Print Story It didn’t matter where you were,if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home
By TheophileEscargot (Sun Nov 09, 2014 at 04:22:32 AM EST) Reading, Watching, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "Pirate Sun", "Tripwire", "One Bullet Away", "The Park", "The Faithful Executioner", "Magician's Land", "Crisis? What Crisis?" Watching: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", "The Cranes are Flying", "Hobson's Choice". Links.

What I'm Reading
Pirate Sun is the third book in the Virga science fiction series, set in a giant air-filled free-fall bubble, where technology is limited. Another strong entry. Takes the world building a bit further as you get to see a little more of what keeps Virga working. Plenty of action again. Schroeder's strategy so far has been to keep each book focussed on a different character: this one stars Admiral Chaison Fanning. That also helps keep things fresh.

Liked this book a lot, but again it would be better to start at the first book as there's a continuing storyline.

What I'm Reading 2
Tripwire is the third book in the Jack Reacher series of violent thrillers. Jack Reacher is a former military policeman: 6'5'' and 220lbs as we're often told, skilled in all forms of armed and unarmed combat, who grew up as an "army brat" on various bases as the son of a serving officer. After leaving the army he decides to go travelling around the nation that he's spent his life protecting, but has never really seen. What he discovers is that America is full of baddies. Practically every town he wanders into is under the grip of corrupt police forces, evil gangsters, psychotic militia groups and so on.

In previous books he's usually solved this by violently killing all the baddies in the organization. This time though he's faced with a small organization with only a few henchmen, and Reacher has to use his investigative abilities to track down the main baddie.

I liked this, expand on the character a bit but keeping the pace going. Plotting wasn't bad but was a bit spoilt by using a gimmick which has twice now been used in more recent franchises, which makes it a bit too predictable.

What I'm Reading 3
One Bullet Away is an autobiographical account of a junior officer training for the US Marines and serving in Gulf War 2. Quite interesting, especially the first person account of serving in a recon unit in wartime. However nothing is particularly surprising or unexpected.

What I'm Reading 4
The Park by Oscar Zarate. The Park appears to be Hampstead Heath, though it's never named and I doubt there are many postmen living next to it. It's a comic book about a confrontation leading to escalating consequences. Pretty good: a decent story, well drawn with some interesting characters.

What I'm Reading 5
The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington Fascinating biography of sixteenth-century executioner of Nuremberg Frantz Schmidt, largely drawn from his diary but also other contemporary documents. Has a lot of information I wasn't aware of. Apparently there was a social status of "dishonourable", somewhat similar to the Dalit/Untouchable status in India, which included executioners and other "unclean" professions.

The story begins with Frantz'' father, who according to family lore was singled out of a crowd by a tyrannical prince to carry out an execution: this automatically gave him and all his descendants the Dishonourable status. Born into the status, Frantz made it his mission to free his children from it. He strove to carry out his duties impeccably, he refused to drink alcohol (very rare in the period) and tried to avoid company.

Another thing I didn't know is that executioners doubled as healers, and were sought out for that. This was partly based on superstition: executioners were believed to have magical powers from their association with death, and had access to body parts and lethal swords that were believed to have magical benefits. But it was also because executioners, since they doubled as torturers, had experience of both inflicting wounds, and a rare knowledge of anatomy.

Another route to respectability for Frantz was building up his medical practice, training his children in it too. In old age he finally achieved his mission, successfully petitioning the Holy Roman Emperor to give him and his descendants honourable status.

Overall, a fascinating book, well worth a read.

What I'm Reading 6
Magician's Land by Lev Grossman. Final book in the Magicians trilogy. There's a strong continuing storyline, this would be more or less unintelligible if you hadn't read the first two volumes.

I love this series, but suspect some people would hate it. It's almost metafictional, with barely-disguised versions of Hogwarts and Narnia, but taken more seriously in and freed from the constraints of children's fiction. It's definitely a series of books about books though.

As before, there's plenty of action, some angst, some plausible and some exaggerated characters, and lots of imagination. It's a satisfying end to the series.

What I'm Reading 7
Crisis? What Crisis? History book about Britain in the Seventies. Good potted history of the period. Has a good overview of how at the very start the two main parties were very similar in policy terms, but drifted much further apart to the left and right under internal pressure: something similar might be happening with the Conservative party today. The sections on Enoch Powell are particularly interesting: a patrician who actually delivered the "rivers of blood" line in Latin (though he translated it in the press release) but ended up as a populist figurehead.

The author seems to be trying to keep a foot in the nostalgia market by tacking on a sort of "in popular culture" bit at the end of each serious section, explaining how the issues were tackled in novels, sitcoms and Doctor Who. Adds a bit of interest but could easily be skimmed over.

One of the more interesting ideas that gets thrown off at the end is that the Seventies has a reputation as an economic disaster period because its problems: (strikes, inflation) disproportionately affected the powerful and the media. (Newspapers were particularly affected by the unions closed shop). By contemporary standards, despite all this unemployment was still low, and housing and other living costs very affordable. By contrast, the cost of housing crisis, massive youth unemployment, and insecurity of 2010s are seen as just minor nuisances because the powerful and the media are indifferent to them.

Overall, interesting but not unmissable

What I'm Watching
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Above-par action movie, better than the first one as the WW2 superhero is thawed out and put back to work in the modern world. Thankfully avoids crap comedy where he's bemused by technology: he actually seems to have mastered it quite quickly, but he's not too happy about the surveillance state. Worth seeing.

What I'm Watching 2
For a bit of balance saw The Cranes are Flying, the 1957 melodrama from the Soviet Union about a couple torn apart by the Great Patriotic War. It was lucky to be released in a period of the Kruschev era when a little more artistic freedom was permitted: the characters are allowed to laugh at some of the propaganda efforts ("double and redouble production!")

I liked this a lot, though it's a little cheesy at times. Has a strong storyline, good performances, and some impressive set-pieces with big crowds of extras. Worth a look.

What I'm Watching 3
Saw Fifties-made, earlier-set Hobson's Choice: comedy about tyrannical small businessman who forbids his three daughters from marrying. A bit dated, but benefits from a wonderfully over-the-top performance from Charles Laughton as the obnoxious Hobson.

We're still alive. No immediate threats to our actual existence. Baby's OK: doing a bit of walking, no real talking. Still a struggle to cope with the workload of childcare. Work's a bit bad too, on a Problem Project which is running late and causing problems. Spent two weeks getting up at 4AM every weekday to try to get some work done, then doing office hours and childcare/chores till 8 or 9PM: really wiped me out. Generally feeling a bit down, but one bright spot was that I managed to take the baby up to see my family for an overnight trip last weekend: he loved it, the family loved him, felt so good to just relax for a day.

Two different stories about the future of work. Where did all the women coders go? How far through the consolidation are we? Britons’ views on immigration are a perplexing blend of myth and reality

Random. How to Gird Up Your Loins: an illustrated guide. Why women's pockets are useless. Wah Chung, Star Trek TOS prop designer.

Politics. Government will use its new tax summaries to mislead the public about welfare spending . Dominic Cummings on Westminster and Whitehall (flawed but some interesting inside accounts).

Articles Bernard Hopkins, Boxing’s Oldest and Most Cunning Champion. Comic about therapy for abuse survivors: 10 things, complete book online. The Symbolism of a Medieval Haircut.

Sci/Tech. The Inherent Limits of MRI Tractography? Stove burns unchopped tree logs.

Pics. Swimsuit models on car, 1923. Napoleonic Wars veterans.

< Medium | From Friday to Sunday >
It didn’t matter where you were,if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
set in a giant air-filled free-fall bubble by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #1 Mon Nov 10, 2014 at 06:59:58 AM EST
Sounds like the "Smoike RIng" that Larry Niven came up for The Integral Trees, the last readable novel he wrote.

I visited England in '77 for 3 weeks with the family. 1 week in London, the rest in the country. Yorkshire, Canterbury, a couple other places. I don't remember it being a dystopian hellhole, but I was 12.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

I don't know what you were like at 12 ... by lm (4.00 / 2) #4 Mon Nov 10, 2014 at 08:45:48 AM EST
... but at 12 I would have thought that a trip to a dystopian hellhole was the best thing since sliced bread.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
England has always been dystopian hell hole by jump the ladder (4.00 / 2) #5 Mon Nov 10, 2014 at 09:09:23 AM EST
1984 was thinly based on England in 1948, V for Vendetta on Mrs T's England etc.

[ Parent ]
Babies by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #2 Mon Nov 10, 2014 at 08:29:20 AM EST
Sounds like you're holding up well honestly, better than I did. It's just really tough even with a big extended family type thing I think. Without, in another city, just means lots of endurance work to do. Glad you still snuck some reading in.

Iambic Web Certified

Oh yeah by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #3 Mon Nov 10, 2014 at 08:31:48 AM EST
Executioner book sounds really interesting, had not heard of it.

Iambic Web Certified

Captain America by anonimouse (4.00 / 1) #6 Mon Nov 10, 2014 at 01:06:08 PM EST
I preferred the first one, set in WW2 period, which seems a more natural period for Captain America to work in. 

Girls come and go but a mortgage is for 25 years -- JtL
cute woodstove by clover kicker (4.00 / 1) #7 Mon Nov 10, 2014 at 09:41:09 PM EST
Think I'll keep my EPA recirculating stove though.

I'm really curious about... by Metatone (4.00 / 2) #8 Tue Nov 11, 2014 at 04:07:03 AM EST
your views on Dominic Cummings piece.

I guess what depresses me is that he's ahead of the curve in terms of the British Establishment, but still seems very much an Oxford History graduate, with all the biases and areas of ignorance that usually implies.

It's hard to judge as a whole by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #9 Wed Nov 12, 2014 at 02:07:04 AM EST
I thought it was an interesting insider account of life as a "Spad". Useful to see how he perceives things, and how he thinks the coalition government run.

But I don't think the grandiose ideas he throws off really hang together coherently. Also when it was on Metafilter there was some debate on how accurate it is: according to someone there the lifts actually work fine. So I wonder if it's another case of a guy who lives in the political bubble not really understanding how the real world actually works, apart from a vague idea gathered from movies and TV. Another example might be the way he's surprised that nobody gets fired for incompetence after making a mistake: that happens on TV, but in real life even in the private sector people tend to be gently reshuffled or get a Quiet Word.

Similarly he seems to start with Burke/Oakshott ideas about how the plans and forecasts of individuals tend to fail because the world is too complicated. But he doesn't move on to localisation and markets as the only solutions, instead he seems to think if you can just get the right individuals, with "Silicon Valley" attitudes and intelligence, the future becomes knowable and malleable after all.

It's also hard to know how messed up the Civil Service really is. If it is a mess, it's hard to know whether that's because of its obsolete structure, or the reforms of the last couple of decades. Cummings seems to default to: "it's because it's made up of individuals who are lazy idiots" despite the nods to Burke. That doesn't seem particularly likely.

I'm currently reading "The Blunders of Our Governments" which has a lot more detail and a lot more serious analysis. One interesting point there is that since the creation of "Next Steps Agencies" since the 1980s there has been a division between planning and implementation: the civil servants who draw up grand plans are no longer the guys who actually run things operationally. So, it could be that top Civil Servants no longer have the knowledge and experience they used to. The view from within the Civil Service is that there's been an overreaction to the old "Yes, Minister" problem of moving slowly and with resistance: these days they leap into action too quickly and are terrified of telling ministers "No". That seems to be borne out by Cummings account of constantly being surprised by new problems: it looks like nobody's warning the political side. In his view of course they're just slow-moving, obstructive and incompetent too.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
I agree with most of what you say... by Metatone (4.00 / 2) #10 Wed Nov 12, 2014 at 10:38:05 AM EST
and would like to subscribe to your newsletter...

What annoyed me the most was:

  1. Constant parroting of random statements about "complexity" with no apparent engagement with the work that has been done in the field. It's like he read Paul Ormerod 10 years ago and nothing since...
  2. The triumphalist tone about "giving away bits of the department"  - seems like his major success was shifting troublesome things to other people. Which sounds like his complaints about the way top civil servants operate...

[ Parent ]
Forgot one thing... by Metatone (4.00 / 2) #11 Wed Nov 12, 2014 at 10:39:32 AM EST
And of course, if the lifts were broken (and in comments on his site it is claimed that the still are) I have to ask the question - so why didn't you fix them, Dominic?

If he wants to harp on the metaphor, for me it is telling that he did nothing about it either...

[ Parent ]
It didn’t matter where you were,if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback