Wednesday, 8 October 2003


Listening to:

Brahms, symphony #2 in D.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, Inversions.

This novel is only just science fiction. It’s also only just a Culture novel, and I have liked Banks best to date when he’s written about the Culture, which is a marvellous invention. Certainly the term The Culture doesn’t occur anywhere in Inversions. On the other hand, if you have read a Culture story before, you’ll surely recognise its somewhat subtle presence here. And that’s probably the right way to characterise the whole story: subtle. Or, given that there’s still a fair bit of Banks’s trademark gore to be had here, perhaps understated would be a better term.

There are similarities with Use of weapons too in that the story is told in two strands. Here the two strands concern two different characters who never meet, and which take part in separate parts of the same world. There is a connection between the two characters, but again, it’s understated. Their two stories are similar in that both protagonists are valued side-kicks to absolute leaders, and both have an interesting relationship with another character. I liked both stories, and the way they developed.

Neither story has a particularly powerful climax, but I felt that both ended in reasonably satisfying ways. In one strand, there is a series of mysterious murders, and it wasn’t clear to me, even at the end of the book, who or what had done them. This was the only really unsatisfying note in the whole story. Perhaps, as with my incomprehension over Use of weapons, I’m just too stupid to be reading Banks. (I didn’t find anything on the web to suggest that UoW’s Twist was hugely meaningful either, BTW.)

To review next:

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl: the Arctic Incident.

Wednesday, 15 October 2003

Artemis Fowl: the Arctic incident

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 5 in C minor, op. 67

Just read:

Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl: the Arctic incident.

This is a sequel to the amusing and successful Artemis Fowl, which introduced the arch-villain Artemis Fowl (a young Irish boy), the land of the fairies, with its strange fusion of magic and technology, and Captain Holly Short from the fairies’ LEP Reconnaissance squad. This follow-up story works with the same sorts of elements, but is not quite as appealing.

I think this is because the first book’s conflict and drama was between Fowl and the fairies. And though this was a conflict, both sides were presented sympathetically, and we got to appreciate things from two interesting perspectives. In the sequel, Fowl and the fairies team up to deal with two unrelated sets of enemies, and the perspective is narrowed because we only see one side of the conflict. There’s still quite a bit to admire, but the flavour I so admired in the first book is slightly dulled here.

To review next:

Granta 81: best of young British novelists 2003

Thursday, 16 October 2003

Granta 81

Listening to:

S. L. Weiss, sonatas for lute.

Just read:

Granta 81: best of young British novelists 2003 (contents)

This is a fat issue of the literary magazine, and full of mainly good stuff. Some of the pieces are samples from the authors’ novels, while others are self-contained short stories. I particularly liked Monica Ali’s Dinner with Dr. Azad, Hari Kunzru’s Lila.exe (though it didn’t really read like fiction at all), A. L. Kennedy’s Room 536, Rachel Cusk’s After Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac (which you can read online), David Mitchell’s The January man (also online), and Philip Hensher’s In time of war. I liked most of the rest, but didn’t think much of Toby Litt’s The Hare, nor Zadie Smith’s Martha, Martha.

To review next:

Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea.

Some “interactive” links:

  • The Gender Genie, which predicts the sex of the author of a piece of prose (preferably 500 words or more) by doing very simple-minded frequency analyses. Paste your text into it today and see!
  • A while ago, I wrote about doing Cambridge admissions interviews. Now it seems Cambridge is thinking of using a simple test to filter applicants before they get to do an interview. There’s a sample at the Guardian, and you can try seven questions yourself.

Tuesday, 21 October 2003

Darwin’s dangerous idea

Listening to:

Scarlatti, keyboard sonatas.

Just read:

Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea.

I first read this book a few years ago, coming to it because I’d enjoyed Dennett’s & Hofstadter’s The Mind’s I. Darwin’s dangerous idea has less to say about consciousness and artificial intelligence, but covers a lot of other very interesting ground. Its fundamental theme is the importance of Darwin’s idea, and how it gives rise to a great many interesting ramifications. Indeed, Dennett claims that Darwin’s was the best idea anyone has ever had, more important than the ideas of Newton or Einstein. For example, one reason this idea is so important is because it explains how complexity can arise from simple beginnings without needing to appeal to external miracles, aliens or mystical forces. Dennett lumps all of these “explanations” together under the moniker sky-hooks, to contrast with the mundane cranes that natural selection uses.

Dennett begins with a general discussion of natural selection and evolution as an explanation for complexity. He also describes earlier attempts at other explanations, including an interesting argument by Hume. He also explains some of the many pitfalls that can trap the unwary when thinking about evolution. For example, Lamarckianism is right out, but if you have creatures with even a rudimentary ability to adjust their behaviour (“learn”) then you get something that looks very much like it, thanks to something called the Baldwin Effect. Another example he discusses at length is species and speciation.

Species are not a hard and fast concept: just about any formal characterisation one attempts (necessary or sufficient conditions) will have exceptions. Moreover, speciation (two species emerging from just one ancestor species) is something that can only be detected in retrospect. We look back and say, Ah, that’s the point when those two populations have irrevocably split: there’s no subsequent interaction between them. It’s only with knowledge about what’s to happen in the future that we can identify speciation events.

Dennett is similarly good about Mitochondrial Eve: every woman has one mother, and sometimes a mother has multiple daughters. Therefore, moving back in time, from generation to generation, there are fewer and fewer ancestral mothers (i.e., mothers with descendents now living). Therefore, there must come a point in time when there is just one such mother. She is our Eve, and there is nothing special about her whatsoever. (Our Y-chromosome Adam is likely to have been more recent, and thus a descendent of Eve’s, because men have more sons than women have daughters.)

Dennett includes a couple of chapters about how Darwin’s idea can be invoked to provide non-sky-hook explanations for the origins of life, and even the universe itself. Then he moves onto showing how a variety of scientific ideas and thinkers have come unstuck when dealing with evolution. He singles out Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, John Searle and Roger Penrose. He seems pretty convincing on how these thinkers seek to deny Darwin’s unescapable conclusion: complexity (life-forms, consciousness, culture) can all be explained by a simple-minded algorithmic process. On the way he provides some neat thought experiments. One I particularly enjoyed was about building a robot to protect one’s cryogenically frozen body for four hundred years so that it might be revived in time for the arrival of the aliens. What strategies should you adopt in the design of such a robot?

This is a very good book. Occasionally the going is a bit tough, but the ideas within it are both fascinating and very important. So, get out there and read it today!

To review next:

Granta 82: life’s like that.

Wednesday, 29 October 2003

Granta 82

Listening to:

Mahler, the adagio of symphony no. 10.

Just read:

Granta 82: life’s like that (contents)

This is a good issue. An excerpt from Simon Gray’s diary, mainly about a holiday in the Caribbean leads off, and is an interesting read. Gray is a playwright (not that I’d ever heard of him), and writes well about smoking, being old, and a variety of other topics, including amusing speculations about other people. Bill Gaston’s story The kite trick starts innocently, but ends with an impressive, and creepy punch. Nell Freudenberger’s The tutor (more fiction) is also appealing.

The non-fiction is all good. In addition to Gray’s diary extract, Lynn Barber is very good on the con-man who seduced her as a teenager, and then wormed his way into her parents’ affections as well. She writes about it in a matter-of-fact way that makes it seem almost normal to be going out with a minor crook, and to have this relationship encouraged by one’s parents.

Kathryn Chetkovich’s piece, Envy, is very curious. It’s all about her envy of her partner’s success, who is also a writer. There’s nothing to suggest that this is anything other than non-fiction. Chetkovich doesn’t identify her partner, but a little web-surfing reveals that the man in question is Johnathan Franzen, who is indeed a very successful author. Though Chetkovich raises all sorts of interesting questions about the expectations that are heaped on women (she describes having to look after aged parents), airing all of this “dirty washing” in public still reads strangely. Maybe it was just a publicity stunt.

Finally, Tim Judah, a free-lance political journalist, has a very interesting personal narrative, which is also an investigation into the Jewish population of Baghdad. His own Jewish ancestors left Baghdad in the late nineteenth century, and this drew him into searching for the small numbers of Jews that are still there.

To review next:

Dominic Green, The double life of Dr. Lopez.

Yes, I realise that I haven’t been producing much other than book reviews recently. This is a combination of the fact that I am working my way through a reviewing back-log, and am all too busy with work.

By the way, it was ecstatic.

Finally, Real Life, the full review.

Friday, 31 October 2003

The double life of Dr. Lopez

Listening to:

The best of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Just read:

Dominic Green, The double life of Dr. Lopez.

This book is an interesting historical investigation into the life and career of a man who found himself on the periphery of Elizabethan power at the end of the 16th century, and embroiled in a variety of plots and conspiracies. This man was Dr. Rodrigo Lopez. For a while, he was even court physician to Elizabeth I, and doctor for a number of other prominent aristocrats. Lopez was also a Portuguese marrano Jew. Jews in Iberia that hadn’t genuinely converted to Christianity had to hide their religion very carefully to escape the attentions of the Inquisition. Many chose to leave entirely (something well described in Armstrong’s The battle for God). In Lopez’s case, he probably went to England via Antwerp.

For a while, Lopez pursued a career as a doctor attached to one of London’s hospitals. It’s not quite clear how he might have done it, but he eventually started to work as an intelligence gatherer and collator for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s “spymaster”. Lopez was useful because he had good reason to be anti-Spain, and had many useful, commercial contacts in the Low Countries (then going through the Eighty Years’ War against Spain, which eventually saw the foundation of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, aka the “United Provinces”). Lopez’s contacts were often fellow Jews, who had naturally chosen to live in what was probably then the most tolerant part of Western Europe.

Lopez also attached himself to the court of Don Antonio, the exiled heir to the throne of Portugal, and someone who had grown up in the same town as Lopez. Don Antonio was in exile because Portugal had been taken over by Spain in 1581. The English tried to put Don Antonio to good use, mounting an attempt to restore him to his throne, and Lopez was involved in this too.

But it all ended in tears: Lopez was hung, drawn and quartered in 1594 (which fact we’re told in the book’s prologue). Lopez had become too much of a liability for the various Elizabethan factions, and he was accused of plotting to poison the Queen. The final parts of the book are an account of how the Powers-That-Were could callously dispose of a pawn that had outlived its usefulness.

Green’s account of all these interesting events is generally good. He’s occasionally a little florid, and sometimes the details and the characters become a little overwhelming in their density, but I’d still recommend this account. The link with Shakespeare is perhaps a little stretched (Lopez’s very public execution may well have inspired Shakespeare to write his own “Jewish” play, The Merchant of Venice), but it provides a slightly different angle on things, and one that Green exploits well.

To review next:

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten.