Friday, 12 December 2014

Three Years Old And My Computer Is Dying

In the movie, 'Blade Runner' (1982), the replicants, the life-like androids have a life expectancy of only four years.  The portrayed society of November 2019, like that of the Roman Empire, is worried that its slaves would become too strong and would overpower the citizens.  The plots of the movie is around replicants seeking their maker to have their lives extended.  It seems that we are quite a way from having androids threaten our society, though Stephen Hawking fears basic artificial intelligence will be able to do it first.  However, the built-in expiry date seen in 'Blade Runner' already appears to be in place.

In the summer of 2011, I bought an Alienware laptop computer for £1400 (€ 1750; US$2240).  Being a keen PC gamer, I ordered one of the highest graphic and sound quality and with a fast processor so that I could enjoy the online 'Total War' games and 'World of Warcraft' to the best standard.  This summer, 2014, moving into a room I was renting in a new house one of the current tenants, a postgraduate pharmacy student asked me about my laptop and when he found out it was coming up to three years old he scoffed, asking me how I hoped to achieve anything with something 'that old'.  I did not mention that my mobile phone was bought in 2005 and does not have a camera in it.

My housemate's predictions rapidly have come true.  I know in terms of online games, you expect fast developments and I do not expect it to run as quickly as it would have done in 2011.  I am also aware that in a house with five residents, even broadband gets stretched between all the uses.  However, even offline, the computer now struggles.  It is a pain to watch it labour to open Word and you have to expect it to crash at random even when simply looking at text documents.  It can struggle to open a second document or move between two.  Very challenging when you write as much fiction as I do.  I spend a lot of time watching a spinning disk against a black or a white blank screen.  Ironically I end up reading the newspaper, writing a diary (by hand with a pen) and even practicing Chinese characters, again with pen and paper.  It is almost as if my laptop feels that I am too old these days to use its facilities.

The deterioration in speed over the past three years has been phenomenal; declining very rapidly this year and so naturally I worried something was wrong.  I have a scheduled 'defrag' every Wednesday and a virus check every Monday evening.  I run through the list of all the software I have installed and eliminate anything which does not appear to be of use.  I removed every image from the laptop and put it on a 1 TB external hard drive, not that I had that many photos that it should have taxed the laptop.  I have even taken it apart and cleaned the fans, concerned they may be clogged and so it was overheating.  None of these things have been able to halt the slowing down and the increases in crashes.  It is as if, in the way my housemate viewed it, at 3.5 years old, my laptop is elderly and no longer can even do the basic tasks it once did such as handle a Word document, let alone play the games it was bought for.

Part of the problem is that the computer only occasionally does what I ask of it.  Much of the time I can switch it on and it can happily play with itself.  Every day there is some download that seems to take precedence over anything I might want to do.  In the middle of games, the machine will shut down and tell me it has to restart to accommodate a new update which seems to make absolutely no difference to the running of my computer bar from ruining my game.  Humans now have minimal control over their computers.  We are shaped by what they want to do and they make it clear our interests are a long way down the list behind the masturbation that are all these updates.

Obviously I feel that I have thrown away a lot of money on something that really was going to cost me £700 per year for the kind of service I wanted.  There seems to be no point in buying anything except the cheapest computer next time round.  Clearly online gaming with a PC is really only open to people who can afford £1000 per year in hardware in order to engage with it.  Given that my car cost £900, it is clear that I am no longer in that social class and so will be shut our of 'Total Rome II' let alone 'Shogun 2' which taxes my machine even more because of the greater landscape graphics.  Yes, before you suggest it, I have scaled down the graphic detail on these games and that is all that has allowed me to play them into mid- to late-2014, but clearly not in 2015.

I feel an idiot for believing if I spent a large sum of money it would be enough to own a machine that would remain with me for five years.  Clearly you can only expect to have the performance you paid for, for two years.  This adds to the ever growing pile of discarded computers and all the components that go into them.  It also makes them devices which have a life expectancy far less than many electrical devices out there.  If you had to replace your washing machine every two years, it would become tiresome.  Even while I write this, the computer is straining to keep up the connection to the blog and is going into overdrive downloading some update that I cannot even see when I search the system.

I would be grateful if someone could direct me to a company that makes computers that do what you want them to do rather than insisting that their desires have priority.  Clearly that company is not Alienware and I am angered that I was so misled by them.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Be Bashless and Norant: Have Gorm and Ruth

The other day the 13-year old boy who used to live in the house I once owned, was playing a computer game in which he constructed vehicles and then takes them on to the Martian landscape where he battles with other players.  For his age, his vocabulary is incredibly developed, something I put down to him being the son of an authoress.  However, when he was playing he was telling me as his vehicle charged forward that he was being 'bashful'.  I watched his game play and said I did not think that was the case; explaining that bashful meant 'shy' rather than being 'full of bash'.  He gathered what I meant and subsequently when acting boldly in the game he now tells me that he is behaving in a 'bashless' way, which I thought was a great invention.

This then got me to thinking about words in English which lack the alternative.  English is an irrational language anyway and I am not going to get into a discussion of 'cleave' here.  The two that came to mind were 'gormless', i.e. someone who is lacking in intelligence and certainly attention and 'ruthless', i.e. someone who is merciless.  When did we stop saying someone who is intelligent or attentive is 'gormful' or 's/he has got real gorm'?  When was anyone noted as being 'ruthful'? 

I did wonder if there was another in 'ignorant'.  The prefix 'ig' can mean lacking in something, the main example being 'ignoble'.  You can be 'noble' and so I wondered if you can also be 'norant'.  Examples might be, 'that Stephen Hawkins is a really norant man'. It is clear that someone who was bashless and norant would be far more dangerous than someone bashful and ignorant. Then I came on to 'baleful' and considered how nice it would be to meet someone who was 'baleless', i.e. jolly.  Someone who was 'hapful' as opposed to being 'hapless' may indeed also be baleless as they go through life without any mishaps.  Clearly these are antonyms - hap and mishap, but they do not manifest themselves the same way in our language.  In the same category would come 'aimful', the natural opposite of 'aimless'.

English has too many left-over remnants.  It can be entertaining to note the anomalies.  However, not for the first time do they increase my appreciation of anyone able to learn English as their first or subsequent language, especially up to the idiomatic level.

P.P. 08/12/2014
As I had hoped other examples came to mind.  Two which seem to lack antonyms are 'wistful' and 'listless'.  Often they can go together as someone lost being wistful for the past can end up listless.  That is not to say that someone 'wistless', not at all looking at the past with nostalgic sentiment would be necessarily 'listful', i.e. full of life.  I did wonder if 'list' was simply a distortion for 'lust' as in the sense of 'lust for life' rather than sexual connotations.  We do not speak of anyone being 'lustless' though 'lustful' is certainly used, but again, mainly related to an urge for sex rather than for living.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Books I Read In November

Fiction
'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman
There are apparently three versions of this book.  It began as a television series (1996) prompted by comedian and actor Lenny Henry and written by Gaiman.  He then went on to write a book of the series and then a version for American readers who did not understand many of the London references, before this version which is the most comprehensive.  A movie was planned in 2009 but never came to anything but a radio series was broadcast in 2013.

I saw the series when first broadcast and watched it last year on DVD.  However, I still enjoyed the book which is close to, but does not precisely follow the series.  Gaiman has more time to fill in the background and he uses the novel form to really paint the locations and characters of London Below very richly.  The book focuses on Richard Mayhew a Scot living in London who goes to the rescue of a young homeless woman, Door.  Helping her means he is subsequently invisible to people in London and he is drawn into London Below in an effort to recapture his old life.  London Below mixes literal translations of London places, e.g. Old Bailey is an old man who keeps rooks; Earl's Court is a train on which an earl holds court; the Black Friars are friars who are black and so on.  It features exotic characters such as the Angel Islington, Mr. Croup and Mr, Vandemar assassins and the amoral Marquis of Carabas, named after a character in the 'Puss in Boots' story.  Henry and Gaiman did not want to glamourise the lives of the homeless and so as well as having fantastical elements such as the Floating Market, the Beast of London and the Velvets (as in the Velvet Underground) life is cheap and people Mayhew encounters are tortured and killed with little thought.

Overall it is a modern fairy tale and shows fascinating imagination as you would expect from Gaiman.  I enjoyed the book and recommend it if you are looking for something a little different in your fantasy reading as it has elements of many fantasy tropes, but shifts them into a grown-up and gritty context.  It may seem very different if you are unfamiliar with London, but I feel it would still be engaging as the places of London Below will be even more unfamiliar.

'Master Georgie' by Beryl Bainbridge
This is an episodic book laid out in reference to a number of photographs taken between 1846-54.  The chapters rotate through the three perspectives of people who associate with George Hardy of the title, a rather spoilt young, gay, doctor who has photography as his hobby.  Despite his shortcomings he seems to instill great loyalty in his friends and associates.  Consequently they move from London to the Crimea as spectators and increasingly participants in the Crimean War.  There is very minimal plot.  The book is about drawing in great detail the lives and characters of four people, anchored by the focus on Hardy whose perspective we never see.  This is very much a 'slice of life' book which is effective in portraying London in the mid-19th century and the squalor and difficulties of the poorly-executed British effort in the Crimean War.  It was engaging on that basis, but I like a plot and so finished it feeling a little: 'so what?'.  The quality of writing is very good and the historical detail too.  Yet, it was not really the book for me.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why Technology Cannot Entirely Replace Times Tables

The other day I was listening to a high ranking technologist asking why 7-8 year old children were expected to learn times tables by rote. From what I hear most of his audience disagreed with him. His argument was that everyone carries technology now that allows them to do multiplication, so why should anyone bother to learn to do it in their head or on a piece of paper. He argued that only people who needed this skill should learn it later as young adults. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but my mobile phone nor the camera I habitually carry has the ability to multiply. However, with the majority of even 5-year old children now carrying mobiles, many of which are smartphones, one could see his point. Yet, he has utterly missed other significant elements about why it is so important to have these basic skills. Just because they can be done by a machine does not mean that they should.

I have worked in warehouses and was able to unload pallets of boxes quickly because I knew precisely how many boxes there were on a pallet. The number on pallets varied depending on the size of the box and the heaviness of the contents and if a box or two was missing. However, I would stand there as see a pallet with five boxes down each side and stacked five high and know that there were 125 on it. If the next pallet was stacked four high, it had 100 and so on.  I knew that a stack with 5 x 5 x 5 boxes had more in it that one which was 4 x 5 x 6 boxes despite how it might appear on first impressions ('but it's stacked higher!').  Of course, there was not an infinite variety and you tended to get set quantities but my mental arithmetic was there to work out if anomalies came up. I could also work out on a piece of cardboard with a pen how much I would earn if I did overtime and how much tax I would pay on that. Yes, I could have pulled out a phone and typed in the numbers, but you try operating even a large mobile phone while wearing working gloves.

Anyone who is a parent of school aged children will know that multiplication has changed. When the boy who used to live in my house started primary school his mother and anyone else in earshot was told not to help him with multiplication because we would do it 'wrongly'. Parents were pointed to a government website to show them the right way. The method now used is 'repeated adding'. In other words if you want to work out 4 x 3, you add up 3+3+3+3. This might be fine when you are doing basic sums, but once you reach 12 times something let alone 20 times something, then you begin to see its drawbacks. The said boy is now in Year 8, i.e. 12+ and has to do the square root of decimal numbers. Try doing that with the 'repeated adding' approach! I had to teach him long multiplication because the teachers had left him without the mental equipment to do the sums. At this stage he is not supposed to use a calculator, but I imagine most children do. The thing is, mathematics is compulsory for children up to Year 11, i.e. 16, so if he does not have the tools to deal with the sums in this year, how is he going to do it over the next three?

Like the speaker, you might argue, well it is no problem, the boy simply types it into the calculator. However, you need to know what to put into the calculator. The square root of a decimal number is always larger than the number itself. However, if you have no idea of the multiplication of fractions or decimals, you are going to struggle to know what to put in. Such calculations need a lot of estimation so if you cannot get into the 'ballpark' of the answer, you are going to spend a long time with guessing. The child is a quarter of my age but saddled with the repeated adding approach I can constantly beat him in how quickly I can calculate. It should be the other way around. You need some grasp of the mathematical concepts behind the calculations you want to make otherwise you cannot be certain if you are entering the correct data. How do you know what numbers to put in for calculating the area of a circle, which you may have to do when, for example, siting a toilet or a dustbin, if you do know that the formula is πr2 (i.e. r x r; I cannot show a superscript for squared on this system).

I use mental arithmetic on a daily basis, even without thinking.  Most often this is when I am driving.  Yes, I could switch on the sat nav and have it tell me my journey time, but on the daily commute this seems pointless.  Thus, constantly I am seeing my speed and working out how much time is left given the distance.  I also work out if I have time to stop for petrol - how much that will reduce my average speed and my overall journey time.  I might also consider an alternate route and how the extra distance has to balance against the speed I am doing on the current route - something too few people balance up hence speeding through 'rat runs' when they realise the 'short cuts' are not actually saving them time.  Maybe I think about my driving too much, but among the millions of motorists I cannot be alone.  I would feel pretty powerless if I did not have a grasp of time, distance and speed as I travelled along.

Thinking more broadly, the speaker may have lauded the internet for providing what everyone needs to know.  That may be the case in his subject area, however it is not in mine.  Despite common assumptions, the amount of information on the internet on many subjects is very limited and very repetitive.  I have written on numerous occasions about the boundaries of the internet when it comes to historical knowledge.  You can soon end up reading exactly the same information again and again, with nothing new being added, even if you have the ability to hop over to websites in other languages.  Wikipedia's encouragement of using translations to flesh out entries, simply adds to that as it is the source of so much material that is used by other websites.  You also run up quickly against bias whether political, racial or religious.  I have spoken about how comment on Muslim universities in Europe has been purged and the Wikipedia entry on universities spends more time in ruling Muslim and Orthodox Christian institutions out of the definition than it does actually speaking about what a university is.  Another example, everything on Mormons appears to have been edited by pro-Mormon writers, especially playing down the hostility to polygamy in the USA of the mid-19th century and especially the number of pioneers killed by Mormon forces.  This happens so much, that actually it made me more suspicious of the Mormons than I would otherwise have been.

The internet is far from perfect.  A lot of the information on it is erroneous and shaped by people with an agenda which has little to do with putting up objective facts.  It is a hostile environment.  I have spoken before how even reviews of a First World War poem attracted more ill-informed commentary that wrecked any chance of an interesting or informative discussion about it; drawing parallels to any other conflict was ruled out and it was even questioned whether it was a First World War poem given that it had been written after the war.  The danger of errors creeping into computerised teaching systems was parodied as early as 1967 in the television series 'The Prisoner' which featured such a system called Speed Learn, but which included an error about historical dates.  Too often the internet, primarily Wikipedia has become the 'right' answer even when it is actually wrong.  It would be wrong to see the internet as decreasing human knowledge, that is not at all the case, but what it does accentuate is populist views and often particular groups' agendas, over broader discovery of knowledge.  If a time comes when it cannot be countered by other sources, then there could be argued to be a decline in knowledge.

There are practical reasons why it is a mistake to promote an over-dependence on electronic devices.  As you will have witnessed yourself, many people go to pieces when they have their mobile phone stolen or lost.  They have no idea where they should be or what they should be doing; most importantly, especially for young people, they have no idea what they should be thinking.  You will see everywhere 'phubbing', i.e. two or more people sitting or walking together and yet not talking, rather all their discussions are going on with other people not present via their phones.  To deprive them of their phones is like snatching their souls away; literally you will see them with as much distress as if a favoured pet had been lost not a machine.  Despite such dependence, in recent weeks it has been highlighted how short battery life is becoming for smartphones.  With connectivity constantly on and so many apps running, the average life is a single working day, whereas a few years ago you could expect a phone to run for a week between charges.  I imagine in time battery life will increase but at present the number of things you 'have to' be doing via your phone is increasing faster than the power storage necessary to permit that.  How can you guarantee that the moment you need to do some multiplication your battery will not be dead?

The final reason why I would argue it is foolish to simply allow people to use machines to do their multiplications for them, is because the brain needs exercise.  Constantly we are advised that to avoid the onset of Alzheimer's people need to keep working at mental challenges.  As with the rest of the body, the brain can become 'flabby' if it is not exercised.  To rely on a machine to do calculations which should be typically part of every day business, certainly if simply going shopping or how many potatoes each person in your family should get or whether you need to buy toilet roll before the weekend or will run out of petrol before you get to work or will get a better deal on one mobile phone tariff compared to another.  Yes, we do have machines that can do times tables, but as with learning about personal hygiene, manners, eating well and exercise, these are things we need to instill into children otherwise they and society will suffer as a result.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Books I Read in October

Fiction
'No Peace for the Wicked' by Adrian Magson
I actually bought this book direct from the author back in the 2000s when he visited a writers' group I was a member of then.  For some reason I had thought it was about Northern Ireland. It came out under the Creme-de-la-Crime label which aimed to bring on new authors.  Some of them seem to have done very well subsequently.  This book is very workmanlike.  It features a young female journalist, Riley Gavin, investigating the murders of old gangsters.  She enlists the help of an aged ex-military police officer turned private detective.  Their investigations primarily take place among the expatriate British community in Spain.  The unravelling of the conspiracy is competently handled.  However, there were only a few moments when I felt that the heroine or her assistant were in real jeopardy.  The criminal characters were believable and some had a genuine sinister nature about them.  The crimes being committed seemed feasible if a little mundane.  Given the action primarily taking place in Spain, only at times did I get a real feel for the context in which they were writing.  I know authors are encouraged to keep their writing lean and not over-describe but unfortunately at times this left me feeling that the settings were sterile.  Perhaps such polish comes with experience and I should see what Magson is producing now that I imagine he has had much more practice.

'The Summer of the Danes' by Ellis Peters
I am steadily working my way through the Brother Cadfael mysteries written by Ellis Peters.  This is the 18th in the series and I can certainly say it is the poorest.  As with a number of the ones before it, it takes Cadfael away from his monastery at Shrewsbury.  He accompanies a young monk on missions to two bishops in North Wales.  Peters is very good in drawing out the differences between England which had been conquered by the Normans some eighty years before the action is set and Wales which had largely remained independent retaining its own language.  Cadfael, a Welshman by birth acts as a translator and also to provide information about the differences between Wales and England, such as the lack of convents - religious women are just lone hermits and the late introduction of clerical celibacy.  There is a murder as you would expect.  However, in contrast to the other books this is largely ignored and the next phase of the book is when it seriously falls down.  There is no investigation of the murder and it is only resolved at the end by a deathbed confession as if it is an after thought.

Most of the story is about a stand off between Prince Owen, the ruler of North Wales and his younger brother Cadwaladr who has hired Danish mercenaries from their colony of Dublin to help him seize back lands taken from him by Owen as a result of him being involved in a murder.  Cadfael plays a very minimal role, at most as an observer of events he has not control over.  Instead there is a very sterile, formal diplomacy between the two sides that seems very mechanical and in fact unrealistic.  I imagine Peters was drawing on historical records of the events, but it does mean Owen and the other leaders come across almost of caricatures, doing absolutely everything very precisely to mesh into the outcome.  Witnessing such a process is not engaging.  As in many of Peters's books there is a romantic element, but with Cadfael on the sidelines, it is painfully slow in coming and again like much of the book resolved in a very pat way without really any genuine emotion.  Maybe Peters was running out of steam by this stage.  

The length of the book, more than the usual was unnecessary and simply added to the laboured feel.  It would have been better to keep Cadfael on the murder case and have the diplomatic turns of events simply reported from a far rather than us witnessing these in every detail and not through Cadfael's eyes.  I have two more of the standard sequence to complete and then a prequel.  I hope they get back to the form of the earlier books rather than replicating the flaws of this one.

Non-Fiction
'The Hunger Marchers in Britain 1920-1940' by Peter Kingsford
While the so-called 'Jarrow Crusade' of 1936 is the best known of the marches of unemployed workers in the inter-war period, Kingsford shows that it needs to be seen in the context of a much broader movement of such protests that occurred from 1920 until the start of the Second World War.  There were five national marches and many more regional or local marches.  They came under the umbrella of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) and included women as well as men.

The book is largely a record covering the people who marched, what they were campaigning for and the very varied reactions they received along the numerous routes.  For any given march it was typical for people to come from a wide range of towns and congregate on London or an important regional city.  Their very progress alerted people to the issues facing the unemployed.  Unemployment reached historically high peaks in the period but in Britain fell far heavier on particular regions than others.

As the marchers passed through many towns, the book highlights how welfare provision was very much a local concern at the time, almost just an evolution from Victorian approaches.  There was as a consequence a wide variety in its application.  Throughout the governments, apart for very short periods, were Conservative or dominated by the Conservatives.  The Labour Party, forming its first governments in 1924 and 1929-31 was generally unsympathetic to the marchers, not wanting to be seen to be contaminated by their radical approach and the strong Communist influence in the NUWM.  The TUC adopted a similar approach.  Local labour groups and trade unions, however, took a very different attitude.  The government tried to marginalise the marchers portraying them as trying to alter global economic tides that even they had no control over and emphasising to local authorities that the marchers should be treated simply as vagrants.  Increasingly the police turned to violence, notably during the 1932 national march when it reached London.

Through the period both the Labour Party and the Middle Classes grew in sympathy for the marchers and Kingsford though focusing largely simply on what happened indicates this steady shift.  The marchers won a great deal of respect through their discipline on the road and the physical effort of coming hundreds of miles from as far away as northern Scotland, the South-West and Wales to London often during the winter.

The marches did not lead to an overall change in welfare policy let alone a move to job creation.  However, they did roll back the constant attempts to scrimp on benefit payments and to make them harder to win.  These aspects are the ones which in the age of the bedroom tax seem the most current.  Yet, in a largely apolitical society there seems to be no attempt to contest such policies.  Instead, it seems now that protestors agree with the 1920s Conservatives and see the situation as only capable of being addressed at a global scale even if amelioration is provided nationally or even still locally, i.e. dependent on the attitude of local job centre staff.

This is not an exciting history book, but it is an interesting one with contemporary parallels.  It is important in alerting people to events that had a national significance eighty to ninety years ago, but these days are simply forgotten with the Jarrow Crusade, a far less political and more constrained march, being seen as the sole representation of a much broader campaign.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Books I Read in September

Fiction
'Dominion' by C.J. Sansom
I thoroughly enjoy 'what if?' novels so was really looking forward to 'Dominion', It is set in 1952 in a Britain that signed a peace treaty with Nazi Germany in 1940.  It starts with the popular but lazy assumption that if Lord Halifax had become Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill, Britain would have signed a peace treaty with Germany in the summer of 1940.  In the book while only the Isle of Wight is occupied, Britain has become a collaborator of Nazi Germany and the SS police forces are penetrating the country.  Rather than a immediate move to dictatorship this has been established through the 1940s so that by 1952 Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper magnate has become Prime Minister.  Sir Oswald Mosley is Home Secretary and Enoch Powell, India Secretary.  There is a political police force, the Auxiliary Police who intern and torture people.  Britain has retained its empire, but is highly restricted in with its ability to trade with the continent and what armed forces it can raise by the treaty it signed with Germany.  It is battling to hold on to India.  There is generally free movement of British with some having gone to the dominions and colonies and relative free trade with the USA which has been under Joseph Kennedy and is now moving under a more liberal government of Adlai Stevenson.

The book is not bad, but could have been a lot better.  There is always a challenge with 'what if?' history books in getting across to the reader what is different from real history.  This can even be a challenge when the real history is well known.  However, the writer has to trust the reader much more than Sansom does.  The first sections of the book are really a data dump about the society and the main characters' lives.  It would have been far better if these were 'discovered' more gradually as the book progressed.  My edition was 718 pages long, including an essay at the end, so there was more than enough room for the author to weave together the revelations rather than have the reader have it all laid on them so quickly.

The story features members of the Resistance to the collaborationist regime.  They are generally drawn from a middle class, civil service background, though they encounter foreigners and a few others from other parts of British society.  We also see the perspective of a German Gestapo agent and the British men he works with.  There is a McGuffin of a mentally disturbed man who has been told secrets about the US scientific developments by his brother on a visit from America.  This makes him a target for the Resistance, the Americans, the Germans and the collaborationist regime  However, ultimately, this aspect is rather wasted and proves not to be really well thought through.  After the data dump, the book settles down into being a thriller in which the Resistance have to secure the man and get him out of Britain before the Germans can take him.  The book is strongest in analysing how the protagonists become caught up with the Resistance and particularly how innocent people are sucked into the plot and the price they pay.

Throughout the book looks like it needed more re-drafting and editing.  Some of the developments seem illogical and Sansom or others for him needed to step back and look at the feasibility of what he reveals.  This undermines the strength he has in developing the tension of the pursuit making use of the smog of 1952 as a marker of the time and useful for racking up the jeopardy.  A weakness is the resolution of the book.  The regime change in Germany seems feasible, but the changes in the UK are less well thought through.  Most infuriating is that we do not find out the fate of  the key protagonists, minor characters are given more details of them.  There is a love triangle but we do not discover what happens to any of the three people we have followed closely in the travails which fill most of the book.  This jars when we know what happens to many of the less important characters instead.  I do not know if Sansom intends a sequel involving these people but it left the book unfinished.

Another challenge with 'what if?' history is not to let your own views about what is the 'right' outcome, not in the history, but nowadays, come out.  Sansom cannot rein in his hatred of the Scottish National Party (SNP).  He hates them in the present day but projects this hatred too much into the 1952 he portrays.  The novel features only one Scottish character and two brothers who attended a public school which happened to be in Scotland but isolated from its society could have been anywhere.  Thus, the bile which comes out about the SNP sticks out in the story and is too clearly the voice of the author.  This is worsened by the political essay he includes at the end of the book which has no relation to the novel.  It shows a lack of restraint on the part of the author and so weakens the book as a whole.

Sansom has put a lot of effort into his research and properly cites his sources.  Many things are handled well but the book is riddled with minor errors.  This do not mean the novel is useless but they do sap your belief in it when it should be creating a credible world.  I did not spot all of them; one journalist pointed out that the University of Oxford gives D.Phils and not Ph.Ds. Winston Churchill would not have been made Minister of Defence in 1940 because that ministry did not exist until 1964; he would have been War Minister.  It was only Churchill himself who created the title of Minister of Defence for the minister in the War Office and it seems unlikely Halifax would have invented exactly the same term.  These are pretty much 'train spotter' errors.  A greater one is showing people in 1952 shopping on a Sunday.  Even in my youth, twenty years later than the book is set, the only shopping you could do in Britain on a Sunday was at a newsagent until 12.30 and at petrol stations.  Yet in Sansom's book people are shopping in London as if it was 2014.

I am not clear why Sansom moved the German Embassy from its real location in Prussia House, i.e. 9 Carlton House Terrace in the St. James's district of London to Senate House, the headquarters of the University of London in Bloomsbury.  I can only think this is because that building is used to portray Nazi or Soviet or dictatorial or secret buildings in a number of productions such as the movie 'Richard III' (1995), the television series,  'Mosley' (1998) and the fourth series of 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' (2004) amongst many others.  Aside from Norwich Town Hall, it is one of the only examples of 'Fascist-style' architecture in Britain.  It still as a Room 101 and is known to have been the basis for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (1948); Orwell worked for the Ministry of Information which was based in the building during the Second World War.  It is clear Sansom has never been to the building as his portrayal of a panoramic view from the windows is misplaced even if all the neighbouring buildings, including the British Museum had been bombed flat.  The views are restricted by old buildings no matter which direction you look.

The greatest mistake and one which impacts on the novel more broadly, is the belief that the Germans had no easy access to uranium.  In the novel they are shown as getting it from Belgian Congo which they take over.  In reality they had free access to it from the moment they took over Bohemia-Moravia, what had been western Czechoslovakia, in March 1939.  Albert Einstein criticised the Americans for not getting as much uranium out of the region before the Germans gained control of it.  By 1944, though the Germans had not built a full-scale atomic bomb, they did at least two tests of what we now call 'dirty bombs', i.e. highly radioactive bombs but with far less explosive power than a full atomic bomb; the radiation from one test remains apparent in Germany nowadays.  The Germans are shown as not having progressed with their bomb in another eight years, despite having agents in the USA.  In our world even the USSR which had lacked the range of scientists and focus on an atomic bomb had detonated one by 1949.

This could have been an excellent book, but it needed a lot of re-working.  It needed to be shorter.  It needed the revelation of the details of the society portrayed revealed in a more measured manner.  It needed the feasibility of plot developments tested more thoroughly.  It needed Sansom to keep his politics to a blog or an article or to have written a story set in Scotland rather than the Midlands and southern England; it is not clear why he did not do that, except to make use of the smog.  It needed the story to be completed properly especially in terms of the three main protagonists.

'The Potter's Field' by Ellis Peters
This is the 18th book in the Cadfael sequence and as I have noted previously with 'The Confession of Brother Haluin' and 'The Heretic's Apprentice', by this stage of the sequence Peters was clearly looking to move beyond the restraints of Shrewsbury and its abbey.  This story is more like 'CSI: Medieval Shrewsbury' because the case is around a skeleton found in a field that has been transferred to the abbey's ownership.  Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar try to analyse who was involved in the murder and the cause primarily from the remains and where they are situated.  Various suspects arise and are dismissed and in itself this causes further suspicions.  At times, even though the bulk of her characters are male, you can feel Peters making a case for the women and how they are treated in this world.  There is an interesting tension in this book because Brother Ruald, the potter who owned the field, walked away from his wife to become a monk.  Because he was still alive she was still considered married and was not permitted to marry anyone else.  Ruald's step is portrayed in the male-dominated world as a holy one.  However, the fate of the blighted woman still in her thirties and who had an active sex life with her husband, is also shown.  Peters does not make judgements which would be anachronistic for the times, but in this story she shows how men finding their vocation could really muck up the lives of the women around them.  Almost as a balance she has a novitiate leave the order and become interested in a young woman from a neighbouring estate.  The book is brisk and a fresh departure in approach for Peters.  She will not contaminate the medieval view of how things should be, but she does lay the evidence from a woman's perspective out before the reader for them to decide whether to censure the very male-focused behaviour going on.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Guaranteeing Eternal Conservative Governments - One Victory is Not Enough to Satisfy Cameron

I did wonder during the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum why Prime Minister David Cameron was campaigning so hard for Scotland to remain in the Union.  With Scotland independent, the Labour Party would be denied 41 of its current 256 MPs.  In contrast the Conservatives have only 1 MP from Scotland among their 304 currently in the House of Commons.  It would have probably made it impossible for Labour ever to get back into office on its own ever again.  While this would not have ensured a Conservative government for ever more, it would certainly have increased the chances of that happening.  I realise now that I was naive to wonder why Cameron was behaving in the way he did.  

Today the explanation has become clear.  In fact it did not matter which way the referendum went, he had plans on how to permanently reduce Labour's majority at Westminster.  This can be seen as the next step in his shaping of democracy to constantly favour his party.  We know that boundary changes will favour the Conservatives anyway.  However, now he is going to exclude Scottish MPs from voting on legislation that is about England (and presumably Wales too).  The argument is that with certain powers being given to the Scottish Parliament it is argued Scots MPs in Westminster should not then vote on things that English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs cannot affect in the Scottish Parliament.  Of course, 83% of the UK population lives in England and with the royal prerogative legislation passed can be extended in time or scope without reference to Parliament.  Thus, now Cameron can simply introduce purely English laws, be guaranteed of opposition not being able to muster sufficient seats and then extend it to the other nations through royal prerogative.

Cameron has steadily adopted steps to reduce democracy.  The introduction of the fixed 5-year term was the first move in this direction, making it almost impossible to break the coalition or bring down his minority government.  The vote on proportional representation similarly dismissed another chance to make the UK more democratic.  Only one, poor model was offered and yet its rejection is seen as ruling out any electoral reform.  At the last election the Conservatives received 36.1% of the vote but 47.2% of the seats; Labour won 29.0% of the votes but 39% of the seats; the Liberal Democrats got 23% of the votes but only 8.7% of the seats, they should have received 149 rather than 57.  However, these things such as fair representation are seen as 'not British'.  The Conservatives benefit from the fact that most British people feel politics is somehow inappropriate for them even though they complain about its impact.

Of course, the chipping away of democracy was begun under the Blair regime.  With hindsight it appears that the governments of Tony Blair had very little to do with Labour Party values, they were simply a repackaged form of Thatcherism something Cameron is taking to new extremes.  The erosion of civil liberties under Blair, notably the extension of detention without charge; the declaration of war based on faked evidence, the elimination of some critics and steps like identity cards and the RIPA anti-terrorism legislation which has constantly been abused by local authorities, let alone the constant use of the royal prerogative established a culture in which Cameron's steps to erode democracy can prosper.

In future I will be sure to try to see behind every step Cameron takes and recognise that no matter what he says it is about, all the rubbish about being passionate for the Union, in fact his core agenda is about creating a Britain where the Conservatives will never leave office and many of our remaining freedoms will be gone.  Today I really pity the Scots for not having chosen to escape from this developing dictatorship.  I know it would have left people in England in a tougher position, but even if you cannot escape from the prison yourself it is always good to see that someone else has made it out.  Now we are simply going to share our bitter fate together and I am sure many who voted for Scotland to stay under the yoke of Westminster yesterday will soon be regretting it.