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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part 3 - Garry Kasparov There's this SF short story by Algis Budrys that I've always liked, called Nobody Bothers Gus. It's a superman story with a twist. The whole action takes place inside the space of about an hour, in the garden of Gus's nice little house. There's this government employee who's been given the unpleasant job of telling Gus that he's going to be served a forced purchase order, because they want to build a freeway through his land. The employee is nervous about delivering the message. Gus is a big, dangerous-looking dude with a broken nose, and the messenger is happy to accept a glass of lemonade and watch the baseball game before he explains exactly why he's there.

The reader rapidly becomes aware that Gus has superpowers. He borrows the government guy's pen, scrunches it up into a ball, rolls it out into a flat sheet, scratches the guy's name in it, and then turns it back into a pen. You can see the signature inside it. But instead of freaking out, the guy is unimpressed. You must practice a lot, he says brightly. Gus does a couple more things, same reaction.

It turns out that Gus's most impressive superpower is his anonymity. No matter what he does, people don't notice it. There are other supermen out there. Gus points to the TV screen, where the Yankees' new man is just coming up to bat. He asks the government guy if he's a baseball fan. He is. So, what does he think of Halsey? The guy shrugs. Okay, I guess, nothing special. Halsey has smashed every baseball record in existence since he started six months ago. But, somehow, this hasn't quite registered.

At the end of the story, the government guy has finally got what he came for, and he's getting up to leave. Gus asks him to wait a moment. He's a sports fan, right? Yes sir! Follows boxing too? Sure! So who's the world heavyweight champion? The guy immediately says. And who did he beat to win the title? It's on the tip of the guy's tongue, but he just can't remember! The reader recalls Gus's broken nose, and thinks, of course. But the government guy still can't come up with the name. Gus tells him it doesn't matter.

Ever since reading this story, I've wondered from time to time if it could be true. Suppose there were holes in the world that you walked past without really noticing? They wouldn't be invisible; you just wouldn't care much about them. When I read the third volume of Great Predecessors, it did cross my mind for a second that Tigran Petrosian might be one of the supermen. You probably never heard of him. (Well, exactly!) He was World Chess Champion for six years, from 1963 to 1969. He beat the great Botvinnik, who had held the title for all but two of the years from 1948 to 1963, and he made it look quite easy. A remarkable statistic from the qualifying tournament; Petrosian played fewer moves than any of the other competitors, and used less time on the clock, but he scored most points. He was phenomenally good at speed-chess, where you only get five minutes for the whole game. There was the time when the young Bobby Fischer was visiting Moscow, and beating all the grandmasters in quick games. They called in Petrosian to show him that the Soviets were still the best, and he apparently delivered. But Kasparov, surprisingly, doesn't give you any details.

In fact, it's remarkable how little Kasparov is able to say about Petrosian. He's brilliant at analyzing the other World Champions; once he's put them under the microscope, you almost feel you understand them too. But with Petrosian, it's just vague generalities. He was terribly good at manoeuvering. He spotted possible attacks and neutralized them before the opponent even realized that they might exist. (In his great period, Petrosian lost less than one game a year). Kasparov quotes the subdued Botvinnik, who says that Petrosian had the most subtle style of any of his opponents. Botvinnik felt as though his pieces were stuck in some kind of swamp; he just couldn't get them into contact with the enemy. It's only in the endgames that Kasparov starts to feel secure. He compares Petrosian's play with the optimal lines suggested by the computer, and says you often find that all of Petrosian's moves are perfect. That's quite unusual, even for a World Champion.

Of course, if I'm right I won't have convinced you. In fact, five minutes from now, you won't even remember what this review was about. Nobody bothers Tigran...