Category: General

A little more time

So my news is: I’m leaving the Guardian to do Other Things – which includes writing for the Guardian for the equivalent of a week a month.

I’ve been working there for just under nine years (joined end of November 2005), during which time there’s been enormous change – though the principal shift, towards the primacy of online and away from print, was already underway.

I’m leaving simply because I want to get off the hamster wheel of going round and round much the same topics – though I do still enjoy the roller-coaster of news.

For that reason, I’m going to continue writing – there’s a contract and everything. (And just to quench the speculation I know some will try to partake in, this is entirely my decision; I haven’t been asked to leave in any way; quite the opposite, which is why I have an ongoing contract.)

That leaves me with a lot of additional time. I may keep doing things at The Overspill (a minimal side project) and I’ve got a couple of ideas for new books. Watch this space, and of course Twitter.

I was going to hotlink this image as your reaction, but it makes it really hard to read the rest of the post. But click through for it.

Book review: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’: a story about love

Cormac McCarthy's book The RoadThis is a book about love.

I know: how does that make sense? How can a book which depicts the exhausted travel of a man (“the man”) and a boy (“the boy”) along and around a road somewhere unidentified in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic America be about love?

But it is. The man loves his son, the boy, born after the nuclear event whose occurrence we only get to guess at. The man loves the world, in its destroyed beauty, as one loves and longs for a departed lover who one knows will never come back.

And the author loves language. McCarthy has created such a beautiful work here. His decision not to use apostrophes or quotation marks is at first jarring, and then surprising, then intriguing, then fits perfectly with the exhausted tone of the characters. This is no time for the intrusively attention-seeking niceties of apostrophes and quotation marks. It’s a time simply for surviving.

The man and the boy have been walking for – how long? We don’t know. There are no clocks except the rising and setting of the sun and of the moon. The earth is an ember, ash its skin. Into this narrative McCarthy injects language that perfectly mirrors the strange timelessness the characters find themselves in: “jackstraw”, “harrowtrough”, words that sit at the edge of our knowledge, understood at our peripheral vision, but not when we look directly at them.

Yes, there are very dark events in this book. McCarthy is describing a world where it seems nature has given up, exhausted, where nothing new seems to grow, where the trees fall and only stir up ash. He’s conjuring up a world where humans still live, but barely get by. McCarthy can see the darkness that would lie in mens’ hearts, and the things they would do, to survive.

I loved this book. I read it in fear of what would happen next, but in awe of the skill with which McCarthy found the words to describe something most of us would shrink even from thinking about and then found the way to knit those words together to tell a love story.

The love of the father for the child is so deep, so enduring – it’s the central relationship of the book, of course (apart from the father’s weary desire for the lost world). To be a father with a son and to read this book (I’m in that category) is to feel the pain of impending loss – loss that might be around the corner, or might be years hence – yet also the joy of sharing everything with them, being almost cocooned in time. The father is never exasperated with the boy. Never impatient, never angry. There’s time, so much time, too much time, yet not enough time either because each cycle of the sun demands survival.

Ultimately, I think it’s impossible as a father of a boy to read this book and not ask yourself: would my love for my child be that strong? Could you make the right choices in a world that strips choice away?

Most of all, though, it’s a book that will leave you awestruck if you’re prepared to immerse yourself in it, to swim in its language. The power of McCarthy’s writing is exceptional; the simplicity of the descriptions belies the reality he’s describing.

You might ask where The Road will take you. The answer: where any road takes you: as far as you want to go, as far as it can.

Where’s the Prometheus script, then? Or what the original Alien script teaches us about writing screenplays

(Oh, for the faint-hearted: there are NO PROMETHEUS SPOILERS here. As if.)

I don’t think I’d be much cop at writing screenplays – I’ve already discovered that getting through a book is quite a thing (I have a book! Digital Wars! Have you bought it? Paperback, Kindle; iBook Store) but screenplays have their own disciplines. You are writing for the screen, so you have to describe, and every scene has to carry weight. Every line has to be chosen to do its work.

You can go on wonderfully expensive courses in screenwriting, where you will learn these sorts of things. But you could also save yourself a lot of money (or get a good start) by studying the film of Alien, and then comparing it to the original screenplay for Alien, before Ridley Scott and everyone else got their hands on it, over at the Internet Movie Script database.

Formerly titled “Starbeast” and originally (if I’m parsing it right) given the treatment by Walter Hill who seems to have been involved in – whew – 48 Hours, Alien and The Getaway – he was up to direct it, originally – and David Giler, it’s up there in screenplay format.

It’s a really fascinating read, because you see many of the things that Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett got right (O’Bannon is credited with the screenplay that seems to have been the basis of Scott’s film). Let’s run over those (I’m assuming from here on that you’ve seen Alien):

– mining ship picks up alien message
– finds bizarre spaceship and long-dead “pilot”
– “spore” things

– adventurous astronaut who looks into.. DON’T LOOK IN THERE

– thing on face

– bursts out of chest (oh, er, spoiler alert)

– pursuit around the ship using electric prods and then flamethrowers

– picked off one by one

– blow up the ship

– no wait don’t blow up the ship!

– escape in the ..escape thing

– oh noooo!!

– blow it out and blast it with the engines

– phew.

Now let’s go over some of the things that are different.

• All-male crew. This seems, in retrospect, such an incredible mistake because it doesn’t allow for the tensions and little shows of emotion, such as the implied one between [captain] Dallas and [Sigourney Weaver’s] Ripley, for example. There’s something there when he moves to protect her in the sick bay after the facehugger reappears. Subtly done, just a hint that they had – have? – a relationship.

Instead you get lines – or actions – that look wildly out of place between male crew members:

Standard turns and looks at him. For a long moment, the two men regard each other, then STANDARD STEPS FORWARD AND SLAPS ROBY ACROSS THE FACE.

Maybe it’s just me, but – one asteroid miner slaps another? Seems a bit fey, to say the least. (Also, it’s the wrong dynamic: Standard is the captain and Roby is the Ripley-character who survives. It should be the other way around.)

The all-male crew also means that the downtimes – the slowing in pace so it can speed up again – doesn’t give you a chance to feel involved in the characters, because any emotion between them (which would help you empathise with them) seems a bit more than bromance. Look, the tagline isn’t “In space, nobody can hear you scream, sweetie.” It’s an alien killer thriller. No romance, dammit.

So why does adding women into the mix improve it so much? Well, there’s Ripley, of course – the first of Sigourney Weaver’s finest hours. And there’s Veronica Cartwright as Lambert (you knew that, right?). Her role doesn’t consist of much more than looking really worried and being petrified, and taking part in the worst scene in the film (where she freezes in front of the monster while Yaphet Kotto yells at her to get out of the way – which, when you examine the original screenplay, is basically a way to get rid of the two of them and leave Ripley alone).

But she is basically the high (or low) emotional note, the Psycho-screech of the horrified, against the less worried others. She’s you and I, confronted by the alien. (That thing is scary.) You need her at one emotional extreme, and Ripley at the other. The women bracket the emotions of the film. Adding them was a masterstroke.

• names. This might seem minor, but start here: the spaceship is called the “Snark”. Snort. The one used in the film, Nostromo, is so beautifully chosen: picked from a novel by Joseph Conrad, writer of “Heart of Darkness”, with its echoes of nothingness and nowhere.

The character names seem weaker to me, though that may be familiarity – a captain called “Dallas” rather than “Standard”, “Ripley” (another hat tip to a novel – Ripley’s Game) rather than “Roby”. As I say, it might be familiarity, but I think if you stack up Dallas, Ripley, Lambert, Brett, Kane, Ash, and Parker against Standard, Roby, Melkonis, Broussard, Faust, Hunter, the better name set is clear.

One other thing that’s clear: the real film has one extra character. (Go back and count.) Which leads us to…

• subplot: the Company. There’s no “The Company” in the original screenplay. Or at least, not as a malign actor in the background that manoeuvres the crew into their terrifying fate. There’s also no Ash, the science officer who turns out to be not exactly working in the interest of the humans on board. (He lets the alien onto the ship; he doesn’t try to kill it in the early stages; he doesn’t try to stop it killing the crew. It’s an open question whether it would treat him as a machine or a human if they met.)

Adding in the Company means that there’s room for subplot, which spices up the film helpfully because it creates extra tension between the characters, at the same time that they’re worrying about the alien.

Remember that this is a screenplay, so you can’t just add subplots in blithely. The time this subplot needs is taken, I think, from scenes on the planet – mostly stumbling around pyramids and stuff.

• The computer as a character. An odd omission in a sci-fi screenplay, but the only point in the original (as opposed to the film) where someone talks directly to the computer is right at the end, when Roby/Ripley is trying to get the reactor to cool back down. Otherwise? Dumb, deaf computer. Far more sensible to have it listening and talking back. The typed dialogue with the computer in the few scenes that are added (and particularly the one where Ripley discovers that Ash is protecting it) shows that the computer is part of the crew, if not always a particularly helpful one.

• Hiding the monster. This is huge. In the original screenplay, you see the alien when it jumps out of the spore, when the astronauts still outside try to get it off, when they get him to sickbay, when it comes out of Kane’s chest, when it goes into the food store, when it grabs Brett, when it grabs someone else, when it… I was getting pretty bored of seeing its gnarly name come up.

In the film, you get far less exposure. You get glimpses, threats, hints. That’s what makes it great. You don’t get to see the whole of it until the very end, in the escape capsule. That’s tension.

• Pacing The original film doesn’t contain the scene where Ripley (Roby) discovers Dallas (Standard) cocooned in the lower decks of the ship, though it’s in the original screenplay, and was brought back in the “Director’s Cut” (aka “way to make fans buy another DVD, or go to the film again”). That’s not a screenplay issue per se, but it is about pacing, which matters.

* And finally: the ending. It seems like a small thing, but it’s not. The original ending is a twist – you thought they’d escaped! (When I first watched it, that was the sort of twist I expected.) But wiser studio heads prevailed, I think, to suggest that if you’ve done the film right, you’ve put the poor audience through enough; let them file out in peace.

That’s pretty much it: a set of how-to lessons where all you have to do is read the script online, watch the film, compare the two, and then rewrite your script so that it eliminates all those sorts of errors! Simple.

OK, and to the Prometheus stuff. This is the blockbuster film that’s getting the whack promoted out of it (in bursts), which uses the same aliens, the same bizarre alien spaceship pilot… in some configuration. Is there a Prometheus script? There is! Oh, no, wait, it’s from Stargate.

Probably the original screenplay will surface a while after the film itself releases. That’s going to be a fascinating comparison in itself.

Oh, well. Shall we meet later and discuss the original screenplay for Blade Runner?

No clickitty-clack of track-bound noise, it's a long, insulated Pullman of contoured seats and low-keyed lighting, coloured to soothe,and empty, except for the passenger half way down.His eyes closed, head rested against the glass. Ten years ago, DECKARD might have been an athlete, a track man or a welter-weight.

Hmm. Get me rewrite!

Review: Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: a marvellous novel about dealing badly with slow change

Ageofmiracles uk

Ageofmiracles us

UK edition in hardback
UK edition on Kindle
US edition in hardback
US edition on Kindle

When you think about catastrophes, you normally think about too much or too little of something. And it happens all at once, somewhere.

Catastrophes such as – an asteroid hits the earth. (Actually, London was lucky not to be hit by the 1908 Tunguska meteorite; it’s on about the same latitude. Only a few minutes or even seconds saved Britain’s capital from a totally different 20th century.)

Or aliens invade.
Or a gigantic tidal wave hits us. (Or indeed hits Japan.)
Or there’s a zombie apocalypse. (Isn’t it great that the Centers for Disease Control has got a plan for the zombie apocalypse? No, maybe not.)
Or a super-abrupt ice age.

We’re used to our catastrophes being big, sudden, an abrupt surplus or deficit of something in a particular place.

But what about a catastrophe that isn’t caused by a surplus or a deficit, and which it isn’t really sudden? What would that be like?

That is the premise of The Age of Miracles, the debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker. It’s an amazing book. It was sent to my wife by one of the editors at Simon & Schuster, which is publishing it this June, but I picked it up because I was intrigued by the idea, which is this: the Earth’s rotation (on its axis, not around the sun) starts to slow down. That’s all – just slows down. And keeps getting slower.

So – the days are longer, as are the nights. But no surplus or deficit. Look, there’s that extra hour in the day you wanted. Oh, and more time to sleep. Except – the rotation keeps slowing, though only very gradually. Perhaps a few minutes extra added to each cycle every time. In the book, they call it the Slowing. (They don’t use the capital, but I think you would.)

The story is told through the eyes of Julia, an 11-year-old girl living somewhere in southern California. It’s that age – when the most important thing at school is who you’re friends with, who’s in and who’s out and (if you’re an 11-year-old girl) whether that dishy boy is going to sit near you when you get on the bus.

You’re probably thinking, first: what difference would it make if the earth’s rotation slowed down anyway? And then: how could that happen, anyway?

First: the difference would be huge, but ever so slow. Gravity would change (less rotation, greater centripetal force means we’d feel heavier). And our circadian rhythms would soon fall out of kilter; as the day (and night) stretches from 12 hours to 15 to 20 and more, you just can’t keep adjusting.

So the government announces: hell, yes, we’re just going to carry on with the 24-hour clock. Though some people try to live on “natural time”, which is to say, by the sunrise and sunset.

And Julia carries on, even while the days and the nights lengthen – so that sometimes she’s waking up in darkness to go to her early morning school bus ride – being obsessed with who she’s friends with, and the boy who sometimes talks to her on the bus. The world is sliding into confusion but she doesn’t look wider. The birds begin to die (the gravity? Who knows?), the whales beach themselves, trees start to die… but what’s really important is who your friends are talking to and why that new girl isn’t speaking to you.

I assume that the location it’s set in is quite close to the equator, because there’s not much seasonal variation in the relative length of days and nights. (Or it’s not commented on.) I did wonder whether Walker had spoken to people from northerly latitudes about how they cope with almost endless darkness in winter, and almost endless sunlight in summer; although this isn’t quite about that.

It’s not about long days and short nights. It’s about long days and long nights too, winter and summer at the same time. (Think about how hot it would get with the sun up for days on end. Then think about how cold it would get with the night going on and on. Think about the effects on plants and photosynthesis.)

It’s a brilliant book; while the premise is impossible (well, almost utterly – see below**), this book isn’t really about the idea of the Earth slowing down. It’s about how we are as a species. At an individual level we’re powerless, most of all over slow change. We can deal with abrupt change – well, abrupt short-lived change – and hope to come out mostly unruffled. OK, abrupt, short-lived very localised ones such as tsunamis or hurricanes. Those, we can handle.

But very slow, yet enormously important catastrophes? We’re not very good at those. As individuals, as nations, as a species. We focus on the close-at-hand, the short-term. We argue with each other and basically ignore what’s going on around us.

Because I have to ask: can you think of any planet-wide changes that are happening ever so gradually which will have colossal effects (to which we’re perhaps even contributing) and which we’re mostly ignoring, or just paying lip service to, and carrying on as normal?

Yeah. That one. Thought you might be able to.

That’s what makes this book so subtly brilliant. It points out our Achilles heel: we’re so bad at dealing with the slow. We reckon we can deal (we hope) with the sudden – though if we’re honest we don’t know how we’d cope with an asteroid impact of any significance; or, come to that, the zombie apocalypse. But dealing with slow? We’re just frogs in the cooking pot.

You might be wondering whether the people faced with the Slowing would try to fix it: attach rockets to the earth and try to speed it up? But (even if they do that, except I’m not doing the plot here) that’s not what this book is about; it’s a changing world seen from the point of view of an 11-year-old. They tend not to know too much about the adult thinking going on over how to reseed the planet’s rotational momentum, apart from what they hear people talking about on TV.

Cleverly, the book is written in a sort of future present – “if we’d known then how it would turn out, we wouldn’t have concentrated so much on [some trivial thing]” – which gives you both the confidence that the Slowing is survivable, and yet contains an inkling that things don’t seem to have been solved by the time the narrator is writing. (And you don’t know how near or far ahead that is, either.)

It’s a book whose premise stays with you long after; I finished reading it weeks ago, yet when I drive home in darkness or light, I think of the people in that novel, and wonder about how it would be for the days or the nights to just continue, creeping on in this petty pace, not relenting. (The UK edition has a far better cover than the US one; it captures that tension of the sun, which you don’t want to go away and yet you don’t want to stay either after a day that has gone on and on.)

And even though the world is going to keep turning, there’s still the question of what happens when we slowly run out of stuff. That’s the topic of a TED talk by Paul Gilding – “The Earth is full” (here’s the video) which makes uncomfortable reading if you think about it for any length of time.

But of course it’s much easier to ignore it, carry on as before, assume nothing catastropic will happen.

Isn’t it?

Note that the book isn’t published until June 2012. You’ll just have to add it to your wishlist. Please do. It’s a fascinating read.

(**OK, to the issue of whether the earth could slow down. For this to happen, the planet would have to lose a ton of rotational momentum. The only way this could happen is if its centre of rotational gravity – if that’s a word – were to shift towards the centre of the earth. About the only way that I can imagine that happening is if the earth were to stray into the path of a black hole about the size of a dozen atoms or so, which was then trapped in the earth’s core, sucking everything in eeeeeevvverr so slowly. If I’m remembering my maths right, that increase in central mass would reduce the rotational momentum of the planet and so lead to it slowing down. Read up about micro black holes if you want to really do the maths. Of course, if there were a black hole at the centre of the planet large enough to eat its core, then we’d have rather bigger problems ahead than rotation. But that’s for another time. The theory, at Wikipedia, suggests it wouldn’t happen – such a tiny black hole would just pass through the planet without touching it.) //back

Review: Star Wars episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 3D: you sure it’s 3d?

Basically, it’s just as bad as it was in 2D, but some of the sequences are a bit more 3D-y.

But the bits that you really want to be more 3D-y – to take advantage of the (limited, but still not zero) possibilities that the three-dimensionality offers – aren’t.

Specifically, the pod race, which you’d think would offer terrific opportunities, if it was properly done, to give you those “oof” feeling in the pit stomach, is just the same pod race as in the 1999 version, but with just a shimmer of 3D-ness added. The stone pillars don’t loom at you, the tunnels and canyons don’t zoom out of the screen.

And the climactic fight between Gingerchops (Darth Maul to you) and the Linen Sack Wearers (Jedi Knights if you prefer) really wants to have some bullet time added. (The Matrix and this film orginally came out in the same year, 1999.) But of course they can’t. You’d need to call everyone back, redo the sets, and reshoot it.

However there’s a worrying indication that 3D is being used just as the CD was in its early years – for the industry to shore up its revenues and profits by redoing films that did well the first time. As we left the cinema (the boys had wanted to see it) I noticed an ad for something else from the past – so old I’ve already forgotten what – being re-offered in 3D.

It’s a bad trend. Star Wars might have its own fanbase who’ll go to everything (and a new younger audience who have never seen it in the cinema) but if the film industry tries to rely on 3D as its moneymaker, things are going to go badly.

Not that they’re going swimmingly as it is. There were ads for tons of rubbish films there – Prometheus (looks like nonsense), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (er, what?), Battleship (more Transformers-like nonsense). No doubt they’ll have 3D versions. Not worth the money, I’d wager.

In fact, besides Avatar (which I haven’t seen) is there any 3D film that really makes good use of the technology? Actually, is there any good use of 3D in normal cinema films?

Secoh air pump stopped work? Fault’s probably the easily-replaced diaphragm

The following is written entirely for the benefit of Google, and you, dear reader, who probably like me has a Secoh EL 80 15 pump or similar that has stopped working. It may have been one year or it might have been three. (That’s what happened with us.) Maybe it’s powering a cess pit or a koi carp pond or whatever.

You’re thinking you might need to buy a new one. What!! TWO HUNDRED POUNDS!!

Don’t worry. The thing that goes wrong is the rubber-ish diaphragm that vibrates back and forth to pump the air around. You can buy spare parts for these. They’re much cheaper – about 60 pounds.

If the pump is a few years old, then you should probably replace both diaphragms – they’re arranged one each side of an electromagnet in the centre of the device.

Replacement isn’t hard at all. If you have a Philips (cross-head) screwdriver and about 20 minutes to spare you can do it yourself. Try not to do what I did and crossthread one of the screws so it breaks off when you’re doing the replacement. Gah.

You also have to change the position of the centre rocker so that it’s evenly placed between the electromagnet (you’ll find it’s on one side when you open the pump up – usually over to the diaphragm that’s intact. Shift it back to the middle).

You can download the manuals for Secoh pumps. Useful.

Hope that helps.

So anyway, those guns, Professor Spafford…

The hours after the Giffords shooting in Arizona were hardly the media’s finest hour; Giffords was declared to have been declared dead at the scene, then realised not to be. I was in the US at the time, and saw the news come up on my Twitter feed. Personally I found the story hugely upsetting; that someone can walk up to a stranger in broad daylight and fire a gun into their head from close range is awful enough; the fact that the victim was someone whose job is to be answerable and accessible to the public only made it worse. Add to that the other deaths that day, and I couldn’t bear it.

Predictably, this quickly turned into a “gun control – should there be some?” debate in some parts of Twitter. Being someone who finds the occasional spirited debate something not to be shied from, I found myself in a Twitter debate with Gene Spafford, who had posed the question: sure, guns kill people, but are they more evil than cigarettes, which after all kill more people?

Alex Howard had kicked it off: “Context: ~35 people die from firearm homicides every day in the US (CDC), 2007 NYT infographic. (I’ve turned the short links into proper links.)

Spafford then responded: “And approximate 1205 per day die as a result of smoking tobacco. Which is the one that is the bigger evil?”

You can see how the conversation developed via Aaron’s Twitter viewer (it’s great).

Me: “generally, smoking is done voluntarily last time I looked.”

Spafford: “One might argue that most homicides are voluntary, as well. And second-hand smoke is not always voluntary. ”

Me: “vast majority of those who die from smoking do so from own hand. Quite literally. Not so with.. you know.”

Spafford: “No single cigarette is fatal. Few people light one with the intent of it leading to his or her death. Few people drive a car intending to cause a fatal accident.”

Me: “but few people in western world can light a cigarette without knowing it could harm or kill them. Not others – themselves. the intent of buying a gun though is to threaten to harm others. So – which encapsulates more evil? I’ll let you figure it.”

Spafford: “the intent of buying a gun is no more to threaten to harm others than is buying a knife or a bow & arrow. Those who target shoot, for instance, have no intent on threatening anyone.”

Me: “‘threaten to harm others’ – not necessarily [of] own species. (Pace hunters.)”

Now, looking back and looking at Spafford’s feed, I’m inclined to think he’s not a gun-totin’ Second-Amendment-smokin’ guns-for-all promoter. I think, days later, that he’s trying to stir things up in a gentle way, from his academic position. (He’s a computer science expert, who discovered the Morris worm.)

However I felt that he might have got carried away with the idea of being a bit oppositional, a bit contrary, in the face of the awful events that had unfolded on the afternoon.

He then wrote a blog post, pushing the point again. He begins by acknowledging that the shootings are tragic, then continues:

The shooter is clearly the one who should be blamed. It appears (from what has been published so far) that he may have some mental problems. And there may well be some blame to assign to those who stoked his hate and fears.

A few people have been quick to claim that the fault is that the shooter had a handgun.

I agree that guns, used carelessly or in the hands of idiots and criminals are a bad idea. But I am equally convinced, after a lifetime of working with law enforcement, the military, and the others, that the problem is not ownership or regulation of guns per se. So long as there is a minimum standard of competency and criminal background check made on those who purchase a weapon, it is probably not a problem. People who buy diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate (to make ANFO) are also dangerous, as are those who buy axes! Yet there are many, many legitimate purchases and uses of those every day.

The shooter in this recent case was determined and attacked at short range. Without a handgun he might have used a suicide bomb (to worse effect), or run his car into the crowd. Someone with strong intent will make use of whatever means may be available.

There’s a lot more – CDC numbers, comparing drunk driver deaths with gun deaths, and so on. And near the end one of his points is:

People who aren’t around responsible users of firearms, and who haven’t been trained in their use tend to be skittish about them. That is understandable. The same is true about other things, such as corrosive chemicals, poisons, and explosives. Firearms aren’t toys. Neither is HCl nor cyanide nor C4 nor dynamite. They have their uses. They should be handed with care. Users should be trained. Their misuse should be punished. And there will be people who misuse them, especially people with mental problems.

So there it was. It was on a blog, and it had a comment box – which was open. So I wrote a comment.

Which wasn’t published. And wasn’t published. And at the time of writing, still hasn’t been published. I prodded him (on Twitter) about this: “any time you want to approve my comment on your blogpost is good. It’s been almost 24 hrs now.”

His response: “When I have time to adequately respond to your silly arguments, I will.”

Cue slight bit of tooth-grinding. Look, if they’re silly arguments, it shouldn’t take any time to knock them down, should it? And approving the comment takes pretty much no time.

So here’s the comment. As a preface, let me say that I’m happy for people to argue for ownership of guns as an a priori philisophical principle – the libertarian view that ownership of things shouldn’t be constrained. At least it’s honest, and you can see if you can try to fit a razor blade around the hermetic seal of their thinking. (It can be quite hard.)

But please, don’t tell me that owning guns is a sacred right because some white guys in wigs 200 years ago who were terrified that King George would come back with the heavies (or that someone would set up their own set of heavies) decided it was expedient at that time. The US Second Amendment is a crutch that’s used for lazy thinking; for not examining where social benefit lies.

So here is the comment that I wrote, which Spafford, as I said, hasn’t so far seen fit to publish. Have a read. If you think my arguments are stupid (some are exaggerated, certainly, for effect) then do tell.

As I said, I think that to some extent he was writing to provoke, though also, I think, setting out a position. If he wants to comment here, he’s welcome. Comments are open. Though (and I’ll reiterate this at the end) I’ll take the unusual step of using strikeout (not deletion, unless libellous) on comments I deem offensive or wacko. Just because I know how this debate goes. Which is, nowhere at all, sadly.


I’m sure it’s very satisfactory to write a blogpost where you can quote to affirm your prejudices, but I’d have thought someone as intelligent as yourself would take the opportunity to posit the possibility that their previous thinking is wrong, argue against it, and see how well they can break down their old thinking – in the form of thesis/antithesis/synthesis.

Let me try, coming from the opposite perspective. Let me accept that ownership of guns should be allowed; that it’s only the very few who abuse that right.

Fine. Well then, extend that right. Why does the US government get so snitty about ownership of radioactive materials? Isn’t it every American’s right to own as much uranium, plutonium, polonium, or whatever as they like? Didn’t the Founding Fathers have personal nuclear weapons in mind when they added that bit about “the right to bear arms”? If you allow the ownership of semi-automatic and automatic guns capable of killing multiple people who are foolish enough to be in the vicinity of someone with a grudge, or just poor control of a powerful object, then surely you must allow the ownership – concealed or not – of weapons-grade radioactives. It’s your right. Sod this nonsense about radiation in a public place. Only the irresponsible, and so undeserving of our sympathy, would carry such materials around without proper shielding. And you have something to protect you from would-be muggers and assailants. Or, indeed, hungry bears.

No? Why ever not? Is it because the harm that could be caused is out of proportion to the benefits of allowing ownership?

Let’s look at that CDC data. Top four causes of sudden early death: (1) cars (2) poisoning (of which 75% are suicides) (3) guns (4) falls.

Not much to be done about (4) unless we can repeal the law of gravity, but I doubt even the Tea Party has its eyes on that one. Nor (2) since we have to allow that Drano and headache pills actually do have a peaceful use – cleaning drains, easing headaches – and that we shouldn’t ban things which are misused in opposition to or orthogonally to their primary purpose. Drano is not sold as a suicide assist; it’s sold for cleaning drains.

OK, so (1) cars. What the hell use are cars again? Oh, that’s right, personal transportation. So drunk drivers don’t actually go out on sprees looking for people to run down, you say? They’re overconfident because of the depressant effects of alcohol? Cars have a primary use that is beneficial to the wider economy? We might have to make an allowance for them. Drunk driving is still wrong. A car could still be used as a weapon. You just don’t hear of many cases where it happens [that drunk drivers go on intentional killing sprees]. At all.

And so to guns. You wrote: “Firearms are used by many for hunting, for sport (target shooting), and as a means of providing protection against animals. Many guns kept for self protection are never used to threaten another person, and are never used to hurt another, either, as seen by the figures above.”

Okey-dokey, used for hunting. That’s why the murder rate is so high in Oakland and New York – damn trigger-happy hunters seeing a bear at every street corner.

Wait, no? It’s target shooters whose weapons slip out of their pocket?

The argument about “many guns are never used to threaten another person” is so weak I’m astonished you attempt to make it. Are you seriously suggesting that 4+ million guns are sold in the US each year to people who want to go hunting and shoot targets? Really? Or might it be that they hope to persuade potentially harmful people not to threaten them, the buyers?

In which case the prime purpose of a gun is, yes, to threaten harm, and by doing so (you hope) deter it. A gun is a quintessentially different tool from a hammer, or even an axe, or fertiliser. Hammers and axes have primary uses that are not aimed at humans. Fertiliser is for, well, fertilising.

By contrast a gun is a fulfilment of every child’s God complex, to induce effect at a distance with the minimum of effort. Target shooters and hunters are actually the people who have gone beyond that level, who understand exactly why they use a gun. I’d contend that the vast majority of gun buyers and owners don’t truly know, psychologically, why they’re making the purchasing decision; they just know it makes them feel good (even if it might make their partners nervous).

I would bother dealing with the cigarette arguments if there were reports of people going on killing sprees with cigarettes, but they seem rare for some reason. As for suicide bombings, I think there have been, what, a handful of attempts in the US, all unsuccessful ( If you want to replace gun shops with suicide vest shops, that seems to me a good idea; at least it would be a more honest description of what can happen from owning a gun.

Notwithstanding all the above, I recognise that the US’s longstanding policy on gun ownership means that it is nigh on impossible to alter the equation of gun ownership. You could try banning bullets, but they’re even easier to smuggle than guns. (In the UK, you can be arrested for carrying live ammunition. The UK really is hot on firearms control.)

But even with that said, to pretend that guns are somehow “safe” because they kill fewer people than cars only indicates that the debate has ceased to be a debate; instead it’s reached the religious level, where idees fixes have completely taken over the minds of adherents and detractors alike, and cannot be budged without the most enormous effort of will. To ask gun adherents to imagine an America without the Second Amendment is like asking a Christian to imagine a world without their imaginary God. From what I’ve seen, there’s a relatively large overlap there. Which ought to give pause for thought. Dogma is dangerous wherever it’s found.


To reiterate: you’re free to comment. But I reserve the right to strike it out (it’ll still be there, just a lot less visible) if you’re offensive. Argument – reasoned argument, or explanations of where I’ve been silly are welcome. I can take it.

At Centre Court: seeing Federer, and what Murray got wrong against Roddick

(No, that isn’t Judy Murray in the seat in front.)
On Friday I was at Wimbledon, at the centre court, to see the men’s semifinals. Thank you, Electronic Arts, which invited me and a few other journalists (from the Sun, Sky, Comic Relief and a few others) along for a chat and also, of course, to see the two matches: Roger Federer v Tommy Haas, and Andy Murray v Andy Roddick.

It’s been a long time since I was at Wimbledon. I attended every single day between 1985 to 1992 inclusive, and that included the Monday final of the doubles in 1992 when McEnroe won with Michael Stich. (Goes away to check. Yup. Correct. Memory doesn’t fail there.) I’d also attended the second week of every French Open in that period. In 1991 I went and reported on every Grand Slam event – Australian, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open. The 1991 US event was particularly notable for Jimmy Connors’s amazing run to the semifinals, where his strange flat shots befuddled player after player used to topspin madness. “Does Connors have the perfect game to play guys like you?” I asked Paul Haarhuis, whom Connors had beaten. The slightly testy reply: “If he did, everyone would play like that, wouldn’t they?”

But by then I’d got kind of bored with the game: it didn’t seem to have the zing and excitement I’d liked in the early years. So I just gave it up, pretty much cold turkey, and didn’t go back. But that was after six years of seeing every Wimbledon final from the press seats, which are slightly above and behind the Royal Box. A great place to be: saw Pat Cash climb up the roof to celebrate his 1987 win, for example.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago. I still wasn’t interested in tennis, which seemed to me to reach a nadir beneath words with Pete Sampras’s ascent: he turned it into a serve, volley, go home game. And he had the personality of a plank.

Then I read a piece by Martina Navratilova about some guy called Roger Federer. Specifically, this:

I was lucky enough to play mixed doubles with him in Hong Kong at an exhibition in January this year. When they asked me if I wanted to play doubles with Roger, I asked, “great, how much do I have to pay you?”. It was a real treat because he was simply a joy to be on the court with. Then he asked me to practise with him and I got to hit for 45 minutes just one on one, which was phenomenal because I really got to feel how he hits the ball.

When Martina says things like that, everyone should listen. If she wants to be on the court with someone, that’s someone worth paying a lot of attention to. When I was covering the circuit she and Steffi Graf were the only two women whose press conferences were consistently interesting, because they were. So – why the fuss about Federer, Martina?

When he hits his forehand he can hook it so that he can go cross-court or down the line, tailing away from you because of all the topspin. He can hit a forehand cross-court so that it jumps at your body, which is effective on any surface but particularly on grass because it’s almost as though he’s inducing a bad bounce because he makes the ball jump differently and that’s what his kick-serve does as well.

He’s got spin on everything, he’s got a heavy slice that stays low, he can float the ball so that it stays low and just dies on the court so you have to create all the pace, or he can knife it so that it skids through. On his groundstrokes he can hit it harder or can hit a cross-court ball that looks like it’s going to be no problem until it suddenly takes off in the other direction after it bounces.

Well, that was good enough for me. So I started watching again. And indeed, Federer is the magic that she said.

But until Friday I hadn’t seen that magic live, and the difference between live and on TV is huge, let me tell you.

Centre Court, of course, is its own special place: far more intimate than you realise from the TV. And indeed, when Federer plays, the magic is there. I was sitting at a place diagonally off one corner, quite high up (so you can confirm the line calls easily), which means it’s hard to see whether the court is open for a pass (that you can see far better when you’re directly behind the court).

With Federer playing Tommy Haas (who always sounds to me like he should be the lead singer of a German heavy metal band), the principal difference between them was the noise when Federer really smacked his forehand. It was a whipcrack, and zinged across the court. Haas gave a good account of himself – as with most pro matches, the difference was only in a few points here and there.

But it’s what the TV doesn’t show you that’s interesting. Such as how between points, if he’s receiving serve, Federer will get any ball down his end from the ballgirl/boy and slice it up the court, lazily floating along with the combined langour and intention of a cruise missile.

Then there’s the way Federer looks slightly grumpily at the court where he was when he lost a point, as though it’s somehow the court’s fault he mishit that forehand. Well, it might have been. But it’s more like a habit.

And boy, do the players have habits. I’d forgotten how they love to do the same things over and over again. Wimbledon could be retitled The Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Challenge. Towel between points: Andy Murray is the champion here. He was wiping his face with the towel even though he had two sweatbands on his wrists. (Pity the ballboys and girls who had to run out to him between every point with the towel outstretched. In their future lives, they’ll make great parents for needy children.)

Which brings us to Murray against Roddick. The expectation was that Murray could win this, since he had a 6-2 record against Roddick, and had previously beaten him handily in three sets at Wimbledon a year or two back.

(Let me just point out to those who might wonder if I know anything about this game these two posts from this blog:

First, in Sept 2007:

Plus Murray has the potential to be one of the top three players in the world if he can get past this year’s injury.

Second, July 2005:

Murray is going to be top 50 within a year, top 10 – likely five – the next one. Talent will out. He made Johansson look quite ordinary for a while at Queen’s.

But Roddick, who has lost a stone recently (so I’m told), wasn’t interested in the past. He came out slamming his serve down.

It’s when you’re up against a big server that your mental strength is really tested, because you have to keep waiting for the little chance to pop up that will let you win the point, break point, game, set.

Roddick was thudding the ball in. But here’s the contrast between Federer and Murray. Haas was bombing his serve too: 126mph or so. OK, so Roddick had about another 10mph on that. But Federer was returning the serve on the baseline. Murray was about three yards back from the baseline.

What you love, if you’re a big server, is a lot of space to aim into. It gives you a feeling of freedom: you can relax. You know where the other person’s going to be, so you can pick your spot and aim for it.

That was Murray’s first big mistake. He didn’t vary where he stood. Even if he had sometimes stood on the baseline – even if it was going to be hopeless – that would have made Roddick think a little bit. If he had stood further back sometimes, so he’d have more of a chance to run at the ball, that would have made a difference. As it was, he remained in the same two places – one for first serve, one for second serve – through the match, and that didn’t help him. It didn’t put any doubt in Roddick’s mind. By contrast, in 1991 I saw McEnroe beat Becker at the Australian Open by basically standing on or even inside the baseline to return serve – bang it back and rush the net. An amazing strategy, and it worked.

Murray’s second big mistake: he wasn’t forcing the rallies. Once the points had gone beyond serve-return, Roddick was typically standing about a yard behind the baseline, driving the ball, being aggressive so that he could dictate the points. Murray, by contrast, was a couple of yards behind the baseline – and it seemed to me that quite a few of the attempted passes that landed in the net failed because he hit them just that bit further back: the ball had begun dropping. Sure, that ignores all the great shots he hit, but tennis at this level is a matter of inches (even less: the Hawkeye call in the fourth-set tiebreaker that would have given Murray a mini-break-back was perhaps half a centimetre out), and you can’t afford to give free shots.

So both those mistakes are essentially the same thing: not

The umpire’s warning in the fourth set for “audible obscenity” was daft – Murray had tried a crosscourt backhand pass, missed it wide, and yelled “No, go for the pass!” (He was down my end, my side, facing away from the umpire.) It was ridiculous; Murray was right to complain, but he held it down well. McEnroe of course would have had the referee on the court in an eyeblink. Times past.

Things you don’t see on TV: when Murray is serving, he takes three balls, and always knocks the extra back to the ballboy/girl with his racket between his legs. Always. (Why do pros take three balls? Because they want the two least fluffy ones. They pick the two least fluffy of the three.)

And then we have Murray’s third mistake, which isn’t so much of a mistake as a failing: his second serve, specifically on the ad (15-0) side. Too much of the time it was too slow, and Roddick could wait for it – expecting it on the backhand, where it would come again and again – and whack it down. From the moment that the first serve plonked into the net (because Murray wasn’t tossing the ball quite high enough) Roddick controlled the point. Too infrequently did Murray mix it up with second serves down the centre, or into the body. (Can’t find a page with that sort of analysis anywhere that would show where the serves landed and so on. Let me know in the comments if it exists.)

Oh yeah, and let’s go back to all the mindless rubbish that was written ahead of the game about Roddick’s tactics:

They last clashed in Doha in January, when Murray easily came out on top 6-4 6-2.

The memory of that defeat led [Larry] Stefanki [Roddick’s coach, and a long time ago John McEnroe’s coach) to suggest on Wednesday that Roddick could try less aggressive tactics this time in a bid to upset the Scot’s rhythm.

Complete rubbish, and utter mind games intended to lead Murray and his team astray: Murray may say he doesn’t read the papers, but it’s a bet that someone there does and that they might make a mention to him in some roundabout way. At least Jeff Tarango – a former player – does himself say that’s rubbish advice, but there’s plenty of papers that just repeated it. Perhaps the nationals need to hire a few people who’ve actually played the game to analyse this stuff.

Anyway, all of this leads us to the final, where we get Mr Five Times Already against Mr Been There Twice But No Titles Yet. It’s hard to see any simple way to pick anyone but Federer here. They’ve played many times, and Federer has the winning habit. The last time Roddick won was in March 08, when I think Federer may have been still recovering from glandular fever.

I think Federer will not make the mistakes that Murray did: he will try to break up Roddick’s rhythm, he won’t give him a consistent place to serve at, and his ground game is awesome to behold.

Anyhow, I’ll be tweeting it at @pokpokclap. Follow me if you’d like.

If I had one piece of advice to a journalist starting out now, it would be: learn to code

Yes, it would. Seriously, if you’re doing one of those courses where they’re making you learn shorthand and so on, take some time to learn to code.

OK, you might think that I’m saying this because I’m in technology. Not at all. All sorts of fields of journalism – basically, any where you’re going to have to keep on top of a lot of data that will be updated, regularly or not – will benefit from being able to analyse and dig into that data, and present it in interesting ways.

Let’s be clear that I’m not saying “code” as in “get deep into C++ or Java”, though I guess you could. (After all, it might give you something to fall back on if the journalism doesn’t work out…) I mean it in the sense of having a nodding acquaintance with methods of programming, and perhaps a few languages, so that when something comes along where you’ll need, say, to transform data from one form to another, you can. Or where you need to make your own life easier by automating some process or other.

Me? I taught myself BASIC all those years ago (even wrote a completely useless game in it, though it amused some folk at school). Then a long pause, then was taught Z-80 assembler at university, and then a bit of Cobol in my first job, and then a long pause before I bumped along in HTML (of course), Applescript, SQL, and PHP. I’ve tried to teach myself Cocoa and failed pretty miserably; I’ve not got any C, so it’s all a bit mysterious to me. Perl I’ve read a book of and realised I’d need a lot longer; Javascript ditto. (I can read Javascript as though it was a foreign language.) CSS, which I think is pretty much a coding language (it tells web pages what to do) I can muddle about in. (I tweaked the usual CSS of WordPress to produce this page.)

And what good has it been? The Applescript I use all the time, to automate all sorts of things – at work, we save hours and hours every week not having to do the text formatting of the Letters and Blogs section, the Ask Jack section, and the Newsbytes section, because I wrote Applescripts that automate the formatting. Similarly, for every story, I run a script before we start subbing that removes double spaces, turns “percent ” into “% ” (programming question: why is the space is there?) and decapitalises “Internet” (Guardian style is “internet”) except at the start of sentences.

And I can hack my own blog, and the Free Our Data blog, because I understand PHP (and CSS a bit – it took me ages figuring out how to make the FOD blog lay out a particular way in a single post; one line of CSS). And I can set up and run a MySQL database on my own machine, and store the links for all the Technology sections I’ve edited, for use to find who has linked to us which then goes into the week’s letters. Which then gets formatted by me…

But there’s a huge hinterland of stuff to be done with data that I haven’t even touched on. I haven’t taken the time to understand the Google Maps API yet; I think it’s probably the most powerful API that a journalist can presently use (which does mean I should take more time; Lord, give me a couple more hours per day, huh?), just because news becomes so much more relevant when it becomes local. Even just being able to visualise – as Fraser Speirs suggested – what it would be like if you had a militant group in the UK sending mortars across the borders as Hamas does in Israel. (I’m not taking sides. I’m showing that you need to understand people.)

My coding? Not that great. Your coding? Could be a lot better. Great coding? You’d be able to knock up something like the Guardian BNP map without a second thought. And the journalism then flows on from that, because you can see so much more clearly. If you’re tracking the data, you’ll be able to see when something changes, when something unusual happens.

None of which is saying you shouldn’t be talking to your sources, and questioning what you’re told, and trying to find other means of finding stuff out from people. But nowadays, computers are a sort of primary source too. You’ve got to learn to interrogate them effectively – and quote them meaningfully – too.

Clay Shirky: scarily clever

Clay Shirky is scarily clever. This is a guy who in 1995 found the internet and pretty quickly wrote an article titled “The Price of Information has fallen and it can’t get up“:

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

And why?

Remember the law of supply and demand? While there are many economic conditions which defy this old saw, its basic precepts are worth remembering. Prices rise when demand outstrips supply, even if both are falling. Prices fall when supply outstrips demand, even if both are rising. This second state describes the network perfectly, since the Web is growing even faster than the number of new users.

I wish I could have foreseen that in 1995. Or perhaps I just would have gone and hidden under a desk. The implications for content businesses are scary.

And now we come to a more recent interview, with the Columbia Journalism Review – that’s the full text there, so set yourself some time aside.

It touches on many points, such as that “there’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure”, and that if you thought the internet has pitched us into a world where nobody reads long-form content, you’re wrong; TV did that, 30 or 40 years ago.

But what also occurred to me that is not said anywhere, ever, yet seems to me to be ineluctably true is that part of the falling-away of long-form content (which includes novels and newspapers and other things that require some time in a quiet place) is down to the way that life is just getting more intense.

Is it just me, or are people generally having to run harder to keep up? I’m intrigued by the question of how many hours people have to work to have the “average” standard of living. I’m sure there’s data that American workers haven’t seen an increase in living standards over the past howevermany years. I wonder if the same exists for Britons, Europeans, people all over the place? Even as living standards rise, the rising tide means that if you fall out of the boat you’ve still got a lot of swimming to do.

Maybe Shirky deals with that. After all, he’s a clever guy.