Nutshell Reviews

by Henry Farrell on March 22, 2004

Just finished James Hynes’ “Kings of Infinite Space”:, which I found a little disappointing after his very funny “The Lecturer’s Tale”: KOISP takes up a failed academic (his downfall is described in a previous Hynes novella) who ends up temping as a typist/technical writer for the Texas state government. There’s some clever, funny commentary along the way, including this description of the protagonist’s previous job working for a school textbook company.

bq. For eight months Paul sat in a little gray cube under harsh fluorescent lighting and composed grammar exercises for grades six through twelve. His job was to accommodate an old workbook by expunging any content that did not meet the textbook guidelines of Texas and California, the company’s two biggest markets. Fundamentalist Texas forbade even the most benign references to the supernatural (the first step towards the Satanic sacrifice of newborns), while nutritionally correct California forbade any references to red meat, white sugar or dairy products (the biochemical causes of racism, sexism and homophobia).

Still, the book just doesn’t have as much venom and verve as _The Lecturer’s Tale_. The setting isn’t as developed; the character sketches aren’t as pointed or as sharp. My very strong impression is that Hynes is much more comfortable describing academia than bureaucracy and office politics – his best jokes still riff off academic debates. Further, the main conceit of the book – downsized penpushers turned feral ghouls, scuttling through the ceilings and walls of office buildings – has been done before, and done better, in William Browning Spencer’s wonderfully droll “Resume with Monsters”: If you want to read a funny dead-end-job/comedy/horror mash-up, read Browning Spencer; if you want to read Hynes at his best, buy or borrow _The Lecturer’s Tale_. Unfortunately, _Kings of Infinite Space_ simply isn’t as good as either.

Sweet liberty

by John Q on March 22, 2004

I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian and was struck by an episode in Post Captain . The hero, Jack Aubrey has been given command of a ship but is being pursued by his creditors and faces indefinite imprisonment for debt if they catch him. Reaching Portsmouth and his crew, he turns on the bailiffs who have been pursuing him and routs them. Several are knocked down and, in a marvellous twist, Aubrey presses them into service on his ship.

It struck me on reading O’Brian that this kind of thing would happen routinely in a libertarian utopia. On the one hand, bankruptcy and limited liability, the first great pieces of government interference with freedom of contract would be abolished, and imprisonment for debt presumably reintroduced. On the other hand, since most libertarians envisage a minimal state with no real taxing powers but a continuing responsibility for defence, reliance on conscription would be almost inevitable. From the libertarian viewpoint, any form of taxation constitutes slavery, and fairness is not a proper concern of policy, so there can be no particular objection to the press gang as opposed to, say, voluntary recruitment financed by involuntary income taxes.

Dr. Who

by Harry on March 22, 2004

Not bad. Not my choice though.

BoBo Brutalism in Pasadena

by Kieran Healy on March 22, 2004

I arrived in Pasadena (from Sydney) yesterday. Or possibly today. I’m still adjusting to jetlag, driving on the right and Los Angeles in general. The view of the mountains from the hotel is beautiful, at least in the photo in the hotel guidebook. Right now the smog makes them invisible. The area around the hotel has the usual collection of dull office blocks and carpark-like structures that turn out also to be office blocks. I’ve seen three buildings so far that are more than three stories tall, face the street on at least two sides, and have no windows at all: a Bank of America, a Target, and a Macy’s. I don’t have very high expectations when it comes to urban design, but these things look like the _Simpsons_’ Springfield Mall. They might as well have “Ministry of Truth” or “Central Reprocessing” written on the side. Is Pasadena particularly bad in this respect? Or has nine months away from the U.S. been enough for me to start paying attention to this kind of thing again?

September 11 – Immediate Response

by Brian on March 22, 2004

“Atrios”: links to this “pretty good Wall Street journal article”:,,SB107991342102561383-IJjgoNjlaF3oJ2rZnuIaKeBm4,00.html on the many conflicting accounts about the government’s immediate response to the September 11 attacks. Much of the confusion is probably due to the inevitable difficulty in remembering precise timelines, but I’d bet that at least some of the time some people are deliberately making things up.

One thing I didn’t know was that Cheney’s office is still sticking to the story that there was a credible threat to Air Force One that day. I thought that story had been officially inoperative for years now.

Varieties of English

by Brian on March 22, 2004

Here’s a semantic construction I hadn’t heard before. (This was on SportsCenter, or some sports show, on the weekend.)

bq. (1) Nevada upset Gonzaga by 19 points on Saturday.

That isn’t, or at least wasn’t, a sentence in my dialect.

[click to continue…]

Rebranding Peckham Spring

by Henry Farrell on March 22, 2004

Apparently, Coke has nicked its “business plan”:,3604,1174127,00.html for _Dasani_ from Trotter’s Independent Trading – “bottled tap water with added contaminants”: Does it glow in the dark too?

More on halal meat …

by Daniel on March 22, 2004

Following on from Chris’s post on the ethics of ritual slaughter, I thought I’d put up a link to one of the best things I read last year in the Guardian, on the ins and outs of the Halal meat industry. Suffice it to say that the definition of “Halal”, as with so many regulatory issues in the food industry, is a somewhat fluid concept, subject to the same sorts fo industry lobbying and regulatory capture as any other (reading between the lines, I pick up that the real problem for the halal industry is that if you don’t stun animals before slaughter, then they tend to kick around a bit, damaging the meat and leading to wastage costs which cannot always be passed on to the consumer).

Suffice it to say that if you really believe that it is a grave sin for you to eat meat which was not killed in the precise manner prevalent in Mecca around 622 CE, then it is probably not a good idea to go shopping for stuff branded “Halal” in the UK. It looks to me as if vegetarianism is the only religiously safe option for fundamentalist Muslims in the UK. For non-fundamentalists who understand that the strict traditional approach is not consistent with the realities of a modern abbattoir, then surely there can be no principled objection to starting up a debate about what compromises can reasonably be expected between religion and animal welfare.

I have no comparable information easily accessible online about the Kosher meat industry, but kosher/non-kosher scandals are a staple of the North London local press, so I would guess that similar arguments go through …

More on Matt Cavanagh

by Chris Bertram on March 22, 2004

I have “a letter in todays’s Guardian”:,3604,1174928,00.html on l’affaire Cavanagh (on which see “JQ’s earlier post”: and, especially, comments there by Harry). There are also supportive letters from Edward Lucas of the Economist and Bernard Crick (who is, perhaps, somewhat compromised by his previous association with Cavanagh’s employer, on which, “see Chris Brooke”: ). One benefit of having a blog is that, when the Guardian edit your letter you can publish the unexpurgated version yourself. They’ve not done a bad job, but here’s the original with the bits the Guardian cut out in italics:

bq. Political philosophers often entertain hypotheses which ordinary people find outlandish _or even outrageous_ . They do this in order to clarify our our fundamental commitments about justice, fairness, liberty, and so on. Even when they have come to a considered view _about those commitments_ , the question of how principles translate into policy is a difficult one. I take it that _a liberal newspaper like_ the Guardian believes that such fundamental inquiry by academics has a place, indeed and essential place, in the political ecology of a free society. _How deplorable it is then, when one of your correspondents, in search of material to discredit David Blunkett, should dig out theoretical reflections made in a wholly different context by Matt Cavanagh, a former philosopher now employed as a policy advisor._ Kudos is due to Blunkett for being willing to seek the advice of someone who has been so sharply critical of him in the past. Taking Cavanagh’s quotes from their context, then crying “race” _and seeking soundbites from backbenchers to embarrass a minister_ is _behaviour_ worthy of muckraking tabloids, not of the Guardian.