Friday, August 1, 2008

This Week at the Library (31/7)

Books this Update:
  • The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx
  • Nine Tales from Tomorrow, Isaac Asimov
  • Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Neil Postman
  • Books that Changed the World, Robert B. Downs
  • The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I wanted to start reading historically significant books. The Communist Manifesto strikes me as being one of the most influential books in human history, for better or for worse. Before this, I had the vague impression that Marx and Engels had somehow created the ideas of communism in this book. It turns out that Marx was asked to write the book to articulate the thoughts of communist and socialists, which would indicate that communism and socialism were both ideas that were already around and with a following -- unless Marx is a time-traveler. While the book is written to express the views of the “communist party”, this does not actually refer to any actual organized political party, but rather the body of people who shared communist ideas. This leads me to wonder how communist and socialist ideas were actually formed. It would be interesting research if I cared, but I don’t really. The Communist Manifesto is in essence a political tract, and it strikes me as being quite romantic. In the beginning, when Marx is writing about how capitalism has transformed the society, he writes that it turned the family into a mere economic unit and so on. I suppose if you’re advocating any kind of utopia, especially one run by working-class revolutionaries who wouldn’t know how to govern, you have to be a romantic. Of course, I have the utmost respect for the working class (being part of it when I’m not in school) -- but governing modern societies is quite difficult and quite frankly without more education and civil experience than the average working person has, a dictatorship of the working class is not going to end well.

Next I read Nine Tales from Tomorrow, a collection of short stories penned by Isaac Asimov that are all set in the future of Earth. Two of the stories were also in Asimov’s Mysteries. As usual, Asimov didn’t disappoint. There were two stories in particular I thought were really interesting. The first (“Profession”) was about a society where conventional education is no longer practiced. There is so much specialization of information and so much progress in neuroscience that people are “programmed” by machines to do things. Children are strapped into a machine and “programmed” to read at age eight. When they are approaching adulthood, they are taken to machines again; the machines scan their brains, determine what programming (Computer Technician, Chemist, etc) is most compatible with their brains, and then they’re programmed.

This begs the question of what the devil those kids and teenagers are doing until their “Reading” and “Education” days. I also wonder if the machines take into account what occupations are most needed when they are about to program people. For instance, suppose you have a large amount of people one year who happen to be receptive to being programmed as master electricians, but you only need a few electricians. What happens then? What happens if there are desperately-needed jobs like root-beer manufacturers, and too few people are best-suited for root-beer programming? It’s an interesting society to ponder. The story set in it is about one man who proves to be unsuitable for any kind of programming: he’s one of those curious sorts that seeks out knowledge for the sake of it and resists being told what to think.

The second story I found quite interesting was “The Feeling of Power“, set in a time where people have become so dependent on computers that no one knows how to do any kind of math anymore. This story is especially interesting because Asimov has his characters using pocket computers that are remarkably prescient of today’s PDAs Other stories are about characters who range from suicidal supercomputers to nurses taking care of Neanderthal children who have been ripped out of their own time by some kind of machine that is used to examine historic specimens. Sadly, Asimov does not use forewords and afterwords in this book.

After this I moved on to Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past can Improve the Future. The book is by Neil Postman, who the exalted Wikipedia says was a social critic who was especially concerned with how the ubiquitous nature of information today and its presentation as mere entertainment has cheapened its value. He makes the point that people today are in fact more gullible than the people of the middle ages: it’s just that the authorities they heed unthinkingly are television personalities who happen to know more than thirteenth-century priests by accident of birth. Al Gore writes about the mass media’s role in cheapening the value of information in his The Assault on Reason. Postman looks at how the century of the Enlightenment -- the century of Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and countless others -- can help us improve our lives today in the areas of progress, technology, language, information, narratives, children, democracy, and education. There were many parts of this book I agreed with, and there were parts I disagreed with. My favorite chapter was the one on education, where Postman presents five suggestions for improving the nature of our educational system:
  • Teach children the art of asking questions.
  • Logic and rhetoric should be given more importance given that they help students “defend themselves against both the seductions of eloquence and the appeal of nonsense.”
  • Teach a scientific outlook -- get children to think about how we know scientific claims are truth rather than simply presenting them as facts to be memorized and recited. As Carl Sagan said, "Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; it is a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with an eye for human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those of authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan -- political or religious -- who comes ambling along." Postman then says that we should teach creationism in the classroom. In his words, "Good science has nothing to fear from bad science." This is very true, but it doesn‘t apply to creationism -- it isn't science, bad or otherwise. It is in this chapter that Postman comments that modern humans are more gullible than their medieval predecessors: a farmer or a lowly cobbler may have believed the sun went around the Earth, but in his defense he did observe the sun apparently cycling the Earth. Until the advent of the space age, how many billions of humans believed that the Earth went around the sun without appreciating the subtleties of solar system patterns and the way that they can be worked out through mathematics? Those people believed in a heliocentric universe -- which is utterly counterintuitive -- and did so blindly. His point is almost lost now that we have a space station orbiting Earth and robot drones scattered around the solar system, but it’s still true in other instances.
  • Teach children about the psychological, social, and political effects of new technologies.
  • Teach comparative religion in the interests of furthering understanding of our culture -- literature, music, and so on. Postman warned that this was his most controversial opinion, but I see nothing wrong with it -- so long as teachers treat each religion according to the same standard and don’t push religion on kids.

The book was an interesting read. The Enlightenment is one of my favorite historical periods to study. While I didn’t agree with everything he said, I don’t mind being annoyed if I can be made to think about my own assumptions in the process. I think I’ll be reading a little more of him.

Next I read Books that Changed the World. The author comments on sixteen books that in his opinion have changed the world. They are, in order: The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli; Common Sense by Thomas Paine; Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus; Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Das Kapital, by Karl Max; The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, by Alfred T. Mahan; The Geographical Pivot of History, by Sir Halford J. Mackinder; Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler; De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (The Revolutions of the Heavily Spheres), by Nicolaus Copernicus; De Motu Cordis, by William Harvey; Principia Mathematic, by Sir Isaac Newton; The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin; The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud; and Relativity, the Special and General Theories, by Albert Einstein.

The author, Robert B. Downs, dedicates a chapter to each book, taking care to introduce the book within its historical context. The book was published in the 1950s, but its commentary on Das Kapital is surprisingly rational given that it was published during the second red scare. I thoroughly enjoyed each commentary. Only one of the books was completely unfamiliar to me (The Geographical Pivot of History) , but I’ve not read most of these. The book stirred my interest in some of them, though, and I will be looking around for them. I recommend the book if you can find it.

Lastly, I want to comment on The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene. I didn’t finish all of it, nor do I see myself doing so before I return to university. It’s not a huge book, but the ideas are sizable and I have to re-read passages several times and think on them for a while before they finally click. The first part of the book is on general relativity, and that is the part I finished. The part I am currently on is on quantum theory, and more particularly on how matter can act both as waves and particles. While I don’t understand this, I do finally understand why time appears to slow down the nearer you approach the speed of light. I suggest finding the book if you have an interest in this. Incidentally, thanks to all of the reading I’ve been doing on this subject (mainly the Spangenburg/Moser book, Stephen Hawking’s book, and part of this book), I knew almost all of the answers in the “Fission” category in one of Jeopardy’s recent Tournament of Champions episodes. I say almost because the contestants had answered one before I walked into the room.

Pick of the Week: Nine Tales of Tomorrow, Isaac Asimov. I think maybe on weeks where I’m reading something by Asimov I should mention the runner-up, not the Asimov book, as by this point it’s fairly obvious that it’s not fair to ask other books to compete with Asimov.

Quotation of the Week: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” - Thomas Paine, The Crisis

Next Week:
  • Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • State of Denial, Bob Woodward
  • Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau
  • Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
  • The Age of Synthesis, Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser

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