Chronologically arranged list of interesting books – science, philosophy, novels, whatever – I’ve read. By-and-large, these are books I like; otherwise I wouldn’t have finished them. Books that I particularly enjoyed or that express a point of view particularly well are awarded three to five stars.
Read in 2020
Parkinson’s Law and other Studies in Administration by Northcote Parkinson (1957) ***
Hilarious, tongue-in-check study of the relentless growth of all administrations, whether in civil service, army, business, over time, even if their remit decreases, written by the professor who also coined “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. Parkinson blames the growth on two forces “A manager wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and “Managers make work for each other”. He demonstrates this by plotting the number of staff at the British Colonial Office that reached a peak at a time when the British Empire had no more colonies to administer! Most of the book is in the form of essays (many of which appeared in The Economist) that make one laugh and that contain, at their core, much truth. He promises more studies on the science of comitology and sub-comitology and on such phenomena as “the recent discovery …that the number of the enemy killed varies inversely with the number of generals”, the “illegibility of signatures, the attempt being made to fix the point in a successful executive career at which the handwriting becomes meaningless even to the executive himself” and the best age to retire (“We knew how to make our predecessors retire. When it comes to forcing our own retirement, our successors must find some method of their own.”). A must-read for any executive.
Lies my Teacher Told Me – Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewe (2018) ****
This book, now in its 2nd edition, is an in-depth repudiation of the way American history is taught in US high schools. Essentially, as an inevitable story of progress towards an ever fairer, just, tolerant and democratic society, formed by heroes (starting by the Ur-hero, Christopher Columbus) where “mistakes may have been made” but not by anyone or any group that can readily be identified. With some notable exception, it is the history of white middle and upper class (in the main Protestant) folks of European descent with widespread disregard for the history of poor, conquered, enslaved or vanished people, such as the millions of Indigenous natives who lived here prior to 1492, Africans who were brought here against their will, enslaved, their descendants who continue to suffer from massive systemic racial discrimination and poor laborers or farmers of all ethnicities who don’t figure in official histories.
Besides learning a lot of specific aspects of American history, I take two general lessons from this superb read. Firstly, understanding, interpreting and writing “history” and “history book” is a never-ending project. Not only, as in other sciences, because new facts are constantly being discovered or unearthed (say, evaluating new sources, archeological findings, large-scale examination of graves etc.) but also, and probably more importantly, because the attitude of contemporary society towards other people – whether they differ by nationality, country of origin, race, ethnicity, gender, class, and so on – profoundly influences the way we read and understand history. History is a never-ending story. Secondly, a profound difference between people who died in recent memory and long-dead people. Many African societies divide humans into three categories – those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalized ancestor, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. History books as well as our minds treat people who died in living memory, the sasha, differently than the long dead ones, the zamani. We have much more emotions invested in the former than in the later as we lived with them – either literally or via media; the former we only know through books, stories, monuments or movies. A very worthy book to read in 2020.
The Murder of Professor Schlick – The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle by David Edmonds (2020) ***
Engaging historical account of the Wiener Kreis, aka the Vienna Circle, that birthed logical positivism (logical empiricism), with its virulent anti-metaphysical stance and its core belief that only statements that can either be empirical verified or that can be inferred from logic or mathematics, made sense. Statements such as “God exist” or its negation “God does not exist” don’t pass muster; they are not wrong but as meaningless as the (German) children’s nonsense rhythm “ene mene mink mank pink pank”.
This was the credo of the loosely organized group of philosophers, physicists and mathematicians that meet in the interwar years in Vienna’s myriad coffeehouses and at the University of Vienna – Moritz Schlick (who was shot in 1936 by his mentally deranged student), Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnal, Hans Hahn, Friedrich Waismann, Herbert Feigl, Kurt Gödel and, loosely associated, Ludwig Wittgenstein (treated as God’s oracle) and Karl Popper. Vienna is, of course, the city that had a rarely equaled outpouring of creative genius – Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schoenberg, Theodor Herzl, Friedrich Hajek, Gustav Klimt, and on and on, in the twilight years of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and its unfortunate successor. The Vienna Circle was brought to an end by Austria’s growing anti-Semitism and the annexation of Austria by Hitler (who spent six years pre-WWI as a painter in Vienna). Its members dispersed throughout the English-speaking world and had a formative influence on contemporary, i.e. analytic, philosophy as taught today in Anglo-American philosophy departments.
The book barely mentions logic and the two incompleteness theorems of Gödel that delimited the power of any axiomatic system. All in all, I prefer the adult graphic novel Logicomix (2009; see below) that covers the same ground but in highly engaging comic book format.
Murder at Melrose Court by Karen Baugh Menuhin (2018) *
Billed as “Downtown Abbey meets Agatha Christie with a touch of Wodehouse and a dog of distinctions”. While it has these four attributes, its descriptions of the English country houses of the 1920s, the dresses and so on are insipid, the psychology is a pale shadow of a Christie’ novel, the main character is not nearly as funny as Bertie Wooster; but the dog is engaging.
The Fire the Next Time by James Baldwin (1962, 1963) ****
Short, powerful oratory about race and religion in America containing two essays “My dungeon shook”, a letter expressing Baldwin’s hope and fears for his 14-year old nephew, growing up as a black male in a racist society, and “Down at the cross: Letter from a region of my mind” on the powerful linkage between (white) Evangelical churches in America and racism; a potentially extremely uncomfortable denouement and public airing of this entangled history awaits us.
The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010) *****
Fact-filled and analytical account by a civil rights litigator and legal scholar of how the US criminal justice system, on the face of it color-blind and impartial, is really a system of unparalleled social, i.e., racial, control, with rates of incarceration 6-10 times higher than other Western nations; in 2013, 2.8% of adults were on probation, parole, jail or federal prison, an astounding fraction (1 in 35) of the population, heavily biased towards African-American – per capita, there are five times more African-Americans incarcerated than Whites. In some cities, upward of two out of three African-American males have some sort of criminal record.
Alexander traces this phenomenon to the early 1980s, and the Reagan administration escalation of the War on Drugs. Although Americans of different racial background consume illegal drugs at roughly equal rates, black men get stopped, frisked, arrested and convicted at rates 10-50 times higher than white man. Even an arrest that does not lead to a conviction has long-term consequences (in the form of a police record) that makes finding a job, public housing, federal assistance and so on very challenging. Collectively, these practices – promulgated to take “criminals off our streets” and apparently color-blind (unlike the Jim Crow laws that formally enforced racial segregation until 1965) – none-the-less constitute a de facto system of racial control creating a permanent and heavily marginalized racial caste, a stigmatized racial group that is controlled by a de facto system of effective Jim Crow laws and customs.
Reflecting upon my life and that of my family, and our rare interactions with the police, this book, unlike anything else I read, opened my eyes to the un-earned privilege I enjoy simply because of my white skin. Alexander calmly sets out the facts, history, the laws and precedents, for this deplorable state of affairs that plays havoc with the life of so many Americans in marginalized Black and Brown communities. She rightfully calls for radical change in the justice and penal system.
The Final Solution – A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon (2004) ****
Gem of a novella by a writer who knows his craft. An aging detective, never named but obviously an aged and frail Sherlock Holmes who keeps bees in retirement, solves a murder and retrieves a lost African gray parrot who belongs to a Jewish-German boy, a refuge, in 1944 England. The prolix bird attracts everyone’s attention as he recites long strings of digits in German. The dark meaning of these, and the double-entendre of the title, become apparent at the end. The story suffers from a few loose threads that are never explained.
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes (2005) ****
First-class dramatization of the historical events in the early years of the 20th century leading up to the interactions of two men from very unequal social spheres – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, world-famous author of ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and George Edalji, a half-Indian studious and half-blind solicitor in Birmingham who was convicted and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit – the sexual mutilation of farm animals. Thanks to the vigorous public campaign of Conan Doyle on behalf of Edalji, he was eventually set free, after three years of hard labor, a miscarriage of justice that was never fully officially acknowledged. Sir Arthur comes out, like in most of biographies of him, as a man of strongly held convictions, embodying some of the best qualities of honor, friendship and sportsmanship.
The Great Detective – The Amazing Rise and Immortal life of Sherlock Holmes by Zach Dundas (2015) ***
Enjoyable romp through the literary history of Sherlock Holmes, starting with the foundational ‘canon’, the 56 short stories and four novels written by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1887 and 1927 that constitutes the official oeuvre. The book then skims through the vast outpouring, showing no sign of slowing down, of imitative works known as pastiche or fan fiction of Holmes and his faithful companion Dr. Watson. This takes the form of short stories, novels, plays, radio stories, films, videos, comedy, cartoons, video games and on and on. Some play in Victorian England while many move the action to other space-time locales. Some are just straight-up imitations while other have the detective-doctor pair encounter Jack the Ripper, Dracula, Sigmund Freud (the superb The Seven Percent Solution), the Martian invasion of HG Wells, and even a ‘Great Old Ones’ of the Cthulhu Mythos (actually, quite a clever story A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman). The latest incarnation is the very successful BBC TV series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch in contemporary London. On occasion, I myself also felt/feel the desire to pen at least one story in ACD’s style.
The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason (2019) *
Lurid, unrealistic historical thriller that shares the year it takes place with Darwin’s Origin of Species publication, one of the most momentous events in humanity’s intellectual understanding of its place in the universe. Other than that, little worthwhile can be said about the book.
Classic Krakauer – Essays on Wilderness and Risk by Jon Krakauer (2019) ***
A bunch of this writer’s stories about adventurers pushing the envelope for Outside, Rolling Stones, Smithsonian, The New Yorker and so on from the 1990s and 2000s including on extreme wave surfing, climbing and mountaineering, spelunking, trekking to the poles, outdoor bound youth programs and so on. He writes well and very engaging.
Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) *****
Deeply poignant horror cum science-fiction novel written from the point of view of 31-year old Kathy H., recounting her seeming bucolic teenage years at an exclusive boarding school, Hailsham, in the late 20th century English countryside, her eviction/graduation from this Eden and her subsequent work as a carer, looking after donors. She’s emotionally astute as she remembers and relitigates the various minor (mis)-adventures, events, frictions and feelings that develop between her best-friend-forever, Ruth, and Tommy (including a tragic love triangle). Below this conventional, coming-of-age story lies something much darker that slowly rears its ugly head – all these kids are genetic clones, raised and educated to ultimately provide organs for regular folks in the outside world. Never Let Me Go can also be read as an extensive allegory of loosing the innocence of childhood to the realization that all of us are headed for oblivion, knowledge that adults strenuously keep from their young charges for as long as possible. Like some of Ishiguro’s other protagonist, who recall and second-guess their earlier lives, in particular the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Kathy is strangely passive, placid, domesticated – there is no hint that she, or her friends, might rebel against the moral outrage perpetrated against them. Although the novel starts slow, almost like a diary about the emotional ups and downs of a ten-year old, the outstanding narrative grips you by the throat and never lets up.
The Other Wes Moore – One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (2011) ****
Two boys sharing the same first and last names and that started out under similar circumstances – born in the the African-American and immigrant neighborhood in Baltimore in the early 1980s, raised in single women-households, and moving to the Bronx, hung out on street corners with their crews and getting in trouble with the police, trying to survive in a hostile world that failed them in many ways, least of all in providing them positive male role models, their lives sharply divergered. The author went to military school, graduated from John Hopkins as a Rhodes Scholar, became a decorated veteran and a White House fellow. The other participated in a failed robbery that left a security guard dead and him in prison for the rest of this life. What explains the radical different outcome? Genetics? Upbringing? Happenstance? The author went visit his namesake in prison and, through countless interviews, with him and both families tries to understand. The book emphasizes the outsized role of family and societal expectation in turning children into mature and responsible men.
19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei – with more ways by Eliot Weinberger (1987, 2016) *****
An extraordinary gem of a little book considering nineteen (plus an additional seventeen, as that is what the “with more ways” of this new edition refers to) translations of a single poem, a quatrain, of the famed 8th century Chinese poet, painter and politician Wang Wei, living during the Tang dynasty. In the West, Wang Wei is also known as providing a different quatrain as source material that Gustav Mahler put to music in his song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde. It is remarkable how a tiny poem, a mere four rows of five ideograms each, depicting a mountain and forest scene, written more than 1,200 years ago in a culture and in a language radically different from that of the modern world, can be translated by English-, French-, German- and Spanish-speaking poets and sinologists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in so many different ways, each one emphasizing different aspects. This raises the question of whether these diverse translations are approximating, to a smaller or larger extent, the one and only “true” poem that Wang Wei had in mind? Or is this platonic concept naïve and each person, each culture, each age has its own best interpretation, an orgiastic exuberance of poems? Weinberger adds pithy criticisms, historical and linguistic reflections on each translation. He is witty, erudite and opinionated; e.g., “the first two lines heave, the third gasps, and the fourth falls with a thud on the rhyming mossy ground” or “to me this sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD and I am grateful to the Furious Professor for sending me in search of this, the strangest of the many Weis”. My two favorites are
“Deep in the Mountain Wilderness”
Deep in the Mountain Wilderness
Where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far off voice,
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.By Kenneth Rexroth (1970)
“Clos aux cerfs”
Montagne déserte. Personne n’est en vue.
Seuls, les échos de voix résonnent, au loin.
Les ombres retournent dans la forêt profonde;
Dernier éclat de la mousse, vert.By François Cheng (1977)
The reader’s mental eye sees a forested glen, in the mountains, with the late afternoon sun slanting down onto the green moss, devoid of human or animal presence, symbolizing the Buddhist idea of emptiness, a calming and hauntingly beautiful scene, in particular in a world desperate to return to status quo ante covid.
Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville (1851) *****
Well, what can I say about this whale of a book that hasn’t already been expressed in 100s of books and articles about this classic tale of obsession in a mere 206,000 words that I read during the lock-down (while in Singapore and San Juan Island). This is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination; having an annotated version (I used the 3rd Norton Critical illustrated edition) that provides background, contextualization and explanation of the many maritime terms increased my understanding and enjoyment. The novel has everything (but love) in it and more; it is an early proto-ecology existential exploration of the point of view of an astonishing diverse cast of people, whales and other creatures of the sea and their need to survive in a harsh world. From the famous opening “Call me Ishmael” to the Old Testament hateful “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” (I’m looking at you, Khan, in Genesis) to the concluding “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago” the book is choke-full with powerful phrases. Consider this spectacular single sentence that rolls on like a long wave, encapsulating the most evocative description of the sea and of the men who make a living from her that I know of
But though, to landsmen in general, the native inhabitants of the seas have ever been regarded with emotions unspeakably unsocial and repelling; though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone upon the waters; though but a moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.
Ahab’s Rolling Sea – A Natural History of Moby-Dick by Richard King (2019) ***
A naturalist provides a deeply researched and lavishly illustrated background book about the novel from the point of view of its depiction of the sea, its ships and its diverse inhabitants – mammals, fish, sea-birds. It focuses, of course, on right whales and sperm whales – the supreme object of the hunt for their spermaceti that was used as “whale” or “train oil” to illuminate the dark and lubricate the machinery of the industrial revolution prior to the discovery of oil in the ground. It gives voice to the voiceless brutes who were killed in their millions until the contemporary almost complete ban of whale hunting to preserve these grandiose creatures from human greed and its consequence – extinction.
Medical Nihilism by Jacob Stegenga (2019) ****
Written by a British scholar from the University of Cambridge, it is a delightful example of what could be called Applied Philosophy. The book’s primary thesis, identical to its title, is that most existing medical inventions do not work. Yes, the statins or antidepressant you pop every day, the surgery you underwent for your heart, knee or back pain, most likely do nothing beyond the warm and fuzzy feeling that you’re doing something active about your health. Indeed, for some, they may even lead to adverse side effects. Confronted by any claim of a new drug or fancy intervention, one should be extremely skeptical. The title is actually a misnomer, and was probably adopted for marketing reasons, as Stegenga, explicitly acknowledges that certain medical interventions are highly effective – vaccination, antibiotics, insulin, trauma surgery and so on. These are medicine’s magic bullets – a notion introduced by the chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich when he discovered salvarsan in 1909 as a first treatment for syphilis. Magic bullets work because they hone onto a specific cause of a disease in a highly effective manner. This is not, however, the case for the vast pharmacopeia that is arrayed against chronic disease that plague us today – obesity, depression and anxiety disorders, chronic pain, chemotherapy for cancer and so on. Drugs have minimal specificities and effectiveness. Stegenga elucidates three principles reasons why this is so, built around Bayes theorem:
The probability of a hypothesis H (say that drug X cures malady Y) being correct given some evidence E in equal to the a prior probability of H begin true multiplied by the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis and divided by the a priori evidence E being observed. Or,
P(H|E) = P(H) x P(E|H))/P(E)
Stegenga argues that the first two terms are always small while the last term is always high, i.e. irrespective of whether the intervention works or not. This therefore leads, inexorably, to the main conclusion of the book, to wit, the probability of H given the evidence is vanishingly small – most interventions don’t work.
First, the prior probability of effectiveness, P(H), is low – Stegenga reminds us of the dim historical record of medical interventions – for the vast majority of human history, including Classical Antiquity, bloodletting as a therapeutic and prophylactic for most any ailment, ingesting an amazing variety of concoctions of animal organs, strange plants, one’s own urine, and, in particular, mercury which is, of course, highly poisonous. In the 20th century, we have a long litany of withdrawn or restricted drugs, such as the pain relief drug Vioxx, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, hormone replacement therapy, opioids that cause mass addiction, Tamiflu and other anti-viral agents. Most of these either have minimal efficiencies or serious long-term side-effects that only come to light upon prolonged use.
Second, the likelihood of evidence given the hypothesis of effectiveness, P(E|H), is low – patients who adopt some intervention almost always only do marginally, if at all, better than patients who take a placebo. This is medicine’s darkest secret that happens again and again. Of course, if properly chosen subsets of patients are selected, post factum, violating the claim of statistical independence, or the data is squeezed in some other way, a benefit can materialize (consider what happened in the latest anti-bodies trials against amyloid in Alzheimer’s patients, Biogen’s aducanumab; time and again, the amyloid-hypothesis, clearing amyloid plaques will lessen dementia, has failed in clinical trials; yet, as there are no other hot candidate targets, drug companies try again and again and who can blame them; Tamiflu was aggressively marketed as an anti-influenza drug and became part of the National Strategic Stockpile, yet its efficiency is, at best, minimal). Remdesivir, an experimental antiviral agent (made by Gilead Sciences), is another example of a drug of questionable efficiency that is rushed through the FDA approval process given a lack of any other drug against covid-19. Often many studies are aggregated into meta-studies to demonstrate, usually, weak or altogether absent statistical effects.
Third, the a priori probability of positive evidence, irrespective of its actual effectiveness, is high The arguments for why this is so take up the bulk of the book, are often quite technical in nature, but are highly relevant to the replication crisis in bio-medical sciences, i.e., the by now well-accepted fact that perhaps as many as two out of three studies in medicine, biology, and psychology, cannot be reproduced and may be false. The reasons are manifold but have to do with
- Biological organisms are vastly more complex than anything ever previously studied by science (say, compared to an electron, a Higgs boson, a star or a black hole, common objects that the most successful branch of science, physics, deals with); they have untold degrees of freedom that are difficult to capture and control (for instance, in brain imaging, whether or not the subject smoked or had a coffee just before lying in the magnet or at what point in her monthly period a female volunteer may well affect the results).
- Publication bias – investigators as well as scientific and medical journals – strongly favor positive studies that find an effect of a causal manipulation. So called null-effect experiments – we gave drug X but it did not cure Y – have a challenging time being published. The majority of experimental manipulations, whether in animals or people, fail to detect effects and therefore never see the light of day. Yet this information, hidden in desk drawers and file cabinets, is incredible valuable in judging the overall efficiency of medical treatments.
- The experimental and statistical procedure is highly malleable; controlling for all of these variable, assigning probabilities to them (how much to weigh a patient who aborted one trial because they felt unwell; how to account for the observation that many adverse effects only show up after chronic use of the drug in a trial that may only last a few months, how to deal with variable exclusion criteria across similar experiments) is challenging and different investigators will make different, and often not reasonable, choices.
- Most troubling is the massive conflict of interest of many researchers. So called independent academic experts that sit on regulatory and advisory boards are anything but independent – Stegenga cites an astonishing study that finds that university investigators, usually professors, that consult for industry are 60x, yes sixty times, more likely to approve an intervention than truly independent investigators if that intervention is sponsored by the company that pays their fees! This is perhaps not surprising as “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair
Most of these problems are known, though routinely downplayed. Professional science and medicine organization seek to identify and ameliorate such biases, but fighting human greed is never ending and progress is slow. That, compounded by the untold complexity of the human body and its organs, belies any simple causal intervention. We are left we a sobering conclusion, the need for extreme caution and disbelief. Here is a relevant quote from In the Pipeline, a blog on drug discovery and the pharma industry by Derek Lowe (apropos the counterintuitive protective effect of ACE inhibitors on the probability of dying from covid-19)
After you’ve worked in the biomedical field for a while, you get a lot more cautious about what you know – or you damn well should, anyway. Swinging from paper to paper in PubMed like Tarzan with his vines in an old movie works in reality about as well as it does if you try the vine trick yourself. You’ll actually end up dangling in the tropical breeze, fifty feet over a pile of sharp rocks. As you listen to your liana unraveling. The drug literature, the biochemistry literature, the medical literature are full of quicksand and crocodiles (to stick with the Tarzan movie metaphors), and it’s a stewpot of some solid results mixed in with the true-but-unextrapolatable, the partly true, the true from a particular angle in favorable lighting, the pretty much false, and no small amount of flat-out gibberish. So confidently proclaiming that hydroxychloroquine opens the zinc channels while azithromycin ripsnipes the frannistan or whatever doesn’t count for much.It doesn’t count for all that much even if everything you’re saying is reasonable. That ACE2 hypothesis was not crazy at all – perfectly reasonable, one of thousands and thousands of perfectly reasonable hypotheses. We mow those things down like wheat in this business; you get used to it. A good sign these days when you’re listening to someone talk about this epidemic is the number of times they say “We don’t know yet”. The more of those, the better. Confident predictions are grounds for suspicion – under these conditions, the people who are the most confident are probably fools.
In Medical Nihilism, Stegenga seeks to promote a form of therapeutic conservatism that doesn’t deny scientific and medical progress but that practices deep skepticism against heroic (equals expensive) interventions with the latest game-changing therapies (stem cells, CRISPR genetic engineering) and promotes softer forms of interventions, involving changes in nutrition, exercise regime, physio-therapy and other conservative treatments (what in the 19th century used to be called la médécine douce or gentle medicine). Medical Nihilism is a closely argued book essential to any student of the contemporary medical-industrial ecosystem.
Influenza – The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History by Jeremy Brown (2018) ***
A short and readable account of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the biology of the underlying H1N1 influenza virus, its subsequent evolution, seasonal variation, the SARS 2002-2004 outbreak (the bullet that whistled past humanity’s head) and the response of medicine and society at large to these periodically recurrent pandemics, written by a practicing emergency room physician. Of most interest are the chapters discussing the politics of flu and its medication and the nation’s state of readiness against the next pandemic that we are all, right now, living thru. America has utterly failed this test, starting with the lack of effective and coordinated federal response. As of early May, one third of all identified covid-19 patients and a bit more than one quarter of acknowledged covid-19 deaths have occurred in the US, the richest country on the planet. So much for MAGA. Sic gloria transit mundi. What the book doesn’t address is something that has always fascinated me – why it is that this event, the single biggest killer of the last century (50-100 million deaths are usually attributed to the Spanish flu), has left little residue in our collective consciousness. Until covid-19 struck, most people had only a dim notion about what transpired and how bad it was. We have 1000s of statues and monuments to the fallen soldiers of World War I but none to the medical and nursing heroes that cared for the patients. We have books, movies and songs galore about the battles and the deeds of WWI but none about the flu. Why has it left no traces in our psyche? Did we actively suppress this knowledge because such an apocalyptic event at the hands of an invisible enemy was too horrible to contemplate and doesn’t make for the sort of heroic narrative that we favor? Will this be different for the current pandemic we are living thru?
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) *****
A short, elegant and powerful memoire of an unremarkable retired man, with an utterly unremarkable life, forced to re-evaluate his memories of key events in his remote past that change the way he thinks about his loves and friendships. A beautiful crafted, psychologically insightful and suspenseful novel about aging, the construction and reconstruction of memories, and remorse. The abrupt ending, dark in its implication of duplicity and betrayal, forces the protagonist – as well as the reader – to re-interpret everything prior. Many striking sentences, such as “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” or the following insight that is backed up by contemporary neuroscience of memory research about the malleability’s of what we recall.
We live such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather than as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us to get on with our lives; so, we ignore it.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang (2019) ****
A collection of mainly auto-biographical essays from a gifted writer who has suffered since her mid-teens from delusions, hallucinations, aches and pains diagnosed as (depending on the doctor and timing) bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, overlaid by autoimmune and/or late-stage Lyme disease (the title reflects three distinct DSM-5 labels – schizophrenia, schizoaffective and schizotypal personality disorder). Twice involuntarily hospitalized, she had to leave Yale before finishing her studies at Stanford; after many years of ups and downs, Wang has learned to find the strength and coping skills (behavioral, psychopharmacological, CBT) to be a high-functioning professional (she is married and though desirous of children rules that out due to the attendant genetic risks) despite weeks and months of hallucinations and delusions – such as being dead with rotting flesh (Cotard’s syndrome) – or living in an alternate reality forcing her to hide in a closet from imaginary dangers. Similar to, but different from, Darkness Visible by William Styron, An Unquiet Mind by Redfield Jamison or The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks, Wang’s essays eloquently and vicariously describes what it is to live with a lunatic mind, “to turn face-first, into the storm of bleak and blustering insanity” (her words); for instance, when creating a make-belief-world during childhood that for her, however, was as real as life itself or when watching a movie as an adult that triggers a psychotic attack, dissolving the border between the real and the hallucinatory. Wang mentions a tripartite way of thinking – rational, as in two plus two equals four; the irrational as in insanity, as in two plus two equals spaghetti sauce; and non-rational that indicates the limits of symbolic understanding, such as might occur for spiritual or religious insights. On a brave and universal mission to understand who she really is, the author questions whether she is a person who suffers from an externally imposed disease or whether schizophrenia defines who she is (and will remain for the rest of her life). While the assumption is that somebody diagnosed with cancer or covid-19 retains their pre-morbid self with their body harboring run-away cellular growth or colonized by the coronavirus, psychiatric patients are generally referred to as being depressed or schizophrenic. Is the difference the time-scale of the condition (acute versus chronic) or the lack of clear pathology and causal agent mental diseases?
Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers (2013) **
A murder mystery introducing Lord Peter Wimsey taking place in Edwardian London. A cross between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Jeeves and Wooster, Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey. A breezy distraction during covid-19 induced lock-down.
The Remedy – Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz (2014) ***
An engaging account of one of the two scientists who established the germ theory in the final quarter of the 19th century– the physician Robert Koch in Berlin (via an intense personal, and national, rivalry with the chemist Louis Pasteur in Paris). Koch pioneered microphotography, plating cultures such as agar, wound and instrumentation sterilization, and introduced mice to research. Most famous are Koch’s postulates for demonstrating that any one species of microorganism is responsible for a particular disease:
(1) The infectious agent must be present in every case of the disease.
(2) The agent must be extracted from the diseased individual, isolated from all other microorganisms, and grown independently in laboratory cultures.
(3) The agent must create the same disease when introduced into a healthy test individual.
(4) The supposed infectious agent must be extracted from the test individual and shown to be the same microorganism.
Note that the first two postulates are correlative while the last two are causative.
In this manner, Pasteur, Koch and their assistants identified the bacteria underlying anthrax, wound infection, diphtheria, tetanus, bubonic plague, cholera, and, the greatest killer of them all, tuberculosis. Also known as consumption and the white plague, tuberculosis is, historically, humankind’s biggest endemic killer. It the 19th century, it was responsible for ¼ to 1/3 of all deaths. Not satisfied by his discovery that mycobacterium tuberculosis was the definite cause of the disease in 1882, Koch touched off a worldwide firestorm with his announcement, in 1890, of having discovered a cure, tuberculin, for the dreaded disease. It is here that the Arthur Conan Doyle intersects with medical history – at his own initiative, the unknown British doctor traveled to Berlin to hear Koch’s startling claims for himself and was the first to file a detailed report that, while respectful of the man who did so much to establish the germ theory, was skeptic of Koch’s claim for a cure. Indeed, Koch’s treatment was useless; the first agent that proved effective, the antibiotic streptomycin, wasn’t discovered until 1943 (the disease is making a slow comeback with the evolution of drug-resistant forms of the bacteria). Doyle true talents did not lie in medicine, however, and he soon abandoned his practice and took up writing full-time, inventing one of literature’s most enduring characters, Sherlock Holmes, patterned after one of his professors at medical school in Edinburgh, Joseph Bell. Thomas Goetz skillfully argues that Doyle and his creature, Holmes, epitomized the dominant culture of the Victorian age – the belief that the careful observation of minute details, whether bacteria under a microscope or blood stains using a magnifying glass, and the limitless application of rationality, can render the world explainable and establish law and order. This is precisely why I am such a fan of Sherlock Holmes and his inseparable friend, Dr. Watson (who in many ways, is the alter ego of his creator) and why he remains popular in the world today. Despite Doyle’s later excursion into spirituality, he comes across as an effective proponent of science and medicine, and as a strong, insightful, dedicated, and charitable man of action. Much to admire here. The monograph is full of fascinating asides (such as the hygiene hypothesis – that today’s antiseptic and ultraclean environments may be a cause of the rise in allergies and autoimmune conditions such as asthma, diabetes and Crohn’s disease). A great read.
Permanent Record by Edward Snowden (2019) ****
Well written auto-biography that I read in two sittings, as it is engrossing engaging, a combination of Bildungsroman, spy thriller and political manifesto about the American Constitution (one of his many aliases is Citizenfour, an allusion to the Federalists) and the import of privacy and its loss in our hyper-connected and surveillance world where every last bit of data is swept up by our own or other countries intelligence agencies. It seems refreshingly honest, including a description of how the Russian intelligent services tried to recruit him at the Moscow airport and direct quotes from Lindsay’s diary (his girlfriend) when he just disappeared to travel to Hong Kong (where Laura Poitras filmed the exceptional insightful but also scary documentary about Snowden, Citizenfour) to break the news about the NSA surveillance to the world at large. I consider Snowden a great patriot, an original (when he did this he was a mere 29 years old) and a true hero.
Tryptamine palace – 5-MeO-DMT and the Sonoran Desert Toad by James Oroc (2009) **
An enthusiastic exploration by an experienced psychonaut of one particular tryptamine, an ultra-rapidly acting (< 15 sec if inhaled) and very powerful entheogen that triggers mystic experiences (in addition to sensory dissociation and, dose-dependent, some hallucinations) – complete loss of ego, time and space while experiencing terror and/or ecstasy and presence. It’s quite a remarkable magic substance! Extracted from the parotoid glands on the back of the Colorado River (aka Sonoran Desert) toad, it binds relatively selective to serotonin receptor subtypes (5-HT-2A/C and 1A). A lot of waffling and florid speculation but some fascinating personal anecdotes of the drug’s mind-altering properties.
Read in 2019
The End of Alzheimer’s by Dale Bredesen (2017) ***
Despite all the hype about a program to not only prevent but actually reverse cognitive decline (based on some preliminary findings that don’t seem to have a lot of follow-up studies), the book contains a lot of background information and sensible dietary and life-style advice that might, the emphasize here is on might, slow down forms of cognitive impairment that are often precursors to various forms of dementia (vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia and Alzheimer’s disease). The book rightfully stresses the import of genetics (in particular, testing whether one has zero, one or two ApoE4 variants), minimizing chronic stress, eliminating low-levels of chronic inflammation, the risk of a high BMI, the importance of maintaining reasonable high levels of physical activity and regular and adequate sleep, the beneficial effects of time-restricted eating and adequate levels of various vitamins. Where the book goes astray is in demonizing glutens, promoting the leaky gut syndrome (unknown to mainstream medicine) and in advocating for a dizzying variety of vitamins and hormones as supplements (all of which might have various off-site effects).
Living Buddhas – The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan by Ken Jeremiah (2010) ****
An account by a US-based Japanese teacher of the Buddhist monks of a mountainous region of Northern Japan that underwent a strange process of self-mummification. Originating in Tibet and East Asia, the practice came to medieval Japan and was practiced until the late 19th century when it was declared illegal. Mummification is either a deliberate (like the famous Egyptian mummies) or an unintentional (like Ôtzi) process whereby the hair, teeth, skin and organs of humans or animals are preserved for hundreds or thousands of years from decay (putrefaction) by chemicals, e.g., embalming fluids, extreme cold, very low humidity and/or lack of air. Sokushinbutsu (i.e., those that have obtained Buddhahood in the flesh) refers to a Buddhist ascetic who deliberately induced this process himself. Over thousands of days (up to ten years) he lives on a strict diet that avoids cereals, mainly based on pine needles, resins and seeds, as well as special teas (possibly for their anti-bacterial properties) that gradually eliminates all body fat and reduces body metabolism to a minimum. Meditating continuously while fasting and slowly reducing water intake, he would eventually starve. When he felt death approach, the monk would enter an underground chamber that would be sealed, completely dark, with only a bamboo tube providing oxygen. Sitting in lotus position, in a state of jhana (meditation) and chanting mantras, he would ring a bell until his death. At least 24 of such self-mummified monks are found in temples and are described by Jeremiah.
This practice by a highly self-aware individual defines the outer limit of self-control, being disciplined in the face of years of extreme deprivation, in order to obtain enlightenment and attain Buddhahood. A related class of iron self-control is voluntary self-immolation as an act of protest. Best known is the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963 to protest the repressive regime in South Vietnam. What is so singular about this event, captured in haunting photographs (on the front page of the New York TImes) that remain among the most readily recognized images of the twentieth century, is the calm nature of his act. While burning to death, Duc remained throughout in the meditative lotus position, without moving a muscle or uttering a sound, as the flames consumed him. The book contains one of the most evocative death haiku I have read. It is by the Japanese poet Kisei (1688-1764)
I was born,
So I must die.
or, in a different translation (from The Japan Times)
Since I was born
I have to die,
and so …
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (2017) ***
The Japanese author’s latest oeuvre, a 690-page otherworldly novel set in modern Japan. All the elements of Murakami’s masterful storytelling style are there – the strange but almost believable superposition of the natural with the supernatural, the alienation and loneliness of the protagonist, references to art and classical music galore (including the title), the action of the Unconscious (with a capital U), historical references to Japanese war crimes and so on. While starting out strong, the narrative arc comes crashing down in the final third; anticlimactic, too many loose ends not tied up. The book did introduce me to the austere ascetic practice of a deliberate self-mummification of Buddhist monks (see Living Buddhas, above). As usual, there are some great quotes
The human realm is ruled by three elements: space, time and probability.
The greatest surprise in life is old age…The day someone tells you’re flat-out useless, that your existence is irrelevant — biologically (and socially) — in this world.
A hard-and-fast rule in business is to never accept the first offer. Remember that and you will never go wrong.
The protagonist about the process of drawing a face – No time even to re-grip the brush. In a limited amount of time I had to capture the various elements that made up his face and get them down on canvas. At a certain point the process switched over to something close to autopilot. It’s important to bypass your conscious mind and get your eye and hand movements in sync. There’s no time to consciously process every single thing your gaze takes in.
How the Brain Lost Its Mind – Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness by Allan Ropper and Brian David Burrell (2019) ***
A great title for an interesting history of a variety of themes in psychiatry, primarily hysteria – a popular diagnosis in the 19th century for middle and upper-class European women – neuro-syphilis, what defines a mental illness, and the differences between a disease, a disorder and a syndrome.
We forget how widespread and common sexual transmitted (or mother-to-child during pregnancy/birth) syphilis, caused by spiral-shaped spirochaetes of the genus Treponema pallidum, was until the first effective cure, in the form of arsphenamine also known as salvarsan, was discovered in Paul Ehrlich’s laboratory in Berlin in 1907 (the original Zauberkugel or magic bullet therapy). This replaced the ineffective and toxic mercury-based treatments (today, the treatment of choice are standard antibiotics). Syphilis’ tertiary stage, neuro-syphilis, affecting the brain, was known as general paralysis of the insane (or also as The great imitator as it can mimic so many other diseases) and constituted 20 to 25% of all admission to mental asylums. The book discusses as length Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, considering it a Bildungsroman of syphilis. Today, this disease is on the rise again with more than 40 million estimated infections worldwide.
Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists edited by Bogousslavsky & Boller (2005) ***
A discussion of how neurological or psychiatric ailments of 18th, 19th and early 20th century European (with two exceptions, the book has a strong Francophile bent) artists did or didn’t influence their works. Given the lack of medical records, a probable cause is inferred based on biographical data and their literary productions – the more interesting chapters include Guillaume Apollinaire (subdural hematoma in right temporal lobe), Guy de Maupassant, Friedrich Nietzsche and Alphonse Daudet (general paresis due to tertiary neurosyphilis, also known as dementia paralytica – it’s easy to forget that syphilis was a major public health threat without any effective treatment until the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s), Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allan Poe (epileptic seizures; inferred indirectly for the latter), Caspar David Friedrich (depression and stroke), Vincent van Gogh (affective bipolar disorder; the authors note that this is one of 30 different medical diagnoses; amazingly, Starry Night was painted from memory while Van Gogh was in an asylum in the period between severe psychotic breaks) and various musicians. This edited volume is a useful reminder of how far neurology has come (when the major treatment options for many diseases was mercury and bleeding) and how much it still has to go before effective treatments become available.
The Undying – Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer and Care by Anne Boyer (2019) *
A poet writing in prose about her successful battle with cancer. Toward the end, this fragment “Nothing I’ve written here is for the well and intact” – which is true enough.
A Murder of Quality by John Le Carré (1962) *
A rather conventional murder mystery, involving Smiley; not particular good. It’s only with his next book, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, that Le Carré aka Smiley found his voice and became a superstar.
Galileo’s Error – Foundations for a new Science of Consciousness by Philip Goff (2019) ****
A short and widely accessible full-throated intellectual defense of an ancient view – that mind is much more prevalent than we like to believe in the West, constituting a basic building block of the universe. Together with the slim monograph Conscious by the writer Annaka Harris (see below) and my own The Feeling of Life Itself,this is the third book published in 2019 that argues that panpsychism is the most plausible ontological world view, with many fewer internal contradictions than materialism/physicalism or dualism. Galileo’s Error also discusses the virtues of Integrated Information Theory (IIT) as a coherent panpsychist account of the problem of consciousness (while my own book is, of course, all about the empirical and conceptual research underlying IIT). Goff, a young philosopher, points out a key misunderstanding of science in general and physics in particular: science does not purport to explain the intrinsic nature of anything. Physics does not really explain what matter IS but how it ACTS, how it BEHAVES. It is rich in irony that the better we can predict nature the less we understand her! This is the paradox underlying causal structuralism that can only be resolved by assuming intrinsic natures (as Goff does). What was most interesting to me in this book is that both Goff and I arrive at related ontological positions with regard to the ultimate nature of reality but along very different intellectual and psychological trajectories – he primarily from philosophy and physics (his book draws upon the work of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Eddington, Whitehead and Russell) and myself from the central Cartesian insight je pense, donc je suis, neuroscience and from a deeply held belief concerning sentience across the animal kingdom (based on empathy and considerations of evolutionary continuity). Galileo’s Error is wonderful introduction to this ancient set of beliefs and how panpsychism can give rise to a naturalized form of spirituality that can overcome the alienation we all feel in today’s globalized world that is beginning to fracture…
When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016) *****
An extraordinary eloquent and powerful memoire of a neurosurgeon who, after finishing his residency at age 35, discovers that he has terminal (lung) cancer, abruptly turning him into a patient with a very finite lifetime. Probably the best book in the genre of personal account of dying physicians. Kalanithi also has a background in English literature and it shows everywhere.
I could only think of Samuel Beckett, the metaphors that, in those twins, reached their terminal limit: “One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second…They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” (Pozzo’s lines from ‘Waiting for Godot’) … A match flickers but does not light.
Every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of ourselves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact. (p. 71)
Would you trade your ability—or your mother’s—to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? (p. 71)
Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital, trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of the families of the dying pouring down. (p. 78)
The twilight existence of unconscious metabolism becomes an unbearable burden, usually left to an institution, where the family, unable to obtain closure, visits with increasing rarity, until the inevitable fatal bedsore or pneumonia sets in. (p. 80)
Teilhard’s Struggle – Embracing the Work of Evolution by Kathleen Duffy (2019) **
I picked up this book in a philosophy-oriented bookstore in Tokyo’s fancy shopping district, Ginza (sic), about Teilhard de Chardin’s religious, spiritual and scientific thinking concerning evolution by natural selection and his law of complexification of consciousness, in particular around his essay “The Spiritual Power of Matter”. A Jesuit priest (1881-1955) who worked as a paleontologist (he co-discovered Peking Man in 1923, a cranium of homo erectus) and geologist, in particular in China, Teilhard de Chardin articulated a directional, forward-oriented view of evolution in which humanity and the cosmos at large evolve toward a point of maximal complexity and consciousness, what he termed Point Omega. I found the book easy to read but unsatisfactory, a hagiography of his life based on his extensive letters; maybe because as a mystic, Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking was fuzzy; maybe because the author is too uncritical and non-analytical. Disappointing.
Rising – Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush (2018) ****
A journalist and environmentalist with a poetic side visits marginalized coastal communities on America’s shores – Maine, Rhode Island, Staten Island close to New York City, Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, and San Francisco Bay in California – to document and humanize the effects of global warming and storms that become ever more powerful and repeatedly inundate littoral communities, thereby destroying homes, cattle and other farm animals and trees (I was introduced to “rampikes” for trees killed by salt water). Rush emphasizes how the effects of flood insurance perversely incentivizes construction in flood-prone areas and advocates for an unusual response to repeated flowing – communal buyouts in which the government buys up the property, abandons it, and resettles the entire community on higher ground. Rush intersperses her observations and thoughts with the voices of people directly affected by the rising waters. What distracts from the overall powerful narrative and writing is her own personal story that repeatedly interrupts the flow. I read this book in conjunction with watching the independent 2012 movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that fictionalizes the events following a massive hurricane in a bayou community in Louisiana of the sort Rush describes, cut off from the mainland by a levee (see this NYT photo-essay that shows the disappearing island). Like “Rising”, the movie defies easy categorization – somewhere between magical realism, Prairie Home companion, Pippi Longstocking, coming-to-grip-with-death and post-apocalypse. What stands out is the extraordinary powerful performance of the lead, a six year old girl, Quvenzhane aka Hushpuppy. Riveting, an amazingly fierce presence.
Modern Death – How Medicine Changed the End of Life by Haider Warraich (2017) ****
Fascinating and detailed account by a physician on all aspects of death in the early 21st century. Death as we know it has changed dramatically over the past 100 years – its ecology (from very public to the very private setting of an intensive care unit or hospice), its epidemiology (in 1812, cancer caused < 0.5% of all deaths in Boston; at the time, a lack of chronic disease and abundant acute causes of death (injury, infection, cardio-vascular) meant that years lived with disability were few – this has changed radically; today, about 50% die from cander), its economics and how death is defined (cardio-vascular and neurological death). Although we live longer than ever, we also dread death more than ever. Warraich, a young doctor who trained in Pakistan and then Harvard in internal medicine, wants to change that by familiarizing us with dying, removing some of its sting (we fear what we do not know) – “The more medicalized death gets, the longer people are debilitated before the end, the more cloistered those who die become, the more terrifying death gets”. Warraich treats all aspects of death and dying – from cellular to brain death, medical technology and the ICU, how families deal with death in the clinic, the long-term effects of prolonged dying on care-givers, Anne Quinlan and the patient autonomy movement that fights back against hyper-aggressive interventions that often needlessly prolong a painful and confusing dying process, advanced medical directives and health-care proxy/surrogate decision maker, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and bringing death back into the public domain. Warraich freely interspersed well-sourced and researched material with dramatic episodes from his own experience as ICU doctor. The book left me with several lasting impressions. Firstly, an increasing fraction of patients die alone, evidence of extreme age (when so many of one’s relatives and friends have died) and the unraveling of the social contract. Secondly, doctors routinely forego aggressive care for themselves at the end of their life; they have seen the reality of clinical death and one resuscitation after another. Lastly, one of the most important conversations ever is between the dying on the one hand and their family and doctors on the other concerning how they want to die and what they expect for end-of-life care; because we are so afraid about death – today more than ever in history – we avoid such a conversation until it is too late.
Genesis by Geoffrey Carr (2019) ***
Well written techno-thriller of a malevolent AI that evolves, autonomously and unplanned, within the Cloud ecology of the internet. It plays in the near-future with China being on the ascendant and various actors – an Elon Musk-stand in, academics, the CIA, the White House etc. – seeking to uncover who, or what, is killing machine learning experts. The most inventive character is an immature actor-bot who, while powerful, has the emotional palette of an archetypical Hollywood star.
Conscious – A brief guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind by Annaka Harris (2019) ***
A pithy and lucid introduction –- about one hundred pages — to modern panpsychism, the ancient teaching that consciousness is far more widespread than usually assumed; not only in animals, plants and bacteria but all the way down to the ultimate constituents of matter. Of course, that doesn’t imply that atoms have a stream of consciousness or feelings of disgust but that a modicum of subjectivity, of it-feels-like-something might extend throughout the universe and its constituents. Some of the brightest minds in the West took the position that matter and soul are one substance. This includes the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece, Thales, and Anaxagoras. Plato espoused such ideas, as did the Renaissance cosmologist Giordano Bruno, Leibniz and Arthur Schopenhauer. Particularly striking are the many scientists with well-articulated panpsychist views: the pioneers of psychology and psychophysics – Gustav Fechner, Wilhelm Wundt, & William James – the astronomer and mathematicians—Arthur Eddington, Alfred North Whitehead, & Bertrand Russell – and the paleontologist and Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. With the modern devaluation of metaphysics and the rise of analytic philosophy, the last century evicted the mental entirely, not only from most university departments but also from the universe at large. But this denial of consciousness is now being viewed as the “Great Silliness,” and panpsychism is undergoing a revival within the academe. Of course, as I have written elsewhere, IIT shares many insights with panpsychism, starting with the fundamental premise that consciousness is an intrinsic, fundamental aspect of reality. Harris does not shy away from the counterintuitive aspects of panpsychism and its Achilles heel, the superposition problem. She does a great job explaining it (that IIT successfully solves via its exclusion postulate). Harris takes care to distinguish the thoroughly empirical project of identifying the brain basis of consciousness in normal subjects, in anesthetized impaired patients, animals and so on, from the conceptual and theoretical project of understanding the fundamental nature of consciousness and which organisms and systems have it. Conscious makes for a wonderful gift to inspire the curious and open-minded.
Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks (2019) ***
Another collection of marginalia, personal memories and clinical cases studies from my favorite neurologist a few years after his death. Many appear here for the first time, many are obviously unfinished. I miss Oliver, his brilliant and astute literary-clinical observations and my personal interactions with him.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) *****
A powerful non-fiction novel by a masterful storyteller involving eight characters whose lives, eventually, intersect with each other and with trees. Yes, trees: chestnuts, Sequoias, Oaks, Suicide trees – trees of all varieties, sizes and shapes but, in particular, giant Redwoods. The book is a paean to them – creatures taller than a soccer field, wider than a house and older than Christianity. The book, its title and its sub-divisions, echo the distinct life zones of trees, their ecological niches and their dense web of interconnections – the vast underground networks of roots or above-ground communication avenues – that trees in a forest community are part of (resonant echoes of Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees). The Overstory is a literary re-telling of the Timber Wars in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s and early 2000s – people protesting, demonstrating and squatting for weeks or months in ancient trees to prevent them being cut down – Earth First and Earth Liberation Front eco-warriors and their persecution for so-called eco-terrorism by the FBI, in response to environmental degradation and the clear cutting of swaths of old growth forests (visible in Eastern Washington when driving along National Forest roads – the thinly veiled beauty strips of trees hide the piles of roots, stubble and dirt that is the waste land left behind when a vibrant forest community is fired-bombed aka clear-cut). The book is discursive, sad, poignant, powerful. For the characters, the story ends in death, Buddhist-like enlightenment or in Federal Prison; the novel ends unresolved, like life itself, forever asking a question that does not admit an answer. The final scene – one of the characters re-arranging fallen trees in the form of a word visible from space captures this ambiguity well – STILL, as in “Life is still around after four billion years.” Posing the question is answering it. The novel convincingly depicts trees as living organisms of stupendous complexity, possibly rivaling that of homo sapiens, living within an ultra-dense web of interconnected creatures, from tiny microorganisms to organisms vaster than any animal. Yet this does not imply that these creatures are sentient, in the sense of having complex conscious experiences of the type that we, or other mammals, have. For, as described in my current book The Feeling of Life Itself – Why Consciousness is Everywhere but Can’t be Computed – that would require high cellular-level connectivity on the order of the mammalian brain – with individual cells connecting to 10,000 – 100,000 other cells at a variety of time-scales. And as far as we understand the biology of trees, this is not the case for any plants. Conscious or not, they are objects of great beauty – like a painting or a stunning landscape. Their wanton destruction, due to our greed, is criminal. Homo sapiens is making a complete mess of this beautiful planet. We have intelligence but little wisdom. We are greedy for ever-more — flying at a drop to distant places, owning second homes, covetous of better gadgets and on and on. Driving it all is humanity’s fecundity – eight billion and growing. Until that drops by an order of magnitude, most of the larger species and many fragile ecosystems – coral reefs, forests, savannahs – are doomed. We can, however, just about make out the shape of the four pale horsemen of the apocalypse in the distance that might accomplish this population reduction – nuclear warfare, pandemics, run-away AI and severe environmental degradation. Life itself will go on, possibly in its silicon variant as alluded to by Powers. But sooner or later the bill is due and we won’t be able to pay…Powerful quotes abound
…how the towering, teetering pyramid of large living things is toppling down already, in slow motion, under the huge, swift kick that has dislodged the planetary system. The great cycles of air and water are breaking. The Tree of Life will fall again, collapse into a stump of invertebrates, tough ground cover, and bacteria, unless man…Unless man.
Wealth needs fences. But fences need wood. Nothing left on the continent event hints at what has gone. All replaced now, by thousands of miles of continuous backyards and farms with thin lines of second growth between them. Still, the soil remembers, for a little while longer, the vanished woods and the progress that unmade them.
And then, finally, the awesome
Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. Two hours are lost to lava and meteors. Life doesn’t show up until three or four am. Even then it’s just the barest self-copying bits and pieces. From dawn to late morning – a million million years of branching – nothing more exists than lean and simple cells. Then there is everything. Something wild happens, not long after noon. One kind of simple cell enslaves a couple of others. Nuclei get membranes. Cells evolve into organelles. What was once a solo campsite grows into a town. The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. And still life is only single cells. Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. Every large living thing is a latecomer, showing up after dark. Nine pm brings jelly fish and worms. Later that hour comes the breakout – backbones, cartilage, an explosion of body forms. From one instant to the next, countless new stems and twists in the spreading crown burst open and run. Plants make it up on land just before ten. Then insects, who instantly take on the air. Moments later, tetrapods crawl up from the tidal muck, carrying around on their skin and in their guts whole worlds of earlier creatures. By eleven, dinosaurs have their shot, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Somewhere in that last sixty minutes, high up in the phylogenetic canopy, life grows aware. Animals start teaching their children about the past and the future. Animals learn to hold rituals. Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. The first cave paintings appears three seconds later. And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand, life solves the mystery of DNA and start to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.
The Spy who came in from the Cold by John le Carré (1963) ****
Upon encountering this classic in my late teens while attending university in West Germany, where the Cold War was very alive, I found this espionage thriller too dark, depressing and ambiguous in its depiction of the moral equivalence of the Western and Eastern security services, both possessing an expedient amorality with the end justifying any means. Re-reading it after an interval of forty years that included the never-ending wars in the Middle East with all their renditions, enhanced interrogation and double-dealing, the fabric of the novel feels all to real, with the characters believable, if pathetic. It is set in the years, just after the Wall that cut a vibrant city right in two was built by the East Germany communist government. Between August 13. 196, when construction began, and November 9. 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, several hundred people were shot dear trying to make their way past its fortification. Many characters and tropes populating the le Carré universe – George Smiley, Peter Guillam, the Circus – make their appearance in this intense, stark, tightly written and thrilling read all the way to the final sentence in which “the spy who came in from the cold” Alex Leamas opts to die at the wall to atone for the traitorous shooting death of the love that he betrayed. This book has aged very well.
A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré (2017) ****
Another great thriller (most likely his valedictorian novel as the writer David Cornwell, le Carré is his penname, is now 88 years old) that is both a prequel and a sequel to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Written from the point-of-view of the retired Circus spy Peter Guillam, the novel unravels the events that lead to the death of Alex Leamas and his lover 60 years earlier as part of law suit against the British Government by the children of the various people involved, second-guessing every decision that the Secret Service made in the dark early days of the Cold War. Highly ironic how the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, poignant and bitter sweet. le Carré is masterful at creating the novelist’s equivalent of an ouroboros – a serpent eating its own tail.
Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (2008) *****
A poignant, beautiful illustrated short picture book with pithy text concerning death. In stark images, a duck – that stands in for every child – encounters the existential reality of death as a fact of life. An almost Buddhist attitude in its no-nonsense depiction of death as a dual aspect of life. I wish I would have read this decades earlier. This is a book that every child or adult should read and re-read on a regular basis – as spiritual practice in preparation for the inevitability of the end of the reel.
The Worm at the Core – On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski (2015) **
The trio of social psychologists who, riffing off Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer-award winning book The Denial of Death, seek to derive experimental testable predictions from his ideas. They came up with terror management theory that holds that humanity’s knowledge of the finality of death induces terror that can only be managed by embracing cultural belief systems; any explicit or implicit reminders of death (mortality salience) induces a flight towards the in-group and negative feelings (including violence) towards out-groups. These cultural beliefs not only include obvious ones, such as religions that offer immortality, but also cultural attitudes regarding one’s nation, political beliefs, sex, human exceptionalism over animals and so on. While I certainly feel discomfit over the knowledge of the certainty of my own death (see my review of Duck, Death and the Tulip above) I have never felt terror or distress, not even as a child. Some of their claims appear outlandish (reminders of death make people uncomfortable with their sexuality, impel them to drive recklessly and amplify their disdain for others who are unlike them?) and unbelievable (their famous 1989 study of 22 county judges who had to set bail claimed that when reminded of their own mortality, judges imposed nine times higher bond ($455 versus $50) than usual; that’s an order of magnitude effect in a field that considers size effects of 10% a big deal). Indeed, many of their effects fail to replicate (see for instance the Reproducibility project). By-and-large, most people’s temporal discounting decays too steep in time to be obsessed with an event in the far future. I do not doubt that some people, in particular older intellectuals, can be anxiety-ridden and distressed over the notion of their own eventual doom and suppress this knowledge and that such anxieties can be assuaged by various forms of psychotherapy or explicit contemplation of death as in many religious or philosophical traditions (Roman-Catholic, Buddhist, Stoics or other forms of wisdom).
The Undead – Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers – How Medicine is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death by Dick Teresi (2012) ***
A science writer dives into the modern world of medicine, technology and the shifting definition of death. Until the second half of the last century, everybody knew what death looked like—the lungs ceased breathing and the heart stopped beating. Today it’s more complicated, as death can be determined in two different ways – cardio-pulmonary or neurological death. A brain-dead individual who is warm and pink with heart beating and lungs ventilating is just as dead, legally, as an individual whose body has turned cold after the heart has permanently stopped beating, even though the brain-dead corpse may look much more alive than many of the patients in any ICU. Teresi follows emergency room doctors to describe the tests applied to determine somebody is brain dead (pupillary reflex, doll’s eyes, suction and ice-cold water tests, and the critical apnea test). He dives into what, precisely, is implied by the jarring medical concept of ‘beating-heart cadaver’, kept alive until its various organs can be harvested to help other patients, such as the debate on whether these corpses should be anesthetized when removing organs, the important distinction between brain-dead corpses and patients in coma and persistent vegetative state and the strange and liquid phenomenon of ‘near-death experiences’ and their long-term, usually beneficial impact, on the lives of patients. Teresi argues that the underlying, and unspoken, driver for much of this development is organ donation which depends on a living body (for optimal organ harvesting) but a dead donor. An opinionated and passionate read.
The Man who Watched Trains Go By by Georges Simenon (1938) ***
A novel by the prolific Belgian writer that doesn’t involve Inspector Maigret, about a seemingly devoted if dour Dutch husband, father and manager who becomes unhinged the night he learns from his boss that he company that he’s been dedicating the life to is hollowed out by fraud. He becomes violent, flees to Paris and lives on the lam until the police catch up with him. He’s increasingly delusional and ends in the insane asylum. Sparse, powerful, high literary quality.
Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud (1930) ***
Re-reading this thin classic, translated from Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, after almost forty years re-affirms my opinions of Freud. He was a brilliant writer, partially explaining his profound cultural influence in the 20th century. He fearlessly attacked institutions, such as the church (and all forms of organized religion) as mass delusions, dryly noting “No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such”, and did so while living in Austria, one of the most catholic of all European countries. Freud’s specific hypotheses though are untestable fairy tales – neuroses can be traced back to early childhood sexual trauma; the taming of fire came about from men’s need to pee onto the flames; people have a strong urge to kill authority figures due to their childhood desire to eliminate their father and possess their mother. There is nothing empirically accessible or scientific about them. Yet Freud was the fearless conquistador of an entirely new continent – the vast domain of the non- or unconscious, those aspects of the mind that profoundly shape our behaviors, thoughts and aspirations yet remain beyond conscious access. While other scholars (e.g. Nietzsche, Janet, Mesmer) alluded to this undiscovered land, Freud spent his entire career tirelessly advocating for its reality, seeking (in vain) to describe its geography and populating it with fabled beasts (e.g., the Oedipal drive). So while modern psychology and neuroscience is devoid of any significant Freudian concepts, we own him a gigantic debt. The book ends on a striking note (written 15 years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki)
The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?
Maigret by Georges Simenon (1934) ***
An early installment of the Commissaire Maigret Parisian detective series, having him return from retirement to clear a relative from a murder charge. Little recognized today, Simenon remains the most sold Western novelist ever (more than half a billion copies of his close to 200 novels were printed).
‘Others’ is not a Race by Melissa de Silva (2018) ***
A collection of stories having to do with the sense of identity and its loss of the Eurasian community that helped create Singapore in the 19th century but that is now all but gone.
Dispelling the Darkness – Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin by John van Wyhe (2013) *****
Well written, very detailed and engaging monography by a historian of science that provides a deep geographical and cultural context for the eight year sojourn of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace on and between Borneo, Sumatra, Ternate (a small island near New Guinea) and the lesser islands of modern day Indonesia, starting and returning to Singapore. It was during this adventurous collecting trip – Wallace and his helpers amassed and sent back to Britain for sale an amazing 125,000 specimens (involving killing of all these animals and more) – that Wallace had his eureka moment, probably facilitated by malarial fever, and wrote the famous nine page Ternate essay “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type”. In March of 1858, Wallace sent the essay to Darwin for his attention who had, at that point, about a twenty year head-start on an similar set of ideas. van Wyhe tracks the progress of this fateful letter around the world, based on detailed mail records (debunking various conspiracy theories) and the subsequent friendly and collegial interactions between Darwin and Wallace (the latter remaining profoundly thankful to the former throughout his entire life), including the joint presentation, on July 1st 1858 at the Linnean Society in London, of Wallace’s essay and an abstracted version of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species – the birthday of what we moderns call the “Theory of evolution by natural selection.” By its meticulous documentation, the book compellingly and lucidly argues that the core idea underlying the solution to the problem of speciation – Malthusian superfecundity of organisms and variation leading to selection of advantageous traits – arose in parallel given the share socio-historical-scientific niche of both naturalists.
Read in 2018
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs (2018) ***
A mathematical murder mystery, not bad for a first time novelist with a strong start “On the morning, he was to die, the old man woke early and set about making breakfast” but a weak ending. The title’s namesake is an elder Caltech professor of mathematics (see above). His son is a string theorist, also at Caltech. The dead man sends his grand-daughter, a failed bookstore owner from Seattle, on an chase to uncover the cause of his death. The entire Severy family is math obsessed, mostly not in a professional setting. The family is, also, in parts mad and bad. The novel has some great atmospherics (Caltech’s faculty club, the venerable Athenaeum, Eaton Canyon, the Hollywood hills), quite a bit of pain, clever dialogue and psychological insights.
Locked Rooms by Laurie King (2005) **
Yet another suspense featuring the young Mary Russell married to the retired detective Sherlock Holmes In San Francisco, tracking down the apparent accidental death of Mary’s parents. A California version of a believable version of the Baker Street Irregulars make their appearance. Fiction-lite for the holidays.
Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq (1958) *****
Sparse existential novel, translated from “Un Balcon en Forêt’ by Richard Howard, of a lieutenant, Grange, living in the autumn and winter of 1939/40, with a couple of soldiers in a fortified bloc house deep in the Ardennes Forest, awaiting the arrival of the German panzers (the so-called Phony War between Nazi Germany and France & England). They are by-and-large cut off from the world, waiting, waiting. There is very little action in this novel; the enemy only arrives at the end. The book is about existing and not about doing. It has closely observed dream-like passages of the magical chthonic forest –
This stretch through the fogbound forest gradually lulled Grange into his favorite daydream; in it he saw an image of his life: all that he had he carried with him; twenty feet away, the world grew dark, perspectives blurred, and there was nothing near him but this close halo of warm consciousness, this nest perched high above the vague earth.
The novel is choke full of evocative vignettes of inconsequential and unmotivated moments of conscious being. Here is one where Grange is resting next to his lover –
He closed his eyes a second and listened in the darkness to their mingled breathing, rising and falling against the long, low rustle of the forest: it was like the sound of ripples deep in a cave, the backwash against the clamor of the breakers; the same enormous impulse of the tide that swept the earth raised them in its swell, bearing sleep and waking onward together.
Lost in Math by Sabine Hassenfelder (2018) *****
Irreverent, sardonic and at times quite funny series of interviews, observations and thoughts on the use of subjective concepts in the hardest of all sciences from a cranky particle physicist with an identity crisis (her description from her popular blog https://backreaction.blogspot.com/). What does it tell us about the status of elementary particle physics and cosmology if ‘beauty’ and ‘naturalness’ – only theories that have dimensionless numbers close to unity are “good” theories – are all-important criteria for theory selection but that none of the theories thereby selected have any actual experimental support? As in “we actually observed this phenomenon” (as compared to, we didn’t observe this phenomenon; but this is great as we can now put even more stringent limits on this postulated phenomenon). I would call it the great stagnation. The standard model of particle physics was established in the 1960s and 1970s. A quantum field theory, it describes three of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear interactions) and all known 25 elementary particles in a self-consistent manner. With the discovery of the tau neutrino in 2000 and the Higgs boson in 2012, all of its predicted particles have been discovered. The model constitutes the most successful microscopic description of reality, bar none. However, the standard model leaves out gravity; it also doesn’t account for either dark mass or dark energy and depends on a variety of seemingly arbitrary very small or very large dimensionless numbers (the fine-tuning problem). Accordingly, physicists spent the past half century in a fruit-less search for extension of the Standard Model and for a more general theory of everything. The most popular candidates are supersymmetry and string theory have an enormous amount of constraints to obey – all of the previously established physics (rigidity). Being very clever, physicists have been enormously fecund in generating theories. One particular episode demonstrating this is the so-called di-photon excess, an apparent anomaly in data collected at the LHC in 2015 which had the sniff of “new” physics about it. Within days, a flood of papers “explained” this finding; in total, five hundred (sic) papers, many subsequently published in top journals, were posted to arXiv. However, this di-photon excess was absent in LHC data from 2016; in other words, it was statistical fluctuation. Five hundred theoretical explanations for a signal that wasn’t there… Lost in Math leaves one with the feeling that the past forty years in some corners of theoretical physics have led to lots of fascinating concepts, such as the multiverse, but have yielded zero new insights into the actual universe we live in. The great stagnation – of course, given the sociology of science, the field goes merrily on… Here are some quotes from Lost in Math
String theorists’ continuous adaptation to conflicting evidence has become so entertaining that many departments of physics keep a few string theorists around because the public likes to hear about their heroic attempts to explain everything. …And why are so many jobs offered in string theory? Because string theory is cheap. If you are the chairperson of a physics department in a remote place without much money, you cannot afford to build a modern laboratory to do experimental physics, but you can afford to hire a couple of string theorists….and you have a modern physics department (p 174).
Since [Wolfgang] Pauli’s days, postulating particles has become the theoretician’s favorite pastime. We have preons, sfermions, dyons, magnetic monopoles, simps, wimps, wimpzillas, axions, flaxions, erebons, cornucipons, giant magnons, maximons, macros, branons, skyrmions, cuscutons, planckons, and sterile neutrinos – just to mention the most popular ones. We even have unparticles. None of these have ever been seen, but their properties have been thoroughly studied in thousands of published research articles….The first rule for inventing a new particle is that you need a good reason it hasn’t been detected. For this, you can postulate either that too much energy is needed to produce it or that it interacts too rarely for the sensitivity of existing detectors, or both (p. 198-199)
The search for dark matter particles began as an afterthought: experimentalists working with a detector originally developed to catch neutrinos reported in 1986 on the first ‘interesting bounds in galactic cold dark matter and on light bosons emitted from the sun’. In plain English, ‘interesting bounds’ means they didn’t find anything. Various other neutrino experiments at the time also obtained interesting bounds.…In the mid-1990s, EDELWEISS obtained ‘the most stringent limit based on the observation of zero event (p. 201).
The Language of Bees by Laurie King (2009) **
Another Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery, in which Russell (which is how Holmes consistently addresses her) is the young wife of the aging detective. While I found the first two volumes unconventional and engaging, the latter ones become increasingly surreal and out of character with Conan Doyle’s original corpus, atmosphere and narrative – this one figures the son and the granddaughter of Holmes (seriously?), occult murders and a melodramatic and unfinished ending (so another sequel must be coming).
The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch (2008) *****
A fantastic monograph by a Borges-aficionado and mathematician concerning the physical layout, size and topology of the “The library of Babel” short story which the Argentinian writer cum librarian wrote in 1941 (reprinted here). An imaginary library, consisting of hexagonal galleries or cells, arrayed next, above and below each other, going on forever. The shelves of these cells contain all possible books of a specified size. All books in any language, meaningless or not, conceivable or not, including books that will contains the text of this book-blog. Of course, the vast majority of books contain pure gibberish. Given that Borges limits the orthographic symbols used to 25 and that there are 1,312,000 characters that fill the 410 pages of each of book, the library contains a staggering 25 to the power of 1,312,000 books. The author elegantly demonstrates that under any assumption about the size of each hexagonal cell or gallery – down to the size of the nucleus of a proton – this mystical Library is vastly larger than our universe. Any librarian with a finite lifetime can only visit a vanishing tiny fraction of galleries in the neighborhood of the hexagonal cell of his birth. Somewhat deflationary, the demiurge who built the Library could have simply written an algorithm to print all possible combinations of 25 symbols arranged in lists 1,312,00 characters long. Furthermore, Bloch demonstrates that at least one hexagon is not fully stacked with books (unless they are exact copies of other books), a flaw in this otherwise perfect scheme. The two most insightful chapters are the one on topology and on the Halting Problem. In the first, Bloch, using hints left by Borges in the story, concludes that if the Library is the universe and the universe is a 3-sphere (locally, it can be approximated by a local 3-D Euclidian space, i.e. a manifold), then the Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon; it would be limitless and periodic (it is also its own catalogue). In the second, Bloch argues that the Library and the librarian jointly embody a Turing machine, running an unimaginable program whose output can only be interpreted by an external observer (the halt operation corresponds to the death of the librarian). Every chapter is followed by a short mathematical aftermath, explaining some of the math relevant to that chapter in simple terms. The book is chock full of mathematical, physical, historical and literary asides of relevance to the telling of the story. Similar to the evocative drawings of MC Escher, there exists a community of scholars providing exegesis of the physics and mathematics of Borges stories, such as The Aleph, the Book of Sands, the Garden of Forking Paths. Utterly fascinating.
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks (2017) ****
Sacks as his best; a gem of a collection of his science, neurology and biology essays from the last several years of his life. His intellect was far-ranging yet he always relates everything, no matter how abstruse – such as the possible mental live of plants – to the personal and to the historic. Many of them involve the theme of consciousness. I miss him and his essays and I look forward to the release of the final book he was working on when he died.
The Black Tide by Hammond Innes (1982) ***
What starts out as a standard environmental thriller and revenge tale involving the spillage of oil from a large tanker off the coast of Cornwall, devolves into a taunt psychological tale involving sailing a Dhow from the Persian Gulf, thru the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman, Lloyds of London, ocean racing yacht off the Canary Islands and a terrorist ending in the Channel. As always, Innes excels at describing the sea under a great variety of conditions, and the ships and men who spend their lives on it. Well done.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu (2018) *****
I’ve just finished this awe-inspiring, stunning last volume of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy of Cixin Liu. Its scale, its imagination, its setting truly takes one’s breath away. I can’t attest to the fidelity of the translation but the prose, translated as always by Ken Liu flows effortlessly across 600 pages. The novel describes the events following the détente between the alien civilization of Trisolaran and Earth – really a technologically-updated version of Mutual-Assured Destruction (or MAD) that prevented the Cold War from becoming a hot one – what happens when deterrence fails, the destruction of the Trisolaran civilization, the flattening (yes, this is not a typo) of the entire Solar System and its consequences that play out a believable 19 million years later. Death’s End has some very haunting and compelling scenes. Like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the story moves back and forth in time and shares a deep sense of regret and remorse. The novel is grand old SF in the style of Asimov’s Foundation Series or Niven’s Ring– space battles, weapons that alter the speed of light or that annihilate stars by reducing their spatial dimensions, hibernation, giant arcologies, incomprehensible alien artifacts. Liu has boundless imagination but keeps events within the realm of the possible and logical. But unlike Proust’s novel, characters have little interior dialogue. The book never explains why anybody acts the way they do – or in the case of the lead protagonist – fail to act. People appear to follow the dictum of Major from Ghost in the Shell “but what we do defines us”. The arc of the human aspects of the story flattens out in the final third of Death’s End. Much of the material is dark and looks at the cosmos in an unflinching “view from nowhere”
manner – “life is not a fairy tale” as one of the character exclaims. The alien inhabitants of the universe are not out to please us. It pays to be paranoid and keep pushing technology to the limits of the possible and then beyond. The novel ends on a bright ray of hope (mirroring, in the creation of baby-universes, the ending of James Blish’s Cities in Flights – The Triumph of Time).
The Ring of Truth – The wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen by Roger Scruton (2017) ****
A detailed interpretation of this greatest of all music dramas and artistic endeavors of the West, tout court by the British conservative philosopher Scruton. I read this while attending the superb San Francisco Opera’s production of all four operas that constitute Der Ring with my daughter, a sublime experience. Scruton discusses the philosophical, historical and political background to Wagner’s Ring, started in the revolutionary year 1848 (in which Wagner famously participated, of course) and not finished until 26 years later. Notably, Wagner first theorized about what constitutes a perfect music drama, then wrote the libretto and only then composed the monumental music, an unique occurrence in musical history. Scruton argues that the Ring is really about how to live in a world in which the gods and God has been removed from human affairs and people have to construct meaning out of their own lives. Wotan, Fricka, Loge and all the other deities that figure in the operas are not the gods of any church but the gods of anthropologists and psychologists. Without gods, we are alone, and we must learn to construct our own meaning. Scruton is passionate about the contemporary relevance of this supreme aesthetic and psychological achievement. He also explains well some of the more than 150 Leitmotifs and how they carry the psychological baggage and under- and overtones, the secondary and tertiary implications of any action of any one scene in a way that the libretto is unable to because of limitations of speech.
The Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany (2018) **
Strange little novella about the secret visit of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the philosopher, mathematician (he invented binary numbers and co-invented calculus) and designer of computer machinery, to Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher of Sephardic/ Portuguese origin, expelled and rejected by his own Jewish community, quietly living outside Leiden. Written as Leibniz’s diary entry it never comes to a point.
Origin by Dan Brown (2017) ***
The usual fast-paced (the entire novel takes place in under 24 hours) well-written science-art-code thriller involving the fictitious Harvard professor of symbology, this time around palaces and churches in Spain, in particular the astounding organic architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, the writings and drawings of William Blake, a genius entrepreneur, his quantum computer and his AI. As his other books involving the same principal character, this novel comes down to a conflict between science and religion (conservative Catholicism). Brown places inordinate faith in computer simulations, completely neglecting the fact that no matter the raw computational power, uncertainty about the exact settings of billions of indeterminate parameters renders the future nebulous and unpredictable.
How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut (2017) ****
A chatty account of the silver fox farm experiments by Dmitri Belyaev (and his assistant Lyudmila Trut who is a co-author) and its historical and scientific context. Silver foxes from Siberia are highly prized for their fur. Shy and aggressive when caged, they were breed commercially from the late 1800s onward as a major source of badly needed cash in post-WW II Soviet Union. In the late 1950s, Belyaev started a bold – and at the time dangerous experiment (as Soviet Science was still in thrall of Lysenko). Would it be possible to mimic the process of domestication of the wolf into the dog by attempting to domesticate these silver foxes via artificial selection? Highly aggressive in captivity, these foxes can only be handled by workers wearing cumbersome thick protective gloves. Note that previous attempts at domestication of some species, in particular zebras and deer (except for reindeer by the Sammi) had failed. Could this be accomplished within a decade or two instead of the 1000s of years over which domestication was thought to occur? The setting is Akademgorodok, a science city 2,000 miles away from Moscow in Siberia. Like all wild mammals, foxes breed once a year, in the spring. Puppies are born blind and deaf, don’t open their eyes until 18 days after birth. Fully grown by the end of the summer they weight 10-20 pounds and look for a mate in the following spring. Each year, the scientists selected male and female foxes that were the most tolerant of humans (operationally, measuring how close the research assistants could approach the foxes until they either backed away or started attacking) and compared those to various control populations. Within ten generations, a mere decade a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, foxes became tame, enjoyed interacting with humans, licked their hand, rolled over for belly rubs, wagged their tails – a unique and innate canine trait – whined and, on occasion, barked or emitted a laugh-like sound. Their snouts changed, tails became curly and their coat mottled; females came into heat earlier and were receptive for longer. The tame foxes had lowered level of adrenal gland stress hormones — adrenaline, cortisone, cortisol – that the control population. Belyaev argued for something he called destabilizing selection: stress hormones are optimized under natural condition to cause them to either fight or flee from the dangers of their environment. Selecting for tameness around humans destabilizes this balance. Gene expression is altered to induce tame behavior, curly tails, the emergence of mottled coat colors and so on. His experiments demonstrate that artificially selecting for a single trait present in a subset of individuals can dramatically change a hosted of morphological and behavioral traits within a dozen of generation. Belyaev died in 1985 but the fox farm experiment continues to this day, with some of the foxes being bred for pets to adopted by humans. An interesting aside raised is whether wolves start the process of domestication themselves? The standard story involves humans killing adult wolves and then taking the cut cubs home to be raised by humans. However, it may well be possible that wolves had a much more active role than previously considering. Perhaps animals with somewhat lower levels of stress hormones associated with modern people (no evidence for Neanderthals or Denisovans having domesticated wolfs), so they could scavenge their waste.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007) ***
A young and budding cartoon artist and basketball players, who is also a hydrocephalus, from an impoverish Indian community in the Eastern part of Washington State opts to join an off-reservation white high school. Compelling and bitter-sweet autobiographical novel. The book is illustrated with funky pencil drawings by Ellen Forney.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017) ***
A strange novel which mixes historical facts – the death of the 11-year-old beloved son of President Abraham Lincoln from fever in 1862 – with eschatological and religious ideation. The soul of Willie spends one day in a graveyard, grieved by his father, and fought over by numerous lost dead souls who exist in the Bardo, Buddhist’s version of the Christian limbo, waiting for a sort of rapture. Many different voices, both living and dead, are interwoven in the text; some of which achieve deliverance. At times, the novel is profoundly moving.
Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages by Leo Perutz (1975) ***
Short crime novel of this Austrian-Jewish author, that takes place in Vienna in 1909 around a mysterious series of suicides. The story has attributes of Sherlock Holmes, Borges, Agatha Christie and Franz Kafka. Key is a hallucinogenic drug that induces the color, and the attendant dread, of the Final Judgment “Drommetenrot”.
Imperium by Robert Harris (2006) ***
Gripping and compelling historical drama (not a detective novel, unlike many of Harris’s other page-turners) of one of the most famous Roman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose influence on oratory, literature and prose remains profound to this day. Much of the material comes from historical sources (letters and Cicero’s published speeches). The novel is written from the point of view of his house slave and depicts the legal and political battles in Rome of the 1st century BCE as the state is transitioning from Republic to absolute rule by an Emperor. Two millennia later, those who emerged from this epic struggle – Pompey, Crassus, Caesar and Cicero – still cast a lengthy shadow over our imagination and counterparts to these men can be identified today. One point comes very clearly across – inherent to Roman life was a massive casual cruelty toward people and animals that is astonishing and deeply troubling to the modern sensibility, a stain upon Rome’s legacy not found in Greek culture. The ever-popular Games involved large-scale of public killing (in staged fights to the death) and burning of hundreds, later on thousands, of animals, prisoners and gladiators set against each other. Entire conquered people would be paraded in front of Rome’s citizenry and then garroted. Crassus, who put down the slave revolt lead by Spartacus, captured 6,000 slaves alive who were then crucified along three hundred miles of the Via Appia, the main Roman highway to south Italy, and left there to rot.
The Problem of Pure Consciousness by Forman RKC (1990) ****
Fascinated scholarly edited volume by Robert Forman, a professor of religious studies, on the content-free or pure experience that lies at the heart of mystical experiences as found in all religious mystical traditions – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hinduism and so on. Forman writes clearly and compelling; he asked for contributions by other scholars that all stress the universal aspects of pure consciousness from the point of view of Christian mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, Jewish mysticism, and Indian Buddhism. Common to many religious traditions are mystical experiences. These are characterized by having no content – no sounds, images or bodily feelings; no memories, no fear, no desire, no ego. The mind is still. Pure consciousness. The late-medieval German Dominican monastic, philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart wrote extensively about encountering the Godhead in this strange and desert place, the ground or essence of the soul (Seelengrund)
There is the silent “middle,” for no creature ever entered there and no image, nor has the soul there either activity or understanding, therefor she is not aware there of any image, whether or herself or of any other creature.
In strikingly similar terms, long-term practitioners of Buddhist or Zazen meditation speak of being able to achieve a state of pure or naked awareness
Unobscured like a cloudless sky, remain in lucid and intangible openness. Unmoving like the ocean free of waves, remain in complete ease, undistracted by thought. Unchanging and brilliant like a flame undisturbed by the wind, remain utterly clean and bright.
The book emphasizes philosophical and conceptual rather than phenomenological aspects or empirical psychological of physiological studies of pure experience.
The Optician of Lampedusa – A Tale of Rescue and the Awakening of Conscience by Emma Jane Kirby (2016) ****
Concise and compelling book that renders the European refuge crisis visceral. A BBC journalist focuses on the local optician on the Italian island of Lampedusa, halfway in the Mediterranean between Tunisia and Europe. Back in the fall of 2013, he and his wife and six friend out yachting come upon a sinking boat of African refugees, abandoned by the smugglers. They rescue 47 desperate people from the water onto their tiny yacht but watch in anguish as 360 others drown. They must play God, choosing who to save and who to abandon. This rescue creates a lasting bond between the rescuers and rescued, growing over time as the saved refugees are resettled in Italy and elsewhere. It is the discovery of the common bond between all people, no matter what language they speak, what god the pray to, and what socio-economic class they belong to. A book that challenges us to do more than bemoan the fate of these unfortunates that felt compelled to flee their homeland.
A Journey Round my Skull by Frigyes Karinthy (1939) ****
The medico-scientific literature is filled with descriptions of brain surgeries, the events in the lives of the patients leading up to the neurosurgical intervention and its sequelae. But only rarely has this done in such an evocative and literary manner as in this autobiographical account by the Hungarian author, playwright and journalist who developed at age 47, a range of auditory and visual hallucinations, motor deficits, nausea, and headaches. Diagnosing the medical causes of these symptoms in 1936, prior to the invention of CT and MRI scans, was challenging but finally pinpointed the culprit – an egg-sized cyst underneath the cerebellum, a meningioma. Karinthy’s skills as a writer are at his most powerful when he describes the operation (at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm), during which he remained fully conscious (as is common) to remove his tumor, starting with the trepidation of his skull
For some minutes, I could hear only the sound of footsteps. Then I felt a slight prick on top of my head. No doubt they were giving me an injection. I wondered if the Professor has arrived. He probably had, because out of the corner of my eye I now saw two white coats moving. I felt them place some sort of blunt instrument against my head. This looked like the real thing…
There was an infernal scream as the steel plunged into my skull. It sank more and more rapidly through the bone, and the pitch of its scream became louder and more piercing every second. …My head throbbed and roared like a thousand-horse-power engine suddenly starting up. I thundered as if the infernal regions had opened of the earth were quaking….I felt a warm, silent rush of liquid inside my head, as if the blood was flowing inwards from the hole which had been made…
Once more there was sound of pumping and draining, and I could hear the drip, drip of a liquid. How much longer were these gentlemen going to fumble about in my skull? They saw how quiet and well-behaved I was keeping. How long, then, did they propose to go on with their scratching and manipulating? Couldn’t they do me the honor now and again of telling me what they were doing with my head. After all, I had been invited to this party, too.
Karinthy has much to write about the effect of his near-fatal diagnosis on visiting friends; the forced gaiety within his earshot to “hide the panic which steals over everyone in presence of the great Enigma that awaits us all,” the many similarities between the medical and the judicial-prison system and the effect of the hallucinations on his psyche, and his post-operational recovery “While I anxiously rummaged through the contents of my burgled brain”. Karinthy, who is singularly informed about the state of brain science of the time is a worthy predecessor of Oliver Sacks. Indeed, in the 2009 new edition of A Journey Round my Skull that I read, Sacks contributed an introduction.
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (2015) *****
Second volume in Liu’s trilogy about the encounter between Earth and the Trisolaran alien civilization. Earth is in turmoil as it is known that the aliens have sent an invasion fleet that will arrive in four centuries to destroy mankind. The different countries are trying to pull together to bootstrap space fleets to fight them in the future. The novel develops a unique and thoughtful plot around Wallgazers. Although the main characters are Mandarin Chinese, the novel takes an internationalist point of view. The bulk of the book revolves around the reasonable idea that extra-terrestrial aliens, however much benign internally, are very unlikely to be benign to species around other stars. To survive, they need to be paranoid. To wit
The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and try to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life – another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod – there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.
To me this seems much more plausible than the idea that ET is a friendly alien trying to help us. Nothing in homo sapiens’ history of settling the planet would support such a rose-colored glasses scenario. The novel is a deep one, with many layers, that bear reading multiple times.
Moonstone – the Boy who Never Was by Son (2017) ****
Strange but compelling miniaturist story (no relationship to the eponymous 19th century detective story) by a contemporary Icelandic author. It recounts a few weeks in the life of a young male prostitute at a critical point in Reykjavik’s history – when the Spanish Flu pandemic came to the island and decimated its population at the end of World War I while Denmark recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state. Despite its bleak themes, the book is sparse, luminous warm, a brilliant gem of a novella.
The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017)
The first volume in a projected triptych that is a prequel to the astounding trilogy His Dark Materials (see below). While that one was a cornucopia of sophisticated and well developed ideas – multiverse, an Oxford tantalizing similar to Victorian Oxford but subtly differently, steam-punk London, people having their psyche embodied in an externally visible daemon, a beautiful conceived instrument to measure truth, mysterious elementary particles known as dust, the Magisterium, an epic showdown between the forces of Good and Evil, a decrepit God dissolving into thin air, visiting souls in Hell, armor-wearing polar bears, vampire-like soul-sucking creatures vividly described – La Belle Savage is a straightforward coming-of-age story for teens that takes place twelve years prior to the events depicted in The Golden Compass, involving the baby Lyra and her parents – Mrs. Coulter and Lord Ariel – who abandon her for reasons that gradually become clear. Not a bad novel but a pale shadow of what Pullman wrote before – nothing of the grandeur, the intellectual inventiveness, and the emotional bonds the reader develops with the principal characters in Pullman’s earlier work.
Read in 2017
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (1974) ****
A great pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes adventure (and turned into a clever movie of the same name that is not as true to the canon as this book is). Published as a supposedly lost manuscript of the late Dr. John Watson, the book recounts Holmes’ recovery from addiction to the famous 7% solution (of cocaine) with the help of an unknown doctor in Vienna that Holmes has to be tricked into visiting by Watson. In the course of his Viennese adventure, Holmes unravels a sinister kidnapping plot, prevents a European war and is analyzed by Dr. Sigmund Freud to explain his obsession with his math tutor, Prof. Moriarty (supposedly the Napoleon of crime). A very satisfactory read for any fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s archetypical hero.
Hidden in Plain Sight 5 – Atom by Andrew Thomas (2016)
When a friend recommended this book, I had not realized that it is but one volume in a franchise of popular physics texts under the annoying motto “you never knew theoretical physics could be so simple!” (off-putting because when I obtained my MS and PhD in physics, I had to work hard to internalize many of its concepts). The author does an admirable job of explaining the early stages of quantum mechanics applied to very simple systems, such as the electron, even braving matrices to explain the link between eigenstates and quantization (as Schrödinger did in his celebrated 1926 paper). So far so good. From there, Thomas covers Dirac’s equation (without pausing to explain the temporal derivative operator), the discovery of spin and fermions, Pauli’s exclusion principle and the periodic table of elements that follows, and the Standard Model of particle physics. Thomas is even brave enough to summarize the unachieved quest for quantum gravity in a slim chapter, using nothing but middle school algebra (who needs calculus, tensors, Calabi-Yau manifolds and all that other gnarly stuff). Towards the end, Thomas proposed his own modified gravity hypothesis that, in a single stroke of genius, unifies quantum mechanics and relativity, predicts a spatial flat universe whose expansion is accelerating and offers a simple solution to the black hole information-loss paradox. If only those thousands of physicists and mathematicians working on a grand unified theory would listen to the author. But a search of the internet reveals deafening silence. Apparently, this stroke of insight never even made it into an arXiv reprint. Arrggh; if only they knew.
The Marshes by Rory Stewart (2016) ****
A travelogue and history – both personal as well as academic – of the contemporary and ancient borderland between Scotland and England, written by a great observer of the human condition, criss-crossing the border on foot (Stewart previously walked across all of Afghanistan and govered a vast Iraq province following the 2002 occupation).
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) ****
Wonderful epistolary novel set in Victorian England, involving the theft of an ill-gotten diamond, the eponymous moonstone. As the first, full-length detective novel in English – and possibly in any language anywhere – The Moonstone introduces many of the tropes associated with crime fiction – red herrings, a gifted amateur detective, inside jobs, the English country manor, the bumbling local police. The novel is notable for eschewing supernatural explanations, replacing them instead by brain-based explanations – opium addiction and zombie-behavior (today known as REM sleep behavior disorder induced by laudanum) are major plot devices. The book has aged well – I first read it almost fifty years ago – caustic, funny, engaging, with criticisms of England’s rigid class system.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason (2007) ****
A collection of short and longer re-interpretations of the Illiad and the Odyssey, primarily involving alternatives histories of Odysseus. The first-time work of a computer programmer he re-imagines Homer’s well known story in a variety of highly inventive ways, staying (almost) almost true to their mythos. Reminds me very much of Borges.
The Wisdom of Lived Experience by Maxine Anderson (2016)
A psychoanalysist muses about the neuroscience of the left and right brain, philosophy and metaphysics. I couldn’t get much out of this one.
The Age of Crypto Currency by Paul Vigna and Micahel Casey (2015) **
Interesting background reading by two Wall Street Journalist on crypto currency. By and large a history of Bitcoin and its mysterious originator, Satoshi Nakamoto, and on Mt. Gox and Silk Road fiascos. Primarily of interest for their discussion of the underlying blockchain technology, ethereum and that elusive social property we call “thrust” that finds all of us together and makes us more than a bunch of individuals.
Don’t sleep, there are snakes – Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett (2008) *****
Part outrageous memoir (encountering thirty feet long anacondas and other ways to quickly die in the remote rain forest), part monograph concerning the culture and the language of the Piraha, a small tribe (< 500 people) of hunter-gatherers living along the tributary of the Amazon rainforest, in Brazil’s wild northwest. The author, an former missionary and linguist, and his wife raised their three children for more than two decades among the Piraha and this book is his account of what happened and what he learned. By many standards, the tribe may be the simplest people known to science – they manufacture almost no artifacts except woven baskets, bow & arrows, and temporary huts; they have no writing, no concepts of numbers; their language has only 11 phonemes – the leanest known – very few pronouns, no concepts about the past nor the future, speaking only in the present tense. However, they are supremely adapted to their environment – “they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game”. They have no leaders, no social class, a relative low level of violence, and lots of sex. They appear to be content, not interested in adapting material goods or the outside culture; they have no word for “worry” in their language; according to Everett, they are an unusual happy and contented people, a claim that carries shades of the noble savage trope. Everett’s field research uncovers two aspects of their culture. Firstly, and most famously, the lack of linguistic recursion. Every Piraha sentence is simple, short and refers to a single event or statement. For example, “Bring back some nails. Dan bought those very nails; they are the same” in lieu of the simpler (for us, using a relative clause) “Bring back the nails that Dan bought”. The absence of recursion challenges Chomsky’s assertion that recursion is a universal feature of all languages. For Everett, recursion is an important feature of human cognition, a key instrument of reasoning; it can and does manifest itself in most languages but it is not its defining feature. He emphasizes how language is shaped by the environment and the culture of the speakers, rather than being formed by a biologically driven universal grammar (Chomsky) or a language instinct (Pinker). Everett explains many features of the culture and the language of the Piraha by what he calls the immediacy of experience principle. Only what a person has directly seen, heard or otherwise experienced or what a third party has directly experienced him- or her-self is taken to exist by the Piraha, is taken to be real. As nobody alive has seen Jesus, they simply ignore any stories about him, partially explaining why attempts over the past two centuries to convert them to Christianity have been utterly ineffective (the other reason is that happy people aren’t interested in religion). Their extreme form of empiricism explains the absence of any creation myth, of fiction, of concepts like great-grandparents (due to their low life-expectancy, very few Piraha have direct experience with the parents of their grandparents). On the other hand, per the immediacy of experience principle, dreams are accepted as a different aspect of reality, as it is a direct form of experience.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017) ***
A partially submerged Manhattan is the real protagonist of this post-Global Warming novel, a make-do, vibrant, exciting and impoverished SuperVenice hit by a monster hurricane followed by a financial crisis triggered by some of the various characters the book follows. Compelling vision of how humanity adapts with some memorable quotes (here echoing Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stones diatribe against Goldman-Sachs
The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money).
Capitalism will be flattening itself like the octopus it biomimics, sliding between the glass walls of law that try to keep it contained, and no one should be surprised to find it can squeeze itself to the width of its beak, the only part of it that it can’t squish flatter, the hard part that tears at our flesh when it is free to do so.
The novel, that would have benefited by tighter editing, does offer a version of how urban civilization could survive rising sea levels.
Ecotopia – The notebooks and reports of William Weston by Ernest Callenbach (1975) ****
Mid 70s quasi-utopian novel, a product of countercultural Berkeley, in which the fictitious reporter Weston visits Ecotopia – the states of Northern California, Oregon and Washington that violently seceded from the Union to form their own country, living in harmony with nature and the environment. The society does not reject technology but only adopts those technologies and industries that serve the overall well-being of the social and ecological order. The book provides a vision radical different from contemporary neo-liberal capitalism that, together with technology, relentless destroys anything in its path – Schumpeter’s famed “creative destruction” – to maximize shareholder value; nothing is held sacred. The book is valuable for providing an alternative vision, not for its literary values, which is slight. I bought the 40th anniversary addition, with an insightful afterword by the author, predicting the rise of demagogues and fascists (need I say more?). I now fly the flag of Cascadia (a more recent reincarnation of Ecotopia) at my Seattle home as a symbolic gesture.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) *****
Highly evocative novel that charts the minutiae of the inner narrative of its various characters in a sort of stream of consciousness, the way they feel and experience the world, revealing complex associations and dissociations between people’s public emotions and private thoughts. The novel has little action or dialogue and describes a handful of mundane occurrences – a dinner party, somebody painting a scene, a sailing boat trip to a lighthouse – spaced out over ten years, at the vacation home of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children and a few of their friends in the Hebrides. The short middle section of the book evokes a powerful, magical and profoundly sad sense of passage of time, absence and the evil that men do.
Gödel – A Life of Logic by John Casti and Werner DePauli (2000) ****
Short biography as well as an intellectual history of Kurt Gödel’s 1925 incompleteness theorem, derived using his numbering scheme applied to the phrase “this statement is not provable”; it is true but it can’t be proven nor disproven. It only explains quite nicely Turing’s 1935 Entscheidungsproblem, his derivation of what we now know as Turing machines and the social-cultural environment in which all of these developments took place. Subsequent chapters deal with some more recent development in algorithmic complexity, in particular Chaitin’s contributions. The book comes up with some very clever metaphors and the most insightful diagram of Gödel’s result I’ve ever seen.
The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013) ****
Dark dystopian novel set in the near-future, vividly describing the experiences of a new employee at a Googleplex-like campus of an Internet company in Silicon Valley, a cross between Google and Facebook. What seems early-on like paradise turns into a perfect, all transparent Bentham panopticon with the inmates having voluntarily and happily given up all rights to privacy (under the motto of ‘privacy is theft’, ‘secrets are lies” and ‘sharing is caring’). Great read but chilling.
What is a Dog? by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger (2016) ****
Two biologists take an unsentimental, yet not unsympathetic, quantitative look at what makes a dog a dog. The reason dogs make good pets is in large part because they have this innate behavior of finding somewhere to sit and wait for food to arrive, which is exactly what our pet dogs do. Their niche is scavenging food from humans. They are like ravens and foxes that scavenge food from wolves or humans. Where is that dog food supply? Look for humans, and there it is. Why are dogs nice to people? They are the source of food. Dogs find some food source that arrives daily and they sit there and wait. Of the approximately one billion dogs on the planet, the authors estimate that 850 million of them are village dogs. No matter where they are found, peaking in the tropics and with a steep gradient toward the poles, they roughly look and weigh the same. The Coppinger’s argue that these are not mongrels, nor strays, feral or abandoned dogs but are the naturally selected, i.e. evolved, species canus familiaris; the 150 million purebreds that we, in the developed world, are accustomed to as thinking as “real” dogs, the poodles, Bernese mountain dogs, German Shepherd and so on, are the product of the last few centuries of artificial selection. These breeds could not survive in the wild and their phenotype would quickly disappear in the general gene pool of dogs were they to cross-breed. From their empirical observation of wild running dogs at the garbage dump in Mexico City and elsewhere, and calculations of caloric costs, the authors infer that up to 95% of puppies fail to reach reproductive age and die of disease or starvation. However, giving the abandon with which dogs engage in sex and the young age at which they become sexual mature (7-8 months), there is never a short supply of dogs. This fulfills the central premise of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – that one puppy out of twenty that survives to grown into an adult dog will leave descendants that carry those traits that made that dog optimally adapted to its ecological niche – getting along with other dogs and with people to be able to feed upon their left-overs. A great monograph – proving you can write like a scientist and tell a compelling story to an old-dog lover like me.
The Final Forest – Big Trees, Forks and the Pacific Northwest by William Dietrich (1992) ****
Well written, book-length journalistic account of the 1980s Timber Wars and the Spotted Owls battles in the lush temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. The book, set in Forks, a small logging town on Olympic Peninsula (now famous for being the site of the vampire-fiction Twilight) portrays three very different communities – the loggers, a time-honored way of life, the growing urban environmental movement that wanted to preserve the last stands of majestic Old Growth forest from being cut down and discovered the endangered Spotted Owls as a means to achieve this, and the Federal Government in the guise of the Forest Service, managing the forests for economic benefit and attempting to mediate between the two opposing camps. Dietrich – now a successful novelist – goes out of his way to be faithful to the point-of-view of all participants of this bitter dispute that ended with a series of court decisions in the early 1990s (with a post-script added by the author in 2010 to bring the story up-to-date). Some disputes are truly zero-sum games – for every winner (here the forest) there are losers – here the loggers, their families and their sense of contributing to a meaningful life (they can’t just be re-trained to be Java programmers or baristas). The book attests to the compelling power that dense virgin, primeval forests with a capital F has over the human psyche. It is the environment in which homo sapiens lived in for much of the past 100,000 years. While I love forest as much as the next German-American (listening from an early age to stories about the Teutonic forest) it is a different matter to be in a tent or sleeping bag deep in a dark and brooding forest, with its incessant nocturnal voices, tyrannized by clouds of mosquitos. I enjoyed this book while experiencing the majesty of Olympic National Forest during the day and the civilized comfort of an old-time Lodge at night!
Hood – Trailblazer of the Genomics Age by Luke Timmerman (2015) ***
Well written biography of Leroy Hood, who co-invented the first (semi)-automated DNA sequencer that, together with three other instruments he helped develop, the DNA synthesizer, and the protein sequencer and synthesizer, powered the Genomics revolution that is at the heart of modern biology, medicine and the biotechnology industry. Lee was the chairman of biology who recruited me to Caltech back in 1986. He later founded the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. The book well captures the heady days of the human genome project and some of its people; it is no hagiography, as the author, a journalist specializing in the biotech industry, highlights both the many strengths but also the weaknesses of Lee as a scientist, mentor, entrepreneur, fund-raiser, mesmerizing public speaker and manager.
Hemingway in Love – The Untold Story by AE Hotchner (2015) ***
In June of 1961, A. E. Hotchner visited a close friend in the psychiatric ward of St. Mary’s Hospital. It would be the last time they spoke – three weeks later, Ernest Hemingway shot himself. During their conversations, Hemingway entrusted the tale of the affair that destroyed his first marriage to Hotchner, his editor – of how he gambled and lost his wife and son. A wild but well told tale, of two consecutive plane crashes in the African bush, of impotence cured in a house of God, of Parisian nights carousing with Scott Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker, of adventure, conceit, passion and lusting after life.
Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason (2000) ****
Taunt and dark murder Icelandic mystery, taking place amid the usual chaotic and dysfunctional family milieu of any Nordic thriller, during a ten days spell of never ending rain and gloom in present day Reykjavik in the fall. The story involves a rare genetic disease that expresses itself fatally at a young age but only in a subset of carrier and whose Icelandic carriers were, illegally, identified by breaking into the genomic database of Decode, famously based in Iceland. Although I’m only an occasional reader of thrillers, this one is very good. To judge by Republican propagandists and Nordic noir crime fiction writers, Scandinavian societies must be in a state of almost complete societal break-down given the amount of rape, murder, incest, divorce in these novels. Of course, having just returned from Iceland, it is one of the most developed, peaceful, prosperous, efficient and spectacular beautiful countries I know.
Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness (1968) **
Bizarre novel by the Icelandic Nobel Laureate, part magical realism, part allegory and satire. Despite a 10 pages enthusiastic introduction by Susan Sontag, the novel is a dud, without much internal logic.
To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell (2017) **
The sub-titles says it all “Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death”. A journalist without much knowledge of technology or the relevant science tries to figure out Transhumanism – humanity trying to liberate itself from its biology – by traveling with a few of the more extreme enthusiasts of this long-term development that sees humanity’s future in bodies enhanced by implanted hardware/software; thus the alternative name of this movement, h+. O’Connell insinuates himself into the life of his subjects to discern their underlying implicit or explicit psychological motivations, feed by religious springs; one feels that he has no sympathies with either the people he portrays nor with h+ in general. He does make a number of trenchant observations. Here he is traveling in the “Immortality bus” on a highway in Texas with only road kill to keep them company, reflecting on his companion’s obsession with wanting to live forever. This belief that science would offer us an exemption from our place in this vast panorama of disintegration – of which the rotting armadillos and raccoons, the circling vultures, were only the most immediate manifestations – was a displacement of a fundamentally religious instinct. I thought of the psychoanalytic concept of transference, whereby the patient’s childhood relationship with his or her parents was redirected onto the figure of the analyst. Wasn’t transhumanism precisely that: a wholesale projection of the formative relationship with God onto the figure of Science? Wasn’t all of it – brain uploading, radical life extension, cryonics, the Singularity – a postscript to the oldest of narratives? I own a sweatshirt that succinctly summarizes what the belief in the upcoming singularity among the smart money in Silicon Valley amounts to – rapture for nerds.
Read in 2016
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951) ****
Her best known book – written from the point of view of the dying Roman emperor Hadrian, the third of the five “good” emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius) in the 2nd CE, addressed to his eventual successor who would become Marcus Aurelius of Stoic fame. Germinating over 17 years, Yourcenar’s historical, biographical novel fully enters the mind of an educated, far-sighted and non-sentimental Roman, living in a pre-Christian and pre-scientific world very different from ours. The book is a protracted meditation on some of the major events in Hadrian’s life at the time when the vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by an absolute Emperor, a military man of action who developed a habit of introspection. His two biggest regrets are the death of his young lover, Antinous, and the very bloody second Roman-Jewish War that ended in the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of most of the Jewish population. Hadrian is an admirable man – disciplined, thoughtful, diplomatic as a default, forceful when necessary, a consummate traveler. During his 19 years reign, the Empire was peaceful and prosperous; the official practice of religion was tolerant towards all the gods of the various people and tribes ruled by Rome, provided they, in turn, accepted the idea of a Pantheon– that Christianity, famously, did not. To give you a sense of the style, here is the ending
Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again….Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…
The book was translated from the French into English by her long-time partner, Grace Frick, while she and Yourcenar lived on Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine.
Unsnarling the World-Knot – Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem by David Ray Griffin (1998) ****
Lovely, well written summary of the mind-body problem from the point of a middle position between materialism/physicalism on the one hand and dualism on the other – a modified version of panpsychism. The author takes up a version of Whiteheadian pan-experientialism, and defends it against Thomas Nagel and Jaegwon Kim and discusses this in relationship to the ideas of William Seager, Galen Strawson and John Searle.
Margaret the First – A Novel by Danielle Dutton (2016) ****
Beautiful produced gem of a historical novella of the life of Margaret Cavendish, nee Lucas, an English aristocrat, poet, playwright and self-taught philosopher, who lived during the 17th century Civil War and the ensuing Restoration (much of her adult life was spent in exile in Paris and Holland). She wrote at a time when few women did and great intellectual ferment was in the air – this is, after all, the period of the European Enlightenment and the birth of modern science – that she herself tried to contribute to. Yet this age is still caught in superstition and bizarre medical treatments – for infertility, Margaret had to endure injections of “a tincture of herbs put into my womb at night with a long syringe”, followed by anal injections with a decoction of flowers, a day-long purge, then a day of bleeding, two days of fasting and another purge. Hardly a regime conducive to becoming pregnant! Terse, sparse and well observed writing by Dutton.
Soul Made Flesh – The Discovery of the Brain by Carl Zimmer (2004) ***
History, by the gifted science journalist, of the neglected English physician Thomas Willis (1621-1675) and his turbulent times (England during the Civil War and the ensuing Restoration). Willis, together with William Harvey, is a founding figure of modern anatomy, neurology and psychiatry, who turned a field that was utterly dominated by what Aristotle and Galen had though and written 1,200 years earlier into something more recognizable as modern science. Medical treatments, at a time when the four humor theory dominated thinking (yellow and black bile, blood and phlegm) – were astonishingly bizarre and counterproductive – above all blood-letting by barber surgeons using knifes and leeches as a standard therapeutic and prophylactic treatment for most any ailment, purging, ingesting bizarre foods (including one’s own urine). And the nobler the patients, the worse the treatment – King Charles II, who suffered from kidney disease, was purged, plastered, scalded and drained of quarts of his blood (dying in the process). Many millions of patients must have been killed over the two millennia by such quackery. The book could have benefited from some tighter editing as Zimmer introduces a very large cast of historical, literary, philosophical and medical characters not always directly related to the topic at hand – the modern discovery of the brain’s grey matter – rather than its ventricles or the heart – as the seat of sensitive and rational soul.
Brain, Vision, Memory – Tales in the History of Neuroscience by Charles Gross (1998) ****
A practicing neuroscientist – Gross discovered face cells in the monkey’s visual cortex – provides a readable broad scholarly overview of the history, within a Western tradition, of explorations of the brain, from the ancient Egyptians to the sparse Greco-Roman literature to the modern age – of locating the soul, mind, memory and consciousness to the brain’s grey matter.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996) *****
My introduction to urban fantasy, narratives where the fantastic and the mundane interact and interweave at the intersection of a real, city, here London above (the modern world) and below (a medieval London with magic, speaking animals, demons and angles). I would call this fantasy for adults; sad, poignant, utterly fascinating and hypnotic. And the way the real London, including the Underground, is woven into the texture of the novel is striking. By far Gaiman’s best work. The title Neverwhere itself is very compelling and prompted me to buy the book!
The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal (1969) ***
A noir crime thriller by a Mexican diplomat (translated by Katherine Silver) dark, cynical with a classical Chandlerian acerbic, vulgar self-deprecating violent cop with a fast gun. The book is an admixture of third-person point of view with rambling inner monologue of the protagonist, following all the twists and turns in an attempted assassination of the President of the US while visiting Mexico City, which turns out to be about local political infighting. The anti-hero redeems himself when, despite his own intention, he falls in love with an ingénue. A sad ending.
How the End Begins – The Road to a Nuclear World War III by Ron Rosenbaum (2011) *****
A dark account, that I was unable to put down, by the historian/journalist Rosenbaum of the first and the second Nuclear Age (the second followed the end of the Cold War in 1989) and the slowly increasing risk of a nuclear confrontation between/with other states, in particular Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. It covers the mind-bending morality of the question of nuclear retaliation in the event that a massive nuclear strike is in process, SIOP – the Single Integrated Operational Plan (the US war plan for Nuclear War until 2003), the Number, the estimated number of people immediately killed by a generalized nuclear exchange between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries as envisioned by SIOP (about one billion; we now know that the Nuclear Winter following such an exchange will) trigger the end of civilization), the existence of a possible nuclear taboo and the incidence of “the enigmatic box on the Euphrates” – the raid by the Israeli air force on a nuclear reactor in al-Kibar on the night of September 9. 2007, never acknowledged by either the Syrians nor by the Israelis. Unfortunately, we continue to live in a world with about 10,000 nuclear explosive devices, with more countries acquiring the technology. The explosion of but a single one of these devices in anger will change the world as we know it. Let me quote from the concluding chapter “Endgame”.
It can sometimes seem astonishing to anyone who seriously considers the continual, indeed rising, level of risk of nuclear war in this second nuclear age to witness the continuing denial, the inexplicable ability of much of the world to ignore a fate hurtling toward us. The mechanisms of denial have become so sophisticated by now, we don’t notice them, the way we scarcely notice the millions of tons of nuclear warheads hidden beneath the surface of the Great Plains.
What Rosenbaum is referring to are the 450 upgraded Minuteman missiles in silos in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. The same denial process is in place in the refusal to contemplate the existential threat of runaway AI or Superintelligence. A chilling account.
Right of Boom – The Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism by Benjamin Schwartz (2015) **
What happens if a “small” nuclear bomb was to explode in an American city, directly killing on the order of 100,000 people and destroying that city? How would we as a nation deal with the uncertainty of identifying the culpable agents, whether to retaliate in kind and how to live in a world where more such attacks might take place. The book is not analytical and not as insightful as I would have hoped for.
Confronting Traumatic Brain Injury by William Winslade (1998) ***
Well-crafted account of TBI and the toll it takes on civilian society. The book kicks off with an account of the author’s fall out of a second-story back porch, landing head first onto bare cement. Although things looked bleak for the two years old future professor of psychiatry and philosophy, the doctor placed a shunt and let nature take its course. The child survived with no apparent adverse effect, save for a scar that still remains visible today, more than 70 years later. Winslade eloquently traces the remarkable medical revolution that enabled 1000s of victims of massive brain injury due to traffic accidents, falls, guns and so on, to ultimately return to a productive life. Until recently, the majority would have either died, remained in coma or been scarred for life. This is a triumph for modern civilization; yet it also has a downside that the author does not shy away from – sometimes, life-prolonging treatment ought to be suspended when there is no hope of the patient ever regaining consciousness. Death of a loved one allows healing to start; while no such mourning process is possible when the patient hovers for years in a clinical limbo, alive, yet a zombie. The book deals thoughtfully and compassionately with this most difficult of all decisions.
The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter – A Portrait of Descartes by Steven Nadler (2013) ****
This short and highly readable narrative takes one specific event in René Descartes’ Life in Holland – the painting of his portrait by Frans Hals from Haarlem in 1649, just prior to his departure to Sweden, where he would die a few months later – and contextualizes its historical, social and aesthetic setting. The book’s true intention is to explain Descartes’s attempt to ground absolute knowledge, knowledge that cannot be denied by any skeptic, in his famous deduction Je pense, donc je suis and in Descartes’ certainty of God’s absolute perfection. Nadler primarily focuses on the two foundational texts that continue to be required reading for contemporary students of consciousness, Discours de la méthode (1637) and Méditations sur la philosophie premiere (1641). More than 450 years into the Enlightenment that this French savant inaugurated and that may well be coming to an end in the tumultuous second decades of the third millennium, the mind-body debate continues to take place on terrain that Descartes first named and explored.
Odinn’s Child by Tim Severin (2005) ***
Just in time for laborday, I finished my light summer reading – the first volume in a trilogy of historical novels focused on a Northman, born in 999 CE, and his peregrinations as a child and young man in Iceland in the throes of Christianization – not always a peaceful let alone, voluntary process – and in the Viking colonies on the west coast of Greenland and in Vinland before going on to Ireland. Partially a retelling of the classic Icelandic sagas, including the violent demise of the Nordic settlement in Newfoundland due to high level of intra-group violence. Light on descriptions and character development, strong on historical context.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) ***
The real thing, the classic Gothic novel that defined the modern vampire (a la the undead, or Nosferatu). Highly melodramatic, compelling, and well-paced story, with sweltering psycho-sexual undertones, told in the form of letters, diary entries, telegrams and newspaper cuttings. In the end, an alliance of the forces of science (in the form of the archetypal Professor Van Helsing) in combination with religious reliquaries (crucifix and holy wafers) vanquish this affront to ‘’decent” people everywhere (prior to the horrors of the 20-th century). I wallowed in the late 19th century Victorian environment – hansom cabs, gas lights, fog – popularized by Conan Doyle’s stories.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams (2012) **
Mildly funny travelogue along the modern-day Inca trail in the Peruvian highlands, visiting Inca cities and monuments, following in the footstep of Hiram Bingham, the Yale archeologist who re-discovered Machu Picchu to the modern world in 1911. It is an archetypal, irresistible and romantic story of scientific discovery as is, of course, the grandeur of Machu Picchu and the dramatic conquest of the short-lived Inca empire by Pizarro and his 186 men in 1532. The book doesn’t hold a candle though to Hemming’s classic The conquest of the Incas (see below).
The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (2016) ****
This beautiful small monograph on the historical search for a planet between Mercury and the Sun, termed Vulcan constitutes a meditation on the surprising slippery slope of what constitutes a scientific “fact”. Following the first discovery in modern times of a new planet, Uranus, by William Herschel stumbling onto its disk in 1781 (ironically, the planet had been observed many times previously but was thought to be a star), the next more outward planet, Neptune, was actually predicted by Urbain Le Verrier in 1846 due to the perturbation of Uranus’s orbit from that expected based on Newton’s theory of gravity. Detected within 1 degree of arc of the predicted location by Johan Gottfried Galle, Le Verrier’s forecast was celebrated as a triumphal verification of the universal nature of the law of gravity and reified the concept of the clockwork universe. In 1859 Le Verrier, using the best observational data and a large team of computers (people, not machines that is) to solve for Newton’s equations, discovered a tiny short-coming in Mercury’s predicted orbit, the famed precession of the planet’s perihelion (over 12 million orbits, the planet has one excess turn). Based on his earlier success in predicting the solar system’s most outward member, Le Verrier confidently forecast a small planet (or series of them) between mercury and the sun, Vulcan. This explanation was universally accepted as logical and a number of professional and amateur astronomers proceeded to “detect” such a planet over the following years (usually during transit over the sun). Yet each such discovery proved illusory and turned out to be a sunspot, a fixed star or a figment of imagination. The situation remained unresolved until November 18. 1915 when in one dramatic push, an entire world was overthrown and a fact was re-imagined. Albert Einstein’s derived a simple formula for the perihelion shift from his general theory of relativity that was within observational error. Presto – no need for Vulcan! Mercury, by lying deep within the sun’s gravitational well, follows a four-dimensional space-time trajectory that deviates by a tiny amount from the flat three-dimensional space and absolute time of Newton. A well written cautionary tale about “facts” at the outer limit of our instruments.
The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar (1976) *****
The powerful story of Zeno, a fictitious philosopher-physician-alchemist modeled on the historic Paracelsus, living in mid-16-th century Flanders, a bloody time of superstition, religious upheavals (the Münster Rebellion and the Reformation), and Black Death. Born in Bruges into a banker’s family, he renounces an easy life in the priesthood and begins peripatetic wandering across Europe and the Near East in search of knowledge and truth. He acquires a reputation as a effective physician and healer but also as a free-thinker, which is dangerous in these times when people are burned at the stake for minor transgression from the faith. Zeno, rooted in the Scholastic, is living through the earliest phases of market capitalism and the scientific revolution, with the mindset of the alchemist, struggling to emerge into a more rational view of the universe that characterizes the subsequent Age of Enlightenment. Replete with historical and erudite details, Yourcenar gives Zeno great depth, a real Mensch of the late Middle Ages, with a cantankerous and not always sympathetic character. Faced with either being burned at the stake or renouncing his beliefs, Zeno defies the Church. In an extraordinary final chapter, Zero, back in his prison cell, takes stock of his life and then, calmly and without rancor, freely chooses to end his life.
He could no longer see, but external sounds reached him still. As once before at Saint Cosmus, hurried footsteps echoed along the corridor: it was the turnkey who had just caught sight of the dark pool on the floor. A moment earlier, the dying man would have been seized by terror at the thought of being retaken, and forced to live and to die for some hours more. But the anguish was over for him: he was free; this person who was coming to him could be only a friend. He made, or thought that he made, an effort to rise, without knowing clearly whether someone was coming to help him, or if, on the contrary, he was going to give help. The rasping of keys turning and bolts shoved back was now for him only the triumphant sound of an opening door. And this is as far as one can go in the death of Zeno.
The book was jointly translated by Yourcenar and her partner, Grace Frick, from the French (L’Oeurve au noir).
Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1884) ****
I finally read this key work of the decadence (translated from À rebours by Robert Baldick), the famous “poisonous French novel” that guides Dorian Gray’s life of hedonism (appropriately, the book’s title is sometimes also translated as Against the Grain). A former naturalist writer, depicting sensations and events in minutely documented details, goes bad, and creates an anti-hero – Jean des Esseintes, the author’s psychological doppelgänger. He is the last member of an ancient aristocratic family with an eccentric and hypersensitive personality – he celebrates his impotence following some debauchery by a dinner “on the invitations, which were similar to those sent out before more solemn obsequies, this dinner was described as a funeral banquet in memory of the host’s virility, lately but only temporarily deceased.” des Esseintes is disgusted with modern life and suffers from fin de siècle ennui and splenetic indecision. He retreats to a country house of his own design, travels in his imagination, and turns neurotic. Essentially without plot, the reader is treated to a series of extended meditations on des Esseintes bizarre artistic literary, visual and olfactory experiences in a heavy, imagery-laden but effective language. To wit,
What literature had treated heretofore was the abundant health of virtues and of vices, the tranquil functioning of commonplace brains, and the practical reality of contemporary ideas, without any ideal of sickly depravation or of any beyond. In short, the discoveries of those analysts had stopped at the speculations of good or evil classified by the Church. It was the simple investigation, the conventional examination of a botanist minutely observing the anticipated development of normal efflorescence abounding in the natural earth.
Baudelaire had gone farther. He had descended to the very bowels of the inexhaustible mine, had involved his mind in abandoned and unfamiliar levels, and come to those districts of the soul where monstrous vegetations of thought extend their branches.
There, near those confines, the haunt of aberrations and of sickness, of the mystic lockjaw, the warm fever of lust, and the typhoids and vomits of crime, he had found, brooding under the gloomy clock of Ennui, the terrifying spectre of the age of sentiments and ideas.
He had revealed the morbid psychology of the mind which has attained the October of its sensations, recounted the symptoms of souls summoned by grief and licensed by spleen, and shown the increasing decay of impressions while the enthusiasms and beliefs of youth are enfeebled and the only thing remaining is the arid memory of miseries borne, intolerances endured and affronts suffered by intelligences oppressed by a ridiculous destiny.
The tedium of it all! Huysmans has powerful turn of phrases at his command. Referring to modern literature “…all wrote like convent schoolgirls in a milk-and-water style, all suffered from a verbal diarrhea no astringent could conceivably check”. The author is torn by his desire to defile his earlier Catholic upbringing by references to black masses and pedophilia, and his yearning to belief. The book ends with a cris de coeur
O Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, under a sky no longer illumined by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!
For many years, I too shared this desire to believe in the God of my childhood (like des Esseintes, I was taught by Jesuits) in the face of my scientific and rational instincts who knew better. These won out. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Huysmans eventually became a devout believer and a practicing oblate.
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi (2016) ****
Unusual story by the bestselling author of books about sex, gender and power in the 20th century. After having been estranged for decades, her father contacts the author out of the blue to announce that he, Steven Faludi, is now Stefanie Faludi, complete with sex-change surgery (in Thailand) at the tender age of 74! The daughter, a feminist journalist, can’t resist the appeal of this story and tracks him down in Budapest where he lives out his dotage. The book’s core theme is personal identity – what is it, who has it and who doesn’t. She tries to unearth her “real” father and discovers nothing but ambiguity – a transgendered woman, her father, an Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor whose heroism saves his parents but who refuses to have anything further to do with them, who has his family in Yorktown perform all the American cum Christian rituals but whose marriage breaks up violently, a transgendered living in reactionary modern Hungary with a white-washed fascist past. She tracks down her remaining relatives on her dad’s side (most of which perished in the Shoa), learns about the glorious and the dark history of Hungary between the wars, reflects on gender, sex, the men who yearn to become the sort of girls she always thought of as false and the scholars who study them (Magnus Hirschfeld, Harry Benjamin of “gender is located above, and sex below the belt”), and finally concludes that her father’s identity is so fluid and ambiguous because he grew up in a society that believed that Jews are feminine and who had to adopt multiple masks because he had to survive a brutal environment. The father is portrayed as a violent, difficult character seeking to hide his past but becomes more sympathetic in the telling of his semi-tragic story. I assume writing the book was cathartic for the daughter, reconnecting to her ever-so-distant dad. Exceedingly well written and insightful.
Tribe – On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Judger (2016) *****
Thoughtful extended argument, born from his own experience as a war journalist (shades of Hemingway) supported by anthropological-historical analysis, from a mesmerizing writer who re-acquainted us with the ancient notion of adventure as a rite of passage, essential for maturing. The book, expanded from a magazine article, deals with the loss of community the modern world has experienced as homo sapiens transitioned from living in small bands of relative egalitarian but high-mortality roving hunters & gatherers that could only survive because of a powerful sense of belonging and connectedness (in which loyalty to the group evolved to be treasured above everything else) to enormously rich and powerful, low-mortality societies encompassing hundreds of millions of individuals that are extremely unequal and whose only loyalty is to themselves and their close family. Yet during and after catastrophes and calamities – London during the Blitz, Germany cities during WWII bombings, the siege of Sarajevo during the 1990s, NYC after 2001, soldiers in battles throughout the ages – people pull together, experience a deep sense of community (the army speaks of high-group cohesion), including large drops in crime rates, suicide and psychiatric diagnoses. When peace and normality returns so does crime, mass shootings, addictions, depression and other manifestations of an unwell society that we have accepted as normal. The book starts out with an fascinating fact – during our proto-nation’s frontiers days, a striking number of men, and sometimes women, chose to live in Indian tribes but the opposite almost never happened. His book is a plea, a cri de Coeur for returning veterans who long in civil life for the for the sense of unity and purpose they had while deployed.
In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home….First there is a kind of shock at the level of comfort and affluence that we enjoy, but that is followed by the dismal realization that we live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president or the entire U.S. government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it’s applied to our fellow citizens.
Regrettably, this accurately reflects the current public discourse in the US, the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Unfortunately, besides giving veterans a public platform to speak about their war experiences, whether horrid, heroic or in between, and a general plea for more civility, Junger offers no solution or therapy to this modern ailment – alienation. I warmly recommend this book to everybody concerned about the future of our liberal societies.
Der Trafikant by Robert Seethaler (2013) ***
Coming-of-age story of a boy, raised by his mom, from the Austrian Voralpen countryside who arrives in pre-War II Vienna, the trials and tribulation of his first love, the rise of the brown shirts, the forced annexation by Nazi Germany (the Anschluss) and all the thuggish violence directed against Jews and political dissidents that came along with it, and his unlikely friendship with an aging Sigmund Freud, soon forced into exile. Told in simple but stark language, the novel ends with a visit of the Gestapo to the boy’s place of work, a small boutique selling newspapers and smoking paraphernalia, to take him away for his small gesture of protest. His fate remains uncertain but is unlikely to be good. In a sort of coda, the final scene takes us to the same location on the night of the worst bombing attack by Allied planes toward the end of the war, when fascism had almost run its unholy course.
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (2016) *****
A short, sparse but mesmerizing account of the stark life of a simple man raised at the turn of the 20. century in the Austria alps and who, except for fighting in Russia and subsequent years spent in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp, never left his mountain valley. Orphaned and abused as a child, with minimal education, disciplined and hardworking he remains poor throughout his life, solitary except for an all too brief time, when he is happily married. Looking back, toward the end of the life, he is content. I read it twice over back-to-back in the Tyrolian Alps (by pure coincidence). Superb; translated from Ein ganzes Leben.
Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean (1963) ****
The classical Cold War thriller of murder set in a nuclear submarine above and below the artic ice shelf. I re-read it after four decades – it has aged remarkable well, sans extreme violence and sex.
Liar’s Poker – Rising through the Wreckage on Wall Street by Michael Lewis (1989) ****
Semi-autobiographical account by the famed financial journalist of The Big Short of his experience as a bond salesman for Salomon Brothers in London/New York straight out of school, intertwined with a modern history of the mortgage bond and junk bond markets. Funny and well-crafted, the book epitomizes the frat-boy, high risk, take-no-prisoner Wall Street culture blind to its consequences on the larger economy (some of the anecdotes a bit too convenient to be true). The book makes for depressing reading as it reveals incompetency (most traders have little idea of the larger context of their deals) and a financial system designed to rewards its own. Such revelations are part and parcel of the political anger and fury fueling the rise of demagogues and proto-fascists.
The Tides of Mind – Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness by David Gelernter (2016) **
A very literary computer scientist turns his hand to free association, literature, childhood and unraveling the mind by constructing a theory based on the transition from full wakefulness to day-dreaming, hallucination, sleep and dreaming (without ever mentioning arousal or any of the associated diurnal mechanisms that regulate sleep-wake cycle and other circadian rhythms). Gelernter is fond of incessantly citing Blake, Coetzee, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Freud in lieu of more traditional scientific evidence. And he loves speaking in declaratives and metaphors (memory is equivalently “unconscious mind”; conscious mind is a spectrum from pure thinking to pure feeling, from pure acting to pure being; being is not computable). The ‘Tides of Mind’ in the title (he does have a gift for compelling phrases) refers to the ebb and flow of consciousness across the day and across lifespan – up-spectrum consciousness is about and is directed at the external world while down-spectrum consciousness creates an inner world of memory, dreams and hallucinations. While I’m very sympathetic to his anti- computationalism stance (as per ‘Integrated Information Theory’ of consciousness). I can’t find anything concrete to hang an empirical research program on. Disappointing.
In the Shadow of Progress – Being Human in the Age of Technology by Eric Cohen (2008) **
Nine chapters on a diverse range of topics relating to scientific advances and their impact on modern society – how we live, how we die, how we not have babies, about research on stems cells and embryos, about genetic research, pre-screening and testing – from a modern conservative scholar. His biggest gripe is with the dramatically reduced birth-rate among educated women in advanced liberal democracies and what this implies for our culture. Left unmentioned is the fact that with seven billion people populating the planet, we’re not suffering exactly from a dearth of children. Indeed, a reduced birth-rate is the only non-violent means to address contemporary massive extinction of species and environmental degradation. Unconvincing.
String Theory and the Scientific Method by Richard Dawid (2013) ****
A rewarding monograph by an ex-string theoretician turned philosopher of science concerned with “non-empirical” theory assessment – how can we know a scientific theory is valid if it can’t be experimentally tested for either practical or principled reasons? Warning – this is not a breezy read but it is well worth the effort. The book examines string theory’s ontological foundations, considered by a large fraction of the theoretical physics community to be the best candidate for a fundamental theory combining gravity with elementary particle quantum physics. It postulates that elementary particles are not point-like but extended strings (either open or closed) living in a space-time of more than 4 dimensions (requiring an explanation why only 4 are apparent to us). There exists an enormous number of possible vacuum states, on the order of 10 to the 500. This unfathomable large landscape of possible universes, of which our cosmos is one instance, provides an elegant explanation of the anthropic principle in cosmology (why are most of the fundamental constants, such as the cosmological constant or the ratio of gravitational to electrical forces ‘fined-tuned’ for the emergency of long-lived complex molecules that underlie life). A key difficulty of string theory is that its predictions can only be tested at energies that exceed the energies available to particles colliders (such as LHC at CERN) by a trillion, making it effectively impossible to test using conventional means, such as particle accelerators. This is Dawid’s starting point – how can belief in a theory be justified in face of its empirical underdetermination? He summarizes three arguments, justifying them with examples drawn from the history and the practice of physics.
(i) The no alternative argument (NAA). It is acknowledged by physicists that there are no viable alternatives to string theory despite the best efforts for close to four decades of many, many theoreticians.
(ii) The unexpected explanatory coherence argument (UEA) – a truly convincing confirmation of a scientific theory must be based on theoretical achievements that were not foreseen at the time of its construction. This can be applied to either empirical predictions or to the emergency of a more coherent conceptual framework. Thus, starting with the assumption of the extendedness of elementary particle, string theory (a) was found to imply gravity, (b) low energy effective theory must be a Yang-Mills gauge theory, (c) implied super symmetry and provides an understanding of black hole entropy (the problem that when general relativity goes quantum, the entropy of a black hole becomes proportional to the surface area of its event horizon).
(iii) A meta-inductive argument from the success of other theories in the same research program (MIA). The incredible success of the Standard Model of particle physics – predicting a zoo of elementary particles (including, famously, the Higgs boson) that were eventually empirically confirmed – can be taken to imply (by meta-induction) that we should likewise trust string theory, even if it can’t be empirically verified in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the belief of physicists in the existence of the Higgs particle was so high that when its discovery was confirmed in 2012, nobody was particularly surprised. Another example is General Relativity’s (GR) prediction of gravity waves, confirmed 100 years after they were postulated on entirely theoretical grounds. These are examples of theories that are held to be correct description of physical phenomena despite the temporary (ranging between 20 – 100 years) underdetermination of some of their key predictions.
Dawid discusses how over the past 100 years of fundamental physics the balance has changed from observation confirming theories (e.g. the existence of the electrons and other microvariables postulated by atomists) to theories being confirmed by empirical measurements (general relativity and quantum mechanics) to purely theoretical concepts (e.g. superstrings, eternal inflation), based on entirely conceptual and theoretical arguments devoid of direct empirical accessible content. In the process, the phenomenal (e.g., electric and magnetic field, atoms) has been increasingly marginalized and the best theories are removed from our intuition (e.g. the position and momentum of any one particle is uncertain, deterministic laws are replaced by fundamental indeterminacy, objects can be here and there, collisions create an infinite of virtual particles). In other words, over the last two centuries in physics the the conceptual distance between empirical signatures and the fundamental theory has become very large indeed. For example, the Higgs boson is never directly observed (due to its brief life-time) but its existence is inferred from the tracks (and gaps) of the statistics of collisions of intermediate particles with specific signatures. In an aside, Dawid comments on the uncertain ontological status of other universes (e.g. under the eternal inflation scenario, with distinct physical laws to ours and causally not interacting with our universe). They belong to a peculiar class of objects that are epistemically inaccessible to us but that have some conceptually characteristics of observable objects. Will a fundamental theory of consciousness, such as IIT, share some of the characteristics of string theory? For instance, will it make predictions that can’t be empirically verified? Will such a theory postulate theoretical entity that can’t be directly observed? Note that conscious minds share some properties with the uncountable universes postulated by eternal inflation (i.e., the Multiverse) – they are epistemically inaccessible to my consciousness but have some observable properties (via their physical manifestation in brains and their behaviors).
Dying of the Light by George R. Martin (1977) *****
One of my all-time favorite SF novels (that I first read in its excellent German translation Die Flamme erlischt), taking place in the abandoned cities and forests of the planet Worlorn, slowly becoming uninhabitable as its trajectory moves away from the star that for a few centuries provided it sustenance, into the interstellar night. Geo-transformed to celebrate a dozen different civilizations from nearby star systems, the planet now plays host to various forlorn people who chose to remain behind. A strong sense of melancholy and doom pervades the novel and animates its flawed heroes and anti-heroes battling each other, as life drains away under the dying of the light.
Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz (2014) **
Weak pastiche focused on the eponymous character from Arthur Conan Doyle’s oeuvre and certainly not written in a style somebody at home in the late 19th century would ever user. Surprising, as the author is the lead writer for the superb BBC TV series Foyle’s War.
The Big Short – Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (2010) *****
Despite its rip-roaring style, this NYT’s bestseller is remarkable lucid about the origins of the financial crash of 2008 caused by sub-prime mortgages, collateralized debt obligation and other financial instruments whose risks were little understood by the very people and institutions who created and sold them to a willing public. The author, a financial journalist who worked for several years as a bond salesman, keeps the action fast-paced and exciting by following the actions of a few individuals who, ultimately successfully, bet against this market. Wall Street comes out as totally unscrupulous, cynical and incompetent, engaging in socially-non-productive forms of gambling with vast sums that endanger the fabric of modern society. As acknowledged by the trader themselves, the game is rigged with profit privatized and risk socialized as witnessed by the bail-out of AIG, Goldman-Sachs and others by the US government in late 2008. The book and its successful movie adaptation feed the palpable public anger expressed by Donald Trump (on the right) and Bernie Saunders (on the left) in the run-up to the 2016 election. A powerful and well told story.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) ***
Fantasy, somewhere on the spectrum between allegory and myth. A beautiful told story of an elder and very tender couple, Beatrice and Axle, in post-Arthurian England in which Christian and Romanized Britons and the invading pagan Saxons have established an uneasy equilibrium. The land is covered by a mist that makes people forget. Thus, the couple tries to remember what happened to their son and go on a voyage to seek him out for they are sure he awaits them with joy. The novel has many fantastical elements – a dragon, ogres, knights of the realm – but is really about memories and forgetting and how both forces shape us in ways good and bad – memories of love-making, raising children and harmonious times clashing with memories of rancor, wounds and bitter disappointments. The amnesia that is central to the novel is both collective (King Arthur broke the peace treaty and slaughtered innocent Saxons) as well between the couple
If that’s how you’ve remembered it, Axl, let it be the way it was. With this mist upon us, any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.
The ending is ambiguous and, like the rest of the novel, not really satisfying, even though the novel contains passages of great literary power.
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross (2003) ****
A well-done combo of space opera, steam punk and cyberspace novel that plays several hundred years in the future in a distant planetary system in which an alien civilization (the Festival) brings advanced technology to a 19-th century industrial society modeled on Victorian England, telescoping a millennia of techno-social progress into a single month. Most interesting is the concept of the Eschaton, a god-like intelligence, descended from post-singularity humans, that enforces one absolute taboo – preventing closed time-like curves and the associated paradoxes (such as traveling backward in time and killing one’s own grandfather). The book kept my attention even during an emergency landing due to smoke in the airplane cabin, no mean feat!
The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison (2015) ****
A “thick” and engaging historical account of the origin of what we consider today science and religion. There are not natural kinds but constructed and contingent terms. Harrison’s analysis starts with Aristotle and Classical Greece, the Church Fathers and Scholastic philosophers for whom the linguistic precursor of these two terms, scientia and religio, did not denote bodies of knowledge and research methodologies but rather two distinct interior attitudes, habits of mind or virtues, either intellectual or spiritual ones. To wit, In an extended treatment of the virtues in the Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas observes that science (scientia) is a habit of mind or an “intellectual virtue”. The parallel with religio, then, lies in the fact that we are not used to thinking of both religion and science as systems of beliefs and practices, rather than conceiving of them primarily as personal qualities. And for us today the question of their relationship is largely determined by their respective doctrinal content and the methods through which that content is arrived at. The author argues that from Classical Athenes until the beginning of the Enlightenment, scientia and religio were not at all opposed to each other – unlike today where the two have a rather antagonistic relationship – that Plato, Aristotle and their students down the ages looked to the study of nature, in particular the mathematical study of the heaven, to contribute to the intellectual and moral formation of the philosopher (lover of wisdom) and to find confirmatory evidence of an ordered, and morally sound, universe (Aristotle consider theology the highest of the speculative sciences, concerned with the immortal, the divine in the cosmos). Of course, the ancients already recognized multiple “sciences” as distinct and systematic bodies of knowledge obtained via process of logical demonstration. These included the “liberal arts or sciences” grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The split of the Catholic Church during the reformation triggered the questioning of long-seated assumptions, gave rise to the Enlightenment and the concept of something we would recognize today as the concept of religion(s) (in the 17. century) and “science” (in the 19. century). Harrison is good at tracing word usages and changing attitudes over the last five hundred years, tracing how “science” gradually replaces “natural philosophy” and “biology” displaces “natural history” and how the term “scientist” — created by William Whewell in 1834 in Great Britain to describe students of the knowledge of the material world — rapidly gained in popularity. The book’s main weakness is an affection is shares with other critical cum post-modern historians and sociologists of science – an inability to admit that the notion of progress has an objective basis in physics, chemistry and biology. That modern theories of, say, the origin and composition of stars or of the working of the human brain are not just sophisticated games but are superior, in a measurable way, to older theories let alone to non-scientific accounts of these phenomena. None-the-less, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to other scientists interested to better understand the historical developments of what we mean by “science” and “scientist”.
Solar by Ian McEwan (2010) ***
A masterful satirical novel written from the point of view of an aging Nobel-laureate theoretical physicist who has to deal with his wife having an ego-bruising affair (in revenge for his numerous adulteries over the years), his inability to get his life in order and with the science of Global Warming. The writing is exceptional well-crafted and contains real nuggets about Climate Change, the modern academic endeavor (a hilarious scene when he encounters deconstructionists’ rabid take on the so-called scientific narrative) and life. Here we have the protagonist, having quickly gobbled down a piece of salmon at a reception, getting ready for his speech on the climate
While Beard sat crossed-kneed, with the customary frozen half-smile, pretending to listen to Saleel’s long and too-fulsome introduction, and even more so when at least he stood to bored applause and took his place behind the lectern, gripping tightly its edges in both hands, he felt an oily nausea as something monstrous and rotten from the sea stranded on the tidal mudflats of a stagnant estuary, decaying gaseously in his gut and welling up, contaminating his breadth, his words, and suddenly his thoughts. “The planet,” he said, surprising himself, “is sick”.
McEwan is astute in describing at how easy it can be shift from being morally indecisive to doing evil (as one of Beard’s paramour says, “you’re not an entirely good person, nor am I”).
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1953) *
This is supposed to be the funniest book in the English language of the 20. century? Most of the time, I feel sorry for the pathetic protagonist. This novel can’t hold a candle to Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat or to Wodehouse’s Jeeves’ series.
Read in 2015
On the Nature of Things (de rerum natura) by Lucretius, translated by Frank Copley (1977) ****
An outstanding exposition of Epicurian philosophy, its physics and ethics, by a little known Roman writer living in the first century BCE. The text was lost until a medieval copy was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini in a Benedictine library in Germany (see my review of the retelling of this story by Greenblatt in “The Swerve” below). It is worthwhile to re-read this beautiful and evocative poem every few years for its celebration of the vitality of nature (the poem starts with evoking the power of Venus, goddess of fecundity) and how happiness can be found in the here and now. Human misery derives mainly from the dread of gods, the hereafter and death. Calm deliberation shows that the gods are not concerned in any way, shape or form with us (why would they?), so let them be and get on with living the only life that you possess. The poem exudes supreme rationality, denial of superstition, and views nature as constantly changing and evolving. Sex is natural and ought to be enjoyed. The universe is infinite, contains nothing but atoms and the void, and is indeterminate (grace of the swerve). It is remarkable how clear-sighted Lucretius expressed himself, more than two thousand years ago. Even today, such lucidity is only for the few.
As John Locke wrote in his journal at the end of the 16. century “The three great things that govern mankind are reason, passion, and superstition. The first governs a few, the two last share the bulk of mankind and possess them in their turn. But superstition most powerfully produces the greatest mischief.“ Two centuries onward, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor understands this mind-set well: “[T]he only three forces that are able to conquer and hold captive for ever the conscience of these weak rebels for their own happiness . . . are miracle, mystery, and authority.” Today, when contemplating candidates for high office and religious movements, not much has changed.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998) ****
Beautiful crafted and observed psychological vignettes from the life of three women – the English modernist novelist Virginia Woolf, an American housewife in 1950s Los Angeles and a successful editor, living with her lesbian partner in 1990s Greenwich Village. Three common threads running through all stories are unhappiness, Mrs. Dalloway and suicide. Compelling read even though the abulic stance of the three protagonists is a difficult one for me to project myself into. The book echoes the criticisms of the writer and activist Betty Friedan in her seminal The Feminine Mystique. The Hours was turned into a superb and subtle eponymous movie, very faithful to the original novel, with a haunting score by Philip Glass.
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (2015) **
Short fictions and disturbances. The short story about Sherlock Holmes keeping bees in a mountain region in Asia is superb and haunting. The remaining ones are passable, but no more.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2006) ****
My first Chinese SF novel, translated by Ken Lui in (2014) and winning that year’s Hugo Award. It starts out strong, with an account of the early phase of the horrific, convulsive event known as the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of 1967, in which millions of Chinese people died, many of them scientists and other intellectuals. The story involves contact with an alien civilization – Trisolarans – four light years out and the resultant effects on culture, religion and politics, with warring factions within society (some that wish to accelerate the coming of these Aliens to Earth). The basic premise makes one really think – the hallmark of a thinking’s person novel. Some of the dialogue and the personalities are a bit wooden. At times the writer adopts the point of view of the aliens (living in a near-chaotic solar system with three suns) that have basically human level motivations. The story never makes any attempt to explain how the problem of decoding messages from radical alien cultures is solved.
Death in a Prairie House – Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders by William Drennan (2007) ****
Academic account of the spectacular 1914 murder of Wright’s then mistress, her two children and four workers by the axe-yielding butler, who had locked some of his intended victims inside the dining room, poured in gasoline and lit it. This took place at Wright’s famous prairie home Taliesin/Wisconsin, which burned to the ground. Drennan argues that this traumatic event fundamentally changed Wright’s outlook on architecture and brought an end to his optimistic Prairie house and the associated Art and Crafts movement. His subsequent buildings became defensive and turned inward, away from engagement with nature. The text cites a beautiful poem that expressed the bucolic outlook of the Art and Craft movement
I dreamed of Paradise - and still, Though sun lay soft on vale and hill, And trees were green and river bright The one dear thing that made delight By sun and stare or eden weather Was just that we two were together.
Inferno by Dan Brown (2013) ****
A breath-taking thriller as only Brown writes them, constructed around the textual and allegorical content of Dante’s Divine Comedy with plenty of interspersed quotes from this epic poem
I am the shade
Through the dolent city, I flee
Through the eternal woe, I take flight
as well as very ominous, chthonic paraphrased fragments
It grows even now…waiting…simmering beneath the bloodred waters of the lagoon that reflects no stars…
I pray that the world remembers my name, not as a monstrous sinner, but as the glorious savior you know I truly am. I pray Mankind will understand the gift I leave behind.
My gift is the future
My gift is salvation
My gift is Inferno
Filled with the usual tropes of such thrillers, this one is smarter, darker and more compelling than most. The entire action takes places in under 24 hours in Florence, Venice and Constantinople. The living heart of the story is an unusual but acute moral dilemma that our overpopulated planet faces – for many wars and the environmental catastrophe that we are facing is entirely driven by our humanity’s too high fecundity.
The Martian by Andy Weir (2011) ****
The SF novel that was turned into a blockbuster Ridley Scott movie (his only SF flick that isn’t dark nor apocalyptic), with Matt Demon in the main role of astronaut Mark Tawney, who is unintentionally left behind when a NASA-sponsored Mars expedition has to rapidly evacuate the planet. Mark survives despite all odds by taking a relentless let’s-face-down-the-odds attitude –
I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.
No blubbering, despairing, “why me” lucubrations but an all-American (or should I say, all Leibnitzian) positive, if rough, attitude to life’s persistent challenges (such as running out of water or only having enough food for one month on a planet that is completely abiotic) that Matt solves with a rational attitude, a lot of mad science and duct tape (seriously). Two unexpected heroes that come to his rescue are the Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Chinese Space Program. A self-published novel by a programmer and space buff that is very funny, such as when he yells out in jubilation “In your face, Neil Armstrong” and his recurrent diatribes against the only music that he has access to – 1970s style disco.
Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K Dick (1960) ***
Another very prescient SF novel by the crazed Californian who died in near poverty. This one, that can be read in a single sitting, is about gigantic corporate bureaucracies that control entire continents, at least two competing AIs that conspires to take over the world and drones. The dialogue is wooden; not to be recommended for its literary exposition but for its idea, decades before they become more widespread.
The conquest of the Incas by John Hemming (1970) ****
The history of the fall of the magnificent Inca empire, the last great civilization living in splendid isolation from the rest of the planet and believed that it encompassed all lands, brought down in a single, terrible year with the arrival of the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro and his 180 men. It is a well-told history full of sound and fury, drama and hubris – think of 9/11 but with apocalyptic consequences for the indigenous people. The Inca emperor, Atahualpa, had just emerged victorious from a bloody civil war at the head of a million men strong-army; how could a mere handful of men threaten him? The book describes the events leading up to 1532, the various attempts by surviving Inca leaders following the murder of Atahualpa to fight the invaders and the tragic fate of most Indians, Inca or not. I read this book at the occasion of my visit to Lima, the capital of modern Peru, Cusco, the erstwhile capital of the Inca empire, and Machu Picchu. These events that took place almost half a millennium ago continue to resonate deeply in the history and in the culture of the country. The author, Hemming, is an explorer and anthropologist, emphatic toward the minds of the Indians and Spaniards who lived so long ago. The book is well researched and filled with detailed footnotes. A must-read when visiting Peru.
Mission to Paris by Alan First (2013) ***
Furst’s usual fare at the intersection of diplomacy and espionage in the dark days of pre-World War II in Paris, Berlin, Hungary and Morocco. Well-crafted and enjoyable to read, despite the dark theme of the coming war.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (2015) *****
Murakami returns to what he does best – terse story of a passive college going engineer – his dream is to build train stations – without powerful desires, unassertive, and compliant to his fate to be suddenly and abruptly cut off from his four closest friends. Many years later, he discovers the why. Enigmatic and compelling with only the faintest touch of supernatural, ghost-like elements. The story of the Jazz player with the “gift” within the novel is masterful and some phrases are divine as in the ending
He calmed himself, shut his eyes, and fell asleep. The rear light of consciousness, like the last express train of the night, began to fade into the distance, gradually speeding up, growing smaller until it was, finally, sucked into the depths of the night, where it disappeared. All that remained was the sound of the wind slipping through a stand of white birch trees.
The Universal Computer – The Road from Leibniz to Turing by Martin Davis (2000) ****
Very readable account of the search for a universal truth-calculus, the demise of this ancient dream and the consequential computer revolution this search birthed. Significant stops along the way include Leibniz, Boole, Frege, Cantor, Hilbert, Gödel, Turing and von Neumann. A more technical companion to the genre-defying adult comic Logicomix and much more engaging that Turing’s Cathedral (for my thoughts on both books, see below).
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (2012) ***
Grand space opera that takes place in that eponymous year in which may of the planets of our solar system have been terra-formed, asteroids have been turned into habitats and genetic engineering has created a plethora of human life forms. Not so compelling.
Selected Poems 1923 – 1967 by Jorge Luis Borges ****
As a long-time fan of his erudite, historical, philosophical, logico-scientific and fantastic prose, went I visited the city that formed him, Buenos Aires, I searched for and found this Spanish-English arrangement of his poetry, introduced by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The anthology contains many gems, such as his evocative Chess, that haunted me during much of my early adolescence and that ends in
God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
Of dust and time and sleep and agony?
Or his joyous Another Poem of Gifts that starts
I want to give thanks to the divine
Labyrinth of causes and effects
For the diversity of beings
That form this singular universe,
For Reason, that will never give up its dream
Of a map of the labyrinth,
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859) ****
Being a card-carrying neurobiologist for most of my professional life, I only managed now, on an Andean trekking trip to Maccu Piccu, to read what most would consider the single most important book ever published in the realm of ‘natural history’. Today, more than 150 years later, (neo)-Darwinian arguments suffuse our culture and constitute the bedrock of modern medicine and biology. Obviously, the discovery of vast eons of deep time by Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (Earth had to be 10s if not 100s of million years old rather than the 6,000 years inferred by biblical studies) had deeply influenced Darwin as he stressed the very slow, but inexorable, nature of natural selection in shaping new species. Unlike his intellectual competitor, Alfred Wallace, Darwin was a close student of domestication, gardening and animal breeding and frequently compared natural selection with artificial selection (even if the breeders did not consciously set out to create a new species). He neatly summarizes his theory as “multiply, vary and select”; that is, every species produces vastly more off-spring that can survive into sexual maturity, the attributes of all of these vary somewhat randomly, such that only the ones most adapted survive (due to a combination of natural and sexual selection). He only alludes incidentally to human species, yet makes clear that he does not accord homo sapiens any special dispensation from the laws of natural selection. Remarkably, the theory was conceived in the absence of any knowledge of the molecular mechanisms underlying inheritance. I did find one peculiar blind-spot due to his unconscious allegiance to Lyell’s uniformitarianism – Darwin argues that extinctions are common but very slow. Of course, there were plenty of abrupt, human-caused extinctions even back in the mid-19 century – in particular the “Great Auks” , flightless but graceful swimming birds from Newfoundland and Iceland and tortoises from the Galapagos Islands (this was prior to the discovery of mass extinctions). Wonderful quotable material abounds. To wit,
When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labor, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!
as well as the classic ending of this book,
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
At the risk of sounding sacrilegiously, I found the book “tough reading”, with long and convoluted sentences, lots of repetitions, and a single lone drawing in the 500-page oeuvre to lighten the load. The text is quite comprehensible, it just demands focused and sustained attention of the sort we’re not used to anymore.
The Invaders – How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction by Pat Shipman (2015) *****
Eminently readable scholarly book. It is a careful reasoned search for causes of the extinction of Neanderthals, who lived in Europe (as north as Wales, as south as Israel and as far east as the Caucasus) from roughly 200,000 to 30,000 BCE. Their disappearance overlaps with the emergence of modern humans from Africa (between 40,000 and 32,000 BCE) who settled in the area as Neanderthal. Given man’s rapacious nature, an obvious hypothesis is that our direct ancestors caused the demise of our cousins. Yet there is no or only scant direct evidence of Neanderthal killings by modern men but genetic evidence for interbreeding and raised the offspring of homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Shipman is very deliberate, analyzing the climate, comparing diets, caloric needs (the Neanderthal had higher ones due to their more muscular frame), studying bone fragments archeological sites. She concludes that homo sapiens was most likely a more efficient hunter (as witnessed by Mammoth graveyards) due to two factors – firstly, the invention of long-distance projectile weapons, such as lances – secondly, the domestication of wolfs around 40,000 years ago. She offers the tantalizing hypothesis that two apex predators, rather than directly competing with each other, learned to cooperate, to the lasting benefits of both. Shipman hypothesizes that the ability of these carnivores to infer the direction of gaze of both con-specifics (facilitated by their white iris) as well as the gaze of humans enabled them to silently and swiftly communicate when hunting in large packs. Today, after 10,000 generations of selective breeding (conscious or not), the wolf has turned into 100s of distinct breeds of canes domesticus – common to all of these canines is their attention to every one of our gestures and their ability to read our faces, an unique case of inter-species communication. Shipman concludes that Neanderthal, under severe stress due to a climate that became colder and drier, was outcompeted by teams of humans and their wolf-dogs. A great read.
The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) ***
The third book I consumed while in Peru on extinction, this one on mass extinction and their scientific discovery by George Cuvier in the first half of the 19. Century (in opposition to the gradualism advocated by the geologist Lyell and Darwin). Today, we know of five major “abrupt” mass extinction events punctuating life’s history on this planet, the best known one caused by a 10-20 km sized asteroid impacting the Yucatan one fateful morning 65 million years BCE, and causing the demise of more than half of all species, including all non-avian dinosaurs and all ammonites (of course, this impact also created the relative clean slate that allowed mammals to thrive and expand). Modern biology and geology is, of course, a combination of imperceptible changes over ten and hundreds of millions of years punctuated by abrupt catastrophes. This popular account by a journalist focuses on the contemporary human-triggered sixth extinction that will wipe out large swath of species by the end of this century with unknown consequences for the planet and ourselves. We are indeed entering the Anthropocene, the age of man – the sheer destructiveness and venality of our species knows few bounds.
Beyond the Influence – Understanding and Defeating Alcoholism by Ketchum, Asbury, Schulstad and Ciaramicoli (2000) **
Reasonable overview of alcoholism without trying to push any one therapy unlike the vast majority of books in this field. Although the book focuses on the ‘alcoholism as disease’ school of thought, it doesn’t neglect other approaches. I find its approach to trying to distinguish social drinkers from problem drinkers from alcoholic less than satisfying as it doesn’t lend itself to clear diagnostic criteria. Although it often alludes to AA, it doesn’t really discuss their strengths and weaknesses.
Drugs without the Hot Air – Minimizing the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs by David Nutt (2012) ****
Terse, no-nonsense summary of what we know about psychoactive drugs – from the legal coffee, nicotine and alcohol, to the controlled – prescription drugs – to the illegal – marijuana, LSD, cocaine, ecstasy, heroine and amphetamines. Nutt is a professor of neuro-psychopharmacology at Imperial College in London and is famed for being the scientists who was sacked in 2009 by the British Home Secretary because he publicly compared the overall harm and mortality of horse-riding (comparatively high) with taking ecstasy (comparatively low). His is a rational approach – what is the overall harm from any psychoactive substance, what it their addictive potential and so on, independent of historical and cultural forces. For instance, he and a panel of experts evaluated the overall mortality at the population level (not on a per use scale) on a scale from 1 to 100 with mushrooms and LSD in the low single digits, cocaine in the 30s, alcohol, crack and crystal meth in the 70s, tobacco with its huge burden of fatal illnesses from cancer and heart attack at 90 and heroin assigned the top score of 100. They used various objective measures (e.g., days in hospital, car accidents due to alcohol or drug usage, domestic abuse and violence etc.) to come up with a final score (0-100) for overall societal harm (for the UK): again, the psychedelics (mushrooms, LDS and ecstasy) are below 10 (they are non-addictive as they don’t involve the dopamine pathway), tobacco a 26, cocaine a 27, crack and heroine a 55 and alcohol topping the scale at 72. Most notably, there is zero correlation between the legal status of these drugs and their overall harm. Even though smoking is on the way out, we still have a long way to go in terms of a rational approach to harmful substances, starting with that one drug most of consume every day – booze!
Madame Bovary’s Ovaries – A Darwinian Look at Literature by David and Manella Barash (2005) ****
A psychology professor and his daughter consider some classic novels from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. Think of it as “crit lit” in the light of Darwin. What justifies Othello’s jealousy in the eponymous play? Why do Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet in Pride and Prejudice behave the way they do and how does their courtship reflect differential male versus female reproductive strategies? What explains male-on-male violence in The Godfather and how is it modulated by genetic connections and parent-offspring rivalry? This delightful mixture of literature and science reminds us all of our fancy behaviors, our love sonnets, bouquets of roses and lucubrations, are ultimately meant to assure one thing – the perpetuation of our DNA. Nothing less and nothing more. Everything else is gravy.
Do No Harm – Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (2014) *****
A very honest, dark and eminently readable memoire of an English neurosurgeon operating in a large London hospital. Each chapter is organized around a singular pathology of the central nervous system, many of them diverse forms of tumors that brain tissue can host. The tome’s style is set by the opening quote by one Rene Leriche
Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.
What is remarkable but also disturbing about the writing is Marsh’s focus on the patients that died – because the surgery didn’t make any significant difference to their preordained outcome, because of “complications” or, most jarring, because of a pure and simple mistake. He agonizes over the uncertainty of whether the procedure will make any difference to the eventual fate of the patient, simply prolonging the agony, or it will give the patient to a few more months or years of good living. Given the very delicate nature of operating with very razor-sharp instruments in a dark place with only millimeters of room to maneuver, these procedures are risky. The book effectively does away with the trope of neurosurgeon’s infallibility. Marsh is a powerful and angry writer, railing against computers, the British NHS (National Health Service) and insurances, about his failures and his impending retirement.
Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome Jerome (1889) *****
Among the funniest books ever written, it recounts a two week boating trip in a rowing boat along the river Thames in England and the various mishaps that ensue to the author and his two buddies. The humor has aged remarkable well. As an example, here the fourth companion, a fox terrier, seeks to help them with preparing a stew
I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.
I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose indeed!
Superintelligence – Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom (2014) ****
We are in the midst of a revolution in machine intelligence, the art and engineering practices that let computers do tasks that, until recently, could only be done by people. Examples include software that identifies faces at border-crossings and matches it against passports or that labels people and objects in images posted to social media, algorithms that can teach themselves to play Atari video games or a camera and chip embedded into the front view-mirror of top-of-the-line sedans that let it drive autonomously on the open road. What separates these agents from earlier success stories, such as IBM’s Deep Blue that beat the world’s reigning chess champion in 1997 and IBM’s Watson that accomplished the same for the quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011, is that they are taught by trial and error. Based on insights derived from the way animals and people learn and analysis of the underlying brain circuits, theorists developed supervised learning algorithms – the software is shown an image and depending on whether or not it correctly identifies the face or increases the video game score, parameters internal to the program (so-called ‘synaptic weights’) are adjusted minutely. Such machine learning, if done over trillions of machine cycles (yes, it is very compute intensely), can lead to systems that match or, in some cases, exceed human performance metrics. And, of course, the algorithm never gets distracted, tired or complains (see “Intelligence without sentience” in the July issue of Scientific American Mind). Within a decade, such instances of weak or narrow artificial intelligence (AI), will permeate society – driver-less cars and trucks will become the norm and our interactions at the supermarket, in hospitals and industry, in offices and financial markets will be dominated by narrow AI. The torrid pace of these advances will put severe stress on society to peacefully deal with the attendant problems of un-employment (the US trucking industry alone employees several million drivers) and growing inequality. Obscured by this razzle-dazzle progress is how far away we remain from strong or general AI, comparable to the intelligence of the proverbial person in the street who can navigate a car, hurtle on skis down a mountain slope, carries on a conversation about pretty much any topic – often in two or more languages – plays a variety of games, serves on a jury and plans for retirement decades in the future. Hampering our ability to design general AI is the embarrassing fact that we don’t understand what we mean by “intelligence”. This makes any predictions of when we will achieve strong AI fraught with uncertainty (although, for the record, the majority of experts believe this will happen before the century is over, assuming current trends continue). Superintelligence is concerned with the afterwards. Its author, Nick Bostrom, is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University with a background in physics and neuroscience. He is concerned with understanding and mitigating emerging risks that affect the very survival of the human species – full-blown nuclear warfare, massive climate change, synthetic biology, nano-technology or runaway machine intelligence. Superintelligence is compelling but also scary reading about the latter. The distribution of intelligence across any representative population is bell-shaped, with dumb jocks at one end and geniuses at the other. It is even possible that over the last millennia or two, the average level of intelligence has increased, given the improved access to good nutrition and stimulating environments early on in childhood when the brain is maturing. But there is no natural law that stipulates that humans are as intelligent as possible. Indeed, Homo sapiens is plagued by superstitions and short-term thinking (consider elected politicians, many drawn from our elites, to whom we entrust our long-term future). We can all agree that humanity’s ability to reason, to image, to build and to plan, in short our intelligence, can improve. And what is true of the biological variety should also be true of its artificial counterpart. There is no discernible principle that would prevent emergence of an artificial super intelligence. Indeed, given competition among national states or among private corporations, organizations engaged in AI research will seek ever smarter machines that out-perform the opposition and maximize their own gain. This is likely to involve the ability of machines to self-improve by trial-and-error and by reprogramming their own code. What might happen then was first pointed out by the mathematician I.J. Good in a memorable passage in 1965
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.
Bostrom considers different forms of superintelligence – both qualitative ones, say Albert Einstein versus a retard, collective ones, a team of Einstein-level geniuses, or quantitative ones, such as an intelligence that invents the theory of general relativity within an hour of first thinking about the fundamental nature of space time rather than the decade that it took Einstein to develop the theory. For Bostrom’s reckoning of existential risks, it doesn’t much matter as long as the AI can outthink people. And there might be no warning signs of it exceeding human intelligence, nothing like the sonic boom first heard above California’s skies in 1947 when the X-1 first broke the sound barrier, to herald the birth of a super intelligent AI. The bulk of Bostrom’s book is concerned with the evolution of such entities (will there be many or will a single malevolent AI emerge at a planetary scale?), elucidating their possible motivations and how to erect safeguards against threatening outcomes for humanity. What motivates such a machine does not depend on how smart it is, but on its final goals. There are obvious dangers here – an AI designed to maximize return-on-investments at all costs could well trigger war or some other calamity and thereby rake in untold billions by hedging stocks in the affected industries while a military AI connected to our network of nuclear-tipped missiles could unleash a devastating preemptive first-strike on the principle that waiting longer would maximize the number of its own citizen dying in nuclear hellfire. More insidious are goals that the AI achieves in ways never intended by the original programmers. Take a benign superintelligence that seeks to make everybody as happy as possible – it might do so by implanting electrodes into the brain’s pleasure centers, as that will deliver jolts of pure orgasmic gratification. But do we really want to end up as wire-heads? Or what about the innocent paper-clip-maximizing-AI that turns the entire planet and everything on its surface into gigantic, paper-clip making factories? Upps. Given humanity’s own uncertainty as to its final goals – Being as happy as possible? Fulfilling the dictum of some holy book so you end up in heaven? Sitting on a mountaintop and humming Om through nostrils while being mindful? Settling the galaxy? – we want to move very deliberate here. Things turn out no easier when considering how to control such entities. The best-known rules do not come from roboticists, computer scientists or philosophers but from the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The first of his three laws of robotics (invented more than 70 years ago!) states “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” While this appears reasonable, it turns out to be inadequate for dealing with life’s messiness. Thus, the raison detreat any army is the possibility of quickly and effectively incapacitating large number of opposing soldiers to prevent a greater evil from coming to pass. Should a superintelligence therefore forestall all armed conflict? Should this AI shut down pollution-producing industries to counter global warming at the cost of a decade-long world-wide depression? Does the first law apply to unborn fetuses and to patients in coma? Designing restraints for an AI, what Bostrom calls the control problem, amounts to picking a set of ethical rules and implementing these into specific laws and instructions. Traditionally, that is the job of the political systems and the courts, designing and enforcing the written and unwritten code that govern society. These are often at conflict with each other – the powerful ‘though shall not kill’ edict is routinely violated on the battlefield, on death row, in abortion clinics and in slaughter-houses. And as history shows, people have difficulties agreeing on any one system – should the AI follow the US constitution, rules laid down by the Chinese communist party, or those of an advanced welfare state such as Sweden? What Bostrom’s book highlights is the urgent need for a science of intelligence, as compared to the pure engineering of machine learning algorithms. For that we need to study people and their brains – what makes a person intelligent, able to deal with a complex world that is in a constant change of flux? How does intelligence develop throughout infancy, childhood and adolescent? How much does intelligence depend on being embedded in social groups? What is the relationship between intelligence and emotion, and intelligence and motivation. And what about consciousness? Will it make a difference to the AI’s action if it feels something, anything, if it too can experience the sights and sounds of the universe? How did intelligence evolve? What is the brain basis of intelligence? Bostrom’s speculation, only constrained by the laws of physics, are of little help here. But in a field delimited by science fiction novels and movies – and thereby brought to public attention – Nick Bostrom is among the first philosophers who has taken on these questions that humanity will sooner or later have to answer.
Particle Accelerators: From Big Bang Physics to Hadron Therapy by Ugo Amaldi (2015) ***
A compelling account of elementary particle physics from one of the project leaders of LEP at CERN, the precursor to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), that I read on a transatlantic flight. Unlike other books, Particle Accelerators focuses on the machine builders, their motivations and competitive juices, for it is usually the theoreticians that receive all the public adulation. The culminating event is, of course, the announcement on July 4. 2012 at CERN in Geneva by the leaders of the two experiments, CMS and ATLAS, of the certain (within 5 sigma, or better than 1 in 3.5 million odds) discovery of the Higgs boson with an energy of 125 GeV. It is a triumph of human ingenuity and organization, involving more than 6,000 physicists and engineers, billions of Euros, the construction of the largest and most complex machine ever built – and all of it done voluntarily, without the hope of making a quick buck or generating a big bang. The measurement at the LHC confirms the Standard Model of physics, that unifies the three fundamental forces using 24 matter-particles (of which only the proton, the neutron and the electron are familiar from high school science), 12 force-particles (including the well-known photon) and the Higgs boson. Confirming the existence of the Higgs, acting as a field that provides particles with mass, is a triumph for the scientific, empirically verifiable, rational investigation into nature that started about 2,600 years ago with Anaximader and other Ionian philosophers. Yet the Standard Model leaves about 20 quantities (or degrees of freedom) that can’t be computed from first principle, hardly very elegant. Physics has no certainty of what to expect at the even higher proton-proton collision energies that the LHC is generating now. And no theory properly accounts for the 68% of the universe’s matter-energy matrix that is dark energy, nor the 27% that is dark matter. Most theoreticians put their faith in String Theory and its intellectual spawn (such as M-theory), an empirically untestable mathematical artifact that “predicts” an uncountable number of universes (collectively known as the Multiverse), each one with slightly different physics. To me, this is poetry, but not natural science.
Er ist wieder da by Timur Vermes (2012) **
In this political satire published in German (translated into English as ‘Look who’s back’), Adolf Hitler wakes up in the middle of Berlin in a peaceful Germany under Angela Merkel in the summer of 2011. His uniform, still smelling of gasoline, is a reminder of his fiery suicide in April 1945. Now, inexplicably, he is resurrected, as hell-bent as ever in saving the German people from Jews, foreign influences and Anglo-American capitalism and restoring Aryan purity. Written entirely as an deadpan inner monologue, with no irony, filled with his hilarious encounters with the peculiarities of modern life – from multiple TV cooking shows to dog-walkers that pick up the poop of their charges – and existing politicians, the book portraits his rise to reality-show cum performance artist media darling. I often caught myself laughing out loud, quickly followed by guilt at the realization that the gag was funny due to the ironic juxtaposition of the banal with the monstrous, some out of context narcissistic comment that reveals Hitler’s callousness (as when he reflects that Providence doesn’t expect him to win a World War on the first or the second try). Bitter.
A Fish Caught in Time – The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg (2000)
Fossil Fish Found Alive – Discovering the Coelacanth by Sally Walker (2002)
A detailed account of the dramatic, real-life discovery of this man-sized ‘living fossil’ (the last known Coelacanth died out about 66 million years ago) by Courtenay-Latimer and Smith in South Africa in 1938 (the latter, an ichthyologist, named it after her and the river where it was found, Latimeria Chalumnae), the hunt for a second specimen found 14 years later, the observation of the first living coelacanth off the cost of the Comoro Island by a German submersible in 200 meter depth in 1987, and the discovery of a second species of Coelacanth around Indonesia in 1998. DNA analysis has confirmed that they are not ancestral to the tetrapod (and thus to us). That honor belongs to the lungfish. Weinberg’s account reads like an adventure story and waxes quite poetically. To wit,
Humans beings must appear mere parvenus in the ledgers of coelacanth history. Our important events, from learning to make stone tools to walking on the moon, are but a small bleep to the silent witness at the bottom of what we presume to call “our” oceans. It is comforting to imagine the coelacanth swimming quietly around, watching all of the crazy things that take place, surviving far greater holocausts than those we have known, and continuing to exist after this extraordinary duration of time.
Whether they will survive homo sapiens is a different matter, as both species are considered to be critically endangered. The second book is mainly a photographic book of this fascinating creature, much of it captures by underwater submersible.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007) ****
Short, terse almost existentialist novel, essentially a single monologue, taking place at a restaurant in Lahore/Pakistan between the protagonist and his guest, a possible CIA agent sent to eliminate him. This frame story never makes it clear, keeping the tension high. The story the protagonist tells is his story – the rise of the educated, middle class young man, who attends Princeton on a full fellowship, subsequently joins a Wall Street financial firm, falls in love with a Manhattanite who can’t overcome the death of her previous boyfriend and who ultimately kills herself, the events following 9/11 and the consequential disillusionment of the protagonist with American Imperial attitudes and his return to Pakistan. Really extraordinary writing conveyed in few words.
The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt by John Ray (2007) ***
Brief account of this iconic stelae, found by Napoleon’s officers in 1798 in the town of Rosetta in the delta of the Nile, and then quickly acquired by Nelson’s victorious navy and brought to London, and its trilingual declaration of a tax write-off that the Macedonian ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy V, gave to the Egyptian priesthood in 196 BCE. The upper script, the actual hieroglyphic text, was only for the Gods and the more educated parts of the priesthood to read. The middle one is in demotic, the standard script at the time for day-to-day affairs in Egypt and from which later on Coptic would evolve. The lower script was in Greek. A number of these stone statues were placed in Egyptian temples throughout the land. By the end of the 4. century BCE, the light of classical Egyptian culture faded (the last known example of a hieroglyph dates from 394 CE) and almost five millennia of literature, law, religion, mathematics and culture become enigmatic, mute mementos cast in stone and papyrus of a mighty culture that had perished in the sands of time. It is only with the modern decipherment of hieroglyphs by the French child prodigy and philologist Jean-Francois Champollion in the 1820s that this vast treasure house of knowledge became available to mankind again. This singular act also marks the birth of modern Egyptology. The author vividly describes the historical context of the stone and its inscription, how this mixture of phonetic and idiographic signs language was deciphered and some of the most important or interesting documents that have been subsequently discovered and translated. Great read; reminds me of my teenager years when I devoured books about the romantic age of archeological discovery.
The Unwinding – An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (2013) ***
An uneven journalistic account of the economic precarity of the modern world. It follows a handful of individuals, detailing their struggles and aspirations, their many attempts to reinvent themselves and their continual inability to attain some semblance of societal and financial stability, interspersed by short bios of very successful Americans. The evocative title refers to the “unwinding” of an unwritten contract of the 20. and early 21. century – that if you work hard enough, follow the laws, there is a place at the table for you. However, the book amounts to little more than the impressions of a handful of individuals; it is marred by the lack of any serious analysis, or theoretical underpinning.
Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2014) ****
Grand or macro-history a la Arnold Toynbee or Jared Diamond, seeking to understand the connection between history and biology, whether there is necessity or justice in history, the deep structure of religious belief and how these evolve as the environment changes, the fantastic breath and diversity of human cultures and why some predominate at any one place and time (how come the culture from a frigid peninsula on the eastern edge of the African-Asian continent, obscure until the mid-16th century, lead to Western thought becoming the de factor planet-wide standard?). This exceedingly well written tome, glittering with fascinating asides, places the beginning of human history – what we simply think of as history, when one unremarkable primate species, homo sapiens, organized itself as hunter-gatherers in ways truly different from other species around 70,000 BCE. This essential modern man outcompeted other human species, in particular Neanderthal, and then settled in quick succession, Asia, Europe, Australia and, finally, the Americas. Harari calls the trigger for this eruption after two million years of unremarkable existence of members of the genus homo in Africa the “Cognitive revolution” – that is, Sapiens ability to believe in imaginary things – gods, ghosts and goblins, heaven, hell, Marxism, money, limited liability corporation, the nation state, universal rights and so on. None of these exists in a physical sense. These shared fictions – no other species has them – allow people to greatly accelerate the time scale of evolution and organize in large, eventually planet-sized, groups of individuals that all share the same belief and act accordingly (e.g. most everybody appears to believe that happiness comes from owning little pieces of marked paper). The two other seminal occurrences that shaped history are the “Agricultural revolution”, around 12,000 BCE which greatly expanded the scope and power of groups (albeit at the expense of the life expectancy and quality of life for the vast majority) and the “Scientific revolution” in the 17-th century – a marriage of capitalism, empire and the scientific method. This led to the emergence of the present state of affairs, most visible at Alamogordo and in the birth of the internet, with one quasi-religion, the belief in the wisdom of little-regulated markets, dominating world-wide (in this view, ISIS, al-Qaeda and so on are read-guard actions, speed-bumps on the highway of history). Harari eschews the notion that the sweep of history – from 1,000s of local cultures and languages to a dominant mono-culture with lots of variants – increases human happiness. Historical processes are not concerned with individuals who are too ignorant or too weak to affect these decisively. Harari – a professor of history at the Hebrew University – has a dark view of human nature, repeatedly emphasizing the vast destruction homo sapiens has wrought to the environment and fellow animals (starting with the demise of the mega fauna in Australia and America by hunter-gatherers and the sixth mass extinction occurring right now) and continues to do (40 billion sentient birds and mammals are kept under atrocious conditions to feed mankind’s ravenous hunger). He is not sanguine about the future of the species, given the possibility of intelligently designed life (cyborgs, brain-machine interfaces), leaving behind all constraints of organic evolution, and the possibility of artificial intelligence rapidly overtaking the nature type. His parting thoughts are
Moreover, despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all of that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding eco-system, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?
Saving Simon – How a Rescue Donkey Taught Me the Meaning of Compassion by Jon Katz (2014) **
A warm-hearted story of a donkey – very perceptive creatures – who the author saved from death by neglect and starvation and raised on his farm in upstate New York that hosts horses, sheep, and shepherding dogs, what the donkey teaches the author about forgiveness and about the bond between human and animals. Less analytical than matter-of-fact from a person who cares deeply about animals and their wellbeing.
Read in 2014
The Story of the Human Body – Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel Lieberman (2013) ***
Fascinating evolutionary account by Lieberman, a Harvard Biology professor, of how humans evolved over the last 6 million years that separates us from the point in time when we last shared a common ancestor with our closest extant cousins, chimpanzees. It details the prime feature that first set us apart, bipedalism, probably because it allowed us to forage more efficiently and to reduce the cost of walking. The bulk of the book is given over to the evolutionary mismatch hypothesis: we evolved for one particular environmental niche – the African savanna, running and eating a diet consisting of nuts, fruits and roots, supplemented by occasional meats – but now experience a very different environment – rich diets combined with little physical activity. Lieberman details, in page after page, many of the ills that modern Men is prey to – diabetes II and obesity, heart disease, flat feet and weak knees, erupting teeth and cavities, myopia, osteoporosis, an increase in allergies and a host of other civilizational diseases. The argument is not that the Paleolithic environment was a romantic Eden to which we should return (although hunter-gatherers probably lived longer and healthier lives than agricultural societies with their infectious diseases and lack of hygiene, an argument made much earlier by Jared Diamond) but that modern life imposed costs on our bodies, only some of which we can efficiently deal with in an instrumental manner (myopia by using corrective glasses, infectious diseases via vaccination, bad and crooked teeth by dentistry and so on). Many others require lifestyle changes – being more active and eating a more fibrous and salubrious food.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013) ****
A rousing adventure story of how nine young and poor University of Washington undergraduates manages to learn to excel at eight-oar crew, beat California and East Coast elite college teams and go on to Berlin and win the Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympic games under the eyes of Adolf Hitler. The book provides good historical context, both the Depression-era desperation that drove these young men as well as the back story of how Hitler, Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl – possibly the greatest female film director of the 20. Century – exploited the games to demonstrate the modernity, efficiency and humanity of the Third Reich. The book also is a paean as to how nine disparate men, exploiting their diversity in character, emotional makeup and physique, can achieve something beyond the union of their efforts, something enables them to operate as a single integrated organ, something mystical that transcends them. The book is the literary equivalent of ‘Chariots of Fire’ for rowing.
Undiluted Hocus-Pocus by Martin Gardner (2013) ***
I loved Gardner’s Scientific American columns (and related books) on mathematics, meta-mathematics, Alice in Wonderland, games, logical puzzles, card tricks and anything else that would stimulate the mind. However, the style of his witty columns does not translate well to his autobiography.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (1999) ****
A vast historical, cryptoanalytic novel that alternates between a cast of American, English, German, Japanese and Chinese characters drawn from the Allied code breakers in Bletchley Park (including Alan Turing), the US-UK military unit meant to misdirect Axis forces as to the breaking of the Enigma and Japanese naval codes and disillusioned German submarine and coding experts in the years leading up to WWII and from 1939 to 1945 and their modern day descendants on the West Coast, Japan, the Philippines and some Pacific Islands trying to build a data haven secure from the eyes of the NSA and other government and private forces as well as a crypto-currency based on gold (a sort of proto Bit coin). Filled with arcane and obscure knowledge about computer coding, operating systems, encryption and information theory, military history and hideous Japanese wartime atrocities, the novel is irreverent, funny, nerdy, long (>900 pages) and, at times, elegiac. I loved it.
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami (2014) ***
A typical Murakami short story – a combo of a Grimms’ fairytales and a Borges novella – lavishly illustrated.
Bad Religion – How we became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat (2012) **
The NYT’s columnist writes on how modern Christianity in the US has become a debased version of its original faith. It panders to entertainment, to our egos and lifestyles to maximize the number of clients. It requires little real commitment from its adherents outside some cultural affinity and practices. He advocates for a return to authentic faith.
Death & the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler (2013) ****
What would change in your life if you knew that 30 days after your death sometimes in the future, Earth and every single being on it would be wiped out by collision with an asteroid? What would you do differently? Would activities and pleasures lose their meaning? And what would change if you knew that starting today, no more babies would be born to anybody, that mankind would abruptly become infertile? How would this second scenario affect desires, your dreams, your plans? The philosopher Scheffler uses these two thought experiments to argue that what happens after we die (the continuing existence of humanity after our death is what he refers to as the “collective afterlife”) may be more important to us psychologically than us not dying. For despite the fact that we all know we will die, we can still live full and meaningful lives. But it is not at all certain that we could do so under the doomsday or the infertility scenarios (witness P.D. James’s book and the associated Alfonso Cuaron movie The Children of Men or A.C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End). Thought provoking.
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric (1945) ***
The novel for which Andric was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1961. It is the life story of a bridge across a river in modern day Bosnia, from its construction by the Turks in the middle of the 16. century to its destruction in the opening days of World War I. The story revolves around the relations and destinies of the local inhabitants, a mixture of Muslims, Orthodox Christians Serbs, and Jews living in the Ottoman and, later, Austro-Hungarian empires. Just underneath the surface are the ever-present ethnic tensions that periodically explode – as they did again in World War II and in the bitter Balkans war following the break-up of Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th Century.
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (2006) ****
A powerful, angry sermon against monotheistic religions – especially Christianity and Islam – by a philosopher and scientist. His fundamental position is “ENOUGH already”. Religion in all of its guises and forms is a pathology of human thought that has caused untold death and misery. It must be eliminated in order for humanity to have a shot at the future and to prevent the unraveling of civilization that we see around us. Written in the form of a polemical letter, the essay takes a take-no-prisoner attitude and rips into all the niceties that are never questioned in polite society – how rational or justifiable are religious beliefs when divorced from their cultural context and examined in the cold light of reason (virginal birth, drinking the blood of Christ, the goodness of God)? We laugh about the silly Greeks offering prayers to Zeus but accept invocations of modern deities at public ceremonies. This is no calm and dispassionate analysis of what ails society, or of the many beneficial aspects of religion – the solace and the meaning it provides to people in a world that they neither understand nor control – but a bitter and sardonic diatribe that raises many troubling points, including the problem of theodicy. The essay struck a nerve as I grew up in a devout Catholic family and raised my children in this faith. It took me until the mid-40s to shake my faith because of the immense cognitive hurdles that make it so difficult to transcend one’s own beliefs and implicit background assumptions, in particular if one if immersed in them from early childhood onward (does the fish see the water it swims in?). These shared values are accepted as natural and are never questioned – whether they pertain to the holding of slaves, the subjugation of women, the raising of sentient animals under horrendous conditions to eat their flesh, or the war on terror. It is only later, when one emerges from the mythos like from a dream and realizes that it is logically incoherent, not in accordance with one own experience, in fact may even be unethical, that one questions why one held these things to be true and self-evident for so long in the first place.
The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke (1956) *****
A sweeping science fiction novel like they don’t write them anymore (except for Matter, by Ian Banks, see below). I first encountered this book – set in the far future when only two cities, completely isolated from each other, survive in the desert environment of Earth – as a teenager. It was inspirational then and still is so today. This novel, that introduces the idea of uploading one’s brain including editing one’s autobiographical memories, into a computer for later reconstitution, has stood the test of time.
Giordano Bruno – Philosopher/Heretic by Ingrid Rowland (2008) ***
An engaging intellectual biography of one of the more enigmatic figures of the beginning Enlightenment, The Nolan (From Nola, a small town outside Naples) Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, professor, philosopher, magician and astrologer. He was a peripatetic wanderer in Europe during the Reformation (Italy, France, England, Germany), a powerful orator whose prodigious feats of memorization (he wrote on mnemonic techniques) brought him fame. Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition and burned at the stake in 1600. A child of his time, he was an unconventional thinker, a proto-scientist, a pantheist – according to him not only men but also beasts had souls – and a Copernican who took the astronomer’s idea even further, arguing for the existence of multiple worlds in an infinite cosmos ” The universe is then one, infinite, immobile…. It is not capable of comprehension and therefore is endless and limitless, and to that extent infinite and indeterminable, and consequently immobile.”
Leibniz – An Intellectual Biography by Maria Rosa Antognazza (2009) ***
A gargantuan and magisterial tome, detailing the intellectual pursuit of the polymath – he was the first to conceive of binary numbers and the co-discoverer of integral calculus – physicist, engineer, philosopher – witness his teaching on monads – historian, lawyer, court diplomat and last Renaissance man who knew pretty much everything there was to know at his time (1646-1716) the German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. His life quest was to show that the variety and multiplicity of all things can be reduced to unity. Unfortunately, the writing of the author – a professional philosopher – does not reflect the brilliance of the man being portrayed. While dryness is appreciated in a white wine, it is detrimental to writing.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (2014) ***
I’m glad I’ve only read Murakami’s most famous novel now, as otherwise I never would have discovered his subsequent more intriguing and mature, later books. A Bildungsroman – even though it’s not clear that Watanabe, the protagonist, has actually learned anything – that deals with the aftermath of several suicides, coming of age in a college in 1969 Tokyo, some very funny sex, mental disease, loneliness, alienation and nostalgia for some vague sense of something that is lost, although it’s never clear what this something is. Murakami’s skills at fashioning an unmistakable atmosphere are very much apparent here.
No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald (2014) ***
A well written personal account of Greenwald’s involvement with Edward Snowden, from his first, unsuccessful attempt to establish contact with the US security policy critic, constitutional lawyer and journalist, to Greenwald’s trip, with the documentary maker Laura Pointers, to Hong Kong to video-tape Snowden in his hotel hide-away, to the publication of these documents in June 2013 detailing the secret court orders permitting the bulk surveillance of US citizens, PRISM, BOUNDLESS INFORMANT, X-Keyscore and all the other Orwellian programs put in place by the NSA to be the all-seeing, never sleeping eye of Mordor. The book illuminates the ambiguous role our elite media – the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Fox and other establishment companies – play in facilitating a deep security & surveillance state by explicitly or implicitly colluding with its principal actors – the White House, the Pentagon, the Intelligence Agencies. Greenwald argues that much of the Press acts as the courtiers of the State, instead of exposing its dirty secrets. All of this is ironic given the revolutionary origin of American, when colonists protested laws that let British officials ransack any home they wished without having to obtain a targeted warrant. 250 years later we are again in such a situation, justified by a perpetual war on terror, fear-mongering and never ending military campaigns. The Snowden revelations marked a sad turning point in my life, exposing my belief in the inherent benevolence of the Internet and its corporate ecosystem as naïve, and inducing a growing disillusion in the way the US seeks to project power world-wide. Yet the book is also uplifting as it demonstrates the power of singular individuals – if brave, eloquent, and willing to risk prison or worse for their ideals – to change history.
Crux – Upgrade in Progress by Ramez Naam (2013)
Second volume in Naam’s dystopian trans-human future trilogy. Well done with a chilling end.
Your Inner Fish – A Journey into the 3.5-Billion Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin (2008) ****
A lucid and compelling account of how the human body plan and sensory apparatus can be traced back to that of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals by an accomplished raconteur, anatomist Shubin from the University of Chicago. His true love is uncovering ancient fossils – he discovered Tiktaalik, a representative of the transition between fish and amphibians who first walked on land (tetrapods) about 375 million years ago. Shubin interlaces evidence from paleontology with embryology and molecular biology and discusses his biological “law of everything” – every living thing on the planet had parents or, more precisely, every living thing springs from some parental genetic information. Using this law and a walk through the zoo, he traces the human lineage all the way back to multicellular organisms. The book was turned into a very lively and vivid three-part PBS documentary that I can warmly recommend.
Neanderthal Man – In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo (2014) ***
Autobiographical account of Pääbo’s quest over three decades to use the methods of molecular biology – in particular the sequencing of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA – to better understand the evolutionary history of Neanderthals and their relationship to modern people. He thereby invented the field of paleogenetics, starting with work done on the side during his PhD (trying to find viable traces of DNA in Egyptian mummies) and culminating in the sequencing of the entire genome of Neanderthals in 2010. His conclusion – against his earlier conviction – is that all of us today, living outside Africa, carry 1-3% of Neanderthal DNA in our genomes – these ancient siblings of Homo Sapiens are not completely extinct but live on in us. Between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, there must have been significant intermixing between males and females of both populations. A great novel waits to be written about human-Neanderthal pairings – dare I call this love – and their offspring. The difference between us and them is not big – about 32,000 single nucleotide changes and 96 changed amino acids in proteins! The author also makes a number of surprising personal revelations. Yet the style of this inventive scientist is not quite up to his creativity – the book is long on detailed laboratory procedures, often pedantic and short on the contributions of teams from competing laboratories or from other disciplines – such as classical archeology. The story of this chapter of human evolution is fascinating though.
The First Scientist – Anaximander and his Legacy by Carlo Rovelli (2011) *****
A beautiful gem of historical-literary-philosophical analysis by a theoretical physicist about the pre-Socratic thinker Anaximander (610-546 BCE). He lived in the Greek city of Miletus, on the coast of modern Turkey. He and his master Thales represent the beginning of rational, naturalistic thought, when men for the first time in recorded history began to seek explanations for natural events that they observed – thunder, storms, earthquakes and so on – not in terms of the capricious action of idiosyncratic gods suffering from anger, jealousy, lust and other human failings but in terms of chance and necessity, of laws. Anaximander’s only surviving segment of his entire work is
All things originate from one another, and vanish into one anotherAccording to necessity, according to necessity; they give to each other justice and recompense for injustice, in conformity with the order of time.
These four lines graced the walls of my undergraduate dorm room for years as they are the earliest formulation of the two principal ideas that held me in thrall and that underlie the entire conceptual structure that is science – physical laws that brook no exception and that dictate change, evolution. Anaximander also was the first to postulate that the Earth wasn’t flat, resting on the ocean or land but was suspended in space. it couldn’t fall anywhere since there was no preferred place for it to fall – an ingenious idea that other civilizations, such as the Chinese, only accepted 2000 of years later. And, unlike anything before Anaximander, he criticized his teacher Thales, thus giving birth to the idea that understanding reality is a never-ending quest to improve the current best description of reality in favor of a better one. Science is always provisional. One can understand why some historians claim, with only a bit of hyperbole, “what is born in Greece is not civilization but simply the West”. Well written and concise, with many quotable lines, the book is slightly marred by a weird chapter on the nature of mythical-religious thought, invoking the discredited ideas of Julian Jaynes.
Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & me – A Graphic Memoir by Ellen Forney (2012)
Autobiographical novel in the form of a comic strip from a graphic artist about living with bi-polar disease.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman (2014) ***
A lavishly illustrated (by Eddie Campbell) story of revenge in Scotland’s Misty Mountains on the Isle of Skye. Well done.
City by Clifford Simak (1952) *****
A masterpiece of story telling in the form of eight linked tales that a pacifist and bucolic dog civilizations passes on their pubs about a semi-legendary creature, Man. Each story tells of the progressive peaceful breakdown of human society, their gift of speech to their canine companions, the departure of people to live a blissful paradise-like life transformed on Jupiter, the survival of a few anarchistic mutants on planet Earth and the rise of the cold and incomprehensible civilization of the ants that displaces everything and everybody. Humans progressively and quietly disappear from the scene, having lost the will to live at all cost. Very poetic and moving.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (2013) ****
In the Company of Eagles by Ernest Gann (1966)
The personal vendetta between a German and a French aviator in WWI, trying to uphold a ‘gentlemen-warrior’ code among the slaughter-house that was trench warfare in France in 1916-1917, faltering society and quasi-mutiny. The author, himself a pilot – which shows in his evocative description of the flights of these primitive machines – has a good eye for getting into the heads of his subjects. This great find is the reason I love browsing second-hand book shops.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
Good as social history of the way society treated and still treats African-Americans. Disappointing if read as a scientific account of the biology of immortalized cell lines.
The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester (1970) ****
A high-energy SF novel by the author of the classic space-faring Oakies saga – Cities in Flight. Set a few hundred years in the future at the time of a war between the inner planets and the outer reaches of the solar system, society is controlled by a handful of mega-corporations. The hero, a dim-witted spaceman left adrift in space, is driven by his all-consuming need for revenge to enhance himself via neural-engineering and find those who left him to die. This is an early cyber-punk novel with a cowboy that takes advantage of technology to fight in a late-capitalist society that is blind and deaf to the needs of the underclass.
The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt (1994)
Grand SF novel in the style of Clarke or Asimov in which humanity – mainly a bunch of xeno-archeologists and the heroic pilots of the spaceships – tries to make sense of gigantic geometric artifacts left behind throughout the galaxy by some unknown alien civilization. And then there are the Omega Clouds, strange dark formations that drift between stars and that are deeply inimical to life. Like life itself, what it all means is not spelled out.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012) ****
An unusual mystery story set in an old, dusty bookstore, the kind where you can’t see where the bookshelves end toward the ceiling as it’s getting so dark up there. The protagonist, a laid-off Silicon Valley drone, is employed as the night clerk with an unusual Eva-like condition – do not read any of the shelved volumes! He follows Oscar Wilde’s dictum (I can resist anything except for temptation) and reads them, which does not illuminate him. His girlfriend is a wizard programmer working at Google and his other best friend is a successful entrepreneur whose company, creating realistic digital boobs (sic), has been bought up by Google. The trio discover the secret of the bookstore which takes them to a five-century old cult, “The unbroken spine” based around Gerritzoon. a font! This first-timer novel, with its themes of mystery and friendship, links calligraphy, design of fonts and the bibliophile with Dungeons & Dragons and cloud computing at the Goggleplex. Funny and witty dialogue and well described people populate the pages. A hugely enjoyable read.
The Snowden Files by Like Harding (2014)
Superficial recounting of the official aspects of Edward Snowden’s gargantuan leak of 1.8 million NSA documents and its revelation of its world-wide, all-encompassing surveillance tactics, including right here in the US. Written by one of the journalists at The Guardian who broke the story. Neither insightful nor analytic.
How we Die by Sherwin Nuland (1993) ***
I finally read this thoughtful and insightful reflection on modern death – almost always in the clinic, surrounded by high-tech equipment. In describing sudden heart attacks, chronic ischemia, death by pneumonia (‘Old man’s friend’ which is what took my dad), accidents, suicide and euthanasia, AIDS and cancer, the author – a surgeon with a life-long practice at Yale – drives home the point that ‘dignified death’ is an illusion, a mechanism of denial. Dignified death is an idealized notion doesn’t serve the patient and is a form of paternalism. Closure can’t happen when the patient has unreasonable hope of a miracle based upon the oncologist not wanting to give up, when all the doctor’s ministrations only yield a few miserable days or weeks of life that is not worth living. Nuland emphatically writes about the fact that many people die of old age – a cause or disease syndrome that is not recognized in any statistics and that a good death means a good life. He concludes by quoting the last stanza of William Bryant’s Thanatopsis
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
1948 by Yoram Kaniuk (2013) **
Disjoint autobiographical account of the author’s participation in Israel’s chaotic War of Independence when he was 17 and left school to join the Palmach. Written 60 years after these events took place, his existentialist style reflects the fragmentary nature of memories. Thoroughly disillusioning about the heroic nature of fighting, Kaniuk unflinchingly recounts numerous atrocities, including one that he committed.
The Fear Index by Robert Harris (2011) ****
Compelling thriller of the run-away AI type. The protagonist, an ex-CERN physicist genius who has turned his skills in machine learning and BigData to behavioral economics and predicting the effect of fear on the financial markets. He’s started a very successful, closed Hedge fund in Geneva. The novel takes places over a 24-hour period – the day of the Flash Crash – in which his life comes apart, fueled by some malevolent intelligence that ends up making his company even richer. As with all of Harris’ novel, it’s realistic, paced as fast as the micro-trades from which his company makes its billions and scary.
Read in 2013
The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton (2005)
Historical fiction interposing Charles Darwin’s signature, 5-year long, voyage on the HMS Beagle that made his name, with the quest by two graduate students in modern-day England to uncover Darwin’s dark secret. Darnton has a good feeling for the sensibilities of the Victorian age and for the competition between scientists for priority and gets the history of evolutionary thought right. Too many convenient coincidences and some unrealistic character portraits make the novel less than satisfactory.
Running with the Pack by Mark Rowlands (2013) ****
The misanthrope philosopher, author of the amazing The Philosopher and the Wolf is back at it – teaching us about the meaning of life while running medium-distances (5-26 miles) with his various canine companions at various locations in the US, Ireland and France. A few chapters are absolutely brilliant, in particular when explaining the difference between running for instrumental reasons – longevity, health, fitness, relaxation – and running as a value in itself – reaching the beating heart of the run to use his poetic expression. Essentially, he describes the difference between work – always done in the service of something else, most often for pay – and play – carried out for intrinsic reasons, for joy. To wit,
Joy can assume many experiential forms. There is the joy of focus, the experience of being completely immersed in what one is doing. There is the joy of dedication, the experience of being dedicated to the deed and not the outcome, the activity and not the goal. There is the joy of enduring, the experience of playing the game as hard as you can play it, of giving everything you have to the game and leaving nothing in the tank, no matter the experiential toll this exacts. This is the joy of defiance, wild and fierce: no, you will not break me, not here, not today.
Rowlands is at his best when writing about running with his wolf Brenin and his canine pack. Many other chapters are rambling reflections on the misery of life (why must so many philosophers be so unhappy and cynical? In his previous books, Rowlands refers to his fellowmen as manipulative and conniving apes while in this book, they are downgraded to worms) and on the mystic and undecipherable writings of Sartre and Heidegger – one of the bigger intellectual windbags of the 20. century. Yet I did read the entire book within 24 hours, crossing the continent both ways.
The Spinoza Problem – A Novel by Irvin Yalom (2012) ***
Historical psychological-philosophical telling by the psychiatrist Yalom in which he deftly interweaves an account of the early life of the Dutch-Portuguese-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (also known as Bento de Espinoa and Benedictus de Spinoza depending on which ethnic community he is associated with), his philosophical ideas and fictionalized friendships and his excommunication and eviction from the Jewish community of Amsterdam with the life of Alfred Rosenberg, the early associate of Hitler, chief Nazi ideologue, pseudo-intellectual, author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century, who was hanged in 1946 as war criminal. Yalom, a psychoanalyst, tries to enter the mind of these two singular historical figures at the opposite end of the philosophical and ethical spectrum. It makes for Interesting, but not entirely convincing, reading.
Nexus – Mankind gets an Upgrade by Ramez Naam (2013) ***
An eminently readable debut SF novel by a local author with a fertile imagination in which the confluence of nano- and neuro-science with brain-machine interfaces opens the way to manipulate the brain with software that the user programs in his or her own mind. This is the trans-human future. Of course, the mind-software can be hacked for nefarious purposes leading to a loss of control of self. The novel takes place in 2040 in the US in which the surveillance state has taken hold and tries to prevent such trans-human technology – in the form of the drug Nexus-5 of the title – to dissipate into the general population (reserving it for its elite warriors). But other nation states and actors intervene. Violent, fast-paced, with believable characters and a storyline the novel offers one realistic future in which conflict arises between regular folks and the enhanced one. As a neuroscientist, west-coast techno-geek and libertarian, I do believe that the merging of our brains with our information technology is inevitable, for better or worse. It is not the business of the future to be predictable. Naam’s style is somewhere between Crichton’s Terminal Man and Gibson’s cyberpunk novels.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan by Llewelyn Morgan (2012) ****
Wonderful cultural/historical account of the two colossal standing figures of Buddha in the Hindu Kush – along the Silk Road – in Afghanistan. These monumental statues, 53 and 35 meters high, were hewn directly from sandstone cliffs in the 6. century CE and covered with stucco. Admired and written about by Chinese, Indian, Islamist and European travelers throughout the centuries, both statues were dynamites by the zelot Taliban in 2001. The author does an outstanding job of analyzing the reception of travelers from many distinct cultures to these statues – the biggest in the world – spending a lot of time on the French and the British spies, soldiers and classicists (often the same) around the time of the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1840 and their misguided search for roots of Alexander the Great (“Europe’s favorite psychopath” in the author’s memorable phrase). Ironically, the two empty shells left in the cliff following their wanton destruction are, in some sense, more authentic Buddhist monuments than any physical statues.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013) ***
A short and intense adult novel about otherworldly ‘evil’ creatures invading modern day rural Britain via the unwitting help of the seven-year old storyteller. The self-sacrifice of a 11 years old girl, backed up by her farmhouse mother and grandmother, and a pond that turns into a bottomless ocean are necessary to restore balance. The book is so captivating and terrifying in its portrait of intra-family conflict and violence that I skipped over passages during my first read. Almost as good as Gaiman’s masterwork Neverwhere.
The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch (1983) **
A ponderous story with a large cast of characters, none of which evoke much sympathy, who drink to much for their own good and battle each other, living in a fictitious English spa town. The start of the novel sets the tone – a nasty marital fight among the two central figures – followed by a cumbersome mise-en-scene. The 576 pages long book would have benefited from much tighter editing.
The Complete Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton *****
More than fifty delightful detective stories, written between 1910 and 1926, centered on the short and quite humble eponymous priest. Like Sherlock Holmes who uses induction and science, Father Brown exploits reason and logic to deduce the guilty party and eschews supernatural explanations of strange events. He fortifies these by his intuitive and psychological insights into the nature of evil and the ways of the world, centered on his experience as a confessor “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”. Unlike Conan Doyle, Chesterton is a powerful wordsmith, with evocative descriptions (and irony) galore. To wit:
As they went through the mulberry bushes, the landscape of the garden presented that rich yet ominous effect which is found when the land is actually brighter than the sky. In the broken sunlight from behind, the tree-tops in front of them stood up like pale green flames against a sky steadily blackening with storm, through every shade of purple and violet. The same light struck strips of the lawn and garden beds; and whatever it illuminated seemed more mysteriously sombre and secret for the light. The garden bed was dotted with tulips that looked like drops of dark blood; and the line ended appropriately with a tulip tree; which Father Brown was disposed, if partly by some confused memory, to identify with what is commonly called the Judas tree. What assisted the association was the fact that there was hanging from one of the branches, like a dried fruit, the dry, thin body of an old man, with a long beard that wagged grotesquely in the wind.
He raised his eyes and saw through the veil of incense smoke and of twinkling lights that Benediction was drawing to its end while the procession waited. The sense of accumulated riches of time and tradition pressed past him like a crowd moving in rank after rank, through unending centuries; and high above them all, like a garland of unfading flames, like the sun of our mortal midnight, the great monstrance blazed against the darkness of the vaulted shadows, as it blazed against the black enigma of the universe. For some are convinced that this enigma also is an Insoluble Problem. And other have equal certitude that it has but one solution.
The Truth in Small Doses by Clifton Leaf (2013) ****
Vividly written account on “why we’re losing the War on Cancer – and how we can win it” (subtitle). Authored by a Fortune journalist over nine years, it is obsessively sourced – 80 pages of endnotes and 87 pages of references. Through lively portraits of individual patients, doctors and researchers, the book recounts some of the success stories of the War on Cancer (launched under President Nixon in 1971): Gleevec (dramatically reducing the mortality and morbidity of chronic myeloid leukemia), many childhood malignancies (acute lymphocytic leukemia), and the estrogen-blocking tamoxifen for breast cancer. The bulk of the book is about why we are not winning this book (something which is almost completely unacknowledged). Upon closer inspection, the decline in cancer rates that the National Cancer Institute widely proclaim refer to death rates age-adjusted to the US 1970 population. When dissecting these wins, they turn into rather pyrrhic victories. Of course, other communities likewise express their progress using appropriate metrics; take an investment fund whose annual return is 8%. This hides the fact that the 8% is relative to the average return of the industry; in reality, the fund lost 10%, which was, however, less than the average fund in that industry. While crude rates (how many deaths per 100,000 people) for all deaths combined (car accidents, lightning strokes, murder etc) excluding cancer fell by 24% between 1970 and 2010, the crude cancer death rate increased by 14%. In 2013, an expected 580,000 people in the US will die of cancer, and an estimated 7.6 million worldwide. Victory in the War on Cancer appears to be as illusive as the victory in the War on Drugs! By and large, diagnostic tools have improved – think pap smear, mammogram, and colonoscopy – allowing doctors to catch tumors earlier, when they have not yet metastasized or genetically diversified. Leaf, a sympathetic (he suffered from s cancer as a teenager), thoughtful yet critical observer analyzes the cultural factors that led to this state. Some of them are a lack of risk-taking, an ever growing bureaucracy, few standards in the field, the lack of an effective national tissue registry and the complexity of the disease. But the primary culprit Leaf focuses on is a highly fractioned and non-collaborative clinical-academic cancer culture that maximizes winning of R01 NIH grants and the publication of papers in high-impact journals. Grants and papers make for great experiments on model systems or model organisms (which does not include humans), advance basic science, but does little to help patients. The massive investment in cancer science (an estimated $30B/year worldwide) produces studies but not cures! It is interesting that the original 1971 recommendations of the committee charged by President Nixon with proposing how the War on Cancer ought to be carried out had been to take the cancer effort out of the NIH, creating a NASA-like National Cancer Authority, whose mandate would be to approach the problem like the successful moon shot, looking at the overall systems-aspects of cancer and cancer mortality. The committee was quite explicit in this matter, testifying that they would not recommend continuation of the present organizational arrangements within the existing NIH. However, heavy lobbying by the clinical and scientific communities for the autonomy of the basic research enterprise scuttled this plan. Instead the NCI received a massive increase in research funding and the status quo remained. One wonders what would have happened if the NIH/NSF would have been charged by President Kennedy in 1961 to bring a man to the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to the planet? Probably a lot of basic science papers on planetary formation, the geology of the early moon and the existence of unique solutions of the Navier-Stokes equations that mimic the aerodynamics of re-entry into the atmosphere! Leaf argues for a much more focused engineering effort, one that emphasizes all aspects of the cancer problem and not just the biology of cancer, that enforces common standards, protocols and tissue repositories, in an expeditious and efficient manner. One that takes risks, just like NASA did in its early years. Yet that is unlikely to occur within the current ossified structures that serve the cancer and the university research communities so well.
Panpsychism in the West by David Skrbina (2005) ***
I grew up in a devout and practicing Roman-Catholic family with Purzel, a fearless and high energy dachshund. He, like all the other, much larger, dogs that subsequently accompanied me through life, showed plenty of affection, curiosity, playfulness, aggression, anger, shame and fear. Yet my Church taught that while animals, as god’s creatures, Ought to be well treated, they do not possess an immortal soul. Only humans do. Even as a child, this felt intuitively wrong. These gorgeous creatures had feelings just like I did. Why deny them? Why would God resurrect people but not dogs? This core Christian belief in human uniqueness didn’t make any sense to me. Whatever soul, whatever consciousness and mind are, and no matter how they relate to the brain and the rest of the body, the same principle must hold for people and dogs and, by extensions, to other animals as well. It was only later, at university, that I became acquainted with Buddhism and their emphasis on the universal nature of mind. Indeed, when I spent a week with His Holiness the Dalai Lama earlier this year, I noted how often he talked about the need to reduce the suffering of “all living beings” , and not just “all people” . My readings in philosophy brought me to panpsychism, the view that mind (psyche) is found everywhere (pan). As Skrbina shows in this book, panpsychism is one of the oldest of all philosophical doctrines extant and was put forth by the ancient Greeks, in particular Thales and Plato. Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz who laid down the intellectual foundations for the Age of Enlightenment argued for it, as did Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, the father of American psychology, and the Jesuit and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Declining in popularity with the rise of positivism in the 20th century, panpsychism is enjoying a renaissance in philosophical circles. As a natural scientist, I find a suitably modified version of panpsychism to be the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation of the universe I find myself in. But that is a different story. Skrbina’s volume gives a great introduction to this doctrine and its reception in the west, from ancient times until today.
Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom (1989)
Ten somewhat fictionalized accounts of patients that the Stanford psychiatrist has dealt with. Superbly crafted, each illuminates a different aspect of what he terms existentialist givens, of which he identifies four – (i) the fear of death; (ii) the realization that finally, each one is alone; (iii) the fear of accepting that we are all master of our own fate, that is, the fear of freedom; and (iv) the search for meaning in a universe that is bereft of external meaning. Yalom argues that these issues are present in most of us in an unconscious manner and that wisdom amounts to confronting these givens and addressing them in a beneficial and useful manner. His is a very philosophical approach to psychotherapy and avoids much of the fixation on early childhood and sexual repressions a la Freud. Yalom explicitly confirms one of my own observations, to wit “the fear of death is always greatest in those who feel that they have not lived their life fully. A good working formula is: the more unlived life, or unrealized potential, the greater one death’s anxiety.” These stories bring out how much psychoanalysis is about process and less about content and how the analyst himself is an utterly essential partner in any therapy.
Why does the World Exist? by Jim Holt (2012)
Personal account of contemporary attempts by philosophers and physicists to deal with the deepest ontological puzzle of them all, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Written by an ex-philosopher as a sort of travelogue, interviewing Andre Linde, Adolf Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, Roger Penrose (a neo-Platonist!), David Deutsch, Steven Weinberg, John Leslie and Derek Parfit, and interspersed by the death of his dog and his mother, it could also be subtitled Philosopher’s Conceit as it shows up in stark detail the inability of arm-chair philosophizing to extend the limits of what we know beyond those limits already encountered by Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. For in the end, answering this question in a definite way falls outside of mathematics, cosmology or physics. One is finally left with either a circular argument, an infinite regress or a brute fact (the world exist). The most compelling argument is a probabilistic one; that is, the most likely universe is not an empty one but a universe of the type we live in that has to be conducive to life (for else, we could not reason about it).
The Human Genome by John Quackenbush (2011)
Short, compact and concise introduction into the Human Genome Project and the underlying biology.
Turing’s Cathedral – The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (2012)
Long, detailed and meticulously researched (and footnoted) historical account of the origins of computing in World War II and in the race to build Fission and Fusion bombs. Written for historical techno-geeks, the book is centered around John von Neumann and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and includes John Bigelow – the engineer who actually built MANIAC, the IAS machine (built after ENIAC at University of Pennsylvania) – Alan Turing, Edward Teller and others (this account completely leaves out non Anglo-American contributors, such as Konrad Zuse in Germany). At times poetic, the book deeply delves into the origin of programming, Monte Carlo simulations (to keep track of neutrons splitting uranium atoms), and the unreliability of the individual components making up the computer and its memory (a major concern at the time). The five sets of problems studied on MANIAC were nuclear explosions, shock and blast waves, meteorology and biological and stellar evolution. Random-access memory consisted of the two-axis deflection of an electron beam on a 32 by 32 grid of an 5 inch wide cathod-ray tube with a 24 microsec read-out time. . They used 40 such tubes for a total address space of 40x32x32, that is, 40 kilobits!
Accidents in North American Mountaineering (2010)
Sobering account of major accidents in climbing in Canada and the US, caused by sheer bloddy incompetence, inadequate protection, clothing and equipment, not knowing one’s limits and – scarriest of them all – momentary inattention by even highly experienced climbers. Appears every year. Required reading for anybody venturing into rock and ice climbing or mountaineering.
Dangerous Work – Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle (2012) ****
Modern edition of a facsimile of Doyle’s diary that he wrote when Doyle, at the time a 3. year medical student, was hired to serve as a ship’s surgeon on a 6 month long whaling expedition out of Scotland in 1880. Describes in evocative detail the beauty and isolation of the arctic, the boredom of months spent on a three master among 56 men, and the excitement of hunting seals and whales. It is obvious that even at this tender age, Doyle was a born writer. For him, this was a very formative journey and his love of adventure and excitement shines through every page. What also comes across, however, is the sheer callousness with which even sensitive and educated people killed animals at the time. Every significant creature he sees – whether rare bird or polar bear that are shot, seals that are clubbed in their 100s and whales that are harpooned – is killed without nary a thought. This lack of compassion rings so brutal to modern sensibilities. Interestingly, he seems to have discussed Darwinism several times with the mean on board. Furthermore, the high-point of the whaling industry had already been surpassed, as whales were becoming rare and the first conservation measures had been passed. The book is lovingly illustrated with several other Doyle stories (including a Sherlock Holmes case), all pertaining to the arctic.
The Lore of Large Numbers by Philip Davis (1961)
Picked up this delightful little introduction to arithmetic and scientific computing from a used bookstore. Written when “computers” meant “people trained to carry out, by long-hand, long chains of numerical computations,” the author, a famed mathematician talks breathlessly about “gigantic electronic brains.” Does a great job of explaining why inverting rank n matrices involves very large and very small numbers and that the heat equation at rest essentially implies that the steady-state temperature is the average of the temperature in its neighborhood.
Isaac Newton by James Gleick (2003)
Short, pithy and insightful biography of Newton. He was a recluse, with virtual no family, no lover (he reputedly died a virgin), few friends, vindictive (his fight with Leibniz), yet within a solitary period of two years, when he was a mere 24, Newton created modern mathematics, mechanics and optics. There is nothing like it in the history of thought. The entire scientific enterprise owns more to him than to anybody else. He is prima facie evidence for the critical role of genius in at least some fields. Of course, he was also an alchemist and a mystic, whose religious writing exceeded many-fold his scientific ones.
The Autobiography of Sherlock Holmes by Don Libey (2012)
Cleverly done pastiche, a pseudo-autobiography – unauthorized of course – of S.H. part of “the game.” Explains inconsistencies in the canon in an often highly idiosyncratic manner. Pithy, witty, sardonic, and sometimes even sad (when he writes about his autistic-like personality and psychodynamic motivations).
Jarhead – A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and other Battles by Anthony Swofford (2003)
Breezily written memoire of a marine who saw a little bit of action in Kuwait. Delves to a certain extent into the author’s psychological makeup and the training regiment, the motivation, the aggression and the liquor driving the soldiers. Doesn’t paint a particularly positive picture of Marine life. Not very analytical.
The Mystery of Cloomber by Arthur Conan Doyle (1895)
A very atmospheric mystery yarn and a great revenge story, if somewhat overwrought in its otherwordly aspects that are beyond the ken of Western science (in the author’s words). This novel has lots of interesting similarities – a revenge acted out because of an earlier injustice committed while in the Army in an Indio-Afghan setting – with Conan Doyle’s other early novel, A Study in Scarlet. The key difference is, of course, the denouement of the mystery by the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes.
Into the Silence – The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (2012) ****
Highly absorbing, detailed and compelling account by the reliable Davis, the anthropologist and ethnobotanist, about the psychological roots of mountaineering, climbing and exploration, in the context of the World War I. Part thriller, part careful academic study and part grand history. It makes the case that the slaughter of WWI – each month the British army (and this is an account solely focused on British climbers) required 10,000 new officers of the lower ranks simply to replace the rosters of the dead, with the recruits in the first years coming from the elite universities and schools; in 1914, the chances of any British boy aged 13 – 24 surviving the war were 1 in 3 – led some of the participants on a desperate search for redemptions that they sought and found in the, ultimate unsuccessful, assault on Mount Everest. It details the encounter between two utterly irreconcilable cultures – the British upper classes that needed to go to lonely, cold and inhospitable places to find some measure of contentment and solace – and Tibetan monks (including the 13. Dalai Lama, the predecessor of the current 14. Dalai Lama). The book concludes with the heroic tale of Mallory and Irvine who reached heights not scaled again until 30 years later, who felled to their death and whose bodies were not recovered until 1999. To quote “He (i.e. Mallory) would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but a
a frail barrier” that men crossed “smiling and gallant, every day.” They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009) ***
A novel that plays in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. It artfully switches between the war years (1942-45) and contemporary America, recounting the story of a Chinese American boy, raised in a traditional Chinese family by taciturn parents, who falls in love with a Japanese-American girl. As part of the notorious Presidential Public Proclamation No. 1, the girl, her family and the entire Japanese community is evacuated, “for their own safety” to camps in the deserts of California, Idaho and Texas. The story moves between the past and the present and between the enforced separation by the paranoia of WWII and the cultural gap between the Chinese-Americans who had suffered a bloody occupation by the Japanese Imperial army and Japanese emigrates to America. This historic novel, capturing the changing spirit of two disparate ages, is more bitter than sweet, reflecting the emotional harvest of my own mid-life crisis.
The Smoke Room by Earl Emerson (2006)
Solid, well-crafted mystery/crime yarn involving a rookie firefighter in West Seattle who is timid, failing to act at the right time, a sexy woman 20 years his senior, 12 million dollars worth of bonds from an ex-bank robber who accidentally burned himself to death, one genuine bad guys and lots of fires. Funny, with some important life lessons, and a vivid sense of what it is to be in a house on fire.
Ten Zen Questions by Susan Blackmore (2009)
Short, pithy, engaging and incisive travelogue by the British psychologist, scholar of the mind-body and long-term meditator, of her exploration of the true nature of her conscious experiences and how this relates to Zen Buddhism. While sitting in quiet but attentive restfulness throughout several decades of meditation practice, Sue explores what is meant by such seemingly straightforward questions as “Am I conscious now”, “What was I conscious of a moment ago”, “How does thought arise”, “What am I doing” and “What happens next”. Her suspenseful account of how something that could conventionally be called Susan Blackmore comes to what one could call a decision is striking. In an act of extreme depersonalization, she comes to doubt her very existence. She strikingly concludes “There is nothing it is like to be me”, “I am not a persisting conscious entity”, “Seeing entails no vivid mental pictures or movie in the brain” , “”Brain activity is neither conscious nor unconscious” and “There are no contents of consciousness.” While I have the utmost respect for her valiant attempts to plump phenomenology, they also vividly demonstrate the limit of introspection and why so much philosophy of mind has remained barren. Evolution has not equipped brains with conscious access to most of its modules. Self-consciousness is much more limited than we all realize. That’s why a mechanistic, neuronally based study of the mind-bod as is happening now is of the essence. The paperback edition of this book has just been published under the sexier title Zen and the Art of Consciousness.
Hirnforschung und Meditation – Ein Dialog by Wolf Singer and Matthiew Ricard (2009)
Friendly (sometimes too cozy) discussion between a famed German neuroscientist and a French-Nepalese molecular biologist turned Tibetan Buddhist monk about the brain, consciousness, free will, meditation and the way Western science and Buddhism approach the mind-body problem.
Read in 2012
The Signals and the Noise – Why so Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t by Nate Silver (2012) ****
Outstanding book about the role of prediction in modern life with individual chapters on the successes – baseball, weather and climate – the failures – financial markets and television punditry – and the in-between – earthquakes and poker playing – of forecasting future events (as compared to retrodicting them, which in some quarters in considered almost as good but which is really an exercise in over-fitting). The author made his name, and a fortune, predicting baseball statistics, as a poker player and, most famously, in calling the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections. I warmly recommend his web-site 538 as a breath of fresh air in politics, an intrusion of reality and rationality-based thinking, in a media-saturated world dominated by political operators, such as Karl Rove, and faith-based (mis)-thinking. There are many gems hidden in the pages of this book. Silver argues for a data-driven approach, in which a priori probability distributions are estimated using Big Data and posterior probabilities are computed using Bayes’ theorem.
The Club of Queer Trades by Gilbert Chesterton (1905) ****
Six short stories set in the same milieu and style – but more dated – as his more famous Father Brown stories. Each is a little jewel. Chesterton’s mis-en-scene is his strong suite
We were walking along a lonely terrace in Brompton together. The street was full of that bright blue twilight which comes about half-past eight in summer, and which seems for the moment to be not so much a coming of darkness as the turning on of a new azure illuminator, as if the earth were lit suddenly by a sapphire sun. In the cool blue the lemon tint of the lamps had already begun to flame.
A question to the color scientist – could this correspond to dusk when the three cone photoreceptor types are still operating while rods are emerging from saturating, effectively amounting to tetra-chromacy?
Evolution – A very short introduction by Brian and Deborah Charlesworth (2003)
Concise introduction to the field. It briefly discusses the analogy between the evolution of castes of sterile workers in termites, ants and the naked mole rats and the rise of multi-cellular organisms where only the DNA of the sex cells is passed on and all other (non-reproducing) cells, e.g. neurons, sacrifice themselves for the common good of the organisms.
The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939) ****
Ambler’s best noir novel of intrigue, spying, double-crossing in the Balkans in the time between the Great Wars. Dark, witty, intelligent and gritty. A masterpiece.
The Third World War: August 1985 by General Sir John Hackett (1978)
Fictionalized but highly realistic account of a Warshaw Pact attack on NATO in 1985, centering on West Germany (the famed Fulda Gap) and extending world-wide. Unlike Tom Clancy, who spends an entire chapter following the first five nano-seconds of a nuclear explosion and who focusses on the action of a few individuals, Hackett, a soldier turned scholar and writer in the best British tradition, is much more analytical and concerned with the political-strategic level. The book, written as a call to arms to politicians and the general public to boost conventional defenses, ends with the nuclear annihilation of Birmingham and Minsk and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire due to the nationalistic impulses of its satellite states, including the Ukraine. Re-reading it 25 years later, I’m struck by how today’s strategic debate has utterly changed from that at the height of the Cold War. Yet we should never forget that both Russia and the USA still retain sufficient A and H-bombs on missiles in land-based silos and submarines to destroy the world many times over.
www:wake by Robert J. Sawyer (2009)
(Very) Canadian SF novel of the near-future that has a blind girl discover, via a neuro-prosthetic device linked to the web, that there is an online intelligence, an self-aware entity, out there that emerged from its billion nodes. This could have been a tremendous opportunity to develop information-theoretical views of consciousness. Instead, the protagonist is stuck reading Julian Jaynes’ antediluvian and anti-biology tract The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind (people – never mind (sic) non-human animals – were not conscious prior to roughly 1200 BC; what is meant by consciousness is really meta-consciousness rather than subjective feelings, phenomenology).
Von der Nutzlosigkeit älter zu werden von Grorg Heinzen (2012)
Sardonic, realistic and morbidly funny account of a leftist film director working for public television, a child of the 1960s student revolution in Germany, whose wife left him because of a brief affair, just in time for his dreaded 50-th birthday, and whose adult children now reject him as well. In an attempt to deal with his massive midlife crisis and his feeling of looming mortality, he starts a self-help group. His psychological mindset is well articulated and true to many of my own experiences, even though he is so much more defensive (being a feminist and proto socialist). Too uncanny accurate not be at least partially autobiographically.
The Quantum Universe – Everything that Can Happen Does Happen by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (2011)
Well-crafted popular science account of QM and QED using the clock/phase metaphor for the superposition of wave functions. Although the book favors the many worlds interpretation, it shies away from overtly discussing the associated metaphysical aspects, being an adherent of the “shut up and calculate” school of pragmatic physics that emphasizes the amazing accuracies with which aspects of reality (such as the magnetic moment of the electron) can be accurately (and empirically verifiable) computed. An entire chapter deals the formation of the valence and conduction bands in metals, insulators, and semi-conductors and how the latter leads to transistors; the attempt to explain the Higgs boson fails (I have yet to see a comprehensible account). Perhaps the most powerful chapter is the final one in which the authors compute the balance between the pressure exerted by a dense gas of rapidly moving electrons at the core of a small star that forces the stellar atmosphere to expand and gravity that pushes the star matter into an ever more compressed volume. The failure of this balance predicts the maximal mass of a star (such as our sun) whose lifecycle will end in a white dwarf.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990)
Strange, large-scale space opera – part Canterbury’s Tale, part His Dark Material – involving AI’s conspiring to cause the downfall of humanity, a Satan-like creature called “The Shrike” who spears people and keeps them indefinitely alive on a “Tree of Pain,” a motley crew of seven pilgrims who might save the universe, Time Tombs, a child who ages backwards, the digital resurrected poet John Keats, a separate species of people who threaten humanity’s stellar empire encompassing a few hundred planetary systems, space warfare, Marines and battleship cruisers, the remnants of the Catholic church, a Jesuit priest – an archeologist and acolyte of Teilhard de Chardin – who is crucified and more. The ambitious sweep of the two novels is grandiose, constructing a sort of machine theology, but the result – while often compelling – is unsatisfactory. Too much is unexplained and appears supernatural; this unnatural mixture, this Gemisch is much less believable than the distant future described in Ian Banks’ Culture novels.
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972) ****
Compelling SF novel of a visit by aliens to regions called zones, leaving behind a series of strange objects and bizarre supernatural phenomena. All that humans can do is to retrieve some of the objects – a very dangerous undertaking done by illegals called Stalkers – and live with the consequences. Strikingly in theme to another Soviet-era SF novel, Lem’s The Invincible, the book embodies the belief that the thought processes of a truly alien civilization can never be understood and will remain forever an enigma.
Phi – A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi (2012) *****
In the end, consciousness is all that matters! So writes Giulio Tononi, the author of this stunningly original scientific fantasy, in a distant echo of Rene Descartes’ famous deduction. Tononi, a neuroscientist, psychiatrist and expert on sleep and consciousness, is also that rarest of modern scholars – an idealist. In this category-defying book, he presents his theory of how brain produces mind as an oneiric journey of discovery of Galileo Galilei. In Tononi’s literary telling of this story, Francis Crick teaches Galileo basic neuroscience – such as that the brain is the seat of the mind, and that consciousness flees when neurons turn on and off together during deep sleep or seizures – as they meet scholars, scientists, doctors and artists from the Enlightenment to the modern era. It is a vast cast, including Descartes, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust and, eventually, Alan Turing. Along the way, Galileo negotiates some tricky concepts on a road long trodden by neuroscientists and neurologists seeking to track consciousness down to its lair in the brain. Even if we could point to this biophysical mechanism, and those nerve cells, as mediators of the phenomenal experience of red, we would still need to ask – why these particular mechanisms and neurons? Why not others? Historically, the great challenge has been to explain how consciousness emerges from highly organized matter without invoking magic, soul-stuff or exotic physics. With the advent of Shannon’s mathematical theory of information, information being the difference that makes a difference, scholars averred a linkage between information and conscious experience, without working out what this could be and what it might imply. Tononi’s theory of integrated information does so. Proceeding from two axioms that are rooted in everyday phenomenal experience, the theory defines a measure (the eponymous phi) associated with every system consisting of causally interacting parts. This measure is high if a system constitutes a single entity above and beyond its parts (integration) and if it is endowed with a large repertoire of discriminable states (information). The more integrated information any system has, the more irreducible it is, the more conscious it is. This framework, couched in a probabilistic language, also captures the unique quality of that experience, why blue is more similar to red than to pain or to smell. In Phi, this is conveyed through a series of dazzling thought experiments aided by cameos from Shannon and philosophers Spinoza, Leibniz and Thomas Nagel (the only living person to figure in the book). Through them, Galileo understands how the algebra of integrated information is turned into the geometry of conscious experiences, and how this links to the physiology and the anatomy of the brain. In the book’s final third, Tononi lays out the implications of his theory. He discusses a number of points about consciousness: that it ceases in death and dementia, does not require language or knowledge of self, exists in animals in graded forms and can be present, to some degree, in the fetus. Hell, Tononi emphasizes, is all in the mind. One of the most chilling characters in Phi is the Master, an amalgam of the captain in Kafka’s 1914 short story In the Penal Colony and the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The Master’s obsession is creating perfect never-ending pain by manipulating the brain’s informational content. In the final chapter, the Mannequin, a stand-in for Mephistopheles, throws up some logical paradoxes before leaving the dying Galileo reunited with his beloved daughter. The only character missing is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose prophetic ideas prefigure some of the implications of Tononi’s theory. Phi is quite extraordinary, defying easy categorization. In its appeal to the reader’s imagination, it resembles Edwin Abbott’s Flatland novella and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. Yet its language is more poetic, full of cultural references and images – movie stills and often modified photos of artworks. Endnotes to each chapter link the allegories and metaphors Tononi uses in the text to the science. I believe that in the fullness of time, the quantitative framework outlined in Phi will prove to be correct. Consciousness is tightly linked to complexity and to information, with profound consequences for understanding our place in the evolving Universe. As Crick says to Galileo, this is a story for grown men, not a consoling tale for children.
Ignorance – How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein (2012) ***
The author – a neurobiologist specializing in olfaction – teaches a popular class on Ignorance at Columbia University. His primary thesis is that on a day-to-day basis, Science is less about Knowledge and theory than about ignorance. Ignorance and the need to reduce it is what drives individual scientists; it’s what they talk and obsess about. He has particualr disdain for hypothesis-driven research, favoring curiosity-driven science (what happens if I poke here?). While it is true that in sciences that deal with complex systems with highly heterogeneous and large number of components – be they molecules, genes or cells – such a curiosity-driven approach is much more likely to be fruitful (while decried as ‘fishing expeditions’ by review panels and usually passed over for funding) this is not the case in physics where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in pursuit of very specific goals (witness the Higgs Boson). An easy read, the book starts out with an unsourced quote It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially when there is no cat. This proverb does capture much of the elusive nature of scientific research.
Kitchen Confidential – Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000) ***
Funny but greatly- inflated account from the restaurant business with the author making himself out to be the great, scandalous anti-hero.
Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga (1989)
Translated from the Japanese. The life story of a retired and dying crime boss as told to his attendant doctor in a series of lively vignettes. From his lowly beginning to acceptance into one of the gangs that run the gambling racket, to his various mistresses, life in prison and in the army and how he cut off two of fingers (over the same woman). It illustrates the give and take of social obligations that binds the Yakuza – and Japanese society – together. Short on violence and long on details of the late Meiji period. Lovingly illustrated by pencil drawings.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and illustrated by Jules Feiffer (1961)
I finally read the 50th anniversary edition of the classic children’s fairy tale. It resembles Alice in Wonderland. An incredible fondness for puns, wordplays, metaphors, allegories pervades the book. Like the Lewis Carroll’s books, it bears re-reading.
Mr g by Alan Lightman (2011)
Let my people go surfing – The education of a reluctant businessman by Yvon Chouinard (2005)
Succinct autobiography of the adventurer who was one of the pioneering big wall climbers and mountaineers in Yosemite and elsewhere starting in the mid-1960s. A blacksmith by training, he founded Chouinard Equipment (that would later turn into Black Diamond) and Patagonia (in Ventura, south of Santa Barbara). The bulk of the well written book is given over to his cogitations about his sense of design and style (minimalism and elegance, where function follows perfectly form) for all of his products, his ethics and Patagonia’s strong commitment to the environment and to only design, produce and sell products that are sustainable (e.g. organic cotton), non-toxic and last for a long time. He is trying to combine ethics with being a successful businessman in a particular market (outdoor wear and equipment for active, human-powered sports). Many of his ideas seem to me to be applicable to any institution that that seeks excellence in its particular market rather that purely monetary gain. The bottom-line is that you can be a businessman without being a schmuck or lose your soul in the process.
The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen (2011)
Short (ca 15,000 words) essay on how, since the 1970s, innovation and productivity in the US – as in all advanced Frist World countries – has dropped and will continue to be low compared to the second part of the 19th and first part of the 20th century, when plenty of wide open space and mineral wealth, massive increases in the level of education and a wave of technological revolution created wealth at an unprecedented scale. With the singular exception of the computer revolution and the internet, these “low-hanging fruits” have all been picked. Furthermore, the three biggest growth areas – more government regulation of all aspects of our lives, medical care and primary and secondary education – have stagnated over the past few decades and have not lead to any sustained increased wealth. Calls for a new wave of innovation, although it’s not clear where this should come from.
Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby (2011)
Subtitled ”The myth and marketing of the new old age” it is a furious and angry rant against the myth of growing old while remaining young at heart and in body; that is, a diatribe against aging in the US. Depressing. The only part I found myself agreeing with is the criminalization and medicalization of suicide. It is considered deviant, an abhorrence and a grave sin, even in today’s secular world. This is strange. In a society that treasures the liberty and freedom of the individual above all else, isn’t control over my life and the way I choose to end it the ultimate freedom?
Genesis by Bernard Beckett (2006)
Clever science fiction novella concerning the fundamental difference between what is meant to be human and to be a machine in a post-religious world. Curiously, it avoids the issue of subjective, phenomenal feelings.
Ghetto at the Center of the World by Gordon Mathews (2011) ****
Fascinating anthropological micro-study of the Chungking Mansions (used by famed movie maker Wong Kar-wai as backdrop for some of his movies) in Hong Kong. Populated by a few thousand transient denizens from all over the world, it shelters and nutures the small bit players in the current drama of transnational capitalism and globalization. The book explores in detail the lives, motivations and sentiments of the traders, laborers, asylum seekers, tourists, drug users, cops and prostitutes who make up this microcosm of the modern world and who prowl the building’s shops, restaurants, guesthouses, and dimly lit hallways. Its highly revealing as well as entertaining – an Ode to Life
Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz (2011)
Sentimental yarn told from the point-of-view of a working sheepdog and her trials and tribulations during a massive snow storm in the American Northeast. upsa. The author lives with dogs and is good at observing and describing their behaviors. However, he imputes unrealistic levels of cognition and visual imagery to dogs, and underplays their olfactory sensorium. Too sweetly.
Read in 2011
The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1942)
Classical crime noir novel with the hard-boiled private detection Philip Marlowe in pre-WWII Los Angeles. Some of the scenes take place in Pasadena.
The Swerve – How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (2011) ***
Vivid historical account of the re-discovery in 1417 (in a monastery in Germany) by Poggio Bracciolini, sometime private scribe and secretary to the Pope, of Lucretius’s famous poem De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things (see next entry), written 1,500 years earlier. The book vividly conveys the intellectual climate of the Dark Ages, with its focus on the horrible fates that awaited sinners in the hereafter and the general denial of earthly pleasures. In uncovering the classical Greek and Roman texts, Poggio and his fellow humanists helped revive a more enlightened and genial culture that emphasizes the here-and-now, beauty and the rational exploration of the world. In the process, they played midwife to the Renaissance. Engagingly written and good at mise-en-scene, the work does read on occasion as a polemical diatribe against Christian thought.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)
Lengthy (650 pages) and comprehensive biography of the man who did more than anybody else to shape our culture and our sense of design and beauty. Although an authorized biography, this is no hagiography as Isaacson amply recounts the dark side of Jobs’ personality, his lack of grace to others, his need to dominate, and the way he systematically belittled people. Yet he also brought the Apple Macintosh into the world, got kicked out from the company he created, built the Next computer, invigorated Pixar and made it the leading light in the computer animated film business, returned to Apple and lead it to its greatest triumphs – including a series of elegant and powerful computers, the creation of the iPod, the iPhone, iTunes, the iPad and the Apple Stores. There is a reason why I have a Macintosh Apple tattoo on my right arm. Jobs was an artistic genius who knew when a machine few even had dreamed of was perfect, an ideal marriage of form with function. For better or worse, the book doesn’t attempt to dissect Jobs’ psyche, the demons and angels that drove him.
The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley (1954)
Classical account of Huxley’s mescaline experience in Los Angeles. Very poetic and evocative writer. I wonder whether Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence was written under the influence of some such hallucinogens, for it uses very similar ecstatic language. To wit,
Confronted by a chair which looked like the Last Judgment – or, to be more accurate, by a Last Judgment which, after a long time and with considerable difficulty, I recognized as a chair – I found myself all at once on the brink of panic.
Having never taken any hallucinogens, I’m amazed at the magical powers he attributed to a drug that messes up the brain circuitry’s in very specific ways. To quote again:
To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large – this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.
Why do mescalin, LSD and psilocybin specifically affect visual texture and color perception? Does this tell us something about differential receptor distribution in the visual cortex compared to other sensory modalities?
The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt (2011)
Out of the blue, the undistinguished poet and professor who narrates events is informed by her long-time husband that he is leaving her for a much younger colleague and that their marriage is ‘on pause’ (the lover is never referred to as anything else but “the pause’). The woman flees into a short-lived psychotic episode requiring hospitalization and then retreats to her roots in rural Minnesota for the summer. The bulk of the book is taken up by her interactions with an all female cast of her aged mother, her five friends, seven pubescent girls whom she teaches poetry, her psychoanalyst, a next-door neighbor and an anonymous emailer. The often somber but at times hilarious funny novel has flashes of brilliant insight into the psychology of gender but runs out of steam half-way through and is marred by a naive attitude of victimization and male caricatures.
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Dr. Freud by Michael Shepherd (1985) ****
Insightful essay from a British psychiatrist, known as the Hammer of Psychoanalysis for his criticism of the same. It compares the pseudo-logico-deductive method of drawing sweeping conclusions from tiny and trivial clues of Sherlock Holmes to Sigmund Freud’s analytical method of inferring something about the patient’s motivations and underlying emotions from slips of the tongue, dreams and other refuse of the mind. However, in both cases, the methods are completely ambiguous, often devoid of logic and essentially intuitive. What Holmes decries as “absurdly simple” is really “simply absurd”. Shepherd argue that the enormous success of both, the fictitious detective and the very real doctor, are that they represent myths, mythological representations of human archetypes. In that sense, the man who never lived (SH), will never die. As to psychoanalysis, the author approvingly cites Steiner’s 1984 review:
No less than Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis remains one of the feats of the messianic Judaic vision for man after his emancipation from religiosity. Myth, be it that of an Oedipus complex, be it that of an Arcadeian adulthood, is of its essence.
Solo Faces by James Salter (1979) ****
Existentialist yarn about a driven man, Rand, who needs to climb (when he climbed, life welled up, overflowed in him). He has no choice in the matter; it is an obsession to find himself in this manner; everything else in life is secondary, including his relationship to the woman that bears his son (Desire is never without price). He leaves his native Los Angeles and moves to Chamonix. After attaining fame through his Alpine climbs and the attendant tragedies, he returns to lose himself in wandering. Rand is not an overly complicated man and we’re not being told a lot about his life. The novel ends inconclusively –
There were many stories. A climber was seen alone, high up on Half Dome or camping by himself in the silent meadows above Yosemite. He was seen one summer in Baja California and again at Tahquitz. For several years there was someone resembling him in Colorado – tall, elusive, living in a cabin a few miles outside of town. But after a few years, he, too, moved on. They talked of him, however, which is what he had always wanted. The acts themselves are surpassed but the singular figure lives on. The day finally came when they knew they would never know for certain. He had somehow succeeded. He had found the great river. He was gone.
Written in sparse, stabbing sentences, the prose is bittersweet and disturbing.
At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith (2003)
Short but amusing satire of academic life in the humanities at a German university. Reads like a David Lodge novel only not as funny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (1968) ****
The SF novel that forms the loose basis of Blade Runner, the best SF movie ever (ironically, the movie comes to the opposite conclusion than the book – androids can deeply emphatize with all life). Dark, anti-utopian, visceral, and very perceptive. It revolves around the emphatic response of humans to any other living being, animal or not, and the absence of such emotional response in realistic human replica, androids. Dick effectively talks about the Uncanny Valley effect several years before it was formally described by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori.
The Cartoon Guide to Statistics by Larry Gonick and Woollcott Smith (1993) ****
One of the most insightful short books on the basic ideas underlying statistical sampling and testing I have read. The cartoon format forces the authors to concentrate on the essential ideas. At times, it is genuinely funny – imagine that. Recommended to me by Alan Yuille, a professor of statistics no less.
Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (2006) ****
Eighteen short stories of this existentialist Japanese writer, born of a schizophrenic mother, who lived in the first third of the 20. century. Intense, gripping, nightmarish – I read them when jet-lagged, returning from Narita – psychological, they don’t leave you with much, except the wind and loneliness. He did kill himself at age 35; it clearly prefigures here (“It is unfortunate for the gods that, unlike us, they cannot commit suicide.”) Kurosawa’s eponymous movie is taken from Akutagawa’s story In a bamboo grove.
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986) ****
The point of view of a retired, famous and socially well-positioned painter a few years after the end of WWII in Tokyo who sees his world – including his two daughters – slipping away as he begins to confront his nationalistic past.
Surface Details by Ian M. Banks (2010)
Another Culture novel, but too bizarre and overwrought to be believable. The various strands don’t come together. Nothing like the fantastic space opera Matter (see below).
Ein perfekter Freund by Martin Suter (2002)
Swiss thriller about an Italian journalist who, due to brain trauma, suffers a retrograde amnesia of the last 50 days of his life. He slowly realizes that before his injury, he was on the tracks of a big scandal involving prions in chocolate (the Swiss national food!). From a promising beginning of life with amnesia and the loss of confidence that this entails, the novel fails to properly take off. Too many unexplained but convenient suicides and affairs.
Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman (2008)
Little yarn that provides some background to Pullman’s masterful trilogy His dark materials. It is the first meeting of the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby with the armored bear Iorek Byrnisson, in a small arctic town. A very well produced book.
Love in the Rain by Naguib Mahfouz (1973)
A series of enchained characters inhabiting one city quarter in Cairo, just after the abrupt and dramatic defeat in the Seven day’s war in 1967. A series of enchained love stories of match-making, coupling, uncoupling in post-revolutionary, socialist Egypt where religion scarcely plays any role and the modern world with all of its virtues and vices is ever present. Told in a cool, terse, melancholic and detached style, like the movies of the Hong-Kong director Wong Kar-wai (of Fallen Angels). The people and their fates stayed with me long after I had finished this short book.
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin (2006)
Although written by a physicist, this account of Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing is mushy, with heavy pop-psychologizing. I didn’t learn anything about their mathematical accomplishments. Forgettable.
The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2009) ***
Historical accurate and atmospheric spy thriller taking place in Warsaw, Paris, and Berlin in pre-WWII. It involves the spies of various nations, counter-spies, and defecting spies, overshadowed by the impending doom of mass violence on a massive scale in the not too distant future. It also highlights the futility of much of intelligence work, as one is never sure how much any information can be trusted. Great read.
The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville (2011) *
Hyper-violent adventure novel set in an alternate universe were Hitler did press the attack at Dunkirk in 1940, destroyed the British Expeditionary Force, Churchill resigned, England sued for peace and Africa was divided between England and the German Reich. The characters are one-dimensional, most of them with the psychological flatness of an Orc, kill-kill-kill. The super-hero and the super-fiend are stock characters, drawn from a graphic novel, written with a movie (and its sequel) in mind.
The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands (2009) ****
Persuasive combo of autobiography and lived wisdom. It describes how the 25 years old author, a philosopher of mind by training, adopted a wolf cub – Brenin – and lived with him until his death 11 years later. This was a well-travelled wolf, living in Alabahma, Ireland, England and France. Clearly, during this time, this was by far the most important relationship Rowlands – a rugby player, and self-declared misanthrope and alcoholic – had with any other creature bar none. Funny (the primary mission of Brenin was to demolish every house and its furniture that Rowlands lived in), instructional and poignant. These external events are used to discuss the author’s dysmal views on humans – clever, scheming and deceiving apes – the nature of evil and the fundamental differences between people and animals. The former live in time, either in the remembered past or in the projected future, while animals live by and large in the here and now. The books ends with a riff against conventional notion of happiness. Philosophers believe that they can construct gigantic intellectual edifices on the basis of linguistical & logical arguments; of course, these rarely take account of the much more complex nature of reality and therefore almost always fail. What I love about Rowlands existentialist philosophy is that it comes from the gut, just like Nietzsche’s (who he cites approvingly). He lives his belief! A wonderful gem of a book that I devoured in a single sitting.
Contact by Carl Sagan (1985) ****
I read this great SF novel just after I saw the equally captivating and epnymous movie (Judie Foster is playing one of the most realistic renditions of what it is to be a scientist). A very clever and thoughtful novel about the consequences of discovering a message beamed to earth by some extrateresstial intelligence. Has some of the smartest and most insightful science-religion dialogues since the debates between Naphta and Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. And the closing sequence is stunning (it wasn’t included in the movie since the director felt that it was too sophisticated a point for the average movie audience to understand).
Empire of Illusion – The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges (2009) **
A despondent and angry Jeremiah against contemporary American society. Hedges, who wrote the very compelling War is the Force that gives us Meaning surveys popular entertainment, the adult (porn) industry, academia, and the current financial crisis coming to the conclusion that most of us will end as quasi-corporate slaves (or in an environmental meltdown). His analysis of the state of society is disappointing since it is highly biased. And these Adorno quotes are hysterical. Does he actually believe them? I mean, this sort of philosophy-lite stuff was popular in the 60s, but man, don’ confuse if with factual statements about the world. His diatribe against academia, the Harvard’s, Stanford’s, and other elite colleges, is narrowly focused on what he perceives to be a lack of true discussion of alternate forms of societies and utopias within the humanities (code word for the various forms of socialisms that 20. century history has amply shown to be non-workable). Of course, Hedges neglects to mention that on the whole, all of us on the planet live longer, healthier and richer lives than ever before. And that’s a provable fact.
The Love Song of Monkey by Michael Graziano (2008) **
A very short modern parable, a combo of fairy tale and science fiction, about love, forgiveness and meditation. The author is a neuroscientist which is, perhaps, how the ‘monkey’ sneaked into the title but makes otherwise no appearance what-so-ever.
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (1987) ***
His first SF novel, a space opera, set in the distant future, at the time of the Culture wars. A bit too cinematic, bombastic and violent, with too many unlikely escapes. The backdrop of a galatic civilization is very impressive though. Not nearly as compelling as Banks’ later Matter.
Read in 2010
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999)
Terse and engaging novel of a rather unsympathetic 52 years old, divorced academic, attempting to write the libretto for an opera based on Byron in Italy, in post-Apartheid South Africa. After having an affair with a student, he resigns from the university and moves in with his estranged daughter, living alone on a farm in the country. The aftermath of an unprecedented violent act, during which his daughter is raped and he is violent assaulted, further alienates him from her. As the power structure in the country changes, he fails to adapt. He ends up – out of compassion – putting abandoned, old or sick dogs down. The novel offers a bleak and meaningless view of life in which good or bad, much more the latter than the former, happens and one simply has to accept it. Coetzee has a powerful voice – the way he speaks of the disenfranchised dogs is overwhelming in its intensity. Yet like much of 20. century fiction, this book is not uplifting. Man has lost his roots, the universe is meaningless. Why is this century so much less capable than earlier ones of producing life-affirming art?
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988) ***
Another culture science-fiction, shorter but not nearly as compelling as Matter. It has elements of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game.
69 by Ryu Murakami (1987)
I was amazed when my Japanese friends told me that besides Haruki Murakami, many of whose book’s I’ve read and enjoyed (see below), there is another Murakami, Ryu Murakami who is as least as potent and unusual a novelist as Haruki. I can confirm this for 69, a short autobiographical novel that takes place in 1969, the year a seventeen-year old and rebellious Ryu attended his last year of high-school in a small provincial town in Japan. He joins a rock group, produces an independent movie, organizes a school protest, that nets him 3 months expulsion, and a festival and chases girls. All of the former activities are in the service of the latter. Very funny.
The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010) ***
A short and well written, (aside from the constant jokes) popular account that gives an overview of current state of Cosmology and the attempt to explain the Big Bang without invoking a personal creator. Hawking defends what he calls the no boundary condition – in essence, time is closed – that makes it meaningless to talk about anything happening prior to the Big Bang. The text reject string theory but advocates for something called M-theory that is all promissory right now. The two physicists argue that science has to give up the ancient dream of a single, consistent theory (the Grand Unified Theory) that explains everything in the universe and that leaves nothing to choice (or to arbitrary parameters). Well, maybe. But right now we have no idea and no experimental fact to back up M-theory. I was not taken by the book. They do have a very apt analogy in Conway’s Game of Life between the laws of physics and the laws of chemistry.
Ark by Stephen Baxter (2009) **
Continues where the hard science ficition novel Flood left off. Faced by imminent doomsday, caused by a global flooding wiping out all of humanity, the US government, corralled into what remains of Colorado, launches one starship with 80 people on board (depleting its remaining resources). The spacecraft uses a newly developed warp-drive to explore nearby exoplanets. Asking 80 people to survive for decades in a tiny spaceship asks for trouble and intergenerational and other personal conflicts arise. The groups splits up, one settling an unpromising earth-like planet around 81 Eridani, one returns to the flooded earth while one travels even further to make planetfall elsewhere. Despite the cataclysmic events that wipes out billions of people, Baxter has an eye for the details of plausible human interactions.
Kingdom of Shadow by Alan Furst (2000)
Historical spy thriller taking place in pre-WW-II Paris and Eastern Europe, figuring various spies counter-spies, and defecting spies. Most of these struggles are futile, wasted effort. Very atmospheric.
Cultures of War – Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John Dower (2010) ****
Riveting account by a MIT historian of the structural similarities and differences between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing Pacific conflict of WWII on the one hand and 9/11 and Operation Iraq Freedom on the other. An easy read, scholarly and exhaustively researched and footnoted, it comes to a number of conclusions, most of them quite sobering. First, and of most interest to me as a student of consciousness, consider the surprise attacks on the US Pacific Fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 7. 1941 and on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Al-Queda on September 11. 2001. Roughly 2,500 military died in the former and 3,000 civilians in the latter. Both were spectacular tactical successes (for the attackers). Equally, both were colossal failures of intelligence by large organizations dedicated to defend the country from such debacles. Scholarly and journalistic sleuthing uncovered reams of information that pointed to the impeding strike days, weeks and months ahead of time. In the case of 9/11, intelligence personnel had warned the administration 40 times of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Yet all in vain. Why? Countless government investigations and books came to similar conclusions. Of course, there was incompetence at many levels. Yet more insidious, much more widespread than individual failings to heed warnings, were the explicit and implicit attitudes of racial arrogance and cultural condescension in the minds of the people who could have made a difference. Admiral Kimmel, the officer in charge of the Pacific Fleet, made it perfectly clear in an unguarded moment during one of many congressional investigations: “I never thought those little yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan.” More than fifty years later, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz held his opponents in the same disregard, dismissing bin Laden as “this little terrorist in Afghanistan.” Wide-spread, institutionalized stereotyping, “how can unwashed and uneducated people, living in caves with towels on their heads, threaten us, the most powerful nation on the planet?” blinded individuals and organization to these threats. The events that lead to the financial meltdown of Lehman Brothers and that almost crashed the markets in September of 2008 is another example of such a pathology of thought. Here it was the widely held belief that investment risk was under control and could be leveraged away by suitable financial instruments. This is the unconscious in action. Second, the occupation of Japan under the visionary General MacArthur was a resounding success. A country whose cities were all but destroyed by fire bombing, who lost all of her colonies, and was governed de facto by the military, emerged as democratic, prosperous and peaceful economic giant with a large middle class. Remarkable, not a single US soldier, not one, was killed during the post-war occupation by sabotage or terrorism. Eight years after the fall of Baghdad, more than 4,000 US soldiers have died in terror-related incidences. The only way US troops move around in a liberated and democratic Iraq is in full body-armor, guns ever ready. Third, the real similarities are in the culture of hubris, the messianic belief in the soundness and goodness of one’s actions, and the culture of conflict prevalent in the war cabinet under prime minister Tojo under the nominal leadership of the ineffectual emperor Hirohito and in the democratic war cabinet of president Bush with his cabal of vice president Dick Cheney, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condi Rice, secretary of state Colin Powell, Wolfowitz and deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage (calling themselves the Vulcans). Both Japan in 1941 and the US 60 years later entered upon a war of choice that was initially stunningly successful at the tactical level yet ended later in a debacle. In both cases, there was remarkably little long-term planning and with scant thought given to the long-term motivation of their enemies and the resources that they would be able to mobilize (did the White House really believe that selling Iraqi assets to the highest bidder, opening up this closed Society to the untrammeled free market, would endear them to the citizens on whose behalf they were supposedly occupying their country??). Despite all of the large differences between the two countries, the psychology, the decision-making structures and the justification used by the Emperor System and the Imperial Presidency 60 years later are comparable and are characterized by clannish group-think, the belief in the miraculous power of technology, faith-based reasoning and judging others by their behaviors but one’s own side by intentions, all the usual weaknesses of human decision making. Lastly, and most depressing, is the chilling propensity for unthinkable violence against unarmed combatants to be justified by high-sounding rhetoric. When questions of reducing the “morale” of the enemy enter the picture, morality exits. This is patently obviously in the case of the murderous al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and other jihadists and their intellectual fathers (Sayyid Qutb) but less so in the case of the US and its allies. The prime exhibit here is the air war and terror bombing in World War II in Europe (e.g. Dresden) and in Japan. While early on there were attempts to limit the bombing to targets that had direct military relevance, the later stages degenerated into savage killing of large numbers of civilians by firebombing (hard numbers are difficult to come by but extend into the low millions). This culminated in the only deployment of nuclear weapons by any country, the mushroom clouds above Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The use of indiscriminate bombing continued in the Korean War – with most of the Napalm bombing taking place in North Korea in 1951 and 1952 after the front had stabilized around the present DMZ – and into later wars. The recognition that my own country, the United States of America, can act as brutally when persecuting its war as any other country or people should give us pause and be humble. It brings to mind the sad truth Homo hominem lupus, that is, man is a wolf to men.
Flood by Stephen Baxter (2008) ***
A pretty good science fiction yarn about the end of civilization by a gigantic flooding from deep, subsurface reservoirs. The novel follows a few scientists and (ex)-military – united by the fact that there were once held hostage for four years together – over 40 years as they and the rest of humanity try to survive. In the first years, it looks like it is global warming on steroids until countries and then whole continents submerge. After a lot of utopian schemes collide with the horror of a few billion-people dying off – often as much as by violence as by nature – it ends when a few survivors on rafts witness the top of Mt. Everest disappearing below the waves. At times quite evocative, in particular when describing a nuclear submarine exploring what remains of London 3 km below sea. Even though it’s 500+ pages and its basic assumption is unrealistic (where are all of the acquifiers that can flood the planet to a height of 9,000 meters; over the past century, sea level shows a rise of 2 mm/year; in the novel, it’s thousands of times faster) I had difficulty putting it down. I also devoured the follow-up novel Ark in this disaster series.
Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein (2006) ***
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (2007)
Island on the Edge of the World – The Story of St Kilda by Charles Maclean (1972) ****
If you are fascinated by the romantic idea of living on a remote island, this is the book for you. Except it is definitely not Tahiti! A seasoned account of the most remote and westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, in the North Atlantic. The largest, St Kilda, is but a few square kilometers of sea cliffs and heavily weathered granite. Settled since at least the Middle Ages, this tiny community – numbering never more than 200 people and usually far less – lived off sheep, barley, potatoes and hunting the large number of sea birds. These fowling activities involved considerable skills in climbing, especially on the precipitous sea stacks. These are very impressive even by modern climbing standards. In their splendid isolation, the islander lived a sort of utopian life (no crime has ever been recorded) under extremely adverse conditions. The modern world did them no good and the last 36 inhabitants asked to be evacuated in 1930. Since then, except for a small military tracking station, the islands are uninhabited. The archipelago belongs to the National Trust for Scotland.
Meaning at the Movies by Grant Horner (2010) ***
Reflection on the theological and Christian underpinning of various classical movies (City Light, Unforgiven, Matrix, Blade Runner, Matrix). It contains numerous unforgettable sentences such as, “Unforgiven is the western movie version of the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon with a six-shooter.”
The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham (1908) ***
An early novel of his that tells of the sinister Oliver Haddo, patterned upon the British occult magician Aleister Crowley, and his hypnotic influence upon a happily engaged young couple. As Maugham himself remarked on more than one occasion “I know just where I stand – in the very front row of the second rate” (writers). Need I say more?
War by Sebatian Junger (2010) ****
A superb, vivid and intellectually serious account of modern small-group combat. Junger spent a year embedded with a platoon of US troops in the distant Korangal Valley, in the mountainous regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book is not about the politics or the ethics of the war and killing and being killed. It is about the universal experience, the psychological, biological and military historical aspects of organized violence of small groups of highly trained young men fighting other groups of highly motivated young men and what makes them tick. Why are these soldiers from a variety of backgrounds willing to sacrifice their lives for each other? Why do they routinely perform what most would consider heroic deeds? It is not patriotism or their belief in a just war but because failing one of their buddies in battle is the ultimate betrayal and simply unconceivable! “It’s about the man next to you. That’s all it is”, Death is the preferred option. Having learnt to utterly depend on each other, they are beholden to each other until their tour of duty ends, they are seriously injured or dead. Put differently, it is really a form of love for each other, what the ancient Greeks knew as Arete. For many, the unmitigated boredom, social isolation, deprivation and constant fear, interrupted by brief moments of combat, terror and adrenaline rush within a tightly-knit group of men provides purpose and is highly addictive. Tragically, many have grave difficulties adapting to civilian life back home. A riveting account which I read in one sitting.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008) **
Quite original adolescent book about a young child who is raised by the dead on a graveyard. I keep on reading his books in the hope of discovering another Neverwhere masterpiece.
Francis Crick – Hunter of Life’s Secrets by Robert Olby (2009) **
Well researched and documented, 500 page long, biography of Francis’ life, the intellectual giant who dominated biology in the 20. century unlike none else. The penultimate chapter From the searchlight to the soul covers Francis’ and my joint work on the neuronal basis of consciousness from the mid 1980s until his death in 2004. All in all, we wrote and published two dozen joint papers and book chapters, and one book each on these topics.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1940) ****
Each time I read this great piece of literature I discover something new in this many-layered philosophical allegory, satire, this slapstick novel about metaphysics, passion, not accepting the world as it is, the human imagination, salvation and redemption. It is magical realism decades before magical realism. It is about Margarita, the Master’s mistress, who refuses to despair of her lover, a hopeless dreamer who is consigned to a mental asylum, and his one great work of art, a novel about Pontius Pilate. She is invited by the Devil to Walpurgis Night, becomes a witch, commits adultery, and learns to harness her unleashed passions; naked, she flies over the deep forests and rivers of Mother Russia and returns to Soviet Moscow – where nobody wants to believe in the supernatural – to serve as the hostess for Satan’s great ball. Standing by his side, she welcomes the dark celebrities of human history as they pour up from the opened maw of Hell. Ultimately, she is reunited with her lover, who leaves the psychiatric ward, and they are given the eternal rest of Dante’s Limbo. The novel takes place during Easter in 1930 Moscow which is visited by the devil and his retinue – a hilarious gang that seeds confusion everywhere they visit. They target the literary elite and its trade union, MASSOLIT, its headquarter and privileged restaurant, wrecking-havoc among corrupt social-climbers, bureaucrats, profiteers, and their wives and mistresses. The novel also describes a parallel world, just before Passover in Jerusalem two thousand years earlier in which the astrologer’s son, the fifth Procurator of Judea, the cruel Pontius Pilate, condemns an innocent man – Yeshiva Na-Nozri – to death, knowing fully well that he has acted cowardly and then, to calm his troubled mind, instigates the murder of one Judas of Karioth who betrayed Yeshiva. In the end, all resolves itself and climbing onto a broad path of moonlight, a man in a white cloak with a blood-red lining walks besides a young man in a torn chinon and with a disfigured face. The two, Pontius Pilate and Yeshiva, are engaged in a heated but friendly debate. Behind them walks a magnificent, calm, gigantic dog with pointed ears.
No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts (2006)
Well-crafted and illustrated personal account of the climbing exploits of Viesturs from Seattle, America’s preeminent mountaineer. From his early days as a guide for Rainier Mountaineering, as a vet and as a carpenter (enabling him to drop any job at a moment’s notice to go climbing somewhere), to his successful climb of all 14 mountains that are higher than 8,000 meters (26,247 ft; all of these are in the Himalayan and in the Karakoram mountain ranges) and his family life. He was the star climber of the Everest IMAX movie, that took place during the 1996 Everest debacle that cost 8 climbers their life. And he did all of these climbs without oxygen. Climbing any mountain over 8 kilometer tall is not conducive to your health. The ratio of the number of climbers who successfully reach the summit compared to the number who die on the mountain is 7:1 for Everest, 3:1 for K2 and a remarkable 2:1 for Annapurna (of Maurice Herzog fame; this was the first 8,000plus peak to be climbed in 1950). Because of his remarkable success, Viesturs feels compelled to make a bogus probability argument about his risk of dying being so much lower than everybody else’s. It is amazing how people continuously underappreciate the role that chance plays in their life. Other than that, I recommend this book that tries to explain not only why Ed feels compelled to climb but how.
Mickelsson’s Ghosts by John Gardner (1985)
An extended, turbulent and sprawling philosophical ghost-story that descends into campus politics, an ancient incest-murder, a much more recent murder, a maybe murder, a suicide, drunkenness, divorce and madness of one Peter Mickelsson, a once well-known philosopher who has now fallen on hard times at Binghamton University in upstate New York. He misses his college-age children (sic), has various affairs and muses on Kant, Nietzsche (mainly) and Wittgenstein. Pursued by the IRS for failing to pay taxes, his alimony-hungry ex-wife and unpaid bills, he manages to acquire a dilapidated ancient farm house that may, or may not, have once housed Joseph Smith, the founder and prophet of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons originated from this part of the woods). Mickelsson, not the most sympathetic of protagonists, encounters plenty of ghosts, some apparently real, some a figment of his overheated and brooding imagination and some that may be engaged in real criminal enterprises. Murakamis’ A wild sheep chase written a few years later, must have borrowed some elements from Gardner. My version of the book is literally falling apart – the 590 pages are not well glued together and this is the 2. time I’ve read it. Although not lite reading, I highly recommend it. It has much quotable material. To wit: “Such was the fruit of all those eons of evolution, from hydrogen to consciousness: galaxies wailing their sorrow. Music of the spheres.”
The New Quantum Universe by Tony Hey and Patrick Walters (2003) ***
High school textbook with very little mathematics. Does work well at the conceptual level. It has one of the simplest explanation of Bell’s inequality. Considered by many to be the most profound theorem in science, it deals with measurements performed at distant locations on pairs of entangled particles.
The Game by Laurie King (2004) ***
Not nearly as entertaining as her first book in this series (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice). Mary Russell has married (yes, married!) Sherlock Holmes and they have an adventure in British India of the 1920s. There could be a lot of scope for psychological exploration for what it means for the aloof, quasi-Asperger personality of Holmes to be a lover and husband but none of that is even remotely touched upon. Disappointing.
What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami (2008) ***
A slim running journal about his experiences and ruminations during marathons, an ultramarathon and a triathlon. Overall, he adopts a genuine Zen attitude to long distance running. He fails to explain, though, his obsession with running on the clock. He admits that he’s an amateur yet months before any race he’s already concerned whether or not he can run a sub-four hours marathon. I guess I’m way over that – I now run purely for the enjoyment, with very little training and without watch. I’m not gloating here. During last month’s Death Valley marathon, my time was abysmal – no training except one very long run the previous week – yet the scenery was so unique that it was an awesome experience. Why spoil this by constantly glancing at your wristwatch?
The Matrix by Joshua Clover (2004) **
A book length, post-modern interpretation of the eponymous movie (as well as similar edge-of-the-construct cinematic visions as the superb cult movie Dark City). I did learn, however, why Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Mr. Smith and his clones wear those signature shades.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King (1994) ****
A delightful feminist-take on Sherlock Holmes. As is well known, after his final case, Sir Arthur has every thinking man’s favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes retire in Sussex, keeping bees. In this novel, we are introduced to a precocious American teenager, who lost her parents and is about to study theology and mathematics at Oxford. She unexpectedly becomes Holmes’s student, something he never had in real life (as it were). I enjoyed this unconventional pastiche.
The Last Stand of Fox Company by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin (2009) ***
Well written and fast-paced account of the battle over Fox Hill – part of the Chosin Reservoir Debacle in the cold (down to – 30 F) and misery of North Korean’s mountains close to the Chinese border during the Korean War. A few hundred US Marines fought a five-day battle against numerically vastly bigger Chinese forces. Although three-quarter of the Marines died, they held the pass. The book is very good at rendering the chaos, intensity and violence of twentieth-century combat at the level of the individual soldier.
World War One – A Short History by Norman Stone (2007) ***
A short military history about the follies of WW-I. Stone’s dry and ascerbic style emphasizes the massive blunders by politicians and generals on both sides. What is striking is the stunningly horrific losses of this war. Take the battle of the Somme in north-eastern France in summer and fall of 1916. Initiated by the British and French forces, by the time it ended a staggering 1.5 MILLION casualties had occurred on both sides (yet senior officers in the British High Command portrayed the battle as a success). On the opening day alone, close to 20,000 British soldiers died, the bloodiest death toll in UK history; yet the obstinate army persisted for more than 100 days. The British gained approximately three km of German-held territory during this time and lost about 420,000 soldiers in the process, meaning that one centimeter cost more than one soldier! Total killed or missing on both sides in this one battle was around 300,000. Germany lost on average 1,200 soldiers – dead – every single day of the four-year war! And the end, in 1918, was inconclusive. Fighting would erupt again 21 years later into World War Two, which should really be seen as a continuation of WWI. The sheer stupidity of it all; and everybody enthusiastically contributed, from the most exalted academic and intellectuals to the workers. Depressing.
Darwin’s Dogs by Emma Townshend (2009) ***
A fun little monograph on Charles Darwin, the consummate dog lover, his extensive friendship with breeders of dogs and other domesticated animals and how his astute observation of canine behavior influenced his evolutionary thinking. Detailed accounts of various dog behavior appear quite frequently in both The Origin of Species (1859) and, in particular, The Descent of Man (1871).
Read in 2009
Logicomix – An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou (2009) *****
You would think that a 340 pages graphic novel about truth in mathematics would be pretty dry stuff and couldn’t be done. Well, this work of art is totally captivating. The book is centered on the life of Bertrand Russell and his work, with Whitehead, on the Principia Mathematica. Russell was fueled by an obsession, a need to show that logic could be fully based on rigorous formalism so that nothing was left to intuition or to chance. They ended up taking 363 pages to prove “1+1=2”. Other major characters in the book are Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kurt Gödel. It was Gödel, of course, who provided the terminal blow to the ancient belief, growing out of some sort of theological desire, that any sufficiently powerful mathematical statement would have to be either true or false. The graphic artist does a superb job of converting these abstract concerns of the main characters into believable motives helped by the love-life of Russell and his anti-war stance. This is a must-read for anybody concerned with notions of relative and absolute truth and mathematics.
Matter by Iain M. Banks (2008) *****
An utterly compelling hard-core science-fiction novel of the far future, in a galaxy with thousands of distinct human, quasi-human, computer, robot and alien civilizations at different levels of sociological and technological development. These range from the more-or-less medieval culture in which the novel starts out to races so advanced that they have “sublimed”, achieving a sort of immortal godhood as beings of pure energy. The only novels that poses such a grandios and compelling view of multi-threaded natural and artificial life in the universe is Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Matter is no abstract, dispassionate bird eye view of life in the distant future. The book is driven by passion – it follows two brothers and a sister as they try to deal with the brutal murder of their father, a king. The true hero of the novel, though, is an extraordinary creation, the planet Sursamen. This construct, built eons ago by an unknown and extinct civilization, consists of a gigantic series of shells, each a thousand miles apart, filled with different environments – lands, mountains, oceans hundreds of miles deep – lit and heated by internal thermonuclear sun-like sources and interconnected by tunnels that permit travel – for those in the known – between the different levels. Each level is inhabited by different creatures and races. This equilibrium is disrupted by the discovery of a very ancient artifact that comes to life. Matter is a stunning novel and a must read for anybody interested in the ultimate boundaries of technology.
North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings (2004) ***
During my three months sabbatical at Korea University in Seoul, I read a lot of books about both Korea’s. I’m particular fascinated by North Korea, an enigmatic country – where 99% of the population live in a quasi-agrarian, dysfunctional industrial state under highly egalitarian rule, supervised by Communist Institutions and lead by a tiny elite and an effective hereditary king – soon in the 3. generation – who is revered as a God. Indeed, this is very much a continuation of the Confucian tradition and of the way the traditional Korean Joseon kings have been treated. Cumings, a very left leaning professor from the University of Chicago makes the reader understand the seemingly crazy behavior of the North Korean, why they got to be so paranoid. Without condoning the rampart political suppression and famine that has lead to mass starvation he does describe North Korean as a consistent anti-liberal, anti-capitalistic model. The amount of brain washing in North Korea is enormous (among others, all men must spend 10, that is TEN, years in the army without ANY trip home). The end result is a state that is often unable to feed its population. Visiting the DMZ at night and lookig North, one is struck by the near complete absence of any light – they are conserving precious electrical power – or any cars. Yet Cumings argues that the regime will survive, no matter what. They learned from the collapse of East Germany.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985) ***
Being on a Murakami roll, I decided to read this science-fiction novel that is supposedly about he nature of consciousness and the unconscious. It takes places in two distinct worlds, one of them an isolated village surrounded by a high wall. The novel has a dream-like feel to it. It reminded me of the first photorealistic game, the magical Myst. All it all, the novel is too bizarre to recommend it.
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (1989) *****
His best novel. A strange and compelling combination of mystery and detective novel with metaphysical, ghostly and otherwordly elements, combining elements of hard-boiled noir fiction with Japanese anime. It all revolves around a magical sheep.
Deception Point by Dan Brown (2001) **
Absolute trash. Reading this vapid thriller while in a severely jet-lagged state at the airport, I became so feed up with the plot that became predictable around page 10, its bogus science and paper-thin characters, that I threw it in the trash. How did this guy ever become popular? At least, Crichton got his facts straight. Plus, I hate it when I read novels that are thinly disguised screen plays.
After Dark by Haruki Murakami (2007) ****
His usual metaphysical, alienation fare, ever so well written. The action, if we can call it that, takes places over a single night in Tokyo, starting off at a Denny. Spooky, creepy, a compelling read:
Before long there is movement in Eri’s face again — a reflective twitching of the flesh of one cheek, as if to chase away a tiny fly that has just alighted there. Then her right eyelid flutters minutely. Waves of thought are stirring. In a twilight corner of her consciousness, one tiny fragment and another tiny fragment call out wordlessly to each other, their spreading ripples intermingling. The process takes places before our eyes. A unit of thought begins to form this way. Then it links with another unit that has been made in another region, and the fundamental system of self-awareness takes shape. In other words, she is moving, step by step, toward wakefulness.
The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman (1962) ***
Given to me by my brother Michael. A lively description by a historian on the way the World – here taken to mean in the main England, France, Germany and the US – felt in the two decades leading up to the mass killing that was World War 1. A degree of optimism and belief in ever lasting progress, in science, in class and in country that we, children of Dachau and Auschwitz, of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, of Communism and Fascism, of the killing fields of Cambodia and of Global Warming, find difficult to marshal. Particular enlightening for me was the chapter on the Anarchist movement just before the turn of the century. Born out of misplaced idealism, anarchists killed the heads of state of the US (McKinley), of France, of Spain (two different ones), Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and the King Humbert of Italy. The deed was carried out by a single man, who let himself be taken by the police to emphasize the “pure” nature of the deed. Quite a difference to suicide bombings we’re used to.
Sturz durch alle Spiegel by Ursula Priess (2009)
Idiosyncratic but well-crafted autobiographical account (in German) of the relationship between the daughter of the famous Swiss playwright and novelist, Max Frisch, and her dad. They became estranged from each other after he divorced her mother but find, many years later, an uneasy balance. The book reflects, in an interesting manner, the temporally distorting and creative power of memory. That is, unlike computer memory, we often, or perhaps even commonly for long-term personal memories, don’t remember when something occurred nor do we recall what happened but what we think happened.
The Cat in Numberland by Ivar Ekeland (2006) ****
Incredibly imaginative, and beautifully illustrated (by John O’Brien), short “children’s” book about the mathematician Georg Cantor’s ideas of infinity and David Hilbert’s rendition of these difficult ideas in terms of a hotel with infinitely many rooms. In a playful manner, the book illustrates that even though all rooms are occupied by a guest, the hotel can always accommodate twice the number of guests, one of many strange properties of infinity. It can even host all fractions but not all decimals. A true gem!
The Intelligent Portfolio by Christopher Jones (2008) ****
The best book on investing in bonds, mutual funds, stocks, ETF and so on I’ve encountered. It is written for the intelligent layperson. The author, the CEO of an investment company, is a strong believer in the Random Walk theory and tailors his advice accordingly: there is no free lunch, mistrust any get-rich-quick scheme, go for inexpensive index funds, minimize any and all fees, invest for the long-term, be tax-wise and so on. He focuses on the very large fluctuations of financial markets (e.g., the standard deviation of annual returns for the US equity market is an astonishing 20%) and on the relationship between risk (that is, variance) and returns. The book is thoughtful, often analytical, without being prone to endless repetitions and silly examples. In today’s age, when you have the good fortune to be the master of your own financial future but money matters always bored you and you only want to read one book, then let it be this one.
Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (2005) ****
A 500 pages long rousing mystery-historical novel, similar to the Da Vinci Code but more intellectual and of higher literary quality. It weaves back and forth between modern France and the early 13-th century in the Languedoc region of the South of France. The 500 page novel vividly describes the events surrounding the violent suppressions of the Cathars, a religious sect that had strongly Manichaean beliefs that put them at odds with the Catholic Church. A confluence of political and religious forces led to the Albigensian Crusade, during which up to one million inhabitants of these regions were slaughtered, and Occitania lost its independence to the French crown. The storyline is sweeping – even though the denouement at the end is a bit too mystical for my taste. A great read.
The Ladies of Grace Adieut by Susanna Clark (2009) ***
A collection of eight fairy-tales set in the same milieu, the early 19-th century England and the awakening of true Magic as her phenomenal first-time novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that I loved. These stories, focused on women of magic, are simply not of the same engrossing and realistic caliber.
Dog on it by Spencer Quinn (2009)
A short detective novel figuring the standard burnt-out and cynical ex-cop turned private eye (in desert Arizona). What makes this book unusually enjoyable is that it is narrated from the point of the wise and lovable canine companion who does not understand such human concerns as divorce and cash flow problems but who is unfailing loyal to his human partner; he has a very short attention span and is always willing to follow female dog-scents, take treats from any human and relishes a good fight with dogs or people.
Buridans Esel by Gunter de Bruyn (1968) ***
Very well written novel by a East German writer taking place in East Berlin during the communist regime. It describes the trials and tribulations of the head of a local library who leaves his wife and young children to live with a young colleague. However, in the end he cowardly returns to his wife. Conveys the point of view of all three key actors.
Stoner by John Williams (1965) ****
A wonderful sparse, almost existentialist novel of the unremarkable life of a professor of English at a Midwestern University. Stoner, the protagonist who is drawn very sympathetically, leads a tightly constrained life, moving from a poor farmer’s upbringing to the modest poverty of an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, constrained by early 20-th century rural morals. Stoner never leaves the small university town, marries very unhappily, raises one daughter whom his wife deliberately estranges from him, has one passionate love affair, aspires to be a good teacher to his students, and dies of cancer shortly before his retirement. This gem of a novel, little known, is about the quintessential academic life (brought out in the New York Review of Books Classic series.
Wastelands – Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams (2008)
Anthology of short stories concerning the aftermath of usually not further described apocalyptic happenings that end life as we know it. My personal favorite is the very compelling And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear. It has a female biker deliver a special `package’ through the nuclear waste of the American South-West encounter somebody resembling the Baron Samedi. Never despair by Jack McDevitt evokes the powerful oratory of Winston Churchill during the darkest days of World War Two.
The Language of God – A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins (2006)
Like the DNA molecule that the author has been so intimately involved with, this is a double-stranded book. One strand is an autobiographical account of his journey from benign neglect of religion is his childhood home to atheism during university days (on his way to getting his PhD) until a gradual awaking of his spiritual nature in Medical School, culminating in his conversion into an evangelical Christian. At the same time, he became a famed gene hunter – helping to discover the mutation in the gene for cystic fibrosis, a common hereditary disease – and the leader of the worldwide, public effort that lead to the decoding of the human genome. The other strand is the confluence of faith and science. Collins assembles the empirical arguments in favor of belief in a creator God: the existence of something rather than nothing, the creation of the universe in the initial singularity of the Big Bang, the remarkable fine-tuning of physical constant facilitating the emergence of stable and complex elements (anthropic principle), the remarkable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the universe we find ourselves in, evolution by natural selection (a remarkable efficient means for the emergence of conscious creatures), and – with a big nod to CS Lewis – the existence of a Moral Law that is universal to be found in all cultures and at all times. Collins makes a very cohesive argument that he believes in a personal God because rather than despite of science (calling evolution, “God’s way of giving upgrades”). Collins is also a powerful public speaker, addressing for two hours a packed house at Caltech, a seemingly robustly secular high temple dedicated to Science and Technology. Even here, the hunger for the numinal, the search for meaning, cannot be repressed, despite the explicit or implicit disdain that most of my colleagues in academia have for religion (taking religion to mean the fundamental, anti-rational religio-political movement that dominates in the US).
In Hazard by Richard Hughes (1938) ****
A ripping great adventure tale of a steam freighter caught in a terrible hurricane for many days and how some men crack and some thrive under the tremendous stress, the near constant presence of death. The book has a concise summary of one version of the solution of the mind-body problem in the guise of a conversation between two Scottish engineers (it’s easiest to understand if you read it aloud).
“Weel, noo. Are we to tak’ it that a human Chreestian is compoondit o’ three pairts; his body, his min’, an’ his speerit?” MacDonald grunted. “The body dees, the speerit leeves?” MacDonald grunted again. “Than whit o’ the min’? That’s nayther speerit nor body. Yet it’s vera boont up wi’ the body. A disease o’ the body can disease the min’. A blow on the body can blot oot the min’. The min’, like the body, grawls auld an’ decays. The daith o’ the body, tha: is that the daith o’ the min’ tae?” “Alloin’ it to be,” said MacDonald. “Than the future life canna be of a vera pairsonal nature, A’ thinkin’: it is a saft, imbecile sort o’ thing ma speerit would be wi’oot ma min’: nae William Edgar Soutar at a’.”
Being or Nothingness by Joe K (2008?)
I have no idea what to make of this bizarre book that was mailed to me by somebody called “Maurice” from Sweden. It only has 21 pages, plenty of references to Sartre, Kafka, Herman Hesse, Sir Conan Doyle, the Bible and so on. On the cover is Escher’ famous woodcut of the two hands drawing each other. On the inside is a ‘copy’ of a letter to Doug Hofstadter. Is this performance art or part of an elaborate viral campaign?
Read in 2008
Idyll mit ertrinkendem Hund by Michael Köhlmeier (2008)
A tightly composed autobiographical vignette of a writer living in a small Austrian village close to the Rhine. At the occasion of a three day visit of his editor in winter, he reminisces how the tragic climbing death of his 21 years old daughter a few years ago has profoundly affected him and his wife. The author regains a belief in life when something in him refuses to let a dog, who broke through the ice and is drowning, die despite him (i.e. the author) almost freezing to death in the process. Wonderful therapeutic for anybody who has lived through a major family trauma.
The Family that Couldn’t Sleep by Daniel Max (2006)
Very readable account of the discovery of Fatal Familial Insomnia in an Italian family. It is an inherited prion disease and family members have a 50% of having the gene. Its onset is around 50 years and the patient dies within a year from lack of sleep (their thalamus is affected). A truly horrible way to die. Like all prion diseases, it is untreatable and is invariably fatal. Family records trace it back at least two centuries. Max also describes the other prion diseases, in particular kuru – the laughing disease that was endemic to the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea (transmission occurred due to their cannibalistic of eating the brain of their dead relatives), Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as “mad cow disease”) and related diseases in other animals. The disease-causing agent is a protein, PrP. It has a normal form – of unknown function – and a lethal configuration. It is fascinating since this is a disease that involves stereo-chemistry. You take the normal protein, fold it up in a different configuration and many years later it expresses itself in amyloid form in the central nervous system, killing the organism in nasty ways. The book vividly describes all of this, including a colorful cast of characters, in particular Carleton Gajdusek and Stanley Prusiner (both of which won, independently, Nobel Prize; this is rare). The book has an insider twist as the author himself suffers from misfolded proteins, in his case a nonfatal and slowly progressing neuromuscular disease. I recommend this book.
Love Me by Garrison Keillor (2003) ***
Great novel; funny, thoughtful and poignant. The story of a real-life romance, marriage and aging with all the warts of real life. Adult version of the Prairie Home Companion with more sex and anti-republican rants.
Isaac Newton by Gale Christianson (2005) ***
Pithy (ca 120 pages) and worthwhile biography of Newton, arguably the greatest genius-as-scientist who ever lived. It made me appreciate the extent to which Newton was both an intuitive experimentalist and one of the most gifted mathematicians ever. Newton was only 24 when he invented calculus with fluxions – quantities with a constant rate of change. By then he had also carried out the famous prism experiments and had the first insight into universal gravitation.
Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (2008) **
An implausible historical, literary, ghostly murder mystery with elements of a love story interwoven. It takes place in both the 21. century Cambridge – involving a neuroscientist working on psychotic neuro-active agents and a radical animal rights group – and the historical Newton turning to alchemy at Trinity College in Cambridge of the late 17th century. The novel has a ghost from the 17th century killing somebody in contemporary England. The book starts out strong but then descends into nonsense.
Liberty Bar by Georges Simenon (1932) ***
A classical Inspector Maigret novel. Tight and sparse prose, about murder, human weakness, lust and alcohol among the beautiful surroundings of the Cote D’Azur and about somebody who had it all but who, in middle age, threw it all away because he could not resist temptation. Not cynical but sad & poignant. Recommended.
Spook Country by William Gibson (2006) ***
A continuation of his earlier novel Pattern Recognition. It deals with the familiar Gibsonian themes of the nature of art and media (he introduces locative art, that exploits a combination of VR and GPS-sensitive interactive art), the socio-cultural effects of advanced technology, the privatization of functions previously carried out by the government and the shady underbelly of society, inhabiting by post 9/11 intelligence and military operatives as well as criminals and private individuals with unclear motivations (but a far cry from the much more free-wheeling Sprawl that figures so prominently in his earlier signature cyberpunk stories). The novel follows a variety of characters around Los Angeles (at the W and the Standard) and New York who don’t know what they are doing until they all converge at a warehouse in Vancouver. The denouement is a bit thin but that’s not the point of the novel.
Against Love – A Polemic by Laura Kipnis (2003) ***
A witty, and at times very funny cultural-study tract considering the many and varied benefits of adultery. One of Kipnis’ often repeated points is that the prevalence of adultery constitutes a referendum on modern monogamy. With roughly half of all marriages ending in divorce, perhaps it is time to change the institution itself. She argues that it could not survive without being constantly ideological reinforced via the idealization of romantic love as the sine qua non norm in pop-culture, movies, books, songs, religious institutions, and the law (in most countries, bigamy is a crime). Viewed from a Marxist point of view, marriage is too much work and not enough play and submitting to the repressive regime of marriage that she lovingly describes in pages upon pages (based, perhaps, on personal experiences) of ascerbic prose, is simply a private enactment of a larger social conformity demanded by capitalism. And so she sounds the clarion call: when romantic love and sex become buried under careers, childen, and daily life, adultery liberates the adulterer. Like any polemic, she chooses not to defend the other side. She never mentions the obvious powerful biological urges that drives the vast majority of us to serial monogamy and completely sidelines the stability, friendship, and love that can be found in so many long-term marriages. Read this not for a penetrating analysis about the flaws in this ancient institution and what could be done to make it more sustainable in today’s culture but for some very funny prose and great quotes. For example,Adultery is the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work ethic;
It is at least a reliable way of proving to ourselves that we’re not quite in the ground yet.
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (1915) ****
His all-time classic, partly autobiographical novel of self-discovery, liberty, determinism versus freedom, the meaning of life, and the various shades of love. At its heart is the obsessional relationship between the protagonist, Philip, and the vulgar cockney waitress Mildred that almost proves his doom. He is deeply enslaved to her, against his will, and he knows this and, yet, is powerless to do anything about it. This brings to mind Spinoza’s Ethics, “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions,” where Spinoza writes
The impotence of man to govern or restrain the [emotions] I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master, but is mastered by fortune, in whose power he is, so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he sees the better before him.
Truer words never spoken.
Artifacts – An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley by Christine Finn (2001) ***
Interesting account of one year – 2000, the height of the dot com bubble – a British archaeologist, actually more of a social anthropologist, spent in and around Silicon Valley. Her main vehicles are interviews – including one with Carver Mead. She considers the culture and its traditional roots, its transition from rural to hypermodern, its artifacts and what is lost in the hubris and the Über-emphasis on speed and technology.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006) ****
Wonderful account of the romantic and brutal aspects of circuit life in Depression-era ‘Small Town America’ told from the vantage point of the protagonist growing old and senile in a nursing home; his feelings of helplessness and anger that he experiences in such a setting are well described. He recounts his early life as a 23 year-old dropout from Cornell following the sudden death of his parents in a car accident and his running away with a circus. The protagonist finally finds happiness after death, murder and a stampede. A roaring good read.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeff Zaslow (2008)
Very well written, short instant classic of the inspirational literature. Pausch, a CS proofessor at CMU, is diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Following a beautiful germanic academic tradition of giving a last lecture – summarizing and celebrating one’s lifetime academic achievements (Abschiedsvorlesung) – he focusses on his childhood dreams and how critical they are forming a happy, and situated and ethical person. A bit sentimental at times. In the face of certain death, Pausch clearly has lust and zest for life – he talks ever so fondly about his father, his wife, his children, his students, his doctoral adviser and other heroes in his life. Despite the fluff, definitely to be recommended.
The Philosopher’s Dog – Friendships with Animals by Raidmond Gaita (2002) **
This book should be for me – the author, a moral philosopher, goes gaga over dogs and he used to be an avid mountain climber. Lot’s of interesting anecdotes concerning the canine (and the feline and the birdish) and the alpine (and his father) abound. The central theme of the book is how knowledge of our death makes us different from animals. He offers some strange opinions without further justifications (unconditional love has no application to animals). Overall, while a fine piece of writing on friendship with animals it is not cut from a single, intellectually convincing monolithic block.
We Think the World of You by Joe Ackerley (1960) **
Depressing and strange novel about a psychological timid and stunted gay man who develops an obsession with a German shepherd, Evie. She comes to completely dominate his life. Set in the outskirts of impoverished post-WWII London among working class people. I have an intense relationship to dogs – can’t pass one without talking to it – but this is unnatural.
The Seeker by Sudhir Kakar (2007) ***
A historical novel, based on private letters and diary entries of Madeline Slade, the daughter of a high British naval officer, who joined Mahatma Gandhi in his Indian ashram, dedicated to self-discipline, austerity and tolerance. The book describes in compelling manner the intensity, dedication and intense need for purity that drives a spiritual person such as Madeline to live what most of us would consider a life of extreme deprivation and poverty and how in the end she runs up against the limitations of her own psychology. This is a nice quote, epitomizing the sense of the book.
Perhaps I still doubted whether a life of the mind (and at least a modicum of the senses) I had envisaged for myself would also provide enough nourishment for my spirit. Fifty years later, I realize that I still do not have an answer. Perhaps this is a question to which there are no answers, or one to which each must find the answer on his own. I still wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed with Bapu (Ghandi), immersed in a cause greater than myself, guided through the journey of life by a man people have likened to the Buddha and Jesus. Instead I chose to strike out on my own, with a road map of happiness that detailed ways of satisfying the needs and longings of my self. Yes, I chose to seek pleasure, however balanced and sensible my pursuit might have been.
Read in 2007
Jerusalem – City of Mirrors by Amos Elon (1989) ***
A collection of essays about the fascination that the Holy city of Jerusalem has exerted on the Western mind for the past three thousand years. A great counter-point to Michener’s The Source, it gives a sweeping view of this city’s bloody history, and its collection of zealots and sinners and saints and plain nut cases (of course these categories are often indistinguishable) who have been attracted to Jerusalem. The book covers the post 1967 period, when Jews, for the first time since the Roman empire took over direct control around the time of Jesus’ birth, control all of the city again. The book has minatory words for the future – it remains unclear whether in this new age of religious extremism, any stable and peaceful solution to people of very different sensibilities co-existing side by side can be found. I read this book as I was enjoying the warm hospitality of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Guesthouse, with a spectacular view from my bedroom window of the walls of the Old City built in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent. Every night, I would venture forth to some part of the Old City. After a while, however, the city and the inhabitants with their obsession with the past and with living according to obscure rules set down hundreds and even thousands of years ago, in a completely different age, became oppressive. Elon’s book well expresses this. Take the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which five competing Christian sects jealously guard their particular fraction of the sanctum. The city is all about the past and only very little about the future. I happily made my escape to America, which is the opposite. For better or for worse, the fault-lines of the future run through California.
The Fabric of the Cosmos – Space, Time and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene (2004) ****2
Exceedingly well written romp through modern fundamental physics, from quantum mechanics, special and general relativity to inflationary cosmology (the masterful written chapters 10 and 11), superstrings and beyond. Himself a superstring theorist (as if there were an experimental superstring physicist) at Columbia, Greene has a gift for the well-turned metaphor. His topic is, of course, awe inspiring. Just consider that quantum fluctuations in the pre-inflationary universe (a trillionth of a trillionths second after the beginning of the universe) gave rise to the large scale distribution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies we observe today. Thus, fluctuations at the smallest of scales determines what happens at the largest of all scales (and then some people consider the brain a deterministic system)! Highly recommended to the educated reader; it is not an easy read.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (2006)
More than two dozen surreal short stories dealing with loss, alienation, the many ways that love can develop and the essential strangeness and unfathomability of life. My favorites are “Man-eating cats” and “The kidney-shaped stone that moves every day”. Reminescent of Kafka.
Les Adventures de Tintin: L’Etoile Mysterieuse by Herge (1941)
A one day academic conference took place on at the Jerusalem guesthouse where I was staying. Out of sentimentality – I read all 23 adventures as an adolescent growing up in Marocco – I bought his tenth adventure and enjoyed the clear, expressive drawing style and the warmly rendered stock characters – Tintin and his inseparable terrier Milou, Captain Haddock, and the single-minded and obsessed scientists.
The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev (2001)
Translated from the Hebrew. A folksy, whimsical and fantastic account of the founding of an agricultural cooperative by Ukrainian Jews in a swampy part of the Galilee. The novel spans three generation of idiosyncratic individuals, their trials, tribulations, loves and hates, all told by the grandson of the founder, who ends a fat, rich and exiled undertaker.
The Pea and the Sun – A Mathematical Paradoxon by Leonard Wapner (2005) ***
A non-mathematical introduction into set theory and transfinite numbers, culminating in a thorough discussion of the famous Banach-Tarski Paradox. Take a sphere in three or more dimensions and partition it into four non-overlapping subsets. When these are appropriately moved around and re-assembled, you end up with two balls, each with the same volume as the original sphere! No cheating occurs – the subsets are only translated and rotated, no stretching or adding of new matter. This violates our deeply held intuitions about conservation of space/volume. Controversial when it was published by the two Polish mathematicians Banach and Tarski in 1924, this result is now accepted as a consequence of the axiom of choice. The paradox does not apply to ‘real’ physical space as the subsets in question are non-measurable – they can’t be obtained by cutting the sphere with a knife (but maybe with Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife from his His Dark Materials). Ultimately, the Banach-Tarski paradox is a further weird consequence of infinite numbers and sets similar to Hilbert’s Hotel with its infinite rooms. Wapner’s book does an admirable job of conveying the relevant mathematics in just over 200 pages.
Hidden Dimensions – The Unification of Physics and Consciousness by Alan Wallace (2007) ****
A gifted writer with a background in physics as well as a Buddhist monk, Wallace makes several intriguing arguments in this easy-to-read monograph. Most cogently, Wallace argues that science must make a more serious attempt to study the phenomenological mind. Science spends untold hundred of millions of dollars each year on studying the objective, third person manifestations of the subjective, conscious mind – think of fMRI experiments in humans or electrophysiological investigations of animal cognition. Yet we mind-brain scientists only make use of very crude and unsophisticated descriptions of the subjective attributes of the phenomenological mind. We ask subjects to rate the intensity of some stimulus as ‘low’ or ‘high’ or whether or not subjects saw a briefly flashed face. Yet any serious meditative practice involves 1,000 to 10,000 or more hours of training to contemplate the mind, without distraction of forms, of percepts, of memories, of thoughts, of positive or negative emotions, of desires, wants and fears. With the right attitude, these techniques are as reliable as any scientific method (which likewise require year of practice in the form of graduate school and post-doctoral apprenticeship). I do agree with the author that the contemplative, Eastern traditions have a lot to teach to Western science of the mind.
Wallace’s second, more lengthy argument is that the modern view of physics as provided by quantum mechanics and ancient Buddhists beliefs are congruent. Both assert that the classical distinction between subject and object is illusory, that both are deeply linked and that the so-called measurement problem – think of Schrödinger’s cat, Heisenberg’s uncertainty relationship, the collapse of the wave function, the many-worlds interpretation of Everett and so on – and consciousness depend on each other. One can’t exist without the other, a variant of Idealism (without subject no object). While this is an appealing notion, the actual evidence on the ground that the brain relies in some non-trivial sense on macroscopic quantum phenomena, in particular on entanglement, is non-existent. Mind you, at 300 degrees Kelvin, the brain is very hot. It is also wet and strongly coupled to the environment. All of this makes it very unlikely that the brain is a quantum computer. All the evidence is in favor of the ‘boring’ hypothesis that at the scale relevant for its behavior, the brain obeys classical physics. Furthermore, ever since I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics donkey years ago, I’m skeptical of the highly selective interpretation of these two radical different domains of thought. As pointed out by Peter Tse, these similarities should be viewed next to the significant incompatibilities between the two – for instance, the Buddhists belief in reincarnation, in various forms of extrasensory perception, and other spooky stuff with no hard-nosed evidence. Anyhow, I enjoyed reading the book and ordered Wallace’s most recent one.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996) ****
Wonderful moving account of the peripatetic, post-College, two-year long peregrination – in the original sense of pilgrimage – of Chris McCandless (alias Alexander Supertramp) throughout the American West and his death from starvation in the Alaskan wilderness north of Mt. McKinley in August of 1992. An intense, idealistic young man from an educated and privileged background, Chris was obsessed by a need for Tolstoyian purity and poverty, living a rigorous, monkish life without any of the trappings of modern civilization, and a need for adventure. Far from being suicidal, Chris managed to survive for more than 100 days in the wilderness on 10 pounds of rice he took along, whatever berries and roots he could scrounge up and on what he could shoot. It reminds me of what the philosopher Richard Watson has written about such driven personalities
Suicide? Don’t be absurd. They don’t want to die. They don’t intend to die. They choose to do something very difficult right at the limits of human possibility in order to savor the joy and satisfaction of having done it. The risk is essential. It defines how hard it is. Even more, risk of death raises awareness of life to a peak. Socrates said, Know thyself. On the edge we are reminded of our mortality, knowledge of which makes us human.
That’s the way to live my life! Krakauer uses elements of an earlier, autobiographical story that I love – The Devils Thumb from his collection of essays, entitled Eiger Dreams, about his three week long solo climb of an isolated mountain in Alaska – to explain why some men, driven by unresolved psychodynamic conflicts, find such intense, solitary high-risk experiences so very life-affirming. I confess that I only read the book after I saw the eponymous movie that closely follows the book and the life of Chris.
How to be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson (2007) ***
Fun and quick read by the British editor of a magazine, The Idler. A tongue-in-check counterweight to Pieper’s book on leisure. Questions the strong association in Western cultures – in particular in protestan, Anglo-Saxon countries – between idleness and wasting time. The book makes the interesting sociological observation that never has such a large fraction of the middle classes worked so hard than today – despite technology, labor-saving devices, extension of life span, pension systems and so on. This certainly applies to me. Yet I find it almost impossible to relax, to truly enjoy life. I feel the need to work hard, or play hard, or run 20 miles, or read a book a day. It’s a compulsion.
Wendepukte im Lebenslauf by Jürg Willi (2007) ***
A Swiss-Germany psychoanalyst’s musing about personality development following drastic changes in life circumstances (death of a loved one, unemployment, divorce). He points out the dramatic loss in the way one interprets the meaning of one’s life and its significance when leaving any long-term relationship. Many years or even decades of joint experiences are rent asunder with profound consequences for one’s sense of wholeness.
Leisure – The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper (1948) ***
Originally published in German as Musse und Kult. On the importance of leisure, or contemplative celebration or serenity. Citing Aristotle’s “we are not-at-leisure in order to be at-leisure”, Pieper argues that leisure is at the basis of true culture and that Modernity, with its insistence on total work, is forgetting this at its own peril. Today, leisure is only meant to serve as a reprieve from work, to make us more efficient or more creative. Leisure stands opposed to this exclusive ideal of work as social function. Leisure does not exist for the sake of work. It is of a higher order than the world of work. Its justification is not that the worker should function faultlessly and without a breakdown, but that he should be a man (in this sense, leisure is totally opposed to laziness, idleness or sloth). Pieper reminds us of the ancient origin of liberal arts. The Artes liberales are those studies that serve no useful function, that are only justified in themselves – while the artes serviles are those practices that lead to useful knowledge including the sciences, engineering, law, and medicine. The book serves as a wonderful antidote, as a counterpoint, to the attitude to life I, and most of my colleagues and friends, embody but that is so difficult to give up: despite, or possible because, of our vast technological powers, we work more than any other educated people in history!
Straw Dogs – Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray (2002)
A cynical pessimist muses about human nature, so-called progress – illusory except in the sciences – vices of Christianity, the imbecility of any sort of religious beliefs and other edifying themes. Well written but predictably Cioran-like dreary. Can’t recommend it.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957) ****
Well, I finally read this quintessential ‘Beat Generation’ novel in its 50-th anniversary edition – identical to the original scroll the way Kerouac wrote it in 1951. It is a continuous stream-of-consciousness creation and a great, hyperkinetic account of Kerouac and his friend criss-crossing America in search of adventure, girls, music, and booze. The last trip the book recounts, from Denver to Mexico City in a few days, is a blow-out and a must read. I love the book’s raw and unsophisticated energy, enthusiasm and zest for life “…because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing…but burn, burn burn like a roman candles across the night.” I understand well why this book had such a big impact on the adolescent male mind.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (2007) ****
When hiking over an alpine pass, have you ever suddenly come across a gorgeous mountain valley filled with horrible condos, ski lifts and hotel and have indulged in the seductive fantasy `what if there wouldn’t be any people around?’ If the answer is yes, this book is for you. An original and utterly compelling, if morbid and sad, investigation into the future of our planet sans people. In a doomsday scenario reminiscent of “The Quiet Earth” or “The Day of the Trifids” or countless other science fiction movies and novels, the author extrapolates into the proximal and distal future with the aid of archeologists, biologists, physicists, engineers and others. Weisman starts by imagining what would happen to our houses and homes if people would simply disappear – wiped out by a virus or whisked away by aliens. He figures it would take Nature between 100 and 1,000 years to reclaim these, depending on how much stonework was used in their construction. What would happen to Manhattan? Within a day or two, the subway would flood and within a few years, wolfs and other wild animals would shaunt central park, cats would become feral and hunt the grossly increased bird population, and Lexington Avenue would cave in, becoming a river in the process. Weisman visits places that have been left alone for decades – the DMZ between the two Koreas, the 30 km ‘Zone of Alienation’ around Chernobyl, the Green Zone in Cyprus – to observe how quickly Nature reclaims these regions. He figures that there are still enough open lands with enough wild animals today that they could rapidly do away with our domesticated animals we raise for food, work or companionship (except for cats). However, this will not be true anymore a century from now, when humanity will have wrecked so much of the planet that only the suitably evolved successors of our domesticated plants and animals will have filled ecological niches occupied and swept clean by mankind. The most chilling chapters are on the legacy left by plastic and nuclear energy, lasting well into geological times. Neither existed 50 years ago; now about 500 nuclear reactors litter the planet and 100 million tons of non-bio-degradable plastics are produced every year. Among the longest lasting human artifacts are the presidential portraits on Mount Rushmore – made out of granite in a geological very stable part of the country – and the two spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 that have entered the distant realms of the solar system where the sun’s influence gives way to those of other stars. Parts of the book make for desolate reading. In my younger days, I was ‘Gung Ho’ about the future of mankind. Now, when I see the mess we have made of our planet, I frequently despair. This situation brings to mind Shelly’s Ozymandias:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Given the accelerating pace of technological development and economic expansion, this can’t go on for very much longer without some large scale catastrophic, planetary-wide reorientation, forcing us to live within a dramatically reduced footprint (shades of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”). A must read!
The Magus by John Fowles (1977) ***
A novel that follows its hero, a rather flawed but intelligent cynic with few ambitions, as he falls unwittingly under the spell of a very rich and unusual patron while teaching on a hauntingly beautiful and distant Greek island in the early 1950s. This patron manipulates the hero using a large cast of actors and actresses for unclear reasons. While the first few 300 pages are written in a very compelling and engaging manner, the increasingly unrealistic arc of the story, the ever less compelling coincidences, the passive nature of the hero, put me off the story. I was glad it was over (by page 670!).
Descartes – A Biography by Desmond Clarke Barrett (2006) ***
An exhaustive (at close to 500 pages) but not exhausting account of the peripatetic life of René Descartes, the foremost philosopher of the modern, scientific age (1596 – 1650). The Irish scholar Desmond places Descartes’s life into context, explaining the prevailing philosophical, social and historic forces within which Descartes lived and acted. Descartes comes across as a genius for his seminal contributions to physics (his principle of inertia), mathematics (Cartesian coordinate systems), physiology and metaphysics but not as a pleasant fellow, a recluse, excessively adulatory to those above him and hypersensitive to criticism from his peers. The book highlights the obfuscation of medieval scholasticism with their endless forms (e.g. a burning piece of wood has an inherent property, a form, called “burning”), their disdain for acquiring new knowledge, their endless re-interpretations in the light of The Philosopher (aka Aristotle). Descartes sweeps all of this away with his theory of knowledge that opens the epistemic gap between our subjective feelings and objective, external realities by explaining such sensations as heat, light or hunger in terms of the action of particles that are only distinguished by their size, shape and motion. The book well describes the sociology of European scholars and their mode of interactions. In some cases, nothing has changed from today: when there was an intellectual dispute involving Descartes, the University of Utrecht set up a committee of professors to report on it! Other things have changed, as the style of academic disputes among natural philosophers appears to be more gentile today. Witness the title of this treatise (1640): A sponge with which to clean the filth of the objections that James Primrose, Doctor of Medicine, recently published against the Theses in support of Blood Circulation that were recently disputed at Utrecht University.
Irrational man – A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett (1958) ****
A highly readable account of the crisis of Modern Man as expressed most coherently within Existentialism. His account of the decline of rationality, what he calls the dream of the “Crystal Palace” (think of the Victorian world exhibit in London in the mid 19. century), the attendant decline of the luminous Medieval dream of an orderly and comprehensible world, with God located at the apex, is masterful. He traces the roots of existentialism from Plato, Christian sources, Hebraism and Hellenism until he comes to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. What becomes apparent is the barren pursuit of these latter thinkers, obsessed with such topics as dread, nausea, essence and being; far, far removed from the ancient Greeks desire to comprehend the world in a rational manner. Some quotes from the book:
And the final solution for Job is not in the rational resolution of the problem, any more than it ever does in life, but in a change and conversion of the whole man.
Plato’s is the classic and indeed archetypal expression of a philosophy which we may now call essentialism, which holds that essence is prior in reality to existence. Existentialism, by contrast, is the philosophy that holds existence to be prior to essence. The history of Western philosophy has been one long conflict, sometimes explicit, but more often hidden and veiled, between essentialism and existentialism.
Most people, of course, do not want to recognize that in certain crises they are being brought face to face with the religious center of their existence. Such crises are simply painful and must be got through as quickly and easily as one can. Why, in any case, should the discovery of the religious come to us at the moment in which we feel most sundered and alone, as Abraham did on Mount Moriah or as Kierkegaard did face to face with his own deprivation? Kierkegaard’s answer to this is pretty traditional: “The fear of the Lord”, says the Bible, “is the beginning of wisdom”; and for modern man, before that fear and as a threshold to it, are the fear and trembling in which we begin to be a Self.
But the whole man is not whole without such unpleasant things as death, anxiety, guilt, fear and trembling, and despair, even though journalists and the populace have shown what they think of these things by labeling any philosophy that looks at such aspects of human life as “gloomy” or “merely a mood of despair.” We are still so rooted in the Enlightenment – or uprooted in it – that these unpleasant aspects of life are like the Furies for us: hostile forces from which we would escape. And, of course, the easiest way to escape the Furies, we think, is to deny that they exist. It seems to me no accident at all that modern depth psychology has come into prominence in the same period as Existentialism and for the same reason: namely, that certain unpleasant things the Enlightenment had dropped into the limbo of the unconscious have begun to backfire and have forced themselves finally upon the attention of modern man.
The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem (1967) ****
A thoughtful reflection on evolution, self-organization, and the inability to communicate with a radical different life form. This short book takes the form of a science fiction novel in which a space ship, the “Invincible,” lands on a desert planet and is confronted by totally alien machine-life. After the death of a civilization of biological creatures, their surviving machine artifacts fought each other and finally, after eons of selection pressure, evolved into tiny, cellular-like, hexagonal organisms that can aggregate – if the need arises – into gigantic cloud-like colonies with highly adaptive behaviors. Written many years before the birth of Artificial Life, Lem is pessimistic about the possibility of fundamentally incompatible creatures understanding each other.
Bethlehem Road Murder by Batya Gur (2004) ****
Her last novel involving the pensive Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon of the Jerusalem police. A very slow-moving and thoughtful and terrifying murder mystery. It starts out with this clarion call:
There comes a moment in a person’s life when he fully realizes that if he does not throw himself into action, if he does not stop being afraid to gamble, and if he does not follow the urgings of his heart that have been silent for many a year – he will never do it.
From Bauhaus to our House by Tom Wolfe (1981) ****
Wonderful essay in book-form, nay, a hilarious diatribe against the excesses of modern, i.e. Bauhaus, architecture. He describes how Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Gropius (aka the White Prince) invented their minimalist style on anti-bourgeois-principles, ending up with the soulless naked, steel, glass & concrete buildings we associated with modernism (and some forms of post-modernism). Following the rise of the Nazis, this arcane and esoteric cult of the minimal (‘less is more’) was then imported to America where it took hold among university architectural departments, inhibiting and delaying the emergence of a genuine American style of architecture. Chapter V “The Apostates” is the apotheosis of Wolfe’s book, dealing in one fell swoop with the sterility of much of modern art in painting, music, photography, philosophy and architecture. Personally, I never understood why people – including my parents – held the Bauhaus in such high esteem since most of their houses and offices were sans life, devoid of the organic, cold. Why would anybody sane want to live in such a building if they didn’t have to? (however, let it be said that two of the most comfortable chairs I own are Bauhaus designed: Breuer’s Wassily Chair and the Rietveld’s chair, built by my son Alexander; and three of Josef Albers color prints ‘homage to the square’ given to me by my father, hang in my lab). Wolfe is a gifted writer: “which is to say, the proper concern of philosophy was the arcane of the philosophical clerisy itself”, “as the Eagle screamed his supremacy in the twentieth century”.
Free Will – A very short introduction by Thomas Pink (2004) **
Unsatisfactory defense of libertarian freedom – a position I am very sympathetic to – by purely philosophical arguments combined with appeal to common sense (where would physics or biology be if physicists or biologists would limit themselves to understanding biological creatures, elementary particles or the cosmos in terms of our common-sense notions of time, space, wave, particle and so on). There is almost complete disregard for any scientific arguments for or against the various positions on free will that philosophers have advocated (Pink concentrates almost exclusively on Hume, Hobbes, Kant, Acquinas, Calvin; the 20-th century and its discoveries seems to have passed him by). This monograph represents the worst kind of armchair philosophizing, uninformed by and seemingly indifferent to relevant knowledge gained by studying animal decision making, studies of patients with relevant brain lesions, a thorough discussion of the physics and the mathematics of causation). Pink offers a vague account in which ‘libertarian freedom’ can influence events without amounting to either a random choice of yet another cause.
The Wandering Jew by Stefan Heym (1981) ***
Translated from the German novel Ahasver. A retelling of the story of Ahasverus, condemned to walk the earth until Christ returns for refusing to offer Jesus a temporary resting place when he carried the cross to Golgotha. Similar to – but not as powerful as – The Master and Margarita, it jumps back and forth between the career of a spineless protestant elder in post-reformation Germany, and his seduction by Lucifer, and the modern day German Democratic Republic (now fortunately defunct).
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (2006) **
Fast-paced and quite violent cyberspace crime noire, cyber-punk novel that takes place in San Francisco of the 25. century. It assumes that you can download your mind into any body (sleeve). If the body is killed you download a backup copy of your mind – sans the latest personal memories, of course – into the next sleeve. I should write a critique of this from the point of view of present-day neuroscience.
The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan (2006) ****
Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. Such a superb, clear and compelling thinker and writer. The actual topic is more on natural knowledge but Sagan touches on questions of why people believe, the weird and highly idiosyncratic nature of beliefs, the question of God, what can science confidently assert (plus, of course, on Sagan’s signature themes of astronomy, SETI and nuclear winter). An excellent job and a superbly edited book. I recommend it highly.
Read in 2006
Next by Michael Crichton (2006)
Crichton has turned into a cynic – every character in this novel about human-animal chimera and the academic/biotechnology establishment – is a sleaze ball driven by lust, publicity, or greed. I think he’s been living to long in La-La land; I can’t recommend the book. Crichton does not have a feel for what drives academic scientists. He is right, though, about the deleterious effects of granting patents on genes.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (1958)
Pleasant travel and mountaineering yarn of two young men of the ‘beat’ generation in San Francisco and the High Sierras.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004) *****
An amalgamation of the social sensibility of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens with the imagery and fantasy of JR Tolkien. Takes place in a fictitious England during the Napoleonic Wars when true “magic” is being rediscovered. It’s like the historic England except for select acts of magic. Although 800+ pages long, this is truly a novel that I wished would have been twice as long. I finished it very late on Christmas Eve. My favorite novel of 2006. Outstanding
Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes (1637 and 1640)
Foundational texts of Western Philosophy and Rationalism.
Grown-Up Marriage by Judith Viorst (2003)
Folksy but enjoyable account of marriages and the problems they encounter from a psychoanalyst.
Descartes’ Secret Notebook by Amir Aczel (2005)
A quick read of Descartes’ life; not very penetrating. Talks a bit about his mathematics and Euler’s polyhedral formula, faces + vertices = edges +2 that Descartes discovered almost a century before Euler.
Intuition by Allegra Goodman (2005)
A realistic depiction of life as a post-doc in a high-pressure cancer biology lab. It shows how fraud could happen and makes it plausible. Although not written by a scientist, the author faithfully captures the atmosphere and typifies the various scientific personae in a sympathetic manner. Has overtones of the David Baltimore case.
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2006)
Readable, semi-fictionalized account of the lives of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt. One problem is that it’s left unclear what actually happened and what is purely imaginary.
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (2006)
Somewhat disappointing collections of short stories. Nothing like Neverwhere.
Scream Queens of the Dead Sea by Gilad Elbom (2004)
Very funny and quite outrageous at times. The front-page, “Sex! Heavy Metal! Linguistics!”, gives it pretty much away.
The Question of God by Armand Nicholi (2002) ****
An interwoven biography of CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud and how they dealt with the question of God. Very well written. PBS made this lecture series into a superb DVD.
Chasing Daylight by Eugene O’Kelly (2006)
OK biographical account of an executive who discovers he only has a short time left to live.
Francis Crick – Discoverer of the Genetic Code by Matt Ridley (2006)
Precise, insightful and very readable account of Francis’ life. Paints a very vivid picture of his personality and what drove him. Matt had some personal acquaintance with Francis and also interviewed me extensively about him. Probably the best biography for years to come.
The Primordial Emotions by Derek Denton (2005) ***
Short and very readable account of the evolution of consciousness across a variety of species. Its center of gravity is an interoceptor driven theory of consciousness, focusing on animal and human experiments manipulating thirst, hunger, breathlessness, micturition (the need to urinate), pain, temperature control, ejaculation and so on.
Darkness Visible – A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990) ***
Classical account of a writer’s descent (and ascent) into living hell in the form of a severe and acute depression that almost ended in suicide. In this slim volume, the author honestly tries to describe his internal state and speculates on the various causes and effects of depression. I wasn’t as impressed with it as I felt I should have been from the book’s reputation. But I suspect it is like trying to explain color to a color-blind person. If you don’t have a morbid, negative personality you have grave difficulties understanding this horrible condition.
The Search – How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Batelle (2005)
Humdrum, not very analytical, journalistic account of Google.
Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (2006)
Poetry by the Canadian singer while living in a Zen Monastery on Mt. Baldy, 20 miles from here.
The Wine of Wisdom by Mehdi Aminrazavi (2005) ****
Insightful book on the life, poetry and philosophy of Omar Khayyam and his enormously influential Ruba’iyatt with his quatrains. Discusses his variable reception in the West. I can recommend it highly.
Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies by Nancey Murphy (2006)
A readable monograph on a theological account of the mind-body problem on the background of physicalism. Makes the interesting historical point that the belief in dualism was not necessarily co-extensive with the belief in resurrection and an eternal afterlife.
Read in 2005
Pompeii by Robert Harris (2004) ****
Another great novel by the British historian; he is particularly good and making you feel what it was like to be a Roman, to think roman thoughts.
Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (1975) ****
The book by the Australian philosopher that gave the modern animal rights movement its intellectual underpinnings. Compelling. This is the updated 2002 edition.
Rethinking Life and Death by Peter Singer (1994) ****
A must-read book on traditional ethics, to what extent they don’t meet our modern needs and (subtitle) how to construct an ethics for the 21. century.
State of Fear by Michael Crichton (2004) *
Takes a strong anti-global warming perspective by selective (but correct) citations of the literature. The bad guys are a global-spanning, terrorist environmental organization, an evil twin of Greenpeace, with the usual Crichtonian arc that ends in disaster. Was the novel co-sponsored by Fox News? Crichton loses much of my respect.
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (2005)
The usual fantastic, surreal Gaiman fare, well presented.
Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon (1952)
My first Simenon novel (a stunning half a billion copies of his books have been sold). Stark existentialist prose about a well-off Parisian who suddenly one afternoon leaves his wife, family, house and business for no compelling reason, on a whim. A strangely compelling psychological drama.
iCon – Steve Jobs – The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business by Jeffrey Young & William Simon (2005)
The Runner by Richard Watson (1981)
A sparse, existentialist novel of an obsessive-compulsive runner and his – on the whole – sad life and lack of any meaningful connections. Nothing as compelling as his The Philosopher’s Diet (see below).
Happiness – The Science Behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle (2005)
Popular account of the psychology of happiness. The principal take-home message is the disparity what people want (i.e. money, fame) and what makes them content (family, marriage, social engagement).
Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1993) ***
Acceptable, fourth volume. I then re-read the first volume of the original trilogy Foundation. Although I loved it when I first came upon it as a teenager, I found the characters stilted and one-dimensional. I still love the series for the vast canvas in space and time that it paints upon. Curiously, in Asimov’s Galactic Empire, no significant advances in biotechnology have been made from today. No Internet either. Asimov’s creativity is focused onto progress in physics and in the material sciences.
Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks (2005) ****
Delightful travel journal as Sacks visits Mexico with some botanical friends looking for ferns (yeah, ferns like in plants). I loved it.
Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (2005) ****
I like Diamond and his universal, catholic view of the sciences and the history. This book didn’t disappoint, in particular his superb discussion of the demise of the Viking settlements in Greenland and the Eastern Island.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (2005)
A very perceptive novelistic account, in the form of a mystery story, of a teenage boy with Autism/Asperger. The extent to which his thought-patterns resemble that of a scientist (i.e. myself) is disconcerting.
The Shining Company by Rosemary Sutcliff (1990)
Pleasant historical adolescent novel set in Arthurian England by the author of the impressive Sword at Sunset.
Fantastic Voyage by Ray Kurzweil & Terry Grossman (2004)
Intriguing and well-written book on improving your health and (possibly) extending your lifespan. Goes into great detail, with plenty of footnotes to dig into, discussing the current literature on health, inflammation, nutrition, vitamin supplements etc. What makes the book wacky is the – apparently sincere – belief of the authors that true immortality, meaning to live without death, is just around the corner. Kurzweil himself pops on the order of 250 (this is not a typo) pills a day. Of course, they never discuss in the book the vast potential for negative synergistic effects all of these drugs and supplements.
Read in 2004
Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (2000) ***
Written before the Da Vinci Code and much more believable. At the heart this novel, playing on contemporary Vatican City, is about the conflict between faith and science in modernity. The author writes about this theme in such passionate terms that I suspect he himself is torn by these questions, as I used to be.
The Philosopher’s Diet: How to Lose Weight & Change the World by Richard Watson *****
A pithy, eminently readable and no-nonsense book on how to live a full-filling and healthy life by a philosopher who is an ardent fan of Descartes – including plenty of advice on how to eat – by a philosopher. What other dietary book has such chapter titles as Fat, Food, Roughage, Running, Sex, How to Live and How to Die. This last chapter is a jewel. I frequently consult this book. Highly recommended.
The Black Death by Gwyneth Cravens and John Marr (1977) ****
An enthralling account of the coming of bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, to modern day New York City. One of the authors is head of the local Bureau of Preventable Diseases. Both authors obviously love NYC and New Yorkers. Has a chilling, but all too believable end.
Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes (1962) ****
Great adventure story set in a storm on the most remote and westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, in the North Atlantic (St. Hilda).