feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (Default)

avatarA while back, despite firm resolution not to, I got into an argument on Facebook.

I know.

A fellow cycling enthusiast, one who prefers the Dutch model of segregated facilities (I KNOW) posted about numbers of people cycling. In what I considered to be a counter-productive generalisation, he made an observation that only a small sub-set of risk-taking males choose to cycle on the roads.

Statistically speaking, he might be right, for given values of “statistically speaking”, “sub-set” and “choose”. But it rubbed me up the wrong way, because it’s not a small sub-set of risk-taking males who choose to cycle on the road. I cycle on the road, even when there’s a path available (I find paths inherently more hazardous). I’ve got quite a track record of persuading other women to cycle on the road, too. Frood cycles on the road, and while he’s male (in the strict, biological sense), he’s no risk taker.

Merkin Farm
I promise these are not risk-taking males. Plus, that’s my Pompino in the middle of the shot.

In fact, the majority of people I know who cycle on the road don’t do so because they’re risk takers, male or female: they do so because their assessment of the risk is much, much less than that of those who insist it’s too dangerous.

People are not going to be encouraged to cycle by the assertion that the only people willing to cycle on the road are risk-taking males. My experience of encouraging others to start cycling suggests that it’s much more effective to explain risk assessment and mitigation in detail. Ride so people can see you; behave in a way that’s predictable (i.e. like traffic); understand that the vast majority of drivers really don’t want to hit you; and pay attention because not everyone else on the road does, but understand that’s mostly because they’re Clarkson-wannabes or desperate to get home because their children are being menaced by a hungry, angry, peedo lion and the house is on fire, which is pretty rare, and here’s how to deal with them.

Of course, that doesn’t support the argument that cyclists absolutely must have fully segregated facilities before even contemplating putting a leg over a top tube. Still, no argument looks all that great when it’s demonstrably false from the get-go.

Cyclists who choose to cycle on the road are not a small sub-set of risk-taking males, although they may include a small sub-set of risk-taking males. They’re mostly people who have looked at the hazards, availed themselves of relevant mitigation strategies (lights, positioning, behaviour, vigilance, route choice) and decided that it’s a relatively safe activity.

Including me.

Dumb Run 2008 - RB at Linlithgow

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (Default)

avatarAs a MoC supporter, I’ve had my talons on a copy of episode 4 for a while now (by which I mean a couple of weeks) but other projects have kept me from listening.

Sorry, Dan. Hope this makes up for it.

It has been a while since we last visited Tanto, and those of you who have already been swept up by the series might want to go back and listen again to previous episodes. Those of you who haven’t — this isn’t the best place to start. They’re all free, so there’s no excuse for not downloading all of them and catching up. I’ve tried to keep this review spoiler-free, but comments on the story will make more sense if you have some idea of the context. You can also check out my reviews of previous episodes using the MoC tag.

MoC banner

Episode 3 left us in the middle of diverging story arcs and with a number of questions. Episode 4 set about weaving those story arcs back together and answering some of those questions.

It started with a scene of high action, in which a major character (spoilers!) hijacked a vehicle that shall forever in my head be called War Rocket Ajax. We were then given a nice portrayal of Professor Cantha in her new role as Science Advocate for the Resistance — no Ben Goldacre, the Professor; Jenny Agutter did a good job of showing the hesitancy and discomfort of a science hermit pressurised into the role of rationalist preacher. There were shades of Monty Python — when Cantha spoke of a man finding an apple tree, a heckler called, “And he made cider!”

She’s not the Messiah…

We finally discovered the Horseman’s goal, and a little more about him. Maybe a little more is enough, given that the role he performs is somewhere between Judge Dredd and the Predator, measured into a blender with a dose of Time Lord and pulsed until smooth. From his conversations with Kitty, stilted as they were, we are left with the question of whether every Time Lord considers himself and his fellows to be walking weapons of mass destruction, and, again, what was it that brought them here — not to Tanto, specifically, but this particular set of worlds.

There was also the big reveal, of course, although I’ve been bound not to give away any major plot details, so you’ll have to listen to find out that one for yourself.

The immersive quality of the production hasn’t diminished, although I found the mix levels a bit off in places in this particular episode. It was especially noticeable during the first scene with the Minister and the Horseman — the sound effects and music combined to make speech a little hard to hear and you might find it useful to fiddle with the sound settings on whatever device you’re using to give priority to vocals. I also wonder if a brief guide page would be useful, and perhaps one of the Minister Moguls with more time on his or her hands than I have might oblige with a page listing the major characters and locations. Jura and Durian, for instance, look very different on paper, but don’t sound that different. Personal preference, perhaps, but a crib page would help with things like that and also assist with the inevitable fade from memory that happens in the gaps between episodes — not a problem if you listen to them back to back, of course.

The characterisation, as always, is superb. There were some great one-liners and exchanges, particularly where Kitty is involved:

“Give us some food.”
“It don’t grow on trees, you know.”
“Yes it does!”

Then there was the Witch Prime’s (Sylvester McCoy) comment to Durian (Paul McGann):

“Charm only carries you forward. It won’t let you stand still.”

Given Professor Cantha’s apparent faith in the idea of linear cause and effect, the notion that the soon-to-be Witch Prime Emeritus was referring to the quark rather than the personal attribute amused me.

Dan Freeman should be proud of what he’s accomplished with this series. The writing balances satisfying complexity with an awareness of the limitations of the medium. He’s not afraid to expect the listener to pay attention and use his or her grey matter, and it’s a relief to be trusted to work it out for myself. At the same time, he has given us enough information, whether in dialogue or soundscape, to be able to work it out for ourselves, thus avoiding frustration. Hindsight is, after all 20:20. He also devotes effort to character interaction, something of which we don’t get to see (or hear) enough these days. MoC is an oasis in a desert of writing aimed at short attention spans requiring high drama and plot-driven storytelling. Freeman shows it is possible to have excitement and pace without foregoing sophistication.

Episode 5 is in production at the moment and I have high expectations. I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (barefoot)

Anyone who has spent enough time in my presence to notice my shoes will know that I’m a committed user of Vibram Fivefingers (VFFs), and have been for the last three years. I am rarely found in anything else when travelling on foot. Initially I started wearing them because they allowed me to walk properly and run again after a serious foot injury. Now I wear them because normal shoes feel weird and wrong, not to mention resurrecting the problems that made me turn to barefoot living in the first place. I have KSOs for work and Bikilas for running.

The problem is, of course, that I live in a maritime climate at a similar latitude to Gothenburg, Yekaterinburg and Fort McMurray. That means that most of the year it is wet, and in the winter it is wet and cold. Outdoor pursuits that involve walking or running in VFFs are out for a large chunk of the year. My damaged foot does not tolerate being cold and wet and VFFs are neither warm nor waterproof.

Or rather, they weren’t.

December 2012 saw the long-awaited release of Vibram’s new insulated and/or waterproof models, the Lontra (and its LS variant) and the Speed XC. To say that I’d been champing at the bit to get hold of a pair is something of an understatement. I’d heard about their coming release back in September and my race season generally starts in March. Losing an entire winter’s training could have scuppered my comeback so I went as far as emailing the UK distributors of Vibram, as well as Vibram Europe and Vibram US.

I think I must have been one of the first UK residents to order a pair, direct from Italy just before Christmas. As I’ve got on so well with the Bikila and the KSO I went for the Lontra as the strap fastening and the neoprene cuff appealed. The shoes arrived on Hogmanay, and our trip down to Fife to see my parents was delayed as I refused to go without them.

They had their first outing on New Year’s Day, on a walk that took us across muddy farmland, along the beach, and back up a muddy path.

On the beach

First off, this should not be your first pair of VFFs. If you do not already own a pair, this review is of no use to you. Go and try a pair of Classics or KSOs or Treks first. Then you can come back. The reason I say this is because the laminated, water-resistant fabric is very stiff and the fit is snug. I spent 15 minutes getting these on the first time and if my toes didn’t already know what to do I think I might have failed.

If you already own a pair and the fit is on the tolerable side of small, get a size up from your usual. These are tight. The thicker material and overall stiffer shoe affects how your foot sits inside. I have quite small toes — my big toe is indeed my biggest, my little toe is tiny — and the fit is bearably small rather than comfortable. My other VFFs have a tiny gap at the end of the toes and using socks is not a problem. If you live in a very cold climate and want to wear socks then you may find the recommended size too snug for comfort.

The Lontra

You’ll notice from that image that there is a neoprene cuff and an extra loop at the front. If you try putting these on the way you put on KSOs you’ll be there for a while. The instructions are no different, but I would suggest pulling the neoprene up over the heel far enough that the rear loop is accessible and the heel is up against the main body of the shoe, then working the toes into place with the aid of the front loop, and only then pulling the heel up and settling into the heel cup. These are not shoes to use in an offroad triathlon if you want a fast T2.

On the foot

This may also not be the model for you if you have moderate to high arches. I don’t consider myself to have a particularly high instep, but as you can see from the picture the fastening strap only just reaches the fluff for the velcro. It pops off repeatedly, to the point of irritation. I don’t understand why the shoe has been designed like this, as all it would take is another inch or two of strap and it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not as if they are worried about putting velcro on the strap — there is plenty of it, but the strap itself is too short. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how compressed the shoe got if I attached the strap near the start of the velcro. Below you can see the shoe done up this way and done up without any compression.

Compressed

Normal

Done up to give a proper foot shape, any flex pops the strap. If I do it up tightly enough for the strap to remain attached, I get painful compression over the top of the foot and my right big toe goes numb. All for the want of an inch or so of strap. It’s mind-boggling.

20130108_7

Performance-wise, these more than live up to expectations. They are warm and cosy, and, although billed as water-resistant rather than water-proof, kept my feet dry through mud, shallow rockpools and even a brief foray into the sea to retrieve a ball a toddler had lost. They let in a spot of wet when I used a jet of water from a hose to wash off the mud, and I can’t complain about that.

Some feedback is lost as the footbed is well constructed to protect against rocks and give traction on slippy surfaces. I had no problems walking over pebbles and rocks, and felt sure-footed over mud. The fleecy liner is comfortable against bare skin — I have not worn them often enough to judge what the infamous funk is like.

All in all these shoes do what I hoped they would do in terms of letting me get out and about in the cold and wet. I am mystified by the strap design, and wish I’d known about the tight fit before I bought them. I would probably have gone for the next size up. I would also have given serious consideration to getting the LS variant, which offers more room for high arches, although I suspect I would still have chosen this model because it has the neoprene cuff. In an ideal world Vibram would offer an LS model with elastic laces and a neoprene cuff, or add a couple of inches to the strap on the Lontra.

For summer walking in the wet these will most likely be too warm and the Speed XC might be the better option.

If you feel the same way about ‘normal’ shoes as I do, then Vibram’s new water-resistant range perform brilliantly in terms of keeping out the wet and the cold. Assuming they are all like the Lontras, they are sized ever-so slightly on the small side; and the Lontras have a serious issue when it comes to the strap design. They aren’t cheap, but there’s not much to choose from when it comes to waterproof, insulated, barefoot shoes.

They are definitely a shoe for the enthusiast, and I hope Vibram will improve on the design to make them a more comfortable, forgiving winter option.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (Default)

avatarNo one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.

The Original and Best

Thus speaks Richard Burton’s inimitable, mellifluous voice at the start of the 1978 Musical War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne’s most famous creation. My mother has eclectic musical traits (a trait I am endlessly grateful to have either inherited or had inculcated) and a copy of this has been in her music collection for as long as I can remember. It may be a dreadful thing to confess, but this was my introduction to H G Wells and was one of my formative speculative fiction experiences. As a girl of primary school age, my initial reaction was one of awe: never would I consider bacteria the in the same way as I had. My mum has been known to tell family friends that my first comment was, “I’ll never put bleach down the toilet again.”

That’s what good speculative fiction should do. Change the way you think.

The sound effects, chilling in isolation and fed through the score until the guitars became gibbering Martian voices while the synthesisers spat blistering heat rays and spread shivering fronds of red weed across the soundscape, remain as effective now as they ever were. The actors and musicians, used to working live in
front of theatre audiences and minus the visual extravaganzas now employed, conveyed their roles with conviction and feeling. The depiction of the Thunderchild crew sacrificing themselves and their ship to save the passenger liner is something I can clearly visualise to this day, despite never having physically seen more than an artist’s impression in the album’s accompanying booklet.

I can see an Ironclad warship going down under the irresistible assault of a Martian heatray, because Jeff Wayne’s composition utterly nails it.

Many years later I picked up an album called Ulludubulla Volume 2, which I reviewed at the time. There I said I didn’t see any reason not to update a musical, but overall the album didn’t really work for me. It was not, however, a remake of the original, but a series of tracks inspired by it.

The 2012 reboot

2012 saw a brand new version of this iconic album hit musical theatres and CD/MP3. Richard Burton’s part is now played by Liam Neeson and David Essex’s artilleryman has been given to Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. Justin Hayward’s part is sung by Gary Barlow, who manages to sound like he’s mostly asleep and only doing it for the paycheque. Phil Lynott’s throaty, gargly Parson Nathaniel is now Maverick Sabre with some weird mishmash accent and the beautiful, emotive voice of Julie Covington has been replaced by that of Joss Stone, which is more operatic JCB than concerned but fatally optimistic angel.

The original score has been “updated” with some odd little riffs of electronica and bass, which serve no purpose other than to indicate that this is New! Improved! Hip! and On Trend!

“Hey kids! We know you like dubstep and psytrance these days, so we put in some tweaks just for you!”

Then there’s the script, which has also been altered. There’s an entire additional passage of exposition-heavy dialogue, in which the Journalist explains how the Martians gave up sex and got rid of bacteria. This is, obviously, based on the original work, but part of the joy of the original is that it stands on its own — there is no need to have read the book. When I heard this, I stopped what I was doing and stared at my player. “How in the hell did he find that out? He’s been trudging round a red-weed infested London trying to survive, not conducting scientific research into the mating habits and pathology of the alien invaders!”

I haven’t seen this in the theatre, where they have introduced whizzy special effects. I don’t especially want to now that I’ve heard it. The original didn’t need them, as it was carefully crafted to do without. The 2012 version has suffered from revision and, possibly, part of that is because there are whizzy special effects in the show.

Only one thing stood out as remarkable. Remember I was talking about Ulludubulla Vol. 2? That album starts with an interesting spoken word piece by Papa Ootzie, looking at the Eve of the War from the point of view of the Martians.

“The problem is, of course, the humans,” are the last words spoken in the epilogue, and they sounds suspiciously like a straight lift from the above track.

Unless you are the sort of person who buys things just to have them in the collection, I wouldn’t recommend this version. The original is by far superior in every way, from score to script to performance. Get a copy of that, instead.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

Winter sun

Dec. 27th, 2012 11:28 pm
feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (footprints)

We’ve had a quiet Christmas at home, the first one we’ve ever not spent with other people. We’ve avoided the traditional festive excess, although I did buy a tree, which is currently festooned with various plush animals, scented pine cones, tinsel and blue lights that resemble tiny aliens or deep sea bioluminescence more than they do fairies. As we’ve both been suffering from the plague that suddenly descended upon Aberdeen, it was quite nice to have the time to recover.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s triathlon season, and contemplating camping destinations for the summer. My new, water-resistant Vibrams should arrive in time for New Year so maybe we’ll be able to resurrect our Hogmanay Chain Walk tradition — winter adventuring has been out of the question for the last couple of years because of my dodgy foot, as the existing Vibram Fivefinger models are neither waterproof nor especially warm. Not ideal for Scottish weather in the cold months.

I have been restricted to short walks in big boots, but there are still beautiful things to be seen even then. One of the joys of this time of year is the low sun in crisp, clear skies.

Balmedie Sunset

I have a particular love for the interactions of sun, sea, sand and sky, and in winter they can be especially glorious. My skill with the camera not being sufficient to do them justice doesn’t stop me trying.

Winter reflections

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (me and stitch)

A couple of Christmases ago, my beloved brother bought us a Mindflex, knowing that I like that sort of thing.

For those who find clicking on links and watching videos too much tl;dr, the basic premise is that you wear a headband sensor that registers brain activity. If there’s a lot, power is increased to a fan, causing a foam ball to rise in the air (like balancing a ping pong ball on an air dryer — what do you mean you’ve never tried that?) and the player twiddles a knob to send the fan around the course. There are a variety of obstacles one can place around the course, with varying levels of ‘control’ needed to make it through them.

Click through for SCIENCE )

I think what we can definitely say, however, is that how well you do at Danger Zone isn’t necessarily related to how much control you have over your brainwave activity. As a biofeedback training tool, it’s not much use.

I’m obviously not the only one to want to test this, either:

What I like best about that are the people getting really upset in the comments because they believe it REALLY DOES WORK UR JUST DOIN IT RONG.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (Default)

Because I’ve got several deadlines coming up, as well as NaNoWriMo, I am spending a lot of time at my desk. I’ve had a few days off work, to concentrate on writing, and haven’t been getting out much. Our house is a little on the tepid side, and it has been quite cold sitting here scribbling or tapping away. Today’s weather was glorious sunshine, and I thought I’d spend half an hour cleaning Fingal and getting Shackleton all wintrified with his new rack and lights etc. As you do on a sunny day when you want to be riding but can’t spare the time.

Fingal at PaddingtonFingal has been standing in as commuter since my knee went a bit dodgy and Shackleton ate his Carradice Trax, leaving him incapable of carrying luggage. Both Shackleton and Fingal are quite bitey (like the TARDIS), which I’ve always put down to them being commuter bikes and needing to defend themselves against reprobates. Fingal tends to bite people — Shackleton tends to bite his own kit.

Shackleton et his mudguard!Half an hour or so in the sunshine. That’s all I wanted.

But no. As is the way of bikes, as soon as you do any maintenance, you discover a whole host of things that need sorting.

Shackleton seems to have taken a bath in salt at some point. I don’t know when, or how, or where it came from, but in the time he has been snuggling against the other bikes he has become afflicted with rust. The new 135mm double-fixed rear hub I spent months looking for has bearings that feel like they are made of sand and grit, despite having a grand total of 200km on it. The offside rear brake arm has completely seized. The bottom bracket is clunking and, to top it all off, the self-extractor for the Truvativ crank has mysteriously vanished, so I can’t even take the transmission apart to see what size bottom bracket I need.

At one point I might have thought I needed a new bike. I certainly wouldn’t have known what was causing all the grinding and I’d probably have panicked. But these days I know what I’m doing with bikes and so I can make a neat little list of what needs to happen to sort it out.

  • Have bath to wash off assorted bicycle gunk;
  • Ignore brake as the rear brake is just a handy place for keeping spare brake blocks anyway (it’s a fixed gear);
  • Order new M12 self-extracting crank bolt (about 10 quid);
  • Take rear wheel and old hub to shop, ask them to change cartridge bearings (I don’t have flat spanners that can do the job). This will fix my wheel and give me a spare hub, yay;
  • Buy new chain to replace rusty one;
  • Get cranks off, remove bottom bracket, check size, buy and fit new bottom bracket;
  • Find somewhere that will shot-blast and repaint my Pompino for a decent price.

All of this is relatively easy, bar the last one. I got Fingal resprayed by Argos Cycles about 10 years ago and they did a splendid job but it wasn’t cheap. Well worth it, I just can’t afford it right now.

So it’s not the end of the world, just a pain in the backside. Which is about how I used to feel about punctures — these I no longer consider as repairs. They’re just a hazard of riding a bike a lot.

What was supposed to be a half an hour in the sunshine turned into 3 hours of cursing as I tried to fix as much as I could to figure out what needed replacing. And I didn’t get Fingal washed, so he’ll be especially bitey this week.

There’s a saying that cycling doesn’t get any easier, you just get faster. Well bike maintenance is sort of similar: you should always support your local bike shop because no matter how good you are at maintenance, you will always come up against something for which you haven’t the tools, haven’t the parts or haven’t the time to sort out yourself.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (Coyote S Thompson)

It’s November. I love autumn, and the November weather is always an exciting mix of cold, sharp, crisp sunny days filled with spectacular colour; wet, dismal weeks of heavy mists, mizzle and downpours; and the odd freeze bringing snow, ice and cold-hurty fingers and knees because I’ve stupidly opted for cycling mitts and shorts. The changeable weather traditionally has matched how I feel about this time of year. Much as I love the season, and birthdays, and the way the cooler temperatures mean I can train harder, for some reason life usually chooses this time of year to throw various crises at me, so I don’t get to enjoy it as much as I’d like to.

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo twice, and failed each time as life has got in the way. I didn’t bother in 2010 because things got squirelly before I got as far as making the commitment. I didn’t bother last year, either. I had just changed job and packed up to move a couple of hundred miles north. I did not have time or mental space to think about trying to write 50,000 words in a month.

It has, however, been a pretty good year. It has had its ups and downs, as all years do, but the positives outweigh the negatives and we’re in a reasonably good place. As superstitious as I am about my birth month, I think I’m going to be brave.

Writing a book in a month isn’t brave. No. A little crazy, maybe, but not brave. No, I’m going to be brave by assuming I can make it this year: that whatever life chooses to throw at me I can get through it without it throwing me completely off track.

And I actually like my working title, which is a first. So this month, as well as the short stories I’m working on with deadlines in the next few weeks, I’ll be attempting to complete NaNoWriMo. If you want to add me as a writing buddy my name there is (as always) Ravenbait.

Here’s to November.

NaNoWriMo

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (grumpy)

I want to talk Who.


But first I want to remind everyone that I am a Bad fan. I don’t just love the things I love: I hold them to high standards, and am willing to express my disapproval when they fail to meet them, because the high standards are what made me fall in love with them in the first place. I don’t like falling out of love with things. It makes me sad.


You see, there are three kinds of writing that I class as good. There is the writing that makes me want to read more by that author. I enjoy it, it entertains me, it serves its purpose of allowing me to escape for a while. Some of those works become old friends, and it doesn’t matter that I could practically quote them word for word: I still derive pleasure from reading them. Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin are authors in this category. Then there is work that I admire for its prose or its bravery, its experimentation or poetry, its language or ideas. I will read it, admire it, then put it away and probably never come back to it. Flann O’Brien, James Joyce and Iain M Banks all write like this.


Then there is the really good stuff. Writing that inspires me. Writing that inspires me not only to read but to write. Roger Zelazny, Alfred Bester, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E Butler, Tim Powers, Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson have written works that I have read and re-read and dreamed secret and not-so-secret dreams about being able to write that well — not like them, but as well as them. Kim Stanley Robinson inspired me not only to write but to pursue environmental science. Alfred Bester made me think that it’s possible to turn synaesthesia into literature. Zelazny showed me how to make literary science fiction exciting. Atwood and Butler demonstrated that it’s possible to write about otherness without losing the connection with humanity. Powers taught me that a writer can repeat a plot without writing the same story (to be fair, so did Moorcock, but he didn’t have the prose of Powers). Iain Banks showed how to pack oodles of story into sparse text.


These writers inspired me, and I don’t care what genre or medium in which someone writes, part of a writer’s job is to inspire others to write. Part of a writer’s job is to do it properly. Someone who is being given a huge platform for his or her work has a responsibility to write to a high standard, because it’s on show, and it’s going to demonstrate to a new generation of content-producers what makes good work.


And I’m sorry, but recent Who has fallen down very badly in that regard. If I had written any one of those stories and submitted it to either of my crit groups, I fully expect they would, quite rightly, have ripped it to shreds.


Plenty of people have had a go at Asylum of the Daleks — just typing out the title makes me laugh in a sad, despairing way. I can’t bring myself to go over the awfulness that was this episode. It had two lines, only two, that were of any value:


“You think hatred is beautiful?”

“Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.”


The rest of it, short of a decent performance from Jenna Louise Coleman, was a mass of plot holes and hand-waving that we’re supposed to forgive because it’s Doctor Who and it was bombastic and full of SPECIAL EFFECTS and DRAMA.


So they put the self-destruct INSIDE impenetrable defences?


Chris Chibnall picked up the baton and managed to make me like Pond for a whole episode. He does pull it out of the bag every so often — I also liked 42, from back when RTD was at the helm, although I didn’t rate the Silurian episodes from Series 5 all that much. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was probably the best of the recent episodes: rampant silliness that didn’t take itself too seriously and had enormous amounts of fun without trying too hard.


I haven’t liked any of the Toby Whithouse episodes, and A Town Called Mercy was no exception. A big deal was made out of the Doctor picking up a gun, but only in interviews about the episode. In the episode itself it was hardly a big deal. Yet I think back to The End of Time and the Doctor refusing to pick up a gun for anything. He is the ultimate paradoxical pacifist, and the watering-down of this absolute stance has given rise to endless frustration of late. Is this what happens when writers of a British series try to tailor their output to a more American market? I don’t know, but I don’t like it.


Sentimentality took hold for the next couple of episodes. I’ll skip The Power of Three because Chibnall didn’t fulfil the brief of “life with the Doctor” nearly as well as Gareth Roberts did in The Lodger and it was all a bit… Meh, really.


Angels Take Manhattan was the final episode and it committed what for me is a cardinal sin. It broke the previously-stated rules.


This is the problem I have with Moffat and the episodes he writes. If he wants something to happen in the plot then it happens, regardless of whether existing canon would allow it to or not. As an example, the Weeping Angels. Anyone remember why they were weeping? Because they had to hide their eyes so as not to look at each other. If they looked at each other they were stuck. THAT’S HOW THE DOCTOR SAVED SALLY SPARROW.


Ring a ring a roses...


Blink was one of the best episodes of the 10th Doctor’s run, but Moffat has ruined it by changing how the Angels work. He did this way back, when he covered the inside of a massive spaceship with Angels and had them attacking en masse without so much as a blindfold to share between them. In this most recent episode he had our heroes trapped in a corridor by an Angel at either end — by earlier rules those Angels should have been trapped by each other, but no. And it got worse:


Who you gonna call?


Am I supposed to believe that no one saw the Statue of Liberty get up and walk? Or maybe the automatic quantum lock doesn’t work on anything over 3m tall. Who the fuck knows?


And there was all that nonsense about how reading something written down fixes it in time. Time can be re-written, except if you read about it, apparently. But canon established, in The Waters of Mars, that text can rewrite itself if the Doctor interferes. He did it already. We watched the words change.


Moffat obviously has some over-arching concept of how the written word affects the Doctor’s timeline and his ability to change his past, his future, his present. River Song’s catchphrase —”Spoilers!”— has a whole other significance if reading something means it can’t not happen. But this is new. This is not how it worked before. And I’m sorry, but you can’t just rewrite the rules of how a world works to suit yourself; not without some form of justification or explanation. It’s unprofessional, in my opinion. If you are given the job of working with an established set of characters and the universe they live in, you work with those characters and that universe — you don’t go changing things because the rules make the stories too hard to tell. It’s the writer’s job to come up with ways to make the stories work within the rules of that world, or accept that the story needs to be told in a different world, with different characters.


Doctor Who has a huge audience. There are kids out there learning how to tell stories by watching it. I want them to learn how to tell good ones, and not to expect to get by on the cult of celebrity. Being famous and successful shouldn’t mean getting away with work that isn’t as good as that being produced by people still trying to make it. Those who are least successful have to work the hardest at being good in order to achieve success: it’s kind of insulting to think that success means forgetting all about plot structure, character motivation and consistency.


I am falling out of love with Doctor Who.


Sadface.


I see a frowny face


Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (crows)

I had one of those WTF moments the other day. This particular one happened in Tesco’s car park at Danestone and involved a bumper sticker on the rear offside wing of a shiny red Ka.

Furious Angel

As someone with a lifelong interest in things to be found outside the set of stuff most consider to comprise the rational world, this struck me as being, well, to paraphrase Pauli, not even wrong.

The first thing I think of when I hear the word ‘angel’ isn’t one of these:
Your stereotypical guardian angel

Nor is it any of these:

Anime Angel

David Boreanaz

Weeping Angel

In fact, when I hear the word “angel”, the first thing I think of is something like this:

Monty Python's Holy Beast

Now I don’t know if something like that can fly, but I’m pretty damn sure that if I saw one hovering behind me in my rear view mirror, I’d be putting my foot down. Or possibly screeching to a halt at the side of the road and running for it, in the hope it was the car it wanted rather than me.

The King James Version (not the album by Harvey Danger, do pay attention at the back), describes the Angel of Revelation as being:

…clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire

This sounds more like Katamari’s King of the Cosmos, and I can’t think of anyone I’d less like to have my back in the event of a road traffic accident.

Naaaaaa na na na na na na na

Have you played the racetrack level? In Drive mode?

Ezekiel has a bit to say about angels:

I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz. As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went. Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels. I heard the wheels being called ‘the whirling wheels’. Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.

Let’s be honest. That sounds more like a bad acid trip. If you had one of those following your car you’d be calling BUFORA, not feeling reassured about your personal safety.

For me one of the best depictions of angels is in the 1995 film the Prophecy, starring Christopher Walken and Elilas Koteas. The film depicts them with a modern imagery, all wings and trenchcoats, but the characterisation is what I enjoyed.

“Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?” — Thomas Daggett

“I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s faeces, or we can talk.” — Lucifer

Let’s forget, for a moment, the arrogance of assuming that God’s messengers have nothing better to do than compensate for poor driving technique. If all that’s preventing someone speeding is the worry that a supernatural entity of indeterminate appearance — a six-winged sphinx, a semi-precious flying saucer with more eyes than a scallop, a burning bush or Christopher Walken with bad hair — can’t keep up, then that person does not belong behind the wheel of a moving car in a shared public space.

If that person is advising other people the most important reason for watching their speed is the concern that said supernatural sphinx/UFO/bush/Walken won’t be able to match the pace, then he or she probably shouldn’t be allowed out unless in the company of a responsible adult.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Tank Girl describes ninjas (ninja)

This week Frood and I finally gave up on Sinbad, the new fantasy series being broadcast on Sky 1. Halfway through episode 7 we realised we actually couldn’t give a stuff about any of them and so went in search of something else to watch.

I had been looking forward to it despite the cringe-worthy CGI in the trailers. It was made by Impossible Pictures, who brought us Primeval — a series I enjoyed, for the first 2 seasons anyway. The premise seemed decent enough: young man in the prime of youthful folly is cursed by his Grandmother so that he has to spend the rest of his life at sea, hooks up with a bunch of people who are also on the run for one reason or another, adventures ensue.

Let’s face it. It’s basically Blake’s 7 meets Prince of Persia.

The programme starts off with Sinbad (Elliot Knight) —who wears as much eyeliner as a Sisters of Mercy fan for no reason that has been made clear— in a bare-knuckle fist-fight with another young man. It’s the sort of competition-fighting-for-money used as shorthand for “can handle himself and is a bit bad and dangerous” in numerous other works. In this instance, like so many others, the need for the star to have beautiful bone structure and saucy sex appeal means that he doesn’t get to suffer the usual thickening of facial features and scarring concomitant with the sport.

His opponent dies, in a manner suggestive of evil machinations and political intrigue. Said opponent then turns out to be the son of local bigwig Lord Akbari (Naveen Andrews), of course, who promptly goes completely ballistic and kills Sinbad’s brother in revenge. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS. Sinbad escapes from jail and returns to his Grandmother, who, upon finding out what he has done, curses him so that he cannot spend more than a cycle of the sun on dry land hereinafter. AS YOU DO. Meanwhile Akbari is still frothing at the mouth and insisting that murdering Sinbad’s brother is insufficient payment for the loss of his son, because his son was a high status person and Sinbad’s brother was no better than the dirt under his feet. He employs the evil sorceress Taryn to find Sinbad for the purposes of torture and death. AGAIN, THE OBVIOUS RESPONSE.

It took me a while to work out how they managed to make something so ridiculously melodramatic so dull, and it comes down to the characters.

Take a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey trip back to the 80s and consider the aforementioned Blake’s 7. Stripped to the fundamentals, the premise was pretty much the same. A ragtag bunch of people on the run find themselves a ship, form an unlikely crew and head off to have adventures while pursued by a powerful entity. The effects were terrible, the budget next to nothing, and it was absolutely brilliant. The characters had depth and vitality, and were played by the actors in a way that made them believable. The plots were there to serve the characters and give them a stage in which to express: never were the characters shoe-horned into some implausible behaviour because it made the plot work. Avon’s constant deadpan snark didn’t let up for a minute, whether he was having an argument with Orac, insulting Villa or flirting with Servalan. Villa was never forced to turn heroic (although he was occasionally the hero) in order to give him a more palatable character.

Servalan had depth, character, motivation and was both admirable and admired.

Sinbad, on the other hand, introduced us to Sirens, Death, tattooed ladies, a magic gambling den, CGI monsters and black magic chicken sacrifices, but by the end of episode 6 had failed to explain why Taryn was such evil bitch. There was nothing to explain why Sinbad’s grandmother would take the frankly bizarre step of forcing her only surviving grandson to risk dying a painful, horrible death every day — especially considering that he didn’t have access to a boat when she cursed him. Cook was still little more than a fat, bald bloke obsessed with spices who occasionally dispensed nuggets of wisdom in the manner of a fortune cookie. The nerd was still a nerd, and a hopelessly naive one at that.

The different way the story handled male and female characters made me faintly uncomfortable. All of them had something awful in their past which informed their current behaviour. The Viking, along with his Viking chums, apparently raped, pillaged and slaughtered in the manner of a badly-researched Berkserker. But he was a changed man, and prepared to give himself up to a gang of warriors for justice if they let him save his friend, so actually all that raping and slaughtering was completely forgiven.

Nala was once promised to Death by her people as a sacrifice, and that left her cold and stand-offish. She turned Death down, even though it might kill her new friends, and she was still cold and stand-offish and, really, didn’t change at all except that somehow that made it rain. Kind of. What?

Rina was a thief, who kept stealing stuff, even to the point of stealing everyone else’s valuables when they needed them most. But she was sold into slavery as a child by her parents, and used that memory to defeat a (female) demon, so everyone liked her after that. She hadn’t changed, it was just that she used her degradation in the service of saving the menfolk, so that made it worthwhile having her around.

And Taryn, arguably the most potent of the female characters. Evil for the sake of evil. Compare with Lord Akbari, whose insane, murderous intent could at least be hand-waved as the effect of extreme grief.

I don’t like Sinbad. There’s this weird, corner-of-the-eye disparity between the handling of the male characters and the female ones, and not in a good or justifiable way. Plus it’s another instance of the plot being the over-riding driver, resulting in characters doing implausible things because the plot requires that they do so.

I think it’s time to buy the Blake’s 7 box set to remind myself of how such a show should be done, before they ruin it with a remake.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (leeloo & stitch)

But what can you tell about a book owner from her books?

I have been heard to complain about the amount of trashy fantasy cluttering our bookshelves. But when we moved last time, Frood very kindly bought some new bookshelves so we had enough space to put out all of our books, about half of which had been in storage for years. He worked out, using the measure of length of stacked books, that we had around 1.3m for every year we’ve been together.

Romance is alive and well and living in stacks of books

You can keep all your decomposing flowers, expensive chocolates and dubiously-mined gemstones: that’s romantic.

I have a couple of favourite exercises I do to get a firm grasp of any character I am writing. These exercises do not necessarily make it into any finished story —nor does the character, in some cases— but I find they work for me. One of them is the “what does he keep in his pockets?” exercise (which for one WIP turned into the “what does she keep in her courier bag?” exercise, as cyclists tend to keep not much in their pockets). You can tell quite a bit from what someone keeps in his or her pockets (or bag).

The other one is what the character’s living space looks like. What do they keep to hand? What do they have on display? Is it done for other people or for themselves? Why do they have those things? What meaning do they have?

Sometimes I look at what I keep around me and reflect on what it says about how I’ve changed through the years. My desk, where I write, is arranged differently from the way it was just a couple of years ago, and not just because we’ve moved twice in that period. Some things are the same —the inkpots, some of the pictures, the Penguin of Death— and some things aren’t (it’s a lot emptier now). It’s not possible to recreate a previous living space in a new environment, of course, but we also make very conscious decisions about what to leave behind and what to keep when we move house, and not just in the material sense of decluttering, or paring down to reduce the cost of the process. I imagine most people are the same in that respect.

Taken to the extreme, if a character had to keep moving, all the time, without having a chance to settle, what he chose to keep with him would be very telling. Then the two exercises I described above might become the same exercise.

I think I quite like what my bookshelf says about me these days. But then, it was Frood who stacked it for me.

Do check out his website. It has cool art and hypnotised rocks.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (shiny)

Long-time readers of this blog —as well as a good number of Californian wine makers, wine drinkers, restaurant staff, farmer’s market attendees and stallholders, and the passengers on May 7th’s flight VS020— will know that I am a big fan of Radio Static’s Minister of Chance. This crowd-funded, Doctor Who spin-off audiodrama has production values, acting quality and writing to match anything put out by Team Moffat, and I’d go as far as to say it exceeds in some respects because it doesn’t have visual effects to fall back on.

Episode 3, Paludin Fields, is the latest in this highly-anticipated production. It reunites some of the great and the good of British science-fiction acting talent (Paul Darrow, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Jenny Agutter) and introduces some equally talented new voices, including Tamsin Greig (Black Books, The Green Wing, the Archers) and Beth Goddard (X-Men: First Class, Ashes to Ashes).

The Minister of Chance, for those unfamiliar with the series, takes place in a world (I use the term loosely, for reasons that are obvious if you listen to it) of politics divided by a religion where the priests are witches and the currency is ineffective magic. To question the power of magic is to invite the kind of attention the Spanish Inquisition turned on heretics. Think Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, where the Inquisition is instead employed by an invading army to root out scientists, even though they make use of rockets and guns.

There are several interweaving plotlines, each driven by a main character conflict. The primary plot arc is that of the Minister himself, played with aplomb by Julian Wadham, and Kitty, believably voiced by Lauren Crace. The Minister is a Time Lord (although this has not been explicitly stated) and Kitty is a young girl who is not what she appears to be, as she has abilities not generally found in the populace. The pair of them are on a mission to stop the Horseman, who may or may not be another Time Lord, but is definitely a bad egg. Durian (Paul McGann) wants to start a war, although it is not yet clear whether he is doing so to take over as Witch Prime (Sylvester McCoy) or whether the war itself is what he wants, for an as-yet unrevealed purpose, and a coup is just a beneficial by-product. I was reminded of Prince Humperdink and his war on Guilder. Jenny Agutter’s Professor Cantha has a story arc to herself. In this episode her pacifist ideals are tested most sorely by the leader of the resistance (Beth Goddard) and, apparently, to breaking point. Although we have been there before and found her more than capable of fooling those who would have her turn to violence in their service.

I’ve already praised the sound effects in past reviews, so it will come as no surprise to learn that the soundscape in Paludin Fields is equally immersive and used to great effect to distinguish between the different settings and arcs. There are a number of jumps between the various plots, and it takes no more than a second or two to know which one is coming. The swamp life of the marsh is as distinct from the background murmur of the Coven’s assembly as it is from the echoing of an abandoned and ransacked library. Such is the attention to detail in the soundscape that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if two different listeners, when asked to describe what the various locations look like, came up with something similar enough to be recognised as the same place by someone who has never heard of the series. So I’ll concentrate on the story and the writing rather than the superb acting and production.

Episode 3 introduces further complexity to a story already full of depth and flavour. There is the Sage of the Waves (I wonder where they got that character name), played by Tamsin Greig, who would appear to be another refugee from the Minister’s world of technologically-advanced, scientifically über-literate, universal mystics; leading one to wonder what in the name of the Eye of Harmony happened to scatter them all over this steelpunk world of misogynistic pubs and frog-infested marshes. We are introduced to the Resistance, who rescue Professor Cantha, although this turns out not to be the blessing it first appears. We learn a bit more about Kitty’s unusual nature and, best of all, we learn more about the underlying principles governing how things work here.

I especially loved the Minister’s explanation to Kitty of why his talisman necklace was so important. It was a sublime piece of plausible hand-waving that I, as a fellow writer, can only admire: any writer who can explain something impossible in such a way as to make it sound not just possible but obvious is doing a fantastic job.

I also enjoyed Professor Cantha forcing the ex-librarian to recite the Theory of Fields she taught him in school as a counter to the resident magical explanation of “things just appear, by magic”. The populace has been beaten into believing it’s not just a rabbit in a hat that got there by magic, but every rabbit.

In the beginning was the data, and the data was complex and dynamic, and from the data came forth all the laws and forces of the world. And first amongst there was Causation, for for every effect there is a cause.

“If we look upstream do we not find a spring?”

Taken with the Minister’s explanation of how his talisman works, what it does and to whom he has given it, life is going to get very interesting on Tanto in Episode 4.

As I said, MoC is crowd-funded, and the campaign to fund Episode 4 is already well under way. There are some nifty rewards on offer for those who help, including the opportunity to have Paul Darrow record a voicemail message for your answering machine (now is probably not the time to confess to having the Blake’s 7 soundboard on my HTC — Orac alerts me to every text message). There are loads of creative projects out there asking for help with funding, and I’m well aware of the need, in the current financial climate, to pick and choose which ones to support. Episodes 1 – 3 are available free of charge, so you don’t have to take my word for it, but I’m certainly going to be putting money where my mouth is. I really hope you enjoy this as much as I have and will find even as much as the price of a pint of beer or a bottle of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon to help them on their way.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Tank Girl describes ninjas (ninja)

There are a few things I have argued about so many times that I have now reached a state of acceptance regarding my inability to change the fact that not everyone agrees with me.

SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET

I originally started off refusing to argue about gun control. I’m so far past arguing about gun control I can almost pretend there’s even a disagreement to be had. More recently I’ve had to give up arguing about certain things to do with cycling, and as a result feel no inclination to post on cycling fora any more. Posts on cycling fora seem to fall into the same broad categories: the helmet debate, red-light jumping, use of MP3 players while riding, where to ride this week/next week/on holiday, charity rides, campaigning for cycle path installation, whinging about idiots who think we should pay “road tax”, which bike to buy and which saddle to choose. Anything else is either some sort of stupid game thread that goes on for a million posts and is utterly pointless, a series of posts about cake, or a thread about Victoria Pendleton’s arse.

I know this comes across as rather grumpy, but take away the finer nuances or the political argy-bargy that results in moderation wars and this is pretty much what’s out there.

Here, then, are the opinions I have honed through years of argument, reading, research, experimentation and experience. Feel free to disagree, but don’t assume that my failure to engage with an argument on these topics is acceptance of your opposing viewpoint. Because it’s not. I just cannot be arsed.
Read more... )

Hope that clears that up. I’m off to get me another lemsip.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (Default)

avatarI should make something clear from the very start: Alien was my diving board into the world of science fiction in film. It wasn’t ET, or Star Wars, or Star Trek. For me these were not science. They weren’t real. They were fantasies, soap operas, adventure tales. They belonged with Black Beauty, Bonanza and Scooby Doo. Even back then, as a girl learning the OILRIG mnemonic for chemical reactions (Oxidation Is Loss, Reduction Is Gain), I felt that science fiction was something edgier and harder than I was finding on the television or the movie screen. It was something I was only finding in books, where the mechanics and the plausibility couldn’t be glossed over with a veneer of special effects and explosions.

In space no one can hear you scream.

1979 Alien poster

That was it. Right there. I was yet to experience the magnificent silence of Kubrick’s 2001. All I knew was that space is a vacuum, sound can’t travel in a vacuum because it is a compression wave, not a transverse wave, and Star Wars had given me far too many space lasers going “PEW PEW PIH-PEW-PEW-PEW!” followed by mega-explosions you could hear if you were standing on the moon.

No. Just no.

The gritty, industrial, supremely plausible sets of Alien, accompanied by the claustrophobic performances of the cast and, of course, the ultimate female action role model of Ripley (notable for not screaming), got me hooked on science fiction in film. As such, the film occupies a particularly well-kept pedestal in my mental gallery of things that have shaped my life.

You will understand, then, that I went to see Prometheus with something akin to a religious person going to witness some form of Holy Visitation, and I will save you the trouble of reading further, and exposing yourself to the ensuing spoilers, by telling you that the experience was rather like a Druid going on a trip to Stonehenge and discovering that it’s just a bunch of big rocks. Everyone around you is swooning over the mystic energies and the swirling chaos of Mother Earth reaching up and imparting visionary experiences of the Universe and Being At One With Existence and you’re thinking that it’s a shame it’s so close to the traffic and it’s not nearly as big as you thought it was going to be.

The film is extraordinarily pretty. It’s full of pretty. There is nothing in it that is not pretty. The scenery is pretty. The spaceship is pretty. The crew are all handsome or beautiful. Even old Weyland would have been good-looking, if they stripped off the cosmetics to reveal Guy Pearce (because, you know, there is a massive shortage of aging actors in the world who could have played that role — Ian Holm is still working and that would have been delicious). The Engineers are reasonably low on the ugly scale. Tall, built like rugby players, with a cupid’s bow lip (the male equivalent of the Jolie beestung pout). Charlize Theron is in fantastic shape, Fassbender’s grooming was lampshaded in the first section of the film — it’s all, you know, pretty.

Maybe that was part of the problem. I distrust pretty. Anything that pretty has to be distracting you from something and, when it comes to movies, it’s usually the story.

And, yes, there we go, the plot has so many holes in it you could use it to drain pasta. The characterisation of most of the characters bar the main four is so weak they might as well have been robots — there is little interaction, no badinage, nothing to distinguish them from NPCs at all. Plus, it makes the fatal mistake of a science fiction film: it gets the easy facts wrong.

Spoilers follow.

Prometheus Movie Poster

The trip to find their makers starts with archaeologists uncovering a cave painting on the Isle of Skye and dating it to a time so close to the last major glaciation that the idea of anyone being there to paint it stretches plausibility past the Young’s modulus. One should also note that the evidence is unclear as to whether modern humans (as opposed to genetically not-identical Neanderthals) were in the UK at all 35,000 years ago. That is just the first of the WTF moments that had me motorboating like 4hp Evinrude two-stroke on a bad oil/petrol mix. There was the instant carbon dating on an alien planet where the CO2 isotope ratio had not been characterised. There was the thing with the head and the electric re-animation — seriously, what was that all about? You cannot trick a head into thinking it’s alive by tickling the vagus nerve with a purple wand. Really, you can’t.

There were others. Oh yes, there were others. Like how the ship was equipped with an autodoc capable of performing any conceivable type of surgery, but which couldn’t deal with having a female patient. Because it was calibrated for a man. I know that was supposed to make the audience ask why it would be for a man when it was supposedly Vickers’s autodoc, but flagging the presence of someone on board we didn’t know about was better done by David’s conversation with Weyland over the neural link, rather than asking us to believe something so advanced couldn’t re-calibrate itself. It was one of the many foreshadowing points throughout the film, the most t-shirt worthy of which was Chekov’s Space Squid (I know it’s not strictly speaking a Chekov’s anything, as it was hardly an irrelevant detail, but Foreshadowing Space Squid is more of a band name than a t-shirt).

Scott’s film has won praise, and I’ve even seen people accuse those who don’t like it of being stupid, of failing to “get it”. Well, hands up. I failed to get it. Oh I got the whole “be careful what you wish for” fable, and I don’t have a problem with a religious scientist. I have a problem with a scientist who is not only an archaeologist but also a forensic xeno-pathologist, because the level of experience needed for that level of expertise in both is not realistically achievable in someone of Shaw’s age.

Vickers and Janeck

Did they really take their helmets off on an alien planet? Can they even SPELL biosecurity?

There’s an automatic defensive reaction from writers who have honed their craft to people suggesting writing is just something you can do; that anyone who can string a few words together deserves to be published. I understand. When you’ve worked at your craft that effort should be recognised. But I have a huge beef with writers inventing characters who are polymaths in specialisations. It cheapens the work and effort of scientists who have spent decades achieving that expertise. It’s almost as bad as when people think their opinion on a scientific topic is as valid as an expert’s because they’ve seen a Horizon documentary about it or read the wikipedia article. I could have understood David being the one to examine the head, just as Ash had been the one to conduct the examination in Alien, but why get Shaw to do it? Why was their medical officer less skilled than their archaeologist?

Why would a bunch of scientists head 4 years into space to an unknown planet without finding out why they were going and what part of their expertise would be required? Why was any one of the other individuals picked? We didn’t ever get to find out enough about them to know, or even to care about their eventual fate. Was their biologist picked for his stupidity? What sort of biologist was he anyway? What sort of geologist was Fifield? Or was he picked for his hair-trigger temper and his tattoos? When the biologist and the geologist said they were going back to the ship, how come they ended up wandering around in the tunnels? The entire crew seemed to have been chosen according to the criteria of a reality-TV show rather than a science expedition, which makes me wonder if the big secret was that Weyland had also sold rights to a television company.

This was a science-fiction film that didn’t pay attention to the science.

the Prometheus

Let's calculate the fuel payload for something that big

How did they happen across the place where the plot was scant minutes after entering the atmosphere? How did a ship that shape and size carry enough fuel to manage landing and take-off? How did the Space Squid get so big with nothing to eat? The original Alien got big by nomming upon the crew of the Nostromo. There’s a conservation of mass issue, there, unless the Space Squid ate the autodoc. How did Shaw manage to belay the robot down a cliff with nothing holding her lower abdomen together bar a few staples on the outside?

There were many other questions.

Prometheus was billed as a film that would make the audience question, and I did. What it didn’t do was make me ponder the big questions of who we are as a species and how we came to be here. It didn’t make me feel like re-reading Chariots of the Gods (although, to be fair, there’s not much that would because it’s drivel). I suspect that the questions we were supposed to focus on were those to do with our evolution. How come the Engineers’ DNA matched ours exactly when our DNA differs from a chimp’s by 1% and a gorilla’s by 2%? Did they seed all life on earth and we failed to evolve? Or was Scott implying that we somehow evolved from a squiggly strand of denatured alien DNA to match those aliens in every genetic detail (but not in looks, though, because we don’t live in Space Heaven and there’s that whole nature-nurture thing) and that was why they were coming to wipe us out? Were we too much like them? Did they see us as competition? Did they think that one species like them in the Universe was already too much? Was this a film about hubris? Arrogance?

I think it was. And, in a way, it was successful at that, because there is an arrogance in the implication we are supposed not to notice or care about the basic errors and implausibilities. I don’t mean things like the technology or the idea that we could travel so far in such a short time: I’m talking about the little things, the things that should not have been wrong, that could have been right with a little more thought or care.

To get back to where I started this, it was when I started comparing this film to Alien that I began to grok what bothered me so much about it. Shaw’s painfully extended battle with her unwanted pregnancy did not come across as plot but as fanservice. Ripley, arguably Hollywood’s most significant strong female character, died “giving birth” to an Alien Queen. Shaw cut the Space Squid out with a device meant for a man and killed the Engineer with it. Take that! Shaw’s sterility wasn’t really a vital part of her character motivation, because other than a brief, weepy argument with Holloway it didn’t have any effect on her behaviour. Rather it seemed to reflect Ripley’s forced state of childlessness caused by decades lost in hypersleep and the loss of Newt. David wasn’t a Data-like prototype but a fully-fledged, functioning robot who seemed far in advance of either Ash or Bishop; and who possessed a self-awareness that allowed him to distinguish himself from humans — and consider himself superior. Shades of Alien: Resurrection there. Prometheus riffed so hard on the franchise that the story, the characters and the setting came across like fan-fiction written by someone who thought the original stuff was so brilliant it didn’t matter if this new story was full of holes left by jamming his favourite elements together in a big pot and not cooking them properly.

I thought Theron and Fassbender were great, Rapace did what she could with a character that needed to be much better written, Marshall-Green was left treading water with a character that lacked any believable sense of conviction and Elba managed to put more character into 3 lines of dialogue than the other NPCs had between them. The opening sequence was breathtaking, and my fangirl hard-science squee was jumping up and down in excitement at the vapour curling over the lip of the giant flying saucer. I just wish the rest of the film had followed through on that promise.

prometheus saucer

You may feel differently, but I like a bit more science in my science fiction.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (Default)

avatarIt’s strange, sitting here on a relatively sunny day, during which the temperature hauled itself into double figures with the effort of a powerlifter attempting to beat his deadlift personal best, to think that a couple of weeks ago I was baking in the heat of California.

What it was all about

The story of how this came about starts last Christmas. My family gets together over Christmas —I hardly see them during the rest of the year— and my brother does the drink while I do the food. Being picky, I usually take a few bottles of wine for the Christmas meal itself. Last year I happened to have an Amazon voucher for a £40 discount from Naked Wines, a company I’d already been following on twitter because of a #FollowFriday, but about which I knew very little. We looked at the website, realised we could get a case of decent wine for around 4 quid a bottle using an introductory deal plus the voucher, and thought we’d take a punt.

When I bought my wine, the website told me all about the Angel programme. You give them £20 or more a month, which they invest in wines that otherwise wouldn’t get made, or winemakers who have all the skill but no support, and in return you get at least a 25% discount on wine sold through the site. As one of many new writers struggling to make it out of the slush pile, I know that talent and passion for one’s art isn’t always enough. You also need someone to take notice, to believe in what you are doing and give you a chance. I feel very strongly that artistic talent should be rewarded, and winemaking is, as Jason Moore says, “an art form supported by science”.

I signed up. I didn’t need any more persuading than that.

Roll on a few months. We were still without internet but I was making tasting notes of the wines I bought and posting them when I could. I don’t like reviews that say “I liked it!” or “This was lovely!” They tell me nothing about whether I might like it. You wouldn’t go to see a film based on someone else saying they enjoyed it without finding out what genre it was, at least. You wouldn’t buy a perfume just because someone on a website said it smelled nice. Well, I suppose there are those who would, but I’m not one of them. Having been exposed to plenty of the handwritten tasting notes produced by Oddbins staff over the years, I tried to post reviews that would tell others what the wine was like so they could decide whether or not they might like it.

Converting my synaesthetic experience into something that will make sense to others has been an interesting writing exercise.

Naked Wines have a number of volunteers helping out on their site, called Archangels. These are customers who are good at interacting, who post helpful reviews and do their bit to be welcoming of newcomers, both winemakers and customers. One of the staff asked if there were any Angels who would like to become one. I applied. A while later I got a phone call. I’d been successful. Not only had I been successful, would I like to go to California? A group of Archangels were being sent to Napa to taste wines and choose some to go on sale in the UK.

Yes, of course I would.

Which is how come I ended up flying to San Francisco with 9 other wine enthusiasts for two intense days of tasting.

After the party on the plane (it took me the entire flight to get through the Sherlock Holmes sequel) and dinner at a fabulous Mexican restaurant (I have no idea which one it was, but I didn’t know you could do that with pineapple), we were back to the hotel for a sleepless night before an early start the next morning.

Tomei

We started with Jessica Tomei, where we sampled half a dozen rather fine wines, then moved on to Jason Moore, where we sampled another selection, including some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. After that it was a trip to the Patz and Hall winery, by way of a rather famous Champagne house (I had to resist the urge to crawl into the cotoneaster hunting the Californian tree frog I could hear in there), where we were talked through more than a dozen wines by winemakers Robin Langton, William Henry and Randall Grahm. If Robin doesn’t bring me some of that Tallman Sauvignon Blanc I shall be forced to have words.

Lunch was a picnic provided by the rather wonderful William Henry, with me a bit starstruck by the big Ravenswood sign on the way up to the vineyard where we were to have it.

Rowbags

For someone who isn’t used to tasting wines in such rapid succession, and has never had the opportunity to do so in what amounts to a professional context —all the Archangels were very much focused on the job we were there to do— this was an amazing experience. The biggest issue for me was that I can’t taste and listen at the same time, because the synaesthesia means that sound interferes with my tasting, and so I had to choose between being able to taste the wine or listening to what the winemakers had to say about them. I chose the former, and my apologies if anyone thought I was being rude. I did have to explain the synaesthesia about 20 times over the course of the trip!

There was a social evening on the Friday night, where we were able to taste another couple of wines, although I hadn’t been expecting to do another tasting so didn’t have my notebook to hand. We also had the opportunity to speak to the winemakers and get to know them a bit better.

Saturday we started off with a trip to the Farmer’s Market in Napa, the mirthmobile in full swing already. I haven’t been to the Aberdeen one yet, but I hope it’s half as good as the Oxbow. Then we went to the Darioush winery, to experience the bling of the wine world. Bottles here started at around $70, and went up. Boy, did those numbers go up. I think the fact that the winery is apparently a reconstruction of the temple at Persepolis says enough about this particular winery without me having to add anything (although I still enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, even if I was the only person to do so).

Table decoration at Darioush

From Darioush we went to visit the hugely contrasting Campesino, where we met the lovely Macario Montoya, who is making Spanish wines in homage to the heavy Spanish influence in California. There are not enough decent Albarinos in the world. I’m delighted that Macario has added to them.

Our final stop was one of the major highlights of the trip for me. So high up a mountain I felt I needed oxygen, we visited Christina Pallmann, who offered us some truly delectable wine, including an unoaked Chardonnay that belongs on my wine rack right this very moment, and an example of Zinfandel that caused me to fall in love with the grape after a decade or so of us not speaking to one another any more. It was an absolute privilege to taste her wines in that location, and get to meet her grower, Joe. It was clear that they have a fabulous relationship and acres of respect for one another.

On top of a mountain

Meeting the winemaker

That was the real eye-opener of the trip. These are people who are deeply passionate about their art. It is important to them, and they care about what they are doing. Anyone engaged in a creative endeavour knows that this is what makes the difference. If you don’t have that love and passion then you are in the wrong business. Every winemaker we met was eloquent and engaging about what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve.

If I ever had any doubts that my £20 a month was going to deserving winemakers, this trip got rid of them for ever.

The trip was also part of the Naked Wines launch for the US and Australia. The sales model for wine in the US is a product of Prohibition, and British wine lovers would be surprised by the pricing. Naked Wines intends shaking things up a bit, so wine lovers can pay what a wine is worth rather than what the label suggests someone thinks they can get for it. If you want to be part of that, go to nakedwines.com and sign up as a beta-taster (geddit?).

In the end we could choose only six out of the many fine wines we tasted. The Naked in Napa pack is now on sale for British customers on marketplace at Naked Wines. You’ll have to be quick, though, because it’s selling fast. I’ll put my tasting notes below for the wines that are in this pack, but don’t take my word for it: place a bid and get yourself some.

Naked Wines British Invasion with Jason Moore. Photo by Adam Reiter.

I’m putting the synaesthetic notes in italics, in brackets, for the sake of completion. Feel free to ignore or point and laugh.

1 x Christina Pallmann Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2010
Berry red and perfumed in the glass, this gives off wafts of violets, panna cotta and roses. It caresses the tastebuds with soft tannins, giving a smooth mouthfeel, but offers up an exciting and tantalising combination of flower petals and pollen with spicy notes of pepper and a structural component reminiscent of juniper.
(Star with rounded spikes made of soft silicon, coated in powdered purple.)

1 x Coloma Syrah “Meatgrinder” 2009
In the glass this is leggy, with a redcurrant translucency tinted by a note of plum. The legs carry on into the nose. It is moderately astringent, ever so slightly disjointed because it has not had a chance to breathe. Exuberant. To taste it is a block of structured tannins, following through with the redcurrant and adding cranberry and sloe wax.
(Honeycomb shape. Almost effervescent. Happy and eager.)

1 x Sin Fronteras Reserve Tempranillo 2009
Blood red, with the most evenly spaced legs I’ve ever seen on a wine. The nose offers an immediate hit of fruit, rounded out by toasted vanilla and locust bean. The taste has enough acidity to give good structure without crossing the line into pungency, and backs up the fruit with hints of coffee and spice.
(Mille Feuille of opaque, teflon-coated microbeads)

1 x Credence Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Soft red, bluish, lilac meniscus. Long, fading legs. It doesn’t hang about in the glass waiting for you, this one. It’s forward, leaping out to greet you. Big fruit with structural astringency. Damsons and redcurrants, quite leafy. Wholemeal toast and roasting seeds. Tasted quite youthful and a bit of an attention-seeker. Good talking point for a main meal at a dinner party, but give it something robust to lean against or give it plenty of time to breathe.
(Invasive, architecturally hard, but with soft fruit in the spaces.)

1 x Back Door Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
We didn’t taste this as it was away for bottling at the time.

1 x William Henry Riesling NV
We’re pretty sure that this is a 2011 rather than the non-vintage, as that’s what we tasted. I found this shy on the nose, with the odd note of athletic jockstrap. On taste, however, this was as balanced as an Olympic gymnast on the beam, with good acidity and excellent dry but unctuous fruit. This struck me immediately as the sort of white I would want to drink curled up in front of a roaring fire with snow thick on the ground and dripping off pine trees.
(The wine equivalent of Chris Brosius’s Winter 1972. Not immediately stunning but something that lingers in the back of your mind and keeps coming back long after other forms have faded.)

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (jellysack)

Blimey! It has been a while. Prolonged internet absence has made updating the blog a near impossibility. So what has been happening on Planet Sam?

In the last 6 months we’ve moved house, twice — as mentioned in this previous post, we moved from Edinburgh to Aberdeen last year as I was offered a new position in the day job — first of all to temporary accommodation and then into a wee cottage where it took nearly 2 months to get (very slow) broadband connected (although, on the plus side, we have open fires in every room, a garden full of birds, the perfect length of cycle commute and horses coming to say hello whenever we step out the back door, which is fabulous). Both Frood and I have been very busy in our enforced absence from the Virtual World. He has been looking for work and I have been getting to grips with a new territory and new responsibilities.

People kept saying to me: “I suppose you don’t realise how much you rely on the internet.” Oh, I did. I so, so did. At the time our internet went live I had been without a home internet connection since October last year. It has been frustrating, to say the least. On the other hand, it has given me the space to concentrate on other things and I suspect the experience will change my future internet usage. For the better. I know which things I missed the most and which I didn’t miss as much as I expected (cough FACEBOOK cough).

On the writing front I’ve already made more submissions this year than I have in the last two and am now a member of Lemon Tree Writers, which is proving most interesting. Frood and I are also hard at work on a comic that will allow us to pool our creative silliness into something we hope others will enjoy reading as much as we’re enjoying the process of putting it together.

In March we attended Hi-Ex, which was a great hoot, and definitely going on the repeat list for next year. Many thanks to Vicky and Richmond for putting on a great event and to all the guests for donating their time and effort.

I’m taking another year off triathlon, primarily for financial reasons. It’s an expensive sport, once you figure in the gym membership and travel expenses, and as I’m still working on getting my run fitness back, there’s no point investing in the rest until I’m sure I’m going to be able to complete a race distance. That doesn’t mean I’m sitting on my backside, though. This year’s Dumb Run has been swapped out for an away match. We are doing Edinburgh to Aberdeen instead, with an epilogue of Pirate Adventure Golf and, potentially, GoApe!.

I think that’s enough of a summary for the meantime. Hopefully entries will go back to being at least semi-regular from now on. I’ll leave you with a photo of a badger we took at the gallery in Inverness while we were up for Hi-Ex. We felt very sorry for this badger, who was probably a very respectable, fairly conservative mustelid while alive, and had been permanently fixed by the taxidermist in a position that can only be described as “provocative”:

Well hell-o

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (footprints)

I had hoped to be blogging rather more regularly by now. Unfortunately we’re still not properly settled in Aberdeen, and currently working with intermittent access to the internet. I’m busy with the new job and various writing projects, trying to squeeze the words in between work, food and sleep. My hypergraphia, which trundles along for most of the year but usually goes for broke in November/December, was a month late this year, and I’ve been frantically scribbling things I can’t use since just before Christmas. It does get in the way.

Hi-Ex Comic Con logo
Both Frood and I will be attending Hi-Ex in Inverness at the end of March, seeing as how it’s practically just up the road. If any fellow writers/artists/comic fans/circumstantial-cyclists want to say hi, he’s the one with the beard and I’m the one with the black right eye and the Pictish tattoo. We’d love to meet you.

Originally published at Singularity. Please leave any comments wherever you like.

Winterval

Dec. 27th, 2011 11:56 am
feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (barefoot)

As has become something of a tradition over the past couple of years, we’re spending Christmas away from (temporary) home in the company of family. As is also something of a tradition, we’re spending the holiday season in the back of beyond where there is almost no phone reception, so if you have sent me any text messages wishing me good cheer and I haven’t replied it’s not because I don’t love you any more: I haven’t received it. We do, however, have wifi and this year I brought a laptop so I can continue writing.

I think the river might be in spate, or something
The lodge where we’re staying is amazing. Seriously amazing. I could live in a house like this quite happily. The only thing that could make it better is if it were a lighthouse, but I’m being picky. The weather so far has been fairly grim and dreich, so the light has been far too poor for taking photographs. Still, I snapped this shot of the view from the upper balcony in an effort to show the spectacular view of the torrents roaring constantly in the background. We sleep with the window open.

Yesterday Frood and I went out with the parents on a short but windy, wet and enjoyable bike ride to explore a little. Needing something that would fit on the rack, and with most of the noble steeds in storage, I was obliged to bring Shackleton, sporting his brand new wheels (more on that particular saga later). The thing is, I’ve put the Hutchinson Gold Cross tyres on him in preparation for the snows, and I left the 16 tooth sprocket on, so he’s currently rolling around with gear inches in excess of 70. This would be fine for the hill-free streets of Aberdeen, but out here in the wilds the roads come in lumpy. I think we did all of 6 miles yesterday and my legs are no longer speaking to me. I am seriously out of practise on fixed!

Finally, here is medium-sized Stitch (still on his Scotland tour) wearing the Stitch slippers Nick and Candice got me for my Christmas:

One Stitch with the feet of another

Originally published at Singularity. Leave any comments there or here.

feathersandfractals: Tank Girl, bemused (stoned)

The Brits are known for their love affair with their pets. There have been documentaries made about it — Nick O’Dwyer’s Most Pampered Pets In Britain, for one. People go a bit mad for their animals, and it can result in them treating their pets as children: they buy them clothes and let them sleep in their beds and then wonder why they end up neurotic and disturbed and in need of assistance from the lovely Victoria Stilwell.

Dogs are dogs as far as I’m concerned. I’m not the sort to be won over by doleful brown eyes trying it on for scraps from the dinner table. I love dogs, and hope that one day our life will allow for us to get one or three —it wouldn’t be fair to the dog to get one before we have the time to commit to ownership— but I don’t believe in treating dogs as if they were human. A dog should certainly be a member of the family, because the family has to be the dog’s pack, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like the human members of the family, despite current theories suggesting dogs and humans evolved, quite possibly together, to have an instinctive grasp of mutual social language. A bright dog can learn by imitation, and dogs watch their families constantly for instruction and communication the way humans chat to each other. Canines are all about body language.

Given all that, I’m not too sure what to make of JML’s latest range of dog toys, Frood took great delight in pointing out to me:

Crazy Critters are ultra durable and realistic looking plush toys that will provide your best friend with hours of playful fun. What makes them different from other dog toys is that they are stuffing-free, you’ll never have to clean up the mess from a ripped stuffed animal again, plus your pet won’t ever be tempted to eat the stuffing, which could be harmful to its health. Crazy Critters are also machine-washable, so you can use them indoors or outside over and over again.

Fox Critter

Admittedly, it’s a damn sight better than buying them tutus covered in Swarovski crystals or a Calvin Klein jacket or even special dog cologne. Dogs are supposed to enjoy worrying dead animals. They are carnivores, after all.

Still. Those Crazy Critters resemble road kill rather more than the usual dog toys I see, and I think I might feel a bit weird offering my dog a squished fox to rip to shreds, even knowing that the dog wouldn’t think it resembled a squished fox in the slightest. I would know.

Maybe they should be renamed “Countryside Alliance Critters”.

Originally published at Singularity. Please leave any comments there.

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