February 2015 Posts

Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”

Alan Turing, The EnigmaNowadays it is perhaps taken rather for granted that computers can replace other machines, whether for record-keeping, photography, graphic design, printing, mail, telephony, or music, by virtue of appropriate software being written and executed. No one seems surprised that industrialised China can use the same computer as does America. Yet that such universality is possible is far from obvious, and it was obvious to no one in the 1930s. That the technology is digital is not enough: to be all-purpose computers must allow for the storage and decoding of a program. That needs a certain irreducible degree of logical complexity, which can only be made to be of practical value if implemented in very fast and reliable electronics. That logic, first worked out by Alan Turing in 1936 implemented electronically in the 1940s, and nowadays embodied in microchips, is the mathematical idea of the universal machine. 

In the 1930s only a very small club of mathematical logicians could appreciate Turing’s ideas. But amongst these, only Turing himself had the practical urge as well, capable of turning his hand from the 1936 purity of definition to the software engineering of 1946: ‘every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form…’ ( p.409). Donald Davies, one of Turing called programs) for ‘packet switching’ and these grew into the Internet protocols. Giants of the computer industry did not see the Internet coming, but they were saved by Turing’s universality: the computers of the 1980s did not need to be reinvented to handle these new tasks. They needed new software and peripheral devices, they needed greater speed and storage, but the fundamental principle remained. That principle might be described as the law of information technology: all mechanical processes, however ridiculous, evil, petty, wasteful or pointless, can be put on a computer. As such, it goes back to Alan Turing in 1936. 

( Preface, p.xvi-xvii)

Alan Turing: The Enigma a biography of the eminent mathematician by another mathematician, Andrew Hodges was first published in 1983. As with good biographies, it balances the personal, plotting the professional landmarks, with a balanced socio-historical perspective, giving excellent insight in the period Alan Turing lived. Whether it is the history of physics branching off into this particular field of mathematics, Alan Turing’s significant contribution to it, becoming a part of the team at Bletchley Park as a code breaker, and of course his personal life — the bullying he experienced at school, his homosexuality, the friends he made and his relationship with his family, especially his mother.

This biography is so much in the style of biographies written in the 1960s to 1980s — packed with detail. This is the major difference from the twenty-first biographies which are more in the style of bio-fiction than biographies. Yet it is fascinating to see how Alan Turing in a sense has been “resurrected” by twenty-first century concerns such as importance of the Internet, computers available 24×7 and of course his homosexuality, his struggles and his suicide. Then there is Turing’s genius. His gift for fiddling with maths and science. Decoding the Nazi messages. A great deal of credit goes to Andrew Hodges for keeping Turing’s memory alive and updating the information regularly especially at a time when bio-fic is fashionable. This is an old-fashioned biography where details about the life of the person with dates, snippets of correspondence, plenty of research ( constantly updating it as official files were declassified), minutely recording events and visits to places that may have relevance to the book. The book is fascinating for its detailed history of the evolution of mathematics as an independent discipline, the differences between science and maths and explaining how Turing broke away from the shackles of eighteenth and nineteenth century thought where maths was considered to be an integral part of the sciences. Turing’s biggest achievement was the original applications in maths relying upon the principles he learned in physics, especially experiments in quantum mechanics. The book  has footnotes and a preface that has been updated for this special film tie-in edition, to coincide with the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This biography has been in print for more than 30 years. It was last revised in 1992, but this special paperback edition has been reprinted with a new preface by Andrew Hodges, updated in 2014. In fact Newsweek carried an excerpt from it: ( Andrew Hodges, “The Private Anguish of Alan Turing”, 13 Dec 2014 http://www.newsweek.com/private-anguish-alan-turing-291653 ). Graham Moore who adapted the book for the film won an Oscar for his efforts, but as this post from Melville House makes it clear, this script was always meant to win awards. ( http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-imitation-game-and-the-complicated-byproducts-of-adaptation/ ) L. V. Anderson of Slate points out that that the biopic is riddled with inaccuracies. “I read the masterful biography that the screenplay is based on, Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, to find out. I discovered that The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was. ( L. V. Anderson, “How  accurate is The Imitation Game?”. 3 dec 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html )

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”, ( 18 Dec 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/quest-real-coleridge/?pagination=false )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.” This is exactly what Andrew Hodges achieves in this stupendous biography of Alan Turing. Sure there are moments when the technical descriptions about mathematics become difficult to comprehend, yet it is a readable account. The author bio in the book says “Andrew Hodges is Tutor in Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford University. His classic text of 1983 since translated into several languages, created a new kind of biography, with mathematics, science, computing, war history, philosophy and gay liberation woven into a single personal narrative. Since 1983 his main work has been in the mathematics of fundamental physics, as a colleague of Roger Penrose. But he has continued to involve himself with Alan Turing’s story, through dramatisation, television documentaries and scholarly articles. Since 1995 he has maintained a website at www.turing.org.uk to enhance and support his original work.”

It takes a while to read this nearly 700 page biography, but it is time well spent. Certainly at a time when issues such as net neutrality are extremely important. In fact, yesterday the Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) in USA “voted on Thursday to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, a milestone in regulating high-speed Internet service into American homes. …The new rules, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the Internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for Internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else. Those prohibitions are hallmarks of the net neutrality concept.” This ruling will have repercussions worldwide.  (“F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility”, 26 Feb 2015.  http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html?_r=0 )

Alan Turing and his contribution to modern day technology continues to be relevant even 60+ years after his death.

Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma Vintage Books, London, 1983, rev 1992, with rev preface, 2014. Pb. pp.750. £ 8.99

27 February 2015

Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”

Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in Sant Malo, France during the second world war. It is primarily about three people — Marie-Laure LeBlanc, her great-uncle Etienne and Werner Pfennig. An elegantly written story about conflict especially between the Nazis and French, what happens to lives of ordinary folk, the emergence of the French Resistance, how circumstances force people to explore their limits without overreaching and the importance of communication. The young and blind girl, Marie-Laure is brought to Sant Malo by her father from Paris. She learns the routes around town after exploring the miniature, true-to-scale, wooden structure her father recreates for her on their bedroom floor. Her great-uncle Etienne fought in the Great War, but ever since was too shell shocked to venture outside. Yet he would every evening go to the attic in his house and from there using an amateur radio set up transmit recordings he had made with his brother explaining science. Etienne had been doing it for years. Unknown to him the radio waves could be caught as far as Germany, where two young orphans — Werner and his sister would wait for them every day. Years later, Werner Pfenning was sent by the Nazis to France to locate illegal radios and other modes of communication.

All the Light We Cannot See is a novel that is placed in a physical and real world, rather than relying upon emotions to propel the story forward. It is a story that has been a decade in the making and as Anthony Doerr says “he is something of a magpie”, when it comes to tell a story. ( Martha Schulman “How the Story Comes Together: Anthony Doerr”. 11 April 2014  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/61823-how-the-story-comes-together-anthony-doerr.html ) Over 1 million copies of the book have been printed so far and it continues to sell. Understandably it has been longlisted for the 2015 NBA longlist. As historical fiction goes, this is an immensely readable book, believable too to some extent except when one comes across tiny slips such as Etienne boasting to Marie-Laure about his eleven radios. ” I can hear ships at sea. Madrid. Brazil. London. I heard Pakistan once. Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.” ( p.135) This is said in section three, set in June 1940. Pakistan did not come into existence till August 1947. Faux pax like this leave you wondering about how accurate are all the other details in the book, yet you cannot help but appreciate the story for what it is. A fine blend of history, politics and science with a sensitive account of three people who are marginalised by society and yet in a curious way come together, joined by technology of 1940s– a blind girl, a terrified old veteran and an orphan boy. Not an unfamiliar concept in the twenty-first century, is it?

A book worth reading.

Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , 2014. Pb. pp.540 Rs 899 

Parvati Sharma, “Close to Home”

Close-to-Home-front-CoverOver time, as she began to frequent queer groups and become embroiled in queer debates, she was forced to admit that such daydreams were bourgeois, the notion of romantic love was inherently heterosexist and the aspiration to family wasn’t just politically regressive but also rather embarrassingly old-fashioned. Besides if gay people aspired to the lives of straight people then, quite logically, gay people would soon be compelled to proscribe themselves.  (p.18)

Parvati Sharma’s second book, Close to Home, co-published by Zubaan and Penguin Books, is about Mrinalini Singh and the three people in her orbit –her husband Siddhartha, her old roommate Jahanara and her upstairs tenant Brajeshwar Jha. Both Mrinalini and Brajeshwar are aspiring authors, their struggle to search for stories and hoping it is published. This is a tale about the classic tussle between old friends/husband over a friend/wife and the expectations of a woman in modern Indian society. Does she conform and run her household in a clockwork manner or does she assert herself for her independent growth and fulfillment? Will it rock the boat? It is a novel that is mostly driven by dialogue, but it is observed well and sharply etched by Parvati Sharma in crisp prose—whether you agree with the arguments encased or not.

Parvati Sharma Close to Home Zubaan with Viking/Penguin, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp 208. Rs. 399 

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar “The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey”

Rupi Bhaskey“…We are living in a free country now. Don’t we have the right to demand what is good for us?” ( p.71)

A debut writer inevitably strives to observe and write about a landscape that they are familiar with, but otherwise is little known about in fiction already available. It also helps in getting the book discovered once published. After all it is a new story, new voice and not necessarily new treatment of an oft-repeated theme. In The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes about Jharkhand, the Baskeys. It is about Rupi Baskey over a period of time, her relationship with the family and villagers, but what shines through is her fortitude and the choices she makes — many that seem to go against popular opinion, yet she stands by her decision. The book details a terrain, customs, people, beliefs, superstitions, faith healers and local history that Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is very well acquainted with, since he is a working as a doctor in the region. In fact the matter-of-fact descriptions of bodily functions including birthing can only have been written by a medical professional. Stories like these are revelatory since they give a perspective of which is little known at the national level like the impact of the Kharsawan massacre of 1948 , but is of significance to the locals.

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014. A well-deserved spotlight for Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar but an award will have to wait.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar  The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. pp. 220 Rs. 295


Paula Hawkins, “The Girl on the Train”

Girl on the train It is a thriller that has caught everyone’s imagination. It was released on 13 January 2015 but has rapidly climbed all charts for print and ebooks. It is a debut novel by Paula Hawkins about a girl on the train, Rachel. During her hourlong journey to London and back for work, she stares out of the window, watching the world go by. She even crosses her former home. But what always catches her attention is the young couple living four houses away from the home where Rachel and her ex-husband, Tom, stayed. (Now it is occupied by Tom and his new wife, Anna.) Rachel is fascinated by the neighbours, nicknaming them Jason and Jess. It is when the wife, Megan, disappears and it is reported in the newspapers that Rachel becomes immersed in the story. Slowly the story develops with three women sharing their perspectives — Rachel, Megan and Anna. It is a story told well in words but it will probably be better adapted as a film. It won’t be too long since Dreamworks has optioned it.

The marketing strategy for this book in America was brilliant. There were flash mobs organised to board trains in New York and had women readers holding up copies of the book. Note, there were no ereaders. It is easier to show the cover of a printed book!

Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, London, 2015. Pb. pp 320 

Ali Akbar Natiq, “What will you give for this beauty?”

BeautyWhat will you give for this beauty? is Ali Akbar Natiq’s debut collection of short stories. It is set in the Punjab countryside with tales about ordinary people, ordinary lives, with preoccupations of marriage, love, impact of Partition, feuds, religious differences and discontent, gossip, courtesans, storytellers, liars and cheats etc. Yet how everyone overcomes odds to survive.

Ali Akbar Natiq began working as a mason, specializing in domes and minarets, to contribute to the family income while he read widely in Urdu and Arabic. Somehow the flavour of Urdu short stories seeps through this particular collection. Its description of the common people, of commonplace occurrences, an exaggerated and embellished style of storytelling with unexpected twists to the story. Through it all there is a constant recognition and respect that this is God’s world we inhabit. It is never clearly spelled out but exists. It is evident in the book title, which seems to be a play on the innumerable references in the Quran and the Old Testament where it is constantly reiterated that this world’s splendour has been created by God, its beauty exists everywhere even when God seems to provide one only with sorrow, ashes and despair. The stories have been translated mostly by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, but also by Awais Aftab and Mohammed Hanif.

What will you give for this beauty? is a fine collection.

Ali Akbar Natiq What Will You Give for this Beauty? Translated by Ali Madeeh Hashmi. Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 215. Rs. 399. 

David Duchovny, “Holy Cow”

Holy Cow…My editor told me if I add some sex, curses, and maybe some potty humour, this will sell better to my “audience”. I don’t know who my audience is. I want everybody to hear this story, but my editor says human adults won’t take a talking animal seriously…So she’s gonna market it as a kids’ book. Which is fine by me, I like kids, but then she says, “Adults are gonna read this book to their kids so you have to sprinkle little inside jokes along the way with some allusions to pop culture from the last thirty years so they don’t get too bored. …”  ( p. 29)
David Duchovny’s debut novel, Holy Cow, is about Elsie Bovary ( a cow), Shalom, formerly known as Jerry ( a pig who has converted to Judaism) and Tom ( a turkey). These anthropomorphic animals are living happily together on a farm, when for personal reasons they decide to escape. It is a memoir dictated by Elsie to her editor at a secret location. Elsie discovers that most cows end their lives in an abbatoir, so wants to go to India where cows are revered, Shalom is keen to visit Israel and Tom wants to go to Turkey. This motley group of friends manage to buy airline tickets online and go off on international travel. Along the way, Shalom manages to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict and is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

It took about twelve hours for Shalom and Tom to descend from the silly sky. But that’s the thing, you can’t just stay high. What goes up must come down. I had spent a long time dreaming of India, it’s true. But I’m not upset that India didn’t turn out the way I had planned, didn’t in the end  match up with my dream India. Without my vision of a dream India, I never would have gone anywhere, never would have had any adventures at all. So I guess it’s not so important that dreams come true, it’s just important you have a dream to begin with, to get you to take your first steps. ( p.203)  

According to David Duchovny, this story began as an idea for an animation film. He pitched it to Disney and Pixar,  but it was rejected. This was ten years ago. Plus he was always keen to visit India. Finally he was persuaded by Jonathan Galassi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux to write it as a novel. David Duchovny studied English Literature at Princeton and Yale where he submitted a thesis on Beckett called “The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Early Novels”. But as he said in his NYT interview, he likes fooling around with words. He likes language, “more Joycean, although that will sound really pretentious.”

Holy Cow may be a bildungsroman in the guise of a fable for children, but it really does not matter. It is a story that is smart. This is going to achieve cult status for its zaniness, sharp wit and intelligent irreverence with which it takes on “serious issues” such as religion, politics, conflict, animal slaughter, and vegetarian/vegan debates.  The storytelling is pithy, with the dialogue moving at a crackling good pace. As David Duchovny said in an interview to Kirkus, “Years of acting had made me sensitive to dialogue.” The illustrations by Natalya Balnova are perfect. Read it.

Holy Cow novel, UK website: http://www.holycownovel.co.uk/

Elsie on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HolyCowNovel

David Duchovny interviewed by Kirkus: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/tv/video/kirkus-tv-david-duchovny/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=image&utm_campaign=020315

Interviews in the New York Times ( 30 Jan 2015) : http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/magazine/david-duchovny-i-like-fooling-around-with-words.html?_r=0  and LA Times ( 30 Jan 2015): http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-david-duchovny-20150201-story.html#page=1

Reviews from The Guardian ( 4 February 2015): http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/04/holy-cow-david-duchovny-review and Washington Post ( 3 February 2015): http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/actor-david-duchovnys-first-novel-holy-cow-is-a-madcap-fable-about-growing-up/2015/02/03/7638c694-a8b2-11e4-a06b-9df2002b86a0_story.html and Huffington Post ( 3 February 2015): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/02/david-duchovny-book_n_6598702.html?ir=India

David Duchovny Holy Cow Headline, London, 2015. 

5 February 2015