Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Death Notes (Book Review)

     Ruth Rendell Death Notes (Put On by Cunning) (1981) An elderly man drowns in his ornamental pond, apparently by accident. His fiancĂ©e tells Wexford that he thought his long-lost daughter was a fraud. The long and tangled and international case that flows from this is one of Wexford’s trickiest, but also curiously unengaging. It’s as if Rendell lost interest once she had figured out the plot. Wexford is still the centre of the narrative, but we know him well by now, and there are no new revelations of character. Burden, newly remarried, has mellowed, and also become capable of sharper insight. The secondary characters are nicely sketched, but that’s all they are, sketches. The villain is merely a stick figure on which to hang the crime. A pleasant read, but not Rendell’s best. **

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ronnie Barker's Book of Bathing Beauties (Book Review)

Ronnie Barker: Ronnie Ronnie Barker’s Book of Bathing Beauties (1974) A scrapbook of bathing beauties. Well, what did you expect? The majority date from around 1900 plus or minus a decade or two. They are oddly innocent to 21st century jaded eyes, but the themes embodied and expressed by them have no date: all women are beautiful, most men like to look at women, most women like to be looked at, and people who want to interfere with these elemental pleasures are blue meanies with neither a sense of humour nor an understanding of human nature. The date of the collection is significant: nowadays there would be a lot of fussing about objectification of women, and the book might not be published. Think of it as social documentation, a reminder that what we think of as erotic or naughty or sexy has a lot more to do with fashion than with morals. Anyhow, this is is clearly a "concept book", compiled and published to cash in on Barker's persona as a TV comedian.  If you want to know more about Barker, see his obituary at:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fred has a Friend

Angus arrived some months ago. The first few weeks he had no one to talk to, which made existence rather boring. Now he and Fred observe the humans of the house reading the paper or watching television. Angus and Fred also get to listen to the radio, in fact they are standing on one of the speakers. Whether they have ears in their feet, as some arthropods do, has not been determined. They no doubt converse on the usual subjects, but since I have no idea what these might be for a penguin and an owl, I can't tell you. They never talk in my presence. I can only infer that they discuss matters of interest from subtle changes in expression. Some killjoy has opined that these changes in expression are mere tricks of the light, but I firmly disagree. Both Fred and Angus strike me as eminently intelligent beings, the kind that take great pleasure in commenting on the passing show.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Links: music and theatre blogs

If you like classical music, look at Ken Stephen's blog: 
Ken is a former colleague: he taught at Elliot Lake Secondary School, and retired a few years after I did. He was and is much involved with theatre, and has a blog on that subject, too

The Eighth Champion of Christendom (Book Review)

Edith Pargeter. The Eighth Champion of Christendom (1945) This is a patriotic book, with definite contrasts between the good and noble English and French, and the dastardly Germans. Of course it’s more complicated than that, and Pargeter can write, which makes this a book worth reading for its picture of war from a common soldier’s point of view.
      The plot is somewhat melodramatic, the characters just this side of stereotypical, and the style generally straightforward. Jim Benison, an ordinary bloke from an ordinary English village, signs up, spends a few idyllic weeks in France before the German onslaught, is separated from his unit during battle, makes his way back through German-occupied France to the coast, and almost dies when the boat on which he escapes is strafed. The Czech woman (married to French army captain, who is killed) who helped him is eventually shot by the Germans. You may read the story as a Bildungsroman, in which the naive hero learns not only what makes life worth living, but what stuff he’s made of. Benison has tougher mettle in him than he knew, and also more instinctive goodness. In other words, war brings out his character, as it will for any man or woman.
     Pargeter’s theme is the strength of the human spirit. There’s a lot of death, a good deal of heroism and cowardice, and odd dashes of sentiment. One would think from this description that the book’s a tediously us-vs-them tract, but it keeps you reading. It’s really a chivalric romance. Pargeter, who strikes me as a self-conscious artist, no doubt chose the title as a clue to the genre. Her Cadfael series (written as Ellis Peters) are even more blatantly romances, but it’s her skill at telling them in the naturalistic mode that makes them readable. Pargeter is especially good at creating mood and ambience, relying on familiar cliches that she varies just enough to make us see what she wants us to see. That naturalism also makes them eminently transposable into film and video. This book would make a good TV series, but the time for WW2 nostalgia has passed, I think. Still, I rate this book **½

Monday, May 21, 2012

Link: How to create good passwords

Steve Gibson offers a bunch of interesting stuff on this web page:

My takeaway: Use a line from a favourite poem, and mix in one or more numbers you know well, plus some randomly selected symbols.
Example: Shall I compare thee to a summers day
Transmogrified becomes:

This is not one of my passwords, BTW. ;-) The reason such passwords work is that they are easy for humans to remember, but difficult for other humans to guess.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Picasso at the Lapin Agile (Theatre review)

 Picasso at the Lapin Agile (Steve Martin) Presented by Guelph Little Theatre at Theatre Ontario Festival 2012 in Sault Ste Marie. [D: Gerry Butts. Carlo Adamo, Rob Gray et al]
     A well done production of a funny and wise play. Martin imagines Picasso and Einstein meeting at Le Lapin Agile in 1904. The result is revelation of the regulars’ characters and relationships, and Picasso’s and Einstein’s thoughts about themselves and their work. In other words, there’s talk, a lot of it, all good, all interesting, and delivered as if the character had just thought of it, even when it was clearly a well-worn theme, often articulated before. Talk about art, science, creativity, beauty, love, lust, life, the universe, and everything. There’s no plot, really, just overheard conversations. These do develop several themes, one of which is our inability to know our place in history. It’s a play I want to read.
     I thoroughly enjoyed the performances. We saw an ensemble at work, with every character developed as fully as the script permitted. A character’s lines live in the context of the whole script, a good script gives clues to the back story of every character. Using these clues a good director and actor will delight us with the illusion of a fully rounded character in a half a dozen lines.
     Thinking back on the play, I recall the pleasure of watching it, but none of the lines. Odd, that. How can a play that makes such a strong impression leave so few traces in the memory? The ideas, however, do stick, perhaps because I agree with them and their implications: That art and science are the supreme creations of the human spirit. That creating a new idea or a new picture is a glimpse of truth, perhaps the only glimpses we are capable of. That to recognise the truth of a picture or idea is to participate in its creation. Sidebar: “idea” come from a root that means to “see”: an idea is an image. ***

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ancient Worlds 5: Republic of Virtue (TV Series Review)

 Ancient Worlds 5: Republic of Virtue (Rome) (2010) This episode clarified, corrected, organised, added to, and reminded me of the Roman history I learned in grade 6 or 7 in Austria. It also demonstrated why we should not rely on what we learned in grade school. I had a muddled recall, with events transposed, characters poorly understood or mistaken for each other, politics not grasped. Popular history, as conveyed by Shakespeare or Robert Graves, and as confirmed in middle school history texts, makes no sense if one doesn’t have at least a timeline of the events portrayed. Yet popular history is all that most of us have. No wonder we fall for demagogues that invoke tradition and pop-culture stereotypes of our glorious past.
     This series is worth watching more than once, preferably with a reference book at hand. Marie recently found a book about the great (i.e., history-changing) battles: it helped to have this to look at during or after the episodes.
The previous episode described Alexander’s career, which belongs in the story only because he spread his ideas of Hellenic civilisation into North Africa and northwestern India. But it was clearer than ever that he was a psychopath: his extreme narcissism, his brutality, and his ability to mesmerise his followers are typical of a psychopath. One of the speakers in this episode said he’d concluded that Caesar was a psychopath. I’d go further: I think one has to be a psychopath to want and strive for absolute political and military power. In the short run, psychopathy is a survival trait, which no doubt explains why it has never disappeared from the human gene pool, even though it is in the long run lethal to to the psychopath, and to any civilisation that rewards psychopaths.
     Rating for the series: ***

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Link: Botanicula (game)

Watch the trailer for this game. Neat little movie all by itself. ;-)

Link found on Drawn: http://blog.drawn.ca/, which I also like.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Book Review)

     Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) Kahneman is an economics Nobel winner for his work on the effects of psychology on economic behaviour. That is, he (with his friend Amos Tversky) answered what should have been an obvious question: How do emotions, cognitive biases, etc, affect economic decisions? The answer is of course, "A lot." Essentially, we can no more avoid cognitive illusions than we can avoid visual ones. Knowing that we are seeing a visual illusion does not prevent us from seeing it: we must deliberately use tricks and methods to avoid the effects of misinterpreting what we see. Just so, we suffer from cognitive illusions, and we must learn tricks and methods that enable us to avoid the mistakes that these illusions would otherwise ensure.
     Kahneman describes the experiments he’s done to tease out these effects. At first he was merely interested in how humans actually make decisions, judgments, estimates, choices, and so on; only later did he apply his discoveries to economics. But economics is after all just another area in which we do all these things. What he’s proved is again what should be obvious: that we are anything but the logical, rational creatures that Friedman and his kind assume we are. It will take a generation or so for economics to become what it really is: a social science. Which means that the application of economic theory is more art than science.
     The average person distrusts economists for many reasons. The joke is that if you as three economists for their opinions you’ll get six answers. But a more serious criticism of economics as it is currently practiced is that it focuses almost exclusively on money, and fails to take into account that for most people the purpose of economic activity is not the amassing of money but the creation, distribution, and enjoyment of wealth. That being said, there’s no question that most people also have only the haziest concepts of what money is, what the various indicator numbers mean, and so on. The worst effects of this confusion are the superstition that money is wealth; that the financiers have some kind of esoteric insight into the economy. There is also the touchingly naive belief that accounting captures not just the truth, but the whole truth, about economic activity. Neither of these proposition is true.
     Read Kahneman. The book goes far beyond economics, and has sage advice about how to compensate for the inevitable cognitive biases and illusions. It's also a good read. ****