Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Recently, I offered a big armful of books to the local veterans center to support a gift drive for Americans fighting overseas. I am not, as you may have read, a booster of the effort, and I hate to let anything go, so kind of condescendingly, I found myself wondering what awful books I could unload that a soldier would also like to read. (I also toyed with the idea of shipping over books with politically subversive elements in them, but (1) anyone sensitive to that is having a tough time of it already, and (2) those, I mostly want to keep.) So it was some Grishams, a couple old Conan novels that I meant to read when I was 14, a bunch of shitty steampunk stuff that I no longer feel guilty about avoiding, what little military fiction I had, and a few dated opinion collections of American history. A damn shame that I had finally unloaded my mother-in-law's collection of recent hardcover potboilers six months ago, those would have been perfect. It's a long segue, but the point is that the pile looks a lot thinner than usual (even as the number of books I will potentially read in it is unchanged), and I'm happy for the recent recommendations I've received. Cloud Atlas, with it's themes of power and subjugation, could have satisfied the effort of quiet evangelism that I had mind, but as it happens, it's also one that I'd rather hold on to.

Cloud Atlas follows along six individual stories, feeling out the dynamics of man's inhumanity to man along the way, examining this against the desire for peaceful coexistence, and looking at the motivations for institutional violence and for resistance (which overlap). Generally, Mitchell is telling stories of individuals against that larger backdrop. The crimes of power develop on a larger scale than the story, backed by contextual notions of state, military, religion, corporation or class, and Mitchell works out ways in which such coersion can arise from or feed back into individual behavior and whether knowledge and compassion are mitigating or damning. Civilization--is it worth it? The question isn't such a unique writing endeavor, but it's one which, I suspect, needs a higher quality bar to get the interest of cynical publishers, and I think it takes some sense of nuance to even ask. Exploring the question within a series of connected and ambiguous morality plays, over the arc of society's desperate conception all the way to its fall, Cloud Atlas reminded me a lot A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I intend as a compliment.

Structure is really this novel's bag, though, and Mitchell takes great delight in the interconnectedness between the stories, and the variations and the unusual architecture of the book. Mitchell lets six "soloists" play for awhile before interrupting them in the middle of their own story, jumping to the next solo, taking place sometime in the future, and in a different literary form. The novel moves through the 1850s, through modern times, and into a couple future civilizations, and then back down the chain. It's a great big pallindrome of a book. There's a strong implication that the human story he tells is circular, that the icon-carving tribe with its tenuous grasp of fallen civilization, is in fact the ancestors of the (non-fictional) Moriori that first soloist encounters in the Chatham islands just a few years too late. The protagonists are spiritually related, but I think it's safe to say that connection is in a purely literary, meta, sense. The voice and vehicle changes for each story (we go from traveler's diary, to personal letters, to mystery novel, to notes for a film script, to formal interview, to oral history), and the tie-ins are well-done, and neatly incorporate a handoff of both halves of the physical object of the telling (the book, the letters, etc.) between the protagonists of each section. By the end, Mitchell is vigorously shaking his own hand in terms of minor story details too.

I find that these metafictional, self-referential tricks are great when they add a sudden insight, and I think the formal arrangement of the elements increases the reader's overall engagement with this particular novel. Like with all tricks, what really matters is execution, how well you can pull them off. This sort of metanarrative does let you cheat a little, however, and the characters (and author) can't always stop themselves from a little critique, making notes on the limitations of the various storytelling media. There's a fine line between cleverness and excusing yourself for bad writing, between showing your authorial hand and distancing your readers from your characters. Mitchell stays north of it, but he gets closer than he needs to sometimes.

And it's funny what details you catch. A misplaced neologism really bugged me, (someone writing in 1931 wouldn't use the term "critical mass"). But I couldn't get myself to notice, even with effort, what spelling conventions Mitchell chose in his contemporary English and American sections. I found myself wondering how plausible the language developments in the future sections were. A couple hundred years from now, the people of his nightmare corporatocracy have evolved a slightly streamlined English, based more or less on spelling conventions from twentieth-century advertising, but I'm lacking the hook how such language should have made the geographic move to the southeast Asian setting. I liked better the voice he uses for post-civilizational section. The speech had an cadence, in which the rules of the parent tongue had obviously been loosened, improvised, and forgotten. Would a free-form language like that be the one preferred by the last tribe to hold on to writing? Well, that one works out, I think: we have the whole Middle Ages to attest to how speech can diverge from the writing forms of the dead empire.

There are also pitfalls inherent to using so many different narrative voices. I found that the solo sections didn't necessarily compare to one another equally, or even in both of their halves. The diarist Adam Ewing was a naive bore both times. The cynical urban gentleman Nick Cavendish was irritating on the ride up and funny as hell in his second act. The bigger problem is that Mitchell is consciously working with known literary types here, and as a reader, you need them to sustain some independent identity even if they satisfy the mold. The letters from Zedelghem were one of the best sections, thanks to Mr. Frobisher's witty epistolary voice, but also for the real sensitivity that was revealed beneath the character who otherwise felt he had been pulled out of Oscar Wilde's trope barrel. The mystery novel portion, on the other hand, proved to contain too much fast-rolling cliche for my tastes, with a grating present-tense narration. ("But that part's supposed to be pulpy," protests my inner David Mitchell. Maybe.) The science fiction future was very well evoked in the first half of the telling, and if (as its central character dares to observe) letting it devolve into an implausible chase sequence weakens its story, the resolution has enough geeky allegorical horror to be satisfying. (And it's great that Mitchell doesn't carry on the pretense that he's single-handedly reinventing the genre.) The after-the-fall section, deepest in the future or the past, may have been the most compelling on its own storytelling merits. As near-mythology, it's really the most canonical style he uses, but it also feels the most original.

Despite the fact that the book makes heavy use of textual tricks and authorial winks, I think it would actually make a great film. One reason is that none of the individual plots are really all that dense, and the the level of character development for the series of shorts is consistent with what you find in a well-done film, which makes more use of archetypical characters and other shortcut cues, appropriate to a medium with severe constraints on time and lengthy exposition. Anyone bought the rights yet?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Random Notes on the Climate Debate

Drafted this while I was not feeling well in Atlanta last week. In all honesty, the post is boring as shit, and I defer any actual valuable analysis to the unspecified future, so read on at your peril. Is it better to write a post a month that's actually interesting, or to keep the train rolling with whatever crosses my mind? Wish I knew, but at the end of the day, it's only my crappy blog, and where else would I write it? Stay tuned for a review of Cloud Atlas, which will probably be better.

I thought I said all I cared to about global warming, but a few things have happened to bring it to the forefront of my awareness. The first is that one of my Facebook friends, in his indignant (is there any other kind?) conservatarian crusade, keeps trumpeting articles that, allegedly, debunk the whole argument. Horrors! Could it be true? How many nails is this coffin going to need anyway? The other, of course, is the scandal of the month, elevated to the always retarded "-gate" status, involving hacked emails from the East Anglia University's Climate Research Unit. Might as well opine while the audience is still lukewarm, after all.

(There are places to inject politics, and I expected Facebook to be sufficiently analagous to a conventional social setting that one might be cautious about starting an unsolicited argument. Especially when it's predictable bullshit. Am I supposed to just let the gloating slide when it's based on so little? Blogging's different. Shut up.)

Actually, I don't have much to say on the CRU email scandal itself. Hard to see why instructions to delete email messages should ever be made, although I don't know the context. (Talking bad about people of note might be one such context that has nothing to do with the data itself.) The dastardly word "trick" isn't remotely unusual for anyone who's ever processed graphics or used math, and tellingly, the biggest outrage is reserved for calling the critics a bunch of assholes. Bad politics, I guess, but (1) they're internal emails, and (2) who could possibly disagree with the assessment? (Go ahead and click the link to look at that Delingpole guy's picture. He looks like someone who's turned a snit into a professional career.)

My Facebook friend did introduce me to the best deniers in the business however. you can survey Climate Audit and find people who actually use numbers. CA is like the evil twin of Real Climate, a blog that discusses issues rather equanimously to my eye, but then I again, I happen to agree with them, which always makes people look smarter. Here's RC's support of the "hockey stick" (a reconstruction of thousand-year historical temperatures that shows a recent increase in mean global temperature corresponding to CO2 increases). The CA commenters run on the intellectual bullying side of the fence, and the posters themselves generally want you to use their code and other annoying things before they'll talk to you. I don't think they've refuted the physical understanding of the dynamics of global climate, which remain (I believe) reasonable enough, and is certainly where I take a passing interest, but they do their best to discredit the pre-thermometer data itself. It's too bad statistics is almost as boring as reading a daily argument with 500 comments to a post, or I might have generated some more substantive comments by now. Much as I try not to judge by style, I have to admit that I find CA's stand not overly friendly to even the casual scientist, but you can find at least one summary of their arguments by McKitrick (they evidently removed a better one between when I first drafted this and now). Feel free to judge the content for yourself; I'm unenthusiastically working through it. They at least deserve a better analysis than a shitty vanity-pressed pamphlet offered by a congenital crank. They're still assholes, though.

I don't really approve of CA's argument by vendetta. And I can't help but note the lesson as it applies to makers of political opinion too, especially those that choose to identify themselves by the crayon-drawn philosophical tract of a given political party. (As for me, I can't vow to stick only to important critique, but I will at least try to fucking entertaining about it. And I just might occasionally join in the mockery of the people that are making all the noise and/or have all the power, which only seems only fair.) I don't object to citizen journalists, if they're accurate and convincing, and I guess the same should go to citizen scientists. Of course in science, the barriers to publication or conference attendance are smaller if you satisfy the condition of having a quality argument (smaller than in journalism! they certainly exist in science, and developing a quality argument can sometimes be rather expensive if you need equipment n'shit), and it's the right way to get attention.

I like this quote from RC about these guys:
There is however a different way of criticizing scientific papers that is prevalent in blogs like ClimateAudit. This involves challenging, ‘by all means necessary’, any paper whose conclusions are not liked. This can be based on simple typos, basic misunderstandings of the issues and ‘guilt by association’ though there is sometimes the occasional interesting point. Since these claims are rarely assessed to see if there is any actual impact on the main result, the outcome is a series of misleading critiques, regardless of whether any of these criticisms are in fact even valid or salient, that give the impression that every one of these papers is worthless and that all their authors incompetent at best and dishonest at worst. It is the equivalent of claiming to have found spelling errors in a newspaper article. Fun for a while, but basically irrelevant for understanding any issue or judging the worth of the journalist.

And I noted last time, but it deserves repeating, that arguing for the status quo (high consumption is great!) is not bold. Granted, a protected platform to argue against it can make the pissants a little annoying, but it's pretty clear who has the real power to move the world, and that's the people who agree with with the CA team.

The reason that I don't completely write them off is that they spend most of their efforts trying to refute the core data. The climate model is important, and the supporting data should be as solid as possible, so, like, go ahead and pick at it. I dug deeply enough into CA to question omitting some tree-ring records in some papers, although the practice seems to be defended well by the titled scientists. On the other hand, I only trust multivariate analysis, or epidemiology (or economics) up to a certian point, and I'd also only extrapolate a computer model cautiously in any case, and when it encounters conditions that are anomalous with respect to the historical record I'd be even more cautious. I also am skeptical that we're causing a new steady state conditions of climate and geological activity, but neither did Chicxulub, if you catch my meaning. Human activity is a tremendous perturbation to the system (shaking it badly, regardless of whether it knocks the train off the track), which is plenty dangerous enough.

The most rewarding part of the reading was to learn a little about principle component analysis, and I have to admit it's kind of neat. It's a sort of generic eigenvalue analysis of a data set, an exercise analagous to finding the components (vectors, harmonics) of some function, and in this case prioritizing them by impact, using as many as you need to reconsturct the data accurately. You subject data to Fourier analysis (I've been known to get goofy about that, as it's followed me the last couple of years, and I still don't know if I want to keep it) along the same philosophical guidelines, which of course involves another sort of eigenvalue program. PCA is more exclusively a tool to analyze trends from noisy data, however, and I take amusement that it doesn't need any physical interpretation at all to work. Nature doesn't need our interpretation either, and you can design systems by "genetical" or "evolutionary" processes, although it's tough on the pursuit-of-knowledge thing. The idea is to select for desired traits taht come out of some network, system, or complex mathematical construct, varying the working parameters among the "surviving" generation and then repeating the task. It's just like breeding--except you write some algorithm to guess the next variations for you--and of course you can make living things do weird tasks this way too. I don't know if people have applied genetic algorithm ideas to raw data sets, or if they should. Anyway, a digression, and I apologize.

Finally, I think we can all agree that Sen. Inhofe is a moron.

Friday, December 11, 2009


You know, at nearly 37 years old, and having done this sort of thing for 15 of them, you'd think I could count on my ability to present in front of people without freezing up like a wild animal hypnotized by a headlight. I had no less faith in my work than I usually do, and I can't say I felt shy--I don't know who that was up there. I go along for months, years, at a stretch without that shivering dweeb breaking through and spazzing out in front of everyone, but I can never quite exorcise the twerp. It was like discovering, years later, I still have the ability to bomb my first job interview. Maybe it was the hair.

On the other hand, the vertigo is still here two days later, and might not be just stagefright. (My Mom was recovering from a viral infection with these symptoms when I saw her the time before last.) Great.

Still, a technical conference. It's been awhile.


  • Constructive criticism! I was sitting across from my boss and our marketing guy, and the timing with which they broke their conversation to sadly look at me was priceless. On a dime, the conversation turned to my many faults. I wasn't an embarrassment, you asshole, my nerves (or something) just got the better of me and I gave a bad talk. The data is still there.

  • Food! A good conference will feed you, and I'm still childish enough to savor any slop I don't have to pay for. A better conference will have at least one cocktail reception around the posters.

    If I can ditch the corporate whip-masters, then there's even a possibility of a pleasant, quality dinner. On Wednesday night, I escaped to sample this guy's tasting menu, which didn't disappoint. I'm going to have a hard time fitting it into the per diem, but it was totally worth it.

  • Swag! The number one reason anyone attends these things. That's a nice fucking ball-point.

  • I'm not dead! I'm trying not to notice, really, and wouldn't be tempted in a million years anyway. But it's a secret all nerdboys know: smart girls are sexy. Not that I'm looking.

  • Ideas! Meetings are really where all of the cutting edge ideas first turn up to the public (I chuckle when I read technology journalists whining about the journals' monopoly on the scientific scoop). There's just so much cleverness and genius flying from so many directions, that even a lazy cynic like me can caught up in the inventive whirlwind. There's nothing like furiously scribbling out a notebook full of stimulating research and your own whip-smart corrolarries, only to scratch your head over it when you get back. Back in the day, my advisor used to photocopy notes like this for the benefit of his students. It was even worse than trying to figure out my own notes now.

  • Integrity! Marketing a program isn't the same thing as reporting data. Even when the two are pointing in the same direction, as they are this time really, you can still feel the friction if you're reporting. I mean, the data are promising and encouraging and whatnot, but there's a strong motivation to really celebrate what there is, which simply isn't the way I operate. Hell, I can barely get the self-analysis up to neutral territory, never mind something positive. When the data and the pitch are far apart, then things can be really stressful. I have to think that even marketing people can feel it then.

  • Nerds! Nerds! Nerds! There's some fine posts that can come out of analyzing the social behavior of highly-educated technical types. Anyway, you can spot the schoolyard asserting itself here as much as anywhere else--you still have to decide who you'll sit with during lunch. Among the young-ish types, there's the squeaky overachievers, the intellectual show-offs, the self-imagined rogues, we're-all-from-the-same-group gangs, and people too geeky even for the geeks. Your older conferees have gradually infected themselves with standard varieties of professor, colonel, salesman, and kook archetypes. It can be fun to imagine how one becomes the other, and of course to watch the dynamics when they're put next to one another.

    And for all this, I am sure the majority are workaday schlubs too, even if I find them surprisingly hard to pin down. Not much interested in talking shop outside of working hours, my grand strategy has always been to identify the people who'd rather be elsewhere, and pair off so as to mock from the sidelines, or just go get a beer, but it's never once worked. Usually, I forgo socializing altogether and just go off to read books.

  • Airplane! I hate air travel just a tiny bit more every time I do it.

  • Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    Review: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

    Catch-22 is the first book in a new project, consisting of a compilation of the sorta-banned books of the twentieth century that I innocently posted a month or two ago. I'll put up the final negotiated checklist sooner or later--I'm slowly working the titles in to the current pile. If I read all the banned books in a year, then hipparchia has to email me a beer or something. Catch-22 has also been the subject of heated debate between my other two readers, so it found itself right near the top.

    I finished the novel a few weeks ago, but it feels like it's one I've had in my head for years. It feels canonical, yes, and I'm sorry that it devolved into a crappy catch (so to speak) phrase, but then a "catch 22" as an unofficial, iron-clad, and contradictory rule, suits the spirit of the novel well enough. As for the feeling of having been here before, I've read or watched enough of its intellectual heirs that it feels like familiar ground. Is Catch-22 really that seminal? We had absurdist and modernist literature already by 1961, even in America, and I'd hesitate to say that the most obvious followers in the form (Slaughterhouse-Five and M*A*S*H, which are also unread and likewise familiar, and the film, Doctor Strangelove) were copying Heller. Heller might have been the first to really capture the idea that modern warfare, with its faceless but horrifically effective violence, with its nightmarishly incompetent bureaucracy, is the pinnacle example of the sorts of deadpan philosophical puzzles that Kafka and Camus had portrayed a few decades previous. Or maybe he was just one of the first handful to finally get that existential haymaker to land squarely on the American jaw.

    The absurdist style has only grown on me. It puts the fear and the humor of life in a fair perspective, and my own times seem to foster an appreciation of the dispassionate monstrosity, but they probably all do. I identify absurdist humor with the ruthless comedy of a good heckler, interjecting moments of truth or context to the massive powers that are grinding indifferently against us all. It's hard not to feel like Yossarian these days, once you begin to fancy you have a slight predilection for noticing those myriad things that the political and social world violently denies, once you start to feel persecuted about all the ways the world is actually (if impersonally) trying to kill you. Of course, few of us are astute enough to observe the obvious very well, given our own paradoxical investment in the events around us, and Heller is better at it than many. He finds the right language and the right context from which to take some impressive potshots.

    The novel has a lot of great lines, most of which stand alone from whatever point in the book they appear, and I'm surprised I don't see more of them gracing the internets, given how nerds like to obsessively quote things. (Maybe the movie version cut out all the good quips. It's got to be hard to read while you're baked, after all.) Heller gets a lot of mileage out of narrative trick where he presents either a negative declaration, or else follows up an assertion with it's own contradiction. [From a random page: "'I can just picture his liver,' Doc Daneeka grumbled. 'Picture my liver,' Yossarian advised him. 'There's nothing wrong with your liver' 'That shows how much you don't know...'"] It doesn't constitute a wide variety of jokes, really, but what the hell, it's not like they stop being funny, and the characters go off on an extended repartee sometimes, or Heller keeps a coherent sketch going for a chapter or two, which is great. Occasionally the bits steer far off into too much silliness, and sometimes they're nearly played straight. The overall tone of the the story does cover something of an arc: Yossarian's conscience evolves from a purely self-preserving force to something more empathetic, as the deaths around him become more violent, and the dead more innocent, and when, for me, a connection between him and the other characters finally begins to gel. I wasn't quite prepared for the impact of the final sequence. As Yossarian slinks through increasingly brutal shadows of bombed-out Rome, and as his last friends survive the war or fail to, the emotion really hit me.

    (A violent set of cliches in today's review. Well, it's a war novel.)

    The random dips into serious commentary or total farce jarred the tone in a way that didn't always help the story. The character sketches of the large supporting cast are entertaining, and yet it took a long time to establish the point of many of them, which affected the development of the story. Not that there's anything wrong with shipping in personnel for a quick joke, it's just poorly telegraphed which of these soldiers is worth investing a feeling or two in. Similarly, the plot is a slice'em dice'em affair of flash-backs and -forwards and the jumbled narrative didn't served a whole lot of purpose, except maybe to accentuate the dark humor, but it's harder to pay attention to it when you're busy keeping track of the story details (you can follow the timeline by the number of missions they're complaining about). Catch-22 would almost certainly improve with a reread or two, starting with a good understanding of the plot and characters already in hand.