Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Det. Chief Inspector Banks First Case

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

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Cooperman investigates a scam, discovers Murder

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

Saturday, September 02, 2017

How the other animals live

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

Friday, September 01, 2017

Suicide? No, murder!

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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Murder of a Chemistry prof

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

George Johnston, underrated.

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

They eat my heart and grow to men.

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

Wikipedia has a good article about him. The book is out of print. If you find one, buy it, and cherish it.

Friday, August 11, 2017

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

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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cartoons and Comic Strips: Larson and Trudeau

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

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

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

You may want to write a script for this

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ants and grasshoppers: A comment on our economy

In  When Republicans Take Power Geoffrey Kabaservice writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophy and ideology

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

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

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


Some theoretical talk about theories.

Theory, Model, Algorithm, and the Limits of Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Grieving: a poem about loss

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

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

    The lake chilled

    and we shortened our swims

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Accidental discovery

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey, a flawed masterpeice

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

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Climate change: How fast does it happen?

A story about climate change.
A true story.

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

Global Warming

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Societies and their Environments: Collapse, by Jared Diamond

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

Angel Catbird: To Castle Catula

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

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

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

Friday, June 09, 2017

Political Anecdotes and War Stories: Memoir by Charles Lynch

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

Late Louis L'Amour: End of the Drive

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

Monday, June 05, 2017

Why GDP is a bad idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, David Brooks,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wolf Kirchmeir
age 71
Blind River, Ontario

Sunday, June 04, 2017

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

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

Thursday, June 01, 2017

My Father Was a Soldier (A Song About War)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Daesh Murders in Manchester and Egypt

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

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

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

Daesh is commanded and staffed by cowardly thugs.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Is 2 Minutes enough to Solve a Crime?

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

Friday, May 12, 2017

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

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

So you think you'd be a good detective?

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

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Smarter than an octopus? Maybe not.

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

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Knowledge, ignorance, and wisdom

I subscribe to Usenet groups. A few days ago, there was a brief conversation about the ignorance of people in general, and the younger generation in particular. I’d heard it all before. The following is a slightly revised version of what I wrote.

People are smart about different things. Always have been. Necessary and useful knowledge changes from one generation to the next. In the Olden Days, it changed very slowly, so that what an elder knew was useful not only to children but to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now it changes so fast that much of what you learned a few decades ago is now obsolete. For example, a lot of stuff I learned about cars when I was a kid was already obsolete when I learned to drive. My uncle showed me how to baby a choke to keep the engine running until it warmed up. He  kept a cork in his Morris 8 to wedge between the choke knob and the dash to hold the choke cable out until the engine warmed up. The car I learned to drive on didn't have a manual choke.

The rate of knowledge obsolescence has speeded up enormously. Read a mystery novel from 10 or 20 years ago, it's already historical fiction. Same goes for old TV shows and movies. It's easy to believe that the young 'uns are ignorant. They're not. They not only don't know what we know, they don't need to know it. They know other stuff, just as we knew stuff our parents didn't know (and didn't think worth knowing).

It’s worse, if that’s the word, when it comes to wisdom and insight. What's really worth knowing is for the most part unlearnable until you have enough experience to even recognise it as knowledge, let alone as useful knowledge. "Too soon old and too late smart". That's life.

Anyhow, all of us rely on other people's say-so for most of what we think we know, just as they rely on us for what they think they know. There's very little firsthand knowledge and analysis in anybody's head. Not enough lifetime to do much more than learn what you need, and a bit of what you like. We take other people's word for almost everything. See The Knowledge Illusion, published around the same time as our discussion of the kids’ unwillingness to learn from us became a topic for discussion.

Quick now, what does the heart do? How does it work? How do you know? Did you do the dissection and observations yourself? Etc. And how come humans dissected human and animal bodies for thousands of years before Harvey realised the heart pumped blood around the body?

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Mildly Malicious (book review)

     Graham Thomas. Malice in Cornwall (1998) A glowing corpse washes up on the north Cornwall beach, Insp. Erskine Childers is called in, his sidekick Sgt Black has memorise lots of poetry, the locals are the usual collection of country weirdos and incoming weirders. There’s an ancient unsolved murder, a new murder, blackmail, smuggling, bad food, good food, Erskine’s wry reflections, adultery, back-to-the-land romanticism, and so on. It’s a mildly engaging mix that afforded me a couple or three hours of pleasant reading. The novel improves towards the end, Thomas was I think still learning his craft. No fancy forensics, no cell phones or computers. Worth a look if you're looking for low-stress entertainment. **

Monday, April 10, 2017

Manga Hamlet

    Emma Vicelei (illustration) & Richard Appignanesi (text). Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet (2007) Hamlet is one of my favourite plays. This version’s not a script, it’s meant for reading. The adapters have cut the text severely, the effect is a focus on the essence of story and character. The graphics convey what on stage is done with voice and movement. The setting in a post-climate-collapse cyberworld works: almost everything takes place inside a climate-protected, wholly artificial complex. It makes for a claustrophobic ambience that expresses Hamlet’s dilemma.
     The black and white manga style annoys me, though. The opening pages use delicate colour, it would improve the work immeasurably to use the same pallette throughout. Colour makes imagery more readable.
     Nevertheless, for me, this version was a page turner. Well done. ***

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Comments? Ads or not?

     I've noticed a gratifying uptick in traffic to this blog. Thanks to all of you who read it. Please comment. I'd like to know what you like and don't like, and why. I write to please myself, but I also write to be read. I won't change what and how I write, but your comments would certainly help me choose what to publish.
     Google woud like to put ads here. No surpise! If I decide to allow it, I would have some control over the advertising. Please let me know whether placing ads here would be too objectionable to contemplate, or what kinds of ads would be acceptable. The incentive for me is that Google pays. Obviously, the more readers, the higher the pay, so it's tempting.
     I moderate comments, they don't appear automatically. Please indicate if you don't want me to publish your comments.

Don't Sell The House! (Pilgrim’s Rest book review)

     Patricia Wentworth. Pilgrim’s Rest (1946) The Pilgrims have lived at Pilgrim’s Rest for generations. When Major Roger Pilgrim announces his intention to sell, he dies in a riding accident. Robert Pilgrim fears it wasn’t an accident, and that he’s next. He retains Miss Silver to discover the truth. He too dies shortly after he announces he intends to sell.
     And so it goes. In all, there are four deaths, past misdeeds, dysfunctional families, secrets, and the surprise appearance of a key witness who provides the evidence that resolves the case. Miss Silver has done it again! But Patricia Wentworth has not. That surprise witness is brought in because she’s written herself into a corner.
     A pleasant read. Good dialogue, well drawn characters, nicely done reversals. The story is set in 1943, which makes it historical fiction when read now. **

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Death on the Couch (Kate Fansler mystery)

     Amanda Cross. In the Last Analysis (1964) A reread, and worth it. A student asks Prof Kate Fansler to recommend a good psychiatrist and ends up murdered on his couch. Complicated plot, but most of the solution is plain by the middle of the book. Knowing that this is the first Fansler story, I noticed a few things that Cross does better in the later tales, such as dialogue (overlong speeches here), and red herrings (a pale pink here). A good read. I’ve read several of the Fansler stories, and will continue to look for the ones I’ve missed. Fansler is presented as a happy career woman who likes male company but doesn’t need it. The novel ends with Fansler and Amherst Reed sailing to Europe on the same ship. In later episodes, she’s married to him; here, he’s one of several secondary characters providing essential information. **½

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An Unkindness of Ravens (book review)

    Ruth Rendell. An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) A late entry in the Det. Inspector Wexford series. A neighbour’s husband goes missing, two months later a dog digs up the body. He’s a bigamist, supposedly with a lech for young girls. And so on. A well done puzzle with enough red herrings to stock a fish farm. Feminism, incest, Jenny Burden’s pregnancy, Reg and Dora’s visits to the theatre to watch their daughter perform, tennis matches, a second murder, an attempted murder, ravens with women’s heads printed on T-shirts, and wet weather all figure in the story.
     Uncharacteristically for a Wexford, twisted psychology motivates the crimes. A pleasant enough entertainment. **½

A Flea in Jesus's Ear

    Karl Heinrich Waggerl. Und Es Begab Sich (And it Came to Pass) (1953) A collection of very short tales around the birth of Jesus Christ. A flea that creeps into Jesus’s ear and tickles him. A shepherd boy who show the baby Jesus how to suck his thumb. Etc. Waggerl was known for his sentimental stories; his style is that of the story-teller, albeit somewhat more formal than we now expect. The little book is nicely decorated with coloured wood cuts. I received it as a gift a few decades ago, and will pass it on. **

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ask the Cards a Question, the Answer is Murder

    Marcia Muller. Ask the Cards a Question (1982) Nice little potboiler in which PI Sharon McCone deals with an alcoholic friend, two murders in her apartment block, her intermittent relationship with Lt Greg Marcus, theft, a couple of sad sack husbands, and so on. Well plotted, undemanding narration, with a bit more edginess would make a good TV series. The title refers to two kinds of cards, one of which is the clue to the motive that leads to the murderer. I like this series, but don’t go out of my way to find the book. **

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Candide, a puppet

     Voltaire. Candide (1759. This edition, 1930, Illustrated Editions Co, New York) I first read this book some 50 years ago, and couldn’t remember a single thing about it. In fact, I knew the famous “Let us tend our gardens” line that ends it only from 3rd party discussions and references. So you may think that re-reading would be a revelation.
     Well, the revelation is the reason that the book was a blank: it’s the most boring, uninvolving, mechanically constructed “story” I’ve ever read. I suppose in its day it was daring, provoking, a poke in the complacent citizen’s eye, an insult to the philosophers, and so on. But that’s just a reminder that there wasn’t much reading matter available in Voltaire’s day, and the average was pretty low. It didn’t take much to effort to jump over the bar, and Voltaire did not exert himself. Or else the book proves that fiction is somewhat more difficult than essays.
     I just didn’t care about Candide or any of the other characters. It’s clear I was supposed to react to the horrible things that were done by various evildoers, and to laugh at Candide’s naive insistence that despite these horrors the world was the best it could be, and so on. But the characters are mere ciphers. They are satirical theses with labels attached.
     Compare Candide with Gulliver’s Travels, published about 30 years earlier, and known to Voltaire. What a difference. Gulliver, a naif like Candide, is fully rounded. We believe Gulliver’s reactions and feelings because they spring from his character. What’s more, he changes. He moves from one naivete (that the world is as it should be) to another (that there’s nothing good in the world).  Candide is a badly made puppet, and Voltaire an unskilled puppeteer. Voltaire is also inconsistent: people cheerfully steal the treasures Candide brings back from Eldorado, cheat him when he sells parts of it, renege on their promises, but he always has a few more diamonds to sell. Why doesn’t someone just beat him up and rifle through his pockets? In the fantastic world that Voltaire has posited, that omission is flat out incredible.
      I took four evenings to get through this book. Overrated. *

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Polaroid SX-70

An ad in the May 1975 Esquire says "Polaroid's SX-70. It won't let you stop." Right. If you could afford it. In today's money, each print cost $2 to $3. Way beyond the average person's disposable income bracket. But when digital photography became cheaper and better than film, that promise was fulfilled.

A lot of analogue tech of the 60s, 70s and 80s prefigured digital tech. Or: Digital tech to a very large extent fulfills the yearnings and promises that anlaogue couldn't.

On reading old magazines

Recently, I discovered three boxes of magazines from the 1970s that we’d moved from our old house to this one over 30 years ago. They’re headed for the recycle box, but I decided to look through them first. I found time machines. The magazines are Saturday Night (Canadian, published from 1897 to 2005), Esquire (American, still published), and Omni (American, 1978-1995). I’ve been (re-)reading Saturday Night and Esquire.

Some impressions: I’m surprised, but shouldn’t be, how quickly celebrities fade. Very few writers (for example) that seemed so important 40 years ago are still read these days. Hemingway may stand for writers who are important because they articulate the anxieties of the time in a way that feels authentic to their readers. Now they are of historic interest, and nostalgia triggers for the elderly, who vaguely recall the intensity of reading those books. But attempts at rereading them usually fail. I couldn’t get past the first half-page of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, for example.

The same is true of movies: Godard, Truffaut and others of the French New Wave Cinema had a huge influence on movie-making, but my vague recall of their films doesn’t translate into a desire to see them again.

But politics have staying power. The same issues that propelled Trump to the White House were the stuff of comment and argument in the 1970s. Some writers (Kenneth Galbraith chief among them) warned that capitalism was morphing into something destructive. “Trickle down economics” was a fraud perpetrated on the voters, as was globalism. Both were used as covers for a massive transfer of wealth to the 1%. The magazines offer both starry-eyed defences of these new economic arrangements, and dire warnings. The left-right divide was not yet as strong as it is now; “liberal” was still a positive label. But “new” conservatives were gaining respectability. Terrorism came mostly from the far left, not the far right.

One of the most prescient articles is “A Few Lessons in History from Harry Truman”, by Merle Miller (Esquire, January 1973). Miller provides extended quotes from a series of interviews, done as preparation for a biography. Truman was a reader, as a boy he “always had his nose in a book.” He knew American history and the Constitution probably better than any President before or since. The article summarises his views of the Presidents; his judgments are blunt. Most relevant for today:

Miller: I gather you think the system can take a bad President now and again and still survive. Truman: Maybe so, and [Taft] might have been a good one, but I’m talking about the Presidency of the United States. And the fact that during the four years Taft was in the White House the country started going to hell.

It went to hell because the “money men” got hold of the government. Taft’s economic policy was trickle down without that name. In general, Truman sees the political divide in the USA as between the money-men and the people. Recent events confirm his view, I think.

Most ads were “lifestyle”. Cigarettes and alcohol were sold as experience enhancers and status signifiers. Your choice showed that you were an expert of some kind. The same appeal to display in expertise shows up in the ads for amplifiers, speakers, cassette players, TVs, cars, clothes, travel destinations, all touted as must-have pleasure machines for the social striver. Ads are both more subtle and more blatant these days. Plain vanilla advertising has pretty well disappeared. But many ads back then were different only in the brand names. For example, brandy as a sign of taste and status: the ads not only make the same appeals, they look much the same, with a an elegant young man holding his snifter while a nubile female lounges at his feet holding hers. He’s looking straight out at you, it’s the power-stare. She’s looking up at him. The setting is some kind of semi-outdoor space with large windows and the kind of furniture that’s sold as increasing the elegance of a room.

Some of the tech was ahead of its time. “Quadraphonic” was an early attempt at what we now call surround sound. I heard a demo in a record store, it was awesome. But without at least four speakers, and the room to put them in, the effect was lost. That expense doomed it. There were small, pocket-sized 35mm cameras, but their small lenses limited their usefulness. And there was Polaroid’s SX-70, the best “instant camera” until digital cameras.

There’s fiction, too. In the mid-70s, both magazines published one or two stories per issue. Some of the authors have lasted (eg, Atwood), most were merely fashionable (eg, Barthelme), some were considered classics of the time (eg, O’Hara). About half are still readable. Most still had the kind of knotted plots that had become the standard for pulp-fiction, but mostly without the gore.

It was/is strange to read articles about current events and issues that I now think of as history. That’s perhaps the greatest charm of old magazines. There’s an online Esquire Archive. One month free, then $4.99/month, about half the single copy price.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Human Computers and the Space Race

     Hidden Figures (2016) [D: Theodore Melfi. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, et al.] Three black women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) working at the Langley Research Centre  as computers (human calculating machines) figure prominently in the calculation of the  numbers needed to plan and fly the first US manned flights into space. This history was until recently known to very few people.
     The movie does a good job of telling their story. Sensibly, I think, it focuses on the work they did, with enough backstory about their families, and references to the racial tensions that a few years later erupted into the civil rights movement, to give some sense of them as real people.
     The movie shows us what it’s like to do a good job. Like Sully, it’s about people doing their best, managing to achieve their goals despite the social and psychological constraints that burden us all. The movie makers knew how to convey the tension of actual and incipient failure, and the relief and joy of success. The human interactions are touched on lightly. One thing that comes across very well is the awareness that small errors (inevitable when calculating results based on numbers with built-in measurement uncertainty) could kill. We also see that professional pride and competitiveness may endanger the people who rely on those calculations to keep them safe. A rocket is a slow-burning bomb. Riding one into near-Earth orbit is always dangerous.
     I liked the movie. It’s depiction of Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary is perhaps a tad too self-congratulating (I think the sheer grind of being black in a segregated State was glossed over), but on the whole the movie had the ring of truth. Above all, it's a movie about work. The "hidden figures" faced obstacles that many, perhaps most of us, would not have even tried to oevrcome, but they did. They did so because they wanted to do the job right. Their greatness lies in their refusal to let anything get in the way. The greatness of the white characters, especially Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) the team leader, is that they shared that passion for getting it right.
     It’s a feel-good movie for sure. It takes us back to the days when America tried to be the best it could be, and when we formed the memories that make us pine for the days of greatness. ***½

Monday, February 06, 2017

Mystic Landscapes

[At the Art Gallery of Ontario, extended to February 12 2017]
     An educational show, arranged to lead the viewer through a contemplation of how landscape and landscape painting may satisfy spiritual longings. As such, it works, but I was far more interested in the pictures themselves than in the curator’s notions of mysticism and spirituality. So I did not listen to the audio guide (free), and avoided reading the introductory comments in each room.
     So then, as a collection landscape pictures, how well does it work? Variable. You will see Canadian and other impressionists, Harris of course,  some modern emulators of medieval and renaissance painting, abstract and realistic pictures, expressionists, in short a pretty good survey of styles. I was especially impressed by the large paintings of Eugène Jansson (here’s one), and a dark landscape by Schiele, which was not easy to read, but had a powerful effect on me. The disfigured landscapes painted by war artists also moved me. There were two Monet haystacks, they look like cupcakes.
      Besides Jansson, a number of other painters were new to me. The last room, about “cosmic forces” or something like that, showed brightly lit pictures mounted on dark walls. It felt gimmicky to me, but two small Georgia O’Keeffes and a couple by Arthur Dove (new to me also) were satisfying.
      The show is worth seeing. The thesis of the show is a good excuse to bring together a wide range of styles. The opportunity to see artists that most of us would otherwise ignore, tyrannised as we are by the concept of importance, is a bonus. Some pictures ****, most ** or ***, the show as a whole ***½

Sunday, February 05, 2017

King Donald

Wow! It looks like Trump and I agree on one thing, anyhow: The US President is an elected monarchy. That perception isn't mine, but I agree it's the best way to understand a head of government who is also a head of state.

But Trump is a but fuzzy on the concept, to put it politely. His claim that the President has a "sovereign prerogative" shows he thinks a King has absolute power. No mere judge may criticise, let alone set aside, an executive order.

I doubt very much that Trump came up with phrase by himself. So who's the power behind the throne, pulling the strings?

Friday, February 03, 2017

Politics 101: Proportional voting

Thd kerfuffle has died down, but I suspect that the rage of the extremist supporters of proportional voting will resurface during the next election in 2020. (2017-02-27)

Right now, there’s a kerfuffle about Justin Trudeau’s backtracking on changing Canada’s electoral system. He promised that 2016 would be the last election using first-past-the-post or  plurality voting. Some form of proportional representation would replace it.

A lot of people don’t like plurality voting. We have three strong parties: Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic, each with regional strengths and weaknesses. The Green Party regularly gains 3 to 5% across all ridings (1), and wins in one. In addition we have the Bloc Quebecois, a purely local party, but which has won large numbers of Quebec seats in the past. Each major party wins majorities in some seats, and all have widely varying regional support. The Liberals tend to win in the East, and the Conservatives in the West. The NDP is mostly urban.

The result is that national support between 35 and 40% is enough to form a government. (2) If enough people vote their support rather than their opposition, we tend to get minority governments, in which no Party holds a majority of the seats.

People give various reasons for thinking this is an unfair system. Chief of these is this observation: with roughly 40% support and a roughly 60% voter turnout, about 25% of voters voted for the government, while 75% voted against it. It seems manifestly unfair that only one in four voters determine who governs. Worse, the distribution of seats does not reflect popular support. What about the values and views of those whose vote was cast differently? They will not be heard, it seems. What about people who voted for a losing party? Their vote doesn’t count, it seems. So why vote?

Let’s dispose of the unfairness argument immediately. There is in fact no fair voting system. Several mathematical proofs and demonstrations show that all systems can (and therefore sooner or later will) produce results that most voters do not like. Some will do so most of the time.

Plurality with three or more strong parties magnifies the difference between popular support and distribution of seats, which practically guarantees voter dissatisfaction.

Ranked voting tends to favour second and third choices, practically guaranteeing weak support for the government. Weak support translates into dissatisfaction very quickly.

Runoff voting, like plurality, magnifies the difference between popular support and seats won, since it masks low support for the eventual winner.  Like ranked voting, it guarantees weak support for the government.

Proportional voting almost always results in minority governments, which usually require formal or informal coalitions. Coalitions magnify the power of minority views and values, and of single-issue parties, which tend to be extreme. (3)

In short, all voting systems will skew the vote one way or another. They all cause different kinds of mismatch between what people want and what they get.

So the question becomes not, What kind of voting system do you want? but rather, What kind of skewed voting or unfairness can you accept, and why? And the complementary one, What kind of unfairness can you not tolerate, and why?

I do not like “proportional representation”, as its supporters usually term it. I have two reasons, the magnification of extreme views, and the magnification of the power of the Party.

Proportional representation with three or more strong parties results in minority government. That forces collaboration and even coalition. That’s a good thing, and if politics were on the whole a process for reasonable people to figure out what they want to do and how to do it, I’d have no qualms. But politics is about power, and in the pursuit of power people are not reasonable. The government may have to act on extreme views from one or more small parties to ensure the votes it needs. If it can’t do that, there’s instability. (4)

I don’t like extreme views. They are always held by a minority, thus do not reflect the majority. Holders of extreme views are incapable of admitting the validity of different ones, not even those that are similar. That’s a recipe for trouble, of political and civil divisions, and, too often, bloodshed. Any voting system that gives extreme views more effective power than their numbers warrant is bad. (5) Proportional representation encourages people with extreme views to form Parties, knowing that the odds are that they will get at least a seat or two, and with luck may use those few seats to exert influence on the coalition.

Proportional representation always means slates of candidates, one way or another. (6) Slates are determined by Parties. This means that the power of the Party machine becomes stronger. The Party machine does not like local control of candidate selection, since that makes it easier for a group of  determined local voters to frustrate the will of the Party. Slates make it easier for the machine to prevent that.

I prefer the plurality system, despite its flaws, because it magnifies local control, and it forces all parties to appeal as best they can to the average voter, the so-called mushy middle. There we find a variety of political views and values, ideas that often contradict each other, and the human inconsistency that makes collaboration not only possible but necessary. Parties that have to appeal to that mushy middle don’t drift too far to the left or right. When they begin to do so, they are replaced by the other party.

Bottom line: I don’t mind that Trudeau backtracked on his promise. If I had to choose another system, I’d go with runoffs. Ranked voting does not predict run-off voting, which forces the voter to think twice, which tends to change people’s minds.

(1) A riding is an electoral district. We elect “Members of Parliament” who sit in the House of Commons. We do not elect Senators.
(2) The Party that wins the most seats forms the government. If it has less than half the seats, it’s a “minority government”.
(3) Neither the Bolsheviks nor the Nazis won a majority of seats before they came to power.
(4) See Italy, which changes its government about every 18 months.
(5) See Israel. Most Israelis want peace with the Palestinians, but the government is hamstrung by extreme right-wing nationalist parties whose votes it needs.
(6) Slates are ranked by the Party. If your Party wins 10 seats, you’ve voted for the top 10 members of the Party list, whether you want them all or not.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Early Cary Grant vehicle

      Amazing Adventure (1936) [D: Alfred Zeisler. Cary Grant, Mary Brian, Peter Gawthorne] A debilitated rich young man visits doctor who tells him he suffering from money. Takes bet that he can’t last a year on his own, earning his own living. Finds out how the other half lives, also discovers that some people are kind, and some people are cooks. Helps first employer launch his extra-special cook-stove, defeats crooks, finds true love, rewards those who were kind, and fades out on clinch with wife who like him was taking a year off to earn her own money. The movie is barely an hour long, looks and feels like it was cut from a longer version. Pity. **

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two Thomases: Sympathetic Cromwell, Sleazy More

     Wolf Hall (2015; based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, who also worked on the screenplays) [D:Peter Kosminsky  Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy] Six episodes that give us a Thomas Cromwell quite different from the cynical villain of Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, and a sleazier Thomas More, too. The dangers of living in a polity in which personal loyalty to an erratic monarch was paramount, and an careless word or phrase could condemn you to death, are nicely explored. The dircetor wanted a few too many closeups of a silent Cromwell, etc, and the pace is slower than we’ve become used to lately, but it’s an impressive piece of work. Apparently it was filmed with ambient light only, a stunt made possible by recent advances in digital light sensors. Much of the action is set in dark interiors, I suppose to underline the darkness of the human heart.
     I now want to read the novels. Mantel clearly sides with Cromwell rather than More. Henry VIII is shown as self-deluding but respecting Cromwell because Cromwell won’t play the sycophancy game. Anne Boleyn is as much a victim of her own ambitions as of her family’s scheming for power. Wolsey is a wily old man who failed to achieve what his master wanted; Cromwell’s loyalty to him guides his plans, but at the end it’s unclear how much Cromwell wanted Anne’s death as a just punishment for bringing about Wolsey’s downfall. ***

Monday, January 23, 2017

US Trains of the 1940s

     Robert S. McGonigal, ed. Trains of the 1940s (2014) A Classic Trains special edition comprising articles published in the 1940s in Trains magazine as well some about the 1940s published in Classic Trains. A well done sampling of the railroads’ war work and post-war attempts to promote passenger travel. It’s an odd feeling to read about events of 70 years ago in the present tense. A few photographs show troops embarking or disembarking from trains. How many of the men in those pictures made it back home? The founder of Trains, A. C Kalmbach, wrote up some of his train trips. Nostalgia hits for anyone who grew up travelling on trains.
     Obviously a treat for the railfan, but also an excellent source for anyone who wants to know more about the 1940s in America. Well written, well produced. ***

Enemies of the Enlightenment

     Conor Cruise O’Brien. On the Eve of the Millennium (1994) CBC Massey lectures 1994. O’Brien meditates on the fate of the Enlightenment, which he sees as under attack. Agencies like the papacy attack it deliberately, for example by attempting to impose morals and ethics on individual conscience. But there are also those who claim to continue the work of the Enlightenment by bringing down institutions that they suppose to be hindering its advance. O’Brien points to the French revolution and its heirs. He’s especially good on how Burke foresaw the process of that revolution, until it would eventually be replaced by an autocratic regime that restored order if not individual freedoms. Burke predicted that, but didn’t live to see it.
      O’Brien admires Burke, I think because he sees in Burke a powerful intelligence coupled with a deep understanding and respect for the irrational. I haven’t read much Burke (I’ve forgotten what I did read), so I can’t comment further on that part of O’Brien’s discussion. But it's clear that O’Brien himself understands the power of the irrational, and the dangers of reason put in the service of realising irrational aims.
     O’Brien’s predictions of what may happen in the first quarter of the 2000s are more or less off the mark in detail, but his clear-eyed view of  the forces that tend to break the democratic contract is spot on. Time has turned his analysis of democratic elections as popularity contests into a mordant comment on recent elections in all advanced countries, none more so that in the election of Trump and Justin Trudeau. The former is revealing himself as an incompetent governor; the latter as a good deal more competent than his enemies want him to be. Both are well on the way of disappointing their supporters.
      Like Machiavelli, whom he admires, O’Brien tells some unvarnished truths about politics and governance. He reminds us that a polity’s sense of itself as a unified community depends on myths, which serve both to obscure the unpalatable aspects of wielding power and to direct that power into more or less agreed on directions.
      This is not an easy read. O’Brien knows more history than the average bear, even one interested in history. He understands that ideas matter, especially ideas that have been reduced to what we think of as common sense. He has experience in politics and government. He’s a poet as well as an essayist. These lectures are dense in meaning and allusion. O’Brien’s attempts to clarify confusion with quotations and concrete examples go some way to helping the reader (me) understand. Nevertheless, worth reading. Twice at least. ***

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cats versus Rats

    Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamara Bonvillain. Angel Catbird (2016) Well done pulp comic book fiction printed on nice book-weight glossy paper, including making-of material such as Christmas’s trial sketches of the main character, Strig Feleedus. He’s a nerdy biologist trying to perfect a genetic splicing drug.  Dr Mucoid, his evil villain boss, who want it to create a half-rat army, does a hit’n’run on him, which breaks the vial with the drug, which gets into his blood, along with some blood from his cat and an unfortunate owl. Hence Angel Catbird, a half-cat human with a dash of owl. A lovely succession of riffs on super-hero comics ensues. It'a all about cats versus rats. The script was written by Atwood, drawn by Christmas, and coloured by Bonvillain.
     Recommended. This is volume 1. Look for Volume 2 in February, and read it too. The book was shelved a Young Adult in our local library, which it’s not. ****

Friday, January 13, 2017

"A Brief History of Humankind"

     Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens (2014) Harari’s take on the history of us, homo sapiens sapiens, the only extant species of homo sapiens. He uses the title term throughout to refer to us in contrast to neanderthalensis and other human species (Wikipedia calls them “subspecies”.) He divides our history into three eras, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific.
     Our ancestors became sapiens when some changes in the brain enabled it not only to imagine non-present objects, but to talk about them. Harari calls this “fictive language” to distinguish it from the signaling systems used by other animals. Besides making the exchange of technical information easier, it accelerated technical improvements and the creation of societies that extended over space and time. Societies are held together by the stories they tell about themselves, and exist only to the extent that these stories are believed. To label them as myths is to misunderstand both their power and their necessity. It’s only when a myth is superseded by a new one that we see it as a fiction.
     Agriculture was not a precondition for large human societies capable of building monuments and settlements, but it certainly accelerated that shift in Sapiens lifestyles. But the key to the development of cities and empires was trade, facilitated and accelerated by writing. Writing is a method of recording and using more data than a single human can store in their brain. The earliest writings were records of numbers, not stories. Pure data, in other words.
      Science was the “discovery of ignorance”, the realisation that we don’t know everything there is to know. This placed a premium on searching for new knowledge, and fostered the stance that not only current knowledge but current lifestyles are subject to continuing change. Couple this with the invention of credit (the essential function of money), and the acceleration of technical, economic, and social change seems inevitable.
     Harari has the knack of noticing what’s right in front of us. Reading him has the twin effect of prompting “Well, of course, why didn’t I see it that way before?” and “Aha, just as I suspected.” It also reminds us that Sapiens has changed the planet more thoroughly than any other animal when it became the most skilful and efficient hunter and forager that ever evolved on Earth. Sapiens has altered every ecosystem it invaded, long before agriculture and the science speeded up and enlarged the scope of those changes. Sapiens has now developed the skills that ironically could enable it to create life forms that supersede it.
     We have become smart enough to replace ourselves, but not wise enough to understand why would want to do that, nor what kind of life form we would want to replace us.
     Every chapter, sometimes every paragraph, prompts questions, musings, applications to one's experience and knowledge. Harari’s large-scale view of human history expands the reader’s view also: I found my insights and perceptions continually challenged and shifting into new shapes.
     Read this book. ****