The interests meme: The end (probably) – alphabet

asks why I am interested in alphabets. Those who’ve been reading this for longer will know that I’ve got a whole slew of memories on this, including a long draft internal memo which was never circulated, why ћ and ħ are different letters, and the problem of whether to write ţ or ț in Romanian. I’ve also set up an interactive language quiz on my own website inspired by the spoils of a visit to MacDonald’s last May.

But perhaps I should explain a bit more. Anyone who speaks more than one language fluently appreciates that it opens up not just a means of communication with people you couldn’t otherwise talk to, but also to an extent a different way of thinking about how you put sentences and ideas together. For instance, in German it’s a fact that sometimes the verb at the end of the sentence placed is. In Russian, there no equivalent for English “the” or present tense of verb “to be”. Yet Germans and Russians are able to communicate perfectly well.

And with alphabets it’s at a more basic level, that of sounds. In English we use the spelling “th” two completely different sounds spelt ð and þ in Icelandic (or “d” and “c” in Castilian Spanish) – compare the start of the words “the” and “thick”. In Serbian and Croatian there are two more sounds spelt ć and č (or ћ and ч in the Cyrillic alphabet). I find it very difficult to hear the differnce, though I have trained myself to orient my tongue differently depending. I find it fascinating that almost every language has a peculiar sound that no native speaker can ever hope to pronounce properly – English “u” in “cut”, similarly the French and Dutch short “u” pronounced differently from each other, the German short ü, the Russian ы, the Bulgarian ъ. And yet with a fairly small set of symbols we try and cover all of this diversity.

I’m particularly fortunate in that my work brings me into regular contact with several of the world’s alphabets, the Georgian, Armenian, Cyrillic, occasionally Greek, and our own dear Latin. (See the alphabets of Europe.) But I’m also inspired by the guy who started it all, who made me realise that my name could equally well be written

or even

and that it could still have been read by the learned folk of Middle Earth.

I look forward to the day when I can do that last bit in Unicode. Meantime we’ll just have to use the Tolkien transliterator.

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Worldcon accommodation

Anyone out there likely to go to WorldCon in August, not yet sorted for accommodation, and interested in a joint venture? I’m going on my own, and had in mind to look for a mid-range B&B close to a railway station, but am open to persuasion about other options.

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Julius Caesar

I’m reading Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars at the moment, which starts with a bang with a fifty page biography of Julius Caesar. I realise how desensitised I have become to this remarkable story through too much grinding over the text of Shakespeare’s play at school. Caesar broke every law and custom of correct political practice in Rome; he shagged more or less anything that moved, male or female; but he was (and not just by Suetonius’ account) a talented military leader and gifted orator who inspired and reciprocated a strong sense of loyalty from his followers.

But the most dramatic bit of the story is the end, and here I feel that I have been particularly desensitised by overexposure to Shakespeare at a tender age. This man, ruling a huge empire, was actually killed while attending a meeting of the legislature by the legislators themselves. I can’t think of another event like this. There is the case of the slaughter of three leading Croatian MPs, including their leader Stjepan Radić, in 1928 by a Montenegrin radical MP on the floor of the Yugoslav parliamentary chamber; but that appears to have been on impulse rather than a conspiracy, and anyway the Croats were in opposition not in government. The Armenian Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, and six other MPs were killed in 1999 when gunmen stormed the parliamentary chamber, but again the assassins were not themselves parliamentarians and the inevitable rumours linking them with other political figures in Armenia have yet to be borne out in substance. I find three other prime ministers assassinated in Parliament, but not as far as I know by fellow legislators – Hendrik Verwoerd (South African PM, stabbed by a deranged parliamentary clerk in 1966); Spencer Perceval (British PM, shot dead by a deranged bankrupt in 1812) and Ahmed Maher Pasha (Egyptian PM, shot dead in 1945 immediately after declaring war on Germany and Japan). I haven’t been able to discover if the Egyptian assassin was an MP or not, but even if he was, I think Julius Caesar’s end is the most politically spectacular of them all.

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The Interests Meme: More Answers

asks what a zelazny is. As I know she’s an sf fan she may just be taking the piss, but anyway, the answer is the sf author Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). I have a brief page about him here, and I’ve blogged books about him here and here. Best known for the Amber series. Best works are his early novels and later short stories.

is sure the single transferable vote is “something political and wondrous”. Well she’s right, and if she voted in the 2002 general election or last summer’s local and European elections, she has in fact used it – the defining characteristics from the user’s end are a) you get to number the candidates in order of preference (or increasing dislike) and b) you’re in a multi-member electoral area so electing more than one person at a time. It’s the voting system used in both parts of Ireland (except Westminster elections in the North) and also in Malta, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory and for the Australian Senate. I have a short page about it here and there’s a much longer Wikipedia article here. It is simply the best voting system around – accept no alternatives.

asks about molvania. My boss introduced me to this via the book and the website. I blogged it here and here, and even Ken MacLeod got in on the act. I keep on asking for it to be added to my area of responsibility at work (indeed, should have similar ambitions) but so far have been unsuccessful.

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The Interests Meme: Answers

asks about monthy python. “My experience of you suggests this isn’t simply an idle mistake,” she says. Very nice of you to say so, but unfortunately in this case is is an idle mistake. I’ll take it off my interests list later today but in the meantime people might like to click on it to see who else has fallen into the same trap!

asks about nagorno karabakh about ajara about transdniestria. These are all conflict zones in the former Soviet Union that I work on professionally. I’m the only person on livejournal who lists Ajara as an interest. It’s a part of Georgia that used to be ruled by a local chieftain, who got chucked out by the Georgian authorities in May. Most people think the problems have all been resolved there but we’re keeping an eye on it.

I discovered one other person on livejournal who lists both Nagorno Karabakh and Transdniestria, in fact a friend of ‘s, so I’ve added him or her to my f-list. Nagorno Karabakh is a mountainous region that was part of Azerbaijan under the Soviet Union but has been occupied by Armenia (along with surrounding territories) since the war ended ten years ago. There are (unusually and dangerously) no international peacekeepers deployed on the ceasefire line, the soldiers keep on taking pot-shots at each other (several killed each month) and although the leaders of the two countries meet regularly I see no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough. Very depressing.

Transdniestria is a part of Moldova (a small and usually forgotten state wedged between Romania and Ukraine) which is, effectively, still occupied by the Soviet army. Attentive observers will note that the Soviet Union dissolved fourteen years ago. Older readers may remember the name of General Alexander Lebed, who at one time appeared to be a rival to Boris Yeltsin for the Russian leadership, before dying in a convenient plane crash; he was also involved in the early stages of the Transdniestrian crisis. I am currently trying to finish another report about it to add to our first two.

Apropos of nothing in particular: “You will find us only on the very best atlases, because we are the smallest country left in Europe… a self-respecting country which deserves and sometimes achieves a colour of its own on the map – usually a dyspeptic mint green, which misses the outline of the frontier by a fraction of an inch, so that one can almost hear the printer saying damn.” – the General, in Peter Ustinov’s play Romanoff and Juliet.

asks about lemony snicket. This is the pseudonym of the author of the books in “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, which are completely hilarious and strongly recommended. A letter from Lemony Snicket to the potential reader on the back of the first in the series, The Bad Beginning, warns: “I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children… In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge. It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.” The film starring Jim Carrey as the greedy and repulsive villain has just been released.

asks about livejournal. Like her, I don’t actually know anything about that subject and only put it on my interests list to try and impress people.

And I’ll remind those of you who haven’t done so that if you’ve asked a question, you’re supposed to post this meme in your own journal as well.

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Interests meme


Scan my interest list and pick out the one that seems the most odd to you.

I’ll explain it.

Then you post this in your journal so other people can ask you about your interests.

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Well, I can’t do the alphabet meme going around the Dublin folks due to not having a bra size. So instead I’ll do Farah Mendlesohn’s survey of what SF I read as a child, following on from here, here, and here.

1. Name Nicholas Whyte

2. Current Age 37

3. Country or Countries in which you spent your first eighteen years. (give breakdown if appropriate) UK, apart from one year in the USA and one year in the Netherlands

4. Mother tongue. English

5. Sex at birth Male
6. Sex now. Male
7. Sexuality. Hetero

8. When did you start reading science fiction? Probably about as soon as I could read. Some things you can fix – for instance, I know I read the Narnia books when we were living in America, and I would have been six. Others, such as Le Guin or Heinlein, I just don’t remember when I started reading them but it was early.

9. Did you read sf written specifically for children? (ie. age 0-16yrs) Yes.

10. Name up to five authors of sf for children you liked. As named above: Lewis, Le Guin, Heinlein; also Nicholas Fisk, John Christopher. Am I allowed a sixth? If so it would be Diana Wynne Jones. If a seventh, it would be TH White – not just the Arthurian books but also The Master.

11. Name up to five authors of sf for children you did not like. Can’t think of any.

12. Name up to five authors of sf for children with the same nationality as the country in which you experienced the bulk of your reading childhood. If we mean UK writ large, then Lewis, Fisk, Christopher, Wynne Jones and White from the list above. If I go the other side of the border, the choices are fewer: Pat O’Shea, James Stephens, Eoin Colfer. Looking at my Irish sf list, I can add Cathal Ó Sándair and Darryl Sloan but that’s stretching Ireland a wee bit as well.

13. If you started reading sf meant for the adult audience before the age of 16, who were your favourite sf writers at that time? (Name up to five). Roger Zelazny; Arthur C Clarke; Isaac Asimov; Douglas Adams.

14. List up to five qualities that you think you looked for in science fiction when you read it as a child (under 13). Sensawunda. Writing that clearly showed a particular character’s viewpoint.

15. List up to five qualities that you think you looked for in science fiction when you read it as a teenager (13 and over). Sensawunda again. Political attitudes that challenged the received wisdom (of my heavily Catholic environment). Beautiful descriptive writing. Plot

16. List up to five qualities that you look for in science fiction now. Plot. Characterisation. Politics. Coherent writing.

17. Do you define yourself as a genre reader? Yes.

18. What proportion of your reading as a teenager was outside of the genre? Of my fiction reading, very little; perhaps 10-15%. I read a lot of non-fiction too though.

19. What proportion of your reading as a teenager was non-fiction? (what subjects or genres?) Aha. Probably about 30% or so. Mostly astronomy but a certain amount of history and politics, and also some light occult (if that is the right term): dowsing, ley lines, astrology.

20. How much of your reading outside of the genre was set by others? (and who were they?). Very little. We had several good local libraries and I was very self-directed.

21. Did science fiction influence your political views? In what ways? What books were most important to you? I think sf encouraged me to question received certainties, and to think that the world needn’t be as it is, that it can be changed. I work in politics and do find my sf readings feed into my thoughts about my day job, and vice versa. As to specifics: I think Robert Silverberg’s and Brian Aldiss’s approach to sexual politics informed my own thoughts most strongly; not that I necessarily agree with them, but my opinions are more firmly rooted as a result of having read them. And I think for someone graowing up in Belfast, there is a certain universalism about the sf view that pointed out how petty our local concerns were. (So, in that case, why did I stand for election in 1996 in the one part of Northern Ireland that suffered more than anywhere else in the Troubles? Good question, but I only got 4.1% of the votes!)

22. Did science fiction influence your religious views? In what ways? What books were most important to you? Apart from approaches to sexuality as noted above, not really (I’d define myself as a liberal Catholic now). I’ve found sf’s approaches to religion on the whole disappointing, with the exception of Philip K Dick, and I think he is really writing about consciousness.

23. Taking no more than 100 words, describe briefly how you chose books between the ages of 13 and 18, and how those books were acquired (ie libraries, friends, second hand books, new books). Mainly from the library, with a certain amount of buying for myself, or reading my brother’s books. Selected mainly on the basis of attractive covers – or else the yellow Gollancz ones!

Hmm, I’ve left out the influence of Doctor Who

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Fundraising for tsunami victims in Dublin

The Oxfam Bookshop on Parliament St is having a table quiz on January 27th at 8pm in the Teachers Club on Parnell Square. A reliable source tells me that “There will be prizes and questions to suit all tastes on the night, and the usual cut-throat ambience you only get at a table quiz.” Tables cost €30 and you can have a maximum of five people per table.

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Basic flying rules

  1. Try to stay in the middle of the air.
  2. Do not go near the edges of it.
  3. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there.

According to NASA.
Thanks to .

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January Books 5) Dangerous Visions

5) Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Tried emailing this to LJ as well, but no sign of it. Meantime I posted the gist of it also to a relevant thread on RASFW.

I’ve bought and reread this because the next story on my list of joint Hugo and Nebula winners is in it, and also in the name of my continuing sfnal education. It’s a great collection, 33 stories, the majority of them still fresh.

However, only the Anderson and the Sturgeon stories still qualify as “dangerous”; although homosexuality is now much less of a taboo subject than when Anderson wrote, his portrayal of it in the context of a clash of cultures I think remains valid. Likewise Sturgeon’s portrayal of incest, though that if anything is probably even more of a taboo than it was in 1967.

Perhaps my brain has turned to mush, but I found both the Farmer and Emshwiller stories incomprehensible.

I’d classify the Del Rey, Hensley, and Knight stories as of the “Shaggy God” category, along with the Brand; making points about religion and/or God that seem pretty trivial now, but perhaps were more “dangerous” at the time of writing. Perhaps I have just been spoiled by Philip Pullman.

I would rate the Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, Delany, Dick, Lafferty, Leiber, Pohl, Sladek, Spinrad and Zelazny stories as good to excellent samples of their writing, if not necessarily “dangerous”. I also thought the Bunch, “Cross”, Dorman, Eisenberg, and Rodman stories were pretty good though I’m less familiar with the authors’ oeuvres (indeed the various databases assert that these were the only sf short stories ever published by “Cross” and Rodman, though both published other material).

I did not enjoy the Silverberg and DeFord stories (which both turned out to be about the same future development in the criminal justice system), nor the Bloch/Ellison riffs on Jack the Ripper, because the violence was too gratuitously nasty for my taste.

I thought the Laumer, Neville, Niven and Slesar stories were very weak, taking in each case a silly premise and then failing to do much with it. Actually the Niven is promising enough for most of its length but is then killed by the punchline.

But basically, money well spent. The standout stories for me were Howard Rodman’s “The Doll’s House”, Anderson’s “Eutopia” and Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers”.

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January Books 4) Altered Carbon

4) Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

I actually finished this several days ago but have been so busy working on Kosovo that I can only now gather my thoughts. And livejournal having been down I tried submitting by email, twice, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. Anyway…

This is great fun. I did a little research on the sfnal pedigree of the key concept of human personalities being stored electronically and then reincarnated a few months ago. Here Richard Morgan takes the idea and puts it into a James Ellroy settling a few centuries into the future. It’s a little reminiscent of David Brin’s Kiln People or going further back Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead, but much better than either.

Lots of nasty violence and a couple of graphic sex scenes which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I thought it was artistically justified. I have to object to one pedantic point – we are told that our narrator’s surname, Kovacs, is correctly pronounced with a “Slavic tch“. As those of us who deal with the remnants of the Habsburg empire know, the Slavic version of the sound is spelt cz, č or at a stretch ć; cs is clearly not Slavic but Magyar, and Kovacs is Hungarian for Smith. But this is great fun.

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Titan stories

Posted these a while back but in the current state of LiveJournal who knows…

  • Roger Zelazny’s short short story “The Bands of Titan”
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan
  • Arthur C Clarke’s underrated Imperial Earth
  • Greg Benford and Gordon Eklund’s over-rated If The Stars Are Gods
  • John Varley’s eponymous trilogy
  • Stephen Baxter, Titan
  • Philip K Dick, The Game Players of Titan
  • Edmond Hamilton, [Captain Future and] The Harpers of Titan
  • James Patrick Hogan, Code of the Lifemaker
  • Alan E Nourse, Trouble on Titan
  • Ben Bova, As on a Darkling Plain
  • Manley Wade Wellman, Sojarr of Titan

Also of course there’s the infamous film Saturn 3, with screenplay by Martin Amis of all people, starring Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel and Farrah Fawcett.

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Stories from Pepys

10 January 1661/62:

So home to dinner, and in the afternoon to the office, and so to Sir W. Batten’s, where in discourse I heard the custom of the election of the Dukes of Genoa, who for two years are every day attended in the greatest state; and four or five hundred men always waiting upon him as a king; and when the two years are out, and another is chose, a messenger is, sent to him, who stands at the bottom of the stairs, and he at the top, and says, “Va. Illustrissima Serenita sta finita, et puede andar en casa.”—”Your serenity is now ended; and now you may be going home,” and so claps on his hat. And the old Duke (having by custom sent his goods home before), walks away, it may be but with one man at his heels; and the new one brought immediately in his room, in the greatest state in the world.

Another account was told us, how in the Dukedom of Ragusa, in the Adriatique (a State that is little, but more ancient, they say, than Venice, and is called the mother of Venice, and the Turks lie round about it), that they change all the officers of their guard, for fear of conspiracy, every twenty-four hours, so that nobody knows who shall be captain of the guard to-night; but two men come to a man, and lay hold of him as a prisoner, and carry him to the place; and there he hath the keys of the garrison given him, and he presently issues his orders for that night’s watch: and so always from night to night. Sir Win. Rider told the first of his own knowledge; and both he and Sir W. Batten confirm the last.

Ragusa is of course better known these days as Dubrovnik.

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Blast from the past

Doing a bit of research on the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, I just came across the transcript of one of President Truman’s press conferences, and it’s surprisingly funny; Truman, obviously slightly deaf (or perhaps just suffering from poor acoustics), but entirely relaxed about just saying “I can’t answer that question”, “I have no comment”, or “I am not making any statement this morning”. Some particular jewels:

Q. Mr. President, I never know how to spell anybody’s name. Walter J. Donnelly, how does he spell it?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I will spell it for you–D-o-n-n-e-l-l-y. You know how to spell “Walter,” don’t you?

On correspondence with congressmen:

Q: I understand that you recently received a letter from Congressman Cole of Kansas, relative to an RFC loan to Lustron, calling your attention to that. I wonder if you have any comment?

THE PRESIDENT. I have received no such letter. It is customary for Congressmen, when they are running for office, to write letters to the President and give them to the press long before he ever receives them.

And finally, showing a sensible attitude about delegating responsibilities:

Q. Mr. President, will the Secretary of State go to New York to attend the General Assembly meeting?

THE PRESIDENT. I have an idea that the Secretary of State will be there on occasion, if it is necessary. He is not a delegate necessarily, but he is always welcome if he wants to go there. He has my permission to go, if he wants to.

It’s particularly interesting to compare the crisp style of Truman’s delivery with the incumbent. Though to be honest I think it’s as much as anything a change in the habits of public presentation over the last fifty years; I’m sure Clinton’s press conferences, if I could be bothered to find the transcripts, would have a much stronger resemblance to Bush’s than Truman’s in style.

My only personal encounter with this kind of thing was at the time of President Clinton’s visit to Belfast in November 1995. I was one of the 2,000 or so invited to the audience for his morning speech at Mackie’s, and then was outside the City Hall for his turning on the Christmas lights that evening. I’ll always remember his historic words:

I got a letter from 13-year-old Ryan from Belfast. Now, Ryan, if you’re out in the crowd tonight, here’s the answer to your question. No, as far as I know, an alien spacecraft did not crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. And, Ryan, if the United States Air Force did recover alien bodies, they didn’t tell me about it, either, and I want to know.

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Having said that…

My boss’s farewell speech to the Australian parliament gives some idea of what he thinks he is like to work with, in his own words. A man of real genius most of the time, but his volatility is sometimes really unpleasant and yesterday was one of those days. Well, I’ve had enough. I’m definitely now starting to look for a new job. I have other, smaller, people to baby-sit.

I’ve achieved almost all the targets I set myself when I took this job on – to publish what I think the EU should do in the Balkans, to publish our first reports on Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and to publish three reports on Moldova (two are published, the third is on my desk awaiting editing). I’ve thought of the ideas of doing more work on the Middle East and so on; but our internal set-up doesn’t really seem to me to allow it.

When I accepted this job I was already the one person in the non-governmental sector in Brussels who knew more about the Balkans than anyone else – indeed, that’s why they offered it to me. I haven’t really moved on much from there – I’ve added Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova to my areas of expertise, but to be honest nobody really cares about them.

The turning point was reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People last week. And the description of how a good company works with its employees was just nothing like my employers work. I think I’d like to work somewhere with good management, so that I could learn more from it.

I notice that there are a jobs going in the NGO sector at the moment which I am on the face of it qualified for, such as this one and this one. While I wonder what the salaries are like, I also think I’d prefer to give the private sector a try. I’ve never worked there, and I wonder if a work environment which is less ideologically driven might be more open to personal development in other ways.

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The Joe Gordon saga

Did you hear the one about the guy who blogged about his workplace? He wrote about it here. Or you may have read about it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, or here.

I have slightly mixed feelings. I work in a much more politically sensitive job than Joe Gordon did, so you won’t read me referring to my employers in quite the way he did, even in friends-locked posts, and I’ll try to avoid mentioning them explicitly at all; but at the same time, if any of my colleagues were to object to anything I’d written here, I would hope they would give me the chance to simply amend or delete in recognition of their sensibilities before they resorted to such drastic action. I think Waterstone’s action has brought them into much more disrepute than anything written by Joe Gordon, and therefore I will not buy books from them in future.

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Tsunami child

I don’t know if anyone else has been getting the messages about the two-year-old in Phuket hospital, found near Khoa Lak. I’ve received them from a) a PR consultant in Brussels, b) a work colleague, c) a NATO mission in the Balkans and d) a presidential adviser in a different Balkan country (these last two only this afternoon, as people come back from Orthodox Christmas holidays I suppose).

The good news is that the child’s family has indeed been identified – see (not working last time I checked) and for more details. Unfortunately the mother is still missing.

One lesson here is that the family was actually identified as early as 29 December, and I’m still getting emails about it almost two weeks later. It’s always always worth checking out such emails with a quick google to see if someone has already solved the problem. And as a general rule, if you get an email asking you to forward it to everyone you know, it is never a good idea to do so.

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I’m not too worried about the recent takeover of LiveJournal, but it has inspired me to install ljArchive and I’ve been having fun playing with it. My thousandth post was my review of England Swings SF, earlier this afternoon. My most used words (common words excluded) are:

1. actually (not sure why this doesn’t count as a common word)
2. political
3. president
4. ireland
5. european
6. election
7. list
8. john (mainly from lists of books and authors, with some help from the recent US election)
9. report
10. fiction
11. interesting
12. office
13. published
14. elections (combined with “election” would be far ahead of “actually”)
15. minister
16. today
17. stories
18. kosovo
19. someone
20. later

Alas, I can’t get the exciting sounding “regressive imagery analysis” to work.

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Science Fiction and Fantasy

“The relationship between science fiction and fantasy is difficult and topically important. At present, there’s a good deal of serious dissension among sf writers, especially in the Science Fiction Writers’ Association of America. Obviously many readers of sf are attracted to it because it performs the same operation as fantasy—it provides Recovery and Escape and wonder. But when they invoke the word ‘Science,’ and use an element of scientific knowledge (very variable, sometimes, in scope and accuracy) authors nowadays are more easily able to produce suspension of disbelief. The legendary laboratory ‘professor’ has replaced the wizard.”

Who do you think said this, in an interview in 1966?

J.R.R. Tolkien, of course.

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