Archive for August, 2012

Two lists of books

In succession to this post which seems to have originated a meme, herewith two lists of novels – one list influential when younger, and the other later, with influence measured by strength of memory.  In each case, I include a couple of works  of non-fiction, because of their superb writing.

The rules only allow listing of one book per author.   In fact, all the books of some writers would merit inclusion.  In this group, I would include Brautigan, Camus, Conrad, Faulkner, Gordimer,  Ishiguro, H. James, Joyce, Maugham, Perec and Turgenev.

Influential when younger:

  • Albert Camus:  The Plague
  • JM Coetzee:  Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent
  • William Faulkner:  As I Lay Dying
  • Nadine Gordimer:  Burger’s Daughter
  • Joseph Heller:  Catch-22
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala:  Heat and Dust
  • James Joyce:  Ulysses
  • Franz Kafka:  The Trial
  • Arthur Koestler:  Darkness at Noon
  • William Least Heat-Moon:  Blue Highways:  A Journey into America
  • Doris Lessing:  The Diary of a Good Neighbour
  • Thomas Mann:  Dr Faustus
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez:  100 Years of Solitude
  • W. Somerset Maugham:  The Razor’s Edge
  • Herman Melville:  Moby Dick
  • Gerald Murnane:  Landscape with Landscape
  • Michael Ondaatje:  Coming Through Slaughter
  • Bertrand Russell:  The Autobiography
  • Jean-Paul Sartre:  Nausea
  • Mikhail Sholokhov:  And Quiet Flows the Don
  • Alice Walker:  The Color Purple
  • Patrick White:  Voss
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin:  We

Influential more recently:

  • Henry Adams:  The Education of Henry Adams
  • Richard Brautigan:  An Unfortunate Women:  A Journey
  • William Burroughs:  Naked Lunch
  • Italo Calvino:  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
  • Robert Dessaix:  Corfu
  • Shusaku Endo: Silence
  • Mark Henshaw:  Out of the Line of Fire
  • Kazuo Ishiguro:  An Artist of the Floating World
  • Henry James:  The Princess Casamassima
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Emperor:  Downfall of an Autocrat
  • Naguib Mahfouz:  The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Norman Mailer:  Harlot’s Ghost
  • Alberto Moravia:  Boredom
  • Georges Perec:  Things:  A Story of the Sixties
  • Antonio Tabucchi:  Pereira Maintains
  • Henry David Thoreau:  Cape Cod
  • Ivan Turgenev:  Fathers and Sons
  • Glenway Wescott:  The Pilgrim Hawk

As these lists may indicate, there are some writers (eg, James,  Turgenev) whom one may only appreciate after a certain age and passage of years.

On the other hand, for various different reasons, books by the following authors do not speak at all to me.

  • The family Amis
  • Saul Bellow
  • The family Bronte
  • Peter Carey
  • David Caute
  • George Eliot
  • Richard Ford
  • Graham Greene
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Howard Jacobson
  • Thomas Keneally
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Anthony Powell
  • Marcel Proust
  • Philip Roth
  • Tom Sharpe
  • Anthony Trollope
  • PG Wodehouse
  • and many more.

For some of these authors, the issue may be a generational one:  for example, I know of no members of late Generation Jones or later-born readers who appreciate that early-Baby Boomer obsession, A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell’s long-winded novel sequence.   Added 2013-02-12:    The age threshold of my personal sample is confirmed by that of Max Hastings, writing in 2004:

Anthony Powell’s fan club, always far smaller than that of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, will continue to shrink as admirers die off and are not replaced.  Nobody whom I know under 40 reads his books, while Waugh’s position as the greatest English novelist of the 20th century seems secure.”

Of course,  not everyone shares my low opinion of Roth’s work.




Imaginary beliefs

In a discussion of the utility of religious beliefs, Norm makes this claim:

A person can’t intelligibly say, ‘I know that p is false, but it’s useful for me to think it’s true, so I will.’ “

(Here, p is some proposition – that is, some statement about the world which may be either true or false, but not both and not neither.)

In fact, a person can indeed intelligibly say this, and pure mathematicians do it all the time.   Perhaps the example in mathematics which is easiest to grasp is the use of the square root of minus one, the number usually denoted by the symbol i.   Negative numbers cannot have square roots, since there are no numbers which when squared (multiplied by themselves) lead to a negative number.  However, it turns out that believing that these imaginary numbers do exist leads to a beautiful and subtle mathematical theory, called the theory of complex numbers. This theory has multiple practical applications, from mathematics to physics to engineering.  One area of application we have known for about a  century is the theory of alternating current in electricity;  blogging – among much else of modern life – would perhaps be impossible, or at least very different, without this belief in imaginary entities underpinning the theory of electricity.

And, as I have argued before (eg, here and here), effective business strategy development and planning under uncertainty requires holding multiple incoherent beliefs about the world simultaneously.   The scenarios created by scenario planners are examples of such mutually inconsistent beliefs about the world.   Most people – and most companies – find it difficult to maintain and act upon mutually-inconsistent beliefs.   For that reason the company that pioneered the use of scenario planning, Shell, has always tried to ensure that probabilities are never assigned to scenarios, because managers tend to give greater credence and hence attention to scenarios having higher-probabilities.  The utilitarian value of scenario planning is greatest when planners consider seriously the consequences of low-likelihood, high-impact scenarios (as Shell found after the OPEC oil price in 1973), not the scenarios they think are most probable.  To do this well, planners need to believe statements that they judge to be false, or at least act as if they believe these statements.

Here and here I discuss another example, taken from espionage history.




The corporate culture of Microsoft

Anyone with friends or associates working for Microsoft these last few years has heard stories of its bizarre internal employee appraisal system, called stack ranking:   Every group, no matter how wonderful or effective, must include some poor performers – by decree, not for any other reason.   One is reminded of Stalin’s imposition of quotas on the intelligence agencies for finding spies in the USSR in the 1930s.    With this system, it is not sufficient that people achieve their objectives or perform well: to be also rated as performing well, others in the same team must be rated as performing poorly.   There are three extremely negative outcomes of this system:  first, good and even very good performers get rated as performing poorly; second, immense effort is spent by almost everyone in ensuring  that others do badly in the ratings; and third, team spirit dissolves.

The August issue of Vanity Fair has a long profile of Microsoft and its current ills, Microsoft’s Lost Decade, by Kurt Eichenwald, here, which discusses this system in detail.     Here is a description of  the system and its consequences:

At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review,” said a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

Supposing Microsoft had managed to hire technology’s top players into a single unit before they made their names elsewhere—Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon—regardless of performance, under one of the iterations of stack ranking, two of them would have to be rated as below average, with one deemed disastrous.

For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door.

Outcomes from the process were never predictable. Employees in certain divisions were given what were known as M.B.O.’s—management business objectives—which were essentially the expectations for what they would accomplish in a particular year. But even achieving every M.B.O. was no guarantee of receiving a high ranking, since some other employee could exceed the assigned performance. As a result, Microsoft employees not only tried to do a good job but also worked hard to make sure their colleagues did not.

“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.”

Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate.

“The six-month reviews forced a lot of bad decision-making,” one software designer said. “People planned their days and their years around the review, rather than around products. You really had to focus on the six-month performance, rather than on doing what was right for the company.”

There was some room for bending the numbers a bit. Each team would be within a larger Microsoft group. The supervisors of the teams could have slightly more of their employees in the higher ranks so long as the full group met the required percentages. So, every six months, all of the supervisors in a single group met for a few days of horse trading.

On the first day, the supervisors—as many as 30—gather in a single conference room. Blinds are drawn; doors are closed. A grid containing possible rankings is put up—sometimes on a whiteboard, sometimes on a poster board tacked to the wall—and everyone breaks out Post-it notes. Names of team members are scribbled on the notes, then each manager takes a turn placing the slips of paper into the grid boxes. Usually, though, the numbers don’t work on the first go-round. That’s when the haggling begins.

“There are some pretty impassioned debates and the Post-it notes end up being shuffled around for days so that we can meet the bell curve,” said one Microsoft manager who has participated in a number of the sessions. “It doesn’t always work out well. I myself have had to give rankings to people that they didn’t deserve because of this forced curve.”

The best way to guarantee a higher ranking, executives said, is to keep in mind the realities of those behind-the-scenes debates—every employee has to impress not only his or her boss but bosses from other teams as well. And that means schmoozing and brown-nosing as many supervisors as possible.

“I was told in almost every review that the political game was always important for my career development,” said Brian Cody, a former Microsoft engineer. “It was always much more on ‘Let’s work on the political game’ than on improving my actual performance.”

Like other employees I interviewed, Cody said that the reality of the corporate culture slowed everything down. “It got to the point where I was second-guessing everything I was doing,” he said. “Whenever I had a question for some other team, instead of going to the developer who had the answer, I would first touch base with that developer’s manager, so that he knew what I was working on. That was the only way to be visible to other managers, which you needed for the review.”

I asked Cody whether his review was ever based on the quality of his work. He paused for a very long time. “It was always much less about how I could become a better engineer and much more about my need to improve my visibility among other managers.”

In the end, the stack-ranking system crippled the ability to innovate at Microsoft, executives said. “I wanted to build a team of people who would work together and whose only focus would be on making great software,” said Bill Hill, the former manager. “But you can’t do that at Microsoft.”

And, according to Eichenwald, Microsoft had an early lead in e-reader technology that was lost due to the company’s cultural bias in favour of the Windows look-and-feel:

The spark of inspiration for the device had come from a 1979 work of science fiction, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. The novel put forth the idea that a single book could hold all knowledge in the galaxy. An e-book, the Microsoft developers believed, would bring Adams’s vision to life. By 1998 a prototype of the revolutionary tool was ready to go. Thrilled with its success and anticipating accolades, the technology group sent the device to Bill Gates—who promptly gave it a thumbs-down. The e-book wasn’t right for Microsoft, he declared.

“He didn’t like the user interface, because it didn’t look like Windows,” one programmer involved in the project recalled. But Windows would have been completely wrong for an e-book, team members agreed. The point was to have a book, and a book alone, appear on the full screen. Real books didn’t have images from Microsoft Windows floating around; putting them into an electronic version would do nothing but undermine the consumer experience.

The group working on the initiative was removed from a reporting line to Gates and folded into the major-product group dedicated to software for Office, the other mammoth Microsoft moneymaker besides Windows. Immediately, the technology unit was reclassified from one charged with dreaming up and producing new ideas to one required to report profits and losses right away.

“Our entire plan had to be moved forward three to four years from 2003–04, and we had to ship a product in 1999,” said Steve Stone, a founder of the technology group. “We couldn’t be focused anymore on developing technology that was effective for consumers. Instead, all of a sudden we had to look at this and say, ‘How are we going to use this to make money?’ And it was impossible.”

Rushing the product to market cost Microsoft dearly. The software had been designed to run on a pad with touch-screen technology, a feature later popularized with the iPhone. Instead, the company pushed out Microsoft Reader, to run on the Microsoft Pocket PC, a small, phone-size device, and, soon after, on Windows. The plan to give consumers something light and simple that would allow them to read on a book-size screen was terminated.

The death of the e-book effort was not simply the consequence of a desire for immediate profits, according to a former official in the Office division. The real problem for his colleagues was that a simple touch-screen device was seen as a laughable distraction from the tried-and-true ways of dealing with data. “Office is designed to inputting with a keyboard, not a stylus or a finger,” the official said. “There were all kinds of personal prejudices at work.”

Indeed, executives said, Microsoft failed repeatedly to jump on emerging technologies because of the company’s fealty to Windows and Office. “Windows was the god—everything had to work with Windows,” said Stone. “Ideas about mobile computing with a user experience that was cleaner than with a P.C. were deemed unimportant by a few powerful people in that division, and they managed to kill the effort.”

This prejudice permeated the company, leaving it unable to move quickly when faced with challenges from new competitors. “Every little thing you want to write has to build off of Windows or other existing products,” one software engineer said. “It can be very confusing, because a lot of the time the problems you’re trying to solve aren’t the ones that you have with your product, but because you have to go through the mental exercise of how this framework works. It just slows you down.”




Story and annotation

Francis Spufford, on writing explanatory text in his novel about back in the USSR:

It was as if I had to dip my steel-nibbed pen into the inkwell and say, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife; a wife being the female partner in a pair-bonded relationship for life, sanctioned by religion and integrated into systems of inheritance, child-rearing and regulated sexuality; a fortune being a quantity of money at a high multiple of the society’s average income, usually but not invariably available as a liquid resource; money being…’




You have to make the case!

Former conservative Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (who, by the by, has long been an admirer of Ayn Rand), together with former Secretary of the Australian Commonwealth Department for Defence, Paul Barratt, and former Australian Defence Forces Chief, General Peter Gration, has called for a public inquiry regarding the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.   As I noted at the time, what was truly remarkable was the complete unwillingness of any of the principal decision-makers  – Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair or Howard – to publicly justify their decision, a decision taken before August 2002, until very late in the day.    So severe was this reticence on John Howard’s part that the Australian Senate – for the first and so far only time in its history – passed a censure  motion against the Prime Minister for his refusal to explain or justify his decision.  It seems that Fraser, Barratt, Gration, et al., are still waiting for those particular dogs to bark.

As I said at the time, there could be good and compelling reasons for a Government to not publicly justify a military decision.  If so, one would have expected the principals at least to explain the reasons for their reticence to other friendly Governments, even if only in private.  It is noteworthy then to recall Joschka Fischer’s public beration of Donald Rumsfeld:  “You have to make the case!” (video here).   Even the German Foreign Minister, it seems, could not be trusted by the decision-makers with either an explanation of the invasion decision or an explanation as to why no explanation could be given.  After all this time of dogs still quiet, one is led increasingly to the conclusion that the real reason for the decision was something that ill-behooved or shamed the decision-makers.




Proto blogging

This is a post to salute Myrtle Hanley, who was a blogger avant la lettre.  She was born to a farming family in south-east Queensland early in the 20th century, the last girl in a a dozen children.   She attended Gilston State School, a tiny bush primary school in the hinterlands of the Gold Coast that had been founded in 1881 (see photo below).  At the time she attended, it was still a single-teacher school with just a handful of students;  from there, she won a highly-competitive Queensland Government scholarship to attend high school in Brisbane.   She was the first member of her family to attend high school.   Within her immediate family growing up, her nickname was “The book says so“, since she was fond of quoting books and articles she had read in arguments with her brothers and sisters.

Her father, however, resented her becoming educated, and forced her departure from high school after a year.  Her headmaster, sympathetic to her situation, found her a position as secretary and accountant to a saddlery in Brisbane.   She then commuted to Brisbane by horse and train from rural Dakabin, north of Brisbane, where her family now lived.   Daily commuting to work from the suburbs of large cities over longer than walking distances had begun in Melbourne and in Los Angeles in the 1890s, so commuting from a farm was perhaps not unusual in the 1920s.   Her parents later moved to the small beach-side settlement of Woody Point on Moreton Bay, where her mother early each morning would walk to the surf to swim, and then find and eat fresh oysters.   The photo above shows the Glass House Mountains, part of her country.

Gilston State School

She married a dairy farmer in 1933 and they raised a family in rural northern NSW.   Life for farmers was difficult through the Great Depression and the 1940s, and finances were a constant struggle.  Despite this, she maintained a long-running subscription to a book club, reading each monthly volume as it arrived, as well as subscriptions to overseas magazines.    She was renowned among her family for staying up late on election nights to track the individual seat results as they were announced on the radio.   All her life she was devoted to crosswords, and both adept and fast at cryptic crosswords.  She wrote well, and her one surviving story reveals a fine prose stylist.

Sometime in the late 1940s she heard a radio broadcast (perhaps one of the first in Australia) playing the Top 40 best-selling records.  She thought this information needed recording for posterity, and so began a four-decades long practice of listening to a radio broadcast of the Top 40 each Saturday morning, and keeping a written record of the list in a series of school exercise books.    This is the sort of information we’d expect nowadays to be maintained by some music fan on the web (although I cannot currently find these lists anywhere on the web).  One could view this weekly activity as a form of Zen practice, with the discipline of the regular practice itself being its own reward.  Due to such sustained and close listening, she acquired an uncanny ability to recognize popular singers, particularly men, and to tell them apart.  She had had some piano lessons at school and always kept a piano in the house;  her favourite piece of music was “Sunset on the St Lawrence“, a piano waltz by Frederick Harris (aka Maxime Heller).

She knew well the story of that river:  she loved and was well-read in North American history, particularly the history of the western states.   Starting in her 60s, she decided to record her opinions on various topics of public policy and current affairs, in the form of short essays (from 300 to 3000 words each).  She then read each essay aloud, recording it onto cassette tape.  What fun she would have had with blogs and podcasts!

Like all Australian pioneer women, she was courageous and unflinching in the face of great odds, and I was privileged to have known her.   Sadly, after her death her writings and recordings were thrown away.  I am reminded of Clover Adams, whose husband Henry Adams destroyed, after her death, all the photographs she had taken that he could find.




Exhibitions concat

A list, sometimes annotated, of various exhibitions I have seen and wish to remember:

  • Unseen:  Works from the collection of the Sidney Nolan Trust, Australian High Commission, London, May 2017.
  • Video ergo sum, video art of Peter Campus, Jeu de Paume, Paris, April 2017. Contained one sublime video.
  • Australia’s Impressionists, National Gallery, London, March 2017. The 1886 painting Allegro con Brio: Bourke Street by Tom Roberts was included: it is remarkable for the absence of any tree, shrub or plant. I preume it is a true depiction of Melbourne at the time.
  • Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, Royal Academy, London, March 2017.
  • Major exhibition of abstract expressionist art at the Royal Academy, London, December 2016. The room of Jackson Pollock paintings was impressive and masterful, and included the sublime “Blue Poles”.  Likewise the room of Rothko, although these paintings are not easy to contemplate when the gallery is busy. Little of interest among the rest, with the exception of a handful of proto-minimalist works: Jack Tworkov’s “Idling II”, which imitates grey rain dribbles on a window, and Barnett Newman’s “Midnight Blue”, which contains a light blue vertical stripe on a dark blue field.  Two others caught my attention: Mark Tabey’s “Parnassus”, which brought to mind the art of Ian Fairweather in gestures that look like scripts, and Sam Francis’ “Summer #2”, with its blue and white patches.
  • Exhibition of abstract expressionist art from the Peggy Guggenheim collection, ING Gallery, Brussels, Belgium, December 2016.
  • Theo van Doesburg:  Palais des Beaux-Arts (Bozar), Brussels, Belgium, March 2016. Seeing so much De Stijl work in one place made me realise how Calvinist this art is: all squares and rectangles; initially only right angles, although some 45 degree angles later (at least the Russian constructivists allowed 120 and 30 degrees); only primary colours; and all the furniture comprising only flat planes and hard surfaces. Who could have sat for long in any of Gerrit Rietveld’s chairs, for instance? This was art for moral improvement or character-building discipline, not for pleasure. How far this aesthetic was from the sensuousness of Brazilian tropicala minimalism or the opart of (say) Bridget Riley.
  • Radical Geometry:  Modern Art of South America from the Collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros: Royal Academy, London, July-September 2014.  The exhibition was arranged by geography:  Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuala.  With a couple of exceptions, only the works by Brazilian artists detained me.  Odd that visual art that most people would see as being very similar and of the same style evokes completely disparate reactions in me.   The geometric abstraction of Brazilians is very good and worth going back to, while the rest is just awful.
  • Australia: A review of Australian art at the Royal Academy in London, September 2013. What a pleasure to see so many old friends here, starting with Sydney Long’s 1897 imagist “The Spirit of The Plains” (now in the Queensland Art Gallery), whose vertical trees, musician and landing brolgas trace an enchanting curve.
    Long-Sydney-TheSpiritofthePlains-1897
  • Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Qld.  The exceptional highlight was a 1641 painting by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado (1611-1678), entitled, “Cristo, Varon de Dolores“, of Christ holding the tree trunk that would be the cross.  The bright red of His cloak is reflected in the drops of red blood on His shoulders, blood from His crown of thorns; and the realistic bark of the tree trunk is reflected in the wood of the crown.
  • Casa Brazil:  Somerset House, London, UK.  Billed as recent Brazilian art and design, at least a third of this exhibition was devoted to a glossy sales pitch for the Rio Olympics 2016.  What recent art and design was included owed a strong influence to Arte Povera and traditional crafts.  Was this representative, I wonder?   Disappointing.
  • The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art:  The Met, NY.  More information here.
  • Sol LeWitt:  A Wall-Drawing Retrospective:  Mass MOCA (only until 2033, so do hurry along).  A wonderful collection of realisations of LeWitt’s various instructions for drawing on walls, many involving the comprehensive exploration of combinatorial possibilities, in manner similar to that of Alighiero e Boetti.   Some superb uses of colour and line, and some reminders in shape and colour of Bridget Riley’s almond paintings.
  • The Old and the New:  Pintupi masterworks from the Collection 1980s – 2000s:  Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.   Among some very moving art, an interesting feature is the optical turn in Pintupi art – the recent use of more abstract and op-art styles, with artists deploying intense repetition, oscillation, and visual effects.  Because Australian aboriginal art usually has mythological, argumentative or narrative denotation (as discussed here and here), these optical effects may be mere artefacts of our western viewership, rather than features intended by the artists.  It would be interesting to know to what extent the effects have been intended. Surely, this is something the curators of the exhibition should tell us, although doing so runs contrary to the prevailing philosophy of art curation to focus all attention on the finished object, while ignoring most else of relevance, such as the anthropological or theological context of its creation.
  • Masterpieces of English Watercolours and Drawings from the National Gallery of Scotland:  Lowell Libson Gallery, London 2011.    Catalog here.    Spectator review here.  This exhibition included a fine Bonington and a superb Cotman:  A Pool on the River Greta near Rokeby (pictured in the Spectator review and below); as with all Cotman’s landscapes, the proportions of the scene’s components are masterly and well-tempered, a fine sense of proportion and partition he shared only with Bonington and Richard Wilson.




Tibetan and Franco-Tibetan words in English

From a current advertisement for a senior position in the public service of the Australian Commonwealth Government, preparing for Australia’s hosting of a meeting of the G20 in 2014:

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

Head of Policy

G20 Taskforce

The Head of Policy will lead and manage complex and cross-cutting policy development across government, including international engagement and providing support to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s sherpa for G20 meetings in 2012 and 2013 and Australia’s hosting in 2014.  . . . “

 

Note the absence of quotation marks or italics.    A list of G20 sherpas and sous-sherpas can be found here.




Recent reading 5

A list, sometimes annotated, of books recently read:

  • Richard Bassett [2012]:  Hitler’s Spy Chief.   New York: Pegasus. A biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr.  This book appears to be a reissue (also revised?) of a book  first published in 2005.  The subject and argument of the book are fascinating, but sadly this is not matched by the writing, which is just appalling.The first problem is with the status of the book.  The inside cover pages say “copyright 2011”, and “First Pegasus Books hardcover edition 2012”, yet the Acknowledgements section is dated 2004.   Various references to contemporary events throughout the book also indicate a date of writing of around 2003 or so.   The front section contains a “Preface to the American Edition”which is undated, but cites letters written in 2008 and 2009.  The author’s sloppiness with dates is manifest throughout the book, and it is often very hard for a reader to determine exactly which year events being described actually happened.A further great sloppiness concerns the use of names – many people, like citizens of Indonesia, appear only to have surnames.   Later references will often find a first name attached to the surname – is this the same person, one wonders?  It is as if the author assumes we know as much as he seems to know about minor Nazi officials, and temporary clerks in MI6.The book actually reads like the author’s narrative notes for a book rather than the book itself, with much background information missing or assumed to be known by the reader.   Is this his first draft perhaps, ready for editing?   How could one write on the topic of German foreign intelligence in WW II without discussion of the XX Committee, for example?    Admittedly, the author does make one single reference to this operation (on page 280, out of 296 pages of text), but with no explanation of what the committee was doing or an evaluation of its work, and not even a listing in the index.    And given the author’s argument that Canaris was an internal opponent of Hitler from before the start of WW II, then an analysis of the alleged success of the XX operations in outwitting Nazi intelligence is surely needed here.  Was Canaris complicit in these operations, for example?   Especially if, as the author believes, Canaris met with his British opposite number, Sir Stewart Menzies, during WW II.And like a person too eager to please, the author’s sentences run on and on and on, with clause after subordinate clause, each introducing a new topic or change or direction, or dropping yet another name, in some drunken word association game.    Where were the editors when this book was submitted?  On vacation?  On strike?   Reading the book requires a reader to fight past the author’s appalling prose style to reach the interesting content.    Sadly, Admiral Canaris still awaits a good English-language biography.
  • Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman [2012]:  Spies Against Armageddon:  Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. Levant Books.
  • Milton Bearden and James Risen [2004]: The Main Enemy:  The Insider Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.  Presidio Press.
  • Natalie Dykstra [2012]:  Clover Adams:  A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.   An intelligent and sympathetic life of Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams (1843-1885), pioneer of art photography, wife of Henry Adams, and a daughter of transcendentalist poet, Ellen Sturgis Hooper.   She was a friend and muse to Henry James, and a distant relative of the step-family of George Santayana.
  • Archie Brown [2010]:  The Rise and Fall of Communism.  Vintage.
  • James Douglass [2008]:   JFK and the Unspeakable:  Why he Died and Why it Matters. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  • Sidney Ploss [2009]:  The Roots of Perestroika:  The Soviet Breakdown in Historical Context. McFarland and Company.
  • David Maraniss [2012]:  Barack Obama:  The Story.  Simon and Schuster.
  • Ben MacIntyre [2012]: Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  London: Bloomsbury. Reviewed here.
  • Colin Eatock [2009]: Mendelssohn and Victorian England.  London: Ashgate.  A detailed and comprehensive account of Mendelssohn’s visits to England (and his one visit to Scotland), and his activities, musical and other, while there.
  • George Dyson [2012]:  Turing’s Cathedral:  The Origins of the Digital Universe.  Allen Lane.   A fascinating account of the involvement of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, in the early development of scientific computing, led by that larger-than-life character, Johnnie von Neumann.
  • Gordon Brook-Shepherd [1988]: The Storm Birds:  Soviet Post-War Defectors.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Neil Sheehan [2010]:  A Fiery Peace in a Cold War:  Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon. Vintage Books.  A fascinating history of the US inter-continental ballistic missile program in the 1950s, told through a biography of one of its parents, USAF General Bennie Schriever.    It is easy to forget how much practical expertise was needed for successful missile and satellite launches, as with any new and complex technology.   As a consequence, we forget how few of the early test launch attempts were successful.  The Vanguard 3 rocket, for example, launched just 3 satellites out of 11 attempts between December 1957 and September 1959. (Vanguard was a USN project.)

The photo shows the Mercury-Atlas and Gemini-Titan rockets at Rocket Park in New York City (courtesy of the NY Hall of Science).