Who are the agribusiness giants with a lock on so much of California's water? The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire is a history of the vast cotton empire in the dry bed of what used to be a large inland lake in the California central valley. The founders of the empire, Horatio Alger adventurers from Georgia, bought up land, had four rivers dammed, dried up the lake and used the water for irrigation.
The Georgia farm emperors brought elements of plantation culture with them; poor white, Mexican, and black laborers had rough lives, with the most opportunity available for whites, some opportunity for Mexican immigrants, and the least opportunity for black laborers, although racist violence and sharecropping oppression wasn't as vicious as the south. There were attempts to organize, and grueling strikes; in the end unions lost their foothold.
The cotton empire was able to lock in its own water supply from the rivers that used to feed the lake, so they weren't involved in the great state and federal water projects that send Sierra water south. They did participate in the strange alliance between Northern environmentalists and central valley agriculture to defeat the peripheral canal in the early 80s; the greens thought the proposal didn't protect the environment enough, and the farmers thought that it might protect the environment too much. The cotton giants also played a role in the endless legal battles to work around the 160 acre limit for federally funded irrigation projects, a rule which was only obeyed in creative workarounds and exceptions. The book has interesting, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the seduction of politicians to support the exemptions.
The book touches on the environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture; the destruction of the native habitat, of course; the poisoning of water, fish, birds from toxic buildup in the water; the poisoning of workers from pesticides, and the hostility of the farmers to the scientists attempting to measure the impact of the poisons.
The authors are former LA Times journalists, and it shows in the style. The story is built, piece by piece, from interviews with the secretive main character, family members, executives, retired laborers, washington lobbyists, and from records of legislative sausage-making and legal battles. The strength of the style is journalistic narrative drama and attention to detail, in stories about family feuds, boardroom battles, and immigrant sagas; and a fine eye for tragedies that passed un-noticed in the wider world; the babies who died of hunger in strikes, a 16-year old black farm worker without a license who died when the truck he was driving overturned, the Native Americans who remembered the once lush lake territory. As journalists in the muckraking tradition, the authors have a keen sense for corruption at petty and grand scales. The book's weakness is a lack of systematic perspective on the social, political, and environmental context. The authors are Californians and have a strong feel for the background stories. They have opinions that shape the stories, and they state their conclusions explicitly at the end; plantation agriculture is by its nature bad for democracy, and the balance between commerce and environment has been drawn much too far towards commerce. But the authors' style or knowledge shies away from the big picture.
Conclusions for peterme: I strongly recommend this book. Excellent in sweep, drama and detail. I bought the book wanting to learn more about California's agribusiness giants, and their role in politics, environment, society, and the book satisfied those goals.
The book also got me thinking more about cotton. I prefer to buy produce local and organic where possible, but hadn't given too much thought about fabric. Given the environmental cost of cotton, perhaps I should go for organic cotton too. But where farmers market food is a good value in high season, and the quality is astoundingly great, organic cotton staples seem to be 4x the price of conventional, the selection is skimpy, and the quality, hard to say. Organic cotton seems to be at an earlier stage of market maturity than organic food, which was pricy and scrawny 20 years ago. Being an early adopter will help grow the market.
What was most interesting to me about Citrus: A History was not any of these main threads of the story: origins in Asia, spread by Jewish and Arab trade and settlement in Europe, its spread the the New World with colonialism and slavery, the connection to real estate empires in Florida and California. Other intriguing sections of the book include a citrus grower in the Carribbean who was a pioneer in the anti-slavery movement, and the role of citrus crate art in promoting the myth of California. But what was most interesting to me about the book is its premature victory hymn to the triumph of industrial agriculture.
The author, Pierre Laszlo, is an emeritus chemistry professor, and he is attracted to the stories of the early and mid-20th century government scientists who innovated in finding and developing new strains of citrus and growing methods. Without irony or caveat, he praises the great California irrigation projects that send Northern California's water through the Sacramento/San Joaquin delta into the Central Valley, to feed vast citrus plantations. If a dedicated policy and scientific program was able to create today's monoculture agricultural empires, a different policy and scientific research could create different, and more sustainable results.
An Amazon reviewer criticized the book for being like a cut-and-paste collection of Wikipedia entries. The criticism has some merit. Orange: A History, takes many of its anecdotes from easily-found secondary sources The book certainly does not have the coherent narrative and research of classics in the genre, like Sidney Mintz Sweetness and Power, which tells a powerful and tragic story of the rise of sugar production through the colonial system, and Cod, by Mike Kurlansky, which tells the tragic story of the decline of the once-ubiquitous Atlantic fish. Some cursory browsing finds some of the claims in Orange dubious. It's a nice story that citrus was first brought to Europe and North America by Jews using the citron to celebrate Sukkot, but it is contradicted by other easy-to-find sources.
Summary: if you'd enjoy a collection of anecdotes about the history of citrus, you'll enjoy this book. If you want to read some brilliant nonfiction on the history of food, read Mintz on Sugar or Kurlansky on Cod instead if you haven't already.
How does "Kos", the founder of the vast DailyKos web-based liberal community site, think about online organizing? Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in the Digital Era is Markos Moulitsas Zuniga's manifesto, a self-concious descendent of Saul Alinsky's Rules for radicals.
It seems counterintuitive, but much of Kos' methodology for online organizing is about using digital tools for storytelling and advocacy to affect traditional broadcast media. Where 60s radicals got the attention of the mass media with colorful street protest, those tactics have worn out much their usefulness. 21st century organizers use the net to bring stories to the mainstream media and keep stories on the air; like Trent Lott's support for segregation and Virginia Congressman George Allen's "macaca" racism.
Kos' thinking is much like a mass media political consultant; he thinks in terms of creating compelling narratives with heroes and villains, suspense and victory. He takes lessons from the right wing think tanks in terms of "working the referees" by providing prepackaged opinions and spokespeople for progressive ideas. And he has tactics for political combat, such as "punch up, not down" - making powerful political enemies can be an advantage if it brings fame and credibility.
Kos is proud to be more partisan than ideological. He believes with some justification that the weakness of the left has been the focus on ideological purity and individual causes above pragmatic victory. So environmental groups and womens groups would support moderate Republican candidates, even though a Republican majority would be on the whole much worse for the causes of the environment and reproductive freedom.
But a tactical, pragmatic, narrative-oriented approach could also lead to winning battles but losing the overall war. Without an overall progressive vision, it's hard to say which compromises to make. It's one thing to help get candidates elected; and other thing to monitor that the candidates are actually better once elected.
Kos' tactical focus on influencing the existing mass media is effective and powerful. It is only counterintuitive from the perspective of naive techno-determinists. At the same time, the tactical focus leaves for others more ambitious efforts to "be the media." The "talking heads" shows will continue to be influential, and placing new and different speakers is needed to change the terms of debate. Meanwhile, over at TalkingPointsMemo, Josh Marshall gradually builds an alternative model literate, partisan, rigorous journalism.
Taking on the System avoids what I think is the worst weakness of Alinsky's work. Alinsky conceived of political organizing as enabling the powerless to confront the powerful. By definition, the organizer works behalf of those without power; it would be a contradiction in terms for the powerless to win. Kos doesn't have any trouble thinking about winning; it may not be fast or easy; but it is possible and desirable to pass civil rights legislation for gay people and to staff Congress with progressive democrats with backbone. Where Alinsky led protests, Kos leads efforts to get candidates elected and and unelected.
But an attraction to power can lead to co-optation. It has been exciting to see NetRoots Nation, the conference for progressive bloggers, draw the presidential candidates and many congressional leaders, showing that the netroots have become an influential constituency. But it was disconcerting and distressing that while NetRoots nation was under way in 2008, while bloggers were hobnobbing with legislators and party honchos, Congress passed an extension to the FISA legislation that legitimized warrantless wiretapping. Liberal bloggers were partying while the Democratic congress helped mortgage the constitution; the netroots didn't or couldn't use the access of Netroots Nation to demand adherence to the constitution.
Kos' pugnacious partisanship appears to be a stark contrast to Barack Obama's vision of transcending red and blue America, though, in standing up for himself against attacks and proactively defining his opponents, Obama is demonstrating the desired backbone. Time will tell whether the postpartisan rhetoric and zealous partisan advocacy are complementary, with the partisans creating air cover for the post-partisan success; or whether they are opposed, with an outcome of cross-party harmony, or progressive victory with victors setting the terms. My guess is that they are complementary; a guess bolstered by the Obama campaign's late unleashing of 527s to help with campaign defense.
Kos himself focuses largely on media and message; he pays much less attention to the nitty gritty of getting out the vote, fundraising, and lobbying once the candidates are elected. Which isn't to say these things aren't important; the large Kos community is a platform for much fundraising, cheering and support for volunteers doing canvassing and voter registration; and some legislative advocacy too. I don't think that Markos himself would argue that his interests are the only important aspect of organizing, and would be glad to acknowledge these complementary disciplines.
In a few places, Kos' wisdom comes across as a bit facile. In one chapter, he exhorts entrepreneurial organizers to boldly reach beyond their previous experience and not ask for permission to lead. The organizers of Netroots Nation taught themselves how to coordinate a conference and then recruited pros. Eli Pariser taught himself the brand new art of email advocacy. In another chapter, he encourages activists to stick to their knitting, and not to go beyond their area of core strength, as when Cindy Sheehan attempted unsuccessfully to play a larger role as global peace activist. Stick to your knitting and dare to dream are both fine aphorisms, but how to tell which is which? Kos doesn't really say.
Overall, Kos' book is a strong contribution for those who want to participate in online organizing, and those who want to understand the role of DailyKos and the Netroots. Clay Shirky's Here Come's Everybody was light on how new digital tools will be used for organizing. Taking On the System provides a rich picture of a critical set of tactics and methods for organizing online.
This weekend I read three very different books on the human mind and brain.
Jeff Hawkins On Intelligence poses a speculative theory about how the neocortex works. Hawkins asserts that the distinctive aspect of human intelligence is that it allows us to make predictions. Based on a few strands of previous research, some insight, and aggressive reverse engineering, Hawkins proposes a neural architecture that enables humans to generalize patterns from raw sensation, allowing us to predict the next notes of a familiar song and to extend knowledge with analogies.
The hypothesis about how the neocortex works is interesting. The way that it proposes the generation of predictions by a combination of top-down and bottom up feedback is clever. The observation that sense-making requires a dimension of time -- not just music, but touch and sight -- is insightful. Unlike the evolutionary hypothesis of say, Terrence Deacon on the origins of symbolic thinking, Hawken's algorithm is testable. However, Hawkins' understanding of intelligence leaves out some crucial factors. Hawkins is interested in the mind as disconnected from emotions and desires. He believes that computers that have predictive intelligence without ambition, lust or greed will have the good of human intelligence, without the flaws introduced by the passions.
This dualistic vision ignores the insights of Antonio Damasio, a neurologist whose theory of intelligence embraces the emotions. Damasio observes patients with injuries to emotional processing, and finds that they lack the senses of fear and anticipation that enable people to make functional decisions. A lack of normal empathy prevents someone from getting along with other people. A computer that implemented predictive learning without emotions might be some combination of sociopathic and unwise. A computer that implemented learning without boredom and forgetting might not even be optimally effective at synthesis.
Hawkins focuses on the connections between neocortex and senses, but ignores the connections between neocortex and emotional parts of the brain. The neuroscience bits of Deacon's book explain how in humans, the connections between the limbic system and the neocortex became intertwined as humans evolved. There's a biological basis to Damasio's observation that emotions are part of intelligence.
Where Hawkins focuses on human intelligence as a superb prediction engine, Gary Marcus focuses on the flaws and glitches in human smarts in areas such as decision-making, language, pleasure-seeking, and mental illness. In Kluge, the Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, Marcus counters against evolutionary and anti-evolutionary arguments that the human mind reflects the best of possible worlds. Instead, the mind is a hodgepodge awkwardly cobbled together.
We don't do a good job of making decisions about financial risk, or resisting temptation, because of our biological tendency to maximize short-term gain. Here, Markus shares a bias with Hawkins, that reason would result in better outcomes. But if you eliminated the motivations of hope, greed and fear, a rational being might not take the risks that drive good as well as bad aspects of human society.
Marcus points out the ambiguities in human language as a sign of the awkward results of evolution assembling a speech system from older parts. Here, what Marcus sees as a bug, Hawkins might see as a feature or at least a side effect. Ambiguity in language is a result of the generalizing, pattern-matching engine that drives human intelligence. The same design that makes it hard for us to remember details makes it possible for us to recognize and create new patterns.
Marcus' book is flawed because he compares workings of the human brain with a straw man that has perfect reason. The interesting thing is not how the human mind is perfect, or how it breaks, but why it works the way it does, and how the way things break shows the way things work most of the time.
This is the focus of Oliver Sachs' Musicophilia. Where Hawkins and Marcus are theorists, Sachs is an anecdotalist. He tells story after story of individuals who gained heightened musical abilities, or diminished musical abilities, due to changes in the brain. The stories themselves are fascinating but have little theory to explain why most humans are attracted to music, or to explain the aspects of the brain that govern parts of musical appreciation and skill.
Reading Musicophilia alongside Hawkins, it makes sense that music plays on the human mind's attraction to structure and mild surprise. The recent advances in therapies depending on neuroplasticitity are also nicely explained with a theory of how the neocortex is designed for continuous learning. The stories of how memory of musical performance and sequence is retained in patients who can't store new memories can be explained by a theory that old memories and learned processes are storied differently than new stuff.
Summary recommendations, for Peterme.
* I liked On Intelligence. Some reviewers give Hawkins grief because he brings very little evidence of the neurological or biohistorical basis of his speculations. He was frustrated by the lack of academic support for the kind of science he wanted to do as a younger man; and so he thumbs his nose at the establishment and its puny traditions of supporting arguments. Nevertheless, his argument is testable, so evidence will win in the end. The bigger weakness is his discounting of the role of emotion in intelligence.
* I didn't like Kluge. I thought it was much weaker than Marcus' earlier books, which had a stronger grounding in scientific detail, melding infant development, evolutionary developmental biology, and computer modeling. In his earlier books, Marcus built interesting arguments about brain development from rich evidence. This book has some interesting anecdotes, but is mostly a polemic against some common fallacies. The fact that the straw men are common doesn't make debunking them more interesting; the book reads like he is arguing against poorly educated undergrads.
* I liked Musicophilia, despite its limitations. The book consists of anecdote after anecdote, without much connecting theory; but the stories are interesting, and it's an entree onto some hopefully more robust studies on music, mind, and neuroplasticity.
There is a fascinating book that I don't think has been written yet, on the social history of statistics. This book isn't it.
The Lady Tasting Tea by David Salsburg is entertaining for a geeky value of entertaining, but it doesn't live up to its subtitle. The book is a set of biographical sketches of the people who pioneered statistical techniques such as analysis of variance, significance tests, sampling methods. It mentions a few sentences on the impact of stats on experimental design, clinical trials, epidemiology, and other scientific topics, but doesn't go into any depth on the impact on scientific practices or discoveries.
The anecdotes about the careers of the pioneering statisticians raise interesting questions about the relationship between statistics and modern industry. The book's heroes work in agriculture, measuring yield and pesticides; industrial process control, monitoring the production of beer and cotton. They also contributed to social policy, working out theory and politics of eugenics; measuring economic activity for the new deal.
It's interesting reading these stories in the context of the debacle of modern industrial food production. Controlling the variations in batches of Guinness led to the bland hegemeny of Budweiser; the study of yields in England led to the pesticide and fertilizer treadmill, soil decline, and big dead zones in the ocean. Chester Bliss' pesticide experiments showed that at any dose of pesticides, some bugs survived. In the short run, his calculations led to effective doses; in the long run, to pesticide-resistant bugs. Incremental progress and quality control that seemed so rational and positive turned out to have counterproductive results.
It's interesting that the heroes of Salsburg's book are so obscure compared to the scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers of the last two centuries. Statistics appears as the servant to science and politics and industry. In the 20th century there's an aspect of Tom Lehrer's apolitical rocket scientist Werner von Braun -- "once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down."
The story I'd really like to read would be a comprehensive social history of statistics -- the relationship between statistics and the evolution of modern society and industry. There are some interesting-looking books about Eighteen Century public health and the emergence of statistical thinking in the 19th century. How did the trends continue into the 20th century? A number of Salsburg's subjects created departments of statistics in the mid-20th century, presumably to meet a growing need. It would be interesting to see a graph of where those students went to work in industry and government. Was the answer just "everywhere"? Or is the adoption of statistical methods uneven, and does this tell any interesting stories?
Summary: Salsburg's book adds some interesting biographical spice to names and terms that many people know only from menu items in math programs. But don't expect in-depth history.
The Country in the City tells the story how Bay Area residents organized to preserve open space. It is an inspiring and encouraging tale. The evidence of success is visible on any clear day. The culture and organizing practices that kept the hills green is active today, as Bay Area towns organize to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
The story of California water by contrast, is an ongoing tale of human folly. Battling the Inland Sea, by Robert Kelley, focuses on the efforts to deal with chronic flooding in the Sacramento / SanJoaquin delta. The Great Thirst is a magisterial overview of water use and water wars in California.
Robert Kelley wasn't just a bystander to the ironies of water history, but an actor. In the the 50s, he served as an expert witness, marshaling the history of the century of failed efforts to control flooding in the delta. The earlier efforts, he concluded, were doomed to fail because they lacked a comprehensive perspective of the delta water system. Estimates of the volume of seasonal floods were off by factors of hundreds. Piecemeal flood control efforts were next to useless.
Kelley puts the history of delta flood control in the perspective of the history of California political culture. In the 1800s, politics was polarized between Democrats, who distrusted central authority and formal education, and believed in local control, and Whigs, who believed in the enlightened rule of an educated elite. The local-control approach to flood control was a disaster. Landowners on either side of a river mounted futile arms races to build levees on their side of the river and sabotage the levee on the other side.
During the civil war era, Southerners broke with the Whig party, and the remnants formed the Republicans, but the traits of political culture remained. The centralizing, technocratic, elitist impulse held sway in the early 20th century and enabled larger, more centralized projects. Kelley seemingly sympathizes with the Whig point of view. With the massive, California State Water Project in the 50s and 60s, Kelley is confident that they finally got it right (I have the 1989 edition from the library, I don't know if he's more appropriately pessimistic in the 1998 version)
But they didn't. The vast quantities of water siphoned from the delta has left the ecosystem on the verge of collapse. A judge's recent order limiting water export from the Delta to protect the endangered Delta Smelt has thrown the system into disarray. A recent special legislative session to deal with the water issues ended without agreement.
Reading the 150 year history of the Inland Sea in the context of current events is sobering enough. The Great Thirst surveys California's water follies with a panoramic perspective of California's massive water works. The draining of the Sacramento Delta to irrigate farms and supplement Southern California's water supply is parallel to Los Angeles' taking of Owens River water, and San Francisco's appropriation of Tuolumne river water with the Hetch Hetchy dam.
In recent decades the hubris of the great waterworks has been tempered by values of conservation and environmental protection. The LA area has learned conservation lessons -- its population has grown over the last 20 years, but water consumption has barely increased Scientists have realized that surface water and groundwater supplies are connected, and groundwater recharge is seen as a major source of storage.
Systematic problems remain. Farmers get subsidized water at 1/100th of the cost paid in the city, and farmers consuming 80% of the state's water. Pesticides, industrial pollutants, and urban runoff pollute groundwater and streams. There are periodic droughts. Meanwhile, global warming threatens to cut water supply by 50% or more.
Like Kelley, Hundley puts the history of water in the context of political culture. Hundley's analysis is proportionate to the book's broader scope.
Hundley contrasts the system of California's early Spanish rulers -- central authority dividing water proportionately, in times of need, for the common good -- with the American system. The American system has been cobbled together from a hodge podge of legal principles, including riparian (water control to the landowner of the banks of the river), appropriator (whoever claims the water first), and homesteader (a principle of Reclamation law, honored more in the breach than the observance, which allocated water only to small independent farmers). None of these principles recognizes compromise and common good; and a result has been endless court battles in the attempt to win a zero sum game.
While "The City in the Country" left readers with the feeling that concerted organizing can make a big difference in the environmental health of a region. The books on water history leave the reader with the feeling that our civilization is not unlikely to head down the path of ancient Mesopotamia, where irrigation led slowly toward environmental and political demise.
Have you ever wondered what all of those gizmos were in the local power station? Wondered how water treatment works? The benefits and drawbacks of different styles of bridges? Brian Hayes, whose day job is a senior writer at American Scientist, didn't just wonder. He took pictures over a 15 year period, found out how things worked, and explained it to the rest of us in Infrastructure, The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape. As a science writer, Hayes avoids "coffee table book" syndrome, where beautiful pictures are matched with superficial text. He figures out how the system works and explains it. The pictures are fabulous, and would be even better if they were complemented by some diagrams with labels -- it wasn't always easy to figure out which bit of circuitry or process gear was which (the picture below is a set of air-blast switches with porcelain insulators at the Ravenswood power plan in Queens).
The hardback first edition was titled: "A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape." Hayes describes the artifacts of the industrial landscape like nature guides describe birds and mountains. While describing the artifacts and systems, Hayes also strives to explain why the industrial landscape is obscure to many of us. From Hayes' point of view a major reason for the obscurity of industrial objects in plain sight is that industrial infrastructure has an image problem. There is a great divide between the green/populist image of "Dark Satanic Mills" and the reality of the engineered systems that our society depends on, which have a pragmatic intricacy, elegance and beauty of their own. Hayes sees a self-reinforcing gulf between the negative stereotype of the industrial landscape, and the paranoid and secretive attitude of some industrial organizations. Hayes therefore describes the industrial systems as they are, without much critique, in the hope of increasing appreciation and understanding.
Still, Hayes notices the smokestack-scrubbing, emissions-reducing, landscape-restoring, material recycling, and other environmental innovations that have modified industrial systems in recent decades. These were put into place because of valid criticism of the destruction wrought by industry. Mining companies that behead mountains in West Virginia and oil refineries that create cancer alley in the Houston area may be secretive because they don't want to share information about the harm they cause.
Seeing the big picture of industrial systems also felt like looking at a crystal on the verge of phase change. Oil processing, roads and bridges for gas-fueled cars and trucks, centralized energy power plants and big power grids; factory farms; massive waste creation and disposal systems -- all of these depend on the last century's abundance of cheap energy, and much of it is going to change, hopefully without civilization collapsing. Renewable, decentralized energy generation, electrified transport, sustainable agriculture, cradle to cradle no-waste manufacturing or bust. I'm wanting to read "Infrastructure" as annotated by Natural Capitalism and the Journal of Industrial Ecology, showing the opportunities to reduce wasted material and energy throughout the industrial ecosystem. I hope that this book appears 50 years from now like a tour guide to Colonial Williamsburg, with descriptions of blacksmithing, barrel-making, candle-dipping, quill pen cutting, tub laundry, and other antique technologies.
The thesis of Cats Paws and Catapults is an argument against naive biomimicry. There is a fashionable and romantic belief that natural design is "better" than manmade technology, and human technologists should therefore borrow designs from nature.
The clearest counterarguments Steven Vogel brings are about locomotion by air and water. The attempt to use birds as a model for human flight set inventors off in the wrong direction. Birds are smaller than people, and so the characteristics of their flight technology is different. Larger entities need to go faster to stay aloft. Propellers and jets are superior to flapping wings for heavy humans; lighter birds don't need the speed. Similarly, marine creatures are smaller than ships. Waves pose a significant barrier for smaller, lighter swimmers, so most marine locomotion happens beneath the surface of the water. Characteristics change yet again at smaller sizes; some insects like water striders are just the right size to take advantage of surface tension.
"Cat's Paws" compares and contrasts human technology with natural technology in a range of domains: structure, shape, materials, locomotion, using lots of examples from the worlds of biology and artifact. Vogel explains the physical principles, benefits and tradeoffs for the different design approaches, using words to describe the basic math. The material would be even more fun and memorable with animated calculators that showed the changing properties of flight, structural support, and so on, allowing participants to see the impact of changing values. I wonder if this simulation exists somewhere.
The argument is made with a light hand, and the bulk of the book consists of delightful comparisons and contrasts between very different ways of solving design problems. When it comes to biomimicry, Vogel argues the most effective examples involve borrowing some aspects of a natural design, such as a dolphin's streamlined shape inspiring aerodynamic vehicles, a beetle's jaws inspiring chainsaw teeth, and the adhesive characteristics of burr inspiring velcro. The models are adapted from nature to the specific design problem and materials needed for the human requirement.
The critique of naive biomimicry focuses largely on the operating characteristics of the technologies: how they solve the presenting design problems of structure and motion. In doing so, Vogel misses a few key points about how and why human designers might want to emulate nature.
Vogel explains that human technology is able to leverage much higher temperatures and temperature ranges than natural technologies. The book, published in 1997, takes for granted the enormous amounts of seemingly cheap fossil fuel energy that allows humans to run our blast furnaces and jet engines. Sample throwaway quote: "One must remember that, their image makers notwithstanding, utility companies are in the business to sell, not save power." (California fixed this in 1982, when the state Public Utilities Commission came up with the decoupling idea that would allow utility profits to grow while sales declined.)
Another topic that the book doesn't address at all is waste. Human production processes have tended to create vast quantities of frequently harmful waste; smog, nonbiodegradable plastics, heavy metals in rivers, fertilizer-created dead zones in oceans. Natural processes tend to consume byproducts instead of creating waste, perhaps because they evolved at slower scale in the context of ecosystems, and perhaps because of accidents of chemistry. Birds digest fruit pulp and excrete the seeds that grow another plant. Animals at the end of their life become food for vultures, larvae, and bacteria.
To date, human industrial technologies have been hugely wasteful of energy and materials. Our culture needs more sustainable processes, not because it sounds romantic but because the current solutions won't last. Vogel's insight that natural models are best adapted, not borrowed, can be seen in industrial parks that use the byproducts of one manufacturing process as the feedstocks for another, and the use of microbes to detoxify industrial waste.
There are other areas where science and technology have gone beyond the information available to Vogel when he wrote the book a decade ago. Human artifacts are assembled or processed, while natural artifacts are grown. The growth process consists of an development process that creates the organism, and the ongoing chemical processes that sustain the organism; both sets of processes governed by genetic programs. Human products are often assembled at the macroscopic level, while biological products are assembled at the molecular and cellular levels. It would be interesting now, and probably even more interesting ten or twenty years from now, to read a version of the book taking into account insights and progress in the areas of gene-driven development and nanotechnology.
Recently read two books by physicians with different angles on the same topic: how doctors make mistakes. Jerome Groopman is an oncologist who writes in how Doctors Think about the prejudices, biases, and cognitive errors that result in missed diagnoses. Doctors make mistakes when they dislike their patients, when they like patients to much, when they fail to listen to patients enough; when they see the common and miss the unusual, when they are in love with their own expertise. Groopman focuses on the personal and interpersonal, the nuances the doctor-patient relationship and the thought processes in the doctor's mind.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon who focuses in Better on system problems and process solutions; methods for mass immunization, saving the lives of wounded soldiers, combatting hospital infection, and extending the lives of cystic fibrosis patients. The two doctors advocate different paths to improvement; Gawande encourages increased measurement, system improvement, and standardization; Groopman encourages personal reflection and better communication with patients, and is distrustful (with evidence) of computer-aided protocols that lead doctors to override their better judgment.
While the two physicians have different takes on how to reduce mistakes, they seem both to be a part of an underlying shift in how doctors respond to mistakes. A desire to maintain authority and prevent liability discouraged doctors from acknowledging mistakes. The newer mindset sees that analyzing mistakes with a focus on learning rather than blame can help prevent more errors.
Both doctors criticize the impact of "managed care" on the quality of medicine. Groopman writes about how doctors are encouraged to rush, eliminating doctor-patient relationships, and how drug company perks affect doctors' judgement. Gawande describes how insurance-company protocols are designed to reduce reimbursement rather than to improve care. Incentives in the US health care system for quality, cost, and accountability are not complementary. We keep paying more and get better technology but not on the whole better care.
Why do caterpillars hang from trees? They bungee jump from a silk thread in order to flee a hungry bird or other threat. They can crawl back up the thread or descend to the ground. How do beavers build their dams and lodges? With great variety and flexibility, never the same way twice, depending on the weather, landscape, population, and other factors. Animal Architects discusses insect silk, beaver dams, birds nests, bee hives, and other examples of animal building. The stories are fascinating in themselves, and the thesis is tells a larger story. The authors use numerous examples, from stereotyped wasp nests, to the highly flexible building strategies of beavers, to build taxonomies of mapping, from stimulus-response to concept-building, and social intelligence, from isolation to multi-dimensional decision-making. The picture of animal intelligence is much richer and more nuanced than the "stimulus-response" behaviorist school.
There is a strong perceived dichotomy between "intelligence" and "instinct". It can be seen in today's article Washington Post article about a recent scientific study showing that humans pleasure centers are stimulated by acts of generosity and kindness. The article quotes neuroscientists and philosophers suggesting that these scientific studies take moral judgements outside of the realm of morality and into the domain of physical determinism. "Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities." But the expression of morality - like other aspects of human behavior -- intertwines instincts, emotions, culture, and reason. The interesting thing isn't nature or nurture, it's the fascinating combinations.
How did experimentation become accepted as a primary way of doing science? Leviathan and the Airpump,the history of science classic by Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer, looks at the historical transition in Restoration England, when the culture of experiment was just being invented. The book chronicles the dispute between Robert Boyle of the Royal Society, pioneers of experimental science, and Thomas Hobbes, whose work in political philosophy has been remembered, and whose work on mechanical philosophy, short on experiment and long on reasoned "proof", has been largely forgotten.
It is an interesting question. Why, with the ability to demonstrate whether a scientific statement can be supported by facts, would someone choose to avoid experiment? Hobbes argues a few key points. Facts in the real world are messy. Boyle's pump leaked, no two pumps were alike to permit replication; and there were other problems that led the results of experiments to be much more ambiguous than they appear in textbooks. Most important, Hobbes objected to the lack of causal logic. In geometry, Hobbes' canonical form of natural philosophy, reasoned statements proceed methodically from axioms to incontrovertable conclusions. In purely empirical science, relationships between observation and conclusion are more ambiguous.
By contrasting Hobbes and Boyle, I wonder whether the authors stack the deck to maximise the contrast. Even within his peer group of experimentalists, Boyle was notoriously reticent to theorize. There are other pioneering experimentalists (Galileo, Huygens) who did more math; and whose process interleaved experimentation and mathematical theory. It seems as though Hobbes might have fewer problems with, say, Huygens' work on pendulums.
The insight I found most interesting is the way the book shows how arguments in defense of alternative scientific methods were not only about how to prove knowledge, but about how to organize society. Both sides were anxious about maintaining civil order in the aftermath of the English civil war, and promoted their respective methods as processes for reaching agreement peaceably. Hobbes' focused on creating geometric-style proofs that are so airtight that dispute is impossible. Boyle focused on removing philosophic discourse from the contentious topics of politics and religion, and allowing free argument on agreed facts.
One frustrating aspect of the book arises from its methodological refusal to be ahistorical. Responding to the tradition, in the history of science, of reading history from the perspective of known winners, and solved problems, the authors take the opposite approach, and try to present the world of 17th century natural philosophy without any more information than contemporaries had; the reader is left with the same puzzlement about "anomalous suspension", cohering disks of marble, and other puzzles that did not get solved in the time frame under consideration. What's more, the authors are deliberately anti-concerned with the scientific outcome.
I understand why the authors chose not to step out of the frame of 17th century knowledge and understanding; but I'd understand the content better with some additional glosses and appendices about the conclusions of later scientific work. Apparently, this book, Robert Boyle's Experiments in Pneumatics. written in the 50s by James Conant, actually explains the science, and used copies are on the market.
The book belongs to school in the history of science that focuses on the sociology of science. I've heard three Bruno Latour references in the last week and need to pick up the thread there. The extreme side of the argument claims that there is nothing but sociology; but that takes us to Bush political appointees censoring global warming and forbidding the national park service to estimate the age of the Grand Canyon. It is useful to bracket science in order to understand its social context, but dangerous to assert that all knowledge is opinion and belief.
AP Correspondent Brian Murphy fell in love with Persian carpets, and followed the trail of carpets from present-day Iran and Afghanistan back through pre-historic times, in The Root of Wild Madder. The book tells a more human and nuanced story of those parts of the world than one gets by reading the political news these days.
A People's History of Science assembles lots of juicy anecdotes about the untold contributions of ordinary people to science and technology. Non-european navigators taught geography to Europen explorers -- often as kidnapped hostages. Rice production in North Carolina was derived from the techniques of African slaves who were transported for their knowledge of rice culture. The canonical achievements of the scientific revolutions's great chemists and astronomers included the contributions of un-named artisans and instrument-makers: Boyle and Brahe were as much managers and administrators as they were researchers; while the members of their labs are barely known. Major achievements in mechanical and chemical engineering had contributions from informally educated miners and brewers, Innovators including Leeuwehoek, John Harrison who invented the clock that enabled measurement of longitude, and William Smith who mapped the strata of the geological history needed to fight for credit because of their non-aristocratic social origin.
The author's ideological point of view enables him to tell a history that would otherwise be invisible. The belief that much human knowlege has derived from the activities of working people, and that the bias of elites has obscured these contributions, enables him to assemble and organize these disparate stories into a collection. Creating a supported narrative fosters further questioning of conventional wisdom about the origins of science.
In other ways, though, Connor's story obscures some other interesting historical questions. Conner tells the stories of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a naturalist at the time of the French Revolution whose writing about nature focused on ecological interrelationships, including phenomena such as mimicry and symbiosis. These ideas were not incorporated into biology until centuries later. Bernardin also believed in an extreme teleologism. For example, volcanoes are designed to purify the world's water, while earthquakes are intended to purify the atmosphere. He was briefly prominent during the revolutionary period, and was excluded from the scientific establishment afterwards, for reasons combining politics and science. The interesting question is about the relationship between the validated and non-validated beliefs of early scientific figures. Isaac Newton's practice included validated physics and invalidated alchemy; while Bernardin's practice included validated ecosystem concepts and invalidated teleology. What is a good way to teach about these historical figures who investigated the unknowns of their time, and were sometimes right and sometimes wrong?
Similarly, Conner writes about Mesmer, the proponent of theories of "animal magnetism", whose ideas were popularized by Nicolas Bergasse, an influential figure in the French Revolution who advocated against the dominance of the Academy. Bergasse led a social and political movement, combining healing through animal magnetism with radical social activism. The Academy thoroughly rejected "animal magnetism" as science. Conner argues that prejudice against the political views of the Mesmerists kept the academicians from uncovering the mind-body insights revealed by the hypnotic trances and spontaneous remissions experienced by the mesmerized. Conner asks a lot of the empirically minded, to patiently seek the evidence of mind-body interconnection amidst obvious evidence of charlatanism and quackery mixed with revolutionary politics. It seems easier for contemporary scientists to learn from the calm and non-evangelical masters of Tibetan Buddhism than it would have been for the committee including Ben Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier to learn from the proponents of mesmerism.
Conner's interpretation of the scientific revolution, my favorite chapter in the book, draws from the work of Edgar Zilsel, a Marxist historian of science who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, and committed suicide in 1944. His work went into disrepute in the McCarthy era, and he wasn't alive to complete and defend his work. Citing Zilsel, Conner shows how canonical scientific works like Gilbert's De Magnete drew directly from the knowledge of "blacksmiths, miners, sailors and instrument makers". Conner cites a variety of historians to argue that the high science of thermodynamics learned more from the practical inventors perfecting the steam engine than vice versa. This argument inverts conventional wisdom about the trajectory from pure research to applied, practical innovation. The "chicken and egg" arguments about scientific theory and technology reveal systematic biases driven by economic and social prejudice, and shows how the absurdities of the European caste system retarded the development of socience. But these arguments also obscure interesting questions about the interrelationships between engineering and science.
Elizabeth Eisenstein's great work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, documents the influence of printing on the transmission of scientific and technical knowledge. Practical manuals for artisans were popular applications of early printing. The availability of technical documentation helped break down the power of guild secrecy and increase the pace of innovation. Evidently, reading and writing must have spread among artisans in order to transmit this technical knowledge.
Conner quotes Robert Boyle and other aristocratic figures who overcame their revulsion and reluctance to actually talk with vulgar tradesman. But the contrast between the Latin-learned aristocrats and uncultured brewers and bakers, barber-surgeons and traders is probably too stark, given the spread of vernacular technical literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The interesting topic -- perhaps covered by other history -- is the interrelationship between scientific theory and engineering practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Solid studies on this topic would require not only a social filter to recapture the economic and social relationships, but understanding of the engineering and science itself. Looks like the book that investigates this topic is Science and Technology in World History.
In summary, I liked the book because of the way it gathers stories that are not told often enough. The ideology that prompts the storytelling helps to get the story told, but also obscures other parts of the story.
Currently reading Affective Computing by Rosalind Picard of MIT. The book envisions computers that are trained to detect and express emotions, and thereby become better servants of people. I think the premise is badly misguided, but interestingly so.
One core flaw is that I don't think you can have the features of emotions without the bugs. Emotions are integral to the pleasure and pain-seeking circuits of an organism. When well-tuned, they help the organism survive and thrive. When off-balance, you get addiction and depression.
The author envisions affective computing as a personal technology. But this doesn't map to way emotions are build into the social nature of the human species. The circuits used for love and loyalty also run betrayal and tribal hatred. Given the frequency of divorce and war, it seems unlikely that we'd be able to do a better job invoking social emotions in machines.
My favorite thing about Crashing the Gate, the book by two leading liberal bloggers, is its indictment of the Democratic political consultant class. They make their money from percentage of political advertising, whether or not they win, which is quite a racket. They have a stranglehold on the dispensation of Democratic campaign funds. According to the book, they are the main proponents of the strategyof blandness: voters will vote for Democratic politicians if we don't understand what they say; and of pandering to swing voters with non-issues like flag-burning.
Critics say the story isn't new; but Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong get the story out to a broader audience than the policy wonks who have known this all along.
What I didn't like as much about the book was how Kos and Jerome talk about online organizing. Mostly, they talk about how the internet is a new source of funding -- and imply that they can be the next generation of political consultants who will gatekeep the collection and use of campaign funds. They give some lip service to online organizing and activism. But they don't tell the interesting stories about how the internet can help assemble core groups, extend the reach of online organizing to the physical world, and use online education to put pressure on candidates and lawmakers.
What I liked least was the book's indictment of liberal special interest groups. Kos and Armstrong encourage groups to drop their interests in the environment, women's rights, and other issues, and to instead work on together to elect liberal candidates. I agree with the authors that bipartisan tactics are sometimes short-sighted -- for example, womens' groups support for individually pro-choice republicans is risky against the big picture of the republican party's anti-abortion strategy.
Also, the focus on building an alliance of traditional liberal groups misses opportunities to be more aggressive and build a different majority. For example: Kos and Armstrong would rather environmentalists to take a lower profile, and subsume their call against global warming for a larger progressive agenda (whatever that is). Instead, environmentalists ought to cast a larger shadow, connecting the cause to economic growth; to business interests investing in bringing clean energy mainstream; to the national security benefit of energy independence; to religious people who believe in eath stewardship. This isn't at all about "compromise", it's about building a larger majority by being assertive about core principles, and reaching out to those who might belive same things for different reasons.
I think that Kos and Armstrong's electoral focus blinds them to the more complicated relationship between issue activism and campaigning. The activities during legislative sessions and campaigns are related but different. You do issue activism when the legislature is in session and you want the politicians to listen to you on a speciific topic. And then you do electoral campaigns favoring your broader goals.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and recommend it. It provides a powerful indictment of the structures that make democrats lose; and offers a bunch of good ideas for how Democrats could do better.
Coast of Dreams, a survey of California history since 1990 is full of nuggets that explain the origins of Californian artifacts.
Where did the massive demonstrations in LA against the immigration bill come from? The tactics, from flagwaving, to the student walkouts, to the massive gatherings and the slogans, are repeats of the tactics used to protest proposition 187, the 1994 law that took health care and education services from undocumented immigrants, and was later ruled unconstitutional.
Where did Trader Joe's come from? The founder's original target market was Pasadena PhD students who had sophisticated tastes in food and poverty-level budgets.
What's the economic base of San Diego? It used to be defense contracting, and now is more biotech and telecom.
Why does Silicon Valley have a string of surprisingly lively main streets in its string of suburban towns? It's actually not uncommon in California, where new urbanist ideas have revived walkable town centers all over the state.
What happened after the LA riots in 1992? High profile redevelopment efforts by Peter Ueberroth and representatives of the oligarchy flopped. Economic revitalization came from an unexpected direction; toy and textile businesses, founded by immigrants who colonized the underutilized downtown buildings.
Why are there green hills in Marin? Because land conservancies have been buying up open space when there would otherwise be expensive housing.
Coast of Dreams tells the history of things that seem too unnatural to have a history; one interesting chapter compares and contrasts the beach culture of Santa Barbara with the golf culture of Palm Springs.
Is it a good book?
If you've been following California news closely for the last 15 years, Coast of Dreams might come across as a non-book. It is a collection of stories that one might assemble from reading the paper and watching how the stories develop over the years. The footnotes section is full of citations from the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee.
The book does have a loose theme. The economic hard times prompted by the end of the cold war, which caused some skeptics to forecast the end of the California Dream, was followed by a revival led by immigrant business, entertainment and tech. The book has nothing vaguely near the the depth of Common Ground the brilliant J. Anthony Lukas 1986 social history of the Boston busing crisis, which traced the history of the ethnic groups and social institutions in Boston through to their painful collisions in the 70s.
As a newcomer to California, I found Cost of Dreams fascinating. The author, Kevin Starr, was the state librarian and author of a series on California history, and the book contains a smattering of everything Californian, ranging from religion, to real estate development, to surfing history.
The best part of the book is the author's sprawling knowledge of California visual art, literature, food and sports. The book contains thumbnail portraits of artist Richard Diebenkorn, landscape architect Nancy Goslee Power, novelist James Ellroy, and many other cultural figures. There's a little gem of a section that wonders why LA's novelists are so noir, while its poets and architects are cheerful.
Starr has a cheerful, culturally omnivorous esthetic that seems like an LA sensibility that's different from the glossy cynicism of movie execs and plastic surgery ads. It would be really fun if the book were hypertext, with links to the people, places and pictures, and maybe an annotated google map.
Sometimes Starr's cultural history is overinterpreted; for example, the growth of mexican-american art festivals is seen as a sign of racial detente in Los Angeles, which is surely a good thing, but not the same as a reduction in violence among Blacks, Latinos and Koreans.
This isn't the book for a profound examination of causes. Starr writes about the disasters of fire and landslides that affect Southern California; The Control of Nature by John McPhee explains how patterns of fire suppression and building make the pattern inevitable.
Starr documents the brutal costs of the drug war in urban central Los Angeles and the rural Central Valley; but he doesn't pause to consider alternatives. He refers to the growing economic inequality, but nothing about its causes.
Starr writes about the transformation in American food habits instigated by Alice Waters in Berkeley; Ruth Reichl's memoir, Tender at the Bone tells the juicy details.
In summary, Coast of Dreams is an enjoyable introduction to contemporary California, but it's far from the last word.
When the internet was becoming commercial, I researched and wrote a multi-client study for the paper industry on the future of paper. In order to understand the consumer economy that drove the advertising support for newspapers and magazines, I researched the history of mass advertising, mass marketing and consumer culture to understand the old system that seemed on the verge of splintering.
Since then, the market for physical goods hasn't changed as much as the dotcom era promised. But the market for text, music, video and software is changing rapidly. The web20ish cascade of user-generated content is as dramatic and more fun than one might have imagined, despite the bad laws that incumbent industries are trying to use to hold back time.
The scary collapse of the newspaper ad market is happening as predicted, along with a very scary decline of democracy.
I didn't think that electronic displays would be cheap enough for books until around now. That market still hasn't gone anywhere. The relationship between pixels and paper has gotten very strange, with books being used by bloggers, mostly as excuses for book tours.
And worrying that global warming might be too far along to reverse. Long before Jared Diamond's Collapse, I read A Green History of the World: Environment and the Collapse of Civilizations. It talks about how human-catalyzed soil degradation led to the progressive decline of the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations.
What I liked about Phantoms in the Brain. The science. Neurologist VS Ramachandran investigates strange conditions including the phantom limbs of amputees, the delusional competencies of paralyzed stroke victims, and the religious epiphanies of epileptics. These oddities yield revelations about the workings of the brain and mind.
The sensations of phantom limbs, it turns out, are generated when the brain's perceptual circuitry for a missing limb is colonized by brain cells intended for another body part. By understanding the mechanism of phantom sensation, Ramachandran figured out clever ways of retraining the brain to eliminate pain or accept the absense of the limb.
What I didn't like: the last section of the book, a philosophical analysis of the attributes of consciousness. The connection to experimental science is much weaker in this section. It seemed as though there could be any number of ways to segment consciousness into N logical components, and these segmentations would be equivalently untestable.
What I appreciated: the book discussed the religious epiphanies experienced by some people with epilepsy. But it refrained from drawing conclusions about the validity of these experiences. It is welcome to see a scientist refrain from ascientific conclusions for or against religious belief. But Ramachandran commits a different and related solecism elsewhere in the book.
What I liked least: Quoting Indian scripture, Ramachandran uses the various bugs and gaps in the neurological system to argue that the experience of self and consciousness is an illusion. This argument is fallacious. Take as an analogy a software system that composed of multiple subsystems, each of which needs to work properly for the software to run. There may be some anomalies that occur with strange and unexpected input. But these facts do not somehow prove that the software does not work as intended under normal conditions. Similarly, the vision system is built from multiple components, and it is possible to fake out the system with optical illusions, but these facts don't mean that vision is an illusion. The author is welcome to his beliefs, but they are not supported by his science.
The December Wired had an interesting-looking cover story, and a few article referrals in the queue, so I took it on the plane. Summary: despite some good articles, a reminder of why I don't read Wired anymore.
Wired had one superb piece by Gary Wolf about an emergency warning system in Portland, Oregon, where 911 alerts are fed back to schools, hospitals, and building managers, and community members can feed back into the system. This is a working model of decentralization and openness, ready to be adopted around the country.
There were a few other good bits sprinkled around the magazine, including a graphical one page summary of government spending to keep data secret.
But the bulk of the magazine was written on autopilot. The cover story about alternatives to oil was euphoric and shallow. The claims of providers, from ethanol to oil shale to hydrogen, were repeated uncritically, summarized in a table showing the plentiful riches that await slightly higher energy prices. No mention of the critique that ethanol requires more energy to produce than it generates, and hydrogen is interesting as an energy storage medium, not a fuel.
The alternative energy story in the Economist (the other bit of airplane reading) was much better in the level of detail and critical thinking. A regular diet of blogs like The Oil Drum and the Ergosphere provide an infinitely richer picture about the opportunities and risks of post-oil energy technologies.
One effusive story about homeland security vendors was downright creepy. An ex-athlete with government connections raises venture financing with the purpose of buying out a homeland security vendor -- any vendor - and selling the product to the government. Reminds me a bit about this story that broke last week in the Washington Post. It would be a fine idea to take down the names in the article and watch to see if any of the players are bankrupt or indicted in the next few years.
And the articles about media -- movies, games, video, music read like product placement. It's Entertainment Tonight with a focus on special effects. The esthetic is anti-O'Reillly -- the audience is a consumer not a producer. The section on personal DVR knocks Linux versions as being "too hard" -- true, linux dvrs aren't consumer products yet, but the Wired editors are making that decision for the readers, assuming assuming their readers don't include hackers anymore. There's not so much critical thinking about the role of broadband and copyright policy on creative innovation, except for Xeni Jardin's interview of Steven Soderberg, where the movie director fantasizes about mashups he can't legally make.
I can't remember when I stopped reading Wired Magazine. At its best, it was a heady brew of technoeuphoria, exploration of new ideas sparked by new technology, tasty tech and media tips, and gizmo ad porn.
Wired does publish some excellent work. These days, the good articles already make their way to the link inbox via blogging. External links are a better way to find those good articles than separating the glossy ad pages. The tips about gadgets and games and tech stuff can all be found sooner by blog.
This isn't about the net killing magazines. It's about the need to have a better product. If the issue had five or ten strong articles instead of two or three, Wired would have a regular reader.
I just read Two Lives, Vikram Seth's holocaust memoir of the life of his great-aunt Henny and great-uncle Shanti. My favorite parts of the book are the stories set in pre-war Germany -- Shanti's early struggles as an immigrant dental student, his incorporation into the lively social circle of his landlady and her daughters, with picnics, alpine vacations, and Christmas dinners; with tension provided by the unstated romantic polygon among Lola, Henny, Henny's presumed fiance Hans, and Shanti. From a stash of letters discovered in an attic, Seth pieces together a post-war epistolary detective story of loyalty and betrayal when Henny reconnects with old friends and finds out how they treated her mother and sister during the war. I also enjoyed the bits of first-person narrative that show Seth's relationship to his aunt and uncle when he stayed with them as university student (the auto-biographical bits also seemed like they were excepts of an unwritten memoir).
Is there any difference between a holocaust memoir written by an Indian great-nephew rather than a Jewish one? After learning about the fate of his great-aunt's family, Seth makes a pilgrimage to Yad Vashem, finds their names on a transport list, and is overwhelmed; after reading the inventory forms recording the confiscation of household radios and silverware; and the inventory logistics of the trains to Auschwitz, he becomes viscerally repelled by the German language. So far, his emotional reactions are those of a late but true entrant to this strange extended family.
Seth isn't infected by the "never forget" anxiety to document the story before the protagonists all die; Seth's research is his the usual obsessive investigation into the background of his stories rather than the ideological fetishism of the memory project. The story of Seth's trip to Israel also includes a cameo Friday night dinner with a Jewish family, in which he brings a beautiful Indian-Muslim architect friend; on the way back they get briefly lost in east Jerusalem; the cameo creates an opportunity for a little lecture that is one part "can't-we-get-along" humanism and one-part post-colonial propaganda.
The story, as a whole, illustrates Seth's love for his relatives whose quiet virtues are kindness, determination and stoicism. Since Seth is great-nephew, he is not sucked into the emotional void, poisoned bickering, and persistent background fear that might come with closer relation. The displaced lives of Shanti and Henny read against the themes of exile and cosmopolitanism that animated Seth's much earlier Golden Gate, where the vectors of displacement include homosexuality, breakup, and the transient culture of San Francisco's adoptive families. The theme of a multi-ethnic assimilated culture split by violence is kin to the hindu/muslim theme in suitable boy and Indian history.
The bit that I liked least was the ending, where Uncle Shanti, in failing physical and mental health, starts treating his family badly. It is true that living through the daily physical and emotional pain of an isolated, sick elderly man is agonizing and tedius; Seth forces the reader to live through too much of it. What's worse, this section still reads as personal, and not yet resolved. Seth is still mad at his uncle for turning mean at the very end of his life; Seth's anger belongs in journals and family conversation, not for a public audience.
In the book, Seth agonizes out loud about whether it is to publish his aunt's private letters, and decides that it was the right thing to do; this decision is right, at least literarily. But his decision to air his anger at the irrational actions of his uncle seems literarily as well as ethically askew.
Other bits which could have been cut from the book include a rambling political essay and some family stories set in India before Shanti leaves for Europe. The mostly-interpolated stories of Lola and Elly's last months were written for Seth's readers who have not read N holocaust memoirs, history books, and films. The stories worth reading showed distinctive lives, not dehumanized deaths. DVDs these days have "outtake" sections -- it would be interesting to publish novels using that convention, putting the outtakes on the web, and only include the core story on paper.
After reading John Barry's nonfiction epic about the great Mississippi flood of 1927, I picked up his other grand, retrospectively timely history of the 1918 influenza epidemic.
With the threat of bird flu raising the spectre of a repeat of 1918, The Great Influenza has lessons for today.
Like Rising Tide, The Great Influenza interweaves the story of the response to a great disaster with the rise of emerging science and technology of disaster prevention and response. In Rising Tide the threads came together with tragic irony -- the great engineering works to control the Mississippi ended up making the disaster more severe. In the Great Influenza, the race for a cure failed. While the epidemic was raging, scientists did not find the real cause or the cure for the flu. Scientists did find the cause of the secondary bacterial infection that killed many victims, but did not isolate the virus until years after the plague. Instead, the epidemic flamed out. In the places hit by the flu, the virus flared for 4-6 weeks, and quickly exhausted the fuel of non-immune humans.
Also, it wasn't until later that scientists discovered the reason that the 1918 epidemic was so deadly to young, healthy people. The 1918 virus triggered an extreme immune response that was more severe in the young and healthy than the old and week.
Part of the drama of Rising Tide was the conflict between the 19th century heroic engineers. The Great Influenza focuses even more strongly on the personalities of the pioneering scientists, at the expense of strong exposition of the science itself.
Also, the Great Influenza is marred by overwriting and lack of editing. Barry repeats "it was only influenza" to dramatizes the way the destructiveness of the familiar sickness was at first underestimated. The phrase is repeated over and over again across chapters, becoming overwrought and grating. One anecdote about striking miners forced into boxcars in the Arizona desert is told three different times.
As a result of these weaknesses, the book is short of brilliant, but it is well worth reading for the history and potential relevance to today's risks.
Tim Bray writes "Seth is one of only two or three authors whose new works I buy on sight, without waiting to read reviews."
ok, I was coveting this in a bookstore digression last weekend. Time to buy (or take out from the library).
"Vikram Sethís great virtue is clarity; Iím not sure any writer of English has ever inscribed so many words with so few barriers to understanding them. The apparently-effortless flow of narrative is Iím sure the result of relentless rewriting, itís like listening to Rostropovich, two thousand hours of practice make two hours of performance sound easy."
Yes... plenty of books read like they are written too quickly and under-edited. I read Neil Gaiman'sAmerican Gods last week -- which would have been a better book if it was written about 10x slower. It will be interesting to see if Anansi Boys -- written over a decade later, when Gaiman is presumably much wealthier -- takes advantage of the time and power to rewrite, or cedes to the arrogance of fame and edits less.
Neal Stephenson had a bad experience with editing once many years ago (there's an essay of his with the story posted online somewhere), and concluded that editing is bad for his muse; and his recent, sprawling Baroque Cycle hides a brilliant work that is a fraction of the length of the published series.
Rising Tide talks about the consequences of a disastrous engineering decision to control the Mississippi by means of levees alone, ignoring spillways and reservoirs to take overflow. The flood control contributed to the severity of the 1927 Great Flood. But John Barry's book doesn't cover the broader consequences of Mississippi flood control.
The Control of Nature, a 1990 book by by John McPhee, tells part of that story. McPhee writes about the massive project to prevent the Mississippi from jumping over to the Atchafalaya River, which has a steeper and shorter path to the sea. In the process, he describes how flood control prevents the replenishment of soil. Without the floods, the land sinks, and coastal wetlands are lost to the sea.
The Atchafalaya story is one of three stories in McPhee's book about efforts to control nature. In Hiemaey, Iceland, residents pumped cold seawater on a volcanic lava flow, and diverted enough of the flow to save their town.
In the third story, McPhee writes about the efforts Los Angeles County to prevent the San Gabriel mountains from sliding into the valley. The County builds debris dams to catch the overflow, and carts it away. Some of the debris is ground and taken to the beaches, since the interruption of the mountain's erosion prevents the natural replenishment of beach sand.
There is a recurring cycle of fire on the dry, steep, rocky mountainsides, followed by debris slides. The current fires in the San Gabriel foothills will likely be followed by debris slides that destroy houses in the foothills.
Many residents are newcomers who don't remember the debris slide five or ten years ago, and don't know about the risk. But even geologists at California State Politechnic University and county workers who clean up after debris slides live in the foothills. The risk of a catastrophe in two or five or ten years is not enough to scare them away from the clean air and quiet of the mountainside canyons.
McPhee's zoom-out geologic time perspective lends a philosophical air to these stories, although he does not turn explicitly to philosophy, psychology, or politics. In all of these cases, nature is going to win out in geologic time. The Mississippi River is going to keep jumping beds, as it has every few thousand years. The volcanos are going to keep erupting and building mountains. And the San Gabriel Mountains are going to keep on rising, and keep on eroding into fans in the valley.
Through some combination of intelligence, persistence, hubris, and psychological blindness to risks, humans keep building defenses, and rebuilding.
I found this superb work of history from the song. Aaron Neville's lament about the 1927 flood became a radio refrain following the New Orleans flood (and led to more diverse New Orleans music over at WWOZ). The song was written by Randy Newman, and the lyrics allude to the history that John Barry tells about human causes and social consequences of natural disaster.
"The river has busted through clear down to Plaquemines"
The Plaquemines Parish flooding in 1927 was manmade. A clique of bankers decided to protect New Orleans from flooding by breaking the levee south of New Orleans and inundate St. Bernard and Plaquemines parish, home to muskrat trappers and bootleggers. The city leaders promised to reimburse the people they flooded out, but they didn't. They manipulated the laws and courts so people reporting damages had no recourse. In the aftermath, disgust with Louisiana's traditional elite helped bring Huey Long to power.
President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The president say, ''Little fat man isn't it a shame
What the river has done to this poor farmer's land."
The "little fat man" is Herbert Hoover, an engineer-turned-politico whose leadership of flood relief logistics helped win Hoover the presidency. Coolidge never did tour the flooded region, but the condescension toward the poorest flood victims was historically accurate.
In Mississippi, local aristocrats refused to allow black people to be evacuated since they feared that their source of labor would never return. Instead, the black residents lived for months on top of the 8-foot-wide levee, trapped between the river and the flood. Men were forced to work without pay on levy repair and cleanup. After the floodwaters drained, many black people did leave for Chicago and other northern towns; the flood was one of the causes of the great African-American migration.
Hoover promised black leaders that he'd redistribute land to poor sharecroppers if elected, but he lied. Barry presents the evidence and the timeline of the betrayal, and argues that disillusion with these broken promises helped shift black voters from the Republican to the Democratic party.
The flood itself was made more severe by the flood control system, which used levees to contain the river, but left out spillways and reservoirs to divert floodwaters. Barry tells the story of the hubristic 19th century engineers who designed the system, and the bureaucratic incompetence and infighting that led to the system's poor design. However, Barry doesn't go as far as The Control of Nature, by John McPhee, and other books about the unintended consequences of the Mississippi levees.
Rising Tide is a masterful work of history that combines dramatic stories of heroism, villainy, conflict and suspense with social, political, and economic context. The book's stories portray how the historical characters are shaped by their circumstances, and how their choices affect the course of history.
One imperfection is the author's attraction to the heroic myths of 19th century self-made men and deep south aristocrats. Barry is a former football coach, and admires competitive, commanding masculine power. He typically admires his heroes' height and physical strength, and is suprised when a character is short or not physically fit. Barry does not worship power uncritically. He holds his "great men" to an ethical standard; he honors LeRoy Percy's opposition to the Klan, and criticizes LeRoy and his son Will for putting greed ahead of humanitarian rescue. In his admiration of machismo, Barry misses some of the ways that Southern aristocracy and engineering hubris contributed to their own failures.
How and why is the US patent system so broken? News stories about dubious patents generate grumbling, annoyance, frustration, and perplexity.
An exceptionally good book, Innovation and Its Discontents explains what's wrong with the patent system and how to fix it. Written by two economics professors at Harvard, Adam Jaffe and Josh Lerner, the book is short, clear, well-argued, and wears its erudition lightly.
Things haven't always been this bad. But in the 1980s and 1990s, two separate reforms -- of the patent courts and the patent office -- combined for a pernicious result. Bad patents became much easier to get, and harder to overturn.
In 1982, the patent appeals court system was consolidated from 12 regional courts, which had vastly uneven standards, to one centralized court. The reform halted the practice of "forum-shopping", whereby patent-owners rushed to accuse infringers in patent-friendly courts, while challengers rushed to seek hearing in patent-friendly courts.
The practices of this centralized court made it much easier to sue for patent infringement and win. The percentage of patents upheld increased from 62% to 90% in the few years after the central court started.
A few years later, in the mid-90s, the Patent Office changed from a tax-supported agency, whose mission was to ensure that patents are valid, to a fee-for-service agency, whose mission was to quickly issue patents to those who apply. The fees from the Patent office are siphoned into the general federal budget, while the office can't keep qualified staff. 55% of patent examiners have less than two years of experience.
The result is that bad patents sneak through without good scrutiny. The average patent claim is reviewed for only 16-20 hours, which is half the time spent in the European Union. In the time available, patent examiners look for information that is easiest for them to find -- other patents in patent databases. They don't have the time or experience to look for other sources -- like existing software and academic research -- that prove that the "invention" is obvious, or not new.
Meanwhile, the patent review process is mostly closed -- there isn't a good way for third parties to share relevant information about prior art until after the patent is granted. Once the patent is granted, the legal system presumes that a patent is valid, and stacks the deck against attempts to overturn a patent.
A reform in 1999 was intended to create a "reexamination process", but the process was watered down so badly that it is almost never used. The only kind of evidence that a challenger can present is other patents (not pre-existing software, evidence of historical business practices, or academic papers). The challenger doesn't have the opportunity to explain the evidence. If a challenger applies for a patent re-examination and loses, they lose the right to sue later.
As a result, a lot of bad patents get issued, and they are very hard to protest or overturn. Technology companies use patents to gain license fees from competitors, who will settle rather than go to court, even if the patent is bad, because an infringement allegation is too costly and risky to defend. Large competitors create cross-license patent libraries that maintain the advantage of the leaders, and freeze out smaller players.
So how can the system be improved? Jaffe and Lerner recommend a tiered approval and review process, where patents can be issued quickly, but there are several stages where challengers and third parties can submit prior art and try to prove that the patent is obvious or not new. They also recommend reduced use of juries, who lack expertise to evaluate the information.
The book has interesting observations about the failure of patent reform efforts in the 90s. Talk show celebrities including Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy used the issue to grandstand against Japan, who were competing against US manufacturers. Patent lawyers, who gain from the current system, were well-organized. At the time, the technology industry was not well-organized, and there was little public interest in patent reform.
Thanks to Doug Barnes for recommending the book, which joins my short list of favorite non-fiction. It takes a puzzling and potentially abstruse subject, and explains it clearly. It uses stories and well-chosen research data to make its points. And it shows a potential exit for the tangled mess of the US patent system.
Patent reform is in the works again in Congress. The book is very helpful context for the debate.
For a book club this weekend, I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The book is set in an alternate version of 1940s America, where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt for the presidency on the platform of keeping the US out of WWII. The Lindbergh presidency sympathizes with Germany and Japan, and takes the US down a suspicious path of isolating Jews.
The book combines effective, memoir-style fiction about the role of fear in growing up, with a rather clunky and self-indulgent political thriller. The effective parts of the book to me were the anecdotes of about scary experiences made more terrifying by imagination. A kid is trapped by a stuck bathroom door; the basement haunted by feral cats and ghosts; a neighbor's father is found dead from cancer or suicide.
The political plot takes instances of discrimination that really happened to other groups -- being kept out of hotels (African-Americans); kids being taken far away for education and assimilation (Native Americans); families being relocated (Japanese) -- and applies them to Jews. The plot plays effectively on the Jewish fear of persecution. It works -- it's scary. But it also feels manipulative, like a Holocaust theme park ride.
There was one aspect of the political plot that was thought-provoking and effective. In the novel, the programs taking urban Jewish kids to summer camps on farms and moving urban families out to rural communities are presented as sunny and patriotic. It's hard to tell if the anti-semitic rhetoric, Nazi alliances, and building of a capo-style structure of Jewish adminstration of the transfer programs is truly as creepy as it looks, or whether Jews worried about the trends are having paranoid fantasies fueled by their ghetto life, as the adminstration insists.
In contemporary politics, one of the tough questions is figuring out when and how much to worry. The religious right's rhetoric damning Democrats as being "against people of faith" is worrisome. The support for this message by the Republican leadership is more worrisome.
As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's nominees. Fliers for the telecast, organized by the Family Research Council and scheduled to originate at a Kentucky megachurch the evening of April 24, call the day "Justice Sunday" and depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier does not name participants, but under the heading "the filibuster against people of faith," it reads: "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."
The issue itself -- changing the Senate's rules for confirming judges -- is basic procedural politics. The political slant -- casting one party for God, and one party against God -- is really disturbing. It's reassuring to watch conservatives who aren't buying it
The US is a nation of immigrants and migrants who re-invent themselves in their adopted home; and the children of immigrants who seek authenticity in forgotten ethnic traditions. Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama's autobiography written after graduation from Havard Law School, is part of a genre of American writing in search of roots. In Dreams from my Father, Obama goes searching for community and family, finds both, and find them to be different than he expected.
Barack Obama grew up in a mixed and peripatetic family. His mother's family had migrated to Hawaii from Kansas. His father was an African exchange student at the University of Hawaii. When Obama was two, his father left for Harvard, and returned only once for a brief visit eight years later. Growing up, Obama spent several years in Indonesia with his mother and Indonesian stepfather, then was raised by his grandparents while his mother did graduate research overseas.
Search for community
As a young adult, Obama set off in search of community and purpose, with the great role models of the civil rights movement. To his great credit, he succeeds and finds these things.
The glory days of the civil rights movement were long gone when Obama gets an organizing job in a poor neighborhood on Chicago's South Side plagued by crumbling public housing, disappearing manufacturing jobs, and rising crime. Obama deciphers the limits of their starting position. The group's founder is a Jewish man who is not fully trusted by the community. Its initial allies are the the Catholic Churches, which have an uneasy relationship with their new African-American parishioners. Chicago has just elected Harold Washington, its first Black major who is worshipped as a cult figure, but whose patronage is delivering limited benefits to the communities that elected him.
At the same time that Obama deciphers the political landscape, he makes personal connections. He becomes close with the three middle-aged African-American women who are core to the organization, and develops a friendship with an eccentric, pot-smoking Catholic organizer who wears a clerical collar and a "deacon" t-shirt. He looks out for Kyle, the teenage son of a volunteer who is in danger of getting into trouble. One of the most moving bits in the book where Obama tells the group he is headed off to Harvard Law school, and promises his friends in the neighborhood that he'll be back.
The mix of idealism, political perceptiveness and personal connection are the origins of Obama's political career.
The Limits of "Organizing"
After a series of ignominious defeats, the persistence, skill and empathy of Obama's group begins to pay off. They organize cleanup for the housing project, job training for the neighborhood, mentoring for school kids.
To this reader, though, the section reveals the strength and the limits of the "organizer" model, in which a stranger rides into town, lives in a community, and encourages the locals to demand their rights. The "organizer" helps the powerless to organize and demand their rights from the powerful. This model may be idea for those in abject need, but it underestimates the power that local people have.
Obama visits the scraggly remains of the neighborhood's main retail district trying to get a job training center into a local storefront. I couldn't help but think that the neighborhood needs a traditional chamber of commerce approach to tally up the areas assets, and bring businesses. Walgreens is probably in the neighborhod now. (Later in the book, Obama's African stepbrother Roy starts an import business with the intention of bringing in unemployed relatives; that entrepreneurial attitude sees unused resources as opportunity).
Following a public forum where the neighborhood people demand basic maintenance for public housing project, the bureacrats explain that the Housing Authority budget -- set from Washington -- allows for asbestos removal, or basic repairs, but not both. Washington DC is much too far away to smell overflowing toilets.
Those of you who have done more organizing that I have can tell me if I'm full of nonsense, or whether there's a need for a model that is more empowered and entrepreneurial than the traditional democratic model of "demanding your rights", yet more community-spirited than the traditional republican model of every man for himself and rewards to the deserving wealthy.
Search for family and identity
Obama's search for community in Chicago is linked to a personal search for family and identity, which culminates in the last third of the book.
Feeling out of place in high school, Obama gravitates toward the black kids and works to embrace an African-American culture that matches others' expectations of his appearance, but is different from his upringing and background.
Obama admits and honestly scrutinizes his own ambivalence about ethnic authenticity. At prep school, he teases a friend from LA about taking on a "bad-assed nigger pose" and the friend retorts "a pose? speak for yourself". In college Obama deliberately hangs out with the campus radical crowd to assert his racial credentials (his words); the present narrator acknowledges the shallowness of the college identity politics. In Chicago, the narrator confesses a fear that if he told his friends about his mixed-race, Hawaiian background they wouldn't like him -- but he tells him and they adopt him anyway.
While Obama relentlessly catalogs the ambiguities and subtleties of African-American identity, there are a few places where he doesn't acknowledge quite enough. When Obama started the organizing job, one of the initial challenges was the resentment of the three middle-aged women who'd been running the show, who were annoyed that the boss had brought in a young, good-looking, tall guy to take charge (in the grand tradition of non-profits, where diligent women do the work, and men take the title and the credit.) Obama has his own intelligence, discipline, charm and empathy to credit his success, but he doesn't fully acknowledge the benefits of the middle class outlook and male privilege that code him as "in charge" and "going places."
A trip to Kenya before law school is an opportunity for discovery and healing. Obama grew up with an idealized vision of his father, which both intimidated and inspired him. As he gets to know his African family, he finds out that his father's life was more complex and less perfect than the idealized image.
It turns out that Obama's father had a wife and children in Africa before coming to Hawaii. Barack Senior met yet a third woman at Harvard, who moved to Africa and raised several more children in the extended Obama family. Barack senior is smart and ambitious, and initially successful. But he runs afoul of the Kenyan dictatorship in his arrogance and naivete, loses his job and is blacklisted. Uneployed and broke, he turns to alcohol and delusions of grandeur, while his children raise themselves. He is rehabilitated later by a new regime, but the damage he has done to his family leaves ongoing bitterness after his death.
In Kenya, Barack Junior finds a family that is loving, close, and welcoming but beset with problems -- feuds, alcoholism, poverty. The affectionate welcome also seems like a down payment against future financial success. The climax of the trip to Kenya is a tale by his grandmother about his grandfather. Also an ambiguous figure, Hossein Onyango is a capable servant to white rulers and a prosperous farmer; he is also imperious and cruel to his wives and children.
The stories that Obama hears on his trip make things more complicated, not simpler. The stories provide context for the personality flaws, passions, that which are more meaningful, more admirable, and more forgivable, than a shallow but false idealized image.
From Many, One
Which is the theme of the book. Obama's ideals -- community organizing, close family -- turn out to be less simple and more ambiguous than expected. As an adult, Obama learns to turn those complexities into compassionate synthesis rather than scornful disillusion.
The synthesis what drove Obama's moving speech at the DNC last summer.
If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription drugs and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief -- that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper-- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.
E Pluribus Unum. From many one.
Apparently, Obama has signed a new book deal to cover his time as a state senator. I look forward to reading about the lessons he learned at in the legislative sausage factory. Hopefully his career will continue to combine astute success and genuine empathy; and in the unavoidable ambiguities of power, will stay on the right side of forgivable.
Malcolm Gladwell's Blink contains fascinating insights into the relationship between experience and intuition.
The book is about the power and limits of snap judgements. In the first chapter, a set of experts feel instantly repelled by a showy new Getty museum acquisition which turns out to be a fake. Their snap judgements trumped months of expensive studies from the Getty. The "snap judgements" of the aniquarians, though, had been honed in decades of experience with antiques.
Psychologist John Gottman is able to instantly detect the likely success of a marriage, and Paul Ekman is able to instantly read faces. The snap judgement skills of both of these psychologists has been honed by the results of years of study that taught them what signs to focus on.
In Blink, two factors play into overcoming the weaknesses of snap judgement.
Education is the first. John Gottman's method, developed through years of study, can be taught to novices. The lethal snap judgements that led cops to kill an innocent, frightened Amadou Diallou in New York and use excessive force after car chases can be improved by police procedures that give cops extra seconds to respond to problems.
Resistance to stereotypes is the second. Classical orchestras started hiring many more women as soon as they started holding blind auditions. A superior car salesman resists pre-judging his customers based on appearance -- a grimy farmer is a millionaire, and a ratty-looking teenager has wealthy parents.
This book complements (and cites) one of my favorite books, Gary Klein's Sources of Power, which tells stories about how experts really make decisions -- not with analytical process, but with educated intuition.
Gladwell's book fills in what Klein's book was missing -- a picture of how the process of training helps to hone the intuitive process, by generating a large mental database of relevant expertise, plus a rapid feel for the salient points that jump out from a pattern.
Gladwell's book is less explicit about the thesis than this review. Literary training and perhaps New Yorker style leads Gladwell to a lively, story-based approach. Which is a bit too bad, because it might lead some people to miss the key insight about the relationships between intuition and experience.
(Ross, this was my airplane reading from Seattle).
Guns, Germs and Steel makes a primary argument that Eurasian societies were able to dominate American and southern societies because of advantages in geography and climate -- not because of genetic superiority.
What I liked best about the book, though, wasn't this thesis. It was the amassing of a broad, integrated picture of the development of human culture, using evidence about food, language, migration, and disease, from a range of historical disciplines including archaeology, genetics, historical linguistics, and synthesis of historical sources. It was breathtaking to see a single animated picture across the 10,000 years of the spread of human culture since the emergence of agriculture, like a time series animation of an lunar eclipse or the flowering of a rose.
There are special pleasures in reading with a net-connected computer handy. Often, when I'm reading a fun book, I'll use the net to look up references and research side topics. If the book is recent, you can often find online book tour interviews. So, when I was reading the Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, I found this NPR interview. Readng The Birth of the Mind by Gary Marcus, I found this radio interview.
The radio interviews have only the highlights and greatest hits of the book. But it gives some context to the book, to hear Menand's reflective tone and Marcus' cascading enthousiasm.
Jared Diamond's latest book is superb. Collapse tells the story of civilizations that collapsed as a result of environmental destruction (Easter Island, the Maya), and societies that avoided a similar fate with prudent decision making (Japan).
The book surpasses earlier books covering similar cautionary material, including
A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations
Here's why the book is so good.
In addition to stories about civilizations that collapsed as a result of environmental degradation (Easter Island, the Maya), Diamond also tells the story of societies that managed to avoid environmental distruction through prudent and farsighted decision-making (the Japanese Tokugawa shogus decided to stop logging and reforest; Tikopia, the Pacific island that decided to stop raising pigs because the pigs were destructive to the island's fragile vegetation, though pigs were prestigous in Polynesian culture. Diamond provides examples of societies (including Japan) that made decisions to protect their environment by top-down command, and societies that made similar decisions through bottom-up processes (like the New Guinea Highlands).
Diamond does comparative analysis, assessing various environmental and geopolitical factors, showing, for example, how Easter Island's ecosystem was more fragile than other Polynesian colonies, and how Greenland's environment was less appropriate for Scandinavian customs than other Norse colonies. He shows how environmental initial conditions interacted with cultural practices and decisions to facilitate decline. The comparative approach lends credibility to the analysis of contemporary cultures (Australia, China) threatened by environmental degradation.
The treatment of the environmental records of big businesses is another area where Diamond's balance give's the book credibility and usefulness. For example, Diamond compares the record of Chevron, which maintained a meticulous record of environmental responsibily in its Indonesian oil drilling, with the reprehensible record of Pertamina, also drilling for oil in Indonesia. He compares the grudging acquiescense of Arco at cleaning up polluted mines in Montana, with the evil record of Pegasus Gold, which left its Montana mines leaking cyanide, took $5 million in bonuses for the board of directors, and declared bankruptcy to avoid cleanup responsibility
Diamond also provides valuable perspective on the best places for citizen activism to have leverage. For example, the drive for sustainable wood harvesting has been led by big consumer-facing companies, including Home Depot and Kinkos, which are huge buyers of wood products, and are highly sensitive to public opinion. The logging companies that supply them don't care about habitat or individual consumers -- but they do care about the bulk purchases of Home Depot.
Diamond avoids the hyperbole of doom used by some environmentalists as a rhetorical strategy. And he shows how some societies managed to make good decisions, in time to successfully reverse decline. Therefore his assessment of the risk faced by our interconnected global civilization, and the responsibility faced by leaders and citizens, is more persuasive, and more chilling.
It's early January, but this may be the best book to read all year.
The Metaphysical Club joins the list of my favorite nonfiction books.
The book tells the story of four thinkers who helped create the intellectual foundation for modern America -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey.
These thinkers, in Menand's analysis, responded to two challenges to conventional 19th century certitudes. The writings of Charles Darwin destroyed faith in the determinist hand of the Deity in history, and also in the determinist clockwork of enlightenment science. The bloody US Civil War, in which the combination of modern weapons and premodern tactics caused horrific carnage, cast doubt on the purity of prewar sanctimonious convictions.
The response -- expressed differently in the lives and works of the main characters -- was American pragmatism. For Holmes, a judicial philosophy that valued circumstance above absolute principle. For Peirce, a philosophy based on probability rather than certitude. For Dewey, an educational philosophy based on the integration of thinking and doing. For James, the death of religious and scientific determinism led to an experiential take on religious experience, where the value of faith is its benefits for the mental health of the believer.
Menand tells the stories of the main characters in the context of their personal and professional biographies, with plenty of colorful, telling, and gossipy anecdotes. Peirce, who was the least successful in his lifetime, and most obscure because of the lack of institutional success, was acoholic, drug addict, depressive, and sometimes violent. Holmes held the race, gender and class preferences of his day, and helped exclude women and black students from Harvard. James took years of vacillation to make personal and professional decisions (but despite that had a dramatically successful career).
The main characters pursued their careers at a transitional time for American intellectuals. They were the last generation of semipro thinkers. They shifted between disciplines, and between university and practical life, with a flexibility lost to later generations, while they helped to build the structure of siloed, professional academia that gave scholars a measure of professional security and independence, while confining them to narrow topics and cloistered resistance to practical life.
This trajectory is similar to other charismatic figures in the early years of American modernity; John Wesley Powell, the self-educated geologist whose expeditions mapped the American West and whose institutional prowess helped create the US Geological Survey; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the self-educated pioneer of American landscape architecture who designed Central Park and helped create the field.
One of the curious omissions in the book is money; the industrialization that reshaped of the American economy during the time covered by the book; it is omitted except for the reaction of John Dewey to the Pullman strike. In the book, Dewey's story is mostly about the development of his ideas and academic career; a different picture might emerge from a fuller review of his work. Dewey sees and responds to the creation of an American proletariat; the rest of the characters live in an insulated, upper-class world, transitioning from family money to professional academic prestige and comfort.
By contrast, the work of Henry Adams, a contemporary in the social circles of the Holmes and James families; whose autobiography is full of resentment of the nouveau riche businessmen and enterprising professionals of his generation; and the masses of immigrants crowding American cities, staffing the factories and urban stores. Adams doesn't like industrialization, but he sees it.
The Metaphysical Club traces the rise and fall of pragmatism across American history. The contingent and qualified worldview went into eclipse during the Cold War, where aggressive certainty was seen as necessary to combat world communism; and during the triumphs of idealistic liberalism in the 1960s, when civil rights and women's rights movements made progress because of their rejection of conventional social compromises. Pragmatic thinking rose again briefly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is occluded again after September 11, when doubt-free confidence is in favor once again.
The core ideas of the pragmatists; pluralism, the need to protect diversity of thought, the social nature of meaning, are fundamental to American liberalism, at a time when liberal thinking seems to be eclipsed by confident, militant conservatism, which seeks to return to a pre-Darwin world of cheerful imperialism and militant moral certainty.
Menand's training is in literature, where the mantra is "show but not tell". This is a strange attribute for nonfiction; where the conventional principle is to explicitly state and then support a hypotheses. Compared to typical nonfiction, Menand emphasizes storytelling and de-emphasizes argument; his analysis and conclusions grow on the reader, on later association and reflection.
Interface is an election-year sci-fi novel about a candidate who is remote-controlled by a biochip in his brain. Published in 1994 by "Stephen Bury", a pen name for Neal Stephenson and his uncle, the novel is a timely satire of the campaign and media symbiosis that renders elections vulnerable to manipulation.
The best scenes have campaign consultants watching video, predicting and creating winners and losers by lighting, camera angles, and background images. Watching an African-American woman verbally demolish a neo-Nazi candidate at a Denver mall campaign stop, the crew of pollsters predict she'll be a future president, watching only the images, and not hearing a single word.
There's a wonderful chapter on a scandal involving the child of migrant workers turned away from surburban hospital treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. The press flocks to the heart-rending drama. Headlines scream "BIANCA, MIRACLE GIRL." Meanwhile, the reporters ignore the deep underlying system scandal -- migrant workers routinely denied metical treatment, private justice dispensed by connected ranchers. The press coverage is vulnerable to manipulation by the politicos and pr folk who know how to create images for TV.
The sci-fi technology is moderately interesting -- a biochip heals a politician incapacitated by a stroke, and wires him directly to the emotional responses of a 100 demographically representative citizens wearing biofeedback wristbands.
The thriller plot is paint-by-numbers. A shadowy network of trillionaire investors seeks to control the presidency to rescue their investments from the US national debt. The novel builds tension with several thoroughly predictable chase scenes that do little for the story, and are clearly designed for the authors' fantasy film treatment.
Ten years after the book is published, the mass media campaigns are more expensive, at least as distracted by wedge issues and gaffes and horse race coverage.
The sinister plot is deciphered by a few heroes and antiheroes, including the "economic roadkill" in the wired-up focus group, but all the antihero has to talk back are letters to the editor and a Columbine plan.
This time around, he'd have a blog, but would it make a difference? Will peer communication yield more information to move the boulders of distortion, or simply be turned into rivulets of spin and counterspin? Some of both, I think.
Women Don't Ask leads with an elegant little study showing that a striking $4000 salary differential between men and women masters graduates was explained by women's reluctance to negotiate.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine called to ask for advice. She'd been offered a job she wanted. She asked me if it was appropriate to ask for a higher salary and to negotiate start date. She wondered if asking might lead them to rescind the offer.
Men are more likely to see negotiation as an enjoyable game, according to surveys reported in the book -- they look forward to negotiating. Women more likely see negotiation as an uncomfortable experience. Women see negotiation in the context of a relationship, and are concerned that pushing too hard will damage the relationship.
Another reason that women are reluctant to negotiate is that women are more likely to believe that the other party has already taken her interest into account. The book recounts stories where women didn't receive promotions -- they assumed that the boss had a good reason not to offer them the better job. When the woman finally asked, she got what she wanted, and the boss wondered why it took her so long to ask.
A survey in the book shows that most men don't think they're responsible to start with the other party's interest in mind, and most women do. So, if a man gives an unnattractive offer, it's not necessarily because he's trying to screw the other party, he just hasn't thought the party's interest through, and doesn't think he needs to.
The bad news is that women are in a bit of a bind -- if they're aggressive like men, they're branded bitches and dragon-ladies. When women are perceived as tough, they're disliked. Assertiveness doesn't keep men from being liked.
So women need to walk a fine line -- we need to be a little self-effacing, a little self-deprecating, even while negotiating with our interests in mind.
The good news is that with training and encouragement, women can learn to negotiate more often, and achieve better results. And, because women are better on average at seeing "win-win" solutions, we're really good at negotiation once we overcome the initial reluctance, and learn to be persistent without being abrasive.
The book has some chapters with familiar and unoriginal arguments about the differences in socialization between men and women. The substance of the book is good research and analysis on gender differences in negotiating behavior.
Of course, gender differences are tendencies, not rules. I know guys who are reluctant to negotiate, and women who are masters of hardball. Gender is a useful lens, not the only one.
Summary: I recommend this book strongly to women, to men who interact with women, and to people of any gender who are reluctant to negotiate.
Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio recounts experimental neuroscience that is revealing the physical sources of emotions in the brain. Damasio brings evidence supporting a theory of human consciousness having its source in the human body. The book proposes a mechanism where emotions are an emergent phenomenon of many chemical gradients within the body, and conciousness is an emergent phenomenon based on the brain's ability to map the physical state of the body.
My favorite experimental results in the book are in Chapter 4, where neurological patients with damage to brain regions used for certain classes of emotions are perfectly able to analyze social and ethical situations in the lab, and come up with the "right answers". Yet these patients lack empathy and normal affect. Without emotional capacity, they are consistently unable to make good decisions and consistently break ethical norms and cause social damage in real life. Emotions are an important component of human intelligence, playing a critical role in "good judgment."
These anecdotes shed light on the "trolling" problem -- there are some individuals with a pathological lack of emotional capacity; no amount of reasoning or compassion will restore the capacity they lack. It is also possible that the physical distance in online communication fails to trigger in some individuals the empathy that restrains them from social pathology in 3d.
It is fascinating to watch modern neuroscience approach proof of mind/body integration, and yet it is less surprising than Damasio makes out, given the Cartesian mind/body dualism that Damasio takes as his straw man. Damasio makes no mention of supporting ideas from other domains: contemporary cybernetic system theory, in which higher levels of abstraction have emergent properties different from the properties of substrates in silicon and elementary logic; and eastern traditions in which the mind makes use of its integration with the body to develop an astonishing level of influence over emotions and basal bodily functions.
The Spinoza contrast to Descartes is less dramatic as a philosophical ground for embodied mind, and more intriguing as a counterfactual to the intellectual development of modernism, given that Cartesian dualism emerged as enlightenment conventional wisdom, and that Spinoza's writing is a partially occluded source of modernism. Perhaps more of the missing threads in this argument are connected in Damasio's earlier book: Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.
I need to reread this book, and read some of Damasio's earlier work, to figure out if I still agree with these conclusion upon further reflection.
In response to Prentiss' comments about the review of Ladies' Auxiliary:
I'd love to read a review of Ladies Auxiliary by a gentile who'd grown up in a small southern town, with a culture of clan loyalty and fear of strangers; who was able to untease the aspects of the book that were commmon to southern small-town culture, and those that were distinctive to the Jewish culture in the story.
Yes, I read For Relief of Unbearable Urges for a book club. There were similarities in the themes -- characters tempted both into and out of traditional Judaism. For the teenage girls in "Ladies Auxiliary", the attraction is a combination of cultural freedom and sexuality -- longing to have a prom, wear tantalizing dresses, have parties with boys and alcohol; the classic American dream of driving away. In "Unbearable Urges", the yearning is named in the title -- the urge to break out of the pattern of life -- a WASP stockbroker driven by the urge to be Jewish; a wigmaker obsessed with the desire to to obtain the beautiful hair of a delivery man, to make a wig that would make her young and sexy again.
Englander is obsessed with discontinuity; Ladies Auxiliary lingers at the borders -- the woman who wears culottes to tweak the "skirts-only" rule; the woman who keeps shrimp salad in the freezer, the woman who is not observant but makes Jewish food on holidays in an appeal to be considered a community member. The convert in Ladies' Auxiliary leaves her secular life, but brings her beliefs in art and personal spirituality with her.
And yes, books are very different in tone. Englander's comedy has a dark core; he writes from a spirit of modern literary alienation. The core relationships are broken; the wasp stockbroker convert and his uncomprehending wife; the wigmaker alienated from her husband, the mentally ill man whose wife runs out of forbearance. The Ladies Auxiliary comes from a tradition of sentimental women's novels; and is full of little melodramatic subplots saturated in social context; the unconsummated attraction between the convert and the Rabbi's son; the convert's mentorship of the rebellious girls; the climatic ladies auxiliary meeting; the compassion of the Rabbi's wife for the young stranger.
England is literary in a way that Mirvis is not; it's hard to say whether that says something about the quality of the books, or about current segmentation of high and low culture.
On my cousin Nina's recommendation, I read The Red Tent. The Red Tent is a best-selling historical novel telling the story of the biblical Dinah, the daughter of Jacob who's a marginal character in the Genesis story.
The Red Tent is a novelization of now-familiar feminist readings of Genesis, found in quasi-scholarly works like Sarah the Priestess, by Savina Teuval; decent scholarly works, like In the Wake of the Goddesses, by Tikvah Frymer-Kensky; and contemporary traditions developed in communal, non-academic settings.
From these genres, the novel takes:
From feminist ritual and myth, the novel takes:
My favorite aspect of the story is the way that it does midrash -- distinctive rereadings of the biblical text, for deliberate reasons.
The most artfully midrashic passages in the novel (though not always the most dramatically successful) are the sections that parallel the Joseph story. Joseph, as readers of the bible story might remember, was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and rose from slave to viceroy. When his brothers come to Egypt to seek food during a famine, they don't recognize him. Unrecognized, Joseph interviews his brothers for word of the family in Canaan. On the surface, he is the imperious vizier. After the interview, he weeps in secret.
In the Red Tent, Dinah travels incognito with Joseph back to Canaan to visit the dying Jacob. Unrecognized, Dinah interviews a female relative about the fate of various family members. The grandniece recounts the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah; a family tree with numerous female names that weren't recorded in the bible. Dinah wonders if she has been remembered, and is gratified that her story is still told.
In the Joseph story, the irony is within the tale. Joseph knows what his brothers don't. In The Red Tent, the irony is largely outside the story. We know what Dinah doesn't; how little of the story of her mothers survived; not even the names of the female kin.
These readings are in the classic tradition of midrash, in which the Rabbis, troubled by some aspect of the biblical text, reread the story with substantial transformation from the literal reading. Diament, reading the geneology of the descendents of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, is troubled that the men's names are recorded and the women's names aren't.
Overall, the novelization works, as the sales figures prove; the familiar bible stories are retold in new ways, with lively portraits of life in canaanite and egyptian cultures, and various emotional dramas; the four-part love story between Jacob and his wives, Rachel's longing for children, the stealing of the idols from Laban's house. The writing isn't first-rate, Diament often tells instead of showing; the characters are somewhat superficial, the romances are harlequin. The novel borrows the biblical structure of narrative vignettes within a meandering but one-directional trajectory. The plot sometimes lags; editing could tighten the story.
Despite these flaws, I found the story moving as a novel, particularly in the way that it remakes Joseph story with a female main character and a contemporary sensibility.
Dinah's life takes place in segments; as a bold and adventurous girl with her family; lover in her brief first marriage; shy mother and servant in an aristocratic Egyptian household; confident midwife and lover in a late second marriage, and matriarch in artisan class Egypt. The main character's rise and decline in social status is classic to the novel; and Dinah's fashioning of self-understanding in an discontinuous life is a contemporary interpolation on the Joseph plot.
I was moved by the ways that the bonds created by the midwife tradition kept a social role for Dinah in Egypt, when she was a foreigner without family. Dinah keeps her origin and story a secret for much of her time in Egypt, gradually discloses the story, which frees her for a rich late adulthood. This is a cliche of psychotherapy, and also a contemporary interpretation of the Joseph story with a female main character.
The contemporary nature of these plot devices is a strength, not a weakness. All midrash is contemporary, and I found the Joseph retelling emotionally compelling.
Pages and pages of Amazon reviews, and, says my cousin Nina, some of her acquaintainces, treat the story as, alternately, a historically accurate picture of biblical life, or an offensively inaccurate bastardization of the literally true Genesis story. The literalist readings, of course, miss the point entirely.
The Red Tent is not great literature, but it is effective midrash, a readable story, and has strengths as a novel. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, and can't predict who'd like it. But I found it interesting and moving.
Recently reread Eugene Onegin (Johnson's translation on the shelf).
The language is still captivating and charming; I still think it would be worth learning Russian to read the original. When I read Onegin as a college student I was intoxicated by the poetry, even in translation.
I don't get quite so drunk by the music, but I understand more of the prose. Reading Onegin, one can guess that the poet didn't have a great desire to live past forty. The attraction of life is the thrill and passion of adolescence; nothing of value in grownup life but boredom and decay.
With fancier clothes and riskier sports, it's the American teen ballad; the middlebrow 70s/80s versions I know are Brenda and Eddie; Jack and Diane; feel free to cite the originals that I know the copies of.
I understood and liked the conclusion better. Tatyana, at least, has grown up. She chooses to keep her bargain with adult life; she picks integrity and social status over passion. More than that, she understands in retrospect the mismatch between her innocent passion as a girl and Onegin's rakish flirtation; and the favor Eugene probably did her by turning her down. Yet, she doesn't give Eugene any credit for learning anything in the intervening years. Not that there is any evidence that Onegin has learned anything; the same self-absorbed fop, fallen victim to a traditional and perverse cupid.
The irony is that Tatyana has diagnosed Eugene's character from the marginal notes scrawled on the books in his library; yet the literary poses bear the same relationship to essence (if such a thing exists) as the clothes and social drama. Does she assume that the literary poses are the real Eugene, or does she simply choose not to take the risk of measuring the alignment between private writing and reality.
So much for analysis, this still makes me shiver...
Dawn comes in mist and chill; no longer
do fields echo with work and shout;
in pairs, their hunger driving stronger
on the highroad the wolves come out;
the horse gets wind of them and, snorting,
sets the wise traveller cavorting
up the hillside at breakneck pase;
no longer does the herdsman chase
his beasts outside at dawn, nor ringing
at noontime does his horn resound
as it assembles them around
while in the hut a girl is singing
she spins and, friend of winter nights,
the matchwood chatters as it lights.
Over the weekend, I read The Ladies Auxiliary, a novel set in the Orthodox community in Memphis.
A young widow moves into town with a young child. Batsheva is a convert whose husband had grown up in the Memphis community. She moves in because she wants to participate and raise her child in the warm, close observant community that her husband grew up in. But she doesn't fit in. She wears gauzy clothes and bangles. She paints abstract paintings. She sings loudly and with spirit in synagogue. She doesn't cook. She's earnest about seeking meanings in Jewish ritual.
After initial caution, the community slowly warms to her, and she's invited to teach art to the sullen and surly teenage highschool girls. Things go awry when she becomes close to the girls, who are rebelling against the community's strict norms, and to the Rabbi's 22-year old son who is having a crisis of faith. The community bands together to blame the outsider for the cracks in the community facade.
The book has an insider's description of the hybrid styles of Memphis Jewish life -- the lavish eastern european/southeastern american cooking, the modest yet ostentatious frum-southern belle dress code. The book portrays the universal insular, gossip-ruled, iron-clad norms of small town life, enforced by particularly Jewish-flavored anxieties about keeping community boundaries by maintaining the appearance of observance, avoiding the "bad influence" of the outside world, and defining parental success by the observance level of their children.
The author's portrait of the Memphis Jewish women at various, nuanced levels of insider and outsiderhood rings very true to me. There are women who embody and enforce the values; women who live them by subordinating their opinions to the group, and women with unresolved tension about keeping up the appearance of observance, happy family life, and wanting outlets for creativity and initiative. So does the clash between the culturally conservative, emotionally restrained Memphians and the spiritually and culturally expressive and exploratory New York, neo-Hassidic Carlebach community where Batsheva learned her Judaism.
The portrait of the outsider has a bit of insider bias. Batsheva led a geographically and spiritually rootless life before finding Judaism. After conversion, she has little contact with her parents or former friends. Yet she is portrayed as having grace, self-confidence, and the wisdom of her experience and intuitions, though she is rather tone-deaf to her affect on others, and has no political skills other than native trust and friendliness.
A more plausible outsider would either be less emotionally stable -- manipulative, mercurial, erratic. Or alternatively, more grounded, with stronger ties to her family, to friends from the Carlebach community, to college and art-world friends; and a few more political skills.
My cousin lives in the Memphis Orthodox community. She recommended the book. I'll ask her what she thinks. Being a work of fiction, it dramatizes and exaggerates the truth, but the caricature rings true to me.
This portrait of Memphis is why I don't go there often and don't stay long. The cultural categories I fit into are "eccentric"; in a community that has little tolerance for eccentricity; and "bad influence".
Metrics of eccentricity include being a female entrepreneur and political activist, in a world where public life is for men, and women keep to their place, which can include heavy behind-the-scenes influence, but no direct public voice. Female intellectualism is considered quite odd and somewhat absurd. A single woman in her thirties is considered deeply suspicious, or is disregarded entirely.
Metrics of bad influence include friends and associates of various ethnicities, religious and sexual preferences; libertarian principles about others' choices, and personal religious and sexual preferences that are rather conservative by American coastal norms but radical in the Jewish Bible Belt. OK as long as they're not spoken in public; you don't want to stay around long enough to have people find out what you think; or alternately, get in the habit of keeping up appearances.
Pundits on the right and left agree that civilization is a perilous state of decline, although they disagree about why.
* A permissive, hedonistic culture has led to pervasive moral degradation, irresponsibility, and the collapse of traditional family values
* Rampant destruction of the earth's resources is leading to imminent collapse of the planet's ability to sustain civilization
In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman traces three hundred years of history of the idea that Western civilization is on the verge of collapse.
In the decades after Darwin, for example, there was an influential school of thought that argued that human evolution had reached its peak and was now in decline -- the human species was degenerating to a bestial state. These ideas influenced the Nazis and their forebears on the far right, who believed that the white race was in decline. In a fascinating chapter, the author explains how WEB du Bois, educated in the German university system, developed inverse theories of the superiority of dark-colored races.
Herman cites critics predicting the doom of capitalism on right and left. In the late 19th century, Henry and Brooks Adams argued an arch-conservative case that rampant capitalism was leading to a decline of the aristocratic tradition in American leadership. Brooks Adams contended that American imperialism was the solution to the decline. Karl Marx and his followers, of course, argued that capitalism was about the exploitation of the masses by the economic elite, and predicted the inevitable replacement of capitalism by a worker's paradise.
Apocalyptic stories often have more in common with each other than they do with the situation at hand. The similarities among the tales of apocalypse invoke a healthy skepticism about today's purveyors of doom in its various flavors.
I like apocalpytic sci-fi, of the strain including Canticle for Liebowitz, Brazil, 12 Monkeys. The nightmare world in these genres has an cathartic emotional appeal, and they cast an revealing perspective on whatever ominous tendencies lurk in contemporary society.
On the other hand, sometimes the paranoid are right. I recently a Holocaust memoir for a book club. The narrator's mother had paranoid tendencies all her life. This paranoia saved the lives of mother and daughter when real-life villains were actually attempting to murder them.
In the book, Herman examines the idea of decline, and doesn't consider whether the paranoid might actually be right sometimes. He doesn't make distinctions between worries that have been discredited -- the rise of a criminal class based on skull measurements by phrenologists -- and anxieties that proved prescient -- thinkers who forecast the decline of European colonialism -- and those who worried about the dangers of 20th century military technology prior to World War 1.
The gloomiest forecasts of 1970s environmentalists haven't come to pass, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore global warming and massive declines in fish populations today. The threats to civil liberties posed by the Patriot Act might recede -- just as the US recovered from the Alien and Sedition Acts in the early 19th century, and the internship of the Japanese in World War 2. The outcome isn't inevitable.
The book changes the way one looks at today's prophesies of doom, but not enough to cheerfully ignore them.
Just read Beyond Fear, by Bruce Schneier, the computer security expert. Schneier describes his method for evaluating and countering security threats, and applies them to the policies in place responding to September 11.
One of the things that I really like about Schneier is that he asserts that most people are moral and ethical, even as he analyzes the vulnerabilities of systems to attack.
One reason that I had avoided the security topic in the past is that the conversation seemed to be driven by Tom Clancy-style paranoia. People who talked about security had a typical introductory spiel explaining that the world is a much more dangerous place than most people assume; security professionals live on the edge; protecting the unsuspecting flock from the terror that lurks outside, using complex, secret knowledge. Security experts portray a glamorous image of a elite, living in a world of fear, and attempting to impart that frisson of terror to their audience.
By contrast, Schneier presents a sensible and logical way of looking at risks, protection strategies, and trade-offs. He makes a cogent argument that it is important to have security professionals with practice recognizing situations that are rare to most people. He presents the complexity involved in analysis and defence. And he puts those risks in context; he portrays a world in which serious danger is not wholly preventable, but subject to mitigation, and mostly rare.
Robin Dunbar has a chattier take on the evolution of language than Terence Deacon. Dunbar, a primatologist, makes the case that human language evolved because it helped humans survive in larger groups than other primates. You can chat with several people at a time, but you can only pull the bugs out of one other critter's fur. Group size helped humans avoid predators, as they moved down from the trees into the savannah.
Dunbar's explanation seems more compelling than Terrence Deacon's (that symbolic communication evolved to signify the sexual ownership of females in mixed-gender groups). Co-operation kept early humans fed and kept them from being eaten every single day; survival is a pre-requisite to passing on one's genes. Pair-bond status disputes happen a lot less frequently than eating.
Neither theory is easily provable; both theories lie somewhere on the continuum between science and origin myth.
Meanwhile, both books explain fascinating science, while telling their origin myth for language. Dunbar explains human communication in the context of communication patterns among other primates. Deacon explains language in the context of the science of language processing in the human brain.
The Symbolic Species, by Terence Deacon, argues that language and the human brain co-evolved; and that the understanding of symbols is the primary differentiator of human language and human intelligence. The book doesn't prove either major thesis. But it includes fascinating research and compelling sub-arguments about the nature and evolution of human language along the way.
My favorite section of the book is Deacon's argument against the Chomskian thesis that the brain is hard-wired for language processing. The book surveys decades of research on language deficiencies caused by brain damage; and recent imaging studies on language processing in healthy brains.
If language was hard-wired, than one would expect that universal features of languages would be implemented in similar regions of the brain. The noun-verb pattern is universal. However, the noun-verb distinction is implemented differently in different languages (some languages use word order; other languages modify the words themselves).
It turns out that the different implementations of grammar utilize different sections of the brain to process nouns and verbs. Therefore, says Deacon, grammar-processing isn't universally coded in hardware. The brain is designed for language at a different level of abstraction than firmware modules.
Another fascinating section of the book argues that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to understand symbols. Deacon reports a fascinating series of experiments with chimpanzees, showing how chimps have a devilish time doing things we find very easy. Chimpanzees find it nearly impossible to set aside immediate evidence and apply a more abstract understanding.
If you put two piles of candy in front of a child, he will choose the larger pile. But if the larger pile is then given to another child, the first child quickly learns to choose the smaller pile. Chimps never figure this out (although they can learn to choose the number 3 over the number 2). With the pile of candy in front of them, they are overwhelmed by impulse to choose the larger pile.
Deacon tells an interesting "just so story" of the origin of the symbol in human evolution. Humans tend to live in groups, and most often have a pattern of pair-bonding. This is a most unusual combination in the animal world.
In animal species where males contribute to providing for the offspring, there are two basic social patterns. Either the animals pair-bond -- in which case the pair lives in isolation -- or the animals live in groups, in which case polygyny is the norm. Unless a pair is isolated from the group, or the male has exclusive access to a harem, there is no way for the male to be sure that the young he is providing for carry his genes.
Deacon's thesis, essentially, is that the wedding ring and the wedding ceremony are the original symbols. Humans invented an abstract symbol and group ritual to mark the fact that a woman is the exclusive sexual property of a man. This allows humans to live co-operatively in groups (which enables more efficient hunting and gathering).
But, to get here, Deacon skips over alternative explanations of the same evidence. The ability to see beyond immediate evidence to consequences remote in time and space can be explained as easily as the foundation of storytelling. Stories have plots -- chains of causal relationships that are not visible to the eye. "The saber-toothed tiger over the second hill killed Oog and injured Gah." And stories turn on character motive -- predictions of behavior based on traits and interests. "Chah stayed at the fire and made excellent grain porridge because she does not like to pick eek-berries." Stories are key to success in hunting, gathering, and transmitting knowledge of tools.
An alternative theory is posed by Robin Dunbar, who argues that gossip was a driving force in the evolution of language. Gossip is language that is used socially, to assess the reliability of social and sexual behavior, and to transmit social norms.
In arguing for the primacy of the symbol, Deacon skips right past other facts he cites. The nerves that go to the frontal cortex travel through limbic areas. This physical fact is a fascinating explanation of art, which combines intellectual stimulation -- formal patterns and esthetic properties -- with emotional stimulation. Similarly, human decision-making combines reason, pattern-recognition, and gut feeling.
Dunbar is better at marshalling evidence about the unique properties of human language than explaining their cause and origin. Deacon himself argues that language is overdetermined; there are so many advantages that it's hard to tell what came first. But we're humans, so we search for causes and tell origin myths, even when we're using the tools of science.
Also, the bias toward the abstract may influence Deacon's writing style. Deacon is charmed by the human ability to decode abstractions and process complex sentences; the book could be made easier to read without loss of information, complexity, or meaning, if Deacon weren't quite so fond of abstraction.
One difficulty for a layperson reading the book is that the book assumes a medical student's knowledge of brain anatomy. The book uses many terms for brain components, and employs illustrations pointing at brain regions. It would be helpful for the book to include a mapset of the brain and its components, the same way history books often provide a set of reference maps and timelines.
If you're interested in the topic, read the book. It's fascinating, though it has flaws and it's not light reading.
I heard Pamela Ribon read from Why Girls are Weird" at Book People the other week. Ribon read one piece on the twisted things little girls do with Barbie dolls; another on the indignity of eavesdropping on an ex-boyfriend with his new sweetie from behind an end-cap display in a supermarket.
The reading was lively, off-color and very funny (she kept apologizing for reading the R-rated bits standing next to the kids section of the bookstore). Ribon is a sketch comedy performer and it shows; the sketches catch and exaggerate the dramas of life shaped by pop-culture. It was infinitely better than the usual, pause, breathy, pause, dramatic, pause, intonated, pause, style that infects book readings.
As Prentiss points out, "Why Girls are Weird" may be the first epistolary novel based on the web journal form. The novel is based on a journal Ribon kept when she was living in Austin and working as paratechnical slacker during the dot-com boom.
The journal entries are fictionalized versions of the main character's life. For example, she writes as if she were still dating her ex-boyfriend. The plot is driven by the understandings and misunderstandings that occur when she meets people in real life who know her through her web journal. The book's emotional core is the weird mixture of honesty, selective disclosure, and fiction that makes up first person web writing.
The good things about the book are its comic sketches and the exploration of the dramatic possibilities in writing a web journal. As a straight-up novel, it's off-the-shelf romantic comedy. The protagonist starts self-involved and doesn't get much wiser; the romantic interest and gay best buddy are painted by the numbers.
Ribon left Austin to seek fame and fortune in Los Angeles, writing for TV and movies. She enjoys writing the journal and the novel because nobody asks her to make endings happier and characters more blonde, unlike producers in LA. After the reading, I bought the book, hoping that book-readers can keep her fed and free from obligatory blondness.
Cory Doctorow is an amazingly fast writer. I've watched him blog conference talks and leave contrails. I wish he'd written this book a bit more slowly.
"Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" imagines a utopia where death has become obsolete -- upon fatal injury, a new body can be cloned, and the mind restored from backup. Scarcity has been eliminated, and money has been replaced by "whuffie" -- the sum of a person's reputation.
The story cleverly explores the consequences of these premises. In the main story line, the protagonist seeks revenge for his own murder.
The absense of death and scarcity makes people free to devote their lives to art and fun. The story is aptly set in Disney, pinnacle of creativity and surface cheer. Yet the lifelong pursuit of entertainment and art doesn't solve existential conflicts or give people the adversity they need to grow up. The reputation economy creates a culture in which people are excruciatingly politic and upbeat, even as they betray each other and commit dastardly deeds for the sake of whuffie.
I enjoyed the way the book dramatized the consequences of the premises. But the novel might have been richer, if the author had taken more time.
The Disney utopia wants a bright, shiny, eery atmosphere; a sort of pastel noir. The surgically constumed characters and mind-possessing rides could be really creepy. Too often, the book describes the effect without creating the feeling.
With its characters, too, the book tells more than it shows. The protagonist is a creative slacker who's on his third adulthood -- changing channels through wives and lives. This is how the book describes his feelings about dating a much younger woman: "my girlfriend was fifteen percent of my age, and I was old-fashioned enough that it bugged me...I was more than a century old, but there was still a kind of magic in having my arms around the warm, fine shoulders of a girl by midnight.. I'd been startled to know that she know the Beatles." Maybe the book's making the point that a century of entertainment hasn't made the protagonist grow up. But there are subtler ways of portraying the age distance.
My favorite aspect of the book is the dramatization of contemporary, wired life.
Characters have brain implants that give them instant access to information about the world; and send silent messages to each other using a wireless brain interface. People's lives depend on backing up their brain regularly, yet they're still tempted to prioritize urgent deadlines over backups and system maintenance.
Cory's captured the psychological effect of constant connection to Google, email and instant messaging, utter dependence on digital data, and the perilous personal consequences of system crash without backup.
Anyone who's worked in a highly political organization will recognize the endless rounds of socialization required for decisions, and the cheerful delusion zealously maintained in the face of disaster.
In summary (for Peterme, who always asks if I liked the book), the book meets the criteria for a good sci-fi novel; exploring ideas by extrapolating them to a future extreme, while satirizing contemporary culture. The book could have been richer and deeper; I hope that Cory slows down a bit for the next one.
Last week, I read The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.
Given recent discussions about identity and anonymity on the internet, it was Franklin's often wrote social and political commentary under pseudonyms.
He began writing under assumed names as a teenager, when he wrote letters to the editor in the guise of an older woman. Richard Sauders, the nominal author of Poor Richard's Almanac, was a pseudonym.
That sort of pseudonymity would be harder to pull off today. It caused an uproar when a novel about Bill Clinton's political campaign was published by an author who was obviously a campaign insider. Some of Franklin's pseudonymous writing would be considered unethical hoaxes by today's standard.
Franklin was a businessman, then a politician and diplomat. It was unwise to insult customers and political allies under his own name. He used pseudonyms to write words sharper than he was willing to sign.
The Tipping Point is a catchy book that explains how social epidemics work.
* epidemics don't spread gradually; instead, there is a tipping point that turns a small trend into a mass phenomenon
* small changes can have big results in the outcome
* several types of people: salesmen, connectors, mavens; play important roles in catalyzing epidemics
The exposition isn't rigorous but the writing is memorable. Gladwell has lively stories and catchy names for the roles people play in spreading epidemics. Stories about Sesame Street and Bernhard Goetz provide colorful illustration for the idea that small changes have a big results.
The lack of rigor bothered me less than it bothered Peterme. The book has footnotes, so readers who want more rigor can go find it.
One peeve with the book is that Gladwell questions common theories of gradual social change; yet takes the cultural constructs of our society for granted.
* people want to be "cool"
* fashion trends begin with the self-expression of outcasts and are popularized through the efforts of mass marketers
* teenagers inevitably experiment with dangerous activities like drugs and smoking
These things are socially constructed. Many of the problems of teen culture can be explained by a social structure where teens can't do anything useful, and forces them to "spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do."
Mass marketing is a modern invention; do the same dynamics apply to pre-modern social trends: the spread of religions, technologies, languages?
This reaction isn't a criticism of the book. It's a compliment that the book is so memorable that it invites readers to think about whether its ideas apply in other domains.
Emerson among the Eccentrics is a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his cadre of Transcendentalist friends. It's one of the better non-fiction books I've read in a while.
Emerson among the Eccentrics had been on my reading list since reading reviews of the book 1996. I had always wondered about the historical context of those writers. Emerson and Thoreau wrote self-confidently about self-reliance; where did they fit, economically and socially? Hawthorne's allegories were set in the bleak Puritan past; was his life like the distilled misery of his work?
Having lived in the Boston area for a dozen years, I also wondered about cultural geography; were there aspects of 19th century Concord that could be detected in late 20th Century Cambridge/Somerville?
Cousins of the English Romantics who traipsed through the English countryside at the dawn of the industrial revolution, the Transcendentalists saw divine spirit in the hills and streams. For recreation, they strolled in the woods of Concord, spent weekends on Monadnock, took strenous vacations climbing Katahdin in Maine. My friends in Boston, inveterate weekend hikers, were their direct spiritual descendents, though REI and AMC have commodified the experience in the interim.
19th century Concord was more civilized than Thoreau's sketches but much more rural than contemporary suburbia. The transcendentalist crew kept serious gardens, where they grew a substantial amount of their fruit and vegetables. Planting and weeding and harvesting, pests, storms and freezes play a notable role in personal journals; though various efforts at full-time farming, such as the Fruitlands commune, and the Alcott's farm failed notoriously.
Intellectuals in their native habitat
As Digby Baltzell wrote in the classic Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia, New England had a strong intellectual tradition. The cultural tradition -- and contrast with the Mid-Atlantic states -- was clear to me when I moved to the Boston area after having grown up in suburban Philadelphia.
Mid-19th century America hadn't yet developed the culture of professionalism that would dominate the intellectual classes in future generations. The parents of the Transcendentalists were ministers, teachers, lawyers; some sailors and factory owners. Their children went into medicine, engineering, and business management.
Colleges trained young men for the ministry and emerging professions; there were no degree programs in history and literature; Germany was starting to pioneer the structure of modern academia.
The Transcendentalists descended from a Puritan age, where preachers held crowds spellbound with hours-long sermons. After leaving the Unitarian ministry, Emerson made a living as a secular preacher, traveling the country on lecture tours. The Transcendentalists grew their own journals for a while, then found publishers in New York and Boston, in emerging literary venues like the Atlantic.
There were distinctive 19th century institutions, the Atheneum (private library) and the Lyceum (private adult education club), that provided venues for amateur and semiprofessional teaching and learning. Intellectuals like Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott supplemented their income with this sort of private education.
So, New England intellectuals who make a living on the public lecture circuit, writing essays and occasional books, are working in a local tradition.
The transcendentalists seem to have existed in a mileu of genteel financial struggle. Their social equals were judges, politicians, and business people. They occupied a snootier social rung than farmers and tradepeople, but the Concord crowd seemed less exclusive than than the famous jingle, either because they were less snobby, or because Carlos Baker doesn't notice, perhaps because the Brahmins still ran the show without competition from the Irish, Jews, and other uncouth immigrant populations.
It was difficult to make a living as an intellectual and writer, but it was possible. Carlos Baker shares Emerson's bias about responsibility for making a living and taking care of family and friends, and implicity compares the transcendentalists along this axis.
Emerson was able to a decent living as free lance writer and public speaker. Family money helped, but wasn't enough to live on alone.
Hawthorne struggled to make a living as a writer, wrote children's books and took various white-collar jobs or the money, and occasionally assistance from friends to make ends meet, finding financial success as a novelist later in life. Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott's father) was a dreamer and a professional conversationalist who never had quite enough practical skills to make a living.
While Thoreau, in Baker's narrative, is less of a idler than the self-created myth, Ellery Channing, really does come off as a slacker. Channing frequently left jobs at random times, took vacations when his wife was pregnant, and didn't fulfill his early literary promise either.
For talented women, the gates weren't open wide, but they were open. Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott supported themselves as writers and editors.
The social idealism of the New England intellectuals, who advocated abolition, women's suffrage, nature worship, and various sorts of utopian living, of course, has a direct line of descent through various generations of liberal thought and practice, including John Muir's environmentalism, beat slackerism, and 60s civil rights activism and communal experiments.
The earnest idealism of the next generation New England social reformers was lampooned in Henry James The Bostonians. The spiritual descendents of the transcendentalists are still earnestly planning social reform.
The Puritan-descended Transcendentalists seemed (at least in Baker's treatment) to err in their sexual experiments on the side of celibacy rather than libertinism. Emerson extended friendship to the female intellectuals of the circle, and kept those relationships platonic (despite the occasional jealousy of his wife.) Nathaniel Hawthorne contrasted liberating passion to Puritan moralism; but was married and happily monogomous in life.
Thoreau was rebuffed in one proposal of marriage, declined another proposal, and had emotional friendships with men, but there's no evidence he was anything but celibate.
Margaret Fuller had extravagant crushes on Emerson, and various other friends of both genders, but was persistently rebuffed, until her marriage, in her late-30s to an Italian petty nobleman. Fuller had some sort of physical relationship with one suitor in her 30s, and conceived a child with her Italian lover before they married (it is not completely clear whether they ever had a ceremony); but they were accepted as married by their peers. Exceedingly tame, by Byronic standards.
Whitman, who met the New England crew, frequented a Bohemian circle in New York, and a working class gay community, with norms rather different from the chaste New Englanders.
The mid-19th Century is on the far side of the chasm opened by modern medicine and modern technology. Emerson lost a young son to scarlet fever; Ellen, Emerson's first wife and Thoreau both died of tuberculosis; people were sick often, early death was common. Louisa May Alcott's health was ruined by the mercury treatments given to cure typhoid; calomel may have been part cause of Lydian Emerson's lifelong invalidism.
The train came to Concord in the middle of the century, replacing the stage coach to Boston. Train travel allowed Emerson to criss-cross the country on lecture tours. The pace of life was faster than the revolutionary era, when it took weeks for letters to cross the US, and months to cross the Atlantic; but much slower than today, when Concord is a suburb of Boston; email and phone calls bridge distance instantly. The slower pace of life facilitated hospitality and leisure travel. Friends visited for weeks or months. Vacations lasted months (if you had money, and could afford vacation).
In summary; traces of Emerson's New England could be seen in the New England I lived in, though has the world changed tremendously.
Emerson's "Self-Reliance" was a spiritual concept; it meant that a person should find and trust the divine spark within. Despite occasional rhetoric about solitude, Emerson was enmeshed in a world of family, friends, and work. He supported his mother, invalid wife, children, and mentally ill brother with his writing and public lecturing. He encouraged his friends to settle in Concord, and socialized often with his friends in town, and frequent visitors.
Emerson's sociable yet distant demeanor troubled the people in his life. His first wife died young of tuberculosis; his second wife and closest friends complained that he was always somewhat aloof. Emerson maintained his trademark optimism despite experience of suffering; two brothers, his beloved first wife, youngest son died young. Emerson's optimism contrasted oddly with the chronic illness and depression of his second wife, Lydian.
Thoreau comes across more favorably than the Marxist stereotype of an upper-class slacker. Thoreau was the steward of the Emerson household, managing repairs, tradespeople, orchards, gardens, and child care. (The house manager role was taken over, after Thoreau's death, by Ellen Emerson, the daughter of Ralph Waldo and Lydian.) He did carpentry, surveying, teaching, and gardening for cash and calories, wrote regularly and carefully, and kept his needs small enough to be met by his slim income.
Thoreau's cottage in the woods near Walden pond was just a couple of miles from the Concord center of town. He had a reputation as being somewhat brusque and awkward, but maintained long friendships with Emerson, Fuller, Channing, and the other members of the transcendentalist clan. Even in the years in the cottage, he was infinitely more socialized than, say, Ted Kaszinski.
Margaret Fuller, one of the book's livelier characters, was new to me. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville were required reading in school; Margaret Fuller wasn't in the canon, though she was a leading figure in the transcendentalist circle. She was editor of the Dial, the short-lived but influential Transcendentalist publication, and was hired by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune as the first book-reviewer in the US. Her peers thought she was brilliant, though it is hard to say why without knowing her work. Her passionate declarations of love embarrassed her restrained friends of both sexes, and Carlos Baker too.
Hawthorne in life was extremely shy, but (by the evidence in this book at least), happily married, though harried by chronic difficulties in making a living as a writer. His private writing quoted in the book was delightfully direct by 19th century standards, and funny, too. Biographical writing that portrays Hawthorne purely as a miserable neurotic take Hawthorne out of context, and underestimates the artistry in his work.
Emerson among the Eccentrics?
I don't know whether the the title was written by the book's author or the publisher. Baker's sketches reveal varying levels of mental stability, economic sufficiency, social responsibility, and political activity among the transcendental crowd.
But the portrait sketches of Emerson and his friends don't seem to be primarily about eccentricity to me. Unlike, say, the writings of Henry James, Baker doesn't provide a ground of bourgeois "normality" to show off the oddness of these intellectual idealists; nor does he have the squeamish ambivalence about the intellectual role found in James and the later Brahmin descendant, Henry Adams.
The book reveals the texture of daily life for Emerson and his friends, and places their life and work in a lively social, cultural, and political context. If you have any curiousity about the time and people, the book is well worth reading.
A while ago, I griped about visiting a home libary holding several stories of matching leatherbound books, arrayed to display the wealth and culture of the owner. The pages were still uncut. The books weren't for reading.
In fact, early generations of printed books in the Renaissance (mid-1400s) were produced and purchased for this purpose. Agents purchased copies of these new luxury items, produced with custom illustration, and bound identically in expensive leather with precious metal and jewels, to display the wealth of their noble, ecclesiastical, or merchant clients.
A century later, books were produced in print runs of 1000 or more, serving a growing audience of readers and scholars. Letters served as a very slow search engine -- readers wrote their colleagues, asking where they might find the latest edition edition of a new classical translation or new scholarly text.
from Worldly Goods by Lisa Jardine, a history of the Renaissance through material culture.
I've had Rules for Radicals referred to me by several people and sources, on both sides of the political spectrum. It's billed as a canonical work on political organizing.
Alinsky published the book in 1971, after over three decades of organizing in impoverished and powerless communities.
The political philosophy, from a leftist of Alinsky's times, can be shredded any number of ways, and it's not worth bothering.
What's interesting about the book is the material on tactics.
The book gives interesting historical context for the confrontational, theatrical 60s activist tactics. I was always puzzled by the demonstrations and teach-ins among the left when I was in school. These rituals seemed unlikely to change anyone's mind, and seemed more like excuses for the like-minded to party or commiserate. Michael Moore comes from the tradition of provocative activist theater -- bother and confuse the powers that be, and they might notice and relent.
The communities Alinsky worked with had nothing, and the powers-that-were were not listening. Shock tactics worked at the time. The powers-that-were did notice, and did give in.
Alinsky himself makes the point that tactics need to change with the times, and expresses frustration that his followers borrowed his tactics, rather than his principles. By 1971, Alinsky notes, sit-ins had lost the power to shock and persuade, and calling cops "pigs" didn't do anyone any good.
Many of Alinsky's principles themselves are sensible. Communicate within the experience of the people you're talking to. If they don't have the experience, create the experience. Stay within the experience of your community, and work outside of the experience of your opponents. Build a group on multiple issues. Build tactics on the opportunities and choices in front of you.
But Alinsky's experience is bounded by his work with the poor and powerless. He would come in, help a community solve some desperate problems, and then head on to the next battle. Once the unions, or an African-American community (name the group) gained power, the next step is to use that power. Alinsky never stayed long enough, it seems, to understand the set of tactics to use if you are more than powerless.
Perhaps you demonize the enemy if you're fighting against the meat-packing plant that offers a perverse parody of health care. But if you use those tactics in neighborhood disputes, you may "win", but your neighborhood loses.
Well, not quite, but the next best thing.
Below "add to shopping cart", the menu adds: Available for in-store pickup now from: $49.99. Price may vary based on availability. Enter your zip code:
Best of both worlds. Find it on Amazon, buy at the closest Borders. Wonderful for a quick fix of the book you've been coveting.
I've used the store inventory database at Borders before, but the interface is godawful -- it takes five clicks, two forms, and a lot of jumping around to get to the inventory search.
I've implored Bookpeople, the best local bookstore, to put their database online for years. I'd buy more from them if they did.
Read A Canticle for Leibowitz, after having it on the shelf for maybe a decade.
If you haven't read it, it is an early and classic work of postapocalyptic science fiction, published in 1959. The main setting is a monastary, after civilization has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. The book has three sections: the first set in the dark ages, when the monks preserve without comprehension a record of a technical civilization; the second set in a renaissance period, when society is starting to develop secular scholarship and aggressive, imperialistic political leadership; the third section is set in a rebuilt, high-tech civilization on the verge of destroying the world once more with nuclear weapons.
I liked the book as a work of art -- the book builds a compelling and grim set of future worlds. Through those worlds, it explores a conflict between religion and science.
In the dark ages, the actions of the church are absurd. The monks revere every scrap of evidence from the fallen world, including the grocery list of the "blessed Leibowitz". Leibowitz was a low-level engineer who tried to preserve technical knowledge when angry mobs try to destroy the people and knowledge that led to civilization's destruction. He becomes a saint of the order, and there's a bureacratic and absurd process of canonizing the "saint". A simple and ignorant monk makes an illuminated copy of an ordinary blueprint circuit diagram, adding gold leaf, scrolls, shields, and curlicues.
But the book's underlying philosophy is very Catholic; redemption through suffering; the values of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Despite the absurdity of elements of religious belief and practice, the author sympathizes with the monks. In the section set in the dark ages, he sympathizes with the simple monk, who suffers for his actions in discovering and preserving the mysterious ancient texts. In the section set in the renaissance, the author sympathises with the scholarly abbot, who sees the secular scholar character as a victim of hubris and a sellout. In the section set in the renewed technical civilization, he again sympathises with the abbot, who sees a secular doctor practicing euthanasia on victims of lethal doses of radiation as the self-deluded agent of totalitarianism and suffering.
I realized why I'd never gotten through the novel before. The first section is almost entirely without love and compassion. The main character is a simple, innocent, and ignorant fellow who is treated cruelly most of the time. It is hard to identify with the characters and hard to watch the cruelty.
The second two sections have more complex main characters, and some compassion in the interaction among characters. So it becomes easier to read, though the book on the whole is quite grim.
Individual characters suffer and die, humanity suffers from fatal hubris, the vultures have a great time.
At a recent book exchange, I gave away a copy of The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature., by Philip Ball, an editor for Nature.
The book covers the structure and development of patterns in nature: bubbles, waves, animal and plant bodies, branching patterns in trees and rivers, convection patterns in boiling water on a scale of minutes and in the earth's crust on a scale of millions of years.
The book has good, detailed explanations; history of the scientific concepts, and beautiful pictures. It doesn't have enough math and computation for my taste, though. It seemed to me that a small amount of not-particurlarly advanced math or modeling would make the points more clearly. The book mentioned several times that the phenomena were modelled by cellular automata. I'd be curious to find out how. The book has references to the scientific papers, so one could look the works up in the original, should one have the time and/or skill.
It is a good complement to The Computational Beauty of Nature, which has overlapping subject matter, covers a narrower range of patterns, and explains the basic math behind the concepts.
I bought the book at "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place", an independent bookstore in San Francisco. I'd never been there before, and it was very impressive that they had it in stock. Oxford University Press, paperback 2001. I definitely got the impression that the books were selected by humans rather than best-seller algorithms.
On the plane ride to and from Florida, I read "The Moor's Last Sigh" by Salman Rushdie. It was a hyperlink tendril from some reading I was doing last fall about Andalusia.
The book is full sharp satire, rich description, verbal creativity, high drama. It's an overstuffed saga of a Portugese-Christian-Jewish-Indian family of traders, artists and mobsters, set in Cochin and Bombay from the late 19th century to the late 20th.
The narrator and main character is nicknamed "The Moor", after a legend that the family descends from Boabdil, the Moorish king who turned the keys to the last Moorish stronghold over to the Spanish.
Written while Rushdie was in hiding from the Ayatolla's Fatwah, one of the novel's themes is the passing away of a vibrant, crazily passionate diverse and mixed society, replaced by a world where the power of fanaticism is superseded only by the depth of corruption.
The darkness of the book's plot is exceeded by the darkness of its characters.
The Moor was born with a crippled right hand, and suffers from a form of progeria in which he ages twice as quickly as normal people. His temperament is passive; he is almost always the pawn of clever and vicious people around him. His emotional landscape is full of shame and self-hatred.
The most dramatic character is the Moor's mother, Aurora, an artist whose brilliance and love is often surpassed by her betrayals and cruelty. Over and over in the book, love turns into betrayal. Artistic gifts and true love don't redeem very much.
Overall, the novel is hard to get through, because of the bleak emotional dynamic and the pacing. For a novel in which so many outrageous things happen, the novel is curiously static, like a nightmare. The pacing makes narrative sense given the denouement, which I won't give away.
It was worth reading, but I am not sure whether or not to recommend it.
I took Umberto Eco's Baudolino to Seattle. The plot is like Woody Allen's Zelig set in 12/13th century Italy and Constantinople. An Italian peasant boy with a gift for languages and colorful lies becomes the protege of Frederick Babarossa, and is the behind-the-scenes creator of grail legends, the canonization of Charlemagne, counterfeit relics, and the mysterious letter from the mythical Prester John, king of a fantastic Eastern Kingdom, promising political support for the Byzantine emperor.
What I liked: lively depiction of the historical period; the beauty and decadence of Constantinople (complete with detailed descriptions of Byzantine recipes, catacombs, and scupltures); the ribald life of Paris students; the crazily shifting politics of 12th c. Italy.
Where I lost patience:
* medieval disputation. The characters engage in long philosophical debates on the existence of a vacuum, the dimensions of Solomon's temple, the shape of the earth, with creative logic and little evidence. Eco creates a set of characters with convincingly medieval concerns which lose the attention of this modern reader.
* kingdom of Prester John. The last third of the narrative tells the story of a pilgrimage beyond the River Sambatyon to the domain of Prester John, inhabited by unicorns, satyrs, giants, and a variety of other medieval monsters. At this point, the story veers off into allegory, shifting the balance between narrative and idea far enough (for me) to lose the human interest.
Not sure about: a theme of the novel is the relationship between history and fiction, truth and lies. I need to reflect more about the book to decide what I think about Eco's treatment of the theme.
Hard-boiled detective novel set in contemporary depression Japan, by a British expat. Great atmospheric detail of Tokyo streets and lower-middle-class Japanese life. The theme of surface propriety and underlying corruption adapts wonderfully to a Japanese setting. The gender stereotypes of the genre -- clueless bourgeoises, canny whores -- fit better with Japanese society than with contemporary US.
My favorite aspect of the book: how Mori the detective draws hidden information by using creative disguises and playing on people's instinctive respect and fear of authority.
Have you read the book? Have you read the book and lived in Japan? What did you think?
The Nanny Diaries (you may have read it; I'm probably the last on the planet who hasn't) is written by two ex-nannies to the Manhattan socialite set.
The novel portrays the struggles of a young nanny who cares for a poor little rich boy who is emotionally abandoned and rigidly programmed by narcissistic parents (the nursery school interviews, latin lessons, the "spatula move" where the mother deflects a hug and keeps the child off her clothing.) The nanny puts up with increasing hours without increasing pay, increasingly baroque shopping errands, and being berated for mistakes like getting the wrong brand of lavender water.
Subplots: the nanny is caught in the middle of the dad's office affair, and pursues a "Harvard Hottie" of her own.
The Amazon reviews follow one or more of the following paths:
Tuesday: 4-5pm: Swimming lesson at Asphalt Green, 90th Street and East End Avenue. One emaciated woman in a Chanel swimsuit and five nannies in muumuus all pleading with toddlers to "Get in the water."
I'll need you to start assembling the following items for the gift bags: Annick Goutal soap; Piper Heidseick, small bottoe, Morocco leather travel picture frame, red or green; Mont Blanc pen--- small; LAVENDAR WATER
Have you met Julio? Isn't he a genius? He is the tree [decorating] expert. You should see what he did at the Egglestons-- it was just breathaking
...the tower of cashmere sweaters, each one wrapped with tissue and individually stored in its own clear drawer...Each pair of panties, every bra, every stocking is individually packed in a Ziplock baggy and labeled: "Bra, Hanro, white," "Stockings, Fogal, black.
"Do you play the Suzuki tapes?"
"Only when he takes a bath"
"Have you been reading to him from the Wall Street Journal? The Economist? The Finanical Times"?
"What methodology are you following to dress him? And I suppose you are not documenting his choices with him on a closet diagram, nor are you having him translate his color and sizes into the Latin.
But I also felt like the books played rich people for cheap laughs.
In contrast to her employers, our heroine has loving parents (schoolteacher and director of association of battered women's shelters); a creative, independent, doting grandma.
But heartless parenting, relentless schedules, and narcissistic sex lives are characteristics of the downside of American culture at all income levels. The book lets readers get off the hook by attributing these traits to multi-millionaires.
The nanny is loving and firm and playful with the kids. She also has a lot in common with her employers; she covets designer shoes, drinks too much, spends extra income on clothes and alcohol and then feels stuck in a horrible job for the money.
The Harvard Hottie works for the UN war crimes tribunal at the Hague; he isn't an investment banker. But he's obviously a catch for our young upwardly mobile heroine in the way the restaurant-owning son of a fellow nanny is obviously not.
The social x-rays who employ our heroine scheme and sneak to get their men; use the men's money for status and luxuries; and then are at constant risk of social decline when their men move on to the next trophy. Our heroine may become as dependent on her HH for money and prestige as her employers.
One of my favorite anecdotes in the book was about an errands marketplace.
A group of researchers in Eugene, Oregon experimented with a digital version of the community errands list; in which mobile devices negotiate about sharing tasks such as picking up dry cleaning, buying stamps at the post office, picking up a book at the library.
This is an academic research project, so it includes wearable computers using game-theory-based agent software to negotiate the exchange of tasks, using a system of points accounting for difficulty and distance.
The algorithm may be overkill; one can imagine a simpler, pub-sub, hackable version of this whereby people publish their errand list, and others can click off tasks. Perhaps with an Ebay-like reputation system and security levels if the group gets big enough. Might work for a block association or co-housing group or apartment building.
The Smart Mobs in Howard Rheingold's book don't seem so smart.
Swarms of people with mobile gizmos can mass to overthrow governments and on a smaller scale, co-ordinate dinner, or turnstile jumping, or soccer riots.
A Smart Mob can take down a government, but can it govern? The Seattle protesters were nimble, but their platforms weren't that coherent (contrary opinions with pointers to cogent sources most welcome).
What processes for thinking and co-ordination are required to make decentralized action really smart, not just co-ordinated and impulsive?
In an email, David Weinberger corrected the urban legend version of his bio, which is that he left philosophy to write jokes for Woody Allen.
"Well, it's a nice myth, but I wrote gags for WA's comic strip while I was teaching. I left teaching because there were no tenure slots open where I taught."Too bad, I like the fictional version better. Not that far off though.
David thinks that I misunderstand his intend regarding authenticity:
...she takes "authenticity" in a way that I don't quite get and don't think I intended. She seems to think I mean by it something having to do with the purity of one's roots when in fact I use it as something like taking ownership for who one is.No, I don't think at all that he meant that. I do think that there's a tension between expressing our "authentic" identities and participating in groups, both of which are good things. For example, I wrote about synagogue on Saturday. If I post the article on Saturday afternoon, I offend the sensibilities of my more observant friends. By writing the story at all, I offend the sensibilities of my rigorously secular friends. Yup, writing is taking ownership of an identity, which brings conflict as well solidarity. Means making choices about who to piss off when.
Since writing the essay, I read some of the other reviews and interviews in the sidebar. The interesting thing about the interviews is that the book's flippant yet deep style didn't come easily at all. Weinberger wrote and shredded a couple drafts in Serious Mode and was on the verge of chucking the project when he came up with the voice for the book.
Makes it easier to handle my envy for Weinberger's light touch; I grew up without much television; conversations about movie stars send me off to the corner to read books with big words. If he had to work to tune the flippancy meter, the crowdpleasing is easier to handle.
I should also say in interest of full disclosure, David is an occasional mentor and is an advisor to an early start-up project that I'm involved with.
I recently read Small Pieces Loosely Joined, by David Weinberger.
This piece is in part a review, and in part a reflection and extension of Weinberger's themes.
"Small Pieces" is a meditation on the influence of the internet on our understanding of the world, which sounds a lot heavier than the book reads. To appreciate the tone of the book, keep Dr. Weinberger's bio in mind; he ditched a career as a philosophy professor to write jokes for Woody Allen; and has followed the high-tech marketing route to become a sort of "maggid of new media." (maggid = itinerant storytelling hassidic preacher), interpreting the events of the day to convey an important message in an entertaining way. The message is an irreverent yet faithful humanism: "this is the web's nature; for everything on it was put there by a human being for a reason."
The book is organized by theme, contrasting our experience of the internet with the assumptions of the "default philosophy" we hold in our heads.
David Weinberger has the insight that the web is about conversation and stories. It seems to me that this brings to common humanity a set of genres and insights that were pioneered by the rabbis of the talmud.
Weinberger argues against the cold, empirical, rationalist tradition that has come down to us from the Greeks through western philosophy. Yet the structure of the book is in the tradition of the Greeks. The chapter titles are big, abstract philosophical concepts; space, time, matter, knowledge, hope.
In classical Rabbinic writing, the abstract is reached by way of the concrete. Instead of abstract discussion of "justice" and "beauty", the talmud containes two main genre categories.
* Aggada: stories, legends, commentary
* Halacha: ritual and ethical practice, expressed as arguments about law
I'd like to propose an alternative reading, using the categories of talmudic writing, to agree with Weinberger's main points, and to take them a few steps further in a couple of directions.
Weinberger is thoroughly right that the web is a place where people gather to create shared meaning. There are sites celebrating the
Metropolitan Opera and Melanie Griffith; and weblogs where people create meaning from personal stories about cats, life, and loss. There is nothing more human than people creating culture; using drums in the African forests, pianos in 19th century parlors, Passion plays and Passover seders, playing and retelling the culture's myths to the group.
The Talmud's form reminds us that philosophy and meaning is conveyed by means of stories and interpretations, rather than through logical, linear arguments.
We've been living with a wierd anomaly for the last century or so in which culture has been mass-produced and distributed via mass media. We expect our culture to come from a corporate studio, rather than collective storytelling. The internet brings back ancient traditions of humans working and playing together tell stories and make our culture.
A large part of the Talmud's content consists of discussions of halacha, Jewish law. The scope of halacha is different from western law; it includes rituals (holidays, life cycle rituals, prayers); ethics (business practices, interpersonal relationships); as well as categories that are familiar in western law: civil law, criminal law, family law.
The translatable aspect of halacha for our purposes is the emphasis on action rather than abstraction, and its categories of ritual and ethical actions.
Weinberger talks about how the web enables the exchange of holiday letters, stories of birth and death, sharing congratulations and
condolences. These are online expressions of the seasonal and lifecycle rituals that humans observe; except connected across distance, and recorded in a persistent medium.
It will be interesting to see how people will make use of the web's persistence: when will we build persistent shrines, continually refreshing the old; when will we use forms, like weblogs,
that celebrate the new; when will we apply search and editing to discover wisdom in the voices of the past, and and when will we simply walk away from last year's conversations, leaving a clutter of jumbled archives and old sites with rotted links.
In Weinberger's argument, the web is a moral place. It expresses peoples desires to associate in groups, and to care about our fellows. (This is true for better and worse; al Qaeda and the KKK have mutual bonds and care about their fellows, as well). If the web's social nature has moral consequences, then we've got the "aggada" -- group story-telling, to learn from each others' experiece. But we but we have not yet fully developed the halacha; we are missing some of the needed mechanisms to turn our online caring into action.
The internet gives us some hyper-efficient ways to automate errands and business tasks, such as ordering books and renewing drivers'
licenses online. But we need to develop more effective ways to link online storytelling and conversation with real-world action action.
Early examples of this are MoveOn, a site that makes it easy for people to make political donations and sign advocacy petitions, and MeetUp, which makes it easy for online interest groups (whose interests might be social, or cultural, or political), to arrange local meetings.
The limits of the metaphor
A big difference between the Talmud's genres and Weinberger's world is the role of individuality. The Rabbis did not have a well-developed sense of individual identity. Individual characters had personalities, to be sure, but character is seen primarily as a set of moral attributes, rather than an expression of an inner world. Weinberger's focus on the expression of our individuality in the context of our communities is more modern, and appealing in its modernity.
Also, halacha is normative. The rabbis debated ritual and ethical actions to determine which actions were required, which were permitted, and which were forbidden. Of course, all human subcultures have community norms and rules, but many cultures are not as interested in this sort of imperative structure.
These interpretations -- aggada as culture and halacha as action -- are secularized and universalized versions of the Talmudic concepts. On some level I think that is what the internet is doing -- it is taking a set of hypertext-based cultural forms that pioneered by the Rabbis of the talmud, and bringing them to society at large.
Authenticity and Romanticism
Small Pieces makes the case that the web is a place; with its territory marked out by our interests and passions. In a heartwarming and very American fashion, Weinberger assumes and takes for granted that our interests are democratic and plural. It is worth pausing, noticing and appreciating the fact that our "interests" aren't just identified with geography, ethnicity; political affiliation; gender; or work, but are a mixtures of bits and pieces.
As in the Cluetrain Manifesto, Weinberger is a big fan of the internet as the home of our true, passionate, authentic voices. But when one's identity is plural, what does "authentic" mean? Second-generation hyphenated Americans, like me or, say, Miko, are acutely conscious of the problem involved in the term "authenticity," which is
often used as a bludgeon by people with a parochial interest in arguing that you are not American enough or Jewish enough or Japanese enough or whatever. The same goes for any non-binary component of identity.
The focus on "authenticity" is a symptom of the book's underlying romanticism, which is a pretty big flaw in the argument. Weinberger
argues with 18th century enlightenment rationalism and 20th century managerial scientism; using some traditional arguments out of Romantic philosophy and esthetics; the glorification of passion, individual voice, and communal ethic. The book raises these romantic contradictions to enlightenment convention as though they were brand new insights; whereas romanticism is just as much a part of our default philosophy as realism is. Furthermore, romanticism, in its 19th century nationalist guise and its 60s individualist guise has already showed its limitations in its tendencies toward lethal idealism and countercultural hedonism.
In citing the multi-threaded nature of time on the internet, Weinberger pays no attention to the contributions of post-modernist thinkers. To be fair, Weinberger is attacking our "default philosophy", and pomo arguably hasn't reached that broadly and deeply into conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, the playful ironies and sampled mixes of postmodernism are a significant influence in the playful, self-mocking style of .Zannah; the writer of the prototypical weblog, #!/usr/bin/girl, that Weinberger cites, as well as the the tasty stew of popular and intellectual culture found in weblogs by folks like Peter Merholz and David Weinberger himself.
The book achieves an entertaining balance of philosophy and wit, sometimes at the expense of fleshing out its ideas. I wish some of the ideas were developed more fully, but then it would have been a different book, and who am I to argue with the populist instincts of a writer who's achieved #6 on the Business Week best-seller list.
Also (as others have noted) the book's audience focus is uneven; Weinberger takes pages to explain the basics of internet technology; as if the audience consisted of "the in-laws"; ordinary, intelligent people who use the internet but don't know how it works. Yet the book also assumes familiarity and interest in the tactics and culture of high-tech marketing; as if the audience consisted of fellow e-business mavens.
These quibbles are mostly beside the point, since I think the book largely achieves its own objectives. Like Weinberger's best writing and public speaking, it made me think and it made me laugh.
My very favorite non-fiction books are based on a foundation of substantive research, knit together by compelling human stories (Common Ground; J. Anthony Lukas on the Boston busing crisis), or an interesting and persuasive argument (More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan on the impact of technology on housework).
There are many books that I like very much that don't live up to this standard. Then again, Lukas' standards were so high that it took him more than a decade to write his next book, after which he committed suicide, perhaps because he was unable to live up to that standard of perfection. I need to reread More Work for Mother one of these days to see if its brilliance holds up to five more years of additional reading.
What are your criteria for favorite books?
I recently read the one-volume synopsis of SD Goitein's five-volume masterwork summarizing Goitein's research in the Cairo Geniza. A geniza is a synagogue's repository of worn-out texts. In the Jewish tradition it is forbidden to dispose of texts that mention the name of God; and ordinary legal documents, business documents, and personal letters often mentioned the deity. The Cairo Geniza is a trove of documents holding evidence about the daily life in the Jewish community of medieval Cairo between the 10th and 13th centuries.
A Mediterranean Society, edited and abridged by Jacob Lassner, portrays the texture of life of that time for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and the surrounding world which was linked by commercial and communal bonds.
Topics include the family, social life, education, business, community organization, and law. Christian and Jewish minorities were largely self-governing with respect to civil law, family law, and social services and well-integrated with respect to residential patterns and business dealings. In the 11th and 12th centuries, conditions were more stable; later on, as the surrounding society declined, the Jews experienced economic hardship and persecution.
Following Peterme's train of thought, one of the things that stands out most about the Geniza world is the efforts of the Jewish community to take care of people in need. The community ran a multi-layered charitable system, providing food and clothing on a daily and weekly basis, and making longer-term provisions to house refugees, to educate orphan children, to support the marriage of orphan girls and to ransom of captives at a time when piracy and war-related kidnapping was endemic.
Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and leader of the Egyptian community in the late 12th century wrote that the best way to bring someone out of poverty was to give them the tools to be self-sufficient. But that perspective did not get in the way of ongoing, systematic efforts to feed the hungry and house the homeless.
Another notable thing is the vibrancy of economic life. Janet Abu Lughod wrote an birds-eye view of the world economic system between 1250 and 1350, describing a trade system that tied together Europe, the Muslim world, and the East. Goitein portrays the day-to-day reality of that system for the people who lived it; weddings scheduled for early Spring so merchants can leave in time to catch the favorable winds to India; marital troubles and divorces among couples who were separated by travel most of the time.
Goitein counted 450 occupations mentioned in the Geniza, which is the largest number of job categories in any pre-modern city. Jews participated in an array of activities including manufacturing: textiles, metals, glass, pottery, paper; construction; agriculture (flax, wheat, olives); trade; civil service, medicine, education. Jews in Medieval Egypt participated in most sectors of the economy; often in business partnerships with Muslims and Christians. The situation was quite unlike medieval Europe, where Jews were forbidden from owning land and participating in trade guilds, leaving finance among the few ways to make a living. Unfortunately, Lassner condensed Goitein's sections on economic life more than the other sections of the book, assuming that readers would find it dull. Not this reader. I may eventually have to find and read that volume of the Goitein series.
The Geniza provides a tantalizing window on the social life of the time. Pilgrimages were quite popular, although less reverant than the purist clergy wished. A ruling was issued regarding one of the more popular pilgrimage sites,
The divorce rate was quite high; as evidenced by the number of second and subsequent marriages found in Geniza documents. Goitein attributes the divorce rate to the custom to marry women off when very young to men they didn't know, and to the prevalence of travel that kept couples apart for months and years at a time.
The figure of Moses Maimonides occurs frequently in the book's pages. Maimonides is most famous as philosopher who incorporated the rationalism of Greek philosophy into the revelation-based monotheistic Jewish tradition. In the Jewish tradition, Maimonides reputation rests on his work as as a commentator and jurist; he was one of the leaders in the medieval project to organize the vast textual sprawl of the Talmud into a systematic legal code.
In Goitein, however, Maimonides makes frequent appearances as a communal leader; making judgements that are often fair and wise. For example, a judge in a town refused to allow a twice-widowed woman to remarry, because of a custom that considered a twice-widowed woman a "killer wife." Maimonides ruled that the couple should marry before two witnesses (legal according to Jewish law), and should then have this marriage ratified by the court. In another example, a cantor newly appointed to a town protested to Maimonides that his congregation enjoyed non-traditional poems inserted into the liturgy; Maimonides replied that the addition was improper, but keeping the poems was prefereable to the strife that would accompany an attempt to prohibit them.
However, Maimonides' judgements sometimes reflect the stricter social norms of Morocco, where his family lived before emigrating to Egypt. For example, Maimonides bans games of chance that were popular on the sabbath in Egypt, and favors wife-beating, which was apparently more socially acceptable in Morocco than in Egypt.
The book reads rather like a collection of encyclopedia entries, on the family, judicial system, communal structure, and other topics related to the life in the Geniza community. If you're interested in the subject of the book, you'll enjoy it. If you're lukewarm on the topic, the book doesn't have spine-tingling plot twists or insightful arguments; just rich portraits of a distant world.
... this afternoon, looking for a book on Perl, for some weekend entertainment that I'll tell you about if and when it's closer to working.
In the computer aisle, a retired gentleman approached me and asked me for advice. He did some hobbyist programming in BASIC 20 years ago, balancing his checkbook and doing calculations for a rather complicated-sounding home construction project (had to do with calculating the fluid volume in pipes).
He wanted to do some programming as mental exercise, and asked what I would recommend. I showed him the Microsoft VBasic.NET books, and Python, and PERL. Then I described the Computational Beauty of Nature, and his eyes lit up.
That was a good "neighbor moment."
The Origin of Animal Body Plans by Wallace Arthur
Unfortunately, the Amazon API does not seem to cover reviews; I would love to be able to cross-post reviews to Amazon and the weblog!
This book looks nontrivial but fascinating. Into the to-read queue it goes. So many books, so little time.
Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species contains some fascinating biology surrounded by a muddled argument in a poorly organized book.
Authors Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan are advocates of a theory that compound cell structures evolved by means of symbiogenesis -- symbiosis which becomes permament.
The best-known example of symbiosis is lichen, in which a fungus lives together with an alga or cyanobacterium; the organisms propogate together in a joint life cycle. The book includes many other wonderful examples of symbiosis. A species of green slug never eats; it holds photosynthetic algae in its tissues, and it crawls along the shore in search of sunshine. A species of glow-in-the-dark squid has a organ which houses light-emitting bacteria. Some weevils contain bacteria that help them metabolize; others have bacteria that help them reproduce. Cows digest grass using microbial symbionts in the rumen; humans take B-vitamins from gut-dwelling bacteria.
The associations take numerous forms; a trade of motility for photosynethsis; nutrition for protection; one creature' waste becomes
another's food. The authors argue that the posession of different set of symbionts can leads to reproductive isolation and speciation. Much more than that, the authors argue that all species are the results of symbiosis that became permanent and inextricable. The bacteria that fix nitrogen for pea plants are no longer able to live independently. The biochemistry of the symbionts become intertwined; the symbionts together produce hemoglobin molecules to move oxygen away from the bacteria; the heme is manufactured by the bacteria, while the globin is produced by the plant.
The final symbiotic step is a fused organism. The authors contend that algae and plants developed photosynthesis by ingesting photosynthetic bacteria and failing to digest them. Based on research by several scientists, the authors believe that a cell structure called the karyomastigont, including the nucleus and its connector to a "tail' that enables the cell to move, was once a free-living spirochete which became enmeshed in another bacterium that was good at metabolizing the prevalent resource (sulfur?), but could not move well by itself. The bacteria merged their genomes, as bacteria are wont to do, and henceforth reproduced together.
At least at the cellular level, the symbiogenesis argument is fascinating and plausible for the origins of the first species. Species are conventionally defined as creatures that can interbreed. But bacteria of various sorts, whose cells lack nuclei, can and do regularly exchange genetic material. Their types change fluidly. Therefore, bacteria don't have species. According to the theory of symbiogenesis, eukaryotes, organisms whose cells have nuclei, were formed by the symbiosis of formerly independent bacteria. Eukaryotes, including fungi, protoctists, plants and animals are all composite creatures. Margulis and Sagan propose a new definition of species: creatures that have same sets of symbiotic genes.
According to Margulis and Sagan, therefore, the graph of evolution is not a tree with ever-diverging branches; it is a network with branches that often merge.
The symbiogenesis theory is a logical proposed solution to the puzzle of how nature can evolve living systems with multiple components. If you look at software as another kind of information-based system; it seems only reasonable that composition would turn out to be an effective means of creating larger, more complex units. None of the artificial life experiments that I know of have achieved this so far (although the Margulis/Sagan theory suggests a way to test this, by creating artificial metabolisms that can evolve codependency).
While Margulis and Sagan make a plausible argument that symbiogenesis is a plausible mechanism for evolution, they fail to persuade that it is the primary mechanism for all of evolution.
The authors contrast evolution by symbiogenesis with a "neodarwinist" view that evolution proceeds in gradual steps by means of random mutation. They observe that in ordinary life, mutations are almost always bad, and therefore cannot be a source for evolutionary change.
But this argument against change by means of gradual mutation is a straw man compared to contemporary theory. First of all, mutation may not be the prime source of fruitful genetic variation. The math behind genetic algorithms shows that where sexual reproduction or other genetic recombination is used in reproduction, these recombinations generate more variation and often more fruitful variation than random mutation. This may also be true in nature. Reproductive recombination may be a fruitful source of natural variation that is more important than mutation.
Second, evolutionary biologists including Stephen Jay Gould have moved away from the notion of slow, gradual change, toward a theory of "punctuated equilibrium", positing faster change driven by times of stress. The theory of stress-driven change also helps combat the argument about the uniformly deleterious effect of mutation. In a stable circumstance, most changes to the status quo are going to be bad. In a sulfurous atmosphere, bugs that breathe sulfur and are poisoned by oxygen live well; a sport that preferred oxygen to sulfur would soon die. But if the atmospheric balance changed to include more oxygen, an oxygen-breathing mutant would be at an advantage.
Margulis and Sagan bring up the old canard that gradual change can't create a complex structure such as a wing. However, Shapes of Time, a book about about the role of the development process in evolution, explains elegantly how substantial changes in form can be produced by small modifications in the algorithms coding an organism's development. Margulis and Sagan don't have any explanation for how symbiogenesis could possibly explain the evolution of four-legged creatures from fish, or humans from chimps; developmental theorists have plausible explanations for these transformations.
The symbiogenesis argument is seems strongest in dealing with single-celled organisms, where the fusion of genomes is not hard to imagine, and harder to explain in dealing with more complex life forms. The most dramatic argument from the symbiogenesis camp is that the larval stage found in many species is actually an example of symbiogensis. At some point, frogs, sea urchins, and butterflies aquired the genomes of larva-like animals. It would take a lot more explanation to make the case for this -- if different creatures acquired a larval form by means of symbiosis, why would larval form always be at beginning of life cycle; why doesn't a butterfly molt and become a caterpillar? If the animal contains two seperate genomes, what developmental process would govern the switchover from the first genome to the second. I will certainly look for other evidence and arguments to prove or disprove this one. Readers who are familiar with this topic, please let me knowif this argument has been discredited or if any more evidence has been generated to support it.
The summary of the book's argument here is more linear and direct than the book itself. Chapters 9 through 12 focus on the area of the authors' scientific expertise -- examples of bacteria, protoctists, and fungi in symbiotic relationships, and proposed mechanisms for the role of symbiosis in evolution. These chapters are the strongest and most interesting in the book. The rest of book contains vehement yet fitful arguments about various tangentially related topics
The authors have some seemingly legitimate complaints with the structure of biological research. The authors believe that symbionts are a primary biological unit of study; yet scientists who study plants and animals are organizationally distant from those who study fungi and bacteria, making it difficult to study symbiosis. Moreover, the study of small, slimy, obscure creatures generates less prestige and money than the study of animals, plants and microbes that relate directly to people; slowing progress in the field of symbiosis and rendering it less attractive to students.
The book has a section on the Gaia hypothesis -- the argument that the earth itself is a living being. The connection to the book's main thesis is not made clearly, and the section is rather incoherent. The authors have a written a whole book on the subject, which may be worth reading; or there may be some other treatment worth reading (recommendations welcome, as usual).
The book includes a section attacking the commonplace metaphors of evolutionary biology, such competition, cooperation, and selfish genes. But the authors don't seem to use metaphors any less than the people they attack -- they have a particular fondness for metaphors of corporate mergers and acquisitions, and human intimate relationships. The use of metaphor in science has its advantages and limitations; but this book doesn't add anything intelligent to that discussion.
In general, the authors are aggressively dismissive of other approaches to evolutionary biology. In a typically combative moment, the authors argue that "the language of evolutionary change is neither mathematics nor computer-generated morphology. Certainly it is not statistics." The authors clearly have a hammer in hand, and see a world full of nails. In posession of a strong and original idea, the authors lack the perspective to see their own idea as part of a larger synthesis incorporating other ideas.
In summary, I enjoyed the book because of the strange and wonderful stories of symbiosis and the description of the symbiogenesis theory. But the book as a whole is not coherent or well-argued. Read it only if you're interested in the topic strongly enough to get through a muddled book. And don't buy retail.
A few weeks back, I wrote about programs that model the development of plants. If you change the parameters of the development algorithm you generate shapes that resemble different types of plants.
Following that thread, I recently read Shapes of Time: The Evolution of Growth and Development. This is a fascinating book that looks at the mechanisms of development in animals, and how those mechanisms affect evolution.
Like the plant models on screen, developing embryos in real life follow a program, where small changes in key parameters generate major changes in shape. There's not one program, but several; during the first phase of growth, parameters are controlled by the egg, later on by the chemical environment in the embryo; still later, by hormones, and by the ratio of cell growth to cell death. In all of these stages, changes in the quantity and timing of key parameters create changes in development.
Changes in the developmental program enable organisms to adapt to new niches. In western Australia, along the sloping bed of the ocean shelf, there can be found fossil brachiopods that become progressively younger-looking as the gradient ascends. The pedicle (sucker-foot) is larger relative to the rest of the body in younger creatures; a slower growth rate would result in adults who were better able to stick to the rocks in wave-wracked shallow waters.
The application of this theory to the evolution of humans is quite fascinating, but this post is quite long enough; read the book if you're interested; or ask me and I'll summarize :-)
There were two main things about the book that were interesting to me.
Ernst Haeckel, the 19th century biologist who coined the term "biology", theorized that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." According to this theory, development retraces the steps of evolution; embryos of mammals pass through developmental stages that resemble worms, then fishes, then reptiles, then the ultimate mammalian stage. The theory was influenced by an ideology that saw evolution as progression to ever-greater levels of complexity, with humans, of course, at the top of the chain. This theory reigned as scientific orthodoxy until the 1930s.
The problem with the theory is that there is plenty of evidence that contradicts it. In the '30s, biologists Walter Garstang and Gavin de Beer advocated the opposite theory, pedomorphosis. This theory proposed that as organisms develop, they become more like the juveniles of the species. There is plenty of evidence showing this pattern. For example, some species of adult ammonites have shapes that are similar to the juveniles of their ancestor species. According to this theory, human evolution is the story of Peter Pan; we are chimps who never grow up.
Following Stephen Jay Gould, McNamara thinks both sides are right; and he supports Gould's thesis with troves of evidence from many species across the evolutionary tree. Organisms can develop "more" than their ancestors, by growing for a longer period of time, starting growth phases earlier, or growing faster. Or organisms can appear to develop "less" than their ancestors, by growing for a shorter period of time, starting growth phases later, or growing more slowly.
McNamara romps through the animal kindom, from trilobites to ostriches to humans, giving examples of evolution showing that a given species has some attributes that represent extended development, and others that represent retarded development compared to their ancestors. Not being socialized as a biologist, the debate has no charge for this reader. It makes perfect sense that the development program has parameters that can be tuned both up and down!
McNamara's academic specialty is fossil sea urchins, while his day job is a museum of paleontology in Australia. I suspect that the pedagogical impulse of the museum job shows in the book. He's not a populist on the Stephen Jay Gould scale, but the book its decently written (though it could be better edited), and provides enough context so a non-specialist reader can read it quite enjoyably.
I liked it a lot, and plan to follow up with more on related topics, perhaps:
A conversation yesterday with Pete Kaminski brought to mind one of the more interesting books I've read in the last few years.
The book is called Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, by Gary Klein, a social science researcher and consultant. The book is badly named. It's not a neo-Machiavellian business manual; it's fascinating social science research on how people (really) make decisions, in contrast to how we think people make decisions, influenced by our mental models of people as computers.
Spoiler: people make and share decisions with stories
Klein started out looking to find experimental evidence for the way people make decisions, based on long-established academic work on decision theory. The conventional theory predicts that people compare alternatives, and make a rational choice among alternatives. The conventional wisdom is bolstered by a mental model of the brain as a computer, which methodically compares choices in a decision algorithm.
Klein's group did fieldwork among experienced professionals who make frequent life-and-death decisions as part of their job -- intensive care nurses, fire-fighters, military tank commanders. What they found, to their suprise, is that people's decision-making process is nothing like the textbook model.
Klein made two interesting discoveries -- about how experts make decisions, and how they communicate with co-workers.
Expert decision-makers don't analyze and evaluate alternative options. Instead, they visualize a picture of the situation in their minds eye, envision a single course of action, and run a mental movie carrying out the action. If the scenario plays out, they quickly act. They never consider a second alternative. If there is a problem with the mental scenario, they visualize a second course of action, and implement it instantly if the mental movie plays through.
The experts mental images are very rich; an experienced fire-fighter will imagine the structural stresses on various parts of the building based on the appearance and sound of the fire. An experienced intensive care nurse will visualize a diagnosis based on few clues about a baby's skin color, breathing, and vital signs. When the experts visualize the image, they don't think about the components, one-by-one; they quickly identify "points of leverage" -- what aspects of the system are most subject to change.
Post-mortem analysis shows that the "first-choice" decisions by experienced experts are most often right; the second-best choices identified in case study analysis are less good than the expert's first choice.
Klein's group found that the rational, comparative method of decision-making was followed, not by experts, but by novices first learning the field. Despite the fact that novices were following a more analytical method, the highly considered choices of novices were more likely to be wrong than the expert's first choice.
When experts troubleshoot a problem, they also diverge from the textbook model. Instead of analyzing the components of the problem, they tell a story to explain the various facts. When expert mentors teach novices, in the field and by the water cooler, they communicate their lessons by means of stories.
I particularly liked the way Klein summarized the difference between computerized decision making methods (define a closed-problem space, break the space into sub-spaces, search the sub-spaces) and human decision-making (pattern-match based on experience, simulate scenarios using imagination, use an iterative process to reach goal, change the goal if necessary; and communicate learning using stories.
However, there is a significant limitation to Klein's observations.
The decision-making methods that Klein describes enable experts to make quick, effective decisions under pressure. But those skills support preset strategies. The commander of a fire-fighting unit can save the lives of his team and extinguish the fire; but he can't say whether the Forest Service should have a fire-suppression policy in the first place. Sometimes the intuition of experts can lead them astray, when the situation calls for a truly novel response.
By the way, I was referred to the book by my friend David Blank-Edelman, the author of Perl for System Administration, who used the book's concepts in a conference presentation on the similarity between network administration and veterinary medicine.
I recently read Steven Levy's book on Artificial Life. I enjoyed the
book very much, since the a-life theme weaves together many of the
threads of research into complex adaptive systems, and is a useful way
of thinking about the relationship between the various topics. Levy also
tells a human story of the scientific pursuit of artificial life, the
tale of a motley crew of eccentric scientists, pursuing their work at
the margins of the scientific mainstream, who join together to create a
rich new area for exploration.
The book was written in 1992; ten years later, the results of the
pursuit of a-life have been decidedly mixed. Despite substantial
scientific progress, the more ambitious ideas of artificial life seem to
have retreated to the domain of philosophy. And as a scientific field,
the study of artificial life seems to have returned to the margins. The
topic is fascinating, and the progress seems real -- why the retreat?
One way to look at progress and stasis in the field is to consider how
scientists filled in the gaps of von Neumann's original thesis. The
brilliant pioneer of computer science, in Levy's words, "realized that
biology offered the most powerful information processing sytem available
by far and that its emulation would be the key to powerful artificial
systems." Considering reproduction the diagnostic aspect of life, von
Neumann proposed a thought experiment describing a self-reproducing
The automaton was a mechanical creature which floated in a pond that
happened to be chock full of parts like the parts from which the
creature was composed. The creature had a sensing apparatus to detect
the parts, and a robot arm to select, cut, and combine parts. The
creature read binary instructions from a mechanical tape, duplicated the
instructions, and fed the instructions to the robot arm, which assembled
new copies of the creature from the parts floating in the pond.
The imaginary system implemented two key aspects of biological life:
* a genotype encoding the design for the creature, with the ability to
replicate its own instructions (like DNA)
* a phenotype implementing the design, with the ability to replicate new
creatures (like biological reproduction)
The thought experiment is even cleverer than it seems -- von Neumann
described the model in the 1940s, several years before the discovery of
In the years since von Neumann's thought experiment, scientists have
conceived numerous simulations that implement aspects of living systems
that were not included in the original model:
* Incremental growth. The von Neumann creature assembled copies of
itself, using macroscopic cutting and fusing actions, guided by a
complex mechanical plan. Later scientists developed construction models
that work more like the way nature builds things; by growth rather than
assembly. Algorithms called L-systems, after their inventor, biologist
Astrid Lindenmeyer, create elaborate patterns by the repeated
application of very simple rules. With modification of their parameters,
these L-systems generate patterns that look remarkably like numerous
species of plants and seashells. (There is a series of wonderful-looking
books describing applications of the algorithms).
* Evolution. Von Neumann's creature knows how to find parts and put
together more creatures, but it has no ability to produce creatures that
are different from itself. If the pond gradually dried up, the system
come to a halt; it would not evolve new creatures that could walk
instead of paddle. John Holland, the pioneering scientist based at the
University of Michigan, invented a family of algorithms that simulate
evolution. Instead of copying the plan for a new creature one for one,
the genetic algorithm simulates the effect of sexual reproduction by
occasionally mutating a creature's instruction set and regularly
swapping parts of the instruction sets of two creatures. One useful
insight from the execution of genetic algorithm simulations is that
recombination proves to be a more powerful technique for generating
useful adaptation than mutation.
* Predators and natural selection. In von Neumann's world, creatures
will keep assembling other creatures until the pond runs out of parts.
Genetic algorithms introduce selection pressure; creatures that meet
some sort of externally imposed criterion get to live longer and have
more occasions to reproduce. Computer scientist Danny Hillis used
genetic algorithms to evolve computer programs that solved searching
problems. When Hillis introduced predators in the form of test programs
that weeded out weak algorithms, the selection process generated
Genetic algorithms have proven to be highly useful for solving technical
problems. They are used to solve optimization problems and model
evolutionary behavior in fields of economics, finance, operations,
ecology, and other areas. Genetic algorithms have been used to
synthesize computer programs that solve some computing problems as well
as humans can.
* Increasingly complex structure. Evolution in nature has generated
increasingly complex organisms. Genetic algorithms simulate part of the
process of increasing complexity. Because the recombination process
generates new instruction sets by swapping of large chunks of old
instruction sets, the force of selection necessarily operates on modules
of instructions, rather than individual instructions (see Holland's
book, Hidden Order, for a good explanation of how this works).
* Self-guided motion. Von Neumann's creatures were able to paddle about
and find components; how this happens is left up the the imagination of
the reader -- it's a thought experiment, after all. Rodney Brooks' robot
group at the MIT AI lab has created simple robots, modeled after the
behavior of insects, which avoid obstacles and find things. Instead of
using the top-heavy techniques of early AI, in which the robot needed to
build a conceptual model of the appearance of the world before it could
move, the Brooks group robots obey simple rules like moving forward, and
turning if it meets an obstacle.
* Complex behavior. Living systems are complex, a mathematical term of
art for systems that are composed of simple parts whose behavior as a
group defies simple explanation (concise definition lifted from Gary
Flake). Von Neumann pioneered the development of cellular automata, a
class of computing systems that can generate complex behavior. John
Conway's Game of Life implemented a cellular automaton that proved to be
able to generate self-replicating behavior (apparently after the Levy
book was published), and, in fact, was able to act as a general-purpose
computer (Flake's chapter on this topic is excellent). Cellular automata
can be used to simulate many of the complex, lifelike behaviors
* Group behavior. Each von Neumann creature assembles new creatures on
its own, oblivious to its peers. Later scientists have devised methods
of ways of simulating group behavior: Craig Reynolds simulated bird
flocking behavior, each artificial bird following simple rules to avoid
collisions and maintain a clear line of sight. Similarly, a group of
scientists at the Free University in Brussels simulated the collective
foraging behavior of social insects like ants and bees. If a creature
finds food, it releases pheremone on the trail; other creatures
wandering randomly will tend to follow pheremone trails and find the
food. These behaviors are not mandated by a leader or control program,
they emerge naturally, as a result of each creature obeying a simple set.
Like genetic algorithms, simulations of social insects have proven very
useful at solving optimization problems, in domains such as routing and
scheduling. For example scientists Erik Bonabeau and Marco Dorigo used
ant algorithms to solve the classic travelling salesman program.
* Competition and co-operation. Robert Axelrod simulated "game theory"
contests, in which players employed different strategies for
co-operation and competition with other players. Axelrod set populations
of players using different algorithms to play against each other for
long periods of time; players with winning algorithms survived and
multiplied, while losing species died out. In these simulations,
co-operative algorithms tend to predominate in most circumstances.
* Ecosystems. The von Neumann world starts with a single pond creature,
which creates a world full of copies of itself. Simulators Chris
Langton, Steen Rasmussen and Tom Ray evolved worlds containing whole
ecosystems worth of simulated creatures. The richest environment is Tom
Ray's Tierra. A descendant of "core wars," a hobbyist game written in
assembly language, the Tierra universe evolved parasites, viruses,
simbionts, mimics, evolutionary arms races -- an artificial ecosystem
full of interations that mimic the dynamics of natural systems. (Tierra
is actually written in C, but emulates the computer core environment. In
the metaphor of the simulation, CPU time serves as the "energy" resource
and memory is the "material" resource for the ecosystem. Avida, a newer
variant on Tierra, is maintained by a group at CalTech).
* Extinction. Von Neumann's creatures will presumably replicate until
they run out of components, and then all die off together. The
multi-species Tierra world and other evolutionary simulations provide a
more complex and realistic model of population extinction. Individual
species are frequently driven extinct by environmental pressures. Over
a long period of time, there are a few large cascades of extinctions,
and many extinctions of individual species or clusters of species.
Extinctions can be simulated using the same algorithms that describe
avalanches; any given pebble rolling down a steep hill might cause a
large or small avalanche; over a long period of time, there will be many
small avalances and a few catastrophic ones.
* Co-evolution. Ecosystems are composed of multiple organisms that
evolve in concert with each other and with changes in the environment.
Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe institute created models that simulate
the evolutionary interactions between multiple creatures and their
environment. Running the simulation replicates several attributes of
evolution as it is found in the historical record. Early in an
evolutionary scenario, when species have just started to adapt to the
environment, there is explosion of diversity. A small change in an
organism can lead to a great increase in fitness. Later on, when species
become more better adapted to the environment, evolution is more likely
to proceed in small, incremental steps. (see pages 192ff in Kauffman's
At Home in the Universe for an explanation.)
* Cell differentiation. One of the great mysteries of evolution is the
emergence of multi-celled organisms, which grow from a single cell.
Levy's book writes about several scientists who have proposed models of
cell differentiation. However, these seem less compelling than the other
models in the book. Stuart Kauffman developed models that simulate a key
property of cell differentiation -- the generation of only a few basic
cell types, out of a genetic code with the potential to express a huge
variety of patterns. Kaufman's model consists of a network in which eac
node is influenced by other nodes. If each gene affects only a few other
genes, the number of "states" encoded by gene expression will be
proportional to the square root of the number of genes.
There are several reasons that this model is somewhat unsatisfying.
First, unlike other models discussed in the book, this simulates a
numerical result rather than a behavior. Many other simulations could
create the same numerical result! Second, the empirical relationship
between number of genes and number of cell types seems rather loose --
there is even a dispute about the number of genes in the human genome!
Third, there is no evidence of a mechanism connecting epistatic coupling
and the number of cell types.
John Holland proposed an "Echo" agent system to model differentiation
(not discussed in the Levy book). This model is less elegant than other
emergent systems models, which generate complexity from simple rules; it
starts pre-configured with multiple, high-level assumptions. Also, Tom
Ray claims to have made progress at modeling differentiation with the
Tierra simulation. This is not covered in Levy's book, but is on my
There are several topics, not covered in Levy's book, where progress
seems to have been made in the last decade. I found resources for these
on the internet, but have not yet read them.
* Metabolism. The Von Neumann creature assembles replicas of itself out
of parts. Real living creatures extract and synthesize chemical elements
from complex raw materials. There has apparently been substantial
progress in modelling metabolism in the last decade; using detailed
models gleaned from biochemical research.
* Immune system. Holland's string-matching models seems well-suited to
simulating the behavior of the immune system. In the last decade, work
has been published on this topic, which I have not yet read.
* Healing and self-repair. Work in this area is being conducted by IBM
and the military, among other parties interested in robust systems. I
have not seen evidence of effective work in this area, though I have not
* Life cycle. The von Neumann model would come to a halt with the pond
strip-mined of the raw materials for life, littered with the corpses of
dead creatures. By contrast, when organisms in nature die, their bodies
feed a whole food chain of scavengers and micro-organisms; the materials
of a dead organism serve as nutrients for new generations of living
things. There have been recent efforts to model ecological food chains
using network models; I haven't found a strong example of this yet.
Von Neumann's original thought experiment proposed an automaton which
would replicate itself using a factory-like assembly process,
independent of its peers and its environment. In subsequent decades,
researchers have made tremendous progress at creating beautiful and
useful models of many more elements of living systems, including growth,
self-replication, evolution, social behavior, and ecosystem
These simulations express several key insights about the nature of
* bottom up, not top down. Complex structures grow out of simple
components following simple steps.
* systems, not individuals. Living systems are composed of networks
of interacting organisms, rather than individual organisms in an inert
* layered architecture. Living and lifelike systems express
different behavior at different scales of time and space. On different
scales, living systems change based on algorithms for growth, for
learning, and for evolution.
Many "artificial life" experiments have helped to provide a greater
understanding of the components of living systems, and these simulations
have found useful applications in a wide range of fields. However,
there has been little progress at evolving more sophisticated, life-like
systems that contain many of these aspects at the same time.
A key theme of the Levy book is the question of whether "artificial
life" simulations can actually be alive. At the end of the book, Levy
opend the scope to speculations about the "strong claim" of artificial
life. Proponents of a-life, like proponents of artificial intelligence,
argue that "the real thing" is just around the corner -- if it is not a
property of Tierra and the MIT insect robots already!
For example, John Conway, the mathematics professor who developed the
Game of Life, believed that if the Game was left to run with enough
space and time, real life would eventually evolve. "Genuinely living,
whatever reasonable definition you care to give to it. Evolving,
reproducing, squabbling over territory. Getting cleverer and cleverer.
Writing learned PhD theses. On a large enough board, here is no doubt in
my mind that this sort of thing would happen."(Levy, p. 58)That doesn't
seem imminent, notwithstanding Ray Kurzweil's opinions that we are about
to be supplanted by our mechanical betters.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider the point at which
simulations might become life. There are a variety of cases that test
the borders between life and non-life. Does life require chemistry based
on carbon and water? That's the easiest of the border cases -- it seems
unlikely. Does a living thing need a body? Is a prion a living thing? A
self-replicating computer program? Do we consider a brain-dead human
whose lungs are operated by a respirator to be alive? When is a fetus
considered to be alive? At the border, however, these definitions fall
into the domain of philosophy and ethics, not science.
Since the creation of artificial life, in all of its multidimensional
richness, has generated little scientific progress, practitioners over
the last decade have tended to focus on specific application domains,
which continue to advance, or have shifted their focus to other fields.
*Cellular automata have become useful tools in the modeling of
epidemics, ecosystems, cities, forest fires, and other systems composed
of things that spread and transform.
* Genetic algorithms have found a wide variety of practical
applications, creating a market for software and services based on these
* The simulation of plant and animal forms has morphed into the
computer graphics field, providing techniques to simulate the appearance
of complex living and nonliving things.
* The software for the Sojourner robot that expored Mars in 1997
included concepts developed by Rodney Brooks' team at MIT; there are
numerous scientific and industrial applications for the insect-like
* John Conway put down the Game and returned to his work as a
mathematician, focusing on crystal lattice structure.
* Tom Ray left to the silicon test tubes of Tierra, and went to the
University of Oklahoma to study newly-assembled genome databases for
insight into gene evolution and human cognition. The latest
developments in computational biology have generated vast data sets that
seem more interesting than an artificial world of assembly language
While the applications of biology to computing and computing to biology
are booming these days, the synthesis of life does not seem to be the
most fruitful line of scientific investigation.
Will scientists ever evolve life, in a computer or a test tube? Maybe.
It seems possible to me. But even if artificial creatures never write
their PhD thesis, at the very least, artificial life will serve the
purpose of medieval alchemy. In the pursuit of the philosophers stone
early experimenters learned the properties of chemicals and techniques
for chemistry, even though they never did found the elixir of eternal
Based on a recommendation from a blog reader, I picked up "What Went
Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" by Bernard Lewis.
Given the mixed Amazon reviews, I borrowed the book from the library.
The obvious criticisms of the book's style are correct -- What Went
Wrong is a collection of transcribed lectures, hastily taken to print
after September 11th. The essays are not edited together to support a
thesis, and they do not provide a satisfying answer the question in the
Even so, one might expect that lectures given by one of the world's
leading experts in Middle Eastern history might contain substantive
information based on primary source research, combined with insightful
interpretations and a powerful, implicit argument driven by the
scholar's point of view, developed through decades of thought on the
topic. Such a book would be worth reading, though it would require more
work by the reader to assemble the thesis by means of marginal notes.
The book has interesting facts and stories. But Lewis' interpretations
are badly inadequate, even from the perspective of someone with a
sketchy understanding of Muslim history.
The subject of the book is the response of the "Middle East" to
increasingly evident Western economic and military superiority in modern
times. Lewis is an expert on the Ottoman empire, and the book focuses
primarily on the Ottoman Turks, secondarily on Iran, and very little on
Arab regions (not at all on other Muslim countries which are out of the
After several painful defeats in the late 17th century to European
armies, Ottoman rulers initiated a series of campaigns to study and
integrate Western military, economic, and technological advances.
The trouble is that Lewis seems to take for granted the flaws in Ottoman
culture that he purports to explain. Lewis reports that initiative to
learn from Europeans was a traumatic change. "For Muslims, first in
Turkey and later elsewhere, this brought a shocking new idea that one
might learn from the previously despised infidel." The Ottoman rulers
turned to the Ulema, the masters of Islamic law, and requested an
exemption from the traditional prohibition against accepting infidel
Yet the intellectual insularity shown by the Ottoman empire was not
typical of earlier Islamic regimes, which embraced and integrated
external cultural influences and non-Muslim expertise. Baghdad, the
capital city of the Abbasid dynasty, was laid out by a Jewish
mathematician and a Persian astronomer. Al-Khwarizmi, the Muslim
mathematician, explained the Indian number system in Arabic, and made
innovative contributions to algebra. Abd al-Rachman III, the ruler of
Muslim Spain at the height of its power and cultural influence, had a
Jewish vizier, Hasdai ibn Shaprut.
Lewis explains the Ottoman ignorance of Western ways as an outcome of
Muslim prohibitions against traveling and settling in foreign lands.
This geographical insularity also was not typical of earlier Muslim
regimes. In the medieval era, the Muslim world was a key link in a world
system of trade that linked Europe and Asia. Muslim merchants spent
their lives in caravans and ships; there were longstanding Muslim
settlements in Southeast Asia and China.
The interesting question is not why the belated efforts of the Ottoman
empire to adopt infidel knowledge failed. With its underlying attitudes
toward "foreign influence" it does not seem so surprising that these
efforts were too little, too late. The question is why the Ottoman
empire was so much more insular and narrow-minded than the Muslim
regimes that came before it.
Lewis does mention the decline in Muslim science since medieval times.
In the medieval era, Muslim scientists sought out Greek, Indian, and
Persian knowledge, and made innovative contributions to mathematics,
astronomy, and medicine. By the Ottoman period, Muslim scientists were
no longer seeking new sources and adding to the world's store of
knowledge, "they had their own science, handed down by great scientists
of the past." What happened to the Muslim intellectual tradition in the
mean time that destroyed its ability to learn and innovate?
Lewis writes that Ottoman efforts to jumpstart the economy by importing
factories failed to take root. But he includes no evidence or analysis
of underlying economic structures that might have inhibited or fostered
economic progress. Two points of comparison. Throughout the medieval
era, the Muslim world played a major role in international trade. In the
16th century and later, European ships discovered alternate sea routes
to the Far East, and established permanent colonies, cutting out the
Muslim segment of the trade route. In 1568, the Ottomans drew up a plan
to dig a canal through Suez, to render the Red Sea route competitive
again. The following year, they started to dig a canal between the Don
and the Volga rivers, to improve the northern trade route. But these
plans were abandoned, in favor of head-on war with Russia and Vienna.
Why did the Ottoman military initiatives supersede economic ones; did
they miss the connection between money and power, or did they believe
that territorial conquest would serve them better?
In contemporary era, the Arab regions were graced with oil wealth. They
imported unskilled Chinese laborers to build oil platforms and
refineries. The Chinese workers learned the technology, saved their
money, and within a generation had developed world-leading businesses in
construction and transportation logistics. Why didn't Arabs take
advantage of their privilege and money to move up the value chain and
dominate the worldwide oil, chemical, and shipping industries?
One might attribute Middle Eastern economic stagnation to flaws in the
Muslim legal and financial systems. Lewis doesn't make this argument,
but he does make much of the fact that concept idea of secular law comes
from the Christian world, where a separation between church and state
was needed to keep chronic religious wars from wrecking society. Lewis
explains that European colonial and post-colonial regimes imposed
systems of secular, Western law, which were sometimes adopted and often
resisted by Middle Easterners. Anti-Western Muslim governments throw
off the imported systems, and return to the Sharia, the traditional
Muslim law code.
Contemporary Sharia systems in places like Iran and Afghanistan are
often mocked for being medieval and backward, legislating repression of
women and brutal corporal punshment (no, I'm not in favor of the Texas
death penalty, either). But there is no empirical reason that a system
of Muslim jurisprudence needs to be backward. After all, European laws
once featured trial by ordeal, and prevented women from owning property.
A living tradition of Muslim law might be able to adapt to current
economic and social conditions. How did the Sharia change from a system
that had once reflected the standards of justice of its time to one that
insisted on avoiding change?
Lewis writes that Western ideas of equal rights and democracy, which
underlie Western legal systems, likewise caught on slowly in the Middle
East, and were often imposed by outsiders. Colonial and
Western-dominated post-colonial regimes insisted on full rights for
non-Muslims, and the ending of slavery (though they ignored restrictions
on women). Ideas of liberty were sometimes used by internal reformers,
but were often resisted as foreign grafts.
But there is no logical reason that Islam itself could not make these
changes -- even without a secular system. Islam is based on ideals of
equality and justice -- why could these ideas not be extended to
enfranchise women, free slaves, and institutionalize the rights of
non-Muslims, as they were practiced in the most tolerant Islamic
societies. Likewise, there is a Muslim tradition of consultative
government. Why has this not been developed into a system of government
that takes into account the voices and needs of different sectors of
Lewis' analysis of the failure of the Middle East to adopt Western
technology is weak and superficial. Lewis provides some interesting
primary-source documentation about the slow adoption of modern clocks
and calendars into Ottoman administration. The resistance to modern
timekeeping is illustrated with anecdotes of the leisurely pace of life,
even today, in Middle Eastern countries. But Lewis doesn't ask the
interesting questions about why the technology of time was ignored. In
Western society, technologies of time were adopted in government and
business administration, industrial production, and transportation. The
Ottoman empire had a fairly advanced administrative system. What was
missing in Ottoman government and economic institutions that they did
not see the benefit of these technologies, or were unable to implement them?
Norvell De Atkine, the US military trainer, argues that contemporary
Middle Eastern armies failed to successfully assimilate modern weapons,
not because of lack of technology, but because of flaws in
organizational culture. Middle Eastern governments brought in Western
trainers and technology, but the troops were unable to use and maintain
the systems because of their aversion to sharing information. An officer
trained in the use of a weapons system would not share that knowledge
with rest of his men, because sharing knowledge would reduce his power.
Did Ottoman armies and administrations have these problems sharing
information -- is this what made it diffiicult to embrace new technology
and methods? In the early days of Muslim conquest, were armies this bad
at communicating, and successful nevertheless? Lewis doesn't say.
Some of Lewis' explanations about the Middle East's failure to
Westernize are simply laughable. Lewis makes much out of the reluctance
of Middle Easterners to appreciate European classical music. Lewis
attributes Middle Eastern indifference to European classical music to a
general aversion to foreign influence, and in particular to a dislike of
polyphonic technique, which uses the same organizational genius as
Western team sports, parliamentary government, and corporate structures.
Lewis doesn't notice the many and substantial foreign influences on
Middle Eastern music, which come from the East instead of the West.
Muslim classical musical styles were heavily influenced by Indian and
pre-Muslim Persian styles. Popular Middle Eastern music is full of
influences from Central and Eastern Europe. Today, music from India is
extremely popular in the Middle East. Muslims do like foreign music,
they just happen to find eastern styles more congenial than western styles!
By contrast, Lewis talks approvingly of the adoption of European
architectural styles. He does not mention that medieval Muslim empires
created their distinctive architectural styles from the elements of
existing buildings. In Eastern regions of Muslim dominance, mosques were
converted from Byzantine churches. In medieval Spain, Muslim took the
columns, literally and figuratively, from the ruins of Roman buildings.
Muslim architecture always incorporated foreign influences; this was the
rule, not the exception.
Throughout the book Lewis describes the tensions between modernizers,
who wished to replace the traditions of Muslim society with European
imports, and traditionalists, who wished to recover a lost world of
cultural purity. Lewis himself seems to agree with the assumptions
underlying this debate, and he takes the side of the modernizers. Lewis
seems to embrace the assumption that a strong civilization builds its
own culture out of native materials; but a weak civilization needs to
adapt to cultural norms of the stronger power. Lewis doesn't consider
that a strong civilization is one which is able to embrace, absorb and
transform diverse influences. In other words, Lewis makes the same
mistake as the subjects of his historical inquiry.
Here's what I take away from the book, based on Lewis' evidence and
other reading. The decline in Muslim civilization occured long before it
the evident decline of the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire was
militarily powerful in its day, and wealthy at its prime, but it lacked
the cultural flexibility required to innovate and adjust to change.
But why was the Ottoman empire so insular and inflexible? Lewis
describes the phenomenon, but doesn't explain it.
By the way, I haven't read Said's Orientalism (yet), which criticizes
Bernard Lewis in particular, and Western scholarship in general, for
colonalist and racist stereotypes of the inferiority of Muslim cultures.
The problem with What Went Wrong isn't that Lewis' criticisms are
biased, it is that they are shallow; they don't explain very real flaws
of Middle Eastern societies in modern times, which are flaws even with
respect to the greatest historical achievements of Muslim civilization.
The Ornament of the World, by Maria Menocal, is a fascinating but
flawed book about Muslim culture in medieval Spain. The exciting parts of
the book are the stories of cultural influence among Muslims, Jews, and
Christians. These cultural influences shed light on some fundamental
chapters in history that are told often but explained poorly.
* You may have learned in European history class that medieval Arab
culture preserved Greco-Roman classical knowledge during the Europe's
dark ages. Menocal's book tells the story how classical works of science
and philosophy, preserved in Arabic, were transmitted to Christian
Europe. In the 8th-10th centuries, most of the Iberian peninsula was
ruled by the Umayyad dynasty, with Cordoba as its capital. The Umayyad
rulers, in competition with the Abbassid Caliphate based in Baghdad,
established Cordoba as a center of higher learning, building an
extensive library and funding leading scholars.
In the 11th century, the Umayyad government fell, the Iberian peninsula
became divided into dozens of warring city-states, and Christian rulers
from the North of Spain gradually increased their domains. The
Christian-controlled areas continued to be heavily influence by Muslim
culture. Alfonso IV of Castile, ruler of the Taifa of Toledo, wanted to
publicize this learning within Christian Europe, and funded the
translation process. Jewish and Arab scholars read texts in Arabic, and
recited them out loud in Castilian. Christian scholars listened to the
spoken Castilian and wrote in Latin.
* If you studied European literature, you probably have some
recollection of the troubadours of Provence, who pioneered the poetry of
courtly romance. In the 11th to13 centuries, a seemingly remote region
in the south of today's France, heretofore known for bloody turf wars
between rival Frankish feudal lords, suddenly produced a flowering
musical and literary culture. Where did this surge of civilization come
The region of Provence is located on the Northeast side of the
Pyrenees. The constant warfare among the citystates of the Iberian
peninsula offered attractive opportunities for free-lance Frankish
knights, who crossed the mountains to seek their fortune, and helped to
conquer Muslim cities. These knights were captivated by the music and
poetry of Andalusian culture, and returned to Provence, bringing with
them groups of professional singers of Arabic songs, traditions of
stylized lyric poetry, and romantic conceptions of love.
* If you have a basic background in Jewish history and philosophy, you
may recall the Kuzari, medieval work by Judah Halevi. The frame-story
of the Kuzari is the correspondence between a Jewish scholar and the
King of a central Asian tribe called the Khazars, who requested an
explanation of various beliefs and philosophies; in order to introduce
the best tradition to his people. The Kuzari includes logical "proofs"
of the existence of God, and arguments for the superiority of revealed
religions truth to philosophies based on reason.
Menocal tells more of the story. The correspondence with the Khazars
was conducted several generations earlier, in the 10th century, by
Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the foreign minister to the Umayyad caliph Abd
al-Rachman III. That correspondence compared Judaism with Christianity
and Islam. Halevi lived and worked two hundred years later, and was a
student of Moses Ibn Eza, philologist, poet, and fan of the Andalusian
culture, in a time when all three monotheistic faiths struggled with the
implications of Greek philosophy. Halevi spent most of his career as a
peripatic scholar and poet in Jewish intellectual circle. Later in his
life, he had a change of heart, and advocated a return to Judaism cleansed of the corruptions of
secular life and philosophical influences. He wrote the Kuzari arguing
that philosophy is incompatible with faith, wrote beautiful poems about Israel in exile, yearning for God, and he died on a pilgrimage to crusader-controled Jerusalem.
Menocal writes in a romantic and nostalgic style that derives in part
from her subjects own elegaic esthetic, and from her own nostalgia for
the world of Andalusia. Sometimes the style works, especially when
describing works of architecture built as monuments and memorials. She
describes the initial design of the Alhambra palace gardens: "The first
gardens built on the red hill by those exiles from Cordoba were, like
Abd al-Rahman's palm tree, the echoes and reconstructed memories of a
Sometimes the romantic language is overwrought and awkward, as in these
description of the writing of Shmuel Hanagid, the vizier of Grenada,
military general, Jewish communal leader and Hebrew poet. "The third
poem, to praise the third victory, had flowed most easily of all, and he
could now more effortly flex those new muscles that sang of arms and men
and God... In that loving and revolutionary embrace by a powerful and
supremely self-assured man, Heberew was redefined, and cultivated as a
language that could transcend the devotional and theological uses to
which it had lately been limited."
Particularly irritating is the use of purple prose to cover the lack of
information. For example, the author describes the libraries of Cordoba
as follows: "The rich web of attitudes about culture, and the
intellectual opulence that it signified, is perhaps only suggested by
the caliphal library of, by one count, some four hundred thousand
volumes, and this at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe
probably held no more than 400 manuscripts."
An impressive collection of books, to be sure. But who read those books?
What classes of society were literate? What role did higher education
play in society? What was a typical curriculum? Were the books mostly
copies of classical manuscripts, or did they include new scholarship?
No answers, just vague sentences such as: "Just as essential to the
social and cultural project embedded in those libraries was a series of
attitudes about learning of every sort, about the duty to transmit
knowledge from one generation to another, about the interplay between
the very modes of learning that were known to exist..."
The book provides context for a better understanding of the history of
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures, sheds light on a fascinating
historical period, and whets ones appetite for more information. It is
definitely worth reading.
While on the road, I read The Mapmakers, by John Noble Wilford, Pulitzer prize-winning science writer for the New York Times.
The book tells the stories of the scientists and explorers who pioneered the techniques and practice of mapmaking. The book explains early ingenious efforts to measure the size and shape of the earth, and the invention of techniques for surveying territory and projecting the sphere of the earth onto paper. Wilford is particularly good at telling tales of pre-20th century adventurers:
* the Frenchmen who travelled to Lapland and Peru to figure out how the sphere of the earth is out of true
* John Harrison, the watchmaker with working class origins, who built the first clock precise and reliable enough to measure longitude, and fought the aristocratic science establishment that refused to give him credit for the discovery
* James Cook and George Vancouver, who added the coasts of the South Pacific and Western North America on European maps, and subtracted the Northwest Passage and the lush, legendary Terra Australis.
* The members of the India Survey who infiltrated and mapped Chinese-controlled Tibet in the 1860s while posing as lamas, including Nain Singh, who used a prayer wheel to store slips of paper with compass and distance measurements instead of prayers, paced off distances with rosaries containing 100 beads instead of the traditional 108, and carried a sextant, compass, thermometer and mercury container in a false-bottomed box.
The book slows down somewhat with the advent of 20th century team science, but still tells interesting stories about the use of new technology to map previously inaccessible territory; side-looking radar under clouds in Amazon rain forest, radio echo sounding under the Antarctic ice sheet, seismic mapping under the earth, sonar under the ocean floor, satellites and spacecraft on the moon and Mars.
The Mapmakers purports to be world history, but it has a strong European focus. Wilford does include few pages about sophisticated early mapmaking practices in China. But he almost completely ignores Muslim and Indian geography. The book contains just one brief reference to ibn Khaldun, the medieval Muslim traveler and geographer, and nothing on Al Idrisi, who was commissioned by Roger II, the Christian king of Sicily, to update navigational records, and created the famous early atlas called "The Book of Roger." The Mapmakers briefly mentions that one Francis Wilford, a member of India Survey, was a student of ancient Hindu geography. Given early Indian sophistication in astronomy, math, and government administration, one wonders what earlier sources of geographic knowledge he drew on. According to an Indian friend of mine, many early maps were destroyed to keep them out of the hands of British colonial rulers.
Wilford writes about the dire level of geographic ignorance of Medieval Europeans, whose maps routinely placed Paradise at the Eastern border of China, without noting that during the same period, there was a longstanding, ongoing system of travel and trade from Arabia through India and Southeast Asia to China (see books by Abu Lughod and KN Chaudhuri, among others), conducted by Arabs, Jews, Indians, and sometimes Chinese. I don't know what sorts of maps were used by these travelling merchants, but they must have used something, because they got from place to place regularly and routinely.
Wilford tells the story of mapmaking as a process of technological development and scientific discovery. Readers are left on their own to infer the social contexts of mapmaking from the details of the tales of "exploration": in the 16th-19th centuries, European colonial expansion; in the 20th century, the hunt for oil and gas resources, and the advances of military missiles, and submarines, and spy satellites. The sociopolitical history of mapmaking is a different book than the one Wilford wrote; that would also be and interesting story to read.
A retired senior US military trainer writes a scathing critique of Arab military culture in American Diplomacy. Based on personal experience training Arab officers and soldiers, and research into Arab military history, Norvelle de Atkine observes that:
"* Arab officers are not concerned about the welfare and safety of their men.
* The Arab military mind does not encourage initiative on the part of junior officers, or any officers for that matter.
* Responsibility is avoided and deflected, not sought and assumed.
* Political paranoia and operational hermeticism, rather than openness and team effort, are the rules of advancement (and survival) in the Arab military establishments."
If De Atkine is right, then why are Arabs so much worse at war these days?
In the initial ages of Muslim expansion and world leadership (7th-11th centuries), Arabs had formidable military might. In later centuries (13th-17th), Muslim powers built empires through military prowess, often with armies of Turkish or Central Asian origin.
What's happened since? Have there been changes in Arab culture in general, or Arab military culture in particular that render their armies less effective? Has the culture remained the same, while war has changed in modern times? Is there any cultural connection between the old Arab military powers and today's squabbling, hierarchy-bound, poorly-trained troops. Is there a persuasive argument that European colonialism caused the decline?
I'm fairly new to the study of Muslim history; would love plausible explanations and good references from folks who are knowledgable about the subject.
De Atkine, by the way, seems to be an equal opportunity critic -- here's his analysis of the US military's persistent inability to train people and develop skills to fight "small wars."
Recently read "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power", by Max Boot, whose editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal.
In a nutshell -- the history is lively and informative; the ideology is insane.
The book makes a persuasive case against the Powell Doctrine, and a scary, unpersuasive argument in favor of imposing a Pax Americana around the world.
Boot tells the stories of many small wars fought by the US throughout its history: suppression of North African pirates; invasions and occupations in the Carribean and Central America, counterinsurgency in the Phillipines, protection of Americans in crumbling Imperial China. These wars were fought to protect American trade, to avenge attacks on American soil, defend the lives of Americans abroad, and to ensure friendly governments in areas the US wanted to control. Some small wars were quite short, others involved military occupations that lasted years or decades. These "small wars" are much less well known than the major conflicts, and, Boot argues, the historical lessons of these wars have been forgotten.
These stories show how the US developed highly effective tactics for fighting guerillas and irregular armies:
* use small, flexible forces
* use bluff, daring, and fighting skill to intimidate and kill opponents
* reduce the guerilla's support among the local population by befriending and defending local people, improving sanitation and healthcare, building roads and bridges, and helping to establish local self-government
* use local knowledge to identify the enemy and avoid indiscriminate killing
Boot uses his historical analysis to soundly discredit the Powell Doctrine, which has shaped US military policy in recent decades. In reaction to the US failure in Vietnam, the Powell doctrine states that wars should be fought only when the US can stage an overwhelming attack and achieve rapid victory, incurring few casualties; and leave quickly, following a defined "exit strategy", without becoming embroiled in "nation-building."
Boot draws very different conclusions from Vietnam. The US military failed in Vietnam, not because they didn't fight a conventional war aggressively enough, but because they used conventional tactics against a guerrilla army. The book includes a compelling step-by-step analysis of the flaws in the execution of the Vietnam war, based on the historical lessons of past wars against guerrilla forces. The book considers recent U.S. military engagements, in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, and explains how the Powell doctrine gets in the way of effective use of US military policy.
The book's history is well-researched, its argument is well-constructed, the writing is vivid and clear. Its philosophy is also highly troubling. Boot is an aggressive apologist for US imperial policies. He argues rather unpersuasively that trade was a minor factor in U.S. "small wars." He is correct that trade with the countries in question accounted for a small proportion of US business; but that is irrelevant, a small number of influential businesspeople with a grievance can have a disproportionate impact on policy, as can be seen in recent resurgence of steel tariffs and mohair subsidies. Instead, Boot makes the case that the US went to war largely for moral reasons. He argues repeatedly that US military interventions and occupations were humane on the whole, and whenever US rule was less than perfect, it was less cruel than European colonial masters, and more fair and competent than rule by brutal and greedy locals.
At times, the apologies for imperialism verge on the laughable. Boot describes US missionaries in China as "predecessors to today's human rights workers", with no awareness that locals might resent foreigners' attempts to change their beliefs and culture. Boot states with no irony that "the 19th century free trade system was protected and expanded by the British Royal Navy." No qualifications about the relative levels of "freedom" in, say, British-Indian commerce.
In fact, Boot is an unabashed imperialist. He argues that the US has a responsibility to use military might to impose a Pax Americana, establishing order and imposing government in chaotic regions all over the world. He has no qualms about playing the role of "world police". The goal of a civic police force is not to end crime but to identify and catch criminals; likewise, the goal of "world police force" is not to win wars but to stop malefactors and keep order. Boot sees that US vacillation encourages our enemies, and believes that a more aggressive US policy would help to deter violence.
Boot likes war altogether too much. He enthusiastically recounts tales of heroism: valiant hill charges, crafty ambushes, and noble endurance against pain, weather, and odds. The book is spiced with tales of gruesome violence -- beheadings, impalings, disembowlings, and numerous other forms of injury and torture. The vivid style reads like it was written by someone who grew up reading too many Western novels.
Boot was born in 1971; his family immigrated from Russia in 76. He was raised in Los Angeles, went to Berkeley for an undergrad degree, got a masters degree in European history from the sages of realpolitik at Yale. Boot has followed a typical pundit's career track, with a stint at the Christian Science Monitor, followed by a post as the editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, where he supervises the production of bellicose propaganda from the (relative) safety of his office in downtown Manhattan. He lives with his family in Westchester County.
Boot's academic and journalistic credentials are good, and his research and writing live up to the resume. But he has no apparent military experience. Unlike fellow journalists at top-tier papers, like columnist Tom Friedman or, say, correspondent Daniel Pearl, Boot doesn't even seem to have notable international experience as journalist. This makes his avid enthusiasm for overseas wars rather suspect.
To be fair, I don't have a strong counter argument to explain when the US should go to war. I'm not a pacifist -- I think war is sometimes necessary, and justification for war is sometimes obvious. But I don't have a coherent opinion about when and how often to fight. Boot has made a very persuasive case that "small wars" can be effective. But he hasn't argued convincingly that the US should aggressively police the world. And despite the exciting narrative, there is plenty of other evidence that war isn't quite as much fun as good war stories.
Computational Beauty of Nature, by Gary Flake, is a very nicely written walk through topics related to chaos and complexity, including fractals, chaos, artificial life, adaptive systems, and neural networks. This is THE one book for folks who want to dive into these topics one level deeper than the popular science books. Each chapter has references to the primary source books and articles, if you want to pursue the topics in greater depth.
The book's website has a set of Java applets and C programs to run the simulations -- for example, you can play with the parameters of L-System fractals to simulate different kinds of plant shapes. The source code is available to download and play with.
Flake does a lovely job of explaining the math and modeling concepts, in a manner that is comprehensible to those of us without extensive math backgrounds. Sometimes his one-page intros go a bit fast for me, but it's easy enough to hit Google, find a relevant tutorial, then go back and finish the chapter. I needed to do this for the sections on matrix math and circuit design -- this is a very pleasurable way to learn.
Just read two really cool books about recent scientific discoveries about the behavior of networks:
* Nexus, by Mark Buchanan, former editor of Nature magazine
* Linked, by Albert-Laslo Barabasi, one of the scientists whose team made some of the key discoveries
It's a small world after all
There are many versions of the party game. The website, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, looks up the number of links connecting an arbitrary celebrity with Kevin Bacon. Will Smith was in Independence Day (1996) with Harry Connick, Jr., who was in My Dog Skip (2000) with Kevin Bacon. In another version of the party game, mathematicians boast of their "Erdos number" -- how many close are they to a person who's published a paper with Paul Erdos, the prolific and eccentric Hungarian mathematician. A variant called "Jewish geography" connects people via links through summer camps, social clubs and synagogues.
The intuitive insight that communities are "small worlds" has been quantified. Just in the last four years, scientists have developed models to describe the properties and behavior of "small-worlds" networks.
Networks can be characterized by several parameters:
* the level of clustering -- how connected a given node is to nearby nodes. For example, social networks are highly clustered -- one's friends are likely to know each other
* the degree of separation, also called the diameter -- how many links it takes on average to get from one node to another
* the level of hierarchy -- how similar is the level of connectivity among different nodes. Do most nodes have about the same level of connection, or are some nodes much more connected than others?
A network can become "a small world" in one of two ways:
* a small number of long-distance connections. If you take a network where most connections are local, and add just a few long-distance connections, the network quickly "links up", making it possible to traverse vast distances in just a few hops. For example, a coffee trader in Guatemala provides a link connecting a rural coffee growing family to an urban latte-sipper in just a few steps. Research by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, published in 1998, modeled the role of long-distance connections in creating the "small world" effect.
* a small number of big hubs. On the worldwide web, the Yahoo news portal has lots of links to local news sites, making it easy to find local news in many of the world's languages in just a few clicks. This type of network, in which a few members of a set have most links, and many members have few links, are called "scale free networks", and can be described by a power law plotting the distribution of links among nodes. Research by Barabasi and his team, published in 1999 and more recently, modeled this pattern and found evidence of it in a variety of domains.
The "small worlds" patterns create networks that are highly resilient, yet vulnerable to certain kinds of failure.
* small worlds networks are invulnerable to random damage -- if you randomly remove nodes from the internet, or species from an ecosystem, the system will continue to operate with little disturbance
* small worlds networks are vulnerable to attacks on connectors or hubs -- if you take down a number of key internet hubs, or remove just a few linchpin species in ecosystem, the connections in the system will break down.
With the "small worlds" model in hand, scientists foraged for data sets and mapped the workings of small-worlds networks in a wide variety of domains:
* the web, which can be traversed with a few hyperlinks
* the internet -- which can be crossed in a few hops
* electric power networks
* social networks
* ecosystems, in which a few "hub" species are predators or prey for many others.
* biochemistry -- in which a few key chemicals catalyze many reactions.
* group behavior -- in which fireflies start blinking in unison, and theater-goers unconsiously synchronize their applause
Relationship to other aspects of complexity theory
One of the fun things about reading the books is drawing relationships between "small worlds networks" and other aspects of complex, emergent systems, although these links are not well-developed in the books themselves.
Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist, has developed a set of models to explain the natural emergence of order in open thermodyamic systems. According to Kauffman's models, explained in his book, "At Home in the Universe",
* self-replication is likely to emerge from a set of sufficiently diverse chemicals in high concentration
* genes code for a relatively small number of types of cells because of the network parameters of gene expression (Kauffman theorizes that it is the low coupling parameter that makes the state space of gene expression much lower than one might expect).
* the evolution of species can be modeled by adaptive walks across "fitness landscapes", in which organisms with better-adapted traits outcompete others, and produce descendants with the opportunity to become even more fit. Key parameters of the model include the level of randomness within the fitness landscape (in a random landscape, a small change in an organism would cause a big change in fitness; in a non-random landscape, a small change in an organism would probably cause a small change in fitness); the level of coupling among genes in an organism (this models conflicting constraints -- e.g. a gene that protects against malaria also increases vulnerability to blood disease); and the level of coupling among species in the landscape. In these models, extinctions follow a "power law" distribution, with frequent extinctions of small numbers of species, and infrequent catastrophes wiping out many species at once.
Kaufman's theories about the emergence of organization and the mechanisms of evolution are fascinating and appealing. But in the absence of any but the sketchiest of empirical evidence, his work is vulnerable to criticism that it's computer art -- the properties of his models could just be artifacts of the parameters plugged into the models.
The empirical data analyzed by Barabasi's team about chemical reaction networks and connection patterns in ecosystems seem like early evidence that nature works in the ways that Kauffman describes. Networks such as ecosystems and the world wide web have a small number of key nodes with many connections, and a great many nodes with fewer connections. According to the network model, this will lead to an evolutionary pattern with many small extinctions of non-hub species, and some mass disasters when key species are taken eliminated.
The Watts and Barabasi research suggests some alternate ways to configure Kaufman's model, creating similar results with data that fit more closely with empirical evidence.
* Kauffman's model accounts for long evolutionary jumps -- the probability that a small change in an organism results in a large change in fitness -- by tuning the "randomness" of the fitness landscape. Watts' use a seemingly simpler to achieve similar results, by adding just a few nodes with long-distance coupbling behavior.
* Kaufman's model tunes the average level of coupling up and down, reaching realistic behavior at a particular range of parameters. Barabasi's model observes that level of coupling in a network varies by power law, and this distribution predicts the observed behavior.
Much more evidence is needed to confirm or disprove Kaufman's theories, and to refine the models, in networks of gene expression; ecological networks, and evolution. The ongoing research and analysis models seems like it is on the right track to find these things out.
One of the key insights of Barabasi's team is that a "scale-free network" can be created by a simple growth pattern -- if new nodes add links with slight preference for popular nodes, the hierarchical pattern will emerge. It would be interesting to see future research that looked in more detail at models of evolution and growth.
In particular, the Watts and Barabasi models focus on patterns of network wiring -- the number and distance of linkes. There are additional interesting questions about what this network architecture means with respect to the level of influence between nodes. What is the relationship between the architecture of the network and the way the network is used to transmit information?
That's one of the most exciting things about studying this topic -- the work is not near done.
The unfinished nature of the field shows up in some logical gaps in the books.
Both books explain how network growth patterns enable the rich to get richer, but that does not seem to me to be the most interesting part of the story. It is true that wealthy investors make more money, and really big sites like Yahoo and Amazon acquire the most links.
But the Pareto principle doesn't explain whether and how the poor get rich. Google comes from nowhere, provides a better search engine, and rapidly emerges as the leading search site. And the Pareto principle doesn't talk about impact of providing "small-worlds" connectivity to the remote and obscure. The interesting thing about the web is not that Yahoo is popular - it's that a quick keyword search will find sites on medieval theologians and African cooking, and a couple of clicks on Yahoo News links will get you local media in Farsi.
Also, neither book has a strong discussion about limits to network growth, or differentiates between hub systems with obvious physical limits, like airports, and with few physical limits, like the information space of the web.
Comparison and contrast
The books are eerily similar, as if one of of the writers was looking over the other one's shoulder as he wrote. The similarity in substance is not that surpising -- after all, the books explain the same papers by the same set of scientists over a few year period of time. What is odder is that the books contain many of the same anecdotes -- tales of Erdos, the eccentric Hungarian mathematician; the inspiration of Duncan Watts by synchronized fireflies, the creation of the Oracle of Kevin Bacon. Both books very similar sections on the internet and network economy, with a similar sweeping generalizations about impending change, and similar lack of substance.
Buchanan is a professional writer, and the book is a little better written. His magazine instincts show -- each chapter is nicely structured, starting with anecdotes about people, and uncovering some new theme. The book does a decent job with transitions -- it reads like a book rather than a collection of articles. Buchanan has a PhD in physics -- he's read the primary sources, he understands the math, he enjoys the subject and he doesn't pander to the audience.
Barabasi is a participant, not a bystander -- the unique strength of the book lies in the first-hand stories of his team and their discoveries. Barabasi is proud of his achievements; he makes it very clear that the topic was not properly understood until his team started their work. A typical sentence along these lines: "Uncovering and explaining these laws has been a fascinating roller coaster ride during which we have learned more about our complex, interconnected world than was known in the last hundred years." This is not the place to look for humility.
Both books were definitely worth reading, with clear explanations, great references to the sources, and a lot of food for thought. It is quite a thrill to read about these developments as they are happening.