BSFA awards 2011 – best novel – intro

I haven't read any of the nominees for Best Novel in this year's BSFA wards, and will start scrambling to make up that deficiency (especially if I can do so before the Hugo nomination deadline at end of March). But I thought I would check up the vital statistics of the contenders on various websites:

LibraryThing Goodreads Amazon.co.uk (hard copy) Amazon.co.uk (Kindle)
Embassytown by China Mieville 732 owners 2,237 ratings Sales rank 1,810 Sales rank 4,089
Islanders by Christopher Priest 25 owners 32 ratings Sales rank 38,592 Sales rank 13,721
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts 25 owners 25 ratings Sales rank 14,014 Sales rank 30,423
Osama by Lavie Tidhar 14 owners 6 ratings Sales rank 454,785 Sales rank 77,426
Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith 6 owners 5 ratings Sales rank 1,882,739 Sales rank 10,556

There are some interesting features there (Cyber Circus clearly doing far better on Kindle sales than otherwise) but it's pretty clear who must be considered the favourite this year. Now I just need to decide if I think that is justified….

Posted in Uncategorised

The Curse of Davros

I have been known to get unreasonably excited about Doctor Who stories set in Belgium, and I must admit that I was thrilled when it became clear that Big Finish’s latest audio takes shape-shifting Daleks to the Battle of Waterloo, trying to engineer a French victory. When we first moved to this country we lived in the next town north of Waterloo and I would occasionally go there on Sundays looking for the English papers, there being a thriving expat community there. And parts of this story are set in Wavre which I pass through more often than not during my morning commute.

To be honest, though, the Belgianness of this story is a bit disappointing. As with the last Belgian Who story I encountered, we are merely a place where a battle between other tribes of humans is interfered with by non-humans and there isn’t a single Belgian character in the play. (And yes, I know we didn’t become independent until 1830, but the characters here are English, French, Daleks, Davros and the Doctor.) And geography is rather telescoped – one gets the feeling that Wavre is just around the corner from Waterloo, whereas it’s a good half-hour’s drive even on today’s roads.

This is mere technical quibbling and whining of course. This is really one of the better aliens-will-change-Earth-history stories. It’s also unusual for a Dalek story to try and take us inside the minds of the creatures. Colin Baker and Terry Molloy get called upon to deliver a lot more than usual as the Doctor and Davros, and rise to the challenge very entertainingly. And new companion Flip, played by Lisa Greenwood, is a great contrast both with Baker, who she seems to have an instant rapport with, and with the unspoken presence of Billie Piper’s Rose, who shares a number of narrative points with her. She also has a good exchange with Molloy about Davros and disability, which is a strong sub-theme of the piece. It’s rather a delight to hear her in action, though a bit sobering to reflect that as far as I can tell she had not yet been born when Colin Baker was the Doctor on TV.

I see that Terrance Dicks brought the Second Doctor to Waterloo as part of Season 6B, and look forward to getting to grips with that too. But for now, while this story may not completely satisfy Belgian perfectionists, it’s rather a good new lease of life for the Sixth Doctor.

Posted in Uncategorised

How should British vacancies in the European parliament be filled?

The fuss over replacing Diana Wallis as MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber appears to have died down, with her husband, Stewart Arnold, who was the second-placed candidate on the list, announcing that he will not take up the seat; it was then offered to third-placed candidate Rebecca Taylor, who has accepted it.

This has all come about because of the rules that apply to British elections to the European Parliament. At election time (in practice, usually some months beforehand) the parties choose lists of candidates in a ranked order, generated by more-or-less open and transparent and possibly internally democratic processes. The general public has no say in this, as indeed is the case in most elections in countries where there is not a tradition of primaries. (Incidentally, I read that the Conservatives are no longer as enthusiastic about open primaries as once they were – a daft idea in the first place that I didn't realise had made it into the Coalition agreement.)

The voters come into it at election time, when they choose how many seats are allocated to each party, no doubt taking into account the names on the party lists of candidates as well as the party's policies and their feelings about the party's leader (who is probably not a candidate). If you get x seats, the top x candidates on your list are elected. (Usually = 1.) In Great Britain, there is no option to choose among candidates on the list. Eight other EU countries have taken the same line as most of the UK, and use closed lists, some regional, some not; the other 18 all allow voters to choose not only the party but the candidate by one means or another. Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote system, as do the Irish Republic and Malta.(There is a useful summary in the end of the OSCE pre-report on the 2009 elections, pages 14-15.) The adoption of closed lists was a policy decision made by the then new Labour government in 1997-98, and the present Conservative/Lib Dem government shows no sign of changing it.

The question then is, how should vacancies be filled? The rather blunt instrument employed by UK legislation is to fix the list of candidates at the time of the election as the list of substitutes, and to then offer vacant seats to the remaining candidates in order, provided that the party leadership thinks that they are up to it. A seat may therefore be allocated based on low-preferences in an internal party selection held several years before, combined with the tolerance of the current party leader. This may not be wholly satisfactory in principle, but it is the method chosen by the then new Labour government in 1997-98, and again the present Conservative/Lib Dem government shows no sign of changing it.

There are other methods. Vacancies for seats in the UK Parliament are normally filled by by-elections. This was also the system used for the GB seats in the European Parliament for the twenty years that they were elected from single-member constituencies. There were six by-elections during this period, with every seat retained by the party that had won it at the previous full election, and turnout ranging from 28.5% (Midlands West, 1987) to 11.3% (Merseyside West, 1996). The evidence suggests that there is not a howling desire for direct participation in the filling of European Parliament vacancies. In any case, by-eections held under the current regional structure would cause distortion if a member of a small party were to die or resign, and their seat won in a by-election by a member of a larger party.

There is in fact another system for filling vacancies in proportional elections which currently works, and works well, within in the UK. In Northern Ireland (where the single transferable vote is used for everything except Westminster elections, because elections in Northern Ireland, unlike in England, have to be fair), elected members of the Assembly, local councillors and MEPs who resign or die are replaced by the nomination of the party on whose ticket they were originally elected. There is usually an internal party process, more-or-less open and transparent and possibly internally democratic. It is efficient and inexpensive, and preserves the wishes of the voters as expressed in the most recent election about the party affiliation of their representatives, even if the precise individual elected then is no longer available.

Other EU countries have different processes. Here in Belgium, we have open lists not only for candidates but for designated substitutes, so we get to rank the order in which people will get offered vacant seats. The political class here being fairly small in number (combined with the eminently sensible rule, separating the legislative and the executive branches, which bars government minsters from sitting in parliament – and we have a lot of governments) there is often a certain amount of musical chairs played after each election, which is sometimes not very pretty but tend to be conducted in public to general amusement. Other posibilities will no doubt spring to mind. The British system (meaning that used in England/Gibraltar, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland) is not the only one imaginable, and it has the possibility to deliver unsatisfactory results.

There have been two cases of this in recent weeks. Roger Helmer, Conservative MEP for the East Midlands, announced last year that he intended to resign effective 1 January 2012; the next Tory on the list was his friend Rupert Matthews. But rumours began to spread that the party leadership might not approve Matthews, whose interests are eclectic, and Helmer withdrew his resignation (I suspect that technically he actually did nothing, and simply declined to tender the resignation as he had originally planned). And now we have had the case of Diana Wallis, who resigned this month as Lib Dem MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, with consequent confusion as to whether Stewart Arnold would take the seat, as he was legally entitled to do under the rules. (There was some question as to whether Lib Dem members in the party selection process knew that he was the incumbent MEP's spouse, but my own impression both from canvassing them on behalf of another candidate at the time and from analysing the results is that those who voted were as aware of this as they wanted to be.) Basically, as long as the UK sticks to the current system for filling vacant seats in the European Parliament outside Northern Ireland, this is bound to happen again and again.

Some very silly things have been said about this affair. Top prize goes to Denis MacShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham, who grumbles that “I have never heard of this lady, never seen her, know nothing about what she stands for” – he cannot have been paying much attention during the 2010 Westminster campaign, when the Lib Dem candidate in his own constituency was one Rebecca Taylor. Today he proudly announced on Twitter that he had:

Just recorded Yorkshire TV on scandal of Nick Clegg imposing London consultancy/lobbbyist as Yorkshire MEP

It's difficult to know where to start pulling apart this little piece of mendacity. The suggestion is that Clegg plucked Taylor's name out of a hat and thrust her upon the local membership, rather as (dare I say it) the Labour Party sometimes does with candidates in safe seats which suddenly fall vacant before an election. In fact, once Arnold had declined to take the position, Clegg's choice was to do nothing and allow Taylor to become an MEP, or to act as no party leader has acted since 1999 and block her in order to avoid the outrage of Denis MacShane. I suppose there is a suggestion that Clegg may have leant on Arnold to step back for the sake of the party; knowing Arnold as I do, I think he is smart enough to have worked out the political calculus for himself, and I also take him at his word when he says that his wife matters more to him than the European Parliament.

MacShane of course was a member of the government that passed the silly rules in the first place, so has some cheek in complaining about them. (Likewise the Tory MPs who complain about the lack of a by-election, for reasons explained above.) Chris Davies, the Lib Dem MEP for the neighbouring North West of England constituency, has also not covered himself in glory by resigning in protest at a decision that had not in fact been made and in the end was not made. Davies' ire may be understandable, given the support he had rendered Wallis in her doomed bid to become President of the European Parliament; but to understand is not to approve.

The normally sane and sensible Mark Pack proposes that in the event of a vacancy, party activists should select from those originally nominated, re-ranking the remaining candidates on the list. The only advantage of this is that it could be put into effect by internal party rules without a change in the law. Otherwise, it risks failing because the number of candidates will be very few. As I reported previously, nine candidates were on the ballot for the six list spots in Yorkshire and the Humber last time round. Under Pack's proposal, members would now choose not between those nine, but between the remnants of the six who were chosen in 2008, one of whom has just resigned the seat, one of whom has just refused to take it, and one of whom I understand has since left the Lib Dems. I'm not sure that a new ranking of the remaining three candidates by party members is a terribly meaningful exercise of democracy. It would be much preferable to widen the pool, either by a list of registered substitutes as we have here in Belgium, or by simply allowing the party leader to approve whoever local party structures nominate, as is done in Northern Ireland. That would require a change in the law, of course, but it was a change that all Northern Ireland's political parties were able to agree to; perhaps they could bring their experience of consensus politics across the water where it is obviously needed.

Posted in Uncategorised

The answer to the question

The story about the failure of e-government was slightly adapted from one of my favourite political gossip columns, Tales from the Coffee Shop, which appears weekly in the English-language Cyprus Mail. But I think it is invidious to single out that particular government; there are a number of other places that it could equally well have been, as your answers illustrated.

Posted in Uncategorised

When e-government goes bad

A story from one of my favourite internet sources. Special prize to anyone who can guess the country without googling.

A friend who wanted to register his company for VAT, decided to try doing this through the internet. After a Google search he was directed to the government portal and to his surprise found the VAT registration form 101; he was impressed that there was even an option to add the relevant attachments to the form.

He filled out the form, but when he tried to submit it the website gave him the message that the operation could not be completed. He pressed the ‘Submit’ command a few more times but every time he got the message that the submission could not be completed. 

To establish what the problem was, he called the VAT service and informed an employee what had happened and asked whether the system was down or there was something else he should have done. He would not have been treated with more rudeness if he had asked to sleep with the official’s wife. 

The irritating member of the public was condescendingly told there was no such web-service, he did not know what he was talking about and that if he wanted to submit Form 101, he had to go to the VAT service in person and fill it in by hand. The rude official made one concession to our friend – he put him through to his superior.

Polite and helpful, in stark contrast to his subordinate, the manager expressed genuine surprise to hear about the existence of electronic forms. Our friend gave him the web-address so he could check out for himself and after a couple of minutes the startled manager apologised for the inconvenience caused. 

He was in charge of the registration service, he said, but did not know the VAT forms were available in electronic format on the internet, as nobody had informed him. Probably because it will take another three years before the government’s programmers arrange for the form to be submitted electronically.  

Our friend still had to go to the VAT office, fill in the form by hand, queue at two desks, first for someone to stamp the form and then for someone to enter it into the system.

Translation note: VAT is a sales tax charged in the European Union and some other countries.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 27) Indian Summer, by Alex von Tunzelmann

A very readable account of the British withdrawal from India, largely from the point of view of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, whose papers are used extensively, though with some effort also made to include the roles of the other key political players. On Lord Mountbatten’s responsibility for the horrors of partition, I found it was a useful alternative viewpoint to the hatchet-job by Andrew Roberts which I read several years ago. I think that von Tunzelmann has become slightly beguiled by her source and gives him more benefit of the doubt than is really justifiable by her own account, though I will agree that mitigating factors include the criminally obstructive attitude of Winston Churchill to Indian independence and Mountbatten’s success at persuading almost all the princely states to join the new Indian or Pakistani states – Kashmir and Hyderabad are notorious exceptions but there could have been many more. Her account of the love affair between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten manages to be both entertaining and respectful.

Since I work more or less in the field of international conflict resolution, I am struck by how far the level of understanding of these problems has advanced since 1947. In those days the debate was shaped partly by legal rights established by history (or myth) and partly by the rather one-dimensional discourse of anti-colonialism, with very little reference to the actual wishes and needs of people on the ground. The independence of Montenegro from Serbia was achieved with no bloodshed at all, and while Kosovo and South Sudan may have their problems, they have been handled rather better than India/Pakistan (or indeed Israel/Palestine) sixty years before. The mistake that is more often made these days is wishful thinking, where international officials kid themselves that genocidal leaders like Milošević and Bashir don’t really mean it, and then discover that they do; the Indian partition case was a much more straightforward mismanagement of expectations by the political leaders, particularly Mountbatten, to the point that violence became an effective and preferred mode of discourse for many actors.

One should not perhaps blame Mountbatten for failing to implement best practices which had not yet been worked out. And yet… what comes across over and over again is how Mountbatten consistently rated his own political and managerial abilities much higher than did anyone who had actually had to work with him. In the end the misjudgements which made the partition of India so much worse than it needed to have been were his misjudgements and nobody else’s. So von Tunzelmann did not quite convince me, but she did entertain me.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 25) Skypoint, by Phil Ford

Another pretty decent Torchwood novel, with an intersection between exploitative aliens and exploitative crime lords in the property market in Cardiff Bay, set just after Gwen and Rhys return from honeymoon, with Owen still dead and walking. Some nice exploration of the dysfunction in the Owen/Toshiko relationship (Toshiko gets to be on the front cover this time) and lots of reference to their back-stories which will please the diehard fan. My one gripe is that the supposedly Latvian crimelord has a rather Adriatic name (“Besnik Lucca” – first name Albanian, second name Italian).

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 24) Judgement day, by Scott Gray

Sadly the very last of the SJA audiobooks, read by Anjli “Rani” Molhindra, about the kidnapping and trial of Sarah Jane by an alien race with an unhealthy devotion to the truth. It’s a decent tale, well read by Malhotra, which actually probes at Sarah’s own motives and actions and the slightly ambiguous moral basis for them, a bit more deeply and more effectively than one might have expected from an audio book for younger listeners. It’s very vivid in places, perhaps reflecting author Scott Gray’s experience in comics.

I was going to do a full roundup of all the Sarah Jane audiobooks here, but I realise that I still have two to listen to – The White Wolf and The Shadow People – so will report back when I have done them.

Posted in Uncategorised

The complete Earthsearch

I was on the road a lot last week, so only now blogging recent reading/listening; stand by for a few more posts this morning.

I remember catching occasional episodes of the 1981-82 BBC sf radio series Earthsearch, in which the crew of a generation starship have been wiped out by the ship’s megalomaniac computers, apart from four children who are brought up under the computers’ control and then must gradually emancipate themselves. In the second series, two children of the next generation are added to the mix and they too must shake off the computers’ influence as they all seek the lost planet Earth.

At the time, as a cynical teenager, I didn’t actually rate the show that highly. But listening to it thirty years on, I could see its strong points. James Follett, the show’s writer, did not have the genius of Douglas Adams but did have more discipline, and the two ten-episode series actually work fairly well as a continuous arc in which each episode must feature this week’s new planet, or abandoned starship, or killer robot, or all three. It doesn’t really challenge cliches or conventions, but it does take the British tradition of sf and bring it to a new medium. Nicholas Courtney pops up as the last president of Earth before it was removed from our solar system, recorded for posterity.

Much more recently, in 2006 Big Finish produced an audio version of Follett’s novel Mindwarp, which is a sort-of prequel to the radio series and features a lot of the same tropes, though in this case the central characters must escape from the underground city which is the only world they have ever known. I thought this was in general better than the original (and also considerably shorter), sadly let down by the lacklustre performance of Leon Parris as the male lead. His rather phoned-in performance is a jarring contrast to the ever-luscious tones of India Fisher as the female lead and Colin Baker and (again) Nicholas Courtney in supporting roles, and it’s a shame that an actor who can actually do audio wasn’t selected for the part.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 23) Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

This is a great book about the human side of space travel. There are fascinating chapters on how astronauts are chosen (people who are able to keep making decisions and responding to instructions while under extreme stress, and also do not snore) and on the problems of personal hygiene when underwear and room for manoeuvre are limited. The chapter on sex in zero gravity was a bit disappointing because there is in fact no empirical source material. But there is a lot about poo, a recurrent theme throughout the book culminating in a long chapter which answers every question you ever thought you might ask, and many more, about toilets in space.

The book is not quite as entertaining as the same author’s Bonk, I guess because sex is a more familiar activity than space flight (for me, anyway); it is also not quite as well edited, with some repetition of anecdotes perhaps indicating that some of the chapters began life as newspaper or magazine columns. But it is great fun anyway.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 22) The Blue Angel, by Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad

I didn’t really get much out of this Eighth Doctor novel, set immediately after the two-volume Interference, with the Doctor, Fitz and new companion Compassion getting involved with various aliens and Iris Wildthyme. I did like the fact that we encounter a young svelte Iris as well as the standard more elderly version – indeed this is one of the better stories about Iris out there. But I was hoping to get a better handle on what Compassion is all about, and didn’t; and the various alien plot threads were all entangled without being terribly interesting. One of those books that I recommend only for completists (and fans of Iris).

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 21) Children of Steel, by Martin Day

One of the last two Sarah Jane audio books, featuring the voice of Daniel “Clyde” Anthony and a story by Martin Day about a timetravelling steampunk android (the “difference golem”) which needs to be sorted out by SJS and pals. I have not seen the last series of SJA so the character of Sky was new to me, but the story is well done and Anthony a decent reader who sensibly gets on with trying to convey emotion and character rather than imitating voices.

Posted in Uncategorised

Croatia and Finland not rejecting EU shock

Cheerful news on the electoral front today. Croatia has voted by almost 2 to 1 – rather more strongly than opinion polls suggested – to join the European Union. (Official results are not out yet but my old friends at GONG have done their own calculations.) And the Finnish presidential election will be a runoff between the establishment Conservative candidate and the gay Green; the extremist nationalists placed a poor fourth with less than 10%, less than half what they got last April when they nearly ended up the largest party.

A few days ago I was on a radio show (for Australia listeners, for what that is worth) as one of a panel and found myself the only commentator daring to suggest that the EU-pocalypse may not, in fact, be at hand; that perhaps we will muddle through. The moderator was inclined to point to the likely success of the True Finns as evidence that I was wrong. I’m glad that that has been falsified and that the Croats have surprised us with their enthusiasm for the EU. The English-speaking media may have generally adopted the narrative of imminent European collapse, but that doesn’t make it true.

(Electoral geek point re Finland – Väyrynen was a whisker ahead of Haavisto on absentee ballots, and initial media coverage had him qualifying to face Niinistö in the runoff. But Haavisto was well ahead of Väyrynen on votes cast today rather than in advance, which shows that the ground campaign is still worth something.)

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 20) Scotch on the Rocks, by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond

A Conservative prime minister, having failed to secure an majority for his party at Westminster, finds himself dealing with a Scottish Nationalist Party leader who is ascendant in Scotland; can a slide towards independence be bought off with an offer of maximised devolution? Obvious fantasy, dear boy.

This novel was co-written by a future Tory cabinet minister and leadership candidate over forty years ago (published in 1970, though reference to the success of devolution in Ulster indicates it was written in 1968 or before). It is the third of a trilogy of novels set in the near future (ie the late 1970s) about a Conservative government dealing with imperial retreat (I have read the second one, in which tension over Hong Kong escalates to threats of nuclear war, but have not read the first which is about Rhodesia). My introductory line was a little misleading: the hung parliament at the start of the novel comes after two Tory terms rather than three Labour ones, the SNP hold the balance of power at Westminster and so can demand devolution as the price of support for a minority government, and there is of course no devolved Scottish administration already in place. This is more or less incidental detail, of course: the most interesting departure from today’s debate is that I don’t think the word “referendum” appears once in the novel. Back in the 1960s, the will of the people was deemed adequately discernable from the results of elections to the House of Commons.

I can’t strongly recommend Scotch on the Rocks as literature. The connection between the high politics of Westminster and the low politics of security forces fighting nationalist extremists doesn’t mesh particularly well thematically, with the one connecting character being the only woman of significance in the narrative, an earl’s daughter who has gone radical. It seems more of a goodbye to the characters established in the previous two books than a terribly robust story in its own right. But it’s interesting as a political prediction by one of the more reflective (if not necessarily effective) thinkers in recent British politics. It’s also noteworthy that the extremists defeat the British establishment and the SNP, despite having sold out by accepting devolution, end up running an independent state that others have actually fought for. It’s absurdly easy to get hold of this second-hand, and rather thought-provoking reading for today’s political analysts.

January Books 19) Why Can’t Elephants Jump?, ed. Mick O’Hare

Another great collection of New Scientist columns with readers asking questions and other readers answering them. Lots of interesting trivia; two different answers given for why we westerners tend to eat a sweet course at the end of the meal (not totally sure I believe either of them); the title question is answered somewhere in the middle; at the very end, a question about how Big Ben is kept on time is answered by someone who had actually had the job of keeping it on time. Entertaining stuff.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 17) The Treason and Trial of Sir John Perrot, by Roger Turvey

A brief book going in detail into the demise of the Elizabethan courtier John Perrot, of interest to me because of the supporting role played by my ancestor Sir Nicholas White. I had gone over some of this ground before with Hiram Morgan and Perrot's son, but this is a great little example of how to pull it all together, including even one of the surviving transcripts of Perrot's trial, the high point perhaps being the fatal moment when he was confronted with evidence that he had called the Queen a "bastard piskitchen woman".

I felt that Turvey's thesis that Lord Burghley Was Behind It All was not really borne out by the evidence. What seemed to me clear was that Perrot, having returned to London after his term of office in Ireland, was becoming an alternate power centre on Irish affairs much to the dismay of everyone else working on Ireland, and the leading faction in the Dublin administration decided to discredit him as best they could. But I doubt that Burghley jumped on the band-wagon until it was already rolling, though I agree that his decision would have been necessary for Perrot's trial and conviction for treason, a process in which the odds were stacked against the defendant procedurally. Even then, probably nobody anticipated Perrot's death from natural causes before a date for his sentence could be set. Turvey tracks Nicholas White and Richard Meredith to London as prisoners due to their support of Perrot, but unfortunately doesn't cover their trial in Star Chamber (though does cover the detail that White's son was prevented from access to the Queen).

The book helped me a bit – and certainly gave me a reading list – for understanding how the royal court functioned in Tudor times. It helped me rather more in understanding exactly how the Irish administration functioned. Apart from the official designation of roles and office-holders, there was a whole shadow politics going on behind the scenes, as the viceroy's decisions and policies in Dublin could always be overturned in London, and because many of the leading figures in Ireland had their own routes to the Queen's ear. White had always been close to Burghley, but obviously became collateral damage in the fall of Perrot. A good piece of work.

Posted in Uncategorised

Who should be the new Lib Dem MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber?

Mark Pack asks who should replace Diana Wallis as MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber? Her husband Stewart Arnold came second in the selection for the party’s candidates back in 2007, as shown in these figures taken from the offical results site.

    Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4 Stage 5 Stage 6 Stage 7 Stage 8
  First
Prefs
Surplus of
Diana Wallis
Exclusion of
Veena Hudson
Exclusion of
Phil Kitchen
Exclusion of
Neil Poole
Exclusion of
Nader Fekri
Exclusion of
Jeanette Sunderland
Exclusion of
James Monaghan

Stewart Arnold

60

+215.60

275.60

+9.16

284.76

+14.88

299.64

+15.20

314.84

+26.40

341.24

+30.96

372.20

+69.96

442.16

Nader Fekri

32

+52.08

84.08

+11.60

95.68

+8.60

104.28

+8.48

112.76

-112.76

 

 

Veena Hudson

19

+30.24

49.24

-49.24

 

 

 

 

 

Phil Kitchen

11

+43.68

54.68

+3.12

57.80

-57.80

 

 

 

 

James Monaghan

97

+77.28

174.28

+8.04

182.32

+7.60

189.92

+7.04

196.96

+11.84

208.80

+47.64

256.44

-256.44

Neil Poole

28

+36.40

64.40

+2.12

66.52

+5.48

72.00

-72.00

 

 

 

Jeanette Sunderland

90

+38.08

128.08

+2.12

130.20

+7.16

137.36

+10.04

147.40

+25.40

172.80

-172.80

 

Rebecca Taylor

85

+85.68

170.68

+11.40

182.08

+10.84

192.92

+21.20

214.12

+34.60

248.72

+61.68

310.40

+123.08

433.48

Diana Wallis

1082

-580.66

501.34

 

501.34

 

501.34

 

501.34

 

501.34

 

501.34

 

501.34

Non-transferable

0

+1.62

1.62

+1.68

3.30

+3.24

6.54

+10.04

16.58

+14.52

31.10

+32.52

63.62

+63.40

127.02

Totals

1504

 

1504.00

 

1504.00

 

1504.00

 

1504.00

 

1504.00

  1504.00   1504.00

  Stage  
  8  
Stewart Arnold 442.16 Elected
Rebecca Taylor 433.48  
Diana Wallis 501.34 Elected
Non-transferable 127.02  
Totals 1504.00  

Mark Pack admits in his piece that the winner of the contest to be second on the list is not necessarily the same as the person who would win if the contest for first on the list was re-run with the original winner excluded, and goes on to say that those figures are not available. But in fact they are; it is not too difficult to take the transfers of Diana Wallis’s votes from the second stage of the real election, work out how many physical ballot papers went to each of the other candidates, and see what the result would have been with all of her votes transferred. (It’s fairly clear from inspection that her transferred votes were now at a value of 0.56.)

Candidate

original
first prefs

transfers from
Diana Wallis
on second count

transferred
ballot papers
from Diana Wallis
on second count

first prefs
including Diana
Wallis first prefs
at full value

Stewart Arnold

60

215.6

385

445

Nader Fekri

32

52.08

93

125

Veena Hudson

19

30.24

54

73

Phil Kitchen

11

43.68

78

89

James Monaghan

97

77.28

138

235

Neil Poole

28

36.4

65

93

Jeanette Sunderland

90

38.08

68

158

Rebecca Taylor

85

85.68

153

238


It is straightforward if tedious to repeat this exercise for each of the counts and therefore to reconstruct the election result for the top spot on the ballot paper, as it would have been if Diana Wallis had withdrawn after the votes were cast but before they were counted. Incidentally, this is how vacancies are handled for the STV parliamentary elections in Malta, which also tend to feature lots of candidates, but a very topheavy pattern of first preference votes. (Also Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory, and Cambridge Massachusetts.)Fortunately the order in which the losing candidates would have been excluded is the same as in the real election.

    Stage 2 Stage 3 Stage 4 Stage 5 Stage 6 Stage 7
  First
Prefs
Exclusion of
Veena Hudson
Exclusion of
Phil Kitchen
Exclusion of
Neil Poole
Exclusion of
Nader Fekri
Exclusion of
Jeanette Sunderland
Exclusion of
James Monaghan

Stewart Arnold

445

+14

459

+25

484

+24

508

+33

541

+38

579

+99

678

Nader Fekri

125

+16

141

+13

154

+12

166

-166

 

 

Veena Hudson

73

-73

 

 

 

 

 

Phil Kitchen

89

+4

93

-93

 

 

 

 

James Monaghan

235

+12

247

+12

259

+11

270

+18

288

+56

344

-344

Neil Poole

93

+3

96

+9

105

-105

 

 

 

Jeanette Sunderland

158

+3

161

+12

173

+14

187

+32

219

-219

 

Rebecca Taylor

238

+18

256

+17

273

+30

303

+61

364

+85

449

+175

624

Non-transferable

0

+3

3

+6

9

+14

23

+22

45

+40

85

+60

155

Totals

1456

 

1456

 

1456

 

1456

 

1456

 

1456

 

1456

  Stage  
  7  
Stewart Arnold 678 Elected
Rebecca Taylor 624  
Non-transferable 155  
Totals 1456  

The figures for the very last stage have a couple of other possible mathematical permutations, but would not change the fact that Stewart Arnold was the winner; I have gone for the one I thought most likely given the transfer patterns of earlier counts (where Rebecca Taylor had gained almost twice as many transfers).

It’s fairly clear then that the next spot on the list is Stewart Arnold’s, fair and square; and while I’m not going to grind through the calculations again (it’s more complex to work out the lower places from the information given), I would be astonished if the next spot down does not fall to Rebecca Taylor by a fairly clear margin over James Monaghan or any of the others.

The legal position is pretty clear. As outlined by Richard Gadsden, once the Returning Officer for Yorkshire and thr Humber is notified that that there is a vacancy, the RO contacts the next person on the list and gives them a deadline. If they have responded saying they want the job by the deadline, and they have the approval of the nominating officer of their party, then they become an MEP forthwith. Otherwise, once the deadline expires (or if they write back refusing the seat), the Returning Officer writes to the next person on the list and so on until the list is complete. (If the seat doesn’t get filled at all, then there is a by-election by region-wide FPTP. The seat cannot stay vacant for more than six months.

So legally the place is Stewart Arnold’s, if he wants it and if the party approves. (And the party ought to approve if he wants it; procedurally, he is completely entitled to take up the seat.) But things have moved on since the candidate selection of 2007, and the optics of an MEP handing their seat over to their spouse are, frankly, pretty disastrous. I feel very sorry for the three people most concerned, Diana Wallis, Stewart Arnold and Rebecca Taylor, all of whom I know and like, and I am certain that Diana Wallis will not have resigned her seat other than with a heavy heart and after deep reflection. But I hope that there will be mature consideration in Hull this weekend about what happens next.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 16) Slow River, by Nicola Griffith

My first Nebula winner of the year (only five more to go). In a lot of ways this is a very good book – excellent that Griffith has nested three different strands of plot, her heroine's childhood and then two different phases of her recovery from a kidnap ordeal, with some very sensuous descriptions of setting (Hull, of all places) and passionate yet thoughtful reflections on class and gender. My one reservation was that I wasn't sure how central the sfnal elements were to the plot; perhaps this is partly because quite a lot of the stuff that seemed futuristic in 1995 has become quotidian in 2012.

Slow River won the Nebula for Best Novel in 1997. It beat three books I haven't heard of – Nina Kiriki Hoffman's The Silent Strength of Stones, Patricia A. McKillip's Winter Rose and Robert J. Sawyer's Starplex – and two that I have read, Expiration Date by Tim Powers and Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, which won the Hugo that year. Considering the three that I have read on the list, it is actually quite a tough choice. Expiration Date is fun but not really profound, and The Diamond Age has more flaws than I realised on first reading. I think this is one of those years when the Nebulas picked out a novel that deserved a bit more recognition; in other words, for once, the system actually worked.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 15) Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2012, ed. Clayton Hickman

This really is a must-have book for fans of New Who. It has shaken off some of the extra material of last year's equivalent, and settled down to being a damn good guide to the 2011 series (and 2010 Christmas episode), including interviews with the key crew and cast, very short pieces of fanfic for each episode by established authors (James Goss, as usual, scores with the adventures of madame Vastra) and some nice reflections on how some of the episodes fit into longer Who history. I found it very helpful in reviving my memories of watching it first time round and tying them into the wider continuity. (Apart from Night Terrors which I struggled to remember.) I recommended it sight unseen to a friend to share with his nine-year-old and I strongly repeat that now that I have actually read it, for fans of any age.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 14) Making Ireland British 1580-1650, by Nicholas Canny

My first Irish history book of the year, this one looking not so much at the big picture of Irish history as specifically at the colonisation policies pursued by English (and Scottish) officials in Ireland from 1580 until the Cromwellian settlement resolved the land issue for three centuries.

Canny argues persuasively that the intellectual agenda for colonisation (or 'plantation' in local dialect) was set out by Spenser in both The Faerie Queene and the View of the Present State of Ireland, and while it wasn't the whole-hearted policy of either the royal court in London or of the Dublin Castle administration, it became inevitable after the Flight of the Earls and the fact that the viceroys under James I were themselves deeply involved with plantation. He also finds that Wentworth/Strafford, who was executed largely on suspicion of being too nice to Irish Catholics, was actually secretly pursuing a pro-plantation agenda which was as extreme as Cromwell's ten years later. In fact Irish Catholics found it difficult to resist the creeping dispossession of their lands precisely because it was never enshrined as government policy, so the traditional idea that appealing to the King or Queen might sort out the more hostile local officials never quite got lost until 1649. Lots of interesting detail about what life was like in Ireland at the period, including how widespread the use of Irish was in the Pale and the curious incident of the Pathan who settled near Roscrea. Not quite enough for my purposes on my own ancestors – both the sixteenth-century Sir Nicholas White and his seventeenth-century grandson of the same name are mentioned, but the story is not really about them or their people. Still, a very interesting read.

Posted in Uncategorised

Measures thou see art but trifles

Thanks to Ian Sales I have just caught up with the controversy regarding Liz Bourke's review of Michael J. Sullivan's novel Theft of Swords. For those who want to read the full debate, which has spilled far beyond the review's original publication on Strange Horizons, Bourke herself has helpfully listed all the links she could find here. I am impressed by Bourke and baffled (and slightly worried) by some of her critics.

I want to pick up one of her arguments in particular, because I think it's important. Bourke takes issue with one particularly purple paragraph of the book which begins with the immortal sentence "Measures thou see art but trifles." She says,

If you're going to write in a dialect with which you're not familiar, whether archaic or foreign, it behoves you to become familiar with it. If you're writing in Early Modern English (a language still read and performed, and not just by Shakespeare buffs), it behoves you—and your editor, and your copyeditor—to get the basic grammatical structures right. Early Modern English does have a grammar. And if you don't know the grammar offhand, the internet does.

As she points out, the sentence should have been "The measures thou see'st be [or are] but trifles." A couple of Sullivan's defenders jumped on this point:

This is a FANTASY BOOK. He can make up whatever f*ing language he pleases quite frankly.

The language isn't real. The world isn't real. Guess what, magic isn't real. Sullivan can make up whatever phrasing he wants in this world.

As another commenter and I have pointed out, they are objectively wrong on this point, and Bourke is objectively right.

Perhaps I can help with an analogy. If we were talking about an sf novel where astronauts landed on the surface of Jupiter and walked around, that would simply be wrong. The argument can be made that the author is free to make up what he or she likes about the surface of a planet that nobody has visited ("It's a made-up Jupiter!"). But in fact we know enough about the conditions of Jupiter to be sure that it will never be possible for human beings to land on it and walk around. The visible parts of Jupiter are cloud and would not support an astronaut's weight; the solid surface is so far down that it is subject to colossal pressure which would squash any traveller. It doesn't matter how well such a book is written in other ways; anyone who knows anything about Jupiter will find that their appreciation of the book is very negatively affected by the author including such a scene.

So it is for the use of Early Modern English. It's not a made-up language; it's a real language, just as Jupiter is a real planet. There are rules about how you can use the word "thou" – for instance, it changes the verb "see" to "see'st". There is a rule about how you use the word "art" as a part of the verb "to be" – it goes with second person singular "thou", not with third person plural "measures". If the author breaks those rules, it is impossible for anyone who knows Early Modern English to ignore, as bad as describing your characters walking around on the surface of Jupiter.

And if the author has broken those rules, the copy-editors and the rest of the editorial team have a duty to spot and correct it, a duty which was clearly not discharged in this case.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Pathan who settled in Ireland in the 1630s

I was fascinated to come across this snippet from seventeenth-century Ireland. It is one of the many depositions made by Protestant settlers who were attacked by Catholics during the insurrection of 1641 (I have modernised the spelling and punctuation). But the deponent is not an English or Scottish Protestant – he came from much farther away:

John Fortune, for 20 years a servant to Captain Richard Steele, and by birth an Indian Pethagorian, but now a Christian and Late an Inhabitant of Ballinakill in the Queens County, sworn and examined deposeth:

That since the begining of the present Rebellion, viz. about 2 months since, he, when the town and Castle [of Ballinakill surrendered, he] was deprived, robbed, dispoiled of, or otherwise lost his cattle, sheep, cloth, household goods & other goodes & chattels of the value of thirtie Pounds, by the means of besiegers & assailants of the said town & Castle which are all Rebels, viz. General Preston, the Earl of Castlehaven, the Lord Mountgarret, & their followers and divers other Rebellious soldiers whose names he cannot express.

Signed [mark] by the aforesaid John Fortune
21 June 1643

Ballinakill is about halfway from Roscrea to Nenagh, north of the main road just inside the Offaly (ie Queen’s County) border. The castle had been confiscated from the Butlers in 1616, and then surrendered to the Confederate insurgents (led by Mountgarret, who was a Butler) in 1643 as Fortune reported, but was then shelled by Cromwellian troops a few years later and never rebuilt; the ruins are still visible from the main road apparently. 

So far, so normal for the horrors of war. But it is fascinating to see that an ‘Indian Pethagorian’, who would have left his homeland before 1621 at the latest (as he had been a servant to Steele for twenty years even before the rebellion started), had settled in Ireland. 

At first I thought that ‘Indian’ must here mean Native American, with ‘Pethagorian’ meaning either ‘Patagonian’ (as English pirates had settled there by 1586) or possibly ‘Powhatan‘ (as in Pocahontas). The author of the book I am reading hints as much in another article published elsewhere on colonial links across the Atlantic, and on the face of it, given where English soldiers were active in general at the time, America seems more likely than actual India.

But in fact I now think that this is one of the rare cases in the early seventeenth century where ‘Indian’ actually does mean ‘from India’, because Captain Richard Steele was one of the early representatives of the British East India Company, and indeed left a description of his journey from the Moghul Emperor’s court to Baghdad in 1615-16. Although he does not name any of his servants, it is notable that he still uses “we” after he parts company with the other Englishman in his party, so he was not travelling alone. I reckon that John Fortune was recruited by Steele at some point in the journey. Most likely he was a Pathan (not so far phonetically from ‘Pethagorian’), probably recruited in Lahore where the two Englishmen appear to have hired extra staff (though the text is not clear), and sticking with him through war in Germany and rebellion in Ireland. That fits the dates rather well; if he had worked for Steele from 1616 to 1636 or so, and had followed him to Ireland, he then had seven years to build up £30 in capital before it was wiped out by the rebellion.

There cannot be many earlier identifiable examples of migration to Ireland from South Asia. No further record of John Fortune’s adventures seems to survive, unfortunately.

(Steele’s grandson of the same name became a famous writer.)

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 13) How The States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein

A popular history of the building blocks of US political geography (NB the author is not the wingnut Mark Steyn). I learned a number of things from it, including the importance of the 1790 Nootka convention and why Hawaii has more interesting borders than one might have thought. I had not really taken in that the block shapes of Colorado and Wyoming reflected a general aspiration to create states covering seven degrees of longitude and four of latitude (three for the four states immediately to the east). Some boundaries are set by landmarks which may be ephemeral – the circle in the Delaware/Pennsylvania border, centred on a spire in the town of New Castle; the Texas/Arkansas border running due south from a point 100 paces west of the southwest corner of the Fort Smith garrison building; the section of the Maryland/Virginia border which was supposed to align with Watkins Point, which had however been eroded into oblivion by the time the surveyors got there. And a lot of the colonial-era boundaries were badly surveyed, with mutterings that local settlers bribed or confused the surveyors with moonshine.

It struck me that there were several cases of states voluntarily giving up territory, on the grounds that it was impossible to control from the state capital due to geography and therefore would be better handled by a neighbouring jurisdiction – this is the explanation given for Washington shedding the gold fields which became part of Idaho, and for the trimming of the town of Boston Corner from Massachusetts to New York. That’s rather different from the approach to territoriality I am used to elsewhere – it speaks to a trust that neighbouring jurisdictions could handle one’s own troublesome citizens better. Armed conflict over territorial aggrandisement was very rare, the 1836 Toledo War between Ohio and Michigan being the most recent example.

Though I do wonder if it’s true if, as reported here, those of the original colonies with claims west of the Appalachians surrendered them to the new federal government fairly smoothly, apart from the westernmost bits of Virginia and Connecticut’s Western Reserve (now in Ohio). I also wished Stein had gone into more detail on the secession of Vermont from New York and of West Virginia from Virginia – I know that he left out some interesting details from the latter and I had hoped to learn more than I did about the former.

Since Stein covers all fifty states, and the Dictrict of Columbia, in alphabetical rather than historical sequence, there is a fair bit of repetition (the Watkins Point story is told in the chapters on Virginia, Maryland and also Delaware). But it’s all lucidly done and nicely illustrated with clear maps.

Maybe someone should do a book like this on the borders of European countries. I have sometimes asserted that most of them were formed as tide marks in the ebb and flow of empires; maybe that proposition can be proved one way or the other.

Posted in Uncategorised

January Books 12) Only You Can Save Mankind, by Terry Pratchett

One of Pratchett's earlier YA novels, about a 12-year-old boy who is an enthusiastic player of computer games, which was very much enjoyed by my 12-year-old son who is an enthusiastic player of computer games. Although Pratchett apologises in the introduction of the 2004 edition for how the story has dated since the original 1993 publication, I didn't spot any gross problems in that regard (and my expert advisor tells me that only the mention of Atari is particularly dated, plus perhaps old-fashioned descriptions of Nintendo).

Anyway, it's the story of what happens when the creatures in the game start to interact with the players as if they were real being living real lives and dying real deaths; and Pratchett injects it with his characteristica humanism, humanity, passion and humour. Very entertaining, and I now realise that perhaps the only gaps in our Pratchett library are the other two books in the Johnny Maxwell series.

Posted in Uncategorised

Scotland the Brave

I’m agnostic tending to positive on Scottish independence, and have been observing with great interest the current successful manoeuvring by Alex Salmond (see excellent interview by David Rennie)to put himself in pole position to win a vote which in fact is currently opposed by a majority of the Scottish population. As points out, the referendum, whatever the question, really could have any result at this stage; and I suspect that Salmond would be content with “devo max”, but also reckons that if Westminster forbids him to put it on the ballot paper he will benefit from a backlash of resentment. Certainly some Scots Unionists have already given up.

From where I am sitting in Brussels, the interesting thing is the consequence for the relationship between Scotland, the remnant UK of England Wales and Norn Iron, and the EU. The only serious study of this that I am aware of (discounting any statement from any politician anywhere, of course) is a House of Commons research paper which comes to the sensible conclusion that nobody really knows what the consequences of Scottish secession would be vis-a-vis Brussels. If I had to bet, I would expect that the least difficult option, of treating both Scotland and the remnant UK (rUK) as inheriting the current UK membership, keeping all the British opt-outs as long as they want to, is the most likely. There will be objections from the likes of Spain, worried about the demonstration effect, but in the end if a sovereign state becomes two sovereign states by legal means, it’s not really anyone else’s business.

An independent Scotland would have the same number of seats in the European Parliament as Ireland, Finland, and (soon) Croatia, currently 12. The rUK might well get away with keeping 72 seats, ie more for England and perhaps Wales (not Norn Iron which is already over-represented), as its population shifts from just ahead of Italy to just behind. All the EU acquis is already Scottish law. I can’t see any formal problem.

Where I can see a problem, as hinted at in this AFP article quoting anonymous EU sources, is that the necessary renegotiation of the rUK’s relationship with the EU following Scottish independence will necessarily be so huge that it must trigger the 2011 European Union Act requiring a referendum on any significant Treaty change – and if it doesn’t formally do so, the political pressure to have a referendum on the new terms of rUK’s EU membership will surely be overwhelming. And unlike the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, the outcome of any UK or rUK referendum with the word “Europe” in is far too obvious. In my view, one of the unexpected by-products of Scottish independence may well be that the rest of the UK leaves the EU entirely.

Posted in Uncategorised