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.