Outcasts

In 2007 the BBC announced they were going to produce a new science fiction series “with echoes of Blake’s 7” (the Sunday Times wrote at the time). Good news for science fiction fans, and even better for Blakes 7 fans (the misspelling is intentional, as that is what the show was called). With all the blogging scifi writers and blogging scifi fans I follow, and all the surfing I do for scraps about Blakes 7, it is inevitable that I will be warned in time when Outcasts will start to … what, you say? It’s already on? I am five episodes behind?

So I caught the sixth episode yesterday. They broadcast it in an unfortunate time slot. I think that in the future I will use the Internet Video Recorder to watch it.

Solid TV science fiction. Shades of Battlestar Gallactica—and not just because it had Jamie Bamber in it for one episode. No, it has a mother and a father figure. The father figure is more of a scrappy Patrick Stewart than an Edward James Olmos though. The mother seems to be a blond, older Elizabeth Weir. And there is a bad guy, who I assume is supposed to be the Gaius Baltar slash Kerr Avon slash dysfunctional child.

The back story, from what I have read, is that the show revolves around a fairly recently colonized planet. Contact with Earth is sparse. And that is all that Wikipedia and IMDB have to say.

Yesterday’s episode has one self-contained story line, and two developing story arcs. The self contained thingy was a whodunnit, with a proper rescue of the prospective murder victims at the end. Police officer Cass has a secret that precludes him from sleeping with his colleague Fleur, a hottie with a lot of hair and a Scottish accent. So instead he sleeps with a woman who for reasons that do not become quite clear tries to ferret out his secret, and then steals his gun. She then becomes part of a fairly basic murder plot, or was already part of it—the story focuses more on how Cass becomes a suspected kidnapper. In the background president Richard ‘Jean Luc’ Tate does the wise man walking into the hills thing—Shaka, when the walls fell, except that these hills harbour cannibals.

Outcasts is no Blakes 7 though. For one thing, the show is full of basically decent guys who just seem to have landed on the wrong side of the law by accident. There is a reason why in Blakes 7 the writers landed a building on top of Gan halfway season two. Not that Blakes 7 doesn’t have its fair share of basically decent guys—it’s that the not so decent sides of them keep popping up with the result of pushing the crew deeper into misfortune. Which is, I guess, what makes it a better show.

(ORAC – When we reach the appropriate coordinates, I can simulate the necessary signals to open the silo and allow this flyer to enter.

DAYNA – Oh, sounds good.

VILA – No it isn’t. Sooner or later we’re going to drop into one of these holes in the ground and never come out.

And then they do.)

But as I said, and as far as I can tell based on watching just one episode, a pretty decent series. No worse than any of the Star Trek franchises if you ask me. Battlestar Torchwood.

Samples from the new pocket camera (Canon IXUS 300 HS)

ixus_300_hsLast month I mentioned that I bought a new pocket camera, the Canon IXUS 300 HS (or Canon Powershot SD4000 as it is known elsewhere), but have so far failed to tell you much about it.

In Europe Canon has two ranges of pocket cameras, IXUS and Powershot, where the former is aimed at those who just want a simple camera for holiday pictures.

As you can see below, the camera completely botches up night shots by overexposing the hell out of it, but I figure it was intended to do that. Lots of holidayers take pictures in the evening and may wish to do away with the flatness produced by flash. This is what you get in return, but at least you get something in return. (And if that is not good enough, buy a much, much more expensive camera. As long as you are the best photographer in your circle of friends, hauling all that DSLR equipment around won’t necessarily lead to you being shunned outright from parties.)

It’s much better than my old camera at close ups (macros). I can get as close as 1 centimetre with this one, whereas my previous pocket camera stopped at about 5 centimetre. I have been getting complaints that my photos don’t show the single life that I lead because my house looks so clean in them, but I assure you—and you can verify this with the answering machine close-up below—that was just because of the quality of the photo equipment!

My previous pocket camera was much better in pretty much anything else. The 300 HS has a very nasty tendency to blur towards the corners. It also seems to have a barrel distortion throughout most of its zoom. The screen is much better, but it cannot be tilted, so that I’d need to carry a mirror with me at all times for those ‘over the crowd’ shots (not going to happen).

One more nice thing about this camera is that its predominant type of noise is luminant rather than chromatic. I understand that chromatic noise is good for sharp pictures, but it is also the sort of thing you cannot ‘unsee’ once you have started noticing it.

I would assume that the intended audience for this camera would tend to buy one of them newfangled superzooms, so I really wonder why Canon would bring out such an expensive camera in its low-end pocket range.

Did I make the right trade? I think it about evens out. Keeping in mind that my primary aim with this camera is making simple product shots for web sites, and that my secondary goal is making HD videos, I think I did OK. The better camera for me would have been the Canon Powershot S95, but that one wasn’t out yet when I bought this one.

kid_on_a_statue

answering-machine

olympiaweg

noorder-amstelkanaal-vanaf-lyceumbrug

The photo below of Zydeco Fever performing at De Nieuwe Anita was the only sharp shot of the bunch, but it was taken under circumstances where even my SDLR would have struggled.

zydeco_fever

A quick review of the Samsung Star phone

Summary: could have used a little more testing

As I wrote earlier, I bought me a Samsung s5230 Star mobile phone. My needs were extremely modest:

  • A long standby time
  • A built-in camera of at least 1 megapixel

The Star’s aspirations are far from modest: it tries to emulate far more expensive phones by providing a similar but toned down feature set. So it’s got a medium sized touch screen, a photo and video camera, a media player, an organiser, FM radio, voice recorder and widgets galore.

When you have got to cut costs, you had better come up with clever solutions, and the Star has some of those. Rather than putting in a second camera so that you can see yourself when taking a picture of yourself, it’s got a tiny mirror underneath the lens of its single camera. That sort of stuff.

Unfortunately the Star has too little of that sort of stuff, and lacks polish in general. It has an untested feel. For instance, the lock (activated by pressing a handy little button on the side of the phone that doubles as a camera lock) sometimes switches off spontaneously.

Also, the screen is completely useless outdoors. When I tried to make a call when it was overcast, I could barely see what I dialed. When I tried to look at the time during sunset (nice big clock), I could see nothing at all. I would hate to think what would happen in full sunlight at noon. Presumably the entire phone will render itself invisible.

I already expressed my satisfaction with the camera in a previous post, but to spare you the trouble of clicking a link I will repeat what I said: I love it because it is such a limited camera. That means that whenever I take a good picture it is all because of my skills, baby!

Does the battery last 800 hours on a single charge, as advertised? I would not know. I have been playing the free games that came shipped with the Star a lot lately (mostly while waiting for trains), and they drain the battery like you wouldn’t believe.

Finally, an anecdote. The other day a friend who owns one of these iPhones or HTC Android shiny wonder thingies lamented that he thought his T9 (word prediction) was unusable, because switching between languages was so hard. Ha! Not only will Samsung’s T9 implementation let you switch between languages easily, but it will let you do this while you are typing your message. Just tap the language symbol and switch languages on the fly and to your hearts content.

I don’t know how common any of these features are, but they are light years ahead of what my previous phone offered.

If you make 99.5% of your calls indoors, this phone comes mostly recommended. But do check other reviews to see if it meets your needs.

My rating: 2.5 stars
**1/2

Wallander’s second

The Dogs of Riga

I know I haven’t been blogging for a while, but I just do not have the time, so I will keep it short.

People pay money for this?

It’s not that Henning Mankell’s police procedural The Dogs of Riga is badly written, indeed for most of the time, and especially the beginning it is quite entertaining. The end though is very weak. You don’t believe the author for a second. You can see the denouement coming from miles ahead, and the only thing that keeps you reading is the thought that goes continuously through your head: “Surely, Mankell would not end the book like that?”

It’s only his second book in the Wallander series, from what I understand, so I’m going to assume that the author will perhaps master copying Sjöwall and Wahlöö with some proficiency later on.

My rating: 2.0 stars
**

DSLR photography workshop

NIDF Canon EOS 1000D workshop

nidf-workshop.jpg

When I bought my Canon EOS 1000D camera earlier this year I got a coupon that allowed me to participate in a photography workshop (EOS is their range of so-called Single Lens Reflexes, the D stands for digital, and the large number signifies the entry level model).

For 25 euro, a man told us everything about using this camera model during about 5 hours. As the workshop started at 10 am, and there were several breaks including one for lunch, the workshop almost spanned an entire working day.

Since it’s been awhile, I’ll just list what I thought was good and what was not so good.

The Good:

– Information filled: I actually learned quite a bit.

– The price? I would probably not have signed up if the workshop had cost four times more.

– There were a number of sessions where we got to put the things we had just learned into practice.

– The institute provided drinks and a simple lunch, which made the whole affair seem just that much more thought out. During the breaks, the instructor was available for questions.

The Not-so-good:

– Read the manual out loud: the bulk of the workshop consisted of going over almost the complete feature set of the camera. This turned out to be necessary: some of the students hadn’t bothered reading the manual. But since I myself had bothered to read the manual, I could have done with more of ‘how to use these features to make great photos.’

– The teacher sometimes reverted to sarcasm; it sounded like he needed a vacation. If you cannot treat your customers with civility, why bother showing up? (Then again, this was at the end of the day, perhaps he was getting tired.)

– Large chunks of the presentation were accompanied by bog standard Powerpoint presentation, i.e. reams of text on an overhead projector. Good presentations involve powerful imagery to make an emotional connection with what the presenter is trying to stay. It strikes me that if anything is suited for good Powerpoint, it would be a photography workshop. I want to be able to see what I can achieve by using the camera in a certain way.

– The price? Especially at the end of the day the crowd started getting noisy and restless, making it difficult to follow what the instructor was saying. I figured people would have been more attentive if they had had to pay more. But perhaps it wasn’t the price of the exercise, but the duration and nature that caused a restless audience.

If I could have changed one thing about the underlying idea of this course, it would have been to offer two workshops, one for people who already had read the manual, and one for people who had not.

Summing up, the workshop was worth the money, but it could have been much more vibrant. Whether it’s worth it for you depends largely on the amount of time you can spare; the price is hardly an object.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***

Nice refresher course in biology

Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

What little I remember about the organization of life from my few high school biology classes in the early 1980s is that the realm of the living was divided into animals and plants.

The world of biology has not, it seems from this book, stood still in the intervening years. Animals and plants are still there, but they make up an ever dwindling part of the taxonomic tree of life, hidden somewhere on a branch behind amoebæ together with fungi.

The ten great inventions of evolution are, according to Lane:

  • The origin of life
  • DNA
  • Photosynthesis
  • The complex cell
  • Sex
  • Movement
  • Sight
  • Hot blood
  • Consciousness
  • Death

Of each of these things he discusses where they came from and how they got where they are now, mostly by looking at the genetic record.

I had two problems with Life Ascending. The first was Lane’s insistence on talking about religion. I have attended a Catholic elementary school, grammar school and university for more than 24 years combined, and the only time ever teachers talked about religion was during the bible readings at the start of the school days, and during the weekly religious lessons. Biology classes were blissfully spared from any religious intrusions, and the reason is obvious. When talking about science, you should not be going to give any attention, not even a little bit, to the rantings of kooks.

Religion simply doesn’t live on the same plane as science, so why even discuss it in a book that purports to be about science? Lane weakly argues that religion tries to come up with answers to questions about where life came from, but so do all kinds of crazy people who are not inspired by faith, and Lane doesn’t take a single of their theories seriously.

What is more, Lane doesn’t seem to like religion very much, which makes him come across like those hordes of American priests who publicly condemn homosexuality in the strongest of words, but then get found out as both lovers and connoisseurs of smoking the meat cigar.

Spending three, now four paragraphs to talk about Lane’s love of discussing religion’s crazy antics makes it seem the book is full of such talk, and there I can gladly put your mind at ease. For the full length of the book, the author takes about as much space talking about religion as the reviewer takes here berating him for it. The reason I mention it at all is the same as the reason you might mention catching a short glimpse of the waiter scratching his balls in your review of an excellent meal at the world’s finest restaurant—it still grates.

My other qualm with Life Ascending is that Lane often declares certain evolutionary paths to have been inevitable (the evolution of eyes and the cell wall), and others to have been sheer coincidence, without giving more of an explanation than “the DNA done it.”

Let me explain this for a second. If you see evolution as a tree where some features have come into existence repeatedly, and other features have only come into existence once, this would suggest that some things are evolutionary inevitable, and others are the opposite.

Take eyes. There are some 13 different branches of eyes that have all evolved separately. You can discover these things by comparing DNA of living and dead creatures and determining if they are similar or distinct. If the DNA for a single feature, no matter how far it has further developed, is strikingly similar across species, you may assume that all these species had at one point a single ancestor, the thin part of the hour glass they crawled through.

But Lane only mentions the “one or many ancestors” bit, and then blithely ignores the exploration of the much and much harder issue of why a certain feature would be likely to happen or not.

I only mention this because I am completely incompetent in judging a book about biology on its biological merits, and therefore have to judge it on its methodological merits, and a scientist who shows not much curiousity is just a tell-tale sign for all kinds of trouble.

But then again, as a result I spent a lot of time simply checking Lane’s facts, and I guess that is a positive thing. Although, once you have found out there are plants with eyes, you will contemplate giving up all food for a while, before becoming more omnivorous than ever.

Lane’s own prime concern with his work appears to be that his selection of the ten great inventions of evolution are perhaps not the best he could have made, and I tend to agree with that. But that is probably the wrong way to view this book. Life Ascending is instead a solid, accessible refresher course for people like me (the arts ‘n’ humanities crowd), people who got a few sprinklings of biology classes a couple of lifetimes ago and weren’t really aware that the world of biology has decidedly moved on since then. It is an excellent spring board for further exploration, and I really recommend you buy it just to get your facts about Life (and that interesting feature, Death) re-aligned.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

Kantjil To Go

Restaurant: Kantjil & de Tijger

The Dutch have a love-love relationship with Indonesian cuisine stretching back to colonial days. The Rijsttafel, literally meaning rice table, is a colonial invention, putting together all the specialities of the Indian archipelago into a single menu.

The darker side of this tale is the ‘Chin. Ind.’ restaurant, the fusion of Chinese entrepreneurship and kitchen with Indonesian food and Dutch boorish taste. The result is a type of take-away restaurant where lacklustre personnel serve you sweet and fat food in a setting that must have stopped looking stylish in China 50 years ago, but that persists here because it is what the owners think the Dutch working class perceive as authentically Chinese.

If you want to enjoy the genuine Indonesian kitchen—disregarding for a moment that that is an imperialistic product that only truly exists in the imperialist fantasies of those Javanese who think they own the country—you should therefore steer away from the Chin. Ind. nightmare, the Dutch equivalent of the ‘Paki,’ and look for restaurants that bill themselves as Indonesian only.

Kantjil & de Tijger is such a restaurant. Whenever you walk past it on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam, it looks warm and cosy and filled with people having a good time, and their take-away has a hip name, Kantjil To Go, and uses an abstract red and white styling to kill any lingering fears about the ‘classic’ Chin. Ind. take-aways. It’s the sort of place you expect the account managers, advertising execs and stock brokers of the city to pop by when too busy to cook for themselves.

Unfortunately when I tried it, the rice was fried dry, and the rendang meat was chewy. Considering that Kantjil To Go only serve 8 or 9 relatively simple dishes, they simply should not even manage to mess these up. Kantjil To Go is therefore an experience I am not going to repeat.

So where do you eat good Indonesian food in Amsterdam? I am afraid I still do not know. I associate good Indonesian food with the meals the mothers of the ‘Indo’ girl-friends of my brothers used to cook, but unfortunately my brothers have long since started dating outside the Emerald Chain.

My rating: 2.0 stars
**

Sushi World: instant karma gonna get you

Sushi World

Don’t walk away, run

Last month around this time I was having a heavy cold that wouldn’t go away, with a fever and a headache and a general under-the-weatherness that made me fall asleep every four hours or so. The past few days I had stayed home and done my own cooking, but by the third day I had run out of ingredients and I either had go to the store, which I did not feel up to, or order out. The latter it was. When I am sick I tend to try and eat healthy, which is hard to do if you order out, so I settled on sushi.

Using an online ordering service, I settled on a menu from Sushi World on the Stadionweg in Amsterdam, which is a two minute walk from my house. I wasn’t entirely sure whether the order had gone through, so I decided to call the restaurant to make sure. An ominous tape message told me that this number had been disconnected, but why not try this mobile number instead. Which I duly did. The person on the other side of the phone confirmed my order, and when I asked him how long it would take, he said fifty minutes.

Fifty minutes! Add that to the ten I had already been waiting and I would have to wait 60 minutes for some bloke to take a couple of makis and nigiris from the cooler, put them in a bag with some soy sauce, wasabe and ginger, and walk all the way up to my house, the whole 300 meter.

I don’t know whether it was the absurdity of this idea or me being high from the fever, but I couldn’t get angry about the long delivery time. All I could do was giggle.

So, 65 minutes after I had ordered my food somebody rings at my door. I answer the house phone, ask who’s there, and when the guy says “delivery” I press the button to open the door. While I am still pressing the button I hear him say “it’s broken.” I press again, and the guy repeats his claim. I have since tested the door opener several times, and it worked every time. So I walked the three floors down, as calmly as possible, and collected my food from a bored teenager.

Of course my adventures with Sushi World wouldn’t be complete if I had actually gotten what I had ordered. Actually, of the four items I had asked for they only got one wrong: instead of a spinach salad I got some kind of bean salad. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I had ordered either. For this delight I paid a little under 18 euro. Just enough to nourish a sick man.

The Dutch word for service is “service.” That’s no coincidence: we just don’t have our own word, because we barely understand the concept, and Amsterdam is particularly bad in this respect. Nevertheless, Sushi World’s service, rather lack thereof, ranks amongst the worst I’ve witnessed in the 9 years I’ve lived here.

I am giving this 1 star instead of 0 or 0.5, simply because the food itself was OK.

So, if this took place a month ago, what’s with the instant karma? Well, a little after I finished the meal I got an e-mail from the online ordering service asking me if I would like to review the restaurant for their website. Oh boy, did I!

My rating: 1.0 stars
*

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

When I first read Herman Heijermans’ “Joeps wonderlijke avonturen” (Jack’s Wondrous Adventures) I was pleasantly surprised for two reasons. The first was that it was by far not as bad as I had expected based on what little I knew from Heijermans, third hand knowledge I had about his play “Op hoop van zegen” (translated in English in 1928 as The Good Hope). You see, in the days I first read Joep’s, a film had been made of the play; and though I had not read the play, nor watched the play or watched the movie, the latter was talked about so much that it was hard not to escape the idea that “Op hoop van zegen” was melodramatic trash.

The second was that for a large part, Joep’s is a sort of Dutch Frankenstein. Although there apparently were some late 19th / early 20th century Dutch authors that had dabbled in the fantastic (I am thinking of Carel van Nievelt), back then I had yet to come across one.

Joep’s tells the story of a man who has lost sight in both eyes. An eccentric professor tells Joep that he can cure him by transplanting animal eyes. Having little to lose, Joep agrees to the procedure. Unfortunately, he manages to damage his new eyes on several occasions and has to get new ones.

Shelley’s story about Frankenstein’s monster is typically pessimistic in tone; it questions what makes us human, and whether this ‘what’ can be transplanted into non-human beings. And when does a human being lose his humanity? Joep’s does something similar; when the protagonist gets a different animal’s eyes, his character changes too.

This character growth is for the long term though, and so the story nicely segues into its second half. Where Joep starts out as a major misanthropist, his regained eyesight also forces him to see not just his surroundings through new eyes, but also himself.

Upon second reading, the book has lost some of its sparkle to me. Authors could be very wordy in those days, and from what I have read by Heijermans, he particularly seemed to like the sound of his own written voice. The “what I’ve read by” includes fragments of Diamantstad, which ends on a very moralistic note, as does Joep’s. Something I could have done without, especially since Heijermans proves himself to be a talented author otherwise. Critics of his time claimed that his lack of quality was the result of his prolific output. In 1908, the year he published Joep’s, he published four other works. Speaking in his defense though, Heijermans has a knack of realistically shielding the protagonist from seeing other characters the way the reader sees them, which can produce nice foreboding, if the author can pull it off.

I had hoped to send this book to Project Gutenberg, but unfortunately my copy is from 1934, whereas PG for copyright reasons only takes works printed before 1923.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***

Strong adventure story

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

review by Branko Collin

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” This must be one of the clunkiest opening sentences I have ever read, and yet it is the opening sentence of one of the most popular books of recent times, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. You feel sorry for all the publishers who said no to the manuscript based on reading the first page and thus to the barely imaginable wealth they passed up on.

Apart from the opening sentences, though, the book is well worth reading. Rowling does what other mega-storytellers such as Spielberg and Hergé do (respectively did) so well: she tells big stories about big subjects, adventures that capture your attention from beginning to end, where true heroes battle it out against enormous odds. Harry Potter the character nicely matches the hero pattern, thank you very much. He comes perilously close to dying several times in the book already. No wishy-washy treatment of the subject here.

A minor niggle I have is that Rowling sometimes dangerously flirts with my suspended disbelief, and it is a testament to the author’s storytelling qualities that I shrugged off my qualms and dived right back into the book.

An example of this: Hermiony Granger is depicted as a rather horrible little girl for most of the book, but then when Harry and his friend Ron save her from a troll, the experience forges a bond between them that makes them instant friends. Rowling is not interested in the process; she shrugs it off in one sentence, and if your eyes happened to skip it you’ll be wondering the rest of the book what the hell just went on: “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve foot mountain troll is one of them.”

Don’t say this eye-skipping doesn’t happen; I only noticed the one-sentence sex scene in Thea Beckman’s children’s book Hasse Simonsdochter during my third reading. In that case however, that did not make much of a difference; here it’s more instrumental.

The movie of the book doesn’t have this problem; it is well clear there from the start that Hermione wants to be friends with Ron and Harry. I must further compliment the makers of the film because it follows the book so closely, yet manages to be a good film in its own right.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2