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.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Readers of Alternate History Books Living in a Different World

As people who have visited this blog before will know, I am a keen writer. I have over thirty e-books up for sale on Amazon. Most fall into two categories. One is detective stories set in 1920s Germany and the other are two sorts of alternate history books - some are stories and some are essays. I have much greater problem with the latter than the former. I do keep running into Americans who believe my syntax is wrong. I keep checking and checking, running every device and pair of eyes I can use over the work and cannot see what they are referring to; Word certainly does not agree with them and it is a stickler even for the correct use of 'which' and 'that' and likes to see no implied verbs or nouns, something it seems does not occur in American compared to British.

I used to write collections of essays about various what if? scenarios from different periods of history, This was something I had done initially on this blog and then turned into books. However, many people did not seem to understand that they were not stories and so would buy them and then complain when they got something different. It only takes one 1-star or 2-star review on Amazon to end your sales of a book and so many of mine whilst still available sell nothing. It used to be that you could take down a book, revise it and put it back up again without the old reviews remaining. Amazon have removed that ability and so you end up in the difficult situation that reviews will often be attached to a book referring to content which is no longer in it because it was removed during revision. Like eBay, Amazon is all about the buyer and the seller is simply taken for granted, they lack the ability to respond to what is said, however erroneous.

One reviewer complained that there were no maps and no photographs. I am experimenting on getting maps into my e-books but trying to get them of sufficient quality and clarity is a challenge. As for photos or even computer-drawn maps, the main challenge is the copyright charges would quickly exceed any money I would make on the books, let alone barring me with any profit. I would love to have photographs but until someone can find me a copyright-free source of numerous famous historical figures then that will be impossible without me losing money.

I have had readers demanding that I include ratings of how feasible a particular outcome would have been. Though, of course, that is an opinion of every reader and would make little sense. I never want to patronise my readers and maybe that is my problem. These days readers expect every last item pointed out explicitly to them and every loose end tied up. It is incredibly difficult to have a trilogy with an ongoing plot accepted, people want everything resolved by the end of a single book. One reviewer insisted that I was not firm enough in my conclusions and that I should say explicitly what outcome I believed would occur. He argued that because my conclusions left too many options open, my books should be removed from the Alternate History category on Amazon, but it was not clear where he expected them to go instead. As usual, it seems he simply wanted me to remove my books from sale. I was once surprised how angry my books made people but no longer. I do lack the arrogance to simply say that something would have happened. That is not really the work of an essayist about alternate history as the veracity of any outcome can never be known. It is the realm of the novelist and short story writer, which is why I may be having less problem since abandoning the essay books in favour of more clearly works of fiction.

A review posted today about one of my alternate history books of essays, 'In Another America: Views and Reviews of Alternate Histories for the USA in the 17th-20th Centuries' drew my attention to something which I had missed and alerted me to the fact that I should recognise how alien some of my potential readership is. The reviewer criticised the book for being 'sanctimonious'. He also felt it was wrong of me to judge the real outcomes of the American Civil War and the Vietnam War as the correct ones. I have known for a while that many of the alternate history books available on Amazon are written by extreme Republicans from the USA. As a commentator on the review pointed out, this led Richard J. Evans to publish 'Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History' (2014) which according to 'The Guardian' review: 'Evans's rigorous demolition of what-if? narratives decries counterfactual history as a fundamentally reactionary pursuit'. Of course, I disagree and saw no point in reading this book. However, with the kind of input I am getting from readers of my books, I am beginning to feel that even if not all the writers are strongly right-wing, the majority of readers are.

In addition to criticisms about my views on the American Civil War and the Vietnam War, there was criticism that a story set in 13th century France was told from the perspective of the French people and not that of the Mongols. On this basis, the book was condemned as 'a primary school exercise'. The assumption is that real men would write from the perspective of raiders who slaughtered thousands and destroyed much of cultural importance not only in Europe but huge swathes of Europe. Only a child would seek to explore the reaction of Christian Europeans to that assault, even though their culture is one from which ours (yes, and that includes you Americans) has evolved. Only now do I see that these Republicans have no investment in the society in which they live; they have no interest in democracies or freedoms and would rather live in a barbaric society in which the determining factor is how brutally you can murder people and how effectively you can destroy buildings, art and literature. Unfortunately this seems to be a large part of the readers attracted to my books. It is not surprising that they are disappointed.

Returning to the latest review, I had to remind myself that for Americans, 'liberal' equates to left-wing rather than centrist. I was criticised for seeing social welfare as beneficial, the reviewer said disparagingly: 'He thinks that progressive social programs are good.' I think I would be pushed to find anyone who though they were bad, but again, I am not living in the USA where I know they attacked ideas around public health care as being akin to the extermination policies of Stalin and Hitler. Maybe I am wrong. Write in and tell me if you think there should be no social benefits for anyone and that the National Health Service is doing bad to the UK.

The reviewer goes on: 'He presents many debatable points and simply assumes that any informed reader will agree. He does this a lot when the question is regarding questions of the desirability of specific historic outcomes - for example, a confederate victory in the Civil War, or US victory in Vietnam.' My simple answer to this is - yes I do make that assumption. If you are intelligent enough to read my books, then surely you must accept that slavery was a bad thing and was not benefiting the USA at all and that the South has benefited immensely from being part of the broad Union. Convince me that Texas and Florida would be as wealthy now if they were part of the CSA. It was at that moment that I realised that it was like I was dealing with people from a different planet.

Despite living in one of the largest and longest enduring democracies in the world; a multi-cultural state that offered refuge to persecuted people from across the world, these people feel that that is all wrong. Instead, they feel that no-one should assume that that is the correct model, and in fact, that slavery and harsh racial division could somehow have been a better option. I presume the reviewer is a white man. I imagine he would get a very different perspective if he spoke to a black or Hispanic neighbour or someone whose ancestors fled from Nazism in Europe or simply spoke to a woman. Remember the Confederacy was hardly advanced on women's rights either. I thought there might be some Americans who still supported slavery, but I imagined they were unlikely to be buying books or reading. What is shocking is the overlap between those two categories of people in a modern democracy.

Now, one can certainly debate the desirability of a US victory in Vietnam rather than the withdrawal in 1973. By that stage US troops had been in the country for eight years without being able to defeat either North Vietnam nor the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. I have heard of the futility of the effort from a man who was there. The war also had immense impact on neighbouring Laos and Cambodia leading to decades of slaughter and hardship. If you go to Vietnam the impact is enduring in the number of US landmines across the country and the number of mutated children as a result of US chemical warfare, even forty years on. The USA did not leave Vietnam as a result of pressure from any other country. Withdrawal occurred under a Republican President, Richard Nixon who had great cold warrior credentials. The defeat has traumatised the USA and maybe I under-estimated the fact that even since the end of the Cold War and Vietnam becoming a popular tourist destination for Americans, it cuts so hard that they lost the conflict. However, let us reflect on how much worse it would have been if the USA had won in Vietnam. Of course, in this judgement the Vietnamese will not enter the equation as they never do in American judgements of the success or failure of the war.

My life has been made easy by a commentator on Amazon who has pointed to the US victories in the Gulf War of 1990-91, the Iraq War of 2003-11 and in Afghanistan, 2001-11, though effectively ongoing as is the conflict now back in Iraq. In all of these cases the USA won the war and yet that meant years of commitment in terms of troops and resources, it also meant ongoing deaths and maiming for many US service personnel. If the USA had won in Vietnam in 1972 would the US public have tolerated troops still being there in 1980? How many more Americans would have been killed or mutilated? How many more young men would have left the USA to escape the draft, taking their input into the economy with them? How much racial tension would have been stoked up by African-Americans feeling they were fighting the war on behalf of the WASPs? How much money would have been drained from the US economy? How bad would the USA's relations with the rest of NATO have been? How hostile would China have remained to the USA? How authoritarian would the government have had to become to suppress the growing anti-war protests? How long would Thailand have put up with Vietnamese refugees? How soon would it have been before a madman like Pol Pot in Cambodia have begun to introduce genocide in Vietnam? You can lie about these things and pretend that a US victory would have created a peaceful prosperous country by 1973 with minimal input in terms of soldiers or dollars. However, you only have to look at the bitter, protracted involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan after what were declared victories, to see that a win in Vietnam for the USA would have had far worse consequences than the defeat.

What I have come to realise is that I am living on a different planet to some readers and certainly my reviewers. There society is straining because it is compelled to live in democracy, with civil liberties and opportunities. Over here, and I know President Obama and many millions of Americans are on this side of the portal, we think democracy is a good thing and we work hard to maintain it. We look at the history with interest and will often speculate about why it turned out a particular way and if any alternatives were feasible. However, over here we like our safety, our freedoms and our tolerance and have no desire to visit a world where Mongols slaughtering and destroying are seen as the correct models for how we should live.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Books I Read in August

Non-Fiction
'Blind Eye to Murder' by Tom Bower
This is a book a little like 'Petain's Crime' that I read earlier in the year which touches on an aspect of history that you have some familiarity with but no real understanding of the extent to which bad things happened.  Bower looks at the failure of all of the Powers that occupied Germany after the Second World War - Britain, France, USA and USSR to effectively bring the majority of Nazis to trial let alone punishment.  While it has the earnest approach of 'Petain's Crime', it is less frantic in what it communicates.  This is useful as it covers and immense number of individuals not simply among the occupying powers and the German population but across Europe and in North America too.  It highlights the fact that despite the rhetoric of the leaders, the bulk of the military and especially the civil services of the occupying countries had no interest in punishing all but the most senior Nazis.  Pressure from leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill did mean that some of those who ran death camps or carried out war crimes against soldiers and civilians were brought to trial.  However, the numbers were tiny compared to the 250,000 Germans and other nationals believed to have had a direct role in carrying out the Holocaust, let alone other facets such as persecuting non-Jewish and disabled Germans.  The businessmen and the judges who funded and supported the regime largely escaped scot-free; 90% of West German judges in the 1950s had served in that role under the Nazis.  Police forces and businesses were filled and led by men and women who had taken an active part in Nazi repression.

What is most sickening is not that so many Germans and their allies slipped through the net, but the sustained prevarication among the officials charged with bringing them to justice.  Their reactions varied from seeing no point to believing that no-one could be charged because the crimes went beyond normal laws to disbelieving the repression had occurred to thinking that to punish such people would simply let the Soviets overrun Europe.  This is a story of how governments squirmed and twisted away from seeking out, arresting and charging even a tenth of those directly involved in heinous crimes.  What is worse is that they suspected those who had fought against Nazism, the refugees and those of Jewish background of some sinister plot in seeking out war criminals.  Many of the victims of the Nazi crimes were denied pensions when those who had ran death camps were usually paid handsomely by the West German state.  It is an infuriating book which explains why the German youth of the 1960s were so furious at the establishment of their countries - both West and East Germany.  It is clear that despite the changes they were largely living in a legacy of the Nazi regime and those who had prospered under it continued to do so, while those who had opposed the dictatorship saw no retribution let alone gain.  A very sobering, detailed book which shows the incompetence and corruption that characterised post-war Germany and the countries involved with it.

Fiction
'The White Guard' by Mikhail Bulgakov
I read this book soon after it was recommended in 'The Guardian' as a book to read as an example of Ukrainian literature.  Having bought it in 1995, I was obviously ahead of the trend.  Though it was written in 1925 the play which is an abridged version of the novel gained more attention and it was only when the book appeared in its full form in the USSR in 1966 (I read an American edition from 1971) that it gained recognition.  I found the book utterly infuriating.  While it is not one of those books I regret buying, I did feel my time could have been better spent reading something else.  It is set in weeks at the end of 1918 when German soldiers retreated from Russia and left the Ukraine to be fought over by a range of factions. 

The story centres on a group of young adult siblings living in an apartment in Kiev and their landlord living downstairs.  There is very little direction in the story, it simply conjures up the chaos of Kiev at the time.  Various characters venture out into the streets  to have odd encounters and get mixed up with the forces trying to hold the city or simply use the situation to steal.  It is very much a 'slice of life' book which comes to an end in early 1919 with nothing resolved either for the characters, Kiev or Ukraine.  Perhaps that is the point, but if you want any resolution you will not find it in this book.  An article from 1967 included at the end of the edition I read points out that the apartment that the story is set in was Bulgakov's actual apartment in Kiev.  Thus, it is not clear really how much of it was semi-autobiographical.  No matter what the interest of the setting, overall I found this a frustrating book that I would not recommend even if you have a yearning for Ukrainian literature.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Books I Read in July

Fiction
'The Heretic's Apprentice' by Ellis Peters
It is interesting now I am into the last few Brother Cadfael novels, that whilst Peters included many characteristic elements, she sought also to broaden the stories as seen with 'Brother Halouin's Confession' which went away from Shrewsbury and involved a complicated plot around a forbidden marriage.  In this book, along with the usual elements of monastic life, life around medieval Shrewsbury and some elements of herbalism there is also a portrayal of Christianity in England at the time and what was perceived as heresy.  Elave is a young man returning from a pilgrimage to the Middle East with his employer.  The journey has taken seven years and has included visited to other holy sites in Europe.  The employer dies and Elave brings his body back to Shrewsbury where the man as a patron of the monastery.  Elave voices some of the views of his late employer, such as the fact that he cannot believe that young babies that die unbaptised will end up damned, though this goes against the principle of original sin, the view that everyone is damned until baptised because of the taint of Adam's sin.  He also rails against the view that some people will always be damned; i.e. that there is an 'elect' able to get into Heaven and others, no matter how well they live their lives will not be able to do so.  Interestingly, though this was a view being espoused by the Catholic Church in the 12th century, it is actually closer to the views of the Protestant Calvinists.  Thus, though there is a murder and the theft of an ornate case carrying something precious but unknown, there are also sections in which there is theological discussion as Elave seeks to prove that his views are legitimate and that he is not a heretic.  He receives a range of reactions from senior clergy from the dogmatic to the pragmatic.  This extra element added a depth to this story and marked it out from some of the others.

'Making Money' by Terry Pratchett
This is the sequel to 'Going Postal' (2004) which unfortunately I have not read; it precedes 'Raising Steam' (2013) and like those books focuses on Moist von Lipwig, a former con man who is employed by the Patrician, i.e. dictator, of the fantasy city of Ankh-Morpork.  In this story he is bullied into moving from the post office that he revitalised in 'Going Postal' to running the bank and mint of the city.  With the focus on coins and simply on storing money, there is no capacity in the city for raising loans particularly for capital investment.  As with 'Going Postal' with the creation of paper money and bank loans, the story marks the gradual evolution of Ankh-Morpork from a Medieval, perhaps Renaissance, style city to a Steampunk/Victorian one.  Of course as with much of Pratchett's latter works, it is more a satire than downright humorous and many child readers will miss references to jokes about banking, the need for gold reserves and mental health issues like people believing they are Napoleon.  The reference to the 'glooper' modelled on a real machine built to show the impacts of money flow in the economy through the movement of water is something only people of my age or older would remember seeing on television in the 1970s.

Most people read the Pratchett books chronologically.  However, I think there are grounds on which to read some of them thematically and the von Lipwig trilogy is one example.  Characters from other Discworld books do turn up, but the manner of humour is more consistent if you follow the same character through the sequence.  For me of course, the order in which I read them is based on when I find them in the charity shops.  While I can find Pratchett novels from the 1980s with relative ease, people seem to be holding on to ones of the early 2000s so rather a gap has opened up in my reading of them.  This book was not laugh-out-loud, but its gentle ribbing of the banking sector just at the time it was beginning to go very wrong (2007) plus darker references to obsession with money and powerful individuals, make this an engaging book.