Tuesday, October 29, 2013

'Ender's Game' - (film)

The film of Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel 'Ender's Game' has been advertised and reviewed as 'Harry Potter meets Star Wars'. As much as the anachronism offends,  the comparison does work up to a point.

Card invested much of himself in his large novel which presents sophisticated battle tactics, subtle human relationships and a dialogue between a 'physical force kill the enemy' view of war and the softer approach of winning your enemy to be your friend. The novel never pretends to have a final right answer.

Doing all of this in 114 minutes was always going to be a stretch. The film feels rushed and doesn't give itself time to explore the emotional dilemmas and personal development core to the story, while the obligate space-battles and planet-demolition seem passe no matter how well rendered.

With too little time the director resorts to tell not show: the result is competent enough but too superficial for the viewer to care about characters or issues. I'd say three stars out of five.


Walking back through central Reading with Alex at 11.15 pm is an 'edgy' experience. There are far too many guys with shabby clothes and slurred voices who are way too keen to be your friend ...

Saturday, October 26, 2013

'Why Arabs Lose Wars' - Colonel Norvell B. De Atkine

Interesting article (old but nothing has really changed) on the social-cultural reasons why Arabic societies - militarised and clan-based - do not produce effective armed forces. We see the same thing today in attempts to construct a viable national Afghan army (to a western model).

Here's the background.

"The author, a retired U.S. Army colonel, draws upon many years of first-hand observation of Arabs in training to reach conclusions about the ways in which they go into combat. His findings derive from personal experience with Arab military establishments in the capacity of U.S. military attaché and security assistance officer, observer officer with the British-officered Trucial Oman Scouts (the security force in the emirates prior to the establishment of the UAE), as well as some thirty years of study of the Middle East."

Read the article.

Friday, October 25, 2013

'Captain Phillips' - (film)

From The Telegraph review.

"Hanks plays to his strengths as an average guy, in this case one in extreme circumstances. We first see him driving from his Vermont home with his wife (Catherine Keener) to catch a flight to the Middle East: his cargo ship leaves from Oman, bound for Mombasa in notoriously dangerous waters. Hanks has the air of a reluctant employee handed a distasteful work project; even before it starts it’s clear he wants it over and done with.

"On board the giant Maersk Alabama, manned by an all- American crew, Hanks curtly orders safety procedures and has them double-checked. His worst fears are confirmed when two small motor boats are observed on his radar, bearing down on the Alabama. It seems implausible that the four armed Somalis on these tiny craft could board the slow, hulking ship, but they do.

Somali pirates take the ship

"The suspense gradually increases during this protracted cat-and-mouse game, but Greengrass has merely established a base level of intensity and ratchets it up as the film progresses.

"Gratifyingly, the four pirates are not sketchily drawn and interchangeable; in the tense stand-off on board, all gradually emerge as rounded characters. But it´s been made clear in a short prologue that they’re all fisherman living on the poverty line. There's no mention of al-Qaida or religion: they're in the piracy game for the money.

"As negotiations between Phillips and the pirates falter, he is kidnapped and taken with them aboard a tiny lifeboat in which they optimistically hope to reach the Somali coast. At this point the diverse might of the US military makes its presence felt.

"The film is based on Phillips's subsequent memoir, so an upbeat ending is never in doubt: but it still subjects its audience to a heart-in-mouth ordeal. Hanks's tearful final scenes, portraying a relieved man in deep shock, are very fine: it’s the most raw, emotional acting he`s ever delivered on screen."

The review is correct: Hanks' performance is never less than absolutely excellent - totally convincing. It's also a taut thriller with plenty of excitement all the way through.

This was our first visit to the Vue cinema at Longwell Green. It's situated in a sprawling, concrete, car-friendly, windswept 'leisure complex' with the usual restaurants and coffee bars. The chinese restaurant initially looked promising (although closed for the afternoon) but a peek inside showed Formica tables and what looked like a ceiling collapse in the centre of the dining room.  Broken glass carpeted the pavement outside the pub and small groups of vaguely-feral youths wandered aimlessly.

A shame as it's potentially quite convenient for us distance-wise: another case where 'edgy' and perhaps 'vibrant' doesn't immediately translate into 'appealing'.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

'The Magic Flute' - Tobacco Factory Theatre

For what it's worth. Prince Tamino and his Sancho Panza-esque companion, the bird-catcher Papageno, get to meet the 'Queen of the Night' who bids the Prince to rescue her abducted daughter Pamina. The daughter is being held by the High Priest Sarastro and his acolytes at the temple of Isis and Osiris.

Our two heroes duly arrive at the temple where they are subjected to three trials (which mostly seem to involve being quiet when people talk to you). After success, Prince Tamino wins the hand of Princess Pamino, and Papageno gets a raucous chick of his own buffoonish persuasion.

It turns out the High Priest Sarastro is the good guy, and the Queen was vengeful and spiteful.

You don't go to opera to enjoy the intricacies of the sophisticated plot.

'The Magic Flute' stage 15 minutes before the start

I kept being distracted by the way performers seemed to be someone else. The bird-catcher clown looked (and behaved) very much liked UKIP leader Nigel Farage on steroids; the director of music was a double for TV cook Nigel Slater (or possibly Louis Theroux); Princess Pamina seemed the reincarnation of Clare's niece Jane; the High Priest Sarastro look like Brian Blessed operating at 30% capacity. I thought the Prince was adequate while extravert-birder Papageno stole the show.

The orchestra warms up

Still, a fine, professional performance and the music of Mozart. The visceral reality of real people doing stuff a few feet away gets to beat hyper-engineered imagery any day, no matter how good film-making gets these days.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"The User Profile Service failed the logon. User profile cannot be loaded."

Not a message you want to see as you try to log-on to your laptop.

Asus Netbook: can't log-in

The offending error message

I looked it up on Google of course. Here's the tip: you have to start in safe-mode, do stuff with a recovery disk (don't have one) and then mess around changing stuff in the Registry.

No way.

When I bought the Netbook, back in April 2011 the PC World sales guy looked at me askance. "You do have another computer as well, don't you?" he asked. He meant - a proper computer.

Fixated as I was on lightness and a long battery life I ignored him, and have been suffering ever since. An example: start Word, go get a coffee, arrive back as the document opens on the screen.

As all of my files are on Dropbox, it doesn't matter that I can't get into the Netbook. So I think this is an opportunity to write it off and get one of those combined tablets cum laptops running Windows 8.1. Something I can work on (MS Office), and also use as a tablet.

Research to come. Meanwhile I've dug my old laptop out of a cupboard. The fan doesn't work but it's superior to the Asus device in all performance aspects. And the weather's getting colder ...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

'Summertime' - J. M. Coetzee

Mr Vincent,  an English academic, is writing a biography of J. M. Coetzee, the deceased Nobel prize-winning author. The book covers the mid-seventies when Coetzee had returned to Cape Town from America and was eking out a living as a teacher while caring for his widowed and ailing father.

We start with fragmentary diary entries from the period, which Vincent has manage to obtain from Coetzee's estate. The bulk of the book then consists of interviews between Vincent and various people who knew Coetzee during this period.

A picture emerges of the author as a withdrawn, passive intellectual - a man without presence. The women (and two had affairs - flings - with him) describe a person incapable of warmth, closed-in, almost asexual.  'How can a man be a great writer and yet be so ordinary, even weak, as a person?'  asks one interviewee.

I find the self-referential writing dazzlingly paradoxical. His characters are beautifully-drawn 'conventional people' who think that Coetzee is a solitary, over-intellectual misfit and loser, incapable of competent social interaction.

The Wikipedia article suggests this is not too far from the truth (at least as regards his extreme antisociality) yet it is the author himself who is telling us all this, with consummate skill. Not so much a fictionalised biography as an exploration of how people judge others, especially those unlike themselves.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Solar lights are go

Three days of charging are up and our night-lights have been turned on.

No more bumping into obstacles

Thursday, October 17, 2013

'Quantum Computing Since Democritus' - Scott Aaronson

If you’re a computational complexity theorist, then everything looks like .. well, a problem in computational complexity. Scott Aaronson is astonishingly bright, on top of his subject and genuinely droll: this book gives you a fly-on-the-wall view of how he engaged with his students at the University of Waterloo.

We start with a tour of prerequisites. Chapter 2 covers axiomatic set theory (ZF); chapter 3 Gödel’s Completeness and Incompleteness Theorems, and Turing Machines. In chapter 4 we apply some of these ideas to artificial intelligence, discuss Turing’s Imitation Game and the state of the art in chatbots, and also Searle’s Chinese Room puzzle. Aaronson invariably provides a fresh perspective on these familiar topics although already we see the ‘lecture note’ character of this book, where details are hand-waved over (because the students already know this stuff, or they can go away and look it up).

Chapters 5 and 6 introduce us to the elementary computation complexity classes and explain the famous P not = NP conjecture. This is not a first introduction – you are assumed to already understand formal logic and concepts such as clauses, validity and unsatisfiability. Chapters 7 and 8 introduce, by way of a discussion on randomness and probabilistic computation, a slew of new complexity classes and the hypothesised relations between them, applying some of these ideas to cryptanalysis.

Chapter 9 brings us to quantum theory. Six pages in we’re talking about qubits, norms and unitary matrices so a first course on quantum mechanics under your belt would help here. The author’s computer science take on all this does bring in some refreshing new insights. We’re now equipped, in chapter 10, to talk about quantum computing. Typically this is not architecture or engineering discussion; Aaronson is a theorist, and for his community, quantum computing means a new set of complexity classes with conjectural relationships to those of classical computation.

We now go off at a tangent as the author critiques Sir Roger Penrose’s views on consciousness as a quantum gravity phenomenon. I think it’s fair to say that no-one in AI takes this idea seriously, but the author has the intellectual resources to engage Penrose on his own ground here.

In chapter 12 we crank up the technical level to talk about decoherence and hidden variable theories. This is one of the most interesting chapters but is too discursive – really important concepts are touched on and then abandoned; for example the discussion of decoherence and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics  is set against a model of the multiverse, but it’s never quite clear whether Aaronson is assuming the reality of the Everett Interpretation or whether he has some other, more purely mathematical model in mind.

Chapter 12 reminds us that a computational complexity theorist’s idea of proof is a long way from that of a logician. We plunge into stochastic proofs, zero-knowledge proofs and probabilistically checkable proofs, all framed by a complexity analysis.

The next few chapters cover a series of topics in similar vein: quantum proofs (and their complexity classes), rebuttals of sceptical arguments against quantum computing (interesting and convincing), some technically demanding material on learning algorithms, and concepts of interactive proof.

The final few chapters are more philosophical: Aaronson applies his toolkit to topics such as the Anthropic Principle (via Bayesian reasoning); free will (he’s in favour but has a highly-idiosyncratic view of what free will is); time travel (how closed timelike curves impact on classical and quantum computation); and cosmology (black holes, the information paradox, with firewalls bringing us up-to-date).

I have to say that I did finish this book – it didn’t just sit on my coffee table, abandoned after the first few chapters, as the author rather fears in his preface. However, it has to be said that despite the author’s undeniable enthusiasm, complexity theory remains a minority taste. There are plenty of insights and novel observations even for those of us less enthralled but I hope it’s clear what kind of background the reader needs to get anything out of this volume.

To be fair, the book is already 362 pages long and to make the material less a write-up of post-graduate lecture notes and more a self-contained and smoothly-developed presentation of Aaronson’s many original insights would seem to require an inordinate amount of time and effort, without substantially increasing the likely readership. I enjoyed it, but not without a degree of frustration.

Solar is go! (Just kidding)

I already mentioned our thoughts about 'going solar'. The recent rise in fuel prices has refocused our minds on IKEA, and its planned solar panel roll-out in the South-West. Can't wait to see the electricity meter running backwards!

Four solar-power units charging up
We do, however, have a pilot project! The four solar-powered lights shown above will illuminate our back-door path - impenetrably dark at night. The solar cells (top) charge a triple-A battery in the compartment. At dusk a photocell triggers and the battery powers a small LED which shines onto a mirror-cone, reflecting the light horizontally through the transparent plastic.

At least that's what the instructions say: three days of sun-charging stand between now and first-light; the big switch-on will be Saturday night.

After the debacle of our non-fluorescent fluorescent paint, all our hopes hang on this!
Ploughed-field vs. green grass - colours sadly washed-out here

This afternoon on the Mendip hills: tee-shirt weather, no wind and the views very autumnal.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"The name is Bond ... " - er, no actually.

The intermittent 5:2 fasting and gym work have made my old suits (40 inch waist) something only a clown could love.

The author: M&S-clad

At the Clarks Village in Street last week I was able to pick up a new suit from the M&S outlet there. I wanted to say "The name is Bond - Nigel Bond" but I am reliably informed he's a snooker player.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The UK Government Public Services Network


The UK Government Public Services Network (PSN – formerly Public Sector Network) is a common communications network which connects Government and Public Sector organisations. This replaced a messy set of ad-hoc historical network connections.

The model for the PSN is the public Internet. Starting from the Internet’s architecture, standards and protocols the PSN has customised its own architectural variant with specialised network-network and network-user interfaces and defined security standards. Although very similar to the Internet both in concept and design, the PSN stands apart from it, barricaded behind security walls.

The specification for the PSN is not secret: it’s defined in this 160-page unclassified document available from the Internet:

Technical Domain Description Public Services Network Programme Version 4.0

The rest of this article is a brief summary of the Technical Domain Description document.

1. Architecture

Modern scalable IP networks are built to a three tier architecture. At the centre is a high-speed tier-1 core which provides the backbone connectivity. In the PSN this is called the Government Conveyancing Network (GCN) and is provided by a consortium of Service Providers (SPs) who interconnect using specified Network-Network Interfaces (NNIs). The public Internet uses the same model.

Connected to the core are the tier-2 aggregation networks. In the PSN jargon these are called Direct Network Service Providers (DNSPs). The DNSPs have standard NNIs to the GCN and user-network interfaces to their public sector customers.

Tier-3 is the access network connecting DNSPs to departments with their LANs, service requirements and many types of user-device. Also connected are specialised Service Providers offering: cloud services; voice, video and conferencing services; hosted email etc.

A diagram may make this clearer: the picture below shows the PSN architecture in the context of PSN performance monitoring.

  • GCNSP is a Government Conveyancing Network Service Provider
  • Diffserv is an IP standard for marking packets with their service priority (‘Differentiated Services’) which allows voice and video traffic to take priority over, say, background file transfers.
  • Performance Slices decompose the network for performance measurement purposes; the more general decomposition concept is that of a ‘slice’.

The PSN architecture

Carrier networks today do not simply forward IP packets. For greater control they use MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching) as their forwarding mechanism, and the PSN does likewise.

MPLS allows multiple VPNs to be layered onto an IP network and the document goes into some detail to describe the PSN VPN structure: less than 70 transit VPNs are allowed for manageability reasons: 5 predefined [service, performance measurement, service test + two spare] plus 65 for special requests.

The PSN also permits two forms of MPLS VPN interconnect between GCNSPs at NNIs (option A: revert to IP; option B: link at the MPLS VPN level)

2. QoS

The PSN permits six service classes as shown in the diagram below. Note that Service Providers can use their own Diffserv marking scheme within their own networks: the PSN defines an interface standard.

PSN Service Classes

Basically we have Real Time (EF), Application classes 1-4 (AF) and Default = Best Effort (DF). The document continues by specifying performance management metrics and procedures in considerable detail – have to keep the SP contractors up to scratch!

3. IP Address Management

The PSN is an IPv4 network and uses public address space. The PSN borrows from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) which has the following IPv4 address space available for use:

Class A, Network, Mask

The DWP allocates /16 ( subnets from this range for allocation to government service providers (i.e. 256 networks [8 bits] each containing 65,536 hosts [16 bits]).

The intention is to allocate IL2 addresses from the bottom of this range going up, and IL3 (enhanced security) addresses from the top going down.

Note that the public-range IP addresses deployed in the PSN are not advertised to the Internet and are not routable from the public Internet. This is achieved, as in the corporate environment, by a security perimeter using firewalls.

4. Domain Name Service (DNS)

As with all networks, the PSN provides DNS. Given security concerns, the DNS deployment is protected with the DNS security extensions DNSSEC.

5. Telephony

The PSN mandates a basic IP telephony service based on SIP/SDP/RTP as shown in this diagram.

PSN Telephony

The features to be provided in Basic Call include: make a call, receive a call, hold and transfer; CLI is also required.

The G.711 and G.729 codecs must be supported.

Media and signalling border control functions must be established between Service Providers.

6. Security (IL2 and IL3)

The PSN operates at IL2 (2-2-4 with protective marking of PROTECT). The document discusses at great length how to create an IL3 overlay onto the PSN: in short, this is achieved mostly with IPsec tunnels, the same way a VPN would be set up on the public Internet.

The key architectural idea is that of an Encryption Domain (ED), a network under the control of a single Service Provider which maintains an encryption service. To connect multiple EDs together the PSN supports an Inter-Provider Encryption Domain (IPED). This is the familiar tier-1 tier-2, core and aggregation layer philosophy. Initially the IPED is expected to connect at least 12 EDs.

To minimise delay and complexity, the PSN requires a maximum of three encryption hops end-to-end thus: user-ED-IPED-ED-user. This rather cluttered diagram may make things clearer.

PSN architecture with Encryption Domains and IPED

IL3 accreditation is also permitted for applications using TLS (Transport Layer Security, previously SSL – Secure Socket Layer). This is the protocol used for secure websites (https) and for secure voice signalling (SIP over TLS). The preference however is to set up secure and stable IPsec VPNs.

The IL3 overlay network needs access to time synchronisation for security certificate validation – note that the operation of the IL3 overlay requires the full apparatus of a PKI.

There is a separate IL3 DNS system which can also see the IL2 DNS (but not conversely).

UK Government Security Impact Levels (for reference)

  • Impact Level 1 - Unclassified
  • Impact Level 2 - Protect
  • Impact Level 3 - Restricted
  • Impact Level 4 - Confidential
  • Impact Level 5 - Secret
  • Impact Level 6 - Top Secret

PSN Service Provider Obligations

The document concludes with the complete list of Service Provider obligations to be conformant with the PSN standards. Covering all the sections above, the total number of obligations is 156.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Very droll ...

The Wells Literary Festival kicked off for us this lunchtime with John Mullan at St. Thomas Church. Mullan wrote "What Matters in Jane Austen" and seems intimately familiar with every character and event in her six novels (as well as stacks of other literary works).

John Mullan in action at St Thomas Church, Wells

Mullan is exceedingly droll (amusing that is, not - as in Austen's time - rude), theatrical and seems to inhabit the characters he talks about. He ran the hour-long session as Q&A: he would ask questions which he classified in difficulty as alpha, beta or gamma and then discourse on the audience's replies.

I am pleased to say that Clare uniquely got one question right: which Jane Austen character said 'I hate money!'?  

While the audience sat in puzzled silence, Clare answered that it was Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. Well done you!

Our next talk is Clive Anderson on Tuesday evening, although we've forgotten the subject.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Beside the mud ...

The text for today: 'Danger - Sinking Mud'. We saw two joggers running on the wrong side of this notice, midway between the strand line and the receding water. We looked again and they were gone .. one can only speculate.

"I do like to be beside the seaside!"

Clare persists on calling it 'Weston on the River' though I insist on the wisdom of the ancients: 'super mare' = 'above the sea', right? Since normally you can't see the water the discussion is moot.

Weston today was balmy, bathed in intermittent warm drizzle, and uncrowded. There was evidence of sun on the far side of the Quantocks, maybe 30 miles away but locally it was overcast. A walk along the front and then a promenade around the pier was quite enough. I can report that the Full Quart does excellent faggots.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Time to go solar?

It seems like a textbook case of investment appraisal.

It might look something like this

The 'standard installation' of photo-voltaic solar panels on your roof delivers around 4 kW peak (i.e. when the sun is shining right at them). The initial cost of such an installation, including the PV panels + electrics, putting them up and maintaining them, is around £7,000. The income is nominally £800 per year: £150 from the power saved in your own home plus £650 from the Government's inflation-proofed 'feed-in tariff' (as your roof helps to power the national grid).

Here's an analysis.

From these simple figures you deduce that:

  1. You will break even in nine years (9 * £800 = £7,200).
  2. Over the 20 years of the feed-in tariff contract you will make £16,000 = a £9,000 profit.

If the inverter breaks (that's the device which changes the DC volts from the photo-voltaic cells into 240 volt AC) you'll pay around £600 to replace it. That will come out of your profits.

  • You get electric power even if the mains supply goes down. (Update: I checked and sadly this doesn't happen - in an outage you lose power like everyone else).
  •  If you anticipate inflation - in general or specifically for energy-bills - the case looks better.
  • Psychologically you get a lift at every lower monthly power bill.

  • The aesthetics are pretty awful (PV tiles are better but twice as dear).
  • The revenues stay with the house .. but will it help resale?

No-one likes workmen around the house and there's always the risk of cowboys. This concern is substantially addressed by IKEA's entry into the market. Over the next 10 months they're rolling out a survey-install-maintain offer across the country. I somehow don't think IKEA are going to mess up, overcharge or leave you in a lurch.

I give no weight to arguments over Greenery. The cost-economics of houses as micro-solar power-plants makes little sense. Given we already have a power distribution network, generation rewards economies of scale and in a rational world it would be most economic to invest in cheap centralised generators (probably gas-fired from fracking). But we don't live in that world: the 'feed-in tariff' is a subsidy from people without solar panels to people with .. so why not side with the winners?

Most likely the investment makes most sense when you expect to stay in the house significantly beyond the break-even point. Like new cars, I believe that solar panels depreciate pretty fast - that initial £7,000 can't be counted as a durable financial asset, you're gonna lose its value.

  • If you invested £7,000 at 2.5% interest (say) for 20 years - withdrawing the interest every year as a dividend - you'd achieve £7,000 + 20 * £175 = £10,500
  • With the solar panels it's £16,000 - £7,000 = £9,000 
so the economic case is no slam dunk.

I think we'll wait until IKEA roll out their offer in Bristol (I think they have a cheaper installation generating around 3.5 kW) and we'll do the sums again.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

National Trust: Tintinhull, Montecute, Lytes Cary Manor

But first, a René Magritte pastiche.

"The Son of Man" - Magritte

Our homage to Magritte

We ran our National Trust cards well into the red zone today, visiting three sites in succession: Tintinhull Garden, Montecute House and Lytes Cary Manor. The National Portrait Gallery has an Elizabethan collection in the Long Gallery at Montecute which was particularly impressive.

Tintinhull Garden (National Trust)

Autumn flowers at Tintinhull Garden

Swinging in Montecute Gardens (National Trust)

The garden at Lytes Cary Manor (National Trust)

In another mysterious case of quantum teleportation this morning my debit card mysteriously disappeared from my wallet (this after the strange vanishing of my car keys last Tuesday). I really feel that I am at the centre of some very advanced physics in which quantum entanglement generates non-trivial, macroscopic wormholes. I just wish I knew where the other end was.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

"Flood" - Stephen Baxter ('Ark', 'Proxima')

I've been hot and cold on Stephen Baxter. Well, to tell you the truth, more cold. I found his early stuff pretty unreadable, stuffed with with cardboard characters, mere marionettes of the plot. But recently it's been time for a re-evaluation.

"Flood" was a library book, left on the shelves for years because to be honest, who wants to read another novel on climate change? But I took a chance and, guess what, it's not about climate change. Here's the Amazon review from G. J. Oxley, which I agree with well enough.
"This book begins in 2016 with the story of five hostages held in Barcelona, where it's raining heavily and won't stop. They're rescued by a team sent by Nathan Lomockson - a technocrat and very rich man - but not before one of them is brutally killed. The remaining four pledge to look out for each other from then on. Lomockson himself takes a lifelong interest in each of them, and their fates thereafter are tied in with his. The ensuing events in the novel take place over a span of around sixty years.

The narrative moves forward by chronological increments as the world's water level increases, and continues to rise. The episodic structure suits the book perfectly - it's a neat narrative trick. Baxter provides us with a series of snapshots of important events and details the human reaction to each stage of the increase.

Nathan sets himself up as a would-be saviour of the world. He appears at pivotal points throughout the story as the sea levels rise higher and higher, and we see the impact of important events on his and/or one or more of the former hostages. Although a hard-boiled, nuts and bolts SF writer, Stephen Baxter realises that his book would be nothing if the reader weren't allowed to engage emotionally with the characters.

And even though the characterisation isn't as strong as your average mainstream writer's, it's still good enough to carry the story of the watery death of an entire planet.

If you remember back to your schooldays (a harder and harder job for some of us!) the hydrologic cycle taught us that there is not one extra drop of water now than there was at the time of creation. So where is the extra water coming from? Melting icecaps? That would only be responsible for a limited increase. The author comes up with a fairly plausible reason for the scenario - and guess what? - we're responsible! But I'll say no more about this aspect, as I don't want to spoil the book for readers.

This is a big fat tome but I galloped through it very quickly. There are a lot of evocative scenes that resonate in the mind long after the book is finished, and it reminded me of why I fell in love with SF in the first place some thirty years ago. I for one am greatly looking forward to the follow-up `Ark', due out next year."
The Amazon reviews are all over the place. This is usually a 'keep-off' warning but we should be smarter here. Some of the reviewers think the characterisation is poor - well, it is Stephen Baxter and he's never going to be people-centric, but he really has improved. Other criticisms are really less convincing:

  • The lead characters (the hostages and the billionaire) are unsympathetic/damaged/dull. (Agreed but sometimes people are and it doesn't in fact detract from the story).
  • As the flood water rises, the rich and powerful use lethal force (even ethnic weapons) against the poor and dispossessed trying to scale their high-tech redoubts - and Baxter doesn't express moral disapproval. (And this wouldn't happen?)
  • The story is too focused on the survivors. (Well, they were the ones still around to convey the story forwards).

To be fair, this is classic 'sense-of-wonder' science-fiction as we're forced to ponder what would happen if the sea level just kept on rising*. At the end we discover there are three 'arks': we know what happened to one of them (an ocean liner which proves sadly unsustainable) but the other two are somewhat mysterious.

This is why I ordered today the sequel, 'Ark' **.

* You may wonder, as I did, how this could happen. Baxter does hard science-fiction and has an explanation backed up by some seismic data. (Please be assured that wormholes dumping water into the oceans operated by malevolent aliens are not involved).

** Also 'Proxima', again trying to 'interpret' the reviews.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Weird stuff

My car keys went missing today.

We had just entered Morrisons in Cribbs Causeway. My mother was pushing the trolley, there to do her shopping for the week. Just past the PR mist squelching the vegetables I routinely checked in my cardigan pocket. No keys.

Only mildly alarmed, I checked my jeans: wallet still there, mobile phone in the other pocket and that's it. I now entered the unreal world of the totally-unexpected:
  • denial ('this can't be happening') combined with 
  • aversion ('make this go away!'). 
Where are my car keys???

My rational module took control.

  • I addressed my mother thus: "I seem to have mislaid my keys. You carry on shopping and I'll try to find them,"
  • I retraced my steps back to where we entered the store, looking carefully on the floor and under the racks,
  • I worked on plan B: (call Clare in a minute, get her to drive the 25 miles from Wells bringing the other car key, take my mother & shopping back in a taxi).

Still no sign so I reported my loss to the store people (they also had a fruitless look) and then it occurred to me (far too late) to wonder whether I still even had a car. Back to the car park and there was no-one wandering around flicking a key fob and looking for flashing lights ... my car was still there. ('Should have immobilised it,' said Clare later).

Finally I returned to my mother, now halfway through her shopping. Without hope I looked in the trolley - nothing - then into her two rolled-up shopping bags.

There, in the bottom, my car keys.

So, I had helped my mother out of the car, then retrieved her shopping bags from the back seat, locked the car with the fob (I distinctly recalled this as it's something I mentally check afterwards) ... and then my memory is a blank. My reflex is to put the car keys in my pocket: it's what I do.

Why then would I have subconsciously put them in a shopping bag?

Clare teased, suggesting my mother 'dipped' me, 'planting' the keys for a laugh; my own thoughts turned briefly to quantum tunnelling, but there are just too many zeroes.

Everyone has been very quiet about the D-word.