Thursday, 28 August 2008

Of Intelligent Design and SF

From the excellent io9 In Recent Scifi, Intelligent Design Is Truth.

Quick excerpt:

Consider Jay Lake's novels Mainspring and Escapement, which are about a kind of alternate Earth where it's obvious somebody (whom they call "God") has created their universe. After all, the sky is filled with gears and their world is run literally by a massive clockwork mechanism. When I talked to Lake about his novels recently, he said that they were explicitly a response to Intelligent Design. He thinks of them as a critique of the belief that our world was built rather than evolved. "By making ID into something that was clearly fiction, I wanted to show that the idea itself was fictional," Lake said.

The monetary density of things

From the rather wonderful Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories...The monetary density of things

Now, we have a peacock that leaves feathers in our back garden, so I naturally assumed we were richer than Creosote for a brief moment (see graph 3).

However, while they might pound for pound (as it were) be worth more than dollar bills, I've just weighed one and it was a mere 3 grams. So at roughly 453g to the single imperial pound and feathers at $410/lb, I make that one worth about £1.50.

Hey, not bad...Just another 150 to go and we've got a lb and £225 or thereabouts. Anyone got any spare peacocks?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Canada seeks historic shipwrecks

Having read Dan Simmons' excellent 'Terror', I can tell you they're not going to find much...

BBC NEWS | World | Americas | Canada seeks historic shipwrecks

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A shuttle launch from a passing plane

Two things:

a) That would be very cool indeed to see.

b) I devoutly hope that, if confronted with an opportunity to commentate on something truly amazing for the denizens of the interweb, I manage to come out with something substantially better than just repeating 'Holy Smokes' time and time again (though I suspect that 'fuuuucking heeeeell' or some derivative might be at the forefront of things).

Space Shuttle Launch: Guy Films Space Shuttle Launch from Passing Airliner

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Rush fail Rock Band

Take one Rock Band system, set to Tom Sawyer, add Rush, watch them score a meagre 31% on their own track. Good to know that Neil Peart sounds just like the rest of us when he's playing one o' them crappy kits.

Rush Plays Rock Band Backstage at Colbert

Friday, 1 August 2008

Stout & Large do Rome - Four

While the Pantheon was spared the indignities of lapsing into irrelevance, the next day’s first location, the Forum, had no such luck. Once the centre of power of the largest empire the world would see for nigh on two millennia, by the Middle Ages it was known simply as Campo Vaccino – Cow Field. The cows have gone now, but it is still difficult to map the bones of the temples and arches that clutter the brown grass in the centre of the city with the gleaming marble edifices that would have once dominated the area. Even more so given that what does dominate the area now is the massive lump of white marble called Il Vittoriano; a nineteenth century monument to the glories of Italian nationalism that the Third Reich would have turned its nose up at as being a bit too over the top.

We mooch about the ruins and the Palotino – the Palatine Hill on which the Emperor’s Palace once stood – trying to imagine what it was like and, in all honesty, fail as our northern European brains start short-circuiting in the heat. It afflicts the locals too. One of the many men dressed as centurions who loiter in the vicinity tries to attract out attention by shouting out after us whether we’re brother and sister. We think about stopping and snogging right there and then and giving him a Luke n’ Leia moment, but it’s too hot. Much better was the restaurant the night before when we watched the whole ‘his surname is Stout and mine is Large’ schtik being translated into gestures by the owner of the place much to the assembled guffaws of the Italians there.

So, we amble along to the Colosseum as our giant, blonde ancestors probably did in slightly less salubrious circumstances (ie chains) and have a right old goggle.

It is seriously impressive – a decaying but still grand amphitheatre that would seat 50,000 baying people – and one of those sort of places that you are glad is in Rome and not London where it’d probably be renamed the Carling Colosseum or something. You can’t wander out into the middle – the flooring is gone, and instead you have the ruined walls of all the corridors, chambers, cells and pens that would have stored men, armour and beasts before their allotted date with fate – which at least leaves the locals spared the thousands of ‘I’m Spartacus. No, I’m Spartacus’ or even ‘Wotcher Julius, old boy’ lines. So, instead you climb the sides and marvel at the tales of naval battles, beast hunts and bloodshed that are the dark heart underpinning the whole spectacle of Roman civilisation and achievement.

And that is where it ends. Dinner and lunch follow: one quite posh and featuring one of the best steaks I have ever had and only marred by a gratuitous outbreak of Celine Dion that had to be firmly quashed; one of the paper tablecloths and chipped glasses variety, but which did things with truffles and pasta that would qualify as indecent in most countries. And that was the heart of Rome for me: not the Vatican, not the Forum, not the Colosseum, but sitting across a table from the person you love, eating, drinking and laughing, and just marinading lightly in three millennia of history as the modern city buzzes and bustles around you.

And that is that: Touristi ite Domum. Write it out one hundred times.

And, oh yes, I almost left my bag in the taxi on the way back to the airport too...

Stout & Large do Rome - Three

The evening’s a quiet one – camped out at the edge of the Piazza Navona with a bottle of something chilled and watching the tourists, fire-jugglers, hawkers, artists and the simply rather deranged mingle and jostle around.

The next day dawns, of course, with the knowledge that it’s Geddy Lee’s birthday. So it’s a quick toast of orange juice to the Rush bassist and colossus of music and out the door to the...

Oh wait, of course, it’s also Kate’s birthday too...

Out the door slightly later then, we wend our way through the sweltering streets by way of the Trevi Fountain to the Keats/Shelley House. This is in many ways the reason we are here, Kate having had a thing about the poet since she was but a young lass playing in the meadowy pastures outside Belfast (note to self: check with K that that bit’s correct). It’s a sad place in many ways. Keats was only 26 when he died of TB in this house by the Spanish Steps, unrecognised as even a good poet by all but a few in his day, never mind one of the greatest poets to have ever written in the English language. That all came later. But it’s quiet and it’s cool, is a good insight into the lives and works of the Romantics, and in its own small way provides a sense of perspective on things that no amount of tourist-thronged marble can quite manage.

Lunch is at the top of the Spanish Steps and features a Spaghetti Carbonara that redefines the meaning of the words and will have me hunched obsessively over bowls of egg yolks and parmesan cheese for months to come while I try and get anywhere near it. As for the fresh pasta, don’t even start...

Rome is seriously hot. Back in the Ancient days, the great and the good in their purple togas would perch themselves in their villas on the hills overlooking the city to try and get a waft of breeze in the hot, dry summer months. It’s relentlessly in the mid-30s and, while the anvil heads of cumulonimbus mass on the horizon and promise a delicious thundery breakdown to come, it never quite materialises. So a long lunch leads to a lessening of the mad tourist pointing and seeing plans, and more of a desire for seeing the Pantheon on the way back to the hotel followed by a serious amount of air con.

The Pantheon is stunning. A temple originally built by Hadrian to the Roman Gods featuring what its still the largest masonry vault ever constructed, it got consecrated as a Christian church at the start of the 7th century and thus was spared the city-wide meh that saw most Roman buildings crumbling into ruin and/or being quarried for building material. Indeed, by medieval times the city had shrunk from an Imperial capital of over a million souls to just a large town nestled by the banks of the Tiber with barely 40,000 people in it. Then the Pope moved back in just down the road...

Beers by the square, pizzas so thin you could cut your finger on the edge of one if you weren’t careful, and, by this point, the restaurant next to the hotel beams happily at us as we saunter back around midnight (it’s called Rust, and no it never sleeps ;-) ), knowing that they can probably flog us a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc as a nightcap if previous behaviour is anything to go by. They’re jolly well right too.

Stout & Large do Rome - Two

The next morning, all is very much not well with the world. Fragmented memory throws up the following facts:

a) Another bottle of wine then followed

b) It then apparently made perfect sense to go find an Irish bar and drink Guinness in copious amounts

c) We were watching showjumping loudly in said bar with the sort of fervour people normally reserve for rugby matches. Go on my son, etcetera

d) Something or other involving a spilled pint involves us linking up with two excellent Irish lads, one of whom is a bit of a Rush fan and a drummer to boot, which obviously means we are now blood brothers and inseparable

e) I then got refused entry to a club for being drunk which, considering I was in the company of three ratarsed Irish people, means I was probably approaching Olympic levels of inebriation

f) That will explain the headache, and

g) Wracked with feelings of hungover remorsefulness, it therefore makes perfect sense to go to the Vatican

The Wailing Wall might cram in more guilt per metre, but the Catholics really know how to make you feel insignificant: not so much compared to the glory of God, but more to the glory of the Catholic Church itself. The giant Piazza San Pietro with its 240 columns and 140 saints is a stunning public space hundreds of metres across, one side of which is reserved for a mini theme park stylee recreation of purgatory. Lines of tourists stand in the baking heat (mid 30s since you ask) while they queue to go through the metal detectors and bag scanners and decorum police at the entrance. The scanners seem to close on a fairly random basis, meaning you get shuffled from one to another in a sweaty mass of increasingly disgruntled peoples from all countries in the world. ‘Think this is bad?’ goes the subtext, ‘you really, really don’t want to go to the place with the pointy sticks and the brimstone down below. Have you been to confession recently?’.

As a lapsed Catholic of long-standing, Kate daren’t in case the priest she talks to spontaneously combusts and, as bit of a wishy-washy semi-Buddhist, I’m disqualified on theological grounds and smelling of the wrong sort of incense, so we make do with wandering round St Peter’s Basilica. It’s giant and it’s impressive, full of some of the most monumental works of religious art I’ve ever seen. The strange thing is it never feels holy. Some of the South American cathedrals – where I wandered round without forgetting my bag anywhere I would just like to point out – for all their sumptuous ornateness felt like churches – felt like places where people worshipped. This just felt all about power and prestige rather than piety.

More tortured religious similes are available next door at the Vatican Museum where, to get to the motherlode of the Sistine Chapel, you have to walk past pretty much every other exhibit there. See? This ascending to join the choir immortal ain’t easy, you know. But the journey is worthwhile as it takes you past some fascinating Roman statuary, a couple of pieces of really nice modern art and, of course, more bling than you can shake a good-sized stick at. The Chapel itself is crowded and fairly stupendous, the biggest hazard being walking into other people with their heads craned back and gawping at the ceiling and the frescoes that cover every square centimetre of the wall. Strangest thing is the waves of shushing that break out and flow across the space. Big signs say Silencio! This is a holy spot, but every five minutes the background murmur rises to a conversation level and one of the officials makes a loud shushing sound that is taken on by everybody around them and silence reigns for about as long as it says someone to say ‘Cor, will you look at that’. Which, as you’re standing within one of the greatest works of art in the Western world, isn’t long at all...

Stout & Large do Rome - One

You would think that after navigating the hostile environs of South America for a month and a half last year, that Stanstead Airport would be a breeze. Mountains, jungles, all sorts of shady characters, urban areas dodgier than a Tour de France rider’s EPO sample...but no, standing in the queue for the CattleAir plane the following thoughts occurred in this order:

Tickets? Check. In messenger bag.

Passport? Check. In messenger bag.

Messenger bag? Hmmm...that’ll be the one still on the transfer bus from the long-term parking area.


A quick hotfoot out of the terminal which probably only resulted in minor contusions for the families I barged past and I managed to throw myself bodily in front of the bus before he drove away, said bag sitting smugly in the front window. I point and pant, driver laughs and opens the door. “There’s always one,” he laughs.

“Yeah,” I think, “but it’s usually some numpty on the way to Lanzarote not a hard-bitten, world-weary globetrotter like me.”

I resist the urge to take my passport out and show him all the stamps that prove that I have been to places unaided and without my mother, and slink back to the terminal.

“Ahem,” I say to Kate, “I don’t think we’ll mention this one in dispatches.”

“Ho ho, if you don’t then I will,” she replies considerately.


The flight’s one of those modern transport experiences which is at least brief (when Keats died in Rome, it took the news of his death over three weeks to make it back to England – and even RyanAir manages to be quicker than that). The highlight is undoubtedly flying over Rome itself on the edges of a thunderstorm: looking down and seeing the Colosseum from the viewpoint of the Gods and the Vatican from the viewpoint of, well, God I suppose. Maybe the bolts of lightning flying round the heavens indicates that He thinks it’s all got a little bling for His tastes. Anyway, we arrive in possibly the only country in the world where the phrase ‘three nuns get into a Fiat and drive off at a rate of knots’ describes what actually happens rather than being the start of a long and involved joke with the punchline ‘taking the dogma for a walk’ and that is that.

The hotel’s fantastic ( situated right in the heart of the Centro Storico and surrounded by enough bars and restaurants of both the tourist and local variety to keep everyone happy. Its website does a nice line in irony too. Why don’t we have an elevator? See that lovely stone staircase you’ve just said how much you like? Well, we’d have to rip it out to put one in. The Parthenon? Sorry, can’t help you. That’s in Athens...

So, we shower, change, and head out to dine al fresco in a restaurant down a narrow Roman alleyway, eating pizza on a base so thin you could use it to replace a cracked window pane if you had to. A bottle of wine follows another bottle of wine in the sultry summer evening air and all is very much well with the world.