Finished Matter, the new Culture novel by Iain M. Banks. Big book with a lot of characters, mainly set on an artificial world made up of nested concentric spheres, each layer of which has a different civilization living beneath fixed and rolling artificial suns. The plot is similarly nested, with larger and more advanced civilizations interacting around the relatively primitive Sarl race at the centre of the action.
Pretty good on the whole. A lot happens and there's are some characteristically Banksian impressive scenery, like an ancient city being progressively unearthed and destroyed by a giant waterfall.
Ending was a bit disappointing though. The climaxes are all compressed into the last 60 page or so: thought it would have been better to spread them out over the second half. It seemed a bit rushed, with what could have been good scenes happening off-page. Overall, a pretty good read, worth looking out for if you're a Culture fan.
Latest TTC course was Explaining Social Deviance by Paul Root Wolpe. Ten 45-minute lectures, recorded in 1994. I haven't read or studied sociology much, so not sure how far this course reflects sociology in general, or the study of social deviance in particular. However, I was somewhat shocked at the several lectures which were complete and utter bollocks.
To be fair, some of it was quite sensible. The middle lectures went through several different theories of what causes social problems: from pathology theory, social disorganization, learning theory and control theory. Some of the discussion of mechanisms by which people turned to crime seemed useful, explaining how people get their ideas of what is acceptable from those around them. I also thought the concept of the "moral entrepreneur" was interesting; people who change the frontiers of acceptability by declaring things previously thought moral to be immoral, or vice versa.
The lecture on "Demonism" was pretty poor though. He credits the early Christian church with dividing the world into poles of good and evil, which is just not true: evil was seen simply as a lack of good, theologically speaking. He regards the rise and growing importance of Christianity as part of a "centralization of power" which led to abuse; yet Christianity became powerful during the decline of the Western Roman Empire precisely as centralized power was falling apart; and the middle ages was characterized by very weak centralized authority. He talks about "the Inquisition" without saying whether he means the Medieval or Spanish Inquisitions, and seems to be ignorant of the distinction. He says that a peasant would much rather be accused of murder than heresy because of the inquisition, and quotes luridly about its horrors. He seems to be unaware that the medieval inquisition simply took the same form as secular justice in the era, where you would also be tortured in the same way.
The final lecture looks at postmodernism, and I doubt would have been written about today. It starts by explaining that we make policies based on science today, and that religion has been pushed into the background. It then goes into the usual stuff about how so-called science is just an expression of power relationships, and even uses the example of creationism as an equally valid kind of science which has just been rejected by the scientific power elite.
Over the course, he seems to be endlessly remaking the same mistake of trying to analyse other systems of belief but without ever looking at these systems' own reasoning. Yes, you can look at creationism versus evolution in science in terms of rival power groups, but if you accept the existence of an objective reality, one of these is going to reflect it better.
Recommendation: avoid this one.
Bit of a slow start. Army training is pretty familiar. However, McLaughlin was unusually old: at 31, the oldest soldier ever to graduate from his training camp. He had failed in earlier attempts to join the army due to health restrictions, though his brother got in. After the death of his brother in a road accident after leaving the army, McLaughlin managed to secure an exemption. A high level of fitness and commitment got him through in the end, but he's painfully aware of the damage being done to his aging body.
Fairly soon, McLaughlin is deployed to Basra airport in Iraq. He suffers long periods of "stag", guard duty, which is so tedious that patrols and escort duty almost come as a relief. There are some good descriptions of Iraq duty: manic driving, patrols through the country, escalating tension between the soldiers. The most extreme and telling example comes when another sentry, angry that he's turned up late, attacks him by beating him with a loaded SA80 held like a baseball bat, fracturing his arm, in front of local crowd. McLaughlin retaliates later in the mess. He claims that this practically made him a hero, the other guy being in the wrong because only senior riflemen are allowed by custom to hit others with their rifles.
After returning and some leave, McLaughlin is sent to the "bandit country" of South Armagh, soon after the IRA ceasefire. There they play elaborate cat and mouse with IRA spotters (known as "dickers") and groups of organized demonstrators. He depicts an almost surreal kind of life, living in fortress-towers in the middle of small towns and patrolling: simultaneously isolated and cheek-to-cheek with the locals.
On one occasion, I strode by a baker's on a mid-afternoon patrol. It was a gloriously sunny day, and I saw an old man leaning against a wall eating a pie. The man hadn't yet seen me, but I had clocked him from a distance, and as I scanned his face, I could see he was the sort of jolly, warm and humorous old soul that children love to have as a grandfather. As I walked towards him he looked up and beamed at me with a generous smile. I nodded my head at him and asked how he was getting on, and he replied, "Fine, thanks." I think I must have caught him off guard because as soon as he realised that he had said hello to me his expression took on a hateful glare. He then spat on the ground and cursed himself, before slinging his pie on the ground. I was shocked at the sudden change in him, and it knocked the wind out of me.
Compared with Jarhead, McLaughlin isn't really as good a descriptive writer. Not sure how ghostwritten or assisted it was: it seems quite generic, in the "everyday bloke" voice you see in sports memoirs or my-story newspaper articles. However, McLaughlin has much more interesting content to talk about than Anthony Swofford's modest Gulf War 1 experience.
This book's not a masterpiece, but it is a fascinating and revealing account of life in the British army, and at the moment it's bang up-to-date. Worth reading.
Still ticking along. Tried a slight variation on the weekdays and had Slimfast Meal Replacement Bars for lunch and a proper dinner. Didn't make much difference so will probably go back to big-sandwich lunches and light suppers next week.
Slight variation: zero-axis graph with the min and max healthy BMI shown as red lines.
There is a hope that the US will rediscover the virtues of careful diplomacy, will know who its real friends are and treat them with Jeffersonian courtesy and will return to its earlier multilateralism.
Do not hold your breath. Such expectations will inevitably be dashed...
Democrats - and many Republicans - hold the view that what was at fault in the transatlantic relationship was the Bush administration's incompetence. Therefore, once it is gone, Europeans will be expected to fall into line with the policies of a vastly more competent and attentive new administration. This is the American mirror image of Europe's expectations.
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