Been reading, Q3 2014

The basic tenet of multiculturalism is that people need to stop judging each other—to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful… The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there’s no real culture left. All that remains is clog dancing and macramé. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor and begin pumping bullets into Westerners.

- Neal Stephenson

to say that love is what motivates most of us who are neither complete bastards nor distracted by secondary concerns such as “what other people will think” – to say this is not to say anything very neat or tidy. But that too is as it should be.

- the Unknown Anti-Ethicist

Why not write down what you’ve been reading?

Well, it’s pompous. It also adds a loud implicit audience - yourself - who gawks over your shoulder and interrupts to say what they fucking think. (Fiction benefits from leaving behind such gremlins as your tutors and yourself.) There’s also some pressure to rush the reading and keep up with yourself. Also, forcing out reviews of things is a recipe for banality and witless caution (see any newspaper with a small review staff). And, of course, time spent writing is time not reading.

5?/5: First time, potential vade mecum.
1/5: No.       4/5: Got to me.
2/5: Vitiated.       4*/5: Amazing but just once, probably.
3/5: Skimmed.       
3*/5: Mind candy.       5/5: Encore.


  • Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (2009) by Eveline Chao. Actually I was - but only because my laoshi was a saucy linguistics grad who warned me not to practice the tricky phoneme or on the street, or ever to shout “3-8!”. Anyway this is dead funny and valuable for understanding the place’s otherwise inaccessible working-class or web or queer registers – and as a way of generally not seeming like a prig. So: language is fossilised sociology; Chao excavates what would take us decades. She begins with slurs of all sorts, but doesn’t list any homophobia – claiming it isn’t a well-rooted hatred there (…). There’s loads and loads of ableism, though. Gets more serious as it goes, with whole chapters on gay culture and web ‘activism’ (恶搞 is ‘evildoings’, lulz). This turns up details like the infallibly hilarious “potato queen”. I also loved her decoding the ancient innuendoes: 云雨 (clouds and rain), 鱼水之欢 (the fish and the water, happy together), 余桃 (sharing peaches), or “playing the bamboo flute” or “bamboo harmonica”. (BTW, the title term is 牛屄 – ‘Cow-cunt’ – and means “Awesome!”.) 4/5 for subcultures.

  • Capital in the 21st Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty. Well then! Long separate blog review in the works. Was swooning by the end of the preface
    To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage of being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.
    He's understandably keen to emphasise his ideological hygiene - but, as the Tory media correctly noted, the act of paying attention to inequality is itself a weakly left-wing act. With a few more diagrams and boxed definitions, this would make an excellent intro macro textbook, gentle and empirically obsessive as it is. Policy chapter is superb an' all. Weighed down only by (forgiveable) overstatement of its own achievement (“the fundamental laws of capitalism”). Lot of redundancy - whoa-there steady-now summary paragraphs every few pages - but I suppose that's what you need to do if you aim to be understood by policymakers. 4*/5. [Library]

  • Deaf Sentence (2008) by David Lodge. Gentle, silly-solemn, but limp campus novel. Examines middle-class middle-age without angst, despite the narrator’s being very hard of hearing. There’s a sudden tokenistic Auschwitz section which gets about one page of build-up and is soon left behind (when the actual plot revives itself). Its affairs are less farcical, ambitions less contemptible, plot less unabashedly neat (though there is this: “Perhaps one day we’ll turn up in a campus novel” – “God, I hope not”), and I miss all that of Lodge. 3/5. [In one sitting]

  • Even As We Speak: Essays 1993-2001 (2002) by Clive James. The last twenty years see James taking his dark intellectual turn to the history of totalitarianism, and bringing it into everything, everything else, dragging Hitler and Stalin around like the stations of the cross. His long excoriation of Daniel Goldhagen is angry, entertaining, and an education in itself. (The question the two men are at odds over is, “How could civilised, literate, assimilative Germany Do Such Things?” Goldhagen says: because they – all Germans – were eliminationists just itching for an excuse. James’ answer is complex, but puts due weight on the simplest explanation: they did it because a single word of dissent meant death, for any of them.) James is a bit obsessed by his chosen field tbh – Hitler references turn up in his sunny, giddy Sydney Olympics pieces! Then there’s his ornately maudlin account of his acquaintance with Diana Spenser. (I spent a little while trying to pigeonhole his politics recently – this non-republican, anti-Marxist, pro-American-culture hobnobber – and decided it is wrong to call him right-wing. “Democracy is really valuable only for what it prevents…”) Funny, profound in places, but his late themes had solidified already and are covered better in A Point of View and Cultural Amnesia. 3*/5. [Library]

  • The Rhesus Chart (2014) by Charles Stross. Brave, for a writer of taste to write a vampire book, these days. But then in a sense Stross doesn’t give a shit, since he has written a vampire book in which the vampires are literally high-frequency investment bankers who become vampires literally because of high-frequency investment banking. Then there’s his occult computer science (“Magic is a side-effect of certain classes of mathematics… Sensible magicians use computers.”). Stross is the only writer I know who depicts the corporate/bureaucratic way of life, as well as just its deadening language. Millions of people now spend much of their lives within a structure encouraging this mindset; we need art that knows its vagaries and petty circumlocutions and administrivia. So, extra half-point for detailed solidarity with the office drone. And the TVTropes reference. 3/5. [Library]

  • Reread: Collected Poems (1988) by Philip Larkin. Of the consuming fear of death, sexual frustration, impostor syndrome: Britain. (In fact this is the apotheosis of male British misery: Housman, if he was honest about his appetites; Lawrence with a sense of humour; Auden plus even more jazz.) He was forever overawed by lack of control over his life; we are left with his superlative control of form. Motifs are well-known: the hostile wind heard from the cold attic; the diminishing of strength; the fall of desire - without a matching fall in the desire to desire; the conviction that age is not running out of time, but running out of self. These are not moans: he loves jazz and booze and other things that make death recede. He’s vulgar, and wields it, but never as a punchline; what starts with “Groping back to bed after a piss” will end with the universe:
    The hardness and the brightness and plain
    far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
    Is a reminder of the strength and the pain
    Of being young; that it can’t come again,
    But is for others undiminished somewhere.
    There’s too much in this volume. I mean that as criticism of its editor, not as expression of Larkin’s o’erflowing sublimity. But that too, actually: “Sad Steps”, “Aubade”, “For Sidney Bechet”, "No Road", and “Continuing to Live” are among my favourites. By ’72 his bitterness and fear had overcome his basic kindness, and he dried up, leaving doggerel for mates and nasty biz like “The Old Fools” or “The Card Players”. And yet even after three years of this came “Aubade”. I avoided the juvenilia, perhaps even out of superstitious respect. 5/5.


  • The Good Women of China (2002) by Xinran. Ripping, horrible portrait of patriarchal suffering – but undermined by the editing process; the narrative she ties the various cases of abuse, suppression and loss is too neat for my jaded nonfiction hopper. (I apologise if she just had a very cinematic few years as the most famous woman in the country, bearing witness, but the coincidences make it difficult to take it too seriously. I don’t actually doubt that the interviews happened, nor that she received the aggregate worry and misery for millions; so I’m not sure which part I’m taking issue with. The unnatural dovetail. China comes across here as a little village where Xinran was wise mother, and all distant rumours burst into her life. (Maybe my reaction is just a cheap defence mechanism against the thought of an 11 year old repeatedly giving themselves pneumonia to avoid their rapist father and other such tales of ordinary madness.) Nothing in the text matches the simple implicit horror of the hanzi on the cover: “nu” (female), nu+er (female + housework = woman), hao (female + son = good, The Good). Even granting that it is much easier to see oppression in cultures other than your own... 3/5.

  • In the Beginning was the Command Line (1999) by Neal Stephenson. Classic, cynical cultural history of popular computing. Also a noob-friendly guide to breaking free. (As such it's a love letter to GNU: “Linux… are making tanks… Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free… It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and have to compete against more modern products. But it is the fate of operating systems to become free.”) If you’re like me (human?), you need metaphors and binary distinctions to get abstract stuff, and Stephenson has them coming out of his ears, which sometimes leads to stone-tablet patronising tone*.
    Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces.”)
    An amazing writer, though: he finds program comments "like the terse mutterings of pilots wrestling with the controls of damaged airplanes." In tech, 15 years is a full geological era and a half*, so some of his insights have taken on a sepia hue (e.g. “Apple are doomed because they are obsessed with hardware”). But astonishingly, most have not – and how many other tech articles from the 90s are still worth a single minute of your time? 4/5 for noobs like me.
  • * He uses this very metaphor in this short essay.

  • Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Fooled the World (2009) by Barbara Ehrenreich. Sharp, sharp! Blames the grinning tendency in its many forms – the New Age mystic sort, the New Age pseudoscience sort, the self-help, motivational, pink ribbon, megachurch, and positive psychology forms – for much suffering and tastelessness, including the whole 2008 financial crisis. And she writes with sardonic muscle:
    I felt at that moment, and for the first time in this friendly crowd, absolutely alone. If science is something you can accept or reject on the basis of personal taste, then what kind of reality did she and I share?… To base a belief or worldview on science is to is to reach out to the nonbelievers and the uninitiated, to say that they too can come to the same conclusions if they make the same systematic observations and inferences. The alternative is to base one’s worldview on revelation or mystical insight, and these things cannot be reliably shared with others. So there’s something deeply sociable about science; it rests entirely on observations that can be shared with and repeated by others… It is a glorious universe the positive thinkers have come up with, a vast, shimmering aurora borealis… It’s just a god-awful lonely place.
    Was a bit disturbed by her personal impressions of the legit psychologists (Seligman’s profiteering and evasiveness, the apolitical blitheness of it). 4/5.

  • I, Robot (1940-1950) by Isaac Asimov. So sunny! So clumsy! (“His dark eyes smoldered.”) So misanthropic! (The humans call the bots “Boy”, who call humans “master”.) So warmly cool! 3/5. (The story ‘Evidence’ is 4/5.)

  • Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise of Living Alone (2013) by Eric Klinenberg. This research is very important – tracing the ideological roots of normative pairing, looking at chimps and orangutans and showing the deep flaws in the research that claims that married people are on average happier. But that’s all covered in the preface, and Klinenberg’s prose is canting and repetitive – after chapter 4 I could not stand any more of his interviewees’ corporate self-conceptions and language (“I needed this in order to grow as a person”). It is wholly cool and righteous to live alone; but talking about it this way is revolting. 3/5, once you’ve absorbed the headline.

  • Cash (1997) by Johnny Cash. Oh no! Just a list of sentences, and bucolic, undirected sentences at that. The origin story is obviously compelling, and the Sun records bit is tasty. But he fails to say anything very interesting about the road, the drugs, or the country Scene which he so resents, nor the amazing Rubin work which brought him back his immortality. There are flashes of spirit (“As I’ve often said, I grew up under socialism, and it saved my family”), but otherwise this is one long Acknowledgments page. 2/5.

  • The End of an Old Song (1957) by JD Scott. Good, nasty coming of age story of some Borders boys, one diffident and Carawayan, one coiled and voracious. The narrator's one distinguishing quality is eloquence about his friend, and for once this device is not taken for granted – people remark on his skill at describing and paeaning Alastair. He reuses certain idiosyncratic, ear-worm words – “illimitable”, “aviary” as an adjective for a woman – to great effect.
    “She’s English.” I said.
    Alastair made a Scotch noise in the back of his throat.
    Annoyed at the conclusion – there’s an Oxfordian twist that I resent. But the details make it – rationing, the Scotch cringe, the good, miserable wages of sin. 4/5.

  • Hyperion (1997) by Dan Simmons. Starts terribly, with the broody protagonist playing a grand piano outside in a storm. Also, despite being set in 3200CE or whatev, it makes a gauche number of leaden references to the culture of C20th Earth. But the structure (6 tales from 7 travellers, from Chaucer) and the sheer variety of styles and themes soon kick in and drag you through its delicious cyber-goth intrigue. The poet character is fucking annoying, but he’s meant to be. (The key problem of metafiction: to write a great poet character, you really have to be a great poet yourself. Nabokov was, but even he dodged the issue by making Pale Fire about a flawed poet.) At one point it implies that Keats’ poems were retrocaused by the schemes of time-travelling AIs, which is a thing that must be admired. 4/5.


  • Government Expenditure Review Scotland 2014, and the Dunleavy Report, and the McCrone Report, and the Stiglitz Currency Advice, and the Fucking News (2014).

  • Why Moral Theory is Boring and Corrupt (c. 2009) by the Unknown Anti-ethicist. …And redundant, procrustean, and worse than nothing to boot! Interesting iconoclasm uploaded to the Open University unsigned. Their criticisms of thought-experiments and the absence of real emotional phenomenology from academic ethics are not unprecedented, but the constructive answer offered here is: “instead of calculation or logic-chopping, just love”. There are no hatchet jobs on humans here; the axe is for concepts and methodology. (Singer is cited as an example of what not to do, but not cruelly.) I think their attack on the psychological possibility of having a Master Factor ethical life by holding apart the criterion of rightness from the deliberative procedure is the only key wrong part of this; but if you disagree, then you may well never have to read moral theory ever again (just novels instead). I wonder whether they really couldn’t publish this under their own name. Anonymity has certainly suppressed interest, which, given this paper's power, speaks very ill of the ability of philosophers to transcend social pressure. (PhilPapers records just 97 downloads for the paper.) 5?/5.

  • The Atrocity Archives (2001) by Charlie Stross. Four books in, I’m starting to get annoyed at every character sharing Stross’ fondness for naff nerd references at moments of high drama. But it took four books. So! Nazi mages, Turing as founder of scientific magic, and some very rigorous nonsense – e.g. the killer gaze of the Medusa is modernised as a quantum observer-effect in which the collapse of a super-position adds protons to carbon nuclei, forming silicon(!) Cosma Shalizi calls it ‘mind candy’, which is perfect. 3*/5. [Library]

  • In the Light of What We Know (2014) by Zia Haider Rahman. Two globish co-dependents of unequal intelligence but equal mawkishness take turns at monologue, for ages and ages. One’s oracular, the other Boswellian, which means that both talk about the nasty past of the oracular one, Zafar. Everyone’s always trying to educate everyone else, without invitation. Tragic, panoptic, and handles critical C21st problems – neocolonialism, quant finance, the ineffectiveness of NGOs, the nature of the transnational élite that administers all these things. But also dull, overwritten and clumsily polymathic (characters can be found over-reading, variously, Gödel, Middlemarch, the birth of Bangladesh, the Brit-pop band James). The book is aware of its pomp – there’s a long discussion of sincerity as virtue and vice, a raging attack on Anglophone Indian literature, and Zafar quotes more and more as he disintegrates, suggesting that the book’s larding of quotations is a knowing prop. But while I don’t know whether it’s Zafar or Rahman that the book’s clumsiness is rooted in, I don’t have to, to know that his conceit of desperate knowledge didn’t take root in me.

    I shouldn’t say panoptic: there’s only one woman in this, really, and we don’t see much even of her except as deceiver and appalling vehicle for privilege. Chapter 14’s good – a big bickering, drunken dinner with Pakistani elites, and there are details to admire throughout (Zafar broods over microaggressions, and some of his apercus are sparkling – like his characterisation of maths as “thinking without the encumbrance of knowledge”, or his likening of a good essay to “a good dress – long enough to cover the important bits, short enough to be interesting”). Last, very superficially: there are no speech marks, and this deadens the dialogue for me; it makes everything look past-tense and snarky. (Ok sure this works incredibly well in Blood Meridian, but only because all the men in that are wholly dead inside). Will Self minus electricity; Coetzee minus originality and 12-gauge philosophical calibre. Speaking as a pompous generalist and an inveterate over-writer… 3/5.

  • Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, translated by Olena Bormashenko. Ah, great! Earthy, economic sci-fi; aliens visit, ignore us entirely, and soon leave, leaving behind only transcendent junk and horror-film phenomena from their little picnic. Prose is lovely and plain, translated with subtlety (we get “scabby”, “sham”, “mange”). The ordinary, crude protagonist Red is scrabbling illegally to provide for his mutant family (the Strugatskys use cash and cash pressure amazingly, grounding the whole cosmic fantasy in commerce, crime, exploitation). Every time Red gets cash, he throws it away – in someone’s face as an insult, in someone’s face as a distraction to evade capture, or just away. No explanations except bureaucratic filler; no salvation, just dumb defiance. A really nice original touch is that Red interprets the body language of his friends in extreme detail – a scratched nose means, to him, “Whoah, Red, be careful how rough you play with the new kid”. Also notable for being a Soviet novel set in mid-west America, evoked very, very well. And the Russian Soul bubbling under their dismal economics rings out without catching in the barrel:
    4/5. [Library]

  • Gave up: Another Country (1952) by James Baldwin. Doubtlessly important, but formally and lyrically grim. Impossibility of interracial love among racism, impossibility of calm for anyone with any really big plans, impossibility of sexual satisfaction, impossibility of peace for a manly man, impossibility of finishing the damn thing. [Library]

  • The Signal and the Noise (2013) by Nate Silver. A nice surprise! He's very pleased with himself (as well as being pleased with the Bayesian methods he owes his success to). But arrogance can be earned. (A minor peeve: the hot topics "data science" and "big data" are really just good old Victorian statistics with a sprinkling of Silicon Vally fairy dust. But don't tell anyone I said so, or my wage will drop 30%.) 4/5. [Library]

  • Reread: The Pleasures of the Damned (2009) by Bukowski. The anti-social phallocrat waves his pen in the wee small hours – yet often manages beauty. It’s a Best-of, but actually not his best. Bukowski is Springsteen after Rosalita, Mary, Janey, Sandy, Trudy and the rest have either moved town forever to get away from him, or died. 3*/5 and 5/5

  • Big Java – Late Objects (2013) by Cay Horstmann. And again I sign away my mind’s dirigible dilettantism for a whole damn year. I got a lot more out of Codecademy and being shut in a room until I eventually produce working code, though. 2/5. [Library]

Among the taller wood with ivy hung,
The old fox plays and dances round her young.
She snuffs and barks if any passes by
And swings her tail and turns prepared to fly.
The horseman hurries by, she bolts to see,

And turns agen, from danger never free.
If any stands she runs among the poles
And barks and snaps and drives them in the holes.
The shepherd sees them and the boy goes by
And gets a stick and prongs the hole to try.
They get all still and lie in safety sure,
And out again when everything’s secure,
And start and snap at blackbirds bouncing by
To fight and catch the great white butterfly.

- John Clare