Friday, 27 August 2010

My Current Reading List

I seem to have developed a fairly long reading list of late. And I thought I should write it down somewhere. And why not blog it while I'm at it...

  • "Quicksilver" - Neal Stephenson. An epic work of fiction and part of his "Baroque Cycle" trilogy. It's about scientists (or "Natural Philosophers" as they were then called) in the late 17th century. Currently reading.

  • "1001 Rules for my Unborn Son" - Walker Lamond. A much lighter work, based on the blog of the same name, offering fatherly advice to young men. I probably wouldn't agree with all the advice; but it would serve as a good starter for discussions I ought to have with the boys.

  • "We Need to Talk About Kelvin" - Marcus Chown. Popular science, nothing revolutionary; but from a quick flick-through in the bookshop, it's really well written.

  • "1000 Years of Annoying the French" - Stephen Clarke. An irreverent look at the turbulent history and rivalry between Britons and the French.

  • "This History of Israel" - John Bright. This is a standard classic textbook that's been reprinted over and over. I'll probably pick up a 2nd hand copy for next-to-nothing.

  • "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynmann" - Richard Feynmann. A famous work, which I realised I'd never read. Let's sort that out.

  • "13 Things that Dont't Make Sense" - Michael Brooks. A book I bought for my dad. About those bits of the universe that science hasn't got a comfortable grip on yet.

  • "And Another Thing" - Eoin Colfer. Being a continuation of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker "Trilogy". I don't know what to expect, except the unexpected of course.
As you can see, there's a fair bit of history and science in there. And even some fiction for a change. I guess this is probably 2-years worth of reading really - unless I manage to increase my 15-minutes before bed habit (supplemented by odd half-hours snatched at other times when I can.)

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Twitter Experiment

It seems that nobody really *knows* what Twitter is for exactly. But, there is a strong tradition amongst geeks of looking at a thing and pondering "what can I use this for?" And in the spirit of that geeky tradition I decided upon an experiment using twitter as a vehicle for fiction. Now many people have tried writing #vss tweets (= Very short Story) - I've written a few myself. But I wondered whether it would be possible and indeed practical to write a short drama for several characters - using several different twitter accounts.

So, I've spent a little time thinking of a rudimentary story, and I've set up some accounts for the characters. But there are many questions which arise from the experiment already...

How many characters should I write for? At the moment I have 3 characters, but I may only really use 2.

Is it necessary or desirable to have a "Narrator" for those parts of the story which don't have a "voice"? To begin with I've opted not to use such a device.

How should the drama be "labelled" or grouped together? This is a more technical problem, and I initially tried to use a hashtag, so anyone could choose to tune-in to the drama using the hashtag. But surprisingly, it didn't seem to work very reliably. (And in my first few tweets I kept forgetting to append the hashtag too.) So now, I'm trying a List-based approach instead. I merely created a list to follow the characters and it seems to work very simply, although I'm surprised that the hashtag idea was so unreliable.

One of the other interesting aspects is the prospect of audience participation. It would be possible for anyone to reply to the characters and they could even influence the story. Who knows? We may find out soon.

The drama is not long or convoluted so it won't take long to run through the whole thing. I imagine I will probably write 10-or-so tweets per day for the story and it will probably finish within a week. While I have planned the story, it's not all planned in great detail, and it may be subject to some change.

Here's the link to the List: Twitter Play

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Spillers Reopens!

The Worlds Oldest Record Shop: Spillers
Today marks the reopening of Spillers in Cardiff, widely recognised as the oldest record shop in the world. And what an institution it is. I recently read a comment about how shabby the old shop was; and how the photocopied album covers didn't offer the greatest custemoer experience.

It's strange, how I'd never seen it that way. I recognise all of those criticisms; and yet somehow none of that ever mattered to me. Spillers has something that the other shops don't - it's part of that cultural heritage of old Cardiff. Along with the Market, the Vulcan, Hayes Island Cafe, Jacob's Market - it's not that pretty; but it has an old-world honesty that I much prefer to the showy generica of St.Davids shopping centre (which still has no music shops or bookshops at all - the best one can say for it is that's it's clean - and I understand even that has been brought into question.)

Walking into Spillers was never a gaudy, glittery experience. My first impression was always one of heading into a musical cave - where some interesting song would be playing - never something obvious; instead it would be bluegrass or obscure spacy-pop or blues or motown. Often, you'd want to know what exactly it was that was playing - sometimes I was compelled to ask. And the dark, dingy interior was hung with posters for upcoming gigs, gigs for local bands. I'm sure Spillers has helped the local music scene considerably by being a focus for such local talent. And then there were t-shirts and tickets and other paraphanalia. All of which served to form a gritty tribute to music in Cardiff.

For me Spillers has never been just a shop. It's more like being allowed into a secret underground world, a musical speakeasy if you will.

I guess losing the photocopied album covers would be a good idea. But for my part, I hope the new premises will be a great success, and I wish them the best for the future.

The new shop is in Morgan Arcade, I think I'll pay them a visit today.

Friday, 16 July 2010


Recently, (ok - it was May) I came across the suggestion that Geeks should specialize in something. So, the question arises: "Do we, as geeks, have a *duty* to specialize and gain expertise in a specific field of endeavor?" I'm not sure that I have specialized much. Nor am I sure that it is necessary. It may be a laudable aim; but not a *neccessary* one.

I'm sure that many of those great exploits in the field of geeky endeavor are a result of specialization. And that may be reason enough to do it. But I'm reminded of that quote "Specialisation is for insects" (Robert A Heinlein, yes I had to look it up; but I'm pleased it turned out to be someone like him that said it!) And it's an important point. We, as geeks not simply humans, are perfectly able to find ourselves enjoying the depth of detail in any field of study, and few subjects really bore us. So do we need to specialize at all? I'd be glad to read any comments you have on the matter.

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."R.A.Heinlein

I suppose I don't feel like much of a specialist at all. But here's a quick list of those things that I might say I specialise in. (They're really NOT all skills or areas of knowledge, some of them are simply interests with no implied skill to boast of.) The fact that there are so many just makes me feel more like a generalist again:

Lego - where so many of us start.

Reading - it's such a basic skill. But so many people don't seem to read nearly enough; so I'm listing it, ok?

Remembering stuff. - I read, I remember. And yes, I'd love to be in your quiz team.

Drawing - I'm no artist; but I can draw reasonably well.

Computers - I can use one, big deal. I'm not that much of a Windows power-user though. And I'm not that good with hardware either. But I know databases. (Oracle specifically) And I enjoy shell programming on unix/linux machines.

Role-playing - the old fashioned D&D, pen, paper & dice kind.

History - I'm particularly fascinated by History. I might be paid to use computers; but I love history. Especially the history of the ancient world - Egypt, babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece and especially Alexander the Great. But I'm also fascinated by Naval History from HMS Warrior (1860) onwards and the rise of the Victorian Navy through to the 20th Century. But I'll happily read about Medieval Europe or American History or the Napoleonic era or the history of maths, or the history of physics (or chemistry, or any other science)

Physics - I love reading books on physics - whether that's big-science such as cosmology, relativity, the weird world of quantum mechanics, or odd backwaters of specific research like the search for high-temperature superconductors.

Technology - in a similar vein, I like to read up on the latest developments in technology - often not so much the specifics of the latest gadgets; but more the possibilities of new technologies that are still 5-10 years away.

Geography - including the old-fashioned kind that involved knowing that Caracas is the capital of Venezuela.

Musical Instruments - I love musical instruments. I love the vast array of different sounds they make. I like them as artistic objects in themselves. I like spotting and recognising them. Musical Instruments are awesome! I can't play music much, although I "mess around" on Harmonicas, Melodeon and Melodica.

Music - of course. I'll elaborate elsewhere.

Mythology - I like knowing the old stories. There's something both contemporary and primitive about the old stories.

Astronomy - I grew up in the age of the space-race. As a kid I consumed books about the universe. I'm still enraptured by all of it.

Botany - ok "Gardening" if you prefer.

Volkswagens - Quirky rear-engined cult cars - such fascinating things. This might also count as one of my few 'practical skills'.

Literature - well, some of it. There really is SO much of it isn't there?

Yes, there are more I could add to the list. Many more.

Incidentally, the article suggesting we have a duty to specialize is at: (Responsibility #6)

Thursday, 27 May 2010


I don't do facebook. I am a "Facebook Refusenik". I've always thought there was something dodgy about it. So, these days, after a continued (continuing?) series of stories about bad Facebook security, I can feel pretty smug. I don't want to say I told you so (but...)

So, what's it like to be on the outside? Never having had a Facebook Account (and yes, I *have* been tempted) is a strange experience. Let me elucidate.

Firstly, I am left-out. There's lots of stuff I don't get to see. That's obvious and expected and I can cope with that... There are various photos and games and jokes which have passed me by. Fine. My time is busy enough without Facebook. After all, I'm on various other social-networks: Twitter, Flickr and Last.FM are my favourites. I'm also on MySpace, LinkedIn and even Odadeo (a network for Dads) but I don't use those much.

But there are other aspects of being on the outside. I am occasionally beyond the reach of some companies advertising. Sometimes, a gig, or flash-mob or festival or some event I'd *like* to go to escapes my notice because I'm on the outside. I might see an interesting link, and attempt to follow it, merely to be presented with a Facebook logon. Damn.

But the darkest aspect of all this is the suspicion I have that Facebook *does* know about me. There probably are photos of me on Facebook. I've probably been identified and tagged. I believe I even have fans on Facebook! (I guess that's cool, yes!?) And yet all this is entirely beyond my control. Of course, I could take (some) control of this, or at least be more aware of some of this data if I signed-up. But only by submitting more data to them.

I think that's sneaky. Which is why I refuse.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Stealth Christianity

On occasion, I'm asked about my beliefs: "Are you an atheist?" And I suppose I should state for the record that I'm not.

Actually, I am compelled (by historical evidence) to take the strange and remarkable life and teachings of a certain historical preacher of ancient Galilee seriously.

This is of course a troublesome and difficult discovery. It puts me (in many people's minds) in the same pigeon-hole as a whole variety of nut-jobs, humourless homophobes, scientific nay-sayers and most recently even those that have protected child-abusers. Ouch.

So firstly let me say that when other people are offended by such bigotry, I am offended too. And possibly more so; since I *ought* to be able to call some of these people my brothers and sisters. But no. I can't possibly defend them, except to say that they have failed egregiously.

Yet other people will point out that science has now, more or less, removed our need for such superstition and replaced it with reason. And I have to agree that they have a point. But actually, I don't see that science has done very much at all to disprove the existence of God, it merely explains the mechanics of the universe. It's true that we don't need to see demons behind every tree and rock; but to be honest, I never did.

Also, a good number of my friends are atheists. And I can understand that too. I used to be one. And some atheists would find that a very strange statement, since they understandably equate atheism with rationality and religion with superstition. More specifically, many people will complain that science specifically disproves the creation story from Genesis. And that I must therefore be stupid, blind, ignorant or stubborn. Well, actually, I'm not that much of a creationist. I don't read Genesis 1 in quite that way. In fact I'd send creationist and scientist alike to go read Job:38:4 where God says "Where were you when I laid the Earth's foundation?" After all, no matter how loudly any of us shout about how complete our knowledge of the universe is, I don't know anyone who was actually there when it was put together. It's a great leveller.

To those who might complain that I'm being half-hearted in my faith, I'd simply say that I don't think Genesis 1 is supposed to be read like that. In fact maybe you should go back and read what it does say (and notice what it doesn't say) and then maybe you'll join me in wondering how or why plants were made before the sun & moon. It's far more poetic than scientific - and should be read as such. Maybe (just maybe) God created plants before he created the sun and moon; but I doubt it. Maybe one day I'll understand what that means and why; but I don't imagine that the detail is going to affect how I live my life too much.

So, is Christianity irrational? Actually I believe it's based on historical evidence. Albeit historical evidence for very extraordinary events. It's not like science. It is supposed to be about real-life, and yet it's supposed to be extraordinary too. The events described in the Bible are NOT everyday events. (And you can't do experiments on them either.)

Anyway. I don't push my beliefs on other people. I'd be happy to talk about it; but I know many folk find such subjects uncomfortable, so I tend to adopt a kind of "Stealth Christianity". It's not because I think it needs to be stealthy, but simply because my reasons take a bit of explaining.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Family introductions

I have a pretty amazing family. And it's about time you heard about them, simply because it's not really possible to explain anything about myself without referring to them in some way.

Firstly, my local, immediate, nuclear family...

My wife Annette is a remarkable and strong woman, - she's a bit older than me and full of wisdom and practical common sense. She's not too geeky, but she is intelligent (even if she doesn't think she is.) When I first met her, she was a single mother - who managed to bring up 4 (count them: Ben, Jason, Adam & Jodie) - yes four children and somehow still managed to do all sorts of other things too. I'm sure I really don't credit her enough, but she is immensely supportive and for some reason really believes in me.

So, when we got married, I found myself with four step-children (aged 10-15 at the time) and since then we've had two more sons: Josh and Will. Over the past few years all of the older ones have left home so we're (a bit) more like a normal-sized household.

So, next I'll mention the older four in (a tiny bit) more detail.

Ben - (who, as I write this is living with us again for a short while) is a bit of a geek like me, and into gaming, gadgetry, computers, android-phones and can turn his hand to all-sorts of things.

Jason - who is married to the lovely Jo and lives in Newport. They have 2 sons themselves and most recently a daughter. Jason is an electrician.

Adam - who lives in Birmingham with Bexx. He runs a music promotion business he started last year.

Jodie (my only step-daughter) - who lives in Cardiff and works on a voluntary basis for a local charity. She is very arty and creative. She's also a great organiser and loves spending time with children.

Next Josh & Will...

Josh is our resident rock-god. He's only small for a 14 year-old, but since he picked up a guitar 3 years ago he has scarcely put it down again. He loves a variety of musical forms (notably Prog-rock, Punk, Metal, Folk etc...) Other than that he's very much like me - he has a geeky nature and a great sense of humour. Josh and I have a special bond - so we always understand each other.

If I love Josh for being just like me, I love William because he's different. William is a great artist - he draws every day. He's also immensely empathic - with a talent for picking up on other people's feelings. He is more mature and sociable and sensitive than almost anyone I know.

Incidentally, both Josh and Will were home-educated until high-school age. Annette stayed at home to teach them and hasn't gone back to work since. So the next episode of our great adventure in family-life is to do some fostering. So far we've only done a little respite-fostering; but this week we're due to have a 2-year old come to live with us for a year or so...

Of course, I also have other family... back home in Hampshire - my Father and his wife Jeanie (my Mum died when I was 30) - my brother Tim and his wife and 2 children. And many more friends and relations of more distant sorts scattered across the globe. I should say that there are quite a few people that we count as "family" - simply because Annette's hospitable nature means that some friends become "attached" to our household on an ongoing basis. Some have even lived with us for a while - that's what it's like here. We are family - we do community - it's an important expression of who we are.

I might add, that for a geek, all of this has been a learning process. It hasn't come naturally - I'm really a bit of an introvert and I like my own company and my own space. But I do really get a kick out of all this busy-ness around me.

Anyway, I hope this is useful background to understanding what I do with the rest of my time.

Nos Da!