Wednesday, 31 March 2010

5 favourites from 5 on the 5th...

5 on the 5th is nearly upon us once more, and to celebrate I thought I'd post five of my favourite contributions towards this monthly event.

Taking part is simple - just take 5 pictures on the 5th of the month and post them online, leaving a comment at the state of the nation UK. Stephen will then post a link in his blog from which you can browse the other contributions. There is normally a theme, although the pictures could be of anything you choose!

So, have a think about taking part while you (hopefully) enjoy these!


For more about me and the things I like, click on the directory and link buttons under the masthead. For my previous 5 on the 5th pics, click here.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Tales of the City

I've been meaning to read this ever since the Channel 4 adaptation in 1993, which starred Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney.

The novel was first published in 1978 after being serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle. In it Armistead Maupin captures the spirit and atmosphere of a society with liberal attitudes to sex, sexuality and drugs. As such, the book does not seem as dated as it might have done.

The book follows the stories of around eight archetypal characters, from the
naïve Mary Ann to the wise (but mysterious) Mrs Madrigal, the openly and flamboyantly gay (Michael) to the secretive and sinister (Norman). Centred on the lodgings run by Mrs Madrigal, and the "family" of residents, this is a book about friendship, relationships and the (often unexpected) connections between people.

While some of the references may be dated and specific to San Francisco, the book is a joy to read. The short chapters and easy-going style make it eminently readable.


For more book reviews and links to other strands of the website, click on the "directory" link below the masthead.

Monday, 29 March 2010

He bangs, he bangs

I just found a link to this statement in which Ricky Martin has acknowledged, on his website, that he is gay. But should it be news?

As a gay man, I've never thought of my sexuality as being a defining feature. Indeed, I think it's immaterial to most aspects of my life. The art I like, the books I read, the TV I watch are not determined by the sexuality of the artist, author or actors. While I like some music by gay acts or enjoy films such as Beautiful Thing, this is just because these are things I like.

My sexuality has little bearing on the things I choose to do, or indeed my work. While it's not something that's a secret, it's not something I shout about either. If it comes up in conversation, then fine, if not then that's also fine. So should it be any different for celebrities?

Well, ideally not. In an ideal world the gender of your sleeping partners shouldn't be newsworthy at all. In an ideal world artists shouldn't have to choose between living a lie, or at least publicly denying the truth, or risking career-damaging publicity.

Given the world we do live in, though, perhaps it should be newsworthy. Perhaps a critical mass of openly gay stars is required to help change attitudes and,
clichéd as it may sound, to act as role models for those who are coming to terms with their sexuality in less than ideal circumstances.

I don't know what the answer to my question is but I hope that the media can leave Mr Martin to continue with his life and career without too much more fuss.


Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Fermat's Last Theorem

Mathematics has never had a reputation as being the most exciting subject in the world. Writing a book about how a 300 year old Theorem was proved does not sound like a sure fire winner. Making the book accessible to the lay reader, and topping international best-seller lists, sounds even more far-fetched.

Simon Singh attacks the task with relish. Fermat's Theorem has its roots in Ancient Greece and Singh's book outlines a history of the development of Mathematics, particularly those parts which have a bearing on the theorem in question.

At times, some points are over simplified and repeated needlessly, while at others, some steps in the explanation of the mathematics involved are not explained enough. For the most part, however, the pitch is right for the lay reader with, in my case, only high school knowledge of Maths.

Fermat's theorem, which is based in Pythagorean thought, appears simple but required deeply complex and abstract Maths to prove it. Singh outlines the thought structure of the proof and some of the key ideas involved with broad brush strokes.

The secret to Singh's success, though, lies not in his explanatory powers but the way he fleshes out the various theories and conjectures described with the backgrounds of the main players. By doing so, he gives the story a human edge and provides a narrative edge to the facts and figures of the tale.

The end result is a fascinating and - particularly towards the end - gripping tale of how one of the longest standing problems in Mathematics was solved. An early candidate to be my favourite book this year, I'll happily recommend it to anyone.


For more information about me or the blog, click here.

Monday, 22 March 2010

An Answer for Monday

Yesterday I posed a question, lifted from Simon Singh's book "Fermat's Last Theorem". The puzzle was related to Game Theory, which uses Mathematics to explain how people play games. Using Game Theory could give competitors (or enemies) an edge when playing (or waging war).

The answer to the query posed is:

Mr Black's options are:

"First, Mr Black could aim at Mr Grey. If he is successful, the next shot would be taken by Mr White. Mr White has only one opponent left. Mr Black, and as Mr White is a perfect shot then Mr Black is a dead man.

A better option is for Mr Black to aim at Mr White. If he is successful, then the next shot will be taken by Mr Grey. Mr Grey hits his target only two times out of three and so there is a chance that Mr Black will survive to fire back at Mr Grey and possibly win the truel.

It appears that the second option is the strategy which Mr Black should adopt. However, there is a third and even better option. Mr Black could aim into the air. Mr Grey has the next shot and he will aim at Mr White, because he is the more dangerous opponent. If Mr White survives then he will aim at Mr Grey because he is the more dangerous opponent. By aiming into the air, Mr Black is allowing Mr Grey to eliminate Mr White or vice versa.

This is Mr Black's best strategy. Eventually Mr Grey or Mr White will die and then Mr Black will aim at whoever survives. Mr Black has manipulated the situation so that, instead of having the first shot in a truel, he has first shot in a duel."

So, did you get it right?...


For more information about me and this blog, click on the Directory link above.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

A Puzzle for Sunday...

I'm currently reading Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh, which I will be reviewing in a few days once completed. One of the topics discussed is "Game Theory" which seeks to use Mathematics to explain the structure of games, from Chess to War and the actions of the participants. As part of this discussion, the following puzzle is outlined:

"One morning, Mr Black, Mr Grey and Mr White decide to resolve a conflict by truelling [duelling for three people] with pistols until only one of them survives. Mr Black is the worst shot, hitting his target on average only one time in three. Mr Grey is better shot hitting his target two times out of three. Mr White is the best shot hitting his target every time.

To make the truel fairer Mr Black is allowed to shoot first followed by Mr Grey (if he is still alive), followed by Mr White (if he is still alive), and round again until only one of them is alive."

Where should Mr Black aim his first shot? Answer tomorrow...


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Blast from the Past

I've always been a bit a bit unsure about whether I like Ben Elton's work or not. As a comic, I've always thought him very clever - too clever sometimes - but also a bit smarmy. Since he moved into novels, I had been keen to see what he is like as writer.

I had my first opportunity to do so two years ago when I was gifted Blind Faith. Unfortunately this take on a futuristic "1984" style world did not overly impress me, and I found it to be quickly forgettable. I still wanted to read one of his earlier, more celebrated works though.

Blast from the Past is the story of Polly who as a peace campaigner in the early eighties had a relationship with an American soldier, Jack. 16 years later, he pays her an unexpected visit. The rest of the book fleshes out the stories of their lives and ultimately reveals the reasons for Jack's visit. A third player in the drama is Peter, a man obsessed with Polly who has been stalking her for some time.

Although the book is only 363 pages long, it could have been a lot shorter. The action is slow in places and the dialogue and narration is, at times, tedious and repetitive. There are some clever and witty lines, as you'd expect from Elton, but these are sparse. As with his stand-up, sometimes these are too clever or contrived.

A lot of the story is set during the period when Elton was making his name as an alternative comedian against the backdrop of Thatcher's Britain and the Cold War. He rehearses various arguments of the left, in particular those that railed against capitalism and the nuclear deterrent. From a modern perspective, this is all a bit tired and the book does nothing to add to the understanding of events at the time.

Having now read two Elton books, I still find myself searching for one which is ultimately satisfying. As well as this one, I've also been lent Past Mortem - perhaps that will end my search.


Friday, 19 March 2010

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I find myself in the position of having to apologise - particularly to my new followers - for my recent lack of posts. Life has been a bit busy over the past couple of weeks. That's no excuse, however, especially as I try to keep my personal life out of this blog.

Anyway, I've been meaning to post another poem for a couple of weeks now, and have chosen a poem by Yeats. This came seventh in a BBC poll of 100 favourite poems, although I wasn't previously acquainted with it. It's a bit of a slow-burner but the more I read it, the more I get from it.

The Lake Isle Of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart's core.


For more poems, follow this link.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Iconic Images 3

It seems that a number of the images in this series are, or will be, war related, although I make no apology about that. I've chosen two contrasting images for this entry - Neville Chamberlain proclaiming "peace in our time" after signing the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938 and Winston Churchill giving the V for Victory sign some 7 years later.


Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Fantasy Menus 1

Welcome to my restaurant, as yet un-named although suggestions are welcome!

The menus are constructed of dishes I've made, dishes I've eaten or dishes I've dreamed up or played around with. These posts are not about recipes but rather about tantalising your tastebuds.

Wednesday 10th March 2010

Carpaccio of Seared Venison Loin,
Quail Scotch Egg
and a Beetroot and Rocket Salad dressed with a Balsamic Reduction

Tournados of Chicken with Haggis
served on a bed of Mashed Potato and Spinach
with a Chasseur Sauce

Warm Baby Figs in a Port Syrup
served with Vanilla Mascarpone

Bon Appetit!


Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Great Buildings 1 - Villa Savoye

Having promised to feature more architecture in my blog, this is the first in what I intend to be a semi-regular feature. Each post will feature some information on a different building and it's architect. My intention is to span all eras and styles although I apologise in advance if I tend to focus more on Modern and Contemporary buildings.

The building I've chosen first is the Villa Savoye , designed by Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris) was one of the key figures in the Modernist Architecture movement of the 20th Century. His architecture explored the challenges of modern life and the opportunities presented by modern materials - in particular concrete. His early work was done under the tutelage of Auguste Perret, the French pioneer of concrete construction.

Before moving on to large scale civic and residential projects both at home in France and Internationally, Corbusier made his name in the construction of several villas and the development of his 5 principles of architecture - all of which are present in the Villa Savoye. These were:
  • The use of "Pilotis" - Using concrete pillars to raise the building off the ground and support the structure - which allowed for a
  • Free Facade - As the walls are no longer the principle support for the building, the architect has more flexibility of design.
  • Open-plan living areas - Again, if the pilotis carry the weight of the building, more freedom is given to the architect in creating large open living spaces
  • Ribbon Windows - creating unencumbered views was another advantage of concrete construction and pilotis as window areas need not be constrained by load bearing walls. In the Villa Savoye, this means the windows can run the length of the building.
  • Roof Gardens - Corbusier believed in compensating for the loss of ground space by creating gardens and terraces on roofs and extending the living space outside.
Le Corbusier's influence was not just key in the Modern Architecture movement. Many of his ideas, principles and styling cues can still be seen in today's contemporary architecture. He was a pivotal player at a pivotal point in the development of Architectural Theory and Practice.

Wikipedia has plenty more on Le Corbusier and the Villa Savoye.


Monday, 8 March 2010

Letter to my 60 year old self

A while back, encouraged by Stephen (whose excellent blog can be read here), I posted a letter to my sixteen year old self. I've now decided to follow this up with a letter to sixty year old self:

Dear Andrew,

How has it all worked out? On second thoughts, don't tell me - I'd rather find out for myself.

There are some things that I hope have happened, though.

I hope I managed to sort out my finances in time to enjoy some travelling and make some sort of half-decent pension provision. I know you've still got 7 years before you get the state pension (if there still is one!) but hopefully you've got a bit more put by!

Are you still blogging, or is the Internet completely outmoded? It's funny to imagine that could happen, but then 25 years ago it was hard to envisage it at all!!

I hope you're happy and at least that you're not bitter. I also hope you still believe in "no regrets". As I've been fond of saying, you can't change the decisions you've made in the past.

I hope you've stayed true to your friends - you always were one for having few but deep friendships. I sincerely hope the ones you thought were lifelong really have been.

I'm aware I've used the word "hope" a lot in this letter - and that sums me up now, I suppose. There's been a lot of changes but I'm hopeful for the future. Here's hoping that in 25 years when you receive this letter that that confidence has been justified.

Yours, Sincerely,


You can read the original letter to myself here.

Friday, 5 March 2010

5 on the 5th - March

This is my latest contribution to 5 on the 5th. The theme this month was "people" and I decided to take 5 snapshots - literally - of the same scene at roughly one minute intervals. I love people watching and it's interesting to see the ebb and flow - there's no real reason why there should be a disparity in the number of people in each shot - yet there is!

The pictures were taken at Cabot Circus in Bristol.


My other entries to 5 on the 5th are here.

Thursday, 4 March 2010


On Tuesday I finished re-reading Whit by Iain Banks. When I first read this, around 14 years ago, I really enjoyed it and remember feeling it was perhaps a bit under-rated in comparison with other books in Banks' canon. 14 years on, has my opinion changed?

In a word, no, although I'm not sure whether this is under-rated any more - judging by reviews on Amazon, it seems to be quite well loved.

Whit is the story of Isis, the Elect of God, who has led a cloistered life in a religious community on the banks of the River Forth in central Scotland. Isis' world is turned upside down when it is discovered that her cousin Morag - an internationally renowned musician living in London - has found a new faith and will not be returning for the four yearly Festival of Love.

It is decided that Isis must go on a mission to London to find Morag and seek to return her to the Faith. On returning from this mission, however, Isis discovers that her world has changed even more than she had imagined and she finds herself beginning a new, more personal mission.

Banks has never made a secret of his views on organised religion and this story reflects them fully. He creates what his protagonist accepts is a cult complete with a charismatic leader, some grounding in various extant religions and it's own rituals and sacraments. Having constructed this world, he sets about tearing it apart.

The book is more than a none-too-subtle snipe at religiousity, however. Banks also explores the nature of power, the tension it creates, it's ability to corrupt and the potential for hypocracy. On the other hand, he also seeks to explore whether faith should be blind or informed - whether the good of the community should trump .

The impact of a life lived away from the rest of society is also a central theme - Isis is portrayed as both intelligent and well-versed in the ways of her people and hopelessly naive and ignorant when she leaves the community.

While these themes are there to be explored and teased, this is far from a heavy novel. Unlike many of Banks' other books, the story is told in a linear fashion - albeit with flashbacks - which makes it more accessible than, say, Walking on Glass. The pace of the book is swift and the writing has, for the most part, a lightness of touch.

After 14 years, I'm glad I enjoyed it as much as I did. I hope I'll not be leaving it another 14 years!


For other Book Reviews, see here.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

You Are Old, Father William

Sometimes when choosing poems for this blog, I know well in advance what I'm going to include. On other occassions, such as today, I only know I want to post a poem and then look at books and online to find something I like and feel is suitable.

This week I found an old childhood favourite by Lewis Carroll. On one level this works as nonsense poetry. On another, however, it is about attitudes to youth and age and the attitudes of one to the other.

As luck would have it, lighting on this is neatly topical with Alice in Wonderland about to hit cinemas - who says this blog isn't bang on trend?!

You Are Old, Father William by Lewis Carroll

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head--
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And you have grown must uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned back a somersault in at the door--
Pray, what is the reason of that?"

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his gray locks,
"I kep all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment--one shilling a box--
Allow me to sell you a couple."

"You are old," said the youth, "and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak--
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life."

"You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose
That your eyes was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose--
What made you so awfully clever?"

"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
Said his father; "don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you downstairs!"


This post is the latest in my Anthology strand.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Iconic Images 2

Whether you regard him as a freedom fighter or terrorist, a Marxist hero or a dangerous communist, it can't be denied that Che Guevara left a mark on 20th Centuary politics. Unlike many of the men (and woman) about whom that could be said, he has also left a iconic image which has been used, abused and imitated.


Monday, 1 March 2010

Resolution Check 2

I can't believe the year's already two months old! As mentioned before, I've decided to start a monthly update on how my non-resolution resolutions are going, which are
  • Continue to reassess, manage and improve my finances
  • Lose some weight/get fitter
  • Read more books than last year - say 25-30
  • Blog around every 2-3 days (c. 147 posts)
  • Re-start my entries to Three Positive Things and explore positive psychology further
  • Commence work on a piece of fiction of my own (other than this list!)

So how do things stand after two months? Well, this month I started my new job, so that's dominated my life - in a positive way - and helped with some of the above aims!

Finance-wise, I feel more positive, although still need to make more changes and be a bit more pro-active in making more changes.

I have, or at least I believe I have (which is half the battle) lost some weight. This is hard to either quantify or verify as I never established a starting weight! Maybe I should get out the scales and measure progress from here.

I have upped the reading pace, as anticipated. I finished two books in February and got well through another. Will hopefully be even better in March!

While I met my blogging target (a post on average every 2-3 days) with a total of 17 posts, there was a feast and then a famine. In March I hope to keep up the pace but even out the frequency of posts. I've yet to re-start postings to Three Positive Things - and this is something I will do this month.

Although I've not started work on any personal fiction, I have started work on transcribing and editing the work of a friend... more of which in due course.

So, more progress was made in February, which I hope to consolidate and build upon.