peteg's blog - noise - books

Charles Yu: Sorry Please Thank You

/noise/books | Link

The flaws of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe could not dissuade me from giving Charles Yu another opportunity to disappoint. Suffice it to say that he succeeds wildly. Douglas Wolk at the New York Times pretty much nails it; I have nothing to add.

Janet Frame: To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, The Envoy From Mirror City

/noise/books | Link

I vaguely recall that someone ages ago mentioned An Angel at my Table to me, probably referring to the movie. I bought this set-of-three Paladin editions from the dear old second-hand bookshop dealer in Gordon that mrak told me he'd known since childhood, probably sometime around 2008. Since then they've stared at me from the shelves of an overstuffed IKEA bookcase, and as this is the year to let things go quietly into the night, I finally screwed up my nerve about a month ago and dove in.

Janet Frame was a Kiwi author with that checkered kind of fame that makes me wonder if her fiction was much chop. These books form an autobiography of sorts, where she focuses on her childhood in the first two, skipping lightly over the decade or so (her 20s pretty much) she spent in mental institutions in New Zealand, and finally finds some sort of liberation and romance in Europe in the last. I didn't read the poetry (hers or snippets of other people's) too closely. Her time on Ibiza seems magical.

These have left me with no particular desire to read anything more by her, though her magical realism might have something to it, and she implies that her One flew over the cuckoo's nest experiences were documented in one or more of her novels.

Thomas Hardy: Life's Little Ironies

/noise/books | Link

Having enjoying Jude the Obscure I figured I would try to read this collection of short stories on the iPod Touch, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Suffice it to say that it's taken me most of the year to get through this lot, and for this reason I don't remember it with much fidelity. I tend to think that Hardy is better at the longer form than the short, for though his prose remains fine here the plots and characters are so much weaker.

Michael Sandel: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

/noise/books | Link

Sandel is famous for his justice class at Harvard, and claims to have co-lectured with Amartya Sen. I therefore had high hopes for this book, and hoped it would explore my abiding interest in why we use particular mechanisms (voting, markets, consensus, representational institutions, dictatorships, ...) to make particular collective decisions. There is a significant body of theory about markets but it is (supposedly) generally morally-neutral beyond some weak requirements such as Pareto optimality, liberalism and other things I don't know about. Of course this book was disappointing, but that is almost always the case with these philosophical sorts of adventures.

Perhaps the key thing to understand about this book is that Sandel is less interested in the operation of markets than in taking moral offence at attaching prices to things. Consider his hoary example of trading human body parts. Sandel thinks that having a money-based market in them would value them the wrong way, but we could just as easily have a bartering arrangement that yields very similar moral quandaries. (Some amount of bartering seems necessary due to the biological incompatibility of donors and recipients.) This, combined with an adversion to mathematics, means that he struggles to get to grips with modern concerns such as (provable) efficiency and resistance to manipulation. I don't recall him ever really defining what a market is. Moreover there is the conflation of can't buy with shouldn't buy; I simply cannot buy a Nobel prize or a friend in any meaningful way, but Sandel wants to argue that I shouldn't be able to buy a liver.

As for buying access to universities, well, there have been crammers around for ever; just because I don't pay at the gate doesn't mean I'm not buying my way in. One also has to wonder if it is so very different to the bums-on-seats policies that keep the unemployment statistics for youth down to almost non-scandalous levels. It is clear that commercial sponsorship at universities does crowd out freedom of expression, for it (obviously) limits dialogue about the sponsor's products, even to the extent of making fair evaluations (take, for example, Oracle's no benchmarking policy).

Here are some notes I took while reading this book, many of which are merely picking nits. I started after the first few chapters as these did not raise my ire or interest so much. The page numbers are for the Allen Lane ("An imprint of Penguin") paperback edition.

  • p60: The idea of pricing immigration visas is becoming more common; Australia is going down the same path now.
  • p80: Apparently one can buy the right to shoot an endangered black rhino, which is intended to incentivize their preservation. Sandel ignores the opportunity for moralists to buy up the shooting permits and not exercise them, thereby helping the rhino and signalling their moral judgement. That markets may facilitate such signalling is a broader point he does not consider.
  • p83: Contrary to Sandel's dogmatic assertion, markets do pass judgement, if only by existing or not (consider the black market), and by pricing out repugnant outcomes. Moreover the existence of a price does not imply the existence of a market.
  • p88: Sandel asks why we should maximise social utility, and I wonder why he doesn't also ask why we should worry about efficiency at all. (I tend to think at least some "economic efficiency" is really about externalising costs; consider superannuation versus government-guaranteed pensions). He blithely ignores the recent trends in economics that try to reconcile the discipline with humanistic goals. (Amartya Sen has done some work here too.)
  • p96: Paying someone to apologise on one's behalf reminded my of the professional mourners of Vietnam; then again, in a Buddhist society there is probably not as much deathbed pleading as in a Christian one.
  • p98: Gift giving is not a persuasive example. I tend to think that the best gift to someone these days is something non-fungible, such as spending time with (or apart from :-) them. Stuff is no longer scarce, so what do I care what you buy for me? Once again Sandel seems to think that pricing something is the same thing as there being a market in that good. Surely we also need negotiation / bargaining / price discovery and so forth as well for there to be a market.
  • p107: You cannot buy a friend but you can buy many of the things that friends are supposed to produce, such as wedding speeches. This made me think of paid thesis editors, and someone with someone else autobiographies. Then again, Pete R. made the point years ago that being able to write well is not the same thing as having a story worth telling.
  • p122: The section on blood donations is spot on.
  • p125: Sandel does a good job of dissecting Arrow's assertions about the market. However he missed the bigger opportunity to discuss how plausible markets really are, and under what conditions they work as intended. He could also have explored the reasons that markets get distorted, and strengthened his appeal to authority by discussing Arrow's technical results. By the end I began to wonder if his real objection was to the application of rationality (science?) to sacred cows.
  • p127: Sandel tries to argue that we should rely less on economic rationalist / self-interest mechanisms and on more humanistic notions such as civic duty. While I don't completely disagree with the sentiment, he seems to think that local comity can somehow scale up to nation-states; around about here one might also start mumbling about the tragedy of the commons and nuclear nightmare diplomacy. Dogmatically I would say that economics (and many other Western institutions) is about somewhat anonymous interactions, those with people we don't know or have no reason to treat well; it encodes a kind of institutionalised fairness towards the "other", such as non-citizens and foreigners. I remember my Law of the Global Market lecturer saying something like "if goods don't cross borders then guns will" as a way of summarising the Marshall Plan and so forth. Conversely markets inflict a computational problem on participants which is likely to crowd out other considerations. I guess I could gesture at Bruce Schneier's take on security, which (Schneier argues) is a necessary underpinning for a large society. Sandel's position is to essentially affirm the social contract.
  • p131: Chapter 4 on death markets is solid, though it is warmed-over; the "insurable interest" test has been there forever, and Sandel labours the point that the morality of the life insurance market has been undone by a series of crappy (corrupt?) decisions of SCOTUS over the years.
  • p163: Chapter 5 on commercialising sport is banal. David Williamson complained far more eloquently about commercialising sport in the late 1970s in The Club. Sandel here engages in some tedious sacred cow-ism; what do I care if the audience for professional sport is stratified? It would be better for everyone if amateur sport was better funded, for (p174) the former has already crowded out many of the socially valuable outcomes of people playing rather than watching; one merely needs to listen to the cynicism that swirls around the cost of each Olympic medal.
  • p168: one could imagine a twenty-first century Solomon selling the baby and splitting the proceeds.
  • p173: Sport is not a universal social glue; here Sandel paternalistically excludes women, minorities, geeks, migrants, etc.
  • p190: Municipal marketing appears to be uncommon in Australia; according to Sandel this is the practice of buying influence over the policies of a sponsored organisation. This is clearly a conflict of interest sort of thing. I would contrast this to the kinds of sponsorship that e.g. Surf Life Saving Australia attracts; Westpac might get its name on the helicopter but it has no say in how the service is provided (I hope and expect).
  • p203: In his closing paragraphy, Sandel wants to think we're all in this together, quietly ignoring the fact that having lots of money insulates people from the need to worry about the common good.

What I really wanted from this book was more analysis of serious / established / consequential markets, such as labour; surely the revealed preference of working Australians for longer hours (more money) and less leisure time is a moral issue, given that it takes time away from family, meaningful relationships (of choice), child rearing and so forth. I also hoped he would clarify the limitations of the market dogma; for instance we can't buy more than 24 hours a day, though we can pay to make them more pleasant. Expanding choice yields diminishing returns; surely there could have been a broader exploration of what we value and why, an expansion of the "good life" rubric into something less dogmatic.

Sandel really should have provided examples of where markets work well, so we had some reason to believe that they had some validity at all. Why are they being so aggressively and invasively pushed now? In contrast to many of the philosopher kings I have met, he seems to avoid discussions of historical antecedents and the maths that might bring another kind of understanding to the table. The U.S. is already so compromised by thorough-going market thinking that almost all of the examples he gives look like fiddling at the margins.

Out in the wilds of the internet, this book is often bracketed with one by the father-and-son Skidelsky team. Here's a brief list of pages I read:

Of these I find myself siding with the CATO review.

Update: a bloke at the New Yorker points out the difficulties of having justice (etc.) supervene on empathy.

Murray Bail: The Voyage

/noise/books | Link

A review by Andrew Reimer in the Smage woke me up to Murray Bail's latest novel. This one comes hot on the heels of The Pages, barely four years previous, and features a much stronger structure. Frank Delage stands in for all Australian inventors looking to enter foreign markets when he takes his innovative piano to Vienna. Beyond the artifice of his meeting Amalia von Schalla, wife of a wealthy industralist, Bail offers up a string of ruminations on stagnation, relations between men and women, the old world and the new, and not getting what you want but something else, quite distinct and possibly more valuable. I enjoyed how Bail silently moved between the parallel tracks of the story, of Delage's time in Vienna and the voyage on the container ship through the Suez, Malacca Straits and other markers of the now-unfamiliar sea lanes. The shipborne Dutchman minded me of Dijkstra, long on the terminal pronouncement.

Patrick White: Happy Valley

/noise/books | Link

I've been meaning to read more from Mr Nobel since I stumbled upon his masterful short stories last year, and couldn't resist this one, his first novel, after reading some boosterism in the Smage. At 400 pages things got a bit stodgy and my eyes glazed over more than once. (Did I fall asleep more easily those nights?) It is stylish, and sometimes knowing, but also artificial and tendentious. I doubt that the denizens of erstwhile Adaminaby would agree that he had them pegged. Perhaps more interesting would have been his reaction to the town's permanent flooding in 1949, which resonates more than anything he attempted here.

P. F. Kluge: The Master Blaster

/noise/books | Link

I picked this one up on the strength of a review in the New York Times. Titled Far-Off Island Where the American Dream Curdles, I expected to find an update on Hunter S. Thompson's state of Las Vegas, early 1970s. These days I guess it would be surprising if the American Dream is possible for anyone whose parents didn't buy it for them.

Saipan is, roughly put, a South-east Asian island where the locals got American passports in exchange for a military base. (Australians may be wondering how many marines we need to host in order to score a similar deal; perhaps it takes a carrier group.) Both the book and the review trade on the seemingly stagnant Saipan Sucks website and its slogan contest, which also has a scathing account of politics on the island. Geographically it is directly a long way east of the Philippines, and north of Papua New Guinea, quite near Guam.

There are five main characters, each recounting their part of the story in a cycle of chapters written in the first person. These three American men, singular American woman and Bangladeshi neo-slave are stereotyped would-be emigres who engage with the island and each other but not so much with the locals. The major native bloke, Big Ben, operates in the shadows and it remains unclear if he is anything more than an enforcer for island rentiers. The requisite dusting of sex and island romance is flagged from the early pages. It is not explained why the Chinese seamstresses can be rented by the hour (and by Bangladeshis, who are otherwise widely discriminated against). Things sort of fade away as realisation, necessity or deus ex machina set in.

Kluge ably captures why people fall in love with the island, and out of love with living there. I enjoyed it but felt let down by the promise of the spiky introduction for more cutting commentary ala Sarkhan et al. In an afterword Kluge divulges that he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Saipan in 1967-1969, which turns this into something of a Paul Theroux; however it is not clear that he speaks any language other than American.

I think the review in the Boston Globe is closer to the money.

E. Burdick and W. J. Lederer: Sarkhan. (1966)

/noise/books | Link

Presumably encouraged by the public's response to The Ugly American, Burdick and Lederer concocted this follow-up novel in 1964. They return to Sarkhan, their fictional hybrid South-East Asian kingdom of harmonious Buddhist and Moslem agrarians, where the competition for influence between the Communists and the U.S. is embryonic. Again the great bureucratic machines of Washington are shown to be incapable of rising to the task or of interpreting information that conflicts with the narrative of the day. One would expect things to be much worse now with so many new fiefdoms minted after 9/11.

I quite enjoyed this one, perhaps because I don't read too many diplomacy-espionage-revolution thrillers. Graham Greene's genre probably died with him.

Mark Moffett: Adventures Among Ants

/noise/books | Link

I read about this book in the travel section of the New York Times a while ago, and bought a copy from Amazon while in the U.S. in July/August. Moffett got his PhD under Edward O. Wilson at Harvard in the 1980s, apparently by studying marauder ants in Singapore (and other places) in more detail than hitherto. As the cover blurb by the great Prof assures us, he is a fantastic photographer, so good he has been regularly commissioned by National Geographic. (You can find his pictures by searching for his name in the National Geographic Image Collection or at Google Images.)

This text is essentially a Paul Theroux-quality travelogue with a focus on ant novelties that consciously avoids overtly scientific nomenclature and analysis. As such it is far more accessible to a general audience than e.g. Superorganism, which has sat on my shelf for too long now.

An ant garden.

New to me were the ant gardens of Peru (and presumably South America in general) (p120), which are a multi-way symbiosis of two ant species and several kinds of plants. The ants manufacture a "carton" (papery) base (see the photo on the right) and grow specific plants there, which in turn seem to need the ants' ministrations to germinate.

The leaf-cutters and the weavers get a chapter each. Moffett tells us that the weavers in overhanging trees can pull individual (blind) army ants from their raiding columns on the ground, and moreover that the army ants exhibit a fear response if a weaver lands amongst them. I'd forgotten that the weavers also farm various small insects (aphids and the like). That there are only two species of weaver that dominate their respective habitats shows how successfully adapted they are.

Argentina apparently has spawned some ant super-species that are currently exterminating all other ant species in the northern hemisphere. The largest unicolony (a set of colonies with multiple queens that collaborate) of the "Argentine" ants stretches 2000km from Italy to Spain's Atlantic coast. Their strongest competitors are other ants from their region of origin, back in South America. One such, the fire ants, builds some pretty amazing rafts that helps them survive floods. There are several videos of these on YouTube. In contrast the driver (army) ants just drown.

I was disappointed that he did not include a photograph of an army ant bivouac. Clearly the nomadic army ants need to somehow vote on where to move to, and therefore engage in a process of "quorum sensing" (p244, references 16 and 17). We're told that cancer cells may use an analogous process for a similar purpose.

Jon Gertner: The Idea Factory

/noise/books | Link

The subject of not one but two reviews at the New York Times, this is putatively a rational reconstruction of Bell Labs' successful pipeline that took basic research into the massive telecommunications network we have these days. We get a potted history featuring the major players and the major early discoveries and developments (the transistor, information theory, masers, ...), with a special focus on foibles and colour. Unfortunately the author, being a business journalist, is not too savvy about the technical details ("the Unix programming language"), and the book doesn't meet the potential of its topic.

The emphasis on colour robs the book of some relevance; the most risible example is eclipsing William Shockley's early technical successes with his poor abilities as a manager and his later fixation with the genetic determinants of intelligence. What deserved far more attention was how anyone managed to get him to cooperate in the first place. The book also rushes the main narrative thread, which could have situated the prevailing attitudes about AT&T against the economic and social conditions of the day. Why did the U.S. Department of Justice under Nixon (1974) decide it was time to split the company up? I would have thought that Bell was still contributing to the Cold War, and greed-is-good was so 1980s.

These days it seems clear that Bell's original goal of universal connectivity has more-or-less been achieved and delta improvements in engineering will take care of what's left to do. I guess we see the results of monopoly busting in the slipping quality of U.S. internet (at least according to some metrics) and the slow roll out of the internet in Australia. (Then again, I don't know if Australian Telecom / Telstra ever engaged in much research beyond the adaptation of technology developed overseas.)

Most frustrating to me was that computer technology doesn't receive much discussion; I wonder why AT&T's post-breakup computer ventures did not succeed. Anyone with an interest in the area knows of the complete mess that UNIX was in the late 1980s, and the legal wrangling that continues to the present year, which is at least somewhat due to the breakup of AT&T. The book takes an overly narrow focus on the modern tech giants (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook), ignoring IBM (one of the few with a sizable research division engaging in basic research, and a historic competitor of Bell Labs), and only mentioning one other industry (medicine, and not pharmaceuticals). The materials companies like Dow, 3M or Corning that were pivotal in scaling up some of the research are missing too.

I would have preferred a proper, more thorough, history of Bell Labs, and a more rounded discussion of the role of such industrial research labs. Why doesn't the U.S. government get up on its hind legs and explain its role in innovation to the people? How can the market be kept at bay while long-term research is undertaken? How are these organisations to reconcile allowing researchers to follow their curiosity with the companies' long-term commercial development needs, as Bell Labs did so successfully?

E. Burdick and W. J. Lederer: The Ugly American. (1958)

/noise/books | Link

Well before Apocalypse Now (redux) had Frenchmen explain the politics of Indochina to Americans, Burdick and Lederer sketched the diplomatic failures of the U.S. in South-East Asia up to the mid-1950s. Clearly their efforts were in vain as this was merely the start of one of the boggier parts of U.S. history. This series of linked vignettes tends to the didactic, though this is forgivable as these are lessons still to be learnt. Strangely the Soviets did not fare much better though this text portrays them as superior in preparation and education, and perhaps more clear-eyed about their objectives. I guess all that has evaporated now, though I wonder what the Chinese do these days. The book's wry humour dates it to the pre-irony era.

I found this classic via the movie of the same name starring Marlon Brando, which I have yet to see.

Greg Egan: Permutation City

/noise/books | Link

I pilfered this one from mrak's bookshelf and read it on the flights from Sydney to St. Louis. It's an old friend from my time in Melbourne where it was foist on me by Peter Eckersley, who is now doing wonderful things at the EFF.

Now as then I really liked the conceit of finding computational structure everywhere and using it to simulate/account for consciousness. However again I struggled with the details, such as computing a simulation of consciousness out of order; I do not understand how such a complex discrete process could be run that way. How can we compute a third state directly from an initial one, without first computing the intermediate one? Without this building block, that the "internal" experience of consciousness is independent of the underlying computational substrate, the rest falls away. I still don't get the symmetry arguments about the cellular automata in the second part that lead to Armageddon.

As a love-love letter to computation, it is mostly well-written when in flight, but stalls on, for example, a humdrum deviant-sex scene that was a mandatory feature of the cyberpunk of the day. I haven't read anything else from Egan as good as this. I wonder what he's up to now.

Gil Scott Heron: The Nigger Factory

/noise/books | Link

In too many ways this is a fictionalisation of an incident that Scott Heron recounts in The Last Holiday, viz presenting demands to a university administration (Lincoln in his case, presumably-fictional Sutton here). The title and cover promised an account of how these institutions shaped Black thought circa 1968 but I didn't see too much of that; we get University President Calhoun's progression from firebrand radical to firebrand conservative, but that's the arc of many a man's life. We get the violent radicals, the stupid and the circumspect. I guess I hoping for some specifics about the cause like MLK and Malcolm X used to get into. Annoyingly his prose is a lot less sparky than he was capable of, and many things (such as racist cops) are lazily taken for granted. He could have expounded on some key historical events (like Kent State) that he instead merely gestures at. As Murrandoo Yanner keenly observed in The Tall Man, the white man should be bothered by this stuff too.

Gil Scott Heron: The Vulture

/noise/books | Link

Gil Scott Heron is a master of the short form, and every so often this novel sets off a keen observation with a sparky jag. It's something of a murder / mystery /Trainspotting-ish / real-life set in the projects of New York City in the late 1960s, but not the overall triumph the author thought he had when he hit the pause button on school to write it at age 20. It's more dealing than using, amongst the Blacks and Puerto Ricans, and sometimes the prose has the rawness of a first draft. He doesn't imbue his women with much character. Dropping the phonetics of the hood on the page doesn't add much, and there is some severely trying polemical poetry somewhere close to the end. The earlier Black politics comes off better though the events seem to avoid The Man's causality.

Dana Sachs: The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

/noise/books | Link

Again I succumbed to the temptation of raiding ANU's extensive collection of books on Asia held in their Menzies Library. (Incidentally the UNSW Library is also named after Sir Pig Iron Bob.) I prevailed on one of the beautiful librarians to find it for me, and in doing so she edified me that their "large" books are separate from the rest, and I had only been looking at the large ones. I am sure it makes sense to use the same numbers for both.

I was trying hard to avoid this book for so many reasons; perhaps particularly because it is a latter-day second-hand account of wartime relations between the U.S. and Việt Nam, unlike (say) Balaban's, which (to my mind) served a clear purpose. Brutally put, this isn't Dana's story to tell. Still, I found her translations and earlier memoir to be super bits of writing, and her motivations certainly impeccable, so I dived in.

In brief, Operation Babylift was a mass evacuation of war "orphans" at the end of the American/Việt Nam war, in the days preceding the much-feared Communist apocalypse of April 30, 1975. The logic of the babylift was as tortured as that for the entire war, and the book touches on some of the issues from a mostly American perspective. This is a bit frustrating as Dana has the background to explain the political, religious and cultural divisions of the Saigon of the day, and to make deeper sense of why the Buddhists and native Catholics were apparently not as fazed by the imminent Communist takeover as the foreign Christian charities, who panicked or were overtly baby-hungry, and generally not scrupulous about the paperwork and adoption critera. (She identifies Holt International as pretty much the singular ethical international operator.)

The children who were evacuated in Balaban's account had severe medical emergencies and benefited from sophisticated care in the U.S. (generally unavailable elsewhere in the world at that time). That they returned to Việt Nam after a few years was a condition of their leaving in the first place, and was made completely clear to the foster families who took care of them while they were in the U.S. His first-hand witness of the events is more valuable than this researched work, which sometimes degenerates to cutting-and-pasting from the historical record, and extended quoting of the memoirs of two of the women central to the babylift: Rosemary Taylor and Cherie Clark. Dana shows no evidence of reading Balaban's account from twenty years earlier.

Structurally this is modern fly-on-the-wall Bob Woodward style reportage. The facts are peppered with the fake first-personism of "She didn't even stop to wipe the mud from her face" and other colour that merely pads the book out. The biggest problem is that the stories — mostly anecdotes and valuable for that — are sliced up over several chapters, which leads to tedious repetition. (Each episode of the story includes a recap of the earlier installments; "Previously on Babylift...", and I lost track of the loose ends I wanted resolved.) Lockhart got it right: say your bit then let the players say theirs.

Dana's motivation for this project was that she saw a photo of a 747 full of babies from 1975, and she got funded to visit various orphanages with some of the children who returned to Vietnam to look for their families circa 2005. There is limited historical perspective here beyond the observation (p162) that there was a moratorium on adoption after World War II as the Red Cross saught to reunite families. The obvious parallel to draw in Australia is with the stolen generations of Aborigines, who were subject to presumably similar motivations. The baby hunger was again in evidence in Haiti after the earthquake, where people were kidnapping children and getting busted for it. The Israeli Operation Moses (etc) is portrayed in Live and Become as something like the babylift, all chaos and separation. I'm sure there are more. What is common to all is the good intentions of the operators, the murky legalities, the cultural divides and moral complexities. While it would be too much to ask for a contextualisation of the experiences of the children and families affected by all these events, the motivations, legality, etc. of the babylift operators could have been more extensively situated against what happened before and since.

This is a topic I'd never try to write about; it's too fraught. It's like the old philosophical chestnuts that we ponder for a while, before we get bored and shrug, which in this case is not really adequate. What is in the best interests of a child? I have a limited idea about what this might be within my culture and outside a warzone, but it becomes so tangled when one considers the Việt Nam of the 1970s and 1980s: an impoverished Confucian culture where the elders are venerated and not the youth, where the extraneous extended family members become domestic servants (etc. etc.), where the bright lights of the West have come and gone. Is "the best interests of the child" even be a criterion that traditional Vietnamese culture would accept?

We are also left wondering how the Vietnamese diaspora viewed the babylift children, and whether the Communist regime allows them a right-of-return. (Their official response to the babylift was to portray it as kidnapping, and someone more adventurous than I would doubtlessly draw parallels with the situation of the American POWs.) Dana wrote a novel about this very topic (If You Lived Here) which I cannot face after reading this.

It turns out that there was already heaps of literature on this event, including many first-hand accounts and films; ask Google or start here.

Gil Scott-Heron: The Last Holiday

/noise/books | Link

I picked up this semi-autobiography on the strength of a review in the New York Times. I like his poetics, though one might be tempted to conclude that his best work came before 1975. (I'm not enough of a fan to have listened to much more than a greatest hits; it's more that I like his attitude and sense of humour.) The book supposedly started as an account of his tour with Stevie Wonder circa 1980 where Wonder campaigned for the national MLK holiday.

Generally it is well written and sometimes very funny, enough so that I look forward to reading the novels he wrote more than thirty years ago. However the later parts of this book become quite bleak and the concluding paragraph is brutal.

Mario Puzo: The Godfather

/noise/books | Link

The classic airport novel.

John Balaban: Remembering Heaven's Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Việt Nam.

/noise/books | Link

One of the perils of visiting ANU is picking through still more of the extensive collection of books on Việt Nam held in the Menzies Library. I'd read Balaban's earlier Coming Down Again and knew he could write, and indeed this was the book of his for me to read. It recounts his time as a voluntary witness in Việt Nam during the late 1960s, and his return in the early 1970s (to the Delta) and late 1980s (after đổi mới, to the Delta and Hà Nội).

Balaban bravely tells stories against himself here, as well as fulfilling his witness role by describing the effects of the American occupation of the Delta. There's a fair bit of blood and many severed limbs, and also an awareness that traditional Vietnamese culture was in danger of disappearing forever. (Perhaps Balaban's apocalypse has come to pass, I don't know.) He participated in the medical evacuation of many children organised by the Committee of Responsibility but presumably not the Operation Babylift that Dana Sachs wrote about. His time with Ông Đạo Dừa (the coconut monk) on Cồn Phụng (an island in the Mekong, in Bến Tre province) feels strangely abbreviated. The author's brass balls are often on display, which is sometimes poignant as when this crack shot of a conscentious objector takes up arms to defend a hospital at Cần Thơ. Writing this must have been tough.

Sara Turing: Alan M. Turing

/noise/books | Link

This is the Alan Turing centenary year and there's a lot of high-minded academic stuff going on. For some reason I pre-ordered the new edition of this biography from Cambridge University Press via Book Depository; perhaps it was because Martin Davis was spruiking his introduction to it on the FOM list. Ironically his opening paragraph reads:

Sara Turing, a woman in her seventies mourning the death of Alan, her younger son, a man that she failed to understand on so many levels, wrote this remarkable biographical essay. She carefully pieced together his school reports, copies of his publications, and comments on his achievements by experts. But Alan Turing was a thoroughly unconventional man, whose method of dealing with life's situations was to think everything through from first principles, ignoring social expectations. And she was trying to fit him into a framework that reveals more about her and her social situation than it does about him. Alan's older brother John trying to fill in the gaps he saw in his mother's account, also ends up revealing a good deal about his own attitudes. In this few pages I will discuss some of the questions that may occur to readers of these documents.

... and indeed the rest of it runs them further down. It culminates in a section titled Other Reading, which includes pointers to both the standard biography by Hodges and his own Engines of Logic (aka The Universal Computer), and could be summarised as "anything but this".

I enjoyed John Turing's bluntless, though as Davis (and just today, Obama but not Gillard) observes the times have changed. Sara's hagiographic tendencies got pretty boring pretty fast, apart from the odd anecdote.

Andrew X. Pham: A Theory of Flight.

/noise/books | Link

This is a collection of shorts and offcuts from the past decade of Andrew X. Pham's life. As such there's a lot of ultra-light flights, a little hang gliding and many truncated romances. For whatever reason he self-published this one; perhaps it is just too hard to coordinate with an old-school publishing house from that house on the Mekong River (near the Thai/Laos border) that he doesn't talk about. Or maybe he is too happy with his present partner and situation to disturb that equilibrium.

As always he writes engagingly and generously. These tales are mostly not as searing as his earlier accounts of his family and perhaps signal a conclusion to his restless years, if not his crazy-bravery. One could wonder if the various protagonists deserve a right-of-reply, though perhaps they will make themselves heard on this wonderful internet contraption.

I found out about this book via his Kickstarter project for his cookbook. Both of these are now available from Amazon on their Kindle platform, for bargain prices; cheaper even than on the streets of Sài Gòn. The Kindle app on the iPod Touch is quite usable, and the cookbook quite amusing.

Rudyard Kipling: Kim

/noise/books | Link

I figured I'd try reading some eBooks on the iPod Touch, as it is easy enough to get free content from Project Gutenberg into Apple's iBooks application, and the latter is not too clunky for the most part; the screen is so small that any decent text blows out to 800+ "pages". The integrated dictionary was quite useful to, especially as I started out thinking that Lahore was on the coast.

In any case I'd been meaning to read Kim for so long I can't remember why. It's a playful romp through colonial (pre-partition) India, about a white kid who goes sufficiently native to attract the interest of the colonial regime in the "Great Game" they play against Russia for control of Asia west of China. According to the fount of all knowledge, Nehru rated it his favourite novel. Rudyard Kipling got the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907, so early and so young; a reactionary opening of the doors by the committee, I guess.

Here Kipling seems to endorse India in all its messiness, and perhaps also the colonial regime insofar as it gives the white man access to the subcontinent and furnishes the story with the ever-attractive gloss of spycraft. I don't think he condescends to the natives here, but what would I know.

George Orwell: 1984

/noise/books | Link

Another old friend. I am so glad I never studied this book at school, and only encountered Orwell's oeuvre when I got to uni. His writing is as exact an opposite to Hunter S. Thompson et al's gonzo as you will find anywhere. As such it is depressingly clear sighted.

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

/noise/books | Link

An old friend. I like Kundera's meditation on the relation between lightness and heaviness, which is the positive and which the negative, but the book stalls almost completely when he gets bogged down in kitsch at the three-quarters mark. In 1984 it may have looked like Communism was the thousand-year reich, and I guess you've got to forgive an old emigre his fixations. I liked the characters, flawed and all, and am looking forward to seeing the movie again.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (etc.)

/noise/books | Link

I last read this trilogy-in-five-parts forever ago. The first few are as funny as ever. In contrast the concluding Mostly Harmless is a bit dire, with the foxy Fenchurch killed off before the action (as it were) begins. I always wanted to know how the dolphins left, where they went and if they ever made much use of the Guide. While Adams spells out enough of everyone else's (sex-)lives, Ford Prefect may well have been a humaniform car given the action-man he morphs into.

Stephen J. Pyne: Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery.

/noise/books | Link

I got suckered by a review of this book in the New York Times, and figured it'd have to be worth six squid for a copy from a U.S. bookseller (via Abebooks). I'm now absolutely certain that copy was remaindered for good reason.

As everyone my age or older knows, the Voyager probes were sent by NASA to survey the outer planets on a "Grand Tour", and sent back some awesome photographs throughout the 1980s. I'm generally curious about the science they carried out but more interested in the engineering that yields spacecrafts as functional as these still are 34 years later. What electronic technology did they use? (Integrated circuits had been around for a while, and I could imagine they used custom chips with transistor counts in the tens. What substrate?) What is the power source? What is the architecture of the several onboard computers? — and so on. I feel the kid who can't stop asking why.

You won't find satisfying answers to any of these questions in this book. This is a literatti's take on exploration whose erudition garners great reviews from other literatti (i.e. in the mainstream press). The central premise is not really Voyager so much as an overcooked "third age of exploration" neologism encompassing the author's previous history of Antarctic exploration and now space. Unfortunately he is less interested in educating than in appearing erudite, so we get the old synaptic twinge of faux intelligence when we know what he's going to say, and feel dumb (and numb) for the rest of the time. I can't pretend to get all his references; I didn't know anything about the exploration of the United States and still don't.

At times the book gets almost offensively desultory, such as its treatment of Voyager 2's encounter with Neptune which includes barely a page on the moon Triton. Things get seriously weird out there at the gonzo end of the solar system, and as we're not going back any time soon it would have made sense to spend more effort on these unique features of this program. The photographs are also complete rubbish — black-and-white, and nothing iconic. Irritatingly the author makes a lot of these famous images in the text. Voyager 2 is the same age as me, but while I'm stuck in a circle centred on the sun with its crash-test sibling, it's out there doing things, not reading poor accounts of the same.

Ultimately the bibliography was the most valuable part. Tomayko's account of NASA's use of computers in spaceflight can be found here, and Heacock's account of the engineering is also easy to find on the net. The photos are freely available from NASA. My questions are answered on the Voyager Wikipedia page under "Computers" — I guessed they might have been using military-spec 54xx TTL chips but had not heard of "Silicon on Sapphire" technology.