June Books 19) The Bloody Sunday Report, Volume I

The admirable decision to post the whole of the report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry online (first volume in PDF available here) may not actually spur a lot of people to read it, but it has gripped me, and over lunch breaks and commutes in the last week or so I have been poring over the details of the first volume. (In case you are interested, I’ve been saving the HTML files from the Inquiry website and converting them to Mobipocket format for the Blackberry.)

To start with a comment on form rather than substance: one admirable skill displayed throughout the report by Lord Saville and his colleagues is the ability to boil down a great deal of conflicting evidence very succinctly. This is particularly so for the kernel of the report, Chapter 3, which chronicles the events of 30 January 1972Chapter 4, which allocates responsibility for the deaths and injuries directly to the soldiers who fired, also sharply criticising the decisions made by Lt-Col Derek Wilford who was in command; and the summary of the summary, Chapter 5, which concludes:

5.5 The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.

It is worth dwelling on this point a bit.

Some of the critics of the Inquiry have asked why Bloody Sunday is more important than any number of atrocities perpetrated by paramilitary groups over the course of the Troubles. I would make three points in reply, one sympathetic, the other two less so.

  1. Any death is an incalculable loss to the bereaved. It is impossible to compare or to give relative rankings to the personal impacts of any loss of life, and distasteful to even try. Everyone has an absolute right to know what happened to their loved ones, and to demand that justice be done to the perpetrators.
  2. But Bloody Sunday had a wider political impact than any other single violent incident in the course of the Troubles. All such incidents ought to be chronicled and examined, but understanding Bloody Sunday is of particular importance. History is usually shaped by political decisions made by individuals whose memoirs and contemporary records can be examined by later historians. This, however, was a confused and confusing event involving dozens of people, none of whom had a complete picture. The forensic sifting of evidence by Saville was necessary to establish that picture.
  3. Even more important, however, is that the State colluded with its own agents’ efforts to prevent the truth from emerging, and smeared the victims as legitimate targets who could justifiably be shot without warning. This was a lie, and most people in Derry knew it was a lie. The formal Inquiry led by Lord Widgery perpetuated that lie as a legal finding. The fact that the state colluded in the lies told by its own agents about the deaths of 14 citizens matters hugely.

So, for those reasons, I start reading the report with a prejudice in favour of believing that it was a worthwhile effort.

The opening summary: details that caught my eye

Saville’s overall narrative problem is this: the soldiers who fired the fatal shots maintained throughout that they were returning fire because they were under attack. The earlier tribunal could not bring itself to find that they were all lying. But, in Saville’s view, they were. Saville and colleagues examine a number of alternative explanations, and find them all wanting, for instance:

3.6.6: we have considered the possibility that one or more of the casualties might have occurred from soldiers firing by accident, in the sense of discharging their rifles by mistake and without intending to do so. We have found no evidence that suggests to us that this was or might have been the case.

But this doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter, which is the question of why soldiers, and particularly the Paras, thought that they could get away with such a mass conspiracy to deceive the world about what they had done. We must remember that initially they did get away with it, and were praised for their efforts by the British establishment. Saville raises an important avenue of interpretation, as follows (I truncate some of the text):

4.7 it was submitted that those who fired did so because of a “culture” that had grown up among soldiers at the time in Northern Ireland, to the effect that they could fire with impunity, secure in the knowledge … that their actions would … be investigated … by the Royal Military Police (the Army’s own police force), who would be sympathetic to the soldiers and who would not conduct a proper investigation… we are not in a position to express a view either as to whether or not such a culture existed among soldiers before Bloody Sunday or, if it did, whether it had any influence on those who fired unjustifiably on that day.

Given the firmness with which he knocks down other conspiracy theories elsewhere in the report, Saville’s countenancing of this theory in the first place, and the fact that he says nothing at all to contradict it, together rather suggest that he believes this nterpretation, though felt he could not make it a formal finding of the report.

The formal finding of the report is that the deployment of the Paras in Derry on 30 January to arrest rioters was dubious in principle and wrong in practice.

4.8 [Commander of Land Forces, General Ford’s] decision to use 1 PARA as the arrest force is open to criticism, on the ground that 1 PARA was a force with a reputation for using excessive physical violence…

4.24 Colonel Wilford [the commanding officer of 1 Para] should not have sent soldiers of Support Company into the Bogside for the following reasons:

  • because in doing so he disobeyed the orders given by Brigadier MacLellan [Commander of 8th Infantry Brigade, which was the Army brigade in charge of the Londonderry area];
  • because his soldiers, whose job was to arrest rioters, would have no or virtually no means of identifying those who had been rioting from those who had simply been taking part in the civil rights march; and
  • because he should not have sent his soldiers into an unfamiliar area which he and they regarded as a dangerous area, where the soldiers might come under attack from republican paramilitaries, in circumstances where the soldiers’ response would run a significant risk that people other than those engaging the soldiers with lethal force would be killed or injured by Army gunfire.

General Ford’s decision to deploy the Paras in the first place, and the way in which Colonel Wilford sent them in, are the top-level political decisions identified by Saville as having led to the deaths on Bloody Sunday. But the key events remain the decisions of individual soldiers to shoot at unarmed civilians who posed no direct threat.

The Background

The opening summary occupies less than a seventh of the pages of Volume I of the Inquiry’s report, but I felt I had to go on and read more; there is something grimly compelling about this awful event.

This does require adjustment by the reader to a real change of pace in the telling of the story. Chapters 8 of the report is longer than the first six combined: Chapter 9 is three times as long, accounting for 275 of the 488 numbered pages of Volume I of the report. Knowing that the total time taken up by the killing on Bloody Sunday was about ten minutes, and having already seen Saville’s forensic style, I imagine that we will get second-by-second dissections of events in future volumes. This first volume, however, leaves us teetering with suspense on the morning of the 30th.

It starts much earlier. Chapter 7 is a moderately detailed account of the history of Northern Ireland since 1920 (readers can follow in the footnotes some gentlemanly bickering between two academic historians called Paul, both of whom I have known for a long time). This essentially takes us to and through the decision to deploy the army in Northern Ireland in support of law and order, ie in support of the Unionist single-party government in Stormont, by 1972 led by Brian Faulkner.

Chapter 8 begins with a very detailed explanation of the security architecture in Northern Ireland, and how the accountability of the army to the London-based Ministry of Defence was integrated with its role in support of the autonomous Stormont regime and its police force. We then move fairly seamlessly to the history of the last five months of 1971, starting with Faulkner’s disastrous decision to introduce internment without trial of suspected terrorists, which lifted entirely the wrong people, mistreated them (slightly short of torture, according to the European Court of Human Rights) and thus further increased tensions with no corresponding security gain.

Here, unusually, we run into some ambiguity of analysis from Lord Saville and his colleagues. By late 1971, there appear to have been two contradictory currents of opinion on security policy in general and in Derry in particular. Describing a committee meeting in October 1971, Saville concludes:

8.92 The perceived need to keep Brian Faulkner in power as the last chance to avoid direct rule seems to us to have caused a shift in priorities towards a greater effort to defeat the terrorists, evident from the record of this meeting.

Yet at the same time local security force commanders in Derry – particularly the police, but to a certain extent the local army commanders also – appear to have decided that their aggressive stance had failed, and that they needed to wind down a bit. That takes us to the end of the year.

Chapter 9: January 1972

This book-length chapter is mainly about the security situation and decision-makng processes in the first 29 days of 1972. But actually the sections that jumped out at me were the brief discussions of moves towards a political settlement. Reginald Maudling (of all people!) appears to have taken on board the need to engineer Catholic representation in the Stormont government; indeed he recognised that:

[9.185] a solution would have to comprise three elements, these being reassurance about the border, a change in the composition of government and a redefinition of the powers of government.

Add to that the necessity for an all-Ireland dimension, however cosmetic, and you basically have British policy from that day to this. In the meantime, the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was thnking along similar lines, and thinking out loud about them to Edward Heath and other British officials, and no doubt to many others. I would observe that little thought was being given as to how to bring Faulkner on board with any such policy, and none at all as to how to engage Northern Ireland Catholics; the key diplomatic problem for London was dissuading Lynch from presenting his ideas in such a way as to kill off Maudling’s similar undrafted proposal (as would have certainly happened had he gone ahead and launched his own initiative from Dublin).

That is not, however, the meat of Chapter 9, which starts with a grim portrayal of the security situation in Derry: a recurrent picture of riots, gunfights between army and paramilitaries, bombing and arson. It is not clear if this was getting worse in late January, but it is clear that it was bad. The Bogside and Creggan were essentially free of government control. In these circumstances, General Ford wrote his notorious memo proposing the shooting of selected ringleaders of the Derry Young Hooligans, which was seized on by the representatives of those killed on Bloody Sunday as evidence of an assassination policy going right to the top of the military hierarchy. Saville shows from the documentary evidence that Ford’s memo was bureaucratically buried; it never went further up the tree than his immediate superior, and rather more crucially did not make it down the tree as far as Colonel Wilford. In addition, Ford’s proposal, bone-headedly homicidal though it was, was to shoot ring-leaders after due warning with .22 inch ammunition; the shootings of Bloody Sunday were not of ring-leaders, were carried out without warning, and were done with 7.62 mm rounds. Saville reasonably concludes that Bloody Sunday was not an implementation of Ford’s memo. (The political negotiations described above are part of this analysis; however wishful the thinking in London about a political settlement, nobody could have believed that shooting civilians would bring it closer.)

Because it explores in so much depth the military and police perceptions of the situation, the Inquiry somewhat neglects the reality of the situation on the ground. Not always; Saville reports that though the army thought they had shot and probably killed 15 IRA men in Derry in January 72, there is no evidence to support even a small fraction of this number [9.239]. But more strategically, the Inquiry misses an important point about the inflitration of the Civil Rights Association by the Official IRA. Nobody denies that this was happening, but what the security forces missed at the time, and what Saville fails to explain, is that this was not the subversion of a peaceful campaigning group by paramilitaries, but in fact part of the process of conversion of a paramilitary group to peaceful means. The security forces as a whole appear to have made little effort to differentiate between the organisation and agendas of the Officials, the Provos, and the Derry Young Hooligans (this last group existing as an organisation only in imaginative internal army memos). This surely counts as an intelligence failure, and I fault Saville for not picking up on it.

I do not fault Saville for querying Ford’s decision to use the Paras on 30 January, as the key force in arresting the leaders of the supposed ‘Derry Young Hooligans’ after the planned (illegal) march. The previous weekend, a diifferent company of 1 Para had brutally attacked an anti-internment march at Magilligan Strand, a few miles from Derry, as reported in depth by the well-known pinko rag, the Daily Telegraph. Of course only one soldier was investigated for attacking unarmed civilians, and he was rapidly cleared by the RMP’s internal inquiry process. More than one senior officer from other regiments queried in advance the decision to deploy the Paras as the arrest force on 30 January. Saville is understanding but critical of Ford’s decision to use them; I would be less understanding.

Immediately below Ford, Brigadier McLellan was much more sensitised to local conditions, and very aware of important issues like ensuring that peacful marchers and rioters were well separated before any arrest operation was implemented. It is absolutely clear from Saville that McLellan failed to communicate this concern adequately to Colonel Wilford, in charge of the Paras. Saville is equally clear that this was entirely Wilford’s fault; that it was his duty to seek clear orders from McLellan and his failure that he did not do so. I am not so sure; in environments where I have been managing gifted and idiosyncratic individuals, I certainly felt it my responsibility to give clear guidelines as to what behaviour and actions were and were not acceptable, and at least partially my failure if those guidelines were not followed because they had not been clearly issued. Perhaps the military environment is different.

Having said that, most of Saville’s criticism of Wilford appears very well founded – helped by the evidence which Wilford himself gave over the years to Widgery, to the media and finally to the Saville Inquiry itself, which is a mess of contradictions, evasions and inaccuracies. From the analysis in the summary of the report, I had expected to find Wilford a homicidal maniac, determined to prove the valour of his men; this certainly seems to be Saville’s inclination, dwelling on his remark years later to a journalist that he did not want his soldiers to stand there having things thown at them “like Aunt Sallies”. But in fact the picture I see is of a man out of his depth, given dangerously to woolly thinking, indeed wilfully so. A telling paragraph for me was Saville’s summary of Wilford’s rather perfunctory recce of the ground over which the operation would take place, a few days in advance:

9.553 We find that this was an unsatisfactory reconnaissance. In our view, a more careful examination of the terrain should have taken place… Colonel Wilford should have consulted closely with those stationed in the city on how best an arrest operation should be conducted and should have looked at the route through which he proposed to send troops. We formed the firm impression that Colonel Wilford was intent on showing the local troops how an arrest operation should be conducted and was not keen to take advice from them on how it should be done…

And so the chapter ends, with the Paras tucked up in bed on the verge of launching an unprecedentedly large arrest operation in hostile and unknown territory, amid warnings that the peace of Northern Ireland for years might depend on the outcome of the operation. (And yes, there was a palpable sense of apocalypse among both military and civilians on the day.)

I have left out a lot here – the army’s distrust of the local police commander because he was a Catholic, the internal discussions among the civil rights leaders, the overall question of marching. I don’t pretend to be writing a balanced overall summary of the report; rather I am just noting the points that jumped out at me. If you are at all interested in the topic I urge you to do the same.

Volume I | Volume II | Volume III | Volume IV | Volume V | Volume VI | Volume VII | Volume VIII | Volume IX | Volume X and conclusions

Linkspam for 30-6-2010

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World Cup quarter finals

You have until Friday to vote on the results of the quarter-finals – and just to make it interesting, I’ve broadened out the questions a bit.
Scores in the 56 matches so far: seven 0-0 draws, including today’s Paraguay-Japan match; six 1-1 draws; two 2-2 draws; fourteen 1-0 wins; ten 2-1 wins; six 2-0 wins; three 3-0 wins; three 3-1 wins; two 4-1 wins; and one each for 3-2, 4-0 and 7-0.

All four of the matches yesterday and today saw victory for the more widely tipped team; for once I myself called all four of them correctly, and so did , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , and – a total of 22 out of 69, which is largely why I’m broadening out the questions for the next poll.

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As I arrived at a meeting this morning, the keynote speaker, who I hadn’t seen for about three years, greeted me very jovially and told me I was looking very well.

Since he is a former surgeon (though better known for other activities) I take this as a reassuring professional judgement!

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June books

Non-fiction 5 (YTD 31)

+ Bloody Sunday Report vol 1

Fiction (non-sf) 2 (YTD 28)

sf (non-Who or comics) 5 (YTD 45)

Doctor Who (non-comics) 4 (YTD 32)
Comics 3 (YTD 8)

5/19 (YTD 34/144) by women (Harrison, Delinsky, Valente, Mirrlees, Foglio)
0/19 (YTD 11/144) by PoC (as far as I know)
6/19 owned for more than a year (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother of Plenty, The Portadown News, The Provinces of the Roman Empire, Option Lock, Twilight Whispers, Wetworld)
No rereads, though I was familiar with a lot of the Portadown News from the website. (YTD rereads 11/144)
~5,800 pages (YTD 42,900)

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By-election blues

When Derviş Eroğlu was elected President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in April, he had to resign his seat in the TRNC’s parliament. His daughter Resmiye Canaltay ran as his party’s candidate in the by-election held last Sunday, and lost by an agonising two-vote margin.

Eroğlu, his wife and his bodyguard did not vote in the election as they were travelling to New York!

(Further confusion was caused when the electoral authorities mixed up the tallies for the candidates and declared that Canaltay had been elected, then checked the figures and realised that Hüseyin Angolemli had actually got the two crucial extra votes.)

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Second Round, Second Half

Doing two days at once seemed to work over the weekend, and I’m going out tomorrow night, so here is a poll on the matches for tomorrow and Tuesday:

Three of this weekend’s matches had the expected result (sorry, England fans, but you were outvoted 3-1 in my poll and 4-1 on the field). The USA-Ghana match was evenly split, 34 of you backing each team. It is not therefore surprising that 19 people out of 68 called all four of the weekend’s matches correctly. They were: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , and . It occurs to me that I myself have yet to figure on one of these lists apart from calling the France-Uruguay draw on the first day…

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June Books 18) Twilight Whispers, by Barbara Delinsky

This is a throbbing sensual romance about the serving girl who falls in love with the prince, set among America’s East Coast aristocracy, involving also a murder mystery which is resolved by a caring and sensitive police detective who violates all credible investigative routine to do so. There is much flashbacking to the mid-20th century (the book was written and set in 1988). I got hold of it for the totally spurious reason that one of the characters, described as “somber yet dashing”, rejoices in the name of Nicholas Whyte, but he turns out to have little to do with the plot. Will appeal to steamy romance readers but doesn’t really pull off the police procedural leg of the plot.

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June Books 17) Lud-In-The-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

I was inspired to buy this by Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, which ranks it as a key exemplar of one of the four modes of fantasy story-telling, the ‘liminal’ in which the boundary with the fantastic is hazy and uncertain; other examples being Little, Big (which I bounced off) and the first two Gormenghast books (which I remember loving as a teenager). I think it also fits a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work.

I am firmly on the side of the fans of Lud-In-The-Mist. It is a superb tale of the inhabitants of the eponymous town, trying to sort out their relationship with neighbouring Fairyland, which is in large part a relationship of denial and corruption. It feels amazingly modern for a book written in 1926, a time period that I would otherwise associate with Lord Dunsany and H.P. Lovecraft, whose works are classics of their kind but somewhat dated; no such apology is needed for Lud-In-The-Mist (though I suppose one could read a commentary on Prohibition into some of the incidents involving trafficking in forbidden fruit). It is a story of hidden messages from the past, disruption to the social order, uppity women (to a certain extent) and the dangers of questioning what appeared certain. I look forward now to reading Michael Swanwick’s biography of the author.

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On yer bike

In the name of fitness, I have been vaguely wondering if I should consider getting a bit more use out of my bicycle. (Young F has recently cracked the art of cycling, and now confidently bikes the 5 km to school and back daily.) One rather audacious plan that crossed my mind was to try and cycle to work. There is a whole blog dedicated to the different routes between Leuven and Brussels, but it didn’t quite inspire me – Leuven is already some way north of us, and most of the routes recommended seemed to go further north before they came south, which is not especially helpful since my preferred route would be pretty much exactly due west or east (my home is roughly 850 metres closer to the Equator than my office).

Well, I thought, I would set several preconditions before making the attempt: it would have to be good weather, on a day when I didn’t have any meetings outside the office, when I was in good health generally, and I’d have to find a satisfactory way of planning the route. I then realised about the middle of this week that the first three of these conditions were likely to be fulfilled yesterday. After a little more digging I came up with http://www.routeyou.com which actually specialises in calculating bike routes in the Netherlands and Belgium, punched in the two addresses, printed the result, took a deep breath and set off.

The inbound leg went rather well, I thought: about an hour and a half for 23 km, 14.5 miles, the longest single trip I’ve done on a bike in 20 years or so. I had chosen the “shortest route” option which directed me through pleasant enough commuter villages and the odd woodland path, and culminated with a long and agreeable downhill coast along the avenue de Cortenbergh towards the EU institutions. The worst part was the supposedly state-funded bike paths which are not well maintained. An hour and a half, door to door, is often as long as my commute takes anyway if I am unlucky with my bus and/or train connections. If I could somehow gain access to a shower at work, I’d be inclined to try this a bit more often.

On the way back I chose the option for the “nicer” rather than “shorter” route; 25.5 km instead of 23. This took me along a mostly parallel set of paths and roads, but to the south of my earlier route. I did not like it as much – the morning run was definitely nicer. It started with much less bike-friendly Brussels suburbs (with the odd poorly-maintained bike path), and then – after actually rather a pleasant run alongside the lakes in the park at Tervuren – brought me to a km of narrow trail with huge stinging nettles on the left and a sharp drop into a stream on the right. The next bit appeared to be an overgrown grass and dirt track uphill in the middle of a field; I couldn’t quite believe it and backed up to the hard surface to try and get my bearings. That was a mistake and I eventually found myself in Neerijse, much to the south of Korbeek-Dijle where I had hoped to be. The detour added a good 5 km to my journey, which means I passed the 50 km mark somewhere along the way; probably the most I have cycled in one day in 25 years (since a tour of Donegal with my friends from school).

I have a long train journey today and tomorrow; I can see myself insisting on an aisle seat and doing a lot of walking up and down in the carriage as my limbs and especially my backside continue their protest against unaccustomed service. But I may repeat the experience before too long.

(.kmz files of the two routes for Google Earth here and here.)

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World Cup – Round 2 weekend

A bit of a bumper poll – I am travelling over the weekend, so I’m including both Saturday’s and Sunday’s matches, and also inviting you to speculate on what we’ll be looking at this time next week.

I’m not going to bother with the FIFA rankings; if you really want them, they are recorded in previous polls. The highest rated team not to make it was the current holder, Italy; the lowest rated team that did make it was South Korea. 만세 !!!

All four results on the last day of the group stage were called correctly by , , , , and . Congrats to them all. (I personally had hopes for Chile and Switzerland.)

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Wold Cup Day 15

Current (and increasingly irrelevant) FIFA rankings: Current FIFA rankings: Brazil 1st, Spain 2nd, Portugal 3rd, Chile 18th, Switzerland 24th, Côte d’Ivoire 17th, Honduras 38th, North Korea 105th

Today’s matches included Slovakia’s extraordinary defeat of the title holders, leaving Italy languishing below New Zealand at the bottom of the group. Very few people predicted that, and of those even fewer predicted the results of the other matches correctly. would have had a perfect score but for some strange reason thought that the Netherlands would tie with Cameroon. , , and all called the Dutch and Japanese wins, and the New Zealand-Paraguay draw, but could not bring themselves to contemplate an Italian defeat. , , and also called the Dutch and Japanese wins and even Slovakia’s improbable victory, but expected New Zealand ( ) or Paraguay (the other three) to prevail. (Me? I called the Dutch match right, and will draw a veil over the rest. Please ignore my predictive abilities and consider instead my thoughts on the three point rule.)

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Hugo short stories

Finally, rounding up my reviews of the Hugo written fiction nominees, here is my rating of the candidates for Best Short Story, as before in reverse order of preference.

5) “Bridesicle”, by Will McIntosh, is a very icky story indeed where cryogenically preserved young women are periodically woken up from death by well-off but sexually frustrated men looking for dates. If (and it’s a big if) you can get past the ick factor, it’s an interesting idea, but Roger Zelazny did it better at least twice, and the execution squicked me out so badly that I rate it lower than the Mike Resnick story.

4) “Bride of Frankenstein”, by Mike Resnick, is not as crass and embarrassing as some of his other recent nominees but that is not saying much. Here we have the viewpoint of Baroness Frankenstein, irritated with her husband for frittering away her money on experiments in the basement. That’s the joke. Funny, eh?

3) “The Moment”, by Laurence Schoen, seems to be a story commemorating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 in the style of Olaf Stapledon (or the odder end of Arthur C. Clarke’s writings). Well meant, but in a piece this short it is quite difficult to do justice to the rise and fall of several distinct civiliations. And I did not see the point of the Marx Brothers reference.

2) “Non-Zero Probabilities” by N.K. Jemisin is an engaging tale about a New York where luck has become much more malleable and prone to human intervention. I found it charming but a bit insubstantial.

1) “Spar”, by Kij Johnson, is a short story of intense sexual frenzy between a woman and an alien marooned on a small spaceship. A mild ick factor but nothing like as bad as “Bridesicle”, and a much more original and better executed idea, which slightly faute de mieux gets my top vote. (And won the Nebula earlier this year.)

Previous Hugo roundups: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Novelette, Best Graphic Story

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Format irritation

I generally read e-books on my Blackberry, converting them from PDF, HTML or word processor format with Mobipocket’s free converter. As mentioned previously, this sometimes proves problematic with PDFs. I hit another such problem reading Peter Watts’ story, “The Island”, which got chopped about quite seriously by the process. One example – I encountered this jumble of words:

A red
The chimp has forgotten to care dwarf glowers dimly at the center of the Tank. named it DHF428, for reasons I’ve long since about.

Which it turns out originally read:

A red
dwarf glowers dimly at the center of the Tank. The chimp has
named it DHF428, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten to care

I have no idea if this is due to the PDF taking up the text from the original wordprocessor incorrectly, or if it is Mobipocket choking on the conversion (which it manages OK nine times out of ten) to treat as sequential the last three words of the next three lines. It does show the wisdom of making such texts available in a variety of formats – kudos to Charlie Stross for actually providing “Palimpsest” in the .prc format that my gadget can read.

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Hugo novelettes

Here are my votes for the Best Novelette category, in reverse order.

6) “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky is, unfortunately, a story about a sexy anthropomorphic robot who decides to find his soul – told from the point of view of his lover, which is original, but I still hate stories about cute robots.

5) I had formatting difficulties with Peter Watts’ “The Island”, and while the author deservedly gets my sympathy for his recent difficulties with the US legal system, I didn’t get much out of his story; at first I did not understand what was going on, and then when I worked out that it was about a mother and her estranged son trying to avoid a collision with an intelligent Dyson sphere, I found I didn’t really care, and didn’t understand the ending either. (I had similar problems with his Hugo-nominated novel, Blindsighthere. (Won the Nebula.)

1) “It Takes Two”, by Nicola Griffith: it took me about halfway through this story about a Californian businesswoman who has an unexpectedly wild experience at a strip club in Atlanta to work out what the sfnal element actually was. But then I felt the story paid off immensely – a really tangled tale of what happens when you let people mess with your brain, and whether or not you can trust your own emotions. Held my attention all the way.

Previous Hugo roundups: Best Novel, Best Novella, Best Graphic Story

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The three point rule

Back when I were a lad, you got only two points for winning a game in a group match, and one for a draw. From 1994 onwards, that was changed to three points for a win, and one for a draw, the intention being to give incentives to teams to try and score goals.

It occurred to me to wonder how much difference this rule has actually made in practice. There are not all that many mathematical permutations possible for how the group mathematics might end up for a group of four teams who each play a match against each of the other three. (3W, 2W.1D, 2W.1L, 1W.2D, 1W.1D.1L, 1W.2L, 3D, 2D.1L, 1D.2L, 3L and that’s it.

The only three cases where I can see the three point rule making a difference are

  1. a team with two wins and a loss now beats a team with one win and two draws on points, rather than potentially lose to them on goal difference;
  2. a team that has a modest win, a big loss and a draw will now beat a team with three draws on points, rather than lose to them on goal difference; and
  3. (least likely) a team that has one big win and two closer losses
    1. will now beat a team with two draws and a loss on points, and
    2. could beat a team with three draws on goal difference rather than lose to them on points. (Impossible, as pointed out by in comments.)

But did that situation ever arise before 1994? And since 1994, has there ever been a situation where the old two point system would have led to a different outcome?

The answer is yes, once or twice. I count 81 four-team groups in World Cup tournaments from 1930 to 2006, of which precisely one pre-1990 group would have had a different ranking with three points for a win (and none as far as I can tell that would have been ranked differently since 1994 had there been only two points for a win):

Group 3, Sweden 1958, as it happened:

Team Pld W D L GF GA Pts
Sweden 3 2 1 0 5 1 5
Wales 3 0 3 0 2 2 3
Hungary 3 1 1 1 6 3 3
Mexico 3 0 1 2 1 8 1
Group 3, 1958, as it might have been

Team Pld W D L GF GA Pts
Sweden 3 2 1 0 5 1 7
Hungary 3 1 1 1 6 3 4
Wales 3 0 3 0 2 2 3
Mexico 3 0 1 2 1 8 1

Hungary had beaten Mexico 4-0, but lost 2-1 to Sweden; Wales drew 1-1 with Mexico and 0-0 with Sweden. In fact the tie in points was decided by a play-off between Wales and Hungary, which Wales won 2-1 (having drawn 1-1 with Hungary in the original group match). Under the three-point rule, Hungary (who were runners-up in the previous final) would have faced Brazil instead of Wales but would probably still have lost (as Wales did, 1-0).

However, even this case is marginal. In the rules that applied later, Hungary would have gone ahead of Wales due to having a better goal average (as used in 1962 and 1966) or goal difference (as used since 1970), even if two points rather than three were earned for a victory.

There have been seven uses of a three-team group in World Cup tournaments (three in 1930 and four in 1982), and while the new scoring means that a team which wins one game and loses another now beats a team with two draws, it’s not actually possible to have those results in a group of three teams where each plays the other two once.

There has been one other occasion when the new system would have made a difference. In 1986, the four best-performing third-placed teams from all six of the first round groups got through to the second round. 

The 1986 third-place teams as they were scored:

Group Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
B Belgium 3 1 1 1 5 5 0 3
F Poland 3 1 1 1 1 3 -2 3
A Bulgaria 3 0 2 1 2 4 -2 2
E Uruguay 3 0 2 1 2 7 -5 2
C Hungary 3 1 0 2 2 9 -7 2
D Northern Ireland 3 0 1 2 2 6 -4 1
The 1986 third-placed teams as they might have been scored:

Group Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
B Belgium 3 1 1 1 5 5 0 4
F Poland 3 1 1 1 1 3 -2 4
C Hungary 3 1 0 2 2 9 -7 3
A Bulgaria 3 0 2 1 2 4 -2 2
E Uruguay 3 0 2 1 2 7 -5 2
D Northern Ireland 3 0 1 2 2 6 -4 1

Once again, Hungary would have benefited from the three-point system, this time to the disadvantage of Uruguay (who were beaten 1-0 by Argentina in their next match anyway).

Variations on this scheme were used also in 1990 and 1994 but, while the different point allocation would have changed the rankings slightly, it wouldn’t have made a difference to which teams went through.

Fans will complain with justification that the three point rule hasn’t made much appreciable difference to the number of goals scored per match. It is a bit surprising, however, to find that it would have made so little difference to the results of past tournaments.

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Good week for women in politics

Someone pointed out in a locked entry that the same day that Julia Gillard slightly unexpectedly became prime minister of Australia, Iveta Radičová has been asked to form the next government of Slovakia. This is two days after Mari Kiviniemi took up her position as prime minister of Finland.

Oddly enough this isn’t the first time that two women have become prime ministers in different countries simultaneously: it was 17 years ago tomorrow, 25 June 1993, that Tansu Çiller and Kim Campbell became the first women prime ministers of Turkey and Canada. (And strictly speaking Radičová doesn’t formally take up office until she gets parliamentary approval.)

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World Cup Day 14

Apologies – I failed to crosspost the poll to yesterday and instead posted it here twice. This would explain why there were only 40 responses rather than the usual 60 or 70.

Current FIFA rankings: Netherlands 4th, Italy 5th, Cameroon 19th, Paraguay 31st, Slovakia 34th, Denmark 36th, Japan 45th, New Zealand 78th

Once again only one person got all four of today’s matches, and on this occasion it was – congratulations! especially on forecasting the Australia win which was very much a minority opinion.

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World Cup Day 13

Current FIFA rankings (looking increasingly irrelevant): Germany 6th, England 8th, USA 14th, Serbia 15th, Australia 20th, Slovenia 25th, Algeria 30th, Ghana 32nd

Hearty congratulations to , the only person to call all four of today’s matches correctly. I certainly was not bold enough to vote my hopes rather than my fears and predict the South African win.

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World Cup, Day 13 – your predictions

Current FIFA rankings (looking increasingly irrelevant): Germany 6th, England 8th, USA 14th, Serbia 15th, Australia 20th, Slovenia 25th, Algeria 30th, Ghana 32nd

Hearty congratulations to , the only person to call all four of today’s matches correctly. I certainly was not bold enough to vote my hopes rather than my fears and predict the South African win.

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Doctor Who Rewatch: 09

It’s not so long since I last rewatched The War Games, but it still strikes me as one of the greatest ever Who stories (see also Neil Gaiman’s take). I wrote last time of why I appreciated most of the other stories of this season rather more in context, but The War Games stands on its own, with the threats gradually escalating from the war zones to the control centre to the ultimate destruction of Team Tardis by the Time Lords. Those two glorious moments – at the end of episode 4 when the War Chief and the Doctor recognise each other, and at the end of the story when the Doctor is forced to change his appearance by the Time Lords – still thrill, and in between there are two recurring actors from earlier in the season, Eelek of the Gonds now pretending to be Philip Madoc with a different hairstyle and beard playing the War Lord, and Lemuel Gulliver, that well-known trandimensional traveller, pretending to be Bernard Horsfall playing the lead Time Lord (I’d watch out for him next time you’re on Gallifrey, Doctor). The various other cast members (apart from the over-the-top Mexican) are all convincing too. The music is good, the sets look convincing (the Bridget Riley-style wallpaper being particularly memorable), Zoe is cute as ever (if Jamie perhaps just a little bored with it) and Troughton gives it his all right to the end. In six years, it is the first time that Doctor Who has ended a season with something like a grand finale (unthinkable not to do so today), and it works out incredibly well.

Three regular cast members leave Doctor Who at the end of The War Games, the most recently acquired being Wendy Padbury’s Zoe, who is for my money the best of the black and white era companions. She is the first companion to consciously stow away on the Tardis in search of adventure, rather than stumble in without realising (as did the majority of Hartnell’s companions) or because she had no alternative (as with Jamie and Victoria [and Vicki]). It’s travel with the Doctor as a positive choice, and New Who has done well to have Nine, Ten and Eleven extend the invitation to their companions, as to the audience, to participate. Once on the team, she challenges the Doctor intellectually, and is very effervescent with it; plus there’s an innocent but very strong sensuality about her – her first conversation with Jamie has him offering to spank her (to which she responds “This is going to be fun! I shall learn a lot from you!”), and of course those moments clinging to the Tardis console in The Mid Robber, and playing dressing-up games with Isobel Watkins in The Invasion.

Zoe features in a couple of the better novelisations, Doctor Who – The Mind Robber and Doctor Who – The Invasion, by Peter Ling and Ian Marter respectively. She has been less well-served by spinoff literature, and I felt that Wendy Padbury’s sole Companion Chronicle so far was one of the weakest of that sequence, though appreciated much more her return in this month’s Big Finish, Legend of the Cybermen. On TV she gets to reappear briefly in The Five Doctors, filmed from in front so as to hide her pregnancy!

I’m generally not as big a fan of the male companions, but it’s difficult to separate Fraser Hines’ Jamie from the Troughton era in general, since he was there for all but the first story (and appears in more episodes than anyone bar the first four Doctors). There are moments in the early days, when he seems to be a spare wheel, but the relationship he and Troughton develop is lovely; one always wondered a bit if the First Doctor regarded his male companions as pets, but the Second Doctor clearly sees Jamie as his best friend (and more, if you read the fanfic). Jamie’s dogged loyalty does get exploited a couple of times when the Doctor’s own needs take precedence, but he gets his revenge by constantly slagging off the Tardis navigation system.

As I write, Jamie is practically a current companion, in that he features in the most recent three Big Finish plays, this time teamed up with Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor (who he of course meets in The Two Doctors, fifteen years after leaving the show), in what turns out to be a neatly intertwined set of stories. In addition to the spinoff fiction mentioned under Zoe, I would add Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of The Web of Fear and David McIntee’s The Dark Path, both of which also feature Victoria, as worthy of note. He has done three Companion Chronicles so far, none spectacular.

Which brings us to the amazing performance of Patrick Troughton, certainly the most versatile actor to take the lead role in Old Who, the first to take it over from another, the most human of the first four, the most affectionate towards his companions of any bar Tennant, and sadly the guy who lost the majority of his episodes in the great burnination. The three Troughton seasons are actually very different from each other: Season Four is a somewhat uncertain toning down of the Hartnell era, Season Five is a run of bases under siege, and Season Six is more classic science fiction (apart from the two standout stories, The Mind Robber and The War Games. The clownish hero is always watchable – he is the only Doctor who screams in fear (though Eleven may come close); he sometimes loses his companions’ trust (this is true right from the start, when Ben doubts his identity); but we know he usually has a plan.

Troughton of course returns in The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors and finally The Two Doctors, before he died while attending a Doctor Who convention in 1987. He had asked to see The Dominators again on the day he died, which shows a peculiar sense of priorities. Obviously most of the spinoff literature featuring him also features Jamie and is covered above, but I just want to give a shout-out to two others, John Peel’s novelisation of The Power of the Daleks and Stephen Lyons’ The Murder Game, both featuring Ben and Polly and both rather good.

Gosh, it’s all different: Spearhead from Space is in colour, set entirely in England, it’s in colour, it features the return of the Brigadier chap from The Invasion, it’s in colour, there’s a new Doctor and new companion, and it’s also in colour. And did I mention that it is in colour? It really feels only barely related to what has gone before, the sole links being the Brigadier and the outside shell of the Tardis. This time it’s the Brigadier who plays the role of sceptical companion as Ben did in The Power of the DaleksThe Space Pirates, the Doctor doesn’t actually get any lines until more than half way through the first episode (and then is absent again for much of the second episode). But the basic point of the story is to establish our confidence in the new lead, and it does so entirely satisfactorily.

There are some good bits in Doctor Who and the Silurians, but they are an awful long way apart; this would have been an undisputed classic if it were a four-parter. The length of the story may not have been the choice of director Timothy Combe (who also did Evil of the Daleks and The Mind of Evil, after which he was apparently barred from future Who work), but it has other problems that clearly are his fault: too many static scenes of the Brigadier sitting talking to someone in an office, several of which are interrupted by the Doctor arriving just as his whereabouts are beng discussed. This all made me wonder about the distance between the research centre and the caves; I didn’t get a good sense of that (and Malcolm Hulke’s map in the novelisation is actually a bit confusing).

The story falls quite naturally into two halves – the “something nasty in the woodshed” bit before we actually meet the Silurians properly, and the “clash of civilisations” bit when we do. The two halves are not linked well (what’s the story with the dinosaur, for instance? or the Silurians’ relationship with Quinn?) but the second half is better, and for once we get monsters with decent characterisation, balanced by the Brigadier’s monstrous behaviour at the end – the first time we have seen a regular character defy the Doctor so wilfully, and as a result we viewers are asked to sympathise with the alien agenda rather than the forces of the British state.

It’s also a great story for spotting guest stars: Avon is the Brigadier’s second-in-command, Khrisong / Hieronymous is also there, Nyder is running the research centre, and Geoffrey Palmer, who dies horribly every time he is on Doctor Who, is the Permanent Under-Secretary. (If you haven’t heard the super two-hander audio between Paul Darrow and Peter Miles set in Kaldor City, I do recommend it.) Finally, of course, by pure chance I was watching it immediately after the New Who two-part Silurian story was broadcast, but my thoughts on that will have to wait.

was eager to hear my views of The Ambassadors of Death, and I guess the first point is how little of the story is actually about the eponymous aliens. The first five episodes focus on UNIT trying to battle bad guys who have stolen an alien weapon and are using it for crime, and have also infiltrated UNIT’s own chain of command; each episode has a mandatory action sequence pitting good guys vs thugs. Only in ep 6 does the Doctor transmigrate to the alien spaceship where astronauts are in an altered state of consciousness, which could be symbolic of something. We take a long time to get close to the action; it’s actually rather reminiscent of The Invasion, with seedier human opponents and less willing aliens.

John Abineri does put in a good turn as Carrington – even if his means and motivation are not well explained, he is conveys the deceptively psychotic general rather well. I am, however, mystified and distracted by the cameras’ concentration on Ronald Allen as Cornish; perhaps the director was obsessed by Allen’s good looks. Come to that, I am still a little mystified as to what the story was really about. Nice to see Michael Wisher for the first time. Dudley Simpson, always reliable, utterly excels here with a Jethro Tull-like soundtrack which conveys a slightly weird yet rather English atmosphere.

Inferno is a good story at the end of the season, rather than a good climax to the season. Bound to late twentieth-century England in space and time, we escape sideways rather than backwards, forwards or outwards. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the actual plot of Inferno can be expressed in one line – “the Doctor shuts down the drilling project” – but the seven episode ride is brilliant, starting with the office politics of the drillhead (with added green monsters) and then bringing in the parallel world where the drilling is more advanced and doom therefore nigher. I’ve written previously about the politics of Warp TwoInferno works far far better than The Ambassadors of Death. It’s helped by the excellent supporting cast – Derek Newark, last seen as a caveman in An Unearthly Child

And after four stories, the least of any companion since Sara Kingdom and Katarina, that’s it for Liz Shaw, who we last see giggling at the childish banter of the Doctor and Brigadier. I’m afraid I’m in the minority of Who fans who don’t rate her all that highly. I don’t think Caroline John is at ease playing an ostensibly brainy character; and her dynamic with Pertwee and Courtney never quite settles down. It’s a shame because on the whole I like the brainy companions (Zoe, Romana, Barbara to an extent, Martha also) but Liz doesn’t quite work for me. I do agree that it’s a pity she did not get a decent farewell scene, unless we count her cameo in The Five Doctors.

Of the novelisations of her four stories, my favourite is Malcolm Hulke’s Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters. Gary Russell’s Missing Adventure, Scales of Injustice, and Simon Guerrier’s Companion Chronicle, Shadow of the Past, are also worth hunting down. I must say that I was also relatively impressed with the 1971 Doctor Who Annual, which comes as an extra on the Inferno DVD. I have the P.R.O.B.E. videos ready to watch some time, and also several other novels in which Liz appears – The Devil Goblins from Neptune, Blood Heat and Eternity Weeps – are on the ‘to read’ shelf.

So, it’s 1971 and we are rebooting the show again with Terror of the Autons. The familiar – the Doctor, the Tardis exterior, his relationship with the Brigadier, the Autons, Benton as part of the furniture the colour format – is thrown into a new light by the arrival of Jo as audience identification figure and the Master as the first convincing villain not played by Kevin Stoney (and Yates as part of the furniture). I don’t think of myself as a Jo fan, but I warmed to Victoria when watching her stories a couple of months back and I may find the same happening again; I think she works much better dramatically as a foil to the Doctor, as a childlike interpreter of what is going on. Holmes is sometimes accused of cutting and pasting from Spearhead in Space here, but that’s not fair at all; the comic yokels are replaced by a sinister circus, and the dynamic between the Master and the Farrels (and poor old McDermott) is utterly different from, but just as good as, the Channing/Hibbert relationship in the previous story.

We immediately feel on firmer ground than last season, somehow, with the setup of UNIT more embedded and elaborated, the new companion and villain very watchable, and stuff actually happening in each episode (my favourite being the creepy strangly doll – the effects are not too awful by today’s standards and the drama excellent). Perhaps it’s just that it comes after the slow pace of Season 7, but I have raised my opinion of Terror of the Autons considerably.

Having been reading up on the reminiscences of Derrick Sherwin and Terrance Dicks, I was rather expecting to find the boundary between the monochrome and colour eras a little fuzzier than the conventional wisdom has it. But I was instead impressed by how very different a show Jon Pertwee’s adventures are. As mentioned above, they are in colour, which seems to require a shift of mood from magical realism to gritty realism. More important, though, is the sense of our hero being tied to a single planet from now on, his services being called on to deal with the monster of the month. It’s simply not the same show as we have been watching so far. Having said that, there is a feeling of a shift of gear and finally getting things together with Season 8.

Speaking of colour, everyone in Season Seven is white except for a non-speaking technician in Inferno (played I think by Allister Baine, who appears almost four decades later as Wilf’s friend Winston in The End of Time). Roy Strong, last seen as Toberman in Tomb of the Cybermen, is the first non-white character to get a named part in the colour era as Tony, the circus strongman in Terror of the Autons. Five stories into the colour era and we have only heard white actors speak; though this changes with the next story.

This run includes four of the five surviving stories with more than six episodes (the other being The Daleks, way back in the beginning). Seven episodes is too long for the average story (and Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death are pretty average). I’ll cut a bit more slack for The War Games because it is the end of the original version of Doctor Who, and a certain excess is appropriate.

My running tally: 55 out of 160 Old Who stories (including Shada and K9 and Company and counting four stories rather than one in Season 23), so just over a third of the way through (33.9%). Just under 40% of the way through in terms of minutes watched. Just over 40% of the way through in terms of number of episodes watched. 28% of calendar time elapsed from 23 November 1963 to 6 December 1989.

< An Unearthly Child – The Aztecs | The Sensorites – The Romans | The Web Planet – Galaxy 4 | Mission To The Unknown – The Gunfighters | The Savages – The Highlanders | The Underwater Menace – Tomb of the Cybermen | The Abominable Snowmen – The Wheel In Space | The Dominators – The Space Pirates | The War Games – Terror of the Autons | The Mind of Evil – The Curse of Peladon | The Sea Devils – Frontier in Space | Planet of the Daleks – The Monster of Peladon | Planet of the Spiders – Revenge of the Cybermen | Terror of the Zygons – The Seeds of Doom | The Masque of Mandragora – The Talons of Weng-Chiang | Horror of Fang Rock – The Invasion of Time | The Ribos Operation – The Armageddon Factor | Destiny of the Daleks – Shada | The Leisure Hive – The Keeper of Traken | Logopolis – The Visitation | Black Orchid – Mawdryn Undead | Terminus – The Awakening | Frontios – Attack of the Cybermen | Vengeance on Varos – In A Fix With Sontarans | The Mysterious Planet – Paradise Towers | Delta and the Bannermen – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy | Battlefield – The TV Movie >

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Hugo novellas wrap-up

I’ve written up the other three novella nominees in separate entries, as is my usual practice with books, and now come to the final two.

“Palimpsest”, by Charles Stross, didn’t really grab me I’m afraid. It is a tale of time police and overlapping universes and histories, broken up by some reflections on the evolution of the solar system presented in rather odd powerpoint format. I wasn’t really convinced either by the astronomy or the mathematics of deep time, and they appeared to be the point of the story.

On the other hand, the story does get my approval for being the only one presented to Hugo voters in a format that my handheld can read without a conversion process.

“Act One”, by Nancy Kress (PDF), appealed to me slightly more, dealing with disability and genetically altered children, close eough to my personal situation to read it with keen interest. I liked a lot of aspects of the setting, including the characters with plenty of empathy (ie ability to understand other people's feelings) who were none the less really unpleasant people. While it engaged my sympathy, I'm marking it down the list for two reasons: first, it really is very close in subject matter to her much earlier Hugo and Nebula winning “Beggars in Spain”, and doesn’t move us along much from there; and second, I felt that the authorities behaved either very stupidly or very intelligently depending on what the plot required at the time.

So my final ranking, rather to my surprise as it doesn’t much reflect my rating of these authors’ œuvres taken as a whole, is:

  1. The God Engines, by John Scalzi
  2. “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, by Ian McDonald
  3. Shambling Towards Hiroshima, by James Morrow
  4. The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, by Kage Baker
  5. “Act One”, by Nancy Kress
  6. “Palimpsest”, by Charles Stross

Previous Hugo roundups: Best Novel, Best Graphic Story.

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World Cup Day 12

Current FIFA rankings: Argentina 7th, France 9th, Greece 13th, Uruguay 16th, Mexico 17th, Nigeria 21st, South Korea 47th, South Africa 83rd (but with home advantage for what that is worth).

A record 14 people called all three of today’s matches correctly. Congratulations to , , , , , , , , , , , , and .

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World Cup Day 11

Current FIFA rankings: Spain 2nd, Portugal 3rd, Chile 18th, Switzerland 24th, Honduras 38th, North Korea 105th

One big surprise in today’s results, one less surprising and one very much as expected. , , and all got three out of three.

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June Books 15) Schlock Mercenary: Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, by Howard Tayler

I rated the previous volume in this series last in my Hugo voting last year, as did the voters, despite it being the only nominee that was made available to all as part of the Hugo voters package. This year all five nominees are available, though I’d already bought hard copies of the three that have been published in dead-tree format, and I am still putting Schlock Mercenary last. Longshoreman of the Apocalypse made slightly more sense than The Body Politic, but that’s not saying much, and I still found it not very funny; I guess I know too much about military escorts for humanitarian aid for a story based on the humorous ways people can get killed horribly in such an enterprise to appeal to me, and also the eponymous longshoreman turns out to be an anthropomorphic robot which, though not especially cute, like to be called Lota – it’s an acronym, see? – and so pushes one of my buttons.

My Hugo votes in the Best Graphic Story category:

  1. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman – will surely win by a country mile
  2. Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm, by Kaja and Phil Foglio
  3. Captain Britain and MI13: Vampire State, by Paul Cornell
  4. Fables vol 12: The Dark Ages, by Bill Willingham
  5. Schlock Mercenary: Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, by Howard Tayler
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A dozen Big Finish plays

I’ve finally caught up with the current run of Big Finish audio plays, and have resolved that in future I’m going to do them individually as I listen to them, as I do with books. In the past I had been writing them up in groups, as much as anything so as not to spam readers who were less interested in Doctor Who; but I think that those who were bored by that sort have thing have already stopped reading me, so I am going to suit my own convenience in future. Twelve plays here, and I’m going to write them up in Who continuity order rather than in the order of release, the order I listened to them, or my ranking in terms of quality.

Andy Lane’s The Mahogany Murderers was my favourite Big Finish release of the whole of last year. Part of the Companion Chronicles sequence, which in theory bring back regulars from the first four Doctors to tell the stories of hitherto unheard adventures, it broke new ground in several ways: Henry Jago (as played by Christopher Benjamin) and Professor Litefoot (as played by Trevor Baxter) were never regular characters, but appeared only in the Victorian Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Talons of Weng-ChiangThe Spirit Trap).

So I gladly invested in the four new Jago and Litefoot plays from Big Finish (download or CD), even before I spotted that Big Finish had put some of their best writers on the case. And they are well worth it: The Bloodless Soldier by Justin Richards has werewolves, The Bellova Devil by Alan Barnes has Bulgarian vampires and a sinister London club, The Spirit Trap by Jonathan Morris has table-tapping and parallel dimensions, and The Similarity Engine, by Andy Lane who brought them back in The Mahogany Murderers, reprises the villainous Doctor Tulp (and signals that the next series is on its way). As Steve Mollman has pointed out, the plots aren’t always totally coherent but the super performances of Benjamin and Baxter as the central characters, and of pretty much everyone else, make these a joy to listen to.

Unfortunately I can’t work up the same enthusiasm for The Time Vampire, by Nigel Fairs, which brings back Leela and (for the first time in a Companion Chronicle) K-9 in the last story of a trilogy whose first two elements are The Catalyst and Empathy Games. I didn’t really understand what was going on in The Time Vampire, though I liked it more than this reviewer did (again, I’m in agreement with Steve Mollmann), and will go back and listen to it again after I’ve finished my current revisiting of the Big Finish Gallifrey series which included Leel, both K-9s and both Romanas. (Apparently there’s more of that on the way too.) It’s a shame because Leela is one of my favourite TV companions, and does well both in spinoff novels and in the Gallifrey audios, but her Companion Chronicles have been less memorable.

Big Finish have been doing a run of stories with Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor and Nicola Bryant as Peri Brown, starting with those that were commissioned for the original Season 23 before it was decided to do the Trial of a Time Lord storyline, and then reaching out into basically every available Sixth Doctor idea that had once crossed John Nathan-Turner’s desk and was still retrievable. Colin Baker is gloating a bit because apparently this combined with the latest regular BF releases (see below) now means that he has starred in more Doctor Who stories, if you combine audio and TV, than Tom Baker or anyone else. Most of these Lost Stories have been about as good as the slightly better televised stories of the era (though the first, Mission to Magnus, is roughly as bad as The Twin Dilemma, the first Sixth Doctor story, which is regarded by many [including me] as the nadir of Old Who). These stories are much less moored in Who continuity than most Big Finish productions are, which reflects the difference in expectations between the mid-1980s Who viewer and the Big Finish’s audio marketplace of today.

Of the last three, the first in order, Point of Entry, is by Barbara Clegg (who wrote the surreal and lush Fifth Doctor TV story Enlightenment) and has Christopher Marlowe, Aztec relics, a Spanish spy and astral travelling. Unfortunately it also has no regard for astronomical realities and not a lot of coherence, but it’s a while before you work that out, probably because Clegg’s outline was developed and implemented by Marc Platt who has yet to find a middle ground between genius and tedium.

The Song of Megaptera, by Pat Mills, features a giant space whale and has certain similarities to this year’s Eleventh Doctor story, The Beast Below. It was originally proposed as a Fourth Doctor comic strip (Mills wrote the early great strips for Doctor Who Magazine as well as many other classic comics) and I felt would still have worked better as such; the story is OK but two of the guest cast, playing the captain and his first officer, really sound as if they are under sedation – bringing in moderately well known actors is only really successful if they can do audio (having said which, Susan Brown is excellent as the Chief Engineer).

Finally, Ingrid Pitt, better known as an actress who appeared twice in Old Who (in The Time Monster and Warriors from the Deep), also wrote a story called The Macros (plural of “Macro”, ie inhabitants of the planet Macron) which slightly oddly bolts together some well-researched material on the Philadephia Experiment with a rather standard parallel-universe plot; again there is a good female guest actor, this time Linda Marlowe as Marcon’s ruler Osloo, but I found myself distracted by my confusion between the (fictional) professor Tessler and the (historical) professor Tesla.

None of these three is as good as the two best in this series (Leviathan and Paradise 5, reviewed here and here) but none is embarrassingly bad either.

The main run of Big Finish audios has just concluded a Sixth Doctor mini-series, which began in City of Spires (reviewed here) with the Doctor encountering an aged Jamie McCrimmon in a very weird alternate Scotland. This plotline continued with a Companion Chronicle, Night’s Black Agents by Marty Ross, starring Fraser Hines as Jamie telling the story of an encounter with a standard baddie in a standard haunted castle; really very skippable, and I dislike the Companion Chronicles veering from their original intention of covering the first four Doctors. But we’re back in gear again with the next story, The Wreck of the Titan by Barnaby Edwards, which starts off on the Titanic, then abruptly shifts to the prescient novella of 1898, and then cuts to yet further stuff of legend and literature, setting up of course for a grand cliffhanger at the end. Finally Legend of the Cybermen by Mike Maddox brings back Zoe Heriot as well as Jamie, in a rather brilliant climax that steps outside the usual narrative (the scene set in the Big Finish studios was a particular touch of genius) and kept me guessing all the way through; I really can’t say more than that without spoilers, but let’s just say that if you know the best known of the Jamie/Zoe/Second Doctor stories you will love this one.

Finally, Solitaire by John Dorney brings back two interesting Who figures – Charley Pollard, a Big Finish companion created for their Eighth Doctor audios (and later getting a second run with the Sixth Doctor) and the Celestial Toymaker, voiced here by David Bailie, who was Dask in The Robots of Death but also did the Toymaker in Big Finish’s resurrection of The Nightmare Fair earlier this year. I thought this was a brilliant two-hander, and I think it could be appreciarted even by Who fans with only a vague idea of Charley and/or the Toymaker; Charley is trapped in a peculiar toyshop and must work out what she is doing there, and indeed who she is. Continuity-wise it is set in her early days, before any later adventures in parallel universes etc, and is all the better for that simplicity. Great fun. I objected earlier to Companion Chronicles which do not feature the first four Doctors but I’ll make an exception for this one.

In summary, the Jago and Litefoot plays are excellent and would be entirely accessible for listeners who know nothing of Doctor Who (though it would probably help if they listened to The Mahogany Murderers first; but it is also equally excellent and equally accessible). The Time Vampire requires detailed knowledge of Leela’s story as seen on TV and then heard in The Catalyst, and is even then not very penetrable. The three Lost Stories featuring Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor are OK but not essential. Night’s Black Agents is skippable but The Wreck of the Titan and Legend of the Cybermen are an excellent homage to Patrick Troughton’s last season. And Solitaire is great as long as you at least know who the two main characters are.

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On not getting a job

I do a fair bit of recruiting – hiring interns two or three times a year, and occasional involvement in more senior hires – and a couple of thoughts came together for me this week.

First of all, if you don’t get the job you applied for, it is always worth asking for feedback as to why your application was unsuccessful. You may or may not get a response, but you lose nothing by making the request, and may get some useful insights.

I get more requests from candidates who were not shortlisted, asking to know why they weren’t, than I do from those who were interviewed, wondering why they weren’t hired. Of course, the former category of candidates vastly outnumber the latter, but I’m surprised that so few of the latter do get back to me. I suppose that if you’ve been interviewed and didn’t get the job you tend to have a good idea why not, and also once you’ve had that face to face interaction with the potential employer it is more difficult to confront them with a request to justify their decision not to hire you (certainly both of these factors have affected me in my own past unsuccessful applications). It’s still worth asking though.

I must say that from the other side of the table, the most frequent reason for rejecting a candidate who has been shortlisted is simply that someone else interviewed better on the day. When I first started interviewing job applicants it was in my capacity as one of the governors of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, and under Northern Ireland’s fair employment legislation we had to be pretty systematic: the interviewing panel agreed five questions to ask, rated each candidate’s response to each question, added up the scores we had given them at the end and had to submit a detailed written justification if recommending anyone other than the candidate who got top marks. It gave me, I hope, good habits which I like to think I have stuck to since.

“Another candidate interviewed better on the day” isn’t especially helpful feedback, I admit. Usually you can construct a further justification based on skills and experience – and the ability to talk about them in the interview – but the personality factor (“can I really bear to share the workplace with this person?”) is important too, and also intangible. Occasionally one gets a severely negative vibe – “this person is clearly a psychopath, do not hire them” – in which case I pray that they won’t ask for feedback. More often the problem is choosing between two or more enthusiastic and personable candidates, and the justfication can be difficult, but I think it’s good for employers to be asked for that justification from time to time.

It’s usually much easier to explain why candidates didn’t make the shortlist. I tend to delegate that decision, but am always happy to deal with requests for feedback (and have never felt that the person screening CV’s for me made the wrong call). Sometimes it is simply that the skills and experience are just not what I am looking for. (To which some enthusiastic but unskilled candidates protest, “but I am willing to learn on the job!” To which I reply, “I have another 20 candidates here who would not have to learn on the job!”)

Even more often, though, it is simply that the covering letter and CV do not pass the 20 second test of engaging the interest of the person scanning a hundred job applications to boil them down to a shortlist of five or ten. These are actually much the easiest to give feedback on, and the biggest piece of advice is usually the same: emphasise the bits of your career which make this job application look like an obvious next step (and if there are no such bits of your career, maybe that should give you pause for thought).

There are other points of detail which do crop up fairly often. If your university dissertation was relevant, give some details. If you’re a graduate, don’t bore me with details of your high school career (unless they are actually relevant). Don’t make stupid mistakes in listing your hobbies. Above all, don’t lie.

Of course, I’m writing here about applications for jobs which have been advertised and go through a shortlisting and interviewing process, and I have to admit that it is more than thirteen years and three or four jobs ago since I last successfully did this from the other side. (Two of my last four job changes involved me persuading a new employer to hire me for a position that was envisaged but had not been advertised; I have also moved to a different position with the same employer, and been recruited out of the blue for a position that I had seen advertised but hadn’t actually applied for.) But a lot of this also applies when you are trying to get a job through other mechanisms. In particular asking for feedback on an unsuccessful application does no harm and, particularly perhaps if it’s not a standard shortlist/interview/decision process, can help to give you closure.

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