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March 31, 2006

Waterloo-City Line Closing

Originally uploaded by se71.

This is the last day for commuters, myself included, to take the one stop line up from Waterloo to Bank station. The line is closing for the whole summer period for refurbishment. My day is already a very long one, I spend around three hours a day travelling. Now my five minute tube portion will definitely take longer.

I have many friends in the same situation, and we're all trying to work out what to do. We know that alternative routes by tube will be very slow and crowded.

Some people are going to try and run. Some have purchased folding bikes. Some are thinking about getting a motor-bike - and some have already done so. I'm contemplating a brisk walk - we'll see just how long that takes next week.

Posted by se71 at 01:05 PM | Comments (0)

March 30, 2006

Up The Line - Robert Silverberg

It seems a great idea - have a time travel story where the hero goes back to Byzantium about one thousand years ago and falls in love with his great, great, multi great, grandmother. Robert Silverberg is a renowned science fiction writer, so I wondered why I hadn't seen this one on the shelf any time. I picked it up in the local second-hand store however, and soon discovered why it's out of print.

Although this novel does explore the interesting concepts of the paradoxes of time travel, it was written at a time, the early 1970s, when there was far too much graphic sex in science fiction. The writers of the day all seemed to assume that the future would be full of liberated women, walking around practically naked, and under the influence of new recreational drugs that made them open to advances from any man around. Maybe that's the way society looked like it was going in a world before AIDS. LSD was hip, the psychedelic scene and the popstar lifestyles of people like the Beatles encouraged this freedom of expression. Perhaps people thought this future was inevitable, like flying cars and three course meals in a pill. But now we can look back and see how it all panned out, and it just hasn't happened that way. A lot of the fiction therefore looks outdated and embarassing at best, but this one is also quite unpleasant. Either it's that, or someone must have hit me with the politically correct stick, because in the book I found that the casual attitute to incest, under age sex, and rape, was so unpleasant that I had problems enjoying the rest of the story. It's for this reason I think it must have fallen out of favour with publishers.

It's a shame about the X rated nature of this book, because there is actually a good story hidden inside. Judson Elliot gets a job as a Time Courier. He takes groups of tourists back in time to witness famous events in history - and specialises in Byzantium. Whilst on a trip one of his party escapes into time and starts changing history. Judd and the other couriers have to do a lot of hopping around the centuries to try and find him and put things right. Of course, there is a Time Police force they have to try and keep all this activity hidden from. It's quite fun, and completely impossible, to try and keep track of all inconsistencies that time travel would create.

"The grandfater paradox" is very famous - what would happen if you killed your own grandfather before he had met your grandmother? You would therefore not be born. But if you weren't born, then you couldn't go back and kill your grandfather. So you'd be born again. Would this create some kind of loop? In this book the added complication of going back in time and actually being your own grandfather is explored.

If people really could go back and see Byzantium, surely all these tourists would eventually fill up all the available viewing spots.
If you could travel anywhere in time, why not go back and buy a nice property and some slaves and spend your vacations there. These issues are examined, but of course no conclusion is reached. The chances for disaster are so great that even supposing Time Couriers and Time Police really existed, I do not believe they would be able to control things at all.

So the time travel bits are good, the Byzantium history lessons are a bit too detailed and overlong, and the morals are disturbing. Overall, I wouldn't really recommend this to anyone but a stereotypical frustrated teenage boy - he could read this on the bus-ride to rent "American Pie" or "Porky's".

Posted by se71 at 05:21 PM | Comments (0)

March 29, 2006

Government Targets

Do the government have targets for absolutely everything?

I know I can only drink so many units of alcohol a week. I know I have to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. But now I discover that I'm supposed to have 150 minutes of exercise every week too. That's two and a half hours. That's thirty minutes a day, five times a week.

I train a lot, I'm trying to get fit enough for a triathlon. In an average week I will meet and exceed this target, mostly due to a long bike ride at the weekend. If I miss the bike ride I do not make the 150 minutes, and yet still feel as if I get more than enough exercise.

I know very few people who take exercise as seriously as I do. The survey by Deloitte mentioned on the BBC website says that nearly half the population meet the target - I think this is complete rubbish. Do a straw poll of your friends and see if I'm right.

To eat five pieces of fruit and veg is actually quite difficult to manage every day; you have to constantly try and remember to do it, or else make a big change to your daily routine and shopping to keep your house filled with the stuff. Fruit is also expensive. I do my best but I'm constantly falling behind my 'target'. Constantly failing like this is demoralising, and the big temptation then is just to give up. Likewise with this exercise target - not many people will put in the time, and most will just resign themselves to being couch potatoes. I'm also pretty sure it used to be twenty minutes of exercise, three times a week.

I think this is another example of the government giving us unrealistic targets in the hope that we try and meet them, and in doing so, actually do enough. More realistic targets will be much more effective, and will do more good in the long run. If you find yourself regularly meeting the target, you might even get a buzz out of exceeding it occasionally.

Update: Just remembered the Eight Glases Of Water post I did a while back.

Posted by se71 at 07:39 AM | Comments (1)

March 27, 2006

The Flintstones

The Flintstones on IMDB

This is the 1994 movie of the favourite children's cartoon TV series. John Goodman plays Fred Flintstone, in a curious stone age world where all our modern inventions exist, but are mostly made of rocks, and are either man - or dinosaur - powered.

Everyone knows and loves the Flintstones, so it must have been a brave decision to make a live action movie. People could really hate it if it spoiled their memories. But with executive producers Stephen Spielberg, and the original series producers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera on board, they had as good a chance of success as it was possible to get. It should be noted however that one of the writers, Stephen E. De Sousa, had another go the following year with a movie adaptation of the comic book character Judge Dredd; this was a bit of a critical and commercial disaster. Success at these things is not guaranteed.

But they did succeeded, and made a fun movie that is faithful to the original series, and made a lot of money. Fred uses his feet to propel his car. The waste disposal is an odd looking creature sitting under the sink eating the garbage. They even included the opening and closing titles from that program, with a huge dinosaur ribs dinner toppling the car over, and a computer generated pet sabre-toothed tiger being put out on the doorstep for the night.

The plot is very poor however. It's much too complicated, and actually very dark for a kids film. Fred causes his best friend Barney to lose his job and get evicted from his home, and the pair of them almost get lynched from a tree - they even have nooses round their necks at this point. The dark tones though are easily missed by children as the action is non-stop, and there is always another funny invention, or great special effect to see.

The supporting cast are all really good. Elizabeth Taylor is great as the mother-in-law, and it's a shame she hasn't been in any big movies since (just the TV movie "Those Old Broads"). Rick Moranis as nerdy Barney, and Rosie O'Donnell and Elizabeth Perkins are Betty and Wilma all emulate their two dimensional namesakes to perfection. The most amusing character is Halle Berry vamping it up as Fred's devious secretary. It's always fun to watch a major star in an early embarassing role.

So don't worry if you loved the cartoon and think you'll hate this. The characters are just the same, the crazy stone-age inventions are all there. Ignore the dopey plot, and you'll enjoy this movie a lot.

Posted by se71 at 12:12 PM | Comments (0)

The Traveller - John Twelve Hawks

This is a great book, and I didn't realise until very near the end that the story had a long way to go and couldn't possibly finish properly before the back cover arrived. Happily, it's revealed in a postscript that there are another two in the proposed trilogy on the way.

If you feel paranoid about personal privacy, as I do, then you will love the vindication this novel provides that we're all headed for a hellish time in a few short years. It is set in a near future world, where the agents of The Vast Machine are using computers to monitor us and control us. If we think we are being watched all the time, then we will behave. There are a lot of methods to do this, like tracking our cell phones to see where we go, also our credit card purchases, and face recognition systems attached to CCTV cameras. Most authors would make a good novel out of this, but Hawks goes a bit further, and turns a future thriller into a science fiction story too.

In this world, there are people who can project their essence, their 'Light' to other dimensions. These people are called Travellers. The Vast Machine are a shadowy intelligence organisation. They want to control the world, and think these people can help them. I'll not give away the 'how' here, but it's an even more outrageous concept. Maya is a person who has tried to live 'off the grid', out of sight of the Vast Machine. She is a Harlequin, one of another group of people, but these ones are dedicated protectors of Travellers. They are conditioned from birth to be experts in fighting and other skills necessary to survive in a hostile world and keep the Travellers safe.

Maya finds out about pair of brothers who might be Travellers. Gabriel and Michael are sons of a known Traveller, and the gift is sometimes passed down to children. She disguises herself and heads to America from her home in England to try and find them to protect them.

There are hints of other recent media in here - 'The Matrix' and 'The Da Vinci Code' being the most prominent, and the combination of real life privacy concerns in a post 9/11 world, along with the mysticism of the Traveller idea, is an uneasy mix. It just about works however, and is an exciting and stimulating thriller.

I recommend this to anyone who thinks that removal of privacy by the government to help stop terrorism is fine. If you have nothing to hide, why should you worry? Well, you might worry when all this information gets into the wrong hands.

I'm very much looking forward to the next installments.

Posted by se71 at 10:56 AM | Comments (1)

March 24, 2006

War of the Worlds

*** Spoilers ***

This is quite a good film, but misses the mark in several ways to stop it being great.

First, it's a science fiction story, and yet the science just isn't explained at all. Even some fanciful hocus pocus would be enough, but there isn't a character smart enough, or with enough imagination, to even make up a reason why the aliens would stay buried underground for millions of years.

Next, though some of the special effects are good, some look really low-tech to me. The scene where Ray is captured by a tripod looks like it was made as the money was running out. And the red weed didn't look biological at all. Maybe this was a deliberate ploy - I've read that this might be the case - less glossy, more real. It doesn't work.

The worst thing though is the pace. There are a few long scenes - the arrival of the marticns, the drive out of the city, the boat, hiding in the cellar. The links between them happen sometimes with no build up, and no warning. Suddenly things are different, and everyone accepts the new situation far too readily. This is particularly true near the end - the final scenes were just too abrupt. We could have done without some of the character buildup earlier on to make way for a bit better plot development.

Actually, the really, really, worst thing is Tom Cruise trying to sing a lullaby. What editor let that one though? I nearly cried, it was so painful.

There were some good points though. It is genuinely scary in places. This has turned out to be a better horror film than science fiction, with some sustained suspense. The mobs look real and menacing. People die, lots of people, and the army are powerless. All this comes across as real; a powerful enemy would not be overcome easily, or at all, by the conventional weapons we have. Tom Cruise is not bad in the role of Ray, but I was never really convinced by him. There is a lot made of his character progression from absent father, to hero, but I don't see it. He just reacts to situations, and is the same person at the end as at the start. He's just a normal father who loves his children but can't relate to them, and hates his ex-wife. If any character changes during the movie, it's his son, who finally grows up a bit and shows his dad some respect. Dakota Fanning as the daughter looks scared and screams a lot - she's a better actress than this film allowed her to be. Go and watch 'Dark Skies, the TV series, she is much younger there, but much better.

As a long time fan of the Jeff Wayne musical version of this book, I was always hoping for Richard Burton to come on as narrator and let us know what was happening. I also wanted to hear Wayne's fantastic music. John Williams' score was forgettable, and the aliens made a noise that sounded just like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park - odd that! And Morgan Freeman doesnt have a resonant enough voice to add the gravitas that was needed. Wasn't James Earl Jones available?

If you've read the book, you'll have fun working out which bits they have used, and what they changed. It's all set in the United States of course, and is present day instead of 19th century England. I guess that's understandable. But the artilleryman and the preacher are combined into the Tim Robbins role, and their madness and motives are not clearly conveyed in his character. The boat 'Thunderchild' is there, but Ray's dash across the country to find his ex-wife is implausable, whereas the hero's search for his missing Carrie in the book is really emotional. I have no idea why they decided to change the way the aliens arrived on Earth - what was wrong with a series of spaceships?

It's certainly not boring, it's a good length, and it'll have you on the edge of your seat in places. But it's a missed opportunity to tell the story clearly. Spielberg, once more, is far too busy trying to tell us about dysfunctional families. This is something that I think 'E.T.' and 'Close Encounters' both also suffered from, and it's a shame he's done it again here.

Posted by se71 at 05:58 PM | Comments (0)

David Gilmour - On An Island

Oh dear, where to start?

I really quite liked "The Division Bell"; was it really twelve years ago? It wasn't anywhere as good as a Pink Floyd album with Roger Waters on board, but it had it's moments. It was worthy of a sixty- eight city tour, and I went to see them in Earl's Court. They were big, loud, and very entertaining.

If you were expecting more stadium filling rock from Gilmour on this release, then you will be sorely disappointed. Only one track, "Take a Breath", actually gets the BPM count above comatose. It's the only one that shows any real sign of life, but even it isn't very exciting.

"Red Sky At Night" sounds like some kind of mini "Shine on you Crazy Diamond" reprise. "This Heaven' has it's moments, a bit smokey jazz club maybe. "The Blue", and in fact a lot of the work here, harks back to a very early album Pink Floyd did in 1972 called "Obscured By Clouds". This track sounds especially like 'Mudmen' from that CD.

The title track "On An Island" is the best song. We all want to hear Gilmour playing his trademark electric guitar sound, and it has a fairly decent bit in the middle here, and an extended solo at the end. The guitar is always there on the album, but he is just strumming with no real passion. All the other tracks are very slight, flimsy. I can hum the complete solo at the end of "Comfortably Numb" from memory - that's not going to happen with any of the work on display here.

Nearly every track make you feel as if you've stumbled upon a small band having a private jamming session in their back garden on a summer's afternoon. The music floats over you, not unpleasantly of course, it sounds nice. I think it might work well as the soundtrack to one of those nature documentaries that are so popular right now. After such a long wait for new material however, I think we deserved a bit more. "Obscured By Clouds" incidentally was a soundtrack album.

The thing that is really lacking however, the one thing that might lift the music out of this torpor and turn it into something meaningful, is the lyrics. There are words of course, well, except on the three forgettable instrumental tracks. The problem is that they are meaningless sentimentalities about how it's nice to sit by the sea, or drink some wine, or look into a child's eyes. Chris de Burgh would have thrown these lyrics out as being too syrupy and cliched. This is about as far away from "The Wall" or "Dark Side of the Moon" as it's possible to get.

A great vocalist could probably do something with the material, but Gilmour, and Waters for that matter, were never good singers. Pink Floyd had fantastic thought provoking lyrics. They practically invented the concept album. They sneered, and shouted, and screamed - they didn't actually do any singing at all really. But Gilmour thinks he can get away with it now, and his voice is just not up to it.

I think the problem is that Gilmour is just to rich and too happy. Hhe doesn't need the money, doesn't need the adulation of the fans. He has nothing left to prove. Stop being so damned nice Dave! Get some decent drums back, where was Nick Mason for this one? In fact, now you've made friends with Waters again after Live8 (that was a great performance), why don't you all go back into the studio and have one more go at a real Pink Floyd album. Waters is a bit of an egomaniac, too political sometimes, too outrageous, but together you are a perfect complementary team. You can reign him in, and he can push you to new musical heights. Get back into the studio, fight a bit, argue with each other and swear once more you'll never work together again, but don't actually split till the music is recorded.

I'd hate for you to keep on making this kind of material, so please make more effort, and I'm sure you can still rock us properly at least one more time.

Posted by se71 at 10:53 AM | Comments (0)

March 20, 2006

Lists Of Bests

Those people at Robot Co-op have been busy again, and have integrated yet another cool site into their existing environment. We've had All Consuming, 43 Things, 43 Places, 43 People, and now we have Lists of Bests.

I must admit to being a bit obsessive recently (shouldn't that be, like, forever? Ed.) with making lists. I like to know what CDs I have, what books I've read, what countries I've visited. This new site lets me create personal lists of these things, or use a list which the site term as 'definitive', a predefined list that everyone should be able to agree on.

I had a mental list of movies I never want to waste my time watching. There was nothing like this on the site, so I set one up here. This is never going to be definitive, so I set up a personal list, I hope you dislike my choices. But other people can also use it, or make a copy of it for their own purposes. They can also compare their version of the list against mine, or another user's list.

The definitive lists are things like 'Oscar Winning Movies', or 'Books by Douglas Adams'. You can have fun seeing how many items on the list you can tick off. Another example is a thing BBC did called The Big Read a couple of years ago. The British the public voted for their favourite books of all time. I determined that I'd try and read all novels in the top 100, and here is that list, and here is my progress through it.

I got so carried away the other day that I created a few definitive lists myself that I felt were needed. Here they are:

Albums claimed to have sold 50 million or more units (a bit of a cheat this - there is only one in the list)

Albums claimed to have sold 40 million or more units

Albums claimed to have sold 30 million or more units

Albums claimed to have sold 20 million or more units

The lists can be anything really, and a very popular one for some strange reason is about food - '50 things to eat before you die'. I'm 77% of my way through that one without even trying :-)

All the sites I mentioned above are linked to Lists of Bests. This interconnectedness is great. You have say, a list of books, and you check off the ones you've consumed (not physically 'eating' books of course, that would be absurd!). The line with the book on it goes green to indicate the change, and the item is added to your All Consuming account. You can also say whether you liked it or not at this stage. When you logon to All Consuming you can then see an overall view of everything you have selected on the Lists of Bests site - like this. In this way you can build up a nice record of everything you read/watch etc. And if you add them into All Consuming first, they also magically appear in any lists you browse on the Lists Of Bests site. Cool!

There are many other features too, like comments, and listing things you want to consume but haven't yet, and things you are currently consuming. It all fits together very neatly, and looks great too with the new Web 2.0 style of allowing updates to be handled right inside the web page with no long winded redrawing of the whole page.

The sites all use the same logon, with single sign-on too, so create your self a free account and have a play. It's quite addictive though, and you may get lost in there for several hours. You have been warned.

Posted by se71 at 03:21 PM | Comments (0)

Power Shopping

Wandered into Timberland, the clothing store, yesterday. It was only fifteen minutes before closing time.

Spotted a sale section and managed to pick a shirt, jumper and pair of trousers, try them on, and get to the till before closing.

The challenge is on. I'd like to see anyone else beat that for a whole outfit :-)

(and no, I haven't done any sneaky shopping around, or browsing in Timberland before. I haven't been in the shop for over a year)

Posted by se71 at 01:39 PM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2006

Critical Mass

Sometimes, someone opens your eyes to a new way of thinking about things. This article for example, is not about blogging or writing primarily, but there is a remark that I've very much taken to heart over the last week:

"...the great thing about having a website is that no matter how slowly you add items, all the old stuff is still there. No matter how slowly you build it, as long as it's getting built it's okay"

I really love writing book/film/TV show/music reviews. I started doing it for fun really, and also, for my future self. There are movies I cannot even remember watching, which is a great shame. If I write a quick review then I can check back to see what I thought of something the first time around, and maybe avoid wasting a couple of hours.

I'd like other people to read them too, and hopefully find them helpful. But my website is small, so how are people going to find them. The site is however slowly growing towards what I hope will be a critical mass of reviews and articles. Already I can see some hits coming through from the search engines.

The great thing about the above quote is that I'm now feeling more encouraged to add new ones every day, working towards the time when this might actually become a useful resource as well as just a personal site. Even though the progress seems slow, I'll get there eventually if I just keep at it. And whan this happens, I'll do a bit of a redesign I think to make it easier to browse around.

There are already nearly 100 reviews, and over 200 posts on this blog, the time might be soon.

Posted by se71 at 11:16 AM | Comments (1)

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

*** Spoilers for both this film and 'I Know What You Did Last Summer' ***

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

Jennifer Love Hewitt is back, accompanied once more by her on-screen on-off boyfriend, Freddie Prinz Jr, as hapless teenagers Julie and Ray. You do not want to be friends with these people, you're likely to wind up dead.

The action takes place one year exactly following the first film. It should therefore really be called 'I Still Know What You Did The Summer Before Last Summer", but I guess even though it's more accurate, it's a bit of a mouthful.

Recapping that original film, you'll remember that a group of kids are driving home from the prom and knock down a man on a deserted road. They stop, put him in the boot of their car, and then dump him in the sea. But he's not dead, and one year later, on the anniversary of prom night, he starts leaving them ominous notes saying "I Know What You Did Last Summer". Death and mayhem ensue, Julie and Ray however manage to survive, and 'kill' this man. He's easy to spot by the way, he has a hook which he uses to dispatch his victims with, and wears a fisherman's slicker (that's a coat) and waterproof hat even when it's not raining.

Julie is now still having nightmares about this. But she helps her friend Karla win a radio competition for her and three friends to go to a remote island in the Bahamas, and jumps at this as a chance to get away from it all. Ray can't go, so she takes Ben instead, a boy from school who really fancies her. Brandy takes her boyfriend Tyrell, who appears to be there just to keep the swearword count unreasonably high. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Ray is attacked by Slicker Man and only just escapes with his life. Somehow he realises that Julie will be in danger, so he makes his way to the Bahamas alone, by boat (he's a fisherman too, in case we'd forgotten).

The usual slasher film things start happening on the island, and a storm starts for good measure too. Will Julie survive? Will any of her friends survive? And will Ray get there in time to save them?

There is a bit of misdirection, and a couple of neat twists near the end, but this is really just an excuse to make a bit of sequel cash. The performances are good, lots of screaming of course. The murders are grizzly, but get a bit repetitive; there are only so many ways you can use a hook to kill people I suppose. It's not anywhere near as good as the original, but it you liked that one, then this is also quite fun and not overly long or pretentious. Worth a viewing.

Posted by se71 at 09:27 AM | Comments (0)

March 14, 2006

Chicken Little

When a computer generated animated movie used to come out it was a big deal. Does anyone else remember examining the dust blowing around in Toy Story 2, or Sully's fur in Monsters Inc? Now, only a few years later, they seem to be ten-a-penny. I can't imagine a big Hollywood release getting away with being just old style flat images any more.

Chicken Little is the latest effort from Disney, and it does look good. They haven't gone overboard on the CGI tricks however, and have produced a more rounded, less textured world, which will appeal to the younger target audience. It's pretty obvious that many Pixar films unashamedly target adults, especially computer geeks, as well as the kids This one only has a few in-jokes for the grown-ups, like a scene from an Indiana Jones film, and some obvious War of the Worlds imagery.

The story starts out as fairly standard fare. Young Chicken Little lives with his dad in a single parent family - mother is missing, presumed dead from the way dad still has her photo on the wall. What's going on these days with families - Nemo had no mother, and Lilo had no parents at all!

He causes a panic in the streets when he tells everyone the sky is falling, and his dad makes him feel bad by not believing him. The rest of the film is an attempt by Chicken Little to prove to his dad that he was right, and to get him to realise he should be a better father. This is really handled quite badly in my opinion, over sentimental, with kids acting far older than their age. One of Chicken's friends, Abby Mallard, is even some kind of psychology expert.

None of these complaints will really bother the children watching however. Chicken's friends are a lovable bunch of misfits. There is some mild peril to keep it exciting, and it all works out for the best in the end.

There are a lot of songs in this movie, and it's mostly all feel-good stuff. Even depressing sounding titles like "The End of The World As We Know It" by R.E.M have a bouncy melody. Some are by original artists, and some are voiced by the characters, but interestingly there are no brand new titles, it's all old songs, or cover versions. I kept expecting Chicken to speak with a Woody Allen voice, and his dad really ought to have been Dan Goodman. If you like playing 'spot the voice' in animated films then you'll have a bit of a struggle as none of these are instantly recognisable, except perhaps a certain starship captain.

Overall, a fun kids film, though a bit annoyingly sentimental for adults.

Posted by se71 at 11:17 AM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2006

Longitude - Dava Sobel

On the cover of this book, it says boldly "The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time". Having now finished reading, I think this hyperbole over-eggs the pudding somewhat in an attempt to lure readers in. Of course, it worked! This short popular science book has sold an amazing number of copies since it's first release in 1996. It's great success is down to the fact that it is short, and sticks pretty much to the point. People could see themselves finishing it, understanding the problem, and even the solution. Those readers who completely lost the plot with Stephen Hawkins' "Brief History of Time" (and that probably included just about everyone), could feel good about themselves a bit more. We have Sobel and her success to thank for allowing many other great popular science books to find publishers too I think.

But, unfortunately, it's not really a great science book.

The problem itself isn't quite as esoteric or interesting as you might think. John Harrison was a clockmaker, and he knew what he needed to do right from the start. It wasn't really a struggle to find the answer to a difficult intellectual problem. All he needed to do was build a clock that would be accurate even when positioned on a ship sailing across the Atlantic ocean. It was just a mechanical trial and error procedure, performed over years of painstaking work I admit, but not really that interesting from the outside. And he wasn't really alone, his son helped him a lot in his efforts. I'm not saying he wasn't a genius clockmaker, he did invent new methods for controlling mechanisms to measure time, but in this book the science of those discoveries is hardly covered at all.

The Longitude problem, briefly stated is this: when a ship is at sea, it is simple to measure the latitude from the positions of the stars and the sun. However, no good method existed in the 17th century for measuring the longitude. So a ship sailing across an ocean had very little idea how far towards the east or the west it had travelled. This could be disasterous and was the cause of many shipwrecks. The simple answer is to have an accurate clock on board your ship. Set it on leaving port, and each day at noon (which you can tell from the sun) check the 'real' time on the clock. From the difference in the times you can easily calculate your longitude. The difficulty with this method at the time was that no clock could be relied upon. Differences in humidity, temperature and air pressure always made the clocks of the day run fast or slow. This is the problem that Harrison solved.

There were a couple of competing theories. They involved studying the positions of the moons of Jupiter, or the transit of the moon across the sky. Both these involved lengthy comnputations (over four hours, by a clever human 'computer'). They also relied upon clear skies, and in the case of the moon, were not even possible on some days of the month when the monn didn't appear.

This is all the science you really learn in 'Longitude'. The bulk of the story is the human interest side. The British Government of the day encouraged this problem to be solved by offering up a prize of £20,000 to whoever managed it to their specification. Harrison spent nearly 50 years of his life working towards this, and only finally won three years before his death at the age of 83 (on his birthday in fact)

There were many feuds with competitors who wanted Harrison to fail. Once of these, Nevil Maskelyne, was even appointed Royal Astronomer and made a member of the Board of Longitude during his struggle. It took intervention from King George III to finally force the full prize to be rewarded. This human story is of course interesting, but it takes up far too large a portion of what is anyway a very slim volume.

So, 10/10 Dava Sobel for making popular science more popular, but only about 3/10 for actually describing the science. There aren't even any good diagrams, or schematics of the clocks themselves, which I would have thought should be a prerequisite for a book of this sort.

Posted by se71 at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

March 09, 2006

The Cave

Disaster movies and horror movies are very similar. You get a cast of characters at the beginning, and you get the fun of trying to guess which ones will live, and which will die a horrible death. The only real difference with the horror film is that it's not some natural disaster, there is usually a boogieman somewhere waiting to pounce.

The premise this film starts with a huge cave system being discovered in a Romanian forest. It's mostly flooded, and so a team of crack divers are called in to explore it. This is a place where no one has ever been before they think; except we know from the opening of the film that a group of soldiers were trapped in the cave 30 years previously and never escaped.

*** Spoilers ***

So far so good. Obviously, there is at least one monster unknown to man lurking in there. It will pick them off one by one, until there is a final showdown, leaving a select few survivors.

But this team of expert divers are idiots. The first thing they do is send one man in by himself 2.5 miles into the cave. When they lose communication with him, they aren't alarmed, they just all follow him in anyway. Then they manage to blow up some of their equipment, causing a rock fall that traps them all.

I could forgive this, it moves the plot to where they need it to be after all. But what I cannot forgive is the way the characters react to the bizarre situation they've found themselves in. One minute they are being attacked by creatures under the water - the next they are calmly going right back into that water without a care. They readily accept the scientist's view that this is an uncontaminated ecosystem that has produced new lifeforms that want to eat people, but they completely fail to protect each other properly. I think the editors must have spliced some of the scenes together in the wrong order too, or left out some important ones, as it gets very confusing indeed. There are icy passages, and right next to them hot caves filled with burning methane. All the men look the same with their short black hair and black T-shirts, and as they are in the dark most of the time, or wearing masks, this can be a bit of a problem. And sometimes you think someone has been taken by a monster, but then they're right back with the group. It's all very confusing.

To make a successful horror film, you have to get the pace right. You have to care about your characters, understand their uncertainty and empathise with their mounting fear. You need the to know that they have based their motives on the information they have to hand, and therefore their actions make sense. None of this was done in "The Cave". Sometimes they are diving into deep water, the next they are climbing rock faces. I'm sure this could easily have been explained, but it never is.

To it's credit, it has some nice underwater photography. The acting is competent, and the story actually holds together internally. The only thing that scares me really about it though is the obvious setup at the end for a sequel!

Posted by se71 at 11:10 AM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2006

Vint Cerf at Google

Originally uploaded by se71.
I went to Google's offices last night to see Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, speak.

He spoke for about an hour on the state of the internet, and how he saw future developments. Even though he claimed not to be dumbing down as this was an audience of invited geeks, I found I understood all the issues he brought up - must mean I'm as geeky as I expected I was :-) He was very good, and answered every question in detail in the Q&A session afterwards. Google were very gracious hosts, providing refreshments and an excellent facility. It was a fantastic evening and I even went away with a Google goodie bag.

Today however, I'm wondering why I spend my time doing boring, repetitive and unchallenging work, when there are so many much more interesting things I could be thinking about 10 hours day.

View Site

Posted by se71 at 09:20 AM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2006

Revelation Space - Alistair Reynolds

**Contains Big Spoilers**

Space Opera with big ideas

This will make your head hurt if you read too much. Hardly a sentence is left untouched by some description of a technological marvel. It all gets a bit much after a while and you'll be turning to "War and Peace" for a little light relief. This is not to say that the book is boring, in fact, it's so interesting and full of ideas you won't want to put it down at all.

Getting a niggly complaint out of the way, the chapter headings are useless. They tell the date and place of the action, which would be fine, except that this changes many times during the chapter. So in the middle of the chapter the action can jump 20 years into the future, but sometimes the chapter changes and it's exactly the same time and place. No logic in a very logical book, bad.

Main characters are:

Sylveste, genius archeologist, investigating why life on the planet Resurgam was destroyed 99 thousand years previously by it's sun.

Volyova, one of the crew of a lighthugger spacecraft. This spacecraft has some hefty planet destroying weapons.

Kouri, soldier and assassin, recruited to operate weapon cache on Volyova's spacecraft, and to kill Sylveste.

There are lots of other characters, it's a big book, we'll see some of them in a minute.

The structure of the book keeps the main characters apart for the first half. A lot is hidden from us, and doesn't get revealed till the end. This keeps us reading of course, to solve the mystery.

The Shrouders are an alien race hidden in an unapproachable area of space. Sylveste finds a way to get close, and enters their 'Revelation Space'. In the same mission his assistant is killed. He goes to Resurgam to investigate why something called the Event killed all the life there thousands of years previously. Kouri is recruited by the mysterious Madamoiselle, to infiltrate the crew on Volyova's ship, and go with them to Resurgam and kill Sylveste. Volyova's captain is dying of an advanced plague, and her colleague Sajaki is taking them to Resurgam to get Sylveste. Sylveste's father Calvin, is dead, but his personality has been stored and can be implanted temporarily inside Sylvestes head. In this way he will be able to operate on Volyova's captain as Calvin is a super genius.

Are you keeping up with this...?

Once they all get to Resurgam, which is in civil war, the action shifts to a nearby neutron star and a planet orbiting it. This planet turns out to be artificial, hiding what Sylveste has come to find, and the star is not what it appears either.

There are lots of double crosses, and some minor characters get killed, and an entity called Sun Stealer takes over the ship. The revelation at the end is very good, and sets up the universe for what I expect will be a good conflict in the sequels. Look away now if you don't want to know....that the Inhibitors were a race who set up machines to kill life wherever it developed. The race on Resurgam were nearly wiped out by one of these machines, but they managed to hide it inside the planet orbiting the neatron star near Resurgam. Then they became the Shrouders. They waited hidden from the rest of the universe. When Sylveste insiltrated Revelation Space, the Shrouders entered his mind. The plan was to use him to get to the Inhibitors machine to see if it was still working. If it was of course mankind would get wiped out. If not, then the Shrouders could come back to normal space. The Madamoiselle was the other person on Sylveste's trip to the Shrouders and didn't die. She realised this plan, though Sylveste was unaware of what he was doing. She decided he had to be killed, to save the rest of humanity.

It's a very thought-provoking book, very intense, and it nearly all makes sense. Sajaki is not dealt with very well though. He is feared immensely, and when he tries to scan Kouri's mind, a precedure likely to kill her, she hardly complains. volyova is mortally afraid of him too. And yet, all it takes in the end is a bracelet with knives that dig into his wrist to totally disable him. He is a synthetically enhanced human, with nano healers in his blood, and the hand is back to normal in hours, so why didn't he fight. He also gets disposed of unceremoniously by Sun Stealer soon afterwards. By the way, Sun Stealer is a Shrouder entity, passed into the ships computer by a mind interface with Sylveste.

Thinking about it, perhaps as Volyova and Kouri travel towards Resurgam, it seems that they are 20 years behind in time, but perhaps they occupy the same time, and the sub-light speed relativity effects bring them forward. So the whole book's action really is chronological.

There is so much to say, I've left out loads of important stuff, but I'd advise you to read this one if you like hard science fiction novels in the Arthur C Clark, Peter F Hamilton vein.

[note: this review was written over two years ago. I've now finished the trilogy and hope to put up reviews of the other books soon. The review I'm not that happy with really, as rereading it now, even I am struggling to unnderstand what was going on. A more general description of the story would have been better.]

Posted by se71 at 01:34 PM | Comments (0)

March 06, 2006

12 Songs - Neil Diamond

The producer Rick Rubin does his magic on another music ledgend. However, there are many differences between his treatment of Neil Diamond, and his very successful albums with the late great Johnny Cash. (if you haven't heard "The Man Comes Around", or seen the video for the single from it, 'Hurt', then you're doing yourself a great disservice).

Diamond has written all twelve songs on this album (well, 14 songs oddly enough on my edition at least) specially for the album. Cash reinterpreted songs by other artists mostly. From the sleevenotes it looks as if Rubin played a big part in forcing Diamond to write better songs, to hone them to perfection, and then provided the (very few) session musicians to keep the sound small and intimate. I'm also reminded a lot of what Bruce Springsteen did with 'Devils and Dust' last year.

I'm only on about my third listen, and so this isn't a full review. I heard the first track in HMV the other day, and that decided me on buying it. "Oh Mary" is a song that instantly enters your consciousness and you find yourself humming all day from just one listen. The other songs that instantly connected with me are "Save me a Saturday Night" and "Face Me" - both slow, mournful sounding, as was "Oh Mary" - the faster tracks just haven't grabbed me yet though.
There are some very familiar sounding melodies, even lyrics, but I don't think I have a greatest hits package anywhere close at hand to give detailed comparisons - check back later for updates.

I'm not sure if it really is "His best work ever", which Amazon claims some critics are saying, but it's interesting that 'Q', Uncut and Mojo magazines all gave it very good reviews. It's great I think when a real but forgotten talent is introduced to an audience that didn't even know they existed.

Posted by se71 at 03:56 PM | Comments (0)

March 05, 2006

Tony Blair and God

So, "God told me to do it" is a legitimate defence now for our most senior politician.

I despair

Posted by se71 at 11:21 AM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2006

Desperation - Stephen King

I always used to read my Stephen King books in order of publication. Somewhere along the line I started to get behind. Recently I've been tempted to read a few of the newer ones, and I've been a bit disappointed by them. But my plan was always to go back, and so last week I picked up Desperation off the shelf and dived in.

I love not knowing anything about a book before I start. I completely avoid reading the blurb on the back if I can. I think, in terms of suspense, thriller and horror books particularly, that when you know for example that this is a 'vampire' book, your experience is lessened. You start right away thinking that each odd occurrence is probably a vampire, or every strange person is a blood sucking beast. Your mind is already tunnelling towards a conclusion, and is not open to the other possibilities, dead ends, traps and red herrings that the author has worked hard sometimes to create. When I was at school I used to regularly check the US best-seller lists in Time magazine. Every time a new King novel was released, it went in there obviously, and I pre-ordered it at the library without knowing anything about it. Maybe six months would pass before a UK publication date, and I'd be first in town to get it. Everyone knows nowadays when the book 'Christine' is about, but I had no idea when I opened it. If you haven't heard about it, then go to a bookshop and read the first three pages; it's deliciously clever writing in my opinion.

So, Desperation was a surprise for me, just a picture of a black bird flying across the sky on the cover. No clues really at all. If you like your reading experiences that way, then go no further here.

Desperation is the name of a small mining town in the desert, miles from the main highway, almost competely cut off from normal civilisation. It's also the state of mind that our heros find themselves experiencing in a dramatic fight for their lives. The novel starts several days after things have started to go wrong in Desperation. A seemingly random collection of people are arrested while driving along the highway by a huge cop, and driven back to be put in jail. The violence is appalling, they think he is simply a serial killer, but he's not even normal enough for that to be true.

Realising that they are not likely to survive, the men, women, and a boy called David, manage to escape from the jail. They play a cat and mouse with their former captor, but he seems to be able to command the buzzards, jackals, scorpions and snakes. These creatures, and a mysterious storm, and a blocked road, keep them from leaving town. Obviously, it all builds up to a final showdown.

The writing is great, the characters are as usual very real and believable. Everyone reacts to the horrific things they see and experience as you might expect. If you like your gore there is plenty here to make you squirm, this is really X rated stuff. But as the story progresses, it all gets a bit mystical. David has ongoing conversations with God, who tells him what to do, and even performs miracles for him.

I like suspending my sense of disbelief to allow me to enjoy the kind of 'monsters in the dark' that horror gives us. Somehow though, putting the real biblical God into this story made me think of it as more like an old testament bible tale, rather than a modern piece of entertainment. God is a cruel God, this is the tenet on offer here, and allows horrible things to happen to nice people, often. And God moves in mysterious ways, which means that facts get revealed piecemeal. Why can't God just tell someone what to do right at the beginning, instead of revealing himself in confusing dreams, and giving people odd feelings. A strong character suddenly has a Road to Damascus moment when God pops into his head near the end of the story, and suddenly their whole character changes. I hated that.

So even though I enjoyed reading this a lot, and some of the passages make really compelling and memorable reading, I have to judge it as three quarters of a good book. I'm nearly always disappointed by the endings that King comes up with, and this one is really no different. What was the evil lurking in the quarry at Desperation? Well never really know for sure.

Update: So they've finally made a movie of this book, albeit a TV Movie. Still, it should be good and scary.

Posted by se71 at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

March 02, 2006

World Book Day

It's World Book Day today.

I've just been out to Books Etc and bought myself a new novel for the train ride home.

I suggest you do the same :-)

(it's Orson Scott Card's "Shadow of the Giant" - which he promises is the conclusion to the elongated Shadow Saga. I hope he's right this time.)

Posted by se71 at 04:17 PM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2006

Lyra's Oxford - Philip Pullman

(***Spoilers for His Dark Materials trilogy included***)

This is a complete travesty. It's a small hardbacked book, costing £9.99 in the shops - less on Amazon, but still a lot. I read it in approximately 25 minutes. What a complete rip-off, glad I borrowed it from the library.

Don't bother reading this unless you have already read the other books in the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. It's not an introduction, you'll have no idea what's going on, and you'll just spoil your experience of of reading them.

If you have read the previous trilogy, then this is just a little coda taking place two years following the action in those books. It's barely a normal chapter's worth and adds so little to be almost worthless. You basically find out that Lyra is still living in Oxford (title gives that away a bit) and that she is missing Will. There is a bit of a small plot involving a witch and an alchemist, some excitement, and then it ends. I'd recommend you just pick it up in a bookshop and read it there in a single session. You'll enjoy meeting Lyra again, and you'll save yourself some money.

Posted by se71 at 09:49 AM | Comments (0)