(c) "Cross References" (2003) by Jonathan Wolstenholme
Some people try to do something noble with their bodies: they try to have their bodies have some use after they're dead, which I think is a good thought. You're only borrowing your body. You're only borrowing everything. If your body's worth anything when you're done with it you should pass it on, that's something I really believe.
I mean, ok I'm not gonna do it, because I don't want - ewww! No! It's mine!: I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of em. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs; I just like believing them. I like that part! They're my little believies, they make me feel good about who I am! But if they get in the way of a thing I want, or I want to jack off or something...
– Louis CK
Science is the optimum belief system, because we have the error bar, the greatest invention of mankind. It is a pictorial representation of our glorious undogmatic uncertainty in our results, uncertainty which science is happy to confront and to work with. Show me a politician's speech, or a religious text, or a news article, with an error bar next to it.
– Ben Goldacre
Decent haul. Was on holiday, which always makes me feel restless and foolish, eager to flee myself in books. I was later perked up by a big new job and big new city, which added more books somehow because I'm like that.
1/5: No. 4/5: Very good. 2/5: Meh. 4*/5: Amazing once. 3/5: Skimmable. 5?/5: Possible 5/5. 3*/5: Mind-candy. 5/5: Encore.
- I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that (2014) by Ben Goldacre.
A hundred clear, witty, and literate attacks on the agreeable nonempiricism of alternative medicine, journalism, and politics and policy. His website is a bit ugly but has most of this content for free. The extras in this volume are oddities for fans: an undergraduate paper of his, BMJ editorials and notes from his heartening rise into the British policy establishment (he is a public health researcher at the NHS). I was again refreshed and uplifted. Goldacre is that rare thing, someone doing the best work they possibly could be.
5?/5. [Full review here.]
- Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as Revealed Through 1,000 Years of Diaries (1989) by Donald Keene.
Bought this expecting a book of diaries; instead it is a book of essays about diaries, with fairly sparse quotations from the diaries I wanted to read. My rating may be undiluted petulance, as a result.
- The Nice and the Good (1968) by Iris Murdoch.
A joy, a dirge, and so sincere I cried. Both a tame London murder mystery and a sliding-doors comedy of manners in Dorset, the two plots dreaming each other, running laminar. These mere genres are electrified by Murdoch's ethics and filled up with her wit. Like Greene, she is the apotheosis of trash conventions. I feel I am a better person afterward, or at least a better fool. The following derives its power from 200 pages of buildup suddenly letting loose, but it might give you an idea:
Jealousy is the most natural to us of the really wicked passions... It must be resisted with every honest cunning and with deliberate generous thoughts, however abstract and empty these may seem in comparison with that wicked strength. Think about the virtue that you need and call it generosity, magnanimity, charity. You are young, Jessica, and you are very delightful – may I just take your hand, so? – and the world is not spoilt for you yet. There is no merit, Jessica, in a faithfulness which is poison to you and captivity to him. You have nothing to gain here except by losing. You wish to act out your love, to give it body, but there is only one act left to you that is truly loving and that is to let him go, gently and without resentment. Put all your, energy into that and you will win from the world of the spirit a grace which you cannot now even dream of. For there is grace, Jessica, there are principalities and powers, there is unknown good which flies magnetically toward the good we know. And suppose that you had found what you were looking for, my dear child? Would you not have been led on from jealousy through deceit into cruelty? Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past...An essay on the benefits and limits of polyamory; on the trials of self-conscious virtue; an extended gag about virtue's unlikeability. I love the appalling drawling fops Octavian and Kate, I love the notably indistinct Fivey, and I clutch Ducane to myself like a home-knitted scarf against strong winter wind. So pure!
- Fermat's Last Theorem (1997) by Simon Singh.
Good. Lucid in many places ("any logic which relies on a conjecture is conjecture"). Does well in using plain language to communicate some of the exciting complexity and dismaying complication of higher maths - But not as well as
- The Man Who Knew Infinity (1991) by Robert Kanigel.
One of the best biographies I've ever read. (The subtitle says it is about Ramanujan, but it is equally about Hardy, that perfect British intellect: more crystalline than Russell, more lofty than Moore, more self-critical than Hare, more fun than anyone, loveable atop it all.) Ramanujan's story is of course maximally moving to anyone with a shred of curiosity or pity. The most moving part of all is an absence, one of the darker thoughts among all thoughts:
How many Ramanujans, his life begs us to ask, dwell in India today, unknown and unrecognized? And how many in America and Britain, locked away in racial or economic ghettos, scarcely aware of worlds outside their own?His research is patent throughout: he decodes South Indian religion and cuisine, British upper-class slang, and even something of the impressiveness of higher mathematics, while using mere natural language:
Ramanujan's work grants direct pleasure to only a few - a few hundred mathematicians and physicists around the world, perhaps a few thousand. The rest of us must either sit on the sidelines, and, on the authority of the cognoscenti, cheer - or else rely on vague, metaphoric, and necessarily imprecise glimpses of his work.Ramanujan himself left a tiny dense literature that we are still decoding:
...mathematics is not best learned passively; you don’t sop it up like a romance novel. You’ve got to go out to it, aggressive, and alert, like a chess master pursuing checkmate.
Ramanujan's notebooks formed a distinctly idiosyncratic record. In them even widely standardized terms sometimes acquired new meaning. Thus, an "example" — normally, as in everyday usage, an illustration of a general principle — was for Ramanujan often a wholly new theorem. A "corollary" — a theorem flowing naturally from another theorem and so requiring no separate proof — was for him sometimes a generalization, which did require its own proof. As for his mathematical notation, it sometimes bore scant resemblance to anyone else's.Many passages raise goosebumps: Kanigel unites the abstract and the bodily, the true and the human all-too-human.
You cannot say much about Ramanujan without resorting to the word self. He was self-willed, self-directed, self-made. Some might conceivably label him selfish for his preoccupation with doing the mathematics he loved without any great concern for the better of his family or his country...A life-giving book.
Hardy discovered Ramanujan? Not at all: a glance at the facts of 1912 shows that Ramanujan discovered Hardy.
- A Very Short Introduction to: Modern Japan (2009) by Christopher Goto-Jones.
Terribly written, with the glib say-what-you're-going-to-say structure, cod psychology and thoughtless overreach common in social theory.
Japan retreated into a state of denial... Can a nation's [unacknowledged] past make its people ill, in the same way as repressed memories make individuals ill?No and no they don't. But he gives a brief and clear sketch from Edo to their World Cup; still helpful if you are a total novice like me. (Never knew the shogunate were the internationalists in the Meiji struggle!) Needless to say Goto-Jones is unable to step beyond C20th stereotypes - to note, for instance, that by time of writing Japan had likely stopped being the place the future happens first.
- The Magus (1965) by John Fowles.
Contemptible, but worth reading: it gets really good around page 450. The way there is a slog: the de Sade epigrams, the unreflective Freudianism, this:
It was Greece again, the Alexandrian Greece of Cavafy; there were only degrees of aesthetic pleasure; of beauty in decadence. Morality was a North European lie.Snobbery, delusion, bad sex, worse chat, and the limits of reason: Ladies and gentlemen: we were The Existentialists!
Not a patch on Alain-Fournier, nor on Lanark, nor Bioy Casares. The eponymous sage is not sagacious, just imperious. I liked the vignettes that show Conchis' personality as a stolen (or put-on) patchwork of people he had met in his life (the nasty aesthete Comte, the mad Norwegian mystic, the Nazi firing squad). It took quite a long time for me to realise that Fowles might not endorse the nasty blithering of basically every character. (The book seems to have Bad Fans and Bad Haters who never realise this.)
My monstrous crime was Adam's, the oldest and most vicious of all male selfishness: to have imposed the role I needed from Alison on her real self.Anyway my time was recompensed by the great big postmodern explosion of the last 150 pages. Some very lovely passages throughout too:
The bowed head, the buried face. She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspended the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.The ending, so easily hated, does not strike me as meaning "to win love eternal, go on just hit her in the face", despite appearances. It is rather a parting stab at your opinion of Nicholas, a big Straussian dischord thrown into the supposed perfect cadence of the godgame people's efforts; Lily's grand second commandment dissolves suddenly, saltily, and then: a warm mist descends. Go guess.
3*/5 if you're a glutton for philosophical dialogues and Truman Show recursions.
- The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu.
Dense, clever and conveying a pleasant worldview; but also rushed and very clumsy. In fact the prose is awful - full of flat descriptions of people's expressions, people's full names inserted into the dialogue - and the characters are completely interchangeable ciphers (apart from the one who is a stock renegade cop, and the one who is the Ultimate Eco-Terrorist).
Can the fundamental nature of matter really be lawlessness? Can the stability and order of the world be but a temporary dynamic equilibrium achieved in a corner of the universe, a short-lived eddy in a chaotic current?This is no impediment to good hard scifi, it just means that the reference author is Asimov, not Banks or LeGuin. Liu's ideas are well worth the trip - firing at a nuke as a last-resort for disarming it (since the small ones rely on a sealed pressurised container) is about the least ambitious thought in it:
For most people, perhaps time would have gradually healed these wounds. After all, during the Cultural Revolution, many people suffered fates similar to hers, and compared to many of them, Ye was relatively fortunate. But Ye had the mental habits of a scientist, and she refused to forget. Rather, she looked with a rational gaze on the madness and hatred that had harmed her. Ye’s rational consideration of humanity’s evil side began the day she read Silent Spring.
Have you heard of the Monte Carlo method? Ah, it’s a computer algorithm often used for calculating the area of irregular shapes. Specifically, the software puts the figure of interest in a figure of known area, such as a circle, and randomly strikes it with many tiny balls, never targeting the same spot twice. After a large number of balls, the proportion of balls that fall within the irregular shape compared to the total number of balls used to hit the circle will yield the area of the shape.
Twenty minutes later, Three Body’s Von Neumann architecture human-formation computer had begun full operations under the Qin 1.0 operating system. “Run solar orbit computation software ‘Three Body 1.0’!” Newton screamed at the top of his lungs. “Start the master computing module! Load the differential calculus module! Load the finite element analysis module! Load the spectral method module! Enter initial condition parameters … and begin calculation!” The motherboard sparkled as the display formation flashed with indicators in every color. The human computer began the long computation.I don't understand why this won the Hugo - except, that, being foreign, it didn't trigger canned political backlash on either side of the sad affair we have made the Hugos. Tom Clancy for real nerds.
In the long history of scientific progress, how many protons have been smashed apart in accelerators by physicists? How many neutrons and electrons? Probably no fewer than a hundred million. Every collision was probably the end of the civilizations and intelligences in a microcosmos.
Comrades! Revolutionary youths! Revolutionary faculty and staff! We must clearly understand the reactionary nature of Einstein’s theory of relativity. This is most apparent in general relativity: Its static model of the universe negates the dynamic nature of matter. It is anti-dialectical! It treats the universe as limited, which is absolutely a form of reactionary idealism…
3/5 in this translation.
- A Structured Approach to the Adam Smith Problem (2016) by Christopher Hodder.
The third PhD I have ever read, the first to which I've contributed, and certainly the most well-written. ”The "Adam Smith Problem" is just that Smith's two big books seem to dramatically contradict each other: WoN is methodologically and normatively individualist and abstracts out the economy from the rest of human life, but ToMS is a holistic and altruistic picture, one which subsumes economic behaviour as a special case of all virtuous or vicious actions. Hodder's job, which, remarkably, went undone over 200 years of scholarly debate, is to consider the possible explanations (e.g. "Smith divides society into disjoint private and public spheres"; "one of the two books is ironic"; "he changed his mind"; "he was a idjit") through close exegesis and logical reconstruction, and somehow weigh them.
The conclusion is satisfying enough: What is the Adam Smith Problem?: A debate on a problem; the debate was the problem. Basically, a series of bad readers (from the German Historicists to Paul Samuelson) misread certain key terms and passages, imputed an anachronistic atheism and efficient-causation empiricism to him, and then propagated a straw-man ("a shadow history") throughout the secondary literature and the tertiary sewer we call the media. (They also missed the timing and the explicit initial audience of WoN: the book is avowedly a polemic to affect British trade policy, and a highly successful one at that.)
Hodder writes with absolutely minimal jargon; this is as easily grasped as C18th political economy can be. One of my notes was that an institutionalised marker might penalise it for omitting jargon to the degree it does; after all, what's the point if just anyone can waltz in to constructive thought without using the gaudy tools made in desperation by knowledge pieceworkers?:
Sympathy plays a far more foundational role in WN than has previously been noted by any scholar which I have encountered. If we return to the butcher, brewer and baker, example, where we address ourselves not to their benevolence but to their self-interest, all commentators seem to have overlooked the question of how we are to go about addressing ourselves to another's self-interest. The obvious and simple answer to this is Sympathy. We put ourselves in their place, we realise that they expect to be paid for their labour as we would expect to be paid for our own, and as a result we understand that the appropriate behaviour expected of us is to pay for their service. In the primitive society, where the hunter begins to trade his bows for food and starts down the long road towards commercial society, it must be Sympathy which alerts his fellow hunters that he wants something in return for the bows he produces. “Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want” requires that I can escape my own self-interest and understand what you want, and have at least a basic level of Sympathy for you otherwise I would not know what to offer you.Without faulting Hodder at all, I do wonder at the fact that someone with no historiographical background and only half an economics degree could make substantive corrections and suggestions at the very frontier of the field's knowledge of a canonical figure. In one way this is nice: reason is a universal solvent, and specific facts make up relatively little of total intellectual work! But in another way sad: the pompousness and boundary-work of the non-formal academic fields is again shown to be needless, and narrowing.
Sympathy must therefore apply to trade at a very foundational level, and that intimate Sympathy which fosters benevolence can take hold even in business relationships. All it requires is repeated dealings with the same person, and a character which is “well-disposed”. It is not said to be central to society - but this is entirely consistent with TMS, where Smith describes benevolence as “the ornament that embellishes” society, that which makes it happier rather than merely efficient.
- A lot of 1960s newspaper articles and court reports for this odd endeavour.
- What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (1999) by Charles Bukowski.
Bukowski's poems are just a man in a room. Odd that this is enough to make people read them voluntarily, religiously, unlike almost all contemporary poetry (with their bigger brains and better politics and more eventful stories and uplifting messages).
- Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia (2015) by Peter Pomerantsev.
Anecdotal evidence of the new culture, orchestrated and predated upon by an amoral mafia state. In a phrase: Oil-wealth pomo medievalism. Postmodern dictatorship unnerves me far more than the clumsy fascism of the Ba'ath or Juche. It is one thing to steal almost everything from your people; one thing to demean, torture and murder millions; one thing to employ solid portions of the entire country as rabid, unaccountable secret police; Even if you do all of this, your people still know you are evil, and long for your death. It says something about me that the perversion of meaning, the co-optation of important language, and the erasure of the possibility of objectivity is more emotionally taxing to me than straightforward torture kleptocracy ("say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude...").
The most appalling figure in this long list is Vladislav Surkov. He is at first hard to credit as real: think Russell Brand crossed with Don Draper crossed with Laurentii Beria. His exploits sound like totally mental conspiracy theories, but are actually open secrets:
... the office of the presidential administration, where Surkov would sit behind a desk with phones bearing the names of all the “independent” party leaders, calling and directing them at any moment, day or night. The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern art exhibitions...The book is all anecdote. He does state some statistics, without sourcing; the book has no footnotes. We need to do better than this, what with the Kremlin's internet troll army. It is journalism, then, not social theory: a picture of a hundred of so individuals, high and low. Russia is so skewed that one can capture important things about by focussing on the ultra-powerful, though: Berezovsky and Putin, Surkov and Deripaska. He views "international development consultants" as bumbling, ineffective ambassadors of our best side. He is very glib with attributing daddy issues, as if people's psychology were that straightforward or as if Freud were that credible. His prose has the distracting, unbalanced sentences of indifferently translated work ("out to make a few quick quid", "developers steal so much money during construction that even the most VIP, luxury, elite of the skyscrapers cracks and sink ever so quickly"). The drama of it all is wearing: he was a Channel 4-style hack documentarian before becoming a respected literary insider.
But this is good, outraging and intelligent (e.g. he takes for granted that we will understand the contrast between Kaliningrad as the home of Kant and grand larceny and sleaze). A small salvo of authenticity against the Kremlin's apparent wall of disinformation and corruption.
- Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds.
Sterile prose but still very readable goth space opera. Simmonsian - "Stoners" and "shrouders". Herbertian atavism and castes. Shadowplay is good. Ideas are good - but I compare everyone's ideas to Banks and Stross. POV switches way too frequently - sometimes on every other page. This produces glibness. The narrative takes a series of 10 year slips, or 22 year slips, between scenes, which produces agreeable disorientation.
Notable because of its lack of play on human nature: Reynolds' people, no matter how bionic or brainwashed by aliens, are just us in different places. Also same politics and same weapons. The aliens are properly alien, though. Absolutely incredible denouement, best in recent memory.
- Doing Good Better (2015) by Will MacAskill.
Best in class. (The class is "pop philosophy aimed at changing the world".) What you should do if you want to improve the world as much as you can: that is, he skips the soapbox moral suasion and spends the whole time explaining his impressive framework for getting shit done. (Includes a defence of foreign aid, achieving in two pages what my dissertation limped over the course of 40.) His rubric for assessing the optimality of an act is:
- How many people does A affect, and by how much? (Magnitude)
- Is A the best thing to do? (Relative magnitude; opportunity cost)
- What's the difference my doing A makes? (Effect minus counterfactual effect)
- What's the difference that one more A makes, on the margin? (Marginal benefit)
- How sure is A to help? What harms does A risk? (Risk)
Too plainly written for my liking, but then it's not for me: it's for everyone else.
4*/5. Please read it.
- Reread: New Year Letter (1940) by WH Auden.
800 heroic couplets written off the cuff for a friend. Pompous, showy, and forced: I love his idiocies, I love his verse footnotes, which are as long as the original poem again and arraying all his beetling, piecemeal research into his age at least: cell biology, crank psychoanalysis, early sociology, Nietzsche, Nietzsche, all the arts and sciences nominally in his pocket. Anyway half of the idiocy is forced on him by the genre, epic verse, which always sounds damn silly to me (not that I mind silliness in my high art, but I do mind people being silly and not admitting it):
Tonight a scrambling decade ends,
And strangers, enemies and friends
Stand once more puzzled underneath
The signpost on the barren heath
Where the rough mountain track divides...
A weary Asia out of sight
Is tugging gently at the night,
Uncovering a restless race;
Clocks shoo the childhood from its face,
And accurate machines begin
To concentrate its adults in
A narrow day to exercise
Their gifts in some cramped enterprise.
How few pretend to like it: O,
Three quarters of these people know
Instinctively what ought to be
The nature of society
And how they'd live there if they could.
If it were easy to be good,
And cheap, and plain as evil, how
We all would be its members now...
How grandly would our virtues bloom
In a more conscionable dust
Where Freedom dwells because it must,
Necessity because it can,
And men confederate in Man.
But wishes are not horses, this
Annus is not mirabilis;
Day breaks upon the world we know
Of war and wastefulness and woe...
The New Year brings an earth afraid,
Democracy a ready-made
And noisy tradesman's slogan, and
The poor betrayed into the hand
Of lackeys with ideas, and truth
Whipped by their elders out of youth,
The peaceful fainting in their tracks
With martyrs' tombstones on their backs,
And culture on all fours to greet
A butch and criminal elite,
While in the vale of silly sheep
Rheumatic old patricians weep...
- Programming Pig (2011) by Alan Gates.
Another totally readable introduction to something new, without a full StackOverflow safety net yet. (Pig is very good, like an imperative, Pythonic SQL: an omnivorous abstraction over MapReduce with Pythonic data structures, optional Java typing, optional schema declaration, fully extensible in Java, Python, etc. Pig is not Turing-complete, but offers several no-fuss ways to extend and delegate, including this beam of sunlight. I'm porting a bunch of SAS and MapReduce code into Pig Latin atm; the job can sometimes be done in 10 times fewer lines.) However, I read this in the slightly dazed and impermeable way that I read anything I am to read for work.
- Learn Python the Hard Way (2011) by Zed Shaw.
Much, much more my style - opinionated, joined-up, irreverent - though not my speed ("this book gives you the mental tools and attitude you need to go through most Python books and actually learn something"). Shaw is a beautiful mind housed in a slightly unhinged shell:
Which programming language you learn and use doesn't matter. Do not get sucked into the religion surrounding programming languages as that will only blind you to their true purpose of being your tool for doing interesting things.A good way to spend an hour after a year away.
Programming as an intellectual activity is the only art form that allows you to create interactive art. You can create projects that other people can play with, and you can talk to them indirectly. No other art form is quite this interactive. Movies flow to the audience in one direction. Paintings do not move. Code goes both ways.
Programming as a profession is only moderately interesting. It can be a good job, but you could make about the same money and be happier running a fast food joint. You're much better off using code as your secret weapon in another profession. People who can code in the world of technology companies are a dime a dozen and get no respect. People who can code in biology, medicine, government, sociology, physics, history, and mathematics are respected and can do amazing things to advance those disciplines.
- The Establishment and how they get away with it (2015) by Owen Jones.
Begins very well:
'The Establishment' is a term that is often loosely used to mean "people with power whom I object to".But this awareness didn't immunise him to self-service: instead of writing a book about just "the people with power", or "people who abuse their power", he focusses on one sort: the many cronies and neoliberals that cling to the country's upper reaches. The Jonesian Establishment consists of: fiscally conservative think tanks (but not powerful fiscally liberal ones); Old Boy MPs (but not originally working-class ones, however much they use the same revolving doors); the news media (but not himself, with 500,000 followers); the police; all corporate bosses; anything to do with the City.
This is only a problem because of his choice of term, which implies that his description covers all the powerful in Britain. (A big omission, for instance, are the unions. Unite and Unison have extremely frequent meetings with the most powerful politicians in the country - quite rightly - and have an incredibly strong role in selecting some of those people - quite dubiously. They sometimes use this power against the public interest, e.g. GMB propping up Trident. But they are not Establishment to Jones.*)
He is thinking clearly, and that's half the work in finding the truth, which is half the work in changing the world. But, above the level of reporting individual events, he is just not empirically reliable: he notes that the Sun has 3m readers and just assumes that this means they are all-powerful in elections. Actually the (British, C21st) media has little effect on election outcomes - they produce only 1-2% swings.**
A more general problem, endemic among progressives: Jones has a fundamentally moral conception of society's problems: "the poor primarily suffer because of the greed or cowardice or ignorance of our rulers. Nationalisations and the £20 minimum wage would have no real downside." This is as opposed to the engineering conception, which sees the constraints, tradeoffs, and tries to design solutions with these in mind.
Still, my sympathies are with people who get attacked on both sides of a war - in Jones' case, for being both naively idealistic about economics and democracy, and insufficiently radical and obedient to the party line. He bears some millstones, like his totally unanalysed use of the Left/Right divide (he prefaces every single bloody interview with bloody anyone with a binary tag, one way or the other).
Anyway this is good as very recent political history. (If you were paying attention to politics during the Noughties, then you maybe won't learn much new here, but it's a great primer for foreigners and younglings.) I was angry afterward, so clearly he is effective at his chosen task; god knows if political anger is what we need though. (I read a lot of non-data-driven nonfiction, god knows why. Maybe so my anger can be relevant at least, or in preparation for pseuds' dinner parties.)
- Herzog on Herzog (2002) by Herzog and Cronin.
Such a luminous person: contrived and dour and absurd, and yet charming and sincere. Here is him describing one 6 month block of his youth:
I ended up penniless and was pushed around from place to place for weeks until finally I was picked up on a country road by the Franklin family. The mother had six children between seventeen and twenty-seven, her husband had died and there was a ninety-three-year-old grandmother. I owe them so much, this wonderful, crazy family who put me up in an attic... Of course I needed to earn some money, so I started to work on a project that was part of a series of films for NASA. That I made films for NASA always appears on those five-line biographies, and even if it is somehow true, it is completely irrelevant. I did have access to certain restricted areas and was able to talk to many of the scientists, but just before I was about to start work on the film they ran a security check...His whole life is lived with this undemonstrative fervour.
It was evident I was about to be expelled from the country... so I took a rusty old Volkswagen and went to New York during a very bitter winter. I lived in the car for some time, even though its floor was rusted right through and I had a cast on my leg at the time because I had broken it quite badly after jumping out of a window... at night, when it gets cold, say at 3 or 4 a.m., the homeless of New York - who live almost like Neanderthal men - come and gather together on some empty, utterly desolate street and stand over fires they have kindled in the metal rubbish bins without speaking a word. Eventually I just cut the whole cast off with a pair of poultry shears and fled across the border into Mexico.
The interviewer is completely uninspired: he just works his way stolidly through Herzog's back catalogue, with no insight into anything much ("Precautions Against Fanatics was your first colour film, a bizarre comedy set at a racetrack where various individuals feel it necessary to protect the animals from local 'fanatics'. Any comments?"); we are fortunate that Herzog is self-stimulating and full of himself. I'll just let him show you how good he is:
I have never been one of those who cares about happiness. Happiness is a strange notion. I am just not made for it. It has never been a goal of mine; I do not think in those terms. It seems to be a goal in life for many people, but I have no goals in life.Everything he makes is worth your time.
I am someone who takes everything very literally... I am like a Bavarian bullfrog just squatting there, brooding. I have never been capable of discussing art with people. I just cannot cope with irony. The French love to play with their words and to master French is to be a master of irony. Technically, I am able to speak the language - I know the words and verbs - but will do so only when I am really forced to.
I was forbidden to use fireworks. I told the army major that it was essential for the film. 'You'll be arrested,' he said. 'Then arrest me,' I said, 'but know that I will not be unarmed tomorrow. And the first man who touches me will drop down dead with me.' The next day there were fifty policemen and soldiers standing watching me work, plus a few thousand people from the town who wanted to see the fireworks. Of course, I was not armed, but how were they to know? Nobody complained or said anything. So through all these incidents I learned very quickly that this was the very nature of filmmaking.
- Intelligence (2015) by Stuart Ritchie.
Calm empirical rebuttal to 50 years of politicised ranting and ostriching. Incredibly clearly written, stopping short of off-puttingly plain.
(I wonder: Is the g theory of intelligence the most mature, replicated theory in psychology? 100 years old and ever-replicating; language- and culture-blind by now; predictive of the highest human states and traits... What theories can compete? Operant conditioning, I guess. Libet on readiness potentials. But neither touch all of human life in the way IQ somehow does.)
Ritchie treads very lightly over the group differences part; but this is laudable in an introduction, since otherwise people would throw out all the settled and helpful noncontroversial truths that come before chapter 6. (This book is part of the "All that Matters" series, a coincidental subtitle which has no doubt enraged many people and caused him no end of grief.) I highly recommend his Twitter.
- The Bald Prima Donna (1950) by Eugene Ionesco, translated by Donald Watson.
Almost unmitigated shite. I suppose it might be just a satire of hollow, SO RANDOM surrealism? But apparently not - and either way it is not a good play. Plus a half for its structure (a continuous loop with new characters substituted in, taking on the same mannerisms and follies); plus a virtual half for maybe losing its wit in translation. I cannot remember the last time I binned a book (rather than risk anyone else wasting their time).
- On Being a Data Skeptic (2014) by Cathy "Mathbabe" O'Neil.
Extremely sane and salutary; along with MacAskill and Gates, this was one of the books I felt worth schematising, to hold its insights close; bullet list forthcoming. She appears to have taken a (book-selling?) pessimistic turn in the years since (but I haven't read that one yet).
- The View from the Ground: Peacetime Dispatches (1931-1987) by Martha Gellhorn.
My favourite reporter; a great, compulsive, austere, compassionate writer. Better than Fermor when happy, better than Orwell when irate. I am always interested in what she has to say about literally anything: this edition covers her peacetime reporting, which is to say her poverty-and-rubble-reconstruction reporting: Great Depression Deep South; the arts in Communist Poland; the difficult path to democracy in Spain; Thatcher and the miners (...) She ranges over the whole sad half-century, bringing her maternal, judgmental, sardonic history to bear on what could otherwise have been ordinary journalism. Chastises communists and capitalists, liars, mercenaries and torturers of whatever justification. Never mentions her gender; she never let anyone stop her for any reason, let alone that.
Her natural compassion and fairness only cracks when it comes to Palestine; she contorts herself terribly in the face of shocking Nasserian anti-Semitism. It's not a whitewash; she talks to dozens of Palestinians in Jordan and Gaza, covers the Irgun and the bulldozers. But she is totally defensive about the Balfour Declaration and the Six Day War; is unusually eager to show up the many fibs of the Palestinian refugees (: confirmation bias); and excludes their self-determination alone among all the nations of the earth:
Arafat has had enough protection money from the oil Arabs to finance the education of two generations of young Palestinians, a chance to rise beyond the poverty of the camps into a good self-reliant life. Instead he has recruited two generations for training only in the use of guns and plastique, and insisted on a futile goal: Palestine for the Palestinians...How many deep inconsistencies are we allowed, before we stop being great? I don't know exactly, but more than one.
If I had been twenty years younger, I would have got myself to Vietnam somehow and joined the Vietcong, though handicapped by my height. Not much use for digging tunnels. Vietnam for the Vietnamese. Afghanistan for the Afghans. El Salvador for the Salvadorans. Nicaragua for the Nicaraguans. The inherent right of all peoples to self-determination. If they need civil war to determine how they shall be governed, that is their business and nobody else's.
* (I also wish he'd stop capitalising the damn word all the time, but I'm aware that's shallow.)
** A belief in the brain-washing power of the media - to change voting behaviour, to instil sexism, to desensitize us to violence - is one of the defining quirks of the modern hard left, despite there being decent counter-evidence against each effect. Percipi est esse.
O source of equity and rest...
Disturb our negligence and chill,
Convict our pride of its offence
In all things, even penitence,
Instruct us in the civil art
Of making from the muddled heart
A desert and a city where
The thoughts that have to labor there
May find locality and peace,
And pent-up feelings their release,
Send strength sufficient for our day,
And point our knowledge on its way.