Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: The Naked Trader's Guide to Spread Betting: How to make money from shares in up or down markets

The Naked Trader's Guide to Spread Betting: How to make money from shares in up or down markets The Naked Trader's Guide to Spread Betting: How to make money from shares in up or down markets by Robbie Burns
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a bit thin, padded out with anecdotes and appendices. Much of it is obvious, a lot of it is available elsewhere and it can be quite repetitive. But some of the tips are useful and I found some tips and tricks that could improve my CFD trading or help me if I went into spread betting itself.

It doesn't do itself any favours by using the standard self-help book layout, beloved of snake-oil salesmen and charlatans, and employing the desperate exclamation mark in a pathetic effort to be likeable. And those jokey asides are exceptionally tiresome. One of them is funny. The other 200 aren't.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Time of My Life

Time of My Life Time of My Life by Alan Ayckbourn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ayckbourn going through the motions: a few standard tricks (fractured time sequences), a few stock Ayckbourn characters, some fun dialogue and good opportunities for actors whatever their abilities. There are some very good quips and lines, and some scenes (usually with the waiter) where a bit of hamming for laughs is thoroughly justified, but no deep insight into the human condition.

Not all Ayckbourn plays date badly, but this one is fraying a bit. The northern family made good is a 70s throwback: the businessman, the fearsome matriarch and the two browbeaten sons; while the mistaken identity scene between Adam, Maureen and the waiter is straight out of a 70s sitcom.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Salt

Salt Salt by Fiona Peek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two couples, four dinner parties: Nick is a journalist who does carpentry on the side – not to make ends meet but bring the ends at least within sight of each other – while his wife Rachel is a former musician whose income from giving lessons don't bring those ends much closer together. Her multiple miscarriages and Nick's glacial progress on his novel symbolise the couple's failure to achieve and conceive.

Nick's old university friend Amy and her husband Simon are everthing Nick and Rachel aren't: they have children and jobs, with Simon's work in the law ensuring they are never short of money. But their friendship is unshakable – until Amy and Simon use an unexpected and un-needed inheritance to bail their friends out and gratitude slowly turns to resentment.

Fiona Peek's debut play is funny, sharply observed and often poignant. It's also the most difficult script I've ever had to learn. Every movement has to be precise, while there are several lines that change the subject completely, such as offers of food or drink or Simon interrupting a discussion of Amy and Nick's university years with an anecdote about a compensation case. Every play has some of these logical jumps, but Salt has far more than most.

And then there's the eating and drinking. Amid all the quick-fire dialogue, all the characters have to prepare food, eat it, share it, open bottles, recharge glasses, drink and open more bottles. Not only must you make sure your glass or plate is empty, you even have to make sure the bottle is empty when it's your cue to get another. And of course, you've got to make sure your mouth is empty when it's your turn to speak, though sometimes you have to speak with a mouthful of food and do it so everyone in the theatre can hear you (NICK: "You're just a bitter, pre-menopausal old hag who's … God this is fantastic"]. And this isn't just one difficult scene; it's the whole play. And spare a thought for the backstage crew who have to prepare the food.

Get it right and you'll have a cracking night's entertainment (I hope we will: at the time of writing we've got a week till first night). But don't under-estimate the amount of work required.

It also has the odd flaw: Nick's short speech about Rachel and the baby in the final scene makes no sense at all in the context of what has gone before:
"At last I've got them home. [Where from? Hospital maybe?]. The same rush all over again [Again? What rush? From where to where?]. The second coming [What was the first?]. Took him to Kew yesterday. First family outing [So did this baby spend its first three months in hospital? If so, would you really take him to Kew straight off and then leave him with friends the next night?]".
It reads like a reference to something that was cut from an earlier draft.

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review: By Blood Divided

By Blood Divided By Blood Divided by James Heneage
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be unfair to call this bubblegum literature, but it's not literary fiction either. It deserves four stars because I rattled through it in five days and enjoyed the experience. What more could you want? It succeeds at what it tries to do and lacks the pretension to be anything more than it is, which is an adventure story set in history.

Heneage stays true to the events surrounding the fall of Constantinople in 1453, while deftly mixing historical characters and fictional ones. Mehmet and Minotto come out much worse than their historical selves, but the need for villains makes this forgivable.

Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky at times, with characters explaining to each other things that they already know, and on these occasions it's faintly reminiscent of the dreadful Mongoliad. But it's not enough to spoil the enjoyment.

Maps are provided, which many readers will find invaluable, but the character list has a major flaw in the the death dates are given for historical figures. That's a big spoiler, given that one of them is a central character who only dies in the penultimate chapter.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Jogger baffled by pedestrians

A runner preparing for the London Marathon has expressed his irritation at his regular route being cluttered by pedestrians.

London's jogger plague will ease after the marathon
Tom Logan, whose training route takes him the half-mile from his City office to his flat in Shoreditch, regularly finds his way obstructed by slow-moving, unhealthy people. “It’s ridiculous, he said. “It’s 5pm on a Wednesday. Where are all these people going?”

But Emma Bradford, a legal secretary from Wimbledon, complained, “I’ve been at work since 7.30 and just want to get home in peace, and suddenly this prick comes lumbering towards me like he’s some kind of elite athlete expecting the crowds to get out of the way of his £300 trainers and ‘I ran the world’ tee-shirt. It’s pathetic.”

Logan, who plans to participate in the marathon by watching the closing stages on television after spending the morning at Homebase, said, “I'm an elite athlete. These trainers cost £300. I ran the world. You’d think these plebs would show some respect.”

With apologies to the Daily Mash

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: A Lady Mislaid

A Lady Mislaid A Lady Mislaid by Kenneth Horne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Horne's plays are showing their age. A Lady Mislaid, albeit one of his better efforts, still suffers from being over-long and repetitive, with dramatic moments blunted by wordiness and excess explanation.

Sisters Jennifer and Esther rent a house in the country so that the former, a novelist, can recover from a nervous breakdown. Bullock, an over-enthusiastic policeman, intrudes, searching for the body of the previous tenant's missing wife. Matters are complicated by the arrival of Bullock's suspect, Smith, who remains beyond the police's clutches as long as the body remains missing. Eventually a body does turn up, but so does Smith's wife, very much alive.

A good example of the slow pacing is when the sisters question the newly arrived woman: her line "I'm his wife" should be followed immediately by Bullock's entrance; instead, we get half a page of the sisters exclaiming "His wife?", "But I thought…" and similar such nonsense before the policeman's belated entrance finally shuts them up.

A Lady Mislaid can only be performed as a period piece because of the dated 1950s social conventions and phrasing. Characters talk of "making love" to each other, which sits oddly on the modern ear, and Jennifer's fiancé insists that she won't be able to write books after they're married because she'll be bringing up children. Horne, like most mid-century British comic writers, suffers from the curious delusion that the mere mention of lumbago is always hilarious. Mrs Small the housekeeper is a stock character from the period, but no less fun for all that.

With judicious cutting, this play could still pass muster in a Village Hall. Sadly, the director of the production I'm stage managing is convinced of Horne's unerring genius and that every syllable is sacrosanct. I'm sure the audience will enjoy it well enough, but it would have been better with the red pen deployed.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why would you hire a travel writer to pen a science book? Because he's Bill Bryson and you could put his name on the phone book and it would sell shedloads. Otherwise this book has little to recommend it. Sure, he writes with his customary engaging joviality, but as he says himself in the introduction, there are plenty of proper scientists writing engaging and interesting books for the layman, so quite why he felt the need to write his own book to counter the dull texts of his 1960s schooldays escapes me.

This negative impression isn't helped by finding a huge, glaring error in just the second paragraph:
"Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this ‘i’ can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years."
That's more like five million days. It takes a couple of minutes with a calculator to work that one out, but neither Bryson nor his editor could be bothered. To quote from the Acknowledgements:
"Goodness knows how many other inky embarrassments may lurk in these pages yet, but it is thanks to Dr Tattersall and all of those whom I about to mention that there aren't many hundreds more."
At this point Bryson should have realised that he'd written a book whose only value would be to his own pension pot and his publisher's bottom line. I can understand him being reluctant to jettison three years of work, but considering he'd made a similar horlicks with Mother Tongue a few years earlier – on a subject where he might more reasonably claim to be qualified – one wonders why he started the book in the first place.

Sure, you can read it for the easy, witty writing, but it's distracting when you know you can't trust any of the facts. It's still the first chapter and we have: "with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea … Pluto would be … about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway". Even if it's a petit pois and I'm not wearing my glasses, I can still see Pluto on that scale.

If the errors are so obvious to me (and my degree is in Medieval History), what hope is there when it comes to the more technical science? Maybe things improve, but after barely an hour of reading I'm ready to give up.

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Review: Noises Off

Noises Off Noises Off by Michael Frayn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the best farces on the English stage. What looks like a poor farce is revealed to be the dress rehearsal (or is it the tech?), with the director storming out of the audience when the actors foul up. Act 2 requires the stage to be revolved, so we see the silent arguments of the cast backstage as the play goes into its run, before the final act portrays a disastrous performance later in the run.

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Review: An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain. Or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge

An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain. Or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain. Or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge by John O'Farrell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Don't let the cover fool you. This isn't a satire. It's actually a history of Britain written by a comic writer, not a historian. So that explains why the history is peppered with mildly humorous quips while happily trotting out factoids and long-discredited assumptions. It's too long for the casual reader, too shallow for the enthusiast, too inaccurate for a textbook and not funny enough for a satire.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: Daisy Pulls It Off: A Comedy

Daisy Pulls It Off: A Comedy Daisy Pulls It Off: A Comedy by Denise Deegan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saw this at South London Theatre and hated it. But six years later at Bromley Little Theatre it was a lot of fun. Usually comedies are funnier if you play them straight, but this one seems the other way round. Played straight, it's just an old-fashioned jolly-hockey-sticks story, where the lower-class girl proves herself, only to be revealed as a toff after all, validating the class prejudice of her erstwhile tormentors. Only by sending the whole thing up is the class order subverted. Maybe I'm still a socialist after all.

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Review: The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal

The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal by Axel Honneth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did a bit of research, so I can say with some certainty that this book isn't a satire or a parody. Axel Honneth is a senior philosophy professor and he is seriously trying to guide the theory of socialism out of the blind alley where it was led by the misguided assumptions of its 19th Century founders and their unquestioning 20th Century acolytes.

To put it in layman's terms, which Prof Honneth most certainly hasn't, the problem is that early socialists were fixated on the economic sphere and the proletariat's revolutionary reaction to it in the context of the nation state. Infuriatingly, the nation state has become diluted (Brexit notwithstanding), the proletariat has failed to adopt a revolutionary consciousness and become diluted as the economy becomes post-industrial, while capitalism has refused to collapse under its own contradictions. One of the best things about the book is how Honneth objectively picks apart the muddled and circular thinking of dogmatic socialists in a politically neutral way.

The solution, which Honneth finally gets round to after lengthy discussion of the philosophical roots of the the movement, is for society to be controlled democratically, with its various elements (not just the industrial proletariat) co-operating through ill-defined communication structures, based on the recognition of common needs rather than individual wants. For this to happen, the present power structures must be dismantled by means unspecified, while stronger personalities within the new order must restrain themselves from building a new power structure for their own selfish benefit.

As Honneth concludes, in the very last sentence of the book:
Only if all members of society can satisfy the needs they share with all others – physical and emotional intimacy, economic independence and political self-determination – by relying on the sympathy and support of their partners in interaction will our society have become social in the full sense of the term.
With such a naïve vision, it's little surprise that Honneth's book is a fundamental contradiction of itself. Socialism at its heart is a society run by the masses, for the masses. Yet Honneth's writing style shows that he is wedded to the idea of socialism as the preserve of an intellectual elite. The language of the book – and this cannot simply be the whim of his translator – makes every effort to be obscure and even intimidating.

For instance, on page 55 he states: "With a bit of goodwill, we could say that the first socialists understood…" Only he doesn't say that. He says: "With a bit of hermeneutic goodwill…" This isn't a one-off. At every opportunity, Honneth uses words designed to intimidate and exclude. The message is clear: his socialism is the preserve of an intellectual elite. You need a degree in politics. A degree in English won't do: I know because I've got one, and I can barely understand it.

Situations are frequently "immanent" (a word used almost exclusively by left-wing intellectuals). The word "normative" appears on almost every page (I'm not exaggerating). Social structure has to be "concretized". The existence of resistance movements is "apodictically presupposed". The operating segments of society make up not just a whole, but a "superordinate whole", while their interests are not just intertwined but "intersubjectively intertwined". If his argument is ever in danger of making its point clearly, Honneth invariably inserts a mysterious, convoluted, polysyllabic and usually unnecessary word or phrase to throw the reader off the scent.

As for the proletariat – y'know, the ones who are supposed to not only benefit but actually be in charge – the clear message is that socialism isn't for you. It's ours. Leave it to your betters. You could call Honneth's vision a kind of aristocratic socialism. He recognises that socialism has lost its way, but the destination remains the same: the movement must continue the long march up its own backside.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: Tom, Dick & Harry

Tom, Dick & Harry Tom, Dick & Harry by Ray Cooney
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As the lights went down for the interval, I turned to my companion and simply mouthed, "Wow." This play is simply awful. Of course, it didn't help that one of the actors was hopeless and the direction was a little pedestrian; a decent script could survive that. But farce only works with an element of plausibility, and this one depends on people making ludicrous, idiotic decisions that nobody with an IQ in double figures would make.

Tom and Linda are awaiting a visit from Mrs Potter to assess whether they are suitable to adopt a baby. Tom's brother Dick has borrowed Tom's van ostensibly to help a friend move house but has instead gone to Calais to load up with cigarettes, brandy and, unwittingly, two Albanian refugees. That's plausible enough and a good basis for a farce.

But Harry? He plans to help Tom and Linda buy their rented flat. He steals some body parts from the hospital so he can bury them in the garden, turning the flat into a murder scene and knocking £100,000 off the asking price. Easy enough: hospitals always leave dismembered cadavers in corridors for anyone to walk off with and would never notice if they sent a body for cremation minus its head and limbs. And why would an absentee landlord suddenly decide to sell at a loss when he has reliable, paying tenants? And why would Tom let Harry bring body parts into the flat on such an important day?

When Mrs Potter arrives to a house is full of dead bodies, and occasional policeman and live, drunk refugees (but not Tom's wife Linda, who has been tricked into going out), she offers to postpone their interview. To which any vaguely sane person would reply, "How about next Wednesday?" Instead, Tom insists the interview goes ahead and concocts the most idiotic story imaginable to explain the situation.

With farce, one has to sympathise with the main protagonist, but it's impossible to sympathise with Tom. He could have solved his problems at almost every turn: with a simple "Yes" to Mrs Potter and a simple "F*** off out of my flat" to Harry, Dick and the refugees. Every situation offers an easy escape that Tom refuses to take.

Like Alan Ayckbourn, Cooney is a staple of AmDram and his comedies have that cosy, 1970s feel (with social attitudes to match). Tom, Dick & Harry was written in 2005 and is a bit more modern, but there's still a whiff of the 70s about it. That's what will keep it running in Village Halls for decades, or at least till the Morecambe & Wise generation have shuffled off.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: Familiar

Familiar Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Robert Lennon looks more bald than in his earlier PR shots, it's probably through tearing his hair out reading reviews like many of those here, decrying that he has failed to create a linear narrative that comes to a clear conclusion. "But what happens in the end?" they fume. To ask the question is to miss the point. (Besides, Lennon does provide an ending – at least a possible one – on the penultimate page. But it's all in brackets and isn't the final word, so presumably that's not good enough. I'd question whether he even needs to give his readers that much.)

In Familiar, Elisa slips into an alternative reality where everything is the same but slightly different: her son Sam has failed to emerge from his brother's malignant shadow, she and husband Derek aren't having affairs (a creepy therapist is now the interloper), her job has changed and a woman she despised is now her best friend. Oh, and her son Silas hasn't spent the last ten years dead.

The title, of course, is a play on words, because the sci-fi plot is a device to tackle the real issue in Elisa's life: how to make sense of her spectacularly dysfunctional family. Her existential crisis exists in both universes, only in a different form. One is drawn to the conclusion that the answer to the question 'where did I go wrong?' is that it doesn't matter. What was wrong was always you. If you didn't make this cock-up you'd have made a different one. You might have taken a different route you took to your personal disaster and hurt different people along the way, but the result is the same. Silas's survives at the cost of Sam's psychological collapse.

Lennon could point his detractors to something Silas says in one of his posts to a gaming newsgroup, "Designers are stuck on the notion of story. Life is inherently nonsensical. Drawing strands of meaning together is for idiots."

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Build Your Reputation, neglect your job

Build Your Reputation: Grow Your Personal Brand for Career and Business Success Build Your Reputation: Grow Your Personal Brand for Career and Business Success by Rob Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bear in mind that most books like this are written by people with enough vision, insight and intelligence to have forged careers that enabled them to get their books published. If you’re stuck in a dead-end job, the chances are that you’re just not capable of these things, so the value of the advice is limited.

This is a book of two halves: the first is utter tosh; by the time I’d finished reading it I had already crafted an excoriating review, so I was a little disappointed that the second half showed a marked improvement.

It starts inauspiciously: “This playbook will propel you quickly to the top of your tree.” Such an implausible claim immediately puts the reader on guard. And what on earth is a ‘playbook’? Brown never uses the simple word ‘book’, so this distinction is clearly important to him. Oxford Dictionaries Online defines a playbook as: “NOUN, North American: A book containing a sports team's strategies and plays, especially in American football.”

My limited understanding of American Football is that the ‘plays’ are carefully structured manoeuvres lasting a few seconds at most. I can’t think of anything less appropriate as a metaphor for building a long-term reputation. And by rooting his imagery in a sport only played in his own country, he comes across as insular and parochial.

So we can ignore Chapter 1. Chapter 2 covers what a reputation actually is, and is so obvious that it can also be skipped. Chapter 3 describes what a career is, which again is glaringly obvious. It also contains the statement: “That’s why need a ticket to the game,” which is a terrible mistake in any book but especially one concerned with reputation. Attention to detail is important. Later on he urges you to look for “uniqueness in your core competences. That means any ‘me too’ comparisons that make you indistinguishable from your rivals”. If this drivel means anything, then it means the opposite of what the author wants to say.

Having accurately described the different kinds of fulfilment, Brown then states: “However you define the prize, only a few can lay their hands on it … Few people ever attain the power and satisfaction of a work-life dictated by their own choices and ambitions.” This is clearly nonsense. The world is full of people enjoying fulfilling careers. Believe it or not, it is possible to be satisfied without becoming a CEO and having your own private helicopter.

After a lot of exhorting and explaining the obvious, a fifth of the way through we get the first piece of practical advice. It’s not original. It’s the title of another book. But even that isn’t original. It’s a quote from comedian Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Got that? Great. Go out and do it. Just in case it never occurred to you that being good at your job might be the path to advancement.

Nearly a third of the way through the book, we’re still evaluating, looking for a starting point. If you’re going to improve your reputation, you need to find out what that reputation is now. Fair point. How do you go about that? Brown’s solution is simple: ask people. Just like Lieutenant Scheisskopf in Catch-22, asking his cadets if he’s doing anything wrong:

“I won’t punish you,” Lieutenant Scheisskopf swore.
“He says he won’t punish me,” said Clevinger.
“He’ll castrate you,” said Yossarian.
“I swear I won’t punish you,” said Lieutenant Scheisskopf. “I’ll be grateful to the man who tells me the truth.”
“He’ll hate you,” said Yossarian. “To his dying day he’ll hate you.”

But let’s say you’re a poor unfortunate cursed with colleagues who tell him the truth. You now know your Unique Value Proposition. How do you turn value into reputation? Brown has a clever strategy: “Communicate it.”

And that’s the real problem with the first half of this book. It doesn’t really go beyond saying, “Be brilliant and make sure people know about it,” without giving much practical advice.

But part two has a lot of practical advice – perhaps too much. To do everything the author says you should do isn’t just a full-time job; you’d have to hire staff. For instance, one of his “small, achievable goals” is to make ten phone calls before 10am, three days a week.

All this might build your reputation up, but it could be a reputation as a badgering, needy annoyance, while your colleagues only see someone who is transparently searching for their next job while neglecting their current one.

But Brown is right when he says that you need a plan and you need to be disciplined. Some of the strategies are unrealistic for anyone who isn’t already successful, but if you have the clarity of thought and the discipline to carry your plans out, then part two of this book could be a real help. If you’re a bit of a failure but are motivated to do something about it, you’ll probably still be a failure, but you’ll fail better.

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