Friday 29 December 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-12-29: Joni

Sleepy cat. Much more sensible than her human servants companions, who are rushing around attempting to get things done and visit people between Christmas and New Year.

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Cinema Year in Review: 2017

This year I saw 13 films in the cinema, a slight drop from 17 last year. Raising a toddler makes it hard to get to the theatre; but on a positive note, we took the little one to his very first film in the cinema this summer. It was Cars 3, and a good time was had by all.

Top 5 Movies

This year had an embarrassment of good movies. Four excellent superhero films (Logan, Lego Batman, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok) might have made the top five in some other year, but not this time. My top five are:

  1. Dunkirk. Another mighty achievement from Christopher Nolan.
  2. Blade Runner 2049. A worthy sequel to the original.
  3. T2: Trainspotting. Another long-delayed sequel which was worth the wait. The characters from the last film reassemble, filled with middle-aged regret and ready to settle some old scores.
  4. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Terrific fun, and surprisingly thoughtful. My review here.
  5. Paddington 2. Absolutely lovely; funny, charming and heartwarming from start to finish.
It's only after I finished this list that I realised four of the five titles are sequels. Is it a sign Hollywood is running low on fresh ideas? Some would say so; but I think there's still a healthy supply of original material, and this just happened to be a very good year for sequels.

Honourable mention

Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Seen in its 25th anniversary re-release. The 3D conversion didn't really add much, but it's still a tremendous film which occupies an important place in my heart. Some more of my thoughts on the Terminator films here.

Guilty pleasure

The critics hated it. There are some gigantic plot holes; it doesn't fully grapple with the monstrous and possibly unforgivable act committed by its protagonist; and it ends with pretty much a literal deus ex machina. But I still enjoyed Passengers very much. (My review here, with major spoilers.)

Wooden spoon

Ghost in the Shell. Not exactly a bad film, just terribly disappointing. The legendary source material and a promising set-up devolve into yet another punch-up aimed at adolescent males. Its approach to sensitive issues of race and colonisation is clumsy and oblivious at best. A few worthy moments which could have been made into something better, but it was not to be. (My review here.)

Friday 22 December 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-12-22: Joni

Another lazy morning on the sofa.

The Last Jedi: Review

Yesterday I finally saw The Last Jedi. It was great fun. Thoroughly recommended.

After The Force Awakens and Rogue One, we could be pretty confident the Star Wars franchise is in safe hands at Disney. This film keeps up the trend. I agree with reviews by Mark Kermode and John Scalzi; this is a good, solid, entertaining episode.

Some things I particularly liked about it (with minimal spoilers):

It's surprisingly thoughtful in its treatment of the Star Wars cosmology. Luke Skywalker and others argue about the nature of the Force and the purpose of the Jedi. It was good to finally hear in a Star Wars film a thing I've been pointing out for some time: The Jedi aren't all that great.

Friday 15 December 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-12-15: Joni

With the spooky blue glow of Christmas tree lights.

Without Limit

At the reliably excellent Gin and Tacos, Ed reflects on the Senate election held this week in Alabama. He says of the Republican party:

By failing to make what was a very easy play – disown Moore and claim some sort of moral high ground – they signaled that literally nothing is more important to them than maintaining power. Nothing. There is no "bridge too far."
Something very similar applies to the Brexit ultras in the British media and Parliament.

Friday 8 December 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-12-08: Joni

Hanging out in the back garden. For once, I made it out there in daylight to see her.

Data Security: Just Read The Instructions

Basic internet security isn't that hard, but people who should know better still contrive to foul it up.

Image: Blue Devil Hub / Creative Commons

I'm a professional software developer with some grounding in the mathematics of cryptography, but not an Internet security expert. In this context, I don't need to be. I know wretched carelessness when I see it.

Friday 1 December 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2012-12-01: Linton Lion

Majestic. Intimidating. But big cats can be cute too. It'd be great to scratch his ears, if I wasn't worried about being eaten.

I didn't catch this handsome fellow's name -- he lives at Linton Zoo near Cambridge, and was standing all of ten feet from me when this photo was taken. My son was rather scared by him, which is understandable. We humans are descended from many generations of ancestors who had good reason to be afraid of lions.

12 Years of Cambridge Nanowrimo

I've been doing Nanowrimo for a while, and feel it's a good time to share some observations. 

First of all, congratulations to all those who have just finished! No matter how many words you've written, it's more than you had in October, so well done.

For those who don't know, Nanowrimo is a worldwide event in which people attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. Reaching the target is known as "winning", but it's a contest only with yourself; nobody checks on the words you've written. Your fellow Nanowrimo participants are there for solidarity and moral support.

The novel will almost certainly be largely rubbish, and that's the point. The idea is to put aside all the angst, self-doubt and perfectionism that plague us, and get on with the act of creating something. You can edit later (and it will need a lot of editing, if you want it in a fit state for publication).

I've been a part of the Cambridge Nanowrimo group since 2006, so this is my 12th season here. Next spring I'm moving to Toronto, Canada; I may remain part of the group in spirit, but in body I'm going to be elsewhere. So it seems like a good time to look back, and see if I can share any wisdom from along the way.

Friday 24 November 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-11-24: Pet Shop Girl

The pet shop in the Beehive Centre in Cambridge has automatic doors and tolerates the occasional cat wandering in, as long as they don't disturb the rabbits. This splendid lady was sitting next to the window when I went in to get cat food.

A Brexit Thanksgiving

This week I've been preparing my usual Thanksgiving turkey feast, and being thankful that I'm getting out of the UK.

It gives me no pleasure to say this. I love the UK, I've made my home here for many years, and I wish it well; but the news on Brexit looks worse with every passing day.

It's becoming increasingly apparent the government has no plan, no grip, no strategy, and no prospect of locating any of them using both hands and a map. It doesn't understand the technical complexities of Brexit, and doesn't want to. It deals with inconvenient facts by pretending they don't exist. Meanwhile the clock ticks inexorably on, and the hour of Brexit draws ever closer.

If the great British public understood the consequences of their government's foolishness, I think there would be riots in the streets. Brexit is a massive and costly challenge at best; in this government's careless hands, it will make the poll tax look like a birthday party.

Storming of the Bastille, 1789.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday 17 November 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-11-17: Joni Anniversary

It's exactly two years tomorrow since we adopted Joni.

She is a much loved cat; playful, friendly, and amazingly patient with our toddler. She will be coming with us to Canada and we hope for many more happy years together.

A Tale of Two Recipes

I usually avoid so-called wellness bloggers; but I must admit, the stereotype of joyless vegans obsessed with kale is not entirely accurate. Some of them make stews with venison and red wine. And kale. And a shocking degree of racism.

By way of background, my local butcher had venison in stock, so I picked some up to make into a stew and started Googling around for recipe ideas.

Something called "smoky venison stew" sounded good, so I clicked the link, and was confronted with 500 words of text before the actual recipe.

It starts off in a mildly amusing way. Chantelle, the author, explains how she dreams of hunting her own food, and never has because she is too squeamish; but expresses her gratitude for the animal giving its life to feed her. Okay, fine. I actually agree, we should treat our food animals with respect.

A magnificent and delicious creature.
Image source: Jeff Blincow / Wildlife Observer

Then the post takes a screeching left turn into crazytown, as Chantelle starts rambling about power and energy, bison, seals and the traditional Inuit diet:

Wild meat is so full of power and energy, there is nothing closer to organic, or free range. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like when there were bison everywhere and the people had no shortage of wild food. Nowadays it’s more difficult to attain, I have heard that even the native Inuit cannot hunt their natural food. Environmentalists have banned them from hunting seals (a main food source) and there is only a certain section of the land where they are allowed.

What? Seals? I thought this was a recipe for deer. The village butcher doesn't stock seal.

Friday 10 November 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-11-10: Joni

The nights continue drawing in, and it's time for another photo of a warm and sleepy cat.


Suffer the dreams of a world gone mad
I like it like that and I know it

--- REM, "Leave"

I'm leaving the UK in April 2018 for a new job and new life in Toronto, Canada. I was born in Canada, and after twenty-six years I will be going back.

There are a lot of positive reasons for this move. It means our son can be closer to his grandparents. It's an exciting new job and I think it will be good for my career. It looks like a fascinating city and a great place to live. I will be able to watch North American sports in the proper time zone.

That said, as regular readers of this blog will have noticed, I'm very pessimistic about the future of the UK in the face of Brexit.

Friday 3 November 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-11-03: Joni

Cosy cat.

Perspectives on Annihilation

Trump could destroy us all.

This statement deserves further consideration.

It's become a commonplace thing to say. It's the new normal. The United States' nuclear arsenal is commanded by a man with all the foresight, empathy and self-control of a spoiled child.

Nuclear explosion over Nagasaki, 9 August 1945.
Source: MaxPixel

Friday 27 October 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-10-27: Joni

Stretching out in the sunshine.

American Torture

The moral degradation of US politics goes back long before Trump arrived on the scene. This was reiterated by the blogger known as Mike the Mad Biologist:
Time was, in popular culture, torturers were viewed as evil, not as heroes ‘doing what needs to be done.’
Leaving aside “the score of efficacy”–though in isolation, torture is useless and requires a regime of mass torture, doesn’t work, and offers the temptation of manufacturing false evidenceonce you have normalized torture, there is nothing left that can not be normalized. Telling ridiculous lies, spouting racist rhetoric, or offering laughably unrealistic policies is nothing by comparison to the brutal and vile degradation of human beings.
The first sentence got me thinking.

It's not hard to find older movies in which torture is shown as unequivocally evil. In Return of the Jedi (1983), it's a simple and convenient shorthand.

To establish that Jabba the Hutt is nasty and scary, we have a brief shot of a dungeon in which droids are being tormented with red-hot irons. There's no need to stop and explain that Jabba is a Bad Guy Torturer, as opposed to a Good Guy Torturer. He orders torture, so by definition he's evil. We can move swiftly on and watch Luke fight the Rancor monster.

Newer films, by contrast, tend to be more ambivalent about torture -- if not openly endorsing it as Okay When A Good Guy Does It.

The examples I'm going to use are a couple of light-hearted comedies. They aren't extreme cinema, setting out to break taboos and push the portrayal of violence to its limits. They're films in which torture is present and important, but tangential to the main story. As such they may be a better representation of mainstream beliefs.

Consider The Princess Bride (1987), which as most of us know includes "fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles."

Friday 20 October 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-10-20: Joni

Joni demonstrates the advanced closed pike sleeping position.

This Is Who They Are

I thought I was numb to hearing about acts of cruelty by the UK immigration authorites. I was wrong.

Two cases this week gave me a sick, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

  • Julie Bolitho's husband Vikram was deported from the UK, not because of any error on their part; not because they had fallen foul of the complex and arbitrary immigration rules; but because the Home Office had broken its own regulations and refused to back down from the error.
  • Leah Waterman is raising two young children, and caring for her husband Simon, who was severely disabled by a stroke. The Home Office has deported her, saying that Simon must act as sole carer to the children, even though he suffers from hours-long seizures and is unable to speak or write.

In a horrible way, these are the lucky ones. They have chosen to fight, can afford legal representation, and are articulate enough to get their stories into the media. Others must be simply going, silently; they have much to contribute to the UK, but are being thrown out for no good reason.

"What kind of man are you?"
--- Dave Brewster, The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Friday 13 October 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-10-13: Joni

Nights are drawing in and getting colder, and Joni is enjoying her evening lap time.

Herzog and Hope

The film director Werner Herzog explained his philosophy of life last week, on Mark Kermode's film review podcast. It resonated with me, and I believe it's worth transcribing in full.

(The relevant part of the podcast is here, starting at 1:56.)
Werner Herzog.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday 6 October 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-10-06: Joni

I am the watcher on the walls.

Joining the Choir Invisible

The British government has pledged that if any petition on its official website receives more than 100,000 signatures, it will merit a formal response from the government and a debate in Parliament.

Going to meet its maker?
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A petition requesting a second referendum on the terms of Brexit has reached that threshold. The Parliamentary debate has yet to be scheduled, but it has received a response from the recently created Department for Exiting the European Union. It is worth quoting in full, as a window into the government's rather flaky state of mind:

Friday 29 September 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-09-29: Joni

This is my blanket. I like this blanket.


No long post this week; circumstances got in the way. Nothing bad, just time consuming. Cute Cat Friday to go up as usual.

Friday 22 September 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-09-22: Joni

There you are. It's about time you came home.

Joni has taken to climbing onto the garage roof and down into the front garden. She's much less good at returning to the back garden and her cat flap, so tends to wait around in front to be let in.

A Brexit Analogy

Britain would be a lot more fun at parties if, after her third drink, she didn't start mumbling about how awesome the Empire was. Not for the first time, current events have reminded me of this.

Britannia rules no more.

A new campaigning group has a rather curious approach to Brexit. Here is an analogy for their idea:

Friday 15 September 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-09-15: Joni

All the humans in the family are just back from the USA and very jet lagged. Here is an appropriate picture of Joni, displaying the grace and majesty of a natural predator.

Joni herself is still at the cattery, I'm picking her up tomorrow. I didn't want to commit myself to driving after flying transatlantic with a toddler and then trekking across London to get a train to Cambridge, which I believe was wise.

Junior Officer of the TSA

Short blog entry this week, on account of jet lag. Back to normal next week.

Meanwhile, my son has been deputised as a junior officer of the TSA -- or to give its full title, the Transport Security Administration of the USA. They gave him an official sticker while we were waiting for our turn in the scanners.

The TSA has a reputation for unseemly and unprofessional behaviour. This may have grown out of the sheer absurdity of airport security theatre. They may overcompensate for the fundamental insanity of their job by carrying it out in the most rigid and inhumane way possible. Enforcing rules which make no logical sense, and exist largely to give the impression of doing something, does not strike me as a task which is likely to attract the best and brightest. This is unfortunate; last week we observed the sixteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and real failures in airport security are a serious matter.

To be clear, I don't think a sticker can possibly excuse any misbehaviour by the TSA. I'm more impressed that they are trying at all to be friendly, instead of relying on their overwhelming power to make your life unpleasant. It's as if the Uruk-hai offered the hobbits a nice cup of tea instead of threatening to eat them.

Maybe the sticker is part of some kind of public relations counteroffensive; or someone, somewhere in the humourless bureaucracy of the TSA has retained a sense of fun; or a two year-old could in fact handle airport security just as well as they do. Although my son is a US citizen, if he wants a career in law enforcement I think I'd encourage him to choose some other agency.

Friday 1 September 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-09-01: Quincy

Patrolling the car park at work.

The Terminator: Come With Me If You Want To Live

Terminator 2: Judgment Day was re-released this Tuesday. I went to see it, of course, and also watched the 1984 film The Terminator on DVD last week.

The date was significant: The eponymous Judgment Day, the nuclear war instigated by the machine intelligence Skynet, is named as August 29, 1997. So, the re-release was twenty years later to the day.

The 3D conversion was unnecessary and didn't really add much to the experience; but it was great to see T2 on the big screen, when I had been a little too young on the original release. Furthermore, after three additional sequels which were mediocre at best, the first two films are an exhilarating breath of fresh air. Even after more than twenty years, they feel far more meaningful than the lazy attempts by the sequels to exploit their achievement.

Spoilers are ahead; but the films are respectively 26 and 33 years old, so I feel comfortable with revealing plot details. If for some reason you haven't seen them, you could always go watch the DVDs and then read the rest of this blog entry; I assure you it will be worth your while.

Friday 25 August 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-08-25: Joni

Still life with cat and coaster.

Flag of Convenience

Malta has been selling citizenship since 2014. The price is at least EUR 880,000, or approximately one million US dollars -- a sum which demands to be spoken in your best Doctor Evil impersonation.

A few other countries have done the same, but Malta is interesting because it's a member of the EU and the Schengen border-free travel area.

Valetta, Malta. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The attraction for rich people from less stable countries is not hard to imagine. Travelling and doing business in Europe suddenly becomes much easier. If your home country undergoes a coup or civil war, or its government decides to pursue a vendetta against you, a safe haven is ready and willing to take you in.

I imagine the Maltese government would refuse citizenship to outright terrorists and war criminals, but you don't have to show any positive commitment to Malta. You are required to buy or rent a house there, but under no obligation to live in it.

My instinctive reaction is to find it rather sad and demeaning. It cheapens a country's citizenship to offer it up for sale, like a particularly exclusive sports car.

Friday 18 August 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-08-18: Joni

Taking a nap with Great Cthulhu (in cuddly form, his wing and paw can be seen by her hind legs). Between Joni and our toddler, the Great Old One suffers many indignities in our household.

On Statues

Concerning Trump and this week's events in Charlottesville: It's been clear for a long time that Trump is a racist and unfit to hold the office of President. Now, the last shreds of cover have been stripped away.

No decent human being can stand with Trump. Anyone who does so is standing with a man who defends Nazis. This isn't complicated; the right-wing marchers in Charlottesville were carrying swastika banners, shouting Nazi slogans, and making fascist salutes. They're Nazis.

White nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Source: Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty

The only possible excuse for supporting Trump at this point is extreme ignorance. In the case of elected officials, media commentators, and others whose profession is to know about politics, that excuse is not viable. The time has come for them to choose sides. We will see what develops from this.

I still think Trump is likely to hold onto power. He won't resign, not least because he might well face criminal prosecution resulting from Robert Mueller's investigation. As long as his base is loyal enough to threaten Republicans with primary defeat, he is unlikely to be impeached. One day he might go too far for even the dead-eyed sociopaths of the Republican Congress to stomach, but my guess is we are some distance away from that.

The violence in Charlottesville was touched off by plans to remove a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee. I've been thinking about the wider issue of statues and what they represent.

Thursday 10 August 2017

Should we be afraid of artificial intelligence?

I've got a guest post on Digital Link, inspired by reports of Facebook chatbots creating their own language. As holder of a PhD in artificial intelligence applied to natural language processing, I have some thoughts. Thanks to the good people at Digital Link for publishing them.

Spoiler: The machines are probably not going to rise up and destroy us.

Friday 4 August 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-08-04: Joni

Nap time.

The Poisoned Well

President Trump's latest director of communications barely lasted a week. Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone accurately predicted Scaramucci's tenure would be "freakish, embarrassing and all too short."

Rumour has it that the Mouth of Sauron turned down the job.

Mordor may be a volcanic wasteland, but the job security is better.

Ed at Gin and Tacos evaluted Scaramucci's appointment as a sign that Trump had given up on being President. I think it's worse than that: Trump hasn't given up, but he is so far gone that this is what trying looks like.

Friday 28 July 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-07-28: Joni

Enjoying her favourite chair.

Faulty Mechanism

Six months in, the pattern of the Trump presidency seems clear, for however long we continue to be subjected to it.

Trump blusters, rants and tweets. He combines swaggering arrogance and pathetic insecurity, often in the same speech. He can't manage to address the Boy Scouts of America without making it all about him and the many things he hates. He appears not to understand what health insurance is, let alone have any ability to direct health policy. He is unwilling, and probably unable, to perform even the most basic duties of his office.

Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States.
If this fact does not terrify you, you are not paying attention.

Friday 21 July 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-07-21: Quincy

Our campus cat enjoying a snooze.

Funky Garb

Tim Farron is an utter dingbat and I'm glad he's stepping down as Liberal Democrat leader.

Tim Farron. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maybe this conclusion seems harsh. It's not based on his faith. It's not even based on his years of obfuscation over whether he considers homosexuality a sin, or his support for homeopathy, although those don't help. It's based on a truly idiotic and self-pitying article he published this week.

Friday 14 July 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-07-14: Joni

Watchful cat on the stairs.

(We have a lot fewer cat-on-stairs photos, ever since we installed the stair gates for toddler safety.)

Ancient History

It was in the UK's national interest to join the EU, and encourage it to grow. The reasoning was broadcast thirty-seven years ago in the BBC comedy Yes, Minister, and remains valid today:

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well? 
James Hacker: That's all ancient history, surely. 
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes, and current policy. We had to break the whole thing up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we're inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like old times. 
James Hacker: Surely we're all committed to the European ideal. 
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Really, Minister. [laughs] 
James Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership? 
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, for the same reason. It's just like the United Nations, in fact. The more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up. The more futile and impotent it becomes. 
James Hacker: What appalling cynicism. 
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes. We call it diplomacy, Minister.

Sir Humphrey was cynical, but he wasn't wrong. At least since the time of Elizabeth I, England (and later the UK) intervened in Europe to prevent any one power from growing too strong. It would conduct diplomacy, and fight wars if needed, to constrain strong governments on the Continent. This held true as great powers rose and fell, from Habsburg Spain to Napoleonic France to imperial Germany. In this way the UK was able to promote its own trade, security, and other national interests.

Friday 7 July 2017

Cute Cat Friday 2017-07-07: Joni

Happy cat enjoying a chin scratch.

Worse Than We Imagined

Most fictional Presidents are better than Trump, even the really bad ones.

It's not hard to find noble and inspiring fictional Presidents. They may be wise and sagacious leaders (The West Wing); steely-eyed crisis managers (Deep Impact, Tom Clancy novels); or even kick-ass action heroes (Air Force One, White House Down, Independence Day). This is to be expected; the office of President attracts a certain amount of reverence, and stories need heroes.

The White House.
Source: Adrian Grey / Flickr