Eternal is the right word

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (20th anniversary edition with a new preface by the author)

This diagram shows the syntactic divisions wit...

This diagram shows the syntactic divisions within a formal system. Strings of symbols may be broadly divided into nonsense and well-formed formulas. The set of well-formed formulas is divided into theorems and non-theorems. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day I remarked to a friend that the best thing about reading Crime and Punishment and Moby-Dick was that you could then show off to other friends that you had read them. In neither case is that the full story, both novels throw up images that will live with you for life, but it is not, to me at least, an unfair summary.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid feels quite a bit like that. It is a book that has always been present in my life much like the works of “the canon” must be for arts students and graduates – in the physics labs at Finchley Catholic High School three decades ago, on the shelves of science students at Edinburgh, popping up in discussions on artificial intelligence, computability and how to be a nerd now and forever. And finally, finally, finally, I have trudged through the 745 pages of text, musical scores and good and bad (very bad in some cases) drawings to finish it.

It is certainly not without insight, in some cases what feels like quite profound insight. You have to wade a long way in to get to Doug Hofstadter‘s explicit comparison between formal mathematical systems and molecular biology but when you get there it is worth the effort if, like me, you were taught biology before the genetic revolution really got going. I had thought I understood why people talked about biological computation before – Fibonacci series and plant growth and so on – but Hofstadter was the first to make me see that the connection between number theory and computation and biology is really a very deep one.

But the book is also full of – and pardon me for being vulgar – crap. Drivel about Zen Buddism, the drawings of Escher (who cares? Not me anyway) and quite repetitive meanders round Hofstadter’s concept of tangled hierarchies (I got it the first time Doug). The mathematical explanations in the book (generally of  Gödel’s incompleteness theorems) suffer, too, I feel, from Hofstadter’s unwillingness to delve deeper into the maths. There are too many words in the way.

In general the book also suffers because it appears to have been poorly edited the first time around for length and could do with a comprehensive edit now to take advantage of the advances in computer typesetting technology since its first publication – there is no reason why the reader should be sent scuttling back several hundred pages looking for references – these could be made specific.

So those are the downsides, what are the positives beyond being able to say you have read it?

I have already mentioned the passages on molecular biology, but there are others too, such as his discussions on Bach (though like much here they are long-winded) and on Alan Turing. Though the book convinced me that Hofstadter was insufficiently robust in his defence of the materialist/reductionist view – the book left me more certain than ever that Turing’s view that what ‘imitates’ intelligence is, in fact, intelligence is the correct one. There is nothing magical inside our heads (and by magical I am twisting Arthur C. Clarke – any technology insufficiently incomprehensible is indistinguishable from magic).

Perhaps most of all the book makes me want to re-read Charles Petzold‘s masterpiece, The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine.


The end of le Carré

A Delicate Truth

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingd...

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1997-2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For hard core John le Carre fans, and I am one, the last fifteen years have been a succession of disappointments. The last novel he wrote that I enjoyed was Absolute Friends and the second half of that was dismal.

Reading other reviews of “A Delicate Truth” one might think that the corner has been turned and the master has returned to form. Well, I have to disagree.

Because, for me this latest novel is little better than an angry and incoherent rant from a frustrated political opponent of New Labour. This book is so bad it is difficult to know where to begin, but here are a few low lights:

  • Fergus Quinn: This “junior minister” is plainly meant to be some sort of John Reid character – an ex-Communist Blairite Scot. But Le Carre has no feel or understanding for the Labour Party and like much else in the book this character owes more to conspiracy theorists than real life. We are asked to believe that the evil Blairites were in league with the Republican far-right via super smooth public schoolboy smoothies. Nope. And before you scream back “George W Bush” from under your tin foil hat, he was the elected President of the United States: not a matter of choice for the British Prime Minister.
  • Kit Probyn: There appear to be two Kit Probyns in the book. The first we meet is a weak “low flyer” picked from Foreign Office obscurity to give Quinn some cover for his adventures with the US far right, the second is an ebullient old buffer with a Cornish manor house. Not believable.
  • Emily Probyn: Well le Carre has never been able to do women. I suppose that is one constant.
  • Toby Bell: Here le Carre attempts to form a hero who is not one of the public schoolboys he usually writes of – and fails. For Bell’s patina of un-privilege wears off very quickly and he is just like all the others – le Carre even has to have him inherit some money, presumably because that makes him easier to write.
  • Americanisms and the rest: whether this is sloppiness or laziness or simple commercial consideration, the book is damaged by the use of American-English in a book where only one American, briefly, speaks. Who in Britain calls a mobile a “cellphone” or talks of “real estate” instead of property? What is more nobody but nobody refers to Northern Ireland’s protestants as “prots” – the word, if it must be used, is “prod”. Le Carre should do a bit more research if he wants to write-in “ethnics” next time. Furthermore neither Gibraltar nor anywhere else has been a “Crown Colony” since 1981.

In the end we are asked to believe that today the UK is ruled by governments (of the current and two previous Prime Ministers) who routinely make their own citizens “disappear” into secret prisons (when they are not murdering them), not just tolerate others’ torture but authorise it themselves and believe they can break the law with absolute impunity and never get caught.

Now, this sort of world view is today quite popular in a country where nasty hard right anti-politics parties such as UKIP can do quite well. But le Carre – who once wrote so eloquently of the moral dilemmas facing democrats who stood against Communism – ought to be ashamed of giving it air time.


Out of Korea

The Coldest Winter

I bought this enormous tome – David Halberstam’s account of America and the Korean War – a few years ago, read the first chapter, a rather dry account of the first military encounter of US and Chinese forces in the war and put it down disappointedly.

English: 1st Marine Regiment, on supply and wi...

English: 1st Marine Regiment, on supply and withdrawal route of 5th and 7th Marines, had to repel repeated attacks by Chinese communists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But it was always floating about somewhere near my pillow ever since and for some reason I picked it up a few weeks ago, ignored the first chapter and started to read the rest and discovered a great book.

Not all of it works – it is too long and a bit repetitive at times – there are only so many times you need to be told by Halberstam what a great soldier Matt Ridgway was – and the absolute writing out of the Koreans, especially civilians, borders on the obscene: this is very much about America and not much else.

Yet the book is a great one because it challenges the ever more dominant view that the real fault of the western countries in the Cold War was to be insufficiently hardline in their opposition to the Communist “monolith”. These views echo those of the late 1940s and early 1950s era of McCarthyism (although there is little red baiting today) and, the book argues convincingly, were wrong then and, by extension, are wrong today.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union the idea that confrontation “won” the Cold War while detente prolonged it has become close to an orthodoxy, while the book reminds us that the global spread of states aligned to the Soviet Union had rather more to do with the Soviets’ willingness to sponsor nationalist and anti-colonialist movements (how cynical this sponsorship was was not likely to matter to the nationalists who had no other friends)  and the west’s willingness to prop-up corrupt dictatorships.

And China was the first and biggest example. What the book made clear to me – and I was really unaware of this – was just how important “losing China” was in US domestic politics. China was the “white man’s burden” for many in the US, and many ordinary US citizens had, through their churches, spent millions on missionaries and harboured dreams of a great Christian nation (eternally grateful or subservient to the US of course) arising there.

The truth of Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership, his unwillingness to fight the Japanese, the foul corruption of his state was systematically hidden from (or ignored by) the American people, partly for reasons of state, partly because no one wanted to hear it. US military missions to the Chinese Communists during the second world war returned with admiration, while those to the Nationalists returned with contempt, but neither was allowed to tell the truth.

Then, after the war, the US spent millions on arming the Nationalists (though those arms almost all ended up in Communist hands) and organised the greatest military airlift ever seen to ensure the Nationalists were able to control all of China’s major cities within weeks of the war’s end. The alternative – of seeing the Communists as having national interests and outlooks that would differ from those of the Soviet Union and drawing their support from legitimate popular disgust for the rule of the war lords and the Nationalists – was never given proper consideration. Instead of stepping back from the Chinese civil war the US was an active participant and domestic politics forced the Truman administration to highlight this even after the side they had backed had lost and efforts should have been focused on dealing with the new reality.

In the end the US’s failure to come to terms with the Communist victory in China strengthened the hand of the most uncompromising in the Chinese leadership – of which, of course, Mao Zedong was the leading example. Confrontation with China and the rejection of a detente policy strengthened the grip of the most extreme in the regime.

And when the North Korean army was routed after the landings at Incheon in September 1950 and Douglas McArthur ordered his forces north, the very clear signals from the Chinese that they would not tolerate a US army on their border were ignored – partly because anti-Communist hardliners and “China Firsters” (such as McArthur, who never set foot on the Chinese mainland but claimed Chiang was a great leader) wanted a general war with the Chinese in any case, and partly because racist considerations would never let them see that the Chinese were skilled fighters and a real threat. The result was a shocking military disaster. Though ultimately many more Chinese were to die than Americans, the US, just a few years after the triumph of the Second World War, were reduced to admitting they were in a battle they could not win.

Along the way the book paints a picture of how US politics were twisted by lobbyists for Chiang and how McCarthyism was born out of, not a sense of the need for the US to crusade against Communism in all corners of the world, but of isolationism and a tension as much inside the Republican party as between Republicans and Democrats. The parallels and lessons for today are everywhere to be seen: we still live in the Korean era in a very real sense.

Of course we are also invited to see how the Korean disaster led on to the yet greater folly in Vietnam (and we could add, even if the book does not, propping up the Shah in Iran, dishing out guns to Saddam in Iraq and regarding apartheid South Africa as an ally). The epilogue is a less than fully flattering, even if sympathetic, portrait of Kennedy and Johnson.

Reading the book takes effort – it is very long and the military passages in particular can be hard going (the book lacks photographs to humanise the commanders written of and also any formal description of the US order of battle – making it hard to follow which army, which corps, which division we are talking about at any one time), but in the end it is well worth it not just for the historical perspective but also because of what it tells us of today’s world.


The Daily Mail history of the recent past

James Callaghan Prime Minister of the United K...

James Callaghan Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and President of the United States Jimmy Carter. Arrival Ceremony for The Right Honorable The Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Mrs. James Callaghan — The South Grounds, 03/10/1977 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979

I have read all four volumes of Dominic Sandbrook‘s history of Britain from the Suez Crisis to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory and while it is not so simple as to say they get progressively worse there is no doubt that Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles – the first volume – is superior to all that followed.

As the series winds on Sandbrook’s politics come ever more to the fore. Harold Wilson, a man who surely had a more profound and positive impact on Britain’s history than Sandbrook’s heroic Harold Macmillan, is repeatedly and viciously attacked (though plainly not all the attacks are without foundation), while the social progress and progressive ideas of the 1960s are dismissed in White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties as of little impact on the majority of the population and then simply ignored in State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 and this volume – presumably because the revolution in social attitudes and the advance of feminism and anti-racism are just too troubling for the original thesis.

In sum the series adds up to an exercise in the sort of cynicism we would expect from a regular columnist in the Daily Mail.

Huge societal changes are ignored – across the four volumes there is little discussion of education beyond a repeated and ritual dismissal of graduates as trendy lefties out of touch with the salt-of-the-earth reactionary masses and a lengthy examination in this volume of the events in one North London primary school and its impact on galvanising Rhodes Boyson and other “new right” educational theorists. It’s all faintly ridiculous.

That said, in the end, I have to recommend the books. Especially, of course, the first volume, but even the last one. Especially at the start of the series they chronicle the changes in everyday life in some fascinating detail and Sandbrook does have a real talent for writing about high politics, even if one disagrees with much of his perspective. The books are also better than the silly, “I love the 1970s” type TV series he fronted for the BBC to coincide with this volume’s publication in 2012: at least in the book the attempt to claim Arthur Scargill as a proto-Thatcherite is one sentence amongst many thousands, not the thing a whole 45 minutes of TV are hung on.

Reading this volume I came away with two big political conclusions – what a foul woman Margaret Thatcher really was and how deep the parallels between Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown’s premiership ran.

Of course I was no fan of Thatcher to begin with but the story of the Ilford North byelection caps them all. I was aware, of course, of Thatcher saying that people felt they were being “swamped” by immigrants – I even have a vague recollection of it. But I had never realised it was such a cynical statement – made deliberately to connect to racist sentiment and to secure victory in a single byelection. (Papers released in recent years show beyond doubt that Thatcher sought to implement racist policies in government too – complaining that not enough council houses went to white residents – but even that seems less shocking that this.)

As for Callaghan and Brown – well Sandbrook lionises Callaghan, especially in contrast to Wilson, but I can only think of Gordon Brown. Here we are told Callaghan’s premiership was destroyed by the combination of the unions’ approach to pay in the winter of 1978 and Callaghan’s misjudgement of the public mood in response. But surely the roots go deeper – Callaghan secured the premiership by being the unions’ chief steward in government and resisting Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife” – like Gordon he played to the gallery to undermine a Labour Prime Minister and to win plaudits from the auld alliance of Labour’s conservatives on left and right. And in government he could never deliver because no Labour Prime Minister can ever be a conservative and hope to be a success.

One man does emerge as a great hero of that Labour government – Michael Foot. Even down to the end he is scoring points – his caustic attack on David Steel in the wind up to the fateful censure vote of March 1979 – “the boy David” – “passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever” – were the words that finished Steel off, even if it took another decade: for the “Spitting Image” caricature that he hated so much was essentially those words made rubber.

So, by all means read these books. Indeed I would recommend you did. But please also read No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s and remember just what the consequences of cynical conservatism really are.


Déjà Vu All Over Again

The Great Crash 1929J K Galbraith

The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchan...

The trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1930, just six months after the crash of 1929 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was inspired to read this after Keynes: The Return of the Master and because of its towering reputation. But, to be honest, the first 100 pages or so left me wondering what all the fuss was about. My edition (borrowed from the University of York library) began with a description of how its author found himself, momentarily, at the heart of some red baiting after evidence, based on the research for the book, he gave to a Senate committee caused a minor market hiccough. That was the most engaging part of the opening half of the book – though it is an even more interesting story in the context of the whole text (it seems that some people believe so strongly in their right to make money without work that only a conspiracy can explain away their coming to grief).

But the book was worth persisting with – because as the tale goes on the relevance to the events of the last decade becomes clearer (and, as an additional bonus, one gets a better perspective on the F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s work). What begins as a story of 1920s crookedness does flower into a big story of how and why speculative markets fail and even why recessions turn to depressions.

America’s reaction to the 1929 Crash was the New Deal which, as the book makes clear, was not any sort of Keynesian programme, but rather a wave of regulation. The New Deal essentially failed as a means of riving the economy – or rather it’s impact was much less than its backers hoped for. But it did help create the climate that allowed America to power ahead in the 40s and 50s. Crucial to that was the disarming of the prophets of unrestricted markets – the combination of market failure and sheer crookedness leaving them exposed. Today we ought to have the same – after all the rottenness of much of the financial sector has been exposed and we have had the worst global economic retreat since the 1930s, but I do not sense that we have entered an era of a new worldview on the role and purpose of markets.


A different view of the 1980s

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop starTracey Thorn.

Crop of photo with Italian fan (fan cropped out).

Crop of photo with Italian fan (fan cropped out). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who know me will recognise that pop stars’ memoirs are not my normal reading, so why break the habit of a lifetime with this particular book? Partly, I have to admit, a little bit of teenage crush on Tracey, who I still dream of meeting at random on some North London street, but more seriously because I like her music and attitude (as shown on Twitter as @tracey_thorn) and because she’s a near-contemporary who seems to have managed to both “made it big” and “kept it real”.

The book, which is charming, gives quite a lot of insight into how all this happened. It’s a lovely book and it’s not possible to read it and not think well of Thorn, though you also get the sense she never quite enjoyed it as much as she ought to have. In fact she comes across as more than a little bit unconfident. You never feel she is fishing for compliments but the endless nervousness about her talent can occasionally wear thin –  as the book covers a quarter century career you do feel maybe she could be a bit more relaxed about it, or at least be a bit more relaxed today about her anxieties of yesterday – she made it after all.

I also have to confess that the book – especially as we approach the present – contains lots of names of people in the music world I do not know or only have a vague sense of – who is this Jeff Buckley she goes weak at the knees over?

Her description of the transformational effects of having children is a very familiar one to me and, I am sure, millions of others, and happened to me a couple of years before her (and my grip on youth culture was loosening before then). That’s my excuse anyway.

But the book has a very authentic feel in the way it describes 1980s student life and music. I never was anywhere close to the music industry then or any other time, but I recognise exactly what she writes of as a consumer rather than producer. It’s view that is, as she notes herself, rather closer to life as it was lived than the interminable tv compilations of LiveAid (though I don’t share her negativity on that) and Princess Di and Duran Duran (“vacuous social climbers” is a great put-down of them).

The book also explains why she and partner Ben Watt have such strange (in comparison to the music) haircuts in this video.

At the end I thought of how Thorn reminds me of several other women I know who have made it in male-dominated worlds, their heads were often screwed on pretty tightly – and to the outside the world they project the aggressive attitude that Thorn admits she previously presented to the world. Perhaps they had and have no choice.


Underselling Keynes

Keynes: The Return of the Master – Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky at the 1970 general election

Robert Skidelsky at the 1970 general election (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I bought this book some two years ago but have only got around to reading it now, which makes some of my criticisms below a little unfair: the book was clearly written as an emergency response to an economic emergency and the fact that that emergency has lingered on is hardly the fault of the author.

But not all the criticisms to follow are similarly based on the gap between purchase and reading. Skidelsky has a slightly unsavoury reputation in Labour circles – once on the right wing fringes of the party  and in my mind, perhaps inaccurately, he is associated with Stephen Haseler‘s Campaign for a Labour Victory, which seemed, again from memory, to spend most of its time, or at least most of its airtime, arguing Labour needed to get tougher on immigration: a revisionist biography of Oswald Mosley, time in the SDP, an endorsement (again my memory may be faulty) of John Major. All daft ideas and the book gives you a clue to the character that produced them – for it probably spends as much time praising the outdated and oddly quaint ethical ideas of Keynes as it does on his economics, while on the economics it lays a lot of emphasis on Keynes’s opposition to globalisation.

Despite all that it is not a bad book – it is just that it could have been better. (Unfair criticism follows…) Reading it in 2013 as opposed to early 2010, when it was published, one is struck by just how much it under-sells Keynes. Everyday we see the dogmatic assumptions of the neo-classicals take a pounding (though they are forever unwilling to admit their intellectual bankruptcy) and yet this book is a poor source of ammunition. Instead it tells us of how they bested the Keynesians in the 70s, 80s and 90s on the back of sophistry and how we all paid a price for that in 2008.

At times the book seems other-worldly, particularly it the sense it seems to argue that we should stick globalisation back in the bottle. Maybe I am missing the point but the idea that we should route all foreign currency transactions through a Bank of International Settlements seems to have failed to grasp that, in the 21st century, ordinary citizens regularly trade in foreign currencies across borders via the internet.

Having said all this, I did enjoy and would recommend the book.