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June 29th, 2015

07:55 pm: A day of mixed fortunes
Early appointment with the haematologist this morning, with blood count numbers low but not catastrophically bad, so nothing much to do but keep an eye on things.

On the way in to work around mid-morning, I got caught up in the disruption triggered by the discovery of a couple of suspicious packages in Sidwell Street. It all seemed extremely efficient and organised, with the buses directed to take a circuitous route along the High Street and in order to avoid the road closures.

Eventually arriving in the office, I learnt so bad news — but fortunately not the worst — which rather dampened the effects of the good news from the hospital...

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June 28th, 2015

01:51 pm: All the Ends of the Earth
Via yesterday mornings edition of CD Review on R3, the BBC Singer's new recording of Judith Weir's lovely All the Ends of the Earth. The piece is a modern take on Pérotin's four voice motet Viderant Omnes.

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June 27th, 2015

09:05 pm: Reflecting on Messiaen's reflections...
In today's Guardian, Michael Symmons Roberts writes about the process of creating a set of poems to sit alongside Olivier Messiaen's vast Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus.

ETA: coincidentally Sunday's Observer features Steven Osborne, the performer here, in its list of top artists who have suffered from stage fright...

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June 26th, 2015

05:14 pm: It's been a long, quiet month but...
While this may be chancing fate, it looks like my the problems with my hearing are finally starting to clear. It's still a bit tentative but the last couple of days have seen something of an improvement and, although it comes and goes quite lot, my bad ear seems to be working better than it has been for most of the last month.


June 23rd, 2015

07:20 pm: Can Long Endure
Taking its title from a quote from the Gettysburg Address, John Scalzi's Can Long Endure, the third part of The End of All Things, follows a platoon of Colonial Union soldiers as they struggle to deal with a series of brushfires that seem to mark the start of a civil war.

Sent first the planet of Franklin, Lieutenant Heather Lee and her squad parachute into parliament mere seconds before the Speaker is due to introduce a vote on independence from the the Colonial Union. Pointing out that proposed motion is illegal, Lee suggests that while its possible the politicians might be taking solace in the words of Ben Franklin, this simply means that, because these are not the early days of the American Revolution and the CU are not the British, anyone who votes in favour will be summarily tried and executed on the spot. Needless to say, confronted with the Union's impressively gung-ho approach, the politicians decide to shelve their plans.

After a couple of similar missions — a pro-independence sniper on Kyoto and a group of protestors on Kyiv — the crux of the story takes place on Khartoum, when a mission that should have been a retread of Franklin turns into a blood bath. Forced to focus on her motives, Lee, assisted by her deeply irascible sergeant, Ilsa Powell, tries to decide how she feels about the Colonial Union, which Powell succinctly and accurately calls a fascistic shit show — albeit one whose motives are somewhat justified given the hostility of practically every alien species ever encountered by humanity.

While the story arc of The End of All Things is pushed forward by events on Khartoum — Harry Wilson and the Chandler appear to start cleaning up the mess — the majority of the story is about Heather Lee, her platoon, and her sense of being caught up in a civil war. And a civil war for perfectly understandable reasons: many of the colonists feel that the Colonial Union is just as willing to use its monopoly on force against its own planets as it is to use it against its notional alien enemies and, having seen an opportunity to give their oppressors the slip, the planets are trying to secede.

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June 18th, 2015

09:57 pm: No better, maybe slightly worse...
An annoying relapse of my ear problem with an infection brought on, I suspect, by the treatment for the original problem. So now not only is my hearing bad, but I find that I'm unable to rest my head on one side and that all sorts of horrible infected rubbish seems to be leaking out of ear channel. Lovely.


June 16th, 2015

06:58 pm: This Hollow Union
Its Tuesday, so it's time for The Hollow Union, the second part of John Scalzi's The End of All Things. This week the focus is firmly on the alien Conclave, an interplanetary assembly established by General Tarsem Gau to counterbalance the militaristic ambitions of the human Colonial Union. With the Conclave on edge and many of delegates concerned about the General increasing political weakness, the story follows consumate political operator Hafte Sorvalh as she attempts to hold things together for her boss.

Having established the increasing fragility of Tarsem Gau's position through a series of interviews with influential delegates, Sorvalh advises the General to consider rebuff the suggested diplomatic overtures of the Colonial Union and instead make Earth a protectorate of the Conclave; that way, by assign a group of the General's loudest critics to the protection detail, they can effectively neutralised one of the assembly's most powerful blocs. And while the general chooses to receive a diplomatic delegation from Earth, he also rejects Hafte's advice that he publicly turn away a similar delegation from the Colonial Union, creating an awkward situation when both groups arrive in-system at the same time.

After the delegation from Earth are attacked shortly after their arrival, the CU representatives, aided by Lieutenant Harry Wilson and some stellar flying on the part of Rafe Daquin at the controls of the Chandler, step in to affect a rescue. Both human parties find themselves arriving at exactly the same times as an awkward bit of news: a data dump, supposedly leaked by Assistant Secretary Tyson Ocampo, which appears to pin the blame for a series of recent attacks squarely on the Colonial Union. In order to refute this, Ambassador Abumwe of the CU introduces the members of the assembly to the Equilibrium movement — those responsible for abducting Rafe in Life of the Mind — and, with the backing of her own data packet full of evidence, unmask various species of Conclave as a collaborators.

At which point things spin completely out of control, forcing Hafte Sorvalh into a series of unpleasant compromises in order to hold the Conclave together. Along the way we learn some intriguing facts about Hafte's species: the Lahan and their approach to child-rearing. Having produced a large number of potential offspring and placed them in a communal area to allow them to mature, Lahan parents then ignore their children until they achieve sentience, even going so far as to ignore blatant cannibalism and predation.

When Gau challenge Sorvalh about this, she responds with a story: once, in their species' history, a wise philosopher suggested caring for each child and allowing them to attain adulthood. Superficially successful, this allowed the Lahan to spread across the stars but it also turned out generations of savage monsters; for the time spent fighting for survival as an unconscious child allowed the Lahan to grow into wise adults by taking their pain and their risks early in life. Needless to say, this point becomes important later on in the story.

I liked The Hollow Union a lot: Hafte Sorvalh is an engaging character, lacking the snark of Scalzi's human heroes but possessed of a powerful sense of wisdom and a determination to do the very best she can by her political masters. There are brief appearances from old friends from the previous series — Harry puts in an appearance while the Earth delegation includes Danielle Lowen — and Ambassador Abumwe reminds us just how entertaining it is to have a diplomat who is never anything less than forthright and blunt!

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June 14th, 2015

10:40 am: Nielsen at 150
Having missed the 150th anniversary of Carl Nielsen's birth on Tuesday, here's a particularly fine performance of his Helios Overture from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä.

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June 13th, 2015

10:23 am: The Forever Watch
Following up on one of Adrian Tchaikovsky's suggestions in a recent Tor piece, I decided to bump David Ramirez' The Forever Watch to the top of my reading list. Set on a vast generation starship called the Noah, midway through its centuries-long journey to the distant planet of Canaan, it follows City Planning Administrator Hana Dempsey and policeman Leon Barrens as they try to solve a puzzling mystery that blows up into a vast conspiracy.

Awakening after months in a coma as part of her Breeding Duty, Hana Dempsey feels a strange sense of loss that cuts through the tranquillisers. The Behaviouralist she sees before leaving the clinic assures her this is normal spill over from the telepathic bond with her unseen child and discharges her without any further concerns. But even after returning to her normal life as a planner, Hana can't shake the feeling that something is badly wrong so when her friend Barrens asks for her help with an intriguing cold crime, she is only too willing to help.

In the early stages of the book we get a great deal of information dumped on us about the strange world aboard the Noah and its post-human inhabitants. Prompted by her face in the mirror, Hana's first response after waking is to reminisce about the first time she saw herself after the installation of her implants. These pervade her brain and some of her body, fanning out over her face, overlaying parts of it with chrome in keeping with her particular abilities, most of which have an aura of magic about them.

Thus Hana is an extremely gifted telekinetic, with some ability to read and manipulate the thoughts of others, whose day job involves the mental manipulation of plastech, a substance that can be turned into almost anything by a person with sufficient willpower and fine control. Barrens, in total contrast, is a classic bruiser who lacks most of Hana's remote skills but whose ability to tailor his metabolism and biochemistry makes him preternaturally swift and strong. And while both, like everyone aboard the Noah to some degree, have internal reserves of psionics that they can call on through their implants, use of amplifiers that tap into the fields of energy that flow through the ship to the point where their abilities become so great that Hana is able to construct an entire apartment building on her own in an afternoon.

The puzzle part of the plot begins with a memory: Barrens arriving at the apartment of a former colleague where, after breaking the door down, he finds his mentor dead and gruesomely dismembered, presumably after his cold case investigation into the Mincemeat killer made too much progress. Intrigued by the puzzle and brought together by the sharing of the memory, Hana embarks on an affair with Barrens, much to the disapproval of her friends, working with him to develop a self-modifying computer program to search the Nth Web, the Noah's version of the internet, for information about the murderer.

Through Hana's eyes and through the reactions of her friends, we get a very clear feeling for just how calcified and stratified society is on the Noah. Hana, as one of the ruling class — she is mission-critical but failed to be selected for the elite Command Officer School, possibly as a result of oversleeping on the day of her data structures exam — is essentially a bureaucrat spending much of her time working on reports for projects which promise fractional improvements on the efficiency of the Noah's already highly optimised systems, while socialising with friends from her college days, all of whom occupy the same sort of rarified levels in different ministries.

Barrens, as cop and a bruiser, is close to blue collar and consequently the subject of much in the way of snobbish mockery on the part of Hana's school friends. And despite everything, his job too seems to be curiously routine: crimes are solved by reading perfect machine memories from peoples' implants and, when the perpetrators are identified, sending them off for Adjustment by a Behaviouralist — essentially a psionic form of brainwashing that runs the spectrum, starting with the minor tweaking of motivations and going all the way up to a psychic lobotomy that leaves the person not much more than a puppet. And on the rare occasion when a crime can't be solved immediately, all the police have to do is wait for the criminal to die and wait for their memories are uploaded to cold case database.

As the Barrens' and Hana's pursuit of the killer gathers pace, their sprawling data-mining program, which they nickname the Monster, starts to uncover a whole range of dirty secrets during its search for information on Mincemeat. They soon learn that the killings go back much further than anyone thought and that the deaths appear to be linked to strange grey monsters seen haunting the Noah's sewers. They discover that the early retirement program, which appears to be largely random with some people being pensioned off almost as soon as their careers have begun, may be being used by the sinister Ministry of Information as a cover for something else.

The Forever Watch is an exciting mix of hard SF — Ramirez is very good on the details of networking technology and computer programs — with weird almost psychic psionic powers added in for good measure. The Brave New World society of the Noah is well imagined and, in keeping with Huxley, obviously intended to keep its inhabitants passive and busy for the duration of the voyage. Unlike Huxley, Ramirez intrusion comes from within rather than without in the form of the Mincemeat murderer, only for the killer to turn out to be the tip of a very large iceberg.

While there are some moments that don't quite convince — I thought Hana's discovery of the Noah's origins might have provoked a slightly more substantial reaction than simple casual acceptance — I liked the book very much and it hit many of my favourite buttons. I'm definitely going to watch out for Ramirez next novel and I think I'll probably be adding Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time to my to-read list too.

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June 12th, 2015

10:22 pm: Nepalese charity night
Down to the Quay for a charity event to raise money to help with the aftermath of April's Nepalese earthquake.

The charity part involved a tallied climb to see if the combined efforts of Exeter's climbers could manage the equivalent of the height of Everest in a single day. In the end we made it easily, even if my personal contribution wasn't all that great — I arrived late and took it rather gently — with everything tallied up in time for a talk and Chef Paul's beast curry for the carnivores.

Climbing with M and one of her friends, I took it rather easy not even bothering to change out of my jeans. But for all my good intentions, I still managed to on-sight a 6b+ because it was there and new and I couldn't resist giving it a try...

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