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Saturday books

Current
Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat
Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, by Paul Cartledge

Last books finished
Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany, by Neil Gaiman
Bullet Time, by David A. McIntee

Next books
De Mexicaan met twee hoofden, by Joann Sfar
Last Exit to Babylon - Volume 4: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny
Twilight of the Gods, by Mark Clapham

Books acquired in last week
Political, Electoral and Spatial Systems, by R. J. Johnston
Comparing Democracies: Elections and Voting in Global Perspective, eds. Lawrence LeDuc, Richard G. Niemi and Pippa Norris

Pictures of me in 2006 and 2016

Photo of me at MeCon 9 in August 2006 taken by Cate Murphy
At MeCon 9 in Belfast in August 2006, taken by Catie "C.E." Murphy


In Helsinki in November 2016, taken on my phone by a friend

I had more hair then. I weigh more now.
[this is specifically UK oriented, but most of it will apply in any country where end-of-year greeting cards and gifts are a big deal]

Okay, now that the Christmas card season is underway, allow me to offer some first-hand tips aimed at stopping your cards getting lost or damaged in the massive crush the Royal Mail endures at this time of year. Every day I see the stack of damaged cards in the mail centre, and I try not to think about the wasted effort, and possibly even heartbreak that it represents. It's easily avoided.

The less expensive cards have awful gum on the envelopes. Make sure the card is correctly sealed, and don't be afraid to use tape if you have to.

Never, and I mean NEVER send cash money through the post. We have all sorts of casuals in during the festive season, and they can't all be thoroughly vetted. It's easy to spot a letter with a banknote in it. Really.

Identify your letter simply and easily with your surname and postcode on the back. That's enough to track you down if something bad happens. That's a good tip for all mail anyway.

Try and post all of your cards at once, and stick a rubber band around them. Everyone concerned in the handling process will bless you, and it makes them easy to handle and process, and prevents random damage occurring to them in the early stages of handling. If you have no rubber bands, accost your postman. I guarantee he will have access to thousands.

ALWAYS take them to a post office if you can. The rubbish in mailboxes is dreadful during the party season. Just today I pulled a half-drunk can of Red Bull from a box full of mail, and of course, some of it was soaked. You see worse things too. Ghastly.

If you HAVE to use a post box, bear the following in mind: Don't post mail in the rain or snow. I have scooped many tragic handfuls of mail from boxes, posted by people who should really have known better. Post boxes are not waterproof. The older ones are better. The boxes in supermarkets are great too, as the mail goes straight into a bag, avoiding much scraping and pulling.

Here's one you might not have been able to work out for yourself: If you are using a post box at this time of year, leave it as close to the collection time as you can. REALLY don't post too early in the day. Why? Well, imagine a big metal tube full of letters, with the removal window at the bottom. Imagine all the weight on top of the bottom cards, the ones which have to be removed first. Perhaps ones with a "budget" flimsy envelope. The ones which have to be pulled through the opening guarded by a rusty, fifty year old wire frame. Do I have to complete the picture? The ones posted late are usually OK, because they don't have so many on top.

Despite this, please keep sending cards. This is a great time of year for us. I'm working 12 hour days at the moment, but everyone I meet is smiling, and chatting, and wishing me a happy Christmas. I'd love to think that folks were doing all they can to make sure all of their cards arrive at their correct destinations, and everyone has as happy a festive season as possible.

On behalf of all my colleagues at Royal Mail, have a very Merry Christmas, and, of course, a Happy New Year.

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Hamilton in Chicago

I was in Chicago this weekend for SMOFcon (currently between planes in Copenhagen), and @YesTHATColette managed to get tickets for the matinée performance of Hamilton yesterday. As you may remember, I've been addicted to this show since January, so I was really glad to be able to go even though the cast is of course different to the original Broadway line-up.



In general, I loved the stage show, of course. The soundtrack cannot capture any of the visuals, let alone the superb choreography - perhaps the best bit is the rewinding of time between "Helpless" and "Satisfied", but there are many wonderful moments of using human bodies to fill the performance space. The audience is explicitly invited to participate twice, at the end of King George's first song ("All together now!") and at the beginning of the first Cabinet Battle, when George Washington invites us to cheer the contest. Some other visuals that are hinted at in the lyrics, but enhanced on stage - Peggy Schuyler irritated with her sisters dragging her out for subversive activities; the coughing and quieter Madison as Jefferson's right-hand man in every scene they do together; Burr's isolation in "The Room Where It Happens".

Of the actual performers, Hamilton and Angelica were being played by understudies, and while Angelica was still very good (Emmy Raver-Lampman also understudied the part on Broadway) I felt Joseph Morales was a bit low-key in the lead role - and this maybe affected Ari Afsar as Eliza also, as if she was more used to playing opposite the usual leading man; the father-son chemistry between Morales' Hamilton and Jonathan Kirkland's Washington was much stronger than the romantic spark between the leading couple. Kirkland's mike seemed to have been set too loud as well.

But those are my only complaints. The two outright scene-stealers were Alexander Gemignani as King George and Chris De'Sean Lee as Lafayette/Jefferson - both utterly captivating and hilarious. Gemignani (who did the pre-show "turn off your phones" announcement in character, and then asked for donations to BCEFA at the curtain call) at 37 already has a substantial career behind him; Lee is only 22 and clearly has a long career ahead of him.

The other lead role to note was Joshua Henry's Aaron Burr. He has a striking physical resemblance to Carl Anderson's Judas Iscariot in the 1973 film of "Jesus Christ Superstar", and I felt I recognised some elements of his performance directly borrowed from a film made over a decade before he was born. (I see that his first professional acting role was as Judas in Godspell.) Henry seemed to me to start a little tense but really got into it in the second half. I've mentioned "The Room Where It Happens" already as the key moment of the second half, where Burr is physically excluded from the Jefferson/Madison/Hamilton dinner; in "The Election of 1800", Jefferson is backed up by Madison in his corner, and Burr on his own in the other corner; Hamilton declares his choice from the balcony, to Burr's consternation. And during the actual duel scene, both Burr and Hamilton become magnetic.

(Of the non-speaking parts, my eye was caught by Amber Arbolino, one of the dancers who seemed to be giving well over 100% to the show.)

Anyway, those are my brief impressions and I wish I had been taking systematic notes. Can't wait until London tickets go on sale at the end of next month...

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Duolingo


Over the last month or so, I've become steadily more addicted to Duolingo, a language-learning app for smartphones. It's a nice little routine: on the bus or the train on the way to work in the morning,or lazing in bed at the weekends, I just first it up and do a couple of minutes of language practice. There is a progression of 60-70 modules of 2-8 exercises each - I'm a third of the way through courses of the two languages I have chosen, 50 days in, doing two or sometimes three exercises a day.

The exercises come in a small number of tightly constrained variations. Which of these pictures matches the word? Translate this sentence into English from the English words provided. Translate this sentence into English with no cues. Which of these sentences in the target language is the correct translation of this English sentence? Match pairs of English/target language words from this set. Translate this sentence from English into the target language. And when you go back and revise modules you have already finished, there is the tricky one of transcribing a phrase or sentence from the target language and getting the spelling right.

And on the one hand, I know perfectly well that it's no substitute for conversing with real speakers of the real language. On the other hand, it comes in nice doable bursts, and frequent repetition is very important too.

As an experiemnt, I've been doing Duolingo with Dutch, which is probably the language I am most comfortable in other than English (I am fairly fluent in German and French as well); and Irish, which I've tried in the past and found very difficult to retain. For Dutch, I've found it very helpful in freshening me up on the gender of nouns, what happens to adjectives, and some of the odder prepositional phrases. For Irish, I'm not so sure; no structure is provided, just the translation exercises, so I'm still a bit wobbly on the circumstances of eclipsis and lenition - though at the same time it's interesting to be presented with a set of examples and try to work back; why does cuisneoir become chuisneoir here, for instance?



Anyway, all this to say that if you have regular gaps in your day of the 5-10 minute range, this is not a bad way of filling them. Other languages available include Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Turkish, Danish, Norwegian (Bokmål), Polish, Hebrew, Welsh, and a few more that are in development. I have tourist level Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian, and I can see myself brushing them up and trying to crack some of the others, once I have finished the current two course.

Saturday reading

Current
Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat

Last books finished
Short Trips: The History of Christmas, ed. Simon Guerrier
Kings of the North, by Cecelia Holland
AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, ed. Nnedi Okorafor

Next books
Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany, by Neil Gaiman
Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, by Paul Cartledge
Bullet Time, by David A. McIntee

Books acquired in last week
Electoral Laws and their Political Consequences, eds Bernard Grosman and Arend Lijphart
Comparing Electoral Systems, by David M. Farrell
A Short History of Electoral Systems in Western Europe, by Andrew McLaren Carstairs

The enclave of Moreland's Meadow

I came across an interesting map the other day, showing the local government electoral divisions of north-eastern Ireland in the mid-20th century, showing dispensary districts (never heard of them before!) and electoral divisions (presumably these are the wards used for local council elections after the abolition of proportional representation in 1932):

My eye was caught by an anomaly around Belfast:


Down at the southern edge of the city, the Dunmurry dispensary district west of the Lagan includes the Malone, Derryaghy and Lissue electoral wards of Lisburn Rural Council, and the Ballylesson dispensary district east of the Lagan includes the Breda and Drumbo wards of Hillsborough Rural Council - and also a small corner marked "part of Malone", nestling in an angle of the southern perimeter of the Belfast municipal boundaries.

I found this fascinating. In general Irish political geography has avoided institutionalising small enclaves (as opposed to much bigger ones); this seems on the face of it to be a tiny sliver of Lisburn Rural Council, in County Antrim, detached from the rest and sandwiched between the County Borough of Belfast and County Down.

The location of this enclave appears to be roughly at 54.559 N, 5.932 W, the location of Moreland's Meadow, an 18 acre/7 hectare extension of the Lagan Meadows separated from them by the two straight lines of the old canal on the west, with Belvoir Forest across the river to the east (and the Newtownbreda sewage works visible to the northeast):


(Incidentally I always referred to it as Belvoir Forest Park, pronounced "Beaver", but it seems the official name is Belvoir Park Forest.)

A plausible explanation might be that the old municipal boundary of Belfast followed the canal line, and the old county boundary between Antrim and Down followed the river, leaving Moreland's Meadow stuck between.

This was surprisingly difficult to verify with online sources. The Ordnance Survey used to have a very nifty historical maps website, but it seems to be offline. Then I found a Google Books copy of Belfast: Approach to Crisis: A Study of Belfast Politics 1613–1970, published in 1973, a bit behind the curve, by Ian Budge and the late great Cornelius O'Leary (my father is referenced in a footnote on page 65). This has a map on page xxii showing the 1853 and 1896 boundaries, conveniently set off by shading to indicate the ambition of Belfast Corporation to annex neighbouring territory in 1947. Moreland's Meadow is roughly under the "E" in "RIVER LAGAN".


It's clear enough that the sharper angle of the canal, rather than the kink in the river, is that followed by the Belfast boundary. But it is if anything implied that the Antrim/Down boundary followed that of the city vs the countryside.

However. At last I located what appears to be a 1915 map of Belfast at the Charles Close collection, and this makes it clear that my initial suspicions were correct.


This map does indeed make it fairly clear where the Belfast boundaries and the Antrim/Down boundaries diverge. At the bottom left, the Belfast boundary comes in along the Upper Malone Road and the Malone Road and hits the river at Shaw's Bridge, while the county boundary continues along the river. And at the top right, again the county boundary continues along the river, while the Belfast boundary strikes east along the streets now known as Hampton Park and Galwally Park. And in the middle, the characteristic shape of Moorland's Meadow is reinforced by the Belfast boundary running along the canal to the west, and the county boundary running along the river to the east. It also fits rather neatly with the much rougher map that I started with. So my theory was right.

I do not know whether Moreland's Meadow was included in Belfast, Antrim or Down for the purposes of the electoral register. In practice, it is unlikely to have mattered - I suspect it has never had a permanently resident human population. In 1973 (possibly earlier, but I think not until then) it was incorporated into the new Belfast District Council, and the boundary between Belfast and Castlereagh Districts ran along the river (not the canal) until the local government reform of a couple of years ago, when Belfast expanded to the ring road east of the river and the entire area became part of the city.

It's been interesting to research this in the week that Belgium and the Netherlands swapped parcels of land and adjusted their border peacefully. That resolved a boundary that lasted from 1843 to 2016; the Moreland's Meadows enclave was considerably smaller, and lasted at most for 75 years.

Moreland's Meadow is grazed by cattle and features venerable oak and cedar trees. It sounds very pleasant. I must look in next time I am passing.

Kramer's War, by Derek Robinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
‘Your suite is on the first floor, sir,’ Major Wolff said. ‘It faces the sea.’
I read this when I was twelve, in 1979, a completely unsuitable age to read a novel about an American airman landing on occupied Jersey just before D-Day and causing mayhem. (A phrase from the one and only sex scene, "Her neat round buttocks bouncing", has lingered with me for almost four decades.)

Even aged twelve I knew a bit about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands - I think the Observer, which we used to read religiously on Sundays,. must have done a feature on it in the late 1970s. Even so, it was interesting then, and it is still interesting now, to read Robinson's exploration of a quaint rural isolated society under occupation by an alien force, though it is noticeable that most of the Germans are depicted as fairly humane chaps, Major Wolff having been driven out of his mind by his experiences on the Eastern Front, and only the commanding officers (and the invisible operators of Operation Todt) being real bastards.

The point I missed when I was twelve is that actually Kramer's impatience with the islanders' apparent collaboration with the Germans, and his personal acts of sabotage, make him rather an anti-hero. As it turns out, the leading islanders have long realised that collaborating with the Germans to turn Jersey into a massive fortress is likely to be the best thing they can do for the Allies - the more Jersey is fortified, the less likely it is to figure in a future Western Front, and the greater the diversion of resources from where they are really needed in Normandy or Brittany. This point is also made by Erwin Rommel who makes a brief appearance in the final chapters. (And of course this was borne out in real life; the French mainland near the Channel Islands was liberated in August 1944 but the islands themselves not until after VE Day in May 1945.) Reading it as an adult, Kramer comes over as a crass and insensitive Yank; the Germans get most of the funniest lines. Knowing what I do now about the all-encompassing evil of the Third Reich, it feels somewhat sanitised.

It was a bit poignant to read a novel set in the Channel Islands. A schoolfriend of mine from Belfast ended up working in financial services in that part of the world, and made a real success of his career, eventually getting elected to Guernsey's Police Complaints Commission; but unfortunately died last year. So it's interesting, but also sad, to reconnect both with him and with my memories of that time of my life by reading this.

November Books

Massive fail here. I think that the election and various other distractions have really hit my usual rota of book reading, both last month and this. My pathetic total is, er, 3Collapse )
Second paragraph of third chapter ("What if Lyndon Johnson had been shot down in 1942", by Robet Waller):
The B-26 Marauder bomber in which he was flying, named the Heckling Hare, was attacked on the outward journey by Japanese Zero fighters. Its right engine generator was put out of action, and bullets tore through the fuselage. Jettisoning its bomb load, it turned and crawled back to Australia. Johnson was later to magnify his single experience of combat and use it in future campaigns. He was awarded the Silver Star medal for gallantry in action. There are those who deny that Johnson’s aircraft ever came under fire from the enemy, but his indefatigable biographer Robert Caro’s interviews with the Heckling Hare’s bombardier and tail gunner support the politician’s account.1
1 For the details of the raid, see Robert A. Caro, Means of Ascent (London, 1990), pp. 39–44.
I'm often a bit of a sucker for alternative history, and bought this collection of 23 essays, most but not all about paths not taken in recent British policits, on the basis of Mark Pack pimping his own contribution, "What if Chris Huhne had beaten Nick Clegg to the Lib Dem leadership in 2007?" (answer: the coalition happens anyway, but Huhne finesses tuition fees, electoral reform and House of Lords reform better than Clegg in real life, and is reduced to 31 MPs to face a renewed leadership challenge from Clegg after 2015).

But actually by far the best contribution is by Chris Huhne himself, on "What if Britain had joined the euro?" By taking the hypothetical case, he challenges British conventional wisdom on the euro as I have never seen it done before.
For anyone who spends any time on the Continent, one of the oddities of the British political debate is the implicit assumption that the euro is a disaster and that British membership would have been a cataclysm for the economy because Britain is so exceptional and different.

Neither is true, as this chapter will show...

What would have happened if Britain had joined? Much would have depended on the foresight of British policy-makers in dealing with specific issues. By making mortgage borrowing cheaper during the boom years – and probably lengthening British mortgages – the euro would have precipitated sooner the arguments about the problems in the British housing market, to which we will turn. There are fixes for Britain’s housing problems now, and it is as true today as it was in 1997 that interest rates and the exchange rate are an implausible fix for a broken property market.

But what about the big adjustments to economic shocks – which, it can be argued, require the flexibility in interest rates and the exchange rate that are denied to euro members? As it happens, Britain outside the euro suffered one of the worst shocks in Europe precisely because of our dependence on financial services, and the 2007–08 global crisis that began with Lehman Brothers in New York. The fall in British GDP – in the economy’s output – was unusually severe by historical standards.

Yet I will argue that the response of the economy to that shock shows that we did not need either a separate exchange rate or a separate interest rate, and that the British economy was surprisingly well placed to adopt a single currency because of the flexibility of its labour market. Indeed, the hard evidence from the history of the recession and the recovery is that Britain was better placed to join and remain a member of the euro area than any of the existing members except Germany.
It is a tremendously provocative argument, and without being an economic expert myself, but being well aware of the extraordinary lies told by the Brextremists in UK political debate, I find it very attractive.

I'm afraid a lot of the other chapters left me rather cold and made me realise to what extent Westminster politics matters only to those who are really interested in it: what if David rather than Ed Miliband had won in 2010? what if George Osborne had resigned in 2008? what if Andy Burnham had won in 2015? I found it difficult to care that much. But I guess I should also mention with honour Tina Burrett's thoughtful analysis of "What if Primakov, not Putin, had become Russian president in 2000?" and Adrian Moss's humorous victory for Ed Miliband, "What if Lynton Crosby had changed sides in 2015?" Worth a look for politics junkies, and Huhne's piece is worth the cover price on its own.

Interesting Links for 29-11-2016

Antarès, Épisode 1, by Leo

This is the eleventh in the series of Les Mondes d'Aldébaran, the lush sf graphic novels by Brazilian-French writer/artist Leo (Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira), and the start of Antarès, the third of the four sequences within the cycle. Good news, Leo fans: three films are being made based on the five books of the first cycle, Aldébaran, directed by Emanuel Buriez, but no details of who will take the starring roles as yet. The films are due to come out in 2017, 2018 and 2019; I may try and make a rare cinema excursion to see them.

This first album in the new sequence has two strands, the problems of a reconnaissance team on the planet known as Antares (not of course in orbit around Antares, just a star in roughly the same direction as seen from Earth), and the efforts of the Forward Enterprises corporation of New York to persuade Kim, the heroine of the first two series, to lead an expedition to find out what is going on. Kim has her own problems, having been impregnated by an alien being in the middle of the previous book and producing a little girl with fins and gills. By the end of this volume she has reluctantly agreed to return to space with her old comrades and her child, and we are braced for the next volume.

Double value from my usual excerpts policy today. Here is the second frame from page 3:

Mei: "Even though we know that really their meat is inedible..."
Salif: "But they don't know that we know that..."
Zao: "We've talked about this thousands of times, Mei! Our safety depends on the Antares project continuing: if it is ended, nobody will come to look for us, we'll spend the rest of our lives here, on this wild planet."
And the second frame from the third section of the story:

Salif: "Pah! At this distance I could hit a fly's head!"
Zao: "Shut up and shoot!"

Both of these are from the plotline dealing with the frustrated and endangered advance party on planet, siblings Mei and Zao, and Salif whose favourite T-shirt says "je viens de Mali". He's come a long way.

Presidential terms, in graphs

Here's a nice graph.

"Yes, Nicholas, but what does it mean?"

Let me tell you what it means.

Along the bottom you will see the names, in order, of the US Presidents to date.

Immediately above them is a blue line, which corresponds to the length of each president's term in days. (Counting Cleveland's two terms separately, and assuming Obama serves until 20 January 2017.)

Above the blue line is an orange line, showing the cumulative terms of pairs of presidents who served successively. So the leftmost point corresponds to the almost 12 years, 4,325 days, served by Washington and Adams; the next point is at almost the same level, corresponding to the twelve years exactly, 4,382 days, served by Adams and Jefferson. (Usually there are 4,383 days in twelve years, but 1800 was not a leap year.) And so it continues, dipping to four years for Harrison/Tyler, Taylor/Fillmore and Garfield/Arthur, rising to twenty years for FDR/Truman, and ending with a stable sixteen years for Clinton/Bush and Bush/Obama.

The third line, which is grey, combines each group of three successive presidential terms - from almost 20 years for Washington/Adams/Jefferson to 24 years for Clinton/Bush/Obama, peaking at twenty-eight for FDR/Truman/Eisenhower, dipping to eight three times.

And so on up to the top.

The two presidencies of less than a year - the elder Harrison and Garfield - have the most noticeable effect on the graph, sharp jumps rippling up through the centuries. There are similar but shallower gradients associated with the other short presidencies - Taylor/Fillmore, Harding, Ford, Kennedy.

But if you look closer, you can also see the impact of timing. Both Harrison and Garfield died less than a year into office; both succeeded one-term presidents (Van Buren and Hayes); both of them succeeded eight-year presidents (Jackson and Grant, who had other things in common). So in both cases the gradient shows a sharp decline/increase as those factors hit. By contrast, although Taylor and Fillmore both served less than four years, they were in the middle of a period of one-term presidents and therefore stand out less.

The shallower ripple from FDR's 12 years is also visible - boosted by the fact that his immediate successors also served relatively lengthy terms, but both before (Hoover/Coolidge/Harding) and after (Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon/Ford/Carter) there were periods of shorter service.

I'm sure this can be made more beautiful with someone who has better graphic skills than I do. If you decide to have a go, try this one as well:



This is the inverse of the other graph, in a way. I've taken each quadrennial period, from inauguration to inauguration (thus counting the shorter 1789-93 and 1933-37 periods equally with the rest) and calculated what fraction of a presidential term fitted into each. So, for the 1841-45, 1849-53 and 1881-85 quadrennia, the lowest line, blue again, peaks at 2 presidential terms; FDR's first term, from 4 March 1933 until 20 January 1937 (the date of Inauguration Day was changed by the Twentieth Amendment), was 32.1% of his entire time in office and so represents the lowest dip, fractionally below the 33.0% of the 1937-41 and 1941-45 periods. The next line up shows how many presidents served in each eight-year period, starting at 1 (Washington, 1789-1797) and ending at 1 (Obama, 2009-2017) and dipping to 0.651 (FDR, 1933-41).

You can see the ripple effect of the lengthy presidencies from 1933 to 1961 going right up through the graph. The longer presidential terms both at the start and the end of the overall peiod from 1789 to 2017 also slim down the contours at the edges. Of the shorter presidencies, the Garfield/Arthur period of 1881-1885 stands out a bit more than the earlier ones, partly just because it is closer to the middle I suppose.

Unlike the earlier graph, there are some striking horizontal lines here. The brown line seventh from the bottom, representing 32 years, is almost flat from 1845-1877 to 1881-1913, with eight full presidencies in each of the 32-year periods 1845-77 (Polk-Grant), 1849-81 (Taylor-Hayes), 1853-85 (Pierce-Arthur), 1857-89 (Buchanan-Cleveland 1), 1861-93 (Lincoln-B Harrison), a bit more than eight in 1865-1897 (Lincoln served 3% of his presidency after the 1865 inauguration, then there are eight from Johnson to Cleveland 2), a bit less in 1869-1901 (Grant-Cleveland 2 is seven, and McKinley served 88% of his presidency before the 1901 inauguration), a sliver less in 1873-1905 (half of Grant's term, seven from Hayes to McKinley, 46% of Theodore Roosevelt's term), and eight exactly again in 1877-1909 (Hayes-T Roosevelt) and 1881-1913 (Garfield-Taft). There are others further up (notably near the top, where the 8,4,8,8,8 pattern of the first five presidencies is matched by the most recent five, so Washington-Carter, J Adams-Reagan, Jefferson-GHW Bush, Madison-Clinton, Monroe-GW Bush and JQ Adams-Obama are all periods of 192 years with 39 full presidential terms).

Again, I suspect that someone can present this more beautifully than I have done. If you do, please give me credit!

Saturday reading

Alas, our valiant household computer is dying, and much of the day was spent tactfully lining up a replacement.

Current
Kings of the North, by Cecelia Holland
AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers, ed. Nnedi Okorafor
Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat
Short Trips: The History of Christmas, ed. Simon Guerrier

Last books finished
Kramer's War, by Derek Robinson

Next books
Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany, by Neil Gaiman
Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, by Paul Cartledge

Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

Second paragraph of third chapter:
No one had been more surprised than Neely. One critic had actually called her the freshest new talent to come along in many a season. This accolade, coupled with the new apartment, made her almost believe she was someone.
This was the best-selling book of 1966 (since I read the best-selling book of 1916 a couple of weeks earlier). It's a grim yet unputdownable novel about three women who get into showbiz in New York immediately after the war ends in 1945, and how over the next twenty years, on both coasts and in Europe, their lives are wrecked by men, by sedatives and by each other. Apparently readers of the 1960s liked to try and identify the characters with real stage and film personalities; I found the fantasy world constructed by Susann compelling enough on its own terms without needing to reach for external validation. I would love to see the film some time.

Interesting Links for 25-11-2016

SPQR, by Mary Beard

Second paragraph of third chapter (on the earliest remaining scrap of written Latin):
The text is in many respects extremely frustrating. It is incomplete, the top third of the pillar not surviving. It is close to incomprehensible. The Latin is difficult enough anyway, but the missing section makes it almost impossible to grasp the meaning fully. Even though we can be certain that it does not mark the tomb of Romulus – or of anyone else – most interpretations amount to little more than brave attempts to string together into some vague sense the few individual words that are recognisable on the stone. One notable modern theory is that it was a warning not to let yoked animals drop excrement near the shrine – which would, apparently, have been a bad omen. It is also very hard to know how old it is. The only way to date the text is by comparing its language and script to the handful of other surviving examples of early Latin, for the most part equally uncertainly dated. Suggestions have ranged over 300 years, from around 700 to around 400 BCE. The current, fragile consensus is that it was inscribed in the second half of the sixth century BCE.
I knew of Mary Beard when I was a student at Cambridge - I think I may have bumped into her at Fisher House a couple of times - and of course I've followed her more recent writings now that she has become all famous. One of my frustrations with Gibbon is that he starts around 100 AD without much explanation of what came before - yet for most students of classics (including me back in my Latin O-Level days) the meaty stuff comes a good century before then, with Cicero, Virgil, Ovid and all those guys. Mary Beard has looked instead at the history of Rome up to 212 AD when Caracalla granted all adults full citizenship, and it's a much more varied story. She starts with the Catiline conspiracy in 63 BC, then loops back to the mythical foundation of the city and the various conflicting accounts thereof, and then slowly progresses forward through the centuries. There is lots of fascinating circumstantial detail; I loved this account of an early diplomatic/lobbying mission:
Representatives from the East repeatedly came to Rome in the hope of winning moral support or military intervention. That is a running theme in the historical accounts of the period: there are plenty of envoys reported, for example, in the run-up to Aemilius Paullus’ campaign against Perseus, trying to persuade the Romans to do something about the ambitions of Macedon. But the most vivid picture of how this ‘courting’ worked in practice comes from Teos, a town on the western coast of modern Turkey. It is a mid-second-century BCE inscription recording the attempts made to draw the Romans into a minor dispute, about which nothing else is known, over some land rights between the city of Abdera in northern Greece and a local king, Kotys.

The text is a ‘thank-you letter’ carved on stone, addressed to the town of Teos by the people of Abdera. For the Teans had apparently agreed to send two men to Rome, almost lobbyists in a modern sense, to drum up Roman support for Abdera’s case against the king. The Abderans describe exactly how this pair operated, right down to their regular house calls on key members of the senate. The delegates apparently worked so hard that ‘they wore themselves out physically and mentally, and they met the leading Romans and won them over by paying obeisance to them every day’; and when some of the people they visited appeared to be on Kotys’ side (for he had also sent envoys to Rome), ‘they won their friendship by laying out the facts and paying daily calls at their atria’, that is at the main central hall of their Roman houses.

The silence of our text on the outcome of these approaches hints that things did not go the Abderans’ way. But the snapshot here of rival representatives not merely beating a path to the senate but pressing their case daily on individual senators gives an idea of just how actively and persistently Roman assistance could be sought.
Lots of interesting material about how Rome moved from Republic to Empire, how life was for people at all levels, and a great deal about how our perception of the Romans has changed over the most recent period. A fascinating long read.

This hit two of my lists simultaneously, top non-fiction and top book by a woman. Next on those lists are The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj and To Lie With Lions by Dorothy Dunnett.

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