Monday, March 21, 2011

Revenge of the Killer Nerds

How baseball was revolutionised by mucking about with spreadsheets

My interest in Americana does not extend to its sports.  Of the Big Three, football (sic), basketball and baseball, it is baseball which comes nearest to capturing my interest.  In Britain, we have a girls' game called rounders which it in many ways resembles [ducks from outraged US readers].  Last week I came across an extraordinary book on baseball, Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.

Moneyball explains the process by which the impoverished Oakland Athletics outperformed teams with much more money over an extended period.  Baseball, like cricket, is a game which generates an inordinate raft of statistics.  The A's general manager, Billy Beane, recruited Harvard-educated statisticians to work out which statistics were the best predictors of performance (these tended not to be the headline ones), and which were undervalued.

At the risk of falling into crass error about a sport I don't pretend to understand, the blue riband statistic is batting average--essentially the proportion of times the batter manages to hit the ball.  Beane came to believe that a more important stat was on-base percentage--the frequency with which the batter made it to first base (which a canny player can achieve without the inconvenience of trying to hit the ball).  Batters with a high batting average were overvalued by the market, those with a high on-base percentage undervalued--so given limited resources, it made sense to invest in players who scored highly on the latter. 

If this sounds dry, Lewis writes with a lively tone, and draws the characters behind the stats with engaging economy.  To enjoy the book, you probably need an interest in statistics or baseball, but not necessarily both.  Given my day-job, I did respond to the idea that sensible use of objective data was able to trump the prejudices of the gum-chewing ex-players.  It didn't do any harm either than Oakland is the home of Jack Vance, the hero of this blog.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Long Live the King

In thirty-plus years as a reader of books for adults, including a strong interest in science-fiction and fantasy, by some quirk I've managed never to read a novel by Stephen King.  I'm not sure quite why that is.  I don't particularly care for horror, and I've always seen King as at the horror end of the spectrum.

The magic of the Kindle is that I can download sample chapters of books I'm not really sure about, and wouldn't spend actual cash on.  (There used to be an artefact known as a "library" which performed a similar function, but these seem to have fallen into disuse).  Thus buttressed, I downloaded the openings of The Stand, seemingly King's most popular novel, and The Green Mile, which I knew from the excellent Tom Hanks film.

It is a possible to have a long career as a bestseller without being much cop as a writer, but there's no doubt King can write.  I devoured the opening of The Stand--a killer plague is on the loose: disaster beckons--in about an hour.  This was cracking stuff!  King does all the basics with unobtrusive excellence: inject pace, differentiate interesting characters, nail place and period.  The Stand is unputdownable, so imagine my dismay when I logged on to Amazon only to find the Kindle edition has been withdrawn!  I really don't want another 1,400 page paperback in my house, but the opening is so compelling there's no other option.  £4.99: click here for One-Click Ordering.  Job done.

To keep me going until the postman arrives, I downloaded the whole of The Green Mile, which is similarly impressive.  I know the story from the film--which appears to follow the source closely--but it's still compelling.  King has an uncanny command of voice, and critics who dismiss his work as populist pap have probably never realised how difficult it is to write something engaging and accessible.

I've got a holiday coming up and a long book in the post. What could be better?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cast Out

The BBC's latest foray into science-fiction is predictably dismaying nonsense

I must be in a particularly irritable mood.  Having administered a sly elbow to the kidneys of Midsomer Murders (apparently David Cameron's favourite TV prog), today I can't rest until I've vented my spleen about the BBC's execrable sci-fi drama Outcasts.

Grim faces greet the delivery of the latest script

The premise is promising, if unoriginal.  Human settlers struggle to survive on an alien planet, battling not only malevolent--if shadowy--indigenes, but their own rivalries and prejudices.  The vision is realised triumphantly, marred only by failure in the peripheral areas of plot,  dialogue, characterisation and acting.  Cliches which were barely tolerable in the 1960s incarnation of Star Trek spew forth with a straight face.  In one cringeworthy moment of the final episode, President Tate (Liam Cunningham, playing the role like a geography teacher striving for street cred with his students) rebuts the arguments of a hostile alien with "at least we know how to love!".  Come on!

Cunningham's task is not helped by an inconsistent and underwritten character, a problem which also afflicts Hermione Norris, phoning in a reprise of her role in Spooks.  Langley Kirkwood, as the leader of the persecuted ACs (if you don't already know what the ACs are, you don't need to now), spends eight episodes looking moody in a parka with the sun behind him.  These performances are Bafta-worthy when set against the plywood majesty of Ashley Walters as the one-dimensional soldier Jack, and Daniel Mays as Cass, who delivers a masterclass in bellowing and lumbering.

Luckily the show has a machiavellian villain, Julius Berger (played with actual competence by Eric Mabius).  Sadly for the viewer--and Mabius--the writers don't realise that your genuine machiavellian type doesn't go around announcing his plans as they unfold, so Berger rarely rises above the risible.

Fear not: there is good news.  Dire ratings saw the show shunted to the arse end of beyond in the schedules and, unlike The Killing, it was unable to recover.  The day after the final episode was broadcast, the BBC announced that the show was cancelled.  This was not, however, accompanied by an apology for wasting my licence fee on such trash.

Next time, happy pills at the ready, we'll look at something I like!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

English Idyll

Normally over here at ::Acquired Taste we steer clear of contemporary politics (political discourse got pretty dull once poisoning your rivals went out of fashion) but when my bete noir Midsomer Murders hits the headlines, it's time to take stock.

Today the producer of Midsomer Murders, Brian True-May, has been suspended for the observation:
"We just don't have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn't be the English village with them. It just wouldn't work. Suddenly we might be in Slough ... We're the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way."
 As a Guardianista I can only find such sentiments distasteful--although the trend for suspending or sacking people for expressing unpopular views is equally unfortunate--but True-May's views encapsulate all the reasons why Midsomer Murders is such piss-poor drama.

In for a penny, in for a pound, and the beleaguered True-May continues to blaze away with both barrels from his Middle England fortress: 
If it's incest, blackmail, lesbianism, homosexuality ... terrific, put it in.
Two out of those four are not criminal offences in this country.  Can you guess which?

Best, perhaps, to leave True-May to his thoughts, bellowing in a dark and soundproofed room.  If you listen very hard, maybe you can hear him.  Or maybe not.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Planes and Trains and Automobiles

Transport in Speculative Fiction

Last week I looked at questions of "styling"--the literal and metaphorical furniture--in my work in progress Shadow Puppet.  One of the areas which makes the most difference is transport, both for the logistics and feel of the story. 

My Mondia novels, for instance, make extensive use of "gallumphers", which are quadrupedal beasts of burden, as similar to horses as the reader wants to make them.  In Shadow Puppet, we are in the early years of heavier-than-air transport, with a level of technology broadly equivalent to the 1930s/40s.  One strand of the story is about aerial warfare--the sometimes contradictory influences here being The Dam Busters, Catch-22, Apocalypse Now  and Generation Kill--so getting the aircraft right is particularly important.

"Right" in this context is not primarily historical accuracy (after all, this is an imaginary world and other aspects of it are at variance with what the reader will expect), but more about plausibility and dramatic coherence.  I'm not writing a story like Memphis Belle, with a sizeable aircrew and their varied interactions; neither am I following Catch-22, where you never see any missions.  I only really want two characters on the planes, and what I envisage is something like the British Mosquito light bomber, a primarily wooden aircraft at home in a variety of contexts.

I also want to include that staple of steampunk styling, the dirigible.  Airships lumbering through the sky alongside propeller-driven warplanes make a satisfying tableau, as well as reinforcing for the reader that although many of the elements are familiar, the story and the environment will not be.

My researches into the Mosquito have been fascinating.  I'm interested, but in an abstract way, in how far and fast the planes can travel and what materials were used for construction.  I'm more interested--because I will need it to be convincing--in how the planes behaved in the air.  

1942 poster for the Mosquito bomber

Most interesting of all, though, are the memoirs of the men who flew them--how easy it was to fall asleep when flying in a warm cockpit, what happened when one of your two engines packed up, how little time you actually spent in the air (and so how much time you had to worry about the next time you went up).  These reminiscences help to create characters, and they provide wonderful incidental detail.

You never got all this stimulation with gallumphers...

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Released today!  The Last Free City for the Kindle

I'm delighted to announce that, after a series of delays and setbacks which would make a novel in themselves, The Last Free City is published today.  At the moment we have only the Kindle edition; the paperback will be along in a few weeks' time; its production is subject to considerably more bureaucracy.

Click here to buy from -- and don't forget that both The Dog of the North and Dragonchaser are also available for the Kindle.  One of the impressive features of the Kindle is the facility to download the first chapter as a free sample, and in a like spirit of generosity here is another sample - our introduction to the contentious teenager Malvazan, who will accompany the reader through much of the novel:

Malvazan had selected his outfit with care the previous night; scurrying around in the dawn gloom to find appropriate attire might suit Dravadan but such haphazardness was not the way to success.  He performed a brisk ablution in the ewer by his bed—fortunately he needed to shave only a couple of times a week—and ten minutes later made his way down the stairs into the dining room where the table was laid for an early breakfast.
To his surprise and contempt, his parents and brother were already at the table.
“Ah, the sluggard!” cried Dravadan, his dark fringe hanging into his eyes.  “The boy who lies abed till noon!”  He spread some honey on a slice of bread and conveyed it to his mouth with more enthusiasm than delicacy.  “You would think—”
“Dravadan!” said his mother Flinteska sharply.  “If you must bait your brother, at least do not speak with your mouth full.”
Dravadan rammed the rest of the slice into his mouth and, for the moment at least, devoted his full attention to subduing it.
Malvazan’s father Crostadan, head of House Umbinzia, raised his hands in a mollificatory gesture.  “Can we not have peace at the breakfast table on a day like today?” he asked.  “Malvazan, there is some minor amusement in such a habitually early riser being last among us.  It would do you no harm to display a little levity.”
Malvazan sat heavily as far from the rest of the family as the table allowed and reached for a slice of bread.  “I am glad to be such a source of amusement,” he said.  “It is good to know that a second son has some purpose.”
Dravadan let out a belch which escaped explicit reproof, accompanied by a smirk towards Malvazan.
Flinteska slapped her napkin down on the table.  “Enough, both of you.  Dravadan, as the eldest son you should show greater decorum; Malvazan, your invincible surliness oppresses us all.  Today we meet the King and Queen of Gammerling: a pleasant demeanour is required.”