peteg's blog

Ann Patchett: Commonwealth

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Kindle. An account of blended, broken families stretching fifty years. Patchett writes well and the thing is ably, intricately constructed, but she has too many characters on the table to satisfyingly draw them all. Piling on the events is a poor substitute, as she more-or-less admits by observing that beautiful mother Beverly has no personality of her own. The chapters come in Pulp Fiction order, and the palliative scenes are less imaginative than those of Magnolia.

Carmel Bird is right that the gun does not go off. Curtis Sittenfeld at the New York Times.

Death in Brunswick

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A Daniel Pollock segue from Romper Stomper. His role is very small here, and this is a long way from decent. Zöe Carides was so young and winsome in her faltering attempts to bootstrap an acting career. Sam Neill looked a lot like Hugo Weaving, and didn't quite fit as the leading man. John Clarke had hair and dug graves for a living. His locution remains immortal. It's not very funny or anything in particular: Melbourne circa 1990, lots of fibro housing, gorgeous Greek girls a novelty, ethnic gangs a problem, violence a bit unpredictable, mothers smothering sons. I dunno, maybe nothing has changed, certainly little has been learnt.

Steven Sherrill: The Minotaur takes his own sweet time.

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Kindle. I remember enjoying Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break while migrating to Sweden in September 2003. Well, here we are thirteen years later, somewhat wised up, and if there was magic in that conceit then, it is exhausted now. Sherrill mostly passes up the possibilities of a quiet meditation on the modern age, perhaps because he focuses so closely on a Pennsylvania I had no priors about. The events are sparse and mostly generic.

Allan Gurganus got into it for the New York Times.

The Night Of

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For Riz Ahmed, and John Turturro, and I guess Bill Camp too. A long well-produced but underwritten HBO miniseries mining a familiar vein: did he or didn't he violently murder a girl he just met? The scriptwriters try to reduce that to who-cares, and what they serve up instead is perhaps an advertisement for a second go around if it weren't for the sheer exhaustion of Turturro's bottom-feeding lawyer and corporate newbie Amara Karan. (I was a little surprised that her Hindi went over so well with a Pakistani family, but what do I know.) Glenne Headly is solid as the soulless crusader lawyer. I didn't really get into any of the jailbirds or the cops, apart from Camp's ruminative retiring detective. The characters kept me going but the early hope for the plot evaporated as diverse themes kept being pushed to the fore. I see James Gandolfini was involved in the production just before his passing; had he lived this may have been something even more open-ended and diffuse, like The Sopranos, rather than a mess that is implausibly semi-resolved.

What I really want is for Ahmed to do something that doesn't start with him being victimized. Ultimately it just fades away.

Carl Hiaasen: Razor Girl.

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Kindle. This is a bit of a crime caper which spins out of control while the author amuses himself with capsule biographies, reality TV and general craziness in southern Florida. I found myself laughing at it (mostly wondering how he expected to get away with the repetitive corniness, the formulaic humour) and with it in equal measure. Nothing really sticks though: the characters tend to stereotypes and coincident is manufactured as needed.

Janet Maslin. I'm a little surprised that she didn't react to the objectification of Merry, and to a less extent, Deb. Terrence Rafferty. Both are fans of his earlier work.

Charles Yu: Fable at the New Yorker.

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A short I missed from earlier in the year. Maybe I should resubscribe to their RSS feeds.

Magnificent 7

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Odeon 5, 3:30pm session, $11.00. I guess I was hoping for a superhuman effort from Denzel, and he somewhat delivered (when he could) with some mildly amusing dialogue. Chris Pratt perhaps exemplified the generic soullessness of this movie with his absurd posturing (was he trying to be cool?). Going by the short they put on before, he seems to have eclipsed Bradley Cooper in whatever demographic they target. The town is indeed destroyed in order for it to be saved, even though it starts seriously diminished from the previous rapes and pillages. The whole project is archaic, and mutilating the theme music I remember from my childhood doesn't make the slightest difference.

Manohla Dargis damned it faintly.

Peter Corris: The Dying Trade.

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Kindle. Peter Corris blogs as the godfather at The Newtown Review of Books, and tends to bang on about a Sydney that is dead to all bar those with sweet timing and/or an inheritance. His prose is workmanlike (taking a cue from academic writing; I think it may be genre) and he goes to the limit with similes. I don't know if the plot really held together, and the deductive logic seemed driven more by the need of geographic variation than soundness. There are tons of cliches and the odd greasy touch up that feels forced and obligatory. He gestures at the airport novels of the day (Forsyth) but passes up the opportunity for criticism. I guess if you were bored with the academy in the mid-70s after a PhD in history at the ANU, bending big-city crime writing to the Australia of the day was a pretty good way to go.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes.

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Emily Eakin at the NYTimes sold it to me, and now I'll have to read his earlier The Welsh Girl too. She's right that the first of the four stories about the Chinese experience of America is the strongest, perhaps because Davies invests so much in his invented central character whose privileged position allows a wide exploration of the Chinese diaspora and sundry railwaymen of late nineteenth century California. The others are more fictionalized history, of Anna May Wong, film star; Vincent Chin, murderee, written in hand wringing Remains of the Day style; and of adopting babies in present-day China. The prose is solid but doesn't achieve the crystalline precision of Atticus Lish, which makes things seem less necessary.

Romper Stomper

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A middling entry from the golden years of Australian movies that I remember from my youth, which in retrospect was more about tax breaks than halcyon artistic days. I was prompted to dig it up due to the (ex-Footscray, now Western?) Bulldogs winning the flag for the first time in more than fifty years, and have always held this one up as Russell Crowe's best performance, in that he seemed as natural here as Nicole Kidman was in To Die For. Well, perhaps not. Geoffrey Wright leans heavily on A Clockwork Orange and the Hong Kong kung fu fantasies of victimhood of the local Vietnamese community. I just noticed that one of the girls (one of those given very stilted dialogue) took her fashion cues from Harley Quinn. There was a lot of pain here for Daniel Pollock as Davey. Dan Wyllie looks young and clueless. I've always had a soft spot for Jacqueline McKenzie, hamming it up here a touch as a spoilt epileptic schoolgirl.

So, everyone is so young! ... but it doesn't add up to a lot. The small amount of dodgy skinhead philosophizing seems redundant, as most are clearly in it for the lifestyle. The material is stretched too thin, and none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Some elements got reused in This is England, such as the underage skinhead getting his end in, which makes this seem less a record of a particularly unpleasant Melbournian subculture than a generic exploitation flick.

Bunny Lake is Missing

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A Laurence Olivier segue from The Boys from Brazil. Preminger, too, in Hitchcock mode, but not very satisfyingly. The cinematography is great, and Olivier anchors the piece ably, but things fall apart when the plot starts grasping for a resolution. Keir Dullea is somewhat pro-forma, which is perhaps why he got the Dave Bowman gig in 2001.

Paul Mitchell: We. Are. Family.

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Kindle. I've been sort-of waiting for Mitchell to follow up his collection of short stories for years now. Once again, his technique is masterful, but this time around he is a lot less transgressive and nowhere as clever; the substance of his stories tends toward a normative account of generations of domestic and other violence, some mental illness, failed marriages, a lack of takeoff, but no substantive criminality. It echoed several things I've read recently: the boys' night out at a pub in Westmore (South Australia) came a decade or two after Ireland's time at Northmead recounted in his The Glass Canoe. As always, the blokes often cannot communicate at all, and can almost never say what they mean. Here the alcohol just looses fists and loosens teeth. Was it always thus, did World War II change things or does memory reach only that far back now? Yeah, Erskineville Kings put brother v brother on the screen a long time ago, and the father too. The gestures at Gippsland reminded me that I need to finish Don Watson's The Bush. There is a lot of AFL, but not in the corporate David Williamson The Club style. The structure is something like Tim Winton's The Turning: a collection of not quite cohesive shorts, a vague sense of it not quite adding up to a novel. The capricious violence and general blokeyness evoked Trainspotting (as always) despite the lack of vernacular.

A bridge chapter in the middle (13. Joe, Penny, Molly and Lee Stevenson) evoked Captain Fantastic, but substitutes a deeply-held belief in personal liberation with almost caricatured religion. Somewhat annoyingly some of the branches of the family aren't fleshed out; Stan, for instance, is pivotal but only in that one scene. Is there remorse, a family? Apparently not, going by the tree at the start. Disability gets a clear-eyed treatment, and that is perhaps Mitchell's real strength. There is no politics.

Cameron Woodhead at the Smage.

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others: An essay on the fear of narcissism.

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Kindle. I was almost persuaded not to bother with this by Jennifer Schuessler's review in the New York Times, but I have a soft spot for Dombek based on an essay of hers in n+1, being similarly "born in the uncanny valley between the millennial generation and Generation X". Come to think of it, that essay (How to Quit) and this are pretty much about the same thing: deciding when to quit, how fast to run, and how to justify it afterwards. Presumably she keeps the happier bits, the bits she sticks with, to herself.

I found it very difficult to figure out what she was trying to do here. It traverses some of the same space as i hate the internet but leaves out the politics of technology, and suffers from too much parsing of received cultural wisdom. This is not an empirical work, and nor is it much of a polemic. She asks the concept of narcissism to bear more than it can. From my spot on the couch, looking for answers in the DSM is already a sign of mental unwellness.

So, cutting to the chase, are Generation Y the most narcissistic generation ever? I have no horse in that race, but would simply observe that they are the first generation with access to widely democratized broadcast technology. I seem to recall that the baby boomers previously held that self-regarding crown, and Generation Y has little hope of bending society to their whims anywhere near as much. Anyway, how narcissistic can you be while living with your parents into your 30s?

Dombek is not a STEM type, and lacks the systems-thinking of, for instance, Cathy O'Neill. In her chapter The Millennial, we essentially get the McNamara fallacy operating in the confirmation mode. It may have helped to separate out narcissism from other personality characteristics such as introversion, and examine the increasing culture of self-reinforcement that comes from, for instance, having algorithms only feed you news that does not ruffle your politics. You know, the general feeling of being in an echo chamber these days. Her chapter on Freud is mildly entertaining but somewhat hopelessly unscientific. Whatever his diagnosis, I don't consider Breivik narcissistic so much as psychopathic. Unempathetic.

More broadly, Dombek tries to engage with the long running project of materialism, of reducing minds to brains. Within her frame, the central problem here is whether to excuse mental pathology by blaming neural dysfunction, and she doesn't really grasp that nettle. Is narcissism the inevitable byproduct of the mass individualism birthed by the Enlightenment? Does it blow with the prevailing economic winds? Does anyone navigate the modern world without it? What is its relation to suicide?

Gemma Sief spills more words.

The Boys from Brazil

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Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier in the lead, James Mason supporting and Bruno Ganz in a lab coat. Something of an alt-history: Josef Mengele (Peck) reincarnates Hitler as a blue-eyed black-haired boy while Ezra Lieberman (Olivier, masterful) does the Nazi Hunter thing. Their meeting at the end tends to a farcical fight scene and ruins what is otherwise a promising premise. Strangely Mengele was still alive when this got released in 1978.

Prompted by a review of Affinity Konar's Mischling.

Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom.

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Kindle. I guess I didn't really know what I was in for with this one. Richardson is, of course, Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson and is clearly writing about what she knows: doing horrid time at a Melbourne private school for young ladies. Not quite everything goes as one would predict, but enough does, and enough is taken for granted about the prevailing society of Melbourne that this is not as illuminating as it could have been. The writing gets playful at times, and it seems very strange to imagine livestock being anywhere near Collins Street. I liked the title and perhaps it has brought solace over the years to some who don't fit.

Maskin, Sen, Arrow: The Arrow Impossibility Theorem (Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series).

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Kindle. I discovered this and the lecture series via a review by Athan (see also Dick Burkhart's). It is OK. Amartya Sen's proof is quite slick, and while I didn't think about it too deeply, it seemed quite close to the proof I mechanized from his 1970 classic Collective Choice and Social Welfare. More modern proofs try to juice the theorem for other insights; Saari gives a geometric analysis, for instance, that I never get around to comprehending.

The book consists of two lectures by Amartya Sen and Eric Maskin, a response by Kenneth Arrow, three papers about related issues and an introduction. As usual Sen is mostly concerned about social welfare implications, and gets a bit obscure. In many ways he is doing philosophy here, and as a result where he ends up is not very satisfying. Maskin focuses on implications for voting, and with Dasgupta claims to show that the majority rule is the most robust one on offer, in a precise sense, in a sort-of generalization of May's Theorem. Unfortunately they require a continuum of voters, which seems nuts; unbounded, possibly countably infinite, well, maybe, but a continuum? (They claim things work just as well with a large but finite number (p108), and I would have kept reading if their main development had in fact used that. Also see the coment at the bottom of Athan's review about measurability.) Arrow is politely skeptical in his commentary:

I do not yet quite understand how Eric's results can help us in the case where his conditions fail. [...] When you are dealing with infinite dimensional elements, can you really compute the results? Some things are simply quite extremely difficult to compute. They’re not constructible in the sense that there is no finite process that will enable an individual to carry out the calculation. This applies to a lot of problems, not just those that are social in nature, such as climate change, but also to individual as well as social choice problems. To put it more simply, you could say, "You choose the best of that heap." But then how one exactly does that can be quite complicated if not impossible in a finite length of time.

Arrow also endorses the comparison of personal utilities ala the behavioural economists, if only because people find these questions meaningful (and despite "hard boiled" economists having difficulty in modelling them). He provides some cutesy anecdotes about this work of his, of more than sixty years ago.

Matt Ruff: The Mirage.

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Kindle. A recommendation from David S. The premise is quite promising: what if there was United Arab States (UAS), a superpower, while North America was composed of the underdeveloped Christian States of America (in the east), with Texas being a republic with close (OPEC) ties to the UAS. Let's quietly forget about Asia, Africa, Australia and South America for today. Ruff also places Israel in central Europe, and aligns the Jews with the Muslims. (I wonder how possible that ever could have been.) The key event that gets things moving is that September 11 in this world happens on November 9, and involves twin towers in Baghdad.

OK, he's not going for plausibility with any of that, and this is not always a profitable vantage point for humour, pathos, provocation or insight, but when it does click he has a very slick device on his hands. (I'd say he is mostly respectful of what he needs to be.) Perhaps it would have been more successfully deployed as a TV mini-series however; the many descriptions of violence are often wallowed in, and while he pushes modern Muslim lady Amal to the front with her American-style violent-woman abilities (martial arts and guns) she's never more than a cartoon. One of the weakest points is Ruff's remaking of some of America's evilest dudes (Koresh, McVeigh, ... but not Manson) into heroes in his alt universe. Or perhaps I got confused. Of course bin Laden is evil in all universes, just as Saddam and sons are sybaritic.

Shrug. It was sort-of fun.

Joshua Hammer reviewed it for the New York Times.

The Departed

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With Tigôn on a rainy Sunday afternoon/evening in Hồ Chí Minh City. I think I liked it even more than the previous two times around, and T got into at least some of the suspense. Amazingly it is now #43 in the IMDB top-250.

Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction.

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Kindle. The premise of this book is that mathematical models not only can be, but are, very damaging to society. O'Neill aims for a Al Roth-style enumeration of their key flaws, which I think are:

  • people being unaware of the model or the uses to which their data are put;
  • feedback, in the sense that the model may reinforce its own assumptions; and
  • scaling out, the capacity to grow exponentially.

Unfortunately there is no mathematics in the main section of this book, and moreover most of O'Neill's complaints hold even of non-mathematical models; such models only intrinsically make things more efficient, not better or worse. Given that flaws in general systems have been canvassed at length already (see, for instance, the venerable comp.risks), her only scope for novelty is to hammer the vacuum of values in current-day U.S.A. But perhaps, as usual, I am not her target audience, or the "mathematics is morally neutral" meme has taken on Nuremberg overtones, or even more likely, I'm an outlier.

I'd go further and claim that one is better off contemplating the pathologies of general systems, however realised: simply marry John Gall's Systemantics with the McNamara fallacy and you have a whimsical but soundly provocative and fecund account. (See Matt Levine for one such synthesis.) For the more technical, perhaps Mirowski's Machine Dreams and thereabouts is more persuasive. For Generation Y, try Kobek: is there any reason to think that libertarian geeks would aim for anything other than what we now have?

O'Neill is not careful to separate out the data modelling from the control aspects, nor the various kinds of feedback in systems. On the former, consider a lone researcher cooking up the perfect machine learning system. In many ways this is innocuous as they have no power to influence the world; it is almost a purely descriptive activity (up to the researcher's own biases, of course; as with all science, there is always the question of what to observe, and more generally, choice of ontology, logic, etc.). Conversely, consider exactly the same hooked up to the systems of government, or Facebook: it may now do immense damage, or perhaps even something worthwhile. The difference is in how much and what kind of control is exerted, not (just) the model built. This is a gap many data scientists can fit their morals into.

As for feedback, she finds it offensive that some systems sometimes become self-justifying in pernicious ways, as they can exert pressure on their inputs to optimize their outputs with respect to the control criterion (see, for example, the just-mentioned post by Matt Levine on the recent Wells Fargo fiasco). For instance: poor people tend to have poor credit scores, which makes it harder for them to finance things that might them get out of poverty, thereby reinforcing their poor credit rating. That the finance outfit therefore potentially misprices risk is beyond the scope of the model. Conversely feedback is used to train the models in the first place, which we might call "evidence based policy" in another setting. This leads to a point she doesn't quite make: modelling is an essentially reactionary activity, an attempt to make the future conform to the past (for otherwise the model is in error, or the control too weak, which leads to another round of optimization; witness Matt Levine on index funds).

So, is there anything more to this book? Well, maybe. She was apparently horrified that outfits like DE Shaw gouge their profits out of "dumb money" pension funds and so forth. I'm more sanguine about that: market access is cheaper than ever for institutional investors (according to institutional investors), and really, this is simply the markets teaching dumb money the expensive lesson of needing to be either less dumb or not there. I have more sympathy for the argument that (small groups of) individuals cannot manage risk adequately over the long term (say lifetimes) and that the government should take an active role there, as it has in generations past. O'Neill (Chapter 10) observes that by showing different ads to different constituencies, common knowledge about political candidates decreases, which splinters democracy. I agree with her, but really, this happens with or without mathematical models simply because of people's priors (selective hearing). Sure, exacerbation, I get it.

In Chapter 5, O'Neill takes the "broken windows" fallacy to task, just as the Freakonomics boys did a decade ago. I got a little excited to see her propose a platinum-rule style of policing: roughly, "treat others as they wish to be treated", and specifically have the police maintain the standards of each community, not getting too far ahead or behind those. (Sounds like ... England! If you're sufficiently English.) The multifacted identity she pushes in the conclusion is old hat to, for instance, greybearded econo-moralists like Amartya Sen, who would probably have been accused by the O'Neill of 1975 of cybernizing society, what with all his mathematics and all.

Ultimately I didn't learn much here. I already thought that modelling merely promotes the normative, and is extremely illiberal therefore. She doesn't take models to task for being opaque and lacking explanatory (and not just predictive) force. There are far richer accounts of the history of operations research out there. She mostly argues from authority. Perhaps there's more meat in the endnotes. I would have been less disappointed if I'd read more of her blog; for instance this post makes it seem she has a narrow experience of the world. David Runciman writes at length on why this might be, despite O'Neil's extensive education.

Pete's Dragon

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At the CGV CT Plaza near the airport, 2:30pm session, with Tigôn. Disney, a kids' fantasy, so-so, pushing the sacredness of the forest but for what seem like dubious reasons. I would have been more persuaded if Karl Urban happened upon Sleeping Beauty or somesuch. It invites comparison with the very recent The Jungle Book.

Glenn Kenny: "This sentimental, nearly genteel movie demonstrates there’s a world of difference between invoking magic and conjuring it."