Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Argosy (February 1955, January 1956)

     Argosy (February 1955, January 1956) Uncle Paul subscribed to this magazine, and sent his copies to Mother. I looked forward to them, I liked the ship on the cover, and every issue had one or more surprises. Most of the selections were reprints. The magazine reprinted short stories and excerpts from novels, as well three or four themed collections of short passages. There were several original stories, and part of a serialised novel. A prize crossword and one or more quizzes exercised the memory. Quite a feast for anyone who liked to read fiction.
     The stories covered several genres, adventure romance, fantasy, human interest, crime, and so on. No surprises, tried and true formulas, almost all with a twist at the end. One knew what one was getting. This was the magazine’s strength and ultimately its weakness. People turned more and more to TV for their fiction fix. But while it lasted, Argosy delivered well-crafted writing. Many of the authors were best-sellers at the time, others became so. These copies include Ray Bradbury, Paul Gallico, Edith Pargeter, Ludwig Bemelmans, Sean O’Faolain, Elizabeth Bowen.
     What’s just as interesting is the advertising. Almost all of it is for correspondence courses in writing, or career-enhancing skills. The ads are wordy, aimed at people who feel more or less unsuccessful, and want some way of improving their social and economic standing. It was a time when people were encouraged to feel that they could take control of their lives (Pelmanism appears in every issue), to overcome the  disadvantages of birth, education, and life history. Many ads include anecdotes (“original letters may be inspected at...”) testifying to the wonderful effects of the course or the nostrum.
     A pleasant read. Contents ** to ***

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Code (2012)

     The Code (2012) Presented by Marcus Du Sautoy. Three-part series about mathematics, and its role in describing the universe. An excellent overview and introduction to mathematics, clearly explained, with better than average visuals, and emphasis on everyday, real-life applications. The title alludes to Du Sautoy’s metaphysics: the code is a method of making sense of the world. The series is worth watching more than once, especially of you’ve forgotten most of your high-school math. Above all, it’s reminder of how much of our economy, our technology, our politics, our social life, even our  private lives is described and explained by the code, whether we know it or not. Understand the code, and you understand the universe.
     Or so it seems.
     Du Sautoy believes that mathematics underlies reality. I don’t. I believe that mathematics is one of many symbol systems we use to make models of our experience, models that are good enough to help us survive. We make mistakes in creating those models, and some models are more than a little off. The only check we have is that the models work. But I don’t think they answer the question of what’s really out there. If they did, then any model that works is a true representation of reality, at least insofar as it works, at least a partial truth, at least a limited glimpse of the real. Trouble is, we have models that contradict each other. When that happens we get into squabbles about which one is truer than the other. There’s no question that the religious models work in the sense that they give people a reason to get up in the morning. But they contradict each other, and they contradict mathematics.
     The mystery about mathematics is that it works so unreasonably well. Why? There is no good answer that I know of, there is none that satisfies me. But I think the observation that mathematics begins with physical interactions between us and the world around us offers a clue. Other animals do this too, sometimes so well that we want to ascribe conscious reasoning to them. It may be that a crow figuring out how to unlock a cage is reasoning consciously, but we’ll likely never know. We do know that we can devise algorithms that reason about the data that we feed in, and produce more reliable results than we do ourselves. Reasoning does not require consciousness.
     What then does require consciousness? The kind of understanding that enables us to choose the kind of reasoning we need, and more than that, to recognise and understand new problems, and devise the reasoning to solve them. It’s at this level of understanding that Du Sautoy’s belief in the underlying reality of mathematics occurs, and that I disagree.
     Not that it matters. This level is so abstract that it’s not about reality anymore, but about our images of reality. Those are all finally private. The wonder is that language enables us to share these private imaginings as well as we do. We can share mathematical models better than any other, which deepens the mystery.
     The series can be watched on TVO. ****

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Jay Ingram. The Science of Everyday Life (1989)

     Jay Ingram. The Science of Everyday Life (1989) Don’t let the date put you off. Like Jay says, good science is timeless. It’s still true that if you have a certain pair of gene variations, you will not only metabolise asparagus to make your urine smelly, you will also be among the few who can smell it. Or that we still don’t a good handle on why we yawn (the latest research suggests that it’s connected with sex, which may explain why yawning is considered rude almost everywhere).
     Or that walking, which we master in a few weeks around the age of 14 months, is an extremely complex behaviour. Much more complicated than accounting. Which reminds me that the easy stuff has long been mechanised, robotised, digitised, and computerised. It’s the hard stuff that we still need people for, but because most people can do it quite easily, we don’t realise how hard it is.
     This was a re-read, and just as much fun as the first time round. It’s been reissued, so you should be able to find a copy. ***

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Taming of the Shrew.

     The Taming of the Shrew. At the Stratford Festival Theatre. Directed by Chris Abraham. Ben Carlson (Petruchio), Deborah Hay (Katherina), Sarah Afful (Bianca), et al.
     In many ways a traditional Shrew, this production succeeds on many levels. Unusually, it includes the Induction, heavily adapted, but a good reminder that what we are about to see is a play put on for a gullible old drunken fool. It’s a mix of farce, fantasy, and fun, not to be taken too seriously. The company emphasised the fun, and worked together to produce high-quality theatre, inspired and shaped by the traces of commedia dell’arte in the script.
     Except of course that the play does raise serious questions, as all plays do. The director notes that in Shakespeare’s time marriage was being redefined, as if that were news: marriage is always being redefined. But the comment does remind us of all the other plays in which Shakespeare deals with courtship and marriage. Even the history plays, whose stories focus on politics and power, show us that the personal is the essence of all relationships, regardless of the social constructs from which we can never completely escape, and which most of us find quite comfortable and even comforting templates for our social selves.
     We can’t avoid the misogyny in the Shrew. Petruchio uses sleep-deprivation and hunger.  The best that can be done is to downplay the brutality, and present Petruchio as acting a part. Well then, does he truly tame Kate? Or does she too act a part, merely to humour this crazy guy, until she can figure out some way of living with him. That she is attracted to him may be inferred from their first encounters, when he persists in flattering her despite her hostile responses.
     How you answer these questions determines the meaning of the rest of the play. Perhaps she simply decides to play along; that’s how Hay plays it when on the return to Padua she agrees that the sun is the moon, and the elderly gentleman is a sprightly maid. She’s decided to play the role of dutiful wife, but why? Has she fallen in love with Petruchio despite herself? He’s like her, after all: has she scented an equal, unlike the self-satisfied fops and fortune hunters who are wooing Bianca?
     Kate’s final speech, in which she scolds the supposedly good wives for their frowardness, demands an answer to those questions. Its significance depends on them. The script doesn’t give much help; it’s certainly defective, and just how much Shakespeare contributed to it is unclear. That means a director can emend and adapt to suit their vision. Whether we read the speech as a final submission, or as an offer of love to a husband who will be her equal as a human being, Petruchio’s response is unambiguous admiration for this wench that has become his wife, and that’s enough, I think, to add a modern twist to the play’s ending. I suspect that many in the original audiences hoped for or confirmed the satisfactions of their own marriages. We want Kate and Petruchio to have a satisfying marriage, otherwise we can’t read that unpleasant middle passage as the parody of courtship that a farce demands. When the play somehow convinces us of the changing perceptions and attitudes in both these headstrong people, it has succeeded. This production does so. Go see it. ***
     Toronto Star review here, and Globe and Mail review here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hamlet. At the Stratford (Ontario) Festival Theatre.

      Hamlet. At the Stratford Festival Theatre. Directed by Antoni Cimolino. With Jonathan Goad (Hamlet), Seana McKenna (Gertrude), Geraint Wyn Davies (Claudius), Adrienne Gould (Ophelia), Tim Campbell (Horatio), Tom Rooney (Polonius), Mike Shara (Laertes), et al. An unimaginative, straightforward, and badly cut version. Like the curate’s egg, good in parts, but not adding up into a satisfying whole. I think the director forgot that Shakespeare is about character, not plot, not spectacle, not music. Doing Hamlet in early 20th century dress with rifles instead of swords and halberds may seem like a Real Cool Idea, but unless there’s some subtext that’s revealed by this costuming, there’s no point to it. In fact, it becomes ludicrous when Hamlet wanders around the castle with a rifle on his way to Gertrude after the play.
     The tricky questions in any production are about why the characters behave as they do; one must intuit their backstories. For example, why was Claudius accepted so readily as his brother’s successor? Was it because he turns out to be a skillful king? Or was he just the next available male in the royal house? Did he and Gertrude have something going? Even Claudius suggests that the wedding might seem to come to soon after Old Hamlet’s death.
     Any production of Hamlet stands and falls by the actor’s performance, which means by the director’s and actor’s conception of the character. Goad was competent, with very good moments. His scenes with Horatio all worked, these were clearly two men at ease with each other. But here and there he seemed unclear with the concept. Is his rage at Ophelia real, or merely an act? Or both? And what about the antic disposition, anyway? Is he acting every time, or does he act in order to cover a real breakdown? The text hints at these and many other possibilities. For the audience’s sake, the ambiguities must either be resolved, or clarified to avoid confusion.
     Most of all, this performance lacked energy and focus. Every player did a good job, most of the low-key and humorous scenes worked very well, but all in all, the play was piecey. The music was often too loud. The set design was I suppose intended to be dark, but it was dingy when it wasn’t merely dim.
    Richard Ouzounian gave the play a rave review.  He says,”Never have I seen a Hamlet in which people really talked to each other with such intensity. Every moment matters and every moment is played with full reality.” Well, I have seen several such performances.
     And here is Kelly Nestruck's review in the Globe and Mail.
     This Hamlet is #16 or 17 on stage and screen (I’ve lost count), and I can’t recall a less involving one. Maybe it was an off night. **

A. K. Dewdney. Yes, We Have No Neutrons (1997)

     A. K. Dewdney. Yes, We Have No Neutrons (1997) Nine examples of bad science, well told and well analysed. N-Rays as an example of wishful thinking misleading the investigator. Freud, theorising with no data and no testable predictions. IQ as a misunderstood and misappropriated concept, which still messes with people’s minds. SETI as an hypothesis with no hope of sufficient data to ever test  it.  Neural nets, a metaphor gone awry; plain Turing machines do better. Cold fusion, where ambition and inadequate experiments led to a gamble that didn’t pay off. Biosphere 2, poor design based on a grandiose vision. Rushton’s (and other sociologists’) misreading of the bell curve.
     The history is fairly told and complete, the analysis clear and on occasion harsh. Dewdney tries to be polite, but Freudianism and IQ mania have both caused harm, and he lets his anger show. A good book.
      Update on SETI: recent observations of planetary systems suggest that most stars have planets, which provides an estimate rather than a guess for one the terms in Drake’s famous formula for the probable number of intelligent aliens. But Earth-like planets seem to be rare, and those in a life-promoting orbit rare still, so the odds are if anything more clearly against our ever hearing from any aliens that re certainly out there.
Worth reading, as an example of clear reasoning as well as entertainment. ***

Sid Fleischman. The Whipping Boy (1986)

     Sid Fleischman. The Whipping Boy (1986) Jemmy is Prince Brat’s whipping boy. Since he’s whipped when Brat doesn’t do his lessons, Jemmy learns reading, arithmetic, history, and so on. One day, bored, Brat forces Jemmy to run away with him.  They’re kidnapped by two highwaymen, escape down a sewer, are rescued by a girl with pet dancing bear, and so on. Brat slowly grows from a spoiled little slime ball into a friend. He even endures a whipping without a whimper, as Jemmy has done. When they return, Brat talks to his father, who decides not to punish Jemmy. So all’s well etc.
     Well written, swift moving story. Jemmy is an engaging narrator, unwillingly loyal to his master. **½

Monday, July 13, 2015

Oliver Sacks. On the Move (2015)

     Oliver Sacks. On the Move (2015) Sacks is one of my heroes, so I approached this memoir prepared to like it, and for the most part I did. Here and there Sacks gives us not much more than a list of events, but the rest of the book more than makes up for those rare longeurs. Reading his books may leave the impression that Sacks has had a straightforward career in clinical neurology, with many side trips following his passions and puzzlements. In fact, chance and the kindness of strangers had more to do with his success than focus and persistence. He became a neurologist because his mentors provided shelter and opportunities to practice when he had no regular position at the hospitals in which he learned his trade.
     He’s a man with a huge range of interests, variable enough that I wonder what’s the common thread that ties them together. I think it’s his willingness to satisfy his curiosity, no matter where it leads. Sometimes these trails transform into books, about cycads, his broken leg and recovery from a neurological side-effect, autism, and so on, but most of all about his patients. He’s remarkably lacking in caution, for example, he experimented with drugs in California, and for a while was addicted.
     He’s an inveterate diarist. He includes a photo of himself at the Amsterdam train station, his briefcase and umbrella on the ground in front of him, writing. I think that’s why his books are not neutral records but  personal experiences. He understands by imagining himself as the patient; journal writing feeds the imagination by recording memories.
     He had the luck to find his profession during its formative phase, when it was still unclear just how much could be known and understood about the brain and its glitches and injuries. And he trusts his skill in observation and knows his inability to abstract and generalise, hence recorded his cases as stories, not mere accumulations of data. I think this is the reason his books have become so popular, and have helped so many people. After each book he has received letters from people with similar problems, telling him how they understood themselves better.
     I enjoyed this book, reading most of it in three major sessions. If you like Oliver Sacks, this book is essential. Otherwise, it’s a remarkable record of a remarkable life lived during some of the most remarkable changes in our society and culture. By the way, Sacks really likes motorbikes, and spent a good deal of his time in California riding. He also won a weightlifting championship. His Uncle Tungsten records his life as a chemist. Like I said, he’s a man of widely variable interests. ***½

Thursday, July 09, 2015

M. C. Beaton. The Potted Gardener. (1994)

     M. C. Beaton. The Potted Gardener. (1994) Agatha Raisin returns from an extended, but lonely, holiday, to find the glamourous divorcee Mary Fortune ensconced as the most popular incomer to the Village of Carsley. She’s also James Lacey’s friend (later, she’s revealed as his paramour), which turns Agatha against her. Mary has an unfortunate habit of saying cruel things to people, and gazing at them with a look that screams superiority. James and Agatha discover her body in the conservatory, upside down with her head buried in a large pot. They of course embark on s pot of sleuthing. The perp suicides when he’s unmasked, handy, because there’s precious little evidence of the kind that would convince a judge or jury.
     The writing is low-average, much of it is tell rather than show, and too often Beaton informs the reader of some character's reaction that the reader has already sussed. Still, I engaged with the characters enough to keep reading, perhaps because Agatha is a 50ish, plumpish woman with romantic yearnings. James is a bit of a stick, afraid of his own emotions, and after his “competent” affair with Mary, ashamed of his lust, uncertain whether his feelings are honourable enough to justify a closer relationship with Agatha.
     But those remarks are already at the level of interpreting the characters for the purposes of scripting a TV series. The novel is not nearly as complex as they imply, more’s the pity. **

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Gary Larson. Wiener Dog Art (1990)

     Gary Larson. Wiener Dog Art (1990) If you like Larson, you’ll be happy to reread this. If you’ve not encountered Larson yet, this is as good an intro as any. If you don’t like Larson, it’s an opportunity for small delights lost. I like Larson’s work a lot. A search on “Gary Larson cartoons” will bring up a good sample of his work. ****

Inside Out (2015)

     Inside Out (2015) [Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen. Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black et al] 11-year-old Riley is moved from Minnesota (and hockey) to San Francisco (and home sickness) by her family. The parents have their own problems, delayed moving van etc, so don’t notice Riley’s sadness. Riley herself can’t allow herself to be sad, she must be “happy”, so she runs away. But it’s her sadness that brings her back home, where she cries, and the family unite in comforting each other. Simple story, the movie complicates it by showing five emotions (Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness) as controlling Riley’s perceptions, action, and relationships. Depicting that emotions are us was the aim of the moviemakers. The question is did they succeed?
     Yes and no. The switching between inside and outside was generally well done, one didn’t lose track of the story. The characterisation was a bit off, Joy was too bubbly-obtuse, Anger was merely hostility instead of focussed on unfairness, Disgust was too much of a fashion queen, Fear was a nerdy drip, and Sadness was dumpy, shy, passive, and lacking in confidence. She was actually the most complicated character. The animation was very well done, the design was stereotypical Disney, the conceptualisation of the different aspects of mind and self veered from the silly (Imaginationland misrepresented that most central cognitive faculty) to the poignantly nuanced (the pit of forgotten memories).
    “Piecey” Marie said, she’s right. Overall, a good attempt at doing an inherently difficulty job. The personalisation of mental faculties has an ancient history, the literary term is psyhcomachia. Interesting to see modern version. I think the desire to make the movie accessible to all age groups caused much of the variation in quality. The audience reaction indicated that the children followed the story easily, and if my response was typical, the adults read a more complex narrative. See the New York Times article by the scientific advisors. **½

Friday, July 03, 2015

Rex Stout. Some Buried Caesar (1938)

     Rex Stout. Some Buried Caesar (1938) Archie drives Wolfe to upstate New York for an orchid competition at an agricultural fair. A tire blows, and they end up in a field with a bull. That bull is the focus of a feud between Pratt, its current owner, and Osgoode, his neighbour, whose stable hand he was before he became a restaurateur. Then Osgoode’s son is murdered, apparently gored by the bull; and a second murder with a pitchfork is done at the agricultural fair while Wolfe is exhibiting his orchids. And so on. Wolfe is his usual irritating self, Archie meets Lily Rowan for the first time, and the jealousies and intrigues of Guernsey breeders are exhibited for our fascinated gaze. These people are serious; murder may be a plausible solution.
     There have been attempts at transposing Wolfe from print to video, apparently not very successfully. I think it’s Stout’s style. He’s a very good writer. The dialogue would work very well as is, but the ambience would be very difficult to do visually. The tales a funny-noir, a genre that’s very tough to pull off.
     An early Nero Wolfe story, a couple or three hours of well done entertainment. **½