Edward Packard
Book Notes

October 16, 2014

Make It Stick, by Messrs. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

The authors cite research findings that mere rereading of material and cramming for exams aren’t effective ways to learn. Self-testing seems key. When studying, imagine what questions might be asked and make sure you can answer them. Copy terms and definitions into a notebook. Reorganize course information into your own study guide. Make sure you understand all material. Space out your study, come back to it and go over it repeatedly rather than trying to assimilate it all just before the exam.

Suppose you’re assigned a novel. Instead of just reading it and letting it go at that, or reading it and then rereading it (better but not enough), when you’ve finished it, list all the significant characters and write a little essay about each. Imagine questions that might be asked about them and about their interrelationships. What roles do they play? What dramatic purpose does each serve? Then read the novel again and see how your essays hold up. Amend them, or supplement them, as needed. This procedure is not something the authors of Make It Stick specifically recommend. But they say that you should take charge of your own study of the material, and that’s the way I would try to take charge of it in this instance. Whatever your strategy is, it’s important to be active; you have to play the part of the inquiring professor as well as that of the attentive student. And you have to revisit and review the material from time to time, digging deeper as necessary, rather than try to cram it in all at once. If this sounds like extra effort is required, it’s because that’s the case. Learning needs to be effortful, say the authors, That’s how to make it stick.

 

October 13, 2014

Building a Better Teacher, by Elizabeth Green

Years ago, I sometimes visited schools and took over a class for a period. I realized then how hard teaching is and how much skill it requires. Elizabeth Green’s book gives an illuminating overview of the strenuous efforts made in recent years –– some effective, others not –– to improve the quality of teaching in our nation’s schools.

When I was in seventh grade, one of my teachers had a difficult student our class named Jack. The teacher would frequently interrupt class discussion by calling out, “What’s it all about, Jack?”  Everyone would look at Jack. Jack would grin sheepishly. The teacher would stare meaningfully at him for a while, whereupon the class discussion would resume, shakily. 

I learned from Green's book that great teachers have a repertoire of effective techniques they can bring to bear in class. For example, one of the teachers she discusses uses hand gestures to give silent directives to students like Jack, for example pointing two fingers toward her eyes while looking at them. The gesture says, “Pay attention,” without those intrusive words or the name of the offender being uttered.

The ability to teach effectively is not an innate gift; it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s nice to know that many teachers will be learning a lot from this book. We’ll have more great ones because of it.
 

 

September 9, 2014

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough

I'm trying to get a grip on how our educational system could be improved. Mr. Tough has spent a lot of time on the front lines, immersing himself in what goes on in the most elite schools and in the most disadvantaged ones. Countless programs have been instituted with the aim of making a difference, turning schools and lagging students around. Some of these programs work in certain circumstances for certain periods of time. Of course, improving schools and environments helps, but a lot depends on a child's character. Children who have grit and are conscientious and determined to break free of their oppressed state have a much improved chance of success. Character is as important as cognitive skills, perhaps more so. How do you build character? It's a question Mr. Tough can't quite answer.

Looked at as a whole, Mr. Tough's book doesn't add up to a clear-cut enlightened educational policy.  Next book I'm planning to read: Building a Better Teacher, then Make It Stick, a book addressed to students rather than educators.

All this is fine, but the most important educational initiative that could be made would be to greatly expand pre-school and pre- pre-school environments for disadvantaged kids. They need more cognitive and verbal stimulation than they're likely to get at home or with undertrained caretakers. They need adequate nutrition. We've got to start making up the gap at the earliest possible age.

 

August 11, 2014

How Not To Be Wrong -- the power of mathematical thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

     Every couple of years I start, and sometimes finish, a book by a mathematician whose aim is to convey the beauty of mathematics to non-mathematicians, explain how math is usually poorly taught, and give readers a sense about what math is all about. Ellenberg's book, published just this year, is the best of any I've seen by a wide margin. The author ranges far beyond the confines of what's taught in math class –– he's not just a math nerd, he's steeped in the humanities. I skimmed parts that delved more deeply into topics such as lotteries susceptible to being outfoxed by enterprising math geeks, but most of the book I found totally absorbing. Ellenberg is a master of prose as well as of math.

 

June 22, 2014

The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding

The author of this fascinating and dispassionate account of the Snowden saga is a reporter for the Guardian, the redoubtable U.K. newspaper that played a central role in disseminating Snowden’s purloined files. There may be an element in Snowden’s makeup, of wanting to play a role in history, to be a contender, but my impression is that he was mainly driven by genuine moral outrage and concern at the scope and depth of NSA surveillance and its transgression of Constitutional guarantees. It appears that Snowden made every effort to prevent disclosure of information that could imperil intelligence agents or their informants, and as far as we know, has succeeded in that respect. He embarrassed the United States Government, but it deserved to be embarrassed. On balance, he is more of a hero than a villain.

It’s highly unlikely that the civil liberties  enshrined in the U.S. Constitution will be abrogated in the coming decades, but there is a continuing danger that they will be gravely eroded by a series of  imperious executive and judicial actions, abetted, or at least unchecked, by a Congress dominated by otiose and corrupt legislators. It will take courageous whistle-blowers and a courageous independent media if our basic liberties are to be preserved.

 

May 17, 2014

Plato at the Googleplex -- Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger

Goldstein. herself a philosopher, alternates little essays about Plato with scenarios in which she imagines Plato being immersed in various 21st century situations. It's one of those books that is annoying at times but one is reluctant to abandon and risk missing something worth thinking about, for example this passage:

“it is what we make of our lives in the short time that we’re given that alone can expand our lives -- not outward into everlasting time but still into something extraordinary and “godlike,” and this is all the immortality that we mortals can know. Only it’s not in the “auditory renown” of widespread kleos that we can achieve this form of immortality. It’s by having while we still live, our lives infused with infinity, our finitude “infinitized” by the vastness of beauty outside ourselves, allowing our love for it to overtake and dim even our love for ourselves. Outsized egos –– even when attached to outsized intellects –– are inconsistent with the life worth living as Plato envisions it.”  P. 318.

 

March 24, 2014
Biographical Essays, by Joseph Epstein

In this collection of several dozen essays the author examines a wide range of figures, beginning with George Washington and ending with Matt Shanahan, an elderly man with whom he became good friends despite their radically different backgrounds. Epstein is a quintessential intellectual, and he devotes most of his attention to heavy-weight writers and critics prominent in the last half of the twentieth century, many of whom he knew personally, most of whom are now deceased. Epstein is a member of the conservative brain trust, but his political views only occasionally seep into his essays, as in the case of Susan Sontag, whom I suspect he would have treated more gently were he of more liberal bent.

All these essays make for a thick book, and I had only planned to read about individuals as to whom I had more than usual stirrings of interest, but Epstein is so engaging, so witty, and so illuminating a writer that I read nearly every one of them from beginning to end and finished wishing he had written more.

 

February 20, 2014

Our Mathematical Universe -- My Quest for the Ulitmate Nature of Reality, by Max Tegmark

This is a tremendously entertaining book by a renowned cosmologist. The author is a proponent of the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. Indeed he postulates several different levels of multiple universes of infinite extent. There's much more in this book than Tegmark's startling contention that the universe is not simply governed by mathematical structures and relationships, but consists of them. In this space I'll attempt to mention just one of his speculations: that it's probable that we are alone, not just in our galaxy, but in our entire observable universe.

He begins by asserting that it’s unlikely there is intelligent extra-terrestrial life in our galaxy. His main argument is the same as Fermi’s who, when asked about this possibility, famously answered “Where are they?” As I understand it, what Fermi was getting at is that once a species as intelligent as ourselves (and I think you have to say also endowed with limbs / hands capable of manipulating the environment, unlike brilliant whales, for example) it should only take it a few hundred thousand or maybe a few million years to develop such advanced technology that it can propagate through the galaxy and occupy, or leave evidence of its presence on, all suitable planets; if there is or had been such an advanced alien civilization, credible evidence would have been found of its presence on Earth.

Tegmark also argues that there seems to be an evolutionary bottleneck that blocks advancement to human-level intellect. He says that, despite the long history of dinosaurs as dominant creatures, no intelligent dinosaur emerged. I recall that Stephen J. Gould made a similar argument. I don’t find it convincing –– the evolutionary advantage of high intelligence coupled with language ability and capability of manipulating materials is so great that I think it’s more likely than not to emerge during the multi-billion year period of habitability of an Earth-like planet. Tegmark also thinks there’s a bottleneck blocking the emergence of even primitive life: that it was extraordinarily unlikely that any life developed on Earth, much less intelligent life.

Whether or not one is inclined to accept Tegmark’s reasoning about the non-emergence of any other intelligent species in our galaxy, one would think it would still leave open a high probability that another species as capable as ours exists in one of the hundred billion or so other galaxies in the observable universe. But Tegmark doubts this as well, reasoning as follows:

“{There is} a standard way of modeling such extreme uncertainty in science which goes by the geeky-sounding name uniform logarithmic power: in plain English it means that the fraction of planets with intelligent life is equally likely to be one in a thousand, one in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion, one in a quadrillion, and so on.

“The edge of the galaxy is 10 to the 21 m away and the edge of the observable universe is 10 to the 26 m away; and so 1 -21 are ruled out and 22-26  –– the number of zeros falling in the 22 - 26 range is quite small, and that’s why I think we’re alone in our universe.”

I had never heard of such a way of modeling. It strikes me as highly arbitrary. Aren’t you kidding yourself when you purport to model “extreme uncertainty,” especially when it leads you to conclude that, assuming there's evidence of only one advanced civilization in a particular galaxy, the odds are 21 -5 against there being another one in the nearest 100 billion galaxies?

I'd love to talk to Tegmark about his book.

 

January 24, 2014

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914  by Christopher Clark

     This book is a detailed examination of the manifold and complex causes of World War I. In each of the primarily responsible countries men of imperious bent and puffed-up notions of honor prevailed over wiser and more cautious ones in formulating and implementing national policy.  Almost without exception, those responsible for making fateful decisions proved to be incapable of weighing the risk of the staggering continent-wide catastrophe that was about to unfold. For instance in the case of Austria-Hungary, determined to act forcefully after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, Clark writes, “The momentous possibility of a Russian general mobilization and the general European war that would inevitably follow was certainly glimpsed by the Austrian decision makers, who discussed it on several occasions. But it was never integrated into the process by which options were weighted up and assessed. . .  No sustained attention was given to the question of whether Austria-Hungary was in any position to wage a war with one or more other European great powers."
     The governments of every one of the other players in this drama were marked by a comparable failure of reason and comprehension. In each case decision-makers were gripped by their particular idée fixe, so at odds with reality that they may be viewed benignly as sleepwalkers, though in a brighter light, as fools and knaves.
     Clark’s book is a cautionary tale of the highest importance. Everyone who has or hopes to have influence in national decision-making should read it.

 

January 20, 2014

 Love and Math, by Edward Frenkel

I read this book all the way through, to my amazement, since the math was an unknown number "u" of levels over my head. It was worth reading just as an engaging memoir of the author's extraordinary life to date, and beyond that and gave me a some semblance of a feeling about what advanced mathematicians do, for example, uncovering links and echos among disparate fields, working closer perhaps to a "grand unified theory" of mathematics; also how mathematicians seem to develop ever more powerful means of analysis and discovery. e.g. "Functions were, if you will, the concepts of archaic math, and sheaves are the concepts of modern math."; Also the process of cross-fertilization of math and physics. What a distance math has progressed from a hundred years ago when Russel and Whitehead tried and failed to incorproate all mathematics in one set of principles!

 

January 2, 2014

The Particle at the End of the Universe, by Sean Carroll

The title was probably supplied by the Publisher’s marketing department. The subtitle–-How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads us to the Edge of a New World––gives a better idea of what the book is about, “edge of a new World” meaning portal to new realms of investigation.

In any case, this is a terrific book. Besides recounting the hunt for the Higgs boson and its successful conclusion, Carroll gives a thoroughgoing and accessible account of what cosmologists and particle physicists have learned about how the universe works.

By mid-2012, using the largest machine ever built, the 22-mile underground oval in Geneva known as the Large Hadron Collider, thousands of physicists from dozens of countries confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, the theorized particle whose field confers mass on the material stuff of the universe.

When you read that scientists have “found” the Higgs boson, you might think that they observed it in a cloud chamber, or at least observed the streak it made as it passed by. There was no hope of this happening, however, because it was known that the Higgs boson, if it existed, would decay into other particles in such a tiny fraction of a microsecond that no sensor could be devised that could register its presence. The Higgs hunters knew from the beginning that nobody will ever see a Higgs particle or even the trace it would make.                                                  

That being the case, once you learned that the Higgs particle was theorized to decay into other particles, you might think that its existence could be confirmed by observing the particles, or their traces, into which it decays. But this too was impossible, because it was known that other particles decay into the same particles that the Higgs was theorized to decay into. Nobody will ever be able to see a particle or even the trace of a particle and identify it as a particle that resulted from decay of a Higgs particle.

Happily, the incidence of decay of these other particles into the same particles that the Higgs was theorized to decay into was known, and the data produced by the LHC showed that at certain energies more particles were produced from decaying particles than could have been produced unless some of the new particles were the produced by the decay of Higgs particles.

So, science took a great leap forward. The LHC is shut down until 2015, whereupon the geniuses and near-geniuses in Geneva will crank it up again at what they hope will be almost double the energy it has so far attained.
 

December 23, 2013

Movie Note (for a change):

All Is Lost, the new Robert Redford movie about an elderly man's struggle for survival in the middle of the Indian Ocean after his 39' sailboat is hit by a steel container that fell off a freighter, is beautifully filmed and acted but has a lot of things wrong with it, particularly in its depiction of the ocean, sailing, navigation, and seamanship.

The movie begins eight days after the mishap with a voice-over of the unnamed hero, played by Redford, of a message he writes and puts in a bottle and tosses off his raft, presumably hoping it will be found after his death.

The message is an apology for having let people down, perhaps his wife and children. He says that he tried to be true, strong, kind, honest, and right, but he knows he failed, and he’s sorry. That’s all we learn about our hero, except that he appears to have been rescued at the end of the movie, though not plausibly so, since just before this turn of luck he’s shown deeply submerged, trying to swim while weighted down with foul weather gear for a longer time than would be possible for someone his age, especially someone who is exhausted and dehydrated to boot. If the film is to have any meaning beyond the series of calamities and disappointments that beset this fellow, we must construct it out of his enigmatic farewell message.

To begin with we must conjecture why he set out on this long single-handed passage. Where did he come from? Where was he going? We can conjecture anything we like, because there’s no indication that the screenplay writer gave any thought to these questions or to our hero’s life before we encountered him. This movie has no intrinsic meaning. The viewer must be the auteur. Here’s my attempt:

Our hero was the manager of a hedge fund and made a lot of money. He bestowed lavish gifts on his wife and children and made some high-profile charitable gifts (that was his way of trying to be true, strong, kind, honest, and right), but he was emotionally cold to his children and betrayed his wife. He was an accomplished sailor, and when he retired, by then separated from his wife and to a considerable degree estranged from his children, he bought a lavishly equipped 39’ sailboat designed for extended ocean cruising. Not quite beset by guilt, but feeling vaguely uncomfortable at his failings in every respect except making money, he announced that he planned to sail single-handed around the world, hoping to cap off his life with a spectacular accomplishment: He would be the oldest person ever to achieve such a feat. When his wife learned of his plan, she commented, “It’s not a sailing trip, it’s an ego trip.”

A month or so after the movie’s end, the bottle with our hero’s self-serving apology dashed against a reef; the message inside disintegrated before anyone could find it. What would his family have thought of it if it had reached them? Not much: it would only confirm that he had learned nothing. If he had tried to be true, strong, kind, honest, and right, he wouldn’t have to claim that he had. Unlike Ivan Ilyich, in Tolstoy’s famous story, our hero remained clueless till the end.
 

November 15, 2013

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.

I bought a copy of this play after reading the review of the current Broadway production by New York Times critic, Ben Brantley. He pretty much said this was the best production of any play he’d ever seen.

When I finished reading it, I thought, this is the saddest play I ever read. Watching or reading it, we are immersed in the very small world of Amanda, a Southern lady obsessed about how she had once had many “gentleman callers,” her son, Tom, a worker in a warehouse who dreams of an interesting and creative life, and his emotionally and physically crippled sister, Laura: These three, clinging to their respective fantasies, are trapped in an urban apartment so constricted that they abrade each other continually despite a sense of kinship that almost, but not quite, rises to the level of affection.

From a future vantage point, Tom narrates and comments on events as they unfold, but he also exists in the present along with the other characters. The play ends with him, at a future time, striving to extinguish the memory of Laura, whom we see in the present as she blows out candles, her last flickering hope for a happy life. Amanda, moved at last by an emotionally fatal blow that has befallen her daughter, comforts her. It’s all the solace the play allows us, for we know that not only whatever hopes Amanda and Laura may have had have been crushed, their fantasies have been crushed as well, and that though Tom escaped the suffocating environment of the family, he will never escape the pain of memory. That this is a “memory play,” as Tom tells us in the opening narration, raises its intensity: Because its sadness is captured in memory, it never ends.

 

September 30, 2013

Breach of Trust, by Andrew J. Bacevich

The author, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is a former Army officer. His book is a devastating analysis of how Americans have failed their country in permitting it to fall into the grip of the military /industrial / contracted-outsourced / Congressional complex. He faults the four last presidents, including the incumbent, for pursuit of dubious wars and numerous lesser foreign military involvements while employing a largely volunteer force and independent contractors and minimizing involvement of, and inconvenience to, the vast majority of citizens, thereby fostering a state of public detachment that would not exist if we had filled the ranks through conscription in the administration of which privileged members of society would be no less likely to be called up than ordinary citizens. Now we’re in a situation where we are spying, fighting, and interdicting all over the world, often, despite our vaunted military superiority, with counter-productive results. Our militarized society has become a leviathan that is becoming what defines us while we're acting as if it doesn’t exist.

 

September 27, 2013

The Pale King – by David Foster Wallace.

This is a 549-page amalgamation of material Wallace was working on when he died in 2008. The publisher calls it an unfinished novel, but it reads more like sketches, scenes, and exposition yet to be culled, embellished, and shaped into novelistic form.

There’s a good deal in this book that’s repetitive, though, in a way that’s the point, because the principal characters are workers whose lot in life is to process tax returns. Many scenes are riveting. Wallace’s powers of observation, insight, and verbal expression are of a high order.

The Pale King is comic. It’s also made me feel a little sad, I can’t tell to what degree that was due to its literary effect and to what degree to my regret that Wallace will write no more.

 

September 1, 2013

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas

This short novel, originally published in 1963, is set in the environs of a small Norwegian village where intense cold sets in by late autumn and darkness by mid-afternoon. It involves the almost mystical relationship between two eleven year-old girls, Siss and Unn; its plot turns on their respective visits to a phantasmagoric ice formation at the base of a nearby waterfall. We see something of the Siss’s parents and Unn’s aunt and then get a sense of their school and of the entire community as a search for Unn takes place after she disappears. The book evokes a chill, austere, wistful mood that has stayed with me since I put it down.


July 15, 2013

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (revisited)

This amazing compendium of ways in which our impressions, attitudes, and judgments –– hence our decisions –– get skewed is a big book, and although it’s very readable, it’s so dense with information that for me to fully absorb it would require making detailed notes, organizing and editing them, and referring to them periodically until it’s all sunk in. I haven’t done that, but I am rereading the book and have once again been struck by some of Kahneman’s astonishing well-documented findings. I’ll give just one here.

Kahneman finds it helpful to think of our brains as functioning on two levels, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 monitors and processes what’s going on. It’s set up to quickly form judgments and initiate responses (thinking fast), which we frequently need to do. When you form an intuitive judgment, it’s because System 1 almost instantly and effortlessly summoned it up.

System 1 gets us through most situations admirably, but we have to call on System 2 (thinking slow) to go to work when complex problems are involved and thoughtful analysis is required. We would soon become exhausted and helpless if we had to rely on System 2 for every decision we make, because System 2 operations take time and require effort. But how productive and successful we are has a lot to do with how much effort our System 2 is willing to make. Those with a lazy or undeveloped Systems 2 –– people who shrink from hard mental work –– are less productive and successful. To a considerable degree how intelligent we are is a function of how willing our System 2 is to intervene and think things through.

Kahneman gives examples of simple problems where an intuitive answer almost instantly comes to mind. People lacking a vigorous and energetic System 2 rely on System 1 to reach a decision that seems to it to be the correct one, but may well be wrong. In such a case, the brain (System 1 and System 2 combined) lazily decides to go with the System 1 answer. To be effective your brain has to be able to recognize situations in which System 2 must be brought into play.

These are interesting precepts, and the results of experiments testing them yield fascinating results. One that struck me particularly has to do with solving a very short word problem in which the System 1 of most people leaps to an intuitive conclusion that’s wrong. The problem isn’t as easy as it seems, and System 2 analysis is required to solve it. Participants in the experiments were divided into two groups. In the case of those in group A, the problem was set forth in clear easy-to-read type. In the case of those in group B, it was set forth in hard-to-read type. Group B participants had to blink and squint and think a little, but could make out all the words.

One would think that performance levels of participants in Group A would not be appreciably different from those in Group B, but that, if anything, Group A participants might on average do slightly better, because for them the problem was set forth in clear, easy-to-read type. In fact, the opposite was true. On average, those in Group B, who had been obliged to make the effort to read the hard-to-read type, performed better than those in Group A. The astonishing reason is that those in Group B had to bring System 2 into play just to read the type. Having been cranked up at the outset, System 2 kept at it and solved the problem!

 

July 2, 2013

The Master Builder, a play in three acts, by Henrik Ibsen

    Reading plays, you’re not just a reader –– you’re also the producer, director, set designer, and in charge of props, lighting, and sound effects. I enjoyed producing this late play by Henrik Ibsen. The title character, Halvard Solness, is an architect and builder, most notably of churches and fine homes. (I think of him as in late middle age). It appears that he has been more successful than his talents deserve, for he is fearful of being displaced by “the young generation,” so much so that he tries to keep Ragnar, his young assistant, from striking out on his own. Solness’s wife, Aline, is no barrel of fun. Traumatized by earlier events in her life, she tries to make it bearable by stoically doing her duty even where none exists.
     Early in the play there enters into Solness’s home and studio a bright, impish young woman named Hilda Wangel. She reminds Solness that they had met ten years earlier, when she was only twelve or thirteen years old. She recounts an incident that at first he professes could not have happened: Flushed with pride over having just completed building of a church he had designed and at having just climbed to the top of its tall steeple and hung a wreath at the highest point, Solness, briefly alone in a room with this young girl, kissed her several times and promised that in ten years time he would build her castles in air, make her a princess, and give her a kingdom. Now, ten years is up, and Hilda demands that Solness fulfill his promise. “I want my kingdom,” she says. Is she teasing him, deluded, or in some way serious? Solness isn’t sure (and neither are we), but he is bewitched by her audacity, wit, and feminine appeal and falls into the spirit of her fantasies. He has just finished building a grandiose house for himself and his wife in a grossly misguided attempt to please her. Defenseless against Hilda’s sorcery, he recklessly climbs to top of its high tower to hang a wreath, determined to replicate his feat ten years earlier. This time he falls to his death. Ragnar, the young assistant, exclaims, “This is terrible. So, after all, he could not do it.”
      Ending the play, Hilda cries, “But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air.” Then –– Ibsen’s stage direction is, “She shrieks with wild intensity”––
      “My –– my master builder.”
      I gave some thought to how I would direct this ending. The Wikipedia plot summary states that “Hilda comes forward with a gleeful expression on her face.”
     There you have another amateur director at work, but not one thinking along the lines I am. I don’t see Hilda as a malevolent temptress. Rather, I think she was wholly caught up in her romantic fantasy, which must have expanded and become ever more detached from reality as it fermented in the years after she received those impetuous kisses as a young girl. To us, Solness’s last act was foolhardy, but to Hilda it was heroic; indeed transfiguring, delivering to her her long-sought kingdom.
     “I hear harps in the sky,” she cried. Rather than gleeful, I think she was exultant. Who knows what other interpretations are possible? Read the play and direct it yourself!

 

June 25, 2013

The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Conner

Sometimes I buy a book, sometimes a friend loans me one, sometimes I borrow one from the library, and sometimes I look over my bookshelves and see what attracts my interest. Many of the books in my bookshelves I’ve never even read, but most I have, including this short novel by Flannery O’Conner, which I just read for the second time. I’m not so much interested in Southern Gothic, a genre in which her work has been placed, as in the quality of her writing. She generates moving pictures in my mind almost as vivid as those seen on the big screen.

In what I take it is the most famous of O’Conner’s short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, is a sentence that cast me into a state of despair when I read it. I knew I could never write something that good. I’m going to find it and set it forth in a book note for you to consider.

 

June 14, 2013

Notes from the Afterlife

    This book note is about the memoir of Jack Treadwell, an atheist who dies goes to heaven. It’s just as well that Jack is fictional, and this is my new self-published novel, because Jack's destiny is not to experience eternal bliss, but to be forced to confront his life from an eternal perspective.

    The idea for the book came from looking back over my own life and thinking about how my values, attitudes, areas of interest, even my character, has evolved over the years. What if one experienced such a change instantly? It would hit you in the face. That happens to Jack, but this book is not a mere morality tale: it’s an adventure story, more inspired by the Odyssey than the Divine Comedy. I think a bit of Don Quixote seeped in as well.

 

May 2, 2013

Sheila Bair, Bull by the Horns -- Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself.

     This is an exceptional book by an exceptional woman. Sheila Bair headed the FDIC during the critical years of the financial crisis that peaked in 2008 and brought about the deepest recession since the 1930s. She chronicles the course of events leading up to the crisis, the role played by significant players in the private and public sectors in its genesis, and how attempts to deal with its consequences played out. She concludes with recommendations for reforming the financial system.
     A Kansas Republican who had worked for Bob Dole, Bair is a model of what office holders ought to be: vigorous, financially conservative, fearless, incorruptible, and dedicated to serving the public interest. Her narrative is enlivened by descriptions of personal experiences and interactions with major figures in government and the financial industry. It’s a story too complex and dense to say more here than that her book is informative, compelling, and altogether terrific. One takes from it a good sense of who were the bad guys, the good guys, and the in-between guys.
      Abuses and failures abounded in all aspects of this prolonged and agonizing debacle, the root cause of which was what Bair describes as the descent into “a culture that reflects a craven desire for personal profit that overrides any understanding or care about harm to others. . . a culture that celebrates exploitation of an unwitting public for the sake of a fast buck.”
      She titles the final chapter in her book: “It could have been different.” Indeed, but the culture she describes is still embedded in our system. For it to be different next time may take a revolution of desires.

 

April 14, 2013

Lesterland, The Corruption of Congress and How to End It. (April 2013) by Lawrence Lessig (accompanies a TED talk by the author)

This short book distills, develops, and sharpens the ideas expounded in Lessig’s earlier book, Republic Lost. It’s a call to action. Let’s hope America heed it.                                                           

Lessig begins by imagining that we have a representative democracy, except that candidates must first do extremely well in an election in which only people named Lester can vote. There are about 150,000 people named Lester. Only candidates doing well with the Lesters can participate in the general election.

This doesn’t sound like the representative democracy we’re supposed to have, but it’s what’s become of us, except that the 150,000 screeners, as we might call them, aren’t Lesters, they are Funders, the roughly 150,000 people who give the $123,200 maximum allowed contribution to all candidates in a biennial Federal election. These 150,000 Funders aren’t representative of the American electorate: They comprise .05 percent (one-twentieth of one percent) of it.

The $123,200 limit doesn’t crimp rich Funders. SuperPacs are not supposed to be aligned with a particular candidate, but in practice they often are. Funders can contribute unlimited funds to SuperPacs, and the richest Funders open their spigots wide. Just 000032% of the population –-  99 Americans–– gave 60% of the individual SuperPac money spent in the 2012 cycle.

Not that candidates don’t need this money! It costs so much to run for Congress that Representatives and Senators spend 30% to 70% of their time fund-raising. (Lessig says 40% is a conservative estimate.)

“What does spending 40% of your day dialing for dollars from the tiniest fraction of 1 percent do to human beings?” he asks. “How does it affect them?”

The way it affects them amounts to pervasive corruption. Congresspeople understand that the contributions they are receiving will not be maintained unless they vote a certain way. Only rarely is the funding overtly quid pro quo, which would be illegal. Rather, it’s a bending to the will of the Funders like the bending of grass in the wind.

If Congresspeople bent to the will of the people instead of to the Funders, we would have democracy as it’s supposed to be. Instead, legislation is responsive to the will of those able to spend a lot of money to promote their agendas. The way the system works is summed up in the advice a Congressional veteran gave to a new arrival: “You have to lean to the green.” (not a reference to the environment!)

Special interests, like the pharmaceutical and oil and gas industries, to name a couple, pay tremendous amounts to lobbyists. The lobbyists give Congresspeople advice, which if followed, is rewarded with campaign donations. Ex-Congresspeople and ex-Congressional staffers, because of their knowledge of the workings of Congress and their close contacts with current Congresspeople, find lucrative employment with K Street lobbyists, on average making far more than they did while in public service. It’s fitting that Congress has been called “a farm team for K Street.” Democrats, as well as Republicans, play the game –– they accept contributions from, and accommodate the desires of, the Funders. They and their staffers gravitate toward K Street and partake of its riches.

Lessig tells of a woman who encountered Ben Franklin after the Constitutional Convention. “What have you wrought?” she asked him. Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” The word ”republic” can be used in a various senses, but the Framers intended it in the sense of a democracy representative of all the people, not just the rich and powerful. If Franklin were to return, he’d learn we couldn’t keep it.

The corruption of Congress is the root problem of our times, and there is little hope of making progress on other important issues until we solve it. If we are to get our Republic back, candidates and office holders must spend less time raising money, and they must raise it from a much broader segment of the citizenry. Lessig suggests that this could be accomplished by pressuring or enticing candidates to agree to take only small amounts from any one person.

Is such thoroughgoing reform possible? Congressional corruption is so entrenched––the problem of dealing with it seems so intractable–– that neither Romney nor Obama mentioned it during the 2012 campaign.

Lessig says that a highly-energized, broad-based movement, comparable to the Civil Rights movement, will be required to return our Republic to us. It will also take presidential leadership, and in that regard, he thinks that, because campaign finance reform is so associated with the progressives, only a Republican president could drive it home; in fact only a Republican president who demonstrates his disinterest by promising to resign as soon as effective legislation or a Constitutional Amendment is in place!

That Lessig feels driven to urge such a seemingly implausible stratagem suggests how difficult he thinks it would be to achieve success. Yet he insists that we not give in to defeatism. And we shouldn’t. We might surprise ourselves. After all, Congresspeople don’t enjoy having to spend 40% of their time fundraising, or being members of a body with a 15% approval rating.

 

 

March 13, 2013


Three Swans by Jung Chang (1991)

The book is a personal history of China through most of the 20th Century. The title refers to the author’s grandmother (b.1909), her mother (b.1931), and herself (b.1952). When the Communists overran territories held by the Kuomintang in 1948 they gave evidence of wanting to overturn the corrupt and rapacious practices of that regime. Chang’s parents were dedicated Communists and shared the idealistic ethos of the movement. Mao, after winning the admiration of millions, took the well-trod path favored by totalitarian dictators. After securing control of mainland China, his pathological behavior, styled as a Great Leap Forward, produced the famine that killed thirty million people. This was followed by the orchestrated anarchy known as the Cultural Revolution. A reign of terror perpetrated by “the Gang of Four,” of whom Madame Mao was a member, brought to a close the reign of one of the most abhorrent and destructive tyrants in history.

Three Swans is an extraordinary book. Everyone should read it. Among the things I took away from it:

1. In a totalitarian society it’s impossible to be secure. Chang’s father was known for his competence, courage, and integrity. He was wholly committed to the Communist ethos. Aware that corruption and favoritism were among the greatest evils of traditional regimes, he refused to bend the rules to favor his wife even when her health was at risk. By contrast, Chairman Mao’s only concern was retention and expansion of power. He dispatched waves of new enforcers of Party discipline without regard to their destructive effects. Despite his exemplary record, Chang’s father was humiliated, tortured, and driven temporarily insane.

2. Prolonged intense indoctrination can block rational thought in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Chang was a brilliant, independent, fair-minded, compassionate woman; yet, despite injustice and cruelty visited upon her and her family and on countless others, she maintained her faith in Mao almost until his death, assuming simply that his orders were not being carried out.

3. Generally, sociopaths –- people who are indifferent to the suffering of others –- comprise a small fraction of a population, and the percentage of people willing to abuse others simply for the pleasure of it a smaller one still, but in a totalitarian society where one lives under the ever-present threat of arbitrary punishment, the worst inner instincts are unleashed. All too many are willing to assuage their bitterness and exact revenge by joining a mob and abusing others. In time, for Chang, it became not whether a person’s beliefs were important; rather, she wrote, “I developed my way of judging Chinese people by dividing them into two kinds: one humane, and one not. It took an upheaval like the Cultural Revolution to bring out these characteristics in people, whether they were teenage Red Guards, adult Rebels, or capitalist-roaders.”

4. It is a necessary policy of those who wish to impose injustice on populations to keep them ignorant, and to the extent they are not ignorant, to cultivate ignorance in them. That is the role of propaganda. For Mao, saturating the eyes and ears of the populace with denunciations and slogans was not enough. Ignorance must be absolute, so he ordered that the arts be stifled, artifacts of “bourgeois” civilization destroyed, and schools and universities shut down. The illiterate peasant became the model to which all should aspire. Cf slaveholders preventing slaves from leaning to read; the Taliban attacking girls’ schools. Even in a free democratic society such as our own, powerful interests cultivate ignorance among the citizenry. There are echoes of the worst years of Twentieth Century China throughout the world today.
 

 

 

February 10, 2013

The Adventures of Augie March,  Saul Bellow

In return for a Navy scholarship that took me through college I had to spend three years as a deck officer on an aircraft carrier. Trapped at sea, in need of books, I joined the Book of the Month Club, receiving as a bonus Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. Churchill was a gifted writer and I much enjoyed this great work, though I’m sure historians have shot some holes in it during the half century that followed.

My membership deal required me to buy six newly published books during the coming year. The Adventures of Augie March was my first pick. The Book of the Month people featured it as a very important book. And indeed it was, having since become recognized as a modern American classic. For some reason I couldn’t get into it. I don’t think I read more than twenty pages before I gave my copy to a shipmate. It wasn’t until this past month that I gave it another try, this time finding it fully engaging. It’s aptly titled, being a picaresque novel tracing the narrator’s life from childhood through to young manhood. Augie is a reasonably decent fellow, not driven except fleetingly toward a particular career goal, but adept at navigating through a wide variety of situations, an excellent broken field runner.

Too bad, in a way, Saul Bellow didn’t write a sequel or two and take Augie all the way to old age the way John Updike did with Rabbit Angstrom.  Perhaps he thought that by the time Augie was in his late twenties the most interesting part of his life was behind him.

 

January 25, 2013

I haven’t read Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos, but I’m impressed with the review of it in the New York Review of Books by professor H. Allen Orr. Nagel’s defense of “the untutored reaction of incredulity” to neo-Darwinism strikes me as dubious in the extreme. I have little doubt that Orr has politely but firmly disposed of it.

I’ve thought for a long time that there may possibly be some kind of “intelligence,” to/in/of the universe ––  workings that science has either not yet discovered, or as Orr thinks could be the case, are beyond the capacity of human intellects to comprehend. Nagel claims some such regime necessarily exists; that “the materialistic neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly wrong.”

Orr notes that Richard Dawkins characterized Nagel’s line of thinking as “the argument from incredulity.” That nails it. Just because you can’t see how life and consciousness developed doesn’t mean it couldn’t have done so through neo-Darwinian processes. As Orr points out, the history of science is filled with counterintuitive speculations that proved to be true.
 
Equally unfounded is Nagel’s claim that objective moral truths exist and that they are incompatible with materialistic evolutionary theory. Unlike mathematical truths, which may be said to exist independently of human cognition, moral truths are constructed by (and debated among) humans. “Cruelty is bad” is a moral truth not because it is immanent in the universe but because it’s the product of human reason, experience, and, almost certainly, natural selection of empathy as a predominant trait.

It appears that Nagel’s yearning for a natural teleology has driven his thinking. He evidently fails to see that there’s no need for such yearning. The notion that everything is the result of mechanistic processes is depressing only if you ignore what’s been produced!
 

January 12, 2013

Drift, by Rachel Maddow

As regular Rachel Maddow show watchers would expect, this is a terrific and important book, a short history of how our nation has become at peace with being at war: how we’ve drifted away from the Constitutional vesting of the war-making authority in Congress, drifted toward initiating and perpetuating wars without stern consideration of their necessity, a habit facilitated by inconveniencing the public as little possible, reducing taxes instead of requiring shared sacrifice, making war less visible –– no photos of coffins received at Dover Air Force Base, please ––, hiding and disguising costs and in many cases increasing them by outsourcing military functions to private contractors, often ones linked to prominent politicians, and empowering the CIA to be a largely unaccountable military operation. Notwithstanding, the commitment and capability of our servicemen and women and its laudable mission of maximizing our national security, our engorged and encrusted military/ intelligence/ industrial complex has proliferated to a degree where it corrupts our political process, saps our economic strength, and increases our vulnerability to catastrophe. Maddow concludes her book with a list of sensible and achievable steps that should be taken to reverse these trends. Leaders, voters, pay attention!

 

January 5, 2013

Team of Rivals –- The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin

This is a wonderful book, as engaging as a great novel. I hoped it would reveal what it was about Lincoln that made him a great president, and I think to a considerable degree it does. Certain aspects of his character stand out.

1.  At an early age Lincoln resolved that he wanted to act in such a way that others would think highly of him: he wanted to live a noble life, a principle from which he never wavered.  

2. Coupled with this sense of purpose was complete self-confidence: not confidence contingent on making correct decisions or achieving success, but the unshakeable confidence that issues from doing what one thinks is right;

3. A prominent quality of Lincoln’s was empathy. He cared how other people felt. He said “With public sentiment nothing could fail; without it nothing can succeed.” His empathy aided him in judging the public sentiment (as well as the sentiment of public officials) and guided him throughout his life; it shone through in his Second Inaugural Address in his words: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

4. His empathy contributed to his extraordinary sense of timing. He had a keen sense of when it would be premature to act or disastrous to delay.

5. Endowed with a great sense of humor and a gift for language, he was a superb communicator. Whether in speeches, personal letters, or writings for public circulation, he was incomparable at defusing hostility and bringing others to adopt his point of view. Drawing mainly on the Bible, Shakespeare, and a great stock of anecdotes and stories, he was a master at changing the mood and pace of discourse, and, as the occasion demanded, charming, moving, and enlightening all in his presence.

6. He was resilient. Confronted repeatedly by tragedy and reversals of fortune, plunged into depths of melancholy and gloom, his appreciation of life and innate good humor invariably restored his spirits and gave him emotional strength to meet the gravest challenges.

7. He was courageous. He said that he would rather be dead than to live in dread, and, so, often ignored personal risk in his actions. I think his empathy came into play here. His instinct was to be no less brave than the soldiers he sent into battle.
 

 

January 1, 2013

Team of Rivals -- The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Just as Steven Spielberg was inspired by this book to make the movie Lincoln, I was inspired by the movie to read the book. In my paperback edition it’s 757 pages long. Except possibly for a few scenes, the events depicted in the movie occur after the Gettysburg Address (November 20, 1863), which in the book we don’t reach until page 586. Right now I’m on page 614 and am not ready to compare the book to the movie, but I can say with certainty that this is one of the most engaging history books I’ve ever read. I’ve been hoping to learn what it was about Lincoln that made him great. I’ll set down my thoughts on that soon.

 

December 21, 2012

The Divine Comedy, Dante

I just finished the Everyman Library edition of The Divine Comedy, translated by Allen Mandelbaum. The Comedy contains a vast number of references that draw on historical and classical sources and on people and events in Italy in Dante’s time, which are explained in two hundred pages of notes. Even without benefit of them I found reading Dante’s great work exhilarating. I’m interested to learn more about him, particularly about his relationship with Beatrice. I get the feeling that he found it so distressing he never had an Earthly relationship with her that he needed to construct a spiritual one. A biography of Dante is on my list of books to read this winter.
 

November 7, 2012

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

Jim Dixon is a lazy, irresponsible, marginally competent, semi-alcoholic, heavy-smoking history professor not above playing pranks and concocting outrageous fabrications, who is justly fearful that he will be sacked at the end of the term. At the end of the book Jim gets the most appealing girl and a plum of a job. Deservedly! He has a core of decency and a healthy revulsion for hypocrisy, pomposity, and vanity. As his future employer notes, Jim has no qualifications, but, what’s more rare, he has no disqualifications. This classic (1954) is one of those books worth reading every ten years or so to keep life in perspective.

 

October 17, 2012

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Across the street from where I get take-out sushi is a used book store. It’s a good place to hang out while waiting for my order. The owner, who must scrape out only the barest of livings from her enterprise, looks at me so hopefully, I know I’ll buy a book before I leave.

There’s a special pleasure in reading books acquired on impulse, and never a shortage of candidates, famous books by famous authors I haven’t read. Last week I picked up Ethan Frome, a short affecting novel set in rural western Massachusetts, in the 1890s, I’d guess, certainly when winters were colder! It’s the story of two people pinned down in life, too repressed, and too realistic, to try to break free of their bonds until faced with a turn of fortune so cruel that it suspends their inhibitions, propelling them to tragedy greater than the one they’d been living.

 

October 12, 2012

Having gathered comments from people who volunteered to read my manuscript, I revised the short novel I recently completed, a work of speculative fiction. My plan is to put it aside for a couple of weeks and then reread it closely before sending it to my agent. Based on past experience, I’ll see things I missed in my last reading. Future entries in this space will deal with progress with my own book as well as other books I’m reading.
 

October 3, 2012

Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?

The author, a well-known philosopher and critic, set out to investigate one of the most basic questions in philosophy:Why is there something rather than nothing? This book is a narrative of his travels and conversations with prominent philosophers and cosmologists. He supplies added perspective by weaving in the views of famous philosophers of the past.

As you might expect, there is a wide diversity of opinion on the matter. Everyone Holt cites is brilliant, but some of the ideas that come forth are dubious in the extreme. The most sensible of all these luminaries may be Steven Weinberg, for whom the existence of a tremendous multitude of universes is the only evident explanation for why our universe is “tuned” finely enough to permit life to form. My understanding is that such a prolific universe is supported by string theory, quantum branching, and eternal inflation theories.

A helpful approach to the question is taken by the Oxford philosopher, Derek Parfit, who begins his inquiry by considering all the possible states of reality there could be. Reality could be nothingness, or it could comprise all logically possible universes, or it could comprise something in between.

My own distillation of a rather technical and dense conversation between Holt and Parfit is that it would be unlikely that reality would be a special case, and nothingness would be a special case. Similarly, it would be unlikely that the universe would be permeated with goodness or have some other special feature. It is much more likely that the universe is mediocre. Reality most likely lies in the great central bulge of the bell curve and is not invested with intrinsic meaning.

Among the other suggested answers to the riddle was at least one akin my own, which is that we are something-centric. If we were made of nothing, and nothing was all there was, we’d be asking, “Why is there there nothing instead of something?” There are an infinite number of ways there could be something, but only one way there could be nothing. No wonder there’s something!


September 24, 2012

This is my first book note since July 10, because I have been absorbed with my own work in process, a short novel. It's now in as good shape as I can get it, so I've given it to a few of my friends for comments. I'll go through it again in the light of any suggestions I get, then ship it off to my agent, I hope by the end of November.

To celebrate my liberation I'm reading Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? I'll let you know what I think of it when I finish.

 

July 10, 2012

Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes

Strongly recommended for summer reading.

America is supposed to be a meritocracy, a place where there’s equality of opportunity and the brightest and most hard-working rise to the top. The theory is that in a meritocracy public and private institutions are led by the best people, and the entire country benefits from it.

There are a couple of problems. First: we’re a long way from having equal opportunity; second: our brave new century has been characterized by reckless, foolish, and corrupt behavior in important government and nongovernment institutions. In the process staggering inequality has developed between the top 1% in wealth and the next 99%, even between the top .O1% and the 01%. The next big crisis, which is surely on the way, may spell trouble for the elites. There's a chance some good will come of this.

 

July 4, 2012

Two books I've read in the past month in an effort to get a better overview of planet Earth:

The Story of Earth, by Robert Hazen, gives a good idea of what our planet was like in the past all the way back to Earth’s formation and, to the extent predictions can be made about it, in the future all the way to the end of Earth’s existence.

The Ocean of Life, by Callum Roberts, is a comprehensive, detailed, well-documented examination of the state of the seas, and in particular of life in the world's oceans. Though there are some bright spots thanks to the efforts of environmentalists and public officials, the overall picture is grim. We are relentlessly degrading our most bountiful resource.

 

June 5, 2012

I think I have the short novel I'm writing (mentioned in my previous Book Note) under control. It's about 90% completed in first draft, including the ending, so I'm taking an occasional time out for reading, particularly books that might supply me with some relevant background information. One such book, which I just completed, is The Swerve, How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. It's the story of the discovery in 1417 of Lucretius' ancient poetic work of genius, De Rerum Natura by a former papal scribe and bibliophile and the effect its proliferation had in setting modernism in motion. Example: Montaigne was much influenced by it. The narrative is rich in fascinating detail. I highly recommend it.

 

May 10, 2012

I just noticed that I haven't posted a book note in over a month. Some people checking this space may have wondered if I'm reading a very thick book, but the reason I haven't posted anything lately is that I'm writing a short novel and am completely absorbed with it.

A well-known author –– I think it was Francine Prose in her book Reading like a Writer –– said that when she's writing a novel, she doesn't read other novels. I forget the reason she gave for this, but it may have been to avoid having another writer's voice affect her own. I don't have such a rule, but I've found that when I have a choice of picking up a book I'm in the middle of and working on my novel, I prefer the later. So. . . back to it.

 

April 8, 2012

A History of God, by Karen Armstrong

This book is essentially a history of the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Armstrong crams a great many facts into one volume, saying something about a tremendous number of religious thinkers and countless variations on conceptions of God. There is also much left out, including an examination of strands of Roman Catholic doctrine and the history of the Papacy. (Armstrong was a nun for seven years before dropping out.)

The key thing one takes away from this important and rewarding book is that religions in the best sense are grounded in loving compassion rather than doctrines and rules, which often represent a projection onto God of human prejudices and desires. Armstrong says that theories of election  (in which one group is specially favored by God) “are clearly shown in the holy wars that have scarred the history of monotheism. Instead of making God a symbol to challenge our prejudice and force us to contemplate our own shortcomings, they can be used to endorse our egotistical hatred and make it absolute.”

Elsewhere, she observes that “Christian fundamentalists seem to have little regard for the loving compassion of Christ. They are swift to condemn people they see as ‘enemies of God. . . All too often, conventional believers, who are not fundamentalists, share their aggressive righteousness. They use ‘God’ to prop up their own loves and hates, which they attribute to God himself.”

We see this played out in American politics, where many people who trumpet their religious credentials are obsessed with opposing abortion, gay marriage, and even birth control, yet show no interest in relieving poverty,  increasing educational opportunities, or bringing about a just and more equitable society.

 

March 26, 2012

Buddha, by Karen Armstrong

This gracefully written short biography of Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha, is distilled from legends interpreted in the light of historical context. There is little detail about the Buddha’s life we can be sure about, and Armstrong makes clear the limits of our historical knowledge; yet enough is known for the essence of the man and his beliefs to come through.

One doesn’t need to embrace metaphysical elements of Buddhism, such as belief in reincarnation, or engage in the disciplines of yoga and meditation, which the Buddha believed were essential to achieving enlightenment, to gain wisdom from considering his life and thought. You may not be able to extinguish the self, but you can to a considerable degree transcend the self by banishing malevolence, greed, hatred, and indolence and cultivating compassion, friendliness, and equanimity. Reading this book, I became something of a Buddhist myself.

 

March 18, 2012

Selected Non-Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges
   edited by Eliot Weinberger

     Borges was a prodigious reader and writer. His essays and reviews from 1922 until his death in 1986 are so wide-ranging as to resist capsule description. He was a realist who was fascinated with enchantment. His essays enchanted me, perhaps most so a lecture in which he talked about the effects of blindness that overtook him in late middle age. “I can still see blue and green. And yellow, in particular, has remained faithful to me,” he said.
     As a child, he used to linger in front of the tiger’s cage at the zoo. When he could no longer read or write at length, he wrote poetry. He wrote a poem, “The Gold of the Tigers," “in which I refer to this friendship.”
     Somehow yellow can remain faithful. A tiger and a boy contemplating each other can be a friendship. These are not sentimentalisms or anthropomorphisms, they are expressions of enchantment with life and the world.

 

March 12, 2012

Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder

This was Judt’s final book, completed shortly before his death in collaboration with the historian, Timothy Snyder. I have read only the brief excerpt reprinted in the March 22 issue of the New York Review of Books, but I note it now because I was so struck with Judt’s observation:  “. . . democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it’s much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself. . . Democracies corrode quite fast. . .”

 

February 28 2012

Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

This is a 750-page collection of the author’s essays, mostly relating to literature or politics, most of which appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and Slate in the past ten or fifteen years. Although arguably Hitchens was first a polemicist and only second and third a critic and a journalist, there’s no question that his death last year left a gap. I feel it when I open Slate, knowing that it will not contain his latest observations. I doubt if there was anyone among his contemporaries who read more, experienced more, knew more, and was a more electrifying writer.

 

February 3, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

This short fictional memoir interlaced with mysteries and conundrums won the 2011 Booker Prize. In Part I, the narrator, Tony Webster, recounts episodes from his late high school and early university years centering on his girl friend Veronica, her family, and his friend Adrian, who becomes his successor as Veronica’s lover. In Part II, the narration resumes forty years later. It’s not until then that Tony discovers that he had behaved much worse than he had realized in his youth. He tells us that he feels neither shame nor guilt, “but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse.” Dark new complexities and mysteries then emerge, and these are deepened rather than resolved in the course of Tony’s renewed meetings with Veronica. In response to his attempts to learn what had happened, she tells him, “You just don’t get it. . . You never have and you never will.”

By the end of the book Tony may have got it, but maybe not. Information available to him on which he could draw conclusions may be as unreliable as he was. There can be no resolution to the mishaps and follies that engulfed him and his friends. We can be sure only that in the final sentences, at last, he’s making an honest assessment.

 

January 23, 2011

A Universe from Nothing,  Lawrence Krauss.

Krauss’s interesting but loosely written book traces the history and future of our local universe and argues that it may have come into existence from nothing. It turns out that “nothing” is unstable. It’s not just empty space that’s unstable, it’s nothingness itself. If I understand Krauss's thinking correctly, positive and negative energy are balanced. On average there is nothing. But average doesn’t always hold. Sometimes something appears, and that something can be a whole universe.

Confronted with that, you may still be inclined to say, "You've explained how something can come from nothing, but why should this be so?" My personal view is that the only answer is “Why not?” The reason that something seems to call for an explanation whereas nothing does not is that we are something-centric. If there were nothing but nothing and we were made of nothing, we would ask “Why is there nothing rather than something?”

Concerning the future of the universe, I learned to my surprise that some main sequence stars will last for at least two trillion years. (The sun is about half way through its lifespan or roughly ten billion.) By then, from the point of view of observers in our local group of galaxies, ever expanding space will have have carried all the hundreds of billions of other galaxies that we can now observe, along with all background radiation and other evidence of the big bang beyond the cosmic horizon, leaving no evidence that the universe comprises anything else but our gravitationally bound local galaxies, which, incidentally by then will have coalesced into a single mega galaxy.

Further on into the future –– how far Krauss doesn’t say –– our mega galaxy will be drawn into a mega black hole, which over the course of billions of more eons will evaporate into nothingness, its residue traces of radiation carried out of any communication with each other in ever expanding space. Though our universe may vanish into nothingness, new universes may spring from nothingness, just as did our own. What a relief!
 

January 9, 2012

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillan
   Forty Years of Funny Stuff


The other day I was watching a high-powered, fast talking, super self-assured TV personality who had just returned from a week's vacation. Asked about it, he rattled off something along the lines of, "It's important to get away once in a while. I was at my place in Mexico and could really relax. You may think you don't have time to get away, but it's bad for your productivity not to do that and recharge. Got to do it every once in a while. Better believe it."

I don't disagree. It's nice if you have a place in Mexico or can jet down to the Caribbean for a week when you want to, or just tell the boss you're going fishing for a few days, but in case you don't have enough clout or money or time off to engage in such productivity-enhancing respites when you need them, I suspect you can achieve the same therapeutic effect by curling up on the couch or an easy chair with selected funny stuff of Calvin Trillan, whose anecdotes and observations put the world in proper perspective no less than viewing it from a tropical cafe ringed with bougainvilleas or a beach chair on a palm-fringed beach.

 

January 1, 2012

REPUBLIC, LOST
    How Money Corrupts Congress –– and a Plan to Stop It.

by Lawrence Lessig

Consider the fable of the cat and the mice. The mice are being picked off at an alarming rate. They hold a meeting to consider how the carnage can be stopped. One bright mouse suggests, “We should tie a bell on the cat.” “An excellent idea,” says another, “but how are we going to do it?” The problem with our government is hardly less grave and challenging than the one facing the mice. There is a way to fix it, but how are we going to do it?

Eleven percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance. And we are supposed to living in a democracy! The problem is corruption, not blatant bribery, which is illegal and infrequent, but what Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, calls “dependence corruption,” which is more subtle but almost universal, and, like some mutated strain of bacteria, extraordinarily resistant. How it works is simple enough: “Knowing that there are members of Congress {most of them!} dependent on campaign cash, private interests exploit that dependency by seeking special benefits from the government (“rents”) and returning the favor ever so indirectly with campaign contributions.”

Most of Professor Lessig’s book consists in illustrating the point, and it makes for distressing reading. He sets forth several approaches to the problem, all admittedly long shots, but counsels that we must not give in to despair. We must try to rework our system into one that is responsive to the interests of the people instead of the rich and powerful.

Of possible initiatives that might be taken, the one Lessig most vigorously advances, sanctioned by Article V of the United States Constitution, is to require Congress to call a convention at the behest of the legislatures of two-thirds of the States for the purpose of amending the Constitution to reform campaign financing. An Amendment becomes effective if three-quarters of the States ratify it.

To ensure that special interests don’t fatally infect the process, Lessig recommends that the authorizing conventions in the States, should “(n)ot be a convention of experts. Or politicians. Or activists. . . It should be a convention of randomly selected voters called to a process of informed deliberation.”

Though the complexities and challenges involved in such a process are tremendous, they could be accomplished by a broad-based movement that gathers support, momentum, and attention until it coalesces into an unstoppable force, an informed imposition of the public will.
 

 

December 17, 2011

Dolphin in the Mirror, by Diana Reiss

About forty years or so ago Dr. John Lily was much in the news for his work on exploring dolphin intelligence and trying to get dolphins to communicate in English. It was a bit fanciful, and Dr. Lilly’s research became somewhat discredited in the public mind because he was a pal of Tim Leary and had an LSD-influenced tint about him.

Now an absolutely sane and scientific Diana Reiss has brought us up to date on dolphin research. Perhaps like no other animals except chimpanzees and elephants, they can recognize themselves in a mirror. They are not only highly intelligent, they are self-aware.

Ms. Reiss’s book is to some extent autobiographical, and worth reading on that score alone, but recent findings on dolphins are rather unexciting. Reiss gives some good examples of dolphin intelligence, but was obliged to report that virtually no progress has been made in deciphering dolphin language, if that’s what their whistles amount to.

Why are dolphins so benign and so sensitive in the presence of humans and apparently have even saved their lives? We still don’t know. Ms. Reiss developed great affection for dolphins she’s worked with. I can understand why. My interest in her book arose from my own experiences with these extraordinary animals.

The first of them occurred over sixty years ago. I was sailing alone in my small sloop in Huntington Bay on Long Island when at least six dolphins appeared out of nowhere and swam alongside my boat for a few minutes. I had never seen a dolphin before, and I never saw them in the course of thousands of hours sailing in Long Island waters after that day.

I became reacquainted with dolphins when I was in the Navy in the 1950s. My cabin, which I shared with another young officer, was the forward most one on our aircraft carrier. It had a round porthole about a foot in diameter, which, because the bow of the ship flared at about a 45 degree angle, had a perfect view of the bow waves the ship made as it churned through the water at about fifteen knots. Occasionally, I’d look out and down and see dolphins riding the waves. Like the ones that cruised alongside my sailboat, their only purpose was having fun.

Sometime in the 1990s my wife and I rented a house for a month on Kealakekua Bay on the big island of Hawaii. Once, swimming a couple of hundred yards from shore, I found myself surrounded by spinner dolphins. I felt relaxed and exhilarated. The dolphins had found me to be an object of curiosity, but kept what I imagined they felt was a polite distance.

My most recent encounter, about ten years ago, was at a commercial marine park in the Florida Keys where you could “swim with the dolphins.” We donned wet suits and fins and swam around for fifteen minutes in a lagoon closed to the open ocean by an artificial barrier. We were told that the dolphins we would be swimming with were all females: The males had been removed to another area, because of they had been disruptive –– in what way we never learned.
We were told not to chase or bother the dolphins, a superfluous request since these animals can swim ten times faster than humans. I had no sense that the dolphins had any interest in me or anyone else. Why should they? People like us had been thrust in their midst for goodness knows how many months, several times a day. Afterwards, my wife and I were the last to turn in our wet suits and get dressed. We had to cross a little bridge at the edge of the lagoon. I was about half way across when a dolphin swam close by and rose partly out of the water. In the few seconds it held itself in that position, we had eye contact. I had a strong intimation that it was thinking, Why do creatures like you come and paddle around this lagoon from which we can’t escape?


December 9, 2011

The Age of Greed, by Jeff Madrick

Brokerage firms, stock exchanges, commercial and investment banks, insurance companies, and other institutions play an important role in assuring that individuals and businesses can secure financing for working and  investment capital, but in the course of recent decades, far more money has flowed to those providing these services than is justified by their value. “Wall Street,” to give it a collective name, performed increasingly inefficiently and avariciously to the point where the reigning ethic became, “Do it if you can get away with it.” And it became much too easy to get away with it.

Mr. Madrick’s enlightening book chronicles in vivid detail four decades of behavior on the part of bankers, brokers, investment advisers, government officials, and misguided economists that siphoned off grotesquely large profits, wasted trillions of dollars, wrecked the economy, and consigned millions to joblessness and poverty.

November 20, 2011

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (concluded)

I’ve now finished this comprehensive study of the myriad of ways in  which we can get thrown off track when making decisions. If you read this book, it won’t immunize you from the biases and illusions that plague us, but you’ll be more aware of them and give more thought to them, and your decision making performance will likely improve. It would probably be a good idea to make a list of all the decision traps (as I’ll call them) that Professor Kahneman discusses. That way you’re more likely to recognize a fallacy or bias that could result in a bad decision.

Most of Professor Kahneman’s examples are taken from psychology lab experiments in which participants are asked to answer hypothetical questions. The results are often startling. For example, the way a question is framed can make a huge difference in how people answer it: most people  answered two questions, which were logically indistinguishable, differently depending on whether one question had the word “gain” in it and another had the word “loss” in it. The book gives some real life examples, though not as many as I would have liked.

As I mentioned in my November 11 note, Professor Kahneman thinks it’s useful to talk about two systems in our brains, system #1, our rapid response faculty, and system #2. our reflective and analytical faculty. Our vulnerability to fallacies and biases is a good reason to bring system #2 to bear on a question whenever time will permit. Really smart people don’t have lazy systems #2.

 

 November 11, 2011

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

The author is a psychology professor and a winner of the Nobel prize in economics. The title refers to how we can think of our brains as having two systems. System #1 is our rapid response faculty. It draws on our tremendous repertoire of knowledge and experience to take in situations, draw conclusions, and act quickly. System #2 is our reflective and analytical faculty. It functions more slowly, but is essential for dealing with novel and complex challenges. Smart people know when they need to engage System #2 even though extra effort and time are involved. Lazy thinking is associated with a willingness to rely on System #1 in situations in which System #2 should be brought to bear.

I’m only on page 90 of this 481 page work, and I’ll write more about it when I finish, but I can already say that I think it will give me a much better sense of how the mind works and why people behave the way they do.

 

 November 4, 2011

The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

     I was so intrigued by Deutsch's new book, The Beginning of Infinity, that I read this ealier one, which was published in 1997. He begins by discussing “The Theory of Everything.” This is not a reference to the long-sought theory that would unite general relativity and quantum theory but to what Deutsch calls the four strands that comprise the fabric of reality: quantum theory, particularly in its “many worlds” interpretation, for which Deutsch is convinced the evidence is overwhelming, computation theory (the Turing principle –– a universal computer could render any physically possible environment), evolution theory as put forth by Darwin and refined by Richard Dawkins, and the theory of knowledge –- particularly knowledge accrued through scientific reasoning as described by the philosopher, Karl Popper: experimental testing, exposure to criticism, theoretical explanation, and fallibility in experimental procedures. Deutsch says that each of these four strands has explanatory gaps, but this is not a flaw in them: the four strands are true, and taken as a whole they comprise a unified explanation of the fabric of reality.
    Like The Beginning of Infinity, this one is wide-ranging.  Some of it I found impossible to assimilate. Other parts are written with exceptional clarity; most so his chapter on “the four strands” and in particular his comments on Thomas Kuhn’s theory of the stickiness of scientific paradigms, Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, and varieties of what in The Beginning of Infinity Deutsch calls “bad philosophy.”
      Deutsch makes a great many provocative and intriguing observations, which would benefit from greater elaboration; for example, “Knowledge can be understood as complexity that extends over large numbers of universes.”
    About consciousness he says: “I expect that the unification of computation and quantum physics, and probably the wider unification of all four strands, to be essential to the fundamental philosophical advances from which an understanding of consciousness will one day flow. . . I expect that the solution of the ‘What is consciousness’ question to depend on quantum theory . . . It will depend crucially on the quantum-mechanical, and especially the multiverse, world picture.”
     His view of free will is a type of compatibilism (the belief that determinism and free will are compatible). Apparently he thinks that the way free will works is that if you choose A, rather than B, copies of you in some universes choose A; copies of you in other universes choose B. Randomness is not involved. If I understand him correctly, standing outside a universe and looking at your life history in a particular universe, it appears determined, but your choices, though they are strongly influenced by your life history yet involve free will because your choice has the effect of determining which universe your life will continue in, the one in which you choose A or the one in which you choose B.
    About multiple universes arising out of quantum mechanics, whose existence most scientists refuse to accept, Deutsch says that they act only weekly with each other, and only through the mechanism of interference. When a photon passes through a slit in a screen, trillions of phantom photons emanate from same source. We know this because if you have parallel slits something interferes with the photon you sent on its way and it can only be a phantom photon, otherwise undetectable because it exists in another universe.
    The photon that for us is tangible is a phantom photon in another universe. A question Deutsch doesn’t address is why interference should occur at all. Why don’t the photons just go their ways in their own universes?
 

October 27, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (concluded)

This concludes my notes on this extraordinary new book.

Bad Philosophy
     When the unequivocal results of quantum phenomena yielded inexplicable
logical inconsistencies, the question arose –– what is the reality that produces
these impossible effects? The leading response, known as the Copenhagen
interpretation, a reference to the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, was an approach
known as instrumentalism, which amounted to physicists throwing up their
hands, abandoning the seeking of truth and contenting themselves with
accepting the way quantum phenomena worked. Deutsch decries this response,
saying it goes counter to the scientific tradition of criticism.
     He goes on to skewer other post-post-Enlightenment influential philosophic
movements that have generally impeded scientific progress:
Empiricism: the doctrine that the only knowledge we can have must be
obtained through the senses. Although this is an advance from the pre-
Enlightenment adherence to received beliefs and superstitions, it’s faulty in
that evidence obtained through our senses is often misleading.. It also wrongly
assumes that we can’t gain knowledge through conjectures, testing and
criticism.
     Positivism is rigidified empiricism, holding that everything not drawn from
observation should be eliminated. Logical Positivism takes it a step further,
holding that statements not verifiable by observation are meaningless.
Anti-realism. Carrying what was healthy skepticism to a ridiculous extreme,
anti-realists proclaim that all we think we know is an illusion.
     Linguistic philosophy, despite its utility in promoting clarity, tends to
reduce all inquiry into trying to eliminate confusion in the meaning of words,
as if there were no goal beyond that!
     Postmodernism, structuralism, and deconstructionism have the effect of
delegitimizing scientific inquiry by deeming it all to be a matter of context and
opinion and a product of one cultural bias or another.

Memes
     Memes are ideas, sometimes cultural packets, for example customs, beliefs,
and ideas that are spread and perpetuated and sometimes magnified and
sometimes evaporate.
     Strangely, says Deutsch, in static societies creativity takes the form of being
creative in fostering and adhering to rigidity and conformity: creative people
increase their social status by applying their creativity to calcifying and
enforcing the rules. (I suspect that some scholars would disagree with this.) In
open, dynamic societies creative people apply their creativity to innovating and
accumulating new knowledge. Rational memes thrive in dynamic societies.
Irrational memes thrive in static societies.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)
     The Turing test –– determining that a computer has artificial intelligence if it can fool a human judge into thinking its observations, questions, and responses are that of a human being –– isn’t the real test of AI. Real AI requires a jump to universality, not just a better chat box. The question is: who was it that created the meaningfulness in the computer’s utterances? Who created the knowledge in them? If it was the programmer, then it is not AI; if it was the program itself, then it is. Notwithstanding the impressive performance of computer chess and Jeopardy programs, we have yet to create artificial intelligence and don’t know how to do it.

Time:
     The quantum mechanics of time is not yet understood

Things Deutsch didn’t discuss but might have:

1. China, a mixed static and dynamic society!

2. Eternal inflation: the creation of new “bubble” universes leading to a vast
multiplicity of universes, sometimes called parallel universes: Though this is
the dominant current theory and is presented by Hawking and others as
established, Deutsch merely says that it’s highly speculative.

3. Deutsch says that the Enlightenment is not yet complete: we have antirational
subcultures and educational institutions that merely transmit the curriculum rather stimulate creative thought. Why is it, one might wonder, that given the Enlightenment and application of the scientific method to economic, political, and moral questions, human societies are not organizing themselves and their interrelationships more effectively and happily than is the case? Our
greatest threat seems to be not from gamma ray bursts and other cosmic phenomena, but from ourselves.

4. Speaking of the quantum multiverse, Deutsch says that knowledge-creating
entities rapidly become more alike in different histories than other
entities, an intriguing observation that deserves elaboration.


October 21, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (continued)

Parallel Universes and the Multiverse:

    As I understand it, there are two general theories postulating multiple
universes. The first and most widely-embraced is sometimes known as “eternal
inflation.” The idea is that universes form new universes, which themselves
form new universes, leading to an infinite number of universes. Each universe
has its own set of physical constants, which often are inimical to further
development. Many universes quickly collapse, though those that don’t
proliferate. Though apparently most physicists believe this model to be correct,
Deutsch regards it as highly speculative. He says that there may be universes in
which there are different laws of physics, but as yet there is no viable theory of
why that should be so.
     The second model involving multiple universes is the quantum multiverse,
an infinite number of universes that spring into being owing to the splitting of
histories of particles, a phenomenon that has been proven beyond doubt in any
quarter to occur and in fact may be said to be the way the world works! As a
result of these splittings and generating of different histories of the same
particle infinite numbers of universes differing from our own in infinite
numbers of ways are constantly springing into being. Such a splitting might cause                            a lightning bolt to strike one point in one diverging universe and another point in                               another diverging universe, and all kinds of effects could ensue in each universe                            from the consequences of that fact. For this reason the novel, Fatherland,                               involving an alternate history in which the Nazis win World War II, is a possible                                 reality, one played out in another universe (or other universes)!
     Though the great majority of physicists do not believe that such a quantum
multiverse exists –– I read a piece by one of them who dismissed it as being
simply too bizarre –– Deutsch says that the evidence for it is overwhelming,
and its existence is proved by the quantum computer, which, though still in a
primitive stage of development, “produces vast numbers of different histories
from the same few atoms.”
     As to what prevents the quantum multiverse from being more widely
accepted in the scientific community, Deutsch says it’s “bad philosophy.”
More about that next week. 

                                                                                                                                                                 October 14, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (continued)

The Fine Tuning Problem

    A puzzle scientists wonder about is that planets could not have formed
and life happened in our universe had not a number of physical constants
been almost precisely what they are. Why should such a phenomenally
lucky coincidence have occurred? This is the “fine tuning” problem.
One proposed solution, welcomed by some who are religiously
inclined, is that fine tuning is evidence of intelligent design, but this
raises the problem of the origin of the designer, and indeed of why the
design is so flawed: for example, why would a designer allow the
processes of evolution to lead to so many dead ends?
    Another proposed solution is to suppose that if, as appears likely, there
are a tremendous number of universes each with its own set of physical
constants, we should not be surprised that one would be like ours and that
we find ourselves living in such a universe. This reasoning is called the
anthropic principle. Deutsch neatly leads readers through a probability
analysis by another physicist that exposes the flaw in it. The anthropic
principle is not, after all, a possible solution to the fine tuning problem.
     The physicist Lee Smolin has proposed a theory of “evolutionary
cosmology,” the gist of which (if I’m stating it more or less correctly), is
that there is a natural selection of universes with physical constants that favor the formation of black holes, a characteristic of universes hospitable to the formation of life. Deutsch says that the problem with this theory is that probabilities and proportions don’t make sense where there are infinite numbers of universes: The entire collection must have settled into its equilibrium state an infinite time ago, which would mean that the evolution never happened. He says that this and other anthropic arguments never quite finish the explanatory job for the reason that the tuning is too close to the optimum. There aremany constants, and “the more constants that are involved, the closer to having no astrophysicists a typical universe-with-astrophysicists is.”
    Thus, the anthropic explanation predicts that the universe is only
staggeringly unlikely to contain astrophysicists! Deutsch concludes that anthropic reasoning may be part of the explanation for apparent fine tuning, but it can never be the whole explanation: Specific explanation, in terms of specific laws of nature, is needed.
     He further notes that fine tuning may not be necessary for life to evolve. It’s
conceivable that it could take other forms, even, as postulated by one physicist,
within a neutron star! But even if fine tuning isn’t necessary, and life can
emerge in all sorts of tunings, that would still present “an unexplained
regularity” that science would need to address.

 

October 7, 2011

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY

by David Deutsch (continued)

Deutsch answers some much discussed questions:

1. Would it be dangerous for humans to encounter members of a more
advanced civilization? No. We would not be to them as we are to animals.
Humans have universal minds. Civilizations of beings with more knowledge
and more sophisticated technology than we have may exist, but there can be no
superhumans, because all post-enlightenment beings, regardless of how
advanced they are, are “universal explainers and constructors.” And there is no
reason to imagine that advanced aliens would pillage our planet. They could
find all the resources they might want far more easily.

2. Is it possible that humans are intellectually incapable of understanding
the deepest secrets of the universe? No, because our powers of creativity and
understanding are infinite. The universe is not queerer than we can suppose.
There is no limit to how much knowledge we can attain, but because the
amount of knowledge is infinite, we will always be at the beginning of infinity.

3. Should we plan ahead for various scenarios of grave problems
confronting humans? Not exactly. Problems are solvable; problems are
inevitable. Their nature and the forms they take are largely unpredictable, and
our knowledge as to how to solve them will grow in unpredictable ways. For
example, trying to predict and plan for climate change may be futile and
cripplingly expensive. We must increase our ability to intervene after events
turn out as we did not foresee. We need to plan for reducing temperature or
living with higher temperatures. To do this we need a large and vibrant
research community, wealth, and the technological capacity to implement
solutions. (I think Deutsch is somewhat superficial, vague, and even
contradictory here, but correct in principle.)

4. Is it possible that science is near the end of what can be understood and
accomplished? No. This has been assumed in the past, sometimes by
distinguished scientists, and has been proved not to be the case, nor will it be
in the future.

5. May it be fairly said that we are like passengers on a space ship, which
in our case is the planet Earth? No, the analogy is faulty, because it likens our
situation to that of people in a static society and ignores the possibility and
necessity of our gaining new knowledge and technology with which to deal
with problems which, though unforeseeable, are certain to occur. A static
society might be analogized to a spaceship Earth, but analogies between static
societies and modern technological civilizations are fallacies.

6. The principle of “mediocrity” developed in recognition of how the Earth
and humans don’t occupy any special place in the universe. First it was
discovered that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, then that it was not
at the center of the solar system; then that the sun was just one of countless
stars in our galaxy; then that our galaxy was just one of countless galaxies, etc.
Does this mean that humans aren’t special; that we’re just another species,
doomed to become extinct? No. Humans are special because we are universal
explainers and constructors. There is no limit to what we can accomplish.

7. Could disease and even the aging process be ended? Without question.

          (to be continued next week)

 

September 30, 2011

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY  by David Deutsch (continued)

The Human Situation

    Deutsch draws a sharp line between static societies and dynamic ones. Prior to the Enlightenment and general acceptance of the scientific revolution, all societies were static except in cases of a few short-lived mini-enlightenments, such as existed in 4th Century BCE in Greece. Mythical ideas and superstitions were embraced as the principal source of knowledge. Since they amounted tofalse knowledge, exceedingly slow progress was made during the course oftens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years.

Once the scientific revolution took hold, progress –- human acquisition ofknowledge and technological capability –– proceeded apace, indeed at anaccelerating rate. The breakthrough came with the spreading of understandingthat explanations and new knowledge come from theorizing, criticizing, andtesting rather than from received wisdom or evidence of the senses.

As a result, humans have generally far higher living standards than they had in static societies. (Deutsch does not acknowledge that a very large percentageof people are still impoverished and struggling to survive.)

Human knowledge is explanatory and so can have broad reach. Humans (once they have become enlightened) are universal explainers and constructors. Though the progress we can make is unlimited, we are always at the beginningof infinity.The future cannot be scientifically planned. All triumphs are temporary.

Problems are inevitable, but all problems are solvable. Only progress issustainable. Unless we solve certain problems we are doomed, but this hasalways been the case. Creative thought and biological evolution are the only processes that occur ex nihilo.

Of course Deutsch would agree that it’s not certain that all problems can besolved in time to avoid extinction. For example, it might be discovered thatwithin a few years an exceedingly rare gamma ray burst would wipe out all lifein our part of the galaxy.

Deutsch also asserts that the scientific method –– fallibalism –– can help usprogress in constructing more enlightened political and moral systems.

 September 16, 2011

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY  by David Deutsch

Ever since large numbers of humans began to understand that the answers to puzzles lie in conjectures, criticism, testing, and explanations rather than in embracing established beliefs, there has been no limit to what we can accomplish: we’re at the beginning of infinity. So says the author, a physicist and professor at Oxford University. He says a lot more as well, most of it fascinating and illuminating and a lot of it surprising. I’m in the middle of rereading this extraordinary book and will report my impressions in this space within the next few weeks.

 

August 25, 2011

Paris 1919, by Margaret MacMillan (Cont.)

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the allied leaders attempted to set the world aright even as they worked to further their own national interests. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination evaporated in the face of conflicting political, commercial, nationalistic, and ethnic interests and problems occasioned by the rise of Bolshevism and the collapse of the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

Ms. MacMillan’s book is a continually engaging recounting of events that, though they were compressed within the space of a few years, presaged the unfolding of history for the entire century. She dismisses the conventional view that the Treaty’s harsh treatment of Germany paved the way for the empowering of the Nazis, making the case that the provisions for reparations and territorial strictures imposed by the the allies weren’t so onerous after all. Nonetheless, as some observers warned at the time and MacMillan notes in her concluding chapter, the humiliation visited on the Germans by the framers of the Treaty provided ready tinder for Hitler’s incendiary rants that propelled him to power.

August 4, 2011  

Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan

The events of 1919 set or speeded in motion the evolving forces that determined the course of 20th century history. The inability of the victorious allies to achieve a new order left fallow ground on which the Nazis sowed their evil seeds and the cynical and ruthless Bolsheviks secured their grip and expanded the Russian empire. Renewed world war and, in its wake the cold war, ensued, and it was not until near the end of the century that a secure, if still roiled, peace, rift with ominous stirrings, settled, for a while at least, over the world. I’m a third through Ms. MacMillan’s engaging and humbling book, and will say more about it when I finish it, two or three weeks hence.

 

July 13, 2011

The Science of Evil  - On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

The author, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Cambridge, describes the indicia of each of six degrees of empathy and the distinct pathologies of persons with psychopathic, borderline, narcissistic, and autism disorders, all of which are characterized by little or no empathy.

The degree of one’s empathy is related to various parts of the brain and is affected by both genetic and environmental factors. Cruelty (evil) is generally associated with zero degrees of empathy, but not all persons lacking empathy are capable of cruelty. Lack of empathy of persons with high functioning autism (Asperger’s symptom) is not associated with cruelty. Persons with generally higher degrees of empathy may experience episodes, such as of rage, that reduce them temporarily to zero empathy.

This is an important book and should stimulate a great deal of thought and research. An interesting topic, which I wish the author had expanded upon, is the degree to which one’s degree of empathy may rise or fall in the course of a lifetime. Whether or not the human species survives and flourishes may depend on our ability to raise our average degree of empathy through education and possibly genetic engineering. It would be a good project for everyone to try to raise their own degree of empathy.

 

July 2, 2011

Summer Reading, Cont.

Obtainable in slim paperbacks, plays are perfect for the beach. The Importance of Being Earnest produced on me a continuous smile. For Independence Day, consider Henry the IV, Part One. Not standard escape fare, but it might as well be, so engaging is it throughout. Scenes of Prince Hal, Falstaff, and their drinking companions contrast brightly with the counsels of war of King Henry and his opponents. Among the latter, battle-hungry Hotspur dominates until he gallops away from his intelligent and devoted wife to self-destruction at the hands of prodigal Hal. Falstaff’s searing critque of honor upends it all.
 

June 8, 2011

P. G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves; Right Ho, Jeeves

Summer is traditionally a time to read “escape literature.” The best books of this kind relieve you from your cares with tales of combat, adventure, romance, horror, and crime in ways that tense your muscles, quicken your pulse, and may even impel you to jump out of your beach chair. If you’d prefer to tranquilize your psyche rather than agitate it, visit the world of Bertram Wooster and his remarkable valet, Jeeves. These accounts, written by P. G. Wodehouse three quarters of a century or so ago, will send you into a dreamy state where illness, aging, crime, poverty, war, natural or man-made disasters except for a broken vase or what have you, and other such adversities are never so much as mentioned, everyone is well-fed, well-clothed, and well-cared for, and our narrator, Bertie, when he’d rather be sitting in a comfortable chair at one of his clubs gazing out the window while quaffing something agreeable, is subjected only to the most inconsequential of difficulties.

How can reading such stuff not be boring? Chalk it up to the genius of Mr. Wodehouse, a rummy author if there ever was one, as attested to by Evelyn Waugh on the back cover of one my copies: “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. . .”

 

May 30, 2011

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

The author, a professor of economics at Cambridge University, believes that capitalism is the best economic system that humanity has invented, but that the free-market economics that brought on the financial collapse of 2008, the aftermath of which is still with us, is capitalism gone awry. Unrestrained free market capitalism leads to gross inequalities and inequities. The financial industry has grown disproportionately compared to manufacturing, with the result that a lot of people are making amounts of money that are disproportionate to the value of their service to the economy, which, by the way, is sometimes negative. Income inequality in the United States has increased to an appalling degree, weakening rather than strengthening the economy as a whole. Unrestrained enterprise does not always inure to the public good. Government sponsored programs and initiatives are sometimes the best, sometimes the only, way to attain goals benefiting the country as a whole. Free competitive enterprise is the great engine of innovation and economic growth, but without guidance, regulation and at times direct participation by public entities, it runs amok. This no rant. Professor Chang calmly exposes the fallacious elements of free-market ideologies and documents to the true facts.

 

May 20, 2011

The New Universe and the Human Future by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel E. Primack

This book is based on the Terry lectures the authors gave at Yale in October 2009. The mandate of Dwight Terry, who endowed the lectures, was to build “the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion.” A tough challenge, in fact an impossible one in my opinion, however noble Mr. Terry’s intention. The authors advocate a world ethos based on a common understanding of the history of the human species and its place in the cosmos. It’s their hope that existing religions can be melded with this common view, bringing about more unified and enlightened human behavior, which we can all agree is urgently needed.

Professor Primack is a physicist and cosmologist. His co-author and wife is a cultural philosopher and university lecturer. In their book, which abounds with arresting illustrations and fascinating facts, they describe the universe and its history and future as it has only recently become understood –– hence “New Universe” in the title of the book. The authors analogize the burst of population growth and technological development and the accelerating rate at which humans have been changing the Earth’s atmosphere and ecosystem with the extremely brief fraction of a second of inflation of the universe that preceded the “big bang.” They say that, just as the inflationary period ended and the universe continued to expand but at a very much slower rate, allowing galaxies, stars, and planets, including Earth, to form, so humans have expanded their development at tremendous speed, but, after achieving exponential growth and development have reached a critical point where they must greatly slow production of carbon emissions and the rate of exploitation of natural resources. If humans can do this –- if we can understand and draw wisdom from the cosmic picture –- we have half a billion years before the sun will have heated up so much that Earth’s oceans will boil away, and even then, far more advanced than we are now, we can move the Earth to a safer orbit. There is virtually no limit to what we and our descendants can accomplish.

Personally, I think that the universe and its workings, the most impressive of which is life, particularly intelligent life, particularly human life, is more awesome than the constructs of any religion, and it would be wonderful if an awareness and appreciation of the cosmos and our place in it could bring all peoples and their diverse religions together. It’s a lovely dream.
 

May 9, 2011

It took several months, but I finished the paired reading of The Brothers Karamazov and Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Writer in His Time, a one-volume condensation of Joseph Frank’s acclaimed five-volume biography.

Dostoevsky was an intense and complex man, full of contradictions, but in the course of his tumultuous life he developed a firm distaste for the socialist and revolutionary ideas and movements that flourished among young intellectuals in Russia and feared that a revolution or democratic government would produce a godless, anarchical, unprincipled society. In his view the only path that could lead individuals and societies out of misery and cruelty lay in the footsteps of Christ, and it was Russia’s destiny to lead the world to a realization of that vision.
 
The youngest brother in the novel, Alyosha, is a twenty-year old saint-like monk who, following the instruction of his revered elder, Zossima, leaves the monastery to engage himself in the world, though his preeminent concern is with the catastrophic events in his own family. His brother Ivan is a compassionate and sensitive intellectual who is tortured and eventually driven mad obsessing over the implications of his atheism. The third brother, Dimitri, is a passionate, impulsive, occasionally violent, thoroughly ungrounded man, not incapable of sensitive feelings. The widowed father of this trio, Fyodor Pavlovich, is a grossly egocentric, thoroughly repulsive, hypersensuous buffoon.

All the passions and ideas that roiled the Russian people in Dostoevsky’s time are illuminated in this novel, which took on almost biblical significance for its readers when it was published shortly before his death in 1881. Throughout Russia there was wide recognition that no one else had suffered so much or thought so much, or had tried so hard to show Russia the path to a more noble and exalted destiny.

Czar Alexander II was assassinated within months after Dostoevsky’s death, but the Bolshevik Revolution still lay thirty-six years in the future. We can imagine Dostoevsky, had he been able to witness that cataclysm and its aftermath, sadly shaking his head, his intimations about the course of an atheistic socialist takeover confirmed and then some by V. I. Lenin and his followers who, in the name of the people, imposed a totalitarian regime on Russia and most of its neighboring countries for three-quarters of a century.

But one also may ask what shape would a theocratically grounded Russia have taken? Would it have evolved into a utopia of Christ-inspired selfless souls like Alyosha as Dostoevsky imagined? Or the repressive warped version of Christendom presaged in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan’s chilling version of a tyrannical theocracy that constitutes the most famous chapter in the novel? Or some no less abhorrent variant, contemporary examples of which quickly come to mind?

                                                                                                                                                       May 1, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Doestoevsky

I decided to divide my book reading more or less evenly between contemporary works and classics, for starters coupling The Brothers Karamazov with Joseph Frank’s monumental biography of Dostoevsky. I read the Frank’s book to the point where he begins to talk about Brothers K, which Dostoevsky wrote near the end of his life. Then I read the novel. Now I’m going to finish the biography.

FD was acutely sensitive to human suffering and cruelty; yet he was a compulsive gambler, an extreme slavophile, anti-semitic, anti-French, anti-German, anti-English, etc, an impassioned supporter of the czar, a sometime war mongerer, and believed that Russia’s destiny was to become an idealized Christian society. The cross-currents of his thinking were projected onto his characters of his novels. I’ll be more informed about him and about Brothers K and have more thoughts about them after I finish Frank’s book.

 

April 25, 2011

The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian.

In 1950 the brilliant mathematician, World War II code-cracker, and pioneer of computer science, Alan Turing, predicted that by the year 2000 thirty percent or more of judges would not be able to tell which of two participants in a conversation was a human and which was a computer. Then, he said, we can admit that computers can think.

Inevitably, someone funded an annual contest in which a talking computer, known as a chatbox, tries to fool judges into thinking it is human. This has to be accomplished in five minutes. The chatbox that fools the most judges is awarded a prize named after the founder of the contest, Hugh Loebner, for being the most human computer. The human who is most recognizable as such ––who most clearly succeeds in exposing his interlocutor is a machine –– is awarded the prize for being the most human human. That title was bestowed on Christian in the 2009 contest. Thus far, no computer has, by Turing’s criterion, established that it can think.

That computers and computer programming have become increasingly sophisticated was underscored in recent years by the victory of  IBM’s Deep Blue in a chess match with Gary Kasparov, the world champion, and the victory by a computer named Watson in a match with champion Jeopardy player, Ken Jennings. It’s probably just a matter of time until a computer fools a majority of the judges in the Loebner competition. 

Brian Christian’s chatty and discursive book explores linguistic and psychological considerations bearing on the contest, but I found it of limited interest, because, though it’s clear that computers can think in the sense of number crunching, fact crunching, and even language crunching, neither the Turing test nor The Most Human Human address the really big question as to whether computers can develop anything like human self-awareness.

 

March 29, 2011

All Things Shining -- Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly

Religiosity is a pronounced feature of American life, but despite all the preaching and prayers, we live in a secular and disenchanted age. We need to find meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in our lives. Where better to look than in the great classics of our civilization? So, it’s a sensible project that Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, undertake.

The book is loosely structured. A lot of ideas, examples, anecdotes, and opinions find their way into it, but in the main the authors are concerned with determining what is meaningful, which they say is the shining and sacred. They begin by examining two contemporaries, David Foster Wallace, who they say was the greatest writer and perhaps the “greatest mind altogether” of his generation, and Elizabeth Gilbert, whose memoir Eat, Pray, and Love, was a best seller, then consider famous classic writers and thinkers such as Homer, Aeschylus, Jesus, John, Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Dante, Luther, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Herman Melville; they devote their longest chapter to Moby Dick.

We learn that Wallace thought it possible to summon up the shining and sacred by choosing to do so –– that you can bootstrap your way out of your malaise by controlling your thoughts –– but he "couldn’t find hope, nor was he capable of resigning himself to the absence of hope." The authors say that his prescription, rooted in the Nietzschean idea that we are responsible for “generating out of nothing whatever notion of the sacred and divine there can ever be,” doesn’t work.
 
Gilbert believes that if you are open to experience, meaning will come to you, an approach the authors liken to Luther's view that we should be open to and rely on the grace of God. The authors  say that this passive strategy won’t work any better than Wallace’s active one, nor, apparently will that of any other contemporary writer. So they turn to the classics, where they get instant results.

For Greeks in Homeric times, the sacred and shining was found in attunement to gods. By this measure, say the authors, there was some virtue in Helen’s leaving her husband Menelaus and running off with Paris: she was responding to the influence of Aphrodite! Similarly, Odysseus was attuned to Athena. When the surf threatened to dash him against sharp rocks, he rode the surge of a wave, secured a handhold, and escaped being swept back into the sea. In a footnote, the authors speak of the middle voice in Homer’s Greek (as distinguished from the active and passive voices), which was apt for describing the episode: Odysseus did not of his own accord reach safety; neither was he luckily cast up by the waves. Success required personal skill and heroism and attunement to the gods.

The Homeric idea, the authors write, “is that we act at our best when we open ourselves to the world, allowing ourselves to be drawn from without." This is evidenced in the feats of great athletes who seem preternaturally guided, for example in eluding defenders and making perfect shots in basketball and in displaying extraordinary grace in tennis. They accomplish this not by will power or technical skill alone; they are attuned to the world about them, giving them a sense of where the ball is and their opponents are.

The ancient Greeks, say Dreyfus and Kelly, “held the world in constant wonder.” We can’t recapture their childlike rapture, but we can rediscover the “practices that reveal the sacred enchantments of the world.” (The authors don’t mention that the Greek gods were often wanton and malevolent. Odysseus was put in a position where he was almost dashed against the rocks because Poseidon wanted to drown him!)

Next considered is Aeschylus. Performances of The Orestia became a catharsis, the moral of which was akin to the message of a monotheistic God, in this case preaching citizenship and civic pride. But we are told that the subsequent history of Athens ––eventuating in ruinous wars –– exposed the weakness of seeking meaning in such values.

Greek thought infused Christian theology. Much effort was expended trying to reconcile the two. For Paul and St. Augustine, followed by Descartes and Kant, introspection – working things out in one’s mind – was the way to proceed. For St. Thomas and Dante, it was attentiveness to the supreme radiance of God. In the case of St. Thomas, the authors write, there was “no place for Jesus’s agape, love, nor love for a community of joyful Christians, or indeed for individual selves.” For Luther, there was joy and gratitude to God for embracing us despite our sins, but Luther was essentially passive and fatalistic and therefore didn't supply a successful strategy for finding meaning.

Descartes, they say, like Jesus, was a “reconfigurer,” an exceedingly rare person (they were the only two!) who revolutionizes the way people think about themselves and the meaning of their lives. Descartes thought that we could work out rules through reason alone, initiating the modern view, which tends to close off wondrous phenomena to which Homer was attuned.

Following Descartes, Kant argued that the individual is responsible for his own acts, but the authors say that this was freedom without a guide and led to the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche and Sartre.

A generation before Nietzsche, Melville could see “the threat of nihilism looming,” and “even more amazing could see the recovering of Homer’s polytheistic gods as a way to surmount it.”  He compares the white faceless whale to God. “If the whale is God,” say the authors, “then he is a polytheistic god and his is a world of multiple meanings and truths.”

Melville’s ecstatic narrative, rich with symbolism and ironies, is immensely powerful, but, despite the “recovery of polytheistic gods” it's not made clear what meanings we are to find in it, except in the peril of monomania and in Ishmael's reflection as to what is important –– “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country,” an utterance reminiscent of Jesus’s saying in the gnostic gospel of Thomas that “The kingdom of God is spread out on the surface of the earth.”

In the same vein the authors quote Nietzsche, whom they earlier criticize for fostering nihilism:

    "What is required {for knowing how to live} is to stop   courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance . . .Those Greeks were superficial –– out of profundity.”

In the final chapter, attempting to tell us what to make of it all, the authors identify two values: physic and poiesy. We are told that physic –- being caught up in and finding meaning in a communal emotion –– is exemplified by the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial and also by the rants of Adolph Hitler! The authors say that to distinguish between