May 29, 2002

Barbarians Led By Bill Gates: Microsoft from the Inside, Jennifer Edstrom & Martin Eller

I used to work at Microsoft, so Books About Microsoft are a popcorn pleasure. This one offers the pleasure of recognition; it's by, or half-by, or ghosted for, a programmer, and one who saw the whole thing as a more Mutt-and-Jeff success by semi-accident than an Organized Machiavellian Plot. I was a mere lowly cog and wouldn't have been let in on the OMP if there was one, but I sure didn't see much suggestive evidence.

Brainstem-level aggression, defending the franchise, yes, I remember that. Barbarians Led By Bill Gates is from the view of non-lowly cogs and suggests that that's all that was needed, given talented programmers and frequent mistakes by the opposition. I don't think one has to assume talented programmers, even, just programmers as good as the opposition's and mistakes less dire.

Since one of the authors was a programmer, and probably an excellent one, there is a clear assumption that the programmers were at the heart of it all: Heroic Midnight Sessions produce entire operating systems (well, nearly) that They Said Couldn't be Done, just in time to Confound IBM and Save the Company. These are my capitals. Edstrom & Eller are above capital letters, and also above the constant discussion of just how much money was or was going to be dependent on the keyboard heroics. This is quite tasteful and nearly unheard of in the genre of late-boom software-creation romances. (Bildungsroman? Compilungsroman!)

Posted by clew at 02:51 AM

North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell

One of my recurring conceits or motives—in the literary senses only, to be sure—is that the Victorian Age never really ended; that we are still in the long indecisive Edwardian twilight, looking at modernity. This novel about the social and moral implications of industrialization has evidence both ways. I don't think the sleepy rural village it starts in exists anywhere in England or the US any more, but the moral problems the vicar's daughter finds when they have to move to an ugly manufacturing town are familiar still:

Is there really social mobility for everyone, or is there a class that inherits all the chances of success, even if it isn't guaranteed? How bad can the penalties of poverty be before we're essentially punishing the innocent? Can we afford anything better?

The manufacturers in this town, in the 1850s, threaten to break strikes by moving production to poorer countries; failing that, they bring people in from those countries. The more-or-less enlightened owner explains that his factory has efficient furnaces, so is both cost-effective and less polluting; he also says that had he not built this before the 1847 parliamentary act requiring clean combustion, he would not have done it at all, because not being ordered around is worth more to him than the plain economic advantage. Hmmmm.

The unionizing workers have similarly familiar problems; is it worth the risk to strike, have they the money to feed their poorest families while they do, is it worse to leave unreliable people out of the union or to let them in a loose cannon; can they get the newspapers to report on a strike sympathetically. Can they bear to not strike, if that means they bend the neck? (The 'granite' of these Northern people is important to the novel, usually compared to a more turfish or oxlike durability on the part of the Southerners.)

However, this is a Gaskell novel, so it's basically personal. Vicar's daughter; terrifying mother of 'self-made' man; fat jolly Oxbridge drone; dieaway mother (literally, of course); all here as types & as personalities. It was written for serialization in Dickens' Household Words, which makes it the middlebrow equivalent of maybe a Masterpiece Theater series, or a Jane Smiley novel. (Excellence is possible, but will occur in a comfortable framework.)

You would not, I think, be surprised by an outline of the plot. I was surprised by the topicality of the economic problems, and finally by the statement that is probably the philosophy of the book:

'I have arrived at the conviction that no mere institutions, however wise, and however much thought may have been required to organize and arrange them, can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact. Such intercourse is the very breath of life. A working man can hardly be made to feel and know how much his employer may have labored in his study at plans for the benefit of his workpeople. A complete plan emerges like a piece of machinery, apparently fitted for every emergency. But the hands accept it as they do machinery, without understanding the intense mental labour and forethought required to bring it to such perfection. But I would take an idea, the working out of which would necesitate personal intercourse; it might not go well at first, but at every hitch interest would be felt by an increasing number of men, and at last its success in working come to be desired by all, as all had borne a part in the formation of the plan; and even then I am sure that it would lose its vitality, cease to be living, as soon as it was no longer carried on by that sort of common interest which invariably makes people find means and ways of seeing each other, and becoming acquainted with each others' characters and persons, and even tricks of temper and modes of speech. We should understand each other better, and I'll venture to say we should like each other more.'
'And you think they may prevent the recurrence of strikes?'
'Not at all...'
Which is, I find, remarkably suggestive of the anyone-can-stop-the-line production system that Fukuyama describes in Trust; one that accepts feedback from anyone doing the work, and led to much better production, when there was enough trust.

I doubt that a good hand in 185x thought of a piece of machinery as something not tinkered with by human intent; and I can't believe that any hand ever has thought of the machinery as 'fitted for every emergency'.

Project Gutenberg etext #4276

Posted by clew at 02:16 AM

May 28, 2002

The Oxford Book of Letters, Kermode & Kermode, eds.

It is difficult to express the degree of degradation into which the operatic amusement is sinking the European mind - First you have every possible means of excitement - music - passion - acting of the coarsest and most violent kind - glaring scenery - everything that can excite in the highest degree - then, the people, who are rich and idle - take this excitement every night - till it ceases to be an excitement any [more?]But they still go, because it is fashionable -
[...]
the actors - unable to draw attention by just or quiet play - seek for it by rant - and only obtain it - momentarily - by shrieking or performing miracles of pirouettes - so the entire school of dramatic writing, music - and dancing, is degraded lower and lower - and - one evil reacting on another, the final result of the general corruption is still unseen - and to come.
Dearest love to my mother.

Thus John Ruskin in 1852. I like opera in a popcorn-and-jujubes way myself.

The most striking letter in the book so far is Fanny Burney's description of having a mastectomy in 1812 - no anaesthetic! - but she lived until 1840. It doesn't excerpt as well as Ruskin, though.

Posted by clew at 02:27 AM

May 18, 2002

Do Try to Speak as We Do, Ford

A sideshoot of Brit chick lit; feckless American works as an au pair for a decaying-British-gentry family. I haven't read the Nanny Diaries; this might be more entertaining in comparison. Since it's first=person by the nanny, it isn't really clear why the employer is so brittle and ungenerous, although it's also clear that the au pair is acting like a doormat all over the place, and that the employer is in the middle of a social system that just isn't going to reward her for anything but nastiness. Fluff, but honest fluff, one might say. Nice followup to One Fine Day if you like mocking the decay of fictional British gentry.
Posted by clew at 06:26 AM

Invasion of the Sea, Jules Verne

Verne's last whole novel, only recently translated into English. Interesting idea - the French digging a channel to make an inland sea in Tunisia and Algeria, partly to increase trade and prosperity in the French style, partly to confound the Tuareg banditry, probably from nineteenth-century fascination with technical possibility, and with total indifference to the destruction of the existing date groves. Unfortunately, the characters are stock characters and sketchy at that - I think the characterization in Beau Geste is deeper, and drives the plot more. This would be okay if there was more force given to Clash of Civilizations, or Forces of History, but there isn't. Machina ex deus, actually, which is weak for a scientifiction novel.

However, it's short, vaguely topical, has a colorful final scene, and is well-illustrated. Contemporaneous photos of earth houses and date palms alternate with contemporaneous engravings of dashing Frenchmen on feminine horses.

Posted by clew at 06:25 AM

May 13, 2002

London Bridges, Jane Stevenson

I think this woman is the heir of Margery Allingham & Sarah Caudwell. This is a frothy but not a silly novel. Her short stories, in Several Deceptions, are neither frothy nor silly; the last one in the book is nearly cruel - it was almost a Wodehouse plot, but things turned out as one would expect them to actually turn out for self-centered fools: not well at all.
Posted by clew at 06:20 AM

The Road to Ubar, Clapp

Brave & clever investigations find great Ubar, which was probably never great by the standards of the rest of the world.

The author manages not to be disappointed by this - well, not much; certainly not scornful or resentful - and writes about the search well enough to demonstrate the importance of Ubar to the people who remembered it as great.

Posted by clew at 06:02 AM

Maidservant & Manservant, Ivy Compton-Burnett

Vicious characterization beautifully written. I gather this is characteristic of C-B and expect to read everything she wrote, but not all at once. I think it would be unhealthy.
Posted by clew at 05:56 AM

May 09, 2002

One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes

English gentility just after WWII can bear the lack of house servants only because England is so pretty in summer.

It's better than it sounds. I picked it up because M P-D provides an epigraph in To say nothing of the Dog.

Posted by clew at 07:17 AM

Savage Beauty, Milford

A biography of Edna St Vincent Millay. It's a personal history, and Vincent left plenty of scandalous or sad material, but I am grateful that Milford thinks the poetry is most important (inserts whole poems when discussing them-v. convenient!) I am left curious abt historical changes in poetry during Millay's career, either because of her or in despite.
Posted by clew at 07:14 AM

Paris to the Moon, Gopnik

Expat life. Funny, wistful, mockinq, kind, and has a funny joke abt man who speaks 5 languages w/deep Esperanto accent.
Posted by clew at 07:11 AM

The Immortal Class, Travis Culley

By a bike messenger, about messengering. Partly drama of adrenaline; lots of urban design thought. I still don't get the political justification for messengers running reds.
Posted by clew at 07:06 AM

The Beauty of the Husband, Carson

Somethinq of a writers-midlife-love-crisis novel, but it's blank verse. Poetry is a good form for this. She uses writerly skill for universal emotion & doesn't go on & on abt. local status markers, which puts it ahead of most of the composition-professor-has-midlife-affair books that fill the genre.
Posted by clew at 07:04 AM

The Chastening, Blustein

Despite belief in an narrowly avoided global economic disaster, the biggest change suggested is IMF-sanctioned slowdowns on money leavinq shaky economies. It seems petty, given the size of the problem the book implies we nearly had. Some discussions of moral hazard, social justice.
Posted by clew at 07:01 AM

Voyages to the Moon & the Sun, Cyrano de Bergerac

Much like Swift, somewhat raunchier.

Posted by clew at 06:58 AM

Self-Made Tapestry, Philip Ball

Kind of like On Growth & Form; many instances of nonbiological pattern generation. Cautious about what can be asserted by analoqy.

Experiments to do at home with plexiglass. No math.

Posted by clew at 06:55 AM

Chatterton, Philip Ackroyd.

Literary history mystery like Possession, but nothing so cheerful; no Chase & Race, no fame before death, less gripping invented work. Good, but suffers by comparison. (Recommended by Byatt; in her On Histories and Stories, I think.)
Posted by clew at 06:53 AM

Philistines at the Hedgerow

"Rich people want control & don't want to give it to each other." Well, that's not surprising.
Posted by clew at 06:46 AM

Artemis Fowl

Awful writing - more Formica than wooden. Story setup reasonably amusinq. I only got to p. 88; maybe it gets better.
Posted by clew at 06:45 AM
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