Bad Google! Naughty Google!

This is interesting; apparently The Complete Review has fallen foul of Google’s revised search algorithm:

Apparently the complete review is exactly the kind of “low-quality site” that is “just not very useful” they were targeting, as search result positions have plummeted for most of the review-pages at the site.

I do have some sympathy with Google; providing good search results would be a very difficult problem even if there weren’t a lot of people trying to game the system. But The Complete Review, far from being a content farm, is one of the best literary resources on the web, particularly for translated literature. So the system is not working properly in this case.

The problem is that Google provides such a huge chunk of all traffic around the web, so anyone who runs a website is at their mercy. And while they don’t seem to abuse their position too much — they seem to approach the business of providing search results in an honest and well-meaning way — they still have a great deal of power and no accountability.

Decline & Fall by Chris Mullin

Decline & Fall is the second volume of Mullin’s diaries, which I bought on a whim to read on my phone without having read the first volume. The first volume was about life as a junior minister in Tony Blair’s government; this one starts with him being sacked after the 2005 election, and so is about being a backbench MP in the last five years of the Blair/Brown government.

It probably would have made more sense to read the first volume first, but I enjoyed this anyway; because he never had a senior job in government, he’s just enough of an outsider to provide a clear-eyed account of life in the Westminster bubble. I might have to read the first volume, now.

And, incidentally, the fact it’s a diary made it well suited to reading on a small screen. Short entries mean you can easily dip in and out of it.

» The picture is of a design for fabric for a roller blind for the Houses of Parliament by Augustus Pugin, from the V&A.

The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo

The King of Kahel is my book from Guinea for the Read The World challenge. It is the first book printed by AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s own publishing imprint specialising in translated literature. They say ‘AmazonCrossing uses customer feedback and other data from Amazon sites to identify exceptional works that deserve a wider, global audience.’ So this book was presumably picked up because it was a big hit in French.

It’s rather unusual among all the post-colonial literature I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, because the hero is a European colonialist. Specifically, it’s about Olivier de Sanderval, a real person, a man from a wealthy family of provincial French industrialists who did some exploring in what is now Guinea and wanted to set himself up as an African king.

And he’s not just the hero in the narrow sense of being the central character; it is very much his story and he is presented as a sympathetic character.

It’s always interesting to have your expectations confounded, if only because it reveals what those expectations are. Because there’s nothing terribly radical about this novel. If it had been written by a white French novelist I wouldn’t have thought anything of it; Monénembo has lived in France for nearly 40 years; and yet I was in fact surprised.

That aside, this is an enjoyable if unexceptional literary novel. It is light and cheery in tone; the back cover claims that ‘Monénembo has created nothing short of a jovial Heart of Darkness‘, which is about as baffling a description as I’ve ever encountered. The book reads to me like a playful re-imagining of history, so I assumed it was only based lightly on the historical Sanderval. Apparently, though, Monénembo did a lot of research and had access to the Sanderval family archives, so there may be more history in it than I realised… perhaps if I’d realised that I would have enjoyed it more. Or maybe I’d rather have read a straight biography.

As an example the book being unexpectedly accurate, Google found me these pictures: the two sides of a real coin produced by the real Olivier de Sanderval to serve as currency for his kingdom of Kahel. The Arabic script reads ‘Sanderval’. Which is sort of amazing, actually.

Egypt, Libya, foreign policy and honesty

I have been following events in north Africa closely, both via the usual media outlets and Twitter (see, for example, Andy Carvin’s one-man newswire for all the latest rumours swirling around). But I haven’t said much about it on this blog because, well, it’s a complicated subject of which I am ignorant.

It has often been enthralling, even so. The spread of protests from country to country, the ebb and flow between protestors and their governments: at times like this, live round-the-clock news coverage actually makes sense. Egypt had almost the perfect revolution for a spectator; large photogenic crowds, plenty of reporters on the scene, a hint of euphoria, a frisson of danger to add some spice, and not, in the end, too many casualties. Libya has been a darker experience; the more brutal response by the regime and the effective news blackout just producing a swirl of horrifying but unconfirmed rumours swirling around on Twitter.

There have already been some extraordinary moments, like the Wael Ghonim interview,or the incredible celebrations in Tahrir Square after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Or last night’s speech from Saif Gaddafi, which was so weirdly rambling and unfocussed that the conspiracy theory, that he was just buying time for his father to flee the country, almost seems like a plausible explanation.

And it has been making me think about the way we talk about foreign policy. Because when a popular revolution peacefully overthrows the dictator of a brutal autocratic police state with a habit of torturing its own citizens, it would be nice to be on the side of the protesters. Which makes it slightly awkward that our governments have spent decades supporting the dictator. And it’s not just Hosni Mubarak; it’s Bahrain, it’s Saudi Arabia; even Gaddafi had managed to rebrand himself from mortal enemy of the West to someone we can do business with. And there’s the awkward fact that we supported Saddam Hussein until it stopped being convenient. At least we can say we definitely don’t support the Iranian theocracy… but then that did come into being after a popular revolution against a brutal dictator who, almost inevitably, was someone we did support.

The deeply murky nature of our foreign policy is hardly news, of course. What I find so frustrating is the way that we talk about it, the way that governments feel the need to gloss over all the unpleasant details right up until the moment when the regime falls, and we are shocked, shocked to discover that Hosni Mubarak was a revolting dictator all along.

It would just be refreshing sometimes to hear a politician stand up explicitly spell out the logic:

Yes, we know that in supporting Hosni Mubarak we are propping up a brutal police state. But look around at the other countries in the region: Sudan has had decades of civil war and genocide. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at war. Somalia is a failed state. Libya and Iran are even more repressive states and supporters of terrorism. Yemen serves as a base for Al-Qaeda. And so on. So we take the position, on balance, that supporting a nasty dictator is a reasonable trade-off for decades of stability and no war with Israel.

Because that argument may be right or wrong, but I don’t think it’s stupid. I don’t think it’s even outrageously cynical. Because foreign policy is a fairly blunt instrument. Mubarak’s regime might not have been our ideal choice for the kind of government Egypt should have, but then we don’t really get to choose. We certainly don’t get to control the internal policies of the country; all we can do, presumably, is to look at the government in place, weigh up the possible alternatives, and decide to support them or not.

Of course it’s a bit more nuanced than that — there are different degrees of support, there are various pressures we can apply — but short of invading, which is hardly a panacea, we’re pretty limited in what we can do. Foreign policy has to be deeply pragmatic because the range of choices is so limited.

I’m not suggesting that foreign policy has to be horribly cynical, although it clearly often is. It’s just difficult. Even if you don’t allow self-interest to trump human rights. Even if your only concern was the well-being of the people of north Africa and the middle east, you’d still probably end up supporting a few dictators. But it would just be nice if politicians would be a bit more open about it, a bit more explicit about the bargains they are making. A bit less diplomatic, in fact.

» Demonstrators Praying and Riot Police and People Should Not Be Afraid of Their Governments, Governments Should Be Afraid of Their People are © Ramy Raoof and used under a CC by licence. The shot of protestors in Tahrir Square in from Al-Jazeera.

The Sands of Oxus by Sadriddin Aini

The Sands of Oxus is my book from Tajikistan for the Read The World challenge. Which is a bit of a cheat, in fact. Aini’s Tajikistan credentials would seem to be impeccable: according to Wikipedia, he is ‘regarded as Tajikistan’s national poet’. He wrote the first Tajik novels and a Tajik dictionary. He was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Tajik SSR, the president of the Writer’s Union of Tajikistan, and the president of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences. However, rather annoyingly for my purposes, he didn’t actually live there. He was born, and spent his whole life, in what is now Uzbekistan. He was ethnically Tajik, but not geographically.

This seems rather typical of Central Asia; my book from Uzbekistan, The Railway, was written by someone who was actually born in Kyrgyzstan. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan, but it’s set in Kazakhstan. I guess it’s partially because the Silk Road historically created a mixed, mobile population; and more recently because it was all part of the Soviet Union, and people moved from one SSR to another for all kinds of reasons, sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress.

If I come across a book which is a more perfect fit for Tajikistan, I might read that as well, I suppose. But The Sands of Oxus will do for now. It is the first volume of Aini’s autobiography; it covers his childhood in rural Uzbekistan — in what was then (1878-90) the Emirate of Bukhara. The book ends with him leaving to study at a madrasa at the age of twelve.

It’s a straightforward chronological autobiography told, at least in this translation, in fairly plain prose, but I found it very interesting; mainly for what you might call historical/ethnological reasons. It’s a vivid portrayal of life in a small village in Central Asia in the 1880s; the farming, the food, the customs. It’s occasionally a bit didactic — there are a few incidents which carry a suspiciously neat message — but not annoyingly so. The broadly political stuff, about venal magistrates, ignorant village mullahs, ruthless tax collectors and the arrogant aristocracy, might I suppose be influenced by his revolutionary politics as an adult and indeed the fact he was writing in Stalin’s USSR. Not that any of it is inherently implausible.

Reading it, it seems like an incredibly timeless world: the cycle of planting and harvest, Ramadan, a summer festival, circumcisions, marriages, funerals. There is no mention of any modern technology at all, not even the telegraph or the steam engine. It must have already seemed ancient by the time this book was written in 1949.

Here’s a fairly random sample:

Each year when the mulberries began to ripen, my father used to move us from Mahallayi Bolo to Soktaré. The year that the Shofirkom canal was choked with sand and Mahallayi Bolo was left without water, we moved to Soktaré early, even before the mulberries began to fruit.

In Soktaré my brother and Sayid-Akbar Khoka began to study with the village khatib, and I played in the many streams and canals with other boys my age. My father decided not to move back to Mahallayi Bolo that winter, since drinking water was scarce there and had to be drawn from a village well and carried to the house. Accordingly, he demolished our tumbledown living quarters and built a new house of mud brick, with a storeroom, a kitchen porch, a cattle stall and a barn for hay. Usto Khoja assisted him with the construction, and Ikrom Khoja and Muhyiddin helped as far as they could in mixing the mud; but despite his father’s pestering, Sayid-Akbar refused to help, claiming that he wanted to be a calligrapher and if he soiled his hands with mud and bricks they would be spoiled for the pen.

That year I and my playmates Haid Khoja, the nephew of Ibrohim Khoja, and the daughters of Usto Khoja, spent most of our spare time with Tūto-posho, who would tell us strange and wonderful tales. She knew by heart the stories of Rustam, Isfandiyar, Siyavush, and Abu Muslim, and would repeat them for us endlessly. We would each bring her bread, mulberry raisins, or some other delicacy to entice her to talk. She would lie back with pillows under her head and legs, and tell us stories.

Certainly worth a read.

» The images are two sides of a 5000 tenga note from Bukhara in 1920. So the period isn’t quite right, but I like the pictures, so why not. From the British Museum.

Yes to AV.

Just a quick pointer to a couple of my blog posts from last year’s election: ‘First Past The Post makes politicians lie to us’. And the follow-up: ‘FPTP makes politicians lie to us (hypocrisy update)’.

I would actually favour some kind of proportional representation — this one seems quite ingenious — but at least AV would be an improvement, because it would, I think, effectively get rid of tactical voting.

Serious political geeks will explain that tactical voting is technically possible in an AV system; but it’s much more complicated. It’s quite difficult even to explain how it works. Unlike FPTP. In a FPTP election with more than two candidates, tactical voting is so completely obviously part of the system that people don’t even have to think of it as tactical: there is an obvious and clear incentive to vote for a less-favoured candidate who seems to have more chance of winning.

Under AV on the other hand, anyone who wants to do tactical voting is going to have to do detailed research into voting patterns in their constituency and some careful mathematical analysis of different possible outcomes in order to work out how to maximise the effect of their vote. I don’t think many people will do that, and if they do, well, good luck to them.

Qatari Voices

Qatari Voices is an anthology edited by two people — Carol Henderson and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar — who organise a writing workshop at a Qatar university, supported by a grant from the US State Department. And the book is essentially a result of that project.

So it is not a book put together by someone who, seeing a vibrant natural growth of Qatari writing, was excited enough to organise an anthology. It is a collection of undergraduate essays written by students who are actually studying engineering, or law, or medicine, or whatever. And I guess there’s no reason why an engineering student shouldn’t have a glittering prose style and a penetrating social insight… but, as it turns out, these ones don’t.

To be fair, whatever the purpose of this book is — which isn’t clear to me — it’s not something they were expecting random people halfway round the world to buy and read for pleasure. It’s not really appropriate to judge it by fierce literary standards.

And it isn’t completely without interest; you do get some sense of the whiplash speed of change in Qatar over the past 60 years, from a poor desert country of fishermen and pearl divers, where girls were expected to get married at about 14, to a fabulously oil-rich nation where women can study to be doctors. But although those changes make Qatar and the other Gulf states one of the most fascinating parts of the world at the moment, these essays do not have the kind of insight necessary to go beyond the obvious.

But it serves as a book from Qatar for the Read The World challenge, so it meets my requirements at least.

» WCMC-Q is a photo of West Cornell Medical College in Qatar. © vobios and used under a CC-by licence.

Egypt, the cricket, and dead tree news

The current situation in Egypt has been the second thing recently that has made newspapers feel like a ludicrously old-fashioned technology.

The first, more trivially, was the cricket. England were playing in Australia, and because of the time difference, each day’s play was starting just before midnight and running until 7.30am — optimally designed to mess with the papers’ printing schedules. So I would stay up late and watch an hour or so of the match, go to bed, wake up in the morning in time to hear the very end of that day’s play and a bit of discussion from the commentators, and wander downstairs to look at the newspaper, which would have reports on the play which had ended the previous morning. So it was effectively a full 24 hours out of date. And although I understand why it was a day behind, it still felt ludicrous: like picking up the paper on a Monday and finding reports about the football from the previous weekend instead of the one which just finished.

In the case of Egypt, of course, it’s not the time difference, just a highly unstable situation. I have been following it with a great deal of interest and mixed emotions throughout the day, following the live blogging and TV coverage from the Guardian, the BBC and Al-Jazeera online. And when I wake up in the morning, the idea that I would turn to the newspaper for news just seems ridiculous; I go straight to the computer to check what’s happening.

This isn’t something new, of course; newspapers haven’t been the place to go for fast-breaking news stories since the invention of the wireless, and their position has been steadily eroded by television, then 24 hour news channels and eventually the internet. But it seems so stark now; I read the paper every day, but I’m more likely to get breaking news from Twitter.

That’s despite the fact that I actually like newspapers. I like having something lying around the house which I can pick up and browse through while I eat a sandwich. I read the columnists, I might do the crossword, I check the TV listings, maybe look at the film reviews. I will even read the news coverage, I just don’t do it expecting to be surprised.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of iPad* newspapers, even though it is clearly the obvious technical solution. I like paper newspapers. You can scribble notes on them, use them with sticky fingers, spill things on them, and split them into sections so that more then one person can read them at once. They don’t weigh much, and you can discard them when you’ve finished with them. But they don’t fulfil the same role they used to.  One way or another, they’re going to have to adapt to that. If they want to be at the cutting edge of hard news journalism, they have to be electronic. If they want to survive as paper objects… well, that’s the difficult sentence to finish. And if they want to keep making money? That’s anyone’s guess.

One thing I would say is: I’m not pessimistic about the future of news-gathering. Just the future of newspapers. There is a line of argument that, if newspapers can’t find a way to make money in the digital age, it will be a disaster, because we need journalism and someone has to pay the journalists.

Now, despite the frequently revolting behaviour of the British press (i.e. 1 2 3), I do strongly agree that we need journalism.  I have been glued to the coverage from Egypt and I admire the people who are willing to go out into the chaos to bring back that news. Newspapers are part of that; and I don’t claim to know what would step up to replace them if they all went bust tomorrow.

So this is a statement of faith, to some extent. But I just don’t believe that a technology which makes the distribution of information easier than ever before in human history is going to have the net result of reducing the amount of information available to us.

* or, you know, whatever non-Apple device eventually emerges as serious competition.

» image: Ricky Ponting, captain of Australia, looks pensive as he considers the situation in Egypt.

Reading on my phone

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was a free download from Apple as part of a Christmas promotion, and as such it’s the first full-length novel I have read on my iPhone. I’m almost as interested in the reading experience as the book itself.

The major conclusion is that the experience is at least good enough. The high-resolution display of the iPhone 4 makes a difference, I think, not least because you can set the type size as small as your eyesight can stand without compromising the readability.

Perhaps it’s not as immersive as a book; I find I need quiet to read these days more than I used to, but it’s especially true with the iPhone, I think, that I need good reading conditions to concentrate. I noticed a slightly increased tendency to find myself skipping a bit, a slight tendency to anticipate the end of the ‘page’ and go ahead without fully processing the last few words. It may be that I do that anyway, but that it’s more obvious when the pages are shorter. I think a bigger screen would be better as a reading experience, but it’s a great advantage not having to carry an extra device; the phone is ideal for snatching a few minutes of reading during the day.

As for the novel itself: I enjoyed it, but I can see why some people find it quite annoying. It is very high-concept and I don’t know that its cleverness manages to avoid being glib.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2011

It’s that time of year again. Time for some citizen science! I got off to a great start with two siskins, and ended up with a respectable 17 species:

Blue Tit × 6
Great Tit × 4
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Greenfinch × 7
Goldfinch × 3
Siskin × 2

Dunnock

Robin

Blackbird

Nuthatch × 2

Woodpigeon × 2
Feral Pigeon × 4
Collared Dove

Great-spotted Woodpecker × 2
Green Woodpecker

Magpie × 2

Collared dove is a new one for the BGBW; it’s a species that only turns up in the garden very occasionally. As always a few regular species failed to show: coal tit, goldcrest, jay and most surprisingly, ring-necked parakeet. But it was still a good year.

Egypt joke

A joke I heard a few years ago, can’t remember where:

Three agents are drinking in a bar, from the CIA, Mossad and the Egyptian secret police. After a few beers, they all start boasting about their tracking skills, and have a bet to see who can be quickest to head out into the desert and bring back a live gazelle.

The Mossad agent is fastest, and within a few hours he’s back at the bar with a gazelle tied up in the back of his truck. An hour or two later, the CIA man turns up as well. But many hours pass and eventually they head off and look for the Egyptian secret policeman.

They find him around the corner with a big stick, thrashing a donkey and shouting: “Come on, just admit it, I know you’re a gazelle!”

Black Swan

I have been looking forward to seeing Black Swan for months; I don’t think I’ve ever been so certain I wanted to see something based solely on the trailer. If I’m sure I want to see a film, I try not to read any reviews beforehand, and it was getting difficult to avoid encountering people’s reactions, so I went to see it yesterday.

I think it might be the campest movie ever made. It’s not just the themes — it’s a film about ballet, and mummy issues, and suffering for your art, and the grubby reality behind the glamorous surface, and jealousy and fear of ageing — it’s the fact that it is a trashy melodrama acted and filmed as though it was the Most Serious Thing In The World. It is played absolutely straight, as high drama; I don’t think there’s a single joke in the whole film. Natalie Portman acts the central role with a high-strung intensity that actors normally reserve for films about genocide. It’s a great performance.

I assume that everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing, but because there is never a knowing wink to the audience, the bizarre possibility is just about left open that they really meant it. That they really thought they were making a serious, penetrating psychological drama.

Either way, it is completely bonkers. In the end, as it reached a feverish climax, it didn’t quite take me with it, it didn’t quite pull it off, but I still enjoyed it. It was the perfect antidote to The King’s Speech.

The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye

I bought The Running Man* as my book from Burundi for the Read The World challenge. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it, though, because the blurb on the cover — How the voice in my heart helped me survive genocide and realise my Olympic dream — just sounds a bit TV movie of the week. Clearly there’s an interesting story there, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that it will be a well-told story.

I’ve read enough boring sporting autobiographies that I approach the genre with scepticism. Admittedly, it should be pretty hard to make genocide boring, but then you might think the same about playing in the World Cup, and plenty of footballers have managed that.

But I was pleasantly surprised. It is interesting and engagingly written (with the help of ghost writer Gary Brozek); and not just the more dramatic stuff, but about growing up in rural Burundi. It’s not a literary masterpiece, and I don’t think it offers any startling insights into either genocide or elite middle-distance running, but it’s a good story simply and well told.

The blurb is slightly misleading, in that Tuhabonye never actually competed in the Olympics, although he came attended an Olympic development training camp in Atlanta prior to the 1996 games and came very close to qualifying. On the other hand, if the Olympic part is slightly overplayed, the genocide bit is even more remarkable than you might imagine; he was the only survivor of a particularly brutal massacre and the details of his experience are just staggering.

* US title: This Voice in My Heart: A Runner’s Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness. I assume it’s the same book otherwise despite the different emphasis, although I suppose they may have toned down the religious content for the UK edition.

» The photo of Gilbert Tuhabonye meeting Chuck Norris is from his own website. Because, well, why not.

The King’s Speech

I can’t say I was excited by the prospect of seeing The King’s Speech, because I think the British film and TV industry is usually at its least interesting when making middlebrow costume dramas about posh people in country houses.

The genre seems to have a completely unearned prestige which serves as a substitute for things like originality and ideas. And all Britain’s favourite thesps get to stick on some facial hair and a frock coat — or a stiff gown, as appropriate — and do a slightly hammy turn, and everyone oohs and aahs at the costumes and the locations, and it’s all very cosy and boring.

But everyone has been raving about this film, and when someone suggested a trip to see it I thought I might as well. And generally speaking I think it was a good movie. Even a very good one. The prince who has to have speech therapy is a good hook to hang a film on, the script is  often clever and funny and only occasionally resorts to heavy handed historical exposition, and Colin Firth’s performance is excellent, as are most of the supporting cast — although I wasn’t as impressed as some people by Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist Lionel Logue. And I thought it looked great; I particularly enjoyed the rooms full of old fashioned radio equipment with giant microphones and big dials.

On the other hand it felt like a very basic, meat and potatoes piece of story-telling. It does have a good story to tell, and that is half the battle, but it takes you through it in a very predictable, unadventurous way. And it did feel too emotionally manipulative sometimes. Film is an emotionally manipulative medium anyway; in some ways that is one of its strengths. And this is a thoroughly mainstream film, and I don’t demand that it should be abrasively intellectual and spare and minimalist… but sometimes when the swelling background music was a bit too obvious at telling me what to feel, or when some scene had been too obviously crafted to ram home some message or other, I started to get a bit irritated.

Perhaps the problem is that Colin Firth’s character is just too sympathetic. The whole film is structured around poor prince Bertie and his terrible burdens, and there’s never a hint that he has a nasty or selfish bone in his body. He may have been a good man with a profound sense of duty, but presumably he wasn’t actually a saint.

Anyway, I did basically enjoy it and do basically recommend it. With a few reservations.

Quick bird round-up: duck special!

There was a shoveler at the local park the other day, which I think is probably the first I’ve seen there and a patch tick. ‘Patch tick’, for the non-birders among you, meaning a new addition for my patch list, i.e. the list of birds I’ve seen in my local patch — in my case a not very well-defined area consisting of anywhere within about half an hour’s walk of the front door. Not exactly prime birding territory, but it has a few suburban parks and a bit of woodland in it.

Birders tend to keep a lot of lists: some of them lend themselves to being taken quite seriously, like a British list or a life list. Those lists are effectively a way of keeping score over a whole lifetime of birding, and those are the ones which attract the serious obsessives. But the great joy of the more casual lists — the garden list, the patch list, the London list, or whatever — is the way they can turn a rather ordinary bird into an exciting event. Like that shoveler: it’s an attractive but common and easily seen duck, and I’ve seen dozens of them this year already… but in the park it’s a patch tick. A tiny unexpected triumph in an otherwise mundane stroll around the park.

I don’t actually keep a patch list written down anywhere. I’m not much of a record keeper when it comes to birding. My patch list, like my garden list and my London list, is a slightly fuzzy mental one. The only written lists I have are British and European; I don’t even have a proper life list, though I could more or less reconstruct one from various notebooks. Perhaps that would be a good project.

Anyway, today I went to the London Wetland Centre and I added two birds to my British list and one to my life list. The one I’ve seen before is Scaup, a kind of duck which I saw in Japan many years ago; the new one is a streaky brown finch called Common/Mealy Redpoll.

Which is actually a new species; not just new to me, new as in it isn’t in the field guide. Redpolls were split into two species, Lesser Redpoll and Common Redpoll, having previously been distinct subspecies. The Common Redpoll is what British birders used to call ‘Mealy Redpoll’, the paler, greyer, slightly larger redpolls from the continent which sometimes turn up here in winter among the more common Lesser Redpolls. As you can imagine, the differences are subtle, and I can’t say I felt immediately confident about the ID; but for once I had a good eye-level view of them instead of their undersides silhouetted against the sky, and in a flock of birds which were warm brown in tone there was one which was distinctly different looking, paler and greyer, and I thought, well, if I’m not going to claim this one I might as well give up now.

It’s odd how much it feels like a moral issue. Believe me, I’m well aware that no-one else cares about my rather paltry life list. But to add something to it without being sure; well, that would be cheating. So when I see one of these more difficult species, I really do fret about it, and usually I reluctantly don’t claim them. I tried to persuade myself I’d seen Common Redpoll last winter but just couldn’t quite swing it.

» Anas clypeata | Shoveler is © Muchaxo and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

This book is a paean to the power of checklists and specifically a call for their use in medicine — Gawande is a surgeon. I bought it after reading a couple of fascinating articles he wrote for the New Yorker, and to be honest if you’ve read those articles (and watched his TED talk) you have a pretty good idea of what’s in the book.

But I still found it absolutely fascinating reading it again. It’s that thing Malcolm Gladwell is so good at: an idea simple enough that it can be explained in a paragraph but with far-reaching implications. The difference is that while Gladwell’s ideas give people a lot of pleasure they don’t actually seem very useful, whereas this idea has specific, practical [cheap!] applications which can be tested. It really could change the way medicine is practiced.

At its simplest, the idea is that when performing a complicated task like surgery, it is not enough to know what the best practices are, because people are fallible. And so a simple checklist to make sure that the basics are done properly can significantly reduce the rate of complications like infection. And it really is the basics: making sure that everyone knows what they’re doing, that they have the right patient, that pre-operative antibiotics have been given at the right time, that everyone is sterile, that they have an ample supply of blood on hand and so on.

Apparently the idea is most well-developed in aviation; ever since planes became complicated enough that missing a pre-flight check might mean a fiery death, pilots have formalised the process. And not just pre-flight checks, or the obvious things like take off and landing procedure. Apparently pilots have whole collections of checklists for use in specific situations like particular warning lights coming on.

As yet, in medicine they have apparently only tested a simple checklist for surgery, which did successfully improve outcomes, and they have come up against resistance because, I guess, doctors feel it undermines their expertise and knowledge. This book makes a convincing case that medicine would be better if it was a lot more like aviation. Being methodical and disciplined may not be the most glamorous or heroic sounding qualities, but they can be life savers.

It’s hard to do the book justice — checklists just don’t sound very interesting — but I found it completely gripping as well as persuasive.

» 757/767 Mechanical Checklist – Landing is © Kent Wien and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Life Ascending by Nick Lane

Full title: Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. The ten ‘inventions’ are: The origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. Lane explains how each of these work and how they evolved, at least as far as current knowledge can take us — which in some cases, like the origin of life, is apparently rather further than I had realised. The consciousness chapter, if you’re wondering, was rather less persuasive.

What sets this book apart from most popular accounts of evolution is that Nick Lane is a biochemist rather than, say, a palaeontologist or an ethologist. So this is a book which focuses on evolution at the micro level: it’s all biochemical pathways and enzymes and the genes which code for them. This is the real nitty gritty of how evolution works, how it actually achieves things; but it’s also the stuff which I generally find is a complete headfuck. No matter how many times I have read accounts of the inner workings of a cell over the years, it just doesn’t stick.

So it is not a small compliment to say I found this book was not just full of new and interesting information, but also managed to be clear, engaging and enjoyable. I still ending up having a long pause halfway through, and I’ve already forgotten a lot of it, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

» The picture is Cytoplasm to vacuole targeting from the Journal of Cell Biology, used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Picked because it’s a striking image rather than because it’s relevant in any way beyond basic thematic appropriateness.

‘The cytoplasm to vacuole targeting (Cvt) pathway uses Atg11 to direct Atg9-containing membrane from mitochondria (top right) to forming autophagosomes (center) before eventual fusion with the vacuole (bottom right). Original painting by David S. Goodsell, based on the scientific design of Daniel J. Klionsky. (JCB 175(6) TOC1)’

Gay marriage through the eye of a needle

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Someone is blaming the recent bird deaths on ‘the fact that America is violating God’s prohibition on homosexuality with support for gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

This is annoying on so many levels, but the particular one which is bothering me today is this. I’m no biblical scholar, but I do know that Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality. I don’t remember him saying much about sex at all, in fact.

On the other hand he did say quite a lot about money. Most memorably, of course, he said:

And moreover I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

But I don’t remember any of these bible-wielding nutters ever standing up after an earthquake, or a flood, or a load of dead blackbirds, and pointing the finger at Goldman Sachs, or Bank of America, or CitiGroup, or BP, or Exxon Mobil, or for that matter Apple or Google or Wal-Mart. Nope, it’s always the gays, the atheists, the liberals.

Admittedly, it would be equally nutty to blame natural disasters on Wall Street. But at least it would provide a bit of variety.

This is Paradise! by Hyok Kang

Or to give it its full, bookshop-friendly title: This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood, written by Hyok Kang with the French journalist Philippe Grangereau, and translated by Shaun Whiteside.

When I was looking for books from North Korea for the Read The World challenge, I was quite surprised I could only find two actually by North Koreans. The DPRK is such a bizarre Cold War relic that you might think there would be more interest in it. I guess reading about North Korea just doesn’t seem as important as reading about the Soviet Bloc did back in the old days.

Reading the reviews, it sounds like the other book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, is probably the better of the two, but it seems to be focussed on life inside the labour camps. I decided to read This is Paradise! because it is about a more normal childhood in rural North Korea. Normal in North Korea being batshit insane by the standards of anywhere else.

Still, it wasn’t quite what I expected; I thought it would mainly be about the political aspects of living in a communist personality cult: the parades, the synchronised gymnastics, the patriotic hymns, the giant floodlit statue of the Dear Leader, the propaganda. All of which does feature, particularly at the start of the book, but because of the period it covers (Kang was born in 1986), it is overwhelmingly about the famine. Even a mad personality cult struggles to maintain its energy in the face of millions of deaths. Not that there is much sign of the state losing its iron grip on the population, but everyday life becomes completely dominated by the famine, which is apocalyptic in scale. It is like reading Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of scrabbling for nourishment in the gulag, except it’s not a gulag, it’s a whole town, a whole community — except of course for the party officials.

The official slogans changed as the famine ravaged the country. At the very beginning, in 1995, the cadres encouraged us o accept what was called a ‘forced march towards victory’. The term referred to the ‘forced march’ undertaken by Kim Il-Sung and his partisans during the war against the Japanese occupying forces. The following year, the battle-cry was ‘Let us speed up the forced march towards the final victory.’ When the hunger had reaches its worst, another new slogan appeared: ‘Let us not live today for today, but let us live today for tomorrow’. By now, the poorest people had been reduced to eating boiled pepper leaves or bean leaves. Some families came to us to beg us for left-over tofu that my mother cooked, or even the whitish liquid produced when it was being made. They drank it mixed with saccharine. After a certain period of time their faces swelled up. When I saw people with puffy faces tottering towards the house, I knew that was what they were coming for. Shortly after that we too had to start eating pine bark.

The end of the books is about the family’s escape, firstly into China and then through Vietnam and Laos to Cambodia, from which they went to South Korea.

It is a remarkable story. It’s not especially well written, though. It would be unfair to call the prose ‘bad’, but it is a very plain, methodical recital of events. It has very little in the way of descriptive detail and very little emotional content or insight. Definitely worth reading for the content, though, if not for the prose.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I thought it was particularly good this year. Here’s a pleasing and particularly original long-exposure photo of a gannet colony by Andrew Parkinson:

You can see all the winners on the NHM website, but obviously it’s better to go and see the pictures blown up nice and big on lightboxes if you have the chance.

Books [and films] of the year 2010

I’ll keep this brief, because if you want to know what I thought of them you can read what I said at the time, but glancing back over the books I read in the past year, I would pick out these five as ones which, for whatever reason, stand out in my memory:

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif
Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ
The Big Death: Solomon Islanders Remember World War II
The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The first two in particular are books I would strongly recommend if you’re looking for something to read.

And while I’m here, some film recommendations, some of which may be a little difficult to get hold of, but hey-ho:

Draquila — Italy Trembles
[which serves as quite a good companion piece to Gomorrah, incidentally]
The First Movie
Skeletons
A Prophet

EDIT: oops, almost forgot:
Four Lions

Bird of the Year 2010

As I mentioned in BOTY 2010:BPiaSR, I haven’t been anywhere even slightly exotic this year, so my list is sadly free of toucans, sandgrouse, bee-eaters, barbets and so on.

But I did have a good year for British birds.

At the most parochial level, I added three species to the garden list: in the cold snaps at the beginning and end of the year I got fieldfare and brambling, which were both perhaps long overdue; and more surprisingly, in March, a stonechat on its way north stopped off to do a bit of flycatching from one of the rose bushes.

The cold weather also brought me a couple of Dulwich ticks: a gadwall in Dulwich park in February, and a snipe which made a flying visit to Belair Park on Boxing day, presumably in search of open water.

An autumn wheatear in Greenwich Park was probably my first for south London. And in Richmond Park I saw my first London red kite and, rather embarrassingly, my first British little owl. A cracking day’s birding around the Lee Valley gave me, among other things, good views of Cetti’s warbler, nightingale, peregrine and several hobby.

On a walk on Sheppey I had good views of bearded tit, which is always a treat, but also what is probably objectively my best bird of the year, and certainly the closest thing to a proper rarity I’ve ever found for myself in the UK: black-winged stilt. It is about as frequent a visitor as a bird can be and still be officially regarded as a rarity, with 241 sightings between 1950 and 2006… but it is a rarity, and I found it. So that was very pleasing. On the other hand I had rubbish views of it, and I’ve seen it much better before, f’rinstance in Spain, where I took this picture…

… so it’s not my bird of the year. Also not my bird of the year was bean goose (tundra bean goose if the species is split), which was a lifer for me but too far away and too, well, grey to be my bird of the year.

A stronger contender, even though I have seen it in the UK before, was water rail, just because I had UNBELIEVABLE views of it. They are normally incredibly secretive, but at the London Wetland Centre in January, when the whole place was frozen over, I saw lots of them out in the open, trotting around on the ice. And particularly, I watched a pair grooming each other through my telescope from about 30 feet, which was just an amazing sighting.

And on the same day, I saw a bird that looked like being a dead cert for bird of the year right up until December: bittern. I have wanted to se bittern for such a long time, and been to places where they are so many times and failed to see them, that just seeing it was a treat, even though my first view of one was very distant. But just like the water rails, the bitterns were forced out of cover by the ice, and over the course of the day I saw them six or seven times with increasingly excellent views, including two within the same telescope view. Amazing. And I saw them again in December and just yesterday had a brilliant view of one to start off 2011 in style.

But even that is not my bird of the year. No, the official winner of Bird Of The Year 2010 is… waxwing! What a gorgeous bird. And like the bittern, one with a particular mystique for British birders. It’s not actually rare, but it’s just elusive enough, and just occasionally you get a waxwing winter when suddenly there are thousands of them and they turn up in all sorts of unexpected places. This is one of those winters, and they are all over the place… even in Dulwich, although I missed those ones. I made a special trip to Folkestone to see them feeding in the car park of a branch of B&Q. You can see some of my pictures there, but the BOTY year deserves a better portrait than that.

Christmas came early for me today…. © Ian A Kirk used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Waxwing Feeding Frenzy © markkilner used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Waxwing © vesanen.info used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Phwoar.

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