Monday, December 26, 2016

Spy Caper Spoof

      Spy (2015) [D: Paul Feig (also wrote), with Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Miranda Hart] Mildly amusing spy caper spoof in which a CIA desk-operative Susan Cooper (McCarthy) volunteers to take on a “track and report” field mission involving an international gang of suave psychopaths who are trading in suitcase-sized atom bombs.
The joke is that Cooper is not a svelte, elegant, self-confident wonder woman, but a dumpy, inelegant, unconfident woman who’s hopelessly in love with the spy (Jude Law) she assists. But she’s smart, brave, has trained in martial arts and firearms, and gains self-confidence as she outwits, outfights, and outshoots assorted baddies. The fun comes from McCarthy’s acting, our recognition of the James Bond tropes, the above averege script (although far more F-bombs than it needed), and the care taken to make all minor characters just caricatured enough for humour. The cast and crew obviously have a lot of fun too, which always helps. Enough (semi-plausible) plot twists to keep you watching.  I enjoyed it. **½

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wycliffe on Holiday and on the Case

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Pea Green Boat (1975) Part One describes how an innocent man is convicted of a rape and murder. Part Two tells how Wycliffe while on holiday takes on a current murder because a colleague has misgivings. As you will expect, those misgivings are fully justified, and the general solution to the puzzle is pretty obvious. However, Burley’s strength is character, ambience, and the slow build-up of detail and surmise until the full picture emerges. It kept me reading to the end, even though I had the answer to the central question long before Wycliffe arrived at it. Wycliffe fans will be satisfied, many of those who haven’t cone across him before will want to read more of the series. There was a good TV adaptation done in the 1990s, starring Jack Shepherd as Wycliffe. **½

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Murder in Nero Wolfe's brownstone

     Rex Stout. A Family Affair (1975) Late at night, Archie admits Pierre Ducos, a waiter at Rusterman’s, who wants to consult Nero Wolfe because “a man is trying to kill me”. A minute or two after being left in the front room of the third floor, an exploding device kills him. Things go severely downhill from there. The murderer has killed three times by the time justice of a kind is done. And that’s as far as I’ll go in hinting at spoilers. One of Stout’s best, and also the last book he published. He died a month later. I found my copy at Value Village, unread. Great find. ****

Wimsey deserves better than this.

     Lord Peter Wimsey: Clouds of Witness (19720 [D:Hugh David. Ian Carmichael et al] Awful adaptation of Dorothy Sayers’ novel. A screenplay that’s about as banal and simplistic as you can get, stretching the story over 5 parts (225 minutes). The amount of padding this requires makes it mind-numbingly slow. The characterisation is superficial, and that’s the politest way I can say it. Bland cinematography  with poor lighting and bad sound adds to the pain. The editing is strange, so put it mildly: long shots of unmoving faces are suppose to convey menace, I guess, or maybe comic fun. It all depends on the owner of the face. And so on.
     We stopped watching this mess part way through episode two. The 1987 adaptations of Sayers' novels starring Edward Petherbridge are far superior. It’s unfortunate that the two series treated different novels.  Based on my disappointment, I want to rate this a BOMB, but I guess one star is fairer: *

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nun Solves Mystery

    Veronica Black. A Vow of Chastity (1991) Sister Joan, of the Daughters of Compassion, teaches a motley group of farm and Romany children. When one of the Romany boys goes missing, she investigates. The story builds slowly, the discovery of the murderer is a surprise (the clues don’t really persuade), but overall this is a satisfying read. Convent life is rarely depicted convincingly. This book comes close, despite its somewhat too-good-to be true ambience. It’s the practicalities of daily life (and school teaching) that create the life-like feel that we want from a novel. The title has only a tenuous connection with the plot. This is #2 of a series that reached #11. **½

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Alien language, alien mind

     Arrival (2106) [D: Denis Villeneuve. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker] The aliens finally arrive, in 12 ships scattered round the globe. They clearly attempt to communicate, so linguist Louise Banks (Adams) is recruited to learn the language. The heptapods (one less tentacle than octopi) use both whale-like sounds and a written language. Louise, with some help from physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), deciphers the written symbols, each of which is a complex circular string of squiggles that represents a complete utterance.
     The movie, like the story it’s based on, asks and plausibly answers a number of questions. Could one  communicate with a non-human mind? Yes, if there are some common concepts to start from, in this case the difference between “human” and “Louise”. Does learning a language rewire the brain? Yes, in fact it does. Does that rewiring change the way you perceive the world? Maybe. As a bilingual, I would say yes, but not as drastically as is posited here. For the heptapods time isn’t linear: they have an all-at-once perception of past, present, and future. Their circular "sentences" can be read starting from any point and in either direction. Louise’s daughter has died of leukemia. As she masters the heptapod language, Louise's latent second sight develops so that her daughter’s life becomes present to her, as does her future with Ian, and the child she will have with him.
     The mcguffin is that the 12 ships each provide part of the answer about the heptapods’ purpose in arriving on Earth: they will need human help in the future, but can get it only if humans co-operate and become one world. Which happens, but only because Louise is able to talk to the Chinese ruler in his own language over an NSA cellphone.
     As you can see, this is a complicated movie, on many levels. Villeneuve knows how to make us engage in what for many of us would be an esoteric irrelevance or a boring exercise in abstruse academic theorising. The acting and editing occasionally confuse, that’s why I want to see it again. Is it a fault that the movie demands more than one viewing? I don’t think so. ****

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Choices, freedom, and responsibility

Many people think that freedom is the freedom to choose what one wants, to have control over one’s choices.  The problems with this idea are many. Let’s start by considering what it means to choose something.

First principle: You can choose only from what’s possible. You can’t, obviously, choose to flap your arms and fly. The laws of physics prevent that. But surely one can choose what one wants otherwise? The answer is, no you can’t.

Second Principle: You can choose only from what’s available to you. That’s a truism. Like all truisms, it has real consequences. You can’t for example choose a vanilla ice cream cone if there isn’t one there for you to choose, no matter how much you want it. That seems like a trivial example, but it illustrates a fundamental principle: all choices are made within a given context. Call it an option space. Option spaces differ in the number of options they contain, and in the type of options available. Again, a trivial example: An ice cream parlour that offers 37 flavours offers more choice than one which offers only 21 flavours. Obviously.

Inference: One measure of freedom of choice is the number of options available.

Third Principle: Control of the option space is control of choice. Continue with the ice cream example: if there is only one ice-cream parlour available to you, its owner controls your choice by deciding what flavours to offer.

Inference: Another measure of freedom of choice is control over the option space.

Suppose your village has a pub, a restaurant, and an ice cream parlour. You now have three option spaces. They may overlap somewhat, in that the pub and the restaurant may offer some of the same dishes, and the restaurant may offer some ice cream. But when you choose one of these venues you automatically limit your choices to what’s on offer there. You can’t choose the pub’s brand of ale in the restaurant, or the restaurant’s steak in the ice cream parlour. You could of course go to each of them one after the other, but at any given time, your choice is limited to what’s available at that time.

Inference: Circumstances control the contents of the option space. Hence another measure of freedom of choice is control over circumstances.

Fourth principle: Choosing is the result of wanting one thing more than another. The ice cream choice depends on what you want at the time of choosing. In fact, if you don’t want ice cream, you won’t choose it even if it’s available.

Inference: Desire drives choice. Thus ability to fulfill a desire is a measure of freedom.

That last inference is the reason people define “freedom” as being able to do what you want to do. But desire itself is a complicated drive. You can both desire and not desire something, for different reasons. For example, you may want to order ice cream for dessert, but you also want to maintain something like an attractive waistline, and so want to avoid ice cream. Which desire will win? That depends on you. How well can you curb one desire in order to fulfill another is not easy to predict. Research shows that it varies. Your emotional state, the relationship with your dinner partner, what you just talked about, whether and how much you think about the choice, all these and more will tip the balance between your conflicting desires.

Inference: Random factors that affect which desire you fulfill reduce your control over your choice.

Summary: There are several ways of considering “freedom”, but all involve choice. I think the general conclusion is that “freedom of choice” is how we feel about our choices, not about how we make them. In fact, it looks like we have no real freedom of choice at all. We have little, and often no, control over the option space. Our desires are influenced and controlled by factors we may not even notice.

So in what sense(s) can we be held responsible for our choices?




Pipelines and the Alberta economy

Pipelines are losing propositions. Oil is a dying industry. It’s only a matter of time. I object to the approval of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline expansion on both environmental and financial grounds.

In 2015, half of all new energy projects worldwide were renewables (non-fossil). 30% of new energy projects in the US were renewables. And this despite low oil prices, and coal that is dirt cheap.

Fact: Peabody, one of the largest coal producers in the world, filed for bankruptcy in April 2016. It now hopes to repay $500 million as coal prices have risen a bit. But in 2015 those prices dropped enormously. Northern Appalachian coal (usually the most expensive) dropped from about $68/ton to under $40/ton by early 2016. It’s now at around $42/ton. See Alberta Energy's website.

You’d think at these prices, energy companies would be building or expanding coal-fired power plants. In fact, many are phasing out coal. China, which has enormous coal reserves, has stopped building them, and is phasing out the ones it has.

Fact: Although oil prices hovered around $40 to $45 a barrel for Texas sweet crude (oil from other sources is cheaper), per capita oil consumption has fallen, despite increasing numbers of private cars, which are the largest single consumers of oil. (Total oil consumptiom continues to rise. Last week, the oil cartel announced production cuts in an attempt to prompt a rise in prices. That is, they hope that oil consumers will bid up the prices as supplies dwindle. That will happen in the short run (they are up to around $48 a barrel), but in the long run, oil consumers will continue to reduce or eliminate consumption.

So why has Trudeau approved the expansion of Kinder-Morgan? And why does Rachel Notley support it? Purely political. Both want to attract more votes in Alberta, especially in the rural ridings, which have more political clout than the urban ones, and where the direct income from oil is proportionately higher than in the cities. In the short run, that might improve their political fortunes in Alberta, but it merely delays the day of reckoning. Alberta has to disentangle itself from oil. It’s been a drug: Albertans are addicted to the easy money of oil royalties. They consistently undertax themselves, relying on other people (the consumers of oil) to pay their bills.

It’s time for Albertans to shift their wealth-creation to other products. That’s not going to be easy. It requires not only a shift in attitudes, but also a willingness to plan for the long haul. Food production has always been a major source of wealth in Alberta. Agriculture, energy production, services, and other raw materials make up a much larger proportion of Alberta’s economy than oil does: See Energy Alberta and Wikipedia's article.
   
Bottom line: the assumption that oil drives the economy of Alberta turns out to be mistaken. Oil is an important but diminishing part of the mix. I think it’s the psychology of oil that is important, not its actual value. Albertans have made economic choices assuming that oil will pay the bills, and haven’t noticed how much of their economy has diversified. A change in this psychology is difficult, but it’s necessary. The sooner it happens, the better for Alberta.

Monday, December 05, 2016

How to enjoy Shakeapeare in school

     Robertson Davies. Shakespeare For Young Players (1942) Davies loved theatre. He was a founding member of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival. He wrote several plays, a couple of them for “young players”. His first novel Tempest Tost tells of an amateur theatre group putting on Shakespeare’s Tempest. His novels all allude to or use theatre, show business, as a central metaphor.
      This schoolbook fits in well with Davies’ enthusiasm. He takes it for granted that middle school children will enjoy acting out Shakespeare. His subtext is that this is the best method of teaching Shakespeare: the plays are scripts, not novels. His introductions to the excerpts, his notes, his directorial hints, all are designed to help the pupil have as much fun as possible. The excerpts from Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard II etc are I think well chosen: Davies argues that literature should acquaint young people with the harsh realities of life, so that they will be prepared when those realities confront them.
     The only quibble: Davies’ tone comes across as somewhat patronising these days. Long out of print, the book is still I think a model for a course on Shakespeare or theatre generally. ***

Riffing the love romance

     Adriana Trigiani. Lucia, Lucia (2003) A very New York book, reminding me of east coast movies (it would make a good one, I think). Lucia Sartori, the only daughter of an immigrant family, tells her story to a young woman living in her apartment house. Lucia is a career woman: in the end, only her family matters more to her than work. One thing after another happens in her life. She’s jilted at the altar by John Talbot, a charming scumbag, there’s deaths and marriages, but all in all she’s had a good life. Her only regret: that when Altman’s Custom Tailoring Dept. closed, quality and craftsmanship ended there.
     Well written, it draws you in. I read the book alongside several others, it wasn’t a page-turner for me. Lucia is a nice person, a little too good to be true, which can be said of all the characters, even the scumbag. Well done plausible 1950s ambience, if a little too pastel coloured. The edition I read included an interview between the author and Delmarr, Lucia’s boss, and “reading questions”, which look like they were devised by a high school teacher. It’s a riff on the love romance: the heroine doesn’t marry the handsome charming boss after all. Above average for the genre. ***

Friday, December 02, 2016

Five marriages

     Phyllis Rose. Parallel Lives (1983) Rose describes five Victorian marriage. Her aim is to understand how the Western ideal of marriage, which crystallised in the 19th century, worked out in practice. Her subjects are writers, not because they are a privileged class, but because a) writers leave more complete records of their thoughts and feelings; and b) they tend to be outliers, and so more aware of how conventions and ideals constrain life.
     Three of the marriages were sexless: Ruskin’s because he was disgusted with his wife’s body (he apparently expected her to look like a Greek statue); the Carlyles, because neither was much interested in sex; and John Stuart and Harriet Mill, because Harriet didn’t like sex, and Mill didn’t want to impose himself on her. Dickens was a highly sexed man, and after getting a dozen or so children on Catherine, became attracted to a much younger woman, whereupon he constructed a narrative that made him the victim of a dull and boring union. George Eliot (Mary Evans) and Henry Lewes weren’t legally married at all, yet Rose believes they came closest to the ideal of a union of equals, enjoying each other’s company, working together, talking a lot, and having good sex.
     A very interesting book. Rose examines marriage at a time when the focus changed from a social and commercial contract to a personal relationship. Mill, among others, argued strongly for this view, seeing the older version as imposing severe legal and personal burdens on women. Carlyle opposed it. Dickens celebrated it in the scenes of domestic bliss in his novels. Ruskin expected his wife to serve his genius as his parents and he thought he deserved; his marriage broke up quickly. Eliot and Lewes spent their life together thoroughly enjoying each other.
     Rose doesn’t examine how and why the concepts of marriage changed. Her narratives focus on the effects of the new ideals on these ten people. She believes that heterosexual marriage can be a good thing. She believes it’s good to disentangle marriage from the legalities that burden the partners with unequal powers and obligations. She defends what she knows will be seen as an extended gossip, because gossip is the only way in which we can get a general grasp of a community’s beliefs and values. Gossip not only enforces these values, but also raises the issues that change them.
     The result is a book that fascinates. I pitied and admired these people, who all except Ruskin worked hard to make good lives for themselves and each other. Even the Eliot-Lewes union, which was such a happy one, was encumbered with Lewes’ continued support for his wife and children. We can see how our current notion of marriage as a supremely personal relationship not only has made divorce mandatory when that relationship breaks, but has also made same-sex marriage inevitable. For if the essence of marriage is freely assumed obligations and rights, than any arrangement in which people adopt them is a marriage.
     The book also confirmed a couple of impressions I’ve had from reading Victorian literature. I don’t like Ruskin, I think his aesthetics nonsensical. He did not understand art as the product of imagination, he thought it was entirely about feelings in response to "nature", condemning art he could not understand, and writing bosh to justify his opinions. I didn’t like Carlyle’s hero worship, which entails contempt for ordinary people. His break with Mill (Carlyle didn’t believe in the equality of women) confirmed what I saw as self-satisfied pomposity. He had a strong intellect, but a limited imagination.
     Rose prompts questions. Why did the concept of marriage change as it did? Dickens’ promotion of domestic, familial bliss did not create that ideal: Dickens was a genius at expressing the as yet unarticulated ideas and ideals of his time. Mill’s writings about politics (guided by Harriet) affected the legalities surrounding marriage. But argument for legal changes won’t be accepted if it’s too far ahead of already occurring shifts in people’s thinking and feeling. Roses’ book is a wonderfully insightful and insight-prompting book, worth reading as much for the questions it poses as the ones it answers. ****

Another Lam and Cool caper

      A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner). Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967) Donald Lam and Bertha Cool agree to investigate a want ad asking for witnesses to an accident. Turns out it’s part of an elaborate plan to find a patsy for a murder. The usual mix of pretty girls as occasions for Lam’s chivalry, evil but respectable seeming perps, greed, subterfuges, and tetchy relations with the cops, etc, makes for an easy, entertaining read. The solution to the puzzle will occur to the reader before Lam explains it to Bertha. **½

Saturday, November 19, 2016

It's not about the cats

     Rebecca M. Hale. How to Wash a Cat (2008) Somebody should have edited this book. The author apparently used a thesaurus. Bad idea: If you don’t already know how to use a word, the thesaurus’s “synonyms” designation will mislead you. Hale apparently also wanted to create a complete first-person experience for the reader, for there are unnecessary adverbs and adjectives everywhere. The result is dilatory narration and irritating weirdness.
     The story begins with the death of the narrator’s uncle Oscar, a supposedly-lovable grump with a fixation on San Francisco Gold Rush history. The narrator inherits his antique store, and a historical puzzle. The mcguffin is a potion that mimics death, with possible therapeutic value; and a cache of diamonds. Many people want one or both. The narrator figures it out, trailing well behind the reader. Tunnels, veiled warnings, mysteriously unexplained help from strangers, etc, add melodrama. Hale (unfairly) IMO withholds information about some of the characters, the denouement contains a couple of surprises as well as solutions. Two cats wander around the story and the antique store.
     There’s a decent book inside this over-wrought mess. Trimming away about a third of the verbiage would have made this so-so book into a very good one. I think Hale self-published (via Green Vase Publishing – a green vase figures in the store-front renovation), and good sales prompted Penguin to buy the paperback rights. The book was a best-seller, I think because of the cats. It’s the first of a four book series; I trust that Hale had editors for the other three books. *½

Sunday, November 13, 2016

the Ant and the Grasshopper

In  When Republicans Take Power (Nov. 12, 2016),  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 a nice large employment boost is a common misconception. Anyone who’s watched how roads and bridges are built these days knows that 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, and some increases in employment will be a nice side-effect. But manual labour of all kinds has been and is continuing to be replaced by machines, machines that are increasingly intelligent, able to perform more and more complicated tasks.

What’s more, 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 theory and business model sees people as a cost, and so seeks to eliminate them.

The malaise of our highly technologised economy is that it produces more than we can consume, yet we operate it on the same assumptions of scarcity that worked for our ancestors, assumptions which make production 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 want only a few pieces.

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Poison at a Party

     Rex Stout. Champagne for One (1958) A friend has asked Archie to sub for him at an annual dinner for unwed mothers, instituted by the late Mr Grantham in conjunction with his founding of a home for them. A poisoned glass of champagne kills one of the girls, Archie immediately sees that it must have been murder, but everyone else thinks it’s suicide. But since Archie repeated his claim to the police, Cramer and Stubbins must investigate it as murder. Wolfe of course wants to figure it out. The murderer and other people interfere in the investigation.
     A nicely done PI story, with Archie in fine form as investigator, and Stout giving him and Wolfe carefully considered lines about the legalities of doing and not doing what others ask them to do. I like these tales not only because of the plots, but also because of the characters. Stout is very good at dropping hints; Archie’s dry wit gives us the angle that reveals character. The ambience is very 1950s. These 60-year-old novels have become historical fiction for us. And of course nostalgia machines for those of us who were alive back then. ***

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Six Puzzles for Nero Wolfe

     Rex Stout. Triple Jeopardy (1952) & Three at Wolfe’s Door (1960) 6 novellas, nicely plotted, with the usual rather nasty motives of twisted love and money. Archie Goodwin makes a good narrator, he’s not too full of himself, he has a dry sense of humour and, like Wolfe, a strong moral compass. His wide circle of friends, acquaintances and cops helps him produce the clues that Wolf needs.
     Here, the murders involve arsenic at a special gourmet dinner (cooked by Fritz), a dead body in a taxi (driven to Wolfe’s door), a lasso doubling as a hangman’s noose, a poison-spiked vitamin pill, a newspaper apparently read by no one, and a knife in the back (observed by a pet monkey). Great entertainment for any Nero Wolfe fan, and pretty good for anyone who likes a gently witty send-up of the hard-nosed PI genre.
     Stout’s books are occasionally re-issued, but can also be found in better 2nd-hand book stores. There’s an on-line fan club: http://www.nerowolfe.org/index.htm ***

Friday, October 21, 2016

Three lads on a quest

     The Quest (2002) [D: D. Jason. David Jason,  Hewell Bennett, Roy Hudd] Coming of age story shown as a flashback beginning when Charlie rear-ends Dave at a stop light. He invites Dave to his retirement party, a at which Ronno, the third of the “three musketeers” also shows up. This sets off a round of reminiscences of their trip up north to the Lake District on motorbikes, in search of girls. It’s Charlie, the shy, soft-spoken one, who gets a girl, or rather, she gets him, but she rejects him later when he persuades the other two to go to Blackpool where she lives. A nicely done study of horny adolescent males. The girls are of course much wiser, and know perfectly well how to handle the lads. The movie ends with the men leaving a pub and agreeing to get together again.
     Part two begins with Charlie receiving a phone call from Sondra, an old flame. He’s on a ladder fixing the roof, and falls. When Dave and Ronno visit him in the hospital, we see the flash back to the lads’ trip to the Isle of Man, this time to ride the TTC course. But Charlie really wants to find Sondra, whose mother has other plans for her daughter and has forbidden the romance. This movie is much piecier than the first one, there’s no solid central narrative line, things just happen. Charlie of course discovers that Sondra isn’t really interested in him, in fact she’s a little tart, but a nice beauty pageant contestant takes an interest in him, etc. When that episode falls apart, three older women pick up the boys, but the desired rendezvous is kiboshed by the landlady of the B&B at which the women are staying. So that’s that.
     There’s a part three, which I don’t have. I recorded these two parts on VHS years ago from TVO. I’m tossing the tapes, but decided to see what was in this one. If you like mildly amusing, nostalgia-inducing movies, you’ll probably like The Quest. It’s resolutely male point of view is unusual. **½
    

A Stale Raisin

    M. C Beaton. Agatha Raisin and the Curious Curate (2003) A potboiler, written in a flat, unobtrusive style, better plotted than narrated, with cardboardy characters just colourful enough to carry the plot. Even Agatha Raisin fans will find this tale below average. The plot is about the only thing that kept me turning the pages.
The new curate, Rev. Tristan Delon, is too beautiful for words, and a narcissistic charmer who specialises in separating susceptible women from their money. He gets his comeuppance, as does his murderer, who is as nasty a piece of work as Tristan himself. Agatha’s new neighbour, a crime story writer, helps her detect, but the spark is missing, and he leaves the village at the end of the story. Enough twists to keep you guessing, perfunctory updating of various back stories and tying up of loose ends. I think the series is wearing Beaton down. Her forte is comedy and cheerful satire, but there’s not much of that on offer here. *½

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Not really about trains

     Louis L’Amour. North to the Rails (1971) Tom Chantry comes West to buy cattle for his future father-in-law. His father was killed many years ago, after which his mother moved East, and raised him as an anti-gun pacifist. First thing: Tom fights a guy and wins: he’s trained as a boxer. He buys the cattle and starts north with French Williams as his trail boss. But meanie outlaws, just plain mean men, and sneaky thieves of one kind or another interfere. There’s also a cousin of Williams who wants the money; she teams up with two especially nasty types. Tom fights a Kiowa, but doesn’t kill him, and later his father’s history with the Kiowa adds to his winning hand. Anyhow, the tale ends with a gunfight, and great gobs of poetic justice.
     Not L’Amour’s best work, but a well crafted entertainment that any fan of Westerns will like. Chantry drives his herd to the railhead, which has moved further west, which will improve his profits **½

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Canadian Satire

     Barbed Lyres: Canadian Venomous Verse (1990) Foreword by Margaret Atwood. This Magazine asked readers ro write satirical verses, and this book is one of the results. The verses in it for the most part express annoyance rather than venom, but the standard of both content and form is high. An example relevant to the current US Presidential election:
     Of Brian and Ronnie and Free Trade
     How wonderful his breath must smell
     From his bid to be famous
     He sold our nation straight to hell
     And kissed old Ronnie’s anus
              (S. Piatkowski, Ottawa)

     Found in the Sault Ste Marie library’s book sale for $1. A keeper. ****

Monday, October 03, 2016

A Water Landing

     Sully (2016) [D: Clint Eastwood. Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart et al].
     Chesley Sullenberger landed American Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River after losing both engines to a birdstrike shortly after take-off. The movie is built around the Aviation Safety Board hearing into the “crash” (Sully insists it was a “water landing”), presented as attempting to show that a return to LaGuardia was possible, which would imply that instead of being a hero, Sully was a fool. The film convinces us he was a hero. Or rather, that he was a man. He didn’t want to die, so he did the best he could do, and it worked.
     Excellent reconstructions of the crash, nice flashbacks into Sully’s 40-year flying career (beginning with his flying lessons as a teenager), believable characterisations of men and women who just do their job. The cross-cutting between past and present, indoors and out, in the plane and on the ground, hearing rooms and streets, the hotel and Sully’s home, heighten tension: We know that all 155 people on the plane survived, that Sully was vindicated, but the movie still engages us so thoroughly that for a while we feel that things could turn out very badly indeed. Hanks respects the character he plays.
     Simulation of the event is available on on YouTube:
     Watch the movie in a theatre if possible. ***½

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Century-old view of the Earth

     Joh. Georg Rothaug. Vaterländischer Geographischer Schulatlas (ca. 1913) Authorised by the Imperial-Royal Ministry for Culture and Education in December 1912. The maps show the pre-World War 1 boundaries, the aerial views were taken from balloons. Part one is a general introduction to maps and geography, part two is a series of maps beginning with Austria, part 3 is an appendix showing the “principal races” of the world. There’s also a diagram of the planetary system (no Pluto) and of the starry sky as seen from the median latitude of Austria-Hungary.
     The binding is falling apart, many of the pages are loose, and a Birnecker Gottfried has written his name in several places. A very well-used volume, no doubt serving as reference work even after the Empire collapsed.
The colour printing is outstanding, the maps are very well drawn. Comparison with modern maps shows that in 1912 railways still mattered more than roads. A fascinating look at how Austria saw itself 100 years ago. ***

Catherine Aird. Last Respects (1982)

Catherine Aird.  Last Respects (1982) A body floats in the estuary of the Calle River, but the man was dead before he was dropped in the water. Aird tells a leisurely tale of Det. Insp. Sloan’s investigation, with nicely sketched characters and settings, and four or five plot-threads converging neatly in the end. One of the blurbs accurately claims Aird’s “witty aside and funny riposte are her forté”. I enjoyed this well-crafted entertainment. The Sloan novels (there are about 20 of them) would make a nice series of one-hour TV shows. Or two-hour ones if the adapters wanted to elaborate on all the back-story hints and red herrings thoughtfully supplied by Aird. ***

Art & Artists (reference book)

Peter and Linda Murray. A Dictionary of Art and Artists (1960) Just what the title says, and a good reference if you want to know about European and US art. A mass of obscure painters mentioned, good definitions and discussions of technical art terms. Based on other reference works, and shows the limitations of 2nd hand research. Heavy on medieval and renascence art, light on anything post-1800. Should be titled “A Dictionary of European and US art to 1950". As such it could be worth keeping, but a quick test shows that online information is as good if not better. **

Monday, September 19, 2016

How to spoil a good story (Matilda)

      Matilda [D: Matthew Warchus. Book by Dennis Kelly, Music by Tim Minchin, based on the novel by Roald Dahl. With Hannah Levinson, Dan Chameroy, Paula Brancati, et al.] A good play spoiled by flashing lights and sudden noise, and extremely average music played very loudly. The acting ranged from competent to very good, the dance sets were cliched but well done, the set designs and lighting were created to maximise the wow-factor. Overall the production was less concerned with telling a good story than with astonishing the audience. I have no idea whether it succeeded with the other patrons, it did not succeed with me.
     In short, impressive, but not in a good way. Pity, since Matilda is one of Dahl’s better stories. It shows how the imagination and a couple of engaged adults can foster the resilience of a neglected child. Dahl knows that a happy ending is unlikely, but he gives us one anyhow. *½

Early Allingham

Margery Allingham. Mystery Mile (1930) A very early Campion story, quite melodramatic, with disappearances, a Moriarty-type criminal master-mind, multiple deceptions, fisticuffs, night-time excursions, and limited characterisation. The evil guy suffers poetically just drowning while stuck in the mud. There’s a fire, too, but it’s mostly stink-bomb and smoke-screen. Love and justice triumph. What more could you want? Well, a fully realised Campion, for a start. The later Allinghams are much better than this one. The title refers to a village on a mist-shrouded peninsula, barely connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, and surrounded by tidal flats and mud.*½

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why does the US seem so small?

Just heard the phrase “the vastness of our land” applied to Canada. Which made me wonder, Why does the USA seem so small?

Short answer: The USA is a patchwork of different cultures. Driving though the USA feels like driving through different countries. Michigan just doesn’t feel the same as Arkansas. Texas is its own place, and then some (they are the politest drivers anywhere, by the way). But driving across Canada, at least from Ontario west, I feel that every place is Canada. One reason, I think, is that the language varies very little from east to west, while in the USA the language varies in all directions. So we don’t hear the differences that a traveller across the USA hears.

Why are the regions of the USA so different, while those of Canada are not? Short answer: settlement patterns, and political and economic history. But to expand on that would take more space (and more detailed knowledge) than I have.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Home is for Homicide (book review)

    Joan Hess, ed. Malice Domestic 9 (2000) A pleasant series of short stories illustrating the dictum that the bosom of the family is a nest of vipers. This one pays homage to Agatha Christie, with always affectionate and sometimes quite funny pastiches or allusions. There are a few touches of Ruth Rendell, too, as in The Murder at the Vicarage, whose narrator falls for the new vicar, who hasn’t married because he hasn’t met the right woman yet. This raises the hopes of several other swoony, broody females. The narrator expects that their discovery that they were all handmaidens who would never achieve their dreams would cause them to abandon the man, but instead they kill him.
     All the plots are fair, the characters just off-kilter enough that we accept them as plausible victims and murderers, and the writing competently adapted to the writer’s intentions. A good book for a plane ride. **½

Monday, September 05, 2016

How to Play Hamlet

     Hamlet: Two introductions. Back in ye Olden Days of Gold, school and college text producers took literature seriously. They asked academics for introductions, intended to prepare scholars for the treats that awaited them, to prime them to have the conventional responses and ideas about the books. I recently read two intros to Hamlet, and both display the writer’s certainty that his interpretations are the right ones. Both include orotund exclamations about Shakespeare’s genius and Hamlet’s philosophical world-weariness and such. Sentences that I can see an industrious student quoting, and attributing in carefully constructed footnotes.
      I don’t have the name of the person who wrote the introduction to the Canadian edition of the Swan Shakespeare. (Published in the 1950s) It begins with a Life, goes on to consider the Elizabethan Stage, and Shakespeare and the Renaissance Spirit, which the writer claims is best seen in Hamlet. There is a brief discussion of Elizabethan language, a great help to the naive reader I think. The writer takes it for granted that Shakespeare is the greatest writer and Hamlet his greatest work. I suspect that the Renaissance was his field of study, for he says about Hamlet, his love of philosophy, his student’s mind, his melancholy, his trust in “capability and god-like reason” his frequent references to classical myth, his love of music... remind one irresistibly of Leonardo [da Vinci] at the court of Ludovico of Milan... show he was a Renaissance Man. Well, maybe so, but don’t expect a high school senior or a college freshman to get anything out of this encomium, apart from labels of Renaissance traits.
     G. S. Gordon of Magdalene College edits the Clarendon (Oxford) Shakespeare (1912). His introduction focuses on the text, which exists in a bad first quarto, a reasonably good second quarto (reprinted several times), and the Folio, which omits some quarto material, and adds new lines. It is Shakespeare’s longest play, which in itself raises puzzles about how to think about the extended text. Was it ever acted at this length in Shakespeare’s day? To what extent does it represent Shakespeare’s and his acting company’s intentions? Impossible to say.
     Gordon’s take on the text is that it developed as the Company played it over many years. He approaches it as a script. It was very popular in its day, which suggests that the Folio text represents the final version(s). He points out, for example, that the variations in the Queen’s speeches in her interview with Hamlet affect how we answer questions about her possible complicity in the murder of her husband. A good point, and Gordon refers to Shakespeare’s “remodelling” of several scenes of the play.
     It’s not always clear whether he’s thinking about how Shakespeare reworked the older version of the play, or how he reworked his own version. But his focus on the craft of script-writing is welcome: most school- and college-text criticism discusses the plays as a text to be read, not as scripts to be acted. Still, he doesn’t go all the way, and still betrays a prejudice in favour of reading over acting.
     I think the focus on reading the text has for several generations been a weakness in Shakespeare criticism. The question is not, “How do we interpret the characters?” but “How should we play them?” Instead of asking whether the Queen suspected her husband was murdered,  I would ask, “How would you act the Queen if you think of her as suspecting (or not suspecting)  that Claudius killed his brother?” The answer is not obvious. If we assume that the Queen suspected Claudius killed the old King, then the interpretation of the text and hence the acting will be different than if we assume she was utterly innocent of any such suspicion.
     Was she, though? We have to consider all her appearances in the play to decide which version is more plausible, but whichever one we settle on will affect how we decide to play her. But this conception itself depends on a larger sense of what the play is about, of the world in which Hamlet must accept that he cannot reject the options that face him, but must choose. “Ripeness is all”, he says as he finally accepts his fate.
     That, too, is a major thesis of Gordon’s introduction. Thematically, Gordon’s essay is richer than the Swan introduction. Its implicit acceptance of the text as a script could have been made explicit. As it is, Gordon comes close to saying that we should read the text as if we wanted to produce the play. The puzzles of plot and character then become problems of direction and acting.
     Swan: ** Gordon: ***

Monday, August 22, 2016

Photos of Cobalt and Sudbury (book reviews)

     Two Photo Album reprints: 1894 Souvenir of Sudbury & Cobalt the Silver City. (1981) Exactly what the titles promise, collections of photographs originally issued to boost the images of Sudbury and Cobalt, and attract settlers and investment. The original photographs show the care that went into making these expensive objects. A full plate (5"x7") photographic print cost about half a day’s typical pay. The photographers couldn’t afford to make technically poor negatives or unpleasing images.
     Composition is always workmanlike and often pleasing. Many of the photos show people lined up in front of buildings: an opportunity to have your picture taken for a low price was rare. Most of the pictures show banks and stores, and public buildings such as schools. The signage is sometimes overdone to our eyes: a wall was a great place to catalogue merchandise. There are a few interior shots. All pictures repay close study. One thing I noticed was unpaved roads bordered by wooden sidewalks. The pictures of mines include enough detail for a building models or dioramas.
     Exposure and development was calculated to provide a nice gradation from black to white, with the maximum of detail in the shadows and the highlights. Unfortunately, reprinting printed images always degrades the quality, and both albums suffer from the effects of making photographic copies of halftones. The Cobalt album is somewhat muddy, the Sudbury one somewhat pale. Both will join my modest collection local history books. **½

There'll Alway be an England, or at least a Giles Cartoon Collection

     Giles Cartoons 1991. In 1991, Giles stopped working for the Sunday Express, although he continued to select the cartoons for subsequent albums. I’ve always liked his cartoons, especially his Family. His compositions are wonderful, he uses shading and black to create a clear structure. His line is always confident, and his ability to create expressions with a squiggle here and a curve there is unsurpassed.
     The cartoons tell stories, with many incidental details, and always make or imply some comment on the events of the day. Some are mildly indulgent observations about the follies and quirks of the English, and I suspect had a great influence on their self-image, especially their stoic endurance of often horrible weather, the culture of the local pub, cricket, horse racing as a legitimate excuse for gambling, and so on. But more often his comment was satirical. I leafed through the album to select an example, and found it difficult going. At random: Grandma is mowing a great curved swath in the lawn, grass clippings flying all directions, newspaper readers shaken, drinks about to fall off the tray carried by her daughter, who says, “I told you not to trust her with the lawnmower after her horse refused at the first fence.”
     Wikipedia’s article is a good intro, and there’s a collection available at the British Cartoon Archive, hosted by the University of Kent. ****

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? (if you really want to know)

     David Feldman. How Does Aspirin Find a Headache? (1993) Feldman made a name for himself as a collector of much-puzzled-over trifles, publishing ten books and working on #11. His website lists all ten titles, all now available as e-books. This one (#6) is a typical collection, answering questions such as the title, and What did Barny Rubble do for a Living?, What’s the Difference between French and Italian Bread?, etc. His humour is too often arch, but insofar as we all come across puzzles we can’t solve, the books fill a need. Unlike many of the answer compilations that people circulate as emails, these are as well researched as possible.
     There’s a section on “frustables”, ie “frustrating imponderables”, in which Feldman not only fesses up about his ignorance, but provides overviews of what is and what is not known about questions such as Does anyone really like fruitcake? (Yes, I do, and I’m not alone, albeit in a minority, it seems. I think that fruitcake has to be soaked in brandy or rum, wrapped in foil and plastic, and allowed to ripen for a year or so.)
     The appetite for trivia will never be slaked. The number of click-bait sites featuring 10 Most Horrifying Worms and similar lists increases daily. Even New Scientist has Questions page, on which readers ask about odd stones or strange organic looking debris for other readers to asnwer.
     Good collection, a nice way to while away a few minutes when you’re too tired for productive work and pleasure, but not tired enough for sleep. ***

Friday, August 19, 2016

Photos that Tell a Story: The Picture Post Album

     Robert Kee. The Picture Post Album (1989) Kee’s history of the magazine, Britain’s version of LIFE, which preceded it, but learned from it. Picture Post’s founding owner (Hulton) and editors (Lorant and Hopkinson) wanted to use photography as the medium for telling stories, not as an adjunct to text. They succeeded brilliantly, in large part because Hulton was a social reformer, and expected the future to be one of progress in equality and social justice.
     The Second World War began when the Post was barely eleven months old, and it became a major factor in maintaining British morale. It published pictures of all social strata at work and play, of soldiers and civilians experience of the war, mixed with a bit of discreet cheesecake and sentiment, and in every issue dealt with some more serious topic such as the future of health care, or the conduct of the war. The photographs were brilliant, and their layout and captions told the story. The amount of text apparently varied, but the Post published articles and short fiction too, as well as leaders (editorials). The magazine could be sharply satirical, as when it published black rectangles instead of the pictures about the home front that the editors wished to print but which the censors forbade.
     But the focus was the pictures, and this book shows us the range of subject matter and style. Many of it images have become the ones that we think of when celebrities and artists of the mid-twentieth century are named.
The photographers were among those who shifted photography away from vaguely conceived imitation of fine art in other media into its own realm. We now take it for granted that photography can be anything the photographer wants it to be, but that it works best as the record of a moment whose significance isn’t understood until it’s captured in a photo, that photography can distill meaning as well as any painting, precisely because it fixes what would otherwise be a distorted memory of a glimpse.
     The magazine morphed into the owner’s mouth-piece when Hulton disagreed with the post-war politics of Labour. He also pioneered the advertorial, a dubious honour. That wasn’t what the readers wanted, and TV with its illusion of immediacy cut into the visual reporting of illustrated news magazine. It died in 1957, a parody of itself.
Hopkinson’s Foreword ends with a hopeful claim that a magazine of high-quality photo-reportage and writing could be viable. He had no inkling of what digital photography and the Web would do to new media.
     A nostalgia trip for anyone who knew the magazine or the times in which it thrived, and a necessary record for those who did not. ***

Leacock, humourist and satirist

     Stephen Leacock. Literary Lapses and Winnowed Wisdom (1910 & 1926) Leacock suffers from his reputation as Our Great Canadian Humourist. He does write humorous pieces and some wonderfully bizarre fantasies, his sense of the absurd is exquisite, but his real strength I think is satire. His taught economics, the dismal science, which isn’t a science but is dismal, especially when its practitioners have a political or philosophical axe to grind. There’s only one law of economics: trading is an exchange of wealth. Everything else is ideology, psychology, and (mostly) superstition. Leacock understood this, and his savage attacks on the rich, their greed, indifference, and ignorance, are disguised by a veneer of absurdity, or surrealism, or a bonhomie that may trick you into thinking that a snarl is a grin.
     Leacock likes to use the naif as his narrator, as in How to Make a Million Dollars, not nearly as well known as My Financial Career, and not nearly as pleasant to read. It begins “I like millionaires”, and pretty soon we realise that the millionaires are venal, self-indulgent, greedy, and more or less corrupt. But the narrator sees only the fine clothes, fine food, fine houses, and fine drink, all which he would like to have more of himself. He can’t make a million dollars, but he can ingratiate himself into millionaire society: they will feed him well in exchange for his flatteries.
     Leacock knew his audience, and was careful to write the nonsense that elicits laughter rather than awareness. He was a complex man, who knew perfectly well that humans are a good deal less than they wish to be and persuade themselves they are. His need for approval often made him pull his punches and sheathe his claws. His best pieces are those in which he can indulge his sense of the absurdity of daily life without risking satire, such as The Men who have Shaved Me, or The Everlasting Angler (he was an avid fisher all his life). But his most powerful ones are the satires, see Summer Sorrows of the Super Rich.
     Reprinted in A Treasury of Stephen Leacock (1999), along with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I bought it for $1 at a yard sale, excellent value. Recommended. ****

Looking for Tiny Trains and Loving it: In Search of the Narrow Gauge (1996)

     Bob Wetham. In Search of the Narrow Gauge (1996) When Wetham’s father was posted to Peru in the 1970s he developed a love of trains and narrow gauge ones in particular. In this collection of reminiscences and photographs he tells of several of his journeys, most of them in South America. He really did go out of his way to see and ride the last narrow gauge trains. A few of the lines have become tourist lines, but most have long since gone.
     The book focuses on the journeys, not the technical details of the lines. Wetham spent a very cold night in Patagonia, and years later returned on a guided tour. He risked permanent disappearance in Africa, and endured surveillance by police and army in other parts of the world. He comes across as a nice guy who’s happy to share his passion for trains. Oddly, it’s a page turner, I think because he tells things as they happened. The photos are well printed, too, I wish there were more of them. But in the pre-digital photography and printing age, pictures and printing were more expensive than they are now, a bare quarter century later. Recommended for anyone who likes trains and travel. **½

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The humour of horror: Charles Addams

     Charles Addams Nightcrawlers (1957) Wikipedia lists this as the 5th compilation of Addams’ drawings. Addams has a knack for combining the everyday suburban life of middle America with traditional horror tropes. This makes his Family endearing, We recognise that even terrifying monsters have a homelife and trouble raising their children. That’s what made the TV series a hit, despite its clumsy production values and often awful scripts.
     But all is not sweetness and dark. Addams also takes evil seriously: The TV host of “Here is Your Life” reveals “...the wife you haven’t seen for eighteen years” about to appear from behind the curtain, carrying a gun. Or a little boy dribbling not crumbs but thumbtacks to mark his trail. OK, that’s mere meanness, but mere meanness is merely the mildest evil.
     He’s also good on the purely bizarre: A TV repairman tells the customer he has fixed the “dead area difficulties” etc, by mounting a huge eye and two large ears on the antenna above the set. A allusion to Big Brother, perhaps.
      I think Addams influenced cartoonists like Gary Larson, and also created an audience for them. My copy is a Pocket Books reprint of 1964, well done on good paper, but I had to re-glue the back. A keeper. ***

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Men In Black: A Classic

    Men in Black (1997) [D: Barry Sonnenfeld. Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn et al] I think this is the fourth time I’ve watched this movie. Maybe the fifth. It holds up well.
     It’s inspired by a comic book series that seems to be a rather rambling, unfocused mess. The movie delivers a coherent story, with witty dialogue, well-done riffs on stereotypical characters, a superlative storyboard, and actors who know that to make a fantasy work means hinting at the backstories that animate their roles. The whole crew obviously had fun making this ridiculous story work. Competent photography, well-executed special effects, direction that keeps the story moving fast without ever losing the audience, music and sound that rarely intrude, sly allusions to the tropes of the genre. What more can you ask for?
     It’s the actors that make this fantasy above average. Jones has the world-weary look of a pro who has seen it all, but hangs in there because a) it’s his job; b) he’s good at it; and c) it’s necessary. He’s moderately patient with recruit Will Smith, who delivers his standard smart-ass character, a wise guy who has trouble with authority, but takes the job seriously. All the secondary roles are done well, even the tow-truck driver has a history, hinted at when he reveals a gun tucked into his waistband.
     Movies like this are often underrated. They’re slick, live-action fantasy comic books after all, and what can such a genre teach us about real life? A lot, actually. That loyalty matters. That the cranky outsider is essential precisely because he’s a cranky outsider, and sees things that others miss. That life demands sacrifice. That with luck, a bit of talent, and damn hard work, you can exceed your own expectations. That the universe is a mysterious, dangerous, and wonderful place. And that a movie crew that believes in the project can deliver a classic. ****

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Self Service: The illusion of Empowerment

In a current Techopedia article about how Big Data can improve self service, the author claims that self service empowers people to do task themselves. Nope. What it actually does is download those tasks onto the customers. However, most of the cost-savings do not accrue to the customers, but to the shareholders.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

    (J. R. Green) The Wonders of the Ancient World (1983) Well done pamphlet about the 7 Wonders. Quick now, can you recite their names? I couldn’t either, still can’t. Anyhow, Green, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at Sydney University (Australia) writes well, packs an immense amount of information into very few words, and manages to get across what these Wonders meant to the Greeks, who made up the list. The illustrations assembled from many medieval and later sources by the Reader’s Digest team (RD take credit for the booklet) suit the text very well, and show how absence of data does not deter people from creating detailed pictures of things they have never seen. Certainly out of print by now, but that’s not the only reason this is a keeper. Lovely little reference, the kind that can settle friendly arguments. ****

Great Model Railroads 2016

     Kalmbach Publishing Co. Great Model Railroads 2016 It’s time to review another of these special annual Model Railroader issues. Model Railroader is a strong proponent of operations: the owners of all the layouts featured here either designed them for operation, or added operations after exposure to the entertainment value of the railroad game. They also want a stage for the trains, the actors in the drama, as Frank Ellison described it in his articles about the Delta Lines, a showcase for railroad-like operations in the 1940s and 50s. So the layouts look good, interpreting or echoing some prototype and set in a recognisable time.
     The articles generally follow the “How I Built My Railroad” format, which will be helpful to the novice. Since the magazine is intended as inspiration and showcase, this makes sense. However, I sometimes wonder whether page after page of basement- or garage-sized layouts might not overwhelm the new modeller, who more likely has a small bedroom or a corner of a family room available. The layouts here range in size from 299 to 1800 square feet. Most are in the 400 square foot range.
     That being said, the photography is excellent, the concepts are interesting, and every builder has solved some common problem in an unusual way. The most successful layouts, to my eyes, are those that use a minimalist approach. That is, design a track plan based on the prototype, which disliked spending unnecessary money, and so tended to build just enough track to get the job done. Use enough scenery to give the trains a setting. Avoid cluttery detail, but set up scenes that tell a story. Use colour and lighting to create the ambience desired, which is of course the illusion that we are looking at a miniature universe. Give the operators what they want while giving the mildly interested hangers-on something to look at and enjoy.
     While these layouts are large, they not complex. They all provide a full evening’s operation, some with a half dozen, other with a dozen or more players. The make playing at railroading easy enough to avoid frustration, and complicated enough to hold interest.
     A few faves:
    The Shasta Route (HO, Southern Pacific), a well thought out train-watchers layout with grand vistas and some switching to keep the puzzle-solvers busy. There’s enough staging to allow for a satisfyingly busy day down by the tracks.
     The Appalachian Route (On30, fictitious), which creates a nice early 20th century ambience for the nostalgia buff who likes to see small trains in large landscapes, and lots of laid back switching in towns and villages hosting small and medium-sized businesses.
     River City (HO, Minneapolis & St Louis), which recreates a few miles of small town railroading, with enough operation to keep a half dozen or so people busy for relaxing evening. The builder kept close to prototype track arrangements, but fudged a bit by including some defunct businesses to increase work for the peddler trains.
     This issue is no longer in print, but back issues are available from Kalmbach, and many hobby shops will still have a few copies on their racks. ***

The Past's Long Shadows: Trophies and Dead Things, by Marcia Muller

     Marcia Muller. Trophies and Dead Things (1990) Sharon McCone tracks a serial killer who’s randomly picking off people, including Perry Hilderley,  a client of Hank’s, colleague and lawyer at the All Souls Legal Cooperative. She solves that one, but the case isn’t over yet. Hilderley has left his fortune to four people whose connections to him and each other are obscure. McCone solves that one, too, but not without two more deaths. Muller likes stories in which the past’s long shadows darken the lives of the more or less innocent young. Here, it’s the anti-Vietnam War protest movement of the 60s. Multiple betrayals and confused motives messed up lives back then; unfinished business prompts some people to lethal action now.
     A plausible plot with not overly-TV’ed characters. The story moves at a leisurely pace. The back-stories of the All Souls characters advance a few steps. A couple of kittens appear here and there, and end up at McCone’s place. Love hurts are healed, somewhat. There’s no mention of fees, especially McCone’s, ever being paid. Well done entertainment, a cut or two above the average for the female PI genre. **½

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Schrödinger's Cat has Kittens

     John Gribbin. Schrödinger’s Kittens (1995) Gribbin’s follow-up to his In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, an earlier attempt to explain quantum mechanics. Here, he begins with an overview of the weird results of experiments inspired by various interpretations of QM, and an overview of several attempts to explain the weirdness. He focusses on non-locality, as evidenced in entanglement for example. Non-locality appears to require instantaneous exchange of information: If you determine the polarisation of one electron, the other instantly “collapses” into the complementary polarisation.
     And so on.
     I’ll note in passing that Gribbin spends a lot of time debunking the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), which he claims requires a conscious observer. I don’t think it does, but let that pass. Either way, the CI interpretation relies on the metaphor of collapsing probability waves.
     Gribbin’s first insight, with which I agree, is that interpretations are metaphors or analogies. The question is of what? Gribbin says “Models!”, by which he means theories. And fails to see that Models is another metaphor. But he does say a couple of useful things about the relationship between theories (or models) and what they purport to explain, in particular that they are stories we make up in order to make sense of our observations. I don’t think he emphasises enough that these stories are told in mathematics.
     His second insight is that all experiments, and hence all theories that explain experimental results, are deliberate reductions of degrees of freedom, aka variables. Hold as many variables as possible constant, and see what happens when you mess with the rest, preferably just one if you manage it. Create a model of just one aspect of reality (whatever it is). Eg, the laws of motion don’t concern themselves with the chemical properties of the objects whose motion they describe.
     So which of the many models of reality embodied in QM and its interpretations is “true”? They all are, as far as they go. Which one goes farthest?
     Gribbin plumps for string theory, which was fairly new in 1995, and Cramer’s transaction interpretation, which hasn’t gained as much traction as string theory has. Cramer points out that a key equation in QM has two solutions, one of which implies that “waves” propagate backwards in time. Gribbin claims that this “myth for our time” resolves the paradoxes and weirdnesses of QM.
     Well, it made sense while I was reading it.
     Throughout his book, Gribbin, like other scientists who’ve offered interpretations of QM, talks as if theories are descriptions of reality. He does this even when he reminds us that any theory that works is true only as far as it goes. Thus the Rutherford atom works just fine in chemistry, which deals with the interactions of the electrons that surround the atom. Newton’s equations work just fine for small jaunts into space. The notion of a photon as a wave works for certain experiments, and not for others.
     By “works”, I infer that Gribbin means “predicts observations accurately to the desired degree of precision”. Gribbin neither states this concept explicitly nor examines what it might mean. I think he doesn’t think about what a model is. I’ve built models, so I’m acutely aware that a model is not a replica of its prototype. You can get close, as with a model steam locomotive that operates on steam. But its boiler will have thicker than scale-size walls because otherwise it would be too weak to hold the necessary steam pressure. Its control handles must be bigger than scale so you can work them. And so on.
     In short, all models compromise, and in doing so they misrepresent what they model. A model is limited to the features that the modeller finds interesting and leaves out everything else. So if we declare that a theory is a model, just what does that imply?
     A theory is a collection of intertwined equations that describe the possible states of some natural system and how it may change states. In this sense, a theory is a model of the system. More precisely, if it’s well enough constructed, it’s an algorithm. Input some data (say, the present position and velocity of a rocket), turn the crank, and output some data (the position and velocity of the rocket a few minutes or days or weeks from now). The simple model of rocket motion ignores the effects of wind as it rises through the atmosphere, and the effects of gravity as passes by the Moon and Mars. To fix that, more complex models are devised. Divergence between calculated an observed values require that the model be rerun with the new actual values. And so on.
     In short, the model supplies information. It tells us where to look for the rocket. It’s not a description of reality, but a recipe for acquiring knowledge. But it’s limited: The Newtonian model tells us about the rocket’s velocity and location, but it doesn’t tell us how the crew is doing, and whether they will survive. For that, we need a different model (and a rather more complicated one).
     A theory is about how we can know some things about some entities. It is not a description of those entities. Philosophically, it’s epistemological, not ontological.
     So also with QM. It doesn’t tell us what an electron is, or even where it will be. It only tells where it’s been, and where it might be if you look again. The probability wave isn’t a description of possible states of the electron, it’s a description of how likely we are to know that the electron is in any given state.
     Even if you don’t go as far down the epistemological path as I’ve gone, you still don’t know what an electron is. All we know of the electron is a list of interactions, and some recipes for predicting which interactions will be observed when and where. Those recipes are amazingly accurate. Well, they amaze people who know how difficult it is to make accurate and precise observations, which includes me. I think it’s the success of QM that tempts physicists into thinking they are talking about reality. They aren’t. They’re talking about interactions, of which observation by a human is merely one more, and which I don’t believe is privileged in any way.
     Still, the book is worth a read if you have the time. It’s a good introduction to some of the wonderful strangeness of our universe. Gribbin has continued to publish his ruminations about QM and many other topics, his website
will tell you more. The Wikipedia entry includes a complete bibliography.
     Recommended, but sometimes heavy going. ***
     Reposted 2016-07-13 after accidental deletion.

Holmes, the Man of Action.

     Sherlock Holmes: The Game of Shadows (2011) [D: Guy Ritchie. Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, et al.] Conan Doyle’s Holmes this isn’t, but it’s a consistent re-imagining of the character. Moriarty wants massive profit by selling arms, so he arranges for assassinations intended to provoke war. Holmes and Watson manage to spike his guns, literally. Holmes takes Moriarty with him over the Reichenbach Falls, and the movie ends with Watson typing The End. Holmes materialises out of the armchair against the wall, and adds a question mark.
     Nicely done as a movie, good script with a clear enough narrative line and enough characterisation to give the actors something to work with. But the trend to CGI-enhanced, over-long “action” sequences doesn’t improve it. Robert Downey Jr does a creditable job as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson, and Kelly Reilly gets a nice bit part as Mary Watson, expert at solving ciphers and codes. Jared Harris’s Moriarty doesn’t convince me as the master of evil. Overall, a comic-book version of Holmes, a pleasant enough entertainment. **½

Brexit V: May says the right things

.... but does something strange, appointing Boris Johnson as her Foreign Minister. His history of confabulation, ducking responsibility, and attention seeking does not augur well for his skills as negotiator. So why did May appoint him? Cynic that I am, I suspect continuing internecine war within the Conservative Party. the nest few eeks should be interesting.
     The initial financial shocks have subsided. If the UK can demonstrate something like political stability, its economic decline may turn out to be less serious tan the first panicky reactions to Brexit suggested. We'll see. As with weather, economic forecasts need updating at regular intervals. My bet right now is that the slide of the pound will slow down, with an occasional uptick, but by this time next year it will at par with the dollar.

Food matters

     Seeds of Time (2013) Documentary that follows Cary Fowler as he travels round the world  as part of a world-wide seed-saving project. He was one of the instigators of the Svalbard Seed Vault. His message is simple: industrialised agriculture has brought about a sharp decline in crop diversity just when climate change has raised the need for genetic diversity so that crops can be adapted to changing conditions. Besides Svalbard, a project to preserve potato diversity in Peru gets central billing. There are also scenes of conferences, graphics illustrating the loss of seed banks, and so on. This is one of those slow-moving crises that people will ignore until it’s too late.
      Besides the Peruvian potato saving project, the film includes examples of seed saving by gardeners and other projects designed to preserve and increase diversify. Some of the repetitive bits could have been cut to provide more room for gardening, which in pure energy terms is the most efficient method of growing food.
     Unlike industrialised agriculture, a garden multiplies energy. The efficiency of agribusiness is an illusion limited to money. In terms of resources, it’s highly inefficient, because the externals aren’t priced. Gardening is labour intensive, but we get more food energy out of a garden than we put into it. Good thing too, or our ancestors, couldn’t have survived by preserving garden produce for the long cold winter. We subsidise agri-business by underpricing oil, which means we exchange the future of the planet for the present freedom from labour.
     A film both depressing and hopeful, relentlessly earnest, but necessary. Grow beans in your backyard even if you don’t watch it. ***

Consciousness and the real world

The New York Times recently reprinted an essay by Galen Strawson, "Consciousness isn't a Mystery. It's Matter".

I don’t usually review articles, but this one is I think worth reading. Strawson’s argument reverses the commonplace conception of what we know and don’t know about reality. Since I’ve long held similar views, his paper made me feel pretty good.

Briefly, this is how I interpret his thesis: The Hard Problem is not Consciousness. It’s Physical Reality. Physics offers an incomplete view of reality. It tells us how reality works, but it does not and it cannot tell us what reality is. This point was a commonplace one 100 years ago, Strawson writes, but it has gotten lost in the recent discussion of consciousness. Stephen Hawking makes [this point] dramatically in his book “A Brief History of Time.” Physics, he says, is “just a set of rules and equations.” The question is what “breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” What is the fundamental stuff of physical reality, the stuff that is structured in the way physics reveals? The answer, again, is that we don’t know — except insofar as this stuff takes the form of conscious experience.

In a post about Schrödinger’s Cat, I made the point that what physics offers us is a model of reality, of whatever-it-is that’s out there. Models are inherently limited. Whether built of equations or of plastic and metal, a model is not the prototype. It’s not even a replica of its prototype. (1) A model behaves in some limited respects like its prototype, which can be useful. A bridge design, that is, a conceptual model of a bridge, allows us to calculate the stresses well enough that the real bridge built according to that design will carry traffic without falling down. (2)

The model of the bridge can exist in several media: drawings, sets of equations and algorithms, physical objects made of wood or plastic or metal. None of them is the actual bridge, and none of them captures the total reality of the bridge. But, says Strawson, we can know the real bridge, insofar as [the bridge] takes the form of conscious experience. Indeed we can. We can look at it, we can hear the wind make the supporting cables hum, we can feel it shake as a truck passes over it, we can feel the texture of the railings as we hold on to them. That, implies Strawson, is the physical reality that our models can never capture. But our conscious experience is what we know directly, and all that we can know, of physical reality.

So the hard problem is the problem of matter (physical stuff in general). If physics made any claim that couldn’t be squared with the fact that our conscious experience is brain activity, then I believe that claim would be false. But physics doesn’t do any such thing. It’s not the physics picture of matter that’s the problem; it’s the ordinary everyday picture of matter. It’s ironic that the people who are most likely to doubt or deny the existence of consciousness (on the ground that everything is physical, and that consciousness can’t possibly be physical) are also those who are most insistent on the primacy of science, because it is precisely science that makes the key point shine most brightly: the point that there is a fundamental respect in which ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe is unknown to us — except insofar as it is consciousness.

Strawson implies that reality is consciousness.  I’m not sure that I agree with that. But his stance has at least two advantages over the notion that Consciousness is the Hard Problem.

First, it reminds us that physics itself is motivated by a desire to make sense of our conscious experience. The fact that our models become ever more abstract, become “sets of rules and equations”, is a side effect of the experimental process that we believe yields objectively true insights. (3)

Secondly, it validates the empirical stance. We test accounts of reality, no matter how abstruse or abstract, against our own experience. “Truth” is the feeling we have that what’s been said corresponds to reality as we perceive it. This is as true about the most mystical theology as about the most concrete engineering problem. It’s as true about the silliest confabulations as about the most tested and proven claims.

“The truth is out there” undergirds all our sense of reality. But we know the truth only by sensing congruencies between different remembered experiences. Whatever is “out there” will forever be a mystery. That was Plato’s point in his image of the cave. His mistake was to believe that reasoning could access the reality outside the cave. He began the line of thought that ends with the blithe assumption that the “sets of rules and equations” describe reality not only more accurately but more completely than the accounts of our own experience.

There’s an irony here: The more we try to understand the nature of reality, the more we retreat from it. As Russel pointed out, in mathematics we know whether what we are saying is true, but we don’t know what it’s about; while in poetry we know what we are talking about, but we don’t know whether what we are saying is true. With all its quirks and imperfections, the conscious world is the only reality we know.

Footnote 1: There is a difference between a scale model of a steam locomotive that runs on steam, and a full size replica of the same locomotive. The model's boiler, for example, will have thicker than scale walls, else it cannot sustain the necessary steam pressure. The model will not accelerate and decelerate in scale proportion, because its power-to-mass ratio will be different.

Footnote 2: Nineteenth century theories of bridge behaviour were incomplete enough that many bridges fell down, and many people died. The real bridge does not behave exactly as modelled, thus giving graduate students in engineering lots of opportunity to observe them and refine the models.

Footnote 3: Quoting Bertrand Russell, Strawson writes:  “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events,” [Russell] wrote, “except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In having conscious experience, he claims, we learn something about the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, for conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Encyclopedia of ETs

     Wayne Douglas Barlowe et al. Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (1979 & 1987) With an introduction by Robert Silverberg. A nicely done survey of 48 extraterrestrials as described by 40-odd writers. Barlowe has done his best to interpret descriptions of varying completeness and vagueness into accurate renditions of their appearance, as well as summarising what the stories say or imply about their biology, social structure, political role(s), and so on.
Several of them contradict my visualisations (e.g., Dickson’s Ruml, from The Alien Way), others are wonderfully unearthly (e.g., the Dextran). It is after all logically impossible to imagine anything that is utterly alien: all ETs are inevitably extrapolations and interpretations of what we know about life on Earth, and what we can estimate about the physics and chemistry of exoplanets.
      Nevertheless, both writers and artists have tried to convey the sense of the Alien as something other than a human in a weird costume. The notes to the illustrations sometimes come close (e.g., Radiates, starfish shaped beings from Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman, “will join an interlocking wheeling dance”).
      A well done compendium, that any SF fan will enjoy. It should be on the reference shelf of anyone contemplating devising an SF movie or book. ***

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Brexit IV: The rats want to leave the sinking ship.

Standard Life Fund, the investment arm of the British-based multi-national life insurance company, has stopped withdrawals from its real estate investment mutual funds.  All of them hold London real estate, whose value is unknown now that Brexit may eliminate London's role as the world's premier financial services provider. If Standard Life's action is the first of many, there will be a world-wide financial crisis. Let's just hope it won't happen, and if it does, that it won't be as bad as 2008.

Related risks: The pound was always overvalued in terms of purchasing power. Anyone travelling to the UK found out pretty quickly that the UK was expensive: A pound spent in the UK bought about as much as a dollar spent in Canada or the USA, or roughly twice as much as at home. Its high exchange value reflected the financial power of London. The pound was a safe haven currency. If it loses that status, the financial crisis will be very bad. "Investors" will try to unload pounds. But the only people who ever wanted them in the fist place were the people who will be trying to get rid of them. So the Bank of England will have to buy pounds, and that means a serious risk of major sloshing of currencies around the world. When currencies slosh around because nobody wants them, hyperinflation looms on the horizon.


Monday, July 04, 2016

Pictures from a road trip.

     Michael Glover. Big Lonely and Beyond (2009) Disclosure: I have several pieces by Michael Glover, you may surmise that I like his work. This self-published book collects 58 sketches and drawings Glover made on several trips across the country. He likes to show us objects in a landscape or townscape, cars, buildings, boats, trains, and so on; and a few people. Glover has a confident line and knows how to use shading to model objects and create depth. His choice of subjects reveals a strong nostalgic streak; he focuses on the effects of time. Well printed, with a brief introduction.
     Glover’s website is www.meglover.ca He paints in a slightly abstract realistic style with strong shapes and muted colours. Worth a look, I think. Anyhow, I like his work. ***

The Years of Bitterness and Pride (1930s Depression photos)

     Hiag Akmakjian. The Years of Bitterness and Pride (1975) A selection of Farm Security Administration photographs from 1935 to 1943. The Preface reminds us that the project to document the USA in photographs almost didn’t happen, and that it became one of most thorough and complete records of people and places ever undertaken. The photographers made over 250,000 pictures, all of them archived in Washington. A handful have become visual summaries of times and places that Americans that know of them hope will not be forgotten. But I suspect that we now have a couple of generations of Americans for whom the Depression is at best a remembered emotion passed on to them from elderly relatives, not an historical event.
     Yet anyone who sees these images will, I think, be reminded that economic dislocations engendered by laissez-faire capitalism have long-lasting effects on individuals and communities. I wonder what happened to these people who allowed themselves to be photographed. Some are defiant, some look beaten, some see hope around them. All look damaged in mind and spirit a well as in body. And yet the majority rebuilt their lives.
     There have been many collections of FSA images published. Look for them. They are fierce reminders that economic ideologies that mistake money for wealth and profit as a goal will inevitably hurt people. You can search the collection yourself here.
****

Brexit 3

    UKIP leader Nigel Farage has resigned. Another coward, afraid to face the consequences of his actions. He knows perfectly well that no one can deliver on the Leaver promises.
    Boris Johnson is now a mere backbencher and newspaper columnist, and as such he can repeat his nonsense about the UK's ability to negotiate the same deal outside as they have within the EU, but without the heavy hand of Brussels bureaucracy.
    To keep access to the Common Market will require accepting freedom of movement between the EU and the UK. The UK will lose EU subsidies for its agriculture etc., subsidies that are actually UK money coming back from the EU.
     But worse is that Leave voters will discover that they will not get what the thought they were getting, and will lose a lot what they've become used to. That will cause unrest, to put it politely.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Brexit Vote II

     The fallout continues pretty well as I expected.

      Harassment of immigrants has escalated. The Leavers expect things to get “back to normal”, to quote a woman interviewed by BBC. A young man in Leeds said he expected the immigrants to leave right now. The spin doctors are downplaying the racism in the anti-immigration sentiments, but it’s pretty obvious that race is the reason many Leavers want the immigrants out.
     The leaders of the Leave side always knew that they wouldn’t be able to deliver what they promised. Farage has already said that his claim that 350 pounds going to Brussels every week could be redirected to the National Health Service was “a mistake”. In one interview, he even denied making that claim. BBC News showed a photo of a bus plastered with that claim.
     Boris Johnson has stood down from running for Prime Minister. This supports my suspicion that his support for Leave was entirely a matter of rivalry with David Cameron. I don’t think he expected Leave to win, but hoped to get a strong enough vote that he could challenge Cameron. With a Leave win, he would have to negotiate the terms of leaving. The Europeans have made it quite clear that the best Britain could hope for would be a Norway deal: Accept the obligations of being in the EU in order to get the rights, except the most important one, which is having a say in how it’s run.

     What’s the likely future? A realisation by the Leavers that they can’t have what they thought they would get: jobs, security, control over the borders, well-funded public services, etc. As this realisation grows, “political unrest” will increase. It’s only a matter of time before a Leaver kills an immigrant. There will be a general election. It will be one of the nastiest ever in the UK.
     Northern Ireland will have to reconcile its desire to be British with the reality of losing access to Europe. I think the odds that they will want to join the Irish Republic will increase as that sinks in.
Scotland will play it both ways: try to block the exit, and separate from the UK. For them, it’s a win either way.
     If the Conservatives can get away from their stupid personal rivalries, they could use Scottish intransigence as an excuse to ignore the Leave vote in order to keep Britain united. But I’m not holding my breath on that one. This whole mess came about because of personal rivalries. Cameron wanted to keep the premiership, and offered the referendum to get enough votes to keep it. Johnson and others saw it as a wedge they could use to replace Cameron. None of them, I think, thought the vote could be close. If they had, they would have ensured a super-majority clause (60% or more) in the referendum rules.

     A few commentators have suggested that the Leave vote was as much an anti-government vote as an anti-Europe vote. The government, with the slobbering assistance of the tabloids, has used Europe as convenient whipping boy to explain and excuse the austerity programs they’ve imposed on Britain. Privatisation all over the place, an ill-disguised shift towards becoming a tax-haven, corruption on a scale not seen since the late 1700s, greed, contempt for the working people, all these things played into the Leave vote.

     For the time being, if you have money in Britain, get it out before the pound falls even further.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Churchill in Pictures

     Martin Gilbert. Churchill: A Photographic Portrait (1974) Published in the centenary year of Churchill’s birth, this combines a well-done selection of pictures with citations from Churchill’s letters, speeches, and books. I hadn’t realised how completely political Churchill’s life was: the hiatus between his early career and the recall to leadership in 1939 loomed much larger in my imagination than it really was.
     Churchill was a complex private man, and a simple public one. He loved his wife and children, there are hints of his friendships, his pastimes, and his religion, and how his public life sometimes made him regret the anxiety he caused Clementine. Publicly, he was Burkean conservative from beginning to end. He believed that the role of government was to maximise the freedom of the individual, hence that government must ensure that a decent life, free from want and fear, was essential. For how can someone be free when his whole waking life is focussed on where the next crust of bread is coming from? But he also opposed Socialism, which he believed to be the path to tyranny. I don’t think he reflected much on the inconsistencies of his political principles. He was a practical politician, and a very good one. His leadership during the Second World war was a major factor in the Allied victory. He willingly exposed himself to danger, visiting with the civilians whose streets had been bombed to bits, and the troops during a brief respites from battle. This encourage people to trust him, as well as giving him a direct impression of how the war was going.
     He made mistakes and enjoyed successes, he made both wise and silly decisions, he influenced the direction of events. For that last reason alone this book is worth a look. That it also gives us an impression of him as a human being is a bonus. ***

Another Serving of Interviews

     John Mortimer. Character Parts (1986) A follow up to In Character, and just as good. Mortimer had a list of standard questions, but willingly departed from the list if an answer suggested further conversation. The effect very often is that I would like to talk to these people myself, that they would be good dinner companions.
     As in the first book, I get the impression of a complete character with every interview, although rational reflection reminds me that I’m getting a performance. Two performances, actually, Mortimer’s and the interview subject’s, and very convincing ones. Still, some of the subjects seem to me nicer people than others, more aware of their own vulnerabilities, less sure that they deserved their successes, even while they sought them. Lauren Bacall, for example, or David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham. Others have arrived at some certainty about their place in the world, such as Graham Leonard, Bishop of London, whose lack of doubt is dangerous, or Lord Hailsham, First Law Lord, whose certainty about his ability to reason prompts him to change his mind when a question suggests a different take on a problem.
     I think both of these collections are wonderful historical resources. They also allow a wallow in nostalgia. I knew of almost all the characters Mortimer interviewed. But even those who were new to me reminded me of the 70s and 80s, a time when I took many things seriously that now seem to me have been mere bubbles on the surface of the river. ***

Friday, June 24, 2016

BREXIT Vote

52% voted to leave, 48% voted to stay, 72% of eligible voters cast ballots.  So 37% of eligible voters wanted out, 35% wanted to stay, 28% didn't vote at all. Pre-vote polling indicated that Leave supporters were disproportionately older, male, white, working class and rural, while Remain voters were disproportionately younger, female, ethnically mixed, professional class and urban.

Historically, older voters are more likely to vote than younger ones. The polling showed a slight margin for Remain (the UKIP leader actually conceded a Remain victory before the votes were counted). Thus, even a small difference in percentage of voting on either side would affect the outcome. Which is apparently what actually happened. The BBC map showing the distribution of votes supports that analysis, I think. In several urban constituencies that voted Leave, the margin was as narrow or narrower than the national vote. Scotland voted to stay, but there were places where the vote was as narrow as south of the border.

So we have a profoundly disunited Britain that has put itself on the outside looking in.

It’s a given, I think, that the UK will not thrive economically outside the EU. The warnings that trade deals are off and will have to be renegotiated are real. England’s major export has been financial services. Without the ease of access to the EU, that value has hugely diminished. Other countries will be only too happy to supply those services instead. Its industrial base has shrunk, and like that of other developed countries has either been displaced or bought out by foreigners. That’s both good (it’s part of a multinational, global industrial complex) and bad (there will be less incentive to keep operations in Britain).

Politically, Britain will continue to be part of NATO and other international organisations, but its partners will, quite naturally, view it with a combination of disdain and suspicion. Disdain for the failure of the current leadership, and suspicion of the coming nationalist, inward-looking cadre that will attempt to fulfill the empty promise of reconstituted British greatness. But national greatness isn’t like orange juice: you can’t just add emotion and stir.

Socially, Britain is in for violent and bloody times. The Leave vote will encourage the racists and bigots, who will see it as permission to attack immigrants and other groups that they blame for all that they see as having gone wrong since the Second World War.

And will it even be Britain much longer? Scotland voted to remain: the SNP leader has already said she will introduce legislation to enable a Scottish referendum to leave Britain. That will embolden the Welsh separatists, too, and Lord only knows how the Northen Irish will react.

2016-06-24