Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Debate verdicts

I know all of you have been waiting for my feelings on the debate, so, finally, here they are!

First of all, I’m not sure I feel about TV debates in general. The debating format is inherently flawed because some arguments are more complicated than can be fit in soundbites. That said, that’s a bit of a problem with television in general really, and combative dialogue. A lot of numbers got thrown around in the debate, and I’m fairly certain some of them were misleading or even incorrect. For two examples

-Nigel Farage’s numbers on HIV were plain wrong
-Someone (I think it was Leanne Wood) pointed out that the Conservatives had come in promising to remove the deficit, but debt had doubled under them. This is a really misleading point to make, as the deficit is the difference between spending and borrowing, i.e. the amount of debt we will accrue this year. The conservatives promised to clear the deficit in one parliament (which they did fail at rather spectacularly!) not to clear national debt! Also, we should probably look at debt as a proportion of GDP (and the deficit for that matter) so this isn’t very helpful.

 That all said, I do think David Cameron’s wriggling on the debates has been incredibly weasely, given his enthusiasm for them when he was in opposition. As it turns out, I’m not sure his cunning plan to have seven leaders in the debate actually helped him as much as he thought it would, as the variety of opinion allowed Milliband to look much more moderate than he might have been. Of the three leaders: Cameron, Clegg and Millibands, Milliband’s would leave the country with the greatest deficit, making him look the most extreme. However, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all called for more spending, making Milliband in the middle. This also made Clegg’s goldilocks positioning come across as sillier than he had probably planned. I actually thought the format worked quite well when the leaders were debating. The planned statements were fairly dull (seven in a row, oh god!) but the actual discussion was pretty invigorating and enjoyable.

 So, for a breakdown by leader:

Cameron: The man with a plan. I think he said plan approximately 4 million times in the 2 hours allotted, and he certainly stuck on message. He was on the defensive all evening, and his attacks didn’t really stick for the most part. I felt like the whole “We’ve got that letter you wrote” just looked kind of petty, and Milliband responded to it fairly well by mostly ignoring it. (As an aside, if I had to guess the purpose of the letter, it was meant to be a silly joke given, rather than a serious political point. Using it is a tool to beat labour with isn’t super classy.)

Milliband: I thought he did rather well for the most part. He did spend a lot of time staring into the camera, which came across as rather intense, but his message was ok. I don’t think Labour has a very inspiring message coming into this election, but he worked with what he had. He even managed to get a round of applause, pointing out quite rightly that Cameron was pro-removing regulations on banks. [Another aside here. In 2007 the Conservatives promised to match Labour spending plans and argued that banking regulation was too restrictive. Every time Cameron or Osbourne go on about how irresponsible Labour were back then I wish their voice would just echo from the past to point out how ludicrous this argument is]. I felt he was weakest on immigration, where he promised to control immigration while being completely unspecific on how; this put him in a position where he couldn’t really respond to Farage’s vile arguments, fortunately Leanne Wood did it for him.

Clegg: It’s not that what Clegg was saying wasn’t reasonable, but it just came across as ridiculous. Attacking Cameron for his record as if Clegg wasn’t a member of the same government? Looked ridiculous. As I said before, his whole goldilocks approach to the deficit just seemed silly and felt ineffective. Finally he was kind of pathetic on immigration: “we’ll stop the bad immigration”. Well honestly.

Farage: It transpires that all the problems related to the UK are apparently tied to the immigration. The deficit? We’ll cut it by leaving the EU and cutting immigration. The NHS? We’ll stop foreigners using it. His numbers don’t add up because he doesn’t have any. Some time soon UKIP are going to have to publish a manifesto that Farage doesn’t disavow as nonsense, and then we’ll see how pathetic their party truly is. I’m sure his nasty racist remarks on HIV appealed to his core vote, but I really hope some voters got a measure of him from this.

Bennet: Wow Natalie Bennet is not the most charismatic of leaders, it has to be said. The Green have some radical ideas, some of which I tend to agree with, but Bennet just doesn’t seem to be the right vehicle to present them. She had a few good moments, being pro-immigration, and suggesting increasing international development aid (I think Farage’s eyes popped out at that point), but mostly uninspiring.

Wood: I think the one clear message I got from her was that she comes from Wales. She had a very clear goal, to demonstrate her commitment to helping Wales, and she definitely accomplished that. Very few of her statements were related to the rest of the UK, although she did call Farage to account over his HIV statements, and got applause for that.

Sturgeon: She clearly had the strongest impact of all seven. Unlike Leanne Wood, she made sure to address the entire UK, she made strong clear arguments for positions that aren’t articulated often by mainstream politicians, and managed to stay above the fray for the most part. Certainly I suspect many left leaning Labour supporters wished they could vote SNP after the debate. It will be interesting to see how much this will blunt the current Tory scaremongering on the idea of a labour-SNP coalition. [Big aside here: this scaremongering really annoys me. Either want Scotland to be part of the UK, or don’t. If you do want Scotland to be part of the UK, then accept that it’s representatives should be able to influence UK-wide policy!]

Of course the truth is that these debates are unlikely to dramatically alter the outcome of the election: there’s little historical precedent of them doing so, and while the lib dems seemed to do very well out of the last debate, at the end of the day they lost five seats and gained a percentage point on the previous election.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This book came very close to losing me right at the start. Its protagonist is a precocious 17 year old girl, as many protagonists of Young Adult fiction are, and as such was a little exhausting. Her mannerisms are sometimes exhaustingly sincere, and some of the rants she engages in in early chapters were off putting.

Still, if there is one place for the profundity of youth, it's probably teenage cancer sufferers. Every teenager introduced in the book either had or has cancer. As such, our heroine has a rather unique perspective on how she acts. Her behaviour with her parents, for instance, are intended to cause them as little suffering as possible, as she is aware of her own mortality. As much as it is perhaps cliche for me to have done so, I found myself most moved by the parents who had to watch their child slowly die.

Still, for all the inherent sadness of the book, it's quite a light tale for most of the time, following a romance between Hazel and Gus, and their quest to track down the  author of a book about cancer (called an Imperial Affliction, which is a lovely turn of phrase), and obtain an ending to an ambiguously finished story. The author is an irascible and nasty man who is often correct in the assertions he makes, and is such delightful.

I know a lot of people cried at the end, but to be honest I had seen it coming from a mile away, the story structure being such that it felt fairly inevitable. Not that it wasn't sad, but the sheer obviousness of it made me perhaps less affected than I could have been. Still, a very good book, although perhaps not one to read if one is feeling particularly vunerable.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Enchantress of Florence by Salmon Rushdie

My previous knowledge of Salmon Rushdie was that he had written a book which caused the Ayatollah to declare a fatwah on him. If you judge a man by his enemies, he's looking pretty good.

Coming into this book I had very little expectations, other than it might be a slightly literary work. I was very pleased to find it a joy to read. It follows the tale of a man who travels from Florence to tell the Emperor/Sultan a story of his mother, who is a lost princess. The story draws heavily on the myths and legends of Arabia, leading to an engaging sense of magical realism: the Emperor imagined his wife into existence, at one point the protagonist gains entry to the palace by using unguents which make everyone fall in love with him. This is cleverly contrasted with the more earthy world of Florence, where, if you believe the story, practically everyone is obsessed with having sex with one another, to the point where three young boys will run to a hanging to get a man's semen, so that they can grow a mandrake.

Not a story you could share with children then, but a fun one, and an engaging one. It conjures a wonderful, deep world, with fascinating characters, and made me want to spend lots of time enjoying this company. If I had a gripe with it it would be that the ending feels a little too tidy, a little too pat. I almost wanted more from it, maybe a sense of mystery or confusion, while the book mostly just ends. Still, I would happily recommend this book to all.

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

This book came recommended to me by multiple people. It is comprised of several case histories put together by Oliver Sacks, which focuses primarily on how neurological disfunctions can alter people's identity, or ability to identify others. The titular example is a man who cannot perceive the abstract: the only way he can perceive faces is by looking at details, which can often confuse, hence the attempt to put his wife onto his head.

 Sacks goes out of his way to humanise each case that appears in the book, and each persons struggles to maintain their sense of self. This includes studies of a woman who has lost the sense of her own body, and amnesiacs with very little sense of who they are now. At its best, the book can be quite moving as you see how much people can lose but still manage to carve out something of themselves. 

That said, I'm not sure the book completely works for me as a piece. The case histories are often quite disconnected, to the point where I feel like Sacks repeats himself. The language often varies quite a lot: it goes from lyrical descriptions of people's suffering to rather technical language which I'm afraid went over my head. A minor bug bear as well is that Sacks adds in his conversations with these people, which often sound like he is talking to himself.

Still a good work, and I imagine at its first release date quite a revolutionary one. The "World of the Simple" section where he suggests that people with severe mental retardation still have value strikes me as somewhat patronising, but that might be me looking at it from a more modern perspective.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Books before I'm 30: Care of Wooden Floors By Will Wiles

Care of Wooden Floors is Will Wiles' debut novel. It features a first person narrative from an unnamed copywriter who desires to write more than council leaflets. He has come to an unnamed Eastern European city (unnamed, I suspect, so Will Wiles can happily slander its architecture and people without fear) to flat sit for his OCD friend Oskar, who, while absent for most of the novel, leaves copious notes on how to look after the flat.

Care of Wooden Floors is intended to be funny, and indeed has moments of humour, but I found it quite frustrating. The narrative can go into unnecessary detail at times in describing fairly mundane activities, and while the writing is often entertaining, it easily strays into pretentiousness.

Ultimately though it was the plot of the book which frustrated me, or rather the behaviour of the main character. Having been told that he should not leave wine glasses on the floor, he immediately does so, leaving a stain. He also allows the cats to sit on the sofa, which lets them be torn. He then, rather bizzarely, rather than consulting the book on the care of wooden floors to deal with the stain, basically ignores it, and gets drunk. This is something he does repeatedly, even when handling fairly nasty acid later on. As accident after accident piles on, he rarely takes responsibility for his actions, and comes across somewhat as a socio-path. My sympathies ended up very much with Oskar by the end of the book.

The best section was probably when he actually interacted with another human being, the even drunker Michael from Oskar's orchestra, which leads to a fairly entertaining, if somewhat inconsequential diversion.

To discuss this book further, I shall need to spoil it, so read no further if you wish that not to happen.

The book lost me a bit when he "accidentally" kills a cat, which has managed to pull a cork out of a bottle of wine he left, get drunk, then clamber into a piano and have the lid slam on it. This is absurd, and just annoyingly so. Will Wiles clearly wanted the cat today, but he clearly didn't want the narrator to be directly responsible, and so was forced to construct events in such a way as to beggar belief. The main character then decides to dispose of the body down the trash chute, but for some reason doesn't put it in a bin bag first, so the cleaner sees him do it.

This leads, later, to his accidental killing of the cleaner. He justifies himself as it being an accident, but he is the one that pushes her onto a knife sticking out on the dishwasher, and then, when she collapses from blood loss, assumes she is dead without calling emergency services, then drags her body back to her flat to try and get away with it! Bizarrely, the end of the book even seems to imply that he might have done so. He certainly shows a remarkable lack of guilt for being directly involved in the death of another human being.

I actually suspect that tonally all these events could have worked, perhaps as a third person narrative, where we get a bit more detachment, so can enjoy the blackly comic nature of the events (thats what Tom Sharpe tends to do, who writes stories of a similar manner). As it is, I found the style ultimately rather off putting.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantasy novel set in a grimy version of Venice. The people of the world all live in the remenants of something built by an ancient civillisation, who have since died out. Magic exists, but is rare, although there is a sciency/magic analogue in alchemy.

The book follows Locke Lamora, who is essentially a fantasy con man. He and his compatriots fool rich nobles into parting way with their fortunes. Doing so is fraught with danger, as it is not only against the laws of the city, it is also against the laws of the underworld, where there is a so called "secret peace" involving criminals avoiding preying on nobles, and nobles turning a blind eye to many criminal activities.

The book wears its influences on its sleeve, Pratchett clearly being a strong one, but the book is a lot darker in places, with often brutal scenes of torture or violence throughout. Despite this, the tone is mostly light hearted and enjoyable. I had a good time with this book, it carries you along with it, and the plot is decent. The world is well drawn and fairly flavoursome, even if it does borrow from the best.

If I had one complaint about it, its the lack of women. The "Gentlemen Bastards" which Locke leads does include a woman, but she spends the entire novel abroad, not even turning up in the flash backs. I assume this is to allow her reappearance in the sequels, but it is a bit frustrating. The female characters that are introduced are interesting and varied, but very rare, and have quite a short amount of stage time, which is a shame as they do seem to have a fair amount of personality. Still, this wouldn't be the first fantasy novel to make this mistake, and at least there is a suggestion that sequels will involve women a little bit more.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

How I Met Your Mother (contains all the spoilers!)

So I finally got to watch the last episode of How I met your Mother last night. e4, in their infinite wisdom, had split a two parter into two. This led me to guess the second half of an ending I had already had spoiled for me.

I was already aware that the mother was dead, but from Barney and Robin's divorce, I guessed that Robin and Ted were likely to get together for the conclusion. Which I don't hate. There are some nice things about that: the refutation of the idea that there is only one right person for you, and that they do kind of acknowledge that some relationships do fail.

But, here's the thing. The writers knew that they were going to have Ted ask out Robin at the end. Failing killing off Barney (which I think would have worked fine, but I guess they didn't want that note of sadness?) they knew that Robin and Barney would need to break up. However, they wanted to have their cake and eat it. They wanted to capitalise on the chemistry that Robin and Barney had developed, and they also wanted to have their ending they had planned from Season 2.

And again, it does make sense that Barney and Robin would divorce, although to have Barney regress immediately after was super tiresome, but to spend three seasons building to their wedding, and having their wedding take an entire season, and then at its happy conclusion, tell us they get divorced in the next episode? Thats a bit of a sucky structural choice. For that matter, offing the mother after again, somewhat inadveratly, setting up this amazing character? Bit lame. I do think they'd have been better off just cutting that final conversation with the kids and restructuring the end, but sadly they were too attached to it.

Oh well, it was a good ride. The show decayed in quality: Seasons 6 and 8 in particular were pretty weak, but I still found that it remained funny, and managed to tell interesting stories, right up to the end.

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