Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Book review: Gaudy night

PXL_20230527_103909564 Wiki says: Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the tenth featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and the third including Harriet Vane and I have no reason to disbelieve it. I enjoyed it; it is a good book to read in Oxford.

For me, who comes back to Oxford every now and again, the most interesting part was the coming-back-to-Oxford thread. It is well handled and suited my mood, on a weekend when I was back to watch Eights. There are two or three other threads, which is nice in itself, as a multi-thread novel is more complex. But it has to be well-handled; they have to be threads woven together; unlike say Eversion where the threads are largely unlinked.

Wiki quotes Orwell saying "her slickness in writing has blinded many readers to the fact that her stories, considered as detective stories, are very bad ones. They lack the minimum of probability that even a detective story ought to have, and the crime is always committed in a way that is incredibly tortuous and quite uninteresting" and there is a good deal of truth in his words. In this case, about 2/3 of the way through and I was wondering whodunnit, and was struggling to think of any of the characters being interesting enough; in the sense that any of them could have, but it would have been arbitrary. It doesn't help that all of the dons are thinly sketched and rather blur together. In the end (faint spoiler) the guilty party emerges as somewhat distinct from the rest, linked by another thread, but it all turns out to be not really the main point of the book at all; which in another sense is nice.

Other threads - and you can take your pick as to which are the real point - are Women's rights, doubtless exciting at the time and not completely extinguished as a topic even now; the balance between work and life; and the balance between man and women in a relationship.

The latter, though, is examined mostly through the HV-LPW nexus, and since LPW is an idealisation of a caricature little is learnt there.

Perhaps the book would have been better with the crime thread removed entirely.


Book review: The Documents in the Case

Book review: Whose Body?

Saturday, 13 May 2023

Book review: In Ascension

PXL_20230429_115535191 In Ascension by Martin MacInnes: read in Waterstones, initially promising, gets lost about the half way mark. I ended up skipping a lot to get to the end, where I found nothing. I recommend this Goodreads review.

The "backstory" of the central character is unhappy; and she swims, in Rotterdam, or something. But it is all pointless. It reads as though the author knows that sci-fi books often lack "real" characters and so decides to bolt some on. But a whole pile of "character" that is nothing to do with the story is pointless; effectively, it makes two books, unhelpfully shuffled together. But apart from that...

The best bit is the exploratory vessel investigation, and life on ship. This almost reads like the author knows something about it, or has at least talked to people that did. And the weird bits - just how deep is the hole? - kind of work... as long as you don't think: hold on, if the hole really were that deep, that would be like mega-important and the govt would be all over it.

The segue into deep space is odd, in many ways. The mystery space drive... doesn't work. I mean, the way it fits in the story. I think it is implied, or the possibility left implied - its that kind of book - that it might be alien tech; but that doesn't really fit. The decision to grow food on the trip, rather than just bring it, doesn't really make sense either; nor does the "oh it would cheer people up" motivation. And therefore neither does her presence on the ship. It kinda reads like it should have been written by Gwyneth Jones who would have handled it better.

But in the end it is just another exploring the mystery of aliens maybe visiting, and trails off into nothing once it realises it has no idea what to say.

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Book review: Eversion

PXL_20230511_113959899 By Alistair Reynolds. See Goodreads. TL;DR: it's OK but, as with so many books, better if you stop before the end. He does better than many others because you should stop 3/4 or perhaps even 4/5 of the way through.

As always, spoilers follow.

The idea of the lead voice continually running through the same events but with successively later technology is quite cute and handled quite well (in particular, although it is to some extent the same story multiple times, this works: because it isn't the same, it evolves). The characters, and the reader, slowly realise that he is approaching, and shying away from, something. I think in the end though there's a confusion: the shying-away-from relies on human reactions to being near death, which isn't true for an AI (much is made of the horror of the skull-in-the-spacesuit. For a human, being that would be horrifying. For an AI, it is rather less clear). The existence of (only one) sub-AI isn't really clear either.

So I wanted another plot twist near the end, something that would be horrifying: that our doctor has been lied to; he really is a human, trapped in there, somehow.

The nature of the (extra-solar-system) entity, The Edifice or whatever, is never clear, and that's alright: it is come to do some intelligence gathering, that makes some sense; what doesn't really make sense is how the crews of two ships, one of which is forewarned, would have been dumb enough to fall into its grasp. Nor is it clear how it was going to report its intelligence back to base; although - and here we come to the eversion of the title - perhaps it is broken.

The eversion concept comes from the Morin surface and Sphere eversion. They aren't strongly connected to the rest of the book; the entire thing could have been written without them, really; and this is dissatisfying; it becomes just plot candy.

My picure of of the college associated with Lady Margaret boat club.

Friday, 14 April 2023

Book review: Saving the Appearances

1681505024298-6bde5bf6-2632-4c7c-b9e0-9198406149c4_I confess that I got nothing out of Owen Barfield's "Saving the Appearances". I read it because it was "recommended" by C S Lewis in some aside in The Discarded Image, and from that and the title I assumed that it was in some way about, errm, saving the appearences as the concept in antient science.

But, it isn't about that. What it is about I'm afraid I can't tell you, as it all bounced off. None of it meant anything.

In retrospect, the quote from the Church Times and OB's anthroposophy should have been a hint. OB has a knack for using words with unclear meanings in a vague way to apparently build up to something, but not actually get anywhere; and later on refers to those "conclusions" as though they meant something.

Towards the end it becomes explicitly Christian-Spiritualist, but again without saying anything that I was unable to understand - but I was skipping by the time I'd got to there. To the extent that it was C-S at the end I am, of course, uninterested in it; to the extent that (I now suspect) it was aiming at that all along; ditto. This I think tends to justify my opinion that it is valueless, to me.

Somewhere near the start is some stuff about rainbows; to quote from a 5-star reviewBarfield starts with the apparently innocuous example of a rainbow. Obviously the rainbow doesn’t exist except when it is seen. The particles of water which physically exist in the air-space of a thunderstorm are not the rainbow. The rainbow is constituted by that phenomenon and the human eye and brain in concert. This is ‘Kant for dummies’, and very effective. This seems somewhat confused: the particles of water are not the rainbow; the rays of light are. These exist regardless of whether they are perceived or not. Non-concious cameras can take images of them that people recognise as rainbows, without supposing that the rainbow is "in" the images. It is possible to say that "the rainbow" - perhaps in the sense of "oh-it-is-beautiful, and regarded as a sign from god" - only exists in human perception; but when defined in that way it is empty of content: you have made your definition to get the answer you want. Whether OB regards the ordinary physical universe as independent of perception is unclear, again undermining his work.

To take another work which this vaguely reminds me of: Why Materialism is Baloney is without doubt Woo; but at least it is honestly and clearly so, and indeed does its best to explain what it is trying to say.

Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Book review: Glory Road

1681239562268-968b240b-23e1-46d4-a458-2ac865558d58 Another Heinlein. In some ways reminiscent of Starships Troopers, in that it is an adventure story combined with somewhat heavy-handed philosophising. I have fond memories of this from my childhood, but I was probably about 14 then and I fear it has not aged well. The story remains decent, although really rather brief; without the padding it would be a novella, and perhaps all the better for it. Indeed, whilst I'd remembered a few bits, I'd quite forgotten just how brief it is. I won't trouble to summarise the plot; doubtless as usual Goodreads will do that.

To digress on the cover, which is the one I remember: the heroine is, errm, striking, and is much as the book describes her, except it still makes her face a bit weird; the slain dinosaur as backdrop and dwarf elegantly proffering a glass as refreshment are all fitting. The backdrop should not be level desert, but it emphasises the foreground so meh.

I realised after a bit that the tone grated, in a way that ST doesn't. The hero speaks directly to the reader, just as in ST, but badly. I now discover that GR was his first fantasy novel, but actually post-dates ST. Somehow the fake-chumminess is too condescending; the lead-like prose doesn't help. Perhaps this review's "Alas, "Glory Road" is a preview of the old, pervy and insane Heinlein to come" is correct; I recall eventually abandoning him in disgust; perhaps stick to the early stuff.

Igli: the book is fantasy but it is fantasy-with-pretence-of-science, i.e. what happens is supposed to be high-enough-tech-looks-like-magic. That explains away most things, but it doesn't explain Igli disappearing down his own throat. The book kinda realises this because Our Hero asks Our Heroine for an explanation, which she deflects with various unsatisfactory words which somehow placate Our Hero.

The Egg: the object of the Quest. Nowadays, this would be desperately dull, because it would just be backed up. I thought I'd throw that in.

And finally, the philosophy: I'll skip the bits about personal conduct, because I think that is just RAH's wish-fulfilment. But what about govt? It turns out that the ideal govt system is to give one individual ultimate power. This we will instantly recognise as Plato's failed philosopher-king junk again, everyone's favourite answer, and a step backwards from what he propsed in ST: a sign I think of an old man growing impatient with how-to-fix-the-world. He attempts to save himself by making it clear that the individual's power is freely granted; if this was entirely so it would be a good defence; but it is unlikely that the people or peoples that are ordered killed really consented to their own deaths; this point is not explored in depth. I'm more sympathetic to his suggestion that most problems should be left alone.

He does get some points for what everyone mentions: not ending the book with the successful culmination of the Quest, but with Our Hero struggling to find some meaning in life afterwards. Unfortunately he can't find any answer other than go-on-another-quest.

And: the book veers off towards comedy-of-manners, criticising various aspects of society. Most of which fails badly. For example, Earth turns out to be the only planet with prostitution. WTF? (Errm...). For something that occurs in practically every independent society on Earth, this seems wildly implausible. And this isn't because females are chaste, no, it is because they have a much more sensible attitude to sex, see above re lustful old men.

I feel like mentioning The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, which I also read young and was very impressed by; and re-read recently and still like. That gets bonus points for weirdness, though it loses a little for the hero and heroine being too typical-RAH.

Sunday, 9 April 2023

Book review: The Alchemaster's Apprentice

1678912849249-86a350c6-b575-4e13-af74-090bd22b05d0 During our recent trip to London I visited Foyle's and bought a copy of The Alchemaster's Apprentice by
Walter "Captain Bluebear" Moers. I haven't read Capt BB, though both D and E had; and I now have their copy to read at some point.

But what of tAA, I hear you cry? Well, its OK. I'm sorry not to be more enthusiastic; it is nicely filled with whimsy whilst somewhat dark; the trouble is that the whimsy is just a bit too forced, somehow. I enjoyed reading it though. I think that's all I have to say.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Book review: The Green Odyssey

1676493340961-c3a12f10-613b-4d23-8c2e-5b757a6e803a_The Green Odyssey by Philip José Farmer was, according to wiki, Farmer's first book-length publication. I "know" Farmer mostly through the Riverworld series, which I enjoyed countless years ago, and a vaguely-remembered... The Stone God Awakens; oh, and of course some of the The Maker of Universes stuff.

Anyway, it is all good clean fun - unlike, apparently, some of his other stuff - in what someone better educated might call a picaresque fashion.

It is perhaps notable for having a rather implausible-looking cover that turns out to be quite well related to the actual story.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Book review: Star King

1678820679730-1b31d3fb-7a5d-4d7c-a736-06b0c4d7bcac_ This is early Jack Vance. Goodreads as usual gives you a range of opinions. I say it is fluff; Vance hasn't really found his voice but is turning out pulp. I would give it only a few stars; this isn't vintage stuff; it is going back to Oxfam. "Twice winner of the Hugo award" but not for this - for The Dragon Masters and, somewhat surprisingly, The Last Castle.

The story is a kinda detective story, and kinda scene-setting for the series; indeed this is kinda the same scene - various planets, and Old Earth - that most of his scifi is based on. Various implausibilities in the plot need not detain us. On the detective front, I kinda wanted PA to turn out to be the villain, but no such luck

There are some not-so-subtle jokes in the names-of-authors of the various in-universe quotes: one Frerb Hankbert, on p 64; and Jan Holberk Vaenz heads chapter 6. I kept feeling that "Pallis Atwrode" ought to be an anagram; "allowed rapist" fits but is a bit meh; ditto one for Attel Malagate.

Sunday, 5 March 2023

Cezanne: a trip to London

PXL_20230305_103709769 At Miriam's initiative, we had tickets to the Cezanne exhibition at the Tate. At my suggestion we stayed over Saturday night to have a more relaxed time.

I went down somewhat earlier, to the BM, and then down to Hammersmith to watch WeHoRR; met M at the hotel; we had an evening meal and so to bed. Next morning b'fast and a walk to th Tate via the nearby St Paul's. Pix here. Then M, somewhat tired, home; me back to BM, then Foyle's, then home.

Overall: a good thing to do. We should do similar more often.

Of the Cezannes

My picture I include somewhat maliciously, as it is anomalous in his work: about the only one with strong colours. Most of the rest give out a pale pastelish aura. In general, I have no great objections to his work, but I don't particularly like it. I find more interest in detail; see perhaps the pix from the BM.

There is a room full of still life; apparently, he spent quite some time re-painting much the same scene with apples. That seems a bit odd, and indeed the exhibition itself doesn't seem quite sure why he did this. Lack of inspiration? Any old stuff would sell? Who knows. My pet theory is that he didn't know how his art worked, and was trying to find out. You don't know how language works; one way to investigate is to try to talk about the same thing, with slight variations. He didn't know quite how, once he'd finished a painting, he'd decided to do it. So he did it again. Anyway, here's one; click for more.


Somewhat curiously, I now find that I like my photo better than I liked the real thing. The original is perhaps 5' across.

Another suggestion: sometime, it looks like he is trying to paint "what is really there" rather than painting what has been processed through his brain: so, painting areas of colour, rather than delineated steps that his mind has abstracted from the stream of incoming photons. The trouble is that though this may be intellectually interesting, mostly to him, it doesn't - IMO - make for good pictures. Unlike, sometimes, Klimt.

One more point: he was trying to do new things. That is always much harder than it seems, once those things are done. So he gets points for that, and it increases the intellectual pleasure of looking at the pix. Incidentally, it is interesting that he kept the same ginger jar, and the same cheap table, all through his career.

Of the BM

I like the BM. Here is a thing I like in it.


The Assyrian stuff may be my favourites. I like gazing at these weird muscular beasts and men, unfathomably alien across the gulf of three thousand years. What were they thinking? I will never know. But I feel that they cared deeply about what they were making.

Of the WeHoRR

I went down to Hammersmith somewhat against my will - for one thing it is a two-hour walk so I didn't, instead I took the tube. Hammersmith bridge is semi-closed for repairs: no road traffic. Absurdly, they restrict pedestrian numbers, with officious idiots with an unenviable job whose pointlessness makes them unhappy. But that only kicked in around boat 180. Pix are on Flickr. Chesterton were number 98 (why were they that high?) and looked decent.

Although grey and cold it was worth doing: after the interest of the first, say, thirty fast crews there was a sprinkling of crews I knew (us; Tabs; Nines; Champs) or had some interest in (SEH; other Oxford or Cambridge colleges).

After, I walked back - finding Jonathon Pilgrim on the bank, waiting for his Izzy in Tabs F or G - for quite a way, since it turns out there is a vast desert in tube stations around there, until you get to Sloane Square.

Of London

It was a cold grey weekend and didn't encourage being outside. But here is a picture from around the Tate towards the City.


It looks kinda vaguely weirdly futuristic; a strange mash-up; as though an alien spaceship had landed in an old city.

Of St Paul's

A disappointment, frankly. The outside is quite plain, and the building itself unprepossessing, apart from the dome. Viewed from a distance this is fine; from closer, it is perhaps unbalanced. But I was looking forwards to the inside... but you're only allowed into the first quarter. There is, as far as I can see, no explanation of this posted inside. The website, now I look, implies that you can visit... except on Sundays. They also forbid photography, perhaps also only on Sundays. Well, maybe I'll got back some other day some other time.

Of the hotel: Club Quarters

It was OK; perhaps even decent. But I think I should have spent a little more. So it was decent; I am not complaining; well above my usual Iffley Tree Hotel standard. But... the windows didn't quite properly close, so letting in some traffic noise (although also the bells of St Paul's, of which we had a side-view; it was very close); the walls were a little thin; and the breakfast, whilst acceptable, was uninspired. Our evening meal at the semi-attached Cote Brasserie was also decent.  Maybe try the Leornardo next time, if in that area.

Monday, 27 February 2023

Index of first lines

PXL_20230219_095223872 Every now and again, I try to find something that I know is on my blog, and fail. And sometimes Google doesn't cooperate. So here is an index of titles. I went back as far as June 2022, so far.



Bad beliefs: Misinformation is factually wrong – but is it ethically wrong, too? 

Advancing the estimation of future climate impacts within the United States?


The partisan divide largely stems from conservatives’ perception...

Rahmstorf joins the Dork Side

Let's Audit Alex Epstein

Rawls on Liberty



Stoat of the Year

Happy Christmas

In which I am disappointed with Bryan Caplan

ChatGPT vs stoats

Vanessa Nakate says fighting climate change can cut poverty in Africa?

Lost in moderation

Ukraine: prospects


Climate change is costing trillions — and low-income countries are paying the price?

Weekly Hobbes: Law

Utilitarianism, impartially consider'd

Pulling the wings off mosquitoes


The Chamonix to Zermatt Walker's Haute Route

Ready for Rishi?


Death of a salesman, part 3 or 4 (Tim Ball)

Ye workes of ye Francis Bacone

Bad beekeeping, autumn 2022

Missus Quin her dead

Vaclav Smil and Steve Koonin

Sawyer, 1972, impartially consider'd


A long dry summer

Switzerland, 2022

ZOMG catastrophe, part n


Lovelock shuffles off this mortal coil

Patrick Michaels suffers hard delete

Joseph D'Aleo suffers soft delete

Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy


I dislike rights-based language


Church and State


Governments have largely failed to seize their chance to rearrange their energy supplies away from fossil fuels?

Why Paternalists Must Endorse Epistocracy?

Yet moah climate suing


Bad beekeeping: spring recolte 2022

Clash of the titans: Mann vs Gates, with a side of...

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur

A piece of Olde Englande

Recent considerations in Roe vs Wade

Bad beekeeping chez M+S

Why does the Evil Empire want to be paid in roubles?



Salus populi suprema lex

Coronavirus days: tag, I'm it

Digital technology supports decarbonisation only i...

Frederick Engels Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Lucia Liljegren is not notable



Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fa...

The Evil Empire strikes

The flower of poor thinking is to lack influence



Meeting the objectives of climate resilient develo...

The flower of justice is peace



McKinsey: fundamental transformation of global eco...

Climate blogging in a post-truth era: Opportunitie...

Mind-gargling ignorance just doesn't aid in saving...

Climate change: Small army of volunteers keeping d...

Two views of democracy



Happy New Stoat

Coronavirus days: Omicron

Two quotes from Leviathan

An International Institute Will Help Us Manage Cli...

A Research Strategy for Ocean-based Carbon Dioxide...

McTaggart on Time


Lust for suing

Who knew what when - 1992 edition

Make extreme wealth extinct: it's the only way to ...

Equilibrium climate sensitivity is...


There should be a law to the People besides its ow...

Fueling the Climate Crisis: Exposing Big Oil's Dis...

Study shows shocking impact of 'photo-hoarding' on...

COP26: Document leak reveals nations lobbying to c...

Fossil fuel production set to soar over next decade?

Please Don't Give Up On Having Kids Because Of Cli...

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2021?

Yet more Exxonknew drivel


Book review: Climate Shlock

Leaving Afghanistan

The ETS again

Gray agonistes

Bad beekeeping, autumn 2021

Whole Woman's Health v. Jackson


The Problem with Nordhaus?

Yet more bollox from Supran


Three weeks around the Monte Rosa Group


The end of an era

Book Review: The Righteous Mind


Coronavirus days: lab leak?

Twenty firms produce 55% of world's plastic waste,...

Coronavirus days: the beginning of the end

Half of emissions cuts will come from future tech,...


How to assess the multiple interacting risks of cl...

Yet moaah climate suing

Equity Isn't Just Ethical, It's Stupid

More weird shit from Mann

City of New York v Chevron Corp, again


Reflecting Sunlight

Warren vows to fight against being heckled by snot...

A Bankruptcy Judge Lets Blackjewel Shed Coal Mine ...

Doughnut Economics

Global 'elite' will need to slash high-carbon life...

Coronavirus days: Happy Anniversary

More wank about science as a social construct


Shamima Begum cannot return to UK, Supreme Court rules


The Tyranny of Merit?

EU carbon price soars to record highs

The dim and distant history of global warming: sea...


Coronavirus days: how's my vaccinating?

All this fuss over one dickhead

In many Congressional districts, the primary is mo...

Have we reached peak CO2 emissions yet?

BATTER my heart, three person'd God

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Book review: Children of Dune

1677147955402-7dd8b314-d908-422d-8629-348d9f3d2ccb_ Dune refers. Dune Messiah doesn't, because I haven't re-read that; I had a brief go recently but found it dull; I might try again. This is the cover I remember. Note how jarring it is: the somewhat porky blonde is completely at odds with the desert; and anyway, Ghanima is described as having red hair.

Lay that aside, and consider the story. Which is thin on plot; some things do happen, but too much of it is people talking to other people, or people talking to themselves, or people talking to people inside themselves. In this it is worse than Dune.

The cod philosophy is worse than Dune, too: indeed it is incoherent. In this it resembles the "Golden Path" that it doesn't really describe; and here we come to the heart of the problem, which is that for all the supposed intelligence of the protagonists, and their supposed ability to foretell the future, the choices they make appear to be deeply stupid, and a worse path for humanity than just doing nothing. Or leaving the Padishah emperor in place in the first place. If Frank Herbert were attempting to demonstrate how badly top-down rule works, he'd be doing well, but I fear that's not his intent.

Even more stupid is their realisation, late in the book, that the longed-for ecological transformation is... going to ecologically transform Dune. Duh. Specifically, it is going to kill off the sandworms, but how was this not totally obvious from the start? Not only that, it is going to destroy their society and Fremen way of life. Duh. Removing the harshness of the desert is going to make them soft: FFS you clowns, you need to actually think. For a book with so much talking, there isn't really any talk about whether this is desireable or not. Why not... just export those Fremen who'd like a soft life to Caladan, and leave Dune for those who want to stay?

I think Our Author is uneasily aware of governmental issues; he would be remiss otherwise, in a series so saturated with them. And yet he manages to say so little of interest. At one point (p 141 in my copy) he says "Good government never depends on laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern". Which could be a nice lead in to Plato vs Popper. But it isn't... partly because the book is inherently character-driven; special-case driven; he has no time for generic law.

Finally, a word about how implausible his concept of genetic memory is; he has Leto and Ghanima somehow able to remember conversations and incidents from an apparently infinite chain of forebears; in many cases, better than most people can recall their own lives. So this has to have been imprinted on their genes... somehow. Even if you could solve that, I doubt it works on information-density grounds. Or on info-access grounds.

Thursday, 16 February 2023

Friday, 10 February 2023

Book review: the Million Year Hunt

1676059414060-fb2432eb-d743-4d84-bcec-f188b7bf8b45_ Another low-quality piece of antique trash following The Martian Missile. I do rather wonder why I read this stuff; then I turn on the radio and listen to the drivel that passes for analysis on the supposed high-quality Radio Four news and I feel justified.

An orphan grows up on an out-of-the-way world; he simultaneously loses his Young Love to a bizarre and implausible Agent of Stasis and finds himself on a strange planet and aquires an Alien Symbiont about which he has no troubling qualms whatsoever. Eventually all is resolved, and he gets a hotter version of his dead lover and he turns out to be the heir of, not exactly empire, but of civilisation, and genetic something. Dont't trouble yourself too much about the details.

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Book review: the Martian Missile

1675197689786-37e1a966-70d8-46ec-8ad5-41b75243de59_ By David Grinnell. A book of about the quality you'd expect from the cover. The other half of The Atlantic Abomination. Characterisation and description are non-existent and writing quality is low, so we fall back on the plot, which drags.

Our hero, in deepest Arizona, comes across a crashed alien, who implants him with some coded info, tells him to go to Pluto or die, gives him the gift of "not invisibility, but of not being seen", and dies. Somehow our hero ends up much like on the front cover, having hijacked a Soviet rocket; from there on a series of vessels somehow get him further out, so it becomes sort of like astral travel. The methane breathers of Jupiter help him out, he gets to Pluto, not one but two teams of aliens battle things out in a confusing way. It turns out that his encoded "info" is the measured "advancement rate" of our civilisation and somehow, errm I forget, the aliens decide to leave, and he goes home. Or something.

Don't read this book.

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Book review: the Atlantic Abomination

1674926945035-64b44234-a758-45bf-8e70-36697cae7aec John Brunner. Very much not one of his finest. An "Ace" double-paperback with the equally cruddy "The Martian Missile". The intrinsic idea - monster disturbed by deep-sea expedition with mental powers seeks to dominate humanity but is foiled - is so-so but hardly novel; shades of Cthullu or Godzilla or such; but the prose is dreadful as are the wooden characters.

The initial catastrophe that overtakes the master race is somewhat sketchily described, but I blame them for failing to foresee it; and it seems implausible that they didn't. Or put another way, the very crude and very simple master-slave society sketched out isn't really plausible. Notice, by the way, that in the intro His Impreial Evilness speaks to his people to make them do stuff; by later in the book we have the rather less plausible scheme by which he causes pain which only stops when you do what he wants.

HIE's treatment of his slaves in our time doesn't seem very plausible either, as they are too likely to die, to his own inconcenience.

The most that can be said for this is that it passed a few hours in Blackwell's who have foolishly moved their scifi section to another building.

Sunday, 22 January 2023

Book review: Blood Music

Blood Music by Greg Bear, author of the disappointing Eon. Years ago I read the back of BM, and decided not to read it. Recently, faced with someone else recommending it, and a lack of alternatives, I tried again. And the first half is fine if unexceptional, but then it goes downhill. So it goes, all too often.

The problem is what you'd expect: GB is fine describing the science-biotech interface and related matters, and weaves an interesting story around it. But once he has to try to describe what it would be like if intelligent cells existed, he fails. I think he fails pretty badly, too.

This is because... what would life be like, if you only had streams of info, rather than extracting info from sight and sound and hearing? That's effectively what life is like for these cells: they have no senses other than picking-up-information. We do have people a bit like this, those deaf and dumb and sightless, who can only read braille or equivalent. Would they, if miniaturised, somehow be good at reshaping the body they inhabit? Not obviously. Would their near-first-act be to fix something like eyesight, whose principles would be completely alien to them? Unlikely.

FWIW I think the idea of intelligent cells is doomed, from various kind of information-content type grounds, but we wave that away for the purposes of the story. Also, for some odd reason these cells are able to take skyscrapers to pieces; why exactly they are capable of chewing up steel and concrete is never mentioned or considered; it is almost as if GB, having though of these vast sheets of goo, somehow can't imagine them not able to do it. I'm also unconvinced by their structure: life is adaptable, if vast sheets of goo was a good idea, biologically, we'd see it already.

In geopolitics, with the USofA gone, the naughty Russkies get up to some nuking of various bits. GB has forgotten the submarine deterrent, which would still be fully active and quite capable of striking back; this is careless of him.

Towards the end, there is some voodoo about what-observes-the-tree-in-the-quad; the idea being that the addition of so many trillions of observers in some way strains reality, leading to some poorly-described cataclysm or singularity (TBH I'd stopped reading carefully by this point and was just skipping along desperate to get to the end; and now I'm on this there's also some voodoo about how similar capability allowed the microbes to neutralise a nuclear strike, oh yeah, that's really believeable). This has no real realation to the rest of the story (other than being necessary to explain why only the USofA rather than the rest of the world is enfolded, which in turn is necessary for drawing out the story) other than to bring it to a convenient end.


Craig Loehle speaks.

Friday, 20 January 2023

Book review: Blindsight

PXL_20230102_130315711 TLDR: exciting but disappointing.

Wiki provides a reasonable summary; and as usual Goodreads will provide opinions. Author: Peter Watts.

The basic setup is decent: someething alien has undeniably scanned Earth; and we send a ship to find it. There's some oddities in there though: why the aliens would choose to scan us to blatantly, and yet hide; why they would cunningly redirect their transmissions through a hard-to-detect indirect link, and yet be detected. I think those needed to be more important for the plot, but they aren't, so they're just plot-candy. Unlesss they can be justified as camoflage, for the real plot? A sparer book would have made the real plot more obvious.

Another oddity: the aliens are hanging waay out, but our characters never show any interest in how long they've been there. Is "Big Ben" moving wrt to the Sun? This is never asked. Did the aliens hitch a lift on it, or did they just want the mass, and so choose to settle there and eat it? Possibly the latter, but the lack of discussion is strange. Are the aliens just one of a zillion ships that the alien species has sent out, or alone? Why, if the aliens can function happily out by Big Ben, do they are about the Earth at all? We never know.

The main cute idea is that the aliens are intelligent, but not conscious (whether this is even possible or not is of course not known, but that's OK: this is a story). I was disappointed by how quickly this becomes clear: it seems to be that the mystery could have been preserved longer; it feels impatient. This sort-of segues into / combines with various other issues of consciousness (the narrator, the vampires) in what feels a rather ill-disciplined way. Issues vaguely linked to consciousness (blindspots, saccades) are kinda linked into the story line but in a wallpapery way, that only disguises the fundamental lacks, without contributing anything to the ideas.

Although it sort-of purports to be a "discussion of consciousness" it isn't; it is just a humble sci-fi story. The "discussion" comes via the central character trying to make sense of things; but this is a combination of asserting implausibilities (consciousness is evolutionarily useless and costly; can you see the problem with that?) and lots of incomplete sentences and half-seen side glances.

I don't mind the vampires, though they do feel like an idea too many. But I'm sure I've read the "crucifix glitch" idea elsewhere, many years ago.

Saturday, 14 January 2023

The year 2022

PXL_20221225_151539933 I don't keep a diary; I do have a series of unconnected social-media accounts which I hope one day AI will connect and trawl. For the present, let's try and remember what we did. My picture is from Christmas, in the new house.

General: I'm in my second year of working for Roku. Miriam still works four days a week for Synaptics, who acquired DisplayLink a few years back. Daniel still works for DarkTrace and still lives in Harvey Goodwin Gardens. And Miranda is now in her thrird year of Maths and Stats (she switched from Maths) at Magdalen and is Captain of Boats with a glorious room to go with that glorious title.

My Flickr account is here. My Instagram account is here; Marbles is here; the garden (yes really) is here. Most day-to-day "social media" stuff goes onto Facebook. And I sometimes Twit. My "real" blog is; and there's a post-of-the-year if you want samples. I wrote a list of holidays.

The Great Excitement of this past year has been moving house, from Coton into Cambridge Riverside, St Bartholomew's Close. Do come and say hello if you're around. After so many years - we moved to Coton in '95 I think - we had accumulated so much stuff it seemed impossible we might move, and yet with one mighty leap we were free. We still haven't fully settled down, but we're comfortable. Why did we move? Partly because cycling to and from work for thirty minutes each day was starting to wear thin; it's now ten minutes. Partly because we wanted to walk into town; it is now twenty minutes along the river rather than an hour over fields. And partly looking ahead. Moving way from old friends is a wrench; but my bees are still in Coton; Miriam returns for book club; and I go to the pub on occasion.

We actually moved into the new place on the last of March, prompted by our purchasers needing to move in by April First. But we'd bought the place a couple of months earlier. So we frittered those two months away getting the walls painted and the floors re-done, and then scheduled the moving company frantically at the last moment.

As if to prove to myself that I really am getting old, I have Diary of an injury: my back #4 in May.

July: town bumps.

August: family holiday in Saas Fee and Zermatt; and I walked from there to Chamonix, so to speak.

September: a trip to Pembroke. Climbing, woo! E has taken up indoor climbing too.

I end with Christmas 2022. We (DEI) spent Boxing Day climbing at Horseshoe Quarry, and promised each other to do more.

Book review: The Crucible of Time

1673722268362-57027122-4300-48e0-b8bd-0e8659326814_By John Brunner. Wiki says "The novel deals with the efforts of an alien species to escape their homeworld, whose system is passing through a cloud of interstellar debris, resulting in a high rate of in-falling matter. The species' unique biology and their biological technology complicate matters" and that's about right. This review from Goodreads gets most of it: although the story is mostly interesting enough, it gets somewhat same-y after the first third. Perhaps because the first couple of chapters were published initially as short stories. And then the book becomes primitive-society-reaches-for-the-stars, and we kind of have to grind through their tech progress. Which he does his best to make interesting, since they are bio-focussed. But the recurring motif of society falling apart due to some natural catastrophe or another, and rebuilding slightly higher, gets a bit dull and towards the end just slows the book down.

There's some heavy-handed moralising thrown in: the religious folk are always trying to hinder scientific progress, and indeed religion for these aliens is almost the same as a detatched-from-reality state brought on by lack of nutrients. But again, it's repeated too often.

Sunday, 8 January 2023

Book review: The Long Tomorrow

1673090237747-7c4bc78b-619a-4d50-9b7a-0c0a4fa7231d_ The Long Tomorrow is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer Leigh Brackett, wiki sez correctly. I'll assume you've read their article.

It's a decent book, I got quite absorbed in it, but a quote from a review struck a chord: Most of the book, particularly the early part, is compellingly written, but not speculative... as the invented elements of the story grow more important, the vision dims. The idea of Bartorstown as an ideal in the minds of our protagonists works so much better than the "actual reality" LB is able to conjure up.

I didn't really like "Clementine" the computer, especially since anything they had then would so obviously have been too primitive to talk / think / analyse in the way that was required. Or even, to remain functioning without spare parts. If you remove that, and the dream of the force-field, then the book could have been a return-science-to-the-world type book, which is what I was expecting. Instead it turns into a "small remaining core of science that is obviously too small to actually support progress, gradually falls away".

You could perhaps consider it a meditation on the respective virtues of the simple, low-tech life versus the risks of tech. Personally, I'll take the risks of tech, because voluntarily sinking back into the pool of the folk is intellectual death.

Friday, 6 January 2023

Christmas 2022

Christmas 2022 was going to be fairly standard-ish in the "new pattern": to Mother's for a few days, then back home and New Year's eve chez Mfd+J, now they are in Cambridge. But! A few days before, M tested +ve for Covid. And then when I phoned up to try to plan, it turned out that some comedy combination of Rob, Lara and Toby had it. So it became clear that the traditional Christmas Day was out. Having danced around various not very plausible ideas we did the obvious: stayed at home, had a quiet Christmas day of just-us-four, and then went over to Mother later in the week - Wednesday evening - once all the positivity had subsided.

Here we all are on Christmas day, with the presents not yet opened behind us. We waited for the King's speech, of course. The Tree was J's plastic one suitably adorned with LEDs, which seemed to work well.


Note the bandanas, which M had deemed essential. D is still in Harvey Goodwin Gardens, but came over around ten to cook Christmas dinner with E and M. I, as ever, ran a half; rather slowly in 1:57. I had cooked a fruit cake, and we had a Christmas pudding (found by me at great cost in toil in M+S), but we ate neither on the day as we were so stuffed by the lunch. We did watch that well-known Christmas movie Glass Onion, and all agreed that it was entertaining nonsense. We also slept somewhat.

Mfd+J came round at teatime to say hello, and the Covid-comedy continued as M sat outside the living room on the stairs.

The forecast for Boxing Day was fine; and we were keen to climb especially E, so we (DEI) went up to Horseshoe Quarry, cruelly leaving M behind: but she was under the weather so happy to rest. The 27th was just a quiet day, I walked into town and enjoyed being able to stroll, leisurely, with no time pressure. Wednesday the 28th was similar, except we packed up and left around 4 to go over to Mother's, since this was now possible. We had a quiet meal with her, in preparation for the Great Day, Thursday, which was officially proper Christmas Meal Day.

As you'd hope, I did a half that day too, with the bonus of company from Lara (initially) and Toby (till 2/3) and the pleasure of beating them both, not that it was in any way a competition oh no indeed not. And I managed 1:55, which was nice 'cos it is hilly there. Lunch was out, at the nearby farm-shop-cafe-newly-opened-thing; some walked there, but I didn't. Dinner was as ever sumptuous, but in the evening, since N was working.


After, we had a couple of games of This Year's Game, which E selected as Ticket to Ride, and it was very good. D won one and came second in the other.

And that, somewhat abbreviated and so lacking the "timeless" element that creeps into previous years, was that; and on Friday we went home. Saturday to Mfd+J for New Year's Eve, with bonus Si+B.

Sunday was New Year's day so I did the traditional Chesterton 10 k; somewhat slowly: I think I was still wearing off the half. Then - the weather being fine, or at least tolerable - E and I snatched our one chance to go sculling in the double over Jesus lock and down the Backs. Highly recommended. That evening Milo was around; as an important feature of E's life over the past year he deserves a mention. And we finally lit and ate the Christmas pudding.

And then, we had Monday off too, and the weather was again tolerable, so D and I took the chance to walk to Ely again. With just us, and striding out at his pace, we made it in under 5 hours; it is 25 k, from our door to the station; neither of us felt like going as far as the cathedral.

Book review: Northern Lights

1673023773576-08ea09e3-95f9-4bb1-a8b0-56b8f5a14be1_ My pic shows our rather battered copy of Northern Lights by that nice Philip Pullman. I think the battering came from D and E; I've only re-read it once or twice I think. Although the "texture" is fairly good it does rely rather heavily on plot for readability, so doesn't re-read quite as well.

TL;DR: as a story it is excellent; as theology, it falls apart.

As a side note: I like this cover. It is creepy, mysterious; and this reflects the book much better than the usual "alethiometer" version.

Of the story: I won't trouble you with the plot, but it has one, it is interesting, varied and imaginative. It suffers ever-so-slightly from the usual glossing over of the hardships of travel, but never mind that.

On the minor level, while he can assert that he believes that "life is immensely valuable" nonetheless his books feature, as do so many, the commonplace trope of the central characters sacrificing the lives of many un-named spear-carriers in order to protect their own. As a token minor quibble, the idea that a hydrogen-powered dirigible would go anywhere near a fire-hurler that had, moments before, demonstrated its ability to hit is absurd.

Of the theology: there's a strong view that the book is anti-religious or more narrowly anti-catholic, and it is hard to argue with that, since all the religious figures and institutions are bad or evil. But let's think about the central issue, Dust. This is an awkward blend of theology and physics (which, at the plot level, he handles nicely in the book: what is "physics" to us is labelled "experimental theology" to them), in that whilst a subatomic particle on the level of the electron, it is in some sense aware - it knows the difference between children-pre-puberty and adults; it animates the alethiometer. Wisely, Pullman makes no attempt to make sense of this, and sweeps us past it as quickly as possible to the next adventure, because of course it makes no sense at all. Or at least, none to me; I think you have to be something like an idealist to even think in this direction.

Another regrettable issue is that "original sin" is somehow mixed up with the transition at puberty, and thus implicitly with sexual activity, although our author is never crude enough to say this explicitly. Which is a rather radical interpretation: somehow, children are innocent but adults are sinful. Wot? Worse, because (by construction) this is actually true in his world, he has given the church a justification (in his world!) for their doctrine of original sin.