Monday, 22 April 2013

Goodbye for now, Blogger

I started this blog in March 2003, at the behest of Adam Crothers, who has been silent on the blogging front for a while now, but was very good at it indeed while he kept it up. The next ten years were full of surprises, and the fact that I kept blogging throughout is certainly one of them. I plan to keep it up for another ten years at least—it's such a great focus for the free-floating anxiety left over from my actual problems!—but not here.

Please feel free to click over to (and link to, should you wish) my new website,, for rambling reviews of films and books, updates on my life and projects, pictures of cupcakes and more. It's based on Bumble, a blogging engine that David and I have been working on together.

Our webcomic, Kittens All The Way Down, is also still updating every Saturday and it's pretty awesome, if you're in its excessively specific target audience (me and David).

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Networking, curating, (possibly) despairing

I: Networking

I had to go to a course on networking a couple of weeks ago, because I am unemployed and this is the sort of thing they make unemployed people do here. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful not to be working for no pay at the pound shop, but this did not do me much good.

All of these courses (I've been to four) involve a lot of looking deep within oneself, getting in touch with one's true desires and honing one's Vision, honestly assessing one's full capacities, pulling out one's core strengths—all things I flatly refuse to do in such circumstances. The government can make me sit in a room and listen to corporate psychobabble for six hours a day, certainly, but if they expect me to delve into my innermost soul for them, they can go stick their heads in a pig. Added to this unpleasantness, in this case, was the soul-draining horror that is deliberate networking.
"It's all about telling your friends, your family, and everyone you ever meet that you're unemployed and looking for a job."
—One of my coursemates
"It's all about tricking people that you care about them so that they'll do you favours."

So much for that.

On the second day, we ventured into the world of Social Media. Here is a helpful graph that was handed out to us.

Reflect on your online appearance.
1. Where are you currently on this diagram?
2. In which direction could you further develop your social networking competence?
The 'axes' are labelled: active-passive, lots-little, favourable-unfavourable.
The key at the side is labelled: information management, identity management, relationship management.
This graph makes no sense.
Click for bigger.

It was a surprisingly peaceful day spent filling out our LinkedIn profiles. I gave a presentation on how to use Twitter, because I was the only one in the class who knew what it was. Then we got our homework: to go out onto the web with these freshly optimised identities, join in on forum and blog discussions in our professional fields, and "position ourselves as experts in this topic."

This didn't sound like much fun to me, so instead I went home and had a three-day nervous breakdown.

It's probably already plain to my readers that I am a ball of neuroses about this stuff. I've also been told in the past that I have imposter syndrome, though I feel that's rather too generous an assessment. I do not want to network. I do not want to discuss science with anyone who knows what they're talking about, because it will be very apparent that I don't. I do not want to be visible on the internet and I do not want anyone to know I exist. Thank you.

Obviously, barging up to groups of knowledgeable strangers, under my own uncommon name, and declaring that I Are A Expert was never going to happen. Dave suggested instead that I start a blog about science news. Just a link and a picture and a note on why it's cool. There could be associated Twitter and Google+ feeds. With a minimum of effort and almost no interpersonal interaction, there I would be in the search results: interested! up to date! and most importantly, employable!

Well, I made the stupid fucking blog and that was when the real horror started.

II: Curating

(By the real horror, I mean three days of sitting around reading vampire novels and wailing about my lot in life. It was almost relaxing.)

There are three problems with this otherwise inspired science blog idea.
  1. If I write about news within my field, but in fact have no useful insights or expert knowledge about it, this will look worse than not saying anything.
  2. If I write about news outside of my field, I am guaranteed to have no useful insights or expert knowledge, so why bother?
After discussion of 1., I decided that posting about general science topics would be much less stressful than trying to be intelligent about my true love, materials science.

After consideration of 2., I decided I really didn't want to write that kind of blog. There are so many, many sites on the internet that take news and press releases so they can repost a picture and a link and a note, which are in turn reposted by the next aggregator and the one after that, and no value is ever added except for the names of everybody in the chain. I don't want to be a contributor to this content churn.

When I brought this up to Dave, he gave an intelligent and persuasive argument that independent curation of the firehose of content on the internet is indeed an added value, and one that will remain important, since there is far too much news of any kind for a reader to take in, and the larger and commercial aggregators are inevitably too easily gamed to be relied upon. Smaller, independent filtering sites are not to be sniffed at.

Unfortunately, this brought me to 3.
  1. I don't want to stick my head in front of a firehose either!

III: (Possibly) despairing

Having talked myself out of doing anything whatsoever, I'm now in a difficult situation. My poor stupid efforts—bearing not just my name but my face, god help me!—persist out there, those three blog posts and seven tweets. What is to be done with them? I don't know if I can keep on biting my pride in half and typing in nonsense, and I doubt even more that I can spare the time it takes me to manage that. How long will they be cached for, if I delete them now?

By the way, here's a tip I wish I'd known sooner: when closing an online account, clear all your data first and set it to private as well. Otherwise it will probably stay up indefinitely and once the account is no longer yours, you can't delete it.

Here's another thought: publishing this post is probably also a terrible idea. My mum reads this blog. So does Google. But it is past my bedtime and it's been a while since we've had some histrionics here, so there it is.

    Monday, 18 March 2013

    Space kittens and communities

    The kittens in the video above are the Cosmo Fosters: Yuri*, Valentina*, Boris* and Pavel*. Together with their mother Laika*, they are being taken care of by a man named John in Washington state, USA, and you can watch their adventures in growing up here, twenty-four hours a day. It is strangely addictive and, for me and Dave, a good substitute for the cats we have no room for.

    John started fostering kittens in 2008. Last year he started streaming his Foster Kitten Cam on the internet and now, six litters later, has become internet famous. For me, the most interesting thing about the Foster Kitten Cam is the way a community has sprung up around it. Livestream shows a chat window next to the video. Whenever I tune in to watch, there's a crowd of regulars in chat, not just commenting on the kittens' behaviour but catching up with one another too. They have their own jargon, community guidelines and fashions in nicknames, for both the kittens and themselves. For example, since Boris and Pavel are so hard to tell apart, they are simply known as Borvel.

    I find it fascinating that, given a simple means of communication and a reason to be there, people automatically create communities with their own social rules and bonds. Another, also cat-related, example would be the commenters on the Itty Bitty Kitty Committee blog. The blog was started up in 2007 to post photos of Laurie Cinotto's foster kittens. Last summer, the IBKC community raised $87,000 for the Humane Society for which she fosters. I'm not sure at what point things took off, but in between those dates there was a massive change.

    John and Laurie both have good reasons for wanting lots of eyes on their sites, of course, and the IBKC has an official presence on Twitter, Flickr and Facebook as well as a shop, but I don't think these would have appeared if the community hadn't first sprung up.

    From my experience of MetaFilter, I guess that comment moderation on both sites probably has a positive effect towards this. MetaFilter has a very strong group identity, which is overthought constantly on MetaTalk, sometimes the subject of academic research, and supported by a mod team who delete comments that go beyond the pale. John has the power to ban trolls from the chat stream; the IBKC comments are run by Blogger, which lets Laurie delete spam and trolling too. Both of them also sometimes issue reminders of the kind of behaviour expected in their spaces. Of course, watching and looking at pictures of adorable kittens tends to put people in a good mood, but that's not a guarantee against bad behaviour. This success is in contrast to the fate of the PostSecret app, where, despite the community that developed around it, the volume of offensive and threatening posts was too great for the volunteer mods to handle. The app was taken down.

    Aren't kittens great? And aren't people interesting?

    Friday, 8 March 2013

    Space Cat

    Oh crap.

    We've been rumbled.

    Dave and I should just pack up now. There is prior art for us.

    I found this on Mimi Smartypants's blog. Please also note that the Space Cat series is written by somebody called Ruthven Todd. Every time I read that name I find myself sighing involuntarily. I am doomed.

    Wednesday, 27 February 2013

    Review of Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

    Crossposted from Goodreads. Spoileriffic.

    I can't quite remember why I bought this book, but I spent all of today ill in bed and thought it would be an entertaining, non-challenging read in between naps. My copy has a quote from the Daily Fail on the front cover and the most platonically trashy design I've ever seen. This kind of thriller is not my usual choice, but I do love crime fiction and was willing to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised.

    All the marketing and reviews of Heartsick that I read before buying it emphasise the character of Gretchen Lowell, the 'Beauty Killer' who was locked up for life two years before the story starts, after torturing Detective Archie Sheridan to death, reviving him and turning herself in. Lowell was played up as a new kind of fictional serial killer: seductive, enigmatic, irresistably (to the reader) sadistic, a full match for Hannibal Lector. She retains an influence over Archie by making him visit her weekly, telling details of her other murders only to him. This type of creation can easily become pantomimish, but Cain makes the sensible decision to minimise the page count for which Lowell is actually present. Instead she focusses on Archie and the reporter following him for a feature, Susan Ward, who are much more interesting as characters. As another reporter says, "Gretchen Lowell is a psychopath. ... She doesn't do things for reasons," and this book is all about the reasons why people do what they do, and the ways they are marked by others in their pasts, years down the line.

    This may be a conventional theme for a psychological thriller, and the twist of the killer's identity was too neat for me, but I felt the characterisation really made the novel work. Susan Ward was particularly well-drawn, almost uncomfortably so for me. She is a twenty-eight-year-old woman who dyes her hair pink, wears band t-shirts and sneakers, "always [feels] a little uneasy around women who [are] more sophisticated than she [is]" and harbours a heap of issues from her teenage years. At least they aren't the same issues as mine (and at least I've never tried to fix mine by sleeping with my boss). I was ready to get angry at Cain for drawing a character so like me and then slapping the lazy tag of 'daddy issues' on her, but instead Susan was written believably and comes across as an interesting, intelligent person. Archie's role, meanwhile, is as the classic Tortured Cop, but I felt the exploration of his Stockholm Syndrome and pill addiction was paced well and mostly avoided cliché. Cain's writing captures physical sensations and movements almost gracefully, making her characters feel embodied without the simplistic descriptions I've failed to enjoy in other such thrillers. Her prose is not sophisticated but it is sympathetic and well-observed, and nearly all of the characters seem to have their own inner lives, whether or not these are drawn out in the story.

    One slightly difficult aspect of this was the character of Anne Boyd, the FBI profiler. I found her engaging and enjoyed her friendship with Claire Masland and with Archie, and her motivation made sense: having completely mischaracterised the Beauty Killer, because Lowell had read up on profiling and psychiatry and changed her behaviour accordingly, Anne is driven to help solve the After School Strangler case as quickly as possible. This plot thread was hard for me to reconcile with the knowledge that profiling is bunk. If Anne's predictions had been eerily accurate and directly led to the killer's capture, I would have had to recategorise Heartsick as SFF with a crime slant to it, something I don't like being surprised about (see my review of the much poorer novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter). As it turns out, Anne does make some correct predictions about the killer, but they are unimpressive and not instrumental. She seems to function mostly to allow dialogue with other characters about the developments of the plot.

    The theme of a person's being shaped by their past experiences plays out in a number of ways through the novel, but comes to a head at the end. Susan's high-school teacher and ex-lover, the murderer, tells her "that we all have people in the world we belong to. Connect with. And that I was his." Equally, Lowell lays claim to Archie, boasting that neither his wife nor Susan can ever be with him, "Because I've ruined him for other women." Both Susan and Archie, however, end the novel by shaking off this ownership. Archie even turns it around by agreeing that Lowell is a psychopath, "[b]ut she's my psychopath." He then finally uses his own power to leave her in prison and resolves not to go back to her. Susan decides to stop sleeping with her married boss and also stands up to him regarding a story he didn't want her to cover, but she is determined to.

    I noticed some interesting contrasts between this book and the Millenium series by Stieg Larsson. Heartsick is book one of a series, but I am not interested in reading further books based on these characters. In my opinion, their most important psychological developments have been made, and to come back to Lowell, Archie and especially Susan would be to risk dragging out and repeating the successes of this book in an unsatisfying way. After finishing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, however, I was struck by sadness that the books that were planned to come after it would never be written. I felt that, now Salander's mysterious background had been drawn out and her relationship with Blomqvist established, the way was clear for them to have many more unrelated adventures together. I wanted to see Salander and Blomqvist crusading together against the oppression of women. Perhaps Susan and Archie just didn't have the same chemistry between them. On the other hand, I cannot express how grateful I am that Cain didn't have them sleep together. This is probably the biggest tell that Heartsick was written by a woman, rather than a man writing an obvious self-insert character. Susan's feelings for Archie are explicitly pointed out as part of her attraction to father figures, and for them to have had sex would have cheapened the narrative and ruined my respect for Cain's careful characterisation.

    Heartsick is a gory book. Cain describes the schoolgirl victims of the newest serial killer, and Lowell's dissections of her living victims, unflinchingly and has clearly done a lot of research into the relevant forensic and medical science. These scenes interleave with Susan's doubts about whether she is exploiting the dead girls in her reporting, and the same question must have occurred to Cain. The violence here bothered me a lot less than in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I nearly threw across the room when I got to the mention of the the canary. (It was on my Kindle, so I didn't.) This was because TGWTDT deliberately ties its story into a wider context of violence against women, including statistics on sexual harrassment and domestic abuse beneath its chapter headings, but the sensational crimes it describes are so unreal, so obviously the plot of a thriller novel, that they detracted from this ostensibly realist political goal. Although Heartsick is set in the present-day USA, and the sexual manipulation of underage girls is a theme, the book doesn't set out to make a statement in such an overt way. The After School Strangler's crimes are muted compared to those in TGWTDT and Lowell's inventive sadism is directed towards the "male, female, young, old." Lowell resists a political interpretation of her work just as strongly as she resists psychological analysis: "I'm not the way I am because of [my father]. I'm not a violent person." This is what makes her truly a creature of fantasy and allows Heartsick to remain escapism.

    In summary, Heartsick is an enjoyable book for those, like me, who prefer their light reading to contain troubled but basically good protagonists; evocations of far-off cities written by the locals; knotty mysteries and the extraction of internal organs.

    Sunday, 24 February 2013


    I have a lot of blog posts I keep meaning to write, but I haven't done any of them yet, so instead here is a song I wrote in ten minutes tonight for Sarah. It is about the wondrous Catsnail.

    The lyrics:

    He's got long whiskers, he's got four feet
    Who's that coming down the street?
    It's Catsnail!
    The cat who's a snail

    He ain't afraid when strangers yell
    He got no problems coming out of his shell
    It's Catsnail!
    The cat who's a snail

    When the rain comes down, he don't get wet
    He's the confusion of every vet
    Oh Catsnail!

    When it's time for dinner, no need for grief
    He'll take meaty chunks or a lettuce leaf
    That's Catsnail!
    The cat who's a snail

    Catsnail is happy when he's on your lap
    But if you've gone out and he needs a nap
    He pulls himself into his mollusc whirl
    And reverberates the echo of his mighty purr

    That's Catsnail! Oh Catsnail!
    The only cat who's a snail!

    Saturday, 2 February 2013

    Horrible things

    Here are some horrible things I dreamed the other night:
    • A cannibalistic vampire prince, who was fought and defeated by a warrior in his palace. Unfortunately, some of his flesh landed in the warrior's mouth, infecting him with an obsessive urge for self-cannibalisation. He took over the prince's palace and staff, forcing some to find ways to keep him alive while they cut off ever more of his flesh, and others to cook it up into delicious stews for him to eat. Whenever he died, he would be reanimated so this process could begin again.
    • Eventually, this new cannibalistic vampire prince was defeated by another fighter. He was dismayed to find that he, too, had been infected with this obsession. Quickly, he trained as an astronaut, flew into orbit on the space shuttle and, at the end of a spacewalk with two other astronauts, let go of his tether and floated away. His dead body, in its spacesuit, eventually burned up on reentry to Earth's atmosphere, destroying the threat.
    • A stained and inky set of Tarot cards. When they were read, in a dark, muddy field hours before the dawn, they summoned crow-feathered harpies with long, black talons, who inflicted great pain upon the questioner as they tore her apart.
    • The logical endpoint of free paper evolution. Twenty-four pages of bad cartoons, sudokus and adverts.
    • That the UK's song of the year for 2012 was a Christmas single by a mediocre girl group, with the chorus, "Good girls go shopping, but bad girls get Santa Claus." I was very cross about this. "It wasn't Christmas all of last year, you know!" I spluttered.