Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Thursday 30 December 2010

Next Batman villains revealed !

In a shock move, Christopher Nolan announced today that the next Batman film will be a drama documentary. The unprecedented switch will see the film set entirely within the UK Houses of Parliament, where Batman will battle the corrupt forces of the Coalition government. Nolan explained that the casting is so obvious it would be pointless to bother any further with the fictional Gotham City. For example, Vince Cable has always borne a really quite frightening resemblance to Oswald Cobblepot, and his recent behaviour seems to indicate the Business Secretary may harbour similar ambitions to the fictional Penguin.

Peter Mandelson, though out of government, is rumoured to play Scarecrow, with Nolan stating that they're basically the same person anyway, so Mandelson won't need to act very much.

Both the Prime Minister and his idiot Deputy will also star, with David Cameron playing the Riddler ("because no-one knows what the f**k he's talking about" - Nolan) and the much-hated Robin being played by the now equally loathed Nick Clegg.

Riddle me this... just what the hell is a Big Society anyway ?

Worst. Sidekick. Ever.
Critics have argued that Robin is Batman's sidekick, not the Riddler's, but Nolan dismissed such claims as pointless. "This is a movie about contemporary British politics", he said, "Self-consistency isn't really an issue."

The host of villains doesn't stop there. Given the recent spending review, Nolan decided that Chancellor George Osbourne would be perfect as the evil Mr Freeze. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne, who started U-turns on nuclear power many months before Clegg's more well-known change of heart on tuition fees, is to play Two Face, although Nolan admitted it was a tough call : "There are many Lib Dem MPs who could play this equally well" he said.

It isn't quite all bad news for the Lib Dems, however. Jenny Willot, MP Cardiff Central, resigned as a ministerial aide in protest at the rise in tuition fees. This combination of being part of an unpopular government but still being awesome has lead to rumours she may well take up the role of Catwoman*.
And happily for Joker fans, Heath Ledger's inconvenient passing is now no longer an issue, as MP Boris Johnson is infinitely more of a clown than the comparatively amateurish Ledger could ever hope to be.

* This has prompted many comments that Willot, while a fine MP, is hardly Michelle Pfeiffer or even Halle Berry. In response Nolan repeatedly told interviewers that he managed to cast David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, so "I can bloody well do what I like, thank you so very much."

Nolan has stated that the only difficulty in filming in the UK is the shortage of hero characters. Menzies Campbell was briefly considered for the role of wise old butler Alfred, before it was revealed that he was so dull that it was impossible to measure a heartbeat. As leader of the opposition, Ed Milliband was in the runnings for Batman, but his mum said he was "grounded for not sharing". All-round nice guy Commissioner Gordon remains uncast, though the only transatlantic role may be filled by Barrack Obama who will play hard-pressed awesome science dude Lucius Fox.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Off the Grid

Attentive readers - if there are any readers at all - will note a lack of posts for the last million years or so. This is not due to writer's block nor even to lack of inspiration, but in fact entirely due to Sky being a bunch of bloody nutters. Deciding that it's simply impossible to have two accounts in one house they decided to turn it off without anything as courteous as a warning. But enough of that. There are already enough cynical complaint letters on the interweb and I have not the time to write another.

Instead, let me turn to that age-old hippie dream of living a life free of the oppressions of technology, or at any rate the internet. How does a chronic net junkie survive when suddenly forced to exist in a world without email, on-demand pornography*, webcomics and lolcats ?

*Why is it called pornography anyway ? Because none of the pornography I've seen has ever featured a graph. None of the actors has ever paused to check their figures or plot tangents to curves. Not using any graph paper, anyway. Am I doing it wrong ?

Ordinarily I'd probably curl up into a ball and beat myself to death with a calculator, but this time fate decided to intervene. Not that it didn't come close in the first week or so. Forced to make my own entertainment, I was on the verge of hitting my head with different sized bricks to see which would be more effective before at last stuff began to happen to stop me testing my head systematically for weaknesses.

Instead, so much snow fell that planes fell out of the sky, the Thames froze over and polar bears destroyed London. At least, this is what I inferred from BBC News, a channel that has become adept at persuading us that shutting Heathrow for a few days constitutes the end of civilization as we know it (while at the same time telling us that flying causes irreversible amounts of global warming so we'd all better stop right away, or else).

Having survived the plummeting aircraft, I was able to frolick merrily in the snow for a few days. Although quite trapped in my mountain-top abode, there are many worse places to be stuck, provided you have television at least. OK, so I was without power for a few hours, so I just pretended I was in Canada and this made everything fine. Even lolcats become forgotten when there are people snowboarding down your road (I'm not exaggerating for comic effect - that actually happened). And then there was Christmas, and then a certain parent of mine decided to smash her ankle by falling over. Then and only then was the internet fixed.

What's the moral of this short but wearisome tale ? Simples : life without the net is not much fun. BBC News is pretty rubbish without the net to supplement it (both to check their "facts" and find out if anything important is actually happening). Email just doesn't work without the net, because training carrier pigeons just takes too long. Trying to make your own lolcats is damned hard, especially without a cat. And the less said about pornography the better. I've completely run out of graph paper.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Latest CG project : Xeelee Nightfighter

Well I did promise to use this old blogamajig to inform the world of my CG creations, and finally I've finished one. It's a Xeelee Nightfighter based on the novels of Stephen Baxter.

Full size image

Full size image

Full size image

Nightfighter's primary motive power comes from unfurling wings of folded spacetime. I think that's Baxterian code for "their own immense coolness, bitches." I decided to animate this procedure, which you may view in full glorious HD thanks to YouTube :

More to come...

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Epic Fail 2

There goes another £103. In other news, today saw this blog's 1,003rd page view, so it's not all bad news. Mostly it is though.

Sigh. Having nothing better to do while my code is running, I suppose I should explain further. This time, I was all psyched up and drove merrily along on a lovely sunny day with the nicest examiner anyone could ever hope to meet (well, probably, I haven't met them all - yet). Despite making some right doozies in the lesson immediately beforehand, risk compensation kicked in and all went as well as I could possibly hope for. Even the route was close to ideal, since it has nothing very complicated and I've done it at least 3 times before. The scene was practically Disneyesque in its idyllicness.

So I proceeded happily enough, making the occasional silly but trivial error, until we came to the easiest bit of all - an open stretch of country dual-carriageway. I stress again that I've done this 3 times before. And yet, against all logic and rational thinking, I somehow did not turn enough during a fairly gentle bend. Had I not turned when the examiner reached for the wheel, we'd have ended up in a field.

That makes 3 failures, with 8, 10 and 9 minor faults each, plus one serious. That would be extremely consistent, were it not for the fact that the minor faults are different each time. This can only mean that there is some sort of conservation of driving skill, whereby learning from my mistakes causes me to also learn brand new ones. Bugger.

Monday 22 November 2010

Defending the indefensible

Where did it all go so horribly wrong ? As late as 1930, the world map looked a little like this :

In 2010, it doesn't (of course, no-one today wants a single dominant power enforcing its will upon the world - supposing they were to attack someone without proper cause ?). And that's fine, we've moved on from an era of imperial conquest to national defense. All well and good, but there's a teensy-weensy flaw here : our current defense policy is daft.

For some reason our strategy still seems to be based around power projection, so that we can go and attack whoever we like, wherever we like, whenever we like. Well that's just marvellous, if regime change is your cup of tea. Maybe it's a good thing, maybe it isn't. Still, it's good to know that if any far-off countries decide to invade us, somehow, we shall be well-placed to stage a counter-invasion of our own.

Except, of course, that we won't. For starters we won't have an aircraft carrier for about 6 years, so we'd best hope that whoever feels our wrath isn't so well-equipped as to have anything as sophisticated as an air force. Or firearms (unless you want to launch an invasion without air support, for the lols...).

It's not all bad though. Because in 6 years time we'll have not 1, but 2 - count, 'em, TWO - shiny new aircraft carriers. With such overwhelming force at our disposal, we shall surely not even need to equip them with such vulgar decorations as actual aircraft. Which we won't for two more years after that. Presumably, should anyone be opportune enough to attack us in the interval, we can resort to good old-fashioned ramming tactics. It worked in Speed 2 with an ocean liner, so aircraft carriers must be even better.

Of course, the current theatre of war is a rather landlocked country, so maybe we won't need an aircraft carrier for a while. Not much use for the navy in attacking cave-dwelling terrorists. With this is mind, our wonderful leaders have decided to continue building no less than 6 additional nuclear submarines. A huge expense in the current economic climate (£1.3 billion a piece), but it's worth it. A nuclear sub lurking in the Thames will certainly prevent terrorists from bombing any more London buses. Especially given how incredibly advanced they are, being so sophisticated that the first one has already run aground in UK waters.

Just think - for the expense of this we could have built 12 Millennium Domes. Good thing we're not quite THAT stupid. On the other hand, we could also have built 9 space shuttles, or 1 Hubble telescope, or the entire LHC and then some. Personally I opt for building 12 inverted Millennium Domes and using them as radio telescopes. This would make the world a happier and more knowledgeable place than a fleet of submarines, I'm sure.

Fortunately, everyone else is in such dire financial straits that they too have weird defence policies. We're going to share aircraft carriers with the French, as apparently we'd never need to commit an aircraft carrier without France being involved too. Because of course we and France have never had any difference of opinion on military matters whatsoever.

So we'll have 7 nuclear submarines that won't do anything, two aircraft carriers that will float around randomly because half the crew isn't sure where to go and the other half can't speak the other's language anyway, and finally we'll have a ballistic missile shield that will keep us all really, really safe. It'll certainly stop all those pesky ballistic missiles getting through, I was getting quite sick of the constant missile attacks.

Finally the rocket attacks shall be a thing of the past !

Monday 8 November 2010

Speed Reviews : The Star Trek Movies

I managed to watch 8 of the 10 Star Trek films in a weekend. Such a monumental feat requires a blog post.

Star Trek : The Motion Picture

The Voyager spacecraft is very angry that Earth hasn't called in a while, and the only way to stop it destroying the planet is for some random dude to have sex with a bald woman who's really a giant robot in disguise.

(could this be the last film to be promoted as a "motion picture ?")

Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan

Best described pictorially.

Star Trek III : The Search For Spock

Doc Brown is a Klingon who's quite angry at Kirk because he won't give him the Genesis project, but Kirk won't stand for such nonsense and responds by blowing up the Enterprise, trapping the good doctor on an exploding planet and then stealing his ship. Most of which happens in the last 30 minutes or less.

Star Trek IV : The Voyage Home

Angry space whales will destroy the Earth unless Chekov can find some nuclear wessels.

Picard would have dealt with those space whales very differently.

 Star Trek V : The Final Frontier

Spock has rocket boots. Why don't I have rocket boots ? Oh right, because I'd like to retain both my legs.

Star Trek VI : The Undiscovered Country

Shakespearean Klingons become mildly irate over the death of their ruler, but threaten to get really quite cross until Kirk is dead.

Star Trek VII : Generations

Kirk and Picard ride some horses to stop Malcom McDowell and two Klingons with scary cleavage from destroying a planet no-one's ever heard of.

Star Trek VIII : First Contact

Patrick Stewart reprises his role as Ahab in order to stop killer robots from the future from killing Farmer Hoggett. You can't tell me that's wrong.

Star Trek IX : Insurrection


Star Trek X : Nemesis

Picard's angry young clone needs to drink Picard's blood which he can't do without turning everyone on Earth to stone. Also, Data sings.

Captain Picard does not approve of singing robots.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Epic Fail

Driving test take 2 ended in as ignominious a failure as the first : 10 minor faults but 1 serious. This time I blocked a side road by stopping in front of it in very heavy traffic. This caused someone who was trying to exit a delay of about 20 seconds. Apparently, that's serious. Well I can't think of anything more to say so I'll let this lol hippo explain things.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Beginner's guide to Linux

Well, not literally a guide. More a sort of warning really.

Recently I suggested that Linux isn't worth bothering with as an operating system. And I'm certainly correct in that assertion. As an astronomer, I've already been using it in work for years. But now I've also installed it on my home PC so that the science can keep going until I've run out of cake, giving me a little more ground to expound on my stated anti-Linux position.

Previously (at home) I had to contend with AndLinux, an impressive, nay heroic, attempt to have Linux run like any normal Windows program. But which hero ? Prometheus ? Achilles ? Steven Seagal ? Yes, that's the one. Alas, it's not the Steven Seagal from Under Siege but the Steven Seagal from Executive Decision, where he pretty quickly snuffs it due to a tragic accident involving a stealth fighter. But up until that point, he's as awesome as only Seagal can be.

Now AndLinux is a full Ubuntu* install, so you can do pretty much everything with it you can do with Linux normally. You can install other Linux programs on it and run them just fine, without the pesky need for dual-booting (an option I prefer to avoid since I don't know what I'm doing). And it's absolutely marvellous, but didn't quite install properly and so half the features didn't work. In terms of Antarctic explorers, this one is definitely Robert Falcon Scott. One suspects that if he'd had a stealth fighter he'd have been far less likely to have had a tragic demise, but we'll never know for sure.

*Unlike Windows, Linux comes in many varieties - Ubuntu, Red Hat, Fedora... all of which have meaningless names.

LINUX : latest in a very long line of doomed heroes
Still, it worked well enough for me, but won't run on 64 bit machines - such as my shiny new laptop - at all. Fortunately, it's now possible to install a full version of Linux with dual-booting without the scary need to mess around with partitions. Ubuntu's "wubi" installer creates a virtual hard drive of up
to 30 GB (more might be possible, not sure yet). And credit where credit is due - this really is as easy as installing any other Windows program.

On to Linux itself. First impressions - it's ugly as crocodile vomit. More disgusting than David Mellor, more horrific in appearance than all of the terrible Gorgons, more repugnant, even, than the default Windows 7 (it is, however, possible to make it look just like the nice version of 7 but I'm a simple man and easily confused, so I won't). Style issues aside, I find the default setup of having both top and bottom panels to be just downright weird. What's it for ? That's not rhetorical - I'd really like to know. Really. Please tell me !

Functionality then. Well, it certainly does function, most of the time. Sadly the much-vaunted massive stability of Linux over Windows is a tale worthy of Tolkien : we all wish it was true, but it isn't, and not as adaptable to a movie franchise either. It sometimes completely (and I do mean completely) crashes for the same reason babies cry : it's slightly tired, bored, or has done something unspeakable in places you'd rather not know about. Sure, Windows does the same from time to time, but unless your computer is floating in a lake, not anything remotely like as often as Linux does (and here I'm speaking both of home Linux, installed by me, and work Linux, installed by people who understand these things).

To be fair, if you want to do astronomy, Linux is the only game in town (professional astronomy software for Windows just doesn't exist). It's such a shame that game is cricket. For instance, installing things. On Windows this is simplicity itself. You download a file, you run it, you choose where the files go. Not so with Linux. Just like the rules of cricket, a whole plethora of possibilities are now open to you, which need to be described at length :

1) You use an inbuilt GUI-based program to find and install the program you want. Easy. But you don't get to decide where it will be installed. And no, it won't put a nice icon on the desktop so you can actually run the thing.

2) Same, but this time your program requires installation of other files as well, which the program can also do automatically.

3) As (2) but this time the program can't install the others automatically, so you have to find them yourself.

4) The programs are listed in the installer program but you're not allowed to install them because authenticity cannot be guaranteed. Come on ! This is my personal operating system, not the Antiques Roadshow !
Even though you have to enter a password to install programs in any case, you must now resort to...

5) Use sudo apt-get install [whatever]. This isn't a GUI, you have to physically type this command into a terminal. Provided you know the correct name of the program, this will work - even though there's still no more than a password check.
That's right people, we're back to typing in commands. What is this, a typewriter ? Looks like DOS has the last laugh after all.

6) Download and compile the source code yourself. Provided you've already got the necessary programs - and you probably will - this is generally quite simple. Except if...

7) Your program requires multiple libraries and other programs to install which must all be compiled from source code. Libraries have to be put in a specific location, otherwise it won't work or you'll have to manually edit path files. Most likely, you'll have to do a lot of digging to find out where the libraries are supposed to go.

8) As 7, but your program will partially function unless you do something very very specific, like running another program first, or have a particular compiler installed. Thus leaving you utterly bewildered until you blindly stumble upon whatever that something is.

Soo... it's a colossal WIN for Windows over Linux in terms of installing things. I mean, really huge. Overwhelmingly, staggeringly vast. Stunning. Which is the perfect cue for an exploitative picture, and that's exactly why there won't be one here.

Linux has multiple workspaces (desktops). AWESOME feature. Makes things 207x easier to organise. I have no complaints at all. Too many windows ? Just drag some to another workspace. True, Linux has this one licked, but it won't help you one iota if your desired program has a category 8 level of
installation problematicity.

How's about boot-up times then ? Ever since we evolved beyond the abacus, loading times have been a thorn in the very soul of mankind. For me, Linux boots in 55 seconds compared to Window's 7 more stately 3 minutes 35 seconds. That's measured from pressing the power button to entering a state of usability (i.e. being able to open a web browser). Linux shuts down faster too, in less than 10 seconds compared to Windows 25 seconds.

But is time really that important ? No. Almost every time I turn my computer on I do what all those who work with computers do with alarming frequency : I make tea, thus sparing me the unbearable nightmare of waiting for 3.5 minutes for the thing to boot up. If you really can't wait an extra 2-3 minutes to get online, see a doctor. In the words of no less of an authority than Marge Simpson : does anyone need that much pornography ?

Sure, it's faster to load and shutdown, but is it any faster to use ? For this I shall employ the awesome power of 3D-modelling software Blender. Rendering the scene below takes 62 seconds on Windows 7 but just 42 seconds on Linux. Now that's impressive. Instantly reducing render times by 25% is no mean feat, and could save many hours on longer animation renders.

1.1 million vertices using 580 MB RAM. For full-size images see here.

Except that it won't. Since Linux has the same stability levels as Chris Huhne's policies on nuclear power, there's no way I'm leaving the computer unattended for renders of any length if it's running Linux. I'd be better off microwaving the damn thing and get it over with.

For day to day computing -  web browsing, word processing, basic graphics applications, I contend that Linux is as viable an alternative to Windows as helicopters are to buses : Nice idea; ain't gonna happen.  It doesn't even come with a paint program installed by default. How ya gonna make lolcats without a paint program ?

One other point concerns security. As I mentioned previously, the world is unanimously against Window's Vista's security measures, whereas Windows 7 is without doubt superior. Is Linux more secure than Windows ? I'm not qualified to even try to answer this. But I do know that its security measures - requiring you to enter your password when installing anything - can scarcely be lauded as much fun to work with.

To summarise then, Linux is really the only choice for doing science. It's faster and gives better performance than Windows, and has multiple workspaces built-in. More importantly, most astronomy software is only written for Linux. And while it's nice to have a terminal to input commands, the fact that this is necessary rather spoils its retro charm. Moreover, Windows performs just fine for everyday use, and so utterly defeats Linux in the battle of software installation that one wonders how its designers sleep at night. This, together with Windows massively greater stability and prettiness, means that I'll continue to be enslaved to Microsoft's evil empire for some time yet.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Review : Stargate Universe - Lost in Plot Space

Let's start with the obvious : They cancelled Atlantis for this ?!? Small wonder MGM are in administration.

It appears to be a case of "let's ride the Battlestar Galactica bandwagon so hard the wheels explode". Given that BSG came up with "The Plan", this is patently unnecessary. Sure, BSG itself was fantastic. It was full of imperfect characters, political commentary, weird mystical elements no-one understands, and gratuitous typecasting. It was seldom, if ever, funny, and was perhaps even less of a sci-fi than Firefly. All of which mean that imitating the same thing in the world of Stargate, in many ways its polar opposite, is bloody daft.

Things didn't start well from the word go, with the first episode being done in a Lost-esque fashion (i.e. nothing but pointless flashbacks). It reminded me of Olive Stone's Alexander, a film which similarly seemed to have had a nasty accident with a fan in the cutting room. Mercifully, subsequent episodes didn't follow this ridiculous non-linearity.

Not that this helped much. Sure, the show is full of imperfect characters trapped in a mostly hopeless situation, just like BSG. Unfortunately, unlike BSG, virtually all of them have the riveting personalities of... well, rivets. The comic genius of Colonel O'Neil and Dr McKay has been replaced by the introspective moping of a bunch of cretinous teenage cretins who spend far more time complaining about the food than exploring a gigantic alien spaceship. Even so, you'd think that it should be at least reasonably interesting to see them trapped millions of light years away from home.

It isn't. Most episodes in Season 1 were set on Earth. In a spectacular, "we've missed our own point" move, the show's designers wrote in communication stones that let the crew swap souls with people back on Earth in order to communicate (hmm, soul swappers is a much better name, someone should tell them this). Besides being bloody daft, it turns out that everything the crew do back on Earth is criminally boring. Most of the time the show was on the verge of being "Coronation Street, but very occasionally, in space". Which isn't nearly as interesting as it sounds.

After milling about for a while, doing nothing anyone would ever care about, about halfway through Season 1* we find out that the ship is powered by flying through stars. And that's cool - it's a neat, properly sci-fi concept. Unfortunately it appears that this was only a fleeting moment of inspiration,  since the following episodes only descended further into the "Neighbours" level of talent of scriptwriting.

*Halfway through the first half, anyway. Sorry, but a "mid-season break" of 3-4 months cannot be called a break. It's a sabbatical.

Things did eventually pick up. The characters, script, acting... none of these improved in the slightest. But the plots did. Stuff actually happened. Alas this is offset but the tendency to put, at the end of each episode, a 4 minute long song so cheesy that its mind-liquefying potential could be compared to the Ebola virus. I hesitate to say it, but even the Enterprise theme tune has greater musical merit than some of Universe's selections.

I never thought I'd say that. Ever. Oh, Gods....

Almost as bad are the plot holes wide enough to sink the Lusitania. For instance, a time-travel episode apparently saw most of the cast killed, but next week they were all tickety-boo. Presumably, everything rest itself but with little exposition as to how. A few weeks later, some aliens attacked. "There's no point trying to communicate," says chief science dude Robert Carlyle, "they can't possibly understand English."

What the... ? Did you just forget the last 15 seasons of Stargate ? Every single week they'd find a new lost tribe or actual bona fide aliens, every single one of which spoke (but for some reason never wrote in) perfect English. Everyone speaks English in Stargate land. It's been a time-saving principle of the show ever since the end of the movie. Just because one of the main premises of your show is fairly ludicrous doesn't mean you can just abandon it. That'd be like remaking Star Trek but without warp drive.

One week, some of the crew get stuck on a planet with a buried Stargate. With limited time until the ship automatically leaves without them, and the gate buried in solid rock, what could possibly be the solution ?That's right... C4 ! Stargate's explosive of choice since time immemorial. Miraculously leaving the gate not only unharmed, which is believable, but also standing perfectly upright, which is not.

But the piece de resistance ? Undoubtedly this occurs at the start of season 2. The formely rather hot medic has been pregnant for some time and is now about to burst at any moment. Hmm, this could be a problem. How to avoid bringing up a baby in a dilapidated starship with no doctors and oh so many other interesting things going on all the time in this action-packed show ? Simple, have it abducted by friendly planet-building aliens.

Problem solved !

It doesn't end there. To everyone else, it appears that the baby has been lost. So has it been abducted or was it all in her head ? No, it's really been abducted, because the aliens have given her a prescient vision of a nebula which is encountered shortly after. But if that's true, then there shouldn't be a teeny tiny baby corpse in the ship's sick bay. Is there ? I don't know. This rather obvious question is simply ignored.

Which leaves me wondering as to why I'm still watching. Well, if they'd continued with what could laughably be called the Earth-based "stories", then I certainly wouldn't be. Nor am I shallow enough to watch it for the small assortment of fairly attractive members of the opposite sex. No, the reason is quite simple : there's nothing else on.

Reasons to watch Stargate Universe ? No. Unlike Loreal, they're not worth it. They're really not.

Overall, 3/10. Poor script, poor editing, poor acting, pointless plotlines. Hasn't even invented its own watershed-proof swearword. What's the frelling point ?

Wednesday 20 October 2010

I'm Living in a Plague House

There is no other explanation. I'm not generally an ill person. Normally, I might get a few colds per year. And no, I don't mean man-flu, which I'm convinced is no more than an elaborate ploy by ultra-extremist feminists* to gain some small amount of publicity by annoying the Daily Mail. I mean actual colds, which can be effectively and thoroughly treated with no more than a packet of tissues and, if need be, several tonnes of Lemsip and lots of fluffy pillows.

*Technically I suppose this is impossible. You can't be an extremist when all you aspire to is equality. But you know what I mean.

But in the last 6 months I've had no less than 3 illnesses which have involved me egesting such a prolific quantity of my innards that I might as well take up a course in home plastering, or, more lucratively, get an apprenticeship to Jackson Pollock**. And I'm writing this in the quite justified fear of catching a 4th, which has today struck down my luckless father - to such an extent that we called an emergency doctor.
EDIT : Fortunately, this turns out to be a case of non-infectious blood poisoning. Unfortunately, this means it's a case of blood poisoning.

**Except that this is impossible, because he is dead. I did not previously know this.

Bah. I can make this without even using any paint.
First, there was what seemed to have been a norovirus, best described as the flu with the added attraction of continuous puking both ends. That caused me 2 days off uni, oh what a terrible shame. Then, there was what I assume to have been another norovirus, costing me £30 as I had to rebook my theory test. Following a cold, a puking virus which also made me feel as though I'd run a marathon, causing me to miss a driving lesson a week before my practical test.

Perhaps this relates to the liberal applications of Stress Factor 12,000 I've been experiencing over the last few months. This is a lot like Max Factor but with less Max and more Stress, and also completely different in every other way. Sadly, this apparently simple explanation quite fails to explain why everyone around me is also dropping like flies. "Everyone" is not even necessarily limited to humans, with one of the dogs having what can only be described as dysentery.

Nor can it be because of my hedonistic wild partying. Hangovers aren't infectious, and in any case I haven't exactly left the house much anyway. I've been too busy sorting through 20 years of accumulated crap, an ongoing process that will probably endure through the next ice age or even the next Ice Age movie.

Now it's nothing short of madness to suggest that this spate of illnesses could be entirely due to coincidence. So there must be a logical, rational explanation for why people start chunking*** every other week or so. What can this be ? I reckon I probably disturbed an ancient Indian burial ground. But I'm still in Wales. Logically, this must mean the curse is travelling back through time for my disturbing an ancient Indian burial ground at some unknown point in the future. Makes sense.

***I'm aware that "chucking" would be the more usual expression. That's not a typo.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Win !

As if by way of compensation for the lack of a license, a PhD certificate arrived by post today. It's got a dragon on it. Surely this means I'm legally entitled, nay, obligated, to create a race of atomic monsters ! Atomic SUPERMEN ! And 50-ft tall robotic cats with lasers for eyes ! I just won't be able to drive anywhere.

Friday 15 October 2010

Fail !

So I failed my driving test, on account of mounting the kerb while trying to reverse around a corner. Annoyingly, I had this same maneuver down to a tee (or is it tea ? I've never seen that expression written down) the previous evening. So much so that my instructor didn't feel it necessary to practise it again because, he said, he couldn't have done it any better himself. In fact, it's probably the one thing my instructor was confident I wouldn't fail on. How ironic.

It might not have made any difference anyway, since my mind just seemed to go utterly blank. I know not why, I wasn't even very nervous. Perhaps there's some sort of Law of Conservation of Driving Skill, since all my other flaws were almost absent during the test. I changed gear in plenty of time for junctions and almost always remembered to take my foot off the gas when changing gear. I went nice and slowly round sharp corners, never crossed my hands over on the wheel, and never cut corners. I had 8 minor faults, 3 for steering (being too close to parked cars a couple of times), the rest for things like checking mirrors.

This is not, in fact, all that disappointing. No-one has been killed, injured, or even mildly inconvenienced as a result of my driving. No-one's going to hunt me down in years to come seeking to avenge the death of their father. No property has been smashed into dust, no pets tragically turned into a roadkill. Considering my lifelong reluctance to/morbid fear of driving, I consider that a pretty good result. And my employers, with the grace of saints, have even let me have at least one more shot at the test before I leave.

Monday 11 October 2010

WHY ?!?!

This is a question I increasingly ask myself every day. Why in all kinds of hells am I leaving to a remote island thousands of miles from proper civilisation* to study gas in galaxies so far away they will never, ever affect us, ever ? What could possibly motivate a stability freak like me to fly into a self-imposed exile ? Other people might call it exciting, but these people can go and boil their stupid fat heads. For me, it's Stress Factor 12,000, which is a lot like Stress Factor 11,000 but much worse.

*Definition : A place so unnecessarily sophisticated that it sells coaster holders and those little dishes only big enough to hold your spoon so it doesn't drip tea everywhere.

Some of you may balk at the very concept. Lots of people seem to have odd notions about the Caribbean. Unfortunately, it is neither full of pirates nor monkeys, not even pirate monkeys. It does have a tropical climate, but I find this quite distasteful. A constant 25-35 degree heat with a humidity level too high to be measured by human instruments is not my idea of pleasant. And since there's no relief come nightfall, it's a bit like living in a giant, moist oven. I'm failing to see the appeal of this.

No pirate monkeys for me. But there is rum...
So it certainly isn't the tropical climate that motivates me. Perhaps it's the thrill of starting a new life in a new, exotic land, full of strange people and a whole other culture waiting to be explored, with a wonderful new language to learn and a completely new way of looking at the world. Bugger that. I've said it before and I'll say it again : I'd rather stay home and play computer games.

Meh. At least Pac Mac is something I can actually do.
Perhaps, then, I go for the greater good of Science. Maybe the need to determine whether or not those "dark galaxies" really exist is so overwhelming that I'm prepared to leave my friends and family (be sure to read that link, it's genius) and live on an overheated island. Or perhaps, is it because I'm so obsessed with the gas content of early-type galaxies  that I'm prepared to confront my long-term fear of driving ? Well, is it ? No, it damn well isn't.

Galaxies are pretty.
 Not to say that there isn't a scientific motivation for going. There most certainly is. I spent 3 years studying this bloomin' gas and I'd really like to know what it all means. However, I can live quite happily in my own house not knowing the secrets of the Universe, but I'm not sure the opposite is true. To put it another way, if every telescope on Earth where to explode tomorrow in an fiery orgy of scientific Armageddon, I'd be a great deal happier than if it was my house that exploded.

Could be worse...
Another possibility is that I'm a money-grabbing bastard who'll trample on principles at the merest hint of funding. Possible, but while money might motivate me to confront fear, it doesn't alleviate it in the slightest. And because I'm a natural-born coward without any immediate possibility of financial destitution, well, I'd rather stay home and play computer games.

At least opting for the game means I'm not a capitalist. That's a happy thought.
What, then, could possibly cause such uncharacteristic behaviour ? Despite everything, it's more or less all of the above. The key factor is cowardice. I simply do not have the audacity to turn down $56,000 to live on a tropical island using the world's largest radio telescope for a job I can do. But sometimes I wish I did.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Brmm, brrrmmm !

Wow ! A blog post that's actually a proper blog about life and stuff !

So I was all set to write a lengthy post about the entire experience of driving, then realised this would be utterly pointless. A rather large number of people drive anyway, so what am I supposed to tell them ? And for those who don't, how am I supposed to describe something which makes absolutely no sense until you try it ? No, I think I'll just have a bit of a rant about driving courses.

I did an intensive course (9am-1pm, 5 days a week) preceded by two 2-hour sessions. The idea of an intensive course is that you can learn to drive in a week and be ready to take the test at the end of it. On some courses you drive around a track and even share with another learner - this would be absolute drivel. You might as well go and sacrifice a chocolate-covered goat to the Great God of Coconuts; it'd be just as relevant.

With hindsight I think I would have preferred a semi-intensive course - daily lessons perhaps, but maybe 2hrs per day rather than 4, supplemented with practise in my parent's car. I have to disagree with my instructor (who is a wise man and very good at his job) that you learn far more in 4 hrs; I just can't concentrate for that long. Anything much over 3 hours and I start to feel like I've been doing numerical integration in my head for about 2 days straight whilst only taking breaks to write an essay on the Platonic theory of forms*. Frankly, it gets boring. Even though I start making more mistakes and become increasingly afraid for my life, I become bored of being afraid for my life. I want to go home and play computer games.

*I'll bet you any money you like you've never heard driving described by that analogy before.

I also think I disagree that it would have been easier to learn at 17 as my instructor keeps telling me. For one thing, I don't think I learn any more slowly now than I did then, though I am far lazier. For another, I had no money at 17 ! I'd have had to have got a job as well as taking 4 A-levels**. Goodbye highly limited social life. Easy ? Should I also have taken up kick-boxing for good measure ? Or maybe just initiated a Middle East peace conference ?

**As opposed to now, when I have sufficient funds but find most of my spare time being ever more rapidly consumed in the fiery maelstrom of preparation for moving across the sea in a few weeks time.

That said, intensive courses do seem to work, at least for me. Well, kindof. I'm now capable of driving around without killing anyone, provided I'm given some instructions. Or rather I was when I finished the intensive course. After a break of 2-3 weeks from professional tuition***, I'm back to where I was about halfway through - it is, in fact, exactly like retaining knowledge having been cramming for an exam. All the basics are there, but the rest is up there somewhere in some kind of disgusting knowledge soup, and only the sieve of a professional instructor can remove the foul peas of ineptitude leaving only the delicious chicken of competence.

***To be fair most of that was spent in the firey maelstrom of preparation.

Still... driving in Puerto Rico in a few weeks ? In an automatic ? On the wrong side of the road and with all the controls on the wrong side of the car ?

Hmm. Can I do another viva instead ?

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Miscasting Lord of the Rings : A Fun Game for 1 or More Nerds

Nicholas Cage is rumoured to have been in the running for the part of Aragorn. Mercifully that didn't happen, but imagine if it did... such is the basis for the simple game of recasting Lord of the Rings with innappropriate, yet strangely applicable, Hollywood A-listers. Here's my take on things.

Features :
Samwise DeVito
Brian "Blessed" Gimli
Alan Saruman
Theoden Connerry
Sarah Michelle Eowyn
Aragon Cage
Frodo Cruise
Arwen Liu
Keanu Legolas
Bilbo Meaney
Boromir Russell
Captain Jean-Luc Elrond

Monday 27 September 2010

Review : Windoze 7

So that y'all know where I'm coming from here, let me begin by stating my opinion on previous OS's :

DOS : Hah !
Windows 3.11 : Happy times. Ran for 7 years on a 486 and was so stable that it wouldn't get angry even if you insulted its parentage and called it fat.
Windows XP : Less happy times. Had to reinstall the thing twice in 6 months, losing everything... later, didn't like having a CD writer installed at all, and died soon after. Second computer was OK for a while, then slowly degenerated, like the Black Knight in Monty Python having his limbs cut off one at a time. By the end, there was no taskbar and the search function simply didn't work.

XP : Almost unkillable, but ultimately doomed
Windows Vista : O Happy Day ! Like XP, but prettier, more stable, yet in defiance of all the odds considerably more annoying. Much like Myleene Klass compared to David Mellor (who is a worthless human being and not even a good DJ yet somehow manages to be marginally less boring than Mrs Klass). Yes, that's right, I'm comparing Classic FM DJ's to Microsoft Windows. OH GOD WHY !

Radio : The Great Equaliser
 Linux : Don't be silly.

So then, 7. Well it follows the long tradition of ever-increasing shininess. Although the new taskbar by default is as ugly as the rotting carcass of a pregnant beluga whale that died from Ebola, thankfully you can make it look just like Vista's very easily. And the Peek function, letting you quickly look at individual windows via the taskbar, is at least vaguely useful.

The new "Themes" feature is lovely, giving you an automatically varying desktop if you so wish. And it comes with some nice images, although the default so disgusting it'll make you vomit with rage before gouging out your own eyes with your toenails. Moreover, the shuffle feature isn't particularly good, often repeating some pictures at the expense of others.

Anything but the Windows 7 default wallpaper !

Moving on, there have been two huge criticisms of Vista :
1) It has more security alerts than Heathrow
2) It uses so many system resources than it takes the entire power of Canada to open Notepad

Well, (2) is just a lie. Since I spend terrifying amounts of time rendering 3D graphics that max out my system, I can attest to this. Sure, Vista wouldn't be able to cope with 128MB RAM or a poor graphics card as XP can. But come now, it's time to say fare thee well to the Stone Age and move into a realm where we've all gotten over how neat digital watches are. So far as I can tell, 7 is at least slightly better than Vista. Closing down a memory-hogging program is now almost instant, compared with Vista which required at least 6 months notice and a letter tattooed on your own scalp delivered to the head of the World Bank.

(1) however, is massively improved. Although they are still numerous, no longer is it necessary for Windoze to force you to drop whatever else you're doing to press "Yes" 19 thousand times in order to close Paint. Gone is the bizarre, hugely retarded screen dimming that stopped you from clicking anything other than yes or no. At last Microsoft have realised that in the worst-case scenario, your computer might catch a nasty virus but it isn't likely to go running amok on a killing spree. Unless you see the following :

It's OK Bill ! It was just a movie !

What else ? Well, gadgets are a lot more stable than in Vista, which had the peculiar habit of re-arranging them very badly and at random intervals. You can also see the progress of downloads in the taskbar directly, rather than needing to open the window, which is nice. Also, you can access some program options directly from the Start Menu (such as, ooh I don't know, starting I.E. in InPrivate mode, although I've yet to find a use for this myself, you understand).  And it shuts down in 15 seconds.

That's the good stuff. But, inevitably, Microsoft is not all "smiles und sunshine". Possibly the biggest annoyance is its use of Libraries. These are just folders with built-in links to other folders, so you don't have to have all your sound files in one place. Now that's actually quite a neat idea, and if you've saving in a Library folder then the default puts it in a sensible place so you can easily find it through the file browser. But it would have been nice to have the option to go straight to the default folder - you're somewhat forced to use the library system.

The main problem is that libraries are regenerated practically every time you open one. And with 800 tracks (which isn't even that many), this takes an annoyingly long time. This is daft. It shouldn't take a computer any time at all to deal with organizing a mere few hundred files. What are quad cores for ? Surely it should really store the library index as a file somewhere that becomes updated periodically, like when people add or change a file in one of its directories, or if a refresh is requested manually. Then there'd be no waiting at all. If you do take the trouble to navigate to the folder directly, you'll find it's very much faster.

A similar problem affects Windows Live Mail, at least if you're using it with gmail. It's nice that what you do to your Live Mail controls your actual gmail account. It's less nice that this can take a life-age of the Earth to accomplish.

Microsoft libraries just can't compete with the Dewy Decimal System*

* Why are all these blog entries becoming so gratuitously exploitative ? I promise there'll be no more of this in the next post.**

** I'm probably lying.

Then there are the small but weird features. Sound Recorder can't play back recordings; you have to open them in something else (???). The wi-fi strength shown in the taskbar can differ considerably from what it may indicate in the full window, which is just odd. Minimising WMP12 doesn't give you the same nice functionality in the taskbar that WMP11 did, a foolish oversight.

Two final points. Live Search. Can we please stop this madness now before it's too late ? Stop bloody searching before I've finished typing ! It feels like I'm being interrupted. It's downright rude ! It always leaves me with the distinct impression that if I stop or delete anything it's just going to ignore me. I hate it. Bring back XP's search assistants - they might have been daft, but, like Roger Moore's James Bond, they got the job done.

Secondly, I want multiple workstations. This is Linux's sole good trick, but it's a very good one. And since Linux is open source, just copy the stoopid code already. Who's gonna sue ? The OS community wouldn't last 20 minutes against Microsoft's highly skilled hordes of Barbarian Attack Lawyers.

So that's basically that. It is, quite simply, better than other versions of Windows. Really the only reason not to get it is if your computer is struggling to keep up with an abacus. Of course, no-one can yet attest to its long-term stability, but if it's as nice as Vista then things are promising. The real question is : if it were a Classic FM DJ, who would it be ?