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Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Development, complexity, obliquity, antifragility

In Vlogs on March 22, 2013 at 5:27 am

Information, meaning and the antifragile

In Vlogs on March 20, 2013 at 11:27 pm
[vimeo 62319919 w=500&h=280]

The Most Human Human, Brian Christian

In Book reviews on May 30, 2011 at 8:04 am

Every year, computer programmers gather to battle against a common foe – humans. Their programmes chat via text on screen with judges, as do real humans (‘confederates’). Known as the ‘Turing test’ (after Alan Turing’s famous prediction that computers would be convincing conversationalists by the year 2000), it’s not widely publicized, and not all the human participants are that enthused (judges and confederates being there for a conference, perhaps). Not so for Brian Christian. He wanted to be a confederate, and travelled from his home in the US to Brighton for the sole purpose of fighting our side.

Judges have to determine which of the conversations they have are with humans, and which with computers. It can be a close call, but computers are yet to come out on top. For the computer with the most votes, a prize is awarded, ‘The most human computer’. Somewhat perversely, there’s also another prize, ‘The most human human’, the object of Christian’s quest.

Using the philosophical issues thrown up by the possibility of being out-humaned by machines, Christian asks what it is that we are, if replicable by machines? Well, fortunately, we’re not. That’s the point. There are so many ways in which the machines cannot compete with humans (coherence across a conversation and neologisms to name just two), that it seems a long, long way off before they’ll be on par (if it’s even possible).

But we don’t think of these as important, Christian argues. We are increasingly automating our own conversations (call-centres being the prime, but not only, example), or taking away decision making from people (micro-managing, bureaucratic procedural pedantry) and defining ourselves as thinkers, above and beyond all else.

Kant was one such proponent of the idea that thinking was humans’ defining feature (and in fact, the only guarantee of reality – cogito ergo sum). But as ‘computers’ (originally a job description, think the Enigma code) gradually became machines in common parlance, we were left with smaller and smaller territory to claim as ours.

Or were we? Christian argues that, in fact, we’ve just been on the wrong tack philosophically. Too ‘left-brain’ (dovetailing nicely with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emmisary), too lazy and clichéd. In a remarkable passage, he explores the way the compression of data can be used as a measure of originality. It’s riveting stuff.

Is poetry, for example, the most human way of using language (again echoing McGilchrist)? Are we far less exceptional beings than perhaps we like to think? And does it make a difference? A beautifully written, and charmingly easy to read exploration of these questions. I think you know the answer.

Politics as Usual, Thomas Pogge

In Book reviews on May 30, 2011 at 7:30 am

Political philosophy focusing on institutions has taken a pretty severe blow recently, in the form of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, so it’s nice to see the old Rawlsian framework put to good use here by Thomas Pogge, Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale.

Less an elaboration of a new framework (as Sen’s is), than a scatter shot attack on the idea of ‘Western’ morality, Pogge examines a separate topic in each chapter. Our complicity in the starving of millions through trade arrangements, the dilution of the Millenium Development Goals through cynical manipulation of language, the mismatch between rhetoric and action on human rights violations (using Rwanda as an example), the list goes on.

His pleasingly concise prose means the chapters aren’t too long, though it is certainly wearing to be chastised so thoroughly for one’s complicity in the deaths of 18 million a year. However, that responsibility is diluted amongst democratic citizens, so it’s not you alone that’s doing it, you’ll be pleased to know. It’s all of us. Particularly decision makers and politicians. Decision makers because there’s a disproportionate burden of responsibility on those negotiating trade agreements, for example, where vastly greater power is on the ‘Western’ side of the table, meaning almost any proposal, no matter how belittling, is likely to be accepted by the ‘developing’ country. They, though, aren’t elected.

Politicians, in theory, care about what we all think. So, through such supposed democratic mechanism, our responsibility is borne. Maybe we don’t agitate enough, then, for institutional reform at the global level? Or simply give enough to charity? Well, either, both, and certainly not neither, Pogge argues.

He also addresses the claim that it’s not ‘our’ policies driving the global poor’s face into the mud with a boot – it’s their own corrupt governments. Well perhaps, he says, these causes are equally contributory. If such causes (both causing a harm, with the removal of both necessary to eradicate it, such as in pollutants entering a river at two separate points upstream) are identified in other spheres, we don’t simply say ‘Yes, but they have to do something, too, so we won’t do anything,’ we stop and then make the others stop.

Furthermore, corruption is actively incentivized (to bastardize a noun) by the international borrowing privilege, and the resource privilege, where any group with de facto control of a country can borrow as a government and sell its resources, too. Coups, therefore, are an easy way to power, since enriching oneself at the expense of the populace’s resource base and unloading debt on future generations is sanctioned by international law. Pretty hard going, then, infuriating and despair inducing in equal measure.

You might want to avoid this then, if you’re already having a bad day. Sadly, though, it’s a bad day every day for the hundreds of millions living below the ‘poverty line’ (another concept demolished in the book). And we’re involved, and individually bear responsibility for their suffering. So scratch that – whatever day you’re having, just read it.

The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 4:02 am

I guess I probably tended to quite a left-hemisphere way of thinking before I read this book, because much of it absolutely blew me away. In particular, the discussions of language (and its origins in music), the centrality of metaphor in our understanding of the world, and McGilchrist’s perspective on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness were eye-opening. But this book isn’t simply the sum of its fascinating parts (of which there are many more, by the way), it is an attempt to explain the world we live in, and the way we conceive it and have conceived of it since the Ancient Greeks, in relation to the profound differences the two hemispheres of our brains exhibit.

Perhaps if you already familiar with phenomenology, and have a similar understanding of the arts and history (particularly regarding the role of religion) to McGilchrist, you won’t be as affected by this book as I was. Nevertheless, in taking an empirically-based conception of the differences the hemispheres show in their attitude to the world, and extrapolating from there to explain thousands of years of art, religion, philosophy, indeed, all culture, in the West, and relating that explanation to his own view of what ‘balance’ between the hemispheres would mean, Mcgilchrist has written a book that I doubt anyone wouldn’t find fascinating, bold and profound, whether or not you are ultimately swayed by his case.

Indeed, as he writes at the end of the book, whether it’s a correct explanation of human culture (in relation to hemispheric differences), and I for one am convinced it is, is less important than the fact that his exposition is itself relentlessly stimulating and thought-provoking. Even if it were to be proven wrong, there is nonetheless a profound truth in what he has to say about life, the world, and our way(s) of being in it. Utterly unforgettable.

Pandora’s Seed, Spencer Wells

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:57 am

This book purports to be a synthesis of an enormous range of study – genetics, anthropology, history, medicine, and more – to explain the ‘unforeseen cost of civilization’. Well it’s certainly not that. Though it contains a lot of interesting material, it simply doesn’t deal with the areas it covers in enough depth to achieve its aim. At a little over 200 pages, there just isn’t enough room. I finished it feeling the author’s conclusions weren’t substantiated.

Also, the author’s personal anecdotes throughout the book mostly just aren’t illuminating. The very start of Chapter One, for example, is a description of his car journey out of Chicago – why?

That said, I found the earlier parts of the book quite interesting – covering the origins of agriculture and the consequent changes in our nutrition. But other chapters on mental health and climate change were quite pedestrian, and didn’t justify some of the author’s conclusions.

Recommended if you’re interested in the origins of agriculture, and some of its consequences, but not if you’re looking for the grand theory the book claims to contain (for such a book that doesn’t disappoint, check out The Master and His Emissary)

The Lost City of Z, David Grann

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:35 am

Who nowadays can claim to be heroic in the way that explorers of old were? Soldiers, perhaps, and firefighters, sure. But is there any pursuit that captures the romance, the adventure, and the sheer idiocy of setting off into the Amazon by yourself for three months to go boldly where literally no-one has gone before? After reading this, I think not.

Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker, determined to find out as much as he could about a particular explorer that went missing in the twenties, Colonel Percy Fawcett. Fawcett went looking for the remains of an ancient civilization he believed existed in the depths of the Amazon jungle (the lost city of the title) and never came back. The story of the book is Fawcett’s, and the mystery of his disappearance becomes more gripping as it becomes apparent that Grann’s own desire to find out what lay in the heart of the Amazon, and what happened to Fawcett and his two companions, is turning into an obsession.

Many before Grann have become obsessed with Fawcett’s disappearance and trekked off into the Amazon never to return (perhaps more than a hundred), and inevitably he ends up travelling to South America (by way of the Royal Geographical Society, London) to follow in Fawcett’s footsteps. This climactic end is told thrillingly, but the care with which the entire tale of adventure and historical exposition is unfolded makes the rest of the book no less enjoyable.

Quantum, Manjit Kumar

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:32 am

This book brings to life the debate that raged over the nature of reality in the early twentieth century, namely: is the universe knowable, or can our understanding of it only ever be partial, and ultimately probabilistic? The debate, and the destruction of classical physics as it then existed, came about because of a revolutionary rupture in physics – the birth of the quantum.
Whilst being accessible to the non-physicist, this book takes you through the origins and major developments of quantum theory in enough depth to give a picture of the truly mind-blowing questions it posed of the conventional physics of the day. Newtonian physics did not allow for subatomic particles to simply disappear and at the same time instantaneously reappear in a different position – what we’d colloquially call teleporting. But that is exactly what quantum theory suggested.

Not only that, but quantum theory led to the insight (by Heisenberg), that any act of measurement will always have an effect on the object measured, and in doing so make other characteristics about the object unknowable. This is the uncertainty principle, and one man, perhaps the most famous physicist of all, didn’t like it: Einstein.

Einstein’s battles with the supporters of quantum theory (and thus a probabilistic and non-deterministic world view) form the heart of this book, and they are brilliantly recounted. Kumar also gives biographical information about the protagonists, bringing the period to life.

Einstein never gave up trying to find a way to incorporate quantum theory into a larger framework that would regain the measurable, deterministic character of Newtonian physics, but he didn’t succeed. Quantum theory prevailed and has ultimately had a much larger impact on every day life that his own theory of general relativity. But perhaps one day, Kumar suggests, Einstein will be vindicated, if attempts to incorporate the quantum world into a ‘theory of everything’ (the most famous of which is string theory) are successful. Is reality knowable, or at bottom, simply random? This book brilliantly tells the story of the start of that debate, but it’s far from over.

Siberian Education, Nicolai Lilin

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:30 am

A visceral and gripping account of the author’s life growing up in a criminal community in Siberia, this book grabbed me by the brain and didn’t let go till I’d raced through its 400 pages. Aside from the violence, which is rendered in some of the most vivid prose I’ve read since reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is the philosophy of the criminal society to which Lilin belonged, the Urkas, that makes this book stand out. They are humble, showing no outward signs of their wealth, and unerringly polite (to insult someone’s mother is likely to lead to sever sanctions, possibly even death, under their system of justice). All their money is spent on Catholic idols and weapons. Unlike other criminal communities in the same region, they have great respect for the elderly, and the disabled (who walk freely between the houses of the Urkas and are cared for by all, they are said to have been ‘touched by the angels’).

In his review of the book for the Guardian, Irvine Welsh (of Trainspotting fame) wrote that the Urkas adhere to “higher principles than the mainstream ones pursued in the west”, and indeed there are admirable traits in their outlook (their rejection of consumerism, for example, and utmost respect for the autonomy of the individual). But Welsh ignores the many things that make ‘the west’ a much more desirable place to live, such as the rule of law, a relative lack of violence, and freedoms of religion and sexuality. Conversely, to dismiss them as entirely unprincipled simply because their society exists outside the laws of the state (and indeed, depends entirely on flouting those laws for its survival) would be wrong, too.

With many searingly memorable passages and images (in particular a nauseating account of the author’s time in youth prison) this book forces you to question assumptions about crime and criminals, and, in the process, look at the way we live in a different light, too.

Through the language glass, Guy Deutscher

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:26 am

Prevailing linguistic theory would have it that all languages differ only in inconsequential ways; we only have variants of a universal form of grammar, and varying labels for things, words. Any differences between languages, if you take such a view, cannot have any psychological impact – we’re all the same, and view the world the same, whatever language we speak. Not so, argues Guy Deutscher in this delightfully written book. The language we speak can influence the way we see the world, but not in the way you might have thought.

It’s a cliché to say that German people are economical and efficient because their language is, or that the French have passion instilled in them by their mother tongue – and these cultural clichés are not born out in the evidence at all, Deutscher points out. But when it comes to other areas, colour, orientation, and gendered nouns, differences between languages change the way we see the world, he says.

More than a hundred years of debate have brought us to our current knowledge of colour linguistics (and Deutscher tells this story in the book’s first half). When it was discovered that some people didn’t classify the areas of the spectrum as we Europeans did (often from hunter gatherer societies or cultures with limited agriculture, from far-flung corners of what was then the empire), the first explanation was that there were biological differences between those with our type of colour system, and those who only had words for black, white, and red, for example. It soon became clear, though, that the difference was purely in labels, people don’t see things any differently (this was shown by asking people to categorize coloured ribbons by their differing shades), they just talk about them differently. This principle applies to other areas of vocabulary: languages may not have words for ‘pneumatic drill’ or ‘utilitarianism’, but there is nothing intrinsic in any language that prevents such ideas from being expressed. Likewise, the differences in colours and shades can be seen and expressed, but some languages just don’t have words for what we have been taught to see as different colours (where we have ‘blue’ and ‘green’, some languages have just one word, ‘grue’).

So far, no contradiction of the assumptions of linguistic theory. But the causal link that was first suspected to go from perception to language, it has now been found, actually may go the other way. Tests have shown that your language affects your perception in subtle ways. Russians, who have two distinct words for blue (light and dark) where we have one, will use different parts of the brain when trying to classify shades of blue. They may see the same thing, but their perception of it is coloured by the language they speak. It is in the language of orientation (right/left and in front/behind), though, that the book really comes alive.

Where we might answer the question ‘Where’s the salt?’ by saying ‘In front of you’ or ‘To your left’, some languages have no words to convey such information (known as egocentric directions). Rather, they will talk about things being ‘North’ or ‘South’ of you: they simply don’t have the words to direct you in relation to your own body. This has implications beyond the obvious need to always be aware of your orientation with regard to the cardinal directions. Every memory you hold is logged in the same framework – and when recounting a story, the exact orientation of each element and person must be recalled in order to tell it so that others will understand it.

Having shown that the way we see things (colour), and the way we perceive and remember ourselves in our environment (orientation) can vary depending on the language we speak, Deutscher finally discusses the impact of gendered nouns on our perceptions. He recounts an experiment in which people (who spoke a language that attributed gender to nouns, ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘it’ as in English) were asked to make up a story for each day of the week. People consistently made their protagonist of the same gender as the day’s gender in their language, so if Monday was a ‘he’ and Tuesday a ‘she’ the story would be about a man on Monday and a woman on Tuesday. These feminine and masculine associations extend themselves, in the same way, to all the objects that we have words for.

Though these differences can only be glimpsed through the rudimentary neurological or psychological techniques at our current disposal, they hint at enormous depths to the differences languages can impose on the way we see the world. Deutscher’s book, erudite and amusing (he’s very fond, as you might have expected, on clever word-play) has plumbed the shallows with aplomb.