peteg's blog - noise - books

Karl Sigmund: Exact Thinking in Demented Times.

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I found this via a review by Ernest Davis after enjoying his take on Valiant's PAC learning book. It certainly sounds promising: an accessible account of the Vienna Circle, though what we really get is a potted history studded with capsule biographies of some players, with words expended roughly commensurate with the size of the personality. Coming to it completely cold, a reader would learn about such standards as Wittgenstein's poker and Gödel's construction of a model of Einstein's field equations that allows time travel. Conversely there's not much explanation of the philosophy itself; for instance, why did the Circle rail so hard against metaphysics, and of precisely what kind? Did Rudolf Carnap's agenda have any lasting impact? Was the Circle's agenda killed by Karl Popper as legend has it, and if so, precisely how? Did anyone build on Moritz Schlick's ideas?

Sigmud has a fine German sense of humour, of which Wittgenstein is often the butt (apropos glossing over Austrian history circa World War I and II: It was a fine example of that old Viennese proverb, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."). One comes away with the impression that he would bracket the great philosopher with the other obscurantists that he freely derides (... in university libraries, whole shelves are filled with erudite tomes explaining Wittgenstein’s thoughts — a task as thankless as that of explaining jokes); Heidegger, for instance, cops a dismissive pasting. Sigmund summarised a question of abiding interest to me:

Later, Ludwig Wittgenstein summed matters up as follows: "Gödel’s theorem forces us to view mathematics from a new perspective." (Most scholars agree, however, that neither Wittgenstein nor Russell ever really understood Gödel’s ideas.)

Stuart Shanker's article in the book he edited (Gödel's Theorem in Focus (1988) with a contribution from Kleene amongst others) begs to differ, and apparently Putnam weighed in a decade later. (I came away from Shanker's article negligibly enlightenend.) Sigmund observes that Wittgenstein must also have encountered Turing, whose analysis of computation is far less open to misinterpretation. Martin Davis wrote an article on why Gödel did not proceed to do what Turing did. I'd also be interested to understand what Wittgenstein thought of Brouwer's intuitionism. Sigmund is not wrong about the old coffee houses being closed.

This book has been extensively reviewed.

Francis Spufford: True Stories & other essays.

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A collection of shorter works. I've enjoyed much of his recent output, but found myself skipping entire pieces here. There are some interesting offcuts from his earlier books: I mostly skimmed the polar exploration stuff, but deeply enjoyed the section on Red Plenty, and to a lesser extent, Unapologetic where we again get further defences of the defence. Boffins summarises the state of British ingenuity, sad only in being incapable of thriving in a time of plenty, and is superior to his book-length treatment Backroom Boys. There's probably some rich cultural anthropology to be mined there, in the "great man of history" mold. Spufford's generous review You could read forever of Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nights: A Companion was probably the pick for me.

Phillip Lopate reviewed it for the New York Times.

Francine Prose: Bigfoot Dreams.

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By far the worst thing I've read by her yet; perhaps Mister Monkey really was her high point. This novel is lost in the dangerous subways of 1980s Brooklyn and Manhattan. There are too many references that almost no one will get any more; I guess that will also be the fate of much of the current overly-familiar east coast literary output, in contrast to the timeless conjuring of the exotic by Salman Rushdie and Thomas Hardy. Excessive referentialism is no more than excess ego, and this feels too autobiographical, too dug from an odds-and-sods sock drawer. An awesome sentence every five or more pages can't save it.

Susan Allen Toth reviewed it for the New York Times back in 1986.

Francine Prose: The Glorious Ones.

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Kindle. A very early (1974) dry run for her mature work Mister Monkey based on the classic and cliched Italian commedia dell'arte theatre form circa C17th. Some of the members of the itinerant troupe of actors were apparently historical personages, and certainly all are stereotypes (no! archetypes). Each gets a chapter to say their piece; at the time Prose had yet to master them all. It's fun for what it is. Kirkus Reviews has the salients but otherwise the internet has not gone ape over it.

Leslie Valiant: Probably Approximately Correct: Nature's Algorithms for Learning and Prospering in a Complex World.

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Kindle. Valiant's theoretical basis for machine learning is far more real-world plausible than the logical accounts of the 1960s (the learning-in-the-limit model of Gold and Blum) and here he posits it as one of the missing links in Darwin's account of evolution amongst many other things. I took extensive notes as I went but lack the time to write them up; now I wonder where I can find the debate this book must have caused since its publication in 2013. It seems unlikely that his neologism ecorithms has stuck.

Edward Frenkel reviewed it for the New York Times. Marcus Feldman points out some of Valiant's blind spots. Ernest Davis is also skeptical: he observes the lack of a story about theoretical terms (which Davis calls "higher order constructs") and that PAC does not exhaust all forms of learning. It strikes me that ID3 neatly spans information-theoretic and computational readings of learning processes.

Tim Winton: The Shepherd's Hut.

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Winton's latest on the sorry state of Australian masculinity (in general, and not just the cricketers). As always it has been heavily reviewed in the local press, and feted as the best thing since the last book he wrote. I guess there are tepid connections with Breath (with a movie soon to be released) and just slightly Eyrie. Maybe I read it too fast, or had heard enough already, for the slaughtering of animals to have the impact he was looking for. There was ample room to leave God right out. The first person stream of consciousness is not entirely effective; at times the phrasing gets a tad too sophisticated, the reflections not those of a traumatised teenager. I don't think any of the characters are truly original. Perhaps not a book to enjoy, but to find what one can in; but Winton has made his views very accessible on these topics in other media.

A random selection: Geordie Williamson. Michael McGirr. Tim Elliot spoke with Winton during the publicity tour, as did many others.

Jarett Kobek: Soft & Cuddly (Boss Fight Books #15).

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This is notionally a biography of a video game, and apparently a real one according to Google. I guess the Boss Fight conceit is similar to the biographies of cities that were common in the 1990s (cf John Birmingham's Leviathan), and distinct from Michael W. Clune's Gamelife, which was mostly about himself.

But as always with Kobek, the meat is his cultural criticism. His target this time is the general state of Britain in the 1980s under Thatcher, using nepotism in the computer industry of the day as a vehicle. Francis Spufford covered similar ground in Backroom Boys, and even discussed the Elite video game. It's funny and erudite, and the only thing I saw him miss was that Acorn went on to wild success with the ARM architecture, while Amstrad and Sinclair have pretty much vanished from history. I guess there was also scope for linking this stuff up to the Raspberry Pi. Like Dark Shadows, Alice Cooper plays an overly passive role in the game and this account. We get the moral outrage of the day, and a fascinating but undercooked jag into the demo scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as some stories about the obsolete computer designs prevalent in eastern Europe up to recent times. The game itself is graphically hellish and unwinnable. Some brief searching made it seem to me like a low-rent version of the Apple ][ game Montezuma's Revenge.

... and of course Boss Fight have a book on Mario Brothers.

Will Boast: Daphne: A Novel.

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Kindle. On the strength of Natalie Serber's review in the New York Times, and also the name of the protagonist. Unfortunately there's more in her review than the book itself. The plot is entirely conventional: we start in a steady state of coping with a lifelong debilitation that almost immediately gets destabilized in the time-honored ways. Serber suggests this is a take on the whatever culture circa 2011, and also a variation on Ovid's myth of Daphne and Apollo; Katy Waldman's article at the New Yorker makes me think that went out in the press kit.

And what causes all of this? I was sixteen when Mom and I found Dr. Bell. I had questions. I asked and asked. "So, when are you getting your neurophysiology PhD?" he’d answer with a pedant’s sigh. "All you need to know: The human brain is the universe’s most implausible chemistry experiment."

Craig Cliff: A Man Melting.

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Kindle. Discovered via a New York Times review of Cliff's more-recent novel (apparently coming five years after the novel was published). This collection of short stories is certainly the result of Kiwi Cliff writing about what he knows. Most are well-executed but inconclusive plays on not especially interesting conceits. I can imagine his later work is stronger.

Ryan Holiday: Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue.

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Kindle. On the strength of William D. Cohan's review in the New York Times. Unfortunately the review is far more interesting than the book, which is excessively repetitious and tendentious; it was clearly written by someone used to being paid by the word. Notionally this is about the Hulk Hogan sex tape case that brought Gawker unstuck, with the "conspiracy" part arising from Peter Thiel's funding the action from the shadows. (This is presented as his considered response to being outed by them in 2007.) So many of the arguments do not make sense. For instance, I never understood what Thiel thought he'd gain by backing Trump; it seems clear that Trump is the most ideology free, narcissistic, nihilistic man to hold the US presidency in recent times, all of which Thiel professes to be against in fine when-it-suits contrarian style. And yet Thiel thought he could control the beast. Sure, who knows what's going on in private; maybe he did get whatever he was after, and Palantir is surely still going strong. For a man of supposed deep foresight he sure has his blind spots.

The Post wants to wave the flag for a free press in a time of gentlemen and women, whereas this book shows what happens when money is speech and speech is truly unfettered: in brief, nothing of worth is gained.

Lisa Halliday: Asymmetry.

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Kindle. I went in cold; if I'd read Alice Gregory's review in the New York Times to completion I would have noticed the extended quotes that signal a lazy review. I've never read Philip Roth and am not fascinated by the power of established men over young ladies; perhaps for this reason I found the first section somewhat flat between zingers. Mary-Alice doesn't seem to be more than beauty and aspiration, and nothing happens beyond what you'd expect. The second was a quasi-familiar borderlands piece on an American-Iraqi's experience of being American-Iraqi (as the Americans like to say). I didn't invest enough to figure out how these two pieces fit together, or use the key from the brief third part as Gregory suggested.

For all that at times the writing is excellent.

Alexandra Alter sketches the biography behind the fiction.

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire.

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Kindle. Second time around with this author. Unfortunately this one doesn't add up to more than its influences, which are legion. Shamsie owns to leaning on Sophocles's Antigone by way of Seamus Heaney and Anne Carson, but is more circumspect about her wholesale adoption of the tropes of the moment. For instance Parvaiz's keen hearing and interest in recording urban soundscapes directly echoes Paul Beatty's Slumberland, and her treatment of race is far less facile, nuanced, insightful or funny than his. The bondage scene with its chains and pain seeking took on shades of gray.

Briefly the book has the son of a jihadi look for meaning by following in his father's footsteps, while his strong sisters attempt to get on with their lives, until they cannot. A Tory politican ex-Pakistan transcends his background by being tough on terror, until he too cannot. At one point a character goes on a Lysistrata-esque sex strike; another trope that was big in 2016 (cf Chiraq). Mostly it's more scenario than novel.

Shamsie traverses a similar mix of cities as Mohsin Hamid did in Exit, West: London, Raqqa, Amherst, Karachi. Her women are powerful, largely not by asserting themselves freely so much as being thrust into demanding situations, and she generally inflates these characters well enough. Conversely the males are stereotypes: the power seeker in need of comeuppance; a fatherless boy, easily led; an effeminate son, also easily led; the nervous shopkeeper dealing with ISIS, the ISIS muscle, totally soulless: all deracinated, instruments all.

Many authors have tried to map the road to terror: Salman Rushdie, Mohsin Hamid, Pankaj Mishra, Karan Mahajan, Jarett Kobek immediately spring to mind. At this point it would have been more interesting to treat the guys with power (Farooq, for instance) or the men who have constructed these organizations over decades, and the women who think there's something in ISIS for them. Shamsie touches on much of this but doesn't get to the heart of it; for that we'll need to wait for a modern-day George Orwell.

Dwight Garner saw more in it than I did, though his review runs to little more than summary, accounting for source materials and picking faults. The quote about the cold fish elides Shamsie's patronising explanation of it being about a cold fish. Peter Ho Davies also reviewed it more critically for the New York Times. He points to even more source material.

George Orwell: Animal Farm.

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All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Kindle. Orwell proves himself to be a great missed opportunity for the advertising industry with his fantastic and timeless sloganeering.

Dennis Glover: An Economy is not a Society (2015).

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Kindle. A segue from Glover's more-recent and substantial The Last Man in Europe. Here he pines for the glory days when Doveton (his working-class hometown near Dandenong) was a community of workers and social mobility was a possibility; this local boy went all the way to a PhD at Cambridge. Since the economy imploded (the car factories and Heinz cannery have progressively closed from the 1990s) the place has been overrun by drug fiends and hopelessness. A local school (now derelict and destroyed) and the massive spaces vacated by domestic industry are put forth in evidence.

Glover argues from the heart, so while I am completely sympathetic to his concerns and conclusions, I found this polemic unpersuasive. The days of nation building are long gone, long before I became an adult, and certainly on the wane when I was born. (Cynically I'd say the game now is to grab a piece of the pie before climate change makes it a lot smaller.) That the ALP has lost the plot is no news to anyone. Interestingly Glover wants the (now non-)working classes to self-organise, to reclaim the ALP, and asserts baldly that the other classes (e.g. professionals) cannot sufficiently empathise with stiffs working on the poverty line to be any use politically. He claims to want a return to low-skilled work but when pushed it's really about artisanal stuff, like specialized toolsmithing, that are obviously intrinsically rewarding activities. Old ideas such as a universal basic income, or encouraging people to take productivity dividends in fewer work hours (let the robots sweat) are completely ignored; I for one am dubious that there was ever any dignity in working for money, pretty much no matter the work. Glover is down on the deification of RJL Hawke and Paul Keating, and fair enough too. He is entirely right that Gough Whitlam executed a far more progressive agenda in far less time and has now been airbrushed from history.

Glover's biggest fault is to gesture at history and not dig into it. Why did the golden era he experienced and champions here come to an end? Could it have gone differently, or were the forces of what we now call globalization too much for any individual nation to tame? (Glover gestures at the state of the old industrial towns in the USA.) John Quiggin observed that Paul Keating always went with the intellectual flow, and has now come to realize the limits of the agenda he himself prosecuted. (Note also that Quiggin often uses professionalism — consider university and hospital staffers — to combat silly talk of paypacket maximization being the only motivator.) Fellow speechwriter Don Watson made similar complaints to Glover in his old book Weasel Words and his 2014 book The Bush that I've half read. David Ireland's The Unknown Industrial Prisoner suggests Glover had limited experience of industrial relations and work and safety issues in the 1970s. Donald Horne and Hugh Mackay laid out the issues of a changing Australia far more systematically, and scientifically, capably demonstrating that the humanities have more to offer in response to heartless econospeak than nostalgic bleating. And of course Barry Jones's Sleepers Wake! canvassed the changing conditions faced by the Australian workforce in the early 1980s. Glover does not contemplate what the internet has done to things.

There are many worthwhile comments at goodreads.

Dennis Glover: The Last Man in Europe.

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Kindle. An Australian author's fictional account of what brought George Orwell to write 1984. The conceit is similar to David Malouf's in Ransom, and Francis Spufford's in Red Plenty; like the latter Glover presents specific episodes in the sympathetic third person and tips his hand in a concluding author's note. The prose has a dry wit reminiscent of the master, especially as the book becomes a totalitarian freedom-sucking monster that robs Orwell of his life. At times Glover overexerts himself in sourcing the tropes and motifs of 1984. Conversely he doesn't try to include everything his research dug up, overly occlude his source material, or cleave too slavishly to or deviate so far from Orwell's own style.

It's a lot of fun if you're a fan, but perhaps not if you're too much of a fan. Now to re-read Animal Farm.

I missed this last year because it wasn't reviewed by my usual suspects. It received broad coverage in the local media. Glover himself on discovering that 2 + 2 may not equal 5. Stacy Schiff reviews a biography of "the girl from the fiction department" Sonia Orwell.

Sebastian Junger: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

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Kindle. A suggestion from Dariusz. Junger ruminates on how alienating civilization is by contrasting it with life for the American Indians and during wartime. The first chapter is his best but ultimately he struggles to deepen his case, not least due to his reliance on evolutionary tropes. Once again I need to go read some Studs Terkel. His observations about how calamity recreates the condition of the tribe made me wonder if Kant got his idea for a universal history (implacable moral improvement) from such.

Matthew B. Crawford. Joanna Bourke. Both observe and criticise Junger's cherry picking.

Ben Blum: Ranger Games.

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Kindle. Blum has a PhD in CS out of UCB but decided after a stretch of microbio postdockery in Seattle to do an MFA in New York, and of course now he lives in Brooklyn etc. I picked this up on the strength of Jennifer Senior's review. The writing is OK, the structure is OK, but a substantial edit would have reduced it by a third and made it so much stronger. Like many modern books it contains just about everything the author dug up during an extensive research period, and there is much irrelevant colour (the author's private life; his grandmother's birthday party; the separations and divorces; the random fine-grained details). Ultimately it sits uncomfortably between memoir, journalism, amateur psychologizing, military history and family shenanigans; jack of none, master of none.

Most irritating about this book is that we are supposed to hold as fact that all-American good guy and newly-minted US Ranger Alex Blum was brainwashed into slavish obedience by the US military, and used by psychopath Specialist Sommer in the execution of a bank robbery in Tacoma, until we're not. My irritation was largely that Sommer is never shown to have a plausible motive for the robbery. The iterative deepening device is very trying. There's nothing new said about the extremity of the US Army training procedures (hazing rituals) or exaggerations by those subject to them, or the inability to be real with oneself — we've seen that all before in the movies cited in this book. The entire Dr Phil sequence is pointless. The legal maneuvering is, as Blum observed, basically a matter of money.

Daniel Ellsberg: The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

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Kindle. I was woken up to this new book by Ellsberg by Adam Shatz's excellent piece in the London Review of Books, and while it's great to hear his voice again, it could have used a severe edit; Ellsberg is repetitious at every level. The salients are entirely contained in Shatz's article and this interview with Lucy Steigerwald. That superweapon policy was and is largely lunacy was confirmed in Ellsberg's mind by the concept of nuclear winter that was developed in the early 1980s. Ironically it depends on the very same climate models denied by those who need business to continue as usual.

In brief, Ellsberg presents a convincing case for what most people probably thought anyway: that mutually-assured destruction (MAD) is actually SAD (self-assured destruction), or more inclusively, omnicide. His wargaming at RAND and restlessly analytic mind somehow needed to know precisely why that was, I guess. Of course Doctor Strangelove was a documentary. I found his calls to action plausible, possibly actionable, and just maybe the American people might decide to allocate some of the trillion-dollar modernization project (thanks Obama) to more useful ends. I would have liked to hear his opinions on Snowden and Wikileaks, especially since Trump's victory in 2016.

Fred Kaplan, who also suggests that The Post is worth a watch, as does Manohla Dargis. Graham Allison. Thomas Powers.

Eka Kurniawan: Man Tiger.

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Kindle. I balked at Kurniawan's much longer Beauty Is a Wound, which is by all accounts more of a ramble than this one. Even so this would have been improved by being twenty percent or more shorter. Some sections are very repetitive, which may be the fault of the translator. The excessive detail tends to wash out the character and plot development. The poverty of West Java is not so exotic now that flights are so cheap.

Kanishk Tharoor: Swimmer among the Stars.

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There was no point to honesty in a time of cold truths.

Kindle. A collection of shorts. Tharoor has a very dry, precise and inventive mode of description that is somehow unsatisfying, often robbing his stories of soul. For instance the first story (from which the collection drew its title) has no plot, and is purely syntactic, while the second is presented as a countdown to the razing of a city by marauders, but ends up trying to be about something else. I did like the elephant at sea, which demonstrates great empathy. The tales around Iskander are sometimes good; the motif of the man tree was also used by Deepak Unnikrishnan. Letters Home continues with Odysseus after he returns to Penelope; it is nowhere close to what Malouf achieved.

Meron Hadero.