Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lost in Austen (Mini-series)

Lost in Austen (2008) [Written by Guy Andrews. Amanda Rooper, Elliot Cowan, Hugh Bonneville]
     Amanda Price, fan of Pride & Prejudice enters the fictional world through a door in her bathroom, exchanging places with Elizabeth Bennett. Plot summary of the series here.
  Question is, does this pastiche work? I think so. Andrews has rewritten Austen’s romance as a novel: the characters are more complex, they have back-stories, they react rather more like real people than genre characters. There is a consistent theme: all these people are playing parts assigned to them by social constraints and rules. Amanda upsets this, primarily by insisting that the characters behave as prescribed in Austen’s novel. But she too is trying to play a part: the observer. But she’s actually a participant, and in her unwillingness to accept this messes things up, but good. People seek her advice, which she frames in terms of Austen’s book, not in terms of character and personality. “Destiny” is her buzzword, but she’s blind to the changes in destiny created by her entry into a fictional world. (Or is it fictional? Andrews leaves that question hanging.)
     Almost all the characters reveal their true selves at different times. Caroline Bingley admits she is a lesbian, but will endure marriage for propriety’s sake. Lady Catherine reveals herself as conforming to rules and roles prescribed by her status; but she knows that Amanda is not what she seems, and so is not bound by status. She has seen that Amanda is afraid of what she really wants; and her last remark to Amanda is she wishes Amanda were her daughter. Wickham acts the cad but is really a deeply honourable man: he’d rather be hated by Darcy than betray Georgiana’s adolescent crush. Bingley eventually acts on the love he really feels for Jane instead of following Darcy’s advice to preserve his social status.
     Mrs Bennett finally revolts against the socially submissive role her status assigns, and instead of kowtowing to Lady Catherine, throws her out of the house. This reminds Mr Bennett that she is his wife, and his admiration for her long-suppressed spunk, as well as the realisation that he has dodged his duties as husband and father, move him to offer to sleep in the marital bed again, an offer that Mrs Bennett is delighted to accept. And of course Darcy will follow his heart rather than his social pride, and Amanda will accept her destiny.
     We spent four pleasant evenings watching this series on TVO. It is not the best Austen pastiche I’ve come across, but it’s still well above average. ***

Past Perfect (Movie)

     Past Perfect (2002) [D: Daniel McIvor. Rebecca Jenkins, Daniel McIvor] A story cross cutting between Charlotte and Cecil’s first encounter on a plane and a day two years later after a miscarriage. Both had broken up with previous partners because they wanted children, so the loss of the child cuts deep. The question is, will they be able to salvage their relationship. The contrast between the trust and joy of the first meeting and the distrust and pain of the present sets up the plot. Will they or won’t they reconcile? Or rather, because this after all a romance, How will they reconcile?
     The movie is told in a series of chapters, with a number of tricks that almost work. The close ups of the faces in the plane work best; the voice-overs accompanying the image of an empty bench in a park don’t. In between are a mishmash of scenes of varying tension. The director (who is also the writer and the male lead) is much given to extended shots, which are clearly intended to express the depth and complexity of the emotional turmoil within the characters. Unfortunately, the result too often is “OK, I get it, now what?”
     This could have been an excellent movie. The actors have talent, the camera work is good, but the direction and editing fail to live up to the promise of the concept. I think the script could have used a few scenes tracing the shock of the miscarriage and its corrosive effect on trust. At first, Charlotte and Cecil must have tried to comfort each other; when did that change? Why? A scene between Cecil and his ex, Bernadette, gives a few hints. Charlotte and Cecil’s difference in cultural and educational background are another clue: Did Cecil try to be Pygmalion to Charlotte’s Galatea?
     In short, a more complex, richer script would have forced faster editing and more careful cross-cutting, both of which would have allowed for a more complex rhythm of tension and release than a mere two story strands do. **

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Meaning of Everything (book)

     Simon Winchester The Meaning of Everything (2003) The story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s amazing the thing was done. Nowadays, it would either not have been funded, or it would have cancelled at the first sign of exceeding its budget. It took 70 years and at least £350,000. James Murray, who oversaw the project through most if his and its life, did an enormous amount of the work: at first, all definitions went to him before going to the printer. Later, Bradley joined him, and the work progressed faster.
When it was done in 1928, the Oxford University Press took a good deal of the credit. The Dictionary has become an ongoing project, the computer has made production easier, and it’s likely that there won’t be any more new paper editions. A pity, since I really like my 2-volume compact edition. The OED website offers the 20-volume 2nd edition of 1998, but I didn’t check the price.
     This history’s main strength is its brevity. Winchester knows how to write the general narrative with enough detail to provide a sense of what it was like to be part of the task. The photos are poorly reproduced, unfortunately. High-resolution scans were available in 2003, so there’s no excuse. Otherwise well done. ***

Thursday, December 27, 2012

British Model Railway magazines

Miscellaneous British model railway magazines (1970s to present) I’ve been clipping and tossing these. In decided to keep Model Railways and Model Railway Journal, but all the others will be gone.
     There are some common features: an irritating absence of detail drawings and methods in construction articles. More recently, step by step photos and instructions are showing up, and are very well done. Most magazines feature very good outline drawings of locomotives, rolling stock, and structures, along with excellent photographs and thorough historical and technical data. The product  reviews are generally OK. A couple of magazines regularly give necessary wheel dimensions and/or comparisons with prototype measurements. They tend to be more laudatory and “grateful to the trade” than US reviews; some read more like press releases than reviews.
     Layout photos are generally superb and very inspirational, showing a very high quality of modelling. I am especially impressed with the modelling of landscape and structures. In townscape modelling, North American modellers are far behind British ones. The texts on the other hand are pretty much the same format: a brief history of the prototype (imaginary or real), vague narratives of construction, and stock lists. The layouts themselves tend to be much of a muchness, with the same visual themes regardless of  prototype. One observes a trend towards more accurate prototype modelling, a trend repeated in North America some 10 years later. This trend does not improve the variety, however. It seems to me that the days of free-lance modelling will return. Some of the most interesting layouts ever have been pure fantasy (Allen’s Gorre and Daphetid) or prototype inspired (McClelland’s V & O or Koester’s Midland Road.) Frank Ellison’s observation that model railroading is like playwriting and production still holds. In other words, model railroading is both a narrative and a visual art. As with drama, interpretation of reality and pure invention work better than exact imitation of nature.
     The useful British habit of using fiddle yards (termed storage sidings in earlier times) has been taken up here, with a change in terminology: we call them staging yards or staging for short. Some modellers (e.g. Dave Barrow) have argued that staging should be out in the open, and scenicked. Barrow claims the advantages of avoiding the problems of any hidden trackage (i.e., what’s not a problem in the open becomes one on hidden track), and easier visualisation of the operating scheme. If his p.o.v. catches on, we will have come full circle to the early days of layout planning: division point plus a stretch of mainline and/or branch. Plus ├ža change!
All in all, I spent a pleasant if somewhat exhausting time reviewing these old magazines. They varied in quality from acceptable to excellent. (2000)

Flesh and Gold

Phyllis Gotlieb Flesh and Gold (1998) I didn’t finish this book. The premise is interesting, involving many beings co-operating more or less in a future interstellar federation of sorts. Humans (Solthrees) have been bioengineered to adapt to different planetary habitats. Interstellar commerce profits only when the trade-ware is people, many of which are conveniently labelled as animals. Bribery and other forms of corruption abound. But the book holds only intellectual interest for me; it does not engage my empathy or sympathy for the characters. It is a clever book, a merely clever book. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s lacking, really. I think it is the language: Gotlieb writes competently, but she hasn’t the knack of making a place become vividly present, such as Heinlein and Kipling have. Those writers could make the most alien landscape and lifestyle seem familiar within a page or two. Gotlieb can’t do that, so although the alien setting is an interesting one, and she has done a lot of work to make it plausible, it is not believable. ** (2000)

The Severn Valley Railway (book)

     Roger Siviter The Severn Valley Railway (1995) A Then & Now book, consisting almost entirely of paired photos. A brief history and a typically uninformative map are included. The map shows no topographical features, is not scaled, and omits other connections between cities, so that references to through trains are hard to follow. The photos range from mildly interesting to fascinating, as one might expect.
     For the SVR enthusiast, and the GWR modeller, there is a great deal of useful information. For the industrial archeologist, there is an overwhelming impression of the transience of engineering works. A few hours or days with earth moving equipment eliminates even embankments and cuts. The vast loco maintenance works at Worcester have disappeared, and only tracts of wasteland remain to show where they once stood. Track alignments however are remarkably stable, showing major changes only where former junctions have obviated the need for crossovers and sidings. The outlines of railway property are also traceable where housing developments (“estates” in UK parlance) haven’t redrawn the lot lines. Many of the photos show no traces of the railway, or pathways and roads that betray nothing of their railway origin. But it is heartening to see how well the station buildings adapt to purely domestic use. They make splendid homes, and I would love to live in one. Most new owners have eliminated platform edges and have modernised windows, but have kept the old canopies, which make lovely coverings for patios.
     The captions are a bit twee in places, and perforce somewhat repetitive. Siviter has done his best to get a similar perspective on the sites in the “now” photos, and almost always succeeds. The rolling stock is shown mostly in 3/4 front views, and of course we see mostly locomotives. All in all, a excellent book of its kind. *** (2000)

Great Model Railroads 2000 (Magazine)

Great Model Railroads 2000 (1999) Kalmbach’s annual compendium of layout visits. Heavy on pictures, light on text. A few sidebars on technique (eg, tree making.)  Brief bios of builders. As usual, the photos are spectacular, the trackplans contain errors, and the text is too skimpy. Layout comments:
     Leigh Creek Lumber Co. Geoff Nott. HO, 27x37. Many alternate routes and branches.  Spectacular in the John Allen tradition, romantic and wild scenery. Focused on NW US logging. Geoff Nott has an eye for the overall scene. He builds to photograph, but the trackplan permits intensive operation. Light on actual lumbering (which has rarely been modelled convincingly by anyone), heavy on scenery and structures. ****
     The Great Northwest Railroad. Bob Roach. O, 39x25. (22x16 in HO). Folded loop with terminal. A train-watcher’s layout. Long runs, wide curves. The builder likes pristine models, and doesn’t care about prototypical time frame, etc, so the layout does not look realistic, but does have a unified style. It has well-done scenery of the Frank Ellison stage-set type, is nicely finished, and looks good. Also, the rail is code 100, a great plus for O scale.***
     B&O and WM. Bob Bales. HO, 25x44. Hidden-loop to loop, short branch. Good balance between operation and train-watching. One half of the layout is huge yards (plus staging), the other half good-looking mountainous scenery. Double track main with passing tracks. Scenes based on prototype, but not exact reproductions. Some good examples of crowded track/structures/scenery. ***
     NYO&W’s Kingston Branch. Mike Bourke. N, 3.5x5 portable. (6.5x9 in HO) Oval with terminal. A little bit of everything: a town, a yard, a tunnel, etc. Streetcar is operable by viewers. The whole thing very much a display layout, with lots of detail, and fudging of prototype for sake of interest, but fun. ***
     Winged Foot & Western. Charles Patti. On3, 10x2. (5.5x15.5 in HO) Point to loop with continuous run cutoff. Old-time logging. Train-watching plus some operation. Lots of scratchbuilt structures and well done scenery. Good balance of RR and scene, enhanced by use of structures to separate lines. ***
     Clark Fork. John Flann. HO 13x15 shelf layout. Point to point switching with staging. Flann describes a neat way to use playing cards to determine consists and switching schedule. Good balance of scenery and track. Good use of structures to justify trackage. Neat and somewhat too clean, but unified appearance. ***
     White River & Northern. David K. Smith. N 7x10 (13x19 in HO.) Oval with staging and branch to reverse loop. Urban, Conrail era. Good individual scenes, good use of structures and urban landscape to justify dense trackage. Operation friendly but also good for train watching. **1/2
     Spiral Hill Railroad. Frank Titman. S 19x20. (14x15 in HO). Oval with branches, one of which climbs up and over on a spiral (helix.) Crowded, with good individual scenes, but unrealistic if more than one scene within view, and some unrealistic patches; I’d have used fewer structures in several places. The main yard crosses the room on a diagonal - good idea. Operation friendly, but good for train-watching, too. No staging, although there is room for it under upper terminal. Good concept for small space, even better for slightly larger space. Min R is 30" (=22" in HO.). **1/2.
     New Haven Shore Line. Bill Aldrich. HO 21x28. Double track oval with large yard set diagonally inside oval. A train-watcher’s layout, historically accurate (summer 1948.)  Aldrich scratchbuilt most of the locomotives and over half the rolling stock. *** (2000)

Inconstant Star (book)

     Poul Anderson Inconstant Star (1991) A space opera in two parts. Robert and Dorcas Saxtorph have managed to buy a hyperdrive ship, and are hired to fly to a dull red star. There, they discover a Kzin base, which they eventually destroy. In the second novella, they are hired to search for an anomaly that a Wunderlander may have helped some Kzin to find. They find it and the man (who is flying in a sub-light ship), and have a brief encounter with a Kzin ship, which they destroy.
     These stories have the few virtues and many vices of their genre: plots well constructed, characters wooden, politics simplistic (to put it charitably), social milieu marked by adolescent fantasies of willing females and unbelievable fighting skills, relationship problems treated with laughable solemnity and minimal insight, and so on. Anderson usually does much better than this. I guess he wrote these to put bread on the table. Or maybe it's an unpublished early work refurbished for a quick sale.* (2000)

Voices in Summer (book)

Rosamunde Pilcher Voices in Summer (1984) An old-fashioned, discreet, and nice romance. Nothing much happens. The flyleaf blurb says Pilcher creates fine wholesome characters, but the fact is they’re so bland that they’re not very interesting. There’s a mild mystery, which is resolved when Silvia, a widow,  admits to having written poison pen letters in order to capture her childhood sweetheart Alec by turning him against his young wife, Laura. But even that revelation lacks tension, in part because Silvia’s bundled off decently and discreetly to a mental hospital.
     Laura supposed to be devastated by the death of her dog, but you can’t persuade a reader by telling him she’s depressed, you have to show it. Also, she’s recovering from some mysterious operation that is supposed to fix her womb so she can have a long-desired baby, but I for one don’t believe it matters all that much to her. The divorced Alec’s child by his first wife shows up (and conveniently falls in love with Alec’s uncle’s stepson Ivan, and he with her), the old nanny is going senile, and so on.
     All potentially very interesting stuff, with lots of scope for tensions, unresolved conflicts, and ancient hurts, but Pilcher glides over the surface of these matters like one of those water-striding insects over a pond. Scarcely a ripple disturbs the placid surface of the charmed upper-middle-class life of these people. It’s all too nice to be true. It’s frustrating when one can see ways of improving the story, both in style and substance. Pilcher apparently has achieved some fame since the 80s as a minor Maeve Binchy, but I won’t be reading another one. I will sample Binchy, though. Well-written soap-opera can have great interest. * (2000)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Reflections on Language

     Noam Chomsky Reflections on Language (1975) Chomsky’s famous book defending his view that there is some innate language-learning capability, and that details of its nature are at least in part accessible to empirical research. A dense text, made more so by NC’s irritating habit of using letters where fictitious names would do just as well, or words would do better. Also, several of his examples purportedly showing some universal grammatical rule don’t in fact do so, but merely demonstrate some of the quirks of English grammar.
     His general thesis is IMO valid enough. He points out that it’s a specific example of the general rule that theories are under-determined by evidence, in that language as experienced by the child does not offer any transparent clues to its nature, content, and form. Clearly, children must have some sort of decoding capacity built in, else they could not arrive at language competence (which they do).
     The maxim of indeterminacy of theories is one that critics and supporters of science would do well to remember. Many people believe, falsely, that science deals in certainties, that if something is scientifically proven, it’s certain. It’s not. It’s just proven. OTOH, non-scientific beliefs aren’t proven. At best, there are grounds for belief, a phrase that means that supporting evidence in the speaker’s opinion outweighs refuting evidence.
     This is not the best book to give a person who wants to find out something about why the preponderant opinion is that children have an instinct to learn language and will do so with a minimal amount of environmental input (and often in despite of it!) ** (2000)
     Update 2012: On reflection, I think that Chomsky has made a number of errors because he focuses on written rather than on spoken language. His famous distinction between surface and deep structure IMO demonstrates that he has a tin ear for speech. Intonation differentiates what he calls surface and deep structure very nicely. Intonation is in fact essential. Chomsky should have asked himself, Why do English speakers agree pretty well 100% on which bits of sound form a word?

Eat the Rich (book)

     P. J. O’Rourke Eat the Rich (1998) PJ is influenced by Friedman, and it shows. He makes the same mistakes Friedman makes: a) he confuses wealth and money; b) he assumes the market is honest; and c) he ignores the environment ("externals"). Apart from that, he makes many useful points about economics, even if he doesn’t follow through on them, and draws inconsistent conclusions from them/
     He’s right that the market is, despite its messiness, the best way to allocate economic resources. But he (like his mentor Friedman) has several blind spots. The worst is his assumption that prices are efficient when they reflect the intersection between the desire of the seller to get the highest price and the buyer’s desire to pay the lowest. He sees no necessary connection between price and costs; he doesn’t even mention this relationship. Yet he believes that subsidies for businesses are bad, and doesn’t see why: It’s because subsidies cause misstatement of the cost of goods, false prices, if you will.. So, he doesn’t see that government-built infrastructure is a subsidy; he thinks infrastructure one of the functions of government. For example, government-built highways allow truckers to operate at less than the true cost of trucking, and so underprice their services. This means that railroads can’t compete on short haul, small shipments (they could when their competition was horse-drawn transport, remember.) It seems to me that if government is to supply infrastructure, it must somehow price such goods so that each user pays a correct share of the cost. Variable license fees and taxes are the only way to do this. However, trucking companies are successful in keeping their licence fees and taxes below their share of the cost of highways. PJ would approve of this. He believes in as little (and as inexpensive) government as possible. He doesn't see less cost for government means higher costs elsewhere in the economy.
     He’s wrong about government’s redistribution function, which he thinks is evil. All economies are engines of redistribution, and the question must always be, what’s redistributed for whose benefit and under whose control.. He doesn’t ask this question, and in fact trashes the idea that government should bring some sort of fairness into the redistribution. He’s right about that, but for the wrong reason. Government must redistribute the demand for wealth (ie, money) so that the suppliers have a reasonably stable customer base. To put it another way: when the economy produces large quantities of wealth, as ours does, the problem is no longer scarcity but surplus. That means that the problem becomes one of consumption, not of production.
     PJ seems to have some inkling of this in his brief attack on military spending (done as a throw-away comment, by the way.) But, as usual, he doesn’t follow through, because he can’t conceive of any common, ie public, interest that supervenes individual desire. (He has misread Adam Smith, as so many Friedmanites do). He doesn’t in other words draw the obvious (to me ) conclusion that government spending on military hardware etc is a misallocation of resources, and a profound distortion of the market. If the money so spent were distributed more or less evenly to everyone, it would quickly find its way into the pockets of those who supply what most people want, which is neither war nor the preparation for war.
     But most of all PJ is wrong about the desirability of getting rich, in part because he has such an infantile notion of wealth. He’s quite right to say that free market capitalism (however badly implemented) is a fabulous engine of wealth creation. He doesn’t ask whether the prices paid for wealth reflect their true costs. He twits the Swedes for borrowing their prosperity, but he doesn’t ask the obvious question whether environmental degradation isn’t a more serious form of borrowing wealth.
     Part of the reason PJ doesn’t ask this question is that he doesn’t really understand money. He says it’s a symbol, and a medium of exchange, yet he still thinks of being wealthy as having lots of money. This confusion of wealth and money is a fundamental error, and leads to the insane notion that the function of an economy is to create money. Or rather, that the more money is made, the richer people are. Yet at the same time, PJ uses money correctly in a number of cases, such as in measuring relative levels of consumption (GDP per person). It’ exasperating to see someone staring at a bunch of trees and and unable to see a forest.
     The book is irritating because PJ insinuates a lot of wrong-headed notions even as he criticises equally wrong-headed ones. **

The W Heath Robinson Story Book (book)

     Anonymous. The W Heath Robinson Story Book (1979) A compilation of stories first published in Playbox Annual (1916-25), republished to show off Robinson’s drawings. They are in the same graphic style as Beardsley's flowing curlicued lines and large black areas. Very nice to look at. Robinson of course had a less louche sensibility than Beardsley, but both were fascinated by the bizarre and the fantastic. Robinson introduces all kinds of odd and endearing details: for example, when the frogs answer the Frog King’s summons, they bring their families - tadpoles, of course! The illustrations suit the stories very well: they provide a lovely dream-like, funny but also edgy quality to the book.
     The stories themselves are told in a clear, straightforward style, well adapted to young readers, who mostly want to know what happens next. Most of the tales are quests, in which the hero (often a younger, foolish brother) encounters a variety of magical helpers, and has the wit to both accept and use them. If there is a message in them, it’s that you should listen to whatever advice  you get, no matter how weird it sounds. Names and other details indicate that the stories are adapted from folk-lore  collections (at the time folk lore was major academic industry).  The number of magical, black-box-like devices that assist the heroes is astonishing, as is the general mundaneness of the rewards: the Princess, of course, but mostly jewellery and food. I suppose these witness to the hard and dreary life of the original tellers of these tales. A good read, and worth looking at carefully. ***

Guns, Germs, and Steel (book)

     Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) Diamond’s thesis is simple: in the long run, over several thousand years, what determined the dominance of Eurasia in human history was its early development of food production, and this in turn was governed by climate, ecology, and geography. These interacted. The ecology provided a large suite of plants and animals for domestication, and the geography gave Eurasia a wide band of similar climates within which to diffuse the new technology. By contrast, Africa and the Americas had a much smaller suite of plants and no large mammals suitable for domestication, while Australia had essentially none. Africa and the American continents also had climatic and geographic barriers to north-south diffusion of food production when it was developed.
     The thesis is persuasive, and Diamond’s point that long-term trends in history cannot have been influenced very much by culture or idiosyncratic accidents such as the rise of some anomalous individuals. He is also acutely aware of short term culturally determined twists in history. For example, the adoption of new technologies is influenced by a culture’s openness; but a culture that doesn’t quickly adopt new techniques will be overwhelmed (conquered, out-competed) by cultures that do. But individual decisions by rulers over large coherent cultures can have long-term consequences: China’s long decline in technology was caused by internal power struggles, and that’s why Western Eurasia dominates today rather than China. And so on.
     What might be called the E-C-G theory of history sounds like a theory that explains everything, but not quite. Diamond claims that it is a statistical theory: it can explain, and to some extent predict, large scale phenomena, but not small scale ones. In this respect human history is like all historical sciences, and Diamond insists that human history can be brought to a more objectively scientific state by learning from the  the methodologies of the other, simpler, historical sciences. These sciences are even capable of a kind of prediction: If theory X is true, then certain should be found in the historical record. In his defence of historical sciences Diamond doesn’t quite say what I want to say: Physics has been so spectacularly successful because it’s simple.
     A rich and suggestive book, made better by Diamond’s ability, unusual in an American academic, to write clearly. **** (2000)

The Hollow (book)

Agatha Christie The Hollow (1946) Late period Christie. John Christow, Harley street doctor and medical researcher, is murdered, and everything at first points towards Gerda his wife; then all clues point away, but  lead nowhere. Poirot eventually realises that this is the most important clue, and manages to arrive on the scene just as the wife is about to murder Henrietta, the dead man’s mistress (who, along with the other members of the Angakell clan, has been protecting her.) Christie takes more time developing character in this book, and has some interesting things to say about the creative process via Henrietta, who is a sculptor, and the scientific mind, via Poirot (of course), John Christow, and John’s son Terence.
     Christie does some nice satire on the upper classes, and her portrait of Lucy Angakell, an amiable sociopath, is priceless. Other Christie motifs: the long shadows of the past, the plight of the working woman, the malign effects of over submissiveness, the nature of obsessive relationships, the persistence of feudal attitudes in modern England, and ironic but retributive justice (Gerda  dies by drinking the poisoned tea she intended for Henrietta).
     Very well done. Could make a very good three or four part series. This book marks the beginning of Christie’s late phase, when she allows herself the luxury of digressions and extended character portrayal instead of sticking closely to the puzzle plot. The effect is that the plot becomes more complex than the puzzle, which makes the book much more interesting. She doesn’t always carry it off (in her last books, she rambles too much), but when as here she integrates all the apparent digressions into the main line of the story, the result is very effective. ****

Monday, December 24, 2012

Smoking (and quitting)

For some reason, smoking came up in conversation this evening. At one time, I smoked 30 or more cigarettes per day. Today, that would cost me $12-$15 per day here in Ontario. Enough to buy a car.

I quite not by trying to quit, but by deciding I would not have the next cigarette. Within two weeks I was longer smoking, but I relapsed twice. Now I haven't had that next cigarette for forty years.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Meme Machine (book)

Susan Blackmore The Meme Machine (1999). Blackmore explicates an extended version of Dawkins notion of memes. It constitutes a rough theory of memes. She starts by observing that humans are imitators -- in fact, other animals hardly imitate at all, and even the ones who do (eg, parrots) imitate a limited range of behaviours, whereas humans imitate just about everything. She thinks this behaviour a) needs explaining; and b) has consequences. The consequence she sees are memes (short for mimemes). A meme is whatever a human imitates. It can be relatively simple (eg, a handshake) or quite complex (eg, a song.) Memes can combine into memeplexes.
     The most significant aspect of memes is that by being imitated they are replicated. If we now look at things from their point of view, they are replicators -- and replicators inevitable evolve. Blackmore’s explanation of evolution from this p.o.v is excellent. She draws various conclusions, some of which are clearly testable (and she says so) and some of which aren’t. The most interesting general conclusions are as follows:
     First, that human culture is an effect of memes evolution. Those memes that replicate successfully constitute then culture. And the culture changes because of course the replicators continually evolve. Humans continually invent new behaviours, in that imitations aren’t necessarily exact, and in that memes may be varied or combined with other memes. Any new memes or variation of an existing one may or may not be easy to copy (whatever that means), and so some new memes will proliferate at the expense of existing memes. Thus the culture changes. This is most obvious in the case of fashion, but can be seen in other aspects of culture.
     Second, that memeplexes may include memes accidentally, in which case these memes survive not by intrinsic merit but because they are dragged along by the successful replicators.
     Third, that the most successful memeplexes include religions.
Fourth, that when memes first appeared, that is when humans became better imitators, whatever genes were implicated both in imitation and in improved survival of the imitators would also spread. This, she thinks, may account for both the very large e human brain and for language. Both the brain and the language are good for memes.
     Fifth, that memes may proliferate to the detriment of their carriers, and may therefore in the long term destroy their own vehicles.
     Sixth, that the self or ‘I’ is an illusion, a memeplex. From this last conclusion she speculates further that it is possible to live without this illusion, and points to various mystical traditions that say much the same thing. Her last chapter is a re-writing of Buddhist doctrine, and therefore also resonates with Christian and other mysticisms.
     A very interesting book, which I shall reread.

Money and Class in America (book)

Lewis Lapham Money and Class in America (1988) Lapham’s jeremiad against money worship in the USA. A text rich in anecdotes supporting statistical generalisations. Lapham was raised within an upper-class San Francisco family, and should have become another of the idle rich. Instead, he went to work as a journalist. His origins gave him unquestioned access to the rich, his work gave him opportunities to publish his observations. His subtitle is Notes and Observations on the Civil Religion, which indicates his thesis. The upper classes worship money; the rest of us have taken up the same faith.
     Lapham documents the corrosive effects of this worship, and I emphasise documents. The effects are in the first instance personal: money worshippers find themselves ever emptier of, and ever more hungry for,  the satisfactions they believe money will supply. But the upper classes are also the rulers, for they can suborn the democratic governments that could and should keep them in their place. And the upper classes are role models, so that the people ape their soi-disant betters, and fall into the same trap.
     Thus the effects of money worship are seen at every level – the personal, social, cultural, economic, and political. Lapham is too shrewd to claim that his thesis amounts to a  theory of American decline, and certainly doesn’t claim that it explains everything. But it explains a lot. The obvious parallels to Rome before the barbarian invasions and France before the Revolution are lightly sketched, but not less frightening than a thorough analysis would be – more frightening, in fact.
     Lapham writes well, and has a knack for the summary epigram and the bizarrely accurate simile. Eg, “[The rich man] never knows why other people do what they do because it never occurs to him that other people have obligations to anyone other than himself.” **** (2000)
Update 2012:  Current reality is worse than Lapham foresaw.

This Immortal (book)

Roger Zelazny This Immortal (1966). A picaresque adventure, during which the narrator-hero is under surveillance (unbeknownst to him) to determine whether he would be the right person to “inherit” the Earth. Interesting background: A Three Day War has destroyed a large part of Earth, leaving Hot Spots and mutants, many of which resemble the creatures of myth. The off-Earth government wants to sell out to the Vegans, and become their servant class. The Vegans are an old and wise civilisation, and most of them behave ethically, too. The radical political party wants to eliminate the Vegans, whom they suspect of making a  catalogue of things to buy, and have a hired an assassin to do it. He and the hero are old friends; etc etc etc – lots of pseudo-portentous hero-type talk ensues. The hero also happens to be an immortal. In the 60s, SF wasn’t very sophisticated, and far too much time is spent on gee-whiz heroics of the video game kind. Zelazny’s concepts are worth developing in a full scale future history series, but so far as I know he never followed up on this book. A fairly good read, especially the first half, in which the culture is presented and enough complications are started to serve a half a dozen novels. But it diminishes into a straight adventure-travel story. ** (2000)

The Early Orgins of Autism (Article

Patricia M. Rodier The Early Origins of Autism, Scientific American, 282/2 (February 2000), 56-63. Survey of several significant recent results: A) autists have large structural deficits in the brains stem (very small facial nuclei; absent superior olives; 0.2mm separation layer vs 1.1mm normal size.); B) these structural deficits imply damage of malfunction in fetal development in the 3rd to 4th week, early enough that most women do not even know they have conceived; C) Thalidomide victims have an incidence of autism some 30 times higher than in the general population; D) the low but significantly higher incidence of autism and autistic signs in families indicates that several genes are involved; E) One of the genes, HOXA1 has been identified.
     For me the most interesting finding is the atrophied facial nucleus. This bundle of neurons controls the facial and cranial nerves, and so is involved in facial expressions. Autists have poor or absent facial expressions; and they cannot read facial expressions in other people. This suggests to me that autists do not experience changes in facial expression that accompany changes in emotion; and so they have no subjective experience to relate to other people’s facial expressions. Thus, they do not respond to changes in facial expression, as normal babies do, and so they do not develop appropriate responses to the signs of emotion in other people. Note that Temple Grandin (an autist who has written a book about her life) remarks that she cannot recognise other people’s emotions - she must calculate or estimate them. She must also select the appropriate response expression (facial or verbal) from a consciously assembled catalogue.
     If the recent discoveries are supported in future research, the implications for understanding the relationship between genome and development are profound. Autists have a brain-stem deficit, which results in a behavioural deficit, which results in incorrect or inappropriate interaction with their environment, which results in incorrect (or unsuitable) response from their environment, and so on. It’s a kind of vicious circle. The deficit is augmented by the lack of environmental clues that might trigger the development that would (at least in part) make up for the deficit! One can generalise this idea to other phenomena quite easily. The basic idea is that the genome and the environment must interact correctly for normal development to take place. If the child is incapable of correct responses to the environment, the environment (ie, other people) will not interact appropriately with it, and so it will miss the environmental cues that guide normal development. There is some support for this hypothesis: eg, Downs syndrome children provided with simplified and exaggerated versions of suitable cues can and do develop much further towards normalcy than do children deprived of these cues. In fact, it seems that if they are provided with suitable cues, they usually reach the low-normal range of intellectual and the normal range of social functioning.  Great article. **** (2000)

Black Holes and Baby Universes (book)

Stephen Hawking Black Holes and Baby Universe (1993) Collected essays and talks on the subjects indicated, and others. Hawking is worth reading. His disability (on which he gives some reflections) forces him to be pithy. He does allow himself the occasional joke, and has obviously read widely. The repetitive nature of the subjects he has been asked to discuss in public makes for some repeated paragraphs (I think he reuses previously written material, as well he should.)  I enjoyed this book a lot. PS: I am one of those who have read his Brief History of Time. **** (2000)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Crazy for You

George Gershwin Crazy for You. (Great Performances, PBS 12 Jan 2000.) Revival at the Paperthin Theatre in New York, 1997ff.  A wonderfully polished version of this entertaining and charmingly silly story. Well-designed costumes, with just the right subtle exaggeration, impeccably timed dance and comic schticks, some of the best songs Gershwin ever wrote, and superior video techniques. One of the pleasures of the play are the allusions to other plays, movies, and songs. **** (2000)

The Sanctuary Sparrow

Ellis Peters The Sanctuary Sparrow (1983) Cadfael #7. A reread. A falsely accused jongleur, Liliwin, seeks sanctuary from the lynch mob. Cadfael eventually puzzles out the real robber/ murderer, and justice, after a fashion, is done. Like all Peters’ Cadfael books, this is a historical romance presented as a detective story. Although the characters show faults as well as virtues, Cadfael and Hugh Beringar (deputy sheriff of Shrewsbury) are a little too good to be true.
     Characterisation is somewhat Dickensian: characters are their quirks and faults and virtues, and little else. Unlike Dickens, Peters gives us very little of the characters’ inner lives, and contents herself with formulaic description. It works. Their language is of course pseudo-archaic, and that works, too. I think the image of the Middle Ages is too sanitised, despite the obvious brutalities. The TV series, because it could use visuals to generate atmosphere, presents a more believable image. This often seems to happen when entertainments are converted to TV. Multi-media are more efficient at creating the necessary sense of a complete world. Novels can do this, too, but romances are not novels; they don’t have the room to create a complete world. Perhaps this fact accounts for the popularity of series, for in a series each volume can add to the picture, and so expand the reader’s image of the fictive world. Very good of its kind. ***

The Malaise of Modernity (book)

Charles Taylor The Malaise of Modernity (1991) I read this over a couple of years, having bought it on the strength of hearing one of the CBC Ideas program that underlies this book. Taylor’s main points are: a) that the modern search for the authentic self is morally good; b) but that it is often understood as mere self-fulfilment, and so degenerates into self-indulgence or narcissism; c) that there will always be a tension between the desire for individual freedom and the need for a supportive community; d) that there is a danger that the search for authenticity will result in an atomistic, fragmented society; e) democracy requires both freedom for the individual to become a fulfilled person, and for the community to find common goals and values.
    It sounds to me very much like an attempt to reframe the Christian message of wholeness and healing into a humanistic ethos, and by and large Taylor succeeds. He does use a lot of words, though, and doesn’t use enough examples. The discussion is often too abstract, which makes the book heavy going - you constantly have to imagine actual situations, and test your image against Taylor’s discussion. Apart from that, it’s an important book, as they say, and should have a positive influence on the debate about self vs society.
     Footnote: Ashley McIsaac, in an interview about his profanity, etc, at a Year 2000 concert, 00-01-12, claimed that it’s his prerogative to do what he desires. He believes that being yourself means doing what you want. He hasn’t understood that promises or contracts are agreements to limit his actions to those he has agreed to. Taylor would hold him up as an example of horrible misunderstanding of what the ethic of authentic self means. *** (2000)

The Meaning of it All (book)

Richard Feynman The Meaning of it All (1963; publ. 1998)  The Dantz lectures at University of Washington. Great stuff., and worth rereading at regular intervals. Feynman can clarify what science is like no one else: The scientific attitude is admission of ignorance; the scientific method is to search for answers, but always knowing that they are wrong in some way that hasn't been discovered yet. Taken with Barrow's discussion of impossibility (Impossibility), and Green's discussions of string theory (The Elegant Universe), we realise that most of what there is we will never know. Sobering thought, and one that should be engraved on every citizen's mind, heart, and soul. Much of the mess we make or the troubles we bring upon ourselves come from the superstition that we can know for sure. Or: the things we can know for sure are often not worth knowing. Feynman also, and better than Dawkins, presents the sense of wonder that infuses the scientist's work. **** (1999)

The Pursuit of Love (book)

Nancy Mitford The Pursuit of Love (1934). Love tragedy, made interesting and touching by very good character drawing. One gets to care about these people, even though one also feels they are more than somewhat silly. But that very silliness is a reason for their endearing charm. They are so very much themselves, that one wishes the Universe weren't quite so hostile to fools. Not that their folly is harmless - they do cause emotional scars - but they are never mean. One cannot forgive meanness, especially when it is perpetrated for the loftiest motives. Such meanness is often recognised by the pomposity of the criminal, a fact which Mitford is very good at demonstrating. *** (1999)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Nurture Assumption (book)

Judith Rich Harris The Nurture Assumption (1998) Harris attacks the assumption that we turn out the way we do because of our parents. It's not nurture by parents that determines our adult personality (and personal problems / successes), it's our peer group. She starts with a couple of obvious but unaddressed observations: 1) that children in fact live their lives with other children; and 2) that immigrant children adopt the language, dress and manners of their playmates, not their parents. (She has some wise things to say about this estrangement between immigrant parents and their children.)  On this foundation she builds a very persuasive case. Along the way she distinguishes between character (largely inborn), personality (largely acquired, and changeable), and the self (the result of socialisation.)
     Harris's theory is almost but not quite a theory of everything. She notes how the same-age peer-group is an effect of our modern civilisation, and that in earlier societies a child's peer group was multi-aged. The older kids pass on their culture to the younger ones in this case. In our case, the younger ones may as well be from different countries, they are so different from their older relatives and friends. (The Pokemon craze supports this: it's a 6-10 year old phenom, mostly.) She also notes that school success flows primarily from the values and attitudes of the peer group, not the parents. When a child lives in a homogeneous neighbourhood, where both parents and children are largely similar, the child will of course resemble its parents, not because parental culture is the molding force, but because the children's culture differs so little from that of their parents'. When the neighbourhood is culturally diverse, the children will adapt and create a culture of their own, and this may be radically different from that of their parents. Hence intergenerational conflict
     She does not ignore the effect of inheritance; in fact she claims that the investigators of inherited traits are the ones who produce the data that requires some other explanation(s) than the nurture assumption. And so on. Her theory is predictive. For example, twins raised apart should show more similarities when their peer groups are similar and fewer when they are different. This is borne out by the data. She claims that birth-order effects are real, but only within the family. IOW, people have different personalities in different social contexts. She does not deny the influence of parents, but notes that it is limited mostly to the family itself (ie, how the people get along as a family), in which parental influence competes with sibling influence; and for the rest it is indirect, in that the choice of where to live affects the peer-groups that will influence the child.
     I think her argument is plausible. Her smaller claim is that there is a lot more to human development than parental nurture; and she lists and explains the other influences. Her larger claim is that these other influences outweigh that of parents. I think she is right. The book is quite repetitious, since she builds her case from several different starting points. It could have done with some tables or graphs, or some appendices presenting the data. Nevertheless, this is an important book.  The nurture assumption is under attack from other quarters also. There is the danger that social scientists will create a new orthodoxy out of one or the other of the alternatives, however. **** (1999)
     Update 2012: It's now quite clear that nature vs nurture has always been a nonsensical dichotomy. Logic alone would dictate that conclusion: no observed trait can be wholly the product of either nature or nurture. When I first realised this, I thought the puzzle was how to assign proportionate influences to nature and nurture. Genetics has shown that this is a mistaken, or at least a misdirecting, question. Nature and nurture work together to produce any given trait or behaviour. The better question is how, not how much.

Impossibility (book)

John D. Barrow Impossibility (1998) There are several kinds of impossibility, but they fall into three groups. There is the practical impossibility, reflecting some limits to the resources we (or any other creature) can command. The nature of the Universe itself sets limits on the possible. And all logical systems above a certain level of complexity exhibit impossibilities.
     An example of practical impossibility is the solution of problems that would take more computing time than the lifetime of the Universe; another is travelling beyond the solar system. Whether the Universe has a beginning or not is an example of a question we cannot answer because, although we can specify what we should need to know in order to settle the question, we cannot get the necessary knowledge. An example of a logical impossibility is expressed in Godel's theorem, which states that any axiomatic system at least as complex as arithmetic contains statements whose truth or falsehood cannot be determined
     A more interesting example is Arrow's Impossibility theorem: as the number of candidates for office increases, the probability that there will be no majority winner. approaches certainty. What this means in practice is that whoever wins, most people wanted someone else. The result can be generalised to any situation were some choice is, and is independent of the method of choice. It also applies to sporting events. Where several teams compete for a championship, there is surprisingly large possibility that the winner can be (and has been) beaten by one or more of the losers. With 8 teams, the odds of this happening are 1:3.
     Barrow is a somewhat turgid writer. There are irritating typographical errors throughout the book, mostly of the wrong-word variety; an effect of reliance on spell checkers. The book is heavy going in places. I have read similar discussion elsewhere, and so didn't get hopelessly lost, but anyone who isn't conversant with physics, logic, mathematics, and other disciplines will have trouble following some of Barrow's arguments. Nevertheless, it's worth reading, if only to disabuse one of the notion that all things are possible. Barrow's most subtle point is this: that impossibilities, the limits of action and knowledge, tell us more about the nature of our Universe than the possibilities do. *** (1999) Update 2012: if quantum computers do become a reality, then the range of solvable problems will enlarge by many orders of magnitude. Then question then become which of these problems are worth solving, which is a question impossible to answer without solving the problem.

Night Train (book)

Martin Amis Night Train (1997) 1st person police procedural. The narrator is Mike Hoolihan, a female detective. She investigates the apparent suicide of her commander's exquisitely lovely and happy daughter. Doesn't quite work, despite the excellent characterisation of Mike -- her voice is consistent, the tone believably variable, and so on. I liked Mike. I think the problem is that the solution, when it comes, fails to explain the suicide. I suppose that was Amis's point: some events have no discoverable explanation. The girl did kill herself, so the issue is why. Mike comes close, so there is a kind of resolution, but in the end it doesn't fit what we learn of the girl's character.** (1999)

The Quick Red Fox (book)

John D. MacDonald The Quick Red Fox (1964) A Travis McGee book. Travis has to find the source of porn pictures taken at an orgy in which a famous film star participated, and which are being used for a spot of blackmail. The star's amanuensis accompanies him, and they have brief and very good affair. He traces the people involved, most of whom have come to a bad end. There are recent murders, which complicate the case. Travis eventually solves it, more by luck than by brains. The murderer is the very young wife of one of the orgy participants (who like the other men Travis tracks down is really a wimp.) Travis's woman is hit on the head, which changes her personality so that she doesn't want him any more.
     Having read this, I know why I have avoided this author. I did read him years ago, and haven't since. The book is too obviously fantasy., especially when it comes to women and Travis's fighting skills. MacDonald tries for the world weary, tough-guy, tarnished knight atmosphere, but doesn't quite pull it off. Every now and then Travis explains some philosophical point(s), which may reflect MacDonald's p.o.v. If so, I don't like him. He's homophobic, patronising towards ordinary folk trying to make an ordinary life, and typically American in his worship of sex as the highest communication between people. He's also sentimental, which is not necessarily a flaw, since the genre is sentimental at its core, but in this case raises a whiff of hypocrisy. The book also reeks of mid-60s prurience. Other people do this kind of thing much better. ** (1999)

The Body Farm (book)

Patricia Cornwell The Body Farm (1994) A mystery. The investigator is Kate Scarpetta, a lawyer and forensic pathologist. The victim is an 11-year-old girl, and it seems the murderer is a serial killer who has escaped from prison. He may be planning revenge on Kate and her team members. The sub-plot involves Kate's niece, framed for a break-in into a secure area and computer system (on which she is working). The murderer turns out to be the girl's mother (Munchhausen syndrome at work.) The personal relationships continue on from previous books, and will no doubt continue into subsequent ones. The 1st person p.o.v. doesn't always work, partly because Kate is undemonstrative (countering the Italian stereotype), and partly because Cornwell mixes genres, love-romance with mystery.
     On the whole, though, the book works. The procedural bits are convincing, the dialogue both characterising and plot-structuring, Kate is a sympathetic hero who is beginning to be damaged by her profession, and knows it. She also suffers from a dysfunctional family that for once doesn't seem inserted for dramatic effect, but fits her character and helps account for her life history (what little we get of it in one book.) The bleakness of her mood reminds one of the noir PI novels of Chandler and his followers, but it's really intended to be more elegiac. Like many modern crime writers, Cornwell assumes her readers are familiar with the genre and doesn't bother explaining the obvious. This occasionally makes for an unsettling abruptness and a need to reread a passage. I'll be reading more of these. *** (1999) Update 2012: I did read a few more in this series, but was eventually put off by the unvarying formula, and Cornwell's taste for gore. Scarpetta's backstory became more melodramatic, too, which didn't help.

The First World War (book)

John Keegan The First World War (1998) A very good book, with some flaws. Keegan surveys the political and military development. He has a knack for telling the story of battles so that one can follow them. He includes the human dimension, both of the soldier in the trenches and the generals behind the lines. He doesn't comment much on the actual destruction of life, nature, and property, but the few references to these things are enough. There aren't enough pictures, and apart from titles on the picture pages there is no attempt to key pictures to chapters in the book. The maps are deficient, since they do not show all the places mentioned in the history, which is especially irritating when a battle hinged on a particular place. I suspect that production budget limits had a hand in this, as coloured maps are really the only way to convey the information properly.
     Keegan's style is elevated and in places almost elegiac. I learned a lot of things, eg, the number of generals sacked, especially by the French and Russian commanders; and the lack of co-ordination between front line and commanders, most of it caused by limited or absent technologies. On the other hand, too many commanders were unwilling to listen to their technical staff and fully exploit what technology they had.
     Several things stand out for me. One, the effect of the structure of government, especially in Germany and Russia, which had a lot to do with the precipitation of the war. Two, the long time it took for commanders to learn the lessons of their own defeats. Three, the superiority of German warmaking, even though the German commanders made the same mistakes as their French and British counterparts. Four, the indecisiveness of the outcome. It was the entry of the USA into the war that tipped the balance in favour of the Allies, and so forced the Central powers to accept defeat. Without the USA, there would, I think, have been peace negotiations among equals, for by the fall of 1918 both sides were worn out, both sides had depleted their human and material resources, and both side were facing a collapse of morale. As it was, the Allies had the upper hand, and, unused as they were to this situation, they gave in to their desire for revenge (almost always in previous European wars, peace came about not so much because one side won, but because the two sides decided there was no advantage to be gained by continued fighting). The first world war settled nothing, and so made the 2nd inevitable. It also created conditions that made a Hitler possible but not inevitable; so that Hitler made the war worse when it did come, but did no more than trigger it. The TV series Fall of Eagles (1971) covers much of the same ground in its last four or five episodes, and is worth seeing in conjunction with this book. **** (1999)

Stardust (book)

Robert P. Parker Stardust (1990) (Borrowed from BR library.) A TV star is being harassed. Spenser takes on the job of protecting her, and then finding the murderer of her stunt double. After a series of vignettes typical of the genre, the case is cracked more by luck than skill, as the star goes to LA to be with a mobster who fathered her child. It transpires that her own father molested her when she was a toddler, which explains a lot of course.
      Good fast hard-boiled smart-ass style. Spenser is the scarred knight of American detective fiction. Parker knows the genre, and does a skilled job. The chapters are short, with good dialogue; the whole thing is very cinematic –  almost a script. As is usual with this genre, the love-interest is mere decoration (Spenser's lover is a psychologist, and you would think she could give him some relevant information, but she is definitely on the sidelines.) There is a politically-correct black, Hawk, who is Spenser's good buddy. The pathetic fallacy runs strong, again as required by the genre. Parker has an eye for telling detail, and the landscapes are nicely described. I read this book because a friend told me his book was more in the style of Parker, so I wanted to find out what this meant. *** (1999)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Harry Mulisch The Assault (translated 1985) In 1945, a police commissioner is murdered by the Dutch underground. A family is killed ion retaliation, with the exception of the youngest boy. The story tells of the night of the murder, then of a number of incidents that remind Anton Steenwijk of that night and enable him to assemble the pieces into a coherent picture if exactly what happened and why. Beautifully written. Psychologically subtle and profound. The evening after I finished it, I heard part of a CBC documentary on the children of the Nazis (in The Loss of Innocence series.) The book resonated even more.
     The story works because it focuses entirely on the after-effects of the murder and the Nazi retaliation for it. The absurdity of clinging to established procedures in the last days of the war, the routines of everyday life maintained despite the incursions of a war descending into defeat, the superficial normalcy overlaying a deep malaise, all are presented in a straightforward style that catches you and doesn't let you go. I think this book would help a lot of people understand the effects of Nazism and WWII, of the effects of occupation and war. Mulisch's mother was a Jew who died in a concentration camp; his father was an Austrian who was convicted of collaboration with the Nazis. Heavy baggage. ****

The Elegant Universe (book)

Brian Greene The Elegant Universe (1999). About string theory, Excellent overview of Newton --> Einstein --> Planck, and summary of problems with the Standard Model: the incongruity between general relativity and quantum theory. Although Greene goes to great lengths to stress what isn't known, he more than half convinces me that string theory (or one of them, anyhow) is right. For one thing, he explains the hidden dimensions so well. However, absent experimental data, and absent any near future likelihood of getting any, the whole thing is beginning to look suspiciously like medieval scholasticism: spinning elegant and consistent theories about matters that can't be observed. Except of course that in principle string theory is experimentally confirmable, unlike theories about angels.... Oh well, it's fun, and it suggests all sorts of SF story ideas. *** (1999)

The American Dream: the 50s (book)

Richard B. Stolley & Time-Life Books editors. The American Dream: The 50s (1998) In Our American Century series. Very Ameri-centric. Touching, in some ways: the T/L editors avoid anything that might seem like taking sides or making moral judgements (with one exception -- see below). Decisions are generally presented as natural events, that just happened. Fallout shelters are shown, but their utter uselessness is not mentioned. The McCarthy era is shown as a Bad Man doing Bad Things, but with no attempt at analysing why McCarthy was so successful for so long. And so on.
     The photos are all interesting, and some are superb. The book is best at conveying the naive optimism of a society that has just discovered the joys of consumerism. The consequences of this lifestyle are a long way off – and the few who are warning about it are shown as endearingly weird avant-garde artists, and therefore not serious critics. In fact, the whole notion of criticism is absent (except in terms of the inexplicably bad people). That the social structure itself might be founded on illusions and lies is never hinted at. I guess when you don't want to take responsibility for the society that you participate in, the only way to explain evil is that it is the result of bad men doing bad things. That social change is an ongoing critique of the past is an idea that one may draw from the evidence of this book, but it is not an idea that it is in the book. A book of great strengths and great weaknesses. **1/2

Science Fiction: The illustrated Encyclopedia

John Clute, et al. Science Fiction. The Illustrated Encyclopedia(1995) A coffee table book: thick glossy paper, beautifully printed, lots of pictures, well designed. And quite reliable and informative. It appears the text is by Clute, and he had a team of people helping out with the pictures, fact checking, etc. It is of course not as scholarly and inclusive as a true encyclopedia would be, but within its limits it's well done. It should have a more complete section on authors (the ones included get mini-critiques, so there was obviously a space problem.) Clute's judgement of films is defective IMO; among other things, he just doesn't like Star Trek, and over-values Star Wars. He has a bias towards hard SF, and gives high marks for humour - which makes his omission of Spider Robinson curious. Maybe he just doesn't like Robinson's smart-alecky tone. The tone of the book is a bit too earnest for my taste. All the same, it's a book any serious reader of SF should have. A similar book on (science) fantasy would be welcome. *** (1999)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning. Vol. II: Patterns of Plausible Inference

George Polya Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning Vol. II: Patterns of Plausible Inference. (1954). I skipped Vol. I, which deals with mathematical induction. The two books are intended as texts, either for self-study or for a course. This purpose of this volume can be seen in this example. Given A -> B and B, what can be deduced? By formal logic, nothing; i.e., the truth of A cannot be inferred from the truth of the consequence. (However, if B is false, then A is false.) Polya shows that in fact the truth of A will be more or less credible depending on a number of relevant factors. For example, if the truth of B is less credible without the truth of A than with it, then B supports A. Or, if B is more credible, then A is more credible; and so on. IOW, the truth of A lies somewhere between 0 (false) and 1 (true).
     Polya notes that credibility of A depends in part on the judge's experience and background. He is very close to fuzzy logic here, but he doesn't take the next step because he can't see any supportable way to compute that value. Fuzzy logic formalises that personal judgement, and so can provide computations (which are used to control machines, e.g.) Polya uses probability theory, interpreting probability as credibility, and thus provides strong support for his POV. He's also interested in the use of plausible reasoning in mathematical research. An interesting book. I like its assumption that its subject is worth pursuing. Polya writes very clearly, and I was able to follow about half of the math. The general principles of plausible reasoning seem to me to be obvious. *** (1998) Update 2012-12: It seems to me that Polya was a pioneer of what became fuzzy logic, but I can’t recall any acknowledgement of this in the fuzzy logic text I read.

Factoring Humanity (book)

Robert Sawyer Factoring Humanity. (1998) SF. The premise is that the Alpha Centaurans have sent a message to Earth. Apart from the first four pages, it's indecipherable. Heather Davis, a psychologist working on it, figures out that the rest of the message represents a plan for tiles which are assembled into squares which are assembled into a 3D projection of a tesseract. She discovers that the chemicals specified in the early part of the message are piezoelectric, so that the unfolded hypercube is in effect made of circuit boards. The device transports her into 3D space, but the 4th dimension is in fact psycho-space, and human beings are 3D projections of parts of the Overmind, which is all of humanity, past and present. Cute ideas, and the science isn't too far out in left field.
     Heather's voyage through psycho- space enables her to determine that her husband Kyle is not guilty of the molestation his daughter accuses him of. The family is healed by each member being able to see the world as the others see it. There is also a Centauran Overmind, and when Humanity makes contact with it, it becomes capable of genuine empathy, which percolates into the psyches of actual humans, so that we get peace and loving kindness everywhere.
     The ideas in the book are interesting. There are obvious parallels with heaven as union with God, etc. Sawyer quotes geneticists' objections to Chomsky's theory of the language instinct, but seems unfamiliar with M Gopnik's work. The writing is generally workmanlike, and moves the story along, but the most alive bits are the everyday scenes, eg, of Kyle on his way to the office buying a hot dog. The exposition is sometimes well handled through dialogue, but on the whole the characterisation is not as well done as Sawyer apparently thinks it is. I read a review of his subsequent novel, Flash Forward, in last Saturday's (Aug. 14, 1998) Globe. It was unnecessarily snarky and petty. Sawyer is not a great novelist, but he writes decent SF. ** (1998)

A Sleeping Life (book)

Ruth Rendel A Sleeping Life (1978) A Wexford mystery. Well-written, but a bit light on the police procedures (as Rendell herself has admitted.) Wexford is more of a private eye than an inspector. Murdered woman turns out to have led a double life as male author of quasi-historical novels based on Elizabethan plays. Female secretary, in love with male persona, discovers the role playing, and kills woman in a fit of confused shock and rage. Wexford's elder daughter is going through a bad patch in her marriage, and her comment about women's success requiring eonism puts Wexford on the right track. Well-plotted; but Wexford's private life seems grafted on, and the link with murder plot seems a little too pat. The TV show based on this novel had a more consistent p.o.v. I think a lot of this kind of fiction works better on TV or film; these media can tell the story faster, and the visuals can create atmosphere and character more completely. **1/2 (1998)

Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity book)

John Manners, ed. Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (1990) Survey from the early Church to present. A frustrating read. Very patchy. Several authors contribute: unfortunately, they assume varying amounts of knowledge in the audience, and most write in academese, not English. The result is an often impenetrable narrative, that obscures where it should clarify.
     The excellent and very detailed chronology refers to events and people not mentioned by the authors. Major heresies and doctrinal positions are not explained - one is supposed to know them I guess - nor are the reasons for them elucidated, and there is a slew of specialised jargon, often limited to a particular tradition, used without explanation. There is very uneven treatment of social and political influences and effects: some authors focus on these, others ignore them almost entirely. Major world events are often ignored, oddly enough: e.g., I'm sure the two world wars had a lot to do with the loss of faith in Europe (just listen to people of a certain age!), but they are hardly mentioned.
     There is no attempt at relating the pictures to the text (the pictures in many ways are more informative than the text!) Some authors are obviously rehashing an academic controversy; unforgivable in this context. The best chapters are the last two, but they hardly make up for the rest. All in all, well below the expected standard of an Oxford history. Not worth buying, hardly worth reading. * (1998)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Too Good to be True (book)

 Jan Brunvand Too Good to be True (1999) A compendium of the urban legends that Brunvand has collected. For each type he offers a few examples, with annotations. He tries to keep the tone light, but inevitably some of his jokes are laboured. Since many of the stories fit into several categories, he adds helpful cross references. This is an odd book to read through. The stories are bite-sized, like potato chips, and you read on expecting the next to be better. Sometimes, unlike potato chips, they are.
     I think it’s worth keeping as a reference book, although its role has to a large extent been superseded by the web: see Snopes, for example. My reactions to the stories varied from mild distaste to ecstatic hilarity. One effect of reading so many legends at once is a heightened awareness of urban legends: but I can’t tell yet how long that sensitivity will last.
     A random sample (not verbatim, but “improved”): An upwardly mobile couple moved into an expensive suburb. Their neighbours were quiet people, apparently retired, but rumoured to have connections to the Mafia. One evening the couple came home from a weekend trip to find their house had been burgled. They asked their neighbours if they’d noticed anything, but the thieves must have been experts, for nobody saw them. It was late at night by this time, and the neighbours suggested they wait till next morning before calling the police. Next morning, the couple found all the stolen goods piled neatly on their front porch.
     I found this book at Value Village.Unlike many of my used book finds, this one’s a keeper. ***

Henry Poole is Here (Movie)

Henry Poole is Here (2008) [D: Marl Pellington. Luke Wilson, Rhada Mitchell, Adriana Barraza] Henry thinks he’s dying, moves into a house on the street where he grew up, and waits for the end. It’s not to be. The little girl next door is traumatised by her father’s abrupt departure. A friendly neighbour tries to cheer him up. The real estate agent has arranged for a repair to the stucco and a repaint, which produces a water stain that looks vaguely like the face of Jesus as popularly imagined. A drop of blood appears, too. So the plot point is: Is that face really a miraculous appearance? Will the various wounded people be healed by their faith? Are the healings mere coincidence?
     Major themes, but the movie fails to come to grips with them. Faith and lack of it are seen as mere personal quirks, on much the same level as preferences for apple pie and cheesecake.
     On the other hand, it succeeds quite nicely as a character study. Henry is a baffled, angry, and sad guy who is afraid to hope. His response to the bad news may seem odd at first: he actually wanted to buy the house he grew up in, but it wasn’t available. But really he wants to know what his life has amounted to. His parents fought when he was young, he has no relatives or friends, all he has is a photograph of three smiling people: his father, his mother, and himself. Memories make us. What do Henry’s make him? Something of a failure, which is why his impending death seems such a randomly cruel fate. It’s not surprising that Henry’s paralysed into inaction. When he writes “Henry Poole was here” on his living room wall, it seems a fitting epitaph.
     But the people in the neighbourhood provoke him into action. He doesn’t like the picture on the garage wall, not what the credulous make of it. He doesn’t like the hurt that numbs his little neighbour. He doesn’t like the friendly believer who gives him pie as a welcome gift, and then spreads the word about the miracle. He’s attracted to the little girl’s mother despite himself; and when the little girl begins to speak again, something like a sense of worth begins to form in Henry’s nearly empty heart. He takes a sledge hammer to the wall of the garage, and the roof comes down on him. The tests in the hospital reveal that the  diagnosis of doom was false. The movie ends on a note of hope. Maltin gives it two stars, but I’ll give it **½

Friday, December 07, 2012

Eight Little Piggies (Book review)

Eight Little Piggies S.J. Gould, 1993. Collection of Gould's essays in Nature since last book. As good as ever, but somewhat repetitious in his concerns, naturally. He seems unaware of complexity theory (CT), which amongst other things suggests that evolution must be "punctuated." CT holds that a complex system can exist in limited number of states. Change from one state to another may be very rapid, catastrophic even. Thus, if an organism is a complex system, then its form (genome or phenotype) has a limited number of stable states. Thus, selective pressure (or genetic drift?) would shift the form from one stable state to another very quickly. Intermediate forms are not stable, and therefore could not exist for very long. Anyhow, Gould's emphasis on non-Darwinian mechanism and processes in evolution solves a number of puzzles.
     The most moving essay tells of the snails in Tahiti, which have disappeared since a British scientist spent his whole life describing them as a base-line for future study of evolutionary changes. Makes you wanna cry. (August 1994)
     Comment 2012: I realised some time ago that the Gould-Eldridge hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium is Darwinian to its core: when an environment changes very slowly, there is little selective advantage in the vast majority of changes, so that selective pressure operates against change. Thus the equilibrium, a time of very slow evolution, driven almost entirely by genetic drift. Evolution is the effect of selective pressure on the genome. Natural selection will operate to drive rapid change when the environment changes rapidly, and to conserve existing genotypes when the environment changes slowly. The question then becomes, How rapidly must the environment change to promote rapid evolution? The answer, I think, is a function of the generational die-off rate of any given population of organisms. If the die-off is too high, the organism will become doubly extinct: it will cease to exist, and it will have no progeny.

The Nursery Rhyme Murders (Book review)

THE NURSERY RHYME MURDERS. Agatha Christie. (Dodd, Mead & Co, 1970). The biography inspired me to read some Christie again. This book was a rummage sale item, but a good "reading copy" as they say. And it is good reading, too, vintage Christie with just enough realism in the characters to get you involved and ignore the preposterousness of the murder methods. Poirot in Hickory Dickory Death is not at his best: Christie had tired of him by this time, and gave him a very mechanical role. Miss Marple in A Pocket Full of Rye is very good. This story is more of a psychological thriller, with the killer being a true psychopath: charming, self-centred, and utterly without pity. The Crooked House is unusual, in that the hero is only peripherally engaged in the solution, but is personally very much part of it, as he is engaged to one of the suspects.
     Update 2012: A Pocket Full of Rye and The Crooked House were dramatised as Poirot cases for TV. I didn't notice this change, which indicates a) that I don't know or take the canon as seriously as many other Christie fans; and b) that the investigator matters less than the plot.
     Footnote: I will be posting some of book notes from the past from time to time. This one dates from 1991.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

White Elephant Dead (Book review)

Carolyn Hart White Elephant Dead (1999) One of a series featuring Annie and Max Darling, she the owner of “Death on Demand”, a bookstore specialising in mysteries; he principal of “Confidential Commissions”, a company specialising in solving problems, which Max occasionally does. As here, when a blackmailer turns up dead in a van collecting donations for the annual White Elephant sale on the island which serves as the setting for this traditional puzzle mystery. Four suspects, a tangled path to the solution, with a final twist.
      A genre-tale stands and falls on the illusion of reality; its universe is after all what Northrop Frye termed romance. The trick is to entice the reader into the fantasy and accept it as life-like, if not like life (a distinction beautifully explained by C S Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism). We want fully rounded main characters, and a cast of secondary characters with enough hints of back stories to give us the same feeling of living in a community that we get from real life: for we do not know all that much about most of the people we know. The physical setting, the weather, the ambiance must also give that impression of there being more than the words convey. The best genre stories do just that, and that’s why huge numbers of people happily enter their worlds, and make their authors very rich.
     This book is middling-average. It’s a workmanlike job, but it lacks that intensity that makes me want to find the other books in the series. The characters have tics rather than traits. Annie’s quirk of recalling mystery characters and plots as she goes about her work of detection becomes mildly irritating after a while. There are arch references to “other pleasures” in her relationship with Max, but little of the dialogue that reveals nuances of love and respect. We know too little of the secondary characters, which the blurb describes as “dotty eccentrics”, but which consist of one quirk each. The ambiance is vague, with generic talk of sunshine and cool shade and such. So what kept me reading? The puzzle, which is well done, well enough that I spent a couple of enjoyable hours with this book. **