April 14th, 2004

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Belated weekend round-up

The journey up to my parents in the Lakes was rather tiresome, with roadworks on the M40/M42 and traffic jams at *every* junction on the M6 until about the M62.

The rest of the weekend was more pleasant. Weather so-so; we visited Grange-over-Sands and also took a walk up the hill that can be seen from my parents' house. Their Dell PC is still rather shiny and new, and they seem to like it, even though they are using AOL for internet access.

TV being patchy over the weekend, I had the opportunity to see Gosford Park, which I had missed for one reason or another when it came out, and had bought the video for my father for his birthday. Not a bad film, but not exactly what I had expected either. A cast of luvvies acquit themselves acceptably - Stephen Fry was particularly good as the bumbling policeman (related to General Melchett, surely). As a whole the plot was rather thin, with the whodunnit element being somewhat subservient to the depiction of the English class system - more Upstairs, Downstairs than Murder on the Orient Express.

Speaking of which, we decided to skip the Peter Ustinov rendition of Death on the Nile, and went straight for the David Suchet version on Monday. I think Suchet has the edge over Ustinov; probably not intrinsically, but the films do have a rather middling quality. In this case James Fox excellently matched the David Niven character; whilst the other characters were generally better portrayed in the Suchet version, I have to admit preferring Angela Lansbury in the Ustinov version as the drunken authoress (in which she refers to the detective as 'Monsieur Porrage' throughout) - overacting at its best. I don't know which is more faithful to the book.

We also had the opportunity to see The Tailor of Panama which I do like, even though it is a pastiche of Our Man in Havana. I forget whether the British Ambassador had a name, but as portrayed by John Fortune, we might as well call him Sir George Parr.
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A Brief History of Hawking

Yesterday's BBC2 drama Hawking was far better than I had expected. I had read that Hawking's verdict of Peter Moffatt's original script was that there wasn't enough science in it, and maybe the correction tipped the balance in favour for me. The duplexing between theory (Hawking/Penrose) and observation (Penzias/Wilson) worked very well, though whether it was clear to anyone who didn't know the basic story is another matter. Hawking's diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease was kept in proportion: an important part of the story, but not the only part.

The problem with Hawking is that his physical condition makes it very difficult for most people to make objective judgements about the quality of his work - in essence, the Jacqueline du Pre problem (was she the greatest cellist ever? or was part of her fame due to her battle with Multiple Sclerosis?). The BBC4 documentary following the programme attempted to find a balance, with some success. In particular, A Brief History of Time came in for some criticism. It's fair to point out that probably 50% of the book constitutes a Hawking manifesto for the universe rather than generally accepted theory, which isn't made as clear as it might be. It is also true that it isn't an easy read, compared to other "popular" authors such as Paul Davies, John Gribbin, or Martin Rees. On the other hand, Hawking does go further than most popular authors, and tries to express very complex ideas in his book in a non-patronising way. Can anyone offer a better explanation of imaginary time?