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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

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.

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.

Second paragraph of third story ("The Copsy Door", by Terry Dowling):
Not for the first time that morning, Amberlin wondered if the strange lanky creature had found a new way to slip his holding spell.
This is a collection of short stories set in the world of Jack Vance's Dying Earth, which I read and enjoyed back in 2004. It bubbled to the top of my to-read list a few months after it became the subject of polemic between one of the contributors, John C. Wright, and one of the editors, George R.R. Martin. Martin was quoted in a Guardian piece about this year's Hugos as saying about last year's:
“When the Hugo ballot came out last year it was not just a rightwing ballot, it was a bad ballot”
Wright objected:
Evidence enough that Mr. Martin had not read the works on the ballot. I say no more, lest I be accused of self-aggrandizement, for the works he thus criticizes are mine. He did not have so poor an opinion of my work when he bought it for his SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH anthology, however: a fact he conveniently forgot when he began leveling absurd and absurdly false accusations against me.
Martin riposted, devastatingly:
I do not know why Wright seems to believe that by purchasing and publishing one of his stories seven years ago, I am therefore somehow required to like everything that he writes subsequently, to the extent that I would feel it Hugo worthy.

It should be pointed out that "Guyal the Curator" was not itself nominated for a Hugo (there being no Puppies around in 2009 to push it). None of the stories from SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH were Hugo finalists, truth be told. Do I think some were worthy of that honor? Sure I do. I cannot pretend to be objective, I'm proud of the anthologies I edit and the stories I publish. Do I think that all the stories in SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH (or ROGUES, or OLD MARS, or OLD VENUS, or LOWBALL, or any of my anthologies) are Hugo-worthy? Of course not. In a normal year, the Hugo finalists are supposed to represent the five best stories of the year in that word length. Was "Guyal the Curator" one of the five best short stories (actually, it might have been a novelette, after so long I do not recall the word length) of 2009? No. It was a good story, not a great story. The Hugo Awards demand greatness. It was an entertaining Vance tribute, but it was not a patch on real Vance, on "The Last Castle" or "The Dragon Masters" or "Guyal of Sfere." And truth be told, it was not even one of the five best stories in SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH. A good story, yes, I'll say that again. But there were better in the book. (And how not? We had an amazing lineup of contributors).
As Martin says, the lineup of contributors was indeed amazing: Dan Simmons, Robert Silverberg, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Bear, Neil Gaiman. (One sad reflection is that several of them - Kage Baker, Lucius Shepard, Tanith Lee - are no longer with us.) The quality of the stories, as Ian Whates reflected at the time, is a bit variable. This is pastiche rather than originality, and Vance's style in the Dying Earth stories is easy to pastiche. But they are almost all enjoyable enough (as it happens, I didn't particularly care for the John C. Wright one). Several others grabbed me, though: "The Copsy Door", by Terry Dowling, quoted above; "The Green Bird", by Kage Baker; "The Traditions of Karzh", by Paula Volsky; "Evillo the Uncunning", by Tanith Lee.

Basically, if you liked the original Vance stories, most of these will appeal. But if you don't know them, I think it would be a bit confusing.

This was the most popular unread book on my shelves acquired in 2011. Next on that list is Warriors, another anthology edited by George R.R. Martin.

The Joy Device, by Justin Richards

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Not that in the event this mattered. The incoming ship he was meeting was itself three hours late. And that was on top of the four hours late he already knew about from the spaceport arrivals bulletin site. So he had a bit of a wait.
Again, a book by an author I generally like but this Bernice Summerfield story with a very thin plot about a heist and involving lots of favourite characters from past stories in the sequence didn't really do it for me. Oh well. More hope for the next int eh series, Twilight of the Gods by Mark Clapham and Jon de Burgh Miller, the last of this particular sequence.
I am way way behind on book-blogging, but one has to re-start somewhere.

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The clink of armour rang out through the crisp, sharp air as a squad of guards, splendid and sinister in coal-black breastplates quartered by a bold white cross, spread out amongst the townspeople.The unkempt mass of traders and townsfolk allowed themselves to be shepherded into a large and ragged group. Del Toro picked his way through the mud, staring into the eyes of the crowd before him, nodding with satisfaction at the fear visible there.
I really enjoyed Perry and Tucker's novels featuring the Seventh Doctor. This Telos novella, unfortunately but not atypically for that publisher, is way below par. The Doctor and new companion Catherine Broome land on a planet where a rather stereotypical Catholic church has declared all Time Lords to be witches. Various tediously predictable things happen, until the point where the plot ends on a twist shared with Death Comes To Time which independently came out the same year. Rather skippable, and that's the first time I've said that about these authors.

Nest in this sequence (and last of the Seventh Doctor novels that I haven't read): Bullet Time, by David McIntee.

Numbers with nothing in the middle

There is an infinite set of numbers with nothing in the middle.

By that I mean a positive whole number whose first digit and last digit are not zero, but any and all digits in between are zero.

The 81 numbers between 11 and 99 that are not multiples of ten are numbers with nothing in the middle. So are the 81 numbers of form x0y between 101 and 909. So are the 81 numbers of form x00y between 1001 and 9009. And so on.

I started wondering, which of these numbers is divisible by each prime number? What is the lowest prime number whose multiples include a complete set of numbers with nothing in the middle?

2Collapse )

3Collapse )

5Collapse )

7Collapse )

11Collapse )

13Collapse )

17Collapse )

There, I thought you needed to know that.

Saturday reading (a day late)

I've really slacked off in my reading in the last couple of weeks - lots of travel, and also reaction to the US election and other intense things going on behind the scenes. Next couple of weeks seem likly to be less hectic, but then again one never knows!

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
Prime Minister Corbyn: and other things that never happened, eds. Duncan Brack and Iain Dale

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 McIntee

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December 2016



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