Monday, December 29, 2014

Frozen (2013)

      Frozen (2013)[D: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee. Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff] Anna and Elsa are sisters, but Elsa’s magical powers almost kill Anna, and her fear of doing worse damage leads her to withdraw from the world. When she is to be crowned, Elsa causes a permanent winter. Panic-stricken, she flees to the mountains where she builds palace of ice. Anna must find her and persuade her to return to lift the cold spell, which she does. A cad of a Prince Charming who wants the throne for himself alone, and Kristoff, a nice-guy reindeer-owning ice-man, provide the romantic and political complications. Some nice wise trolls who love romance increase the necessary comic touches. In the end, Anna sacrifices herself, which cures Elsa of her bad magic, but Anna revives, and she and Kristoff pair up.
     That’s more or less the plot, do we get a good movie out of it? Yes and no. It’s competently animated and nicely voiced, but doesn’t exactly grab you and immerse you in its world. It provides a nice 100-odd minutes of entertainment, but that’s all. How would I improve it? I’d cut back on the special-effects style of magic, and take a closer look at the dark side. The central trope, the sister bond, is worth more subtle treatment. As it is, the movie works for tweens and younger audiences, but doesn’t give their parents and other older relatives much to chew on. **½

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Simon Schama. A History of Britain: On the Edge of the World (2000)

    Simon Schama. A History of Britain: On the Edge of the World (2000) This is not “companion volume” to the TV series that Schama did, although it was written at the same time as the scripts. I saw th series, and much of the language is the same, but much of what was shown on screen is here described. Schama, wisely I think, focusses on the story, not the pictures. All the same, page references to the illustrations and placement of the pictures next to the text they illustrate would be welcome.
     And that’s about the only cavil I have.
     Schama here takes us from the earliest times when “Britain” makes some kind of sense as a label, through Roman occupation, to Elizabeth’s reign, a time when the effects of the civil and religious wars played themselves out into a kind of resolution. During that time, family feuds caused crises of loyalty and nearly destroyed civil order, then Henry VIII’s need for a male heir created a bloody compound of religion and politics. Elizabeth’s reign brought a resolution of the religious conflict, and the focus began to shift to the relationship between Crown and People, a focus that caused another round of conflicts, which have taken several centuries to resolve. That resolution we are pleased to call “democracy”, and for the time being at least, that’s a cluster of values and institutions that doesn’t so much guarantee stability as a somewhat less bloody means of mending quarrels. But the path to that state is the subject of the next book in Schama’s series.
     Schama is one of the great synthesisers, he can consolidate a vast mass of detail into a coherent narrative. History’s narratives are necessarily tendentious, the trick is to use a theme or collection of motifs to organise the material without turning it into propaganda. Schama does this better than most, I think, because he reminds us that he’s constructed his story from extant documents, whose preservation is partly a matter of policy, and partly pure accident. By telling the story in terms of individuals, he shows both that individual decisions do affect the flow of history, and also that those decisions are contingent on and constrained by circumstances.
     For example, Elizabeth would not have had to face the decision to kill a fellow Prince if Mary, Queen of Scots, hadn’t been such a flibbertigibbet, less concerned with her duties than her “liberty”, which she seems to have thought of as licence to do as she pleased. It was this flaw in her character that led her to marry Darnley and to flaunting her Catholicism, both of which annoyed the Scots Lords, and gave Bothwell the excuse he wanted to aim at the crown. A sorry mess of crimes and failed hard choices followed. Mary was imprisoned in all but name, and became the focus of Catholic anti-Elizabethan plots. Elizabeth really did have to neutralise the threat, but she was unwilling to make hard choices herself, and so left the removal of Mary up to Walsingham, who had no compunction about arranging entrapment and a show trial. Elizabeth dithered about signing the warrant for Mary’s execution, but did so in the end, and regretted bitterly having to do it.
     Throughout the book, Schama shows us how people did or not do what they had to do, how they usually did the best they could according to their values and philosophies, and how character inevitably shifts the choices one way rather than another.
    History, someone said, is just one damn thing after another. Yes, but we can at least in principle if not in practice trace the causes of what’s happened, however difficult prediction would have been. We rarely have sufficient data to allow more than a more or less likely explication. But whenever they can, people choose the path that seems to give them most control by seeming to lead them where they want to go. Nobody likes to be faced with  choices none of which allow at least the illusion of control. Understanding how the choices looked to the people who made them helps us understand why things were done, and so helps us make sense of the past. Schama does this very well. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume. Recommended as one of the best popular histories available. ****

Monday, December 22, 2014

Michael J. Fox. Always Looking Up (2009)

     Michael J. Fox. Always Looking Up (2009) I heard Fox speak at an Ontario Hospital Association Health Achieve convention in 2011. He was impressive, clearly affected by his Parkinson’s disease, yet coping well. I don’t know what his current condition is, but since we haven’t heard much about him in the last year or so, I surmise that the Parkinson’s has progressed beyond the effectiveness of the drugs and other measures Fox has used to keep it in check.
     Fox came across as a man who has come to terms with his life, and is using his talents and his treasure to live that life as well as he can. His courage, his good humour, his awareness of the effects of his twitching and blank-outs and other symptoms of Parkinson’s, combined to make us believe that no matter how bad things seem, there are ways to live a full and satisfying life. He calls himself an incurable optimist. He knows that the odds of finding a cure in time to prevent the last ravages of the disease are remote, but he supports research anyhow. He’s set up a foundation to support Parkinson’s research and related activities. This has become his work.
     Parkinson’s is one of those degenerative diseases that we don’t like to think about. It makes us avert our eyes, it whispers “This is all you are: a bundle of flesh and bone and skin and a few curious organs, any one of which can break down and rob you not only of your well-being but of your self. You won’t ever be the same again.”
Fox has tried to remain the same. His optimism, as he calls it, has sustained him. He knows the value of family, of friends, of hope. He knows that he must work hard to maintain something like a normal life, but his very existence reminds us that “normal” is a comforting illusion. Objectively, it’s merely the collection of average traits. Psychologically, it’s the notion that we are what we are supposed to be. But who of us is?
     I started reading this book to remind me of the impression that Fox made in his presentation. It does that very well. I didn’t read it all, I don’t need to know all the details of Fox’s life as told here. I like his work in TV, and I like the person he was in 2011 and in this book even more. His style is personal, you think you’re listening to him talk to you. He says many wise things incidentally, such as “...investing time in the political process is an expression of hope”. The cynic might say it’s a forlorn hope, but not Fox. He’s not ideological, he’s pragmatic, an attitude that sustains one’s political hopes despite the crazies who appropriate political dialogue.
    There’s a lot of information online about him and the Foundation. ***

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas with Stephen Leacock (1988)

     Christmas with Stephen Leacock (1988) No editor listed. A collection of occasional pieces, many of them apparently commissioned, and four unpublished ones. Of these “Hoodoo McFiggin’s Christmas” is the best known, but all exhibit Leacock’s superficial bonhomie overlaying a deep current of rage and despair. A “kindly mischievous ghost”, as the curator of the Leacock Memorial Home calls him, he was not. Leacock liked Christmas, but he was also angry at the yearly hypocrisy of pretending to care for one’s fellow human beings while following the dictates of custom and courtesy. He deeply wished that the angels’ message should be heard as an exhortation, not as a sentimental announcement annually repeated in a Christmas pageant. Worth reading, if you can find the book. ***

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Howard Engel. Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell (1997)

     Howard Engel. Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell (1997) Doyle is a student of Dr Bell’s. Alan Lambert’s brother comes to see Dr. Bell with a request to save  Alan from the gallows. The trial is clearly a miscarriage of justice, but without new and compelling evidence to point to the perpetrator, Lambert will be hanged. Engel tells a story with a satisfying number of twists and turns, and a satisfyingly plausible plot involving embezzlement and Edinburgh’s highest and mightiest. Along the way, he gives us a good insight into the differences between Scottish and English law, and shows how Bell was a plausible model for Sherlock Holmes.
     Engel also manages to write in a good pastiche of Doyle’s style, which makes the pleasure of reading this above-average mystery all the greater. **½

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Douglas Hofstadter. I Am a Strange Loop (2007)

    Douglas Hofstadter. I Am a Strange Loop (2007) I’m a fan of Doug Hofstadter. I like his ability to make the most abstract and mind-bending propositions, and then bring them into one’s understanding by using a metaphor or every-day detail or experience. He loves puns, and repeatedly uses the insight-generating power of accidental similarities and equivalences. He knows that we all makes sense of the world differently because we have had different lives, so the more points of entry, the more points of view, the more points of the argument, the more likely it is that the reader will be able to share his thinking.
    Here, Hofstadter returns to the puzzle that has focussed his life: What is consciousness? He now asks it as, What is a person? Here’s how I interpret his exploration of this puzzle.
    The title supplies the short answer: A person is a strange loop. To explain that concept, he starts with feedback, first as an unwanted side effect of outputs looping back as inputs, as when a microphone screeches in the middle of the gym. He escalates that to the feedback loop we experience in a hall of mirrors, or when a video camera videos its own output on a screen. More complex is the feedback loop we use when we control home heating with a thermostat.
    More complex still are the biological feedback loops that maintain bodily function. These loops intersect in many ways; they form a feedback web. To describe life is to describe feedback loops and webs.
    But there’s more: animal life includes feedback loops within the nervous system. We focus on something we see because we want more data. The visual centre has sent its outputs to other parts of the brain which in turn send their outputs to still other parts, and one of those parts triggers the “turn your head and look more closely” action.
In short, we are perception machines. All living things perceive their environment in the sense that they respond to those features of it that their sensors monitor. That environment includes their own internal states. These are the feedback loops that enable living things to maintain their life processes over time.
    Humans, and many other animals, not only perceive their environment, they perceive themselves. That is, they are aware of their bodies in space, and that perception becomes part of the feedback web that results in actions. Some animals perceive at another level: they perceive themselves. They know that they are not the chair that they are sitting on, nor the human who is sitting on the chair. But this self-awareness is limited: a cat does not know that what it sees in the mirror is itself, not another cat.
    Finally, some animals are able to perceive themselves perceiving themselves. This is the strange loop of Hofstadter’s title. The famous mirror test demonstrating that chimpanzees have a self-image shows what he means. Humans have an even more complex capability: we perceive ourselves perceiving ourselves perceiving ourselves. This recursion constitutes what Hofstadter thinks of as a person. In fact, there seems to be only a practical limit to how far this recursion can go. Our brains are huge and complex, but there is a limit to the amount of information included in any one moment of awareness. At the conscious level, the recursion is expressed in symbols, primarily via language, but also via all the other mediums we use to articulate our awareness and understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
    That’s Hofstadter’s thesis as briefly as I can explain it. To me, it’s the most compelling account of consciousness, of a person, that I’ve read. It has the virtue of being testable. Hofstadter himself supplies the basic test. He reminds us of animal behaviours that suggest awareness, and more importantly, of the observation that a human grows in awareness of its surroundings, its body, and of its self. Babies are born barely able to respond to external stimuli. By around 5 or 6 years of age, a human has a well-developed self: “I” means not only the body, it includes desires and impulses, abilities and skills, the recognition of the things in its environment,  memories of yesterday and the day before, and expectations of the future.
    Most characteristically, the self is the way those awarenesses are expressed,  translated into stories, songs, pictures, and so on. The child is a person because it knows itself, it has constructed a narrative of itself as an agent in the past, present, and future. And as dementia destroys the brain, it also destroys the person. The narrative that constitutes the self diminishes bit by bit, and we observe the terrifying reality that a body can be empty, a shell with no self inhabiting it.
    The extension of the self into time and space, into memories and ideas, into symbolic representations, is uniquely human. To paraphrase Hofstadter, a dog will remember that a table scrap is delicious and therefore worth begging for, but it doesn’t reminisce with other dogs about The Best Table Scraps I Ever Ate.
    Hofstadter includes a couple of chapters on how Goedel’s theorem shows how complex the strange loop really is. He argues that Goedel’s theorem is about how self-reference in a symbol system, and how that enables self-reference in general, and more specifically the kind of self-perception that makes a person. You can skip this part of the book.
    His motivation for this extended meditation on the self was the death of his wife. Like many people who have lost a most-beloved one, he had the uncanny feeling that she was still in some sense present, within himself, in his memories of her, in which he re-enacted how she would have responded to a new piece of music, to a new book, to a walk in a well-loved wood. In a sense, her personality was stored within him, and trying to puzzle that out led him back to the central question of his life. I don’t think you should skip those parts of the book.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Recommended. ****

Monday, December 01, 2014

In Search of Beethoven (2009)

     In Search of Beethoven (2009) 3-part version of the bio-documentary, with lots of talking heads, photos and engravings of places and people, and performance snippets by many of the best interpreters of Beethoven. Well done, with much information new to people like me, who like classical music but haven’t learned much about the composers.
     Beethoven was a much more complicated man than the stereotypical bust suggests. He knew he was a pretty good composer, and felt he was competing with Haydn and Mozart, “our three great composers” according to contemporary music critics. Mozart was near the end of his life and Haydn was dead. Beethoven also had strong opinions, and believed that human beings were capable of much more than the slummy world of politics and commerce and social striving. He was furious when his hero Napoleon revealed himself to be just another power-grubbing arriviste, and erased Napoleon’s name from the dedication on the score of the Eroica so angrily that he left holes in the paper.
     We hear enough music to understand why so many people think of Beethoven as the greatest composer ever, and also why other prefer to give that prize to Mozart or Bach. There’s no question, I think, that Beethoven showed what music could be in ways that no one else ever did. His last compositions sound like late 19th or early 20th century works, with their broken chords, their fractured rhythms, and their searching and inconclusive melodic lines.
     One of the last comments was that Beethoven had so little lasting influence on later composers because no one could exceed him. There’s some truth to that, I think. “Serious” composers nowadays have to a large extent been reduced to experiments with new tonalities and abstract structures. Popular music has become the truly innovative source of new sound. Considering that well into the 19th century what we think of as classical music was actually contemporary pop, this is not surprising. Music endlessly reinvents itself. We rediscover old music in every generation, every generation recognises great work from all eras and every generation adopts and adapts the work of the old masters. This documentary demonstrated why Beethoven will last. The details of his personal life, and how his beliefs and feelings informed his music is interesting for anyone, but especially for the Beethoven fan. But in the end, the work itself is what matters. I don’t think that how it affects the listener depends on knowledge of biography.
     I think that Beethoven’s violin concerto in D Major is the most sublime piece of music ever written. Among my favourite versions are those by Itzhak Perlman, Yehudi Menuhin, and David Oistrakh.
     Good documentary. I wouldn’t have minded a longer version with more music. ***

Murder on the Home Front (2013)

     Murder on the Home Front (2013) [D: Geoffrey Sax. Patrick Kennedy, Tamzin Merchant] Several murders of prostitutes almost lead to major miscarriage of justice, on grounds of National Security. MI5 protects the actual perp because he’s a code breaker. The fall guy ends up interned on the Isle of Man. Dr Collins, the new young forensic pathologist at first antagonises the police because he’s aware of current methods, unlike his boss, the previous pathologist. He hires Molly Cooper,  a reporter eager to participate in order to get ideas for detective stories, to be his assistant because she doesn’t flinch when he asks her to help out on the first autopsy.
     The false leads, three more murders, and the machinations of MI5 nicely complicate the plot, and as a murder puzzle this movie is above average. As a story about the effects of crime on people and their relationships, it’s merely average: Collins and Cooper are clearly attracted to each other, but either he’s too bashful or too aware of how romance might compromise their professional relationship. As an evocation of wartime London, the movie’s quite good. The director wanted a claustrophobic effect, of being hemmed in and navigating through a perilous labyrinth. This not only set the ambience of hidden dangers and treachery, it also made it easier to give us the flavour wartime grunge. As an exploration of the necessary evils of war the movie fails. It presents the ethical dilemma, but solves it rather too neatly. Maybe it was solved that neatly in real life.
      We enjoyed this movie. Above average. **½

Rupture: living with a broken brain (2012)

     Rupture: living with a broken brain (2012) Maryam d’Abo and her husband made this documentary intending it to be the story of her recovery. There’s some of that, but mostly it’s interviews with other people who have suffered strokes. Very well done, not your average medical doc, this movie tries to express the emotional impact of stroke on both the sufferer and the family and friends. It succeeds, because it doesn’t try to be literal. It focusses on the tiny minority (about 3-5% of all stroke victims) who recover a reasonable facsimile of their former more or less normal life. But all of them report that their sense of self, the world, and the people around them has changed. Life has become more purposeful, but not more planned. The purpose is joy; plans often prevent that. Worth watching more than once. ***

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Another link. Funny precsion marching

OK, OK, I've been checking out fun stuff on UTOOB. I liked this one. ;-)

HDPE as a raw material.

If you're into crafts you may need a new material to work with. You can use High Density Polyethylene, aka HDPE, or recycling plastic #2. Shred it, melt it, compress it, and use the cooled block as a source of stuff to carve, cut, turn on a lathe, and so on. I found this video on Boing Boing. Enjoy! Best aspect: you can get neat multicolour marble effects.

A comet's song.

The comet is singing! Well, not really. Rosetta detected variations in the comet's magnetic field, at a very low frequency. The signals had to be raised in frequency to where we humans can hear them, so that many minutes of magnetic field variations around the comet have been compressed to 87 seconds. Listen here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day


     Today we remember those whom we sent into war on our behalf, and who gave everything they had. They gave their lives. I want to think about that sacrifice, and what our remembering should inspire us to do. For it does no good to feel sad about those who died in war if our remembrance ends with those feelings. Our duty is not only to remember what the fallen soldiers have done for us, but also to act so that their deaths will have meaning.
     I am old enough to remember the last year of the war and its aftermath. When someone of my age refers to The War, it means the Second World War, the one that started on the German-Polish border in September 1939 and ended in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945. Just how many people died in that war will never be known for sure. The best estimates average out at about 23 million soldiers and 45 million civilians. That's more than twice today's population of Canada.
     But those are mere statistics. If you want to know what war is like, talk with those who lived through it. Soldiers who saw combat very rarely talk about it. But you can see how their memories affect them when you watch their faces as they stand at attention at the Cenotaph during the Remembrance Day ceremonies. My father talked about it once only, when he thought the time was ripe for his grandchildren to learn something of what to them was only history in books.
     Those who didn't see combat are more likely to tell stories, but they too avoid talking about the fighting that they knew indirectly, through the death and wounding of their friends. The civilians who endured bombing, flight from the front, refugee camps, starvation, invasion and counter invasion, the oppression of occupation and foreign rule, they sometimes talk about it. But they leave out a lot.
     I don't remember much. We lived in a small town by a lake, far from the battle fronts. Bombers flew over on their way to bomb the cities and the railway yards. The sun glinted on them, they were like little silver fish high up in the blue air. The sound of their engines came from everywhere, from one side of the sky to the other. When the bombs fell on the railway yards ten kilometres away, we felt it in our bellies and the soles of our feet. A few times I saw black mushrooms grow on the horizon. Most of the time, the air-raid sirens chased us into the cellar, where we were dressed in several layers of clothing. It was a guarantee that we would have something to wear if the house was destroyed. The woolly underwear itched. There was a candle lit, and others ready to be lit if the power went out. When the bombs fell, we heard a dull thump, very far away, and dust trickled down from the ceiling. We crowded close to Mummy, and felt safe.
     I hate war. I can't tell you how much I hate it. And yet I know that war will come again. It will come because we fear those who are different, and that gives an opening to those who want to exploit that fear for their own ends. It will come because those who have power and wealth want to wage war for their own purposes. It will come because we leave too much up to the politicians that we elect to do the boring business of government for us. It will come because as long as we have something like a good life, we leave things up to the experts. It’s too much bother to take time to understand the problems that face us, let alone make an effort to participate in solving them.
     It's not pleasant to think about these things.
     It's not pleasant to think about war, or the poor, or the damage we're doing to our planet.
     It's not pleasant because it reminds us that we, each of us and all together, have a responsibility.
     But today, on Remembrance Day, we have before us the example of those whom we sent to war, who placed their bodies between us and the enemy, who gave everything they had. I know and you know that they had many different reasons for putting on the uniform. But whatever their reasons, they went.
     And too many of them died.
     We owe them.
     The last stanza of In Flanders Fields calls us to this duty:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.


     The foe is not the enemy soldier. He died as our soldiers died, his family grieved as our families grieved. Those who survived suffered the rest of their lives. The memories of war cannot be erased.
     No, the foe is us. We are the ones who wage war. The soldier is merely an instrument of war. He's just another weapon that we, the wagers of war, use to fight our battles.
     We must change our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts. We must replace fear with hope, hate with love, indifference with caring. It sounds like tall order, but it can be done.
     If you look at the advice that the religious leaders have given us, one thing stands out: they don't talk about systems. They don't talk about governments, or politics, or businesses, or enterprises, or organisations. They don't talk about methods or processes or procedures. They don't talk about checklists, or seven habits of successful people, or how to make every minute count.
     They talk about forgiveness. They talk about faith. They talk about love.
     By what rule should we live our lives? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The most ancient religious texts give us this rule. It’s the rule given by Jesus, by the Buddha, by Confucius, by Muhammad. Jesus expands on it: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbour as yourself.
     In short, we must change. We must change the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act. We must think of all humans as being People Like Us. We must feel that every person we meet is a member of our family. We must do whatever we can to make life better for other people, just as we do whatever we can to make life better for ourselves.
     A tall order indeed. It means giving up the notion that we are the centre of the universe. It means giving up what makes us comfortable. It means giving up our lives in service. It means sacrifice. The kind of sacrifice that we remember today.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Boswell Taylor, ed. Ships: Picture Teach Yourself (1977)

     Boswell Taylor, ed. Ships: Picture Teach Yourself (1977) One of a series of “project books” intended to give primary and middle school students information on some subject. It was assembled at a time when giving students “projects” to do was the vogue, and no doubt many students picked up all kinds of oddments of knowledge and perhaps even general insights. Children of primary and middle school age love to accumulate facts, so this book no doubt found some happy readers.
     The book consists of many black and white illustrations of watercraft, many of them reproductions original sources such as stone carvings. The brief well-crafted captions waste no words. Reading it from beginning to end in one go will give you a pretty good overview of the development of watercraft and their uses in transport and trade. Nicely done, but sadly obsolescent if not obsolete when people believe that a few clicks will give them reliable information.
     It takes less than an hour to read and look at every item in this book; and exploring the questions it raises could prompt historical interests. It no doubt had just that effect on some of its readers. I liked it. **½

R. Buckminster Fuller. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1970)

     R. Buckminster Fuller. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1970) Fuller has a deserved reputation for inventing the geodesic dome, except for the fact that it’s devilishly difficult to make it leak proof. Reason: the differential expansion and contraction of the geodesic frame and the covering. It works best with membranes, and worst with sheet wood and sheet metal. I enjoyed the airy and open feel of the USA’s geodesic dome at Expo 67. I have no idea how it performed in the Montreal winters, though.
     Fuller in his day had a reputation as a visionary, and in one sense he was: he understood that the Earth is a system, and that making it habitable over the long haul, that is millennia, requires system thinking, which at the time he wrote the book was still an arcane ill-understood subject. This book was received as his Best Word on the subject, but rereading it forty-some years later it is depressing. Fuller loves portmanteau words, no doubt intended to express his vision of the allatonceness of the system he is trying to describe. But his vision is surprisingly narrow. He has no inkling of the complexity of biological systems. I mean, he can’t be faulted for not knowing what we now know, that the interconnections in an ecosystem are generally counterintuitive and surprising. But back then there was a lot of ecological knowledge out there already, yet Fuller blithely assumes that engineering will solve the problems. The metaphor of Earth as a spaceship indicates both the breadth of his vision and the narrowness of the knowledge base on which he builds it.
     Fuller does have the ability to pose serious questions. He notices that the economic system is not built to maximise wealth, but to maximise money, which is not at all the same thing. his solution is an economic system that will deprive the Great Pirates of their power. And that solution shows the problem with his solutions generally: he states them in terms of desired outcomes with hardly any indication of how to achieve them. Thus he gives us a vision of a prosperous peaceful Earth that will sustain humankind for ever, more or less, without much in the way of processes or methods to achieve it.
     Fuller helped spread the word on systems and how necessary it is to think about them. If for no other reason, this book is worth reading. But it gets tedious pretty quickly. I stopped halfway through. That’s all you need to get the thesis: that unless we create an economic system that respects Earth as a system, we will destroy it. **

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw

     Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw [D: Cedric Messina. John Gielgud, Sian Phillips, Barbara Murray. Daniel Massey et al] Bernard Shaw’s Play produced in 1977 for TV as “Play of the Week”. A nice example of why staging plays for the camera doesn’t work. The set is obviously a set, larger than one built for a theatre, but still a set. The acting is large as for for a theatre, and doesn’t work for the camera. The sound is inconsistent, and in places distracting: the stone steps are clearly wooden. Intercutting the stage action with black and white clips of Zeppelins attacking England doesn’t help. The blocking of the characters is clearly intended for a theatre audience, and doesn’t work for the camera. The director uses overhead shots, but all they do is emphasise the staginess. The absence of a laugh track hurts the production. In a theatre, the audience reacts, which energises the actors. Reactions by other members of the audience help one follow the performance, too. But for some probably purist intention, there is no laugh track, no musical score, just the silence of the sound stage.
     Shaw’s script doesn’t help, it’s one of his wordier plays. Of course all his plays are wordy, but the best ones have a narrative arc keeps the talk focussed. Here there are the usual Shavian witticisms and pseudo-paradoxes, but too often they distract rather than create character or illuminate relationships. I gather from various socio-political remarks that Shaw intended the play to critique the property-owning classes, and to riff (once again) on how the marriage market destroys romance. Or something like that.
     This effort is of historical interest: this is how culture was once done on TV. Nine years earlier, Zeffirelli made his Romeo and Juliet, showing how to translate Shakespeare’s scripts from stage to screen. He cut and paraphrased the dialogue, and frequently used the camera instead of words, thus paying Shakespeare the compliment of professional respect. But some critics panned the movie because Zeffirelli showed that Shakespeare’s scripts could make great movies. I think Shaw’s plays can make great movies, too. This Heartbreak House is merely a photographed play, and more’s the pity. *

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sam J. Lundwall. Alice’s World (1971)

     Sam J. Lundwall. Alice’s World (1971) A Confederation mission to Earth 50,000 years after the Exodus finds a world in which people's hallucinations are real and fulfill their deepest desires. The Captain ends up the supreme commander of an invasion force engaged in and endless war. One of his crew members lives in a blissful liaison with her mate. This is Ray Bradbury country crossed with Lewis Carroll, where science and fantasy mix, where reality and dream are indistinguishable, where Alice creates and uncreates the world around her. Lundwall does a better than average job of conveying the experience of his characters, especially the irony that the Captain understands fully that the dreams of humankind have become real, yet is trapped by them as much as everyone else.
     Well done pulp fiction, the kind that in the 1960s prompted endless arguments about whether it’s Literature. Of course it is. Wikipedia has a good article on Lundwall at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_J._Lundwall ***

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Quantum theory and consciousness

     Quantum theory and  consciousness

     Efstratios Manousakis is member of the Department of Physics, Florida State University, in Tallahassee. He has written a paper, Founding quantum theory on the basis of consciousness [1], which purports to show that a Global Stream of Consciousness guarantees our observations of quantum events.
     In his introduction he writes,
     Von Neumann[2], using projection operators and density matrices as tools to describe the apparent statistical character of measurement, was able to show that the assumed boundary separating the observing instrument and the so-called observed object can be arbitrarily shifted and, therefore, ultimately the observer becomes the “abstract ego” (in Von Neumann’s terms) of the observer.
     He goes on to write,
     In this paper quantum theory (more generally, the description of nature) isfounded on the framework of the operation and on the primary ontological character of consciousness, rather than founding consciousness on the laws of physics. It is discussed that quantum theory follows naturally by starting from how consciousness operates upon a state of potential consciousness and more generally how it relates to the emergence or manifestation and our experience of matter. In addition, it is argued that the problem of measurement and the paradoxes of quantum theory arise due to our poor understanding of the nature and the operation of consciousness.
     It seems to me that Von Neumann’s theorem and Schrödinger’s Cat together imply that the observer has no special status. The wave function collapses when a quantum event occurs. That quantum event results in a chain of events, the last of which is the observation. I see no reason to infer that the observer has an ontological status different from the instrument. That is, the instrument would record the event whether or not an observer was present.
     An instrument is an entity whose state changes whenever it interacts with its environment. Every such interaction requires some exchange of energy. Quantum events are changes in local energy, one quantum at a time. This implies that any entity is an instrument. Hence von Neumann’s theorem. What we think of as an instrument is an assemblage of such entities constructed to magnify the energy changes until they affect our senses.
     As von Neumann shows, we, the observers, are the last in a chain of energy exchanges. We need not be. We could be entirely absent. But the changes would still occur, and the instrument would still change state. For that matter, the instrument need not be present. The quantum events would still occur. That quantum events are in principle unpredictable is irrelevant. What matters is that they happen.
     What’s more, we believe firmly that those events do in fact occur. Otherwise we wouldn’t trouble to invent ways of detecting them.
     Manousakis introduces a number of concepts, such as “potential consciousness”, “stream of consciousness”, etc. These amount to a claim of special ontological status for the conscious observer. He constructs an argument to imply a Global Consciousness which binds all our individual streams of consciousness together. This amounts to a variation of Berkeley’s argument for the existence of God. The use of quantum theory doesn’t make the argument any more valid than Berkeley’s version.

Notes:
2. Efstratios Manousakis, Founding quantum theory on the basis of consciousness, (Found. Phys. 36 (6)). Also published on line: DOI: 10.1007/s10701-006-9049-9 http://dx/doi.org/10.1007/s10701-006-9049-9

1. J. Von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, Chap. VI, pg. 417 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1955).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

William Strunk Jr & E B White. The Elements of Style, 2nd edition (1972)

     William Strunk Jr & E B White. The Elements of Style, 2nd edition (1972) I first read this marvellous book several decades ago. I can’t recall who recommended it, but I owe them thanks. Strunk‘s course and his little book were legendary at Harvard.  His advice, allowing for changes in usage, is still sound. Know and understand grammar. Know and respect the rules of usage. Revise and rewrite. That’s it. There isn’t anything more.
   The Rules give examples that exemplify this advice. Most of the rules still stand. E B White revised the examples of bad usage, and added a chapter of general advice on the craft of writing. Some of the bad examples have either disappeared or become accepted, but that should not dissuade a writer from ignoring current usage. Good usage in any era consists of writing for the reader.
     When I taught composition, I stressed that writing should be clear, concise, and correct. In that order. Rereading Strunk’s book and E B White’s addition to it, I think that these three words sum up their counsel. ****

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Howard Engel. The Man Who Forgot How to Read (2012)

     Howard Engel. The Man Who Forgot How to Read (2012) Afterword by Oliver Sacks. Engel went out to get the paper one morning, and found he couldn’t read it. He drove to the Emergency Department of the nearby hospital, where they confirmed that he’d had a stroke in the left occipital area of his brain, a part of the visual cortex necessary for the decoding of print and writing into words and hence into meaning. But he could still write. The technical term is alexia sine agraphia, non-reading without non-writing. This made him a rare case, which is one reason that Oliver Sacks not only agreed to see him, but also agreed to write an afterword for the Benny Cooperman mystery Engel eventually wrote, the only one I’ve not read yet.
     This memoir begins with reading. It was Engel’s life, the essence of his imaginative and intellectual interaction with the world around him. To lose that could have been to lose everything. But during six weeks in rehab, plus every day since then, Engel found ways of coping with this deficit. It’s a powerful read, a page-turner. I read a few pages one late afternoon, and devoured the book in bed. It’s not only the futile attempt to imagine alexia that keeps you going, it’s Engel’s wry humour, his clear-eyed vision of himself and his situation, his gratitude for his family and friends. He’s a mensch, someone you would like to know. He’s a damn good writer, too.
     Recommended. ****

Louis L’Amour. Callaghen (1972)

    Louis L’Amour. Callaghen (1972) Another tale of a drifter, a private in the US Army a few days away from his discharge, who entangles himself in a situation he’d rather not be a part of. But his sense of honour and duty compel him to do what he can.  He can do quite a lot: rescue the passengers of a stage coach robbed by a couple of nasties, defend them and his military patrol from Mohaves, defeat those very same nasties when they come after him and the remaining passengers, and of course win the respect and love of a good woman. A nicely done adventure romance, with the usual L’Amour tropes. I read all but half a page while waiting for a minor procedure. The ER doc had to tend a couple more urgent cases than mine, so I had plenty of time. But I waited till I got home to read that last half page. Worth the wait. **½

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Alexander McCall-Smith. Trains and Lovers (2012)

     Alexander McCall-Smith. Trains and Lovers (2012) Four people share a compartment from Euston to Edinburgh. Two young men tell the stories of their loves, the older woman tells of her parent’s love, and the older man keeps silent, but we learn about his life-long chaste gay love for his boyhood friend. McCall-Smith knows how to tell stories so that we want to know more. His writing is skilful, his dialogue sounds natural, his scene-setting creates ambience the way good movie music does: we hardly notice that it’s done, still less how it’s done.
     The events of his characters’ lives are hardly unusual. It’s McCall-Smith’s ability to make the ordinariness of life significant that explains his popularity. I find his books very readable, but they are finally not quite satisfying. They are very well done stories, but they don’t demand that we reflect on our own lives, they don’t make us rethink our prejudices and insights. On they contrary, they soothe us by suggesting that our attitudes are just fine the way they are. A young man and a young woman can find a life-long love despite the social distance between them. A young woman can be deceptive and duplicitous. A man and a woman’s life together can engender something deeper than mutual respect.  Love is more than sex, it can grow and continue without sex. Do we doubt these insights? Only if we insist on cynicism, and McCall-Smith somehow disarms the impulse to sneer. That’s what makes his books something more than pleasant entertainments. **½

Louis L’Amour. Shalako (1962)

     Louis L’Amour. Shalako (1962) Shalako, a man with no past, meets up with a European hunting party led by Frederick von Hallstatt, a Prussian baron who wants to enjoy a “skirmish” with the Apache. Irina Carnarvon, whom Shalako accompanied back to the camp after finding their wagon-master dead, lends him her horse, and he leaves to find a place to hole up while the Apache deal with the hunting party and move on. But he of course he can’t stay away. One bloody event leads to another, the Prussian baron learns that his officer training is useless against guerrilla tactics, most of the hunting party die, Shalako fights a duel with Tats-ah-das-ay-go, a ruthless Apache warrior, and wins, barely. Shalako and Irina ride off together.
     L’Amour knew exactly what he was doing. His stories are chivalric romances. He puts us directly into the landscape, we can feel the heat, smell the dust, see the sun-bleached colours. The characters are just this side of caricature, what makes them believable is their ability to learn and change. The hero must overcome his impulse to avoid adult responsibility. As Tats-ah-das-ay-go falls to his death, Shalako cries out “Warrior! Brother!” and comes close to weeping.
      I like L’Amour’s books, even though they cover the same ground over and over again. He knows how to vary the plots, his narrative pace and rhythm keep us wanting to read. His writing is compact, there are no wasted words. This one is above his average. ***

Monday, October 20, 2014

Margery Allingham. My Friend Mr Campion (2011)

     Margery Allingham. My Friend Mr Campion (2011) Collection of short stories and the novella The Late Pig. I finished that last night, and promptly started rereading the stories. Entertaining, with enough, if stereotypical, characterisation to make you care. There was a TV series starring Peter Davison (also known as one of the Doctor in Dr Who), which captured the look and feel of the stories very well. Like the other women from the Golden Age, Allingham’s strength is character. The puzzles are often too complex for plausibility, but the clues are fairly placed for those readers who like to solve the puzzle before the ‘tec does, and Allingham nicely navigates the inherent implausibility of the amateur sleuth. Campion's friend Oates advances from Detective Inspector to Superintendent. Campion may play a lone hand occasionally when he’s unsure of his ground, but he sees himself as an assistant to the police, not a competitor. Good collection. ***

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Conrad Haynes. Bishop’s Gambit Declined (1987)

     Conrad Haynes. Bishop’s Gambit Declined (1987) I’m a sucker for novels set in Academia. Here,  it’s a fictitious private liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. There’s some satire of academics and administrators, but they’re easy targets, and Haynes is wise enough not to overdo it. The hero is Henry Bishop, a stereotypical unruly professor, who enjoys teaching and respects his students, as well as those of his colleagues who like him value thorough scholarship. A too-good-to-be true female detective sergeant and an apparent sleaze ball of a reporter interfere with each other’s investigations. The murders are designed to cover up an ancient semi-crime, and are not really necessary, but they make a good scaffold for the story, which is handled in movie-style scenes and with decent dialogue. The occasional authorial omniscient asides grate enough that I’d have cut them. All in all, good of its kind. **

Robert Crais. The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987)

     Robert Crais. The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) Elvis Cole is P.I. in the classic mould: cynical, insightful, with a dry wit and a soft heart, driven to right wrongs no matter what the cost. Crais combines L.A, Hollywood, drug lords, corrupt politics, the sleazy side of show business, failed dreams, and a victim who becomes a heroine into a well done entertainment. There’s no puzzle, there’s just the question of whether Cole and Ellen Lang will be able to rescue her son before it’s too late. The central characters have enough depth to sustain interest and engage sympathy, and the secondary characters are well done animated scenery. The ambience draws heavily on the cliches of West Coast crime fiction, but Crais does a better job than most in emulating the classics. A series worth looking for, and collecting if you’re into that. **½

Nancy Pickard. Marriage is Murder (1987)

     Nancy Pickard. Marriage is Murder (1987) Jenny Cain and Detective Geof Bushfield’s wedding is set for two weeks hence, but several domestic murders threaten to interfere with their plans, and worse, Geof is so appalled at what he has witnessed that he wants to quit. Of course all’s well that ends well, but along the way Pickard delivers an extended if somewhat superficial examination of domestic violence. She’s hampered by not having enough space to explore the complex backstories of her characters, and can do little more than sketch the relationships and histories that bind them. Would she have delivered a better novel if she’d had more room? I think so. There’s more than a few hints that she’s really more interested in the psychology of evil and of human failures than in the crime puzzles that these engender. **½

Monday, October 13, 2014

Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian (2012)

     Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian (2012) A book everyone should read. King gives us a history of White-Indian relations from the beginning to the present. He uses stories, with a few numbers and generalisations here and there, but mostly stories. They are not nice stories. King’s ironic asides make them palatable, just. It’s a book that can be life-changing.
     Seems to me that the conquest of the Americas happened at the time when Europe began to reconsider the relationships between conquerors and conquered. Human history is about genocide, mostly. The Bible records several times when the Israelites slew everyone of their enemies, men, women, and children. Or they killed everyone except the boys, who could be trained to be slaves, and the girls and women, who could be used for pleasure or as trade goods. The Iliad ends with the slaughter of Trojans. Ghengis Khan built a pyramid with the heads of the inhabitants of a city that wouldn’t surrender. But after the Hundred Years War, Europeans began to change their attitudes. It’s not that they gave up extermination. It’s just they began to feel, um, squeamish about it. So the problem of the original inhabitants of the Americas became just that, a problem. A few centuries earlier, the wars of conquest between the Spanish and the Aztecs would have continued and expanded until the whole continent was White. Or perhaps a patchwork of Native and White states.
     But by around 1600, a different relationship had evolved. It was Europeans’ desire for beaver fur that made the difference. The Natives become trading partners. They became useful, and even necessary. When the fur trade ended, around the same time that the Thirteen Colonies successfully asserted their independence because the home country wouldn’t accept them as equals, the fact of continued Native presence became, well, inconvenient. Explicit genocide was out (which didn’t prevent massacres and other practices which amounted to genocide). So there were treaties, and abrogations of treaties. Attempts at assimilation. Legal and illegal theft of land. None of which ever got rid of Indians. They are as inconvenient as ever.
     King has traced the history of this inconvenience. It’s not nice. No story of clashing cultures ever is. There are degrees of awfulness, of course, but people invade other people because they want what other people have. If the attempted conquest succeeds, then there is eventually an integration of the  two cultures. Each modifies the other, and if the conquest was far enough in the past, the descendants may even (inconsistently) celebrate both the invaders and the invaded as their common heritage.
     But right now, Native and White relationships are still marked by prejudice, by assumptions of cultural superiority, by thinly disguised attempts at theft, by violence. Neither White nor Indian culture is what it was four hundred years ago, of course, and that fact gives us a small hope that both can influence each other for the better.
     But I’m not holding my breath.
     Unless a lot more people read King’s book. ****

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Peter Robinson. Friend of the Devil (2008)

     Peter Robinson. Friend of the Devil (2008) A wheelchair-bound woman is murdered; that’s Cabbot’s case. A girl is raped and strangled; that’s Banks’s case. Although these two crimes occur at opposite ends of Banks’s patch, they do connect eventually. Dual plots that intersect are Robinson’s speciality, as is the on-going soap opera of his principal characters. Banks and Cabbot both lonesome after their break-up, but neither can find a way to reconcile. The consequences of old crimes at first interfere with investigation the provide the break.
     A competent performance by Robinson, but not as engaging as his earlier works. He’s now a bankable writer, so his publishers give him leeway to digress and expand secondary plots. Some of these are truncated. Some scenes are merely plot points, and lack the suggestion of deeper currents and complex interwoven back stories that are Robinson’s forte. The psychology of one perpetrator is barely plausible. It’s this contrast between well done and perfunctory writing that grates. The overall effect is uneven. Or maybe I’ve come to expect to much from this series. **

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Simon Brett. So Much Blood (1976)

     Simon Brett. So Much Blood (1976) Charles Paris gets week-long gig replacing a cancelled show at the Edinburgh Fringe. During a rehearsal for another play by the same group, the Derby University Dramatic Society, or D.U.D.S., an objectionable young man dies when a prop knife turns out to be a real one. Paris believes it’s murder, and sets out to solve the puzzle. A double twist in the plot confirms the reader’s early inference about the perp’s identity. Along the way Paris has an affair with a careerist young actress, finds a friend who shares his literary and whiskey tastes, briefly reconnects with his wife Frances (they are separated), and provides Brett with an opportunity to show off his knowledge of Edinburgh’s streetscape. The writing varies from barely competent to evocative. Brett indulges in some mild satire on theatrical types, especially the earnest non-professionals who believe that The Theatre is hopelessly out of date. The result, like one of the D.U.D.S. reviews, has good bits, but lacks the coherence of character, ambience, and plot that would make for a satisfying novel.
     Brett has also done other series, TV scripts (my vague memory records better than average videos), and has produced and directed miscellaneous plays and TV series. See his Wikipedia entry for more. This effort seems to me to be below his average, probably because it’s only the 2nd book, an apprentice work. But I’ll have to read a couple more Paris mysteries to confirm that. **  **

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Robert Silverberg. Hawksbill Station (1968)

     Robert Silverberg. Hawksbill Station (1968) Premise: a “humane” totalitarian regime has replaced the constitutional republic of the United States, and sends political dissidents 1 billion years into the past. There is no way to return these exiles. Plot: A newcomer has no political knowledge of value, and it’s clear to the reader, if not the exiles, that there will be way to return. Setting: pre-Cambrian Earth, with no life on land. Silverberg’s depiction of this setting is limited both by his knowledge, and the gaps in contemporary understanding of this era).
     The narrator’s task is to make all this work in terms of character. Silverberg fails. The exiles are political stances and/or psychological case histories. Barrett, the central character, has a backstory involving an love triangle as well as political betrayal, and that’s as complicated as it gets.
     Silverberg is good at elucidating ideas, at presenting ideologies and politics. It’s fascinating to see how little has changed in the US political landscape. Silverberg is especially good at what makes America America: its unwillingness to change, which in practice means a major upheaval in every generation, when the inevitable effects of incomplete transmission of the culture forces changes that the old guard resents. But by the middle of the book, about the only impetus is the plot, which is thin. I’d guessed the resolution, skipped to end and saw my guess confirmed, so I stopped reading. **

Carola Dunn. Rattle his Bones (2000)

     Carola Dunn. Rattle his Bones (2000) Daisy Dalrymple’s 8th case. While researching an article on the Natural History Museum, Daisy almost witnesses a murder. She hears it, but doesn’t see it. This both annoys and pleases her fiancé, Det. Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher, because she of course does some sleuthing on her own, but also provides Fletcher with a couple of crucial clues. The murderer bonks her on the head. He did the dastardly deed to cover up a theft of gemstones, which he wanted to convert into cash in order to finance a dinosaur hunt.
     Nicely done entertainment, with better period ambience than most, characters not too cartoonish, a satisfying puzzle, and well-paced clues and red fish. This is the 3rd Dunn I’ve read, they’re fun, but not keepers. **½

Monday, September 22, 2014

Two Miss Marple Videos (2013)

     Two Miss Marple Videos (2013) A Caribbean Mystery and Gresham’s Folly. Starring Julia MacKenzie, who is no Jean Hickson, but she’s very good all the same.
     These new adaptations of Miss Marple stories pick up on hints in Christie’s texts and elaborate them. Mostly this deepens the characters and improves the dialogue. But they also use visuals to generate ambience and mood that Christie may not have had in mind. The Joan Hickson versions had a feeling of deep currents; here they are closer to the surface.
     Occasionally, the adapters allow themselves a joke. In A Caribbean Mystery, Ian Fleming appears as a hotel guest. He tells Miss Marple he’s writing a spy thriller but doesn’t have a name for his hero. The guest lecturer, presenting a slide show on the island’s birds, announce himself as “Bond, James Bond.” Eureka! This is also the story in which Mr Rafael meets Miss Marple. In a later tales gives her the task of preventing a crime. The murderer is a wife killer, a type that Christie used more than once, perhaps as a revenge on her unfaithful first husband.
     Both these tales rely on secrets from the past to make motives plausible. In both, the murderers are psychopaths, charmers who feign empathy they don’t feel, and in both the motive is mere money. But sometimes secrets are revealed inadvertently, and then self-preservation leads to secondary murders. Christie believed that killers were overconfident, that they could not imagine being outwitted by mere mortals, and so found added killings easy. There’s a good deal of truth to that, but I think it’s more likely that killers just can’t imagine how serious their crimes are, and therefore can’t imagine that ordinary mortals want to find them and thereby restore the balance we call justice. A lack of empathy not only limits one capacity for relationships, it also limits one’s ability to foresee how others will act, and so limits planning for the future.
      Both videos are good entertainment, especially for Christie fans. **½

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cherry-picking data, patterns, hypotheses, and scientism.

     “Lie, damn lies, and statistics.” That’s the dismissive phrase trotted out when someone disagrees with a claim that doesn’t fit their biases. “Cherry-picking data” follows close on its heels. These aren’t exactly ad hominem attacks, but they come close. Only a scoundrel would select only those numbers that support their claim. Only a scoundrel will ignore the data that might refute it.
     And so it goes.
     But science depends on cherry-picked data. A new insight usually starts when someone thinks of something as weird that everyone else thinks is ho-hum run-of-the-mill background to what really matters. Or has dismissed it as already explained by some existing paradigm. Or just some accidental oddity that doesn’t mean anything. But all of that is cherry-picking data. It’s to see a signal in the noise that no one else has seen. Consider how the Higgs boson was discovered: by picking out a mere handful of events and calculating the odds that these few events are likely nor mere random glitches in the data. The Higgs boson was discovered by planning to cherry-pick the data that implied its existence.
     That humans see patterns all around them is a cliché. That most of them are constructs of our propensity to see patterns is another one. But every now and then one of these patterns turns out to be significant. It’s really there. And its existence and shape raise questions. Possible answers to those questions amount to a hypothesis. Framing it so that it can be tested against new or different data takes imagination.
     Inference: to do science starts when someone picks out the relatively rare significant differences between what we expect to see, or notices the oddness of a familiar patch of reality. It’s when these skills are used to support an a priori hypothesis that we get not science but scientism. Then the accusations at the head of this essay are relevant.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ian Kershaw. The End (2011) The Collapse of Nazi Germany

     Ian Kershaw. The End (2011) Subtitled “The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945", and that’s exactly what the book narrates. It’s a depressing account of how many factors came together to cause what had till then never happened in modern times, the near-destruction of a nation. That Germans of all classes had a role in this destruction raises questions about attitudes, values, desires, ambitions, ideology, and systems that Kershaw does his best to answer. He shows that all these factors played into the process.
      Attitudes: There’s no question that many, I think most, people realised that the war was lost long before it came to its bitter end. But a combination of Nazi zeal, numbness, fear for oneself and one’s loved ones, patriotism, and a strong sense of duty all prompted people to continue to fight or at least not to oppose fighting. It wasn’t until the very end, when Allied troops arrived at the outskirts of towns and villages, that some local officials found the courage to oppose their own conditioning and the remaining Nazi power and surrender to the invaders. This saved a number of places from physical destruction. The psychological toll however was huge.
     Values: A prime value for the military and the bureaucracy was duty. It was impossible for these people to violate this value. Their sense of self was founded on it. It’s not surprising that soldiers and bureaucrats continued to follow orders and protocols even when doing so became mere theatre of the absurd.
     Desires and ambitions: The Nazi elite knew they were done for. Many took the coward’s way out. Others fled, abandoning their duty. A few believed they could salvage some kind of role in post-War Germany and continued the struggle in large part to buy time for some kind of negotiations, despite the Allies’ repeated demand for unconditional surrender.
     Ideology: Hitler never wavered in his ideology, and when the war was lost, he rationalised his failure as the failure of the German people, who had betrayed him and his vision for a Thousand Year Reich. That his ideology prevented him from building the governance structures and human relations with conquered peoples that would guarantee a stable Reich after his death was something he never publicly admitted, though we of course cannot know what he thought in the dark hours of early morning, when unwelcome insights insinuate themselves into the insomniac mind.
     There were many committed ideologues besides Hitler in the Nazi Party and in the Armed Forces. These people believed that the alliance between the West and Soviet Russia could not last, and that by prolonging the war they could prompt a split that would change everything. That split did come, but not until after the war. Their ideology of suppression of the weaker races led them to use brutal punishment to enforce duty and prevent rebellion. In the final weeks and days, these now legitimised protocols for murder were used by many Nazis to avenge themselves on those who had opposed them.
     Systems: Systems of governance broke down, but it took a long time for them to disintegrate, and at the local level they mostly held up. Local authorities and organisations did astonishing work in coping with the floods of refugees, the diminishing food supply, the loss of electricity and water, the increasing piles of rubble, the damaged transport.
     The central government lost more and more control as communications and transport were destroyed, but as long as Hitler was alive, its power persisted, and since it was the only institution that could parley with the Allies, it could not end the war by surrender until Hitler shot himself. The contrast between the continued functioning of government at the local level and the paralysed non-functioning of the central government is instructive. As systems analysts have noted, All systems are designed to produce the results they achieve, whether or not the results are intended. In Hitler’s Germany, the system was designed to identify the Nazi State with its Führer. That identification was what nearly destroyed Germany. Where local government was in the hands of people who identified with the Nazi State, infrastructure was destroyed and people died. Where people broke that identification, infrastructure was preserved and people survived.
     Kershaw’s book is almost compulsively readable. He has the knack of piling on and organising detail so that an overall pattern or impression emerges. That pattern is one of paralysing inability to abandon the Führerprinzip, for many different reasons. But chief of these was people’s inability to act autonomously, to decide for themselves what would be best for their community. Kershaw shows there is no one reason for this paralysis, and he also shows what happens when  it subsists. A depressing but valuable book, with implications far beyond understanding the unravelling of Germany in the last months of World War 2. ****

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Economics 101: Wages

Employment and wages.

G. Reisman in one of his blog posts purports to prove that lower wages will result in lower unemployment, but that the standard of living will not fall. See: http://georgereismansblog.blogspot.ca/2011/04/wages-and-irrelevance-of-worker-need.html

The key claim is:
A drop in wage rates to the full employment point does not imply any drop in the average worker’s standard of living. That is, it does not imply any reduction in the goods and services he can actually buy — any reduction in his so called real wages — because the elimination of unemployment that the fall in wage rates brings about means more production and a fall in costs of production, both of which mean lower prices.

Reisman’s theoretical argument is very nice: assuming his premises were true, the conclusion follows. His major assumption is that lower wages will increase employment. His minor assu,prtion is that if wages fall, businesses will hire more workers. But his argument leaves out the human factor. His simplistic theory would work if people weren't people, and if the economic system weren't a human construct.
     What Reisman doesn’t take into account is that the employer will not pass on the lower costs of production any more than he absolutely has to. In other words, he will try to keep as much of the lower cost of production as profit as he possibly can. What’s more, if he can raise his prices because of the higher demand (which brought about his need for more workers in the first place), he will do so. The notion that increased supply lowers prices, and increased demand raises them, ignores the fact that someone has to decide to ask more (or less), and someone else has to decide to pay more (or less). These two decisions are not complementary. More precisely, they are not symmetrical. Marketing experts know this, and do their best to shift the asymmetry in the vendor’s favour.
In any case, business people don't think in terms of the economic system or economic theories any more than workers do. Reisman assumes that a business will hire more workers just because wages are lower. Why would a business do that?  Businesses think in terms of the work they have available to produce the goods they wish to sell. If a business doesn't need additional workers, it won't hire, even at lower wages (or lower taxes, for that matter). The argument that lower wages result in more employment is I think founded on the same fallacy as "Save more if you buy two!" On the other hand, if the market demand for the goods is there, the business will hire, and may even pay a higher wage in order to get the workers it needs.
     The economic system is the net result of how people see their economic choices, plus the confusing factors of desire, fear, greed, generosity, fashion, obligations, and so on. Abstract economics can capture these factors if it begins with observations of how people actually behave, but it’s fiendishly difficult, because you can’t run experiments in which these factors are controlled. Statistical analysis can give a rough picture of how these factors affect economic choices, and marketing strategies rely on these rough guides. But as spectacular marketing failures and successes have shown, these statistics are more of a guide to placing bets than principles to guide planning.
     Worse, the human factors interfere with each other. Consider price (again). One of our desires is to fulfill our obligations to those people whom we love, or fear, or wish to influence in our favour, or merely to impress. But we also desire to get the most for the least. For each of us, for any given purpose there is a threshold price above which we won’t buy. But there may also be a price below which we won’t buy. That is, the threshold prices depends on why we desire the goods. Casual observation suggests that many people will pay more when they wish to impress someone than when they wish to express their affection. Conversely, people will often ask a lower price from people they wish to impress, or will even give the goods gratis. Why? Because a gift creates an obligation. Capitalist economics, which assumes that the purpose of trade is to amass wealth, doesn’t capture this aspect of pricing. In fact, it can’t capture it, because the Capitalist assumption is that the purpose of economic activity is to increase wealth. (It’s certainly Reisman’s assumption). That wealth beyond subsistence is almost always a tool for achieving other goals is something that Capitalist apologists don’t seem to understand. On top of that, traditional economics assumes that economic decisions are rational.
     Actual observation of business behaviour shows that lowering costs does not result in increased employment unless corresponding lowered prices increase the demand, ie, if the price of goods falls below the threshold price of an additional group of potential buyers. In that case, the producer may well need more workers. However, technology is the spoiler in this neat theoretical argument. Technology may make it possible to lower costs and employment simultaneously. Lower wages cannot compete against more efficient technologies. That lowering wages reduces the buying power of the workers, and so may reduce the market for the employer’s goods, is something that is, as far as I can tell, rarely a consideration. Technology can also obsolete the vendor’s goods, in which case there is no price low enough to prompt a decision to buy. To take the stereotypical example: motor cars made the buggy whip obsolete.
     However, abstract economics built to defend an ideology doesn’t capture these human factors, it is in fact incapable of doing so. If, as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism posits, wealth is the end-purpose of life, then any stance that sees wealth as something to be used for other purposes is meaningless. In a very real sense, using wealth as a means and not an end is unimaginable to adherents of Rand’s ideology. Significantly enough, Reisman states that his musings are in part based on her ideology. This may explain his preferences for diagrams and theorems that leave out merely human factors.
2014-09-04
 

Philosophy & Ideology

     Margarethe von Trotter, speaking with Michael Enright about her film on Hannah Arendt: “...Germany was known as the country of philosophers, music, and so on, how could it become such a horrible country during the Nazi time?...”
     Because it was the country of philosophers. People who are word- and idea-focussed have a hard time distinguishing between the world as they think it is and the world as it really is. Ideology is the terminal disease of philosophy. It’s the condition of mistaking thought for reality.
     Germany also vastly over-valued academic achievement, the assumption being that if you had a Ph. D. you were superior in every way. But academic achievement is more a matter of grinding out the work. Imagination and insight are rarely required, and even more rarely rewarded.

2014-07-20

Truth

Adapted from my post in comp.ai.philosophy 2010-07-19
Thread: Truth (Was: Re: PROOF INFINITY DOES NOT EXIST!)


     I don't think "exist" is a good word to use about truth. I prefer "subsist" as the technical term. But that's a side issue. This sub-thread on truth is marred by an absence of definition. Exactly what is meant by truth? What do the other contributors to this thread mean?
     All the examples used are statements, which should be a clue. That is, an implicit stance in all the arguments so far is that truth is a property of statements. I don't think that is a good enough concept, as part two of this screed will I hope demonstrate.

A) Formal (logical) and contingent truth
     I taught formal logic in high school (I sneaked it in under the aim of "teach critical thinking"). As you might expect, some students twigged to the fact that "truth" is a vague, ambiguous, polysemous, slippery term. Our discussions covered the following points.
     "Logical truth" is clearly defined: A statement is "logically true" when it has the form X = Y, where X and Y are well-formed statements in some language, and the rules of inference allow the transformation of X into Y, and vice versa. Note that this is a characterisation of a statement.
     However, it is not clear that X or Y are themselves true. A logical argument can demonstrate that some conclusion follows from some premises. If the premises are true, then so is the conclusion. But logic cannot demonstrate that the premises are true. You can show that the premises follow from some other premises, and so on, until you get to the axioms. But the truth of the axioms must be assumed. Therefore we need some means for agreeing on the truth of the premises.
     At this point in the discussion, students started invoking experience, common sense, obviousness, etc. And realised that "what is true for one person is not true for another." It was difficult to get them past that, but in the end most accepted that some replicable procedure could guarantee a limited truth: If we have the same experience, and say the same or similar things about it, then the odds are that what we say is true, more or less. If we differ, then what we have said is more or less wrong. Since someone can always disagree about what we have said, all statements about common experience are more or less wrong (and conversely more or less true). This too is a characterisation of statements. Here we have contingent truth.

B) Truth as a relationship
     So, what do we mean when conceive "truth" as a property of statements? A statement is an image of a concept. It has the same relationship to a concept as a photograph has to its subject. Of both we say that they are "true" if we apperceive some similarity between the statement and the concept, the photograph and its subject. Ditto for a theory (model) and the slice of universe it refers to.
    IOW, "truth" is a relationship between image and object, where "image" can be a sentence, a picture, a piece of music, an equation, etc, and "object" is whatever those images "are about".
     That relationship between image and object is an unanalysed given: we either get it or we don't. It rests on some formal equivalences, on patterns. We are a pattern-perceiving species, so much so that we often perceive patterns "that aren't really there", in the sense that a slightly different point of view may destroy the pattern, while a "real" pattern can be perceived from several (sometimes drastically different) points of view. Science has been characterised as the search for patterns that remain the same no matter how you look at them: these patterns are called symmetries.
     In a sense, we are democratic about truth, as other posters seem to be claiming. That is, if a lot of people can see the same pattern from many different points of view, and/or if many people can replicate the pattern by some agreed-upon process, it is "really there." But we are also elitist: some patterns can be perceived only after more or less arduous training. But amongst those who have undergone this training, there is a pretty strong consensus on what the "real" patterns are, hence on what can be truthfully said about them.
     It should be obvious that consensus truths are contingent. They are also empirical: Some unanticipated future experience may change our notion of what they refer to, of their limits as true statements. This is so even in the realm of formal truths, where we often do not know a priori whether any two statements are logically equivalent, or whether some set of premises implies some set of conclusions. Only the experiment of devising proofs can decide the question. And those proofs may show that the equivalence or conclusion is limited to a range of values (i.e., objects that it refers to). In this respect, mathematics resembles empirical science.
     For more on how we arrive at some consensus about what's true, see Bas van Fraassen's The Empirical Stance (Yale University Press, 2002).
     Disclosure: Bas and I were classmates many years ago, and discussed much of what I've distilled above. He discusses these themes much more expertly than I can. Hence my recommendation of his book. We do not entirely agree: Ask two philosophers a question, and you'll get four answers. At least. ;-)

Monday, September 08, 2014

Poirot: Deadman’s Folly (2013)

     Poirot: Deadman’s Folly (2013) Ariadne Oliver calls on Poirot because a Murder Hunt that she’s organised doesn’t feel right. A convoluted plot involving adultery, fake identities, family loyalty  and such eventually unravels and the perps are unmasked. Many of Christie’s plots are implausible in the cold light of hindsight, but this one is more implausible than most. It’s also a weak entry in the David Suchet Poirot series, with too many shots of Poirot doing his Chaplin walk around the grounds of the house, along the river, in town, and so on. **

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Peter Robinson. The Summer That Never Was (2003)

     Peter Robinson. The Summer That Never Was (2003) A late Inspector Banks, after his divorce from Sandra and an affair with Anne. The bones of a childhood friend of Banks restart the investigation; Banks offers what little information he has, and ends up helping the young female DI. Meanwhile, a boy of similar age goes missing, and Anne and Banks handle that case. It’s murder of course, but not an intentional one. Banks muses that both boys were failed by the adults in their lives; Robinson didn’t need to point that moral except as further evidence that Banks is not your ordinary cop. The attraction of these books is the ambience and the characters. Robinson writes novels about crime, not crime novels. I like them. This one’s as good as the first one I read, A Necessary End. **½

Rex Stout. The League of Frightened Men (1935)

     Rex Stout. The League of Frightened Men (1935) This is a very early Nero Wolfe tale. Stout is still developing the characters. Archie doesn’t yet have a steady woman friend as in later novels, Wolfe is more a collection of tics than a person, the rest of the household are mere animated scenery, and Inspector Cramer is not yet the frequently enraged opponent and rival of Wolfe. The plot is simple enough: a hazing accident leaves one of the freshmen with a bones that heal crookedly, and a permanent grudge against his classmates. Two die, and a threatening letter appears in the remaining men’s letterboxes. They hire Wolfe to remove what they perceive as a threat to their lives. Wolfe delivers, but not before a real murder occurs and one of the group is unmasked as fraud and killer. Good stuff, nicely handled. Many of the later Nero Wolfe tales seem perfunctory by comparison to this one. ***

Ronald Lewin. Hitler’s Mistakes (1984)

     Ronald Lewin. Hitler’s Mistakes (1984) Consider how well Hitler worked towards achieving his goals, without considering their moral and ethical dimensions. That’s Lewin’s stance, and he shows that Hitler failed miserably. Hitler’s primary mistake was that he would not or could not understand that governance was more important than vision. His vision of a Thousand Year Reich might have been achieved, if he had studied how previous empires succeeded: by utilising the plodding and unglamourous skills of the bureaucrat and functionary. His secondary mistake was in the vision itself, that of a Herrenvolk lording it over a vast class of serfs. And his third major mistake was setting his underlings and colleagues against each other so that there was no stable structure of government to maintain the state after his death. Even if he had gotten out of the war with his skin and his nation more or less intact, the Thousand Year Reich could not have survived his death.
     In short, he was not only a psychopath, he was a stupid psychopath. Unfortunately, too many Germans followed him despite all their misgivings, despite their realisation that his vision was unsustainable, despite his blatant incompetence. That’s what needs to be explained, because there’s plenty of evidence that the more analytical (and cynical) of Hitler’s compatriots could see through his flim-flam. Why did no one call his bluff?
     His Party comrades, like him, did not look beyond their immediate concerns. Power and self-gratification motivated the ruling Party elites, and those motivations make it difficult if not impossible to think about or imagine anything beyond one’s own life. Corruption of all kinds was endemic. Everyone was trying to secure some power base for the time when Hitler died. Trying to unseat Hitler or cross him would have eliminated any chance of creating the kind of fiefdom that they craved. So they went along, most of them to the bitter end.
     The military caste was conflicted. On the one hand, they had sworn an oath to Hitler, and saw their duty as protecting the State as well as they could. On the other hand, they soon saw through his pretensions to military competence, but the habits of hierarchy prevented them from doing what a looser social structure would have enabled them to do, to mutiny and take power from him.
     The ordinary German was seduced by a vision, by images of German power and influence, by what amounted to a religion of the Volk. Most of them, like most people anywhere, didn’t engage in politics as a method of governance. Politics is either something to be left to other people, or a quasi-religion adopted to validate one’s sense of being an important player on the world stage.
     Hitler was in all respects a pathetic human being.  It’s thoroughly depressing that his charismatic gifts misled so many Germans into following him.
     Lewin makes a good case. He’s a true historian, basing his narrative of primary sources as much as possible. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the Nazi era better. ***

Monday, September 01, 2014

Pendon Museum

Pendon Museum
     Most railway modellers and many model railroaders know of Pendon, the vision of Roye England, an Australian who came to England in 1924 and was appalled at the modernisation of the countryside. He conceived of a museum that would show rural England of the 1930s in model form. He chose the Vale of the White Horse as his inspiration. The models would be of actual buildings, and the landscape would recreate typical views and villages, with scenes showing the daily lives of the inhabitants. The result is a wonderful layout on two levels, with just enough railway traffic to keep the railway modellers interested, and more than enough models of buildings, fields, road junctions, village greens, ponds, bridges and trees, as well as dozens of figures and vehicles, to please anyone who like to see miniatures. For some reason, that includes almost all of humankind.
     In other words, this is not simply a model railway. It’s a carefully imagined and constructed vision of England in the 1930s.  Th trains are authentic. The slate-layer repairing a roof, the hay wagon, the kitchen garden, the village pump, the bus stopping at a road junction, the oldsters sitting outside a pub, these and many other details tell the story of a time past. Many of the models (and the field notes about the prototypes) form a valuable historical record, an aspect of the layout that may not be fully appreciated by many visitors.
     England’s vision of accurate models of existing buildings and accurate impressions of typical landscapes necessitated new modelling techniques and materials. Many of the modellers who helped him build Pendon wrote articles which have influenced and improved modelling of all kinds. More importantly, Pendon raised expectations, so that commercial railway models these days are built to a far higher standard of accuracy and precision than 80 years ago.
     If anything, there is too much to see. Pendon requires several visits, the first two or three to get a good overall sense of the landscape, and subsequent ones to study the models and scenes. I’ve seen it three times now, and recall earlier versions when the upper vale scene consisted mostly of bare plywood with a few village scenes here and there. I hope I’ll get to see it again in a couple or three years. Highly recommended, especially for anyone who likes history. ****

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Meissen Museum, Schloss Weyer, Upper Austria

Meissen Museum in Schloss Weyer
     We visited this on 27th August, after a hike along the Vorchdorfer Lokalbahn (Gmunden to Vorchdorf) and locations of the first railway in the Hapsburg Empire, a horse drawn railway from Budweis to Gmunden. Not that this anything to do with the Meissen Museum, but it helps to set the ambience. That, and the rain, which came down in torrents while we walked to Schloss Weyer.
     The Meissen Museum was certainly impressive. Apparently around 1700 August The Strong, King of Poland (among other things), kept a Johann Boettger locked up when Johann pretended he could make gold. Eventually, under the supervision of another chemist, Boettger figured out how to make hard paste porcelain, which turned out to be “white gold”, ie, very expensive, and a source of much cash. The famous Meissen porcelain works were founded on this trickster’s discoveries. The technology of porcelain is fascinating. As with  any ceramic, consistency of glazing, colouring, and strength is paramount, and over the centuries Meissen has solved these puzzles and mastered the processes. They have over 10,000 recipes or formulas for glazes and colours. These used to be called trade secrets; now they are intellectual property.
     Artistically, Meissen, like all ceramics factories or traditions I’ve ever seen, is a mix of inspired skill, artistic feeling, and a kind of showing off of craft that I find amusing at best. There’s no question that the figures take enormous skill and craft to produce, not only in the sculpting, but even more so in the firing and glazing. Fire is a fickle tool. I wonder how many of the complicated pieces blew to bits in the kiln before a successful firing resulted. Certainly the technical difficulties of firing large complex figure groups guaranteed there would not be very many of them.
     The best pieces were and are the utilitarian ones. Sets of dishes decorated and made for royalty and other aristocracy were often overdone, but there is persistent strain of elegant and simple decoration that is in my opinion the main reason Meissen crockery is still sought after. Many of the pure white, undecorated designs show a purity of line and shape that raises them to the level of art. Such a versatile medium as fired clay enables the artists to imagine any shape whatsoever, without having to worry whether, for example, the grain of the material will co-operate. This freedom is both a blessing and curse. The designers at Meissen have solved the problem of excessive freedom more often than most.
    I found the museum interesting, and well worth a visit. ***

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

      The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) [D: John Madden. Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith et al] A sweet feel-good movie about some elderly Brits looking for a cheap place to live out their years and perhaps fulfill a few dreams or fantasies. They land in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, run by an enthusiastic but somewhat gormless lad whose mother wants him to sell the dump and marry a respectable girl. And so on. The stories intersect nicely, and everyone get more or less what they wish for and maybe even deserve. The theme is self-validation: what makes life worth living, if you can’t live with yourself? A heavy question, but dealt with lightly.
     A good script, it helps you over the humps of implausibility. Well acted by experienced pros, if you like Britcoms and British drama and movies, you’ve seen them all before. They know what they’re doing, and so does the director, who uses their strengths to woo us into that blissful state of believing the preposterous plot and recognising the wisdom in the many one-liners.
     The photography, music, and editing support the story, and don’t intrude on it. It’s based on a novel, which I suspect is summer beach reading. That’s what this movie is, too, a summer evening entertainment, pleasant, innocuous, and like all such apparently slight fluff containing depths that you don’t see until scenes pop into your present at odd moments. Well done professional entertainment. ***

Apocalypse: World War One (2013)

     Apocalypse: World War One (2013) A sderies of one hour documentaries made by cobbling together contemporary movie footage to illustrate the story of the Great War. The footage has been digitally enhanced as much as possible, including adding colour and sound. The result is a pretty good account of the war as it unfolded, with emphasis on the mistakes that guaranteed both horrifically stupid slaughter and a continuation of the conflicts in another Great War a generation later, as well as the many local and not so local horrors that still bedevil international politics in our own time. A good introduction to the history of the 20th and 21st centuries, in other words. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it in a middle- or high-school history class.
     The story overall is depressing: 8 million civilians and 4 million soldiers died, as best as can be estimated. Worse, it’s clear that the war began and was continued because a bunch of mostly old men thought they could realise their dreams of empire. Or more accurately, so that they could validate the illusions of their own importance. When people justified their actions by referring to their country's “legitimate” interests, or its “rightful” place among the nations, they were really talking about their egos. Schoolyard politics is all it really was: boys play these games and grow out of them, but the emperors and others of their class did not.
     Worst of these was Kaiser Wilhelm II, a classic example of the Paranoid Ineffectual Male, who believes that everyone is out to diss him, and compensates by trying blow them all up. The glory and honour that these wimps were pursuing was at bottom their fear that others in their circle of idjits would not “respect” them, ie, acknowledge that they were superior. Which of course they weren’t, and they knew it, so they tried to prove their superiority by going to war. The same insane value set underlies calling murderous Alexander of Macedonia “the Great”.
     It’s significant that these people were either incapable of doing real productive work, or unwilling to do it. So they had no real purpose in life. If you neither make stuff that other people want, nor provide services that other people need, you are useless. That whole class of bully boys were useless. Unfortunately, too many of the rest of us buy into their insanity and agree to go kill each other to prop up those fragile egos. We also have fragile egos, a terrible need to validate our self image by seeing it reflected back to us in the fear and loathing of those whom we would oppress. It’s also significant that these people need to have fancy uniforms and “decorations” to prove that they are important. Anyone who needs that kind of crap needs psychiatric help.
     A good series, useful as a reminder of what humans are capable of when they surrender to a delusion. **½

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ian Stewart. Nature’s Numbers (1995)

     Ian Stewart. Nature’s Numbers (1995) A guide into the uses of mathematics, and a glance at how mathematics has changed as our understanding of the world around us has changed. Stewart doesn’t like the divide between applied and pure math, he points out that each prods the other into ever new insights. His exemplar is the calculus, a mathematics invented in order to deal with rates of change of rates of change, prompted by Newton’s insights into how things move. Newton’s model of motion was a new way of thinking about it. To formalise that he needed more math than was available to him, so he invented it. Leibniz invented it, too, using a different notation. Newton’s notation has won out, barely, because it’s somewhat easier to use.
     We now can’t get along without the calculus, which informs all our technology. I learned how to integrate and differentiate years ago, and can’t do it any more, But the way of thinking it taught me is with me still. That’s the enduring legacy of learning math that you won’t use: it changes the way you think, more precisely, it increases the ways you can think about the world. Since then, more new math has been developed.
     The book is also an attempt to change the average person’s notion that math is calculation, but that it’s about patterns. The kinds of patterns that math can deal with now may be called patterns of patterns. We can’t calculate the weather accurately beyond a few days, but we can say a good deal about what kind of patterns to expect. These patterns are the climate (Stewart doesn’t say this, I’m building on his insights). It’s the changing patterns of the weather that’s meant by “climate change”. And although we experience only weather, we also have an uneasy sense that the patterns of weather are changing. The climate models put numbers to these changes, telling us that while we may not have more rain, for example, the rain will fall less frequently and in smaller areas, so we will see more flooding. Thinking in terms of patterns of patterns is a way of dealing with many more variables than we can handle by thinking merely about patterns.
     A good book, but it lacks pictures. Stewart is a poet, he thinks in images, but many people (most?) need actual pictures to understand metaphors. Like some other popular science books, this requires some background. You have to be able to think mathematically, not merely arithmetically, in order to fully get Stewart’s theses. Nevertheless, I recommend it. **½