Monday, 4 February 2002

The flâneur

Listening to:

Schumann, Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. Played by Martha Argerich.

Just read:

Edmund White, The flâneur.

I got this as a Christmas present, but because I was away from home at the time, I allowed myself to read it, in bare-faced defiance of the rules of the List.

Anyway, it’s a very elegant little book. It's the first in a series featuring writers on cities with which they are familiar. White's city is Paris, and he fills his book with interesting observations and stories about the city. Superficially, this is thus a travel book. There is no attempt at completeness in White's coverage however: he has written about what he's interested in. I think his views and opinions interesting, so that's fine by me.

A flâneur is a person who wanders city streets with no particular objective in mind. White describes doing this in Paris very well, and makes me think that I really should take advantage of its proximity to do some of this strolling myself. Some of The flâneur is about specific bits of the city, but other parts discuss French culture and history more generally. For example, White discusses how it is that the French literature scene doesn't really admit the specific sub-category “gay literature”. The authors and critics have decided to repudiate the labelling.

Wednesday, 6 February 2002

Excession, Waitangi Day

Listening to:

Arnold, symphony no. 7, op. 113.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Excession.

This is another of the Culture novels. I think I preferred it to Consider Phlebas, but it's pretty similar in style and tone. CP probably had more engaging ideas (the bunker/train system on the dead planet, the extended discussion of life on a Ring, the whole Changer species), but I didn't like the plot and the violence. The Culture's Minds also didn't seem to play as much of a role. In Excession, the Minds and the space-ships they tend to inhabit play a much greater part. A few more consequences of what it might be like to live in such a galaxy seem to have been thought through. The fact that the Minds are independent entities with their own agendas, rather than part of some monolithic, over-arching government is well thought out.

There are occasional neat ideas. The ship that creates massive historical tableaux in its innards with people in suspended animation, for example. The Affront culture is perhaps a little too similar in feel to the Idirans of CP, but still seems reasonably fresh and vivid.

On the other hand, I'd have to agree with almost all of this review's criticisms too. It demonstrates that the book isn't perfect.

Today is Waitangi Day, New Zealand's national day, but it is also the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne (which happened when her father, George VI, died). I suspect it is the latter rather than the former which explains all the flags flying atop various colleges in town.

I recently found another comic on the web. It's called PhD, standing for Piled Higher and Deeper. A couple of nice samples:

Friday, 8 February 2002

Equal rites

Listening to:

Haydn, string quartet op. 50, No. 5 in F major. This recording is by the Kodály Quartet on Naxos. I believe they have recorded all of Haydn’s quartets. I don’t know quite how many CDs this comes to, but I only have three so far, so I’m confident that there are still lots more out there.

Just read:

Terry Pratchett, Equal rites.

I bought this to read on the plane trips I made to and from Portland last month. I believe it’s the third Discworld novel published, and there are a variety of clues to this in the style and plotting of the novel. For example, it’s Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, and I think you can see how she’s still not the fully-formed character of the later books. In particular, she is less competent, feeling unsure about urban life. In my opinion, that makes her rather more likable.

The plot is all about a young girl wanting to become a wizard, despite the fact that the Unseen University only accepts men. This is the source of the most of the humour, and the journey from the small village in Lancre to the bustling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork is also a good source of jokes. There are the inevitable monsters threatening the stability of the universe from the Dungeon Dimensions and there’s even a chance for wizards and witches to display their complementary skills. In later books, the wizards become rather more bumbling and pathetic, while Weatherwax turns into an all-defeating super-witch.

Of course, the characterisation of female and male attitudes to, and versions of, magic are right out of Sexist Stereotyping 101, which make things a little dull. There doesn’t seem to be any room for the analytic woman, nor the “in-touch-with-Nature” man. It’s also too easy for Pratchett to praise the “intuitive, female approach” and mock the male worldview. There's nothing wrong with doing these things per se, but it does become predictable.

Finally, as for style, I don’t think that later novels would have included a line mentioning Steven Spielberg; here Pratchett is reaching outside of his Universe in a way that I think becomes rarer later.

An amusing response to the "axis of evil" speech.

Tuesday, 12 February 2002


Listening to:

Beethoven, Variations and Bagatelles, played by Mikhail Pletnev. Just finished Andante favori (WoO 57) and onto Polonaise, op. 89.

Just read:

Antony Beevor, Stalingrad.

This was a birthday present in 2000, so I’m a mere 16 months behind with the List. This book is a detailed military history of the Battle of Stalingrad, which happened in 1942-3, and which saw the German military subjected to its first big defeat. It starts with a brief account of the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa, describing how the summer of 1941 saw the Germans make incredible progress across Russia. Their advance was halted in the winter of 1941, and they didn’t manage to take Moscow. The Russian counterattack that winter was quite successful and relieved much of the pressure. But with the passage of winter in 1942, the Germans were in a position to advance once more.

The book’s focus then shifts to the south-east. We don’t really hear anything about the siege of Leningrad for example. Hitler was obsessed with getting to the oil fields in the Caucasus, and Stalingrad and the Volga River were in the way. Stalingrad is further east than Moscow, so it was quite a lunge for the Germans to be making. It’s a bit difficult to engage in counter-factual speculation, but it would have probably been quite a coup if the campaign had succeeded. It didn’t succeed though, and the Germans never managed to get across the Volga at Stalingrad. Their army got bogged down, principally in fierce fighting in the city itself. Then in the winter of 1942, the Russian Operation Uranus completely cut them off, encircling them simultaneously from the north-east and south-east. Hundreds of thousads of soldiers were cut off, in the middle of a Russian winter, and eventually surrendered, despite Hitler encouraging them to fight to the death.

Though Stalingrad goes into a little more detail than I just have, I believe the above summary captures the gist of the military situation. The book concentrates on describing conditions in the opposing armies, and the dilemmas facing the various commanders, including their relationships with their respective Supreme Commanders. It does this very well, thoroughly convincing me that I wouldn’t ever want to be within a thousand miles of the whole situation. It also suggested to me that Hitler and Stalin were equally murderous and evil, but that Stalin had a pragmatic streak that Hitler lacked. To hear Beevor tell it, Hitler completely deluded himself as to the real situation, refused to listen to contradictory evidence, and spent his time either lying to his subordinates in Russia or imagining implausible plans for their rescue.

Stalingrad inevitably recounts lots of death and destruction, but it’s never a stomach-turning gore-fest. Instead it’s depressing, illuminating and compelling all at once.

Thursday, 14 February 2002

The wealth and poverty of nations

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 4 in G minor. George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, with Judith Raskin to sing in the fourth movement.

Just read:

David Landes, The wealth and poverty of nations.

This is another birthday present from 2000. I had high hopes of this book as I began; it had good quotes on the covers from places such as The Economist and the Guardian. Unfortunately, after a few chapters, I’d already developed a strong dislike of the author’s style. One mannerism that I particularly disliked was the following rhetorical trick:

In ignoring the possibilities and challenges represented by the West’s advantages in X, the nation Y chose safety over opportunity. Big mistake.

Sometimes it was Bad idea instead of Big mistake, but they all quickly came to grate. Landes all too often worked himself into a disparaging tone about whole countries or cultures, making what he had to say difficult to take. This disparagement was usually directed at the obvious targets, cultures that failed to exploit their potential when in a strong position; in particular Iberia, China, India and the Middle East. He also later got into a bit of a lather about the US’s failings with respect to Japan, so I don't think he's simply a WASP racist. Moreover, I think I probably agreed with 90% of what he had to say (sexism, bad; diverse centres of political power, good; conflation of church and state, bad; encouragement of science, technology and trade, good).

The book is basically an economic history of the world since 1000AD, with lots of discussion of why it was that certain countries did well, and others didn’t. It’s a big book, so there’s quite a lot of interesting detail too. For example, there was a nice contrast drawn between Egyptian and Japanese modernisation attempts in the 19th century.

Disappointingly, there was no room for any discussion of Australasia. I think it would have been interesting to hear Landes’s views about New Zealand’s reliance on primary sectors of the economy (agriculture, fisheries and forestry). Elsewhere he’s pretty scathing about the classical doctrine of comparative advantage, which holds that countries should focus on what they’re good at. In a static world where the possibility of more growth through industrialisation doesn’t exist, comparative advantage makes perfect sense. But France and Germany became a lot richer in the 19th centuries by explicitly trying to catch up with Britain, and not focussing on their comparative advantages in agriculture. Again though, I think Landes makes a mess of his argument by resorting to sarcastic invective rather than trying to explain his point more carefully.

Monday, 18 February 2002

The code book

Listening to:

Shostakovich, a suite of music arranged from the operetta Moscow-Cheryomushki, op. 105. This is part of an enjoyable CD called Shostakovich: the dance album, featuring Riccardo Chailly and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Just read:

Simon Singh, The code book.

This is an enjoyable read about codes and ciphers. Singh takes reasonable care to explain most of the technical material, while simultaneously lacing the book with interesting anecdotes about the people and events involved in the creation and cracking of the world’s famous ciphers.

I felt that the explanations of how to crack the Vigenere cipher, the Linear-B story, the description of Enigma, the discussion of Diffie-Hellman key exchange, and the final section of the book, on quantum cryptography were all very good. I was not completely new to any of this material (except the Linear-B story, which was fascinating), but I think someone who was new to the material would still find the book very good: the technical writing is solid and the historical background is interesting and well described.

It makes me curious to see what Singh’s book about Fermat’s Last Theorem is like. There I know that the maths quickly doesn’t admit easy explanation to lay readers, so I suspect I would wax rather less rhapsodic about his technical exposition.

Oh yes, it's another book with a home-page, though I guess this is really the home-page of the accompanying puzzle, The Cipher Challenge.

Wednesday, 20 February 2002

White teeth

Listening to:

Schubert, string quintet in C, D956.

Just read:

Zadie Smith, White teeth.

This is a clever, intelligent, and very amusing novel. It tells the story of two families living in North London, and is superficially a “family epic”. However, instead of deeply meaningful development, we’re instead given an opportunity to laugh at cleverly plotted scenes, and also at characters who are all basically stereotypes or too extreme to be entirely believable. Done poorly this could have just been offensive and off-putting, but the stereotypes were all sympathetically drawn, and the extreme characters make for greater impact on the reader’s imagination. I didn’t derive much emotional attachment to any of them, but this wasn’t the point of the novel.

It’s a topical novel, managing to address issues of genetic engineering, immigration and Islamic fundamentalism. Most of these issues are touched reasonably lightly, which I felt appropriate. It was only when the touch was occasionally heavier that I felt White teeth was being slightly less than very successful.

To read next:

Yes, I have finally got my reviewing back-log over. My next book is Peter Whitfield's Mapping the world: a history of exploration.

Friday, 22 February 2002

Links to all sorts

Listening to:

Saint-Saëns, piano concerto no. 4 in C minor, op. 44.

A short, “links-y” entry today.

Tuesday, 26 February 2002

Mapping the world

Listening to:

Beethoven, Grosse Fuge, op. 133 in B flat. This is easily the most difficult music of Beethoven’s that I’ve ever heard. It was originally intended to be the final movement of his string quartet op. 130 in B flat, but when it was first performed people complained that it was too long in comparison to the rest of the quartet. In my recording, it’s almost 19 minutes long, while the first movement is 14 minutes, and all the others are less than 10 minutes long (two are less than five).

The difficulty probably stems from the fact that it is a fugue, with multiple lines happening all at once. I guess I don’t listen to it often enough to have become entirely familiar with it. It’s pretty fierce stuff, on the whole.

Just read:

Peter Whitfield, Mapping the world: a history of exploration.

This is a revised edition of a book written for the British Library with earlier title New found lands: maps in the history of exploration. It’s one of the Folio Society’s special presentation volume freebies, which means that it’s big (30cm) with lots of nice plates, mainly of maps, but also of various other prints. These are very nice, but the text is also very good.

The book summarises the history of European exploration, starting the main text with the Portugese expansion along the west coast of Africa, and then getting onto the Americas, the Pacific, Australia and the polar regions. Before the main text there is a brief introduction explaining why earlier and other foreign exploration was qualitatively different from the sort of thing done by the Europeans. For example, the Polynesians did a pretty good job of spreading themselves across the Pacific (an ocean whose vastness Whitfield is expressive about). Nevertheless, they never maintained any centralised repository of knowledge about the discoveries that were being made. (Nor, being pre-literate, would this have been an easy thing to do.) In contrast, people with the maps back in Lisbon really did see their net knowledge of the world increase.

Though the book is not too long, it is pretty comprehensive, with good discussions of every continent and the explorers who went there. I enjoyed it. There are a couple of subjects it doesn’t touch on (though I’d have been interested to read about them): the mapping of home territories and how this improved (being a book about exploration, this is a pretty reasonable omission), and also a little more about technology. For example, Mercator is mentioned, but his projection is not.

Now reading:

Granta 71: shrinks.

Thursday, 28 February 2002


Listening to:

Shostakovich, string quartet no. 3 in F major, op. 73.

In my travels around the web, I usually keep JavaScript turned off. With it on, I usually get more grief than help. The browser seems more liable to crash for a start, but I also get all sorts of garbage dumped on me by web-page authors who think that their scripting skills make all the difference to their page. Given that most of the effects are pure glitz, I just find this attitude annoying. Sometimes JavaScript is even worse; it pops up extra windows, ignores my font size specifications and is generally a nuisance. For example, the Hunger Site now uses JavaScript to do that annoying window pop-up thing.

On the other hand, the JavaScript effect on this page deserves to be seen. Yes, it’s annoying and impractical, but it’s cool. (Waggle your mouse around a bit.)