Thief of Time - Terry Pratchett

Over the last few years my health has been up and down. And with it, my diet has varied. When I've been at my lowest, yoghurt is the nectar of the gods. A bit better, instant noodles or curry, and it works up until a Michelin starred restaurant meal sounds attractive.

Right now, I'm at the yoghurt-is-lovely end of the spectrum. The doctors in A&E think this might be due to my right lung being half-full of fluid, and I'm inclined to agree. They plan to do something about this, and I'm keen for them to do so. Until then, I feel a bit grotty.

My mental activites follow a similar spectrum. At the high end, complex projects and maths books. At the low end, well, sleep, basically. A notch above sleep, if I can read, I like to read a Terry Pratchett. The comparison with the food is unfair, because the Terry Practchett books aren't junk. They're accessible and don't need the post-grad part of my brain to work, and they're very good. I save them up for when I'm down because they cheer me up.

Thief of Time is early late Discworld, book 26 of 41. It's past the Jingo dip. The baddies are no longer the Dungeon Dimensions, they're the Auditors. The previously-alluded-to History Monks take centre stage here. While I'd not this read this book before, I read echoes of it, in that the History Monks were much better developed characters in the subsequent novels.

A fair number of the later novels (and a few of the earlier ones) approach big themes. I don't feel that's really the case here, which just feels a lot more like a jolly good story, and fairly character-driven at that. While Lu-Tze takes centre stage, Death and Susan take sizeable roles.

The big theme, if there is one, of the fungible nature of time in the Discworld, where it's treated less like an analogy for anything on our world so much as a retrospective authorial cover-up for the inconsistent chronology created over the last 25 books. I could probably pick out a few other smaller themes running through the book, but they're not particularly core, nor do they need to be.

What remains is the creativity, the jokes, the world-through-a-distorting-lens that turns out to be a carefully-aimed magnifying glass. It really is a most enjoyable book.

If I had to make a criticism, the structure of the book makes it harder to tie up the loose ends. Terry is usually very good at giving his characters their just desserts, and here I felt Unity was a little short-changed.

Still, I found the whole thing a great read, and rather nice comfort as I trudge through a low.

Posted 2023-11-28.

What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School - Mark H. McCormack

I pick up the occasional management book from charity shops, and a few years ago I read What They Teach You At Harvard Business School, so when this one turned up I thought it'd be fun to read it too.

Actually getting around to reading it has turned into this whole other project. My health issues mean that I've been a bit lower on energy, and while I've been working on various little projects I've not found much time to read. Last week I did not feel well and got really low on energy, to the point that I could only read, not work on other stuff, and that turned out to be an excuse to finish reading the book. Thankfully, since then my energy levels have recovered.

This book has a reputation as a business book classic, or at least the name's well-known. What I hadn't realised is that this was first published in 1984, so it's clearly got some longevity. Mark McCormack basically invented the world of sports management, initially by representing Arnold Palmer, and then building up from there into a huge empire. His business role has focused on negotiations, sales and people skills, so it's not really a surprise that that's the focus of the book.

In many ways, it's a quite personal book mildly masquerading as general advice. The title is apt - these kinds of people skills are generally poorly-served by MBA courses, and Mark makes the good point that MBAs often believe that their course has taught them everything, when in reality it's the start of learning business, not the end, and the real world, with real people skills, is the true test and place to learn. The book, unsurprisingly, prioritises experience over theory.

McCormack clearly believes in the "true character" of people - underlining it with a story of when he met Nixon, years before Watergate, and took a dislike to him based on his reading of Nixon's character. McCormack's clearly had a lot of practice reading people over his career, so I'm not really in much place to criticise his view, all I can do is look at how it fits with my super-amateurish understanding. And... yes, I guess. Throughout my career, I've taken a while to fit a pattern to people, but once I've got it it usually sticks pretty well, enough to convince me that it's more than confirmation bias. And it's taught me that there are some people to never, ever trust.

This "It's all about character" approach, and several other things that he says throughout the book, reminds me of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, which I found in a friend's house and read when I was, oooh, must have been about twelve or something. While the approach is "classic", the language is simply dated. Secretaries are "she", business partners are "he". Some other things have moved on. The section on doing people favours looks like an HR disaster in the world of bribes and gift policies (even if that's technically constrainted to government figures).

He keeps coming back to "don't react, act", which is pithy but not very transparent. It seems to mean a couple of things. From one side, it means "Don't take knee-jerk decisions, but think through your responses carefully". From another, it's about taking the initiative, finding the way to have control, in business dealings.

As I said earlier, it's personal experience disguised as general business advice, and it's really focused on industries build on reputation - effectively high-touch B2B business. On the other hand, some of the ideas can be reused for the internal politics of large corporations. The chapter on "Getting Ahead" makes this connection explicit.

A lot of the book comes down to "Do the obvious thing", but with a) the observation that so many people don't, and getting the basics down is an advantage, and b) some fleshing out of how to do these things well, complete with anecdotes.

He leans a lot into "intuition" around "taking the edge", but a fair amount of it reads to me like theoretical game theory, psychology and negotiation skills reinvented through practical experience. Against this background reading on negotiation, I found his take rather fun - a folk wisdom précis of the subject. It also reminds me that I'm probably too open in my approach to negotiation. I found the advice on negotiating from a position of strength to be interesting - how it can be a disadvantage, since it can lead to the other side being too defensive. He's keen on keeping the full truth hidden to allow for flexibility in negotiations. There's a short section on contracts that explains how to finesse the follow-up.

In many ways, this willingness to take the edge, to not be dishonest but obfuscate the truth for flexibility, seems to be the difference from Dale Carnegie. Mark is clearly out to play hard but fair, and is in to win at business, albeit over the long term. There's this vague feeling that being fair is less about being the right thing to do as just being the more effective business strategy in the long run!

He also makes no bones about the need to work hard to achieve the kind of business success he has had. He works 80-90 hours a week - quantity of work is a big factor, and stamina underrated. Perhaps the book is less trying to teach you "what you can't be taught at business school", so much as a guide to the skills you need to learn during work.

As the book moves from "People" to "Sales and Negotiation" (he's a big fan of timing and silence) to "Running a Business", it moves down into the nitty-gritty. It feels to me like much of the sales stuff is semi-obvious advice about being thoughtful and personable. I did find the advice about timing interesting. At work there have been projects where someone has been agitating for them for some time, and a year or two later it gets prioritised, and they go "Finally! Why didn't they listen earlier?", when it's quite possible that actually it's just the right time to do the project now.

The fact that this is a book from the '80s means that some of the stories look funnier in the long-term. Citing the development of IBM's PCjr as a success story does not come across the same way today! On the other hand, some things feel annoyingly prescient (or at least timeless). The advice not to take defensive action because of doomsayers (again, act rather than react) fits well with the failure of Google+, and highlights the difficulties around Google's Cloud and AI strategies (compared to e.g. search and email). Compare this to Apple's strategy.

The balance I alluded to earlier between acting like a negotiator where people will be willing to come work with you again, and still ruthlessly seeking that competitive edge, comes to the fore later in the book. In one case, he describes kindly redirecting clients he doesn't want to competitors that he's sure he can steal them back from, should their careers take off! He's also very clear that internally, he reserves the right to be arbitrary, and make decisions that are for the good of the business, rather than fair.

The tail of the book is about "getting things done", and some of it even overlaps with Getting Things Done, with TODO lists organised by time, location and person. He's extremely keen on strong time management, time-boxing everything, and it's fascinating to see how much time optimisation he performs (vs. how I tend to optimise for keeping up to date on detail - a rather less scalable skill, I guess). He always travels when queues are shortest.

"Stick to your schedule" is a wonderful idea, but it works best if you're the boss, and is almost entirely impossible if you're in SRE.

The discussion around decision-making and handling memos is fascinating. He's an intuitive decision-maker. He sees how too much data can cloud a decision or be used as post-hoc justification, but it seems his approach is to just be intuitive, rather than really learning to master data, which I guess is a lot easier with accessible computing power. "Memos" have been utterly changed by the advent of email, and some of the advice still sticks while other advice no longer makes sense. It's also a reminder that there are whole departments that have disappeared, like copy centres and typing pools.

A final flag of how the world has changed since the '80s is that the final chapter is on entrepreneurship, which was not assumed to be the default mode in the '80s. Nowadays, even if you're working in a big company, you want to pretend you're some kind of internal entrepreneur. Treating it as a specialist topic is actually rather refereshing.

At the end of all this, there's an epilogue, based on the behaviours of the very top sports people, that is basically "To be the best, you must never be satisfied." It's probably true, but it's very depressing: If you're very, very, very good, you get to be unhappy. Personally, I try a weaker, but more satisfying approach: Doublethink! I really try to appreciate what I do have, and the successes of life, while also looking out for how to improve in the future. Sometimes it works. :)

Is this a good book? I'm not sure. It's more specialised than you might want it to be, and a lot of the advice is prone to go in one ear and out the other. I don't think it's bad advice for the goals it sets out to achieve, and it is great as a brain dump of a very successful businessman, but to convert the advice into significant changes in working style would likely take an awful lot of self-discipline. The temptation to read it, let it wash over you, and move on, is high.

Posted 2023-11-13.

RHS The Little Book of Bonsai - Malcolm Hughes and Kath Hughes

Bonsai seems a particularly stupid hobby for me to pick up now, something that requires long-term commitment to get returns from. However, my daughter and I were admiring the bonsai in a garden centre, both rather liked it, and it seemed like something we could do together. I little while later, I ordered a tiny tree, and later still some books on how to maintain it!

My daughter is naturally pretty green-fingered, but I think bonsai will be an interesting challenge, due to their specific nature. The fact that they're simply full-size trees being maintained to be small requires their own techniques, and the shallow trays they grow mean that they can require meticulous watering. So, a basic how-to book seemed in order.

That's this book. Coming in at 140 pages with a simple art style and backed by the RHS, it looks like a solid intro. While not aimed at children, this little hardback still looked accessible. I took a read through before handing it over, and that remains my impression.

The historical introduction seemed a little heavy-handed, I do hope it doesn't put her off, but after that it seemed pretty solid, with an introduction to the core techniques and a summary of the major bonsai-able species. I ordered another The Little Book of Bonsai for myself (same title, different author), so maybe in a few days we'll have a comparison point, but until then, yes, I guess this is a little book of bonsai.

Posted 2023-06-18.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents - Terry Pratchett

I originally intended to read Martin Amis's Money during this chemo cycle, but it turned out to be... slightly harder work than expected when being dosed up with cytotoxins! A Discworld novel, in retrospect, seemed more my speed. Not just a Discworld novel, but a Young Adult one at that.

How bad could this be? Well, I enjoyed reading Truckers and friends back at the time, but... I was very specifically in the target market when I first read it! How would I find reading this now?

Terry's Young Adult (Who are we kidding? We're talking early teens at best. Anyway.) writing voice is clearly distinct from his full grown-up writing, and not as fun. Generalising from a set of two things, there are a lot of patterns shared with Truckers. We have tiny creatures trying to get along in the world of humans. The rats Peaches and Dangerous Beans look very much like copies of Grimma and Masklin, although the latter's role moves to Dark Tan later on. The nomes, sorry, rats, are trying to discover a world of ideas beyond plain survival, with the leads working out how to gently take leadership away from the elders lost in a new world. And there's the light probing of the ideas of religion.

The Young Adult nature goes beyond the simplified themes. The key viewpoint rats are young grown-ups, but the key humans are literal kids. The Discworld, in this novel, is an almost normal place, with a light smattering of magic that is just what everyone's used to. Maybe this is partly because it's set in the Uberwald, without the intensity of Ankh Morpork. We are close to, but not quite at "no-one dies". This is not a Vimes novel.

Having said all that, the key plot is a decent Terry Pratchett one. The hook is that they're fake rats for a fake Pied Piper, introducing and relieving towns of rat plagues for a very reasonably price, but it quickly moves beyond that to investigate the multi-layered mysteries of Bad Blintz. I do not feel short-changed in the plot department, even if the usual joy of reading isn't there.

Following this in Young Adult Discworld novels is the Tiffany Aching witches sequence. In the past I've enjoyed the witches books, so I'm really hoping the YA version is a little more inventive than this book.

Posted 2023-06-03.

Geometry Snacks - Ed Southall and Vincent Panaloni

It's a bit embarassing how long it's taken me to get through this little book of 53 geometric puzzles. Described as "Bite size problems and multiple ways to solve them", that's exactly what it is. A gift to me from a good friend during the early days of tough times, I think it's taken me more than 18 months to get through them!

They're neat little puzzles, of varying difficulty, but mostly of the kind that you can probably do in your head on a good day, moving up to a few minutes with pen and paper at the end. And this was my downfall! After a decent start, I mostly did try to do them in my head, and not necessarily on good days, and got stuck. Promising myself I'll have a pen and paper next time I look at it, my progress has been very slow but rather enjoyable. Having finally made the effort to have the book and pen and paper at the same time, I've managed to polish the book off.

There are 5 chapters: "What fraction is shaded?", "What's the angle?", "Prove it!", "What's the area?" and "Sangaku problems", each with a different focus. There is a bit of difficulty graduation to it, so there are some you can just pleasantly eyeball, and others where you need to work at it a bit. The puzzles are nicely varied, asking you to work out quite different things; this is not a repetitive book.

The business with "Multiple ways to to solve them" hints at the fact that most puzzles can either be brute-forced or a neat shortcut can be found. The shortcuts are mostly pleasing. There are a few puzzles where I found myself at a loss for an elegant solution, bashed my way through and... yeah, I don't think their answer was elegant either, to be honest! Not all cute puzzles have cute solutions. On the whole, though, my backstop of plugging things into equations and solving for Cartesian coordinates was not necessary. Symmetries get you a long way.

The book itself is published by Tarquin, in that funny space of semi-amateur maths books. The production quality for such books can be... variable, so it's very pleasant for it to be so neat and well-produced. It's very fun, and reminds me of what I'm so happy the whole space exists.

Posted 2023-05-24.

Emily Post's Table Manners for Kids - Peggy Post and Cindy Post Senning

A short book about table manners aimed at kids is about all I can manage today. I'm in the trough of the sixth round of chemo and feeling pretty naff; this is as challenging as it gets for me!

And... it's a coincidence. I'd ordered it a while ago, and it just happened to turn up today. You'll not be surprised to learn that I didn't actually order if for me, but for our kids. On the other hand, I wanted to take a read through it before handing it over. It's an American book, and table manners can be a little bit different there, so I wanted to check it out. It turns out good manners are still pretty consistent across the Atlantic. The biggest gap I could find is them calling their main course the "entrée".

Maybe you shouldn't be rude about your children in book reviews, but my children do have horrendous table manners. Partly they still think it's funny to act like a baby as they enter their teenage years, but they also don't seem to understand that you shouldn't just start wandering around in the middle of a meal. I blame the parents.

This book... doesn't help with that. Apparently it's too basic to even bother writing this stuff down. So my hope is that by setting some higher goals they'll maybe also cotton on to the basics. We shall see.

Why did I even order an American manners book with an impressively slow lead time? Mostly because the options are otherwise really poor. I did the usual Amazon research, and the UK options weren't great. Many of the US options were self-published piles of junk from Moms who reckon they know something. Quality-wise, this book was in a different league.

So, to the meat of this review: It is a good book. When it arrived, my wife picked it up, flicked through, and... kept reading. Eventually, she said "This is a good book." This is not normally how it goes.

It's a short, light hardback of 100 pages. The text is not dense and it has a decent number of cartoons. It is targeted well at kids, and provides both the generalities of good manners as a way of not grossing-out your dining companions, and specifics of how to confidently handle e.g. cutlery and particular foods. It takes a child through a five course meal, but also guides how to behave in a food court or school cafeteria. It's just... incredibly solid. I love it.

As I said earlier, its baseline expectation of a reader is someone who gets the idea of good manners, and wants to improve. It doesn't explicitly explain how nobody wants to see the food go round your mouth as you chew. It has yet to be tested on actual kids, so I cannot give a real-world recommendation as yet. I am, however, very hopeful as I hand it over.

Posted 2023-05-23.

The Origins of Totalitarianism - Part one: Anti-semitism

This is a long, hard book. Indeed, very few books get multi-part book reviews from me, but I want to checkpoint this one given how long I've been reading it for. I'm now 160 pages into roughly 630 pages of dense text. I've been reading it on and off (ok, mostly off) since putting it on my reading list at the start of 2022. Unfortunately, my extended hospital stay left me wanting something lighter, so... it's a very slow process.

Why do I want to read such a fun topic? On the one hand, my interest in modern liberal democracy and the post-War order has left me wanting to understand better the other side: totalitarianism. On the other hand, recent moves towards populism, the hero-worship of deeply-flawed "strong men" in Western democracies and the the rise of more totalitarian tendencies in other countries has left me wanting a more direct understanding of totalitarianism. So, I'm reading this book.

It's divided in three: Antisemitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. Here, I'll be reviewing the Preface and Antisemitism.

And, to be fair, a bunch of this will be more a disjointed précis than review, since this a long, hard book with seams of fascinating insights.

The Preface draws attention to the lack of scholarly attention to crackpots (who, after all, became far too prominent in the lead up to World War II). When it comes to Imperialism, it's interesting to look at the situation as described in the book vs. now. While first published in 1951, the Preface dates from 1967, and at that point Japan was backward and flailing. I'm also intrigued as to how Imperialism is the step before Totalitarianism: Is it a necessary precondition, or may future totalitarian states jump there directly?

Moving on to the Preface's discussion of Totalitarianism, I was struck by the bluntness of one of Arendt's sentences that I'm looking forward to her eventually expanding on: "It is quite obvious that mass support for totalitarianism comes neither from ignorance nor from brainwashing."

It then has a fairly interesting diversion on China, and discusses Russia's lack of reliable record keeping: How not only did Russia publish fake stats about how well they were doing, but they were so detached from reality that real stats were apparently unavailable!

Finally, there's an interesting definition of totalitarianism: It's the genocidal phase. Arendt view the post-Stalin phase of Soviet Russia as not totalitarianism. I can see this as a reasonable definition and think it'll be interesting to read more later.

Moving on to the first chapter of Antisemitism, it explores the question of why antisemitism lead to totalitarianism. My instinct is that the Jews made a good Other, but it's not a unique Jewish thing, as backed up by genocides that have happened since this book was written, such as in Rwanda, Myanmar, and the cultural genocide of Uighurs.

Arendt makes the interesting point that Nationalism is supra-national. What is nominally about a particular country's pride in itself, is really very much about something else.

A little later she says "Wealth without visible function is intolerable". Historically, aristocrats ran things. They had unearnt power and wealth. That wealth be associated with the powerful seemed natural. Only when they lost their arbitrary power, and were just plain rich, did people resent them fully. Is it progress that we now resent the activist billionaires?

She makes the point that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was more important historically for the fact that people believed it was genuine, than for the fact it was a forgery.

She also wants to avoid the simple explanations that either the Jews were an arbitrary target or eternal victims. From my side, I'm wondering whether the Holocaust was something fundamentally new, or the logical conclusion of the industrial revolution coming to historically "hand-made" pogroms and terrors? I'm guessing the rest of the book will gradually address this.

The main thesis seems to be that Jews were importance as overthrown international bankers to nation states in the 19th century (such as the Rothschilds etc.). Whatever power was lost was retained in the imagination, making them an excellent target. This quickly wades into territory I know nothing about. Their status as people with a lot of money but zero political understanding made them exceptionally vulnerable.

This view of Jewish bankers as international baddies behind the national government reminds me unpleasantly of the scapegoating of the EU by people like Boris Johnson. Distant (preferably international) power is easy to blame for local concerns, and can rarely respond. A very useful tool of the nationalist.

Reading all this, I find it quite hard to understan how Jews fitted into society at the time, because modern life limits parallels: The Holocaust has changed attitudes, but moreover it killed millions - the prevalence of and nature of Jews in society will be different to the pre-war situation. It's clear that as well as the bankers, there were a lot of very poor Jews, perhaps making Roma the modern simile,

Towards the middle of this section, the book gets a bit bogged down. Big ideas are replaced by details, insight replaced by something more academic. At the same time, this is a book that makes plenty of assumptions of the reader. It's quite opinionated, and not only expects you know the basics of the subject, but that you know the context of everything it talks about. Seventy years later, this context becomes less clear.

Some useful insights remain, or can be extracted. The Jewish bankers represented something more like personal wealth than a modern banker does - more akin to modern billionaries. The book recognises that the setting for totalitarianism was not just, as history GCSEs like to pretend, World War I, but the politics of the late 19th Century. Politics are less visible in economically good times, but the undercurrents flare up in tough times.

Anti-semitism was not the same thing in the US, as Black people were the relevant out-group there. On the other hand, assimilation was happening in Europe, and this part was of some personal interest. My family name comes from German Jews of the mid-nineteenth century, and somehow we've assimilated into nth generation CofE public school attendees. As someone far less versed in it than I should be, the discussion around expectations of change and aspects of otherness in assimilation were fascinating.

The section on Antisemitism picks up towards the end, with a fascinating sketch of Disraeli (even if I have no idea how accurate it is), and a discussion of the Dreyfus affair. I was amused by the author's admiration of In Search of Lost Time, given how long-winded she is!

There are various interesting insights, from how blaming society (rather than individuals) for crime takes away responsibility, and enables the punishment of potential criminals. The author refers to how the leaders of the death factories were highly educated and had Jewish friends - strong echos of Good.

Arendt gets to the point of claiming that as Jewishness became vague (a consequence of assimilation?), the logical outcome was that the conclusion would be extermination, rather than simple punishment through regular laws. I don't get it. Maybe this will become clearer in the other sections?

Anyway, the Dreyfus affair. I initially wondered if it loomed larger when writing in 1951, and wasn't really that key, but she makes a good case. The affair covers the wider politics, not the court case(s) per se.

The backdrop to the Dreyfus affair was the Panama Scandal. In short (and badly summarised), politicians were bribed to support building of the Panama canal, until the private company involved went bankrupt, taking many middle-class investors with it. Some Jewish men acted as the middlemen between the (non-Jewish) businessmen and (non-Jewisham) politicians. They made convenient scapegoats, particularly as revelations were spun out by an anti-semitic newspaper, whose popularity grew with each new corrupt politician revealed.

The framing of Dreyfus was clearly an anti-semitic act. He was the first Jew on the general staff, and the Catholic church had a strong hold over the army, which also had a clique-y culture, strongly resistant to change. Both the Catholic church and the army acted as power structures independent of the civilian government.

Dreyfus's guilt was taken as the guilt of all Jews: minorities and the disadvantaged have no individual identity, but are representatives. The genocidal version of The vehemence of the reaction is pretty astonishing now.

There's a wonderful description of Piquart, the officer who brought the Dreyfus fabrications to light: "Piquart was no hero and certainly no martyr. He was simply the common type of citizen with an average interest in public affairs who in the hour of danger (though not a minute earlier) stands up to defend his country in the same unquestioning way as he discharges his daily duty." This, of the one man who whistleblew an army conspiracy and ended up being sent abroad into a dangerous role as thanks, before being arrested, fired and stripped of his decorations! I wish I could be as much of a not-a-hero as him.

Both Clemenceau and Zola risked a lot in publicly protesting Dreyfus's innocence. Fascinating to find them so much more than an elder statesman of World War I and a writer. That and it was a pleasure to read up on Clemenceau in Wikipedia and discover that he was arrested a couple of times as a young radical politian. So French.

The mob behaviour around the Dreyfus affair presented a foreshadowing of the fascism to come. Arendt distinguishes the mob from the general population they're supposed to be: The population wants genuine representation, the mob is a caricature of the population that wants to be represented by a strong man (another caricature).

The author notes that despite the anger, the Mob only became violent when faced with the suggestion that Dreyfus might be innocent. Shockingly, not only did anti-semitic mayors become elected, but some used their official positions to organise pogroms. The Mobs became highly-organised with hero-worshipped leaders. This was not spur-of-the-moment stuff.

The Jewish response was unhelpful. They were mostly politically unaware or naive, and did not recognise this as the wide-ranging attack that it was, almost preferring to not make a fuss. The assimilated Jews were some of the most anti-semitic, in order to fill into their new roles. I really don't like to put stereotypes on individuals, but this does rather feel like the approach of various current Tory cabinet ministers who are the children of immigrants.

The Catholic response was also interesting, as an internationally-united condemnation of Jews. It was widespread and consistent until Dreyfus was released, at which point the experiment was abruptly halted by Leo XIII.

And how did the Affair end? Farcically. The threat of an international boycott of the Paris Expo of 1900 focused a lot of political minds, and there were pardons all round for Dreyfus supporters and the violent anti-semitic mobsters alike. Dreyfus was pardoned, letting him go while continuing to ludicrously declare his guilt.

At the same time, the Catholics and the army both suffered a loss of influence, with the latter being pulled under civilian control. This messy ending sets the scene for the 20th century.

At this point, I should probably review the book versus my expectations. It assumes more than I was hoping for. It's more a personal thesis than an (trying-to-be) objective retelling of history. It is dense and long-winded, with flashes of intense insight. The footnotes are a frustraing mix of super-interesting insights and tedious references.

It is looking like the rest of the book will really be about the events of the first half of the twentieth century, with any generalised observations about totalitarianism being a side effect. I'm a little disappointed by this, I was hoping for more reusable concepts - as they say, history does not repeat, it rhymes. I want to understand the common patterns, and I feel focus on the specifics does not help my interests so well.

Having said that, I'm willing to plough ahead with the remaining 75% of the book, partly under the hope that it will increase in focus as it zeroes in on totalitarianism, and partly because those occasional flashes of amazing insight feel so worthwhile.

Posted 2023-05-17.

Bea Wolf - Weinersmith and Boulet

Don't tell anyone, but this is actually a present for a friend ('s daughter), and I read it before handing it over!

I never meant to get into the Beowulf. Old English epic poetry isn't supposed to be my thing, especially with all the macho heroics involved. And then discovering it was considerably supported by Tolkien, and well, whatever. However, the Headley Beowulf, taking a fresh perspective, really got me interested. So apparently I'm reading other translations now.

Bea Wolf is a (hardback) comic book retelling of part of Beowulf by the author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. How could it not be awesome? It's slightly odd that Weinersmith only provides the words, but... the art of Boulet is fantastic, and honestly fits the content so much better than the SMBC art style. The result is a rather lovely book.

The story is told from the perspective of rebellious children facing the wrath of the serious and boring Mr. Grindle, and the ever-present threat of growing up. And somehow this is a surpsingly good fit for the simplistic macho posturing of Beowulf, with the generation upon generation of violent men converted into weird kids.

Making this book a subset of the original story is an excellent idea, both in terms of keeping down the complexity, and carving off the tragic and self-destructive elements of the poem (which Headley, taking the feminist view, rather seems to revel in, to my enjoyment). The result is focused, but certainly not short. A great balance.

I've praised the art, but what about the words? Well, turns out Weinersmith is good with words. There's plenty of alliteration and kenning, giving it that Beowulf feel. The sweets and toy swords are both a funny translation of the treasures and weapons, and yet somehow just as real as the versions people died over. There is a gravity to his childhood.

All in all, I found this a lot of fun, and really hope those receiving it enjoyed it as much as I did. Shush, don't tell them I read it!

Posted 2023-05-06.

Maskerade - Terry Pratchett

Back to the re-reads of Terry Pratchett. I've been very lax in writing this review. I think I must have read it a month ago, during treatment. Such is life.

It's peak Discworld Pratchett. The jokes are thick and fast, the plot is fun, it's... just really solidly put together. It comes across that opera (the subject of the book) is not really Terry's thing, but he takes inspiration from the passion of others, not entirely unlike Unseen Academicals dealing with football. And, as peak Pratchett, it does so effortlessly. I'd forgotten that a) it's a witches book (since it takes place in Ankh-Morpork), and b) how much I like the witches.

Weirdly, it's also something of a non-descript book. I'd forgotten so many details of it. Very little stands out per se. It's a little lost in the mid-cycle. Yet it's also very good. It doesn't have to be a unique masterpiece, it can just be consistent fun.

Posted 2023-04-01.

Eric (Faust) - Terry Pratchett

Back to the early Discworld, and the style is very different to late Pratchett, and still more like The Colour of Magic than Guards! Guards! (its direct predecessor). Maybe that's just a Rincewind novel thing; they were never my favourites.

If memory serves, this originally started off as a big, Kirby-illustrated book, but I've got the pictureless paperback. It's short, at 155 pages, and rather more like a stretched-out short story than a compressed novel. The usual Discworld plot arc is not present.

To be honest, it's surprisingly bleak (maybe Rincewind's world-view?). The book covers all of time and space for the Discworld, with the overwhelming theme of people being a bit rubbish and never improving. It's a bit of a contrast to the "in the gutter, looking at the stars" ideology of so many of his other books.

In many ways, the feeling of the book is surprisingly Douglas Adams, from the creation of the universe to its ultimate entropic death, all life evolving from an inattentive time traveller, fallible creators and more. Maybe a bit of throwback to Strata too.

The humour is Pratchett, but somewhat hit and miss at the early end of the series. A few too many "whore" homophone jokes. A tribe that invented wheels but... not using them as wheels? The idea of a "demonology hacker" is fun, but never goes anywhere beyond Rincewind having a rather cardboard cutout early in tow.

In other places, jokes of the slightest subtlety are then explained. Apparently he doesn't have the confidence yet to keep throwing jokes at the reader, and let them just catch what they catch.

Having said that, There are still sly little references that I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have got on the last read-through, like the "It can get so very lonely, when you're twenty million light-years from home." Rolling Stones quote. I always wonder how many others I miss. The universe popping into existence with a little musical twang feels very much like a microcomputer boot-up reference, although perhaps a little early in 1990.

Is this book any good? Not really. It's short, it got me through half a day in hospital. I can't complain too much.

Posted 2023-03-08.

wagamama Feed Your Soul

I have very lovely in-laws, and when I asked "Can you remember the recipe for that noodle salad you cooked for us a few years ago? It was so tasty, and I'd like to try making it.", they bought me a copy of this book!

Along with so, so many people, I love a nice plate of stir-fried noodles or rice. My all-time favourite noodle bar was Dojo in Cambridge, for a big pile of noodles before an evening at the Cambridge University Go Society meeting. Sadly I believe it closed in 2014 (a good decade after I'd last been there, to be fair).

Wagamama, though, isn't that far behind, plus has the convenience of being everywhere! Their pad thai might not be as tasty to me as their old recipe, but I still love their ginger chicken udon. While I've got very little hope of reproducing their recipes at home in full style, it's still nice to have a go.

The book is kind of what you'd expect - lots of lovely pictures, explanations of the ingredients they use and the wagamama corporate vision, and a solid body of receipes. Once you filter for recipes that you can be bothered to do on a regular basis, that you and your family like to eat, the relevant content is closer to a booklet, but it's still great.

Those remaining recipes produce some nicely balanced stir-fries, but they also work well as inspiration: They're quite tweakable for whatever you have to hand but also remind me to put in the touches that make it tastier. It leans to ginger over garlic, which works well, gets you to mix in eggs at the right time, and balance out the veg. Oh, and a garnish of sesame seeds and (DIY) pickled ginger lifts the most hum-drum stir fry.

I hope to find the time to try out a wider variety of recipes from the book, which is well put together and extremely appetising, but even just limited to the basic noodle dishes, it's been excellent, and my whole family has enjoyed the results.

Posted 2023-03-05.

Why I am a Liberal Democrat - Ed. Duncan Brack

I came late to liberal politics. Watching the Convservatives and Labour, it took me a long time to realise that politics doesn't have to be defined by class. It seems like "the opposite of fascism and authoritarianism" should be the baseline for any modern party, but apparently not. Then you chuck out the ones not rooted in reality or kindness (there go libertarianism and neoliberalism), and it's pretty much the liberals, and specifically the Lib Dems in the UK...

So when I came across a book about why various high-profile LDs are in the party in a second-hand book-shop, I thought "This looks fun/interesting". It wasn't. It's been head-of-line blocking my book reading for most of a year, as it's dull but I'm a completionist.

The idea is to follow up an 1885 pamphlet Why I am a Liberal with a modern equivalent. 120 of the great and the good from 1995 saying why they believe in the party. And, of course, being free-thinking liberals, there are plenty explaining why they don't really believe in the party, but it's the best thing they can find right now. Some believe more in Liberalism, some in the Liberal Democrats, with a careful distinction between the two. The wounds of Liberals/SDP are still visible.

With 120 entries, it's boring, but not hugely repetitive, since different people have their different hobby-horses, different things they believe most important and find in the party. Amusingly, some of them seem to be incompatible, as if the party is a Rorschach blob.

Some themes do come up with regular persistence. Jo Grimond is mentioned an awful lot - someone I knew nothing of before, but apparently hugely influential to a whole generation. I'm probably just badly educated. Around the same time there's much reference to the Liberals being the only party to take a principled stand on Suez, so there are some very clear formative events.

It's mostly political types, with a few successful business people. It was fun to see Barry Norman and Nicholas Parsons on the list. That doesn't seem like bad company.

The tail of the book republishes some of the original 1885 pamphlet. It's a strange contrast. There was a much bigger sense of a need for change, of urgency, in 1885. It's largely gone, but on the other hand, most of the aims have been fulfilled: We do live in a much more liberal society than 150-odd years ago. That's got to be progress, even if it took a couple of World Wars to get on the way.

It's also interesting to see which bits have stood the test of time. Several writers come across well, but Andrew Reid's entry pretty much looks like libertarianism now. It's always intruiging to think how history will judge your views. What is it that seems reasonable now that one day will seem ill-conceived? I wish I knew.

Posted 2023-03-04.

Open Circuits - Eric Schlaepfer and Windell H. Oskay

The danger of following interesting people on Twitter is that occasionally they'll publish a book. This is just such a case. Open Circuits is a collection of... well, component tear-downs, really. An extension of the kind of things they'd post to Twitter, it's a collection of glossy pictures of cross-sections of components.

This sounds so trivial, but it works incredibly well; it's so much more than the description makes it sound. By pulling apart electronic components, the black box is broken. The structure of simple components is revealed, and the complexity of complexs components exposed. The engineering involved in these components becomes apparent, how they're not just delivering the abstract value of "resistance", "capacitance" and "induction", say, but how they're physically laid out, and the quirks of how they're manufactured.

Covering a range of components, boards, cables, connectors, sensors and displays running from the historic(al) to cutting edge is fascinating - seeing the tiny slivers of semiconductor in discrete transistors and LEDs, the complex structure of flip-chips and modern PCBs, the detail present in modern cables and connectors, all fascinating.

The pictures are all lovely, and as the book is by expert amateur engineers, you assume there's engineering behind how they made the cross-sections. Of course there is, and there's an appendix on how they got the pictures; no hidden magic here.

The book is a joy. It has a coffee-table book quality, but surprisingly educational. It reveals a hidden world. It strangely reminds me of Underground by David Macaulay (more famously known for The Way Things Work). Lovely.

Posted 2023-01-14.

Good - C. P. Taylor

Warning: Plenty of spoilers. Don't read if you don't want big chunks of plot revealed.

Towards the end of last year, having recovered from my last lot of treatment, my wife and I went to see a few plays. Among them: Good, or as I like to think of it, "Doctor Who as a Nazi Apologist". Ahem. Well, David Tennant playing a "good" man who eventually ends up ensuring that Auschwitz is nice and humane. Mr. Tennant is excellent, but so are the rest of the cast - for most of the play there's only three of them, on a single, institutional set.

But hang on, why am I reviewing this in my book reviews? Well, a good friend gave me the script for Christmas, and... I do love a good play script, letting me dig through my memories of the play and study little bits of it, and generally have more of a think at leisure.

It's a great idea to put the play on now. With all that's going on in the world, it feels timely, and forty years after the last run means it doesn't have to suffer critical comparison with the previous showing from people who watched it then! The previous run had a much larger cast, with live music. This production strips it down to three core actors, and recorded music, in a non-descript set. There are minimal props - pretty much just books and documents, heightening the sense of how people hid behind words despite what was happening.

The minimal set and props helps with the fact the script jumps back and forth between scenes, effectively a collection of "How did I get here?" snippets on the way to The Final Solution.

It was far less subtle than I expected. I thought the play might gradually twist and subvert a genuinely good man, but he's pretty horrible. Sure, he's a liberal, but he's a pretty ugly specimen of a human being. He leaves his wife and children for a dumb student half his age, he is flattered into the Nazi party, he completely fails to help his Jewish best friend (instead, coveting his Summer house - which he gets!). He'll burn books as long as he can keep his own copies, and generally drop any principles he thought he once had.

The particularly grim thing is not that he's a good man turned bad, he's an ordinary man who wants to think of himself as good, who is clearly bad. It makes us wonder what we'd do in those circumstances.

Of course, there's more to it than that. There's a bit of a rumination on the meaning of "good" - Halder keeps using it to mean "nice" or "convenient". He hopes to be a good man, doing right by friends and family in a difficult situation, while ignoring the fact that he's betrayed both. He also faces genuinely tough times not of his own making - indeed, his guilt coping with his mother's senile dementia leads to him writing a novel favouring euthanasia... and hence to his popularity with the Nazis for providing a "humane" cover for their actions. He doesn't recognise that a literature professor is perhaps not the best medical ethicist, but just listens to the flattery.

He doesn't become a cartoon villain (despite donning an SS uniform and performing actions beyond anything suitable for a cartoon). A shred of liberality remains. He's never a true-believer in the Nazi cause, and keeps thinking they can just ride out the insanity. He is amply rewarded for his support, but is always quietly aware of the stick that awaits if he steps out of line.

Halder tries to find various excuses for the cowardice he shows, and the horrors he perpetrates. He tells himself he's making sure everything is done more humanely - and there's even revealed to be a shred of truth in this as, in passing, Eichmann agrees not to carry on with one of the "procedures" after "accidents". The Goethe scholar tries to reject reject "good" and "evil" to justify his behaviour. And, in a pattern that runs through the whole play, he uses words, concepts and abstractions to disconnect from the plain brutality of mass violence and murder.

The ending is inevitable but astonishing; mostly, though, my thoughts return to the earlier parts of the play: Halder's clearly a crappy man, but am I good?

I mean, this is probably the kind of question that you think a bit more about when you're going through serious illness, but I hope the play would have got me thinking about it anyway.

I think there was a time when I'd be unwilling to judge others too heavily - nature and nurture putting a heavy weight on some people, and social pressure being almost unavoidable. Did Nazi Germany mean we had a country of Evil People fighting a country of Good People? Surely that's too simplistic? My view was: Maybe everyone's capable of evil? If that's the case, can we really judge those who fell under its sway?

As time's gone on, and I've watched popular support build for politicians who trade in hate and degradation, it's clear that there's a mix - those who fall under the spell, those who resist, and those who don't rock the boat. Nazi Germany didn't need to be 100% evil people, the evil people just needed to be in charge. Just like the Allies didn't need to be all good, but just have enough good to hold sway.

Put another way, Evil sounds like a simplistic concept best left to childhood moral tales, but in the face of events like the Holocaust there's no shades of grey, this is the right term. Authoritarian regimes, mass murder, unilateral invasions, anything that crushes people as if they were meaningless numbers - these are evil.

So, to my surprise, I believe in evil. Do I believe in good? Good's tough. Evil is relatively easy - if you have the will, destruction is straightforward. How do you save millions of lives? Maybe you invent vaccines or set up a humanitarian programme. This seems a bit of a high bar. I don't just believe in immense evil, but smaller evil, so maybe I should be thinking about smaller good. What does it take to be good in a way that adds up across millions to make a better world?

Good shouldn't be purely the absence of evil. I hear "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing", and I think... if they do nothing in the face of evil, are they good men? On the other hand, the action required is not clear to me.

Working out what "good" is in the face of human beings is complicated. I have a relative who helps out in many local charities, but is caught up in the fear of migrants hundreds of miles away and actively supports the Conservatives who are hurting so many people. How do we quantify that?

I can't even look to "selflessness" as a key component to good - if everyone acts selflessly, you end up with O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, and in Good the the elimination of the Jews is justified by their selfishness (in not wanting to be eliminated). "If I am not for myself, then who is for me?" is not unreasonable. I'd be hard pressed to call "enlightened self-interest", in and of itself, "good" though.

Perhaps it's good to have no single definition of good. Much evil has come from certainty, and a pluralistic approach to good seems far better than puritanism. We can be sure some things are evil while letting people find their own good.

Anyway, apologies to philosophy students pointing to vast amounts of pre-existing work in this area. I've fared badly with historical philosphers (see my review of Russell's A History of Western Philosophy), who seem to prefer to be exactly wrong than approximately right.

This is not the outcome I expected, going into this play. I expected to be encouraged to see the shades of grey, the slide from "good" to "evil", but in the end it has encouraged me to keep the contrast clear.

Posted 2023-01-07.

Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett

It's been a while since I've read some Discworld, but this popped up in a second-hand bookshop, so I took the opportunity. It's a funny one.

It's clearly Late Discworld. The appearance of modern football on the Discworld is not seen as a risk that may call forth the Dungeon Dimensions, but something to be absorbed, like in the Moist von Lipwig books. Yet at the same time it doesn't at all feel modelled on our history, like in Making Money or Going Postal. Football is largely presented as organised violence, with plenty of hooliganism. Whether this is a commentary on Ankh-Morpork, or football, I don't know.

This kind of thing makes me wonder about why these subjects crop up in the Discworld. Is it because they've appeared on Earth, and the Discworld mirrors the Earth, or because the same concepts crop up across the multiverse? It never seems clear to me.

The rise of football is a little weird. Early on, you think it might be controlled by Vetinari, acting as Terry's stand-in within the universe to manipulate the plot into existing, but he denies repsonsibility. It seems to be some kind of magic, and there's a hint at the gods' involvement (and the religious experience of football), yet it never really comes to fruition.

Rincewind and the Luggage return as extremely minor characters, which is actually rather pleasant, since... I've got to admit, I never found them that great. The world was the initial attraction, and other characters have become favourites since. (Ironically, my favourites are Vimes and Vetinari, those who face their challenges head-on, unlikely the cowardly Rincewind!)

The book weaves together plots around football, fashion and the identity of the mysterious Mr. Nutt. The first two sub-plots are a little aimless and lack suspense, so the novel's really driven forward by Nutt's identity. The rest, well, it's just fun reading.

As always, there's plenty of that, with some lovely little jokes. Nutt, as the team manager, epitomises the deeply philosophical manager pulling complex meaning out of a popular sport. Elsewhere, the superhero trope is subtly mocked when a highly distinctive character is apparently completely disguised by a simple false beard. There are a billion jokes of greater and lesser subtlety.

In short, it's not particularly well put together, covering a subject I care little about in a lacklustre way. A mildly disappointing story in the hands of any other author, this was still pretty darn enjoyable.

Posted 2022-11-21.

Plays 1 - Tom Stoppard

Having read Arcadia and seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and enjoyed them, I jumped at the chance to pick this up in a charity shop. This volume covers The Real Inspector Hound, After Magritte, Dirty Linen, New-Found-Land, and Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth.

It's rather interesting to see the path connecting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Arcadia. The former is heavy on the wordplay, a bit Beckett, not really driven by plot or people, but really about ideas. Despite what non-scientists say, Arcadia is easy to follow, and has a lot more to do with plot and people, and is still really about ideas. Both feel serious in their own way. What happened in-between?

The plays in this book are, well, playful. If not downright silly. The Real Inspector Hound is a deliberately rubbish murder mystery mixed in with the story of the theatre critics. People love plays about plays. Stoppard views this as paired with After Magritte, which is a rather silly play about people explaining impossibly unlikely situations, with a side-helping of how different people can see the same event differently. Not that deep, but pretty fun.

Dirty Linen/New-Found-Land takes a rather different tack, being about MPs and civil servants in the houses of parliament. The former is about sex-scandals in the houses of parliament, a play of the slightly seaside postcard type (albeit rather knowingly) that feels a bit dated and heavy-handed now. New-Found-Land, dropped in the middle of Dirty Linen, is a rather funny little ode to the US, to celebrate the British naturalization of an American friend.

This pattern of paired plays continues with Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth which, while taking bits of those Shakespeare plays, is really about the idea of having two languages that overlap in words, but completely diverge in meaning. It feels a little clunky in Dogg's Hamlet, but the reprise in Cahoot's Macbeth works better for me. The latter playlet is a production of Macbeth in someone's living room, as was done under the Soviet regime when unapproved arts were repressed.

There is this theme running throughout the plays of police, inspectors, reports. Perhaps that's just the theme used to select the plays for this volume, so I'm not sure I can read much into it. Compared to Rosencrantz and Arcadia, I wasn't particularly impressed by this lot, but by the end I'd rather warmed up to them. Not everything needs to be a serious masterpiece, sometimes things can just be fun.

Posted 2022-10-09.

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (modern theatre guides) - John Fleming

I saw this while browsing a second-hand bookshop in Rochester, and snapped it up. This slim volume provides background and context for the play, some analysis, a production history, and ideas for workshopping. It really interested me because Arcadia is so rich and dense in themes and ideas. Having the opportunity to let someone else do some analysis and see how it compares to my own thoughts seemed attractive.

The background and production history sections, despite not being what I bought the book for, were very interesting, addressing angles I'd not really thought about before. Apparently Stoppard was a liberal (small c) convservative, at odds with the mainstream of socially-aware and active playwrights. A nice alignment with my Centrist Dad tendencies. Reviewers felt the play might be a bit inaccessible, with its references and scientific ideas. Partly, I think this underestimates the average audience (Review: Well, I get it, but the common theatre-goer might not!), but partly as a Cambridge STEM grad the science is light and simple.

The analysis itself doesn't so much open up whole new vistas to me as help explore themes I knew were there. Learning that the play itself was structured something like a chaotic bifurcation map was fascinating, and identifying the echoing lines throughout the play pulled out another strand. Stoppard's word-play is very evident, and you can see some form of wider structure, but the book helps identify the patterns at all levels.

There's a bit of discussion of the trend of "science plays", particularly in the '90s. Treating the idea of a play about science as unusual is extremely telling (but alas true). Science is... pretty much all the higher learning not labelled "arts and humanities". It's the other half of C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures. That there's no natural integration, but a playwright needs to dig deep and research in order to incorporate science into their repertoire, and it's unusual. We no longer have an expectation for polymaths - there's only one in the play, they're two centuries ago, and they have a bad end.

I found it interesting how Fleming's "arts view of science" identified the three big ideas of the 20th as relativity, quantum and chaos theory. Fashionable mistaken for truly important. While chaos relates the knowable to the unknowable in dynamic systems, I would place the more fundamental results on what is formally knowable on a much higher pedestal: Russell's Paradox, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and Turing's Halting Problem. Nonetheless, deterministic chaos is perfect for mild artistic misuse in a play like this.

This short book has no hope of pulling out every reference in the text. It's a dense play, and a full analysis would end up much longer (and less interesting) than the play itself. Indeed, in the workshopping section, many of the exercises focus on researching the various aspects of the play. There's also a short bibliography at the back, alongside the references (never has "The Genius of the Place, The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820" sounded so interesting!). Mostly, though, this volume has served to remind me how much I love Arcadia.

Posted 2022-09-19.

Retro-review: City Come a Walkin' - John Shirley

Shirley feels like a bit of an also-ran in the cyberpunk scene. This book gets a foreword by William Gibson, so I got to read it. Another book that didn't leave a lasting impression on me. I think it gets some credit for being written in 1980, and so kinda proto-cyberpunk. You could think of it as being a cyberpunk ghost story, or something. The plot is that all the unhappiness of the citizens of San Francisco are made flesh in the form of a person who then goes around messing with stuff. That's pretty mystical for cyberpunk, but, eh, San Francisco I guess. Maybe it's reassuring to think that San Francisco has always been a mess?

Posted 2022-09-18.

Retro-review: Zeitgeist - Bruce Sterling

Yet another Bruce Sterling book. Turns out I've read a few, which is quite odd since there are very few that I've enjoyed - and those that I have were short story collections.

This is at the silly end of the spectrum. It's not full Zentith Angle, but the plot of about a scammy entrepreneur trying to promote a fake girl band on the eve of Y2K. Obviously.

I often don't remember much of books I read 20 years ago, but I remember nothing of this book except the premise. That's how much it affected me. I don't even remember being disappointed by it.

Posted 2022-09-18.

Retro-review: Slaughtermatic - Steve Aylett

This is one of those post-cyberpunk millennial (well, '98), Tarantino-esque ultraviolent Cool Britannia jobbies. "A terrific read" says The Face. People will say things like "darkly comic". It's probably the most of-its-time book I've read from that period. Quite fun, if you like that kind of thing; I remember enjoying it, but I probably wouldn't go back.

Posted 2022-09-16.

Retro-review: Islands in the Net - Bruce Sterling

This is proper cyberpunk. You can tell because the cover has the title is written in neon orange against a green-on-black set of 3D grid-lines, along with an airbrushed picture of a woman looking concerned, wearing a lot of leather and too much eyeshadow, with exposed cleavage.

Except it's not really that cyberpunk after all. I read this long enough ago that I needed to get a refresher from Wikipedia. It's another rambling Sterling story where there isn't so much a plot as things happening to people.

The world is largely connected by a global Net, with peace and prosperity and stuff, but when a terrorist organisation assassinates an official, our coroporate protagonist goes to investigate, and ends up in places off the Net. In and out of war zones, third world locations, etc., it turns out that there are gaps in the stable world and you can have a bad time there. At one point she ends up in jail for a couple of years, disappeared in a place with no net access.

It all feels a bit meh, with a kind of existential pointlessness seen in Culture novels, although I'm not quite so sure it's deliberate here! I guess the big theme here is that even in a globally connected planet there'll still be the warzones and problem spots, but it's just not that interesting or surprising. The terrorists all feel a bit recycled '70s.

Reading that Wikipedia page, someone's come up with a list of "predictions" from the book, both come true and not. Given it's set around 2023, it's interesting to see how things panned out, although I'm extremely wary of confusing sci-fi with predictions for the future. Despite the Wikipedia entry, it's not really anything like the actual world. Copyright 1988, it fails to predict the fall of the USSR. The book's big threat is terrorist organisations, whereas we're still just dealing with aggressive traditional nations. On the technical side, there's, er, a global network and ubiquitous computers. I guess that's a prediction. Did that really seem far-sighted in 1988?

This is a book. It's sci-fi. You could read it if you want to, I guess.

Posted 2022-09-16.

Craft Beer for the Geeks - Richard Taylor, James Watt, Martin Dickie

In that pleasant little gap between recovering from my big hospital stay and my surprise shorter hospital stay, I looked around a surprisingly good little Foyles on the South Bank. I saw this, and, having got into "craft beer" via low/no alcohol beers while recovering from my ops, decided that this somewhat coffee-table book would be an interesting read.

This is "craft beer according to Brewdog", who have a somewhat... complicated reputation. Buying the book made me finally look up all the things I'd vaguely heard about. As well as the more recent "not fun work environment" allegations, their self-promotion and hype is something impressive. On the other hand, those running the place do seem to be very keen on making good craft beer, and promoting the wider industry.

"Craft beer" just came out of nowhere for me, as I'd not been paying attention for a decade-plus (it's a thing having children does). I'd heard a little bit about these American beers ages ago, but as Big American Brewing looked like a disastrous monoculture, and the country had no tradition of Real Ale, what could they possibly offer?

Turns out, bad mass-produced beer is a great incentive to start indie breweries, and while there's no Real Ale tradition, they found their own voice, and what they generated is pretty darn good. Like wine, they've stormed ahead as the traditions succumb to enthusiasm and science.

I'd never quite twigged how CAMRA and craft beer get on. Independently-produced, interesting beers that have never seen a wooden cask are a challenge, aligning with CAMRA on providing a quality alternative to mass-produced beers, but differing on how to do so. It looks like a difficult relationship, but feels generational. CAMRA was never cool, it feels like old men concentrating on history. Craft beer is cool and forward-looking, and someone somewhere (*cough* Brewdog *cough*) has done an absolutely excellent marketing job!

So within this framework, where does the book lie? Most cynically, it's amazing marketing, where I've paid to have advertising delivered to me. Less cynically, it's pretty interesting. Despite the "for Geeks" title it doesn't go into any real depth. Apparently it's the sequel to Craft Beer for the People, so I've accidentally bought the second book... but I don't think I've lost much.

The start of the book talks a bit about the brewing process, the ingredients, the science, a few different beer types, some pioneers in the field. It moves on to discussing recent developments in how people are experimenting with certain styles, illustrated with a few example beers to try. It then moves on to a mini cookbook, with recommended beer pairings (including a fair amount on the theory of beer pairing). It finishes off with a bit of a home brew section: The recipes for a bunch of commercial beers (Brewdog's and others), advice on a few more advanced techniques, and hints on eliminating various off flavours.

This contents list makes it something of a funny book. The audience for an introduction to the basics of brewing are unlikely to be the same people attempting complicated reproductions of commercial beers, and the overlap with those who enjoy cooking is not clear. I think this mix works pretty well, in that there's something for everyone, and even if you're not an active homebrewer or chef, they're interesting nonetheless.

The presentation is great. Brewdog are masters of making beer look cool, and this book is no exception. The combination of style and substance, combined with the authors' clear enthusiasm, makes a great case for why craft beer is interesting.

Posted 2022-09-14.

Retro-review: Cyber-killers - Ed. Ric Alexander

This lurid-looking sci-fi anthology from 1997 was clearly cashing in on the cyberpunk genre. It's got Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic in it, plus relatively recent writers I've heard of, like Terry Pratchett, Greg Bear (the short story version of Blood Music), Iain M. Banks, and Pat Cadigan.

On the other hand, it's got plenty of stories from the older schools. Joe Haldeman, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Robert Zelazny are all there (and a few lesser-known names). There's even a story by J. G. Ballard.

In other words, it's a fantastic bait-and-switch. Selling itself on cyberpunk, it's actually a pretty varied anthology, with some decent names, albeit one focused on crime and kiling. It's not what I was wanting to buy at the time, but perhaps it's actually something better.

Posted 2022-09-13.

Retro-review: Distraction - Bruce Sterling

While I've never been the strongest fan of Bruce Sterling, there's late Sterling and early Sterling. Late Sterling is parodic messes like The Zenith Angle, vs. say, some of his earlier short stories. This is not at, but heading toward the "late Sterling" end of the spectrum.

(Quick disclaimer: I stopped reading after The Zenith Angle. Perhaps late late Sterling is better. I dunno, I gave up.)

It's a political thriller with a broken US government in a corporate future, so don't think it's going to be subtle. It's not memorable enough for me to be able to recount the plot after 20 years, save the rival gangs separated by their incompatible digital protocols. The politics bit, yeah, whatever, I've forgotten it. I suspect it was all very much like a Wired article.

Again, my memories are vague, but I think it's rambling like other novels of his at the time - stuff happens to people, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a plot. The sci-fi is all Mondo 2000, and trying to feel any more than "meh" about it is hard.

Posted 2022-09-12.

Retro-review: Noir - K. W. Jeter

Another book from before I started reviews, from my cyberpunk-searching period. This isn't cyberpunk per se, but it's well, noir sci-fi. I don't normally go for authors who write Star Wars/Star Trek/Blade Runner novels, but it seemed an interesting kind of thing. It's crap.

This noir world verges on the parody of a corporate-run dystopia. The protagonist is named McNihil, the dead are resurrected until their debts are paid, and the neural material of copyright infringers is turned into living, sentient speaker cables. I think Jeter was really annoyed about copyright infringement or something.

It tries so hard. It's posturingly bleak. It wants to be the tough kid. It's pointlessly long, at 388 pages of tiny text. I remember comfortingly little of it from over 20 years ago, beyond a sense of resentment at the time and mental space it took from me.

Posted 2022-09-12.