Categories: books, review

BookReview: The Human Stain

The Human Stain

Book by Philip Roth

This is my first Roth book, which is a little embarrassing since he’s considered by some to be the greatest living American writer. The Human Stain is supposed to be among his best, and it is a well-crafted work of great skill: about a black man who lives as a white, turfed from his professorship for uttering a racist slur (a false accusation and a witch hunt), who recedes into bitterness and starts an affair with a younger (he’s 72; she’s 34), illiterate cleaning woman. Things end badly. A violent ex-husband, a truck, and a lake are all involved. In the back-drop, Clinton-Lewinsky (with parallels to the older Coleman Silk and the younger Faunia Farley) surfaces and resurfaces, and provides the political grounding of the novel, a campus morality tale where those most harshly judged are the petty faux-puritains maurauding around the quiet college town, and indeed the whole country.

Roth didn’t quite catch me with this book: it seems very much rooted in its time (1998, when the President’s offences involved fellatio and cigars, and not dubious wars), though there was much more in there, among other things: race relations, violence, Vietnam, the Greeks, the lies we tell ourselves and those closest to us. But something felt forced, the allegorical structure a little too present, a little too solid. Still, a master craftsman, to be admired.

My rating: 3.5 stars
***1/2


Categories: art, books, review

BookReview: Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide

Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide

Book by Ruth Kinna

As someone influenced by anarchist thought, I know embarrassingly little about the source texts of the movement, and its historical proponents: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon and the rest. What I know, I know mostly from the application of anarchist principles in online projects (the free software movement, wikipedia, and of course, most intimately, LibriVox), and their proponents, mainly the writings of Richard Stallman.

(For those wondering, anarchism is not about Molotov cocktails, but something like a belief in non-hierarchical organization of society, through collective actions of free individuals).

I was keen to get a primer to the historical movement and where it fits into society today. I corresponded briefly with Ruth Kinna in response to an interview with her on BBC, and decided subsequently to pick up her book.

“Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide” is designed mostly, I think, as a companion book to a university course on anarchism and the reading of the key texts of the movement. As such, it covers important figures of the past (those mentioned above, plus Ayn Rand and Emma Goldman, and many others), and more recent anarchist thinkers as well. The writing is clear and engaing, and much is packed into the slim volume, as befits a beginner’s guide. But the book has two major faults.

First, it fails to give an adequate account of how anarchism fit into the political consciousness as a serious alternative in the past. There was a time when anarchism was a popular movement among intellectuals and trade unionists, and Bakunin did battle with Marx for control of the “socialist” movement. Anarchists were considered a real threat, featuring in fiction (Conrad’s The Secret Agent text, audio), state executions (Sacco and Venzetti), and for a brief time running a country (CNT in Spain). Yet anarchism is now considered, mostly, the domain of a few crackpot hippies, the odd masked troublemaker, and, of course, a big population of hackers (more on that later). But it is not seen, I do not believe, as a major threat to established order, so much as a nuisance at WTO meetings, and good training for riot squads (who are often, much to the total unconcern of the population at large, more than happy to demonstrate the violence of the state anarchists wish to oppose). So, some questions: Why was anarchism such a powerful idea in the late 19th and early 20th century? Why did it fall by the wayside, in the face of other political doctrines (socialism, fascism, communism, and liberal democracy)? And, since it has not survived well as a political movement, why is it still important? Kinna’s book doesn’t address these questions adequately.

But the second, and most puzzling failure is that the book ignores completely the flourishing movement of anarchist-inspired activity online (except one aside mention of hacktivists, who jam corporate websites). The free software movement, and other online-enabled non-software projects such as wikipedia, distributed proofreaders, libirvox, and countless other open projects, as well as groups such as the anarchist librarians, all offer important examples of concrete implementations of anarchist ideals, implementations that actually work. When I first became interested in free software, back in 2004, I thought there must be many political philosophers studying this explosion, real-time, of anarchist-ish communities. My searches on Google Scholar turned up surprisingly few academics looking at this with any seriousness. The only philosopher I know of looking at these issues (surely there are more) is Dylan E. Wittkower, perhaps not coincidently, a LibriVox volunteer.

Those criticisms aside (and they are significant), Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide is concise and clear and an engaging read. It is a toe-dipping kind of book, one that, as a guide for beginners, provides a starting-point to explore the different movements and personalities within the somewhat chaotic ideology that is anarchism.

My rating: 2.5 stars
**1/2

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Categories: art, books, review

BookReview: Lullabies for Little Criminals

Lullabies for Little Criminals

Book by Heather O’Neill

The mind of a creative child is a wonderful thing, especially at that moment before adulthood becomes a reality, maybe age 12, where anything seems possible and innocence, imagination and ability all come together. Heather O’Neill has written a remarkable book about such a mind, the motherless daughter of a junkie, a girl who inhabits the mean streets of Montreal’s red light district. In that grim setting, O’Neill has crafted something so true to the life of a child; she has looked at the strange and terrible, the slimeballs and scheming, poverty and loneliness, the ludicrous underbelly, and shown it as child might see it: a child who laughs at the funny hats her dad sometimes wears, carts around her suitcase full of dolls, and gets up to all sorts of fun with her urchin friends in the rat-filled alley-ways. Humans are a resilient bunch, and narrator Baby (her given name) is a doomed, heart-breaking optimist, with the poet’s ability to transform the world around her into something beautiful.

O’Neill, whose radio work can be heard on Public Radio International’s “This American Life” and CBC’s “Wiretap,” channels her gift for images through Baby’s words: “His compliments,” she says about her father, “were like little cupcakes all lined up in a window.” She is also a heartbreakingly wise poet: “If you want to get a child to love you, then you should just go and hide in the closet for three or four hours. They get down on their knees and pray for your return. That child will turn you into God. Lonely Children probably wrote the Bible.”

Since Mordechai Richler died, you hear the occasional mutterings about who will be the next anglo bard of Montreal. Yann Martel took a stab by winning the Booker Prize for Life of Pi, but his writing (whatever its success) is in no way attached to Montreal. But here, I think, we have the only true contender to date, a novelist that in zeroing in on the gritty particular, has raised her book to a marvelous universal. This is the most exciting novel I have read by a Canadian writer in many years. It has its flaws (the impressionistic and circumambulatory narration feels a little forced in places; the staccato writing somewhat disjointed), but those minor quibbles are nothing compared with its strengths: the voice, the humour, the beauty, the emotion, the full broken-down world recreated in the eyes of its beholder.

O’Neill’s second novel is reportedly coming out soon. Second novels, so they say, are the tough ones. I’m rooting for her.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

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Categories: art, books, data, review

BookReview: Programming the Universe

Programming the Universe

Book by Seth Lloyd, about quantum physics and cosmology

We all know that the universe is made up of matter and energy, but Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist at MIT, adds a third basic element to our understanding: information. Everything, he says, can be considered as registering information (or bits): hot/cold, heavy/light, white/black, spin up, spin down can all be considered the 0s and 1s of a binary information system, the same system we have build computing upon. Interactions between things (people, atoms, electrons) results in exchange of information. With all these bits, the universe is, as we speak, computing. Computing what? Why, itself, of course. And at the quantum level, the famous quantum wierdness (uncertainty principle, wave/particle duality, Schrodeinger’s cat) means that if you could build quantum computer, it’s parallel nature would mean computing power far beyond anything classical computers can provide. Lloyd has actually built a quantum computer (a simple one), and continues his work.

He has also written an important book, which is at once mind-bending and accessible. He is patient and clear (and funny), and this slim text presents a revolutionary interpretation of the cosmsos, which Lloyd thinks might provide a pathway to solving the great challenege of modern physics: uniting the theory of general relativity and quantum physics, which don’t get along. It might also prove a (testable) theoretical underpinning for the creation of life.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****


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Categories: art, books, review

BookReview: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore

Book by Haruki Murakami

Talking cats, raining fish, death, trapped souls, parallel universes, a confused fifteen-year-old, and of course a good smattering of sex. Among other (sometimes heart-breaking) oddities. With Kafka on the Shore, Japanese novelist and fabulist Haruki Murakami continues his metaphysical exploration of the odd underside of human and not-so human experience, getting at the raw truth that lies obscured by everyday reality. The writing seems less assured than in the masterful Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which might be blamed on the translator: Philip Gabriel replacing Jay Rubin. The prose is a bit clunky (possibly Murakami, possibly Gabriel), but the narrative transcends those problems, much as his characters, willing and not, transcend physics.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***


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BookReview: Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain King

book by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, who died in 2005, was one of the great American writers of the post-war period, among a group (including Mailer, Cheever, Vonnegut; later: Heller, Roth, Updike) who forged the American literary and cultural consciousness of the late 40s, 50s, and paved the way for the revolution that came in the 60s.

Henderson the Rain King, written in 1959, is very much a book to presage that revolution. Henderson is a loud, brash voice of a wealthy America unsatisfied (spiritually, socially, morally) with the position attained at the top of the global heap. He is a 50ish millionaire, a former WWII commando, a pig farmer, father, and the sort of smashing North American intent on fixing things, and afflicted by a constant voice in his head: I want I want I want. What he wants, as with so many of us, is not so clear, and so he heads to Africa to find an answer. There he travels, tells us the story of his life, wives, the time he tried to shoot a cat, and his daughter who brings a small black baby home, and hides her in the closet; he also finds frogs poisoning the well in an idyllic village in the middle of nowhere, and sets about solving the problem. Smasher that he is, he fails, despite his good intentions; does much dammage. He flees the village, and eventually lands under the wing of a philosopher king, former medical student, and lion affictionado, Dahfu. From Dahfu he tries to learn to be, rather than to become.

Bellows writes with a vigorous honesty, maybe unmatched in American letters (Roth called him, along with Faulkner, the backbone of 20th Century American writing). It’s hard to figure just what it is about his writing that is so powerful; he is not a pretty stylist, like, say, Nabokov, and his prose is almost raw, though that rawness has a beauty about it, the rough beauty of the market, maybe, with jarring jumps in language that work even though they probably shouldn’t; and his sentences contain so much, with such little artifice, no trickery, and again, an almost brutal honesty. Henderson says: “We hate death, we fear it. But there’s nothing like it.”

I keep thinking about how conservative we are these days, despite all our freedom and access. Perhaps it is just a matter of our place in history: in the West, we are rich, we are satisfied, and our relationship with things like hunger and war are filtered through media that keeps those problems abstract and far away, in time, space. As the son of Jewish immigrants (first in Montreal, then Chicago), Bellow knew what it was to stuggle to forge a place in an unsettled society, and he served in the Merchant Marines in WWII, so would have known something of fear and death. Not to mention the Holocaust. He, like most from that generation, was acquainted with the dangers and possibilities of humans, of life on the street in America, of the risks of living, and he wrote as if things mattered, because they did. Now in 2007, maybe, things are just too easy, too fixed: we don’t feel, as people did in the post-war era, that we are building things, we don’t feel as if our decisions matter the way they might have 50 years ago. But of course they should, they do, and reading Bellow reminds you of that.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****

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Categories: books, philosophy, review

BookReview: The God Delusion

The God Delusion

Book by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins’ 1974 book, the Selfish Gene is probably one of the most important science books written for the general public (I’ll be reviewing that book here later) in the second half of the 20th century. Not only did the Selfish Gene do much to explain evolutionary biology to the average reader, but it also contributed a significant new conceptual framework to neo-Darwinism, that genes program biological hosts to be selfish (meaning they privilege propagation of those genes above all other imperatives), even when being altruistic. This follows from an important observation of Darwinism: that which succeeds is that which propagates, and vice versa. Genes that are not, ultimately, selfish, will not propagate = not succeed = not propagate.

What I have read of Dawkins’ work, I have liked; and I am always happy to hear him speak (thank you podcasts). He is passionate, articulate, and convincing when he discusses evolution and science. So I was excited to read his new one, the “God Delusion.”

And starting for page 1, I was deeply disappointed. Infuriated, actually. The God Delusion is a different kind of book from the Selfish Gene, though what kind of book it was intended to be is hard to say. Whatever kind, Dawkins badly missed the mark. It’s possible that I read it unfairly, expecting it to be something it wasn’t meant to be: an exploration of the scientific/cultural reasons behind the almost-universal human belief in some kind of supernatural deity or deities. But it is not that book at all. It is many other things, and none of them particularly effective. It is a catalog of many stupid things said in the name of religion; it is a list of many bad things religious people have done; it is a sarcastic dismissal of the “religious mind” (whatever that is); it is a refutation of creationism; it is a defense of the separation of church and state; it is a book of sloppy theology; poor philosophy; shoddy psychology; and most offensive to me, given Dawkins’ bona fides, a book of lazy science.

Dawkins has an axe to grind here, and he leaves no doubt that he *hates* religion. He thinks it is childish, ignorant, dangerous, evil, contemptible, disgusting. Such beliefs are not necessarily problematic, except that his contempt for religion gets in the way of his ability to make a cogent case for whatever it was he meant to elucidate (which is not particularly clear in this muddled book).

As a leading public exponent of Darwinism he has been the target of countless attacks from religionists and creationists (many of them abusive and threatening, some of them printed in this volume). As a public and vocal atheist the target on his head is that much larger. He is frustrated with dangerous and anti-scientific movements such as Intelligent Design, and is offended by the valued place religion is given in policy-making, particularly in the USA, but elsewhere as well. He doesn’t like the way religion treats homosexuals and stem-cell research, and abortion. All of which is fine.

Indeed a book about all the bad things done in the name of Religion in the past six thousand years, or even the past six years, would be a thick tome, and anyone would marvel at the horror. But I wouldn’t have much interest in Dawkins’ account of such things – I need no convincing on that point in any case. He is an evolutionary biologist, and I wanted his views on where religion comes from, and why it is a delusion. To be fair, he occasionally provides some theories on this count (one chapter): mainly that religion is the “byproduct of childish gullibility,” that children learn to obey orders from parents (helpful for keeping them alive), and later this “gullibility” mechanism is erroneously transferred onto “God.”

Perhaps. (Though I find, as almost everywhere throughout this book, Dawkins’ use of language is unnecessarily non-neutral… “childish gullibility” is an odd way to state a useful evolutionary trait).

But here is another Darwinist theory (mine, perhaps others’) of why religion and belief in God might have persisted and spread: religion is a useful way to organize societies, to force people to obey laws, to enforce social norms, to inspire warriors and to placate the discontented. Hence, from a cultural Darwinist vantage, religious societies have historically been better at organizing themselves, hence defeating their foes, hence surviving. So there has been a “natural selection” of religious societies over non-religious. Perhaps this theory is wrong, yet Dawkins is so hostile to religion, he cannot admit that religion might serve any useful purpose at all (except to produce good music, poetry, and to console the dying). And so his theories of the delusion of God, such as they are, seem woefully incomplete as any kind of explanation for the persistence of the idea of God across almost all ages, and cultures in human history. Including our own, scientific age.

I should note here my own biases: I am a very lapsed Catholic, mostly agnostic, vaguely influenced, perhaps, by the belief in some kind of universal power, but certainly not a “personal” God, certainly not as reflected in particular religious doctrine. (In fact, I think that the idea of having a “true” religious doctrine is logically inconsistent with the Christian/Judeo/Islamic concept of an infinite God; our puny human minds are too small for such things). Curiously, Dawkins dismisses this kind of loose pantheistic belief, which he calls Einstiennian belief, after Einstein’s statement: “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.” Dawkins says this sort of belief is not religious at all (hence not worth considering), and doesn’t really address it in any serious sense. Which is curious, because if God is a delusion, surely this kind of vague belief, the kind that secular, scientifically-minded people like me harbour, would be just the kind of belief that an evolutionary biologist would be interested in studying. There are easy explanations for why teen-aged Evangelicals and those who grow up in Amish towns and Madrasses believe in God … But what about us thoughtful agnostics? Dawkins explains this away with some cheap logic showing that agnostics are in fact atheists (check this video for the hilarious “logical” move in the other direction).

Because this is a book by Richard Dawkins, it does have its moments, mostly when he is doing what he does best: explaining evolution. He does far too little of that in these pages. It is not a science book, or a philosophical book; it is a political book. An effective political book should make its case coherently, objectively. Dawkins has not done that here, and should get back to his desk and work harder to write the book this ought to have been.

My rating: 1.0 stars
*

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BookReview: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

Climate Change Book by Elizabeth Kolbert

My first job out of university, as a fresh-faced, idealistic engineer, was in the energy industry, for a sort of international think-tank made up of eight of the biggest electric companies in the world from G7 countries. I got there in 1998 (a year after the Kyoto Protocol was signed), and climate change obviously was high on the agenda, so I got to know what many in the energy industry thought of it (it was a big problem, and these companies were generally worried about how to address it in the most efficient, and least-costly way. That is, they were concerned, but wanted to avoid losing lots of money as a result). From the E7 (now E8) I went on, in the summer of 2000, to a financial brokerage called Prebon in New York, which was setting up an investment banking team to build financial products tailored for Kyoto Mechanisms – financial mechanisms aimed at getting funding into projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was the policy guy, mainly, looking at national and international frameworks, as well as doing marketing of our insurance-based products to big energy companies around the world; and negotiating with potential sellers of emission reductions. I attended the COP conference in the Hague and talked to government officials all over the place. (Those were my jetset days of flying around the world, when I thought I might just be able to save the human race and become a multibillionaire at the same time). I worked at Prebon for a year and a half until the election of George Bush (and US abandonment of Kyoto, going back on a GOP campaign promise to regulate CO2 in the US); and then September 11 forced Prebon to shut down our group. Also a factor in shutting us down: we hadn’t made a nickle, despite having a $350 million deal in the works, though I don’t think we would have made the sale even without Bush and September 11. After I came back from NYC to Montreal, I spent some time working with a small alternative energy company here in Montreal, with toes still in CO2 waters … tho since 2004 I have been just an observer.

But I have been following Climate Change more or less closely for ten years or so, and have watched as the science matured (and Canada, incidently, did absolutely nothing except sign papers year after year). I am, you could say, a Climate believer…though I have an open mind to new research: if it were to turn out that everyone was mistaken about the climate, I would be happy to recant my former beliefs. But, the opposite has happened. Since 1998 when I started paying attention, various predictions from the models (then very uncertain) have started to come to pass: plants and animals are changing their breeding habits, the Arctic and Antarctic are melting, glaciers around the globe are receding, and the temperature keeps going up. Closer to home, the ski hill I grew up on no longer operates (they never made snow, and the natural snow isn’t enough to guarantee a viable season any more), and it regularaly rains in January and February.

And so when I first read Elizabeth Kolbert’s series of articles on climate change in the “New Yorker” in 2005 I was captivated. Field Notes on a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change is a compilation and expansion of those articles. It is the only climate book I have ever been inspired to buy — all the others seemed to rehash things I knew already, but there was something about the way Kolbert writes on climate — at once scientifically compelling and personal. And frightening. Of the many hundreds of articles I have read about climate change, Kolbert’s are the best.

In this book, Kolbert weaves a compelling tale, focusing on a handful of active scientists, their work on climate, and an underlying sense of terror that seems to infect all of them. They are at the front lines of climate research — out in the field and building the models. She visits the melting permafrost in Alaska, NASA climate modellers in New York, biologists studying butterflies in northern England, and Columbia paleoclimateologista with the world’s biggest collection of ocean core samples. She also talks to some historians who argue that massive civilization collapse in human history can often be attributed to climate changes destroying the agricultural systems those civilizations depend upon; and some of the people trying to do something about all this worrying problem that so many seem to ignore. The impressive thing about these scientists is not their much-trumpeted alarmism, though, but the opposite: the caution with which they make their claims. Scientists tend to be a thoughtful bunch, they are used to weighing massive amounts of data, inputs, and research from across many fields to make their conclusions. You make your hypothesis, you do your experiments, you publish your results in peer-reviewed journals, and others do their best to poke holes in your argument. More experiments are done, in various disciplines; in the case that other results consistently conflict with a hypothesis, it is rejected. When more data backs a hypothesis, from many different areas, it becomes accepted. Climate science is no different, and what’s happened over the past ten years, since I first started following the climate debate, is a hardening of certainty, as more and more evidence, more studies, and more data are backing up the theory that the climate is changing (not in doubt) and that we are forcing the change. But the real test of a theory is its predictive power: if a theory says such and such should happen, and such and such happens, it is worth paying attention to.

And this is why the much-maligned climate models are so powerful: they have been tweaked and improved over the past ten years, and have become more powerful. They back-check well against the past records, and have done a good job of predicting what is happening now. What’s scary is their predictions of what will happen in the future. It ain’t pretty.

Kolbert manages an impressive feat in this book: she presents the latest climate science clearly, and in enough detail that one gets a powerful sense of where most scientists think we are and where we are going. There are graphs and data sets, and evidence. But what emerges most powerfully is the sense of quiet, measured … panic (there is no other word for it) from the scientists working in the field. They are watching as our climate changes, and they know where we are likely to go. And most think we are pushing climate fast to that frightening place. In this slim volume, Kolbert has encapsulated the panic, and shown exactly where it comes from – scientifically and historically. And she shares this panic. As arctic researcher, Donald Petrovich relates to Kolbert:

The way I’ve been thinking about it, riding my bike around here, is, You ride by all these pastures and they’ve got these big granite boulders in the middle of them. You’ve got a big boulder sitting there on this rolling hill. You can’t just go by this boulder. You’ve got to push it. So you start rocking it, and you get a bunch of friends, and they start rocking it, and finally it starts moving. And then you realize, Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. That’s what we’re doing as a society. This climate, if it starts rolling, we don’t really know where it will stop.

My rating: 4.0 stars
****


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