[Just re-read it, after originally reading in 2004 during study abroad in Budapest.]
A great mix of charming and disorienting stories. Helps a bit if y[Just re-read it, after originally reading in 2004 during study abroad in Budapest.]
A great mix of charming and disorienting stories. Helps a bit if you know some Hungarian history, especially during the Communist era. Helps a ton (I assume) if you actually lived through it and get all the jokes & references. Even without that background, still worth a read for the colorful sketches and unsettling humor....more
Pretty darn funny, and accurate, depictions of Eastern European culture and academic math culture. Mixed with moving reminiscences about survival in WPretty darn funny, and accurate, depictions of Eastern European culture and academic math culture. Mixed with moving reminiscences about survival in WW2 on the Russian front.
Now, I really hate some of the awful parts of math culture: participants can only be either brilliant or mediocre, and there's absolute refusal to respect anyone who's not on the brilliant side... The book depicted these flaws well too, though it glorified them a bit too much for me.
It has very funny moments, but it's more subdued than the screwball comedy I expected from the synopsis on my copy's cover. It is *not* a zany chase full of people prying up floorboards during a funeral.
It's definitely clear out that the author is a scholar of the atmospheric sciences. The weather descriptions are never "It snowed and stayed cold," but rather "The high-pressure Arctic air mass had decided to stagnate."
The narrator's griping about Americans was spot on the first few times, & sounds just like some of my relatives---but it got old and repetitive. Did he start writing the same content in several chapters, then forget to edit it out?
Also, why does he spend almost no time (view spoiler)[talking to his newfound daughter and granddaughter? Of course it's hard for me to imagine the grief I'd feel at a parent's funeral, plus the narrator has all these other people's antics to deal with---but still, if my long-lost child wandered into my life, I'd forget all the rest and want to get to know them. Right (hide spoiler)]?
Favorite parts: * p.42: Dear reader, don't panic. Newton was barely past twenty when he invented calculus. It's pure adolescent whimsy at work. Think of the language of mathematics as shorthand that has been around for centuries, the equivalent of teenage texting, but for geeks. Yes, I know you don't know half the text abbreviations that your teenage children use, but you can figure out their argot if pressed, can you not? You can figure out this one as well. * p.91: "You spend too much time worrying about men, Anna. They are all alike. Pretty boring, really. Just pick one and keep him." * p.105: At the time I thought I had learned an obvious lesson. Do not fall in love with someone when that love is heavily dependent on the goodwill and kindness of your parents. Find someone else. It's a stupid thing to expect a family to help you tie up your love life into a nice bow, and smart people do stupid things far more often than most people realize. Now, looking back, I don't think that's the lesson that I should have learned. I should have understood that when you love someone, and they are being subjected to cruelty, you need to do whatever you can to shield them, to defend them, even if the source of that cruelty, maybe especially if the source of that cruelty, is your own mother. This is your obligation. There are no exceptions. * p.150: I knew the type. They had begun to invade Tuscaloosa, these young professors. Male and female, they were all so skinny, fit, and earnest, and so remarkably free of anxiety. When you asked them what they liked to do, they had two answers, their work and running. They ran an ungodly number of miles every week not to avert a health crisis, but simply because they loved to run. Who understood them? Endorphins saturated their blood, mixed with the caffeine from their no-fat lattes. A new generation had arrived, and it quite frankly was superior, if much more boring, than my own. * p.267: She had also started to develop the ability (or liability) of being in one place physically but only partially there mentally. It was like dealing with a cell phone wavering between one and two bars of reception, functional but a bit worrisome. Her mind was not in the here and now but was usually preoccupied... This habit of only sort of being present can drive nonacademics crazy. But it's the only way I know that anyone can solve intellectually difficult problems. It's a constant processing of ideas and techniques in the background that happens even when you dream. * p.276: "You think you've been lucky?" "I don't allow myself to be unlucky." * p.285: "It's the best place in the world for a smart man to be. All this money, all this opportunity, and only stupid, lazy Americans to compete against. It's heaven on earth."...more
Powerful ending, vividly & emotionally showing (view spoiler)[the narrator and the German he shot as they're dying together in a ditch and longingPowerful ending, vividly & emotionally showing (view spoiler)[the narrator and the German he shot as they're dying together in a ditch and longing for their families (hide spoiler)].
But I found it choppy and confusing until that point. The technical details of train dispatchery were hard to follow. And why (view spoiler)[was Milos dragged onto a train by Nazis? And why released again (hide spoiler)]? And the writing lacks smooth transitions; it's just a jumble of "and then this happened" events mixed with flashbacks. The foreword calls this "deliberate confusion" but I must admit I'm not in the mood for more confusion these days. Thankfully it's short :)
Other reviewers mention the humor. I didn't find it very funny, but there are some amusing lines: * "There's a smashing bummie!" * "...with her fingers she began to play in my hair as if I'd been a piano."
I also liked the sweet fence-painting romance....more
Lots of great satirical humor, but the story itself is barely there. It felt like it was written as an excuse for making jokes and allusions, but withLots of great satirical humor, but the story itself is barely there. It felt like it was written as an excuse for making jokes and allusions, but with too few jokes to be a pure comedy, and too little plot to be a rollicking story. Still, I'm glad I read it.
Also, I'm sure it loses something in translation. I read it in Polish, as a Pole raised in the US decades after it was published, rather than in the original as a Russian of that time period. Still, the cultures of academia and bureaucracy are universal enough that I got plenty of the humor.
The 1st segment introduces the narrator to this institute for the study of magic, but almost nothing "happens" plotwise---it's just a showcase of weird goings-on. The 2nd segment sort of has a dramatic element, but it gets resolved in a sudden flash at the end with little explanation or followup. The 3rd and final segment is the only one with a kind of hard science-fiction mystery, solving a puzzle about the administrator and his parrot, which I did enjoy. No dramatic plot there either, but I really liked the depiction of how scientists can obsess over small unexplained events, brainstorm a solution together, and cheer over finding the answer.
Notes to self: * p.109: [Sounds like a precursor to Cosma's idea of the Journal of Evidence-Based Haruspicy:] The Department of Forecasts and Prophecies occupied the whole third floor. I strolled past doors with the signs Coffee Grounds Group, Augurers Group, Pythian Group, Synoptic Group, Solitaire Group, Solovetz Oracle. There was nothing to switch off, inasmuch as the department labored by candlelight. [...] In general, it was entirely unclear to me as to what it was that maintained the credibility of the Department. From time to time its workers issued reports on rather strange themes such as: "On the Eye Expression of the Augur," or "Prediction Properties of Mocha Coffee Grounds, Vintage 1926." Once in a while the Pythian Group succeeded in predicting something correctly, but each time they appeared so startled and intimidated by their success that the effect was entirely dissipated.
* p.112: [Describing the Department of Absolute Knowledge]: I closed the ventilators and strolled past the virginally clean tables of the departmental staff. New writing sets, which had not seen any ink and were stuffed with cigarette stubs, graced the desks. Strange department, this. Their motto was, "The comprehension of Infinity requires infinite time." I didn't argue with that, but then they derived an unexpected conclusion from it: "Therefore work or not, it's all the same." In the interests of not increasing the entropy of the universe, they did not work. [...] In essence, their problem boiled down to the analysis of the curve of relative knowledge in the region of its asymptotic approach to absolute truth. For this reason, some of the colleagues were constantly busying themselves by dividing zero by zero on their desk calculators, while others were requesting assignments in infinity. From there they returned looking energetic and well fed and immediately took a leave of absence for reasons of health. In the intervals between travels, they sauntered from department to department with smoking cigarettes, taking chairs by the desks of those who were working, and recounting anecdotes about the discovery of indeterminacy by L'Hopital. They were easily recognized by their empty look, and their unique ears, which were perpetually nicked from constant shaving. During my half-year tenure in the Institute, they submitted just one problem for Aldan, and it reduced to the same old division of zero by zero without any content of absolute truth. It is possible that some of them did do something useful, but I had no information to that effect.
* p.117: [Arguing with a bureaucrat over a magical sofa, which the scientists see as a research tool to be used but he sees as only a museum item to be kept in place; translation lightly edited]: Modest Matveevich then announced that he, as the person officially accountable, didn't want to hear any more about that matter and desired that the sofa, inventory number 1123, remain in its own special place. Should this not be done, Modest Matveevich threatened, then everyone, including the academicians, would have only themselves to blame. Janus Poluektovich agreed to have only himself to blame, so did Feodor Simeonovich, and Victor quickly lugged the sofa to his laboratory.
* p.125: They worked in an Institute that was dedicated above all to the problems of human happiness and the meaning of human life, and even among them, not one knew exactly what was happiness and what precisely was the meaning of life. So they took it as a working hypothesis that happiness lay in gaining perpetually new insights into the unknown and the meaning of life was to be found in the same process. Every man is a magus in his inner soul, but he becomes one only when he begins to think less about himself and more about others, when it becomes more interesting for him to work than to recreate himself in the ancient meaning of the word. In all probability, their working hypothesis was not far from the truth, for just as work had transformed ape into man so had the absence of it transformed man into ape in much shorter periods of time. Sometimes even into something worse than an ape. We constantly notice these things in our daily life. The loafer and sponger, the careerist and the debauchee, continue to walk about on their hind extremities and to speak quite congruently (although the roster of their subjects shrinks to a cipher). As to tight pants and infatuation with jazz, there was an attempt at one time to use these factors as indices of apeward transformation, but it was quickly determined that they were often the property of even the best of the magi.
* p.155: "I have an acquaintance," said Eddie. "He asserts that man is just an intermediary link that nature requires for the crown of its creation: a glass of cognac with a lemon slice." "And why, in the final analysis, not?" "Just because it doesn't suit me," said Eddie. "Nature has her aims and I have mine." "Anthropocentric," Victor said in revulsion. "Yes," Amperian said haughtily. "I'll not debate with anthropocentrics." "In that case, let's tell anecdotes," Eddie calmly offered and stuffed another rock candy in his mouth.
* p.170: [He must have ended up in a Terry Pratchett book:] A few years ago, the pupil of that same famous one assembled a machine on which he set out on a voyage into the world of cosmological constructs. For some time, unidirectional communication was maintained with him and he had time to transmit that he was on the edge of a flat earth, and could see below him the upreared trunk of one of the Atlas-elephants, and that he was about to start his descent toward the turtle. No further messages were received from him.
* p.171: [It is so hard to get audience participation in an academic lecture!] I came to, when the lecturer declared that the introductory portion of his presentation was completed and that he would next like to demonstrate the machine in action. "Interesting, interesting," said the awakened magisteracademician. "Now then, will you take a ride yourself?" "You see," said Sedlovoi, "I would like to remain here, to provide a commentary on the progress of the journey. Perhaps one of those present?" Those present exhibited a retiring attitude. They all must have remembered the mysterious fate of the voyager to the edge of the world. [...] What sort of external excitations could be expected? they asked from the rear row. All the usual, Sedlovoi replied: visual, acoustic, odoriferous, tactile. Again someone asked from the rear row: What type of tactile sensations would be the most prevalent? Sedlovoi spread his arms in disclaimer and said that it would depend on the conduct of the traveler in the places where he would find himself. "Aha . . ." they said in the rear row and didn't ask any further questions. The lecturer glanced here and there helplessly. In the auditorium everyone also looked here and there, but always to the side. The magister-academician repeated good-humoredly, "Well? How about it? My young ones! Well? Who?" So I stood up and went to the machine. I just can't stand an agonized lecturer; it's a shameful, pitiful, and tortured spectacle.
* p.179: [This whole section is a cute parody of poorly-written science fiction, with barely sketched characterization and flat dialogue that involves constant explanation of technical terms. This chat with the small boy was adorable, including the satire on the blatantly-pushed idea of the Soviets' side of the Iron Curtain as a paradise:] Someone touched me on the knee and I jumped. A small boy with deep-set eyes stood alongside. "What is it, little boy?" I asked. "Apparatus busted?" he inquired in a melodious voice. "You should address your elders politely," I said tutorially. He was very astonished, then his face cleared. "Ah, yes, I remember. If my memory does not betray me, that was customary in the Epoch of Compulsory Politeness. If to tutoyer is disharmonious to your emotional rhythm, I am prepared to address you in any manner you find in consonance with your inner equilibrium." I was at a loss to answer, so he squatted by my machine and touched it here and there, commenting in terminology with which I was totally unfamiliar. A nice youngster, very clean, very well groomed, healthy, but a bit too serious for his age in my opinion. "Listen, young one," said I. "What wall is that?" He turned his attentive, shy eyes on me. "It's called the Iron Curtain," he replied. "Unhappily, I am not versed in the etymology of both these words, but I am informed that it divides two worlds---the World of Humanist Imagination and the World of Fear of the Future." He was quiet and then added, "The etymology of the word also unknown to me."
* p.187: [The programmer tries to help the IT staff fix his computer:] They kept on repairing the Aldan all night. When I went to Electronics next morning, the sleepy and annoyed engineers were sitting on the floor berating [the mage who broke it] in uninspired invective. [...] Their despair was so complete that for a while they actually listened to my advice and attempted to follow it. But then the chief arrived, a certain Savaof Baalovich Uni, and I was immediately displaced from the machine. ...more
What an unusual book. Being myself a mathy/sciency Eastern European with the b(I read this on Cosma Shalizi's suggestion: see his review at his blog.)
What an unusual book. Being myself a mathy/sciency Eastern European with the best of intentions, I really enjoyed reading this bizarre set of vignettes about mathy/sciency Eastern Europeans with the best of intentions.
Basic idea: although we all know how badly Soviet Communism turned out, there were in fact people who believed it could be done well. In principle, shouldn't we be able to optimize production to a higher degree of efficiency when it's all under state control than in the comparative anarchy of the free market? Spufford's book explores several aspects of how and why this didn't, in fact, work out.
Some parts work better than others, but overall it's a worthwhile read for this curious perspective on Eastern European history, with some great slice-of-life snippets about Soviet academics.
Chapter I.1 (happily available on the book's website) includes a truly beautiful look inside an applied mathematician's head, starting with a simple request for help: "The Plywood Trust produced umpteen different types of plywood using umpteen different machines, and they wanted to know how to direct their limited stock of raw materials to the different machines so as to get the best use out of it." (p.12) ...through his thoughts on how to abstract the problem from plywood and machines to an unsolvable set of equations -- then to the realization that they may be solvable after all, and how -- then to how such a solution could optimize not only one factory but several, hundreds, all of them -- then to how such an optimized economy could, over time, "free the world from scarcity ... And he could hasten the hour, he thought, intoxicated. ... It might be a lifetime's work. But he could do it. He could tune up the whole Soviet orchestra, if they'd let him." (p.16-17) Beautiful, and ironic. As the book continues, we see that the mathematician in question fought for his ideas, and made some headway with the authorities, but never enough to implement his ideas in a really efficient manner. For human and political reasons, the local and national authorities always insisted on having enough discretion in their decision-making to deviate from the mathematically-optimal plan -- which disrupted the delicate balance and made the whole optimal-planning thing break down. (In addition, Cosma's blog post above explains why solving the mathematical problems simultaneously for the whole Soviet economy at once would take impossibly long with today's computers, never mind the computers they actually had available.)
Notes to self: * p.12: "The Plywood Trust produced umpteen different types of plywood using umpteen different machines, and they wanted to know how to direct their limited stock of raw materials to the different machines so as to get the best use out of it." Using "umpteen" instead of "A" or "X" or "theta" strikes me as simple way to make math far more readable for nonmathematicians. Reminds me of the comment that "I've never seen a county with n towns in it. Talk about, I dunno, eight towns instead." * p.41: "They volunteered for things. At first the things were tiny ... But reassuringly quickly, it seemed to be understood by those who made such matters their business that the two of them were indeed electing themselves (which was the only way it happened) into the ranks of the energetic and reliable, and then the activities they were called on for got more important; more interesting, even." This is absolutely how it works, in my experiences. * p.66: I love the "zombie dance" passage, quoted in full in Cosma's review. * p.70: A big-city economist sees the poverty in a small village: "'There's a supply problem,' he said uncertainly. 'No,' she said, 'there isn't.' 'But --' 'There isn't,' she said. 'This is the back of the queue, that's all. Always the back of the queue.'" * p.81-91: Great overview of the practical problems the Soviets ran into when they finally got control and realized Marx's writings didn't apply here: Marx expected the revolution to happen in rich capitalist countries, where the factories and skilled workers already existed -- not in the agricultural backwater of Russia. * p.86: "...fairytale-rapid rises for those who could fill the Soviet state's insatiable hunger for skills. The economy needed whole categories of trained people to spring into existence in the twinkling of an eye: teachers, nurses, doctors, chemists, metallurgists, pharmacists, electricians, telephonists, journalists, architects, designers, book-keepers, aviators, car drivers, truck drivers, locomotive drivers, and engineers, engineers, engineers of every description." What a nice image, to think that a society would reward training/skills consistently and generously. Of course that's not quite how it worked out, but a nice image all the same. On the other hand, see p.144... * p.88: "For a society to produce less than it could, because people could not 'afford' the extra production, was ridiculous. By counting actual bags of cement rather than the phantom of cash, the Soviet economy was voting for reality, for the material world as it truly was in itself, rather than for the ideological hallucination. It was holding to the plain truth that more stuff was better than less." Of course, this failed to allow for a balance between lots-more-of-stuff-people-don't-actually-need vs. a-little-more-of-stuff-people-do-need. * p.117: "Ask the computer and it would obey, as ready as a genie in a bottle -- and as intolerant of badly-framed wishes." * p.141-149: Quick overview of the development of academia and its culture in the USSR. * p.144: The European-style curriculum was replaced with a tech-heavy focus: mostly engineering, then the sciences and medicine, and hardly any humanities or social science except for the compulsory Marxism-Leninism material. I've often wished that more students today had a passion for STEM fields, but not at the expense of wiping out the humanities entirely! I'd be curious to read more about how exactly that affected Soviet culture. * p.147: I'd like to find the novel Monday Begins on Saturday, "in which a secret department investigates, appropriately enough, the magical objects in Russian fairytales." * p.171: "'I'm afraid I don't know much about music.' Or care much, she politely didn't say. She could never hold patterns of sound in her memory for very long. Probably some specialized protein was missing." Cute inner thoughts of a geneticist. Also the jazz club/bar they want to visit is called Under The Integral -- adorable! * p.220: "Alas, the effect of moves like these was always to tighten the plan a notch or two further than anyone had originally intended. It would be pushed (everywhere, as other colleagues did what he was doing) that bit more towards a state where its goals could only just barely be achieved. Thus it would be more vulnerable to bad luck, and even more susceptible to proliferating gridlock should anything else go wrong. But the alternative was the incoherent wonderland of the mathematicians." All of this chapter (IV.1) is a very nice example of people having to rebalance when reality forces a swerve from the planners' mathematical optimum. And the surrounding chapters give a lovely, ironic example of where such failures may come from. It was something like this: A factory cannot meet its assigned production targets using its old-model machine, so it sabotages the machine with the hope of getting it replaced with the new model. But the new-model machine-manufacturers cannot make one for them, because the new model costs less, which means that selling a new model instead of an old one will not let them reach their newly-increased sales targets. These sales targets were increased only because of the increased budget they were granted in order to buy the materials needed to build the sabotaged machine's replacement in the first place. What a mess. * p.221: "It was not a very satisfactory objection to an event that it was unlikely, for in the nature of probability, unlikely things took place all the time." * p.221: "The gorgon, whose hair was rinsed the red of old blood..." Not a bad description of this era's middle-aged Eastern European ladies in "customer service" jobs. * p.223: "He could have wished that Solkemfib's No. 1 line had broken down instead. True, clothing manufacturers were waiting for the ordinary yarn it made, but compared to the tire plants they were a distinctly low priority; because, one single step beyond them, you arrived at the consumer, and the consumer was an end-point of the system, and therefore a natural sink for shortages. ... No one stood beyond them in the chain, so there were no consequences whatsoever for inconveniencing them, no farther balances to consider. You could inconvenience the consumer with impunity." * p.271: "But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato's admirers encountered ... The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue ... Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than with wisdom. Lenin's core ... were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages ... and they preserved those attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorised. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors ... were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous. They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative, the most greedy, the most sycophantic..." * p.290-291: "'I'm sorry,' said Emil with a flustered tenacity, 'but I have to insist on this point. Irrational pricing is not a transitional difficulty. It is a fundamental issue. ... If managers have only profit to guide them, but prices do not give them reliable information about the priorities of the plan as a whole, the the priorities of the plan as a whole will not be maintained. Output will wander off God knows where.' 'We've thought of that,' said one of the aides. [...they present their solution...] 'But... that defeats the entire object of the reform,' said Emil, whose hands had risen all by themselves and were now clasped over the sore apex of his head, as if incredulity might pop the top off his cranium, if he didn't hold it on. [...Emil explains why...] 'Pfft,' said Kosygin. 'As if people would blame the machine and not us, when it suddenly doubled the price of heating oil in December. Sorry, no. We'll just have to muddle along with the prices we've got. We're not going to tear up a working system for the sake of some little theoretical gain in efficiency.'" * p.360: "So much blood, and only one justification for it. Only one reason it could have been all right to have done such things, and aided their doing: if it had been all prologue, all only the last spasms in the death of the old, cruel world, and the birth of the kind new one. But without the work it was so much harder to believe. ... And the world went on the same, so it seemed, unchanged, unredeemed, untransfigured." * p.378, note on p.88: Westerners felt disquiet about possible Soviet growth in the '50s much like they later did about Asia's growth. See Krugman's article on this (official link, pdf). * p.381: look into the books Moving the Mountain: Inside the Perestroika Revolution and New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, the Siberian City of Science for more on the Siberian Science City and its residents * p.385, note on p.133: "at this time, the riverside site of the Patriarchate was occupied by a popular open-air swimming pool, which had filled in the hole intended to accommodate the foundations for a gargantuan Palace of Soviets. As of the present day, all of the twentieth-century changes to the site have been reversed, and the Patriarchate stands there again, as it did in 1900." This seems to be describing the same building whose sad story is told by Ryszard Kapuścinski in Imperium: it was built with great effort and expense, demolishes rapidly and plundered, and apparently has been rebuilt (Wikipedia). * p.395, note on p.212: Mentions the fascinating-sounding BBC documentary "The Engineers' Plot" (Wikipedia, Youtube). * p.396-7, note on p.215: apparently the Russian abacus differs from the better-known(-to-me) Chinese one (Wikipedia). * p.410: "Psychoprophylaxis, in a melancholy irony, is the basis of the phenomenally successful Lamaze method for natural birth in the West. The Soviet ideas were carried back to Paris by the French doctor (and community) Fernand Lamaze, and humanised there ... [It] may seem to Galina here to be just another form of compulsory pretence; but it would be equally just to see it as another piece of mangled Soviet idealism, another genuinely promising idea ruined by the magic combination of compulsion and neglect. Velvovsky and his colleagues were the century's pioneers in trying to see childbirth as something better than an illness to be endured." * p.415: I hadn't heard of "trinary" processors before (Wikipedia). I should read Pioneers of Soviet Computing. * General: read up on Oskar Lange, dachas, what happened to Napoleon at Moscow, and how exactly shopping worked in terms of money/coupons/bartering/etc....more
Pretty good. Maybe a bit heavy-handed with the metaphors, but they are good ones to be sure. I'd have been curious to hear a little more about the conPretty good. Maybe a bit heavy-handed with the metaphors, but they are good ones to be sure. I'd have been curious to hear a little more about the context -- why was Sarajevo being shelled, and by whom, and why did the government block the escape tunnel for its own citizens? But then, I guess the lack of such details makes the book more universal -- more generally like: How do I make a life for myself, maintain normality, some semblance of civilization ... when trapped in a hopeless situation? I've heard similar things about Camus' "The Plague" which I ought to read too.
There are a couple of FASCINATING details I'd never heard before: 1) You know how WWI began after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated? Well... his assassin had actually given up for the day and was eating lunch, when the archduke's car unexpectedly passed by him after taking an unplanned detour. It's a ridiculous fluke that changed the world. 2) The famous and beautiful Albinoni Adagio in G minor... is actually pretty much a new composition based on a tiny fragment found by a 20th-century music scholar....more