Friday, December 29, 2017

Railways in Edmonton, Alberta.

     Alan Vanterpool. The Railways of Edmonton (1997) A well-done overview of the development of railways in Edmonton, Alberta. Published by the British Railway Modellers of North America (BRMNA), it consist of photographs with extended captions, a style that compresses a lot of information into a small space. Twenty years ago there were still many lines in place that have since been lifted, so a follow-up book would be in order.
     Vanterpool begins with water and land transport before the railroads, then offers pictures of earliest roads to arrive in Edmonton, and goes on from there. As far as I know, his history is accurate. About the only flaw in this book is that it presents two photos per page, which makes them too small. I suppose the BRMNA’s usual format of one photo per page would have required a second volume. I for one would have been happy to pay the extra cost. Well done, especially considering there are few photos beyond the news and publicity categories. Out of print, but woirth the search for your own copy. ***

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Don;t Get Too Comfortable (your life's course is changing). Essays by David Rakoff

     David Rakoff. Don’t Get too Comfortable (2005) Rakoff died in 2012. He wrote pieces about culture, mostly about examples of excess, such as the last essay in this book, which reports on cryogenics. (A technology to freeze you so that at some point many centuries hence you can be unfrozen and resume your life. Though why people many centuries hence would want to unfreeze you is a question that apparently never occurs to the believers).
     That parenthetical remark is the kind of thinking Rakoff does, and as often as not triggers in the reader. That makes him a valuable analyst of our times. He was revered as a humourist, but he’s really a satirist. The occasional one-liners and jokes are as on-topic and often as biting as his analytic comments.
     Many of these pieces were written during the Bush years, and some refer back to Reagan. Rakoff was one of the first to recognise that the Republicans were going down a road of self-destruction. As always when a dragon self-destroys, the thrashing of its tail in ita death throes causes damage around it. That’s what’s happening now.
     There I go again, thinking like Rakoff.
     He writes about food, fashion, plastic surgery, politics, flying on the Concorde, and many other topics, trivial and significant, mundane and exotic. The title applies to all of them. There’s an undertone of existential panic, a how-did-we-get-here apprehension of unknown and unexpected consequences.  You can see why I recommend this book. ****

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Humankind's Most Dangerous Invention: A Short History of Progress (Wright)

    Ronald Wright. A Short Illustrated History of Progress (2006) A paperback version of Wright’s 2004 book, with pictures, and coloured pages with pithy quotes displayed in large type. The book doesn’t need these gimmicks, it’s compulsively readable. Wright’s thesis is that civilisation is a trap. He’s an archeologist/anthropologist. He uses “civilisation” to mean a large complex culture based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings. A civilisation is marked by hierarchies, administrative complexity, specialisation of work, politics, etc.
     Almost every civilisation we know of has ended destroying itself. The type example of this process is Easter Island, which hosted a simple civilisation which at its peak fed around 10,000 people, but which collapsed when the people focussed on making gigantic statues. the statues which were supposed what we would call ecological collapse. It didn’t work, and when Europeans made contact with easter Island, there were about 1,000 nearly-starving people and a couple of hundred statues left on a treeless, rapidly eroding hunk of rock. To counter the argument that Easter Island culture wasn’t really a civilisation and so cannot stand as a warning, Wright looks at the first city-based civilisation, Sumer, which did the same damage to its ecology as the Easer Islanders did. It just took them longer. The successors to Sumer pretty well all made the same mistakes: Assyria, Babylon, etc, exist only in clay tablets and stone statuary.
     Jared Diamond wrote a longer (and gloomier) meditation on the same themes as Wright (whose book began as a series of Ideas programs on CBC). Wright’s book is a much better read,  Diamond’s book provides more data. They both come to the same conclusion: “Civilisation” is humankind’s greatest and most dangerous invention. If we don’t learn from past experiments, we’ll destroy our civilisation, too. Because it’s a world-wide one, the collapse will entangle a larger swath of the ecosystems on which we depend, and which we persist in either ignoring, or see as an obstacle to further progress.
     Recommended. ****

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

L'Amour Tries Pulp Crime: The Hills of Homicide

      Louis L’Amour. The Hill of Homicide (1983) L’Amour’s authorised collection of detective stories, issued because an unauthorised edition of out-of-copyright stories was issued by another publisher. L’Amour was trying to protect his brand, but this collection doesn’t do much for it. The stories are workmanlike pulp, but that’s all. L’Amour acknowledges that his stories aren’t the same quality as those of the masters.
      Two things stand out: L’Amour likes to describe fist fights, “wicked rights” and all. The two most successful tales are about bent cops. Otherwise, it’s formula all the way, including sexy women that utter wise-crack come-ons to close off the stories. These stories are merely average.  I prefer L’Amour’s westerns. **

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Great Depression Memoir (Why Shoot the Teacher)

   Max Braithwaite. Why Shoot the Teacher (1965) Autobiography dressed up as fiction. The names have been altered, and probably some details too, to prevent too easy identification of the people whom Max met and worked for in his first job. He detrains at “Bleke”, Saskatchewan, and avoids frostbite on the ride to the school only by running behind the wagon from time to time. A foreshadowing of his mostly depressing experiences teaching in a one room school in the middle of the Great Depression.
    His teacherage consists of two rooms partitioned off in the school basement, populated by mice. There is no human company within sight after the children go home. Nor a tree. The farmers are barely able to feed themselves and their livestock, never mind a teacher, yet they manage to eke out some entertainment and pleasure at a dance and the Christmas pageant. At the end of the school year, Max decides to leave. He notes that never once did Lyle King, the school-board chair, call him by his name. Max doesn’t mention his name either.
    The book was made into a film, available on Youtube. It reconstructs the book into a story. Braithwaite’s book is a series of extended anecdotes and musings about his job, education, the economy, the society that surrounds him, and so on. It adds up to his experience of the Depression, and has the ring of truth. Braithwaite developed a reputation as a humourist, but there’s damn little humour in this book. The title has nothing to do with the book. But it’s worth reading all the same, especially if you want to get a feel for what it was like to live through the Depression on the Prairies. **½

Sunday, November 26, 2017

How toTell a Story: Massey Lectures 2003 by Thomas King

     Thomas King. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (2003 Massey Lectures) A book worth reading. My take-away:
     We are our stories. But few of us are willing to accept that, until perhaps someone we know loses their stories as they fade into dementia. But a tribe or nation also is its stories. The stories we tell each other makes us a family, a village, a tribe, a nation. The stories others tell about us impinge on, intersect with, and conflict with the stories we tell about ourselves. If we have no stories of our own, or if no one listens to our stories, the stories told by others prevent them from seeing us as we see ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are.  That’s why being heard, being able to tell our stories, matters, even though story cannot change the past, for telling our stories will affect the future. It will change how the teller and the hearer tell the stories to come.
     King begins every lecture with the story of the Earth resting on the back of a turtle. What holds up the turtle? “It’s turtles all the way down.” Then he tells stories loosely organised around a theme or topic. He ends each lecture with “But don’t say in the years to come that you’d have lived you life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”
     This series of narratives is I think the seed for The Inconvenient Indian. King is one of the wisest people I have ever met. I’d like to meet him in person. Read the book. ****

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Spy Caper in Nazi Germany (A Toast to Tomorrow)

     Manning Coles. A Toast to Tomorrow (1941. Republished by Bantam Books 1947) An odd book: an anti-Nazi spy story written early in the war, and reprinted by Bantam books after the war. The story is a fairly convoluted fantasy plot: A severely injured amnesiac British intelligence agent washes up on the Belgian shore in 1918. The docs at the German Naval Hospital patch him up and let him go. He builds a life for himself as a good German, rises to become Chief of Police. Eventually he recovers his memory of himself as Tommy Hambledon, and sets about saving some people from the increasing brutality of the Nazi regime, and finding the murderer of his comrade. He executes justice on the latter just before he and another agent make their way to Switzerland, and presumably from there to England.
     The story is of course preposterous. The tone of the tale is a mix of gung-ho incorruptible spy-hero with touches of irony, wit, and farce. The cover blurb invokes Wodehouse, not inappropriately. It’s a quick read. Its structure reminds me of a movie: an event narrated in some detail, then a jump to the next event. The whole is stitched together to make for a superficially plausible story in which the reader can imagine himself as the dashing hero. The swiftness of the narration (it covers about 20 years) allows one to ignore the holes in the plot.
     I think the whole was concocted much like the patriotic pro-war movies of the early war years, which both the Allies and the Germans produced in great quantity. Both sides portrayed “our boys” as paragons of virtue and noble restraint with an uncompromising sense of justice, and of course the superior brains and skills that guaranteed the defeat of the most wily opponents. An interesting historical artefact. But well written, which probably explains why Bantam chose to reprint it.
     Bantam Books was founded in 1945. The book includes a list of 122 titles, mostly current genre fiction and popular novels (some of which I recognised as movies, not books), with a smattering of classics. The books were cheap, initially 25 cents. Fairly early on, Bantam began to publish original work as well. It became the most prolific publisher of pocket books, most of them genre fiction. (The Wikipedia article is woefully incomplete). This copy is a first Bantam printing of A Toast to Tomorrow, and in pretty good shape, considering that is was printed on wood-fibre pulp. The cover has a crease in the lower right corner; I think there were several readers before me. Any collectors who come across this review may email me. I’ll keep until January next year, then it will go to a used book dealer or yard sale.
     A pretty good read, considering. **½

Friday, November 17, 2017

How Hitler Lost the War

     How Hitler Lost the War (2005) [Producer David Hoffman, writer Robert Denny] The popular myth of WW2 is that England fought heroically against the Nazi hordes until the USA came along and won the war for them. There was also something going in Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, and in the Pacific between the Americans and the Japanese. But never mind the details, the Allies won the war.    
     In the last 30 years or so, historians have reread the details, many of which were new, and it’s clear that the Allies didn’t so much win the war as that Hitler lost it. Or, to give it a more balanced spin, that Hitler made some fatal mistakes which enabled the Allies to regroup, attack, and win. If he had not made those mistakes, the outcome for the Allies would not have been a simple victory, and could very well have been a defeat.
     This film points to several tactical and strategic errors. For example, Hitler stopped the army from capturing the defeated British and French troops at Dunkirk and sent in the air force to destroy them instead. The RAF turned out to be a much better protector than Hitler expected.
     Another tactical error was to concentrate his eastern forces on Leningrad and the Ukraine instead of on Moscow, as his army chiefs advised. But that was done within the major strategic  error of attacking the Soviet Union.
     In the Ukraine, the German forces were welcomed as liberators, but Hitler’s racist superstitions prevented him from capitalising on this. Instead, he sent in the SS to round up and eliminate undesirable elements. He wanted the Ukraine for lebensraum. So the Ukrainians formed guerilla groups to fight the Germans.
     That last point shows up Hitler’s fundamental mistake. He went to war to gain land, and failed to focus on defeating the enemy. War is always waged for political reasons, but it is a very bad mistake to focus on the political goal instead of the military one, which is to defeat the enemy. First things first: Hitler never really understood that. He also vastly overestimated his knowledge and understanding of politics and war. He had a talent for spotting and exploiting weaknesses and pressure points in his adversaries, but he had no grasp of the larger purposes which drive political and military conflict. In particular, he did not understand that sooner or later the other great powers would decide to stop him. A moderately powerful Germany that one could do business with was acceptable, no matter what the Nazis did inside the country. A self-aggrandising Germany that threatened the balance of power was not. The film does not make this an explicit point, but it’s the context of its thesis.
     Well done, with interviews with German as well as Allied veterans. A treat for the military history buff, a good general history doc for everyone else. ***

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Daisy Does It Again: A Mourning Wedding

     Carola Dunn. A Mourning Wedding (2004) Daisy, wife of Chief inspector Alec Fletcher, pregnant, arrives at Haverhill, a monstrous Victorian pile inhabited by three generations of Fotheringhams. She will be assisting her friend Lucinda Fotheringham at her wedding to Gerald “Binky” Bincombe. During her first night there, Lucy’s great-aunt Eva dies of strangulation. Alec is of course summoned to take over from the locals. Another murder, Lucy’s wavering about the wedding, assorted family feuding, and an attempt  on Gerald’s life, complicate the story. Lady Eva was in the habit of keeping notes on verified gossip, which widens the field of suspects, and makes for a boatload of red herrings. Daisy supplies the solution that ties up all the loose ends. Lucy decides to marry Gerald after all. The requisite happy ending of a detective story thus being supplied, all ends well.
     This is Dunn’s 13th novel in the Daisy Dalrymple series, and the experience shows. It’s smoothly told, well constructed light fiction. If you like historical romance disguised as crime fiction, you will like this series. I like it well enough to snap up any that I find on the used-book shelves. Above average for the genre. **½

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sunday, November 05, 2017

How to Cut Your Enemy: Musashi's Book of Five Rings.

     Miyamoto Musashi. A Book of Five Rings (1645) Translated by Victor Harris (1974) Harris provides a potted biography of Musashi. Despite Harris’s best efforts to present Musashi as a noble and honourable soul, he comes across as a single-minded thug with a nice talent for ink-painting and calligraphy. The book itself reinforces this impression: Musashi focuses on killing the enemy. His principle is “Do whatever is necessary to kill your foe”. He gives many pieces of advice on how to do this by using the traditional Samurai weapons of long and short sword, plus whatever else may be handy. The advice ranges from the specific (eg, parry his attack by pushing his sword towards his right eye), to the vague, often coupled with the obvious  (eg, All the five books are chiefly concerned with timing. You must train sufficiently to appreciate this) Much of it is little more than labelling or trite observation (From inside fortifications, the gun has no equal among weapons). The most common advice consists of variations on Study this thoroughly.
     Musashi himself admits that in his book the order of things is a bit confused. It is difficult to express it clearly. I think the confusion, the vagueness, the inability to “express it clearly” have made the book seem more profound than it really is. Apart from the practical bits, which I think anyone familiar with martial arts or even school-yard fighting experience will understand, there is little to grasp. It’s like trying to catch the moon's  reflection by grabbing at the water. Trying to understand what’s not there to be understood is a disorienting experience. Couple this with the writer’s reputation for wisdom, and the reader as often as not sees the writer’s lack of sense as his own lack of understanding. Hence Musashi seems wiser than he is.
     The translation doesn’t help. As far as I can tell, it is about as literal as Harris can make it. The result is increased vagueness: “spirit” is used in at least six different senses. “Research”, “study”, and “understand” are sometimes synonyms, and sometimes not. The translation probably makes Musashi seem worse than he is. I don’t know if Harris was unable or unwilling to interpret the Master’s words, but I repeatedly got the feeling that an effort to get past the words to the intended meanings would have made for a better book. So my critique of Musashi may be more fairly aimed at Harris.
     There is certainly good advice in the book, if you are able to winnow the chaff from the grain, and are astute enough to use context to get at the intended meaning. But overall, the book is overrated. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War covers the same ground more clearly and completely. Both writers resemble Machiavelli, in that the only values they admit to their discourse are those appropriate to achieving the goals. This makes all three writers appear to lack conscience, but as Arthur Harris said when asked about the morality of carpet bombing, Tell me of one operation of war, just one, which is moral. (In War, by Gwynne Dyer).
     An interesting read, but a frustrating one. One could use it as a reminder that great skill in an art is not enough to make one a great teacher of it. **

Friday, November 03, 2017

Final Account: Banks and the Dead Accountant

     Peter Robinson. Final Account (Dry Bones That Dream) (1994) The brutal murder of a mild-mannered accountant leads Banks through family dysfunction, money laundering, tax evasion, adultery, class conflicts, alternative identities, and Caribbean politics to a solution that doesn’t quite satisfy, even though the major perps have been eradicated extra-judicially. The final chapter ties up the loose ends and resolves the ambiguities, quite fairly, but still, I felt it was a bit too pat. Double patties, so to speak. I prefer single patty hamburgers.
     But the narration of the slow, plodding, inch-by-inch movement from questions to answers made for an entertaining read. For once, we get a believable illusion of the slow pace of police work. Robinson’s skill at evoking ambience and character helped, too. **½

Monday, October 30, 2017

Banks Flies to Toronto: The Hanging Valley

     Peter Robinson. The Hanging Valley (1989) The title refers to a geological entity: a valley carved into a valley side  at roughly right angles  to the main valley, ending high above it, usually with a waterfall. There's one above Swainshead.  What was once a hanging crime is done there: murder. The victim’s face has been hacked to prevent identification, but Banks has a lucky break: the man’s dentures have a serial number. Knowing his identity doesn’t help much. It takes patient assembly of small clues, and a visit to Toronto to unravel the knot. Robinson uses the latter to indulge in a bit of a rant about the anti-intellectual attitudes of Canadian community college students.
     Below average for the series, with work-manlike narrative, and an attempt at Rendellesque psychic pathology. Still, better than most crime stories. ***

Thursday, October 26, 2017

U is For Undertow (but the title doesn't have much to do with the story)

     Sue Grafton. U is for Undertow (2009) A 20-year-old cold case is revived when Michael Sutton asks Kinsey Millhone to find out whether his childhood memory of two “pirates” digging a hole is related to the kidnapping and presumed murder of a five-year-old girl. Many twists and turns later it turns out Sutton was right. I won’t describe the path the Millhone traverses to the truth. The book is Grafton at the top of her form, successfully experimenting with a multiple-POV narrative structure, and giving us well-imagined characters, a nicely paced quest for information, and a few more bits and pieces of Millhone’s family back-story. Her publishers have given her room for the digressions that enhance character and ambience and enrich the setting. Well-done, above average for the series. ***

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Brd of Rare Plumage (George Johnston: The Cruising Auk)

      George Johnston. The Cruising Auk (1959) Johnston is I think a much underrated poet. He writes light verse, intended to amuse, but he’s a melancholy clown, more attuned than most of us to the absurdities of human life, and acutely aware of the thin membrane that prevents the tears of despair from infecting the tears of laughter. Water is a frequent image in his poems, poems like stones skipped over the surface, which sink into the darkness at the end of their journeys.
     A couple of samples:

War on the Periphery

Around the battlements go by
Soldier men against the sky,
Violent lovers, husbands, sons,
Guarding my peaceful life with guns

My pleasures, how discreet they are!
A little booze, a little car,
Two little children and a wife
Living a small suburban life.

My little children eat my heart;
At seven o’clock we kiss and part,
At seven o’clock we meet again;
They eat my heart and grow to men.

I watch their tenderness with fear
While on the battlements I hear
The violent, obedient ones
Guarding my family with guns.

(See also a short note on Johnston posted on 2017-08-17)

In It
The world is a pond and I’m in it,
In it up to my neck;
Important people are in it too,
It’s deeper than this, if we only knew;
Under we go, any minute –
A swirl, some bubbles, a fleck. . . .

I’ve reread these poems several times. Many years ago, when poetry readings were in fashion, we attended a reading. Johnston was a diffident reader, he seemed surprised that anyone would take his verses seriously. But he was one of the few poets who could read his poems well. Wikipedia has a short entry.  ****

Derring-Do on the Moon and Beyond (Poul Anderson: Harvest the Fire)

     Poul Anderson. Harvest the Fire (1995)  Setting: a far-future Earth is governed and served by the cybercosm, a self-aware network of computers which could store the self-aware digital versions of humans, who by this process became part of it. It also creates sophotects, self-aware autonomous artificial intelligences that via robotic extensions of themselves carried out the grunt work that humans no longer want to do.
     Plot: Some Lunarians (genetically modified humans adapted to life in low gravity) want to steal a batch of anti-matter. One of them, Falaire, seduces Jesse Nicol, a space pilot who wants to write poetry. Nicol is drawn into the conspiracy, but a (temporarily) downloaded person, Venator, has been deployed to prevent the plot. Venator is captured by Lirion, but on the flight to the anti-matter transport vessel, Nicol discovers him, and must decide how to proceed. In the end, he joins the conspirators, but on how own terms.
     Writing: better than average for SF. Anderson invents characters to suit his plot and setting, but skilfully enough that they can carry the themes. The book has the marks of pulp-fiction: swift development, jumps in narrative, no digressions, just enough description to allow us to imagine the social as well as the physical setting. That makes for a quick read, but the lack of room to explore more implications of the themes limits the appeal of the book. I liked it, but would have been just as happy with a fatter volume with tangled plotlines, more characters, more stories. Above average pulp fiction. **½

Monday, October 16, 2017

A movie and a concert

     The Wind Rises (2013) (D: Hayao Miyazaki. Voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt et al ]
     A biography of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of Japanese WW2 fighter planes. The story’s simple: Horikoshi is near-sighted, so he can’t qualify to fly planes. Instead, he designs them. He falls in love, but the girl has TB. However, they marry, and have a short time together before she dies. The story of the design successes and failures is well done, the personal life is touched on rather than told, and the subtext is definitely anti-war, mixed with pride at the success of Japanese engineering. It’s an animé movie, a style that occasionally jars: I don’t like the way in which grief and other strong emotions are portrayed. But overall it’s well-done. Recommended. ***

    Blast From the Past: Louise Lemieux Does the ‘50s Louise sang mostly standards, mostly love songs, and mostly the ones that were hits because of teenagers: Bye, Bye Love; Are You Lonesome Tonight; Only You; Peggy Sue; etc. Teen angst is not new, only the recent worry that it’s a sign of emotional fragility is. She also likes songs from the musicals: I Could Have Danced All Night; Oh, What a Beautiful Morning; etc. She’s a performer who happens to use songs to entertain, and she does a wonderful job of it. We’ve known her for a long time, and have always enjoyed her concerts. The show was not sold out, which means some people missed a great evening’s entertainment. ****

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Banks' 2nd case: A Dedicated Man

     Peter Robinson. A Dedicated Man (1988) The second Banks novel. Harry Steadman, an academic with no enemies, thoroughly dedicated to his work, lies under some stones with his head bashed in. Chief Inspector Banks becomes convinced that the solution lies in the past, when Steadman and his wife Emma used to come to Swainsdale for their summer holidays, and for his field work in industrial archeology. Steadman has come into an inheritance, which enables his purchase of the house that he summered in, and gives him the time he wants to pursue his obsession. It’s this dedication to his avocation that does him in. Add a clever but naive sixteen-year-old girl with dreams of becoming famous, a nicely selected cast of suspects, some folk music, and of course the looming fells of the Dales, as well as unusually pleasant summer weather, and you get a well-done entertainment.
     Not up to the standard set by the first book, but good enough. We don’t learn much more about Banks and his life, though, which may be the reason I didn’t find this as satisfying a read as the other Inspector Banks books I’ve read. **½

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Service of All the Dead: Morse gets most of it right.

     Colin Dexter. Service of All the Dead (1979) The rector falls to his death from St Frideswide’s tower. Not too long before that, the church warden was murdered. The cursory investigation concludes that the rector murdered the warden, then repented and killed himself. Morse doesn’t buy it, and sets off on one of his typically convoluted and hare-brained searches for the truth. The case ends when the body count reaches 5, and Morse interrupts the murderer’s attempt to raise it to 6. Morse gets most of case right, carefully hides part of it from the perjury trial of one of the witnesses, and never finds the final clue that lets the reader know the complete solution.
     A typical Dexter, with a good puzzle, soft and not so soft porn tossed in, careful descriptions of Oxford, and better than average characterisation and ambience. But Dexter has an irritating habit of the “little did he know” tip-off to the reader, along with the knowing wink about somebody’s peccadilloes. A good enough read, but the TV series is much better. **½

Friday, October 06, 2017

Science Fiction Oldies but Goodies

      Groff Conklin. 12 Great Classics of Science Fiction (1963) This collection marks the border of the shift from the technological age of SF, when writers and readers were satisfied with gee-whiz extrapolations of gadgetry (later affectionately satirised in Inspector Gadget and Bruce McCall’s drawings for Esquire, New Yorker, etc), to the subsequent sociological age, when writers explored the social and psychological effects of extrapolated social and technical trends. For example, “Thirty Days had September” does a what-if supposing all social institutions are “sponsored” and operated by corporations. The collection also shows a shift to more subtle attempts at imagining the Alien, a task that’s inherently impossible, but which dreamlike fantasies approximate, as in “On the Fourth Planet”, which imagines a dying race of Martians barely subsisting by nibbling bacteria off lichens. Every story prompts thoughts beyond itself. Recommended, if you can find a copy. ***

A Death in Venice: Brunetti on the case

    Donna Leon Death at La Fenice (1992) The first in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, reprinted in 2004. I’d heard of it, but paid no attention. Now I will read them all, in order if possible. The setting is the La Fenice opera house in Venice, the victim is the world-famous conductor Helmut Wellauer, the suspects include some singers, the director, musicians, assorted lovers, journalists and gossips, and of course the widow. Politics as well as standard Italian-style corruption, Wellauer’s history, Brunetti’s family, and Venice itself make for a wonderful mix. Leon’s forte is the casually inserted detail and stray thought, which create character, setting, and ambience. The resolution is satisfactory, and the long and winding road to it is a delight to follow. Brunetti is professional, humane, and persistent. His love for his family is believable, as are his partly cynical and partly collegial relationships with his fellow cops. Recommended. ****

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Ruins of Earth: gloomy forecasts of the End.

    Thomas M. Disch. The Ruins of Earth (1973) A collection of short stores about how and why Earth is doomed. At the time, the “population bomb” was on everyone’s mind, and Harry Harrison’s “Roommates” illustrates an extrapolation of its effects. He later expanded it into a novel, which was adapted into the movie Soylent Green. The time scale was off, but Harrison’s ideas if anything underestimate what will likely happen when the climate tips. Climate change is a side-effect of our overpopulation: at present, our annual consumption of renewable resources is about 1.25 times as much resources as the planet’s systems can replace. In addition, we are adding CO2 and other pollutants to the atmosphere faster than the planet’s systems can process them. Disaster is inevitable. The only uncertainty is about the scale and rate of the disaster, and whether or not we can adapt in time to prevent extinction.
     All the stories are worth reading. Most are satires, albeit not particularly funny ones. ** to ***

Friday, September 22, 2017

Rumpole Wins, Again and Again (Rumpole Rests His Case, Rumpole a la Carte)

     John Mortimer. Rumpole Rests His Case (2001) Seven tales illustrating Rumpole’s forensic skills and his firm conviction that banging up fellow citizens is bad, no matter how badly they have misbehaved. The tone of these stories is more elegiac than ever. Mortimer’s stories glance at contemporary politics, the shenanigans that respectable people get up to, the weaknesses and frailties of human beings. In “The Old Familiar Faces”, Rumpole does some good outside the courtroom by using a bit of discreet blackmail on villains who have hidden their naughty pasts under a cloak of respectability. “The Actor Laddie” muses on the sometimes surprising results of ego-sustaining vanities, when Rumpole’s aging-actor client pleads guilty to theft merely because he wants to make a grand speech to the Jury. The title story shows Rumpole in hospital and demonstrating a ward-mate’s innocence to the satisfaction of the Jury consisting of the other patients.
     The stories maintain the genial surface of the series, but there’s a darkness beneath it. Rumpole wants to prevent miscarriages of justice. His notions of good and evil are that we are all sinners. The best we can hope for is that the small pleasures of life will offset the darkness.
     Mortimer was a lawyer, his stories have the ring of truth, and remind us that the justice system is not about justice but about keeping crime in check. Especially crime committed by the lower classes. As always, a pleasure to read, but disturbing to contemplate. ***

     John Mortimer. Rumpole a la Carte (1990) In the title story, Rumpole sucessfully defends a restaurateur against a charge of maintaining a filthy insalubrious establishment. He wins all his other cases, too, including the informal ones within Chambers. But the victories are often bitter-sweet, what with the frailties of homo sapiens unlikely to disappear. In the last story, he prosecutes, and ends up defending the accused. The judge is not impressed, although a conviction would have been a grave miscarriage of justice. Recommended. ***

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Donald Lam and the Case of Poisoned Anchovy Paste

     A. A. Fair. Fools Die on Friday (1947) One of Erle Stanley Gardner’s pseudonymous soft-boiled PI tales featuring and narrated by Donald Lam, partner with Bertha Cool in a detective agency. Snappy dialogue, adequate characterisation, a nicely twisted plot involving poisoned anchovy paste, well-done ambience, and hints of noir make for a fast-moving entertainment. It’s set in the immediate post-war period with its housing shortages, and women used to independence and no longer entirely happy with remarks about good legs. The cops are disdainful of Donald Lam, but not hostile, and happy to get whatever help he gives them. Bertha Cool is irritatingly one-dimensional. The other women range from barely articulate scenery to people that matter to Lam. Ditto for the men. Even Lam, the most fully realised character of all, is a cardboard cut out with a Technicolor front and a pasteboard-grey back.
     Pulp fiction, but a cut or two above average. Gardner’s Perry Mason series differs only in more carefully imagined characters. **½

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Det. Chief Inspector Banks First Case

     Peter Robinson. Gallows View (1987) The first Inspector Banks novel. A number of break-ins victimising elderly ladies, a murder, a peeping tom, and eventually more violent aggro add up to almost more crime than Banks, recently moved north from London, can handle. Assorted personal and professional complications round out the story. Robinson shows us all the criminals before Banks can suss them, making the police procedure more believable. It’s clear that a combination of slogging, sifting of details, and sheer luck solve crimes and bring the perps to whatever justice can be wrung out of the tangle of motives, cross-purposes, and twisted psychology.
     Robinson’s strengths are character and setting. I’ve read a couple of other Banks novels, so I know that his private life becomes rather messy. I intend to read the remaining books in order. Recommended. I’ve also seen some of the TV series episodes. Also recommended. ***

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Cooperman investigates a scam, discovers Murder

     Howard Engel. A City Called July (1986) A crooked lawyer disappears with $2.6 million worth of his clients’ savings. The rabbi and the president of the congregation ask Benny Cooperman to look into it. The case becomes complicated when the lawyer’s younger brother dies of a stab wound to his belly. Then a homeless man who knew something dies by the same method. Finally, the lawyer’s body is discovered. Who done all this evil, and why? Cooperman tells the story as it unfolds, complete with his wry asides and random observations of his world. Family secrets, corruption in high places, and cops that either tolerate or like Cooperman make up the tasty mix we’ve come to expect in hard-boiled PI fiction. Except that Cooperman is a soft-boiled egg. You like mysteries? This one’s well crafted, but you will probably unravel the knot before Cooperman does. You like well-written stories that give you vivid characters and a well-detailed world? Engel delivers. Recommended. ***

Saturday, September 02, 2017

How the other animals live

     Pat Senson. Nasty, Brutish and Short (2010) A compilation of oddball facts about animals as recounted on Quirks and Quarks, CBC radio’s science news show. It demonstrates that no matter how sure we are that we know what’s natural and what isn’t, Nature has a habit of confounding our prejudices. What’s refreshing, compared to TV, is the willingness to admit that just why animals do some of the weird things they do isn’t understood. There are a few attempts at just-so stories, mostly in terms of probable odds of survival, but without more data, most of these remain merely interesting speculation.
     I learned a lot, but very little of it has stuck. A random dive into the book reveals that alligators can move their internal airbag around, which shifts the centre of gravity, and so enables silent, almost ripple-free diving and surfacing. Which is why alligators are more dangerous than crocodiles, who have to use their feet and tails to do that, and so tend to announce their presence in the water. Or maybe alligators’ sneakiness just makes them seem more dangerous.
     A nice potato chip book which should please anybody who wants to know weird stuff about critters. Senson finishes off every mini-essay with a lame joke, which I found somewhat irritating, and costs the book ½ a star. You can find Quirks abnd Quarks podcasts here.**½

Friday, September 01, 2017

Suicide? No, murder!

     Howard Engel. The Suicide Murders (1980) The first Benny Cooperman story, and a very good one. Engel tries his hand at the hard-boiled PI style, and does pretty good job. Cooperman however is not the confident swaggerer Sam Spade, nor the ruminative Philip Marlowe, so his tone as often as not is one of wry irony. Still, the style works. We get not only an in-the-skin sense of Cooperman’s life, but also a vivid visual and tactile sense of the city. Cooperman has an eye for the telling detail that reveals character and suggests clues.
     The plot is a well done murder-staged-as-suicide. Cooperman doesn’t buy the suicide because the victim bought a ten-speed bike a couple of hours before he allegedly fired a bullet into his brain. The murderer’s motivation goes back to a decades-old murder successfully covered up as suicide. The misleading clues abound, some of the cops detest Cooperman, a couple are grateful for his leads, and Benny’s family causes him grief. A good beginning to the series, most of which I’ve read, but which I enjoy rereading. Recommended. ***

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Murder of a Chemistry prof

     Ada Madison (Camille Minichino). The Square Root of Murder (2011) We are in summer school at Henley College, one of the last remaining universities for women, which is facing momentous changes when co-education begins with the Fall semester. The most detested professor on campus, Dr Appleton of the Chemistry Department, is murdered. Dr Sophie Knowles of the Mathematics Department solves the case, mostly by handing useful clues to the cops after sussing out their relevance and thereby figuring out what other clues she needs and perhaps where to find them. The puzzle is quite good, the resolution involves the now-mandatory near-death experience of a last-ditch attack on the sleuth by the perpetrator, and a several of the red herrings lead to resolutions of sub-plots. There is the fey but practical friend of the sleuth, the macho but sensitive boyfriend, the students who should know better, the cop who’s a buddy and the one who isn’t, and so on.
      So, given a pretty good concept for setting and a plot, and the usual cast of genre-characters, how does Madison handle it? Merely average. A beach-book, you can read it with half your attention on something else. The academic setting is merely sketched, the ambience is suggested by scattered brand references, adjectives appear where they aren’t needed, the characters are vague and nebulous. Knowles is a puzzle-setter by avocation, but we don’t see any of them (it would have added a nice layer of diversion). Back when pulp fiction came in magazines, this would have been ruthlessly edited down to novella length. As it is, it’s a lazy read. Not unpleasant, but not exactly an attention grabber. *½

Thursday, August 17, 2017

George Johnston, underrated.

In 1959, George Johnston published a collection of poems titled The Cruising Auk. It went through five impression by 1964, when I bought our copy after hearing Johnston read his poems. He was charming and diffident, and so were his poems. They have been underrated, I think. The last 5 lines of “War on the Periphery” may show why. He’s watching his children grow up:

They eat my heart and grow to men.

I watch their tenderness with fear
While on the battlements I hear
The violent, obedient ones
Guarding my peaceful life with guns.

Wikipedia has a good article about him. The book is out of print. If you find one, buy it, and cherish it. See also my longer rewview posted 2017-10-23.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Murphy's Law: Why we think things go wrong when they don't.

     Richard Robinson. Why the Toast Always Lands Butter Side Down (2005) Or: The Science of Murphy’s Law. The title suggests that we’ll ,learn physics and chemistry and stuff like that. Instead we learn about perception. Murphy’s Law is in the eye of the victim: Our understanding of the way the world works is good enough for dealing with everyday risks such as sabre tooth tigers, but simply wrong when it comes to reality. We overestimate and underestimate odds depending on whether the event is good or bad; we assume cause-effect when there is simple coincidence; the world as we experience it is a roughly computed illusion based on limited and filtered sense data; we see what we expect to see and ignore what we don’t expect; we rely on quick, mostly sub-conscious calculations; we extrapolate patterns in time and space from the flimsiest data. In fact, it’s surprising that we manage as well as we do.
     Well-done. Robinson has the knack of making abstruse concepts clear, of seeing the example in daily experience that makes his point. He’s also careful to reference sources: all the counter-intuitive claims sport a footnote number. Come to think of it, the book implies a better definition of intuitive: it just means “matching the illusions our sense present to us.”
     Recommended. ***

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Is Banksy's popularity evidence of inability to see art?

Found in the Guardian: Something that needed to be said about Banksy and other easy-to-assimilate art. Including music, which the iPod and iTunes have reduced to sonic wallpaper and mere ear-massage.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cartoons and Comic Strips: Larson and Trudeau

     Gary Larson. Wildlife Preserves (1989) I never tire of Gary Larson. I think this is the fifth time I’ve read this collection of his cartoons. His gift is to imagine how a different context would affect the lives of people, animals, and of course monsters. Such as the unfortunate fish whose tail is embedded in two styrofoam shoes, which drag him up to “sleep with the humans.”  Or a flea painting a dogscape, which consists of acres of fur. Or Thor’s workbench, on which rest his hammer, his screwdriver, and his crescent wrench.
     Well, maybe you have to have the same sense of seeing the logically absurd.
     Recommended. ****

     G. B. Trudeau. Check Your Egos at the Door (1984, 1985) A Doonesbury collection. These strips were drawn during the reelection of Reagan. It’s depressing to see how little has changed since then. The only real difference is that liberals and conservatives were still talking to each other, whereas now they either scream at or ignore each other. The strips rely on words, so a brief quote is impossible, but I’ll try:
     Duane: I can’t get over these figures, Rick. Suburbanites went for Reagan 65% to 35%, fundamentalist 89% to11%, car dealers 54% to 46%...
     Rick: Duane, you can’t let all that get to you....

     Sounds a lot like the Dems trying to figure out how they lost to Trump. Except that Reagan won the popular vote, and Trump didn’t. ****

You may want to write a script for this

An image from this series was posted on a Usenet group. I liked it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ants and grasshoppers: A comment on our economy

In  When Republicans Take Power Geoffrey Kabaservice writes,

“Mr. Trump will not be able to bring back the manufacturing jobs he promised, but he could put his supporters to work building roads and bridges instead.”

The notion that building roads and bridges will provide large employment boost is a common misconception. As anyone who’s watched how roads and bridges are built these days knows, there are more machines and fewer people. Even the flagmen and -women who control traffic through a road-construction zone are being replaced by traffic lights powered by solar panels.

Sure, we need to repair roads and bridges, but manual labour of all kinds has been and is continuing to be replaced by machines. Machines that are increasinglty intelligent, able to perform more and more complicated tasks.

In fact, computers are replacing the professions. White-collar jobs are fading away just as blue-collar jobs did, and for the same reason: Our profit-focused economic values and business models sees people as a cost, and so seeks to eliminate them.

The malaise of a our highly technologised economy is that it produces more than we can consume, yet we operate it on the same assumptions that worked for our ancestors, that production is morally superior to consumption. Worse, too many players of the economic game believe that accumulating stuff is what it’s all about. “He who dies with the most toys wins” is taken at face value by a surprising number of people, if we take their behaviour as evidence of what values drive their choices.

But as older people will tell you, when you’re faced with getting rid of the stuff accumulated over a lifetime, you realise what a mug’s game that was. Nobody wants the stuff that you piled up. It’s obsolete, it has at most sentimental value, but even your children will want to keep only a small fraction of it.

We praise the ant, not the grasshopper. We haven’t noticed that the ant is a machine directed by a microchip.

Philosophy and ideology

Margarethe von Trotter, speaking with Michael Enright about her film on Hannah Arendt: “...Germany was known as the country of philosophers, music, and so on, how could it become such a horrible country during the Nazi time?...”

Because it was the country of philosophers. People who are word- and idea-focussed have a hard time distinguishing between the world as they think it is and the world as it really is. Ideology is the terminal disease of philosophy. It’s the condition of mistaking thought for reality.

Germany also vastly over-valued academic achievement, the assumption being that if you had a Ph. D. you were superior in every way. But academic achievement is more a matter of grinding out the work. Imagination and insight are rarely required, and even more rarely rewarded.


Some theoretical talk about theories.

Theory, Model, Algorithm, and the Limits of Knowledge

These three terms that are often used interchangeably. They do have something in common, we’ll see what it is after an attempt to differentiate them, by describing how what they refer to differs.

Framework: The world we live in is “reality”. We interact with it in various ways. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, we develop various methods of predicting how reality works so that we can get what we need and want. Explicit ideas about how reality works are the theories on which we base our actions. We reason about the state of reality right now so that we can change it to suit ourselves.

For example, we plant seeds when we figure the weather is favourable so that we will get tomatoes a couple of months or so later. We add fertiliser and soil conditioners and water to ensure that the tomatoes will grow. Those actions are based on a bundle of interconnected ideas and observations that form a more or less coherent theory about how tomatoes grow from seeds.

Theory: An explanation of how something works the way it does. It’s what you get when you test a hypothesis, which is a more or less speculative explanation of some observation(s). Many hypotheses are prompted by anecdotes about some oddity, or about some claim that strikes the hypothesiser as odd. A good hypothesis links the observation(s) to some existing explanation, and predicts additional observations. If those links hold up, and/or the predictions prove true, then the hypothesis is confirmed and becomes a theory. A good theory implies or suggests further hypotheses, which in turn imply new observations.

When a theory is applied to some practical problem, we get a model. That, and the desire to just figure things out, are what drive science and engineering.

Model: An explanation that can be used to predict how some part of reality will work. We use this term because a conceptual model about growing tomatoes is analogous to a physical model of, say, a steam locomotive. A scale model is not a replica, it is something that looks like, and in  some specific, limited ways works like its prototype. The model locomotive may operate on steam as the prototype does, but even so, there will be compromises. E.g., the thickness of the boiler shell will not be to scale for that would make it too weak to contain the necessary steam pressure. And so on.

We use both models and theories to plan what to do so as to get some desired result. The difference is subtle. We test a theory’s predictions in order to discover its limits, so that if necessary we can modify it, extend it, or even replace it. We use a model within its limits to control some aspect of reality as much as possible. We may use a model to test a theory: An experiment is a model constructed from that part of a theory that we wish to test. It’s not easy to derive a model from a theory: Models also have to be tested.

Both models and theories are true insofar as they work. When a model becomes a precise set of reliable rules, it becomes an algorithm.

Algorithm: A set of procedures applied to some inputs that will produce outputs in a predictable way. Thus, “long division” is an algorithm because it describes how to manipulate the input numbers (divisor and dividend) to get the answer (quotient). A recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich is an algorithm because it describes how to manipulate the inputs (bread, cheese, and a grill) so as to get an output (a tasty sandwich). And so on.

Algorithms are everywhere. They are especially handy for determining future values of present states. In this sense, an algorithm is a knowledge machine: input information about “this thing here and now”, turn the crank, and you get information about “this thing somewhere, somewhen, somehow else”.

If the above comments make sense, we may see a model as a set of mutually compatible and interconnected algorithms, and a theory as a set of validated and interconnected models.

And that brings us to what they have in common: All three are modes of gaining new knowledge. All three operate on the same fundamental principle: “If you do this, you will find out that”. None of them “describe reality”. They describe only how we may interact with or observe certain aspects of reality. Which ones? Those that the theory or model or algorithm “is about.” What “is about” means is not easy to say. An example will explain (as far as the example applies, that is):

We may use Newton’s laws of motion to build a model that calculates the course of a rocket launched towards Jupiter. If we know its mass and its velocity, the varying gravitational forces of the Moon and Mars etc, we can calculate, and recalculate, its course to whatever precision we like. But the model will tell us nothing about the health of the crew. If we want to know that, we need another (and more complicated and less certain) model. The model cannot tell us what the rocket “really is”, only how it interacts with gravitational fields and the reaction forces of its engines. If we want to know other things, such as its shell’s resistance to fatigue cracking, we must use other models. What’s more, even to monitor the course of the rocket, we have to use other models, the ones that describe how our instruments work.

Thus all theories, all models, all algorithms are knowledge engines. They are epistemological devices. They are not ontological descriptions. But they are limited. They can’t tell us what some entity really is, only how we can interact with it, and what will happen when we do so.

Even the notion of “entity” is fundamentally epistemological: An entity is a more or less consistent bundle of expected interactions. If any of them are missing or unexpected, we doubt that we are interacting with that entity. It may be an hallucination, or a dream, or a fake, or merely an image of the entity. Or a model of it.

Kant was right, I think: There is no way to know reality in itself. That doesn’t mean there is no reality “out there”. It just means that we can know only our interactions with it. That we can know even that much is I think at least as great a puzzle as what it is that we can’t know.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Grieving: a poem about loss

     Joan Finnigan. In the brown cottage on Loughborough Lake (1970) A long poem or suite of poems, interspersed with photographs, expressing Finnigan’s grief on the death of her husband. It tells of the first summer spent on the lake without him. The book is more of a meditative essay, the kind that invites the reader to recall emotion rather than imagine experience. A few lines here and there pierce the heart:
     The summer turned to crabapples

    And the wild plums chimed on the trees
    along the stone-pile fences

    The lake chilled

    and we shortened our swims

     The book is misclassified as non-fiction on one website about Finnigan. ***

Small lives, much pain: Maeve Binchy's early Short Stories

      Maeve Binchy. Victoria Line, Central Line (1978 & 1980) These two collections were published separately, then republished in a single volume in 1993. The stories are Binchy’s earliest published fiction, and they contradict her reputation as a “sympathetic and often humorous” portrayer of life. Almost all of them describe women who are more or less unaware of why they lose out in the game of life, or who are lucky simply to endure. Like Alice Munro's, her portrayals of ordinary people is ruthless: she knows that human beings are anything but perfect, that they are weak cruel, feckless, vain, indifferent, self-centred, and more often than not unable or unwilling to change.
    Binchy’s especially good at showing how women fail to assert themselves, and define their value through their relationships with men. Some of these are heartbreaking: why do so many smart women put up with cads? Class has something to do with it: all her protagonists are middle or working class, and along with their men are constrained by aspirations of respectability which limit or distort their self-expression, and too often make them believe that they deserve the tawdry or painful love lives they settle for.
     With a few exceptions, we readers have the flash of insight at the end of the tale but the characters do not. It seems to me that Binchy in her later works learned to enlarge the sympathy and reduce the judgements. Or perhaps her growing confidence in her own abilities enabled her to write about women who knew what they wanted and set about getting it, a story that becomes the Binchy formula. At any rate, compared to these short stories, her later work seems to me to show a deliberate softening of the hard judgments that her only-too-accurate portrayals here imply. One could also argue that her work reflects the increasing power and self-awareness of women. That would make these early stories a collection of documentaries of women’s lives in the mid-20th century, accurately rendered.
     Recommended. ***

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Accidental discovery

Sometimes when searching for one thing you stumble across another. Here's Daphne Arts, one such discovery. If you like art, I think there will be something on this site for you. My rating: ***

Thursday, July 13, 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey, a flawed masterpeice

      2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [D: Stanley Kubrick. Keir Dullea et al, and HAL-9000] A museum piece, instructive: what’s interesting is how limited Clarkes’ technical imagination was, and how his social imagination was essentially zero. Clarke could imagine technical progress, up to a point: he didn’t fully extrapolate the effects of the relentless miniaturisation of electronic devices. Fred Pohl had already written The Age of the Pussyfoot, which among other things imagined something very like a cross between a smartphone and a tablet PC, but much more powerful than what we actually have. Look it up.
     But where Clarke and Kubrick fail most is the social context. Beginning with the clothes, which are merely late 60s fashions streamlined a bit. Gender roles are still very 50s. The Cold War’s US-Russian rivalry is still going on. There is no awareness of the probable outcomes of the anti-racism movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the year of this movie’s release, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released the year before this movie. Not too late to affect the script, its ideas were very much part of public discourse.
     It was already clear than China and other Asian economies would eventually rival and even surpass the USA and Europe. The notion that the West would continue its supremacy in science and engineering was already undermined by the  achievements of Japan. All these things could have influenced the script, especially since so much of the movie is displays the engineering achievements expected by 2001.
     The decor and ambience of the movie celebrate technology. Kubrick uses music to underline the joy and grace of beautiful machines. The long sequence of the PanAm space shuttle arriving at the space station is shown to a sumptuous version of the Blue Danube waltz. The scene in which Dr Floyd calls home on video phone is there to emphasise the wonderful technology of the future, as is the space station itself, the moon shuttle, etc. Clark’s faith in the saving grace of ever more magical tech is touching, now that we have become accustomed to it, and are beginning to understand the negative effects of overly-rapid change, aptly called disruption.
     But those are minor cavils. This is a pioneer movie. Not only in its visual effects, all done with analogue techniques utilising models and matte boards, and photographic manipulations. Its story, such as it is, is about work. There’s no character conflict, there’s only work to be done. What plot tension there is comes from the character’s attempts to work out what to do when HAL goes rogue.
     The story has five parts: the discovery of tools, instigated by the mysterious black monolith. The discovery of the monolith on the Moon. The expedition to Jupiter. The rebellion of HAL, and Dave Bowman’s destruction of the computer’s personality module. Dave’s arrival and stay somewhere in orbit around Jupiter. Bowman’s aging, and the appearance of  a fetus journeying back towards Earth.
     But there’s more to the movie than its story or its plot structure. It is a celebration of technology, of the Universe, of humankind’s ability to overcome obstacles, and an expression of a mystical faith in some barely imaginable future of humankind. Clark and Kubrick wanted to foster wonder and hope. Wonder at all that human curiosity and skill and art can achieve, and hope that ultimately humans will become better than the warring semi-apes that they are.
     Worth seeing again, despite its datedness and flaws. ****

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Climate change: How fast does it happen?

A story about climate change.
A true story.

     The science department head at W C Eaket Secondary School was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She received their weekly journal, and placed it in the school library, where I read it most weeks.
     Every so often, there were papers on weather and climate modelling, which was developing quickly as computer power increased. The models were based on weather data laid down in ice-cores, tree-rings, layers of silt on lake bottoms and swamps, and so on. These data are good for many thousands of years in the past, but obviously not for millions for years. The geological record supplies data for those long range climate changes.
     Small changes in climate such as the Little Ice Age in the 1500s-1600s (which killed off the Viking Greenland colony) were used to test the models. These were strong models because they were based on large amounts of data. If they worked well, they were run backwards beyond the range for which there was much data, to see if they described the climate as known from geology. They were also run forward, to see what could happen if the CO2 continued to increase to the levels known to have existed millions of years ago.
     The tests were designed to guide further development of weather and climate models. The models varied in the weighting of different factors known to affect the weather, estimated and known rates at which the effects occurred, and different ideas about the feedback loops between these factors. As better data became available, the models were tweaked. Because of their differences, the models were in fact tests of different theories of how weather and climate change. Weather prediction models are so powerful now that we expect a three- to four-day forecast to be accurate. Back then, one day was considered good. When I was a child, we expected weather forecasts to be updated between morning and evening.
     The results of the climate models were, as they say, interesting. The authors reported on and discussed the successful models, the ones that closely described the known history of the weather and climate. Most of these models predicted continuing slow changes in climate like the ones known from the past.
     A handful of models in the early to mid-70s predicted very sudden changes in climate. Changes that didn’t take thousands or tens of thousands of years, but a few hundred years, or even less. The authors were uncertain what to do with those. It wasn’t clear how to decide whether these models were any better or worse than the ones that predicted slow changes. Their conclusions were cautious.  As I recall the theme of their discussions, it was along the lines of “If these models that predict fast changes are accurate, then the rapidly rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere could cause rapid changes in climate.”
     Those papers have stayed with me. Some time later, I learned about the mathematics of chaos. A chaotic system cycles through a series of changes with minor variations from one cycle to the next. Think of the seasonal cycle of weather.  But if one variable exceeds some critical value, the system shifts into another state. This new state will cycle through a different series of changes.
      Climate is a chaotic system. As with any chaotic system, a fundamental question is how quickly the shift can occur. Some chaotic systems change so fast that we speak of a “tipping point”. There is increasing evidence that climate is such a system.

Global Warming

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Societies and their Environments: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

     Jared Diamond. Collapse. (2005) Or How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
     Diamond begins his survey of failed societies with an elegiac account of Montana, which is overcrowded, over-exploited, and will suffer some kind of ecological collapse unless the individualist values that make Montana attractive to the incomers radically change. And that’s the over-arching thesis: that the values that enable societies to thrive will, sooner or later, clash with ecological (and therefore economic) reality. Then the choice is stark: adapt or die. For all societies depend on the natural systems they exploit.
     These systems may change naturally (very small shifts in temperature or rainfall can make the difference between a garden and a desert). More often, they are over-exploited: the prime example of this is Easter Island. He ends his survey with a rather depressing look at the ways in which our misallocation of resources damages the ecosystems that sustain us. His prime example is mining, which we practice as if there were no long-term costs. He does see some hope here and there, in the shift towards pollution reduction in China, for example, but overall, we are still making choices based on values that made sense when resources were scarce, surplus wealth was difficult or impossible to accumulate, and ecological damage was localised and its effects on people and other life forms was limited.
     Diamond’s work shows that the choice is never between “the economy” and “the environment”, but between values, attitudes, and desires. The fundamental issue is that humans, like any other creatures, depend on the environment. We humans have changed the Earth more thoroughly than any other organism. That has made us very successful, if you measure success by our numbers and the variety of habitats that we occupy.
     But that success contains within it the seeds of our own destruction. We operate on the same imperative as all other life forms: be fruitful and multiply. If we continue to operate on the values of economic growth and profit, if we fail to understand that the standard of living is not about money, we will destroy our civilisation. If we do, will the humans who survive the inevitable population crash learn from our mistakes? The history of societies that destroyed themselves suggests that’s unlikely.
     Recommended. ****

Angel Catbird: To Castle Catula

     Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamra Bonvillain. Angel Catbird: To Castle Catula (2017) The second instalment of the Angel Catbird saga, as nicely done as the first. Angel and his friends travel to Castle Catula, picking up owls as allies along the way, and adopting an orphan kitten. A couple of goddesses also join the alliance against Dr Muroid and his rats. His evil will of course implode in the finale, since he doesn’t understand that his power depends not on control but on leadership. A couple of female white rats will no doubt figure in his defeat. I expect Volume 3 before Christmas. Recommended. ****

Monday, June 12, 2017

An invader that isn't: The Narrow World by Brent Bonacorsos.

Watch this video by Brent Bonacorso. Science fiction with a difference. About 15 minutes of your time well spent. Marie K sent me a link which led to this.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Political Anecdotes and War Stories: Memoir by Charles Lynch

    Charles Lynch. You can’t Print THAT! (1983) Lynch describes himself as a Political Voyeur, and that he is. He’s also an excellent story-teller, his natural talent honed by the demands of newspaper reporting. He’s also opinionated, a small-c conservative, with a grudging respect for the Liberal party, and a somewhat uncritical enthusiasm for the Progressive Conservatives, with whom he shares a superstitious fear of debt. He loved fishing and music. He began his career before the 2nd World War, was a war correspondent, spent most of his working life in Ottawa. He thinks Canadian politics (and history) is anything but dull, and his tales prove it. Extremely readable, recommended, a sourcebook for anyone who’s contemplating writing a history of Canadian politics in the 60s and 70s. More about him on Wikipedia.  ****

Late Louis L'Amour: End of the Drive

      Louis L’Amour. End of the Drive (1997) Posthumous collection of short stories and a novella “found in an old box” by L’Amour’s son. Mostly early work, you can see L’Amour learning the craft. He tries out standard plots, such as the thieves who betray each other, the son who grudgingly admits his father’s wisdom, the con-man unmasked, etc. I didn’t finish the novella, though, it’s uses a plot L’Amour has used many times: the villain who sows suspicion, the hero who must clear his name, the girl who mistakes her feelings, etc. A treat for any fan, a good read for anyone who likes well-done pulp. **½

Monday, June 05, 2017

Why GDP is a bad idea

An economist and an accountant are walking along a large puddle. They get across a frog jumping on the mud. The economist says: "If you eat the frog I'll give you $20,000!"

The accountant checks his budget and figures out he's better off eating it, so he does and collects money.

Continuing along the same puddle they almost step into yet another frog. The accountant says: "Now, if you eat this frog I'll give you $20,000."

After evaluating the proposal the economist eats the frog and gets the money.

They go on. The accountant starts thinking: "Listen, we both have the same amount of money we had before, but we both ate frogs. I don't see us being better off."

The economist: "Well, that's true, but you overlooked the fact that we've been just involved in $40,000 of trade."

Lessons learned: Now that I'm in my late 70s

Six years ago, on the occasion of the birthday that marked him as an elder, David Brooks of the New York Times asked his readers to tell him what they had learned. This is what I sent him. I found it while cleaning up old files on the hard disk. Since then Jon died, and I learned another lesson: Life is losing what you love.

Subject: Over 70: lessons learned
From: Wolf Kirchmeir
Date: 28/10/2011 11:05 AM

Hello, David Brooks,

I won't bore you with all the platitudes, which are true: you do learn that aggression doesn't pay, that love matters most, that family and friends are what make life worth living, and so on.

One thing I've learned looking back is that many times what I thought was important at the time turned out to be unimportant; and what I thought was merely another hum-drum choice turned out to be life-changing. Often, you can't even pin-point the choice: it was just another more or less reasonable response to the situation you faced.

For example, choosing a car seems shatteringly important at the time: it has to be the right make, the right model, and not too much of a second choice compared to what you really, really wanted but couldn't afford. But in the end, it's just a box that takes you from here to there.

Our decision to move from Alberta to Ontario to take a one-year contract at a university didn't seem very serious at the time. We could always do something else in a year or two. I needed a job, and this was the one that came up. When it was done, I could have gone to post-grad school for a Ph. D., but I took a job as a highschool teacher, because I was tired of being a poor student, our children were growing up, and I knew I could teach. I planned to teach for three or four years, saving my pennies, and then pursue that Ph. D. But teaching high school English became my career. Despite its many frustrations, it was very satisfying.

Most satisfying was meeting former students, often years later, and finding out what a good life they had made for themselves. Some of them told me of something I'd said in class that changed their life, because it made them see things from a different angle, or confirmed something they knew about themselves. I was always surprised at what they remembered: Often, I couldn't recall it at all. It was just a throwaway line uttered as part of a larger, oh-so-important point I was making about Life, Literature, and the Universe.

Once at the mall in the nearby city, I met a youngish man who'd been in my class some 20 years earlier. My former student had a good job at the mill, was married, and happy with his life. He was carrying a paperback book. I remembered him as surly at having to read all that junk he didn't like, at having to read at all. But he had become an avid reader of history and historical fiction. "You said that when we would find out what we liked, we would start reading," he said. Did I? I probably did. It's a teacherly thing to say. I couldn't recall. But I think for this man this remark confirmed something about himself, his love of the past.

Some years ago, our priest asked if I would become a lay reader, as he had two points, and wanted someone to read Morning Prayer while he presided at the Eucharist at the other parish. I agreed, he said I should preach a sermon, too. OK, why not?

And so I embarked on a journey that has led me from a fairly conventional mix of Lutheran and Anglican belief to the insight that God, however you imagine him/her/it, dwells within us. All religions teach this. How you express this insight doesn't matter. What matters is that it has meaning for you. We become more fully human to the extent that we recognise the Spirit in ourselves and in each other. And because we are all, as the phrase goes, vessels of the Holy Spirit, it is utterly evil to do any kind of violence to another human being.


Wolf Kirchmeir
age 71
Blind River, Ontario

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Misplaced Advice: For Her Own Good (Ehrenreich & English)

     Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English. For Her Own Good (1978 & 2005) The subtitle reads Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women. It looks like the authors have read just about every piece of advice ever written. The notes to the chapters are extensive: there is a reference for every quotation and assertion. The book is a model of how to tell a history of ideas. The Woman Question arose when the roles of men and women in the family and society were eroded when the Industrial Revolution changed the economic function of the family, which changed from the primary supplier of daily needs to become the place of respite and recuperation from labour. The market came to dominate the economy.
     When a man’s role became that of the wage earner whose income would be used to buy what hitherto had been made by the family, his wife no longer had an economic function. There resulted more or less frantic, and in hindsight ridiculous, attempts to find a role for Woman outside the market economy, which meant in practice confining her to the home and redefining her role within it in terms of human relationships instead of economic value. The justifications danced around the idea that women were too weak, too emotional, too irrational etc to be trusted with work and power outside the home.
     The authors show how initially there was a concerted effort to eliminate women’s economic value. It was easy enough to transfer manufacture from the home to the factory. It was much harder to transfer women’s value as healers, and effort that began well before the industrial revolution, because womens’ power to heal threatened the hegemony of the celibate male church hierarchy. The story of how it was done is painful to read.
     Once women were transformed into consumers rather than producers, the problem became that of keeping them happy and satisfied. It was the upper and upper middle classes that first had to deal with the problem of the idle wife whose lack of economic and productive value naturally caused more or less painful psychosomatic suffering. The puzzle was how to make a woman feel useful when she obviously wasn’t, and worse, knew that she wasn’t. She became the Angel in the Home, the quasi-mother that comforted her husband when he returned from the cruel world of economic battle. She became the Hand the Rocked the Cradle. And so on.
     It all makes for an odd mix of depressing and entertaining reading, the effect of amazingly obtuse ideas and sentiments expressed by men (and a few women) who really should have known better. The authors give us large swatches of quotations and paraphrases from the experts’ advice books and articles. The book is worth reading for these alone.
     In an afterword written in 2004, Ehrenreich and English point to the economic emancipation of women, which has of course changed the problem once again. Now that women are no longer economically dependent on men, there is no reason to fabricate some essential role for her in marriage and the family. This of course brings with it a whole new range of issues: For if marriage and family are no longer one of the main, if not the main, purposes of growing up, what is the role of men and women? We shall see, and no doubt a generation or two from now, somebody will write a book about how the Woman Question morphed in the Life Question. I hope they do as good a job as Ehrenreich and English.
     Highly recommended. ****
Footnote: Women's and men's changing economic roles also transformed marriage. Marriage had been a primarily economic institution. As its economic value diminished, marriage became a private and personal relationship. So much so that these days people generally view an "arranged marriage" as inferior, since in such a marraige status and economics count for more than personal feelings. [20191030]

Thursday, June 01, 2017

My Father Was a Soldier (A Song About War)

I wrote the chorus about two years ago, the rest of the song fell into place last summer.  It's based on an actual event: One of my students at U of  Alberta in 1965/66 came to say goodbye when he got his draft card. "Over there" is Vietnam. Lois Jones has set it to music, but I haven't heard it yet. [Copyright 2016 Wolf Kirchmeir]
My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?

There was a boy, he came up north,
to get away from war.
He got his card, and came to me,
“Sir, I have to go.”
“You can stay here and live in peace.”
“My brother’s over there,
I have to leave, I can’t stay here,
so it’s goodbye, Sir.”

My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?

Oh, look at me, the hero says,
I’ll fight to my last breath.
When bones bleach white in the noonday sun,
The one who wins is Death.
[instrumental bridge]

My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?

Homer knew that war is hell,
he told it like it was,
the spear that split the Trojan’s throat,
the blood that stained the dust.
But the tale he told was already old,
though each war makes it new.
We learn the story, sing the songs,
and don’t know what to do.

My father was a soldier,
and my grandpa, too;
they went to war to save the world.
What good did that do? O my,
What good did that do?
We learn the story, sing the songs,
and don’t know what to do.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Daesh Murders in Manchester and Egypt

In Manchester, Daesh targeted girls. In Egypt, Daesh targeted Coptic Christians. In Manchester, Daesh utilised an angry, alienated British-born Muslim man to carry the bomb. In Egypt, Daesh cadre dressed in Egyptian military uniforms. In Manchester, the bomb-carrier was an expendable weapons platform and died. In Egypt, the Daesh cadre fled immediately after discharging their weapons. They did not stay to face any possible defence.

In short, Daesh operated as it always does: First, attack the softest, least defended target possible. Second, never expose Daesh cadre to serious risk. Third, never place a Daesh commander at the scene.

The fight with Daesh in Mosul shows a variation on the theme. Daesh embeds itself among civilians, thus ensuring civilian deaths. While they can, Daesh uses human shields, murders civilians that they accuse of working with the enemy, and arranges to escape as quickly as possible. They are continuing to fight in Mosul only because they don’t have an easy escape route.

Daesh is commanded and staffed by cowardly thugs.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Is 2 Minutes enough to Solve a Crime?

     Donald J. Sobol. Two-Minute Mysteries (1967) Scholastic books for many years offrered books to schoolchidren, with a cut of sales going to the school's extra-curricular programs. One the most popular categories among middle school students was puzzle books. This is an example; there were many versions on it, including 5-Minute Mysteries.
     This one pffers 79 puzzles, all fairly placing the clues, but too many relying on non-general knowledge, with at least one error: the author claims that a right-handed man “invariably” puts his trousers on left leg first. Well, I don’t. Some illustrate how culture and general knowledge change over time: a puzzle asserting that a Professor of English wouldn’t make certain errors no longer flies. Besides, is mistakes usage for grammar.
     A few puzzles are ambiguous, with an alternative solution possible. However, the vast majority demonstrate that a small mistake is enough to convict a crook.
     There are of course recurring characters, the hero is Dr Hanedjian, his friend Inspector Winters, Nick the nose whose attempts at earning a few extra dollars by supplying information to the police always fail, and so on. I read the book in two sittings, having been interrupted after reading the first dozen or so. **½

Friday, May 12, 2017

Lost in the snow: Ellis Peters. The Will and the Deed

     Ellis Peters. The Will and the Deed (1960) One of Peters’ first books. It’s a nicely done closed group puzzle. Isolated following an emergency landing in a snow-bound valley, Antonia Byrnes’ six heirs have to come to terms with her capricious bequests. Which of them murdered her old friend when he was writing a new will repudiating her bequest of almost all her estate to him? Peters is at heart a writer of love romance, and likes to create ambience. She does a good but unnecessarily extended job of describing what it’s like to bring back a person almost dead from a morphine overdose, and a chase through deep snow and almost lethally bad weather. But she draws plausible characters, and gives us a nice mix of clues and red herrings. **½

So you think you'd be a good detective?

     M. Diane Vogt. Bathroom Crime Puzzles (2005) Even if you have an expert knowledge of forensics and law, you will not be able to solve all 65 of these puzzles. About half a dozen omit crucial information needed for the solution. But the rest are fair puzzles. In a novel, some forensic expert would provide the forensic significance pof the clues, leaving it to the reader to apply them to the case. Or watch detective do so, and second-guess the solution before All Is Revealed. The puzzles have the ring of truth: the backstories in the solutions add information about motives, etc, which only a person close to the actual case would know. I enjoyed reading this potato chip book. For a mystery writer, it’s a compendium of ready-made plot outlines. **½

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Smarter than an octopus? Maybe not.

Recent dicussion on a Usenet group about a picture of octopuses "researching" a human diver prompted a search. Cephalopods are smart. See So You Think You're Smarter Than a Cephalopod? from the Smithsonian website.