Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Tolkien-fest

As well as The Hobbit, we've watched all three of The Lord of the Rings films on Channel 4 this Christmas. I say "we" but I mean Alex and myself, as it proved impossible to persuade Clare to take the slightest interest (a position reversed with the three Stig Larson films).

Tolkien's stuff is both "old-fashioned" and timeless. It unironically speaks to male-bonding, great causes and the merits of loyalty, character, sacrifice and honour. Despite being an obvious target for metropolitan mockery, Tolkien's commitment to these values renders the films invulnerable, and ultimately quite moving - if you're male.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Doctor Copernicus - John Banville

I recently read (and posted a review of) John Banville's 'The Untouchable', a fictionalisation of Anthony Blunt's life. This novel is a similar psychological portrait, of Nicholas Copernicus who launched the heliocentric paradigm of the cosmos in the early sixteenth century.

This is not a biography - Wikipedia is perfectly adequate for that. Banville is interested, as he was with Blunt, in the inner life of an intellectual with controversial, heretical views.

Intellectuals are frequently not so brave, especially when their subversive ideas cannot be understood, except by specialists. Mocked and traduced by ignorant rabble-rousers with baleful agendas, trapped by their intellectual precision and honesty, they lack defences.

And is it worth going to the wall for a theory? Especially when we know that theories are invariably provisional and should not be confused with absolute truth. It is known that Copernicus was conflicted, frightened and ambivalent. He may have been aware of the ramshackle nature of his theory: due to his insistence on circular orbits, he had to utilize more epicycles than the conventional geocentric Ptolemaic system.

Banville's style comprises fine descriptive writing with a penetrating insight into character and motive. His novel transports the reader to late-mediaeval Europe with its squalor, cold, lice and power-politics. I'm glad I went and I'm pleased to be back!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Hobbit

Alex and myself saw The Hobbit in 3D this afternoon and were pleasantly surprised. Some points:

1. The 48 frames per second film rate, which some had criticised for 'hyper-realism' and for giving an arcade-game feel is actually just fine. The get-up-close realism actually helps the storyline.

2. The 3D is justified and, like Avatar, works best with the stupendously realised backgrounds: mountains, awesome cave-cities, the beauty of Rivendell. A triumphant and seamless blend of CGI and NZ.

3. The cultural references are amusing and knowing, if a little politically-incorrect. The dwarves are played as working-class Glaswegians, all chips, brown sauce and a propensity to vulgarity; the elves are upper-class English - harps and flutes accompany a salad meal (much to the disgust of the dwarves). The hobbits, as Tolkien intended, are the yeomanry of England: decent, conscientious and loyal .. the small ingredients of the Good.

For pacifists who have problems with the use of weapons and the brutal dispatch of bad people by visceral violence, I have to say this is not really the film for you. In fact, now would be a good time to set up the Orc, Goblin, Warg and Troll Liberation Front. Many were harmed in the making of this film.

So, a film with strong leading characters which keeps the viewer engrossed over two and three quarter hours, and that's a rarity. Roll on part 2.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Kitsch

In Part Six of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", Milan Kundera discusses kitsch. I quote:

"Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch."  (p. 244).

I am not such a deep student of kitsch and must bow to the superior insight of my dear sister.

Regard the two photos below, her magic Christmas tree present. (Pix taken 12 hours apart and there's a chemical solution poured into the base).

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Calculus of Variations

I had to drop out of my maths MSc course with the Open University back in 2010 - yet another busy-busy client contract. I do have all the material, though and will do the course on my own account starting next week. No doubt you'll be hearing more here soon.

I had the material out this afternoon for review so Alex and Clare were at least subliminally aware of my plans. Towards the end of the afternoon they both decided to go for a walk on our local part of the Mendips, to take the air.

Top of the hill, they were discussing my folly when they were overtaken by a hobbity sort of guy - big beard, bush hat, short and dumpy, hairy feet .. well, you know. He hears the word OU and strikes up a conversation. Alex mentions I'm doing M820 and he immediately recognises the Calculus of Variations. Turns out the hobbity guy has almost finished his OU maths MSc, finishing this year with the formidable Functional Analysis module.

Only in Wells, huh?

Pictured below, the author with SF books from Adrian (thanks!) and backed by a van Gogh church, a present to Alex from the Musee d'Orsay (via us).

Transition - Iain Banks

'Transition' has been rather compelling, after I finished it (for the second time) a couple of days ago. Just to remind you, the setting is the 'Many-Worlds Interpretation' which quantum physics tells us might be the hidden reality of our own existence (expert opinions tend to differ).

There is an organisation - The Concern - which, Culture-like, has operatives who can flit between worlds to avert evil and steer events to better outcomes. Sometimes key individuals must be saved from death; other times the reverse. (But is this the whole story?).

The unreliable narrator has different names in the different worlds but he thinks of himself as Temudjin Oh, a highly trained assassin. He is wooed, in every sense of the word, by the enigmatic Mrs Mulverhill (a senior executive of The Concern and a rebel) and the dastardly Madame d'Ortolan, who is en route to taking over the leadership of The Concern for her own nefarious ends.

Events ebb and flow between London, Paris, Venice, Moscow in this and other realities. Banks gets to examine capitalism and the perverse nature of limited companies, the pros and cons of torture, and the endless war between bureaucratic, fear-driven,conservative power-hunger and the optimistic, risk-taking, liberal-minded urge to novelty and freedom. I leave it to you to decide where you think Mr Banks puts his money on each of these issues.

If the message of Transition is somewhat familiar, it's expressed in a more sophisticated (although not slam-dunk convincing) manner than usual lovey-liberalism. The multiple story-lines and opacity of plot development make a second reading pretty-well mandatory: I really didn't get this novel at all first time through, enjoyable a read as it was and remains.

At heart this is a Robin Hood story, with the gorgeous, cat-eyed Mrs Mulverhill in the ethical outlaw role. I really liked it.
So this is Christmas. Funny how you do so much in the days leading up: shopping, visits, fixing things up, cards, more shopping - and then the day arrives and it rather stretches. I have just been drilling extra holes in my belt, although the scales are sending worrying signs in the other direction ...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Dinner at the King's Head

Alex is staying with us over Christmas and this evening we had our seasonal dinner at the ancient and atmospheric King's Head in the High Street, Wells.

Three generous courses and we're basically unable to move. Pictured: Alex, and Clare & myself.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Game of Death

Uma Thurman's fighting costume in Kill Bill was modelled after Bruce Lee's jumpsuit in Game of Death. The genius of Tarantino.

I mention this because of my own homage. This morning my 100% polyester tracksuit pants arrived (Adidas) ready for gym tomorrow.

Except the trousers are black and white, not yellow-and-whatever. And, unlike Uma, I can get into them.

Exercise this morning was in that special Roman Catholic 'gym' where I spent an hour hoovering with the hard-core faithful - cleaning in preparation for the Christmass (sic) festivities.

It's don't ask, don't tell.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hell on Wheels

My brother, Adrian, is St Blaise Town Council's vice-chairman in Cornwall. He is well-known as an indefatigable fighter for his constituents' rights - which may explain the caption to this picture of him (below).

I think he could also venture a reasonable double for Iain M. Banks!

"Hell on Wheels"

Here is the article explaining the background from 'This Is Cornwall'.

A DISABLED councillor is lobbying for an end to mobility mayhem in St Blazey. St Blaise Town Council's vice-chairman Adrian Seel has been using an electric scooter for a few months prior to a hip replacement operation. He said due to the lack of dropped kerbs in the right places, getting around could be frustrating.

"Since seeing me in the scooter, a lot of people have approached me saying they've had problems in the town," he said. "We must do something about this."

Mr Seel said the existing dropped kerbs were designed with prams in mind, before mobility scooters were even invented.

"In some places, due to the angle or position of the drop, you have to apply so much power you end up flying into the wall once you're up the kerb," he said, "so you're forced to drive along in the road, which is far from ideal and quite dangerous."

He said scooters had a ground clearance of about 2in, but in some parts of St Blazey the pavements were as high as 4in, meaning the scooter would probably topple over after the fall.

"There are some pavements in St Blazey that aren't even wide enough for a mobility scooter or pram to be pushed along comfortably," he said, "and some areas have no dropped kerbs at all."

St Blaise Town Council is asking the townsfolk to call 01726 816595 and tell it about the most inaccessible areas. Mr Seel said a list would be presented to Cornwall Council's highways department.

A Cornwall Council spokesman said: "We haven't received any requests regarding the pavements in St Blazey. "The footways are inspected on a regular basis and any safety defects are rectified as per the council's highway maintenance plan.

"Due to budgetary pressures, we can only consider putting in drop kerbs when we need to replace and resurface the footways, or when capital funding is made available to carry out a specific project."

Ho Ho Ho .. or else!

The young hospital receptionist sat at her computer while her colleague leaned on the counter. I'm sitting in the waiting room, tucked out of sight, while my mother is off being ultrasounded.

"Oh look, it's a Christmas email from the Chief Executive," says the receptionist. "Ho Ho Ho, you've all been made redundant!"

Her colleague laughs. "Or - 'I expect you all to come back to work smaller than you are now,'" she hazards.

They both look around furtively, to make sure they're not being overheard.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tau Ceti has habitable-zone planet

At only 12 light years away, Tau Ceti has long featured in science fiction space opera as home to a colony planet when humankind has spread to nearby stars.

The planet announced today has five times the mass of the Earth (and therefore - if the same radius - five times the gravity .. but it could well be bigger). Still, it's early days and even more Earth-like planets are probably buried away in instrument-noise.

The first thing to do is to get a spectrum from the planet's atmosphere. This is the fastest way to get an early indication of life (or potential for colonisation). Assume it looked interesting: the dilemma is then whether to invest in better solar system imaging technology accepting we're 12 ly away vs. launching an instrumented probe to get a closer look. They're both hard problems but would be great challenges. Let's hope for life-signs.
This morning I signed up to annual gym membership by DD and proceeded to obsessionally exhaust myself. Great!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pictures of my father, Fred Seel

My cousin Rosalie wrote to me today enclosing some pictures of my father, Fred Seel, who died in January 2009. Rosalie was sorting through the effects of her mother, Joyce, who died in August of this year and her father, Len Seel, (my father's elder brother) who died some while ago. Len was a talented artist, though war and lack of money prevented him from going to art college.

Here are the pictures - click on any of them to see them at full size..

Fred Seel (background) with his fiancee and his parents c. 1945

"To Len from Fred" - 6th Nov 1943 at York

Fred Seel in his Army and Civil Defence uniform, c. 1943
Fred Seel with children, parents etc
The top-centre picture here doesn't appear to be of my father at all: perhaps it's his father. Anyway, I'll seek clarification.

Update: the pictures on the top row were all taken at Dale Street, Bristol where my paternal grandparents lived and where my father was brought up. Top left is my father, Fred Seel with his niece, Rosalie; top centre my paternal grandfather and a tiny me; top right my father and my teensy self.

A gym dandy

Back in the 1990s Clare and myself found ourselves on a windy, overcast hill in the Peak District, learning how to hang-glide. We were dressed in rough jackets and jeans, ideal for running down the cowpat-strewn hill holding on to the ropes attached to the hang-glider's wings. Like stabilizer-wheels on a bike, this was how we stopped hapless students from their first - and possibly last - high-speed flight into terrain.

There were two of our number, bulky, ugly men with high-pitched voices, who had invested in snazzy flying suits. Now, not one in ten of those who take part in a hang-gliding class achieve their licence and then make flying part of their lives (we certainly didn't). It was obvious that our dandy twins had wasted their money and enthusiasm on the colourful inessentials here.

Flushed, as my sister says, with pleasurable endorphins from my first gym session this morning, I am about to pop into town and buy a tracksuit. And those hillside memories ripple back ...

Clare was pleased with the tulips below and asked me to snap them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Our Christmas tree

Clare was busy while I was at the gym this morning ...

A Gym Induction

After a painless trip to my dentist this morning ("No problem, a simple crack in the enamel filling, no decay so no drilling. Here, I'll just replace it,") I arrived at the Gym for my induction hour.

The Fitness Suite upstairs has twenty minutes of cardio (bikes, rowers, cross-trainers, treadmills) and forty minutes of muscle development machines. Fifteen repetitions times three with a minute's rest between sets. I think I remember how they all work.

The instructor, Matt, was friendly in that way of all youngish people who deal with sixty year olds and are amazed they retain even their basic physical and mental faculties. It was "Nigel" this and "Nigel" that, but over the hour it became less forced. (I notice the same trajectory with my dentist who is of a similar young age). There is probably something Freudian/Jungian going on here as well - paternal projection, filial role-absorption; who knows?

I think it's back to the gym tomorrow morning for my first run-through: I have a concession.
It turns out my filling replacement this morning was free. As I lay back with my mouth agape like Ed Milliband the dentist explained that this was Government policy to prevent over-treatment by dentists keen to drag people back after their check-ups for endless, expensive but unnecessary fillings. Get it right in one session and don't stinge on prevention is, I suppose, the incentive being aligned here.

As the practitioner pointed out, none of this applied to my case where an old filling had just broken, and in purely financial terms he might consider he was pretty well disincentivised to treat me.

"Still, it's Christmas :-)".

Monday, December 17, 2012

Memento mori

We  were driving to Frome this morning - pre-Christmas shopping at M&S - and I was thinking about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. A smart guy, by most people's reckoning, but I would have a couple of hard questions for him: genuine ones of course.

1. Why is one's spiritual life only semi-infinite? As I understand it, I have an immortal soul which will have an existence at all future time. But for all dates prior to 1951 I literally don't exist. Wouldn't it be more symmetric to have my soul exist at all time points, somehow joining my body when I was conceived, or born? It only has to do it the once, we don't need reincarnation if we don't want it.

2. The church claims to accept evolution. In which case we can do the Dawkins thought experiment where I imagine I am holding my mother's hand and she her mother's hand and so on, back through the ages to the early primates, the mammals, the reptiles ... and the dawn of life on this planet. You see where this is going. I ask the line to disengage hands and raise their arms (or forelegs) if they have a soul. Where's the transition - the first one of my maternal ancestors not permitted to raise her arm?

Are these stupid questions? I don't see why. But I don't see how they could have anything but stupid answers. For myself, the symmetry that works is my obvious non personal-existence prior to 1951 and my non personal-existence subsequent to 20xx where the final two digits are currently not known.

But the central mystery which keeps the air balloon of religion aloft is: just how does the thoroughly materialist, proximate pattern of atoms writing this get to feel like me?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gym cuniculi

Yes, that's what the Romans called that vile species we know today as 'gym bunnies'. We popped round to our local sports centre this morning where I signed up to the induction course for Tuesday morning: you know, learning to use the walkers, rowers, static bikes, power-presses ...

I did not make a good impression there: I'm in recovery from the ghastly norovirus - my voice is squeaky, my hue wan. I fear the fit young lady at the service desk anticipated a combination of failure and/or death-in-action for Tuesday.

For a long time I used to run 3 miles or so three times a week. Eventually I could sustain an average 7-8 mph. And eventually I got knee and hip joint pains which never properly recovered so I had to stop, degrading into my current state of unfitness. With a two stone loss of weight I'm now in urgent need of muscle-toning - time to devolve fat, not muscle! Hence my entry into the Schwarzeneggerish world of the gym.

OK, I ask myself, I get all this body maintenance stuff  ... but run it past me again: what, exactly, in the end, is it all for?

Friday, December 14, 2012


Recall the rainy, galely days of early October. Rain spatters the windows as we carefully collate papers: application form, signed and validated photographs, employment history, Postal Order for one hundred pounds. It all goes into a big envelope which Clare carefully weighs on the kitchen scales. A "Large" stamp is affixed and off the package goes, addressed to the Canadian Embassy.

Fast forward to the last couple of weeks - Adrian waits for the email confirming his work permit. His friends get theirs but he hears nothing. The Embassy does not encourage phone enquiries; travel to his snowboarding instructor job at Sun Peaks is on indefinite hold.

Monday we get a package. Correction: it is the original package, returned to sender. According to the legend on the envelope, the Royal Mail determined there was 20 pence excess postage to pay on the package to which they added a one pound 'handling fee'. Naturally, the Embassy declined to pay. The papers have been in the Royal Mail system for two months now, wending their slow way back to us via Belfast and a mis-delivery to Wookey Hole.

We were of course mortified, taking some blame for this debacle. Adrian was more sanguine, immediately booking a flight to Calgary (the immigration staff like snowboarders there, he said), determined to negotiate his way in at the border. How confident are you, I asked. 80-90% came his reply, as he clutched a folder thick with the returned documents.

I got an email last night at midnight. Immigration - the granting of his precious work permit - had been easy, but getting the free WiFi at the airport pub to load had been a pig.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Gut flora

Not fauna, because apparently the denizens of our guts are - as bacteria - lumped in with the plants.

I have today what is euphemistically termed a 'stomach upset'. It's left me tired and rather sick .. I'm blaming exposure to dodgy members of the public at IKEA yesterday, where we bought frames for our Musee d'Orsay prints. (Update: I think it's the norovirus bug).

A small footnote on the zero-carb concept (protein and fat only, as in the 'paleo-diet'). This can starve our trillions of gut-symbiotes, good as well as bad, so is not too cute a strategy. Intermittent fasting is consistent with 500 calories of carbohydrates on the 'non-eating' day.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Untouchable (John Banville)

This is John Banville's cerebral, psychological exploration of the character of Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, Poussin expert and Soviet spy. I'm about a third of the way through this novel and as always in thrall to Banville's writing and acute analysis of his characters' states of mind.

May I sound like a fortune-teller? A much-awaited return to Canada is mooted, but not in circumstances predicted. More later ... and who would have thought an essential part of the carry-on baggage of a thirty-something snowboarding instructor is two Terabytes of USB hard disk capacity?

Immortality is getting harder. Think of all the educated people of the world (at a particular time) filling a circular stadium. In one direction we rank the mathematicians, in another the novelists, in a third the singers and musicians, and so on. The best of the best are out on the periphery and only one or two people per generation - those on the extreme circumference - will be destined for cultural immortality.

The ratio of circumference to area is inversely proportional to the population of the stadium: generations pass, civilization expands and the competition gets ever more severe; immortality gets harder.  (I feel I'm channelling Banville's hero Victor Maskell here ..).

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Intermittent fasting: month 4

Another month ... and another six pounds lighter.

Date Stone Lb Pounds Kg D(Lb)
07/08/2012  13 8  190  86.4  Start
08/09/2012  12 13  181  82.3   9
06/10/2012  12 7  175  79.5   6
08/11/2012  11 12  166  75.5   9
08/12/2012  11 6  160  72.7   6

This is now month four of intermittent fasting - a scheme whereby three days a week I restrict my calories to around 500 (the normal male requirement is around 2,500 per day). The point of this, as explained in previous months, is to persuade the body to move from 'go-go' mode into cellular-repair mode, with consequent health benefits. Also, of course, because I have been historically overweight.

My belt is a few notches in, my jeans are rather hanging off me and my abdomen has contracted. Losing c. 6 pounds per month is not a process which can be carried through indefinitely - I would guess I have about another six or seven pounds to go. While we were in Paris a few days ago I was checking the torsos of the classical sculptures at the Louvre to see just what the perfect stomach is meant to look like :-).

Should be there by my birthday in January, providing Christmas doesn't blow the whole process apart!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Last impressions of Paris

Here in the Eurostar departure lounge .. a chance for some final Parisian thoughts.

The cars in Paris - they're parked incredibly close, packed together with maybe three inches between them at the side of the road. How do they ever get out? How did they ever get in?

Warm air vents on the pavement, outside apartment blocks. Many are claimed by fifty-something homeless men, carefully guarding a bottle of cheap wine. How do you keep doing that, when the freezing rain is gently settling on the streets?

We ate out every evening and the food was occasionally fantastic, mostly ok but sometimes the meat was tough and fatty,  the salads had lost their crispness. The French are coasting and the brits have finally caught up.

Update: on the train now and it's first class on the return trip - wide seats and space for the legs. Let's get going and we'll use the last of our Euros in the refreshments carriage!

Later ... an innocent abroad. I was dispatched to the buffet car where I waited 20 minutes in a queue composed of French people who wanted complicated things and lots of them. Eventually I returned with a large tea, a hot chocolate and a muffin.

In my absence the magic of first class had exerted itself. My tray table was adorned with salmon and guacamole, spiced rice and a glistening apple confection. The complimentary first class meal was rounded off with wine. Confronted by incredibly competent and self-effacing waiters, I hid the muffin.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Impressionism at the Musee d'Orsay

Some think Impressionism is the chocolate-box art of the kitsch-loving nouveau middle-classes. Moi, I love it. Seeing original paintings - pieces I have only seen on computer screens and tv sets - by Cezanne, Pisarro, Sisley, Gauguin, van Gogh, Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec .. brings a special kind of emotional excitement. I could have stayed a lot longer.

In fact one is defendu from taking pictures in the museum. Clare retaliated by buying a number of posters and prints, some of which feature in the collage below. The museum also provides a fine view north of Sacre Coeur (pictured) and has a good cafe up on the fifth floor, abutting the old station clock (pictured).

English in Paris

Despite the best efforts of the Academie, English insidiously infiltrates the culture of Paris. Billboards shriek out "Etes-vous 4G ready?" (what happened to pret)? Business types are exhorted to "devenez un business leader!"  What happened to chef d'entreprise?

The most amusing thing is when English people meet other brits and, mistaking them for the French, engage with polite franglais. Yesterday we called the lift to go down to the street level of our hotel. The doors opened and in that special accent we love so much, the portly, fifty-something gentleman wearing a mac gave us a rueful smile and said "Je monte." He then climbed to the fifth floor as we waited for the ascenseur to come back down again. Quelle joie!

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Louvre

We entered the Louvre from the Rue de Rivoli and spent the next few hours wandering at random between paintings and sculptures. There are also classic Paris vistas from the upper storey windows - see pix below.

The Louvre gift shop was a disappointment. We had been hoping for some distinctive posters but it was the familiar few items led by the Mona Lisa - kitsch-art in fact. We hope for better at the Musee d'Orsay tomorrow.

Now back at the hotel for an afternoon rest (Clare shown snacking below). The hotel has given us free WiFi (from Orange), and amazingly this worked in the Louvre restaurant as well as at a cafe in the Ile de la Cite.

Frogs' Legs

Yesterday I mentioned our evening meal starter was cuisses des grenouilles, which I haven't had before. I guess I was expecting a pile of leg muscles, suitably cooked. Instead, as Clare shows in the picture, you get the recognisable lower half of the frog: in fact six or seven of them, with salad.

Ad they still have the - very brittle - bone inside, it's impossible to eat them with knife and fork. It's a case of pick them up and devour them .. sticky fingers!

The taste is bland, not a million kilometres from chicken, and it's wise not to dwell on the normal diet of the frog.

I write this at breakfast, using the hotel WiFi - onwards to the Louvre!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Eurostar; Latin Quarter

We're in a wintry Paris, conveyed by Eurostar. The process at St Pancras is more plane than train: there's the X-ray of luggage, the passport control and in our case the complete unpacking of our suitcase by Customs.

We ate out this evening in a restaurant (pictured with grocer's apostrophe) in the Latin Quarter, close to our hotel. My brother-in-law Gerry was in town with daughter Jane and we met up for the meal. Frog's legs were on the menu - Clare's seemed a bit skittish.

A frosting-over Paris is notable for drunks lying on the freezing pavement (seen going and still there coming back) and electric cars recharging from pavement-edge pedestals.