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10 May 2016

Book Review: We Are All Stardust

We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our ExistenceWe Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence by Stefan Klein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often wish that the "Talk" interviews in the New York Times Magazine were longer. Particularly when the subject is someone who might have something of substance to say. But they are short form and because I usually want more when I'm done reading them, I have mostly stopped reading them.

The German newspaper Die Ziet also has a magazine supplement. And, in it, Stefan Klein publishes interviews with scientists. This book is made up of those interviews.

There were a few familiar names in the table of contents--Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DaVinci--but mostly Klein talks with scientists I have not heard of. Scientists who study things I probably could not understand, no matter how hard I tried. The kinds of people I would never find myself at a cocktail party with.

And it was fascinating. And the format made it digestible. And Klein's interviews, focused, as they were, on the weekly newspaper-reading audience, were completely accessible to my mind, a mind that so wants to be able to contemplate the larger issues of science but does not have the tools to do so.

I was pleasantly surprised at how often the conversations bent toward the philosophical. The cultural. The realm of thoughtful questioning without ways of finding real answers. And if I learned anything from this book is that scientists DO think like I do; in a random cacophony of ideas. They just sometimes do something different with those ideas.

All science is dedicated to understanding our world. And our world is populated with our people, so one might be surprised how often these eminent scientists consider theological and philosophical subjects, as related to their specialties.

For example;

Martin Rees, a cosmologist, had this to say about the dangers of the internet--"It not only expands peoples' horizons but also is capable of strongly reinforcing prejudices. Small groups with extreme views can now find like-minded people all over the world, organize themselves, and easily access technical knowledge. And because the mass media exponentially increase the psychological impact of any confused action, a handful of people can now exercise enormous power."

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, on the concept of equitable fairness and the concept of niceness--"We don't like feeling that somebody else is getting away with something. In a country like Britain, where people pretty much will pay their taxes, I don't mind paying taxes. But if I lived in a country where just about everybody gets away with not paying their taxes, I would then feel very resentful of paying my taxes. And so, I think it's difficult to foster super-niceness. You can only foster a kind of slightly limited grudging niceness, because most people would be happy to be nice as long as they feel that not too many other people are exploiting it."

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran on the nature of truth-"Our brain seems to function so smoothly. But in reality we're hallucinating all the time. What do you see? [makes a cross with his index fingers] Two fingers crossed. Exactly. Yet your retina received only the image of a finger and two finger halves behind it. Your brain supplied the notion that it's two whole fingers. We know much less than we think. More than 90 percent of what we believe we are perceiving we're only assuming. These assumptions are part of our worldview, which our brains construct and palm off on us as reality."

Ramachandran on death--"There's a single divine light that shines through each of us, but individuals are only the windows through which it shines. When someone dies, his window is closed. But the light keeps shining through all the other windows."

Chemist and poet Roald Hoffman on beauty--"Our mind is programmed to look for patterns. It favors simplicity. We feel at ease when we immediately understand something--whether it's a painting, a building, or a molecule. But then the thing quickly becomes boring. We need something more to keep our interest. Beauty comes from tension: between order and disorder, simplicity and complexity."

Neurobiologist Hannah Moyer on fate--"There's this wonderful Greek depiction of Kairos, the god of opportunity. He's bald except for a lock of hair on his forehead. You have to grasp him by it, or else he'll pass you by. We believe that we're in control of our lives. But in reality we can only seize opportunities."

Neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese on the power of face-to-face connection--"We communicate more and more by telephone and computer; communities in which people encounter one another in person are increasingly dissolving. But we know from our experiments that it's not without consequences for our capacity for empathy whether we see another person only on a screen or face-to-face. That's why a theater experience is more powerful than going to the movies. And if you communicate with your conversation partners only by e-mail or, like many young people, in electronic chat rooms, your image of them dissolves completely. And that must have profound effects on our social and cognitive abilities. We just don't know yet what they are. In any case, our social skills evolved for direct encounters, not virtual ones."

Economist Ernst Fehr on revenge--"The most unbearable feeling is that someone else got ahead by cheating us. To punish a presumed cheater people will even incur disadvantages to themselves. Here's a thought experiment: everyone can put money in a pot to stick it to those top managers who led their companies to near ruin while enriching themselves. For every euro you invest, ten euros are taken from the managers and then burned." Stefan Klein replies, "Probably a sizeable fund would be collected. But that would be more an expression of revenge than of fairness." Fehr continues, "Revenge is nothing but the dark side of the sense of fairness. It's a defense against the freeloaders in the community."

Fehr on happiness and justice--"Happiness is a private good, justice a public good. Because you as an individual can do something for your well-being, the subject is ill-suited for revolutions. For justice, on the other had, you have to fight together with others."

Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik on Feminism--"Feminism has two sides: Along with the struggle against oppression, it's also always been about taking female experiences seriously. After all, women haven't been twiddling their thumbs for the last ten thousand years; they have been raising the entire population of the earth."

And finally, this;
According to an estimate by the United Nations, an additional thirteen billion dollars a year would be enough to establish basic health care for everyone in the world. That's about what Europeans spend on ice cream every year. Encouraging because it shows how much we could accomplish without giving up that much of our own entitlement. Discouraging, as philosopher Peter Singer says, "Because it shows that our declared belief that every life is of equal value is only a theoretical belief. It's not a practical matter--It doesn't influence our actions very much. Psychologists call it the diffusion of responsibility. Because we know that every other passerby could help, and that some are even better off than us, we feel it's not up to us. In the end no one feels responsible. We hide in the crowd. People would rather give money for medical treatment that would save the life of a single child than for treatment costing the same amount that would save eight children. You know that there is one child in need an that you can save this child, and so you feel good that you can make a difference and solve a problem. But if you tell people that for the same amount of money they could save a larger number of children but that there are more children in need--that there are one hundred people in need and you could save twenty of them--fewer people would save twenty than would save the one. Any economist would say that's crazy. You obviously get better value for your money if you save twenty children than if you save one. But at twenty out of one hundred, a lot of people just see the fact that they can't really make a difference, so it's not worth it to bother."


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02 May 2016

Book Review: Pacific

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's SuperpowersPacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers by Simon Winchester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love well-researched but readable and accessible histories. This is one of them.

Broken up into long-article length chapters (Winchester says this "structural vade mecum" was inspired by a book by Stefan Zweig, most recently translated with the title Shooting Stars. A "slender collection of ten ruminative essays...about what Zweig considered to be seminal moments in the tide of human experience."

Pacific is not slender but it is ruminative and I would agree that most of the 10 incidents Winchester chose could be considered seminal.

I learned how carbon dating works.

I learned that the bikini is called the bikini not because natives wore something similar on the Bikini Atoll, as I had always assumed, but because of the nuclear testing there; "Like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating."

I learned that the Japanese concept of mentsu probably had a role in limiting scientific progress. "The socially lethal consequences of losing face (mentsu) or, more dangerously, of causing others to lose it, may well have inhibited certain kinds of scientific progress, in large part because such consequences militate against experimentation, which invariably embraces failure, even public failure. Picking oneself up and beginning again, making the experiment subtly different, and performing many experiments until one finally works--such is the essence of scientific advance. And this was not always an easy concept for Asian scientists to accept."

I learned that the founder of Patagonia might be considered the founder of flex time. "Let my people go surfing. None of us ever dreamed of working in a normal business environment, so we hired self-motivated and independent folks; surfers and climbers. We leave them to decide when and how to do their jobs. So far it has worked out very well."

I learned some of the vagaries and odditites of the colonial ideal in the Pacific islands; near the end WWII, a British commander in Vietnam, commanding an infantry of kukri-wielding Gurkah battalions from Nepal, armed imprisoned Japanese soldiers and compelled them to fight the Viet Minh nationalists who were actually rebelling against French colonial rule. "The notion that Japanese troops would be armed by those who had recently vanquished them and that they would then be compelled to fight under a British flag alongside Nepalese soldiers for a French colonial ideal against a Vietnamese force that was demanding its own people's independence is well-nigh incomprehensible."

Or in the New Hebrides, there were two bureaucracies; one French and one British. "Since 1906, these islands had been run for complicated reasons by a condominium of two uninvited European powers, the British and the French...the French official in charge of drains in Port-Vila, for example, had a British counterpart who was charged with exactly the same task. The language of New Hebridean administration had to be translated twice, Canadian style, and sometime thrice, since the doubly colonized citizens actually spoke a third, Creole tongue called Bislama...Two police forces, their officers wearing different uniforms, did their best to keep civil order in turns, performing their respective duties on every other day...National holidays were so numerous and so keenly celebrated in the perpetually torrid climate that little work was performed anyway--and in time, the whole unholy and intractable mess of governance exhausted everyone, collapsed internally, and was finally called to a halt in 1980..."

Or the surreal reality of the Korean DMZ. "At the time of the signing of the 1953 armistice, a group of supposedly neutral countries agreed to monitor the cease-fire. The North had nominated as its two countries Poland and Czechoslovakia; the South had selected Sweden and Switzerland." But in recent times, the monitoring system had become "comically absurd...Absurd mainly because of what had happened since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the abandonment of communism by the North's two chosen neutral nations, Poland and Czechoslovakia (and the division of the latter into two brand-new and entirely capitalist countries). North Korea had responded to the apostates by kicking their observers out of the country, leaving only the Swiss and the Swedes to maintain the monitoring. Except that the Poles kept on trying to send at least one delegate to maintain the fiction that the commission still existed...each Tuesday the countries' representatives meet in formal session--about thirty-five hundred meetings have taken place since the cease fire in 1953--and discuss and take notes of all the various alleged breaches of the cease-fire and other such matters (tunnel diggings heard, snips in the barbed wire noticed), and write a report. They place these written reports in a mailbox marked KPA, for Korean People's Army. But since 1995 no North Korean has ever picked up the mail, and so every six months an official from the commission empties the overflowing mailbox and puts all the reports into a file cabinet, just in case Pyongyang ever demands to see them. As it happens, the door of the commission's hut opens directly into North Korean territory, and for a while the Swiss general would unlock it and wave the latest report at the soldiers a few yards away. They turned their backs and ignored him, never came to collect the document, and later complained that the waving constituted an offensive gesture."

I learned, or re-learned, that "...if the Pacific Ocean is the principal generator of the world's wather, then the ultimate source of all the Pacific's extreme meteorological behavior is the initial presence of its massive aggregation of solar-generated heat. This changes the long-term phenomenon we know as the climate. The climate in turn brings about the short-term phenomena we know as weather." Winchester is not a denier of environmental and climate change but he's not an alarmist, either; "Locally, there will be mayhem. Globally, less so. The planet, perhaps, will manage to heal itself. The world and its creatures will survive, and all will eventually allow itself to come back into balance, just as the geologic record shows that it survived and returned to balance after any number of previous cycles of excess and danger. And once that happens, the Pacific Ocean will be seen, uniquely, for what many climatologists are coming to believe it to be: a gigantic safety valve, essential to the future of the planet."


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18 April 2016

Book Review; Let the People Rule

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential PrimaryLet the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey  Cowan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This could have been such an interesting book; the cast of characters, the soap-opera story-line, the era...

As it is, it is an informative, if repetitive book. I did not come out of it feeling like I knew more about the people OR the process, which is a shame after reading 300 pages.

I did come out of it realizing that for all our gnashing of teeth in this current election cycle that the world has gone to hell, the world has gone to hell before. And will go to hell again.

Consider this description of Roosevelt as he was considering launching his campaign; "To the group's amazement, he [Roosevelt] could not explain how is proposed recall of judicial decisions would work in practice. Much as he was enthralled by his personality, Arthur Hill, Roosevelt's prospective young lieutenant, was stunned by the new candidate's intellectual incoherence; 'He is entirely incoherent in his thought and that is one reason why he is such an excellent representative of American feeling,' Hill told his mother in one of a series of insightful and self-deprecating letters. 'We ought to be led by an enthusiast and a man of vigor, and Roosevelt is all of that. But as for his thought, I do not think it is worth thinking about except as far as it reveals his personality. The best he does is to read good books and imperfectly understand their contents.'"

Sound familiar?

The history of presidential nominations can be divided into four distinct periods; King Caucus - nomination of candidates by members of Congress (1792-1828), Pure Convention System (1832-1908), Mixed System (created by the rise of the primaries) (1912-1968), Dominant Primary System (1972-present)

The primary system that began in 1912 was driven by that hero of the people, Theodore Roosevelt. He had already been president once. He hand-picked his successor, Taft. But then grew disillusioned with how Taft was running the country and decided to throw his "hat in the ring" and try to wrest the Republican nomination from Taft through grassroots populism; "Let the People Rule."

But as much as one would like to think the primaries actually give the people the right to rule, they don't. Nor did Roosevelt, who used the system, really believe that the people should have the right to rule. He didn't. But his grassroots popularity made a primary system the best way for him to become a contender. So he fought for it, not because he believed in it but because it believed in him. Cowan writes, "The man who embraced democracy as his core campaign theme and had done so much to open up the political system, had been a skeptic if not an opponent of presidential primaries and suffrage for women only weeks before he embraced them; and he had pleaded for the support of southern blacks in the Republican party only weeks before he excluded them from his own new party. Looking at the way he conducted his campaign led me to wonder what, if anything, TR would not have done--and what any serious candidate today would not do--in order to be elected president."

Roosevelt knew how to game the system. Consider this; "Taft had made some good arguments and delivered some good lines, but fundamentally he had the temperament of a judge, not a fighter. Roosevelt was a warrior dressed for battle. He did not need to answer arguments directly; his strategy was to hit and hit hard; to regain the initiative. He created a level of political frenzy that subsumed the issues. And people believed what they wanted to believe."

Roosevelt was a politican, it the purest form of the word. Back before Taft was his mortal enemy in the 1912 primaries, Roosevelt had helped get Taft elected; "[Roosevelt] warned Taft not to be photographed playing golf. he did not want Taft to look too elite, too far removed from the lives of people he hoped to lead. 'It's true that I myself play tennis,' he told journalist Mark Sullivan, his chosen messenger. 'But you never saw a photograph of me playing tennis. I'm careful about that. Photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal."

But this man of the people was far from that in actuality. His letters reflect the class and race-based views prominent in his time. "Every real proponent of democracy, Roosevelt said, 'acts and always must act on the perfectly sound (although unacknowledged, and often hotly contested) belief that only certain people are fit for democracy.'"

Only certain people are fit for democracy. In California, the Chinese and the Japanese are not fit. In the south, the Blacks aren't fit.

Except he needed the black vote in the south during the Republican primary. Because they would vote for him. So he fought for their seat at the table. But, then, when he failed in his bid for the Republican nomination and started his own party, he needed the white establishment. So the very men he had fought for were now excluded.

But "Political Expediency!" doesn't make for a good campaign slogan.

But Roosevelt could talk a good talk. Consider this excerpt from the speech he made when finally announcing his candidacy; "It would be well if our people would study the history of a sister republic. All the woes of France for a century and a quarter have been due to the folly of her people in splitting into the two camps of unreasonable conservatism and unreasonable radicalism...may we profit by the experiences of our brother republicans across the water, and go forward steadily, avoiding all wild extremes."

But reasonable doesn't usually win votes. Roosevelt switched timbre from reasonable to riled depending on his audience. He knew how to fire the people way up. But Taft did things like this; "When someone in the crowd shouted that 'Roosevelt is a liar,' Taft stopped him. 'That isn't in my vocabulary,' he said. 'My experience on the bench has taught me the value of words and one of the most unsafe things to do is to go further than the facts.'"

Reasonableness doesn't rile the people. Reactiveness does.

So the problem with democracy is people? Maybe...



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11 April 2016

Book Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think reading this as a "book" is a bad idea. You should read it as you would have read her advice; once a week. Or even once a month. As a book, slamming these together back to back, you notice the repetitiveness. The recycling. The habits of language that are fresh and shocking but become tedious and banal after the fifth or sixth use.

So I took a while reading it. I'd pick it up here and there and dive in. Then dive back out again.

And, as such, I wouldn't say I enjoyed it. But it sure cut to the core of my thought process. In the introduction to the book, her former editor wrote, "I happen to believe that America is dying of loneliness, that we, as a people, have bought into the false dream of convenience, and turned away from deep engagement with our internal lives--those fountains of inconvenient feeling." Cheryl Strayed embraces the mess.

Consider this; "Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor...the best thing you can possibly do with your life is tackle the motherfucking shit out of love."

Well, yes. But is that advice? No. That's philosophy. It's fucking GREAT philosophy. But the how isn't there. Just the what.

So there are no answers here. But there are myriad jumping-off points for considering your own questions again.

"The story of our human intimacy is one of constantly allowing ourselves to see those we love most deeply in a new, more fractured light."


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18 March 2016

Book Review: Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't know why I read this. I have never watched the blockbuster film Titanic because I don't want to watch a story arc that I already know is going to be epically tragic. Why get attached to these people? They'll be dead in 90 minutes anyway.

Same thing applies here. I like Larson's style of making history personable. But, in this case, that was what made it less enjoyable for me. I kept hoping for a happier ending. Kept hoping that something would intervene and change history so all of those people could have lived.

However, it's a marvelously constructed book. Little insights about the world as it was peppered throughout; "Turner was a strong swimmer, at a time when most sailors still held the belief that there was no point in knowing how to swim, since it would only prolong your suffering."

Or "Another item, this out of Washington, reported President Wilson's unhappiness at the fact that critics continued to take him to task for allowing the film The Clansman, by D.W. Griffith, to be screened at the White House. It was May now; the screening had taken place February 18, with Wilson, his daughters, and members of the cabinet in attendance. Based on the novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, which was subtitled An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the film described the purported evils of the Reconstruction era and painted the Klan as the heroic savior of newly oppressed white southerners. The film, or "photoplay," as it was called, had become a huge hit nationwide, though its critics, in particular the six-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, decried its content and held protests outside movie theaters, prompting Griffith to give the film a more palatable name, The Birth of a Nation.

This, along with some insight into President Wilson's courtship of Edith Galt and some fascinating information about Room 40, where the British intercepted and decoded German messages over the wireless, was extraordinarily readable.

As would the rest of the book have been were I not so disinclined to invest myself in the tragic ending.


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14 February 2016

Book Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another readable McCullough treatment of history that purports to be generally-known. McCullough doesn't dig too deep; he skims the surface of the leisurely reader of history and engages us just enough to keep us turning the pages.

The genesis of man's flight is fascinating in itself; that people had been thinking about it and trying it since daVinci (and probably before that, too) yet when two introverted brothers from Dayton cracked the code to flight in 1903, suddenly it was as if the dam had burst. Progress was extraordinarily fast. By 1914, planes were developed enough to be used in WWI. Only 24 years later, in 1927, Lindbergh proved planes could fly across oceans. But McCullough only alludes to all the post-Wright history. His book functionally ends when Wilbur dies in 1912 (I was reminded of my disappointment when I finished McCullough's book 1776, only then realizing that it was only going to cover the titular year, not the entire Revolutionary War).

But flight is not McCullough's subject, really. His subject are the personalities behind flight; he concentrates on the brothers and the people surrounding the brothers and tells a story of two odd ducks who believed they could solve the mystery of flight. And did.


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10 February 2016

Book Review: Carry On

Carry OnCarry On by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Rainbow Rowell.

However, this is my least favorite of her books so far. Mostly, I think, because fan fiction isn't something I'm conversant in.

As always, Rowell paints her characters brilliantly. Her strength is in how they talk, how they feel, how they interact. Her characters have always been in places I recognize in my head; areas of Omaha and Lincoln that I've spent time in. So before I even open the book, I have an idea of where these people are going to be; my sense of the place in which she puts her people is predetermined.

Until Carry On. I never felt like I could see, smell and touch where these characters were spending their time. I wanted more about where they were. I wanted more backstory. More description. More to allow me to live in their shoes for 300 pages.

All that said, in the end, it didn't really matter. Rowell's characters, as usual, are brilliantly drawn and intricately woven together in a tapestry that eventually made missing the sense of place less distracting and disturbing.


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