Wednesday 30 December 2009

The Hotties

The fantasy blog Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has announced its year-end awards for 2009. Twelve comes sixth overall in the top ten speculative fiction titles for 2009, and wins the Rookie of the Year award for best debut. Full details here.

Thursday 10 December 2009

The Libel Reform Campaign

I've just signed the petition you'll find at the end of this link, and urge you to do the same.

Monday 9 November 2009

Thirteen Years Later

Here's the cover artwork for my next novel Thirteen Years Later.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

The People Have Spoken – Let’s Ask Them Again

It's a familiar scene from many a childhood. You're on holiday and both you and your sister both want the top bunk. There's no sense to it, but even today, as an adult, you empathise with the desire to sleep five feet above the floor, though you still cannot fathom the reason. The fair way to decide is obvious – the toss of a coin. You call and you lose, but still that top bunk beckons. There's only one hope.

'Best of three?'

Whether your sister agrees to this displacement of the stochastic goalposts depends largely on whether she a big sister or a little sister. I rarely got to throw the coin again; I have heard tell of families that made it to best of five – though never best of seven.

But that's not how they do things in the Republic of Ireland.

On Friday, the Irish will go to the polls for the second time on the Lisbon Treaty, taking an approach to democracy that is not so much 'best of three' as 'last past the post'. Because if the 'yes' camp wins this second vote, having lost the first, there will be no third round decider; no extra time followed by penalties. If the people approve the treaty this time, then that will be an approval, regardless of what they have said before. If they reject it, then who knows? The pundits say that the whole treaty will be thrown into doubt, but I don't see it that way. If the Irish government has the barefaced gall to ask for a second referendum, then they must surely feel a diminishing embarrassment in asking for a third, and then a fourth. It's a close vote, and eventually they must get lucky. And, to quote one famous Irish political force, they only need to get lucky once.

Such electoral tomfoolery would never occur in the UK, of course. Well, it might if Gordon Brown's speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton yesterday is anything to go by. For in that speech the Prime Minister put forward a proposal to adopt the Alternative Vote system.

Brown's justification is that 'there is now a stronger case than ever that MPs should be elected with the support of more than half their voters, as they would be under the Alternative Voting system'. Now I'm no fan of proportional representation – you only have to look at the certainty that Angela Merkel would remain German Chancellor last weekend, regardless of the vote – but let no one be fooled into thinking that that's what Brown is proposing. The idea behind proportional representation is to make parliament better reflect the opinions of the people. The idea of the Alternative Vote is to make the number of votes recorded better reflect the makeup of parliament.

Let me explain the basics. The Alternative Vote system retains the constituencies we have now. Within a constituency, however, instead of voting for a single candidate, the voter lists all the candidates in descending order of popularity. If no candidate gets more than 50% of first choice votes then the bottom candidate is struck of the list and his or her second choice votes are allocated to the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, and they then win.

So Brown is right that no MP will be elected on less than half of the vote, but not because MPs have become innately more popular. It will be just like in Ireland. If the establishment does not get the result it wants on the first round (an MP with more than half the vote) it goes back to the electorate and asks them to vote again, and again and again. Admittedly we don't actually have to traipse out to the polls multiple times, like they do in Zimbabwe, but the principle's the same.

In terms of the makeup of the House of Commons, the differences caused by this change in the voting system are likely to be slight. Even the Electoral Reform Society says that 'the alternative vote is not actually a proportional system'. In most English constituencies, the split of the transferred votes is likely to be broadly the same as the split between the two leading parties. Both will get more votes, but whichever led after the first round is very likely to be the first to pass 50%. Small parties, which do get seats in proportional elections like those for the European Parliament, are guaranteed to have their votes transferred. In their second votes UKIP voters, by and large, will revert to their tribal type and vote Tory. Similarly, BNP voters, will, by and large, vote Labour. Even if the minority party voters vote with bizarre unpredictability on their second choices, it won't be their favoured party that gets the seat. For those of us who despise the BNP even more than we despise proportional representation, it's a good thing – but it requires no change to the voting system.

There will be some changes to actual results. Where Liberal Democrats are second to one of the major parties then the transferred votes may be sufficiently skewed to mean that the Liberal candidate passes the 50% post first. (This may well be part of the reasoning behind Brown's proposal of the system.) There's a chance too that the Greens will do well in their targeted seats. But in general, the distribution of seats in the Commons will be little changed. All that will change will be MPs' ability, in imitation of Alan B'stard, to brag to their constituents about their enormous majorities.

Gordon Brown has offered us a referendum on the reform, but it is unlikely that things will come that. I'm not suggesting that Labour would break a manifesto promise to hold a referendum on any issue – perish the thought – but the likelihood is that Labour will not get an absolute majority at the next election. So far, the Tories are not supporting the Alternative Vote – though I wouldn't be surprised if they did, given that Tory MPs would benefit equally from the illusion that they were more popular amongst their constituents. If there is a hung parliament then the Liberal Democrats will probably form a coalition with Labour (tempted, not least, by Brown's offer of slight reform). But if the Liberals are true to their values (and a whiff of power is surely not enough to distract them) then they'll insist on a referendum on full proportional representation, and Brown's half-hearted proposal will be forgotten.

But if this reform does not go through, what then will the politicians do to persuade themselves that we love them? The obvious solution, which has been mooted, is to introduce compulsory voting. That might not change the proportions, but a 12,000 majority would suddenly a 20,000 majority, on a whopping 100% turnout. It would require no new ideas, no peace treaties, no improvements to the NHS and no tax cuts, and yet suddenly all politicians would see a huge jump in popularity.

Surely there can be cross-party support on that?

Monday 28 September 2009

Like a Virgin

The BBC reports today that an Egyptian scholar has called for the death penalty for anyone who imports a device that attempts to fake female virginity.

According to the BBC, "The device is said to release liquid imitating blood, allowing a female to feign virginity on her wedding night."

What confuses me is how anyone in Egypt is going to be able to get hold of a device that releases a liquid imitating blood. Haven't they all been snapped up by professional Rugby Union players?

Sunday 6 September 2009

Sua Culpa

I am sorry to announce that the 16:32 First Capital Connect service to Brighton has been delayed by 27 minutes.

Whilst other travellers may mutter in annoyance at such announcements, making it clear to all around them, if clarity were needed, that actually they had been hoping the train would arrive on time, my feelings are usually directed more towards a profound sense of puzzlement and unease.

The announcement is, as is usual these days, recorded – or not exactly recorded, but assembled from recorded fragments. I worked on a similar system once myself, for an Air Traffic Control simulator, recording the voices of various of my colleagues as they read from prepared scripts designed to encompass all the possible air-traffic-related sentences that could ever be uttered. Be careful, if you ever do such a thing for yourself, to take note of the difference in intonation of the word 'zero' in the phrases 'Turn left heading three five zero' and 'Turn left heading three zero five'.

But the upshot is, both in Air Traffic Control and on the railways, that though the words are spoken with the voice of a person, the meaning is formulated by the computer that splices the fragments together. It's quite the opposite situation from where a person, such as Professor Stephen Hawking, uses a speech synthesizer. There the voice is a machine, but the thought is human. On the platform, the human voice hides the synthetic concept.

But here's the cause of my unease. When the announcement is made, who is it that is sorry? It can't be the computer, they're not capable of the emotion – believe me, I've worked with them for years and it just doesn't happen. So is it the owner of the voice that feels the sorrow? Is there an actor sitting at home in front of Deal or No Deal who suddenly feels a little pulse of sadness in his heart as his voice, miles away and recorded years before, expresses a sentiment which some supernatural power forces the man himself to feel? Do you perhaps know someone – someone with a clear, resonant voice – who, once in a while, especially during rush hour, gazes wistfully into the distances as if remembering some old love from whom he has long been parted.

It seems unlikely. The fact is that no one is sorry about the delay to the train – it cannot be the computer and it cannot be the actor, and no one else is even attempting to apologize. If the announcement were to be phrased 'We are sorry ...' then things would be different, but that would be to suggest that First Capital Connect actually were sorry, and that would never do.

And so to Alan Turing, and the petition asking the Prime Minister to apologize for Turing's prosecution for homosexuality.

I thought about this long and hard – and, for what little it's worth, I'm not going to put my name to the petition.

Now I don't imagine that there are many people more in awe of Turing than I am, though I won't wax lyrical here on his contributions to mathematics, computing, cryptanalysis and war-winning. He's probably the second greatest mathematician in British history (behind Newton) and posterity may well promote him to the top of the rankings. But when it comes to being apologized to for his treatment as a homosexual, what's so special about Alan Turing?

The freedom to go to bed with any consenting adult (or adults) of either sex and get down to whatever the two (or three) of you fancy is not an indulgence that's handed out as a reward for helping to defeat the Nazi onslaught. It's generally agreed (though a few still argue the point) that it's a fundamental human right. It's not for Gordon Brown to look through the history books and select those homosexuals who made a significant contribution to this country (and God knows, there are enough) and apologize only to them. Any apology should be to all those who were persecuted for their sexuality, even if they never made any significant contribution to the Entscheidungsproblem – even if they never mastered their times tables.

But even then, Gordon Brown should not make the apology, any more than he should apologize for the delays to the 16:32 to Brighton. It really isn't his fault. He can't apologize for what happened in 1952, any more than he can take credit for the 1967 act that legalized homosexuality (though he was part of the government that later equalized the age of consent). If anyone is going to say sorry, it should be those who were actually involved – those of them who are still alive – the policemen, politicians, lawyers, judges and psychiatrists who directly or indirectly persecuted Turing and drove him to suicide. An apology from Gordon Brown for something he didn't do would be meaningless, a computerized statement from a front man who cannot – and should not – feel any shadow of the guilt which his words express. And let's face it, Gordon Brown really does have so much that he should apologize for, from the economy, to the war, to the other war. Or is he hoping that in sixty years time there'll be a petition to his successor that they should apologise for his faults? He should not be let off the hook like that in future, and his predecessors should not be let off the hook by him now.

On the other hand, there is also the suggestion going round that Alan Turing should be given a posthumous knighthood, and when there's a petition for that, I'll gladly sign it.

Tuesday 30 June 2009

Het Kwintet

Five books that have influenced me on the Dutch Website De Volkskrant.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Pavel Chekov, or Elmer Fudd?

I went to see the new Star Trek movie yesterday, and not for the first time it occurred what a strange thing Ensign Pavel Chekov's accent is. Now Chekov is, so he has led his superiors at Starfleet to believe, an ethnic Russian, but for a Russian speaker, he has a remarkable inability to pronounce the letter 'v'. 'Vessel' becomes 'wessel' and 'victor' becomes 'wictor'.

The thing is, 'v' is a very commonly used letter in Russian. It's the third letter of the Russian alphabet (not that alphabets are listed in order of popularity, I know, but it must count for something). It begins many widely used words, such as voda (water), ve (you) and vodka (er, vodka), place names like Volgograd and Vyazma, not to mention Christian names such as Vadim, Vasiliy and Vladimir. Anyone fancy going up to former KGB officer and sixth dan Judo master Prime Minister Putin and calling him 'Wladimir'?

In fact there's no easy 'w' sound in Russian. The best approximation takes two vowels, such as 'Oo-ee-mbldon' for 'Wimbledon'. Alternatively an English 'w' is often replaced by a 'v'. What's the Russian for Wikipedia? Vikipedia. I'm no expert, but I think this 'w' to 'v' (rather than 'v' to 'w') is far more common in most European languages. The one example I can think of 'v' becoming 'w' is from the grandfather of cod-cockney (no, not Dick van Dyke), Charles Dickens. Dickens' Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations pronounces 'vittles' as 'wittles'. But I don't think Magwich was Russian.

Now Walter Koenig, the first actor to play Chekov (and Davy Jones and Rubens Barrichello lookalike) was born and raised in Iowa so, despite his Russian ancestry, might be forgiven for following his director's instruction with regards to the accent. But in the new movie, the role was played by Anton Viktorovich Yelchin, who was born in Leningrad and so really should know better, even though he left for the USA before the age of one. And look at that patronymic. Anton's father is called Viktor. Or do they call him Wiktor back home?

Friday 20 March 2009

‘From Today Painting is Dead’

So said the artist Paul Delaroche, but don't panic; he was speaking in 1839 after the invention of the Daguerreotype, an early form of photograph. And he probably didn't say it anyway, but it's often attributed to him, and many at the time might have thought it a likely prediction.

Thankfully, Delaroche was wrong and for the next hundred years or so, painting just got better and better, with artists liberated from the ambition to faithfully provide a visual representation of their subject and instead were able to visually provide a faithful representation of it. In the process of forming an impression of the world in the mind of the viewer, that brief period of nanoseconds during which information is represented as a collection of photons was at last seen in its proper proportion.

More recently, over the past century or so, a similar question could have been asked regarding the potential effect of cinema on the theatre. Cinema would seem to beat theatre hands down with the ability to bring to its viewers anything that can be filmed anywhere on Earth, while the theatre's unworthy scaffold can only show what can be fitted into that small space of the stage. And with CGI and other special effects able to present on the screen not only what is, but whatever can be imagined to be, the contest might seem to be over. The benefit of being just yards away from stage populated by real people can hardly make up for the fact that that is all that they are – real people.

Happily, seeing War Horse at the National Theatre at the weekend proved to me, if I didn't already know it, that the theatre can still present us with experiences than the cinema can never achieve. The unarguable stars of War Horse are two puppet horses, Joey and Topthorn. No effort is made to hide the three puppeteers that operate each animal, and there has been little attempt to add any kind of finishing touches to the puppets – they are simple frameworks of wood and metal, resembling what a Victorian inventor might have come up with in his quest to create an equine robot. Only the creature's ears are finished with enough detail to have an appearance similar to the genuine article, but with the ears, as with every other feature of these wonderful illusions, the trick is not in how they look, but how they move.

To be honest, I haven't made any great study of how real horses move. I know (thanks to Eadweard Muybridge's ingenious application of photography) that they take all four hooves of the ground during a gallop, but this didn't actually come up during the play. The point though is not to represent the horses with indisputable accuracy; it's to make me believe I'm seeing them.

There's a certain irony in both of the film productions of Henry V that they include the Prologue, with the lines:

"Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them."

and then go on to actually show us horses, somewhat beating the point. War Horse does a little more than talk of horses, but we most certainly see them. What is more, despite the fact that the horses do nothing even faintly supernatural – they do not talk, nor lead their masters to a little boy trapped down a mine – they are as present as characters as any human on the stage. The original novel (which I haven't read, but will) is written from the horse Joey's point of view and so naturally he will be seen as a character in his own right, but since a play cannot in the same way have a point of view (and War Horse does not even try) it would be easy to lose this vital personality. (In a similar way, Bertie Wooster rarely comes across as well in dramatizations as he does in the books where he is there narrator of his own adventures.) Thus it is a glorious achievement that, without a single word, it is the horses that make the show.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see another play, again at the National, which relied on puppetry: the two part dramatization of His Dark Materials (which I'll be seeing again in a few weeks at the Birmingham Rep). In this case it's possible to make a direct comparison with the cinematic equivalent in the form of The Golden Compass. While the film may have been able to do better in terms of the spectacle, it is the daemons which make the story, and here, as more recently in War Horse, the theatre excelled. But compared to either, what's going on in my head when I'm reading the novel wins without contest. Again, the Prologue of Henry V explains it all:

"And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginative forces work."

Whether we're talking about painting, theatre, cinema or literature, the purpose of art is to inspire our imaginations, not supplant them.

And I forgot to mention the unsung star of War Horse – a remarkably convincing farmyard goose.

War Horse has moved from the National Theatre to the New London Theatre, where it opens on March 28th.
His Dark Materials runs at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until April 18th.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

First as Farce, Second as Tragedy.

I can already hear your cries of outrage at my misquoting Marx, so let us move on to a slightly more influential Victorian philosopher.

'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.'

Humpty Dumpty made this announcement, so Lewis Carroll records, in a rather scornful tone, and although I have only seen it print, rather than heard him speak, I would suspect that Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, used a similarly scornful tone when he came up with a phrase that meant just what he chose it to mean when he raised the spectre of 'passive drinking'.

It's a chilling phrase, and we all know enough about passive smoking to realize that the vaporous fumes that invade our nostrils, our lungs, our very beings are just as insidious if they are effervescing their way out of Auntie Edna's milk stout as they ever were wafting across the room from the tip of her Capstan Full Strength.

But, hang on a second – what do these terms really mean?

Passive Smoking (from Wikipedia, pending the Chief Medical Officer's anonymous edit):

'Passive smoking is the involuntary inhalation of smoke, called second-hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke, from tobacco products. It occurs when tobacco smoke permeates any environment, causing its inhalation by people within that environment. Scientific evidence shows that exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke causes disease, disability, and death.'

Passive Drinking (from Liam Donaldson himself):

'England has a drink problem and the whole of society bears the burden. The quality of life of families and in cities and towns up and down the country is being eroded by the effects of excessive drinking.'

It may well be a problem, but it's not really quite the same as passive smoking, except in terms of the structure of the phrase, which is all that Donaldson is concerned with, being nowadays more of a politician than a doctor. On the upside, it does open a new vista of similar phrases. A pedestrian knocked down by a car becomes a victim of 'passive driving'; when you step in something nasty on the pavement, it turns out that you are actually indulging in 'passive dog-walking'. These are both genuine problems, but they don't need silly new phrases to describe them.

Now I have to declare an interest here, being a member of that sadly neglected subgroup in society, the well-heeled functional alcoholic, and as such I have some sympathy with Liam Donaldson's proposals for a minimum alcohol price of fifty pence per unit. It's unlikely to have an impact on the price of any but the rankest of clarets, and might actually do something to shorten the queue in Threshers at 10.55 of a Friday evening. While the Conservatives may argue that it is unfair for us all to bear the costs of an irresponsible few, the fact is that we do so anyway through the cost to the NHS in dealing with alcohol related diseases. While I can see some value in the Tories implicit case that the NHS should not treat self-inflicted ailments, I suspect I would one day find myself hoist on my own petard if I supported it.

But whatever the merits of the case, it does not deserve this ridiculous abasement of language, particularly from someone whose role is supposed to me as an impartial government advisor. There is no such thing as passive drinking. Standing next to me when I'm supping on a pint does not make you less able to drive, more prone to liver disease, less prone to heart disease or more attractive to women. It may mean that you have to give me a lift home, roll me out of the car and nod indulgently when I tell you I love you, but there still not one drop of alcohol in your body. The tragedy is that Liam Donaldson is so close to the government that he imbibed deeply of their propagandist style of talking – a case of passive spinning if ever there was one.

But enough of tragedy, what of farce, to return to my reversal of Karl Marx's observation.

It must be fifteen years or more since I regularly read Viz comic since it's not, as it admitted itself even back then, as funny as it used to be. And I do remember one strip called Modern Parents and one particular episode in which the eponymous parents, their newborn dangling in a pouch around the father's neck, walk past a pub where a man is sitting outside drinking a pint and smoking a cigarette.

In horror, the modern father stubs out the cigarette, complaining of effects of passive smoking on their child. The man apologizes, but then the father notices the pint, picks it up and tips it in the gutter. As the drinker complains, the father utters the phrase which somehow became lodged in Liam Donaldson's mind, to be regurgitated years later.

'Haven't you ever heard of passive drinking?'

It was funny at the time.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

A Pause for Thought

Politician 1: First, I would like to express my condolences to the families of the soldiers killed in etc., etc., etc.

Politician 2: I would like to add my voice to the sentiments expressed by the Right Honourable gentleman... and so on.

Sinn Fein: Erm... well... hang on, let me think about this for a few hours.

The weekly roll call of deaths of soldiers, commiserated over at Prime Ministers questions unceasingly for the past few years is a cause of sadness for at least two reasons. By far the greater of these lies in the misery of those deaths itself, but a lesser consideration is the increasing valuelessness of the statements themselves, metamorphosing from genuine expressions of shock to automatic reactions which seem, however unjustly, that they could have been muttered involuntarily by the politician’s lips as he snoozed.

Death has always been surrounded by a certain amount of etiquette – termed mourning when applied at a more personal level – whose purpose is to save us from having to think too much at a difficult time. Doing what tradition dictates should be done, rather than deciding for ourselves what should be done, immunises us from committing gaffs at a time when we are unlikely to be thinking clearly and when any faux pas could be more hurtful than usual. We don’t have to consider which of our neckties will best express are true feelings at the funeral, since we know that the rule is to wear a black tie.

The rules today are far more scant than they were a hundred years ago, but there are still rules, and the fact that they change over time is not a problem as long as they do so slowly enough for everyone to keep abreast of them. The most famous counterexample was twelve years ago, after the death of Princess Diana, when Buckingham Palace followed established etiquette by not flying the Royal Standard when the Queen was not in residence. The fickle crowd, led by the People’s Prime Minister, decided to make up its own rules of mourning – which I suppose is fair enough – and then was enraged that Her Majesty hadn’t somehow managed to guess what the new rules were – which isn’t.

The increasing tendency for politicians commiserate and/or condemn at every death that comes about in war or through terrorism is something different. It’s a form of slow inflation which, whether we like it or loathe it, we are at least all well aware of. Although the sentiments can be taken for granted, it’s still a matter of form that they should be given voice.

Thus if any politician fails to join in the chorus at such a time, it jars.  And if with the politician in question those sentiments cannot be taken for granted, eyebrows are raised, and raised high.

So when Sinn Fein this weekend took fourteen hours to make any comment on the murders of two British soldiers at a barracks in Northern Ireland, it was a perfect opportunity for the press to beat the Republicans at their own game, by fighting yesterday’s battles.

I think we can all agree that most of Sinn Fein’s leadership are pretty unsavoury characters. Most were involved to some degree in terrorism, and even when dealing in politics, they have not been averse to, say, persuading their comrades to starve themselves to death to further their own political ends. Circumstances have changed, but the personalities have not. They were not ‘nice people’ then and, to many observers, their failure to step into line with other politicians and quickly condemn the murders demonstrates that they are not ‘nice people’ now. And thank heavens for that.

Only Nixon could go to China, and only Adams could go to Stormont. Well not quite – only Adams could go to Stormont and have the hope of bringing anyone with him. Any more extreme and he wouldn’t have wanted to try to be part of a power-sharing government; any more moderate and he would have been happy to lead a life of obscurity in the SDLP.

That’s not to say that the current Sinn Fein leadership has deliberately placed itself in this ‘balanced’ position, disguising its true beliefs (that may be the case, but if it is, we shouldn’t really care). Clearly there are others out there with more moderate and more extreme views, but for that very reason, they don’t emerge as leaders. The leaders of Sinn Fein, whether by accident or design, are at precisely the point in the political spectrum where they are able to represent Republicanism. That doesn’t mean we have to like them, but it does been they’re our best bet to deliver and maintain peace.

And that, of course, is what the Real IRA (along with the Continuity IRA) is trying to disprove. If Sinn Fein can’t keep violent Republicans in check, then what’s the point of them? The majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly may pretend to listen politely to Sinn Fein’s opinions on Education and Agriculture, but the real reason that they’re allowed in is the fear that if they weren’t a part of the Assembly they’d be trying to blow it up. Innocent soldiers and police officers may be the victims, but the target is the Sinn Fein leadership.

Thus Sinn Fein’s reaction to the murders on Saturday was fourteen hours of circumspection. They know just how dangerous and fickle Republican terrorists can be – they only need to look in a mirror. Whatever discussions and consultations took place during that time, and between whatever unsavoury characters, their goal was to produce a reaction that best allowed them to remain in power. And having them in power is what we should all want, however it may make our flesh creep. An instant condemnation might have made them appear a little more likeable, but they are not there to be liked – they’re there to bring the vast majority Republican extremists with them. If that takes fourteen hours of silence, then it’s a price worth paying. You think you could have done it quicker?

So it may be a bit a fun for journalists to get Sinn Fein representatives to tie themselves in linguistic knots trying to condemn – but not too much – terrorist murders, and I doubt whether it’s got any more chance of doing harm than of doing good. But the day that Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness does speak out quickly and unequivocally against all political violence is the day he loses his constituency, and it will all be over - one way or another.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Not That Much of a Challenge

I have to start by confessing that I was at university during those dark days of the late 1980s when University Challenge was not on the air. Bambi had left Granada to work on the Babycham commercials and the Disney Nasties, and most people would be more likely to look for Paxo in the body cavity of a chicken than on BBC2, and certainly not on a quiz show.

Thus, with no prospect of ever having been on the show, I can bask in the illusion that if only it had been running then my college would have won the series, probably three years running, with 'Trinity Hall, Kent' captaining his team to victory week after week.

As it is, I was denied the opportunity, and so no one can deny the possibility of my fantasy scenario, even though in reality, I probably would never have made the team, not even as the nerdy bloke who sits to the left of the captain and was only there because the other three contestants (reading classics, history and classics respectively) didn't know the first thing about science.

For a few brief moments this week my hopes of perhaps still representing my alma mater were raised, with the news that one of the members of Corpus Christi's winning team, Sam Kay, was no longer studying at the college when the final was recorded. If he could still represent his college months after leaving it then could not I represent mine, two decades on?

The answer came quickly from the BBC - before I'd even had time to fill in my application form. It was a resounding 'no', as Corpus Christi was disqualified and Manchester became victor by default.

An isolated incident, you might think - a blip. But no! Further news came in today that one of the members of last year's winning team, Christ Church, had also fielded a player, Charles Markland, was no longer a member of that college by the time the final was recorded, having moved to Balliol to study for his PhD. In this case, the victory has been allowed to stand.

Of course, it would be very easy for you just to say, 'Well, that's Oxford for you, isn't it? Typical of the underhand, oar-clashing, wrong-end-of the-punt-standing behaviour you'd expect from the institution that brought us Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.' And for the most part you'd be right. But I can't help feeling that the BBC and Granada, who actually make the programme, are also to blame.

The real problem is that the series begins recording in May and ends in November. Now, it's been a while since I graduated, but I still feel that I may be able to give the BBC some insight into university life. Unless things have changed without my being informed, the academic year runs roughly from October to July. Anyone see what I'm getting at? By having the end of the academic year slap bang in the middle of the recording schedule, the producers are virtually guaranteeing that final year students will have left their institution before the end of the series, or that they will be forced to throw the competition at the second round. I would be surprised if there weren't far more cases than these two out there, waiting to be exposed by the diligent journalists of our laudable Sunday papers.

So come on BBC, solve this problem once and for all. Don't disqualify the teams; change the recording schedule. Simples.

Friday 27 February 2009

Neth Space: Twelve by Jasper Kent

Neth Space: Twelve by Jasper Kent

Death to the eight-legs! ... er ... six-legs!


I've just finished reading Dennis Wheatley's 1948 novel, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, and while I guess it's over half a century too late for me to be offering a full review, there is one very important question that the book raises:

Did Dennis Wheatley genuinely believe that spiders only have six legs?

Our crippled hero, 'Toby', is haunted by a supernatural creature which at first he can only see vaguely, in shadow. His initial suspicion is that it is some kind of octopus, but when he manages to make out that it has only six legs, he realizes that that can't be the case (so clearly Wheatley's malacology is better than his entomology, although there's a clue in the word 'octopus', so maybe it's just a case of etymology).

Later on, it's revealed to him that the creature is a spider, albeit a giant one, summoned from Hell itself. As Toby describes it in his diary:

I now knew what it was that had thrown the Shadow. That round body and the six hairy, tentacle-like legs had been those of a spider without a doubt; but a spider the likes of which has never been recorded in this world.

Now, just because Toby doesn't know how many legs a spider has, doesn't mean Wheatley didn't. Perhaps the spider's missing limbs echo the paralysis of the hero's own two legs; if so, nothing is mentioned. Possibly the explanation was lost in an edit (if so, I'm pleased to say that copy-editing has improved vastly over the years - I'd never get something like that past them).

Or maybe Wheatley had just never bothered to look at a spider.

The cover illustration (Wordsworth Editions) certainly shows a spider with sufficient limbs to play Tarzan four times over, as does as least one other edition. Actually, this is a bit of an irritation. The fact that the creature that haunts Toby is a spider is meant to be something of a surprise when revealed (maybe the leg-count is deliberately intended to deflect our suspicions), and so the cover is a bit of a spoiler. Also, the illustration shows Toby on crutches, rather than in wheelchair, which is his sole transport in the text. But now I'm getting picky.

The biggest shock of the book is that not only is the villain a Satanist, but also a Communist, and that, in fact, the latter ism is and always has been merely a front for the former. Now this is something that I, like any right-thinking Englishman, have long suspected, but while Toby takes the Satanism pretty much in his stride, its the Communism that comes as the real shock. I mean, summoning gargantuan, leg-deprived spiders to scare a paralysed airmen into madness is one thing, but the workers controlling the means of production? Well, really!

Despite all this, it's still a fun read, certainly if your can accept it as an artifact of its time. There are some lovely passages within, such as:

Her blue eyes blazed, and she retorted: 'If you were not, one - a cripple; two - my patient; and three - suffering from erotomania, I would slap your face.'

I must try to slip that into my next novel - no one will notice.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

What's YOUR Browser?

I’ve spent the weekend trying to do something ostensibly rather simple; to wit, trying to make my website more accessible on mobile phones and similar devices. The actual work is fairly simple - just providing alternative pages which are smaller and generally less flashy, but still contain the same data. The only trick is for the web site to be able to determine whether it actually is being accessed by a mobile device or a full-blown browser, so that it can decide which version of the page to send back.

There’s a standard mechanism for this. When the browser makes its request it sends the web server a string (referred to as a User Agent) which, in simple terms, identifies the browser, but does not explicitly say whether it is a mobile browser, or provide any other detailed information. Back on the web server, there is a list of browser capabilities, and the web server looks through this list until it finds an entry matching the string sent from the browser. From that entry, it can see whether the browser is on a mobile device, what the screen width and height are, and much more besides. If it doesn’t find an exact match, it goes for the closest one it can find.

The problem is that this list of browsers has to be kept up to date - and generally it isn’t. For example, many web sites (I would guess most) incorrectly identify Google’s Chrome browser as Apple’s Safari - Chrome is, after all, relatively new on the scene. In this case, the differences don’t matter much, but more significant is the fact that a plethora of mobile browsers are identified as fully capable desktop browsers, simply because the browser capabilities list is unaware of their existence.

Ultimately, no one has taken responsibility to maintain a distributable, up-to-date list of browsers. Microsoft don’t, and even if they did, it would only work for sites that run ASP.Net - the Microsoft website technology. PHP users would still have to manage their own list (although conversion from one to the other should be petty straightforward). The are some not-for-profit sites that try to maintain lists, such as, but it’s  matter of luck and dedication if these are up-to-date. There are also commercial products that provide the information, but they are too pricey for anything but serious commercial sites.

The people who have the knowledge, the ability and, ultimately, the motivation to make this information widely available are the browser manufacturers themselves. The more website designers can tailor their sites to specific browsers, the better the browsers look.

So come on browser manufacturers, pull your socks up. Send me your User Agent strings and your browsers capabilities, in any or all formats, an I’ll put together a website to make sure all web developers can access them. And then we’ll all be happy.

Send your browser capabilities to

The First Post

Welcome to my Blog. As a horror author, you might be expecting me to be writing a great deal about the genre, but that - to the extent which I have one - is not my intent. Here you will find my musings, rantings, call them what you will, on whatever I may fancy. If you want to read about my novels, visit