Friday, 3 December 2010

Keynes: The Return of the Master - Robert Skidelsky

On to my birthday presents... first up is an impassioned defence of the economist John Maynard Keynes by his leading biographer, Robert Skidelsky. The Return of the Master is a much slimmer affair than his original three-volume opus (which I haven't read) and has no time for any nuance that a longer work might provide. Appropriately for a book with such a Star Wars-ish title, Keynes is here presented as a Jedi master of economics, guardian of great monetary truths which later generations have foolishly cast aside.

The book opens with a potted history of the financial crisis and its aftermath. It's not a bad summary but I'm not sure what sort of reader it is aimed at. Anyone who has been following the story closely will find it short on revelations, while people with less abnormal interests will surely be baffled by all the unexplained jargon.

More substantial is the second chapter, which describes and denounces the three pillars of modern conventional economic wisdom: rational expectations, real business cycles and the efficient market theory. In the wake of the crisis this is like shooting at an open goal, but Skidelsky attacks them with impressive vim. He also introduces a fundamental theme of the book: the Keynesian contrast between risk (which is measurable) and uncertainty (which is not).

Skidelsky then introduces Keynes himself, discussing not only his economic theories but also his Bloomsbury background and his philosophical and political worldview. This is of course an authoritative account, but it suffers from a hero-worshipping tone that by the end makes you wish that he would criticise something, anything about the man (even his support of eugenics gets waved away). In Skidelsky's defence, it's undoubtedly true that Keynes' work has been unfairly maligned since the Keynesian consensus fell apart in the 1970s, but overcompensation is perhaps not the best strategy for correcting that.

Nevertheless the discussion of Keynes' economics is well worth reading. The comparison of global economic performance in the Keynesian golden age of 1950-1973 with 1980-2008 is enlightening and the discussion of the shift from unemployment-targeting to inflation-targeting by governments is very well explained. I'd have liked more on the 1973-1980 period though, seeing as that was the time when Keynesianism lost its momentum. We do however get the take home message that the supply shock problems of that period (which Keynesianism struggled to answer) are qualitatively different to the demand shock problems we face today (which Keynesianism is brilliantly suited to). This is the key to why Keynes is (or at least ought to be) back in fashion.

In the last chapter Skidelsky tries, slightly presumptuously, to imagine what Keynes' response to the current crisis would have been. Like any good Keynesian he is dismayed by how brief the world's commitment was to fiscal stimulus, and fearful of the consequences of the mania for austerity which has now taken hold. The ideas are interesting and radical, such as mechanisms for forcing balance of trade adjustments, the replacement of floating currencies with a standard based on a basket of commodities, and curbs on laissez-faire globalisation.

Skidelsky's proposals for reforming economics are much harder to welcome. Throughout the book he talks of the warring tribes of 'New Classicals' and 'New Keynesians', the 'freshwater' and 'saltwater' economists, who appear to be motivated chiefly by political posturing rather than a search for truth. From my prejudiced hard-science viewpoint it seems obvious that economists are simply not scientific enough, not dispassionate enough, not willing to see things as they are rather than how they would like them to be. 'Dismal' doesn't do them justice.

But Skidelsky takes the opposite view, declaring that there should be a general retreat from a scientific approach and a greater emphasis on politics and philosophy in the average economics degree. Essentially he wants economics degrees to be replaced with PPE (the degree course for wannabe politicians which explains so much about what is wrong with our politicians).

This view is grounded in his belief that the mathematical models in use are too idealised to describe economies as they are really are, and will never be able to take into account the irreducible uncertainty that lies at the heart of Keynes' approach. In this he has a point. But being appropriately sceptical of models is one thing, and throwing out maths altogether is quite another. What's really needed is more open-mindedness about the assumptions the models rest on and more humility about their predictive power.

Overall the book has a muddled and rushed style, and feels like it hasn't been edited properly (there are quite a few typos in the text). But it is still an enjoyable primer on Keynes, and hardcore anti-Keynesians who wish to repent will find it a good place to start.

Keynes: The Return of the Master
by Robert Skidelsky
First published in 2009

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Age of Wonder - Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder tells the story of the Romantic era of science, which Richard Holmes defines as beginning with Joseph Banks' voyage aboard the Endeavour in 1769 and lasting until Charles Darwin's voyage on the Beagle in 1831. Romanticism is conventionally seen in opposition to the rational view of the world espoused by science, but Holmes describes how many leading scientists of the age shared the same spirit.

Each chapter concentrates on a different person or group, starting off with Banks' work as a botanist and hands-on anthropologist among the indigenous people of Tahiti. He was the talk of the town on his return and quickly ascended to the position of President of the Royal Society, where he had a talent for encouraging other intrepid schemers. The following chapters tell the story of William and Caroline Herschel, the brother-and-sister astronomy team, the craze for ballooning in France and Britain (which Banks was distinctly more sceptical about), and the ill-fated explorer Mungo Park.

The second half of the book focuses on the chemist Humphry Davy. His rise to fame began in Bristol as part of research into the medicinal properties of gas inhalation, where he discovered the peculiar properties of nitrous oxide. Davy's talents were spotted by Banks and he moved to the Royal Institution, where he discovered more than his fair share of elements and became a celebrated lecturer. After Banks' death Davy became President, but he was never popular with his colleagues (particularly over the treatment of his protégé Faraday) and the next wave of scientists started to grumble about the decline of British science.

But while not an accomplished administrator Davy is the model of Holmes' Romantic scientist. It helps that Davy was good friends with Coleridge (who unsurprisingly took a close interest in the nitrous oxide experiments) and was a keen amateur poet himself. In fact throughout the book there are links between the scientific and literary worlds, most obviously with the Shelleys in the chapter on Frankenstein. In the end only Blake stands out as a real science-hater.

The Age of Wonder paints a fascinating picture of Romantic science and deserves all the many plaudits it has received. The Romantic era is Holmes' specialist subject and the literary angle he introduces casts a fresh light on familiar scientific stories. It is very much a study of science in relation to society, and in particular from the point of view of the Royal Society in London, so provincial sorts like John Dalton don't get much of a look in. But nevertheless it is a well-rounded account of the last generation of 'natural philosophers'.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
First published in 2008

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

In the wake of the government's decision to cut £18bn from the welfare budget as part of its madcap experiment on the UK economy, there could hardly be a more appropriate time to review a book which reminds us why the welfare state was set up in the first place.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a story about a firm of builders and decorators in an English town at the turn of the 20th century. Britain is at the height of its imperial power, and never has it enjoyed so much wealth and abundance. But for the workmen of Rushton & Co life is a constant to struggle to survive. Even when times are good and there is Plenty of Work, they have barely enough money to house and feed their families. When the winter comes and work is all but impossible to find, they live a perilous existence, pawning everything they own and begging for credit from shopkeepers.

Robert Tressell chronicles the workmen's hellish lives in highly realistic detail, drawing on his own experiences to do so. We watch as men in the prime of their lives are gradually robbed of their health, their wives despair as they attempt to make ends meet, children suffer from malnutrition and old men are sent to the workhouse when they are no longer fit to be employed, their last stop before a pauper's grave.

To add insult to injury, the workmen are never allowed to do a proper job when they do have work. Cut-throat competition between the firms results in a race to the bottom where standards are as low as the foreman can possibly get away with. Meanwhile, the newspapers lament that the warehouses are too full, and the over-production will result in more idleness to come for the workforce.

For the workers, this is how life has always been and always will be. Many of them identify themselves tribally as Liberals or Conservatives, but neither party has done anything to improve their circumstances when in government. Charities are equally hopeless, and the church actively malign. But one of the workers, Owen, is aware of the madness of the system, and spends much of the book patiently trying to explain the issues to his colleagues.

Acoording to the author, "my main object was to write a readable story, full of interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of socialism being treated incidentally". In this he has succeeded, apart from the 'incidentally' bit. Socialism runs through this book like a stick of very red rock. Owen is its chief mouthpiece in the story, with long speeches about topics such as the socialist definition of poverty and the capitalist 'money trick' (complete with diagrams). But Tressell hammers home the message with his own narrative comments. At times this feels like being beaten around the head with the rock, but there's no doubt that it increases the persuasiveness of his argument. Because of these interventions it's very different in style from other political novels such as those of Dickens or Orwell. It's more like a hybrid: half novel, half treatise.

As the story progresses Owen becomes increasingly frustrated with his colleagues' refusal to question the injustice of their society. They are the philanthropists of the title, happy to work as hard as they can in order to make money for their master. Owen himself could have been a lecturing machine but in fact he is the most fully-rounded character in the book, taking joy in his work when he is given the chance and trying to do the best for his family. But he, too, is occasionally moved to despair. At one point he reads a newspaper article about a domestic tragedy and spends a couple of pages contemplating the most humane way of killing his own family. There follows a very powerful moment with an offhand remark from his son (who up until then has been just annoyingly precocious).

Amid all the bleakness there's also a good deal of humour, particularly in the banter between the workmen whenever they are forced to listen to one of Owen's lectures. A more love-it-or-hate-it touch is the names Tressell gives to the unsympathetic characters, such as the painters Crass and Slyme, rival firm Dauber & Botchit, ineffective councillor Dr Weakling and Snatchum the disreputable undertaker. But first prize for naming has to go to the local Tory MP, Sir Graball D'Encloseland.

The novel starts to sag and become repetitive when summer comes round for the second time, but picks up again with the final unveiling of socialism's solutions to all woe in the form of a "great oration". Tressell does well to keep up the suspense for what is the most treatise-y part of the book. However, some of the power is lost from a modern day standpoint, because we know that his dream of a socialist utopia never came to pass. Instead, along with the rest of western Europe, we became a 'social democracy', with a welfare state designed to smooth off the worst excesses of capitalism while retaining a dynamic market-based economy. Whether this is the best way to organise society is an open question, but it deserves to be celebrated for putting an end to the horrific levels of poverty depicted in this book.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
by Robert Tressell
First published in 1914

Monday, 4 October 2010

Jonathan Franzen at the Whitworth Art Gallery

It's all gone a bit cultural in Manchester this weekend thanks to the efforts of the creativetourist website. Top of the bill was a chance to see Jonathan Franzen (he of The Corrections) in conversation with the writer and DJ Dave Haslam.

The event took place in the grand surroundings of the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Road, in a room which appears to be used for exhibiting the world's greenest wallpaper. It held about 150 people and was sold out. There was a fairly broad mix of people attending, with ages ranging from student to fifty-something and demeanours ranging from quite arty to ridiculously arty.

The evening started with an impromptu comedy turn from Franzen, who is a tall guy and had to get creative with the very short lectern he'd been given. He then gave a reading from his new book Freedom. Despite a fair bit of flicking through I haven't yet found the passage he read from, which concerns a character called Joey facing the wrath of his girlfriend's mother for putting his relationship on hiatus. Franzen is a good reader and he got the audience laughing in all the right places.

Next came a Q&A session. I got the impression that Haslam was a little in awe of his guest, and he didn't engage with Franzen's answers as much as I would have liked, but his pre-prepared questions were interesting enough. He even got Franzen to expound on the title, which he has been unwilling to do in interviews. Apparently it's something to do with being free to be who you are rather than liberty in the abstract sense (maybe that will make more sense once I've read it). Franzen came across as charming, funny and - a relief after some of the press he's had over the years - down-to-earth, looking appropriately embarrassed at the mention of the Great American Novelist tag (© Time Magazine).

Next came the audience questions, which were a mixed bag. Among the most memorable were a criticism of naming a band 'Walnut Surprise' (fair cop) and one about the part of the reading concerning 'stupid' reactions to 9/11, which prompted a discussion about the dysfunctional state of US politics. We also found out that Franzen has a soft spot for British punk music, in particular The Mekons. He doesn't care for e-books, and hopes that paper books will see off the challenge, though he was amused to be asked to sign a Kindle once.

After the show ended there was a signing session. The organisers proudly announced that we were the first people in the UK to be offered the newly corrected version of Freedom. I had made a tactical error in not buying the book on the way in and ended up near the back of the line, but it moved pretty fast and I got a signature before the last tram home.

A very pleasant evening and all credit to Mr Haslam for getting the author of the moment to Manchester.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Advanced, Forthright, Signifficant

Reviewing Molesworth is a dangerous game. As Philip Hensher points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition, it's all too tempting to try to imitate Molesworth's unique narrative voice. And you only have to glance over at some of the Amazon reviews to see how unwise this is chiz. But the failed attempts highlight what an achievement that voice is: 400 pages of note-perfect schoolboy ramblings that will leave you wondering whether Willans and Searle really made it all up or whether they just pinched an unwitting pupil's exercise books.

Molesworth (which I have borrowed from the lending library of Mrs Tomsk) is a collection of four books set in a 1950's prep school called St Custard's ("built by a madman in 1836"). Nigel Molesworth is the self-proclaimed "goriller of 3b", and an acute observer of school life. Naturally he spends much of his time decrying the oppressive teachers (particularly the headmaster Grimes and Sigismund the mad maths master), but the other boys aren't held in high regard either, being variously "swots bulies cissies milksops greedy guts and oiks". Among the wonderful caricatures are his "grate friend" Peason, his brother Molesworth 2 ("it panes me to think I am of the same blud"), the head boy Grabber, winner of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work in dubious circumstances, and of course fotherington-tomas ("Hullo clouds hullo sky").

So far, so timeless. But from the viewpoint of the 21st century one of the main charms of the books is their depiction of fifties life. Molesworth is a "Young Elizabethan", still subject to latin lessons and the cane, but fired up by the prospects of a new technological age. So we see the invention of the Peason-molesworth Atommic Pile "fitted with radio and plug for electric razor" and cheer on the introduction of TV (viewed with suspicion by parents for its potential to corrupt young minds, a worry long since transferred to video games). There are also fascinating little cultural artefacts, such as radio malts and treens, which I usually had to look up to make any sense of. Although the fifties were a long time before I was born and I didn't go to a prep school, the books still manage to conjure up a warm feeling of nostalgia for me.

If this all sounds too cosy do not worry, as Molesworth is a cynical as they come and his accounts are full of little satirical asides. Hensher goes as far as claiming that they give you "a prism through which to view the world", which is overstating their power somewhat, but they certainly have a satisfyingly sharp edge. That said, Molesworth is not above a lot of 1066-style punnery either, and all types of humour inbetween.

While the Molesworth voice is primarily the work of the text, the books are immeasurably enhanced by Ronald Searle's drawings. I will never be able to get past stage 6 of "Batsmanship" without cracking up. Searle also excels at Heath-Robinsonish devices (The molesworth production line for latin sentences) and galleries of masters, schoolboys and parents ("But we always give him gin!").

A word of warning: Molesworth was originally published in serial form and this shows in the highly concentrated humour. You won't get the best out of it by trying to read all four books in one go. Better to appreciate it in small doses, like a fine whisky, both warming and fiery in equal measure.

by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
First published as Down with Skool! (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956) and Back in the Jug Agane (1959)

Monday, 30 August 2010

A Place You Can Figure Out If You Think About It Really, Really Hard

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the second book I've read by Haruki Murakami, the first being Norwegian Wood. The two share many similarities in style (engaging descriptions of everyday events, mellifluous prose) and characters (easy-going protagonists called Toru with unstable lovers, secondary characters who have only a tangential relationship to the story but provide plenty of colour). But where Norwegian Wood is restrained and cohesive, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is big, messy and very surreal.

Toru Okada's story starts mundanely as he looks for a missing cat, which triggers a succession of loosely-connected meetings with curious people. The plot is almost as hard to summarise as it is to understand, but it centres on the fate of Toru's wife Kumiko and her brother, mixed in with grim tales from Japan's troubled history that seem to echo in the present. Toru meanwhile takes the time for some deep soul-searching and his aimless wanderings bag him a peculiar job. Eventually, after many false turns, there is a resolution of sorts.

As the vagueness above might suggest, this is not a book to read if you want tight plotting. Many seemingly important plot strands are left to go as cold as Toru's spaghetti. Who was the woman making the phone calls? Who had it in for Nutmeg's husband? What was the point of May Kasahara's travels? What exactly is the significance of the wind-up bird? All these and many more are left for the reader to make sense of on their own.

Almost as mysterious as the characters are the richly symbolic objects that play a large role in the story, from wells to cursed houses to baseball bats to wigs to 80's-era computers. What exactly they're symbolic of, I'm not sure, but they all contribute to the enchanting dream-like mood of the book. And that's without even taking into account the actual dream sequences.

After finishing the book I felt like I ought to be able to make sense of it if only I were to ponder it for long enough. It never reads like it's been lazily plotted, but like a well-thought out mystery that is fully resolved in the author's mind, if not my own. Sounds frustrating, and in some ways it is, but part of the joy of reading it is letting all the weirdness flow over you and just enjoying the ride. Murakami's writing is extremely readable, and although the book is long it's divided into very moreish bite-sized chapters. The only problem is that the ending doesn't make the 'just one more chapter' feeling go away.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
First published 1994-1995
Translated by Jay Rubin, 1998

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Flashman's last hurrah

If you're familiar with the Flashman books you won't need a review of Flashman on the March, just a note that this time our hero is in Abyssinia.

If you're unfamiliar with the Flashman books this is maybe not the place to start, as it's the last in the series. Having said that, like all the books it is a fully self-contained story so you could start here if you really wanted to. I started with the fifth in the series, Flashman in the Great Game, and it didn't do me any harm. The order of events in Flashman's life is not the same as the order in which the books were written anyway. But if in doubt, it's worth starting with the first, if only to find out how Flashman's illustrious military career began.

Flashman is the bully from the Victorian novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Fraser's conceit is to imagine what happened to him after he was kicked out of school for drunkenness. It's not necessary to have read Tom Brown to follow the Flashman books (I haven't), though characters from it pop up from time to time. In Fraser's hands Flashman far outgrows his roots and becomes one of the great anti-heroes of popular fiction.

I started reading Flashman in 2002 on the recommendation of Mrs Tomsk, and gradually collected them up until 2005 when Flashman on the March was released, with the dastardly side effect of updated covers for the whole series. Not willing to let my Flashman collection get as motley as my Jeeves & Woosters, I took advantage of a handy 3-for-2 and bought the rest in bulk. I've been working slowly through them ever since.

The reason I've taken my time is that there is a fairly rigid formula to the Flashman books, and reading too many in a sitting would get monotonous. It goes like this: at the beginning of the book, Flashman will find himself against his will on a mission to a faraway corner of the empire. There he will end up in various historically-important messes which he will contrive to escape in the most cowardly way possible. Along the way he will sleep with many historically-important women. And despite his terrible behaviour, he'll somehow manage to end up as an even bigger hero than when he started.

Flashman on the March sticks closely to the formula. The opening is more stilted than normal because he only recounts his flight from Mexico in retrospect and front-loads his Abyssinian story with a great deal of exposition. But when the action begins, as he sets off through the country with the mysterious Uliba-Wark, it develops into the usual high quality page-turner. The way Flashman contributes to history is not as ingenious as in some of the earlier books (compare The Great Game, where he ends up in virtually every major incident in the Indian Mutiny), though I suspect Fraser's options were limited by the fairly linear nature of Napier's campaign.

Flashman on the March is certainly much more conventional than the previous volume, Flashman and the Tiger, which was divided into three shorter stories, the third of which featured a particularly entertaining encounter with two other famous Victorian characters. Tiger is also the more natural end to the series as it contains the latest chronological events. Flashman on the March feels more like 'just another Flashman', enjoyable though such a thing is. The only deviation from the blueprints are some laboured comparisons with the modern day Iraq war, both in the preface and in a few pointed remarks by British officers at the end of the book.

Fraser died in 2008, so there will be no more volumes of the Flashman papers. A few mysteries remain in his career, chiefly how he came to fight for both sides in the American civil war. But having learned so much over the years about his previously unsung role in world history, it would be churlish to complain, and fun to speculate.

Flashman on the March
(The Flashman Papers vol. 12)
by George MacDonald Fraser
First published 2005

Saturday, 10 July 2010

World Cup special!

In the run up to the World Cup I was fortunate to be able to borrow my brother's copy of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, not that he could have stopped me given that he's currently in a different hemisphere to his books. Anyway it was originally a birthday present from me, so fair's fair.

The pyramid of the title refers to the shape of the team on the football pitch. In the early days of the sport, when passing was thought unmanly, teams would generally play with almost everybody in attack. Gradually this settled down into the 2-3-5 formation (2 in defence, 3 in midfield, 5 in attack), still hugely attacking by today's standards. Over the course of the century formations became more and more defensive, to the point where 5-3-2 was a common sight. The pyramid had been inverted.

Jonathan Wilson's book tracks this long-term trend along with more detailed looks at tactically advanced teams through the ages. The chapters are divided geographically, giving insight into the various footballing cultures of the world and how they resulted in stereotypical national traits such as the Brazilian emphasis on flair, the Italians on defensiveness, the English on running around like headless chickens and so on. They also make clear how each country's analysis of their own faults has barely changed over time, so the Brazilians have always worried that they don't have a solid defence like Italy, the Italians worry that they don't have the power and speed of England, and the English worry that they don't have the flair of Brazil. Meanwhile, the Germans win.

A book on this topic obviously runs the risk of being drily abstract, but Wilson avoids this by providing many interesting portraits of the men who pushed football tactics forward, from Herbert Chapman's W-M formation to Alf Ramsey's wingless wonders, from the inventors of catenaccio and the inventors of Total Football to Charles Reep's pseudo-statistical defence of the long-ball game. A recurring theme is the frustration of would-be innovators at the conservatism and thoughtlessness of English football, where 'pluck' and 'spirit' is to this day valued above all else.

At each stage in football's development clear transitions can be seen: a dominant formation is humbled by a master tactician, whose work is quickly imitated by others. The new tactics then become dominant until a new innovation is found. On top of this the game has got continually faster with an emphasis on 'pressing'. The increased fitness of the players is a major factor in the development of new tactics and particularly the streamlined, defensive-heavy formations of modern times.

The book discusses tactics right up until the present day, including the demise of 4-4-2 in recent years at the hands of single-striker formations. Wilson even speculates on the possibility of the death of out-and-out forwards altogether, with signs that the likes of 4-6-0 may be about to take off. The modern game values universality, with midfielders becoming forwards as necessary.

The final chapter resonates particularly strongly after England's last world cup match, in which Capello's 4-4-2 was ripped apart by Germany's far more fluid team. Wilson has written an interesting analysis of the match online. His take on why the 4-4-2 that worked so well in qualification didn't work against Germany is that Capello wasn't actually playing a strict 4-4-2 during the qualifiers; a useful reminder that you should never read too much into the formation on paper.

Wilson has more recently written The Anatomy of England, a history of the England team through its most dramatic matches. When it comes out in paperback I hope it includes an in-depth analysis of England-Germany, which surely ranks as a historic loss. It was the only English game of the tournament where the problem was at least in part tactics: in the group stages the dominant failing was lack of confidence and fear of failure, a contrast seemingly lost on most pundits.

Inverting the Pyramid is not a book for football novices (although it does contain not only a clear explanation of the offside rule but also why it was introduced and why it changed in 1925). I highly recommend it to football enthusiasts who want a deeper appreciation of the role tactics play at the highest level and why they have evolved over time in the way they have.

Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics
by Jonathan Wilson
First published 2008

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Election special!

Let me indulge myself for a moment to imagine the best of all possible election outcomes: a hung parliament, leading to a government committed to a referendum on voting reform. In this joyous dream world, we then have to decide what system should be voted on.

It's no use asking the politicians, of course, as they will only support what serves their own interests. The Conservatives support the status quo, as the split in the centre-left vote between Labour and Lib Dems gives them a huge advantage under first past the post (FPTP) rules. Labour, after many years of dithering that happened to coincide with large majorities in parliament, have undergone a deathbed conversion to the Alternative Vote (AV). Believe it or not, Labour would do handsomely out of such a change. The Lib Dems meanwhile support a form of proportional representation called the Single Transferable Vote (STV). The Lib Dems would more than double their seats under such a system.

Fortunately we don't have to ask the politicians. Back in 1997, when the Labour party weren't as cynical as they are today, they set up a commission chaired by Roy Jenkins to decide which system should be put forward. The Jenkins Report is available on the web, complete with a late-90's dappled beige web background to emphasise just how long it's been gathering dust.

I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice already that I have an extremely nerdy interest in this matter. So you'll have to take this on a leap of faith: it's a good read. No, really. Jenkins is a terrific writer and his wit shines through in every chapter. It's far more enjoyable than any official document has a right to be. Particularly good are his sarcastic remarks about the politicians' commitment to reform, e.g.
There is enough here to prompt the cynical thought that there has been an element of 'The devil was sick, the devil a monk would be, the devil was well, the devil a devil he'd be' about the attitude of all parties to electoral reform. Their desire to improve the electoral system has tended to vary in inverse proportion to their ability to do anything about it.
And the little history lessons dotted around the text:
Some constituencies were always regarded, at any rate by some politicians, as having a greater prestige than others. Some saw the City of London as being peculiarly appropriate for great financiers or, on two occasions, for party leaders, and Lord Randolph Churchill several times tried to escape from what he regarded as the mediocrity of South Paddington to the romance of a 'great industrial borough'.
The commission's work was governed by four goals: broad proportionality, the need for stable government, an extension of voter choice, and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies. As these goals contradict each other to a large extent, they rule out almost every method in existence. First past the post fails the test because of its gross disproportionality. Alternative vote, while increasing voter choice, can lead to even less proportional results than FPTP. STV, as a proportional system, fared much better, but the authors raised a number of objections against it, in particular the problem that STV constituencies would have to be huge in areas of low population. The other issue is that it is possible to offer voters too much choice, and STV arguably fails on this level:
Where the choice offered resembles a caricature of an over-zealous American breakfast waiter going on posing an indefinite number of unwanted options, it becomes both an exasperation and an incitement to the giving of random answers.
That leaves one other major method: the Additional Member System (AMS), as used already for the Scottish Parliament and London Assembly, as well as in countries such as Germany and New Zealand. Essentially the vote proceeds as in FPTP, but with extra MPs based on a second 'party' vote to make up for lack of proportionality in the constituencies.

AMS keeps the small constituencies that STV lacks, but it has its disadvantages too. Two types of MP are created, with the additional members representing large regions or even nothing at all. The other 'disadvantage' is shared by both systems, in that proportional representation leads to permanent coalition government. The commission's view was that this is not desirable when there is a clear popular desire for a single party, as in 1997 for Labour, even if they are not the first choice of a majority of the people. They also argue that 'proportionality of power' is at least as important as 'proportionality of representation', and PR systems tend to give too much power to small parties holding the balance of power. This is a controversial point, but it's true for example that the liberal FDP effectively could choose the German government for most of the post-war period.

At this point you can sense the eagerness of the commission to devise their very own system, and the one they came up with is called the Alternative Vote Top-Up or AV+. This is best described as a semi-proportional system, as it would use about 15-20% of the seats to offset the unfairness of the constituencies rather than 50% as is usual. Outright majorities could therefore be secured in situations such as 1997, whereas coalitions would be the norm when the voters are split as they are this year. They also selected the Alternative Vote for the constituencies rather than FPTP, although this is not fundamental to its operation and one of the commission members dissented from the choice.

AV+ is either an elegant solution or a messy compromise depending on your point of view. Tony Blair gave the report a fairly positive verdict, saying it "makes a well-argued and powerful case for the system it recommends" (before shelving it for the rest of his time in office). William Hague meanwhile declared it a "dog's breakfast". Both are right in their own way. The example ballot paper is certainly not a model of simplicity. What it does achieve is a reasonable fulfilment of the four goals the commission was set, and it keeps alive many of the better traditions of British parliamentary politics.

Perhaps the most important point in its favour, however, is that none of the parties have since championed it. That in itself shows they must have got something right. Maybe in dream world it will sneak through as the compromise candidate, and we'll be voting this way in the election after next. But even if it remains on the shelf, the arguments in this report are essential reading for anyone interested in the future of our democracy.

End of Year Update (30/12/2010): Looking back we came tantalisingly close to that ideal result, but the parliamentary maths made a Lib-Lab pact impossible and with it went the opportunity for the Lib Dems to negotiate a referendum on a major change like AV+ or STV. However, to their credit they did manage to extract a referendum on the Alternative Vote system from the Tories. AV is a small but important reform that would eliminate the need to vote tactically, as is often necessary to make your vote count under the first past the post system.

Interestingly - at least if you're as cynical as I am about the parties' attitudes to reform - the partisan calculations on AV have changed considerably since the election. From the formation of the Lib Dems up until 2010, it's been the received wisdom that Lib Dem second preferences would break for Labour and vice versa, meaning that the Lib Dems and Labour would do well from AV at the expense of the Conservatives. This was partly why the Jenkins commission felt unable to recommend AV. But since the election the Lib Dems have lost around two-thirds of their support in the polls, dropping from 24% to 8-9% according to YouGov. The voters they've lost are leftish 'social liberals', dismayed at the economically liberal Orange Book policies of the Lib Dem leadership. The rump Lib Dem support are now much more likely to cast their second preferences for the Tories, and vice versa.

We can therefore expect next year to see increasing dissent from Labour partisans against Ed Miliband's (admirable) support for AV. The Tories will find it harder to shift their position, given that their commitment to FPTP is far longer-standing than Labour's to AV. But I wouldn't be surprised to see the Conservative leadership not campaigning very hard at all against AV and secretly hoping it goes through. The Lib Dems, of course, will take whatever reform they can get. What this means for the chances of a yes vote in May, I have no idea.

The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System
by Roy Jenkins, Robert Alexander, Joyce Gould, John Chilcot and David Lipsey
First published 1998
Available online

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The middle of the film

I was given Michael Palin's first volume of diaries by my father-in-law and admired them so much that I was inspired (not for the first time) to keep a diary myself. I soon realised (not for the first time) that I'm not one of life's diary-keepers. The secret, if Palin is any guide, is to write up your previous day's adventures first thing the following morning. Presumably this requires an engaged brain at an early hour, so there's no hope for me.

I've resisted any urge to try again in the wake of Halfway to Hollywood, Palin's second volume of diaries. This is not a reflection on the book, which is just as admirable as the first volume; quite a surprise considering that the time period covered is, in hindsight, a lull between his great successes as a Python and as a travel documentary maker. Part of the joy is knowing the denouement before the author, the opposite of the normal reading experience.

The title is an accurate summation of the contents. As Palin notes in his introduction, the door to Hollywood was open, and he is involved with seven films over the course of the book. I would probably have got more out of it if I'd actually seen half the stuff he made: The Missionary and A Private Function in particular get a lot of coverage and I hadn't even heard of them before reading this. Meanwhile some of the films I have seen (Meaning of Life, Brazil) seem to come and go in a flash, although that might just be because I was more interested in reading about them.

This volume also charts the winding down of Python's big screen reincarnation. Not that there's much of a story to be told: it opens on a high with the success of Life of Brian, which transfers into enthusiasm for making the film that eventually became Meaning of Life, and then fizzles out for no obvious reason (though maybe their realisation early on that Meaning of Life isn't going to be a Brian-level masterpiece plays a part). Again it's interesting to read this from the viewpoint of a diary rather than a biography, where reasons would have to be supplied.

The greatest success of the decade is A Fish Called Wanda, which Palin is surprisingly sceptical about in its early stages. Wanda comes at the end of the book and seems to contradict Palin's statement that his chances of a Hollywood career had ended, given that people fall over themselves to congratulate him on his acting. He is also well on the way to making American Friends. But his enthusiasm for scriptwriting, if not acting, does wane over the years, and so it's not surprising that American Friends is the last film he's written to date.

As in the first book, if you're looking for dirt you'll be disappointed and there's nothing in here to suggest that Palin is anything other than the very nice guy we all assume him to be (though reassuringly he does get annoyed from time to time). Even his politics are likeable, at one point going as far as becoming chairman of a transport pressure group after letting his railway enthusiasm get the better of him. His ever-increasing despair at the Conservative government of the 1980's is a chilling reminder of what we might be about to face in a month's time.

The diary has been edited to around a quarter of its original size, and what's left concentrates on his work, as this is obviously of most interest to the average reader. But there are some interesting tales of his family too. One highlight is his 80-year-old mother's first ever trip to America, which ends up with her co-hosting Saturday Night Live.

I'm not sure how attractive the next volume of Palin's diaries will be. Around the World in 80 Days and its follow-ups are, after all, just edited versions of what he's been up to, so competing for the same territory as these books, and with better pictures too. Having said that, it's the in-between bits that make Halfway to Hollywood really interesting, the great jumble of work and family life, and the feeling that it gives of an unfiltered behind-the-scenes account of it all.

Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988
by Michael Palin
First published 2009

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The root of almost all evil

"What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong measures, we will strive for the wrong things." - Joseph Stiglitz

After hearing so much about The Spirit Level over the past year, actually sitting down and reading it was almost an anticlimax. The authors point out that the results of social science research often seem obvious in hindsight, once the evidence has seeped in. Just how obvious the arguments of The Spirit Level now seem is a testament to the weight of evidence that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have brought to public attention.

The book opens with a startling observation: that the rich countries of the world can no longer achieve gains in wellbeing from increasing their material wealth. This is illustrated with a graph of life expectancy versus national income per person. For poor countries life expectancy rises rapidly up until an average income of around $10,000. After that it starts to slow, and beyond $25,000 the curve flattens out. Similar results are seen in surveys of happiness and other measures of wellbeing.

However, within a given rich country, income differences do still matter. For example, there is a smooth downward gradient in a plot of mortality against average income levels in different US postal code areas. The trend affects everyone in society, not just the poor. Why the difference?

The key to resolving this apparent paradox is to compare income inequality between countries rather than average incomes. The bulk of the book is dedicated to investigating the role that inequality plays. To this end Wilkinson and Pickett have compiled data on a wide range of health and social issues: trust levels, mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, and social mobility. When an average of this data is plotted against national incomes, there is no significant correlation. But when plotted against inequality, the correlation is very strong indeed.

As someone with a background in physical science, I tend to experience culture shock on exposure to the social sciences. If they're not trying to draw conclusions from data that looks like a random scatter plot, then they're actually taking anecdotal evidence seriously, etc. But culture shock only means that the culture is different, not worse. Society is not a high-precision lab experiment with two carefully-controlled variables. In these circumstances, a different approach is needed to gain insight.

I say this not as an apology for The Spirit Level, but as context, for the evidence in this book is truly extraordinary. The authors, who are epidemiologists, had started out by looking only at the role of inequality in health, but the strength of the correlation was such that it encouraged them to look at the other social issues too. In the second part of the book, they work systematically through each indicator in turn, showing how in virtually every case there is a clear link between inequality and a deteriorating society.

The most depressing aspect of this is the light it shines on the UK, which is among the most unequal countries surveyed (along with the USA and, news to me, Portugal). The authors conclude that if our country was as equal as Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland, "trust levels might be expected to be two-thirds as high again as they are now, mental illness might be more than halved, everyone would get an additional year of life, teenage births could fall to one-third of what they are now, [and] homicide rates could fall by 75 per cent".

The story is so unchanging that I began to wish for exceptions just for the sake of variety. In fact, there is one: suicide, which is more common in more equal countries. The only other possibility I could think of is alcohol abuse, as we all know the Scandinavians like an occasional drink. But then it's also an issue in the UK, so it would be interesting to see whether it is related to equality rather than just long winter nights (compare drug abuse, which is shown here to be closely correlated with inequality).

Perhaps the most interesting link is between equality and social mobility. It has become common among politicians, particularly of the New Labour type, to say that income differences don't matter and instead we should only be striving for "equality of opportunity", where everyone has the chance to find their rightful place in society in a kind of grand meritocratic bubble sort. But what the evidence suggests is that the two cannot be separated: the least equal societies are those with the lowest social mobility. The USA, self-proclaimed land of opportunity, is worst of all. More damning still is a plot of social mobility over time in the US. From the 1950 to 1980, the situation gradually improves, but from the 1980s onwards, as inequality widened dramatically, social mobility correspondingly fell. If you want to pursue the American Dream, you'd better start by moving to Europe.

In each chapter the authors discuss why inequality might cause so many problems. This is necessarily more anecdotal, but most of the explanations boil down to status anxiety. In more unequal societies, there are less people we feel comfortable around, more people to feel jealous of, more to look down on. Our need to maintain status causes us to spend more, eat more, worry more, and act more selfishly. Ultimately, the extra stress affects our health. And this is not just a problem for the very poor. If the bottom 10% of the population were removed from the analysis, the conclusions would remain unchanged. As the subtly reinforced subtitle of the paperback edition notes, everyone does better in a more equal society.

In the final part of the book, Wilkinson and Pickett look at what can be done to improve our situation. The main point is that it does not really matter how we make societies more equal, only that they are more equal. Sweden, for example, reduces inequality by progressive taxation, whereas Japan achieves the same by having relatively low pay differentials between the lowest and highest paid.

The authors bring up the concern that a misguided government could reverse such measures very easily, as in the UK and US in the 1980s. One of their proposals for cementing equality for the long term is 'economic democracy' through employee-ownership. It's a laudable idea, one that plays the system at its own game, but we've had co-operatives for centuries and they've yet to take over the economy. I guess we're limited by the available number of entrepreneurial Quakers. What is needed is some kind of virus-like mechanism of growth, as was so successful, for example, for copyleft in the software industry. Beats me what this mechanism might be though.

Overall the final part is not as strong as the first two, as it tends to wander off into diversions ranging from global warming to digital downloads. Some of these do have an interesting connection to inequality, but they don't strengthen the argument of the book. What I would have liked to have read instead is more historical analysis, in particular why the political mood changed from the 1970s onward to favour policies that increased inequality. The authors often talk about how increased equality reinforces itself, while conversely inequalities result in a vicious circle. It would be interesting to know how the trend turned from good to bad, if only to give clues to how to reverse it again.

Wilkinson and Pickett lament that in recent years, politicians in general have given up on the idea that they can build a better society, and instead have been relegated to passive management teams. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a graph of inequality over time for the UK:

After 12 years of Labour government, there is no sign whatsoever of a reversal of the destruction wrought by Thatcher's Conservatives.

To be fair to Blair and Brown, they until recently operated in a political environment where idol-worshipping of the free market was commonplace, and where increased regulation, let alone progressive taxation, was unthinkable. But everything has changed in the wake of the financial crisis. The next generation of politicians have the opportunity to strive for real equality again. This book proves beyond reasonable doubt why they must do just that.

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone
by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
First published 2009 as The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
See the Equality Trust website for further information

Saturday, 13 February 2010

On the Oregon Trail (via Newark)

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself several times: I visited America for the first time ever in November, with two free days to explore the city of Portland. You could argue this is not sufficient to draw deep and general conclusions about American life, but that won't stop me trying.

The first thing that struck me about Portland was how big the hotel we were staying in was. I was on the 12th floor, which was less than halfway up the building, and there was another tower of a similar size across the street. My hotel room was also insanely huge, and I'll leave the TV set to your imagination.

The second thing that struck me was how nice the beer in the hotel bar was.

Describing everything in America as bigger is of course a tired old cliché, and not really true either as there's a hotel that's just as high in Manchester. But there was a definite sense of bigness about the city in general which I think is caused by it being oddly spread out. The city centre of Portland is a small area, but it feels diffuse. There really is space to park your gigantic car next to the shop you're going to, just like in American TV shows. I think it also helped that there was hardly anyone walking the streets (except for a distressingly large number of homeless people).

No doubt I would have got a similar experience from walking around any American city, though perhaps with a greater likelihood of being shot. But throughout this time Portland itself was also showing through, giving me a weird sensation of being in two different places at once.

The beer is the most obvious sign that something is different about Portland. While the likes of Budweiser work hard to make American beer the laughing-stock of the world, the independent brewers of Oregon are quietly providing the antidote. There are 28 breweries in the city alone (more than Cologne!). Pretty much any beer you try will be excellent but I can especially recommend the Mirror Pond Pale Ale.

Daytime vices are also well served, thanks to Portland's coffeehouse culture (second only to Seattle's, so I'm told). I spent a happy hour in Sip and Kranz tasting Stumptown coffee and voodoo doughnuts while reading lefty opinion pieces in The Oregonian. The first refill's free...

I think it was on about my third beer that I realised that God had taken everything that was good about America and gathered it together in Portland. Perhaps it helped that we travelled to the bar for free on Portland's excellent tram system. Or that I'd had an amazing Mexican meal for lunch. Or that the bar was hosting live indie music all night. Or that I'd finally seen the point of cupcakes thanks to the local artisan baker. Or maybe it was because a kindly corporation was paying for the reception. Who's to say? But then my only experience of the rest of the country is Newark International Airport, and anywhere will seem like the promised land after that.

The best discovery of all, and proof that sometimes big is beautiful, is Powell's City of Books.

Powell's takes up the entire city block that you can see in this photo. It claims to hold over a million new and used books (not including the technical bookshop down the road). I spent the better part of a day browsing, partly just thinking of obscure books and finding out that yes, they did stock them.

Sadly my hold luggage was limited, so I wanted to find the one book in the million that epitomised life in Oregon. I sneaked back to the hotel internet to find out what it was, and came back with a mission to find Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey. Powell's had three different editions to choose from.

has nothing to do with Portland, except insofar as it's the big city that bad news comes from. It's about life in the country, where there is still money to be made from bringing down trees. It's the Oregon that I never saw because I was too busy sipping coffee (maybe next time...)

The book follows the fortunes of the Stamper family as they stubbornly try to fulfill a logging contract while the rest of the town is on strike. The main characters are the macho Hank Stamper and his bookish brother Leland. They're both very well-written with distinctive voices, but not to the point of being stereotypical. Hank's internal monologue in particular is perfectly nuanced.

Kesey employs an unusual technique of switching between omniscient narration and 1st person voices (mainly Hank and Leland) without announcing that he's done so. Sometimes this happens in the middle of a paragraph, so the same events are seen from multiple viewpoints. It sounds intimidating but it's actually very effective, and not hard to follow. It's a tribute to Kesey's writing that the voices are so instantly distinguishable.

Most of the other characters are also well-drawn, with even the incidental ones given room to breathe. However, the female characters are very thin compared to the men. This is to some extent understandable in such a male-dominated environment, but even Viv, a central character, is weak compared to the brothers fighting over her.

The story is an epic struggle with many powerful moments. The plot never puts a foot wrong from start to finish. But the writing itself is the main attraction, particularly in the descriptions of the outdoors, which verge on poetic.

So why did it take so long to read?

The problem is the sheer bigness of the book. Each individual paragraph is exquisite, but the whole is too much. It reminds me of our last night in Portland, when we went to Henry's and I had one of the most delicious burgers I've ever tasted. Unfortunately we'd been stupid enough to order starters beforehand, and everything was served on a massive scale. The feeling I had while attempting to eat the burger was much the same as I experienced about a third of the way through this book.

In many respects it's the closest thing I've read yet to the Great American Novel.

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
First published 1964

Thursday, 28 January 2010

J. D. Salinger 1919-2010

When a great writer dies, the most respectful response is surely to plug their merchandise. So if you haven't read The Catcher in the Rye yet, I advise you to get on with it before his estate allows some idiot to make a phony film adaptation.

It's one of my favourite books of all time, perhaps only bettered by a certain other book with 'catch' in the title. I particularly recommend it if you're a cynical adolescent, but cynical people of all ages will find plenty to admire. Plus it's still one of the most frequently banned books in America. What higher recommendation can there be?

I have to admit I've never got round to reading any of Salinger's other books. Partly it's because I'm scared they won't be as good as Catcher. If you've read any of them, let me know how they rate.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Whoever designed my 1996 GCSE history syllabus was, in hindsight, inspired. One of the modules was on the Roaring Twenties in the US. We learned about jazz, flappers, prohibition and so on, but also about the causes of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. As far as I can remember, it was a mixture of laissez-faire government and excessive hire-purchase of lawnmowers that did for them. But the main thought I came away with was this: how could they be so stupid? Why didn't they see it coming?

The inspired part came a bit later, in 2008. After years of economic hubris, we found out that we're not so very much more sophisticated than our predecessors after all. That's probably the most important lesson history can teach us (after "don't invade Russia"). So how could we be so stupid? Why didn't we see our crisis coming?

The truth, now as then, is that some people did. They just weren't listened to. This time round Paul Krugman was one of those people. Back in 1999 he wrote the first edition of The Return of Depression Economics. It talked about the financial crises of the time - those in Latin America, the fall of the "Asian tigers" (remember them?) and Japan's lost decade - and warned that we ignored them at our peril.

At this time the problem of regulating a developed economy seemed to have been solved. At its most basic level, raising interest rates would prevent it overheating, while lowering them would ward off recession. But in Japan's case in particular, these monetary controls stopped working. Their economic bubble burst, the economy slumped, interest rates fell to zero, but a recovery still didn't arrive. This is the realm of depression economics.

With the aid of a real-life model economy from a babysitting co-op, Krugman explains how this situation can come about. He then points out that all this would be familiar to Keynes and advocates a Keynesian approach to fixing it: deficit spending by governments and, failing that, controlled inflation by quantitative easing (i.e. printing money). If you believe that either of these things is a bad idea, you need to read this book. Preferably before voting.

The other strand of Krugman's argument is a failure of regulation to cope with the modern world of finance. In this our woes resemble the Panic of 1907 as much as the 1930s. What has happened is a shadow banking system has grown, based around exotic arrangements like "auction-rate securities", which allowed organisations like Lehman Brothers to perform bank-like functions without any of the pesky regulations that apply to ordinary banking. Without the costs of regulation, the shadow banking system gave higher returns and grew explosively. But when the economy went pear-shaped, the safety net provided by the regulations wasn't there to save the shadow banks. Instead the long suffering taxpayer has had to foot the bill.

Depression Economics is a well-argued and very clear analysis of our times. My only quibble with this revised edition is that it loses some of its power from looking backwards rather than forwards. It's now less of a warning that came true and more of an "I told you so". It also reads a little awkwardly, with the new events bolted on to the end and the earlier chapters buffed up slightly so they fit in. It's worth it, though, as the analysis of the current crisis in the context of the others adds a lot to the book (not least as it would be a very slim volume without it). It's shocking how our own two bubbles - in dot.coms and housing - and their collapse bear such an uncanny resemblance to the crises of the 90s.

If there's grounds for hope in this book, it's that those in power - and in particular the UK government (go us!) - were alert to the need for action this time round. It seems, touchwood, that we've done enough to prevent another Great Depression, not that the very severe recession we've got instead is much consolation. But if nothing else it's shown that perhaps we are able to learn from history after all.

The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008
by Paul Krugman
First published as The Return of Depression Economics, 1999
Revised edition published 2008
Krugman's columns and blog are available on the New York Times website.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The trouble with jokes

Apologies to anyone waiting on tenterhooks for my account of Portland. Christmas intervened when I was still only half-way through Sometimes a Great Notion. But don't despair! My new year's resolution is to have it finished before its centennial in 2064.

Meanwhile I've been seeing some Christmas presents behind its back. Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb was a present from Mrs Tomsk, and is just the thing for the festive period when Great Novels don't really appeal. It's a collection of Brooker's Guardian columns: a mix of his 'Screen Burn' TV reviews and his writing on other weighty matters.

Brooker's columns are both puerile and misanthropic, and all the better for it. Above all they're very funny. I'm not a fan of tasteless humour in general but he has elevated it to an art form. If you're not familiar with his work, pause now and contemplate his 2006 end of year TV review. If you laughed at his summing up of Torchwood, you'll enjoy the rest of the book. If you blanched, perhaps best to stay away.

Dawn of the Dumb covers roughly the period from the start of The Apprentice to the point mid-way in 2007 when everybody in the world joined Facebook. This coincides with the first half of our stay in Germany, so it was fascinating to find out what I had missed on British TV. Thanks mainly to the joy of DVD box sets, the answer is not much: several series of Big Brother and The X-Factor, the return of Noel Edmunds and an advert for Apple Macs were apparently the big tickets. I'd trade that lot in for a stick of spargel any day.

Reality TV is the dominant subject of Screen Burn. Brooker professes hatred for the genre, which is all the funnier as he is clearly obsessed with it. My interest started to wane after the umpteenth discussion of a Big Brother series I had never seen, but for the most part it's entertaining even if you haven't watched any of the TV discussed (I only wish I could achieve the same with these book reviews). I can't say it's encouraged me to look out for repeats of any of the TV discussed though, except maybe Paul Merton's Silent Clowns (The Goat!)

The non-TV columns are just as good, if not better, and refreshingly eclectic, like a sorbet between chapters. Brooker also has a habit of being absolutely right on virtually every topic he turns to, whether it be the absurd length of the King Kong remake, the worrying love of torture in 24, or - speaking as someone currently suffering from a sore throat - his proof of the non-existence of God.

By now you'll have noticed that all of his columns are available online. So is it worth getting the book? Well, quite apart from avoiding the acute frustration of trying to navigate the Guardian's archives, reading them in dollops does work. It's a bit like those DVD box sets - you get a more concentrated hit. I wouldn't advise reading the whole thing in one sitting, but a couple of chapters a day won't overstretch your laughter muscles. Also, the index is almost as funny as the rest of the book.

The one concession to value-addedness is a section about his column on the Bush vs Kerry debates of 2004. This is not available online, because a reckless joke in it resulted in hundreds of outraged emails from rabid American neo-cons. A salutary lesson to all who write on the internet: hordes of lunatics are never more than a click away.

Brooker complains about how the protest was stoked by partisan websites, which is somewhat hypocritical given how he has since tried to do exactly the same to Jan Moir, no matter how much she deserved the opprobrium. The difference is that Brooker was joking - but in an audience of everyone, can any joke be guaranteed to avoid offence? Maybe it's best to confine yourself, Twitter-style, to what you had for breakfast. Just watch out for militant vegans.

Dawn of the Dumb by Charlie Brooker
First published 2007
Brooker's columns are available on the Guardian website.