Review ratings

I've started posting reviews of books to this blog. I might also start reviewing other things. I'm going to try to give everything a rating out of 10. Calibrating these might take a while, so I might come back and revise some early ratings as things settle down. I'd like to be quite stringent: there's enough really good stuff out there that one need not spend any time on anything less, so ratings should discriminate quite finely between "Good" and "Excellent". Roughly speaking, this is what I'm aiming for:

0/10This has caused me lasting damage.
1/10What is this? What language is it supposed to be in? What was the point of it? Do people read it for fun? Please, somebody, make it stop!
2/10Never waste time on anything like this again.
3/10Amateurish twaddle. How did this make it out of the slush-pile, and how did it get published in this state?
4/10A waste of time.
5/10Neutral. Some worthwhile features, but requires wading through a certain amount of garbage.
6/10OK. Flawed, but not fatally. Would not be averse to trying something else by this writer.
7/10Good; recommended. May well re-read, nominate, vote for, etc. Will probably read any sequel and consider related work.
8/10Very good.
9/10Excellent. Will re-read, and immediately seek out other work by this writer.
10/10Top quality; possibly life-changing. Everyone should read this at once.

Book: Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

[because I have long admired my old friend Nicholas Whyte's amazingly dedicated bookblogging habit, and because this year I find myself with more time on my hands, and because ghost towns are fun and interesting]

I bought a few Tor books on Friday, including Old Man's War by John Scalzi, which I should probably have read years ago. It was fun in parts, and a little thought-provoking, but ultimately disappointing. A few instant gripes:

- it's parochially American, to an absurd degree. Almost everyone in it is American and English-speaking. Here is a list of spaceships, "traditionally named after midsize cities": "the Little Rock, the Mobile, the Waco, the Muncie, the Burlington". I can recall a single non-American minor character, a Peruvian. It's mentioned in passing that people from some other countries get to be colonists (rather than soldiers): "India and Kazakhstan and Norway, where they can't support the population they have". I'm sorry, what? It's made clear in the recruitment office that the CDF deal applies to many Earth nations. So where are they?

- it's set over 200 years in the future, but Earth (the little we see of it) is basically unchanged, culturally, technologically, or socially. I get that the Colonial Union is probably suppressing some stuff [we will doubtless find out more in the sequels] - in particular scientific and technological progress, but this is too much, and in places it's borderline ridiculous. Will some company be trying to build a SubAtlantic Rail in 2250? Doubtful. Will that company be called General Electric? Pfft.

- In contrast the Colonial Union and the CDF have various sorts of magic technology, but they still use ground troops for most operations, including ones which are basically genocidal, or which are intended to degrade fighting or cultural capability. This is crazy. Where are the drones? Where are the nukes and other WMD? Where are the orbital kinetic munitions?

- The CDF use cloned super-soldiers. Why are they also using regular grunts?

- The old people are not convincingly old. They're just not.

- Ultimately "meet strange new people and cultures, and kill the sons of bitches" is not my kind of book.

- Some sloppy editing, enough for me to notice and care. "rooted for a towel in the wardrobe, flicking on the small light in the wardrobe to see. In the wardrobe hung my and Leon's recruit suits". Yeah, OK, we get it, you're in the wardrobe. I didn't bookmark it, but at one point "I, foo, and bar did something". This stuff grates.

As I say, I did have fun reading this book (and it's a great relief from the astonishingly poor stuff in the Hugo voter packet), but I doubt I will be picking up the sequels.

On my new and untested rating scale, I give this 6/10.

European ballot

A poll card comes through the door, along with a smattering of xenophobic rants from UKIP. It seems there is a european election coming up. My region (the South East) elects 10 MEPs, using the D'Hondt method of proportional representation. But who to vote for? Well, the BBC has this rather useless list. The European Parliament information office has this slightly better one [PDF] (but that took me much longer to find). Anyway, all these resources have to be even-handed between the fifteen (!!) parties, so here's my personal run-down. In the D'Hondt system I only get to cast one vote (unlike in STV systems I can't put any sort of ranking on the ballot paper). But here's my list in order of preference:
  • Green Party: Sound. Anti-austerity, anti-carbon, anti-privatisation, pro-social justice, pro-progressive taxation, pro-NHS. Maybe completely unelectable in the current climate, even in the regional PR system.
  • Loonies (left). Ranked ahead of Labour, on the basis of having their hearts in the right place and not including any war criminals or Thatcherites.
    • The Peace Party: Hippies. Non-violent, green, socially and economically left. Unelectable of course, and a bit loony, but at least their appeal isn't entirely based on xenophobia and hatred. Obviously much better than, say, the Tories.
    • Socialist Party of Great Britain: More than a hundred years old, Marxist, anti-Leninist, anti-war, and hopelessly exclusive. You have to pass an exam in order to join. Sigh.
  • Loonies (unclassifiable). Still ahead of Labour. It's good to see diversity and alternative thinking about politics.
    • The Roman Party: This is one French bus-driver, Jean-Louis Pascual, who lives in Reading. He doesn't seem to have any policies. Good for him.
    • YOURvoice: Appears to be a couple from Petersfield and their friend from Weston-super-Mare. Differently crazy, they are trying to do a web-based direct democracy thing: issues get posted, debated, and voted on their website and then their elected representative(s) act accordingly. Or, you know, would, if they had any.
  • Labour Party:Back in the day I would have campaigned for a dog wearing the red rosette. Then they turned into Thatcherites and I cut up my membership card. Then they took us into an illegal war and I stopped voting for them. Not many war criminals in their top ranks any more, and in a first-past-the-post election I might hold my nose. Perhaps.
  • Liberal Democrats: Oh dear, oh dear. Obviously I can't vote for anybody in bed with the Tories. Or for anybody so hopeless at national politics. Before the 2010 election they had some sound policies and seemed to be serious about social justice and environmental issues. Now Nick Clegg looks like a victim of domestic abuse. At least they're pro-EU.
  • Conservative: "No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. He is a very good salesman. If you are selling shoddy stuff you have to be a good salesman. But I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were. " - Nye Bevan, 1948. Nothing has changed since then. Nothing can ever induce me to vote Tory.
  • Loonies (xenophobes, racists). Lower than Tories? Is it possible? Yes, it is.
    • Christian Peoples Alliance:Loony, pro-life, anti-gay, anti-EU, Christianists. But distinctly left of centre on economic matters and strong on social justice, which does put them ahead of the other xenophobic parties.
    • English Democrats: Loony English federalist nationalists: English Parliament, compulsory English flag-flying, etc. Anti-EU, "ending mass immigration", Closet racists, without a doubt, but at least English nationalism is interesting, in a "what would the world be like if we had a federal England" way. So not all the way down in the gutter.
    • The Harmony Party:No website. Appears to be two blokes from Hastings. "Zero immigration, anti-EU, pro-jobs."
    • Liberty GB:Loony xenophobes. "Mass immigration", "fundamentalist Islam", yadda yadda. Anti-EU, anti-ECHR. Their website actually works, which is a worrying sign.
    • An Independence From Europe: UKIP splinter, formed after Mike Nattrass was deselected and then suddenly noticed that Farage is, erm, autocratic.
    • UKIP: Properly dangerous, because electable. I should be glad that they are stealing mainly Tory votes, but in fact I am deeply worried about the way they have shifted the Overton window so far to the right.
    • British National Party:Racist thugs. It's rather surprising to me that these scumbags still exist. I won't even link to them.

Christmas morning, 1953

From Dad's memoirs:

"For the Christmas holiday (or Vacation from University) I worked until Christmas Day for the Post Office in the market place, sorting and delivering mail. Again, the pay was very poor, and based on age (a thirty year old Army Sergeant earned twice as much as I did) but the practical out-and-about work was more to my taste than ledgers in offices. The franking machine would feed through letters into a collecting box. One day the sergeant sent about 500 letters through without the collector being in place, and they went everywhere. I see in the Wells Journal a long-running debate on the future of the sorting office; I wouldn't be surprised if some of the letters are still there! On another occasion I held up the last train to Bristol for about thirty minutes. The mail was taken to the station for the last train and one evening just before Christmas I found a label which appeared to have come off of one of the many mail bags. An unlabelled bag was a heinous crime so about four of us rushed down to the station and unloaded and then reloaded all of the bags. We didn't find an unlabelled one but we got an hour's overtime! One day delivering mail I found I was posting registered letters into people's letterboxes just like Christmas cards. This was wrong so I took them back; the supervisor had forgotten to ask me to sign for and get signatures for them. Christmas morning 1953 I was delivering mail up Milton Lane and finished, overlooking the quarry, as dawn was breaking."

The Mystery Box

A very geeky post; skip if you aren't interested in old gadgets
Since I moved into my rented house in Staines 4 years ago, I've often wondered about the Mystery Box. The Mystery Box is about 30cm x 45cm x 10cm, and is mounted on one wall of the living room of my rented house in Staines. It's painted white, and has a switch and a control knob on the front, but has no visible identifying marks or branding. The Box is silent, cold, and appears inactive. Neither the switch nor the control knob seem to have any effect. At the prompting of my friend Alex Atkins, I finally took the cover off and found ...
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April Fool

I'm sure my friends Anne and Shaun Atkins will understand when I say I hope that I don't have to confide in them in future. The plain fact is, having fallen for yesterday's spectacular April Fool's Day prank by their daughter Bink and myself, they will never believe me again.

A few background facts: Bink and I have been close friends for more than five years, and when we first knew each other our names were occasionally "linked" – I used to describe myself as Bink's "inappropriately older man" (being nearly 20 years her senior). We are exceedingly fond of each other, and this closeness is often mistaken for something more. I have also grown close to her family, a ragtag band of alcoholic misfits and ne'er-do-wells who are fine company: intelligent, witty, charming, and kind. As Anne's readers will be aware, they value and exemplify English traditions of courtesy and hospitality. Bink's older sister Serena is to be married this summer (read all about that here), and Bink has been somewhat anxious about the bridesmaid's dress which is being made for her.

I have come to stay with the Atkins family in Bedford for a few days, with the intention of commuting over to Cambridge to show my face in the office. I mentioned a couple of times on Sunday evening that I had been called to an emergency meeting on Monday (a public holiday in the UK). Then after supper I said, "Shaun, will you be free in the morning? I'd like a chat with you, before I head off to this meeting. It's quite important, and I'm too tired to talk about it now." Shaun innocently agreed, and the stage was set.

On Monday morning I had terrible stage fright, but summoned up the courage and tapped on Shaun's bedroom door. In a highly charged and emotional five minutes, tongue-tied and blushing, I explained that over the years of our friendship Bink and I had grown very close, that I was very conscious of my many handicaps as a suitor (age, divorce, children), but that despite them I felt that I ought to propose marriage. Being aware of the value the family places on tradition, I wanted Shaun's blessing before I did so. Could he please speak to Anne about it today, and perhaps we could talk about it further in the evening? Only, I have to dash off right now to get to my meeting. KTHXBAI.

Knowing myself to be a terrible actor, I felt sure that Shaun would see right through this and the whole plan would be a damp squib. As we drove off to my fictional meeting, Bink and I were astonished and a little daunted, as this initial success meant that we had to go through with phase II.  Obviously Anne and Shaun couldn't approve such a mismatch for their daughter, but how would they break that to me?  And could we reverse their opinion with another bombshell?

We stayed out for most of the day, and equipped ourselves for the denouement.  When we returned, we rather expected the gaff to have been blown and to face some dastardly counter-prank.  But no: Shaun had been out all afternoon, and now they were both sequestered in (yet another) logistics conference for Serena's wedding.  We had to wait until about 7:30 for Bink's turn.  She asked her mum for a quiet word (on which I was able to eavesdrop using the handy intercom system the Atkinses need for communication in the vast warren of their beautiful house).  How much had already been spent on her bridesmaid's dress?  Wouldn't it be possible for Bink to wear a suit instead?  She didn't want to wear the dress.  She couldn't wear the dress!  She didn't want to say why.  She hates it when people stare at her.  The dress wouldn't fit.  Because, because, ... because she's pregnant!  About 15 weeks, probably.  Who's the father? Why does everybody ask that? Nick asked the same thing!  Why does it matter? What was she going to do?! She couldn't bear to tell Shaun: couldn't Anne tell him?

Again, we had underestimated our abilities for deceit, and this news was taken at its shocking face value.  Happily Anne suffered neither a stroke nor a heart attack, but as she fetched Shaun to break this news, and Bink excused herself to come upstairs, we were both genuinely concerned that we'd gone too far.  The only way forward was to skip rapidly to the final scene.  Bink donned the astonishing ring we had picked up in Claire's Accessories and we burst into the silent space between Anne and Shaun.  They had each just broken their news to the other: were they facing a shotgun wedding?  Twenty years of accelerated grandparent duties? Would Anne's career have to go back on hold for another decade? "Mum, I told Nick that I've told you and he's proposed!  Look!"

IMG_0859The icing on the cake was surely that Anne didn't have her spectacles, so for several more seconds this, um, remarkable ring was all too convincing. It was only after Bink was enfolded in a maternal hug, and we were warmly congratulated, that the reality sank in and the air turned blue....

Automated cryptic crossword solvers

Helen and I successfully completed yesterday's Guardian crossword. It wasn't especially difficult, but we are especially slow sometimes. I posted on FB, and was asked whether it would be quicker to write a program to solve crosswords. I was pointed to an automated solver for cryptic crosswords, and decided to try out the free trial version. Here are the results. I think it'll be a while before AI catches up with this quiet weekend pursuit.
Correct: top guess was correct answer
1A 1 - - 98% full Engineer in a car plant (6)
22A 1 - - 49% part A lack of publicity about illness? That’s OK (3,3)
24A 1 - - 85% good Order to reps in certain retail outlet (10)
6D 1 - - 94% full Actor takes time reading a play (9)
16D 1 - - 71% part Break a saucer? Dash it! (7)
Nearly correct: correct answer in top 8 guesses
4A 2 76% REBUFF 6% - Setback after spring floods (6)
9A 2 70% MEET 30% - Bugs running risk (4)
10A 4 13% HOVERCRAFT 7% - Reserve disappearing with this vessel? (10)
20D 5 75% CRESTS <1% - It supports lots of lines in port (6)
11A 6 28% GIBBET 3% - Outlaw hugging a Big Apple tree (6)
15A 7 98% KIEL <1% - Accommodation like leisure centre (4)
25A 7 27% BAIT 1% - A bit of humidity in the south of France (4)
13A 8 52% BUTTERFLY <1% - Fighter pilot with boat crew (9)
Guesses did include correct answer
5D 11 33% ANSWER <1% - Do without current correspondence (6)
23D 12 27% HINGE <1% - Private plaything entertaining same-sex couple? (5)
16A 17 24% FLIP <1% - Drink that’s put in the oven? (4)
2D 39 28% KARNA <1% - Cockney hurried, initially revealing name and rank (5)
Guesses did not include correct answer
3D - 34% INSIDER - - Church leader in Ireland not in favour of red (7)
12A - 61% GROINING - - Toad, ignoring Jack and Edward, chewed the fat (8)
17A - 5% ANOESTRUS - - Happy state suggests one with half of Guinness (9)
26A - 24% UPCAST - - An ecclesiastic high-up like a llama? (6)
27A - 46% THE LAW - - Copper reported parting words (3,3)
1D - 57% INCURVE - - Familiar ground following cut in postal service (7)
7D - 3% WILDCAT - - Cat basket finally grabbed by cardinals (7)
14D - 78% TOUCHDOWN - - Come to play cricket for Yorkshire city (9)
18D - 75% WHENCES - - Not affected as engineers (7)
19D - 84% REDHEAD - - Animal in revolutionary American prison (7)
Program refused to make a guess
21A - - - - - Worker not happy with reinforcement (6,2)
8D - - - - - Jellied eels for starters — seafood devoured by male model (4,9)

Book: Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach

I finished Deborah Moggach's "Tulip Fever" last night. This is a book which has been on my shelf for five or six years, and probably first arrived there because I have a passing interest in the Dutch tulip mania of 1636/1637, which provides the title, the backdrop, and a key plot mechanism for the book.

The Dutch at the time were the leading trading nation in the world, rich and becoming richer, and were busy inventing most of modern banking in order to manage that wealth. Tulip mania was a bubble market in tulip bulbs, fueled by the invention of futures and options contracts, and at its peak [a contract for future delivery of] a single rare bulb might cost as much as a house. It was made famous by the account in Charles Mackay's "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds", one of my favourite books, although Mackay sensationalized the story to a great extent.

Tulips take a decade or more to be grown from seed to flower - so breeding a new variety is a long process with uncertain outcomes - but grow in a single season from a bulb, and can be propagated from nodes which form on the bulbs, allowing an existing variety to be reproduced. They are also susceptible to viral infection which causes petals to grow in different patterns and shapes, yielding a huge variation in forms including extreme rarities. They were also quite novel at the time - they had only been cultivated in Europe for a few decades - and represented Dutch success, ingenuity, and care. The combination of these factors, with the wealth that was sloshing around at the time, made for a natural bubble. The bubble formed in mid-1636, after the bulbs for that season were lifted and could be readily traded. In September/October, the bulbs should be back in the ground in order to flower the following spring, and so the trade shifted from physical bulbs changing hands to futures contracts and then to newly-invented derivatives. That took the brakes off and prices shot up swiftly, until the crash in February.

Unfortunately Moggach ignores most of this splendid history for plot reasons (for instance, her bubble is already well-established at the start of 1636, and a late plot twist depends on a single bulb physically changing hands in mid-November). More seriously, the central romance in the novel is between two deeply unlikeable people - short-sighted, vain, selfish, deceptive, feckless - engaged in a vile scheme. When Jan neglects his student, I want the student's father - a butcher - to come around with the tools of his trade and exact bloody vengeance. When Sophia stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide, I long to push her in.

There's much to like about the book: rich descriptive prose, a vividly-realised and plausible society, a charming secondary romance between the two most likeable characters (which is almost fatally destroyed by the feckless central couple), some interesting reflections on the nature and pace of individual change. There's also quite a bit of art history - which may or may not be any more accurate than the economic history - together with a number of plates in my edition. But overall I'm disappointed.