Monday, December 28, 2009

Rebel Alliance: Racist Alliance, too?

Ok, why doesn’t Chewbacca get a medal at the end of Star Wars IV: A New Hope? Seriously, he was right there with Han in the Falcon, doing his part, so surely he deserved one, too? Just another example of The Man keeping the Fuzzy Man down!

starwarsmedalscene

Thursday, December 24, 2009

An interesting article from The Daily Beast

This is the blog equivalent of a re-Tweet, I guess, but I read this article from The Daily Beast about Palin, Schwarzenegger and the future of the GOP, thought it was worth pointing out to the veritable hordes (*cough*cough*) of people who read my humble blog.

“In both style and substance, Arnold vs. Sarah offered a preview of the coming debate within the party over how the GOP might govern as it bids to return to power next year. And for mainstream Republicans who often seemed cowed by tea-party rejectionists, the contest revealed a method for neutralizing the party’s Palinists.”

Author Joe Mathews had this to say about the contest/altercation between the two political celebrities:

“Palin is a skilled media manipulator who cleverly trades on personality, physical appearance, and a knack for sharp one-liners. So is Schwarzenegger, who had the crucial advantage of having played this game for 30 years. In taking on the governor of California, Palin foolishly launched a rivalry with a smarter, savvier version of herself.”

I wonder how long it will take for Palin to say this, too, was another dastardly act from the liberally-biased media mainstream. Mathews even suggests this when he points out that

“Palin’s persona is built on the notion of her as a victim, under attack by politically correct forces; in this theology, she is a common-sense truth-teller, a stand-in for regular folks and their resentments.”

The article discusses Palin’s first jab, followed by Schwarzenegger’s adroit riposte, and Palin’s utter fumble of a response. It’s interesting, and it’s nice to see someone praising the Governator for a change.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Grumbling in a Fit of Pique!

[Warning: This post is not my best, and somewhat rambling]

A little while back, I read an article about the right-wing strangle-hold on political thriller fiction. I’ve taken some time to cool down, but the article still bugged me, and now that I’ve caught up with my reading of political thrillers (one of my all-time favourite genres, as can be seen from my fiction review site).

The article in question is from The New Republic, perhaps my favourite news magazine/journal from the US. It’s title? “The Beck Supremacy: How a right-wing conspiracy hijacked the thriller genre”, by Jason Zengerle, and from the December 2nd 2009 issue of the magazine.

Now, a lot of what Zengerle writes is perfectly valid and hard to refute – that Flynn “is to the war on terrorism what Tom Clancy was to the cold war”, is very true. Flynn’s note to Rush Limbaugh, for example, trumpeting the conservative pandering in Chapter 50 of Pursuit of Honor is disappointing, and certainly helps Zengerle’s case that “Flynn appears to be angling for a new level of conservative street cred”. However, I do take offense at his characterisation of thriller fans:

“[They are] the type of reader who, like Limbaugh, watches the TV show 24 not just for entertainment value but also for political lessons.”

I watch 24 because it’s entertaining. Which is the same reason I read Flynn’s novels; not to mention Tom Clancy, Kyle Mills, Daniel Silva, Ian Flemming, Joseph Finder, Andrew Britton (RIP), to name but a handful – it’s my favourite fiction genre. Here’s another thing I have a problem with:

“the protagonist of Flynn’s novels, CIA counterterrorism operative Mitch Rapp, exhibits such a talent for maiming, torturing, and killing Muslim bad guys that he makes Jack Bauer look like a simpering ACLU attorney”

This makes me think Zengerle has not, in fact, read many of Flynn’s books. First of all, yes Rapp does have a particular skill at extracting information, frequently using extreme measures, but Flynn is very clear about Rapp’s psyche – he is not a sociopath or psychopath, who derives enjoyment out of doing any of these things. Indeed, in the first 100 pages of Pursuit of Honor, Rapp is explicitly described as doing only what is necessary, not what he enjoys. Not only that, also early in the novel, Rapp is concerned about his protégé who seems to be cracking under the pressure of the job.

There are certainly snatches of the novel that clearly exhibit Flynn’s (or, at least, the right’s) political preferences and views. Including this snippet, when Rapp is being grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee:

“This is where we not only say it’s perfectly okay for a doctor to kill a full-term baby, but we think taxpayers should help pay for it... And you call me a barbarian.”

Zengerle seems to take offense at Rapp/Flynn’s characterisation of Carol Ogden, a senator in the novel who bears a resemblance to Barbara Boxer of California – a senator who, as Rapp puts it,

“moved in the elite circles of her party, listening to the trial lawyers, academics, and the nuttiest of the crazy special-interest groups”

Well, this isn’t exactly unfair. Whether or not Boxer was the inspiration for Ogden, it has to be said that many Senators and Congressmen are beholden to special interests – Boxer herself is rather beholden to the defence industry, which has a considerable presence in Southern California (see Robert Scheer’s The Pornography of Power for some of her concern for the little people). As for the “nuttiest of the crazy special-interest groups”, well this could just as easily be directed at the nuttier wing of the Republican Party (which appears to be growing).

Zengerle then goes on to blame Right-Wing talking heads for the success of political thrillers. Well, this one I’ll happily give him – liberal talk shows just don’t invite thriller authors. Joseph Finder, in the same article, says this and says it’s disappointing because he’s not a conservative. Why? Is it a case that liberal presenters can’t allow themselves to enjoy books like this as entertainment, because it doesn’t contain the same values they espouse on their shows? Now who’s the party more interested in political purity?

The second half of the article chills out and starts to pay attention to the more left-leaning thriller authors, but by then the damage is done. If you consider that most articles are never finished (last statistic I was told, by a producer of Newsnight, was 92% are never read to the end), this is really quite unfair and irresponsible. If he was only interested in dispelling the idea that thrillers are right-wing, or only appeal to arch-conservatives, why didn’t he say so earlier?

After getting to this point, and pointing out a couple of left-leaning authors (John le Carre, Robert Ludlum), as well as identifying Allen Drury as the “arch-conservative” originator of the genre, Zengerle says that

“while Drury, le Carré, and other thriller writers of their era may have let their politics inform their fiction writing, they did not allow their politics to dominate it”

Well, neither do the authors of today. Flynn is just as able to articulate an intelligent liberal position or perspective as he is a conservative. His liberal characters are not buffoons or cartoons of liberals, unless they absolutely have to be – i.e. if he needs a political enemy of the CIA (who, as a whole, seem to be of the liberal ilk). And what’s wrong with identifying bad arguments? Many liberal arguments are thin sound-bites poorly argued by someone just interested in getting more face time on the morning talk-shows. Republicans are the same. There are far more statements in Pursuit of Honor that are general jabs at government as a whole, bipartisan in their direction and intent, and his negative (bipartisan) opinion of Capitol politics:

“partisan game that everyone wants to play in Washington. Republican versus Democrat… liberal versus conservative… none of that matters… the only thing we’re supposed to concern ourselves with is national security” (p.148)

In some ways, Flynn has done a better job here than Zengerle has. This above quote is but one instance of Flynn’s characters bemoaning the state of American politics into a right-versus-left battle for influence and political stardom. There are other times when it feels like Flynn is merely saying what we all wish we could say, but are afraid to because of the hyper-PC environment in the US (and the UK) – particularly when Rapp complains about how it drives him crazy that “there are people in [Washington] who think the way to peace is to afford tolerance to an intolerant group of bigoted Muslim men” (p.222).

Here’s another passage that’s a problem for me:

“But there is an underlying fear and paranoia running through Flynn and Thor’s political thrillers that was missing from Clancy’s. It’s that sense of menace — as much as any sense of reassurance — that accounts for these books’ popularity with right-wing talk-show hosts, who, after all, are in the business of convincing listeners and viewers that both they and their country are in constant peril.”

Yes, right-wing hosts are in the business of hyperbole, but it was the George W. Bush government who pushed this sense of fear and menace to begin with, more than anyone else. (And let’s not forget all the liberal media outlets who bought into it following 9/11). Is it so strange that authors, writing about contemporary events, are using the sense of the times? World War I and II novels, Cold War novels (not to mention movies) also had a certain feel of the times. Vietnam movies and books, too.

Zengerle says Clancy’s novels were overtly ideological – exhibiting a “We’re the toughest guys in the world, and our guys can beat their guys” mentality. Is this really ‘ideological’? Who actually wants to read a novel (or, many novels) that has a “we’re bastards, and weak ones at that” approach?

Thrillers are meant to entertain – otherwise they would be called ‘downers’. Who cares if the author is a conservative or liberal? If the novel is entertaining, and actually thrills, then I’m going to read it. If Jason Zengerle doesn’t understand this, then he really has no business writing about the genre. He does understand this, though, as he explains how Flynn and also Brad Thor’s novels have a comfort value to them – they make us feel better because the ‘good guys’ beat the ‘bad guys’. There are so many instances in the article when Zengerle sits on the fence or plays devils advocate that it’s difficult to really understand the point of the article. Is he trying to get the liberal media to pay more attention to thrillers? Or is he genuinely arguing that the right-wing has taken over the genre to advance their own political agenda?

“Political thrillers are seldom reviewed in The New York Times; and, while their authors used to pop up for interviews on the Today show or Larry King’s old radio program, those days are gone. Meanwhile, the new breed of liberal television pundit isn’t interested in hosting political thriller writers, either.”

This seems somewhat disingenuous of Zengerle to write, pointing the finger at other liberal hosts and outlets. It’s not, after all, like The New Republic has reviewed many thrillers, or has much time for the genre in general. (To be fair, TNR is somewhat politically neutral or ambiguous, which I like.) In fact, their fiction reviews tend to focus on books most people have never read, never heard of, and probably will never read. To pass up any opportunity to promote a book would be folly. If conservative talk-shows are all that’s left, then you go where you can.

Fair enough, Flynn’s pandering to Limbaugh and Beck is off-putting to someone who thinks Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot (to take Al Franken’s words) and Glenn Beck is a cretinous buffoon, and may certainly suggest that Flynn is trying to push a political agenda. But, as I’ve mentioned, if you read the book this is clearly not the case, unless you really want to see it. Kyle Mills, for example, is probably left-leaning in his politics, but his novels are so well balanced that you can’t help thinking that all sides are reasonable and on to something. (Mills’ Mark Beamon series in particular, is excellent.)

Here’s Joseph Finder (author of Power Play, and most recently The Vanished) on thriller authors:

“Most thriller writers tend not to be politically identified — not publicly, anyway, because they want to sell books and not turn off potential readers,” says Finder. “But I’ve noticed that those few who are open about their politics tend to be conservative, largely because the market favors that.”

Is it the book-buying market or the media market that favours conservative politics? Again, I think it’s more a case of the media pundits that find it easier to sell thrillers to conservatives, because of the clichéd belief that conservatives are the only ones who like to take action, rather than sit around and have a casual chat to sort things out. That would make for a boring book, totally lacking in thrills.

Ok, this rant has veered off on its own trajectory, so I shall bring it to a close here. Zengerle, while he makes some very good points (Thor and Flynn, neither of whom were in governmental or military service, shouldn’t be called upon as foreign policy experts), is not clear what he’s actually trying to achieve with the article. He also clearly doesn’t ‘get’ the political thriller genre. There are lefties out there, writing thrillers. But, if they’re not thrilling, then they don’t belong in the genre. Action and violence are key staples of popular- and mass-entertainment: just look at Hollywood, the favourite whipping-boy of the Conservative right wing of American politics and the number of action movies they produce every year.

I am neither a nutty right-winger, nor an uneducated hick. I don’t think Limbaugh is worth the air he breathes, and Beck should be considered a national joke. But, I love political and action thrillers. They’re entertaining. Let them be.

[All page numbers from Pursuit of Honor are from the eBook edition]

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Silence is golden

So, the first post in a looooong time. I could argue that it's because of the volume of work I find myself having to grapple with. Or maybe the reviews have taken priority, making this blog slip to the way-side as I work my way through an ever-growing pile of review copies. Maybe it's because I just don't have anything worth saying.

Unfortunately, none of these are entirely accurate. I do have a ton of work - both for the tutorials I'm taking (the subjects for which I know surprisingly little...), and also the second to last chapter for my PhD, which I'm trying to get finished (currently 2 weeks overdue, with no clear submission in sight). I'm still reading books and reviewing them, but these too have dropped off in volume. As for not having anything to say... well, we all know that's just not true, and probably will never be true.

When I manage to carve out some free time, I'll start pontificating and complaining about things again. Fear not, the Grinch has not hung up his... um, grinching equipment (?).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Nook

Barnes & Noble have just released info about their own eReader, the strangely-named “nook”. Info and an introductory video (with a dippy actress) can be found here.

I don’t really see the benefit of the colour lower screen, but it’s an interesting- and good-looking device that will probably never be released in the UK. Sigh. Here I think we’ll be limited to the Plastic Logic “Que”, which will also be available in the US.

image

Monday, September 14, 2009

Oh, the insanity…

Saw this over at Political Carnival, and thought it was worth referring to; this is the logo for the anti-tax, anti-socialist, Glenn Beck-ified marchers:

TaxMarch-SocialistLogosLet us all note the Communist/Socialist solidarity and union fist. Three times. Raised in the air in protest. Much like this logo…

TaxMarch-SocialistLogos2I wonder if Glenn Beck will be having another cry over the state of the nation, when he realizes just how idiotic he really is.

Once again, I’d also like to just say how astonishing I find it that some people will still consider him a comedian. That requires him to be funny on purpose – instead, he’s just a buffoon.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Damn he’s good…

No doubt Republicans will just dismiss this as Obama-fever, but I’ve just watched Obama’s message to School Students, and I must say, if the UK had a leader like this, it’d be a better country.

What he said in the speech was exactly what needs to be said to every student in the UK. Gordon Brown? David Cameron? They’ll never be able to be this good, this honest, or this impressive.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

US Healthcare Debate

One of my friends on Facebook recently posted a note on her profile that has created an utter shit-storm of comments (55 at last count), so I thought I’d just mention the article I pointed everyone towards:

David Goldhill’s “How American Health Care Killed My Father”

The title’s pretty sensationalist, but it’s a long article and it deals with pretty much every argument from all sides of the debate. It is, for me, the best article on the subject so far, even if I’m not well-enough informed to comment properly on his suggestions at the end.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Someone sat on a Mini…

MiniSportsCar

Not sure if I like it, but I am intrigued.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Words to ease a troubled, paranoid PhD student

An excerpt from my supervisor’s feedback for the latest PhD chapter I’ve submitted, on US foreign policy and the media:

“this was very interesting and enjoyable. The standard of citation is exceptional; and you have overcome the problems of balance: there is now an appropriate distribution between your own words and other people’s. Structurally it is also sound: indeed if it were a think-tank report then it would be nearly complete.” [emphasis obviously mine]

Certainly picked up my mood and made me feel a little better – when I submitted it, I was ready to put my fist through my computer screen, and my concerns over referencing and quotations and so forth (here, here, here, and here) turned out to be mostly over-compensation. Feel a lot better, now. Onwards to the next chapter!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Oops…

Just a little something for all those people who think the Republican/Right-Wing hysteria over ‘death panels’ is getting just a little bit silly, if not totally, criminally dishonest:

“In some knock-out reporting, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow showed Thursday night that not long ago Rush Limbaugh promoted death panels on his own radio show, Newt Gingrich sung their praises in the pages of the Washington Post, and, as the half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin actually proclaimed an official Death Panel Day for her state!”

- Leslie Savan, The Nation

Could these people be more hypocritical? It’s just such bald-face lying! (Go to the link for video.)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Palin opens her mouth again. (On Facebook, no less…)

This time, she’s talking about the Obama health-care plan, “reinforcing” the euthanasia, death-to-old-people fantasies of the extreme wing-nuts and ditto-heads. On her Facebook profile (way to be hip with the kids, yo), The Daily Beast reports, Sarah Palin stated on Friday “that health-care reform, or what Palin calls Obama's ‘death panel,’ may kill her infant son, Trig”. Here’s what she had to say:

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil”

She’s referring to page 425 of the House Democrats’ bill, which has nothing to do with euthanasia, just what voluntary options will be available to the elderly to help them decide what to do about their care, should they require certain procedures or help if they become too infirm to care for themselves. The Daily Beast again:

“As for Palin's description of mandatory Sparta-style murder of Down Syndrome babies, the paranoid vision doesn't match up with any component of any health care plan being discussed.”

Once again, Palin is using her children for political gain – despite slamming the Media for talking about her children, as well as warning them against bothering the new Alaskan governor’s family. By bringing Trig into things, he’s going to be referred to again and again as people try to (once again) figure out what planet Palin’s actually from.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sony eReaders, & Why they might win the “war”

From an article by Larry Dignan, forZDNet, on Sony’s devices reading multiple eBook formats:

Does Sony need a partnership with other e-book stores? Mullin said Sony’s plan is to support multiple stores and be wherever consumers buy and use books. Sony sees beyond its SonyStyle.com stores to libraries and other outlets. However, Sony’s store supports its own format while Google features PDFs and e-books on the ePub standard. Mullin said Sony will support them all. “Sony Reader supports ePub and plenty of stores support that format,” said Mullin. “We’re agnostic and encourage the bookstores in the market to provide content in an open format.”

Also, on the subject of colour screens, Mullin (Dignan’s source at Sony) had the following to say:

“When color is brought to market it has to be brought in a way that meets consumer expectations. There’s a tradeoff between readability and color. It’s also a tradeoff we’re not willing to make at this point.”

I’m with Mullin. A lot of people are asking where the colour is in eBooks. Well, it’s not necessary at the moment (in my opinion, because of what I read, it probably won’t be a deciding factor for me). If all you’re reading is text, then why do you need colour? So the cover images aren’t in colour, so what? Doesn’t ruin reading the book. If they could improve the focus of the text (resolution?), though, that would be nice.

On the PlasticLogic front, I’m disappointed to learn that they are going to be licensed exclusively through Barnes & Noble – another reason I think Sony’s got more of a chance in winning the “eBook Wars” (quite why everything has to be a “war” and not just competition is beyond me, and rather too martial and melodramatic for my taste) – by accepting/running most formats (or at least more than others), they have the greater potential. I’ve get eBooks from the Sony eBookstore and also Waterstone’s, and they are different formats and work perfectly. I’ve not bought any eBooks from B&N, but I’m going to check to see if they would work, first.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Twitter’s Benefits for Reviewers

Been catching up on my internet things since coming back from Cusco, and I found this on my review-site’s Twitter feed:

TwitterTrail

It’s the second two that are of most interest. I reviewed Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur on my site. Emma reviewed Alan Campbell’s Iron Angel (which is the 1st tweet up there), and the person who found that also found the review of Nights of Villjamur and passed it on to the author.

It’s wonderful how connected the world has become…

Saturday, August 01, 2009

“Monsieur pot…

… you are black”, said the Republican kettle. From this week’s Weekly Standard (p.22):

“Eric Holder’s Justice Department: It’s all politics, all the time” [emphasis mine]

Ironic, given this article in the Washington Post. For the Republicans to berate the Democrats for pursuing politics at all times is perhaps the most hypocritical thing they can do – anyone remember Rove and his “permanent campaign”? Or, like the real culprit(s) for the current US recession, has this faded into the unknowable (trans. inconvenient) mists of the past? I don’t condone the Democrats pursuing politics all the time, at all costs, but this is just too hypocritical of the Weekly Standard.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Hummer is dead…

… long live the hummer Toyota FJ Cruiser.

Despite General Motors closing down production of the behemoth-like Humvee range, Toyota appears to still believe that the market is still calling for a huge SUV/truck. This is their answer:

ToyotaFJCruiser Saw one in Peru – they are big, and certainly look very sturdy. In a country where it’s still common to be mugged, it makes sense. But in the rest of the developed, ‘civilised’ world? I’m sure this will sell well – it does look like a nice truck, but I wonder if people are going to be convinced in the current economic climate. I guess we’ll see. I have no doubt, though, that it’ll get better MPG than the Hummer ever did.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

On Obama’s expensive holiday

Really this is only a link to a good story by John Avlon over at the Daily Beast, about the cost and ‘elitist’ nature of the holiday.

“It’s a miracle of modern spin that the grandson of a senator and son of a president escaped the “elitist” tag while the inter-racial son of a teenage single mom in the ’60s gets tarred with it.”

And also, continuing the assault on Republican hypocrisy:

“the digs’ monthly price tag is more than millions of Americans earn in a year—but that’s the market rate, which the president is rightly compelled to pay. And he doesn’t have a family estate in Kennebunkport to retire to for speed golf and boat racing.”

Very good piece.

Two Great, Recent Movies

It’s actually been a little while since I saw these, but I thought I’d mention two movies that really struck me, recently.

TheProposal First off, The Proposal, which stars Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. In some ways, this is a mixture of Indecent Proposal and Green Card, only with a modern twist. Bullock was excellent as the career-focussed, cold Margaret Tate, who ropes Ryan Reynold’s Andrew Paxton (Tate’s over-worked assistant) in a fake marriage so she can stay in the country – she’s Canadian and her visa’s expired. The chemistry between the two of them, as they go off to see Andrew’s family in Alaska, is very good. The movie is filled with superb, very funny scenes; all of which work and are never forced or over-the-top. Thankfully, as well, the movie doesn’t fall prey to that oh-so-American need to explain every single joke or show it all. A very funny comedy, both the stars are on top form.

harry-potter-and-the-half-blood-prince The next movie is the latest Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This I was initially not too bothered about seeing in the cinema. When we went to see it in Lima, though, I was amazed by how good it is – the direction, cinematography and even the acting from the three main kids… all are very well done indeed. The best so far, the movies continue down their darker path, with great promise for the final two instalments.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This would never happen in a sane country

If you’ve been keeping up with the zany (ok, bat-shit crazy) “birthers” in the US, who claim President Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, then this might calm your mind:

“the House unanimously passed a resolution on Monday affirming that Hawaii is, in fact, the birthplace of President Obama”

That it was ever thought necessary to pass such a resolution is bizarre and disappointing. What troublesome is how people like Lou Dobbs and many, many others, keep this ‘conspiracy’ alive.

Read the full story at Salon, here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

An excellent innovation for cinemas!

Only ever seen this in Peru (where I am at the moment, by the way):

23072009083And, one photo (apologies for the low quality) of the tray in situ at my seat:

23072009084

It fits into the cup-holder in the arm-rests of the seats – it’s like a TV dinner, but with Dolby surround and a massive screen!

We need this in the UK!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A sloooow news day indeed

There is just no way this is "news":
"I Kelly, take you, Kelly - same name Facebook couple to wed"

Saturday, July 18, 2009

This got me intrigued…

“Anyway, Glenn Beck screaming like a cartoon mouse being stabbed in the scrotum with knitting needles is your new, terrifying ringtone. Warning: Once you listen to this clip, you can never un-listen to it.”

It’s referring to a recent Glenn Beck radio segment, when he went absolutely crazy when a woman called in about Health Care reform. It’s over at the Huffington Post.

I’m amazed that he’s described as “Fox News Channel comedian”, because he is anything but funny. Ever.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Excellent New Lacuna Coil Music Video

This is the latest music video from Lacuna Coil, for their single “I Like It”. It’s pretty cool, the song’s excellent, and it’s nice to see the band have a good sense of humour:

Some great input on the eBook market

Jack Shafer over at Slate.com on Wednesday published a story about illegal eBooks and sample of the publishing industry responses and his opinions on both eBooks and the various devices required to read them. The article had a lot of interesting additions to the general eBook debate – once again, far more eloquent than any of my own burbling on the subject, so I thought I’d add (again) my own two cents.

One starting point, about the eReader devices currently available. Shafer doesn’t like them at all:

“all the electronic reading gadgets on the market are subpar, if you ask me, making the reading of books, newspapers, magazines, and even cereal boxes painful. The resolution is poor. The fonts are crap. The navigation is chunky”

He also characterises your average eReader as “a heap of garbage”. Personally, I think he’s being a tad harsh. He’s completely spot on about the “chunky” navigation and the poor resolution – though, on 07042009009the last point, I find that most of the cover artwork is usually fine (see photo – not many eBooks actually have ‘covers’, though, which is disappointing).

I only have the Sony Reader to comment on, so I’m not sure how it is for the Kindle or Iliad. The text font isn’t great, and it can sometimes look out of focus on the smaller font size settings, but it’s still readable. The page-refresh rate depends on what you’re reading: pages with images change slower, and the Sony format is marginally quicker than a PDF/Adobe eBook (as well as smaller in file size).

Anyway, back to the main point about the article – that of the possibility of “napsterizing” the book industry: “Only a student or a deadbeat with a lot of time on his hands is going to want to search the Web and scour the torrents” for free versions of eBooks. This is a fair concern, as I think the same about pirated eBooks as I do pirated MP3s – not good for the people who make/write/perform them, so damages their ability and desire to produce the stuff in the first place. Shafer has a point, though about the ease of getting pirated eBooks: “It’s as tedious as fishing!”

[Please note – I only did a Google search, I didn’t download anything – and couldn’t have if I wanted to, because the University network blocks all torrent sites, etc.]

Shafer’s arguments against raising the prices of eBooks are spot on, and I really hope publishers take note – if prices start going up, they’ll turn potential buyers off (especially if/when hard-copies are cheaper!!).

One of the best thing about the article, however, is easily missed: it’s a link to the PlasticLogic eReader site that will hopefully be released soon, which Shafer says makes “electronic reading painless”. All I can say is, like Shafer, I am very taken by this device, even if it doesn’t look as nice as the Kindle or Sony Reader (though it’s still not bad looking):

image(It would be nice if the borders weren’t so wide, and if it wasn’t white – damn the iPod and Apple for making manufacturers think electronics should all be white!!)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blog embarrassment?

A good, recent editorial cartoon by Bob Gorrell, one of my favourite editorial cartoonist:

crbgo090716

It’s strange for me that I post many articles, posts, reviews, etc., which any stranger with an internet connection can read (in the unlikely event that they might actually want to, or just happen to stumble across them), but when a friend or colleague visits the blogs, I can be become quite embarrassed, not to mention very defensive.

This is especially true when it comes to my review sites: I never feel comfortable when my friends read my reviews. I’m not sure why, really. For the fiction reviews, it’s not really a problem (different people like different books, so the reviews mainly focus on plot, style, readability, etc.); but for the non-fiction reviews, it definitely is. Perhaps this is from an intellectual inferiority complex or something – we’re all postgraduates, and for the main clued up to world events and politics, so my reviews sometimes feel limited or simplistic.

Speaking of reviews, I’ve recently had one published in the East Asia: An International Quarterly journal. It was for David Kang’s China Rising, which wasn’t bad (but not great). The review can be found here.

I shall leave you with another Gorrell cartoon, which is also pretty good, and simple in its execution:

crbgo090712

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Palin Signed WHAT?!

Sarah Palin has gone that extra step in celebrity signings. In the front page New York Times photo of her, she’s clearly signing a baby!

PalinSignsABabyThis is beyond weird.

A Newsworthy Occurrence! (London Fire)

While in London this past weekend, I found myself (for the first time ever) in a position to actually report on a newsworthy event: the fire on Dean Street in London’s Soho, where fire-fighters fought to put out a blaze that left the offices of Future Capital gutted.

Emma and I happened to be walking along Oxford Street, and were able to see the smoke (which we’d originally been able to smell in the Charing Cross branch of Borders). In an unusual display of journalistic-curiosity, I dragged Emma down the street towards the smoke. Below are some of the photos I took of the scene (my phone’s camera, for once, up to the task):

10072009073

10072009069

Finally, considering this photo…

10072009072… I thought this headline that evening was somewhat amusing:

11072009074

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

US Political Tradition – Sex & Polls…

An interesting post from The Atlantic’s “Idea of the Day” blog, by Conor Clarke:

“Polls are as integral to the American political tradition as sex scandals or earmarks. Yet it's not clear that they serve any beneficial purpose.”

Read the rest, here.

T2

(Sorry, I’m referring to Transformers 2, not Terminator 2 – which is one of the best movies ever made, by the way.)

Just got pointed in the direction of this rather amusing website, Topless Robot. (I think the author’s name is Rob, so I’m going to go with that.)

Rob had this to say about his 2,500-word (!) review of the new Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen movie:

“It dawned on me at about 4am last night when I was finishing my review that 2500 words might not be enough to fully describe the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen experience.”

Having not seen the movie, this doesn’t bode well, as I was really looking forward to it. Heaven knows what he’s going to write about the G.I.Joe movie later this summer!

Anyway, the post is a list of his Transformers 2 FAQs, and they’re rather funny. Here’s my favourite:

What is the status of the Transformers at the beginning of the film?
The Autobots have joined the military to hunt down the Decepticons. We're told the Decepticons are "doing things," but they appear to be hiding peacefully when the Autobots show up and brutally murder them.

I also recommend this post about a Hello Kitty Tazer

Obama Admin: Dangerous to your health?

Two photos say it all, really. First, Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor, with her leg in a cast:

200907-SotomayerCast[Photo Source]

Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her arm in a sling:

200907-Clinton-Sling[Photo Source]

What on earth are they getting up to in government?! At least now we know hazard pay is justified…

FOX In Palin-Critical Shocker!

I’ll be damned, Liz Trotta goes off message on FOX, and politely tears Palin a new one (despite the host’s attempts to make it positive):

Amazing that they allowed this woman on the show without cutting her off mid-segment! (They’ve done it oh-so-many-times before.) She should be given… well, anything she wants, really.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Semantic Trickery…

Just took the MSNBC.com US citizenship test, and I didn’t pass it (!?!). Got 75%, which is effectively a “Want to become American? Well, tough” grade.

14. Who selects the Supreme Court justices?

The President nominates someone, and the Senate confirm. Which is “selection”? Technically, the Senate selects the nomination they think should have the job. Turns out, though, it’s “nomination”:

They are appointed by the president. (NOTE: This is the response given on the official United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site. The president selects the justices; however, they must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. If they are rejected by the Senate, then the president must choose a new nominee, who, again, is subject to Senate approval.)

Foiled by semantic trickery! That, or I’m just having a dense day.

I also had no idea that the “N-400 Application for Naturalization” was the form I would need to fill out. (Now, where can I get myself one of these…) No idea that the 7th Amendment has nothing to do with voting rights, either. And I don’t recall ever noticing Patrick Henry’s name in my reading of copious numbers of presidential biographies, or that he said “Give me liberty, or give me death!”.

When/if I ever have to take this test for real, hopefully I’ll pass. Only need 85%, which is showing knowledge of more than many Americans, I imagine (same goes for UK’s Citizenship Test, so don’t start calling me anti-American).

WTF?

I’m sorry, but I don’t get this. Is someone reaching for an allusion? I’m not dense, but this I just don’t get.

Friday, July 03, 2009

eBooks – An Author Weighs In

Ah, someone else has been weighed in on the issue of eBook prices; and, I have to say, he does a much better job than I did (it helps that he’s actually a member of the publishing community, and therefore has most of the facts involved). It’s the author Joe Abercrombie, who wrote the excellent The First Law Trilogy, and has most recently released Best Served Cold. (He’s a very, very good author, so check his stuff out!)

After announcing that his books are now available in eBook format from Waterstones.com, he said,

“The prices are a tad disappointing - £10 and change for Best Served Cold when a hardback is selling at £8.50, and around £6 for the First Law books when mass-market paperbacks are available for a mere £4.”

This is pretty much the argument I’ve been making, and it’s nice that an author has mentioned this. He goes on (big quote):

“a lot of users somehow think that eBooks, since they don't have to be printed, are pure profit for the publisher and should therefore be virtually free whereas, of course, the great majority of the costs that go into making a paper book (commissioning, editing, artwork, marketing, repping, promoting and, erm, paying the author) still apply with an eBook… Even so, selling eBooks at more than the cost of the paper books is going to look just a wee bit like taking the piss to some buyers, I suspect.”

As an eBook buyer, I can say that it does. I appreciate that books need to be marketed, and I’m certainly all for authors (and musicians, but that’s a different discussion) getting paid – in fact, I believe they should get a bigger share of the pie. To bring up my main bugbear again, it’s the fact that they cost more, but require less – i.e. printing and shipping are not an issue.

Emma, my girlfriend, is in publishing, and she edits on-screen in a Word document. Surely it’s cheaper/easier to convert a Word document into an appropriate eBook format? I know the Sony eReader can convert PDFs made from documents into a perfectly readable format very easily (it struggles a little with scanned-page PDFs).

Abercrombie says that he’d like to see them “retail at most at the same price as the paper equivalents, and ideally somewhat lower”, which I think would be perfectly fair. The author does provide a potential reason/explanation for eBooks being cheaper:

“At the moment most publishers and booksellers are still focused on the paper market where heavy discounts are applying more and more widely, making eBooks something of a speciality item and hence relatively more expensive.”

Ok, fine, I can more-or-less accept that. But, then why didn’t this apply to MP3s, too, when they first came out through iTunes or wherever? In that case, I remember an MP3 album being roughly the same price (usually about a £1~ more, but only because I can get a student discount). Ok, Amazon was sometimes able to sell them cheaper still, but not at the same discrepancies that you find with eBooks.

All this being said, I’ve got £1.99 on my Waterstone’s card, which would bring Best Served Cold down to £8.18, which is a pretty good price for a new hardback-eBook.

The debate continues, I guess…

Anyway, go check out Joe Abercrombie’s books, while you’re thinking about it.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Purdum on Palin

Just started reading Todd S. Purdum's Vanity Fair piece about Sarah Palin, and I think the following questions sum up many people's concerns about US politics and Palin's nomination as a whole:
"What does it say about the nature of modern American politics that a public official who often seems proud of what she does not know is not only accepted but applauded? What does her prominence say about the importance of having (or lacking) a record of achievement in public life? Why did so many skilled veterans of the Republican Party—long regarded as the more adroit team in presidential politics—keep loyally working for her election even after they privately realized she was casual about the truth and totally unfit for the vice-presidency?"
The rest of the article's pretty good, too.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jon Stewart & Mike Huckabee on Abortion

This is part two of the interview, but I thought it was excellent. They both know their positions very well, and it’s refreshing to see a civilised debate about the issue, where no one’s frothing at the mouth or attacking the other. I do, however, agree with Jon Stewart, but I suppose that was inevitable. They both talk about increasing education on reproduction, which is a glaring omission from syllabuses (as far as I’m aware – going by what I read in the newspapers; though it’s also partially true for some schools/areas in the UK). Anyway, decide for yourselves:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mike Huckabee Extended Interview Pt. 2
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran
(The rest of the interview is available on The Daily Show’s website.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Someone’s on the same page…

From David Rothkopf’s recent post, about Obama’s honeymoon being ‘officially’ over:

3. No matter who is president, Kim Jong Il is still nuts...

Kim Jong Il has spent the past month reinforcing the preceding point. "You may be Mr. Charisma," he says via his missile tests and nuclear experiments, "by I am Mr. Certifiable Loon. Which in the rock-paper-scissors of international diplomacy means I win every time." All of a sudden, Obama finds when it comes to North Korea...and a host of other places...sitting in the Oval Office makes him look and act a lot like his predecessor no matter how much he wishes it weren't so.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The thing about Twitter…

I’ve been reading the TIME magazine cover story about Twitter and how it’s going to radically change our lives (colour me skeptical at the moment), and I must say that I still don’t really get Twitter. I’ve got two tweet-feeds (one for me, one for my book review site – seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s really just a waste of time), and I don’t get the attraction. I’ve been tweeting more this past week, and I must say that there’s been no noticeable change to my day, life, or anything. It’s a bunch of mini-blog posts.

I’ll give it a bit more time, see if anything interesting happens.

The weirdest thing

Yesterday (possibly Friday), someone stole the toaster from our kitchen, and replaced it with a completely broken one. It required moving our big-ass fridge to get to the plug. That’s an awful lot of effort for a toaster. Why?!

Living in college, we have communal kitchens outfitted by college. If something gets broken (as you can imagine, a frequent occurrence), all we have to do it mention it to the porters, and they’ll either fix it or get a replacement as soon as they can. I reported the broken on, and had a new one the same day.

Some people in college do the weirdest things…

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009

Should I really be doing this?

I’ve started to pull together the latest chapter for my PhD, covering non-governmental actors in US foreign policy. I must say that I’m seriously questioning whether or not I should be doing this. Not because I’m not interested in the subject, but because I’m having quite a hard time actually writing this damn chapter.

I’ve read hundreds of articles and book chapters on the subject, and I am completely lost. There seems to be no consensus for who is or isn’t influential in the foreign policy-making process. Media, one would think, should have an influence on foreign policy. But, with conflicting statements by government officials, who is to be believed? Those who state how a policy would play in the media as a genuine concern (e.g. James Baker III, Colin Powell) would ‘prove’ that the media was an influential actor. But, equally, there are many in the media as well as researchers and officials who state all the media does is facilitate the government (see, for example, Noam Chomsky and the New York Times-Iraq scandal). The literature on the influence of special interests and business on US foreign policy isn’t great. There’s plenty of innuendo about business buying foreign policy and officials, or special interests taking over the Clinton administration, etc., but it still doesn’t really come together to make a good chapter or even a particularly good chapter.

The aim of the chapter is to make the reader aware of the forces that exert even a modicum of influence over the foreign policy-making process, if not to be the definitive last word on the matter. These forces are clearly business, media, special interests/lobbies, and ‘the academy’ (think tanks, scholars, former officials, etc.). Stretching it all to 10,000~ is probably not going to be too much of a problem, but the stuff I’ve got is just so… blah. (One can only hope this mastery of the English language is not quite reproduced in the final draft…) I can’t bring myself to care about the subject at the moment – I’ve been reading the material for four months, frequently experiencing eureka moments only to discover that they last for no more than a paragraph (if I’m lucky) or actually prove useless to the chapter.

Beyond my concerns about content, I have concerns about the way I’m writing and approaching the chapter. I seem to be writing in a manner that would barely pass muster for an undergrad, let alone a PhD student. It seems simplistic, trite and a has a considerable air of “who cares?” about it. My comments and “analysis” are hardly earth-shattering or particularly intelligent, and I can’t imagine the examiner at the end of this thinking I’m worthy of having “Dr.” at the start of my name.

I’ve got a week to finish the chapter, and one can only hope that what I finally produce is vaguely reminiscent of a PhD chapter. Otherwise, I just might pack it all in.

Monday, June 01, 2009

On Durham’s Admissions Procedures

So begins the Sunday Times’ article, “Top Schools Boycott ‘bias’ Durham”:

“SOME of the country’s most academic schools are discouraging pupils from applying to popular courses at Durham University in protest at what they see as an admissions system ‘fixed’ against them”

I attended (“did time at”) Marlborough College, one of these “top schools” (it was, I can’t deny I got an excellent education from some of the best teachers in Britain), and at no point was I ever discouraged from applying to Durham. In fact, there was a running joke that Durham took the “Oxbridge Rejects” (i.e. anyone from private school who applied to Oxford or Cambridge but was rejected for whatever reason – this includes myself). Ok, so I started at Durham University in 2001, but still.

With this in mind, what’s all the fuss actually about? Apparently Durham University uses a mathematical formula to decide who gets admitted to the university, favouring those students who are from poorer or less-privileged backgrounds:

“because candidates from low-scoring schools have outstripped their peers, they deserve more credit than pupils who score a string of A* grades at a school where most pupils do so.”

I seem a certain amount of merit in this position, but why should my GCSEs be worth less? Did I not do the work for them? Did the current crop of students being turned away not do the work?

Durham turns away approximately 3,500 applicants with or expected to receive 3 A’s at A-Level. Apart from a small selection of students who give the impression of being as dumb as posts (making determinations on this somewhat difficult), I would say that an easy majority of my students this year were of upper-middle class backgrounds, or at least from wealthy families and from good schools (whether private or otherwise). I therefore wonder just how much of an issue this really is: The Times article had only one example of a student rejected from Oxford, Edinburgh, York and King’s College London. He’s now going to study in the US (lucky him, I would have loved to have been able to study there).

As Mike Baker soberly wrote in The Guardian:

“The fears over positive discrimination are probably overdone. No university wants to admit students who lack the ability to complete their course. No one is suggesting tariffs or quotas. But universities should treat each applicant as an individual, taking account of prior achievements, circumstances and potential. And that means A-level grades alone are not everything.”

I got this in an email today:

“In some subjects Durham is now as competitive as Oxbridge for entry. In many subjects AAA is the minimum entry qualification. Thus, inevitably, many very strong candidates will be disappointed. Last year we rejected 3,500 students predicted to have at least AAA at A level.”

I know it’s common for people to comment on how “things were harder in my day”, but I think this is the case. My first year tutees this year – with but a couple of exceptions – were by and large as intellectually curious as bricks. Ok, that’s perhaps a bit of a harsh representation, but most of them exhibited little ability to think outside of the box, an over-dependence on spoon-feeding (also evident in my 2nd year tutees, who were taking a 1st year module), and a reluctance to engage in class discussion. Sometimes it was next to impossible to get my students to join the discussions.

This makes the Vice-Chancellor’s response to the Sunday Times article all the more surprising:

“personal statement, reference, study skills, motivation for the degree, independence of thought, achievements in non-academic activities and how applicants perform in relation to other leading students in their school” [emphasis mine]

With almost every student achieving 3 A’s at A-Level, universities must rely on other criteria to make decisions. I believe I was admitted on the strength of my interview with one of my future lecturers. Personal statements should be considered, but then there is the problem of them also becoming formulaic and over-flowing with misplaced praise. University-specific exams? Well, I remember reading somewhere that Oxford and Cambridge were considering bringing them back (are they already in place?), but I can’t imagine Durham bringing them in anytime soon.

As a final comment about grades: I received one B and three C’s at A-Level (one was for General Studies, so I guess it doesn’t count), yet I’ve completed a BA from Durham (receiving a 2:1), a Masters degree from Cardiff, and am now in my third year of PhD back in Durham (tutoring on the side). My point is, in complete agreement with Mr. Baker, grades aren’t everything and they don’t indicate what the student might be able to accomplish under the right conditions. For that reason, it is dismaying that Cambridge University now admits to no longer reading personal statements when considering applicants – it is on the personal statement that students like myself, who maybe don’t have a stellar academic history pre-university, can have the chance to shine or catch an admittance officer’s eye.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Having a tantrum about it won’t help, and neither will running to the papers crying foul. Maybe your kid just didn’t stand out – it’s a nigh-on impossible thing for a parent to admit that their child isn’t, actually, particularly special (I know my parents are somewhat blinded to my own academic short-comings).

Saturday, May 30, 2009

More PhD Chapter Writing Issues

I now have almost 16,000 words of notes and quotes typed up for my latest chapter about Non-Governmental Actors in US Foreign Policy-Making Process. The chapter’s only meant to be 10,000 words long, but there’s just so much information, so many good quotations that I’d like to use to build the chapter, that I find myself in a quandary about writing.

The media sections of the chapter, most of all, are causing problems. I’ve read and noted literally hundreds of articles from TIME, Newsweek, The New Republic, The Nation, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Atlantic, Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times to find out how they report on China. Sure, I’ve been able to spot the trends: for The Weekly Standard, for example, China is a particularly favourite whipping-boy, while Wall Street Journal reports almost exclusively on business issues, in a rather bland or positive manner. But there are so many good quotes, I’m having difficulty cutting them down.

The structure of the chapter’s also causing problems. All the actors I’m looking at – special interests, business, academics, media – are interconnected, each feeding and reinforcing the other. In many ways, without one, everything would fall apart. Do I start with the media, and work backwards? Or do I start with business, academics and special interests, discuss their opinions, preferences and positions, followed by how the media then conveys their messages and reports on their actions, policies, and positions? Each has its pluses, but also negatives.

It sounds strange to be worrying about this so much, but I can’t start writing before I sort this out. Bloody infuriating.

Just in case the US was feeling left out…

The Wall Street Journal today has a story about US Congressmen creatively using their government allowances: “Lawmakers Bill Taxpayers For TVs, Cameras, Lexus

It’s nice to know that it’s not just the British politicians who are able to creatively game the allowance system of their government. While there are no stories about a Representative using his/her allowance to dredge their moat, the $24,730 Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings expensed for a year-long lease of a Lexus GS450H is considerable. Not as dodgy as Eni Faleomavaega claimed expenses for two $1,473 TVs.

The problem with the story is, of course, that the American lawmakers are amateurs at this. (Or maybe they’re more honest than British MPs?) There’s nothing particularly outrageous (see aforementioned moat-dredging) or shocking. Ok, Faleomavaega bought some TVs – how many offices on Capitol Hill don’t have a TV? CNN or another channel is always playing in the background, I’m sure. (46” is excessive, but maybe the Rep. is blind?)

And the Lexus Hybrid? Well, that’s good for the environment, and $24,730 for a car like that is actually pretty good – according to Lexus’s US website, their purchase price starts at $56,550, which would actually have still fallen within the Congressional individual expense claim allowance of about $1.5million per year (to cover everything from staff salaries, travel, and general office and job expenses).

For us in the UK, bombarded with films and novels about corruption in the US political system, it’s a weird but nice change for the UK to have the more corrupt pols. (Nice, at least, for those few of us who actually like the US, and want to live and work there.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

More about New Newsweek

Well, it seems like they’re going for themed issues from now on. Fine, but an entire issue about Iran, and only Iran? Some of it was interesting, for sure, but there’s a lot more going on in the world!

Considering the higher price (even for subscribers), I can’t say I’m looking forward to years of only finding the occasional article in the occasional issue of interest or use.

Disappointing. Breadth is not something to shy away from.

Proof of Global Economic Problems…

Apparently, the new sofas college ordered for the coffee-shop have had to be cancelled – the factory/company that made them in China has shut down because they are bankrupt.

The problem with relying on an export-led economy is, of course, if no-one’s ordering your stuff, you’re in deep trouble. Didn’t expect the furniture sector to be so quickly and noticeably affected, though, as I figured everyone needs somewhere to park while they drink coffee. Ah well.

It would have been nice to have some new sofas, though…

Friday, May 22, 2009

The New Newsweek

imageIt seems to be the season for magazine re-designs. The Atlantic recently underwent a very successful (and colourful) redesign, and now we have one of the best newsweeklies undergoing a similar face-lift. I’ve been reading the magazine religiously since October 2002, when I was living in Kumamoto, Japan, and wanted something in English to keep up on the news and general current affairs (I am equally fond and loyal to TIME magazine for the same reasons) – it would later become my go-to publication for information and updates on the War in Iraq.*

This new design for the magazine has both good and bad elements. First, and most importantly, it’s not always clear what’s an article. They now appear almost identical to those annoying “Special Advertising Sections” that Newsweek runs from time to time – usually about the economic developments of an African or South American nation. This effect is largely down to the abolition of the familiar red bar at the top/bottom of every page of journalistic content. (Now they have more varied bars.) The new font is not as good, either – it’s more squat and rounder than the previous one.

The opening sections of the magazine are, on the whole, better. It’s less messy, and much more visually pleasing (what used to be the “Perspectives” section is now the “Scope” section, which includes sub-sections like the “InternationaList”), even if there are bigger empty spaces. What does work in the new design is the three-column approach, an improvement on the previous two-column, which for some strange reason both looks better and reads easier.

Moving beyond the actual design, the content of this issue is pretty good. Couple of good articles about President Obama, but also an interesting article about George W. Bush’s post-presidential life.

On the whole, the magazine looks cleaner and crisper, perhaps a little more modern. But I shall reserve my judgment until I’ve read a few more issues, to see if it’s really as good.

* Incidentally, since I was relying on weeklies, and not getting daily updates, I found the shift from Afghanistan to Iraq wholly suspect and irregular. So at least there is some benefit to not being a news junkie – a benefit I have since lost…

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Greatest Irony of the Month

Dick Cheney, the patron saint of government opacity, has had a Freedom of Information Act request denied. Brilliant.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Very Good Video About UK Exclusion List

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M - Th 11p / 10c
Battle of the Banned
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

Infuriating Tutoring…

Just finished my final two tutorials for the year, and the first was perhaps the most infuriating experience of the year. The first 40mins went pretty smoothly, followed by some discussion about the formative essays I’d just handed back (of the 60~ essays, majority did worse than they should have for a second attempt).

Then we moved on to exam essay planning practice. The question was something about whether or not the “security dilemma” is still relevant to today’s security agenda. Pretty straightforward. There was some confusion as to what the security dilemma actually is.* Perhaps where I went wrong was thinking it would be best to see if they could answer that question. This pissed them off. A lot. So, after a rather long, futile attempt to get them to answer the question (pesky tutors expecting their students to think for themselves), I irritably answered the question for them. (There was much sighing, knowing “teacher’s think” grins, and rolling of the eyes.)

Now, I think it would be fair to say that the fault of the situation lies with both myself and also my students – firstly, I shouldn’t have spent so long trying to get them to answer, because it gave the impression that I couldn’t answer the question (I could, but their confusion and lack of understanding was confusing for me, as it’s a pretty important, day-one concept, which made me question what I knew), and I shouldn’t have acted so irritated. Secondly, they should realise they are in university and they no longer get things spoon-fed to them.

What’s interesting for me, though, was the two main tutees kicking up a fuss were from opposite ends of the spectrum. One has failed both assignments (she’s a second-year), the other got firsts for both assignments (he’s a first-year). Apart from making me reconsider whether or not the latter should really have been given the top grades (plagiarism, perhaps…?), it was surprising, but also highlighted the reason that the former failed (total lack of imagination or intellectual curiosity).

I explained that nobody in the class had said anything that was wrong in any tutorial they’ve had. Yet, for some reason, they just refused to try this one.

Don’t really know why I thought I should write this, but it’s been irritating me all day. It’s never good when a tutor/teacher gives the appearance of not knowing what they’re talking about. The fact that I did know, and was right makes it doubly annoying!

Anyway, you live and learn. Next year, I’m not going to be anywhere near as lenient.

- - - - - - - - - -

* Essentially, and boiled down to its simplest definition: “one nation’s security is another’s insecurity” (can be shown using China-Japan relations, US-China relations, Cold War arms race, etc.)

- - - - - - - - - -

Update (17:28): Just received an email from one of the tutees who attended the class – turns out, I’m not the only one who annoyed by others in attendance. Interesting.

Under whose authority…?

A very quick post (stream of consciousness): Just read an article from Reuters, “China warns France against award for Dalai Lama”, and there are a couple of things that stand out as ridiculous.

First off, if you consider that China is a nation that waves the banner of sovereignty at any given opportunity, this statement is hypocritical in the extreme:

“If the city of Paris makes him a so-called honorary citizen, it will certainly once again be opposed by the Chinese people. We demand the Paris city government stop all actions which interfere in China's internal affairs and not make the same mistakes again and again on the Tibet issue.” [emphasis mine]

Under what authority is the Chinese government able to demand anything like this from a sovereign nation? Perhaps I’m missing something, but France is perfectly within its right to offer honorary citizenship to Paris to whoever the hell it wants, Beijing’s knickers getting in a twist or not.

The fact that France acquiesced is incredible, as it merely strengthens China’s hand at throwing its weight about (something, I might add, they complain about the US…). Maybe there is something to the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” thesis…

Friday, May 01, 2009

A great photo

Got sent this link today. It’s title is “What Grown Men Do With Their G.I.Joes” – it’s not dirty, just really funny:

http://www.e-brighthorizons.com/what-grown-men-do-with-their-gi-joe-action-figures/

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

“Here’s More Money To Do Your Job. That We’re Already Paying You To Do…”

I know this isn’t the biggest story about the recently released UK government budget, but after catching the cover of today’s Times, and couldn’t pass up commenting on this ridiculous headline:

MPs to get extra £150 a day for turning up

What?!

According to the story, by Sam Coates,

“MPs will receive about £150 a day on top of their salaries for attending the Commons in an emergency package of anti-sleaze reforms to be rushed through Parliament.”

Quite how this proposal is related to anti-sleaze reforms is quite beyond me, but in the wake of the release of MP expense claims, and the clear evidence that a dishonest many are submitting expenses for everything under the sun without doing any (or much) work, this is unbelievable.

As far as I can tell, the taxpayers will now be paying their MPs an extra £150 per day that they spend doing their job. Which they are already paid handsomely for (£64,766, according to the same story).

Well, as always, there’s a little more to it than that. After I overcame my bout of populist-outcrying, I read on. Coates explains:

“His central proposal is to abolish the £24,000 second-home allowance that has caused dire headlines, most notably for Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary. The Prime Minister wants MPs to vote for a tax-free daily allowance to be obtained by ‘clocking in’ at Westminster. Members would not have to submit receipts and the allowance would come on top of their £64,766 salaries.”

Sounds pretty reasonable, no? (To me, it sounds rather like the system the Labour Government put in place to effectively bribe kids to go to school).

Dispensing with the need to submit receipts looks like a doozey for MPs, so I imagine this will receive a great deal of support. And, no doubt, we’ll see an up-tick of MPs present and correct in Parliament, tapping away on their Blackberrys, reading books and magazines, paying not a bit of attention to what’s going on. That, or they’ll clock in at 9am, collect their £150, and go home.

“If the daily rate is more than £150 the new system is likely to cost more than the current one, according to a 2007 analysis by the Commons. With the House sitting 150 days a year on average, many MPs could claim more than £20,000 a year.”

£22,500, to be exact. So it’s not more expensive, but it’s still a lot, and the difference is negligible.

The reaction from MPs? Well, another story by Sam Coates, entitled:

MPs aghast at clocking in, but set to back £150 attendance fee

Naturally.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Where does all the money go…?

Sorry to keep peppering the blog with loads of Daily Show clips, but this interview was great. It’s with Elizabeth Warren, who tries to make it clear where all the TARP money’s gone, and what’s been done with it. It’s very funny. And a little worrying. Anyway, watch on!

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

M - Th 11p / 10c

Elizabeth Warren Pt. 1
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M - Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor