The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

The proof of this lively guide to restaurants and food shops of Paris will lie in my upcoming trip, I suppose, but this is a pleasant and amusing little read, well above the usual guidebook fare. The book is replete with tasty sidebars about language, customs, habits, and these are its particular strength.

Dusoulier’s weblog, Chocolate & Zucchini, captured my attention early on with a simple anecdote. Clotilde was having the neighbors to dinner, and she had a particularly nice wine. What should she cook? This was a revelation: no one had ever suggested to me that you could choose the wine first and build a meal around it, while every cookbook and wine seller talked all the time about pairing wine with particular foods. At restaurants, you always found out what people were ordering and then tried to pick a sensible wine; you never said, “Let’s have this interesting Bordeaux” first, leaving people to choose what they’d like to eat with that wine. Knowing how Clotildle was thinking about this opened up all sorts of possibilities.

There’s some of that in this book, but perhaps not quite enough. Perhaps age and celebrity and a baby have made her more private. Perhaps it’s a desire to put the restauranteurs and storekeepers in the foreground. She was never a confessional blogger, but there’s not enough Clotilde here for her fans.

And we could even more of the book’s plentiful sidebars. Those macarons in the lovely bakeries: can you buy just one or two? Or does one buy a dozen? How does a hotel-bound visitor sample viennoisserie? OK: it’s (say) 1530 and you’re standing outside a famous bakery; is it OK to buy a single roll? Should one buy a baguette and tear off chunks to eat as you stroll down the street, or is that obnoxious?


As it turned out, we chased down two restaurant recommendations from Edible Adventures, and one bakery, and all were (of course) excellent. But this is Paris and there’s lots of good food, and plenty of people to tell you about it. What can we learn from these three?

Les Papilles is a wine store in the 5e arrondissement that serves dinner. I tried to get reservations for May 1, struck out, but we did find space for a small crew at the big communal table in the basement the next day. It’s a fixed menu: you choose your wine from the store shelves but that’s it. The dinner was outstanding: a delightful celery soup, a lamb stew, some tasty cheese, and a panna cotta. We had some nifty Bandol. It was terrific, but you wouldn’t know about a place like this if Clotilde didn’t tell you, and give you permission. (I’m still a bit unclear whether it would be bad manners for an anglophone couple to sit at a communal table, but I suppose it’s ok for a larger party.)

Interestingly, the staff at Les Papilles didn’t know about the book or about Clotilde.

L’Entredgue is a neighborhood place in a neighborhood that is not terribly folkloric but that happens to be close to the Palais des Congrès where Web Science was held. Clotilde had given a wonderful presentation at Web Science the day before and a friend had ordered the book overnight on Amazon and reserved a table at this handy place. Again, it’s not very big and it’s not very conspicuous, but the cooking is very, very good. I had some foie gras, some delicious pork, and a tarte tatin.

In the mornings, we’d been taking our morning coffee and a croissant in the nearby Place Maubert, and they were very nice indeed. Even the conference croissants were terrific. But Clotilde speaks highly of Eric Kayser’s boulangerie down the street, so one day we grabbed two of his pain au chocolate. Wow! These are at once more tender and more flaky than I thought possible. We immediately bought a second pair to eat by the Seine. Astonishingly good. Again, it’s not so much the tip as the permission, the suggestion that you should stop and try this even if you don’t have to.

May 6, 2013 (permalink)


Paris. 1938. An American movie actor sails over in the I’le de France, lent to Paramount by Jack Warner. He’s not entirely comfortable with this. Soon, German emigres and diplomats make him even more uncomfortable. Lovely sense of place and time and noir.

April 30, 2013 (permalink)


Homeland
Cory Doctorow

In Little Brother, Marcus Yallow’s high school world got blown apart when someone blew up the Bay Bridge. The panic was bad but the government response was worse, as the government used terrorism as an excuse to impose martial law. That crisis was resolved, thanks to Marcus’s clever hacking, but the Lesser Depression has gotten worse and worse and the government is still eager to use the Internet (and a healthy dose of torture) to control a docile populace. This sets the stage for Homeland.

Doctorow’s entry in Clute’s commendable Science Fiction Encyclopedia is, I think, exactly right: Doctorow is a thinker who uses fiction to explain an argument that mixes technology and politics. This has not been a formula for success lately, though of course it once worked well enough for Hugo and Zola and Shaw, for Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. But it seems to me that Victor Hugo is the closest match to Doctorow’s aspiration; these are books of ideas first, with some dramatic tension to leaven the dough.

There’s plenty of leavening, and also plenty of info dumps. We learn a lot about police tactics, 3D printers, Burning Man etiquette. We learn how Occupy does public speaking without a microphone and how to manage a political site.

One thing we don’t learn much about is Marcus’s callow, feckless parents. Mom and Dad are useless. The parents of Marcus’s remaining school friends are no better; though his girlfriend’s parents are cool about his spending the night now and then, none of them does much about the government surveillance, harassment, and torture of their kids, and none of them takes much interest in finding a job for themselves or their grown children. Marcus does make a point of cooking nice family dinners to restore a sense of normality to the house, but his parents simply make appreciative noises. These kids grow up early. So does Katniss Everdeen, to be sure, but Katniss knows it’s wrong and it makes her sad and angry and she thinks about it all the time. To Marcus, absent parents are just the new normal.

Canadian-born Doctorow now lives in England, and his campaign subplot makes more sense for the UK than it does for the US. The story is set in a near-future that is even more recognizable than the terrorism-battered San Francisco of Little Brother. Our hero, Marcus Yallow, is now webmaster for a charismatic politician running an independent campaign for the US Senate.

This candidate is clearly a progressive, but deplores the Democrats’ support for drones and detention and bankers. The Republicans are “just as bad.” This is arrant nonsense. First, the Republicans aren’t merely just as bad; they’re just as bad on these issues and they’re insane on many others, Doctorow forces his would-be Senator into false equivalence of the worst sort. The candidate worries about being forced by party discipline to vote against his conscience, but everyone knows that the Democrats have no party discipline. The candidate is running for the Senate: how does he propose to work in the senate? Of course he’s going to caucus with the Democrats.

When was the last time a Democratic senator was really hurt badly for going off the reservation? Remember: this is the party that held Hubert Humphrey and Theodore Bilbo together. Someday someone will pull off the trick that Lincoln did in 1860 and replace one of the current parties with a new one, but that’s not going to happen in a California senate race and, if it were to happen in the near future, the obvious candidate to play the role of the Whig Party is the GOP. This independent candidacy could make sense in Parliament; in the US, it’s a silly fantasy, and it feeds the right-wing propaganda that always blames the Democrats for Republican intransigence.

Doctorow will keynote Web Science 13 this Thursday May 2, in Paris.

April 28, 2013 (permalink)


David McCullough recounts the adventures of a century of Americans in Paris. In the 1820’s, Americans came for the world’s best medical training ands the world’s best art training. At the century’s end, they came for the fashion and for the food, for glittering nights, and for the world’s best art training. In between, McCullough reconstructs the fascinating, forgotten story of the American Ambassador who determined that it was his duty to remain at his post through the siege of 1870 and the Commune and whose rediscovered diary provides vivid insights into a time whose brief turbulence seemed likely to continue forever.

April 27, 2013 (permalink)


Two distinct groups of people are interested in the aesthetics of computer programs. On the one hand, we have people who create software; those with taste and judgment will naturally hold aesthetic opinions and prefer the beautiful to the ugly. Opposed to these artisans, we sometimes meet a group of theoretically-inclined critics or "codewerkers" who compose things that look like poems but that ridicule the benighted corporate fools who make or use real software.

In Speaking Code: coding as aesthetic and political expression, Geoff Cox and Alex McLean are writing for the latter. The program code of which they speak is almost always either a hypothetical category too broad to be analyzed or a clever stunt ginned up in a dozen lines of perl. These toys are sometimes clever, but they have little to do with actual programs, and their creation has little to do with the construction of actual code. It is as if the authors set out to write about painting but, finding actual painters dead and actual paintings opaque, decide instead to analyze instead the movie actors who portrayed some painters. The actor’s version of Jackson Pollock might look like a painting, and it might be made from paint, but it’s not Pollock.

The book is filled with tiny little programs. Some of them run. Some of them simply look like programs and are meant to be read. The first example is written in an esoteric language called Befunge, and the general level of scholarship in this volume is reflected in the first footnote.

As an esoteric language, Befunge also breaks with the conventions of downward direction of interpretation through two-dimensional syntax [1].
[1] For more on the Befunge programming language, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Befunge.

Parts of this book are scrupulously sourced – for example, Cox makes some very nice distinctions between Lacan and Hannah Arendt – but the creator of the programming language that is the subject of the opening argument doesn’t deserve citation, presumably because the kind of mechanic or drudge who would actually write a compiler is obviously insufficiently human to deserve one. Elsewhere, Cox urges resistance to Javascript because "it is proprietary, indeed owned by Google." This point might be interesting, were it true. His footnote leads to a wiki page at LibrePlanet which links, in turn, to an essay by Richard Stallman; apparently, Cox misunderstood Stallman’s opposition to Gmail (a Google Web service) to mean that Google owns the underlying language. Stallman’s polemics against software property are briefly mentioned elsewhere in the book, but his actual art — the beautiful and immensely influential EMACS editor — is not.

It’s not just Stallman. You won’t find Kernighan here, or Ritchie. Bill Atkinsons’s not around, nor Bricklin, and there’s no joy for Bill Joy. You won’t find Sutherland’s Sketchpad, or Smalltalk, or The Demo. Knuth appears only for a cameo on literate programming. Ward Cunningham’s wiki was beautiful code (though modern incarnations are covered with ugly encrustations). Charles H. Moore’s FORTH was gorgeous. So was John McCarthy’s LISP. And there’s no hint of the work programmers do with Iverson’s APL and Wall’s Perl to express complex ideas in a tiny, tiny compass, a game as intricate as a villanelle and as delicate as haiku.

In fact, Reading Code seldom looks at any code that does something, code that might dirty its hands with actual work. Instead, we have things that look like programs and make pithy declarations about capital and labor. Every beginning student, learning that a variable name is simply a label and that the machine does not know or care what the label means, spends a day or two playing silly games.

for (teacher = every + fracking + grownup) { frack = you; }

There’s a lot of that here. And there’s some mild cleverness, like referring to a program that recursively deletes your Facebook friends as a form of (social) suicide. But none of it is really code, and a lot of it isn't quite as clever as it thinks.

The problem we face in thinking about code aesthetics is twofold. First, code is big, and the printed page is small. When we write about novels or epic poetry or a Collected Work, we assume that the reader is generally familiar with the work, that we are exchanging insights about familiar things. It’s not clear that MIT Press expected the audience for this volume to be able to read code, but there is no hint in the book that the authors expect readers to have any shared experience of it.

Second, code works. It does stuff. Its hands are dirty. This seems to unnerve the code aesthetes as much as machine aesthetics unnerved so many people in the 19th century. How could stone and steel be anything but ugly? Viollet-le-Duc had an answer, and Ruskin had another, and then Louis Sullivan told us that the tall office building "must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line." Architectural beauty does not depend on ornament any more than delicious food depends on folding napkins into pheasants; to understand, we must simply have sympathy for things, their inherent tendencies and their purposes, their fabric and their fate.

What Cox and McLean overlook, alas, is that software aesthetics are in the midst of a profound revolution. For years, aesthetic discussion was polarized between two camps: those who advocated provability or at least mathematical rigor, and those who prized clarity. The mathematicians (also called “neats”) prized concise languages and intriguing formalism: LISP and Scheme, APL and Prolog. Their opponents (“scruffies”) prized structural clarity and expressiveness: Algol and ADA, C/C++ and Unix Tools, Java and Javadoc, Smalltalk. Neats wrote lovely little things; scruffies wrote exciting big things. That’s changed in the last five years in the wake of Design Patterns and Refactoring, Agile, and the tiny methods style. Today, scruffies still write large, but those programs are made up of lots of tiny bits, bits that look like the work of the neats. And the neats, too, can suddenly find a place for their work in the middle of a Web of small, loosely joined pieces. Spuybroek sees this in The Sympathy of Things, but there’s really not the slightest hint of it here.

Cox and McLean fancy themselves members of a radical left that abjures corporate control and detests "neoliberalism". In practice, they've gone all the way back to Versailles, dressing up as working folk and holding working-folk tools and cherishing clever little jokes that display their leisure-class status and superiority to work.

April 23, 2013 (permalink)


Alison Bechdel’s childhood was difficult. All of them are. This long, profound, and beautifully-drawn comic explores the author’s relationship with her mother, and also with her several psychiatrists, three girlfriends, and Virginia Woolf. On the way, she engages the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott with depth and sensitivity.

My father was an analyst. Almost anything about psychoanalytic theory will send me running for the exits, but somehow I found this work thoughtful and engaging and – for once – more focused on ideas than on theoretical fireworks. It’s also a relief that, through all the emotional discussions with mother and shrink, Alison’s sexuality is always taken as a fact, not something to be explained much less fixed. The book is technically masterful, especially when pulling two or three separate arguments across a series of panels without muddling them and without being bogged down in more allegory than the medium can bear.

April 18, 2013 (permalink)


A reliable way to define the protagonist’s beloved is to give him or her no inner life. Adrienne Booker is beautiful and brilliant and loves to sing Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and she makes loves to Jim Praley. This surprises and delights Jim, who has no idea what’s going on but who is not hard to please. A would-be poet without access to his own inner life, Jim makes a wonderful partner to Adrienne. They are young and attractive and the world is all before them. Of course, the world is mostly Tulsa.

April 17, 2013 (permalink)


Relish
Lucy Knisely

A love-letter from a 20-something comic-book writer to her mother, couched as a book about cooking, eating, and coming-of-age. Knisely has a knack for expressive character drawing and a clever way with anecdote. Chapters are punctuated with two-page spreads that describe a recipe; these are neatly done and the recipes look reasonable; though she still believes the McGee-debunked myth that washed mushrooms get soggy, anyone who suggests serving a big bowl of sautéed mushrooms for dinner is fine in my book.

The most original chapter in this pean to tasty food is an intelligent piece on bad meals and on cooking for people who don’t really like to eat – two real problems that we seldom hear discussed.

The subject here – the confluence of food, family, and memory – could easily have collapsed into mere sentiment. What keeps Relish fresh is Knisely’s lively drawing, particularly her knack for sympathetic portraits of herself at various ages and her skill at drawing not the food, but the way people react to it.

April 12, 2013 (permalink)


The Gates
John Connolly

Don D’Ammassa explained at Readercon’s The Year In Books that he found John Connolly in a grocery store. Visiting friends in a remote part of rural New England, D’Ammassa ran out of books. This is not hard to imagine, as he reads one or two novels a day, but booklessness is not something he is willing to contemplate for more than an hour or so. And so it was off to the grocery store to find the least-bad book in town. (Had his hosts nothing in the house? ) And there he found John Connolly.

In The Gates, we meet a young British lad named Samuel Johnson. He has a dachshund named Boswell. He has a distracted mother, an absent father, and unpleasant neighbors named Abernathy. Unfortunately, these unpleasant neighbors have taken to dabbling in satanic rituals. More unfortunately still, one of their rituals, assisted by the CERN supercollider, accidentally manages to open a portal to Hell.

No one will believe Samuel’s warnings, and demons turn out to come in surprising varieties, including one who discovers that he really enjoys driving a Porsche very fast. The book inhabits Terry Pratchett territory, which is not a bad place to be.

April 7, 2013 (permalink)


Breakdown
Sara Paretsky

Lotty and Mr. Contreras and the rest of the crew join V. I. Warshawski once more in this energetic and angry mystery at the sleazy intersection of fancy law firms, politics, and right wing broadcasting. We’re not that far from the mean streets of wartime Vilnius, and nowadays we’re never that far from the mean streets of modern Kiev, and both cast a long shadow over Warshawski’s South Side. It all starts in a disused Chicago cemetery when a bunch of schoolgirls stage an initiation and one sees a vampire. The book is superbly plotted and the writing has its moments, but something terrible has happened to Paretsky’s ear for routine dialog, especially when kids are in the room.

April 3, 2013 (permalink)