Friday, 29 January 2010

A way with words

On account of an as-yet-unfixed puncture, I've been walking to work this week (which, given the heavy snow earlier in the month, has actually been my main mode of locomotion to work in January). This has given me the opportunity to catch up on the vast quantity of podcasts that have accumulated on my iPod over the past year. Hitherto, I've been somewhat unconvinced by the format, and have only amassed such a haul through acquisitiveness: once I've started collecting something, and I originally only started to see what the fuss about podcasts was all about, I tend to keep going.

Anyway, this week I've been going through my substantial library of David Attenborough's weekly Point-of-View slot Life Stories. I've actually talked here before about one of these slots that included the sad tale of the Great Auk. They're invariably a fascinating and highly enjoyable fusion of some aspect of natural history together with some tale drawn from Attenborough's own life as a naturalist-cum-broadcaster. This week I've discovered that modern snakes evolved from subterranean reptiles; that Tiktaalik is the new Coelacanth; that early books of animal classification included dragons; that humans and bowerbirds share an aesthetic sense; and that bird's nest soup is largely tasteless (hence, presumably, why it's bolstered with meat stock and spices).

I've also come to better appreciate Attenborough's style of delivery. Largely, I suppose, because it isn't something that I could do myself. In each of the programmes there's a central "big theme" that he's heading towards, but he often starts on what seems an unconnected parallel story that eventually ties in to his main subject. Frequently, this parallel track is one based on his own wide-ranging experiences in natural habitats or with the various people he's encountered on his travels. But he's so brilliant at interleaving his main story with it that, to the listener, the latter maps naturally onto the former. In passing, it's also simply amazing quite how broad his knowledge is, and how matched it is by his life experience. A true national treasure.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

An angry scientist

A rare visit to non-fiction land this time, with the book of the newspaper column of the blog, Bad Science, by the medical doctor Ben Goldacre.

As a regular reader of Goldacre's column, I mistakenly figured this for a collection of his columns, so waited till it graced the 3-for-2 table before picking it up. As it turns out, while it does pick up a number of stories from his column, it does so in much greater detail, and uses the format to fill in background material that, while important, would be less than engrossing in newsprint. In terms of its topic, while Goldacre occasionally makes general asides on "bad science", his book focuses largely on its appearance in medicine and related healthcare.

As such, he takes in familiar (and deserving) targets such as homeopathy, MMR and quacks with varying degrees of public endangerment, including "Dr." Gillian McKeith, Patrick Holford and Matthias Rath. The latter I was aware of because of a well-publicised (after the fact) libel trial that Rath took out against Goldacre and The Guardian. As it happens, the example of Rath, following on as it does from the lesser crimes of McKeith and Holford, illustrates just how pernicious and dangerous modern-day quacks can be. That there is a long history of quacks is not surprising, especially when one considers what once passed for mainstream medicine; that they persist to this day alongside modern medicine, and frequently make outrageous and deadly claims, is pretty shocking.

Which brings me to what I think is the book's strength: Goldacre's cold, contained rage. While he writes quite wittily at times, and certainly isn't averse to making fun of various "alternative medicine" targets, he's clearly very angry about much of what he describes. But he's able to channel this well, and he writes carefully and methodically, avoiding simply stirring the reader up with exasperating tales of money-printing quacks. He's also pretty good, at leading the reader into mildly technical topics, and he does so without (in my opinion) patronising the less familiar reader. But, throughout it all, his passion to rout the "bad science" he describes is engaging. And is pretty infectious - I found myself eye-rollingly livid on more than a few occasions.

Another aspect of the book which greatly strengthens its power is Goldacre's tackling of more mainstream targets such as the drug companies and the media. These get, and justifiably so, much the same scrutiny as the book's early anti-science bugbears. In particular, the chapter on how the media presents - and misrepresents - scientific stories is one that's of wider interest and use to scientists beyond medicine. I really enjoyed these chapters, and Goldacre's savaging of these institutions alongside the easier alt-med targets made the book a much more balanced read than I originally thought it might turn out to be. I shouldn't have been surprised given the range of his newspaper column, but given the shamelessness of so many quacks, I'd not have blamed him if he just focused his beatings on their turf.

Overall, a very enjoyable if simultaneously enraging read. Doubtless not the most thorough on this subject, but done well. And you've got to love his anger.

Fallout for Half-Life

For those who care about such things, I just wanted to register that Fallout 3 is truly magnificent. As the name hints, it's a post-apocalyptic romp around the ruins of Washington D.C. It plays as a cross between Grand Theft Auto and Half-Life 2, with a strong (but not overbearing) dose of RPG (and RPGs, of course). Its chief attractions are its enormous play area, the detail that's been put into every wrecked corner of this, and its strong storytelling. The latter just has a mind-boggling amount of characters, plot strands and background detail.

That said, it's got me thinking that Half-Life 2: Episode 3 has got a lot to do if it wants to trump this sort of title. Sure, HL2 is superior in some respects (most notably combat and AI), but the gulf in both scale and depth that Fallout 3 has opened up is going to take some beating. And the canalised gameplay mechanic of HL2, which practically holds your hand from one end of the game to the other, is going to feel pretty contrived compared to this. I'm already wildly off-piste with Fallout 3, at least in terms of my central goal, but I've had an incredible journey so far [*]. And there's not the slightest sign of it ending any time soon.

Could Valve have finally met their match for my heart?

[*] In that sad, gameplaying way, of course.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Existentialism and firing

Caught the latest Clooney juggernaut, Up in the Air, this evening. Though I'd high hopes going in, I was still surprised at how good this was. From coinciding perfectly with the ongoing spate of downsizings, to its deft dodging of a pat conclusion, it didn't put a foot wrong for me. Though largely comedy, it engaged quite seriously at times with its portrayal of the personal loss caused by redundancy. And it also successfully juggled the existential vacuum of the central character's pared-down life without resorting to faux redemption. Most excellent.

Friday, 15 January 2010

"MP In Sex Scandal"

Dipping once again into the world of Inspector Rebus, this time with Strip Jack, the fourth in Ian Rankin's series.

Orchestrated by his Chief Inspector as part of a moral drive to clean up Edinburgh, Rebus finds himself part of a raid on one of the city's brothels, unexpectedly discovering popular local MP, Gregor Jack. When Jack's unorthodox wife, Elizabeth, subsequently disappears without trace, Rebus' attention gradually turns to the tight-knit circle of childhood friends that she and Jack associate with. As the investigation proceeds, Rebus builds up a picture of Elizabeth more suggestive of a wild-child than the constituency wife of a young MP. Furthermore, as the investigation appears to link to a second concerning a spate of recent murders of women, Rebus begins to suspect that Jack is actually being framed in a campaign to strip him of his reputation and standing.

There's actually not a lot that I can write about this book. It's pretty satisfying Rebus fare, with little about it that merits much expansion. I did like the digression into childhood friends, and how such relationships change (or not) into adulthood, but otherwise the novel was a fairly routine, if twisty, crime novel. Well up to Rankin's usual literary standards, but not necessarily stand-out.

Only another 13 novels in the series to read ...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Geoengineering survey

The UK's major funding agency for environmental topics is slowly getting around to tackling geoengineering. Though they're not committing any funds to its study just yet (unlike their physical sciences counterpart), they are initiating a public consultation. How touchy-feely / useful this will be is up for grabs. Prior to running this, they've sent a note around academia to gather the community's opinion (and to spare themselves some work by fielding for questions to ask the public!). As I seem unable to resist putting my oar in, I've obviously replied ...

I am responding to the request for comments on NERC's public dialogue on geoengineering.

With respect to the particular questions raised in the request, I would respond as follows.

1. What are your hopes and concerns about the potential use of geoengineering technology?

In an ideal world, I would hope that it proves unnecessary to resort to geoengineering technologies in the future. All of the schemes proposed to date either have negative (or uncertain) secondary effects, are prohibitively expensive, or (further) disrupt natural ecosystems. As such, I would hope that their use is restricted unless serious climate change occurs unexpectedly rapidly.

Furthermore, I am concerned with our lack of understanding of the full effects of such purposeful climate modification. For instance, methods to reflect incident solar radiation may deleteriously alter cloud and rainfall patterns, or introduce acidic pollutants to the atmosphere. Similarly, methods that remove CO2 from the atmosphere through oceanic modification will (at least temporarily) accelerate ocean acidification and may expand ocean anoxia (with further consequences for the production of greenhouse gases). In the case of technologies that enhance natural biological sinks for CO2, changes in biodiversity are also liable to occur.

I am additionally somewhat concerned that the availability of geoengineering technology may serve to diminish efforts to decarbonise technological societies, the so-called "moral hazard". Since measures to address CO2 emissions are liable to lead to increased costs in the short- to medium-term (and the benefits are liable to be economically unquantifiable "externalities"), geoengineering schemes that promise to resolve climate change at a fraction of the cost will appear strongly attractive to governments.

All that said, I hope that government and other bodies are able to fund research into geoengineering so that, should disastrous climate change appear unavoidable, such technologies are available for use and considerably better understood. Given that some geoengineering research can run alongside existing research, it need not be especially expensive to investigate. But having a more complete understanding of possible climate interventions is crucial if they are to serve as a plausible "Plan B".

I would also hope that governments and other legislative bodies would assist to ensure that researchers are permitted to undertake small-scale trials of potential geoengineering technologies. In early 2009 an open ocean trial of iron fertilisation was heavily disrupted by legal activity, despite its activities being almost insignificant compared to the natural background of ocean processes. If geoengineering is to be evaluated properly (even for use as a "Plan B") it is important that efforts are not derailed by disproportionate or misguided appeals in the courts.

2. What questions should we ask people about the future of geoengineering research? What issues and options should be considered?

Both the question subjects and wording should be carefully considered (and/or studied in of themselves) to avoid polarising members of the public who are not familiar with climate issues in detail. For instance, the two following statements are liable to elicit different responses despite asking the same question.

  • Should geoengineering technologies (which purposefully alter the climate) be (a) investigated, and (b) potentially deployed?
  • Given that technological societies have already inadvertently altered climate, should geoengineering technologies (which purposefully alter the climate) be (a) investigated, and (b) potentially deployed?

That said, I would suggest the following as possible questions to ask people during public dialogue.

  • Given that technological societies have already inadvertently altered climate, should geoengineering technologies (which purposefully alter the climate) be (a) investigated, and (b) potentially deployed?
  • If geoengineering technologies are deployed, how should they be controlled? For instance, by companies or special interest organisations, by national governments, or by transnational organisations such as the United Nations.
  • Under what circumstances should geoengineering technologies be deployed? For instance, to return climate to its pre-industrial / modern state, or only when severe climate change is occurring.
  • When evaluating the safety of a geoengineering technology, how much weight should be given to negative impacts on natural ecosystems? For instance, consider a situation where a technology cools climate but significantly damages wildlife.
  • Should small-scale trials of geoengineering be permitted or banned?
  • Should geoengineering technologies complement or supplant efforts to decarbonise technological societies or the development of adaptations to climate change?
  • How should geoengineering research be funded? For instance, by normal government routes, or by private organisations that are either responsible for CO2 emissions or can profit from geoengineering.
  • Is any additional oversight, that is beyond government and regulatory authority, required for geoengineering? For instance, should lay individuals be formally involved.
  • Should the UK engage with geoengineering if the principle benefits of it are received elsewhere? For instance, some geoengineering schemes are liable to have the greatest benefit for high latitude (polar) areas.
  • Should the UK engage with geoengineering if negative consequences are caused elsewhere? For instance, some geoengineering schemes may cool the Earth, but impact negatively on weather patterns (e.g. the monsoon) in areas outside the UK.

Since geoengineering is tantamount to the alteration of the Earth at the largest scale to suit human needs and interests, I would additionally suggest that any questioning of public attitudes is accompanied by questions that aim to establish how people value and evaluate the worth of the Earth. For instance, whether participants consider that the Earth, its ecosystems or its charismatic megafauna have cultural (or other) worth. I certainly think it would be useful to know *why* people hold particular views (or which views overlap) alongside the views themselves.

Finally, given geoengineering's necessary connection to climate change, it seems crucial to me that some assessment is made of participants' views of climate change science as well. People whose views do not accord with the scientific consensus are liable to respond differently to those who accept current evidence and thinking. If one does not trust observational data or modelling simulations for climate change, it seems unlikely that these will be viewed positively for assessing geoengineering.

For reference, I am a coauthor of a review of ocean geoengineering (Lampitt et al., 2008; [1]), and was lead author on a study of the use of ocean pipes for geoengineering (Yool et al., 2009; [2]).

[1] Lampitt, R.S., (10 other authors) and Yool, A. (2008). Ocean fertilisation: a potential means of geo-engineering? Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. A 366, 3919-3945, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2008.0139
[2] Yool, A., Shepherd, J.G., Bryden, H.L. and Oschlies, A. (2009). Low efficiency of nutrient translocation for enhancing oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide. J. Geophys. Res. 114, doi: 10.1029/2008JC004792

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Sucker for polls: how moral am I?

As a confirmed sucker for online polls, I couldn't resist this one on "moral politics" that floated passed. Although identifying one's core views with only 16 questions is unlikely to throw up anything significant, with so few questions what's to lose?


Apparently this result means that I'm positive on the "moral rules" dimension (i.e. I favour a collectivist viewpoint), and negative on the "moral order" dimension (i.e. I don't believe in a sturdy ladder of moral authority). Basically, I'm a godless communist.

Somewhat more subtle (= has more questions) is this so-called "political compass". It's a bit more arduous to complete in terms of its length, but it also has fewer questions that stumped me. As it happens, I've taken it a couple of times in the past and largely find myself stuck in the same quadrant ...


Still there this time too: I'm a subversive communist who wants to replace "family values" with "anything goes". Or something.

Overall, slightly more informative than astrology, but since the latter poll has me sitting pretty with the Dalai Lama, some salt definitely needs pinching (if there's any left that's not already been ear-marked for the snowy roads).

Sunday, 10 January 2010

More catch-up: Gaming in 2009

Continuing to exploit our confinement to quarters to catch-up on my blogging, a round-up of the games that I played in 2009 ...

Halo 2
Mildly fun, but generally disappointing. I really enjoyed the original Halo, but found this far too much of a retread to distinguish it. And the tweaks that did distinguish it, for instance the back-and-forth switch of player perspective between the Master Chief and the Arbiter, really didn't work for me. While switching narrative viewpoint works fine in non-interactive fiction like books and films, it's jarring when you're in charge of things. Furthermore, the game ends, shamelessly, on a cliffhanger, but there's not the slightest sign of its sequel being released on PC. Not a feature that endeared the game to me. All that said, it did contain a few excellent science fiction vistas to take in from time to time, so it wasn't a complete loss. But it's very far from the step-up that one expects from gaming sequels.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Magnificent, but ever so slightly flawed. Definitely a worthy successor to its preceding titles, with a greatly enriched game environment and a much more involving and cinematic plot. Particular highlights are Liberty City itself (and its thousands of residents), the biting satire (helped by the immigrant player character's viewpoint) and a surprisingly bitter conclusion (so much for the American Dream). Potential mistakes by the developers were the regular and intrusive requests by the player character's "cazzan" to socialise, and the ditching of the RPG (role-playing, not rocket-propelled) elements that gave San Andreas an extra level of depth. The game's much-vaunted "morality" choices were also a bit thinner on the ground than I'd expected, and had practically no impact on my progress. Much as with San Andreas, I began the game hoping that I'd be able to impress something of my own morality onto Niko Bellic, but I quickly wound up being channelled into excessively (if enjoyably) violent pathways by the game's mechanics. Still, it's a highly enjoyable, immersive and memorable title. I still remember my first boat ride around a misty Algonquin at dawn to the strains of Philip Glass.

Just Cause
Very much a GTA wannabe, but one largely lacking in the depth, polish and humour of the titles it's mimicking. A major plus is the beautiful game environment, which includes perfect tropical beaches, spectacular atmospheric effects and gorgeous jungles. All of which are rendered brilliantly from a technical standpoint. But the game falls flat when it comes to gameplay, with repetitive territory-grabbing missions, supersensitive vehicle controls and unconvincing AI opponents. Furthermore, in playing the CIA as straight-shooting white hats it also misses what could have been some great tricks with the plotline. I kept hoping the plot would twist into my player character working out he was just some Company stooge doing the evil bidding of The Man, or that the WMDs ostensibly owned by the dictator I was set on toppling would turn out to be phantoms. But no dice - in the end all I got was a totally cliched and unimaginative plotline. All that said, I still got a lot of pleasure alternatively drinking in the natural beauty of San Esperito and strafing it with missiles from my helicopter.

Mass Effect
Bar its science fiction setting and generally high rating, all I knew going in was that this game had caused a minor stir in the US for its purported sexual content. What was "shocking" to me was how tame, and how brief, this content actually turned out to be. These people really need to get out more often. Ironically, Mass Effect is easily the most sophisticated of the titles in this round-up when it comes to morality. Unlike GTA IV, Mass Effect both allows the player a lot of freedom to behave however they choose, but this latitude comes with consequences (though not ones that go so far as to prevent completion). As I played through the game I unwittingly revealed myself as a goody-two-shoes on the galactic stage of Mass Effect, ultimately finishing up practically a saint (I'd be lying if I didn't admit to getting a little buzz out of polishing my reputation to a dazzling shine). This gaming aspect is a new one to me, but I understand it's been in other titles for years. Anyhow, Mass Effect is otherwise a rather rich sci-fi yarn centred largely on exploration (by foot, vehicle and spaceship) and shooting space aliens. The former part of this reminded me somewhat of the fun I had almost two decades ago in the Gamma System (ahhh, nostalgia ...). The latter part (the shooting) is pretty competently done, although I think GTA IV is easily several steps ahead. A big plus for me is that its set-up is largely an intelligent raid on science fiction novels rather than a rehash of the kind of "Cowboys-and-Indians-in-Space" that makes up 90% of cinematic and televisual treatments. The developers have gone to some lengths to plausibly back-fill what's already a nicely twisty sci-fi plotline. However, there are also parts, notably the increasingly repetitive excursions to identical remote facilities, where cut-and-paste has clearly taken the place of careful thought. Still, the central missions have a lot more attention lavished on them, and are frequently both pleasingly complex and set in beautiful, extraterrestrial locations. Returning to the story itself, one bum note that the science fiction strikes is the virtual apartheid against AIs. They're universally portrayed as hostile to "organics" if not actually evil - even, as with the Geth, if they've previously been enslaved by said enlightened "organics". Were it not for the fact that they were constantly trying to take my head off with a hi-tech shotgun, I'd have been siding with them. This moral blind spot reminded me of something similar in a more hackneyed piece of "science fiction": Star Wars. There (in the Old Republic sense), the Jedi Knights are presiding over a galaxy in which slavery is pretty much OK (cf. Anakin Skywalker's mum). Anyway, another title to add to the "good, but slightly flawed" pile.

So, that was 2009. Things are already looking up for 2010 with Fallout 3, but that'll have to wait for another time.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Christmas in Carnoustie

Now that we're effectively "snowed-in" in Soton, I can catch-up on the blogging I've been putting off for the past couple of weeks ...
  • 22 December: Bit of a disrupted journey up. Snow on the east coast made my parents wary of coming to get me from the airport, so I prebooked a bus ticket for this leg instead. Not that this helped me: delays elsewhere in the UK stalled my flight 2 hours, causing me to miss my ride. These were then compounded by the world's slowest carousel-loading service at Edinburgh - a record-breaking 65 minutes after touchdown. Anyway, after ditching the idea of making an alternative bus connection (Megabus being pants), a short bus hop (with a young Australian climate skeptic; Tate/Nate) followed by a train ride got me to Dundee. The roads to Carnoustie from there were sufficiently clear for a parental rescue.

  • 23 December: Overnight, a further few cm of snow fell making ideal conditions for me to waste time taking faux arty photographs. Walked through the woods and along the High Street to the Flats, where Caitlin and I made a snowman. In the PM there was the ritual fixing of the parents computer to attend to.

  • 24 December: No new snow, but I disastrously postponed my walk until the afternoon, whereupon it started instead to rain. So this turned into a stay-at-home day whose primary achievement was present wrapping. Despite the rain, the snow persisted, turning instead into snowman-useless ice.

  • 25 December: Christmas Day had the usual shape of a walk (this time along Carnoustie beach at sunrise), followed by a family get-together. I caught up with both brothers, their partners and both of my (new-ish) nieces.

  • 26 December: Though now suffering from the traditional CCC (Carnoustie Christmas Cold), in the PM I took a walk out along the beach between East Haven and Arbroath. Cue panorama beach photographs. Despite said cold, I was still able to be appalled by the sewage farm section of the walk. Out to see Jennifer et al. in the evening.

  • 27 December: Spent the morning playing with Caitlin on her Wii, largely on the game that I bought her for Christmas. We also tried out some of the Wii fitness stuff - actually a lot more arduous than I figured it would be. The games aren't quite what I'm used to (less headshots, for instance), but playing alongside someone in the same room, and doing so via a quite physical interface, is a lot of fun. In the PM I carefully ventured across the snowy roads to neighbouring Monifieth to catch up with Phil's parents. The evening saw me round at the Bickerton's, catching up with the family and finally passing along much-belated birthday presents.

  • 28 December: After being unable to resuscitate my parents' aged printer (a decade-old Epson), it was off to the town of my birth to secure a replacement. The shining newcomer impressively doubled as a scanner, but curiously managed (and manages - I never got to the bottom of this) to interfere with the wireless broadband whenever it was switched on. Out in the PM for a walk around Craigmill Den with Dave, Suze and Harry. The evening was a great get-together with the full gang, though alarmingly high in nostalgia index.

  • 29 December: More mucking about on the parental PC, and an effort to spreadsheet Dad's blood sugar data. No interesting long-term trends, but I did find out how alarmingly early he gets up in the morning. Round to Colin and Catherine in the PM. Sounds like they had an interesting cruise-based trip around Norway and Iceland since my last visit. Spent my last Carnoustie evening down with brothers and family. Much shooting of the breeze followed, plus some shooting of airport hostages. Reminded me that consoles really aren't as good as PCs.

  • 30 December: Packing and photographing Ava. She accompanied me to the airport in the PM, but in distracting her with my (new) phone, I managed to leave it behind in Scotland (it finally made its way to me on the 3rd January). The return journey was a nice contrast in timeliness to the upward leg. Home.

DSC02590 panorama

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Auditory farce

Back to regular fiction and to a novelist who I’ve somehow managed not to read for a number of years for no good reason. David Lodge is well-known for his campus novels, and his latest, Deaf Sentence, is no exception.

The novel's protagonist, Desmond Bates, is a retired professor of linguistics in an British university, slowly coming to terms with his change of status and his encroaching deafness. While his career is largely over, his wife's has found a new lease of life. Meanwhile, his similarly deaf father is struggling with living alone in distant London, but is unwilling to either seek or accept help. Desmond's life is also complicated by the arrival of Alex, an American doctoral student who he accidentally agrees to help after a typical hearing-related misunderstanding. At first, Desmond's major concern is that this assistance may ruffle the feathers of academic rivals at his old department, but Alex proves to be much more of a unhinged handful, with further requests of Desmond that can't be put down to his hearing.

The novel actually got a bit of a bludgeoning in the Grauniad’s Digested Read column when it was first published, so I was more than a little sceptical at first. However, I read Lodge's Thinks ... several years ago, and found it excellent, both in its ruminations on self-consciousness and on academic life in a small research group. Furthermore, as C greatly enjoyed this novel, I figured that it was worth a shot. Just as well, since it was a really enjoyable and interesting read.

It does tend to the lighter end of the reading spectrum, being largely structured as a farce, but it makes time along the way for some more weighty issues (though possibly one too many; see later), and handles each deftly and considerately.

For instance, Desmond’s deafness serves largely as a pretext for comical miscommunication and misunderstanding. However, it is also carefully explored and articulated to the point that I can safely say that the novel has given me the greatest insight into disability (albeit a very specific one) that I’ve ever had. As ever, this probably says more about my reading choices and disinterest in life experiences different to my own, but the book did give me pause to consider how profoundly lives can be shaped, and curtailed, by physical limitations.

The book also made me acutely aware of my own hearing, and I do wonder if Lodge was thinking of this when he wrote it. Perhaps this is a little joke on his readers by making them paranoid about the range and acuity of their own faculties. It certainly made me notice a persistent, high-pitched tone in my head while lying awake at night.

The novel also does a commendable job tackling Desmond’s relationship with his father, and the journey that this takes as his father’s health, physical and mental, gradually declines. Though it’s a million miles from my family situation, I recognised aspects from my life and from that of my parents. Desmond’s education and academic life have opened a chasm between him and his father that, while unbridgeable, can be accommodated.

Much as with Thinks ..., the novel is great on details of academic life in the UK. Lodge does a good job of leavening the book with insights on departmental politics and research assessment exercises that undoubtedly stem from his own experiences in academia. And his handling of Alex's research topic, the semiotics of suicide notes, is completely convincing. I was quite engaged with this while I was reading the novel, and just assumed that he'd done his own research on the subject, but it turns out that the account he presents is largely invented. If I'd been a peer-reviewer, I might well have missed that ...

The one misstep I thought it made was the late entrance of a passage dealing with the Austwitz concentration camp. Desmond visits this very briefly at the end of a lecturing tour to Poland, and goes on to describes it pretty perfunctorily in his diary weeks after his return. In fact, he even comments on this cursory treatment as he writes his diary entry. Given this rather passing treatment to the subject, I'm not at all sure what Lodge was trying to achieve here. In these brief notes on a holocaust site, he may just have been observing that even what should be significant encounters with events or places can wind up as brief summary entries in our life histories. Or he may have been running up against a publishing deadline - it's not easy to tell.

Overall, a book badly served by Digested Read. I can see how the familiarity of the campus novel makes it appear stale and easily parodied, but I got a lot more out of it than just this. And I say this as someone not usually engaged by farce.