December Books 9) The Radiant Seas

9) The Radiant Seas, by Catherine Asaro

A couple of months back I reported here that award-winning author Catherine Asaro, pained at my dissing her works on my website, had sent me three of her novels to try and make me change my mind; and that indeed I very much enjoyed her first, Primary Inversion. It was therefore with a certain amount of eager anticipation that I turned to The Radiant Seas which picks up the story from where we left it at the end of the first book.

Oh dear. A real disappointment. Lots of infodumping, tedious handwaving technicalese – the nadir, close to the end, is this sentence:

With a rest mass of 1.9 eV and a charge of 5.95×10-25 C, abitons only needed an accelerator with a 50 cm radius and 0.0001 Telsa [sic] magnet.

Which I wouldn’t mind if it actually helped the book make sense; but it doesn’t. Anyway thanks to the helpfully provided diagram I spent much time wondering how you could possibly keep anything, let alone tons of antimatter, in a Klein bottle (whose inside is the same as its outside).

I was quite unable to suspend my disbelief to take seriously the family and interplanetary politics as I could for the first book. The good guys always escape certain doom in the nick of time, unlike the bad guys. And worst of all, my particular bête noire, there is a chatty artificial intelligence which tries to get its owner to call it by a proper name. Aargh.

Out of a (possibly misplaced) sense of honour, I will read the third book she sent me, but I don’t feel any sense of urgency about it.

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December Books 8) Berlin: City of Stones

8) Berlin: City of Stones, Jason Lutes

This is another from the Time list of 25 must-read graphic novels. Once again, fantastic. Very much in the Will Eisner tradition, following a set of characters through a richly imagined historical background; for instance the Potsdamerplatz, in the early episodes, seems to almost have a life of its own. But unlike Will Eisner, we know that there is a historical catastrophe coming; each episode takes place in one of the months from September 1928 to May Day 1929, with different characters experiencing different aspects of the gathering storm. Berlin has always fascinated me, and this book has further whetted my appetite. The most disappointing thing about it is that it’s only the first part of a trilogy and the next two bits aren’t out yet.

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Dead Trees 2004

Discovered that I had done this meme a year ago

  1. What did you last read?
    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke.

  2. What are you reading now?
    Berlin, City of Stones, by Jason Lutes; Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky; Radiant Seas, by Catherine Asaro; England Swings SF, ed. Judith Merril.

  3. What do you plan to read next?
    My answer this time last year was The English by Jeremy Paxman, and I still haven’t read it. As noted in earlier entries, on my immediate list are Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. And I suppose The English by Jeremy Paxman!

  4. What would you like to read, but haven’t? See previous entries! Last year I answered “Crime and PunishmentMaus.” Well, this year I’ve read Maus and am halfway through Crime and Punishment.
  5. What (that you read in 2004) would you recommend for others to read?
    Overall best book is almost the first one I read this year, Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, a brilliant insight into the 17th century. Best sf book (and perhaps the most accessible for non-sf readers) was The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan. Best other book was Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry.

  6. What book last made you laugh? The Uncyclopedia, by Gideon Haigh.
  7. What book last made you weep?
    Making Sense of the Troubles, by David McKittrick and David McVea, certainly brought tears to the eye.

  8. What book last made you angry?
    Certainly The 9/11 Commission report – not just that one feels for those like the FBI agent who “said he was ‘trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.’ The headquarters agent replied that this was not going to happen” – but also that despite doing all that fantastic research and narrative writing they then come up with completely the wrong recommendations.

  9. What book did you try to read, perhaps several times, and never managed to finish?
    Easy answer: The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson.

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More reading resolutions for 2005: sf / comics

52 books have won the Hugo award for Best Novel. I’ve read 49 of them; that just leaves Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov, The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge, and The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber. I already have the Vinge; the other two should not be too difficult to track down in the course of 2005, though I’d like to buy and reread the Foundation trilogy as a whole before tackling Foundation’s Edge.

Peter Sykes keeps a list of the Top 100 SF books, aggregating from various sources as I did in my previous post about novel in general. The 14 books (not counting annual or award anthology series) I haven’t read from this list are: Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison; A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess; The Space Merchants, Pohl & Kornbluth; A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs; City, Clifford Simak; Babel-17, Samuel R Delany; Tau Zero, Poul Anderson; Grey Lensman, E E ‘Doc’ Smith; Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison; The Female Man, Joanna Russ; The Snow Queen, Joan D Vinge; Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon; Deathbird, Harlan Ellison; and Dhalgren, by Samuel R Delany. The Vinge is already on my list; so is the first Dangerous Visions because it includes the next story in my grand project of writing up all Hugo and Nebula winners. I shall aim to read at least five of the others in the course of 2005. (Sykes also has a Next 100 best sf books list so this will keep me going for a good while.)

I’ll also be reading the Hugo nominees once they are announced, and will look out for likely prospects from the BSFA and Clarke awards shortlists (which usually have a certain degree of overlap). I tried using the SF Site’s Best of 2003 lists last year; so far I read and enjoyed Venniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer; read and didn’t quite so much enjoy Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett and The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases ed Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts; and bought but haven’t yet read The Light Ages by Ian MacLeod and The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright. That’s a strike rate of only one in four which is not so good.

As for graphic novels, I’ve found the list of 25 must-reads posted on Bookslut in July really good, and will keep up my current plan of reading one of those every couple of months, plus keeping an eye out for Bookslut’s recommendations.

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Tsunami donations

Mainly for my Belgian readers: I recommend having a look at Oxfam Solidarity, specifically their special South-East Asian tsunami fund. Because of the ludicrous Belgian tax system, every euro you give to charity here is multiplied up five or six times in its effect as long as you do the paperwork right.

I’m particularly keen on Oxfam because I see them combining the on-the-ground humanitarian stuff with political analysis. It may be an unfair impression, but I seem to see more of them doing the necessary politics in Brussels than any of the others. While some people complain when a charity does politics as well as good works, I think the former is an essential part of the latter.

Oxfam is also running special appeals in Ireland (inc NI), Great Britain, the USA and elsewhere. (The fact that my ex-sister-in-law runs one of their bookshops is irrelevant!)

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Books to read, 2005

  was kind enough to write an enthusiastic entry about my bookreading habits. Actually I discovered a few months ago that one of my favourite authors set himself a reading schedule, and resolved then to try and do so myself.

In addition I’ve been combining various lists of great books – specifically the selections made by the BBC Big Read, the Norwegian Book Clubs, a firm called Sybervision, Michael McCrum in the Observer, and the ever inspiring Bookslut.

Interestingly, no single book appears on all five lists. There are seven which appear on four of the lists, and I’m happy to report I’ve read them all. They are:

1984 George Orwell; Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy; The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald; One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez; To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee; Ulysses James Joyce; Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte

I think I’d recommend them all, with more reservations for the 19th century ones.

27 books are mentioned on three of the lists. I have managed to finish 17 of them :

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain; Brave New World Aldous Huxley; Catch 22 Joseph Heller; David Copperfield Charles Dickens; The Grapes Of Wrath John Steinbeck; Great Expectations Charles Dickens; Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift; Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte; Lolita Vladimir Nabokov; Lord of the Flies William Golding; The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien; Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert; Middlemarch George Eliot; Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie; Moby Dick Herman Melville; Pride And Prejudice Jane Austen; War And Peace Leo Tolstoy

So my next literary project should really be to finish the four I have started but not finished :

Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky – have been struggling through this for the last few weeks; Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes – read the first half last summer, so second half should come soon; Little Women Louisa May Alcott – read the first couple of chapters but it’s behind Dostoevsky in the queue; The Trial Franz Kafka – had got about halfway through it and then lost it in the Moscow airport carpark in June.

That then leaves six others, and I think it’s a reasonable project to try and at least start reading them all in the course of 2005, and hopefully finish most of them too :

The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky; Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger; In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust (I know this is going to be the longest by far); Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf; Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe; The Tin Drum Gunter Grass

Then I can turn my attention to the 53 books mentioned on only two of the lists. I have finished only 16 of them :

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll; Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh; The Count Of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas; Dune Frank Herbert; Frankenstein Mary Shelley; The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne; The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe C.S. Lewis; Northern Lights Philip Pullman; The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde; The Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan; Rebecca Daphne du Maurier; Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe; A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens; Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson; The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Graham

11 others are poetry or plays which I have dipped into but never really sat down to read systematically :

The Aeneid Virgil; Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer; the Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri; A Doll’s House Henrik Ibsen; Faust Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Hamlet William Shakespeare; the Iliad Homer; Malone Dies Samuel Beckett; the Odyssey Homer; Oedipus the King Sophocles; Othello William Shakespeare

And the other 26 are novels which I don’t remember ever having opened, to go on my longer-term reading list :

The BFG Roald Dahl; The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler; The Call of the Wild Jack London; Collected Fictions Jorge Luis Borges; Emma Jane Austen; Far From The Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy; Invisible Man Ralph Ellison; Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Celine; Lanark Alasdair Gray; Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis; The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann; Nostromo Joseph Conrad; Of Mice And Men John Steinbeck; The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway; On the Road Jack Kerouac; A Passage to India E. M. Forster; The Plague Albert Camus; The Portrait of a Lady Henry James; The Red and the Black Stendhal; The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne; Song of Solomon Toni Morrison; The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner; Tess Of The D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy; Tom Jones Henry Fielding; Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray; The Woman in White Wilkie Collins.

There are 14 other authors with more than one book on the various lists. The only four I have read are Graham Greene, Milan Kundera, Terry Pratchett and Sir Walter Scott. That leaves ten more to dip into when opportunity offers itself: Balzac, Italo Calvino, Anton Chekhov, Theodore Dreiser, Ralph Waldo Emerson, D. H. Lawrence, Naguib Mahfouz, Flannery O’Connor, Sir Walter Scott and even Jacqueline Wilson.

At some point I shall get around to updating my website to reflect this. New Year’s resolution about science fiction reading to come next.

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A few weeks back I blogged a compilation of what others had written about the British Helsinki Human Rights group. The compiler of the Transition Trends blog responded, “BHHRG is a joke organisation. Why the Guardian has any time for them, I don’t know.” and pointed to a link on his own blog here.

Last night, someone else (a Euronet/Wanadoo customer who left no other clue to his or her identity) replied to the previous comment, saying, “Why is it a “joke organisation”? Because it reports findings you disagree with? How very democratic of you.”

Let’s take this backwards.

Yes, of course it is democratic, in the best sense, to express robust opinions about what other people may say.

Yes, they do report “findings” that I (and the TOL blogger) disagree with. And that word “findings” is crucial here. If it was a simple question of opinion, that would be one thing; but BHHRG specialises in statements of fact which are simply inaccurate. For instance read their own report of the 2000 Transdniestrian parliamentary elections, which they say met international standards, and ask yourself how well this fits an election with (by BHHRG’s own report) no election law, where (by BHHRG’s own report) nobody dares to run for parliament against the major employers when they are candidates, and where (by BHHRG’s own report) something very fishy was going on in the polling station in the frontline town of Bendery. (In a later report they also completely mischaracterise our first report on Moldova – though that I’ll allow as a matter of opinion – and badly misspell the name of its principal author, which they could have easily checked.)

I first encountered BHHRG a few years back, when I was rather taken aback to read their report on the 1996 Albanian elections which gave them a positive write-up not shared by other international observers. I asked a friend of mine who was also there at the time to look at their report. She commented:

I went to their report and was scandalized. I do recall this group enjoying its contrarian status and saying that everyone overreacted…

I have some good written material at home, I believe, from that traumatic event. I was in the town of [], where [Minister] was a candidate, and it was a virtual police state. One of the PS candidates was severely beaten as were many PS pollwatchers (the USIS Officer was in that town too and we all were a bit concerned for our own safety!). The election commissions were a joke — opposition members had been intimidated to leave and young guys were posing as various party reps. I caught on to that and asked their candidates name and some couldn’t even answer the question. Scary bouncers at the door at some places said to our translator (not knowing I speak Albanian) “Get them out of here” Oh, I could go on.

Granted, I’m sure it was not like this all over the country, but it was not the peaceful environment outlined in the report you reference. They only visited 20 polling sites in two towns??? Do you need the OSCE/ODIHR report or anything I might find around here? US Embassy press release? IRI did a fairly critical report too and they were best friends of the old PD. Maybe [BHHRG] mean that things were this bad in other communist countries and that people have always turned a blind eye — that I cannot speak to, having only done Albania. They were not free and fair to my mind. The opposition were idiots for boycotting mid-day (but they were getting beat up, literally and maybe figuratively, at the polls) — they should have boycotted beforehand. The Democrats were idiots for going overboard because they would have won it anyway.

Let’s take another example, the actual Latest News article on their website, which begins by referring to the case of

Bulgarian BBC employee, Georgi Markov, allegedly murdered by the Bulgarian Communist secret police on a London street in 1978. Legend has it Markov’s murderer stuck him with an umbrella, the tip of which contained a tiny pellet of the deadly organic poison known as ricin.

Note the use of “allegedly” and “Legend has it”, to support the main thrust of the article that one should not always take Soviet poisoning stories seriously. But the fact that Markov was killed by an injection of ricin from a modified umbrella is pretty well attested, not legendary at all. That the wielder of the umbrella was acting on behalf of the Bulgarian state is generally accepted as well; as the BBC points out, “In 1992, General Vladimir Todorov, the former Bulgarian intelligence chief, was sentenced to 16 months in jail for destroying 10 volumes of material relating to Markov’s death. A second person suspected of destroying documents committed suicide, while a Bulgarian spy who was believed to be involved in the assassination died in a car accident.”

I myself have been assured by a Bulgarian official who was in a position to know what he was talking about that they did indeed kill Markov. (He denied, however, any involvement with the 1981 assassination attempt on the Pope – interestingly the Pope agrees.) I don’t possess enough medical knowledge to rate their proposed diagnosis of Yushchenko’s problems, but the desperate attempt to spin the murder of Markov as mythical doesn’t help me take the rest of the article seriously.

So finally, is BHHRG a “joke” organisation? Not my phrase, but that of the TOL blogger. It’s not a phrase I would use; but if I had to sum them up in a sentence, I would say that the accuracy of BHHRG reports is so unreliable that I cannot use them for my own research. That’s my assessment as a fellow professional. And a democrat.

Later edit: more links on this. First from The Exile, not normally a pro-Russian source, though it spends most of its time attacking the GuardianWikiPediaargues that the BHHRG’s lack of credibility shouldn’t stop us asking questions about Ukraine.

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Seen recently

Tentative WorldCon program includes the cryptic comment “poss lose VanderMeer to appease Cox” – tell us more!!!

triggers a discussion of Niall Ferguson.

From Fellowship 9/11 – description is great but the humour doesn’t quite live up to the concept; also from yhlee, Bruce Bethke on winning the Philip K Dick Award – hilarious picture, but also sensible discussion of what’s wrong with the Hugos and Nebulas (more on Nebulas here).

PS see ‘s demolition of Bethke in a comment to this post.

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The accident-prone biographer

“While journeying in [Graham Greene’s] footsteps, [Norman]Sherry contracted gangrene of the intestine in Panama, tropical diabetes in Liberia, and went temporarily blind after a car accident in the UK. A mugging in Liberia caused him permanent ear damage. So worried was Greene about his biographer’s capacity for catastrophe that he blocked Sherry’s proposed visit to a Congolese leper colony. Even during this stay at the sedate Savile Club, he has managed to fall down the stairs. At the end of our conversation, showing old-fashioned courtesy, he wants to escort me to Bond Street tube station. I politely decline and cross the road cautiously. As I look back, I see him stumble into a passer-by.”

From the Sunday Times via Bookslut, but originally in the Guardian.

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Orthography note

Most impressed with ‘s use of special characters in her journal:

Đŗąğŏŋŧŗąþ Ħåş Łőşŧ ħęř mĭŋđ

Đ – I think in this case Croatian/Bosnian and Vietnamese rather than Icelandic.
ŗ – Latvian
ą – Polish and Lithuanian
ğ – Turkish (also Azeri, Bashkir, Tatar, and Uigur)
ŏ – used sometimes for Latin and Korean transliteration
ŋ – International Phonetic Alphabet for “ng”.
ŧ – ued in Sámi
þ – Icelandic / Anglo-Saxon thorn (hard “th”)
Ħ – Maltese
å – Scandinavian
ş – Turkish (also Azeri, Bashkir, Tatar, Uigur and incorrectly Romanian)
Ł – Polish
ő – Hungarian
ħ – Maltese (not Serbian!)
ę – Polish and Lithuanian
ř – Czech (and Sorbian)
ĭ – used sometimes for Latin and Khmer transliteration
đ – lower case version of Đ

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December Books 7) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

7) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Due to its weight, I found it physically difficult to pick this book up. Due to its plot, I found it very difficult to put down. Here we have bits of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, except with all the improving stuff about economics and mathematics replaced by magic. (No doubt the fact that I say that indicates my embarrassing ignorance of Jane Austen.) Here we have friendship, rivalry and reconciliation against the background of the Napoleonic wars as they never happened. And the alternate military history reminds me a bit of Mary Gentle’s Ash, though that book challenges the received version by introducing women rather than wizards.

Coincidences are weird things. Susanna Clarke’s name is a lengthened version of my ex-girlfriend’s (they are different people though as far as I can tell). The novel features a Captain Whyte in the Peninsular War, a conflict in which my great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Whyte, lost two of his brothers. (Fascinating interview with her hereJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell themselves.) All very strange, yet compelling.

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Personality test

Global Personality Test Results
Stability (59%) moderately high which suggests you are relaxed, calm, secure, and optimistic.
Orderliness (35%) moderately low which suggests you are, at times, overly flexible, improvised, and fun seeking at the expense of reliability, work ethic, and long term accomplishment.
Extraversion (80%) high which suggests you are overly talkative, outgoing, sociable and interacting at the expense too often of developing your own individual interests and internally based identity.

Take Free Global Personality Test
personality tests by

To be honest, I’ve never been completely convinced that extraversion/introversion is an either/or question. I am indeed (usually) talkative, outgoing, sociable and interacting, but I also work very hard on developing my own individual interests and internally based identity.

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I’m not a monarchist, but…

Christmas messages (excerpted):

King Albert II of the Belgians (original Dutch) (original French):

The cause of many of the conflicts which infest the world is generally to be found in the non-recognition of the ethnic or religious or cultural identity of a part of the population. One of the formidable challenges of our time is therefore to bring about harmonious relations between different population groups, with respect for the individual character of each, and in the conviction that those differences in identity are enriching. Our country faces precisely that challenge now.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (original Dutch):

Twice in a short time actions of extremism have shocked the Netherlands. Such attacks are serious abuses of the freedom which characterises our country. All too well we realise how vulnerable we are in an open society, based on the freedom of every citizen. It is troubling that trusted certainties no longer seem sufficient to protect the community against settling into violence.

Understandable emotions can seduce people to the call of one-sided answers, but there are no simple solutions. In our society, where many interests, insights and convictions must always be united with each other, more is now asked of us. We build our society together.

Queen Elizabeth II (original here):

Most of us have learned to acknowledge and respect the ways of other cultures and religions, but what matters even more is the way in which those from different backgrounds behave towards each other in everyday life. It is vitally important that we all should participate and cooperate for the sake of the wellbeing of the whole community…

There is certainly much more to be done and many challenges to be overcome. Discrimination still exists. Some people feel that their own beliefs are being threatened. Some are unhappy about unfamiliar cultures. They all need to be reassured that there is so much to be gained by reaching out to others; that diversity is indeed a strength and not a threat.

President McAleese of Ireland (can’t find original):

…reflecting deeply on that message at this crucial time in the Peace Process, we in Ireland may find the trust and the faith to complete this journey of healing and reconciliation… the simple essence of this great feast is to be good to one another, and to fill the world with generosity instead of greed.

President Bush (here):

By bringing liberty to the oppressed, our troops are defending the freedom and security of us all. They and their families are making many sacrifices for our Nation, and all Americans are deeply grateful.

I was struck by the fact that three of these were very similar in theme – so much so that it almost seems pre-planned. And guess who was the only one not to call for reconciliation or for tolerance of diversity?

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Bowling for Columbine

Watched this last night, having picked it up on DVD for only €9 the other day. Gripping and fascinating, yet a little unsatisying.

Yes, Moore makes a good case that there’s something odd about the high level of violence in America, and that it’s driven by something unusual in the American psyche; but he doesn’t really get very close to what that unusual thing is, other than to blame “fear”. Anatol Lieven gets a lot closer to it in his America – Right or Wrong (summarised at length here), where he actually argues that America is not that odd after all, it has just been unable to deal with its own nationalism in the same way as European democracies.

So yes, there’s something weird about America. But I don’t think that completely explains America’s uniquely high rate of children killing other children with guns. He keeps on trying to link it to the US government’s militarism, but this is actually one of his weakest arguments – the Kosovo bombing campaign was also supported by countries he otherwise praises, like Germany, Canada, France and the UK, so is not really evidence of American exceptionalism in the same way as the current Iraq War; and his little photo-montage of US militarism in the last fifty years contains straight factual errors (Noriega was never actually president of Panama, and casualty rates for a number of the other events are exaggerated).

Moore compares the US with Canada several times, but I think fails to really unpick two very important points: first of all, Canadian gun control laws clearly are more effective; most of the 7 million Canadian guns are held for farming and hunting use; and buying handgun ammunition is more difficult than he protrays it as being. Moore is wobbly on this issue; he implies that the problem is not America’s permissive system which enables children to have easy access to guns, but the American psyche which makes them more likely to shoot other children with them. Yet at the same time obviously does agree that the laws, and the National Rifle Association, are indeed part of the problem.

The second point is his repeated statement that poverty can’t be an issue, because Canada has twice as much unemployment as the United States. Well, unemployment does not actually equate to poverty. Today’s rates are 7.3% unemployment for Canada and 5.4% unemployment in the US, and I shouldn’t be at all surprised if that difference in the unemployment rates reflects more differences in the procedure for registration than differences in the availability of work. Similarly, the Canadians register a poverty rate of around 15% and the Americans around 11%, but this is such a subjective measure that it’s difficult to read much into it. And Moore then undermines his own argument by commenting on the case of the woman whose enforced “workfare” jobs meant that she was unable to prevent her son from obtaining a weapon to shoot a classmate. I’m no Marxist, but I think the economy may well have something to do with rates of violent crime.

That, and the occasionally crude polemical tone of the film got to me – people he disagreed with got quirky background music, people he agreed with didn’t; the Charlton Heston interview at the end was interesting cinema but not really fair on Heston – I’ve been at the other end of the camera often enough myself to be annoyed even when such tricks are pulled on people I disagree with.

Interested to find an anti-Moore site with a number of rebuttals of claims made in Bowling for Columbine. Much of this is trivial stuff (eg James Nichols’ concern that he was made to look bad – heck, he did that pretty well himself), but one or two points I thought were more serious – it was my source on the factual errors in the “Wonderful World” montage above, though much of the page in question is more questionable.

I was sufficiently interested by one of the claims on the site to do a bit more digging myself. One of the most effective bits of the film is the moment when two Columbine survivors go with Moore to the headquarters of K-Mart and successfully persuade the chain to stop stocking ammunition. The anti-Moore sites (many of them) quote the more effective of the two students, Mark Taylor, as saying to the Canyon Courier, “I am completely against him (Moore). He screwed me over… He completely used us to make a buck… I had no idea what Moore’s agenda was. And he had an agenda. He had it all planned out, completely… I believe that every American has the right to have a gun. We should have the right to protect ourselves.”

It’s a pretty serious allegation, that Moore actually callously exploited a young man disabled in a traumatic shooting to make a cheap political point. But it smells very fishy to me. First of all, contemporary press reports here, for example) portray Taylor as fully participating in the action at K-Mart headqurters. Second, Taylor has pursued a number of lawsuits relating to the Columbine shooting, including one against a drugs company and another against three classmates. It seems to me unlikely that if he really felt wronged by Moore he would let it pass lightly. Thirdly, he is apparently publishing a book next year which reflects on his personal spiritual development since the shooting, and which doesn’t mention Moore at all. So on balance it seems likely to me that his remarks as reported are not completely accurate.

Unfortunately the original Canyon Courier article is no longer on-line. But it’s worth noting that the quoted remarks from the other victim, Richard Castaldo, are completely at odds with his most recent interview. There is also a reported response from Moore, who “said he made his agenda well-known to the youths. ‘That’s very odd to hear that,’ Moore said. ‘What part isn’t clear? We were there to try and get the bullets off the shelves. That’s why we were there. That’s why they decided to go.'”

So there we are. Moore does distort the facts to make a point, and you have to watch his films with that in mind; but so do his opponents, and they are the ones in power. I wish Moore would avoid the temptation to over-egg the pudding, but I also hope he wins.

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Trust metric

Every so often a meme goes round of someone who’s got the latest tool to analyse livejournal users who are not on your friends but perhaps might be. I’ve just spent a half-hour (while supervising Brisget in the bath in the next room) grinding through a simple cut-n-paste from the user info of everyon who lists me as a friend to see who else they are reading. I disallowed double-counts – for people with two journals I counted each friend only once, so I myself appear only 79 times out of 83.

Well, I’ll be adding a few more folks to my list this evening, it being the season of good cheer and all; specifically , who came out top of the list, equal with , and , who came second, equal with and .

I’ll be willing (indeed interested) to so similar analysis for anyone else who asks nicely. I wish though that there was an easy way of weighting it, say, by shared interests, or by other mutual friends. When I first started using livejournal you could do a search on all users to see whose interests were most similar to yours; that seems to have gone now. Shame.

PS points me to Popular Users Amongst Your Friends which answers the question instantly. Based on that I’m adding too.

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December books 6) The Silmarillion

6) The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is one of the long books I’ve been struggling through over the last few weeks. Funny to come back to it, twenty years after I first read it, now that The Lord of the Rings has had a longer time to settle into my subconscious.

This second edition comes with an unexpected bonus – a lengthy (19-page) letter from Tolkien to his publisher, written in 1951 (ie as the text of The Lord of the Rings was being finalised and twenty-five years before The Silmarillion was eventually published) in which he explains his purpose in writing the stories of Middle Earth. The key passage is this:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of fairy-story the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendor from the vast backcloths which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our “air” (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be “high”, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

And as Tom Shippey points out, in his books and in the mini-documentary on the Peter Jackson DVD’s, he pretty much succeeded in this aim.

Nobody will ever start reading Tolkien with The Silmarillion – anyone who reads it will have already read The Lord of the Rings and will hope for background here. It’s nice to get some of the non-fictional hinterland as well as 350 pages of narrative; especially since the brutal truth is that the narrative isn’t especially good. I remember spending many hours poring over Robert Foster’s Complete Guide to Middle Earth partly to work out what had actually happened in The Silmarillion. There’s lots of mythic portent, but also a strangely distanced feel about the action – for instance, an early event which we are repeatedly told is deeply traumatic, the Kin-Slaying at Alqualondë, is covered in less than a page.

There are only one and a half good stories in the entire book (the one being the story of Húrin’s children, the half being Beren and Lúthien). Particularly disappointing is Eärendil, who we’ve been hearing about ever since Bilbo’s poem about him in Rivendell half-way through the Fellowship of the Ring, and who indeed gets plenty of foreshadowing in the middle chapters of The SilmarillionThe Lord of the Rings in mythic voice.

I suspect that as time goes on I will gradually acquire all the various History of Middle Earth volumes, which may well clarify the extent to which these flaws were already present in the material or were introduced by either Christopher Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped him edit it. Of course Kay himself has turned out to be a superb novelist in his own right (judging from The Lions of Al-Rassan and Tiganaall.

Still, I’m glad I’ve re-read it. Right, time to get kids in bed and watch my new Lord of the Rings DVDs!

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December books 5) The Uncyclopedia

5) The Uncyclopedia, by Gideon Haigh

A perfectly chosen Christmas gift from my sister; lots of trivia that nobody ever wanted to know, including such joys as a complete list of US Vice-Presidents, eight fictional movie moguls featured in the works of PG Wodehouse, twelve catch-phrases from the Goon Show, and a list of the real names of various saints (including Simon Templar and Yves Saint-Laurent which is stretching it a bit). I picked up only one total error – comets go around the sun, not the earth – and a few stretched categories (Hereward the Wake wasn’t royal, and Ceauşescu [properly Ceaușescu] was not really assassinated).

Given my fascination with book lists, I was amused to see that the 1999 Modern Library readers’ poll of the top ten books of the twentieth century included three titles by L Ron Hubbard and four by Ayn Rand! We can take it that the other three (in order, The Lord of the Rings, To Kill A Mockingbird, and 1984) did not have organised backers…

And it’s not just lists. The short entries on parrhesia, the reptiles of Antarctica and the Giant Rat of Sumatra are all very pleasing; though I doubt if I will have occasion to use the phrases suggested for flirting in Turkish or dumping someone in Japanese. Recommended.

PS looking around the web for other reviews of this I find one stating that it is the perfect gift for “the big brother who thinks he knows everything”. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

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Hmm, after lunch

For the last few years I’ve cooked a chunk of wild boar for Christmas dinner. Alas, when I went shopping for it yesterday all I could find was boar medallions. But at least it takes less preparation; I easily found a recipe which took less than an hour all told, including cooking potatoes, broccoli, and my other specialty of asparagus cooked in butter with ample squirts of lemon juice.

Early afternoon relaxing now. Book review coming up. (I’ve ben stuck on several long books this month which is why my last book review was almost two weeks ago.)

Thanks to for the festive icon!

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Moldova update

For keen potential election observers – the parliamentary elections in Moldova have just been called for 6 March, a few weeks earlier than I had expected. Get your applications in now (or when you get back from Ukraine).

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Anna and the King

I happened to catch this Jodie Foster / Chow Yun-Fat film on TV this evening. It’s very long but also very beautiful to look at. (Who would have thought that you could do a tasteful execution scene?) Of course it’s a huge contrast with the Yul Brynner / Deborah Kerr treatment; King Mongkut of Siam is portrayed as rather like certain modernising leaders one encounters in Eastern Europe today.

I came away feeling that this was at least a much less colonially patronising film about Thailand than its predecessor, but wondered to myself how true to the actual historical story it really is. Not surprisingly, a bit of googling reveals that almost every detail is hotly disputed by Thai historians. The film appears to be reasonably faithful to Anna Leonowens’ published memoirs, but there is much dispute about how accurate her memoirs were in the first place.

Having seen the film and read the Thai side of the story, I am left with the suspicion that the truth lies somewhere in between. This is clearly still a country where respect for the monarchy is something that cannot be questioned (as compared to here, where the King is barely taken seriously), and as a result there are certain suspicious gaps in the historiography. But this again is something I’m familiar with from Eastern Europe, and even to an extent in Ireland. There’s probably a good article in there somewhere but I’m not going to write it any time soon.

Amusingly it turns out that Anna Leonowens’ sister’s grandson, William Henry Pratt, became better known as Boris Karloff.

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More morbidity

King James II of Scotland, on 3 August 1460
Abel P Upshur, US Secretary of State, on 28 February 1844
Thomas Gilmer, US Secretary of the Navy, also on 28 February 1844

…all killed by exploding cannons belonging to their own side; James II when besieging Roxburgh – as referenced in Black Adder – Upshur and Gilmer (and six others) while watching a new weapon being tested – see gloriously silly picture of the tragedy.

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Linguistic note

I asked my Slovenian assistant to have a go at translating an article in Bulgarian for me. She balked at first because it was in the wrong alphabet, but I persuaded her that if she transcribed it longhand, and as long as she remembered that ъ is a vowel, she would probably be able to understand it.

About a quarter of the way in, she said to me suspiciously, “They seem very fond of ending their words with -то.”

“It means ‘the’,” I explained. Her native Slovenian, like most Slavic languages, doesn’t have a word for “the”.

“As a suffix???”


As it turned out it wasn’t that interesting an article but I hope it was useful experience for her.

She’s left me now, off to a job in London where they will actually pay her, and I’m off for my Christmas holidays too.

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What’s on the T-shirt?

What’s on the T-shirt, several of you ask (though not , who has one of his own).

Answer: it’s Dream, from Neil Gaiman’s classic series Sandman, which I was reading for the first time in December last year.

I really like Sandman, and as I’ve written about American Gods and Coraline, I just hope he finds some new material soon rather than reworking the old.

Though the evidence from his latest writing (see end of this page) is pretty encouraging.

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