Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Back / Heavy Metal / Fables / The Science Delusion

Back after a long time. Does anybody read this? Who cares ...?

I am currently listening to "Maiden Heaven" - a £2 Kerrange compilation CD I found in the FOPP near Cambridge Circus. I occasionally forget that sheer excitement in music that can only be provided by this genre. Iron Maiden got me into Metal, and I will always love them for that. This happened to me in that transition between 6th Form and University. I have subsequently been in many musical directions, and surely will continue to do so, but will always come back home to this kind of music.

Thanks to my recent neigbour Andy for getting me into Fables. I got into the world of comics via Neil Gaiman's Sandman in about 1994, and I have recently gone 12-step on a fourteen year increasingly expensive comics habit. I loved Sandman, with its references to everything from old DC horror and super-hero comics to myth and legend. However, I can quite happily say that Bill Willingham's Fables is a lot better. For a start, it doesn't have the pretentiousness and subtle liberal politics of Sandman. The characters are much more relatable than the deliberately abstract quantities of the Endless, and the irritating goth wannabes who comprise many of the other protagonists. I prefer the heroic mold of many of the characters. And most of all, it is a lot funnier.

I saw a book called The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake in a recent foray to Daunt Books in Cheapside. I have read a few books by the biologist, Richard Dawkins, and they are definitely worth reading, if only to be able to understand the debate. In recent times, his obsession with religion - or rather, the destruction of it, has begun to somewhat irritate me, so the title amused me. The book is interesting: essentially, he is asking for science to open itself up to other ideas, particularly those which don't take scientific materialism as a given. Be warned, some of the ideas in it (Morphic Fields) sound like they have been used by Science Fiction writers. Some of the book sounds quite wacky, if you have had a standard scientific education. However, the bit which caught my imagination was the chapter on rejecting the assumption that the brain "contains" consciousness. He posits that consciousness is actually a separate thing from the brain, which essentually is an organ for "tuning in" to consciousness. I had never been 100% satisfied with the standard attempts to explain thought and the brain, and this explanation seems to make more sense to me. Now we just need someone to research this! Which is the whole point of the book.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Deep Abiding Loves - Part 2: Radio 4

From as early as I can remember, Radio 4 has been there for me. I couldn't avoid it, since my mum tended to have it on during those days when she was actually a housewife, so it was essentially on all day. Both my parents still listen to it when doing something relatively menial, or when something good is on.

My earliest memories are listening to The Archers. Much has been written about this venerable program; indeed, it is the longest running soap opera in the world. I listen off and on to this, it being like eaves-dropping on neighbours rather than a piece of serious drama.

The dramas are on the whole pretty good. The one I have just listened to, Far North, was what impelled me to blog about the station, even though it turns out that it was actually first broadcast on Australian radio. The dramas I remember particularly fondly are The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. You would never get any other radio station do anything like these.

On the whole, it is the factual programs which I tend to listen to. It seems to me that there are very few decent serious current affairs programs left on the television. The best ones are Analysis and File on 4, which often do reporting on stories that no news stations would ever bother covering. Discussion programs range from the deadly serious Melvyn Bragg program "In Our Time", to the deadly-serious knock-about "The Moral Maze" to less serious fluff such as "Midweek". All have their place. The science programs "The Material World" and "Leading Edge" are usually excellent. Sadly, Radio 4 is the only non-dumbed down place to get science broadcasting. Horizon on BBC2 long ago resorted to making drama or power-point presentations with patronising voice-overs in the place of a serious attempt to communicate science.

The weakest type of program are currently the comedies. For every I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and The News Quiz, there are some deeply bad ones, usually written by bad stand-up comedians, straight from the Cambridge University footlights. Even the generally good Mitchell and Webb have a radio show which is a mix of good and bad sketches.

Finally, I really ought to mention the news programs. The news bulletins are all pretty good. Unfortunately, The Today Program has become a vehicle for the egos of the likes of John Humphries, who I now actively dislike. It used to be very good in the 70s and 80s when Brian Redhead did the program, but I now find the political interviews generally a waste of time. And to be frank, the whole program is way too self-congratulatory. Much better is The World at One, which in a half hour does short and to the point reportage. However, the best program is PM, which recently became solely presented by the excellent Eddie Mair, who is probably its best presenter ever. He is unfailingly polite and calm, even when interviewing the most difficult of subjects, and brings a wonderful light touch and sense of humour to the program.

All in all, this is a fantastic service. Whilst I find it occasionally a bit too politically correct, and there is a distinct left-wing bias in all its programming, I am very glad that it remains.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Waters of Mars

I loved the latest Doctor Who special The Waters of Mars. Yet again, it had zombies - this time the poor humans on Bowie Base were being converted into servants of "The Flood", a kind of unseen entity frozen in a glacier (by the Ice Warriors of things - yet another Russell T. Davies continuity reference) that had been recently tapped as water supply for the base. It seems to give you a particularly bad case of chapped lips and scary eyes. You also get a weird ability to exude water from your body. It starts with a few drips down your arms, and ends with projectile vomiting torrents of H20 out of your mouth. And as the Doctor says, "Don’t drink the water. Don’t even touch it. Not one drop.", otherwise you get taken over by The Flood.

After the classic initial hostile reception, the Doctor gets involved with his usual enthusiasm, until he realises that he has unwittingly stumbled into a historic event - one, as with the Fires of Pompeii, he is unable or unwilling to get involved with due to the "Laws of Time". For most of the story, he remains as essentially an observer, and actually refuses to help the leader, Adelaide, because she is destined to be the inspiration for humanity leaving the Earth, and this only happens if she dies. The Doctor tells Adelaide this, and not only does she believe the Doctor, she is prepared to nuke the base, if that is what it takes to make sure history survives. However, at the last minute, the Doctor has a change of heart. This section is brilliant. After all the awful scenes of the humans being assimilated one by one, he returns in "Doctor mode", and manages to save the last three, including Adelaide. And I loved him for that.

However, they are not as happy as the Doctor thinks. Adelaide asks why did he do this, and the answer is essentially "because I can". It becomes apparent from the Doctor's arrogant attitude that he believes that since he is the last Time Lord left, why shouldn't he able to change history to make him feel better. She actually ends up committing suicide in her old house. This is a big change from the character we saw played by Christopher Ecclestone. And it seems that by changing history, he has hastened his own demise: he gets a vision of Ood Sigma telling him that he has little time left; and when he goes back into the TARDIS, the cloister bell is ringing.

Despite this, I was slightly confused about the in-world logic here. The idea seemed initially be that the ex-humans were literally dehydrating themselves to provide the water. This would have been a cool concept, as they would be left as husks. However, the amount of water was way over the top for that. Later on, it seemed that they were literally creating water out of nothing. However, if this was the case, why did they want to seize the oceans of earth? The only explanation that makes sense is that they were somehow channelling the water from the glacier. Best not to think about it (like a lot of recent Doctor Who).

I was also confused about Adelaide's motive for committing suicide. For a start, she had no definite proof that the Doctor was initially "right" about letting her die on Mars. She only had the Doctor's word on it. Also, by committing suicide on Earth, I can't see why that would somehow "fix" the timeline back to the original. As the Doctor says, she could end up mentoring her grandchild to make exactly the same inter-system flight that she makes in the original timeline.

However, all in all, this was a welcome return to form, after the last two dreadful specials. The next two episodes look like they are going to be good.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Andrew and Emma's Wedding

This weekend I attended my cousin Andrew's wedding to his new wife, Emma. Whilst I am very fond of my cousins, Andrew and Christopher, we rarely meet other than at Christmas / New Year. As a result, I hadn't actually met Emma until the day itself, and thank God she turned out to be a really lovely person.

It was the first Catholic wedding I'd been to. I was wondering whether there would be any differences with the standard CofE affair, but it was only halfway where I had a certain amount of cognitive dissonance at the end of the Lord's Prayer. I was about to go onto

For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
when I realised that the left side of the church (predominantly Catholic) had already said "Amen". This happened about fifteen minutes later as well, so it wasn't me falling asleep or going deaf.

The reception was really good - in a converted barn way out beyond Epping. I have to admit that I didn't mix that day with anyone other than my immediate family. Partly because it is rare that I see them all together in one place, but also because having not had much sleep and countless glasses of wine, I was seriously beginning to get tired way too early. To be able to talk to people I have never met before, I have to be on top form, and that includes a good night's sleep.

The speeches were all excellent: heartfelt and moving, and also really funny. Andrew and Emma talked with great feeling and honesty, with was touching. Christopher's best man speech was a real tour de force. And Emma's father gave a really good summing up of Andrew's character. Yes, that's thing about both the Mills brothers - they're fundamentally decent people. I'm proud to know them.

* * *

It is amazing, but I am yet to go to a bad wedding. I have heard about nightmare weddings where there have been bad atmosphere, embarrassing mishaps, and horrible priests or vicars. Let's hope I never have to experience that.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Deep Abiding Loves: Part 1 - Jethro Tull

As with my late-onset comic book habit, I got into buying music fairly late in life. Whilst I didn't actively dislike 80s pop music, at the time I never really got into the whole teenage annoying your parents thing. Possibly because I was a very non-rebellious teenager, and I just couldn't get that enthused about it. At the time, I probably played more music than actively listened to it.

It wasn't until the summer holidays before my first year at university that I finally started delving into the wonderful world of music. And typically for me, it hadn't been in the singles charts since 1970. I accidentally listened to a program on Radio 1 in which Ian Anderson and Martin Barre of Jethro Tull were playing a live acoustic session, and I was completely enthralled. Finally, this was the music I had been looking for, but hadn't realised it.

I find it difficult to classify the band (often a good thing). Some of their music is distinctly hard rock combined with acoustic instruments (Aqualung); some is blatant prog-rock (Thick as a Brick); some is straight acoustic (Wond'ring Aloud). One notable quirk is the unusual use of the flute in both acoustic and rock pieces (Locomotive Breath). This all makes their music slightly odd. But this is nothing to how utterly insane the band looked during their classic (1970s) period (represented by all the last few links).

Whilst at University, I started to learn guitar after being inspired by Jethro Tull. In fact, my earliest mention on the internet is thanks to the band. Around '91, I was on a Jethro Tull fan mailing list in which we tried to decipher all these wonderful acoustic songs we loved. The sense of achievement was great, although I began to wear out my tapes after listening the same few seconds of song hundreds of times. Nothing remains of the mailing list apart from a retrospective newsgroup post which has been cannibalised by a lot of guitar tab aggregator site. To see this, try typing "Mark Bertenshaw" "Dun Ringil" into Google.

More recently, I have tried to learn a few more by using some of these guitar tab sites. But you have to be really careful, because a lot of the tabs are wrong, and this wrongness gets multiplied by the fact that the same tab gets reused with the same mistakes. The song I had recently tried was Life is a Long Song, possibly my all-time favourite song. However, it had cocked up the introduction. Thank God for the internet - I found a very nice clear version here.

After discovering Tull, I quickly got side-tracked by their connection to the folk/rock band Fairport Convention, and thus onto connected artists such as Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. I became a fan of lot of 70s rock and prog bands, and a whole load of Hawkwind (although in retrospect, this may have been influenced by my Deep Abiding Love for the writings of Michael Moorcock). And for this I am very, very grateful.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

No Changing Rooms

I am forever told to get on and redecorate my house - mostly by women who look around with a mixture of incomprehension and disgust. I think I understand what they mean. It would be nice to not have a carpet in my living room which has inexplicable black patches on it; or get rid of the peeling patch of wallpaper. But basically, I'd rather not, because it is all such a hassle. Do you know how many books I would have to make homeless before getting at the walls? [Answer: too many.]

It is probably quite telling that the one bit of what you might call DIY I have done recently was not to strip down the nasty woodchip paper on the ceiling and replace it with magnolia, nor to retile my kitchen. Actually, it was to go mental with an electric drill, a good ten metres of copper cabling and many wireclips in the attempt to replace the sad, and possibly malfunctioning, cable that snaked along my hallway to my ADSL modem/router. Yes, my internet connection is very important [it took nearly two years to get BT to fix the real problem - but that is another story].

In turn, I have a lot of incomprehension at the sheer amount of time, money and effort put into doing up houses. And it's not just the madmen and madwomen shown to us on programs such as Property Ladder (now topically renamed Property Snakes and Ladders). I have friends who seriously think nothing of coming home from work, and immediately start grouting above the sink. It's bad enough having to do without useful rooms, like bathrooms, whilst you have the builders in; but it is far worse if you have to spend four hours of evening work for the next six weeks. I'd rather spend this time reading through my backlog, writing code, or playing my guitar.

And, whilst I am on this subject, don't get me started about conservatories. My house is a mid-80s build, with nice cavity wall insulation. Why on earth would you deliberately want to add yet another room that you'll have to heat, and which is less energy efficient than the rest of your house to boot? If I was going to dig up half my garden, I'd do something useful with it, like grow more potatoes, carrots and rhubarb.

So it was massively satisfying to me on Saturday, when I visited the house of a friend (who will remain nameless) for the first time, and I discovered that his house had remained in the same unimproved state for even longer than mine! The house had previously belonged to his grandmother, and walking through the front door was like falling through the Time Tunnel into an earlier age: the 1950s, possibly. I loved it: it had the original wallpaper, some of the original electrics, and original furniture. It even had old wooden armchairs with antimacassars (and that was the new word for that day).

However, in my heart, I know it cannot last. As a broken Winston Smith awaits his killing bullet, I await the time when the pressure finally breaks me, and I give in. I shall make a bonfire of my books, comics and clothes - my previous life dissipating into the finest of ash. For the first time, I will pass the threshold of B&Q or Wickes without reacting like Damien outside Guildford Cathedral. I will actively relish choosing the new shade of paint with my partner. I will enjoy the sensation of stripping wallpaper. I will sing with joy at the installation of my second bathroom. I will finally learn to love it all.

Current Obsessions: Part 3 - VB and C#


There is something I have been embarrassed to tell anyone. Even my close friends don't know the depths to which I have gone. Only one friend, somebody I met through role-playing, knows the sad truth, and he has good reason. He works for Microsoft. And I program using Microsoft Development tools.

It all started in 1994. After a bad time failing my Chemistry degree at Reading University, and instead learning about all sorts of exciting ways to hack Unix, I had ended up with not much other than the ability to make exciting reactions, and program in Modula 2, Ada, Fortran and Basic. It was the latter which saved me.

Whilst I had been brought up roughly knowing a smattering of BBC Basic, I applied myself properly at learning how to hack the QBasic bundled with the DOS 5 on my father's new PC. Responding to an advert, I got a job working for a small company in Surbiton, Perfect Software, which wrote accounts software for solicitors. My job was to convert the TurboBasic program that existed into a Visual Basic 3 program. This was an excellent way into the IT industry for someone who essentially had no paper qualifications. I also became a massive fan of everything Microsoft.

Visual Basic was probably the most popular development system in the world in the 90s. The language was easy to learn, allowed you to create a workable GUI in minutes, was forgiving of mistakes, and most importantly, provided an automated memory management system. In fact, most people didn't know that a memory management system existed. In many respects, this was its downfall. If you were a C/C++ programmer you had to understand what a pointer was; but the entry level for Visual Basic required little knowledge and understanding in comparison. So, on average, there were more bad VB programmers than any other kind. It must be true, because I have met so many, or rather, have cleaned up way too much of their shitty code.

Of course, I considered myself to be pretty hot stuff - in the VB world, you understand. I gained knowledge of how to use a lot of the internal Windows functionality that was glossed over by the nice, easy to use toolkit. I learned scary things like creating COM objects out of User Defined Types and using arrays to access arbitary memory locations. But still, I felt that there was something missing. Something that many people have labelled C++ Envy. This was a condition that caused many VB programmers to think that they were second class citizens when compared to Visual C++ programmers. Maybe this was because the documentation for Windows assumed you were writing in C or C++. Or that all the really hardcore applications seemed to come with the Visual C++ runtime library. Or that VB didn't support inheritance. Even when native code compilation appeared in VB 5, it still seemed so unfair!

At the end of the 90s, news came to the VB community that Microsoft was planning a new initiative which would bring VB up to parity with their C++ brethren. Visual Basic 7 would come with inheritance and other more advanced object features. They would share run-times and documentation with all Microsoft languages. Suddenly, VB programmers could hold their heads up high.

Unfortunately, it became apparent that it wasn't quite as simple as that. Microsoft, for many good technical and financial reasons, had designed a new virtual machine, the Common Language Runtime, and essentially twisted Visual Basic to fit in with this new model, called ".NET". It turned out that the new language was incompatible with the new language; and even if you used the VB6->VB.NET converter, a lot of the code still had to be rewritten.

There was a massive split in the VB community. Some people were happy to move to a new system which gave them new abilities and some advantages. Others were furious that they would have to rewrite their code without getting a lot in return. The arguments became quite personal and vitriolic. There are certainly people to this day who have not (and probably will not ever) forgive Microsoft.

As for myself, I eventually saw both points of view. But then again, I didn't personally own thousands of lines of production code to be rewritten. I would happily take the money, although rewriting code never seemed a particularly fascinating job. Of course, it eventually happened that I had to do just this. It was probably one of the most annoying experiences in my life, because the converter seemed not to understand whole chunks of my code. In the end, there was so much code to change, I took the plunge and went to rewrite the lot in C# instead.

When it was said that VB would have parity with other Microsoft languages, this hasn't been strictly true. It turns out that Microsoft's own language, C#, is actually more capable overall. It is now my language of choice. Like Java, it is descended from C++, and runs on a virtual machine. Unlike Java, it supports pointers and a greater number of value types. (See this article for a full comparison). The features I absolutely love are Generic Types, simplified enumerator objects, delegates, and with version 3, the amazing Linq sub-language.

Ironically, after all the fuss, it has been thanks to both VB.NET and C# working on the same platform which has made it so easy to jump ship to C#. I'll be surprised if there are ever as many VB.NET programmers as there used to be VB programmers.