Saturday, June 30, 2012


There is something rather erotic about watching a woman in a tent clad in nothing but a nightie and a pair of socks, rolling around trying to deflate a twinned pair of airbeds.

As we drove north over the Loire, the black clouds gathered and rain swept across the Autoroute. I heard the whispered message: England welcomes you back.

The Venice of Perigord

Brantôme: the Venice of Perigord. This ancient town of 2000 inhabitants is built upon an island. We took the circumnavigating river trip past the caves, the wonderful gothic church built into the rocks and the fifteenth century houses with their toilets venting over the water.

A view of Brantôme

 Alex and Clare converse with drunken Brantôme youths 

 The boat trip 

 Alex enjoys his snails 
Stately French buildings, parks and gardens and a restaurant where Alex ate a dozen snails in garlic butter and professed himself delighted.

Clare now walks around in tight-fitting trousers and socks as the mozzies have identified her legs as their plat du jour. I am less bitten and seem to suffer less. We woke this morning to gloom and a touch of moisture in the air; the solidarity of the Dordogne with the biblical deluge back in Angleterre.

This afternoon we did our obligatory chateau at Puyguilhem, where a pleasantly-androgynous guide showed us around in easy-to-follow french with English course corrections.

The chateau at Puyguilhem somewhere behind Alex and Nigel

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Settling in to summer

The Dordogne reminds us of what an English summer can be, and occasionally is: lots of sun and temperatures on the correct side of 30.
Yesterday we visited Piégut-Pluviers, a village transformed into flowers as it's their turn this year to celebrate all things Occidental. Here are some pictures from this attractive village, and from our campsite.

Alex and Nigel at the charming flower village of Piégut
Alex et Clare admirent les fleurs
This is the Queen of Ice-Creams
La Tour a Piégut
Clare in the heat
Our two tents
The Restaurant

Clare smiling through her bites
Today we visited another local market town where the waiter, inferring instantly we were hapless brits, had some fun by throwing incomprehensible French at us ("Am I the first person to be serving you or are you already being addressed?") and then being careless with our drinks order (Ou es la caraffe de l'eau?). Charming he was, and in his fifties, but with a brittle Gallic superiority.

We didn't know that here in La France profonde they keep the habits of fifties England. It's Wednesday so all the restaurants were shut this evening - a fact we verified by driving quite a few kilometres.

All but one: the one with the bright-as-a-button waiter. We gave it a miss and dined on our emergency rations next to our tent. Petty? Of course!
PS: as I write in the gathering gloom, the bats have come out and are circling above our heads between the conifers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

T'ai Chi

Sometimes when my back is sore, my muscles cramped from a cold draft or I'm simply stiff from a long drive, I fondly recall my T'ai Chi  classes.

We studied back when we were in the States in 2002 and a few years subsequently on our return. Clare was never quite so taken with it.

The accusation that, like other non-contact martial arts, T'ai Chi is more a form of dance is hard to dismiss. To make it work as a martial art you surely would have to practice most days, most of the day, for years. Will never happen.

Some classes seemed to be a front for a Taoist sect; others an ego-trip for a cult-leader guru: all seemed entirely too reverential. And to perform the full exercise you need a fair amount of space - more than the average-sized living room.

Still, I miss it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

This & That

Earlier this week I was in London for a client meeting. Travelling in from Reading during the morning rush-hour it was unbearably hot and stifling, standing in the cattle truck crush. How do people do it every day?

The second FireAngel smoke alarm was beeping away (low battery) at the weekend. I now know how to remove it, following my accidental destruction of the first one. However, the new battery I had so thoughtfully bought - in advance - had no other effect than to make the device shriek uncontrollably in triple spasms every so often. Why? Haven't a clue. It's junked and I have now invested in a ten-year device so no more battery-squawking.

On Steve Sailer's blog I noticed this article from The Economist blog. Satoshi Kanazawa argues that high-IQ is an evolutionary late development (I agree, probably driven by a combination of human migration into seasonal temperate zones with frequent ice-ages plus the demands of getting a post-neolithic functional civilization to work).

Kanazawa's amusing conclusion is that high-IQ people are pretty dysfunctional at all the things which matter: making friends, finding mates, reproducing and bringing up children.

I reckon behind the one-size-fits-all argument there's more than a grain of truth. The article is interesting, give it a look. It also marks, thankfully, the further public rehabilitation of “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” by Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray (1994).

Note: Kanazawa was promoting his book: "The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn't Always the Smart One" which I guess backs up his arguments with hard numbers. In fact I don't have to guess as I've just bought the Kindle version and will take a look. More later.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cromer, Sheringham, The Broads

Driving back on the M4 yesterday near Swindon I saw a white van in the slow lane swerve violently onto the hard shoulder. Straight ahead of me, crossing the middle lane, was a duck with three ducklings trailing in line behind her. I moved into the fast lane and swept past the luckless bird-family at 70 mph.

The central reservation at this point is a two foot concrete wall so I fear that short of doing a prompt U-turn, family prospects must have been poor. There was no pyre of smoke in my rear-view mirror and no reports of a traffic pile-up so the eventual fate of the luckless avians is unknown: evolution in action.

We spent a few days in Norfolk with Clare's sister Mary, husband Gerry and daughter Cecy with visits from Mary's other daughter Jane and her family. We escaped the worst of June weather misery although there was scant sun and the chill wind at the seaside was shocking...

School-party kiddies swimming in a feezing North Sea at Sherringham - shocking! A massive wind farm miles out at sea, but only one in three of the tower-blades was actually spinning - shocking! The local shop assistant sold me a slab of "Willow", claiming under intense interrogation that it absolutely, definitely was butter - shocking!

Or possibly NFN. Here are some pictures.

The author at Felbrigg Hall

 Gerry, Clare and Mary on the Broads 

The author and his wife at Cromer

Cecy cast as the flower fairy

Clare, Mary and Cecy at Sheringham Park

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

'Railsea' - China Mieville

Note: I have now finished the book and my final thoughts are at the end.

"I'm 8% into China Mieville's new book 'Railsea'. It's a trademark Mieville world of Victorian heavy engineering manned by horny-handed proletarians. The world is densely-covered by train-tracks and points: trains are the equivalent of oceanic ships. All the characters have long, weird names and the hero is a boy apprenticed to become a doctor, tho' he knows it's not his true vocation.

The boy is on a train which hunts giant moles (they have an unusual name, like moldywarpes or something). There are plain echoes of 'Moby Dick'. The plot, if there is one, seems to be focussed around the mysterious mole-objective of the train captain, who is not called Ahab.

Mieville always writes beautifully, with inventive vocabulary and colouful turns of phrase. What he's missing (so far) is an engaging plot. I read out of duty, hoping that at some stage my interest will actually engage. 'Embassytown' was similar - lauded for its examination of the concepts underlying the use of language, but curiously uninvolving as a story.

Characterisation, descriptive writing and something to say are all vital ... but if you're in the business of fiction which entertains and turns the pages, you DO need plot."

Update Friday June 22nd.

Finally finished and view unchanged. Lots of 5-star reviews on the net reward Mieville's fine writing and beautifully-imagined setting. But I found the book uninvolving and shallow: a rather complex and tedious quest story with no deeper significance.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Average speed vs. average velocity

How to explain the difference to a class of 12 year olds, asks my teacher niece. She tears her hair out at confusing physics concepts.

Google describes average speed as total distance travelled over total time. Average velocity (a vector) is the resultant displacement vector divided by elapsed time. They are neither conceptually nor (often) arithmetically the same.

My niece is really struggling to find the best way to explain to her class the concepts of scalar and vector. In fact these concepts are anchored within the frameworks of linear algebra and vector calculus (studied at university).

In general, the meaning of any quality in physics is defined by the equations in which the quality participates: at school level the mathematical background just isn't there, so concepts all-too-frequently  come across as arbitrary, badly-grounded and confusing.

I have a lot of sympathy with her.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

'Grounded' - a film by Chris Lewis

My nephew Chris Lewis's prize-winning entry at the Glammies. This is his final year computer-animation project at the University of Cardiff.

Good, isn't it. I guess Chris will shortly be in the job market :-).

Prometheus (film)

The Prometheus starship has been funded by the Weyland corporation to visit a distant star system, apparent home to 'The Engineers' who originally seeded human life on Earth.

Naturally what they find on alien world LV-223 is something rather different: a mission to revisit Earth with a contrary objective in mind. Wikipedia entry here.

Let me first agree with the critics: 3D on a large screen rewards the astonishingly immersive vistas Ridley Scott has conjured up. This feast for the eyes is not wholly matched by either plot or underlying concepts.

Science-Fiction films, once you strip the surface CGI away, live or die by their sense of wonder: think of the enduring appeal of The Matrix. In this sense there are few, if any ideas in Prometheus which depart from the mundane. This leave only plot to carry us through.

Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace)
Under the SF hood, this is the story of an idealistic woman Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) engaged in a hunt for her tribal origins. Her 'revered ancestors' turn out to be a hideous foe. By some miracle, after terrible losses, she survives and continues to search for answers (in the sequel). It's a familiar archetype and by that very fact engrossing if done well. And Scott has told a good story here, which amply repays the admission fee and two hours of your time.

But it could have been a lot more if they had built the script around a deeper, more creative and more original premise.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Jubilee Beacon

The UK has had a collective Jubilee lobotomy. On Sunday a concerted attempt was made to kill the monarch by subjecting her to four hours of freezing wind and driving rain on the gray Thames. Last night 2012 beacons were lit across the UK to warm her up again. Too late I fear.

Yesterday afternoon Wells confirmed its reputation as a parochial country town ("city") by hosting a feeble 'event' on the Cathedral Green - we visited at lunchtime for the 'hog roast'. After queuing for 10 minutes we were rewarded with lukewarm chunks of meat smothered in apple sauce (from a large plastic bottle) with smeary stuffing, wrapped in a soggy bun.

The meat came with added edgings of fat which were inedible. After surgery and a local bin visit, I ate the rest and we retired to The Crown to wash everything off. At time of writing I am still alive. How colourful are these local traditions!

Then to visit the 13 'Hidden Gardens' on display for one afternoon. Small but perfectly formed they were: here's The Rib garden which abuts the Cathedral.

Clare pats dog in The Rib garden

Wells Cathedral through the flowers
In the evening we drove up to Deer Leap, about a mile south of Priddy and high on the Mendips, to see the Jubilee Beacon being lit. Sadly the stimulus for ignition was set by the clock (10.01 pm), not the sight of beacons burning earlier in the chain.

From the vantage point you get a clear view as far as the sea at Burnham and the lights of South Wales. Miles away on the Somerset levels we could see distant fireworks. As the Beacon was lit, our own fireworks were launched: pix below.

Beacon lit, fireworks launched

10 minutes after ignition

Clare on the top
Crowds there were and lucky were we to escape early and drive down the very narrow road to Wookey Hole unscathed. At home we nestled down and watched The Terminator being crushed to a pulp by a determined Sarah Connor.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Barrington Court (NT)

Leaving Wells we passed the Sherston Inn. Clare told me that a little while ago a bloke who had been banned tried to enter the bar there. The landlady led him by the arm towards the exit; at this point, the bloke's girlfriend poured a pint of beer over her head. A barmaid attempted to help her boss: she was bashed in the face with the beer glass.

Naturally it went to court: the defendant had no assets while prison seemed both overkill and pointless, so she was sentenced to community work. What, I wondered aloud, would they do when she failed to turn up?

This led to a discussion about any conceivable measure to deal with this sort of situation. Our idea was that the defendant should have to wear a tag which continually monitored the sounds of conversation around her. If tell-tale signs of stress were detected in the voices - an argument or a fracas - the tag should do something. My preference was it should emit an annoying sound, like the bleeping when you fail to fasten your seatbelt. This should prove so irritating that all thoughts of violence and confrontation would be ditched in favour of stopping the godd***ed noise!

I fear however that there would be lawsuits from the proximate uninvolved claiming all manner of accident and disturbance. Still, tags are getting smarter every day and I'm sure that there's something here somewhere. Even a smart time-space curfew would spare the rest of us.

Barrington Court is an Elizabethan House about 50 minutes drive from Wells. The gardens are wonderful at present while the house itself features the Antony Gormley exhibition "Field for the British Isles" (pictured below).

Apparently every visitor has a different reaction. Our thoughts veered in the direction of the parasitic: lampreys and leeches; Freud would have had a field day of his own.

We wandered around house and gardens, taking the air and enjoying the sights and scents.

Clare and the White Tree

Barrington Court House

A rest on a bench - concentrate!

The joy of being on a swing

The author fronting Strode House