Friday, August 18, 2017

What's the Welsh for noticeboard?

It's hysbysfwrdd (thanks, Google Translate)

Because here's what will hopefully become a load of links about charities and campaigning in Wales as an aide-memoire.

The benefits of bilingual marketing by charities in Wales (Welsh Language Commissioner)

The Welsh language and volunteering (same)

Cliff Richard led astray by sorcery!

Like a bad sign hanging over me, it seems I can't carry on writing about the charts of 1976 unless I deal with Cliff Richard's Spring top ten hit Devil Woman. So let's attend to the witchy elephant in the room.

Even by the 'anything goes' standards of 1976, Devil Woman is a deeply odd song to have been placed into the hands of noted Christian bachelor Cliff Richard. Now, if you're expecting any cheap shots at the expense of either category, look elsewhere. That's the least interesting thing I could write about here.

But it is true that the preposterous lyric about a young man being seduced against his will by a practioner of the dark arts doesn't, on the face of it, fit with Cliff''s public persona at all. Which in turn makes the song such an object of curiosity.
The fact that it's Cliff - wholesome rollerskates, mistletoe and summer holidaying Cliff - being led astray by sorcery gives Devil Woman a presumably unintentional transgressive energy, making it unlike anything else in his back catalogue. The conflation of evil and female sexuality expressed is bizarrely, wrong-headedly compelling in a way not often seen outside Dracula.

Of course it helps that the song itself is a stonking piece of occult rock boogie, with the funky keys and bass in the intro being worth the price of purchase in their own right.

In short, there's a whole lot of cognitive whiplash goin' on here, wrapped around a proper tune. It's very strange in the way that only really straight stuff can be. And it speaks volumes for the power of the results that the only contemporary I can think probably better suited to sing Devil Woman would be that great doom shaman Ozzy Osbourne.

Don't believe me? Check out this performance, featuring some great intrepretative dance and the politest 'ugh' in rock and roll, which by Mr Richard's standards is practically gonzo.

So, what does all of this say about 1976? Well, for starters and most importantly, it tells us that its tolerance for misogyny was much higher than we would accept these days. Even more so than Sailor's A Glass Of Champagne, Devil Woman's gender politics consign it to being a period piece rather than a tune for the ages. No-one today would get away with it, and quite rightly so.

Culturally, it also reminds us that a lot of 1970's rock was powered by the co-option of the blues (or at least motifs from the blues) - the ethics of which is a whole other conversation - but if Cliff was doing it you can safely assume that by the middle of the decade it had become very mainstream indeed.

It's also a another answer to the recurring question in these posts of whether pop was in crisis in 1976. Pop, fuelled by funk and disco, was doing surprisingly well, thank you very much. But when Cliff freakin' Richard was riffing harder than pretty much anything else in the charts short of Thin Lizzy, it's clear that rock - not pop - needed to take a long hard look at itself.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer campaigning links

Bit of a bias towards strategy and planning on this one, as that's where my head is to some extent at today.

Training resources on systems, power, leadership and campaigns from the New Economics Organisers Network.

Design thinking (read: campaign strategy resources) via Beth's blog and the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab Campaign Accelerator model.

And bucketloads of more planning resources via the DIY Toolkit

Heroes Journey story-mapping ooojimy from the Dancing Fox

Jenny Ross from Bond on theories of change

Collaboration cards toolkit

Campaigning boardgame? Yes please!

8 top tips for planning a march/protest/equivalent event (Hatcher Group)

Article on non-linear planning in Nonprofit: Absolutely Fabulous which is particularly helpful on the catch 22 of data - you need data in order to commit resources to a project but you need the resources to get the data...

The Powercube - a new way to understand power-relationships.

What does a globally connected, thriving, capacity-building ecosystem for modern advocacy look like? (Report from Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab)

Approaches to Co-creation (Joanna Levitt Cea/Jess Rimington, SSIR)

Civic engagement as a way of life (Kirsten Grimm/Emily Gardner, SSIR)

Huge list of UK politics datasets

And it's a bit meta, but here's a link to more summer reading links from Tom Baker at the Thoughtful Campaigner.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Quick link: Hugo Awards 2017

A quick link here to this year's Hugo Awards, announced last night.

Congratulations to N K Jemisin, who won Best Novel second year running for The Obelisk Gate, the sequel to last year's victor The Fifth Season (review here). I haven't read TOG yet because I have to be in the right mood for something a little on the grim side, but as I did very much enjoy its predecessor I'll be looking forward to checking it out in the weeks to come.

Also glad to see Ada Palmer pick up the Campbell Award for Best New Writer (review of Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders still germinating).

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

8 short notes on the poo emoji cushion

1. I've nothing against emoji in general or their cushions. I get that a symbolic language needs a scatalogical vocabulary too.

But why does anyone need a mass produced plush symbol of poo in their life? 

2. It's not cute. Don't tell me it's cute. 

3. The poo emoji cushion (PEC) is not transgressive. Are the owners perhaps planning to reenact scenes from Pink Flamingoes? Of course they aren't. That's because it's toilet humour at its most banal.

4. It's tailor-made for people to hilariously troll their 'friends'. Who will burn it the moment their back is turned.

5. Did I mention the smile? The way the PEC gawps vacantly at you from every second shop window. Brrrr.

6. At least Mr Hanky had the decency to only turn up at Christmas.

7. The PEC perhaps makes some of kind of parallel universe sense (?) as a plot to put a minion of Nurgle (the Chaos God of Pestilence and Plague from Warhammer 40K) on every sofa in the country. But that's not a world I want to live in, brothers and sisters.

8. Its only possible redemption is as a protest campaign tactic. If Arrested Development fans sent bananas to the network and stopped it being cancelled, imagine what impact sending poo cushions by the thousands could have on your target?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Health-geekery Summer 2017

I've been engaging in the traditional summer activity of catching up with my reading - so here's a list of links which will doubtless grow over August.


Where to look packs for STP areas
NHS England press release on additional funding for some STP areas
Report on STP's from the IPPR
NHS Support Federation campaign info on STP's

Accountable care systems

Grauniad article


National Audit Office report: commentary from the MND Association
2013 and 2015 reports from the Wales Audit Office

NHS other

Research on staff attitudes and stress levels from the Point Of Care Foundation
New report on importance of occupational therapists from their Royal College
HQIP report on quality of acute non-invasive ventilation care
Definition of person-centred care from the RCN
Cross-party campaign from Norman Lamb MP for a convention on health and social care.


State of Caring 2017 (Carers' Trust report)

Financial costs of neurological conditions

Research into the financial cost of Parkinson's released.
Alzheimers Society launch campaign to end the 'Dementia Tax' (and if you've forgotten the election campaign already, here's an explanation)

Oh, and while we're on dementia, shout out to DEEP: the Dementia Engagement & Empowerment Project.

Social care

The state of social care in GB (Leonard Cheshire report from 2016)
Messages from various key players for the current Government (chiefly, sort it out pls)


Can health and social care ever be truly integrated? (Macmillan Cymru on the long-term review of health and social care announced for Wales in November last year)

Is a 'what matters conversation' a carer's assessment? (Prof. Luke Clement)

Consultation and White Paper: Services Fit For The Future (includes governance, participation and accountability issues)


Which I'm now singing to the tune of a certain number from Grease 2, so help me.

All In This Together: website about co-production in Wales (aforementioned White Paper big on co-production) with lots of articles and links for the general reader.

National Voices one page diagram on co-production.

Northern Ireland

NICVA position paper on Brexit as it affects NI has some useful positioning on health

More Brexit

Brexit Health Alliance formed to safeguard arrangements for research and health-care should the UK (as expected) leave the EU.

Nuffield Trust - Getting A Brexit Deal That Works For The NHS

Miscellaneous reports

Survey of specialist palliative care in care homes 
Habinteg Accessible Housing Policy Update
The UK Strategy for Rare Diseases

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Vorrh! (Huh!) What is it good for?

Well, it was a good joke the first time around...

[some spoilers ahead]

Brian Catling is an artist and poet who has expanded into fiction, which probably explains a lot about The Vorrh, his first novel. It's poetic, impressionistic and filtered through Catling's own interests, idiosyncracies and predilictions.

It's also a sprawling, incoherent beast of nearly 600 pages that - if it didn't astound and horrify as much as it does - would at times be ejected out the window with force.

The Vorrh of the title is a Conradian heart-of-darkness rainforest in a fantastic colonial Africa, the name borrowed from Raymond Roussel's 1910 avant-garde travelogue Impressions of Africa. Roussel himself features in the book as one of the main characters, under the reductive alias of The Frenchman.

The forest is a place of revelation, mysterity and insanity, as well as a source of income for the settlers of Essenwald, the timber town at its edge. Catling uses both as a common thread for five overlapping stories, although one of them, concerning Victorian photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge is barely Vorrh-related at all and seems almost to be a palimpsest of an earlier work.

Well, I did mention this was a sprawling effort, didn't I? 

It might be written in the fantastic mode, including magical weapons, angels, wise women, mythical beasts and cyclopses (Catling loves him a cyclops), but The Vorrh is a long way from the genre mainstream, however it's been marketed. Far better points of reference for the reader are gothic horror and magic realism, both of which I'm fortunately very much down with.

For a couple of good reasons, this is one of those books I dare say I will end up reading again. First, there are some plotlines in The Vorrh which are beautifuly told, working as short stories (existential horror, usually) in the broader narrative. The sections involving Roussel, making a creative pilgramage to the forest, are universally good.

Second, there's a lot going on here, as you might expect from a professor and polymath like Catling. He's happy to throw in a reference to this or that esoteric, technological or historical datum every few pages, such that I inevitably didn't get them all first time around.

But, and you have probably sensed some buts on the way throughout this review, this is one of those books where the author is clearly throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks. Not all of it does - the dream monologue of the dog is a particularly low point, and generally the sex is your average bad literary sex. The prose too, verges on the purple at times; Catling's poetic instinct to try and knock every sentence out of the park is endearing, but not every description, not every metaphor works.

Not much of the plot is wrapped up by the end either. The presentation of the Vorrh as a part one of a trilogy might be more commercial contrivance than fact, and I suspect we're probably dealing with one epic 2,000 page novel here.

Tropes and traps

It's also hard to not write about The Vorrh and not address the challenges inherent in writing an 'African fantasy' from a white European perspective. To his credit, Catling rises to the challenge: his perspective is pretty clearly anti-colonial, and to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge no specific cullture is being bowdlerised in the name of fiction. The strand of the novel involving Roussel is a good critique of literary tourism, among the many other things that it is.

So a lot of obvious traps are avoided. Yet there are still problematic tropes here, in particularly the use of the forest and its inhabitants as a stand-in for the African Other: mysterious, magical, dangerous and unknowable. Catling isn't immune from cliche in his African magic either, and his use of a white character who goes native in one of the stories makes sense in context but is a bit of a tired substitution. Plus, the only black protagonist a) is a bit of a bad 'un b) is impressed into servitude c) dies.

None of which to say that The Vorrh isn't a good book, in some places an excellent one, nor to say that Catling isn't aware of the issues - I believe he is and has tried to make sure the novel includes its own critique of these stereotypes. But this may be a sticking point for some readers - each of which will reach their own judgement as to how much he gets the balance right.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wonder Woman: a sense of the superhuman

Wonder Woman achieves something no recent superhero film has managed - a genuine sense of what it is to be superhuman.

This isn't about your origin story or your CGI budget or however much you can blow up in your two hours plus running time.

This is about the presence of The Other.

There's one particular scene in Wonder Woman - the one on that there poster - which demonstrates most of all what I mean. Diana and her party are in the trenches of the WW1 Western Front. She casts off her human disguise and manifests as Wonder Woman - there really is no other word for it. Climbing out into No Mans' Land, she advances towards the German lines, single-handedly deflecting machine gun fire as she goes.

The sequence is a triumph of direction by Patty Jenkins, echoing consciously or no the stories of angels soldiers claimed to see in the skies of the Somme. And while her acting is great throughout the film, Gal Godot's other careers as a soldier and a model also perfectly fit her for this kind of cinema-as-spectacle work.  

The effect is exactly as intended: it's as if a Greek god - a living archetype and something decidely not human - has suddenly been unleashed on the world. It's a real moment of power and awe rare in modern action cinema. And it's one of the things that make Wonder Woman much more interesting, more effective and just plain weirder than many of its competitors. 
Postscript with self-critique

As Ive been typing this up, I've been thinking that I can't really write about Wonder Woman (with the emphasis on Woman) as The Other without some read-across to the concept of othering. Particularly the feminist version in which women are defined in contrast to a male 'norm.' This kind of othering isn't what I meant by this piece per se, but looking at it from this perspective does give rise to two bonus observations.

The first is that being a superhero and a woman in a sexist society is inherently disruptive in a way which having a bloke flying through the sky (especially a white, middle-class bloke, intersectionality fans) isn't. Supergirl, Jessica Jones and Wonder Woman all go about this in different ways as TV shows and films but the overall effect overlays and enhances the 'woah' factor of a character having powers in the first place.

The second is acknowledging the contradication in me describing society and culture as if I stand outside it. Perhaps it's next-to-impossible for me to talk about Wonder Woman as the superhuman Other without also inadvertently othering her as a man. I dare say this tension has been pretty much inherent in the character since her creation, but I don't think I'd be being honest with myself as a writer if I didn't at least acknowedge the validity of the question.

Anyhow, self-critique over. 

A conventional review would end by me remarking that Wonder Woman is an excellent film which even those tired of the DC school of film-making will enjoy, so I'll end on the same note here too.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Hugo-nominated novel ranking update

1. Too Like The Lightning, Ada Palmer
2. All The Birds In The Sky, Charlie Jane Anders
3. Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee
4. A Closed And Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Gave up reading (but will retry): Death's End, Liu Cixin
Not yet read: The Obelisk Gate, N K Jemisin 

The standout book on the list, at least provisionally, is Too Like The Lightning, for which there will be a review as soon as I can get round to it. Suffice to say for now that it's like no other SF novel I've read in the last few years and that counts for a lot in my world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

In praise of gateway novels: A Closed And Common Orbit

I've greatly enjoyed both of Becky Chambers' books so far, primarily because of their warmth, their concern with everyday life in an interstellar future, and their concern with human (and non-human) relationships.

And it's no coincidence that A Closed And Common Orbit is the only one of the Hugo-nominated novels I can see being adapted for the big or the little screen, as these are much more common traits of SF film and television than they are of novels and short-stories.
Orbit is a spin-off from its predecessor, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, following several of its supporting characters: Sidra, a starship's AI now hiding in an illegal android body and Pepper, the gadgeteer acting in loco parentis for her. It follows both Sidra's attempts to find a place for herself in a new and confusing world planetside, while also telling Pepper's backstory as a young refugee from a backwater colony built on genetic manipulation.

So, it's a double Bildungsroman, or less pretentiously, a coming of age story, a YA novel in adult clothing. And I mean that last as a compliment - both Orbit and Planet are about young people making their way in a confusing universe, learning life lessons and looking for somewhere to fit in and belong. 

And while fantasy turns out young adventurers by the score, SF has lost the art of this somewhat in recent years and it's nice to see Chambers do an good job of redressing the balance. Her work is very well suited as a gateway into the wider genre.

So, it's an enjoyable read, but is it the best book on the Hugo shortlist? In a way, Orbit has the opposite problem to Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, which is hard to truly like but easy to respect. Chambers give us memorable characters, snappy dialogue and moves the plot along smoothly - in short, she gives us fun - but these are all virtues of writerly craft rather than of art. And you've got to have both.

The themes she explores - artitificial intelligence and a genetically modified underclass - aren't particularly new or refreshed either. And the climax of the book is also somewhat underplayed, given how emotionally invested in the outcome the reader should be by that point.

Another way of putting it is that while there is much good in it, even the every good in places, Orbit isn't quite the complete package. For me, it also lacks the uncanny superlative (that Bill and Ted 'Woah' factor) that in different ways characterises the best of both SF and fantasy. 

A Hugo nomination for what is still only Chambers' second novel reflects how far she's already come, however, and I look forward to reading (or indeed watching) more by her in the future.

Hugo Rankings So Far

1. Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky
2. Yoon Ha Lee,  Ninefox Gambit
3. Becky Chambers, A Close And Common Orbit

Monday, July 3, 2017

This review removed for non-compliance with consensus reality: Ninefox Gambit

I've seen a great deal of appreciation in some quarters of the internet for Yoon Ha Lee's Hugo-nominated debut novel Ninefox Gambit. Me, I'm still trying to decide if I actually liked it or not. 

Now, likeability isn't necessarily a sign of a great book, but if it's not aimiable it has to have other things going for it. And what Ninefox Gambit does have is a great idea: that of a totalitarian regime consciously shaping its own consensus reality through control of philosophy, physics and mathematics; right down to the calendar and how time is measured.

This might seem far fetched, until we recall revolutionary France's new calendar which renamed the months and introduced a ten day week, or the Cambodian Year Zero. Control of time, of information, of language is something we are all too familiar with from the last century. 

Lee simply takes this to a logical endpoint. And then goes right over the edge with the idea that mass belief can generate special combat effects like something out of a role-playing game (or the human machine code of Snow Crash, or Julian May's psychic protagonists combining their powers in metaconcert). 

Needless to say, there is something of a tension between the serious and the silly in Ninefox Gambit.

As a story, it plays out as philosophical military SF - a war of competing ideologies, but also of guns and ships powered by those same beliefs. There are scads of space battles, close-quarter fighting and political intrigue here to enjoy. 

My reservations? It's not as sure footed in its storytelling or world-building as it thinks it is, and could do with a wee bit more exposition. Tonally, it's all over the place too, with ill-fitting comic moments not really working in a much grimmer bigger picture.

But having said that, Ninefox Gambit is a novel I'd like to think I would have published had I the opportunity - it may not be likeable but it sure is interesting. It's a calling card for a new talent and I'll certainly read it again, if only to get a better handle on it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wholeness and wholesomeness: Waitress reviewed

More from the vaults...

Waitress (2007) starts off bitter and slowly graduates towards sweet, and by the end is more than a little cloying. Still, if you can forgive it that, there's a lot to like here.

Keri Russell (who 2017 me has just remembered was also the best thing in Austenland) plays Jenna - a typical waitress in a classic American diner, with a pie fixation, a lousy husband and an initially unwanted pregnancy. Via an affair with her doctor and with the support of an ensemble of small town comic stock types, she finds herself!

So full of archetypes is it, Waitress only really makes sense to me as the filming of an indie slice-of-life graphic novel, a four-colour tale of wacky waitresses, bad-tempered cooks and nerdy-but-loveable suitors. But that's not necessarily a bad thing if it's done with skill, as it is here thanks to presiding spirit writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelley *.

Rather, it makes it a film with a vision - a way of looking at the world. Wholeness and wholesomeness.

Until the last act, Waitress does a good job of tempering this sweetness with the damaged marital relationship at its core. And it's not that I begrudge the film its happy ending, it's just that without that dilution the mawkishness goes right up to 11 and it loses its charm somewhat.

Up to that point though, a most likeable picture.

* who was tragically murdered shortly before the film was released.

From the vaults: Eagle Vs Shark reviewed

Another film review retrieved from journals past, this time Eagle Vs Shark (2007). If you want to know what Taika Waititi was up to prior to What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, well, this is it.

EvsS is (surprise!) a quirky New Zealand indieflick about a shy romantic (Lily, played by Loren Horsley) with the misfortune to fall in love with self-obsessed geek Jarrod (Jermaine Clement, pre-Conchord mania) at a 'come as your favourite animal' party. The film follows them as they return to his home town for a showdown with the school bully.

As well as being deadpan funny, 2007 me found EvsS unexpectedly moving. It illustrates not just the pitfalls in both self-centredness and passivity, but also how they can reinforce each other. Happily for the viewer, it also shows that these stances can shift, no matter how firmly embedded they seem. 

There's some fine comic ensemble playing, but what carries the film are the two main leads. Clement plays Jarrod with sufficient vulnerabilty that you can sense the damage underneath the bursts of staccato bravado. Meanwhile Horsley adroitly moves Lily from a woman with her heart in her mouth at all times to one who finally holds herself like she's answered her own question.

EvsS is no Wilderpeople, yet if you want to see early signs of the comic humanism that powered last year's breakout success, you'll find plenty of evidence here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

If Dylan were a Timelord: I'm Not There

I've been archiving seven or eight years of journalling from the London and Birmingham years recently and have found a few more film reviews to share.

I'm Not There is Todd Haynes' Dylan fantasia - a novelistic treatment of seven different stages of Bob Dylan's career. 

It's starting point is perhaps that the man himself is ultimately unknowable, a view Volume 1 of his autobiography does nothing to unpick, I fear. So instead, different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw) are employed at each stage to symbolise these sharp changes in presentation and artistic direction. 

As if Dylan were a Timelord, if you like (*).

From earnest folkie, through plugged in rocker chasing that wild mercury sound, to Woodstock exile and born-again Christian, I'm Not There veers between realism and magic realism depending on which 'Bob' is on stage. And all seven Dylans are compelling: above all Cate Blanchett as electric Highway '61 Bob and Christian Bale. The playfulness and passionate engagement with the source material runs right through the film, and the music's great too.

It's focus on Dylan as myth rather than as man means it's biggest weakness is inevitably it's lack of emotional heft. The closest it comes is Blanchett portraying an artist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But for all that it avoids bathos and the over-dramatisation of the conventional biopic. So despite it's slight flaws, it's a brave, engaging film.

* And I suppose Bob and The Doctor occupy similar locations in our modern mythology - outsiders, tricksters, tellers of truth to power. Symbols of self-transformation, what the graphic novelist Grant Morrision would call hypersigils. But that's one for another post.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The hypercompetence of mavericks: thoughts on Die Hard

I've been wondering why Die Hard has lasted, as against so many other 80's action films, having seen it for the first time in ages last year in a festival movie tent.

On one level, it's an easy question to answer. Die Hard is a competent B-movie action picture elevated to something special by the interplay between the two character-actor leads: Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman. 

Both are especially good at the grey area between comedy and righteous anger (Willis) or menace (Rickman) respectively. And tonally speaking, that's the screwball sweet spot for 80's action films - the violence has to be undercut enough by the banter so as to be palatable for a mass audience. 

But there's more to Willis than comic timing - he's a powerful identification figure for the audience. Rugged but not ripped, Bruce can do 'concerned, heavily armed citizen' John McClane in way that anomalous Arnie or sonorous Stallone would struggle to match. 

His buddy-buddy relationship wth desk cop turned first responder (Reginald VelJohnson - also a great piece of casting) is convincing because of that. And the actions he takes against the terrorists/robbers are all the more credible for it too.

Which brings us too, I suppose, to the legendary quality that fuels Die Hard. While its merits as a film with a great cast have helped it last, it also doesn't hurt that it's perhaps one of the most persuasive cinematic restatements of the armed civilian myth: the idea that what you really need in a crisis is not the state but a frontiersman with a gun. 

And in Bruce's case, a "Ho, Ho, Ho" too.

Yes, the film stacks the deck massively in favour of this reading - the deputy chief of police is an idiot, the two FBI agents even more so - but that is to argue its credibility rather than its mythic power. 

This isn't a post about gun control, and it would be ridiculous to directly extrapolate from Die Hard to arguments for or against anything in the real world. On the other hand, the stories we tell and retell about the world can be inadvertently revealing. 

What does it mean that films like this valorise the hypercompetence of violent mavericks? What does it signify when they also strike such a chord in us too?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some recipes I'm trying

In the spirit of reminding myself how relaxing I find baking and cooking, but not just cooking vegetarian paella on autopilot every week, here's a log of any new recipes I try over the next few months.

Moroccan harcha (semolina pan-fried flatbread)
Chipotle black bean chilli 
Jamie Oliver simple tomato pasta sauce (deployed with Ikea meatballs and the vegetarian equivalent)  
Sun-dried tomato risotto (recipe used pearl barley instead of rice but we didn't have time on this occasion, maybe the next one)
Stuffed pepper leftover experiment (exactly as tasty as it sounds)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Novel needs Director's Cut? Glasshouse by Charles Stross reviewed.

'Accelerando on downers' is probably not the synopsis Charles Stross would choose for Glasshouse (2006), although it does take the former's (relative) optimism about posthumanism and drastically flip it. 

So, let's try again.

In Stross' body of work, Glasshouse is perhaps the equivalent of the 'difficult' prog/metal experiment: all dystopian ideas, arcane technology, ultraviolence and unusual time signatures. And I mean the part about time signatures pretty much literally, since the novel opens with a glossary of time as measured in the far future setting, all kiloseconds, megaseconds and giga.... well you get the picture.

It follows that the convoluted plot, summarised and compressed here, will make limited sense. Key to following it all is comprehending the idea of posthumanism/transhumanism - the theory that in the future technology will allow humanity to transcend its physical and mental limitations and be whatever it or individual members of the species want to be. In twenty-first century space opera (like Glasshouse) this often goes hand in hand with interstellar or at least inter-planetary civilisation.

Done badly or indifferently, it just makes for a lot of hand-waving science-indistinguishable-from-magic special effects. Done well, it also raises questions about the provisional nature of our humanity under technological pressure and the ethical problems which arise whether we embrace or resist change. Glasshouse is one of the latter.

Our protagonist Robin, is an amnesiac posthuman in a new body, recovering from PTSD after a cosmic information war. He volunteers for the interstellar equivalent of Castaway or a gigantic LARP, a psychological experiment in recreating Dark Age (read: twentieth century Earth) society. Needless to say, things aren't quite what they seem.

Stross throws out ideas, leads and lures in such quantities that the book properly fizzes. This is both a strength and a weakness: it takes a while to work out what's going on and at least a couple of sub-plots are left hanging without proper resolution. The antagonists, too, are more sketched out than fully developed in a way which weakens the philosophical elements of the book.

As is traditional, he doesn't quite land the ending either, rushing through it in a few scanty pages. There's a lot going on in Glasshouse and for me it's one of those rare novels that would benefit from more than the 388 pages it has. A Director's Cut, maybe?

This review would also not be complete without mentioning that this is a righteously angry book in polemical dialogue with the present and recent past, particularly with gender roles and the answers provided by (for example) Christian fundamentalism. You can probably guess which aspects of twentieth century American society the experiment tries to replicate with imperfect information, and the resulting body horror places Glasshouse closest in mood (sombre, oppressive, skin-crawling) to The Apocalypse Codex in the Stross canon.

It falls very much into the category of gloriously messy, ideas-driven, heart-on-sleeve flawed-but-fascinating science-fiction novels that I love almost as much as the ones that do all of this and bring it all on home. A rewarding, if occasionally frustrating novel.

Most read posts so far this year

The blog has been gently bubbling away in 2017, sustained by a series of posts on the charts of 1976 and its use as a bit of link library / memory palace for work. 

I'm never sure what posts are going to get the most traction, but here are the most viewed so far this year: 

1. Paul, The Liverpool South Parkway Station Cat 
2. Health-geekery March 2017
3. Scaramouching Its Way To The Top - Bohemian Rhapsody
4. Was Pop In Crisis In 1976?
5. Introducing The 1976 Project 
6. 1976 Was Peak Abba
7. 2017 Hugo Nominations - A Much More Open Field
8. Michael Fabricant Is Right 
9. Finding Your Feet Again: Alcest's Kodama 
10. Thoughts From Oatcake Country

That breaks down to:
Music (1976) - 4
Politics - 3
Cats - 1  
Music (other) - 1
Science-fiction - 1

Monday, May 22, 2017

A 1976 playlist

In lieu of a proper post today, a growing playlist of the cream of the charts of '76 (at least in this blogger's opinion). No reissue, no Christmas singles, alright?

Abba - Dancing Queen 
Abba - Money Money Money
Joan Armatrading - Love 
Average White Band - Queen Of My Soul
Biddu Orchestra - Rainforest

David Bowie - Golden Years
Johnny Cash - One Piece At A Time
Tina Charles - I Love To Love
Brass Construction - Movin'
Can - I Want More 

Chicago - If You Leave Me Now
Paul Davidson - Midnight Rider
Detroit Spinners - Rubberband Man
The Fatback Band - Night Fever (no, not that one) 
Bryan Ferry - Let's Stick Together

Fox - S-s-s-Single Bed 
Emmylou Harris - Here, There And Everywhere
Isaac Hayes - Disco Connection
Juggy Jones - Inside America
Elton John - Pinball Wizard

Elton John and Kiki Dee - Don't Go Breaking My Heart 
Gladys Knight And The Pips - Make Yours A Happy Home
C W McCall - Convoy
George McCrae - Honey I
Steve Miller Band - Rock N Me

The Miracles - Love Machine
Mistura featuring Lloyd Michaels - The Flasher
Mud - Shake It Down 
Walter Murphy - A Fifth Of Beethoven
Osibisa - Sunshine Day

Dolly Parton - Jolene
Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
Cliff Richard - Devil Woman
Diana Ross - Love Hangover
Sailor - Glass Of Champagne 

Boz Scaggs - Lowdown
Lalo Schiffrin - Jaws
Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Boston Tea Party
Silver Convention - Get Up And Boogie 
Candi Staton - Young Hearts Run Free

R And J Stone - We Do It 
Donna Summer - Love To Love You Baby
Johnnie Taylor - Disco Lady
10cc - Art For Art's Sake
Thin Lizzy - Jailbreak 

Thin Lizzy - The Boys Are Back In Town 
Johnny Wakelin - In Zaire
War - Low Rider
Wild Cherry - Play That Funky Music 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Swiss Family Roadtrip: Captain Fantastic

When we were driving through rural California back in 2015 on the way to Yosemite, @rae102011 and I were struck by how easy it would be to just disappear in the vastness of America.

Dropping out in Britain is compromised (with the possible exception of northern Scotland) by population density -  the counterculture is social by necessity as much as by inclination. In the US, there's little to prevent you going full Walden, if that's what you want. 

And in last year's film Captain Fantastic, that's exactly what Ben and Leslie Cash thought they wanted.

NB mild spoilers and mention of mental illness and suicide follow.

Turning their back on the dominant culture, they raise their six children in deep seclusion in the forested fastness of Washington state. Their aim: to raise philosophers and athletes in the style of the Ancient Greeks, able to cite the Bill of Rights as readily as they can run miles through the forest. 

Writer/director Matt Ross manages the feat of taking this project as seriously as they do themselves, while also acknowledging the comedy inherent in a family who give their children one-of-a-kind new age names (Vespyr, Rellian, Bodevan) and celebrate Noam Chomsky Day in lieu of Christmas.

Captain Fantastic is a film about the collapse of this rural utopian dream through the mental illness and death of mother Leslie and the family's resulting, reluctant but pragmatic compromise with American society. Rugged, brooding, heartfelt - though not without lightness of touch - it's a very Viggo Mortensen kind of film.

And he excels himself in the lead role of grieving patriarch Ben Cash, driving down to New Mexico with clan in tow to disrupt Leslie's (profoundly, inappropriately traditional) funeral. A kind of Swiss Family Roadtrip, if you like. The kids are great too, played by the juvenile cast with just the right mix of precocity, naivete and presumption you'd expect of children raised by latter-day Rousseaus.

The film walks a nice line between critiquing the idea that one can change the world simply by retreating and raising the next generation apart from it, while also showing up the limits and ignorance of modern techno-culture. It doesn't trade on broad strokes or easy answers though; it's a small film about parents with big ideas and is all the better for it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Spring into action [PUN KLAXON]

With thanks to my colleagues and the E-campaigning forum, I'm just scrap-booking some interesting links and resources here to create an impromptu reading list.

Unless indicated otherwise, linking does not indicate support, endorsement or the adoption of a resource as my philosophy of living. :)

Community organising

Betsy Hoover's TED talk on community organising

Change Agency guide to community organising

Unlocking Networks - a resource for developing and getting the most from peer-to-peer networks.

Directed network campaigns

An interesting report from NetChange about balancing central direction and bottom-up participation in campaigning.

E-mail activism

Free report from More Onion about how you can make your e-mail activism aimed at MP's and other decision-makers as effective as possible.

More More Onion reporting: supporter journeys and how to automate them

And a contrasting voice about the limits of e-activism.

Mobilisation Lab archive

Where all their regular updates on campaign innovation can be found.

Facilitation resource banks, hints and tips

Training For Change
Conscious Collaboration
Seeds For Change
Radical Think Tank

The long view

Friends of the Earth look at lessons from campaigns throughout history. A nice companion piece to this is an ACEVO report making the case for charity campaigning in the here and now.

They call him The Ponderer

Tom Baker is The Thoughtful Campaigner (see for example his thoughts on leadership in campaigns or on campaigning in coalition)

48 Campaign Strategies? So close to Paul Simon, but not quite 

Thanks, Chris Rose

Or: More Onion on unconventional tactics.

Stories and listening

Great article on Open Democracy by Simon Hodges about respectful relationships being a key criterion for persuasion. See also Outrageous Impact on a similar topic.

Teamwork and coalitions

Creative coalitions: a handbook for change
How Google Docs became a key tool for social justice

Old school

Common Cause report on value-led campaigning

Health-geekery May 2017

There's been so much going on since my last round-up that I'm just going to steadily accumulate links here as I find time to go through them in my inbox.

As usual, inclusion doesn't necessarily mean agreement, merely interest.


New drug licensed in America for the treatment of MND (the MND Association's research blog) 

The news broke at the Association's regional conference for people with MND and their families last Saturday in Liverpool. This event also coverered campaigning and awareness-raising: you can watch my colleague Colin Morris give a sneak preview of Awareness Month in June followed (from about 16 minutes) me introducing an absolutely barnstorming speech by local campaigner Debbie Williams on the MND Charter.


NHS left reeling by cyberattack in the Guardian (and a warning from Silicon from December 2016)
Labour now support a moratorium on STP's
Recruitment crisis in nursing (Grauniad again)
National Voices editorialise on health stats from IPSOS global trends report
Naylor Review of NHS estates summarised by The Whitehouse Consultancy.


Nice bit of infographery for the local elections and the General Election in Wales from Deryn

The third sector and the General Election:
Disability Rights UK
National Voices
Disability Benefits Consortium
Action Duchenne
Terrence Higgins Trust
Health Foundation
Nuffield Trust

Disability rights

Equality and Human Rights Commission reviews disability inequality in Britain: a journey less equal.


Snapshot survey from the RCP finds that doctors across Wales were struggling to cope with NHS winter pressures
Public Health (Wales) Act passes into law - some provisions about accessible toilets particularly relevant from a work perspective but lots more in there.
Extra money available for social care.

Health and social care campaigning

Responses to a question I asked in various places about campaign heroes (unsung and otherwise). Thanks to everyone who suggested candidates. 

Transforming mental health in Lambeth (via Nesta)
Roy Lilley
Self Directed Support Scotland
Dr James Fleming and Green Dreams (link to more about social prescribing here via the College of Medicine)
Anya de Iongh (the Patient Patient)
The Campaign To End Loneliness
Peer-to-peer behaviour change campaigns like Club Soda and others.
Unison's Care Charter
Save Lewisham Hospital
Mencap annual health checks campaign