Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: Old Venus

Old Venus
George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois (editors)
Science fiction, anthology

The idea is a lot of fun: collect stories set on Venus the way it should have been--the lush jungle planet, steaming in the rain and teeming with life, of Golden Age science fiction.

The stories, regrettably, are not a lot of fun. In fact, the stories mostly range from mediocre on downward--boring, poorly structured, and unimaginative. There are only three that I'd recommend:

  • "Frogheads", by Allen Steele, is competent.
  • "Greaves and the Evening Star", by Matt Hughes, is a flat-out P. G. Wodehouse parody--a gimmick, but largely successful as such.
  • "Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan", by Ian McDonald, is quite enjoyable to read. I found the ending a bit predictable, though.
To the other authors: You might want to consider the quaint tradition whereby your protagonist has some, you know, role to play. As in does something, or makes a decision, or has any function other than to wander around being a viewpoint. Also, there's this thing called a "climax" or "resolution" that you should maybe look into.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review: The Glorious Deception

The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer"
Jim Steinmeyer

William Robinson was a popular music-hall performer. He did stage magic under the persona of Chung Ling Soo. He died, on stage, when one of his illusions went tragically wrong.

That's The Glorious Deception. There's really nothing more to say. If that sounds like something you'd like to read more about, you'll enjoy reading this book. If it doesn't, you'll probably find it slow and somewhat repetitive. There are a lot of descriptions of magic tricks, and a lot of fairly quotidian biography. I mildly enjoyed it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it far and wide. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park
Sinclair McKay
History, biography

Want to know how they broke Nazi codes at Bletchley Park? There are a number of good books on the subject. Want to know what it was like to live and work there? That's harder. With the exception of Andrew Hodges's excellent Alan Turing: The Enigma (the exceedingly approximate source for The Imitation Game), biographies and social histories of Bletchley seem surprisingly sparse.

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers is a nice attempt to rectify the disparity. It's not super-deep, but it's a good overview and a quick read. It might not appeal to readers with no interest in the subject, but for the rest of us it's a lively portrait of a very particular place and time. It would be great preparation for a visit to Bletchley--an activity which I can't recommend highly enough. (We have some tips if you're interested.)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: Waterloo

Waterloo: Wellington, Napoleon, and the Battle That Saved Europe
Gordon Corrigan

After the first couple of chapters, I had very high hopes for Waterloo--entertainingly written, with some witty asides, and providing a clear and thorough context for the battle.

The rest of the book isn't bad, but it doesn't live up to the initial promise. Corrigan spends a lot of pages detailing the armies, the equipment, their organizations, the order of battle, capsule biographies of the major commanders, etc. He spends some more on talking about things like the importance of staff work and logistics. 

Actually, I rather liked most of this, because it adds background, nuance, and depth that would be missing from a simple blow-by-blow account. However, it limits the scope a good deal. Then, too, Corrigan overplays his hand somewhat. The witty asides pile up until they stop being funny and start being tiresome. The quibbles about this or that cherished historical myth similarly multiply, which is of no use to a reader who doesn't start out with any knowledge of the myth in question. On the other hand, he does very little to convey the human dimension of the battle.

So in the end, the book is a special-interest rather than a general-interest one. Waterloo is good for military history buffs, war-gamers, and students of the Napoleonic period in general. Other readers can give it a miss.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Book Review: Why Does the World Exist?

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story
Jim Holt
Philosophy, physics

First, a confession: I think of the titular question as a meaningless noise. It's like asking "Why are there round things?" or "Why is there no positive integer less than one?"

Or perhaps a better analogy would be "What's north of the North Pole?" If you answered "nothing," isn't that a different kind of nothing than the nothing of "There's nothing in my pocket"? The phrase "north of the North Pole" is nugatory; it's not even wrong.

The reason that's a good analogy is that that's how cosmologists think of time and space. There's no "before the Big Bang" for the same reason that there's no "north of the North Pole": the Big Bang is where time began to exist.

Put another way, why should we assume that there's any way for the universe to not exist? There's no a priori reason, and precious little empirical support, for any such idea. Even the language is murky. I can say, with a fair degree of confidence, that there does not exist a perfect three-foot cube of solid gold with the complete works of Shakespeare translated into Sanskrit inscribed on it. That means that, as it happens, there's no such thing in the world. What would nonexistence not exist in? And, speaking of nothingness, what would it mean to say that something whose fundamental, definitional property is the property of not existing "could be the case"?

Oh, the book? I liked it very much. It's a series of clearly-written, intelligent-but-not-stuffy interviews with people on every imaginable side of the question--from those who take my point of view to religious thinkers to philosophers to the novelist John Updike--interspersed with the author's own musings. It is, in other words, a book of thought problems. As a kid I loved books full of logic puzzles; I think this is the adult equivalent.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Book Review: Rust

Rust: The Longest War
Jonathan Waldman

I write software for a living. But my major headache isn't writing it; it's maintaining it. Software, like any other engineered object, is subject to corrosion.

No, it doesn't literally corrode. It just behaves as though it does. Take a working piece of code. Leave it for six months. Try to run it. You'll almost inevitably find that something has changed. A file isn't where it used to be, or its format has changed, or the database is different, or something that I'm depending on doesn't work the same way, or a calculation has changed, or some assumption is invalid, or ... the list is endless.

The process is sometimes called "bit rot".

So I really liked Rust. Entropy is an absolutely inescapable portion of any engineer's life. It's manifestly stupid not to plan for it--and yet many engineers (or organizations) don't. Rust explains, in gory detail, why they're wrong. Plus I'm a sucker for any kind of book that takes some overlooked aspect of our world and delves into it.

I have a couple of quibbles. The chapters are individual essays--stories of people who are involved with corrosion in some way, including a pipeline engineer and an artist. They don't really link up into an overarching story. I wouldn't have minded more chemistry and physics, either.

Quibbles aside, though, this is a fine read. A couple of other books of the same sort spring to mind:
  • Does the subject of the now-ubiquitous shipping container sound boring to you? Then you haven't thought enough about it; read The Box, by Marc Levinson.
  • Similarly, does a book about human waste sound like something to make smirking jokes about? After you read The Big Necessity, by Rose George, it won't seem very funny.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book Review/Essay: Valediction and the Spenser Canon

WARNING: Contains some modest spoilers. Also, this is more essay and less review than is customary in this space.

Robert B. Parker

I started thinking about Robert B. Parker after a close friend of mine reread The Godwulf Manuscript

Parker wrote no less than forty novels featuring his iconic private eye, Spenser. The first eleven, written between 1973 and 1984, are all at least good; the best among them--I'd pick Promised Land, Looking for Rachel Wallace, and Early Autumn--are among the best novels of any sort I've ever read. They're morally complex; they're ambitious; they have both lovely descriptive writing and super-taut dialogue. Valediction is the last of these "classic Spenser" novels. 

The rest range from OK to lousy.

We're not talking gradual decline here. It's a sharp, clean break, and the breaking point is the twelfth novel, A Catskill Eagle. Put plainly, it's awful. Parker's marriage broke down about this point, and A Catskill Eagle is a revenge-therapy wet dream. Spenser's long-time girlfriend Susan Silverman leaves him; her new lover turns out to be not a mere bad guy, but a megalomaniac militarist would-be dictator. So Spenser gets to kill him and kill off most of the private army he's building in the wild, remote, unexplored hills of Connecticut (whose nickname is not "The wild, remote, unexplored hills state"), and Susan comes back, and admits that he was right and she was wrong and she made a terrible mistake and never again and ... just take my word for it, it's embarrassingly bad.

From that point onward, Parker stopped taking risks with his novels. Increasingly, they read like drafts or outlines of books, not finished books.

One way to see this is simply by comparing the language. Here's the opening of The Widening Gyre (1983):
I was nursing a bottle of Murphy's Irish Whiskey, drinking it from the neck of the bottle sparingly, and looking down from the window of my office at Berkeley Street where it crosses Boylston.
It was dark and there wasn't much traffic down there. Across the street there were people working late in the ad agency, but the office where the brunette art director worked was dark. The silence in my office was linear and dwindling, like an art-perspective exercise. The building was pretty much empty for the night and the occasional faraway drone and jolt of the elevator only added energy to the silence. 
By contrast, Now and Then (2007) opens with a seven-page chapter which is almost 100% dialogue. No mood, no scene-setting. It's pretty good dialogue, but the older books had dialogue that was just as good, plus they had the other stuff.

That's symptomatic of the changes in the novels. Chapters get shorter. Descriptions disappear. Everything except dialogue and action is pared away. 

And, in this paring away, Parker loses the things that make his early novels so brilliant. It's not just language. He loses the depth, the complexity, and the humanity that the language was there to support.

Classic Spenser has two interlinked stories. The "outer" story is the crime/mystery plot. The "inner" story is something that affects Spenser himself, personally. 

  • In Mortal Stakes, Spenser investigates a real-estate developer's missing wife, but ends up having to confront questions of his own relationship with Susan, and the larger question of what marriage and commitment really entail.
  • In Looking for Rachel Wallace Spenser is hired as a bodyguard for a prominent lesbian author, and fails--and so he has to think about what it means to be masculine, and what it means to be a good man.
  • In Early Autumn, Spenser ends up informally adopting the neglected son of squabbling, divorced parents--not because he wants to, but because all the alternatives are worse--and has to figure out what that means for himself, for the boy, and for Susan.

After A Catskill Eagle, the "inner" story vanishes. Spenser is generally secure, to the point where he starts getting smug. When he and Susan come into conflict, he is always right, and she is always wrong, and she always ends up admitting it. (This happens all the time in real-world relationships, I'm sure.) The early Spenser uses violence sparingly, and there are always consequences; in Mortal Stakes, for instance, he spends a good three pages in the final chapter trying to work out his own conflicted feelings after shooting two thugs. The later books almost always end in a gunfight, which Spenser treats as routine. Even Spenser's relationships with the secondary characters--Hawk, Lieutenant Quirk, and others--become sketchy: the early books have tension and conflict there, where the later books have everyone acting like members of the same Secret Boys' Club.

Well, so be it. I've never written anything as good as the first eleven Spenser books, and I'm in no position to criticize a working author for writing books that will sell, and in any case I think any author has a right to be judged on his best work instead of his worst. I think of the later volumes as the story of a deutero-Spenser, another character who has somehow taken up the identity of the originals. Some of them are tolerable enough for me to have reread. But the original Spenser is incomparable.

As for Valediction itself, it's not the best of the classics, but it's good. It has the inner story (Susan takes a job in San Francisco) interlinked with the outer one (a possessive client hires Spenser to find his girlfriend). It's got a very good, very tight character portrait of a man trying to function when he feels like he's got no reason to function. It's got a good take on love and romance. 

And it's got an arresting last sentence, which to my mind is indeed a valediction of sorts: the last sentence of the original Spenser:
And the two of us sat alone and far, and laughed carefully together at the verge of different oceans. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Book Review: Why Homer Matters

Why Homer Matters
Adam Nicolson
Literature, ethnography

This is a Romantic book. I am an Enlightenment reader. It's a bad mix.

If Adam Nicholson had stuck to writing a book called Why I Love the Iliad and the Odyssey, he'd have done fine. The bits where he tells his personal reactions or interweaves his own stories with Homeric prose are good. Unfortunately, he doesn't stop there. He tries to mix his own passions with actual scholarship, and he's not good at it. 

A few--a very few--of the things that irritated me in Why Homer Matters can stand for the whole.

Nicolson loves fine-sounding generalizations divorced from any actual logic or evidence, because they fit whatever grandiose theory he's propounding at the moment. For example, discussing the decoration of some Bronze-Age artifacts, he comes up with this:
Spirals are everywhere ... The spirals might be taken as abstractions of the waves of the sea, but they are more than that: a recognition that this pattern of bind-and-release, alternating connectedness and separateness, is intimate with the nature of existence, of the thinking mind, the experiencing heart, the world that weaves and severs.
Really, Adam? Good thing you're a time-traveling psychic to tell us so confidently what a bunch of craftsmen were thinking when they drew their spirals five thousand years ago. Otherwise we might be fooled into thinking that the spirals might symbolize something else, or that--I know this thought is shocking--maybe they don't symbolize anything; maybe the craftsmen put them they're because they're neat designs, or the equivalent of a coat of arms, or for some reason that we would never think of. But none of that can possibly be true, because Adam Nicholson says "they are ... a recognition etc. etc. etc.", and he just knows.

Similarly, he spends far too much time gassing on about the fact that some of the Bronze-Age stick figures carved into the rocks of Extremadura (Spain) have disproportionately large hands, because that suits some airy thesis that he's building. Well, it turns out (I know from experience) that drawing hands is tricky, even with a pencil--but of course, in Nicholson's world, this must be a Deeply Meaningful Fact. OK, fine ... but a glance at the accompanying illustration shows that the hands aren't really all that prominent. Rather, the most noticeable thing about these figures by far is that their legs look like they're about nine inches long. But Adam Nicolson doesn't notice. Homer talks about "man-slaughtering hands" and not about "little stubby legs," so obviously the legs are not a Deeply Meaningful Fact. Q.E.D.

Finally, take the matter of dating. Most scholars think the Siege of Troy occurred some time around 1100-1200 BC. Nicolson prefers a substantially earlier date. He presents some evidence for his side--pretty decent evidence, it seems to me--and then he gets around to refuting the conventional date, which he does by saying: No it isn't. His view seems to be that it's a better story if you take the earlier date, so anyone who disagrees with him is a stupid poopy-head.

Here and elsewhere, Nicolson shows a complete grasp of how to make a fallacious argument. He has a wide variety of techniques, and he deploys them all with skill: the selective evidence, the out-of-context quotation, the assertion-presented-as-fact, the beautifully-worded but vacuous generalization, the cherry-picked facts ...

It's a pity. When he isn't making meaningless noises about some unprovable generality or insisting that Homer is an uncanny fit for the 21st-century worldview, Nicolson is a very fine writer. I was particularly struck by some of his insights, such as the parallels between modern gang mores and the behavior of the Greek chieftains before Troy. If you're a Romantic reader, Nicolson's prose may sweep you off your feet. But if you're not--if you read Why Homer Matters with a cold, rationalist eye--you'll end up seeing the empty, anti-intellectual vacuum lurking under the flashy surface.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Book Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain
Fiction (reread)

I done read this book afore but I ain't cracked it open in donkey's years. I mind it was in high school, and I remember allowing as how it weren't half-bad, not for mandiblatory reading anyhow, but dad blame me if I could see what all the fuss and feathers was about.

The book's got considerable better since then, I reckon. There's been enough ink spilled on ol' Huck and Jim to float that raft of their'n a tolerable distance, so I ain't fixing to add much more. Only I wanted to give a shout out to Samuel Mark Twain Clemens for doing a bang-up job on Huck and his nat'ral morality.  Huck ain't above telling a few taradiddles to smooth out the bumps, and he might liberate a chicken if it was needful; but inside hisself he knows right and wrong, even if he's a mite mixed up on which is which. It's the regular folk, with their feuding and killing and cheating and slave-hunting and what-not, who's rotten; they being able to rationalizate any dern thing they want to do, and convince themselves it's all aces; but Huck das'n't, on account of his conscience.

There ain't but just one thing more, the which has been eating at me.

Back when I first read this book I purposed a paper topic, that being "The River as Homer Sexual Meta Four in Huck Finn", but I was just funnin'. Well, consarn it, I think now I should 'a' writ that paper, cause it'd be dead easy. Excepting I should 'a' writ it all serious-like, talking about how Huck Finn is plumb overflowing with Homer-erratic tension and suchlike. If I warn't such a blame fool I'd 'a' proved that Mr. Mark Twain was a Homer sexual like Honest Abe and King Richard the First and purt-near everybody else and then got famous and be a ten yeared perfessor--only I bet I could 'a' done it in eight years, tops.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Erik Larson

I spotted at least one review that described Dead Wake as a novel. It's not; it's thoroughly researched and well-supported non-fiction. Nonetheless, it reads very much like a thriller. In fact, I kept thinking of Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal. As in the novel, there are two parallel plotlines counting down to zero hour, where they meet. And, also as in the novel, knowing how it comes out does nothing to spoil the suspense.

The other thing I kept thinking, more soberingly, was: "9/11". Not for the specific events, but for the psychological impact.

This isn't an academic book. Larson doesn't have a thesis to propound, or an axe to grind, or a startling new revelation. What he has--and he himself says as much--is a terrific story, with tremendous pacing and a (mostly) solid handle on a large cast of characters ... and it's all true.

The obvious non-fiction parallel to Dead Wake is Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, about the Titanic. That's a great book, to be sure, but since I've mentioned Walter Lord I can't help giving a plug to his Incredible Victory--the one book that did the most to turn me into a history reader.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Book Review: Coined

Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us
Kabir Sehgal
Economics, history

 Kabir Sehgal commits an absolutely unpardonable sin in this book: he conflates Star Wars and Star Trek.

[Pause for gasps of outrage.]

That's a joke, son, but it's only a sort-of joke. Coined is fast-paced and wide-ranging, but there are too many places where Kabir Sehgal skips stuff, or makes arguments that are at best poorly phrased, or just plain makes little blunders. It's a mile wide and an inch deep (and if you think it's hypocritical for me to complain about that, you're right, but I'm doing it anyway).

To put it another way, I could have written this book myself, given enough time and the right Wikipedia articles.

Actually, that's not true. I would not have done what Kabir Sehgal does, which is to accept the conventional assertion that gold and silver represent a mythical something called "hard money".


The idea that gold has intrinsic value is, prima facie, stupid. Here are some of the many things you can't do with gold:
  • Eat it
  • Drink it
  • Shelter from the rain under it
  • Cure your influenza by injecting it
  • Enjoy carnal pleasures with it (if I'm wrong about this, please do not tell me)
Imagine that you and I are on a desert island. My side has a pirate treasure chest. Your side has coconuts. I offer you a gold coin in exchange for a coconut. If gold has intrinsic value, this is a good trade. Given the relative value of gold and coconuts, you should always accept.

In reality, whether you should take the offer depends not on the market price of coconuts, but on your beliefs about the future.
  1. If you believe we're likely to be rescued soon, sure, take the coin. You can sell it when we get to shore.
  2. If you believe we may never be rescued, and that you may need all the coconuts you can get, you'd be an idiot to accept this offer. Coconuts have actual utility; gold doesn't.
The value of my gold coin, in other words, depends on whether you believe that, at some future point, you can trade it to someone else. If you don't believe this, my dubloons have zero value. In which regard they are no different from green pieces of paper with pictures of Benjamin Franklin on them. If people believe in their future exchangeability, they're money. If people disbelieve, they're not.
End of Digression 

Coined is an easy read, impressive in breadth, and suitable for someone who's never really thought about the subject. For deep reading, however, I'd recommend instead any of the following:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book Review: Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing
Laura J. Snyder
Art, optics

Johannes Vermeer was a master of Dutch genre painting. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was a pioneering microscopist, the first to observe single-celled organisms. I'd known a fair amount about each of these men individually--though more about Leeuwenhoek--before I picked up Eye of the Beholder.

I had not registered that they lived in the same city (Delft) at the same time (they were baptized a week apart) in houses that were a minute's walk from each other, and had a number of mutual friends. Given the relatively small size of the city, and the two men's similar social standing, it's hard to imagine that they weren't at least acquaintances. It turns out that Leeuwenhoek was even appointed to execute Vermeer's will.

That's the first of many connections that Laura Snyder talks about, but it's hardly the most interesting part of this extraordinary and thought-provoking book. Snyder's thesis is that both men were working at the edge of a new way of seeing, using both the emerging science of optics and the new thinking of the early Enlightenment.

Take Vermeer first. He was far from the only painter of Dutch interiors, but he was perhaps the sharpest observer. He and his fellows differed from the Italian school of painting in that the Italian Old Masters tended to produce what I might call interpreted paintings--art that was meant to tell or illustrate a story (often religious or mythological), or to produce a moral lesson, or serve as an allegory. To fully understand these paintings, you sort of have to follow the artist's thoughts.

By contrast, consider Vermeer's The Geographer--the model for which, quite a few scholars think, may have been Leeuwenhoek himself:
Who is this man? Has he just been struck by a thought? He's deeply engaged in something, but in what? Vermeer doesn't tell us. He just gives us the moment, accompanied by a near-photographic level of detail. The painting isn't interpreted, but observed.*

The distinction becomes critical when we think about the then-brand-new science of microbiology. Even today, science struggles against narrative. We humans have an instinct to see, not what's there, but what we expect. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that was considered a feature rather than a bug. In the Scholastic tradition, to generalize wildly, phenomena were observed in order to confirm what the observer already knew (meaning, in this case, the medieval understanding of Aristotle). Galileo saw mountains on the moon; other viewers saw them as clouds, or reflections; still others--so Galileo complained--refused to look through his telescope at all.

Leeuwenhoek is called the Father of Microbiology not only because he built good microscopes, and not only because he was exceptionally skilled and diligent in using them, but because he too observed. He saw what was there, and he didn't see what wasn't there.

The above is only the briefest, barest synopsis of the ideas in this dense yet fascinating book. Some of them are speculative: Snyder subscribes to the somewhat-controversial idea that Vermeer made use of lenses, mirrors, and the camera obscura. Others are perhaps more strongly presented than the evidence warrants. These, however, are nits to pick. Overall, Eye of the Beholder is that rare and excellent book that does the thing it describes: it takes something familiar, and gives us a whole new way to look at it.

*And part of that observation prefigures the Impressionists. Examine the shadows in The Geographer above, and you'll see a whole range of tones. That's Vermeer working with how the eye perceives shade and light, which is not at all the way a camera does.