Monday, April 30, 2018

Lapham's Quarterly V1, #1: States of War

     Lewis Lapham, ed. Lapham’s Quarterly: Vol. 1, #1: States of War (2008) Lewis Lapham, erstwhile editor of Harper’s, has been collecting snippets from here and there for years. Starting in 2008, he has issued themed collections of them, the first one about War, because that was the time of the 2nd Gulf War, perpetrated by G W Bush Jr. It’s a fascinating, depressing read.
     War is as old as civilisation. The anthropological consensus is that war and agriculture were invented at the same time, because agriculture created the surplus wealth that made cities possible. But the new technology entailed a new polity, that of the centralised state, which the had to defend itself against other centralised states. Hence war, which required ever larger zones of influence, and so led to empire. Barbarians outside the empire of course coveted its riches, which meant more war. Ecological catastrophes (droughts, multi-year crop failures, plagues) disrupted the more or less stable empires, which meant more war. The leftover pieces of the empires reassembled themselves into new empires. New ecological catastrophes began the cycle all over again.
     And so it went and goes. We now have weapons that will cause the same kind of disruptions that ecological disasters cause, so it’s toss-up which will get us first.
     As I said, it’s a depressing read but worth it. The selections range from more or less scholarly disquisitions through advice on the art of war, to chronicles, reportage and personal witness. You can buy past issues from Lapham’s Quarterly, or you may find a current issue at a better bookstore. ****

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Nesters vs cattle baron: Louis L’Amour. The Mountain Valley War

      Louis L’Amour. The Mountain Valley War (1978) Drifting gunfighter Kilkenny, alias Trent, throws in his lot with some Hatfields and other farmers who’ve claimed good land in the foothills. Local cattle baron King Bill Hale doesn’t like it. Miscellaneous gun battles and fist fights ensue. Nita, an old flame, and a couple of old vendettas complicate the plot, but of course Kilkenny wins, and settles down with Nita to raise cattle and kids. Some philosophical musings about justice and law, the futility of guns and the necessity of government, indicate that L’Amour’s was maturing out of his simplistic libertarianism. Well-done single point of view, plausible plotting. One of L’Amour’s better books.**½

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Consciousness: why it's the "hard problem"

A New Scientist of 15 May 2013 featured Consciousness. The word is an abstract noun; its suffix --ness denotes the quality, or property, or essential nature of a thing. The teaser questions on the cover emphasise this: What is Consciousness? Why do we have it? What else has it?

I like to think of consciousness as a performance, like a dance or a song. That translates the teaser questions into How do we perform consciousness? Why do we perform it? What else performs it?

What we need is a verb like “dance”. Who can tell the dancer from the dance? Yeats asked. Who indeed. The dance exists only while it is performed, the song while it is sung, life while it is lived. You are singer only while you sing, a dancer while you dance, a living being while you live.

A while ago I came across the verb mentate, but it doesn't sound right to my ears, because it shifts attention to thinking, and thinking is a part (I think a very small part) of being conscious. Verbs such as think, know, attend, imagine, feel, sense, etc, refer to one or another of the elements of the performance, or perhaps to the type or style of performance, like the terms used for discussing dance.

Talking about consciousness without a generic verb is like taking about dancing without the verb dance, or about fruit entirely in terms of apples and oranges, bananas and pears, plums and loganberries. Difficult. I think that consciousness is a "hard problem" because we haven't a verb for it.


Monday, April 16, 2018

Major Pettigrew, unlikely romantic hero

     Helen Simonson. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2010) A romance. Major Pettigrew, widower, with an obnoxious social-climbing son, notices Mrs Ali, widow, shopkeeper in Edge-combe St Mary’s. They marry, of course, after overcoming their hesitancy and social and family objections. Like any good romance, a social comedy, well-observed, with nice riffs on the usual stereotypes, but with attractive leads. Mrs Jasmin Ali has more practical common-sense, the Major must overcome his small vanities to prove worthy of her, both are reticent , unwilling to give offence or cause embarassment. They both have to accept family responsibilities. A feel-good story with Important Themes, tailor-made for the reading clubs that will study the helpful questions included at the back of the book.
     The book is above average for the genre. Unusually, it tells the story from the male lead’s point of view, which adds to its charm. As one of Jasmina’s young relatives says, “You’re a good man, for an old git.” Precisely, and the touch of fantasy is what makes romances fun reads. I liked this one. ***

Sunday, April 15, 2018


The following is a summary of the apostrophe rules I taught. They are really quite simple.

The apostrophe is a spelling mark, not a punctuation mark. As such, it distinguishes between words that might be confused. (Aside: it’s not really needed, since we never confuse these words when speaking.) In spelling, the confusions arise because the apostrophe is used for two purposes, as set out below.

A) The apostrophe of possession:

1) Singular nouns and proper names: add ’s at the end.  Dog – Dog’s. Jim – Jim’s
    Problem: Words/names ending in -s. Usage for these cases varies. See section C below.

2) Plural nouns and names: Add the apostrophe after the plural. If the plural has no -s, add s’.No exceptions. Parents – Parents’. Children – Childrens’

3) Never make a plural by adding ’s to a word.
    Problem: Some newpaper style books specify an apostrophe to make plural out of a number used as a name: the 1970's, not the 1970s. I think this is wrong.

4) Possessive pronouns ending in -s contain no apostrophe. No exceptions. Your - yours. Her- hers. He - his. It – its. Our – ours. Their - theirs.

B) The apostrophe of omission:

5) An apostrophe is used to indicate a syllable lost or compressed through elision (combining two words that otherwise would be pronounced separately). No exceptions. He had – He’d. It is – It’s. They would – They’d. The garden is lovely  – The garden’s lovely.

C) Nouns/names ending in -s:

1) Preferred usage is to add ’s: “James’s book.” This rule expresses preferred pronunciation.

2) However, usage omitting the possessive -s in both sound and spelling is acceptable: “James’ book.”

Rule: When different usages are acceptable, choose one and stick to it.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Jane Austen: Notes on the Love Romance

Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the template for love romance novels. The setting doesn't matter. It's the social difference between her and him that's at the core of love romance: She's much too good for him even though He's (usually) a higher class (eg, the CEO/Owner of the company, and she's just a file clerk). He has to prove that he's worthy of her. Austen's book is better than most romances because she has to prove she's worthy of him, too. Not that there’s much doubt about that. Lizzie is intelligent, strong-willed, and unwilling to settle for second best. And she has a fine pair of eyes.

Of course Lizzie is worthy of Darcy, who in the end shows that he is an honourable man. It was that over-nice sense of honour that prevented him from supporting Bingley’s courtship of Jane, and worse, rendered him unwilling to reveal the true nature of Wickham. Darcy makes amends for the damage he has caused; he intervenes in the Wickham-Lydia affair. Lizzie is certain that her sister’s missteps have made herself unmarriageable, but Darcy does the honourable thing: He follows his heart and his mind, both of which assure him that Lizzie is a fit mate for him, and the censure of society is at most an inconvenience. He saves the Bennett family from social ruin at the risk of losing some of his acquaintanceship. Dorothy Sayers gives us another couple in which the man saves the woman. It takes three novels for Harriet Vane to overcome her fear that her attraction to Lord Peter Wimsey is contaminated by gratitude. Austen gets around that problem by having Darcy offer his assistance as an expiation for his sins against good sense and love.

Of course, in reality marriage back then wasn't about love but about property. Darcy’s attractiveness increases enormously when Lizzie visits his estate and realises what she’s missed. That’s why class difference mattered, and why the love romance is still as much about overcoming social as character differences.

The ideal of marriage as a union of compatible people suited for each other by both social status and property, slowly changed since Austen wrote her novels. Love became the criterion for choosing the lucky swain from amongst the competitors. Since approximately the 1950s, that’s shifted even further. Now people think that love is the justification for marriage. That's why divorce when the love is gone is not only OK, it's mandatory.

Art rules life. If you want to know where society is heading read its popular literature. Or watch TV and movies. "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", said Shelley. He’s right.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Murder in Penzance: Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death

      W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death (1990) Someone kills Matthew Glynn, owner of the family business, a bookstore, and eldest brother in a dysfunctional family in Penzance. Wycliffe and his plodders uncover the family skeletons one by one, but by the time Wycliffe reconstructs the ancient crime that triggered the murder, the killer is dead. The inquest into the death of the first victim may or may not name names. Wycliffe is left with a feeling of failure, but the reader is satisfied that the puzzle has been solved.
     Burley was a school teacher before retiring to write murder stories full time. He knows when a digressive tidbit will entertain or inform the reader. He’s good at sketching ambience. He clearly loves Cornwall and its people. He’s a skilful writer, telling us as much as we need to follow the story and round out the characters enough that we care. His books are well-done entertainments, with a thematic core, in this case the perils of family secrets. The TV series based on his books is worth watching. **½

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Loch (TV series)

     The Loch (2017, 6 episodes) [D: Brian Kelly & Cilla Ware.  Laura Fraser, Siobhan Finneran, Jack Bannon] Shown on CBC TV. A serial killer rampages through a Scottish town ostensibly on the shores of Loch Ness. It’s Annie Redford’s first murder case. DCI Quigley leads the investigation, but Annie’s special, local knowledge is of course key, as is the expertise of profiler Albrighton, who has a history with Quigley. These and other complications spin out the story over six episodes.
     Worth watching for the well done shifts in relationships within the team, the families, and between neighbours and friends. The puzzle is overly complex, but a large part of that is the irrelevance of most of the information gathered by the team. Several of the plot lines are left incomplete, but I suspect that’s largely the effect of cutting up to 5 minutes out of each episode to make room for those damn commercials. Generally well acted, competent photography and music. **½