Book review: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

HogfatherHogfather by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Believe in something. Anything. No, not that. No, best not that either.

It’s Hogswatch, the time of year for carol singing, presents, warm alcoholic drinks, and giant department stores to sell lots of stuff. But some “people” have hired Mr Teatime (Teh-ah-tim-eh) to stop the Hogfather bringing presents and drinking sherry. Can DEATH and his granddaughter Susan help?

To get in the festive mood this year, I decided I needed to read an appropriate book. Rereading the Hogfather was an obvious choice. HO-HO… oh yes, HO.

There are many of my favourite characters in this novel, DEATH and Susan being prime examples, as well as some very memorable others, Mr Teatime if only for the proper pronunciation of his name. It is also such a wonderful satire. I think that I enjoyed this novel more upon rereading than the first time around, which means I’ll have to make sure my copy stays on my bookshelf.

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The Actual 10 Most Deadly Animals in Australia

People look upon Australia as the home of every dangerous creature that walks, crawls, or throws telephones at hotel staff. This is true. But anyone with Australian friends – and not just those people you have webcam sex with – will tell you that Aussies seem to survive in spite of all this death.

Like every country, a lot of attention is focused on the stuff that doesn’t actually kill us that much (spiders) rather than stuff that kills most people (being a round, gelatinous ball of lard). So here are the 10 most deadly animals in Australia for 2000-2010 according to the National Coroners Information System of Australia.

10) Emus
Right now you are probably wondering what an emu is and why it killed 5 people. The easiest way to describe the emu is as an Australian version of the ostrich; that is, a long legged, long necked, flightless bird, and being Australian it is likely to be wearing a hat with corks dangling from it and be planning to kill you.

Five people isn’t a huge death toll for an Australian animal, but you have to remember that emus like to live in the middle of the country. You know, the part of Australia that people avoid because it is too hot and lacks beaches. So emus only occasionally have the opportunity to kill people.

9) Crocodiles
If there is a muddy river in Australia there is a good chance there is a crocodile waiting to eat someone. Unfortunately for the crocodiles, Aussies and tourists have gotten wise to their antics after watching Crocodile Dundee and have only been able to snack on 9 people.

Since people are more aware of crocodiles, they now act as sign enforcement officers. Most rivers and water holes have warning signs that tell people not to go swimming on penalty of death. Crocs are there to make sure those signs are enforced.

8) Snakes
Racking up a measly 14 deaths for the decade are venomous snakes. That’s right; Australia is home to pretty much all of the most deadly snakes in the world and they only manage to kill 1.4 people a year.

Australian snakes make all other country’s snakes look more lame than a 50 year old at a nightclub. In other countries snakebite is treated as a painful experience that might require a hospital visit. Might. In the next day or two. In Australia a snakebite is pretty much a death sentence, with snakes ranked in terms of how many minutes you have to get antivenin into your body before you’ll be visiting the morgue.

So why the low death count? Why is one of the most feared animals in a country filled with deadly animals killing so few people? Well, when you live in a country like Australia with so many poisonous critters trying to kill you, the local hospitals, and people who are scared of their own shadows, like to stock up on antivenins. Ambulances are used to bringing some antivenin to you.

The reason snakes don’t kill that many people is down to the way Aussies deal with snakebites. Take the recent example of an average Aussie bloke. The world’s second most deadly snake bites him and he does two things: calls an ambulance and grabs a nice cold beer. Because if you’re going to die, you might as well die refreshed. After dispatching the snake that bit him, the man was cool, calm and collected. If the ambulance didn’t arrive in time, well he’d have enjoyed a beer and the great outdoors. Keeping calm gave the ambulance time to save his life, and enough time to finish his beer.

7 and 6) Sharks and Bees
One is the undisputed apex predator of the World’s oceans, the other likes to give people sweet treats. With 16 deaths each, we see the humble honeybee kill as many people as the desperately-in-need-of-a-hug sharks. I’m sure if we included the deaths from heart disease that bees contribute to with their delicious honey, the bees would rank ahead of the toothy grinned sharks. Even without the heart disease aspect, if we talk long-term averages, honeybees are actually more deadly than sharks in Australia. Bees kill roughly 2 people per year, whilst sharks are only averaging 1 per year.

In the meantime humans are doing their best to wipe out both animals. Sharks are edible, so we kill 100 million of them a year. Colony Collapse Disorder is pretty much a fancy way of saying we are stressing the bees with viruses, diseases, pests, bad food, frequent travel and pesticides, leading to a decline in honey bee numbers.

5) Kangaroo
Stamping its place as the modern day T-Rex, if T-Rexes were vegetarian and spent most of their lives sleeping under a tree, is the kangaroo. With 18 deaths to its name, the kangaroo is getting back at Australians for their love of eating this national icon.

Kangaroos may look loveable and cuddly, but underneath that skin that is ideal for leather shoes, lays a nasty, vicious bully:

Attacks aren’t that common, but they are hilarious to watch.

The real danger to Aussies from kangaroos is on the roads. Roos are fond of hanging out in the middle of traffic, or leaping out in front of passing cars, so much so that they contribute to 5.5% of road deaths. Not to be outdone, Aussies install Roo-Bars to the front of their vehicles to ensure anything they hit – Roos, pedestrians, children – die instantly.

4) Dogs
Australians love their dogs; they even make movies about them and have landmarks devoted to them. One town is famous for its pet cemetery devoted to dogs. But with 27 deaths to their names, Aussie dogs just don’t seem to love their owners back.

In fairness, dogs are doing Aussies a favour, as they tend to kill kids and old people. The family pet is clearly trying to trim down the weaker members of the pack to make the household stronger, as 78% of attacks are by the pet dog. Legislation is trying to weed out the more suspicious looking dogs, but most dog bites are more a result of the owners than of the dog’s breeding or temperament.

3) Cows
Right now you’re about to say, “Is it really true that all Aussie men are as good looking at Hugh Jackman?” Why yes, it is true. But that is off topic. If you were on topic you’d probably be questioning how cows made this list at all. Are they even Australian? And these things aren’t deadly; they are hamburger fillings and animals that make the green stuff on your dinner plate palatable. Yet cows still managed to kill off 33 Aussies and come in as the third deadliest animal in Australia.

It isn’t like cows have guns in Australia, so how can they be the second most deadly animals? Well, much like kangaroos, cows love to spend time hanging out in the middle of roads, probably deciding which side has greener grass, or looking to hitch a ride to the city. And because Aussies love a good steak, there are more cattle in Australia than people, 26.5 million at last count. That’s a lot of cows trying to hitchhike. Cows also happen to be a fair bit larger than the average kangaroo, so Aussie drivers either die crashing into them, or from crashing into a tree when swerving to avoid them.

The other Aussies on the top of the cow’s hit-list is their chief persecutors: farm workers. Being the biggest of farm animals they account for the majority of animal related deaths on farms, usually by crushing people, or at least their limbs.

2) Horses
That’s right, horses! Just let that fact sink in for a moment. Horses have killed 77 people in a decade in Australia. Australia has sharks, crocodiles, snakes, and spiders that are deadly enough to make Rambo look like a cub scout, but horses killed more people than all of those terrifying critters combined.

So how did horses beat out such deadly competition? Well, 92% of those deaths are from horses deciding they’ve had enough of someone sitting on their back. The rest of the time the horses decide that they need to crush or trample people, possibly to see if humans can be made into glue as well.

1) Humans
Was this ever in doubt? Humans are by far the most deadly Aussie animals. When you compare the animal deaths to other causes of death in Australia, like drowning killing 290 per year, or car accidents killing 1200 people per year, it is clear that even the most deadly of Aussie creatures, the horse, just aren’t that deadly.

But Aussies are generally getting better at not killing each other. There are 270 murders per year and this rate has been declining for the past 20 years. If this trend continues, then within a decade all the other animals in Australia may actually kill more Aussies than people murdering each other.

In the meantime, if you want to stay safe in Australia: don’t let a horse drive your car near water while you argue with an Aussie about whether that’s a knife. Safety first.

Update: Okay, so this piece is a few years old now and more recent data is available from a ANHMRC study looking at data from 2000-2013.

Creature Deaths
(2000-2013)
Hospitalisations
(2001-2013)
Snakes 27 6,123
Hornets, wasps and bees 25 bees, 2 wasps 12,351
Spiders 0 11,994
Ticks and ants 5 4,533
Marine animals 3 3,707
Scorpions 0 61
Centipedes / millipedes 0 119
Unknown animal or plant 2 536

Since 2000, 74 people have died from being thrown or trampled by a horse. Twenty-six people have died from shark attack and 23 from altercations with dogs. Crocodiles have been responsible for 19 deaths.

And compared to 4,820 drowning deaths and 974 deaths from burns in the same period, the snake bite figures figures are still remarkably low. (Source)

Horses and humans still on top!!

Kids these days.

image

Something I’ve noticed on social media, and the media in general, is the denigration of kids these days. Whether it be Gen Whatever complaining about the Millennials, or just people complaining about how (insert disparaging adjective here) the younger generation are, I never fail to be amused with the curmudgeons and their ironic statements.

Complaining about the younger generation has been a popular pastime for old people since the invention of young people. Usually the complaints are followed by the creaks of arthritic joints as canes, walking sticks and Zimmer frames are waved at the sky; because everyone knows kids live in the sky these days. Even some of the great philosophers have gotten in on the act of denigrating these uppity kids:

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannise their teachers. – Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.)

That’s right, since the dawn of time, old people have complained about young people and how they are destroying society. And we should know, just look at how terrible society is now: deaths from war are at a thousand year low, homicides are also on a steady decline, the economy is on a 2000 year high, literacy levels are at an all time high, we live longer, and less kids die so they get to grow up, become old, and complain about the kids these days. How can we live in such a terrible time in history!

You see what is happening is a form of nostalgia, pining for a time that never really existed. This golden age only appears golden through a pair of rose coloured glasses, from which only the good memories remain, the bad memories having been covered over with years of alcohol abuse. The kids these days are doing the same stuff the oldies were doing at the same age (as witnessed in this Daily Show video).

We really need to stop with this ageist nonsense. Society has advanced: kids learn different things at school because different things will be expected of them in the future, computers are a thing now, phones are really handy, pop music is as dull as ever, and nobody cares how far you had to walk to school back in your day. So let’s stop picking on different age groups and get back to criticising the things that really matter: sport referees.

Kids+these+days_7fe0b2_4939074

More articles worth a read:
http://xkcd.com/1227/
http://www.anxietyculture.com/antisocial.htm
http://mentalfloss.com/article/52209/15-historical-complaints-about-young-people-ruining-everything
http://startupguide.com/world/the-world-is-actually-getting-better/
http://readingsubtly.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/the-self-righteousness-instinct-steven.html

Update: Vsauce did a fantastic video on Juvenoia (i.e. fear of kids these days) that is well worth a watch.

Rules of thriller writing

archer-gun

1) If in doubt kill a character.

2) Plot holes can be filled with dead bodies.

3) Nothing screams thriller more than characters screaming for their lives.

4) Car chases and shootouts are mandatory.

5) The hero can’t die, unless you really, really want them to.

6) The bad-guy must die horribly, unless you want them for the sequel. Even then, the sequel could be a zombie thriller.

7) Beloved minor characters must die the most gruesome and pointless of deaths.

8) Minor bad-guys must follow the inverse ninja law.

9) The only reason a gun should ever run out of bullets is if it puts the hero in even more danger.

10) The rules of physics and biology do not apply to the hero, unless it puts them in even more danger.

11) Deus ex machina can only be used once in the story, so use it wisely.

12) If your story hasn’t given your readers a heart attack, rewrite it so that it does.

See also:
http://davidmorrell.net/on-writing/writing-advice/
http://www.creative-writing-now.com/how-to-write-a-thriller.html
http://www.writerscentre.com.au/sydney/thrillerwriting.htm

Mythtaken: Shark attacks

A while back I wrote a post on how sharks aren’t the deadly monsters attacking people all the time that we think they are. Now I’m not suggesting that we all go and hug sharks, they only like to be touched by cleaning fish, nor that we jump in to swim with them, they play tag far too roughly for delicate humans. What I’m suggesting is that we really need to start worrying about stuff that is actually a concern rather than stuff that is just wild gesticulations in front of a camera for ratings.

So here is a list of things that kill more people than sharks annually:

funny-sharks-things-that-kill-more

 

Picture from: http://themetapicture.com/things-that-kill-more-people-than-sharks/

I think you’re mythtaken: Guns

Nerd cred if you can name this gun correctly.
Nerd cred if you can name this gun correctly.

There are a lot of guns in the world. The figure is something like 639 million firearms, or to put it another way, one gun for every 9 people on the planet. Yet the average person knows diddly squat about guns. People probably have a better idea of how Nicki Minaj managed to become a star than express knowledge about guns. Most of our knowledge is likely to come from movies:

Or professional Russians:

As an author I really wanted to make sure I didn’t base my gun knowledge upon misinformation, otherwise I’d have to work as a reporter covering the gun debate. So here are a few myths to be busted.

Machine guns are not monsters of death
They may fire great big bullets at hundreds of rounds per minute but machine guns really are given the fashion magazine airbrushing treatment. A great big gun letting off a whole lot of explosions in a short amount of time has a habit of getting hot. Really hot. We’re talking change the barrel over every minute hot! Yes, that’s right, at the maximum rate of fire your machine gun needs a new barrel every minute to keep firing without causing problems – which I imagine as a gigantic explosion like Bugs Bunny sticking his finger in the end of Elmer Fudd’s shotgun. But it isn’t just the barrel changes, most of the time you aren’t actually firing the machine gun at people, you’re firing it at super mean looking inanimate objects, or as the military call it, suppressive fire (250,000 rounds for one kill!!!). Essentially the machine gun is a tool that performs a very different role from the one gun noobs think it does. Well, unless you don’t mind the thing catching on fire (yes, I know that isn’t technically a machine gun):

Guns aren’t really death machines
For death machines, these gun things really don’t kill enough people. In science we talk about effects, rates and how to blow up stuff with the things you find under the kitchen sink, as such it is hard to look at the gun deaths and gun injury rates and not think guns kinda suck at their job. The USA use guns to kill roughly 30,000 people a year, one third of those are homicides, but that is less than half the people they injure with guns, roughly 65,000. But that isn’t really fair, because not every time a gun goes off is it being used to shoot at someone else or a particularly nasty piece of paper. If you just look at homicides and attempted homicides, guns are still only getting the job done 21% of the time.

Guns suck for self defence
Not everyone can have Chuck Norris camped out in their house for self defence, nor carry Steven Segal around where-ever they go. But as mentioned above, guns really do suck at their job. Whether it is only being 23% effective in legal interventions, or the fact that you’re 4.5 to 5.5 times more likely to be shot for carrying a gun, you really start to think running away looks like a better option, even if you are as fat as Steven Segal has gotten lately.

Handguns are about as accurate as the horoscopes
A handgun is a really convenient weapon to carry around with you, but if the side of a barn is more than a few metres away, you’re not particularly likely to hit it. Even cops can’t hit much with these things, even when the bad-guy is less than 15m away. Half the problem is that bad-guys shoot back, which means you don’t stand around collecting holes, you run for cover, which really ruins your accuracy. But I’ve already mentioned that guns suck at their job, well, your handgun might hit the bad-guy 55 times and still not kill them.

Guns sure do help kill people
As much as guns suck at their job, as I’ve just pointed out, guns still do a better job of killing than many of the other methods we’ve devised for killing each other. Sure, people love their tools to kill one another, but guns are a really good tool to use for killing one another. I can’t wait to see the military being sent off to war with hammers and cars instead of a gun.

Being shot doesn’t mean you can fly
The trick to flying is throwing yourself at the ground and missing. So being shot clearly can’t make you fly. Don’t know why people think that shooting someone can disobey this simple fact, let alone Newton’s Laws of Motion. But what good is a trope if it isn’t always on display?

Semi-auto rifles are not assault rifles
Every time someone refers to a semi-auto rifle as an assault rifle, or worse, the made up term assault weapon, a puppy dies. You don’t want all the puppies to die do you? Well then, it is time to learn the difference between the military configured select fire rifle, called the assault rifle, which is capable of fully automatic and (sometimes) burst fire, and the civilian one trigger pull, one shot, semi-automatic rifle. I know, they may look the same to the untrained eye, but some people think cars are all the same thing too.

Mags, clips, high capacity…
While we’re on the topic of rifles, I have a dictionary and an abacus for people talking about magazines, clips and high capacity mag clips. A magazine is something you read, a clip is something you watch and high capacity is a Japanese train at rush hour. Different guns have different sizes of magazines (which may or may not be loaded with a clip), which means 30 rounds may be high capacity for one gun and normal capacity for another. Also, when one of these these rifles go through 700 rounds per minute and even soldiers only carry 210 rounds, from a standard 30 round magazine, then no gun fight is really lasting that long.

It’s a suppressor not a silencer!
Remind me, is +120 decibels loud or quiet? It sure is a lot quieter than a normal gunshot sound (+160db), but calling it “silent” is like calling bagpipes a little annoying. When the best suppressors on the smallest calibre weapons still manage to be as loud as a jack hammer or AC/DC, then suppressors have again gotten the Hollywood make-over. But 30db is a decent drop from ear splitting to “say what” territory, so I’d say these things should be compulsory.

There is no smell of cordite
If someone describes the smell of cordite in the air after a gun fight, you either know that the book is set before 1950 or that there is a sub-plot about a time traveller who comes from the past to assassinate a future self. It seems really odd that so many books use the time traveller sub-plot, because it is usually a one off. It would be far more interesting if this was built upon more, maybe have Gengis Khan show up to knock down a wall, or something, as well.

Less guns are a good idea
Shooting is fun, hunting is very primal, but at some point your neighbours start to get worried when you look more like you are going to war than to the shooting range. Aside from guns sucking for self defence, they also suck at not shooting your loved ones, are handy for suicide, and unless you are in a warzone, more guns in society equals more gun violence. But it is also worth thinking about what gun figures actually mean, like 300 million guns in the US, enough for one for every American despite there being only about 80,000 gun owners. Sounds like a lot, but that means each gun owner has a rifle, a handgun and a shotgun, which is clays, targets and pistols at the local range on the weekend. Perfectly reasonable to go shooting, just not at your local school.

Update: another mythbuster article:

https://tysonadams.com/2014/03/21/i-think-youre-mythtaken-guns-2-the-second-armour-piercing-round/
http://thinkprogress.org/gun-debate-guide/#moreguns
http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hemenway-guns-20150423-story.html

Shark attack

I don’t normally comment on current affairs or the news in this blog, because normally the news can be summarized as: war, death, famine, kitten in tree, sport. Of course that is the 24 hour news channel version, the network news shows are more along the lines of: human interest, war, kitten in tree, tragedy, dog puppy in tree, sport, sport gossip. But this news is somewhat baffling.

Apparently Western Australia is going to have a shark cull in an effort to try and kill a white pointer believed to have killed three people recently (article here).

Not too difficult to understand is it? Three deaths in a short amount of time when the world averages 5 deaths per year is something that people start worrying about. What is baffling though is that we are concerned about 3 deaths. People are 300 times more likely to drown than die from a shark attack in Australia. Or put another way, if you wanted to get rid of that jerk at work, you could save the expense on the shark and just use water (see this article on sharks and risk).

Human Deaths in Australia Between 1980-1990, Inclusive (from Stevens & Paxton, 1992)
Cause of Death
Total Deaths
Average per year
Crocodile Attacks
8
0.7
Shark Attacks
11
1.0
Lightning Strikes
19
1.7
Bee Stings
20
1.8
Scuba Diving Accidents
88
8.0
Drownings/Submersions
3,367
306
Motor Vehicle Accidents
32,772
2,979

Last time I checked the Great White Shark was an endangered species and humans are at near plague proportions, especially Americans – the shark’s favourite food. Sixty one percent of the world’s shark attacks are in North America and American’s are making popular shark food in Australia as well. See the big mistake here is that sharks keep mistaking Americans for food.

Now I’d be the first to admit that Americans are very tasty, something has to come of that high fat and sugar diet. But what we really need to do is help Americans to stop looking like food. Is it just that Americans are tastier than the rest of the world’s people? Is it genetic? Or are is it just that the people who were attacked by a shark looked too much like a seal? Either way it is clear that the worry over sharks is more about them not being cute enough, maybe Spielberg should do a revised Jaws movie that focuses on the danger of mosquitoes: When you hear them buzz, you’re DEAD!