Encounters with the Tarot…

The Beginning…

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This is the first part of an occasional series concerning my encounters with, and the learning of, the Tarot.

Almost everyone knows that the Tarot is a method for foretelling the future, but they’re wrong – you can’t know the future, for to know it is to change it. If someone tells you you’re going to die on the 42 bus next Wednesday, you’ll make damned sure you get the train. Or a taxi. A fairly crude example, but you get the point.

I prefer to think of the Tarot as a mechanism for exploring the potentialities of the future – what can happen, not what will happen – which, I believe, is rather more accurate as a description.

Incidentally, the Death card doesn’t, as is popularly thought, mean Death…

The Tarot is not, as many ignorant people believe, a force for evil, nor is it, especially, a force for good – it’s essentially neutral. Good or evil reside in the heart of the card reader, not in the cards.

Those of you who’ve read Books #2 will know that I’ve developed an interest in the Tarot. This was triggered by the Kidd series of books by John Sandford. Kidd is an artist-criminal-hacker with an addiction (which he denies), to the Tarot.

By the way, based on the little knowledge I have to date, Sandford got it wrong quite often in his depiction of the Tarot (not least in calling Kidd’s deck the Ryder-Waite – something he corrected in the final book). You’d think, given that, like many writers, he filters his work through a coterie of friends, relatives and editors to ensure its accuracy. This is usually acknowledged on a page headed Thanks to the following people, without whose help this book would have been a complete shambles. Or something. The question is, why didn’t he run the Tarot references by someone familiar with it?

As many of you will know, I’m not remotely religious, nor am I superstitious, but there’s something about the Tarot, as depicted by Sandford, that has struck a chord. So much so that I’ve just ordered my first cards, and the bits and bobs deemed essential to accompany them (Tarot cards are always “decks”, by the way, not “packs”). Of the seemingly limitless variations on the Tarot theme, the Rider Waite deck is the most well known.

Arthur Edward Waite joined the The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn in 1891 (scroll way down for the index – as websites go, it sucks). He was a prolific occult writer, publishing books on subjects as diverse as ceremonial magic, freemasonry and tarot. Pamela Colman-Smith joined the Golden Dawn in 1903. When she met Waite he was fascinated to learn that she had already illustrated several books, and hooked up with her to fulfil a long held aspiration – create a unique Tarot deck which would improve on all decks that had gone before. Prior to Waite and Colman-Smith, only Major Arcana cards had images, the Minor Arcana having pips like playing-cards. Waite devised images for the Minor Arcana as well, which not only unified the appearance, it made them easier to read.

The colours of the Rider Waite are a little harsh, and as a result there have been a few attempts to improve on the colour scheme – see a selection here - and some are rather more successful than others. The version I finally settled on is the Universal Waite (why Universal I’ve no idea). While more or less true to the original colour scheme, the colours are rather muted, almost pastel on some cards – much more subtle than the original and, I think, an improvement. The Fool, above, is from the Rider Waite deck.

For an easy comparison of the Universal Waite and the Rider Waite decks, go here to see the former and here to see the latter.

You will, if you read much about the Rider Waite deck, see that Colman-Smith is occasionally referred to as “Lady Pamela”, which is completely erroneous – she was born a commoner and she was never ennobled, either in her own right or by marriage.

There are 78 cards in a Tarot deck, divided into the Major Arcana (22 cards – Fool, Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant, Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgment and World), and the Minor Arcana, 56 cards in 4 suits – Wands (or Staves), Cups, Swords and Pentacles). Note – in some decks Pentacles are called, and shown as, Discs; other than that the pentacles are frequently depicted on discs, I can’t account for this. Not until I know more, anyway. They are sometimes called Coins too – buggered if I know why…

By the way, Rider Waite is often rendered as Ryder-Waite or Rider-Waite – both are wrong – the packaging of the deck clearly says Rider Waite.

In addition, tradition requires a “reading cloth”, usually black silk (other colours are available, but I prefer to stick with tradition), on which the cards are laid out for a reading – the cloth isolates the cards from “earthly influences”. The cloth can also be used to wrap the cards when not in use, and they are then stored in a wooden box, which provides both psychic and physical protection. A silk pouch is often used when transporting the cards – the box is cumbersome; it takes the cards and the folded silk cloth. The black cloth also emphasises the cards’ colours, whereas other colours of cloth may clash.

The wooden Tarot boxes, for me, are a tad problematic. They come either adorned with the word Tarot, with or without carvings, or with mystic symbols carved, or inlaid in brass – I want just a plain, wooden box, but I can’t get one anywhere, so I got one with an inlaid brass pentacle. The search for a plain box continues. I’ve nothing against decorated boxes, I just want a plain one!

I did find a very nice, almost plain box – just a band of carving around the lid – but the online store added a non-refundable surcharge of 20% to every order as a “cleansing and blessing” fee, which is a bit bloody high-handed of them – hey, charge me 20% less, I’ll take my chances! Rather unavoidably, the word “scam” springs to mind – after all, how can anyone possibly tell if the cleansing and blessing took place or not, and would it make the slightest difference either way? Anyway, 20% is far too much to charge – 10%, if the service is genuine, would be OK with me (though it’s a service I really can live without); 20%, though, just screams rip-off!

Oh yes – almost forgot – I bought a book, too, a sort of Tarot 101 (actually it’s called Step by Step Tarot). Well, it helps to have an idea of what I’m doing! It’s very basic, and I’ll need a more advanced book before long, but as I’m looking at a very steep learning curve, books are essential; even though masses of info is available online I find books are better for study. That and/or printed-out online material.

Note: I neither believe nor disbelieve anything about the Tarot at this stage – I have an open mind. Here’s something to think about, though. After I’d finished the final Kidd book, I got another book to read – from a selection of 8 as yet unread, I picked, entirely by chance, the only one which also features the Tarot… Go figure.

Here are a few Tarot-related links:-

The Holistic Shop is where I bought almost all my kit – a good selection and well-priced, too. In the Library section there’s a mine of info on many mystical/spiritual subjects, including a section on the Tarot for beginners.

Autumn Moon sold me my box. An excellent online store for most things mystical or spiritual. Hey, release your inner witch!

Angel Paths has a decent Tarot section, too, but the site as a whole really sucks – it’s a disgraceful morass of broken links, as you’ll find out if you venture outside the Tarot section.

Go here for a very comprehensive list of Tarot decks – click the links to see the images.

For those who want to learn more, The Aeclectic Tarot is a fine place to start.

A word of advice – if you want to buy your own deck, stick to the Rider Waite or one of its derivatives, where the cards’ identities are clear – you don’t want a deck where you have to figure out what the card is, before you can work out what it means! Nor do you really want cards where the name is in four or more languages (it makes it look as if you don’t know what they are!). There’s a very good reason why the Rider Waite deck is so popular, especially with beginners – the cards are easy to identify. Except one – The Chariot – if it wasn’t titled (all the Major Arcana are named), you’d never figure out that it was any mode of transport at all.

One thing I have discovered, this week, is that many people in this sort of business have really, deeply, crap websites – the those here being conspicuous exceptions – and a lot of them can’t spell. Few things anger me more than people who want my money, but are too lazy to hit the spell-check button. I also stumbled upon a wiccan website where I could, if I so wished, buy a simple, unadorned wand for – you’ll love this – £24. That’s £24, for a stick!

Mystic Familiar I was rather scathing about this online store, at the time of writing this page, as it had simply disappeared, leaving in it’s wake a Closed sign. Not helpful. I eventually emailed the people behind the store, and was told that the proprietor, as a result of a family crisis, and flu, had simply forgotten to reopen the store. I have re-written this segment as the result of a complaint about the original, but with the best will in the world, I can only report what I see at the time. I could, arguably, have updated this post when I got the explanation but, unfortunately, remembering what I’ve posted is difficult. It’s a challenge, much of the time, remembering what day it is.

The Lavender Pillow is an immensely entertaining Pagan/Goth site that’s worth an hour of your time. Your browser may give you a “Plugins are needed for this site” message – ignore it. You can’t order stuff online, but it’s fun – find the Menu at the foot of the page.

That’s it for now – more as and when…

February 10 2009 Actually, there may be no more – while I do have some talent with the cards, my short-term memory problems (ME/CFS related), mean that I just can’t remember the meanings of the cards without having a stack of books on hand.

Books #2

John Sandford (a.k.a. John Camp), is a thriller writer, and probably my favourite writer, at least for now (for the record, my all-time favourite is Clifford D. Simak). In 1989 he published Rules of Prey, set in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, which introduced his central character, Lucas Davenport, and a bunch of Minneapolis homicide cops that one gets to know well, as Sandford doesn’t deal in cardboard cutouts, all involved in the hunt for a crazed serial killer, the Maddog.

There are 17 books featuring Davenport and his colleagues, of which I have all but the most recent, Invisible Prey – I’m waiting for the paperback. When first encountered, Davenport is a Lieutenant on suspension, but throughout most of series he’s a Deputy Chief of Police, a political appointee.

Almost all of Sandford’s characters are drawn in considerable detail, even the most minor and transient; he’s a little Dickensian in that respect, which is no bad thing. He writes very clearly and crisply – never using a single word more than necessary (a lesson Stephen King could usefully learn, as I’ve observed elsewhere!), and he writes short sentences and paragraphs – easy to read on days when your brain has turned to mush. It’s also a style that moves the narrative along briskly.

He manages to put the reader inside the heads of Davenport, and the killers he hunts, with equal facility. Neither, though, are very nice places to be, especially Davenport’s, as his is a troubled and driven personality, but somewhere inside is a nice guy trying to get out. He succeeds occasionally.

Davenport’s private life is complicated and not a little fraught. On the one hand, he loves a surgeon, Weather Karkinnen (one book in the series, typeset, presumably, by a fan of James Herbert’s Dune, calls her Harkinnen!), who first appears in Winter Prey, in which she cuts his throat (you’ll have to read it to find out why), and as this relationship is such a central theme, that’s all I’m telling you. He does, though, have a habit of fucking, or wanting to fuck, or has a history of fucking, pretty much any woman with a pulse in the Cities. That’s not entirely unfair – one character has said that he’s running out of available women, and he’ll soon have to start dating out of town.

Davenport is an extremely complex character, part ladies man, part thug, part clothes-horse; an extremely literate man who loves poetry as much as the hunt, and is deeply into writing computer gaming, on the back of which he built quite a fortune producing police training programs (cooler than it sounds!). He also indulges a passion for war games with a psychologist nun, a childhood friend and another complicated relationship.

The books are written serially, but also stand alone very successfully – you don’t have to have read the previous books in the series – you can pick it up anywhere, and there’s just enough back-story to cover the gaps. He never refers to people and events in previous books without you knowing what and why, and it always enhances the current narrative, rather than getting in the way of it. The back-story in his first, Rules of Prey, works so successfully that, for a while, I was looking for a previous book that I thought I’d missed. Inevitably, some books in the series are a little better than others – but none will disappoint and all will keep you engrossed to the end, and there’s such a wealth of detail that they all bear repeat reading.

Davenport’s sex life is complicated, and that’s the only point where reading out of sequence lets the reader down just a little. It’s a minor point, though, and soon forgotten, and the lives of the other central characters aren’t neglected, either.

The Prey books made Sandford’s name, but he has written other stuff, both before, during and since, which, for some strange reason, haven’t attracted quite the same attention. I can, I suppose, understand why – the exploits of Davenport and company do rather reach out and grab you, whereas his Kidd books (4 of them), are rather more cerebral. Actually, make that a lot more. This is what I’m currently reading, and I’ve just started the third book in the series.

Kidd is a watercolour artist in St. Paul (Sandford lives in the Cities), a computer hacker and criminal, in no particular order. He has an aging ginger tomcat, and an on-off relationship with his partner in crime, LuEllen, an extremely succesful burglar who only steals cash and cash substitutes – coin and stamp collections, precious stones and the like – easily portable, easily converted into cash. Kidd loves LuEllen, a fact which terrifies her!

Unlike Davenport, I don’t have an image in my head of Kidd – maybe this is intentional, making him enigmatic, nor can I visualise LuEllen. It’s as if the art, the computers, the crime, the cat and the Tarot are more important than the people. Odd, but I suspect it is intentional – Sandford is too good a writer to do this accidentally. Or maybe it’s just me… Interestingly, in the first Kidd book, The Fool’s Run, you can see the seeds of some events in the subsequent Prey books.

I don’t, personally, think that Kidd works quite as well as Davenport (he is, if you will, the other side of the Davenport coin, to a degree), but nevertheless, the books provide a welcome, slightly slower-paced and thoughtful diversion. That’s not to say they’re all talk and no action, not by a long way, thought there’s less blood and brutality than in the Prey books, and Kidd has more regard for his own skin than Davenport, but the Kidd books are certainly as thoroughly absorbing as the Prey series.

The first book in the Kidd series, The Fool’s Run, was Sandford’s first published book (initially under his own name, John Camp). Kidd is – although he denies it vehemently – addicted to the Tarot (the Fool being, according to some sources, the main card in the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck), and the Tarot features so strongly, at times, that it’s rather got me interested.

As many of you will know, I’m not remotely religious, nor am I superstitious, but there’s something about the Tarot, as depicted by Sandford, that has struck a chord. So much so that, once Christmas is over, I’m getting myself some Tarot cards – the Rider Waite deck. If you’re interested, there’s a review here. Rider Waite, by the way, is often rendered as Ryder-Waite, and this is the form preferred by Sandford, though he corrects it in the final book in the series. All the decks I’ve seen pics of online are marked Rider Waite, so I assume Ryder is an American cock-up. All four Kidd books are named for cards in the Major Arcana – Fool, Empress, Devil and Hanged Man.

I’ve no idea why the Tarot has snared my imagination, but there’s no denying that it has, and more about it may well appear somewhere here in the future.

There are some half-dozen books outside the Prey and Kidd series, that I haven’t yet read, but when I have they’ll appear in these pages.

One thing I can’t understand – there’s been almost zero Hollywood or TV interest in Sandford – quite possibly because snowy Minnesota doesn’t appeal – boots and parkas just aren’t sexy (though as film makers happily change almost everything except the name, moving the location to California shouldn’t bother them). The Coen brothers made it work, though, with Fargo. Mind you, on book sales alone, Sandford isn’t exactly hurting, so maybe he’s not bothered. OK, he’s not in King’s or Rowling’s league, but few are – and he’s a far better writer than either…

As far as I know, all Sandford’s books are currently in print, though in my experience shopping online will get you a better selection than your local Waterstone’s or Smith’s.

Books #1

This is going to be pretty much a work-in-progress. It’s a very personal take on books I’m reading, for the most part (though as you’ll see in Books #2, it’ll also encompass books I’ve read). No doubt some of you won’t agree with my opinions. You’d be wrong, though! Seriously, I’m always open to discussion or sensible criticism (but being wrong just because you think I’m wrong isn’t a valid argument, I’m afraid).

I get through a hell of a lot of books, as I’m housebound to a great extent – I have severe COPD as well as ME – so I thought it might be an idea to share my thoughts. Or you can look upon it as sheer self-indulgence – either works for me…

In the mid seventies I read a book, the subject of which seized hold of my imagination and refused to let go. I’ve never been able to find it again, as I’d completely forgotten what it was called or who it was by but, browsing Green Metropolis (See Cheap Books), I stumbled across it quite by accident, and now I’ve got another copy of Harry Harrison’s “A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!” (Note: also published as ATunnel Through the Deeps which, compared to the original title, is positively leaden.)

The title saves you wondering what it’s about – it’s the building of a (rail) tunnel between Britain and the United States. You might think that was sufficient in itself, but as a bonus it’s set in an alternate universe, one where the Christians lost the battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and the Iberian Peninsula remained in Muslim hands as part of the Great Caliphate; America lost the Revolutionary War and remains a colony; the petrochemical industry never happened, nor did two world wars; aircraft are coal-fired (a principal that – when you get to it – has appeared several times in science-fiction, and may actually work; the engineering is sound). And so it goes…

Nothing is perfect, though, and a couple of jarring notes creep in. Epoxy resins are, apparently, widely used, though as far as I know, these originated as offshoots of the petrochemical industry, as did butane and propane, both commonly used in the tale for heat, light and propulsion, and as an American, Harrison’s rendering of a working-class English accent grates, though in fairness, he’s no worse at that than many English writers. But hey, it’s a cracking tale and it does what it’s supposed to do superbly – it entertains immensely, and takes you away to another place, and more than that you can’t ask of a book. Well, OK, you can, but it’s enough for me.

The construction of the tunnel is as fascinating as it is fraught with danger, and whether it would actually work is irrelevant (it’s a work of fiction, after all – if we can accept an alternate universe, we can accept the tunnel as presented to us – it works for me), not a page – not even a paragraph – is superfluous to the narrative (Stephen King please note!). The novel is set in 1973, and, of course, Elizabeth II is on the throne – but at that point all resemblance to the seventies we knew is lost.

The tale, written somewhat in the manner of a Victorian novel (the feel of the England depicted is slightly Victorian, too, with horses only just having been displaced by electric power units for Hansom cabs!) opens with a high-speed train journey – 44 years ahead of reality, and nuclear-powered, to boot – very appropriate as a nuclear power-plant is merely a steam-engine with delusions of grandeur – but unlike its modern counterpart, it heads at breakneck speed from London to Penzance, rather than for the channel and France. Penzance is, of course, the English terminus of the eponymous tunnel, the tale’s current subject being the personal assistant to the Marquis Cornwallis, carrying a message from his master to the tunnel’s engineer, Augustus Washington (and yes, these names are significant).

Now find a copy and read on…

Footnote: My copy, published by NEL in 1972 has an introduction of wonderful eccentricity by Auberon Waugh.

Not so hot…

Back in the late sixties, in Liverpool, steak bars ruled as a post-pub-crawl destination (at the end of the month, payday was always celebrated, where I worked, with a pub crawl). There were the ubiquitous Berni Inns, just a tad proletarian, but their battered plaice was seriously good, and in our local branch, the bar staff were seriously hot. Add good beer (yes,really, even in chose days, when keg was all you could get!), and we had all we needed.

The evenings would invariably start at Walkers Old Style House (long gone), in Chapel Street, an apparently Victorian pub of surpassing charmlessness, for which those of us who didn’t have to go home first, or work late, invariably headed.

The drink of choice was Double Diamond, mainly because it wasn’t actively offensive, though the pub still offered a selection of hand-pulled beers which were offensive, and best avoided. So “Ten pints of Diamond please!”, would always elicit the same response from the surly fuck behind the bar “Oh god, ten pints of shite…” Yep, all the charm for which the breed was renowned – trust me, scousers aren’t really the merrilly-quipping, salt of the earth types of popular myth. Not then, not now. Guys like this can be found in many pubs, even today.

Once armed with our beer, it was time to take on board some ballast. Those days pub menus were very simply – pies and/or sandwiches. In the Style House, as it was universally known, you could have mystery-meat pies with beans, or without, depending on how ant-social you were feeling. Ordering these, too, would bring forth a barrage of grumbling from behind the bar, despite the fact that we were (a) usually the only customers, and (b) spending a substantial amount in the time we were there – pubs closer to the buses and trains got the going-home trade – he’d always bitch and whine. He never tired of it, and we never tired of winding him up. And knicking the ashstrays! Hell, pinching ashtrays – and glasses, when special editions were produced – was a local sport. Over the next hour, the late comers would turn up, usually to be greeted with cries of “Just in time – it’s your round!” Well, it worked sometimes…

And so the evening would go, wandering between pubs, fortified with pies and, just occasionally, pickled eggs, to soak up the beer. Or, unfortunately, coat some poor sod’s shoes as it all got too much for him! Here’s a tip – never wear suede shoes on a pub crawl!

Eventually, in varying degrees of inebriation, we’d pitch up at Berni’s – usually the one in Exchange Street East – and, just for the novelty value, we’d hit the bar there, too. And here’s another tip – when you’re six pints in the bag, it’s never a good idea to get drawn into a yard-of-ale contest, it can only end in one way…

As I said, Berni’s was our default destination, but a tad more “sophisticated” was Flynn’s Steak Bar, a few minutes away in Old Hall Street. Its main claim to sophistication was its darkness – often so gloomy it was hard to know what you were eating (and, sometimes, why), and its higher prices, but the food was mostly good (good plaice, just like Berni’s – I almost always had battered fish – it’s hard to cock it up), and the service very efficient (whereas Berni’s sucked, so much so that one night when the staff had vanished, seemingly from the face of the earth, we got so fed up waiting for the bill we walked out when banging on the table had failed to bring anyone out from the bowels of the place). Flynn’s also had a decent wine list, which was an occasional attraction when there were just a few of us, but we mostly stuck to Berni’s, which was close to a taxi rank, and the station, too.

There was another upside to steak bars – the “bar” in the title. In foul weather, something to which Liverpool was no stranger in those days (we just don’t get the extremes of weather now that we did then), you could happily spend the evening in the Berni’s in Exchange Street East, as they had several bars and, a quick sprint through the rain away, a decent pub just across the road for a change of view (forgotten its name, I’m afraid). So, it was possible to spend the entire evening in Berni’s (Flynn’s didn’t have a bar, as far as I can recall), without getting bored. I mean, they had booze and food, what’s to be bored about? We could also book our meals, secure in the knowledge that we’d actually be able to guarantee turning up on time, whereas normally we’d have to take pot luck – not always a success with a party of 20 or more.

By now, you may be wondering why this is called Not so hot… I know I am. Anyway, I started out with the intention of talking about mustard, something which featured quite prominently in steak bars (to take the taste away, maybe!). On the odd occasions when I’d have steak, I’d always plump for the dark brown, slightly spicy “French” mustard – in reality, probably Bordeaux mustard, and I loved the stuff, not then having developed a taste for the rather one-dimensional English version. And, working not far from a deli, I could buy it in jars to use at home. Then I went to work elsewhere, miles from the city centre, so I opted out of the pub crawls, stopped eating at Berni’s or Flynn’s, and couldn’t buy Bordeaux mustard anywhere, and so it dropped out of my life. Until now.

Last week, I was very pleased to see that Sainsbury’s were stocking it, under their own brand. That should have warned me.

It looks like the same stuff, smells like it, but it all falls to pieces when it comes to the taste. Perhaps I should have had the sense to read the label, as it seems to me that many products with Sainsbury’s name on the label merely mimic what they claim to be. For example, there’s not the slightest hint of the grape must, with which it should be made, and which contributes greatly to its taste and colour. Instead, it’s coloured with ammonium caramel – doesn’t that sound just yummy, and the flavour pumped up with ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, a mix perhaps more suited to curry. Ah well…

Footnote: a search for Bordeaux, or brown French, mustard came up blank – it’s very hard to find. Waitrose have it, called simply, as it always was, French Mustard, but whether it’s any more authentic than Sainsbury’s offering, I can’t say.

Merry Christmas?

Here in Britain you can tell Christmas is upon us – the news is full of surveys and research, and lots of plain old bitching and whining, about us all drinking too much!

We have, today, been exhorted by some bunch of losers, with only the slenderest grip on reality, that we really shouldn’t start drinking if we think there’s a risk we may drink too much! In a country where binge drinking is defined as consuming more than two pints, this probably means we’re allowed a couple of halves of shandy, before we’re ejected from the pub for our own good, and not allowed back until the New Year.

The thing is, I drink beer because I like beer – getting shit-faced is an unfortunate side-effect – I doubt many adults drink with the intention of getting drunk (though for anyone under 30, getting blitzed is usually the main reason for drinking), but it’s pretty much unavoidable unless you’re boringly abstemious. (Do you know, by the way, that the permitted units of alcohol per day figures were more or less picked out of the air, because the real figures were deemed too generous?)

So, at some point in the next few days, I shall go off to the pub, and treat myself to a festive gallon of beer (or it’s equivalent in rum – the sheer volume of beer is getting harder to handle these days – must be getting old!). The thing is that this sort of behaviour is getting very close to being considered criminal in the increasingly puritanical UK, yet I shall drink my beer, get pleasantly blurred around the edges but still remain coherent and capable of holding an intelligent conversation (well, more or less!), and wander home again – possibly picking up an ill-advised takeaway en route.

What I won’t do is puke all over someone’s car, then stab the owner when he complains, mug old ladies, vandalise property or fall down in the street and have to be dragged off to hospital, at great expense to the NHS.

However, because a certain segment of society does do these things, and more, when bladdered (and frequently when not, too), pretty much everyone who enjoys a pint, or several, is tarred with the same anti-social brush and I, for one, am getting totally hacked off with it.

The government is about to announce measures to tackle the plague of pissed and violent youngsters that infest this country, and about time too, but what are the prospects that everyone will be penalised for the actions of a minority? Pretty high I should think – have a merry Christmas, while you still can!

Blog update, 16/12/2007

I’ve just been through the entire blog, editing errors and making the links easier to read (they’re now bold).

The default text colour for this template is pale blue, for some odd reason, which I change to black. Sometimes my changes don’t stick, or I forget, so I’ve checked that too, and any grey text is now black. I can’t do anything about the red colour for links, we’re stuck with that, but at least they’re easier to see now.

I did try an alternate template, broadly similar to this one, but what it gained in slightly better readability, it lost in functionality and, as I’ve said elsewhere, holding down the Ctrl key and hitting + (as many times as you need), will increase the text size. To revert to the original size, hold Ctrl and hit – (minus) as often as you need. Those poor souls still using IE will see that doing this also re-centres the image on the screen, which is a pain in the butt, but hardly surprising.

I strongly recommend that anyone still saddled with IE should switch to Mozilla Firefox without delay. It’s the application that IE7 tries very hard to be, and fails. Switching to Firefox is quite intuitive, but in Help there’s a section dedicated to former IE users and, if you have problems, contact me at ron at ronsrealm dot me dot uk putting “Firefox Feedback” in the subject line.

In Cheap Books, the link to Green Metropolis was missing – it shouldn’t have been, and it took me several tries to make it stick, but it’s fixed now. The Snapshots function doesn’t work for GM, as it’s a secure site, so hovering over the link will do nothing.

And that’s it for now, though if there’s anything I’ve missed, or any links that don’t work (they were all checked, but things change), feel free to post a comment and let me know.

Climate change…

Oh god, a couple of hours trawling the web and I’m losing the will to live. What is it that makes global warming so difficult to comprehend for so many people? Let’s face it, many of them believe implicitly in gods for which there is zero evidence – hell, you can see the effects of climate change for yourself, so what’s the problem? And don’t forget, it only takes a few degrees C to have a massive impact – we’re not talking huge temperature changes here, they’re not needed to completely fubar the planet.

It’s not that hard to grasp – the planet is warming terrifyingly fast, the ice-caps are vanishing at an enormous rate, and yet people deny it’s happening at all. It’s all happened before, they shriek (oh yes they do, you should have heard the buggers on Radio 2 the other day!), it’s all perfectly natural. This is closely followed by We’re emerging from an ice-age, what do you expect? Both points of view illustrating perfectly that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing – it makes those who are hard of thinking terribly smug.

Emerging from an ice age? Nope, we’re not – strictly speaking this is an interglacial period, throughout which there have been great shifts in temperature, but the ice-age is still alive and well, and will be while ice remains in the higher latitudes. This ice age emergence idea is closely linked to the “it’s all happened before so it’s perfectly natural” theory of denial.

Yes, indeed, it has all happened before, many times (oh, by the way, ignore people who use the fact that Antarctica used to be tropical to support this idea – at that time Antarctica was on the equator!), this does not mean that what’s happening now is natural. One thing makes it extremely unnatural and also potentially lethal – the sheer speed at which glaciation world-wide is retreating.

Note: melting of the northern polar ice cap will have almost zero effect on sea level (the ice is floating – oh, you look it up, I can’t do everything for you; start with Archimedes.), but terrestrial ice, if that melts, will see us living on a much smaller island, maybe even an archipelago. Hell, even the Greenland icecap has the capacity to raise ocean levels by over 7 metres, and that pales into insignificance when compared to Antarctica, where the ice is up to 4,500 metres thick, not a great deal thicker than Greenland, but it covers a much greater area.

Events that would normally take millennia are happening in decades – the person with the most closed of minds surely can’t look at what’s currently happening with the Polar sea ice – it’s more dramatic in the Antarctic, as the ice shelves collapse into an ever-warming ocean, but the floating ice-cap in the Arctic is a mere shadow of its former self and, as was gleefully announced recently (gleefully? Shit!), the legendary Northwest Passage is now a reality – or it was then, the winter ice may have closed in by now.

At the bottom of the world, penguins are in crisis because their habitat is diminishing, and rising sea temperatures are trashing the food chain and at the top polar bears are facing starvation because the lack of ice means fewer chances to hunt seals. No doubt, too, seals are having their own problems, as some species give birth on the pack ice.

Perversely, this warming could render Britain very much colder – it’s only the Gulf Stream that prevents us having much the same extremely cold weather as Canada or Russia, and if the Labrador Current, which flows from the polar regions south-east between Canada and Greenland becomes sufficiently cold it will effectively “turn off” the Gulf Stream by causing it to become chilled and sink before it reaches us, probably somewhere around the Azores (it cools and sinks now, quite naturally, but not until we’ve benefited from it).

All these events, except the cooling of the Gulf Stream, have happened since the turn of the century – they should take – when they happen at all – many thousands of years. Climate change at this speed is not natural, it hasn’t happened before, and it bodes ill – very ill – for future generations not too far down the line.

Don’t believe in climate change or global warming, call it what you will, if that’s what you want, but here’s an experiment. Stand in the middle of the road, and try not believing in that bus 100 yards away and bearing down on you – it’ll be just as futile as denying climate change and, ultimately, the result will be much the same. Just, for you, faster…

Footnote: None of this is simply my opinion – except the last para! The facts are out there for those with the will to see.

Kindle desire…

Yes, I know it’s a terrible pun – what I don’t know is why Amazon came up with such an odd name for their electronic “book”. I can’t see a lot of point, either. However, despite being widely rubbished, and costing $399 dollars, it’s sold out way before Christmas, so obviously a lot of people like it. So what does it seem like (because it’s not available in the UK)?

Well, the screen is small for a start, with a 6″ diagonal, which is a tad more than half the diagonal of an A5 page (60%, in fact), which is 2″ smaller than a standard paperback, and a whole lot smaller than “modern” paperbacks, and hardbacks. The size of the whole thing is 7.5″ x 5.3″, a little bigger than a standard paperback, and 0.7″ thick.

It holds “hundreds of titles”, whatever that means in real terms, and is expandable using SD cards, and you can access newspapers (by subscription), and blogs. All these are bought, wirelessly, from the Kindle Store, the implication of which is that you’ll be charged to access the blogs you can get for free online – not exactly a sharp marketing strategy if true, but maybe they just provide a link for free…

Logically the price should be about £200 when it arrives in the UK, but it never works out like that, and it’s likely that the $ sign will simply be replaced with a £ sign, or something very close to that. The idea of hundreds of books in one place is attractive (though there’s a downside). I have about 1,500 books in three overflowing bookcases, with more coming all the time, and I’m running out of space, so having hundreds of electronic books has its attractions – trouble is to replace all my paper books would cost at least £7,500, plus an indeterminate amount in SD cards, so this thing is only good for new purchases that I don’t already have.

Now, consider the battery. With Wi-Fi turned off, you can read your stored material for a week, which is pretty good (with Wi-Fi turned on you get a max of 2 days before recharging – a lot less if you use the Wi-Fi connection much). I worry about claimed battery life, as I’ve learned from hard-won experience (electric wheelchairs, mobiles, mp3 players, satnav etc.) that battery life is always exaggerated. Always. So I’d realistically be looking for perhaps 3-4 days reading time – more would be a bonus. And, of course, use in cold conditions would trash battery life, so forget taking it outdoors in winter. Even carrying it in a bag would reduce battery life in cold weather – for commuting /travelling, it needs to live in a car. And Amazon don’t even mention what sort of battery it has, which sort of suggests it’s a proprietary model – always bad news in terms of cost.

Then there’s the major selling points of the device – it’s portable and it’s electronic – these two features don’t always work well together. There’s no indication that the case is made of anything robust, like polycarbonate, or that the electronic guts are hardened, so probably a very good idea not to drop it. And don’t spill beer on it in the pub either, or get it caught in the rain. There are no moving parts inside – it operates on flash memory – so that adds a degree of robustness, and it’ll probably survive being dropped better than, say, an iPod, but I still wouldn’t want to risk it.

But, how portable is it? It’s a little too big to slip comfortably into a pocket (especially in its book-like case – how ironic is that, disguising it as a book?), which means you need to carry a bag of some sort. That’s a bummer. It’s eminently stealable, too, so hey, don’t leave it on the table if you read it in the pub and need a pee! You can slip a book in your pocket (mostly), or you can leave one while you toddle off to the Gents, without risk – usually, anyway, and if it is nicked, you’re out a few pounds – not a few hundred. You’re going to have the Kindle tucked under your arm, with the attendant risks…

Flash memory has a finite lifespan, too, and after a certain number of read-write cycles, it will quietly expire (all flash memory, not just the Kindle), for which almost no manufacturer will provide figures (which probably means it’s not too impressive), so your books aren’t going to be safe for ever.

Then there the cost of feeding it – this is what Amazon says:-

*More than 90,000 books available, including more than 95 of 112 current New York Times® Best Sellers.

*New York Times® Best Sellers and all New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise.

How many will be “marked otherwise”, and whether they’re likely to be marked up or down, isn’t mentioned.

Don’t get me wrong, I sort of like the thing, and I’d like one, even though it’s utterly pointless. The thing is, for a real bibliophile, it’s a mere frippery, an indulgence that adds little to the reading experience – it may even detract from it – it’s a geek’s, or a flash git’s, toy. It’s sole advantage (other than its pose value!), is that it puts a lot of books and other literary stuff all in one (small), place, and that, for me, just isn’t enough, because like all electronic devices, sooner or later it’ll just stop working, or get dropped, or wet, and you may well lose everything. Likewise if it gets stolen. In either case, the only way to recover your stuff is to invest in another Kindle.

Amazon, apparently, tacitly acknowledges the risks inherent in owning this device, because everything you buy is backed up online, so you can re-download it whenever you need to, as often as you need to.

My biggest fear, though, is that once the novelty has worn off, it’s likely to be consigned to life’s fringes, along with forgotten mp3 players. It’s an excellent concept, but, I feel, one which is destined to be a niche product, because there’s no real need for it; after all, no one really needs to carry around hundreds of books – not ever. For sheer convenience (no batteries required), portability, durability (I have some books approaching their centenary – there’s no way a Kindle, or a similar device, will ever match that), and all-round sheer pleasure – you don’t get cover art on a Kindle – you simply can’t beat paper for books. Not yet, anyway, and I’ll be very surprised if a viable alternative appears in my lifetime. After all, in science-fiction, how many times have writers “invented” hi-tech alternatives to the humble book, and how many of these were as 100% self-contained and as efficient to use as an actual book is? In my experience, that would be none of them.

Luddites all…

Almost unbelievably, 41,000 black and white TV licences were sold in the past year. So, that’s 41,000 people for whom the words “digital” and “switchover” are just meaningless noise. Don’t you just love that?

I can just see the infuriated letters to the Telegraph when their TV picture disappears for ever in a couple of years time. Letters, of course, and probably in green ink, for if these people are still in the fifties televisually, they surely won’t have email – probably view it as a passing fad, no doubt – and if they actually do have computers, they’re probably still running DOS.

On the other hand, we may have 41,000 people happily watching their 42″ widescreen plasma TVs, while paying buttons for their licences. I wonder if anybody checks to see?

Big Brother?

Did you know that the major search engines, like Google and Yahoo, retain detailed records of searches for up to 18 months? No, nor me but according to this article on Guardian Unlimited they do. Ha, that’ll make you think twice about looking for porn sites!

The implications, though, are rather more serious. How many of us, legitimately researching items related to, say, Islamic terrorism (other varieties of terrorism are available), are at risk of being actually tagged as terrorist sympathisers? Or even terrorists.

Paranoia? Maybe, but there are people incarcerated for years without trial or representation in Camp X-Ray (Guantanamo Bay), and even here at home who would give you an argument about that. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time – in cyberspace as in the real world – can land you in very deep shit indeed.