peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 06 20 NhaTrang Pensinger TheMoonOfHoaBinh

Công Huỳên Tôn Ñư Nha Trang and William L. Pensinger: The Moon of Hòa Bình.

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I learn so much from these magazines Mr. Dang, and I refuse to discriminate between modes of knowing.
Henry Fool

I ordered a copy of the two volumes directly from Bennett Books on 2015-01-28, $90 + $7 for the USPS, arrived 2015-02-07, wrapped in plastic and with the auxiliary paraphenalia. This was after reading the first 350 pages or so of a copy that Chicago Public Library drug up for me from some other library, and I was planning to leave the remaining (approx) 1350 until my consciousness was in the mood for expansion. It made it increasingly clear that that day would never come, and so I've been chugging it in large slugs for the past 2-3 months. I completed it on the plane back to Chicago from PLDI in Portland, Oregon just now.

There's no beating about the bush: this is an expansive and rambling rant by someone who knows too much. (It is mostly clear that this is Pensinger as those sections are substantially autobiographical.) The charge of quackery floats in the air, especially as most of the work is long on assertion and not fussed about bringing the reader along with it; for instance the last hundred-plus pages of the first volume is notionally a bar scene but only amounts to a repetitious rant about miscellaneous "theoretical" topics (in the critical theory sense) minimally reworked into a mostly one-sided dialogue. Mixing that with quantum mechanics, relativity, meteorology, mathematics and a lexicon larger than any dictionary yields large swathes of dead tree that I skipped. It is so broad and referential that almost everyone will find some of it impenetrable. For all that the bits that do work are too erudite for me to dismiss the whole thing out of hand.

What made the thing essentially worthwhile to me are the accounts of the streets of Saigon circa 1968. In particular they use the old names and locate many now-gone fixtures, such as those of the U.S. military, and observe many things about the traditional lifestyle of the Southern Vietnamese. Pensinger's fascination with the structure of the Southern insurgents is almost infectious, if only he'd aimed for the didactic and not the shameless intellectual exhibitionism that Banerian accuses him of in his review. (World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 3, Literatures of Central Asia (Summer, 1996), pp. 765-767.) There is an account of how to interpret Nha Trang's name (arising from her royal ancestry). There are also, of course, many sexy bits. These are lightly garbed in consciousness-sharing ("identity-transparency") lest the reader get the idea that the authors are merely purient. All the women are beautiful, willing and able, and there are no children to crimp anyone's style. The descriptions of Japanese culture, and the participation-mystique of Japanese gardening, left me a bit cold.

Perhaps the central failing of this book is that Pensinger invested more effort into trawling the esoteric Eastern literature than the esoteric logic literature of Australia, and so forth for every other scientific endeavour that he rubbishes. If he had he would have found several of his ideas developed using the very methods that he decries as incapable of doing so, and at approximately the same time as he was writing this book. (I have in mind Priest et al.'s paraconsistency and dialethism, and the related relevant logics, multi-valued and substructural logics, etc. developed by many people at ANU, the University of Melbourne and UNSW and sundry other places when I was a kid.) I am sure he would find still more outré things to bang on about, though it may have quelled his endless carping about the modern scientists' inflexibility of mind.

There is no point in trying to touch on everything in this book, but I did record a few pointers as I went.

Volume I:

  • p302: Drawing on Marxist criticisms, capitalism is likened to cancer (in growing unboundedly) and said to be incompatible with nature.
  • p412: Village life in and near Saigon.
  • p892: Self similarity is a property of fractals and not holograms.
  • p893: Kali Yuga is the name of The Scrapes's best album thus far.
Volume II:
  • p203: The Maxim bar sounds a lot like the Khong Sao Bar, as Kimberly tells it.
  • p469: An excellent account of special forces medic training.
  • p618: "Imagine what an electronically-minded D. Ellsberg could do these days."
  • p668 gets particularly Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • p709 (bibliography): Greg Lockhart's study Nation in Arms: The Origins of the People's Army of Vietnam is a respectable-history companion to Pensinger's interest in the organisation of the Southern insurgents.
  • p762 (bibliography): Some arcane comments on James Gleick's Chaos.
  • p790 (bibliography): Some comments on von Hayek.

Banerian identifies Liana as "an early sexual image" but to me she was something closer to Diana in Twin Peaks: a passive receiver of revelation. Also there is not much cosmology here, which is somewhat strange as the American fascination with it paralleled their misadventure in Vietnam.

There are scraps of the authors' bios scattered around the internet, for instance on Nha Trang's old Geocities page, the book's own Geocities page and a review at duversity. I believe there is a copy in the ANU's Menzies library.