Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mary, Queen of Scots - Antonia Fraser

I have to admit I approached this book from a fairly anti-Mary perspective. I've always been firmly in the Elizabeth camp, and in comparison, Mary has always seemed rather like a spoilt and unstable bimbo who bats her eyelashes to get her own way, and then peevishly blows her husbands up when thwarted. In the event, while my prejudices were certainly not affirmed here, they did help me to maintain some perspective in the face of what turned out to be a very partisan book - Fraser is very pro-Mary indeed.

On the whole, this is very good popular history - the research is thorough, and many of the sources are examined both for facts and for trustworthiness. Of the myths that have built up about Mary's life over the centuries, Fraser has no hesitation in debunking the more ludicrous ones, and provides good evidence to support much of her analysis. Her conclusions about Darnley's murder and the Babington plot are hard to dispute, and largely puts Mary in the clear with regard to her actual purported crimes. It's the assessment of Mary's personality and the reasons (or excuses) for her behaviour that has me putting on my sceptic's hat.

While the history is solid, Fraser's style tends towards the chatty rather than the drily academic. Of course, this makes for a very lively and readable account, but it also allows for a lot of emotive language to be used, exposing the author's prejudices. It's quite noticeable that any characters that are nice to Mary are given much more positive character sketches than the ones who are against her. Fraser also picks and chooses which era's value-sets to judge her characters by, depending on how she wants them portrayed - for example, Mary is judged by today's standards as a sweet, kind and merciful monarch, whereas the strong-willed Bess of Hardwicke is written off using the Tudor view of her as an unnaturally masculine harridan. A lot of the evidence presented against Mary's enemies is anecdotal and, from looking at the references, much of it appears to be based on secondary rather than primary sources.

Despite all of Fraser's apologetics, it's clear that Mary, alongside her many admirable traits, was eminently unqualified to be a 16th-century monarch. To use the words of 1066 And All That, she was a Weak King - she may have been a very nice person and unjustly used as a political pawn for much of her life, but that's no real excuse for forgiving her failings as a queen. Even from this biased account, you can see that the only time she started behaving like a real queen was at her trial; while this was sufficient to save her reputation in the face of history, unfortunately it can't change the fact that, as a queen, she was pretty crap.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mr Bull and Ms Bear Discuss House Prices

[I'm not sure who to credit for this, as it was just part of an email Ben forwarded to me, so if anyone knows who wrote it, please let me know and I'll credit accordingly. In the meantime, a perfect summary of the current housing nightmare...]

Bull: I need to get on the housing ladder, Bear. The average price of a property is now 8.7 x average earnings and prices have risen at twice the rate of earnings over the last 10 years.* No matter how much I save, it’ll never keep up with price growth. If I can get a mortgage for 5 times my income, I could buy an understairs cupboard in a London suburb. I’d really like something bigger, if only I could afford it!

Bear: I see your dilemma, Bull. Why on earth have house prices boomed like this?

Housing Supply

Bull: Simple economics, Bear. Supply and demand. There is a shortage of housing. Research by the National Housing Federation shows that 120,000 new homes are needed each year. Only 21,000 were built last year.*

Bear: Supply and demand… Well, I can’t argue with that. What supply are we talking about?

Bull: The number of houses in the UK, obviously. There aren’t enough to house a growing population.

Bear: What a disturbing prospect! So many people and so few houses… Rents must be going through the roof as well.

Bull: No, oddly enough, rents have been stable over the last 5 years. It seems there’s no shortage of rental property. In fact, a surprising proportion of rental property remains unoccupied – 50% of new flats in Leeds, by one estimate, for instance*.

Bear: That is odd. But I hate to even imagine the homeless statistics!

Bull: Well, the strange thing is that they have been stable too for several years at around 100,000, with a drop of 3% over 2006. In fact the figure for newly homeless people registering with councils for emergency accommodation dropped 22% in 2006 compared with 2005, while house prices rose almost 10%.*

Bear: That’s strange. Still, if not enough houses are being built… this situation was foreseeable in a country with a rising population and tight planning restrictions! Are you really attached to life in Britain, Bull? If you want to buy, surely you would be better off moving to live in France, whose population is falling, or the US where planning restrictions are near-nonexistent? I bet their housing markets aren’t booming like ours, are they?

Bull: You know, it’s the strangest thing. The US housing market has had even wilder growth than the UK, despite a more relaxed planning environment*. And France has almost as high house inflation as the UK, despite a falling population*. In fact the house price boom seems to be global in its scope.

Bear: Still, you can’t argue with supply and demand… But hang on, can you clarify something for me: If a significant proportion of homeowners, in a shared moment of eccentricity, decided to sell their house tomorrow, perhaps to rent or to move back with their parents, would not the supply of homes for sale have increased?

Bull: Of course.

Bear: Yet no more houses would have been built. So perhaps you’re mistaken in equating supply with bricks and mortar. The low rents and falling homeless figure shows that there is no shortage of places for people to live. The market boom is the same in new-build friendly America and shrinking France. What is in short supply is people who want to sell a house.

Bull: So why does the National Housing Federation research say that we need to build 100,000 more homes each year?

Bear: Because the authors are assuming that the only way supply can be increased by 100,000 is by building 100,000 new homes. But we’ll talk later about the possible triggers that people might lead more homeowners to sell.

Bull: Okay, so I grant you supply is not about how many buildings there are but about how many people want to sell them. But look at the pressure on demand for houses…

Housing Demand (1)

Bull: … All those humans need a roof over their head. It’s one the most fundamental biological needs. And as immigration swells their population, demand is perpetually increasing.

Bear: Immigrants are putting pressure on prices?

Bull: Of course, that should be obvious. They all need somewhere to live and this pushes prices up.

Bear: Are those minimum-wage Polish cleaners really getting on the property ladder? My friend Sean Sage, branch manager at Ocean Estate Agents, Bishopston, Bristol, says his branch hasn’t sold a single property to an Eastern European in 2006*. I don’t see much evidence that the immigrants are bidding houses up.

Bull: They may not be buying but the influx of immigrants means that people rent out their houses rather than sell them. This contributes to the property shortage.

Bear: Ah. So we’re talking about landlords buying, not immigrants?


Bull: Yes, if you like to put it like that. It’s not immigrants buying who are pushing demand up, it’s landlords buying to let to them. I don’t see that that it makes any difference.

Bear: Don’t you, Bull? Then Bear with me a little longer. Why do people buy houses to let? Is it out of a burning sense of philanthropy?

Bull: No, they let property because they think they can make a profit.

Bear: And where is the profit in letting?

Bull: Well, it gives you a regular rental income.

Bear: Mm. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Yet the Buy-to-Let mortgage provider Paragon says that the yield on new Buy-to-Let property before insurance, maintenance & management expenses is now averaging 6%*. Once you consider expenses then landlords would make a better income by selling their house and putting the proceeds in a savings account, where at time of writing they could earn a risk-free 5.45%*. And if they’ve borrowed to buy the house!.... well, 6% minus expenses certainly won’t cover mortgage payments.

Bull: Okay, so it does seem that landlords who buy at today’s prices aren’t making a profit on rental income. But you’re forgetting, the landlords will profit when the value of the house goes up.

Bear: Exactly, Bull! That’s just the point! The landlords are speculating. They are paying a price for the property which has no relation to the income they can get from renting it out simply because they think value will continue to rise. Do you still think that immigrants are pushing prices up?

Bull: I’m not sure. They’re certainly improving the cashflow of speculating landlords.

Bear: And that’s the most you can say about immigration. But if houses were priced according to rental returns, you would expect their prices to be far lower than what they are now. Since Buy-to-Let now makes no financial sense without expectation of capital appreciation, we can say that the Buy-to-Let component of housing demand is entirely due to speculation.

Housing Demand (2)

Bull: So let me get this straight. You think that house prices are being driven up not by a shortage of accomodation but by speculation?

Bear: The sums show unequivocally that Buy-to-Let demand is now entirely driven by speculation. And speculation is hardly unknown to potential owner-occupiers. Your own attitude when you talk about needing “to get on the ladder” is another form of speculation. Because you are speculating that prices can only continue to increase, you are desperate to buy even an expensive broom cupboard.

Bull: That’s not fair. Speculation is about greed. I just want to own my own place.

Bear: I didn’t mean for a minute that you want to profit, Bull. I just mean that your decision making is determined by the belief – or in your case fear – that prices will continue to rise indefinitely.

Bull: Ah, what difference does that make to me, anyway? Whether demand is high due to speculation or accomodation shortage, I can’t afford to buy!

Bear: It matters very much to you, Bull. If any shock caused house prices to falter, do you think all those landlords who are making no profit on their rental income will happily sit on properties that are falling in value? I think you would find the supply of houses for sale grew pretty quickly, and buy-to-let demand (now accounting for 14% of mortgages*) would simultaneously disappear.

Bull: Hmm. That’s quite an interesting thought. I’m not feeling quite so desperate now. So do you really think that nothing but speculation is fuelling demand?

Bear: Those Paragon figures are remarkable: In today’s market, rents are cheaper than mortgage interest on the same property!* Interest, not interest and repayment! On the other hand, whereas speculation is the only explanation for continued demand in the Buy-to-Let market, I grant you there is one other factor to consider in the owner-occupier market: It could be that people’s desire to own a property is leading them to pay a premium for the benefits that come with being an owner-occupier.

Bull: You don’t have to tell me about it, this is why I want to buy! Owner-occupiers can’t be forced to leave…

Bear: (Unless they default on their mortgage) But do go on.

Bull: …They can decorate as they want, sublet rooms…

Bear: Of course these benefits must be balanced against the inconvenience of being responsible for the upkeep of the property, and unable to move easily if one’s circumstances changed – one’s job could require a slow and costly house move, for instance.

Bull: So it’s natural that people would be prepared to pay more to be owner-occupiers.

Bear: It’s hard to say whether such an “owner-occupier premium” is contributing to property prices today. For instance, in a booming market I don’t see how one could separate out such effects from speculative factors, of which we have clear evidence from the buy-to-let market (where by definition no “owner-occupier premium” is operating). However even if the convenience of owner-occupation is helping to maintain prices, it is important to note that it is a lifestyle choice. If financial circumstances required it, this “demand” would disappear far more readily than the biological imperative for shelter…

A summary of supply and demand.

Bear: … So to summarise, so far we have agreed that rents and homeless figures do not support the idea there is a shortage of accomodation. And although “supply” sounds like a quantity that can’t be increased without getting the JCB diggers out, in fact it could be increased at the drop of a hat if speculating landlords decided to sell up. Or if, for instance, interest rates increased to the point where a substantial number of owner-occupiers had to sell their houses, and move to renting instead (currently cheaper, as we have seen).

Bull: Yes, I suppose so.

Bear: And that although “demand” sounds like the undeniable human survival need for a roof over ones head, this need can be met in other ways – by renting, for instance. In fact “demand” comes down to a combination of factors – the survival need, the speculative profit people expect from owning a house and the lifestyle choice to live in smaller, owner-occupied households. These factors at present lead people to pay a premium for ownership over what they would pay in rent – but these factors are far more fluid than just the survival need per se.

Bull: Agreed, we’ve clarified what the nature of “supply” and “demand” in the housing market is. But you’ve still told me nothing about why you expect a crash.

Bear: Indeed not. But our exploration of supply and demand is not finished. Finally, we must consider further the nature of “demand”. We have focused on the factors which might cause people to want to buy a house. But this psychological desire is not “demand” in the economist’s sense. “Demand”, in the sense of “supply and demand”, means the willingness and the ability to buy at current prices. And we have not considered how a population has been able to keep buying – thus maintaining “demand” for an asset which is at unprecedented price levels relative to income. The explanation is a single word: Credit.


Bull: You mean loans? But that’s nothing new! For a long time now, people have used mortgages to buy property.

Bear: Actually, historically mortgages are fairly new, having come into common use in the 1930s. Before the 1930s, houses were bought for cash, even by first time buyers. Interestingly, I have been unable to find any account of booms in property prices before 1930. Today the situation is unrecognisable, with the level of mortgage lending at astonishing heights. The proportion of UK mortgages worth at least 4 times the mortgagee’s salary grew between 1985 and 2005 from 5% to 35%*. Some banks have now publically declared their willingness to lend 5 times salary*. Others will lend 125% of a property’s value*. Few require proof of declared earnings.

Bull: Obviously people can’t buy for cash at today’s prices. So mortgages are a response to prices.

Bear: Are they really? Think about it for a moment. If the banks refused to lend such astronomical amounts, prices would drop of necessity. “Demand” would be nonexistent if the money were not available, and the “market” would look very different.

Bull: So why are banks agreeing to lend ever increasing amounts?

Bear: The answer is at the heart of understanding the property market, and is the fundamental message I want to explain to you. Banks make profits from borrowers, not savers. In today’s globalised economy, banks must compete with each other to attract borrowers. Since the 1980s, the banks have lobbied governments claiming that removal of all legal restraints on lending were crucial to their survival. And so the last 20 years have seen progressive abolition of government controls on lending throughout the world. This is described as “financial deregulation” and this is what has fuelled the “loosening of lending criteria” described above, whereby ever greater sums can be lent.

Bull: What you’re saying does seem to make sense.

Bear: A simple thought experiment shows the strength of it: Suppose that the UK banks were willing to lend almost any adult human an unprecedented sum of money to invest, at low rates of interest. Imagine too that they insisted that only one asset class can be bought with that money, an asset class that (when bought at its historic average price) has been shown to give an excellent tax-efficient, low-risk return on investment. Is it surprising that the humans would then outbid each other in their race to secure these assets? This is exactly what we are seeing! (The fact that it’s an asset class which also satisfies the survival need for “a roof over one’s head” is less relevant than one might imagine, as the number of people mortgaging to buy-to-let shows.) Easy credit, not a shortage of bricks and mortar, is what has driven property to astronomical heights.

Bull: It seems intuitively possible. Is there any hard evidence?

Bear: Yes, there is. Global easy credit is the only conceivable explanation of why house price inflation is a global phenomenon, regardless of local “supply” of bricks and mortar and “demand” of population change.

Bull: Do you know, Bear, what you’ve said seems to make a lot of sense.So you’ve explained how we got here. But you haven’t explained why you think a crash is going to happen.


Bear: Debt is actually a synonym for credit. People call it credit when they feel it’s helping them but debt when it’s hurting them. I believe that the property bubble will burst under the pressure of bad debt. Total UK mortgage debt is now £1,100 billion, compared to £350 billion in 1993. Signs of strain in servicing debt have been growing in parallel with the increase in lending. Citizens Advice Bureau says the number of people seeking debt advice has doubled in 8 years. Personal insolvencies in 2006 were up 55% on 2005 levels, with Individual Voluntary Agreements (to reschedule debt) up 118%. All these statistics come from the Credit Action website, where many simialr figurescan be found.* If losses from bad debt forced banks to tighten their lending criteria once more, the supply of money holding house prices aloft would evaporate. No more 5x salary loans, no more “demand” for £200k broom cupboards.

Bull: But the banks budget for a certain proportion of losses. It doesn’t seem to be affecting the housing market at the moment.

Bear: Wait a minute, though. What we are seeing is a growth in bad debts during what Gordon Brown describes as the longest economic boom the UK has known for 200 years.* These are the good times! Too many people are overextended in debt. (And these are not the irresponsible credit card freaks, these are normally-cautious middle class young people who have been advised by all around them that they should buy property, whatever the price, or risk failing to “get on the ladder” forever.) If the economic good times come to an end, any number of shocks to the system could change the face of the housing market.

Bull: Such as?

Bear: Such as rising unemployment or interest rates causing people to default on mortgage payments. Banks would become more reluctant to lend such wild amounts at the same time that any repossessions would forcibly increase the “supply” of homes on the market. And not only would potential buyers be unable to borrow so much, but they would also be facing the same economic uncertainties that were causing problems for the sellers. Is it even conceivable that prices would not fall? Furthermore, remember that there is now a huge class of landlords whose rent after expenses fails to cover the interest on their loans, and who are relying on capital gains to provide their profit. Any initial price drops might stimulate these unprofitable landlords to sell, further adding to “supply”.

Bull: But there must be a reservoir of demand from all the people who are now priced out but desperate to buy. They will hold up the market, and we can expect a soft landing. This is where your “owner-occupier” premium comes in. People will still want to own even if renting is cheaper and they no longer expect speculative short-term profit.

Bear: So one might think, but history does not support this view. A glance at the graph showing the history of prices over the last 30 years, including 3 downturns around 1979, 1986 and 1995 shows no precedent for a “soft landing” after double digit house price inflation.* I can only assume that even those buyers who had claimed to be looking to get into property “for the long term” changed their minds when faced with the option of buying an expensive and depreciating asset. I see no reason to doubt that when the current boom ends, the supply of buyers will dry up as decisively as it did at the previous 3 peaks.


Bull: I think I understand what you’re saying. But I got a bit lost in the detail.

Bear: I’ll summarise. Easy credit is the cause of the house price bubble. It is a global phenomenon inseparable from the trend towards financial deregulation, and cannot be explained by local factors. With perfect symmetry, credit’s downside “bad debt” will destroy the house price bubble by forcing the banks to stop irresponsible lending. And history shows us that when a housing boom finishes, it has generally been followed by a “crash”, IE a return (typically taking around 5 years) to below long-term average price in relation to earnings.*

Bull: And how much of a fall would that be?

Bear: Prices are now 30% above their long term average in relation to earnings*. So I would predict a fall of over 23% in real terms over 5 years.

Bull: Don’t you mean 30%?

Bear: You need to get your calculator out! A fall of 23% would mean values would drop to 100-23= 77% of current price. And 77% x (130% of average price) = average price!

Bull: Er. Yes. I think. So when will it happen?

Bear: Ah, that’s the million dollar question. I follow the news closely, but nobody has ever worked out a formula for predicting the timing of the end of a bubble.

Bull: Well, Bear, what you’ve said is very interesting but still.. At the end of the day I just don’t believe all these abstract financial considerations come into the very human business of buying and selling houses. Thank you but I’m going to buy that cupboard after all.

Bear: All right. It’s your choice. I’ll buy you a nice picture to hang on the wall.

Bull: Um. There’s no room for pictures actually, Bear. But thanks for thought.

Bear: You’re welcome, Bull.


* See Guardian reference as above.





* Personal communication to the author, 11/12/06



* See Paragon reference above.

* See Paragon reference above.






** , graph p.6

* See Scottish Parliament, as above

* See Guardian reference as above

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Gap Series - Stephen Donaldson

The Real Story
Forbidden Knowledge
A Dark and Hungry God Arises
Chaos and Order
This Day All Gods Die

The Real Story is a book often to be found in second-hand bookshops. Hardly longer than a novella, it's an unpleasant but strangely sterile tale of a beautiful young cop abducted by one space pirate only to be rescued by another. In the afterword, Donaldson hints at future developments and particularly the fact that it was inspired by the apocalyptic gods and giants of Wagner's epic Ring cycle, but if I hadn't already been a fan of his, my copy might well have ended up back on the shelves of David's Bargain Bookshop with all the others. Luckily, I stuck with it, bought the next book and found that the story rapidly becomes bigger. MUCH bigger.

From its humble and constricted beginnings, the Gap series unfolds into a magnificent space opera of epic proportions, like the nine pounds of plutonium that create a 50-megatonne explosion*. In The Real Story all we really get to see is the inside of one small spaceship and the mind of one brutal pirate; Forbidden Knowledge has not only a shipful of pirates, but also an alien space station and the beginnings of some political intrigues back on Earth. A Dark And Hungry God Arises brings us further into these intrigues, where great and terrible factions engage in a deadly power-struggle and suicide bombers strike at the heart of government, while across the galaxy, aliens, cyborgs and illegals circle warily around each other on a bootleg shipyard in Forbidden Space, with humanity itself at stake... by the end of Chaos and Order, with its 5-way space battle among the asteroids and black holes of a binary system, you think it's gotten as big as it could possibly get, and yet it still manages to get even bigger for the explosive conclusion in book 5.

It's not only the plot that expands; the number of viewpoints also grows as the series progresses. The first book was almost entirely from the viewpoint of the antagonist, Angus, which made for some rather clumsy infodumping at times, but in subsequent books the tale was taken up by several other characters - at a rough count, by the end of the series we get around 20 different viewpoints, each of whom has their own complicated plot strand to unravel. A lot of the background detail is supplied in occasional "Ancilliary Documentation" chapters, giving us snippets such as the history of Earth's government and the alien trade agreements, as well as the more technical background of the gap drive, matter cannon, singularity grenades... some of this is probably unnecessary, but it works a lot better than trying to do the same thing with dialogue. "As you know, Bob..."

The multitude of viewpoints allows for a quite insanely complex plot, with shifting loyalties, conspiracies, backstabbing and misinformation; until the end, only the reader has the full picture, and the characters themselves have to guess the actions and motivations of their allies and enemies with only scanty information to go on. Again, this is just a much bigger version of the theme introduced in book 1, where the "real story" was much more complicated than you could guess from the surface events. One annoying thing about the multi-viewpoint device, however, is the way that every chapter seems to start with a recap of what that particular character knows and where they are at the time, but this is only something I noticed on my umpteenth reread so it's probably not that bad first time round.

Donaldson writes flawed and broken characters extremely well, and there are plenty of those here; the closest equivalent to his famous Thomas Covenant is probably Warden Dios (the "Wotan" character from Wagner) the head of humanity's police force, who, like Covenant, uses his guilt as a weapon. Lots of Donaldson's other favourite themes come up here too, notably the sanctity of free will and the evil of having it removed, which features in a lot of his writing and is a key plot point here. It's certainly not a preachy book, though, and the story takes priority over all.

It's always great to find a new series of books that's already been completed, avoiding the need to bite your fingernails for a year or two waiting for the next episode. That didn't quite happen with me; the Gap series was only complete up to book 4 by the time I read it, and I spent every Monday for several months scouring bookshops for the final instalment... which handily came out the day my Finals started, thanks guys! Of course, the whole series is now available, so you've got no excuse. Read this, and stick with it, cos once it gets going, it's great.


*This bit of physics comes from a quick Google search on megatonnage so may not actually be accurate...

Communications: The Next Decade - Ed Richards, Robin Foster & Tom Kiedrowski (eds)

Yep, it does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a collection of essays about the future of the communications industry that we just published at work, and everyone that wanted one got a free copy. Not my usual choice of reading matter, you understand, and normally I wouldn't have gone near the thing, expecting little more than some impenetrable, badly-written guff about spectrum trading and telecoms regulation. However, in an idle moment I had a flick through the first essay and found that, to my enormous surprise, it was actually quite interesting. I grabbed my free copy forthwith.

The essays are written by various professors, economists and industry professionals, so of course are of varying quality. It rapidly became apparent that they'd put the best essay first - Our Changing Media Ecosystem by John Naughton, which is a very readable overview of the way new technologies have changed the face of media, from the introduction of radio to today's blogosphere. The subsequent essays tend to get deeper into the specifics, and are thus not always as interesting, but as an overall picture of where the communications world is headed, there's a lot of good information in there.

I have to confess that I only got about halfway through the book, mainly because a) it's a large hardback and bloody heavy to keep carting to work and back and b) on these dark winter evenings, I need something a bit snappier to keep me awake on the journey home. I haven't given up, though, and I'll probably get the rest read at some point. It's fairly heavy-going at times, but if anyone's in the industry and wants a read, you can download it for free from the Ofcom site.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Night Watch - Terry Pratchett

The Discworld is a strange and conflicted place. It was never intended as a consistent piece of worldbuilding - the first few books were little more than a loose collection of fantasy pastiches, and most of the characters and settings were introduced purely for their comedy value, or the particular fantasy cliché that needed to be satirised at the time. Possibly because he's run out of jokes, Pratchett is now trying to use the same setting for more serious plots and character development, hurriedly papering over the cracks in the internal logic. Sometimes this falls flat on its arse, as with Thief of Time, a book-long cringing apology for all of Discworld's timeline errors (I'll probably review that eventually, when I can stand to reread it). Sometimes it works extremely well, as with the superlative Night Watch.

Sam Vimes has been the star of many a Discworld novel. From his relatively humble beginnings as grizzled, bitter Watch Captain in Guards! Guards!, his rise to Dukedom has been meteoric... and extremely reluctant, as deep down he's still just an ordinary copper, etc etc. Ah, that ironic little adage, "Be careful what you wish for..." - chasing down a murderer across the rooftops of Unseen University during an electrical storm, he is unwittingly propelled several decades into the past, where he has to put all his down-to-earth coppering skills to the test in the corrupt pre-Patrician Ankh-Morpork of yesteryear...

The setup may seem a little contrived, but apart from the presence of the History Monks trying to clean up the broken timelines, this is actually a very straightforward story. The insane and paranoid Lord Winder is imposing his arbitrary tyranny on the city, which is bubbling under with revolution. The cops are incompetent, corrupt or downright evil, and it's up to Vimes to take the place of his old mentor John Keel and keep the city as safe as he can until he finds a way back to his own time - this includes protecting the younger version of himself, who has only just joined the force.

The uprising itself is very well handled - it's no glorious revolution, just a muddy little incident in the city's past, only remembered by the few who were there, and it's nicely framed by the opening and closing scenes of the survivors paying their respects. There's a touch of Pratchett's Usual Vimes Storyline ("will he succumb to his baser instincts and become just a murdering thug? Oh no, he's controlled himself again") but it's not overplayed and certainly isn't the main theme here. The political intrigues with young Vetinari and his aunt are less well developed, but again, they don't take up too much space; most of the action is on the streets, where a few good people have suddenly found the strength to stand up and fight back.

The Discworld series may be declining in quality, but you'd never guess it from this book. It's not as funny as the earlier ones, but then it's not really supposed to be - this is Discworld coming of age, with a story that's moving and triumphant and only slightly silly. There should be more books like this - I'd recommend it even for people disillusioned with Pratchett.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Night of Knives - Ian Cameron Esslemont

So, Esslemont is Steven Erikson's mate and co-creator of the Malazan world; as he insists in the introduction, this isn't fan fiction... but it certainly reads like it. There's a lot of clumsy name-dropping of places, gods and species, almost as if he is trying to show off his extensive knowledge of the world and its geography; the characters are annoying and the dialogue is absolutely appalling (much of it sounds like a bad radio play written by a 15-year-old goth - sample phrase: "Should they succeed, this realm where we stand, Shadow Realm, will be theirs!" Can you really imagine anyone actually saying that?). It may be just the teething problems of a first-time writer, but I suspect there's a good reason why Erikson got the 10-book publishing deal and Esslemont had to go to a teeny independent publisher and charge £35 per book. For completists only.


The effect of cognitive interference tasks on visuospatial short-term memory

[This snappily-titled piece is my thesis from 1997, and a masterful work of psychobabbling essay-speak it is too. I don't expect anyone to actually read the thing but I'm too busy at work at the moment to write any reviews, as everyone scrambles to get their documents out by the end of 2006, so I'm just updating my blog in cheap and easy ways by copying stuff I'd written earlier. Enjoy. Or, more probably, don't.


In recent experiments regarding the nature of the visuospatial sketchpad (VSSP), there has been much unresolved debate as to whether encoding is primarily visual or spatial (eg. Toms et al, 1994) and the extent to which the central executive is involved in the short-term storage of visuospatial information (eg. Morris, 1987). Using the dot-pair comparison paradigm suggested by Hole (1996), this paper reports an experiment designed to test the relative interference effects of a series of noise-screens and noise judgement tasks on the maintenance of data in the VSSP. The results of Hole (1996)’s unattended noise-dot condition were replicated, but other forms of interference employing visual processing or the central executive had no significant effect on performance. This suggests that the central executive is unnecessary for maintenance of spatial information in the VSSP, and that visual noise alone is not sufficient to disrupt it.


The notion of a modular “working memory” is one which has come under much investigation in the past few decades. Among its many proponents are researchers such as Baddely, who have pointed out the way in which our concepts of memory are fragmenting as knowledge of its properties grows, even as far back as the initial distinction between long-term and short-term memory, which few would now dispute (Baddely, 1986). The concept has evolved through models of modality (after Broadbent, 1958) and Levels of Processing (eg. Craik and Lockhart, 1972, cited in Baddely, 1986); the most commonly-held view now is in accordance with Baddely (1986)’s framework of a modular working memory of at least 3 subsystems. These consist of an “articulatory loop” for the encoding and maintenance of verbal speech-based material, a visuospatial sketchpad or scratchpad - Baddely himself prefers the term “sketchpad”, as “scratchpad” carries equal and misleading implications of verbal notes alongside visual or spatial data (Baddely, 1986, p109) - and a central executive function which serves to co-ordinate or control the two slave systems.

It is the articulatory loop which has attracted the bulk of the research in this area, whether for ease of experimentation (Logie, 1986) or otherwise, and has produced some interesting results which seem to support Baddely’s working-memory model. For example, the technique of “articulatory suppression” has enabled researchers to demonstrate the relative independence of the articulatory loop from the central executive, in that it selectively interferes with tasks associated principally with the articulatory loop, such as digit span, without affecting verbal reasoning and other central executive functions (Hitch and Baddely, 1976). More recently, however, there has been a growing body if interest in the previously neglected area of the VSSP.

One of the main problems with investigations in this area is the lack of an obvious equivalent to articulatory suppression (Logie, 1986); being confined to the articulatory loop, this technique has little or no effect on maintenance of the visuospatial short-term store. What was needed was some form of visual or spatial distraction to produce a similar effect (Hitch, 1984). Tracking tasks provided a useful tool for creation of visuospatial interference, motor movements having a direct effect on spatial processing (Quinn, 1976) and they have had the additional benefit of serving to identify a distinction between the visual and spatial elements of the VSSP when non-visual tracking was used (Baddely and Lieberman, 1980). However, to term this an accurate equivalent to articulatory suppression would be erroneous, as the latter is an unskilled activity subject to far fewer effects of fatigue or practice (Logie, 1986) and as such probably has less involvement with the central executive. Attempting to filter out the effects of the central executive has been a common problem in experiments on the VSSP, as it is thought to be an essential feature of both encoding and retrieval (Morris, 1987). The extent to which any interference is specific to either of the slave systems is therefore difficult to determine; however, experiments by Morris (1987) and Toms et al (1994) have shown that during maintenance, the VSSP is passive and thus remains unaffected by any general load of the central executive not directly relating to visual or spatial material. This runs contrary to the findings of Phillips and Christie (1977) and Dale (1973), who suggested that the short-term store relied on general purpose resources and was subject to nonspecific forms of distraction.

If it is therefore necessary to use visuospatial stimuli to interfere with the maintenance of information in the VSSP, could this then include all forms of visuospatial distraction? If Jones et al (1995) are correct in their assertion that short-term stores of verbal and visuospatial data are functionally equivalent, then it would be counterintuitive to believe so, as it has been shown that only very specific forms of auditory stimulus are able to interfere with verbal speech-based short-term memory (Salame & Baddely, 1989). It seems logical to assume that the stimuli needed to disrupt the passive activity must necessarily be similarly specific. It is the exact nature of these interference stimuli which provide more detailed information on the workings of the VSSP and its potential internal subsystems.

The obvious distinction to make would be that between visual and spatial data. It has already been noted that such a distinction exists, as was demonstrated by Baddely and Lieberman (1980) in a tracking task using auditory feedback with no visual input whatsoever. This was disputed by Beech (1984), whose broadly similar experiment showed interference from both visual and spatial quarters; however, it has been suggested that these conflicting results were due to the spatial nature of the response requirements (Toms et al, 1994). Either way, the relationship between visual and spatial processing is one which has considerable importance for the understanding of the VSSP.

One of the paradigms most often used for investigation of this area is the Brooks Spatial Matrix task (Brooks, 1967) which involves mental imagery. The equivalence of mental imagery to actual visuospatial input has been demonstrated by many previous studies (eg. Brooks, 1967, Quinn, 1976, Logie, 1986) with use of imagined matrices and visual mnemonics, and their abilities to selectively interfere with real data. The Brooks task, where subjects are asked to imagine the locations of digits on a 4x4 grid, was generally understood to be primarily spatial in nature and thus treated as a good basic spatial test, but more recent findings by Toms et al (1994) have shown effects of visual interference on maintenance of this grid. This has even led the authors to suggest that there may be no spatial store as such, merely a “spatial processing device, perhaps ensconced within the central executive complex” which in certain circumstances acts upon the visual store (Toms et al, 1994, p142). However, given that this conflicts with the theories of many other researchers and new evidence from neuropsychology, it is likely that this is due to some variance in experimental procedure.

A theory which might go some way towards explaining this discrepancy is that of a difference between encoding of patterns, pictures with possible additional semantic coding and simpler spatial information (Logie, 1986, Hole, 1996). It seems to be clear that a all forms of visual material have obligatory access to the VSSP; the amount of disturbance caused to the information stored there passively depends largely on the similarity between the interference and stored data. Much research has shown that the relative complexity of the interference stimuli has a marked effect on the extent of the distraction produced (eg. Logie, 1986, Magnussen, 1988); it is a distinct possibility that “the mechanisms of underlying memory for small-scale spatial relationships might be more susceptible to disruption than those responsible for large-scale relationships” (Hole, 1996, p54).

A problem with many experiments in the past is the lack of any obvious attempts to choose primary or secondary stimuli on the basis of anything other than their visual or spatial components. Logie, in his series of 1986 experiments, tried to rectify this to a certain extent, taking into account both visual complexity and semantic content, but the secondary tasks still do not appear to have been matched for complexity with the primary ones, a visual imagery mnemonic and rote rehearsal strategy. The use of verbal material in any case leaves the investigation open to possible effects of verbal recoding during maintenance (Morris, 1987); a paradigm was needed which as far as possible took note of all these complicating factors.

The experiment on which this paper is based, that by Hole (1996), seems to do just that. The primary task of spatial interval estimation is sufficiently taxing without being overcomplex, and the verbal element is minimised; both of these factors preclude excessive involvement of the central executive and thus produce a “cleaner” result. It is also easier to suggest equivalence of complexity between, for example, the dot-pair stimulus and a brightness discrimination as both are relatively simple, unlike in cases such as Logie’s (1986) where the primary and secondary stimuli consisted of material varying from pegword imagery and line drawings to coloured screens and matrix patterns.

Research already conducted on this paradigm has shown that without interference, it is possible to maintain accurate spatial representations of the two dots across fairly long periods of time, but with a pair of interference dots between the two comparison pairs, thresholds were made dramatically worse regardless of whether the subject was obliged to attend to this interference (Hole, 1996). These results have provided more evidence of obligatory access of visual material to the VSSP, but as the interference was of the same visuospatial nature as the primary stimuli, it is unclear which aspect of this causes the spatial judgement to be affected. The experiment detailed here is an attempt to clear up some of this confusion.

Morris (1987) suggests that the central executive is required for encoding and retrieval of all data in the VSSP; as all visual data has privileged access to the VSSP regardless of subjects’ intentions, the central executive must necessarily be activated for encoding of the interference stimuli. It is therefore conceivable that retrieval failure is merely due to an overload at the central executive level. To test for this effect, two of the conditions in this experiment require subjects to make a comparison judgement on the noise stimuli, an activity which requires central processing. One of these tasks is of brightness discrimination, which has a strong visual component without involving spatial factors; this provides a secondary visual task of comparative complexity to the primary visuospatial one, and should measure the effect of the central executive combined with visual noise. The other noise task is of temporal discrimination, with no spatial components and visual ones which can be matched against those of one of the controls (condition 4 - see below). The results of this experiment should show which of these factors has the greatest effect on maintenance of the visuospatial data stored in the VSSP.


a) Subjects

10 subjects aged between 19 and 40 took part in this experiment; 6 were male and 4 were female. Three of the subjects wore glasses; the rest had either normal vision or contact lenses which would not have caused any potential interference from reflection. All of the subjects were informed of the purpose of the experiment, but only four had any knowledge of psychology and thus the experiment’s implications; only one subject had previous experience of psychometric tests.

b) Materials

The experiment was conducted in a room with both windows and normal fluorescent lighting, though care was taken to ensure minimum light-reflection on the screens. The screens in question were of a VGA colour monitor attached to an IBM PS/2 computer, through which the stimuli were presented. The subjects were seated at an approximate distance of 60cm from the screen, and responses were entered through the computer keyboard. Because of the communal nature of the room used, there was inevitably some auditory distraction throughout much of the experiment.

c) Design and Procedure

The experiment consisted of 5 conditions performed by each subject in a random order. Each condition involved 60 trials, the trials being of equal length across all conditions. The instructions were provided verbally by the experimenter at the start of each condition but the experiment itself was controlled by a computer (see above). Each trial in all conditions was made up of four separate stimulus screens, each lasting 2 seconds, with the ISI being 1s. For purposes of description, the stimulus screens shall be labelled a, a1, b1 and b; they were always presented in this order.

In all the conditions, screens a and b provided the primary spatial-judgement task. As in the Hole (1996) experiment, this was achieved by a two-alternative forced-choice procedure, with the subject having to decide which of two horizontal pairs of dots was spaced the wider, one pair appearing on screen a and the other on screen b. The dots used were 3mm square with an approximate luminance of 300cd m¯², against a back background of approximate luminance 105cd m¯².

From a starting point of 65mm (measured from the centres of the dots), the distance between the standard stimulus dots was randomly varied by 10% in either direction to prevent the subject merely encoding that standard as their basis for comparison. Each comparison stimulus distance was calculated in much the same way, but then had up to 40% of that length either added to or subtracted from it. An adaptive program was used to calculate thresholds (using Weber fractions) based on subjects’ spatial judgements; decisions were registered by pressing one of two keys. The pairs of dots appeared in approximately the centre of the screen, with random variation being introduced horizontally and vertically on each trial to prevent subjects’ use of a screen-related strategy.

Screens a1 and b1 varied between conditions. Condition 1 replicated the un-attended noise-dot condition from Hole (1996) in that screen a1 contained a pair of irrelevant dots, screen b1 being blank. The subject were obliged to look at the screen during the presentation of all noise stimuli, but were aware that these dots were merely interference. No secondary task was present in this condition.

Condition 2, however, contained a secondary brightness-discrimination task in screens a1 and b1. Two grey screens of varying brightness were presented in each trial, the ISI screens again being black. In condition 3 the secondary task was of temporal discrimination; the grey screens were of identical luminance (this was varied randomly between trials) but each was on view for a slightly different length of time. At the end of each trial in these conditions, subjects were required to state which screen had been respectively brighter or longer-lasting; these judgements were made in a second two-alternative forced-choice procedure which occurred after the primary dot-task decision for each trial had been registered.

Conditions 4 and 5 were the controls. Subjects were still obliged to look at the screen but no secondary judgements were required. In condition 4, the screens a1 and b1 were an identical shade of grey (again, this was varied between trials) and of identical duration to measure the effect of unattended grey-screen interference. The last condition was merely to measure the effects of the time-delay without noise, as both a1 and b1 consisted of unchanging black screens.

The subjects received no feedback of their performance during each condition other than what could be gathered from the workings of the adaptive program - if they were doing badly it would become apparent from the increased easiness of the task. At the beginning of each trial, subjects were informed of how many trials they had already completed, which may have had some bearing on a possible “boredom effect”; with each condition lasting between 15 and 20 minutes depending on subjects’ response time, the whole experiment could last up to 1 hour 40 minutes per subject. However, subjects were not encouraged to hurry or treat this as a response-time task; in fact, they could pause at any point during the conditions if they so chose. Most subjects chose to complete the experiment in more than one session, though some managed it in only one sitting. The experimenter was present at all times to ensure the subjects were looking at the screens during all the relevant noise conditions.


Two of the subjects’ results were discounted following their extremely poor performance on the control task (condition 5); it was judged that their lack of concentration or skill even at this level rendered their data useless to this investigation.

Figure 1 Mean thresholds for each condition

Condition 1 Condition 2 Condition 3 Condition 4 Condition 5
28.53 20.86 18.57 13.30 12.40

From the means (Figure 1), it can be seen that the main effect is definitely that of the interference dots (condition 1), with a mean threshold of over twice the size of either of the controls (conditions 4 and 5). The unattended grey-screens (condition 4) had very little effect on thresholds, and the results of the two noise-task judgement conditions are very similar to each other.

A one-way repeated-measures analysis of variance carried out on the thresholds proved to be significant [F(4, 35) = 2.8, p<0.05]. A series of t-tests revealed the only significant differences to be between condition 1 and the two controls (C1-C4, t=3.13. p<0.05; C1-C5, t=2.92, p<0.05). Interestingly, the difference between the two noise-task judgement conditions is highly insignificant (t=0.35, p<0.05), though not as insignificant as that between the two controls (t=0.19, p<0.05). No correlation was found between performance on the primary and secondary tasks.


As expected, the results of this experiment have largely supported the findings of Hole (1996), with regard to the visuospatial noise having obligatory access to the VSSP and causing interference to the information stored there. Condition 1, being very similar to one of the conditions in Hole’s Experiment 2 (1996) but with a slight temporal variation, produced much the same results as the latter; this is consistent with Hole’s claim that his results are “highly replicable” (Hole, 1996, p62). The temporal difference between the two experiments, caused by the extra stimulus screen in the present one, is unlikely to have had any effect, as Hole’s Experiment 1 (1996) showed that spatial information of this complexity in the short-term store decayed only gradually (see Dale, 1973 for the decay effects on more complex visuospatial information). The main difference in results is the much higher thresholds found here; none of Hole’s subjects obtained thresholds higher than 14% of the spatial interval in any condition, whereas in this experiment some thresholds ran as high as 64.54%.

The only significant effect was that of the visuospatial interference, the noise-dots of condition 1. This means that the effects of the other noise conditions can be judged irrelevant to maintenance of the visuospatial data presented on screen a. The fact that the brightness-discrimination had no significant effect would seem to run contrary to Toms’ assertion that all visual input has a distracting effect regardless of complexity (Toms et al, 1994). It may be the case, however, that the spatial component of this spatial-interval judgement task has such priority over the visual component that no non-spatial distraction is sufficient to disrupt it.

That neither of the secondary-task conditions had any significant effect supports Morris’s view that, unless interfered with directly by relevant visuospatial input, the VSSP is a passive store unaffected by the workings of the central executive (Morris, 1987). In these conditions, the central executive must necessarily have been active, but this has not proved to affect maintenance of the data stored; the fact that the minimal interference caused by both tasks is so similar indicates that the only effect occurring here was general distraction of a nonspecific nature, and thus unable to selectively distort the contents of the spatial store.

It would have been useful here to have included a sixth condition featuring a spatial non-visual judgement task, which would have helped to resolve the matter of whether this information is stored in a system specific to visuospatial data or a pan-sensory spatial one, but this was not possible for reasons of time, resources and the patience of the subjects. The feasibility of such further experimentation, however, is called into question by the problems of producing a purely spatial task, as unlike visual processing, a spatial system is not necessarily tied to any particular sense. It may be the case that some spatial store is common to all spatial input, but at present, research has been largely unable to filter out all irrelevant data, for example motor action from kinaesthetic spatial coding (Quinn, 1976, Smyth & Pelky, 1992); it would also be difficult to draw parallels between results obtained from such different sources.

Another point that should be addresses here is one mentioned earlier, the possibility of verbal recoding during maintenance (Morris, 1987). While it would be extremely difficult to do so effectively in the case of this experiment, the phenomenon should not be discounted. It seems unlikely that subjects would not try to use all possible strategies at their disposal, and a verbal one would be almost inevitable. This would certainly have some bearing on the results obtained, given the probable involuntary coding of the noise dots alongside the comparison stimulus in condition 1; this coding is a lot more likely to become a distraction than the different codes of “brighter” or “darker” in condition 2, or temporal adjectives in condition 3. Perhaps in future experimentation, articulatory suppression could be used to lessen the possibility of this happening.

Despite the growing body of evidence in support of this model of working memory, it would be unwise to jump to any conclusions. The objections exist and need to be answered if a truly accurate picture of the subsystems of working memory is to be created. However, these results do suggest that research is heading along the right lines; it would be difficult now to dispute the concepts of obligatory access and visuospatial interference, even when taking the possibility of verbal recoding or other strategy into account. The two-dot spatial-interval judgement task seems to be a useful paradigm for research into the nature of the VSSP, and the experiment presented here provides some new information on its possible workings. Further study on the matter of spatial coding may prove to be the direction in which the most useful insights lie.


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