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How Loud Can You Burp? by Glenn Murphy

I'm well behind on book-blogging - a backlog of about 15 books at present. Three consecutive weekends of travel, and then being knocked out by a bug for a couple of days last week, can have that effect. Anyway, getting back in the swing, here's one of the Science Museum's sets of answers to questions asked by younger visitors. The second paragraph of the third section is:
But let's face it - the coolest machines in the world are the ones that let us zoom all over the planet at crazy, breakneck speeds. Cars, trains, ships and planes carry us across countries, across continents and across oceans. And they do it all in style.
It's breezily broken up into five sections, first on human biology ("The Science of Me"), then on climate, speed, the brain (psychology and perception), and biological and scientific extremes ("The BIG questions"). The second section is particularly interesting, presumably intended to help readers in lunch break debates with young climate change deniers. Anyway, strongly recommended for the next generation of science fans, along with the other books in the series, Why Is Snot Green? and Will Farts Destroy The Planet?

This was the next book chronologically in my LibraryThing catalogue that I'd forgotten to tag as unread but still wanted to read. Next in that list is Roald Dahl's autobiography, Boy.
How Loud Can You Burp?

The Voters of MidAmeriCon 2

Last year I posted an analysis of the Sasquan members who lived in the 50 US states, and found that by and large they are in states that vote more liberal than the US median. (I used this ranking from The Hill, which dates from October 2014 but is probably still more or less valid.)

I've repeated the exercise for MidAmeriCon 2, and not surprisingly - given that the local pool is Kansas and Missouri rather than Washington, Oregon and California, which are three of the four most liberal states - the numbers seem to lean a bit less to the left. Of Sasquan's members from the 50 states, more than half lived in the most liberal 7 of those states; for MAC II, the median member on the left-right spectrum lives in the 16th most liberal state (New Jersey) rather than the 7th (Massachusetts). For Loncon 3, it was the 12th most liberal state, Illinois.

That still means that MAC members are more likely to live in liberal states than the US population as a whole, if not as much so as Sasquan (or Loncon) members. The boost for Kansas (fourth most conservative) and Nebraska (sixth) is offset to an extent by a smaller boost for nearby Illinois, and losses from Idaho and Utah. 70.5% of Sasquan members (and 67.9% of Loncon 3 members) from the 50 states lived in places that were at least as liberal as the median state, Ohio. For MidAmeriCon that ficgure is 61.1%.

Of course, I have no information about whether MAC II members are in general more or less liberal or conservative than the rest of the people living in their states. But it is pretty clear that they are more likely to come from liberal states than from conservative ones, if less so than the two immediately preceding Worldcons.

tableCollapse )

For obvious reasons, I'll let someone else do this calculation next year.


Saturday reading

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
The Unicorn Hunt, by Dorothy Dunnett
Selected Stories, by Alice Munro

Last books finished
Quantico by Greg Bear
The Last Man, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Chroniques de Fin de Siècle 3: Chooz, by Santi-Bucquoy
Not the Chilcot Report, by Peter Oborne

Next books
Peter & Max, by Bill Willingham
The Hidden War, by Michael Armstrong
Short Trips: 2040, ed. John Binns

Books acquired in last week
Bételgeuse v5: L'Autre, by Leo
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
There Will Be War vol X, ed. Jerry Pournelle
SJWs Always Lie, by Vox Day
Between Light and Shadow, by Marc Aramini
Nethereal, by Brian Niemeyer
Traitor's Blade, by Sebastien de Castell
Not the Chilcot Report, by Peter Oborne

The 1980 Hugo Awards, revisited

The earliest Hugos for which I have been able to find full voting numbers are the 1980 Hugo awards given at Noreascon Two.  The details were release in December 1980, some months after the convention was over, and are available in a seven-page PDF here (the last two pages of the scan are in the wrong order).

563 nomination votes were received, which was a record at the time but was exceeded four times in the rest of the 1980s.  (See George Flynn's records.)  Nominations seem to have then dipped again until the recent rise.

The 1788 votes for the final ballot were also a record at the time, and a record which as far as I can tell stood for over thirty years until 2100 voted for the 2011 Hugos at Renovation.

(Incidentally I find it fascinating that participation in Site Selection was well ahead of the Hugos for most of the 1980s and 1990s, peaking at 2509 in 1992, a tight-fought campaign between the eventual 1995 Intersection in Glasgow and a rival bid from Atlanta.)

The closest result in 1980 was for the Gandalf Grand Master Award for life achievement in fantasy writing, won by Ray Bradbury by a single vote,Read more...Collapse )

The next closest result was the Hugo for Best Novel, which went to Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of ParadiseRead more...Collapse )

For Best Novella, Barry B. Longyear's "Enemy Mine" won a clear victory,Read more...Collapse )

This was a year when three out of four fiction categories went to the same works for both Hugo and Nebula. "Sandkings", by a now-forgotten writer called George R.R. Martin, won Best NoveletteRead more...Collapse )

Martin (I do wonder what heppened to him?) won also for Best Short Story with "The Way of Cross and Dragon" Read more...Collapse )

This was the first time that the Hugo for Best Non-Fiction was awarded. It went to what we now know as the first edition of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, by Peter Nicholls,Read more...Collapse )

Best Professional Editor went to George H. Scithers,Read more...Collapse )

Michael Whelan scored a solid victory for Best Professional ArtistRead more...Collapse )

The results for Best Dramatic Presentation include a couple of "What were they thinking?" moments.  Not as far as the winner goes - Alien is by most metrics not just the best known sf film from 1979, but the best known film of any genre from that year. Read more...Collapse )

Those were the days when Locus, edited by Charles N. Brown was eligible for Best Fanzine, and wonRead more...Collapse )

Bob Shaw, who by 1980 had published 15 sf novels and a short story collection, won Best Fan WriterRead more...Collapse )

Alexis Gilliland scored the first of four victories in Best Fan ArtistRead more...Collapse )

Finally (aren't you glad?) the John W. Campbell Award went to Barry B. Longyear, by a stunning margin:Read more...Collapse )

It's a shame that we don't have more of this early data available - presumably some of it is lurking in people's attics - but it's interesting that the one year we have featured unusually high turnout for the time, and allegations of campaigning. Apart from 1980, the only twentieth-century nomination statistics I've seen are from 1984, 1994 and 1998; since 2000 the records seem fairly complete though. Let's hope to do a better job of keeping track for the analysts of the 2040s.


As a birthday present to myself, I bought a DNA analysis from 23andMe, the company that takes your saliva and tells you who you are descended from. I have been waiting in some suspense for the couple of weeks it takes for the results to come through, but finally the email has arrived and I am enlightened.

Actually it turns out that I am as white genetically as I am Whyte nominally. My genetic heritage is summarised as follows:

With three grandparents born in Ireland to Irish families, and the fourth East Coast aristocracy (born in Philadephia, raised in Plainfield NJ, uncle was Taft's Attorney-General), it was always unlikely that I had much ancestry from outside north-west Europe. But I must admit I had hoped for more than 1.4%

Mitochondrial DNA: I'm in haplogroup V8, which is a little exotic as maternal lineages go. V in general accounts for only 4% of Europeans; it is particularly concentrated at two ends of the wider northeastern Atlantic space, the Saami of Finland and my friends the Saharawi of Western Sahara. The theory is that it was common among the population of Doggerland, now lost beneath the North Sea. Two famous people are known to share the V haplogroup with me - Benjamin Franklin and Bono.

V8 is noted rather cryptically as being "found in Sweden"; closer investigation reveals that this means three people were found to have it in Västernorrland. My great-grandmother lived to 98 (and her daughter turns 100 next month); her ancestry was Ulster Scots, as far as we know. My children will have their mother's mitochondrial DNA, but my brother, my sister and her daughter will all have inherited V8 from our mother.

Y-Chromosome: My paternal lineage is haplogroup G2a4 or G2a2b, a subgroup of haplogroup G which is found particularly in the Caucasus (appropriately enough I was in Tbilisi when I got the results).

Other things being equal, this should be the ancestral Whyte heritage; family lore is that we were descended from the Jutes who settled the Isle of Wight, and then came to Ireland in 1170-90, but I am not sure that current thinking about the etymology of the Isle of Wight really supports this.

However, my rather rare G2a4 or G2a2b subgroup does include one famous person who is therefore my direct male-line relative, even if we do not know his name: it is Ötzi the Iceman. Data seems sparse, but it seems to be concentrated more to the west than G as a whole. My brother and my son will have the same Y-chromosomes as me. We are the only male-line descendants of my great-great-grandfather - my father had just one sister, my Whyte grandfather was one of nine brothers (with six sisters!) but the other eight produced only one daughter between them, and my Whyte great-grandfather had two brothers, one of whom died young and the other had only daughters who survived to adulthood. The survival of these lineages can be very fragile.

Neanderthal ancestry: 2.7%, which is dead on the average for 23andMe users (in the 53rd percentile, apparently).

Long-lost relatives: Two other 23andMe users popped up sharing more than 1% of my DNA. One is a cousin of my American grandmother's who I'd already been in touch with years ago, whose grandmother was my great-grandmother's sister. The other appears to be a connection via the Ryans of Inch, one of whom married my Whyte great-grandfather. I may drop him a note.

Anyway, a fascinating look at what has made me what I am.


Did you know that most of England accepted the heir to the French throne as its rightful king in 1216-17?

The myth that England has not been successfully invaded since 1066 requires a certain amount of special pleading - most notably in the case of a Dutch prince expelling the legitimate king in 1688, but also in terms of the significant numbers of non-English forces involved with Henry VII, Edward IV and Henry II as they came to power.

A less well-known edge case is the French invasion of 1216. This was part of the ongoing conflict between King John and his barons; after he attempted to weasel out of Magna Carta, signed the previous year. The Barons appealed to Prince Louis of France, later King Louis VIII the Lion, to take power, and on 21 May 1216, 800 years ago today, he landed in Thanet. King John fled from London to Winchester, and Louis advanced to the capital where he was (the chronicles say) welcomed by the citizens and proclaimed king. Winchester fell soon after and John fled north; barons joined Louis rapidly (including the King's half-brother, William Longespée, the Earl of Salisbury), giving him control over most of southern England.

It's quite likely that Louis would have won if John had lived to pursue and lose the war (and he did tend to lose wars). But in October he unexpectedly died in Newark of dysentery at the age of 49, and was buried in Worcester cathedral, nowhere else being conveniently under Plantagenet control. (This was shortly after the royal treasure went astray crossing the tidal pools of the Wash.) John's heir was the nine-year-old Henry III, and the popular William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, became regent. Marshall rapidly moved to offer the Barons concessions that John would not or could not have offered, including re-issuing Magna Carta ("but the boy-king really means it this time, unlike his dad"); he was a known factor, and the barons started switching back again. Louis was running out of money, and his invasion was formally condemned by the Pope; he proceeded to lose a couple of decisive battles on land and at sea, and eventually under the 1217 Treaty of Lambeth was paid to go away.

This was only 150 years after the Norman Conquest. France and England could easily have ended up united under a single king, with England a dependency; French would have been consolidated, rather than deprecated, as the official language of the state; Anglo-Norman elites would have concentrated much more on their family and property links with France (which were disrupted in our timeline by the consequences of John's losing his continental territories); probably there would have been less attention paid to Scotland and Ireland as a result. Often time travel stories are written about killing off a historical celebrity in his or her prime; a really mischievous time-traveller would provide antibiotics to King John in 1216 and save his life, thus ending the Plantagenet dynasty and causing major disruptions to world history.

Saturday reading blog

(Because I'm going to be out all day and won't have a chance to read before midnight local time)

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
Quantico by Greg Bear
The Last Man, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Last books finished
Cyprus Avenue, by David Ireland (theatre script)
Bételgeuse v.4: Les Cavernes, by Leo
Master Pip, by Lloyd Jones
Adolf, An Exile In Japan, by Osamu Tezuka
The Ragged Astronauts, by Bob Shaw
De maagd en de neger, by Judith Vanistendael

Next books
The Unicorn Hunt, by Dorothy Dunnett
Selected Stories, by Alice Munro
Peter & Max, by Bill Willingham
Second paragraph of third chapter:
When the first Grel subdued the beasts of the plains and mountains, they gave thanks for their mastery of the paradise that was Grellor. For truly there was never a more beautiful world than this land of marshes and dark moist places, and truly there was never a more blessed race than the mighty Grel. For strong they were and handsome of feature; not for them the blighted featureless faces of the other savage and simple beasts. Their tentacles rippled with pride as this brave people recognized their mastery of all before them. The land was theirs, as were the thick abundant oceans.
Rebecca Levene was editor of the Doctor Who New Adventures novels during their glory days, and Simon Winstone was her deputy. Here they combined forces to push the Bernice Summerfield novel series in a new direction, destroying her home base, setting up the enigmatic Irving Braxiatel, bringing back the Grel, and shifting the narrative in general. I really liked it; I felt that it broke away from the rather unvarying series format and also invoked issues of religion and anthropology. Frankly you could skip most of the preceding Bernice novels before reading this one.

This was Rebecca Levene's first novel (as occasionally mentioned here, she was a friend of mine in Cambridge student days); a sign of things to come.

Next up in this series: The Mary-Sue Extrusion, by Dave Stone.
Second sentence of third chapter of Walking on Glass:
Probably not. Prevaricating woman. He sighed and set off up the stairs again, pulling himself up by his hands on the thick, frozen rope fixed to the outside of the staircase, the castle’s concession to their earlier request for a handhold on the often ice-slicked steps.
Second paragraph of third chapter of The Quarry:
Guy, who had said last night he reckoned he'd b e able to go to the pub, is still in the house, sitting in the kitchen feeling sorry for himself. He looks even more gaunt and haggard than usual and hasn't put his woollen hat on, so his head looks still more like a skull.
I had fond hopes one Worldcon planning weekend in 2013 that I could join aeglefinus on a recreation of Graham's walk from Walking on Glass; I bought the book, but events intervened that meant I could not do the walk, and meantime I forgot that I'd already read it and it ended up in my pile of unread books. Meanwhile, of course, I got The Quarry in memory of its author (Nick Harkaway has a nice line about an autographed copy in his Doctor Who story, Keeping Up With the Joneses). And they both popped up on my reading list at about the same time.

There is an obvious link between the two, in that both feature narrators who are not neurotypical. Steven Grout in Walking on Glass is clinically paranoid, and we experience his world from his perspective, though of course he tells only a third of the story. Kit, the narrator of the whole of The Quarry, is on the autism spectrum. I don't associate Banks particularly with findong those voices for his narratives, so I guess it's just coincidence that these two books both featured those narrators.

Another common theme between the two is concealed secrets of sexual history. In Walking on Glass, it's Sara's relationship with the mysterious Stock, who turns out to have an unexpected identity. In The Quarry, it's farther back in terms of the narrative; Kit's father, the dying Guy, has never revealed who Kit's mother is, though he and his college friends spend much of the book reminiscing about their intertwined love lives. Both Graham and Kit are manipulated by sexual forces greater than they really comprehend.

And of course politics is inescapable in both books. Sara's evil father turns out to be a Tory MP. Paul in The Quarry wants to become one. I think that Banks shows a certain maturing of perspective in the 28 years between the books - Paul is merely deluded, cynical and self-serving, rather than the spawn of Satan and father of evil.

As to which is better: Walking on Glass, obviously. It's a brilliant intertwining of three different storylines whose links only gradually become apparent, a real sense of place in London alongside the fantasy game-playing castle of Quiss and Ajayi. Yet The Quarry has a great combination of themes that Banks had not often hit before: the impending death of Guy of course turns out to have awful personal parallels for the wrter (who was a much nicer person than the awful Guy), but I also liked the ensemble of Guy's college clique, Peter's Friends but done seriously, and the encroaching quarry itself, not to mention his characterisation of Kit. He wouldn't have chosen it to be so, but The Quarry is a decent farewell to a career, more so than, say, The Shepherd's Crown.

Walking on Glass came simultaneously to the top of my lists of unread books acquired in 2013 and unread sf - though I realise now that I had in fact read it before. Next on the former list is Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel, by Jeff Kinney; next on the latter is The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, though I'm fairly sure I've read that before as well (but I haven't written it up). The Quarry was recommended by you guys at the end of last year; next on that list is The Unicorn Hunt, by Dorothy Dunnett.

Heritage, by Dale Smith

Second sentence of third chapter:
Back in the good old days, he’d soon learnt that if he left a row of glasses out of the washer for more than five minutes, they’d develop a dry red skin that would have to be rubbed away before any drinks could be poured. Not that it had been such a problem in the old days. Some nights, the glasses barely seemed to touch the shelves before somebody or other was yelling for the same again, Colesy. Now he barely even got them out of the washer; most nights the bar was empty. Most nights since Sheriff had broken the news to them. For a while they’d kept on with it, drowning their sorrows, trying to divine the future in the dregs of a vodka shot, but that had soon stopped. It had become too uncomfortable, glancing round, catching the eye of your neighbour.
Fan opinion is sharply divided between "Wow!" and "Meh" on this Seventh Doctor novel featuring Ace and the ultimate fate of Mel Bush. I'm afraid I'm pretty firmly on the side of "Meh"; the Western-style decrepit town is described at great and loving length, there is cloning and a walking talking dolphin, but I am one of those people who requires to be convinced that the Seventh Doctor's Bleak!Doctor phase was a great moment for the show, and I remain unconvinced.

Looking forward now to Loving the Alien by Mike Tucker and Robert Perry, next month's Seventh Doctor read.
Second sentence of third chapter of Banewreaker:

It was a deeper green than the beeches Tanaros had known as a boy, the leaves broader, fanning to capture and hold the cloud-filtered sunlight. The trunks of the trees were gnarled in a way they weren't elsewhere, twisted around ragged boles as they grew, like spear-gutted warriors straining to stand upright.

Second sentence of third chapter of Godslayer:

All of them had been plagued by strange visions in the night.

I've generally been a huge fan of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books, and picked up Godslayer at a convention ages ago; and then on advice got Banewreaker to read first. They are really a very different kettle of fish. Written between the first and second Kushiel trilogies, these two books take the standard fantasy quest narrative and try to tell it from the point of view of the evil side not really being all that bad. It's a worthy attempt, and I kept reading, spotting different bits and pieces taken from Tolkien and other writers and slightly reinvented, but it didn't really grab me.

In particular, the names of some of the characters are so wrong that it's very distracting. One key figure is called Malthus, and I kept expecting him to start preaching on the problems of overpopulation; another is called Carfax, and unfortunately that name makes me think of traffic jams in Oxford before anything else. It's a real shame; Carey's ear for names in the Kushiel books seems to have been rather good, but here that talent deserted her.

When I got Banewreaker, it bumped Selected Stories by Alice Munro off the top spot in my list of unread books by women, so the latter now returns to the head of that list. Godslayer was at the top of my list of unread books bought in 2010, and is followed by Galileo's Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
It was Anne's birthday yesterday, and I had some recent good news at work, so we celebrated by going to the Netherlands for two days with F (U went to respite care). It was a good trip.

KinderdijkCollapse )

KeukenhofCollapse )

LeidenCollapse )

The HagueCollapse )

DelftCollapse )

Den BoschCollapse )

My photography during the trip was made greatly more enjoyable by using Instagram, surely the most good-humoured of all social media channels, where the default behaviour of users is to be nice to each other. If you want to follow me there, I'm @nwbrux (as I am on Twitter, for the same reason - @nwhyte had gone.)

Nebula winners: generation shift

The Nebula winners were announced an hour or so ago:

Best Novel: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

Best Novella: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Best Novelette: "Our Lady of the Open Road", by Sarah Pinsker

Best Short Story: "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers", Alyssa Wong

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Mad Max: Fury Road

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy: Updraft, by Fran Wilde

Alyssa Wong, at 24, is the first Nebula winner born in the 1990s, and the second youngest winner ever (beaten only by Ted Chiang, who got his first Nebula award a few months before she was born). All of this year's other winners for written fiction were born in the 1970s. This is the first time that no Nebula has been awarded to anyone born before me (1967).

For comparison, the first Nebula winner born in the 1980s was Rachel Swirsky (2010 Best Novella for "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window", awarded 2011 when she was 29) and the first born in the 1970s were Paolo Bacigalupi and Eugie Foster (awarded 2008 Best Novel and 2008 Best Novelette respectively in 2009; he was 36 and see was 37). As noted above, Ted Chiang was the first Nebula winner born in the 1960s. Lisa Tuttle was the first child of the 1950s to be awarded a Nebula (for 1982 Best Short Story), but she declined. Samuel Delany was only a little older than Alyssa Wong is now when he won the 1966 Nebula for Best Novel in 1967.

What about the written fiction categories in the Hugos? The only winner so far born in the 1980s was Thomas Olde Heuvelt, who won last year aged 32. Elizabeth Bear was the first Hugo winner born in the 1970s, winning in 2008 when she was 36. Greg Egan was the first Hugo winner born in the 1960s, winning in 1999 two weeks after his 38th birthday. The children of the 1950s started a bit earlier, three of them winning in 1984 (David Brin, Greg Bear and Timothy Zahn). The first Hugo winner born in the 1940s was again Samuel Delany, but he had to wait until 1970 for it.

I wrote some years ago that I believe a disproportionate number of Hugo and Nebula awards have been won by authors born in the 1942-51 period (see here, here and here). I still think that is the case, but the youngest of those authors will turn 65 this year. The new generation is taking over.

Saturday reading

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)

Last books finished
Walking on Glass, by Iain Banks
Where Angels Fear, by Rebecca Levene and Simon Winstone
How Loud Can You Burp?, by Glenn Murphy
George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt, by Lucy Hawking
Lethbridge-Stewart: Mutually Assured Domination, by Nick Walters
George and the Big Bang, by Lucy Hawking
Godslayer, by Jacqueline Carey
A History of Anthropology, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Finn Sievert Nielsen

Next books
The Ragged Astronauts, by Bob Shaw
Master Pip, by Lloyd Jones
Adolf, An Exile In Japan, by Osamu Tezuka

Books acquired in last week
The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. William

Welcome to Night Vale in Europe

Any Welcome to Night Vale fans out there planning to go to the live shows this autumn in Paris (3 October), Cologne (7 October), Amsterdam (13 October) or London (22 October)? I will probably go to one of them - especially if I have company!

On abolishing the @CUSUCoordinator

Back in 1989-90, I served as Deputy President (Services) of Cambridge University Student Union. CUSU had only three members of staff, plus a part-time assistant in the shop. My year was the first to have four sabbatical students union officers. At NUS meetings, I marvelled at the resources available to my peers at other institutions. My role combined numerous responsibilities that in most British student unions were assigned to several different full-time staff members (which we did not have). Frankly, I did not enjoy it much.

Things have changed. CUSU now has six sabbatical officers at CUSU, and Cambridge's Graduate Union has a sabbatical president; between them they have more than a dozen employees. My former role was re-christened "CUSU Coordinator" in 2008. Nobody put themselves forward for it in this year's main CUSU elections, held last term. This was not the first time - the current Coordinator was elected in a by-election in Easter Term 2014, after nobody stood in the full elections that year. She was then (narrowly) re-elected in 2015. (In my day, it was unthinkable that anyone would actually want a second year in office, but since the turn of the century it's happened a few times.)

Quite sensibly, CUSU is reconsidering the need for an elected Coordinator role, rather than rushing to fill the vacancy an Easter Term by-election. I wish the current team well in their deliberations. I believe that the current Coordinator is the first holder of the post to have been born after my term of office ended in 1990. It's not such a terrible thing if she turns out also to be the last.


Short Trips: Monsters, ed. Ian Farrington

Second paragraph of third story ("Last Rites", by Marc Platt):
'All remaining passengers are advised that Flight 600386W, the 1830 hours to Sehebra Space Junction, is now boarding at Gate 91. This is the final personnel flight from Epajaenda Resource Sphere. There are no more flights after this. Remaining time to planetary closure six hours and 45 minutes.'
Didn;t grab me as strongly as some of the previous volumes in this series, with some stories (like Marc Platt's) trying too hard and others not trying at all. I did particularly like the very first story, "Best Seller" by Ian Mond and Danny Oz, which has the Eighth Doctor and Chaley pollard encountering a evil book in Australia, and a long satire on reality TV, "Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life" by Anthony Keetch which has the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa faced with a cult sf show on contemporary Earth. I note also a story set in 14th-century Ireland, "Screamager" by Jacqueline Rayner, which brings the Second Doctor and Victoria into contact with the Black Death and is nice enough from the character point of view but not hugely historically satisfactory.
Posting yesterday, I forgot of course the one Shakespeare speech we have written in his own hand, from Sir Thomas More, never performed in his lifetime. We are in London in 1517; anti-immigrant riots are about to break out; Thomas More, the sheriff of London, succeeds where his aristocratic superiors fail and quells the mob, shaming them into submission to lawful authority. He tells the crowd that by using unlawful force against the immigrants ("strangers") they risk destroying the basis for the stability of their own society, a message that remains grimly appropriate for the present day.
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th' ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I'll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
Here is Sir Ian McKellen delivering it.

The 30 daysCollapse )

Mapping Belgium in 1777 and 2016

Belgian local historians are very fortunate from the cartographical point of view: almost all of what became the entire country was mapped in 1777, by Count Joseph de Ferraris, and the results can be consulted online at the Royal Library's website. I'm contrasting below with Google Maps screenshots of the same places now.

Our village is clearly shown, though as Vieux-Heverlé rather than Oud-Heverlee, with today's street pattern almost unchanged.

You can see that there are a lot more houses now - and yet the forest seems to have encroached a bit on the agricultural land as well. The railway, sweeping from top centre to bottom left, was built in 1855, as far from 1777 as 1938 or 2094 are from today. The land across the railway from the village is now marshy with two large ponds, popular with bird-watchers. In 1777 there seem to have been no ponds, but it looks marshy.

Zooming in on our own corner of the village:

It becomes clear just how many more houses there are now than there were then. The church (large yard to left of the top centre) and the parochial hall (just south of it, on the corner) are still there now; so is the house in the middle of the top side of the central triangle (though its line runs north-south in real life rather than east-west as in Ferraris' map). There are no more than a dozen buildings in 1777, perhaps three or four times as many now.

The growth of construction is much more drastic in what is now the European quarter of Brussels, where I work.

Within the city walls, not all that much has changed; but the rolling countryside separating the city from Etterbeek has been completely covered with the 19th-century blocks and 20th and 21st-century offices of the European quarter. A couple of green patches remain, the Parc Léopold, Squares Marie-Louise and Ambiorix, and the western end of the Parc Cinquantenaire, but otherwise it's gone awfully grey. The old village core of Etterbeek has been reincarnated as Place Jourdan, where you can buy what are reputedly the best frites in Belgium (as Angela Merkel recently discovered). Google barely shows the Chausée d'Etterbeek, which is the main road visible in 1777; in real life, it has a slightly furtive feel as it dips under the Rue de la Loi and snakes past the back of the Justus Lipsius building. Some of the other old roadways remain for a wandering lunchtime sandwich-hunter to explore. But most of the ancient paths have been buried by the expansion of the city, and the more visible breach in the blocks is the railway line of 1854 (a year before it came to our village).

British readers can play this game too thanks to the National Library of Scotland digitising historical Ordnance Survey maps of England, Scotland and Wales, and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland doing the same for its archive. Others may want to check here.
Looking back on my posts so far, I realised that of the plays I know well I have yet to post about Julius Caesar. Fortunately this question is a jolly good excuse to turn to that play: Mark Antony's funeral oration for Caesar, turning an initially unsympathetic crowd against the conspirators, is a masterpiece of oratory.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
Here's Damien Lewis performing it:

I'll give an honorable mention to John of Gaunt's speech in Rochard II, especially as performed by Patrick Stewart:

The 30 daysCollapse )

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Identifying the second paragraph of the third section (there are no chapters) was not completely straightforward. The various sections are set off with blank lines between them; the third section thus set off has only one paragraph! But the second section is split at one point by a horizontal line, at the top of a page, so I'm taking that as a sign that it's meant to be a section break. The second paragraph following the horizontal line, you'll be fascinated to know, is:
There was an ache in the child's throat because she wanted to say, I guess i left my rag baby back there at the house. I guess I did. She knew exactly where, under the table in the farthest corner, propped against the table leg like ti was sitting there. She could just run in the door and snatch it and run off again. No one would have to see her. But then maybe Doll wouldn't be here when she came back, and she didn't know where tat house was anyway. She thought of the woods. It was just an old rag baby, dirty from her hand, because mostly she kept it with her. But they put her out on the stoop before she could get it and the cats wouldn't even let her touch them and then Doll came and she didn't know they would be leaving, she didn't understand that at all. So she just left it where it was. She never meant to.
This is the latest in the sequence of novels which started with Gilead and continued with Home - not a sequel as such, because all three books cover the same time period, but seen from another perspective. This time it is the turn of Lila, the much younger wife of the clergyman John Ames who was the central character in Gilead. It's an extended character study of someone finding stability and not quite daring to trust it, with some extended flashbacks explaining who she is and where she has come from, in the leisurely detailed implicit way that we had in the previous books, but this time finding an authentic voice for Lila in words that feel like hers - much more authentic than, say, The Red Badge of Courage. A very good book; interesting that Robinson waited until the third in the series to give a female character the central spot.

Het Spaanse Spook, by Willy Vandersteen

 Second frame of third page:

Wiske: "Lambik! Sh! I heard something!"
Lambik: "Probably the guard. You know very well that I don't believe in ghosts."
First published in 1948-1950, this was the 150th album in the long-running Suske en Wiske series, which is still going strong. It is justifiably regarded as one of the classics, the first of the Blue Albums printed in Kuifje, the Dutch language version of Hergé's Tintin magazine. Suske, Wiske and their friend Lambik investigate ghostly goings-on in the museum where Brueghel's Peasant Wedding is on display, and are approached by the shade of a Spanish nobleman who is doomed to wander the earth because he failed to deliver a royal command to prevent the Duke of Alba from bombarding the (fictional) town of Kriekenbeek during the Dutch Revolt. Suske, Wiske and Lambik are transported by the ghost's magic back to 1565 where they have numerous adventures with Brueghel, the Duke of Alba, and other historical and fictional personalities, including a thrilling chase round the battlements of Brussels town hall.

It's a little anachronistic, as the Duke of Alba did not come to the Low Countries until 1567. Also one has to wonder why the ghost himself, who has a comedy gold Spanish accent (unlike the other Spanish characters, whose speech is reported in normal Dutch) did not take care of delivering the letter in spectral form having failed to do so when alive. There's an odd sequence where we lose the three main characters and follow the mayor of Kriekenbeek for a number of pages. But basically it's a decent example of the Flemish storyteller, picking up on the themes of Prince Valiant but making them his own.

It came to the top of my pile as the most popular non-English language comic on my unread list in LibraryThing. Next up on that list is De maagd en de neger, by Judith Vanistendael.

The moment when the lights went out

The perils of live broadcasting. Mark Devenport and I had agreed that once more than half of the Assembly results were in, we would take off our jackets in the hot studio. But just as Mark Carruthers began to ask what we would take off when three-quarters of the results came in, we were interrupted...

Saturday Reading

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
Walking on Glass, by Iain Banks
How Loud Can You Burp?, by Glenn Murphy

Last books finished
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
Short Trips: Monsters, ed. Ian Farrington
The Quarry, by Iain Banks
Banewreaker, by Jacqueline Carey
Heritage, by Dale Smith

Next books
Godslayer, by Jacqueline Carey
George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt, by Lucy Hawking
Where Angels Fear, by Rebecca Levene and Simon Winstone

Books acquired in last week
Bételgeuse v 4: Les Cavernes, by Leo
Pausing between flights in Heathrow on my way home, I have time to type up the overall results. Apologies for the slight messiness below, but I think the details are clear.

Democratic Unionist Party 38 seats (no change) 202,567 first prefs 29.2% (-0.8%)
Sinn Féin 28 seats (−1) 166,785 first prefs 24.0% (−2.9%)
Ulster Unionist Party 16 seats (-) 87,302 first prefs 12.6% (−0.7%)
SDLP 12 seats (−2) 83,364 first prefs 12.0% (−2.2%)
Alliance Party 8 seats (-) 48,447 first prefs 7.0% (−0.7%)
Green 2 seats (+1) 18,718 first prefs 2.7% (+1.8%)
People before Profit Alliance 2 seats (+2) 13,761 first prefs 2.0% (+1.2%)
Traditional Unionist Voice 1 seat (-) 23,776 first prefs 3.4% (+0.9%)
Independent 1 seat (-) 22,650 first prefs 3.3% (+0.9%)
UKIP 0 seats 10,109 first prefs 1.5% (+0.8%)
Progressive Unionist Party 0 seats 5,955 first prefs 0.9% (+0.6%)
Conservative 0 seats 2,554 first prefs 0.4% (+0.4%)
NI Labour Representation Committee 0 seats 1,577 first prefs 0.2% (+0.2%)
Others 0 seats 6,745 first prefs 1.0% (+0.8%)

Here's a statement that I did not believe I would be typing before the votes were cast, or indeed this time yesterday when the first preference votes had become clear: the number of seats held by the Unionist parties did not change at all. The DUP took a UUP seat in South Belfast; the UUP took a DUP seat in neighbouring Lagan Valley. Otherwise, that was it, apart from some shifting of personnel. I think it's fair to say that this was unexpected. On the basis of the Westminster and local elections, I (and many others) had expected the DUP vote to be vulnerable to the fringe Unionists - TUV, PUP, UKIP - and to the UUP. Basically, it didn't happen; Jim Allister kept his seat and that was it. Turnout was up in Unionist constituencies, but not necessarily for Unionist parties.

On the Nationalist side, the thesis of the demographic determinists ("we'll outbreed yez!") must now be in disarray. The Nationalist vote decreased for the fourth electorasl cycle in a row; the combined SF and SDLP vote fell by over 5%. Both SF and the SDLP lost seats to the People Before Profit Alliance in Foyle and West Belfast; the SDLP also lost a seat to the Greens in South Belfast; the SDLP regained the seat they should not have lost last time from SF in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but lost to them in Upper Bann. The new Assembly will have only 40 members from Nationalist parties, the fewest since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

In between, Alliance had something of a damp squib, holding their own (with tight squeezes for eg the party leader in South Antrim); but the Greens surged to take a South Belfast seat and hold North Down. The PBPA success demonstrated that voters in Nationalist areas are not always concerned about voting for Nationalist candidates - or indeed about voting; turnout was down in all Nationalist-majority seats. And it was nice to see Claire Sugden, thrust into public life at a relatively young age, making a successful defence in East Londonderry with no party infrastructure behind her.

And overall, the lack of change among the headline figures masks a shift towards the younger generation and to a more diverse Assembly. If I have counted correctly, 31 30 women were elected in Thursday's election, compared to 20 in 2011 and 23 in the outgoing Assembly after co-options. In the first election to the Northern Ireland House of Commons, in 1921, two women, Dehra Chichester and Julia McMordie, were elected to its 52 seats, both Ulster Unionists. There was only one woman member of the Stormont House of Commons when it was prorogued in 1972 (Anne Dickson, later leader of the UPNI). Times have changed.

In terms of the make-up of the next Executive, Alan Meban has crunched the D'Hondt numbers, coming to the same conclusion as my back-of-the-envelope calculations in the studio yesterday. (Let me also recommend my local garage and roofer/plumber.)

Closest results:
West Tyrone: Declan McAleer (SF) beat Grace McDermott (also SF) by 20.92
West Belfast: Alex Attwood (SDLP) beat Frank McCoubrey (DUP) by 88.99
East Antrim: Oliver McMullan (SF) beat Noel Jordan (UKIP) by 104.7
Mid Ulster: Keith Buchanan (DUP) beat Ian McCrea (also DUP) by 160.62
Lagan Valley: Brenda Hale (DUP) beat Jonathan Craig (also DUP) by 168
Upper Bann: John O'Dowd (SF) beat Dolores Kelly (SDLP) by 168
South Antrim: Trevor Clarke (DUP) beat Paul Michael (UUP) by 211

On my way to Belfast City airport after hours of non-stop commentary, I bumped into a UUP friend, who expressed their regret that UKIP had gained a seat in East Antrim. "Actually, that didn't happen," I told them. "Your voters didn't transfer to UKIP in sufficient numbers, and Sinn Fein kept their seat." Their face lit up with glee. Every vote counts, and not always the way you would expect.
The first preference votes are now in, and over half the 108 seats have now been allocated. There has been no dramatic shift of support from the parties, and at least 11 of the 18 constituencies will return the same mix of MLAs as they did in 2011. But two themes are emerging for me.

First, the vote for all of the established parties is down. Down only slightly, 0.7%-0.8% for the DUP, UUP and Alliance, who will each return with (probably) the same number of seats as in 2011 but will have to struggle in some cases. Down 2.2% for the SDLP from an already low base, down 2.9% for Sinn Fein - the SDLP struggling mightily to minimise losses; the worst ever election in vote share for the SDLP and UUP. The beneficiaries are the smaller parties - the new Assembly will have two Greens rather than one, two new MLAs from the People Before Profits Alliance, and 19 29-year-old independent MLA Claire Sugden has held her seat, as has Jim Allister of the TUV.

Second, yet again the overall vote for Nationalist parties is down, even if you count in the votes for various independents in Nationalist areas; and the smaller Unionist parties failed to make a breakthrough - the PUP nowhere, Jim Allister unable to bring in a party colleague, UKIP wth a small chance of displacing SF in East Antrim and that's it. (The Northern Ireland Conservatives had another ultra-lousy election.) It's early days yet, but I think we are seeing the continuing fraying of the old ways.

In detail: the constituencies where there has been a change of line-up, or where one is still possible, are as follows.

East Antrim: Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are in trouble here, with the UUP and, uniquely, UKIP in the running for the last two seats. My guess is that the DUP's Alistair Ross will make it, but that SF will lose their seat to the UUP or UKIP. The latter are currently ahead, but I think they may prove less transfer-friendly.
East Londonderry: The SDLP seat here was under threat from SF. But I think Alliance transfers have now saved the SDLP so no change is now the more likley outcome.
Foyle: Veteran activist Eamonn McCann took one of the SDLP's three seats.
Lagan Valley: On first preferences I thought the DUP might repeat 2011's remarkable feat of winning four seats - despite having only three quotas, their balancing was good. But the UUP in the end managed not only to regain Basil McCrea's old seat but to add another.
South Belfast: For my money, the most dramatic result of the election, with likely two seat changing hands - the SDLP will lose one of their two to the Greens, and the DUP wll squeeze out the UUP.
Upper Bann: On first preferences, SF look well-placed to gain the SDLP seat, but I think Alliance transfers (as in East Londonderry) will save Dolores Kelly. Some observers are trying to convince me that there are not enough Unionist votes for four seats, and the SF could therefore gain from the UUP. I don't see it myself.
West Belfast: The other PBPA success, Gerry Carroll getting elected on the first count with a massive surplus, taking one of the five SF seats. It looked for a long time as if Alex Attwood was also in danger to the DUP, but in the end SF transfers salvaged the SDLP seat.

Two seats where no change happened: Strangford, where the SDLP yet again failed to make the breakthrough; and South Antrim where the UUP's success at Westminster failed to translate to the Assembly. Some optimists are trying to persuade me that Unionist transfers in Fermanagh and South Tyrone could sneak the SDLP in ahead of the third SF candidate, reversing the tightest result of the 2011 election. I'm not convinced.

My final seat tally:
DUP 38 (no change)
SF 27-28 (down 1-2)
UUP 16-17 (up 0-1)
SDLP 10-13 (down 1-4)
Alliance 8 (no change)
PBPA 2 (up 2)
Greens 2 (up 1)
Claire Sugden 1
UKIP 0-1 (up 0-1)

This gives the DUP 3 ministries, SF 2, the UUP 1 and the SDLP 1 of the seven allocated by d'Hondt - if they choose to take them - along with a DUP First Minister, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, and Justice Minister to be appointed by cross-community vote (likely from the Alliance Party).

Those with access to the BBC can watch my final stint this morning from 1030 till lunchtime at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bkyd3 - then I'm flying home!

Gorgon Child, by Steven Barnes

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Smoke and chemical fumes belched from the shattered glass windows. Occasionally another pane gave up the ghost; a brief burst of light colored the sky, and fractured crystal rained into the streets below.
Sequel to Streetlethal, which I read earlier this year. I liked it better - a bit more variety of scene and tone, while still restricted to a dystopian future California and points north; we explore genetic mutation and single-sex societies. It still didn't grab me particularly hard, and I don't think I shall seek out the third of the trilogy.

This reached the top of my pile as the most popular book on my shelves by a non-white author that I hadn't read yet. Next on that list is Adolf, An Exile In Japan, by Osamu Tezuka.

Me on TV (and radio) today and tomorrow

The votes in yesterday's election for the Northern Ireland Assembly are being counted today and tomorrow. (Elections here use the Single Transferable Vote, because unlike in England, they have to be fair.) I've already done one stint in radio studios for Good Morning Ulster, with presenters Conor Bradford and Julie McCullough, and Father Alan McGuckian gathering inner strength for his Thought For The Day:

If you want to, you can hear me at 0750 here, and then saying much the same to BBC Radio Foyle at 0820 here. (I believe that radio can be listened to anywhere in the world.)

And then I'll be on TV from 3pm UK time until 1130, and again tomorrow morning (for UK viewers only, I'm afraid):
Today 3pm-6pm, BBC One Northern Ireland, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b079chp8
Today 7pm-10pm, BBC Two Northern Ireland, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b079vnhz
Today 10.30 pm-11.30 pm, BBC One Northern Ireland, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b079chpc
Tomorrow 10.30 am-1pm, BBC Two Northern Ireland, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bkyd3

I'll give you a special wave if you watch.
I reported in an earlier entry that it was Hamlet, but on reflection that was wrong; it was a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1979 when I was 12. My friend Padraig played the little Indian boy, in blackface. Those were different times.

The 30 daysCollapse )

Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe

Second paragraph of third page (which is about a Heavy Metal Power Building):
Some of the metals they use can be found in the ground, but only in a few places. Other kinds can be made by people - but only with the help of a power building that's already running.
About three years ago, Munroe (or possibly his fans) originated a meme where you had to describe your job using only the thousand most common words in English. I had a go; since then I've changed jobs, and now I would simply say that:
People pay me to tell their stories to important people who can help them.
Thing Explainer is in a way a one-joke book, about how we can break down complex questions into simple words. But it's a brilliant challenge to any of us who use words for a living, which is probably most of you reading this, to keep our writing and speaking clear and simple, and not try to sound clever by using long words which we and our listeners may not completely understand. Some of Thing Explainer is a bit contrived - the technical explanations of machinery sometimes dumb down (though the nuclear power station is a good counterexample) and the cutesy interpretations of space probe names are not really very enlightening; but other bits are very impressive, my favourite being the United States Constitution, "The Laws of the Land":

Hi; we’re the people in these little countries called “states,” and we want to get together into a country. We want to make everything nice and quiet, keep anyone from hurting us, and make sure our kids will be free. That’s why we’re making a country. Here are its laws:

BOOK ONE: The Law Makers

Part One: Laws are made by a group called Law Makers. There are two rooms of Law Makers: the House and the Serious Room.

Part Two: The people pick Law Makers to send to the House for two years at a time. Bigger states get to have more people in the House. Oh, and the country needs to count its people sometimes so it can figure out how many chairs the room needs.

Part Three: Every state sends two Law Makers to the Serious Room for six years at a time. They can’t be too young.

Part Four: States make the laws about where and how people get together to pick leaders and decide what the country should do.

Part Five: When the Law Makers get together, they should write down what they talk about.

Part Six: Law Makers get paid. They can’t get in trouble for what they say at work, but they also can’t do any other job for the country while they’re Law Makers.
And so on. The geology bits are also pretty lovely, exploiting Munroe's gift for illustration to the full. If you're a fan of xkcd, this is a bit different and yet similar.

This rose simultaneously to the top of two of my lists: non-fiction as recommended by you guys, and graphic stories in English. The next book on the first list is The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, by Cliff Stoll; the next on the second is The Unwritten Vol. 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words, by Mike Carey.

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