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2017-09-17 06:09 pm
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Reviews: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold / A Legacy of Spies

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (John Le Carré, 1963)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (dir Martin Ritt, 1965)
A Legacy of Spies (John Le Carré, 2017)

‘Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, has retired to his family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London are to be scrutinised by a generation with no memory of the Cold War. Somebody must be made to pay for innocent blood once spilt in the name of the greater good.’

From that advance plot summary, I expected A Legacy of Spies to be a follow up to the events of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or its immediate sequels. In fact, it turns out to be a quasi-sequel to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré’s third novel but the one in which he broke out into mainstream success. I say ‘quasi-sequel’, because A Legacy of Spies revisits, and even to an extent retcons, the events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and indeed can to a substantial extent be seen as a prequel, setting up some of the important plot points and filling in some key events between that book at Le Carré’s first novel (and introduction of George Smiley), Call for the Dead.

I’d never actually read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, although I’d long ago seen a plot summary that revealed the key twist. (So, by the way, does this review, hence the cut below.) I read A Legacy of Spies when it came out, saw that it referred back heavily to the events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold so then read that, and then out of curiosity watched the 1965 film, which currently features on Netflix’s list.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (book)

I won’t spend too much time on the original novel; if you’ve read it, you’ll know how good it is. If you haven’t – well, rather than have it spoiled, I suggest that you go and read it yourself. It’s short by modern standards, very readable, and although the underlying plot is complex (as much as I can say without spoilers) everything is clearly explained.

(Spoilers from here)

Discussion of crucial bits of plot )

A Legacy of Spies is highly recommended, although if you’ve not read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold I’d strongly suggest reading it beforehand. And once you’ve done so, look out the 1965 film, which stands up very well indeed.

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2017-08-26 12:35 pm
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Finland 2017 - Turku Day 1: Old Jars and Salmon Soup

Day 3 and we bid farewell to Tampere and headed off for our next stopping point, Turku. However, rather than drive straight there I’d planned to head west to the coast and the historic town of Rauma, noted for its well-preserved old town centre.

Unfortunately the weather chose this day not to cooperate, and the closer we approached Rauma the worse the drizzle became. We parked up, got the brolly and raincoat out, and took a wander down the main street.

TurkuDay1 - 1.jpg

[Old Rauma's main street in the rain.]

Rauma has long been a port and in terms of shops the old town was rather reminiscent of Cowes, i.e. lots of nautical tat interspersed with craft shops. Also, assorted cafes, so in light of the weather we popped into one and had, yes, more coffee and doughnuts. We then headed south towards Turku.

Turku is a former capital of Finland and a major port, although it’s compact enough that you can walk around the centre in a couple of hours. We stayed in the Radisson hotel by the river, which was well-located and perfectly adequate, but a bit plain after the 70s styling of the Scandic Rosendahl. We also discovered the Finns’ apparent habit of bringing dogs to hotels, in that hotel reception were unfazed by our complaint about prolonged and very loud barking from an adjacent room, and simply moved us up a floor and to the other end of the hotel (from where we could still, albeit faintly, hear it.) We later saw the hounds in question; a pair of very large Great Danes.

By now the rain had been replaced by sunshine and we went out for a walk. One of the local tourist attractions was the combined Pharmacy Museum and Qwensel House. The former is, as its name suggests, a recreation of an old-style pharmacy, as it would have been in the 19th century, whilst the latter is an 18th-century house of the sort occupied by merchants or members of the lower aristocracy. S likes anything with old jars labelled with weird contents, so she was definitely in her element.

TurkuDay1 - 3.jpg TurkuDay1 - 4.jpg TurkuDay1 - 5.jpg
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[S admires old pharmacy jars and equipment. Note the poisons cupboard! Click to see full size.]

Round the back was a charming little café where we had coffee and (in a change from doughnuts) cake.

TurkuDay1 - 8.jpg TurkuDay1 - 9.jpg

[S vs Afternoon Tea in Turku. Click to see bigger.]

That evening we headed to the city centre to look for dinner. In the end we chose a pub attached to a hotel, which looked to offer reasonably-priced local nosh rather than high cuisine. That’s what we got, and S got to try out Lohikeitto, Finnish salmon soup. She quickly declared it to be her culinary discovery of the trip, and we’ll definitely have a go at making some.

Next: Laundry and More Castles.
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2017-08-25 09:37 pm
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Finland 2017 - Tampere and Hämeenlinna

Tampere is Finland’s second city, and sits on the edge of Finland’s lake region, with the city itself lying between two large lakes, Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi. We chose Tampere as our first stop not so much for its own attractions (although it turned out to have a few) but as a convenient point for looking around that part of Finland.

70s hotels, medieval castles and dining on high )

Next: Turku via a rather rainy Rauma.

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2017-08-24 10:14 pm
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Finland 2017 - Trains and Boats and Planes and Cars and Trams

We got back last week from twelve days in Finland, comprising a week of touring followed by five days in Helsinki for Worldcon 75. I thought I'd start my write-up by a review of the nuts and bolts of the trip - how we got there and how we got around.

Getting to Finland was a combination of train, tube, bus and plane. Our flight from Heathrow to Helsinki was early enough that a rail trip from Birmingham would have been very awkward, so we took the train down the previous evening and stayed at one of the Heathrow Strip hotels (the Hyatt – OK, but nothing special.) Booking well in advance got us first class seats down to Euston, but from there it was the Underground, and standing room only until Acton. Helpfully there was a free local bus from the T123 station to the hotel and back again the following morning.

Heathrow is, well, Heathrow. S was pulled for enhanced security and told to go through the pornoscanner. She demurred, and was told that she could instead have a full search including a full baggage search. (I’d already gone through without trouble and overheard various security minions expressing alarm and surprise that a passenger was asking for a manual search.) Not wanting to risk undue delay, she relented. A later complaint elicited the information that the scanners use ‘sound waves’, which as a former radar engineer is a novel way to me of describing terahertz imaging.

Our flight was on one of Finnair's shiny new Airbus A350s. This is a full-size widebody airliner, with – in a novelty for me – adequate legroom even in economy. The cabin is very light and spacious, and all the seats had good-sized seatback screens. My not-so-inner plane geek was delighted that two of the channels were camera views looking down and forward, which made take-off and landing more interesting.

Helsinki airport is a bit of an odd design by modern standards, in that it doesn’t separate inbound and departing passengers until quite near the gates, so the main part of it felt a bit like getting through Oxford Street. Picking up our rental car was complicated by two issues: a dodgy satnav (quickly swapped out) and having to get a quick update on how to operate a hybrid.

Our car was a Lexus CT200h, pretty much a Prius equivalent. It was a comfortable size, pleasant and easy to drive once I got the hang of it, and with some nice features such as a reversing camera that I definitely want next time we change our car. Finnish roads are well-maintained (with separated cycle routes everywhere!) and Finnish drivers are so far as I could tell a lot politer and frankly better at driving than British ones. The only problem I had was with our second satnav, which evidently hadn’t been connected for an update in the last few years. This became particularly problematic later when trying to get out of Tampere via the main bypass on the north of the town, which was very, very blocked off (as in there was grass growing on the earthen bank isolating it.) Indeed, our vantage point in a rotating restaurant later the same day let us see that the road past it was in fact now gone and being rebuilt, hence the diversion. The satnav then proved to have an equally outdated idea of which roads in downtown Tampere were one-way or had turning restrictions; in the end S got us out by reference to her iPhone map!

The next transport highlight was getting too and from the Åland Islands, achieved by Viking Line car ferry.

[Our ride out, the MS Amorella, as we were waiting to drive aboard at Turku docks.]

This proved fairly straightforward, although the lesson we learned was that on any ferry trip of more than about two hours, book a cabin. Playing hunt-the-spare-sofa on a ship full of booze tourists and small children was not the highlight of the trip. However, Viking Line do an excellent breakfast buffet, and the view on the way out was fascinating, as the route is through a dense archipelago so rather than being in open sea we were skirting small islands the whole way. And by ‘skirting’ I mean that a 150-metre, 35000-tonne ferry was proceeding at a fair clip past islands perhaps 10 to 20 metres off to the side. I checked later and sure enough there is a deep dredged channel through the islands, but even so it could be a little disconcerting so see actual land zipping past so close.

[What should be an animated GIF time-lapse video of us going past small islands.]

For the trip back, we did have an overnight cabin (small, but comfy and with en-suite facilities.) The only alarming part was the parking arrangements, which had us nose-to-nose with a huge articulated lorry. I wondered how we were going to get out without having to reverse off the ferry, and it turned out that this was exactly how we were expected to depart. Again, I was grateful for the rear camera, not to mention the numerous marshalling crew.

Once back at the airport and having dropped off the car, we had our first experience of Finnish trains. Even the local commuter trains were clean, spacious and had useful animated displays showing arrival times for the next few stations. Commuting from our hotel to the convention centre was via tram and the free transit pass that Worldcon 75 had arranged; the Helsinki tram network is dense and interconnected and it was easy to use it to get around the city whilst seeing something of Helsinki at the same time.

Our flight home was via Edinburgh to see S's parents for her dad's 80th birthday. This meant a rather smaller and more cramped A320, although at least Ediburgh airport was very quick to get through. Finally, we'd again got advance first tickets to get us home, so the last leg back was reasonably relaxing (and featured snacks and endless coffee.)

Next writeups: Tampere, Turku, the Åland Islands and then Worldcon itself and Helsinki.
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2017-05-29 09:44 am
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Lego - Saturn V!

Last year Lego picked, as one of its fan-suggested kits, the Apollo Saturn V moon rocket. About a month ago details of the final kit emerged, with a launch (ahem) date of 1st June. Then on Friday a friend mentioned over on Facebook that John Lewis had the kit in stock early. I checked and there it was, with the option of next-day pickup in our local branch. The decision to order took, I don't know, about 5 milliseconds, and on Saturday afternoon we popped in to pick up what proved to be an impressively large box.

Lots of pictures of Lego building )
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2017-05-19 10:38 pm
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Model-Making: Warhammer 40K Predator

Recently my brother R gave me a bunch of model kits to practice on. He's into Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 gaming system (universally known as '40K') which if you're not familiar with it can be summed up by its tagline IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FUTURE THERE IS ONLY WAR. From their fearsome redoubt outside Nottingham - you get a good view of it on the train - GW flog a vast ecosystem of miniatures, models, rulebooks and accessories, all defended by intellectual property lawyers only marginally less terrifying than 40K's legendary Space Marines (very definitely TM).

One of the kits was a Predator tank. I should note that armoured fighting vehicle design in 40K is low on pragmatic realism and rather higher on GUNS and RIVETS and MORE GUNS, preferably painted in rather spectacular livery. R actually has a relatively subdued scheme for his models of black with yellow highlights so I've gone with that, but I decided that this would be a chance to practice weathering techniques (i.e. making your model look dirty - see this post) so this would definitely be a tank that had quite literally been in the wars.

Read more... )
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2017-04-01 11:12 am

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Ghost in the Shell 2017 poster

We saw this last night; as warm-up, I'd watched the 1995 anime the previous evening and may watch it again for further comparison.

GitS2017 is *not*, despite what might seem from the trailer, a straight remake. It does include several iconic scenes from GitS1995 recreated in live action with astonishing fidelity and detail, but embeds them in a quite different plot (which I understand to take elements from other parts of the GitS franchise, such as Stand Alone Complex, which I've not seen.) That plot - and I'm trying to avoid spoilers here - is one that many genre fans will recognise and be familiar with, although it does get taken in some interesting directions.

Scarlett Johansson's casting is of course controversial. To an extent the cross-racial casting turns out to form part of the plot, although whether that justifies it is another question. Johannson's performance is generally good; if it is at times flat and alienated, she is meant to be a character very alienated from humanity as a whole. Of the other cast, Takashi Kitano stands out as Aramaki, who perhaps translates best from GitS1995. For me, the disappointment was Batou; Pilou Asbæk does his best, but it's hard for anyone to convey the odd combination of physicality, gravitas and quirkiness of the anime version. (I commented to Siân that the only actor who really came to mind who might do full justice to the role would be a somewhat younger Ron Perlman.) Juliette Binoche puts in a good performance as the cybersurgeon who helped rebuild the Major, but again genre fans might find her role seeming familiar, as it is rather reminiscent of Sinéad Cusack's in V for Vendetta

Visually, GitS2017 is amazing, and will join Blade Runner and The Fifth Element - both of which it echoes - as a striking vision of future cities. GitS1995 fans will either enjoy spotting the references and recreations from the earlier anime, or will be driven to distraction by them. 

Overall: worth seeing, but you should avoid having either unduly high or unduly low expectations.

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2017-01-08 09:25 am

Review: Doctor Who - The Pirate Planet (TV, 1978; Book, 2017)


About 18 months ago I reviewed James Goss' novelisation of City of Death, Douglas Adams' Fourth Doctor / Romana story set in Paris. It had never featured in the Target Books line of adaptations, because Adams would not consent to anyone else turning it into a novel, and the BBC wasn't prepared to pay him anything like his going rate to do so. In the end, Goss did what I felt was a pretty good job of capturing Adams' style, and the result worked very well as a stand-alone book, even if it did have to try to deal with some of the stranger aspects of the plot.

Douglas Adams wrote two other Who scripts. Shada famously fell victim during production to an industrial dispute, although a cobbled-together version exists (I've not seen it). The Pirate Planet, by contrast, is well-remembered for its audacious central conceit and for Tom Baker and Bruce Purchase (as the Captain) engaging in what TV Tropes refers to as Ham-to-Ham Combat.

Well, Goss evidently did a good enough job with City of Death to get the gig of adapting The Pirate Planet, and as he explains in his afterword he was able to visit the Douglas Adams archive at St John's College, Cambridge, which turned out to hold not just the original draft script but also an earlier story treatment by Adams that much of The Pirate Planet drew upon. Goss' novelisation is based to a substantial extent on these, and so whilst it is very recognisably the story we saw on television it is fleshed out and sometimes unfolds a little differently. In some respects this is because the page doesn't suffer the budget limitations of the 1970s BBC, so for example scenes set in Zanak's main city actually feel as if they're in a crowded metropolis where it periodically rains diamonds rather than one small set with half a dozen extras and a few fake gems scattered on the floor. Another scene extensively rewrites and expands the third-episode cliffhanger to give a very different explanation of how it was resolved that gives far more agency to Romana.

Adams wrote The Pirate Planet shortly after writing The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and even on watching the TV series the similarities come across. Goss turns this up even further for his novelisation, adding point-of-view scenes in which characters - notably the long-suffering Mr Fibuli - reflect on the absurdly comic horror around them in a very HHGTTG style.

Goss' novelisation came out last Friday; I downloaded the Kindle version and started reading. Even though I knew how the story turned out, the combination of Goss' respectful pastiche of Adams' style and the new elements of plot was captivating enough that I finished that evening. I promptly wanted to remind myself of the original series so S and I bought it on iTunes and watched it last night. Even with the constrained budget and limited special effects, it still works very well, and the playoff between Mary Tamm (as keen young - for a Time Lord - graduate Romana) and Tom Baker is delightful. On reflection, that order was probably best, as it meant I read the book with only vague images of the TV episodes in my head and so my imagination was unconstrained by some of the more painfully low-budget aspects of them. (As the BBC's own archive page on the story admits, the Mentiads spend a lot of time marching across fields to get from A to B in a rather Pythonesque manner).
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2017-01-07 05:43 pm

Review: Westworld (HBO series, 2015)

"These violent delights have violent ends."

What this isn't: a tired retread of the 1973 movie.

What this is: the best TV drama about artificial intelligence since seasons 3-5 of Person of Interest, which is hardly surprising as its Jonathan Nolan's next project after PoI.

We watched this as it was broadcast, and then again over Christmas when we did a Westworld marathon over a couple of days so that our guests [ profile] cthulie and T could watch it. I'd been planning to do a re-watch anyway as, perhaps more than any other series I've seen, Westworld rewards a second viewing once you've seen the first season through. The reasons for that are hard to explain without spoilers; suffice it to say that everything you see is significant, but much of it is not as it may first seem. In fact, there's a preview of this just in the pilot episode, when viewers familiar with the 1973 movie will think they know exactly what's going on - and then have their assumptions very nicely inverted.

Good as the narrative is, the series is really made by the performances of some of the leads. In particular, Evan Rachel Harris and Thandie Newton give intense and compelling, yet quite different, portrayals of two of Westworld's robotic 'hosts' that are coming to realise that their world is an elaborate artifice. Both have justly been nominated for Golden Globe awards and I'm sure many more nominations will follow.

The cinematography (much in Monument Valley) also contributes much to the series, as does the soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi, who also composed the music for Person of Interest and Game of Thrones. An added bonus is the deliberate in-joke that the pianola we regularly hear in the town saloon/brothel plays rearrangements of modern tracks; identifying them, and their relevance to the plot, is another of the pleasures awaiting viewers.

Oh, and you'll get even more from the plot if you've read this:

- the idea behind which forms the basis of a key element of the plot.

The quote I opened with is one that turns out to have particular significance within the plot. As does the one I close with - in particular, when it signposts one of the most stunning revelations of the series.

"It doesn't look like anything to me."
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2017-01-07 05:13 pm

Frosty morning in Warstone Lane Cemetery

We live not far from Warstone Lane Cemetery, one of Birmingham's more notable Victorian burial grounds. It features an impressive selection of gravestones and tombs, as well as - unusually for an English cemetery - catacombs. A few days ago we had a clear, frosty morning so I went for a walk along with [ profile] cthulie and T who were visiting, in the hope of getting some good pictures. We weren't disappointed.

The catacombs (HDR merge of three pictures):


Frosty headstones:


more pictures )

Full album here.
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2016-11-27 10:18 am

Film: Arrival (2016)

Poster for 'Arrival'

I went to see this having read the story it's based on, whereas [ profile] attimes_bracing knew only the barest outline of the film's plot. We both came out very much liking it.

As an adaptation it is not at all bad, and Ted Chiang is on record as approving of it. I was a little concerned by the first trailer but that seems to have oversold the 'threatened military confrontation with aliens' thread that was added for the film. Certainly, what we got was about as far from the stereotype of the monsters-versus-the-military sf blockbuster as you could imagine, and was beautifully filmed (although the Montana Tourist Board might fret at the implication that the state is permanently dull and rainy). The depiction of the Heptapods and their language was if anything even better than in the original story, although I do wonder if anyone on the production team had seen Torchwood: Children of Earth, which also featured starfish aliens barely glimpsed through fog behind a glass barrier.

Arrival fails the Bechdel Test, but probably – depending on your interpretation – passes the Mako Mori Test.

For purely parochial reasons, it would have been entertaining to see more about the British attempts to engage with the ship said to have appeared over Devon. as depicted on this version of the film poster, although for good reasons the film concentrated on the US team's interactions with its non-Anglosphere counterparts. From the little we did see, one rather suspects it involved posh Oxbridge types trying to enunciate English loudly and very slowly to the Heptapods...
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2016-08-26 06:56 pm

So what would Proxima Centauri look like from Proxima b?

The announcement of the discovery of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri is absolutely fascinating; we finally have a (roughly) Earth-size world orbiting in the (notionally) habitable zone of a (by astronomical standards) close star. There's been a lot of speculation about what Proxima b might be like, but one description I saw didn't quite ring true: the picture one article painted of Proxima Centauri, a relatively dim red dwarf, hanging in the sky like a dull glowing ember. It's a faint star, true, but it's still a star, so how bright would it seem from Proxima b?

To start, some basic data.

Proxima Centauri is visual magnitude 11.13 and is 4.25 light years away. Its diameter is 0.141 x that of the Sun.

Proxima b orbits at 0.0485 astronomical units.

1 light year = 63,241 AU, so Proxima b is closer to Proxima Centauri than we are by a factor of

(4.25 x 63,241) / 0.0485 = 5,541,737, or 5.54 x 106

This means that Proxima Centauri's brightness from Proxima b, as compared to Earth, will be increased by this factor squared

= 3.07 x 1013 times brighter

Converting that to stellar magnitudes gives us

2.5 log (3.07 x 1013) = 33.72 magnitudes brighter

So, the visual magnitude of Proxima Centauri from Proxima b would be

11.13 - 33.72 = -22.59

Now, the apparent visual magnitude of the Sun is -26.7, so in comparison to the Sun, this is

-26.7 - (-22.59) = -4.11 magnitudes fainter

That corresponds in actual brightness ratio to

10(-4.11 / 2.5) = 0.0226 = 1/44

So from Proxima b, Proxima Centauri would look 44 times less bright than the Sun does from Earth.

At first, that might seem surprising; after all, isn't Proxima b meant to be in Proxima Centauri's habitable zone? Surely that means that it ought to be getting the roughly the same energy from Proxima Centauri as we get from the Sun? Well, it does - but far more of it is in infra-red rather than visible, because Proxima Centauri is an M6 class red dwarf with a surface temperature of about 3,000K, whereas the sun is a G2 yellow dwarf with a surface temperature of 6,000K. Standing on the surface of Proxima b in daylight would feel as warm as standing in daylight does on Earth.

It wouldn't even look much darker. A factor of 44 times sounds a lot, but that corresponds to a dull overcast on Earth. Day on Proxima b would still look like day, although a bit odd.

But back to the question of how bright Proxima Centauri would look. It is much smaller than the Sun, but Proxima b is proportionately even closer to it than we are to the Sun. The ratio in apparent diameter is

0.141 / 0.0485 = 2.9

- Proxima Centauri is nearly three times larger in angular diameter in the sky than the Sun is for us. That means it occupies the square of that in terms of area of the sky

2.92 = 8.45 times the area of the Sun

This means that the brightness of Proxima Centauri is not only 1/44th that of the Sun in our sky, but is spread over 8.45 times the area, so the apparent surface brightness is reduced even further

44 x 8.45 = 372 times less bright per area of sky

That, mind you, is still very bright. To put it in perspective, the full moon is 14 magnitudes less bright than the Sun, or about 400,000 times. In terms of apparent intensity, Proxima Centauri as seen from Proxima b would still be a thousand times brighter-looking than the full Moon seems. Bearing in mind that you would see it in a rather dimmer sky, I suspect it would look to all intents and purposes as bright as the Sun does from Earth.

This isn't surprising. 3,000K is still way past red-hot by normal standards. In fact, heat something to that temperature and it will be white-hot to the naked eye. 3,000K is about the temperature of the filament of an incandescent light bulb, the light from which looks white unless you are comparing it to sunlight (when, as photographers know, it looks yellowish by comparison).

So, Proxima b won't have a 'glowing ember' in the sky. It will have a sun that would look at first glance like our own. It won't be as intense - in fact, I'd hazard a guess that you could probably look straight at it without discomfort - and it would be noticeably bigger in the sky, but it would still seem like a big white-hot thing.

Photography will be a pain, though. What would be a picture at f/16 on a sunny day on Earth will have to be taken at about f/2 on Proxima b - and remember to set your camera to 'indoor tungsten' light temperature.
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2016-08-21 01:20 pm

Nelson x 12

Remember that rather spaced-out picture of Nelson I posted yesterday?

Nelson_1stWk - 2.jpg

Over on Facebook my friend Ewan (WINOLJ) ran it through Prisma, a new app that sends a picture up to a server where it's apparently run through some neural-net software trained to try to emulate various art styles. The results were quite impressive so I downloaded it onto the iPad and had a go myself.

Twelve variations on spaced-out Nelson )

Several of these I'd like as artwork. And third row middle looks like an excerpt from a graphic novel I'd love to read.
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2016-08-20 07:55 pm

Nelson update: end of week 1

Nelson_1stWk - 1.jpg

Nelson, after a week with us. He's definitely bigger than when he arrived only eight days ago. I'm not surprised, because he's been scoffing his kitten kibble as if it's the last food on Earth.

More kitten pics )Introducing Nelson to Mira is something we're taking slowly. We've split the house in two; Nelson has the ground floor utility room and the first floor study, whilst Mira has the first floor bedroom (her litter tray is in the en-suite) and the upper floors. I've set things up so there's a wooden sheet blocking access, so they can't get to each other or even see each other, although I only trust that if we're around - at night or if we're out, Nelson gets shut in his room (which is not too small and has natural light, his food, and plenty of toys.)

We started with letting them see each other from a distance, and have worked up to having Nelson in the cat carrier in the same room as Mira, or sitting on my lap (firmly held!) with Mira nearby. Mira has progressed from hissing at him on sight to only hissing when she comes up close to him. Nelson is utterly unfazed by all this, but then he comes from a rescue centre / cattery where he probably saw dozens of other cats. The next step will be to let them meet under careful supervision, although that is likely to involve Mira making it very clear where her boundaries are...
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2016-08-15 10:25 am

Is the government about to ban the Bat'leth?

BBC: 'Zombie knives' ban to come into force

I'm clearly not down with the street, because I didn't realise that 'Zombie knives' were a thing, or that there was enough of a problem with them that the government was instituting a ban on their sale or import. A friend of mine wonders if this ban would include the Bat'leth, the iconic Klingon multi-bladed weapon from assorted Star Trek series, replicas of which are apparently quite the in thing for some Trek fans.

I readily admit to not having done any criminal law for about four years, but I like to think I still understand the general principles and the basics of how to follow and interpret legislation, so here are my thoughts on what is actually happening and whether it will indeed Ban the Bat'leth.

To understand what the government is doing, we first need to understand the law in this area.

Section 141 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 bans certain acts in respect of 'offensive weapons'. These include the manufacture, sale or hire of them, having them for the purpose of selling or hiring them, or lending or giving them to someone (s.141(1)). It also bans the import of them (s.141(4)). There are various defences, for instance in respect of weapons in museums (s.141(9)) or ones used for film, TV or theatrical productions (s.141(11A-11C)).

But what is an offensive weapon in this context? Well, as is often the case with primary legislation (i.e. Acts of Parliament) the law has a provision that says 'we create the power for the relevant Minister to specify this separately', and sure enough s.141(2) provides this.

The actual bit of law that does the specifying is a statutory instrument (SI). An SI is a law made under the authority of an Act of Parliament but which is not debated in the same way as an Act (or rather, the Bill that becomes an Act). Most are subject only to 'negative resolution' meaning that unless the draft is objected to within 40 days they become law. Some, if the Act authorising them requires it, must be approved by both Houses of Parliament, but the approval is a simple yes/no affair rather than the extensive review and debate of a Bill.

Here, the SI in question is the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988. I've not linked to the online version of that at because whereas Acts on that site are (albeit often belatedly) amended to reflect legal changes, it seems that SIs are published only in their original form. If as a lawyer I want the current version of an SI, I have to use a subscription service such as LexisNexis. However, given that this is a pretty important bit of legislation, the government does publish information on the current version of the law, and it is set out in this document (PDF): Knives and offensive weapons information.

This tells us that the Schedule to the 1988 SI, which defines 'offensive weapon' for the purposes of s.141 CJA 1988, is currently as follows:

a) ‘a knuckleduster, that is, a band of metal or other hard material worn on one or more fingers, and designed to cause injury, and any weapon incorporating a knuckleduster;
b) a swordstick, that is, a hollow walking-stick or cane containing a blade which may be used as a sword;
c) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘handclaw’, being a band of metal or other hard material from which a number of sharp spikes protrude, and worn around the hand;
d) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘belt buckle knife’, being a buckle which incorporates or conceals a knife;
e) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘push dagger’, being a knife, the handle of which fits within a clenched fist and the blade of which protrudes from between two fingers;
f) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘hollow kubotan’, being a cylindrical container containing a number of sharp spikes;
g) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘footclaw’, being a bar of metal or other hard material from which a number of sharp spikes protrude, and worn strapped to the foot;
h) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘shuriken’, ‘shaken’ or ‘death star’, being a hard non-flexible plate having three or more sharp radiating points and designed to be thrown;
i) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘balisong’ or ‘butterfly knife’, being a blade enclosed by its handle, which is designed to split down the middle, without the operation of a spring or other mechanical means, to reveal the blade;
j) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘telescopic truncheon’, being a truncheon which extends automatically by hand pressure applied to a button, spring or other device in or attached to its handle;
k) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘blowpipe’ or ‘blow gun’, being a hollow tube out of which hard pellets or darts are shot by the use of breath;
l) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘kusari gama’, being a length of rope, cord, wire or chain fastened at one end to a sickle;
m) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘kyoketsu shoge’, being a length of rope, cord, wire or chain fastened at one end to a hooked knife;
n) the weapon sometimes known as a ‘manrikigusari’ or ‘kusari’, being a length of rope, cord, wire or chain fastened at each end to a hard weight or hand grip;
o) a disguised knife, that is any knife which has a concealed blade or concealed sharp point and is designed to appear to be an everyday object of a kind commonly carried on the person or in a handbag, briefcase, or other hand luggage (such as a comb, brush, writing instrument, cigarette lighter, key, lipstick or telephone);
p) a stealth knife, that is a knife or spike, which has a blade, or sharp point, made from a material that is not readily detectable by apparatus used for detecting metal and which is not designed for domestic use or for use in the processing, preparation or consumption of food or as a toy;
q) a straight, side-handled or friction-lock truncheon (sometimes known as a baton);
r) a sword with a curved blade of 50 centimetres or over in length; and for the purposes of this sub-paragraph, the length of the blade shall be the straight line distance from the top of the handle to the tip of the blade.’

All in all, quite the Mall Ninja wish list.

Now, what the government has just done is to get Parliament to approve the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Offensive Weapons) (Amendment) Order 2016 (link to PDF). This amends the 1988 SI (which has already had a few additions, it seems) to add the following to its already impressive list:

“(s) the weapon sometimes known as a “zombie knife”, “zombie killer knife” or “zombie slayer knife”, being a blade with—
(i) a cutting edge;
(ii) a serrated edge; and
(iii) images or words (whether on the blade or handle) that suggest that it is to be used for the purpose of violence.”

The first point I'd make is that the law (via the list in the 1988 SI) is not broad or vague. In fact it is extremely specific, setting out a number of very closely and carefully drafted definitions. The wording of the Schedule to the SI does not say 'includes the following...', it says 'shall apply to the following'. In such circumstances, there is a long-standing rule of statutory interpretation, so old it's referred to by its Latin name 'expressio unius est exclusio alterius', i.e. 'the express mention of one thing excludes all others'. This is in contrast to the rule for interpreting laws of the form 'A, B, C and all similar things' which is 'ejusdem generis', or 'things of the same kind or class'.

What this means is that the SI will only ban a Bat'leth, or any other weapon, if it falls clearly within one of the express definitions provided. Since none of the existing definitions cover it (I think (r), which is clearly aimed at Samuri swords, would have to be stretched too far), we have to ask if the new (s) does.

(s) has three elements, which are expressed conjunctively, i.e. all must be present. A Bat'leth certainly meets (s)(i) in that it has a cutting edge. But the ones I've found pictures of lack a serrated edge, so don't meet (s)(ii). Nor do they have images or words suggesting that they are to be used for the purposes of violence. After all, if you know what a Bat'leth is, you don't need THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY TO BE DISEMBOWELLED' written on it.

(Interesting question here: what if it bore a threatening inscription, but in Klingon? I've not looked in detail at this, but presumably such words would have to be in a form that a person likely to see them would understand. That probably rules out most people against whom a replica Bat'leth might be used.)

So, I do not think that this new provision will ban the Bat'leth. But what about so-called 'Klingon knives'? Do a Google image search for 'klingon knife replica' and you will see some items I certainly wouldn't want to have waved anywhere near me? Well, I think many of them would meet the (s)(i) and (s)(ii) criteria, but again there's the question as to whether the bear images or words suggestive of violence, and it seems to me they don't.

This does not, of course, mean that it is legal to wander down your local high street brandishing or carrying a Bat'leth. Unless clearly a harmless replica, it would be an 'offensive weapon' under Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, which defines this at s.1(4) as "any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person, or intended by the person having it with him for such use by him. Carrying such an item in public, other than with lawful authority or reasonable excuse (and you'd need a good one) is, by s.1(1), a criminal offence. Threatening someone with it, by s.3, is an even more serious offence. Indeed, in 2009 Mr David Hellen, of Billingham, pleaded guilty to carrying an offensive weapon after walking through a local street with what was described in court as a Bat'leth, although from the pictures seems to be a weird hybrid of all the sorts of Klingon bladed weapon I've referred to. He got 13 weeks' imprisonment as a result.

In short: this won't ban the Bat'leth. It might ban some so-called 'Klingon Knives' if they bear words or pictures suggesting violence. But walking down the street with a Bat'leth is already liable to get you into a lot of trouble.
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2016-08-13 04:58 pm

Stranger Things and its authentically 80s titles

Following on from my Stranger Things review, and [ profile] a_cubed's comment about the title sequence, there's a detailed deconstruction of it at Art of the Title, complete with a lengthy interview with the creative director of the animation company that produced it.

I'd immediately picked up the visual reference to Stephen King horror novels of the 1980s, but I'm delighted to find out that the animators studied the kind of glitches and compositing defects that might have arisen using 1980s techniques to create such a title and deliberately incorporated them.
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2016-08-12 09:31 pm

Review: Stranger Things (2016)

(Netflix streaming, 8 x 45-min episodes released en bloc.)

Recently we were treated to Deutschland 83, a Cold War spy drama that attracted much praise for its evocation of 1983 Germany in a positive nostalgia-fest of music, fashion and cars for anyone who remembers the era. Now we have Stranger Things, a drama that is a veritable hymn to every horror/sf film, tv series or book set in early 1980s small-town America.

(Odd trivia point: the events of Stranger Things take place over a few days in November 1983, at almost exactly the same time as EX ABLE ARCHER and thus the final couple of episodes of Deutschland 83.)

Stranger Things has been described as very much a homage to the works of Steven King, John Carpenter and Stephen Spielberg, although the work it very much put me in mind of was Dan Simmons' Summer of Night, with a group of pre-teens faced with supernatural horror in a Midwest town. Without giving too much away, Stranger Things sits closer to the sf rather than supernatural end of the horror axis, although it's careful not to explain everything (and there is certainly plenty of scope for a second season.)

Winona Ryder is superb as Joyce Byers, mother of Will Byers - one of the group of D&D-playing proto-nerds the show centres on - whose disappearance drives the plot. Her depiction of someone who's fully aware that her behaviour looks just like paranoid psychosis, but doesn't care because she know's she's right, is as compelling as it is horrifying. Of the young actors, all are excellent; I'm sure many of the show's fans recognise elements of their younger selves in the characters of Mike, Dustin and Lucas, whilst the show's real breakout role is 12-year-old Millie Bobbie Brown as 'El', the near-mute, shaven-headed girl whose appearance is as mysterious as (and quite obviously connected to) the disappearance of Will. Combining an intensity beyond her years with an awkward naiveté, she perfectly conveys a character struggling to cope both with an outside world she has never experienced and abilities she barely understands.

Stranger Things isn't perfect. The sets for the more sf/horror elements of the show vary from impressively well-realised to looking all too much like Doctor Who of the era it's set in, and for a show that is so dense with reference to horror movies of the era you find yourself shouting at some of the characters "Haven't you seen Alien?" But I can forgive Stranger Things that, as I forgave Deutschland 83 its habit of making its central character the beneficiary of some of the most unlikely turns of good luck so as to get him out of the scrapes the plot dropped him in to. Both series are as enjoyable both for the evocation of an era as for their plots, and if I'm in the ideal target audience for Stranger Things then certainly so are many of my friends. If you've got access to Netflix, give it a go - but be prepared to binge, as you won't want to be waiting to find out what happens next.
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2016-08-12 07:29 pm

Meet Nelson!

Mira has been increasingly clingy the last few months, and has taken to wandering around with one of her toys (a strip of fur) in her mouth in a manner that practically screams "I miss kittens!". The vet's suggestion was that she needed company, and he thought that a 10-12 week old male kitten would probably be the best prospect for integration, as long as we took it very slowly.

This has been in the planning stages for a couple of months now, and via a local rescue centre recommended by our cat-visiting service we were introduced to Nelson. He was apparently found in a shed (the centre suspect he was left behind when his mother was moving a litter) but was raised with other rescue kittens and is now about 3 months old. He is very active, inquisitive and friendly, and whereas Mira took a couple of weeks to warm to me, Nelson was climbing on me within ten minutes of us getting home.

He's currently ensconced in our downstairs utility room / bathroom, so we can keep him apart from Mira to begin with. The idea is that they can get used to each other's scents via us, and indeed Mira has just given me a very, very thorough sniff and scent-marking after I was playing with Nelson. We will start very minimal introduction in a couple of days and see how it goes. In the mean time, here are the first of what will probably be terrifying numbers of Nelson pics.

Nelson_12Aug - 3.jpg

Nelson_12Aug - 2.jpg

Nelson_12Aug - 1.jpg