Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine (Books 2014, 20)

A Christmas present: started on Christmas Day and finished just after midnight on the 3rd of January. So I could call it 2015 number 1, but it makes more sense to go with the year in which I started it and read most of it. Anyway, it’s all a bit arbitrary.

Viv Albertine, as I’m sure you know, was the guitarist in The Slits. They had only a short time in punk’s limelight (though as I learned from this, they released a second album, not just the one I’m familiar with).

This book is half about her early years and the punk days, and half about after. She went on to work as a filmmaker and then struggled to have a child, had serious health problems. Eventually she re-taught herself to play guitar, and started performing again (I saw her supporting the Damned a couple of years back, and then supporting Siouxsie at Meltdown a year and half back).

It’s really interesting reading about a time I lived through, events I experienced — from afar, true, but still ones I felt part of — from someone else’s point of view. Especially that of someone who was at the heart of many of the events.

And she writes with some style; it’s a compelling read. She makes some strange choices: for example, she only ever refers to her sister as “my sister”; we never get her name. Similarly with the man she marries. Initial he’s “The Biker”, and then “my husband”.

I suppose it’s a matter of protecting the privacy of people who are still alive — especially in the latter case, because he doesn’t come out of it terribly well. Indeed, it may be the case that the only people who are named are those who were already in the public eye to some degree.

Any road, if you are into music, especially punk, at all, I would highly recommend reading this. I plan to get her new album — which came out two years ago, it turns out — The Vermilion Border.

Eclipse SVN key bindings not working

I often get problems with the key bindings when I create a new Eclipse workspace. The recent ones with Subversion seemed intractable until I found this answer on the mighty StackOverflow.

It’s a frustrating thing when your muscle-memory has an action and it doesn’t trigger the expected response.

keyboard shortcuts - SVN key bindings not working in Eclipse - Stack Overflow.

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (Books 2014, 18)

You know when you hear about a book, or read a recommendation, and you think, “That sounds interesting…” And then a bit later it’s available on Kindle for like 79p, so you download it? And then just a short time later you get round to reading it, and you think maybe you’ve heard that the author has written a sequel in the meantime?

And then you get to the end and discover that there are now six books in the series! Six! Do you?

That’s a definition of time passing without you noticing it properly. it’s very bad.

Unlike this book, which is very good; especially if you like tales of people escaping from hell and battling with demons, angels, and other creatures of the supernatural, while running a video store (sort of), drinking Jack Daniels, and stealing cars in LA (why does he steal cars when he has a key to the Room of Thirteen Doors, which can take him anywhere?)

Good stuff. And I daresay the sequels will be up to the mark too; though I’m not going to dive straight into those. I’ll give it a rest first.

The Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (Books 2014, 17)

A rereading, of course; in fact, this is probably something like the sixth time I’ve read this. I keep coming back to it. And why not? There’s music, magic, musings, sex, drugs, and conspiracies. Lots and lots of conspiracies.

It felt very on trend, as the trendy types say, to be reading it in 2014. We are at a time when the idea of the Illuminati is not just well known, but is discussed, or at least panicked about, among our nation’s schoolkids. Apparently lots of modern music stars — people like Rihanna, for example — are noted (by paranoid types) for being pawns of (or part of) the “actual” Illuminati.

The clues include any use of triangular imagery in their videos. You get the idea.

The people who believe in that sort of thing are just the types this great trilogy was written for. No, about. No: for.

The Circle by Dave Eggers (Books 2014, 16)

This is interesting. Seems to have got a lot of attention when it came out, but somehow I wasn’t aware of it. It’s very much a novel of now, though probably set slightly into the future — five minutes or so, probably.

Our hero, Mae Holland, is a young woman, not long out of college, who is just starting a job at the Circle. The Circle is GooTwitBook, essentially: a massive internet company that has gobbled up all the previous incumbents (it owns 90% of search, for example) and redefined interaction on the net via its TrueYou identity technology. Real names are not just encouraged; they are required.

Internet trolling disappeared overnight, it seems.

Unbelievable enough. Perhaps more so: no-one (almost no-one) seems to be in the least bit bothered by the reductions in privacy, the spread of The Circle into every aspect of life (putting chips in kids to prevent kidnapping; nobody complains; is kidnapping that much of a problem in the US?)

I thoroughly enjoyed it, I should say, before I tear into it too much. Eggers keeps the pages turning, which is always a plus. On the other hand, it takes a long time before anything significant happens. Mae starts her job, learns the ropes, meets people, gets more and more involved in the social-networking aspects of the circle… we know things are going to take a turn for the dramatic, because the blurb tells us so (“… the closer she comes to discovering a sinister truth…)

But it must be 200-odd pages in (of nearly 500) before we get much more than scene-setting.

And ultimately, while I can see how someone like Mae could be drawn further and further in after starting out with the best intentions, I find it very hard to believe that the entire rest of the world would go along with the extremities of the Circle’s plans. It’s set in essentially our world: where are the EFF? Where are the ACLU? Where are the voices from other countries that aren’t keen on an American corporation’s hegemony?

Where, even, are the corporations that stand up for privacy? I’ve just got a new iPhone 6 as I write this, and I can’t help but think that Apple’s pro-privacy stance — their assertion that no-one can get at our data stored in iCloud — not even them, not even if there’s a court order — is antithetical to everything that the Circle represents.

Which is one of the reasons why the Circle looks most like Google (it has three guys at the top, known as “the Three Wise Men”).

Of course, these criticisms might be just symptomatic of what can happen when you approach a “mainstream”, “literary” book with a science-fiction head: you question the worldbuilding, of course.

Ultimately it’s a shame: the Circle the organisation is completely believable and convincing in itself. It’s just hard to believe that it could expand in quite as unchecked a fashion as it does. And I found Mae to be partly endearing, partly annoying, which could be a realistic portrayal, and a good example of characterisation. In truth, though, she has no character. And possibly less believable than the growth of the Circle is the extent to which Mae gives herself to it, to its beliefs; even when they break her best friend, Annie, who got her the job in the first place.

So all in all, something of a wasted opportunity.

An elective monarchy, again

I was reminded of my recent post when I watched Thursday night’s The Big Bang Theory. It was the episode where they try to recreate a high-school prom — at their originals of which, all of them but Penny had bad experiences, of course.

Sheldon refers to the possibility of him being “elected Prom King,” and goes on to say that he’ll point out that kings aren’t elected.

He’s smart, but not that smart. Prom Kings and Queens, by definition, are elected, and in that context, that’s what the words mean.1

And words mean what we make them mean, and meanings change all the time.

  1. People often say that parliamentary elections “shouldn’t become a popularity contest.” But that, of course, is exactly what prom ones are. []

Sir Gawain and the Green Night translated by Bernard O’Donoghue (Books 2014, 15)

This is an unusual choice. It was a present; I do like poetry, but I probably wouldn’t have chosen it for myself.

But it’s great. I really enjoyed it. It’s a strange story. Set in King Arthur’s round table, of course — at least at the start. The titular hero (Gawain, I mean) is said to be the noblest, bravest, most humble, etc, knight.

A mysterious, supernatural, green figure interrupts the New Year feast at Camelot and issues a challenge. Gawain takes it up, and has a year to complete his side of the deal.

He’s clearly the top procrastinator of the round table, too, because he leaves it till after the following Christmas before he sets off to find the Green Knight.

The noble hero is tested and tempted, and (spoilers) wins through. It’s short, and fun. Oddly (or not) I remember the story, but nothing of the poetry. I could go and get the book and quote you some, but I think I’ll just leave it at that.

Oh, except to say, of course, this is an ancient work, and Tolkien also did a cover version of it. But I expect you knew that.

How to fix the UK constitution

There is a solution to one of the great constitutional questions of our age, and I have it.

Not, I might add, the question of making parliament more representative (that’s actually quite an easy one, and we even had a referendum on making it a bit better in this parliament, but we voted the wrong way). Nor indeed the one triggered by the Scottish referendum. It’s not even the most basic problem of our constitution, though I’ll answer that in passing: write it down.

No, I’m speaking of the problem of the head of state. Now it seems to me to be uncontentious to say that we need to move from a hereditary system to an elected one. The existence of a hereditary element to the government of a democracy is anathema; this is plain.

But if you suggest this to many (perhaps still most) British citizens,1 they will speak of a great affection for the Queen; maybe for the monarchy as an institution; and for the pageantry, and how great it is for tourism. Plus they’d point to recent less-than-impressive examples of US presidents, and say something like, “I wouldn’t want President Tony Blair.” Well, I could argue against any or all of those. But there’s no need to. Here’s the thing: as soon as we want to, we could switch to having an elected head of state, without losing any of the positives there, or introducing the negatives.

Well, we’d have to lose the Queen; the actual, current one, Elizabeth II. But that’s no problem: there won’t be any serious talk of change in her lifetime anyway. And probably not in Charlie’s for that matter. But at some point in the future we could have an elected head of state, and still keep the monarchy, the pageantry, and the palaces.

How? We just redefine the words “monarch”, “king”, and “queen”. We redefine them to be the title of the elected head of state in the UK. We elect one every few years — four, six, eight, it doesn’t really matter — and we keep everything else exactly the same. Because of course, we’re a constitutional monarchy. The monarch has no real power, officially,2 except to ask the leader of the party with most seats at a general election to form a government.

The rest is window-dressing: pageantry and symbolism. The individual doing the job could as easily be one chosen by the electorate as one assigned the task by chance of birth.3

Sure, such a person would be a president — a powerless president — in all but name. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the name is — to a lot of people, at least — what matters. Or at least that the concept referred to by the name does matter to many.

We would let the Windsors live on in reasonable splendour, in some of the Royal Palaces. We would only require one — and realistically it should probably be Buckingham Palace — to be the official residence of the new monarch. The others would still be owned by the state, of course, but the descendants of the last hereditary monarch would be allowed to live in them for a few generations at least.

Now, what sort of person would stand for election to a position with a fair amount of responsibility (state visits, and so on) and very little power? I don’t know, but that would work out over time. The principle works well enough in countries like Germany, where the president — yes, Germany has a president; who knew? — has a similar status to that of our elected monarch — and gets to live in a state-owned palace.

Furthermore, one power that the monarch does have is being the entity to whom members of the armed forces, the police, and indeed, MPs, take an oath. But even that wouldn’t be a problem. Those oaths are worded something like, “to Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors.” The new, elected monarch would indeed be the “successor” of the last hereditary one.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that this idea has been thought of before. There don’t appear to have been many examples of it, and slightly disturbingly, one of the few examples of one that’s currently in use is the Vatican. But in that case the Pope is head of state, head of government, and sole executive power; an elected dictator-for-life, in fact (and by a tiny, restricted electorate). My version would be much more limited in what they could do. And they wouldn’t think they had a direct line to anything more supernatural than the prime minister’s office.

When looking into the matter, I also found this forum discussion wherein people keep saying things like, “It’s a contradiction in terms: monarch means hereditary ruler…” Do they forget that English is a changing language, always growing, expanding, shifting meanings? If we want to redefine a monarch as being an elected person, we can.

Oh, and hey — there’ll be nothing to stop a Windsor standing for election. You never know, they’d probably win. But at least then they’d have a mandate.

  1. Which we are, despite what confused people think; just look at your passport. []
  2. Charles’s “black spider” letters notwithstanding. []
  3. They could be assigned it by lottery, by random choice, as with juries; but that’s a whole different thought. []