Off to Kiev

I’m off to Kiev for the weekend: I miss the cold, snowy environments where people speak Russian.

Many thanks to those who left comments under my post on editors, I’ll reply when I’m back.

Newsflash: Counterfeit Goods are Cheap!

Either I am being dense, or the BBC is:

The man who sparked outrage last year by hiking the price of a life-saving drug may have met his match in some Australian schoolboys.

US executive Martin Shkreli became a symbol of greed when he raised the price of a tablet of Daraprim from $13.50 (£11) to $750.

Now, Sydney school students have recreated the drug’s key ingredient for just $20.

The Sydney Grammar boys, all 17, synthesised the active ingredient, pyrimethamine, in their school science laboratory.

“It wasn’t terribly hard but that’s really the point, I think, because we’re high school students,” one boy, Charles Jameson, told the BBC.

The students produced 3.7 grams of pyrimethamine for $20. In the US, the same quantity would cost up to $110,000.

The issue was never how expensive it is to make the drug, it was who held the license to make it and sell it in the US.

Mr Shkreli, also known as “Pharma Bro”, was chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals when it acquired exclusive rights to Daraprim.

Clearly some people don’t realise this:

Dr Alice Williamson, a University of Sydney research chemist, supported the boys’ project through online platform Open Source Malaria.

“They’ve transformed starter material that’s worth pennies into something that has a real monetary value in the States,” she told the BBC.

No, their product has no monetary value in the States.  Let them try to sell it over there and see what happens.

“If you can obtain it cheaply in schools, then there’s no excuse for charging that much money for a drug. Especially from people that really need it and probably can’t afford to pay for it.”

Dr Williamson called the pricing in the US “ludicrous”.

We have a chemist working in research at a university who thinks the price of drugs is driven by the cost of the ingredients, and shit turned out in a school lab is the same as that certified for distribution in the US by the FDA.

Next up from the BBC: Chinese students make a Louis Vuitton bag for $10, undercutting the flagship store on the Champs-Élysées by $490.  Praise all ’round.

Praising Pinochet

Following the death of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, many people have looked at how various world leaders and media outlets reported this event and contrasted it with how they reacted to the death of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet in 2006.

This article takes the New York Times to task over the matter:

The New York Times described Fidel Castro as a “fiery apostle of the revolution” and Cuba’s “maximum leader” in its Saturday obituary for the infamous and brutal dictator.

Here’s how The Times opened the article:

Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959 and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba’s maximum leader, bedeviling 11 American presidents and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, died on Friday. He was 90.

The Daily Caller’s Jaime Weinstein brought attention to how differently the news outlet opened its obituary for Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 2006:

Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the brutal dictator who repressed and reshaped Chile for nearly two decades and became a notorious symbol of human rights abuse and corruption, died yesterday at the Military Hospital of Santiago. He was 91.

This is wholly unsurprising: large numbers of western academics, politicians, journalists and their fellow travellers have for decades excused or ignored everything from repressions to mass-murder provided the perpetrators were socialist and/or anti-American, and I believe the proper response is to call them out on it whenever it appears.  Highlighting how they treat Castro’s death in contrast to that of Pinochet is one way of doing this.  However, where I part company from some people is in praising Pinochet in any way.  The criticism of the NYT above ought to be that they are painting Castro in a positive light, not that they are too harsh on Pinochet.

I don’t believe for one minute that had Salvador Allende continued in power Chile would have become anything other than a run-of-the-mill socialist basket-case complete with customary repressions and murder, and nor do I subscribe to the myth that the CIA were involved in the coup that deposed him.  And if I’m honest, I don’t think Pinochet’s greatest crime was kicking out an elected President who was taking the country in the wrong direction: I don’t support military coups, but I’m not going to shed too many tears over that one.

What I object to is the police state, repressions, disappearances, and murders that followed.  I don’t care whether Pinochet “saved” Chile from communism and ran a half-decent economy (even assuming they are true): it is possible to do these things without torturing and raping students and chucking them out of aircraft over the ocean.  We get pissed off when people overlook Castro’s thuggery when praising Cuba’s literacy rate, we shouldn’t do the same thing for Pinochet.  Yes, I get the realpolitik of the Cold War and the importance of defeating Communism, but that was a long time ago and we don’t need to make excuses for the thugs who were on our side any longer.


Regular commenter Watcher left the following comment under my last post on writing:

Editing, as anyone who has written anything knows, is an utter pain up the dark place. It may be having an idea is fairly easy, writing a draft is fun but editing really does separate the men from the sheep, as it were. You have to have a hard heart to edit something you have come to love. (By the way, when I was at Art College one exercise that came as a real shock to us kiddies was spending an hour drawing some plant and then being told to rub it out and start again. Naturally, we all tried to save the ‘best bits’ of the drawing. To edit, you have to be prepared to rub out the ‘best bits’ and, pooh above, that is really, really hard)

I know I’m going to struggle with this.  In my professional life I write reports and when they are sent for review I take every comment and suggestion as a personal affront, believing my work to be the epitome of perfection first time around.  I exaggerate, but only slightly.  I really, really don’t like having my work edited.

But I have no choice: an engineer cannot check his own work and nor can a writer edit his, and I have no doubt a good editor will make my output much better.  The question I have, with my having no experience, is what exactly does an editor do?  Specifically, where does his/her role start and stop.

My guess is that an editor will take an objective look at the story and make suggestions with the goal of improving it in the eyes of future readers.  He will look at the book length, the prose, the characters, the overall story and other elements and then advise what changes ought to be made.  I would imagine they would include fleshing out a character, removing unnecessary scenes which are effectively duplicates of others, reducing the length of some sections, increasing the length of others, rewriting sections to make them more readable and to remove ambiguities, and possibly making recommendations to improve a character or storyline.

But how far do they go?  Do they attempt to change the story, for example by substituting a sad ending for a happy one?  Do they ask the author to drop the first person narrative and rewrite it in the third person?  Would they suggest major alterations to key characters thinking readers will find them more accessible?  Would they want additional scenes included to make the story more like the one they would have written were they an author instead of an editor?

And how are the conflicts between the editor and author resolved?  Obviously an author must trust his editor, but how does one go about this?  How do you know whether an editor is adding value or destroying your work to satisfy his own ego?

I would love to get some feedback on this, as it is obviously going to be a tough period.

Oh, how must America’s foes tremble!

This BBC interview with the outgoing head of the CIA is illuminating:

In the first interview by a CIA director with the British media, John Brennan outlined a number of areas where he said the new administration needed to act with “prudence and discipline” – these included the language used regarding terrorism, relations with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal and the way in which the CIA’s own covert capabilities were employed.

This is a bit like Enron’s Kenneth Lay telling the receivers how they ought to proceed from here as he’s being led from the building in handcuffs.

Mr Brennan offered a bleak assessment of the situation in Syria arguing that both the Syrian regime and the Russians were responsible for a slaughter of civilians which he described as “outrageous”.

Thank God we have the CIA and their network of spooks to tell us that.

The administration of President Barack Obama has pursued a policy of supporting moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria.

Which has been a disaster because the support has been lukewarm and given without a clear objective, and those “moderate rebels” are mostly jihadists.

The CIA director said that he believed the US needed to continue that support to help rebels withstand what he called an “onslaught” carried out by Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.

Which is exactly wrong, and why their policy has been a disaster.  The US may have had a window of opportunity to end the civil war by backing the opposition forces in a serious manner with the objective of overthrowing Assad, but that opportunity is long gone.  I’m not saying this was sensible or doable, but that was one of the options.  Once Russia entered the picture, Assad’s survival was assured and the only thing the US is achieving by half-heartedly supporting the rebels is dragging this damned war out even longer and giving jihadists some handy weapons and training.

Russian continued to hold the key to Syria’s future, he said, but he expressed scepticism about its willingness to come to any kind of deal.

Why should it?  Russia has nailed its colours to the mast, and it has what it wants: Assad in power, friendly relations with Turkey, and the US spinning in circles.

He said Moscow had been “disingenuous” in their negotiating tactics, seeking to draw the process out in order to “choke” Aleppo.

Now there’s a surprise, eh?  Is this the sort of valuable information the outgoing head of the CIA is going to be passing on to his successor, then?

“I do not have confidence that the Russians are going to relent until they are able to achieve as much tactical battlefield successes as possible,” he said.

Thus confirming the CIA is as adept at Kremlinology as anyone with an internet connection and a functioning brain.

The incoming Trump administration has suggested it may try to work more closely with Russia on a number of issues.

The horror!

“I think President Trump and the new administration need to be wary of Russian promises,” Mr Brennan told the BBC, arguing Moscow had failed to deliver in the past.

Translation: the Russians have run rings around us for the past 8 years, mainly because we have been idiots.  Trump ought not to try to emulate us too much.

On the role of Russia in trying to influence the US election by hacking and releasing information, the CIA director confirmed Russia had sought to carry out such activity but said he would defer to domestic counterparts as to the impact.

Russia had sought to influence the election, or it had influenced the election?  These are weasel-words.

He did confirm that he had conversations with his Russian opposite numbers to challenge them over these actions and warn them that such activity would backfire.

A warning the US media could have done with.

The US should not “stoop to their level” or risk escalation by responding in kind to Russian hacking, but he said there were other ways of ensuring Russia understood such activity was unacceptable.

We’re all ears, sir.

Another area where he warned Donald Trump’s incoming team was over their position taken during the campaign to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran.

“I think it would be disastrous. It really would,” Mr Brennan told the BBC.

Disastrous how?  For the US?  For Iran?  For Barack Obama’s “legacy”?

“First of all for one administration to tear up an agreement that a previous administration made would be unprecedented.”

Unless that agreement was widely viewed as the unilateral actions of a President who decided he could do whatever he wanted and didn’t see the need to consult Congress on the matter, and many people warned that this agreement was therefore illegitimate.

He said such a move would risk strengthening hardliners in Iran and risk other states pursuing nuclear programmes in response to a renewed Iranian effort.

Ah yes, because the Iranian hardliners have been completely sidelined by this agreement and moderates have swept to the fore, haven’t they?

Terrorism remains an over-riding concern. The team planning external attacks within the so-called Islamic State remained “very active” and, he said, was seeking to demonstrate that – despite setbacks on the battlefield – it still had the ability to carry out attacks against the West.

Not a “junior varsity”, in other words.

President-elect Trump has said he would consider resuming waterboarding if he thought it would be effective. John Brennan made clear he thought that would be a mistake.

Yes, and Trump has spoken to General James Mattis about this, who told him torture doesn’t work, and Trump appears to have listened.  Not that the BBC mentions this at all.

The CIA director said he had not yet sat down with the new team to discuss the capabilities and programmes the CIA has but he was ready to do so.

“There are a lot of people out there who read the papers and listened to a news broadcasts where the facts may be a bit – you know – off. And so I want to make sure the new team understands what the reality is. It ultimately will be up to them to decide how to carry out their responsibilities.”

The CIA director is assuming the incoming Trump administration gets its facts from the news, and needs to put them straight?  I’ll just leave that one there.

Some members of the new administration, such as Gen Michael Flynn, have talked of the US needing to recognise it was in a “world war” with Islamist militants.

When asked if language about “world wars” was helpful, the CIA director said…

…”ah, this must be one of the infamous leading questions the BBC excels in, designed to put words in my mouth!”

Actually no, he didn’t. Instead he said:

the new team needed to be “disciplined in the language that they use (and) the messages that they send. Because if they are not disciplined, their language will be exploited by the terrorist and extremist organizations as a way to portray the United States and the government as being anti-Islamic and we are not.”

I think what he’s saying is Trump’s team should continue Obama’s policy of refusing to call Islamic terrorism Islamic terrorism in case Islamic terrorists get upset.  He’s not quite gotten the measure of Trump yet, has he?

Mr Brennan said President Obama had asked US intelligence to “dig down” on whether the transition period might be exploited by adversaries.

My guess is America’s adversaries will try to capture as much ground as possible while lame-duck Obama is still in office, knowing full well life is going to get a lot tougher next January.  For example.

I think we can write off the CIA, or at least its upper management, as being yet another institution that has been politicised to the point of uselessness.  I wonder if Brennan’s counterpart in the FSB would have fretted about what language gets used to describe terrorists?

Even More on Writing

As an update on how my book is going, I have now written just shy of 56,000 words.  If we take a book to be between 80k-90k words, I’m 70% of the way through at the lower end.  Of course, this is just the raw word count of the first draft and – as others have advised me – months of rewriting and editing will follow and then publishing, marketing, etc.

Still, it’s progress.  I have structured the story using “scenes” or “conversations” which I want to take place, and outlined these in advance – although more get added as I think of them, or I want to split scenes up into smaller parts.  Probably 60-70% of the book consists of key scenes or conversations which I consider vital to the story, and these are the ones I have written first.  My plan is to finish these and then see how many words I have remaining to join them together and flesh out the characters in advance of anything interesting happening between them: one of the things I consider vital in any story is that the reader gets to know the characters well enough to take an interest, otherwise they won’t care what happens to them.  I’m not far off completing these “essential” scenes now, maybe three or four left to go.  Some of them are in rough draft, some I have gone back over and tidied up, a few I have fine-tuned.

I’ve found my method of writing goes something like this.  I write the scene or conversation as fast as I can, getting down the pertinent points and not caring if words are repeated, using “I said” and “she said” a lot, not writing whether something was said loudly, simply, etc. and not describing any facial expressions, etc.  It is just the raw outline of what is happening or being said.  This part takes the most effort, because now I am up to 56k words I forget what points I have made elsewhere and what ground is still left to cover.  I find myself re-reading other sections to remind myself what I have already written.  Once this is done I go over it again, improving it as much as I can: removing repeated words, adding in descriptions, expanding sections, removing lines, trying to get it as readable as possible.  The third step is to fine-tune it, twiddling with bits here and there to get it to read better.  Once this is done I put it aside and consider it finished, for now.

The plan is to get every scene to this stage and join it all together, then re-read the whole thing several times, fine-tuning as much as I can.  I will also need to cut or expand sections to ensure the book balances: it’s no good to have half a book of character development and then what happens with them is packed into a few pages, and the same is true for the reverse.  Pacing is also important, and adjustments will need to be made: I am aware I need to include scenes which drop the pace and let the reader catch their breath for a while, before putting them through another intense passage of dialogue.  Then I need to stick the whole lot in front of an editor who will probably tell me to chuck it all in the bin and start again, this time refraining from basing the central character on Ron Jeremy.

As I said in my previous post, I am doing this as much for the learning experience as anything else.  I don’t know how many other writers would use the methodology I describe above, but the three things I have learned so far are:

1. Scrivener is an excellent tool for writing in the way that I am.

2. My original idea that a novel could be written in chronological order now appears to be insane.

3. The idea that passages can be well-written on the first attempt is equally insane.

So far I still have the motivation to continue, I hope it stays that way.

Cubans in Angola

A good piece on Fidel Castro from Bayou Renaissance Man, who is originally South African:

I was standing in the Angolan bush, along with a group of UNITA rebels.  They were cleaning up after a firefight – which meant leaving the enemy bodies where they had fallen, but stripping them of their weapons, uniforms and supplies.  Everything would be washed, cleaned, repaired if necessary, and reissued to new owners, who would use it to kill more of the enemy.

Among the dead were two very young Cuban conscripts, some of the tens of thousands of troops sent by Fidel Castro to prop up the brutal pro-Communist regime in Angola. They were probably well under 20 years old.  They hadn’t even finished growing;  they still had that gangling, slightly disjointed look of late adolescence.  Both looked as if they didn’t yet need to shave every day.  They never would, now.  Their AK-47’s were still half-slung.  They hadn’t even managed to raise them to a firing position before the RPD bullets found them.

A grizzled NCO looked down at them, and an odd look came over his face. He spat to one side, very expressively, and murmured, “Just one more. That’s all I ask.  Just one more.”

I looked at him, and my eyebrows rose.  He caught my expression, and nodded.  “I want the bastard who sends kids like this over here to die.”

It makes you wonder how many of those who complain about American forces deployed around the world had no problem with Fidel Casto sending his army to Angola.  The fact that Cubans had no choice in the matter makes it that much worse.

Australia Win, England Lose

Having recently drawn attention to the parlous state of Australian cricket and expressed admiration for the England team, it is only fair to point out that Australia have cruised to victory over South Africa in Adelaide, opener Usman Khawaja setting up the win with a magnificent 145 in the first innings.

Meanwhile, England are staring down the barrel of a heavy defeat in the third test against India having already been thumped comprehensively in the second test.  What is costing England is the weakness of their top order – the same thing which has plagued Australia (Khawaja’s latest efforts notwithstanding).  England’s middle order and tail are very strong, but the top order is failing with alarming regularity.  Look at the fall or wicket scores in the past 3 tests:

First Test: 102/3 & 180/1

Second Test: 80/5 & 40/4

Third Test: 87/4 & 78/4

This has been the pattern for as long as I remember: Cook or Root scoring big every 5 matches or so, otherwise it’s the middle order trying to bail out the side and give the bowlers something to defend.  This might save a match or two, but it won’t help win any series.  Cook and Root are brilliant at times and dropping either is out of the question, but they cannot be relied upon to post a hundred every match.  What they need is support from numbers 2 and 4, either to stay with them while they accumulate or contribute themselves.  Finding a decent opening partner for Alistair Cook has been a problem since Andrew Strauss retired; promoting Root solved the long-standing No. 3 problem, but all it’s done is put a question mark over the No. 4 slot.

Andy Flower, England’s previous coach, put heavy emphasis on the ability of the team to bat right down to Nos. 10 or 11, and Trevor Bayliss has continued that policy to the effect that some are tempted to say that England no longer have a tail.  Although some wag pointed out on CricInfo that England do have a tail, they just get sent into bat first.

Fidel Castro: Not a Communist Revolutionary, just a Common Thug

In the aftermath of his death, there appear to be rather a lot of people labouring under the assumption that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was a communist revolutionary.  In fact he was nothing of the kind, as John Lewis Gaddis explains in his book We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (pages 179-181).  Following his overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959, Castro visited the US in order to drum up support for his new rule, even going so far as to give nervous assurances that he had no communists in his government on NBC’s Meet the Press.  As Gaddis writes:

Castro began his career as a revolutionary with no ideology at all: he was a student politician turned street fighter turned guerrilla, a voracious reader, an interminable speaker, and a pretty good baseball player.  The only ideas that appear to have driven him were a lust for power, a willingness to use violent means to get it, and an unwillingness to share it once he had it.  If he followed any example, it was that of Napolean, not Marx.

[It] seems more likely that Marxism-Leninism appealed to Castro for domestic and personal reasons.  As an authoritarian and historically determined ideology, it provided the best possible excuse for not holding elections, which might allow future rivals to emerge.  And if taking this path should attract support from the Soviet Union, then so much the better.

Having failed to win the support of the Eisenhower administration, who knew exactly what sort of man they were dealing with, Castro adopted communism purely for opportunistic and practical reasons.  He was about as much a socialist revolutionary as he was a democrat.  Naturally, the Soviets fell over themselves to shower any third-world thug who paid lip-service to communism with money, weapons, and other support and they did just that with Castro – even though his adoption of their ideology came to them as a complete surprise.

Many people think the USA is responsible for Castro’s rise and continuation in power, but most of the blame lies squarely on Moscow’s doorstep: without their cynical support in those early stages, Castro’s brutal dictatorship would likely have been over much more quickly.

How Swedish Women have Chosen

Something I like to do whenever I encounter a woman who implies Western women are subject to societal pressure not to fulfill their career potential, e.g. by not pursuing STEM subjects, is to sympathise with them heavily to the point of condescension.

“Oh, that’s awful!” I’ll say.  “So you really wanted to be an engineer.  Yes, I can see why you’d be pretty upset now doing…what are you, again?  You’re a Welfare Officer at a third-rate university?  That must be awful, how do you feel about not being aware of the options available to you back then?”

The response is always the same. “Oh no, I am happy in my career and am fully aware of what my options are or were.  But there are other women out there who are too dim to know they can study engineering or too feeble-minded to resist the societal pressure that is exerted upon them.  But me, oh no, I am happy with my choices.”

It appears these mysterious “other women” don’t live in Sweden.  Via Christina Hoff-Sommers I came across this article on choices women are making:

Oh, to be in Sweden, a feminist paradise on Earth! Gender equality is baked into the nation’s DNA. Swedish women have advantages we can only only dream of – free universal child care, for example. Mothers and fathers get 480 (!) days of parental leave. An extensive welfare system makes it easy to balance work and family life.

Sweden and the other Nordic nations always seem to lead the rankings of the world’s best countries for women. (Canada is lucky to crack the top 20.) So they’re an ideal laboratory for finding out what women really want. What choices will women make when the playing field is as level as social policy can make it?

The trouble is that the world’s most liberated women aren’t leaning in – in fact, many are leaning back. They work fewer hours and make less money than men, just as Canadian women do. In fact, Swedish women are much more likely to have part-time jobs and far less likely to hold top managerial positions or be CEOs. On top of that, Scandinavian labour markets are the most gender-segregated in the developed world.

Women do make up 25 per cent of Swedish corporate boards, but only because of quotas. The greatest concentration of senior managers, CEOs and other highly paid power women isn’t in Scandinavia. It’s here in North America, where working women’s lives are much tougher.

It turns out that all these family-friendly policies have an unintended impact on the gender gap, as Kay Hymowitz and many others have noted. By making it easy for women to drop out of the work force and work shorter hours, they make it harder for women to progress in their careers. Swedish men have these options too, but they don’t take them. So women don’t advance as far as men. And they are also considered less desirable by corporate employers who need people on the job 24/7.

In any event, only a small proportion of Nordic women choose to work as managers and professionals. Most choose lower-paid, highly gender-segregated work. As Alison Wolf has written in her excellent book The XX Factor, Scandinavian countries “hold the record for gender segregation because they have gone the furthest in outsourcing traditional female activities and turning unpaid home-based ‘caring’ into formal employment.”

Despite vigorous efforts to stamp out gender stereotyping, most Swedish girls would still rather be daycare workers and nurses when they grow up. And boys would rather be welders and truck drivers. And that’s not all. To the extreme chagrin of social engineers throughout Scandinavia, mothers still take the bulk of parental leave. Most men take parental leave only when a certain part of it is designated for fathers only.

So given the choice, women make decisions which result in the same situation that the Patriarchy is forcing on them in the first place.  Or perhaps women are simply enlightened individuals exercising free will and there is no Patriarchy?  A tricky one, that.