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August 2012

Random Holiday Musings

Hope Cove, Early Evening
Hope Cove, South Hams, Devon

I always plan to write a blog entry after I've been on holiday, or even during the holiday. Well, this year I've decided to create a blog by capturing random thoughts and observations over the fortnight. There may be some jumps in continuity, and perhaps a lack of coherence, but I guess it's worth a go. The big challenge will be moving it from my iPad to the blog; I really need to look at Tumblr or Wordpress for my website's blog entries.

We took Aidan and Nathan to the beach in Inner Hope the second day that we arrived, which was popular. Two things stood out. Firstly, Aidan was absolutely fearless about the sea and not bothered that it was cold. He's a few months older than Nathan was the first time we came here, and its later in the year, but he went quite deep and two duckings from tripping didn't phase him. I can see that we're going to have to watch him.

Secondly, Nathan actually got stuck in digging when we started on a canal. In previous years I've had to do all the labouring, but he was big enough to use a large spade and that made quite a difference. I also found what would be better described as a mini-spade, or perhaps trenching tool. Metal bladed, wooden shafted but still only just bigger than a large child's spade, it promises to make things a little easier.


Truly Wonderful
I've just finished Jo Walton's superb book Among Others. Set in 1979/1980, it tells the tale of a fifteen year-old twin who has suffered a trauma, loves SF and Fantasy with a passion, and just might be able to do magic. By magic, I mean the old Celtic magics of subtle influence rather than Harry Potter or Dungeon & Dragons style *Magic Missiles*.

If you like SF and Fantasy, and can appreciate growing up in that period (which I guess puts you becoming a teenager somewhen between 1975 and 1985, or maybe more), then this book will bring back nostalgia for the first time that you discovered other authors or people who shared your passion for the genre. Brilliant stuff, and possibly my best read of the year so far.

Pennywell Farm

If you're ever looking for something to do with kids in easy reach of the A38, Pennywell Farm is worth considering. Entry isn't extortionate, nor the food prices (but bear in mind my last experience was Olympics London). It's a petting farm, and has a ride on a train, a tractor ride and a number of other things included in the price (the only extras we saw were pony rides and cash for powered go kart slots). There are lots of small slides, trampolines, picnic tables etc. scattered around, and a wide variety of animals and activities.

Aidan also learned a valuable lesson about why you don't stick fingers into hen cages, ignoring mummy and daddy. He still has all ten fingers and thumbs.

Best Laid Plans

Jill and the boys both in bed asleep by 9pm tonight (13/8). Perfect time to sort out the layout work that I'd wanted to resolve this holiday. Unfortunately, whilst the wireless is up, the internet connection is very much down. Best read a book then!

I was far too late to bed last night as I got hooked completely by Hugh Howey's *Wool* sequence, which has been released as an omnibus edition on Kindle. It's set in a silo where survivors of a forgotten apocalypse live on, a subtly dystopian society and right up my street after some of the writing that I've done for Wordplay recently. Criminals are sentenced to *cleaning*, made to go out into the toxic wasteland and clean the sensor sets. The title of the sequence is multilayered and not as odd as it may seem at first. I wholeheartedly recommend this, but you may find yourself suffering from the 'one more chapter' problem.

The Other Face
Devon is showing its other face today, with constant rain. Admittedly, it's warm rain, but the beach is out unless we break out the tent and the wetsuits. Jill and Nathan have popped out to Salcombe to look for a present and also do a recce on the swimming pool. Aidan and I just had fun.

Dungeon World
Enjoyed reading the pre-release (and pre-proofing) copy of Dungeon World which I received courtesy of backing the Kickstarter campaign. Loved what I read, but ended up proofing it as it was a PDF and on my iPad. Send it off to the authors, who were happy for the feedback. I'm really looking forward to this being released as it really catches the essence of old school D&D with a modern twist, in a far less crunchy way than Burning Wheel and the more direct D&D derivatives.

Proofing tools
Speaking of proofing, iAnnotate from Branchfire, combined with a Cosmonaut Stylus from Studio Neat, is a great way to proof PDFs on the iPad. The stylus feels like a highlighter and is very accurate, and iAnnotate handles basic PDF annotation really well. I recommend both.

On the Trains
We had our third visit to the South Devon Railway this week, and our second to the Rare Breeds Farm at Totnes (which is at the far end of the line from the start at Buckfastleigh). Both the boys enjoyed this, and Aidan started to show a very independent streak, wanting to walk and go and explore things himself. He was fascinated by ducks, saying "Oh look, duck!" and chasing one of the flocks around their enclosure giggling and going "qwak qwak" at them. He liked the train as well, maybe not quite as much as his brother.

The Farm also has a collection of rescued owls, which fascinated Nathan and gave me flashbacks to the owlet that fell the ground in the garden of the cottage that I stayed at in Devon when I was a child. Naturally, we called him "Plop" after the story The Owl that was Afraid of the Dark.

Tucker's Maltings
Rain was forecast again today, so we looked for another expedition. We wanted somewhere we could be under cover, so settled upon a visit to a working Maltings in Newton Abbot. Of course, when we arrived, the sun came out and was cracking the flags. The site was over a hundred years old, and catered really well for visitors, even 5 year olds like Nathan.

It was very much the industrial process of a century ago, still viable and working. And we got to sample the local brew at the end, which was nice. Nathan was most disappointed that he didn't get beer too! I even managed to put my safety professional head to one side during the visit, which was well organised and the hour passed very quickly. Aidan was less fascinated, but loved the museum at the end where he could run around and touch things.

Afterwards, we had a picnic in the park opposite - not a particularly attractive park, but fresh air and some much needed food to keep the boys quiet.

Are we nearly there yet?
The picnic didn't keep them quiet. Every car journey has been somewhat stressful, ranging from Nathan's question time ("What is there bad like black holes?", "What will happen when the sun dies?", "Mummy, is God dead?", and more) through to manic playing, giggles and squabbles on the back seat. That's the parenting experience, I guess. It's due to turn back to sunny tomorrow, so hopefully we'll be able to get them to burn off some energy on the beach!

My Kind of Traitor
I've started the latest John le Carré novel Our Kind of Traitor, which is deliciously sharp so far, continuing the return to form he has had since Absolute Friends. Something to thank the politics of George W Bush for, I guess, as he fired up le Carré's passion and anger again.

The only dark side I can see came from reading the bio, which made me realise the the author is now 80 and wonder how many more great novels are left for him to write. Many, I hope.

Updated - finished now, and I can recommend it. In common with most of le Carré's work, please don't ready if you expect a happy, Disney-fairy-tale ending.

Grand Day Out

Not quite all day, but most of the afternoon was spent on the beach at Inner Hope, building sandcastles, engineering the surface water outflow route on the sand to create moats and lakes, jumping waves and exploring rock pools. Back home with two exhausted boys, sun-kissed and happy. An incredibly cheap day too, compared to those when it rains!

It was Aidan's first proper day on a beach when he really knew what he was doing. He dug holes, threw sand, paddled in the pools and sea and ran around very excited. He was shattered at bed time!


Missing Opportunities
I think that major publishers don't get digital, and some small press publishers don't see the allure of print. Two examples from this evening follow:

1) Caught up with the Saturday edition of the Guardian, which has an interview with one of my favourite authors (from a young age), Alan Garner. Apparently, he has a new book coming out - always a great thing - called Boneland, which is an adult aimed sequel to his superb Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath. Those books have a special place in my heart as they lit up the Cheshire countryside of my youth, and made Alderley Edge an even more special place for me.

So, I go onto Amazon and pre-order the Kindle edition for release on 30 August. All excited, and knowing my Garner books are currently in storage while the extension goes on, I decide to buy Kindle versions of the first two books. These aren't available, and neither are any others in Garner's back catalogue. The publisher has just failed to make two or more novel sales that duplicate paper copies I already have. Isn't it foreseeable that people may want to buy the first two books electronically as well?!

I had a similar experience with M. John Harrison's Empty Space, the third and concluding book in his Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy). Third book is out electronically, but the first two? Again, this would have been duplicate sales for the publishers.

[Update 9/9/2012 - the second book in Harrison’s trilogy, Nova Swing, is now due out on Kindle at the end of September. Hopefully the first will follow.]

2) Smaller press. I'm reading Graham Walmsley's excellent Stealing Cthulhu, an inspiring revisitation of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Half-way through, I think "it'd be nice to get a copy of Ken Hite's excellent Tour de Lovecraft, which summarises and critiques the original HPL texts. Head to RPGNow, and discover there's no print edition (to complement the PDF I have) available via the Lightning Source POD link. Likewise, nothing on the publisher's site as it is now out of print. Disappointing, as it would be a nice compliment to Walmsley's book. I can get it Kindle… The thing is, it was produced in an age when not having the POD version is completely crazy.

Great day on the beach yesterday with oodles of sand engineering creating a plethora of castles, lakes and canals. Also had fun with Nathan 'wave jumping'; I hold his hand, he jumps, often with a helping hand from me, sometimes with waves bigger than his head. He gets very excited by this. I did have to take him back in though when he started shivering, no matter his denials that he was okay! He'd tried a body board the day before, even hough he was obviously scared by the idea, and loved it.

Aidan excelled himself by falling asleep, mid-lunch, on top of Jill for an hour and a half's nap!

Rain, rain come again

Loading the car to go was a somewhat damp experience as the heavens opened for the hour and a half that I was packing. As usual, we seem to have more for the return journey than the way here. Anyway, we're away and I'm writing this at the Beachcomber Café at Hope Cove (linked to the Hope and Anchor) where we are spoiling ourselves with a full English before we embark on the seven hour drive(*).

(*) Actually 10 hour in the end due to weather and traffic

Nathan's best bits
Nathan tells me that he "liked the beach because it was really nice and there was lots of shells and there was big waves that you could jump in. Sometimes I needed Daddy if the waves were too big. I liked it a lot because it was the best thing in the world".

A success, I think!

Jill's best bits
Jill's answer to the what was your best bit of the holiday was "The beach, Overbecks and the South Devon Railway, especially the salad at the Rare Breeds Farm".

Aidan's best bits
The beach, and sleeping in a grown up bed.

Temples of Science & Evolution

Temple of EVOLUTION!
Temple of Evolution: Natural History Museum

One of the great things about London for the visitor - and I guess for the locals - is the wide and excellent variety of Museums and places to visit. As this was Nathan's first trip to the Big Smoke, we decided to take him to two of the biggest; the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

Both have the things that will interest a five year-old boy *and* his parents, but overall our experience was that the Science Museum wins for overall excitement. Space rocket, lunar landers, cars, planes, bubbles, old technology, the Red Arrows and more won the heart of Nathan over the Dinosaurs, Creep Crawlies and Amphibians. Admittedly, he loved it all, but the Science Museum was the clear winner in the running from display-to-display and actually listening to videos and audio material stake. I also lost Jill & Nathan for thirty minutes after they got detoured into the Launchpad activity area when they had supposedly nipped quickly to the toilets!

The Natural History Museum (NHM hereafter) was also a bit more blatant in its commercial operations, with a wincingly expensive café and in-your-face promotion of dinosaur toys as part of the displays (cleverly wrapped up as 'dinosaurs in modern culture') which just happened to available immediately opposite the gallery exit. The Science Museum wasn't quite as blatant, although a can of soft drink was still £1.80 against the £2.00 in the NHM.

I went into an adult aimed temporary exhibit in both Museums; at the NHM it was 'Scott's Last Expedition', which cost £9 to go into. This was excellent, recounting the last, fatal, journey of Captain RF Scott and his men as they arrived second to Amundsen at the South Pole. There were a good variety of artifacts and interesting displays, giving a good understanding of the logistical and scientific achievements of the expedition. One thing that was apparent was the different focus applied by Amundsen and Scott. Amundsen was completely focussed on achieving the pole, whereas Scott had a huge scientific agenda as well. It's particularly painful when you realise just how close Scott's party got to the supplies and safety of 'One Ton' camp. I really enjoyed the Exhibition and would recommend it if you can get to London before it ends at the start of September.

Temple of SCIENCE!
Temple of Science: The Science Museum

In the Science Museum, I visited 'Codebreaker', an exhibition on the life and influence of Alan Turing, WW2 cryptographer, computer pioneer and philosopher. Free to enter, there was less to see than "Scott's Last Exhibition", but it was interesting material. I've read a fair amount on the Engima codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park, so that was a familiar story, but the early computing and morphology work was new to me. There was also a classic engineering example, with a section of the failed Comet airliner displayed. Apparently, the Pilot ACE computer designed by Turing was key in carrying out the calculations that demonstrated that the cause was fatigue cracking of the square windows. Again, and especially at the price, worth a visit.

All in all, we had great days both times we visited and it is fair to say that we could easily have spent all-day at both venues rather than the four-to-six hours that we were there at each.

Interestingly, Nathan actually gives the NHM '3 thumbs up' and the Science Museum '2 thumbs up' on the grounds that he felt the NHM had more stuff (but we only did two floors at the Science Museum). However, for all the NHM is the winner in the questions afterwards, the Science Museum was definitely the one that fascinated him most on the day. Intriguing.

Thank you, Danny Boyle

Sabre Final (Team)
Olympics - our view of the games when we went down!

The 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony was an act of genius that restored the chance to be proud of this countries' heritage, a chance that was cruelly ripped from us when the celebrations of winning the games were cut short by the atrocities of 7/7 (*)

The opening ceremony brought back all those emotions of pride in our heritage, of the way that the UK has influenced and led the world from the industrial revolution, to universal health-care and the birth of the world wide web and more.

Yes, there were moments of irreverent humour as well as the pomp and circumstance, but that just captures the national psyche accurately.

Initial viewing figures (which don't include iPlayer and streaming usually) suggest 26.9 million watched the opening ceremony in the UK. As it was alleged to have cost £27 million, that's the best pound I've spent in a long time! A hat tip to one of the government ministers I usually excoriate, Jeremy Hunt, for the vision to increase the budget even when the outcome may not have played best with some of his colleagues.

(*) If reports are true, NBC cut the 7/7 memorial in the US showing of the opening ceremony. If so, they have nothing but my contempt. Imagine if the UK had done the same about 9/11 and the pain that America feels about that atrocity?

A fortnight later, the closing ceremony was a classic example of over-promising and under-delivering. Too many suggestions of the greats of British rock and pop being involved were hinted and suggested into the media and not delivered upon. For me, it only came to life with Eric Idle's performance of 'Always look on the bright side of life' - which was genius - and had a few more high points that followed; the Royal Ballet performance, Rio, and 'The Who' at the end.

Queen were great right up to the point that Jessie J arrived, with Brian May reminding us why he is the best astronomer playing guitar in the world. There's nothing wrong with Jessie J as such, it just felt that her performance style in Freddie Mercury's place trampled over everything that Queen had been (**). In fact, Jessie J had delivered a performance earlier which – either accidentally or deliberately – skewered the ethos of the Olympic Movement's organisers: "It's all about the Money". In saying this, I talk of the International Olympic Committee whose corruption has become a matter of legend. I know that the song was a big hit, so I'm not certain if it was a sly dig, or just coincidence! Likewise, the Indian dancing in Eric Idle's performance makes me wonder if it had been added after the PM's recent contemptuous remarks.

Anyway, I'm certain that the closing ceremony - rather than being the "after party to end all after-parties" - is an event that is destined to be forgotten, unlike the opening ceremony. I have the soundtrack of the latter and love it, but haven't the slightest intent of buying the latter!

(**)Arguably something that the rest of the band members have been doing for years.

Final thoughts
The participants in the Olympics have my utmost respect, except for those that tried gaming results or doping to win. Their dedication and effort made the games.

Against all predictions, the LOCOG delivered a superb games for the athletes and the spectators. It felt incredibly welcoming and extremely well organised. It helped me feel proud to be British, despite our political classes.

The Armed Forces also deserve respect for the way they stepped up and covered for the ineptness of G4S, who look like they're back to the same reputation that they had when they were plain old 'Group 4'. It was great to see so many of our uniformed services making sure that the nation looked great and not feeling intimidating at all. I still remember us saying hello to two police-officers that had been seconded from West Yorkshire to find that one of them polices Wetherby, showing how the whole nation has pulled together to deliver this!

So now the Para-Olympic Games are approaching, which I hope will be at least as good.

Danny Boyle set the scene for the Olympics and ignited the nation's passion and pride for the games and itself. He - and Team GB - gave us reasons for hope and patriotism, and touched more of the heart of this this nation than Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband can ever hope to achieve.

I'll stop gushing now.