2011 10 13
Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sign of the Four.
The second of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Not as strong as A Study in Scarlett, but not bad either.
Partha Dasgupta. Economics: A Brief Insight.
Not just a book about economics, but a book about how to think like an economist. Dasgupta hangs his discussions of various topics around two characters, one in the American Midwest, and one in Southwest Ethiopia. The prose is perhaps a bit plodding at times, but the discussion is clear and guided by a genuine interest in human well-being.
Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green. North American Indians: A Very Short Introduction
Perdue and Green make a real effort to stress the agency of North American Indians in this brief history. It’s not all just stuff that was done to them. For all their determination to correct for this emphasis in earlier scholarship on North American Indians, there is nonetheless a tremendous amount of victimization related in this almost unbearably sad story.
David Nobbs. Fall And Rise of Reginald Perrin
Reasonably funny British novel from the 1970s about a middle manager who has a nervous breakdown. It was made into a BBC series, and subsequent novels in the series actually came after their counterparts in the series. I read this first novel and then started the BBC version. But the BBC version—which was apparently quite popular—fell so far short of the version in my imagination that I stopped it pretty quickly and never went on with the series. Anyway, it’s not great, but it had me laughing a few times.
Lawrence J. Cohen. Playful Parenting: A Bold New Way To Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems and Encourage Children’s Confidence
I was very tired of the phrase “Tower of Isolation” by the time I finished this book, but the author actually has a humane, sensible, and creative approach to children and the ways that adults can use play to get them unstuck when they do get stuck. The many examples throughout the book were as helpful as the author’s theoretical observations. Worth reading if you spend any time around children, whether as a parent or not.
Jan Morris. Hav
This offering from the New York Review of Books Press brings together two short books, Last Letters from Hav, published in 1985, and Hav of the Myrmidons, written for inclusion in this book in 2005.
Hav is a small but notable city state perched on the sea in Asia Minor, a dazzling collection of nationalities and influences: Arab, Turkish, Russian, Greek, British—the list goes on. It’s history is tangled up with larger powers, and it’s rather confused architecture reflects all these influences. Although a small city, it was visited throughout the 20th Century and earlier by a parade of notables, from Hemingway to Freud. The only catch—and it eluded some original readers of Last Letters From Hav, who pestered travel agents for information on cheap passage to Hav—is that the only way to get there is through Morris’s books: Hav is an imaginary city. But it is a richly imagined one, and Morris has done a remarkable job of weaving it into our reality. Last Letters from Hav ends with a mysterious Intervention. Morris returns to Hav in 2005 to find that the Intervention, and the strange brand of fundamentalism it ushered in, has swept away much of what she explored on her first visit to the city. Although a bit slow in places, Hav is a fascinating meditation on place, history and modernity. Recommended.
Howls of outrage (6)
2011 03 19
It’s been agonizing to see the tide turn against resisters of the Gaddafi regime in Libya over the last few weeks. After protests swept unpopular governments from power in Tunisia and Egypt, it really seemed as if a mostly peaceful movement in Libya could accomplish something similar. Instead Gaddafi and his circle have rallied, and the result has been very bloody.
Because it’s agonizing to watch this unfolding, the urge to stop it from continuing to unfold is entirely understandable. But there is, as always, a very strong burden on anyone who wants to argue in favour of war. In this case, the suggestion all along has been to insert a heterogeneous and variously motivated coalition of nations into the middle of what has quickly become a civil war—or rather, to insert it above a civil war, since everyone involved seems to think that we can keep it at bombing from the sky. I doubt that this is the right decision, but I don’t want to argue against the war now. Instead, I just want to make a few quick notes about the burden falling on a supporter of it.
First, a supporter of this war should be able to rattle off his top five favourite books on Libyan history and/or contemporary Libyan politics, and to explain the contribution each of these books has made to his or her understanding of the likely outcome of intervention into the civil war. The point is: If you don’t know a lot about Libyan culture and history, I just don’t think you can advocate a war there. A similar burden does not fall on a critic of the war in my opinion. This is because the default position on killing other human beings is to not do it. If you want to move away from the default position, your first responsibility is to know what the fuck you’re talking about.
All right, then. Too onerous? Gaddafi’s victims are dying and you don’t have time for a trip to the library? Fine. Without peeking at a map, a supporter of the war should be able to name Libya’s six neighbours, and explain how the war is likely to affect each of them—and, how each of them is likely to affect the war, and its aftermath. Again, the first burden on someone who wants to advocate a war is to know shit. This is one of the lessons that Iraq ought to have drilled into everyone’s heads.
Finally, a point about hypocrisy, double standards and the coalition attacking Libya. Let me try to make the stale dialectic a bit fresher and then connect it back to the burden on a supporter of the war. It goes like this:
Con: “But Bahrain (just to take one example), a US ally, is right now brutally cracking down on protesters. How can the US attack Libya for doing the same thing while providing diplomatic cover for Bahrain! Bahrain is even part of the coalition against Gaddafi!”
Pro: “Yes, it’s hypocritical, but so what? The fact that we can’t, or don’t, address every wrong, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address any wrong.”
Of course it would be awful if the US and a few allies were going to war against Libya without the backing of the Arab League. But in order to hold its anti-Libyan coalition together, the US, Britain and France will have to make compromises, and this includes going more easily on Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on protesters than they would otherwise need to. It was tricky enough for the US, with a military base in Bahrain, to criticize the ruling clique there. It only gets harder to apply peaceful pressure to that situation when the ruling clique’s continuing support for the war against Libya is needed.
Notice that choosing war in the one case makes it harder to apply peaceful pressure in the second. War is funny that way. A supporter of the war needs to think not just about whether the coalition position is hypocritical, but also about whether the war will aggravate the hypocrisy.
Update: And see Fallows.
Howls of outrage (3)
2011 01 22
Wow, no posts since November! You all know intuitively that the we post a lot less frequently these days. What you’ve hitherto lacked, however, is a chart setting it out for you:
Yeah, it’s not the world’s greatest looking chart, but you get the idea. (I’ve never used matplotlib before. I’m guessing a log scale on the y axis might have helped.) By the way, that little spike in early 2004 is misleading. Somehow a bunch of posts from that period went missing, and I haven’t tracked down yet where they got to.
To make the chart, I just exported our published posts since April 2004 from WordPress and then ran this script on the xml. You need to install matplotlib first.
from xml.etree import ElementTree as ET import datetime import sys from matplotlib import pyplot as plt import pylab def get_dates(filepath): dates =  with open(filepath) as f: doc = ET.parse(f) root = doc.getroot() for pubDate in root.findall('channel/item/pubDate'): date_string = pubDate.text.replace(" +0000", "") date = datetime.datetime.strptime(date_string, "%a, %d %b %Y %H:%M:%S") dates.append(date) return dates def get_intervals(dates): intervals =  for i, date in enumerate(dates): if i == 0: continue delta = date - dates[i-1] intervals.append((date, delta.days)) return intervals def plot_intervals(intervals): dates = [date for date, value in intervals] values = [value for date, value in intervals] plt.plot_date(pylab.date2num(dates), values, linestyle='-') plt.title("Time Away From You Over Time") plt.xlabel("Date") plt.ylabel("Days Between Posts") plt.grid = True plt.show() def main(): dates = get_dates(sys.argv) intervals = get_intervals(dates) plot_intervals(intervals) if __name__ == '__main__': main()
Howls of outrage (4)
2010 10 16
Arthur Conan Doyle. A Study in Scarlet
This was the first Sherlock Holmes mystery to be published and the second I’ve read, after The Hound of the Baskervilles. Although not as good as The Hound of the Baskervilles, this was still very entertaining, and I think I’ll keep going.
Like many fans of the mysteries, I find myself delighting in Holmes’ intuitive leaps. Doyle’s presentation of these leaps, as filtered through Watson’s incredulous resistance, is extremely rhetorically effective. When Watson finally relents and accepts some chain of reasoning of Holmes’s as inevitable, it’s easy to feel that we should too. But if you stop and think about it, Holmes’s entire philosophy and approach is built on a totally loopy idea of induction.
P.G. Wodehouse. The Inimitable Jeeves
Of the eight or so books by Wodehouse I’ve read, this is among the very best. In fact, it gives The Code of the Woosters a run for its money.
If you like Wodehouse, read this hilarious book immediately. If you haven’t read Wodehouse, either this book or The Code of the Woosters is a good place to start. Wodehouse was best known for his the Jeeves and Wooster stories, featuring the hapless, dim-witted Bertie Wooster, always getting himself into trouble, and Jeeves, his brilliant butler, who always figures some way out of the mess. It’s mindless fun, but Wodehouse can turn a hell of a sentence and there is always satisfaction in getting to see one of his convoluted plots sort itself out, just as you knew it would, at the very last minute.
P.G. Wodehouse. Much Obliged, Jeeves
Also deliciously silly fun.
A.B. Bosworth. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great
An excellent scholarly account of Alexander’s career, along with a number of peripheral subjects. Bosworth’s is a scholarly and not a popular account, in the sense not just that he wrestles with other scholars from time to time, but that his account of what happened is usually embedded in careful discussions of the source texts. This is exactly the way I like my history; others might find it tedious. The peripheral subjects alluded to above include, e.g,. the finer points of satrapal administration in Alexander’s Persian territories. YMMV, as the saying goes.
Cory Doctorow. Little Brother
A novel about a 17 year old hacker who is arbitrarily detained in a round-up after a terrorist attack in San Francisco, and who decides to fight back against the authorities using all his hacker-fu. At times it seems a bit like Doctorow is trying to jam every thing in the world that he finds cool into the narrative—mainly through the mouthpiece of his seriously precocious protagonist. The good news for me was that there’s a significant overlap between what I find cool and what Doctorow does: programming, cryptography, civil liberties, etc. The book, while not high literature, is also just a satisfying, well-paced read. I sort of wish I could go back in time and give a copy to my 17 year old self.
Cory Doctorow. Content
Little Brother has the distinction of being the first book I’ve ever read on a phone (while commuting on the subway). I downloaded it for free, along with a few other books whose copyright had expired, setting them into the public domain. Doctorow releases all his books under a Creative Commons license, which permits people to download and redistribute his work without paying him a royalty fee. Content, which I also downloaded and read on my phone for free, is a book of essays by Doctorow explaining, among other things, how he manages to pay the rent as a professional writer who lets people read his writing for free. The answer is, in part, just that it costs him nothing to let people download his books, that it often results in free publicity (e.g., blog posts) and buzz, and that many people who could download his books for free end up buying physical copies too (from which he does make money).
But Content is about more than how Doctorow makes a living. It’s about legal restrictions on content, like copyright, DRM (digital rights management, the technology that is supposed to stop you from giving the mp3 you bought on itunes to your friend), and the technologies, policies and trade-offs relevant to these legal restrictions. Although marred a bit by repetition, this is a good, thought-provoking collection. I especially enjoyed re-reading Doctorow’s talk, collected here, but long available free on his site, at Microsoft about DRM technology.
2010 08 07
Arthur Conan Doyle. The Hound of the Baskervilles
A family haunted by a legendary curse, a wily villain, and Sherlock Holmes on the case. This novel, perhaps the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, is a ripping good yarn. It also happens to be the first one I’ve read. I hope the others are as good.
Charles Petzold. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software
This book is a superb introduction to the subject of how computers work. It starts in the most basic way talking about counting and binary and electricity, then moves from telegraph relays to the simplest circuits, builds all the way up through ever more complex computing machines, and ends with a brief explanation of high-level programming languages. Each step along on the way is set out by the author with impressive clarity and patience. Indeed, there is nothing in the first half of the book that would be over the head of an intelligent 12 year old. The second half of the book is a bit more challenging, but a motivated reader should be able to get through it without any background at all in the subject. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.
Lenore Skenazy. Free-Range Kids: Giving Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts Without Worry
Skenazy, a newspaper columnist, made headlines a few years ago when she let her nine year old ride the subway home alone and then wrote a column about it. In response to being branded “America’s Worst Mom” (which epithet she has borrowed for her book cover) she started a blog about worry free parenting and then wrote this book on the subject. Skenazy’s line is pretty simple: Too many parents these days drive themselves nuts with worry trying to avoid the most statistically improbable outcomes; that this has an unfortunate and unnecessary stunting effect on our children; and that the social norms that have coalesced around this worry make it really hard to stay sane yourself, e.g., you can be branded America’s Worst Mom if you let your nine year old take the subway home alone (along a route the child knows, with change for a phone call, and when both child and parent feel the child is ready for the adventure). (If my memory is not mistaken, my unusually precocious cousin was allowed to wander around Hong Kong when not much older than this when his family was passing through.)
I agree for the most part with Skenazy, and I’ve encouraged Yoon to read the book in the hope that we can agree to try to be as sane as possible when raising our son. The book did become a bit monotonous, though, since there’s only so much cheerleading for a mostly reasonable proposition that I can handle.
Robert Graves. Good-Bye To All That
Graves, the poet and novelist, was a British schoolboy in the period just before WWI and then fought in the trenches for much of that war. After the war, he studied for a time at Oxford. These three periods of his life brought him into contact, sometimes glancing, sometimes intimate, with just about every literary and cultural figure in Britain from Siegried Sassoon to Bertrand Russell to Thomas Hardy to T.E. Lawrence.
In his early thirties Graves left Britain for the island of Majorica and rarely returned. Good-Bye To All That was his bitter parting shot. I have always been fascinated by the disillusionment generated by WWI, and was especially interested by this aspect of the book. In this respect, it makes a nice companion to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I wrote about briefly last year.
2010 06 26
Recently read: Coming up for air edition
Whew! Busy, busy. But at least I can read on the subway on my way to work.
Adrienne Mayor. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy
Rome fought four wars—the so-called Mithradatic wars—against Mithradates in the first century B.C. The wily, resourceful Mithradates makes such a perfect subject, and the story of his setbacks and accomplishments is so much fun, that I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t been all over him. Perhaps now they will be. Mayor tells his story with real verve. Mithradates was especially famed for his extensive toxicological investigations—for practical reasons he was very interested in how to poison others and how to build up immunity to poisons that others might use on him—and Mayor, an expert in ancient toxicology, is especially well-suited to relate this part of the story. Where the evidence grows thin, at the beginning and the ends of Mithradates’ life in particular, Mayor allows herself speculative passages that might have been more suitable to a historical novel. But that’s partly just a matter of taste, and these passages are usually marked out very clearly as speculative. This book is recommended.
Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar
Solid, though now somewhat dated (published 2007), account of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Emphasizes the extent to which policy was not really driven by larger strategic considerations, but rather emerged through a series of accidents. My only complaint is that the book might be a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with Canadian politics. This is a pity, since I think it would be really useful for Americans to have a sense of what the war looks like from the perspective of a close coalition partner.
Edward Gorey. Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks
This book is a children’s classic published in 1950 and recently resurrected by the New York Review of Books in their excellent children’s series. The stories are well told, though it dragged in places. That might just be me, though—I’ve never had much interest in Greek myth. A chart at the back helps the reader keep track of Latin equivalents of Greek gods and heros, but there is no introduction explaining why Gorey chose to use the Latin equivalents in the first place.
Félix Fénéon. Novels in Three Lines
This is a collection of three line news summaries written by Fénéon for a French newspaper over the course of 1906. The summaries occasionally touch on politics, but they’re mostly about every day pieces of news: suicides, burglaries, assaults, and accidents. This might sound monotonous—and actually I would recommend that people not try to read the book through cover to cover without a break—but Fénéon’s summaries are, as the title of the book suggests, absolute masterpieces of compression. Fénéon was an anarchist and an important behind-the-scenes literary and cultural figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. He wrote little and the contents of this book were only saved for posterity by lucky chance.
Howls of outrage (3)
2010 05 21
Comment Spam, 2.0
For years I wondered why comment spammers didn’t try to sneak comments into discussion threads by re-posting existing (legitimate) comments in that thread, but with a link back to their site in their signature. The illusion of topicality would make it harder for human and spam filter alike to catch on. Alas, just a month or two ago I started to see this technique show up on this site. Congratulations so far go to D.C. and Steve: Some bot found you worth emulating.
Also, gosh I’m busy these days.
Howls of outrage (2)
Louis Begley. Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters
Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was accused in 1894 of selling secrets to a German military attaché. A note had been discovered indicating that someone was selling secrets to the attaché. The note was real; just about everything else that became associated with the case was not. The only actual evidence brought against Dreyfus was the claim that the handwriting on the note was his own. It was not. Dreyfus’s first trial, resulting in a conviction, was a travesty involving significant judicial misconduct, in which antisemitism played a crucial role.
And then things got really bad. As evidence identifying the real culprit started to surface and Dreyfus’s few supporters rallied against an obviously bad decision, Dreyfus’s superiors dug themselves into a deeper and deeper hole. As the 1890s wore on, the Dreyfus Affair became bewilderingly complex, with forgeries, suicides, conspiracies, missteps on the part of Dreyfus’s supporters, and stunning reversals on both sides.
The conservative, militarist, antisemitic response to the scandal was essentially to point out that for Dreyfus’s supporters to be correct, a deep rot would have to have infected the military, a pillar of French society, and parts of the political establishment. Since this was unthinkable, so too was Dreyfus’s innocence. They were wrong, of course, and it is a mistake that continues to be instructive.
Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters is a tightly written account of this affair, which so thoroughly rocked French society in the 1890s. I’ve just called the plot bewilderingly complex. Begley is to be commended for having written such a clear and engaging account of it. One highlight of the book is a brief but penetrating discussion of the Dreyfus Affair in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which should be accessible to people who haven’t slogged through it, but especially interesting for those who have.
I’m not sure Begley did as good a job explaining why the Dreyfus Affair matters. Begley finished his book just as Obama was elected. Begley, who is clearly no fan of the Bush administration, takes a few stabs at connecting the Affair to current events. The lack of due process and forms of incarceration found at Guantanamo are compared to the travesties of Dreyfus’ trial and exile on a remote island. A brief section on official reactions to whistle blowers connects a defender of Dreyfus’s to Joseph Wilson. This, I take it, constitutes the main part of Begley’s answer to the question raised by the title of his book.
This is weak stuff.* There are of course similarities between any two miscarriages of justice. But even if the similarities were more striking than they are, they wouldn’t tell us why the Dreyfus Affair matters today. You can be entirely ignorant of the Dreyfus Affair and still be offended by the scandal of Guantanamo Bay. All you need for that is a functioning conscience. If you’re not offended, you’ll hardly be convinced by a series of strained analogies with the Dreyfus Affair.
I’m not sure I’ve been able to get very deeply into the question of why any historical incident matters, but here are two fairly obvious (non-competing) answers as they bear on the Dreyfus Affair.
First, from history we (sometimes) find out why we are a certain way now. My understanding is that French society and politics is the way it is today in part because of the reverberations and aftershocks of the affair. Begley has nothing (that I can recall) to say about contemporary French politics or culture, focusing mainly on the United States. That’s fine, but I don’t believe the United States was shaped in significant ways by the Dreyfus Affair, and it’s an American audience that he seems mainly interested in addressing.
Second, studying history can broaden our sense of what’s possible. There are all kinds of contingent features of society and human nature that look fixed and permanent, and all kinds of things that seem certain at any moment that turn out to be thoroughly mistaken. I think the Dreyfus Affair matters, and not just in France, in this way. Many of those involved in persecuting Dreyfus, even after it was, or should have been, clear that he was innocent, acted in ways that were utterly irrational, stupid, and blindly defensive. It was unthinkable to many that such trusted figures of the establishment could behave this way. But it is an incontrovertible fact that they did. It was unthinkable in particular to people who thought a certain way: people with a streak of authoritarianism, who were reflexively inclined to give people in power the benefit of the doubt.
As I said above, this is instructive. It gives us a nice morality tale about the dangers of trusting officials in authority. It’s a story that ought to leave us a little more paranoid, a little less trusting of authority. But as instructive as it is in this sense, it would be a mistake to think that we can simply take the case and apply its lessons to contemporary political issues. As controversial as Guantanamo is, I don’t see how parallels between Guantanamo and some now unambiguous miscarriage of justice at the end of the 19th Century are going to be less controversial. The Dreyfus Affair, like most history, matters, but in a less direct and much more subtle way than that.
* Though Begley’s criticisms of certain French judicial procedures that worked against Dreyfus, such as an acceptance of hearsay, is certainly relevant to the issue of whether the American military tribunals contain stringent enough protections against abuse.
Howls of outrage (2)
2010 02 12
Great moments in Canadian politics
A politician got tossed yesterday from the New Brunswick legislature after giving another politician the finger. This write up of the story doesn’t come close to conveying how hilarious the audio recording of the incident is. As a friend of mine remarked, they sound like a bunch of kindergarten kids.
Howls of outrage (3)