Saturday 29 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Review

4 stars

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the latest Marvel superhero blockbuster. Much like the Superman films, it struggles with a main character who is perhaps a little too good and noble. Captain America doesn't have Tony Stark's narcissism, the Hulk's anger management issues, or Thor's family dynamics; he is so brave, modest, kind, generous, and honest it risks being quite annoying.

CA:TWS cleverly turns this to its advantage. It knows the Captain is an absolute Boy Scout and plays up to it. A sequence when he has to sneak around in disguise is very funny; he is useless at all forms of lying and deception, much to the frustration of Black Widow.  There are major parts for Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, both of whom are immensely enjoyable.

The core of the film is a conflict between the Captain's integrity and the ruthlessness of the modern US government, embodied by Nick Fury and the smooth politician Alexander Pierce (played with gusto by Robert Redford). It rapidly becomes a conspiracy thriller in the vein of Redford's Three Days of the Condor and others from the 1970s. The Captain uncovers nefarious doings at the highest levels of SHIELD, and does not know whom he can trust. Meanwhile, lurking in the background is the eponymous Winter Soldier, an assassin whose speed and strength are the equal of the Captain's own.

The plot draws on anxieties about the surveillance state. It is hard to imagine a more mainstream Hollywood movie than this, but the conclusion is remarkably anti-authoritarian.

The action is competently done as we would expect from Marvel. I thought the best was the opening assault scene; later it had trouble rising to the same level, although there are some great car chases and fights. I was watching this in 2D, and some of the aerial sequences might deserve to be seen in 3D.

Most of the action takes place in a very recognisable Washington DC. Now that Marvel has trashed New York (The Avengers) and London (Thor 2), it will be interesting to see which city is up next. Assuming the bad guys continue to target photogenic places in the English-speaking world, Sydney and San Francisco should be worried.

Last but not least, CA:TWS has a few marvellous in-jokes. I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying the inscription on the monument at the end is a brilliant reference to a very different film.

CA:TWS is great fun and lives up to the high standard of its Marvel predecessors.

Friday 28 March 2014

Cute Cat Friday 2014-03-28: Belle

Belle enjoying the raised cat bed which hangs off the stair railing.

Scotland's Vote 3: The Argument From Sport

The Argument From Sport has been advanced as a reason for Scotland to remain in the UK, by people who should know better.

In his speech at the Olympic Park in London on 7 February, David Cameron said:

[The] best thing about the Olympics wasn't the winning. It was the red, the white, the blue. It was the summer that patriotism came out of the shadows and into the sun, everyone cheering as one for Team GB.

A more general version comes from the unionist blog Notes From North Britain:

[It] is by voting No that we all get to share in the delights of the success enjoyed by British athletes and sportsmen and women, wherever in these islands they are from.

This isn't much of an argument. British fans can share in the delights (or agonies) of supporting anyone they like. If a British person has a deep affection for Rafael Nadal, Irish rugby or the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team, the constitutional structure of the UK has nothing to do with it.

At best, the Argument From Sport is a metaphor for unity; but the unity itself is based on other factors. I'm not proud to be Canadian because we have an Olympic team; I support the team because I'm proud to be Canadian. A combined Canada-USA team would be a nearly unstoppable force at the Winter Olympics, but I do not regard this as a serious argument for Canada becoming the 51st state.

Even as a metaphor for British unity, the Argument From Sport is uniquely flawed. This is because the UK already has separate teams for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Olympics are the odd one out, being the only major international event with a team directly corresponding to the UK.

It seems Cameron and his allies have not been paying attention for the last 142 years.

The Exceptionally Complicated Truth

Scotland and England have always had separate football teams, ever since they played the first official international match in 1872. There are also separate teams for Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scottish football emblem
Emblem of the Scottish national football team.

In rugby union, once again we have separate teams for Scotland, England, and Wales. Ireland north and south have a combined team, representing both part of the UK and a completely independent country. For some competitions, all four teams unite to make up the British and Irish Lions. Rugby league is largely an English activity but we have separate international teams here as well. England, Scotland, Wales and NI also compete separately in the Commonwealth Games.

As for cricket, I will quote Christopher Brookmyre's novel Country of the Blind:

[The] average attendance at a Scottish cricket match is usually about thirty - and that's including both teams, the umpire, stray dogs and any tramps who happen to be sleeping off the Special Brew in that particular park that day.

For what it's worth, Scotland has a separate cricket team too, although I imagine they are rather lonely.

All this looks peculiar to an outsider. Germany does not feel the need to field a separate football team for Bavaria, even though it was an independent country much more recently than Scotland. It puts the component nations of the UK alongside such anomalies as the Faeroe Islands.

For sporting leagues within the UK, the situation is similar. Scottish Premiership football is separate from the English/Welsh league. In rugby union, England has its own league, while the Pro12 (formerly the Magners League, formerly the Celtic League) comprises teams from Scotland, Wales, Ireland both north and south... and Italy.

The Simple Conclusion

The structure of British sport is old, complicated, and illogical, but it works surprisingly well. It's a typically British arrangement and a great illustration of the fluid and overlapping nature of national identity in these islands.

Separate sporting teams for England and Scotland will do no one any harm. In fact, they have existed for a very long time and everyone seems happy with the situation. If I were the No campaign, I would stay away from sporting arguments; they undermine their cause more than they support it.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Under The Skin: Review

Under The Skin is a disturbing yet strangely touching film, based on a novel by Michel Faber.

Scarlett Johansson gives a remarkable performance as an alien being. She has arrived in our world, disguised herself as a human, and gone out to seduce and capture men. She brings them back to what appears to be a derelict house on the edge of Glasgow, where they suffer a horrifying fate. Why she does this is unclear, but her approach is a dark mirror of all the men out there who view women as trophies to be seized.

It seems she begins to be intrigued by humans, and contemplate them as something other than targets for capture. Although she looks human and speaks English, she has absolutely no understanding of our motivations or her own disguise as one of us. In the end, she proves unprepared for how dangerous humans can be.

Johansson perfectly conveys the perspective of this alien, a being utterly outside human society who observes it as a scientist might study a curious new species of insect. It is a nice touch for her to speak with an English accent instead of her native American -- it results in speech rhythms that are just a little bit wrong, trying a little bit too hard, and perfectly reflects her character. Her performance is understated, but every word and gesture counts.

UTS is packed with brilliant and disturbing visuals of alien activity and bleak, gorgeous Highland landscapes, anchored by the everyday reality of the streets of Glasgow. It is very slow-paced, but I personally enjoyed that, as it allows us to appreciate the alien's detachment from the world and the slow, gradual buildup to terrifying events.

This is a weird, unsettling and brilliant piece of cinema.

Friday 21 March 2014

Cute Cat Friday 2014-03-21: Dexter

In honour of St. Patrick's Day and the Irish victory in Six Nations rugby earlier this week, here is Dexter with a pint of Guinness. He has no interest in drinking this or any other beer, which I believe to be a good thing. It matches his colour scheme nicely though.

Friday 14 March 2014

Cute Cat Friday: Belle

Welcome back to Cute Cat Friday! This is Belle, the younger of our two cats. We  adopted her from the Blue Cross animal shelter in Cambridge; the very first time we met, the poor girl was too afraid to come out of her sleeping box. The second time I went to see her at the shelter she was a little more confident and came out to greet me, so I took this picture.

After five months with us, she is now a bold, curious and adventurous cat, which is great to see!

Thursday 13 March 2014

Scotland's Vote 2: Barroso and the European Union


Just say no to Barroso

It has been generally assumed an independent Scotland would have little difficulty in joining the European Union.

This was cast into doubt by Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, in an interview with the BBC on 14 February. Barroso said it would be "difficult, and perhaps impossible." He cited possible objections from Spain, which would wish to discourage its own separatist movement in Catalonia; and compared Scotland to Kosovo.

I find it difficult to take Barroso seriously here. He is the former prime minister of Portugal and currently the unelected President of the European Commission, in effect the head of the EU's civil service. He certainly does not speak for the Spanish government, which to the best of my knowledge is keeping quiet on the matter. In fact, it's very unclear who he is speaking for.


Freedom! (Or, the principle of declaring independence)

Many EU member states originated from the breakup of larger entities. By my count, with breakups in the last 25 years alone, we have 7 out of the 28 members: Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia. If we include the last 100 years, we can add Austria, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Poland (gained independence from not one but three larger states), Malta (former British colony), and Cyprus (likewise), for a total of 14 out of 28.

If we go back far enough, Barroso's own Portugal fought for its independence from Spain, securing it in 1668. So did the Netherlands, whose independence was recognised by Spain in 1648.

I'll grant all of this happened before the countries in question joined the EU, but it's a little hard for the EU to claim it is against secession on principle. 


Joining the club


The SNP likes to point out that as part of the UK, Scotland has already been a member of the EU for the past 40 years, and Scottish law (which has always been distinct from English law) has already been made fully compliant with EU laws and treaties. On these grounds, Scotland might get accelerated entry into the EU in as little as 18 months.

Even leaving this aside, imagine that Scotland votes Yes to independence this September. Its credentials for entry would be as follows:
  • Strong democracy and a good record on human rights
  • Internal order and stability, and peaceful relations with its neighbours
  • Laws fully in compliance with EU requirements
  • Economically secure; including oil, the Scottish government estimates its per capita GDP would be similar to that of Sweden or Austria. Even if that proves optimistic, Scotland will be far richer than places like Lithuania or Portugal.
  • Likely to be a net contributor to the EU budget, just as the UK is
  • Geographically part of Europe with close trading ties to EU members 
  • Large territorial waters which EU members (including Spain) would like their fishing fleets to access
This seems rather persuasive to me. Kosovo does not have most of the above qualities (and has not even applied for EU membership), so Barosso's comparison is specious.

Someone might still veto membership for Scotland. I hesitate to say anything is too petty or absurd for international politics. But I don't think anyone really has a vital national interest in keeping Scotland out, and as noted above there are very good reasons for letting it in.

What about England? (And Wales and Northern Ireland?)

If Scotland doesn't automatically "inherit" the UK's membership, we cannot be certain the Rest of the UK (rUK) will either. rUK might have to apply as a new member. This would have to be settled by the lawyers, and I am not one of them; but at the very least, rUK would have to negotiate updated representation in the European Parliament, contributions to the EU budget, and so on.

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an "in or out" referendum on British EU membership in the next Conservative election manifesto. Before then, he says he would negotiate improved terms of membership for the UK. The exact nature of this improvement is vague and probably Cameron does not have much idea himself; the promise of a referendum is largely a gesture to appease the anti-EU elements in his own party.

The next UK general election is due in May 2015. If Scotland did vote for independence, the subsequent election campaign would be interesting, to say the least. We would have the Conservatives' promised referendum, negotiation of a place in the EU for rUK, and Scottish MPs who would be unable to participate in the new government.  If Cameron won a Conservative majority and carried out his referendum, it is quite possible that rUK would vote to leave the EU.

If that happens, then what? The EU is more popular in Wales and NI than it is in England. Would we see Wales seeking independence? Northern Ireland taking the heretical step of union with the Republic of Ireland, in order to remain in the EU? Unlikely, but once the UK's archaic structures begin to fall apart there could be all sorts of unforeseen consequences.

Interesting times indeed.  As a resident of England I would strongly prefer to stay in the EU, but I might find myself outvoted.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Review

The Grand Budapest Hotel is directed by Wes Anderson, who has a very distinctive style. He creates meticulously detailed imaginary worlds. They are stylised and unrealistic, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) they take on a powerful storybook reality of their own. He has pulled it off particularly well in this instance. One of my fellow viewers who dislikes many of Anderson's earlier films really enjoyed this one.

The main action of TGBH takes place in at least three levels of flashback. It happened to a young man, who tells the story as a much older man, to a writer who sometime later writes it down, and later still we see someone sit down to read it. It serves to emphasise that the tale takes place long ago and far away, as if the journey was to great to manage in one go and had to be completed in stages.

TGBH is set in a fictitious Central European country in the 1930s. It is a mountainous land which looks a little like Austria, but it is hinted (in one of our layered flashbacks) that it later became part of the Communist bloc. It occurs in some sort of alternate history where the Nazis and perhaps Germany itself never existed; but some other power closely modelled on Nazi Germany is aggressively expanding, and war is on the horizon.

However matters of war and politics are secondary to the main story, which is like a deranged Agatha Christie novel entailing a disputed inheritance and the ownership of a priceless painting. It is populated by sneering aristocrats, a splendidly creepy assassin, helpful monks, and a sacred brotherhood of hotel staff, among many other colourful characters. The cast includes a remarkable number of A-list Hollywood actors, often nearly unrecognisable under makeup.

Some of Anderson's earlier films have been perhaps a little too stylised and self-indulgent. But the plot in this one rips along at an impressive pace, and the elaborate quirkiness is a backdrop to the action rather than a substitute for it.

This Ruritanian crime caper includes just enough darkness to offset the zany comedy and prevent it from becoming too sugary. The scenes in the 1930s show the eponymous hotel at the height of its magnificence, but in later times we see it looking shabby and faded. It is fitting that the hotel's concierge in the 1930s, played excellently by Ralph Fiennes, makes it his mission to preserve beauty, order and the highest professional standards in defiance of entropy.

TGBH is a work from an exceptionally skilled and imaginative filmmaker at the top of his game; definitely one to watch.

Friday 7 March 2014

Cute Cat Friday: Dexter

Welcome to this blog's inaugural Cute Cat Friday! I have two cats, Dexter and Belle, aged nine and two respectively. As a break from all forms of serious discussion, here is a picture of Dexter:

Thursday 6 March 2014

Stop The War have lost the plot

Eleven years ago, the glorious leaders of the USA and UK were preparing to invade Iraq. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I marched against the war in Edinburgh. It was the first and only time I joined a mass protest in the streets.

An estimated two million people demonstrated against the war in London on 15 February 2003. This was the largest political demonstration in British history, overwhelmingly made up of ordinary people who did not believe Tony Blair's case for war.

The main umbrella group organising the London march was the Stop The War Coalition (STWC). When the war started anyway, STWC had a number of choices:

  1. Disband. Logical, but hardly attractive. They had harnessed popular anger in a demonstration of unprecedented size. It made sense to carry on and try to make use of this energy.
  2. Become a responsible campaign group. Something like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, including a few hippies and weirdos, but with their hearts in the right place. They could try to hold the British government to account for its decisions and prevent future wars.
  3. Go completely toys-in-the-attic crazy.
I must admit I have not been watching STWC's activities very closely.  But sometime in the last eleven years, they chose option (3).

(The singer and activist Billy Bragg deserves credit for pointing out just how deranged STWC have become.)

The February 15, 2003 anti-war march in London.

STWC Statement on Ukraine

It makes sense for an anti-war campaign group to issue a statement on Ukraine. Are they calling on all sides to resolve their differences peacefully? Not so much.

In the 407-word statement, here are the 26 words which refer to Russian military action:
The British and US governments are placing the blame for any escalation on Russia, which has sent troops into Crimea. We oppose all foreign military intervention.
Not exactly a ringing condemnation of Russia. You know, the country which sent soldiers to occupy the territory of Ukraine, blockaded Ukrainian ports and military bases, and has another 100,000 soldiers conducting "exercises" just over the border.

The rest of the statement goes on at length about:
  • Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and "proposed major air strikes in Syria" last summer
  • NATO expansion towards Russia's borders
  • NATO air strikes on Serbia in 1999
  • American drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere

So Russia, with one of the world's largest armies and 3200 nuclear weapons, led by a President responsible for war crimes in Chechnya and countless other abuses, was forced to send troops into Crimea because the West has been very, very bad for the last 15 years or so.

Because the democratically elected governments of places like Poland and Estonia have chosen to join NATO. Because the USA and its allies invaded Afghanistan with President Putin's support in the UN Security Council. Because the USA and UK talked about air strikes on Syria, and then decided not to do them.

In what universe does that make logical sense? It doesn't even rise to the level of being wrong.

I'm not saying the West has entirely clean hands. It appears there are thugs and gangsters on both sides in the Ukrainian conflict. If our governments have been backing "their" gangsters to try and defeat the Russian ones, it certainly wouldn't be the first time.

STWC's statement complains about the "major role" the USA and EU played in Ukraine's change of government, and their alleged responsibility for "far right and fascist elements" in the new regime. There may well be a case for Western governments to answer, but STWC are incapable of making it. They have lost all credibility with their wild accusations and irrelevant asides.

What do we want? Um, well, we're not sure actually...

It would seem that STWC are unhappy with the British government's approach to Ukraine. What do they suggest we, as citizens of the UK, should do? What action do they demand from Parliament?

They don't say. The statement trails off into vague grumbling about a "new Cold War" and how very bad it is.

In fact, Western politicians are making it very clear they will not take military action against Russia. That applies even to the most bellicose, such as John "Bomb, Bomb Iran" McCain. One might expect an anti-war organisation to welcome this news, but STWC do not see fit to mention it.

Further adventures in nonsense

STWC's background piece, 10 things to remember about the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, is even worse.  It includes this gem:

US secretary of state John Kerry has made strong statements condemning Russia, and British prime minister David Cameron has argued against intervention and for national sovereignty. No one should take lessons from people who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and bombed Libya. 

According to STWC, no one should listen to the governments of the USA and UK on any subject, ever. Anything they say must be wrong. Any implied logical contradictions can be resolved by pretending they don't exist. It is hard to imagine a more childish attitude.

If I were of a paranoid frame of mind, I might think STWC had been infiltrated by MI5 to discredit anti-war activism; but I suspect they have achieved this level of stupidity by themselves.

The tragedy of STWC

It's easy to point out how ridiculous STWC's posturing is. It's an embarrassment to all of us who marched against the Iraq war. One can react with laughter or rage, and I'm trying to go with laughter.

But seeing how far STWC have fallen is sad too. Their incoherent fury is stupid, but in a way it's understandable.

In 2003, two million British people marched against a massively unpopular war. A Labour government, with the full backing of the Conservative party, ignored them and went to war anyway. Eleven years on, Tony Blair jets around the world making vast sums of money and pretending to be relevant as a Middle East peace envoy.

Underlying STWC's anger at the UK government, I think there is a strong element of despair. Why bother to call for action, when public protest achieves so little?

The world moves on, and our political classes hopefully have learnt a tiny bit from the mistakes of their predecessors. It's encouraging that the USA and UK decided not to launch yet another war against Syria. But the Iraq war casts a long shadow. One of its minor consequences is a British anti-war movement which has completely taken leave of its senses.

Sunday 2 March 2014

The Lego Movie: Review

 Lego Movie poster


Everything Is Awesome!

So says the infuriatingly catchy song in The Lego Movie. It takes place in a Lego world, populated by the yellow-faced, claw-handed minifigures we all know and love. An ordinary construction worker named Emmet is rudely ejected from his well-ordered life; he has to discover his inner talents, become a master builder and save the world.

This movie reminds me of the original Lego Star Wars game, back in the prehistoric days of the Playstation 2. It was the game of the toy of the incredibly disappointing prequel movies. It could so easily have been dreadful, yet it was a work of sheer brilliance.

So it is with TLM.  This is a hilarious celebration of all things Lego, particularly the scope for building weird new things limited only by your imagination. Character development is not quite as good as the likes of Despicable Me, Wreck-It Ralph or the best efforts of Pixar, and the moralising sometimes gets a little heavy-handed, but I think that is forgivable.

What this film does have going for it is incredible visual inventiveness, anarchic joy and enthusiasm. There are some great jokes for the adults including a running gag about Lego Batman, which gleefully sends up the grim, gloomy caped crusader of the Christopher Nolan films. It has an excellent voice cast, including a few Well Known Actors voicing Lego versions of the characters which made them famous.

TLM will not be to everyone's taste. But if you want a fun, brightly coloured thrill ride, leaving you with that song in your head (whether you like or not) and a big grin on your face, then it's a fine choice.

Scotland's Vote 1: Scots Wha Hae

Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
         Or to victory!
--- Robert Burns, Scots Wha Hae

The Braveheart option

Exactly 200 days from now, on 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on whether they want to remain part of the UK.

First of all, I want to say this:  No matter which side wins, I am extremely glad the question is being settled in a peaceful and democratic fashion.  Current events in Ukraine are just the latest in a long line of examples of what can happen when nationalism turns violent.

Thankfully, the days of Scottish independence being determined on a battlefield are over. The question at hand is whether a single (more or less) democratic state, the UK, should be split into two smaller ones: Scotland and the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scottish independence and me

Scottish Parliament building. Source: Wikipedia
The Scottish Parliament building, Edinburgh
Living as I do in England, I won't get a vote in the referendum. I am taking a keen interest in the discussion though, especially since I lived in Edinburgh for nine years, I still have many friends there and some of my close relatives were born in Scotland.

I am honestly not sure which way I would vote, if I could. On the one hand, the UK has been around for 300 years and achieved some great things; that is nothing to throw away lightly. On the other, there is a serious case that Scotland has diverged too far from London and the south of England, and it is no longer in Scotland's interests to be part of an economic and political union with them.

I will have a lot more to say on this topic as the referendum approaches. To start with, I will be writing about two recent developments, regarding Scotland's currency and its membership of the European Union.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive: Review

Only Lovers Left Alive. Source: IMDB

I saw Only Lovers Left Alive a week ago so I’m coming to this a little late, but it’s still out in UK cinemas and I highly recommend it. This film pulls off the difficult trick of combining the sensuality, decadence and angst of the vampire condition with a wickedly funny sense of humour.

OLLA centres on two vampires, Adam and Eve, played respectively by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. Both of them very much look the part; it seems likely Swinton keeps a ravaged and ancient self-portrait in an attic somewhere.  John Hurt also appears, giving a great performance as a vampire who is physically aged and weakened, but mentally as sharp as ever.

Adam is well over one hundred years old, but it appears that he was most comfortable in the rock-and-roll era, somewhere between 1950 and 1970. As the film opens, he lives in a dilapidated house in an otherwise deserted neighbourhood of Detroit, surrounded by musical instruments and analogue recording and mixing equipment. He is a very talented musician, but never performs in public; instead, he records his music for himself.

Adam is consumed by ennui, disgusted by the state of the modern world and particularly by modern music. It is no coincidence that he is in Detroit, once the home of Motown, later of Eminem and Jack White (the latter being mentioned by name).  Now it is a city in severe decline, with a population less than half what it was in 1950. Adam spends a great deal of time wandering aimlessly through the empty streets, into grand and decaying abandoned buildings. He has found a place which suits his mood perfectly.

Eve is older -- we don’t know exactly how much, but she has been around at least since the Middle Ages. While Adam’s great obsession is music, hers is literature. She lives in Tangier, Morocco, which has faded grandeur of a very different kind from Detroit. Her house is filled to bursting with books in many languages.

This is one of the few films which addresses unlife from the vampire’s perspective. What exactly does one do with eternal life? Vampires’ powers, appetites, and intolerance for daylight separate them from ordinary humans, who may be allies or even friends but can never truly understand them.

OLLA is to a large extent about the vampires’ attempts to find meaning in their endless existence. It is deliberately slow-paced; the best way to watch it is to relax, be patient, and settle into the vampiric mindset. One of its best features is that it does not feel the need to explain every detail. We are not told why vampires like to wear gloves; why Adam and Eve chose to live on separate continents; or what exactly happens to Eve’s sister; but we can make some very well-informed guesses.

All this sounds serious, but OLLA has some moments of extraordinary humour, especially when vampires interact with mortals who don’t understand their condition -- or who are beginning to understand much more than they would like. This film is magnificent fun.

Hello, world!

I am starting this blog to muse, rant, and pontificate about things which interest me. In no particular order, this includes books, science fiction, scientific fact, politics, and cinema.

I am a scientific software developer and occasional scribbler of stories. I enthusiastically participate in the Nanowrimo attempt to write fifty thousand words of fiction each November, and I have reached the target four times since 2008. My other interests include real ale, whisky, cooking, cycling, and hillwalking.  I am originally from Canada; lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for several years; and now I live in Cambridge, England with my wife and two cats.

Iain Roberts is a pseudonym. My real name is rather too close to that of a well-known fiction writer.

I don't know what directions this blog will take over time, but it will be fun finding out. Let the show begin!