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Photo post of the week

In which things are squared


Hot weather is not very nice. How people manage with it, never mind enjoy it, I’ll never know. The brightness of the sunlight is something; but even then, winter sunshine is much better for photography. Midsummer sunshine, in the middle of a clear-skies day, is just that bit too harsh.

Recently, our burgeoning vintage camera collection has made me reassess the use of square photos. They’ve often been a bit of an unpopular photography style, seen as a bit awkward, a bit ungainly, and hard to make interesting. Generally, I suppose this is all down to even numbers: they make it rather harder to make a composition interesting, and a square frame is as even-numbered as you can get. With lots of 120-film cameras, though, you don’t get a choice: square or nothing.

Harbour and lighthouse, Watchet

This photo started out as a test shot for one of the 120 cameras. So far the film in question hasn’t left the camera, so I’ve no idea how successful it was. As a digital photo, cropped down to square, I think it works rather well, though. Despite the sunshine.

Update, October: the 120-version of this shot is now out of the camera and back from the processors, complete with some interesting light leaks which make me worry there might be a hole in the camera’s bellows. I will have to try to get it scanned some time.

Update, November: well, I scanned it, and it is in my queue of things to upload to the internets. Which might happen some time this year.

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Suddenly, half a year

In which FP exercises


Well, hello again. Apparently, it’s summer.

Regularly, I do get urges to come back to the Admin Interface and write a bit more prose-doodling for this website. There are so many other things to do that keep me occupied, though. Now it’s summertime, the garden at Symbolic Towers is lush and green, and instead of getting on with things indoors you can regularly find me outside, hiding behind the Bee House,* pottering around the garden, deadheading the marigolds and worrying about the effect of leafhoppers on the potato harvest. As the gardens at Symbolic Towers are barely the size of a damselfly’s bandana, though, I am usually easy to spot.

Checking back, I’ve just realised that the entries on the main page still include things I wrote over a year ago now – for example, you can still see the ice monster we defeated when we moved house, down below this one. It’s not very good performance, for a blog that was originally started with the aim of posting every weekday. There are, however, more things in my head that I do plan to write about, some time over the next few months. Maybe I’ll actually manage them at some point. If nothing else, I should start posting pictures of the verdant garden, before it stops being verdant and crumbles back into autumn mulch. The pea plants are already starting to look a bit mildewed.

Lots has been in the news in the past few months about exams: about exam boards getting the questions wrong, about teenagers staring down baffled at unanswerable questions, and then about kids and parents complaining that they don’t want to be marked down for the question-setters’ mistakes. I have to say, my first thought was: surely, this is a learning experience? One of the first tips I was taught at school was: exam questions, numerically-based ones, are usually carefully worked out so that you’ll get nice neat answers at the end. The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that. When you’ve left school, you’ll find out that real world questions don’t have nice neat answers, and that often people will ask you things that are unanswerable, or insoluble with the information you have. Discovering that fact in the middle of an exam is probably a very good place to learn it. Possibly, this is why I should never become a teacher.

For now, that will do for a blog post. I will come back and try to write more in a few days; get my writing muscles unstiffened and flexible again. Because, as anybody who’s ever tried it knows, the more you write the more you want to write.

* Not one of those big boxes you use to house domesticated, sociable bees in the hope you can steal their honey, but a boarding-house for antisocial solitary bees. None have, as yet, taken up residence, but neverless I always check.

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And then again

In which there are updates on a couple of items


Well, hello there. Happy new year and all that.

I’ve broken the silence because, in the post below this one, you might notice that I said the one-off Dirk Gently adaptation broadcast on BBC4 last Christmas “very much had the smell of a pilot about it”. Funnily enough, the BBC agreed with me, so much so that it will be getting a short series in 2012. Whether the series will also be filmed in Easton, Montpelier and St Werburghs remains to be seen. Nostradamus himself would be jealous of my keen-eyed prediction skills.

In other futurology updates: a year ago, I predicted that the new government would last about fifteen months, collapsing over electoral reform. I now have three months left on that one, and the electoral reform has gone the way I always thought it would.* We will see. Nostradamus may not be quite so impressed. In slightly better news, though, we do now have the tea towel that we wanted this time last year. The downside to this: I now have to catch up on all the washing-up that’s been waiting since then.

* Despite being a Yes voter myself. No, not that Yes.

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The Interconnectedness Of All Things

In which a loose adaptation can be better than a faithful one


The problem with no longer having a connected-up TV, and relying on the internet for our TV service, is that we no longer get to see trailers. We no longer get to see trailers, we no longer see adverts in the paper, and so we don’t generally have much idea what’s coming soon on the good TV channels. It’s too easy to miss stuff we’d really enjoy watching.

A case in point: we only just caught Dirk Gently, BBC4’s rather loose adaptation of Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and saw it on the iPlayer with a few hours to spare before it disappeared. I’m glad, though, that we did catch it. I first read the book in my early teens, and enjoyed it despite not understanding half the plot; so, when I discovered that BBC4 had done an adaptation that was merely 1 hour long, I was rather wary. And, as I said, it was a rather loose adaptation, keeping a couple of the characters unchanged, the names of a few of the others, and a couple of the best scenes from the book. One of the earliest scenes saw the titular Dirk, in his office, whitewashing a wall covered in scrawled notes – notes all pertaining to events from the book which had been scythed out of the adaptation. Symbolic, indeed.*

Watching the opening scenes, I thought to myself: that garden wall looks very like our garden wall. Ooh, the decorative stonework on that house looks very like some of the decorative stonework in our street. That street gutter they’re lying in looks very Bristolian, too. And then the camera swung round to show the disused Greenbank chocolate factory, just a stone’s throw from Symbolic Towers.** “Oh, I did see some filming was going on near there the other month,” said K: presumably, this was it. If you saw the programme and are as geeky as me about this sort of thing: most of the action took place on Camelford Road and Co-Operation Road in Easton, and around Falkland Road and Fairlawn Road in Montpelier, with one scene in St Pauls, and a nice shot of a City Farm mural on Mina Road, St Werburghs.

I said above just how loose an adaptation it was. Only the characters of Dirk and his secretary were retained, essentially, from the book; along with the names of the others, some of the best lines, and a flavour of the main plot device. Strangely, though, I thought it a much better adaptation than the one that BBC Radio did a couple of years back. The reason for that? The book’s plot is horribly complicated, and it’s set in what is essentially an alternate universe, hinted at in a pretty subtle way. It’s also, very clearly, derived directly from some of Douglas Adams’ earlier projects.***

Producing a new plot with a similar tone was, in all probability, by far the best way to create a Dirk Gently TV show. It helps with making it a modern-day production: the original revolves heavily around answering-machine tapes. It means you no longer need to know any Romantic poetry to understand what’s going on; you no longer need lots of hints that we’re not in the real world; and you don’t need to try to weld the loose plot-strands of the novel into the tighter mesh you need for a dramatic production. The tone, moreover, was spot on: you could barely spot the join between scenes and lines imported from the book and those written afresh. That matters because the new Dirk Gently very much had the smell of a pilot about it: if its writer is going to try to push things and take it further, it’s good to know that he can write the title character in a faithful style.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was always intended to be a one-off. You could read the ending either way, which in itself was probably intentional. We’d be happy, though, to sit down in front of an hour of Dirk Gently every week. All I can hope is that, if it does turn into a series, that a mathematically impossible sofa turns up at some point. I didn’t miss the book’s alien robot on horseback, or its idyllic Cambridge college scenes, but I did miss the mathematically impossible sofa. And the other thing we have to hope is: we do realise it’s on, and it doesn’t just appear and disappear without us spotting it.

* there were also, incidentally, some newspaper headlines we saw on-screen which were irrelevant to the plot of the programme, but came from the plot of the book.

** We did consider buying a house that was literally a stone’s throw from the shooting locations, but it had a rather nasty damp patch in the living room which looked, even at a glance, to be an expensive fix.

*** Saying directly where it was pulled from would probably be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the book, so I’ve put it down here: the plot is partly derived from two Doctor Who stories that Adams wrote or co-wrote. If you know this before you’ve read the book, it becomes rather obvious which character is effectively a Time Lord, and where he keeps his TARDIS. None of this appeared in the new adapatation, apart from the general plot device of a time machine, which was handled in a radically different way.

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Quiet, please

In which the reference library is louder than you might expect, but somehow seems quieter than normal


Saturday night: to Bristol Central Library, for a gig by The Wraiths, a local band whose “thing” is setting classic poems to music. We’d seen them twice before, at various events,* but last night was the first time we’d seen them performing as a full band.

You might think that a library – the Reference Library Reading Room, in fact – is a slightly odd place to hold a gig. Unusual, I have to admit; Lancaster Library is a regular indie venue, but this was only Bristol Library’s second public concert. The tickets impressed me, for a start: the organisers were clearly trying to set the theme.

Library bookplate or concert ticket?

The library reading room is an amazing space. Part of an early building by Charles Holden, the architect of various iconic London buildings,** it has a high, vaulted ceiling wtih two gallery levels. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring a camera along; the clatter of a camera shutter can sometimes be a little unwelcome at quiet, intimate gigs. I’ll have to come back on an evening sometime, when the library is open for normal business, and see if they’ll let me take some photos of the interior. It is, allegedly, haunted; the band tried to persuade the gig’s librarian organiser to give us a talk on the various ghosts that live in the building, but sadly it never occurred.

The gig itself can’t really be disassociated, in my head, from the venue. The overall effect was magical, the music filling the vault, although if anything they should have turned the volume up slightly. Although there wasn’t any support, the band played a very full set, two halves and an interval, and the library reference desk had been turned into a cafe-bar for the night. As I said above, we’d seen them twice already, but this gig, with a fuller band, was by far the best; maybe because this time, they were the headline act. They persuaded us to buy their CD,*** and happily encore’d away, slightly tentatively, at the end.

All in all, a great gig, and the second good gig I’ve been to at the library. I’m hoping now that the library sees fit to extend this event into a whole series of concerts: they have a wonderful room, after all, and it makes the music shine.

* and I have a photo of the first time we saw them performing.

** including Senate House, 55 Broadway, and various other Underground Group/London Transport Art Deco premises. At the time Bristol Central Library was built, of course, Art Deco had not yet been thought of, so it’s in more of an Edwardian Classical style.

*** or, rather, the CD of theirs that we didn’t already have.

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Overheard

In which we are nosy


Overheard: a youngish woman walking down Bedminster Parade, phone in hand:

“I think I’m in Bedminster, Mum, but I don’t know where Bedminster is…”

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Monetising Friendship

In which FP wants to sell all his friends something they don’t really need


I’m inviting a few friends round one night. We’ll have a few drinks, a bit of a laugh, and I’ll show them a pile of stuff that I’m trying to sell. Hopefully, they’ll buy some, and I’ll make a tidy profit.

NB: the above paragraph is not actually true. I am not going to do this, and I don’t have anything to sell.* As a scenario, though, it’s a pretty common one. People all over the place are handing out Avon catalogues, Christmas hamper brochures, and organising parties for Foreverware storage; or cheap-looking expensively-priced nylon lingerie and sex toys. It makes me wonder: do some people really value money that much over friendship, that they see their friends as a source of income?

On the face of it, evidently so. I hope that maybe I’m just being pessimistic in my analysis. Maybe the people organising these events really do mostly believe that they’re doing their friends a favour, giving them the opportunity to buy Impressive Things at almost-bargain prices; and the money they make back for themselves doesn’t really make any difference to them. Certainly, in the true “multi-level marketing” organisations that are scarcely different to pyramid schemes, most of the bottom-rung salesforce are unlikely to come out of it in profit. On the other hand: I have known people, setting up these events, to excitedly say: “and it means that I can buy them for myself, cheap!” It makes me slightly uncomfortable, seeing people trying to use their friends in this way: it’s more than a little manipulative.

In one way, this is the root of the current fashionable trends in marketing: using the social network to save the marketeers the hard work. Viral marketing, for example, where you, J. Random Netuser, sends the latest cool advert you’ve seen on to all your friends: you receive a frisson of group-bonding pleasure in return for doing an ad agency’s work for free, just as if you’d invited them all round to your house to sell them the product. Facebook games are also similar: little money-churning devices that you, game player, spread awareness of among your social network. Maybe it’s going to become a long-term trend: I suspect the reason it’s so popular is that, after all, it’s cheap; or, at least, the costs are passed on to other people and other companies. It’s slightly different, too, to selling things directly to your friends through a catalogue or at a party: if you’re playing Farmville, your Facebook friends might have to put up with being told how your farm’s doing every few hours, but that’s as far as it goes. You’re not expected to buy things, yourself, until after you’ve been sucked in. You’re not expected to make your friends money, directly.

Maybe that’s the reason I feel so uncomfortable about this technique of monetising friendship: it is about directly turning your social relationships into monetary ones. It probably works best in social networks with a clear or semi-open hierarchy, because it’s potential very much about reinforcing that social hierarchy with money. I know such hierarchical social networks exist – I see them everywhere – but I do tend to feel that the world would be a nicer place if they didn’t.

* Although, if I was going to do that, I suppose we could always knock up some “I visited Symbolic Towers and all I could buy was this beautiful high-quality clothing product” t-shirts.

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Counterfactual

In which we pose an anniversary question


Today: the anniversary of the one date in English history that just about everybody knows. It is – as you’ve probably realised – the 944th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which occurred on October 14th, 1066. And, of course, all that: the death of King Harold II at the hands of Duke William of Normandy, which led to the duke’s coronation as King of England on Christmas Day that year.

It is, of course, slightly silly to posit: what would the world be like now if the Battle of Hastings* had turned out differently. Counterfactual history can always be true, as the narrator of an Umberto Eco novel almost said, because the premise you’re starting from is always false. Nevertheless, it’s an ever-interesting exercise, particularly with an event like Hastings which turned on a rather narrower pivot than you might think. The standard history of the battle, after all, was written for the victor’s brother, and follows a firm melodramatic template: our hero is promised his future inheritance by a pious elder, and our dastardly villain swears loyalty to him. Come the pious elder’s death, our dastardly villain grabs power, God shows his displeasure, and the plot ends with the villain dying a perjurer’s death and our hero getting his just reward.

The battle was a long battle, though, for the time; and it certainly didn’t start off as a rout. At one point, in the confused melee, things definitely seemed to be going the English way: some of the Norman troops had fled, and Duke William appeared to have been killed, disappearing down into the miry slaughter. However, it was only his horse that had been killed, and somehow he survived, climbing up and throwing off his helmet to persuade his troops he was still there to fight for.** It was a very narrow escape, it seems, but from there he eventually succeeded in turning the battle round; and thus, English history proper started.***

Would we be living in a very different world if the battle had been won by the English? Undoubtedly, in both large and tiny ways. The English we speak would be a rather different English, for one thing: probably none of those legal paired phrases like “cease and desist”, “goods and chattels”, and so on. We’d have one fewer national park: the New Forest would never have been built. Moreover, we may well have had a rather more decentralised country. King William overthrew a system of English nobility which had slowly grown up from a loose grouping of tribes sharing a common North Sea culture, a system in which no single family was dominant over the long term, there was no automatic hereditary throne, and the individual royally-qualified families had strong regional power bases. He replaced this with a single dynastic line; in the following thousand years, there have only been three major breaks in the line of succession.**** He made sure this happened by carrying out an economic conquest alongside his military one: destroying the entire economy of Yorkshire and Durham, for a start, and thoroughly replacing the English land-ownership structure, taking economic power out of the hands of the English and giving it over to the new nobility.*****

Would England have been very different if this hadn’t happened? Would rural Yorkshire have denser settlement patterns, and would we still have a single Royal Family? Naturally, it’s impossible to say: on the first point, the Black Death would still have happened, so by 1400 the population in our projected Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire may well have been around the same as it actually was. We’d probably have different northern cities: York, Durham, Newcastle and (probably) Grimsby were already well-established by 1066; Manchester, Leeds and Middlesbrough were nowhere, and Sheffield was a Norman foundation. I like to think, though, that overall the country would have been more like Germany: still with its capital as the nation’s hub, but with a much greater sense of regionalism, and the importance of the regional cities. We’d still have been English, but we might have been English in a rather different England. Whether it would have been a better England, of course, is another of those things that’s impossible to say

* Which, of course, didn’t happen in pier-bereft Hastings, but in the handily-named nearby town of Battle.

** After all, there were a good proportion of mercenaries in the Norman army; you can imagine how keen they would be to continue fighting once the chap paying out the money had gone down.

*** Or at least it felt as if we were taught that in schools 25 years ago. I particularly remember, at the age of 5, watching a Norman Conquest-themed series of the educational TV show Zig Zag, featuring a “will the peasant forced into poaching really get his hand chopped off?” cliffhanger.

**** There was something of a hiccup after all William’s own sons had died, largely because some leaders at the time did not like the idea of a queen regnant. The outline of the start of that phase of history, strangely enough, is almost the same as the story of the Bayeux Tapestry: dastardly villain swears oath but goes on to seize throne, etc. However, instead of the dastardly villain dying within the year during a short and decisive military campaign, this story ends with 19 years of on-off civil war until the villain, King Stephen, died a natural death.

***** And those people who can trace their ancestry back to that newly-founded nobility are, of course, still very proud.

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Adaptation

In which we discuss the Scott Pilgrim movie, one case of a comic-to-film adaptation that keeps all the spirit of the comic it came from.


Back, back in the mists of time – well, in December 2007 – I posted a review of Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, the fourth, and at that point, the latest, book in the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Since then, of course, the world has moved on. In Spring 2009 the fifth book, Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe was published, with shiny metallic cover. We quickly bought it,* and I intended to write about it on here, but somehow other things kept coming along and SP5 never got its review.

Forward to this year, and publicity started to appear for Scott Pilgrim, the movie version. The sixth and final book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, was published this summer. “I really must write on the blog about this one,” thought I, “before the film comes out.” But it didn’t happen. So, last weekend, we went to see the film, not sure if we would love it or hate it.

Quick recap for people who have never heard of Scott Pilgrim, never seen it, never read the books: Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something slacker geek with no job, in a rather bad band, who starts dreaming about a mysterious girl. She turns out to be a real girl, a delivery courier called Ramona who knows the secret of using people’s dreams as shortcuts between places in the real world. Scott immediately falls in love, but quickly discovers that her emotional baggage is somewhat more real than most people’s, as she has a whole league of Evil Exes she’s dated in the past, who Scott must defeat in video-game-style fights before he can win her heart. Now, read on…

Adaptations often get a bad press. What works well in one medium, after all, doesn’t always translate; but if an adaptation’s not faithful, it can end up pleasing nobody. Scott Pilgrim vs The World, though, is one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen, despite the fact it has to cut six books’ worth of action down into one single film. From the moment it started, with the same fonts onscreen as in the book, it was, I think, as close to the comic as any live-action adaptation could get. Lots had to be cut out, of course – the books are set over the course of a year, the film over a few weeks at most – and due to release schedules the last act is radically different to the final book; but, overall, the spirit of the books is captured extremely well. Some subplots were pruned entirely; some of the backstory was moved to an animated short; and some of the characters’ emotional lives are simplified or made less explicit;** none of it feels missing from the film, though. Moreover, the film uses a lot of the books’ stylistic quirks. Just like in the books, each new character gets a little black caption explaining who they are and what they’re up to. Just like the books, the film is full of cunning references and semi-hidden jokes. The film does a very good job, like the books, of portraying a realistic world in which, nevertheless, video-game events can happen.

There are a couple of places where you could argue that the film’s better than the books: in plot terms, there are two places where the story is told in a slightly better way.*** In general, though, I still prefer the books: a much fuller story, because there’s more space to tell it in. At some point, I should write an essay about the ending of the series, and what I think it says about life; that’s not for today, but it says something that the books can inspire me to consider something like that.

Some reviews of Scott Pilgrim vs The World have said that it’s “too hyperactive”. It is, definitely, a fast-moving film: that’s what you get when you compress that much shelf-space into one movie. Philip French, in the Observer, complained that at 1 hour 52 it’s “overlong” – maybe that was the effect of the various fight scenes, which do come close together. Myself, I found it both witty and touching; but I did worry that a newcomer, someone who’s never read the books, would have no clue what was going on at all.

In general, for both me and K, it’s the case that we can’t watch films too often. Once we’ve seen something, even a film we both love, it has to sit on the shelf for a few months before we can happily watch it again. As we walked out of the cinema after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs The Word, almost the first thing we did was: work out when we have some time free to go back and watch it again. If that isn’t a recommendation, I’m not sure what is.

* Coincidentally, the day I bought it was also the day I auditioned to go on Mastermind – I stopped off at Forbidden Planet on the way home.

** A spoilertastic summary of some of the missing bits: Knives Chau’s character is much more developed in the books, and her father takes up a vendetta against Scott at one point, chasing after him with a samurai sword which can cut a tram in two. Scott does try to get a job in the books, if not a career, and there’s much more in the way of band politics too. Emotionally, the most important missing part is: Scott, when trying to escape from Knives’ father, accidentally goes inside Ramona’s head and discovers that in her mind at least, her relationship with Gideon, the ultimate Evil Ex, was a BDSM-style master-slave affair. This isn’t just the payoff to a pun set up right from the start, but is very important in the final end-of-series battle, where it’s also explained that it was Gideon who created the ability to enter someone else’s dreams. All this is only touched on very lightly in the film, hinted at by Ramona’s behaviour “below” Gideon in the Chaos Club scenes; her inability to resist his commands is nothing to do with her own desires, but the result of a microchip he implanted in her head. And that’s enough of the spoilers.

*** Spoilers again: the defeat of Todd, the third Evil Ex is directly caused by Scott in the film; in the book, it’s a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s set up earlier, so not a complete bolt from the blue, but Scott doesn’t really have much involvement with it. Secondly, the treatment of Scott’s extra life is handled better in the film, in that he has to “replay” the previous few scenes a second time, but knows how to handle them better; in the book he returns to consciousness straight after the dream/afterlife sequence with Ramona. You can, of course, find examples of video games that work in either way, but I preferred the film version.

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Time passes

In which FP gets self-reflective


Well, that was August, then.

I’m not sure why I seem to lose interest in writing here every few months. It happens, though: things pass me by and I don’t have anything to say about them. Things have happened, yes, and I’ve ranted about them to people, but the rants haven’t made it into words. Not yet, at any rate.

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