John Cushnahan

I bumped into John Cushnahan this afternoon in the European Parliament, and he raised a perfectly reasonable objection to my description of him in this entry. Entirely fair; I should have written “sometimes acerbic” rather than “somewhat acerbic”, and I should have added “always a shrewd judge of character”. To which I would now add, “increasingly mellow”.

(I doubt that he is a regular reader here but any sensible person in public life has set up blog alerts for their own name.)

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Before The Screaming Begins trilogy

After reading Wally K. Daly’s untransmitted Doctor Who story, I became curious about his other work – he was a moderately prolific writer of (mostly radio) plays, and I discovered that he had written a science fiction trilogy in the late 1970s. The BBC as usual junked the original tapes, but Daly’s own off-air recordings survive and can be downloaded from various places around the internet (no links here; it’s easy enough to Google). They are an interesting demonstration of what a writer normally known for non-genre work might produce in the era of Blake’s 7 and the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide (and Doctor Who when it was very slightly past its peak). The biggest problem is that the sound quality is not all it could be – I couldn’t listen to these on my normal train commute, though they were OK for Wii workouts or driving.

Before the Screaming Begins (1977) is a good start: our central characters, Tom and Sally Harris, are celebrating their wedding anniversary with a walk in the woods when he is abducted by aliens. Sally is frustrated when the police refuse to believe her, but then Tom is returned with new strange powers and a message from the aliens for the people of Earth, and it turns out similar appearances and disappearances have happened simultaneously all over the world; we get mixed up with the Prime Minister (Patrick Troughton, doing a brilliant impression of Harold Wilson) and sinister official A.P. Smith (played by Donald Hewlett, the only main cast member to appear in all three plays).

The Silent Scream (1979) is I think the best of the three, and has interesting foreshadowing of Torchwood: Children of Earth – so much so that I wonder if RTD has acknowledged it as source material? – though of course The Midwich Cuckoos/Village of the Damned is probably a common root. Lots of creepy children endowed with super powers (one played by Susan Sheridan who was the original Trillian at about the same time), and the government pondering extreme measures to deal with them. No Patrick Troughton this time, but Hannah Gordon takes over as Sally Harris.

With a Whimper to the Grave (1984) has the best cast but weakest plot of the three. Patrick Troughton takes back the role of Prime Minister, but loses the election to “Marge”, played by Angela Thorne (not her only such role). Timothy West is a chief alien. Maureen “Vicki” O’Brien takes over as Sally. But the central character is Donald Hewlett’s A.P. Smith, who links between the aliens’ revelation of What They Were Really Up To, and the authorities’ attempt to neutralise the alien threat. Unfortunately the to plot strands confuse rather than reinforcing each other, and the wipe-out-the-alien-menace bit is very poorly paced (and there is a very irritating character called Geoffrey Palmer, which must be an in-joke). However you’ll want to listen to it for completeness if you’ve heard the first two.

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Books acquired in September

The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones
The Ghost House by Steve Cole
The Time Capsule by Peter Anghelides

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey
Elizabeth The Great by Elizabeth Jenkins
The End of Time: The Darksmith Legacy Bk. 10 by Justin Richards
The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross
One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing by John Harvey
The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest
The thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Beach Music by Pat Conroy
Strip Jack by Ian Rankin
Eva by Peter Dickinson
Mistress Blanche: Queen Elizabeth I’s Confidante by Ruth E. Richardson
Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones
Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

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September Books

I’m unlikely to finish any more in the next day (as of this evening I am 100 pages into two 700-page books, 60 pages into one 270-page book).

Non-fiction: 7 (YTD 74)
Fiction (non-sf) 7 (YTD 48)

SF (non-Who) 4 (YTD 62)

Who/Sarah Jane: 14 (YTD 56)

3 (YTD 54/284) by women (Kidd, Bronte, Rayner)
1 (YTD 13/284) by PoC (Naipaul)
Total page count ~9,100 (YTD ~80,700)
Owned for more than a year: 5 (Anglo-Norman Ulster [reread], Jane Eyre [reread], Stand on Zanzibar [reread], Appleseed, England’s Troubles)
Also reread: Doctor Who Programme Guide x2 (YTD 31 rereads)

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September Books 32) Fairyland, by Paul J. McAuley

A 1995 novel of the near future which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (and I think also the BSFA). It's a pessimistic take on the post-nanotech future, particularly convincing on the relationship between high-tech computing and low-tech field combat in a very recognisable near-future Albania (yep, I've stayed in that hotel too).

I thought the settings were very convincing if rather gloomy – 1994-95 saw the height of the Bosnian conflict, and from that perspective McAuley's Balkans, mired in conflict for decades, would have seemed entirely plausible. Unfortunately I couldn't quite bring myself to care much about the characters, but I did admire the scenery.

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September Books 31) The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by Richard Dawkins

I’m not a fan of Dawkins’ views on religion, but as editor of this book he has done a fine job; it clearly makes a difference that he is writing about topics he knows and likes, and his introductory pieces to each extract are informative and often self-deprecating.

I was less sure that the book actually works as a concept. The selected pieces are necessarily extracts rather than complete works, and the result feels more like a scrapbook than an anthology. Certainly none of the pieces is bad, and several of them made me want to seek out more by that author (from the sublime – Albert Einstein’s thoughts on God – to the ridiculous – Francis Crick’s advice to avoid gatherings of more than two Nobel Prize winners). But the nature of the book means a succession of changes of pace, some of which are rather jarring. This contains a number of chunks out of various excellent books about science but doesn’t quite end up being one itself.

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Those German exit polls

CDU/CSU 33.5% (-1.7%)
SPD 23.3% (-10.9%)
FDP 14.6% (+4.8%)
Left 12.9% (+4.2%)
Greens 10.2% (+2.1%)
Others 5.5% (+1.5%)

Looks like the Christian Democrats and FDP will have a clear majority, although this is the worst result for the CDU/CSU since 1949 and the worst for the SPD since, er, 1933 (scroll down).

Fingers crossed for Cem Özdemir in Stuttgart South (I’m not really a Green voter but I know and like him); I imagine it’s a bit of a long shot though.

NB the Pirate Party did best of the minnows, at 2.1%.

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September Books 29) The Time Capsule, by Peter Anghelides; 30) The Ghost House, by Steve Cole

Two very good audiobooks read by Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. In The Time Capsule, the team find their work experience disrupted by time-travelling aliens; The Ghost House has a similar problem but in the house down the road. Neither is totally perfect (Anghelides could work on his pacing; Cole has Sarah occasionally switching from first person to omniscient third which no doubt looked better in the script than it sounds) but both are fun listening.

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September Books 28) Strip Jack, by Ian Rankin

The fourth of the Rebus detective books, an engaging read about an MP who is caught in a brothel, and the relationships between him and his schoolfriends which run out of control; there is also a very charming institutionalised psychopath, plenty of office politics and personal dilemmas for Rebus, and some excellent plot twists. I will keep at this series.

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September Books 18-27) Doctor Who: the Darksmith Legacy

What with there not being much televised Who this year, the BBC have partially filled the gap with this series of books for younger readers, the first of which was published in January and the tenth and final one last week. The full list is:

  1. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Dust of Ages by Justin Richards
  2. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Caves of Mordane, by Colin Brake
  3. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Colour of Darkness, by Richard Dungworth
  4. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Depths of Despair, by Justin Richards
  5. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Vampire of Paris, by Stephen Cole
  6. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Game of Death, by Trevor Baxendale
  7. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Planet of Oblivion, by Justin Richards
  8. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Pictures of Emptiness, by Jacqueline Rayner
  9. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The Art of War, by Mike Tucker
  10. Doctor Who – The Darksmith Legacy: The End of Time, by Justin Richards

There are basically two models for multipart stories like this, the Key to Time / Keys of Marinus model where our hero has to pick up individual items which make a wholen and the McGuffin model as in the Daleks’ Master Plan (or indeed the Lord of the Rings) where the vital object has to be kept out of the hands of the bad guys and if possible destroyed. This is an example of the latter approach, with the Eternity Crystal, as created by the Darksmiths, clearly drawing inspiration from both Tolkien’s One Ring and the Nation/Spooner Time Destructor (or more exactly its taranium core). These are good precedents, and the Darksmith Legacy makes the most of them. Each book has a different setting (including two historical visits to Earth) and usually a new alien species as well as the relentless Darksmiths in the background. The Doctor travels solo for the first few volumes and then picks up a young companion, Gisella, who is more than she seems. There are excellent cliff-hangers at the end of each book, and I rather regret reading them all in one go rather than spacing them out as they were published. Also each book has a puzzle or two, integrated into the plot (“Which button should the Doctor press? Crack the code!”) and some further information “from the Tardis databanks”, either about fictional planets or something factual and relevant. All in all they are a jolly good contribution to the younger end of Who literature; I felt the third (by Richard Dungworth) was the least accomplished but all the others are pretty good.

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I enjoy social networks. Finding connections with people I’ve met is a small hobby in itself. I have 441 livejournal contacts (ie those who are reading me rather than vice versa), 1010 on LinkedIn, 1456 on Facebook; basically people whose continued existence in the world I am glad to be reminded of now and then. I realise that this is unusual, as some have been kind enough to point out. But my attention is always caught by research like the Milgram small world experiment or the Erdős–Bacon number.

I was therefore interested to see Keith Ferrazzi’s recent article, slightly recycling a chapter from his Never Eat Alone, listing seven types of person who are likely to be super-connectors:

  1. Restaurateurs
  2. Headhunters
  3. Lobbyists
  4. Fundraisers
  5. Public relations people
  6. Politicians
  7. Journalists

I scratched my head a bit at this. My job has aspects of #3 and #5, and I personally used to be an example of #6, but I would describe what I do as closer to consultancy; we are after all a "diplomatic advisory group", not lobbyists or a PR firm. I wondered what other super-connectors I know, and how they would fit in to Ferrazzi’s categories?

LinkedIn, which is a more professional social network than Facebook or LJ, conveniently gives the number of contacts for each person in your network, and I discovered that there were precisely ten who fit its superconnector category (more than 500 contacts) and who I know from my list. (Also in the course of this exercise I realised that there were a couple of other superconnectors on my list who I don’t know from Adam, so I removed them.) In order of length of time I have known them, they are the following:

  1. a friend from my days in postal Diplomacy around 1983-85, who now describes himself as a "Strategist for Social Investment, Grassroots Lobbying, and Corporate Accountability Campaigns" (he has moved from his native England to Washington DC). Like me, his job has aspects of lobbying and of PR but doesn’t really fit comfortably into either category. Interestingly, he is the only one of the ten who is on livejournal.
  2. a fellow student at Clare College, who I only really got to know as he was crashing out of his postgrad science course in 1989, now a "Freelance Business Analyst". He does a fair amount of consultancy in the telecoms area these days, and I get the impression that he actively uses LinkedIn as a means of drumming up business. He does not appear to fit into any of Ferazzi’s categories.
  3. a fellow member of the Cambridge University Students Union executive in 1989-90, now a "Search and Talent Intelligence Expert", ie a head-hunter, with over 3600 LinkedIn connections. She clearly fits Ferrazzi’s category #2. Interestingly, she is the only one of the ten who is not on Facebook (as far as I know).
  4. a former MEP who served from 1999 to this year, though I have known him since 1993 or thereabouts through liberal politics. A clear case of category #6.
  5. a member of the same political party who I knew around 1996 through young liberal politics, now working his way up the political tree in his country’s largest city. Another clear case of category #6.
  6. a Brussels-based management consultant who I have known since 1999 as a promoter of business connections between Belgium and Luxembourg on the one hand and certain other countries in which I take an interest on the other. Probably the oldest person of these ten.
  7. another former MEP from the same country as d (though from a different political party), who I got to know only after she was elected in 1999. Now works as chef de cabinet to a very senior (though not very prominent) international official. Yet another clear case of category #6, though she has other interests as well.
  8. a Canadian guy who I turned down for a research job in 2003, but he forgave me, we got on well and have stayed in touch; he is now a "Principal at a research-based strategy firm" in Toronto.
  9. One of my former interns (from 2005) who has now also gone into business consultancy in the energy sector in Brussels
  10. the youngest on the list, a researcher at one of my former workplaces who I met last year for the first time; also does a little journalistic writing but not enough to qualify as category #7.

Now, of course, Ferrazzi’s seven categories will not map directly onto LinkedIn connections, especially not LinkedIn connections of mine – I don’t know many restaurateurs, and I am on emailing terms with very few of them; and I imagine that LinkedIn would not be a terribly useful tool for you if you are in the catering business. I do, however, know a lot of journalists, who are not at all represented in the above list; and I suspect that they choose not to share their contacts with LinkedIn, since they are operationalising them daily in quite a different way.

What does strike me is that I think my relatively few friends who are business consultants are over-represented in the above list, and I think Ferrazzi has missed something here. I’m sure (indeed, I know from occasionally passing on messages) that they are operationalising LinkedIn as part of their business approach, as a means of contacting and checking out clients. Possibly they are less likely to put their vast network of connections at the service of a friend or acquaintance (thus not the type of virtuous superconnector that Ferrazzi is highlighting in his article), but in fact that’s not my experience of any of them.

Or possibly they are just compulsive about plugging every business card they collect at conferences and receptions into LinkedIn to see if the people they meet are there. <irony>Can’t imagine doing that myself.</irony>

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Gibbon IV

  • This chapter is about 70% Commodus and 30% Pertinax; the former reigned for 13 years and the latter less than three months. Though from what Gibbon says, Pertinax is much the more attractive of the two as characters. A lot about Commodus himself, but it is rather long on outrage at his infamy (…infamy, they’ve all got it in for me) and short on detail; compared to Caligula he seems fairly small beer.
    But then the story of Pertinax is told succinctly and well, actually rather moving in places – an old man, unexpectedly made emperor, trying to do his best to undo his predecessor’s mistakes and then move forward, but who is then very quickly brought down by the military. If you don’t know what’s coming (and I didn’t) the end of the chapter is a brutal shock.
    (tags: gibbon)
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The DWM top 200

Doctor Who monthly’s latest issue publishes the results of a reader poll of all 200 Doctor Who stories to date, ranked in order of popularity. (The article also includes scores for the two Dalek films and other ephemera, but never mind that). The top stories are difficult to argue with, though I am sorry that the best of the black and white era doesn’t feature higher. The bottom of the list is impossible to dispute, with The Twin Dilemma coming last by a very significant margin.

There is plenty of discussion going on elsewhere, but my idea for turning this into a meme is to do the list with the stories which you think should be ranked much higher in blue and the stories that you think should be ranked much lower in red, for whatever definition of "much" you feel happy with. (LJ’s rich text posting will let you do this; also there’s always the option of typing <font color="red">…</font> and <font color="blue">…</font> around the text you want to alter). I’ve cut-n-pasted the list from here, but also added which Doctor is in each story. If you haven’t seen all of them, I encourage you to do this anyway but just put the ones you haven’t seen in italics.

001. The Caves of Androzani. (5)
002. Blink. (10)
003. Genesis of the Daleks. (4)
004. The Talons of Weng-Chiang. (4)
005. The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. (9)
006. Human Nature / The Family of Blood. (10)
007. Pyramids of Mars. (4)
008. City of Death. (4)
009. The Robots of Death. (4)
010. Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways. (9)
011. The Girl in The Fireplace. (10)
012. Turn Left. (10)
013. The Stolen Earth / Journeys End. (10)
014. Remembrance of the Daleks. (7)
015. Dalek. (9)
016. The Seeds of Doom. (4)
017. Terror of the Zygons. (4)
018. The Evil of the Daleks. (2)
019. Earthshock. (5)
020. The Deadly Assassin. (4)
021. Power of the Daleks. (2)
022. Army of Ghosts. (9)
023. Web of Fear. (2)
024. Silence in the Library. (10)
025. Tomb of the Cybermen. (2)
026. Horror of Fang Rock (4)
027. Last of the Time Lords (10)
028. The Ark in Space (4)
029. The War Games (2)
030. The Curse of Fenric. (7)
031. The Invasion (2)
032. Inferno. (3)
033. School Reunion (10)
034. The Daemons (3)
035. The Impossible Planet (10)
036. Spearhead From Space. (3)
037. The Daleks. (1)
038. The Five Doctors. (1,2,3,5)
039. The Green Death (3)
040. The Brain of Morbius (4)
041. Fury from the Deep (2)
042. The Daleks’ Master Plan (1)
043. Midnight. (10)
044. The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1)
045. Doctor Who and the Silurians (3)
046. Revelation of the Daleks. (6)
047. The Time Warrior (3)
048. The Christmas Invasion (10)
049. Fathers Day (9)
050. The Sea Devils (3)
051. Terror of the Autons. (3)
052. Tooth and Claw. (10)
053. Logopolis. (4)
054. The Unquiet Dead. (9)
055. The Tenth Planet. (1)
056. The Fires of Pompeii. (10)
057. The Aztecs. (1)
058. The Three Doctors. (1,2,3)
059. The Abominable Snowmen. (2)
060. The Mind Robber. (2)
061. An Unearthly Child. (1)
062. Carnival Of Monsters. (3)
063. Rose. (9)
064. The Shakespeare Code. (10)
065. Marco Polo. (1) – I’m actually watching the recon of this at the moment, and it is really good.
066. Smith and Jones. (10)
067. The Stones of Blood. (4)
068. Rise of the Cybermen. (10)
069. Kinda. (5)
070. The Keeper of Traken. (4)
071. Day of the Daleks. (3)
072. Enlightenment. (5)
o73. Image of the Fendahl. (4)
074. Gridlock. (10)
075. The Time Meddler. (1)
076. Ghost Light. (7)
077. The Visitation. (5)
078. The Ice Warriors. (2)
079. Planet of the Ood. (10)
080. Survival. (7)
081. Warriors Gate. (4)
082. The Curse of Peladon. (3)
083. The Unicorn and the Wasp. (10)
084. Planet of Evil. (4)
085. The Masque of Mandragora. (4)
086. The Massacre. (1)
087. State of Decay. (4)
088. Castrovalva. (4)
089. Planet of the Spiders. (3)
090. The Ambassadors of Death. (3)
091. The Sontaran Stratagem. (10)
092. The Mind of Evil. (3)
093. Resurrection of the Daleks. (5)
094. The End of the World. (9)
095. The Androids of Tara. (4)
096. The Hand of Fear. (4)
097. The Romans. (1)
098. Partners in Crime. (10)
099. Planet of the Dead. (10)
100. The Crusade. (1)
101. Full Circle. (4)
102. Mawdryn Undead. (5)
103. The Sontaran Experiment. (4)
104. Frontios. (5)
105. The Ribos Operation. (4)
106. Robot. (4)
107. The Next Doctor. (10)
108. The War Machines. (1)
109. The Pirate Planet. (4)
110. The Awakening. (5)
111. The Seeds of Death. (2)
112. The Moonbase. (2)
113. Frontier in Space. (3)
114. Voyage of the Damned. (3)
115. The Runaway Bride. (3)
116. The Face of Evil. (4)
117. Black Orchid. (5)
118. Planet of the Daleks. (3)
119. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. (7)
120. Snakedance. (5)
121. Destiny of the Daleks. (4)
122. The Faceless Ones. (2)
123. The Android Invasion. (4)
124. Vengeance on Varos. (6)
125. The Two Doctors. (2,6)
126. The Myth Makers. (1)
127. The Rescue. (1)
128. Death to the Daleks. (3)
129. The Claws of Axos. (3)
130. Revenge of the Cybermen. (4)
131. Invasion of the Dinosaurs. (3)
132. Aliens of London. (9)
133. Mission to the Unknown. (no Doctor but during first Doctor’s era)
[The Ultimate Foe (6)]
134. Planet of Fire. (5)
135. Doctor Who The TV Movie. (8)
136. 42. (10)
137. The Macra Terror. (2)
138. The Idiots Lantern. (10)
139. The Enemy of the World. (2)
140. The Doctors Daughter. (10)
141. Boom Town. (9)
142. The Trial of a Time Lord. (6)
143. New Earth. (10)
144. The Reign of Terror. (1)
145. The Highlanders. (2)
146. Battlefield. (7)
147. The Sun Makers. (4)
148. The Mark of the Rani. (7)
149. The Leisure Hive. (4)
150. The Lazarus Experiment. (10)
151. The Celestial Toymaker. (1)
152. Evolution of the Daleks. (10)
[Terror of the Vervoids (6)]
153. Love and Monsters. (10)
154. The Ark. (1)
155. The Invasion of Time. (4)
156. The Wheel in Space. (2)
157. The Chase. (2)
158. Edge of Destruction. (1)
159. The Smugglers. (1)
160. The Keys of Marinus. (1)
[Mindwarp (6)]
161. Attack of the Cybermen. (6)
162. The Savages. (1)
163. Planet of Giants. (1)
164. The Invisible Enemy. (4)
165. The Long Game. (9)
[The Mysterious Planet (6)]
166. The Krotons. (2)
167. Nightmare of Eden. (4)
168. The Armageddon Factor. (4)
169. Terminus. (5)
170. The Happiness Patrol. (7)
171. Colony in Space. (3)
172. Galaxy 4. (1)
173. Four to Doomsday. (5)
174. The Power of Kroll. (4)
175. The Gunfighters. (1)
176. Silver Nemesis. (7)
177. Arc of Infinity. (5)
178. The Web Planet. (1)
179. The Monster of Peladon. (3)
180. Delta and the Bannermen. (7)
181. The King’s Demons. (5)
182. The Mutants. (3)
183. The Sensorites. (1)
184. The Creature from the Pit. (1)
185. Warriors Of The Deep. (5)
186. Dragonfire. (7)
187. The Time Monster. (3)
188. Meglos. (4)
189. The Horns Of Nimon. (4)
190. The Space Museum. (1)
191. The Dominators. (2)
192. Fear Her. (10)
193. Paradise Towers. (7)
194. The Underwater Menace. (2)
195. The Space Pirates. (2)
196. Time-Flight. (5)
197. Underworld. (4)
198. Time and the Rani. (7)
199. Timelash. (6)
200. The Twin Dilemma. (6)

The worst injustice is The Daleks’ Master Plan coming as low as 42nd; I think this is probably because few have settled down to the whole 12-episode saga in a frame of mind to appreciate it. I will never understand the popularity of Remembrance of the Daleks, but the most over-rated story in the poll for my money is The Faceless Ones, which if it weren’t for Pauline Collins should have been in the last ten, and in no way deserves even the rather low rank of 122nd.

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September Books 17) Diplomacy, by Henry Kissinger

This is a somewhat frustrating book. The opening chapters, based apparently on the author’s PhD thesis about diplomacy in the nineteenth century, are pretty dull, even soporific. But once Kissinger gets to the twentieth century, it all gets rather exciting – particularly as regards the foreign policy of Germany in the period between the two world wars and between 1945 and 1961; I don’t think I have read a better analysis. But then, rather surprisingly, as Kissinger himself becomes an actor the book becomes less interesting; his fascination with the characters of Nixon and Reagan robs him of any ability to judge their efforts objectively, and even his account of ending the Vietnam War is repetitious and oddly unenlightening.

The book fails to establish its main intellectual theses which are that a) America is unique in bringing its own moral values to international diplomacy and b) that this is only successful when these are consciously married to a realist perception of what is possible. The first proposition is easily falsified by the large number of other countries which have attempted to export their own ideologies to the rest of the world. America has been more successful, admittedly (though the jury must surely still be out on the Chinese), but that’s not the same as being unique.

The second proposition is trickier. Kissinger’s bête noire is John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, who he blames for Suez, Hungary and the initial and irreversible commitment to Vietnam. But on Kissinger’s evidence, the problem with Dulles was not faulty ideology but poor personal management skills; Dulles made speeches without reference to his own officials’ painstakingly compiled research, containing commitments on which he was utterly unable to deliver (or, worse, from which it was impossible for him to disengage). It was, on Kissinger’s account, fortunate for Dulles that for most of his term of office the Soviet Union was led by Khrushchev, whose own personal management skills were even worse.

Kissinger’s praise for Ronald Reagan, despite his total lack of intellectual depth (which Kissinger describes in a couple of devastating phrases), is further evidence for my view that knowing a lot about international relations in theory is not a good qualification for actually being involved in practice. I’m dubious anyway about the genuine value of Reagan’s legacy – again, on Kissinger’s own evidence, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze first discussed how to change the Soviet Union years before Reagan came to power, thanks to the CSCE process started by Nixon and ended by Ford; SDI had little to do with it. But if you think Reagan was in any way successful, that in itself is a serious strike against the idea that studying IR is any use at all (other than for potentially generating literature to be read by other IR scholars, rather than practitioners). Kissinger damns Carter by barely mentioning him.

I also found fault with Kissinger’s analysis of American discourse. He singles out the Vietnam war as having been a uniquely divisive and horrible event in the American psyche. But the more I read about American history, the more it seems to me that the nasty, viscerally horrible debate that was happening 40 years ago about Vietnam, the brutal debate happening now about health care, the question of slavery which sparked armed conflict in the 1860s, the division between John Adams and Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s, that this style is all fairly characteristic of the standard mode of American discourse. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and it’s not for me, but it’s a recurrent phenomenon through history. I’m sure that for Kissinger and for many of his colleagues, Vietnam was a uniquely searing experience. But in the context of American history, it seems less so (at least to me).

Cyprus conspiracy theorists will be (and already have been) disappointed that the island is not mentioned even once in the book.

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September Books 16) Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

It is over 25 years since I last read this book; it was one of our set texts for Eng Lit O-level, so I remembered it as a source of material for essay-writing rather than as an actual reading pleasure. I had forgotten quite a lot of it:

  1. that little Adèle is probably Rochester’s illegitimate daughter
  2. the whole death scene of Jane’s aunt
  3. Jane’s inheritance from the uncle in Madeira
  4. that Jane is actually a rather sassy, assertive teenager, who knows what is best for her and, very gracefully, refuses to take crap from anyone (though like her author she is a bit of a snob and racist)
  5. the repeated instances of the supernatural – prophetic dreams, culminating in her hearing Rochester call to her from a hundred miles away – which make it a magical rather than realistic novel
  6. that it is actually a very enjoyable book.

My Penguin edition has an excellent introduction and a few well-considered endnotes by Queenie Leavis, which shed extra light on the text without showing off the editor’s command of trivia. Brilliant stuff.

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Linkspam for 24-9-2009

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September Books 15) Zeta Major, by Simon Messingham

The Fifth Doctor novels have rather a good strike rate for me (the audios even more so). This confirmed the trend: a sequel to the Fourth Doctor’s TV story Planet of Evil, with the Morestran empire, centuries later, destroying itself by experimenting both with anti-matter and harnessing the kinetic energy of the planets, at the same time riven by internal conflict between church and state. Messingham’s concepts of anti-matter and planetary kinetics are pretty disconnected from actual science, but faithful enough to the spirit of the story which he is sequelling (and improving on). We have, as so often in Fifth Doctor novels, a rather good Nyssa storyline as she goes off investigating with dire consequences; Tegan is less well served. The Doctor here is somewhat damaged from his previous encounters with anti-matter (including Omega) which also takes the story in interesting directions. The Morestran politics are somewhat improbable but well told. I recommend this one.

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Presidential trivia question

Apparently Nixon hung portraits of Eisenhower and Woodrow Wilson in the Oval Office. Is there any information available as to which portraits were chosen by other presidents?

(My bet on the current one and his predecessor would be Kennedy/Lincoln, and Bush Sr/Reagan.)

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CD&V – not getting my vote

We got a bulletin from CD&V, the prime minister’s political party, through the door yesterday. This was supposedly targeted at the needs of our small village (where the party’s national chairman happens to be a resident). Now, I am rather charmed by the current PM, but his predecessor, who was from the same party, struck me as a total disaster (and now, God help us, he is our foreign minister; maybe he will be more mellow when not dealing with his fellow Belgians). On the other hand again, I have met several other CD&V ex-prime ministers (Dehaene, Tindemans, Eyskens) and been impressed by them (though all three predate the party’s most recent name change). So I was prepared to be open-minded about the CD&V.

Not any more, I’m afraid. The second page of the leaflet boldly proclaims their new legislative initiatives – not as part of the government, but as proposals from individual CD&V senators. The first of these was to make it compulsory for cyclists to wear fluorescent clothes. Not a word about punishing bad driving more severely, or even doing something positive to increase road safety like build more bike lanes; no, legislate against the victims, that is the CD&V answer.

But the offensiveness of that proposal is far exceeded by the other one that caught my eye, to make it illegal for women to wear face-covering clothes in public, one reason given being that it makes “many people” (ie CD&V voters) feel insecure. It’s difficult to know where to start; I am aware that this is a deeply contentious issue, but as far as I am concerned, if it was wrong for Ireland’s English rulers to ban the wearing of Irish traditional clothing in 1367, it is wrong for the Belgian state to oppress its own citizens (and residents) in that way in the 21st century. Perhaps the CD&V will equalise their proposal by also banning the wearing of face-covering masks at Carnival time, but I am not holding my breath.

With any luck the other parties in the senate will kill these proposals off before they even get near the lower house.

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Linkspam for 23-9-2009

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Consecutive integers with the same number of factors

The numbers 2 and 3 are both prime, so both have two factors, themselves and 1.

2 3
1 1

While there are no other examples of consecutive primes, it’s not difficult to find more pairs of consecutive integers with the same number of factors:

14 15
7 5
2 3
1 1

21 22
7 11
3 2
1 1

Eventually you get to sets of three consecutive integers with the same number of factors:

33 34 35
11 17 7
3 2 5
1 1 1

85 86 87
17 43 29
5 2 3
1 1 1

It isn’t possible to have a sequence of more than three integers with only four factors, but so far I have found this set of four consecutive integers with six factors:

242 243 244 245
121 81 122 49
22 27 61 35
11 9 4 7
2 3 2 5
1 1 1 1

I’m sure that somewhere out there I can find out whether or not a) there are longer sequences of consecutive integers which the same number of factors and b) whether there is a natural limit to the process. That’s as far as I can take it in the sleepless hours of the night though.

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Belfast: The Soviet connection

Clifton Park Avenue is now an uncomfortable interface route between the Crumlin Road and the Cliftonville areas of North Belfast. A hundred years ago, it was one of the more Jewish parts of the city (which is not saying much, though a quick scan of the 1911 census reveals four Jewish families on the street, which is probably four more than are there now). These included David and Rifka Levinson, who moved into number 15 Clifton Park Avenue in 1908. They originally came from Białystok, now in Belarus; Rifka had smuggled her husband out of Russia twenty years earlier to avoid conscription, and they had built up a decent family business in Enniskillen and Clones. My suspicion is that they moved to Belfast because of the new Jewish school recently opened around the corner on the Cliftonville road by Sir Otto Jaffé, who served twice as Lord Mayor of the city.

Shortly after the Levinsons moved to Belfast in 1908, Rifka’s brother Max Wallach turned up. He was on the run. He had a suitcase full of roubles which had been stolen a year before in a raid on a bank in Tbilisi in which three people were killed and fifty injured. He had escaped to Paris, where the French government had caught him red-handed when he tried to bank the loot (the serial numbers of the stolen banknotes were known), but to the fury of the Russians they simply expelled him from France rather than extradite him back to Russia. Wallach, not surprisingly, went to his sister in Belfast, where the long arm of the Okhrana might have more difficulty in reaching him.

Family lore (as interviewed in the Belfast Telegraph in 1940, subsequently unearthed by Slavicist Neil Cornwell, and recently republished by Manus O’Riordan here) has Wallach wandering around Belfast in a white Parisian linen suit and a Panama hat, puffing furiously on large cigars, and climbing Cave Hill for recreation. He got work teaching Russian in the Berlitz language school (branching out to German, French, Spanish, Italian and even Japanese as required). He stayed with the Levinsons for two years, until his friends from Moscow ordered him to London to work for them there.

In London, Max Wallach became Maxim Litvinov, and hung around with the Fabians of the Bloomsbury set; and when his friends from the Tbilisi bank raid, Joseph Stalin and V.I. Lenin, came to power in Russia, he became the new regime’s informal ambassador in London – though he was eventually arrested and exchanged for a British spy who had been captured in Russia. He served as Soviet Foreign Minister from 1931 to 1939, and as Ambassador to the USA from 1941 to 1943. He never spoke about his Belfast experience, not even to the Irish diplomats who he persuaded to allow the Soviet Union into the League of Nations in 1934. (Any such considerations were probably obscured by the glamour of his wife Ivy, an Englishwoman who was a fascinating character in her own right.)

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September Books 13) Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, by R[obin] Dudley Edwards

I am cranking up my reading on sixteenth-century Ireland, and decided to go back to basics. This is essentially a narrative survey, based on exhaustive sampling of the surviving primary sources, of what happened politically in Ireland from the death of the seventh Earl of Kildare in 1513 to the Flight of the Earls in 1607. I am still getting my head around the various shifts in religious policy, particularly during the reign of Elizabeth I, but this gives a good skeleton on which to hang the meat of any future work I do.

I was less convinced by Dudley Edwards’ subtitle, “The Destruction of Hiberno-Norman Civilisation”. It is beyond dispute that in so far as there was such a thing, this period saw its destruction, but he doesn’t really illustrate why or what Hiberno-Norman civilisation actually was. It would be more accurate to describe the book as tracking the growth of colonialism as the active British policy in Ireland, which it does very well.

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Missile defence

I have always boggled at the fact that anyone could see any merits in the proposed US ballistic missile defence system. The more I looked into it, the more convinced I became that it was a technology that would never work against a threat that did not exist. So I was glad to see that President Obama has cancelled the proposed deployment of the missile defence system to Eastern Europe. This isn’t about giving in to Russia or Iran; it’s about not throwing good money after bad. Excellent analysis here.

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Lisbon again

Back in February last year, I wrote a post on the Lisbon Treaty, outlining my view that it is basically a shuffling of the institutional architecture which has little impact on the average EU citizen. Since then, the Irish people voted against the Treaty by 53% to 47% on 18 June 2008; and the Irish government has got certain points of clarification on the Treaty from the rest of the EU, and is holding another referendum on 2 October, less than a fortnight away. Also, the German constitutional court has said some interesting things about the Treaty and the European Union.

Isn’t it undemocratic to have a second referendum? I find it a peculiar argument to say that there can only ever be one referendum on a particular topic. I’m not especially in favour of them anyway, but if you like referendums in the first place then it seems odd to object when you get more than one. (Unless, of course, you only like them when you agree with the results.)

So has the Lisbon Treaty been amended to take the concerns of Irish voters into consideration? No. One concrete change to the EU has been made as a result of last year’s referendum (or rather, one proposed change has been dropped), but I’ll get to that in a moment. At their June 2009 summit, the EU’s leaders made a decision that the Lisbon Treaty doesn’t affect a) the peculiar provisions of the Irish constitution on abortion, the family and education, b) taxation and c) Irish neutrality. Since this is just re-stating what was already in the Treaty, it isn’t an amendment (and while the decision will be incorporated into EU law eventually, that won’t be until the next new member state joins).

So how does that change things? Well, if you are an Irish voter who voted against Lisbon last year in the misinformed belief that it would lead to the EU interfering in Irish policy on abortion, taxation and/or defence, you can feel reassured. (If you are an Irish voter who hopes that the EU might in future interfere in these issues, not so much; but the Lisbon Treaty was never going to be much use to you in that regard anyway, and see below on the German Constitutional Court.) I note that the Eurobarometer post-referendum opinion poll (here, page 19) found that a total of 14% of “No” voters voted against Lisbon because of their (misinformed) concerns about one or other of these issues. That’s not a lot but it would be enough to produce a different result.

And that’s all? No. There’s also a declaration on workers’ rights, which has even less legal force than the decision on abortion, taxation and neutrality, but may give comfort to those who fear the EU is a neo-liberal capitalist conspiracy. Though I am uncertain how many of those individuals will be reassured by statements made by the 27 EU heads of state and government, who presumably are key co-conspirators. Also the Irish government made a further declaration on neutrality and defence, which of course isn’t binding on the other 26 governments.

So there is no concrete change? Actually there is one very important concrete change, but the decision on that was made in December 2008 rather than June 2009. The current rules (the Nice Treaty) compel the EU to reduce the number of European Commissioners when they are next appointed (which will be in the next few months). As a result of the Irish referendum vote, however, the EU has decided to keep one Commissioner per member state (a concern cited by 6% of No voters in the Eurobarometer survey). But it cannot do this unless the Lisbon Treaty is passed (because Lisbon gives the member states discretion to decide how many Commissioners there are; Nice simply says there should be fewer). So there is a very immediate and practical consequence of a “No” vote on 2 October – fewer European Commissioners.

Does that matter? I think so. I have never bought the argument that the European Commission with 27+ members is too large to function – sitting as I do in my office beside its headquarters, it seems to function just fine. There is plenty of work to go around. I admit that I scoffed when the new Romanian Commissioner was given the portfolio of multilingualism, which sounds terribly waffly, but I was wrong to do so; he supervises 15% of the Commission’s total workforce, DG Translation being the largest single directorate-general – it’s not glamorous but someone has to keep things moving. Given that the work is there, and that Commissioners, for all that they are supposed to be above such things, are in fact important representatives of national interests in Brussels, it makes sense to have one per member state.

The German Constitutional Court? Ah yes. This actually makes much more difference than the European Council declarations. Germany’s Constitutional Court has made a ruling on the Lisbon Treaty which basically kills off any idea of a European federal super-state. A lot of my German Euro-federalist friends have been looking down in the mouth since the ruling came out on 30 June, and now that I’ve read it I can see why. Key quote: “authorisation to transfer sovereign powers to the European Union [is] granted under the condition that the sovereign statehood of a constitutional state is maintained”. The court essentially allows the German government to sign up to Lisbon but only if the level of democratic scrutiny of Lisbon and of future EU developments is enhanced, and also makes it clear that there are limits to how far European integration can go. The ruling should also dismay Lisbon’s opponents, however, as the court concludes that Lisbon itself is not a threat to German sovereignty, as long as it has been properly approved by the German democratic system. (Which has since happened.)

So, the bottom line is… As I said last time, the changes proposed in the Lisbon Treaty are indeed mostly improvements, and certainly will make life easier for those (a small, self-selected and privileged minority, admittedly) who have to operate within European politics. Voting against it doesn’t kill the EU, or globalisation, or anything like that; it just perpetuates the existing machinery. The Irish government is somewhat over-selling the guarantees they have received from the other member states, but then the “No” campaign shamelessly exaggerated the effects of the Treaty last year and continues to do so.

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