Enter Uncle Oswald

I invoke the power of my memory and proclaim this to be one of Dahl’s lesser books. Still, with Roald Dahl that still means that this is a ripping read.

Switch Bitch contains four longish short stories that all involve some kind of switching sex partners. And knowing Dahl, either the switcher or the switchee will be left off the worse at the kind.

So why does my intuitive memory proclaim this to be a lesser Dahl? I can make a few guesses. For instance, the first story leans heavily on the element of surprise, whereas the last story is painfully predictable. The third story has one of the protagonists be a sex victim, which is pretty much nails on a blackboard for me. (Although the fact that there is no redemption also makes this story for me.) The book clearly addresses 1960s’ Americans (it would not be published today for fear of offending the christian fundies). With the exception of the first the stories are pretty much forgettable–now I am writing this review I keep going back to find out what the other three were about again, even when I finished reading last week. The sex itself is described in such a roundabout way that you have to wonder whether the author has ever had any.

So, should you read Switch Bitch? Of course you should; it’s Dahl, baby! The stories are still wicked, not in any sense of “cool”, but literally wicked, evil, naughty. Dahl will rot your brain, and this book will do its part.

Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl, 1975, reviewed by Branko Collin. (The copyright notice suggests that one or more of these stories have been published before.)

Bad Medicine

Another story I was going to read over Christmas was Robert Sheckley’s Bad Medicine, from which I quoted the beginning:

On May 2, 2103, Elwood Caswell walked rapidly down Broadway with a loaded revolver hidden in his coat pocket. He didn’t want to use the weapon, but feared he might anyhow. This was a justifiable assumption, for Caswell was a homicidal maniac.

Sheckley writes lovely mild satire. It just happens to take place in the future. I don’t quite get the comparison with Douglas Adams, except that they are both science fiction authors who use humour. I’d compare Sheckley (just on the basis of this one story, mind!) with other satiricists, such as Ephraïm Kishon.

The story is about a homicidal jet-bus driver who represses his tendencies by robot-therapy sessions. Accidentally, he receives a robot that is pre-set to treat Martian conditions…

Definitely got me interested in his other works, several of which he published at Scifiction Magazine, a magazine closed down by its corporate owners, the infamous SciFi Channel. At the time of writing, their archives are still open though.

Bad Medicine by Robert Sheckley, 7/10. Reviewed by Branko Collin on February 22, 2006.

(There is also a human-read (by Sheckley?) audio book version of the story.)

Edit 4 June 2006: adapted this review to the hReview microformat.

Four Max Carrados Detective Stories

As I wrote earlier, I was going to read Bramah and Sheckley over Christmas, which I have. I also suggested that Bramah’s Kai Lung may have influenced Terry Pratchett; but I read a book from that other series of Ernest Bramah, so I won’t be able to compare the authors. Yet.

Max Carrados is yet another soldier in that large army of super-detectives that was so popular during the late 19th and early 20th century: Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Hercule Poirot, The Thinking Machine, Bill Clifford, and of course the granddaddy of them all, Dupin.

The four Carrados stories are neither better nor worse than their contemporaries. If anything, the story type is starting to grate a little. Still, great escapist stuff.

Max Carrados is, like Poirot and Holmes claim to be, a consulting detective. They listen to your story, and then, solely based on what you told them, the mud on the gold watch you inherited from your father and the fact that the queen’s stable boy has a cold, solve your “case” using nothing but deduction. Carrados is “aided,” so to speak, by his losing sight in his younger years, sharpening his deductive facilities. (Father Brown’s deductive facilities are aided by extreme bigotry.)

Ernest Bramah, Four Max Carrados Detective Stories, 6/10.

(Bill Clifford, by the way, is like Sherlock Holmes a parody of these types of detectives, written by Dutchman Godfried Bomans, and unfortunately won’t return to the public domain for a long time to come.)

Book review: Defensive Design for the Web

Defensive Design for the Web deals with preventing common interface design mistakes on e-commerce websites. It shows real world examples of websites getting it wrong and other websites getting it right. By presenting these examples side by side, the reader immediately gets to see why something works (or why it does not).

Read the rest of this review at evolt.org.

Afraid to read

There are many books that I started reading but never finished, because I got bored. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was among them. (Borrowed from the local book mobile when I was 8 or 9 years old. The librarian had been unwilling to lend me large books before, convinced that I would not finish them. Boy, how I would have liked to have proved him wrong on this one too.)

The book that sported the protagonist I was named after: De Bruiloft der Zeven Zigeuners (The Wedding of the Seven Gypsies) by Aad den Doolaard. Super sugar sweetness; I could not bear more than two pages, even though my father had kept the book for 18 years to give to me on my birthday.

However, recently I stopped reading a book because it was too good, too exciting. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is a thorougly convincing story about a disfunctional family, about how we cannot get away from those who torture us, about how meanness can be dispensed in tiny portions, not to be protested against, yet have far-reaching effects. About the holes we dig for ourselves.

I would like to get back to this book, because it seems one of the greatest works written in the English language. Yet for now, I want to keep the thorougly convincing account of pettiness at bay, and the feelings it evokes in me.

The frightening might of copyright

Copyright in the USA has devolved from a device protecting diligent authors from greedy, anti-societal middlemen, to a device ‘protecting’ these very same middlemen from the citizens. This may not be apparent yet to many people, because American law doesn’t mention these middlemen yet — certainly not as beneficiaries, as the most recent Dutch copyright law does.

Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture, published March 2004 by Penguin, describes the devastating consequences this development may have on the growth and proliferation of American culture. I don’t agree with many of his conclusions, and oppose his adoption of the propaganda language used by the evilest of middlemen (‘property right’ for ‘copy right’, ‘theft’ for ‘infringement’ et cetera), be they congressperson, publisher or lawyer, but he means well.

Where the book really shines is in the long list of shocking examples of where copyright has stifled free speech and prohibited many, many things that were perfectly legal (and ethical!) before. From the inventor of FM radio, who killed himself when the middlemen refused to license his patents, to the small children who got ‘prosecuted’ (the term used by the middlemen) for not licensing MP3s, the book perfectly illustrates how a weapon against publishers has fallen into exactly the wrong hands.

When it comes to copyrights in the US, I tend to agree more with Richard Stallman, who better differentiates between the values at stake. When file-sharing is deemed illegal, that is not wrong because of some obtuse, three-chapter long series of intermixed arguments of what’s good for innovation and of what property really means. It is simply wrong because sharing is a right value. The law should recognise that as soon as sharing becomes an endangered species.

So when Lessig proposes the Public Domain Enhancement Act, he does something right: he helps preserve culture. As webmaster of a website about abandoned text adventures I appreciate that very much, because many of these games can no longer be legally owned. However, he skips the many other problems involved by giving the likes of Sony and Disney the power they’ve currently got.

In the end, though, I cannot blame Lessig for attacking only the problem that is closest to him. His essay is an intelligent, yet passionate one, that should be read by anyone who is concerned about where this world is heading. The consequences of a dictatorial copyright regime influence the entire world, and are far-reaching: from news channels no longer reporting the truth to small children turning criminal for doing good.

Free Culture can be bought at any bookstore worth its salt, and is downloadable in many, many formats (from spoken to written text, and possibly in several languages) from its companion website at http://free-culture.org.

Edit: when I wrote this review I used to publish my book reviews on third party websites. Later, I decided I would keep all my reviews under my own control. In August 2006 I added this entry to the books and review categories, and removed the phrase “(book review)” from the title.