23 April 1982

Rolling Eyeballs Can Read


In the immortal words of this generation--Oh Em Gee.

It's really all you can say about the subject of this book. Even if you assumed that only half of it is true (this is an exercise equivalent to calling evolution a theory), oh em gee is still the only thing you can say.

After the first hundred pages, it stops being funny. More later...


Ices and Fireses
 I'm reading this backwards. I have not read fiction in literally decades ("Mademoiselle B", Maurice Pons, after I found it in a used books bin in 1999). I watch the show so I figured background material would be interesting ("The World of Ice and Fire"). Fortunately, the writing is readable. It's very dense and nowhere even close to simple. So I got a second one (Knight of the Seven Kingdoms). The writing was much better, the story blessedly linear and one-dimensional (it's called parking your brain). Then I started with "A Dance with Dragons", slightly iffy, though I liked the details. I'll probably read the one before this one, whatever it is.

One thing should be made clear---this is not Tolkien. That's not a good or a bad thing; you should just know at the outset that comparing the two is pointless. Although if pressed, I'd say Tolkien's body of work did not stop at the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings any more than GRRM stopped at Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. 

If fiction no longer interests you for whatever reason, this series is a nice visit back to someone else's FantasyLand, even if you don't like whatever genre this is. Maybe read it in order. Or not. Seems to work either way.

The Invaders (Pat Shipman)

I don't know. I wasn't bowled over and definitely not convinced. Ironically, that's why I kind of liked this book. It was written with a very palpable tone of caution and it showed through. That is the kind of scientist she is--didn't oversell, she pointed out where her hypothesis was weak, highlighted the tantalizing indicators but labeled them properly as just that: tantalizing and in no way conclusive.

So, in the end, the two of you are on the same page of her research: wishing there were better proof available that will convince anyone without having to bend over backwards.

I'd like someone to work on cats.

The Higgs Boson and Beyond (Sean Carroll)

This is an excellent lecture. Because It is a lecture, I bought the audio instead of the book so I could multitask while listening to it. And I had to listen to it twice though and the second time, I needed to take notes. But it's still very accessible to those of us without training on the subject and less-than-stellar cognitive talents.

Several times during the lecture, I felt like raising a hand to ask a question.

If you want a kind of brief on WTF is the big deal about the Higgs thingie and if you prefer that it is not dumbed down to the point of wasting your time, this is it.

The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History (Bart Ehrman)

In the interest of transparency, I have to say that I like chortling at ridiculous woowoo.

This is why I enjoy the tone of Ehrman's work in popular history. He thinks a lot of religious claims on history is laughable crap and confusion over the difference between theology and history even among historians is pathetic. So that's the tone of most of his lectures.

This one is particularly enjoyable because the controversies he tackled in this volume are the fun ones.

Neanderthal Man (Svante Paabo)

This is, in short, the best book on the subject! It is semi-autobiographical but Paabo has the knack for never letting that get in the way of explaining to you the history and science behind finding out we are descendants of much older Peoples. I grew up thinking we killed the shit out of them, I am glad it now turns out we didn't just. We fucked them as well. We bred with them, we probably laughed and argued and mingled enough so that, although we swallowed their culture, we most probably preserved some of it too. 

My favorite part is getting a peek at how the work on gene mapping developed since it first occurred to humans to do it. And how much work went into making sure we are not confusing ourselves in the process and finding out the wrong things (think HeLa cells contamination). I've always wondered.


The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin)
Who knew that physicists were not immune to intrigue and infantile bullying! It certainly did not occur to me, it seemed like the sort of thing that six or so years of graduate and post-graduate work could shave off of a person. Apparently not.

In this dank corner of the interwebz that no one will ever ever read, I am wondering if Ed Witten even noticed that he had groupies who, in their eagerness to be in the "In" crowd, let loose their small-mindedness and snuffed out thoughts that did not comply with the "In" thoughtline.

What's happening now, that the LHC has made experimental physics sexy again? I wonder if the minutiae of human behaviour has in turn snuffed out worthwhile corners of untestable theories that will please tell me how this will all turn out!

If I were an anthropologist, I will make physicists my subject. Tee hee.

It's Not Genocide Until Twenty Years Have Passed, So Please, Take Your Time

June 2015
I have been reading this book since September 2012. I managed to get roughly halfway during one unprecedented stretch of about three chapters when it felt rude to stop reading, up until the point where the killings by the Hutus have finally kind of stopped. Jesus wept. That part took three years to read. But Gourevitch was not done. Such horror, after all, does not end like in the movies. As he started giving an account of the aftermath, how the G√©nocidaires and their Tutsi targets were in the same refugee camps afterwards, I had to put the book down again. The brain can only take so much. In between, I have read other things: some are very difficult books that I had to read twice, but none of them was ever traumatizing. 

If you find yourself in that bizarre place where the Rwandan Genocide filtered through your consciousness, remember this if nothing else: while it was happening, what captivated the world's attention at the time was the live footage of some actor named O.J Simpson, who also turned out to be some kind of former athlete or whatever. Everything else paled in comparison; still shots of machete-wielding people chasing down other people could not compete.  

Now, twenty or so years later, I have the nerve to pick up this book, using a bus ticket to mark my place when it is too much to read. It's often too much and the book is down at the moment, because I can do that, albeit with horror and guilt. I have the choice of putting down the book merely narrating the events. I'm not even sitting in front of someone telling me the story. Or pounding the asphalt on bare feet, trying to get away. 

This winter, I picked it up again and this time, did not put it down until I was done. There were many, many, many other very tempting books. But even the bible did not take me this long to read it. When I was done, I bought the audiobook and multi-tasked with it. Twice. Just to make sure I understood it correctly.

I have nothing to say. You should just read it.
What's up with bats? Do they hate us?

David Quammen has always been a good writer and this book is only tangentially about bats; these flying furballs with the ears, who really could not care less about anything other than bat business. That the most horrible diseases that drop or kill us seem to percolate inside their batty bodies is just a side effect of their success at bat business.

What is up with bats is this: one out of four mammals on the planet are bats. One out of four! That is a LOT of bats. So, of course they are, more often than not, somewhere at the root of nearly every infectious horror we have had the misfortune of encountering. They live fast, far and wide, they exchange spit and fluids, as is their nature. They are furry petri dishes constantly cooking up exciting new diseases or quietly hosting ancient monsters that we end up snorting, eating or drinking. We do this because humanity, like viruses, behave like an untamed infestation sweeping across the planet.

14 February 2015
 Steven Pinker Searches Under the Streetlight

After reading the book twice, I am satisfied that despite Pinker's effort to be thorough, Thomas Piketty he is not. I want him to get up, set up a desk somewhere in India, China or Nigeria and write another book.

Pinker is making a claim in this book that we are better humans now and as a result of shifting attitudes towards the knee-jerk use of violence, its incidence is going down. The very notion makes you choke on your drink. What is this guy smoking?

Pinker anticipates this reaction so just sit back, cross your legs and salt the popcorn. He's going to try and dissuade you of the notion that he is hallucinating. After reading the first few chapters, it becomes clear why he thinks this way: he put the bar so low that, of course, violence will appear to be going out of fashion. That will show up on the graph when comparing the present day with those times when every dispute was settled through tribal warfare and the collection of blood debt. You have to keep this in mind while reading this book and find yourself rolling your eyes whenever Pinker makes one over-simplification or the other, following it up with so many caveats you really can not pin him down for anything. Keep remembering that the book essentially celebrates the "new normal" in which the urban brain recoils at violent behavior, then gives itself a pat on the back because it used to be impressed by swords and machetes and now it is grossed out by them. But then do not forget, that's just you.

Even on the second pass, I am only grudgingly convinced that, okay, it's worth mentioning once (but only ever once!): we are less uncivilized now. Having said that, I swear I will puke if anyone raises that point as a counter-argument about the horror of violence in modern times. Two hundred girls were abducted from their schools--well, at least we do not nuke people anymore. Hello? Does that sound like a sane retort to you?

The book also fatally suffers, in my opinion, from the streetlight fallacy; attempting to draw the same conclusions about and explanations for--you know--the rest of the world. Despite what this book wants to make you think, the planet is not all North America or Europe, after all. Outside those two loud places is that vast, silent expanse where we have access to very little information that can reliably describe life on the ground, before and after the accounting started. Pinker looks at data from the Interpol and the World Health Organization to get a grip of what he thinks it looks like out there. I'd laugh but it's too irritating. 

I also need more convincing about how Pinker invoked Hobbe's "Leviathan" as a pacifying force--that the existence of the state makes people less prone to killing each other. I am not convinced that the existence of the state has this pacifying effect per se. I would have wanted to find out if the data would allow me to generalize the experience of the state merely appropriating the use or threat of violence for itself. In a functional democracy and therefore by general consensus among its citizens, the state makes the use of violence as a sovereign privilege. What Pinker calls "private violence" is then a public prerogative, demonstrated by the fact that if you commit an act of violence, the state will put your ass in jail or worse. But the state can and often does that too if it doesn't like what you're saying or even what you're thinking.

It's frustrating that Pinker does not talk about that other side of this picture at all, probably because that would have forced him to examine another can of worms known as state-sponsored violence. He does not, for example, examine extrajudicial violence, probably because that would have been really hard. This Leviathan that he is so fond of does not get scrutinized for its official use of violence or the unofficial (usually more horrendous) use by its cohorts such as mercenaries, paramilitary groups or warlords that they either control or support. You can examine statistics on homicides and assaults reported by law enforcement, but the state does not report how many people it beat up or killed in the conduct of its Leviathan business. The only thing the state counts is how many people complained about its use of violence and this is only in the best of circumstances in places where you do not face even more violence when you complain about it in the first place.

If Pinker had looked at it, the data might actually have no impact on his sweeping statement that violence has declined over the last, oh, two or three thousand years. But if  he did that, he might also have found out that while people are now less prone to killing each other, they are also now in bigger danger of being killed by their Leviathans. More than the evolution of table etiquette, I think this is a worthwhile nuance to examine even if he does not. His huge volume is poorer for it.

I do give this book credit for very important insights into how we arrived at the place where, for much of the world, it is no longer okay to kill people because they have the wrong skin color or the wrong god or live in the wrong coordinates. That thing about the evolution of table etiquette is cute, but more telling is the fact that people do not duel anymore, for instance. And that, even in the farthest backwater of rural Nigeria now under siege, people know they have the right not to be subjected to the daily horrors they have to deal with. Two thousand years ago (and this is roughly the timescale Pinker is using), people would have looked at you with confusion if you told them they had certain basic rights.

You also have to give this guy credit for how he structured this big volume along one very important principle: anticipating your protestations after nearly all of his many claims. "Aha! I knew you were going to say that. Now let me explain why I said this...." His answers do not all work, but the approach makes for an easier read.

In the end, the important take-away from the book is Pinker's discussion of the science behind the notion that no matter how far we have gone, our tendencies toward the use of violence are still lurking in our brains, held back only by our long and relatively successful struggle to contain them. Don't be cocky, little bastards. We still have a ways to go, we all still have our inner assholes.

No comments:

Post a Comment