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Been reading, Q3 2017

Young Stalin reading (1949) by Viktor Golitseva

the following treatise investigate[s] the fundamental laws of those operations of the mind by which reasoning is performed; to give expression to them in the symbolical language of a Calculus... and to collect some probable intimations concerning the nature and constitution of the human mind.
~ Boole, epitomising the ambition and naivete of GOFAI,
100 years before it

1/5: Do not read.     4/5: Read with care.
2/5: Do not finish.     4*/5: Read agape.
3/5: Skim.     5/5: Read again
3*/5: Devour with a grin.    


  • The Master Algorithm (2015) by Pedro Domingos.

    Overambitious pop science from a lively and charming expert, trying to sketch all of machine learning in a couple hundred pages. The warmth of his teaching voice comes through the page:
    As you read the book, feel free to skim or skip any parts you find troublesome; it’s the big picture that matters, and you’ll probably get more out of those parts if you revisit them after the puzzle is assembled.
    but he needs a better editor, more even than Nassim Taleb does. This is often just a stream-of-consciousness analogy-dump, and with precise topics that just doesn't fly. (Both Penguin productions.)

    There's more wrong with it than prose, unfortunately: he gives equal time to unpromising approaches (genetic programming, analogical reasoning) and so has to skim over the single most important approach (deep learning), with no real sense of the giant differences in success. Couple this with his terrible argument against AI risk and it becomes actively unhelpful.

    (Pedantic aside: he commits linguistic violence every time he uses "algorithm" instead of the unsexy true referent, "program". He obviously knows the distinction much better than I do, but skips this to talk down / excitingly to the audience.)

    2/5.. Read his great dense paper instead.

  • Old Man's War (2005) and The Ghost Brigades (2006) by John Scalzi.

    Humanistic military scifi in the Heinlein/Haldeman tradition. Obviously a debut, but still fun.

    3*/5 and 3/5.

  • Reread: Cultural Amnesia (2007) by Clive James.

    I love James because, though he is a literary intellectual through and through, he makes room for the other half of the human mind. (The successful half.) He is still an arts supremacist - this personal portrait of the century contains no scientists, and many actors and novelists and politicians, but he is at least aware of the narrowness of this.

    This is an invitation to the humanities, a defence of philosophy and art against politics, an attack on the hypocrisy of the left (Sartre, Brecht, Saramago) and the heartlessness of the right (Junger, ), a reading list for all of us who are bewildered by the bullshit and critical fortresses of serious writing about art and history. James is deeply opinionated, often funny and occasionally heartbreaking.

    This is my second read-through in five years; I expect to read it again in another five.

  • Dune (1965), Dune Messiah (1969), and Children of Dune (1976) by Frank Herbert

    Believe the hype. Eccentric, bug-bear-centric review here.
    4*/5, 3*/5, 3/5. [Library]

  • Kissinger (1992) by Walter Isaacson.

    Balanced coverage of the great monster, including his meteoric rise from penniless immigrant German Jew to a permanent spot in the highest caste of global influence; his academic conceit (the longest-ever thesis at Harvard), and his ceaseless inveigling and brown-nosing. (In case you don't know, Kissinger is probably the greatest war criminal in American history.) Res ipsa loquitur:
    Whenever peace — conceived as the avoidance of war — has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community. [A more proper goal is] stability based on an equilibrium of forces.

    If I had to choose between justice and disorder, on the one hand, and injustice and order, on the other, I would always choose the latter.

    There's not a lot of editorial from Isaacson. He respects Kissinger's single-mindedness and intellectual clout, while giving us plenty of his egotism and blandly evil wonkishness:
    Here was an example of what would become a pattern in Kissinger’s diplomacy: his attempt to mediate a dispute by finding a semantic formulation to finesse differences. In this case it was devising a phrase that linked the bombing halt to the negotiations, without sounding like a condition. Later, at the end of the war, he would search for ambiguous phrases about the demilitarized zone and South Vietnamese sovereignty that could be read differently in Hanoi and Saigon. Sometimes these word games paid off. But usually they opened Kissinger up to accusations that he had left important disagreements unresolved by talking out of both sides of his mouth.

    [during the 1970 election, R v N ] At the convention, the Rockefeller forces, with little to lose, sent Kissinger to talk to the Iowa delegation. “It was so novel to me,” he told a reporter at the time. “I’d never met working politicians before. I didn’t attempt to talk their language. I just talked what I knew.” The Iowa delegation voted overwhelmingly for Nixon.
    Isaacson soft-pedals the mass chaos and death Kissinger gave rise to. And much more has come to light about Kissinger's personal responsibility for it, since Isaacson published this.

    Dr Strangelove wasn't based on Kissinger, but I find it impossible not to think of Peter Sellars (or Woody Allen) when reading about the tragic success of this erotomaniacal egomaniac.

    3/5. Hitchens' Trial of Henry Kissinger is much more salient.

  • 'Who Touched Base in my Thought Shower?': A Treasury of Unspeakable Office Jargon (2013) by Steven Poole.

    Poole is one of the Guardian's sharpest knives. Like Zizek or Debord if they were funny and could write. This is kind of phoned-in though, because the language described is self-defeating, self-ridiculing. For anyone outside it, anyway.

    3/5. [Library]


  • The First Computers: History and Architectures (2003), ed. Rojas and Hashagen.

    Papers from an obscure and high-calibre conference: the presenters include an inventor of ALGOL, Turing's assistant on the ACE, .

    4/5, only if you are into this corner of the world.

  • Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein.

    Comparison of Dune and SiaSL: Both are didactic as hell. Both use magical superhumans to drive the plot in an otherwise sciency setting. Both use a religion their founders do not believe in to obtain power. Both treat water as sacred. Both include cannibals for similar reasons. However, they are deeply different where it matters: Dune is a thing book, SiaSL is a people book.

    It's a strange read, bloated, full of chauvinist banter. It's like George Bernard Shaw wrote a script for the 50s sitcom 'Bewitched'. There are only two female characters: a megalomanaical shrew, and a nubile and devoted secretary (it's just there happens to be 7 copies of the latter character).

    I appreciate his building up a cynical, scientific-humanist world, then tearing it down abruptly at the start of the second book, where two archangels comment on the scene below.

    The Muslim linguist character is interesting but borderline (his differences emphasised, often mocked - his nickname is "Stinky"! - but also brilliant and accepted by all the protagonists):
    [Mahmoud] held a vast but carefully concealed distaste for all things American. Their incredible polytheistic babel of religions... their cooking, their manners, their bastard architecture and sickly arts... and their blind, pathetic, arrogant beleief in their superiority. Their women most of all, their immodest, assertive women, with their gaunt, starved bodies which nevertheless reminded him disturbingly of houris (...)
    (If that made you cringe you ain't seen nothing. It is so easy to show this book in a terrible light:
    Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her own fault. That tenth time - well all right. Give him the heave ho into the bottomless pit.
    Support for the arts - *merde*! A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore.

    I read the modern, unabridged cut and regret it. The last two sections are flabby and pretty much skimmable, if not skippable.

    (As is my new policy, I read this precisely because it was denounced on the internet. Though it turns out the denouncer is actually a critical fan, and the article is entirely fair. For once.)

    First third 4/5, second two-thirds 3/5. [Library]

  • Universal Harvester (2016) by John Darnielle.
    A horror story without antagonist. Honouring and questioning rural homeliness and human twistedness. Haunting, in a toothache-on-the-brain style, and with his characteristic eye for detail, but not operating at the heights of ravaged beauty we know he can reach.
    In the movies, people almost never talked about the towns they spent their lives in; they ran around having adventures and never stopped to get their bearings. It was weird, when you thought about it. They only remembered where they were from if they wanted to complain about how awful it was there, or, later, to remember it as a place of infinite promise, a place whose light had been hidden from them until it became unrecoverable, at which point its gleam would become impossible to resist.
    There are perhaps too many passages that drift off from a concrete event into abstraction, and which then finish on a short, suggestive raised-eyebrow sort of sentence. Like:
    He had lost a lot of blood. His eyes were half-open, and he seemed to recognize that somebody he knew was with him, but he said nothing. He drew great, deep breaths at intervals. The sky above was showing early afternoon flashes of orange, its constant variations flooding the horizon in changing color bars like on the title screen from that weird Charles Bronson movie, the one where he steals a sword from Toshiro Mifune on a train. Red Sun."
    Nerd haiku.

    3/5.. Master of Reality is still his best fiction; his lyrics 1991 - 2009 are still his best words.


  • The Great Influenza (2004) by John M Barry.
    Epic, thoughtful, horrifying medical history of one of the worst things ever. Full review here. (Extra half a point because of the neglectedness of its subject.)
    4/5. [Library]

  • Six Poets (2014) by Alan Bennett.

    Hardy, Housman, Auden, Betjeman, Larkin, MacNeice: all men who tended to emphasise the tragic. (You think Betjeman didn't, but you might be confusing his writing, full of loss and pettiness, with his foppy, daffy TV persona.) This is wonderful - a parallel poem and commentary set-up - covering the famous gobbets dutifully, but also picking excerpts which rarely come to light. The commentary is more clipped and sardonic than you might expect from Bennett, if you only know him by reputation / caricature.

    4/5. [Library]

  • Kafka's Dick (1986) and The Insurance Man (1985) by Alan Bennett.

    KD is fun and uncliched but quite didactic. The irreverence is not mostly directed at Kafka, despite the aggressive-seeming title. IM relies heavily on lighting, juxtaposition, and Daniel Day-Lewis' tics. Both are much more likely to endear Kafka to you than his books, or any of the absurd battery of critical texts on him. This is my favourite thing on Kafka:
    There are many perils in writing about Kafka. His work has been garrisoned by armies of critics with some fifteen thousand books about him at the last count. As there is a Fortress Freud so is there a Fortress Kafka, Kafka his own castle. For admission a certain high seriousness must be deemed essential and I am not sure I have it. One is nervous about presuming even to write his name, wanting to beg pardon for doing so, if only because Kafka was so reluctant to write his name himself. Like the Hebrew name of God, it is a name that should not be spoken, particularly by an Englishman. In his dreams Kafka once met an Englishman. He was in a good grey flannel suit, the flannel also covering his face... The Channel is a slipper bath of irony through which we pass these serious Continentals in order not to be infected by their gloom. This propensity I am sure I have not escaped or tried to: but then there is something that is English about Kafka, and it is not only his self-deprecation. A vegetarian and fond of the sun, he seems a familiar crank; if he’d been living in England at the turn of the century, and not in Prague, one can imagine him going out hiking and spending evenings with like-minded friends in Letchworth...

    In that department [DIY] certainly Kafka did not excel. He was not someone you would ask to help put up a shelf, for instance, though one component of his charm was an exaggerated appreciation of people who could, and of commonplace accomplishments generally. Far from being clumsy himself (he had something of the dancer about him), he would marvel (or profess to marvel) at the ease with which other people managed to negotiate the world. This kind of professed incompetence (‘Silly me!’) often leads to offers of help, and carried to extremes it encourages the formation of unofficial protection societies. Thus Kafka was much cosseted by the ladies in his office and in the same way the pupils of another candidate for secular sainthood, the French philosopher Simone Weil, saw to it that their adored teacher did not suffer the consequences of a practical un-wisdom even more hopeless than Kafka’s.

    One cannot say that Kafka’s marvelling at mundane accomplishments was not genuine, was a ploy. The snag is that when the person doing the marvelling goes on to do great things this can leave those with the commonplace accomplishments feeling a little flat. Say such a person goes on to win the Nobel Prize: it is scant consolation to know that one can change a three-pin plug.

    Gorky said that in Chekhov’s presence everyone felt a desire to be simpler, more truthful and more oneself. Kafka too had this effect. ‘On his entrance into a room,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘it seemed as though some unseen attendant had whispered to the lecturer: “Be careful about everything you say from now on. Franz Kafka has just arrived.” ’ To have this effect on people is not an unmixed blessing. When we are on our best behaviour we are not always at our best.

    This is not to say that Kafka did not make jokes in life and in art. The Trial, for instance, is a funnier book than it has got credit for and Kafka’s jokes about himself are the better for the desperate circumstances in which they were often made. He never did win the Nobel Prize but contemplated the possibility once in fun and in pain, and in a fairly restricted category (though one he could have shared with several contemporaries, Proust, Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence among them). When he was dying of TB of the larynx he was fetching up a good deal of phlegm. ‘I think,’ he said (and the joke is more poignant for being so physically painful to make), ‘I think I deserve the Nobel Prize for sputum.’ Nothing if not sick, it is a joke that could have been made yesterday.

    Dead sixty-odd years, Kafka is still modern and there is much in the present-day world to interest him. These days Kafka would be intrigued by the battery farm and specifically, with an interest both morbid and lively, in the device that de-beaks the still-living chickens; in waste-disposal trucks that chew the rubbish before swallowing it; and those dubious restaurants that install for your dining pleasure a tank of doomed trout. As the maĆ®tre d’ assists the discerning diner in the ceremony of choice, be aware of the waiter who wields the net: both mourner and executioner, he is Kafka. He notes old people in Zimmer frames stood in their portable dock on perambulatory trial for their lives. He is interested in the feelings of the squash ball and the champagne bottle that launches the ship. In a football match his sympathy is not with either of the teams but with the ball or, in a match ending nil-nil, with the hunger of the goalmouth... he would be concerned with the current debate on the disposal of nuclear waste. To be placed in a lead canister which is then encased in concrete and sunk fathoms deep to the floor of the ocean was the degree of circulation he thought appropriate for most of his writing. Or not, of course... Had Kafka the father emigrated to America as so many of his contemporaries did, things might have turned out differently for Kafka the son. He was always stage-struck. Happily lugubrious, he might have turned out a stand-up Jewish comic. Kafka at Las Vegas.

    Why didn’t Kafka stutter? The bullying father, the nervous son – life in the Kafka household seems a blueprint for a speech impediment. In a sense, of course, he did stutter. Jerky, extruded with great force and the product of tremendous effort, everything Kafka wrote is a kind of stutter. Stutterers devise elaborate routines to avoid or to ambush and take by surprise troublesome consonants, of which K is one of the most difficult. It’s a good job Kafka didn’t stutter. With two Ks he might have got started on his name and never seen the end of it. As it is, he docks it, curtails it, leaves its end behind much as lizards do when something gets hold of their tail.

    ...Hermann Kafka has had such a consistently bad press that it’s hard not to feel a sneaking sympathy for him as for all the Parents of Art. They never get it right. They bring up a child badly and he turns out a writer, posterity never forgives them – though without that unfortunate upbringing the writer might never have written a word. They bring up a child well and he never does write a word. Do it right and posterity never hears about the parents: do it wrong and posterity never hears about anything else.

    You do not necessarily need to read Kafka's Dick, after reading that.
    4/5 and >3/5 (the film is 4/5.) [Library]

  • Man Plus (1976) by Frederik Pohl.

    Disappointing. The plot is almost totally driven by sexual jealousy. Read Gateway instead.

    3*/5. [Library]

  • Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges.

    Long and ultra-literate examination of one of the greatest dilettantes of all time. Got very emotional. Full review here.
    4*/5. [Library]

  • The Romanovs (2016) by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

    Long, shallow parade of the tsars from 1600 onwards. Focusses on the wars, the mistresses and the lulz, not on welfare or data. Still good if you're completely ignorant, like me.

    One insight: when you read "Peter the Great", or "Catherine the Great" (or indeed Frederick), remember that this epithet only holds if you append "...For an Warmongering Autocrat" in your head. I wanted to like Catherine II, but on gaining power she of course betrays the ideals of her powerless writing.

    In lieu of analysis, here's Peter the Great:

    She was notoriously wanton and untameable. Even after he had married her off to Chernyshev, she was said to have given the tsar VD.

    ...Peter, suffering from a bladder infection possibly caused by VD, retreated to Astrakhan, but his troops took the key port of Baku.

    ...back in Petersburg Maria resumed her place as Peter's favourite. Rumours spread that she had given him VD.

    3/5. [Library]

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.
- Louis Macneice