Coronabsurdity of the day: The Spanish edition

Most of Europe is in lockdown to a greater or lesser extent but, as Politico notes, there is still some confusion as to what exactly is and isn’t allowed.

And so to Spain which has some of the strictest quarantine measures in Europe. People are expected to stay in unless they need food or medicine, to walk the dog or go to work if absolutely necessary.

Notably, going outside for some exercise is not allowed, which brings us to today’s absurdity:

In the Basque Country, police threatened to fine a man for cycling to the factory where he works, on the basis that exercise is forbidden and therefore he should take public transport.

Because, obviously, social distancing is much easier if you’re on a bus.

Five Things #27

Song of the Water Bear by Laine Bell is a surprisingly effective story about tardigrades, from their own perspective.

I am constantly perplexed as to why so many people are people panic-buying toilet paper. Neuroscientist, Dean Burnett explains.

Sara Elsam talks to Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingstone about fantasy, bringing D&D to the UK and the birth of Warhammer.

Kieran Fisher argues Buffy the Vampire Slayer Is the Perfect Binge Watch. This is part of a series, all of which is worth a look.

Dana Najjar considers the billion year algae that hints at the origin of land plants.

Best Treehouse Ever

We’ve been playing quite a few games over the past week or so and one game that keeps on being brought out is Best Treehouse Ever. This is a remarkably playable combination of card drafting and tile laying, the aim of which is to build the best treehouse ever.

Each player starts with a tree trunk (card) and a hand of six cards representing rooms. Players simultaneously pick a room card and place it face down on the table. Once everyone has chosen a card, these cards are turned face up and each player has to add the room to their treehouse. Then each player passes their hand to the player on their left and the process is repeated until all cards have been either played or discarded, at which point scores are calculated and another hand of six cards is dealt.

There are a couple of additional rules to make things a bit more tricksy. Your tree cannot rise more than six levels, it can’t lean too far to one side or the other, and rooms of the same colour have to be placed next to each other. This means that you have to think a bit about what card you want to play and where to place it. And if you are not able to place a card, you have to discard one, so everyone always has the same number of cards in their hand.

As with Bärenpark, there is very little direct player interaction which makes for a very calm gaming experience in which most of the conversation leans towards being an almost co-operative discussion about how to build the best treehouses.

The artwork deserves a mention here, being appropriately cartoony with a sense of fun showing on each of the room cards. This really adds to the spirit of the game and makes the treehouse theme come to life.

Best Treehouse Ever is a game that is easy to learn and very quick to set up. The game also has enough depth to make it worth bringing out repeatedly. We’re having a lot of fun with it.

Coronabsurdity of the day

This is brilliant.

Belgium and The Netherlands have taken different approaches to the coronavirus, with Belgium ordering all non-essential shops to close and the Dutch allowing the shops to stay open as long as they take measures to enforce social distancing.

The towns of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog are, in fact, a single town that straddles the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. Inevitably enough, someone built a shop across the border.

So what do you do when you have conflicting rules as to whether you can open or not?

You open half a shop:

Continue reading “Coronabsurdity of the day”

Seed to Harvest: The Patternist series

Seed to Harvest is a collection of the four books that make up Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series. The books are arranged chronologically and that is the order in which I read them. However, they weren’t written chronologically and I strongly suspect that I would have gotten much more out of this series if I had read the novels in the order in which they were written — as a dystopian final novel with three prequels.

Patternamster, the final novel in the series and the first to have been written, imagines a future dominated by telepaths linked by a mental pattern. In conflict with these patternists are the brutal and semi-human clayarks, bent on destroying the patternists. Ordinary humans, pejoratively described as mutes, are not important and serve only as slaves, victims or both.

The patternmaster controls the pattern and all who are linked to it, thus becoming the leader of the patternists. The current patternmaster is old and dying and the novel focusses on the conflict to replace him.

While the world of the patternists and clayarks is superbly well realised, the narrative itself is quite slight. This wouldn’t be a problem if I had read this novel first, but following on from the other three it all felt a bit anticlimactic.

Mind of My Mind tells the story of the emergence of the patternists. It centres on Doro, a 4000 year old mutant with the ability to transfer his consciousness into others’ bodies. It is Doro who has been seeking out similar mutants and breeding them in order to build a race of superhumans and a stock of bodies. While successful Doro’s efforts also backfire spectacularly with the emergence of Mary, a latent telepath who becomes the first patternmaster.

Clay’s Ark jumps forward a bit from Mind of My Mind and describes the emergence of the clayarks. As a standalone novel, this is only tangentially related to the rest of the Patternist series and — with reading the novels chronologically — it did feel like quite an abrupt turn for the series. With it’s microbial alien symbiotes, Clay’s Ark is also one of the most viscerally disturbing invasion stories I’ve read in a long time.

Wild Seed is the last book to have been written and the first chronologically. It’s about an immortal healer named Anyanwu (who makes a fleeting appearance in Mind of My Mind) and her encounter with Doro. When the story starts, Anyanwu is already 300 years old, while Doro is much, much older. Doro coerces Anyanwu into travelling with him from Africa to the US and the story centres on the conflict between the two and their very different views of humanity.

This is by far the strongest of the novels, with two very well-drawn protagonists, and the one that most explicitly delves into the themes of the series. These include racial prejudice, the ethical implications of eugenics, and the question of what it means to be human.

As a whole, the Patternist series explores several big ideas and leaves you thinking for several days afterwards. It’s well worth reading, but is probably better read in the order the books were written than in chronological order of the events.

Arrival

Ted Chiang is something of a rarity. A writer who specialises in short stories and with a rate of output that is slow, to say the least. Yet every one of his stories is a perfect blend of fascinating science and memorable fiction.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone, therefore, that when I heard that a Hollywood adaptation of one of his stories was on the way, I was both thrilled and terrified. Mainly thrilled, though, so when I finally managed to see Arrival at the weekend my expectations were way too high. And it’s to the credit of all involved that the film managed to fully live up to those expectations.

When twelve alien spacecraft arrive on Earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try to understand the alien language and, therefore, their intent. And then things get interesting.

It’s generally recognised that the language we use influences our perceptions, and you can find plenty of documentation outlining the many benefits of learning a second language. But what about an utterly alien language? And what if that alien language embodies a totally different perception of time to the one we are used to? How far can your perceptions be altered by learning another language?

Arrival is proper science-fiction, that takes an idea and thoroughly explores it. Layered on top of this is an overarching discussion about free will and personal responsibility.

This being a major film, there is plenty of dramatic tension, largely revolving around the perceived intentions of the aliens and the reactions of governments. None of this, though, distracts from the essential thoughtfulness of the film, which currently rates as the best film I’ve seen this year.

Zombie

Led by Dolores O’Riordan’s unique voice, The Cranberries were one of the more successful alternative rock bands to emerge in the 1990s.

In her cover of Zombie, possibly The Cranberries’ most powerful song, The Snake Charmer effectively demonstrates just how powerful an emotional range can be achieved… with bagpipes.

Watch it, it’s superb

We have a teenager in the house

Macsen turned 13 today.

Obviously, with the current situation his planned celebration has been postponed but we did manage a rather nice breakfast brunch at home. Outside, even, as the weather was nice and we have a fair bit of space.

Of course, nice weather is relative and, while it’s nice enough outside when moving around, once we sat down we realised that the wind was a quite a bit coder than we’d initially thought. So, after a lengthy discussion between Macsen and his mum as to who had thought of eating outside in the first place, we picked everything up and finished the food indoors

There will be cake later. And a film night.

The family IT support is in

One of the pros — or cons, depending on how you look at it — of everyone being at home is that when any of the kids has a computer problem, I am unavoidably available. Today we had problems aplenty.

We got the boys some cheap Dell laptops some time ago, installed Ubuntu on them and set them going. The point has now been reached when, for all three boys, these laptops are being used primarily for school work (or school related activities). So running out of disk space is a serious problem.

Today, one of the laptops ran out of disk space.

My first reaction was to ask how many webcam videos and screen recordings they had been making, but it turns out that the problem was deeper than that — too many old packages clogging up the disk drive. I found the commands necessary to clean up these packages easily enough and set about some vastly overdue laptop maintenance.

This is when the fun began. When I tried to use apt-get autoremove to free up some disk space, it told me that it couldn’t do that because I had some broken dependencies. When I tried to fix these, it told me it couldn’t do that because I didn’t have enough disk space.

And it all started looking a bit painful and the boys quickly learned that IT support largely involves copying and pasting error messages into your search engine of choice and then doing the same back into the terminal.

Everything is now resolved and I have promised to keep a closer eye on the boys’ technology. On the plus side, I now know how to manually remove old kernels in Ubuntu.