31 May 2007

Public Service Announcement

Christians! Atheists don't disbelieve in God because they're scared to face the truth about their place in the world, or because it makes them feel less guilty about doing wrong things, or because they secretly know God exists but have chosen to reject God. It takes great courage to try to be a good person in the absence of a received morality, and to face the prospect of oblivion after death.

Atheists disbelieve in God simply because they consider that the available evidence suggests that God doesn't exist. You may well feel that this evidence is flawed or incomplete, but for God's sake do them the basic courtesy of treating their beliefs as an intellectual position rather than a spiritual defect.

* * *

Atheists! Christians and other theists don't believe in God because they've mindlessly absorbed what the church has told them, or because they're too stupid too understand reality, or because they're scared of death and need to invent a comforting fantasy. Theology is a complex, intellectually rigorous discipline, and the prospect of divine judgement with eternal consequences is no less intimidating than that of a simple cessation of life.

Christians believe in God because they consider that they have good reason to think that God exists, despite the evidence you see to the contrary. You may well feel that their reasons are mistaken ones, but for Dawkins' sake give them the respect due to people who have actually thought about all this.

* * *

The sooner everyone accepts this, and starts engaging with each other's points of view without feeling the need to insult, dismiss or belittle, the better.

(I trust we all feel suitably chastised now.)

28 May 2007

You Can't Leave That Lyin' There

B. and I visited Bristol Zoo on Saturday, for the first time in a while. Apart from anything else I'd been neglecting my parental duties towards the two-toed sloth whom goddaughter E. adopted for me back on my birthday. We also knew that one of the Zoo's female gorillas had a baby back in December, and thought that May would be a good time to see it.

I have lots of photos of various animals, but they're taking an age to upload, and I really want to spend some of today doing other things. The baby gorilla photos will have to wait till later, as will the baby prairie dogs, moorhen chicks and various less cute adult animals. (None of the sloth, though.)

For now you'll have to content yourself with photos of the shy sand cat,
Sand Cat
the elusive red panda,
Red Panda
the stately lioness,
Lions 4
and the noble capybara.
Capybara 2

Full set here, with more to follow later.

26 May 2007

Message from Mars

I'm sorry if these updates are getting tedious, but this is a correction of sorts to an earlier post.

Masterfoods responded today to my original complaint about the newly non-vegetarian nature of Snickers and Mars bars. (Or rather, they replied to a "Mr Purfer_hallard", who they coincidentally seem to believe resides at my address.) Although most of what they had to say I knew already, it does turn out that Bounties and Twixia were never vegetarian in the first place.

While this certainly means that my earlier paranoid speculations were groundless, it also suggests that Masterfoods' decision to be "principled" in announcing their forthcoming departure from vegetarian standards, had not been matched by equally principled decisions in the past.

Oh well, you get the idea. They also reimbursed me for some full-of-meaty-goodness Snickerses I'd returned to them. Of course the cheque's made out to Mr Purfer_hallard.

23 May 2007


This was inspired by a typo on a mailing list, during a discussion of whether Human Nature and Human Nature could be fitted into Doctor Who continuity together.
SHARD UNIVERSE [Terminology] There are certain patterns of events which, because of their precise formation and structure in time, are capable of "seeding" history, in much the same way as a single shard of crystal can convert a beakerful of solution into crystals of identical shape and construction.

From a time-bound perspective, the phenomenon resembles nothing so much as eerily significant coincidence, as particular situations, and even names and dates, "echo" and recur throughout perceived history. A god becomes mortal; a demon is chained; an island civilisation falls before the wingbeats of angelic or demonic powers. From some perspectives, even the Homeworld itself might appear to have fallen more than once.

Non-time-active civilisations often perceive such events as the action of providence in history, and it is trure that many such "shards" are deliberately seeded by the Wartime powers and other time-active cultures to their own ends.

Others, however, are naturally occurring. It is thought that these apparently random seed events may themselves be echoes from previous or parallel universes where such recurrences have infested the timeline, resulting in a history of endlessly repeated near-identical episodes. These "Shard Universes" would be characterised by formulaic, clicéd scenarios, barely-distinguished individuals and obsessive returns to depressingly familiar tableaux and set-pieces.

[© Philip Purser-Hallard 2007]
I still love The Book of the War.

Mars Retreats!

Despite the last couple of posts, I've no intention of turning Peculiar Times into a campaigning blog. I'm pleased, though, that Masterfoods have announced a partial U-turn on their decision to laugh maniacally while putting animal derivatives in their chocolate bars. I'm delighted that Snickerses and Maltesers will remain vegetarian, but continue to be annoyed that Bounties and Twices (that is the plural of Twix, presumably?) won't.

A cynic might choose to see this as an application of the familiar principle of overstating one's negotiating position in order to win concessions. Masterfoods are, after all, going ahead with their intention to make a large number of their products non-vegetarian, and most of the consumers who would normally be protesting are currently patting themselves on the back for a job well done. It seems a slightly extreme length to go to, but it would be a canny application of politics to marketing, and might well win some award or other.

What else? I'm expecting to finish the rewrites on Nursery Politics this week, which will be something of a relief. It's been dominating my brain for far too long now, to the detriment (I realise) of this blog.

There have been cygnets and moorhen chicks near work for two weeks now, zealously watched over by their respective parents, and the cygnets in particular have grown visibly during that period. Two weeks ago they were generic baby birds, tiny and grey and fluffy and easily mistaken for mutant ducklings. Today they're twice the size (though sadly reduced in number from nine to seven), and already showing signs of neck elongation.

Unfortunately I've repeatedly forgotten to take my camera in to work, so I have no photos. They're very sweet, though.

Finally, it seems I was premature in suggesting that I'd be able to finish Collapse and Iron Council within two weeks and thus keep up my book-a-week record for 2007 -- I'm barely halfway through either of them. Both are very good, though I find aspects of Jared Diamond's writing style and worldview mildly irritating. More of that later, I shouldn't wonder.

14 May 2007

Dear Masterfoods...

I left the following feedback on the Masterfoods Consumer Care web comments form. They'd "love to hear from you" too, apparently.
I am writing to protest in very strong terms against your decision to include animal derivatives in your chocolate bars, a decision I have just learned about through an article in The Guardian. This is completely gratuitous when all such products have previously been free of animal ingredients, and is tantamount to announcing that you do not care to retain the custom of the UK's millions of vegetarians.

I am a long-term customer, a regular consumer of Snickers and Twix bars and your Snickers, Mars and Maltesers choc ices[1], and I will not be buying any more of these products until you announce that they are once again being made in compliance with vegetarian standards[2].

I take particular exception to the reported statement of your spokesman that "If the customer is an extremely strict vegetarian, then we are sorry the products are no longer suitable". Refusing to eat animal products is not "extremely strict" vegetarianism – it is the definition of vegetarianism. This ignorance on your part gives the impression of even greater indifference towards your former vegetarian customers.

(I should point out that, while I will be very grateful for feedback on this specific issue, I do NOT give my permission for you to use my contact details for any other purpose, and will be seriously annoyed if you do so.)
[1] This helps to explain why I am now on another diet.
[2] This may not, therefore, be such a bad thing.

Honestly, though, in the name of Almighty God and all his terrapins and seraphim, where do they think they get off, doing this and then insisting that they're being "principled" by actually telling people about it?

In pleasanter news, I see Jeremy Paxman's started giving advanced notice of his facial expressions.

09 May 2007

Well Wishers

Without wanting to come over all mouthpiecey, may I commend to you my occasional employers Christian Aid's forthcoming campaign week, as advertised on YouTube?

If only because I drink about six pints of precious fresh water a day, the only reason I filter it first is because otherwise I'm not keen on the taste, and I'd love to see those same luxuries extended to others.

06 May 2007

02 May 2007

Books Update: Expectations, Given Form

It's been a while since I last wrote a bit about what I've been reading, with the result that I'm now four books in deficit. All of them I came to with certain expectations, having read books by their respective authors before.

And here they are:

The Steep Approach to Garbadale is, shockingly, the twenty-first novel I've read by Iain Banks (along with a volume of shorts and a book about whisky), and there was much about it that was comfortingly familiar. Rather too much, I found in fact, as the narrative presented me with a hero emotionally crippled by his childhood love (as in The Crow Road and Walking on Glass), avoiding his sprawling, matriarchal family (The Crow Road again, and also Whit) who run a venerable, highly successful business (The Business) making a game which forms a metaphor for politics (The Player of Games) and taking lots of drugs (passim). What's more, this family has been guarding a terrible secret for a generation (The Wasp Factory and -- oh look -- The Crow Road) whose nature (which I won't reveal here) will also be familiar to long-term appreciators of Banks' oeuvre.

Banks' writing is always competent, and Steep Approach is less flabby and in need of editorial trimming than his last S.F. novel, The Algebraist. There are some lovely bits of writing relating to the hero, Alban's, youthful affair with his cousin, and to his long-dead mother's suicide. But overall it says very little of weight, has none of Banks's usual exuberant creativity, and feels much as if he's writing by the numbers. I've never met a Banks novel I've actively disliked (A Song of Stone and Canal Dreams come closest), but this one's something of a disappointment.

The Penelopiad, on the other hand, is classic Margaret Atwood without, as far as I know, being a retread of anything she's written before. Looking at The Odyssey through the eyes of Odysseus' long-suffering wife Penelope follows a standard feminist-revisionist approach (though it's one James Joyce, for instance, had flirted with before), but it's very productive. Penelope lends the novella a lively, sympathetic voice, sidestepping the victim status she might otherwise invite by tempering her complaints with hard-edged ruthlessness. Atwood gives the novella a second thread in the choric voices of the maids unjustly hanged by Ulysses for fraternising with Penelope's suitors, showing how Penelope herself is compromised by her privileged background as an aristocrat. It's a clever, erudite, witty and highly readable book, and reminded me of why I enjoy Atwood's writing so much.

The only previous work I'd read of Stephen Marley's was his 1995 Doctor Who novel, Managra, which was one of the very best published in Virgin's Missing Adventures range, and a major source of inspiration for Of the City of the Saved.... His Spirit Mirror is an earlier and sadly less deft novel.

The first in Marley's notorious (among Missing Adventures readers, anyway) yet little-read (ditto) "Chinese lesbian vampires" trilogy -- his first novel, bizarrely, being a life of the Virgin Mary -- Spirit Mirror has a lot to recommend it, including inventive ideas, strong characters and vivid descriptions both beautiful and horrific. Unfortunately it's all very po-faced, lacking the streak of wicked humour and deliberately outrageous invention which raises Managra to greatness. The second-century Chinese setting lends local colour -- though less than you might expect -- but ultimately the book is rather flat genre fantasy with some interesting moments.

(Oh, and although the novel contains both Chinese lesbians and vampires, there is no overlap between the two.)

Martin Day's one contribution to Virgin's Missing Adventures line was The Menagerie, a sadly lesser work than Managra, but he has since redeemed himself with contributions to the BBC's Doctor Who book ranges, notably Bunker Soldiers and The Sleep of Reason. I had hoped that Wooden Heart, like Gareth Roberts' Only Human, might be an exception to the dismal tendency of Who books since the new series to be shallow, vapid froth.

Sadly, it isn't quite. Day's work has always had a slight tendency to verbosity, which sadly comes out here in a book I can't imagine its target audience of 8-year-olds enjoying very much. There are some interesting themes relating to ethics and the nature of good and evil, which it's certainly surprising to see tackled by David Tennant's Doctor, but they never develop into anything truly worthwhile.

In the early days of the new series, we long-term Who book readers bemoaned the fact that none of the new Ninth Doctor tie-in books could match such TV episodes as Dalek and Father's Day for subtlety and complexity. Day's book isn't actually a great deal deeper or more complex than those, and yet it easily outdoes the current TV series for thematic sophistication. I find this disappointing.

After all that, then, the list of books I've read so far this year runs thusly:That's eighteen of the buggers. It's also the eighteenth week of the year, and while I started some of the above before the end of 2006, I'm also part of the way into Collapse and Iron Council already, which means I'm very slightly ahead of the game. Assuming that the name of the game is "reading a book a week".

And that's not counting humorous books read on the lavatory.

Still on my to-read list since last time are the following (new arrivals in bold, "less urgent" stuff in square brackets):

Fiction:From all of the above we can deduce that:

a) I don't read nearly as many non-fiction books as I intend to.
b) An embarrassing amount of my reading is Doctor Who related.
c) Only women writers are fulfilling my expectations at present.

Perhaps I'd better start one of those Justina Robsons.