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 cliché 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

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