Margins: Lonesome Dove (409)

August 25, 2012

I’m beginning to feel pleased I persisted with Larry ‘Terms of Endearment’ McMurtry’s plains of Texas epic Lonesome Dove. Bought on a whim in Swindon’s only bookshop, the novel traces the fortunes of several loosely-connected folk as they wend their respective ways northward to Montana.

The problem is (or was) that both plot and penmanship are plodding, for at least the first hundred pages. McMurtry goes to great lengths – laborious really – to establish, in dull, sleepy smalltown terms, the characters, eccentricities and past dalliances of a host of ex-rangers, gamblers, hands, whores, deputies, boys and bandits. All of which detail gets consigned to the memorial dustbin once the journey (or journeys, rather) begin.

Once things get going, Larry’s on much firmer footing. The descriptions of life on the trail, replete with campfires, varmints, creeks, buffalo hunters, chance encounters (with villains, weirdoes, heroes and everyone in-between) and dramatic weather, are really atmospheric, and the characters which had once felt cut-out become lasting, charming and human.


Not on my to-do list

August 15, 2012

Writing this blog post was not on my to-do list, but given I have – through the adoption of a more efficient to do list app suite – got more done today than I otherwise might, I thought I’d allow myself the luxury.

In the time I’ve owned an iPhone I’ve switched to-do apps more frequently than  postboxes across the country are turning gold. I was hardly searching for the holy grail: cloud-based syncing across multiple platforms (phone and desktop especially), a flexible and intuitive interface, good stability and decent functionality.

But this turned out to be a rare and – so it seemed – unobtainable combination. I began with the iPhone reminders app (just as horribly slow and unstable as the native calendar), tried the Google tasks app GoTasks (mobile was fine but clunky desktop version), then settled for a while on the style-over-substance Any.DO, but got frustrated with the way it automatically bumps tasks from ‘next week’ to ‘tomorrow’ and so on (and there’s no desktop app).

In a fit of mounting desperation, I even tried using apps that weren’t designed to be to-do programmes, like Evernote and the iPhone Notes app (when the latter appeared on desktop with the Mountain Lion upgrade). But nothing worked the way I wanted it to.

Then a few days ago I decided to take the plunge and forked out almost forty quid for the iPhone and then desktop versions of Things. And I’m enormously happy I did. Things boasts, in no particular order:

  • Seamless cloud syncing which takes seconds.
  • Flexible and intuitive allocation of tasks to different statuses (inbox, today, next, scheduled, someday).
  • A brilliant keyboard shortcut set-up, including – on the desktop version – the ability to create a new task without switching programmes.
  • The ability to create projects and ‘areas’ (e.g. ‘personal tasks’) to cluster to-dos of different categories, and an equally handy tagging system.
  • A single ‘logbook’ where all of your completed tasks go at the end of the day.

In short, it’s brilliant.


Paul Ryan for VP: a storm in a tea (party) cup

August 15, 2012

Mitt Romney’s appointment of Tea Party darling, congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential candidate has provided a welcome boost for the commentariat who were finding the war of attrition between the Obama and Romney camps increasingly dull. Whatever the general opinion on the merits of the choice, the firm consensus is that we’re in for a lot more fun now that we have, essentially, Sarah Palin with brains on the GOP ticket. Even if the evidence gives little indication that the name of the man below the name of the man-who-would-be-president will have any real impact whatsoever.

If the hacks are to be believed, excitement will be confined to the Republican base and will quickly turn to dismay as Romney finds himself increasingly shackled to Ryan’s extreme views (the ever-authoritative Nate Silver on the NYT FiveThirtyEight blog has Ryan as the most conservative GOP congressman to have been picked for VP since at least 1900: closest to Michele Bachmann in political hue). And a POLITICO survey of Republican insiders suggests they’ve basically thrown in the towel, taking a stance best summed up as ‘I love Paul Ryan but…’.

Over at openDemocracy, Magnus Nome echoes many of the same criticisms of the decision, but suggests we may be giving Romney too little credit:

Something here that should worry Obama: Romney has plenty of experience taking calculated risks, is obsessed with thorough research and has become very rich based on these skills. Wise or not, it’s not a Hail Mary pass like McCain’s.

So let’s take Mr Nome up on this invitation to look, as we are led to suppose Mitt may’ve done, at the evidence about Ryan’s likely impact. Three nuggets in particular caught my eye:

1. Voters don’t yet know how extreme Ryan’s views are. Whilst he has relatively high levels of name recognition for a VP candidate, polls suggest few know about his ‘famous’ budget reform proposals or asked-for cuts to Medicare. So as Molly Ball writes in The Atlantic, this means Democrats and Republicans have the chance to fight to define him in the minds of voters (a battle that’s already well underway, naturally).

2. Initial reaction to Ryan as VP is less positive than normal. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last Sunday shows that whilst more Republicans are excited about Ryan than were about Palin, the choice has received a more negative reaction from the electorate as a whole than any VP-pick since Dan Quayle in 1988. So Ryan, and the Romney campaign as a whole, have more ground to make up.

3. It’s all about the top of the ticket. When all is said and done, this will probably be a storm in the Tea Party’s cup. As Associated Press writer Josh Lederman points out in this piece in the Washington Post, a string of nominated vice presidents including Al Gore, Dick Cheney and John Edwards seemed like game-changers at the time they were announced, but almost certainly didn’t have a big impact on the outcome. And indeed the Gallup poll bears this out: just as in every election back to 1988, roughly two-thirds of people say the man or woman on the bottom of the ticket will have no effect on their vote.

Governor Boris

August 6, 2012

I enjoyed this comment piece by the FT’s new political columnist Janan Ganesh, which systematically deflates the Boris for PM balloon. The mayor doesn’t stand a chance, writes Ganesh, because British voters tend to subject politicians to a whole other level of scrutiny when it’s national office at stake:

For all their crabby indifference to politics, Britons ask searching questions of anyone who aspires to govern their country, which is why opposition parties tend to shed support in the run-up to a general election. They will ask those questions of Mr Johnson if he ever made a bid for the highest office. Charm will not be a good enough answer. Even Mr Cameron, a purring Bentley of a career politician, has struggled to exercise true command. Mr Johnson has sublime intellect and a solid record as mayor but his previous attempt at a Westminster career peaked with the job of shadow higher education minister.

Ganesh also suggests a deeper reason for Boris being unlikely to make the transition from City Hall to Westminster proper: ‘Highly devolved nations such as the US are used to the idea that a politician can master a metropolis, or even a state, without being quite right to run a country.’

The converse is true as well, of course: the US provides a key intermediate level, the gubernatorial, with the post of governor having the clout, responsibility and kind of national standing to act as more of a genuine training ground for national politics (as an indication, just witness the influence of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush on the Republican primaries).

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