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May 29th, 2016

08:18 pm: A lazy Sunday in Exeter
Gentle day with an early lunch at BTP and a wander around town. Seeing the huge crowd waiting for the shuttle buses to Radio 1's Big Weekend at Powderham — by 11am they'd extended all the way down Paris Street — made me rather glad I wasn't leaving town.

After a long, lazy lunch we went for a ramble down by the river, foraging for the elderflowers which have just started coming into season. Collecing a bumper crop, we brewed up a batch of cordial before retiring to the roof terrace for the rest of the afternoon.

Exeter Skyline

The weather was beautiful: mid-twenties with fairly high humidity but enough wind to keep it bearable. Despite slathering myself in sunscreen — a rather good children's sort that shows up green until you've rubbed it in — I'm worried that I may have caught the sun in places, even though I hope it might just be wind burn, I rather suspect it's not...

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May 28th, 2016

12:09 pm: War Factory
Despite slurping through the first third of Neal Asher's War Factory in the first sitting, it took me the best part of two weeks to finish the rest thanks to my absurd schedule of late. The book is the second in Asher's Transformations series set in the same universe as his Ian Cormac and Spatterjay books. The majority of the action takes in a de-militarised zone between the Polity and the Prador Kingdom where the rogue artificial intelligence that calls its Penny Royal is engaged in a complicated scheme — carried out almost entirely through proxies — which it hopes will help to atone for its blood-drenched past.

The book opens with a flashback to Penny Royal's creation during the depths of the Prador War, when sheer desperation forced Room 101, the gigantic war factory of the title, to embody ships with damaged and fractured AI crystals. With that established, we return to the present and to Thorvald Spear, a resurrected soldier who has been bound to a fragment of Penny Royal containing the memories of the AI's many victims; needless to say, he finds himself struggling to assimilate vast flood of new personalities and experiences.

Father-Captain Sverl, another creature foolish enough to accept one of Penny Royal's faustian bargains, is slowly transforming from pure prador into a combination of prador, human, and artificial intelligence — something that is anathema to his former species. Father-Captain Cvorn, a conservative who hopes to use the proof of Sverl's transformation to lead a rebellion in the Kingdom, launches an attack on his rival which has catastrophic consequences for Rock Pool, the border world where Sverl has been hiding for decades. But Sverl, greatly changed from the creature he once was, does not immediately strike back against Cvorn but instead helps to evacuate the planet. Swept up in this evacuation is Trent Sobel, once an underworld enforcer for crime lord Isobel Satomi but now cursed with a conscience that makes it almost impossible for him to imagine inflicting any form of suffering on another conscious being.

The major players carefully manoeuvre around each other in search of advantage. Cvorn, determined to capture his prey, sets a complicated trap but becomes somewhat distracted by a growing desire to recapture his lost youthful vigour. Sverl, who believes that the answers he seeks lie in Penny Royal's past, tries to locate the long-vanished Room 101 whilst trying to avoid his rival's claws. And Thorvald Spear, caught up in a scheme that has layers upon layers, finds himself drawn into investigating Cvorn's trap.

As if all that wasn't enough, Captain Blight and a subset of his crew from Dark Intelligence revisit their roles as Penny Royal's transport and it's amanuenses — the post-human intelligence needing someone to explain things to. The missing members of Blight's crew also serve an important purpose. Transported to the prison hulk Tyburn, the current resting place of a forensic AI called the Brockle — whose idea of analysis involves chopping things up into very small pieces — the details of their encounters with Penny Royal so intrigue the grey AI that it decides the time has come to break its confinement and play a more active role in affairs.

War Factory is a solid, enjoyable space opera with a nice line in body-shock horror. As in Asher's previous novels redemption is a major theme, with almost all the main characters — Cvorn is a notable exception — attempting to come to terms with appalling crimes in their pasts. The post-human characters are well imagined, from the impossibly incomprehensible mind of Penny Royal, to the more manageable likes of Sverl and, increasingly, Thorvald Spear as he too becomes something other.

Asher has a lot of fun with the unreconstructed prador — they're just so delightfully nasty. Through Cvorn, we get more of psychology of their vast ships and warlike manner than in other books. Essentially old captains are like hermit crabs, their ships surrogate shells, and their agoraphobia such that they almost never leave their sanctums.

But for all the conservatism of the species — unsurprising given that it's basically a gerontocracy driven by rampant Darwinism — it is clear that tomorrow belongs to the post-prador. The King's Guard, who have an atypical ability to step outside their hardwired reactions, have come to rule through a combination of intelligence and collective loyalty that are at odds with the rest of their species. And while Sverl is an obvious exception, his first children, both of whose minds are augmented with Polity technology and both of whom have lived for over a century and accumulated a great deal of life experience, are intriguing characters in their own right, especially as it is clear that they are still engaged in a dialogue with their own lower instincts.

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11:02 am: Twenty-first parkrun
Better parkrun than last week, clocking in at 21:07. The weather, which was slightly foggy when I got there, changed mid-run when the sun broke through, transforming into warm and extremely humid conditions that made the last bit feel thoroughly unpleasant.

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May 27th, 2016

08:20 pm: Lustlocked
In the second story in Matt Wallace's Sin du Jour Affair, Lustlocked finds the supernatural catering company contracted to cover the wedding of the goblin crown prince to a human woman.

Darren Vargas, experienced D&D player that he is, thinks he knows about goblins. But Boosha, Sin's resident expert on the otherworldly, quickly puts him right: goblins are actually astonishingly beautiful and owe their bad reputation to human jealousy. When the royal family arrive to sample the food, Bronko Luck, Sin's executive chef, reveals his great coup: two separate but identical-looking menus, with normal food for the bride's family and a diet of gemstones and precious metals for the groom's side. And while the food is a success, princess-to-be Bianca has a weak moment and ends up confessing to Lena Tarr and Nikki Glowin, the pastry chef, that the goblins treat her appallingly.

The preparations for the wedding go smoothly, New York Public Library is closed for the big event, and Bronko is in the process of celebrating when he discovers Jett Hollinshead, Sin's event coordinator, has turned into a giant lizard. A giant, lust-crazed lizard. The transformation immediate sparks a chain of events, causing both the library and Sin du Jour's headquarters to go into magical lockdown. Stuck in the library with the servers, Nikki shoulders the responsibility of saving the day, while back at Sin, Lena and Dorsky, sous-chef and serious asshole, find themselves on the run for their lives.

Another fun story that plays fast and loose with the classic scenario of a group of people trapped in a building full of monsters. There are plenty of subversive moments: Nikki ends up riding a giant wedding cake to the rescue, while the stocking and receiving team, Sin's very own crew of omni-capable heroes, remain stuck outside, unable to penetrate the enchantment keeping the monsters away from the public. Wallace has a great deal of fun with his goblins, most of whom are celebrities, slyly implying their identities — the goblin king once played himself in a movie — without mentioning any actual names.

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May 25th, 2016

09:18 pm: Envy of Angels
Something short in the shape of Matt Wallace's Envy of Angels, the first in his Sin du Jour Affair series about a catering company who specialise in serving the needs of the government's more supernatural contacts.

Darran Vargas and Lena Tarr are all but broke, having been blackballed by every kitchen in New York. So when Bronko Luck, former celebrity chef, makes them an offer, they seize it with both hands. They quickly discover that Sin du Jour is not all it seems. Darren knocks over a jar in the pantry and accidentally releases a Lovecraftian horror while Lena finds herself fighting the sous-chef to second blood with a paring knife after they experience a difference of opinion.

Realising that the banquet menu needs a bit of tweaking, Bronko calls on the newest members of his team to taste something for him. The verdict is unanimous: the dish they need to make tastes exactly like a Henley's Nuggie — battered chicken from a fast-food outlet fronted by a clown. Sin du Jour's crack stocking and receiving team breaks into Henley's corporate headquarters, bent on stealing the secret recipe. Unfortunately, in a scene that owes more than a little to Temple of Doom, they discover that the secret ingredient is going to be seriously tricky to duplicate.

Envy of Angels is a solid slab of fun with an intriguing setting and a likeable, well-rounded cast of characters. Wallaces has a lot of fun with his pop culture references — it helps that Darren is both a massive D&D nerd and a big Buffy fan — and has a talent for nicely comic turns of phrase.

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May 23rd, 2016

06:00 pm: Handel's Da Tempeste
Following on from Saturday's Handel excerpt, here's Cleopatra's aria Da Tempeste from Guilio Cesare — according to libretto, the queen has been freed from her imprisonment and is anticipating victory over her brother Tolomeo. Once again the performers are Apollo's Fire and Amanda Forsythe.

As with the aria from Alcina, the trills and ornaments in the da capo repeat are absolutely astonishing.

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May 22nd, 2016

09:43 pm: Classic lazy Sunday boulder
Highly agreeable afternoon of bouldering that has left me content but bruised — I smacked my elbow into something on a training board and knocked my knee against goodess knows what somewhere along the line. I got talked into trying a problem with a dyno which, after several failed attempts, I nailed extremely satisfactorily. I also worked up a beta for a horribly roof problem composed entirely of slopers with a tricky middle section and a burly finish; but by the time I'd got everything straight, I discovered I was too tired to link the individual moves.


May 21st, 2016

02:00 pm: Cruise ships versus supercomputers
At CUG a few of us tried to determine the environmental impact of a supercomputer versus that of a cruise ship. After a quick bit of work with wikipedia and with the top 500 list, we realised that the cited figure of 80+MW for a cruise liner compared with a maximum of 17MW for the most powerful machine in the world — most are much lower — making it an easy win for the supercomputer.

Today's Guardian, which features a piece on the environmental impact of cruise ships cements the point. Cite the newly commissioned Harmony of the Seas</a> — which features three thrusters all of which have peak power output exceeding that of Tianhe-2 — notes:

According to its owners, Royal Caribbean, each of the Harmony’s three four-storey high 16-cylinder Wärtsilä engines will, at full power, burn 1,377 US gallons of fuel an hour, or about 96,000 gallons a day of some of the most polluting diesel fuel in the world.


[M]arine pollution analysts in Germany and Brussels said that such a large ship would probably burn at least 150 tonnes of fuel a day, and emit more sulphur than several million cars, more NO2 gas than all the traffic passing through a medium-sized town and more particulate emissions than thousands of London buses.

According to leading independent German pollution analyst Axel Friedrich, a single large cruise ship will emit over five tonnes of NOX emissions, and 450kg of ultra fine particles a day.

So while it's true that supercomputers use a lot of electricity, it's nothing compared to a large cruise ship...


01:49 pm: Handel's Tornami a vagheggiar
Inspired by this morning's Building a Library on Handel's Alcina, here is Amanda Forsythe accompanied by Apollo's Fire in Tornami a vagheggiar. Sometimes sung by Alcina and sometimes by Morgana, the aria is a declaration of love for Ruggiero.

It's a beautiful performance and Forsythe's embellishments in the da capo section are quite something...

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11:25 am: Twentieth parkrun
After a few of months off, I've finally completed my twentieth parkrun in an acceptable but not great 21:36. I knew my time wasn't going to be great because I took things fairly easy and only stepped up the pace over the last klick but I feel good for finally breaking my long spell of not running on a Saturday morning.

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