The photo detective

Wat jij niet ziet

In this book former photographer Hans Aarsman tries to deduce the story behind a photograph from the photograph itself.

Hans Aarsman used to be a photographer until he realised that the essence of his job was to mimic old-fashioned paintings. He sold his cameras, gave away his photos to a museum and became somebody who writes about photography instead.

In the national newspaper of record De Volkskrant he got a weekly spread in which he got to play a photo detective. He would study the photos that came off the news wire and select one or a small series to study.

Wat Jij Niet Ziet (With My Little Eye, literally What You Don’t See) is a collection of 50 of these columns and the second book in the series. Each column consists of a spread containing the photo followed by a page that has a crop of an interesting detail, followed by a page describing Aarsman’s findings.

wat-jij-niet-ziet-1

Shown here is a sample of Aarsman’s detective work. On 20 November 2012 Palestinian photo journalist Adel Hana took this picture of an egg salesman just outside Gaza City. AP put it on the wire and accompanied the photo by a description that said something along the lines of ‘man selling eggs by the side of the road’.

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Aarsman had his doubts. The low, open bed of the vehicle forms an ideal platform both for displaying eggs and for selling them from, so why would a salesperson put most of his wares in the street like that? He pulled out his magnifying glass and noticed a tire standing against the truck. So that’s why the man had to unload the truck! He wanted to reach the spare. This salesman isn’t vending, he’s waiting. Why is he waiting when he’s got a spare tire? Well, a couple of crushed egg cartons suggest he had been kneeling on top of them—presumably he tried to remove the tire but had to give up in the end.

Not all the photos required closer inspection. Sometimes it is immediately clear what is going on, but Aarsman still ekes out a few details that lead to a greater understanding. He also included photos that are interesting without requiring detective work, such as the photo taken by politician Reynaldo Dagsa a fraction of a second after a deadly bullet entered his body. Dagsa had been focusing on his wife and daughter who were posing for him in the street, and failed to see or respond to the gunman appearing next to them.

Being a bit of an aspiring amateur photographer I find this approach very refreshing. It helps me understand what makes a scene, how subject and background work together to tell a story.

Rating by brankl: 3.5 stars
***1/2

In which the author toys with his conscience (but not really)

dilbert-future

The Dilbert Future

Here’s the obligatory blurb that can be misquoted by publisher and author alike: The Dilbert Future is worth every penny I paid for it.

As far as I remember, I did not pay any pennies for this third instalment of Scott Adam’s comic ‘business books’ because I paid in Euro cents and not even that many. I bought the book second hand at a flea market and I probably did not pay more than 50 cents for it.

Can an author be separated from his work? No really, could somebody separate this author from his work? That is like the second lame joke I made in this review and yet I stay ahead of the work under review. Unfortunately my opinion is informed by what I’ve learned by the author.

In 1996 Adams published the rather brilliant The Dilbert Principle, a satirical work about the workplace in which he presented a twist on the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle humorously states that good workers will be promoted into roles they cannot handle until they reach their ‘level of incompetence’. The Dilbert Principle states that bad workers will be promoted to get them out of the way.

Only one year later Adams published The Dilbert Future, but I did not read it until the past weeks. In the meantime I had learned that he is a bit of a tosser and a moron and a misogynist—the red pill brigade call him “one of us”.

So here’s my take on if, why and how to appreciate a work even if you dislike the person behind that work. Usually these questions are discussed from a moral perspective—we don’t like to be in the closet about the works we admire even if their authors are personae non gratae. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible to will yourself to not like a work just because of its author.

Complicating matters is that good and better works often work because the author shows real and continuous insight. Go ahead, hate Wagner because he was a Nazi, but that doesn’t make his music less intrinsically good.

But there is a third issue and that is that insight is often based on context. A joke works because it makes use of a lot of shorthand; the concepts that underlie the joke are shared by the person telling the joke and their audience.

This is where The Dilbert Future comes crashing down.

The very first lines of the book are: “There are two types of people in the world: the bright and attractive people like yourself who read Dilbert books, and the 6 billion idiots who get in our way. […] A devious reader suggested calling them In-duh-viduals.” See? That’s funny. It’s a classic joke that works on the understanding that both Adams and his readers don’t really believe in a world divided into a small elite of brilliant people and a large mass of complete idiots. After all, each of us knows quite a few people who may not have read Dilbert but are still definitely not idiots. There is a contrast between reality and what Adams jokingly says reality is and that is what makes us laugh.

Unfortunately the corner that Adams has painted himself into, in blog posts, books and by writing sock-puppet reviews of his own works, is that he believes exactly that. Adams belongs to a group of people who believe there are wolves and sheep, and they are the wolves, that there are hunters and prey, and they are the hunters. As far as I can tell, Scott Adams believes his own nonsense. And that makes it quite a struggle to get through The Dilbert Future. Every time you see Adams joke about these In-duh-viduals you know he doesn’t mean it as a joke. Which is a bit of a problem for a book that is meant to be funny.

I’ll skip discussing the bit at the end where Adams gets all serious and starts professing his belief in NLP-like mumbo jumbo.

All this just to say that you may not be able to force yourself to dislike the things you like, but an author is also unable to divorce their work from what the reader knows about the author.

I skipped the rating on this book because even though I didn’t like the book, I don’t think I could recommend you either to read it or to leave it. If you’re a sad-sack red-piller, you might even consider it a work of literature (or worse, a manual).

Grisham’s Law

The Testament

I read somewhere, a few weeks ago, that there is such a thing as Grisham’s Law. And although I could find only a single definition—once you’ve started reading a John Grisham novel, it is impossible to put it down—this reminded me I had an unread book of his lying around, The Testament.

What a disappointment. The first quarter of the book is used to introduce a huge ensemble cast of heirs, which is then used nowhere in the book, at least not seriously. What’s worse is that none of the heirs differ from each other. Not only could Grisham have scrapped them (almost) all, it would probably have made for a tighter story—one good guy versus one bad guy.

Every character is a parody. The lawyers in this book are all painted as greedy, law breaking miscreants. The alcoholics in this book are painted as being constantly on the rebound. And the believers in this book are being painted as labels. No matter how much I rack my brain, I fail to remember a single interesting character.

The protagonist, an alcoholic lawyer called Nate O’Reilly, manages to redeem himself and kick his habit by becoming a Christian (this would be a good time to cringe). He penetrates the impenetrable swamps of the Pantanal in Brasil in order to find the last heir, death lurking around every corner, except that as a reader you know Grisham won’t kill off his hero, not halfway the story. That neatly kills off any lingering suspense the book might have retained.

The rest of the novel is one dreadful string of self-contained events. In the rare occasion that Grisham seems to want to build up suspense, he tends to get bored with it and opts for a quick way out.

I still finished the book. Don’t ask me why. I felt like… like the writing must simply get better at some point. And then when it was clear it wasn’t going to get better, I had already invested too much time. Or perhaps I could not put it down because of a universal law at work.

My rating: 1.5 stars
*1/2

Here is a tip: if you must read about believers, read Morris West.

Last second update: this is not a negative critique of Grisham, merely of this specific, auto-pilot work. I hugely enjoyed reading The Firm and The Client, and watching the film based on The Pelican Brief—all three novels, I might add, belonging to his earlier works.

Wallander’s second

The Dogs of Riga

I know I haven’t been blogging for a while, but I just do not have the time, so I will keep it short.

People pay money for this?

It’s not that Henning Mankell’s police procedural The Dogs of Riga is badly written, indeed for most of the time, and especially the beginning it is quite entertaining. The end though is very weak. You don’t believe the author for a second. You can see the denouement coming from miles ahead, and the only thing that keeps you reading is the thought that goes continuously through your head: “Surely, Mankell would not end the book like that?”

It’s only his second book in the Wallander series, from what I understand, so I’m going to assume that the author will perhaps master copying Sjöwall and Wahlöö with some proficiency later on.

My rating: 2.0 stars
**

Nice refresher course in biology

Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution

What little I remember about the organization of life from my few high school biology classes in the early 1980s is that the realm of the living was divided into animals and plants.

The world of biology has not, it seems from this book, stood still in the intervening years. Animals and plants are still there, but they make up an ever dwindling part of the taxonomic tree of life, hidden somewhere on a branch behind amoebæ together with fungi.

The ten great inventions of evolution are, according to Lane:

  • The origin of life
  • DNA
  • Photosynthesis
  • The complex cell
  • Sex
  • Movement
  • Sight
  • Hot blood
  • Consciousness
  • Death

Of each of these things he discusses where they came from and how they got where they are now, mostly by looking at the genetic record.

I had two problems with Life Ascending. The first was Lane’s insistence on talking about religion. I have attended a Catholic elementary school, grammar school and university for more than 24 years combined, and the only time ever teachers talked about religion was during the bible readings at the start of the school days, and during the weekly religious lessons. Biology classes were blissfully spared from any religious intrusions, and the reason is obvious. When talking about science, you should not be going to give any attention, not even a little bit, to the rantings of kooks.

Religion simply doesn’t live on the same plane as science, so why even discuss it in a book that purports to be about science? Lane weakly argues that religion tries to come up with answers to questions about where life came from, but so do all kinds of crazy people who are not inspired by faith, and Lane doesn’t take a single of their theories seriously.

What is more, Lane doesn’t seem to like religion very much, which makes him come across like those hordes of American priests who publicly condemn homosexuality in the strongest of words, but then get found out as both lovers and connoisseurs of smoking the meat cigar.

Spending three, now four paragraphs to talk about Lane’s love of discussing religion’s crazy antics makes it seem the book is full of such talk, and there I can gladly put your mind at ease. For the full length of the book, the author takes about as much space talking about religion as the reviewer takes here berating him for it. The reason I mention it at all is the same as the reason you might mention catching a short glimpse of the waiter scratching his balls in your review of an excellent meal at the world’s finest restaurant—it still grates.

My other qualm with Life Ascending is that Lane often declares certain evolutionary paths to have been inevitable (the evolution of eyes and the cell wall), and others to have been sheer coincidence, without giving more of an explanation than “the DNA done it.”

Let me explain this for a second. If you see evolution as a tree where some features have come into existence repeatedly, and other features have only come into existence once, this would suggest that some things are evolutionary inevitable, and others are the opposite.

Take eyes. There are some 13 different branches of eyes that have all evolved separately. You can discover these things by comparing DNA of living and dead creatures and determining if they are similar or distinct. If the DNA for a single feature, no matter how far it has further developed, is strikingly similar across species, you may assume that all these species had at one point a single ancestor, the thin part of the hour glass they crawled through.

But Lane only mentions the “one or many ancestors” bit, and then blithely ignores the exploration of the much and much harder issue of why a certain feature would be likely to happen or not.

I only mention this because I am completely incompetent in judging a book about biology on its biological merits, and therefore have to judge it on its methodological merits, and a scientist who shows not much curiousity is just a tell-tale sign for all kinds of trouble.

But then again, as a result I spent a lot of time simply checking Lane’s facts, and I guess that is a positive thing. Although, once you have found out there are plants with eyes, you will contemplate giving up all food for a while, before becoming more omnivorous than ever.

Lane’s own prime concern with his work appears to be that his selection of the ten great inventions of evolution are perhaps not the best he could have made, and I tend to agree with that. But that is probably the wrong way to view this book. Life Ascending is instead a solid, accessible refresher course for people like me (the arts ‘n’ humanities crowd), people who got a few sprinklings of biology classes a couple of lifetimes ago and weren’t really aware that the world of biology has decidedly moved on since then. It is an excellent spring board for further exploration, and I really recommend you buy it just to get your facts about Life (and that interesting feature, Death) re-aligned.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

When I first read Herman Heijermans’ “Joeps wonderlijke avonturen” (Jack’s Wondrous Adventures) I was pleasantly surprised for two reasons. The first was that it was by far not as bad as I had expected based on what little I knew from Heijermans, third hand knowledge I had about his play “Op hoop van zegen” (translated in English in 1928 as The Good Hope). You see, in the days I first read Joep’s, a film had been made of the play; and though I had not read the play, nor watched the play or watched the movie, the latter was talked about so much that it was hard not to escape the idea that “Op hoop van zegen” was melodramatic trash.

The second was that for a large part, Joep’s is a sort of Dutch Frankenstein. Although there apparently were some late 19th / early 20th century Dutch authors that had dabbled in the fantastic (I am thinking of Carel van Nievelt), back then I had yet to come across one.

Joep’s tells the story of a man who has lost sight in both eyes. An eccentric professor tells Joep that he can cure him by transplanting animal eyes. Having little to lose, Joep agrees to the procedure. Unfortunately, he manages to damage his new eyes on several occasions and has to get new ones.

Shelley’s story about Frankenstein’s monster is typically pessimistic in tone; it questions what makes us human, and whether this ‘what’ can be transplanted into non-human beings. And when does a human being lose his humanity? Joep’s does something similar; when the protagonist gets a different animal’s eyes, his character changes too.

This character growth is for the long term though, and so the story nicely segues into its second half. Where Joep starts out as a major misanthropist, his regained eyesight also forces him to see not just his surroundings through new eyes, but also himself.

Upon second reading, the book has lost some of its sparkle to me. Authors could be very wordy in those days, and from what I have read by Heijermans, he particularly seemed to like the sound of his own written voice. The “what I’ve read by” includes fragments of Diamantstad, which ends on a very moralistic note, as does Joep’s. Something I could have done without, especially since Heijermans proves himself to be a talented author otherwise. Critics of his time claimed that his lack of quality was the result of his prolific output. In 1908, the year he published Joep’s, he published four other works. Speaking in his defense though, Heijermans has a knack of realistically shielding the protagonist from seeing other characters the way the reader sees them, which can produce nice foreboding, if the author can pull it off.

I had hoped to send this book to Project Gutenberg, but unfortunately my copy is from 1934, whereas PG for copyright reasons only takes works printed before 1923.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***

Strong adventure story

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

review by Branko Collin

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” This must be one of the clunkiest opening sentences I have ever read, and yet it is the opening sentence of one of the most popular books of recent times, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. You feel sorry for all the publishers who said no to the manuscript based on reading the first page and thus to the barely imaginable wealth they passed up on.

Apart from the opening sentences, though, the book is well worth reading. Rowling does what other mega-storytellers such as Spielberg and Hergé do (respectively did) so well: she tells big stories about big subjects, adventures that capture your attention from beginning to end, where true heroes battle it out against enormous odds. Harry Potter the character nicely matches the hero pattern, thank you very much. He comes perilously close to dying several times in the book already. No wishy-washy treatment of the subject here.

A minor niggle I have is that Rowling sometimes dangerously flirts with my suspended disbelief, and it is a testament to the author’s storytelling qualities that I shrugged off my qualms and dived right back into the book.

An example of this: Hermiony Granger is depicted as a rather horrible little girl for most of the book, but then when Harry and his friend Ron save her from a troll, the experience forges a bond between them that makes them instant friends. Rowling is not interested in the process; she shrugs it off in one sentence, and if your eyes happened to skip it you’ll be wondering the rest of the book what the hell just went on: “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve foot mountain troll is one of them.”

Don’t say this eye-skipping doesn’t happen; I only noticed the one-sentence sex scene in Thea Beckman’s children’s book Hasse Simonsdochter during my third reading. In that case however, that did not make much of a difference; here it’s more instrumental.

The movie of the book doesn’t have this problem; it is well clear there from the start that Hermione wants to be friends with Ron and Harry. I must further compliment the makers of the film because it follows the book so closely, yet manages to be a good film in its own right.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Farmer in the Sky

Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, has been terraformed, and enough time has passed to accept pioneers to homestead a piece of land. The conditions are horrible; lose access to outside (read: Earthly) help, and you are condemned to a certain death. But at least you get a chance to get away from overcrowded planet Earth. Have you got what it takes to be a Farmer in the Sky?

George Lerner responds to the call, and finds out much to his surprise that his son Bill wants to come along. Both belong to the second wave of homesteaders; they need not reïnvent the wheel entirely, but plenty of challenges still lie ahead: during their time on Ganymede they face the total break-down of the climate control system, which wipes out two-thirds of the fledgling population.

There is something very refreshing about the portrayal of characters in this book. Heinlein talks of strong, reasonably intelligent, yet simple folk, to whom adversity is a challenge. He is also very matter-of-fact about things like divorce; the narrator has few hang-ups, except on the topic of women, who are typically displayed as weaker than men. (To some extent this is Bill’s initial feeling about women; the fact that Heinlein attributed this prejudice to Bill, though, means that the boy lives in a sexist environment in this, Heinlein’s view of the future.)

Unfortunately, in Farmer of the Sky personality is a dichotomy; you are either a strong-willed ‘realist’, or a weak-spined complex person. And the author has no use for the latter sort: they die, or they provide comic relief, or dramatic tension, but rarely do we get to see why they operate the way they do. The only exception is formed by Bill’s father and his father’s new wife. But even they provide few insights. Instead, their complexity and weaknesses seem solely included to create the appearance of maturity.

Again, this is Bill’s view of things, but you cannot shake off the notion that Heinlein feels the same way. Bill meets many strong and simple grown-ups — officer material, so to speak. Furthermore, Ganymede is the new frontier, not a theme park ride. But if it is expected that only the strong will survive under harsh conditions, why do the weak tag along?

When finally the climate system breaks down, it is not just the strong people that survive; it almost feels like it is the strong people that deserve to surive. The disaster is at the same time a cleansing.

All in all, I found the book overly simplistic, even for a book aimed at boys. I would have given it 3/10, but the author earns two bonus points. One for portraying a type of character and a type of society that I rarely see in novels. The second because the following part displays rare insight.

(What went before; at a camp fire a number of scouts are discussing what will happen once Earth moves from merely crowded to an over-population breaking point.)

[Paul:] “Your figures are right, but your conclusions are wrong. Oh, Ganymede has to be made self-sufficient, true enough, but your bogeyman about a dozen or more shiploads of immigrants a day you can forget.”

“Why, if I may be so bold?”

[…]

“A lot of people have the idea that colonization is carried on with the end purpose of relieving the pressure of people and hunger back on Earth. Nothing could be further from the truth. […] Not only is it physically impossible for a little planet to absorb the increase of a big planet, […] but there […] are never as many people willing to emigrate (even if you didn’t pick them over) as there are new people born. Most people simply will not leave home. Most of them won’t even leave their native villages.”

[…]

[Still Paul] “But let’s suppose for a moment that a hundred thousand people emigrate every day and Ganymede and the other colonies could take them. Would that relieve the situation back home — I mean, ‘back Earthside?’ The answer is, ‘No, it wouldn’t.'”

He appeared to have finished. I finally said, “Excuse my blank look, Paul, but why wouldn’t it?”

“[…] Bionomics, Bill. […] Mathematical population bionomics. […] In the greatest wars that the Earth had there were always more people after the war than there were before, no matter how many were killed. Life is not merely persistent, […] life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there never has been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life — the ragged edge of starvation. In other words, if we bled off a hundred thousand people a day, the Earth’s population would then grow until the increase was around two hundred thousand a day, or the bionomical maximum for Earth’s new ecological dynamic.”

[…]

Sergei said: “[…] What is the outcome?”

[…]

“War.”

(The deleted text consists mainly of interjections that the author added in a vain attempt to avoid the impression that he was relieving himself of an infodump.)

I started reading Heinlein after reading a number of mouth-frothing reviews of Paul Verhoeven’s interpretation of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. When Verhoeven read the book, he saw a fascist narrative; and partly in mockery of the book, he made the film one about fascism. These two diverging views of Heinlein’s work made me want to read it. Who would be right, Verhoeven or Heinlein’s fans?

For Verhoeven of course such a consideration was unnecessary. He has lived under the rule of actual Nazis, and can smell a fascist a mile away.

Farmer in the Sky has neither confirmed or denied either side’s position. There is certainly an element of the übermensch in the Heinlein novels I have read so far (which includes Between Planets). Heinlein seems to believe both in survival of the fittest and in societal engineering, and may believe that societal engineering should serve mostly the strong.

Farmer in the Sky aka Satellite Scout by Robert A. Heinlein: 5/10. Review by Branko Collin.

The Robber Bride

The Robber Bride is a very, very, very slow book. It could have easily been told in 50 pages instead of the 528 it took.

The blurbs bubble on about how witty and funny it is; I guess I completely missed what this novel is about. But perhaps I can re-tell the surface story; we follow three women in their fifties, reminiscing about the lives they led. Their contemplative mood stems from them meeting Zenia, their nemesis, who they thought dead.

Zenia is portrayed as evil, not just by the women (who are at least willing, to the point of incredible, rage-inducing naïvety, to believe she is good), but especially by the author. Zenia does not care how she derails other people’s lives, almost as if she has no conscience.

Tip: read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale instead.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: 4/10. Review by Branko Collin.

Neuromancer

Neuromancer is about a bank job. Case used to be an ace safe cracker, until he got cocky and took off with his customer’s money. They broke both his hands in retaliation. But that is what makes him perfect for this job: nobody will suspect he is involved.

The team that is collected around him is an equally unlikely bunch. The team leader is an ex-army colonel with a grudge against the world. The driver of the get-away car is hired from a rastafari colony. And the client? Case will find out who the client is when he finds out what it is he is supposed to steal.

Except of course that Case is not a safe cracker but a computer hacker. It wasn’t his hands that were broken, but his mind. The safe is a networked system. And the rastafari colony is in an orbit around Earth. Still, doesn’t sound very original, does it? It’s still a bank job, by any other name.

You want original? How about this for original: this book coined the term cyberspace. This book coined the term matrix (and “jacking into the matrix”), long before the makers of a certain movie went on a borrowing spree. This book coined the term meatspace. It is chock-full of concepts that even today, twenty years later, when many of them are becoming reality, many people still do not understand. The author is one of the founding fathers of the Cyberpunk genre.

I should have read this 20 years ago, when I needed to read it. I won’t say that it has aged badly, but I have gotten used to the concepts of cyberspace without Neuromancer’s aid. The intimate relationship I could and should have forged with this novel is no longer possible, and what is worse is that I know this.

If you haven’t done so before, you should still read it.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson, 6/10.


Review of Neuromancer published on Aug 13, 2006 by Branko Collin.