Smile, You’re on Emoji Camera

Episode 2 of Doctor Who Season 10, “Smile,” featured emoji-faced robots (or not strictly robots), as well as Bill’s first real trip in the Tardis and into (as is proper) the future.

It wasn’t a great story, but it was a good one, and I think it was a great opportunity for character interactions.

Complaints would be that The Doctor was too quick to leap to the “blow it up” solution (shades of Lethbridge-Stewart, maybe); and that the pacing dropped off badly in the last third, with The Doc taking ages to explain things long after it was obvious that he just needed to reprogram the robots.

Still, it was, as I say, great character work — Bill is shaping up to be an excellent companion — and an amazing location. I heard that the main building is in Valencia, and parts of it looked an awful lot like the Eden Project.

I also like that the episodes are continuing one into the next. Will they carry that on through the whole season? Could they? Should they?

Spout Rolla

Back in Balloch in 1981, 82 or so we use to play a Pac-Man clone called Spout Rolla. But there are no references to it on the internet, as far as I can tell. So this is my story about it.

Once upon a time a gang of kids — thinking they were adults, but not really — used to go to the pub, and play a game.

The pub was actually the bar of a place called Duck Bay Marina. I see from that link that they now call it “Duck Bay Hotel.” Either way, it was a couple of miles outside Balloch, on the west bank of Loch Lomond.

Why did we go there, when there were pubs in the town? Two reasons, I suspect. One, some of us had driving licences and the chance to use our parents’ cars, so why not? (I wasn’t yet one of them at that point.) And two, it had video games in the foyer.

That had a dual advantage. We could play the games, and those of us who, let’s say, weren’t quite strictly within the parameters of the legal drinking age, could stay out of sight of the staff.

So: usually two machines, as I recall, plus maybe a fruit machine or two. I first played Frogger there. It was the era when arcade games had started to extend beyond shooting things in space to other tests of skill, like crossing rivers on logs.

Spout Rolla was in a similar vein. But it was a clear derivative of — let’s be honest, rip-off of — Pac-Man. I’m not sure I’d actually played Pac-Man at that point, but I must have been aware of it.

The idea was you guided a paint brush moving around a watery maze, painting the maze behind it. Fish would come out and try to catch your brush. If you painted all the maze you got a new screen (which I think might just have been the same maze in different colours, maybe speeded up a bit).

Instead of the power-pills of Pac-Man, there was one part of the maze that had a paint roller in it. If you approached the roller from the right direction, it went with you and you accelerated just for that section. Then you could turn back and roll over the fish that were following you, for extra points. And that was it.

Simpler times, simpler pleasures, I guess. It never made much sense, but we liked it.

Thing is, everything’s on the net today, right? Well, apparently not. When I googled it today, I found two surprising thing. First, that there are no references to “Spout Rolla game” to be found, with or without quotes round the first two words. Second, that Spout Rolla is a place in Scotland, namely a waterfall in Perth and Kinross. (Weirdly the only Wikipedia page for it is in Swedish.)

Could this possibly be that most unlikely of things (at least before Rockstar Games): a Scottish game?

My son suggested that there would be people my age trying to remember what the game was called. So I tried googling for a description of it: pac-man clone fish paint roller. That search has selected videos, which I didn’t. But I did find a possible explanation.

It seems there was a game called Crush Roller, also known as Make Trax, and the one I remember could be a rebadged version of that. Plus you can play it at that link. As with many games of the time, it’s not as satisfying playing them with arrow keys as it was with a joystick.

So, no, it’s not Scottish, but it could possibly have been rebadged for the Scottish market. Or maybe just that one in Duck Bay, who knows.

The only thing is that, seeing that version, I had forgotten that there being two rollers. I was fairly sure there was only one, but playing it felt familiar, so I guess Crush Roller/Make Trax is it.

Scattered Thoughts on the General Election

An Election Unlike Any Other

This election is going to be completely unique in our lifetime, probably ever. Because people will be torn between voting on the normal things they care about: health, security, homes, welfare, the economy… — and the big thing of our time: Brexit.

There were close to half the electorate who voted to stay in the EU (close to half the turnout, anyway). There’s no reason to suppose that any of those have changed their minds, even if many now talk in terms of acceptance. There are plenty who voted the other way who wish things had gone differently. And the non-voters are an unknown.

If a party — or a coalition — were to clearly stand on a platform of stopping Brexit, or even of promising a second referendum, they would be in a position unlike any party ever. Or so it seems to me.

Unfortunately only the Liberal Democrats seem to be even close to that position.

I Can’t Vote Labour

I can’t in conscience vote for a Labour party that won’t clearly place itself against Brexit. I just can’t. This means I have to leave the party, I guess. Corbyn called today for “A Brexit that works for all.” No, no, no.

I imagine this means I’ll be voting Lib Dem. Possibly Green. I’m not sure where they stand yet. In one sense, of course, it doesn’t matter, as I live in one of the safest Labour seats, but that’s not really the point. I’ll be writing to Diane Abbot to explain my position, but I don’t imagine it will change hers, which is to support Corbyn, even though her constituency is one of the most pro-remain in the country.

I voted for Corbyn as leader twice, but he’s very disappointing now. Though I have to say that his policies on literally everything else would be dramatically better than the Tories.

Why, and Why Now?

Why has Mayhem changed her mind on a snap election, and why now? The obvious thing is the Tory lead in the polls, and to take advantage of Labour chaos. Nothing to with Brexit at all, not directly.

But something I was seeing on Facebook tonight was the idea that they were about to lose their majority, when the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) brings charges for electoral fraud against up to 30 Tory MPs. The prosecutions will still happen, but they won’t affect the position of MPs who get elected this time round (well, unless they get convicted, of course, but I’m guessing the Tories will quietly deselect the ones who are likely to go down).

Effect of Fixed-Term Parliaments Act

My first reaction was, “They can’t: what about the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act?” Turns out that contains a clause that lets the sitting parliament ignore it, as long as they get a two-thirds majority. The irony of that figure was not lost on me, as possibly my most-retweeted tweet shows:

Without Labour voting with the government they wouldn’t get that two-thirds. Corbyn has cheerfully agreed to go along, missing an open goal. First, the opposition should oppose the government, as a general principle. Unless the government is doing the right thing, which is not the case here. More amusingly, if they didn’t get the two-thirds, they would have to go for a vote of no confidence. That is, a Tory MP would have to stand up in the House of Commons and move that “This house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” Even if they could come back from that, Corbyn should have forced it just for the lulz.

Polls Can’t Be Trusted

All is doom and gloom, because the polls look so bleak. Except… if there’s one thing the last few years have taught us, it’s that we can no longer rely on polls.1

On Newsnight tonight Paul Mason says he thinks Labour will win. Gotta admire his confidence, at least.


  1. Or the bookies, and don’t get me back onto that argument about how bookies’ odds can be mapped to percentages of expected voting. []

Everything Rhymes

Doctor Who is back! And at Easter, which still feels like the right time of the year.

Now, as you’ll know, I thought last season was the best season of New Who. I may have been being a tad hyperbolic there… but not entirely.

And now we’ve got “The Pilot,” the first episode of the new season. Introducing Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts. Among other things, I’ve got to say that this would be a great jumping-on point; a fine episode for someone new to the series to start.

The story was good, not great; there were unnecessary Daleks, but if that means they’re going to otherwise be given a rest for this season, I won’t complain; and we’ve got the mysterious vault that The Doctor and Nardole are investigating. I suspect it might be most of the season before we find out what’s going on with that.

Nice references to the past with the pictures of River and Susan; and the people who were fighting the Daleks were Movellans, apparently. I learned this on Jason Snell’s Doctor Who Flashcast podcast. I knew I recognised them, so I thought they must be Thals, and that we were right back at the start of it all. It’s a very long time since I saw either.

So, The Doctor has been lecturing at Bristol University for maybe fifty years? Intriguing. And the mini-trailer that we got as well as the usual “Next time…” is even more so. Both Missy and John Simm (presumably as The Master). The start of The Doctor’s regeneration sequence. We know he’s going to regenerate, but not, presumably till the last episode.

Though on that point, Capaldi said on The Graham Norton Show that he had already filmed his part of the regeneration scene, and the only thing they still had to film was the Christmas special. Not surprisingly he wouldn’t give an explanation of that paradox.

I have a theory, or suggestion for how things might develop. They won’t do this, and they shouldn’t; but bear with me.

In a reversal of the now-common trope of The Doctor’s companion falling for him, The Doctor falls for Bill. She, of course, is not interested. So The Doctor regenerates into a female form.

That would be to put Bill’s sexuality too much to the fore, and of course be wildly unlike The Doctor. But it amused me to consider for a few minutes.

So, Entitled

In a recent article in the Guardian, this appeared:

It is no one’s “destiny” to be a published author. That implies a path laid out for us, an unshakeable future that is planned and unchangeable. And it is entitled.

That is a perfectly normal use of the modern sense of the word “entitled,” and it still slightly bothers me, as it has lo! these several years.

Because what it really means is that the person isn’t actually entitled to the thing in question. The older sense of “entitle” is to have the right to something — literally to have the title.

The modern meaning — the “He’s so entitled” formulation — really means “He’s behaving as if he were entitled to…”

Dictionary.com gives the definition of entitle as:

to give (a person or thing) a title, right, or claim to something; furnish with grounds for laying claim

Merriam-Webster is similar;

1: to give a title to : designate
2: to furnish with proper grounds for seeking or claiming something this ticket entitles the bearer to free admission

And neither has the modern meaning at all.

But I’m slightly horrified to find that the built-in dictionary in MacOS only has the modern meaning:

adjective
believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment: kids who feel so entitled and think the world will revolve around them

It’s interesting, though, that its definition of entitle is similar to the two web-based ones. And Cambridge has both. It seems the difference is whether you use the verb or the adjective. The latter is the only one with the modern meaning.

Language changes, and that’s fine. But I wish that people who use it in the modern fashion understood what it is they’re saying, and what it can sound like they’re saying. I suspect they mostly don’t.

They’re behaving like they’re entitled to make words mean whatever they want.

BSFA Awards 2016 by Various (Books 2017, 3)

Interrupting my Alan Moore reading to check on the short-fiction nominees for the BSFA Awards, reprinted as ever in an A4 booklet.

Good stuff, of course, but maybe not as good as last year (though I realised that I hadn’t read all of last year’s). Let’s go through them one by one.

Warning: spoilers follow.

“The End of Hope Street,” by Malcolm Devlin

This is a strange story, set in the present day, about houses becoming “unliveable.” This phenomenon is completely unexplained, but it is disastrous, and can even be fatal. And it accepted fatalistically by the large, and largely undifferentiated, cast of characters.

“Liberty Bird,” by `Jayne Fenn

The favoured son of a noble clan races the family yacht. In spaaaaaace. But he has a shameful secret that should be neither in highly advanced future society. On the other hand, a highly advanced future society shouldn’t have a nobility. I guess societies can go back as well as forward.

“Taking Flight,” by Una McCormack

Another rich person mooches around with no real aim in life, this time in a society that has genetically engineered slaves.

“Presence,” by Helen Oyeyemi

This is the most disjointed, disconnected of the stories. A heterosexual married couple avoid communicating with each other because she’s convinced he’s about to leave her. Until they do, and it turns out instead that he wants to postpone their holiday so they can try out some sort of therapy for grieving people that he has developed. They do, and things get strange. There’s potential here, but all the initial setup about them not communicating is just ignored after they get to the point, so it could have mostly been left out. It really feels like it wants to be two or more different stories.

“The Apologists,” by Tade Thompson

A super-advanced alien race have accidentally killed all by five people of the human race. The five are put to work helping the aliens reconstruct a simulacrum of Earth, while a daily apology is blasted at them out of a sound system (hence the title). They seem surprisingly untraumatised by this situation.

“The Arrival of Missives” (Extract), by Aliya Whiteley

Not sure why this is an extract. Probably the original work is too long to fit in the booklet. A during the First World War a sixteen-year-old girl is in love with her teacher. She decides she had to let him know. The extract ends just when something out of the ordinary is revealed.

Thoughts and Conclusions

Well, I haven’t made them sound very good, have I? I did actually enjoy reading them all, but reduced to capsule summaries, they aren’t going to win any awards. Oh, wait…

I’ve no idea which one I’ll vote for.

Margaret Atwood’s Uncanny Ancestor

This is a horrific quote from The New Yorker’s interview with Margaret Atwood:

Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. ‘The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,’ Atwood said recently. ‘But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.’ Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary.

But I can’t help thinking, if there’s anything to the story, wouldn’t they have taken her survival as further evidence of her witchy nature, and made sure they killed her next time? As it is, it sounds like she lived on.

You Choose

Funny where thoughts of current affairs take you.

All the fawning (and, to be fair, condemnatory and neutral) coverage of Trump’s bombardment of a Syrian air base in response to Assad’s gas attack have stated the quantity and type of munition that was used: “59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles.”

Those of us who lived under the shadow of the mushroom cloud in the 80s will remember that missile. It was the one stationed at Greenham Common, which of course was the subject of much protest, mainly from the Women’s Peace Camp.

The Greenham camp was primarily part of the anti-nuclear movement, as the missiles stationed there carried nuclear warheads. Obviously the ones the US launched a couple of nights ago didn’t, but what the whole thing did was remind me of a song from that time: “Tomahawk Cruise,” by TV Smith’s Explorers.

I recall hearing that song in my Dad’s car1 back when it came out. It’s possible that I only heard it that one time, but it has stuck in my mind all these years, just waiting to be shaken loose.

On listening to it on Apple Music I’m pleased to find the chorus is almost exactly as I remembered. The rest of the lyrics are more oblique than I’d have expected. It was an anti-nuclear song, but less obviously than I’d have thought.

It’s very 80s, as you might expect (it was released in 1980), but there is, of course, nothing wrong with that. Inevitably it’s to be found on YouTube and Spotify.

Not sure whether this counts as nostalgia, in terms of my post the other day, but I don’t really care. What definitely isn’t, though, is the album I’m listening to as I type: The Chiswick Story by Various Artists2 (most of whom I haven’t heard) is a potted history of the label. Lots of good stuff on there.


  1. Bit weird, as he never listened to Radio 1, and there’s no way it would’ve been on Radio 2. I guess maybe I was waiting in the car while my parents shopped. []
  2. It was suggested because that’s the label “Tomahawk Cruise” was on. []

Swim, Test, Shop, Film, Sleep

Yesterday I kind of wilfully skipped a day. At some point in the evening I realised I wasn’t going to write a post, so I just said, “Fine: that’s allowed.”

Today I started by going for a swim. After my new regime of exercise last summer, I got out of the habit once I started a new contract. So it was good to get back to it. (Which is not to say I haven’t swum or gone to the gym in all that time, but it’s been a few weeks at the moment.)

After that I took a HackerRank test for a new job opportunity. It’s a site that does programming tests. This one was, I suspect, a disaster. I hate doing that kind of thing: you’ve got a timer running, and the problem you’re trying to solve is unlike anything you’d have to do professionally… Anyway, suffice to say, it didn’t go terribly well.

This evening was all about falling asleep in front of the telly. We tried to watch 20,000 Days On Earth, the film about Nick Cave from a few years back. I got it a few Christmases or birthdays ago, but hadn’t got round to watching it till now. I enjoyed what I saw of it, but there was definite falling asleep on the sofa and missing chunks. Oh well, it’s a DVD: we can always go back.

Oh yes: there was also a trip to Westfield, the time-void where hours go to die.

Looking Back and Forward

My recent and forthcoming live music experiences all involve bands of my youth that have reformed and are touring their old material.1 Wallowing in nostalgia, some might call it.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with bands getting back together. It can be problematic if you are the band that tours as the Dead Kennedys, of course. There’s a whole saga there that I won’t go into, but if Jello Biafra’s not involved, and in fact is actively against it, then it’s not the Dead Kennedys.

Indeed, in his song “Buy My Snake Oil” Jello suggested that a way for old punks to make money off their history would be to

Give in
Ride the punk nostalgia wave
For all it’s worth
Recycle the name of my old band
For a big reunion tour
Sing all those hits from the “good ol’ days”
‘Bout how bad the good ol’ days were

Which is a fair criticism of old bands doing their thing in modern days, I guess. But I see two arguments to counter it, from a gig-goer’s point of view.

Unfinished

The first was made by my friend Andrew, around the time that the Sex Pistols reformed and toured. This would have been in 1996.

“I missed them first time round,” he said when I challenged him about it. “This is unfinished business for me.”

Which was a good point, and kind of made me regret playing the purist and not going.

In 1993 I had investigated going to see the reunited Velvet Underground. But I really didn’t want to see them at an all-seated venue. Partly because I’d had a bad experience seeing Lou Reed a year or so before (despite having had a very good experience with him a year or two before that).

I recall that I phoned the venue — Earl’s Court, I think — and found that it did have some standing room. But those tickets were sold out. So I didn’t go. Regretted that, too. So I’m talking the chance to see bands like the Rezillos, or The Beat and The Selecter, that I missed first time around.

OK, But What is it Really?

The second point about the “punk nostalgia wave” (or any similar accusation of nostalgia) is: that is not what it is.

Because here’s the thing: it isn’t nostalgia if you’re carrying on with something that was always there.

Nostalgia (noun): a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past

according to Cambridge.

But this isn’t that. Because while those bands’ heydays might have been in the past, their music has remained available and frequently-played. You can’t be nostalgic for an album you listened to last week, or last night.

And a live performance always happens in the present.

This train of thought was kicked off for me a couple of years back when there was an article in the Guardian, prior to The Force Awakens coming out. I can’t find it now,2 but it claimed that “nostalgia” was part of the cause of the excitement for the new film.

And I thought, no. Well, maybe for some people. But for many of us, if not most of us, Star Wars never went away. We’ve watched it, talked about it, read theories about it, and so on. It has been part of our lives.

Or take Doctor Who. Sure, there were the wilderness years before 2005, but The Doctor never really went away. The Tardis and Daleks are burned into Britain’s cultural memory, and I think they always will be.

Now if I were to see an episode of, say, Marine Boy: that would be nostalgic. I remember it fondly from my childhood, and have never seen it since. I’ve never even seen it in colour, because those were the days of black & white televisions.3

But I can’t be nostalgic for punk bands or Star Wars or Doctor Who, because they never went away. The sense of warmth and shared experience they bring: that’s not nostalgia, it’s something else. Familiarity, at worst. Or better: community.


  1. Or a mixture of old and new, as with The Rezillos. []
  2. This is why you should always save links, folks. []
  3. God, I really come from another time, don’t I? []