Soul Music - Terry Pratchett

Another review from the "hugely delayed review of an audio book" series that my health is throwing up.

I don't have particularly fond memories of Soul Music, but I've rather enjoyed it on re-read.

It's late early Discworld, on what I think of as the downhill slope. There's an extra-dimensional threat that doesn't belong on the Discworld, in the form of rock music. Fortunately, Terry knows there's only so many times you can threaten the world with creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions, so that doesn't happen. Instead, there are a vast number of rock music reference jokes (for every one I spotted, I'm sure there's one I missed), and the elderly wizards becoming rock fans is rather enjoyable. Rebellious Deans appear to be a pan-dimensional thing.

I was never really a fan of the Death novels, which often seemed to consist of Death failing to do his job and then getting angry at humans for trying to handle that. Once more, Death goes AWOL, but there's not much anger and this novel's Substitute Death is Susan. Death novels aren't great, but Susan novels are very good!

So, yeah, unlike my memories, this is not a bad book. In the overall canon of Discworld, and in terms of deeper messages, maybe it's a bit of a placeholder, but as usual Pratchett still manages to make it an enjoyable ride.

Posted 2024-05-24.


The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution - C. P. Snow

Lots of people (like me) reference "C. P. Snow's Two Cultures" without having read it (like me). So, I decided to read it. It's actually the 1959 Rede lecture, published in book form, all of 54 smallish pages. Given how short it is I rather paid over the odds for what looks like a print-on-demand edition, but I like a nice book.

As per the title, it really does cover two topics - the "Two Cultures", and the scientific revolution. I guess we mostly refer to the Two Cultures side nowadsys, so let's start there. I'd say that modern understanding of this cultural split has somewhat drifted over the last sixty-plus years. Snow was in a world of Rutherford and Cockroft, what seemed a golden scientific age, but also the start of a golden scientific century. Even at this point in time, scientists are far more employable than English or History grads.

In this talk, the "other side" are specifically literary intellectuals. Scientists are optimists, and literary intellectuals are intellectual luddites. Ruskin and William Morris and co. looked on in horror at the industrialisation of the world, while the living standards and prospects for the poorest improved.

Things have changed a little. Literary intellectuals may still not understand science, but that's not the biggest threat. With liberalism and modernism in decline, the population have "had enough of experts", led by politicians who find expertise just throws up objections to their simple plans. The UK has been ruined by a generation of Oxford arts grads. Once again I'm reminded of how certain classicists and historians take refuge in the past, apparently unaware that most of those they studied were very much looking to their future.

A failure in our political class to cope with quantitative subjects was most obvious during the pandemic, but has bitten us in many ways, particularly on the economy. Perhaps the only thing worse than someone working in politics who doesn't understand science is someone who doesn't, and thinks they do, like Dominic Cummings.

The other side is just as bad. VCs in Silicon Valley discount an arts education, but then completely fail to understand the world of humans, ignore the law if it gets in the way of profit, and now we seem to have billionaires shuffling their way towards fascism. A background in arts doesn't seem so much to make people Luddites as cautious and thoughtful about the risks - and then the VCs promptly justify their worries.

So, The Two Cultures have evolved, but remain. What was Snow's prescription? He believed in a wider education, not specialising so early. I am unconvinced by this. Academically, I'm on the STEM side, through and through. If my grades remained dependent on arts subjects, I'd resent it. Furthermore, it's not clear that sixth-form and university level arts courses would have covered topics of interest to me, and I'm not convinced a few years crammed around my real study would cut it.

What has helped me is just a lifelong, gradual, incremental, learning about a bunch of arts subjects - some politics, some literature, some music, some history, even a bit of drawing. It's been slow, so I wouldn't say I was particularly balanced by my late '20s, but it feels to me like what we want is to have scientists to retain some curiousity and interest in the arts, and vice versa. Over time, it all works out.

The second half of the talk is about the Scientific Revolution, and... well, it really is a thing. The Industrial Revolution had a huge effect on life, but Snow saw this segueing into the Scientific Revolution, which by 1959 had already had a huge impact, and as he predicted has changed the world so much more since then.

He had two major concerns. The first of which was to have enough scientists available to make the revolution. He compared the UK, US and USSR. The USSR looked well-prepared, but I guess this just shows how important the wider political context is for things like scientific progress. I'm not quite sure how to judge his thoughts on scientific education - the Scientific Revolution has continued apace since then, at least.

Snow's second concern was more prescient: The gap between the rich and the poor, and the industrialisation of poor nations. He observed that with the acceleration of scientific progress, poor nations would be unwilling to wait centuries for industrialisation to arrive, as it had in the West, but would want a much accelerated scheme. And... what we've seen is, at least for many countries in the Far East, is exactly that. Africa's been much more bumpy, and I'm not qualified to say why some places have worked and not others.

Snow considered how to help this acceleration. He envisioned the initial approach to be to have Western scientists and engineers work in those countries to build up the industries, in less of a patronising role than in a hands-on working-among-equals kind of way, predicated on the idea that scientists and engineers, being somewhat meritocratic, weren't racists. 1959 optimism?

The way it actually seemed to work out was largely capitalism: Countries export to the West, working their way up the value chain, and learning off companies that use their country for cheap labour. At least that's how it looks from afar, I'm no expert.

In all, a fascinating, read largely from a historical perspective. The part about The Two Cultures remains far too relevant today, even if the details have changed.

Posted 2024-03-14.


The Guitar Handbook - Ralph Denyer

I've had this book for 25-odd years, ever since I first started trying to learn the guitar, which has been an on-and-off, mostly-off affair ever since. I recently decided to pick the guitar up again, before discovering that a regular practice schedule doesn't really fit well with the chemo cycle. I did make myself inordinately happy by learning to play a couple of Smashing Pumpkins riffs really badly, though. And I read this book.

It's a funny book, trying to be everything to everyone in a way that, to be honest, doesn't really succeed. It starts off with potted biographies of a bunch of "guitar innovators". This would be much more effective nowadays with an accompanying website full of key examples of their music. As it is, you get some words and have to go search for what you hope is a good example of their work on your own. This is followed by sections on acoustic and electric guitars - largely their history and construction, followed by how-to-play-guitar, a guide to maintaining and customising guitars, and "performance technology" - roughly everything downstream from the guitar itself. Very jack of all trades.

Despite the attempt to cover both acoustic and electric guitar, there's a distinct bias towards electric. For example, most of the customisation and performance technology stuff is primarily to do with electric guitars, and the "guitar innovators" almost all primarily play electric.

The biggest, key section is on playing the guitar. The guitar's a flexible instrument, playing many roles, so there are subsections on rhythm guitar, melodic guitar and harmonic guitar. Needless to say, I suck at all of these, and the material goes way beyond my ability. Still, there are some things I notice. That acoustic history comes out in focussing on classical-style chords. Power chords, despite being a core element of rock, are hidden at the back as an "advanced technique"!

In terms of music theory, it packs an awful lot in. Compared to a book on tonal music theory, it just throws everything at you in a few pages - modes, weird scales, fancy chords, etc. Modulation, a complicated and advanced topic in music theory texts, is over and done with in a couple of pages, one of which is largely taken up with a big, friendly transition diagram. I guess modern music tends to be much more flexible than tonal "classical" music, so all these ideas need to be present, but don't need to be handled rigorously.

All in all, a funny book, perhaps an artefact of the information-paucity of the mid-late '90s, when not everything was on the Internet. I'm a big fan of "get the book" for my hobbies, but overall I don't think I'd bother now. The information I care about is easily available, and the bits that aren't, I don't care about.

Posted 2024-03-08.


Lords and Ladies - Terry Pratchett

This is another one I've consumed as an audio book. My health is so much better than it was, but chemo can be a bit up and down, and in the "down" phase it's great to have something that doesn't need eyes. As usual, having the audiobook emphasises Pratchett's ear for dialogue. The Ramptops characters get Gloucestershire-y accents, which takes me back, even if Gloucestershire isn't actually that mountainous.

This is really not the book I remembered. I remembered that there were elves involved (duh), but I'd forgotten so much about Magrat's wedding, the senior wizards turning up, and, well, so much of the details. In that sense, it's a more complicated book than I remember. For some reason I thought of this as a mid-sequence book, perhaps confusing it with Carpe Jugulum, when it's actually rather earlier, more around the time of Men At Arms.

The in-world themes circle around elves and their hatred of iron (hence horseshoes), a variation on dangerous knowledge meaning that the memory of elves is suppressed into myth, and the changing nature of the world such that elves no longer fit.

Usually there's some kind of theme in the Discworld novels that is allegorical to our world. In the case of this book, it's not so clear. What there is, is power battles, between Weatherwax, Diamanda, Magrat and the Fairy Queen, with apian metaphors. Unusually for a Witches book, the three witches are separated and each handle the elves in their own way.

In the end, though, Weatherwax is the constant focus, the core character, and is just plain powerful. Other books has her jiu-jitsu'ing through headology, here she pretty much meets the queen of the elves on her own terms, until the deus ex machina turns up.

This is a funny book. Rather than follow the pattern of the previous Witches books, it's more like an experiment, trying something different, seeing how it works. Exploring. I'm not sure it's entirely successful, but it's certainly interesting.

Posted 2024-03-07.


Crochet Know-How - CICO books

It's weird to have a book with no author on the cover at all, but there you go. Tiny writing on the inside claims it was edited by Marie Clayton, if you care.

Me reading a book like this is usually an indication that I'm back on the craftwork, and indeed I am (blog post to follow, I'm sure). Mildly ironically, I'm still doing amigurumi, which entails a very limited, structured set of stitches, while this book covers an extremely large range, to be honest much more suitable for the traditional quilts, cushion covers, clothes and so on, in weird colour combinations and covered with flowers.

The obvious question is "Is a book even useful nowadays, given the internet and in particular tutorial videos?" I'll admit the equation has changed substantially over the years, and in some cases a video can't be beaten for an unambiguous, step-by-step illustration of a technique. Having said that, there's definitely room for describing techniques through high-quality, clear illustrations, backed up by good quality text, and that's what this book is in a position to deliver.

This book is really just a reference. It brings together a good set of techniques, along with useful peripheral knowledge (e.g. hook/wool sizes, notation etc.). This is pretty useful to have in book form, since a pattern may call for stitches that aren't in your working set, and a quick look in a book is a much more efficient way to get back into practice than most of the rather slow videos you see on YouTube.

However, there's a bit of a missed opportunity in making it just a reference. There are approximately zero patterns in the book. The most you can say is that it provides examples of patterns, but they're certainly not interesting or inspiring. I understand that CICO press publishes a whole pile of craftwork books, and there will be plenty of patterns in those, but being patternless significantly reduces the attractiveness of the book over "look it up on the 'net".

Also, strangely, they've foregone the opportunity to make it an "introduction and reference". This is not a good book to learn crochet from. Techniques are grouped logically, in a way that makes learning to crochet a basic piece an exercise in flipping back and forth. Starting/finishing a piece of work is in one section, stitches are in another, and increases/decreases are in yet another. Again, a neat, organised getting started guide would provide considerable value to a beginner, beyond "search for a specific technique on YouTube".

Ok, so there are some missed opportunities. How does it stand up as a reference? The illustrations are universally excellent. My own experience trying to look at a piece of crochet and work out where to insert the hook next suggests that a big pile of tangled wool is hard to interpret. Yet the illustrations manage to both match what I see in my work, and be intelligible and logical.

The accompanying text is somewhat variable. Reading the instructions for the stitches, they're clear and perhaps even pedantic. Explaining two, three, four, five and seven treble clusters separately seems excessive once the pattern becomes obvious. At the same time, I've had problems with literal edge cases: the explanations for starting, finishing, and handling the edges of rows and ends of rounds gloss over things I find far from obvious. I muddle through, and any mistakes I make don't matter too much for the patterns I use and the level I work at. Still, not great.

After knitting for a while, the structure, the logic behind knitting became clear to me. I must admit, for a long time crochet has been a technique that "just works" without understanding why the stitches are constucted the way they are. However, by reading through this book, and seeing technique after technique after technique, the underlying patterns are now a lot clearer to me. It's not explicitly talked about in the book, but it's good to know it's there.

Is this book any good? It does what it says on the tin, and it does so in an unexceptional, workmanlike way. Am I happy I got this book? Yes. Of course, this is partly because I like to get a book on any hobby I take up. I know that about myself. Still, I think it's provided real value to me. Partly, it is more convenient to read up a technique here than to interminably wind through internet videos. Second, it's actually quite inspiring. Seeing all the techniques laid out makes me want to try them! Probably nothing fancy, but maybe a few test swatches at least.

Posted 2024-02-22.


Moving Pictures - Terry Pratchett

This is another highly-delayed, but slightly more positive-goings-on book review. My health seems to have been improving a bit: I started listening to this book as an audio book, and finished reading it in paper form.

I remember enjoying Moving Pictures when I read it many, many years ago, but I don't think I've re-read it since until now. It's pretty much peak early Discworld, and very good. The world is well settled-in. It's no longer a parody of other fantasy stories, and the wizards are present without focusing on Rincewind. It's a very solid backdrop.

Reading this after Witches Abroad, it's another exploration of the theme of stories, albeit from a different angle: The stories here are exogenous, pan-dimensional, and a threat to the Discworld. They're also an excuse for a vast number of classic movie references, of which I'm sure I only caught a fraction.

At the same time, it's a reasonably thoughtful exploration of the ideas behind Hollywood and the movies. About the power of dreams, and the fundamental ridiculousness of it, with people famous simply for being famous.

It's also pretty representative of the "Discworld threatened by the Dungeon Dimensions" era - the earlier books where the major threat to the world was change, rather than the latter books where Ankh-Morpork recognisably modernises. I'd forgotten how effective Terry was at building up the sense of foreboding and extra-dimensional threat during this period. It's surprisingly tense!

There are a few other things I'd forgotten that I enjoyed rediscovering. It's the start of the modern, stable Unseen University, with the introduction of Mustrum Ridcully and Ponder Stibbons. At this point the bursar seems quite sane; perhaps he really was just driven mad by Ridcully.

I had also totally forgotten about Dibbler! Usually a minor character, CMOT Dibbler, purveyor of dreams in the form of wonderful-smelling, sizzling sausages that turn out to be disgusting, most appropriately takes centre stage as a movie mogul.

All-in-all, it's just as good as I remember it to be. Pyramids for some reason remains my personal favourite early Discworld book, but this is way up there with it.

Posted 2024-02-02.


Witches Abroad - Terry Pratchett

When times are tough, I read Terry Pratchett. When times are really tough, I listen to Terry Pratchett audiobooks. December was a really tough time.

The last time I listened in audiobook form was back in hospital in early '22, but to be honest this isn't the first audiobook I listened to. Immediately preceding it, I listened to Guards! Guards!, but I reviewed it (albeit briefly) previously, so I'm not posting another whole review.

Having said that, the reason I listened to Guards! Guards! first is because it's one of my favourites, and in the fourteen-odd years since that review I've read the rest of the Vimes sequence, and seeing the development of both Carrot and of Sam and Sybil adds a surprising amount to this retrospective origin story. I could say so much about Commander Vimes and Lady Ramkin, but instead I'll say how I really like how the joke about Carrot becomes a general open secret that he's the True King of Ankh-Morpork, but he's happier off defending the city in the form of a city guard, and everyone's ok with that. It's a Discworld outcome. Which brings me on to Witches Abroad.

Witches Abroad is a story about stories. In some ways, this is slightly meta, but with the usual Pratchett twist. The plot is that stories, fairytales, like to play themselves out in the Discworld, and the evil witch uses this to her advantage to achieve her ends, and the regular Ramtops crew of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick must stop her.

Of course, in many ways the point of the Discworld is that it's a distorting mirror (initially of fantasy worlds, and then later in the series, more of ours), and the stories we read never quite fit the traditional pattern. The raison d'être of the Witches is that they (re)write the stories of those around them to be better than the fairytales.

On their journey to Genua the witches blunder through half-a-dozen-odd fairy stories, upsetting and fixing them either accidentally or deliberately. We're not talking subtle undermining, it's the theme. Genua itself is a change of pace, with a strong New Orleans theme, and the climax of the book is a show-down between mirror magic, swamp magic and Granny Weatherwax's "headology". All with a little ambiguity of what kind of meddling is appropriate along the way.

As a rule, I enjoy the Witches books, moreso than, say, the ones with Rincewind or Death. This is no exception. Beyond that, looking back, somehow not a lot stands out. Maybe there's just a lack of long-term development: they visit a far-away kingdom, save it, and go home. Still, a pleasant listen.

Posted 2024-01-25.


The story of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum in Pixels, Volume 3 - Chris Wilkins

This was a recovery present after my surgery in early December. As it turned out, the surgical recovery went fine, and I had my chest drain out today, so now seems like a good time to review it.

This is one of those brightly-coloured, highly-illustrated retro books reviewing old computer games. There are a few interviews and articles to pad the book out - I particularly liked the one about sound programming on the Speccie, but the core of it really is those game reviews.

I find it strange how, in a world where you can freely download the game, read scans of contemporary magazine reviews, read walkthroughs and watch videos of playthroughs, that there's still a market for books like this. Yet it's still a lot of fun to read through, seeing these old games and their awful screenshots.

(As an old Spectrum user, it pains me to say it, but the Spectrum had some great games despite the hardware, not because of it. What other home computers could achieve was far superior, but the Spectrum had the supreme advantage of being affordable.)

The fact that this book is "Volume 3" speaks a fair amount to the market, I guess. These things sell well enough to be worth making. On the other hand, I was told "Volume 3" was not a deliberate purchase, it's just the book they had. I have not seen Volumes 1 or 2. This has pros and cons to it. None of the big-name classics are there - they'll have been snaffled up by the earlier volumes. Instead, this book covers some rather more obscure titles, and, well, it's quite interesting, going off the beaten track.

There are a few lesser-known gems in there, and the great thing about those resources I mentioned earlier is that I can just see something that piqued my interest and play it myself or watch it played on Youtube. Amongst the interminable platformers, I was struck by the ambition of Tau Ceti, for example, an early 3D tank-like game with large world and complex plot, subgame mechanisms, etc.

In short, this is a somewhat strange and to be honest not particularly worthy book that nonetheless made my recovery more enjoyable.

Posted 2024-01-17.


The Last Hero - Terry Pratchett

From one "Last" Discworld book to another! While most of the books I'm reading are re-reads, this is my first time reading this one. It's a funny one. It's another illustrated Discworld book. I've got the text-only version of Eric, so in some ways I didn't know what to expect with this mixture of art and text. This was also a transition from Josh Kirby to Paul Kidby supplying the art. I sometimes wonder how much is in the similar surnames!

Anyway, I guess I'll start with the illustrations, as the biggest thing to take some adjustment to. It's tricky, because the Discworld novels are very visual to start with, and everyone builds up their personal models of what the characters look like. Seeing an artist depict theirs can be quite disconcerting.

In the end, my approach was "don't worry". Everyone can have their own view of what the characters look like, and that's ok. If you're sensible, this sounds like a straightforward and obvious approach, but for me it took some work!

At the start I felt the illustrations were maybe a minor irritation, but as the book went along I started to enjoy them rather more, and by the end it almost felt like the text was an excuse to create the charming visuals. Kidby's artistic style is much less intense than Kirby's, and I felt I enjoyed his imagination more than the specific interpretation, if that makes any sense.

Making up drawing for Leonardo da Quirm's notebooks gave a good excuse to add some fun supplementary text. In other places, the artworks are pastiches of other famous artworks. In many ways, the artist's sense of fun and joy in referencing seems to complement Terry Pratchett's similar style in the text.

While I expected the art to be a little alien to me, the text turned out to be almost more so. It's a short book, mostly taken up with pictures, so the volume of text is not great. It feels weirdly like Discworld fan fiction, except written by Terry!

Despite being a short story, it was quite a good one. It claims to be a Discworld fable, and I guess that's fair. Cohen and co. get one last run after Interesting Times, and it's actually a better send-off for him than becoming emperor of a continent, which is the kind of thing you can see him getting bored of. Mild themes run throughout the book.

Vetinari is present, feeling a little under-developed at this stage in the canon. Rincewind is also here, but it is late Discworld Rincewind - no longer always trying to run away, but inured to the adventures he goes on, and self-aware enough to realise that he hates them but inevitably survives, and has hope for a (mostly) quiet and boring future. Carrot is present, and it's more ambiguous than usual as to whether he's heroically dumb or quietly ironic. Ponder Stibbons takes his place, unusually acting as a foil to Vetinari.

The whole short story nature of it allows a fairly decent amount of stuff to go on while keeping it light. While it was clear there would be Cohen adventuring in this book, I was surprised to find Leonardo da Quirm leading a Discworld space mission, yet the structure of an illustrated book allow it to be carried off as a fun little jaunt. It provides a fun way to get some big ideas down on paper without having to take them too seriously.

In short, I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. It stands alone well - reading all the novels that follow, I never felt them lean on this volume. It's almost like Discworld apocrypha, but it feels too well in keeping with the rest to make that a fair designation. It treats the characters involved well. It's almost like a little holiday for the Discworld. By the end I was charmed.

Posted 2023-12-14.


The Last Continent - Terry Pratchett

I mentioned, while reviewing Thief of Time, that I've been going through some difficult times, health-wise. I read this maybe a week ago, but very slowly while stuck at the bottom of the health curve. I had minor surgery a couple of days ago, and now feel well enough to be able to write a review (with 2.5 litres of fluid having been taken off my right lung!). Hurrah!

This is the very late end of early Discworld, and the overall subject matter is kind of symptomatic of the rut fallen into with Rincewind, where he goes to a new place and ends up being a hero while trying to run away. Even the book title acknowledges this. Having visited the China-equivalent Agatean Empire in Interesting Times, he's literally visting The Last Continent on the Discworld, the Australia-equivalent Ecks Ecks Ecks Ecks.

You can almost feel the relief of Terry being sure that he's finally mined that seam empty with this book.

It's not quite just a Rincewind book, it is also a Wizards book. They have a minor adventure, almost worthy of a short story. Mostly, though, it follows Rincewind through a tour of "What would the Discworld version of an English person's stereotypical view of Australia in the late 1990s look like?". It ends up being split between "Aussie" stuff and a mystical take on aboriginal art.

There's plenty of room to reduce modern Australia to stereotypes, or treat the aboriginal elements in a culturally painful way. I would say the approach is uninspired, but manages not to feel too clunky twenty-something years later.

Theme-wise, there's a plot, but it doesn't really do more than justify Rincewind running away through the various Australian stereotypes. There is maybe some attempt to muse on the subjective nature of time, as taken with a Discworld slant, but I think this is far better explored in Thief of Time. Maybe this can be be viewed as a warm-up exercise for that?

This is not a great Discworld book. I don't even think I can say it's a good one, but despite all that the strength of Terry's prose carries it from page-to-page. It remains enjoyable. Finishing it, I did have a vague sense of relief that I think I've hit the end of the Rincewind series, and at that point he gets a well-earned semi-retirement into a minor chair at Unseen University (and the occasional side-kick role). He deserves it!

In short, I find it hard to dislike even the most luke-warm of Discworld novels.

Posted 2023-12-14.


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 mostly 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, they 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 enjoy sizeable roles.

The big theme, if there is one, is 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, like his analysis of mysticism, 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 every loose end. 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 https://xkcd.com/385/. 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.