Chili had a lucky escape

Chili can be a funny cat sometimes. He will sit by the back door meowing until someone lets him out, at which point he will dash straight round to the front of the house and start meowing until someone lets him back in.

He’s lucky that it was French European Affairs Minister, Nathalie Loiseau who thought to name her cat Brexit because of its indecisiveness.

She told French newspaper Journal du Dimanche that she named the animal after the U.K.’s EU departure because “he wakes me up every morning miaowing to death because he wants to go out, and then when I open the door he stays in the middle, undecided, and then gives me evil looks when I put him out.”

Credit it where it’s due and it’s nice to see that someone is managing to maintain a sense of humour in the face of the UK’s shambolic government. Although I have to admit to being a bit miffed at the fact that I hadn’t thought of this when we were coming up with names for the kittens.

Chili, on the other hand, should be very thankful indeed.

Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

That was superb. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture.

It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest 5G star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on
this planet so many light years from home.

Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet.

The book is split into three parts, the first two of which detail the arrival of the starship and the first encounter between atevi and humans. Then we get into the meat of the story, which centres on Bren Cameron, the one human living in atevi society. Bren is a paidhi, essentially humanity’s ambassador to the Atevi.

When Bren finds himself targeted by an assassin, he finds himself shunted from location to location, desperately trying to understand what is happening and who he can trust.

There are two things that really stand out here, the first of which is the Atevi themselves. This is a truly alien race in terms of their attitudes, their instincts and their culture, and this alienness makes them difficult to comprehend and impossible to fully understand. This keeps Bren permanently off balance as his human instincts are consistently wrong.

The other thing to note is CJ Cherry’s writing style. Once Bren is introduced, the story is told entirely from Bren’s perspective — what Bren doesn’t know neither does the reader and if Bren doesn’t understand the importance of something it won’t be mentioned. This approach demands some work from the reader in that there is much that is not explained, but the depth of the story is such that it is well worth the effort.

With Foreigner CJ Cherryh gives us one of the strongest explorations of how cultures interact — and conflict — with each other that I have read in a long time. The novel is complex, detailed and utterly gripping and will probably bear reading again.

Any Which Way You Can

I first saw Any Which Way You can way back when I was a boy and, with nothing on at the cinema, this weekend seemed like a good idea to inflict on the boys the story of bare knuckle fighter his Orangutan.

I had forgotten just how funny this film can be.

Clint Eastwood plays Philo Beddoe, a bare knuckle fighter who has decided to retire, until the Mafia makes him an offer too generous to refuse. On discovering just how dangerous this fight is likely to be, beddoe tries to call off the fight, at which point the villains kidnap his recently returned girlfriend to try and force him to turn up.

The plot meanders around this, Beddoe’s repeated run-ins with The Black Widows, the most pathetic biker gang ever to reach celluloid, corrupt cops, and Clyde.

Clyde is an orangutan and the real star of this film and its his antics that lift the film from a forgettable 1980s comedy to something that is consistently laugh out loud funny. Wisely, Eastwood recognises who is the real star of the film and is content to play the straight man to the hairy comedian.

There is nothing particularly clever about Any Which Way You Can, and some of the attitudes do look a bit dated now, but Clyde is a joy to watch and makes for a hugely entertaining evening.

“Right turn, Clyde.”

Brexit: All heat and no light

The media yesterday were full of Theresa May’s “crunch vote” on her Brexit deal — the same deal that was rejected earlier this year. And to no-one’s great surprise, it was rejected again, this time by 149 votes.

The press today is full of commentary as to what this all means, and so much of this is just noise.

Parliament will vote today on whether they want to exit the EU without a deal, and the expectation is that a no deal Brexit will be rejected. This amounts to little more than empty posturing and won’t change the fact that the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29th and, if no deal is agreed, the UK will crash out of the EU with no deal.

Tomorrow, assuming Parliament votes against no deal, they will all get together again to decide to request an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period. The rest of EU are already asking what would be the point of such an extension given that the UK is still unable to decide what it wants to achieve. And if there is no point to delaying Brexit, no delay will be forthcoming.

Since the Withdrawal Agreement was signed off, there have been three options on the table: Ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, crash out with no deal, or revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. This was the case in January, it was the case yesterday and it will still be the case tomorrow.

The ongoing mess that is Brexit has already damaged the UK. Firms are leaving the country, jobs are going to be lost and the fantasy trade deals promised by the Government aren’t going to come close to replacing any of this. If Brexit goes ahead, with a deal or without, Britain will become smaller, poorer and forced to accept any conditions imposed by any potential trading partner.

And it still won’t be over, because leaving the EU isn’t the end of this mess, it’s the start of the next one in which the UK continues to fail at everything (trade, travel, security, etc.) that could, until now, be taken for granted.

The only way to stop the mess, limit the damage and bring this whole screaming clusterfuck to an end is to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.

The latest Brexit shenanigans explained

I was going to post about the latest bout of slapstick in which the UK’s comedy government has been engaging. But since nothing has actually changed, and I don’t want to sit here endlessly repeating myself, I shall leave it to the satirists at NewsThump to sum up the current situation:

So right now, we’re essentially we’re waiting on an unelected ‘expert’ to decide if Theresa May’s revised deal will mean that some foreign judges in an international court could allow us to unilaterally leave a backstop that was our own idea in the first place. And if he decides it does, then the dinosaur-deniers who think gays are an abomination will help the government make it so by getting haunted Victorian apparition Jacob Rees-Mogg to support them.

Now would probably be a good time to apply for a Belgian passport.

Captain Marvel

After more than ten years, Marvel still can’t put a foot wrong. And with Captain Marvel, they remain spectacularly on form.

As the film opens, we meet our eponymous hero as Vers, a warrior hero of the Kree civilization, which is locked in a war with the shape-shifting skrulls. Vers, however, also suffers from unexplainable dreams — or possibly, flashes of memory — of another life as a fighter pilot. Inevitably enough, Vers ends up on planet Earth in 1995, where she meets a very young Nick Fury and starts to establish who she is… and who she was.

As the film progresses, loyalties shift and Vers finds herself forced to question everything she thought she knew. This makes for a film with a much more science fiction feel than superhero films often manage.

I am, of course, well aware of the fact that many — if not all — superhero films are packed with plenty of SF tropes, including impossible technologies, alien powers and all the rest. However, these films tend to follow a formula more inspired by heroic fantasy — bad stuff happens until the mighty hero turns up to save the day.

For me, Captain Marvel takes a very creditable stab at doing what science fiction can do, which is encourage you to look again at the world and to see things differently.

None of this feels forced and, as a mid-1990s set origin story, Captain Marvel works very well indeed. In this telling, we see the very early days of SHIELD and a very youthful Nick Fury, played by a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson. And I have to say that the CGI manipulation in this case works very well indeed, giving us a very optimistic version of Fury right at the start of his career.

Of course, much depends on Brie Larson’s performance and she delivers in spades to give us a fully fleshed-out character that is both plagued by self-doubt and believably tenacious.

Captain Marvel is a superb addition to the MCU and one that effortlessly slots into the existing continuity and sets us up for an explosive finale when Avengers Endgame is released.

Erasure: Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)

A couple of weeks ago, Jonathan Calder at Liberal England posted a video of Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. This provoked a bit of related YouTubery on my part and the discovery that Erasure had covered this song back in 2003 on a cover album entitled Other People’s Songs.

I still prefer the Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, but Erasure’s video is… visually arresting.

3D Zebras

This is incredible. The Icelandic fishing town of Ísafjörður has painted a new zebra crossing so that it appears to be 3D.

Not only does the innovative design give foot-travelers the feeling of walking on air, it also gets the attention of drivers, who will be sure to slow down their speed once they spot the seemingly floating ‘zebra stripes.’ Icelandic environmental commissioner Ralf Trylla called for its placement in Ísafjörður after seeing a similar project being carried out in New Delhi, India. With the help of street painting company Vegmálun GÍH, his vision became a reality.

Now I want to go to Iceland, just to cross the road.

Promethea: Book 2

When talking about icons of the graphic story medium, writers don’t come much more iconic than Alan Moore, whose credits include Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Ballad of Halo Jones…

And Promethea.

Originally published as a 32 issue series of comics between 1999 and 2005, Promethea was then collected into a set of five graphic novels with each comic as a separate chapter. Book 1, which I really enjoyed, collected the first six issues and Book 2 covers issues seven to twelve. And it’s here that things start to go a bit awry.

The series tells the story of Sophie Bangs, a student in an alternate version of New York, who (in Book 1) comes to embody a god-like entity known of Promethea. This is a character that keeps recurring in stories down the ages and, we discover, is brought forward when someone uses their imagination to make her real, becoming a version of Promethea.

There is a lot to like in this concept. Not only does it allow for the relationship between fiction and reality to be explored but it also, with the different incarnations of Promethea, underlines the way in which the same thing — or person — can be interpreted differently according to the viewer.

Book 2 starts suitably spectacularly with a potentially world-shattering Y2K bug, closely followed by a demonic attack. In the course of this attack, Sophie’s predecessor is fatally wounded and Sophie sets out to find out more. And this is where things start to go awry.

For the last three chapters, Moore simply stops bothering with the story and decides, instead, to treat us all to a lecture on his rather idiosyncratic views on sex, magic and history and the final chapter, quite frankly, is a mess.

Alan Moore’s writing has always had a polemical edge to it and this is something that, normally, I really like about him. In this case, his opinions aren’t particularly interesting and this is a problem compounded by the complete absence of anything resembling a narrative.

Carissa made a relevant point recently in relation to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere when she noted that she was already older than the target market when she read it. I have a feeling that this also applies to me and Promethea: I’m just too old for this stuff.

The Coding Kids Fallacy

Beta Antunes thinks that children should learn to write programs. Speaking as a professional developer and father of three, I think this is utter nonsense.

I don’t want to pick on Beta specifically, but her article does contain a lot of the silver bullet thinking that makes articles like this so incoherent.

So here goes.

The article starts with the observation that software is everywhere, which is true enough. Beta also makes the obvious point that that coding skills are essential. Clearly, all of this code needs to be maintained, but the next sentence in the article strikes me as a pretty unjustified assertion:

The question that remains should not be “why?” but “how?” How can I inspire my child to learn to code, when should I start, and what are the many benefits?

There’s much to unpick here, starting with: why shouldn’t the question be “why”? Or, more to the point, what do you think you are going to achieve by pushing your kids into coding classes?

Software development is an increasingly specialised set of disciplines and being proficient in one area does not make you even competent in another. For example, I make a living from developing and maintaining interfaces between the large and often unwieldy applications large companies use to run their business, and I think I am pretty good at what I do. But you would not want to let me loose on a self-driving car. Ever.

So the fact that software is everywhere is a bit of a red-herring because most people do not look at most source code. While it is useful to have a broad understanding of how applications and how best to use them, being able to write a specific type of application using a specific set of languages and tools isn’t going to help you.

But it gets worse:

It is the parent’s job to encourage children’s interests and help them develop life skills. My personal philosophy is to start children coding early, and make it fun!

Again with the unjustified jump from the obvious to the nonsense. Of course the parents have a responsibility to encourage children’s interests and develop life skills. Writing programs is not a life skill, and since Beta is making the assertion without any justification, I shall refute it without any justification.

As we all know, learning by doing is much more impactful. Children are innately curious and love to explore. They love discovery… picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them, and asking why?

“Picking things up, examining them, smelling them, touching them.” Notice how these are all physical ways of interacting with the world and, therefore, completely irrelevant to the point of beta’s article.

Children are curious and it is far better to let them follow their interests. Trying to force them into following your interests is a surefire way of killing stone dead any curiosity they might have had.

And the rest of the article follows much the same pattern: A statement of the obvious followed by an unsupported assertion about the value of coding. My irony meter almost broke when I got to the claim that coding teaches logical thinking — it clearly didn’t for Beta.

I have three sons and, over the years, they have planted and grown fruit and vegetables, helped build a compost bin, chopped wood, built (Lego and Meccano) robots, helped build a chicken run, played games, watched films, talked film, read books, helped care for animals, designed games, built machines, and much more. Whenever we do something, we involve the boys, finding them things that they can and want to do, allowing them to organise tasks among themselves and encouraging them to take pride in their achievements.

By doing this, we are (hopefully) encouraging them to recognise that the world is full of interesting things — both to see and to do — and teaching them to compete gracefully, co-operate effectively and to do things well. These are skills that are transferable to pretty much any walk of life, any career and any hobby.

We are also demonstrating that some things are worth doing for their own sake, and not because there is some monetary reward attached to it.

Children are individuals and each has his or her own interests. The role of the parent is to encourage those interests, not ride roughshod over them in pursuit of some mythical panacea.