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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year Honours

Well the New Year Honours list is out.

Sorry Keith, I had a really good look but it seems you didn't make the cut this year.

Maybe next time.

Sir PTerry

This put a big smile on my face.

I have been reading Pratchett's books for years now having started with Mort before reading the three earlier books and it has remained a favorite of mine. I was lucky that when I met my wife, she was as big a fan of Pratchett as I am.

I collect each new book in hard back; no chance that I would wait for the trade paperback anymore. I also read all of his books for kids/young adults and will encourage my daughter to read them as she grows up; in fact for Christmas we bought an illustrated version of the Wee Free Men for her - she'll grow into it along with the beautiful copy of Wind in the Willows we found.

When I was younger there was a distinctly sneering attitude to fantasy (and science fiction); I don't notice it now, possibly because I care less about what my peer group thinks of me. The thing about Pratchett's Discworld novels is that they are less about fantasy and more about people.

The man himself has said this:
Discworld started as an antidote to bad fantasy, because there was a big explosion of fantasy in the late '70s, an awful lot of it was highly derivative, and people weren't bringing new things to it. The first couple of books quite deliberately pastiched bits of other writers and things – good writers, because it's the good ones most people can spot: 'Ah, here's the Anne McCaffrey bit.' I was rapidly stitching together a kind of consensus fantasy universe, and the one trick was, 'Let's make people act.'
and more recently his US publisher's website has this to say about Discworld:

The world travels through space on the backs of four elephants that stand on the back of a giant turtle. Don't worry about it. People don't talk about it, any more than we say, "wow, we're standing a few thousand miles above a ball of molten iron!" Besides, it seldom has anything to do with the plots, which mostly concern real people trying to get by in a fantasy world. There are wizards, witches, trolls, dwarfs, zombies, werewolves, vampires . . . but Discworld starts where classic heroic fantasy stops, and none of those people is doing business as usual. A lot of them have moved into the big city and are trying to turn an honest dollar, just like everyone else.
That is the beauty of his books, it doesn't actually matter that they are on the Discworld, they are massively character-driven, and the characters react in a very modern fashion. Much of the magic, and strange creatures and wonderful window dressing. I think the aim of Pratchett' novels are to
  1. hold a mirror up to society
  2. and mock us for our silly attitudes, ideas and prejudices
  3. and make us think about why things are as they are
  4. and to entertain us.

I suspect that the last is the most important of his aims. Setting them in a fantasy universe provides a certain amount of latitude; the author can say things without stirring the great "moral majority" (also known as Daily Mail or Guardian readers, depending on the target). Over time there has been an evolution in the style of Pratchett's writing, the latter books have a different tone to the earlier, a little more consistently darker, perhaps even world wearier. That said I don't think that the latter books are better than the earlier, or vice-versa, they are just different and you can still tell that they are by Pratchett because there is still a warmth and affection that flows through them.

However the most recent Pratchett novel, Nation (a book for young-adults) is not set on the Discworld at all, rather it is in an alternative Earth. It's very good by the way, you should go and buy a copy.

He has an enduring fan-base, one that defies the stereotypes wished upon it by more sensible people who know that books with trolls and dwarfs in them are not for serious people. He has been called the Dickens du jour, a comparison he has shied away from in the past, claiming that he is not sure that he actually writes literature. Personally I think that he is somewhat unique, he is not like the much missed Douglas Adams, he is not similar to Tom Holt and nor does he resemble Robert Rankin; he is a one off and I am well chuffed that he has been honoured for his services to literature (which is what he does).

So what is my favourite Pratchett book?

Not an easy question, but if I were you I'd start with Good Omens, a beautiful take on the end of the world and the coming of the antichrist, co-written with Neil Gaiman (of Sandman and Neverwhere fame).

Nation is a cracking read as well. Good place to delve in.

As for the Discworld, well Mort was a good start for me and it might well be for you. I'd also go for Small Gods if you want something uplifting. If you like Shakespeare and are fed up with how wonderful Tolkien's Elves were than have a go at Lords and Ladies. Otherwise I'm at a loss: I love the Witches books, I love the Watch books, I love the Rincewind books, I love the Death books, I just love them all.

I will give you my favourite quote from Terry, given with regard to whether he kept multiple drafts of his novels:

"I save about twenty drafts -- that's ten meg of disc space -- and the last one contains all the final alterations. Once it has been printed out and received by the publishers, there's a cry here of 'Tough shit, literary researchers of the future, try getting a proper job!' and the rest are wiped."

By the way, bonus no-points towards the big no-prize if you understand the title of the post. Easy for a Pratchett fan.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Thank you scientists

Well now it seems that skimping on sleep can lead to the hardening of arteries:

People who scrimp on sleep are more likely to develop hardening of their arteries, a precursor to heart disease, research suggests.

Calcified arteries were found in nearly a third of people who slept fewer than five hours a night.

As the proud father of a 3-week old who is already overweight and out of shape I can't tell you how happy this makes me.


Well, I suppose it can just pile onto the stress caused by the STFC crisis and knock a couple of extra years off. Least it saves me worrying about a pension.

What is interesting in the article is the bit near the bottom, unhinted at in the lede:

Firstly, there may be some factor not yet identified that can both reduce sleep duration and increase calcification.

Or it might be down to blood pressure - high blood pressure increases the likelihood of calcification and blood pressure goes down during sleep.

Alternatively, stress or a stress hormone like cortisol, which has been tied to decreased sleep and increased calcification, may play a role.

So in fact it it could be nothing at all to do with whether you are not getting enough sleep, rather it could be that lack of sleep is another symptom of what is causing the calcification.

The money quote:
"Although this single study does not prove that short sleep leads to coronary artery disease, it is safe to recommend at least six hours of sleep a night."

It's funny, I wonder how many people who read the headline without following though the article would have realized that the scare quotes meant that it is just a hypothesis?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

ESFRI roadmap

Some good news for STP for a change as reported on the MIST website

EISCAT 3-D has been identified in the updated ESFRI roadmap. What is ESFRI?

ESFRI, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, is a strategic instrument to develop the scientific integration of Europe and to strengthen its international outreach. The competitive and open access to high quality Research Infrastructures supports and benchmarks the quality of the activities of European scientists, and attracts the best researchers from around the world.

The mission of ESFRI is to support a coherent and strategy-led approach to policy-making on research infrastructures in Europe, and to facilitate multilateral initiatives leading to the better use and development of research infrastructures, at EU and international level.

Obviously this is very good news.

No word on this development from STFC yet, missing out on a nice bit of PR there considering the UK is a member of the EISCAT association - more STFC science shown to be worthy yet they don't seem to be trumpeting it like they do other areas. Is that because it could be seen to be at odds with their own assesment of EISCAT?

MIST notes that EISCAT 3-D has been placed in the
Environmental Sciences section of the Roadmap, reflecting the growing recognition that the solar-terrestrial environment is a significant part of the environment in which human activities must take place.

Of equal importance is the inclusion of SIAEOS, the Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System.
which will focus and enhance the already extensive research infrastructure in Svalbard, including those relevant to STP.

A little ray of sunshine for us...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Em and I are now proud parents!

Our daughter seems to enjoy her new freedom of movement and likes to squirm more than she did in the womb!