peteg's blog

William J. Duiker: Ho Chi Minh

/noise/books | Link

This was recommended to me by the anthropologist from ANU who ran our post-AYAD debriefing sessions. It has taken me a long time to get to as someone loaned it from the UNSW Library for ages, and I wasn't prepared to buy it as I was pretty sure I wouldn't be reading it twice. I had a pile of things I was hoping such a text would cover:

  • What did Hồ Chí Minh have in mind for the post-war Vietnamese society?
  • What was the historical basis for the drive for the Hà Nội regime to reunify with the south?
  • In what esteem did he hold his successors Lê Duẩn and Trường Chinh?
  • Why did his (relatively) liberal, conciliatory outlook not prevail?
  • How is he viewed now?
  • etc.

Trying to give an account of Hồ Chí Minh's life, especially in English for a non-Vietnamese audience, is a Herculean task, not the least because Hồ was an obscurantist and the Russian Soviet and Vietnamese Communist archives remain closed to Westerners (as far as I know). Duiker's strategy for filling in the many gaps is to fall back to giving a biography of the Vietnamese Communist movement, and therefore at times the arcane arguments within the ICP loom larger than the man. Moreover his final decade, when America became so bluntly entangled, is covered too cursorily.

So we have many famous names being mentioned without their stories being told: Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Lê Duẩn, Lê Hồng Phong, Hồ Tùng Mậu, ...; it is like walking the streets of modern-day Hồ Chí Minh City without a guide, or with a young person. This gets a bit frustrating as it is unclear just what their contributions were, and why they were deemed worthy of such dedications.

Duiker does a good job discussing the critical period from around 1943 to 1957, when Hồ and comrades emerged from southern China to organise the resistance to the Japanese and seize power from a divided France. It remains unclear to me just why the disastrous land reforms were enacted, but Hồ's fingerprints were all over the resolution of that issue, the shifting emphasis from establishing socialism in the North to the reunification with the south, and the artful navigation of the Sino-Soviet split. I tend to think that this is the only period where Hồ had a chance to act on his peacetime aspirations for the Vietnamese people, though it is difficult to fathom much as the situation was so incredibly compromised for all players. (The French and Chinese were recovering from invasions and internal disunity, and the people of north Vietnam had been the subjects of a massive famine, substantially due to the WWII-Japanese occupation and scorched-earth retreat.)

Possibly the best part is the final chapter, From Man to Myth, an all-too-short account of Hồ's legacy and relation to contemporary Vietnam. Duiker's conclusion, that he is largely irrelevant to the youth and had little lasting influence on the government, rings true enough. Still, I wish he had explained the cultural context better, exploring the idea of Hồ as the most recent liberator of the Vietnamese nation from foreign interference, a line that includes such unimpeachable figures as the Trưng sisters and Trần Hưng Đạo. Whatever one's view of Communism and the current regime, surely this is worth something? Duiker's apt description of Hồ as "part Gandhi, part Lenin" deserved to be unfolded.

As his target audience is America, probably academics and possibly some of the disapora, Duiker must contend with a substantially monochrome view of communism. Hồ, communist of nationalist? Revolutionary or patriot? Such dichotomies are a tad useless unless we attach a bazillion adjectives and a thesis or two. Still it is clear that Hồ was certainly a cultural revolutionary — one of his central goals was to kill off the corrupted feudal mandarin system that the French had coopted. It is less clear, at least from this text, whether the system had always been corrupt or had become so under colonial pressures; Duiker contends that it depended on a strong Emperor for moral rectitude, and for all I learnt here they may have always been on the lam. He also leads us to believe that Hồ was not much of a communist theoretician, for all his training and arrangements with the Comintern; apparently establishing the socialist state was on the never never, subordinate to reunification. This is essentially the position Lê Duẩn adopted in the 1950s at the expense of the more orthodox socialist Trường Chinh who wanted paradise to be established in the north before more blood and treasure was spent on rescuing the south from the foreigners.

This is the biggest problem with this text, that Hồ is just plain weird from a Western point of view, and can only be demystified by extensive explanations of Vietnamese culture and history, which Duiker clearly can't do in reasonable space. The coarseness of many of the discussions is explained away by providing an extensive bibliography, but I was hoping for more lapses into Hunter S. Thompson-esque gonzo, given how much the whole enterprise depends on anecdotes and barrow-pushers; of course one cannot expect much objectivity from the dispossessed, and it is somewhat of a sham to pretend otherwise.

Structurally the book faces the basic problem that Hồ had two lives, firstly as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, shadowy Cominternist, and his more famous post-1945 self, who took an age to admit to being said agent and hence to being a Communist. This is handled about as well as it can be.

As a work of history there are some clangers obvious even to an amateur like me: to claim that the war in Vietnam provided any new insights into the limits to the US's ability to contain Communism is garbage, for the Chinese had already done this in Korea by 1954 (well before the US had troops on the ground in Vietnam), assuming the massive post-WWII expansion of the Soviet Union hadn't already rung those alarm bells. I don't think it makes sense to argue about the motivations of the US in a biography of Hồ Chí Minh, except as it influenced his aspirations and plans. This patchy treatment of history external to north Vietnam is a bit irritating, as we go from talking about Bảo Đại to Ngô Đình Diệm without a referendum or even a nod to the thinking of Eisenhower, Kennedy, etc. on that front.

Also I found it confusing that Duiker asserts that Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa ("Southern Uprising", the road to the airport) is a pet project of Lê Duẩn due to him being born in the south (p501), whereas we are told barely ten pages earlier (p492) that he was born in Quảng Trị, north of Huế — which is about as north as one can get while still being south, assuming we are taking the foreigner's 17th parallel as the demarcation. Perhaps Duiker meant that he is from south of Hồ's Kim Lien in Nghệ An Province.

Duiker restrains himself on the salacious stuff. He asserts that Hồ married a Chinese woman before WWII, and fathered a son with "Miss Xuan" in the mid-1950s. Of course what we really want to know is if he fathered Nông Đức Mạnh.

This is purportedly the most authoriative biography of Hồ Chí Minh in English, and it probably is. Unfortunately it is too boring, with lots of historical detail but not much perspective, even though Duiker's prose is up to the task of telling an interesting story. It is like the streets of Saigon, where all the names have lost their referents. Ultimately many of the characterisations are as bland as the bitumen of the streets themselves, and this is most frustrating; while Hồ spoke many languages and came to understand many Western cultures his story remains opaque on foreigners' terms.

Incidentally Duiker cites Duong van Mai Elliott's account of four generations of her family. I guess I can't be too surprised that someone beat Andrew X. Pham to this narrative structure.


/noise/movies | Link

Hal Hartley wrote a short and made it three times, trying to refract a stock love triangle through the milieus of New York, Berlin and Tokyo. Most effective was the first one, with Bill Sage and Martin Donovan playing off each other, and Parker Posey dipping her toe into Hartley land. In Tokyo he cast himself opposite his (future?) wife Miho Nikaido, who later put in a sterling effort in Henry Fool.

This is his worst "feature" by a long way.

/noise/beach/2010-2011 | Link

First snorkel of the season, with Rob at Gordons Bay in the mid-afternoon. The day was absolutely perfect for it, about 23° tops with a light north-easterly breeze. I got in wearing a singlet and the spring suit, and found the water bearable; we've gone in when it has been much colder. Some brave blokes went in in just their trunks. Apparently the water was about 18° according to the Manly Hydraulics Lab.

Perhaps due to it being a bit cooler, there were heaps of fish in the bay. We found one of the big mature blue gropers still hanging around the rocks down from the headland carpark, and quite a few immature ones of various sizes. I forgot the camera.

Howl's Moving Castle

/noise/movies | Link

On Albert and Sandy's recommendation. Rated #248 on IMDB's top-250. I didn't follow it too well, and lost track of who the evil people were, and how the spells got undone, and all that sort of stuff. I guess the visuals are supposed to make up for all of that.

AVRUSB serial connections going for $AU3 a pop.

/hacking/avr | Link

As I said a while ago:

[T]his bloke has a super-cheap approach to USB interfacing, viz using those USB-RS232 cables that don't do level conversion. I'm off to buy a cache of them from eBay.

Well, I bought five of those cables from these guys in China for a grand total of about $AU11. They turned up less than a week later, and are about as cheap and nasty as their price suggests.

The first thing to do was to ensure the Mac recognised them. This was painless as they look like a Prolific PL2303, about as stock as they come. The second step was to extract the circuit board from the (very cheap and very nasty) serial plug. This took a while as the plastic is pretty tough; next time I'll heat it up a bit first, or perhaps try out the Portasol's hot knife. Also I smashed the ceramic resonator in the process, which was a mixed blessing as apparently they are not very stable wrt temperature, so replacing it with a 12MHz crystal is probably worthwhile anyway. Good thing I got something like a lifetime supply from Sure a while ago.

The remaining problem is that RS-232 inverts the signals: low is a logic 1. These cheap cables treat low as something like 0v, so there's nothing fancy required to get the signal the right way up; two instances of the circuit at the bottom of this page did the trick, one for each direction. I tried a 10kΩ / 100kΩ pair as he suggests but the power sucking 1kΩ / 10kΩ combination seemed necessary.

After wiring that up, the magic incantation screen /dev/tty.PL2303-0000xxx 9600 for some xxxx worked fine as a zero-functionality terminal. It seems that 9600 baud is the limit with the default 8MHz-divided-by-8 clock of the ATmega328P, which surprised me as I wasn't expecting anything more than about 1200 baud to work due to the probably huge error in the clock.

So all up there's the cable ($AU2.20), two transistors (Jaycar is expensive here, $AU0.26 per BC549, where Farnell only wants $AU0.10 or so), four resistors (marginal) and some time. Much better than $US20 for a "USB TTL cable".

The other thing to note is that while the AVR's UART is incredibly easy to get going, the code depends a lot on which particular chip you've got: I had to pepper the I/O register names in mine with 0s for no reason I could fathom, for the ATmega328P only has one U(S)ART. (Yes, yes, there are a few other serial interfaces but those are hardly universal; they are not even asynchronous AFAIK.) Here's the guts of it:

#include <stdint.h>

#include <avr/io.h>

#define BAUD 9600

static inline void
UART_read(uint8_t *c)
  while(! (UCSR0A & _BV(RXC0)))
  *c = UDR0;

static inline void
UART_write(uint8_t c)
  while(! (UCSR0A & _BV(UDRE0)))
  UDR0 = c;

static inline void
#include <util/setbaud.h>

  /* Set the baud rate */

  /* Turn on the transmission and reception circuitry: 8 N 1. */
  UCSR0B = _BV(RXEN0) | _BV(TXEN0);
  UCSR0C = _BV(UCSZ00) | _BV(UCSZ01);

#if USE_2X
  UCSR0A |= (1 << U2X0);
  UCSR0A &= ~(1 << U2X0);

Next up is fabbing it on some veroboard.

Life During Wartime

/noise/movies | Link

Solondz returns with an anticlassic. New actors fill the roles of his decade-ago Happiness, which hooked me with zigs and zangs that are totally absent here. There is no tension as everything is telegraphed. Shirley Henderson from Trainspotting is feeble in Jane Adams's role. The topics are icky and there is no payoff. The original cast was wise to stay away.

I can't help but feel that Anthony Lane saw another movie.

The Incredibles

/noise/movies | Link

On Albert and Sandy's recommendation. By far the best (modern) animated flick I've seen. IMDB rates it 8.1 and #185 in the top-250. I think the comedy works as well as it does because Mr Incredible and cohort don't muck around with subtlety or false modesty. I liked the nods to video games with the two-dimensional guards, amongst other things.

Grinderman #2

/noise/music | Link

I'm not much of a fanboi, it's been out for a couple of weeks already. Apparently the Dirty Three are headlining the Meredith Festival, something I would have expected to hear about on their mailing list. Sniff. I guess I've got to hope they put something on in Sydney.

A biography and review at the New Yorker.

The Gods Must be Crazy

/noise/movies | Link

On Loan's recommendation. An African classic, I guess. Apparently this movie single-handedly revived the myth that rhinoceros stamp out fires.

Despicable Me

/noise/movies | Link

At The Ritz with Albert and Sandy at the 7:30pm 3D session. This was my first time to don the specs, and indeed it was worth the price of admission. The movie itself was a bit more ho-hum than I expected, perhaps because the jokes were a bit stale and the plot too childish.


/noise/movies | Link

A mid-90s Hal Hartley effort. I bracket this and Flirt as his mid-career misfirings. Martin Donovan is only OK as he does not have the room to express himself as well as he does elsewhere. I fear Elina Löwensohn really isn't that great an actress, though she does look fabulous in some shots. Thematically it is difficult to get excited about, with a string of cliched juxtapositions and a humour that seems forced. Hartley's artificiality is missing here.

The Unbelievable Truth

/noise/movies | Link

Ah, Hal Hartley's first feature. Adrienne Shelley is indeed even more luminous here than she is in Trust and he makes the most of what became his regular cast. The signature artificiality is nascent, subordinated to the needs of plot and character, apart from some classic repeated dialogue in the middle. I don't know when I last saw this but am glad to see it again now.


/noise/movies | Link

It's about time I got back into the Hal Hartleys. I saw this most recently four years ago. Adrienne Shelley is as arresting as ever, and opposite a nihilistic Martin Donovan she shines as brightly as she always did. I have a feeling she's even better in The Unbelievable Truth. The arc is sweet and Hartley finds a place for all his film-school set pieces and ruminations. He nails the cyclical cognitive dissonance at the abortion clinic, and all the niggles of the power plays amongst the characters.

Doxiadis, Papadimitriou, Papadatos, Donna: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth

/noise/books | Link

Kai lent this to me. I think he got it in Europe and read it on the plane back, presumably on the basis that it was co-authored by one of the big computation complexity theorists, Christos Papadimitriou.

This graphic novel covers the development of symbolic logic from the late 19th century until World War II, using Bertrand Russell as the narrator, and does a much better job of covering the big man than Monk's biography. It ends with Gödel's result, and the return of pervasive warfare in Europe. Mentioned are the Vienna Circle (but not Karl Popper), von Neumann, Turing and the computer, Frege and the historical link between logic and madness, and other things. It's a shame they left Popper out as the story about him, Wittgenstein (who is mentioned) and the poker is priceless. Also he killed logical positivism far deader than the bullets of some fascist.

The focus here is certainly on the people, and so motivations and the relative import of things suffer a bit. That Russell and Whitehead took 362 pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2 is held up to the standard ridicule, and that is unworthy of this text. (The same could probably be plausibly shown from scratch in Isabelle in less than 100 lines. That's progress!) Conversely Papadimitriou (the character) helps to provide enough future-history that negative interpretations don't overwhelm the narrative; for example, the main story finishes just on the cusp of the realisation of mechanical computation, and he points out that Turing's work was instrumental in the Allies victory. More central to the narrative is his observation that Russell's work was a necessary precursor to Gödel's, and so it cannot be judged a failure.

I don't read graphic novels much, and if Kai had not foist this on me I would not have sought it out. It's a pleasant, sometimes fun and all-too-quick read. The topic is far too large for this kind of treatment.

Freezing my nads off in Tidbinbilla, again.

/travels | Link

Once again I spent a night in Canberra and thought I'd see how often they change the code on the shower block at the Woods Reserve Recreation Area. I can confirm that it is changed at least once every two months.

After a moderately clear day, the rain blew in around 4:30pm and didn't let up until morning (as far as I could tell). The large eastern grey kangaroo I saw last time escorted me down the turnoff to the campsite. I set the tent up starting around 8:30pm, and the Macpac Nautilus's faults meant that things didn't stay as dry as I would have liked: when the fly's door is open the water runs off onto the floor of the tent itself. Still, I managed to keep things dry enough.

It was a tad cold, perhaps three or four degrees, and the morning foggy. Soon after I got into the tent I had heard some faint scratching, as if something was digging near the tent, and I did find a small hole near the door when I got moving. Something had feasted on ends of the carrot I had discarded... and perhaps come looking for somewhere out of the rain.

The Killer Inside Me

/noise/movies | Link

Wow, I have no idea what Winterbottom is trying to do now. As noted by Paul Byrnes, this is something in the vein of No Country for Old Men (etc) but even more brutal. Suspense was a bit hard to come by after the first half as the main character really does only have one modus operandi, and isn't that clever. Pullman has almost a cameo role, somewhat to my chagrin, and the ending is too Romeo and Juliet.

Completely unnecessary.

A talking clock.

/hacking/avr | Link

Hacking AVRs is too easy these days: without any real snags I got an LED flashing on one of the pins of an ATmega328P. From there it was a short step to hooking up an SPO256-AL2 General Instrument speech synthesis chip from circa 1980 and getting it to talk. Making the AVR listen to the SPO256-AL2 required me to read the AVR manual: the AVR's GPIO pins have distinct registers for reading inputs (PINx) and setting outputs (PORTx), unlike the ARM in the ts7250.

I bought the SPO256-AL2 at a good price from a bloke in Melbourne. Email me if you want his details.

Slightly harder was getting the AVR to talk to the DS1307 real-time clock hanging off the TWI/I²C bus. As it didn't just work, I put off debugging this until I could borrow an oscilloscope from Andrew T. He lent me a venerable BWD 539D that was probably abused to within an inch of its life in the electrical engineering laboratories back when I was an undergrad. Suffice it to say that even with my inexpert knowledge it quickly showed the TWI/I²C bus was alive, and with some minor software fixups things came good.

On that front I started with something not too far from Peter Fleury's venerable TWI/I²C code, and ended up with something a bit cleaner and more abstract. There really isn't much going on with that protocol.

Today I wired up a DS18B20 one-wire temperature sensor in parasitic-power mode. It worked immediately using this driver after some minimal configuration and plumbing. Too easy.

My next step is to add an accelerometer, specifically this cheap one from Farnell. I think it is pretty crap as far as accelerometers go, being intended more for the user-interface sort of application I need it for: tap, double-tap, I'm-this-way-up, don't-shake-me-so-hard. Soldering it will be fun, and I need to figure out how to do the level conversion between the 5v required by the SPO256-AL2 and the DS1307 and the 2.8v this accelerometer wants on the TWI/I²C bus. SparkFun's tutorial makes it look not impossible.

After that I hope to put all this stuff on a PCB and polish the software. The power consumption is a bit crazy, with the SPO256-AL2 chewing about 75mA at 5v, as one would expect from vintage TTL technology. It could probably be simulated by a low-end AVR for a milliamp or less now.

Here's a sample of it saying the time and the temperature. The code is at github.

On another note, this bloke has a super-cheap approach to USB interfacing, viz using those USB-RS232 cables that don't do level conversion. I'm off to buy a cache of them from eBay. Possibly cheaper is the mostly software approach.

Bang! with Albert, Sandy, a French couple.

/noise/games | Link

Sandy had been raving about this game a while now, and Albert managed to find the Bang! The Bullet super all-inclusive version at a games shop in the Sydney CBD. Today was the first run through at their place, and inevitably we butchered the rules: we required a player to have a gun in their possession before they could shoot, so I got killed in the first game before I got to do anything. In the second I managed to take a few life points off Sandy (who was the Sheriff both times) before I got annihilated, which was convenient as I did make it home in time for the rugby. There's got to be some payoff for these games where some people finish before others!

On that front Australia lost 23-22 to the Kiwis largely because Giteau was off with his boot; we should have scored at least another ten points. I feel so sorry for Deans, the coach... what more can he do? Also the backline has yet to wake up to the fact that Beale is going to have a crack from just about anywhere and needs mates when he does. Still, the Wallabies are on an upward trajectory that raises hope that next year's World Cup will be entertaining, at least.

Simple Men

/noise/movies | Link

I haven't seen this Hal Hartley effort in about six years. It is probably the weakest of his first four features, which isn't saying a hell of a lot really. Always great to see Martin Donovan, Bill Sage, Karen Sillas... and that artificiality peculiar to Hartley. As a series of small-scale vignettes, the overarching plot and narrative are largely immaterial, just like how it ends or where it goes.

The Fabulous Baker Boys

/noise/movies | Link

A passable piece of fluff from 1989. Pfeiffer's character is a bit schizoid, a trashy cynical ex-AAA-escort (Alcoholics Anonymous America?) whose voice lets her put on the ritz. Jeff Bridges and his brother Beau are the boys. Both characters are barely sketched and the plot is barely there. I have no idea how it got some Oscar nominations. The lounge piano music is sweet. IMDB's score of 6.6 is about right.

Belvoir: Gwen in Purgatory

/noise/theatre | Link

I hadn't been upstairs at Belvoir for ages. I went to this Saturday matinee courtesy of a freebie from Palace Cinemas. My membership has now paid for itself twice over.

The central ambit of this play is the life of the aged matriarch coming to terms with her own mortality, the conniving of her children and grandchildren, the unearthing of old family issues and unhealed wounds. In many ways it reminded me of David Williamson's The Club. Melissa Jaffer is fantastic in the lead role, and the others are good enough to carry it along, but I found myself spacing out as there were too many set-piece revelatory plot devices, and simply too much talking. I don't think anyone in the audience would be challenged by any of the themes here; Codgers presented the generational attitudes towards race with more flair. The jokes are sometimes original but often reworkings of the familiar. The family's Catholicism is satirised in a vaguely insincere way, or to borrow a Keatingism, flagellated with a warm lettuce. There's not much tension.

As one would expect the production is great with a single simple and effective set. The target demographic is certainly the cashed up greying boomers who made up more than half the audience. For those reasons it is easy to beatify the play, as Jason Blake does in the SMH, but it really isn't that deep. So perhaps it will end up a classic, though I don't think there is much of the old Mother and Son magic here. (Heh, it seems Jaffer played Cracknell's younger sister in that.)


/noise/movies | Link

Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart host a murder... what's not to like? Sitting at #216 on IMDB's top-250, this noir was probably better as a stage play. Thematically it is a bit of a threadbare response to the ubermensch vibe of the times. The cast is solid and the camera work brilliant.

Bridges of Shangri-La, Saboteur, Citadels with Pete R. and Rob.

/noise/games | Link

At Pete's place after the kids got put to bed. Bridges of Shangri-La is perhaps better with three players, but I got hammered early when I made a couple of poor Master placements, and as I therefore had no chance to win I ended up playing a kingmaker role, ensuring that Rob got over the line. I don't think Rob enjoyed it too much, it's a bit too dry.

Saboteur was good with three players. Pete cleaned up after a massive blunder from Rob and I at the start: we played some deadends around the start card, and Pete (as saboteur) managed to completely block us.

Citadels was better too; each player gets two characters per round and the strategy is a bit different. The game goes faster, with less dead time waiting for one's turn. I won due to some poor strategy from Pete and Rob in the final round: if you've got seven cities and have a competitive number of points then it pays to take high-ranked characters pretty much irrespective of what you've got in your hand: you're likely to avoid getting killed or thieved, and the payoff for finishing first is huge.

Saboteur, Citadels with Ilan, Nitzan, Pete R., Rob, Maria, Allan.

/noise/games | Link

Alan and Maria hosted the fortnighly meetup at their magic flat in Kingsford. Over a massive cheese platter and wine we opened with the traditional Saboteur and moved on to Citadels, which I missed about two-thirds of with shockingly poor judgement of character cards. The King got stuck with Ilan so Alan and Pete R. got almost no choice about characters for most of the game.

I can't remember who won but it wasn't me. I think we need some new games.