Archive for April, 2015

Basteland coverBasteland: The Making of a Masterpiece, ed. Dr David M. Mitchell (Savoy Books 2015)

In rock music, there’s loud, there’s loud… and there’s My Bloody Valentine. In literature, there’s transgressive, there’s transgressive… and there’s Savoy Books.

But even by the standards of these Mancunian mavericks, one book stands out for terminal teraticity: David Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions (2008). This septic slab of cerebral psychosis is infamous among the counter-cultural cognoscenti for three things above all others: its extremity, its complexity and its incomprehensibility. No two reviewers have ever agreed what’s going on, what Britton is trying to say and even (in certain passages) what language the book is written in.

Seven years on, that hermeneutic fluidity is incisively interrogated in Basteland: The Making of a Masterpiece. It’s a detailed study of Basted overseen by Dr David M. Mitchell, the Post-Polymath Professor of Pantology at Port Talbot University. Convening a toxic team of psychotropic Savoyonauts, Mitchell first baited them to a frenzy, then unleashed them on their subject. He edited the resultant essays and monographs before penning an incendiary introduction of his own.

The interpretations he oversees are, as you’d expect, as varied as the contributors. In the closely reasoned analysis “Strength through Savoy”, transgressive textualist Will Self describes Basted as:

[A] rhizomatically rancid assault on the most helioseismically hallowed corner-stones of the modernist canon, jump-starting the cataclysmically creaking Colossus of On the R(h)o(a)d(es) with an extremophilically eldritch injection of synapse-stewing swamp-soup scooped from the atrabiliously atrociousest anus of the most mephitic myrmidon of Mephistopheles, whilst tipping its panache-packed Panama slyly – and wryly – to that rawest and wrenchingest of gut-grenades in Burroughs’ underground oeuvre: 1955’s never-surpassed Bulgaria on a Budget. (“Strength through Savoy: Notes towards a Vernichtungsliteratur of the Apocalypse”, pg. 46)

Sample pages #1

Sample pages #1

Elsewhere, veteran Savoyologist Polly Toynbee applies the techniques of the Kabbalah to unearth what she alleges to be a pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Five Go to Billycock Hill (1957) in chapters six, eight and nine of Basted, while committed counter-culturalist David Kerekes of Headpress Journal unfolds an intriguing theory about a core motif of Basted:

For countless readers, one of the edgiest and unsettlingest aspects of the book’s full-throttle aesthetic onslaught has to be the way in which, following each stomach-churningly detailed episode of brain-splattering, bowel-strewing slaughter, Lord Horror is inevitably described or depicted as opening and eating a packet of salt’n’vinegar crisps. He then often blows into the empty bag and bursts it. But why? In this essay I hope to explore this question and come up with some (tentative) conclusions as to the symbolism that is at work. (“Our Bite Macht Frei: The Symbolism of Salt-and-Vinegar Crisps in Britton’s Burroughsian Bildungsroman Basted in the Broth of Billions”, pg. 368)

Sample pages #2

Sample pages #2

Kerekes concludes that the crisp-eating episodes are, inter alia, allegories of the Stations of the Cross. He makes an excellent case, but who knows? Basted in the Broth of Billions defies both description and definition. Basteland: The Making of a Masterpiece will defy something else: your eyes. It’s the first book published by Savoy in what (to the exoteric observer) will appear to be entirely black type on entirely black paper. I’m not going to say how you can read the text, but I’ll give one hint: what Savoy do to English literature, this book does to the electro-magnetic spectrum…

Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Bulg’ Boy BoogieLiterary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, Ted Morgan (1991)

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Maths and Marmosets – The Great Mathematical Problems: Marvels and Mysteries of Mathematics, Ian Stewart (Profile Books 2013)

Be Ear Now – Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, Trevor Cox (Vintage 2015)

Exquisite Bulgarity – The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings, Mark Kushner (Simon & Schuster 2015)

Stellar StoryDiscovering the Universe: The Story of Astronomy, Paul Murdin (Andre Deutsch 2014)

Terms of EndrearmentShe Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston (Constable 2007)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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The Great Mathematical Problems by Ian StewartThe Great Mathematical Problems: Marvels and Mysteries of Mathematics, Ian Stewart (Profile Books 2013)

If you asked me what the Riemann hypothesis was, I would be able to say that it was a very important mathematical problem that had something to do with prime numbers and zeros on a line. And that would be it. There’s an entire chapter in this book about the hypothesis, but with me as a reader Stewart might as well have been “teaching Urdu to a marmoset” (as Laurence Olivier said about trying to teach Marilyn Monroe to act). Stewart is a great popularizer of advanced mathematics, but he faces a big problem: if you understand the profundity, you’ll understand the popularization of it. If you don’t, you won’t.

So I don’t understand what the Riemann hypothesis is about. Or the Poincaré conjecture. Or the Hodge conjecture. Or the Birch–Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture (note long hyphen: it’s named after two mathematicians, not three). So more than half of the chapters in this book lost me almost immediately. The other chapters lost me later, because it’s easy to understand the questions behind the Goldbach conjecture, the four-colour problem and the three-body problem. Is every even integer greater than 2 equal to the sum of two primes? Can we colour all flat two-dimensional maps with four colours or fewer? Can we write an equation to predict the gravitational interaction of three celestial bodies?

The questions are easy to understand, but the answers are very difficult. In fact, only the four-colour problem has been solved. The mathematicians who solved it famously used computers to do so, and their solution can’t be held in or followed by a single human mind. That was something new and it raised interesting questions about the nature of mathematical proof. Stewart discusses them here and supports the idea that computer proofs are legitimate. He ends the book with a list of newer, less famous but perhaps, in some cases, even more important problems. Again, some of them are easy to understand, some aren’t.

So you can get a good sense of the size, scope and complexity of mathematics from this book. And the difficulty. I found a lot of it incomprehensible, but if Ian Stewart can’t explain it to me, no-one else could. And there’s fun amidst the befuddlement:

According to a time-honoured joke, you can tell how advanced a physical theory is by the number of interacting bodies it can’t handle. Newton’s law of gravity runs into problems with three bodies. General relativity has difficulty dealing with two bodies. Quantum theory is over-extended for one body and quantum field theory runs into trouble with no bodies – the vacuum. (ch. 8, “Orbital Chaos: Three-Body Problem”, pg. 136)

There are also ideas to explore for yourself, like Langton’s ant, because maths is like a mountain range. Even if you can’t get to the peaks, you can enjoy climbing some of the way. There are gentle slopes before the sheer, ice-sheened cliffs. Ian Stewart doesn’t get to the cliffs, but there’s some tough climbing here and I quickly fell off. A lot of amateurs will do much better and this book is worth trying anyway. Being baffled teaches you something both about a subject and about yourself.

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Sonic Wonderland by Trevor CoxSonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, Trevor Cox (Vintage 2015)

This book is a good example of “think ink”: it makes you think about familiar things in a new way. Sound is familiar to almost everyone, but it’s a much more complex phenomenon than most people realize. Only part of it takes place in the air; there’s a lot going on in the brain too. Trevor Cox looks at both sides of sound. And more sides than that, because it’s a three-dimensional phenomenon. And four-dimensional: time is involved.

That’s most obvious with echoes, which Cox explores in chapter 1, “The Most Reverberant Place in the World”:

I like to play a game with my fellow acousticians: guess the reverberation time. They usually pick an acoustically outrageous number, maybe 10 or 20 seconds. Even so, they always guess far too low. At 125 hertz, the reverberation time was 112 seconds, almost 2 minutes. Even at mid-frequency the reverberation time was 30 seconds. The broadband reverberation time, which considers all frequencies simultaneously, was 75 seconds. I called Allan over to give him the good news. We had discovered the world’s most reverberant space. (ch. 1, pg. 57)

And where is that? It’s the “oil storage complex at Inchindown, near Invergordon”, in Scotland. Huge tanks, in other words, that were built in the 1930s to store oil for a nearby naval anchorage. They’re “dug deep” into a hillside and now are decommissioned, so they’re empty, dark and rarely visited. But, as Cox discovered, they’re also acoustically fascinating: “Never before had I heard such a rush of echoes and reverberation” (pg. 55).

As professor of acoustics at Salford University, Cox is well-equipped to investigate and analyse places like that, but sound is too big a subject for any individual to understand everything. This book discusses a startling range of animals, objects and acoustic phenomena: bats, moths, barking fish, claps, bells, whispering galleries, echoes that conduct conversations, musical roads, icosidodecahedral loudspeakers, wave organs, abandoned radomes, waterfalls, singing sands and ringing rocks. Last and least, it discusses silence:

The ear is exquisitely sensitive. When perceiving the softest murmur, the eardrum barely moves. For the quietest sound that a young adult can hear, the eardrum vibrates by less than one-tenth of the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Even in silence, tiny vibrations of molecules move different parts of the auditory apparatus. These constant movements have nothing to do with sound; they stem from random molecular movements. If the human ear were any more sensitive, it would not hear more sounds from outside; instead, it would just hear the hiss generated by thermal agitation of the eardrum, the stapes bone of the middle ear, and the hair cells in the cochlea. (ch. 7, “The Quietest Places in the World”, pg. 209)

I’m not sure about “one-tenth of the diameter of a hydrogen atom”, which seems very small, but measurement is certainly essential to acoustics. Modern instruments can turn sound into shape, which is appropriate, because sounds are essentially shapes. You might call them sculpted air, just as waves are sculpted water. And light is sculpted energy. The parallels between light and sound weren’t obvious to the ancients, but they explain lots of things, such as why some frequencies of sound, like some frequencies of light, can travel further than others through air or water or stone.

And the visual phenomenon of iridescence has its acoustic equivalent: sonic crystals, which “reflect some frequencies intensely, mimicking the iridescence of butterfly wings” (ch. 8, “Placing Sound”, pg. 256). Unfortunately, Cox says that the sound is “unpleasant”. But this is a new field and perhaps beauty will be born in time. Ugly or exquisite, thunderous or threnodic, sound is a fascinating subject and this book will open both your ears and your mind to its wonders and weirdness.

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The Future of Architecure in 100 Buildings by Mark KushnerThe Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings, Mark Kushner (Simon & Schuster 2015)

A little red book about contemporary architecture. As I’d expected before opening it, there is a lot of ugliness here – architecture that reminds me of a phrase in Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942): “the vast bulk of London University insulting the autumnal sky.” There are buildings here that insult the sky, the eye, and everything else. They look like bricks, kitchen utensils or nerve-gas factories.

But there are also buildings that look like jewels, waves or sea-shells. The Bvlgari Art Pavilion at Manarat Al Saadiyat, in Abu Dhabi, is literally jewel-like: “Off-the-shelf acrylic tubes are assembled to create a rigid pavilion whose shape is inspired by a rough gemstone” (pp. 44-5). Elsewhere, the columns at Terminal 2 of the Chhatrapati (sic) Shivaji International Airport in Bombay look like a cross between lotus stems and stalactites. But the Aqua Tower in Chicago doesn’t so much achieve beauty as avoid ugly. It’s “really just a traditional rectangular skyscraper”, but the architect made the balconies into “curvy and changing platforms”, so it harmonizes with the sky and clouds rather than clashing with them (pp. 76-7).

Bvlgari pavilion

Bvlgari Pavilion, Abu Dhabi

A “five-story” wall on Le Oasis d’Aboukir in Paris is harmonious in another way: it’s covered in plants that grow “without soil” in a “metal, PVC and nonbiodegradable felt structure” (pp. 96-7). Turning cities into vertical forests is a good idea. And it may please the palate, not just the eye: why transport food long distances when it can be grown in citu, as it were? Another new idea is “Flight Assembled Architecture”, using robot helicopters to lift building materials into place. As Mark Kushner says: “No cranes. No ladders. No limits.”

Aqua Tower, Chicago

Aqua Tower, Chicago

To date modern architecture has certainly challenged the limits of ugliness and abhumanity, but this book suggests that advancing technology is allowing older ideas to re-emerge. Buildings should be like bodies: full of curves and small details, not straight lines and sharp corners. They should defy the lifelessness of stone, metal and plastic, not emphasize it. Some of the buildings here defy it, some emphasize it. I hope the defiance wins.

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Discovering the UniverseDiscovering the Universe: The Story of Astronomy, Paul Murdin (Andre Deutsch 2014)

First published in 2011 as Mapping the Universe, this is a well-written, well-illustrated history of astronomy that begins in the Stone Age and ends with the Hubble Space Telescope and Large Hadron Collider. The photographs will stimulate your eyes as the text stimulates your mind. The universe is a big place and big things happen there, like gamma-ray bursts (GRBs):

Until 1997, astronomers didn’t know whether GRBs originated in some sort of explosions on the edge of our solar system, around our Galaxy, or far away. Two examples proved that the explosions occur the edge of the observable Universe. For their duration of a few seconds, the bursts had been over a million times brighter than their parent galaxy, the biggest bangs since the Big Bang. (ch. 17, “Exploding Stars”, pg. 87)

Ptolemy, Galileo and Newton would all be astonished by the technology that allows modern astronomers to study phenomena like gamma-ray bursts, but one thing has remained constant: the importance of mathematics and measurement in studying the sky. The story of astronomy is not just about seeing further and clearer, but also of measuring better and mathematizing more powerfully. Ptolemy’s geocentric universe entailed the arbitrary complexity of epicycles on epicycles, to explain how the planets sometimes seemed to move backwards against the stars. Then Copernicus resurrected the ancient Greek hypothesis of a heliocentric universe.

Back cover

Back cover

Planetary retrogression became easier to explain. Other hypotheses, like the steady state universe and Kepler’s planetary Platonic solids, haven’t proved successful, but data don’t explain themselves and astronomers have to be adventurous in mind, if not usually in body. This book contains the big names, the big sights and the big mysteries that are still awaiting explanation. More big names, sights and mysteries are on their way.

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She Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston (Constable 2007)

Language is like architecture and art: the more modern it is, the uglier it tends to be. So it’s interesting to ask what the world would be like if the United States of America didn’t exist. What if North America were like South America: a patchwork of Spanish-speaking states? Or what if the US had been founded by Germans or Scandinavians?

I think the English language would be in a better state if any of that were true. English would be much less important, but also much less polluted. There would be less hype, bombast and pretension in it. The United States is the great engine of modernity, pulling the world into an ever brighter, ever drearier, ever less enchanted future. The engine would be running less powerfully, or even running in reverse, if America didn’t exist or didn’t speak English.

So I think, anyway. And there’s a lot of evidence in this short but entertaining book. A lot of bad British English comes from America. A lot comes from the Guardian too, but that’s partly the same thing. The Guardian is the main British outlet for the gas generated by the New York Times and New York Review of Books. But the whole of the British media is Guardianized now. Ironically, that includes the Telegraph:

Ironically Used as if it meant “oddly enough”.

The modern Telegraph is full of feminists, ethnicists and other narcissists, but the authors of this book, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, are evil white males and represent the dying tradition of Peter Simple:

Iconic The iconic Mulberry handbag. Anything vaguely recognizable.

Short and simple. But I didn’t like the entry for the Guardianista über-phrase:

In terms of Misused as though it meant “with respect to”. We have voiced our concerns in terms of childcare costs.

“With respect to” is bad too. “About” is the right word in that context. Often you can replace “in terms of” simply with “in”. It’s a linguistic parasite, riding in English like viral DNA in the human genome. The more often someone uses it, the deeper they are inside the Hive Mind. And this phrase is even worse:

Issues around We’re facing issues around MRSA targets. There are unresolved issues around health and safety compliance. A favourite of health workers and bossy officials.

It’s core Guardianese, in other words. If I ruled the world, using the phrase “in terms of issues around” would carry a mandatory jail sentence. So would using the words “mandatory” and “core” (as an adjective). But neither is in this book. Nor is “über-” or “vulnerable”. But many other irritants are:

Passionate about I’m passionate about salsa / stamp collecting / equal rights.

We’re bombarded by bad English and it’s hard to keep alert to all of it. If you’re not alert, you might start using it yourself. But I can’t remember ever noticing or using this:

Is is The thing is is that postal services need to diversify. The repetition of the verb is would be almost incredible if it was not heard daily on the wireless. It is sometimes introduced by the problem. The construction is probably an unconscious echoing of grammatically correct forms such as what the problem is is that.

Interesting. And endearing rather than endrearing. It’s something that might have occurred in English at any time. “Thing” is a very old word, even if “problem” isn’t. So “is is” doesn’t belong with “in terms of” or “passionate about”. (If I have heard it, I think I’ll have assumed it was a kind of stutter as the speaker paused and sorted his thoughts out.)

Fowler didn’t write about any of those, but it’s good that some of the bad English of his day is now gone. Alas, worse English has often replaced it, but some of the horrors here will pass in their turn. And maybe the Guardian will pass with them. I live in hope.

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