Archive for February, 2014

Book in BlackBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

Critical Math – A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Rude BoysRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

K-9 KonundrumDog, Peter Sotos (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Ghosts in the CathedralThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick WallBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

The big three of British hard rock are Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. The difference between the first two and the third is simple: Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple have influenced individual bands, whereas Black Sabbath have inspired entire genres. Rock history would probably look very different without them: various trends would have started later, slower or not at all. Or without three-quarters of Black Sabbath, anyway: in descending order of importance, the guitarist Tony Iommi, the bassist Geezer Butler and the drummer Bill Ward. The vocalist Ozzy Osbourne is more like a mascot, in my opinion. He isn’t a good singer and I’d like to re-run Black Sabbath’s early days with someone else from the Black country on vox: Sean Harris of Diamond Head.

But Harris was too young for that: all four original members of Black Sabbath were born in 1948 and seemed destined for the same circumscribed lives as their parents and grandparents. Then rock’n’roll came along and gave them a chance to escape boring factory jobs or careers as petty criminals in Birmingham. But with money and fame came drugs, alcohol and the chance to misbehave in much more spectacular ways. Not that they made as much money as they should: they were promoted on their first American tour as “Louder Than Led Zeppelin” (ch. 3, “Bringers of War”, pg. 72), but they definitely weren’t as well-managed. Or as well-received: despite creating much more interesting and innovative music, Black Sabbath didn’t receive the respect or critical attention they deserved until long after Led Zeppelin.

Mick Wall was one of those who gave Led Zeppelin that attention, in When Giants Walked the Earth (2009). He’s also written biographies of Metallica, AC/DC, Guns’n’Roses and Iron Maiden, so he’s well able to give Sabbath the credit (or blame) for their central role in heavy metal. Unfortunately, he’s also fond of rock journalese, hyperbole and mixed metaphors. This book has a nice cover, so it’s a shame about some of the prose:

Twenty years later groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and, in particular, Nirvana, would excavate the same heaving-lung sound to delineate their own scorched-earth policy to a music scene even more elaborately formulaic than the heavy rock scene of the early Seventies – and be rewarded with critical garlands, heralding a new genre they called ‘grunge’. In 1971, however, Sabbath and their new, planet-heavy sound were simply dismissed as dimwitted, offensive and beyond redemption. (ch. 4, “Pope on a Rope”, pg. 81)

But that second sentence is okay and a good summary of how Black Sabbath were treated by the rock press. They were a bad joke for decades. Not that they helped themselves, at times: Ozzy says that he didn’t find Spinal Tap funny because it was too close to the real thing. And it was partly inspired by Black Sabbath, who also went on the road with a Stonehenge stage-set. A very big one, with a performing midget. However, Wall doesn’t manage to mine much of the comedy in the Sabbath story. There’s a lot there, both intentional and unintentional, but Tony Iommi’s ghosted autobiography Iron Man (2011) is both funnier and better-written than this book. Iron Man isn’t as detailed or as objective, though: Wall knows how important Black Sabbath are, but he praises them only when they deserve it. They’ve recorded some bad albums too and Wall describes in detail how and why they went astray in the 1980s.

Re-uniting to play Live Aid in 1985 was a one mistake, for example, but I like the commemoratory photo, which is included in the last of the three photo-sections here. It’s one of their unintentionally humorous moments: Ozzy is harking back to his “Homo in a Kimono” get-up on the cover of Sabotage; Geezer is wearing red trousers and pointy red shoes; Tony is in shades and black-leather-with-dangly-bits; and Bill is looking like a rock-goblin, complete with beer belly, bandana and dirty red baseball boots.

I like that in a rock star, but I wouldn’t like to have been anywhere near him on one of his drinking-bouts: I’d prefer not to have read the story of a plumber turning up to Bill’s Parisian hotel-suite in 1980 to clear drains “clogged with his vomit” (ch. 7, “Neon Nights”, pg. 165). And I wouldn’t want to be near Ozzy whether he’s drunk or sober, stoned or straight. He’s entertaining and endearing, but I assume that he’s best appreciated at a distance. He departs Black Sabbath part-way through the book, but Wall stays with him and tells the story of his solo career, including the tragic death of his guitarist Randy Rhoades in a plane-crash. Wall also describes the success of Ozzy’s reality TV show, The Osbournes, and his various returns to the Black Sabbath fold, in between Ronnie Dio, Ian Gillan and the other vocalists whom Tony has recruited down the decades.

They have their stories told too, as do the Sabbath manager Don Arden and his daughter Sharon. Black Sabbath have had a long history, have crossed paths with a lot of other musicians and have influenced even more, from Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, as Wall notes, to the Melvins and Sunn O))), as Wall doesn’t note. The respect they now enjoy is a fitting tribute to their talent and their originality. This book could have been much funnier and easier-to-read, but it’s a detailed guide to an important band by a journalist who has known them – and even worked for them – since the 1980s. And it’s got an index, which is good. But a discography would have been good too.

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A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen PaulosA Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Ah, unrequited love. I love maths, but maths doesn’t love me. Still, it likes me enough for me to learn a lot from books like this. And I, like most people, do need to learn a lot about maths, because not knowing about it can lead you to make all sorts of mistakes and fall into all kinds of misunderstandings.

So we need more writers like the mathematician John Allen Paulos, who knows a lot about maths and can express what he knows simply and entertainingly. This book is one of those that divide your life into BR and AR – Before Reading and After Reading – because it changes the way you look at the world.

Take politics and important questions like the way we vote and the way power blocs work. Paulos examines all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions in both and you should come out of that section understanding the imperfections and dangers of democracy a lot better. You’ll also know that it’s possible to create a set of four dice, A, B, C, and D, in which A beats B, B beats C, C beats D, and D beats A. Impossible? No, it’s very simple – once you know how.

Or take the horrors of discrimination in terms of issues around race and gender. Women are about 50% of the British population and non-whites are about 10% and you should therefore expect them to be 50% and 10%, respectively, of MPs or judges or disc-jockeys or senior managers in confectionery factories, shouldn’t you? And if they aren’t, that’s clear proof of discrimination, isn’t it?

Paulos’s answers are, respectively, no, not necessarily, and no, not necessarily. What is true of a general population is not always true of its extremes:

As an illustration, assume that two population groups vary along some dimension – height, for example. Although it is not essential to the argument, make the further assumption that the two groups’ heights vary in a normal or bell-shaped manner. Then even if the average height of one group is only slightly greater than the average height of the other, people from the taller group will constitute a large majority among the very tall (the right tail of the curve). Likewise, people from the shorter group will constitute a large majority among the very short (the left tail of the curve). This is true even though the bulk of the people from both groups are of roughly average stature. Thus if group A has a mean height of 5’8” and group B has a mean height of 5’7”, then (depending on the exact variability of the heights) perhaps 90 percent or more of the those over 6’2” will be from group A. In general, any differences between two groups will always be greatly accentuated at the extremes.

Discrimination undoubtedly exists, but where it exists, who it’s being exercised against and how much of an effect it has are not questions that can always be answered in simple ways. Paulos even describes how taking measures against discrimination can make its supposed effects worse.

Look before you leap, in other ways, and look with mathematically trained eyes. It will help you in all sorts of ways, from not being taken in by fallacious political arguments to not being ripped off. Suppose, Paulos asks, a pile of potatoes is left out in the sun. It’s 99% water and weighs 100 pounds. A day later, it’s 98% water. How much does it weigh now?

If you can’t work out the answer then you might be on your way to losing a lot of money if a conman looks after your money or investments. Paulos explains the answer – which, surprisingly (or not), is 50 pounds – very clearly and simply, the way he explains the answers of all the other little puzzles he drops into the text as he discusses gossip, celebrity, cooking, bargains, infectious disease, and a host of other subjects that maths can either illuminate or obfuscate, depending on how well you understand it and the logic that underlies it.

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Ruthless by Geoff SmallRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

Because Geoff Small is black he can say things in this book that would have been called racist if they had been said by a white journalist. For example, he tries to explain differing levels of violence in the island nations making up the West Indies by the differing natures of the African tribes who were enslaved and transported there. Some tribes were peaceful, some warlike, and Jamaica, birthplace of the Yardies, was populated by representatives of the warlike ones.

Combine that with dire poverty and illegal drugs, add the intense rivalries of local politics and asinine interference by the CIA, and you have a recipe for some very violent and dangerous gangs: the Yardies, named after the Jamaican word “yard”, meaning a neighbourhood or district. They started to come to the attention of the media and the general public in the 1980s, as they broke their way into the drugs market in the United States and United Kingdom, and the word used of them then is still being used of them now: “ruthless”. If you have a quarrel with the Mafia, the Mafia will kill you. If you have a quarrel with the Colombians, the Colombians will kill you and your wife. If you have a quarrel with the Yardies, the Yardies will kill you, your wife and your children.

With anyone else who happens to be in your house or on the street or in the nightclub at the time. In fact, “ruthless” is hardly strong enough: another word that Small uses comes closer to the truth: “nihilistic”. The Yardies seem to cultivate a complete disregard for human life. Anyone who wonders if their bark is worse than their bite is likely to stop wondering when he reads about this kind of thing:

In terms of utter ruthlessness, the killing of Cassandra Higgins ranks high on the list. A Jamaican visa overstayer, she was certainly no angel. Still, her demise was shocking by any standards. The nineteen-year-old was stripped naked by five Rude Boys in an eighteenth-floor crack-house on the Cathall Road Estate in Leytonstone, east London. Then, to the horror of those who looked on, she was thrown out of the window 160 feet to the ground. Higgins’s death, in September 1993, was thought to have been the result of a rudie drug deal double-cross on her part. The brutal murder was witnessed by several people, but true to form the mouths of those assembled were welded shut by the force of the posse code: ‘See and blind, hear and deaf’; in fact, not one person was willing to go to court to testify against the killers.

Gangs and gang-warfare have long been fashionable on screen and in print, and this book offers many satisfying fixes for the aficionado of other people’s thuggery as it describes how the Yardies or Rude Boys – “rude” meaning “lawless” or “aggressive” in Jamaican English – invaded expatriate Jamaican communities in the US and UK. Their intent was to take over the drugs-markets there and they succeeded through a combination of extreme violence and use of a Jamaican patois that local police forces often found impossible to understand during phone-taps or surveillances.

An often fascinating, sometimes frightening book, Ruthless seems to me more proof of the harm done both by mass immigration and by the illegality of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Yardies do not kill and terrorize people just for the fun of it: they do it because there are huge sums of money to be made from the illegal sale of drugs and huge amounts of excitement and satisfaction to be had from confronting and outwitting the authorities. Small describes Jamaicans as naturally rebellious, ambitious and aggressive, making a mark on the world in international fields like music and sport out of all proportion to their numbers. The Yardies are another example of Jamaicans making their mark in an international field: that of crime. If we legalized drugs, that field would get much smaller. And if Jamaicans had not been allowed to immigrate in such large numbers into Britain and North America, their criminality would not have inflicted so much misery and imposed so much expense.

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Words on Waugh from Philip Ziegler’s biography Diana Cooper (1981).

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Front cover of Dog by Peter SotosDog, Peter Sotos, with an introduction by Mikita Brottman (TransVisceral Books 2014)

August 9, 2012. Anglo-American academic Mikita Brottman departs her apartment in Minneapolis to attend a ’70s nostalgia concert at a local rock-arena. Behind her, she leaves transgressive author Peter Sotos to dog-sit her prized French bulldog Ludovicus. Four hours later, Brottman returns to her apartment to discover Ludovicus gone and Sotos lying unconscious on the floor.

When he revives, Sotos describes how, minutes after Brottman’s departure, the apartment was invaded by a masked gang.

He remembers trying to fight them off.

Then it all went black…

Dog is a detailed examination of that fateful August day and its continuing repercussions. It is a true-crime book like no other, written from the inside by a no-holds-barred author who has been at the heart of events right from the beginning. As Brottman writes in her introduction:

Peter was a rock thru-out the bewilderment-and-grieving process. It was truly a great comfort when he told me that, altho’ he knew Ludovicus for only a brief time, he felt that the two of them had achieved a genuine and permanent closeness. Furthermore, despite the brutal assault to which he was subjected and the stress-induced indigestion he suffered for two days after Ludovicus’s disappearance, Peter barely left my side for the rest of the month, helping me to process my initial shock and horror and trying to assist the police investigation in any way he could. He also came up with the most plausible theory as to the gang’s identity. No trace of any break-in could be discovered, nor, despite detailed examination of multiple CCTV-feeds, was it possible to identify any strangers entering or leaving the apartment-block during the relevant time-period. But, while the gang was in the apartment, they cleaned the kitchen and polished the stove.

Peter’s suggestion?

“They must have been gay ninjas, Miki,” he said.

I concur. It’s the only explanation that fits all the facts. (Introduction, pg. xii)

But why would gay ninjas kidnap Ludovicus? Where have they taken him? When will they issue a ransom demand? These questions continue to haunt all those involved in this unique tragedy. Dog interrogates each aspect of the case from every conceivable angle and will only serve to sharpen Sotos’s two-fisted reputation as an uncompromisingly incendiary submariner of the most phantasmal sierras of the post-transgressive arena.

Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Toxic Twosome — review of Doll by Peter Sotos and James Havoc

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