Humour

Adams, Scott. The Dilbert Future. New York: HarperBusiness, 1997. ISBN 0-88730-910-0.
Uh oh. He's on to the secret about Switzerland (chapter 4).

June 2003 Permalink

Breslin, Jimmy. Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1963] 2003. ISBN 1-56663-488-1.

August 2003 Permalink

Brozik, Matthew David and Jacob Sager Weinstein. The Government Manual for New Superheroes. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2005. ISBN 0-7407-5462-9.
(Guest review by The Punctuator)
The Government of the Unified Nations has done a tremendous service to all superheroes: whether alien, mutant, or merely righteous human do-gooders, by publishing this essential manual filled with tips for getting your crimefighting career off to the right start and avoiding the many pitfalls of the profession. Short, pithy chapters provide wise counsel on matters such as choosing a name, designing a costume, finding an exotic hideaway, managing a secret identity, and more. The chapter on choosing a sidekick would have allowed me to avoid the whole unpleasant and regrettable business with Octothorpe and proceed directly to my entirely satisfactory present protégé, Apostrophe Squid. The advantages and drawbacks of joining a team of superheroes are discussed candidly, along with the warning signs that you may be about to inadvertently join a cabal of supervillains (for example, their headquarters is named “The whatever of Doom” as opposed to “The whatever of Justice”). An afterword by The Eviliminator: Eliminator of Evil Things but Defender of Good Ones reveals the one sure-fire way to acquire superpowers, at least as long as you aren't a troublemaking, question-asking pinko hippie egghead. The book is small, printed with rounded corners, and ideal for slipping into a cape pocket. I would certainly never leave it behind when setting out in pursuit of the nefarious Captain Comma Splice. Additional information is available on the Government's Bureau of Superheroics Web site.

June 2007 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Florence of Arabia. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-8129-7226-0.
This is a very funny novel, and thought-provoking as well. Some speak of a “clash of civilisations” or “culture war” between the Western and Islamic worlds, but with few exceptions the battle has been waged inadvertently by the West, through diffusion of its culture through mass media and globalised business, and indirectly by Islam, through immigration without assimilation into Western countries. Suppose the West were to say, “OK, you want a culture war? Here's a culture war!” and target one of fundamentalist Islam's greatest vulnerabilities: its subjugation and oppression of women?

In this story, the stuck-on-savage petroleum superpower Royal Kingdom of Wasabia cuts off one head too many when they execute a woman who had been befriended by Foreign Service staffer Florence Farfaletti, herself an escapee from trophy wife status in the desert kingdom, who hammers out a fifty-page proposal titled “Female Emancipation as a Means of Achieving Long-Term Political Stability in the Near East” and, undiplomatically vaulting over heaven knows how many levels of bureaucrats and pay grades, bungs it into the Secretary of State's in-box. Bold initiatives of this kind are not in keeping with what State does best, which is nothing, but Florence's plan comes to the attention of the mysterious “Uncle Sam” who appears to have unlimited financial resources at his command and the Washington connections to make just about anything happen.

This sets things in motion, and soon Florence and her team, including a good ole' boy ex-CIA killer, Foreign Service officer who detests travel, and public relations wizard so amoral his slime almost qualifies him for OPEC membership, are set up in the Emirate of Matar, “Switzerland of the Gulf”, famed for its duty-free shopping, offshore pleasure domes at “Infidel Land”, and laid-back approach to Islam by clergy so well-compensated for their tolerance they're nicknamed “moolahs”. The mission? To launch TVMatar, a satellite network targeting Arab women, headed by the wife of the Emir, who was a British TV presenter before marrying the randy royal.

TVMatar's programming is, shall we say, highly innovative, and before long things are bubbling on both sides of the Wasabi/Matar border, with intrigue afoot on all sides, including Machiavellian misdirection by those masters of perfidy, the French. And, of course (p. 113), “This is the Middle East! … Don't you understand that since the start of time, startin' with the Garden of Eden, nothing has ever gone right here?” Indeed, before long, a great many things go all pear-shaped, with attendant action, suspense, laughs, and occasional tragedy. As befits a comic novel, in the end all is resolved, but many are the twists and turns to get there which will keep you turning pages, and there are delightful turns of phrase throughout, from CIA headquarters christened the “George Bush Center for Intelligence” in the prologue to Shem, the Camel Royal…but I mustn't spoil that for you.

This is a delightful read, laugh out loud funny, and enjoyable purely on that level. But in a world where mobs riot, burn embassies, and murder people over cartoons, while pusillanimous European politicians cower before barbarism and contemplate constraining liberties their ancestors bequeathed to humanity in the Enlightenment, one cannot help but muse, “OK, you want a culture war?”

March 2006 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Boomsday. New York: Twelve, 2007. ISBN 0-446-57981-5.
Cassandra Devine is twenty-nine, an Army veteran who served in Bosnia, a PR genius specialising in damage control for corporate malefactors, a high-profile blogger in her spare time, and hopping mad. What's got her Irish up (and she's Irish on both sides of the family) is the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation—boomsday—when seventy-seven million members of the most self-indulgent and -absorbed generation in history will depart the labour pool and begin to laze away their remaining decades in their gated, golf-course retirement communities, sending the extravagant bills to their children and grandchildren, each two of whom can expect to support one retired boomer, adding up to an increase in total taxes on the young between 30% and 50%.

One night, while furiously blogging, it came to her. A modest proposal which would, at once, render Social Security and Medicare solvent without any tax increases, provide free medical care and prescription drugs to the retired, permit the elderly to pass on their estates to their heirs tax-free, and reduce the burden of care for the elderly on the economy. There is a catch, of course, but the scheme polls like pure electoral gold among the 18–30 “whatever generation”.

Before long, Cassandra finds herself in the middle of a presidential campaign where the incumbent's slogan is “He's doing his best. Really.” and the challenger's is “No Worse Than The Others”, with her ruthless entrepreneur father, a Vatican diplomat, a southern media preacher, Russian hookers, a nursing home serial killer, the North Koreans, and what's left of the legacy media sucked into the vortex. Buckley is a master of the modern political farce, and this is a thoroughly delightful read which makes you wonder just how the under-thirties will react when the bills run up by the boomers start to come due.

May 2007 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Thank You for Smoking. New York: Random House, 1994. ISBN 0-8129-7652-5.
Nick Naylor lies for a living. As chief public “smokesman” for the Big Tobacco lobby in Washington, it's his job to fuzz the facts, deflect the arguments, and subvert the sanctimonious neo-prohibitionists, all with a smile. As in Buckley's other political farces, it seems to be an axiom that no matter how far down you are on the moral ladder in Washington D.C., there are always an infinite number of rungs below you, all occupied, mostly by lawyers. Nick's idea of how to sidestep government advertising bans and make cigarettes cool again raises his profile to such an extent that some of those on the rungs below him start grasping for him with their claws, tentacles, and end-effectors, with humourous and delightfully ironic (at least if you aren't Nick) consequences, and then when things have gotten just about as bad as they can get, the FBI jumps in to demonstrate that things are never as bad as they can get.

About a third of the way through reading this book, I happened to see the 2005 movie made from it on the illuminatus. I've never done this before—watch a movie based on a book I was currently reading. The movie was enjoyable and very funny, and seeing it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book one whit; this is a wickedly hilarious book which contains dozens of laugh out loud episodes and subplots that didn't make it into the movie.

October 2007 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. No Way to Treat a First Lady. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0-375-75875-1.
First Lady Beth MacMann knew she was in for a really bad day when she awakened to find her philandering war hero presidential husband dead in bed beside her, with the hallmark of the Paul Revere silver spittoon she'd hurled at him the night before as he'd returned from an assignation in the Lincoln Bedroom “etched, etched” upon his forehead. Before long, Beth finds herself charged with assassinating the President of the United States, and before the spectacle a breathless media are pitching as the “Trial of the Millennium” even begins, nearly convicted in the court of public opinion, with the tabloids referring to her as “Lady Bethmac”.

Enter superstar trial lawyer and fiancé Beth dumped in law school Boyce “Shameless” Baylor who, without the benefit of a courtroom dream team, mounts a defence involving “a conspiracy so vast…” that the world sits on the edge of its seats to see what will happen next. What happens next, and then, and later, and still later is side-splittingly funny even by Buckley's high standards, perhaps the most hilarious yarn ever spun around a capital murder trial. As in many of Buckley's novels, everything works out for the best (except, perhaps, for the deceased commander in chief, but he's not talking), and yet none of the characters is admirable in any way—welcome to Washington D.C.! Barbs at legacy media figures and celebrities abound, and Dan Rather's inane folksiness comes in for delicious parody on the eve of the ignominious end of his career. This is satire at its most wicked, one of the funniest of Buckley's novels I've read (Florence of Arabia [March 2006] is comparable, but a very different kind of story). This may be the last Washington farce of the “holiday from history” epoch—the author completed the acknowledgements page on September 9th, 2001.

January 2008 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Supreme Courtship. New York: Twelve, 2008. ISBN 978-0-446-57982-7.
You know you're about to be treated to the highest level of political farce by a master of the genre when you open a book which begins with the sentence:
Supreme Court Associate Justice J. Mortimer Brinnin's deteriorating mental condition had been the subject of talk for some months now, but when he showed up for oral argument with his ears wrapped in aluminum foil, the consensus was that the time had finally come for him to retire.
The departure of Mr. Justice Brinnin created a vacancy which embattled President Donald Vanderdamp attempted to fill with two distinguished jurists boasting meagre paper trails, both of whom were humiliatingly annihilated in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, loquacious loose cannon and serial presidential candidate Dexter Mitchell, coveted the seat for himself.

After rejection of his latest nominee, the frustrated president was channel surfing at Camp David when he came across the wildly popular television show Courtroom Six featuring television (and former Los Angeles Superior Court) judge Pepper Cartwright dispensing down-home justice with her signature Texas twang and dialect. Let detested Senator Mitchell take on that kind of popularity, thought the Chief Executive, chortling at the prospect, and before long Judge Pepper is rolled out as the next nominee, and prepares for the confirmation fight.

I kind of expected this story to be about how an authentic straight-talking human being confronts the “Borking” judicial nominees routinely receive in today's Senate, but it's much more and goes way beyond that, which I shall refrain from discussing to avoid spoilers. I found the latter half of the book less satisfying that the first—it seemed like once on the court Pepper lost some of her spice, but I suppose that's realistic (yet who expects realism in farces?). Still, this is a funny book, with hundreds of laugh out loud well-turned phrases and Buckley's customary delightfully named characters. The fractured Latin and snarky footnotes are an extra treat. This is not a roman à clef, but you will recognise a number of Washington figures upon which various characters were modelled.

November 2008 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. The Relic Master. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN 978-1-5011-2575-1.
The year is 1517. The Holy Roman Empire sprawls across central Europe, from the Mediterranean in the south to the North Sea and Baltic in the north, from the Kingdom of France in the west to the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary in the east. In reality the structure of the empire is so loose and complicated it defies easy description: independent kings, nobility, and prelates all have their domains of authority, and occasionally go to war against one another. Although the Reformation is about to burst upon the scene, the Roman Catholic Church is supreme, and religion is big business. In particular, the business of relics and indulgences.

Commit a particularly heinous sin? If you're sufficiently well-heeled, you can obtain an indulgence through prayer, good works, or making a pilgrimage to a holy site. Over time, “good works” increasingly meant, for the prosperous, making a contribution to the treasury of the local prince or prelate, a percentage of which was kicked up to higher-ranking clergy, all the way to Rome. Or, an enterprising noble or churchman could collect relics such as the toe bone of a saint, a splinter from the True Cross, or a lock of hair from one of the camels the Magi rode to Bethlehem. Pilgrims would pay a fee to see, touch, have their sins erased, and be healed by these holy trophies. In short, the indulgence and relic business was selling “get out of purgatory for a price”. The very best businesses are those in which the product is delivered only after death—you have no problems with dissatisfied customers.

To flourish in this trade, you'll need a collection of relics, all traceable to trustworthy sources. Relics were in great demand, and demand summons supply into being. All the relics of the True Cross, taken together, would have required the wood from a medium-sized forest, and even the most sacred and unique of relics, the burial shroud of Christ, was on display in several different locations. It's the “trustworthy” part that's difficult, and that's where Dismas comes in. A former Swiss mercenary, his resourcefulness in obtaining relics had led to his appointment as Relic Master to His Grace Albrecht, Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mainz, and also to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. These two customers were rivals in the relic business, allowing Dismas to play one against the other to his advantage. After visiting the Basel Relic Fair and obtaining some choice merchandise, he visits his patrons to exchange them for gold. While visiting Frederick, he hears that a monk has nailed ninety-five denunciations of the Church, including the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church. This is interesting, but potentially bad for business.

Dismas meets his friend, Albrecht Dürer, who he calls “Nars” due to Dürer's narcissism: among other things including his own visage in most of his paintings. After months in the south hunting relics, he returns to visit Dürer and learns that the Swiss banker with whom he's deposited his fortune has been found to be a 16th century Bernie Madoff and that he has only the money on his person.

Destitute, Dismas and Dürer devise a scheme to get back into the game. This launches them into a romp across central Europe visiting the castles, cities, taverns, dark forbidding forests, dungeons, and courts of nobility. We encounter historical figures including Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus), who lends his scientific insight to the effort. All of this is recounted with the mix of wry and broad humour which Christopher Buckley uses so effectively in all of his novels. There is a tableau of the Last Supper, identity theft, and bombs. An appendix gives background on the historical figures who appear in the novel.

This is a pure delight and illustrates how versatile is the talent of the author. Prepare yourself for a treat; this novel delivers. Here is an interview with the author.

May 2016 Permalink

Christensen, Mark. Build the Perfect Beast. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001. ISBN 0-312-26873-4.
Here's the concept: a bunch of Southern California morons set out to reinvent the automobile in the 1990's. This would be far more amusing were it not written by one of them, who remains, after all the misadventures recounted in the text, fully as clueless as at the get-go, and enormously less irritating had his editor at St. Martin's Press—a usually respectable house—construed their mandate to extend beyond running the manuscript through a spelling checker. Three and four letter words are misspelled; technical terms are rendered phonetically (“Nacca-duct”, p. 314; “tinsel strength”, p. 369), factual howlers of all kinds litter the pages, and even the spelling of principal characters varies from page to page—on page 6 one person's name is spelled two different ways within five lines. This may be the only book ever issued by a major publisher which manages to misspell “Popsicle” in two entirely different ways (pp. 234, 350). When you fork out US$26.95 for a book, you deserve something better than a first draft manuscript between hard covers. I've fact-checked many a manuscript with fewer errors than this book.

January 2003 Permalink

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Translated, with an introduction and commentary by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, [1511, 1532] 1979. ISBN 0-300-02373-1.
This edition translates the Moriae Encomium into very colloquial American English. The effect is doubtless comparable to the original Latin on a contemporary reader (one, that is, who grasped the thousands of classical and scriptural allusions in the text, all nicely annotated here), but still it's somewhat jarring to hear Erasmus spout phrases such as “fit as a fiddle”, “bull [in] a chinashop”, and “x-ray vision”. If you prefer a little more gravitas in your Erasmus, check out the 1688 English translation and the original Latin text available online at the Erasmus Text Project. After the first unauthorised edition was published in 1511, Erasmus revised the text for each of seven editions published between 1512 and 1532; the bulk of the changes were in the 1514 and 1516 editions. This translation is based on the 1532 edition published at Basel, and identifies the changes since 1511, giving the date of each.

January 2003 Permalink

Faulks, Sebastian. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. London: Hutchinson, 2013. ISBN 978-0-091-95404-8.
As a fan of P. G. Wodehouse ever since I started reading his work in the 1970s, and having read every single Jeeves and Wooster story, it was with some trepidation that I picked up this novel, the first Jeeves and Wooster story since Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, published in 1974, a year before Wodehouse's death. This book, published with the permission of the Wodehouse estate, is described by the author as a tribute to P. G. Wodehouse which he hopes will encourage readers to discover the work of the master.

The author notes that, while remaining true to the characters of Jeeves and Wooster and the ambience of the stories, he did not attempt to mimic Wodehouse's style. Notwithstanding, to this reader, the result is so close to that of Wodehouse that if you dropped it into a Wodehouse collection unlabelled, I suspect few readers would find anything discordant. Faulks's Jeeves seems to use more jaw-breaking words than I recall Wodehouse's, but that's about it. Apart from Jeeves and Wooster, none of the regular characters who populate Wodehouse's stories appear on stage here. We hear of members of the Drones, the terrifying Aunt Agatha, and others, and mentions of previous episodes involving them, but all of the other dramatis personæ are new.

On holiday in the south of France, Bertie Wooster makes the acquaintance of Georgiana Meadowes, a copy editor for a London publisher having escaped the metropolis to finish marking up a manuscript. Bertie is immediately smitten, being impressed by Georgiana's beauty, brains, and wit, albeit less so with her driving (“To say she drove in the French fashion would be to cast a slur on those fine people.”). Upon his return to London, Bertie soon reads that Georgiana has become engaged to a travel writer she mentioned her family urging her to marry. Meanwhile, one of Bertie's best friends, “Woody” Beeching, confides his own problem with the fairer sex. His fiancée has broken off the engagement because her parents, the Hackwoods, need their daughter to marry into wealth to save the family seat, at risk of being sold. Before long, Bertie discovers that the matrimonial plans of Georgiana and Woody are linked in a subtle but inflexible way, and that a delicate hand, acting with nuance, will be needed to assure all ends well.

Evidently, a job crying out for the attention of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster! Into the fray Jeeves and Wooster go, and before long a quintessentially Wodehousean series of impostures, misadventures, misdirections, eccentric characters, disasters at the dinner table, and carefully crafted stratagems gone horribly awry ensue. If you are not acquainted with that game which the English, not being a very spiritual people, invented to give them some idea of eternity (G. B. Shaw), you may want to review the rules before reading chapter 7.

Doubtless some Wodehouse fans will consider any author's bringing Jeeves and Wooster back to life a sacrilege, but this fan simply relished the opportunity to meet them again in a new adventure which is entirely consistent with the Wodehouse canon and characters. I would have been dismayed had this been a parody or some “transgressive” despoilation of the innocent world these characters inhabit. Instead we have a thoroughly enjoyable romp in which the prodigious brain of Jeeves once again saves the day.

The U.K. edition is linked above. U.S. and worldwide Kindle editions are available.

January 2014 Permalink

Ferri, Jean-Yves and Didier Conrad. Astérix: Le Papyrus de César. Vanves, France: Editions Albert René, 2015. ISBN 978-2-86497-271-6.
The publication of Julius Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) (August 2007) made a sensation in Rome and amplified the already exalted reputation of Cæsar. Unknown before now, the original manuscript included a chapter which candidly recounted the Roman army's failure to conquer the Gauls of Armorique, home of the fierce warrior Astérix, his inseparable companion Obélix, and the rest of the villagers whose adventures have been chronicled in the thirty-five volumes preceding this one. On the advice of his editor, Bonus Promoplus, Cæsar agrees to remove the chapter chronicling his one reverse from the document which has come down the centuries to us.

Unfortunately for Promoplus, one of his scribes, Bigdata, flees with a copy of the suppressed chapter and delivers it to Doublepolémix, notorious Gallic activist and colporteur sans frontières, who makes the journey to the village of the irréductibles in Armorique.

The Roman Empire, always eager to exploit new technology, has moved beyond the slow diffusion of news by scrolls to newsmongers like Rézowifix, embracing wireless communication. A network of Urgent Delivery Pigeons, operated by pigeon masters like Antivirus, is able to quickly transmit short messages anywhere in the Empire. Unfortunately, like the Internet protocol, messages do not always arrive at the destination nor in the sequence sent….

When news of the missing manuscript reaches Rome, Prompolus mounts an expedition to Gaul to recover it before it can damage the reputation of Cæsar and his own career. With battle imminent, the Gauls resort to Druid technology to back up the manuscript. The story unfolds with the actions, twists, and turns one expects from Astérix, and a satisfying conclusion.

This album is, at this writing, the number one best-selling book at Amazon.fr.

December 2015 Permalink

Florey, Kitty Burns. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House, 2006. ISBN 1-933633-10-7.
In 1877, Alonzo Reed and and Brainerd Kellogg published Higher Lessons in English, which introduced their system for the grammatical diagramming of English sentences. For example, the sentence “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up” (an example from Lesson 63 of their book) would be diagrammed as:
Diagrammed sentence
Diagram by Bruce D. Despain.
in the Reed and Kellogg system.

The idea was to make the grammatical structure of the sentence immediately evident, sharpening students' skills in parsing sentences and rendering grammatical errors apparent. This seems to have been one of those cases when an idea springs upon a world which has, without knowing it, been waiting for just such a thing. Sentence diagramming spread through U.S. schools like wildfire—within a few years Higher Lessons and the five other books on which Reed and Kellogg collaborated were selling at the astonishing rate of half a million copies a year, and diagramming was firmly established in the English classes of children across the country and remained so until the 1960s, when it evaporated almost as rapidly as it had appeared.

The author and I are both members of the last generation who were taught sentence diagramming at school. She remembers it as having been “fun” (p. 15), something which was not otherwise much in evidence in Sister Bernadette's sixth grade classroom. I learnt diagramming in the seventh grade, and it's the only part of English class that I recall having enjoyed. (Gertrude Stein once said [p. 73], “I really do not know anything that has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” I don't think I'd go quite that far myself.) In retrospect, it seems an odd part of the curriculum: we spent about a month furiously parsing and diagramming, then dropped the whole thing and never took it up again that year or afterwards; I can't recall ever diagramming a sentence since.

This book, written by an author and professional copy editor, charmingly recounts the origin, practice, curiosities, and decline of sentence diagramming, and introduces the reader to stalwarts who are keeping it alive today. There are a wealth of examples from literature, including the 93 word concluding sentence of Proust's Time Regained, which appears as a two-page spread (pp. 94–95). (The author describes seeing a poster from the 1970s which diagrams a 958 word Proust sentence without an explicit subject.)

Does diagramming make one a better writer? The general consensus, which the author shares, is that it doesn't, which may explain why it is rarely taught today. While a diagram shows the grammatical structure of a sentence, you already have to understand the rules of grammar in order to diagram it, and you can make perfectly fine looking diagrams of barbarisms such as “Me and him gone out.” Also, as a programmer, it disturbs me that one cannot always unambiguously recover the word order of the original sentence from a diagram; this is not a problem with the tree diagrams used by linguists today. But something doesn't have to be useful to be fun (even if not, as it was to Gertrude Stein, exciting), and the structure of a complex sentence graphically elucidated on a page is marvellous to behold and rewarding to create. I'm sure some may disdain those of us who find entertainment in such arcane intellectual endeavours; after all, the first name of the co-inventor of diagramming, Brainerd Kellogg, includes both the words “brain” and “nerd”!

The author's remark on p. 120, “…I must confess that I like editing my own work more than I do writing it. I find first drafts painful; what I love is to revise and polish. Sometimes I think I write simply to have the fun of editing what I've written.” is one I share, as Gertrude Stein put it (p. 76), “completely entirely completely”—and it's a sentiment I don't ever recall seeing in print before. I think the fact that students aren't taught that a first draft is simply the raw material of a cogent, comprehensible document is why we encounter so many hideously poorly written documents on the Web.

The complete text of the 1896 Revised Edition of Reed and Kellogg's Higher Lessons in English is available from Project Gutenberg; the diagrams are rendered as ASCII art and a little difficult to read until you get used to them. Eugene R. Moutoux, who constructed the diagrams for the complicated sentences in Florey's book has a wealth of information about sentence diagramming on his Web site, including diagrams of famous first-page sentences from literature such as this beauty from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

January 2007 Permalink

Foden, Giles. Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. London: Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0-141-00984-5.
Only a perfect idiot would undertake to transport two forty foot mahogany motorboats from London to Cape Town and then onward to Lake Tanganyika by ship, rail, steam tractor, and teams of oxen, there to challenge German dominance of the lake during World War I by attempting to sink a ship three times the length and seven times the displacement of the fragile craft. Fortunately, the Admiralty found just the man in Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simpson, in 1915 the oldest Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, his ascent through the ranks having been retarded due to his proclivity for sinking British ships. Spicer-Simpson was an inveterate raconteur of tall tales and insufferable know-it-all (on the ship bound for South Africa he was heard lecturing the Astronomer Royal of Cape Town on the southern constellations), and was eccentric in about as many ways as can be packed into a single human frame. Still, he and his motley team, despite innumerable misadventures (many self-inflicted), got the job done, sinking the ship they were sent to and capturing another German vessel, the first German warship ever captured by the Royal Navy. Afterward, Spicer-Simpson rather blotted his copybook by declining to engage first a German fort and then a warship both later found to have been “armed” only with wooden dummy guns. His exploits caused him to be worshipped as a god by the Holo-holo tribe, who fashioned clay effigies of him, but rather less impressed the Admiralty who, despite awarding him the DSO, re-assigned him upon his return to the routine desk job he had before the adventure. HMS Mimi and Toutou were the boats under Spicer-Simpson's command, soon joined by the captured German ship which was rechristened HMS Fifi. The events described herein (very loosely) inspired C.S.Forester's 1935 novel The African Queen and the 1951 Bogart/Hepburn film.

A U.S. edition is now available, titled Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure, but at present only in hardcover. A U.S. paperback is scheduled for March, 2006.

October 2005 Permalink

Fussell, Paul. BAD. New York: Summit Books, 1991. ISBN 0-671-67652-0.

May 2003 Permalink

Rex and Sparky [Garden, Joe et al.]. The Dangerous Book for Dogs. New York: Villard, 2007. ISBN 978-0-345-50370-1.
The Dangerous Book for Boys is all well and good, but what about a boy's inseparable companion in adventures great and small? This book comes to the rescue, with essential tips for the pooch who wants to experience their canine inheritance to the fullest. Packed cover to cover with practical advice on begging, swimming, picking a pill out of a ball of peanut butter, and treeing a raccoon; stories of heroic and resourceful dogs in history, from Mikmik the sabre-toothed sled dog who led the first humans to North America across the Bering Strait land bridge, to Pepper, the celebrated two-year-old Corgi who with her wits, snout, and stubby legs singlehandedly thwarted a vile conspiracy between the Sun and a rogue toaster to interfere with her nap; tips on dealing with tribulations of life such as cats, squirrels, baths, and dinner parties; and formal rules for timeless games such as “Fetch”. Given the proclivities of the species, there is a great deal more about poop here than in the books for boys and girls. I must take exception to the remarks on canine auditory performance on p. 105; dogs have superb hearing and perceive sounds well above the frequency range to which humans respond, but I've yet to meet the pooch able to hear “50,000 kHz”. Silent dog whistles notwithstanding, even the sharpest-eared cur doesn't pick up the six metre band!

Dogs who master the skills taught here will want to download the merit badges from the book's Web site and display them proudly on their collars. Dog owners (or, for those living in the moonbat caves of western North America, “guardians”) who find their pet doesn't get as much out of this book as they'd hoped may wish to consult my forthcoming monograph Why Rover Can't Read.

January 2008 Permalink

Geraghty, Jim. The Weed Agency. New York: Crown Forum, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7704-3652-0.
During the Carter administration, the peanut farmer become president, a man very well acquainted with weeds, created the Agency of Invasive Species (AIS) within the Department of Agriculture to cope with the menace. Well, not really—the agency which occupies centre stage in this farce is fictional but, as the author notes in the preface, the Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, the Federal Interagency Committee on Invasive Terrestrial Animals and Pathogens, and the National Invasive Species Council of which they are members along with a list of other agencies, all do exist. So while it may seem amusing that a bankrupt and over-extended government would have an agency devoted to weeds, in fact that real government has an entire portfolio of such agencies, along with, naturally, a council to co-ordinate their activities.

The AIS has a politically appointed director, but the agency had been run since inception by Administrative Director Adam Humphrey, career civil service, who is training his deputy, Jack Wilkins, new to the civil service after a frustrating low-level post in the Carter White House, in the ways of the permanent bureaucracy and how to deal with political appointees, members of congress, and rival agencies. Humphrey has an instinct for how to position the agency's mission as political winds shift over the decades: during the Reagan years as American agriculture's first line of defence against the threat of devastation by Soviet weeds, at the cutting edge of information technology revolutionising citizens' interaction with government in the Gingrich era, and essential to avert even more disastrous attacks on the nation after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Humphrey and Wilkins are masters of the care and feeding of congressional allies, who are rewarded with agency facilities in their districts, and neutralising the occasional idealistic budget cutter who wishes to limit the growth of the agency's budget or, horror of horrors, abolish it.

We also see the agency through the eyes of three young women who arrived at the agency in 1993 suffused with optimism for “reinventing government” and “building a bridge to the twenty-first century”. While each of them—Lisa, hired in the communications office; Jamie, an event co-ordinator; and Ava, a technology systems analyst—were well aware that their positions in the federal bureaucracy were deep in the weeds, they believed they had the energy and ambition to excel and rise to positions where they would have the power to effect change for the better.

Then they began to actually work within the structure of the agency and realise what the civil service actually was. Thomas Sowell has remarked that the experience in his life which transformed him from being a leftist (actually, a Marxist) to a champion of free markets and individual liberty was working as a summer intern in 1960 in a federal agency. He says that after experiencing the civil service first-hand, he realised that whatever were the problems of society that concerned him, government bureaucracy was not the solution. Lisa, Jamie, and Ava all have similar experiences, and react in different ways. Ava decides she just can't take it any more and is tempted by a job in the middle of the dot com boom. Her experience is both entertaining and enlightening.

Even the most obscure federal agency has the power to mess up on a colossal scale and wind up on the front page of the Washington Post and the focus of a congressional inquest. So it was to be for the AIS, when an ill wind brought a threat to agriculture in the highly-visible districts of powerful members of congress. All the bureaucratic and political wiles of the agency had to be summoned to counter the threat and allow the agency to continue to do what such organisations do best: nothing.

Jim Geraghty is a veteran reporter, contributing editor, and blogger at National Review; his work has appeared in a long list of other publications. His reportage has always been characterised by a dry wit, but for a first foray into satire and farce, this is a masterful accomplishment. It is as funny as some of the best work of Christopher Buckley, and that's about as good as contemporary political humour gets. Geraghty's plot is not as zany as most of Buckley's, but it is more grounded in the political reality of Washington. One of the most effective devices in the book is to describe this or that absurdity and then add a footnote documenting that what you've just read actually exists, or that an outrageous statement uttered by a character was said on the record by a politician or bureaucrat.

Much of this novel reads like an American version of the British sitcom Yes Minister (Margaret Thatcher's favourite television programme), and although the author doesn't mention it in the author's note or acknowledgements, I suspect that the master civil servant's being named “Humphrey” is an homage to that series. Sharp-eyed readers will discover another oblique reference to Yes Minister in the entry for November 2012 in the final chapter.

June 2014 Permalink

Goldstuck, Arthur. The Aardvark and the Caravan: South Africa's Greatest Urban Legends. Johannesburg: Penguin Books, 1999. ISBN 0-140-29026-5.
This book is out of print. I bought my copy in a bookshop in South Africa during our 2001 solar eclipse expedition, but didn't get around to reading it until now. You can occasionally find used copies on abebooks.com, but the prices quoted are often more than I'd be willing to pay for this amusing but rather lightweight book.

July 2003 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Astérix chez les Helvètes. Paris: Hachette, [1970] 2004. ISBN 2-01-210016-3.

April 2005 Permalink

Goscinny, René and Albert Uderzo. Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête. Paris: Albert René, 2005. ISBN 2-86497-170-4.
Credit me with some restraint—I waited ten whole days after volume 33 of the Astérix saga appeared before devouring it in one sitting. If it isn't sufficiently obvious from the author's remark at the end of the album, note that planet “Tadsylwien” is an anagram of “Walt Disney”. The diffuse reflection of the countryside in the spherical spaceship on p. 8 is magnificently done.

October 2005 Permalink

Grant, Rob. Fat. London: Gollancz, 2006. ISBN 978-0-575-07820-8.
Every now and then, you have a really bad day. If you're lucky, you actually experience such days less frequently than you have nightmares about them (mine almost always involve trade shows, which demonstrates how traumatic that particular form of torture can be). The only remedy is to pick up the work of a master who shows you that whatever's happened to you is nothing compared to how bad a day really can be—this is such a yarn. This farce is in the fine tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Tom Sharpe, and is set in a future in which the British nanny state finally decides to do something about the “epidemic of obesity” which is bankrupting the National Health Service by establishing Well Farms, modelled upon that earlier British innovation, the concentration camp.

The story involves several characters, all of whom experience their own really bad days and come to interact in unexpected ways (you really begin to wonder how the author is going to pull it all together as the pages dwindle, but he does, and satisfyingly). And yet, as is usually the case in the genre, everything ends well for everybody.

This is a thoroughly entertaining romp, but there's also a hard edge here. The author skewers a number of food fads and instances of bad science and propaganda in the field of diet and nutrition and even provides a list of resources for those interested in exploring the facts behind the nonsense spouted by the “studies”, “reports”, and “experts” quoted in the legacy media.

May 2009 Permalink

Greene, Graham. The Comedians. New York: Penguin Books, 1965. ISBN 0-14-018494-5.

April 2003 Permalink

Hart-Davis, Adam. Eureakaaargh! A Spectacular Collection of Inventions that Nearly Worked. London: Michael O'Mara Books, 1999. ISBN 1-85479-484-1.

October 2001 Permalink

Hawks, Tony. Round Ireland with a Fridge. London: Ebury Press, 1998. ISBN 0-09-186777-0.
The author describes himself as “not, by nature” either a drinking or a betting man. Ireland, however, can have a way of changing those particular aspects of one's nature, and so it was that after a night about which little else was recalled, our hero found himself having made a hundred pound bet that he could hitch-hike entirely around the Republic of Ireland in one calendar month, accompanied the entire way by a refrigerator. A man, at a certain stage in his life, needs a goal, even if it is, as this epic quest was described by an Irish radio host, “A totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.” And the result is this very funny book. Think about it; almost every fridge lives a life circumscribed by a corner of a kitchen—door opens—light goes on—door closes—light goes out (except when the vegetables are having one of their wild parties in the crisper—sssshhh—mustn't let the homeowner catch on). How singular and rare it is for a fridge to experience the freedom of the open road, to go surfing in the Atlantic (chapter 10), to be baptised with a Gaelic name that means “freedom”, blessed by a Benedictine nun (chapter 14), be guest of honour at perhaps the first-ever fridge party at an Irish pub (chapter 21), and make a triumphal entry into Dublin amid an army of well-wishers consisting entirely of the author pulling it on a trolley, a radio reporter carrying a mop and an ice cube tray, and an elderly bagpiper (chapter 23). Tony Hawks points out one disadvantage of his profession I'd never thought of before. When one of those bizarre things with which his life and mine are filled comes to pass, and you're trying to explain something like, “No, you see there were squirrels loose in the passenger cabin of the 747”, and you're asked the inevitable, “What are you, a comedian?”, he has to answer, “Well, actually, as a matter of fact, I am.”

A U.S. edition is now available.

June 2005 Permalink

Heimann, Jim ed. Future Perfect. Köln, Germany: TASCHEN, 2002. ISBN 3-8228-1566-7.

October 2002 Permalink

Hester, Elliott. Plane Insanity. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0-312-26958-7.

February 2003 Permalink

Lileks, James. The Gallery of Regrettable Food. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0-609-60782-0.
The author is a syndicated columnist and pioneer blogger. Much of the source material for this book and a wealth of other works in progress are available on the author's Web site.

April 2004 Permalink

Lileks, James. Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s. New York: Crown Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-4640-8.
After turning your tastebuds inside out with The Gallery of Regrettable Food (April 2004), Lileks now tackles what passed for home decoration in the 1970s. Seldom will you encounter a book which makes you ask “What were they thinking?” so many times. It makes you wonder which aspects of the current scene will look as weird twenty or thirty years from now. Additional material which came to hand after the book was published may be viewed on the author's Web site.

December 2004 Permalink

Lileks, James. Mommy Knows Worst. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8228-5.
Why did we baby boomers end up so doggone weird? Maybe it's thanks to all the “scientific” advice our parents received from “experts” who seemed convinced that despite millennia of ever-growing human population, new parents didn't have the slightest clue what do with babies and small children. James Lileks, who is emerging as one of the most talented and prolific humorists of this young century, collects some of the very best/worst of such advice in this volume, along with his side-splitting comments, as in the earlier volumes on food and interior decoration. Flip the pages and learn, as our parents did, why babies should be turned regularly as they broil in the Sun (pp. 36–42), why doping little snookums with opiates to make the bloody squaller shut up is a bad idea (pp. 44–48), why everything should be boiled, except for those which should be double boiled (pp. 26, 58–59, 65–68), plus the perfect solution for baby's ears that stick out like air scoops (pp. 32–33). This collection is laugh-out-loud funny from cover to cover; if you're looking for more in this vein, be sure to visit The Institute of Official Cheer and other features on the author's Web site which now includes a weekly audio broadcast.

December 2005 Permalink

Lileks, James. Gastroanomalies. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007. ISBN 0-307-38307-5.
Should you find this delightful book under your tree this Christmas Day, let me offer you this simple plea. Do not curl up with it late at night after the festivities are over and you're winding down for the night. If you do:

  1. You will not get to sleep until you've finished it.
  2. Your hearty guffaws will keep everybody else awake as well.
  3. And finally, when you do drift off to sleep, visions of the culinary concoctions collected here may impede digestion of your holiday repast.

This sequel to The Gallery of Regrettable Food (April 2004) presents hundreds of examples of tasty treats from cookbooks and popular magazines from the 1930s through the 1960s. Perusal of these execrable entrées will make it immediately obvious why the advertising of the era featured so many patent remedies for each and every part of the alimentary canal. Most illustrations are in ghastly colour, with a few in merciful black and white. It wasn't just Americans who outdid themselves crafting dishes in the kitchen to do themselves in at the dinner table—a chapter is devoted to Australian delicacies, including some of the myriad ways to consume “baiycun”. There's something for everybody: mathematicians will savour the countably infinite beans-and-franks open-face sandwich (p. 95), goths will delight in discovering the dish Satan always brings to the pot luck (p. 21), political wonks need no longer wonder which appetiser won the personal endorsement of Earl Warren (p. 23), movie buffs will finally learn the favourite Bisquick recipes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Bette Davis (pp. 149–153), and all of the rest of us who've spent hours in the kitchen trying to replicate grandma's chicken feet soup will find the secret revealed here (p. 41). Revel in the rediscovery of aspic: the lost secret of turning unidentifiable food fragments into a gourmet treat by entombing them in jiggly meat-flavoured Jello-O. Bon appétit!

Many other vintage images of all kinds are available on the author's Web site.

December 2007 Permalink

Long, Rob. Conversations with My Agent (and Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke). London: Bloomsbury Publishing, [1996, 2005] 2014. ISBN 978-1-4088-5583-6.
Hollywood is a strange place, where the normal rules of business, economics, and personal and professional relationships seem to have been suspended. When he arrived in Hollywood in 1930, P. G. Wodehouse found the customs and antics of its denizens so bizarre that he parodied them in a series of hilarious stories. After a year in Hollywood, he'd had enough and never returned. When Rob Long arrived in Hollywood to attend UCLA film school, the television industry was on the threshold of a technology-driven change which would remake it and forever put an end to the domination by three large networks which had existed since its inception. The advent of cable and, later, direct to home satellite broadcasting eliminated the terrestrial bandwidth constraints which had made establishing a television outlet forbiddingly expensive and, at the same time, side-stepped many of the regulatory constraints which forbade “edgy” content on broadcast channels. Long began his television career as a screenwriter for Cheers in 1990, and became an executive producer of the show in 1992. After the end of Cheers, he created and produced other television projects, including Sullivan & Son, which is currently on the air.

Television ratings measure both “rating points”: the absolute number of television sets tuned into the program, and “share points”: the fraction of television sets turned on at the time viewing the program. In the era of Cheers, a typical episode might have a rating equivalent to more than 22 million viewers and a share of 32%, meaning it pulled in around one third of all television viewers in its time slot. The proliferation of channels makes it unlikely any show will achieve numbers like this again. The extremely popular 24 attracted between 9 and 14 million viewers in its eight seasons, and the highly critically regarded Mad Men never topped a mean viewership of 2.7 million in its best season.

It was into this new world of diminishing viewership expectations but voracious thirst for content to fill all the new channels that the author launched his post-Cheers career. The present volume collects two books originally published independently, Conversations with My Agent from 1998, and 2005's Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke, written as Hollywood's перестро́йка was well-advanced. The volumes fit together almost seamlessly, and many readers will barely notice the transition.

This is a very funny book, but there is also a great deal of wisdom about the ways of Hollywood, how television projects are created, pitched to a studio, marketed to a network, and the tortuous process leading from concept to script to pilot to series and, all too often, to cancellation. The book is written as a screenplay, complete with scene descriptions, directions, dialogue, transitions, and sound effect call-outs. Most of the scenes are indeed conversations between the author and his agent in various circumstances, but we also get to be a fly on the wall at story pitches, meetings with the network, casting, shooting an episode, focus group testing, and many other milestones in the life cycle of a situation comedy. The circumstances are fictional, but are clearly informed by real-life experience. Anybody contemplating a career in Hollywood, especially as a television screenwriter, would be insane not to read this book. You'll laugh a lot, but also learn something on almost every page.

The reader will also begin to appreciate the curious ways of Hollywood business, what the author calls “HIPE”: the Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics. “The HIPE, as it will come to be known, postulates that every commonly understood, standard business practice of the outside world has its counterpart in the entertainment industry. Only it's backwards.” And anybody who thinks accounting is not a creative profession has never had experience with a Hollywood project. The culture of the entertainment business is also on display—an intricate pecking order involving writers, producers, actors, agents, studio and network executives, and “below the line” specialists such as camera operators and editors, all of whom have to read the trade papers to know who's up and who's not.

This book provides an insider's perspective on the strange way television programs come to be. In a way, it resembles some aspects of venture capital: most projects come to nothing, and most of those which are funded fail, losing the entire investment. But the few which succeed can generate sufficient money to cover all the losses and still yield a large return. One television show that runs for five years, producing solid ratings and 100+ episodes to go into syndication, can set up its writers and producers for life and cover the studio's losses on all of the dogs and cats.

July 2014 Permalink

Muirden, James. A Rhyming History of Britain: 55 B.C.A.D. 1966. Illustrated by David Eccles. New York: Walker and Company, 2003. ISBN 0-8027-7680-9.

April 2004 Permalink

Munroe, Randall. What If? New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014. ISBN 978-0-544-27299-6.
As a child, the author would constantly ask his parents odd questions. They indulged and encouraged him, setting him on a lifetime path of curiosity, using the mathematics and physics he learned in the course of obtaining a degree in physics and working in robotics at NASA to answer whatever popped into his head. After creating the tremendously successful Web comic xkcd.com, readers began to ask him the kinds of questions he'd mused about himself. He began a feature on xkcd.com: “What If?” to explore answers to these questions. This book is a collection of these questions, some previously published on-line (where you can continue to read them at the previous link), and some only published here. The answers to questions are interspersed with “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox”, some of which are reminiscent of my own Titanium Cranium mailbox. The book abounds with the author's delightful illustrations. Here is a sample of the questions dealt with. I've linked the first to the online article to give you a taste of what's in store for you in the book.

  • Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
  • What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?
  • In the movie 300 they shoot arrows up into the sky and they seemingly blot out the sun. Is this possible, and how many arrows would it take?
  • How high can a human throw something?
  • If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?
  • How much Force power can Yoda output?
  • How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?

Main belt asteroid 4942 Munroe is named after the author.

While the hardcover edition is expensive for material most of which can be read on the Web for free, the Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

November 2015 Permalink

Munroe, Randall. Thing Explainer. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2015. ISBN 978-0-544-66825-6.
What a great idea! The person who wrote this book explains not simple things like red world sky cars, tiny water bags we are made of, and the shared space house, with only the ten hundred words people use most.

There are many pictures with words explaining each thing. The idea came from the Up Goer Five picture he drew earlier.

Up Goer Five

Drawing by Randall Munroe / xkcd used under right to share but not to sell (CC BY-NC 2.5).
(The words in the above picture are drawn. In the book they are set in sharp letters.)

Many other things are explained here. You will learn about things in the house like food-heating radio boxes and boxes that clean food holders; living things like trees, bags of stuff inside you, and the tree of life; the Sun, Earth, sky, and other worlds; and even machines for burning cities and boats that go under the seas to throw them at other people. This is not just a great use of words, but something you can learn much from.

There is art in explaining things in the most used ten hundred words, and this book is a fine work of that art.

Read this book, then try explaining such things yourself. You can use this write checker to see how you did.

Can you explain why time slows down when you go fast? Or why things jump around when you look at them very close-up? This book will make you want to try it. Enjoy!

The same writer also created What If? (2015-11)

Here, I have only written with the same ten hundred most used words as in the book.

March 2016 Permalink

O'Rourke, P. J. Driving Like Crazy. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8021-1883-7.
Sex, drugs, fast cars, crazed drivers, vehicular mayhem spanning the globe from Manhattan to Kyrgyzstan, and vehicles to die for (or in) ranging from Fangio's 1939 Chevrolet racer to a six-wheel-drive Soviet Zil truck—what's not to like! Humorist and eternally young speed demon P. J. O'Rourke recounts the adventures of his reckless youth and (mostly) wreckless present from the perspective of someone who once owned a 1960 MGA (disclaimer: I once owned a 1966 MGB I named “Crunderthush”—Keith Laumer fans will understand why) and, decades later, actually, seriously contemplated buying a minivan (got better).

This collection of O'Rourke's automotive journalism has been extensively edited to remove irrelevant details and place each piece in context. His retrospective on the classic National Lampoon piece (included here) whose title is a bit too edgy for our family audience is worth the price of purchase all by itself. Ever wanted to drive across the Indian subcontinent flat-out? The account here will help you avoid that particular resolution of your mid-life crisis. (Hint: think “end of life crisis”—Whoa!)

You don't need to be a gearhead to enjoy this book. O'Rourke isn't remotely a gearhead himself: he just likes to drive fast on insane roads in marvellous machinery, and even if your own preference is to experience such joys vicariously, there are plenty of white knuckle road trips and great flatbeds full of laughs in this delightful read.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

July 2009 Permalink

Peters, Eric. Automotive Atrocities. St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks International, 2004. ISBN 0-7603-1787-9.
Oh my, oh my, there really were some awful automobiles on the road in the 1970s and 1980s, weren't there? Those born too late to experience them may not be fully able to grasp the bumper to bumper shoddiness of such rolling excrescences as the diesel Chevette, the exploding Pinto, Le Car, the Maserati Biturbo, the Cadillac V-8-6-4 and even worse diesel; bogus hamster-powered muscle cars (“now with a black stripe and fake hood scoop, for only $5000 more!”); the Yugo, the DeLorean, and the Bricklin—remember that one?

They're all here, along with many more vehicles which, like so many things of that era, can only elicit in those who didn't live through it, the puzzled response, “What were they thinking?” Hey, I lived through it, and that's what I used to think when blowing past multi-ton wheezing early 80s Thunderbirds (by then, barely disguised Ford Fairmonts) in my 1972 VW bus!

Anybody inclined toward automotive Schadenfreude will find this book enormously entertaining, as long as you weren't one of the people who spent your hard-earned, rapidly-inflating greenbacks for one of these regrettable rolling rustbuckets. Unlike many automotive books, this one is well-produced and printed, has few if any typographical errors, and includes many excerpts from the contemporary sales material which recall just how slimy and manipulative were the campaigns used to foist this junk off onto customers who, one suspects, the people selling it referred to in the boardroom as “the rubes”.

It is amazing to recall that almost a generation exists whose entire adult experience has been with products which, with relatively rare exceptions, work as advertised, don't break as soon as you take them home, and rapidly improve from year to year. Those of us who remember the 1970s took a while to twig to the fact that things had really changed once the Asian manufacturers raised the quality bar a couple of orders of magnitude above where the U.S. companies thought they had optimised their return.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I once drove a 1966 MGB, but I didn't buy it new! To grasp what awaited the seventies denizen after they parked the disco-mobile and boogied into the house, see Interior Desecrations (December 2004).

October 2006 Permalink

Pratchett, Terry. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-001233-1.

August 2002 Permalink

Pratchett, Terry. Making Money. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-116164-3.
Who'd have imagined that fractional reserve banking, fiat currency, and macroeconometric modelling could be so funny? When Lord Vetinari, tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, decides the economy needs more juice than the stodgy plutocrat-run banks provide, he immediately identifies the ideal curriculum vitæ of a central banker: confidence man, showman, and all-purpose crook. (In our world, mumbling and unparsable prose seem additional job requirements, but things are simpler on Discworld.)

Fortunately, the man for the job is right at hand when the hereditary chief of the Royal Bank goes to her reward: Moist von Lipwig, triumphant in turning around the Post Office in Going Postal, is persuaded (Lord Vetinari can be very persuasive, especially to civil servants he has already once hanged by the neck) to take the second-in-command position at the Bank, the Chairman's office having been assumed by Mr. Fusspot, a small dog who lives in the in-box on Lipwig's desk.

Moist soon finds himself introducing paper money, coping with problems in the gold vault, dealing with a model of the economy which may be more than a model (giving an entirely new meaning to “liquidity”), fending off a run on the bank, summoning the dead to gain control of a super-weapon, and finding a store of value which is better than gold. If you aren't into economics, this is a terrific Discworld novel; if you are, it's delightful on a deeper level.

The “Glooper” in the basement of the bank is based upon economist William Phillips's MONIAC hydraulic economic computer, of which a dozen or more were built. There is no evidence that fiddling with Phillips's device was able to influence the economy which it modelled, but perhaps this is because Phillips never had an assistant named “Igor”.

If you're new to Terry Pratchett and don't know where to start, here's a handy chart (home page and other language translations) which shows the main threads and their interconnections. Making Money does not appear in this map; it should be added to the right of Going Postal.

January 2008 Permalink

Pratchett, Terry and Gray Jolliffe. The Unadulterated Cat. London: Orion Books, 1989. ISBN 0-75283-715-X.

November 2001 Permalink

Rowsome, Frank, Jr. The Verse by the Side of the Road. New York: Plume, [1965] 1979. ISBN 0-452-26762-5.
In the years before the Interstate Highway System, long trips on the mostly two-lane roads in the United States could bore the kids in the back seat near unto death, and drive their parents to the brink of homicide by the incessant drone of “Are we there yet?” which began less than half an hour out of the driveway. A blessed respite from counting cows, license plate poker, and counting down the dwindling number of bottles of beer on the wall would be the appearance on the horizon of a series of six red and white signs, which all those in the car would strain their eyes to be the first to read.

WITHIN THIS VALE

OF TOIL

AND SIN

YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD

BUT NOT YOUR CHIN—USE

Burma-Shave

In the fall of 1925, the owners of the virtually unknown Burma-Vita company of Minneapolis came up with a new idea to promote the brushless shaving cream they had invented. Since the product would have particular appeal to travellers who didn't want to pack a wet and messy shaving brush and mug in their valise, what better way to pitch it than with signs along the highways frequented by those potential customers? Thus was born, at first only on a few highways in Minnesota, what was to become an American institution for decades and a fondly remembered piece of Americana, the Burma-Shave signs. As the signs proliferated across the landscape, so did sales; so rapid was the growth of the company in the 1930s that a director of sales said (p. 38), “We never knew that there was a depression.” At the peak the company had more than six million regular customers, who were regularly reminded to purchase the product by almost 7000 sets of signs—around 40,000 individual signs, all across the country.

While the first signs were straightforward selling copy, Burma-Shave signs quickly evolved into the characteristic jingles, usually rhyming and full of corny humour and outrageous puns. Rather than hiring an advertising agency, the company ran national contests which paid $100 for the best jingle and regularly received more than 50,000 entries from amateur versifiers.

Almost from the start, the company devoted a substantial number of the messages to highway safety; this was not the result of outside pressure from anti-billboard forces as I remember hearing in the 1950s, but based on a belief that it was the right thing to do—and besides, the sixth sign always mentioned the product! The set of signs above is the jingle that most sticks in my memory: it was a favourite of the Burma-Shave founders as well, having been re-run several times since its first appearance in 1933 and chosen by them to be immortalised in the Smithsonian Institution. Another that comes immediately to my mind is the following, from 1960, on the highway safety theme:

THIRTY DAYS

HATH SEPTEMBER

APRIL

JUNE AND THE

SPEED OFFENDER

Burma-Shave

Times change, and with the advent of roaring four-lane freeways, billboard bans or set-back requirements which made sequences of signs unaffordable, the increasing urbanisation of American society, and of course the dominance of television over all other advertising media, by the early 1960s it was clear to the management of Burma-Vita that the road sign campaign was no longer effective. They had already decided to phase it out before they sold the company to Philip Morris in 1963, after which the signs were quickly taken down, depriving the two-lane rural byways of America of some uniquely American wit and wisdom, but who ever drove them any more, since the Interstate went through?

The first half of this delightful book tells the story of the origin, heyday, and demise of the Burma-Shave signs, and the balance lists all of the six hundred jingles preserved in the records of the Burma-Vita Company, by year of introduction. This isn't something you'll probably want to read straight through, but it's great to pick up from time to time when you want a chuckle.

And then the last sign had been read: all the family exclaimed in unison, “Burma-Shave!”. It had been maybe sixty miles since the last set of signs, and so they'd recall that one and remember other great jingles from earlier trips. Then things would quiet down for a while. “Are we there yet?”

October 2006 Permalink

Rutler, George William. Coincidentally. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8245-2440-1.
This curious little book is a collection of the author's essays on historical coincidences originally published in Crisis Magazine. Each explores coincidences around a general theme. “Coincidence” is defined rather loosely and generously. Consider (p. 160), “Two years later in Missouri, the St. Louis Municipal Bridge was dedicated concurrently with the appointment of England's poet laureate, Robert Bridges. The numerical sum of the year of his birth, 1844, multiplied by 10, is identical to the length in feet of the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge over the Delaware River.”

Here is paragraph from p. 138 which illustrates what's in store for you in these essays.

Odd and tragic coincidences in maritime history render a little more plausible the breathless meters of James Elroy Flecker (1884–1915): “The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea.” That sea haunts me too, especially with the realization that Flecker died in the year of the loss of 1,154 lives on the Lusitania. More odd than tragic is this: the United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (in H. L. Mencken's estimation “The National Tear-Duct”) officially protested the ship's sinking on May 13, 1915 which was the 400th anniversary, to the day, of the marriage of the Duke of Suffolk to Mary, the widow of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, after she had spurned the hand of the Archduke Charles. There is something ominous even in the name of the great hydrologist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who set the standards for water purification: Thomas Drown (1842–1904). Swinburne capitalized on the pathos: “… the place of the slaying of Itylus / The feast of Daulis, the Thracian sea.” And a singularly melancholy fact about the sea is that Swinburne did not end up in it.
I noted several factual errors. For example, on p. 169, Chuck Yeager is said to have flown a “B-51 Mustang” in World War II (the correct designation is P-51). Such lapses make you wonder about the reliability of other details, which are far more arcane and difficult to verify.

The author is opinionated and not at all hesitant to share his acerbic perspective: on p. 94 he calls Richard Wagner a “master of Nazi elevator music”. The vocabulary will send almost all readers other than William F. Buckley (who contributed a cover blurb to the book) to the dictionary from time to time. This is not a book you'll want to read straight through—your head will end up spinning with all the details and everything will dissolve into a blur. I found a chapter or two a day about right. I'd sum it up with Abraham Lincoln's observation “Well, for those who like that sort of thing, I should think it is just about the sort of thing they would like.”

February 2008 Permalink

Schott, Ben. Schott's Original Miscellany. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. ISBN 1-58234-349-7.
At last—a readily available source one can cite for the definition of the unit “millihelen” (p. 152)!

October 2004 Permalink

Seuss, Dr. [Theodor Seuss Geisel]. Horton Hears a Who! New York: Random House, 1954. ISBN 0-679-80003-4.

December 2003 Permalink

Sharpe, Tom. Wilt in Nowhere. London: Hutchinson, 2004. ISBN 0-09-179965-1.
Tom Sharpe is, in my opinion, the the greatest living master of English farce. Combining Wodehouse's sense of the absurd and Waugh's acid-penned black humour, his novels make you almost grateful for the worst day you've ever had, as it's guaranteed to be a sunny stroll through the park compared to what his characters endure. I read most of Sharpe's novels to date in the 1980s, and was delighted to discover he's still going strong, bringing the misadventures of Henry Wilt up to date in this side-splitting book. The “release the hounds” episode in chapter 13 makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. A U.S. edition is scheduled for publication in June 2005. There are numerous references to earlier episodes in the Wilt saga, but this book can be enjoyed without having read them. If you'd like to enjoy them in order, they're Wilt, The Wilt Alternative, Wilt on High, and then the present volume.

December 2004 Permalink

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Grove Press, [1982] 1987. ISBN 0-802-13020-8.

April 2002 Permalink

Truss, Lynne. Talk to the Hand. London: Profile Books, 2005. ISBN 1-86197-933-9.
Following the runaway success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (January 2004), one might have expected the author to follow up with another book on grammar, but instead in this outing she opted to confront the “utter bloody rudeness of everyday life”. Not long ago I might have considered these topics unrelated, but after the publication in July 2005 of Strike Out, and the subsequent discussion it engendered, I've come to realise that slapdash spelling and grammar are, as explained on page 23 here, simply one aspect of the rudeness which affronts us from all sides. As Bernard Pivot observed, “[spelling] remains a politeness one owes to our language, and a politeness one owes to those to whom one writes.”

In this book Truss parses rudeness into six categories, and explores how modern technology and society have nearly erased the distinctions between private and public spaces, encouraging or at least reducing the opprobrium of violating what were once universally shared social norms. (Imagine, for example, how shocking it would have seemed in 1965 to overhear the kind of intensely personal or confidential business conversation between two fellow passengers on a train which it is now entirely routine to hear one side of as somebody obliviously chatters into their mobile phone.)

Chapter 2, “Why am I the One Doing This?”, is 23 pages of pure wisdom for designers of business systems, customer relations managers, and designers of user interfaces for automated systems; it perfectly expresses the rage which justifiably overcomes people who feel themselves victimised for the convenience and/or profit of the counterparty in a transaction which is supposedly of mutual benefit. This is a trend which, in my opinion (particularly in computer user interface design), has been going in the wrong direction since I began to rant about it almost twenty years ago.

A U.S edition is also available.

December 2005 Permalink

Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995. ISBN 0-679-76489-5.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology has a Web site now!

May 2003 Permalink

Wilson, Daniel H. Where's My Jetpack? New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. ISBN 1-59691-136-0.
One of the best things about the past was that the future was so much cooler then! I mean, here we are, more than halfway through the first decade of the flippin' twenty-first century for heaven's sake, and there's nary a flying car, robot servant, underwater city, orbital hotel, or high-speed slidewalk anywhere in sight, and many of the joyless scolds who pass for visionaries in this timid and unimaginative age think we'd all be better off renouncing technology and going back to being hunter-gatherers—sheesh.

This book, by a technology columnist for Popular Mechanics, wryly surveys the promise and present-day reality of a variety of wonders from the golden age of boundless technological optimism. You may be surprised at the slow yet steady progress being made toward some of these visionary goals (but don't hold your breath waiting for the Star Trek transporter!). I was completely unaware, for example, of the “anti-sleeping pill” modafinil, which, based upon tests by the French Foreign Legion, the UK Ministry of Defence, and the U.S. Air Force, appears to allow maintaining complete alertness for up to 40 hours with no sleep and minimal side effects. And they said programmer productivity had reached its limits!

The book is illustrated with stylish graphics, but there are no photos of the real-world gizmos mentioned in the next, nor are there source citations or links to Web sites describing them—you're on your own following up the details. To answer the question in the title, “Where's My Jetpack?”, look here and here.

August 2007 Permalink

Wodehouse, P. G. Psmith in the City. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, [1910] 2003. ISBN 1-58567-478-8.
The link above is to the only edition presently in print in the U.S., a hardcover which is rather pricey for such a thin volume. I actually read a 15 year old mass market paperback; you can often find such copies at attractive prices on abebooks.com. If you're up for a larger dose of Psmith, you might consider The World of Psmith paperback published by Penguin in the U.K., which includes Psmith Journalist and Leave It to Psmith along with this novel.

November 2003 Permalink

Zubrin, Robert. The Holy Land. Lakewood, CO: Polaris Books, 2003. ISBN 0-9741443-0-4.
Did somebody say science fiction doesn't do hard-hitting social satire any more? Here, Robert Zubrin, best known for his Mars Direct mission design (see The Case for Mars) turns his acid pen (caustic keyboard?) toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with plenty of barbs left over for the absurdities and platitudes of the War on Terrorism (or whatever). This is a novel which will have you laughing out loud while thinking beyond the bumper-sticker slogans mouthed by politicians into the media echo chamber.

February 2004 Permalink