More DW audios: The Maltese Penguin, The Holy Terror, Last of the Titans, Storm Warning

More Doctor Who audios – I know I said I was taking a break, but had problems finding and then ripping the CDs I actually wanted to listen to, so they will have to be later in the week. Two clunkers, one OK and one superb one this time.

I picked The Maltese Penguin under the impression that it came roughly here in sequence, though it looks like I was incorrect; anyway, it features the Sixth Doctor and his penguin-shaped companion Frobisher from the comic strips, in a spoof of The Maltese Falcon which won’t mean a lot unless you are a) a fan of the original film and/or b) remember the original Six/Frobisher comic strips with some affection. I fall into neither category and it left me rather cold.

The Holy Terror also has Six and Frobisher in a peculiar mock-Roman Empire world with bizarre rituals of imperial succession. I started out rather liking this setting (more grist to the mill of those researching the reception of the classics in sf) but ended up not liking it much after all; the off-hand treatment of violence and torture reminded me of the worst of the Sixth Doctor TV stories (I may be thinking of Vengeance on Varos). Frobisher is basically a one-joke character, and it just wasn’t very funny.

Last of the Titans is a nice little piece, with the Seventh Doctor (sounding very Scottish) materialising on an all-but-abandoned spaceship and gradually working out what the two other creatures on board are really up to. The solution is a bit implausible but everyone does it with great conviction.

Now for the good one. Storm Warning is the best DW audio I have heard to date. I had been warned by Alex Wilcock, and of course he was right. Funky new arrangement of the signature tune, and the return of the Eighth Doctor, in a brilliant soundscape evoking the disastrous maiden voyage of the R101. Gareth Roberts (Blake from Blake’s Seven) is fantastic as the sinister Air Minister, Lord Tamworth, India Fisher is great as new companion Charley Pollard, and Paul McGann is simply superb. Also I see that this appears to have been the first DW written by Alan Barnes, who also wrote the two Gallifrey episodes I most enjoyed. I believe the next three in sequence are all Eight stories, and very much look forward to them.

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April Books 21) Alias vol 2: Come Home

21) Alias vol 2: Come Home, by Brian Michael Bendis

I reported previously that I enjoyed the first in this series about a disaffected private eye with super powers, and I enjoyed this one as well; the main story is about our heroine on the track of a missing teenager, and uncovering a nasty family background and awful small-town environment; then there is a tail-end to the story where she goes on a dinner date. I find it very compelling.

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Planet of the Daleks; and the women of the Thals

Back in 1973, Dalek stories were real Dalek stories. Here we have the megalomaniac pepperpots preparing an army to take over the universe, and the Doctor encounters the Thals for the first time since way back when, giving us one of the most explicit continuity references ever. OK, the story is perhaps two episodes too long (how on earth did they get away with six-parters in those days?), the plot has a few holes (what do the Time Lords actually do with the information that the Doctor sends?) and the Daleks, alas, just a little less threatening than they might be (10,000 Dalek toys in a box, and the two who are simply pushed into the lake by our heroes); but it is all great fun. I remember being completely gripped by this when I first read it as part of the Doctor Who and the Daleks Omnibus produced by Marks and Spencer in 1976. The reviewers at the Doctor Who Reference Guide rate the novelisation ahead of the TV story. They may be right, but I found the original version still decently watchable.

To my slight surprise, I found myself liking Jo Grant more than usual. I’m afraid I normally find her deeply annoying, being the blonde companion who screams. Here she goes off to try and get help for the Doctor, dictating her thoughts into a voice recorder; she volunteers for dangerous parts of the adventure herself, and the Doctor lets her go. And there’s her almost-romance with Latep the Thal, though one can’t quite understand what she sees in him; she is of course destined to fall in love and leave the Doctor in her next story, having previous refused not only Latep but the King of Peladon and an Ogron in Frontier in Space. Indeed, there’s romance all round with the Rebec/taron relationship, the later played by Bernard Horsfall (of whom I have written before), the former by Jane How who apparently went on to be Dirty Den’s mistress in EastEnders.

Which brings me to another topic of unhealthy fascination for me: the women of the Thals. Nation’s attitude seems to undergo a steady improvement over the years, with Dyoni in The Daleks being little more than an object of protection (Ian shocks the Thals into action by threatening to hand her over to the Daleks), Rebec here being definitely more proactive but accused by Taron of being a distraction because he is in love with her, and finally Bettan in Genesis of the Daleks as a soldier in her own right who takes charge of cleaning up the mess after the Doctor and his companions depart. This is the chain of thought that culminates in Glynis Barber’s portrayal of Soolin in Blake’s Seven, and someone better versed than I am in analysing the portrayal of women in sf (and especially in the works of Terry Nation) can take this thought further.

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Interests and icons meme, again

This turns out to be quite onerous! One person’s questions were not specially icon or interest related, and will have to wait.


ajara (asked by  and ): This region (known as აჭარა in the local language) is part of Georgia (ex-Soviet rather than US state). It used to have a strongly autonomous government under the leadership of Aslan Abashidze; he got kicked out a few years back, and I was fairly closely involved in monitoring the situation at the time. Various spellings are used, since the Georgian letter ჭ is usually transliterated “ch”, but I am sticking to “Ajara” rather than the alternatives.

ansible (asked by ): Here I really mean not the device for instant faster-than-light communication to be found in the novels of Ursula Le Guin and Orson Scott Card, but the monthly newsletter of what’s going on in science fiction produced by David Langford, archived here, which itself has won six Hugo awards and has helped Langford win another 20 for best Fan Writer.

careers advice (asked by ): As some on my friends list will know, I do like from time to time to offer my input into how to shape career plans. This is partly because I feel my career path has been unconventional which maybe gives me a different perspective. Partly also that I never got any good careers advice myself, apart from the day I bought What Color is your Parachute? and realised that it is in fact OK to have wild dreams about your career, you just have to work out how to get there (and also OK to look for a job where you can do more of the work you like and less of the work you don’t).

cusu (asked by ): The Cambridge University Students Union, of which I was Deputy President (Services) in 1989-90, the yeah after I graduated (though I stuck around Cambridge for another year after to do my M Phil). Not in fact a great year of my life, as I have written here, but I learnt a lot from doing it. And I stay in touch with what’s going on to the limited extent of seeing who has been elected to my old post (now “Services Officer”) every year and sending them a commiserating email.

father ted (asked by ): This was a hilarious sitcom produced between 1995 and 1998, telling the story of three very strange Irish priests on an island and their equally eccentric housekeeper. I don’t know how well the humour would travel; I have occasionally baffled American friends by making them sit down and watch it.

gerald ford (asked by ): Ford was the first president whose term I remember in full (I was not yet two years old when Nixon was elected). It’s a scary thought that the kids who were born the year he lost the election to Jimmy Carter have now turned thirty. I am instinctively leftish of the political spectrum, but I retain a soft spot for Ford. He clearly was a more pleasant person than the average Republican candidate – it oozes out of this 1976 campaign commercial – but more importantly, his intervention in the Helsinki Accords process in 1975 made a greater contribution to bringing about the end of the Cold War through the peaceful implosion of Communism than any of Reagan’s adventurist efforts. Any of us living in a peaceful Europe today – especially in Eastern Europe – owe him a huge debt.

mediaeval or medieval history (asked by ): I’m a purist for spelling and prefer “mediæval” but you can’t have everything. I described my interest in the period in an earlier round of interviews here, but would add that I found my mediæval work almost the most intellectually stimuating thing I have ever done: trying to decode the thoughts and mind-sets of 800 years ago. I would like to get to the stage professionally where I could spend a week a month doing lucrative consultancy, two weeks reading science fiction and the rest of the time on continuing my medieval research. Give me ten or fifteen years.

prime numbers (asked by ): I just find them fascinating. I have almost certainly lived through more than half the years in my lifetime which are prime numbers (seven of them – 1973 1979 1987 1993 1997 1999 and 2003; the next seven would take me to 2063, and the one after is 2069). I like taking random large numbers and seeing how quickly I can break them down to their prime factors – say with people’s phone numbers – I remember discovering with glee that three of my four best friends at school all had phone numbers that were divisible by 23 (the fourth didn’t have a phone). Yes, I am weird that way.

rasfw (asked by ): In the old days before blogging and livejournal, a lot of people on the ‘net communicated through a system known as usenet. It’s still out there, though I should think most people think of it as “Google Groups” these days. The key area of usenet for exchanging sf-related thoughts was (and still is, as far as usenet goes) rec.arts.sf.written; I appear to have contributed of the order of 200 posts to it over the years, which makes me a small blip on a large radar screen.

single transferable vote (asked by , who has probably used it): this is the Best Electoral System in the World. Voters get to rank the candidates in order of increasing dislike, and then votes are transferred until the right number of candidates have been chosen. Used for elections in discerning jusrisdictions like the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Malta, and Australia. (In Northern Ireland it is used for local government, Assembly and European Parliament elections, because they Have To Be Fair; but not for Westminster elections.)


1915 (asked by and ):

This icon originated in this post, part of my efforts to get informed about the Lake Doiran campaign and the Battle of Kosturino in December 1915, in which my grandfather participated. The map is a sketch from Ward Price’s book on the campaign, showing what is now the south-eastern corner of the Republic of Macedonia, a country I know fairly well though I have spent only a day and a night in that part of it (a seminar in Štip, many years ago, followed by an overnight and another seminar in Strumica). I hope to get down there the weekend after next to complete my researches.

alphabets (asked by ):

As explained at some length a while back to , I am entirely fascinated by alphabets. (See also the many entries with the alphabets tag on this journal.) I generated the icon so as to have a proper one for future alphabet-related posts. The text is my name in (from top to bottom) Bulgarian, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Thai and Chinese, with Japanese down the right hand side. of course the orthographic eccentricities of the way I actually spell my name in the Latin alphabet (that silent ‘h’ in ‘Nicholas’, the ‘y’ instead of ‘i’ in ‘Whyte’) do not survive the process.

buzz (asked by ):

This was practically the first icon I designed for myself, one of the many photographs taken of Buzz Aldrin on the moon by Neil Armstrong. I use it here for all posts and comments on sf and fantasy matters which are not actual book reviews (for which I use a separate icon). Rather to my surprise I found a few months ago that someone had started using it as their default icon – not just a case of great minds thinking alike, but the two icons were identical as far as my graphics software could tell, and I knew I had made this one!

dancing cyberman (asked by ):

This icon was made for me by the wonderful, Hugo-winning gag reel from last year’s Doctor Who stories. The cybermen are among Doctor Who’s most famous adversaries (probably in third place after the Daleks and the Master); they have famously had all of their emotions surgically removed, to become creatures of pure logic. The sight of people in robotic costumes running around an English park is funny, but in the context that these are supposed to be joyless creatures it is even funnier. I use this icon for happy posts, and congratulating other people when they make happy posts. (One of ony two animated icons among my userpics.)

Lib Dem (asked by ):

The often mocked Bird of Liberty logo is the symbol of the Liberal Democrats, the third party in British politics. I’ve been a member of the party since it was founded in 1988, and was elected on a Lib Dem platform to Cambridge University Students Union (see above); I was also a candidate for Cambridge City Council in 1990 on the Lib Dems ticket, and am still a member of the Brussels branch. I was more prominent, of course, in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, which is a sister party of the Lib Dems; I was their central director of election/party organiser for three years, and was again a candidate in North Belfast in 1996. I tend to use my Northern Ireland icon for posts on NI politics, but am occasionally moved to comment on the Lib Dems (especially during last year’s leadership election) and so have this icon in reserve.

orac (asked by ):

Orac was one of the group known as Blake’s Seven in the British science fiction series of the same name which ran from January 1978 to December 1981, a bleak view of the future which seems eerily reminiscent now of the rise of Margaret Thatcher to power. (Though there were not always seven of Blake’s Seven, and Blake was barely seen in the third and fourth seasons.) In general Orac was a deeply annoying know-it-all computer, so his occasional variations from that were very amusing. I use the icon to illustrate posts about computers and IT generally, and I’m getting into the habit of using it also for memes. Am planing to re-watch Blake’s Seven in the near future.

plovdiv (asked by )

Another Balkan map, this one done as a one-off for a particular entry on the history of Eastern Rumelia, which was carved off the Ottoman empire in 1878 and became part of Bulgaria in 1885 (the ensuing war with Serbia being the setting for George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man”. The icon is taken from this map. I just love the fact that western policy-makers were gravely discussing the fate of Philippopolis when the locals just called it Plovdiv (Пловдив). I will probably never do another post about the Eatern Rumelia question, unless some miracle of fate actually brings me there, but I do occasionally use this icon to illustrate posts or comments about peculiar and confusing situations.

smile (asked by ):

This is actually a picture of the great Victorian Irish astronomer, Sir Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913), the subject of one of my M Phil essays in 1991. He was very well known as a populariser of science, though his actual scientific discoveries were in fact more in the exotic field of the mathematics of screws (now apparently an important concept in robot engineering). This is one of the famous series of caricatures of public figures done for the magazine Vanity Fair by Leslie Ward (known as ‘Spy’). I use it for mild amusement; several other happy icons (including the dancing cyberman, above) get more use though.

usa (asked by ):

Yeah, my fascination with body paint again; I think I found the original image by googling “patriotic body paint”, though it doesn’t come up when I try the search now. I use it to illustrate posts about contemporary America which are not related to the institution of the presidency in general (for which I use this, taken from Google Earth’s view of the White House) or Gerald Ford in particular (for which I use this).

Ooof, that was hard work. Feel free to ask again about more interests or icons, or to ask me to ask you about yours, but it may be a while before I compile another set of answers!

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Evolution of the Daleks instant reaction

I think the idea of the hybrid Dalek is crazy but the execution is good.

The rather nice moment of Sec picking up the radio.

The doubting Daleks.

Dalek attack on the camp is a bit half-hearted…

Solomon tries to talk to the Daleks. Bet they kill him.


has just put a comment on an earlier post saying that this episode has already started badly. Indeed, and not just because this storyline was already done in 1967.

Martha left behind by the Doctor in Hooverville as companions always are. To show her dismayed expression the camera tracks up from her cleavage. Slowly.

But she’s very clever, and while the Doctor is engaging in pointless banter with the Daleks, she is working out what is in the sewers.

My wife sniggers scornfully at the reference to gamma radiation.

Crumbs, Davros was wrong? Dalek Sec has decided to undo the mutation? (I preferred The Mutant Phase’s take.)

Daleks ask the Doctor to take them to a better place, and he agrees!!!

“If aliens had to come to earth, no wonder they came here!” Of course these days it would be San Francisco.

Doctor has his glasses on again.

Tallulah and Martha on the Doctor and love, etc.

“The line feeds are ready.” (Aren’t line feeds old-fashioned computer printers?)

Oh, very Frankenstein! The solar flare rather than lightning of course, but still…

Now the Daleks are rebelling. This is being done much better than the Dalek conflict in Resurrection of the Daleks. Also of course my sympathies are very much with the anti-Sec faction.

“First floor, perfumery” – ah, Rocky Horror nostalgia.

(How is the solar flare going to make much difference at night time?)

Poor old Laszlo. Obviously doomed, but it solves the problem of how he and Tallulah can get together again; they won’t because he will be dead.

Whoops, dropped the sonic screwdriver!

Really great shot of the lightning strike!

Martha’s remorse, and Laszlo’s reassurance, nicely done.

Dalek army of humans awakes… Despite getting electrocuted the Doctor failed.

The Daleks have not got out of the habit of imprisoning captives in their control room, first seen in Dalek Invasion of Earth.

The silent dalek hybrid army and Carmina Burana style music – very effective.

“If you choose death and destruction, death and destruction will choose you” – a good line, must mean he is about to die.


Hah, the radiation passing through the Doctor’s body obviously is enough to save the day.

So are these people going to be a new generation of Time Lords then?

Hah, Daleks killed by their own creation.

But they had a way of killing them off. No new Time Lords then.

“Just one.” Dalek Caan is the last one left. Will he get away?


Laszlo is doomed. Or is he? Hah, the Doctor is not completely useless. Indeed, “The Doctor is in.” Well, that’s a plot twist I didn’t expect.

Back at the Statue of Liberty. “There’s someone for everyone.” “Maybe.” Awww.

I see we’re back in Martha’s home period next week. Will be better, I expect. This wasn’t as bad as last week’s, but the two-parter was the weakest story so far this year.

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Big Finish: The Apocalypse Element, The Fires of Vulcan, The Shadow of the Scourge, The Mutant Phase

(Apologies if this appears twice; problems posting)

There’s nothing like watching or listening to a good Dalek story to make you realise how bad a bad Dalek story can be. But more of that after this evening’s episode has been broadcast. Thanks to my new commitment to Being Fit, I have been listening to more of the Big Finish audio plays than I usually manage. I’ve gone slightly out of order, in that I skipped straight from The Shadow of the Scourge to The Mutant Phase without listening to the two Frobisher stories in between, but since they aren’t really sequential it doesn’t really matter.

The Apocalypse Element brings the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn – clearly one of the great pairings of Doctor Who – to the back-story of the Gallifrey audios that I listened to a couple of weeks ago (and a sequel of sorts to The Genocide Machine). Negotiations on a Time Treaty between Gallifrey and the other time-travelling powers are at a climax, Romana as President has been missing for twenty years, and of course it turns out that the Daleks are behind it all. OK, poor old Gallifrey has been under siege so many times now that it is surprising the place is still standing, but I really enjoyed this one – everyone seems to be on top form, and I begin to believe those who say that Colin Baker’s performance in the audios shows what a great Doctor he could have been on TV, if he had given better material to work with. I see it has been much maligned by fan commentary in general; wonder what its critics think of it in comparison to Daleks in Manhattan?

The Fires of Vulcan brings the Seventh Doctor and Mel to Pompeii the day before the eruption of AD 79. I have managed to miss Bonnie Langford’s presence on TV completely, so this was actually the first story of hers I have experienced. McCoy is utterly splendid as bleak!Doctor, convinced that he has brought himself and his companion to their doom. Langford is not especially remarkable, doing standard female companion role, but not especially annoying either. Unfortunately much of the plot makes very little sense (too much running around in order to get stuck in dramatically dangerous situations), and my reaction to the Doctor’s eventual escape was D’oh, why didn’t he think of that in the first place???

The Shadow of the Scourge At one point in this story I thought, Hmm, the characters are all trapped in a building in which religious rituals have been taking place and are under siege by creatures from another dimension. I wonder who wrote this? And I was right. Actually it was striking to listen to two consecutive stories featuring dark!Seven taken from opposite ends of his timeline. I enjoyed this one rather more; the story is rather better constructed, the characterisation of the hotel guests caught up in the horrors of alien invasion rather well done. Slightly annoyed by the Doctor trying to appear villainous and conniving – although Ace calls him on it, she is right to point out that this is getting old by now. For once, I found Sophie Aldred not too annoying, and very much liked Lisa Bowerman as Bernice Summerfield. And Paul Cornell has a “cross-stitch convention” taking place in the hotel, a nice and recognisable spoof of sf conventions.

The Mutant Phase was another good Dalek story (ie a good story about Daleks, rather than a story about a good Dalek). I have to say that Sarah Sutton as Nyssa particularly impressed me this time round, unlike the previous two audios I heard her in, and . Lots of time travel action, two very bleak and convincing pictures of Earth at different tragic stages in its future, lots of continuity references to, of all stories, The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It got a little tangled up in time paradoxes and who the Dalek Emperor was actually being at the time towards the end, but very much kept my attention.

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My birthday present to me: longer life

As has been mentioned around the place, I just turned 40. The time has come to start trying to keep fit. So I have joined a gym club in the European quarter, in an effort to do some systematic exercise.

I do do the occasional bike ride at weekends, but I feel that isn’t very systematic and also eats into my family time. I suppose I could have saved the membership money and just gone for systematic jogging and cycling first thing in the morning; but to be honest I felt I needed to make a financial commitment to increase the chances that I would stick with it (sunk cost fallacy I know, but it works psychologically). Also with the membership you do get advice from the instructors, which saves me trying to navigate through websites or read up on it from elsewhere.

I have never done regular exercise, and need all the incentives I can manufacture to stick at it. The really big incentive is of course the most intangible one of increased longevity. My father died as a result of an unexpected heart attack changing planes in JFK airport when he was 62, in 1990. His father had dropped dead beside him, also after a sudden heart attack, at church one day in 1949; he was 68. My mother’s father also died of a sudden heart attack in his mid-60s, in 1977. The pattern is clear, and so is the moral. My paternal grandfather was probably the fittest of the three, and also lived longest. (Though like many ex-colonials he suffered from the aftereffects of malaria, etc.)

Anyway, I have now done two gym sessions and feel very virtuous. They have put me on what is presumably the standard beginner’s programme, 15 minutes biking, 20 on the walking belt, 15 on the striding machine, and then a few dozen abdominal stretches. I did it for the first time on Tuesday and felt tired but good for the rest of the day. Wednesday was hell, though, with every part of my body (especially the abs) thoroughly aching. But I got out of the house early enough on Thursday to do it again, and now feel fine this morning.

Timing is a bit of an issue. The gym’s location makes it tricky to get to work on time even leaving home an hour early. Also I am still looking for somewhere to get a decent breakfast – there are loads of places between gym and office which will do the standard Belgian croissants and coffee, but I do hanker after bacon and eggs.

Anyway, will report back here regularly on how it goes.

On a largely different topic, thank you everyone for your birthday wishes yesterday! And I particularly appreciated the thoughtfulness of this card (you know who you are – it was in a locked entry so I feel I can’t give you the credit you deserve).

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April Books 19) The Way to Babylon

19) The Way to Babylon, by Paul Kearney

I think I picked this up as part of my Worldcon haul in 2005. A rather lyrically done tale of a fantasy novelist who is recovering from an accident in which his wife died, and finds himself sucked bodily into the world he has created – or has he? Was it perhaps “really” there all the time?

The protagonist’s grief and healing are nicely observed. It would be very easy to fall into being twee with a plot like this, and Kearney skilfully avoids that trap. All very well described.

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April Books 18) Blindness

18) Blindness, by José Saramago

Back to Nobel prize winners rather than sf for a change. Blindness is the story of a city where everyone starts going blind. But it is very different from Day of the TriffidsUnSuggestions for this book:

  1. Basics of biblical Greek: grammar by William D. Mounce
  2. Tris’s book by Tamora Pierce
  3. Daja’s book by Tamora Pierce
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There will be a special prize…

…for the first person to report a spam email purporting to come from the relatives of the late Boris Yeltsin and soliciting the recipient’s assistance in disposing of a large sum of money, in return for full details of, and access to, said recipient’s bank account.

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Interests and icons meme

If you want me to ask you about your interests and icons, comment here and I will. Also, feel free to ask me about any of mine.

asks about:


Molvanîa is a fictional eastern European country introduced to me by my former boss, via the book and the website. I blogged it here and here, and even Ken MacLeod got in on the act. Choice extracts:

The Vzintga Gorge was cut between precipitous cliffs by the powerful River Vzintga, which flows down numerous pools and waterfalls. There is a marked trail to the top of the gorge where the views are quite outstanding. Sadly, the spectacular cable-car that once carried visitors across the gorge no longer operates, but you can still see the old pylons and engine-house as well as view a memorial plaque dedicated to the service’s last 20 passengers.

The unofficial capital of the Great Central Valley region, Jzerbo may not look all that inviting to the first-time visitor, with its jumble of grim Soviet-era housing and concentration of heavy industry. But thanks to frequent, heavy smog, many of these visual eye-sores remain hidden from the average visitor.

Ted Chiang is a great but not very prolific science fiction writer, the youngest person to have won a Nebula award in one sense, and the second youngest to have won either a Hugo or a Nebula in another sense. His brilliant novelette “Tower of Babylon”, in which the builders of the tower succeed in breaking into the vault of heaven, was published in Omni when he was only 23 and won a Nebula. (The next youngest winner, Samuel R.Delany, published his novel Babel-17 when he was 24.) Chiang now has two more Nebulas and a Hugo, and (like me) was born in 1967; only one person born after either of us, Kelly Link (1969), has won either award (like Chiang she has three Nebulas and a Hugo). I have written up Chiang’s short story, “Hell Is The Absence of God”, which won both Hugo and nebula, here.

Roger Zelazny was very much my favourite sf writer as a teenager, and I retain a strong degree of affection for him. I did a brief piece on him here, and retain the ambition of doing something more substantive at some point. I particularly loved his earlier works, where his meditations on mythology and his gift for descriptive writing merged very effectively; I strongly recommend Lord of Light and This Immortal. I’m also a fan of some of his mid-period books, like Doorways in the Sand, whose eternal student hero has to deal with the theft of an alien artifact, and the late but effective pastiche A Night in the Lonesome October. Even the second set of Amber books were not as bad as I remembered when I reread them a few years back. (And the first five remain pretty good.) I have gone to the lengths of reading three books about Zelazny, more than for any other sf author bar Tolkien.


Keyword: Bodypaint

This is of course a cut down version of the famous Pink Floyd poster advertising the six best-known albums (variously referred to as the “Pink Floyd girls” or the “back catalogue”). Left to right: Atom Heart Mother, Relics, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You were Here, The Wall, and Animals. I’m a man of unexciting musical tastes, so the three covers in my icon are the three albums I like most (ie The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You were Here, and The Wall).

I find the image very sexy, and use it to illustrate my occasional entries on topics relating to sex and sexuality. I would love to know more about its origins, though recent investigations have yet to bear fruit.

Keyword: Khinkali

These are a delicacy from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, whose cuisine I have come to love over the last few years while I was professionally engaged there. No longer as much involved professionally, but still very very interested in the cooking.

Khinkali are a sort of stuffed dumpling, mince (or, for non-carnivores, cheese) inside a pastry package, lightly boiled and served with ground pepper. Yummy.

Keyword: Lincoln

This is of the Gettysburg Address as reproduced in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, and the words highlighted are from the last sentence:

“that we here highly resolve that
these dead shall not have died in
vain, that this nation under God
shall have a new birth of freedom,
and that government of the people,
by the people, for the people shall
not perish from the earth.

Lincoln is a great political figure, and the Gettysburg Address one of the great speeches of all time, and the Lincoln Memorial one of the great monuments of the world. However, I haven’t yet thought of a good use for the icon.

Also this was one of the first pictures I took and uploaded with my then new digital camera two years ago. Now the camera is dying on me, but I still have the pictures.

So I hope you feel better informed now.

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In honour of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day…

…I bring you my entire PhD thesis. (2 MB, M$ Word version.) An only slightly edited version is available for money in dead tree format here.

(Explanation: has proclaimed today to be International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, when anyone who feels so inclined should give away professional quality work online.)


The social context of science in Ireland between 1890 and 1930 is examined against the social and political background of the time, which included the rise of Irish cultural nationalism, the troubled period of 1916-1923, and the granting of independence to most of the island in 1922. In particular, scientists are divided into three groups who reacted to and were affected by the events of the day in different ways.

Many Ascendancy scientists (including those based at Trinity College, Dublin; the Royal Dublin Society; the Royal Irish Academy; and many with private incomes, in particular astronomers) had practised science as a cultural rather than a practical activity, and some actively sought to exclude Catholics from positions of influence within the Irish scientific community. The social and political reforms of the period affected the financial ability of Ascendancy scientists and their institutions to carry out much scientific work, and after 1922 they were faced with a political settlement that many of them had opposed.

The State’s scientific employees were seldom of Irish origin but nonetheless took part in the discourse of Irish nationalism; their institutions were mostly of Irish foundation, taken over by the government in London during the 19th century, and returned to Irish administrative control in 1900. Although they were more inclined to make the most of the 1922 settlement, government spending and thus scientific activity declined after independence.

Scientists from a Nationalist or Catholic background had faced discrimination during the nineteenth century from their Protestant fellow-countrymen. There is little evidence to suggest that the Catholic church ever actively discouraged the practice of science in Ireland, and some to suggest that leading Irish nationalists positively favoured scientific activity as a tool of nation-building.

Extract 1 (astronomers):

The group of Irish astronomers who became active in the 1820s — Thomas Romney Robinson, Edward Cooper, the third Earl of Rosse and William Rowan Hamilton — had a common Ascendancy background. However they did not have identical political outlooks. Cooper and Rosse were both MPs during the 1830s, but sat on opposite sides of the House; while Rosse was a Whig, Cooper and Robinson were Tories, as was Hamilton when he turned his mind to such mundane matters. Michael Hoskin has shown that while Rosse was relatively cautious about claiming new discoveries made with the Leviathan, Robinson could barely be restrained from proclaiming the great Birr telescope’s success at rendering visible the component stars of various nebulæ as a triumph of the Irish national genius against the (liberal) nebular hypothesis.

[Norman] McMillan portrays the decline of the ‘Network’ as the result of the breaking down of a political consensus (whose existence is doubtful) among Ascendancy scientists into a ‘bitter internecine struggle’, with ‘a group of “Home Rulers” in the Royal Irish Academy’, including the Trinity Fellows J.A. Galbraith and Samuel Haughton, becoming estranged from their colleagues in the Unionist camp led by George Johnstone Stoney. He claims that, under pressure from Stoney, the fourth Earl of Rosse ‘abandoned his family’s long-held nationalist politics and moved into the Unionist camp’. He may be drawing from Webb and McDowell, who say of the fourth Earl around 1900 that ‘the events of the past twenty years had made him desert the liberal traditions of his family for a pessimistic and disillusioned Toryism’.

But the Parsons family’s aristocratic Whiggery cannot possibly be described as ‘nationalist’. As a young MP, the third Earl supported Catholic Emancipation and the Maynooth grant, and was a late convert to Reform; but he also wrote a pamphlet and spoke in Parliament opposing the repeal of the Corn Laws, and there is no evidence to suggest that he had any sympathy for O’Connell’s Repeal movement or for the Young Irelanders. Another pamphlet, written in the midst of the Famine, lumps together new-fangled political economists with the ‘profoundly ignorant’ opponents of Newtonian philosophy. Certainly by the time he had graduated to the House of Lords (as an Irish representative peer) he was to be found supporting the Irish policies of Peel’s Tory administration, although he favoured closer government supervision rather than local control of the state’s faltering efforts at famine relief. As for the fourth Earl, Webb and McDowell imply that his political conversion was a result of disenchantment with Balfourian Unionism and the weakening of the Ascendancy in the 1880s and 1890s, rather than moral pressure from Stoney in the 1870s. Rosse would not have been alone in this; the impact of ‘constructive Unionism’ on Unionist voters in Dublin was so negative that both their parliamentary seats were lost in the 1900 general election.

Extract 2 (museums)

It is interesting to compare the experience of the Dublin museum with the case-studies of natural history museums in Christchurch, Melbourne, Montreal, Buenos Aires and La Plata described by Susan Sheets-Pyenson. She points to a general world-wide growth in interest in (and building of) museums up to 1890 (the year that the new Dublin buildings were opened), followed by a period of precarious funding in the era of increasing local autonomy and an eventual shift to a programme of local studies rather than international collecting. The Dublin museum’s funding and staff levels remained secure up to the change in the political situation in 1922; but Scharff was conscious of the political advantages to be gained for the museum as Irish autonomy became more and more likely. As we shall see, he was prepared to challenge other scientists on those grounds.

Sheets-Pyenson also notes that support staff in colonial museums tended to be either graduates, imported from the metropolis, or local unqualified recruits, often from the lower social classes, who might well eventually achieve relatively senior rank despite their humble beginnings. In this context it is remarkable that only a minority of the Natural History Museum’s staff (Halbert and the two women, Stephens and Knowles) were born in Ireland, and that they tended to start (and in the women’s cases to remain) at a lower level than their better-educated English colleagues. Sufficiently qualified Irish recruits were scarce; Robert Lloyd Praeger, perhaps the most outstanding amateur of his age in Ireland, remarked fifty years later that his failure to get the job which went to Carpenter after a competitive examination in 1888 was due to ‘inadequate time for reading, and a disbelief in examinations — which I still hold’. Praeger eventually used the security of a career with the National Library, on the far side of Leinster House, to support a passionate interest in natural history which enabled him to set the agenda for his professional colleagues.

Extract 3 (nationalism and science)

Another element in the scholarly consensus about the lack of science in Catholic Ireland has been the suggestion that Irish Nationalists generally were too much taken up with the ‘national struggle’ or with the revival of Gaelic culture to be interested in scientific activities. There can be no doubt that the Irish cultural revival, and the Gaelic League in particular, did indeed appeal to the growing Catholic urban middle class in the decade or so after its foundation in 1893. Tom Garvin has said of the period that ‘the cultural atmosphere in which the new leaders [of the 1920s] had grown up was suffused with a nationalist and anti-modernist romanticism’ , and John Wilson Foster has argued that the internationalism of science made it incompatible with nationalist political activity.

Here it will be argued that this difference of outlook was not, and need not have been, a fundamental incompatibility, and that in fact the perceived hostility of Irish nationalists to science is to a certain extent a misinterpretation. It is important to understand the shifts in Nationalist thinking over time. Around the end of the nineteenth century, a number of Nationalists were very interested in scientific matters; the interaction of the cultural revival with science should not be simply characterised as the vampiric relationship which some writers seem to favour. The undeniable decrease in enthusiasm for state funding of science after independence is probably to be better understood as yet another facet of a general reluctance on the part of the new government to part with taxpayers’ money for any purpose not perceived as essential.

The Irish Nationalist party under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell was as influenced by the Victorian industrialising milieu as any other group in nineteenth-century Britain. Parnell himself was an amateur mineralogist in his spare time; this interest may have originated from his efforts to make his estate at Avondale, Co. Wicklow profitable, but he went to the lengths of equipping his lover’s house at Eltham with a small furnace so that he could carry out his own tests. For vivid scientific imagery at the heart of Irish politics, it is difficult to better Tim Healy, during the December 1890 meeting in Committee Room 15 which sealed Parnell’s fate, comparing the disgraced leader’s personal magnetism to that produced by an iron bar in an electrical coil: ‘This party was that electrical coil. There [indicating Parnell] stood the iron bar. The electricity is gone, and the magnetism with it, when our support has passed away.’

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AKICILJ: camera batteries

The ol’ digital camera is giving me grief. Specifically, I am getting the “low battery warning” and consequent shut down as soon as I put new batteries into it. It wasn’t such a battery hog when I first bought it (though still went through them pretty fast); but this is not supportable.

Is it worth buying rechargable NiMH batteries and trying them out? On the plus side, I get the impression from various websites that they are much better in digital cameras than standard alkaline batteries (which I’ve been using so far). Also I suppose they are better for the environment if I keep on using them. On the downside, if the camera is basically broken (which is a concern, given that it didn’t always have this problem so badly) perhaps I would just be throwing good monety after bad?

Advice gratefully received. (Especially from  or anyone else who also has the Fuji Finepix A340.)

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April Books 17) The Children of Húrin

17) Narn I Chîn Húrin: the Tale of the Children of Húrin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

It is clear to most readers of The Silmarillion (and those who then go on to The Book of Unfinished Tales) that the strongest part of the story is the tale of tragic hero Túrin Turambar, cursed to achieve glorious deeds in battle and yet disastrous in his private life and his effect on those around him. But the Silmarillion account is too brief, and the Unfinished Tales version has large gaps in it.

Christopher Tolkien (now older than his father lived to be) has pulled together the various versions of his father’s tale of families and war, and made something really special out of it. I have read both previous versions, and of course the Beowulf and Kalevala texts which inspired some of it, and I still couldn’t put it down. Alan Lee’s beautiful illustrations don’t do any harm either. (Though I was slightly frustrated that the promised map of Beleriand doesn’t appear.) (Edited to add: Oh yes it does; and have found it for me.)

Those who have only read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit may be a bit confused by the setting, as Beleriand has of course sunk below the waves millennia before Bilbo Baggins left Bag End; unfortunately Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to expain all this is rather tough going, more so than the main text itself. On the other hand, his appendix explaining how and why he compiled the story from his father’s manuscripts as he did (for three different publications, differently each time) was surprisingly interesting.

There’s lots to pull out from the text for those so inclined: it further illustrates what Tom Shippey has written about Tolkien and war and honour, but it’s also the only major Tolkien work I can think of where family relationships play a crucial role in the plot. Strongly recommended.

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Daleks in Manhattan

I liked the human interactions, and the strenuous efforts to show New York realistically as it would have been in the 1930s, though not sure that the Empire State Building is visible at that angle from the Statue of Liberty – and how did the Doctor and Martha get across the water to Manhattan?

Though I did like the nod to the scene on the Empire State Building in The Chase. (Steve Lyons picks up on this also in Salvation, where Steven “remembered standing on its observation deck, in what seemed like another lifetime”.)

Not convinced by the Daleks though. As eloquently puts it, “Guy with a Dalek on his head does not equal DALEKS.” The whole point of the Daleks is that they are not humanoid at all; they have tried to absorb bits of human-style information over the years (Evil of the Daleks, The Genocide Machine) but untilamtely failed. No doubt they will fail again, and of course this is only the cult of Skaro not the mainstream Daleks, but it goes against the basics.

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Buffy, Season 8 (episodes 1 and 2)

This is the official Season 8 of Buffy, as officially sanctioned – indeed, written – by Joss Whedon, and published in comic form. Two of a projected twenty “episodes” have been published so far; I went and got them from the local comic shop this morning.

Hmm. Frankly I am disappointed.

First off, the art itself: Perhaps I was spoiled by reading the likes of the Alan Moore strips in the Doctor Who magazine, where he caught Tom Baker’s Doctor almost better than Baker himself did, but I like my comics characters to look like the people they are meant to represent. Most crucially, I don’t think Georges Jeanty as chief penciller has captured Buffy particularly well, nor does the first of Jo Chen’s two covers particularly resemble Buffy as played by SMG. (The second is better.) Andrew and Giles are too young (Andrew practically prepubescent); Xander is caught reasonably well though, as is Willow in the one glimpse we get of her. Dawn is not bad either, though has been physically transmogrified for plot purposes.

Ah, the plot. We seem to have i) Xander, Buffy and the wannabe slayerettes of Season 7 based in a high-tech castle in Scotland, overseeing the world struggle against vampires; and ii) the US military allying with the forces of evil (well, one character from established continuity anyway) out of a combination of ignorance and (it is strongly hinted) malice. I don’t mind the latter, which of course is the latest version of a recurrent theme in Whedon’s work, but the former seems to me out of whack; the whole charm of Buffy is that these people are saving the world with meagre resources from somewhere that looks like your front room, not from a control centre out of a James Bond film.

But what I really miss is the snappy dialogue which made Buffy, Angel and Frirely such a joy to watch. Maybe it’s just more difficult ot carry through to the page; maybe Whedon will find his swing in later issues; but I had no laugh-out-loud moments in the first two episodes and not a lot of smiles either. (The one thing that did make me laugh out loud this morning was Peter Weston’s explanation of why he sent me his latest issue of Prolapse.) I think that I will buy the rest of the series anyway, in hope that it improves, but if it doesn’t I’ll just flog the lot on eBay once I’ve finished with them.

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April Books 15) A Short History of Nearly Everything

15) A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

As a lapsed scientist myself, not a huge amount of this book was new to me, but I can see why it is popular with people who have never had to crack open a science textbook since leaving school, or even with some who have. Bryson’s chatty style, which hasn’t always worked for me, carries us fairly effortlessly through the fundamentals of physics, geology and evolutionary biology, with a decent amount of reflection on the men and women behind the scientific theories (though without going very far into the sociology of knowledge).

Two things really jumped out at me, both of which I was vaguely aware of but which Bryson really brought to life: 1) the imminent and catastophic eruption of the Yellowstone caldera, which will wipe out a significantly large chunk of the continental United States; and 2) the catastrophic impact of human fishing on the fauna of our oceans. Definitely losing sleep about both of those now.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: The New Reformation Study Bible. Hmmm.

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Red Dawn, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, Winter for the Adept

Three more Doctor Who audios from Big Finish.

Red Dawn: The Fifth Doctor and Peri (unusual choice – obviously only one gap in the established narrative where this can take place) land in what turns out to be an Ice Warrior mausoleum on Mars, at the same time as an Earth probe comes to explore. Needless to say, disaster ensues, but the real monsters turn out to be the humans behind the earth exploration ship. Earnestly done by everyone, with particularly good audio evocation of the Ice Warriors and the Martian landscape. Good but not great.

The Spectre of Lanyon Moor: I felt this was a different matter, nearly as good as The Genocide Machine (so far my high point of the Big Finish series). The Doctor and Evelyn Smythe are investigating ancient artifacts in Cornwall; the retired military officer cleaning the finds has in fact an agenda of his own, and recognises his old friend’s new face immediately. OK, the plot itself is a rip-off of any number of classic stories, including The Daemons and The Stones of Blood, but done with tremendous conviction by all.

Winter for the Adept: A rather peculiar tale of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa dealing with poltergeists in a Swiss finishing school. The Doctor himself barely appears until the end of the first of the four short episodes, and almost everyone is putting on silly accents. Really not very convincing in the end.

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Jobs in my line of work

While none of you (as far as I know) has actually applied for the internship in my office, a number of you expressed interest in this general line of work. You might like to know that there is a site called which is the key place for advertising jobs in European affairs generally. I’ve also advertised this particular position on which seems to be a similar clearing house for Westminster. I’ve also been contacted by a site called Electus Start which seems to be in the same game.

I do recommend that anyone who wants to dip their toe in this particular water consider signing up as an election observer, which basically requires proven interest in politics and international affairs and willingness to do it. (Just to review how you actually apply to be an election observer, US citizens go here, UK citizens here, Canadians here, Dutch citizens here, Belgians hier and ici. Irish opportunities are listed here.)

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April Books 14) [Doctor Who:] Made of Steel

14) [Doctor Who:] Made of Steel, by Terrance Dicks

Yes, Terrance Dicks is still out there, still writing Doctor Who novels; this is in the BBC’s £1.99 “quick reads” series, picked up in Forbidden Planet last week. The Doctor and Martha get mixed up with a remnant cell of Cybermen (incidentally answering the question my wife asked me after we watched “Doomsday”) and also deal with thick and uncomprehending military types. Dicks makes a valiant effort to catch the Tenth Doctor’s character, and on the whole succeeds, with only a few passages which I thought too reminiscent of the Third Doctor of Dicks’ novelisations. A decent quick read.

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April Books 13) Eifelheim

13) Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

Flynn’s The Wreck of the River of Stars was one of the best sf books I read last year, and I had high expectations of this Hugo nominee: a story of aliens landing in 14th century Germany, and the contemporary historian (and his physicist girlfriend) who works out what happened way back then. Flynn puts a lot of effort into creating a believable 14th-century world, with a relatively harmonious relationship between religion and science depicted; some of the best passages are where the central character (the village priest) and the aliens try to make sense of each others’ world-views in terms of their own. He has tried hard also (not always successfully) to catch the linguistic flavour of the period. I didn’t enjoy Eifelheim quite as much as River of Stars, though; I felt that Flynn’s occasional expositions of his characters’ motivations didn’t work so well here, and I found the shift from omniscient narrator to tight first-person at the end a bit jarring.

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More on the sexual habits of American teenagers

A kind person has pointed me (via a locked entry in her own lj) to the report discussed in my previous entry. It appears that I misread the key piece of information:

For both the [abstinence] program and control group youth, the reported mean age at first intercourse was identical, 14.9 years. This age is seemingly young, but recall that the outcome is defined only for youth who reported having had sex and the average age of the evaluation sample was less than 17.

Getting means and medians sorted out: The key statistic in most of the countries I quoted in my previous entry is (as I should have guessed) the median date for first sexual intercourse, since it is established once the 51st percentile have lost their virginity, no matter how long it takes the other 49% of your sample.

In the case of the American survey, 49% of the sample were still virgins at the end, and we are told that the mean and modal age of all surveyed was 16, so I guess that will make the median date for first sexual intercourse of the whole sample also around 16; which is low-ish by international standards, but not quite as unusually low as 14.9.

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