Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Too long in the dark

Polly Churchill is worried. She's stuck in London in 1940, and the handy time-travel doohickeys that are supposed to take her back to the mid-21st century aren't working. She's afraid she, or her friends, may have changed the space-time continuum and caused the Allies to lose World War Two.

(I am indebted to TV Tropes for giving me a piece of terminology to understand this phenomenon: Godwin's Law of Time Travel - "As the amount of time-traveling you do increases, the probability of Hitler winning World War II approaches one." [1])

Polly is, of course, being silly. As she would have known if she'd read To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book: historians can't change the past like that, even if they try. The past remains the past, even when you're in it. Changes can be propagated forward, only if they're so insignificant that nobody from your own time would have noticed them - you can, for instance, place some newspaper ads in the 1940s, which may then be spotted by your colleagues 120 years later. But you can't change the course of known history.

Polly may be excused for not knowing this - she's only a postgrad student. For James Dunworthy, however - the head of time travel research in Oxford throughout the 2060s - there's no excuse. Why, after two full-length novels and several short stories, he should still be propounding this nonsense about "the continuum breaking down" is beyond me.

This train of thought somewhat mars my enjoyment of Connie Willis's marathon opus, Blackout/All Clear. Which is a shame, because there's a really good book in here somewhere. (Only one, mind you. The 'two volumes' thing is quite unnecessary.)

Connie Willis does her usual stellar job of establishing sympathetic central characters, a strong supporting cast, and the fretful, fatigued atmosphere of wartime Britain. She's done a lot of research, and it shows. She has, however, left some irritating holes in her blanket of authenticity. For instance, her British characters consistently give dates in the modern American format (e.g. "May fourth", rather than "the fourth of May" or even "May the fourth", either of which would be more natural).

Willis wanted to write a book about the everyday heroism of ordinary people that won the war:

about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book's about all the people who "did their bit" to save the world from Hitler...

And at that, she's done well. Her account of wartime Britain is detailed, sympathetic and absorbing. If viewed as a collection of narratives about people who experienced evacuation, blackouts, shelters, rationing, Dunkirk, the Blitz, the V1s, and the daily expectation of loss and grief - it's a masterpiece. Where it falls down is in the time-travel narrative that ties these little human-interest stories into a coherent tale. While that story has its high points (mostly centred around St Paul's Cathedral), it's much, much too drawn-out to be sustained by its basic premises.

The result is that, when I'd finished reading, not only were my withers (quite sincerely) wrung by the prolonged hardship endured by my forebears, but I felt I'd accomplished no mean feat of endurance of my own. Which feels like an unworthy thought, but that's the price of honesty.

Overall rating: B-. Good, but should have been better.

[1] Incidentally, if anyone with a TV Tropes login is reading this: the above-linked page, at the time of writing, incorrectly states that events in To Say Nothing of the Dog cause the Nazis to win the war. This is completely untrue - that fear is raised at one point, but the whole point of the book is to demonstrate just how resilient history is - the ridiculous lengths it can go to, if necessary, to make sure it turns out right.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Inevitable, schminevitable

So, congratulations to François Hollande, who now has a parliamentary majority to back his own presidential mandate. Nice going.

Now what?

The Economist notably described M Hollande, before his election, as "rather dangerous". I think the article tried to explain precisely what he was a danger to, but I must admit I didn't follow its logic. As far as I can tell, the "danger" is that France will fail to do the things The Economist thinks it should. That seems a rather egocentric definition.

The most salient feature of M Hollande's platform is his promise of punitive taxes on the rich. This is a policy that serious publications (like The Economist) - which, incidentally, tend to be owned by very rich people - have been telling us for decades is a formula for disaster. This wisdom has gone unchallenged for the best part of 25 years: every major country has steadily cut its top marginal tax rate, and enjoyed the "growth" that followed. In 2010 Britain bucked the trend gently, only to change its mind almost immediately. Now, if M Hollande keeps his promise, France will buck it much harder.

It's a test case. If the Serious Publications are right, France's economy should implode like a broken light bulb: rich people will flee the country, new businesses will fail to appear, established companies will stagnate and collapse, unemployment will rocket and M Hollande will be facing riots, revolt and the ascent of fascism, probably within two years.

On the other hand, it's possible none of that will happen. It's possible that the rich in France (who are historically accustomed to higher taxes than their peers in places like the UK, or New Zealand for that matter) will grin and bear it, or simply use tried and tested tax-avoidance methods to reduce the total burden to something they think is more reasonable. And then the economy will continue doing no worse than, say, Britain's or Italy's - but with less inequality.

Already the evidence for the received opinion - that low marginal tax rates stimulate growth - is shaky. America's tax cuts since 2000 signally failed either to create growth (except for the rich), or to increase the total tax take. Japan cut its top tax rate from 75% in 1979 to 50% in 1990, and was rewarded with a "lost decade". In Europe, highly-taxed Belgium, Denmark and Germany are, if not exactly going gangbusters, at least better off than their lower-taxed neighbours in Italy (and, one might mischievously add, Greece).

Here in Antipodea: in the late 1980s New Zealand and Australia were roughly at parity in terms of GDP per head. Then New Zealand slashed its top tax rate (Australia also cut its, but much more modestly), and since then the Australians have outpaced us steadily. Today, even after their (higher) taxes are deducted from their payroll, the average Australian takes home a substantial 30% more than the average Kiwi.

Okay, I'm cherrypicking data. Each country has its own story - Australia is propelled by Asian demands for its mining exports, Japan's long decline was more to do with demographics, the US's tax cuts were accompanied by a huge boom in government spending, and so on. But I think there is more than enough evidence to question the assumption that a high top marginal tax rate is necessarily and in itself bad for the economy.

So, what if M Hollande implements his policies and France doesn't implode? What if his gamble actually pays off?

The Economist could argue that he was merely delaying the inevitable. The same "inevitable", mind you, that successive French presidents have been staving off now for more than 30 years. That's a whole generation of French people for whom "the inevitable" has, in fact, been evited.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Literary roundup

My avider readers may have noticed, amid the sporadic coverage of this year, that my book reviews have been trending to the negative. Of the two books I've reviewed this year, both have fallen short of my expectations, at least in any positive sense. My public, I make no doubt, will be worried for me. There's only so long one's soul can survive on the sort of diet I've discussed in the previous two literary posts.

But allow me to reassure you, dear reader, that my literary experiences have not all been negative. I have in fact read some fine works this year. Some of them, indeed, several hundred times.

There's a Wocket in my Pocket is far from Dr Seuss's greatest work. It lacks the compelling characterisation of The Cat in the Hat, the poignant pathos of Yertle the Turtle or the timeless sagacity of Oh, the Places You'll Go. But on the other hand, its vivid depiction of a world packed with sentient creatures in every cranny echoes the powerful meanings of Shinto or Gaian animism, and that can only be a good thing. In other words: if you think there's a jertain in your curtain, you'll treat it with more respect.

More importantly, the pages are made of stiff card, which means it can survive day-to-day handling by a 16-month-old child. That, indeed, is the common theme of this list.

Ten Little Babies, Gyo Fujikawa's sinister thriller based on the Agatha Christie novel, tells of the varying fates of - as the title suggests - ten babies. The illustrations make quite clear, however, that the nine little babies who went to bed late are not included in the ten who originally sat down to dine. So in fact there are 55 little babies in this book, only ten of which are accounted for. A disturbing thought.

Guess How Much I Love You is the only book on this list that belongs to me, having been a gift from Susan some years ago, and ownership not having formally transferred to Atilla. I must remember to include it in my will. In reading to 'Tilly, I have been forced to recognise that although stretching out one's arms or reaching up high are fine graphical demonstrations of "this much" - flipping oneself upside down and stretching one's feet up a convenient tree trunk is, frankly, hard.

Duck's Stuck, a muddy fable of farmyard life, doesn't aspire to either the poetic or artistic heights of a Seuss. But it does have a quiet little charm of its own, which I can best explain by pointing to the fact that Cow's lines are predominantly words that you can actually moo. "Cow chewed. Feathers flew. 'Try now', mooed Cow." I defy you to read that aloud without changing your voice. This, together with the great "Aaaa-chooo", have kept this book firmly at the top of Tilly's favourites list for more than three months.

How to Catch a Star is a little more advanced, with its themes of holistic astronomy, sophisticated engineering and animal training. 'Tilly is less convinced by it, generally seeing it as a last resort to fend off the moment when he finally has to accept that it's bedtime.

Honourable mention should go to That's Not My Polar Bear, now pretty much retired, but an invaluable guide to distinguishing wildlife. Thanks to this book, 'Tilly has known since before his first birthday that if he is confused between two polar bears, he can identify one from another by carefully squeezing their noses, tickling their tummies and rubbing their tongues. Valuable tips, I'm sure we can all agree.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


So we were watching Come Dine With Me the other night*, when I saw one of the hosts preparing asparagus. Fine, I thought, we all know presentation is everything with food nowadays, no doubt she wants to form it into a model of the Eiffel Tower or something equally fatheaded. But it was worse than that. This bizarre woman was peeling it.


How do you even do that? Isn't it like peeling grass?

I've been thinking for some time that the cult of "peeling" has been gaining ground. From sensible beginnings - eggs, swedes and onions, for instance, probably should be peeled before serving in most recipes - it's overtaken potatoes and carrots, before striking east into mushrooms and north into tomatoes, cucumbers and capsicums.

(Heck, it's getting hard to buy chicken breasts with the skin still on. I've sometimes wondered what happens to the skin from all those breasts. Maybe it goes to the same pet-food factories as the cheap cuts of meat from organic cattle. Seriously, with the exception of mince, anything lower-grade than "sirloin" just doesn't appear in the shops. There's no such thing as "organic" topside or stewing steaks or offal. It's weird.)

And now... asparagus?

What's next? Peeled broccoli, aubergine, courgette?

Just stop it. Apart from the waste, you're throwing away the tastiest part of the food.

Mushroom skins are delicious. Just wipe or wash the loose dirt away, they're good to go. Carrots and potatoes likewise, unless you're mashing them. Skinning cucumbers and tomatoes is a fetish, there's no other explanation.

And as for chicken or fish: repeat after me: "Fat is the channel through which flavour flows". Yes, the skin is fatty, but that doesn't make it bad. If you belong to the tiny, tiny fraction of the population that really shouldn't eat the skin for your health's sake, then there's really no reason to eat chicken at all. Try tofu. For the rest of us, skin is part of the meat.

* It's a reality show. Don't judge us. At least, not until you've spent a year watching New Zealand television.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ideas for the unemployed masochist

Since Susan got her iPad, she's been disturbingly drawn in to the insidious world of online gaming. Not gambling, mind - she's not that gullible - but those massively multiplayer thingies.

Some of these are fun, some are harmless, some are free. But some are none of these things.

Valor officially sucks. It draws you in by looking like a city-building game, but then turns out to be a strategy/warfare game in which there is no real opportunity to practice strategy. If you're one of the first into a new world, and if you've got absolutely nothing else to do with your time (e.g. sleeping) for the next month, you win. That's all there is to it.

Unless you fall victim to the frequent data losses and corruptions in the publisher's database, that is. Then you're just screwed. And good luck getting support when that happens. So having taken your (real) money to buy (imaginary) things, the game quietly and unapologetically proceeds to lose those "things". And there's no refund.

In game terms, the whole thing has been tweaked to make it hard to leave alone for a few hours. You'd think, for instance, a 40-foot high, 15-foot thick city wall with turrets would provide some rudimentary defence against being raided. But no, the attackers just leap blithely over it, taking trivial losses that contrast markedly with the resources needed to build the damn' thing in the first place. So basically, unless you're willing to stay online, there's no way to defend your city.

If only there were some way to identify these games up front... But most online reviews are written by raving enthusiasts or professional astroturfers. So here's a counterpoint, and I hope it shows up when people search for 'valor ipad'.

Two stars, only because it took me more than a couple of days to figure out how much it sucks.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Lost Drivel

For some years, my father made a habit of using me as a tame book reviewer. For a Christmas present he'd give me a book that he'd heard some buzz about, but wasn't convinced enough to invest his own time in. Then, based on my verdict, he'd decide whether or not to add it to his own reading list.

The process introduced me to some splendid books. I first encountered Philip Pullman and Iain Pears that way. But it was, as you'd expect, hit and miss: there were some serious turkeys in the Christmas mix.

So it was that one year, on my way to New Zealand for my then-annual New Year visit, I found myself saddled with an exceptionally bad 500-page hardback potboiler. I forget what it was - it had ghosts, I remember - but I didn't feel like carrying it home, so I 'regifted' it to my now-brother-in-law, whom we'll call Ben.

This Christmas, Ben got his revenge.

Dan Brown's most recent opus, The Lost Symbol, is a book so bad that I feel the need to recalibrate the bottom end of my scale. This undigested ramble around subjects that the author either doesn't begin to understand or, worse, simply chooses to misrepresent, runs to some 700 pages in paperback. (It could have been done in 300, tops, and it would still have been atrocious but less repetitive. Presumably Brown's publisher specified a wordcount.) Warning just in case you're planning to read this tosh for yourself: from this point on, I will be spoiling like milk in the sun.

Summary: a mysterious villain believes that 'ancient wisdom' guarded by the Freemasons would enable him to become a god, and sets out to force our hero to uncover the Masons' deepest secret.

Spoiler: it's a bible. Yes, that's right - the unspeakable secret that billionaire Freemasons are prepared to lay down their own, their families', and each others' lives to protect - is the most readily-available book in the Western world. If only our villain had thought to check in his hotel drawer, we could all have been spared this whole tedious taradiddle.

And if you think that's silly, just wait until you find out why the CIA is involved.

Along the way, we get introduced to the wonderful world of 'noetic science'. 'Noetics' - loosely speaking, Greek for 'bullshit' - is a label invented in the 1970s to make new-age mysticism sound scientific. In Brown's hands, it becomes a top-secret research institute that has conclusively proved the existence of multiple gods, the power of prayer, the weight of the soul and the length of a piece of string, through rigorous scientific experimental processes that are too dull to be explained even in this interminable pile of filler.

(Some of Brown's fans claim that the details are omitted because they're too technical. But based on the available evidence, it seems more likely that Brown simply neither knows nor cares what a 'scientific experiment' is.)

Science, then, is treated with a level of contempt seldom found outside a Bible Belt school board. It would be nice to report that Brown's other strand, mysticism, fares better. But here again, the author clearly despises his subject as much as his audience.

The hero spends much time lambasting others for taking metaphors literally. Yet Brown himself is agonisingly literal-minded. The idea of 'ancient wisdom' here becomes 'the Ancient Mysteries' - some sort of cosmic cheat sheet, well known to The Ancients, that can transform him who understands it into a god. (After all, when was the last time you left home without dropping a quick libation to Pythagoras?) And when Jesus says 'The works that I do shall [ye] do also; and greater works than these shall [ye] do', in Brown's world this means that we can all cure cancer by wishing hard enough. The mundane fact that proper science (as opposed to 'noetics') now routinely heals the sick, makes the lame to walk and the blind to see on a scale undreamt-of in Jesus' day - doesn't seem to have dawned on him.

I remember, as a teenager, talking ideas like these through with my schoolfriends and fellow students. And I don't believe my circle of friends was particularly elevated. In Dan Brown's world, these sophomoric meanderings become profound wisdom to be uncovered, to much gasping, by the most intellectual elite of the Ivy League.

Maybe Brown was stoned while he wrote. That would explain the prose style, but it's not much of an excuse.