The photo really doesn't do it justice.

White Horse at Westbury, Wilts in the mid-afternoon.
Up in London yesterday for a business meeting, dosed against the final stages of a streaming cold, I noticed that every second person on the train and the tube seemed to be suffering similarly. I blame the weather - the cold and damp are just ideal for virus propagation.

In the waiting room at Castle Cary yesterday morning at 7.15 am the guy sat next to me and a guy opposite were both using iPads. The tablet for the professional classes.

While I was at the meeting, Clare was wrestling with her own bug, causing abdominal pain and vomiting. What does it mean? No idea, but she seems pretty recovered today.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Simian flu/Vole fever

I have had a cold since Tuesday: my sister helpfully concluded it was Simian flu acquired at Monkey World (visited Monday).

Last night I was putting the kitchen to bed when I saw the cat hovering at the curtains by the patio door. Quivering behind was a giant vole, which promptly bolted. I opened all the escape doors and cornered the animal. A wild thrust of my hand caught the critter and it was hurled into the garden, but not before it had bit my finger. I hastily closed the doors and locked the cat-flap (the cat had followed the flying vole outside).

I retired to lick my wound with Germolene.

This morning, at 5 am I was back in the kitchen looking for lemsip, with a raging sore throat. Does anyone know the symptoms of rabies?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Russell and Cecy showed off their Garmin satnav as we drove to Monkey World. Handy because the Google app on my HTC keeps crashing - which is rather disquieting in a driving app.

They have chosen the voice of Yoda from Star Wars, which is oddly cute ... except you get a rendition of the Star Wars theme when you arrive at your destination.

One of its more insidious and hideous modes is that the device bleeps monotonously if you exceed the speed limit. Naturally that's not for me but you can imagine driving along a rural road, completely safely, where the local authority for some reason has instigated an arbitrary speed limit of 30 mph. Driving to the conditions you would hear: beep ... beep ... beep ...

Croscombe has been a life-changing experience for my habitual-criminal wife, and with 6 shiny new penalty points, Clare held the mini Garmin tablet as if Moses himself had delivered it. The beeps which were (allegedly) driving me totally insane were to her a guarantee of future probity.

I hate to say this again, but ... Reader, we've bought one.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Monkey World

Yesterday found us (together with Clare's niece and her husband) at Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre near Weymouth. It was the worst day to expect to see apes and monkeys playing in their enclosures in this extensive outdoor site. The wind gusted, the rain came down and it was cold, cold, cold.

After an hour spent getting steadily more hypothermic watching monkeys cowering from the cold in their damp enclosures, we retired to the cafe. There I wondered why these good causes (which are always desperate for money) don't get a franchise in to do a proper cafe which doesn't look down-at-heel and vaguely seedy, which can prepare food properly and which can provide decent mobile phone reception and wifi.

It was all sadly reminiscent of English "attractions" twenty years ago. Anyway, here are some pictures.

Mother and Child
Clare in the cafe
A chimp gathering nest material
The author in the cafe, wistful for WiFi

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Kindle Touch WiFi ... Dear Reader, I bought it

Well, I finally cracked. Persuaded by Clare's niece who is staying with us (and who has a Kindle) I have finally abandoned the endless wait for the Kindle Fire tablet and plumped for the upcoming Kindle Touch, together with its cover including built-in LED reading light and a USB power-plug.

Turn on, tune in and download time is estimated as the end of this month.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Review: “Quiet” by Susan Cain

A long, long journey through Introversion

Author Susan Cain is an INFP, which means that her dominant personality trait is Introverted Feeling (Fi = a strong moral sense) and her extraverted secondary trait is Intuition (Ne). This prioritisation and structure is exactly what we find in her book.

Innumerable case studies throughout this overlong book demonstrate the overlooked virtues of introversion, but within this torrent of examples the bigger thematic issues often get lost. If Susan had been an INTP I would have expected her to start with a definition of Introversion, situating it within broader personality theories such as the "Big Five" and the MBTI, and examining the nature-nurture disputes between "Standard Social Science Model" Blank-Slate adherents and evolutionary psychologists. Then perhaps we could have examined the evidence for a genetic basis for the Introversion-Extraversion dimension and the relevant brain mechanisms, which seem to implicate serotonin and dopamine. Finally we could have looked at ethnic differences in these traits: Asians seem to be more introverted, Africans more extraverted, with Caucasians in-between. Actually Cain mentions every single one of these points and more besides, but she seems incapable of structure, analysis and coming off the fence.

Susan Cain never set out to write the book I just described. Instead she has written an American-centric cultural manifesto for the rights of the introvert trapped in an overbearing extraverted culture. If you are an introverted American (less so for other nationalities), then on reading this book you will feel that at last someone understands your plight, you are not alone and there are coping strategies which Cain copiously sets out. In this sense, the author has produced a great self-help book for the quiet amongst us, albeit one which reads like an enormous bowl of candy-floss.

Cain observes in a special note at the end that she has deliberately used the erroneous spelling "extrovert", rather than the correct "extravert". Given that the word is used about a thousand times in the book, why would you use the incorrect "layperson's spelling" rather than getting it right and educating, in a small way, your public? I guess it's symptomatic of the author's priorities in this book, as affiliative F trumps analytical T one more time.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

‘The Turing Test’ by Chris Beckett

The city is wrecked; abandoned. As you walk the streets avoiding the potholes, unremitting rain invades the roofless, crumbling houses. And then you turn on your implants: suddenly you are surrounded by lights, traffic, people! The modern, perfect metropolis bustles around you – people stop and stare, murmuring at your insanely high resolution. Sometimes they spit the word ‘physical’.

You are old and spiteful; you lure a young delinquent to your home in the suburbs. He is raw, uneducated – has no idea that he lives in augmented reality. Your elderly husband objects but he’s easy to manipulate. You’re going to take this kid’s illusions away one by one; wait till he finds out where he really is, and what part of him is all that remains in the real. And there is nothing he can do about it.

Part ‘The Matrix’ and part horror, this is the world of two of Chris Beckett’s stories in his collection ‘The Turing Test‘, just released on Amazon Kindle.

We travel with Cardinal-Major Illucian of the 32nd Pristine Guard to a most secure prison island. The warrior Half-and-Half has been imprisoned for one hundred years but the legendary soldier is unchanged. The war is going badly for the Empire and his duplicitous skills are needed again.

In vain the immortal explains: ‘So the Emperor thinks he can make use of me, does he? Doesn’t he know how I got my name? I’m Half-and-Half! Whoever I serve, whoever I have dealings with, I do them just as much harm as I do good and just as much good as harm.’

The Emperor thinks he can ‘channel the warrior in the right direction’, just like all his predecessors. To this end, Half-and-Half is fitted with an antimatter bracelet which can be remotely detonated – and sent off to reverse the tides of war. Success and betrayal: this is the scientific age and no-one believes in the offspring of angels and demons – what could possibly go wrong?

Karel Slade is Executive Director of Christians for Human Integrity. His organization is opposed to artificial intelligence, cloning and copying. He is also a secret leader of the Soldiers of the Holy Ghost, CHI’s militant wing which bombs and kills its opponents. Perhaps he should not have been surprised when he woke in what seemed to be his hotel room to discover the door led only to an interrogation suite.

Mr. Thomas seems affable enough, but as for Mr. Occam … Karel is shackled in the interrogation chair and can’t quite see what Occam is doing in that cabinet, but he can plainly hear the steely clink of the instruments of torture. Karel looks to his faith to sustain him, but his tormentors convey a terrifying possibility: they have copied the real Karel and he is the copy. So why should he suffer excruciating agonies to save the secrets of his ‘original’, someone who’d care not a fig for him? What a dilemma … but there again, perhaps his captors lied?

The fourteen stories in this collection first appeared back in 2008 when they received stellar reviews. Beckett writes well, hooks the reader from the very first paragraph and keeps the pages turning. His latest novel, ‘Dark Eden’ was released a couple of months ago and is already tipped to win a major award this year.

The Turing Test’ was published on Kindle on March 19th 2012 for £2.56.