Review: A Darker Shade of Magic


Four Londons. One is permanently sealed – corrupted by magic gone wild. A second is a brutal place where magic is fought over in powers of dominance. The third is a pinnacle of a magical civilisation and the last is grey, bereft of magic.

V.E.Schwab’s novel mixes some clever conceits; parallel worlds, people with rare magical gifts and a looming existential threat. Ostensibly it is set in the Regency period of English history but it spends very little time in ‘Grey London’. Instead, we are thrown quickly into a game of intrigue and magical duels between the benevolent monarchy of Red London and the vicious twin warlords of White London.

After an initially slow world building section in which the central character Kell moves between the three London’s he has access to, the pace picks up enormously. Murderous pickpocket Delilah Bard has ambitions to become a pirate but her theft of a dangerous MacGuffin carried by Kell embroils her in the conflict. As we follow her experiences from our own grey world to the pageantry of Red London to the oppressive violence of White London, the three Londons are given more shape and distinctive character.

Exciting, fun and well paced. A good read. I started straight away on the sequel.

Don’t Forget Climate Change: Chapter 9 in which James Delingpole whines a lot

In which Delingpole gets grumpy because people challenge him about not being a scientist when he claims science is wrong but don’t challenge non-scientists who say science isn’t wrong. No seriously, that’s what the chapter is about.

Intro, Ch 1, Ch2, Ch3, An Aside, Ch4, Ch5, Ch6, Section 1, Ch7, Another Aside, Ch8, …

Delingpole is arguably a journalist ( he is currently the London Executive Editor of Brietbart- hence ‘arguably’) FUD producer and pro-Brexit propagandist.

This chapter is basically a giant whine. Delingpole concedes that he has little scientific background and then goes on to list many other people who disagree with his position on global warming who also don’t have a science background. He then goes on to complain about how ‘scientists’ who agree with him (citing Plimer, Michaels and Carter from earlier in the book) aren’t given the attention they deserve etc etc. Delingpole has a reputation as a satirist but this was just so unremittingly dull.

Delingpole finishes with:

But since then, the science has moved on— just like it did with humours, and phlogiston, and eugenics, and all those other theories that were fashionable for a period but which were eventually superseded by what Thomas Kuhn called a ‘paradigm shift’ in scientific thinking. This is how true science works and how it always has worked. A scientific theory, Karl Popper argued, is only useful if it contains the key to its own destruction. That is, for a proposition to have any real scientific value it must be ‘falsifiable’— capable of being proved wrong through experiment and observation. Just like has happened to the once-plausible, but now thoroughly discredited theory of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

Khun and Popper again and the same sort of mangled philosophy of science point. I wonder if every contributor was asked to work it in somewhere?


Timothy now has fan fiction: KR’s THE PRISONER OF SHADOWBAN

Courtesy of KR comes a very special tale of one cat findings his destiny.


By K.R.

Finally, the end of another tedious summer spent with his witless relatives at Felapton Towers arrived for our hero, young Timothy the Talking Cat. He looked forward to escaping from the long days and even longer nights of listening to Camestros yammering on about whatever “blah blah social justice” or “rah rah reading” thing was currently occupying his puny human-sized brain. Truthfully, Timothy wasn’t actually paying attention, but he greatly resented the implication that he should be. It was enough to drive a madman even madder and to make him mad too.

Indeed, it was long past time for Timothy to rejoin his chums at Trump University, Barrow-in-Furness campus where he would continue his studies in nuclear submarine technology and high-pressure deceptive marketing sales tactics. Thinking of some unfortunate classmates who had been thrown out at term’s end for being insufficiently ruthless, Timothy gloated inside. “Babies,” he sneered.

But the road back to Ye Olde Lancashire was strewn with danger, the primary one being that the route was oceanic and thus there was no actual road. This unfortunate geographic reality required that Timothy once again take himself down to the cantina into order to avail himself of the services of Straw Puppy, a notorious transport broker and the only one cunning enough to get him safely through the waters patrolled by the pirate Bright Bart. Straw Puppy was the Keeper of the Puppy Kerfuffle Map, the King of Kings, a Jedi, and He-Who-Has Already-Been Named-And-Thus-Not-Actually-So Mysterious.

They told no one and set out under cover of darkness. The route was difficult, passing through sharknadoes and tweetstorms, while dodging drones that were attempting to drop fair-trade coffee and BLM t-shirts at every turn. After many hours, precisely as they reached the point of no-return – the Lost Floating Island of WorldCon equidistant from all land masses – Bright Bart and his ship the HMS Ya-know-it-all-polis unsubtly barged onto view, accompanied by 182 phantoms. Their megaphones were dialed up to 11 and spouting the outrageous fact-free insinuations that were his outfit’s trademark.

In a flash, everything became clear. Timothy, despite being a cat, instantly recognized these dogwhistles and knew in his gut that Bright Bart was, like himself, a Trumpian. They were brothers, members of the same fraternity, grifters of the same grift. Soulmates, albeit soulless ones. He certainly liked the cut of this Bright Bart’s jib more than he liked that of Straw Puppy. What had he been so afraid of? Why had he listened to Camestros, who was never right about anything? And those stupid houseplants with their feverish rantings about Hiram and the Sun and other Enlightenment rational nonsense. He had failed his masters and forgotten that pyramids were for schemers, not for Age of Reason dreamers.

So Timothy and Bright Bart pulled out their flamethrowers, joined forces and incinerated the Millenium Condor and took Straw Puppy prisoner. They sailed far to the right, promising to hold him captive until all conservatives were released from the jail of political correctness and allowed to speak freely once again. Unfortunately, that jail does not exist anywhere on earth thus rendering their hues and cries very lame indeed.

Timothy and the shadow ban

Timothy: I’ve been shadowbanned!
CF: The urban fantasy RPG?
Timothy: get with the times you failed Gen-X wannabe. I’m talking CENSORSHIP!The SJW controlled media silencing alternate voices on the right!
CF: You not still mad about that whole Hillary VP thing are you?
Timothy: No you gamma-addled pant spoiler. I’ve been shadow banned on Twitter.
CF: ah -your followers not getting your messages. Look, it’s a very buggy platform. Stuff happens.
Timothy: Stuff? My followers have not got a SINGLE message from me.
CF: Today?
Timothy: Not a single one EVER.
CF: Well, let’s look at this calmly. How many tweets have you written?
Timothy: Tweets?
CF: Timothy, have you even got a Twitter account?
Timothy: I’m not stupid enough to let the NSA spy on my intimate thoughts!
CF: And yet I’m stupid enough to listen to them. If it’s OK with you I might just talk to
this house plant instead.
Timothy: Look. It’s all here in Brietbart. You can’t deny what Twitter are up to.
CF: This is just a print out from a web page and you’ve scribbled out ‘Brian Niemmeier’ and written your name instead.
Timothy: I have high hopes of winning a Campbell.
House plant: Masons are hacking my facebook page

Currently reading: A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab @veschwab

I was initially apprehensive about a fantasy book with a Regency England setting but this fantasy has some deep world building that makes the historical England aspect just one part of something much richer.

I was slow to get into it, mainly because busy with final Hugo reading, reading that contrarian climate change book and general what-the-F-has-Donald-Trump-done-now internet perusing. The book hooked me in, though, with Kell’s visit to White London – the politically and supernaturally unstable alternate world two steps away from our own. Good stuff.

Don’t Forget Climate Change: Chapter 8 in which I blame Karl Marx for Donald Trump and waffle about economics

I may have strayed from the topic a bit.

Intro, Ch 1, Ch2, Ch3, An Aside, Ch4, Ch5, Ch6, Section 1, Ch7, Another Aside,…

The strongest position for a right-wing group to take on climate change without descending into overt crackpottery can’t be on the science. However, there are actually two substantial questions in the debate on climate change due to global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. Is it happening? (yes)
  2. What should we do about it and how?

The “skeptic”/“denier”/FUD campaign from the right has focused most strongly on point 1. Even when the debate has been forced to shift to 2 because of government policy, opposition to a given policy has relied on sowing doubt around1. Australia is a prime example, a debate on whether to use an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax has been active among centrist and leftist politicians and policy makers. This, though, has been overshadowed in the public debate by the right wing of the Liberal Party* and their pundit allies on talk radio and the right-leaning press, attempting to spread as much doubt as possible on the reality of climate change.

As a tactic, it has been successful. The Gillard Labor government’s carbon tax was deeply unpopular. The current Liberal Prime Minister is known to support the principle of carbon pricing but is currently unable to act for fear of splitting his party.

The price conservatism has paid has been deep but not immediately obvious. By committing itself to scientific denial, conservatives had been systematically undermining public willingness to believe expert opinion and have also committed themselves to a strange, cynical post-modern epistemology in which the distinction between fact and opinion are so blurred as to be meaningless.

Speaking of which: economics.

The dismal science and the most politicised of numerate, empirical disciplines. I’m happy to blame Karl Marx in this regard. No other thinker has so successfully tied the adoption of an economic theory of how capitalism works to an ideological choice. Marx’s pseudoscientific model was an intellectual challenge to advocates of capitalism and freer markets in the late nineteenth century. The Russian revolution and the growth of the nominally Communist empires of the twentieth century normalised Marxism in public and intellectual discourse. The ideological conflicts of the Twentieth century became marked out in terms of competing economic models.

Even within non-communist Western democracies, politicians could shop around for economic models that suited their ideological preferences. Public spending was/is easier to rationalise in Keynesian economics, tax cuts and reduced public spending easier to rationalise in Monetarism. Although political commitment to either model was likely to be inconsistent.

Not to be outdone by left with its premier pseudoscientific economic theory of Marxism, the right developed its own. The so-called “Austrian School” of Von Mises has all those same traits of a theory that proceeds from ideology rather than informing policy. And so we now find that even within the mainstream of US Republican politics economic ideas that make little sense under any economic model.

In the Soviet Union, this dis-attachment from reality led to economic and social disaster. When policy cannot be judged against the basic question of whether it will practically work or achieve its aims, then effectively policy becomes judged on the basis of pure emotion even when dressed in the trappings of rationality. In such a climate it is necessarily the loudest and the most bullying voice that wins.

There is a strong connection between bullies & bullying and denial of reality. Whether this is done cynically as a tactic of dominance (‘gaslighting’) or as a side effect of pure arrogance, the result is the same.

So why not economics?

By which I mean, given that right-wing parties already employ economic arguments detached from reality and GET AWAY WITH IT (from Tory austerity measures in the UK to the dire warnings of hyperinflation from the Republican Party in the US from 2009 when Democrats enacted moderate stimulus measures) – why don’t they simply concentrate on the POLICY question in response to global warming?

Instead, their approach has been to try and turn climate science into a public debate as fractured by ideology as economics. While this has had a net effect of polarising intellectual commitment to science to the extent that a candidate for President of the United States can get a resounding cheer for saying “I believe in science”, it has also helped leave the right open to dominance by populist bullies.

Three factors are at play I think:

  1. habits developed from lobbyists in multiple industries pushing back against environmental policies (the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ issues)
  2. the maxim that the best defence is a strong offence – by pushing back on the science this prevents the policy debate ever properly happening (see above in Australia)
  3. maybe, the economic arguments they can deploy just aren’t very good ones.

Point three is hard to judge because in the global warming debate we rarely get to that point. The discussion tends to get mired in the weeds of Climategate emails or whether there was a Medieval Warm Period in Greenland or (as we’ve seen in earlier chapters) whether there is a lunar cycle behind earthquakes in New Zealand.

Am I ever going to get around to talking about this chapter?

Sorry. Wandered off a bit there. Alan Moran’s chapter is a strong argument for point 3. There a no comical howlers or cat astrologists to discuss. Instead, Moran concentrates on three economic reports on climate change.

  1. The first is the economic and risk sections of the IPCCs Fifth Assessment report.
  2. The second is the Stern Review commissioned by the UK government.
  3. The third is the Garnaut Climate Change Review commissioned by the Australian government.

But, having read it all there really isn’t much there. The essence is Moran looking for bits of things to disagree with or speculating that many of the assumptions are uncertain. This is true – necessarily any such economic report is at the wrong end of a chain of probability and/or uncertainty**.

Consider it this way.

  • At the top of the chain, we have global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases. There really isn’t any rational doubt about this.
  • A step down the chain we get to climate sensitivity where Richard Lindzen was pitching his argument. We can be sure the extra greenhouse gases will make surface temperatures warmer but slightly less certain about how much. Still, it looks like the answer is that things will get significantly warmer if we continue.
  • With less certainty is what will happen to the climate globally with warmer temperatures. This is quite varied. Sea level rises we can be confident will occur but how much by when is a bit sketchier. More storms? Less clear.
  • Focus now on a given country (e.g. Australia) and things get even more uncertain. More rain? More drought? More rain AND more drought?
  • A step lower and we get to the economic impact of those changes. It is not the case that these are wholly unknowable but a sensible discussion requires a fair number of assumptions.

This chain of uncertainty may seem like an advantage to those who want inaction on climate change and yet even in this chapter on the very issue of economic and climate change Moran doesn’t offer strong arguments. Why not?

The difference is that offering uncertainty is not reassuring. The broad strategy for arguing the political case for inaction on climate change is to suggest that no action is needed. Economic uncertainty in other circumstances (such as financial crisis or political turmoil in a neighbour etc) tend to help those advocating doing something. When faced with change in general, electorates with support action that offers something in the way of reducing or mitigating risk.

The right avoid arguing the economics not because the economic case for action is clear. The case isn’t clear because we can’t possibly know the full impact of climate change on the global economy, so there can’t be a simple ledger-style argument that says the cost of action is $X and the cost of inaction is $X+Y so action is better than inaction. What economist like Stern can do is show plausible scenarios around this and give some sense of the cost of action.

Rather the right avoid arguing the economics because even the most inventive of them haven’t found a convincing argument that global warming will be a consistent net economic benefit for most people. The closest we get is a half-hearted ‘CO2 is plant food’ argument from some quarters.

*[Which is Australia’s conservative leaning party, just to confuse tourists]
**[philosophically these are different but that is a different argument for another day and I’m not really convinced they are different anyway]