May Books 22) Ever Since Darwin, by Stephen Jay Gould

Another collection of Gould’s essays from Natural History Magazine, this time dating from the mid-1970s; as ever, nicely constructed and argued pieces, though it is something of a shock to realise that, say, continental drift had only recently become orthodox, or indeed (when considering his comments on the Permian / Triassic extinction) that the Alvarez proposal that the Cretaceous ended in a massive impact event was still several years in the future. He is also terrifically good, and humane, in warning against the casual adoption of Darwin’s ideas to support racist theories, including past examples of where even liberal scholars got it badly wrong. It has dated a bit more than The Panda’s Thumb, but I think is slightly better.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

Malcolm Hulke and reptiles

It hadn’t really struck me before, but what with New Who bringing back the Silurians, my son’s bedtime reading being Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, and also having just got onto the story after Spearhead from Space in my rewatch of Old Who, something became obvious:

The Faceless Ones (1967), by David Ellis and Malcolm Hulke. Features aliens called Chameleons.
Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970) by Malcolm Hulke. Features the reptilian Silurians.
Colony in Space (1971) by Malcolm Hulke. Features a giant killer lizard.
The Sea Devils (1972) by Malcolm Hulke. Features the reptilian Sea Devils.
Frontier in Space (1973) by Malcolm Hulke. Features the alien Draconians, who are reptilian.
Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) by Malcolm Hulke. Can you see where this is going?

OK, The War Games is an exception here (and I suppose also The Ambassadors of Death, though it wasn’t his concept originally), but there’s a definite pattern.

Posted in Uncategorised

More on the burka ban

Two interesting articles that caught my eye on this during the week:

The veil: a modesty slip for misogyny, by Laurie Penny over at the New Statesman:

In seeking to restrict the free choice of women to dress as they please, whether in a burqa, a bolero or a binbag, European governments are not protecting women but mounting a paranoid defense of their own right to determine feminine behavior.

And Veiled Threat: The many problems with France’s proposed burqa ban, by Wajahat Ali in Slate:

France should embrace its own constitution and ethos of equality by accepting its burqa-clad women as fraternal citizens who’ve earned the right to make their own choices. Any legitimate concerns that Europe has with the burqa and its Muslim citizenry require diplomacy and subtlety. But France is behaving like the Saudi Arabia of the EU by forcibly removing Muslim women’s rights with a legislative guillotine.

I am struck that both articles concentrate on France rather than Belgium, but I guess being ignored is not always such a bad thing.

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 21) Het Aïda Protocol, by Yannick Laude, Marco Venanzi & Michel Pierret

The second in a series of graphic novels published by, I kid you not, the ALDE group in the European Parliament (ie the Liberal MEPs which include the British Lib Dems and, since last year, Fianna Fáil) and available in various languages (I think the English version is Operation Aida).

Our heroic central character, Elisa Correr, exposes a web of corruption involving fellow MEPs and senior European Commission officials, and also persuades the EU to adopt her plan of funding infrastructure projects in nearby countries as long as they are democratic. It’s a little earnest and didactic (Elisa asks her dinner guest, “So, are you still the head of unit for [country] in the European Commission?”) and the dodgy guys all seem to have Polish names. Also the key policy Elisa is advocating is a thinly disguised version of the Nabucco pipeline project, which I am personally a bit suspicious about; it seems to me to have a lot more support from politicians than from anyone I have met who actually works in the fossil fuels industry.

But the book is a decent effort to convey the frenetic pressure of work that I observe in the European Parliament from those members who take it seriously (which is at least 90% of them). Though it omits the remarkable way in which the Parliament’s public spaces get taken over by various receptions with free booze and canapes every working evening from about 7 pm on.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

Eurovision wrap-up

Well, I was surprised by Germany’s win. A decent enough song, but of course we native anglophones will have been much more annoyed by Lena’s marvellous travelling accent than most voters were. Not at all surprised that Britain came last – neither the lead vocalist nor the backing singers actually sang in tune, and even in Eurovision that can make a crucial difference. Turkey came second by the cunning strategy of entering actual musicians. If they hadn’t used horrible strobe lighting, and had omitted the female robot doing a striptease (I am not joking), they might have done even better. Altogether an event that showed Europe at its most, well, something; checking facebook I saw a Spanish friend posting increasingly jubilant entries from a beer garden in Berlin. She was in the right place this evening!
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised


I must say that tonight I really enjoyed Twitter for the first time properly – I felt I was participating in a Europe-wide party of appreciation (or something) for the show, granted with a geographical spread of, er, from the Netherlands to Ireland, but still broader than I would have got by other means.

Azerbaijan: “drip drop”: she can’t really sing, massive swell of backing music to disguise this + gropy dancer. #eurovision

#spain: “algo pequeñito” love the choreography, tho a bit isolated on big stage. Not so sure about the song, grim accelerando. #eurovision

#norway: “your heart is mine” lovely song and presentation, but as so often the poor chap just can’t sing. #eurovision

#moldova: I loved this! Great make-up + costumes, and boppy! Until the guy with the saxophone started. Still, best so far. #eurovision

#cyprus / #wales: valiant effort, let down by tuneless backing singers. Will get 12 from #Greece anyway. #eurovision

#bosnia surprisingly evangelical christian in tone. Brave but unsuccessful attempts at harmony towards end. And key change. Ow. #eurovision

#belgium: “me + my guitar” can’t vote for it as a belg myself. But I think this is brilliant. #eurovision

#serbia: sorry, this is just awful. No redeeming features at all. #eurovision
So it actually *is* by goran bregovic, but loses by not being sung by him. Awful. #eurovision #serbia

#belarus “butterflies” lead inaudible, backup vocalist has comedy mustache. Otherwise unremarkable except costume punchline. #eurovision

#ireland nice haunty tin whistle even if vocalist (and song) not so special. Odd grammar. #eurovision

#greece Very odd and threatening choreography with happy bouncy Balkan music. Will get 12 from Cyprus, not much elsewhere. #eurovision
RT @clanwilliam: RT @RFLong: “Opa” = Greek for “My Lovely Horse” #eurovision

#uk “anything is possible to do” – apart from winning this evening, methinks. #eurovision
#uk not a bad song (for once!) but as so often let down by all vocalists – lead *and* backing singers – being out of tune. #eurovision

#georgia very *red*. Lovely song and singer but stage show is very *busy* and male dancers rather sinister. #eurovision

#turkey too stroboscopic. Bring on the robot! #eurovision
#turkey on second thoughts, turn the robot off. #eurovision

#albania can actually sing, which puts them ahead of the pack. Sadly song is not much good. #eurovision

#iceland #eurovision stirring nonsense. Actually a rather good melange of styles. Many Viking women wearing red. Probably gets my vote.
RT @kevmcveigh: Oh Iceland, wrong Bjork. #eurovision

#ukraine very brave. Again, good singer but song is nonsense. #eurovision

#france sounds like a football chant which of course it is. Good fun without actually being, y’know, good. #eurovision

#romania singers both playing keyboards, courageous. Means we lose physical chemistry, shame as otherwise promising. #eurovision
#romania sadly let down by costume design at end. #eurovision

#russia fake snow which would impress anyone except the Norwegians. #eurovision
#russia was he looking at his next lines? No, at her photos. Will he really burn them? I think not. #eurovision

#armenia as with Georgia, nice singer and song but stage show too busy. And patriotism not really suitable for #eurovision .

#germany What accent is she trying to sing with? Otherwise rather fun, sexy, unpretentious. #eurovision
RT @mickfealty: That poor German girl looks like she needs the toilet. #eurovision

#portugal oh, this is rather lovely. I think my loyalty has shifted from iceland. They can sing and I can’t understand it. #eurovision

#israel sadly utterly lost it on the high notes. It you can’t sing ’em, don’t put ’em in the song. #eurovision

#denmark awww, rather sweet and ABBA-like! Totally what a #eurovision winner should be! Complete with key-change and wind-machine!

#spain why are we getting this again??? It isn’t any better. #eurovision

have now cast my vote for #iceland #eurovision

Posted in Uncategorised

Burka ban update

As mentioned last weekend, I emailed the lijsttrekkers of all the parties standing candidates either in the Leuven district (for the Chamber) or in Flanders (for the Senate), asking for their position on the burka ban, and got the following responses (listed in the order that they will appear on the ballot paper):

Vlaams Belang: not only in favour of it, but claimed to have proposed it before anyone else. [reply from Leuven lijsttrekker]
Lijst Dedecker: "100% in favour". [reply from Leuven lijsttrekker]
Open VLD: supports it, "because we consider that moral values (i.e. respect for dignity of women) prevails over other values." [reply from Senate lijsttrekker who is also national leader]
CD&V: "As Christian-Democrats we believe in ‘active pluralism’ and the co-existence of various religions in our public area. However, we believe that one should draw a line when certain religious expressions are putting at risk the way we ‘live together’. As a political party, we are not in favour of the burqa." [reply from Senate lijsttrekker who is also national leader]
sp.a: no response.
N-VA: "in favour of the burka ban. Although we agree that is the right of every person to express his cultural or religious identity, the burka, by its sheer form, expresses a lack of respect for the western culture, and gives out a signal that integration is not only rejected, but disapproved. Therefore we can not tolerate such an ostensive rejection of western civilization, and its key values. We will thus vote in favour of the burka ban." [reply from Senate lijsttrekker who is also national leader; Leuven lijsttrekker also responded much more briefly along the same lines]
Groen!: Leuven lijsttrekker states that Groen! MPs voted in favour of the Burka ban, but adds, "In line with the viewpoints of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I do not agree with this. I think it is laudable to want to do something for women who are forced to wear a niqaab, yet I do not think fining the women (turning victims into perpetrators) is a good way of doing that."
LSP: without answering the question directly, referred me to articles here (in Dutch) and here (in English) which make it clear that they are against. [replies from both Senate lijsttrekker and Leuven lijsttrekker]
CAP: No direct reply to my email, but someone claiming to be one of their Senate candidates posted a comment on my previous post, which unfortunately doesn’t really answer the question but instead invites me to organise a public debate (!) about the issue.
PVDA+: Leuven lijsttrekker responds: "I think it’s a disgrace that Belgium was in the international news because of this burka ban. This is a completely undemocratic decision but it is above all a non issue. Only once in my entire life have I seen a person in burka on the streets of Brussels and even than all the other arabs were watching this person because it was such an exceptional sight."
Vrijheid: I have no idea who they are, and in any case they did not respond.

Well, I think that’s fairly clear; I shall vote for my local Groen! candidate for the Chamber, since she is sound on the issue and stands a chance of being elected, and will throw away my Senate vote for one of the two fringe leftie parties, LSP or PVDA+, as the whim takes me on the day.

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 20) Transit, by Ben Aaronovitch

There was one pedantic point that really annoyed me about this book: Arcturus is spelt incorrectly throughout, missing the first ‘r’. A good defemce lawyer would plead that we are not talking about α Boötis but about some other celestial body with the similar name of ‘Acturus’, but I’m unconvinced.

Apart from that point, I actually rather enjoyed this book, which is a fairly huge admission for me as I am very definitely not a fan of Aaronovitch’s two broadcast stories (Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield). I found it reminiscent of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which was pubished two months earlier – so can hardly have been a direct influence; must have both absorbed the Zeitgeist. The Doctor and friends are caught up in a peculiar problem involving AIs and an interplanetary mass transmat system, but also involving grizzled war veterans and various other factions. There is a cracking pace to it.

Besides the mangling of Arcturus, I have one other minor gripe about the book. The previous volume in the series, Love and War, invested much time in introducing new companion Benny Summerfield; but here she (and to an extent the Doctor) blend into background scenery, with much more action going to the Brigadier’s genetically engineered warrior descendent, Kadiatu Lethbridge Stewart. She turns out to be a super character in her own right, but it does give the book a mild air of being Kadiatu’s adventure in which the Doctor appears trying to rescue Benny, which is not what one expects from a Who book.

Still, very enjoyable.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 19) Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

An appalling read, in a way, about a large number of English schoolboys crashed on a tropical island, and how their initial attempts at organisation descend into atavism and savagery. The crucial moment is almost exactly halfway through, when Jack disrupts Ralph and Piggy’s conduct of the general meeting, and from then on the collapse of their vestigial society is inexorable and inevitable. My edition has a very stuffy introduction but some interesting notes and questions for the reader at the end, both by Ian Gregor and Mark Kinkead-Weekes. One point this provoked me to consider – is the airman at the end perhaps a figment of Ralph’s imagination? Would that actually make a more suitable ending?

Posted in Uncategorised

Unionist unity and Garden Centre Prods

I’ve been following with some interest, but not much engagement, the debate among Northern Ireland’s Unionists about the way forward for Unionism after this month’s election. (Actually, I have engaged a bit; I have chided the DUP and UCUNF for not recognising the degree of their failure, and praised the TUV for doing so.) Those of you who have read my previous analysis (or seen my sleep-deprived speech the day after the election) will be aware of my view that former Unionist voters are not terribly interested in Unionism, and that efforts by Unionist parties to scare them into voting Unionist by waving the flag will continue to prove unsuccessful, whether those efforts are carried out by one party or several.

Part of my evidence for this as a trend developing over the last deccde or more is the geographical distribution of the drop in turnout between the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly election held a few weeks later. The full figures are here, but basically, the six constituencies where the Alliance Party got representatives elected were also the six where the turnout fell most between the two polls (and if you count in the Women’s Coalition, the constituencies where they were successful rank first and seventh on the list ranked by drop in turnout). It seemed to me fairly clear that there is a large chunk of voters who voted for the referendum and who sometimes vote for moderate parties but more often don’t vote at all.

I expanded on this a bit to Ben Lowry of the News Letter the other day, and he kindly used two of my money quotes for one of his articles on the election:

Mr Whyte thinks that unionist voters are not that interested in unionism. "I think the word unionist is going to be increasingly a turn-off for their target voting group."

He adds: "The two seats in which turnout actually increased were the two seats in which moderate women won, North Down and East Belfast, neither of whom had unionist in their title and both of whom won by squeezing the unionist parties."

Mr Whyte notes that in the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, there was a huge turnout of a minimum 80 per cent in all Northern Ireland constituencies, including unionist ones in the east of the Province. But in all elections after that it reverted to a low turnout.

"Protestants will vote in a referendum but they won’t vote for their parties because they don’t like them," he says.

Now, Lee Reynolds (who gained brief fame fifteen years ago when he challenged Jim Molyneux, who was then three and a half times his age, for the leadership of the UUP) has written a blog article which indirectly queries my reading of the situation. The argument is a bit confused, but basically he criticises the Ulster Unionists and the establishment for constructing an image of ‘Garden Centre Prods’ who had voted in the referendum but not in subsequent elections and whose votes should therefore be sought by the UUP or other parties; the failure of the UUP strategy, according to Reynolds, is because there were very few such people. His criticisms are three: 1) the turnout drop was as much working class as middle class; 2) it must have included Catholics who don’t normally vote (as Nationalist candidates in the east of NI tend to lose); 3) it would largely have included voters who don’t really care about the Union.

I disagree with Lee Reynolds on many things, but I think he is correct on the first and third of these points. On the middle one, however, it’s clear to me from perusing the election results cross-checked with demographic data that Catholic voters are entirely prepared to vote Alliance – or even for a moderate Unionist – when there is a chance of making a difference and weakening a more extreme alternative, just as Protestant voters in the right circumstances will vote SDLP to keep the Shinners out. The drop in turnout between May and June 1998 actually has a fairly strong negative correlation with Catholic population share in each constituency.

However, Reynolds’ wider conclusion (if I read him correctly) is that it’s not worth the while of Unionist politicians trying to engage with the ‘100,000 or more’ voters who participated in the referendum and not in the subsequent election. I disagree. First, of course, the number is bigger than he says; it’s more than 140,000. But secondly, taking his three points of criticism, doesn’t that actually point up the need for politicians – not just Unionist politicians – to try and motivate the votes of the working class as well as of the middle class, of Catholics who do not feel represented by Nationalist political parties, and of voters who don’t actually care about the Union? (This is of course precisely the strategy which informed the success of Naomi Long in the election’s closest approach to a Portillo moment.)

One strategy which tried and dismally failed to meet this need was the UUP/Conservative linkup. One of the things which baffled me about it was the appeal of its advocates to some imagined desire for ‘normal politics’ on behalf of Northern Ireland’s voters. Reynolds is rightly scornful of it; I criticised this in 1995, I criticised it last year, and I think the voters have now delivered their own verdict. Quite apart from the failure of the ‘big tent’ concept to attract many voters or candidates who were not already inside the tent, the problem is that by ‘normal politics’, the UCUNF integrationists actually mean ‘English politics’ – not Scottish or Welsh, where Labour and the Nationalists compete for the top spot, with Tories and Lib Dems (now the UK’s ruling coalition partners!) in third and fourth place. Most Northern Irish voters know Scotland at least as well as they know England, and can spot the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘English’, in politics or anything else.

(In two 1967 Doctor Who stories, The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones, the Doctor’s friends, Cockney Ben and Scottish Jamie, mysteriously switch to standard English accents when they are temporarily brainwashed by the baddies. It reflects a cosy assumption that standard English is normal; I remember a college friend of mine from Essex telling me proudly, "I don’ really ‘ave an accent." It’s understandable, if not excusable, that a major cultural state-funded bureaucracy like the BBC had this attitude in the year I was born; I find it baffling that a major non-English political party should still believe it now.)

The other reaction, of ‘Unionist unity’ (ie uniting the two major Unionist parties to form a single political unit) strikes me as equally implausible. The one united Unionist candidate in this month’s election actually failed to get elected. Any such moves will inevitably strengthen the DUP, muzzle dissent within the Unionist tent, and further depress turnout, thus incidentally also strengthening the Alliance Party (which had its best election results in the last 25 years when the two Unionist parties had an electoral pact in 1987). If Unionist strategists want that outcome, in a sense it is fine with me, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Both the integrationist and Unionist unity analyses fail to recognise the nature of Northern Irish politics. Actually, Unionism has won; the Union has been secured, pending a referendum rather than an election, by the 1998 peace deal, the Republic’s constitutional claim has been amended and the IRA have disarmed. Voting Sinn Fein doesn’t actually bring a United Ireland any closer; voting DUP doesn’t do anything to make it a more distant prospect. Unionist voters mostly realise this (even though neither Unionist nor Nationalist politicians are prepared to admit that it is the case). There is therefore no need for a united Unionist party to fight for the Union. 

The fact is that Northern Ireland is a divided society; and in most such divided societies (thinking of Belgium, Cyprus, Macedonia, even Bosnia) there will be several political parties representing each side of the division, and maybe even some that try to straddle the divide (easier when, as in Bosnia and NI, everyone speaks more or less the same language). This means that representation of the communities’ day-to-day interests, rather than aspiration to achieving or preventing a distant constitutional change, is the name of the game; indeed, the more salient the constitutional issue in all of those countries, the less stable and ‘normal’ politics becomes. ‘Normal politics’ in Northern Ireland will be precisely when voters judge politicians on their ability to deliver for them in the Assembly, and on their general managerial skills; but it has very little to do with the political party labels that are attached to those politicians. There are signs that this is starting to happen (in, for instance, the Ritchie/Ruane contest in South Down, or the personal rebuke to Peter Robinson from the voters of East Belfast). Smarter activists from all Northern Ireland’s parties should take note and prepare accordingly.

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 18) WWW: Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer

I don’t think I will ever much enjoy a Sawyer novel, but this one irritated me less than most of his books. The prose was not particularly awful, and the plot mostly makes sense; the story of the blind girl gaining sight for the first time resonates almost neatly with the story of a conscious intelligence developing in the internet.

It is, of course, a flawed book. Caitlin writes a livejournal which sounds nothing like any teenager’s livejournal I have read. The AI character, absorbing all the knowledge of the www, is unfazed by linguistic differences or by the difficulty of telling truth from fiction, and deduces middle Canadian morality from Project Gutenberg (and I hate cute disembodied artificial intelligences almost as much as I hate cute robots). There are two subplots, one about China and one about intelligent apes, which go nowhere (they may be setting up for the two coming volumes of the trilogy, but I must judge this volume on its own).

Most damning, Caitlin, whose life has been utterly constrained by her own disability, does not even notice her father’s somewhat different disability until two-thirds of the way through the book; which seems utterly out of character for the sort of person we are told she is.

So, not surprisingly, this is at the bottom of my Hugo list so far, with two more to go.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 17) Apollo 23, by Justin Richards

Justin Richards has written more Doctor Who books than anyone except Terrance Dicks, and those I’ve read have included more hits than misses. However, this isn’t one of his more memorable contributions to the quasi-canon; at first it seems like an Eleventh Doctor rehash of The Seeds of Death but in fact the resolution is much closer to The Faceless Ones. Lots of stuff thrown in here without quite gelling – quantum wormholes, aliens just happening to take over a secret moonbase, and worst of all Not Enough Amy. Still, the target age group will probably enjoy it.

I see that the three Eleventh Doctor books to be published in July feature Rory as well as Amy (for obvious reasons, this will not be news to ) and have pre-ordered them for 5.90 each from the Book Depository.

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 16) Half-Life of a Zealot, by Swanee Hunt

The autobiography of the activist daughter of America’s richest man, and how she moved from the rabid right-wingery of her privileged background to using her unearned wealth for philanthropy, particularly supporting women in public policy, which brought her to a four-year spell as US ambassador to Austria. But it’s also about her attempts to mix her messianic political drive with a decent family life for her husband and children, particularly when her daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Swanee Hunt is obviously a believer in letting it all hang out. Knowing her a little from the Balkan circuit, the book rang true to my experience of her and explains her character, almost too well (it might have been just as good a book with one or two fewer accounts of her love affairs with her therapists). But she is of course in an extraordinary position; having been gifted with vast amounts of money but very little love from her father, she seems to have felt driven to prove herself by using what she had been given (whereas if I suddenly became a billionaire, I would mostly sit in the garden all day reading science fiction). Nancy Mitford fans will appreciate the similarities and differences between Hunt’s experiences in Vienna and Fanny’s situation in Don’t Tell Alfred.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

Belgium’s election, my vote

On June 13, Belgium will have its first federal level elections since I became a citizen, and as voting is compulsory, I have been giving some thought to politics here for a change.

The election has been called a year early because of the collapse of negotiations between the two main linguistic communites over electoral districting in the Greater Brussels area. I have considered this matter in some detail and have concluded that I don't really care. I don't have a dog in this fight; it seems from my skimming of media accounts that the Flemings are in the weaker position on this one, but my vote isn't going to determine the outcome. I think that Yves Leterme has handled negotiations with the Francophone community disastrously since 2007 (which is a criticism of style rather than substance), and would vote for the strongest party other than his if he were likely to be prime minister again, but he has ruled himself out.

More broadly, several of the parties on this side of the taalgrens include independence, or at least more autonomy, for Flanders as a major part of their platform. Again, after long thought about the issue, I have concluded that I don't really care. Belgium is my adopted country, and Flanders is my adopted region, and I expect to stay here one way or the other for a decade or two. I've seen separatism in many parts of the world, and I've seen good and bad ways of doing it; I won't vote for any party that I perceive as inciting violence, but I'm rather agnostic on the main issue.

I'm also not going to decide on economic grounds. We depend as a family very much on Belgium's welfare state, and I don't especially object to vast amounts of my comfortable salary disappearing in taxation when I consider how much worse off we would be if we lived in the USA and paid only the lower taxes there. There are enough safeguards (and confusion) in the Belgian system that no single political party is going to be able to make decisions that adversely affect my standard of living. There is a management style issue, but again as long as it's not Yves Leterme I don't have a strong view.

In fact for me the decisive question in this election is a different cultural hot-button – the burka ban. We've discussed this before (and see also here), but the situation has developed now: the lower house of the Belgian parliament passed a law banning face-covering garments in public unanimously shortly before the elections were called, and once the new parliament is convened it will go to the Senate for further consideration. I am sure that such a law will eventually run foul of Belgium's human rights commitments, but in the meantime this is an attempt to criminalise a small minority for their cultural practices. I might feel different if there were gangs of veiled pickpockets roaming the streets, but there are not. I will not vote for any politicians who support this measure; I'm an immigrant in this country too.

There were a handful of abstentions on the vote, and I contacted one of them, a Socialist MP from Brussels, to ask if any of his Leuven-based colleagues agreed with him that the ban would lead to more rather than less discrimination; he replied that unfortunately he didn't think so (though optimistically urged me to vote for them anyway). So I've emailed all the lijsttrekkers (the #1 candidates on their list) for each of the ten parties standing in the Leuven electoral district to ask them their position on the burka ban (using that wording), and will consider their responses; I am resigning myself to the possibility that I may have to vote for a rabid left-wing party, or possibly not vote at all, though I am hopeful that I'll be able to identify a sensible candidate from one of the bigger parties. (Come to think of it, I need to do the same for the Senate candidates as well, especially considering it comes to them next.) I shall report back if I get any interesting responses.

Posted in Uncategorised

Gibbon Chapter XXII

  • Thrilling stuff. Julian, having made a good go of the West from Paris, is proclaimed emperor, possibly reluctantly, by his own troops; he marches east to confront Constantius, himself taking a devious detour through southern Germany to descend on Sirmium by the Danube (while most of his troops head through Austria and Italy); and the final confrontation is averted when Constantius suddenly dies of natural causes, aged 45. Julian therefore takes over the whole empire peacefully, and purges the corrupt officials of the court, having also pledged to restore the old religion.
    (tags: gibbon)
Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 15) Teach Yourself Irish, by Diarmuid Ó Sé and Joseph Shiels

I was brought up as a middle-class Belfast Catholic, and though trainee teachers would occasionally bring in a few Irish phrases as their special project in primary schools (a h-aon, a dó, a trí), by the time I had the chance at grammar school I picked German with no regret (and considerable subsequent benefit). Later in my career I briefly became an Irish historian and probed the relationship of a hundred years ago between the Gaelic revival and scientific research (and found them to have been less mutually antagonistic than the received wisdom had it). More recently I’ve developed an interest in the 16th century, an era when Irish was more widely spoken than now. Plus, it seemed increasingly silly that as a person with an interest in languages I didn’t know much about the one closest to my own identity. So, despite my occasional scepticism (as recorded in earlier entries tagged language: irish) and armed with your advice I invested in the Teach Yourself Irish coursebook and CD, and have thus been seen on commuter trains muttering to myself in an arcane tongue and scribbling incomprehensibly in notebooks.

Although some things about Irish came naturally enough, the language had a number of surprises for me. Sometimes this was a question of false friends – “sa” means “in the” in Irish, but I’m used to it meaning “with” in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, so have to mentally readjust every time I see the word (which is often). Likewise “mar”, which means “because” in Irish, but which I keep reading as the Dutch “maar” meaning “but”. The fact that “mé” means “me” is helpful; but that it also means “I”, since personal pronouns don’t decline, is somehow confusing. It is neat that “sí” means “she” and is pronounced the same, but I never quite worked out when one drops the initial “s”. And I will not quickly forgive the letter “f”. But as I worked through the final exercise on the use of the past habitual (bhíonn, bhíteá, bhíodh, bhímis, bhíodh, bhídís), I felt a certin sense of triumph.

Not knowing much else about Irish, it’s difficult for me to judge how well Ó Sé and Sheils cover the subject. I thought it was a decent and mostly engaging course of 21 lessons, and can only blame myself for the long time it took me to get through the final two, on the conditional and past habitual. (I turned to the BBC to keep my momentum going.) It is a bit irritatingly scrappy in places – answers which don’t match the exercises, illustrations which are too blurry or small to read, glossary which isn’t enough to match the lesson (you need to buy a separate dictionary as well). I could have done with more drilling on the basics (though outside a classroom environment I suppose again I have only myself to blame) and still feel very shaky indeed on the personal forms of prepositions (which should have been indexed or consolidated in one of the appendices) or on the questions of eclipsis and lenition (the modification of the first letter of the word, if it is b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s or t, depending on context). But at least I know the issues and have a place to look them up.

Based on other people’s recommendations I may now invest in Turas Teanga to take me a bit further, though I have a couple of DIY courses in other languages (mainly Asian) sitting on the shelves, which are a higher priority.

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 13-14) two Nebula winners

It’s the time of year when I am working my way through the Hugo nominees, and occasionally find myself looking at the bookstack (or, in these enlightened days, the folder of PDFs) and wondering which to read next. Last weekend’s Nebula awards saw two wins for books also nominated for this year’s Hugos, so I worked through them in the course of this week. One is a cyberpunk novel, one is a steampunk novella, and both feature women in the sex trade as title characters.

May Books 13) The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Emiko, the girl of the title, is an artificial human being of a near-future world ravaged by agricultural disaster, created as an escort for a Japanese businessman and abandoned by him in Thailand. She, like all her kind, is easily identifiable by her jerky body movements, and is subject to instant destruction at the whim of the law (not to mention the risks of metabolic overheating). Her personal dilemma, trading her body for self-preservation, intersects with a political and environmental crisis in Thailand, with fairly catastrophic consequences. It is a fast-paced book which beat out Miéville’s The City & The City for the Nebula, and I’ll find it difficult to choose; while Bacigalupi’s vision is less audacious, he carries it off rather more consistently. Some nasty sex and violence so not for all readers.

It was a bit odd to read this as the tense situation in Thailand continued to develop during the week – almost life imitating art, though no senior government officials have yet met sticky ends in dubious circunstamces.

May Books 14) The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, by Kage Baker

The women of Nell Gwynne’s are high class prostitutes in a mildly steampunkish Victorian England, advanced technology limited to one or two mad scientists either in or out of government service. They are called to entertain a party of foreign agents bidding for a secret invention. High jinks ensue. Baker catches the Victorian idiom better than some who have tried (thinking indeed of Cherie Priest), and her Lady Beatrice is admirably spunky, but this isn’t awfully deep stuff (and neither really is the other Hugo nominee I have already read in this category). Still, God bless the Hugo Voters Package for making it available; it was published separately by Subterranean Press. Unfortunately the author is unlikely to be on future Hugo or Nebula ballots.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 12) Rookwood, by William Harrison Ainsworth

This sprawling, verbose epic was written, according to the author, in 24 hours – NaNoWriMo-ers, eath your hearts out. It is a tale of family secrets, skullduggery and revenge, with added Dick Turpin, and the highlight is Turpin’s epic ride from London to York near the end of the book, which is told rather well even though it barely fits with the rest of the plot.

The most annoying thing about the book is the habit most of the characters have of bursting into song or reciting poetry without the slightest provocation. The second most annoying thing is the unbelievable verbosity of style – the river Don is described as “lutulent” when Turpin crosses it, and I have no idea what that word means. (NB this is the river Don of Doncaster rather than Aberdeen, Toronto or Rostov-na-Donu.)

Ainsworth says in his introduction that he wanted to write a Mrs Radcliffe novel; I haven’t read any of those, though I did rather bounce off Northanger Abbey which was a send-up of the genre. I was struck by the uneasy handling of heroism, virtue and social order. It begins with young Peter Bradley discovering that he is really the heir to the Rookwood estate, and appparently being set up as the hero; but he slips rather casually into the role of villain as the book progresses, without any decent signalling of the transition. The gypsies are individually quaint but collectively sinister. Ainsworth wants Turpin and the highwaymen to be heroes, and his pursuers buffoons, but can’t quite deliver. The book’s one memorable line is when Turpin and friends are drinking in a London tavern just before the ride to York. Turpin proclaims, “May each of us meet with the success he deserves,” to which one of his fellow-highwaymen replies, “Egad! I hope not! I’m afraid, in that case, the chances would be against us.”

My actual reason for reading Rookwood is that it appears in Jacqueline Rayner’s Doctor Who audio play, The Doomwood Curse, in which the Sixth Doctor and Charley Pollard are drawn into a world which seems to be based on Ainsworth’s novel – particularly recommended because of India Fisher’s bravura performance, and you don’t need to know anything at all about Rookwood to enjoy the play.

This has been my Blackberry ebook for several months, and a wonderful cure for insomnia in the small hours. I now have the contents of the Hugo Voter Package to replace it in the former category, but I hope not in the latter.

Posted in Uncategorised

Faked CV

Seen in various places – the case of Adam Wheeler, here, here, here and here. I do wonder about the propriety, ethics and legality of The National Review actually posting the famous CV on their website; on the other hand, it is such a work of art in itself that it deserves to be read.

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 11) Out, by Natsuo Kirino

A grim but compelling tale of tough Japanese women working in a sandwich factory; one of them strangles her errant husband, her colleagues help dispose of the corpse, and as a result they become entangled with the yakuza and also the local psychopath. The detail of the interactions between the badly paid women, their resentful families, the loan sharks, the exploitative employers, and the distant forces of law and order, are all depicted in visceral detail. The climax is particularly well constructed. A real tour de force.

Posted in Uncategorised

On being lobbied

An interesting reflection from Andrew Muir, the Alliance Party candidate in one of the less promising seats in this months election, on the failure of NGOs to influence his views during the campaign. To which one might add that NGOs might do well to calibrate the amount of effort they put into influencing the views of a candidate whose party that gets around 1% in that constituency, which is a safe Sinn Féin seat.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 10) Quidditch Through The Ages, by J.K. Rowling

I had a record of acquiring this book years ago, but have been unable to locate it, and spotted another copy going cheap when in Ireland so filled the gap. Not really worth bothering with, as it turns out; Quidditch is a one-joke game, stretched here to over a hundred well-padded pages. I suppose that the detail of Quidditch history and technicalities may be a source of inspiration for fan fiction, but I would observe that most fanfic I have encountered features rather different leisure activities…

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 9) The Pensionnat Revisited, by Eric Ruijssenaars

This is a follow-up volume to Ruijssenaars’ earlier Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, about the Pensionnat Heger where Charlotte and Emily Bronte lived briefly in the 1940s. Most of it is Ruijssenaars’ investigation of the demolition of the Pensionnat and the whole Rue Isabelle district of Brussels in 1910, with a couple of codas on the cultural life of Brussels when the Brontës were there (including the identification of the paintings mentioned in Villette) and on the best surviving photograph of the Pensionnat, suggesting that it is much older than had been thought. I hadn’t previously made the connection, but I have actually walked on the upper end of the Rue Isabelle which is now preserved in the Coudenberg museum. I hope this gets bound with Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land for future editions; it’s not quite coherent enough to work as a standalone volume, but interesting for Brontë completists.

Posted in Uncategorised

Nebula Awards

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
District 9

Best Short Story
“Spar,” Kij Johnson

Best Novelette
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” Eugie Foster

Best Novella
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker

Best Novel
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

Yay for !

Notes for my statistics: four first-time winners out of four in the written fiction categories (and none had ever won a Hugo either); three women out of four; none born in the 1942-51 period (Baker 1952, Johnson 1960, Foster 1971, Bacigalupi 1972); I think that Baker may be the first writer to win a Nebula posthumously?

Posted in Uncategorised

May Books 8) Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

A steampunk novel, set in an alternate 1880 where Seattle has been devastated by a mysterious gas which turns people into zombies; the wife and son of the inventor who caused the catastrophe 16 years before venture into the walled-off city to find The Truth. Lots of running around in poisonous fog wearing gasmasks while pursued by the undead. It’s entertaining enough, if not Great Literature; will be below The City & The City on my Hugo ballot (I have yet to read the other nominees).
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Posted in Uncategorised

More Northern Ireland election news

One of the administrative reforms rumbling around Northern Ireland for the last few years has been the proposed reduction of the number of local councils (26 unitary councils replaced the previous six counties etc structure back in 1972). This is one of those curious political projects that actually doesn’t benefit or harm either side’s interests very much, except in so far as the current 582 councillors would be reduced in number (on the latest proposals, to 462). The last local council elections were in 2005, and while there normally should have been fresh elections last year, these were postponed to 2011 when the 11 new supercouncils were supposed to come into force, thus giving those councillors elected in 2005 a six-year rather than a four-year term. (This isn’t especially outrageous – readers in the Republic may like to reflect that until 1999, local government elections there were held at the convenience of the government, which meant the gap between elections varied randomly between three years and eight.)

But now (see Slugger, the News Letter and the Belfast Telegraph) it seems that the green light for the election to happen on the new boundaries has not come in time from Stormont, and there is talk of postponing the whole exercise for several more years, while holding elections in 2011 for the 26 existing councils – probably on the same day as the Assembly election also due in the first half of next year. There is the usual muttering that the relevant minister, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, opposes the transfer of Dunmurry from Lisburn to Belfast. There are lots of reasons to dislike Poots, who is a fairly typical DUP activist, but I would note that his public utterances have always been sceptical on the need for the change in the first place, on the grounds that the cost is not justified by the savings. I would further note that since the immediate cost (at a time when the public belt is to be generally tightened) is projected at £118 million, in return for savings of £430 million over twenty-five year period, scepticism on those grounds is entirely justified.

So it looks now as if the entire project may be shelved for four to five years, and the elections next year will be to the existing 582 seats on the 26 existing councils.

I would propose, however, that in that case one modest reform should be adopted. Due to population change in the 18 years since the current electoral boundaries were drawn up, the electoral areasw are no longer proportional to the number of seats they hold. This was true even at the last eletions in 2005: in Belfast, for instance, the Court (=Shankill Road) and Upper Falls electoral areas each elected five councillors, though Court’s electorate was only 13,582 and Upper Falls’ 19,767, out of Belfast’s total 166,824; allocated proportionately to the 51 seats currently on Belfast City Council, Court should have had four and Upper Falls six. That of course explains also why my proposed reform will not be adopted.

Posted in Uncategorised