Saturday, September 20, 2014

Joyless In Night Vale

I expect by now all three of you know that Crox Minor and I are fans of the cult podcast Welcome to Night Vale, a spoof community radio broadcast from a small, fictional desert town somewhere in the US, where every conspiracy theory of which you have ever heard is, in fact, true; where Hooded Figures keep you from the Dog Park; where show-anchor Cecil Baldwin rhapsodizes over his love for visiting scientist Carlos; and where the mayoral candidates include a five-headed dragon and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home. It has been compared - very aptly, I think - to what Lake Woebegon would have been like had it been written by Stephen King.

Crox Minor and I would huddle each fortnight in the Home Orifice to hear the lastest broadcast, and reminisce afterwards about our favourite characters and lines. I've even submitted some original music to 'the Weather'.

Imagine, then, our joy at finding other Night Vale fans when we went to WorldCon last month.
Fans of Welcome to Night Vale, recently.
Imagine, even more, how loudly we went 'squueeee!' at the thought that there would be a panel on our favourite show. Here is the excerpt from the WorldCon programme:

Well, it was heaving with fans and we were expecting to pass a pleasant hour soaking up the camaderie engendered by the shared love of ephemeral popular culture.

When we left, I had a bad taste in my mouth, and I confess my ability to enjoy Welcome To Night Vale has decreased as a result.

The panel, I regret to say, was stuffed with the Politically Correct, who rather than sharing their views, were intent on telling us, the great unwashed audience, What To Think.

It is clear to anyone who listens to Welcome To Night Vale that it is steeped in the schlock that is H. P. Lovecraft. Indeed, earlier editions of the show even reference the batty old scribbler from Providence by name. But the first person in the audience in the Night Vale session at WorldCon who mentioned Lovecraft was shouted down by a panellist. "Don't even mention Lovecraft to the creators of Night Vale!" we were told, on account of the fact that Lovecraft was the most dreadful racist. So he was, but that (I submit) shouldn't prevent one enjoying his horror fiction. I mean, I enjoy the verses of Hilaire Belloc, even though he was an anti-semite. (The authority on which the panellist could base this ukase was questionable - none of the creators of Night Vale was in evidence.)

Then came an extended tirade from one of the panellists on how poorly (in her opinion) Night Vale treated disabled people. This made no sense at all to me, nor, I guess, to many of the audience. Night Vale has a panoply of characters with all kinds of peculiarities. People have varying numbers of heads, for example, or are invisible, or have been turned into lizards, or - in the most discussed case - were born as the single hand of an adult male. To me, this looks like a clear riff on The Beast With Five Fingers or, perhaps, that character from the Addams Family. But, Oh No, we were told - this was all about people with disability and how they are treated in our Society.

Er … what?

I think this is a case, once again, of being separated by a common language. To me, an English listener, Night Vale is funny. It is an entertainment. Yes, there is, buried not too deeply, some biting political and social satire, and a recent episode had some trenchant remarks to make about retirement, and how we shouldn't define ourselves by our jobs - for when we retire from our jobs, what are we then? But it derives its comedy from the Absurd. It reminds me very much of old-fashioned radio comedy such as The Goon Show and Round The Horne.

Many American listeners of this American show, though, cannot help slather it in the noisome ichor that is Political Correctness, and, in so doing, suck all the joy and laughter and fun out of it.

The Politically Correct are like the Dementors in the Harry Potter adventures. Let them in and they will flood your soul with despair. For me, they have tainted my appreciation of a show I once loved.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scotland, Upon A Peak in Darien

As the world and its terrier (complete with tartan coat) ramps up to the Scottish referendum on independence this Thursday, I did a little digging around into the circumstances of the Act of Union in 1707, in which the Kingdom of Scotland formally joined the United Kingdom. They were, it has be be said, squalid.

England and Scotland had shared a monarch since 1603, but in all other respects the nations were quite separate - rather like, say, Canada and Australia today. So what prompted the formal, political union more than a century later?

It wasn't necessary.

Neither was it inevitable.

Well, it turns out that Scotland's membership of the Union came as the result of an heroic failure on the international stage. I speak not of football, but of a colonial adventure which drove Scotland to the brink of bankruptcy - and into the arms of England.

The scheme, in the closing years of the seventeenth century, was the establishment of a Scottish colony at Darien on the Ishthmus of Panama, a bridgehead with the potential to control trade between Atlantic and Pacific.

As an idea, it was brilliant.

As a practical proposition, it was mad.

The Scots sent two expeditions - the first in 1698, the second in 1699 - to establish a colony. It foundered in a welter of malaria and debt. Unable to gather sufficient capital to back the scheme from abroad, the Scots went alone and backed the enterprise to the tune of around £500,000 - about half the entire capital of Scotland at the time, including contributions from many individual Scots. They lost the lot. So ruined, Scotland had little option but to throw in its lot with England to create the UK.

Now, it has to be said that some of the hands which prompted the failure of the Darien Scheme were English. The plan was certainly viewed with extreme disfavour by the vastly powerful East India Company - which, it is important to remember, was not an agent of the Crown, but an independent commercial concern, as it was right up to the Indian Mutiny in 1857.  Today we'd see it as a kind of investment bank with its own army.

Are there lessons here for the referendum in two days' time? I hesitate to draw parallels. But I do wonder whether this interesting yet near-forgotten diverticulum of history has been considered by anyone in the current debate. Perhaps it should.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


A little while ago I told you how I'd started to freshen up my Home Orifice. Given that I spend a great deal of time in the Home Orifice, either on my recognizance or in my work at the Submerged Log Company, and that it hadn't been refurbished since I moved into it four years ago, I felt it needed some attention.

Well, by dint of elbows, knees, my amazing dancing teeth and the awesome power of chi, it's done. All the walls have been repainted; the shelves are up; (almost) all the clutter has been removed; the floor has seen a vacuum cleaner; and I have even dusted the piano.

Here is the view from the doorway, looking North.

…and here is the view southwards, from the Chair.

What's not perhaps evident is that I have gained about ten metres of shelf space. I did this by removing one of the two desktops (which only attracted rubbish), filling out every unused corner, putting a shelf above the window and so on.

Until I'd spread the books out a bit, it looked like a catalog warehouse the day after Christmas. But the space is still there, which means I have space for more books!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Futures2 Live and Downloadable

Cover by the wonderful and long-suffering Jacey
Decades in the preparation, centuries in the transliteration, the second Nature Futures anthology is now live and downloadable to your e-podule. A taste-menu of current SF, it contains a hundred delectable story-shaped amuse-bouches originally published in Nature.

The Nature column was started (by moi) in 1999 originally as a short series to usher in the new millennium. But the series had staying power and was periodically resurrected. The first anthology was published in 2008 in the ever-popular reprocessed lignin format, though that too is now (as a second edition) available as a photonic bundle.

In 2012 I handed over the editorship to my young padawan learner Colin Sullivan, so when the time came to select stories for a second anthology, we put our heads together in a kind of mind-meld. Having published more than 500 stories in Nature (and sister title Nature Physics) over the past fifteen years, on and off, we had an abundance of riches from which to choose. I hope it won't be invidious to mention a few that made the cut. 

My favourite Futures stories are those that made me laugh out loud when I first read them. Health Advice for Traveler by the lovely David Goldman gives some very dubious tips for human travelers to an alien system. Me Am Petri - one of several possible choices from the irrepressible Martin Hayes - shows how internet memes foil an alien invasion. Expectancy Theory by Ananyo Bhattacharya takes observer bias to a ridiculous extreme. Press '1' to Begin by Nye Joell Hardy looks at Human Resources in a whole new way. High On The Hog by Sean Davidson is a fantastic fusion of Harleys and … well, you'll have to read it to find out.

But there are others of more sinister cast. The Chair by Madeline Ashby will make you think of everyday furniture rather differently. Annie Webber by Elizabeth Bear looks at the strange people you meet in coffee bars. Stay Special by Susan Lanigan takes ideals of female beauty to their chilling conclusion, whereas Unglued by Amber Sistla is a particularly grisly dystopia.

Some of these stories suggest that I am obsessed with food, but have unsavoury eating habits - witness Eating with Integrity by David Berreby; In the Recovery Room by Eric Brown, and Steve Sepp, Tasty! Tasty! by Matthew Sanborn Smith. Others are just joyous tales with unfashionably happy endings, such as A Kiss Is Just A Kiss by Steve Carper, and Life, Abundant and with Simple Joy by Sarah K. Castle. Perhaps my favourite is Jacey Bedford's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Panda, a heart-warming study in which a vast epic is neatly shoehorned into a small space, the very model of a Futures tale.

Industry bible Publishers Weekly gave the first Futures anthology a coveted starred review. I know I'm biased, but I think this second shot is even better.

Futures is still going strong, weekly in Nature, monthly in Nature Physics - if you'd like to send a story, direct your 850-950-word vignettes to this address. Some of our authors are well known in the SF firmament; others are not. Some of our authors made their first fiction sale to Futures, and Colin is always pleased to get really great stories from new people. Maybe your story'll get published and feature in a future Futures anthology (yes, we are already thinking about volume 3.)

So don't be shy. Slap your tentacle to the pentacle, head for the bright star at the zenith and keep on 'til morning. Wondering what a good Futures story looks like? Let the new Futures2 anthology be your guide.

Monday, September 8, 2014


My home office used to be the kitchen. When we moved the original kitchen elsewhere, about four years ago, I invaded the space and steam-cleaned the walls and floor. There is nothing quite as depressingly rank and grubby as a vacated kitchen, with all the residues of past meals, once hidden atop cabinets and behind the cooker, exposed as congealed dollops for all to see (and smell. And touch.)

Having done that I put down some carpet tiles on the regulation ex-council linoleum, This was a lot of fun, especially as I had to use spray adhesive in a somewhat ill-ventilated space. By the time I had finished I was convinced that I was being serenaded by a giant pink octopus wearing a bowler hat, whose warm tenor tones were counterpointed by an ill-defined orchestra of other marine invertebrates.

Once I'd recovered from that, I made desks out of the sides of a slab-sided wardrobe, and threw bookshelves up all the walls on double-spur runners. I didn't even stop to repaint the walls, piebald with unpainted squares where kitchen units once stood, so desperate was I to get in there and start working.

Now, though, it's gotten a little shabby. As I spend most of my working life in my home office I have decided to freshen it up a little. I have been taking the bookshelves down, painting the walls a uniform cream colour, and replacing the shelves, hopefully in a neater arrangement, buying new timber where necessary. I have also abolished one of the desks, as it did nothing but accumulate clutter, so making more room for shelves.

I had planned to build bookshelves with proper frames and sides, dowel-jointing everything together, but the initial efforts were an utter fiasco even by my own poignantly low standards. The experience was shaming. I mean, me, the scion of generations of Russian Jewish cabinet makers, and the owner of my great-grandfather's fine mahogany dining chairs, (for all that Canis primus croxorum, then a puppy, gnawed a leg of one of them.) His son, my grandfather, made walnut dashboards for Rolls Royce. His son, my father, though trained as a lawyer, was and is a craftsman of exquisite objects and now does a nice line in wooden clock casings. Uncles, aunts and cousins on my father's side were and are experts in one sort of craft or another, and even though I have indeed made most of the furniture in our kitchen and quite a lot besides, very little of the family carpentry mojo has come my way. My style is what Mrs Crox charitably calls 'rustic'. So for now it's back to the tried-and-tested double-spur runners. At least I know how to hang a shelf so it doesn't collapse.

UntitledAs I am still working in the home office while all this is going on, I'm doing it piecemeal. This picture shows the first corner more or less done. What you cannot see, behind the camera, is the ongoing chaos of redecoration in flux, the collected detritus from the office washed up, as it were, into a bolus of strandline refuse.

The problem is not so much the books as the other stuff. Pictures. Ornaments. Soft toy bison (I have two of these - I never knew.) Fossils. Plastic dinosaurs. Stationery supplies and other office-related necessities. Music gear. CDs. Magazines. Tools. Electronic bits and pieces. Assorted DIY junk.

As all the CDs have been ripped into the computer and so are surplus to immediate requirement, I'm letting the Croxii pick over what they want before I stash the rest in the loft. The Croxii, born into the Download Generation, regard CDs as slightly quaint. Not sure what they make of cassettes.

DIY clutter and tools will be returned to the toolbox and thence the shed (itself a Crawling Chaos the tidying of which will be left to another day/year/epoch.) The loft will be the destination for much of the assorted clutter, though the magazines are already being secreted, as the soil in the trouser turn-ups of would-be prison-camp escapees, into the waiting rooms of my dentist and GP. I haven't stuck around to learn what the patients of Cromer make of BBC Focus, Classic Rock and Jewish Quarterly. Though I guess they might like BBC Wildlife.

There will be Much Recyclage.

When all is done I shall have - oh joy! - several metres of shelf space I didn't have before, all the better to fill with yet more books.

As I expect you know - both of you - we have one rule Chez Crox, which is that no reasonable request for books will ever be refused. So apart from the home office, we have a well-stuffed bookcase in the (new) kitchen. Books waft into the salon and bedroom. Crox Minor (16) has a wallful of books, and Crox Minima (14)  is also accumulating quite a collection.

I recently had occasion to put some (more) bookshelves up in Crox Minima's Boudoir and Library. We had lots of fun doing it together, and when she'd finished filling them with books, we sat on her bed looking up at a job well done, for we both - it turns out - derive a feeling of immense satisfaction from looking at a well-filled bookcase. We love bookshops. We both look approvingly at the antique bookcase which now appears in Dr Who's newly redecorated Tardis.

Looking back, all the places I've enjoyed being in most, all the houses I have most enjoyed visiting, have had books everywhere, in every room, even in the WC. Now, don't get me wrong - e-books are great, and very convenient, especially for travelling, and I have quite a few on two iPads, an iPhone and a Kobo mini, but their essence is that they don't take up space on shelves, and so cannot contribute to that acquisitive satisfaction of running a finger along a row of books, picking some out to browse, first one, and then another. For books are beautiful not just as stores of information but as objects, with heft, with reality. They have covers. They are of different sizes. They are made of different kinds of paper stock. They have different typefaces, illustrations, bindings. They have histories. They have smells, whether that glorious chemical odour of the brand-bookshop-bought new, or the slightly musty air of the secondhand prize pulled from dark and half-forgotten stack at the back of an ill-lit bookstore. Books - real books - are marks of civilization.

Now, this might be controversial, but I have a hunch that those people who do best at school were raised in comforting and nurturing nests of books; where children are read bedtime stories; in homes where books are not only commonplace but valued; where books have a presence, like household gods; where they are more than disposable clusters of photons. It was books, in their physicality, that weathered the dark ages, being copied and copied and copied again, by hand, treasured as heirlooms beyond price. Even when books were printed, they were still expensive, created, crafted.

Much has been said about the future of books and of reading. So long as people continue to derive physical, visceral pleasure from well-stocked bookshelves in a way that simply cannot come from a well-stocked e-reader, I do not think that the printed book will ever be obsolete.

It Has Not Escaped Our Notice #101

Compared with the rest of the UK, London is the most amazing place. Sometimes I don't think it belongs on the same planet, let alone in the same country. I mean, people in London have maglev boots. Possibly even anti-gravity.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Media Misuse of Statistics

In a referendum in ten days time the people of Scotland will be asked whether they want to secede from the UK. In recent days there has been much anguish, noise and general headless running-around following a poll by YouGov suggesting a marked lead in the 'Yes' vote - a growth of several percent in a week.

Here are the results expressed as percentages (find the full document here.)

Here are the actual numbers for this week's poll.

The weighting scheme - a way of adjusting the small sample to make the result more representative of the population as a whole - is quite complicated. It's based on age, gender, social class and political allegiance. You can find the details on the final page of the document

The raw data showed that 475 people voted in favour of independence, 538 against, with 71 not expressing a preference. This looks like a decent margin for the 'no' camp - except as the undecideds number slightly more than the difference (63) between the 'yes' and 'no' camps, I doubt that that the result is meaningful. 

Now let's stir in the magic ingredient of weighting, bearing in mind that we are dividing an already small sample into a large number of subgroups based on age, gender, social class and so on. This really turns the tables, making 514 voting yes, 489 voting no. 

This looks like a big victory for the 'yes' camp, except that the difference between the two is 25, outweighed more than threefold by the undecideds, who number 81 (though I am uncertain whether such things mean much in samples once they are weighted - perhaps someone wiser in the ways of psephology would let me know.)

The swing to 'yes' is therefore only apparent once the data are massaged weighted, which makes you wonder about the quality of the raw data. One also wonders what the results would have been like had the weighting been designed differently. Where are the sensitivity analyses, one may ask? (Where are any error bars, come to that?)

Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, the results probably don't rate a hill of beans given that electorate numbers around 4,000,000. To my mind it certainly doesn't justify the apocalyptic headlines. Dan Hodges puts it a lot less charitably in his characteristically robust column in the Tory Graph.

But then I never did have much of a grasp of statistics.