qatsi: (dascoyne)
2017-07-25 09:15 pm
Entry tags:

The Geneva Trap

Book Review: The Geneva Trap, by Stella Rimington
Rounding up a backlog of reviews, I found this in the Mortimer station book swap - I was curious about the author, without any great expectations. As such it's been on my "to read" pile for a while, and I got through it in two or three days, aided by some time waiting for the Proms. This is several novels in to the series of the character Liz Carlyle, and concerns a Russian diplomat in Geneva who has information that a "Third Country" has infiltrated a top-secret US/UK encryption programme. The book is somewhere between the cerebral world of John Le Carré (with political machinations between MI5, MI6, and various international counterparts) and an action thriller (rapidly jumping between London, Geneva, Marseilles and elsewhere), which may go some way to explaining the variety of opinions I've seen on Goodreads in not entirely satisfying either of those positions. Some technical details bothered me: the lack of technical understanding among some of the managerial characters combined with their complacency is caricature, but sadly plausible. Call me old-fashioned, but if you require separation of two computer networks and you're serious about security, then you will have two physically separate networks; having only a logical separation and sharing the hardware is, well, asking for trouble. Weaving Carlyle's domestic life as a parallel strand worked quite well and gave some extra dimensions to the story. On the whole, I enjoyed it, although I'm not sure I would actively seek out other books in the series.
qatsi: (bach)
2017-07-24 08:29 pm
Entry tags:

Long Ride in a Slow Machine

Book Review: Hallelujah Junction - Composing an American Life, by John Adams
I picked this up a while ago in a work book sale, but it sat on the shelves waiting for the right moment. I decided, with Adams' music featuring in the First Night of the Proms, that it was now time.

It makes for an interesting read. Adams traces his roots back to the dance hall Winnipesaukee Gardens, in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, where his maternal grandparents had a troubled relationship; his parents ended up in modest circumstances and his childhood was comfortable but basic. From an early age he was interested in music and played the clarinet, showing enough talent to take lessons and eventually play orchestral parts. He also liked the idea of conducting in particular. Conventional classical music training in the eastern US in the mid twentieth-century was focused very much on twelve-tone serialism, which did not much appeal to Adams, who was steeped in jazz and interested in rock and roll as much as classical music. Despite offers of further tuition, he eventually decided to spread his wings (or at least, a rickety Volkswagen camper-van) and head west.

Through the seventies Adams made a career mostly as a conductor and concert organiser; a few of his own works, such as Shaker Loops and Harmonium started to make his reputation. He goes on to describe the collaboration with Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman that led to Nixon in China, which became one of his most successful works, and The Death of Klinghoffer, which has always been one of his most controversial. Later chapters in the book go into some depth, creatively and bureaucratically, as well as musically, on several works; Adams also ponders the creative process in general. He has an easy writing style, and acknowledges problematic works as well as success. The foreword to this edition notes the 2012 performance at the Proms of Nixon in China as one of his career highlights; I'm glad he thinks that, because, having been there myself, I agree.
qatsi: (meades)
2017-07-15 12:05 pm
Entry tags:

The Antidote to Cookbooks

Book Review: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, by Jonathan Meades
When I saw this in the work book sale, I reached straight for it, no questions asked, as I knew it was already on my wish list.

Imagine, if you will, a cookbook written by Jonathan Meades. And there you have it, more or less. If you are unfamiliar with his TV programmes, the MeadesShrine YouTube channel is a good starting point, although these programmes are generally architecturally rather than gastronomically focused. An acquaintance once declaimed that Meades was best watched "with a glass of wine in one hand, and a dictionary in the other".

Meades did spend some years as a restaurant critic, and became morbidly obese for his efforts. The collection of recipes here is, for the most part, surprisingly practical, though several refer to unheard-of ingredients (many of them I believe to be cheeses) for which one might have to imagine more quotidian substitutions, and the elephant gratin is, on a detailed read of the ingredients, somewhat disappointing. Interspersed with anecdotes and musings on the question of whether anything in food is truly original, this is an audio book, albeit without an MP3. What did you expect?
qatsi: (urquhart)
2017-07-12 08:39 pm
Entry tags:

The Strange Death of Liberal England

Book Review: The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield
This had been on my to-read list for quite a while and the inconclusive aftermath of the [first] 2017 General Election seemed as good a time as any to pick it up, especially since there had been no rebirth of "Liberal England". (Not that increasing the Lib Dems' seats by 50% wasn't a good result - but it's still a fraction of the number in the 2010-2015 parliament).

Dangerfield identifies a prologue, and three main threads, in the politics of the period 1906-1914: firstly, he deals with the House of Lords, and its ubiquitous role in blocking Liberal policies from the House of Commons. Ultimately this behaviour resulted in the Parliament Act, but it's a situation that is still not fully resolved today. The three main issues are of Irish Home Rule, Women's Suffrage, and Industrial Relations. On Irish Home Rule, Dangerfield presents a curious picture in which the Tories seem to oppose change largely for the sake of opposing it; the Unionist position in Ulster is presented as extremist, and desirous of belonging to some fantasy Union that doesn't actually exist - a situation that hardly seems altered today with the DUP, given that I have never felt I have much in common with those who claim to represent Northern Ireland and its desire to remain part of the UK. On the question of suffrage, Dangerfield writes almost exclusively about the cult of personality surrounding Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Their campaign is presented as violent and absurd; but the debate and progress (or rather, lack thereof) on the issue in Parliament is presented as equally absurd, and it becomes difficult to work out which came first. On industrial relations, the situation is just a mess, but unfortunately it is reminiscent in some ways of today, with extreme and ill-thought grass-roots positions undermining and replacing more moderate Union leadership, and a range of attitudes among employers, from enlightened through to abusive.

The cumulative effect of reading about these is to reveal how safe and orderly Britain is today, given that only the suffrage issue is incontrovertibly resolved (though, in Dangerfield's writing, the Suffragettes' campaign is the most consistently violent of the three); the polarised political situation on Brexit and its economic implications does bear some resemblance with the industrial issues of a century ago. Dangerfield doesn't actually synthesise how these threads caused the death of Liberal England, rather assuming the general atrophying political climate (which again, is surely echoed today) produces this outcome, but leaves the outbreak of World War I as his ending point. The choice of the word "England" in the title would make our contemporary sensitivities bristle, but Scotland barely gets a mention at all, and there's not much about Wales either.
qatsi: (penguin)
2017-07-08 04:19 pm
Entry tags:

Words on words

Book Review: The Word Detective - Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, by John Simpson
One great thing about the work book sale is that you can try something different knowing that, even if it doesn't work out, it has cost very little; in many cases I suspect it's cheaper even than a secondhand charity bookshop. This one looked curious, but risky: it could be very dry. Fortunately, it has turned out to be very readable. It's part personal biography (John Simpson, not that John Simpson), part a biography of the OED itself. Simpson joined Oxford University Press in 1976 and worked his way up in the Dictionary department. Slowly the prospect of a Second Edition of the OED emerged - the first, having been completed in 1928 with an irregular series of supplements since. At the same time, technology was evolving, and Simpson sought the help of others and the budget to computerise the half million definitions contained on card indexes. It's not a political book but one can easily imagine the heated discussions that must have taken place; the impression conveyed is that OUP always did the right thing, but perhaps sometimes after exhausting some of the other options. The Second Edition combined the original with the supplements, and was available on CD-ROM as well as in print, but rapid advances pushed for a Third Edition, and an evolving online resource. Simpson brings the story to a personal conclusion with his retirement in 2013. The personal aspects of the biography are small, and focus mostly on his family life, including coping with a disabled daughter (he doesn't name any condition, but some of it sounds like severe autism). Scattered throughout, Simpson highlights words in the main text and chooses to divert into their etymology, history and current usage, which reveals his enthusiasm and helps to breathe life into his subject.
qatsi: (penguin)
2017-06-24 11:40 am
Entry tags:

As Seen on TV

Book Review: Nice Work (If You Can Get It), by Celia Imrie
I enjoyed the recent TV series Our Friend Victoria, at least as much as one can enjoy an extended obituary: there's something about Victoria Wood's work that leaves you feeling uplifted even if the subject itself isn't cheery. I get a similar feeling from Eric Coates' music. I'd seen publicity for this book somewhere, and when I saw the book in the work book sale it was an easy decision to give it a go. I was curious to see how Imrie would fare as an author, and also to see whether it had a similar vein to Wood, and it felt like appropriate holiday reading.

I enjoyed the book, and it did feel a bit like reading something by Wood; not in an imitative way, but just in the sense that they were part of a team that obviously shared some common ground (although I have the impression that Wood was the sole writer for her TV shows). This turns out to be number two in a series by Imrie, but there is no need to have read the previous volume as the characters and their situation are explained straight away. The book is set in Bellevue-sur-Mer, a small French town somewhere near Nice (hence the book's playful title) and Cannes. Our heroes are a set of British ex-pats, who have decided to set up a restaurant in the town, mostly for the purpose of keeping themselves occupied. The story follows their trials and tribulations, through French bureaucracy, Russian oligarchs, Sardinian Mafia, and the expats' own dysfunctional friends and family, including minor and major actresses descending for the Cannes Film Festival and behaving theatrically.

Two things make the book a bit tricky: there is a relatively large cast, and it's sometimes a bit difficult to remember who is who, and what their relationship is to the core of four people setting up the restaurant. Inevitably, from time to time I imagined the characters portrayed by the cast of Wood's shows, which was a little awkward, as Duncan Preston took all the male roles. The second thing is that sometimes the plot moves on a bit jerkily, with a paragraph or two summarising quite a large leap forwards. It is perhaps the sort of thing you wouldn't really notice in a film or TV programme, but it can feel a little clunky in print. But neither of these things prevented me from enjoying the book and confidently adding its predecessor to my to-read list.
qatsi: (dascoyne)
2017-06-04 04:06 pm
Entry tags:

An Ealing Comedy

Book Review: The Secret Life of Ealing Studios, by Robert Sellers
The work book sale is a charity sale; but unlike browsing through a second-hand or charity bookshop, the books are completely unsorted (with the exception of children's books, and large-format volumes, which are filed to one side), so you have to look through everything. This provides scope for serendipity, such as this one, which I doubt I'd ever have discovered otherwise. The book covers the period from the late 1930s, when Michael Balcon took over, through to the late 1950s, when it was sold. It's very clear that Balcon was the controlling mind of the studio throughout; in the war years, he was determined to play his part in the domestic war effort, and after the war it was very much his view of Britain that was portrayed in Ealing's films.

The book aims to record personal experiences, so there are many first-hand interviews with people who worked in all sorts of back-stage roles. The picture that emerges from them could almost form the plot of an Ealing film itself: most (but not all) people felt there was a close family atmosphere (certainly "who you knew" was often a factor in getting through the door); there was a lack of rank in some aspects (but a clear class distinction in others), and general consensus with occasional artistic differences. In the era before health and safety there were near misses from time to time, which can be told quasi-comically now, but were no doubt sometimes more serious. Another theme that emerges from the book is the intransigence of trades unions at the time, doing what would be considered nowadays far more in the area of restrictive practices than could be justified by protecting their members' interests. Indeed, it's implied that Peter Sellers' observations of Ealing technicians while working on The Ladykillers was put to full use later in I'm All Right Jack.

After the war years and the comedic post-war heights of films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Passport to Pimlico, the studio slowly declined in the 1950s; to some extent this was probably due to its small scale operation, but also to Balcon's limited vision in being prepared to face the future. The site was sold to the BBC and the company was absorbed into MGM. However, after an uncertain period from the 1990s, it's good to note that the studio has survived into the twenty-first century.
qatsi: (wally)
2017-05-23 08:58 pm
Entry tags:

Elasticsearch in Action

Book Review: Elasticsearch in Action, by Radu Gheorghe, Matthew Lee Hinman, and Roy Russo
In a previous job I'd come across Solr, but these days, I'm told, Elasticsearch is where it's at, at least where I work now. Ultimately, both are built on top of Lucene; which does, actually, make you wonder whether that has any competitors.

This book was published in 2016, but one of its weaknesses is that it's very clearly somewhat out-of-date already, as it refers to the "latest" Elasticsearch being 1.5, with 2.0 in development. (There's been some creative arithmetic, but the current release is 5.x, and over that time there have been significant changes to some APIs.) Uncharacteristically for Manning, I did encounter a few badly worded sections, or examples or diagrams that didn't make sense or had incorrect values; cumulatively these things make me wonder whether the book suffered long delays and then finally got pushed out in a hurry without adequate proofing.

Hopefully the underlying principles remain much the same, with chapters on basic CRUD operations, index and analyzer configuration, search syntax, and relevance scoring. It is always against my intuition that many search queries are exact, when my expectation is for the results to have some degree of fuzziness; of course, in practice that's where the scoring comes in. There are also chapters on techniques for modelling parent-child relationships between documents, scaling, performance, and administrative tasks. Somewhat unfairly, several topics are relegated to appendices, including geo-search, hit highlighting, percolation (which was completely new to me but seems potentially very powerful, discovering which queries will match a given document) and completion/suggestion. It seems to me these are at least as, if not more important, than parent-child relationships and aggregation functions, but maybe that's just my use case.
qatsi: (bach)
2017-05-14 08:35 pm
Entry tags:

The Art of Noise

Book Review: The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
I picked this up straight away when I saw it in a recent work book sale, as I knew it was on my to-read list. The book takes three episodes in Shostakovich's life, probing the inner turmoil and unanswerable questions that must have been forming in his mind. The first episode is probably the most well known: following Stalin's critical review in Pravda, Muddle instead of Music, of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the composer fears that he is about to be deported to Siberia; to spare his wife and child disturbance in the middle of the night, he takes to staying on the landing by the lifts in his apartment block, reflecting on his life up to this point. Spoilers )

I haven't read any Julian Barnes before, so I can't comment on whether it is similar to his other works. While I don't think it's necessary, some prior knowledge of Shostakovich certainly helps. This is quite a short and easy (but not comfortable) read, but nonetheless profound.
qatsi: (lurcio)
2017-05-06 05:32 pm
Entry tags:

Ridebis, et licet rideas

Book Review: Release Your Inner Roman by Marcus Sidonius Falx, by Jerry Toner
This was a random selection from a work book sale a while ago; it's supposed to be a satirical take on self-help books, written from a Roman perspective. In fact, although the satire is there, it's not as laugh-out-loud as I'd expected, and it is perhaps surprising how much of Falx's advice doesn't seem outrageous or unreasonable today, though of course in some areas we have moved on quite a lot. It seems to me that Toner has successfully captured the rhetorical style of Roman writing, as it does read quite like the translation of a classical text. But the other thing Toner has done, which reduces the laughter but also adds an educational aspect to the book, is to provide a commentary at the end of each chapter on what the Romans thought on the subjects under discussion, and to give sources for those keen to investigate further.
qatsi: (gatherer)
2017-05-02 08:18 pm
Entry tags:

Tales of the City

Book Review: City of London - The History, by David Kynaston
This is something of a doorstop, but it is also the distillation of Kynaston's four-volume history, and therefore presumably represents the edited highlights. The book covers the period 1815-2001, and I think that is symptomatic of one of its Achilles heels, that it assumes quite a lot of the reader. The Royal Exchange dates from 1570, and Lloyd's of London and the Bank of England from the end of the seventeenth century, and there is only a cursory preamble in the first chapter of the book. Likewise, the terms accepting house, discounting house, and issuing house are introduced without explanation; the book could really do with a glossary.

Setting these misgivings to one side, the book focuses on the increasing financial aspect of the City of London, while also highlighting that, historically, it was also a mercantile and more broadly commercial area. The rise of the Barings and Rothschilds families in particular is noted, while the Stock Exchange contributes Railway mania, and a series of less successful institutions produced a number of banking crises in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It's striking that the City has always been international in character (initially, offering and managing sovereign debt for other monarchies), and often criticised for it (as a distraction from providing a useful financing service for domestic industry). Private banking slowly gives way to joint-stock banking companies; the First World War deals the fatal blow that governs the next fifty years or so, a largely futile battle to reinstate and maintain the Gold standard. Labour nationalises the Bank of England in 1946; mergers, acquisitions, and asset-stripping become rampant in the 1960s and 1970s; the Stock Exchange slowly introduces new technology, only to discard it a few years later; and so on. The discussion of the "Big Bang" of the 1980s is interesting: it was forced upon the Stock Exchange as a deal to resolve a restrictive practices investigation in the early Thatcher years; indeed, one gets the impression that careers in the City were distinctly leisurely until relatively recently. The overall impression is that the City is apolitical, stridently demanding independence from political interference but rarely able to regulate itself effectively.
qatsi: (capaldi)
2017-04-05 08:50 pm
Entry tags:

The Drake Equation

Book Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude - The Search for Life Among the Stars, by Lee Billings
I picked this up around a year ago at a work book sale. It turned out to be quite a patchy book. There is some interesting science in here, but Billings has chosen to make it more of a human-interest story, which doesn't work as well as it sounds it should, given the subject.

The first chapter starts off with a discussion about the Drake equation, and quite rapidly focuses on the longevity of a technical civilisation as the critical factor. The rest of the book weaves through the advances and discoveries of exoplanets in the past 20 years or so, and also terrestrial evolution, past, present and future geology and chemistry. Depressingly, the other rocky planets in our own solar system show that it is easy for such worlds not to be hospitable to advanced life. However, the book is also a story of planet-hunters, astrobiologists, space scientists, and dreamers; and where humans are involved, politics is not far away, with rival groups within the scientific community arguing over the validity of their techniques and which projects to spend money on, and the US government (the book is essentially US-focused) regularly reprioritising NASA and trimming its budget.

It's speculative that we would recognise signs of life (though we would recognise signs of life sufficiently similar to ourselves); it's speculative that we could detect such signs (though that is probably only a matter of time); and if we did, what then? Dubbing such a world "Earth 2.0" hints at our colonial ambitions, but surely such a world would be already taken. In the mean time, we need to take care of the only world known to support (allegedly) intelligent life.