Friday, August 15, 2008

This Week at the Library (15/8)

Books this Update:
  • Firestarter, Stephen King
  • Hard Call, John McCain
  • Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman
  • The Ascent of Science, Brian L. Silver

I began this week with Stephen King’s Firestarter, which was recommended to me by several friends. Firestarter is about a young girl named Charlie who can start fires with her mind. She picked up this ability courtesy of the fact that her parents were both involved in a Secret Government Experiment during the 1960s. The experiment entailed treating college students to a drug referred to as Lot Six to see if it generates psi-talent by doing ’something’ to the pituitary gland. Since the majority of people in the experiment self-destructed in one form or another, the Government takes special note of the fact that two of its experiment’s survivors married and reproduced. As it turns out, they had good reason to take note, since Charlie can set people on fire. Naturally, pops doesn’t want the Government trying to turn his daughter into their secret weapon, and the fact that they tortured and murdered his wife doesn’t make him think that they have Charlie’s best interests at heart. Such cynicism, and at his age.

The story was engaging and well-written, in my opinion. King never bores me, and the ending wasn’t clich√© at all. My only complaint is the dubious claim that “psi” abilities exist and can be linked to the pituitary gland. However, getting upset about that would be like growing annoyed with the idea of a fairy godmother in Snow White or miracles in the Left Behind series. It’s book magic.

Next I read Arizona senator John McCain’s latest book, Hard Call. I found the book accidentally. I decided to finish the week’s selection of books by exploring the biography shelves, and while examining the biographical anthologies, I saw McCain staring at me. The book looked interesting, so I decided to give it a go. Senator McCain begins by writing about the process of making decisions, and says that he believes that “Awareness, foresight, timing, confidence, humility, and inspiration” are “the qualities typically represented in the best decisions and in the characters of those who make them.” He divides the book into six sections, one for each attribute. After introducing each one, he shares several historical accounts that he believes represent those attributes well. His definition of “humility” leads to me to think that he would have been better off using another title, like “Empathy”, “Compassion”, or “Altruism”.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. While I was familiar with many of the stories he used, there were quite a few others that I was completely unaware of, and I found them enjoyable. The weakest section was “Inspiration”, in my opinion. The last account he renders is of Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. According to McCain, the decision was the result of a bet President Lincoln made with God/Fate. (Seriously.) McCain only cites one source of this (cites it twice, actually), which I question on the basis that if it’s true, it’s ridiculous. Consider:

Option 1: Abraham Lincoln, being an astute politician, who had on previous occasions maintained that he had no desire to stamp out slavery, decided that issuing the Emancipation Proclamation would be a wise move to keep England and France out of the war, but realized that he could only issue it in the aftermath of a Union victory. When McClellan’s army successfully blocked Lee’s army at Sharpsburg/Antietam Creek, Lincoln seized on his opportunity and changed the Union’s war goals from being “preserve the Union” to “restore the Union and end slavery”.

Option 2: Lincoln, an astute politician who had on previous occasions maintained that he had no interest in ending slavery, made a bet with God//Fate: if the Union won a great victory, he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation and free the slaves. (Well, the ones in rebelling states that the US Army reached.)

I can’t take seriously the idea of an intelligent Abraham Lincoln putting his reputation and possibly the fate of the war on the line for an arbitrary bet with fate. Aside from that major gaffe, I enjoyed the book. I didn’t read one chapter (one on reconciling Christianity and the decision to go to war, which isn’t of interest to me), but it was only one small exception. Since Senator McCain is a political personality, I probably should comment on his obvious biases, if any. To be honest, I really didn’t see a lot of bias in the book, which impressed me. His chapter on Harry Truman’s support of the civil rights movement was particularly impartial. There are a couple of issues, though. Were I to believe his section on Reagan, I would come away thinking Reagan was Superman. McCain, or his ghostwriter, also treats The Media and The Wisemen as ever-wrong naysayers, who are always out to make his heroes’ lives more difficult. Everyone likes to malign the scientific “elite” for doubting innovative ideas that have yet to be proven, but they always seem to forget that the “elite” also have a knack for killing ignorance like spiritualism and homeopathy. Well, I support you, Intellectual Elite. You mitigate the effects of obnoxiously gullible people on my life.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and recommend it if you want to read some interesting accounts of some inspirational people. The book gets extra kudos for having a section on Gerald Ford, who I think doesn’t get enough credit.

Next I read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation and was thoroughly captivated by it despite the fact that it was set hundreds of years after the first book and that there is probably a novel separating them. Second Foundation continues Asimov’s political saga set in the stars. In Foundation, the story began with a Psychohistorian named Hari Seldon forseeing the future of the then-waning Galactic Empire and setting a plan into action to bring about a restoration of that empire within a thousand-year span. He does this by establishing two Foundations: one on Terminus, which the first book concentrated on, and the other “at the other end of the galaxy, at Stars’ End”.

At the beginning of this book we find that the first Foundation has fallen under the boot heel of something that Seldon’s Plan could not have anticipated: a mutant, a galactic conqueror who calls himself the Mule and the First Citizen of the Union of Worlds. The Mule is a mutant because he can transform the minds of people around him by exerting some kind of emotional control. He is in effect hyper-charismatic. As Seldon’s plan could not have foreseen the birth of such a mutant, his actions throw the Plan into chaos. The Mule becomes aware of the plan, and develops a sort of paranoia around it. He sees the Second Foundation as his enemy, and they are a particularly dangerous enemy because he doesn’t know where they are. There is no planet called “Stars’ End” -- and as the Galaxy is a three-dimension object in space that is lens-shaped, it doesn’t really have an end.

The book is divided into two general parts: the first part concerns the Union of Worlds that the Mule establishes and his efforts to locate the Second Foundation so that he can destroy it. The second part of the book concerns the ongoing galactic political situation: after the Mule’s death, his Union collapses (this isn’t a spoiler: a political entity built around the abilities of one man is doomed to certain failure as soon as that man dies.) and the Foundation is restored. On Kalgan, the capital world of what was the Union, its ruler seeks to destroy the Foundations so that he can establish his own galactic empire. Some on Terminus -- site of the first Foundation -- are also seeking out the Second Foundation so that they can destroy it.

The book offers interesting comparison to two ideas: first the idea is the idea of free will. Many people, even nonreligious people, spend a lot of time discussing free will. Why this is relevant has always baffled me, but people persist. The religious and naturalistic origins of the free will discussion in our own universe can be examined elsewhere: in Asimov’s Foundation universe, the argument is set against the Plan. It is now common knowledge throughout political worlds (Kalgan and Terminus) that centuries ago, Hari Seldon set into effect The Plan, and that it knows what everyone is going to do and that the Foundations are manipulating events, consciously or no, to further the Plan, to bring it into fruition. In one section of the book, a character tries to decide what to do on the basis of what the Plan would suggest. Since he dislikes living under the Plan, he wants to do the opposite of what he might be expected to do -- but he doesn’t know if the Plan expects him to do the unexpected.

I mentioned that this character dislikes living under the Plan. He is not alone. The ruling political powers dislike the idea that their actions are predictable and that they are living their lives and creating their empires just to fulfill a long-dead scientist’s Master Plan to restore the Empire in the future. They want the Empire restored now, by them, for their glory. This was not always so, though. In Foundation, the ruling party of the Foundation on Terminus was quite happy to abide by the Plan. It saved them in crises. They knew that whatever came up, the Plan would save them. But as they grew in power and influence, they wanted to take the initiative: they disliked living under the Plan. This is true only of the ruling party: the people of both Kalgan and Terminus believed fervently in the plan, had perfect trust in it.

The comparison is to the idea of gods, or religion. For people without much power -- people who are poor, or who are in the political minority -- it is easy to seek solace in the idea that there are gods watching out for them, guiding them. Even some of those who are nonreligious are given to the idea that the human race is proceeding to a better day -- that we’re progressing. And we are, in a sense. While human nature is fundamentally unchanged, each generation (at least, in progressive societies) moulds its children’s brains along different lines. Six hundred years ago, boys would have been trained to follow their father’s line of work and girls would have been taught to be good domestic servants and loyal concubines -- for that is what medieval wives were, by our standards. But today, schoolchildren in the west are taught that they pursue any career or vocation that interests them, and our governments make the effort to see that they are equipped with the tools to pursue their interests. I would take society today at its worst over 15th century society at its best. But in the larger sense, the human race is still very much the same: we’re still irrational and limited animals, we’ve just manage to domesticate ourselves.

Anyway, so people take solace in the idea that there’s a Plan, or that things will get better eventually. An example of that is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But as people grow in power, as they become more able to take care of themselves, they no longer need to take comfort. Look at it this way: if you’re in a desert and find an unlimited oasis with company and all of the pleasures you would want to imbibe in, would you really keep tromping through the desert because you were told that there was a city that offered more? Modern people in the west no longer fear Zeus’ wrath when a thunderstorm moves in -- although some still pray for rain when there’s a drought.

(I say “in the west” because I can only speak for what I know. As I don’t live in Egypt or India and don’t have access to contemporary Egyptian or Indian literature that I could use to sort out what the average Egyptian or Indian might believe, I can’t speak for their mindsets.) Second Foundation is a highly enjoyable piece of science fiction and is made better by the fact that there’s more to it than story -- or at least that I read more into it than just the story.

Next I read Neil Postman’s Technopoly, which I attempted to find last week but failed to do. Technopoly, published in 1993, concerns what Postman had been observing since the rise of television: technology’s growing monopoly on how we live and understand our lives. He divides world cultures into three groups, based on their relation with technology: tool-using cultures, which use tools to solve immediate problems (watermills) or to contribute to political/religious symbolism (cathedrals); technocracies, where life is structured by technology (political systems depending on technology like the printing press, or the increasing role of technology in capitalism); and technopolies, where people and culture are dominated by the tools they’ve created -- but not in the World Robot Domination kind of way.

The book is short but explosive: it’s full of provocative ideas and I spent a lot of time mulling over the things the author was saying so well. It’s rather hard to sum this book up in a couple of paragraphs: frankly, a sociology student could write graduate papers in response to the book, in disagreeing with it or in using how far we’ve come since 1993 as a demonstration of how right he was. I don’t know where to begin, so I won’t try to do commenting on the ideas justice. I will say the book is exceptionally well-written. Postman explains why he believes as he does quite well, and his ideas are quite interesting. I really dislike leaving this commentary on Technopoly as it stands: the book deserves further comment, and I hope that future sociology classes will give me the opportunity to use the book.

I do have some comments, though. In the book he points out that for many people, science has become the new mythology. This is not to say that physicists and biologists are High Priests and that the universities are the new seminaries -- merely to say that just as people once believed the priests implicitly, now they believe science or anything that is science-y implicitly. As an example, he uses an experiment he performed on friends and acquaintances: he asked them if they had heard the results of a latest study by a prestigious university. He mixed up what the study “proved” depending on who he was dealing with, but all of his stories sounded ridiculous. What he found was that people believed him because the ridiculous conclusion was arrived at by a prestigious university, by “Scientists”.

He mentioned the same idea in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: people today are as gullible and superstitious as ever. They know more, but they’re just about as intelligent. As a skeptic, I’m very much in agreement here. It’s important for people to know things, but it’s more important for people to be able to know things for themselves, to be able to sort truth from fiction. Otherwise they’re dependent on other people for truth. The strength of modern science is not what we know, but our approach to knowing. One quotation I never tire of is Carl Sagan’s “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 idea 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."

One of the problems that Postman has with technopoly is that it divorces us from a cohesive worldview, creating a gap that systems like the political “religion” of Communism can exploit to our detriment. He writes that as our ability to access information has increased, we have made efforts to manage this information by presenting it in rational ways: one of his examples of “information management” is public schooling. However, he maintains that there is so much information available today -- through television and the internet -- that parents and their attempts at information management are waning and that we are being overwhelmed by information and have no way of putting it to use. He proposes that education be presented as part of a theme focusing on the human story. One of his ideas, one which I like very much, is that every subject be presented partially as history -- because it is only within a historical context that we can really understand any subject. If you understand historical contexts, then you are better able to process new information or to examine the veracity of things you already ‘know’. There are a lot of ideas in this book. While I didn’t agree with everything, it was very thought provoking and I like that in the books I read. I recommend it.

Next I began reading Brian Silver’s The Ascent of Science, which is a largish book that attempts to present the history of science to the average person. The story is not told a recitation of facts, but is presented as a story of ever-evolving ideas about the universe -- which I like. I’m not quite finished yet, but I’m quite close and will comment more on it next week.

Pick of the Week: Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov and Technopoly by Neil Postman.

Quotation of the Week: “There have always been those who have held that life is property that cannot possibly arise out of inanimate matter, not because they can’t conceive of the chemical pathway but because it offends their view of the universe. This is the ‘Life-is-something-special” school of thought, for whom the uniqueness of life is threatened by mean little scientists in scruffy lab coats trying to prove that a proto-Bach originated in a mixture of gases that was struck by lightening.” - Brian Silver, The Ascent of Science, p. 339

Next Week:
  • Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov
  • Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Iron Coffins: A Personal Account of the German U-Boat Battles of World War II, Herbert Werner
  • American Origins to 1789, Dumas Malone and Basil Rauch
  • The Ascent of Science, Brian L. Silver

Thursday, August 7, 2008

This Week at the Library (7/8)

Books this Update:

I began this week with Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. Rice is a well-known author, but one I’ve never read before for the reason that I’m not much for fantasy and horror. Despite that, I do like vampires -- go figure. Since Rice has written a host of vampire novels, I decided to try one. The one I’ve heard about is Interview with a Vampire, mostly because there’s a movie based off of it -- and so I checked it out and began to read.

Interview with a Vampire begins with a young man sitting down with a vampire to interview him. The story of the book is the vampire’s story. The vampire’s name is Louis, and he lived in pre-Revolution New Orleans as an indigo planter. In 1791, another vampire named Lestat turned him into a vampire as payment for Louis allowing Lestat and his mortal father to stay at the plantation and enjoy Louis’ profits. This is where the story begins, as Louis finds himself for the first time really enjoying life, through the heightened sensibilities of vampires -- who have superhuman hearing, sight, and smell. I wonder how this is accomplished without having longer noses and larger ears. (Book-magic, of course, is the answer.) Louis’ newfound appreciation for life (now that he’s undead) is tainted with confusion about where he fits into the scheme of things, and he racks his brains with questions of evil, good, God, and the devil. (I wonder if there is any correlation between vampire stories and Christian mythology: do Aztec and Chinese legends have vampires, I wonder?) Lestat does not appreciate his fledgling’s attitude and behavior: he grows bored of the philosophical questions and makes fun of Louis’ habit of losing himself in watching people or observing the night. Because of this, Louis eventually leaves to find out more about himself: his travels lead him to Europe and beyond.

Rice’s vampires seem to be mostly rooted in popular myth, but there are exceptions. Her vampires are unbothered by garlic, crosses, holy water, or “Get thee behind me, Satan!”-type utterances from her characters. They can see themselves in mirrors, and they can’t change their form into steam or bats or wolves or anything of the like. They do die when exposed to sunlight, sleep in coffins, and say ‘Bleh!” all the time*.

I have only ever read one another serious vampire novel, and that is Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ In the Forests of the Night. Atwater-Rhodes’ vampires have a much easier time of things, though: they don’t have to sleep in coffins, they don’t turn to dust in the sun; and they can change their form willy-nilly. In addition to this, they also are unbothered by crosses, holy water, and “Get thee behind me, Satan!”-type utterances. They do object to sunlight and garlic, but only because they have heightened senses of sight and smell. There are similarities in the two stories, through. The way a vampire turns a mortal human into a vampire is very similar -- draining the human victim of nearly all blood, and then replacing it with vampiric blood.

It was an intriguing book, although for whatever reason I began losing interest in the story after two hundred or so pages. The first part of the story was interesting, because the world the book is set in was being slowly developed. It’s difficult to pin down why exactly I started losing interest in the story, but there are some things I can say. The themes penetrating the book -- existentialism, despair, question of evil, etc -- seemed to be too obvious, and they were rather boring themes to me. I like my themes to be more subtle. The ending of the book was rather obvious, and it didn’t leave me with the desire to read more. I think I’ll stick with Amelia Atwater-Rhodes for my vampires. Her In the Forests of the Night is much shorter, but the atmosphere is not only better but developed more quickly. I don’t see myself pursing Anne Rice further, although I may read one of her recent Jesus books to see how her style has changed.

Next I read The Age of Synthesis by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser. It’s a re-write of their The History of Science in the 19th Century. The nineteenth science was a formative era in the history of science -- for instance, John Dalton reintroduced atomic theory and the team of Charles Darwin and Wallace introduced the theory of evolution. Electricity and magnetism are brought together, and electricity and atomic theory both help revolutionize chemistry --hence why the authors chose to call the book The Age of Synthesis. Like The Rise of Reason, this book is divided into three sections: the Physical Sciences, the Life Sciences, and Science and Society. In Science and Society, the authors comment on the rise of psuedosciences and pure bunk like homeopathy and spiritualism. They also explore the ways that science effects the lives of everyone. Interestingly, many of the United States’ founding fathers were members of the American Philosophical Society. While rationalists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were members, I was surprised to learn that men like George Washington and John Adams were as well. (Washington’s philosophical attitudes are especially ambiguous.) As it turns out, Lewis and Clark’s expedition was financed by this society, and there were nearly fifty people involved -- not just Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea and York. One of the more amusing stories in this book concerns John Dalton: it seems he realized he didn’t see colors the same way as the majority of people, so he had his eyeballs donated to science after his death. Some morbidly curious personality in the mid-90s examined them with an microscope and found that his corneas responsible for seeing the middle of the light spectrum were missing.

Next I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Although Asimov is one of my favorite authors, I have not read the work he is most famous for -- until this week. Foundation is set many years in the future, when the human race has spread throughout the galaxy, courtesy of hyper drives that allow us to get past that annoying speed-of-light speed limit that Zeus so thoughtlessly imposed on the universe. (This is a common element of science fiction, and I wonder who started it. Star Trek has “subspace”, Star Wars and Foundation have “hyperspace”, and one science-fiction series I read in middle and high school had “zero space”.) The empire is very old, and one scientist who uses statistical analysis believes that it will decay into irrelevance, leaving anarchy and a galactic dark ages in its wake. Hari Seldon is this scientist’s name, and he is a “psychohistorian”. He can somehow predict how people will respond to social changes using statistical analysis, and so can predict the future.

Foundation is a collection of five short stories, each set at various periods of the Empire’s advancing decay. In the beginning, Seldon puts a plan into action that will bring about a new Empire -- a better empire. His plan begins with sending a group of a hundred thousand people to a world devoid of resources, called “Terminus”. They establish the Foundation to carry out Seldon’s plans. I won’t divulge much more for fear of spoiling the book for those who want to seek it out. As it is Asimov’s most famous work, it may be easier to find than the Black Widower stories. One of the causes for the Empire’s stagnation is that intellectualism is gone: no one is really thinking anymore. The Emperor is never questioned: people just assume that he’s right, that he knows what he’s doing, and that he can take care of everything. Scientific advance is essentially nonexistent -- for that matter, advance of every sort. One of the plot elements is hilarious, and it penetrates most of the stories in this book. I can’t explain it without giving anything way, so I’ll leave it at this: Asimov thought of Clark’s third law before Clark did and his characters made it practical.

I thought this book was part of a trilogy, but according to the Fount of All Knowledge, it’s part of a series of fifteen novels and dozens of short stories. I took a peek at the list of books, and I doubt I will EVER find all of those. I’m not sure where to go from here, but it’s an interesting series and I want to continue. I want to comment on a couple of things. Asimov describes the Imperial capital planet as a planet covered by the metal of the imperial city, where the inhabitants can go their entire lives without seeing the sky. The capital of the Galatic Empire in George Lucas’ Star Wars universe is intended to be an illustration Asimov’s of city-planet -- quite the nod considering Star Wars’ popularity.

After reading Foundation, I turned my attention to Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. It is an essay, written in 1849, written to express his views on government and the people’s relation to it. “The government that governs best governs least,” he says, and an ideal government governs not at all. Governments, while a necessary evil, are still an evil and an evil with effects that must be mitigated as much as possible. Even in a democracy, people have little actual power over the government. Actions are taken by the government before the people can voice their consent or disapproval, and those in the government will often undertake those actions for their own aims. The example Thoreau is thinking of is undoubtedly the Mexican War, which he saw as an expensive endeavor of the United States that was done simply to further the expansion of slavery. President Grant was of this opinion as well: he saw the Civil War as a direct consequence of the Mexican War, because the new states extorted at gunpoint from Mexico aggravated the slavery issue in the country when they were being admitted.
Thoreau states that when the government errs, it is not likely to offend the majority of voters, who may be apathetic. The few who do vocally object to courses of action undertaken by the government are in actuality powerless if they cannot overcome their countrymen's apathy. Even if they vote, those votes will be ignored. The problem lies in the apathy of the majority, of people who are content to obey the government without questioning what laws being passed actually mean. Here are two quotations to illustrate Thoreau's thoughts:

There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing,; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and as it may be, fall asleep over them both. What IS the prices-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them.

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. IT makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its own faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

I enjoyed the essay. After I read it, I read Asimov’s I, Robot, which is a collection of short stories about robots. The stories are all related, and are presented in the book as being the recollections of Dr. Susan Calvin, a prominent character in Asimov’s robot-related works. As she plays an important part in Earth’s major robot manufacturer (US Robots and Mechanical Men), her stories are of great importance to the fellow interviewing her. Several of the stories featured the same two likable characters testing robots, so there’s not a lot of jumping around. I, Robot is supposed to fit into Asimov’s Foundation universe in some way, but I’m not sure how. The only thing I can think of is the invention of hyperspace in one of the later stories. Curiously, though, robots seem to have vanished by the time of the Galactic Empire. I enjoyed the book immensely, which is par for the course for Asimov.

Pick of the Week: Foundation, Isaac Asimov.

Quotation of the Week: “I think we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the ‘law‘, so much as [a respect] for the right.” - Henry David Thoreau

Next Week:
  • Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • Firestarter, Stephen King
  • Technopoly, Neil Postman
  • The Ascent of Science, Brian Silver
  • Hard Call: Great Decisions and Extraordinary People Who Made Them, John McCain
* Not really.

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