Friday, 1 November 2013

The Tea Incentive

I don't know about you, but when I lift the lid on a new box of tea, it feels a bit like opening a casket of treasure. All those little parcels of promised satisfaction, stacked all neat and tidy right up to the brim... It makes you want to give a last-sip-drained "Ahhh..." just thinking about it. Well, it does me.

Which is probably why I was so intrigued when I recently came across the concept of The Tea Incentive. (Those capitals are mine: I don't think anyone who actually uses TTI finds it quite worth proper-nounising or acronymising as I do.)

I was soldiering away at work, writing up a summary of a research paper, when I stumbled across TTI. The paper was O'Connor et al's 'Community pharmacists' attitudes toward palliative care: an Australian nationwide survey'. For the purposes of this blog, the important part of the paper is the following innocuous-looking line:

'The survey-packs were addressed to ‘The Community Pharmacist’ and included a cover letter, information sheet, the survey, a tea bag, and a reply-paid envelope.'

Excuse me? (*Splutter as though tea is going down the wrong way.*) A tea bag?

Could the glorious thing I suspected be true? No further explanation was given in the paper, so I immediately ceased summarising and Googled something like "tea bag incentive surveys". It turned out I was right, this was indeed A Thing.

Having since done some additional research (on my own dime), the origin of The Tea Incentive (I think I prefer the term in full, it has more grandeur) seems to be a 1996 study by one Anne-Wil Harzing, now Professor in International Management and Associate Dean of Research at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

The study in question was reported in the following paper 'Response rates in international mail surveys: results of a 22-country study'. This study was part of Professor Harzing's work towards her doctorate. She wanted to fill in some of the large gaps in our knowledge around what affects mail survey response rates, and carried out a number of different experiments.

The part we care about reads as follows:

'After considering a number of options, varying from money and electronic organisers to flower seeds, a small non-monetary incentive was included: a bag of Pickwick tea for one. This tea bag was attached to the cover letter next to a PS: "Why don't you take a short break, have a cup of tea and fill out the questionnaire right now, it will only take 10-15 minutes." This incentive was hypothesised to catch the addressee's attention, prevent the questionnaire from being thrown away immediately, bring the respondent in a pleasant mood and emphasise that it would not take too much time to fill out the questionnaire (just the time to drink a cup of tea).'

How lovely is that?! 'I need a favour, please, but here: have a cuppa on me.' It must have been like getting a warm smile through the mailbox.

Now, Professor Harzing wasn't trying to find out whether The Tea Incentive worked, so she didn't compare it with anything else. But if I was finding it in a paper from 2013, then clearly her idea must have caught on...

The next study I can find that adopted The Tea Incentive is reported in Brennan et al's 1998 paper 'The tea bag experiment: more evidence on incentives in mail surveys'. Unfortunately I don't have a subscription to the International Journal of Market Research, and the paper doesn't seem to be available for single purchase. However, the article abstract does tell us the following:

'This paper reports the results of a study which compared the effectiveness of a tea bag and a $1 coin as prepaid incentives in a mail survey of the general public. The tea bag had no effect on response rate but the dollar coin produced a significant increase in response of more than 7%, confiming the efficacy of this type of incentive.'

Is this the end for The Tea Incentive? Did O'Connor et al waste their time and their tea in their recent paper? Was Professor Harzing's pleasure package misbrewed?

Not so fast. Another paper by one of the authors of the Brennan et al paper - Gendall et al's 1998 'The effect of prepaid non-monetary incentives in mail surveys' - examined the use of tea bags, postage stamps, and small and large chocolate coins as survey incentives. They were obviously aware of the results of the Brennan et al paper, but said of their own study:

'However, these particular tea bags were of high quality and very attractive, as well as being convenient to use.'

One wonders what shabby, impossible-to-access tea bags were used in the Brennan et al paper.

Anyway, Gendall et al found that the stamps and small chocolate coins increased the response rate by around 4-5% relative to control, whereas the large coins and the very attractive tea bags had no effect. And only the small coins were cost-effective.

Foiled again?

Perhaps not: it turns out that the failure of the tea bags may have been purely the fault of men over the age of 55. Gendall et al don't go into statistical specifics, but they do say:

'Among respondents under 55, tea bags were the second most effective incentive after the gold coins but, as a result of the poor response to this incentive among older males, the tea bag treatment actually performed worse than the control among respondents over 55.'

Let me repeat that: 'the tea bag treatment actually performed worse than the control among [male] respondents over 55.'

What is it about tea bags that angers older males?!

Wait, perhaps I'm being too hasty. Perhaps the older males got so excited and distracted by the lovely free tea that they forgot all about the survey? Or perhaps a lot of them got chocolate from, say, some tea-dipped choccy digestives all over their fingers and then all over the survey, and then felt too embarrassed to return the survey all covered with gooey smudges?

Whatever the explanation for this age-and-gender anomaly, the overall picture now seems clear: everyone except perhaps men over 55 loves to get a free tea bag in the mail. Of course they do!

Strangely, all of these studies were conducted by Antipodeans (from a British perspective) - not the first people I think of when I think of tea drinkers.

Well, that's that. Someone put the kettle on - I think I hear the postman calling...

O'Connor M, Hewitt LY, Tuffin PH (2013) Community Pharmacists' Attitudes Toward Palliative Care: An Australian Nationwide Survey. J Palliat Med [Epub ahead of print] doi:10.1089/jpm.2013.0171.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Human brain cells make mice learn faster

Image by Coxy

If you're reading this blog, you're smarter than a mouse. And that's not because this blog is so very highbrow, whereas mice only read Heat magazine. Mice can't read, silly. But what is it that makes humans more intelligent than other animals?

If your response was "brain size", you're only partly right. Because for brains, like other body parts, size isn't everything. For example, sperm whales' brains are roughly five times more massive than humans', but sperm whales are easily beaten at backgammon.

So what else is important?

The answer is that we're still finding out. You might not know that brains are made up of both neurons - the cells that are coupled to each other and to nerves in the rest of the body via electrical junctions called synapses, and which are what most people think of when they think of brains - and other cell types, collectively called glia. Until the past decade or so, most scientists thought that only neurons were important to brains' ability to carry out the things that make having one desirable - sensing, learning, thinking, planning, acting, etc. But more and more they are coming to appreciate the large part that glia play in the brain's activity.

A paper I recently came across published by Xiaoning Han et al in Cell Stem Cell earlier this year adds to that growing appreciation. This group isolated immature human glial cells and then transplanted them into the brains of young mice whose immune systems had been weakened to prevent the cells being rejected. The researchers had labelled the human cells so that they would be able to visualise them later on, and when they did so after a number of months they found that the human cells had integrated nicely with the mice's own brain cells.

But in integrating, the human cells had retained their human shapes and characteristics. Some of the immature cells matured into a glial subtype called astrocytes, and human astrocytes are larger and more complex than their mouse counterparts.

Why is this interesting (and very cool)? Because when the researchers examined the mice's ability to learn by challenging them with a variety of well-established tests, like escaping from a maze, the mice that had received human cells learnt more quickly than control mice.

Those controls included mice that had had mouse glial precursors implanted instead of human cells, so the effect was nothing to do with the human-mouse chimeras having bigger brains. When the researchers delved deeper using a variety of biochemical techniques, they were able to narrow down the likely cause. It seems that the human cells strengthened synaptic signalling in the mouse brains by releasing a molecule that, through one or more downstream cascades, resulted in a neurotransmitter receptor subunit being modified by the addition of a small chemical group, facilitating insertion of the receptor into the synaptic membrane.

Discussing their findings, Han et al say 'These observations strongly support the notion that the evolution of human neural processing ... in part may reflect the course of astrocytic evolution.'

It does seem curious that this increased ability of the chimeras to learn, which would surely convey a substantial survival advantage, appears to be due simply to the phosphorylation of one amino acid in one receptor subunit. If I were a respected science journalist and not just an unknown hobbyist, I'd be asking the group whether they had any speculations on what might prevent mice or any other animals evolving some means of gluing that phosphate on - or doing some equivalent thing - and getting the extra smarts. I suppose it's more the ability to carry this modification out in a coordinated way over a large scale that is important, but still...

The full reference is below. The journal website says nothing about the paper being open-access, but for the moment at least non-subscribers can access the PDF here.

Han X, Chen M, Wang F et al (2013) Forebrain engraftment by human glial progenitor cells enhances synaptic plasticity and learning in adult mice. Cell Stem Cell 12(3):342-53

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Pupil constrictions to photographs of the sun

Photo by Arun Kulshreshtha.

If you clicked through to this page via the Google homepage, which is almost entirely white, the amount of light your screen is pumping out will have decreased when the page loaded, because much of the above photo is blue/grey.

But your pupils will have constricted, not dilated, because the photo is an image of the sun.

That finding was reported by Binda, Pereverzeva and Murray in a paper published in the Journal of Vision in May.

The paper, which is so pithily named I couldn't think of a way to better it for the title of this blog post, is freely available to read here. Binda et al showed eight people four sets of photos presented in a random order. One set of photos was made up of pictures of the sun, and the other three sets were precisely matched to these in terms of the amount of light a screen gives off when it displays them - their luminosity. These were the controls against which the pictures of the sun were compared. The control pictures were images of the moon, scrambled versions of the sun images, and uniform grey squares with no images.

You can see the images here.

The participants' eyes were tracked as the images were randomly displayed on a screen after an interval of maximum-luminosity blank whiteness. Each image therefore caused a decrease in the amount of light being given off by the screen, regardless of what was depicted.

Binda et al found that when pictures of the moon, scrambled pictures of the sun or uniform grey squares were displayed, the viewers' pupils dilated in response to the dimming of the light, as expected. But when pictures of the sun were displayed, the viewers' pupils constricted, just as if they had looked directly at the real sun, even though the light reaching them had actually decreased.

Additional experiments ruled out some possible explanations for the finding that would have been due to weakness in the study design. Viewers' subjective impressions of the images' brightness were not responsible, nor was the effect due to the viewers focusing on the brightest parts of the sun images but not of the other images.

The study also ruled out the possibility of the effect being due to the sun images demanding less attention than the others. Although this might seem strange, the step was necessary because it is well known to researchers that tasks which require a lot of conscious thought cause the pupils to dilate - although the reason for this is itself unknown.

The effect therefore seems to be due to some subconscious phenomenon occurring in the brain: in the researchers' words it seems to be a "conditioned light-avoidance behaviour".

If you thought that pupilary reflexes were boring, I hope you've seen the light.


Binda P, Pereverzeva M, Murray SO (2013) Pupil constrictions to photographs of the sun. J Vis 13(6): 8. doi: 10.1167/13.6.8

Book review: Firmin, Sam Savage

Mr Sam Savage sounds like someone out of a Jim Dodge story. His author bio informs us that he has bachelor's and doctoral degrees in Philosophy from Yale University, that he briefly taught at that same venerable institution, and that he has also been a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, commercial fisherman, and letterpress printer. I've just seen his photo now too, and he even looks like someone out of a Jim Dodge story:

But whereas you might expect such a man to write a rather straightforward, masculine, Hemingwayan novel about wilderness, dusty plains, squinting into the sun, bare dry branches, callused hands, rocks, carts, mongrels, etc, instead Mr Savage has written - very, very ably - a tender, witty, thoughtful, surprising, delightful book about books, writing and life. And rodents.

I can't imagine how any book lover's life could fail to be enriched by the addition of Firmin to one of its knotholes.

Favourite quote:

"Infested is an interesting word. Regular people don't infest, couldn't infest if they tried. Nobody infests except fleas, rats, and Jews. When you infest, you are just asking for it."

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Blood, shoes and search engines

I was out with a friend the other day, in a bar before heading to a gig. We were talking music, and my friend was trying to remember the name of a band. It was a tip-of-the tongue moment, and it was driving my friend nuts.

He could remember that it was a guy and a girl, that they were from New York, and that they had put out an album with a cover featuring a pair of shoes with blood on them.

Eventually he got out his phone and started searching. After a few unsuccesful search attempts, he started cursing Yahoo!, the default search engine on his iPhone.

Being a Samsung borrower, I then got out my phone and gave Google a try. I typed in 'album cover blood shoes new york', and looked at the hits.

"Sleigh Bells?" I said.

The response was a very relieved affirmative.

Sleigh Bells popped up in the second hit that Google returned. My friend then tried that exact same search combination in Yahoo!, wanting to give it a last chance to proove itself. It failed.

I've just searched Yahoo! again now, and have also tried Bing!, to widen the scope a bit.

At the time of writing, Sleigh Bells do not feature in the first 50 hits of either Yahoo! or Bing!. I am aware that Bing! now powers Yahoo!, but their returns are not the same at all, so it was worthwhile checking both.

According to this article on, Bing! focuses on four areas: shopping, travel, local and health. This perhaps explains Bing!'s inability to return what we were looking for on this occasion, although given that Sleigh Bell's album Reign of Terror is something I might well have wanted to shop for, I'm not sure Microsoft should be let off that lightly.

And Yahoo! have no excuse.

Obviously one trial proves nothing. However, fans of noise pop might want to consider downloading the Google app if they have iPhones. Or else start using, whose name is I think fairly self-explanatory.

All that remains is for me to wonder whether the very act of publishing this blog post will change the search results of any of those three engines...?

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Cult of the Amateur - a case of mis-selling and lost opportunity

I suspected The Cult of the Amateur might be pretty dated, despite the 'new edition' flash on the cover of the edition I bought (see pic), but I'd been browsing for a long time and was getting tired, and I was swayed by the high praise quoted.

My suspicions proved correct. However, that's a minor annoyance - places should stop stocking this book now, but most of the fault lies with me for not sampling it more thoroughly before buying it. What's more annoying is that the book is misleadingly titled and subtitled, regardless of when it was written.

The subtitle of the edition I bought, for those who don't want to squint at the pic, is 'How blogs, Myspace, Youtube and the rest of today's user-generated media are killing our culture and economy'. I thought I'd facetiously suggest a more accurate alternative, such as 'Some internet stuff you should worry about', but in looking for a cover pic I've discovered that the author/publishers have beaten me to it - other editions of TCA have been variously subtitled even more hysterically: 'How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values', slightly more accurately and punchily: 'How today's internet is killing our culture and assaulting our economy', and slightly more accurately in one way but less accurately in another: 'How today's internet is killing our culture'.

That is, much of TCA is actually not about user-generated media at all, but just about the internet in general circa 2007. Substantial portions of the book are about regulating the internet for the sake of public safety, touching on online gambling, identity theft, and pornography, and placing the blame on governments and corporations as opposed to amateurs in any sense. All well and good, but not what was promised.

To return to the book's datedness, it's not just that the world has moved on - the edition I read is also self-defeating twice over. The first 7 chapters set out some problems with the internet circa 2007. Then chapter 8, called 'Solutions', presents various reasons why some of the foregoing problems are actually not all that bothersome after all, citing a number of websites, companies and initiatives that had already begun tackling some of the issues. This is no in-depth analysis or considered forecast, but just a few snapshots that undermine much of what has gone before. And then, a new chapter to the edition, titled 'Web 3.0', adds that actually much of those initiatives listed in chapter 8 failed to live up to expectations.

It's sheer laziness and dishonesty. A more scrupulous author and publisher putting out a 'new edition' would have thoroughly revised the entire book - if not reworking the whole thing, then at least taking out the dead ends and making the whole internally coherent.

And when it isn't hopelessly archaic or off-topic, TCA is often annoying for some other reason instead. I folded over the page every time I came across something that was either dated, off-topic, or that just got my goat, and this is how my copy ended up looking:

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the book is that Keen did a reasonable job some of the time - being quite readable in the section on the death of music stores, very sensible in the section on safeguarding children, and I think impressively prescient in picking up on the economic/employment costs of the media revolution. Unfortunately he spread himself too thinly, chose some of his targets unwisely, and became too hysterical in screaming about the slaughtering of culture and values. And he should have picked a more accurate title, damnit.

This is a book that should be put out to pasture. I haven't read them yet, but recent books by Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier have looked at the issues of technological blinkeredness and technology causing instability, respectively. Whether there is actually an up-to-date, well written, well researched, intellectually rigourous book on the effect of amateur content generation on our culture, I don't know. I do know that TCA isn't it.

The irony is that if I'd have thought to check Goodreads before buying TCA, I'd have seen that it has an average rating - from those dreadful amateur critics - of just 2.73 out of 5, and I probably would have put it back on the shelf. Would that have been an example of amateurs 'killing the culture' or 'assaulting the economy', or would it have been amateurs helping me to spend both my money and my time more wisely? YOU decide.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Averaging opinions on Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise

I always write my book reviews before looking at anyone else's opinion. In the case of Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise, though, I couldn't think of much to say.

But given that a substantial part of Silver's election prediction methodology was to take the average of all the polls he could get his hands on, what better way to consider his book than to take the average of everyone else's reviews of it?

The best place I know to find book reviews is Goodreads - the same place I do my reviewing, in case you didn't bother to click the above link. The mean Goodreads score for TSTN is currently 3.95 out of 5, based on 5,695 ratings. Not bad at all.

There's something a bit strange about the 'rating details' button for this particular book, as it is only providing a breakdown of how 77 of those 5,695 raters scored the book (The first 77? The most recent 77? Why 77???). This is not a very large sample, but it may still be informative.

The breakdown of those 77 ratings is as follows:

35% 27
50% 39
11% 9
2% 2
0% 0

The mean score of this sample of 77 ratings is 4.18, so it seems fairly representative, and the standard deviation, assuming I've done my calculations correctly, is 0.74.

By comparison, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, another popular science-esque book to go stratospheric, has a mean rating of 3.79 out of 5 based on 226,252 ratings. The 'rating details' button works better for TTP, although still not perfectly, and the data from its sample of 177,026 ratings breaks down like this:

26% 46663
37% 65831
24% 44192
6% 12276
4% 8064

You can see by eye that there is more variation in Gladwell's ratings, but to give you the hardcore data, the standard deviation of his sample ratings is 1.06.

So Silver's TSTN has a very repectable mean score of 3.96 out of 5, and a very low proportion of people (if we take The Tipping Point as a comparitor) deviated much from thinking it was at least this good. I suppose you would expect a higher mean score to have less deviation, but it makes you warm and fuzzy to have the detail, doesn't it?

So that's the quantitative data. Now for the qualitative.

In general only the first page of reviews on Goodreads (the 'best' 30 reviews) is worth reading, and that's assuming the book has even garnered 30 reviews. However, TSTN is a very popular book and has so far collected 853 reviews, and the quality of these (judging purely by length) doesn't seriously drop off until the 17th page, i.e. after about 500 reviews. But given that, as we've already established, there was very little deviation between the ratings, we can safely assume that there will be little deviation between the reviews too, right? Let's stick to page 1.

The top-rated review has attracted 19 likes and 13 comments. Charles rated the book 4 out of 5, although he says he would have liked to give it 3.5 (Goodreads doesn't allow half-point scoring). Interestingly, Charles also found TSTN difficult to review, and he therefore presents what he says are the consensus views of his book group. So here we have an averaged review inside an averaged review!

Charles' book group found the book generally interesting, but thought some chapters, including those on baseball and terrorists, were dull. Charles also mentions an 'unacceptable number of typographical errors' - something I noticed too, although I only found it mildly annoying.

Stuart's review, the second best, has 6 likes and 1 comment. Stuart has experience in earthquake prediction, which one of the chapters of TSTN takes on. He found 'a lot to like in terms of tone' but thought that 'Silver isn't a good writer' and that the book's organization was 'haphazard'. The most interesting point here is that Stuart felt Silver should have included Monte Carlo simulations in the book. Ultimately, he thought it was in need of more robust editing.

Here are some illustrative excerpts from the other 28 reviewers:
  • 'Silver is a great writer'
  • 'Silver is not the best writer ... His casual style ... diminishes the impact'
  • 'This is a really amazing book'
  • 'there is not much coherence to the thing'
  • There was plenty of good stuff in here, and little to actively disagree with'
  • I don't imagine that a lot of this material is going to stick with me, in no small part because ... Silver is often arguing for common sense things'
  • 'I'm not sure the chapters on baseball and chess especially added all that much'
  • Some good insights here, as well as a very good chapter on IBM's chess playing computer ... The section on rating a shortstop's fielding abilities was equally excellent.'
  • 'Bayes's theorem, however, requires us to know the probability of an event before we weigh in the new evidence. ... Silver doesn't really get into this discussion.'
  • 'considering its centrality to his book, I didn’t feel he did enough to explain how one goes about arriving at a prior probability in the first place'
  • 'I sadly did not feel like I had gained a very deep understanding of Bayesian thinking by the end'
  • 'Indeed his explanation of Bayes Theorem which has eluded me for years finally made the penny drop.'
So, not as little deviation there as we'd expected: Silver is either a great writer or a poor one, and chess and baseball either interest you or they don't.

However, on the key points there does seem to be good agreement: the book is largely interesting and highly readable, some chapters are more interesting than others, and some of the key arguments could be more deeply explored or better explained.

And I think that brings me back to where I started. Usually when I struggle to review a book, I find when I look at other people's reviews that they aren't terribly interesting or inspired, and that there is largely agreement on the key points and disagreement only about things that don't matter. That was very much the case here.

Having now looked at everyone else's reviews of The Signal and The Noise, I'm glad I didn't waste a lot of time trying to think of something to say.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Travelling with a Child

What to do when you face a 5-hour wait in Prague airport, a 2-hour flight, a 1-hour train journey and a 1-hour bus journey, all of it without reading matter?

Well you buy more reading matter of course, but Prague airport has rather limited options.

I could have bought a second copy of the book sitting shiny and new back in my flat awaiting my attention, Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise, but I didn't really want to waste a tenner.

I could have bought Nassim Taleb's Antifragile, but given that his LSE talk on it was about 98% bluster,  it didn't really appeal.

The only other non-fiction option was Jeremy Paxman's Empire, complete with a cover that looked like it was printed back when Britain still dominated most of the planet. I came very close.

There was also a selection of Kafka, the Czech Republic's most famous son...

But I needed something I could read for 9 straight hours without becoming saturated and tired. I needed a thriller. I needed a book with Tom Cruise's face on the cover:

The opening pages of One Shot were not promising, but by the time the plot hit its hook (an apparently nailed-on mass murderer says nothing when caught except to ask for ... Jack Reacher!), I'd settled into Child's rhythm and was no longer looking out for literary inadequacies, but just enjoying the unfolding of events.

Because the core of the plot is pretty great, I'll happily give Child that. It was the hook that made me choose One Shot over the likes of the new Dan Brown, the latest Ian Rankin, etc, but even once I'd passed the hook, the core of the plot continued to grip.

Some of the finer points did strike me as rather weak, though - generally points where things came to a head or the action needed progressing. I found some of the moments of conflict and resolution a bit of a let down, or a bit of a stretch.

But I thought the greatest weakness of the book was the main character's lack of it. I want two things from a thriller at minimum: a decent plot and decent characters. Literary skill would be nice but is not essential or expected.

One Shot features some fairly interesting bad guys, but I was surprised at the shallowness of the main character. I think One Shot, despite being the first Reacher novel to be made into a film, is not the first Reacher novel, which might go someway to explaining why it provides little in the way of backstory or outlook. But more of both would have been welcome.

In addition, I wasn't that impressed with Reacher's "special powers", if you get me. The stuff that makes him different from you or I, and worth sticking on a poster or 12. Yes he's a very astute investigator, but when it comes to the physical stuff he's basically just a very big guy. He gets his way simply by punching people in the face, or throwing them out of windows, or simply intimidating them. Finess is not the order of the day.

I wonder how Reacher is portrayed in the film, given that the character of the book is a 6'6" monster who bear hugs people to death, and Tom Cruise is about 5'7". Presumably he's some sort of martial arts specialist, which although very tired would at least make for more interesting reading than Me Hulk, Me Smash.

I have to give Child his due though: he kept me reading and entertained for the full 9 hours. In fact he surpassed that, because I still had 70 pages left to read when I got home, and rather than binning the book or setting it aside, after I'd eaten and showered I ploughed right on through. I didn't think an awful lot of those pages - the climax was the most anticlimactic part of all - but I stuck with them all the same, and then the day was done.

One last thing. One Shot reminded me quite substantially of another book published 9 years earlier: Stephen Hunter's Black Light. I'm not accusing anyone of plagiarism - it's not that similar and I also don't know when the first Reacher book was written - I mention it only because I thought Black Light had more depth than One Shot and a more interesting and impressive main character than Jack Reacher. So anyone reading this who likes Child and Reacher would do well to check out Hunter.

For me, spending one day with a Child was nice, but enough for now, thank you.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Book review: The Periodic Table - Primo Levi (1975)


I wish I hadn't taken so long to get around to reading The Periodic Table. Not only is it a great book on science, it's also brilliantly and wonderfully written. Levi has the intelligence of Borges, but deploys it more judiciously, to enliven his stories rather than as the basis of them. He also has the power to inspire wonder for our world and to make insightful observations about man and our relation to it.

I feel like this is a book that, if read early enough in one's life, could have the power to change the entire course of it. You can see why the Royal Institute voted it the best science book ever written, even if the actual amount of scientific content is not so very high. Is there any better description of the process of scientific enquiry than:

"... one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this - to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and complex, but it is not impermeable to the intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, look for the opening or make it."

These are words that should be engraved above the entrances of scientific institutions and in the minds of students everywhere.

I found particular joy in the chapters "Potassium", in which Levi warns of the dangers of "the practically identical" with a storytelling prowess bordering on the magical, and "Chromium", which delightfully illustrates both the investigational scientific process in action and the tendency of recieved wisdom to persist even when harmful.

One word of warning: opening chapter "Argon" requires much more work than the rest of the book, so I would recommend either leaving it to last or ensuring you carry straight on to "Hydrogen" afterwards, to ensure you don't become discouraged.

Because as Saul Bellow says on my edition's cover, "This is a book it is necessary to read."

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Get The Most Out Of Your Brain

How can you wring the most out of your sorry excuse for a brain? That poor, poor organ you won't stop dousing in alcohol for more than 19 hours at a time?

Lend it to someone else, that's what!

That's what I did back in 2010, when I answered an ad in the Guardian jobs listing looking for volunteers to take part in an MRI study in exchange for photos of my brain.

I'm an adverturous sort, if the adventure involves staying inside and lying down, as well as a bit of a neuro geek, and so I thought I'd give it a go.

Why am I telling you this now?

Because today I received an email from the person who led the study, one Emer J Hughes, who very kindly sent me a PDF of the first paper to emerge from it: 'Regional Changes in Thalamic Shape and Volume with Increasing Age', published in NeuroImage.

The study found that the thalamus, the part of the brain that as Hughes says in her introduction 'plays a critical role in the coordination of information flow in the brain, mediating communication and integrating many processes including memory, attention, and perception', decreases in volume with age, as do its connections with the frontal cortex, and that these changes correlate with decreases in attention, working memory and executive function.

So, basically, age-related mental decline may be partly due to weakened connections between certain parts of the brain.

As far as my own part in the study goes, I remember being told (after the tests were over) that I'd done remarkably well at remembering long strings of numbers and then recounting them back in reverse order. I would be concerned that my supremacy at this feat might have single-handedly skewed the results, except that I was also completely inept at mentally rotating 3D images, and even worse at thinking of words beginning with a certain letter under pressure of time constraints.

"Aadvark ... Ambulance ... Animal ... ... ... I said Aardvark ..."

The process of being MRI scanned was also fun, although I suffered fairly extreme vertigo once the machine got going, and had to fight mightily not to fall asleep.

Part of the scanning also involved undertaking tests of reaction time while in the machine, via a very basic visual display and some hand-held triggers, and even though I knew from my work that the test was designed to frustrate, I still felt terribly guilty that I wasn't able to do the impossible feat I was being instructed to do. Would the whole study fall apart because I couldn't fire off buttons fast enough?

Turns out no.

And what of my scan? Take a gander:

In conclusion: taking part in research is fun! Oh, and something about ageing.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Book review: The Newton Letter - John Banville (1982)

There are writers who are so good that I find it a relief to read their work, because my petty jealousies simply fall aside, like blades of grass before a Massey Ferguson.

Banville is one of them. He's a writer whose style is what I think of as writerly, a gobsmackingly inadequate term I know but one I haven't yet bettered. What I mean by it is that way certain writers have of trying to be, I guess, literary, by going overboard in selecting unusual words, overusing metaphor, or shoehorning in observations that could only be made by someone with too much time on their hands, and probably too big a trust fund (see what I mean by petty jealousies?).

But with Banville it's different, because although these elements are all present, they all serve the purpose they're supposed to, which is to describe or illuminate something better than any alternative could. I can best illustrate with a few examples:

'I could clearly hear the frequent cataclysms of the upstairs lavatory...'

'Receding from me, she took on the high definition of a figure seen through the wrong end of a telescope, fixed, tiny, complete in every detail.'

'It was an eighteenth century day, windswept and bright, the distances all small and sharply defined, as if painted on porcelain.'

'Is there anywhere more cloyingly intimate than the atmosphere of other people's bedrooms?'

Exquisite. Or so I think, anyway. If the above selections did nothing for you, then I wouldn't advise that you read The Newton Letter. Because for me it's a four-star book, but mostly because of Banville's way with words at the micro scale. At the macro scale I was disappointed that (I'm giving away no more than the blurb itself here) the protagonist fails to see what's under his nose as he bumbles along until the book is almost over, as for me this meant that themes were no more than hinted at, rather than being explored in depth.

I think that was even the intention: to tackle something obliquely and slightly, just glancing off it as a first pass, but personally I'm not sure there's much point in such an endeavour - or at least not if that pass is as oblique as it was here.

Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed Banville's deft treatment of this faintly Gothic short story.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Book review: The 32 Stops - Danny Dorling (2013)

This is the second of the two books I bought from Penguin's set of twelve celebrating 150 years of London Underground. They're pretty little things. The other one I bought was A History of Captalism According to the Jubilee Line, which I very much enjoyed.

The 32 Stops is based around an unusual concept. Dorling takes you on a journey from west to east along the Central Line, but without actually descending underground; instead he character-hops a waking day at half-hourly intervals, giving you a few minutes with each person.
This he does using a wealth of real-life sources and statistics to present a snapshot of what life is actually like for people living beside that part of the Line. It's fact-based fiction as social commentary, played out along one of the city's main arteries.

It's an ingenious way of communicating a selection of socioeconomic statistics. I like a good geek out as much as the next blogger, but this is the first time I've ever put a book on this sort of stuff to the top of my reading list. A clever ploy.

And Dorling does a surprisingly good job of giving each new character or set of characters fairly unique circumstances. He is a Professor after all, not a novelist, and his characterisation is admirable, even if the writing itself is just a touch clunky at times.

It does get a little bit samey after a while though, as each inhabitation is too brief to delve deeply into the individual's circumstances. Wisely there's a non-fictional recap every four stops or so to tie together the disparate tales into a coherent thread, but it's still only a surface glimpse of the different layers.

Another minor complaint is that I found Dorling's politics took ever so slightly too forward a seat: the characters on the less enviable sides of the median lines are much more sympathetic than those on the other sides. That might be inevitable - I don't know how I would go about instilling sympathy for a dozen different well-to-do characters; you can't give them all cancer - but it was a weakness for me all the same.

(I suppose it's predictable that Dorling would be a lefty.  I wonder whether there are any conservative 'quantitative social geographers' out there?)

It's also a surprisingly depressing read. Real life, with its massive inequality and commonplace deprivation, dictates that many of the characters will be in difficult circumstances, but the bleakness is fairly unrelenting. Dorling also adds a further layer of complexity to the book by incrementally increasing the characters' age at each stop, so that a lifetime as well as a day is experienced across the journey as a whole. Although this is again ingenious, it amounts to an inexorable ride towards death through a multitude of lives filled with little more than constant worries about money and children. That is, it's a bit too realistic to be enjoyable as well as informative.

Still, overall The 32 Stops is an impressive accomplishment, and a credit to Penguin's bravery and powers of selection.

As I said, it's a lovely volume, but in case you don't like to fill your shelves with things both lovely and edifying, the thorough and at times rather witty notes include a link to a website currently under construction that looks as though it will soon provide an equivalent experience online. It too is already looking very snazzy:

I think I might buy more of the books though, personally.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A bucket list fit only for the bin

Did you see this Telegraph story about a list of 50 things to do before you die?

Apparently it comes from a - presumably new - study, although the story doesn't provide a link or name any of the researchers.

Anyway, I don't know which I find more depressing - the list itself or the fact that supposedly the average person has only done 8 of the things on it.

Hopefully the list is better worded or explained in the full study write-up - if there actually is one and not just a press release - than in the story, which doesn't bother to list any timescales for items such as "Stop worrying about money".

Have I at any point in my life to date stopped worrying about money? Yes, I think that particular worry has slipped my mind on at least one occasion. The time I banged my head on a cupboard last week for example - does that count?

How about: "Stop worrying what other people think" - does it count when you do this after five pints?

Or there's the ridiculously all-encompassing: "Take up a challenge".

What counts as a challenge? Finishing my cereal when I overestimate my hunger? Getting out of bed on a Monday? Reading this stupid list all the way to the end?

Excuse me while I "Go outside more" (than what?) to "Meet strangers".

Monday, 6 May 2013

Book review: Wireless, Charles Stross (2009)

More struggling with short stories on my part. Actually I'm struggling with all fiction at the moment. Of the ten books I read before Wireless, only 1 was fiction, and that was a holiday read.

I finished Wireless impressed with Stross, but not particularly impressed with the collection. I've now read a few of Stross's blog posts and I'm currently following him on Twitter, and I like the guy. He's clearly very smart, and that's evident from the stories themselves too. But I didn't get much out of some of them.

My favourite was Unwirer, written with Cory Doctorow. It's alt-history cyberpunk, and it's probably the most straightforwardly written of the bunch. It's one of those fictions that manages to convince you you're cool while you're reading it and smarter for doing so, even though in reality you're borderline useless.

Missile Gap, A Colder War, Down on the Farm and Palimpsest all have good stuff going for them - some combination of a great concept, extraordinary inventiveness, impressive scope, and Stross's way with telling, but also suffer from some combination of being tediously complex/obscure, having little characterisation, being too long and running out of steam, or being too short to fully develop.

The other four stories did nothing for me, and Trunk and Disorderly in particular was abject.

Throughout I kept thinking that I'd get on better with full-length Stross, and I finished with that same thought. I'd have to be selective about what I chose though, as some of the afterwords to the stories hint that a few of Stross's longer works might also entail some of the things that annoyed me here.

I actually found most of the afterwords more interesting than the stories themselves. There I go again, struggling with fiction.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Book review: Tell Me No Lies - John Pilger (ed), 2005

Tell Me No Lies is subtitled 'Investigative journalism and its triumphs'. A more accurate although less sellable subtitle would be 'Stuff investigative journalism has uncovered', as the book is not about journalism or how it is carried out, but instead provides 27 examples of journalism's output in the form of book excerpts and articles, plus very brief introductions by the compiler, John Pilger.

This is not a book that affirm's one's faith in humanity. If an event must be investigated to be uncovered, chances are that atrocities or outrages are involved. Of the 27 accounts and 1 essay presented, around 20 deal with wars, massacres, terrorism or their effects. And even some of the other accounts are little or no less gut-wrenching.

One would expert reports of massacres to make for difficult reading, and one would be right. Yet it is often the individual stories or elements that are the most affecting, from mothers in Rwanda being forced to bury their children alive, to the budding child poet in Iraq, born the same year that I was but hospitalised with leukaemia at the opening of the reporter's story, just one of the victims of a reported 6-fold increase in childhood cancers in Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, and who then dies at the age of 13. Or try reading about a severely disabled victim of thalidomide being kicked and beaten by other victims because of the greater size of his financial compensation without wanting the whole world to just go away for a while. And this after reading of mothers not being informed of their babies' thalidomide deformities while in the hospital, but being sent home with swaddled children and left to make the discoveries for themselves... Yeah.

Governments, in particular, do not emerge well from these pages. For example, call me hopelessly naive, but as a Brit approaching the end of his third decade who until recently had read voluminously but narrowly of only fiction and science, I had little idea that the actions of British Governments had been any cause for concern post imperialism, slavery, colonialism and Dresden up until the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Tell Me No Lies disavowed me of that ignorance. Nor had secondary-school history and 30-odd years of generally existing and consuming mainstream media given me even a ballpark comprehension of just how central the Cold War was to international relations during the entire period from the end of WWII to 1991. I thought it was mostly just the USA and Russia eyeballing each other and nearly losing all of our heads over Cuba.

I like to think that some of these failings are not entirely my own. For all of the Western World's 24-hour rolling news and minute-by-minute updates, there is a glaring lack of in-depth analysis taking into account and informing readers/viewers/listeners of historical context - an issue Pilger addresses in his introduction.

The book itself does not fill this gap. It is not a full and even-handed accounting of events, but rather a brief glimpse of the other halves of stories whose incompleteness you may not even have suspected. I for one would have benefited greatly from more extended scene-setting for each report, rather than the page or so of context actually provided. But in fairness it is not the book's aim to provide encyclopaedic accounts of entire events.

I asked in a previous post for recommendations of books that address the issue of the extent to which a country's leaders should lie to its populace if it's in the country's best interests, and I repeat that request here. There is also a wider debate to be had about the extent to which governments should be accountable to the views of their electorate and transparent in their actions. For example, is it acceptable to use more effective depleted uranium munitions which are safer for those behind them if there are questions over the safety of their fallout for civilians on the receiving end? How does ensuring the future ability of interveners to go on intervening stack up against the current tolls of those needing help? (Making the enormous assumption that the intervention is even well-intentioned in the first place.)

The book is not all hard going. Jessica Mitford's exposé of the US funeral business is bitingly witty, and Greg Palast's accounts of the removal of thousands of legitimate voters from the Florida electoral roll in 2000 has old-school panache and is probably the most revealing chapter in terms of how the investigation actually proceeded.

Also, I said at the start that Tell Me No Lies does not affirm one's faith in humanity. However, that's not quite the full story.

First, although the vast majority of the people in the book are either perpetrators or innocent victims of horrendous deeds, there are some individuals who stand out for their principled stances against the horror.

Brigadier-General Roméo A. Dallaire, commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, repeatedly refused orders to abandon the Tutsis completely to their slaughter by evacuating his peacekeepers in 1994. Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C Thompson physically interposed himself between his rampaging superiors and a huddle of unarmed Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre of 1970, later throwing away a commendation that had sought to extend the coverup by citing him for fictional deeds as opposed to his genuine heroism.

And then there are the journalists themselves, many of whom put their lives on the line to reveal to the world appalling facts that would otherwise have remained hidden.

But beyond individual acts at the time, there is another faint glimmer of hope. If you can read about someone's suffering decades later and from another continent and still feel outraged and sickened, even if it's far too late to do anything, maybe there is a chance that our shared human bond, although often all-too-easily snapped, will be strong enough to make a difference next time, provided that we're sufficiently informed in time. Maybe.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The tube has no memory

I came onto the southbound Victoria line platform at Kings Cross at about 9.20 pm this Friday night. I thought I was too late to catch the tube train that was sitting there, because the doors near me were all closed, but then I noticed a commotion further along the platform that offered some hope.

Several Transport for London staff and maybe some transport police were standing half in and half out of the doors of one carriage dealing with some kind of situation, and as I approached I saw that the next set of doors further along the same carriage were also standing half open. Unlike other people hanging back on the platform, I slipped in...

The officials back along the carriage were in the process of deciding whether to detain some dude who was fervently protesting his innocence regarding whatever incident had taken place. I gained a picture of the scene in half-heard snatches as the staff rapidly made up their minds:

"I'm the victim in this!"

"Leave him alone!"
"You stay out of this!"
"I'm his mum! She bit him, he was just standing there!"

Within a remarkably short space of time, the officials made up their minds and withdrew, presumably with some female aggressor already in custody. With that, the familiar warning beeps sounded out and the carriage doors slid shut.

At this point the central part of the carriage was unnaturally empty of people. It wasn't entirely empty: there were the man and his mum, trying to pull themselves together, and one other young dude lounging back with his leg cocked nonchalantly over another seat, looking like he hadn't moved a hair during the whole goings on. And scattered across the floor of the carriage were the crushed remains of a burger and chips complete with decimated foam packaging, making the scene look like that of a low-end food fight gotten horribly out of hand.

The unfortunate young man was now examining an impressive instant bruise about the size of a £5 coin on his upper arm, having removed both a hoodie and a lightweight jacket to inspect the damage. The skin was scraped and ragged but looked unperforated, and there was no sign of extracutaneous blood.

I considered the situation. Both ends of the carriage were fully populated with seated people but largely empty of standees, whereas my central section was mostly empty of seated people but very crowded with somewhat shaken-looking standees. Reasoning that the danger was over, I excused my way through the crowd and sat down opposite the young man and his mother, just now themselves regaining their wits. One other man also took a perch at the far end of the section, but aside from he and I everyone else remained standing as the train pulled away.

I surreptitiously glanced at the man and his mother from time to time as the metres slid by. There were some quiet enquiries as to wellbeing from one to the other, but they were surprisingly low-key considering what had happened. The mother found or regained an Evening Standard from somewhere and directed the main force of her attention its way, although the hands holding it trembled. The son simply sat trembled and wondered where to look and what to do.

I looked at my feet, at the squashed chips, occasionally at the tube map and occasionally at the poor people opposite me and those still standing by the doors. Who knows what terrible scenes these people had witnessed, and why they were still so unwilling to sit down. Perhaps blood had been spilt after all - or not only spilt, but sprayed wildly across the seats, in Tarantino-esque reproduction of the ketchup smeared across the floor. I couldn't see any, though.

And then the tube reached Euston and the carriage doors opened and people embarked and, not knowing any reason not to, pushed past those still standing and filled the empty seats, pausing briefly at the sight of tattered foam and mashed potato, but not letting it stop them from claiming their deserved rest. A pack of teenage girls in skin-tight jeggings and faux-leather jackets squeezed on, squalling and laughing and drinking wine straight from a bottle, and suddenly they were the thing to contend with, the place not to look, the thing people wanted to be over.

When the man and his mum left the carriage at Oxford Circus, the only sign that anything had ever been amiss, aside from the stray chips and burger patty, came when the man who had perched on a seat when I took mine advised the fellow who had been bitten to perhaps see a doctor in the morning, to which the bitten murmured his quiet thanks.

The tube has no memory.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Book review: Story - Robert McKee

I'm often not the most perceptive person. For example, I managed to watch a film I like about half a dozen times without realising that one of the main characters kills himself. I probably would never have realised if my friend hadn't said to me, "Isn't it sad when..."

Which is why I wish I'd found Story 10 years ago. I've harboured the desire to write, on and off, pretty much ever since I learned to read, but aside from enjoying Stephen King's On Writing and, more recently, bookmarking useful websites that have reached me via Twitter, I haven't made the effort to get to grips with the craft of the process. I'm not sure why. I think fear plays a large part, but I need to give it more honest thought.

Anyway, Story is about the most instructive thing I've ever read. I may never successfully write anything, but I feel like I've taken about 12 gigantic leaps forward for having read this book. Going back to what I said at the start, I think I could have read books and watched films and TV forever without ever having come to such now-simple-seeming realisations as that the nature of the protagnist's conflict determines the medium for which the story is best suited.

For the ignorant like me, Story is packed with gems such as this.

Not only that, but McKee makes for a very entertaining, interesting and amiable teacher, so reading Story never feels like ploughing through a textbook. Instead, I wanted to reach for it as often as a good murder mystery, and it was only the frequency with which my mind was blown by the density of insight that made me put the book back down for a while every 20 pages or so.

I was in two minds whether to recommend the book or not, because the petty, jealous part of me thinks that the fewer people who know this stuff, the less competition there will be if I ever get my act together. But McKee deserves better thanks than that.

So thank you, Robert, very much.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Cod psychology: prawns

In eating the leftovers of a prawn, asparagus and leek risotto (the asparagus and leeks are incidental) (to this post that is, they were essential to the risotto), I have realised a startling truth about human nature:

How one eats prawns says a lot about one's personality.

Usually in a prawn risotto or stir fry, etc, there are not enough prawns to eat a whole prawn with every mouthful. It is my proposal that one who accepts this situation as it stands, alternating mouthfuls without prawns and mouthfuls with whole prawns, must be more of a spontaneous person who, in life as in eating, is happy to accept the lows, because they make the highs that much sweeter.

Whereas one who halves the prawns in order to have a bit of prawn with nearly every mouthful must be more of a planner in life, and less willing to suffer predictable hardships even if this means accepting less vibrant joys.

I retain the right not to divulge which of these methods I personally prefer.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Book review: The Next Decade - George Friedman (2011)

This book is not quite what its cover leads the unsuspecting buyer to believe it will be. The cover underplays the book's US-centricity, and although the whole world does come in for consideration at some point, it's all from a US point of view. Happily I was fine with that; others may not be.

Friedman begins by trying to make the case that the US has an empire, and it's arguable whether he succeeds. I must admit that, being a Brit, I bristled at the suggestion - a reaction that exposes a hitherto unrecognised and rather troubling well of pride somewhere within me at the fact that my national forebears dominated and exploited less well-resourced nations in the not-too-distant past. But questionable nationalism aside, I'm not sure the US should be considered an empire in the same mould as the British or any other from history. Friedman recognises that the US does not have any formal control over its 'empire', but in my opinion he doesn't give this fact due weight. However, it may ultimately be a matter of semantics: Friedman states that 'it is simply impossible for a nation whose economy is so vast to have commercial relations without political entanglements and consequences' and that 'the power of the American economy and the distribution of US military force ... binds countries to the US more tightly than any formal imperial system could hope to accomplish'.

He then goes on to make the case that the President is the sole office that can effectively plan or control this empire, before trying to get to grips with the morality of doing so. And again, I'm not sure he succeeds with the latter task. He describes an idealist-realist dichotomy in US foreign policy, with the idealist position being that the US must act on moral principles, and the realist position being that it must protect its national interest. Friedman thinks that this is a distraction, that both positions have internal contradictions, and that the only genuinely realistic course lies somewhere between the two extremes. But he must not like the idea of giving up on morality because, having abandoned the straightforwardly moral position, he then seeks to reinstate morality from another source, turning to Machiavelli for inspiration: 'conventional virtue ... is unacceptable in a president ... Machiavelli introduces a new definition of virtue, which instead of personal goodness consists of being cunning ...' This unpromising-looking path is indeed soon revealed to be little more than a revival of the realist position, wrapped up in comforting justification: '[The president's] task is to protect the republic from a world full of people who are not virtuous in any conventional sense.'  (Italics mine) What comfort here for the Pakistani civilians on the border with Afghanistan who are being indiscriminately killed by America's persistent drone strikes? Doesn't the empire owe those it dominates a degree of justice if it is to be considered moral?

However, once the self-serving justifications are out of the way, The Next Decade switches to a chapter-by-chapter consideration of America's most pressing foreign policy concerns, and it is from here on out that it shines. Again, the book did not deliver what I was expecting. I thought it would be a lot of pie-in-the-sky prediction, but actually much of it consists of summaries of how each situation got to be where it is, and what the main considerations now are. And these I found to be concise, authoritative, and absolutely fascinating.

They're probably not without controversy, even before you get to any strategic suggestions for the future. For example, Friedman states that America invaded Iraq not because it thought Saddam possessed WMDs (they knew this was not the case), and not even for it's oil, but as a show of strength to convince the other states in the region to increase their cooperation with the war on terror. This seems very plausible the way he states it, but I don't think I've come across the idea before, and I wouldn't be surprised if others took issue with it.

I found myself feeling troubled more than once as I read the book, and not only when the fates of nations were being discussed purely in terms of what would be best for the US. The book also raised many questions which, understandably, it did not attempt to answer:

1. To what extent should the elected leader of a democratic state lie to the populace if he/she thinks it's in the nation's best interests?

Friedman says:

'It is the president's job to align with public opinion .. while quietly pursuing his own moral and strategic ends.'

'... he must always convey a sense that the elimination of Islamist terrorism is possible, all the while knowing it is not.'

'To many Americans, these appear to be critical issues ... they must not be told that ... their sense of what is important doesn't matter...'

'... all presidents must in all things hide their true motives and vigorously deny the truth when someone recognises what they are up to.'

This stance is somewhat undermined in the conclusion, where Friedman says:

 '... the American people must mature. We are an adolescent lot, expecting solutions to insoluble problems and perfection in our leaders ...'

I would love to receive recommendations for books that deal with this question more fully.

2. To what extent are other nations and their peoples aware of their subservience to the US?

Friedman says: 'Australia has no control whatever over the security of its sea-lanes ... Australia's strategy for dealing with this vulnerability has been to ally itself with the dominant naval power in the Pacific ... [through] participation in their wars.'

3. Finally, did Friedman not expect anyone outside the US to pay attention to his book?

Friedman says:

'The US should ... [make] purposeful moves along with some that seem arbitrary. Everything must be done to lead the Germans and perhaps the French to a sense that the US is unfocused in its actions.'

'To keep Indian naval development below a threshold that could threaten US interests ... [The US should] support a stronger Pakistan, thus keeping India's security planners focused on the land and not the sea.'

Its US-centricity will no doubt make it of no interest to many potential readers, but I greatly appreciated The Next Decade for its clarity, authority, brevity, and fascinating if morally questionable dissection of strategic matters. It has its issues, but it's a damned interesting read.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Book review: F in Exams: The Funniest Test Paper Blunders - Richard Benson (2008)

Plus side:

1. It's funny.

2. One can read the whole thing while one's lady friend tries on dresses at the other side of the shop.

Down side:

I didn't read the down side, but I guess it has a blurb telling you what's in the book, and probably a quote from someone telling you it's good.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Book review: A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line - John O'Farrell (2013)

This is one of 12 books written in celebration of 150 years of London Underground - one book for each tube line. They're beautiful volumes, but I couldn't afford to buy all 12, so after some slightly painful deliberation I settled for this and the one dedicated to the Central Line.

And O'Farrell's Jubilee Line offering is a dream - its title perhaps seems rather dry, but what lies inside is anything but. However, I don't want to give away any more than the cover already does, as the realisation of what the plot entails is the book's chief source of delight. Suffice it to quote O'Farrell's own description of his idea for the book: 'Das Kapital meets the Poseidon Adventure somewhere in Zone 2'.

The second greatest source of delight lies in how the plot unfolds, and the third in the fact that the plot is so dependent, factually speaking, on the Jubilee Line itself. That the book manages to be both informative and highly entertaining - the holy grail of reading - only adds to the pleasure.

I probably shouldn't set expectations too high, so I'll offset my praise by saying that I found the sendup of the tube a little cliched, and the comedy a little too reliant on farce for my personal taste. However, that's your lot: I'll nitpick no further, as I enjoyed ...Jubilee Line so much. Purchase a ticket and get on board!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Book review: London: Bread and Circuses - Jonathan Glancey (2001)

It was interesting to read this book 12 years on from its first publication, but difficult for me fully evaluate it. It seems very much of its time with its frequent references to New Labour and Ken Livingston, now that Cameron and Boris are so firmly associated with current British and London politics. Also, I only moved to London in 2007, which leaves a 6-year gap between the book's contents and my beginning to pay attention to London life.

However, I feel I can quite safely say that it's not without its flaws. It's central premise - that New Labour distracted Londoners from their problems with baubles like the Tate Modern and the Millenium Dome and Bridge - may have had some grounding in truth, but Glancey doesn't make his case very well. It doesn't help that he seems to have a lot of liking for many of the eight such 'circuses' he highlights. One - the Canary Wharf underground station - he even finds to be an example of the well-designed public infrastructure projects that his book is a plea for: he pays homage to its "bravura, technical excellence and generosity". Elsewhere, the Royal Opera House revamp results in "a very gentle sequence of buildings knitted together to form a coherent whole", and the London Eye "offers millions of people the chance not just to see the sights, but to understand the ways in which London has grown and sprawled".

In addition, at times I struggled to pinpoint exactly those parts of the modern way of doing things that Glancey disliked, or what period or facets of the past he would like to return to. By the end of the book I'd come to appreciate that he has a fondness for the period from roughly 1930-1965, and for nationalised services, but the structure of his argument was not altogether coherent.

Finally in terms of negatives, Glancy struck me as being more than a little curmudgeonly in his fondness for the past and his dislike of the present: he dwelt overlong on good-old British-made buses for my interest - not surprising from someone who as a boy spent his time colouring in the streets of his London AZ blue if he'd walked them and red if he'd ridden a bus through them - and he seemed to have a bizarre aversion to sushi.

However, I also found much to like in this little book. For the most part it is very informative, interesting, and entertaining. Glancey includes some great stories from history, such as of the caretaker of St-Giles-without-Cripplegate exhuming the corpse of John Milton and charging members of the public to gawp. And he is at times very witty - "Want to make a crust? Why not dig up John Milton's corpse and show it about a bit?" - as well as eloquent - "From the top of the bar in Tower 42, you can't quite see to Russia, and you can't really see Spitalfields below you, but you can see across to the dark, winding ribbon of the Lea Valley. Fingers crossed that it doesn't light up with yet more finance industry guff..."

Also, the book boasts some great photos, especially considering it only cost me £7. One of the 1951 Festival of Britain is a particular highlight, but there's also one of the bust of Lenin that briefly adorned Finsbury, one of the Eye being lifted into position, and many more.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but wish it had been written in 2011 not 2001. I haven't looked up where Glancey can be found these days, but I will do so, and if he's still plying his trade I might well seek out more recent examples of his work.