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Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe them Anyway
Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe them Anyway
by Dan Gardner
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crystal balls, 9 Aug. 2011
I must confess that I picked up `Future Babble' with some scepticism. I mean, the so-called `expert' predictions you read in so many areas of the media are just so frequently and hilariously wrong, surely no one takes them seriously any more, do they? And the latest bout of economic misery has just gone to demonstrate to everyone that - even with billions resting on the outcome and hundreds of millions being spent on the best modelling software and the greatest mathematical brains - we'd do just as well by reading the tea leaves or interpreting the flight of birds. What else is there still to say? I was concerned that Gardner was setting up a straw man to knock over. Still, his previous book, `Risk', was so good that I thought I would give this follow up a try.

In a sense, I was right. The one downside of this book is that there isn't honestly a lot here that's new. If you've come across the work of Philip Tetlock, in particular, then you can pretty much guess most of Gardner's thesis.

This, though, is beside the point. The great virtue of Gardner's work is that he is wonderfully clear, persuasive and entertaining. Following Tetlock, he argues that there are two basic thinking styles. As the famous quote has it `the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. When called upon to make predictions, experts, says Gardner, behave either like foxes or hedgehogs. Foxes, knowing many things, tend to make cautious predictions hedging them around with qualifications. They don't attach great certainty to them and, if they are wrong, they accept the fact and see what can be learned. Hedgehogs, however, knowing one big thing are absolutely certain about their predictions. They base them on the one big thing they think they know, and when they are shown to be wrong they come up with numerous excuses to show that they were right `really' - the reasoning was sound they were just a little out on the timing, for example, or they would have been right had people not heeded their warning and changed their behaviour, etc.

Several interesting things follow from this. Firstly, everyone - foxes, hedgehogs and random members of the public alike - is bad at predicting the future. In their fields, however, foxes - knowing a bit - tend to be a little better than a control group. Hedgehogs, however, are typically worse than random members of the public. Moreover, the more they claim to know about something, the closer it is to their `specialist field' the more likely they are to be talking nonsense. However - and this is the real reason why we should never pay any attention to expert predictions we read in the papers - the media loves a hedgehog. Foxes never get airtime because `well I think it's more likely than not that this will happen, but on the other hand there's still a fair possibility that it won't' makes bad copy. `The world will definitely end next Tuesday' on the other hand, is great copy. And when it turns out to be another in a long line of rank nonsense, no one is ever called to account because `prediction was wrong' is rarely good copy either.

The most entertaining parts of Gardner's book, though, are when he does call to account some of the so-called experts over their failed predictions. Fans of Paul Erlich, in particular, might like to look away during the repeated savagings that he receives. Robert Heilbroner and our own William Rees (mystic) Mogg are among the others given a well-deserved kicking. It raises the delicious possibility that, after their own books have long ceased to be read, they may only be known to posterity as the failed 'experts' mentioned in Gardner's work. Well, we can but hope.

The overall message - perhaps surprisingly - isn't one of despair. At least not complete despair. True, as a species we're not likely to get over our obsession with certainty, our desire to look into the future, or our credulous belief in those who can look confident and plausible as they claim to be able to do so. However, if you are cautious, learn a lot about your chosen sphere, make careful, hedged, nuanced predictions, and try to acknowledge and learn from your inevitable mistakes you might just get to be right more often than you're wrong. Don't expect to get in the papers though.

Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk
Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk
by Jeanette Leech
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.95

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exceptionally thorough history of acid folk, 12 Jun. 2011
"Cosmic Tumble Drier was founded by Jefferson Stoner, formerly bass player in Norwich-based prog rock outfit Jam Sponge, together with percussionist Mungo Zboing (formerly Paul Smith) and virtuoso violinist Amelia Molecatcher. After touring the university circuit for a couple of years, it was spotted by Ebenezer Hare and signed to his Majestic Hat Stand label. The group's first album, `The Wizard walks from East to West and back again' emerged in 1971. This delicate succession of moody, wafer thin folk was heavily influenced by traditional Celtic music and West Coast psychedelia, and sold 57 copies. This was followed by `All Hail to the Goddess of the Trouser' (1973), a rougher-edged, more dynamic composition introducing elements of blues and brass band music. However, the cracks were already beginning to show. At a performance in Milton Keynes, disagreements over the correct use of a Corby Trouser Press saw the band disintegrate: Stoner went on to play in a series of psychedelic folk groups, most notably Druidic Fridge and Toboggan Wheel Harmony Experience, while Molecatcher enjoyed some success with death metal outfit, Extreme Terror Donut. Zboing, meanwhile, dropped out of the scene altogether to fulfil his lifetime ambition of becoming a traffic warden."

That's a paragraph taken from chapter 7 of `Seasons They Change'. No it isn't, I'm lying. I just made it up. However, it might as well have been.

Now, please don't take this the wrong way. I'm not taking the mickey. Well, alright I am, but only a little and affectionately. The truth is that this is a good book and I enjoyed it. It has many strong points, foremost amongst them that the author has done an incredibly thorough job of researching every aspect of alt. folk, weird folk, folk rock, acid folk, psychedelic folk, new weird America and a heap of other genres I hadn't even heard of. She has conducted a large number of original interviews, and gone into great depth to outline the histories of bands that in many cases only enjoyed a mayfly life. And she hasn't just limited herself to the US and Britain - you can find information here on alternative folk in Italy, Germany, even Eastern Europe before the crumbling of the iron curtain. For sheer thoroughness it's impossible to imagine how Seasons they Change could be beaten.

This makes it an ideal book for anyone who already has a good knowledge of the area and wants to plug some gaps. If that's your aim you will not be disappointed. However, the general reader should probably be warned off it. One of the other reviews described this book as `encyclopaedic', and that's exactly what it is. Unless you want to immerse yourself in the field as quickly and as completely as possible, it can be very hard going. Most of the chapters concern the doings of one small band after another, and unless you already know the music of at least some of them then pretty soon it can start to feel a bit samey.

An interesting contrast is with Rob Young's recent book on British folk, `Electric Eden'. Young's work is narrower in that it concentrates on Britain - really England - and has nothing much to say about developments after the 1970s. It is certainly a great deal less thorough, either in terms of the number of bands covered or the mistakes made (Electric Eden contains a number of embarrassing errors while, the odd typo and the inevitable disputes over selection aside, Seasons They Change seems relatively error free). However, Electric Eden is still probably the better book, especially for the more general reader. In concentrating more on the key people and developments, and then weaving them into the context of broader trends in society and culture, it feels more like a story and less a series of tenuously connected episodes.

The four stars is a compromise. If you know a fair bit about this area already and want to expand your listening further, this is the book for you - five stars. If, on the other hand, you have a few Steeleye Span LPs and a vague interest in hippie culture then you might want to start somewhere else.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2012 6:24 PM GMT

Enough: Breaking Free from the World of Excess
Enough: Breaking Free from the World of Excess
by John Naish
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More!, 6 Jun. 2011
I just want to add my voice to the many who are saying just what an excellent book this is. Interesting, inspiring, well-written - every page was enjoyable, which is all the more surprising when you consider how easy it is to get something like this wrong.

I've read quite a few books like this now, and I've started quite a few more, and given them up in disgust. I mean, first there are the smug ones - you know, "we knit all our own pasta, installed a wind generator in our back garden and decided to eat only vegetables that no one can spell, and we only earn 200K a year, so if we can do it anyone can". Then there are the would-be SAS members - you know, `how I lived on no money a year by building my own lean-to shelter on waste ground and living solely on earwigs'. (You think I'm joking? Try `The Moneyless Man'). These can be great fun. But between them I fear they actually do a lot of harm by suggesting to the rest of us that there's no middle ground - it's either all the trappings of modern consumerism or it's composting toilets and bring your own meal worms.

So, it's great to read something intelligent, down-to-earth and realistic by someone who is clearly sane. Naish's main concern is with the various ways in which modern life is doing us damage. Examples include our obsessive consumption of media and our relentless pursuit of `positional goods' - that is things that don't primarily provide us with an absolute benefit (like food, shelter and warmth etc., do) but which are mainly attractive because of their scarcity, and the status that this gives us. He even tackles the holy of holies of our modern society - the idea that we should all be happy all of the time.

Naish's recommendations are staunchly individualist. Mostly, they involve examining our own assumptions and trying to make small, everyday changes - going cold turkey on the news, for example (it's easier than you think and does nothing but good) and trying to remove ourselves from some of the worst excesses of competitive consumption. This may be seen by some as a weakness of the book. After all, it's rampant individualism that has got us into this mess in the first place. What we need are collective answers. (See, for example, `The Rebel Sell' for an intelligent presentation of this view). Well, yes, I agree: in the long term, some form of collective response will be necessary. But it's not going to happen for a while yet. At least for the foreseeable future, if we want to make our lives better it's going to be up to us. And, given that economies (not to mention psychologies) change only slowly, it may even be preferable if things move slowly, at least to start with. A combination of big changes by a few people, and small changes by a lot of people could get the ball rolling in the right direction. And once enough people are on board, the politicians will follow (naturally claiming it was their idea all along).

But no one is going to change unless they start to see it as in their best interests. And this is one area where Naish scores over a lot of similar books. By the end of the book, you don't just start to think that people with no TV, no car (or a small car), no interest in designer labels and so on are perhaps more virtuous than you or I. You actually start to envy them. In other words, Naish manages to turn free time and a simpler life into the greatest positional goods of them all. Which is great, because non-consumption is a hard sell; persuading us that it's virtuous just doesn't cut it. Persuading us that it's cool, on the other hand...

The other area in which this book really scores is the humour and the quality of the writing. Without being showy, preachy or dull it rumbles along at a fast pace taking us with it. My only complaint: there are not more books like this.

No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s
No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s
by Andy McSmith
Edition: Paperback

25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good journalism, but is it a history?, 8 May 2011
"It's hard to see how this account could be bettered", says Andrew Marr on the cover of the `No Such Thing as Society'. Well, no, Andrew, I'm afraid it's not. Here are three ways in which it could have been improved.

First, and most seriously, his selection of material is totally lacking in discrimination. The first job of the historian is to select from the multitude of events those of genuine importance; McSmith seems more interested in trying to squeeze in as much of what happened as possible. Often the things that fall out are the more significant but less eye-catching. So, for example, the index references Westwood (Vivienne) but not Westland (Helicopters). Judging by the space allocated to each topic, anyone with no knowledge of the decade would assume that The Young Ones was as important as the miners' strike; the New Romantics as important as the Brixton Riots; and Live Aid probably more important than all of them. Perhaps a dedicated postmodernist would want to claim exactly that, but McSmith doesn't come across as a postmodernist, so I assume he was just being unselective.

Secondly, when he does cover a topic he summarises what happened well enough, but doesn't really offer much explanation of why it happened in the way it did. So, for example, to really understand the way that the Labour Party imploded in the first half of the decade, you need to go quite a long way back into the 1970s, and understand its changing relationship with the unions and other trends on the radical left. McSmith touches on this, but the 70s is a bit outside his remit. So you need to know a bit already about some of the topics covered before you can really get the best from this work.

Finally, there's not a great deal of new research on show. Rather than conducting new interviews with some of the important protagonists, he seems to have been happy to put it together from secondary sources and newspapers. This contrasts badly with Andy Beckett who, in `When the Lights Went Out', his masterly account of the 1970s, talked to a large number of people, from the likes of Edward Heath and Peter Walker through to individual shop stewards. The result is that Beckett's book has a life and an immediacy that McSmith's lacks.

So, why four stars? Because I think you have to take this book for what it is. This is not really a history, it's a series of journalistic essays on aspects of 80s politics and culture. And viewed that way it's really very good. McSmith worked as a journalist, among other things, during the decade; he made contacts and picked up a lot of gossip and he treats us to some of it here (some of the best bits of which, incidentally, are hidden away in the footnotes). His work has all the virtues of the best journalism - it's well written, snappy, gossipy, admirably clear and concise. You might not come away with a detailed understanding of all the trends and developments that took place during this complex decade, but if you know nothing you will get a good overview very quickly. And if, like me, you lived through it first time around, you will be reminded of a few things you've forgotten and have a few holes filled. As long as you don't expect more from it, it's highly recommended.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 27, 2012 11:26 PM BST

Economyths: Ten Ways That Economics Gets it Wrong
Economyths: Ten Ways That Economics Gets it Wrong
by David Orrell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

70 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Possibly the best book to come out of the credit crunch, 20 Feb. 2011
After any great political or sociological phenomenon, the publishing industry's response tends to follow three distinct phases. Firstly, there are knee-jerk accounts of what happened by people who frankly don't have a clue. In the case of the credit crunch the worst include cash-in City memoires by assorted junior traders, and opportunistic accounts by novelists, political science academics and others who barely know their RAVs from their elbows. The second wave includes more considered accounts by more knowledgeable types. These typically take longer to get out because their authors are waiting for the dust to settle/have proper jobs. Here you tend to get books by senior City figures, intelligent financial journalists and so on. These, however, are still focused on describing and explaining what has just occurred, and perhaps offering suggestions for regulatory changes to make them less likely to occur again. Philip Augur's `Reckless' is a good example of this type. Finally, you get the books that put the events into their wider context and suggest some more radical solutions. These can be very variable indeed, ranging from the frankly nutty to the brilliant. `Economyths' is brilliant.

As it happens, I wasn't expecting a great deal from the book. David Orrell isn't an economist, he's an applied mathematician, and he hasn't, so far as I can tell, worked in the City. Books by outsiders, however talented, frequently miss the point, often because they are pushing a political agenda, or perhaps because they just `don't get it'. But I was pleasantly surprised from the first chapter, and by the end I was absolutely converted to his viewpoint. Indeed, is should carry a health warning - read this book and you will never be able to take the claims of classical economics seriously again.

In each of his ten chapters Orrell takes aim at one of the founding assumptions of neo-classical economics, like `Homo economicus' and the efficient markets hypothesis, and knocks them down one by one. Typically he starts by undermining their foundations by showing their questionable origins (usually in dodgy analogies to 19th Century physics). Then he meticulously demonstrates how they distort, fail to represent or contradict the economic data. By the end, you wonder how you ever took them seriously at all.

Easily my favourite chapter was his demolition of the `law' of supply and demand. This is perhaps the one thing that everyone thinks they know and agrees with about economics. Yet, if it was true, markets would always (at least in the absence of catastrophic shocks to supply or demand) self-regulate towards a mean. The mean itself would change only slowly (e.g. with changes in agricultural practice, general wealth or population) and bubbles would be effectively impossible. In fact, bubbles in all sorts of areas are relatively common. Orrell demonstrates convincingly that in certain circumstances market moves operate as `negative feedback' and the `law' holds, in others they operate as `positive feedback' and it doesn't. It's an obvious point, and it's been made before, but rarely has it been made so fluently or convincingly. It turns out that the Gausian bell curve does not represent the typical shape of market movements - at least not stock markets with their heavily speculative character - but instead they observe the fractal `power relationships' visible in, for example, the ratio of earthquake magnitude to frequency. If you're like me you'll be slapping your forehead.

Markets, it seems, are more like chaotic organic systems than the well-regulated physical `machines' that the neo-classical economists would have us believe. And this is where the book ascends above similar attacks on the status quo, into the realms of genius. Too many critiques of the neo-classical, liberal consensus point out plausibly what is wrong and then point vaguely in the direction of a `something' that must be done. For example, we didn't need David Orrell to tell us that `homo economicus' was a myth, and a silly one at that. Anyone who's read the work of Kahneman and Tversky knows that. But that lack of a plausible alternative theoretical framework allows the neo-classical economists to throw them off. We've seen a lot of work recently aimed at tweaking the models to deal with things like asymmetrical information or imperfect rationality.

Orrell recognises that we need a Copernican revolution to sweep away these Ptolemaic epicycles and the discredited theory they are shoring up. Fortunately, with his mathematical background he recognises that maths and physics haven't stood still, and that changes in the fields of network theory, for example, hold the key to a looser but more accurate model - or more likely set of models - that would more correctly describe the behaviour of economies. This doesn't set out a new framework - that would take a long and complex book - but it plausibly shows where one is to be found, and hopefully a new generation of economists will be inspired to fill in the gaps.

This is a book that should be read by everyone. It deserves to be a best seller. I suspect it won't be, though, and the responsibility lies with the publishers. This is a serious, exciting, invigoration and beautifully written destruction of the economic status quo. So, what do they do? Package it in a garish mustard yellow cover with a stupid, cartoonish design so that it looks like it's aimed at children. Even the subtitle ("Ten Ways That Economics Gets it Wrong") doesn't do justice to the scope and importance of this book. So, come on Icon, re-release this with a properly-designed, smart cover, and get it on the `three for two' tables. Your author deserves it. We deserve it.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 29, 2013 10:16 AM BST

All in the Best Possible Taste: Growing Up Watching Telly in the Eighties
All in the Best Possible Taste: Growing Up Watching Telly in the Eighties
by Tom Bromley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I heart the 80s, on paper-view, 2 Feb. 2011
I'm sure you remember, a few years ago, there was a spate of nostalgia programmes, most of them I think on Channel 4, with names like `I love the 70s', `The Hundred Best TV moments of the 80s', `I love that bit 15 minutes ago they haven't given a name to yet', and `Your All Time Greatest Test Cards'. The trend for nostalgia about things that we didn't think much of the first time seems to be slightly in abeyance now. But never fear! Because, through the technological breakthrough known as `Pay-per-view'... sorry, I mean `Paper-view', you can relive all your favourite 80s TV moments, like, you known, when that thing happened on Neighbours, and JR said that thing on Dallas, and the shoulder pads eh? And goodness didn't we laugh?

OK, I'm being unfair. Just like `I love the 80s', `All in the Best Possible Taste' was clearly intended as a bit of fun, and not high art, and that's what it is. If you enjoyed that sort of nostalgia-fest, there's a fair chance you'll enjoy this too.

But it does suffer from three problems. Firstly, I'm afraid to say it's not actually that funny. A lot of the humour involves rather heavy handed riffs on what a lot has changed in 30 years. `Can you believe we only had three TV channels!?! I mean, less than four?!!?! Until Channel 4 of course. And we didn't know what a mobile phone was??! Isn't that amazing!?!! And did I mention the shoulder pads??!' Given that the book is subtitled `Growing Up Watching TV in the 80s', there's very little here about the growing up bit. Usually I'd say that was a good thing - I'm getting fed up with reading books by journos who think that, because they've squeezed something about pop-music, or football, or Dr Who or something genuinely popular into the title, this gives them carte blanche to go on endlessly about their dull lives, like we care. But in Bromley's case, it's actually a bit of a shame, because the details of his childhood turn out to be some of the funniest bits of the book. His description of visits to pre-McDonald's fast food outlets did indeed make me laugh out loud.

Secondly, it's a bit of a list. For example, Bromley will talk about, say, sit-coms, and he'll have to run through all the sit-coms he can remember from the 80s, in a sort of `oh, and then there was that one... and do you remember whatsit... oh, and who can forget...' way. This relentless production of lists means that parts of the book resemble York Passnotes on 80s culture.

Which brings me to the third, and related, problem - there's not a lot here that you don't already know, as least if you remember the 80s (and if you don't, why are you buying it? Research?) The potted descriptions of soaps and sitcoms tend towards basic plot overviews, and rarely deviate from the mainstream - Dallas and Dynasty, Grandstand, Neighbours, East Enders, Blackadder and the Young Ones. All well and good, but I was hoping for something more obscure - to be reminded of the programmes I'd forgotten or at least to learn something new about the ones I hadn't.

That, in a nutshell, is why (as another review points out) this book isn't nearly as good as Brian Viner's account of 70s viewing - `Nice to see it, to see it nice'. Viner is a professional TV reviewer. He sits at the feet of the Gods. I mean, he plays golf with Brucie for goodness sake. Bromley is a novelist.

Anyway, buy this if you enjoy things like `I heart the 80s' and want a few hours of nostalgic distraction. But, like so much of 80s programming itself, it's ultimately throwaway.

The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy
The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy
by Raj Patel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The least worst solution, 30 Jan. 2011
How often have you started off a book full of enthusiasm, loved the first few chapters, and then found yourself wishing the author had stopped half way through? I get that all the time. I imagine it's because it's natural to deal with problems in two parts - `what's wrong with the current system; what we should do about it'. Unfortunately it's much easier to knock the existing system than to outline a new one. So lots of books follow a detailed and interesting critique of the current state of play with a woolly cry of `something must be done, and it should look a bit like this'. This is a case in point.

There's a growing consensus that conventional economics contains some very, very dubious assumptions at its core. One of the most dubious is that of `homo economicus' - the person who in any given situation will act so as to maximise their utility. Another is the Efficient Markets Hypothesis - roughly the claim that markets are `informationally efficient', that prices reflect all publically available information and instantly change to reflect new information. A lot of economic models require these assumptions to get going.

Now, I'm not exactly an economics insider, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that neither of these claims comes close to representing the world as it really exists (as opposed to as it exists in the heads of certain members of the Chicago school), and that the most interesting work within the discipline is being done by people who make contrary assumptions. Patel takes aim at both of them - especially effectively at homo economicus - and scores a number of hits. We do not, it seems, behave much like this in real life. We would be pretty horrible if we did. Companies, however - those artificial `people' who hold so much power in our world - behave exactly like this. That is why they are horrible.

Of course, he's not the only person saying this. It's been done in a lot of other recent books (particularly effectively by David Orrell in `Economyths'). But where he really scores is in his enthusiasm for alternatives to conventional property holding structures. Patel is a big fan of `the commons' - rather than accept the conventional wisdom that any communally held property must inevitably be destroyed by competitive use, he believes that the relationships that exist between individuals in groups working together to secure and hold assets in trust can make this the best form of `ownership' in many ways. I'm not sure I agree, but it's always good to hear an articulate attack on the way things are done. We all need to be jolted from our complacency occasionally and shown that there might be another way.

Unfortunately, Patel's strength in critiquing the existing system turns into weakness when he tries to put something in its place. There's value in being a utopian dreamer when you're criticising hard-nosed corporates; when what you have to propose looks like utopian dreaming, what you need is hard-nosed facts. Patel doesn't seem to have much of a grip on these, so his `proposals', such as they are, look an awful lot like wishful thinking.

Patel's core claim seems to be that many of the world's problems - from poverty to climate change - can be solved by the spread of local democracy. Oppressed people can and should take charge of their situations; grass roots movements are better able to solve problems in `human-friendly' terms than corporations or governments. Governments themselves should return power to people and place limits on corporates. To illustrate this, he provides a series of case studies covering things like the shack-dwellers' rights movement in South Africa, or participatory budgeting in South America. And, I have to say, they are fascinating and uplifting. Many of them could provide the material for books by themselves; some of them have done.

The problem is, though, this is all he provides. It's fine to be anti-corporate and pro-local democracy. Personally, I'm as anti-corporate as the next tree-loving hippy. But, if you know anything about history, you know that - greedy and nasty as they are - corporates don't have nearly as bad a track record as governments. Bluntly, Stalin wasn't head of IBM, and the world would have been a better place if that had been the limit of his `achievements'.

Nor do small, `grass-roots' groups of people have a particularly glorious record of living in harmony with nature. Whenever I hear someone going on about the wisdom of indigenous people, it's fun to remind them that the reason the conquistadors had to reintroduce the horse to America is because the ancestors of the native Americans had butchered theirs (as well as the American Camel and various other higher mammals) with an almost mechanistic efficiency, while the Australian Aborigines had slashed and burned their way through a forest that once covered the entire island and ancient peoples provoked economic and environmental collapses in the Middle East and South America through degrading the soil. This is the unavoidable truth of the `tragedy of the commons' that Patel claimed doesn't exist.

It's easy to find uplifting examples of small groups fighting David and Goliath struggles against big business, because at the moment their interests are often antithetical to those of big business. Take big business out of the equation and you'd find lots of examples of small, grass-roots organisations fighting other small, grass-roots organisations. Actually, come to think of it, it's pretty easy to find these examples anyway. The problem lies with us. Carve us how you like, big groups, small groups, or even wrapped up in companies, we're still the same old homo sapiens we've come to know and love - greedy, selfish and stupid, but nonetheless capable of great goodness and wisdom from time to time.

So, there's no `answer' to the problem Patel raises. The `answer' doesn't lie with local democracy and common land holding any more than it lies with greater government intervention or the market. The interesting and important thing to do, then, would be to analyse what might be the `least worst' solution we might hope for, and then what mixture of government, corporate, individual and group activity would best deliver it. That is what we have a right to hope for from a book like this; sadly it was entirely lacking.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 10, 2013 1:43 PM BST

Bitter Ocean: The Dramatic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945
Bitter Ocean: The Dramatic Story of the Battle of the Atlantic 1939-1945
by David Fairbank White
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Wet, 18 Dec. 2010
I really wanted to like this. Here, after all, is an American who a) understands the singular importance of the Battle of the Atlantic in the history of World War II, and b) appreciates that the US Navy played almost no part in winning it. The signs that this would not be a very good book start as early as page 5, however, when he cites "Trafalgar, Jutland, Omdurman" as "monuments to British military achievement". Jutland? Omdurman? Not, say, Waterloo or Blenheim or (restricting it to the Navy) The Nile or Cape St Vincent? Jutland, of course, was a costly stalemate, which is usually seen as a German victory on points; Omdurman was the destruction of an ill-equipped, badly led native army - the sort of imperial adventure that we're now keen to forget.

This hint that Mr Fairbank White doesn't actually know much about British history is more than fulfilled in what follows. I didn't spot the V2 mistake that everyone else is mentioning, I have to say. But to my mind the most spectacular set of blunders occurs on page 153, where, in the course of one short paragraph, he refers to British success in the French "Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1797 to 1805)" (er, make that 1792 to 1815); the "Crimean War (1853)" (make that 1853 to 1856, and, apart from operating shore batteries, the navy played a fairly minor role in it), and then notes that it "crushed the Germans in World War I" (thankfully he gets the dates right this time, but when exactly was the German Navy crushed? The only major fleet engagement, Jutland was, as mentioned, a stalemate at best). Elsewhere, he writes of HMS Hood as a "ponderous, towering fort of steel", a bizarre description of a ship that could make 31 knots, but was fatally under armoured. And he describes the British officers as "descended from 18th Century First Rates" - first rate was a designation of ships, not of seamen.

Nor are the `facts' we're quoted always consistent. On page 202, we're told that, during the war American shipyards turned out a fleet "almost the size of the entire British Merchant Navy, the largest in the world, in 1937". Two pages later, we're told that they performed this feat during 1943 alone, which makes you wonder what they did for the next two years.

Unsurprisingly, then, there is little of interest here. Mr Fairbank White seems to have conducted some original interviews, but makes little use of them. And what factual material he does marshal is so poorly presented - one minute it's 1942, then it's 1943, then it's back to 1941 again - that any narrative thrust is lost. Additionally, there are gaping holes in both the overall sweep of the story and the details. For example, there's no mention of the German G7 acoustic homing torpedo, or of the Foxer acoustic decoy and its US and Canadian equivalents, nor is there much on the Hedgehog depth charge thrower, despite it's huge significance. More significantly, there is nothing at all on submarine v submarine warfare, even though this developed and became increasingly important as the war dragged on.

What we have instead is padding - acres and acres of padding. No one ever just looks ordinary; they all have square jaws that require three or four adjectives to describe. The result is sentences like this (p.159): "He was leaning into the forward bridge bulkhead as she took the waves, looking with his glasses out the round portholes of the Spencer, quiet, studied, looking grim; but his face had a certain hardness in it which always made him look grim, but for his smile." I suppose the author intends this to be hard-boiled prose, a la Hemingway or Hammett; it is in fact just irritating.

So, sorry but this is one to avoid. Or, as Mr Fairbank White might have put it, "avoid this book like it was a twenty foot steel fish drawing inexorably towards you through the freezing waters of the implacable, furrowed, churning, swirling, unfathomable Atlantic ocean, with death in its single, sightless, grey, steel eye."
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 16, 2012 9:59 PM BST

The Clifton House Mystery - The Complete Series [DVD] [1978]
The Clifton House Mystery - The Complete Series [DVD] [1978]
Dvd ~ Sebastian Breaks
Price: £7.80

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars They don't make them like this anymore, 18 Dec. 2010
I didn't see this during the late 1970s, when it first aired. But I had heard something about it. And, as a fan of 70s cult TV, I was keen to check it out. I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed it a lot. But it won't be to everyone's taste.

The plot is simple. The family of the conductor of the Bristol Chamber Orchestra move into a spooky old house in the Clifton area of Bristol, which has been in the family of its previous owners for centuries. A series of strange events occur. The two sons then enrol the assistance of ghost hunter extraordinaire, Milton Guest, beautifully hammed up by Peter Sallis. The daughter Jenny, however, feels sorry for the ghosts and wants them to stay. There's a back-story involving the 1831 Bristol Riots, which allows the producers to get some local history in. In the end, the ghosts are exorcised... or are they?

The results are decidedly odd. The first three or four episodes are genuinely eerie. Then, with the appearance of Peter Sallis, it all goes a bit Rentaghost. The final episode is almost comic. At other times it feels like a schools programme, with its low production values and large slices of local history clumsily introduced into the dialogue (Bristoleans hoping for nostalgic shots of 1970s Clifton will, however, be disappointed - it's shot entirely in the studio). Personally, I found it charming - it took me right back to my 70s childhood when there was lots of this sort of thing on the box. But if you're likely to be put off by creaky sets and dodgy special effects, or are looking for something more spine-tingling, this might not be for you.

Confessions of a Conjuror
Confessions of a Conjuror
by Derren Brown
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Needs more nails, 18 Dec. 2010
OK, I'm going to say this straight out: like everyone else here I love Derren Brown. He's brilliant; I'll watch or read anything he does. His previous book, Tricks of the Mind, was an eye-opener and remains one of very few that I have the patience to re-read. So I bought this in hardback without reading the reviews.

And was I disappointed? No. Not really. Well, perhaps just a tiny bit. Derren himself seems to be a connoisseur of weak and hard-to-describe emotions - he would understand, I suspect, that very British feeling of having enjoyed an experience perhaps fractionally less than one was anticipating yet without really having had cause.

It sets out to be an autobiography like no other, and here it succeeds. The entire `action' takes place within the course of a handful of tricks, lasting perhaps ten minutes, performed at a table in a restaurant in Bristol before he is famous. That, of course, is just a hook on which to hang a series of digressions into his past and present, as well as ideas, thoughts and passing observations. It works surprisingly well - you get a much better feeling for the man than you do from some other, more traditional `linear' accounts.

The prose, of course, is whimsical verging occasionally on the orotund. It would ruin another book, but that too works here. Anyone who has seen him or read his other books would expect nothing less, though I do agree with those other reviewers who expressed exasperation with the length of some of his footnotes. The one on the operation of the lift in his apartment block in particular seemed to go on for ever. Please - if it's worth saying, incorporate it into the body of the text.

No, I think the disappointment stems from the fact that, well, Mr Brown emerges from the text as pleasant, decent, even normal. I had built up this detailed mental image of him sitting alone in a darkened room of an evening, perhaps with an oil lamp sputtering in a corner, dressed in a black velvet frock coat, hammering nails up his nose while he enjoys a glass of vintage port. Perhaps occasionally he gets up to paint a witty caricature of a long-dead movie actor, or to stuff a dead animal, or to mutter incantations over his parrot. Or perhaps to count things - I think I imagined him dropping boxes of matches over his carpet all evening so he could count them implausibly quickly.

Anyway, it turns out he's not especially weird at all. He sings while brushing his teeth, loses his pens and gets annoyed about it, makes social gaffs caused by shyness and awkwardness, buys DVDs he never watches, is occasionally a sucker for marketing hype, and has a favourite chair in Starbucks. The views he expresses are measured, intelligent, compassionate and sensible. In short, he's a nice, educated, urban, middle-class, 40-something. I have lots of friends like that.

But why, I wondered, after deliberately building up this image of himself as the nation's leading exponent of the Jedi-mind trick and all-round odd-ball, has he now gone to such great lengths to break it down? The answer, it seems, is that he is in love. Presumably, he wants to be able to introduce his partner to people, to attend dinner parties and so on, and generally to be treated as a normal couple. Good luck to him. And Derren, if you're reading this (and he admits to being a fan of online purchases and thin-skinned about criticism, so I suppose he might) I still think you're the best thing on TV - please go on doing what you do.

But it just goes to show that you should never meet your heroes.

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