Sunday, December 05, 2010

Book Review: Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (Pagels)

Pagels, Elaine Adam, Eve , and the Serpent (1988) 22 years old, yet still relevant. Pagels recounts the early history of the Church in terms of Genesis 1-4, and the evolving interpretations of these still crucial chapters of the Bible. Initially, the Gospel was understood as proclaiming the liberty of human beings, a liberty that not only enabled but required autonomous moral choice, instead of unthinking acceptance of social mores, one's place in society, and subjection to the ruling authority. That is how Paul's claim that Jesus' sacrifice fulfilled the Law was understood. There was no Fall; Genesis recounted Adam and Eve's choice as an affirmation of free will, and incidentally as an example of what not to choose, not as the sin that condemned us all.
     After Constantine made Christianity the State religion, the story was reinterpreted as describing the origin of sin. More than that: the story demonstrated that human beings after Adam are incapable of freely choosing to act morally. Human nature was corrupted; humans no longer had free will. Augustine was instrumental in this change in doctrine (his Confession shows why: he was a sex addict, and believed his experience of uncontrollable lust was universal.) The doctrine of original sin and corrupted human nature seems to be almost entirely Augustine's invention. Why it should have had such a profound and long-lasting influence is IMO clear: it justified the exercise of coercive power, political and ecclesiastical. If human beings were tainted from birth, were incapable of choosing the right path, then coercion was necessary to keep them from acting on their evil impulses. Not to impose the rule of law would be an dereliction of the ruler's duty. The question of how the ruler escaped the taint and was capable of making ethical choices for his subjects seems not to have occurred to Augustine and his followers.
     The Protestant Reformation did not change this gloomy view of human nature; if anything, it reinforced it. The doctrine of original sin is central to Luther's teaching that only faith can reconcile you to God, and furthermore that faith is a gift.One of the first things I learned was that "I cannot by my own reason or strength come to Jesus." (Significantly enough, Luther was an Augustinian monk.) The dissenting churches' leaders reserved to themselves the same power to demand assent to their doctrines as did the Roman church. Thoreau's famous opening sentence of Civil Disobedience is a direct descendant of Augustine's view. But Thoreau's essay implies that human nature could change, that we are capable of working our way towards an ethical and moral autonomy that will reduce and perhaps eventually eliminate the need for secular government.
Pagels knows that her work could be used to justify some claim to re-establish an original or "pure" Christianity. (Indeed, many sects have justified such claims by reference to just this same knowledge.) She carefully explains as much of the diversity of opinion, teaching, and practice as she can, and in an epilogue explicitly warns against believing that a single, pure, and unadulterated version of Christian belief is possible. I agree. More: I think that knowing about the early history of the church should make us wary of claiming exclusive or special grace, and should make us willing to accept testimony that differs from our own experience. Augustine's narcissistic argument for his doctrines is a bad model. Not that I'm expecting any such reformation of Christian (or other) belief any time soon. People seem to have great difficulty accepting that other people may be so different that they seem like alien beings. Scipio said Nullam humanum mihi alienum puto, I deem nothing human alien to me. A saying we should take to heart.
     Pagels writes well. She has a knack for explication, for the arrangement of facts to clarify her analysis. Her book is thoroughly researched, with numerous notes in every paragraph referring the reader to original works (and translations), as well as other scholars' discussions. Recommended for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the church. ****

Book Review: Rocannon's World (Leguin)

Leguin U. Rocannon's World (1966) A story very much of its time, with light-speed ships, FTL robots, and a slew of humanoid aliens, some of whom are telepaths. A rebel force attacks the anthropological team on an unnamed planet. Rocannon, the sole survivor, enlists the Angyar, a warrior people, to help him find the rebel base, where he use the "ansible", an FTL communications device, to call in the robot bombs that will destroy the rebels. By the time the League force arrives, he's dead, but the planet has been named for him. That's the plot, and simple enough it is, just the kind that John Campbell liked to publish in Analog Magazine. But Leguin makes of this simple material a complex and nuanced story of the varieties of human experience.
     There's a frame: a visit by one of the Angyar many years earlier to retrieve a necklace, which ended up in a museum on another planet. When she returns, only a few days older subjectively, it's many "objective years" later, her husband is dead, her daughter a grown woman. Rocannon eventually receives the necklace from that daughter, and finally gives it to the Angyar woman with whom he spends his last years.
What keeps us reading is Leguin's skill at advancing the plot: she tells the story as a quest, which allows for all kinds of surprises, hair's breadth escapes, and so on. It also allows for revelation of both the planet itself as a beautiful and varied ecology and topography, and of the cultures of the several tribes and nations. Through Rocannon we get "our" p.o.v., that is, that of an experienced reader of SF. The Angyar are somewhat Norse, their serfs the Olgyior (of the same species) are presented as rather too loyal to be believe. The Gdemiar, a species of troglodyte, recall H. G. Wells's Molochs, the Fiia (a telepathic/empathic species descended from the same species as the Gdemiar) recall the Eloi. A devolved species of predatory bird-like humanoids round out the catalogue. Leguin has the knack of making them real, and their interactions plausible. The book could have been more complexly plotted (and bigger), which would give even more scope for character and cultural nuances, but it is a finished work as is. It's an early work, and it seems to me like a trial run of the themes and motifs that would occupy Leguin in her later, mature works. Very good of its kind. ***

Book Review: The Case for God (Armstrong)

Armstrong, Karen The Case for God Armstrong's summary book about the history of theology, in which she argues that the West has lost its theological bearings. Science and religion have become antagonists because people think they speak about and to the same human problems and questions. Myth is no longer understood as a story that both expresses and produces meaning. Belief has become mere assent to some proposition, and such assent is seen as foolish at best and evil at worst when it is given without reasonable grounds. We have forgotten how to think symbolically, and so have forgotten that religion is not a matter of speech, but of action.
     A good book, if somewhat overlong, and generally too academic in tone. Armstrong does, I think, hold to some beliefs in the old sense of making/letting them form and transform her life, but this means she is unwilling to argue for or against a given creed. Rather she argues that we must remake our understanding of the creeds so that they become symbols, not descriptions. Faith is not assent to some formula(s) of words, but the action of relating to and dealing with other people. To take this a step further: how you deal with other people is your faith. That's all there is to it.
     She does express disappointment and sometimes annoyance at the ways in which modern people of all creeds have made idols of their conceptions of God. She is a believer, but not a religionist. In the Epilogue she comes closest to a homiletic statement, and ends with a parable that's worth quoting in full:
     One day a Brahmin priest came across the Buddha sitting contemplation under a tree and was astonished by his serene stillness and self discipline. The impression of immense strength channelled creatively into an extraordinary peace reminded him of a great tusker elephant. "Are you a god, sir?" the priest asked. "Are you an angel... or a spirit?" No the Buddha replied. He explained that he had simply revealed a new potential in human nature. It was possible to live in a world of conflict and pain at peace and in harmony with one's fellow creatures. There was no point in merely believing it; you would discover its truth only if you practised his method, systematically cutting of egoism at the root. You would then live at the peak of your capacity, activate parts of the psyche that normally lie dormant, and become a fully enlightened human being. "Remember me," the Buddha told the curious priest, "as someone who is awake."
     Armstrong strives to make this insight alive for the reader, to bring him through the history of human encounters with God to a place where he is both awake and aware of his utter ignorance of God's nature. She tries to show that theology is an active verb. To the extent that the reader can feel the reality of that search for awareness with knowledge, (s)he will make sense of this book. Worth reading for many other reasons, too, such as a clear summary of the history of religions, and why Dawkins is partly right and mostly wrong in his atheism, because the God he denies is a mere idol. Thus Dawkins himself is an idolater, because, like the religionists he tries to cure of their superstition, he believes that the Bible is to be read literally, and so must be either true or false. But a myth is neither true nor false, a myth either makes meaning for the hearer, or it doesn't. It is either alive or dead. ***

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fred has moved

Having become much too accustomed to his perch on the book case, Fred moved over to the right hand speaker next to the TB screen. He can now watch us watching TV. He knows the TV shows pretty well, since he had a good view of them from his former vantage point. I suspect his purpose is to gather data about our reactiosn to TV, which will aid him in fathoming the mysteries of human nature. His own owly nature he will keep carefully hidden. All we know so far is that owls are curious, and patient.

A picture

This is a locomotive leased by the Huron Central Railway, which operates the CPR's Sudbury-Sault Ste Marie line. The line was built when the Liberals were in power during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Liberals didn't want to spend the money for an all-Canadian route. The line was to go south of Lake Superior via Sault Ste Marie. When MacDonald's Conservatives came back, they scotched that idea, and the north of Superior route was built. It's still one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world, but only freight trains use it now. The line through Blind River is in very bad shape, several levels of government are supposed to spend money to fix it up so that coiled steel can be shipped by rail rather than truck. The Feds are dragging their heels, perhaps because this part of Ontario is definitely not Conservative country.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Review: Mice in the Beer (Ward)

Ward, Norman Mice in the Beer (1960; reprint 1986) Western Producer of Regina, publisher of a magazine for farmers, occasionally reprints or publishes books of miscellaneous interest. Ward, a professor of political science, lived most of his working life in Saskatchewan, which I suspect is one reason this collection of occasional pieces was reprinted. He has a sly wit, very much like Leacock: he's a master of the offhand remark that contains a bomb. He won the Leacock Medal for Humour, and on the evidence here deserved it. His humour is gentler than Leacock's (whose reputation as a gentle satirist rests on superficial reading.) Ward's persona often plays straight man to "Uncle Bob", a surprisingly good-humoured curmudgeon whose musings often lead logically into absurdities. Like Davies' Marchbanks, there are few one-liners. The humour depends on the slow and careful construction of context. Here's an example:

A friend of mine who, more or less as a hobby, runs in elections as the standard-bearer for one of our more obscure political parties, confided in me recently that he was working on a new way to build up his party's fortunes. I'm not quite sure what his opinion is worth, for judging from the number of votes he polls on election day the post he holds in his organization can't be much higher than rank of corporal. But the years of wandering beyond the wilderness have given his views a twist not found among conventional politicians.

"Look," he said, "at Social Credit and all the other small parties. From the beginning they've been loaded to the gunwales with clergymen, school teachers, and other taxpayers of oppressive respectability. Their spokesmen are moral to point of morbidity, and nobody can guess how low they could sink if they got in power. And look at my outfit! How," he demanded, "can we expect to get our party off the ground if all the drinkers are Liberals and Conservatives?

All in all, a good read. **-1/2

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review: The Loch Ness Story (Mitchell)

Mitchell, Nicholas The Loch Ness Story (1974) A “revised” edition published by Penguin, this book contains a typically credulous account of the creatures supposed to live in Loch Ness. In the 60s and 70s several people used the best available underwater technology they could afford in order to find Nessie, and of course came up empty. There’s no question IMO in that Nessie is a compound of hoax, wishful thinking, and carefully ambiguous publicity aimed at tourists. Tourist pamphlets from before the first world war do not mention Nessie, which I think is evidence enough that she’s a very recent “discovery”.

Mitchell’s tone is that of a believer: any possible fact turns into reality within a sentence or two. He makes snide remarks about the skeptics and critics, often identified with a shadowy scientific establishment of some sort, who have closed their minds against this most momentous discovery. I read about halfway through the book, by which time Mitchell is referring to Nessie as a prehistoric animal, possibly a saurian, that has somehow survived for millions of years. Notions such a minimum sustainable population, of geological and climatic changes that would reduce the odds of survival, etc, appear to be beyond him. Grainy photos, out of focus blobs in the middle of out of focus snapshots, eye-witness accounts of things seen in the gloaming or against a background of sun-glistering water (there’s a photo of one of these sightings) – all these are for him irrefutable evidence, not only that Nessie is real, but that (s)he’s a reptile of some sort.

A wonderful, often amusing, but finally tedious read, like so many of these books, it will merely confirm both the believer and the skeptic in their opposing beliefs. The pictures are the usual ones, often reprinted, and to my skeptical eye are utterly unconvincing. The fact that they are badly printed doesn’t help. **

Book Review: Remaking the World (Petroski)

Petroski, Henry Remaking the World (1999) Jon gave me this book for Christmas. Petroski wrote historical essays for American Scientist, a magazine that appears to carry on the original intent of Scientific American, which was much more focussed on technology (and even DIY) than the current version. His essays are very much like Gould’s, but the style is somewhat more neutral and pedestrian. I get little sense of Petroski’s personality, which is a pity, since his choice of subjects indicates a lively mind and wide range of interest.

His emphasis on the non-technical aspects of engineering is important. Most people lack scientific and technical insight (we need a word like “illiteracy” for this), which means that the context of engineering works is often incomplete. The yearning for quick fixes prompts politicians and their constituents to trust the technocrats too much (see the “heightening” of “security measures” at airports recently). On the other hand, nimbyism and paranoid Ludditism result in know-nothing rejection of economically viable and ecologically effective solutions (see the resistance to H1N1 vaccination.)

All in all, a good book, with useful nuggets of information here and there. For example, “bug” as a glitch or unexpected flaw in design predates computers. Petroski quotes a note in Edison’s diary, in which Edison refers to “Bugs – as such little faults and difficulties are called –”. I’ve suspected that the “insect in the electronic works” was a story a little too pat to be true, and am happy to have my suspicion confirmed. ***

Book Review: Pohlstars (Frederik Pohl)

Pohl, Frederik Pohlstars (1984) Most of these stories are Pohl's darker visions, more like Harry Harrison or Roald Dahl. Pohl, like Poul Anderson, usually writes about swaggering, libertarian, free-enterprise types, often crossing the line between legal and illegal (sometimes venturing into crime), in order to succeed. But in the end, they not only do well, but good.

Unlike Anderson, Pohl has a strong tragic streak in his makeup, sometimes tending to elegiac sentimentality. The first tale is a novella, I sampled it but did not read it. The short stories range from the mildly funny (a driving instructor is unaware that one of his pupils is setting up an invasion of Terran territory) to the horrific (a convicted murderer is purchased by aliens to conduct their business; when they decide they want to know what human sex is about, they make him reenact the crime for which he was condemned, and he kills his lover.) All have a more or less obvious theme; Pohl is one of the most tendentious SF writers ever. In A Day at the Lottery Fair he attacks the "pro-life" movement. A Day in the Life of Able Charlie tells how an artificial intelligence program is used for market research. Second Coming sends up the literalists who expect Jesus to return from the sky - he does, but decides he wants to go back to the zoo where the space people have kept him, it's a nicer place than Earth. The book will be added to my collection of Pohls, but not because it's his best work. **

Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: Three Bags Full (Leonie Swann)

Swann, Leonie Three Bags Fulls (2005; transl. Anthea Bell 2006) A flock of sheep solve a murder mystery. Turns out their shepherd offed himself. A nice, quirky idea, but it goes on too long. The sheep’s eye/mind view is nicely done, and Swann uses it for (mostly) gentle satire. She has degrees in philosophy and psychology: one of the perennial questions in philosophy and psychology is what it would feel like to be someone else, or another animal. I don’t think we can answer that.

Some years ago, a TV show purported to show what the world looked like to dogs and cats. The makers manipulated the colours of the image, based on what’s known about cats' and dogs' eyes: they don’t have the same colour receptors as we have (more evidence that the eye evolved, BTW.) Trouble is, the colour chemistry of the eye’s receptors doesn’t tell us much about what the animal perceives. We can tell that colour blind people can’t differentiate between certain colours, and this correlates with deficiencies in their retinal chemistry, but it doesn’t tell us what colours they actually see. The perception of the world is subjective. It seems reasonable to suppose that the world looks pretty much the same to humans, and largely the same to cats and dogs, but that supposition is based entirely on our observations of how other humans and animals respond to visual cues. They respond pretty much the same way I do, so I infer that they perceive pretty much what I perceive. But that inference is not provable.

A related question is whether we can imagine a truly alien mind. The answer IMO is no: our imagination is limited by our experience and knowledge, which is wholly human. “Imagination” is remembering, which we don’t do very well. That is, “remembering” is reconstruction, not replaying of a record. To remember something is to imagine what happened.

However, by “imagination” most people mean “creating or inventing something new”. But what actually happens is extrapolation and recombination. That’s why a good imaginer can make loadsadough presenting us with things we individually cannot imagine. Such people can extrapolate further and recombine more wildly than most people can. The attraction of a well written story or well made movie is precisely that: these works present us with images we ourselves could not imagine, or could not imagine as well as their creators.

In fact, imagined experience can never have the vividness of actual experience. What we remember of an experience is not its sensory content so much as its emotive impact: what it felt like has a stronger effect than what it was. Hence people’s difficulty in describing a movie that impressed them: we get surprisingly vague and incomplete accounts of what the movie was about, but emphatic claims to its greatness, impact, coolness, etc.

All that being said, Swann has managed to give us a plausible and amusing story as seen and heard by the sheep. The sheep often misunderstand and misinterpret what humans say and do, but their mistakes are as illuminating as their insights. Mostly, we get a sense that what we humans think is important really isn’t. A good read, but longer than necessary for both the plot and the creation of the sheep’s world. **½

Monday, March 08, 2010

Movie Review: Dune (1984)

Frank Herbert's book is singularly ill-served in this movie, made in 1984, with screenplay by David Lynch, big name special-effects people, and very competent if not exactly superstar actors. It should have been a good movie, but it's not. Boring, tedious, pointlessly repetitious, it looks like a patch job, cobbled together from a much longer movie, the gaps bridged by voice overs that do little to explain the long and complex story.

Dune is a huge book, a movie of it should be in at least three parts of about 2-1/2 hours each. The interpretation is crucial, and Lynch's concept of a fascistic, decaying imperium doesn't help. The story's backbone is simple enough: Arrakis, a desert planet, is the source of melange, a drug that not only combines the effects of pot, LSD, cocaine, and assorted other goodies, it enables spaceship pilots to fold space, and so bring any spaceship from one location to another in no time at all. Paul Atreides is the long-prophesied stranger from the sky who will set the Fremen of Arrakis free, a task at which he succeeds despite the opposition and machinations of the Emperor and House Harkonnen, the Atreides' traditional and evil enemy. He does so by taming sandworms, which he and his Fremen use as battle tanks.

The Bene Gesserit, an order of telepathic nuns, complicate the story because of their attempts to breed a superior human (female, of course) that will rule the known universe. Paul's mother, a Bene Gesserit, conceived him despite orders not to conceive a male child, because she loved Paul's father, who wanted a male heir. But she does later conceive a girl, and this girl becomes a crucial player in the last battle, when her psychic powers overcome those of the Bene Gesserit Mother Superior who is the Emperor's adviser, sometime concubine, and collaborator. For the girl, like Paul, is the superior human the Bene Gesserit have been working towards.

Frank Herbert hung a complex plot on this skimpy skeleton, with many subplots, a huge cast of characters, and that mix of myth, legend, and realism that almost guarantees a cult following. His gift was character and social ambiance, the plot creaks and groans under the weight of sheer narrative stuff that Herbert has piled into this book. He also wrote shorter pieces that fit more or less well into the universe of Dune, and left an enormous quantity of notes, which his son and collaborators have written up as still further parts of the saga. Turning all this into a movie is daunting at best. I don't know the history of the project, but it looks very much as if was conceived on a grand scale, a la Star Wars, but that money or energy or enthusiasm ran out. Maybe all three, but most likely money. I suspect that the producers realised too late what the project entailed, stopped the filming, and shot a few voice overs to stitch the footage together.

Not that we lost a masterpiece. As I said, concept is everything, and David Lynch (and whoever worked with him) conceived a fascistic imperium, but Herbert conceived a Byzantine one. The Fremen are nothing like what Herbert describes, the Harkonnens are merely nasty, not evil, the Emperor hasn't enough character to convince as a Machiavellian plotter, the Guild of pilots could as well have been played by cardboard cutouts, and the final battle scene goes on too long, with laughably unhurt Fremen, very peculiar psychically powered weapons, (which fire when the wielder grunts, and of course always hit their (evil) targets), and far too many repetitive shots of sandworms rearing up and opening their vast fangy throat. Someone wanted a Ran-like Goetterdaemmerung, but manages only a hokey shoot-em-up.

Well, I can now say I've seen it. I'm sorry I put Marie through it. Paul watched it too, but I don't think it was a high point in his movie life. They both found it hard to follow, and the characters weren't engaging enough to make us care for them. Pity, since one of Herbert's gifts is characterisation. Thumbs down.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Book Review: A Child of Six Could Do It

Melly & Glaves-Smith A Child of Six Could Do It! (1973) “100 years of cartoons about modern art” it says in the subtitle, and that’s exactly what it is, with a couple of essays attempting to explain why modern art has been the butt of jokes from about 1870 to the publication date. The writers invoke Freud et al, but I think they miss the obvious explanation, which is the effect of newspapers becoming mass media.

The joking started with Impressionism in the 1870s. This was about the time that telegraphy vastly expanded the reach of newspaper journalism, and steam-powered printing presses had become powerful enough to spew out tons of newsprint per day. That lowered the price of the newspaper so that most of the population could afford one. Newspapers became the first mass media. General interest magazines quickly followed. Earlier magazines had reached a more select audience, so much so that their contents have become a staple in C18 and C19 literature courses. But now there was a need for news, lots of it, to fill those pages.

So art news became matter for the mass media. But to be news it had to be controversial: mere notices of exhibitions aren’t news, but annoyed or irritated reactions are. Besides, “art” was still a pastime for the upper strata of society, and very much a matter of fashion and “taste”. Those who could afford original paintings wanted to have both the latest and the safest. That’s why reactions to new styles were so strong: people didn’t know whether it was safe to put the stuff up on their drawing room walls. There was always the danger that guests would snicker more or less surreptitiously at their hosts’ taste. So art news was also a kind of society gossip. That meant that a fairly large audience became aware of controversies, and had a smattering of knowledge of what the controversies were about. The cartoonist therefore had another subject for his drawings, and Lord knows, a cartoonist needs subjects, else he can’t make a living.

Many of the cartoons are muddily reproduced as half tones, unfortunately. The selection is surprisingly boring: irritation at new art styles is also a matter of fashion, and dated fashions have at best a historical interest. The best cartoons satirise the consumption of art as interior decoration or status symbol. That weakness is universal and eternal. Not surprisingly, many of these come from the New Yorker, a magazine that has managed to tweak its readers while entertaining and enlightening them. The book is entertaining, but not a keeper. **

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Fred is enjoying his new home. He arrived here enclosed in bubble wrap and paper, which prevented him from observing his surroundings. Now he has a good vantage point on top of the bookcase opposite the living room windows. So far, that has provided him with sufficient enter-tainment, but I imagine he will want to see what the back yard is like. Whether he will want to be rewrapped for the journey to the living room windowsill has not been decided. He's a contemplative sort, and realises he has had little experience of the world, which makes it difficult to make a reasoned decision. His companions cannot provide him with advice.