Friday, 1 December 2006

The Deptford trilogy

Listening to:

Mikhail Pletnev playing Beethoven “variations and bagatelles”. (Deutsche Grammophon 457 493-2.)

Just read:

Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy.

When I bought this rather fat book (it’s an omnibus of three novels, Fifth Element, The Manticore, and World of Wonders), I hoped that it would be as good as Davies’s Cornish Trilogy. Unfortunately, it’s nothing like as successful, in my opinion. Of the three constituent novels, the first is definitely the best. The last is little more than a series of conversations that are supposed to be taking place as the main characters make a film about one of their number. This character, the film’s subject, has a reasonably interesting story to tell, but is an arrogant tosser, who seems to be in the novel mainly to serve as contrast with the terribly provincial Canadians. The other significant character is the earnest Canadian intellectual, aware of his desperate disconnect with all that is deeply meaningful, and willing to sit at the knee of the liberated soul.

That the guru is actually a stage magician just seems like willful perversity on the part of the author. The first novel is not so bad because it tells the story of how these people grow up, escaping their small village upbringing and because it introduces the one great drama that defines the trilogy. For all that this might be proof of their basic unworthiness, Davies definitely entertains with his descriptions of his characters’ origins. Their childhoods are well done, and the stories of the characters’ early adult careers are interesting too. In particular, this stage of things includes a third character. He’s interesting, though even worse off on the possession-of-soul front, eventually growing up to become a dirty capitalist and all-round fixer.

There are occasional flashes of humour, but most of it is earnestly serious:

... Eisengrim directed him to look towards the ceiling, from which his handkerchief fluttered down into his hands. He borrowed a lady’s handbag, and from it produced a package that swelled and grew until he revealed a girl under the covering; he caused this girl to rise in the air, float out over the orchestra pit, return to the table, and, when covered, to dwindle once again to a package, which, when returned to the lady’s purse, proved to be a box of bon-bons. All old tricks. All beautifully done. And all offered without any of the facetiousness that usually makes magic shows so restless and tawdry.

This is well-written, elegant even, but this tone dominates the 700 pages, and grows wearying. And basically, not enough really happens.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Math hysteria

Listening to:

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet suite.

Just read:

Ian Stewart, Math Hysteria: Fun and Games with Mathematics.

This is an entertaining collection of columns that Stewart wrote for Scientific American magazine. They are “recreational mathematics”, which means they simultaneously aim to convey some mathematical idea and to keep the reader interested. I’m happy to report that Stewart succeeds in all of these columns. My particular favourites were the two on analysing Monopoly using probabilistic methods, two on agent-reasoning (“because he knows that I know that X, I should do Y”), and on how to play the children’s game “dots-and-boxes” well. (The latter is highly non-trivial!)

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

The algebraist

Listening to:

Cecilia, by Simon & Garfunkel.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist.

This is an entertaining science-fiction novel. It is not a Culture novel, unlike most of Banks’s other sci-fi. Nor can it even be set in the same universe as the Culture because faster-than-light travel is not possible in this one. This difference is very significant: just about all inter-stellar travel is mediated by worm-hole pairs, and these connected pairs have to be carefully established. First the pair is created in one location, and then one of the two is slowly transported (at close to the speed of light, but this is slow at interstellar scales) to the desired destination.

This is an interesting set-up, and Banks explores some of the ramifications in convincing detail. Better, the almost inevitable Ancient Knowledge held by Mysterious Old Ones is actually a real piece of information, the import of which the reader can really appreciate. The Old Ones are also quite engaging—though mysterious, they are superficially a bit on the ridiculous side too.

There’s a villain too, a evil and merciless imperialist very much in the Banksian mold. He comes to a bad end, so all is well on that front. These are all good aspects of the main plot-line. It’s unfortunate that the central good guys are so feeble, and that the drama around them at the personal level is so uninspiring. I also suspect that the big secret is flawed by the fact that a graph whose nodes all have degree one can never form an interesting network. Still, it’s a good read.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Freedom evolves

Listening to:

Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel.

Just read:

Daniel Dennett, Freedom evolves.

This is not an easy read, but it’s a valuable one. The topic is “free will”, one of the core philosophical concepts if ever there was one. I think the best part of the book comes quite soon, where the implications of living in a deterministic world are explored. In particular, Dennett convincingly argues that

Our everyday thinking about possibility, necessity, and causation seems to conflict with determinism, but this is an illusion. Determinism doesn’t imply that whatever we do, we could not have done otherwise, that every event has a cause, or that our natures are fixed.

The “could have” argument is fascinating in itself. Some say that the very fact that we can meaningfully claim “I could have done X differently” proves that the world can not be deterministic. Alternatively, the claim is that if the world were deterministic, then it would be meaningless to say “I could have done it differently”. But in the real world, how do we determine whether such a claim is reasonable, leaving aside the determinism issue entirely? To make the example concrete, say that X is making the right (non-losing, say) move in a game of chess.

So the claim I make is “At move 23, I could have figured out that I had to castle (and thereby save the game).” How do we assess this claim? We look at my chess-playing history, and we get me to play a whole bunch of games to provide more data. We might ask if I had at least considered the move in question, and how I came to reject it. Then, if it all the evidence seems to support the view that I had it in me to make the right move, we agree that yes, I could have made the move.

Importantly, this assessment makes sense and conveys information regardless of whether or not the world is deterministic. It’s a statement about my capabilities as a chess player, a statement that it is or is not plausible that in the particular situation that arose I might have made the right move. It is thus an examination of possible worlds and my possible behaviours in them. In this way, and with a rich set of examples and thought experiments, Dennett is convincing that determinism is actually irrelevant.

Later Dennett is also good on the question of free will and morality, the question as to how the sense of how we can also be free to make moral decisions, how this may have come about, and why it is a specially human characteristic. It’s all very good, and re-reading chunks of it for the purpose of writing this review has only made me want to return to it again.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Granta 88

Listening to:

Alkan, J'étais dormie, mais mon coeur veillait, 13th of his 25 preludes for piano, Op. 31.

Just read:

Granta 88: Mothers. (Contents)

This issue of Granta contains more non-fiction than fiction, much of it being biographical accounts of authors’ mothers. This makes for interesting reading, if only because other people are often quite interesting, particularly, if one is reading a professional writer’s account.

For example, Martha Gessen describes her relationship with her mother, the way that her mother died of breast cancer, and how she herself has learnt that she has a single genetic mutation that means she is much more likely to get breast or ovarian cancer herself. Now she has a young daughter herself, and there is a chance that she may have passed on the same mutation.

In another piece, Alexandra Fuller describes being pregnant and giving birth in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Her story has a happy ending, and you can’t really ask for more. It’s a good collection.

Sunday, 31 December 2006

The Prestige

Listening to:

Beethoven, six variations on the duet Nel cor piu non mi sento from Paisiello’s opera La molinara in G major. Played by Mikhail Pletnev.

A recent movie:

The prestige. (IMDB information) This is a very entertaining movie, with a an intensity to it that kept me quite enthralled. It’s slightly creepy, and full of clever detail. The person I saw it with and I both spotted a forthcoming “twist” that we thought was obvious—but we spotted different twists. This was certainly one of those movies that repaid discussion over coffee afterwards, though it is not at all deep. Rather, it is an intelligently constructed entertainment, well-acted and with a clever plot.

And that’s it for 2006.