Monday, 4 March 2002

Granta 71

Listening to:

Mozart, Vesperae solennes de confessore, K339.

Just read:

Granta 71: shrinks (contents)

This issue of the magazine had some good bits in it, but didn’t make much of an impact on me. The first story, by Elliott Perlman, went on for ever and never seemed to work its way to having any point. The all-knowing narrator figure quickly became a royal pain in the arse. I didn’t think much of the rest of the fiction in this issue, but at least it was all over reasonably quickly. Maybe I'll grant Paul Auster’s little story an honorable mention: it was appealingly weird and brief.

The non-fiction was better. Ian Parker's Obedience was all about the famous experiments in the early 1960s where normal Americans readily inflicted painful electric shocks on another when told to do so. The researcher who performed the experiments was Stanley Milgram. The article describes the background to his experiments, and also discusses some of the controversy that almost immediately ensued, and which arguably wrecked Milgram's career. Very interesting.

There were also a couple of non-fiction personal accounts of stressful human situations. One was by Justine Picardie about not coping with her sister's death to cancer, and the other was Tim Parks about his schizophrenic brother-in-law. (The latter may have been fiction, but it certainly read like a true-life account.) Both were quite compelling in a “twitch the front curtains” kind of way.

Now reading:

Philip Knightley, Australia: biography of a nation. Incidentally, I now have 36 unfinished books on the List.

Wednesday, 6 March 2002

Silly games and stupid newspapers

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson and his trio playing I gotta right to sing the blues.

I was briefly surveying my old web-log pages recently and checking to see how many of the links still worked. For example, all of my links to content at the (London) Times are now redirected to the newspaper's home-page. Not only is this an anal thing to do, it seems the sort of thing that will just lead to fewer people looking at their pages. But hey, if they don't want people reading their material, or looking at their advertisements...

Other links are broken because the other party seems to have undergone some sort of gratuitous reorganisation (for example, the LA Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent). Do they really have so little idea about the nature of the Web? Remote sites that get bouquets rather than brickbats are the Guardian/Observer, the Washington Post and Salon.

Friday, 8 March 2002

Towboats, games and reviews

Listening to:

Oscar Peterson and his trio playing Thags' Dance. Weird title. If you look up Thags' dance on Google, you mainly get links about this very album (The sound of the trio). I did find something purporting to be Tibetan, where a Thag was some sort of tiger-like evil spirit, though.

Update: the liner notes reveal all. Thags was a nickname for the trio’s drummer, Ed Thigpen.

I attempted to link to a neat set of pictures on Wednesday, but a keen-eyed reader pointed out that the link was broken. Here's an alternative link (“don’t try this at home”) and also to some text, claiming to explain it all.

I have just finished a stint of Civilisation 3 playing. I remember seeing the first Civilisation game on a friend's computer in the early 1990s, and being quite entranced. Civ3 is very good in the same mold, and with lots of extra enhancements. I have won a couple of games at the easiest difficulty level (sending a space-ship to Alpha Centauri as the Romans in one, and dominating two thirds of the planet's surface, principally through conquest, as the Germans in the other). I will have to crank up the difficulty another level.

I've started a page of interesting game reviews (the word “interesting” qualifies “game”, not necessarily “reviews”).

Tuesday, 12 March 2002

Australia and Timbuktu

Listening to:

Bach, prelude in F sharp major, from Book 2 of the Well-tempered clavier.

Just read:

Philip Knightley, Australia: biography of a nation.

This book is a readable history of Australia. It’s written by a journalist rather than a historian, which means that the style and tone of the writing is different from what you’d expect of a historian. For example, the first chapter reads like the sort of newspaper article you might see in the travel section of a newspaper in the UK; it waxes lyrical about how great life in modern Australia is. No doubt Knightley would call this scene-setting, but I think it’s fluff.

Nonetheless, I rather liked this book. Its coverage of events of the first half of the 20th century is engagingly written, and full of interesting detail. Even the author’s personal reminiscing is reasonably interesting. He covers the two world wars quite well, carefully explaining how the Gallipoli myth arose in WW1, and providing a good discussion of the way Australia broke free of Britain to look for help from the US in WW2.

The later sections of the book are the main cause of my not being keener on the book. Knightley gets all gushy about the Gough Whitlam government, making it sound as if heaven on earth had arrived in the early 70s. He then goes on to suggests that the CIA was involved in Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s dissolution of Whitlam’s government. There’s no point to such unfalsifiable conspiracy theories, and it just makes Knightley look silly. He’s clearly a real New Labour kinda guy, and he later approvingly claims that Tony Blair is really an Australian at heart. This is meant as a compliment, of course. How crawling can you get?

Paul Auster, Timbuktu.

This is very good book, telling the story of a dog called Mr. Bones, from the dog’s perspective, imagining that the dog has a human-like mind and the ability to understand human speech. It’s funny and sad, and very vivid. All of the people that Mr. Bones has something to do with are drawn very well, making the story very real. As I read this, I was reminded of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, which is also a fable about love and loyalty. The differences between the two books are a matter of style. Eucalyptus paints its picture in muted tones, with a distant dream-like feel, while Timbuktu is bright and almost hyper-real. I enjoyed it a great deal.

(I read the first chapter of Timbuktu in Granta 63.)

To read next:

Anita Brookner, Undue influence.

Thursday, 14 March 2002

I am an infidel

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 3 in C minor, op. 44.


I’m down to 34 books left on the List now.

I’m just back from the pool. I swam 2km and feel much the better person for it. I’m still enjoying the exercise burn in other words.

I’ve been having an amicable discussion with a religious friend recently. Needing to find a good source of refutations for his delusions, I stumbled across, and this essay, called Why I don’t buy the Resurrection story, in particular.

To close before I go to lunch, an interesting foody article of sorts, all about the McDonald’s Hamburger University.

Monday, 18 March 2002

Undue influence and Granta 72

Listening to:

Schumann, piano trio in D minor, Op. 63.

Just read:

Anita Brookner, Undue influence.

I didn’t end up liking this novel a great deal. It was strictly OK. Its style is quite restrained, and rather in the vein of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An artist of the floating world, featuring a continuous internal monologue. Ishiguro pulls this off beautifully, but Brookner’s novel fails in a number of ways. I think the most important is that the main character, Claire Pitt, is completely unbelievable. She’s a 29 year old in the 1990s and has no life. She has one friend, and never refers to having gone to school or university. She doesn’t seem to have any interests, perhaps other than visiting art galleries.

Then the plot is really pretty uninteresting. There are no great moral revelations for Claire; instead she ineffectually pursues a recently widowed man that she doesn’t really like. There are good bits. In particular, the story of what happens to the bookshop where Claire works is well done. We actually care a little bit about the two elderly sisters, their seemingly innocent view of the world, their father, and his influence on them.

Granta 72: overreachers (contents)

This issue of the magazine was a mixed bag. I liked the non-fiction, and two of the fiction pieces. One of the latter was The Hotel Capital by Olga Tokarczuk. This is a very good short story about a chambermaid cleaning a floor of rooms in a hotel and speculating on the inhabitants, who she rarely even sees. This story is vivid, and though it is also interior monologue in its way, this is appropriate enough. It differs from Brookner’s because it is driven by the character’s perceptions of the outside world, not just being sterile reflections about characters that we grow weary of.

The other fiction I liked was The Trout Opera by Matt Condon. This is set in what would appear to be pre-WW1 Australia and the section I read was narrated by a six year old boy. It’s part of a larger novel, and the presence of an eccentric German teacher who makes a positive impression on the boy, makes me fear that the rest of the novel will feature the mistreatment that Germans had to endure during WW1. Maybe I’m wrong, but in any case, the bit of it in the Granta is very appealing.

There are two particularly good non-fiction essays. One is by A. L. Kennedy about her grandfather, his passion for boxing and her memories of him. She has lots of perceptive things to say about the sport. The other non-fiction essay is by a barrister who successfully appealed a death sentence for a convicted murderer in Trinidad. He visits the island, and makes the acquaintance of a fascinating anti-capital-punishment campaigner called Ishmael Samad.

To read next:

Eric Newby, The last grain race. (32 books remaining on the List.)

Wednesday, 20 March 2002

Not that I’m a games obsessive or anything

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong and his orchestra playing That Rhythm Man, a recording made in New York on 19 July 1929. Louis Armstrong is such a star.

Two new games

I recently acquired a couple of new games. The first is Combat Mission, a tactical level simulation of WW2 combat on the Western Front after D-Day. It’s quite an amazing game, featuring 3D graphics in combination with a real dedication to historical accuracy. For instance, the fact that the Sherman tanks that the US used were prone to catching on fire at the least provocation (well, being shot at by German tanks, usually) is modelled, as is the fact that their steel plating was initially of somewhat low quality. The only advantage they had over their German counter-parts in the Tutorial scenario that I played was that their turrets could swing into position faster. The game also models infantry, artillery and other armoured vehicles. Being animated in 3D does make it rather visceral. After seeing the devastation a pair of tanks could wreak on enemy infantry, I actually felt quite horrified by it all.

The other game is much gentler, and sociable to boot, being a board game, rather than a computer game. It’s Carcassonne, and is really quite snazzy. A game (for two anyway; I’ve yet to play it with more) plays out in under an hour, and features the laying of square card tiles on the table, and the strategic placement of little wooden figures, representing your attempt to control various abstract resources. The game mechanics are very slick.

Others’ reviews for both games are linked to from my reviews page.

Finally, link from the BBC, saying that a study has shown that playing computer games is good for a child’s development and general education. If that’s true, they must be good for my development and education too!

Friday, 22 March 2002

Prove you’re not a machine

Listening to:

Mozart, serenade in D, K185/167a.

Some links:

  • An article from Wired of October 2001 about The Lord of the Rings, and the interaction between the film-makers and the fans.
  • Want to prove you’re a human (and not a computer)? Try some of the tests at They’re like very specialised Turing Tests, and one of them is apparently used by Yahoo to stop computer programs from registering with it for free e-mail addresses.
  • Finally, an engaging article on which fish species are reasonable to eat. (For example, Atlantic cod is right out.) Also, the Marine Conservation Society’s page with the details (the link from the Guardian article is wrong).

Tuesday, 26 March 2002

The last grain race

Listening to:

Shostakovich, string quartet no. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133.

Just read:

Eric Newby, The last grain race.

This book is the author’s memoir of sailing from Britain to Australia and back again in 1938-9. He was on a big four-masted barque called the Moshulu as an Ordinary Seaman, having decided that his office job in London was stultifying and a dead-end. By this time, the number of commercially active sailing ships was very small, but a few still sailed to Australia and back to pick up South Australian grain for European consumption. Apparently some aspect of the docking procedure or conditions meant that self-powered boats didn’t want to do this route.

The ship that Newby joined was mainly crewed by Swedish speaking Finns, which meant that in addition to learning how to climb ratlines and shrouds and to haul sails in the appropriate manner, he also had to learn the Swedish terminology for all these activities so that he could understand what he was being told to do.

I definitely enjoyed this book. Newby writes well, with the scenes and personalities (the other seamen) he describes coming across vividly. He also sees and conveys the humour in many situations. There are a couple of short sections early on, which he flags, that are heavily “technical”, being about rigging and sails and masts, but not understanding or skipping these two shouldn’t be a problem. I read them, but I don’t think I grasped them in their entirety, and the rest of the book was still very enjoyable.

The edition I read included some very nice B/W photos that Newby took while on the voyage. These were taken from his book Learning the ropes, which consists entirely of these photos.

To read next:

More nautical matters, but fiction this time: Conrad’s The shadow line.