peteg's blog

Vale, John C. Reynolds.

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John C. Reynolds passed away recently. Lambda-the-Ultimate reflects on his scientific life.

Mohsin Hamid: How to get filthy rich in rising Asia

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You read a review in the New York Times. You are struck by the reference to a lifelong infatuation with the pretty girl. You put an order in at Book Depository and meanwhile get help elsewhere. Eventually you have a chance to read the opening chapter and decide to savour the remainder, choosing to plough through the author's earlier reflections on terrorists and (t)errorism first.

Having never read a self-help book the nods to that genre pass you by. It does not inspire you to become a non-expired-labeled expired goods salesman or start a drinking water bottling plant in your bathtub, though you have already moved to the city and forged commercial links with the military. The abuse of the aquifer under your city reminds you of the situation in the country town you escaped from. You come away with an appreciation of the twin pivots of Lahore and Karachi; perhaps Islamabad is beyond your orbit. Your eventual decrepitude is more Alice Munro than Patrick White. The pretty girl fails to disappoint (p53):

The next day she is gone. [...] You are distraught. You are the sort of man who discovers love through his penis. You think the first woman you make love to should also be the last. Fortunately for you, for your financial prospects, she thinks of her second man as the one between her first and her third.

As the book unfolds the the pretty girl becomes Rushdie's Parvati-the-Witch, without the child. Somehow you are put in mind of the "choose life" spiel from Trainspotting. You read another review in the Guardian. You order the author's debut Moth Smoke from Book Depository and add Mohammed Hanif to your list of authors to check out.

Iron Man 3

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With Dave at the Odeon 5 in Orange. There were no 3D sessions as their machinery was busted, but I don't think that made much difference to how much I enjoyed it. We had a couple of coffees each at the Union Bank beforehand; had to make the most of it after they were closed on ANZAC Day. It is surprisingly popular given the prices, which I guess says everything about affluent the town has become with the mine.

This presumably-terminating third installment was far better than the second one. Guy Pearce was a lot of fun, as was Ben Kingsley in bogan mode. Shane Black of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fame riffs on James Cameron's Terminator 2 with the industrial sets and almost-unkillable villain. There were enough references back to The Avengers that I might have to go watch that too.

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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I read the first chapter of his recent How to get filthy rich in rising Asia (which was awesome) and decided to chew through this earlier one first, as I had it on loan from the UNSW Library. They have none of his other works.

Hamid writes well, casting the reader as an American, possibly a security agent/provocateur, getting talked at by a Pakistani with a Princeton education in something like financial engineering. The ancient and continuing civilisation of Lahore is evoked by the market setting, the drinking of tea and the shared dinner. The ending is pleasantly ambiguous.

I enjoyed it for the most part. The eastern-boy-meets-white-western-girl story is a bit uninspired, though I grant that it goes to non-standard places and is probably a metaphor for something that I was too lazy to unpack. Changez's increasing awareness of inequity is stretches credulity: while he is from landed gentry on a downward trajectory, one would expect him to have been continuously aware of how rich the U.S. is, where that wealth comes from, and how it is exercised; even other Westerners are gobsmacked by American consumerism and obliviousness.

This is the only 9/11-themed novel I've read so far, though I guess Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown is in precisely the same genre, viz imaginings of the genesis of terrorists. (That book is on my shelf and I have the vaguest of memories of it being meh.) I didn't find Changez's reaction to the event all that plausible; I could imagine something like a quiet schadenfreude, but his exaltation reveals him to be a barbarian, despite his education and links to a venerable culture. The reviewer for the New York Times cites this pivot as "the substance of [this] elegant and chilling little novel", whereas I see it as a cheap and crass trolling of the Americans by the author. It disappoints precisely because the rest is far more subtle.

There is a recent movie that has a poor IMDB rating, or perhaps it is too new to judge, or maybe it really is mediocre (says Dana Stevens too). As Martin Donovan is in it, I may have to go.

/noise/beach/2012-2013 | Link

I attempted to go for a swim off the scuba ramp at Gordons Bay around 5pm, just as the sun was setting over the houses, but didn't last long; the swell was as strong as the BOM said it would be. I got in between sets but then got hammered into the rocks. My bloodied legs earnt me no sympathy from the photoshooters on the headland. The water was otherwise perfect, warm and maybe even clear.

Douglas Coupland: Generation A

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I recall reading Generation X when I was in Melbourne in 2002, and Microserfs at some point. (It seems I did read more of Coupland's output but that stuff left little mark.) This is unfortunately a long way from those. Here Coupland is often embarrassed by his own characters: regularly a risible cliché is harried by I-take-that-back; let me make a ludicrous assertion, no, cancel that — what I really meant was something even more banal. That Solon thing, I don't get it, I don't know what the bees have to do with anything, and all that rear-loaded exposition cannot redeem this turkey from those feeble, tiresome embedded short stories! The back blurb by William Gibson tells me I should be reading Murakami instead, so I just ordered the two that Kate suggested.

For some reason the UNSW Library thought this was worthy of purchase circa 2010.

The Big Lebowski at Lebowski Bash Australia (The Ritz)

/noise/movies | Link

A while back Sean told me that he found last year's installment of this gig to be a blast, so I bought a ticket. In the meantime I got sick and he busted his clavicle, so it turned into a much smaller night than expected; $30 for the movie and a watery white Russian was a bit steep.

There are so many great actors in this: I hadn't previously identified David Thewlis as Maudie's friend, and I'd totally forgotten about Ben Gazzara. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman are awesome, and John Turturro's Jesus remains iconic. Still #131 in the IMDB top-250.

Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

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A reviewer at the New York Times said:

That Alice Munro, now 81, is one of the great short story writers not just of our time but of any time ought to go without saying by now.

Far be it for me to argue with that. I extracted this 2001 assemblage of short stories from the UNSW Library a couple of weekends ago. All are well-constructed and written, though some extraneous detail occasionally detracts from her central points. Often she seems to be laying a platform for a pointed observation; fifty pages of setup for just two paragraphs. Her stories are about the kinds of traditional lives that I have successfully avoided up to now: everyone gets married, some get divorced, everyone has (or will have) kids, parents are careless, you can't go home again.

I might track down more of her stuff once I'm further through my current stack.

Coda: later (2013-06-10) I read Christian Lorentzen's snark in the London Review of Books.

Le Samouraï

/noise/movies | Link

Anthony Lane gestured at Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic in the New Yorker recently, so I decided to seek out that director's highest-rated effort according to IMDB. This is very stylistic and there isn't much meat to it; it looks something like A Clockwork Orange without the psychedelia. If this makes any social commentary then it is much more oblique.

Daniyal Mueenuddin: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

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Having read Mueenuddin's Our Lady of Paris in Zoetrope: All Story, and Sameer and the Samosas in the New Yorker, I was glad to discover that he had a collection in print. (It does not include the latter story.) Somewhat amazingly, the UNSW Library bought this book in May 2010, which I'm taking that to mean that the budget cuts kicked in after that point, though perhaps an ethnic lit prof put in a special request. I'm fully expecting that the library will be high on the hit list following Gillard et al's shifting funding from unis to schools, which makes it so much less likely that I will renew my alumnus subscription.

Mueenuddin is clearly mining a scene he knows from the inside: the scions of the upper classes of post-colonial Pakistan, and in particular the peculiar story of his own family. All of the tales here are of the girl-meets-boy variety, and typically one party manipulates the other via sex; the remaining one or two detail even more prosaic corruption. This is observed at length by Dalia Sofer in her review for the New York Times.

The pick for me was Lily. There the boy and girl come from the Pakistani class of limitless opportunity, and so their machinations are not motivated by material desperation. I can't say it adds up to much though he writes well.

Iron Man 2

/noise/movies | Link

I was reminded that Iron Man 3 is coming out soon by the SMage report that the London Premiere was delayed in deference to Thatcher. This one remains full of cheap thrills. I think they should find a way to revive Mickey Rourke.

The Milner Symposium, April 2012

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Over the past few months I have been chugging my way through the videos of this meeting of computer science luminaries. Gérard Berry is very funny. (I must watch the other videos on his home page.) Gordon Plotkin's talk is quite abstruse even by the standards of this audience. Philip Wadler shows how to run a panel. Gérard Huet and Larry Paulson give great accounts of the early days of interactive theorem proving systems, and John Harrison shed some light on what he does at Intel.

Milner's last innovation in his process algebraic tradition — bigraphs — don't look like gaining much traction from what I saw here.

/noise/beach/2012-2013 | Link

Late afternoon (4:45pm!) snorkel at Little Bay. Visibility was terrible so it degenerated to a paddle around the bay. The Indian summer rolls on when the rain stays away.

/noise/beach/2012-2013 | Link

Mid-afternoon snorkel at Gordons Bay, the first for several weeks due to the rain. Perfect day for it, and visibility was pretty good. I was a bit crook (with a sore throat) so it wasn't the most comfortable one ever.

Quarterly Essay #41, David Malouf: The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World

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I bought this at the Bookshop before my abortive move to Canberra in March 2011, fully two years ago. Since then it has been glaring at me balefully from my bedside table; it is difficult to get into as bedtime reading, which means I have read the first section five times, the second three and the rest once while drowsy.

The first half is long on promise, riffing on various notions of happiness in western culture, and Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" at length. I enjoyed his comparison and partial reconciliation of the Greek and Christian origin-of-man myths, and the impact on technology and rapid change on humanity's imagining of time and experience. He channels the latter through the French thinker Marquis de Condorcet, also known for his work on voting theory.

I failed to be gripped by his take on the pleasures of the flesh, or his concluding ruminations on why we in the West remain unhappy despite having our material desires by-and-large satisfied. I wondered why he didn't invoke Aristotle on this topic, for those old ideas of "the good" (lagom in Swedish) resonate with Malouf's apparent contention that happiness is some transient rapprochement between comfortable repose and the striving restlessness that forces us to seek the new. That it is of limited duration and scope is surely something that can be analysed by neuroscientists; there just might be a form of happiness that is durable and never-ending, though it probably involves drugs not yet invented. That the big ideas are truly mind-blowing, and do not induce happiness in the average person, is a bit trite to observe; my search for comprehension has rarely satisfied me, let alone made me happy, but I feel it to be necessary nevertheless.

Lazily I could ask if it is really clear that happiness is morally valid; for Westerners it supervenes on many dubious practices, not the least of which is the assumed infiniteness of the inputs to the industrial machine. Is it really true that people are pursuing happiness — long work hours would suggest not — and what would society look like if they attained it? The rarity of it (and similar desired states) is a big part of what makes it valuable.

Malouf argues that happiness is unmeasurable, a purely subjective experience, and this puts it beyond the reach of statistical analysis and hence fields like economics. (The economists understand this when they shun intersubjective utilities, though they are always tempted to treat happiness as something that can be optimised.) For him there is no one-size-fits-all account of happiness, which ironically limits what this generalist kind of writing can tell us.

There is a lengthy excerpt in the SMage. Apparently this ~50 page essay has been expanded into a ~100 page book.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

/noise/books | Link

Finding myself unexpectedly idle last Sunday, I asked John Miller which of Ishiguro's novels I should be reading; of the thin but apparently not dire collection held by the UNSW Library, this topped his list. I could find nothing by Murakami.

My only previous experience of Ishiguro was in watching the movie of The Remains of the Day, which is something of a slow burn and fade away. John did warn me that was what he does, though he gave me hope that there'd be more burn and less fade in the written form of his works. After reading this I am confirmed in my expectation that that work would be superior in book form, and I am not at all tempted to see the movie version of Never Let Me Go.

This novel smells something like Orwell's 1984, though the ambient sci-fi dystopia is never more than a skeleton on which to hang the pointier parts of the coming-of-age story. I didn't really get into the first half or so, where the narrator and her friends grow up in some kind of English public school, perhaps because I am averse to cliques. I did enjoy the second, which cashes in the first half with tales of there being a time for everything, and the limits of how much one can make good on what has been done before. It was a relief to read something with a decent narrative arc after too many Patrick White character studies.

That the sense of the ending is so well telegraphed makes me think that Ishiguro overvalues revelation; the shifting connections between people, the charades they play and their dimishing scope of agency dominate, as they should, and I would have been just as happy if he had spelt the central conceit out from the get go, for then I wouldn't be questioning the plausibility of it at the climax where it is really the least of anyone's concerns. (Would society really countenance much of this, especially in the post WWII era that the book transiently appeals to? For the author's purposes it doesn't really matter, but it detracts from other things that do. Ishiguro gestures at justification by asserting that a society with a cure for cancer wouldn't countenance not using it.)

I liked that there were no parents, just the creepy guardians with their ambiguous agenda. (This rules out a whole strand of a typical coming-of-age saga, which is perhaps the central payoff of Ishiguro's dystopia.) Moreover there is no exploration of the ambient culture, no-one listening to chameleonic Britpop or abetting a cross-Atlantic invasion. I had to wonder if the archetype for Tommy D. was in fact Tommy from Trainspotting: he's a bit of a lettuce.

Griffin Theatre: Girl in Tan Boots

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Griffin Theatre moved their rush night ($15 for everyone; box office opens at 6pm, show at 7pm) from Monday to Tuesday due to the public holiday; in any case it was news to me. It was all last-minute as I didn't expect to be free, but even so I managed to rope Sean and John Miller along. I got there in about 15 minutes from Randwick on Betty, which I wouldn't have credited when I set out.

This is not an awesome play but some of the performances are good. It riffs on the flirt column in mx (the free commuter rag handed out at train stations; I miss so much by riding/cycling to work). A girl goes missing after responding to such a message, and the mother overplays the stranger danger card. I didn't get a sense that it had much to say.

After that we headed down Victoria road to the Thai near the corner with Liverpool (I think). We met up with Sean's aerial silks friend Lisa and drug her along.

Amitav Ghosh: The Calcutta Chromosome

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Being presently bored with Patrick White, I went in search of the sequel to Sea of Poppies in the UNSW Library. It seems they haven't gotten around to buying it yet, though it has been out for almost two years now, and so I came away with this sci fi pulp from 1996 instead. I read it over just a couple of days.

The central conceit of this book is contained in perhaps three pages sprayed amongst three hundred, so forgive me if I hurried on past it. (Given a hefty edit this might have been a decent short story.) Roughly the plot sways between the (still) near future, Ghosh's time of writing, and a fictionalised recounting of the discovery of how mosquitos transmit malaria back in the late 1890s by Sir Ronald Ross. This got Ross a Nobel Prize. He also riffs on the use of malaria to treat tertiary-stage syphilis which later got Julius Wagner-Jauregg a Nobel. Somehow this adds up to a mechanism for transferring character traits.

The latter use of malaria to treat another disease is clearly ethically dodgy. This pyrotherapy came up in a different guise while talking to the Persians over the weekend: in contrast to the Judaic religions, Zoroastrianism holds that fire is the strongest purifying element.