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    • Alternative Vote / Discussion / 35 Readings / 34 Ratings
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      24.04.2011 17:01
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      AV isn't perfect, but it's better than FPTP

      In about two weeks' time, voters in the UK will be given an historic opportunity to change the electoral system. The referendum motion asks whether the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system should be replaced with the alternative known, conveniently enough, as the Alternative Vote (AV) system.

      Unfortunately, while this is a potentially monumental issue, much of the media coverage that I've seen has been frankly very poor, with a lot of bad arguments and negative campaigning on offer from both sides. I thought I'd put my PhD in politics to use, by trying to offer something more sensible - though I hope that the following review won't be too long or technical.

      ** Preamble **

      Cards on the table time: I'm inclined to vote for the switch to AV. I say that at the start, to make clear that this won't be an entirely neutral and dispassionate piece. Nonetheless, I'm not strongly in favour of AV, so I'll try to resist advocacy. I think there are good arguments on each side, so if someone finds the arguments for FPTP more convincing that's fine. My concern is that people vote based on good, informed argument, rather than on the basis of some of the bad arguments that I've heard thrown around.

      Why the hesitancy? Well, I think it's worth noting that NO voting system is perfect. Thankfully, our choice is this referendum is made simpler by the fact that we need not consider all of the many voting systems that have been devised. Our choice is simply between two: FPTP and AV. Hence, there's no need to consider, for example, Proportional Representation (PR). I'll define FPTP and AV in a moment, but first one further point is in order.

      The referendum question is actually about which system we should use. In deciding how to vote in the referendum, I know some people who are swayed by other considerations, such as giving Nick Clegg a bloody nose or which option they think will favour future reform (some think AV might lead towards PR in future, while others think that this change will stifle further reform). I'm also going to set these considerations aside and focus, so far as I can, simply on the intrinsic merits of FPTP and AV.

      ** Defining the Alternatives: FPTP **

      First Past The Post (FPTP) is probably the simplest option to understand, perhaps in part because it's the system currently used in UK elections so already familiar to most of us. It works like this: each voter places a vote next to one candidate of their choice. After all votes are cast, they are counted. The candidate who gets the most votes is declared the winner.

      It should be noted that the name - First Past The Post - is slightly misleading. There is no fixed winning post that candidates must cross. It would be possible in theory for someone to win with a very small share of the vote - just 10% for instance. Suppose we had eleven candidates competing in the election. If they are very close in support, it might be that one wins 10% of the vote and the other ten each win 9% of the vote. In this case, the former is declared the winner. This is true even though only one tenth of the electorate voted for them.

      There are two points that we should notice, in particular. Firstly, the winner need not have (and in fact in UK elections rarely does have) the support of a majority (i.e. over half) of the voters. Secondly, the person with the most votes wins, even if deeply unpopular with everyone else. I'll return to that point in a moment, but first it's time to present the alternative.

      ** Defining the Alternatives: AV **

      The alternative vote system allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Voters may, if they wish, rank only one. If everyone did that, then the system would in effect work just the same as FPTP. It also allows voters to indicate a second choice, third choice, and so on. These are their 'alternative votes.' In effect, it allows someone to say 'ideally, I want X, but if not X, then I want Y' and so on - until, if they wish, they have ranked all candidates.

      Once voters have expressed their preferences, the first round of counting begins by looking only at people's first preferences. If any candidate has a majority of votes (over half), then that candidate is duly elected. If no one has a majority, then counting proceeds to a second round. In this case, the candidate with the smallest share of first preference votes is eliminated from the running. Votes for that candidate are then redistributed - any that did not express a second preference are eliminated, while those that did are now transferred to that second preference candidate. These votes are counted equally along with first preference. In effect, the voters concerned, having had their first choice candidate eliminated, are asked for their alternative choice out of those remaining.

      (In French presidential elections, there are actually two separate votes. First, everyone gets to vote for whoever they like. Then a second vote is held between the two candidates who come first and second, to see which of these has majority support. This involves only two stages, but requires a second election. The aim of AV is to allow voters to express their alternatives on a single ballot paper, avoiding the need for multiple rounds of voting.)

      This process is continued, with the least popular candidate eliminated in each round, until one candidate has over half of the votes remaining active in that round. Since this may ultimately result in only two candidates left in the running, it is almost certain that one will have a majority. (The only exception is if the final two end up exactly tied, 50% each - but ties are also possible under FPTP.)

      ** An Illustration **

      These definitions may be clearer if accompanied by an illustration of the two systems in practice. I'll use a simplified, non-political example. Suppose we have a club with 100 members trying to decide where to go on a day out. Let's assume that there are four options: beach (B), football (F), museum (M) and shopping (S).

      1) Ten people rank the options as follows:
      B > F > M > S
      That is, they prefer the Beach to anything else. They like going to the Football less than the Beach, but more than either a Museum or Shopping. And, finally, they prefer the Museum to Shopping.

      2) Nine more rank:
      B > M
      These people also prefer Beach to anything else. They express no preference, however, between the Football and Shopping (though it is assumed, since their second preference is for the Museum, that they prefer Museum to either of these; they are simply indifferent between the other two).

      3) Twenty-one people rank:
      F > B > M > S

      4) Twenty-five people rank:
      M > F > B > S

      5) Thirty-five people rank:
      S > M > F > B

      Under FPTP, these people can only vote for their first or most preferred option. That is, the people will vote for B, B, F, M, and S respectively. These are then totalled up, to show how many people support each option. The results are as follows:

      Beach: 19
      Football: 21
      Museum: 25
      Shopping: 35

      Hence it is decided that the group will go shopping, because this option has more votes than any of the other options.

      Note, however, that while Shopping was the most preferred option of 35 people (just over a third of the group), it was the *least* preferred option (solely or jointly) for all of the others. These people, presumably, would be very dissatisfied with this outcome.

      Thankfully, there is a remedy at hand. Suppose the twenty-one people in the third group (those who rank F > B > M > S) realise what is likely to happen. They know that the Football is not that popular, so votes for Football are likely to be 'wasted.' (This is analogous to those who prefer a third or fourth party, but know that either Labour or Conservatives are likely to win.) Since these people still prefer Museum to Shopping, they may decide to vote tactically. That is, they could vote for Museum, rather than the Beach, even though this is not their real first preference. Then Museum would have 46 votes (to 35 for Shopping) and so win.

      AV is, in effect, a way of avoiding the need for such tactical voting. It allows people to still express their real first preference - for Football - yet also to have a say when the choice comes down to Museum or Shopping. Because of this, however, the counting of votes will be slightly more complicated. In the first round, counters will look only at first preferences, so the first round will look like this:

      Beach: 19
      Football: 21
      Museum: 25
      Shopping: 35

      The same as before. No option has a majority (over half) of the votes, so counting will now go to a second round. The Beach - as the least popular option - will be eliminated. Rather than effectively disenfranchising those who had voted for the Beach, though, the AV system says that we should ask how they would have voted from the remaining alternatives. (This is done without the need for a second, three-way vote, because we asked voters for their second preferences in the initial round of voting.)

      Ten of those who voted for Beach would have voted for Football (their second preference) had the Beach not been an option, while the other nine would have voted for the Museum. Thus these voters are reallocated, according to these second preferences. This gives us:

      Football: 31
      Museum: 34
      Shopping: 35

      As we see, things are now very close. Had the Beach not been an available option, Shopping would still have won under a FPTP, but only by a single vote. Still, however, no option has majority support. It looks to be between Shopping and Museum, which are one and two in the votes, so Football is eliminated as now being least popular. But again to declare Shopping the winner would ignore the fact that it is the least popular option of almost everyone else. Almost two-thirds of people, in this example, would prefer either Football or the Museum to Shopping. This is confirmed when voting goes to a third stage.

      Here, Football is eliminated and those whose votes are currently counted as for Football are transferred to their next preference, to see how they would vote between Museum and Shopping. As it happens, these are voters from the first and third groups above, all of whom prefer Museum to Shopping. (For some of these, Museum is their second preference and for some their third.) Thus, when these votes are reallocated, we get the following result:

      Museum: 65
      Shopping: 35

      So Museum wins!

      Sorry for the slightly lengthy explanation, but I think it goes a long way not only to explaining the difference between FPTP and AV but also the relative merits of the two. FPTP only looks at people's first vote. Consequently, those in a minority are either effectively ignored or forced to misrepresent their true preferences by voting strategically. AV, on the other hand, looks at all of a person's preferences. This means that an option, such as going to the Museum, can win in virtue of being a widely popular second choice, though it was not the most popular first choice. Political parties would, therefore, have incentives to appeal widely to as many voters as possible, even if they were unlikely to be first choice amongst those voters. Picking up second or third votes might still be enough to allow them to win.

      Now let's look at some of the arguments in more detail...

      ** Arguments Against AV, Considered and Rebutted **

      One argument offered for FPTP is that it's simpler. Voters only need to vote for one party, rather than ranking their whole preference ordering. I don't think this shows much faith in voters. The added complexity of AV lies largely in vote counting, not in the act of voting. All voters need to be able to do is order their preferences. If you can count to three, then the chances are that you can rank three alternatives, for instance Conservative > Lib Dem > Labour. It should be added that voters are not *required* to rank all of the alternatives on offer. It's fine to express preferences between your top three candidates, but then no further, in effect abstaining if the choices were to come down, say, to UKIP or BNP. If this is too difficult for most voters, then we probably ought to reconsider whether we want political decisions made by such idiots!

      A second argument I've heard is that AV means giving some people more votes than others. This isn't really true. Each person only has one vote counted at any given stage. The point is that people can also express a second preference, which might be counted *instead of their first* should their first be eliminated. These people aren't given any more influence though, because those whose first preference is still in the running are still having their first preference counted. It seems ludicrous to suggest that someone who gets their second preference has more power or influence than someone who gets their first preference!

      In fact, I think it could be argued that AV better ensures equality between voters, since it allows all voters (if they wish) to have their preference counted between whatever candidates are in the running. FPTP, as already explained, provides incentives for strategic voting. That is, savvy voters may realise that they can better serve their preferences by voting for a candidate who is not their genuine first preference. This behaviour is sometimes criticized as dishonest, though I am not sure I would go that far - why shouldn't voters be able to use their vote as they wish? The problem, however, is that it means those who know how to 'play' the system can get more out of it than those who do not. The naïve bumpkin who simply votes for her genuine first preference may effectively waste her vote, when she could have been better served by voting for her second preference, to ensure that the candidate she detested did not win. This seems more inegalitarian to me. AV removes the advantage is strategic voting, so all people can express their genuine preferences and have them counted equally.

      A third argument worries not simply about the fact that some people get their second preference counted, but about who these people are - namely, fringe minorities. Suppose, for instance, we had the following scenario:
      49% vote Labour
      48% vote Conservative
      3% vote BNP, with second preference for the Conservatives
      In this case, Labour would win under the FPTP rule, but under AV the 3% BNP voters would be reallocated to the Conservatives and they would win. It is worried that this makes fringe minorities potentially pivotal.

      I think there is some merit to this concern, but it seems to be overstated. The electoral result doesn't depend simply on the 3% BNP 'fringe.' The Conservatives only win, in this example, with those votes, but they also have 48% support in their own right. Moreover, it should be remembered that FPTP simply encourages tactical voting. The BNP supporters might simply have voted Conservative to begin with and we'd never have known. At least AV allows voters to express their true preferences and to have influence on the final choice.

      Also it should be noted that a few fringe voters are unlikely in practice to make a pivotal difference. Where we have three (or four) major parties, it is likely to take the elimination of one of these before a winner is decided. Consider:
      35% vote Labour
      35% vote Conservative
      30% vote Lib Dem
      5% vote BNP, with second preference for the Conservatives
      In this case, I have assumed more BNP support (5% rather than 3%). Even so, the elimination of the BNP leaves us with 40% Conservative, 35% Labour, and 30% Lib Dem, so still no overall winner. Who wins will depend on the second preference of (in this case) Lib Dem voters, not (only) the BNP voters.

      These are some of the arguments that I've heard most commonly presented in the media. As should be obvious, I think that they're all bad. AV isn't too complicated (in fact it's often used in many elections, including in student societies), doesn't mean that some voters count for more, and doesn't mean that electoral results will be determined by fringe minorities. There are, however, some better arguments against it. For reasons of balance, let me consider one of the more serious.

      AV asks voters to rank their preferences in order, but an ordering gives us no information about how strong someone's preference is. One voter might be almost indifferent between the candidates she has numbered 1 and 2, while another may have a very strong preference for his number 1 and consider his number 2 merely the best of a bad bunch. Consider this case:
      Forty people rank A > B > C and much prefer A to either B or C, both of which they detest.
      Thirty-one people rank B > A > C, but are almost indifferent between B and A.
      Twenty-nine people rank C > B > A, but are almost indifferent between B and A.

      Under AV, C would be eliminated and then B would win, 60 votes to 40. This is so, even though no one has a strong preference for B over A, but 40 people have a strong preference for A over B. We should be wary, this reasoning suggests, of reading too much into second preferences. This is true, but it should be noted that it is hardly a glowing endorsement of FPTP either. People may not be equally satisfied, under an FPTP system, with the alternatives on offer and, as we have seen, many may in fact vote strategically in any case. As I said at the outset, AV isn't perfect - no system is. While this seems like a potential problem with AV, it doesn't show that FPTP is any better. Where our choice is between the two, I'm still inclined towards AV.

      ** Conclusion **

      As I said at the outset, I'm not totally confident in my preference for AV, because there are problems with it, but I don't think these should blind us to the (possibly greater) problems with FPTP just because we're more accustomed to them.

      I'm uncertain about the referendum because, given the many factors that we might consider, I'm open to saying that one's vote in the referendum *shouldn't* be determined simply by which, of FPTP and AV, is the better system. (For instance, perhaps one should think about which will better serve the cause of future reform.) Nonetheless, if the question were simply which is better out of the two, then I'm much more confident that AV is preferable to FPTP and that's the way I'm inclined to vote in the referendum.

      My aim isn't to convince others, but to encourage more constructive debate. Vote how you like, provided that you've thought seriously about the issue and have genuine reasons, rather than bad arguments, for your choice. I'd welcome constructive disagreement in comments!

      (Previously posted - by me - on Ciao and my blog)

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        24.01.2008 23:56
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        Australia's Answer to Matchbox 20

        I first heard of Australian band Powderfinger many years ago (circa 2000) when their track 'Like A Dog' (from the album OdysseyNumberFive) was included on a Kerrang! cover-mount CD. I quite liked it and it inspired me to see the band at V2001 - them being on the mainstage early in the day, when there wasn't much else on. Although they were pleasant enough, I didn't find them inspiring enough to track down one of their albums, until now (when actually I was offered a free review copy).

        Dream Days at the Hotel Existence is album number six for the band, and follows a hiatus during which lead singer Bernard Fanning released a solo album and the band's Best Of 1994-2000 (Fingerprints). Unfortunately, given my limited experience of their previous offerings, I can't really compare it to their back catalogue - so I'm coming at it 'fresh' as it were. Since they haven't yet made much impact over here, despite critical and commercial success down under, I'll assume a similar lack of familiarity on the part of most readers.

        It's fairly easy, but not particularly descriptive, to lump Powderfinger into the bracket of 'mainstream rock and pop', but that can mean different things to different people. Comparisons to UK artists like Coldplay or Snow Patrol don't quite fit for me. Maybe later Stereophonics are close to the mark, but a better point of departure would be someone like Matchbox 20 or The Calling. It's primarily guitar-based but unashamedly 'pop' and not as heavy as the likes of Foo Fighters or Red Hot Chili Peppers. Perhaps a nod to the recent material (as opposed to early grunge albums) of fellow Antipodeans and touring partners, Silverchair, wouldn't go amiss either, but maybe that's only because both bands are Australian.

        Opener, 'Head Up In The Clouds', wasn't a particularly auspicious beginning. Apparently inspired by the book The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, which I haven't read, all I can say is it didn't seem that inspired to me. It certainly wasn't a rocker, nor a ballad, and didn't really seem to go anywhere, just drifting by for almost four minutes. At best, I'd call it 'inoffensive' but I was starting to worry the whole album would be as bland and insipid, not to mention bordering on pretentious.

        Thankfully, matters were redeemed by second track, the slightly rockier 'I Don't Remember', which for me was one of the most immediate on the album and has remained a favourite. I wasn't actually sure it would be the best choice of single, but later found that it was apparently the second single off the album down under, so obviously someone thinks it is a good commercial for the album.

        I'm not going to go through all the tracks individually, but for the most part they're catchy radio-friendly type, many of which feature soon-familiar choruses and could be singles. Things continue on this pretty positive note for about two-thirds of the album, though I would say that towards the end things lag slightly. 'Nobody Sees' and 'Surviving', in particular, drop the tempo a bit and place a bit more emphasis on piano rather than guitar and, for me, they are a little on the dreary side. Nothing's really too bad though and there are still a few highlights, such as 'Ballad Of A Dead Man', with its return to cryptic lyrics ("I thought that I could pick you up and roll you like a dice").

        One final song deserves special mention - the cover of Portishead's 'Glory Box' (included here as a bonus track and previously appearing on the Australian tribute compilation No Man's Woman). It's slightly weird hearing it sung by a man and, to be honest, were it not for the novelty value I'd probably rate it as the worst song on the album. They do at least take what I consider to be the best approach to a cover - not merely mimicking the original or making it quite like their own - so it remains a point of interest and suitable note on which to end the album.

        Personally, I ordinarily prefer my rock, if not necessarily heavier, then a bit more alternative. Nonetheless, I had to admit that I liked this album and so did my mum (who's in her 50s but partial to the odd bit of Keane, Artic Monkeys, etc). It's a good example of mainstream radio friendly rock and a sad thing that the British public will no doubt continue to ignore them.

        This is an expanded version of a review I posted on Amazon.co.uk.

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          17.01.2008 20:40
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          A supposed introduction to Marx using his ideas to further other agendas

          Given that my first degree was in politics and philosophy, I always thought it was pretty scandalous how little I knew about Marx (he was the subject of my very first tutorial, but not something I'd studied since). I decided I'd rectify things by attending G. A. Cohen's Masters class on Hegel and Marx this spring and, consequently, set about re-reading The Communist Manifesto. When it came to secondary literature, however, the range I had to hand was rather poor. I was looking for a good, short, introductory textbook.

          I first read Peter Singer's Past Masters volume (now reissued as a Very Short Introduction), which I'd heard bad remarks about but thought was ok. The only other thing I had was this. The Wadsworth Philosophers series covers a range of historical and contemporary thinks, not all of whom strictly philosophers, and has a range almost rivalling OUP's Very Short Introductions, though all I believe are author-based rather than covering themes, subjects or -isms.

          I must say the Wadsworth series are rather over-priced for what they are. I picked up a few when Blackwells reduced them from £9.99 to about £4 each, but according to Amazon the RRP is now £14.99 - double a Very Short Introduction. Nonetheless, I'd been fairly happy with others I'd read for what I paid, and thought Robert Talisse's 'On Rawls' was actually very good for such a brief survey. I hoped this volume would be similarly informative.

          Things didn't start off positively when the author's preface indicated that she was particularly concerned to emphasise Marx's relevance, firstly by inviting the reader to think of him/her-self as a worker (probably not too realistic - most readers are surely likely to be students plus a few academics) and secondly by showing how Marx's ideas relate to feminist and ecological themes. (Looking up the author, now Wendy Lee-Lampshire, online confirms that these are her main research interests).

          Now, I have nothing against the author taking a particular angle to illustrate Marx's ideas, particularly when there's been a significant number of Marxist feminists who have applied Marx's critique of capitalism to patriarchal society, effectively putting men in the place of the bourgeoisie and women as exploited workers. Reading Lee's comments did help me see how Marx's themes related to feminist concerns in some ways I hadn't seen before. However, what I did find troubling was that this focus detracted from the book's main ostensible purpose. You'd want a basic student introduction to Marx to address key Marxist themes in a recognizable way (capitalist-worker), but instead this book spends several pages asking whether, if alienation is really emasculating, women workers can be alienated. Maybe it's a question worth asking amongst Marxist feminists, but not in a supposedly introductory book.

          To be honest, I didn't find the writing very good generally. Not that the ideas weren't, necessarily, but the expression was rarely as clear as I'd have liked - and I'm a doctoral student rather than an undergraduate. Some bits are quite accessible but mostly beside the point, such as a couple of pages describing the author's dead end job on a production line to illustrate how bad work is. Any time it gets philosophical, however, the author seems disposed towards flowery continental language. Technical terms like 'praxis' are introduced in passing, with little real definition, then used repeatedly through what follows. Even the author's underlying gender equality message - leading her to repeatedly place 'scare quotes' around male pronouns when saying things like 'Marx thought that the worker was alienated from 'his' product' - gets annoying.

          I have to admit that I didn't finish this book (I got about half way through and flicked through what was to come); it simply wasn't offering what I was looking for. To give it credit though, I don't recall anywhere where what it said about Marx was obviously wrong (as opposed to perhaps a one-sided interpretation). It does, for example, make the point that both workers and capitalists are alienated, which as I understand things is correct. For a general reader, or someone particularly interested in Marx's relation to modern debates concerning feminism (or ecology), this may be an interesting read and, as I said, I do feel I learned something from it. Nonetheless, there's simply no way that I'd assign this to my undergraduate students learning about Marx and, even at £9.99, I thought it was well over-priced.

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            12.01.2008 23:40
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            Read the book or watch the TV series instead...

            Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy began life as a radio show, before becoming a hit series of books and a 1981 TV series. It's surprising in many ways that it took until 2005 to be made into a full-length feature film. While I'd enjoyed both the books and TV series, I'm not really a cinema goer and some rather mixed reviews, combined with the fact that I had after all read the books and seen the TV series, meant I didn't bother catching it at the cinema. When it was shown on TV last Christmas (2007) however, I was quite looking forward to it.

            I wouldn't call myself particularly discerning when it comes to movies. As readers of my recent Fantastic Four review will know, if it keeps me entertained for a couple of hours that's usually enough - I'm more into pop-corn flicks than great works of art or, at least, I don't demand the latter. Nonetheless, I have to say I was pretty disappointed all round with this film.

            For those not familiar with the premise, the film begins with the demolition of the Earth to make way for an inter-galactic highway. Thankfully for Arthur Dent, however, it turns out that his friend Ford Prefect is not in fact from Guilford but rather an alien on Earth to write an entry for the eponymous Hitchhikers' Guide. Ford's able to rescue them both, which is only the start of their discovery that the Earth was part of greater alien plans and really mostly an excuse for lots of general silliness.

            If you're a fan of HHGTTG in any of its other formats you'll already know the jokes. In fact, even if you've never consciously come across Douglas Adams before, numerous of them have seeped into the nation's popular sense of humour, rather like say Monty Python's 'dead parrot' sketch. If you have favourite jokes then most of them turn up here, despite some adaptations for the film. However, to my mind this was just about the film's saving grace - Douglas Adams' humour - and not all of it worked as well on film anyway. It'd have taken longer, but I'd much rather have re-read the books.

            When I first watched the television series, I found that not all the characters appeared as I imagined, but I was able to get over it. Maybe those images have now stayed with me, so perhaps it's harsh to judge the film against those preconceptions. Nonetheless, most of the casting seemed wrong to me. (As an aside, the FAQs on IMDB point out the book doesn't say that Ford Prefect wasn't black, but admit he is described as having ginger hair...). It's hard to put my finger on it, but the acting seems like acting most of the time. I didn't find the characters at all real or believable - which, admittedly, would sometimes be hard - they seemed more like actors reading lines.

            The special effects were equally bad. While there were a few things done well, Slartibartfast's workshop being one, I thought Zaphod was particularly bad and in general the standard of special effects was about what I'd expect from Dr Who rather than a big0budget Hollywood blockbuster (which this wasn't). If the film had been better in other areas, maybe some dodgy effects could've been over-looked, but to be honest they were simply another example of a film I found disappointing almost all round.

            As I said, pretty much the only thing I liked was the Douglas Adams humour and, credit where it's due, I do think the guide entries (voiced by Stephen Fry) were done well. Even in the few bits that made me laugh though, I couldn't help thinking that I was really laughing at the film.

            At least the humour was somewhat redeeming. For that alone, I'm giving the film 2* since I was able to sit through it all. (Remember 1* is the absolute lowest, so I'd have to save that for something truly terrible). I wouldn't regard being forced to watch this as torture, but whether or not you're new to Douglas Adams I'd say this isn't the best (or even second best) way to appreciate his work.

            Duration: 109 minutes
            Rating: PG
            Details from: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt0371724/

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              05.01.2008 16:36
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              By no means a classic, but if you only want entertainment it delivers

              It seems that superhero comic-to-film adaptations have been quite the thing over the last few years, with the success of films like Spiderman and X-Men inspiring more and more. Coming along in 2005, Fantastic Four was arguably scraping the barrel to catch onto the end of the bandwagon (if you'll pardon the mixing of metaphors) and received some rather poor reviews. Personally though I have to say I quite enjoyed it.

              I'm not a comic book fan and the Fantastic Four are probably less famous than many other Marvel superheroes so, although I'd heard of them, I didn't really know much about them. I can't say whether the film is faithful to the original stories or not, but what we have here are four ordinary people who get caught in a cosmic storm while on a space mission, which alters their DNA giving them super powers. To be honest, the science is never explained and completely unrealistic (like, how come they all get different powers?) but what we're after here is brainless blockbuster action, so let's leave that aside...

              The four are Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), the scientist behind the mission, who becomes Mr Fantastic, able to stretch like rubber. His companion Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) becomes the Incredible-Hulk-made-of-stone 'The Thing' and his ex- Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) the invisible girl. Finally there's Sue's brother Johnny (Chris Evans - not the ginger radio presenter), who becomes the human torch. He's the flamboyant one, who revels in his superpowers and the fame and adulation that being a hero brings.

              The scene being set fairly early on, the film revolves around two main plot lines - firstly, coming to grips with themselves and their powers and secondly the typical must-fight-big-villain-and-save-the-world line. The latter is fairly typical of action movies in general, but gives a good excuse for some fight scenes with tremendous special effects later on. More interesting, I thought, was the first plotline, which adds a humanizing element to the film. Ben in particular, who's been transformed into an inhuman-looking monster, wants to turn himself back and regain his former lives. There are also some interesting confrontations between the characters, which reminded me surprising of the arguments and fights me and my brother used to/occasionally still do have - all very realistic.

              The acting's pretty good. You need some suspension of disbelief for films like this anyway, but it's enough to keep up the illusion and keep you on board. The mainstay of the film is, of course, the special effects. Now I only watched on a portable telly, rather than the big screen, but they looked pretty good to me. The range of characters allows for flying, fireballs, cars flying through the air and it all looked pretty good. This is what you want in a blockbuster movie, big fight scenes with lots of showy effects and, on that score, Fantastic Four delivers.

              It'd be wrong to criticise the film for unoriginality or lack of realism. It's about mindless fun and it delivers 106 minutes of action while you eat your popcorn. While I wouldn't expect to watch it again for at least a good while, I was entertained and didn't find it a drag at all. 7/10 if I could.

              Rating: PG (fantasy violence)
              Info from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120667/

              Previously posted, by me, on Ciao

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              • dooyoo Rewards System / Discussion / 61 Readings / 57 Ratings
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                31.12.2007 16:09
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                We're not here to get rich anyway, but I think Dooyoo will benefit from more opinions even if short

                It seems the recent switch to the new payment system has generated quite a bit of discussion, so I thought that I'd add my two - or 1.5 - pennies worth...

                For anyone that's been living under a rock, Dooyoo recently (December 2007) switched from paying nothing for posting reviews and 3p/read to paying only half that, 1.5p/read, but a flat 50p bonus for each review. If you still don't know the basics of the system, I refer you to:
                http://members.dooyoo.co.uk/community/_page/advice_dooyoomilesFAQ/

                Dooyoo claim that the majority of their members will actually see a slight increase in earnings, assuming the same behaviour. Obviously, however, this depends how you use the site. If you post a lot of opinions with few reads, then you'll probably (almost certainly) make more, while if you post once in a blue moon but expect 100+ readers then you'll earn less. If you post, say, one review a week and normally get about 30 readers, then instead of making 3x30=90p you'll get 1.5x30+50=95p, which is indeed slightly more. What, however, are the overall effects of this?

                To be honest, I think people are making rather a big deal out of this. I've been a member of Dooyoo since 2001, and we used to get paid for posting opinions back then. I missed the very generous early days, but if memory serves it was 10p for posting and 5p/read back when I started. The new payment system isn't, therefore, anything radically new, although 50p just for posting is quite high.

                Some people have predicted than an enthusiastic churner could make sizeable sums of money by putting in a few hours of writing a day. Again, however, this is nothing new. I remember one particular member (I think I recall the username, but have no idea who was behind it) joining and posting over 100 opinions over a 3-4 day period (probably a bank holiday weekend). All were around the useful/very useful borderline but said writer probably did earn quite a bit for them, if they ever got the money.

                Suppose that a reasonably useful product review can be knocked out in ten minutes and, even without you doing any reading, you're likely to get ten readers. That's 65p for ten minutes' work, which is £3.90 an hour, below minimum wage (which, for those 18+, is currently £4.60/hour). Now, of course, Dooyoo might be more fun than many jobs and has many advantages such as flexible 'working hours' and no need to leave the house (commuting time). It may appeal to students, the ill or homemakers who can't for whatever reason do a regular job. Nonetheless, I hardly think anyone with a realistic idea of what they're likely to make will be expecting to retire.

                At the end of the day, there are various reasons we write on Dooyoo. Sometimes it's nice to get things 'off your chest' or tell others about a fabulous (or terrible) new product. Some people get a glow of satisfaction out of helping others, while others like the community and interaction with other writers. All the main reasons, however, seem non-financial. Sure, money's a bonus but at the end of the day I think Dooyoo-ing has to be seen as a hobby. It's certainly nice to get the occasional Amazon voucher for my efforts, but I spend enough time reading, writing and commenting on blogs for free. I only need the financial incentive to be encouraged to do so in a particular way, i.e. reviewing consumer products.

                The aim of changing the payment structure is obviously, however, to alter the incentives that we're used to. Offering more payment for writing, and less for being read, is presumably meant to encourage us to write more and read less. It seems Dooyoo know their key business lies in selling review content, rather than page-views to advertisers.

                This seems to have caused some to re-evaluate what should be expected from a review. Are Dooyoo trying to encourage shorter reviews? Not necessarily; I don't think length or quality were ever particularly rewarded by payment for reads anyway. Of course, we may see a few more churners producing relatively short reviews no, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

                It's hard to lay down general guidelines for a review but, focusing mainly on CDs, films/DVDs and books, I reckon it's around 500-800. Sure, that's longer than what you're going to get in the mainstream media. The student newspaper I still (very) ocassionally write for gives 'main album' reviews 450-500 and others around 200; NME reviews are probably even shorter. This, however, is where Dooyoo differs. The 'short review' market is already covered (also on Amazon, where people post usually brief reviews for free). Dooyoo needs a niche in the market and I think it lies in longer and more detailed reviews. (Which is not, of course, to say I want to read 2,000 words about a tin of beans - there is of course a balance).

                I think the ideal for Dooyoo is to have a few such detailed reviews of each products, hopefully one or two crown-worthy. Beyond that, however, it doesn't matter much. A consumer seriously contemplating a purchase will often be happy to read one or two such reviews before buying, but they're unlikely to read twenty. A better overall impression of the product is, however, provided by more reviews. One review might offer fantastic analysis of a book but, if it's the only recommendation while everyone else slates it, then I may not want to read the book. So, I think the ideal for Dooyoo is to have a few really good, detailed opinions (hopefully encouraged by the prospects of crowns) and then lots of other reviews - the quality of which is less important - to give a better overall impression.

                If the aim is indeed to encourage more review writing, then I think the idea that Dooyoo will, as some have suggested, cap the number of reviews that can be posted is unlikely. If churning turns out to be a problem, they just might, but I reckon it's unlikely to be anything like as low as the three per day some have mooted. Perhaps a better cap would be one per hour, which would give everyone a good chance to appear in the 'new reviews' list, but that may be unfair on those who have limited internet access (and who might, for example, want to write on a laptop but then post several reviews together in a short space of time).

                At the end of the day, I don't think money's the most important aspect - or even reward - of Dooyoo, so I don't see the change as necessarily so important. It's obvious, however, that Dooyoo are deliberately shifting the incentives to produce more of the content they want (reviews) and I think it's fair to respond accordingly.

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                • More +
                  28.12.2007 11:47
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                  Never going to win critical acclaim, but good clean(ish) fun

                  I'm not really much of a fan of punk music. It's not that I can't stand it, I'll generally listen to most of it without complaint, it's just nothing's really grabbed me. It's dangerous to over-generalise of course, but I tend to find most of it rather samey and have a 'take it or leave it' attitude.

                  Consequently, I missed out of Bowling For Soup for quite a while. I first heard of them around their Let's Do It For Johnny album, which I almost bought but didn't quite. A while later, must have been around April-May 2002 I think, I saw that they were even playing a gig in Oxford - supporting British ska-punk band [spunge] - and again I was tempted to see them, but didn't.

                  I was kicking myself later that summer, when they scored their mainstream breakthrough, as the lead single off this album, 'Girl All The Bad Guys Want', broke into the Top Five and was all over the radio. It's a typical 'Teenage Dirtbag'-style unrequited love song, and without the happy ending either, but it's done with such a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that it can't fail to pick you up.

                  I hear some people generically refer to bands like Bowling For Soup as 'nu-metal', but that completely misses the point, for example Less Than Jake's 'All My Best Friends Are Metalheads' is about how *different* they are. Similarly, 'Girl...' was another tale of the poor little punk kid being overlooked in favour of macho metal men (at a time when nu-metal was rife). I could quote the whole song, but this gives you a flavour:

                  "8 o'clock Monday night and I'm waiting
                  To finally talk to a girl a little cooler than me...
                  She's watching wrestling
                  Creaming over tough guys
                  Listening to rap metal...
                  It's like a bad movie
                  She's looking through me
                  If you were me you'd be
                  Screaming 'someone shoot me'...
                  She'll never know that I'm the best that she'll never have...
                  Does a mullet make a man?"

                  I loved that song, partly because it had some personal resonance at the time, but mostly just because it was a really great pop-punk song - and, as I said, fun and upbeat, despite the theme. Still I didn't rush out to pick up the album though, as I was worried they'd be one hit wonders. When I did finally get it, I was totally wrong.

                  The rest of the album took a couple of plays, but I tend to find that's the way when you buy an album with one song you already know and like - you're always waiting for that one, and don't really give the rest much chance.

                  Musically, it's fairly standard pop-punk fare - a bit heavier than Blink 182, perhaps more like the Offspring. It's almost uniformly high-paced and energetic, with a happy, bouncy feel to it, not unlike Dropkick Murphys or Bouncing Souls at times. I think there's some old school metal influence in there too, not that the band sound at all like that, but I think there's a touch of that sensibility about the music somehow - as if an 'ironic' solo would never really be surprising. (That their follow up album included a tribute to Whitesnake on '1985' further substantiates this suspicion).

                  The songs are, fairly standardly, just over three minutes each, with only the more reflective 'Where To Begin' being significantly longer - and a change in direction musically. Other than that, it's only the (semi?) acoustic bonus track 'World Falling Apart' - which sounds a bit like All-American Rejects, or even Good Charlotte's 'Emotionless' - that dramatically departs from formula and slows the pace. Assessing the album critically, a lack of variation is definitely a possible fault, and if you don't like the songs the fact that they're all much the same certainly won't help.

                  Punk rock hasn't ever been about great musicianship, however. This album has bags of energy and enthusiasm, but what I really like are the lyrics. They have the slight quirkiness of bands like Weezer and Barenaked Ladies; although Bowling For Soup don't say anything quite as clever, the songs are filled with odd perspectives and humorous one-liners. I think it's this (rather than the music) that means they can write about dysfunctional relationships, without becoming depressing, as say Lit or Everclear can.

                  In fact, in the vein of 'Girl...', it's almost entirely about the problems of love, but without being serious. The album covers forbidden love ("I can still see your dad / Running after me with a shovel in his hand / I don't remember much after that..."), break ups ("It's not you it's just all of the times I missed out / On sleeping with your roommate every time you passed out"), the one that got away ("She said she had a new friend... She says he's really OK / I really hope that he's gay") and more being ignored ("Why does it always seem to me / Girls like that can't ever find someone / Someone like me").

                  If you want a light-hearted look at the trials of love, then this is the album for you. If you're a fan of Offspring, Wheatus, Good Charlotte, Weezer, Green Day and Simple Plan, this may also be for you. B4S don't take themselves seriously, but with this you don't need to be drunk to dance - put it on to bounce around to when you're happy or to pick yourself up when you're down.

                  Putting a strict 'music critic' hat on, this only gets 4* because it's generally simple, formulaic and repetitive. Their follow-up A Hangover You Don't Deserve was a bit more varied, but not quite as consistent (though still very good). If any pop-punk album deserves 5* I can't really think of many better candidates. There are a couple of slightly weaker links ('Surf Colorado', 'Greatest Day') but generally they're just slightly less memorable than the others. If you assess this as simply what it is - good fun - then it's a great album.

                  p.s. I believe newer versions of the album also feature the 'Punk Rock 101' single as bonus tracks, including their cover of Flock Of Seagulls' 'I Ran (so Far Away)'. While the extra songs may make the album a bit long for what it is, they're certainly worth including, so check the track listing when buying.

                  [I think I paid £6.99 for the old version. For latest prices, see dooyoo's shopping links]

                  [Note: previously posted, by me, on Ciao]

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                  • More +
                    23.08.2007 13:26
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                    The story of one man's struggle against psychosis, set against Martian power struggles.

                    Having very much enjoyed the first two Philip K. Dick novels I read – which had coincidentally been his first two (Solar Lottery and The World Jones Made) – I jumped to a mid-career novel, Martian Time-Slip, due mainly to the fact I’d bought several while half-price on Amazon.

                    The setting, obviously enough, is Mars, circa 2001. It’s still a bleak, desolate planet, where water is precious and the few human settlers eke out something of a frontier existence, with luxuries from home only available on the black market. Incidentally, the planet is populated by a few surviving natives – little black men, known as Bleekmen, or sometimes niggers. There’s an interesting suggestion that they share a common ancestor with humans, which sadly is never followed-up. The whole scene put me in mind of something rather like the Australian outback, with them the Aborigines (they even have their own ‘Ayers Rock’).

                    The principal character, Jack Bohlen, is a repairman – a job that keeps him very busy on a planet where mechanical equipment is expensive to import and regularly breaks down. Other significant persons include Arnie Kott, head of the powerful Water Workers Union, his secretary-cum-mistress Doreen Anderton, and Jack’s neighbour’s autistic son, Manfred Steiner. Though there are, typically, quite a few characters involved, most are introduced fairly early on and quickly entangled by some chance encounters. Since they’re all very different, I found it a bit easy to keep track of who was who than sometimes, even if it was a bit harder to remember all the relationships between them.

                    Plot-wise, this is quite a slow-moving book, where – at least for a long time – not much really happens. Arnie Kott finds some interest from speculators on Earth about the Franklin D. Roosevelt Mountains, and wants to know what’s going to happen on ‘his’ planet. Inspired by Dr Glaub’s theory that autism involves the sufferer being somehow out of sync with time, he hopes that if he can communicate with Manfred he can find out what the future holds, and enlists Jack’s help in the project.

                    What drives the novel is not so much as action as character development, as it seems almost an exploration of mental illness and Jack’s own psychotic struggles. At times, it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening, with the chronological sequence of events occasionally jumbled, and one particularly memorable scene near the middle repeated about four times over, leaving the reader as disoriented as the character.

                    I’ve said before that I enjoy some of the philosophical ideas usually thrown up in Dick’s novels. Here, I’d say those were a bit rarer. There were two references to Manfred’s incomprehensible noises, always coming out ‘gubble gubble’, as a ‘private language’, which I’d bet must be a reference to Wittgenstein (even though he denied the possibility of such). I suppose the main theme, however, is the nature of mental illness – and, sometimes, leading the reader to ask who’s really most ill or human.

                    I’d have to say I definitely enjoyed this novel less than the previous two I’d read. It took me longer to get into, and even once it got going I hardly found it as compulsive, perhaps because what action there is is slower. Further, I found following events sometimes confusing, and I’m still not entirely sure how some of the threads come together or what the ending was supposed to mean. That said, however, it isn’t a bad story by any means. At no point was I tempted to give up, and the ideas developed are intriguing in their own way. Moreover, whatever I thought on first reading, I can say this would be one I feel I’m likely to want to re-read in future, if only in the hope I can make more sense of it on a second (or third) attempt.

                    Not one I’d recommend for someone who hadn’t previously read any Dick, but with the new Gollancz edition (ISBN 0575079967) still half-price on Amazon – just £3.99 – definitely a worth-while buy for existing fans.

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                      13.08.2007 20:19
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                      Early novel from classic sci-fi writer, well-worth a read

                      The World Jones Made was the second of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novels, originally published in 1956, and, coincidentally, the second I read. While he’s undoubtedly best known for his later Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – the novel which became the film Blade Runner – I can’t comment on his progression as a writer, merely what I thought of this book.

                      I do know enough of Dick’s work to know that the near-future post-apocalyptic setting would become something of a staple in his writing. For some, it may take some getting used to a sci-fi novel now set in our past (c2002), but it seems Earth was radically shaken by a widespread nuclear war that only ended in the early 1980s (there are a few passing mentions of Hitler, Nazis – who were no doubt very much in Dick’s mind in 1956 – but it’s unclear whether this war was an extended WWII or a separate event). The radiation produced many freaks and mutants, but perhaps more significant was the political change.

                      The entire planet is now ruled by Fedgov (federal government) according to the dictates of Hoff’s Relativism. Reasoning that claims to absolute knowledge and true value judgements led to war, now such claims are illegal. One can say ‘I prefer X to Y’ but not ‘X is better than Y’, all must live and let live. While minor incidents escape, a secret police ruthlessly seek out any who try to impose their own values on others as truth. Of course, the irony is that relativism is the one truth that cannot be challenged (as secret agent and main protagonist Cussick reflects, “It’s a paradox, a contradiction, a criminal offense to say it. But we’re right. Secretly, covertly, we’ve got to believe it” (ch.9/p.82))

                      The action of the novel is generally spurred by two challenges to this orthodoxy: firstly, the appearance of strange single-celled alien life-forms known as drifters, which threaten the limits of people’s tolerance, and secondly the emergence of Floyd Jones, a psychic with limited precognitive powers, allowing him to see a year into the future. The doctrine of Relativism requires one to be able to prove all one says, but Jones really can back up his predictions, and seems to offer the promise of the absolute knowledge that Relativism denies.

                      Having set the scene, I don’t really want to say any more about the plot, for fear of spoilers. Some have accused Dick of being more of an ‘ideas person’ than a novelist, but I found the story gripping. A number of characters are weaved into a near-seamless plot, which I thought fast-moving and unpredictable (as with his previous novel, The Solar Lottery, I enjoyed what seemed a particularly delicious twist towards the denouement). While there are plenty of characters, to the point where I had trouble keeping track of a few, the main ones – Cussick, his wife Nine and Jones – seem adequately characterized. In particular, it’s easy to sympathize with the different perspectives – in keeping with Relativism, this is no clear good-versus-evil story, but one that makes you question everything and everyone.

                      I suppose what I really enjoyed most was this intellectual side to the story. That’s not to say the characters and plot are mere pegs on which to hang ideas – they have to be sufficient to bring those ideas to life – but I like something that makes me think a bit. If you’re looking for something to switch off and flick through on the beach, then this isn’t it. On the one hand, it seems to suggest a total relativism is incoherent, but on the other it underscores the danger inherent it claims to certain knowledge. I suppose perhaps the moral is that we should do our best to uncover and adhere to truth, but always remember our limits and fallibility. Perhaps this is a lesson that could be well-learned by ideological fanatics of all kinds, but unfortunately (and perhaps predictably) it isn’t one learned in the book, which ultimately leaves the reader wondering who really is more human.

                      Having only read one other Dick novel, I can’t say this is necessarily the best place to start, but it certainly seemed a reasonable one to me. In particular, for those not generally into sci-fi, this may be a good one because – if you’re prepared to accept some post-nuclear mutants and the drifters – it’s not crazily unrealistic. Given the political themes, I could certainly see this appealing to Orwell fans. If you’ve read many of Dick’s others, then I suppose there’s a danger that this may seem too similar, even though it was earlier, and, for that very reason, under-developed – but if you’re already a fan, that shouldn’t discourage you too much.

                      My copy was published by Gollancz (ISBN 0575074574) and had a RRP of £6.99 – though I picked it up for £3 from Amazon.

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                        02.08.2007 16:42
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                        A far more ordinary sequel to a classic book

                        Given that I’m writing my doctoral thesis on random decision methods, it was perhaps unsurprising that when I read Luke Rhinehart’s earlier novel, The Dice Man, after completing my Masters, I very much enjoyed it, both as a novel and for further intellectual stimulation (but that’s in my separate review). Unfortunately, I don’t get time to read a great many novels, and had several others higher on my list, so it was only during a recent bout of illness that I finally embarked on the sequel, The Search for the Dice Man.

                        On the back of the original, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was relatively surprised – especially after the preface – to find that The Search for the Dice Man is an almost disappointingly normal novel. Whereas The Dice Man was often as random as its subject matter, and full of interesting asides and digressions, the only trace of that left here are the occasional entries from Luke’s journal, appearing between chapters as brief interludes and insights into dice-living.

                        You won’t understand or enjoy much of this story if you haven’t read its predecessor, which is a shame in a way as I could imagine many people who disliked the original would prefer this. To briefly recap, however, Luke Rhinehart was an eccentric psychiatrist who pioneered a radical form of therapy in which patients used dice to make decisions – what to wear, what to do, whether to rape their neighbour… See how this caused trouble? His argument was that we are stifled by social conformity and the need for a unified, consistent self. Instead, we need to break free from these shackles, and embrace spontaneity. While we cannot live out all of our desires, we can do the next best thing – use dice to choose between them. The cult he created caused quite a stir in the 1970s (described in the first book).

                        The Search for the Dice Man, set around the first Iraq war, opens many years later. But for a few crackpot dice colonies, Luke’s theories are widely forgotten, and the man himself reported dead. His son, Larry, a child in the first book, who has had hardly any contact with his father in fifteen years, in now a successful Wall Street futures trader, who could hardly be more different from Luke in using methodical performance indicators, rather than dice, to dictate his share trading.

                        Larry’s life takes a sudden, unexpected twist, however, when two FBI agents turn up at his office to ask if he knows anything about the whereabouts or activities of the father he’d assumed dead. With his seemingly safe existence – including job and engagement to the boss’ daughter – now apparently under threat by his father’s risky activities, Larry decides he has to try to find Luke. The search, however, leads him on quite a merry chase, and forces him to confront feelings about his father, his past generally, his own feelings to risks and, ultimately, to make a choice between the safe and ordered life he had and one of chance and adventure.

                        As I said, this is more of a traditional story, with an obviously linear (if not predictable) plot and relatively consistent characters. Encounters with a few dice-people, including familiar faces such as Jake and Arlene Ecstein, provide some unpredictability, but not to anything like the extent of Luke’s random changes in the first novel. Unfortunately, I’d suspect this would be of more appeal to those who didn’t like the original for this very reason, but that won’t be much good because if they didn’t read or enjoy it they’re unlikely to read this.

                        Some things are quite different. There’s certainly much less obsession with, or description of, sex in this book, which is probably a good thing – mainly just the occasional lingering emphasis on some woman’s breasts or behinds. This means fewer of the rather unusual euphemistic descriptions too, though the one that does stick in the minds is a cracker – describing a ‘rough patch’ with the fiancée, Honoria, in the terms of Wall Street, Larry says she “seemed to have an outbreak of evening meetings that prevented her coming over to may apartment, where in the past we’d enjoyed my becoming a bull and going long and using maximum leverage, and Honoria making an opening offer, splitting her stock, getting her fill, and short squeezing, all leading to powerful upward thrusts in the all important markets and a final go-for-broke consummation of the merger” (pp.260-1/ch.42).

                        The general social observation may also be toned down too, though there are still some remarks on the comparative order and sanity of Manhattan compared to random dice-living, and Jeff’s religious and moral conversions are truly interesting, while the out-of-their-depth FBI agents had me laughing quietly a few times as well.

                        Ultimately, The Search for the Diceman is a perfectly decent novel, that somehow pales in comparison to its predecessor. While, in many ways, its better written, and I could see why many (who didn’t much like the first) would prefer it, at the end of the day the fact is I simply didn’t find it so interesting. Of course, perhaps I’m looking for the wrong thing – this book provides very little pseudo-philosophy of chance/dice-living. Some may welcome that, preferring an emphasis on the story; however I enjoyed the former not simply on the level of plot and character, but for intellectual stimulation which is lacking here. Worth a read if you enjoyed the first, but you won’t find it life-changing.

                        381 pages.
                        RRP £7.99. I bought it on Amazon for £5.99.
                        ISBN 0006513913

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                        • Paris, Texas (DVD) / DVD / 37 Readings / 36 Ratings
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                          20.05.2007 23:56
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                          Slow-paced arty drama about a journey of loneliness and discovery

                          I’m not really a movie buff, and tend to stick to the rather mainstream – or, occasionally, whatever happens to be on TV – in my viewing. In fact, when my flatmate suggested watching one of her ‘free with the Times’ DVDs on a quiet Saturday evening, I’d never even heard of Paris, Texas, despite it winning awards at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Cannes. Then again, I was only two when it was released, in 1984, so I suppose that’s some excuse…

                          All I did know about the film when we started was that it was a ‘road trip movie’, though this didn’t prove entirely accurate. Well, sure, there were road trips involved, but the film wasn’t really about them. Rather, it could be called a personal journey of self-discovery.

                          The film begins with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) wondering lost in the desert, and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) coming to pick him up and take him home to LA. Travis has been missing for four years, leaving his wife and young child Hunter in the care of his brother. Exactly what happened to him isn’t clear – for a long while he says nothing, appearing either amnesic or ‘locked in’ – but he opens up somewhat on the long drive home under Walt’s questioning, revealing he wanted to go back to what he saw as his beginning and a plot of land he bought in Paris Texas.

                          When the two of them get home, Travis is reintroduced to Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément) and his own young boy Hunter (Hunter Carson) – now almost eight. He’s socially awkward or, as my flatmate put it, ‘quite special’, but there are some moving moments as they watch old film footage of him with his young family, and he tries to reconnect with son. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the film, but it concerns Travis’ attempts to find what happened to his wife, and Hunter’s mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski).

                          It’s a sad film, the general theme being one of loss and loneliness. Although I said it’s a journey of discovery, it’s not necessarily about reaching a destination, more reflecting on a past gone, perhaps forever, and wandering what might have been – or what went wrong. I won’t spoil the end, but suffice to say it was inconclusive, allowing the viewer to imagine several possibilities.

                          This lack of closure was only dissatisfying because it’s such a long film; although the 147 minutes wasn’t a complete drag, it was slow-moving and we were conscious of the time. Maybe it’s because I’m used to action-packed Hollywood blockbusters, but not a lot really happens at all, and we were all agreed that about an hour probably could have been cut out of the film without much loss of content (if not mood).

                          That’s not to say, of course, that the film’s without its merits. After all, we did sit through it all – perhaps in part because of the time we’d already invested. Director Wim Wenders apparently described himself as an artist, as contrasted to the Spielbergs of this world who he considers mere entertainers, and I see why. Certainly things wouldn’t have been the same if the action had speeded up, as there were plenty of arty mood-setting shots of deserts, with nothing happening but Ry Cooder’s bluesy slide guitar soundtrack.

                          It’s this soundtrack that sticks in the mind more than the acting, though Harry Dean Stanton was convincing in the rather awkward role of the main character. Some of the supporting characters I was less convinced by, Aurore Clément I thought wooden at first, and Nastassja Kinski seemed at a loss how to react to her husband’s appearance – though, I guess, perhaps that isn’t entirely unbelievable, given the context.

                          It’s not a film I’ll watch again in a hurry, or perhaps even at all, but it did broaden my horizons a bit and for free wasn’t bad value. Do make sure you have a comfy chair though.

                          Rating: 15 (UK)
                          Duration: 147 minutes
                          Information from http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt0087884/

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                          • Looking Back at 2006 / Discussion / 57 Readings / 53 Ratings
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                            06.01.2007 23:40
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                            12 months in under 2,300 words...

                            Rather than write a month by month diary - which I'd be useless at anyway, because I'm no good with dates - I decided to reflect on the year just gone by way of the following set of questions I found on the internet. I found this stimulated me to think more about certain aspects and things I might not otherwise have remembered. Hope you enjoy!

                            --------

                            1. What did you do in 2006 that you've never done before?

                            Three things come to mind. One was going to my first funeral, which I'll leave to question 4. The second was living with girls. Not in a romantic sense, but this year I'm sharing a flat with Ed, Fiona and Cat(herine) - all my previous flats have been all male. Third some 'proper job' interviews (see question 9).

                            2. Did you keep your New Years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

                            I didn't make any, and don't suppose I will this year either. I'm always telling myself I should stop doing this, start doing that (usually to no effect), but I never make resolutions as such…

                            3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

                            No.

                            4. Did anyone close to you die?

                            My gran on my mum's side passed away on the 19th November. While I'm obviously not glad, I don't think it was a bad thing for her. She'd been frail and housebound for years, and had carers visit just to get her up and take her to the toilet. In fact, the last time I'd seen her had been at the end of the summer, when I'd taken her into town in a wheelchair so a stairlift-type thing could be fitted to the ceiling of her flat. My mum reckoned it had probably been over a year since gran had been outside, yet alone to town, so that wasn't a bad last time together. She told me how much she hated being helpless and dependent, so in a way maybe it's easier for everyone now.

                            5. What countries did you visit?

                            Wales (again) on a day trip to Bridgend with my dad and his friend Pete. Amazingly my dad and Pete do these days trips - from Essex to Wales by car - several times a year to visit some of Pete's relatives and have a bit of a drive. Since they were doing one the day I planned to go home for Easter, and driving past Oxford, they said they could pick me up on the way or way back - so I opted for the day out.

                            6. What would you like to have in 2007 that you lacked in 2006?

                            A girlfriend? Same answer as 2006 *sigh* Maybe I need to be a bit more proactive on that one...

                            7. What date from 2006 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

                            I don't really do dates so much. Maybe 19th November, because of my gran, but in all likelihood I'll soon forget exactly when it was.

                            8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

                            I can't think of any note-worthy achievements. Academic/career-wise I passed my MPhil summer 2005, then began working on my doctorate. With luck, I might complete it in 2007, or early 08. At the moment, I think I'm making steady progress, but the end point is far off and there are no more periodic exams or anything to chart progress or achievement. I suppose I was elected to a graduate scholarship in college, which isn't a big deal but nice for recognition.

                            9. What was your biggest failure?

                            Hmmm, similarly there weren't really any failures. I did try sending my first pieces of work to academic journals, and got rejected twice, but that's quite common - it's like buying a losing lottery ticket really. Similarly in the summer I had two interviews for lectureships - I didn't get either job, but they both went to older and more qualified applicants, so again I'm just happy to be considered and have the experience.

                            As I said, I think the studies are progressing relatively smoothly, and maybe I'll have another shot at all those things this year. So I'd probably have to say it's the continued absence on the romantic front. It's not like I ever sat down and went 'tonight I'm going to get a girlfriend', but all the same it's something I failed to do…

                            10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

                            Not really. I generally get minor colds quite regularly, but - touch wood - rarely anything serious. I did have to cancel an afternoon's teaching last term, but that's the worst.

                            11. What was the best thing you bought?

                            I didn't really make any major purchases. I did get a new computer in the summer (£300), but my mum bought me that, so it doesn't count. In that case, the question probably comes down to best CD purchase! I'm not sure what I've bought this year, but the one that comes to mind first is Curve's Gift. I'd never heard them, but heard good things, so took a chance in a sale and bought it for £3.99 and it's the best random/impulse buy I've had in a while. (And I did actually end up buying quite a few CDs 'blind' in the summer, when Virgin reduced a load of clearance items to £1.99 each…)

                            12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?

                            Several of my friends passed their PhDs. It's actually making me feel a bit left behind - it's a life-stage you don't hear so much about compared to marriage and kids, it's not in Bridget Jones, but it's still scary seeing peers finish and leave for real jobs. (In fairness, most of those who started college in 'my year' were actually starting doctorates while I was doing a masters first, so I'm not really behind).

                            And on a less personal level, I should say my home town football club (Colchester United) surprised everyone by not only getting promoted to the Championship but flying high once there - widely tipped for relegation but currently 6th having beaten many bigger sides. Well done to them too.

                            13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?

                            No one close to me. I suppose I could pick something public, anything from the England Ashes team to those who killed Saddam Hussein, but I don't really feel strongly enough about any of those things.

                            14. Where did most of your money go?

                            Rent, food, books, CDs. As I said above, no major purchases, although I did put some of my savings into Premium Bonds if they count. Actually a good deal of my money (grant and teaching pay) this year just went into my savings, because it's the last year of my grant, but I think I'll need another 3-9 self-funded months on the end to finish so that's what I'm stocking up for now!

                            15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

                            I don't really get that excited about much. Maybe it's because my life's pretty boring, or just because I'm too serious and level-headed, who knows. I do suffer nervous excitement - the horrible sick feeling in your stomach - most recently probably before doing admissions interviews (though I was not as nervous as many of the candidates!)

                            16. What song will always remind you of 2006?

                            Another tough one. As I said last year, I'll listen to my music over and over again, so it very rarely gets associated with any particular time or place. I'm sure I heard some new songs I liked, but can't say any of them will remind me of 2006 in particular.

                            17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

                            - happier or sadder?

                            Much the same. I'm currently feeling pretty positive about my work, which is a major determinant, but doing a PhD is in many ways much like being a manic depressive, so that will probably swing back and forth between now and finishing… Generally, it's been a pretty good year, but so was last year.

                            - richer or poorer?

                            Slightly richer. In one term plus December's interviews I've earned as much as from all the teaching I did last year (about £1000 pre-tax), which with the scholarship is a nice top-up to my grant. Only I don't /feel/ richer, because as I said I'm currently trying to save on the expectation that I may have very limited income in however much of the 2007-08 academic year it takes me to finish (unless I can find a job)

                            - thinner or fatter?

                            About the same. At least, I don't pay enough attention to notice any change.

                            18. What do you wish you'd done more of?

                            Basically I could just say I wish I'd had more time - done more work, done more socialising, done more of everything really. If there has to be one thing, I guess I wish I'd been better at keeping in touch with old friends. I don't even have addresses for some of them - so if I have a resolution for next year, it's to try to send proper Christmas cards to as many as I can.

                            19. What do you wish you'd done less of?

                            Hard to say. I do spend a fair amount of time 'procrastinating' with things, mostly computer-based (Dooyoo, blogging, FaceBook, Last.fm) but I need some kind of break and think these provide it. Maybe generally less time thinking/worrying about things and more time doing, whatever it is I should have been doing.

                            20. How did you spend the holidays?

                            A quiet family Christmas. My mum was worked on the 25th, and so did I (she said I shouldn't have been studying on Christmas day, but why not if she was out working?) She then cooked a dinner in the evening, for my brother and I and her partner and we didn't open presents until after that. Then on boxing day my brother and I went to our dads and had another dinner. When you add in the two I'd had in college and one we had in our flat before going home, that's a lot of roast dinner (and various veggie Turkey substitutes).

                            21. Did you fall in love in 2006.

                            No.

                            22. How many one-night stands?

                            None.

                            23. What was your favourite TV programme?

                            This year we have Freeview, and we spend a lot of time watching repeats of Friends and Scrubs. It's amazing how often there's nothing better on than E4 (though I'm dreading Big Brother robbing us of even that).

                            24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?

                            No.

                            25. What was the best book you read?

                            Academic: Off the top of my head, the two things I've enjoyed most this year have been David Gauthier's Moral Dealing: Contract, Ethics and Reason (a collection of older papers, dealing with social contract theories of ethics from Plato and Hobbes to the present day - I'm not convinced by his own conclusions, but I find his arguments interesting and provocative) and Alfred MacKay's Arrow's Theorem: The Paradox of Social Choice (which takes a more philosophical than formal approach to voting problems, interrogating the meaning and plausibility of Arrow's axioms)

                            Non-academic: I did get through several fiction books this year, including classics like Brave New World and 1984 (both reviewed) - though they're a little close to academic interests to be honest. If I had to pick one as best, it would probably be 1984 which is much more involved and developed (and longer), but I may well have preferred Brave New World or Philip K. Dick's The Solar Lottery - both of which I'd be more likely to re-read relatively soon, if only because they're shorter.

                            26. What was your favourite film of this year?

                            I don't think I've been to the cinema this year, so I probably haven't seen any films released in 2006. I do watch films on TV/DVD, but I couldn't remember all I've seen this year let alone pick a favourite. The best I saw over Christmas was probably Pirates of the Caribbean, if that's any help?

                            27. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2006?

                            I'm not sure I have one - though I have been dressing a bit smarter this year because I've been doing more teaching, so I wear a collared shirt rather than a t-shirt.

                            28. Whom do you miss?

                            All my friends who aren't here.

                            29. Who was the best new person you met?

                            As last year, we get quite a turnover of new students each year, so I'm often meeting new people, but it's hard to pick one or two. I did have two really good students, Michael and Olly - a one hour one-on-one tutorial with the latter over-ran by half an hour and I didn't care as I was enjoying what we were talking about… I wouldn't say I know either on a personal level really, but it's nice to teach people who are bright and enthusiastic.

                            30. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2006.

                            Nolite tes Bastardes Carborundorum. The secret to surviving a PhD is apparently perseverance - to keep going and not give up or become disillusioned by the bad times. I'd like to think it's true of much in life - you can achieve it if you believe and just keep trying, rather than accepting defeat.

                            --------

                            Sorry it's been such a long one, but it took me a lot longer to write, with a whole year to reflect on. To all my Dooyoo friends, I have just two more things to say: Why not share your year with us? And have a happy and prosperous 2007.

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                            • More +
                              29.10.2006 10:27
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                              A diary of life in a dystopian future society

                              I'll assume most people will have heard of Orwell's 1984 - even if you have only the vaguest idea what it's about, certain phrases such as Big Brother and Room 101 have become parts of our popular culture (generally for the worse of TV). The fact that the book itself may be described as literature, however, means I reckon far fewer have actually read it unless given the chance/forced to at school. Certainly that was the case for me, until this summer when I decided to put that right.

                              1984 was Orwell's final novel, written in 1948 (he simply transposed the last two digits to set his dystopian vision in the not-so-distant future). It's actually amazing that it now seems to long ago and, particularly since the end of the Cold War, I have to say this makes the book rather less frightening. One has to remember the world Orwell wrote in had lived through two recent World Wars, and that even after the fall of the Nazis, Stalin looked just as dangerous a threat.

                              A full history isn't given - for reasons that soon become apparent, it would be problematic for anyone as soon as 1984 to trace their recent past - but it seems the world is now divided into three super-powers: Oceania (roughly, the English speaking world: USA, UK, Australasia and South Africa), Eurasia (continental Europe, as far east as Russia, under some kind of neo-Bolshevist regime) and Eastasia (centred around China and Mongolia). For the day-to-day life of most citizens, however, this war is not a 'real' one - there is no longer the mass mobilisation of troops - it merely means more years of rationing, authoritarian Party rule and sacrifices 'for the war effort'.

                              Our main character, from whose eyes we see the society of Oceania c.1984 (even dates are uncertain) is an Outer Party member called Winston Smith. He works in the, ironically named, Ministry of Truth, falsifying historical records for propaganda purposes. It is a job, however, that makes him acutely aware of the differences between what happened and what is reported later. It inspires him to wonder whether life is really better under the watchful eyes of Big Brother and Ingsoc (English Socialism).

                              I can't say much more than that following a significant period of Winston's life allows us to see his changing understanding of and attitude to his society. If I was to say much more about the plot, I'd risk giving away too much - for, while there certainly is a story, there's not much to it: it's quite slow-moving, so not a lot happens, and consequently even the back cover comes close to giving away too much.

                              While it is the story that drives events through the book, it is really the description of this nightmare future society that captures the interest for me, and I imagine most readers. After all, many of the characters aren't particularly developed, and Winston is a not particularly interesting man-on-the-street - how much he differs from other Party members, we never really know.

                              Anyone that's read much of Orwell's other work will have some idea what to expect. In Homage to Catalonia he recounts his time in the Spanish Civil War, fighting for the Communists against Franco's forces. In Animal Farm - in many respects, a children's version of 1984 - he describes a farm in which the animals overthrow the humans only for their new masters, the pigs, to become just as bad. There are many parallels to be drawn between these two works, e.g. Snowball and Goldstein, which is hardly coincidence, since both are probably modelled on Trotsky. Certainly the idea of revolutionaries abandoning their ideas and becoming the new oppressors is a recurring theme. So too, anyone that's read Orwell's essay on 'Politics and the English Language' - in which he complains of stale metaphors and phrases deadening not just the language but the thinking behind it - will recognise that this is precisely the objective of Newspeak - to render 'thoughtcrime' impossible.

                              (An appendix at the end of the book explains the principles of Newspeak, helping the reader understand the occasional Party message - e.g. 'Times report doubleplusungood refs unpersons' - but the necessary details are expounded in the text, via the lexicographer Syme).

                              Theoretically perhaps, a totalitarian regime need not be wholly bad. At least the all-powerful rulers of Plato's Republic or Huxley's Brave New World are, at least ostensibly, dedicated to the happiness of their charges. 1984, however, presents a far bleaker vision - the rulers want power for its own sake and the proletarian masses are oppressed not out of necessity but to preserve a hierarchical, privileged society. While ideology plays a part - loyalty to Big Brother and the war effort - order is maintained by a mix of brainwashing (through manipulating the past and public broadcast), spying and ruthless repression (through thoughtpolice and show trials).

                              Even so, one wonders whether this is a novel of hope or despair. It's unclear how many others really do, or might, share Winston's distaste for the Party and Ingsoc - and whether the shadowy resistance movement 'the Brotherhood' really exists, or is simply an invention used to justify oppression - the problem for any would-be resistance is the near impossibility of communication and coordination. Whether the oligarchy would be final and permanent, or another revolution eventually come, we never know for sure; but even if it's too late for those already under the watchful eye of Big Brother, the lesson for us might be vigilance against the erosion of our liberties. This warning might seem less relevant, now that the work can no longer be portrayed as a prophesy of the future, and totalitarianism seems to have been superseded by a democratic paradigm. Perhaps, these days, it is Huxley's in many ways more subtle Brave New World than is the more realistic, and hence dangerous, vision. Nonetheless, there's something far deeper about 1984, and even if it will never come to pass, it serves as a useful reminder of why we value our freedom.

                              With this moral in mind, I'd say it's a book that should be read by everyone. It will appeal most, of course, to those who like something intellectually stimulating - it's not typical beach reading, for example.

                              Boring bits:
                              My edition is a Penguin Classic, RRP £7.99 (ISBN: 014118776X). It contains an introduction by Ben Pimlott, which I personally found a little disappointing - and which I thought should have carried a warning not to read it before the book (thankfully I didn't, because it had spoilers)
                              It's currently half-price on Amazon (£3.99); or you can buy it, with nine other banned books (including Animal Farm) from www.thebookpeople.com for £12.99. Both of those make me regret paying the cover price; but if neither take your fancy, second hand copies of such a popular book should be widely available.

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                                16.10.2006 09:52
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                                Compelling if depressing debut from Glasgow's Tricky-meets-Reznor

                                I don't imagine many of you have heard of Rico, which is a shame. Sanctuary Medicines was certainly one of the best debuts of 1999 - the Rock Sound readers poll of that year voted him second best British newcomer, behind only runaway winners Muse - but unfortunately record labels politics meant his follow up took five years, and never achieved a very high profile, despite his appearing on Top Of The Pops alongside Gary Numan on the Top 20 collaboration 'Crazier'. (Why do EMI screw over so many good artists?)

                                Those familiar with Gary Numan's Hybrid may therefore have some idea what to expect. He's certainly adopted a darker, heavier, industrial style in his last few efforts, and in that respect Rico is not a surprising partner. Perhaps the best way to describe the overall sound of Sanctuary Medicines is to imagine if Trent 'Nine Inch Nails' Reznor had been an Italian Catholic, growing up in Glasgow, and listening to Massive Attack and Tricky (incidentally, another Rico collaborator).

                                Although reviews frequently compared Rico to Reznor, for his industrial soundtrack to every 'angry young man', in fact Rico denied having really heard NIN before - although he now admits liking them and understanding the comparison. The heavier moments of this record certainly fit the bill, such as the raging 'Attack Me' and the opening song, 'Shave Your Head' that really sets out Rico's stall - "If you're still making records without your pain then you're still making records that sound the same".

                                For the most part, however, the aggression's more restrained. Slower songs are still darker, but it's more like slipping quietly into the black depths of depression, than angry writhing - to compare again to NIN, more like 'Hurt' or the atmospheric tracks from The Fragile, than the more metal 'Somewhat Damaged' or Broken EP. Nonetheless, the mood doesn't lighten at all, e.g. "How can I be sure of anything, when everyone I know is just as screwed as me?" ('Overload') or "I'm in a state of insecurity, I'm in a state of disrepair" ('State').

                                What is noticeable, studying the lyrics, is that they're not actually from or about the lowest emotional depths, but rather they reflect uncertainty, insecurity, not quite fitting in or knowing where to belong - something that many (especially young teenagers/adults) experience at at least some point, and can relate to. The most commercial single, 'Float' for example puts it matter-of-factly, "I can't decide which way to go, do I sink or do I float?" while the title track deals with sanctuary in alcohol (and someone else).

                                Perhaps the best example is the final track, which closes the album in a gentle come down. Practically acoustic, it stands out from most of what comes before, but really gives a sense of one unsure whether to put one's trust in someone else. "What if I depend on you friend, and you let me down again?" It's such an emotional and almost haunting track, it could be about a lover, but is actually titled 'Dear God'.

                                Ok, everything here's been done before. So many bands have done all the teen angst clichés before, and musically while there's an intelligent blend of guitars, samples, trip-hop beats and industrial metal, nothing here's remarkably original either. Quite why it comes together so well, I'm not sure. I suppose it's the genuine emotion that sounds like it's behind it - this is musical catharsis, not some radio-friendly unit shifter. Plus, as I said, it's not a record about despair and depression, which few of us have really experienced, but more like teetering on the edge - questioning everything about the world, and insecurity about one's place, that I suppose many of us can relate to.

                                If you like Nine Inch Nails, Joy Division, Portishead, Massive Attack, later Gary Numan, Stabbing Westward, Martin Grech, Marilyn Mason's 'Mechanical Animals', etc then this might be just your thing. Also, if you've heard any of Rico's second album, 'Violent Silences', then it's worth saying this is more of the same, but slightly my favourite of the two. If you've ever experienced the feelings I've described, you might find something to relate to.

                                Unfortunately this may have been deleted - I don't see new copies on sale via shops like Amazon, though you can get it new or used via their marketplace or eBay starting from around £3. A real bargain, for a neglected gem.

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                                  26.09.2006 17:42
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                                  Story of a future society where everyone is like a production line

                                  Sometimes I think that, for someone with an A level in English literature, I'm not very well read. Unfortunately I spent a lot of my time reading politics and philosophy books, so rarely get round to reading fiction for leisure. We did do Orwell's Animal Farm for GCSE and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in Sixth Form but, despite their relevance to someone studying political ideas, the likes of 1984 and Brave New World had sat too long on my Amazon wishlist. This summer, I decided to try to put that right.

                                  Perhaps part of the reason for my delay was the feeling already familiar with the societies described in each, though it occurred to me I was almost totally ignorant of the main characters or plot. Nonetheless, I chose Brave New World first, partly because I knew it involved genetic programming and such, and also because I'd already read Huxley's essays Brave New World Revisited (which concern the state of society in 1958).

                                  Brave New World opens, conveniently enough, on a tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, which is the perfect way to familiarise the reader with the technology and society of the future, and spend some time scene-setting. No time's wasted spelling out every detail, however, a lot is left to the reader to imagine - for example, high-tech versions of tennis and golf are mentioned but never explained.

                                  The society of the future - 632 After Ford, to be precise - is highly ordered, after the production line. Everyone is assigned a caste, before birth, and takes their place in the hierarchy - from the intellectual Alpha pluses who rule, to the Epsilon minuses who perform the most medial tasks. Religion, high art, the family and emotions are amongst the things that have been banished, in favour of peaceful, stable and happy existence. Free sex is encouraged for recreation (not reproduction), and if anyone feels unhappy the drug soma provides all the escape they could wish for, without negative side effects.

                                  What's interesting is that this is not a totally negative vision - it's one where you can see an appealing idea taken too far, where other ideals and values (individuality, freedom) have been sacrificed to an all-consuming desire for peace and stability, following the Nine Years' War of 141AF. It could be a commentary not only on use of new genetic technology, but the arguably impoverished Benthamite view of happiness, that holds 'push-pin as good as poetry' - and therefore neglects higher ideals of achievement and knowledge in favour of 'bread and circuses', 'alcohol and reality TV' or 'soma and sex' as means to promoting universal happiness. It could be a comment on our own society, and what really makes life worthwhile, as much as a scary or prophetic vision of the future.

                                  While the setting may be well known, the story itself might not be (as it wasn't to me). Essentially it involves a few higher caste (Alpha and Beta) members of society who are, or become, somewhat dissatisfied with their society. Bernard Marx is, despite careful genetic programming, marked out by physical difference, making him an outsider and individual. Nonetheless, he uses his position to take Lenina Crowne on a sort of nature tourism trip to a 'Savage Reservation', to see Indians who haven't been 'civilised' - who live in families, amongst dirt, and practice primitive religion.

                                  It's when they bring back two of the savages that they are led to see their society in a new light. He is disillusioned with what he sees of civilisation, with what has been sacrificed, and they too come to see what they may be missing.

                                  Personally, I found the overall social vision more inspiring than the actual story. The main characters are all variously flawed, which makes them realistic, but it's hard to identify with anyone. I suppose in a way this merely rubs home part of the moral - there's no black and white, good and evil - Mond and Bernard each have different ideals, and neither are wholly right or wrong, they're just different schemes of values. Mond genuinely wants to run society to make people happy, while Bernard doesn't like it.

                                  Not that it's a bad story, in terms of characters, plot or telling - indeed there are some good uses of sharp cuts between different locations, some twists, and matters left to the reader to fill in - but it's the social commentary that gives this book its enduring appeal and that's at least as relevant today as ever. Writing in defence of the 'open society' (liberal democracy), during and immediately after WWII, and against what he saw as its totalitarian enemies, Karl Popper was to warn that the goal of making men happy is always a dangerous one for society. The justifications offered by Mond are, however, truly striking: "whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered" (p.210) and "Happiness is never grand" (p.195).

                                  It's a book deep in references and detail. Whether or not Huxley had Plato's Republic in mind, for example, I found that another useful comparison - for though he lacked the technology of Brave New World, he had similar concerns for unity and society above the individual - even if he'd condemn the Fordian regime's indifference to truth and immoral distractions. More explicitly there are, as the title suggests, numerous allusions to Shakespeare (Othello, Romeo and Juliet and, of course, The Tempest), which it may profit the reader to be aware of.

                                  In fact, so rich are the references, I think this is a book where one who wants to pick up everything - which, of course, isn't necessary, as the main points are more obvious - may well want notes. While some names have obvious significance (Marx, Trotsky, Lenina, Bonaparte, Darwin, Rothschild), I was left wondering if I'd missed something in others. And it took me a while to recognise the Charing-T tower had replaced our cross, as Ford's model-T had replaced the cross in quasi-religious significance.

                                  My edition is the Vintage Classics - cover price £7.99 but currently £6.39 on Amazon - though I was slightly disappointed to find, after buying and reading it, that for the same price, they also do a Readers Guide Edition (ISBN: 0099496976) with an extra 60 or so pages. At the end of the day, however, the most rewarding experience is reading it and thinking for yourself.

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