Sunday, January 26, 2014

Jack Glass

Jack Glass is an odd little novel. Its supposedly a blend of classic science fiction with classic detective novels, and it certainly does have elements of them in it. Each of three distinct sections to the book has a mystery to it, but I'm not entirely sure how you are meant to solve most of them, the solutions to some of them being extremely esoteric and implausible.

It gripped me initially with a gritty prison tale, where 7 prisoners were left in an asteroid for 11 years with  basic equipment to survive, and expected to fend themselves. This was a dark and mostly compelling tale, with disturbingly graphic outbreaks of violence scattered across the tale. This story takes up the first third of the book. Suddenly, for the second third, having followed the mysterious Jac, the character followed by the narrative switches to the deeply obnoxious Diana.

Diana is a 16 year old girl, heir to one of the families that controls most of the human race. She and her sister, Eva, have been genetically modified to be geniuses, an ability which, to be honest, is mostly informed. She is written as a rather accurate depiction of an obnoxious 16 year old, and while her experiences make her more sombre, she never really grows more sympathetic. This tonal shift slows the narrative right down, and while it has a few highlights from then on, it never really recovers. Some of the elements later in the story border on the smug, and I probably wouldn't have bothered continuing if the opening section hadn't shown much promise.

The world built by the author was plausible, and the character of Jac/Jack interesting, but the bizarre switch of protagonist mid-story just made this much less enjoyable than it could have been.

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Friday, January 24, 2014


I seem to be alone in rather enjoying this most recent series. It hasn't been without its frustrations, the primary one being that the show has, for the most part, given up on mysteries, with the final episode having a twist instead of a mystery central to it, the second episode only having one that's hardly dwelt on, and the first being mostly concerned with the mystery from the previous series, with an added silly one where Sherlock can't count.

Ultimately though, its been about the characters, and for the most part its been funny, sweet and interesting. I like Sherlock and Watson, I like Mary as a new edition, and I enjoyed watching them get up to things. While the final episodes twist (where Sherlock solves a mystery in the most straight forward way) was disappointing to some extent, it was character driven, and underlines just how much Sherlock, a character now given to showing feeling, has found himself compelled to love Watson, and by extension Mary.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014


Worm is an online novel about super heroes. Set on a fictional Earth, where parallel dimensions exist, anyone has the potential to "trigger" and gain all sorts of wacky super powers. The story follows one Taylor Herbert, who is a bullied high school teenager who has the ability to control creepy crawlies, including spiders and indeed worms.

It is... massive. It is millions of words long, and took me about a month to read. Its also entirely online, and not even available in ebook form. Its clearly a first draft, and was written as the author went along. While it definitely has an overall plot its aiming for, it does tend to have an episodic feel to it. At its best, it is tense, thrilling, and fascinating, and has a great eye for character. At its worst it is nihilistic and too obsessed with meaningless fight scenes. At one point the story skips forward two years, and the comments were full of complaints. I could only be relieved that the author had finally decided not to show every detail of the story. There is some unpleasant content to the book, with some extremely horrific imagery turning up once the so called Slaughterhouse 9 turn up. Despite some very explicit violent scenes, the book is almost prudish when it comes to sex.

So this isn't the most positive review I've ever written, and theres a reason for that. I don't know if I'd recommend spending the time I did reading this, but it is compelling, and the length of the story means there is a very good plot arc for Taylor. The overarching plot also mostly makes sense, which is quite an achievement for a story of this length. The fight scenes at their best are tense, clever and inventive.

Supposedly the author is going to edit the story for publication, so perhaps it would be best to wait for an edited version of the story to appear. Still, if you haven't got anything else to read, you could give it a shot.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Marvel's Agents of bland

This program really had to be the televisual disappointment of last year. A new show with Marvel characters, with Joss Whedon involved! How could that fail to be good?

How indeed.

Lets start with structure. The overarching plot has been fundamentally dull. Theres been some slow burning plots in the background, but they've been pretty unexciting. The terrible truth about Skye's parents, Coulson and his death. While I appreciate that perhaps the reveal will be awesome, taking a few minutes every episode to mention that Coulson probably did die or something just doesn't excite. The utter failure for that plot to have any moment until the most recent (in the UK episode) really stymied that one.

The bad guys in the background were sort of interesting, although they really failed to present much of a threat until, again, that final episode (on which.. why no back up? Why did they not respond when Coulson wandered off?). Still, at least they have some personality.

Sadly, personality is something the main cast really lacks. Coulson probably comes the closest, but most of it was nabbed from the films, where he managed to be much more interesting with much less dialogue. The other main leads? Skye's obsession with her parents is tedious, and her obsession with pushing boundaries boarders on the obscene. There hasn't been an episode where she hasn't been annoyed at not having access to every single level of a super secret organisation, despite proving herself repeatedly to not be trustworthy with that information. I've actually forgotten the name of agent bland, but less said about him the better really, and the same with May. Fitz and Simmons are a bit more likeable, but they really don't get a great deal to do. I think the best episode so far was when Simmons leapt out of the plane, because I found myself actually caring. A character was finally in peril!

Thats what I think it all comes down to, a distinct lack of peril on the show. The problem of the week is rarely compelling, and you don't really get the feeling that there's anything a well equipped local police force couldn't have dealt with a lot of the time. When you get down to it being able to throw a good punch isn't that great ability when the police have access to guns. In some episodes, the threat is so minimal as to be hard to spot. For instance, the episode where the mining magnate kidnapped someone. His evil plan, as far as I could tell, was to use the awesome gravity device to do more mining! That may have led to some unforeseen consequence, but that certainly wasn't communicated very well on screen. We did get Coulson claim that he was a bad dude, but really no evidence behind that!

I mena, I get that we can't have the whackier stuff from the Marvel universe, that theres been a (boring) creative decision to limit everything to sciency explanations, so we miss out on the funnest lunacy of the Marvel universe. But we can still have peril, right? 24 manages that without a wibbly gadget that makes people a bit grumpy, so Agents of Shield can too, right? On the evidence so far, it apparently cannot..

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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Fun with washing machines

I returned home today to discover the heating was off. Moving into the kitchen I saw the boiler was completely off. Surprised, I checked the lights, and confirmed that, indeed, the circuit breaker had gone off. Switching it back, and being thankful that I had got home relatively soon after Alice had gone out, the washing machine came on. Which draw my attention to it.

The front of our washing machine had... melted. 

Clearly the motor or something has burnt out, and our washing machine broke, but not before melting the plastic at the front, and soaking the clothes in the machine in boiling water, which caused one of the outfits to leak red dye over all the other clothes. The machine is now full of water that the plumber will be coming round to fix tomorrow. Funnily enough, we had been discussing getting a new machine, so I suppose this is a call to action.

Not.. the best start to 2014 so far really.

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Monday, January 06, 2014

Misadventures at work

So up I get at 5:45, ready to head off to work. I go through my essential morning ritual of toast, tea and shower and head out into the pouring rain, getting farily damp on my way to the car. I drive, essentially in the dark, and arrive at the unlit overflow car park, hardly able to see the parking spaces.

I go up to my office, turn on my computer, wait for it to load, open my email, wait for that to load, and start browsing through the inevitable back log. At which point I come across an email about a training course. A training course I had booked three weeks ago. That was today. In London. Shit.

So, at 7:35 I rush out of the office, into the pouring rain, and drive into heavy traffic, the benefit of which meaning it comes to a complete stop, allowing me to call Alice on speaker, and get her to find money enough to pay for a taxi to take me to the station.

All in all, I actually got to the training course only an hour late, not having missed too much. Still. Not the best start to the new year at work.


Sunday, January 05, 2014

End of the holiday

So my three weeks are at an end. Finally going to have to do that ironing I've left off until today, and get ready to go to work. This has probably been the longest consecutive break I've taken in years. During my PhD I only took time off very reluctantly, and even now I've joined the ONS, old habits die hard.

I was helped by having paternity leave to take, as three weeks is a lot of leave to take all at once, especially, if, like me, you like to have the occasional long weekend throughout the year to break things up a little. Its been a good holiday all in all, the hectic nature of Christmas offset by time to rest and recover either side. Its also been lots of fun to have time to play with Rowan during the day.

All things must end, as I imagine several famous people have said, so time to get back into it.

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Saturday, January 04, 2014


Thanks to the generosity of one Richard Hill, I have access to Hearthstone.

First things first, its a really fun, solid game. The animation is lovely, its simple, and fun. The actual game itself is engrossing and smart, and there are lots of good choices to be made despite the simplicity of the concepts available to you.

The financial model... I'm less happy about. CCGs are notorious for the amount of money you need to spend on them to be able to produce a "good" deck. Hearthstone is no exception. You only get 5 cards in each deck, and the best cards have very low drop rates. You can theoretically destroy existing cards to get "dust" which can be used to buy cards you don't have, but thats very expensive. I don't know how much money one would have to spend to get all the available cards, but I imagine it would be thousands of pounds.

Of course, theres no obligation to spend any money, or even much money. You do start with a reasonably large set of cards, and can unlock more through playing. Indeed, through the process of playing the game you will get gold which will allow you to buy more cards. My problem with this is that this set of cards is fairly dull. At the moment my problem with "play" mode, where you use the cards you own to build decks is that you are allowed a limit of 9 decks for the 9 characters, each with their own play style. This encourages the idea that there is a "correct" version of each deck. I find this idea a bit less fun. The reason I've always liked deck building in Magic the Gathering is that I'd see some fun looking cards which go together, and try to build a deck with them. Hearthstone doesn't have that yet, so I'm reduced to just honing various decks, which I find profoundly less fulfilling.

My favourite mode is, perhaps unsurprisingly then, arena, where you get to choose one of three cards. This is a bit more of a level playing field, although, because you do have to pay to enter, and you do get rewards from winning, there are clear random elements. The three random cards you choose from do vary in quality, and there are some times I feel I've got a good deck not because of my choices, but simply because I was given better cards from selecting in. This mode is clearly meant to be drafting in magic, but in that randomness is much lower, because you choose from the same pool everyone is selecting from.

What I think I'd like for the release version of hearthstone would be a paid version, where I paid a certain amount up front, and got a larger playset of cards, and the opportunity to play a free version of arena, with limited or perhaps no rewards. Sadly, I'm not sure this is something Blizzard would do. Free to play games are such massive cash cows they don't want to limit themselves to the amount of money they'd get from just charging a normal value for the game, instead they want so squeeze all the money they can get from the addicted players of the game, who want just one more card....

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Friday, January 03, 2014

Rain, rain go away

Urgh, rain. I'm never its biggest fan at the best of times. I started working at the ONS at about the same time in 2012 it begun to rain for about a month straight. At this point I did not own a car, and the bus service from the station is poor and inconsistent. As a result, I had a 45 minute walk to and then from work every day in the rain. I did wear waterproof trousers and a raincoat, and carried an umbrella, and had my podcasts to entertain me, but it was still very tedious.

To add to that our flat, wonderful in many ways, is old and leaks. One of the windows leaks in a deeply inconvenient manner, at the top of the frame, so that it is basically impossible to catch the drips with anything other than a large quantity of towels. In addition, a part of the roof has started to drip when the rain gets really heavy. At least this one can be caught with a bucket!

I suppose its an important part of living, to stay in a place with a leaky roof: its a sitcom staple after all, and if you haven't had every single sitcom staple happen to you before you die, you haven't lived.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Thoughts on revolution

One boozy night at university, I found myself in conversation with an anarchist. I am no expert on anarchism, but I understand it comes in many flavours. A unifying theme is a lack of centralised government. This particular anarchist wanted us all to live in self sustaining communities, a sort of modern throwback to a traditional lifestyle. Such communities would be relatively without conflict, lacking the means or reason to do so, and would be environmentally non-impactful, being self sustaining and fairly low tech.

I, perhaps unsurprisingly, disagreed with this concept. Firstly, the concept did not seem terribly realistic to me. As I argued, we had been in such a state before, and some communities had wanted more, and had warred to unify themselves. Our current state is not our natural state, but it is something that came as a consequence of disparate communities being unified by force. Secondly, I'd find such a state boring. Things that excite me about the human condition: science and art primarily, exist primarily thanks to our current centralised nature. Science certainly could not progress without co-ordination, and art certainly benefits from it.

I bring up this anecdote because I've been thinking about revolution recently, and how one must be careful what we wish for. Both this anarchist and I were left wing, and could probably agree on many fundamentals, yet on others we were completely at odds. So lets suppose the left, and only the left, had managed to organise a revolution. What form would our new society take? An anarchistic or socialistic utopia? Our visions of paradise were at odds with one another.

Of course in practice there's no such thing as a purely left wing revolution, because revolution rarely happens without organised violence, and organised violence requires the control of force. Those who are good at applying force are not necessarily good at fair rule, as Egypt is discovering. The military has always had a massive amount of power in times of civil unrest, and without the restraints of a civilian government, unwelcome consequences can arise.

What we have now, the political system that exists, is by no means perfect, and  I understand those who would wipe the slate clean and replace it with something else, but what that something else might be is an incredibly hard question that would need firm answers now rather than later. Even if you have a replacement for the current government, you need a way to get to that replacement without losing your way.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014


So, 2013. A busy year, with the biggest event being my becoming a father. Its something I've always wanted, and its brought me a huge amount of joy and exhaustion.

People ask me whether being a dad is as I expected it to be. My honest answer is that I didn't really have expectations. I have ideas of what the future might be, but life is so unpredictable and weird that I find its best to just see what's coming, rather than deciding what it will be like. This attitude has its benefits and its disadvantages. It makes me more relaxed when things go a bit wrong, but does mean I can be surprised by things I haven't planned for.

I don't think I could quite imagine the surge of emotions I get when my son smiles up at me when I'm singing to him, or telling him a story about Bernard the dog's thrilling adventures. Nor could I imagine the utter devastation and heartbreak that can be caused when he wails at me.  I know none of this is new, because nothing on this earth is, but its all new for me, and thats really what matters.

New years resolutions? I didn't really have any last year (well I had a secret one, which was to have a child, but I couldn't tell anyone that one), so my main one is to write more. I've had blog posts in mind, which I haven't got round to writing. Its not like my time is exactly free now, but I am going to try to make an effort to write more. Its a good exercise for me, and its hopefully entertaining for everyone else.

Happy new year everyone, lets hope its a great 2014 for everyone out there.

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