July 30, 2004

The Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh, C. J. Cherryh

I really like Cherryh's writing, so much so that I don't have anything to say about it; but I wanted to note that she mentions Jeffery Farnol. I've lost the page-reference, though, and will have to read the stories again.

ISBN: 0756412174

Posted by clew at 06:24 PM | TrackBack

The Ships of Air, Martha Wells

A good second volume. I am enormously happy that the ineffective interior dialog that repeatedly broke me out of the first volume is gone; there's some italicized Thought, but it's more to explain the character's reasoning and less twee.

At one point the heroine thinks "Gah", which isn't unreasonable as an expression of startlement, but I did snag on it because it seems to me to be a SF-ism, for no particular reason. "Pure quill" seems to be that now, though it wasn't originally. At some point in-group language isn't a condensation of agreed ideas, it's a shortcut around ideas. This is too large a concern to hang on "Gah", of course.

I wonder if three-volume-ism is related to the triple-decker or the roman fleuve, the pleasures of big nineteenth-century novels, or is it only a parallel quirk in the economics of publishing. How did ninteenth-c. readers think of the volume break? Album sides on LPs, query.

ISBN: 0380977893

Posted by clew at 06:14 PM | TrackBack

Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie

A gooseberry fool, a lovely bit of fluff; a romance novel/murder mystery, openly a homage to the noir mystery movies but written a lot more like a 1930s screwball comedy.

The repartee is charming even though the individual sentences aren't all that unusual—again, like a screwball movie; there are some nice friendships in it, the characters develop a bit, the murder is never played for laughs, and the depth of the plot is actually about divorce and marriage and fighting fair. Just entertainment, but not embarrassing.

ISBN: 0312981059

Posted by clew at 05:56 PM | TrackBack

Four Colors Suffice, Robin Wilson

There are little exercises-for-the-reader in the beginning of the book, some dating from the Victorian heyday that produced questions one could illustrate; but as the history progresses more of the book is about the people than about the increasingly abstruse problem. It does all wind towards the political or philosophical question that the long, computer-calculated proof produced; to quote Wilson, half the mathematicians at a conference ...could not be convinced that a proof by computer was correct...[half] could not be convinced that...700 pages of hand-calculations could be correct.

Those are not exclusive opinions, grumps the empiric.

Did discrete math look like one body of inquiry before computers? Was it called something else, or did it suffer from the simplicity with which many of its problems can be stated? I wonder only because, on laughably cursory examination, the discrete section in the math library is short and shiny. Maybe the aged classics are in the computer science library. (Not an explanation I often try, that last sentence. I wonder what the oldest book in the CSci library is.)

A Beginner's Guide to Discrete Mathematics, W. D. Wallis, has nothing explicit about map coloring but, of course, lots of simple graph theory, Hamiltonian cycles, Boolean circuits. Discrete Mathematics: Elementary and Beyond, Lovász, Pelikán, Vesztergambi, does mention the four-color theorem (and lots else, including more crypto). The prose in the latter is distractingly perky and humorous, and it's a bit more mathematical and maybe slightly less aimed at CSci than the former. Both provide the puzzles I missed in Wilson.

Shorter versions of the four-colors-suffice proof are already appearing, but that's not where the glory is.

ISBN: 0691115338 (Four Colors Suffice)
ISBN: 0817642692 (A Beginner's Guide...)
ISBN: 0387955852 (Discrete Mathematics:...)

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July 25, 2004

Perpetual Happiness, Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

Subtitle: The Ming Emperor Yongle

This is an almost-gripping book on a gripping subject. Anyone who's already interested in the early Ming, or even the development of modern China, would find the substance interesting. Unfortunately I perpetually felt that the real argument was happening offstage, with someone I couldn't hear, so it wasn't vivid enough that I can recommend it to everyone who likes history or drama at all.

It may be that the unheard interlocutor is Yongle himself; and the silence comes from the destruction of rather a lot of records of his reign, often by his order. Yongle is like several of Shakespeare's kings all together, taken either as a psychological study or a historical figure. His politics still matter today, insofar as his policies cemented absolutism in China, and directed China's strengths towards conquest. He seems, in Tsai's version or even in sparse outline, to have been a great and ambivalent person driven by flaws to do some horrible things, which he knew were horrible.

There must be a classic dramatic account of his life, analagous to Shakespeare's history plays, which would suit my unscholarly interest better.

ISBN: 0-295-98124-5

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The Fun of It, Lilian Ross, ed.

A New Yorker would probably recognize more of the faded fashions from these eighty years' worth of The New Yorker essays. Anyone might recognize many; Hirschfeld, crosswords, domain-name squatting. Readers will find familiar authors either displaying their style in small, or polishing it into near transparency. I thought the most transparent essays the best ones. They're so short, and on such slight subjects, that there's no room for posturing or even overt personality from the author. Posturing fades into archness or incomprehensibility.

Reading the book straight through is like watching an old movie on the walls of Plato's cave. Enormous events of the twentieth century pass without direct mention. The essayist is looking at a polished spot on the wall of the cave; we peer over the essayist's shoulder, with a little light of future knowledge. Wars and revolutions explode outside the cave and the glare is at the edges of our vision.

The earliest Talk of the Town essays were published under the pseudonym "Van Bibber III", a reference to Richard Harding Davis' urbane character.

ISBN: 0375736493

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July 14, 2004

Cruel Delight, James A Steintrager

Subtitle: enlightenment culture and the inhuman

Nice work on a nasty subject, the conflation of pity, power, reason, and science with cruelty in the Enlightenment. It doesn't just remind one that science, medicine especially, developed with cruelty, but makes an argument that the delight in cruelty was more of the scientific impulse than one would like to think. I only skimmed it, as (one) I really ought to be working on a dozen other things, and (two) it draws lots of its evidence from Hogarth and de Sade. I accordingly noticed mostly the surgery & sex parts, which jump out because of the illustrations. I didn't do any justice to the arguments from the Scottish Enlightenment, which had most of the claims for kindness and sympathy as natural states; from Adam Smith, among others.

I did notice, among a dozen more things I want to read, a reference to a novel Melmoth the Wanderer by one Charles Maturin, which has a shipwreck in it; I want to read that and look for Patrick O'Brian's Maturin's slightly creepy scientific detachment.

Slightly later in the day, again distracted from those dozen things, I was drawn into Love at Goon Park; also about slightly creepy scientific detachment with results that were probably a boon to human suffering. Goon Park is the nickname of the psych lab where Harry Harlow did the paradigm-shattering experiments with wire-mother monkeys, and many follow-up experiments; all showing with great clarity that affection, even a pale simulacrum of affection, is as necessary for primate development as food.

The first experiment showed that baby macaques preferred a terry-cloth 'mother' to an equally warm wireframe 'mother', even if the latter had the milk. Follow-ons demonstrated that affection and socialization are needed for monkey development. This overturned a congeries of accepted theories, among them that babies had no particular attachment to their parents except as a source of food, that maternal affection led to needy stupidity, etc etc. The three amazing things in the summary of the experiments and the theories they overthrew are, first, that anyone could have had such cruel beliefs about humans or monkeys; second, that monkeys at least can develop well-enough given the least, barest, pathetic simulacrum of care - terrycloth is almost enough by itself; third and most relevant to Cruel Delight, that anyone who had the insight to start these experiments could be cruel enough to do them. Some of it was good old clinical detachment, some the knowledge that only controlled experiments would convince experts to stop prescribing cruelty in real life, and some was probably related to his own deep and repeated unhappiness. How would that heart weigh against a feather?

ISBN: 0253343674 (Cruel Delight)
ISBN: 0738202789 (Love at Goon Park)

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July 11, 2004

English as She's spoke

I've been having about of tendinitis, and much else to do with what typing I want to risk. I will therefore be using voice dictation software for a bit, which will produce some unlikely misrepresentations of what I actually said.

Posted by clew at 10:03 PM | TrackBack
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