Monday, February 23, 2009

Partial Conversation of the Day

[Woman on station platform, talking into mobile phone]: Hi. I got on the wrong train and ended up in the middle of f__ing nowhere.
[Woman]: I'm going to be really late. I don't know when I'll get there.
[Woman]: Yeah...No...Yeah... I'm in some f__ing hillbilly town...

Them's feuding words! But seriously, it was 7:30 on a quiet Monday morning and I wasn't the only person on the platform in a goddamn suit, tie and overcoat, and from this you think this is a f__ing hillbilly town in the middle of f__ing nowhere? We're in East Kent, but it's more accurate to say we're on the edge of nowhere rather than the middle of nowhere. It's the rural villages off the main transport links that are closer to the insular stereotype being unfairly used here; the bits of Kent that, crucially, actually have hills, rather than being pretty flat like round here.

But honestly, which one of us ended up in the wrong place after getting on the wrong train. Was it me, the simple country yokel? Or was it you, the posh townie who can't tell the difference between the Stour Valley and the Appalachian Mountains? I rest my case.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Competing Theories Of Education

A friend was suggesting that the best way to discipline children in school is to assemble a firing squad and shoot them after the first infraction[1]. He turned out to be in a minority of one on this. Nevertheless I decided to articulate why this is a bad idea[3], in case he his fan club decide to back him up on this proposal.

School is supposed to teach kids useful things. Because of this, it has to be a safe place to make mistakes; although there must be consequences, they should be ones we learn from rather than the unforgiving harshness of the outside world[4].

Schools should teach kids how to live their life. That's why it's boring, you're told to do things you don't like and don't understand, and the teachers (who have no understanding of what it's like to be a child because they never were one themselves, no, they weren't, they can't have been) seem to just arbitrarily make up stuff for you to do. Yes, it's like grown up life but with more stability and less bureaucracy. If we teach kids that mistakes should be punished with violence, that authority rests on brutality, that power comes from the barrel of a gun, then we'll turn out a generation of thugs and victims. Instead we're growing strong kids, kids who aren't afraid, who question authority, who demand and create choices other than those handed out to them. This causes problems; new and different problems[5] (maybe) but I'd rather have those problems than the problems that the lesson of might-makes-right creates.

Also, seriously[6]? A firing squad? Expensive, noisy, dangerous, needing to assemble a group experienced with firearms? I think he's just in love with guns. If I were in the mood for a modest proposal I would take a leaf from the Roman army and have their classmates do the hard work for me.

[1] Actually he first suggested it for kids[2] who don't do their homework, as though that's the most pressing problem in any school.
[2] He actually said little sods, thus violating the first rule of talking to those-who-work-with-children: We can be rude about our kids; you can't. Okay?
[3] Not just because the parents would string up the first bastard who tried it, and, frankly, I'd be handing them the rope.
[4] Or real life as one kid referred to it. What, is school not real enough for you? :)
[5] Did I mention I'm something of a fan of old-school SF? Essentially that's all about new ideas and technology causing new and interesting problems. Welcome to my world.
[6] As in, logistically.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Conversation of the Day

Them: [Rushes into the room and runs towards me] - Sir! Sir!
Me: Yes? Can I help you?
Them: No I'm not in here next, I just wanted to see how tall you were. [Stands next to me for a moment and rushes away]
Me: [Bemused]

There's a rumour going round the kids that I'm really tall. I don't know how it got out so soon. Someone must have blabbed and after that the gossip machine spread it far and wide.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

That 25 Random Things That Has Swept The Internet And Is Now On It's Way Back To Bayonet The Survivors

(Crossposted from my Facebook account):

This came with the following introduction:
Rules: Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you.

You've probably heard about this as bloggers are using it to fill their blogs with bits of random junk. I'm not too proud to join the bandwagon! Enough introduction, here's 25 non-random things in order that I've arranged them following no particular principles except my own sense of aesthetics:

1. I overheat at the slightest hint of warmth, so always sleep with the window open and the radiator turned off unless it's actually freezing outside.

2. I often use the word "So" in conversation to introduce a new topic. I picked this up from Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf.

3. I used to find waiting very frustrating but now I use the time to go over what I'm doing next or what I've just done.

4. The first time I stood up in front of a bunch of kids and they called me sir was a weird experience. I quickly got used to it though.

5. I used to get annoyed about people misusing the word random, but I'm just about okay with the colloquial use now.

6. I don't think any of my habits are strange, but apparently everyone else in the world disagrees.

7. Over the years I've found many situations where the experimental method is inappropriate. I would still suggest it for cooking though.

8. In daytime winter is brilliant. It's the best season to go out in, at least when it's not completely pouring. The problem with winter is the 15+ hours of darkness, which depress me greatly.

9. I drink too much booze, but as it turns out I can actually stop that fairly easily. My drug of choice is coffee. Other caffeinated drinks substitute for it poorly.

10. I don't compromise well (or gracefully) and am happiest when I spend a fair amount of time alone. Unsurprisingly I'm single. This suits me fine.

11. When I first grew the beard I was surprised at how unanimous the praise was. It took nearly two years before I met someone who hated it and insisted I shaved it off. I didn't.

12. The beard has also changed my life more than I expected. On the other hand I thought it was only going to keep my face warmer in winter. It's made a small, indirect, but significant contribution to getting my new job.

13. I review bad sci-fi on the internet, or, more accurately, don't review bad sci-fi on the internet. Today I learned that Sci-Fi author and movie critic John Scalzi has also received this meme and used it as the basis for this weeks column. So he's filled one of these out and has got paid for it. The smug git.

14. I love coriander. It's possible for me to have too much but I think you'd be surprised by how much that is.

15. I also love garlic, but it's much easier to convince me that I've had too much than coriander.

16. I haven't spoken to someone for 12 years because I can't forgive her. I used to think that I couldn't forgive her because I still love her, but to be honest, it's probably because I'm just not a forgiving person.

17. On the other hand, although I take note of things in the category I call "petty accounting" - whose round it is, lifts, invitations, who pays what and when at restaurants and going out - I don't worry about it. If you're tightfisted, then it's noted, but I love you anyway. if you're generous then it's appreciated, but I'm not going to make a fuss about it.

18. At primary school they used to tell us "Only boring people get bored". I realise now that they were just trying to stop kids from complaining they were bored. Still, it's stuck with me, and even though I've managed my boredom effectively for years, I still think of things to write and then decide "No one wants to read about me. It's boring. I'm a boring person." I know in my head this isn't true, but I still believe it, blood and bone, marrow-deep.

19. When the Hayfever season starts, the first few days on anti-allergy stuff makes me feel spaced out with the present disconnected from the past and future. I always feel like what I'm saying doesn't connect with the people around. No one else notices.

20. I was electrocuted twice at university. Since then I've stopped trusting other people's electrical work, as well as always checking when people say it's off.

21. Sometimes I think I've lived my life according to Q's final words to Bond - "I've always tried to teach you two things: never let them see you bleed; and always have an escape plan"

22. If this was actual random things, some of them would be false and many of them much more interesting. I'm not doing that because Patrick Nielsen Hayden did his version first and better.

23. Unsurprisingly I hit my head on things a lot, but I also injure other parts of my body frequently, especially the extremities. I guess I have trouble knowing where the ends of my hands and feet are unless I concentrate; I do have very long arms and legs. I used to scratch and break the glass on watch faces all the time, but now I have one that has a metal rim around the face. The metal rim is scuffed and scraped.

24. I've never broken any bones.

25. I've sat here with 25 things for ages, hoping for something more interesting to say. There were a couple, but I'm not putting them in this thing. Eventually I dumped the least interesting thing (it was the joke about the man with 5 willies) and replaced it with this summing up item. I'm pretty happy with this now, but will have second thoughts as soon as I hit publish. I always do.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Conversation of the Day

Them: This one was easy so I just wrote it down
Me: So you used your mathematical intuition
Them: I don't have any mathematical intuition, I just knew what the answer was

Monday, February 02, 2009

Sci-Fi Pop

Cross-disciplinary science seemed to get all the smart kids back when I was at university - bio-physicists figuring out how eyes worked, bio-chemists doing crazy stuff with peptides, mathematical physicists doing all kinds of things I couldn't understand. This makes sense to an extent - in the phase space of science (a subset of knowledge) each discipline has the parameters of it's search-space mapped out, with the work either being out on the far edge or filling in the gaps. Crossing disciplines creates new fields to work in, extrapolating from the better known disciplines, with the basic work giving proportionally greater results.

Similarly cross-(sub)genre gives us hot new things to read and watch. Naomi Novik's Temeraire series crosses Alternate History with Fantasy to give us the Napoleonic wars substantially improved by the addition of dragons. Crossing Westerns with SF gave us Wild Wild West (both versions) and Firefly. Richard Morgan has been writing SF action-noir while Alistair Reynolds has described one faction in his fiction, the Ultras, as looking like what might happen if Star Trek's Borg had an unhealthy interest with goth culture[1]. And the genre of para-normal romance has given us an enormous oeuvre that I'll talk about some other time, maybe.

Anyway, with crossing things established as a method of creating new and exciting works of science and art, you'd think that maybe Sci-Fi and Pop could get together and help fulfill their mutual promises to each other. I mean pop music is all about now, while science fiction is about the future[2]. They're practically next door neighbours!

As anyone who's bothered to read this far is surely aware, in practice results have been mixed. As and when I remember I add examples to a youtube playlist. Currently there are 10 on the list. Link to List Index. Link to just start the list playing.

1. William Shatner - Rocket Man

Shatner gives his classic interpretation of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's Rocket Man. We're into real Sci-Fi/Pop crossover territory here, as the song is based on a Ray Bradbury short story The Rocket Man. Other versions include Elton John's original and Kate Bush's 1998 cover. This was from 1978, a year we will return to later. I give this 6 Rocketships.

2. Jonathan Coulton - Chriron Beta Prime

Jonathan Coulton, a singer/songwriter who makes a living by giving his music away for free on the internet, has written many in-genre songs, often from the point of view of the villains, such as the zombie[3] in Re: Your Brains and the evil supervillain in Skullcrusher Mountain. I think this song probably is the most SF of his songs that I've found for free on the internet[4]. It references a lot of cliches, but at the end of the day is it's own vision of the aftermath of a robot uprising. 8 Rocketships.

3. Zager and Evans - In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)

I think I first heard this song on a flight between Auckland and London, somewhere over Kazakhstan. Not being in the most normal state of mind I missed quite how mad this religion themed technological cautionary tale is. Later I found myself watching Cleopatra 2525, and realised that the theme tune was a complete rip-off an homage to this 1969 one hit wonder and tracked down the original. From the wikipedia page I've discovered one possible reason why this was a one hit wonder; their follow up song appears to have been called "Mr Turnkey" and is "a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the wall as punishment for his crime". Surely the kids in 1969 were down with rape, guilt, despair and self-harm? Anyway there's some good news or at least some news; you can judge for yourself.

Further down the wikipedia page I discover this quote from the authors of The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time - "science fiction and rock and roll don't mix any better than Zsa Zsa Gabor and reality". What can they mean? No really. Are they saying Zsa Zsa's not real? 5 Rocketships.

4. Sir Killalot vs Robo Babe - Android Love (Robot Wars)

This appears to be a spin off single from the TV robot-fighting show, Robot Wars. I think Jim suggested this. It combines catchphrases and robots from the show with some synth-dance and scantily clad women. I am unimpressed. 2 Rocketships.

5. The She Creatures - Sexy Robot

Another suggestion from Jim, and this time it's brilliant! I believe he missed The She Creatures twice at Glastonbury, but met them giving out pamphlets, in full costume. I have a soft spot the size of Ganymede for girl-pop from before I was born and this is an excellent facsimile. Simply for the line "You can spend your whole lifespan searching these solar systems for a man like Harrison Ford, but he don't exist" I give them 9 Rocketships.

6. Man or Astroman - Lo Batt

Man or Astroman combine surf guitar with samples from old B-movies, usually to great effect. This doesn't seem to have been one of their better songs. Why is this on youtube and the list ahead of "Invasion of the Dragonmen" or "Maximum Radiation Level"? I don't know, and frankly have done so much research for this post already that my brain is melting. Good video though. A mere 5 Rocketships.

7. The Only Ones - Another Girl, Another Planet

From 1978 we find that punk rock too flirts with SF. And why shouldn't it? The comic book style video and references to space travel being in their blood makes this Sci-Fi enough for me. It's a great and classic piece of new wave pop. 7 Rocketships.

8. Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip - I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper

Our final visit to 1978 and here we have the single that launched Sarah Brightman's career. It's a delirious blend of Sci-Fi cliches and disco madness, with dancing and costumes that boggle the mind. Is it brilliant or bonkers? Is it too much to have both? And it's still relevant, or at least a DJ played it in a club I was in last year, which is good enough for me. 9 Rocketships.

9. Stingray Megamix

Back in 1990 Jim got a video[5] called Power Themes 90, which had dance remixes of things like The Prisoner and UFO and MC Parker doing some Thunderbirds DJing. My favourite is the Stingray Megamix, which mixes scenes and music from Stingray to make a very satisfying song. One side effect has been that if Stingray ever comes on TV, we have to do the dance on the sofa. Despite this, I award this track the coveted 10 Rocketships.

10. Stereolab - Wow and Flutter

Stereolab are sometimes described as a Marxist band, but they prefer to point to Surrealist and Situationalist movements. Noone seems to have picked up on their SF influences, perhaps because this video is the most blatant example and everywhere else it's hinted at. For example on their album Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements the back cover notes:
Art is a science having more than seven variables.

And hi-fi is the convenient tag we use when we mean the art and science of hi-fidelity! Interest in this fascinating subject has never run higher than it does today : its technology advances steadily, and many more people come to value and draw inspiration from the result a high standard of music reproduction in the home. Stereolab contribute to this in no small measure.

You can read this as just another odd, surreal, note on the album. You can read it as a Marxist statement if you want to. But it looks to me like it could have dropped out of a 50s SF story. 7 Rocketships for this final entry.

This has been my Sci-Fi/Pop 10 songs. They're not a Top 10, or my favourite 10, or the best 10, or anything like that; they're 10 strong examples of the cross-genre that happen to be on youtube that I've compiled into a list. Have I missed anything obvious? Do you hate me for exposing you to this? Disagree with my scores? Have a request? That's what the button below is for.

[1] I'd totally watch that film. I'd suggest reading his books too.
[2] Elsewhere people who might know something about this are even now arguing that SF is actually about now, or, considering the turn-around times involved in writing and publishing, about 15 months ago.
[3] Surely if "zombies" is the plural, the singular should be "zomby".
[4] Youtube is my jukebox!
[5] On a VHS cassette! Remember them?