Alfred Bester

June 8th, 2003

Idling away my afternoon reading rec.arts.sf.written, I came across a thread about Alfred Bester which reminded me that I've hardly read any of his shorter fiction. Since the one Bester short I have read – Fondly Fahrenheit – is one of the most memorable short stories I've ever come across, I couldn't resist a quick trip to Abebooks UK to order a copy of Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester. Not that my to-read pile needs to get any higher – I'm going to need planning permission and start rigging it with navigation lights to warn off low-flying aircraft if it grows much taller – but that's not really the point, is it?

The same thread pointed out a delicious little Bester-related joke from Ansible 146:

Imaginary collaborations: '"He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, coming downstairs now, bump bump bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." Yes, it's Tigger! Tigger! by Alfred Bester and A.A.Milne. The US title is of course The Stairs My Destination .'

I appreciate that at this point about 85% of the visitors to this site are scratching their heads. I can only suggest that you run to your nearest bookshop or library and get your hands on a copy of Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger!, otherwise known by the title of the US version, The Stars My Destination. Not for the sake of understanding the joke, but because Bester's Gully Foyle is one of the more memorable characters in 20th century science fiction and the novel he appears in is one of the undisputed classics of the genre.


Skipping stone

June 8th, 2003

National Geographic's Photo of the Day for today is simply marvellous. The caption – "Leaving a wake like a skipped rock, an antelope speeds through water in Mozambique's Maputo Elephant Reserve" – gets the basic facts across, but doesn't begin to express how lovely that image is. Not that I can do any better, so I'll just put it this way: go and see for yourself!

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June 7th, 2003

I very much doubt that Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), director A J Schnack's documentary about They Might Be Giants, will show up in cinemas outside London, even assuming it makes its way across the Atlantic at all. Jesse Hassenger's review at PopMatters suggests it's going to be worth looking out for:

The band has often been marginalized because of their humorous, sometimes surreal approach to pop music, leading to an endless parade of adjectives like "quirky" and "goofy." Gigantic showcases their strong songwriting and good humor more naturally, treating them as fun and smart more than silly and smart-alecky, and the concert stuff, if sometimes overlong, captures the genuine joy and energy of their live shows.

How much of my enjoyment of Gigantic was based on its subjects, rather than filmmaking Flansburgh and Linnell's chemistry gives the impression that almost anyone could capture them at their best; their non-interview footage is especially charming and funny ("I'd like to be known as the Mike Love of They Might Be Giants," Flansburgh says at one point. "All the bad vibes start here."). We see them rehearsing, talking, goofing around, obsessing over coffee. It makes you wonder: is director AJ Schnack astute to capture them on film, or just lucky?

Yet another reason to be thankful for multi-region DVD players…

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The Incredibles

June 7th, 2003

Judging by the teaser, Pixar's The Incredibles looks like tremendous fun. Not that a good teaser is a guarantee, but the hot streak Pixar have been on ever since Toy Story gives cause for optimism.

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More Toddler Tales

June 7th, 2003

Another volume of The Story About the Toddler is up. More quality parenting tips from the man who isn't afraid to tell the truth:

Now that our baby Cordelia is sixteen months old, all of the pieces are falling into place. It is rapidly becoming clear that she is a sinister creature, a Bad Seed, which may have the potential for actual True Evil.

Even now, I can hear grandparents shrieking with dismay, perceiving that someone is writing what they would perceive as slander about their beloved, adorable grandchild. But trust me, despite her cuteness, which is so flawless that it makes pretty much every other child of roughly the same age (including yours) look like a lump of spackle in comparison, even now Cordelia is starting to dance the forbidden tango with dark powers.

[Account of specific acts of evil snipped]

Now don't get me wrong. I have no problem with the current moral alignment of her sixteen month old brain. Evil people live happier lives, they make more money, and they get all the good tax breaks. If I play my cards right, I can make myself useful to her and get some of that filthy lucre she generates thrown my way.

It'll work out. I'll just have to remember to be real careful walking down stairs late at night after Cordelia learns what a "will" is.

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Can you tell the difference?

June 7th, 2003

Sexxx or Something Else? Can you tell what these people are really doing?

I got a deeply unsatisfying 6 out of 16, and a suggestion that I go rent some porn.

[NB/- site probably not work-safe.]

[Via More a way of life….]


"More accurately, the planet is an understated fiery umber"

June 7th, 2003

Marvin the Martian and Daffy Duck will be helping NASA send two probes to Mars later this year.

OK, so it's actually just a fairly lame bit of product placement for Warner Brothers, but the very idea of Marvin the Martian being associated with a real space project just amuses me no end.

[Via Boing Boing]

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My Blue House

June 5th, 2003

My Blue House is a stunning portrait of Earth as seen from space, albeit one which takes a few liberties with the relative position and size of the Earth and the Moon.

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"Got you chained to the desk have they?"

June 5th, 2003

Shauny had a charming phone conversation with a distinctly … frisky … old gentleman.

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Privacy? What's that?

June 5th, 2003

Declan McCullagh discusses the end of privacy with Bruce Sterling:

Q: We've been hearing a lot about the Pentagon's plans for a Total Information Awareness data-mining system. What's going to happen a few years down the road?

A: I don't think that Poindexter's nutty scheme has much real-world traction. I think the question's badly formulated, really. I don't think there's much distinction between surveillance and media in general. Better media means better surveillance. Cams are everywhere. A security cam is one small part of a much larger universe of cams. The much larger effect, socially, politically and economically, is going to come from a much larger trend.

I noticed that people are doing a lot of "googling" before a first date nowadays–this represents the real trend. Poindexter's doing this and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) allowed him to do it for the propaganda that someone's serious about cyberwar someplace. Googling is international. It's not just restricted to cranky Republicans who couldn't erase e-mail in their PROFS (Professional Office System). That's going to have more of an effect. It's difficult to escape a tragedy in your life that's not your own fault.

Years ago, if your husband died in a house fire, you could get a covered wagon and go to Oregon. Now, as soon as you arrive in Oregon, someone could google you. "Oh, well, widow Simpson. Really sorry to hear about the house fire."

You don't get to cut that chain of evidence and start over. You're always going to be pursued by your data shadow, which is forming from thousands and thousands of little leaks and tributaries of information.

Sterling's comments on David Brin's notion of the "transparent society" are particularly worthwhile, but rather than quote even more of the article here I'll simply suggest that you go and read it in full. It's worth it.

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Digging a deeper hole

June 5th, 2003

The latest news on the ID Card consultation exercise is discouraging: basically, the Home Office is refusing to answer questions from Privacy International about where those 6,000-odd responses went because an MP has tabled a parliamentary question about the consultation exercise and it would be pointless to dig out the information twice.

Tempting as it is to see this as a gigantic conspiracy, I suspect it's more of a cock-up. Even as I type this, I'd imagine that officials are trying very hard to come up with a halfway convincing reason for disregarding the views of respondents who used the internet to communicate their views. The alternative being to confess that, having made the initial decision to lump together the online responses and fed a number to a minister, they felt they couldn't backtrack without landing the minister in hot water for misleading parliament.

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Monster House

June 4th, 2003

Finally, a home improvement show I'd consider watching if they ever make a UK version:

"Monster House" is about insane custom houses. We're talking half a car bolted to a wall as a kitchen table with a race car motif in the debut episode. Or a fireplace turned into an 8-foot fire-breathing Easter Island statue in the second episode.

This is not subtle. Nothing is less than over the top. No color is mentioned that isn't in a Crayola eight-pack.

But what makes the show unique is its sheer anarchy. The homeowners are not consulted beyond suggesting a general theme and aren't allowed in the house during remodeling, which is based only on rough sketches stapled to the wall.

[Via Lots of Co.]

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Love Bite

June 4th, 2003

I find this photo totally endearing, for some bizarre reason. I think it's something to do with the blissed-out expression on the face of the first camel. We should all be that contented at least once a day…

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Arterial problems

June 4th, 2003

Some news stories just beg for a corny headline:

French Fries Clog Artery

MINNESOTA — A semitrailer truck loaded with McDonald's french fries overturned early Tuesday on Interstate 94 near Fergus Falls, Minn., closing the westbound lanes for more than two hours.

The driver of the truck, Eskender Dubale of Winnipeg, Manitoba, suffered minor injuries when the truck jackknifed and rolled over on its side, according to the Minnesota State Patrol.

The incident took place about 2:40 a.m., and one lane of westbound I-94 was opened at 5 a.m. Some boxes of french fries spilled onto the freeway, and the remaining boxes were unloaded from the truck before it was righted.

[Via Looka!]

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"Meh Meh Murfle Meh"

June 3rd, 2003

The CAT PRIN site is a strange, scary place. Cats in hats. Cats disguised as frogs. Cats pretending to be sheep! Where will this madness end?

Something Positive offers the only humane solution.

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How Cool Is That?

June 3rd, 2003

Just over a year ago, I applauded a group of Star Wars fans who'd built the Millennium Falcon in their backyard. Now a group of twelve year-olds have upped the ante considerably when it comes to movie geekishness: they spent six years creating a shot-by-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark!

Let Harry Knowles take up the story:

They grew up in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. They learned to sew costumes, blow shit up good, take molds of their heads, drag under motorized vehicles, be hurled through windows, set themselves on fire, set their basement on fire, take over a WWII Submarine, improvise brilliantly another animal for the monkey, blow up a truck, get a shitload of snakes, build a giant boulder, the first kiss, get a girl to strip and put on Marion's dress while they filmed it in the mirror. They dressed their friends up as Nazis, killed a brother over and over again, made over 40 traditional Arabic costumes, swordfight, beat the shit out of each other, build giant Egyptian statues, con someone out of a Rolls Royce, scour Goodwill's and Salvation Armies for costumes and props.

There's a link at the end of the AICN article to a brief Quicktime movie which served as a trailer for a screening of the remake. It may not be in glorious widescreen, but it's very clearly a faithful remake of one of the most famous film scenes of the last 20-odd years. I'm beyond impressed…

[Via MemeMachineGo!]

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1/5000th of a voice

June 2nd, 2003

Danny O'Brien has written a letter to the minister responsible for the consultation exercise on the introduction of ID cards to ask whether it's true that the 5,000-odd submissions made via STAND have been lumped together and counted as a single "petition", even though the individuals concerned were able to write their own message expressing their own concerns and simply use STAND as a means of transmission.

A report on the latest attempt to figure out why electoral turnout is falling suggested that there's a growing disconnect between the "Big Brother generation" and the "politics junkies." Speaking as someone closer to the latter group, I can't help thinking that the sheer cynicism engendered by an exercise like this is much more corrosive than denying the public to text-message parliament about the issues of the day.

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The Animatrix

June 2nd, 2003

When I got home from work on Friday I found that Blackstar had delivered my DVD of The Animatrix, so I spent some time over the weekend indulging my Matrix obsession. I'd already seen Final Flight of the Osiris on Channel 5 the night before I saw The Matrix Reloaded, but the other eight shorts were new to me. Some of the stories are closely linked to the events which unfold in the two feature films, but even the ones where there's not a hint of the presence of Neo or Trinity and nary a Sentinel in sight are generally worth a look.

A few first impressions:

  • Final Flight of the Osiris is the backstory to the discovery of the machine assault on Zion which drives one of the plot strands in Reloaded. Opening with a beautiful martial arts sequence, this is far and away the most impressive looking film on the DVD. The CGI animation is superb. As you'd expect, CGI faces still aren't quite up to conveying subtle emotions, but in what's essentially a short action film the film-makers can work around the problem well enough by just keeping everyone moving as much as possible. A great piece of eye candy.

  • The Second Rennaissance (Parts I & II) is nominally a two-part account fresh from the Zion archives of the story of the war between man and machine which led to the coccooning of the human race. Presented as a compilation of archival news footage supplemented by commentary from a Zion-era narrator, it contains plenty of striking images of impressive war-fighting machines but for me it falls short as an explanation of just why human-AI relations swung out of balance so savagely and completely once the question of AI rights reared its head.

    The narration strikes a weary tone, and interestingly it places most of the blame for the war on humans for having been so quick to reject conciliatory moves on the part of 01, the city state formed by the machines: guilt, or just a lack of understanding of the motives and internal politics of the AI side of the conflict? The film doesn't give much sense of whether there were different factions and beliefs on the robot side of society; was there a robot peace movement which was brushed aside by those robots who wished to reject coexistence? Which leads to a wider question: how far were the robots we saw on the field of combat autonomous units and how far were they under the direct control of their leaders? In the films all the robots we've seen outside the Matrix have been Sentinels or other types which weren't trying to communicate with the humans, so it's hard to say whether we're dealing with a Star Wars-style drone army or a Culture-style coalition of autonomous AIs of varying specialisations which just happen to believe that killing or enslaving all humans is the best/least worst/only strategy.

  • Kid's Story is exactly what the title suggests: the tale of how the annoying teenager who hero-worships Neo in Reloaded was rescued from the Matrix after Neo contacted him. It served as a nice parallel with Neo's own experience the first time he encountered Agents, except that in this instance the protagonist was being pursued by Agents so inefficient that they couldn't catch a teenager on a skateboard. I'll bet Agent Smith wouldn't have been so slipshod.

  • Program is one of the less consequential films, a vignette featuring a member of a hovership's crew who is faced with the question of whether she wishes she'd taken the blue pill. I don't have much else to say about it, to be honest. You can guess her answer as soon as the question is posed. I'd have preferred to see what would happen if someone did choose to return to the Matrix: would the machines keep their word, or would they put anyone with any knowledge of Zion into a little Matrix of their own where they'd find themselves chatting with a friend and spilling the beans about all they know of Zion, Neo and so on.

  • World Record demonstrates that in certain highly stressful situations an individual within the Matrix can become aware of his situation and "wake up", and shows that the Agents are very much aware of this possibility and will do their best to prevent it happening. I didn't really take to the drawing style used in this episode, nor to the implication (which also shows up in the next film on the DVD) that in fact people within the Matrix can find themselves faced with glitches and bugs which reveal that all is not as it seems. I suppose it's a cousin of Persephone's explanation of "werewolves and vampires" in Reloaded, in that it suggests that paranormal phenomena are what human senses make of glitches in the system, but I'm suspending judgement on that element of the storyline until I see if it's fleshed out in Revolutions.

  • Beyond is a simple tale of a young girl looking for her cat who encounters a "haunted house" which we realise is actually a corner of the Matrix where a bug has made physics work a little differently for a little while. I couldn't help but wonder why those who encountered the phenomena were allowed to retain their memories of the experience: given that it's possible, why wouldn't the Matrix or its Agents wipe all memory of such anomalies?

  • A Detective Story looks suitable noirish, and features a brief guest appearance from Trinity. It hints at how difficult it is for someone in the Matrix to track down a legendary hacker like Trinity or Morpheus, which is an interesting idea from the first film which I'd like to see explored further. It's not just that Trinity is hard to find, it's that those who try seem to end up dead, disappeared or deranged. Is this a result of whatever it is Trinity does to discourage pursuit, or a side-effect of Agents intervening if they think they're close to one of the "terrorists" who have escaped the Matrix?

  • Matriculated is the most intriguing story on the DVD. Out on the blasted surface of Earth, a group of humans are trying to catch machines which they then jack into a new, human-designed Matrix. The plan appears to be to encourage machines to come over to humanity's side, though the process is interrupted so we don't see quite how this is to be achieved.

    What I found fascinating about this story was the implication that the machines are open to persuasion and have free will, since as I noted above the general view we've had of machines outside the Matrix has been that they've been implacable hunters and destroyers of humans. Also, the ethics of trapping the machine inside a human-designed Matrix in order to persuade it to help humans who are trying to free humanity from an AI-designed Matrix are just a wee bit dodgy.

Wow, that turned into a much longer post than I'd planned.

All told, this is a pretty high-class piece of spin-offery. It may or may not turn out to have much direct relevance to the events of the final film in the trilogy, but it's a tribute to the depth and breadth of the universe the Wachowski brothers have created that so many interesting vignettes could be created.

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June 1st, 2003

Michele bids Concorde adieu.

The awe was not just my child's; it was mine as well. The sleek shape of the jet, the way in which it cut through the sky like a rocket, the noise and tremors it caused all took my breath away. How far technology had come, I thought, to create something so beautiful, so powerful. Not many people can see beauty in a plane, I know. But there was something about the Concorde that made me view it as if it were art. The downward nose and the outstretched wings and yes, the idea that there were rich, important people flying in that piece of modern art certainly gave it part of its appeal.


For the record, I don't find it at all hard to find beauty in an aircraft myself, whether it's the cheeky Harrier hovering and bowing farewell to the audience at an airshow before zooming off over the horizon, or a Spitfire banking to display that glorious elliptical wing, or an Avro Vulcan persuading you against all reason that yes, something that massive really was capable of defying gravity, or even a Lightning pointing its nose skyward, turning on the afterburner and making a beeline for the clouds. But then, I was a teenage aircraft nerd back in the 1970s, so I spent a lot of time watching the RAF's finest at air displays.

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Dougie Donnelly's Revenge

June 1st, 2003

A fun rock star anecdote, courtesy of The Rocking Vicar:


Parishioner Tom Morton: "Costello and the Attractions, in full, amphetamine-fuelled, raging contempt mode, appearing post-gig, early 80s on a late night Radio Clyde show hosted by Dougie Donnelly. Yep, the Dougie Donnelly noawadays spied on telly wearing Pringle sweaters and interviewing snooker players, carpet bowlers and dodgy golfers; then, he was Glasgow's Moderate Voice of Rawk. Anyway, Elv and the boys treate Dougie abominably, gurning and giggling at their own hyper coolness. Until Dougie, extremely pissed off, opened the phone-lines and his guests up to the tender mercies of Glasgow after closing time.

My favourite caller was the first. "Hey Elvis, can ah ask yi a question?"

"Yes, that's the idea."

"How did yi play that fantastic guitar solo on "Way Down"?

Silence. Then Elvis, puzzled: "I don't think…we have a song called "Way Down".

"Aye yi do" came the response. "Yi recorded it just before yi died."

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