Thursday, May 29, 2014

Wendy Northcutt. Darwin Awards II

     Wendy Northcutt. Darwin Awards II (2001) A re-read. If you have average common sense, you will not be able to imagine the ways in which people have caused their own demise. This compilation helps you understand how stupid some people are. Or maybe not: It’s impossible to imagine being smarter or dumber than you are. BTW, the vast majority of these voluntary self-removals from the gene pool are men. There are more men than women at the bottom as well as at the top. The website is still active. Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird  is an even richer compilation of stupidity. **½

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Dale Wilson. More Tracks of the Black Bear (2013)

     Dale Wilson. More Tracks of the Black Bear (2013) Dale’s father was the engineer on site when the docks at Michipicoten Harbour were rebuilt, and became Chief Engineer. This connection may explain Wilson’s fascination with the Algoma Central and Hudson’s Bay Railway. But maybe not. The ACR has a lot of fans with no family connection. It’s a railway that survived against the odds, and still (as a part of CN) provides useful services.
     Fans will be pleased with this book, another collection of photographs, memoirs and miscellaneous documents. Wilson has arranged them in chronological order, with explanatory notes here and there. The result is a pleasant anecdotal history of the line. Readers interested in Algoma and Sault Ste Marie will also find this book a good read.
     I like these scrapbook-like histories. They contain a good deal of primary material, the kind that professional historians arrange into plausible narratives of cause, effect, and influence. The scrapbook leaves the task of interpretation to us, engaging us in the oddments of actual life. The photographs are well reproduced, but some documents have been damaged by time, so their reproduction is not as clear as we might wish. *** for the fan, **½ for the casual reader. Disclosure: Dale used one of my photos.

Fight the Mammals!

Occasionally, I check in to Boing Boing. I found this charming poster urging dinosaurs to defend themselves against the mammals. Logical, when you think about it in certain way.



A bird's song choked in my throat, I said.
And I saw a tin-whistling billy-goat
when the moon bloomed red as a rose.
And a grey church
with graves and black yews around
that's dead still, except for the sound
of the billy-goat's tune
dancing like laughter in empty rooms.
There was a blue sky, with chanting white clouds,
and a bottomless, sun-high sky that sowed shrouds
on a dead-still earth.
And the whistling shriek from the north-wind's throat
was the cornflower laugh of the billy-goat
dancing in the molten-gold pools of the ancient years
when the moon bloomed red as a rose.

[©1962; publ. in March 62, University of Alberta]



I remember the nets of my childhood
heaving in the fluid air
they were mere play of light and shade
and did not seem strong enough to catch a fish.
They were hung on wooden racks to dry
those nets made white by water and the sun
by men that looked as delicate and tough
as the figures they carved in fragrant larchwood
that had a sheen in the winter lamplight
like shining nets that dried on larchwood sticks.
Marys they carved and Josephs
with robes that moved in the uncertain flame
and flowed like the nets.
And the Christchild was round with an old man's face
on a heaping crib
and the sheep wore woolly webs
from which wise faces peered.
Balthazar's crown was gold net on a braid
the box of myrrh had weaving incised lines.
And the gold coins jingled in a knotted bag.

But I did not see that, then, I saw
only the bright reds and blues, and the golden
halo on the Child, and the innocent white sheep,
and the green shutters on the windows.

My father still carves figures of larchwood,
but he does not paint them
and they have a sheen like white nets drying in the sun.

[copyright 1963; publ. in March 63, University of Alberta]

Friday, May 23, 2014

Money and Ayn Rand

      Ayn Rand and her followers worship money. But on money, she is so mistaken that she's not even wrong. From the Ayn Rand lexicon (
     Money is the tool of men who have reached a high level of productivity and a long-range control over their lives. Money is not merely a tool of exchange: much more importantly, it is a tool of saving, which permits delayed consumption and buys time for future production. To fulfill this requirement, money has to be some material commodity which is imperishable, rare, homogeneous, easily stored, not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand among those you trade with. This leads you to the decision to use gold as money. Gold money is a tangible value in itself and a token of wealth actually produced. When you accept a gold coin in payment for your goods, you actually deliver the goods to the buyer; the transaction is as safe as simple barter. When you store your savings in the form of gold coins, they represent the goods which you have actually produced and which have gone to buy time for other producers, who will keep the productive process going, so that you’ll be able to trade your coins for goods any time you wish.
     This is of course nonsense. The only reason money can “buy time” is that there is surplus productive capacity. Money cannot create that surplus capacity, nor is it needed to ensure that it will be used. Humans have invented many ways of doing this without money. What you need is a technology that multiplies the effect of human work, and a system of customs (usually in the form of mutual obligations) that will ensure the surplus will be stored and traded. Fact is, even today much trade is done without money. The basic rule is "mutual obligation". Money is the abstraction of the IOU, which was is itself a record of a specific obligation.. It's a store of mutual obligation. not of wealth.
     And like practically everybody, Rand misquotes St. Paul’s comment on money:
So you think that money is the root of all evil? . . . Have you ever asked what is the root of money?
     In fact, St. Paul wrote, The love of money is the root of all evil. Look it up!
     Money is a way of making trade with strangers possible, and thereby making strangers mutually dependent. Very useful invention, IOW. E.g., just try to calculate how many people have been involved in producing a ball point pen and making it available to you. A stranger is someone to whom you owe nothing, and vice versa. This makes interaction between strangers dangerous. Hence, all societies have had to invent ways of making at least temporary mutual obligation possible. Think of "guest right", for example. So, why do all those strangers work to produce and deliver a cheap pen to you? Because money makes it not only possible to trade with people you will never meet, it makes it easy to do so.
     Nowadays, money trades are used to measure economic activity, which produces such incomplete, gappy data that it causes pernicious delusions. Even in our highly monetised economy, at least 1/3rd of economic exchange does not involve money. In pre-money times, that was 100%.
     Basic rule about money: money and wealth flow in opposite directions.
     I think everybody needs a good introductory survey course in anthropology. It might cure many people of the notion that our economic arrangements are somehow inevitable (or, gaak!, god given). For over 95% of our existence as a culture-creating species, we humans have had no money. Yet humans managed to produce the goods and provide the services they needed. It’s true that money, because it accelerated trade, and more importantly enabled trade with strangers, accelerated the creation of wealth. But trade, and its beneficial effects on wealth creation and cultural exchange, existed long before money.
     2013-03-11 & 2014-05-23

Processed Food

      A few years ago, the CBC ran a program on school lunches. It pointed out that "healthy" choices are difficult because standards were set in the 1940s when the US Army found that it had to reject a large percentage of recruits for being underweight or otherwise malnourished. Modern processed food is too good, it seems, and is making our children obese. That reminded me of the days when a large part of a family's time was spent "putting up" the preserves for the winter. Fruit was dried, or made into compotes, jams, and jellies. Vegetables were pickled or boiled nearly to death and and put into sealers. As these cooled, the air inside contracted and pulled the lids down into an airtight seal.
     One of the major events at Rutzenmoos was the making of sugar syrup and molasses. Mum, Tante Maria, and Frau Schomburg (the pastor’s wife) chopped and sliced sugar beets, then cooked them in the big washing kettle, a copper bowl inset into a purpose built stove, which was normally used to boil the washing in a soap and lye solution as part of the weekly washday rituals. It was of course perfectly sterile. The syrup was a golden colour, the molasses were a nice sticky dark brown. I don’t know whether the syrup was further processed to make sugar, I paid little attention to it. I  concentrated on the molasses, whose taste I can still sense in my oral memory. Wonderful stuff!
     Without processed food, we would have starved.  People nowadays have no idea how important processed food is for survival, and even less how much time was spent in processing it. The food industry made processed food cheap and plentiful. And government made it wholesome: as recently as the 1940s and 50s, governments had to pass regulations to prevent food adulteration, or to enforce safer (and more expensive) processing methods.
     In fact, it was our ancestors' discovery of how to store and process food that led to our eventual dominance of the ecosystem. Until people knew how to grow grains and process other food, they could not live in temperate climates where fresh food is seasonal. True, some people learned how to use technology to live in very inhospitable climate, the Inuit for example; but they survive because, as luck would have it, their prey contains vitamins without which they would die. That, not technology, is what enables the Inuit to live in the Arctic.
     The present day reaction against processed food comes largely from people who have no personal memories of how important processed food is for us. The fact that we can get fresh fruits and vegetables year-round has also helped distract people from this insight.
     There’s another fact, which perhaps should be better known: Human digestive systems do not do a very good job of digesting fresh foods. Cooking is a kind of pre-digestion. It breaks down cell walls in fruits and vegetables, and degrades the proteins in meats, making both more nutritious for us. Without cooking, we would get a good deal less value from the food we eat. True, cooking also destroys some vitamins, but usually there’s more left over than we would get from the uncooked food. The same is true of calories in some cases. Many starchy foods are essentially indigestible until they are cooked.
     Processed food has achieved a bad rep. I think it’s undeserved. In fact, it’s because our food is generally so wholesome and nourishing that the fearful among us fasten on any evidence that suggests food is not as good as it might be,  however trivial the failure is in the larger scheme of things.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Columbo: Publish or Perish (1974)

     Columbo: Publish or Perish (1974) [D: Robert Quine. Peter Falk, Jack Cassidy et al.] Publisher Riley Greenleaf arranges the murder of Allan Mallory, his best selling author, in order to prevent his defection to a rival house, staging an alibi of obnoxious drunkenness for the time of the murder, so that he will appear to be framed. Columbo must break the alibi and discover the link between Greenleaf and hit man Eddie Kane. A split screen is used to show the murder and the alibi at the same time. The acting is barely a cut above wooden, and even Falk seems to sleepwalk through his part. Mickey Spillane (in real life a hard-boiled pulp fiction writer) plays Mallory, and demonstrates that he can’t act. A below average entry in the series, barely complicated enough to fill the 73 minute screen time. *½

Schrödinger’s cat

     Schrödinger’s cat is often used to illustrate the absurdity of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger devised the thought experiment to highlight the paradox implicit in the fact of entanglement. We are told that the cat is neither alive or dead (or alternatively, that is both alive and dead) until we open the lid of the box, at which point the wave function describing the cat’s state is said to collapse into one or the other state.
     We are told that opening the box is an “observation”, and that it is the act of observation that causes the wave function to collapse. Opening the box kills the cat, or saves its life. Schrödinger devised this absurd thought experiment in order to clarify the paradoxes that appear to arise from entanglement.
     I understand entanglement as follows: two particles interact. They leave each other’s vicinity. The mathematics of quantum mechanics imply that until one of the particles is “observed” or “measured”, we cannot know which particle is in which state. However, when one of the articles is observed to have State S, the other will be in the complementary state S’. The usual interpretation is that until the measurement is done, the particles are in both states, which are said to be superposed on each other. The measurement forces the “collapse” of the indefinite state of the measured particle into one of the two possible states, and somehow this is commu8nicated to the other particle, which collapses into the other state.
      Experiments have been done that show precisely this state of affairs. The question is whether the interpretation of the model is correct: Are the two particles actually in indefinite states until they are measured? Or is it merely the case that we cannot know which particle is in which state until we measure one of them? Note that measurement is an interaction. So the more accurate question is, Are particles that have interacted with each other in some indefinite state until their next interaction? Or is it the case that we cannot know anything about the state of either particle unless and until we arrange some interaction that results in effects large enough that we can both observe those effects and infer the state(s) that caused them?
     I think that QM is ultimately about the limits of knowledge, about what we can and cannot know about particles. Until we measure the particles, we can’t know what the result will be. More importantly, according to Heisenberg’s principle, the act of measuring the particles changes their states. However, measurement or observation is not a privileged interaction. It’s just the one of many possible interactions, and it will be followed by another one, and then another one, and so on.
     As I understand it, the Copenhagen interpretation argues that the two particles are in superposed states until they are measured, at which point one of two possible states becomes real in some sense, and thus constrains the next interaction. The many-worlds interpretation argues that whenever the wave function collapses, both possible outcomes become real and ontologically separated from each other. I think both interpretations miss a fundamental point: QM, like any other theory, is a model. A model explains the data that have been observed. It can’t explain what isn’t part of the model. Interpreting QM ontologically or metaphysically is absurd.
     Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, as the case may, before we open the box. Our observation doesn’t cause cat to live or die: the radioactive atom that did or did not decay before we opened the box caused that. Suppose the wind blows open the lid. Then the wind is the “observer”, and either the cat’s corpse will stay in the box, or else the living cat will jump out and go on its way.
     In short: Human “observation” is not a privileged interaction.           
    WEK 2013-11-18/2014-05-22
Update: New Scientist for 07 May 2014 has an article that expresses similar ideas.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Audrey Peterson. Elegy in a Country Graveyard (1990)

     Audrey Peterson. Elegy in a Country Graveyard (1990) Inoffensive fluff, involving a inheritance, a complicated backstory including an orphan musician genius and his governess, a baby-napping, an impostor, and a couple or three other nasties. The characters are pure cardboard, even the narrator barely suffices to carry the plot. And the plot, such as it is, is the only aspect with sufficient interest to keep you reading, albeit mildly bored. The crucial plot point, that a woman is not who she claims to be, is obvious almost as soon as she shows up, the rest is red herrings of an overbright hue, and all in all there isn’t much ‘teccing going on, despite the promise of “An Andrew Quentin and Jane Infield Mystery” on the cover. In other words, it’s a Harlequin Romance with pretensions to criminology, and as such is harmless enough fun. *½

Email encryption (link)

Came across this link to an email encryption system. Sounds good, but I think that the spooks don't need to know what's in the email. If you are a "person of interest", it's enough to know that you are using this service. And the path of the mail can be traced whether it's encrypted or not.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Amir D. Aczel. Why Science Does Not Disprove God (2014)

     Amir D. Aczel. Why Science Does Not Disprove God (2014) Aczel was annoyed by Dawkins “scientific atheism”, and decided to show that Dawkins failed to disprove the existence of God.
     This is a depressing book. The nonsense starts with the title, which is meaningless. You might as well say that science can’t disprove kittens. Of course not. Kittens just are; it’s what you want to say about kittens that can be proven. Or not, depending on what kind of thing you say.
     What Aczel is really trying to prove is that science cannot disprove that God exists. And that’s Aczel’s problem. If “God exists” is the same kind of claim as “Kittens exist”, then we want to know how he knows that. You can point to kittens, and say, “See, that’s what I mean by kittens”, and then you can spend some time agreeing or disagreeing that they’re kinda cute and all.
     But you can’t point to God. Any evidence for God is evidence if and only if you start with the assumption that God exists. In other words, “God exists” is an axiom. Aczel uses all the standard arguments to prove that God exists, but there is so much fuzzy thinking and slip-sliding from one definition or concept to another that it’s never quite clear what Aczel thinks he’s proving or disproving. His central point, that Science can’t disprove the existence of God is valid enough. But he doesn’t actually prove that claim, because he never states clearly what he means by “God exists”. Or what he means by “God”. He agrees that a “literal personal God”, such as the one in the Bible, doesn’t exist, but he doesn’t understand why that’s a valid theological stance. His theology is a muddled mess, and he shifts his grounds for disagreement with Dawkins from one chapter to the next, and often from one paragraph to the next. Worst of all, he doesn’t seem to realise that you can’t prove the existence of God either.
     He starts off by showing that much of the Bible narrative is corroborated by archeology. True. In fact it would be odd if that weren’t so, since all old historical texts are corroborated by archeology. But archeology also shows that much of the biblical narrative is at least exaggerated, and at worst simply wrong. In any case, the historicity of the Bible (or any other sacred text) proves nothing one way or the other about the existence of God.
     He spends a good deal of time arguing that Einstein, who explicitly rejected a personal god, really was religious. He makes the same claim about other scientists, and seems to believe that this supports the notion that a God of some kind exists. But the number of people who believe a proposition has nothing to do with its truth. The fact that other people agree with you doesn’t mean you’re right. And of course it's possible to be religious without holding a belief in a god.
     Much of the rest of the book is a mishmash of two arguments, the argument of the gaps, and the argument from ignorance. For example, he claims that “we” can’t account for the evolution of consciousness, art, symbolic languages, morality, and so on, so Something or Someone must have made it happen. We are different from all other animals. He doesn’t actually say so, but it seems he believes we humans have souls and other animals don’t.
     He accepts the Big Bang, but makes an elementary error: there must have been something before the Big Bang, he says. He even quotes St Augustine on the question, and misunderstands him utterly. Augustine’s point was that it’s meaningless to ask what there was “before” there was time. Aczel rejects the multiverse because the empirical implications appear to be untestable; but then he goes on to talk about those other universes as if they existed in our universe. I could go on, with his take on the improbability argument against the beginning of life; the inconceivability argument against the multiverse and string theory; and so on.
     Even at the end, Aczel still doesn’t explain what he means by “God”, even less what “God exists” might mean. He ends up with a vague pantheism, and pleads the inability of humans to understand everything about the universe as good grounds for accepting the “God hypothesis”. That phrase is itself telling. What Aczel really wants is scientific proof that God exists. He can’t have it, and if he did, he’d have to accept that God is just another phenomenon that can be studied scientifically. Is that really what he wants? I don’t know. He doesn’t seem to be aware that any proof of God’s existence makes that existence contingent. “God exists” would be a theorem, derived from some deeper axioms. What would these be? Or the proof is circular, such as the argument from design, which in effect says that design implies a designer, and therefore a designer implies a design.
     We humans have a strong urge to find or construct or impose meaning on our existence. This is I think a side effect of our ability to make sense of the world well enough that we can plan ahead and control our environment. We tell stories, because stories show cause and effect, and so both teach and comfort us. They teach us to devise actions that will make the story happen as we wish. And they comfort because they assure us that our lives have purpose. As in a story everything happens for a reason, so also in our lives. That’s what we want to believe, and most of us believe that without question.
     Does “God” exist? Tell me what you think “God” is, and I’ll tell you whether I think that god exists.
     This book will reinforce muddled thinking around the question and proves nothing one way or the other. Committed atheists will simple see just another badly reasoned attempt to refute their position. Muddled theists will take comfort that “science” can’t disprove their beliefs. *

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Jericho: The Hollow Men (2005)

      The Hollow Men (2005) [D:Tom Shankland. Robert Lindsay, David Troughton et al] A courting couple dies by knife wounds, recalling a series of unsolved similar murders of 30 years earlier. A second murder puts pressure on Jericho and his team.  Personal problems, office politics, and family conflicts make their teamwork less effective than usual, but Det. Sgt. Harvey’s persistence in interviewing “John Bull”, a nutcase serial confessor, leads to the insight that breaks the case: “The murderer is someone like me”, says John Bull; he’s a traumatised WW1 vet. Det. Constable Caldicott almost becomes the murderer’s 6th victim, but Jericho and Harvey arrive soon enough to prevent that, and get Caldicott to his wedding on time. Another satisfyingly complex and nuanced episode. Jericho’s interrupted romance with Juliette, a French prostitute, begins again, so there’s hope this wounded warrior will find some healing. **½

Friday, May 16, 2014

Columbo: Double Exposure (1973)

      Columbo: Double Exposure (1973) [D: Richard Quine. Peter Falk, Robert Culp, et. Al] A motivational researcher, Dr Keppel, murders Norris, one of his clients, who’s about to fire him. He uses a subliminal cue, a single frame spliced into the draft  promotional movie, plus elevated heating, to trigger thirst, and runs a cassette tape, which enables him to shoot the victim at the drinking fountain while supposedly reading the script. He’s over-confident, of course, commits a second murder, and finally is trapped by Columbo’s use of subliminal stimuli.
      The story is nicely conceived puzzle, with enough character development to make us suspend disbelief of its more far-fetched notions, such as the precision of subliminal stimuli. The Columbo series enjoyed a deserved success, in large part because of Falk’s conception of the character. Columbo pretends to be puzzled, confused, and not very bright, which disarms the perpetrators. The narrative focus is on how Columbo solves the puzzle. The scripts are always well done, with good parts for the secondary characters, straightforward visual story telling, but occasionally intrusive music signalling some evil deed about to transpire.
     Like US movies generally, there is a surprisingly naive sense of evil. Evil spreads its effects like a stain and causes grief well beyond its immediate victims, but there’s almost zero awareness of that here. The victim’s wife is set up for a poor alibi, Dr Keppel’s projectionist is too willing to profit from Keppel’s crime, Norris’s business colleagues seem unaffected by his absence. Minor additions to the script or the acting would have added the hints of depth and wider context that would make this an outstanding series. As it is, it’s very good, and forty years later it still wears well. **½

Monday, May 12, 2014


     Some thoughts prompted by an article in New Scientist (
     Apparently one of the unsolved problems in the Standard Model of physics is time. Time is not privileged: the arrow of time could run either way. The only obstacle to running time backwards appears to be probability, or the 2nd law of thermodynamics. It’s more or less improbable for a system to decrease its entropy; and local systems can decrease entropy only with the addition of energy, which is scavenged from outside the system and therefore increases entropy elsewhere. The overall entropy of the Universe is increasing: and that’s why the arrow of time runs forward.
     But time does not “emerge” from the fundamental laws of nature as now understood. Worse, there are paradoxes and inconsistencies.
     In relativity, time is tangled with space, and worse, there are no fixed, absolute times for events: the times, and hence the sequence of events, depends on who is observing what. That puts paid to the arrow of time in a thoroughgoing way. It’s true that for any given observer entropy increases in the expected direction. But the observed sequence of events will be different for two observers moving relative to each other. That implies that one observer will place an event in the past, and another in the future. And that causes problems.
     In quantum physics (if I get this right), the future is uncertain. Until there is an interaction, certain states of a particle are indeterminate. The technical term for this is superposition; and when the interaction that determines the state of the particle occurs, the wave function that describes it is said to collapse. But the wave function may also collapse randomly, with no apparent interaction. There is only a series of state changes, and it’s this series that determines the sequence of what we observe as events. This means that the future is fundamentally indeterminate. Worse, entanglement seems to delay events, such as acquiring spin. Couple this with relativity, and we get a paradox: the acquisition of spin will be determined from one point of view, and undetermined from another.
     The usual notion of time is that the past is fixed because it’s already happened, and the future is undetermined because it hasn’t happened yet. Both relativity and quantum physics undermine this notion. In both, time is a derived property. We experience time as a sequence of events, that is, a series of changes. In fact, we measure the passing of time by observing a series of events, such as the oscillations of a pendulum, or the burning of candle, or the vibrations of a quartz crystal.
     So what’s to be done to rescue the notion of time? Some physicists are working on tweaking the mathematics of the Standard Model in various ways so that time is an absolute, independent property of the Universe. As an outsider with only a metaphorical grasp of the Standard Model, I notice two things: First, in relativity, the observed difference in a sequence of events occurs only when those events are independent of each other. But when events are a causal sequence, such as the oscillations of a pendulum, it’s the intervals between events that varies for different observers, not the actual sequence. Second, in quantum physics, I notice a fixed sequence of events. Entangled particles may be in a superposed position until they interact with some other particle (such as the one placed in the path of one of them by the observer). Then their wave function collapses. But that wave function collapse always follows that interaction, it never precedes it. In other words, wave function collapse implies a temporal sequence, no matter how far apart. I also note that the random interactions that all particles undergo cause changes in state in fixed sequences. If an electron is in a given spin state, it may flip to the other. In fact, we know of spin states only because we have observed that sequence. So those observations that undermine the notion of time can occur only because we observe events in sequence, in time.
     Time is fundamental in some way that the Standard Model can’t account for. Either the Standard Model is the best we’ll ever do, in which case the mystery of time will never be solved; or else the Standard Model will be superseded. We do live in interesting times, don’t we?

Politics: How tyrants come to power

Politics: How tyrants come to power
     In the Olden Days, tyrants did it the hard way: They gathered armed support, invaded the territory of their choice or attacked the central government, and after a mix of luck, guile, and skill, they took power. But the first thing they did was to make their takeover legal. They proclaimed a law, or ensured that the lawmaking body in place voted them the powers they wanted. Legitimacy was and is the prime goal of every tyrant. Not one has every admitted that he is a tyrant. They all claim that they are the only legitimate authority in their state, and that their sole aim is to protect and strengthen the state.
     Nowadays, the road to absolute power is more legalistic, as marked out by Hitler and Stalin. Both became tyrants by taking the opportunity to become government leader. Then they used the lawmakers to pass the laws that gave them the powers they wanted. This is still the preferred method. The career of Mobutu, President of Zaire, demonstrates the method nicely: see
     Note that once in power, Mobutu ensured that a new constitution gave him the authority to rule as he wished. 98% of the population approved of the constitution, so he could certainly claim that his rule is not only legitimate but also has vast popular support. The article is worth reading because it outlines how Mobutu centralised power and expanded its reach into all sectors of civil society and economic life. He did so because he believed that his concept of a modern Zaire was the only right one, and that to realise it, he needed more power than a typical democratic polity would give him.
      The parallels with Hitler and Nazism are striking. The main difference seems to be that Mobutu genuinely believed his mission was to make Zaire into a modern African state, but like all ideologues, he was unable to accept that in the end he is no more essential than any other person. The office of President as part of the structure of governance will guarantee whatever stability and continuity Zaire will enjoy. Like other states, this structure is what matters. If its function depends too much on the will of one person, it is inherently unstable. Tyrants rarely construct a polity that will survive well without them. That requires a kind selflessness that conflicts with what drives the tyrant: the belief that he is the only possible saviour of his nation.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Murder and Create (2005)

     To Murder and Create [D: Diarmuid Lawrence. Robert Lindsay et al.] Two men die from garroting, a lonely hearts club links them, and at first it looks like one of the women looking for a man has done the murders. But things are nor what they seem (are they ever, in a murder mystery?), and D.I. Jericho very nearly dies from garroting himself. Well done British police procedural, with tangled personal lives and office politics messing up the story. The 1940s/50s atmosphere is well done, for once there’s believable grunge as I recall it from that time. The characters are for the most part at least 2½ dimensional, we care enough about them to recognise the long-lasting effects of the crimes. ‘Tain’t pretty, life. **½

Cabaret (At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)

      Cabaret (At the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)  {Book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the play by John van Druten, and the stories by Christopher Isherwood} [D:Peter Hinton. Juan Chioran, Deborah Hay, Gray Powell, et al].
     I’ve seen the movie with Liza Minelli several times, and didn’t realise how much it differed from the musical (and presumably from the prior adaptations of Isherwood’s stories). The story here is minimal, in several senses of the word, and one of the effects is that the linkage between the scenes isn’t as strong as it should be. It’s clear from the director’s notes that this was the intention of the script writers, who wanted to highlight the contrasts between the private concerns of a handful of people and the growth of Nazi power. Thus the structure is more a series of tableaux than a sequence of scenes. To make this a successful production requires on the one hand that the tableaux themselves must be well staged and executed, and on the other that the bridges must be well acted. This production comes close, but doesn’t quite make it.
     The set is an assemblage of steel stairs and platforms resembling a tower like those imagined by the Futurists. Impressive to look at, and prompting some imaginative staging and choreography, but also confusing in that it was sometimes difficult to find the visual focus of a scene, especially (and oddly) those set in the Kit Kat club. Scenes set in places not amenable to climbing around were created by using portable bits and pieces and clever lighting to create, for example, the mood of a train at a Grenzkontrolle, or a grocery store. All very intriguing, but I don’t go to the theatre  to see the set, I go to see the play.
     The acting and singing were generally very good, the lighting was very well done, creating mood and atmosphere that supported the central vision of the play, the choreography was impressively uniform, and the music competently performed, if occasionally a bit too startling.
     As mentioned, the play suffers from a what I think is a misconceived attempt to present not so much a story as a commentary. See the nice people caught up and crushed by the Nazi juggernaut! See how their indifference to politics doesn’t spare them from its consequences! See how a dream becomes a delusion that destroys the dreamer! See how people cannot trust their love for each other to support them as the future descends on them!
     All well and good as themes, but the story must come first. Here it doesn’t.
     Nevertheless, the overall effect was quite powerful especially towards the end. We can only wish that Life is a cabaret, old chum, but oh, how much simpler life would be if it were truly so! **½

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Isabel Huggan. The Elizabeth Stories (1984)

     Isabel Huggan. The Elizabeth Stories (1984) As far as I can tell, Huggan is what is sometimes called a “one-book author”. Not that she wrote only this book, but that she hasn’t written much else. But this is a very good book, and deservedly gained her an international audience and reputation. The stories follow Elizabeth Kessler growing up in Garten from about age eight to eighteen. Huggan has the gift of conveying what it was like to be a child, and she has no qualms about revealing the intended and unintended evil that children can do. The result is intense stories than are not exactly comfortable to read, but which leave you with a sense of having met a real person, and knowing her somewhat better than you know almost every real person in your life. That includes you, because we tend to avoid remembering events and actions that damage our amour propre. The stories also show how adults misinterpret and misunderstand children, and how some children take advantage of this failing to cause trouble for their enemies.
     No one story stands out, they are all at a high level. I first encountered Jack of Hearts as a movie (Alliance Atlantis and National Film Board Canada co-production, not available). It tells how Elizabeth's aunt, a glamorous single “career girl”, visits and introduces Elizabeth to poker. Her sister and brother-in-law don’t approve, but it confirms Elizabeth’s desire to escape from Garten.
     Recommended. ***

Peter Johnson. Isle of Man Steam Railway in Colour (1998)

     Peter Johnson. Isle of Man Steam Railway in Colour (1998) Most of the photos (one per page) feature the steam engines; the captions provide all kinds of history and other information. Technically excellent, a few include people (staff, tourists), or a bit of landscape. As far as I can tell, the colours are accurate. A very well done album for the fan, and of more than passing interest to the casual reader recalling or planning a visit to the Island. Looking through it, I decided we should go there on our next visit. ***

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Peter Lovesey. The Circle (2005)

     Peter Lovesey. The Circle (2005) Bob Naylor, widower father of a 14-year-old, driver for a parcel delivery company, and inveterate composer of verses, attends a writer’s circle just before a previous guest, publisher Edgar Blacker, dies in an arson. The police nick Maurice, chair of the group, and a couple of others wanting to clear him snag Naylor’s help. Meanwhile, DI Henrietta Mallin takes over the case when the local DI commits a booboo. An attempt on Naylor’s life and two more arson murders, a photo that points to the deep past, tensions among the circle’s members, and budding affection between Naylor and Thomasine, all make for a nicely complex story told mostly through dialogue.
    The effect is oddly visual, because I think we’re accustomed to TV mysteries with long stretches of dialogue punctuated with short scenes of almost silent action. A book written in this mode reads like a TV script. Whatever, the story moves along fast enough that any creaks in the logic can be ignored, the wrap-up arrest and confession are a bit hurried, but all in all this is a pleasant entertainment. **½