Archive for September, 2006

I was a bit disconcerted to find that my booking confirmation, when it came through from a Korean travel agent, noted that my return flight was in early August next year. And I’m going in mid-September. And I have a twelve month contract. And if your maths is as good as mine, you’ll realise that something doesn’t quite add up there. However, when I queried it with the recruiter he explained that the airline’s system won’t allow you to book a full year in advance, and that it’ll be changed nearer the time. So that’s OK, then. Probably.

It’s currently about 7:15 am on the day of my outward journey (1:25 hours to Amsterdam, and from there 10:10 hours to Incheon) and I haven’t packed yet (well, how long does it take to put stuff in a case?). What I have been doing is transferring stuff from my desktop computer to my laptop – all my old e-mails for instance. Somehow, this has taken all night (with a lot of general internet browsing and faffing about thrown in). But, then, I wouldn’t have slept anyway.

Nervous? Excited? Yes. But … it’s not quite real yet, I suppose, so I also feel somewhat blank (but there’s nothing new about that). My next post will likely come at you from eight hours in the future, in the land of morning calm. See you there.


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Maybe it thought I was Harry Hill

The weather’s so nice right now. The air is grey with rain and pretty much has been for the last twelve hours. Crunchy booms of thunder roll across the hills. The power just went off for half a second. My sister had a couple of tons of topsoil delivered last night, but it’s in danger of being washed away before we can do anything with it.

Today’s climatic conditions are in sharp contrast to last night, when it was very pleasant and when I went for a walk round the reservoir. Which you can’t really do.

When I go for a walk, I usually go up the side of the reservoir, between it and an artificial stream. When you get to the end of the path, you reach this strange location where the stream on your right goes into a tunnel through a stone platform. A set of steps take you up on to the platform, while down on your left another set of steps form a transition between the stream in the valley in front of you and the tail of the reservoir. Very little, if any, water flows over this weir, but on the other side, another stream falls down the face of the craggy valley side.

The ‘engineered’ path ends at this platform, but a trail leads on on one side of the upper stream. Before last night I’d followed the trail once, through some boggy but traversible ground, up along the wooded slope to an area with trees and fields. The way I went ran out of options so I came back the same way.

Since then, I’ve just been going up to the platform, then back, over the near end of the reservoir, through the park, through the village and home. One evening a couple of weeks ago, having taken my laptop up to the platform and sat writing for a while, I saw a badger on the way back. Never seen one in the flesh before. It was on the other side of the artificial stream, standing on the very lip, or even over it, supported by the vegetation, and nibbling berries off the brambles. I watched it for five or ten minutes, standing no more than ten feet away from it, and it didn’t seem at all concerned by my presence (although badgers don’t have the best eyesight, do they?). After a while, it trundled off into the undergrowth and I strode on. Only to find that the badger was jogging along on the other side of the stream and keeping pace with me. It stopped, so I stopped and watched it – while it watched me. Then we both carried on and it went into some laurel or rhododendron bushes and I didn’t see it again.

Last night, however (getting back to the main thrust of this entry), I went beyond the platform once more and up the valley. Instead of carrying on when I reached the vicinity of the fields, I turned left up a slope and then left again, heading back towards the reservoir, but along the ridge of the valley. Before long, I was rewarded with an excellent view of the reservoir. Obviously, I didn’t have a camera with me. I kept going, skirting more fields, while the path became less and less well-defined.

Having lost it altogether I climbed over a fence and out of a field and made my way through woods and over a couple of rocky streams. Eventually, I got to the pebble and boulder-strewn far shore of the reservoir. This is where things really got tricky. Further progress along the shore was prevented by the skirts of the trees reaching out the the water’s edge. So I went back into the treeline. This involved climbing over branches, pushing past boughs (of holly, no less), vaulting another fence. After coming to a seeming dead-end, I decided I could crouch-walk through a little gap back to the grey littoral. Which I did, and from there walked to the raised path at the northern end of the reservoir. Pausing to skim a few stones on the way.

At various points on this minor Oddysey I considered turning back, but I always concluded that I’d come this far, I might as well keep going. Having done it, I don’t feel the need to repeat the trip, although I would like to take some snaps from the vantage point at the southern end of the reservoir. However, with all the rain we’ve just had (it’s cleared up in the course of writing this, by the way), the boggy section at the valley floor could be a difficult ask (as they say in the world of football punditry).

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On my way to being on my way

So that’s it – I’m flying out to South Korea on Sunday. Here’s what happened.

I had an e-mail from the recruiter last night saying not to worry about the transcripts being late, just send what I’ve got and bring the transcripts with you. So I went on to DHL’s website (which, although garish, seems more helpful than FedEx’s) and booked a pick-up for my documents (which I was told to express courier to the recruiter). The time of the pick-up was given as Thursday – ie, tomorrow.

In the morning – well, whaddya know? – my transcripts arrived. Then later in the day, so did DHL. I walked out with my envelope to the guy in the van – who then proceeded to be confused. My manila envelope should have been a plastic DHL bag – although how I’m supposed to acquire one at two o’clock in the morning at home, I don’t know. The labels I’d printed off at the end of the booking process weren’t ones he seemed to be familiar with. And his electronic gadget thingy quoted an account number even though I don’t have one (another reason for choosing DHL).

I waited patiently while he sorted himself out, then off he drove. Before that, though, he did say that my sealed transcripts would be opened by customs. Thereby un-making them sealed. My initial feeling about this is that it won’t be an issue: after all, the people in Korea – customs, recruiter, immigration – must have dealt with this situation before. If it is, then I’m bringing two extra sealed transcripts with me, so …

I went back inside and e-mailed the recruiter again. A little later he rang to ask whether I could get on a flight at 2pm tomorrow. I said, Er, er … er, I was hoping for a little more time to get ready. He hung up to speak to the school, then rang back and said, How about 2pm on Sunday? I said, OK. As they’re KLM flights, I’ll be going via Amsterdam. He’ll pick me up from Incheon Airport on Monday then take me to meet the director of the school in Ansan – so he’s advised me to look as smart as possible.

Incheon is about 20-30 miles west of Seoul (and the location of the country’s main airport) and Ansan is a similar distance south of Incheon. Ansan is a city of about two thirds of a million people and constitutes part of the Greater Seoul area, which has a population of about 21 million – nearly half the country’s populace. The city is also on Line 4 of the Seoul subway system.

I don’t know yet how soon I’ll be at the now legendary chalk-face, but I’m expecting – hoping for – a day or two at the school observing classes. And before that I’ll have to get my visa – which is likely to involve a trip to Japan.

I’ll let you know how scared I am another time.

[If it’s of any interest to future or even current generations, here’s the tracking schedule I got from DHL’s website:

September 13, 2006   14:21   Manchester – UK   Shipment picked up

September 13, 2006   18:44   Manchester – UK   Departing origin

September 13, 2006   19:34   Manchester – UK   Departed from DHL facility in Manchester – UK

September 13, 2006   21:49   East Midlands – UK   Arrived at DHL facility in East Midlands – UK

September 14, 2006   02:31   East Midlands – UK   Departed from DHL facility in East Midlands – UK

September 14, 2006   04:39   Cologne – Germany   Arrived at DHL facility in Cologne – Germany

September 14, 2006   06:36   Cologne – Germany   Departed from DHL facility in Cologne – Germany

September 15, 2006   09:33   ICN – Gateway – Korea, Republic Of   Departed from DHL facility in ICN – Gateway – Korea, Republic Of

September 15, 2006   11:16   Inchon – Korea, Republic Of   Arrived at DHL Facility

September 15, 2006   12:57   Inchon – Korea, Republic Of   With delivery courier

September 15, 2006   14:48   Inchon – Korea, Republic Of   Shipment delivered]

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Review of A Scanner Darkly

Firstly, I’ll comment on the extra-cinematic aspects of my evening’s film viewing. I went into the cinema with my big new suitcase and was a little worried that it might be a case of ACCESS DENIED. However, the guy behind the counter put it in a little room, also behind the counter. Which was nice. What was not nice was the fact that two teenagers spent the whole time they were in the auditorium talking. This was especially noticeacble as there was only me, them and one other group in the room. Fortunately, the pair of little oiks left towards the end. Concurrent with some of this, some kids, evidently hanging around in the corridor, had the door open so we could enjoy their conversation and the soundtrack of the film next door. Oh joy.

Secondly, let me say (not that you’re going to stop me) that A Scanner Darkly is an incredibly authentic adaptation of a Philip K Dick story. It has that distinctly Dick-ish sense of unreal reality, that there’s something arbitrary about life and that it’s possible to peel back the layers to see something unexpected but just as confusing. Blade Runner is a better film, but A Scanner Darkly is possibly a better rendition of the feel of a Phil Dick book.

Thirdly – actually, I’ll drop the numbering system now. Ahem.

Keanu Reeves play a man who, unbeknown to his friends, is an undercover police officer investigating them – and himself, because when he’s at work he wears a camouflage suit that hides his identity from his boss (who also wears one). These suits give the wearer a fractured, shifting appearance as different bits of face and clothing phase in and out of view. You have to wonder what this would look like in a traditional live action film and whether it would look too strange, too special effectsy. Here, though, it looks just right.

The rotoscoping effect used to create this ‘live action animation’ is distinctive. In some ways it could be an ordinary, if realistically-drawn, animation, but the method used means that details of the picture slide around in a slightly disconcerting way (a bit like digital TV). Which helps to evoke what I was talking about in earlier.

The film’s very talky – and very funny in places, too. Although this latter aspect falls somewhat flat in a nearly empty cinema where a significant fraction of the audience manifestly aren’t paying attention. Much of the dialogue is divided between Robert Downer Jr’s annoying fast-talking character and Reeves’s voiceover in tones of manly anguish. It’s also quite slow, with not much happening much of the time, and it’s use of music is fairly minimal, which, combined with the drab colours, gives it a decidedly stark atmosphere. Finally, the ending is anticlimactic – unresolved, although implicitly hopeful.

So not an easy film to watch, then, but a good one. I think. I didn’t actually enjoy it that much, but I put that down to the distractions.

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[This is an old – nearly ten years old – review I discovered yesterday in my reviews folder. As you can see, I put a lot more effort into such things back then.]

Apart from Neuromancer and The Difference Engine (co-written with Bruce Sterling), Idoru is probably Gibson’s most memorable novel – but only just.

Set in the next century, it is the story of two people. One, Colin Laney, used to be a ‘quantitive analyst’, that is, he investigated the activities of celebrities and politicians to uncover scandals, for a firm with the intriguing name of Slitscan; the other, Chia Pet MacKenzie, is a teenage girl and a member of the international fanclub for Lo/Rez, a kind of 21st century Beatles. The chapters of the book alternate between these two, and they only actually meet each other once, and that without speaking. Both of the characters are given the task, by two different sets of people, of finding out why Rez, the Irish-Chinese frontman of Lo/Rez, has decided he wants to marry a virtual celebrity – an idoru – called Rei Toei.

As a novel, Idoru is quite readable, but not much more. Its moves along at a moderate-to-fast pace, and the chapters, as if to mirror the fact that Laney has a slight concentration deficit, are quite short (on average, just under seven pages each). The prose is fairly spartan, with some liberal use of ellipsis (for instance, ‘she went into the room’ would be written simply ‘into the room’). There are some interesting descriptions: virtual surfaces that are made up of collages of pictures and footage; one character has a voice modified in virtual space to sound like dry rustlings and other noises. Unfortunately, none of these descriptions seem to come alive in any engaging way.

The characters are acceptable, though fairly two-dimensional; there always appears to be the possibility that they will blossom into something rather more involving, but it never happens. The two protagonists have thoughts, but not much in the way of feelings. For example: Laney, whilst in an orphanage, was used as a test subject for a drug, and yet there seems to be little or no indication as to how he feels about it. Chia, although she is supposed to be a fan, doesn’t seem very moved by investigating, or even meeting Rez. Rez himself and the idoru, when we get to meet them, don’t have much in the way of personalities, though they are fairly central to the story. None of the characters are particularly interested or interesting. The one possible exception is an Australian called Keith Blackwell who used to make a living by torturing other criminals, quite powerful ones, into giving him their money and then killing them; in his acknowledgements, the author indicates that Blackwell is supposed to be rather a menacing character, but it doesn’t really come across.

The plot also lacks depth. Although it’s all reasonably plausible, the meagre emotional content of the book makes it very difficult to care about what happens. To be fair, the book does manage to maintain the reader’s interest. The scheme of alternating chapters works quite well in this respect – each chapter leaves you with a question, and to get the answer you have to read past the next one, which itself presents another question. This scheme gives the book a bitty quality, unfortunately, and none of the answers are especially compelling. In the first part of the book there is an interesting series of chapters in which Colin Laney recounts how he came to be employed at, and leave, Slitscan – this contributes to a plot twist later on, but there is little sense of development in the novel as a whole. There are also some elements of subplot which are left unresolved, in particular, Laney’s unusual skill as a quantitive analyst.

Idoru scores a little higher when it is viewed as a commentary on technological development. Rez’s affair with the artificial Rei Toei represents Man’s relationship with technology: we create it, it takes on a life of its own, and we marry to produce some new order. The idoru it/herself is the apogee of a series of artificial celebrities (a series which has, in reality, already begun with Kyoko Date, a ‘virtual idol’ created by Holipro, a Japanese music company). Paradoxically, these idoru come more and more to be regarded as human, and human celebrities come more and more to be regarded as interchangeable objects. This raises an interesting couple of questions: ‘What, actually, is the difference between a human being and a programmed computer?’ and ‘If computers can take the place of humans, why shouldn’t they?’ Gibson seems to accept that these changes will occur whether we like them or not.

William Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, is something of a classic, though, to be honest, like Idoru and his other work it has an unengaging, anodyne quality. What makes it good is the novelty of its vision: it is the seminal cyberpunk novel, describing the new concept – and the author’s coinage – of cyberspace. Idoru might have been a better novel if the author had just concentrated on Laney, reduced Chia to a minor character, and allowed some of the other characters to have their own points of view; some more characterisation and background information wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Gibson is the progenitor of his genre and his work does hold a certain attraction, but this novel  is likely only to appeal to cyberpunk aficionados; anyone else will find it rather dull.

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Well, that’s two out of three missions accomplished: I have at my side a very large suitcase (trolley case, technically), large enough to contain my nephew and niece. Maybe. I’ve sent off my application for a new savings account with, hopefully, enough identication that they don’t write back saying, I’m sorry, Mr Maybe, we don’t believe you exist. I don’t have new buttons for my suit though, but surely there must be somewhere in the village that sells such things.

Now I’m killing time with a cup of tea in McDonald’s before I go and see A Scanner Darkly at ten past six. Then it’s back to the back of beyond on the train (grr – see below).

My search for a suitcase began as I strode into Stockport town centre and wondered where the hell sells luggage. Quite a few places, it turns out. I had a look in TK Maxx, BHS and even Woolworths before settling on Argos as the best value – £39.99 for a hard-shelled (if that’s the right term) suitcase that was, I think, the largest of all the ones I looked at. I have to admit (well, I don’t have to admit, but I’m going to because self-deprecation suits my ego) that my idea of a suitcase was some years out of date, and the multi-handled, bi-orientable, wheeled, wedge-shaped piece of luggage I now own still seems almost excitingly futuristic. But not quite.

Whether or not it stays in one piece or even makes it to Korea is another matter. And the other thing is that while it is advertised as having padlock security, this doesn’t mean it comes with a padlock – it means it can be padlocked. (I later discovered a combination padlock inside the suitcase. D’oh.)

The savings account I’m trying to open is a Birmingham Midshires internet account, with an interest rate of 5.2%. And I’ve asked for it to be tax-free so it really will be 5.2%. Unfortunately it’ll only be 5.2% until next September when it drops 0.65%, but I intend to swap the money into whichever account offers the best rate at that time. Mind you, I intended to do that with my last savings account, but somehow it didn’t work out like that.

You know, I just thinking whether taking my gargantuan suitcase into the cinema is, not necessarily a good idea, but permissible.

Stockport town centre compares favourably, believe it or not with the various places I’ve lived. Certainly Runcorn can’t compete with it, and St Helens isn’t that much better. It’s not a pretty as Bath, but it has a better range of shops, and anyway I don’t have a problem with the functional look. And, while London is amazing, it’s also nice to have everything you need within a couple of minutes walk of everything else.

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Pussyfooting about

On the way back from staying at my sister’s friend’s place in Widnes my dad picked up one of said friend’s cat’s two kittens (the more outgoing one of the two) to replace the cat that my sister’s partner had run over.

The kitten, now named Marbles, seemed a bit lonely at first, but she’s really made herself at home. In fact, she seems to be having the time of her life (which, I suppose, isn’t difficult when you’re only a few months old). She’s affectionate, playful and relaxed – everything a kitten ought to be.

For instance, she quite often just starts purring as soon as you look at her; I’ve seen her rub her head against her own reflection. But, on the other hand, she’s not at all needy and doesn’t jump on you all the time. She can play with improvised toys indefinitely. But, as long as she’s not too hyper at the time, you can pick her up and she’ll lie contendedly in your hands for as long as you want to carry her.

She’s a sharp contrast to my sister’s other cat, Greebo, who’s one of those laid back, somewhat unresponsive cats. When she starts playing with him you get the distinct impression, especially when she’s got her teeth sunk into his throat and he’s just sitting there, that he just about tolerates her. He does return her playfulness, though, sometimes, a little bit. Once when they were in the garden, Marbles was making her way towards him and Greebo was hunched down, his back legs jiggling. Eventually, he pounced – although it was a very halfhearted pounce. Marbles, however, jumped straight up a foot and a half, legs splayed. It was funny at the time.

Well … this is just about the twee-est blog entry I’ve written, and probably not very well, either. But more fool you for reading it.

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