DNF files: Doom

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

By Niall Ferguson

Page I bailed on: 140

Verdict: There was a time when Niall Ferguson was worth bothering with. I thought The Pity of War was really good. But latterly he’s just become a right-wing hack and propagandist. I don’t care for his politics, but leaving that aside, what’s worse is the fact that he’s just churning these books out now on schedule while seeming to have totally lost the ability to write. Doom was a COVID book and it’s nothing but a slapdash and glib collection of bits and pieces thrown at the reader only to let us know how widely Ferguson has read. Or browsed. Or had some research assistant browse. I wasn’t buying any of it. It just comes off as non-stop name-dropping and a cheap display of superficial learning in search of a coherent argument.

The DNF files

The DNF files

This is an index of my notes on books I tried to get through but did not finish (DNF). They’re not all bad books, or books that are all bad, but I had to pull the plug on them for various reasons.

Put another way: as I get older I’ve begun looking at the size of the to-be-read pile and realizing that the numbers don’t add up for reading everything I still want to. So here are some of the titles that got dropped along the way.

Doom:  The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson

Maigret: Maigret’s Madwoman

For a series that went on for so long, I’m actually a little surprised that Simenon didn’t attempt to tie the different stories together more with recurring characters aside from Maigret, his wife, his regular stable of lieutenants (Janvier, Lucas, Lapointe, Torrence), and the sad sack Lognon. There’s little mention made in any of the individual novels to things that happened years, or decades, earlier – things that regular readers might be expected to remember.

Maigret’s Madwoman bucks this just a bit. For starters, the plot borrows heavily from Cécile is Dead, with the “madwoman” (she’s elderly but perfectly sane) coming to visit Maigret at the Quai des Orfèvres because she’s sure someone has been rummaging through her apartment. She then winds up dead, like the similarly concerned Cécile. Along the way there are more direct nods to other books in the series than this, but they come with slight changes, as though Simenon was testing his committed readers. When Maigret asks his wife if she ever talks to the people she meets while sitting in the park she can only “think of one time. A mother of a little girl, who asked me to look after the child for a few minutes while she went to buy something on the other side of the gardens.” I take it this is a reference to the events of Madame Maigret’s Friend, but in that book it was a little boy who Madame Maigret was asked to watch. And later Maigret will travel to Toulon where he meets up with Chief Inspector Marella, who reminds him of the “Porquerolles affair” of ten or twelve years earlier. What he means, I think, is the case described in My Friend Maigret, only the investigator who is Maigret’s liaison in that book is named Lechat.

I enjoyed these fillips for fans, and thought Maigret’s Madwoman a good read. It isn’t much of a mystery though, with the most likely suspect – a kid with long hair who plays in a rock band called Les Mauvais Garçons at the Bongo Club – only being outdone by an even more disreputable type who’s dropped in out of nowhere. The MacGuffin is a stretch, and I had trouble believing the bad guys thought they were going to be able to make anything out of the item they stole from the apartment, but greedy dreamers are like that. And in the end this is another case where Maigret just has to sadly walk away. Not so much out of sympathy for the killer’s accomplice, though some of that’s implied, but because he figures there’s no point in going after them.

Maigret index

WWAIJD?

The gang’s all here.

There’s been a lot of interest lately in the rise of open online AI programs like ChatGPT that can create art in any style, compose music from any period, and write in imitation of the voice of any celebrity or famous author you can think of. Broadening out, advice columnists have been imitated as well, with people being given relationship and other sorts of personal pro tips by an algorithm.

In each of these cases the question became how to tell the difference between something created by a real person (not just a generic real human, but an actual living, breathing personality) and what a computer was coming up with. Even in the case of the advice columns it was difficult if not impossible to figure out what was real and what the product of artificial intelligence. Or, even more damningly, which was better.

The next step is pretty clear. Now in fact there have been AI Jesus programs for years now. One of these, developed by an engineer named George Davila Durendal and designed to speak in the language of the King James Bible, got a lot of headlines back in 2020 for spouting some ersatz prophecies. But those were early days and the results weren’t all that impressive.

More recently, there was an interesting image posted on Twitter responding to the prompt “Jesus takes a selfie during the last supper.” Again, this was just a widely-shared novelty, good for some headlines and a few chuckles. But given how rapidly things have been developing I had to wonder if an AI Jesus couldn’t soon write sermons on pretty much any occasion, directed at any audience. And if AI advice columnists can give perfectly workable if not downright helpful solutions to daily problems, and AI doctors give medical advice, why not have an AI religious leader ministering to spiritual needs? From a virtual Jesus, how big a step is it to an AI God? Would it be indistinguishable from the real thing? If you’re an atheist, wouldn’t it be the real thing? Or even better? The Singularity or Rapture of the Nerds is getting closer.

Maigret: The Little Restaurant near Place des Ternes

This story is the last, and much the shortest, of the three seasonal pieces collected in A Maigret Christmas (the others being the title novella and Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook). Maigret himself doesn’t appear (he stays at home all day solving the mystery of the secret Santa across the street from his apartment), but we are briefly entertained by Inspector Hard-Done-By, that sad Eeyore of the Paris police, Lognon. At least he doesn’t have the sniffles and isn’t being shot at this time, though he is stuck working on Christmas Eve, and it looks like it’s going to be a late night when a man kills himself in a bar.

That suicide doesn’t turn out to have anything much to do with the rest of the story, which instead leaves the bar behind as a prostitute named Long Tall Jeanne spends her evening keeping a younger woman out of trouble by starting some of her own. So not a mystery at all but “A Christmas Story for Grown-Ups.” Jeanne does have a bit of Maigret about her though in the way she tries to steer a young person away from danger. That’s what good people do in this world.

Maigret index

Maigret: Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook

There’s no “Maigret” in the title of this story/novella, because Maigret doesn’t appear in it. But it’s part of the A Maigret Christmas volume and takes place in the same universe since Janvier puts in an appearance, so I figured I should cover it.

In fact, the absence of Maigret is one of the less surprising aspects of the story. It’s entirely set in the police switchboard control room on Christmas day, with the staff on duty responding to calls coming in from all around Paris. Then a murdered body is found and one of the operators recognizes the name of the victim. It seems his brother may be involved.

It’s a clever idea to limit the action to the one room, with witnesses and reports being fed into that room bit by bit. You could imagine the thing being done on stage, or Hitchcock taking up the challenge of making something out of it on film. I’m not sure it works quite as well on the page, and the first chapter is a bit confusing, but it’s certainly a change-up for the series and I think it’s nicely done.

It’s a neat story too, with a sort of double-manhunt plot that has the brother’s son intent on catching a serial killer while Janvier and the rest of the police try to find them. Also interesting is the man who’s been laid off trying to keep up appearances by still going out to work every night with his lunch pail. He’s someone we’d meet again in the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down and the John Lanchester novel Mr. Phillips. Was this the first appearance of such a character? It may well have been, as Un Noël de Maigret was first published in 1951 and I don’t think we really understood the condition yet.

Maigret index

Mauled by a kitten

Crushed.

The online chess community is having a meltdown over the new chessbot that has as its avatar a cute, saucer-eyed kitten named Mittens. Mittens is rated with an ELO of 1 but that’s a joke because apparently it’s one of the strongest bots ever and chess masters have been posting videos where the frisky feline wipes the floor with them while giggling “hehehehehe” (which I’m pretty sure is a sound that cats don’t make).

I usually don’t even bother playing bots with a higher ranking than 1200, but just because everyone else was doing it I decided to take Mittens on. And I actually survived until move 26 (with two mistakes and one blunder), which I considered a moral victory.

Tempting fate, I tried a second game where I played even worse (three blunders!) but lasted 41 moves. Mittens even gave me a pat on the head: “You have triumphed in existing for longer than many before you. Hehehe. Meow.”

Somehow, this felt even worse.

Another new year

On a personal note, 2022 was a hard year. 2023 is going to be worse.

What this means, for readers of this or any of my other sites, is that things will be slower going forward. I expect I’ll only be updating Alex on Film once or twice a week from now on. I wrapped up with my 200th quiz and I’ve found I haven’t been watching as many movies lately. Those I have been watching I’ve been having less and less to say about. I think any reviewer feels after a while that they’ve said most of what they have to say and that they’re starting to repeat themselves after being at it for ten or twenty years. I’m feeling that way now.

I hope to keep adding a new capsule review at Alex on SF every week, and doing more at Goodreports. But I’ve said that before. I have been reading more in the past year than I think I ever have, but not as much new stuff. Maybe that will change.

This site will continue to be a sort of catch-all for anything else that interests me. Like reading the Maigret novels, a project I should be wrapping up soon. The fact is though that I really don’t spend much time online, aside from posting my own stuff, and I think I want to spend even less going forward.

Sticking with reading, I also have plans for adding a couple of new book-related ventures, at least one of which will probably launch in 2023. I’ve been doing some prep work and having a bit of fun with it, so we’ll see how it goes.

In any event, I’ve been writing like this as a hobby now for nearly 25 years — I started Goodreports in 1998 — and since I still find it rewarding I imagine I’ll keep at it for a while yet. Let us not repine!

Maigret: A Maigret Christmas

A Maigret Christmas is a seasonal novella published in 1951, during a period when Simenon was toodling about the U.S. The action all takes place on Christmas Day, with Maigret only leaving his apartment once, and that just to go across the street. So it’s a tidy little drama as well as “a family affair” since Madame Maigret is always about, knitting or cooking and just generally helping out in any way she can.

The mystery starts out promising. A little girl in an apartment across the way is disturbed to find Santa Claus in her bedroom, tearing at the floorboards. Santa gives her a doll as a present, but apparently doesn’t find what he was looking for. Will he be back?

I was expecting, from such a set-up, that A Maigret Christmas would be something cute. A confection. But it’s actually a run-of-the-mill Maigret story with a melancholy overlay. The detective chief inspector even wakes up Christmas morning feeling depressed.

The Maigrets have no children of their own and their disappointment in this regard is sometimes lightly registered in the other novels. But here it is front and center. The little girl across the street has been basically adopted by her uncle and aunt because her father is a drunken wreck. But her aunt doesn’t want her. So you have a child who needs parents and the Maigrets needing a child. At the end they’ll take the girl in “on loan,” which is no consolation to Madame Maigret, who at the end breaks down in tears, not of joy. Making it a very Maigret Christmas indeed.

Maigret index