I hear ya

OK, by popular demand I will do a post about the Lisbon Treaty. Probably at the weekend. In the meantime, feel free to ask me any questions about it in comments here.

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Early Hugo thoughts

Not yet finalised my Hugo nominations, but here are a couple of items I’m likely to include on my list which I haven’t yet seen mentioned by others:

Novel: The Children of Húrin, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Indubitably eligible; while some of the material has been published before, it was first published in this form in 2007. So what if the author died a third of a century earlier?

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): Along with the obvious Doctor Who episodes (Blink and Human Nature/Family of Blood) I will be nominating Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, from the Sarah Jane Adventures.

Still haven’t read Brasyl, of course.

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January Books 11) An Instance of the Fingerpost

11) An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears

I’ve been laid low today by a bug I’ve been battling since the weekend, and have resorted to the usual therapy of naps, reading and paracetamol. Finished this excellent book, recommended to me by and and a Christmas present from . It’s a great story of events swirling around a murder in Oxford in 1663, told by four different narrators, each unreliable in their own way. This is of course the era of Pepys (who makes an obvious but unnamed appearance in the last chapter), and not far off Neal Stephenson either. I wondered to what extent Pears was taking liberties with the historical facts, especially since two of his narrators are actual historical figures; but he has been fairly transparent, with an appendix clarifying which characters are fictional and what real accounts their story is based on.

I don’t think he always gets the 17th-century mind-set right, and his portrayals of historical characters don’t always ring completely true, but comparisons with Eco and his portrayal of the 14th century in The Name of the Rose are fair: it’s a canvas on which the story is painted, not a historical textbook. Having the same events described in four different voices is a brilliantly absorbing device; the story sets the basic human plot – murder, unjust accusal, trial – in the context of the ferment of scientific ideas around the time of the foundation of the Royal Society, the religious hangover from the Revolution, and the immediate post-Restoration political uncertainty. In fact, the novel moves rather impressively from the scientific to the mystical as we shift narrative voices. I guess the one flaw structurally is that we have to accept the fourth and in some ways most fantastic version of the story as being more or less “accurate”, having been previously set up with three less reliable accounts (two of which self-consciously display their own unreliability).

Anyway, a good ‘un.

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January Books 10) Doon

10) National Lampoon’s Doon, by Ellis Weiner

This is the story of Pall Agamemnides, the Kumkwat Haagendazs, known to his followers as Mauve’Bib, and how he used the Freedmenmen of the planet Arruckus to take over the galactic empire by controlling the planet’s vital export: beer.

Anyone familiar with both Bored of the Rings and Dune will be pretty unsurprised by this book, which takes deadly aim at the pretensions of Herbert’s epic masterpiece. No need to go into details, but here’s one lovely piss-take of the inspirational quotations that start each of the chapters in the original:

What sort of man was Duke Lotto Agamemnides? We may say he was a brave man, yet a man who knew the value of caution. We may say he was possessed of a highly refined sense of honour – yet, like all leaders, was he no less capable of acts duplicitous and sleazy. We may say this, we may say that – indeed, we may say anything we want. We may say, for example, that he was not a man at all, but a highly evolved bicycle. See? We may say just about anything.

– from “House Agamemnides: Historical Perspectives and Worthless Digressions”, by the Princess Serutan.

Not quite as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Bored of the Rings but a damn good effort.

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Monday evening links

Via a kind person in a friends-locked entry where he says very flattering things about me: Before You Know It: free downloads for first steps in dozens of languages. We’ve been playing with this at home for the last few days (me on Russian, F on French) and enjoying it. Takes a while to download and set up but great fun.

Patrick Troughton, the day before he died. Haven’t yet watched all of this, but it seems both fun and poignant.

and exchange mathematical poetical riddles. (Answers here.)

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January Books 8) Seven Pillars of Wisdom

8) Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence

This is the story of how Lawrence helped the Arabs revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1917-1918. Its greatest stength is its vivid description of the landscapes of Arabia, Syria and Palestine; I’ve never been to the desert, and apart from one long weekend in Jerusalem I don’t know that part of the world at all, so I found this tremendously compelling. I was left a bit more ambivalent about the human side of the story: on the one hand, Lawrence is aiding a subject nation to throw off their oppressor; on the other, his heroism is undermined – according to his own account, it should be said – by the brutality of the campaign, by his awareness that his British masters will certainly break their word to their Arab allies, and by the casual racism he himself displays toward them.

It’s a very manly book, for values of “manly” that overlap with “gay”. In the very first chapter, we have Arab lads “quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace”. It is a constant theme, and manly love merges intriguingly with Lawrence’s affection for the landscape. There is I think precisely one woman character of note, an old lady who Lawrence rescues from a train wreck (he blew up the train). Apart from her, there are several other memorable female personalities, but they are all camels.

The book falls rather neatly into two parts, the first half being the desert campaign starting from Mecca going up the coast to eventually capture Akaba (=Aqaba), the second half covering operations more closely linked to Allenby and culminating in the taking of Damascus and consolidation of a new Arab regime. I found it very odd that although Lawrence says he was present at the capture of Jerusalem, he reports almost nothing about this key event apart from an argument between the French diplomat Picot (of Sykes-Picot fame – Sykes too makes an appearance) and the British. Of course, he was not impressed by Jerusalem:

…a squalid town, which every Semitic religion had made holy. Christians and Mohammedans came there on pilgrimage to the shrines of its past, and some Jews looked to it for the political future of their race. These united forces of the past and the future were so strong that the city almost failed to have a present.

My grandfather, who was there about the same time for similar reasons, had a similar reactionmore impressed.

For all its faults (some mentioned above, but I’ll add another: it is too long) I found the book also tremendously enlightening in understanding the roots of today’s politics in the region. Lawrence himself is very aware of the contradiction between his responsibility to his country and his moral obligation to his Arab friends and allies, and his personal dilemma can be read also as a comment on the wider international situation. The ruling family of Mecca, who Lawrence helps put in charge of Syria, now rule Jordan (having also had a go at Iraq in the interim). The boundaries of states were mostly drawn at the convenience of the Great Powers, possibly even more arbitrarily than in Africa; it’s not surprising that they are perceived as having shallow roots.

Anyway, a bit of a slog in places (rather like the campaign it describes), but I’m glad I read it in the end.

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Postal gaming in the family

Idly googling my ancestors in the hope of getting some genealogical insight is one of my occasional harmless pastimes. I have struck gold for once with this story from the archives of the Correspondence Chess League of America (at least, from context, I guess that is what CCLA stands for):

After nearly 50 years, the Henry D. Hibbard Trophy formerly given to winners of CCLA’s Grand National has resurfaced among the personal effects of its last known holder, 1950 GN champion Curtis Garner. The Trophy, some 18 inches high and made of sterling silver, was described by the great Jack Collins as “fully as impressive as either the Frank J. Marshall Trophy or the Hamilton-Russell Cup [given to FIDE’s Olympiad-champion team].”
The trophy was named for Hibbard, one of CCLA’s earliest members whose friendship with CCLA organizer Stanley Chadwick dates from at least 1913. In 1924, Hibbard joined the club’s “leadership ladder” as Second Vice-President, moving to First Vice-President the following year and then President the year after that. After CCLA’s Grand National event was re-established in 1933, Hibbard’s son had the trophy made in honor of his father’s long CCLA career and directed that it be given in turn to each GN champion.

I had no idea about this. But it’s an odd coincidence that both and I were at one time very involved with a related hobby, postal Diplomacy; we are Hibbard’s only great-grandsons.

Hibbard was born in 1856 and so would have been 70 when he ascended to the dizzy heights of president of the CCLA. He had made it big in metallurgy, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (his book on the manufacture and uses of alloy steels was recently reprinted). His first wife, our great-grandmother, died in childbirth in 1904, and his second wife was in generally poor health (she was the mother by her first marriage of the literary critic Van Wyck Brooks), so correspondence chess must have been how he whiled away the lonely hours of his retirement. And sixty years later, his great-grandsons picked up a very similar hobby. It’s a funny old world.

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The answer

The answer to yesterday’s question is A9, as rapidly worked out. The numbers are squares in hexadecimal notation; the first three are therefore 1, 4, and 9, followed by 10 (= 16), 19 (= 25), 24 (= 36), 31 (= 49), 40 (= 64), 51 (= 81), 64 (= 100), 79 (= 121), and 90 (= 144). The next is 169 in base 10 which translates to A9 in base 16, A being the usual notation for the number next after 9. was nearly there, but nailed it.

asks in response what comes next in this series:

14, 23, 28, 34, 42, 50, 59, 66, 72, 79, 86, 96, 103…

The answer is 110, or Cathedral. Obvious when you know why.

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Friday maths question

Having failed yesterday’s maths test, I’m presenting one of my own today.

What is the next number in this series? (I’m not giving the first three because that would make it too easy.)

(..), (..), (..), 10, 19, 24, 31, 40, 51, 64, 79, 90, ??

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Which state am I?

You’re Virginia!
Part of the old school, you like both historical sites and crazy
amusement parks. You like saying the word Commonwealth but couldn’t really explain the
concept or how it applies to your life. You like five-sided shapes, five-cent pieces,
and possibly anything else having to do with the number five. Every now and then, you
discard chaff from yourself that you just don’t feel you need. And since you’ve been
wondering… yes, there is a Santa Claus.

Take the State Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

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Persons from Porlock

Our televisual feasting was interrupted twice last night, half-way through the Chinese summit episode of the West Wing by a phone call for Anne, and then again half-way through Torchwood by a phone call for me. Well, the West Wing is on DVD and there are ways of catching up with Torchwood; so at least we know what we will be watching tonight…

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January Books 7) The Rising of the Moon

7) The Rising of the Moon, by Flynn Connolly

I started off expecting this book to be just silly – in a future United Ireland where the Catholic Church has taken over, Nuala Dennehy foments a feminist revolution – but in the end I actually found the author’s enthusiasm for her cause and her characters rather endearing. There’s a lot for the Irish reader to nit-pick, not least that when the book was published, in 1994, the tide was definitely on the turn and Ireland’s lurch into modernity becoming irreversible. But taken as a tale of the general processes of revolt and revolution, it’s fair enough; and even if the situation of women in Ireland is unlikely ever again to be as bad as in Connolly’s novel, there are enough other parts of the world which are there or heading that way for the specific political message to remain relevant. The narrative falters only at the very end when the fate of Nuala and her closest friends seemed to me to be a bit implausible. I can’t say it’s great literature, and Irish readers will be annoyed by the errors (eg the crowd gathering in the park opposite Belfast City Hall – so where has City Hall been moved to? Or what block of commercial buildings adjoining Donegall Square has been demolished?), but it was a better read than I expected.

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Interviews on a Sunday night

It’s the return of the interview meme! Some of these questions date from a while back – I have tracked down a number of you to whom I already owe five questions, and will try and deal with those tomorrow.

1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I respond by asking you five questions so I can get to know you better.
3. You will either update your LJ with the answers to the questions or post them here.
4. If you repost you will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the post; if you answer here, then any of my friends (or me) can do a set of follow up questions, but you get to ask them stuff too.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you can ask them five questions.
6. Or you can just ask me five question in comments here if you prefer.

Questions from :

  1. How did you get into your line of work?

    Gradually. I was an academic researcher in history and philosophy of science, but also active in politics in Northern Ireland – I was the central campaigns director for the Alliance Party for three years in the mid-1990s just as the peace process was going. Then I managed to get a job in Bosnia, doing the same work that I had been doing in Belfast, but paid rather than unpaid, which is an important difference; and that gave me a taste for getting stuck into political analysis of complex and fast-moving situations. Then I had had enough of working for the Americans, and got jobs with two successive think-tanks in Brussels; and that gave me a taste for unpicking what was going on the EU and telling people about it. I moved to my current job a year ago, in order to input more effectively to the most vulnerable bits of the policy process.

  2. What do you find most rewarding about what you do, and what would you change if you could?

    I love interacting at high-level with senior decision-makers, and (I hope) helping them to make better decisions. I hate the routine office admin, and it’s the one disadvantage of a relatively small organisation that there are fewer people to delegate the tedious bureaucracy too (though it’s a skill I am learning).

  3. You seem extraordinarily sociable, you read a lot of difficult books and write thoughtful commentary, you do demanding work that involves travel and you are clearly devoted to your family. How do you find the time for all this, and what are the challenges associated with work/life balance for you?

    You’re clearly a very perceptive person yourself, Frankie! Having reflected on this very tricky question, I think there are three key things I try and do with my time. The most important is simply to get enough sleep, without which you have no energy to face the other challenges of the day. The second is to make sure I get out of the house for face-time with my wife at least once a week, to review and chew over everything going on in our lives. And the third is to also make sure I have a little time for reflection on my own – the daily commute is crucial in that way. Once you have the foundations in good order, it is much easier to balance on them.

  4. If you were in charge of the political system, what would you change to make it work better?

    Hmm, which political system? I work in several different ones…

    Though on reflection, it’s easy enough – what I see happening time and time again is bad decisions being made due to restrictions in the flow of information among policy-makers, and between policy-makers and those to whom they are accountable. I think that all areas of policy would benefit from more openness and transparency. I am struck by how often key official documents in foreign policy are available to a persistent researcher, but not really to the general public on whose behalf these decisions are made. I would open things up, in general.

  5. What are the policy areas that are most important to you and why?

    Foreign policy, because it fascinates me; health and education provisions for people with autism, because of my family.

From :

  1. I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years in the Free State but I’ve never visited NI. What do you see as the biggest differences?

    Well, the accents are completely different!

    Northern Ireland is, basically, provincial; a small place with all the good and bad that that entails. The Republic (not the “Free State”, at least not since 1937!) started off that way but has graduated into being a ‘real’ country; the North never will. It’s still my original home, it’s still where I love going back to, but I’m quite happy not to be there at the moment, given the nature of my work and the family situation.

  2. I just don’t get the appeal of Dr. Who. Enlighten me!

    …and yet you like Red Dwarf?

    For me it’s a combination of nostalgia and escapism. I read sf in general because it takes me to a different place; my day job is quite intellectually taxing enough, and I resent authors who make me work too hard to discover what is really going on. Doctor Who does not make me work too hard, and the place it brings me to is a combination of what’s on the screen and my childhood weekends. If you didn’t grow up with it, I’m not totally surprised that you haven’t latched onto it again. (But have you seen much of the post-2005 show?)

  3. If the lemur and I were to visit SE Europe where should we go?

    Istanbul is technically south-east Europe, so I would start there. As regards the former Yugoslavia, Rebecca West wrote of three of my favourite places in the prologue to her great book: the wonderful ancient ecclesiastical town of Ohrid in south-eastern Macedonia, clinging to the edge of the lake; the peculiar wounded and scarred metropolis that is Sarajevo; and the perfect preserved citadel of Korčula on the Adriatic. But I also had a memorable trip a few years back to the Vojvodina north of Belgrade, culminating with the fortress of Petrovaradin overlooking the city of Novi Sad; and going further south again, the landscape of Montenegro is the most spectacular. There are many possibilities!

  4. You have travelled more than most. Given a free choice where would you choose to live and why?

    The concept of “a free choice” is difficult – my constraints are to a large extent things I’ve chosen myself or things I woudl feel ambivalent about changing. But I guess I would like to live somewhere with warm weather and good English-language bookshops.

  5. You describe yourself as a ‘lapsed medievalist’. Who among medievalists do you most admire?

    Hmm, very tricky. I just love the great writers who started it all – Bede and Gibbon. Of living medievalists, John D. North has written a lot on the subjects that interest me, but is probably too technical for the general reader. The other medieval history books I have enjoyed most are probably W.L. Warren’s Henry II and Richard Crouch’s William Marshall. Eleanor of Aquitaine fascinates me deeply but I have not read a truly great book about her (thiough there are several good ones).


  1. We share a great admiration for Bujold. Which other female authors do you admire?

    Hah, this is where LibraryThing is so useful! Looking at female authors where I’ve read more than one book by them and given at least one book top marks: Ursula Le Guin, Connie Willis, Sherri S Tepper, Octavia Butler, Mary Gentle, Madeleine L’Engle, Joanna Russ and George Eliot, all of whom have their off days as well but are brilliant when on form; plus I very much enjoyed The Time Traveller’s Wife, Cold Comfort Farm and Fun Home, but am not aware of having read any other books by Niffenegger, Gibbons or Bechdel.

  2. You started out as a scientist and became a historian. How did your scientific training inform your historical imagination? How did your historical training influence your understanding of science?

    I think the second is more significant than the first. I was always interested in science at least as much for Story as for Knowledge, which is why I found my way to the historical path. The doctrine of the social construction of knowledge is a very powerful analytical approach to What Is Really Going On, not just in science, but also in other walks of life; information is put together by people, and the human factor affects everything about it.

  3. What poetry do you like?

    Hmm, I don’t actually read a lot of poetry – my speed-reading habits mean I don’t naturally linger on the page long enough to let it sink in. Doing my Eng Lit O-Level, Robert Frost appealed to me most. At the moment I am enjoying an exchange of smutty doggerel being posted between two of my livejournal friends, but I guess that’s not quite the same thing!

  4. From my uninformed position, the future of Northern Ireland looks brighter than it has throughout my lifetime. Do you agree? To what do you attribute the successes so far?

    Oh yes. The crucial point was the realisation by the Republican movement that they were not going to win the armed struggle, and their gradual climbing off the philosophy of waging war. They did it too slowly, in my view; the campaign was not justified and secured nothing in 1998 which would not have been on the table in the 1970s in the absence of violence. There has of course also been a subsequent shioft from the DUP; but if the IRA had met their commitments on decommissioning sooner, the DUP would have remained the smaller Unionist party for a lot longer.

    There is another crucial factor as well which was the character of George Mitchell as chair of the talks process, and keeping the whole show on the road. He managed to gan the confidence of the participants in each other and in the process. It would have been much more difficult without him.

  5. Which five fictional characters would you most like to shag?

    Hmm. I answered this one in July 2005, and have been reviewing my answers in the light of what I’ve been watching and reading since. I think I now have to change my original rankings quite a lot:

    5) Bernice Summerfield. Or possible Ashley Watt from Iain Banks’ The Crow Road.
    4) The Empress Alixana.
    3) Zoe.
    2) Phèdre nó Delaunay still at #2
    1) and Faith still has the top spot, as far as I am concerned.

From :

  1. For work and fiction, how many different languages do you most frequently read in?

    Really mainly English. I can read easily enough in French, Dutch and German, but almost any significant document that reaches my desk at work is in English. I do end up speaking French and Dutch fairly often to interact with yer actual Belgians, and often pick up and scan the free Metro newspaper in either language (though mainly for the sudoku).

  2. Roughly what are the percentages? (e.g. is English still the reading you do in the main? Not edged out by French?)

    Absolutely. I would be surprised if I spend as much as 1% of my time reading either French or Dutch, and for German it is even less.

  3. Regarding memory: how often have you encountered a multi-lingual group where there isn’t a shared third language between the group, and you find yourself doing simultaneous translation? Add-on: how often has it gone pear-shaped and you’ve given the correct narrative in the wrong language to the given group/individual?

    A few times; though again the inexorable rise of English as lingua franca has probably made this kind of situation rarer than it was for my parents. I would say that it has happened most often in German, though I did once rather bizarrely finding myself interpreting in Russian which I barely speak. I had a couple of memorable moments of this kind in my last job: on one occasion, my colleague (who speaks Serbian but no French) and I (speaking French but no Serbia) met a Serbian contact who had French but no English. On another, I met with a monoglot Albanian contact who came with an interpreter who spoke French but no English; on that occasion I brought my own Francophone colleague to interpret for me. I have to say in these circumstances it is really rare to get the target languages mixed up as you speculate, though I’m not saying it never happens.

  4. Regarding memory: remembering past conversations, dreams, of the written word – do you remember it in the language it was first absorbed in, or does the language melt away to the remembered meaning, or is it all translated to your mother-tongue?

    Usually the first – anything memorable is usually so because of the particular turn of phrase used, and that’s almost always something that can’t be easily translated without long and tedious explanation.

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Blue flags on LibraryThing

Looking through my reviews on LibraryThing I found to my alarm that seven of them have been flagged as “not a review”. I had no idea that this system was in operation, and no idea until I checked that my reviews had been flagged in this way; in addition, I would defend each of the flagged reviews as being very definitely a review – one of them is actually pretty substantial:

Actually *is* a review!


Links to a review on my site or my blog!


It seems to me that the blue flagging system adds no value whatsoever to LibraryThing; the fact that you aren’t told when your review has been flagged and that there is no apparent way of unflagging incorrectly flagged reviews makes it even worse. It should simply be scrapped.

Edited to add: Well, you can now undo a blue flag, which is better than nothing!

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January Books 6) Endgame in Ireland

6) Endgame in Ireland, by Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick

This is basically a chronological account of the peace process, starting really from the Brighton bomb in 1984 and finishing in the depressing summer of 2001 when everything appeared to be stalemated. Mallie and McKittrick have used the archives of the four-part BBC series of the same name, which I haven’t seen, but which I imagine covers much the same points in much the same way. I didn’t really learn a lot from this, except that (as ever) my perceptions of what was happening through the media at the time were only loosely linked with the reality of behind the scenes; and the tale of the internal wranglings of the Ulster Unionist Party are now an incidental detail of history – the real story is now the shift in the DUP approach over the last few years. It’s well-written and thorough but has now been overtaken by events.

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Doing something interesting with the Cybermen

As ever, I’m a bit behind with my Who-blogging – in particular I want to do a decent write-up of the I, Davros series which I listened to commuting last week – but two of the recent batch had something interesting in common.

Real Time was one of the animated Who stories done by the BBC in the run-up to the real revival in 2005, bringing the Sixth Doctor and his Big Finish companion Evelyn Smythe to the screen, encountering the remnants of the Cybermen and faced with a time-travel paradox (and the rather wooden acting of Yee Jee Tso). It’s got its limitations – the drawing is not great, especially compared with the animations of the missing episodes of The Invasion, and the plot is as always with Cybermen stories rather nonsensical – but I was very intrigued by the concept of Yee Jee Tso’s character, a far-future humanised Cyberman, trying to prevent a time paradox – it seemed an original and potentially interesting riff on the basic Cyberman idea.

The Harvest is a Big Finish production in the standard sequence, with the Seventh Doctor and Ace visiting a near-future hospital and coming away with a new companion, Hex. The interesting thing about the Cybermen here is that they are in league with the fiendish shadowy forces of authority, in collusion with Brussels (a detail which made me giggle but also reflect on the extent to which knee-jerk Europhobia has infiltrated everywhere in the UK). Normally the Cybermen are invaders, infiltrators from outside; to see them converting and corrupting society from within was new and interesting. Also the story sounds intriguingly as if it is heading in the direction of The Evil of the Daleks, though then takes a different turn.

Neither of these is as good as the greatest Cyberman story ever, which is Spare Parts, but they both take the Cyberman concept to places it has not gone on TV, where the only original Cyberman story after their first appearance is Tomb of the Cybermen – sad to say, the most interesting thing a Cyberman does in their 2006 incarnation is the fooling around on the gag reel of the DVDs which is the source for my icon (thanks again to ).

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January Books 5) The City of the Dead

5) The City of the Dead, by Lloyd Rose

I got this simply because it is the highest-rated Doctor Who novel of any epoch by LibraryThing users, and I wanted a) to assess whether LibraryThing ratings can be considered a reasonable guide to quality and b) if it is worth giving the BBC series of Eighth Doctor Adventures another go, having been underwhelmed by my previous samplings.

Well, the answer to both questions seems to be a reasonably firm Yes. The setting of the story in Who continuity is unfamiliar to me – the Doctor is suffering from partial amnesia for some reason, and I have read nothing else with either of the two companions, Fitz and Anji. But the portrayal of the Eighth Doctor (amnesia apart) is consistent with the Big Finish audios, and I thought Anji came across well as an interesting character (Fitz rather less so).

I also felt initially suspicious about the setting, among occultists in New Orleans. Indeed, there is no scientific hand-waving anywhere in the book to explain away the magic – spells and summonings work, and elementals are real. Yet in the end I was satisfied; there are plenty of sf stories (indeed, many Doctor Who stories!) where there is detailed technobabble to explain what is going on, but the means and motivation of the bad guys remain unconvincing, and this is not one of them. Also the New Orleans setting was well sketched out (I suppose – I’ve never been there), and the plot had some genuine surprises – Lloyd Rose clearly has a good knack of misdirection. Plus the Doctor actually, possibly, maybe, has an intimate encounter, discreetly described.

I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read more of this series, but if this is the best then some of the others must be pretty decent too.

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Free association

In line with my new year resolutions I have been brushing up my Russian, listening to lessons on my MP3 player and muttering the responses to the alarm of my fellow train and passengers.

The one problem is, whenever I am asked to supply an answer to the question Это далеко? – “Is it far?” – I am tempted to respond, ungrammatically:


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January Books 4) Again, Dangerous Visions

4) Again, Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

This is the famous follow-up volume to the even more famous Dangerous Visions, which I read almost exactly three years ago; an anthology of 41 stories, mainly by the leading lights of sf as it was in 1972, with vast amounts of prefatory material by editor Harlan Ellison and an afterword from each author, and nice art from Ed Emshwiller introducing each story.

But what is striking is how unmemorable and self-indulgent most of the stories are (also true of Ellison’s long-winded prefaces). The three best are definitely Ursula Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest”, Joanna Russ’s “When it Changed”, and James Tiptree Jr’s “The Milk of Paradise”; interestingly all three have the same basic plot, of an unspoilt planet being wrecked by us humans. Many of the others are just silly, Kurt Vonnegut being particularly proud of Using Rude Words To Be Grown-Up. In fact, the only other one I enjoyed was James Blish’s erotic pastiche “Getting Along”, which parodies numerous High Gothic writers – I particularly liked his riff on The Moon Pool.

But four memorable stories out of 41 is a very poor strike rate. I couldn’t in all conscience recommend anyone to spend money on this collection, and I am wondering, heretically, if it is really such a shame that the third volume of the series never appeared.

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Punchier, pacier, funnier – well, we’ll see

Fish driving a car, Gwen’s line which is the hook.

“Bloody Torchwood!” That’s how secret they are! (Line that wasn’t in the trailer!)

Actually the fish is not a particularly good actor!

Jack’s back. And yes, we missed him.

Ianto very smouldering, and jealous of the Doctor!

And look who’s come out of the rift! It’s Spike! And he’s thirsty.

Just as Gwen started by looking at dead bodies from a multi-storey in the first 2006 ep, we have that again in this ep.

Spike as Princess Leia! And then explicitly references it!

The bar scene – kiss, kiss, bang, bang! As we have seen it on the trailer.

(And Marsters is a good bit shorter than Barrowman. One never thinks about that – of course we’re used to the Marsters/Gellar height difference which is the other way round.)

The Time Agency, as started in Talons of Weng-Chiang; all over now.

John Hart, making fun of Torchwood, excellent! Size of the wrist strap!

Radiation cluster bombs, this week’s McGuffin. Actually quite well set up.

And Hart’s reaction to the Hub is well done – he is in a sense the New Viewer.

Gwen asking Jack where he was – tricky, but JB pulls it off well. “Coming home to you.” But Gwen is engaged to Rhys. Jack being gutted. Nice.

Jack being ordered by Gwen. Nice. The three rules. Also nice. Though it feels a little too pacy.

And Rhys calls to say he got the job, and Gwen can’t be there – meanwhile Hart has disappeared – oh, there he is.

Oh, Gwen, you let him get behind you, and then you let him kiss you! What a bastard, paralysing her with a kiss – indeed, almost biblical.

The second canister – same story. Bang! Poor Owen!

Jack and Ianto. Dating! But not in the office!. “He’s a reminder of my past.” And here is John Hart to send Ianto to save the others, so he can have Jack to himself.

This is very biblical, John tempting Jack on the height…

And then pushes him over, but does he know Jack is immortal?

Here’s Ianto saving Tosh and Owen.

And now Gwen. Lucky that they have just the right stuff to save her.

So, was the fish in on it all the time?

And the dénouement, actually fairly predictable, but a fun ride.

Ianto still has a stopwatch!

Gives an excuse for more John/Gwen grappling…

Last-minute rescue! Rather glorious! (If a bit rushed.)

“I found Gray” – great closing line.

Look folks, I don’t care what you say, I enjoyed that; I thought Marsters was great at taking the Spike character into new territory, and though it was a bit rushed in places, that’s better than the dragging so characteristic of Old Who. And next week’s looks like a lot of fun too.

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Wingnut attack

So, the season has begun again with the first ad hominem attack of the year, here – WARNING: disturbing image on page.

The author of the blog, “Lee Mayr”, appears to be a pseudonym for Anton Koslov, the Russian academic who debated me on TV at the end of last year.


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The Creature from the Pit, The Keeper of Traken

Two classic stories from the end of the Tom Baker era – the first to be filmed with Lalla Ward playing Romana, and then the first to be filmed after she left.

The Creature from the Pit, which I missed first time round due to living in the Netherlands that year, is nothing like as bad as I had feared it might be. The Creature itself is admittedly not fantastic, but by the standards of Season 17 (which includes the Nimon and the Movellans, and the Mandrells who I have yet to experience) it’s pretty decent. Lalla Ward is still getting into being Romana and notably less assured in the role than in any of the other stories I’ve seen her in. And the plot makes the cardinal mistake of finishing at the start of episode 4 rather than the end, relying on hand-waving and dodgy special effects to get us through the last 20 minutes. But it’s all done with great gusto, especially from Geoffrey Bayldon as the court astrologer. And there are some great lines as well. I remember David Fisher’s novelisation with affection, and I’m sure I’d still rate it higher than the original show, but it really wasn’t too embarrassing, rather to my delight.

The Keeper of Traken, broadcast barely a year later, seems like a completely different show; gone are K9 and Romana, replaced by the ambiguous Adric and the newly appointed Nyssa; and we have the return of the old enemy as well. I saw a comment on the New Beginnings box set from somewhere to the effect that it’s basically the same story told three times over, and there’s something in that, but Traken still has some originality, as the corruption of the Melkur brings about a military coup and the downfall of order. Geoffrey Beevers is better than I remembered as the Master, and the disrupted Trakenites all put in a good show. Tom Baker, however, rather seems to have lost interest. Eight-year-old F offered the most damning comment when I was trying to get him to guess the true nature of the Melkur (his first guess was that it was a weeping angel from Blink, his second that it was a Cyberman, and he got it right third time); he asked me slightly plaintively, “Why didn’t they make Doctor Who exciting back then?”

Anyway, two stories which are neither especially bad nor especially outstanding.

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Back in the days of my doctorate, the department had an annual Christmas party at which various people would perform sketches. My PhD supervisor and I did two Fry and Laurie sketches in successive years, which was great fun.

(script). I was Mr Nude here, with Peter as the interviewer; I nicked two spoons from the students union as props, which was probably one of the better fates awaiting cutlery from that institution. Most memorable to spectators was the fact that I performed wearing only an academic gown and underpants; I thought that would reasonably celebrate the concept of Mr Nude.

(script) Here I played the father and Peter the son – there is of course a fairly glorious irony in doing it that way round – and a fellow postgrad, Angela, who I think now works as a producer in RTÉ, played the mother at the end of the sketch; the students union, once again, provided Berwhale the Avenger. All great fun.

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Making things

F has been making things that he got for Christmas.

This is half of the fruits of the Doctor Who 3-D Model Making Kit. The rest of it is a Dalek and a Cyberman’s head. Notice that you can see the inside of the Tardis

This is marked as for 9 years and up, so it’s pretty impressive if you can build it with a bare minimum of adult help at the age of not quite eight and a half.

The aim of it is to get the little surfer dude around the circuit automatically:

And here it is in action, with his mother’s piano playing in the background:

A pleasant weekend is being had by all!

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