Going South

I recently finished reading Going South: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy By 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson.

While I enjoyed parts of the book, I don’t think I can really recommend it: it reads a bit like some articles strung together with a bit of editorial glue — there are too many repetitions and a lack of a coherent narrative to make it readable.

I also think they lack a scientific approach. If I had decided to explore whether Britain was developing a third world economy, I would first define a series of tests to distinguish a first world economy from a third world one, and I would then apply the tests to the British economy.

However, they’re generally just chatting along, and it’s not really clear whether they think it’s London, England, Britain, the EU, the English-speaking countries or all of the first world that is facing relegation to the third world.

They’re also variously criticising Britain for doing things differently from most EU countries and bemoaning the influence of the EU over the UK.

The over-all impression is basically two Englishmen sitting in a pub, convincing each other that the country is going down the drain and that everything was much better in the old days.

In spite of the shortcomings, there are quite a lot of interesting tidbits in the book, and I did enjoy the historical sections outlining the UK’s gradual decline since the industrial revolution, so if you’re a fast reader, it might be worth spending a few hours skimming through this book.

The Oneiric Ocelot

cat wallpaper
Originally uploaded by SkanD GupT

I recently installed Ubuntu 11.10 – Oneiric Ocelot – on my work laptop, upgrading from Ubuntu 10.10.

I had read about how many people criticised it for making Unity the default window manager, but I had expected it otherwise to be quite a straight-forward upgrade.

It turned out to be quite a nightmare, however. Basically, it seems to be an odd mixture of annoying the power users, while allowing so many errors that ordinary users cannot use the system:

  • My wireless card, which had worked flawlessly in earlier versions, didn’t work out of the box. Eventually I found some advice, namely to remove bcm43xx from blacklist.conf, and it’s now working fine again, but non-techie users would probably not have worked this out.
  • The built-in webcam has stopped working, and I cannot find a way to make it work (although Ubuntu 12 beta testers report it should be working there).
  • After I installed Skype and minimised it, it completely disappeared, and I had to kill it and start it up again to get the window back. It turns out Skype by default is blacklisted in the notification area. It was quite easy to fix, so long as you know how to edit notification area blacklists.
  • Bash autocompletion is broken, and to fix it, you need to make a change to line 1587 in the system file /etc/bash_completion.
  • Different from most flavours of Linux, Ubuntu 11 assumes the computer’s internal clock is set to local time rather than UTC. To fix that, you need to edit /etc/default/rcS.
  • Most of the system preferences have disappeared, so you cannot by default change the default font size, make windows get the focus on mouse-over, or many other small details that were easy before. To get the same options as before, you now need to install either gconf-editor or gnome-tweak-tool, but if you’re not aware of these tools, you’ll be seriously annoyed for a while if you don’t like the default settings.
  • Synaptic is now a separate install – by default you have to use the software centre, which means that many programs are unavailable by default.
  • Also TEX Live is completely outdated – the included version is the one from 2009, not 2011, so if you’re serious about TEX, you need to install it separately.

I’m sorry, Ubuntu people, but this just isn’t good enough. You can’t remove all the power tools but still require users to know how to edit system files by hand.

I’m hoping Ubuntu 12 will be better, but otherwise I’ll be looking for another flavour of Linux next time.

Chez l’ Savoyard

Chez l’ Savoyard
Originally uploaded by viralbus

For the past three days I’ve been working at a French company in Champs-sur-Marne, a Parisian suburb. Every day we’ve gone for lunch at a local restaurant, and it’s been a pleasant experience every time.

Today we went to quite a special place, Chez l’ Savoyard in the historical centre of Champs-sur-Marne.

At first I thought it was just a traditional little pub and restaurant.

However, when the owner spotted me, he shouted “Il est nouveau!” and rushed over to shake my hand, saying “Mon fils s’appelle Thomas aussi.” (He quickly forgot, though, and started calling me l’anglais instead!!!)

We then sat down at a table, and one of my temporary colleagues went into the kitchen to find out what was on the menu, while one of the others fetched a bottle of white wine in the bar and grabbed a bottle of crème de cassis from another table.

There were four starters to choose from – eggs mayonnaise, herring salad, charcuterie and salad Parisienne – but there was only one main course on offer: cuisse de canard.

We didn’t have to cook the food ourselves, but the starters were served by another customer who happened to be near the kitchen at that time.

The food was lovely, though – the mayonnaise was homemade, very runny and mustardy, and the duck leg was perfectly cooked.

After each course, we carried the dirty dishes back to the kitchen ourselves.

Because it was my first time there, the owner made us a special dessert – some sort of ice cream with meringue served together with a slice of custard pie. To show that I had sussed the system, I carried our dirty plates back to the kitchen.

We paid €12.50 (£10.37) each. Funnily enough, we didn’t have to work the till ourselves.

Don’t miss Chez l’ Savoyard next time you’re in Champs-sur-Marne!

Wild Swans

I just finished reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang (or rather, ?? Zh?ng Róng).

I’m sure most people read it when it came out in the 1990s, but it somehow slipped under my radar and I only discovered it now.

It’s basically a history of mainland China from 1909 to 1978, as seen through the eyes of three women: Jung Chang, her mother and her grandmother. (The title of the book is due to the Chinese word ? hóng “swan goose“, which forms part of two of their names.)

It’s a really good read, and although it’s of course not a proper, objective account of Chinese history, it nevertheless gives a very good feel for what happened there, especially during the Cultural Revolution.

The only caveat I’d add is that Chang’s father was a very highly placed Communist official before the Cultural Revolution, so I think her account of the years leading up to it is likely to be too positive compared to how ordinary Chinese people experienced those years.

It’s definitely worth reading, perhaps even more now than when it was published, given how dominant the PRC has become in the World since then.

Vi begge dør med glæde, skål!

Jeg brugte vores nylige ferie i Keith på at læse en bog, min gamle ven Sebastian havde anbefalet: Eine exklusive Liebe af hans kusine Johanna Adorján (den engelske oversættelse hedder “An Exclusive Love”, og den danske “En ganske særlig kærlighed”); selvom forfatteren har et ungarsk navn, er født i Sverige og har dansk pas, er tysk hendes modersmål, så jeg vil anbefale, man læser den tyske udgave, hvis man kan.

Johanna har i en årrække arbejdet som journalist, og bogen er da også på mange måder en journalistisk reportage blandet op med lidt fiktion.

Bogen handler om deres ungarskfødte bedsteforældres kollektive selvmord, der fandt sted i København, da hun var 20 år gammel, og om hendes forsøg på forstå, hvem bedsteforældrene var, og hvorfor de valgte at ende deres dage sammen.

Man mærker, at deres selvmord for de efterladte må have virket uforståeligt, egoistisk og ukærligt. Johanna synes dog i løbet af bogen at begynde at forstå hvorfor, og måske næsten af acceptere det.

Deres død mindede mig i øvrigt om Romeo og Julie, der i en ungdomsudgave, jeg var med til at opføre som spejder, sluttede med disse linier: “Fyld koppen op til bredfuldt mål / vi begge dør med glæde, skål!”

Turtledove’s Prime Directive

I just finished reading Turledove’s Noninterference last night.

It’s one of his earlier books – the first copyright is 1985. However, the setting of the book (a Human-led Federation sends out star ships to explore other planets, but the explorers have to be careful not to interfere in the natural developments there) is so close to Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) that somebody must have inspired somebody else. The main difference seems to be whether the rule is called the “Prime Directive” or “Noninterference”.

Anyway, the plot of the book is more like a crime novel and not very Star Trek-y at all. The dialogues are dreadful in typical Turtledove fashion (every time a person says something, it’s explained afterwards what it means, as if he expects the reader to be completely stupid), but it’s actually quite readable.

However, one fundamental conflict in the book is between the Survey Service (also known as Starfleet in Star Trek), who think that it’s OK to observe all planets, and the Purists, who think that planets without space travel should be left well alone.

To me, that conflict sounds too academic to be realistic. There’s no economic incentive to choose between the two groups, and money normally tends to be a factor in human power struggles.

I would have thought a more realistic conflict would have been between Colonialists (mimicking 19th-century Europeans) and Observers, but that would of course have been an entirely different book.

I need to blog about Kevin

My Scottish family have for ages been nagging me to read Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin. If they hadn’t been so insistent, I would probably have put it away after a couple of chapters – it was slow-moving and not exactly a page-turner.

That’s not to say that it isn’t in many ways a good book. There are lots of wonderful passages throughout the book, but it didn’t really come together for me.

As far as I know, Lionel Shriver is childless, and she wrote Kevin at a time when she seriously had to decide whether she wanted to be a mother (she decided against it).

The book basically strikes me as being a childless person’s collection of parental horror stories – I imagine she might have been asking everybody she knew about the worst thing they had ever experienced a child do, and then strung it all together as a book.

The result is to my mind not very believable. Every simple episode strikes me as being authentic, but I don’t believe they could all have been done by the same child.

In particular, I don’t think any teenager as clever and articulate as Kevin would find it necessary to commit a school massacre – he would have so many other ways to spread havoc without having to go to gaol for anything.

However, many people have clearly found it plausible enough to enjoy it, so do read it and judge for yourself.